She would not have to go to school tomorrow. Again. Investigations had been ongoing for a week now. Although it looked like no one wanted to ask questions, and no one seemed to want answers to the few that were asked. The only answers anyone had were in the viral video: a student had died.
Even the parents did not want to ask questions.
No one had even asked her questions beyond gauging the degree to which it had affected her. Not her own parents. The memories rise unbidden:
He started in on her as soon as the teacher was out of sight. Maintaining his smile, while the rest of his face turned mean. Opening with the name he made for her, that his friends took up. It was still class, so she couldn’t use her usual method of dealing with it by getting her friends to relocate. There was nothing for it, but to bear it until the teacher’s return.
She runs from the recollections knowing where they lead. She tries to lose herself in the good ones, but most of those have to do with school.
The short life she has lived does not have as many memories to focus on; she does what she can with what she has. The missed friends, the passing of secret notes between them when they should have been copying down their lessons, the pooling of pocket money to splurge on a sugar rush from the tuck shop.
There are other cranial echoes, fewer and farther between: anywhere that was not home, places where her parents behaved like parents, and times where they played their assigned roles of a supportive and close family.
Now, though, she dreaded the day the announcement would come that school would commence. The thoughts slipped past the distractions she had placed between her and them. They did not shove their way forward, no, they sidled up like an old friend with a smile and story to share.
A student had died, and she did not need the video to see it happening.
The only time he lets up is to tell his friends to get his phone out and start recording. He turns back to her. Her friends tell him to leave her alone, but he has more friends than she does, and they shout her friends down. He doesn’t do anything to her that she can show the teacher. He’ll get away with it when he smiles amicably and pleads innocent conversation. His friends will back him up.
She grips the edge of the couch. Her mind cannot reach for any other pleasant thoughts. Her anxiety simmers and then boils.
It was worse when she had been counting down the minutes until she had to leave school, back when school was her escape. Those moments had a certainty and schedule to them; she had become accustomed to it. Time and experience had made the dread she felt over returning home manageable.
This was unlike those moments of waiting, counting, and waiting. On top of that was the crippling apprehension about how her friends would treat her. She does not quite remember the faces they had made.
Then there was going back to that same classroom. She would have to sit in the same place she watched it happen. Near the spot where it had all ended.
Her stomach clenches at the prospect of it happening again. Quickening breath. What if it happened to someone she actually likes?
A student had died. The death was not what had her anxiety rising.
She tries distracting herself with the dress she is wearing. It is new; she had picked it out herself. The colour was not her first choice, though; occasion demanded solemnity, so her mother bought the one to suit.
Remembering the why of having that particular dress provides a foothold for the dread. She does not hear the whispers so much as feel them. Like cobwebs brushing against her face. She swats at invisible threads, forcing herself to focus on finding the repeating pattern in the hem of her dress, afraid of what not succeeding in distracting herself could bring. She is barely breathing from the strain when she starts to make out words in the whispers.
—We can show… no hiding… show everyone… us out… done it once… again… out… out… out, meisiekind!
The raised voices succeed in waylaying her attention, but only to raise a different kind of apprehension in her, comforting only in its familiarity.
—“I’m going in support of a friend!”
—“Convenient for you. I’m sure it has nothing to do with not having to pay for a hangover. I heard he has one of the last bottles of—!”
—“Against how he copes with losing his kid, are you? Not very accepting of you.”
—“It’s not him I’m against. It’s you taking advantage of his loss that I find sickening.”
—“Weren’t you the one who said I should be friendlier with our neighbours!”
—“You and I both know you aren’t going over because he’s just lost his child!”
She knows her father’s face is turning sour, sees it growing darker. She braces herself as if she is facing him.
—“Why do I get the feeling that you care a great deal about him?”
She is caught off guard just as much as her mother. She has never heard him raise this suspicion.
—“You’re the one who brought up all this stuff about how I wasn’t there for him for all these other very specific times. Were you?”
There is the sound of flesh connecting with flesh. She knows what the sound is without seeing what makes it. It had never gotten this bad before.
—“I’m going. I need to be there for my friend.”
She tries to become part of the couch as footsteps approach.
Her father’s angry eyes see her sitting there. His dark face tightens up as he crosses the lounge. Nothing about her is said to her. There is no need: she knows exactly what he thinks of her.
This is her father’s true face. He has never hidden it from her. She was always afraid of that fact before, coming as it usually did with either curt comments of where she should be, or terse terms during their interactions. She would be more afraid if he ever started hiding it. The whispers would not even have to ask: his face would haunt her, unlike the student’s.
Her father is past her. His face no longer in her view. The front door opens; his footsteps are abruptly cut as it closes.
The absence of her parent’s voices means one thing: the absence of anxiety to distract her. She becomes aware of it quicker than she usually does.
Footsteps remind her she is not completely alone. Her mother walks into the lounge.
She does not know what to do when her mother walks straight to her and squats in front of her. The concern on her face comes as a shock. And with it the whispering.
—This isn’t your mother’s real face. No one else knows. We can make them see. She won’t be like—!
She avoids her mother’s eyes in a hurry. Just barely manages to fill her mind with the swirls of the hem. They are what she liked most about it when she picked it. Big swirl, little swirl, little swirl, little swirl, big swirl, little swirl, big swirl.
She catches the tail-end of something her mother’s saying, “… are his problems, alright? You’re not the one to blame for them.”
Her mother is trying to comfort her. All she can do is nod. Silence grows between them. Silence the whispers can fill. She chances a glance at her mother. Her chest tightens at the awkward smile that becomes gentle. She looks away again in a hurry, afraid of what the whispers might say if she were to look for longer. She works to secret away the little she’s seen of her mother’s first private and genuine care.
Her mother’s saying something again, “… and get as many as you like, okay, and one for me.” Her mother’s offering her money. Not much, so she can tell what her mother wants her to get.
Someone else takes the currency from the well-manicured fingers. Someone else gets on her feet and heads for the door. She does not hear what this other person says to her mother’s goodbye.
Outside, the street is full of cars bringing the people to attend to their neighbours’ grief. Some of them arrive just as she looks down that way. Too far away for her to see the faces they make about the situation.
—Take us closer. We can see which faces are real.
Someone else is in control when she lurches into that step in the direction of the cars. She pulls herself back in, and heads off in the opposite direction in a hurry, panting.
All her will goes into putting one foot in front of the other, matching her breathing to her pace, until she is breathing normally again. Then only does she realise that she has missed the turn she needs to take to get to the mini-mart. She does not backtrack. Instead, she decides to take the long way to correct her course.
Just as she is about to step through the doors, she remembers the mini-mart is not what she is there for. She lingers, organising her thoughts. A polite but firm “Excuse me” from behind her. She scuttles aside. Now that she is out of anyone’s way no one pays attention to her. Eavesdropping on the conversation of passers-by is easy.
—“…kid’s funeral wrapped up today. All the radio stations mentioned it, dude.”
—“All these cameras came out here for what exactly? Were they hoping that someone’ll drop the casket and the body’ll flop out for them all photogenic-like?”
—“As if the videos aren’t enough. They were enough and too much for me.”
—“Same here. Etse yong, it was like two people fighting for the same face…”
She hurries away, out of their hearing. She is not quick enough.
She had looked at him, looked into his eyes, and he had smiled back. The smile had grown wider than his face could accommodate. His eyes had a moment to go wide with terror and pain of it right before they were each dragged in opposing directions. Whole skulls started to grow out from either side, battling for his nose—!
She makes her single-minded way across the zebra crossing to where the street vendors are arrayed on the other side of the road.
The greetings just barely intrude on what little awareness she spares for her surroundings. She returns them after she takes a while to process them, wearing a smile as she does. Her polite ripostes come quicker and easier as she walks to the end of the line of vendors, the smile she wears has become easier to hold.
There was nothing about her favourite vendor’s chin-chins that set them apart from any of the others. It had been the goofy smile with which they had been served that attracted her the first time, followed by the quirky requirement to show she had the teeth to chew them before they were sold to her. The other vendors had feigned sulking when she returned to him again.
Right now, though, his personality is not on display. Ywazu stands some way from his stall, talking to someone new. Neither of them notice her approach.
“…it isn’t how they do things. And not just their behaviour, but their—!”
This new man is not impressed by Ywazu’s words because he says, “Did you expect it to be like the stories? Did you expect them to stay the same? What will you suggest next, that we brew crickets in a pot of tombo to lure them out and drink it down so we can hear them when they come around.”
She had never seen Ywazu scowl before. Not even when she expected him to when facing another customer’s vitriol over him prioritising her over them. He does now. “I’m suggesting they aren’t what we were told they would be. And if they’re outside expectations on this, what else about them is beyond us?”
The new man’s face does not change. “So we leave things the way they are? And watch as more fall victim to their predations?”
“You saw, as well as I did,” Ywazu says. “We can’t face them with what we know. We’ll be victims, the same as everyone else, and then we’re no use to anyone. If either of us had found someone, anyone, to pass our ways to, my answer would’ve been different. Like you said, our enemies aren’t the same as the old days, as is our syndicate.”
This new man stays silent.
She knows what they are talking about. She wants to tell them she knows, but she doesn’t know this Ywazu with a grimly set mouth, good grammar, and whole sentences that do not mix languages.
—“Oi, Ywazu, you don’t want your favourite customer? Then I’ll take her!”
Ywazu turns. He sees her. He approaches with his grin. She does not need to be told: this is not his real face.
“Jammer meisiekind, I did not check you there, just catching up with a brah of mine. I did think the school closing means min geld for my chin-chins.”
The new man hangs back and watches Ywazu fall into the role of her favourite street vendor.
She frantically assumes her role when he’s right behind the stall; him smiling means she smiles, so she does. The role plays itself giggling at his gentle ribbing about her new dress being made by two blind people fixing each other’s mistake. She watches someone else thank Ywazu over and over for throwing in an extra bag of chin-chins for her because it is what she did when he does.
The new man’s face does not change throughout the exchange. He remains apart and stern, only tips his head to her when she leaves.
She feels like a passenger in her own body when she takes the long way home. Alone with her questions of why she did not volunteer what she knows. Questions her young mind cannot answer.
She is halfway to her house when she makes the decision to turn back. To go back to the Ywazu with the proper grammar and the stern-faced stranger, and reveal that she overheard them, and knows what they are talking about. A desperate hope that they will be able to resolve it flaring up inside her.
Her feet do not obey her. They keep taking her homeward. She realises the feeling of being a passenger is more than a feeling. She is juggling the bags of chin-chins she has just bought, a skill she has never had or practised before.
Someone else smiles with her face: “Whisper to me, meisiekind.”
Ange Mucyo is a Namibian writer, network and systems administrator, software developer, and Cisco-certified network associate by profession. He also dabbles in 3D art and sound production. Ange is interested in computers and video games and the opportunity they provide in bringing these various art forms together in an interactive context.