The setting sun reminded me to sit to rest, and I let myself collapse onto a nearby curb. I’d nearly forgotten what I was walking for, my feet blistered, having memorised the long path home so that I didn’t have to myself.
I pulled a chain from my inside jacket pocket, the metal locket at its end smooth and cold against my hand, hooked onto a piece of loose thread so that I had to pause to tug it free. Absentmindedly, just while I sat and let myself breathe, I thumbed the curve of the locket’s surface; a self soothing motion I supposed.
I put the locket back in my pocket, carefully, pulling the loose thread from the jacket’s lining until it broke off, and sat back. Breathing out heavily, before wrestling my backpack off and reaching inside it to grab the vaguely lukewarm water from its contents.
What time was it now? I gazed ahead towards the sunset, judging how far down it was. Considering how hot it was it was likely nearing January, which therefore meant it must be near or close enough to 8 PM for the sun to be setting by now. I pulled my watch from where I kept it inside my bag, and it gladly said 19:28. Hastily, I shoved my water bottle back inside of it and zipped it up tightly.
Not far now, I thought, resisting the urge to force myself to walk through the night. For now I’d have to find shelter, preferably one with a mosquito net, though I wouldn’t dare be picky.
The first house I wandered into was hot and stuffy, though that was hardly a surprise. Clearly hadn’t been opened since the End, or at least not since this summer began. I opened a window in the living room and quickly checked the bedrooms to see if one had a net, which none did. Out of luck. I searched the cupboards quickly, and managed to find some itch cream, likely expired, but which I happily rubbed into old mosquito bites.
Eventually, I let myself into the biggest room, silently stripping down to my underwear and flopping onto the bed, managing to fall asleep within seconds.
I didn’t remember my dream of course, but nevertheless found I’d had a lingering and unmistakable sense of grief waking up, already sweat-soaked, despite the chill of the early hours of the morning.
It was only just beginning to approach dawn, a rare serene moment before the sun had risen, and it was still somewhat cool when I finally forced myself up. I scoured the house for clothes my size, just in luck to discover what must have been the bedroom of a student living with his family, now long gone, quickly collecting my things as soon as I’d changed and beginning off in the same direction as before.
By the way I recognised my surroundings, I judged that I was less than a day from my destination. Increasingly, I found myself subconsciously bringing his locket out of my pocket, scratching already flaking gold paint off of its surface, leaving a dull copper beneath it.
I imagined opening it, as I often did, and then thought better.
The sun rose steadily; I was aware, as the morning turned to noon, that the tar beneath my feet began to soften in the heat.
It wasn’t long before I came across an overgrown pond, or rather, with closer inspection, what used to be a public pool, close to a building which must have been a bar and arcade. I remembered those as fondly as I did my father; with a bitterness at the back of my throat.
I pulled off my jacket in earnest and then the tank top I’d stolen and left them with my bag by the edge of the pool, tentatively dipping my feet into the water. It was cold, surprisingly, and I let myself sink down, gradually, until the water rose to my chin, and then my toes touched the tile flooring. I lifted my head up, staring into the bright sky, and then closed my eyes, tight, listening, perhaps, for the sound of an aeroplane, or a car in the distance. Maybe even the chatter of kids playing soccer, or a neighbour’s dog.
I submerged myself, quickly bursting up again from the surface, spluttering from the cold. I lifted myself up onto the edge, laughing for a moment before I managed to sober myself up, lying down demurely in the shade of the bar’s tall walls to dry off in the heat.
André was standing leaning against the doorway when I turned in my chair to see him.
It was hot, just as hot as it was now, and I’d been trying to fix my laptop, shirtless in the heat. André wandered over to where I sat, coy. He grinned, and I smiled too, “Hey.”
He didn’t hesitate then to lean in for a soft kiss, letting it linger before pulling away slightly, his breath still on my lips. I laughed lightly, and hooked my arms around his neck, pulling him back down and into myself for a longer kiss, the heart of his locket cold against my bare chest.
“Come, ons moet nou gaan, domkop.” He sighed softly, smiling into my lips.
I laughed, replying in Afrikaans too, “Nee, ons hoef nog nie.”
I’d accidentally fallen asleep, I realised, as my eyes fluttered open suddenly to bright sunlight, leaving only the faint outline of his face. The sun was high in the sky now, and didn’t seem like it was likely to drop any time soon, my small refuge no longer hidden in shadow. I closed my eyes as tightly shut as I could, trying to see him for just a second longer.
I found a way into the building that I’d rested against, and so my way to the small bar. I pulled open cupboards lazily, trying to find some food, and walked past a mirror.
Too familiarly, I heard my father’s voice. “Not enough of a man, Alinafe.” I stared at myself now, tracing my arms, feeling almost bitter that his wish of my masculinity had come true, somewhat.
I tucked a bottle of whiskey into my backpack along with my jacket, too hot to continue with it on, ever too aware of how much closer I was getting to my goal and eager to walk as quickly as I’d need to.
It didn’t take as long as I thought it would, finding myself at the edge of the graveyard before I realised I’d walked there myself. I stopped, holding back from the entrance, before moving ahead.
He didn’t have a gravestone, where could I have gotten one, at the End of everything? On my own?. But I knew where his grave was. A shallow pit, just deep enough to keep him hidden from view, just shallow enough for my weak labour. Perhaps it was petty to not want to fill it up all at once, but at least it gave me a reason to come back to see him every few months.
I pulled a shovel from out of the dirt I’d left it buried in nearly a year ago now, lifting up soil and new, dry grass impatiently and tossing it into his grave, though I didn’t dare look down into it. Eventually, exhausted, I sat down, pulling my bag off my back and taking out the bottle of whiskey. I unscrewed the top, attempting to down as much as I could before giving in to the burn in my throat and pouring some more into the grave, turning my head to the side, coughing up the little I’d drunk and then forcing myself to drink more.
I hadn’t noticed the sun had set until it did, and, dizzy and tired, I lay down on the grass alongside the grave I’d made, pulling out his locket and holding it tight to me until I fell fast asleep.
I tried not to grimace, head down, as he stroked my cheek. When I didn’t answer him, he let his arm go slack, and I looked up.
I tried to picture his face now, only coming up with a blurry image with a light smile, bittersweet.
I sighed, my breath shaking, and, barely audible, “We made it through it all and you had to go, didn’t you?”
He shook his head, reaching out to cup my cheek, “I wouldn’t have if I’d had a choice, Ali. Jy weet dit mos?”
I’d cried, silently, in my dream, before waking up to my own loud gasps and a regrettable headache, covering my face with my arm in a desperate attempt to not be seen, even though I knew I was alone.
When the first traces of light finally appeared and I could see my hands, I checked the time on my watch to find it had stopped at 23:37. I pulled it off and threw it into a thicket of trees nearby, screaming suddenly in anger.
I didn’t bother to pick up shards of what must have been the whiskey bottle and pulled my backpack on hastily, not hesitating to turn my back to his grave and walk back home.
Halfway into town, I finally paused for a drink, my headache still tormenting me, and reached into my backpack sloppily to pull out the locket, but found nothing. I stopped, loud ringing filling my ears, ripping my jacket out from the poorly crafted sack to search through its pockets and then into the depths of the backpack, frantic, movements erratic, before jumping up and spinning on the spot, trying to work through a thick fog in my head to figure out where it could have gone missing.
With a shuddering breath, I quickly set back the way I’d come, disregarding my stomach and splitting migraine, finding the pool just before high noon. In the brush behind the building, a springbok stared at me in earnest, as though judging me worse than I could myself. The locket was nowhere to be found. I ran through the bar, pulling bottles out of cupboards and smashing the mirror in a moment of rage.
Too late, I thought to go back to the graveyard, half running and half walking to the edge of the field of stones, pausing only to catch my breath. I was at his grave before I had a chance to think to run there, and I dropped to my knees at its edge, digging my hand into already disrupted soil and cutting my hand on a shard of glass.
I stopped, clutching my hand, feeling as though I might finally cry, before noticing a glint from the bottom of the grave. Quickly, I let my legs swing over the edge and dropped down, pulling the object from the dirt, and locking eyes with André.
I turned away instantly, dropping the locket and sinking to my hands and knees, my eyes shut tight, fighting the urge to vomit.
I shook, there, tears finally letting themselves flow freely down my cheeks and grimacing and clenched jaw. Slowly, I pivoted myself to face the small glint of the locket at the far end of the pit, where I realised I hadn’t seen his face through the layers of soil already covering his body. I crawled back to the locket, pulling it to my chest, and lay down, on my side, sobbing.
When I found the energy to pick myself up and pull myself out of the pit, the sun beginning to set again, I laid the locket down on the ground. Its surface was scratched and its hinge encrusted with dirt and ruby blood, but, unsurprisingly, it was the same as it always was. I heaved a breath, unsure whether I wanted to know what was inside or not, finally.
Eventually, I dragged my arm across my eyes before finding the courage to pick up the locket and dig my nails into its opening, prying it open as best I could. And finally managing to, hearing its click clearly in the silence of the evening. And I opened it, to find a picture of myself lying inside.
And I cried.
Later, when the moon had found its languid place in the sky, I set about finishing his grave in the cool moonlight, shovelling new soil into the depths of the pit with my one good hand until there was none to fill it up anymore. I pocketed the locket once again and slung my backpack across my shoulders, turning my back to his grave one final time.