1. Climb in.
‘Come on, come on!’ he whispers to me with such urgency I can feel little droplets settle on my upturned face.
‘Say it, don’t spray it,’ I reply and he chuckles under his breath. Our forearms interlock, yin and yang, as I launch myself off the neat lawn while he pulls me up into the ground-floor window. My efforts split between getting my feet up on the wall and not making a sound. I stick out my tongue and frown.
‘You look like you’ve not had a shit for weeks, mate,’ he says and I shake my head, trying to make the laughter energy dissipate into the disapproving gesture.
2. Land quietly.
The trick is to go arms first, not feet. I look like a caterpillar undulating its way into the room through the window frame, slowly and silently, turning to the side when it’s time to drag the family jewels across the concrete. I enter the land of whispers and locked doors on all fours, and he’s sat on the bed already, looking down at me almost pitifully. He grasps at an invisible knob and turns it, reminding me to shut the window behind me.
‘Show me what you’ve got,’ he urges without so much as an air high-five or a phantom clap. He’s seen me do this many times before.
3. Watch your step.
I take off my backpack and drag at the zipper tooth by tooth to minimise the noise, finally creating a mouth big enough to stick my hand in and start fishing in the dark belly. The first piece of loot is a plain chocolate bar.
‘Who eats this stuff if you can have whole nut or caramel?’ I asked him the first time he requested it.
‘People sophisticated enough to appreciate classic flavours,’ he replied, tearing open the wrapper and stuffing the entire width of the bar between his lips.
‘Yes, and you’re the definition of class,’ I said and he stuck out his chocolate-covered tongue at me, which made me retch, which made him chuckle, which made us both prick our ears like headlight-caught rabbits and stare towards the door.
4. Execute your mission.
‘It’s a special treat tonight,’ I whisper and grimace as the wrappers in my backpack rustle. ‘I won’t be able to come again before you get ungrounded.’
His hands are cupped together in front of him like a beggar, but they drop instantly when he hears my words. All I want to do is buy a gun and end this house arrest way sooner than expected.
‘But I have another week to go!’ he yells at barely audible volume. Exclaiming when whispering feels dramatic, like that one time in primary school I was Joseph in the nativity play and I had to talk quietly so baby Jesus wouldn’t wake, and it took a lot of attempts before the back rows could hear me.
I shrug. ‘We’re going away on Monday for the holidays,’ I remind him, but his expression doesn’t change. All I want to do is cast a spell so I can shrink him and carry him around in my pocket, but instead, my rummaging hand finds one of the phallic, sinewy bars at the bottom of the bag. I pull it out. ‘Look, it’s your favourite coconut buddy!’
His face drops even further, and I’m starting to fear his features might begin gliding down his face and dripping onto his lap. All I want to do is grab that face and rearrange it, mould it back into happiness as I remember it. If I still remember it. ‘What’s up? You love Bounty.’
‘It’s nothing,’ he replies and motions to get up, but I snatch him. Yin and yang, his skin so dark I can’t discern any hair or moles, mine so pale I could disguise myself by standing naked in front of white walls.
I stare him down. We spare words here to raise no suspicion, and if we hear as much as a squeak, conversations get suspended and irretrievably lost to panic.
‘Someone called me that today at school. Coconut.’
I shrug my shoulders for ignorance and roll my eyes for impatience, prodding him to go on.
‘Black on the outside.’ He opens his palms and I admire his long and winding life line, a deep black ridge surrounded by light plateaus. ‘White on the inside,’ he finishes.
I gasp and he shakes my hand off his. ‘Shut the hell up,’ he hisses. ‘You’re going to land me in trouble here as well.’ He storms around the room, fists clenched, and I imagine pictures being ripped off walls, chairs toppling over, papers flying in the aftermath of his furious passage.
I understand, I do, but there’s nothing I can do. His heart is not a servant to him, just as much as mine isn’t to me. My hand grasps at whatever it can find now in the backpack’s secret chamber and tosses the contents onto the bed while he dithers, ramrod straight like an arrow ready to be shot.
‘I guess I’ll go, then,’ I punctuate every word and spring up.
5. Execute your real mission.
‘Wait,’ he says, looking at the pile of sweets I sourced thanks to saving all my pocket money. He doesn’t get any. ‘Sit back down with me.’
The body wants out of the danger zone, but the mind runs the shop, so I plop down louder than I would have done otherwise, slightly limp. ‘What?’ I ask him.
‘Call me that racist name you call me again,’ he whispers so quietly I can feel the hair on my head spike up like antennae to catch the words.
‘It’s not racist.’
‘Well, either way.’
‘Harmattan. Come sit with me.’
His stance softens and he moves, avoiding the creaking floorboard without effort, his feet dictating the way. His skinny frame barely indents the mattress as he glides down next to me.
‘Tell me about it again,’ he pleads.
His hand is rubbing his trouser leg, and I can tell he’s sweating. He’s always sweating when I’m here, and when I once told him I couldn’t possibly be that hot, he had to stick a fist in his mouth to stop himself from laughing out loud.
‘Harmattan is a wind that blows in West Africa. It puts the entire world in a dusty haze and leaves people thirsty and wandering without direction and hope.’
‘I’m glad to hear how highly you think of me,’ he interjects.
‘Shush. Anyone who’s caught in Harmattan leaves with cracked lips, a dry cough and a migraine. But it’s not all bad, because the wind ends the humidity. It ends the night sweats and the stains on the morning bedsheets. It kills off the mosquitoes, and it fertilises the soil.’
He smiles suddenly, dust settling. ‘This is the longest and strangest pickup line ever. And it’s racist.’
I tut. ‘For the thousandth bloody time, it’s not racist. It’s metaphorical.’
A gust of wind is always followed by the most peculiar silence as the world reorders and restores itself, life peeking out again to gauge the conditions, and that silence forces its way between us now.
‘Shall we kiss for a bit?’ he asks finally and leans towards me.
‘Don’t be making that slurping sound, though.’
His lips find mine and I can’t tell anymore how quiet we are. I can’t care. I hope there’s a cache there somewhere we fill with caution, and now, we can draw from it for the tiny shuffles and the small moans that escape the sides of our mouths.
I drag him down onto the bed. ‘Can I take my trousers off?’
I always ask him this. A thing I do at least five times a day without a second thought becomes the height of my dreams. I have nothing planned for afterwards, no grand schedule of stations. Taking my trousers off is my final destination.
‘Are you crazy? You want to get caught with a boner?’ He looks down at the bulge I desperately want to free.
‘What is he going to do to me?’
‘Based on last time?’
I still remember his father’s smelly breath as he bashed me against the wall so hard I felt my kidneys rattle in their sockets. I had a big pee, and a painful pee at that, after that incident. I feel a pressure on my bladder exerted by his father’s voice every time I hear it faintly from the downstairs kitchen or living room, and every time, I imagine him repeating what he said to me that time. No white girl-boys around his prim and proper son.
‘Eric?’ The bellow is so sudden and close I almost fall off the bed. ‘Eric!’
How did he even get to the door without either one of us noticing? My Harmattan looks at me, wild-eyed like the squirrel caught in the fishing net I freed once in the backyard while my mother ran at me screaming of rabies. ‘Under the bed,’ he motions and pushes me. The lock clicks while I crawl underneath, the tips of my fingers gathering dust.
‘Eric, whey da lock shut again?,’ his father asks once through the door. ‘I take it off tomorre,’ he adds without waiting for an answer in his accent so thick it warms people to him instantly. For most, he slides effortlessly into the inoffensive and vague indigenous category, the brave man who fought his way through treacherous sands, high seas and xenophobic borders to found his family in a first-world country. But what they don’t know is how he exerts his tenth-world power over them.
‘You suppost’a do your homework.’
My nose feels scratchy from all the muck under the bed and I make a mental note to vacuum my own when I get home. If I get home.
‘Answa your father.’
‘Yes, dad. I’m going to do it right now,’ Harmattan peeps above me, his voice reduced like a sugary sauce in a sizzling pan, fresh fruit pulped, boiled and sieved, tortured through the process.
I can smell dust coating the little hairs in my nostrils, and suddenly, I can tell that sharp intake of breath just before the sneeze comes round the corner. I press on my nose, but it does little to relieve the pressure.
The burst is irrevocable, and for a few seconds, everything stands still, as if imploded into the sound, and only dust goes on twirling in the disturbed air. ‘What was that?’ his father asks, and I can see my Harmattan shift uncomfortably on the bed as the mattress indents above me.
My muscles turn into wood, but I know I have to scramble, so I use my caterpillar skills to back out from under the bed.
‘What was that, Eric?’
‘I… I don’t know, dad.’
‘You ‘ave a guest?’
I’m all crawled out. I lie on the floor, nothing more than a curled-up grub, at the end where I can’t be seen by his father looming like a new moon, invisible yet powerful.
Harmattan shoots me a look from his stiff position on top of the bed. The whites of his eyes flash and then his dark, almost black irises focus on me. ‘Run,’ he mouths, trying not to move his lips too much, like a ventriloquist to his doll lying akimbo by the bed.
‘What’s that?’ his father asks.
The next few seconds play out both in slow motion and at double the normal speed. I shoot up and leap towards the window. I don’t look at the man, but I can smell the sheer, petrified shock affording me a narrow window of escape.
The father roars like a wounded lion. I fumble with the knob, my fingers stiff and shaky, until the window pops open. I push at it with all my force and it swings madly outside, hitting the wall. The shimmering surface splits and multiplies into thousands of sparkling shards.
8. Protect your head.
I dive through, front first. I can feel the man’s hand graze my trousers as my legs fly through the air. I immobilise my head between locked elbows and hug it like a rugby player, except I’m the ball oscillating through air, unable to change its course.
A shard of glass lodges itself in my palm as I land and my hip almost pops out of its socket at the same time, but I know I have to get up. The man looks through the window and his words slip into foreignness. I don’t need to understand them to feel the rage gravitate almost as hard as the ground. He launches himself in the opposite direction, stomping out of the room.
Harmattan’s paled fingers clutch at the window frame and his face comes into view. ‘Run, run,’ he urges me.
The time slows down again and I see him in all of his glorious clarity, exhaustion radiating from every limb, fear and anxiety bundled so deep inside him his entire silhouette appears concave somehow. ‘I love you,’ I hear myself say as I struggle to stand up, the words spat up like blood after a nasty fall.
I think I’ve known this for a while now. I can hear the front door slam open on the other side of the house and I manage to straighten up fully.
‘Me, too,’ he manages through clenched, gnashing teeth. ‘Go, please go!’
I run without looking or listening back, hoping to sprint far enough for the father not to be able to follow me without risking his neighbourly reputation. I stop after a few minutes, dry lips, dusty clothes, a cough promising to rip up lungs and a horrible headache setting up camp behind my right eye. The street is deserted.
The shard is still sticking out of my palm, twinkling like a ruby. It’s lodged in the ridge of my life line, right in the middle, and I tug at it. Pain is the only feeling I can handle so I zoom in on it. I press the wound to fire exquisite signals to my brain, drowning away the guilt and shame and something else, sweet and delicate like desiccated coconut.
I push harder, but that last feeling won’t leave, aching all over the body, skin suddenly uncomfortable, too little for its swollen, sore organs. A gust of wind hits me out of nowhere and I can only hope it’s him. Harmattan. I pray to the swirling air for him to feel the same way I do when he eats all those guilty Bounty bars.