The daylight begins to fade as the hours get older and the night approaches. The sun has already set in the far horizon stretched above the roads over at the mountainside far off the city. A few clouds awkwardly gaze over the tall skylines. My stomach grumbles and instinctively my hand cradles the starved flesh. It's been eleven hours and thirty three minutes since our last meal.
I shift my weight and Ntombi wakes up rubbing her freckled eyes and sitting up. 'Will we eat?' She asks. No greeting. No how are you. Only concerned about whether or not her stomach will be fed. It is all we think about on days like these. I want to lie to her so that its easier to lie to myself. Instead I look away and pretend to think. She looks down and I know she already knows the answer. The frown on her face twists my stomach more than the hunger already gnawing my insides. 'We will eat.' I say as I swallow dry empty words.
She is a smart one. I seen it from the time I found her. She would have done great in a school if only she got the opportunity. And she would have worked hard. I can see her passion and perseverance in her eyes when she thinks. Her thoughts are never confined by our condition. She always dreams big. Unlike me, and maybe that's why I'm still stuck here, on the streets, after twenty three starved years.
I get up and move towards the metal can next to the board saying with big, untidy mispelt letters : Any small change can make a difference.' Ntombi thought of the words. The dull coins in the can barely reflect any light and don't look promising. Its a bad day. The kind of day where the sun beats down all day with no mercy and no generous man walks by. It's been four bad days in a row and it's the longest of bad days we've ever had.
'We are not going to eat.' She says more of an afterthought than a statement. She is right though. I think it but don't admit it. She gets up and sits across from me looking at me intently. I sigh. Audibly and heavily. Enough for an answer. I want to apologize, but what for? The reason we are placed here is beyond me.
I hear shuffling from behind me as Thomas wakes up. Thomas, we call him that because he never had a name when we found him at the trains. Thomas the train and Thomas at the trains. That's where he got his name from. He is two years younger than Ntombi but looks about her age. He would've have been a handsome boy if he had the privilege of three proper meals everyday. His bony, famished build concave his features.
'Oi, Mr K. Are we eating now?' He says, he doesnt greet either. Both the children call me Mr K. Neither of them know my real name and I'm not sure if I remember. 'Ya, Tommy boy. We are. Patience.' He gets up excitedly and begins to put on his shoes. He is the only one from us who sleeps without it. Ntombi glares at me when I look at her. Her cocoa skin slightly flares and her eyes scold me with intensity. Her piercing eyes ask, Why are you lieing to him?
I drop my head. I pass my rough hands over my eyes and hold my head in my hands. We are becoming desperate. I hear Ntombi's stomach grumble and Thomas skipping towards us in anticipation. Which kind of kids deserve this life? Certainly not these two.
I reach for the can with barely any coins, all the while Ntombi glaring at me and Thomas cleaning his filthy fingernails. I pour the coins on my hand and count. It barely makes enough for a loaf of bread. I close my eyes and think. I need a plan and I need one quick. My thoughts scramble desperately digging for something to do to feed these poor kids before we go to bed tonight. I open my eyes when a iniquitous thought jostles me and guilt prickles the skin on my forearms. How could I think of such a thought? I try to dismiss it, but how else do I feed them? We have never been in such a situation before. My thoughts battle as I think deeper.
'Mr K, are you alright?' Thomas says cutting straight through disturbing the spiral of desperation. 'Nothing boy. It's okay.' I say as I pocket the coins and get up, slowly and steadily eyes focused on nothing. I try clearing my throat thick from the guilt of my thoughts but when I speak no words come. I clear my throat again and barely manage to say 'I'll be back.' I smile a smile of reassurance as I walk away.
Once I'm around the corner of the alley we call home, my facade fails. Shame and guilt raises bile in my stomach as I walk on to the pharmacy on Fifth Avenue. My thoughts steady and unsteady as approach the entrance of the white lit room. Light cascades through it's large windows, too bright for the night. I stand at the entrance, hesitant, uncertain. There is no other way, I tell myself.
The bell rings when I open the door and the pharmacists at the counter looks up when I come in. A women about my age with kind eyes and brown hair stares at me. I look down until I get to the counter. Counting the tiles to calm my nerves. There isn't anyone else here I think, no one else to witness my shame.
'What can I do for you?' Her voice sounds like honey dripping. For a moment, I contemplate, maybe she can help us for tonight. I shake that thought away. Nobody cares. I've learnt it the hard way through life.
I shuffle on my feet as sweat builds up on my forehead. I stutter as I speak. 'I need three sleeping pills please. The cheapest one you can offer.' I look down as if she can see my intentions in my eyes. She doesn't say anything and for a moment I can feel her reading my thoughts. I look up and see her looking for something from the shelf behind the counter and breathe a sigh of relief.
She places the pills on the counter in a single sealed plastic bag as I take out the coins from my pocket still with sweaty hands. I hand them to her as my hands shake. She slowly takes the coins and I am thankful that she takes them without question. I thank her as I rush out of the pharmacy and it's white light out into the dark streets.
On my way back to the alley, I begin collecting stones the size of my palm and pocket them. I take the long route home and stall at every corner waiting for the night sky to blacken and darken completely. When I have enough stones, I place them in a bag I found on one of the sidewalks as guilt again thickens in my head. Just as I fill the bag, I see Father, the pastor of the church walking towards me. I shuffle awkwardly as he approaches. The weight of his past favours burden my back. I can't ask him again.
'Hello Mr K.' He addresses me, and I avoid his eyes rather looking to the far left near the shops selling fruit and vegetables. Those could have made a meal, I think. 'You seem distracted.' Father says with a chuckle. I stammer when I reply, 'Oh yeah. Just been thinking.' He continues, 'You're a good man Mr K. A good man. Not many like you, who take in kids and look after them.' A knot twists itself in my stomach. I'm not a good man, I think. I am far from that. I want to scream and cry and yell out in frustration. Instead, I thank the the pastor and tell him that I'm in a hurry and walk on. I can feel his eyes on me as I turn the last corner and find myself in our alley.
Ntombi is the first to see me. Her eyes always on alert. She sits in the corner teaching Thomas how to count. A game they play when I leave. I swallow as the two look at me in anticipation making my heart bleed.
I walk towards them and ask Thomas to fill our pot with water and Ntombi to get some wood for a fire. No other words are exchanges besides the instructions leading to my lies. I try calming my thoughts and steadying my hands. I put the bag of stones down and get busy with the fire. When Thomas returns, he asks 'What's in the bag?' Ntombi looks up too. I smile without showing my teeth, without showing my lies. 'You'll see.' I say.
There is absolutely no light in the alley and we all work in darkness. 'I went looking for the pastor of the church' I begin. 'And guess what he gave me.' Both look at me with no words. 'Potatoes.' I say and I see the spark of hope in their eyes. The pot is brought to the fire and I put the stones into the pot one by one and begin stirring. The children sit down around the fire to combat the breeze of night. Atleast they'll be warm, I tell myself. It's not for nothing completely. I clear my throat again and say, 'And you know what else he gave me?' They look at me again. 'These.' I say taking out the pills from my pocket. 'They are pills to protect us from this sickness going around. The pastor said we should take them as soon as we can.' The lies flow off my tongue so easily and my insides concave. How could I lie to these innocent children.
Ntombi rushes to get a cup filled with water and hands it to me. I take one pill and swallow the water handing the cup back to her along with a pill. She takes a pill and swallows some water then passes the cup to Thomas who I hand a pill to. They don't say anything. Only comply to what I say. I am their leader yet I deceive them.
I continue stirring the stones pretending they are potatoes. Steam floats to the air like the guilt fogging up my brain. 'When will they be done?' Asks Thomas eagerly. 'Just a few more minutes' I say. They both sit in silence in the dark as they watch the pot on the fire cook the potatoes. 'We have to wait.' I say. We have to wait for the pills to make us sleep.
I expected Thomas to go out first, since he is the youngest, but Ntombi yawns and her eyes start closing. I tell her to go lay down while we prepare the meal. She obliges unaware of my lies. Thomas joins her when he too begins yawning. When they both fast asleep I put out the fire and throw the rocks and water out. I join them on our makeshift mattresses. I lay heavily looking up onto the darkness of the night, in between the guilt of today and the formation of tomorrow's lies.