I open my eyes. I am sitting on the narrow bench in the waiting room. Sloth is curled in my lap. I am clenching an unlabelled cough-syrup bottle in my hand. The initiate is standing beside me, holding my bag.
"What's this?" I say, examining the glass jam-jar in my hand. The viscous liquid slopping inside is a noxious sulphur colour.
"Muti. For cleansing yourself of the bad energies."
"Like whatever you just poisoned me with?"
"It will help with the headache. Animal magic is very powerful. You may have some after-effects. Use it as required."
"Thanks," I say, with every inch of sarcasm I can muster. I drop the jar in my bag with every intention of pouring it down the drain when I get home.
Thunder rumbles above, rattling the windowpane, the tin roof. The daylight has darkened. I stagger out the door, cradling Sloth against my chest. Everything feels flattened out. Or maybe it's just that I'm still feeling the effects of whatever the sangoma poisoned me with. Sloth groans and stirs, and I take off my headwrap and fashion it into a kind of sling to carry him.
There is a glitter of glass on the pavement beside my car. The side window is smashed. I realise that my cellphone was not among the objects I turfed out of my bag onto the reed mat, that I must have left it on the passenger seat after hanging up on Gio.
I have a headache that could rip off the worst hangover's head and piss down its neck. The cicadas are clicking. The traffic hums and buzzes. Fat drops of rain spatter like grease. I lurch over to the man cutting rubber, who is starting to pack up. Even the tourists are retreating from the storm, leaving the parking lot deserted. "Excuse me. Did you see who broke my window?"
He looks away.
"You were right here. You must have seen it."
He flicks an offcut of rubber at my feet. It's as eloquent a gesture of contempt as spitting. "Fuck off, apo."
I look around for my yellow-eyed car guard. There is no sign of him. The rain is getting harder. But there is a bright sweet smell in the air that leads me to the tarpaulin strung up under the tree. I duck my head under the tarp, but even as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I realise that the shelter extends much deeper, that whoever lives here has burrowed under the rubble to extend their den. I crouch down and shuffle forward into the haze of smoke, heavier than mandrax or tik, and with a sour note, or perhaps that's just the body odour. There's another smell in here too, one that's all too familiar – drains. I can make out three figures sitting on their haunches, passing a pipe between them.
"Hey fokkof! Wat doen jy?" a girl screeches, clutching the pipe to her jealously as I shuffle towards them. She is not so old, late teens, maybe early twenties, but the lifestyle has eaten into her appearance, and her face is pocked with scars and bruises. There is a sullen knot at her jaw and her hair is clumpy, with inflamed bald patches as if someone has been ripping it out by the handfuls.
"I just want my phone."
"Jussis. I told you, mos, I told you," says Yellow Eyes, looking wild and scared. An older boy moves forward, all aggro. If Yellow Eyes is a junkie rat, this guy is a seriously nasty piece of work. Behind him, someone else stirs in the darkness, making a rattling sound. I have badly misjudged this.
"There's no phone, lady. Now fokkof," Yellow Eyes says.
"Even just my sim card. It's worth money to me."
"How much?" the girl says.
"Thula, Busi!" hisses the older boy, and Busi cringes as if he's already hit her.
"R200 for the sim card," I offer. "R300 if it comes with the phone."
"Fine." I open my wallet, careful not to let them see how much more money I have in there, peel out four R100 notes and hold them up in front of them.
"What's to stop us just taking it, hey?" Busi says with a leer, creeping forward again.
"Me." My incarceration in Sun City taught me other things apart from how to wait. Like how to stare someone down. My eyes have adjusted to the dim light and at the back I can make out a drop into a cave of sorts. The kids have excavated a storm drain, or maybe it was already damaged when they parked their tarp over it. They probably sleep down there, all tangled up together like a rat's nest. There is someone down there, shuffling backwards and forwards. The movement makes a dry skittery sound.
"You some kind of ninja?" Nasty Piece of Work says, smirking at the others.
"You want to find out? You want to know what my shavi is? What muti I just bought at the market?"
"R500," Busi says. This time Nasty does hit her, a cuff with the back of his hand. She whimpers, and glares at me as if it is all my fault. Maybe it is. Whatever is scuffling around in the back hesitates for a moment and then resumes its brittle nervous movements. The rain hurls itself against the tarpaulin.
"This is what I'm offering. Take it or leave it. It's good money." I wave the blue notes and Yellow Eyes snatches for them and misses. "Nuh-uh. Phone first. And tell whoever is skulking around back there to come out where I can see them."
Nasty looks amused. He pats his leg, as if calling a dog, and a Porcupine hauls itself out of the darkness, limping forward on three paws, its quills rattling. It nudges his knee with its stubby snout in wary affection. Thick ropes of drool hang from its jowls. Its eyes are dull. Its back foot is missing. The stump has healed badly, the tissue grey, the spiky hairs matted with dried blood and pus. It smells of damp and rot, like the broken concrete of the hole it crawled from.
"What the fuck did you do to this animal?"
"It's good money," Nasty wheedles, mocking me. "You want some? We can get a good price for that Sloth. Rare animal, hey? Start with a finger. Or a paw."
"Whole arm even," Busi says, emboldened, edging forward. "You won't miss it. You won't even notice." The Porcupine watches me with its beady little eyes, and despite myself, despite Sun City Rules, I start backing out, slowly. Fuck the phone. Odi can afford to buy me another one. But Nasty has managed to get round behind me, blocking the exit.
The rain buckets down, the sound like the roar of a stadium crowd. Outside, chunks of hail plink off the concrete. Nasty takes a screwdriver from his pocket, the end sharpened to a point. It's filthy – if you got stabbed with that thing, tetanus would be the least of your worries. I've seen bad stab wounds. A gangster in prison got herself a kidney puncture compliments of her girlfriend. It took her weeks to die from the infection.
"Don't go yet, cherry," Nasty says, raising his voice over the pelting rain.
"If you'd told me it was a party, I would have brought cupcakes," I say. I open my fingers and let the notes flutter to the ground, anticipating the girl dropping to her knees to pick them up. This buys me a second of distraction.
I grab Sloth's arm and slash his claws across Nasty's face, before he can raise the screwdriver. He screams and stumbles backwards, clutching his nose and eyes. I don't stick around to evaluate the damage. I turn and slam into Yellow Eyes with my full weight, knocking him over the girl, who is still on her knees, picking up the notes. Her head hits the ground with a painful thunk. I don't have time to feel guilty. Sun City Rules: take out the leader and get out any way you can. I barge past the Porcupine, sharp quills snagging on my jeans, and go in the exact opposite direction Nasty is expecting, dropping into the jagged hole and the darkness of the storm drain.
On my knees, I shuffle forward down the tunnel past the tangle of blankets that smell of smoke and sweat and urine, one hand against the rough concrete for guidance. My sneakers squelch in the rivulet of rotten mud. I can't see a fucking thing, but I can feel the water sloshing around me. "I hope you're looking where we're going," I mutter and Sloth, still shocked, manages a squeak in response. The tunnel should open up soon to a central flow. There will be maintenance entry points that'll take me straight up to the street. I just have to get there before they catch me.
I can hear the distorted echoes of angry voices behind me. Hopefully, they're still deciding if I went left or right. Hopefully, they'll split up. Easier to handle that way. I scuffle forward through the dark, now on my feet and hunched. Water is soaking through my shoes, and at first I think it's because the tunnel is widening, but it's the water level rising with the swell of rain. Another reason to speed up this getaway.
Sloth grunts in warning a second too late as the tunnel opens out onto a wide and slippery plateau and I go skidding over the edge of it, drop two metres, and land hard on my coccyx, on the edge of a step. The pain is like a railway spike driven up my spine. It knocks the breath out of me. I lie there stunned, while Sloth whimpers and moans for me to get up.
I'm lying on the edge of a massive staircase that slopes down, each step inclined thirty degrees. Looking up, I can see several tributaries convening on the steps, each of them spouting a dark churn of water. Beyond them, the vaulted ceiling stretches like a cathedral. I can only see this because of the bright circle, like a skylight, and the narrow metal ladder that leads up to the manhole, mockingly out of reach, one level up.
The voices are getting closer. Yellow Eyes pokes his head out from one of the tributary tunnels a metre or two above my head and shines down a torch. "Here! She's here!" he yells, his voice shrill with excitement. There's a muffled response, like someone talking underwater. "Help me! Help me climb down," Yellow Eyes shrieks. Sloth clicks in my ear, tugging at my shoulders to get up. I clamber painfully on all fours, pausing only to yank a porcupine quill out of my shin, and then scramble down the slope to the next step and the next.
The steps flatten out into a main artery a metre wide. I try walking along the narrow bank of the canal, but the cement is crumbling and slick with slime. I don't have time to teeter along the edge. I slide into the rush of water. It's hip-deep and horribly warm, like someone peed in it. There's a splash somewhere behind me, the sound twisted by the tunnel, so I've no idea how close it is. I risk a glance back, but there's only darkness.
The water flows into an alcove, a place for the stormwater to back up before the artery turns the corner. The scenery has changed, the modern cement giving way to ancient brickwork here, a Victorian relic from the town's golden days. I pull myself out of the stream and take cover, pressing my back to the recessed wall and crouching down among the rubble, making myself as small as possible, but also ready to bolt. Sloth is curled against my chest, still in his sling. He's shivering violently. Scuttly things tickle my back. I resolve not to think about them. I'm hoping they're cockroaches.
"Here, chick-chick-chicken!" Nasty calls from somewhere down the tunnel. He sounds pissed. He's answered by a girl's nervous giggle. Which means either Yellow Eyes is keeping mum, or they know the tunnels better than I do and he's split off, lying in wait somewhere up ahead. I've got to get back to that ladder.
Splashing sounds resolve into Yellow Eyes with his torch, followed at a cautious distance by Nasty wading down the centre of the canal, carrying his screwdriver above the water. There is a two-stroke gash across his face. I hope it gets infected. Wounds inflicted by Animals sometimes fester in strange and horrible ways.
I shrink back against the wall, Sloth hunches his shoulders to make himself smaller, tucking his head under mine, and we both hold our breath. They pass right by, Yellow Eyes humming tunelessly. If they move far enough ahead, I can double back.
Somewhere in their wake, the girl squeals in surprise.
"Stop messing around!" Nasty shouts over his shoulder, not bothering to look back. Busi emerges a moment later, edging along the embankment, using my phone for light. She is shaking her foot like a kitten and holding up a soggy sneaker, its dangling laces black with grime.
"Tumiiiii," she whines, trying to wring out the shoe. 'It's slippy."
"Then walk in the middle,' Nasty snipes back from down the tunnel.
She bends down to pull her wet shoe onto her bare foot. Then she looks up, straight at us. I put my finger to my lips, pleading. She stares. One alligator. Two alligator. Three alligator. Four alligator. Five alligator. Six alligator. And then she yelps, "Here! Tumi! She's here, she's here, she's here!"
Shit. So much for victim solidarity. I shove her into the canal. She screams, a thin sound that cuts off abruptly as she goes under. She emerges a second later, thrashing wildly and spluttering, without her shoe or my phone.
"Stand up!" I yell at the idiot girl, who doesn't realise the water is only waist-deep, maybe chest-deep on her. Nasty Tumi is wading back towards me, grinning, Yellow Eyes splashing up after him.
"You might want to help your girlfriend." I stay where I am, back against the wall, searching out the rubble at my feet with one hand. "The water's rising."
"She can take care of herself," he says, but Yellow Eyes stops to pull her up. She falls against him, sobbing, nearly pulling him under.
"What about you?" I ask Tumi. But it's just a play for time. I've found what I've been looking for. I close my hand over a broken brick, stand up and hurl it with full force, not at his head, but his hand. Tumi howls and drops the screwdriver. It plinks into the water and disappears, the current sweeping it away with the other detritus. Busi shrieks in dismay.
Tumi scrambles out of the water and lunges for me. But it's Sloth's arm he grabs, tearing him out of the sling and swinging him out over the canal. Sloth drops into the water, too surprised to make a sound.
"Now what?" Tumi leers. He doesn't see Sloth resurface or start paddling for the bank, his long arms stroking elegantly through the water. But he's losing against the current, the angle of his trajectory towards the shore getting sharper as it tugs him away.
"Fuck you," I say and stab him in the side of his neck with the broken porcupine quill. I clutch onto my bag and plunge into the canal after Sloth without sticking around to see the results.
We wash up kilometres away, clinging to each other, battered from being hurled against the cement walls all the way down, with various additional minor wounds, including scratched arms and legs from a surprise collision with a broken branch wedged under the water.
It takes a long time to find the strength to stand up and carry on, and when I shrug Sloth onto my shoulders, he is so waterlogged, it feels like he's put on ten kilos. Sloth is ominously quiet. It's an indication of how much shit we're in because normally he's the first to complain, bleating rebukes in my ear.
The worst is that I don't know where we are. It's not like I'm the world authority on Joburg's storm drains, but I've been down here enough times looking for lost things to know the basic lie of the land. This is all unfamiliar. The tunnels are a scramble of pitch-black termite holes, some of them narrowing away to nothing, like whoever was digging them got bored and wandered off. The original gold diggings maybe, when Johannesburg was still just a bunch of hairy prospectors scrabbling in the dirt. Maybe we'll bring home a nugget the size of Sloth's head.
Sloth guides me through the dark, squeezing my shoulders like handlebars. If we could just find a lost thing, I could follow the connection back home, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
But hours later, we have not stumbled on anything, not a lost thing, not an exit, not even a passage that leads anywhere, just one dead end after another in the humid dark. Sloth squeaks once, a bleak little noise as I slump down against the wall. My feet are aching, my stomach is clenched, like hunger is a sweet it could suck on.
"Don't sweat it, buddy. We'll get out of here," I say. "No worries."
But he can tell I don't believe myself. It's so black down here, my eyes invent ghosts to make up for the sensory deprivation, ripples of black on black. It's as quiet as purgatory.
And then Sloth chirrups and looks up with a sharp jerk of his head. Swimming is not the only thing he does better than me. I strain to listen. My heart drops into my gut. "Is it them?"
There is a low rumbling sound, almost indiscernible, but it's building, like house music rising to a dancefloor crescendo. I stand up in a hurry. "Water?" There are reports every year of kids who have drowned in the drains, caught out by flash floods that come out of practically nowhere while they're messing around in the tunnels smoking dope or looking for ninja turtles.
But Sloth clucks in irritation, shutting me up so he can listen. It's something else. He bats at my face with urgent pawings, the way he does when I've overslept. "All right, all right," I say, staggering to my feet and in the direction he guides me, towards the epicentre of the noise. It better not be a wall of water.
The sound reverberates through the tunnels, ramping up to a teeth-rattling earthquake. There is a glow up ahead, as if of civilisation. Hope sparks in my gut. I stumble forward, round a corner, into blinding artificial light. I make out huge metal ribs lining the tunnel like the belly of a robot whale. And then a whip of glass and metal thunders past inches from my face.
The blur of one shocked pink face staring out the window, mouth open in a perfect O of surprise, is the only witness to the near-death of Zinzi December by Gautrain.