The stretch of road between Mponda and the white flats Khama called home transformed into a valley of death when night fell. In the daytime, the close to half a kilometre stretch beamed with life as parents dropped off and picked up their children from Mount Lazarus International School.
On the other side of the road, tuckshops and a motorcycle repair garage flourished. Then there was the Mount Lazarus bridge, where the road sloped a little before making an incline towards the T-junction, the other side of which stood the flats Khama called home. Either side of the road from where the bend began before school to the T-junction boasted a forest of pine trees, in whose shade juvenile lovers strolled. But only in the daytime.
In the night time, street kids called amaskini, handy with a knife and weapons of want, made their home under Mount Lazarus bridge, consigning it the worst place to be when night fell. Some had barely escaped with their lives, while others had lost them completely as they tried to get to the other side where the flats stood, white and unstained, oblivious to the battle its inhabitants waged to get within its walls.
Khama had lived there for almost eight months now. Her husband, Dziko, taught at the university on the other side of town while she worked as an office assistant in the city. Every morning she passed through Mount Lazarus road to get to the bus station and then back through to get to her home on the second floor of the white flats. In those eight months, she had always made sure to arrive at the Mount Lazarus stretch by 5 pm. By 5:20 pm she would ascend the stairs leading to the flat she occupied with her husband.
On this fateful day, however, she had been met with one inconvenience after another. Her boss had kept her longer than the usual 4:30 pm, so that by the time she got to the stop, it was nearly impossible to get onto a minibus with all the pushing and shoving from other working men and women eager to get to their own homes for the night. Then the minibus had broken down halfway through their journey. All the while increasing the sense of foreboding that turned Khama’s insides. Khama had muttered under her breath for God to help her get home safely. Any other day she would have asked Dziko to wait for her at the bus station, but he had travelled out of town for a conference and wouldn’t return until the next day.
By the time Khama arrived at the Mount Lazarus bend, it was 6:30 pm. She could hear the beating of her heart. Erratic, but it was there. The commotion of the mornings had been replaced with a hush of descending night and the rustling of leaves in the wind’s path. The light emanating from the one streetlamp at Mount Lazarus International School’s front gate cast shadows on the stretch of road ahead for a distance before darkness loomed. Shadows of tall men languishing on the tarmac road, waiting for her arrival it seemed. There were no cars, and not a soul in sight. Even the front gate of the school where a watchman should have been appeared abandoned.
She did not want to worry Dziko by calling. The bus stop was some minutes away, but even that side of town behind her had already lost its daytime bustle. Khama stood for a while, contemplating what to do next. She could feel her heartbeat intensify in her mouth as she stood transfixed, her palms sweating with indecision and fear.
In her high school days, she had been a runner. But that was a good ten years ago. In that time, she had added meat in places, betraying the feather-light frame she spotted in the days when she could run like the wind. With her favorite black canvases, she could give it a try, she thought to herself as she tried to shake off the tension that had tightened the muscles in her now jelly-like legs and heart.
She would walk the first hundred meters past Mount Lazarus’ front gate and then run like her life depended on it. Her own attempts at humor made her uneasy. She extended the strap of her handbag and wore it across her body before starting the dreadful descent into Mount Lazarus road, her hands clasped to her chest, the faint light from her phone’s torch barely noticeable.
By the time she reached the end of the overhead light’s expanse, the warm trickle meandering down her legs had picked up speed. Her phone clutched tightly in her right hand, she let out a heavy sigh and launched into a frenzied dash down the dark road ahead of her. A hundred or so steps in, she felt herself tumbling after hitting something on her path. She could feel a throbbing pain where her foot had made contact as she groaned, trying to pick herself up. The cacophony of laughter from prepubescent throats arrested her in her steps.
It was too dark to see as the voices grew nearer to where she stood. The dim light from her phone picked up bare callused feet, tattered shorts and pants, drawn switchblades and machetes, dirty brutish faces, and bloodshot eyes high on Chamba or some other narcotic, she imagined. She counted five sets of murderous eyes belonging to boys not much older than her twelve-year-old brother Daniel.
The leaves rustled and the rush of water under the bridge drew to a slow whimper as the circle grew smaller and smaller, until Khama could smell their fetid breaths and thirst for blood. Her body convulsed with fear. She could hear her own indistinct muttering as she clutched tightly at her handbag and tears streamed down her face unrestrained. Before she passed out, she thought she saw Dziko, lunging forward in a ball of light.
When she rose the next morning, she was in her bed, her phone on the side table where she usually left it, and her bag on the chair in the corner. Dziko was still out of town. She had survived her brush with the amaskini, but how, she did not know.
As she made her way to work that morning, she became a witness to five bodies of amaskini dangling from the pine trees at Mount Lazarus bridge. Cause of death, unknown.