Shakka used the flickering neon lights to cover her movements. Two more blocks and she’d be home. Cigarette smoke drifted in the air. She pulled silently into a deep doorway. A group of kids her age walked confidently past. She was on the very edge of their territory and in grave danger. She smiled wryly. Grave danger. Boom boom, I’m dead. Only she couldn’t end up in a grave, Mamma needed her.
Griff’s whisky voice sounded in her head. ‘When you’re away from Home Block, you better act like you belong, girl.’
She imitated their walk and swaggered out of her hiding place.
Shakka had been ten when she and her Mamma had found shelter on Griff’s block.
Before that, home had been a mansion with river frontage. Maids to do the housework. Chauffeurs to drive the cars. Elite private school.
On that dreadful day, Daddy had held back the looters while Shakka dragged Mamma from the house, pushing her into a row boat. Huddled together they watched the flames consume everything they treasured. The house was completely gutted, still Daddy hadn’t come. Eventually Shakka rowed into the middle of the river. The current did the rest.
Her parents had known the rioting would reach them. They had planned to leave, but Mamma always convinced Daddy to put it off. Shakka wiped away a tear. Mamma had been a formidable woman; maybe he knew she would never leave until they had absolutely no choice.
A few nights before the looting he’d found Shakka on the roof, where she often sat, watching the fires, wondering what it all meant.
‘Baby, if anything ever happens to me, you have to take your mother to Uncle Grifford, OK?’
He’d held her in his arms and she’d cried into his soft, cashmere clad shoulder.
Something had broken inside Mamma the night their home was destroyed. Broken so badly that she lived in the past. Griff’s once opulent apartment block was filthy and overcrowded. But Mamma didn’t see it. She believed she still lived in their riverside home and reigned like a queen, waiting for her king to return from the battle.
The voice behind her was loud, mocking. ‘Hey, aint that one of Griff’s? Get her!’
Shakka’s feet pounded the broken road. She prayed she wouldn’t twist an ankle. Going down, that would be the worst thing that could happen.
‘Clear your head.’ Griff’s words again. ‘Think only about getting away. Where you put your feet. Stay out in the open. Don’t go up stairs or into alleyways unless you know there’s a way out. You don’t want to get trapped. And if you are, keep them talking. The longer you stay alive, the more chances there are you’re going to stay that way.’
One more block. She raced past boarded up shop windows. Another alleyway. A foot shot out and tripped her. Shakka rolled on her back, thrust her right hand into her jacket pocket and made a gun shape with her fingers.
‘Wouldn’t come any closer if I were you.’
‘You know the rules. You’re ours now.’
She began scrabbling backwards. Sorry Mamma, Daddy, Griff.
Shakka slowed. ‘So, who wants to get shot first?’
The gang stopped.
The gang closed in on her.
‘Now!’ Griff’s voice rang through the air.
Shakka rolled into a gutter, seconds later she was on her feet - fighting stance. People from her block slipped silently out of the shadows, each holding a rock.
‘Back off! She’s reached her Home Block!’
Gradually the kids drifted away.
Griff punched her gently in the arm. ‘You better clean yourself up before your mother sees you.’
‘How is she?’
At the sixth floor landing Shakka stopped.
In the four years they had lived with Grif, Shakka had never felt bold enough to ask.
‘Your mother had everything, but it was never enough. Bigger this. Better that. She never learnt….’
‘What! What did she never learn?’
Griff smiled and ruffled her hair. ‘You’re smart, you work it out.’
In the crowded apartment, stale sandwich in hand, she gave the money she’d earned at the recycled brick depot to the treasurer. ‘Excellent, kiddo.’
Oblivious to the activity around her, Mamma slept in the one reclining chair.
Shakka wandered over to the kitchen, washed her hands, and began chopping shriveled carrots for the evenings stew.
Griff was right; she’d work it out one day, but not today. Today she was home safe and too contented to bother.
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