Short stories by JA Kruger

MISGUIDEDWitchhunts are still prevalent

PART I: WILLIAM ROUX

At the court house the people scream and chant; urging him to die. “RAPISTS MUST BE HANGED” the one placard states, closely knit to the overweight woman wearing a t-shirt with “WOMEN AGAINST RAPE”. Next to her, on either side, stand the zealous supporters in similar shirts for similar organisations, chanting and waving their placards; all of them there to crucify William Roux. William Roux the rapist. William Roux the devil. William Roux, my best friend.

Three months ago he was also William Roux who had founded a centre for abused women. He had counselled there and lived there. His whole life had been there, devoted to trying to pick up and fix the pieces of raped and beaten women and trying to get them whole so that they could walk out of there with a chance and a hope to live their lives again.

Three months ago Candice, the 16 year old girl he had taken in a year before, had gone to the media and to the police and had described in detail how Will had repeatedly raped her while she had been living at the centre. She had looked for and had found ears. With her confession, came the statements of two past victims all claiming the same thing; more words for more ears.

‘Did you, you know, did you do it?’ I had asked him and offended him.

‘You know better than anyone that it is impossible for me to ever do such a thing.’

‘Yes but they don’t.’

‘And they never will.’

I wasn’t used to him being down or being stressed. He was always a bit higher strung than me but considering my own stringing, that wasn’t really that high. We grew up together, we went to school together and we fell in love with the same girls and liked the same movies. Now I was stuck with him during the hardest time of his life. I say “stuck” because I find there is no other good word for the adhesive that kept us together.

When the accusations had started he had come to live with me. My house is safer than the centre, for him at least. The centre itself is so well protected with fences and cameras and strict policies on visitation that it all only added to the guilty verdict. He had kept the names of all the women secret and he wasn’t planning on releasing them. He had even kept the names of the councillors; all of them that had ever worked there, a secret. He had done all of this for the protection of the women who needed him. Husbands, boyfriends even girlfriends did not like their victims speaking to anyone.

‘What are you going to do if this thing doesn’t go away?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘Benevolence is the only thing I have ever known.’

Benevolence, a centre of refuge for abused women.

“Been in violence” I used to call it back when he started it. Back then he had still had a sense of humour. It had been his dream to help these people since we were 16. I’ve never understood why. His father had not beaten his mother and I hadn’t noticed any violence or other nasties back when we were kids. He had been the first to confess to me that his intentions had been inspired by something else. I knew that that had been the same thing that had left the scars on his arms. He had never spoken to me about the scars though.

‘What do you want to have?’ I ask

We’re at a restaurant close to my house, ‘running distance’ I had told him, just to try and convince him to get out of the house. The past three months had consisted of travelling in secret from the courthouse to my house and then back again every morning.

‘I’m not hungry,’ he says.

‘Is that what I asked you?’

‘I know,’ he says, ‘but I wasn’t thinking about food.’

‘I understand but I also need you to. You haven’t eaten properly this whole week.’

‘Are you my mother now?’

‘Speaking of which, have you heard back from her yet?’ I ask with the knowledge that he hadn’t.

‘Is that what I asked you?’ he says. Will has a great smile, something which had disappeared by now. Overnight he had lost his parents and his smile. They had never been the same towards him since the scars had carved themselves onto his arms and this embarrassment had given them the final push, pushing them to emigrate to Australia. ‘At least they’ll be safe where no one knows about me,’ he had said.

I convince him to order a coffee and a breakfast, something “farmhousy” and we spend the time being quiet. It’s not an uncomfortable quiet, it’s a knowing quiet. I couldn’t see this as he did because I knew his shoes wouldn’t fit me, their too big and I could never understand them. I have never been in trouble before, well neither had he, but now I was hated as well.

Daily the crowds grew outside the court. “ONLY SICK MEN RAPE”, “REAL MEN DON’T RAPE” there was even a board, bigger than all the others that read, “CASTRATE THE DEVIL AND THE DEVIL WON’T RAPE!”The police kept the people behind the barriers but they pushed back. The Media had been barred from taking photos inside the courtroom or from disclosing Candice’s real name as she was still a minor. The case was a public–secrecy with only short reports; limited and biased.

‘Farmhouse?’ the waitress asks when our food comes.

‘Here’ he says.

‘And the sandwich is mine.’

‘Looks good,’ I say and he grunts, ‘fried tomato and all the works.’

He shoves the egg around the plate with his fork while he sits in the same silence as before.

‘You’re yolking right?’ I say, ‘playing with your food like that.’

He doesn’t respond at all.

‘Sorry, crap joke,’ I say.

When he finally takes his knife to cut into the sausage, the tomato hits him and as if it created a target, a rock hits the same spot on the side of his head.

‘You’re a monster!’ the women yell, ‘you will burn in Hell!’

More rocks, tomatoes and even eggs join the first attack and I have to duck as much as he does.

‘Get under the table!’ I yell.

Instinctively, rehearsed by now in survival from the mobs, he ducks down and crouches there. The shopping centre Security service dispatches its guards but the women overpower them and they become just as stepped on as us. From the table we try to run to the bathrooms but it’s already blocked. ‘You’re not going anywhere’ a large woman says, she could be an exact duplicate as the one at the courthouse, ‘we will make sure justice is done as it should be.’

I assume they had to park the cars first, because the men join them only five minutes later.

‘You fucking pig!’ they yell, ‘we’ll show you what happens to people like you!’

I fall on the first blow. It’s a tough fist against my right eye and as I drop I see Will already in the foetal position, holding his hands against his face while they kick him and stomp on his ribs and head.

‘And you’re no better!’ one of the guys say when I mimic Will and they start kicking me.

It feels like a ten-round boxing match with no breaks even though it takes only five minutes before the police get there. Salvation! I think but they don’t stop the people. It’s only when they realise that the restaurant patrons are filming the fight on their smartphones that they finally move in and get us out, using the same kind of force as the zealots. They load us in the back of their vehicle, caging us in for the protection of their own reputations. They automatically take the road to my house but I ask them to take a detour and just throw the people following us off a bit.

‘We’re busy,’ the officer says, ‘we don’t have time to sightsee.’

That’s how they found out where I live.

PART II: GUILT OF A BOY

A young boy, just 16 and barely yet a man, stands naked in front of a mirror. A full length mirror shows him as a skinny and scared boy, crying as he looks at himself. He’s holding a knife in his hand, a thick blade with a wooden handle that his dad uses to carve the toughest of things. The boy is glad that this knife is there because it would make sure that he cuts it right the first time.

The blade is cold against his skin but it’s reassuring him that it’s really there. His father keeps it sharp and before he even cuts intentionally a thin paper cut appears. It bleeds more than it should but the boy knows that there will be a lot more blood when he’s done. It won’t matter to him though. He thinks of the party.

A normal house party at some guy called Dwayne’s house. There were no parents and no rules. He thinks of how they had sat and drank together and how she wanted him to kiss her. He remembers sharing cigarettes with her and them stealing tequila from Dwayne’s father’s liquor cabinet. The boy thinks about the upstairs bedroom he had taken her to and them kissing. She had smelt so nice and the kissing was incredible but he had wanted more.

He remembers her taking off her bra and them kissing some more and then how she had told him she wasn’t ready to go further. ‘Come on, what’s the fuss,’ he had said, ‘it’ll be great.’

For him it had been great and only once he had finished had he realised she was crying. She called her dad to pick her up after that and the boy remembers the moment she climbed into that car as the moment he would see her for the last time.

A girl, scared and ashamed, went home without telling her father or her mother why she was upset. She didn’t stand in front of a mirror or plan for it to be ceremonial at all. She took a knife, not as sharp as his, he knows, and she put that knife to her wrists. Her parents only found her the following morning when she didn’t come out of her room. She was supposed to ready for church. On Tuesday he heard the news and he went home knowing his parents wouldn’t be there.

It’s Tuesday afternoon and he stands naked in front of a mirror with the words “I will always be sorry for what I have done” written on it with a black marker. His parents will think it means something else, but the true meaning will die along with him. Now the knife, his knife, slides through the skin and the veins, splitting it open so that the blood can fountain freely.

When they get home his parents find him and see the note. His father sees the knife which he knows will have done what it was asked to do and the mother saw her son, still a boy in the world, lying in a pool of blood.

It’s his father who unfreezes first and calls the ambulance. His mother only wakes to the reality when the doctor tells them they did all they could. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says.

PART III: THE RAPIST AND HIS PENANCE

My house is violated with graffiti, crudely written insults and hate-messages line the walls and even my garage doors. “THIS IS WERE THE RAPESTLIVS”. ‘Can’t spell for shit,’ I say, but Will is too busy apologising for allowing me into his hell.

‘I’d stand by you for anything,’ I say, ‘brothers, right?’

‘Thank you.’

Someone had enlarged all the newspaper articles and headlines and copied them enough times to cover half of my garden in a rolled up paper mess. ‘I’ll clean it up,’ he says but I want him to stay inside. After a week I don’t even bother painting over the graffiti anymore – ‘they’re a bunch of resilient assholes!’ I tell Will. He’s busy pulling the telephone’s cable out and shutting up all the windows.

‘Maybe that will calm some of the death threats down,’ he says, but we both know they’ll find other ways to get to him.

The trial carries on and every day gets worse until it finally comes to the star of the show. The other two women had given their testimonies, so similar it could’ve been a copy and paste statement from the police, with just the names and dates amended. But the star; Candice, takes the stand today and both Will and I are nervous. ‘This will be the exact thing they need to make their final case a permanent death for me’ Will says, ‘luckily they don’t behead people anymore.’

‘There are worse things that can be cut off than heads,’ I say, inappropriately and thoughtlessly spurting from my mouth.

‘Not now!’ he says, ‘I can’t stand any of your jokes now!’

‘I’m sorry Will. But you are innocent and we both know it.’

‘I don’t have a way to prove it,’ he says.

‘Try. Maybe just try – please!’

It seems futile to even try and find a way when Candice gets to the witness box. Her eyes are red and she’s shaking, too scared to look into his eyes. Is it really fear? I ask myself. ‘I’m sorry My Lady,’ she says, ‘it’s still so sore and I…’ Her words disappear in her sobs. ‘Take your time, ‘the judge says, ‘I know this is hard for you.’

The judge, an older lady with years of experience in these matters, has already been swayed. Candice is the best actress out of all three of them. ‘And he used to make me take his penis and…’ It carries on like that. Testimony – crying – testimony – crying. The court takes a recess and we go to smoke a cigarette. They chant outside and Will’s anxiety grows with every whoop and fall of their music. ‘It’s me next,’ he says, ‘and I don’t know if I can do it.’

Back in the courtroom, Will is brought onto the witness stand. His defence lawyer had failed him. A court appointed snot-nose with something to prove and lacking the skills to do so. ‘Give him ten years,’ I had said before, ‘and with the experience and more learning he will still be pathetic.’ Will had agreed.

‘Mr Roux,’ the prosecutor asks him, ‘do you know these three women?’

‘Yes My Lady.’

‘And where do you know them from?’

‘They were all patients at Benevolence My Lady.’

‘Were you responsible for counselling these women?’

‘Yes My Lady.’

‘Mr Roux, these allegations brought against you are serious and claim that the abuse, more specifically the sexual abuse and rape were prevalent with you continuously requesting intercourse and oral sex to be performed on you,’ he takes a moment to drink some water and clear his throat, ‘and you have plead “Not Guilty” to all of these charges.’

The judge asks him to get to the point.

‘Yes My Lady,’ he says, ‘I simply wish to understand the defendant’s mindset and the reasoning behind his plea. All in all this is a case of “he said, she said” but there are three women who have the same story and he has provided the court with no evidence or any sort of explanation that argues their testimonies.’

Will becomes whiter in the face with every passing question. I know Will gets whiter when he gets angry – something other people sometimes mistake for shame or uncooperativeness.

Will’s case becomes more futile with every statement and every nod of the judge’s head. The Defence had had its turn – ‘Useless!’ Will says when there’s another recess, ‘simply fucking useless!’

His torture carries on with “Yes My Lady” and “No My Lady”, until I finally see the breaking point coming.

‘I didn’t do it!’ he yells and the judge asks him to show respect for the court, ‘No!’ he says. ‘It is physically impossible for me to have done it!’

The guard steps forward, but Will is angry and then he becomes strong; strong enough to get loose from the guard and stand up on the chair in the witness stand.

‘Sit down Mr Roux!’ the judge yells but he won’t. He starts to unbuckle his belt and in one motion he drops his trousers and underwear to the floor.

A young boy, just 16 and barely yet a man, stands naked in front of a mirror. A full length mirror shows him as a skinny and scared boy, crying as he looks at himself. He’s holding a knife in his hand, a thick blade with a wooden handle that his dad uses to carve the toughest of things. The boy is glad that this knife is there, because it would make sure that he cuts it right the first time.

There is nothing where his penis and his testicles are supposed to be, nothing but scars.

The blade is cold against his skin but it’s reassuring him that it’s really there. He thinks about the party and he cuts up, severing his manhood in one stroke.

‘I do not have the means to rape! I haven’t had the means since I was 16!’

It had been his father who unfroze first and called the ambulance. His mother only had only woken up to the reality when the doctor had told them that they had done all they could. ‘I’m sorry,’ he had said, ‘we managed to bandage up his wrists and stop the blood but we could not reattach the penis.

The court is silent, everyone staring at the scarred reminder of his own punishment for the night he had taken a girl into a room and did things that she hadn’t wanted to do. Will has no more shame in it – finally ready to show the world why he was innocent, why the women were all liars.

‘Candice wanted to have sex with me, fuck! She kept on trying and I refused so she devised a plan to get back at me! She’s a twisted little bitch!’

Candice’s friends, girls just older than her by three years, had played along because she had convinced them it was true but she couldn’t stop him on her own.

He pulls his pants back up, climbs down from the chair and leaves the witness box. The court is quiet when he walks out, when we walk out because we are stuck in this together.

“The hearing will be held behind closed doors to protect the identity of the victims as some of them are still minors.”

It had been on one of the newspaper clippings they had thrown into my yard. We walk out and the police are not ready for us nor for what happens next.

Mothers Against Abuse (MAA); Women Opposing Violence Against Women (WOVAW); the men’s organisations and Women Against Rape (WAR); finally manage, on the last day, to break through the barriers and the police officers are helpless to stop them.

The placards come down in our faces and then they fall to the floor. There is no more need for words when actions are given a moment to commence. The coffee shop was a simple moment, something I wouldn’t have given any thought was it not for Will falling into the same foetal position. This time though he is not allowed to block. Four men, righteous men protecting innocent women grab a limb each and Will is picked up and stretched to look like a star.

‘No!’ he cries through the blood bubbling out of his mouth.

‘No!’ I yell, ‘you don’t understand, it’s all…’

My words are broken when my jaw is broken. As if aiming to create and Eve from Adam, they claw at his ribs, all of them now broken and they break all the bones they can find. 5 minutes in and Will will never be able to see again. 7 minutes and he will never be able to breathe on his own again. Both his lungs have been punctured by the bones shoved into them. 10 minutes in and I know that I will never be able to walk again.

But in the hopeless moments I see the police regain their position and a quiet falls through the crowd. It’s a calm carried through the group by the words being said to one another. “Innocent beyond any reasonable doubt” it is quoted, “he cannot rape – he has no means to do it with”.

Others question it for a moment. ‘Castrated?’ they ask not believing that they could have been wrong, ‘are you sure?’

‘Everyone saw it. The whole court saw it.’

The police manage to clear a circle around each of us.

I don’t move much. Will does not move at all.

Thinking of the girl that created Will; that had made him what he was, I ask through my broken teeth, ‘Has justice now been done?’

PART I: A BULLET TO THE HEAD

I tried to kill myself again today but the bullet just crunched against my temple like an empty beer can.

Why can’t I die?

Life is there for people who want it. I save them every day. I save people who want to live so why am I not allowed to die?

Somewhere I read that you should never revise a suicide note as it takes away from the truth of it. I need to revise mine, though. It wouldn’t make sense if you read it now. I had written it during the Second World War.

Someone knocks on the door and asks me through a key-hole whether I had heard the gun-shot. Wilbur speaks through the key-hole whenever I take too long to answer the door.

‘It was this afternoon – I was still at school. Mom says it was somewhere close but I couldn’t hear it. One of the boys in my class said that they had heard it but I didn’t hear it. Did you hear it?’

‘Go away Wilbur.’

I know he won’t.

‘Open up Seph.’

He calls me Seph. Everyone else used to call me Sephtis. I like Seph better.

‘Go away!’

‘Nah. I wanna talk to you.’

It is not worth telling an eleven year old you don’t want to talk. He doesn’t care that I cannot die.

I pick the first pair of jeans I find. I pull them on and then see the blood.

‘Hang on’ I say

I put on the third pair I pick up. It has limited blood splatter on it; almost not noticeable. I’m lucky with the t-shirt. Blood doesn’t show so much on black. People think that I am a doctor with a bad drinking and drug problem and that’s why I live here and not in some nice house in some nice neighbourhood.

People try not to notice the bloodstains.

‘What are you doing in there?’ he asks just as I open the door.

‘Hi Wilbur.’

He looks around the room accustoming his eyes more to the mess than the stale darkness.

‘Do you have cooldrink?’ he asks.

He had taken in the mess and swallowed down whatever vulgarity it provoked and now accepted it as it was. Wilbur accepts things unconditionally. No one else I have ever met accepted anything like he does.

‘There should be some Oros in the fridge’

‘Do you want a beer?’ his head asks from inside the fridge, ‘You only have three left though.’

‘Bring one. Thanks’

‘So did you hear the gunshot?’

He looks down at the 9mm lying on the bed.

‘No’ I say and I shove the gun in between the mess of the duvet and blankets, ‘I didn’t hear anything.’

‘Oh’ he says, and looking disappointed he adds ‘I thought it might’ve been you again.’

Parlour tricks:

It’s all my attempts at suicide are for people like Wilbur. If I shoot myself the bullets don’t go in and if I jump from a building I just land on my feet like some cursed cat. I’ve tried hanging myself but my windpipe and my neck are too strong to give in to the pressure. I once hanged from the ceiling for two hours simply watching TV because I was too depressed to cut myself loose again.

Pills are no use, my metabolism works out the effects too quickly and jumping in front of a bus or a train would simply kill the innocent travellers. Busses and trains crunch up even worse than the bullets against my head.

Until now I have been unable to find my own weakness; my own Kryptonite. At least if Superman ever got tired of life he would have a way out. One Kryptonite bullet to the head and then ‘Bam!’ – big boy can end it all!

 

‘Well it wasn’t me.’ I say

‘Mom says you should just get it over and done with because she gets tired of your unhappiness stinking up the place.’

‘That’s just rude. Tell your mom I said that’s rude.’

‘Ok’ he says ‘but she won’t like you saying stuff like that. She doesn’t want me talking to you. She says you’re a sad-case and you are procrastinating so that you don’t have to make something of yourself.’

‘That’s even worse.’

‘Seph?’

‘Yes?’

‘What does procrastinating mean? Is it like taking special drugs or something?’

‘No’ I say, ‘and how do you know about taking drugs?’

‘John-boy from number 426 sells them. He says if I ever want some he will give it to me at a special price if I get mom to visit with him.’

She might not like me or want me anywhere near her son but they are still my responsibility and I already feel my anger fogging me up. I know Wilbur is a good kid but eleven year old boys are curious about things.

‘Why does he want mom to visit him?’ Wilbur asks me.

‘I don’t know. I’ll go ask him.’

‘Ok Seph. I have to go now before mom gets home, she said she was only quickly going to the shops so I just wanted to come ask about the gunshot and if you had heard it.’

He looks back at the little clump of evidence bubbled up under the duvet and then back at me.

‘I’ll come and visit again tomorrow.’

‘Do me one favour please,’ I say as he leaves, ‘do not go near John-boy again and do not try any of the drugs he has or anyone else has ok?’

‘Sure Seph. I’m not stupid you know.’

Wilbur is not stupid, luckily. He is the most responsible kid I’ve ever met. He is the man of their house and he looks well after his mother. His father had died five years ago when a building had collapsed on him.

Five years without a father and every day since then I have regretted not going back into that same building one last time just to make sure I had gotten everyone out. Maybe he was just passed out and I could’ve saved him. The post-mortem had shown that he had died from internal bleeding. The doctors had said that it must have been a slow and painful death. They had said that behind closed doors to each other but I heard them even from outside the hospital. They had told Wilbur and his mother that he had died instantly and with no pain.

“He probably didn’t even have time to realise what was going on” they had said. I remember thinking what a terrible thing it was to lie about something like that but Wilbur and his mother had needed to hear just that. Two days later I had moved into the apartment I have now, a small one bedroom, one room actually, bachelor’s apartment with a leaking toilet and fungus carpeting the ceiling.

I wait until I see Wilbur lock the gate to their apartment before I make my way two floors up. At number 426 I knock, reminding myself to keep calm. ‘I won’t kill’ I tell myself.

‘Finally the doc shows up’ John-boy says when he opens the door, ‘I was wondering when you would come sample my products. It might not be as fancy as the stuff that the…’

His oesophagus creaks between my thumb and forefinger and the cartilage gently crackles against my palm like a cat purring.

I hate cats.

‘Be still.’ I say when he tries to croak something. Even in a muted way the man disgusts me.

‘I understand that you sell drugs.’

He stares at me unsure of what’s happening but soberly aware of the lack of oxygen and tears coming down his face.

‘Nod if I understand correctly.’

John-boy nods.

‘And I understand that you have been telling children you will give them special discounts if their mothers come and visit you.’

He shakes his head.

‘Don’t lie John-boy.’

He mouths ‘I’m sorry’

‘You can say sorry later. First tell me if you have approached any children in this building to buy drugs from you and whether you asked these kids to have their mothers come and visit you.’

John-boy nods.

Just before he passes out completely I drop him and I let him gasp some air back into his body. When he’s taken two deep breaths, still panting on all fours but getting a natural colour back, I lift my foot into his ribs breaking at least three of them and fracturing one. I’m good that way. I always know just what damage to inflict.

He doesn’t get up so I kneel down next him and punch him. His face is hit from both sides, my fist from the top and the hard concrete under the cheap linoleum flattening his jawbone from below.

‘I want to ask you a favour now John-boy.’

But John-boy doesn’t nod. He won’t be able to nod for a few weeks at least. After a few weeks his neck will probably heal.

‘I want you to leave this city and never come back. If you return I will not be as nice as I am today.’

He mouths ‘sorry’ and ‘please don’t hit me again’ but it’s so soft that normal people probably would not have heard it. ‘I’ll go I promise.’

‘Ok’

I know he won’t be able to get up on his own so I don’t lock his door when I leave. I call for an ambulance and tell them someone has gotten hurt in my building.

‘Apartment 426. And it looks as if he’s really hurt badly.’

‘Can I ask who is speak …?’

‘No’ I say and I hang up the phone.

PART II: IMMORTALITY VS. IMMORALITY

I don’t remember much about my childhood or my birth. My mother passed away when she gave birth to me. I was the cause of her death and the effect of that death was resentment. My father hated me so much that I was forced to live with my grandfather who resented me even more and kicked me out of his house after one week. I had killed his daughter.

This was in the early 1900’s because there were no foster homes to take me in and no social worker to handle my case. My case was simple enough: – I was an abomination and I was welcome nowhere.

I spent my childhood on the streets of Johannesburg, scavenging for food from trashcans and getting into fights with other children such as me. But there were no others like me and soon my reputation among the homeless, both children and grown-ups, was one which was feared. Even in those years I had never killed but I can admit that I was responsible for permanent disabilities and irreparable damage.

I was angry and I was alone.

The only friend I had back then was called Pete. ‘Simply Poor ol’ Pete’ he called himself. He was the one who had named me. He called me Sephtis; said it sounded important. I shared an alley with him for about two years. With me there he was safe and I was with a father. But I had acquired a reputation. The greatest problem with reputations remain people’s obsession to help you either live up to it or fail it completely. There were many people, angry people like me, who fostered this obsession.

I had gone to find us some food from the trash of a restaurant a few blocks away when they had come to our house; our house of blanket mattresses and makeshift coverings.

When I had come back, even our fire had been kicked over and I saw the final parts of Poor ol’ Pete burning. It was his hand. I saw all the pain he had felt when they had beaten him to death, I could feel all of it in his twitching fingers.

That was the first time I killed.

I started on one side of the territory I was in; there were gangs even back then, territorial and mean and all of them scared of me. I cleaned up alley by alley and I spared only the women and the children. Even old men died under my bare feet that night; old men who consulted the gang leaders in return for protection and food; none of them a father to me. I desecrated all that these gangs held dear. Their women became freed and their bastard children became fatherless in more ways than just absence.

After the first alley I went further, ridding Johannesburg in one night of one-hundred and seventeen men who were never my father and would never be my family. They said that it was that night that Sephtis had become more than just a reputation – I had become a nightmare; remorseless and evil. That night they were not wrong.

More than a hundred years later and I still regret it. I still get nightmares where I find myself walking from alley to alley and from one seedy hovel to every other hovel I knew I would find those that were not fit to live. A hundred years of hating yourself for something you did as a child is a long time to hate yourself.

I had left Johannesburg that night and gone to hide in Pretoria. Back then communication was not yet my enemy and I was instantly just another faceless orphan. People in Pretoria whispered stories about Sephtis but they never thought of me, my name was Pete now. Poor little Pete.

I had taken on his name, but not yet his humanity. Pete, I knew, would’ve wanted me to make everything better and to repair some of the damage my rage had brought. Pete had always encouraged me to find my gifts, learn them and use them. In Pretoria, when everyone was asleep and the streets were as empty as that night, empty and silent, with no women or children screaming; in those dead moments I became alive.

I could run faster than any man I knew of and I was stronger than twenty grown men and I could heal. I would never bare any scars and I would never experience illness, but I could still feel pain. Back then it had been the pain that had pushed me every night to do more.

But one simple night with the death of solitude enveloping me, I became more than just a runner and more than just a strong boy. It was the same screams I had begged never to hear again that moved me that night to finally become what Pete had hoped for me.

Ten men were trying to rape two women. I was just 15, a snot-nose kid to them and at first they just tried to push me off when I pulled at their shoulders. ‘Go away boy!’ they said but I didn’t. After the first two had fallen, knocked-out and badly broken, the rest of them finally showed me some respect.

‘I will fucking kill you!’ one of them said and I started laughing. ‘Don’t laugh at me boy!’

‘Do you know my name?’ I asked.

‘Why would we know you’re name you little bastard, do you think we care?’

‘No. But you will.’

I was backing away from them and they were advancing on me, distracted from the women running away.

‘My name is Sephtis.’

The reputation was back. They knew of me but I had become just an urban myth. It was the first time in my life I had spoken my own name without feeling ashamed of it.

‘You’re not Sephtis’ one man laughed, ‘Sephtis is just a story mothers tell their kids to keep them from joining the gangs.’

‘I know,’ I said, ‘but…’

The first fist flew at my head before I could finish, but I caught it in time and crushed all the bones in the man’s hand with one clench. Then came the knives. They stabbed me and I healed and they punched me but I just kept on taking it and when they had done their best to beat me and butcher me, they suddenly felt the truth coming closer to the myth.

‘Run!’ they yelled but I was faster than any man. I caught up to every one of them and took down all eight of them within 5 minutes. I was proudly Sephtis again, the name Pete had given me because it had sounded important.

After that night I devoted myself to being a hero. I survived by taking the money these criminals had stolen. It might not have been the most moral of acts but my problem was with the people and not their gains.

Now, almost a hundred years after that night, I have become the tired and worn-out superhero I am today. Social media has made me more famous than I ever was before and even the little black excuse for a mask I wear won’t keep my identity a secret for much longer.

 

Imperfection

Have you ever craved it? Have you ever wanted to be the perfect flaw, like a pimple on Scarlett Johansson’s ass?

Part of me I know must still be human, imperfect if you could look at the rest of me. Imperfect. If I could be just a little more fragile somewhere, just a little more human where it matters, I would probably feel more and be more like everyone around me. These people don’t know how lucky they are. Born without powers and without this immortality – some people just don’t get that it’s actually a disease.

PART III: SALVATION

‘I have gone through your blood tests. It’s difficult but not impossible’ Dr Ausia tells me, ‘it’s by luck, but I found a toxin that might be able to assist you with what you need.’

Dr Ethan Ausia works at the university, a Professor in Pharmacology with a hobby-like fascination of venom. I had saved his life a few years ago when the laboratory he had been working in had caught fire. It had been a routine save for me but apparently had meant a lot to him. He had given me his card, which after two years I discovered between some of the papers I used to update my fake identity. He immediately understood me.

‘Can you come in?’

‘Yes,’ I say and as soon as I hang up the phone I start running towards the University, knowing that driving would take too long. He’s in high spirits when he sits me down in his office – a place as dingy as my apartment but with cleaner clutter. Papers and books are strewn around but the books on his desk are all about snakes. The rest of the mess is a mixture of subjects from vaccines to guides on “Modern Medicinal developments”.

‘Lachesis lanceolatus’ he says proudly.

‘What is that?’

‘Sorry, I sometimes forget the whole layman thing. It’s a snake, a viper actually. Commonly known as the Alcatrazes Lancehead and according to the testing I did on your blood sample, a solution to your problem.’

‘I’m not quite following’ I say.

‘Well ok. See the snake has a specific venom, mainly hemotoxic but possibly it has tissue-necrotic factors. There are other vipers with the same venom but for some reason it seems this specific snake’s venom is the only one that works as it should’ he explains adding, ‘you know; to kill you.’

‘I’ve tried poison before.’

‘Yes, you told me,’ he says still smiling, ‘but not this kind of poison. You haven’t tasted poison till you’ve tasted venom.’ He laughs a geekish snort but I don’t join in so he seriouses himself again.

‘So what, I let it bite me and I’ll die?’

‘Not exactly Mr Sephtis. You are too strong; hell even your blood is miraculous to say the least – Wish we could harvest it – ,’ he says to himself before looking back at me, ‘you’ll have to milk them, at least five of them. Actually six just to be sure.’

‘Don’t you have venom here?’ I say, hoping for my release to come as soon as it can.

‘Unfortunately not. I only had enough to experiment with on your blood but you can go and get some more.’

I’m getting frustrated, hoping the man will get to the point but I keep it in. After all, the doctor can help me and at this point that is good enough news.

‘Ok. Where can I find this snake?’

‘On the island of “Ilha Alcatrazes”. It’s off the coast of Sao Paulo, you know, Brazil!’

‘Good. I guess I’m going to Brazil then.’

‘Just one more thing, be careful, the island is also pretty much a naval shooting range.’

‘Oh goody.’

He gives me a couple of pictures of the ugly brown-grey thing. Even its little trapezoids look like dark yellow scaled-stains, but with the gift it promises it becomes the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in years.

Salvation

A dream. It’s been no more than a dream but looking at these pictures, all of them spread out on the bed; a bed that’s been made for the first time in its life, and all the pictures are positioned so delicately that I can see every little part of every snake.

So this is what it comes down to. My salvation in something so simple yet so difficult to have ever guessed. My kryptonite!

PART IV: GOING ON A TRIP

‘Where are you going Seph?’ Wilbur asks when he sees the bag on my bed. I’ve even bought new clothes and the bag is already carefully filled with jeans and black shirts.

‘Brazil.’

‘Why?’

‘There’s something I need to do there.’

‘What?’

‘Something I can’t do here.’

‘Why not?’

‘Look, Wilbur. I have to pack and I don’t have time for questions. I need to get to the airport.’ Being annoyed with him is as useful as telling him to leave me alone. This eleven year-old boy is the only friend I know and part of my frustration is the knowledge that I’ll have to leave him and his mother alone. I’m going to leave them alone with people like John-boy so close to them. Luckily John-boy hadn’t been seen since the ambulance had taken him away.

‘There’s something I need to tell you.’

He looks up expectantly. ‘I already know’ he says, ‘you are “The Shadow”. But don’t worry,’ he whispers, ‘I won’t tell. Not even mom.’

I’m not surprised when he tells me this.

‘Do you have to save someone in Brazil?’

‘In a way yes. Wilbur?’ I say and I tell him to sit down, ‘there is something you need to know.’

I shove aside the cowardice that had kept me from this exact moment and I finally tell him about his father. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I wish I could go back and…’

But he’s already at the door by the time I apologise.

‘Good luck’ he says as he makes his way back to his own home, looking at the ground while he walks.

‘Wilbur, I’m sorry, I…’

‘Good luck Sephtis!’ he says, ‘now leave us alone!’

****

It takes ten and a half hours before I get to Sao Paolo with another four hours’ of taxis and a little boat to get me to the island. I have to pay the greyed Old Portuguese man extra before he agrees to take me.

‘This place is not for visitor’ he tells me, ‘you not welcome there and mustn’t go there.’

‘I know’ I say, ‘now keep steering the boat and don’t worry about me.’

He doesn’t seem offended and happily keeps quiet for the rest of the way there. He drops me off in a little cove on the north-western side and leaves me to go into the rain-forest on my own.

‘You want I pick you up tomorrow?’ he asks, ‘but it will be more money than bringing.’

I think for a minute, sure that I won’t be coming back, but I ask him to come at 14:00 just in case.

‘Wait here for fifteen minutes,’ I say, ‘and if I am not here then you can go again.’

‘Money now then.’

I give him R$500 and tell him I will pay the rest tomorrow. It’s double what I had to pay to get here but the danger to him justifies it. Besides, it’s the money I took from John-boy so I don’t feel guilty about wasting it.

I can still hear the small engine 15km’s away as the old man makes his way back to an acceptable and honest living. I go inland, higher up with the beach at my back. It’s already 17:00 in the afternoon but the heat still annoys me. The tropical pressured air is different from the smog I have always known. Once I’ve climbed high enough, I take a rest and go through the pictures again along with the apparatus Dr Ausia had given me. Bottles to shove their fangs into, ‘it’ll drip out itself but if it doesn’t come just massage these areas’ he had said, pointing the spots out on the pictures. With it he included a noose on a stick – ‘just in case’ but I don’t really feel like using it, knowing my reflexes will be enough to catch them. When the night becomes dark I start hunting. My eyes don’t take long to accustom to it and soon I can see all the movements in the undergrowth clearly.

On my ninth try I catch the correct snake. Lachesis lanceolatus I smile to myself. I compare it to all the pictures I have with me. ‘Now it’s time to milk you,’ I say to it and it slips out of my hands and slithers away.

It takes me the whole night but by 05:00 I have successfully milked seven snakes, consciously one-upping Dr Ethan. I put the bottle with the venom sedately lying in it, down on the ground and I lie back against the tree next to it. If I do this I need to be sure and completely convinced. I wake up at 14:35, just in time to hear the little boat, my last chance to chicken out, leave the island again with the old man swearing in Portuguese at the thought of the money he could’ve had.

I know I could catch up with him if I hurried, I could swim the first 5 kilometres faster than his boat can cross it, but I keep myself sitting. It’s with me in this state, calm and peaceful, swirling my salvation around in the bottle that I hear the blast. At first I assume it’s a military exercise but when the second blast comes I’m sure that it isn’t. The blast was at least 10 km away, but somewhere in open water to the east – too far for the military to be testing their missiles.

This time it doesn’t matter whether I am in the mood to swim or not. I grab my bag and rush towards the sound, running past several troops standing on the beach; and I dive straight into the water. I can see the cruise-liner even from the island and as I get closer the scared screams of three thousand people paddling around the broken vessel. Broken in half, with both halves sinking together, I can see the black smoke from the engines dissipate as the fires are killed.

‘Most of the lifeboats were destroyed’ the Captain tells me when I find him. He’s floating closest to the ship, visibly torn between going down with it or living.

‘How many are left?’ I yell.

‘Ten!’

‘Carrying capacity?’

‘Twenty adults!’

I pull all the boats together, letting women and children get on as I drag them to a point close to the Captain. In the process I have to throw off twenty-seven men but I promise every one of them that they will be saved ‘Just hang on to something, we’ll get through this!’ I yell as I swim past everyone, ‘get as close to the Captain as possible!’

I tie the boats together in two rows of five boats each which I tie around my waist and before I make the first trip, I ask the Captain how many passengers were on the boat.

‘Two-thousand seven-hundred and fourteen passengers, seventy-five crew members.’

‘Keep them all around here! Have the people look out for one another and get them as close to this point as possible!’ I put my bag on the plastic slab he’s holding onto, ‘do not lose this! It is important to me!’ I make fourteen trips to the shore, every one weighing more on me than the one before. On the beach, a line of troops have formed and they get the people out of the boats and keep count.

‘Eight-hundred and seventeen!’ they yell, then ‘One thousand and twenty!’

On the last load they yell, ‘that’s all of them!’ but I go back, remembering that day, five years ago, when I hadn’t. I swim to the carcass of the ship, hacked and departmented as it drops down to the bottom but I see no one stuck inside. Then I take a final look before I make my way back, for once relieved of the boats I were dragging. It’s on the last trip, the thirtieth and final trip back to the island, that I black out. I get so close, less than a kilometre away from the shore before everything becomes dark and I lose my grip on the water. I become subconsciously aware of the hands under me, of strong men passing me from one to the next along a line that had formed from the beach and when I wake up it’s to the cheers and applause of an entire beach packed to capacity with people, eternally grateful people.

‘Who are you?’ the Captain asks when I’ve made my way through pats on the back and embraces from thankful mothers. ‘What’s your name?’

‘My bag’ I say and I take it from him, immediately making sure the contents was still the contents it was before, ‘Thank you.’

‘Who are you?’ he asks me again.

‘My name is Sephtis’ I tell him, ‘just Sephtis.’

PART V: A HERO RETURNS

They fly me back home on a private plane, not even trying to look in my bag. People are more obsessed with the heroics than they are with my carry-on. They escort me from the airport in a private car, a luxury sedan with tinted windows and a convoy to match. Back home, finally alone for the first time in over a week, I place the bottle in my fridge, next to my last can of beer and the moulded pizza growing out of its open box.

‘Tomorrow’ I promise myself, hoping I can make amends with Wilbur before I leave.

Someone knocks on the door and almost immediately starts talking through the key-hole.

‘Seph? Are you there, Seph?’

I move quickly to open up for him, as eager to see him as any father would feel when they’ve missed their child.

‘Wilbur!’ I pick him up and embrace him, ‘I’m so sorry Wilbur!’ His mother stands directly behind him and as if she wills me just with her eyes, I put him down.

‘Shit, sorry,’ I say, ‘I didn’t see you there.’

‘Wilbur told me what you said.’

She’s cold but no more than usual.

‘Is it true?’ she asks me.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say despite being a hundred years her senior, ‘I’m so sorry. I never realised he was still in there.’

‘Wilbur also told me that you had moved here the day after my husband’s passing.’

‘Yes.’

‘Mr Sephtis. I cannot hold you responsible for my husband’s passing.’

I start to imagine feeling some release from a heavy burden.

‘There were three-hundred men in that building,’ she says, ‘and the building wasn’t safe.’

Her calm demeanour surprises me. I am so used to her resentment that these words seem surreal.

‘I know I should’ve gone back.’

‘Yes, maybe,’ she says, ‘but you didn’t. Had you not been there, though, more women would’ve been widows.’

‘I don’t know…’ I say but the words get stuck in my throat.

‘Mr Septhis. We saw you on the TV when you saved those people in Sao Paolo.’

Some of the soldiers had taken videos on their phones.

‘Wilbur showed me the footage and I can’t help but notice that you went back this time.’

‘I couldn’t go through that again.’

‘I have to admit,’ she says, looking down for a moment, ‘that I had you figured wrong. So none of the times that you tried to commit suicide were actually real, were they?’

It’s my turn to avert, ‘Actually ma’am’ I say, looking at her and making sure that Wilbur was still in the kitchen, helping himself to some Oros, ‘those were all real.’

If she’s surprised or shocked she hides it.

‘Wilbur tells me you’ve shot yourself before.’

‘Yes. But it’s useless.’

‘Why do you want to do it?’

Before I can answer, Wilbur comes out of the kitchen, carrying the bottle of snake-spit and frowning when he asks, ‘What’s this Seph?’

Just the way I grab it from him, already gives it away to his mom.

‘Nothing!’

‘It doesn’t look like nothing.’

‘Well it is!’

‘Wilbur,’ his mother intervenes to my great appreciation, ‘go home and get started on your homework.’

‘But…’

‘Don’t talk back Wilbur. I said go home!’

When he leaves, she takes the bottle from me and looks at the liquid. ‘What’s this?’

‘Snake venom. Rare snake venom.’

‘And this will kill you?’

‘Yes, it’s supposed to.’

‘Have you been watching TV?’ she asks looking at the dead screen in the corner, ‘I think you should see this.’

When I switch it on Dr Ausia is doing an interview. ‘Well, I believe that “The Shadow” – known now as Sephtis, is trying to end his life because he believes his power is an illness as opposed to a gift…’

I block out the rest, blurring it down while I flip the channels.

“Protests have started in countries around the world calling for action to be taken against a planned suicide by the man now known as Sephtis”    

The words scroll on the bottom of the screen, slow-motion to me but fast for all those jumping to the opportunity to stop me.

“International Hero not yet located amid fears of an attempted suicide”

‘Is that what you want, to be a hero?’ she asks me, ‘or do you still wish to die?’

Knowing that I have to be clear of mind and completely convinced before I do it, I take my time to answer, ‘Yes. I have been looking for a way out for a long time.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I feel tired. I am tired of fighting and I am tired of carrying a name and a reputation which I have to live up to. I am tired of this disease and although everyone will tell me to carry on and to just push through it, I don’t want to. I don’t have the will to do this anymore.’

‘And this will do it?’ she asks, holding the bottle up.

‘Yes.’

‘Ok.’ She looks to her home to make sure that Wilbur isn’t waiting at the door before she closes my door behind her and takes a seat on the only chair in the room.

‘Get on with it then,’ she says.

‘I was hoping to do this on my own.’

‘Well too bad,’ she says, ‘I am a trained nurse and even though you have your super-powers I want to make sure that someone trained is here in case something happens.’

It feels like time stops and I look at her, attempting to find some argument against me doing this, but she’s adamant to stay and understanding to my wish.

‘I’m just here to assist,’ she says, ‘so feel free to go when you are ready.’

Time passes in silence while I get my mind ready and when I finally feel the calm and sanity I was looking for, I open the bottle and hold it to my lips.

‘One more thing,’ I say, ‘in the footlocker in the corner there,’ I motion with my head, ‘there’s about R1 million in cash that I have accumulated. I want you to take it.’

She agrees with the same seriousness she’d been employing during our silence.

‘Well, then’ I say after I take a large first sip of the vile liquid, ‘I guess I should say some last wo…’

There’s a knock at the door and through the key-hole Wilbur says, ‘Seph, please open up it’s an emergency!’

His voice is blurred to me with the venom already starting to make its way to my heart. I stumble to the door and open up to see Wilbur standing there, crying and shaking with a gun held to his temple.

‘What’s up doc?’ John-boy says through a clenched and wired jaw, ‘thought I was scared of you, didn’t you?’

‘I told you to…’ I say but I drop down to my knees, having to steady myself against the door-frame. Wilbur’s mother stands behind me, frozen and white.

‘I’m scared Seph!’

‘I know Wilbur, but it’ll be okay.’ I say, feeling my life draining away.

‘Aww that is so sweet!’ John-boy is trying to smile. He’s holding himself upright with one crutch, his ribs must not have healed yet. ‘You seem a bit run-down there tough-guy,’ he says, ‘feeling sick are we?’

‘John-boy,’ I say, ‘please. Let him go and you can have me instead.’

‘Come on doc, this is so much better!’

Dr Ausia said I would need to drink the venom of five. I guess at the volume of my first gulp, only about a third, I think and I find my feet, steadily dragging myself up with the doorframe as my own crutch.

‘Leave this John-boy and I won’t hurt you.’

But he doesn’t. I see his finger squeezing on the trigger and in one last heroic moment I move. I kick Wilbur in his stomach, hard enough to bend him down but I know there will be a broken rib as well, I no longer know just how much damage to inflict. The gun goes off, with the bullet hitting the wall and I manage to get one more punch in, knocking John-boy out. He should be out long enough for the police to get here.

When we’ve calmed down, Wilbur crying in the hands of his now-thawed mother, I fall down on the bed.

‘You’re weak’ she says and she takes the bottle from the floor and hands it to me, ‘Finish it now.’

I drink down the rest of it, calm now in knowing that they will be safe and in a small sense relieved that Wilbur is here to say goodbye. Apart from Pete, this boy has been my only friend and I can die knowing someone else loved me.

The last of it flows down and I feel the effects finishing what I had started and I become paralysed and content. I finally get to close my eyes, the lids dropping slowly, slow enough for me to see John-boy’s eyes open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEPHTIS