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“Nurse, hand me the scalpel.”

Mumtaz scowled, wiped her dripping brow and handed her brother the letter opener she stole from her Big Mama’s trunk of of important things.

“Why do you always get to be the doctor?”

It didn’t make sense and it certainly wasn’t fair that after stealing the letter opener and killing the gecko with her own hands, even being careful not to squish it’s vital organs, Shine got to be the surgeon.

“Don’t distract me, I’m concentrating.”

If her mother was around, she would say, “Because boys are not supposed to be sissy nurses.” and that would be the end of that conversation. Thankfully, her mother was away on some mysterious errand, wearing her best dress. Big Mama was at the hospital too and all the other less significant adults in the house were away. Her father brought over their cousin Shine after school on Friday evening so he could spend the weekend with them. Mumtaz and her older sister Nawty never understood why they had to play with Shine during the weekends. He was less their cousin and more their very distant cousin. Mumtaz didn’t verbally complain about him though, because only he was up to playing what she wanted to play, things Nawty would never indulge in. But that day, under the merciless scorch of the July afternoon sun, Mumtaz was losing her patience just standing around and being the nurse. Especially because Shine didn’t have the stealth or strength to wack a pillow at the wall to kill an unsuspecting gecko.

She heard Shine tsk.

“What?”

“It’s too small. The insides are too small. We should have caught a frog.”

“I told you we should have used one of Mama’s big safety pins!”

“Let’s catch a frog!”

He’d already let the letter opener fall to the ground, as he looked up at his sister from a squatting position, squinting at the harshness of the sun’s rays. He was the most ridiculous surgeon Mumtaz ever saw. When she accompanied her Big Mama at the hospital, she saw real surgeons, ladies and even gentlemen who took babies out of mothers. And when she asked if that man was a nurse, to which her Big Mama nonchalantly nodded her head, Mumtaz was elated with a wisdom she knew her own mother did not possess.

“No. It’s too hot. I’m going inside!”

As she made her way back into their small front yard she heard Shine yell, irritation and rejection in his voice.

“You’re so black anyway, the sun has already roasted you!”

Mumtaz ignored her stupid cousin brother. He thought that if he used the kind of insults that the adults used on her, he would seem superior. It never prickled Mumtaz because she was sure of how clueless he was. If she were less thirsty, maybe she would have yelled back.

“Go back to your own house! We don’t want you here! You are not our real brother!”

But those thoughts crumbled away in the dry heat when she entered their small home and saw the clay pot lidded with a stainless steel plate. She licked her lips thinking of how cool the water was in there.

“Nawty?”

Mumtaz thought her sister was inside the house, reading as she often does on the weekends. But their weekends have changed since Nawty turned thirteen. She started to accompany her mother on trips to heaven knows where. They returned late in the evening, somehow, just before Big Mama returned from the hospital. Mumtaz took big painful gulps of the cool water as she tried to imagine where Mama and Nawty could be off to all day. She was a little jealous too.

Her meditation was grossly interrupted by a painful jab around her mouth. Shine had pushed the steel cup towards her face to wake her from her concentration, thereby gracefully sending Mumtaz into a coughing fit while she flailed her arms in an attempt to smack her brother – cousin brother.

“What the hell is wrong with you!”

A question best left unanswered, she thought as she used the sleeve of her blouse to wipe her face. So she asked a more valid question.

“Why does Dada even bring you here? Don’t you have other brothers and sisters you can play with at the Kalubowila house?”

Shine took his own cup of water and sat down cross legged on the cool cement floor, with his back to the ageing wall. He knew the answer to her question. He’d recently overheard a conversation Mumtaz’s father had with his mother. Well, the woman he thought was his mother. His new mother, the one he learned about recently, the real one apparently, was currently off with his oldest sister, somewhere, heaven knows where. Shine really enjoyed coming over to play with Mumtaz and even more now, since he found out that they were real brother and sister. She was annoying but he got to be the boss of the all games, whereas at the Kalubowila house, he had many older brothers and sisters who took turns being the boss.

Still, he liked living in the Kalubowila house. It was big and he always got food to eat and tea with biscuits in the evenings. Here on Fuzzels Lane, food was constantly sparse and as much as he enjoyed nicking his sisters’ food right off their plates, his stomach was never completely full. Never full enough to take a long nap after lunch. Worse than that, he knew that the only real nice person in this house was Big Mama. He’d seen the scars and marks on Mumtaz’ face and arms. He knows that those are what happens to any child who is at this house on the unfortunate night that either Big Papa or Mumtaz’ father comes home drunk. He’d only overheard the stories from the mouths at the Kalubowila house but when he came over one Friday evening to Fuzzels Lane and saw the gash on Mumtaz’ neck and the glowing red lines on her skinny arms, his fears were confirmed. So every Sunday evening, even though he was a little sad, he was mostly relieved to be going back home to his first mother. The one who cares for him and feeds him. The one who has never pulled a belt on him.

“You should just stay in Kalubowila where you belong.”

Maybe she was right. He certainly didn’t want to belong in Fuzzels Lane even if Mumtaz’ parents were also his parents. What did it matter anymore, his sisters would never believe it. Mumtaz would roll around on the ground, clutching her ribs with laughter if he ever told her. He decided to change the subject.

“What time are Big Papa and your Dada coming back?”

He saw his sister retreat from herself. She stood up from sitting on the kitchen chair and slinked to her Big Mama’s tiny bed, where she felt safe from this question.

“How should I know?”

She turned away from him and started to pick at something on the cream colored bed sheet. Shine realized he asked the wrong question in an innocent attempt to argue about something else. The two of them knew and somehow didn’t know that they had far too much to hurt each other with even though they were only eleven and twelve years old.

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