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12 December 2018 | Story Khetiwe Dlamini


I wake up, confused, in pain. I am not dead, right? No. I highly doubt there are airplane seats in heaven. And the bulky man snoring next to me is most certainly not an angel. I rub sleep off my eyes and look around. No doubt, I am in an airplane and still in Haruto’s Kung Fu suit.


Haruto. My heart drops, taking my mood down with it. I am tempted to slap the man snoring awake because he sounds like a truck is driving up his throat.

“We urge all passengers to fasten their seatbelts as we are about to land in Johannesburg,” the air host announces.


But I am supposed to be dead. I was angry because I didn’t get to see Haruto before he died. So I decided to leave the rude Russian man’s factory where we had been practically slaves. On my way out, one of the Russian man’s cronies shot me. So, I am supposed to be dead.


Death was supposed to take away this ache in my heart that worsens every time Haruto’s suit moves against my skin. It’s not fair. Why does it get to touch me in places Haruto will never get to touch? He’s been dead for months and yet he breathes and walks in my mind. He makes sarcastic remarks and always has a smart retort to anything I say. When I make a joke he never laughs, just stares at me with a smile as slanted as his eyes, and rakes his fingers through his long charcoal hair. I long to feel him, feel the warmth of his husky voice against my ear as he tells me that my skin reminds him of toffee mixed with a spoon of the sweetest chocolate ever formed.


The plane comes to a slow halt, swiftly dragging me out of my thoughts. I wait for most of the passengers to leave before I open the overhead carrier to look if I have any luggage. I do: a worn-out bag with a book on the history of Africans in Asia. There is another much thinner book with the word ‘Bible’ scribbled across the first page since it lacks a cover. A folded piece of paper and a toffee wrapper with a smiley face on it are also in the bag. I close the bag hurriedly when I spot one of the flight attendants heading in my direction. She is tall with hair the colour of ripe tomatoes. Brown freckles, like banana seeds, are splattered across her cheeks. She asks if I’m okay and I nod and clutch my bag close to my chest.


“Do you know where this flight is from?” I fail to suppress my confusion.


“Tokyo, Japan,” she answers, the clear loop in her hand gulping up wrappers and bottles like a greedy child devouring candy.


“Do you by any chance have an idea of how I got on it?”


She smiles sadly and shakes her head. “Maybe someone is waiting for you outside. Some of the other passengers were wondering the same thing but once they got outside someone assisted them.”


“Okay,” I said. She won’t understand. The last person I knew and trusted died months ago. No one is waiting for me outside. I step into the aisle and walk to the front of the plane. Just before I get out I stop and turn back to the attendant wearing what looks like a pink plastic suit from a Star Wars movie.


“What day is it today?”


“28 June 2037,” she says with a smile.


She walks away with her mysterious cleaning loop. The railing supports my weight as I amble down and out of the plane. The sun is warm and bright, so I pause to give my eyes time to adjust. Once they have adjusted, what they see is remarkable. This is not the Johannesburg I know. If Atlantis ever existed, this would be it. The buildings are glossy and polished, as though someone with a large cloth took the time to shine each one of them to perfection. Cars with miniature wings like those of a jet fly around above me. There is no actual airport, no check-ins or scanning of passports or body searches.


“Thandekile!” a chirpy voice calls my name, and I turn around. It belongs to a short man with a rounded beard and blonde curly hair. “We have been expecting you.”


“Who are you and what am I doing here?” the words tumble out of my lips like angry water breaking from a dam.


“All will be explained when we get to The Lab. Please follow me,” blondie says with a smile as one of the car-jet thingies floats towards us. A staircase rolls out and we get inside. There are two compartments, each with two seats side by side. The driver is in the other compartment.


 “Why are you wearing plastic?” I ask him, and he seems surprised that I find his uniform surprising. He laughs. I don’t. He clears his throat and schools me, “This is not plastic. It’s carbon clothing. No washing stress. But clean. In fact, I am cleaner than you have ever been in your life. You will understand soon.”


The carriage comes to a quiet stop and the door opens. The driver heads out and I catch a glimpse of him from the side. His slight sideburns and lean figure shower me with a strange sense of nostalgia.


“Steve,” I say as he leads me to a huge building that stretches high into the heavens, “how am I still the same age if twenty years have passed? I mean, I died in 2017.” Steve looks at me briefly before responding, “Come along. Every question you have has an answer.”


At the entrance Steve steps into a clear square cubicle. A white robot takes my hand and leads me inside the building.


“Welcome to The Lab,” Robby says. “I am sure you will like it very much here. Now let’s get you sorted.”


Getting me sorted means taking a shower and being sent into a brightly lit room with DECONTAMINATION written outside. I sit naked on a chair that moves in and out of little cylinders, some with disease names on them. TB, AIDS, Malaria and Ebola are the only few I can recognise. Other cylinders are for behaviours: smoking, stealing, procrastination, laziness etc. I come out of the room clad in a pair of light blue pants and a white patterned form-fitting top.


“Now you are ready to see Boss,” Robby leads me to the elevator. The elevator door opens into a large office. Boss, a surprisingly large Indian man, smiles at me as he stands up to give me an embrace. “Thandekile, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”


I look at my other hand and there is a watch inside my wrist. I cannot feel it. Even the clothes on my body feel like my own skin.


 “You will get used to everything soon. I am Sai Chetty, but you can call me Boss.”


For the first time since my arrival, I smile.


“I can imagine you want to know why you are here.”


I nod, still standing, keeping the earthly rules of respecting another man’s home by never giving yourself a seat. Finally Boss invites me to sit down, and presses a button on his table and pictures of different parts of the world pop up. Melted glaziers, contaminated rivers and lakes, polluted cities. He says this is the world as we know it, but we have it in us to change things. He presses another button on his desk and pictures of what I saw outside on the way here show up. Green fields, clear blue waters, tall buildings, happy birds and happy people.


“You and thousands of other young people from around the world will be responsible for making this new world come true. You are here to learn the science of a clean environment. Over the next two years myself and other professors will equip you with all the skills you need to complete this enormous task. Then we will send you back into different parts of the world to effect change. Your first lesson is tomorrow. For now, however, a special young man sacrificed his classes to help you get settled in. Haruto, come on in.”


My mind snaps back into focus and I turn around. And no doubt there he is, wearing the same outfit as the driver from earlier, and as handsome as I remember him. He walks towards me and gets so close I must look up to see his face. For a second, we are back in the past, tripping, tumbling and falling dangerously in love.  A slight smile touches his face. A breath breaks itself from my lungs, rushes out of my lips, leaves me dizzy.


“Hey,” he says, his voice mysterious and husky. He pulls me against his chest and buries his head in my hair. He smells different, feels familiar, a childhood memory that is as vivid as it is vague.


“I’ve missed you,” he says, his lips against my forehead.


“You still remember me?” I whisper, seeking assurance.


“A million years into the future and I would still remember you,” he hasn’t lost his charm. Our eyes meet, and it feels like they never parted. He smiles. I smile back. His fingers weave through my afro as mine dig into his shirt. The earth stops spinning and the room holds its breath when his lips touch mine. Softly at first and then desperately, as if I’m slipping away. I kiss him back, fists digging into his abs. Seconds pass and I wish I could take each one and store it somewhere only we would know. I inhale deeply. He begins to pull away but I hold him in place, desperate to capture this feeling coursing through my body, this water down a dry throat, coffee on a cold day, ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. Sensing my desperation, he laughs. The tremor of his laughter rushes through me and renders my knees useless. I stumble back, breaking the connection. His arm slips behind my back and he pulls me against his chest again. His irregular heartbeat is enthralling and ensnaring. I listen to it for a while before I begin laughing too.


“I love you so much,” I say into his chest, as if to address his heart directly. His arms tighten around my waist. I hug his neck and hold on with all that I am, his embrace just as tight. There is a lot I don’t know about this place. There is much to learn. Much to do. But with him by my side I know everything will make sense – if not scientifically, at least romantically.


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