Two fat, dappled dachshunds greet me at the door of the beach house, baring their teeth and growling with such savagery I actually look behind myself to see if a stray dog or vervet had come through the security gate behind my rental car.
Isabelle, my hostess for the long New Year’s weekend, sweeps past them, opening her arms for an embrace, though we don’t really know each other well enough to embrace. She talks as she walks towards me, arms outstretched, like she’s approaching something heavy that needs to be picked up and put away somewhere.
“Max, you’re so tan! You look black! They’re always antsy around blacks. You should see them with the poor maid. If she doesn’t have her uniform on, they act like she’s a burglar! And don’t even ask about the gardeners.”
I’ve been in South Africa long enough to no longer be shocked by such revelations.
I don’t even like Isabelle. She’s rich and stupid. She’s a junior account executive on another of my agency’s clients, and she had latched onto me as soon as I’d transferred into the office, eager for an American friend. Isabelle is desperate to move to New York someday, to live some version of Sex and the City and to “get away from all of South Africa’s terrible crime.”
I’ve not yet felt compelled to tell Isabelle that New York is more dangerous than Rivonia, the one-percent enclave north of Johannesburg where she lives most of the year, and it’s certainly more dangerous than our current location, Sheffield Beach, just north of Durban on KwaZulu Natal’s Dolphin Coast. I learned quickly that it’s pointless to argue with rich, white South Africans about crime. They, almost without exception, live in palatial homes behind high walls and sit in terror as they imagine the walls shrinking in on them, the black tide pulsing and boiling just beyond.
I look around the beach house, trying not to gape. Isabelle told me it was a cottage, her parents’ third home. Her parents were in Switzerland, leaving Isabelle to host friends at the “cottage” for the long New Year’s weekend. There is nothing cottage-like about this place, though. Beyond the snarling dachshunds lay a massive white tiled living and dining room, decorated tastefully in creams and blues. Beyond that, the far wall is entirely glass, revealing a gorgeously appointed deck and an untainted view of the beach and the roaring Indian Ocean beyond. On both sides of the large living room, Escher-like staircases climb up and down to what must be bedrooms. Isabelle had informed me, upon invitation, that the cottage had four bedrooms, which to be fair had seemed like quite a bit of bedrooms for a cottage. There would be four couples staying in addition to Isabelle’s single cousin Ruben and myself, who would be sleeping on (“comfy! and private!”) couches.
“Margie! Taffy! Shut the fuck up!” Isabelle screeches, and the snarling little beasties skitter off across the tiled floor to hide under an overstuffed leather chaise.
“Rosie is just doing some laundry and then she can make you something for lunch. Or, you’re free to help yourself to anything,” Isabelle tells me as she looks me up and down. “Was your flight quite ghastly? You look terrible!” she laughs.
Bitch. I hold up a duty free bag. “Here, some booze,” I say, hoping she’ll offer to open it up even though it’s only 11:30.
“Oh, you angel!” she squeals as she takes the bag. Her nasal accent makes ‘angel’ sound obscene.
Unburdened by decorum, Isabelle rips open the bag and appraises its contents. Two bottles of Patron – one silver, one coffee – and four bottles of Moët. She smiles approvingly and then says, “Shall we have a little tot on the veranda? Everyone else is napping. We had a bit off a jol last night!”
Eager to sit by the ocean and to drink myself to a better opinion of Isabelle, I nod.
“Where should I put my bag?”
“Oh just leave it here by the door. Rosie will take it up. You’re sleeping in my dad’s office. He has the coziest couch by the window. Rosie’s got all the linen laid out for you already, so if you need to nap, just go ahead. Ruben is sleeping on the couch just around the corner from you, if you fancy some company.”
I’m too tired and polite to roll my eyes, so I pretend to be distracted by a piece of art, an vaguely cubist oil painting of some ancient sea tale, complete with a sea monster and a dismembered sailor, rendered in (of course) cream and blue.
Isabelle heads around the corner to the right, to what I assume is the kitchen. Of course she wants to set me up with her cousin. In addition to aiding her in her mission to become my bestie (her word, not mine), any sexual exploit that I undertake will give her plenty of ammunition in the office gossip hierarchy. Why the fuck am I here?
Because I had to be back in time to start work on the second (unheard of in South Africa, but my boss is German) and I hadn’t wanted to spend New Year’s alone in my apartment in Newtown. That’s exactly what I should have done, though. Ringing in the New Year with a junior staff member and her desperate cousin – and seven other surely horrible strangers – was idiotic. I’d been seduced by the mentions of pristine beaches where I could run and run for miles and an ocean warm enough to swim in. When making the arrangements I’d been willing to overlook the company, but in the here and now my prospects feel bleak.
I slip through the sliding glass doors and lean against the deck railing. The roar of the ocean encompasses me. The white beach below is flecked with people, probably only ten total in the half mile of beach visible before it disappears around a rocky cusp. The ‘cottage’ juts out just far enough on a bluff that I can only see the neighboring houses if I crane my neck. The homes along the beach are all modern monstrosities; blocky, glassy monuments to money. This could be any beach in the world, except for the thin black line dividing the bluffs holding the homes with the beach below. That thin black line is a high iron fence crowned with razor wire. All beaches in South Africa are public. The folks at Sheffield Beach have gotten around that by concealing the public access paths between security fences and planting as many shrubs along both sides as possible, making access from the street level nearly impossible. Apparently a few Indian fishermen make their way through every day, but Isabelle assured me that “they aren’t dangerous; just tacky.”
A tap on my shoulder tells me Isabelle has joined me and I turn to see her standing with a tray holding three shot glasses, the bottle of silver tequila I’d brought, a lemon, and a small bowl of salt. Are these people too rich for shakers?
Behind Isabelle stands a tall, skinny, pale-skinned twenty-something in a polo shirt and incredibly short golf shorts, which revealed well-formed, if unmuscular, legs. His face is attractive in an aristocratic way: full, wet lips and upturned nose, the kind of face you want to either slap or fuck. Jesus, listen to me. I need a nap.
“Max, this is Ruben, my cousin. Ruben, this is the colleague I was telling you about. Max is running the Absa account brilliantly, and we’re lucky to have him.”
I marvel at how Isabelle is able to use my accomplishments to pad her own résumé. I’m about five levels above her in seniority and she has no idea how well I’m running the Absa account.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ruben.”
I reach towards him for a handshake. Ruben is apparently not used to such gestures. He juts a hip out and kangaroos his arms up to his sides.
“Look at how polite he is, Bells. I thought Americans were rough,” he says out of the side of mouth with a gross smirk. He says “rough” like it’s a request and I’m instantly repulsed and aroused by him.
Isabelle giggles idiotically and pours three overflowing shots. We all lick our fists and liberally pour the salt in anticipation.
“To new friends!” Isabelle growls before licking the salt and downing the shot. Ruben sips his tequila with his pinky out, grimaces, and then downs it with a shiver. I gulp mine and hold up my glass for another.
“Keep them coming.”
After a shower and a quick nap, I return to the deck to find Isabelle and five others sitting in a hot tub that I hadn’t noticed before. I almost trip over two empty Moët bottles laying beside the tub. Assholes. Isabelle looks tanked already, her hair stringy and eyes unfocused.
“We opened the champagne! Don’t worry, I can take you to buy some more tomorrow.”
She’s splotchy, bright red patches interlacing across her neck and shoulders like splitting amoebas. It’s probably ninety degrees out, and humid, so surely the hot tub is doing nothing to help her disposition. She is seated on the lap of a humongous ginger who has surely been bred for the killing of animals and the playing of rugby.
The giant holds up a hand. “Byron. You must be Max?”
Isabelle looked from Byron to me and then hissed at him, “Don’t interrupt!” though no one seems to be talking.
I nod at Byron and introduce myself to the others, who are all so generically white and expressionless that their names vanish from my mind upon entry. I consider asking them how my champagne tastes, but there’s no use pissing them off right away. I’m sure I’ll do it eventually without having to try.
“I’m going to go for a run,” I tell Isabelle. “Can I just let myself out of the gate?”
“The keys are in the scullery,” Isabelle slurs. “But careful…it’s hot! And there was a mugging on the beach last week.”
Of course there was. Any time you state an intended destination to a South African, you hear, “It’s lovely but a good friend of mine was mugged there.” Or stabbed. Or shot.
Byron apparently hadn’t heard this before. “You’re kidding! On Sheffield Beach?”
Isabelle hiccups before continuing, her eyes sobering in the dramatic retelling. “Yes, three black gentlemen,” (black crimedoers were often “gentlemen” in white South African stories, lest accusations of racial bias arise) cornered Mr. Van De Merwe from down the road and stole his shoes at knifepoint! It’s so isolated down there, no one was around to help. Of course, it could have been so much worse.”
“Fucking kaffirs,” Byron says under his breath.
That word. It’s a very rude word, one that shouldn’t be used. It’s like the ‘n’ word in America.
The other hot-tubbers pretend not to hear him, though I imagine they secretly agree. Byron turns to me and says, “Be careful, friend. Though you’re more likely to get hit by a rogue wave and washed out into the riptide. Stay close to the bluffs. High tide is at five so you’ll either want to go right away or wait until after.”
Certain I can’t take Isabelle’s company at the moment, I thank Byron for the advice and go to the scullery to find the keys.
I get to the beach and set out at as swift a pace I can manage in the sand. I’ve not run on the beach it quite some time and it’s always a challenge readjusting to the rigors of running through shifting sand. The hot sun beats down gloriously and I throw my tank top off, letting the sun rake over my skin. The beach is almost entirely abandoned.
I round the rocky cusp and am delighted to find an unobstructed portion of beach that stretches for what looks like miles. To my right, waves crash dramatically, roaring over the rocky beach and into the delicate white sand, reaching towards my sneakered feet. To my left, high bluffs rise severely out of the sand, their rocky surface covered in dense swaths of thorny bushes.
The bushes are incredibly dense. I wonder what could be watching me from within. Sea turtles? Pelicans? Criminals?
I continue along, marveling at the brilliant whiteness of sand. Quite suddenly, hundreds of crabs come into view. They’ve been here all along, their white bodies camouflaged. They are grotesque, all skittering left to right as they sense my presence, searching for wet sand where their little claws can find purchase and dig a hidey-hole. As they bury themselves, they look like little skulls sinking into quicksand.
I begin to sweat in earnest and the combination of the salty sweat and direct sunlight on my chest gives me a breathless, erotic feeling. Soon my short blue shorts are soaked nearly through with sweat, exposing the outline of my briefs, and I wonder if I could just strip and run naked through the sand. I can see no other souls in front or behind me, and the thought of running naked down a wild beach sends a surge through me, giving my legs second life.
I resist the urge to discard my shorts, but my mind begins to wander. What if I were mugged on the beach? What if I rounded this next bend and was met by two or three hungry black vagrants, eager to take my shoes? Should I have run barefoot?
Stop thinking like this. This is obscene. There are no black vagrants hiding in the bushes waiting to steal your shoes.
But what if? What if they are starving? There have been no fish to catch for days and then suddenly I emerge from around the bend, like a mirage, my sweaty naked skin shining in the sun. The full muscles of my meaty legs making them hungry, their starving minds unable to control their basest urges. What if they attack me? Could I run away? Surely I’m stronger, but I’m heavier. I would sink in the sand as I ran away while their light bodies flew over it, emboldened by hunger.
Five. Shirtless, lean, and hungry. Their eyes turned feral by starvation and subjugation. They’ll corner me and I’ll plead, fall to my knees. I’ll give them my shoes but they’ll throw them to the side. It’s me they want. Their teeth raking my skin. Biting into me. Pulling me apart. The blood stains their white teeth and it’s so dark that it matches the bruised, wounded color that the sun has burnt into their black cheeks. They savagely rip me to shreds, relishing every bite, and I know I let this happen to myself, that I let them pick me clean.
Stop it. This is sick.
My legs are burning; I’ve been running too hard.
What the fuck am I doing?
I glance at the bushes, suddenly fearful.
They wouldn’t eat you, you idiot. They’d take your shoes. Maybe rape you.
But I’d fight them off. I’d grab a piece of driftwood – no, sea glass – and as they fell upon me I’d slash and scream. Adrenaline would flood my system and I’d crack one’s neck before severing another’s jugular with my glass weapon.
I’d return to the cottage, covered in blood, and everyone would rejoice in my survival. I’d call the police and make national, international news. At home, I’d grant one tasteful interview with – who is the Oprah of today? – probably still Oprah – where I would emphasize that it wasn’t about race, it was about survival. About right and wrong, living and dying.
I round another cusp and reach a lagoon. The lagoon is quickly filling as a result of a small-but-growing stream curling across the beach from the ocean. The bluffs move dramatically inland around the lagoon, forming a series of small, shady inlets along the lagoon’s far edge. I consider exploring them, getting out of the sun for a bit. But the tide is coming in, and if I cross the small stream now it might be too wide for me to cross upon my return.
Reluctantly, I turn around and run back. The crabs are all still in hiding, the bushes still silent.
At dinner, we all drink more and play a few stupid games. Never-have-I-ever and the like. I’m the star, given my nationality and the fact I’m a couple of years older than everyone else. Really, why the hell did I come here?
At night, Ruben sneaks up while I’m lying on the tiny office couch and asks me if I’m cold as well. I’ve played this game before; he wants me to tell him to join me, that I’ll make him warm.
Fucking him seems like far too much effort, finding a condom and lube and then dealing with the inevitable emotional fallout of having been inside such a fragile creature. Instead, I sit up and pat the couch next to me. He sits down nervously and begins to whisper something in the way of conversation. I shut him up by kissing him – his mouth is too soft and unpracticed, but eager. He goes down to suck me off and I don’t stop him. While he’s doing it, he moans and squeals and swishes his floppy dark hair around and I wonder what is happening to him down there. I ignore it and, to my horror, my mind returns to my daydream on the beach, to being eaten alive by a group of hungry black men. I quickly finish in Ruben’s mouth and then get him off with a few spit-aided pumps of my right hand. He goes to clean up and when he returns I pretend I’m asleep so that he goes back to his own couch.
Ruben is all serious looks and sulky gestures when I find him in the kitchen the next morning. I ignore him and make a Bloody Maria with what remains of the silver tequila. I find Isabelle on the balcony, smoking a long cigarette and drinking a hard cider.
She sees my drink and tips her bottle at me.
“Hair of the dog!” she rasps.
“What’s the plan for today?” I ask, staring out at the booming ocean.
“More of the same, really,” she says dreamily. “It’s supposed to be even hotter, so if you want to run, I’d wait until evening. But not too late – the sun goes down early in Durbs.”
“Oh great, thanks,”
I hear the deck creak behind me and then get a slap on the back, knocking me towards the deck railing.
I spill some Bloody Maria, leaving bubbly red goo splattered on the deck floor. I whirl around to find Byron holding up a beer and smiling.
“I hear you got some action last night,” he says jovially, clinking my glass with his beer.
I take a big gulp of my drink and make a noncommittal noise.
Byron’s gaze quickly diverts behind me.
“Look, dolphins!” he yells. Some of the others trot out from inside the cottage to take a better look.
I turn and look out at the frolicking silver beasts playing in the waves. There must be at least fifteen of them.
One of the indistinguishable brunette girls. Tiffany and Tara, or maybe Mara, says, “I’m surprised they’re not scared off by the sharks.”
I can’t hide my surprise. “Sharks? Isn’t it too warm for them here?”
She looks at me like I’m insane. “Of course not. They love the warm sea. Some poor surfer just had his arm bit off down in Umhlanga last week. Great White.”
Suddenly swimming seems like less of a desirable prospect.
I take my drink and sprawl myself across a lounge chair, eager to burn in the sun for a while before anyone is awake enough to try and start a conversation.
I head out at six, sure this will give me enough time to get a run in before it’s too dark. I don’t even bother to bring a shirt along this time. I catch Ruben’s eye on my way out the door and he eyes me hungrily, momentarily forgetting his middle-school approach to flirtation. I smile back despite myself, knowing this will all end horribly but unable to resist the attention.
It’s still hot, but without the direct afternoon sun the sea breeze cools my sweat instantly, giving me a nice, stimulating chill as I trot.
The waves are higher, more aggressive, and I’m careful to stay close to the bluffs. Something about the sideways sunlight and its deeper colors makes the empty beach feel even emptier and melancholy. The white sand seems an alien landscape.
There are no crabs in sight, aside from few carcasses picked clean by sea birds. I envision them buried beneath me, a mass of chitin, segments, and claws writhing just beneath the beach’s pristine surface.
I look to the dense bushes on the bluffs for signs of their inhabitance, but I see none. What I do see is a set of low, focused eyes.
I yelp and look closer, but the eyes are gone as quickly as they’d appeared. My fantasy from the day before returns, but now that it feels within the realm of possibility it is horrifying rather than erotic. I consider turning around. I’ve only run about a mile so far. Not much of a work out, especially considering how much I’ve been drinking. I think of Ruben’s eyes on my body, the attention to how good I look, and decide to soldier on.
I try to put my imagination at bay. Even if I had seen eyes in the bushes, surely it is just a vervet or a hadeda or some other African nuisance. It hadn’t the murderous eyes of a starving man.
I push harder, moving fast on the packed sand, and quickly reach the point where I’d turned around the day before. The channel has widened, but the water has come back out of the lagoon, allowing me to cross without getting my shoes wet. I continue on, staying on the ocean-side of the lagoon, avoiding the inlets, which are now completely dark and cave-like.
I watch the bushes as I run, and my mind returns to dark corners. What if there is a whole civilization of them in there, waiting for fresh meat to wander by? Fishers of men, waiting and hoping for young, sun-kissed skin to pass, to fall into their trap.
I round another cusp and find yet another uninterrupted beach, this stretch another series of inlets smattered with heavy boulders. The boulders create dark, concealed nooks and crannies on the beach and I imagine the hungry men are waiting there too, planning the best way to herd me in.
As I pass one of these rocky nooks, the sheer blackness of it disturbs me. I look up to the horizon and see that the sun has set. Shit. Within minutes, it will have dipped below the line of the ocean and I’ll have nothing but the stars to guide me.
The path is clear and easy; I’m not worried about getting lost. But being alone in the dark in unknown territory isn’t smart.
I turn around and head back towards the cottage. When I round back towards the lagoon, I keep my eyes on the dark inlets on its far side. They must be perfect for sitting and picnicking during the day, hidden in the shade, close enough to the lagoon for frequent warm dips in the salty water. But now, in the dark, they are perfect hiding places. I almost jump when I see a dull glow emanating from one of the far inlets.
My heart thumps in my chest. Squatters on the beach, sitting by a fire, waiting for something to cook.
Stop it. Surely it’s just some night fishermen. Or a couple having a romantic picnic.
It’s dark now. The moonlight illuminates my sandy path, but the inlets are all black as squid ink aside from the one with the warm light. I can’t see who is in it, but the light seems active, pulsing; either it is a fire or someone is moving in front of it.
I keep my eyes glued on the inlet as I run, on full alert, yet I’m still horrified when I see a dark, low shape, hunched and fast, slip from the illuminated inlet into the darkness to its left. The lagoon is to my right, the inlets in a ‘U’ shape around it, so whatever just came from that inlet has gone in the right direction to cut me off. It’s the most direct route to me – going the other way would be much further and the lagoon was still relatively full, too deep for a night swim.
I watch closely and debate turning around. I could try to find someone’s house back up the beach. But I’d seen no houses, no signs of civilization. Suddenly, another hunched figure emerges from the inlet, disappearing into the dark before I can ascertain what, or who, it is.
I decide to use my adrenaline to my advantage, to sprint forward, hopefully passing whoever came from that inlet before they reach me. I pick up my speed, my lungs burning in the sprint.
I leap over the channel that feeds the lagoon. As I approach the juncture of my path and the path that leads around the inlets and around the lagoon, I turn my head, searching the blackness.
I imagine several black warriors emerging from the dark, spears raised. We’re near King Shaka’s birthplace, that’s the only excuse I can think of for jumping to such an image.
My fantasy is interrupted by a real figure’s emergence from the darkness. I’m so shocked by my imagined world coming to life that I lose my balance, and fall back, my butt hitting the packed sand with a thud, my legs going up over my neck.
I scuttle like a crab down towards the water, where the moon is reflecting the wet sand, allowing for more visibility. I feel hard pressure on my leg. Not so much pain, but a huge amount of compression followed by wet, loose relief.
I gape down at my leg and see that a large part of my calf is missing. Not missing so much as hanging there, dislodged, torn free and bleeding heavily.
Everything becomes quite clear. So clear, actually, that my first thought is concern over how I managed to be in such a fog just a moment ago. I suddenly see the teeth responsible for my ripped leg, and I hear voices approaching, loud and shrill.
My assailant is not a hunting party of starving men but rather a Rottweiler or some similar breed. He goes in again, this time tearing the flesh of my leg free. I kick out but miss awkwardly.
The Rottweiler is joined by a friend, a similar looking breed. It snarls as it approaches and I roll into the water. I push out, a combination of hopping on one leg and floating. I cut my hands and knees on the rocky ocean floor but I keep pushing outward. I swivel around to see that the dogs are following. Their heads bob above the wave like toothy buoys, their eyes surprisingly friendly for creatures intent on tearing me apart.
Behind them, I hear voices. I see two people running towards the sea, waving their arms. Two white people, their pale skin silver in the moonlight. A woman, adjusting her top, her left breast failing to make it in the first attempt. A man pulling up his shorts, which do little to conceal his erection.
Panic hasn’t set in so much as distance. Getting into the water had been my only goal. Now that the dogs have followed me, I feel as if I am watching this all from a way’s off, which is irritating because it seems like a big cliché.
I hear the woman screaming, her voice shrill. She has a big, flat, pale face. Her blonde hair is untethered, billowing in the sea wind.
The man is yelling the dogs’ names, I think, but I can’t really tell. But I can hear the woman. She’s talking to me. She’s screaming in horror and apology.
“They thought you were a kaffir!”
One of the dog reaches me, gets my arm. The teeth penetrate, but I manage to pull it free. The woman is still screaming and I try to keep my head above the water to yell back at her.
“You can’t say that word!” I screech. “Why would you say that word?”
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband and a menagerie of rescue dogs. His work has appeared in several anthologies and in publications such as Permafrost, Heavy Feather Review, ink&coda, Cactus Heart, and others. Keep up with him at magicmikewrites.com.
Casey McClelland is a painter, potter, and assemblist. Originally from Pennsylvania, Casey has studied at Edinboro University but is primarily a student of the school of life. His technique is largely self-taught and experimental and he enjoys spending his days trying new and exciting things. He lives in Georgia with his family.