They moved into the house opposite ours. They arrived with a large rusty red boerboel called Hunter. In my brisk seven years, I’d never encountered a more vicious animal. He would run up-and-down the length of the rickety fence, eyes flaring and drool guzzling through his teeth like venom. He barked and snapped at anyone and everyone that walked by, especially black people. Hunter hated black people. In the few months they lived in that house he must’ve bitten at least eight black people; two maids, three gardeners, a painter and two random men who were unlucky that he managed to break through the fence on those specific days.
My sister also got bitten once. That was the last straw for my dad and he walked over with his shotgun. We were ordered to remain in the house, so I peeked through the window. My father stood in the street shouting at Mr. Miller who had appeared with a revolver in his hand. Mom called Kent, her cousin at the police station, who rushed over and squared matters between the men.
That night, at dinner, Dad said that if the dog barked once more he would go and poison him. He added that he might as well poison the whole goddamn family and that they were trash. If it wasn’t the fucking dog, it was the shouting or the children crying. Mom scolded Dad and said he was not allowed to use the F word in front of us and especially not around the table. She said one shouldn’t speak like that about other people, but Dad maintained that it was the truth. Mom said they were just uncultured. I asked her what uncultured was, and she said it was when you didn’t dress properly or read widely and didn’t listen to classical music or when you didn’t eat correctly with a knife and fork. I thought she said the last part because I was shoving peas into my mouth with a spoon.
All the Millers had red hair. Mr. Miller’s short, spiky crop was a dull orange sprinkled with slivers of red. Mrs. Miller had a bush of dark red curls that bobbed up-and-down over her shoulders. Reed, four years my senior, had a head of copper that hang neatly like a piss pot above his ears. Nelly, his freckled nine-year-old sister, had deep red hair that was always tied in a ponytail, sometimes two. Lilly, who was five, had a curly mop of light orange, mostly unkempt.
Reed, Nelly, and I attended Valencia Primary, and occasionally, we walked to school together. I would walk next to Nelly with Reed off by himself, ignoring us. Sometimes he would push in between us and make jokes about kissing. We would ignore him and just look away. One time, during break at school, Nelly and I sat on the hill on the far side of the rugby field. I shared my sandwiches with her. She didn’t want one at first, not after I told her it had giraffe puke on it. She said it was gross, but I laughed and told her that it was just sandwich spread, and then she had one. She told me I was nice. She took my hand and put it on her leg. We sat like that for a while, then Reed came over and he punched me. I hit back, and we rolled on the ground for a little before the prefects broke up the fight. I had a shiner and Reed had blood on his mouth. I felt good about it. Before he stormed off with Nelly, he yelled out that no one was allowed to touch his sister.
For a while after that, Nelly and I didn’t speak. At school, she either avoided me or Reed would hover close by like a mosquito. Eventually I stuck with my friends, and we played pretend games based on the cartoons we watched. Sometimes we were robots and other days we were Ninja Turtles. As we fought bad guys, I would look around to see if Nelly was watching, hoping that she could see my heroics. Some days I would catch her from the corner of my eye. Once, during recess, I saw her sitting alone. When she looked up, I was so enthralled that I didn’t see the rugby ball fly through the air. It hit me square in the head, and I was knocked over, flat on my face. I stood up. I tasted blood, and when I wiped my mouth, it left a streak of red on my hand. When I looked around Nelly was gone.
Some days in the afternoons, I would stand in our yard and look through the fence at the Millers’ property. I would imagine Nelly standing on the opposite side, behind their fence, behind the dense lane of Henkel’s Yellowwood trees. I would picture her staring back at me, our eyes locked in an invisible bind. Occasionally I would see flashes of colour between the trees but on inspection, it would only be Hunter chasing a bird or the gardener watering plants. I would often think of Nelly. From time to time, I could hear screams coming from the house. Other times I heard crying.
Days rolled by like that.
“Don’t forget your lunchbox!” Mom shouts as I run out of the house.
I run back and snatch it from her hands and spin on my heel.
She lifts her eyebrows and tilts her head sideways. I smile, give her a peck on the cheek, and then I bolt. There’s a crisp bite in the air today and I like the fresh feeling of it against my neck. When I pass the Millers’, I hear someone call my name. I turn around see Reed and Nelly.
“Wait for us” he yells.
As I wait, I look at my feet and my dirty toes, blackened from the short run in the street. The cold of the tar seeps through my soles and I feel it in my stomach. I lift a piece of gravel between my toes and throw it to the side.
“Hello Nelly,” I say as they arrive.
“What happened to your arms?”
“We were wrestling, I won” says Reed.
Nelly looks at my feet and I follow her gaze. A large, black ant scurries over my foot up to my ankle. I lift my foot and shake it vigorously. The ant’s still there when I put my foot down. I ignore it and the three of us begin to walk.
Nelly’s hair is tied into a single ponytail behind her head. A few loose strings of hair tickle her freckled ear and it reminds me of the speckled shell Mom picked up at Onrus beach last December. It’s now in her bathroom next to the basin. If, on the occasions that I hold the shell to my ear to listen for the sea, I keep really quiet, I can hear the distant hush of the waves coming and going. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can almost feel the spray of the salty water over my face.
I wonder what I would hear if I put my ear next to Nelly’s ear.
“What are you doing tonight?” asks Reed just before he kicks an empty Coke can. The can rolls and skids over the gravel.
“Watching Star Trek.”
“Come watch it at ours, my parents are away.”
Nelly looks at me with her big amber eyes. Reed stops and we pause behind him. We’re about to enter the worn pathway into the woods where I occasionally play. The Wilgerspruit, an extension of the Klip River, forks through the trees and many a paper boat sailed and disappeared in there. I often imagine that they float back to the Groot River. Maybe I’ll even find a few moored at any of our good summer swimming spots. Perhaps the river will carry one back to the ocean, to Onrus.
“Okay,” I say.
Reed bends over and positions the can in front of him. He’s about to kick it through the two posts next to the pathway. I’ve done it many times. He takes a step back and I jump to the side into Nelly who grabs hold of me. Reed takes another step back, studies the can for a moment, and then runs forward, and kicks it into the air. The can spins through the centre.
“Yes!” he shouts excitedly as he runs through the posts and disappears around the bend.
At school we go our separate ways, Reed with two of his classmates to do whatever older boys do. I’m about to join my friends for our morning re-enactment of yesterday’s episode of Bionic 6.
“Do you want to come play with us? There are parts for girls.”
“No, I want to finish my book”
“What are you reading?”
She takes out a banged-up book and holds it up. The book jacket is faded and ripped, and I can barely make out the title The Little White Horse.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a girl who arrives at a magical castle.”
“Sounds nice, maybe I can borrow it someday?”
I leave her with her book and run to my friends on the rugby field.
The prospect of spending time with Nelly repeals the dreariness of school and apart from the knot in my stomach, the rest of the day passes like a dream.
There are the moments in class when I stare out the windows at the white-chested pied crows with their karh-karh-karh, pecking at the field.
There’s the mid-morning break with grass burns and stains of mud over my knees and thighs from overzealous opportunities at touch rugby.
There are the mindless doodles of pictures, numbers and slivers of words floating through the air, caught by my pen and trapped in my notebook.
There’s the afternoon break with peanut butter and Appelkooskonfyt crumbs on my jersey. The numbness of a satiated stomach and the lull that follows.
When the last bell rings, I dash out and wait at the school gate for Nelly and Reed, but they never arrive. Eventually I leave, and I take the same route back home. Mom makes me finish my homework and says I have to eat before I’m allowed to play outside. I don’t tell her about my plan to visit the Millers. She warms up leftover mac and cheese. The tomato is soggy and sweet, and the tubes are stained pink. The warm cheese pulls like spiderwebs with every bite. When I finish eating my face is dirty with white sauce and a hint of nutmeg.
Thoughts of spending time with Nelly overpowers the idea of Star Trek and getting lost in another universe. The knot in my stomach is replaced by a gnawing feeling, and when I reach their gate the realization that Reed has never invited me to their house before punches me in the gut. I chew over this for a moment until Reed’s laughter and other voices snap me back. I look out for Hunter but he’s nowhere in sight. I jump over the gate and leave my thoughts strung to the fence.
“I thought you weren’t going to come,” says Reed when he sees me.
Two of his friends from school are next to him, each with a beer in their hands. At first, I’m apprehensive because I never play with the older boys. At school they usually chase us away with foul words or sometimes a squashed can against the back.
“This is Karel, this is Brand. This is Harold, he lives opposite us.”
It’s the first time I’m meeting them, so we shake hands like men. Reed passes me a beer. The cold can burns my fingers. I’ve only ever had a few tiny sips from Dad’s beer. They look at me expectantly and I realize this is a test. My fingers curl around the can, and I pull back the tab. It pops open with a loud hiss. Foam spurts out of the opening and drips over my hand onto my feet. I quickly slurp at it to stop it from spilling even more. A subtle taste of honey lingers after the bitterness of the yeast and foam. The three boys grin, and it appears I have passed their trial. I take a more generous sip this time and with every inch that the liquid slides down my throat, the cold around me dissipates.
“Are we going to watch TV now?” I ask eagerly.
They look at each other and burst out laughing.
“She’s inside,” says Reed. “Drink, you’re behind.”
The sun drops over the hills, insects buzz around the porch light and every few minutes a bat shoots past. I finish my beer in a few large gulps and Reed hands me another. They talk about school and girls and things I don’t understand. My brain is dull, and I try hard to listen for Nelly, but I don’t hear anything, and after a while I don’t care anymore. I’m warm and happy, and I laugh with Reed and Karel and Brand, and soon I feel like I am one of them.
“Let’s go inside,” announces Reed as he hands me my third beer.
I follow them into a long, well-lit hallway. Plastic toys are strewn over the floor and there’s a faint smell of damp. Brand kicks a rag doll and it flies through the air and lands on the far side with soft thud. We all snigger at the silliness of it. We enter the dimly lit and warm lounge. A four-piece lounge suite is scattered around a large TV that flashes images without any sound. The chairs are muddy red and scratched with doodles. We walk around to stand in front of the three-seater sofa where Nelly sits reading her book and Lilly lies fast asleep.
“I brought your boyfriend,” says Reed.
She looks at us, the boys laugh, and so do I. Her eyes linger on me, and I stop laughing. Brand and Karel nudge each other and they collapse on the two-seater. I sit on the one-seater and put my beer down next to an ashtray on a dark brown coffee table.
“Come back here, Harold, we’re going to play a game now.”
I slide off the couch, and smile sheepishly at Nelly whose nose is back in the book.
“Put down that book.”
Nelly shakes her head.
“I told you we’re going to play tonight.”
I look at Karel and Brand who stare at us with glassy eyes and strange smiles.
“That’s why he’s here.”
Nelly shakes her head again. Reed jumps forward and snatches the book from her hands and throws it to the side where it smacks against the wall. For a moment, the book jacket floats in the air before it settles down in front of us. Reed steps on it and tears it in half as he approaches Nelly. He grabs her left arm, yanks her up from the sofa, and pushes her into me. Her slender arms wrap around me, and we stumble backwards. I feel her one hand clasp the small of my back, the other in a tiny fist against my shoulder. Reed sits down where Nelly was sitting, and I stare at him. My heart drums against Nelly’s ear that’s pressed hard into my chest. Her warmth makes me feel better.
“Nelly,” he says forcefully. “Don’t be shy.”
She lets go of me, her eyes cast down.
“Harold, Nelly wants to kiss you.”
I look down at her and she looks up slowly, red hair strewn over her face.
“Isn’t that true, Nelly?”
Her eyes seem to glow in the dim light and the reflection of flashing images from the TV give off the appearance that they’re shimmering.
“Go on, Harold.”
Another test, I realize. The fire in my stomach flickers and I feel it coursing through my legs, my arms, my neck, my cheeks.
“Awe, he’s shy,” says Karel.
“He’s never kissed a girl before,” says Brand.
They shriek with laughter. I can’t move, I don’t even blink. Nelly’s eyes burn into mine and then she grabs hold of my t-shirt and raises her face to mine until our lips touch.
I don’t know for how long we stay locked like that. Venom is pulsing through me, and I lose all sense of time. Behind shut eyes I see the room in red, and I am both here and on the beach in Onrus next to Nelly with waves crashing around us. Nelly’s eyes are two red coals burning their way through my brain, and her cold fingers against my chest are claws tearing at my ribcage. I grab her arms.
The voice echoes through my brain.
“I said enough!”
Reed pushes us apart.
The boys beam as I sink down into the one-seater, unsure whether I have passed the test, but grateful that Nelly saved me from whatever punishment would’ve ensued. I pick up my beer and down the remainder in a few gulps.
“Take off your clothes.”
I look up, thinking it’s directed to me, but he’s standing in front of Nelly who’s backed up in front of the TV.
She shakes her head viciously.
“Do you want me to tell Dad that you didn’t listen to me?”
She shakes her head meekly. He grabs her by the arms.
“Then do what I say!”
He lets go of her, and plops himself down on the three-seater. Lilly stirs. Reed puts his hand on her cheek and gently strokes her face. Brand and Karel’s eyes are locked on Nelly whose eyes burn through Reed.
“I’m not going to ask you again.”
I stand up and my stomach feels strange.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
I sit down as the room begins to shift sideways and my chair feels like it’s slipping backwards. I stand up and trip and I fall down in front of Nelly.
“Let’s go, Nelly,” I mumble.
The boys laugh.
“This is part of the game, Harold. Go sit down.”
I look at Reed who now has his arm around Lilly.
“I want to go home.”
“No one’s keeping you here.”
I manage to stand up and I take a step towards Nelly. I take her hand, and look into her eyes, but the fire’s gone.
“Come,” I plead with her.
She shakes her head. I let go of her hand and it falls limply to her side. I back off away from them. At the door, I pause, look back, and I see Nelly’s face disappear in her t-shirt as she pulls it over her head. Then I run.
Out of the hallway, down the steps until I reach the gate. Somewhere out back I hear Hunter bark and growl. I jump the gate and race across the street, through our gate and into our yard where I stop to catch my breath. Every exhale creates a puff of vapour that disappears in the air like memories. I approach one of my mother’s rose bushes and unzip my pants. I feel around my underpants for my penis, which now feels much smaller, and I begin to pee.
My piss hits the cold earth and warm steam rises from the ground. This intrigues me, and I pee in a circular motion around the trunk to create a cloud that envelopes the bush. It feels like there’s a dam holed up inside me and I let my head fall backwards until I only see the millions of stars in the black sky. I stand like that for a while, hoping to see a shooting star or a meteor shower. A noise at the front door jerks me out of my daze and I see my father sit down on his favourite chair on the stoop, a beer in the one hand and a newspaper in the other.
“What are you doing, Harold?” asks my father.
“I’m peeing, Dad.”
“You better not let your mother see you; she’ll have your skin.”
I zip up my pants, walk to the porch, and sit down in the chair next to my father. He examines his newspaper while I study the stars.
“At least that damn dog is quiet tonight. You want a sip?”
My father holds out his beer. I shake my head. A faint scream breaks the quiet and I sit upright. Hunter begins to bark. My father shakes his head.
“There they go again.”
About the Writer:
Benedikt Sebastian is an award winning multidimensional artist, writer and actor. His passion for visual communication and storytelling took him into the world of filmmaking where he spent time behind and in front of the lens. He has appeared in numerous films and series. He is currently completing his Masters in Creative Writing at UCT.