2020 SA Writers College Short Story Competition Runner Up


  'Misstep' - by Stephen Harrison




Me-time. To clear my head. That’s what this is. Pure me-time. Time for Jake to reboot. Refresh. Rebreathe.

No unwelcome weekly visitors. Hopefully no ghosts. Just a few days, that’s all. A bit of respite from everything. Not too much to ask. Nope, I don’t think so.

I’d had it up to here with being stuck alone in the house. Just with my work and thoughts and memories and photos and ghosts to keep me company – and the weekly unwelcome visit to check on me, or rather keep me in check. It was becoming too difficult to distinguish night from day, nightmares from daymares. Empty rooms to remind me. Lipstick and eyeliner in the bathroom to laugh at me. Babygrows and blankies to taunt me.

My own brain was a giant leech sucking the lifeblood from me. That’s how it felt. My mind was bloating while the rest of me was desiccating. If I’d left it much longer, my brain would have exploded and the rest of me would have been biltong.

My choices were getting away or going to a shrink – but the health insurance doesn’t pay for shrinks, even for people like me. Go figure. At least you understand why I had to come here. Okay, maybe expecting you to understand is a bit much – then at least just accept. Lord, give us the grace to understand, or if not to understand then at least to damn well accept. Fair? I think so. Although I’m admittedly not the best one to judge what’s fair and what’s not.

How did I find this place? Google ‘isolated coastal camping south africa’ and go to page 18 of results. Voilà … ‘Gobudget Camp Site - enjoy your own compiny on the banks of the Olifantsriver, West Coast. Rustic abblution’. Zero reviews. Last updated 3 April 2007. Telephone number not working. Please dial again carefully or consult the directory for assistance. Perfect!

Slapped a few clothes in a bag, raided the kitchen for some tins and other supplies, unburied the old 2-person tent from the garage junk, kissed Sarah’s photo, made a quick turn in the nursery, filled the tank with petrol, set GPS coordinates on Google Maps, headed off on N7, turned onto some god-forsaken, long-since-maintained dirt track, broke down a couple of rusted farm gates whose padlocks remained intact, and finally bumped to a halt on a patch of veld overlooking a bend in the Olifantsriver.

It’s all that it was cracked up to be on the website – except for the availability of ablutions, that is. Apart from the Cape Cobra that briefly protests at my arrival, complete isolation. No cell phone reception. Looks like it last saw human activity some years back. Ahhh…could not have asked for a better place to spend a few days before the next check-in.

I’m going down to the river for a skinny dip. The embodiment of freedom. Unconstrained, unmitigated, unsupervised, naked freedom. Can’t wait. Haven’t even put up the tent yet. That can wait. No-one’s keeping time.

The path is so overgrown; I hope I’m not going to encounter more slithery friends. Brrr. Okay, I’m through. Well bless my holey socks this place is spectacular. I’m looking across an unspoilt expanse of white beach to the river at the foot of towering cliffs, pastel pink in the late afternoon light. Gurgling water suggestive of rapids. Hopefully also a plunge pool!

I’m stripping down, hanging my shirt, trousers, undies, belt, socks on an old termite-eaten pole on the edge of the embankment. Probably once supported a ‘No Dogs or Alcohol’ notice. Whatever the sign once said, there’s no-one to enforce it now. Even if there was a squad of law enforcers around, my body’s so white from lack of sun exposure that I’ll probably be invisible once I hit the sand anyway. Ha-ha.

Now I’m jumping down to the soft sand. Squelch. Hmm…deceptively spongey. Who’d have guessed? From the top of the embankment, it looked like terra firma. Kind of cool, I’d say.

Reminds me of when I was a kid. I liked nothing more than squishing around with clay and mud. I’m starting to make my way towards the river. I can imagine my younger self behind me, trying to follow in my footsteps which are becoming deeper and deeper with every step. Younger me would say something like: ‘Look Jakey, your leg holes are filling with water.’

I know this is corny, but I actually miss ‘me’ the kid. Life was so much simpler for me then. Oh dear, oh dear. Pathetic me.

Weird thing is, I’m struggling to get my one foot out of the sand to move forward now. Now the other one is also getting a bit bogged down. Bloody hell, I’m sinking. This is ridiculous. So much for my swim. When I get my wretched legs free, I’ll give up on the swim idea and make my way back to set up camp. It’s actually a bit late for a swim anyway, and to tell you the truth I’m a little hungry now. Somehow, I forgot to eat today. Happens sometimes when my mind goes down a rabbit hole.

But, I’m not putting this on…freeing myself from this sand, mud, clay, whatever, is easier said than done. And this for a guy who has been working my ass off at the gym over the past few months doing standing calf raises, leg presses and barbell squats. Every time I try to pump my legs, I sink even further. Fuck, I’m up to my thighs now. This is actually not funny.

I can’t flippen believe it. I’ve hardly been an hour at my much-needed escape from the shackles of house arrest and here I am trapped in this muck. I mean, it’s absurd. I didn’t even know you got quicksand in South Africa. I thought that’s something you only found in the Amazon or something.

Every time I move my legs an inch, it feels like a vacuum is created, pulling the mud in behind them to close the space. There go my balls and dick into the muck. Fuck, that’s cold. Help. Help. Heeeeelllp! What am I doing? Am I crazy? I know there’s no-one for miles around. I’m wasting my breath and my energy. Think now, Jake, think. You’re up to your navel now. Shit.

Okay, Sarah once showed me a YouTube video about a quicksand challenge. What was it? What happened there? Oh ya, two idiots deliberately sank themselves in a patch of the stuff and then raced each other to get out. If I remember well, one was lucky to get out by himself, but the other had to be freed with special equipment. I need a bit of luck here, it seems.

Jeez, this feels more like concrete than mud. My left calf is cramping. Flip, that’s painful. I need out. I need out right now. Okay, Jake, take deep breaths. Pace them. In, hold, out, in, hold, out, in, hold out. Shit, it’s cold. I’m shivering. Doesn’t help the sun is going down behind the cliffs. This is crazy. Think, Jake, think. Push up with your feet, push Jake PUSH.

I’m exhausted. Pushing up only makes me sink further. How did that guy in the YouTube get out? Let me think. Come Jake, you can do it. Oh yes, I remember now. He said just float on your back. Make a bigger surface area for yourself so you don’t sink, then work your legs out.

Hmm…easier said than done when the muck is up to your sternum. But wait, I swear that YouTube video said you can’t actually sink below your waist in quicksand. Body density or something. You’d float up like a cork if you were pushed down further, they said. Laws of physics. WHY’S THAT NOT HAPPENING TO ME?

Shit Jake, you’re up you’re up to you’re up to your neck in it. Struggling. Struggling. Struggling to breathe. Breathe shallow, Jake. Pant. Less vacuum created for mud to fill. Bright flashes. Can’t feel the bottom half of my body. Darkness. Do I have legs or am I a jellyfish? Do something, Jake, anything.

Zigzags of light.

im running through a field of wheat golden in the setting sun tickling my palms across the tips of the grain towards ma and pa sitting on the stoep faces crinkled in laughter sis shouting come find me jake come find me tripping falling denny dimple denny first love sweet sixteen passing love notes disapproving glare of mister umpleby giggles her soft lips on mine running together to the barn rolling in the hay unbuttoning each others shirts face being licked no fido no down jake if ive told you once ive told you a thousand times not to let that dog of yours lick your face its disgustingDISGUSTINGdisgusting im gonna puke three shots too many head pounding for fuckssake stop laughing leon its not even funny its too bright anyway its a kaleidoscope of colours so soon sarah so soon thats wonderful but are you sure shouldnt we confirm with a doctor no im really happy foryouforus i really am yellow white red orange purple crimson flowers she looks gorgeous walking down the aisle yesidoidoido to bothofyou the bigday is finally here nine months is sooolong whatswrong doctor whatdoyoumeanhesnotnormal it will be okay sarah we WILL GET THROUGH THIS we will findaway i cant go on like this ambulance sirens are wailing is that really necessary i have a headache shes not dying justpsyCHOTIC yes deskclerk iwillpayheresmycreditcard when canisee her again why cant he juststop crying cant he see hismothersnot here i have to sleep i cant go on like this SHUTTHEFUCKUPJOHANATHAN no officer everythingsokayofficer thanksforcomingofficer no officer hes sleeping officer doyouhave a warrant officer this ISMYHOUSEOFFICER i MAKETHERULESOFFICER okay officer hes throughthere officer hes justsleepingofficer he mustve fallen outofhiscot officer arecuffsreallynecessary officer its a kaleidoscsopeofcolours officer redlightsbluelights walkie-talkies get forensics out here can i see mybaby onelasttimeofficer ithinki needalawyer officer


thank you

I can pay bail of fifty thousand rands


thank you your worship

I will give in my passport


I do not own a firearm your worship


thank you your worship

whats that your worship

stay at home pending trial your worship

only go out to buy groceries or to the clinic your worship

yes your worship I promise you your worship

yes thank you your worship an officer will visit me every week your worship

I understand your worship

thank you your worship

i am sorry im so sorry

imsorry imsorry sarah imsosorrysarah im sorry johnathan im

sosorry Johnathan yourdadisosorry Johnathan about what hedidtoyou imsorryjake i so wanted a boy to go fishing with togocampingwith i msosorry johnathansarah jakelookwhatyoudid sorryjakesorrysarahsorryjohnathan pleaseforgiveme

It’s warmer now. It’s so nice to be floating. What’s my head doing on the beach down there? Ha ha ha real strange.

The light is so bright. I need sunglasses. You shouldn’t look directly at the sun. That’s what Donald Trump did and everyone laughed at him. I have to squint.

Now two dark figures are coming out of the sun towards me. Arms outstretched. That’s weird. Seriously weird. You not gonna believe this, Jakey Jake. That’s ma and pa. Stranger and stranger. I thought they died in a car crash five years ago. I thought they died. I thought. And who’s that behind them? No. Can’t be. Johnathan is that you?

hi ma and pa how you doing

hey johnno where you been all this time

you got big my boy


Stephen Bio for Stephen Harrison

I am a restless soul, and a daydreamer. Among other things, I enjoy writing and walking. My daydreams and writings are infused by memories of a meandering career with stops along the way in government, NGOs, academia, public health, paramedics and, currently, practice as an attorney in Cape Town. I also recently started a blog “Suburban Stroller” where I write about my adventures while strolling through the suburbs of Cape Town. I have been inspired by the creative journey with other aspiring writers in the Kenilworth Writers Circle. “Misstep” is my third consecutive entry to the annual SA Writers’ College Short Story Competition. Third time lucky, I guess!


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