It is dark outside when K, research assistant, finishes his work for the day. As he picks up his leather holdall - a Xmas gift to himself - he observes with bitterness that he is the last to leave the building.
He complains loudly, his voice flat amongst the book-lined walls.
- Never anyone to help out when you're behind. The bastards just rush off home.
He quickly makes his way towards the exit doors. A minute later he is approaching his car, a vintage two-seater convertible, bought second hand with the small inheritance left by his mother a year earlier. As always he stops a few paces short to admire her clean lines and to think kindly of his mother. She was a real woman, the only one who really cared.
K tilts his head back, sniffs the night air. Not a star in sight, but rain would only come later. No need to put up the canvas top for the drive home.
* * *
For a few seconds he is unsure if anything at all had happened; it had been too quick to take in. Now, slowly, frame by frame, he relives the horror: his right foot pushing down on the accelerator, the car rounding the bend, picking up speed into the strait, the dark form looming solid and unyielding in the headlights of the car, the moment of impact, the windscreen shattering.
Everything is quiet when he steps out of the car. He moves to the other side, stares down at the prostrate form of his victim: a vagrant in a coat. Dark streaks of blood trickle down his forehead, disappearing into his beard.
K reaches out and touches the side of his neck. The slow realisation dawns: he has killed a man.
His eyes scan the deserted street. Not a sound, not a movement. If he drives off now, leaves the man lying in the street, nobody would be any the wiser. And why shouldn't he? There was nothing anyone could do for the man. And it wasn't his fault. The man had stepped into the road; he must have been drunk, throwing himself in front of a moving vehicle like that, not keeping a lookout. That's what got the man killed.
K steps back to the car. Something crunches underfoot: shards of glass from the shattered windscreen are strewn on the road surface. With deft fingers, he collects every piece he can find. This changes everything; he cannot simply leave the man here, not with evidence all over the place.
Getting the vagrant into the car proves to be an arduous task: he has to drag him by the arms and lift and roll him into the passenger seat. He secures the man's body with a seatbelt, places his leather holdall on his lap and folds his limp hands over the bag. For good measure he drops the strap of the holdall around the man's neck.
- There, that should do it.
He gets into the driver's seat, glances at his passenger. To the casual observer, his passenger was a drunk, sleeping it off. K speaks softly, his eyes on the road.
- Too bad, old boy. Not your day, I'm afraid.
* * *
The trees in the forest are spaced apart at irregular intervals with narrow dirt roads criss-crossing the soft forest floor. He drives slowly. When he reaches the heart of the forest, he stops.
Arms outstretched, he explores the area on foot by the light of the car's headlamps.
He settles on a spot between two tall pine trees, thirty paces distant, and starts to dig with his makeshift tool. Soon he is drenched with sweat; his hands, unaccustomed to manual labour, shed skin in protest.
Half an hour later, K drops the tool and slowly, wearily, makes his way back to the car.
* * *
It takes several seconds for his brain to register the impossible: the dead man is no longer slumped in the passenger seat.
This is not happening, he tells himself. He walks around the car, his eyes searching the darkness beyond, and the impossibility of the situation becomes evident. It is dark, and the forest is vast. He will never find the vagrant. He sits down on the soft earth and cups his head in his damaged hands. Then he starts to laugh; if the dead man had left the car under his own steam, he wasn't dead. So there was nothing to worry about; the man was injured, and he will find his way to a doctor; someone is bound to help him.
The screech of an owl jerks him from his reverie, and he stumbles to his feet and falls into the driver's seat, still laughing.
It is only when he pulls up in front of his townhouse that it dawns on him: the vagrant took off with his holdall, and with it his house keys, his wallet, his passport.
Why is this happening to him?
* * *
In the days that follow he has his car fixed at an out-of-the-way panel shop.
He reads every newspaper he can lay his hands on, watches the news on television, but there is no report on the incident.
He starts to relax, puts the whole thing behind him.
* * *
One afternoon, as he walks through the door, the man is there, in his townhouse, sitting on his coach, watching television. His heart skips several beats as he takes in the scene: it is the vagrant, wearing the same overcoat, his beard long and filthy.
The vagrant speaks first, his voice low and pleasant.
- Welcome home.
K slowly recovers from the shock.
- You're alive.
The vagrant nods.
K takes a step back.
- What is it you want?
The vagrant shrugs indifferently.
- Board and lodging.
The vagrant digs in his pocket and extracts a small plastic jar.
- Pieces of glass from your car, buried in my face when you knocked me down.
K stares at the evidence of his crime. He swallows hard.
- My bag?
- It's in a safe place.
- How did...
- I'll tell you over supper.
A slow realisation dawns: the man is here to stay.
* * *
The vagrant eats with gusto. When his plate is empty, he burps.
K opens a bottle of wine and fills a glass.
Much later the vagrant tells him what he is waiting to hear.
- It was the doctor who put two and two together, when I told him how I woke up in a car, with someone digging a hole in the forest. He said it was simple: you ran me down, thought I was dead, and then decided to get rid of me.
K knows he is trapped. The man now controls him.
- When will you be leaving?
The vagrant shrugs.
- I have nowhere to go. Winter is coming.
* * *
The vagrant moves into the spare bedroom.
K tries to ignore the unwanted presence in his house, stoically accepting his fate.
But soon a pattern develops: the vagrant starts to do small chores around the house, sweeping, washing dishes, vacuuming carpets. And he looks respectable: he has cleaned himself up, trimmed his hair, shaved off his beard, wears fresh clothes from K's cupboard.
A month later K cannot believe how things have changed. The vagrant has become a regular part of his life, a respectable housekeeper.
K forces himself not to think too much of the arrangement. It is an acceptance bred from having no choice: the vagrant is now part of his life.
Things could have been worse, he tells himself: the man could've been dead.
* * *
On a day, as he walks through the door, the vagrant is sitting at the kitchen table, a chess set in front of him, an open book at his elbow, engrossed in the recreation of a game.
K stops to watch and then speaks without thinking.
- Perhaps we can play a game tonight.
The vagrant grins.
Soon another pattern is established: at night they face each other over a chessboard. K looks forward to the evenings with his boarder, and in time he admits to himself that the man is the closest thing he has ever had to a friend.
* * *
On Sundays they drive into the countryside in his vintage car, the wind on their faces and the sun on their backs.
On one sunny day, he takes a picture of his friend leaning against the side of the car, smiling.
* * *
On a Friday in early spring K leaves the office at midday. A persistent cold has gone to his head and he feels feverish, in need of bed rest and darkness.
When he gets to his door, he finds it standing slightly ajar. He pushes the door open, calling his friend's name. His voice echoes, a hollow sound: the place is empty.
A cursory check confirms that the man is gone, and so are the television set, DVD player, sound system, laptop computer, digital camera, Persian carpets. All is missing.
In the second bedroom he discovers two things on the bed: his leather holdall and the small jar with the shards of glass.
A fair swap, he thinks. He should feel relief for this unexpected deliverance, he tells himself. But he feels only loss.
- You fool, why now?
K lies down on his bed, nauseous and dizzy. He gets up when cramps seize his belly. On his knees, gripping the toilet bowl, he retches repeatedly, spraying the white porcelain with bright red blood.
He drifts in and out of consciousness as his fever intensifies. He awakes at dawn, dimly registering that he should eat something. But there is no time to waste. He will eat later, after he has found his friend.
* * *
The street people listen and shake their heads as they stare at the snapshot of his friend: nobody has seen him.
- He hasn't been back for months.
By mid afternoon, K concedes defeat.
On the drive home another spell of dizziness threatens to overcome him. The fever has returned, taken control of his head; his body shivers violently as chills rampage through his veins.
He stops his car at the top of the mountain pass. Everything is suddenly very clear. There is a way he can make his friend come to him. He laughs with joy, amazed at how swiftly this perfect understanding dawned.
Finding a gap in the barriers lining the sheer drop between the road and the ocean below proves to be easy, and as he steers his car over the edge, into a freefall that seems to last forever, he reaches upwards, embracing the sky.
* * *
The early springtime heat favours the people in the city square. Amongst them is the vagrant. He is in a relaxed mood, with the sun on his face and money in his pocket.
When a passing pedestrian discards a newspaper, he gets up from his bench and recovers it. He slowly turns the pages. When he sees the photograph of the crumpled sports car, he pauses to read the eyewitness account of his former host's last moments.
- No why did he go and do that for? Just when I gave him back his freedom.
He turns to his companion and pokes his finger at the picture.
- I lived with this guy for awhile ...the sorriest bastard I ever came across, not a single friend and no family.
His companion grunts.
- Nobody will miss him, then.
The vagrant narrows his eyes. Perhaps he could try to make it to the funeral. It wouldn't look right if nobody turns up, he thinks. That would surely be the saddest send-off the poor bastard could have.
William Oosthuizen bio:
Lawyer by day, wordsmith by night. Since moving to Cape Town a few years ago, I started doing some of the things I had been putting off for far too long, and this included writing fiction. I have always been an avid reader but the transition did not come easily: I soon discovered that enjoying good writing does not automatically qualify one to produce a compelling story. A number of books on the subject aided my progress, as did my wife's unflinching support (and critical eye). Being runner-up in the SAWC competition gave me a big thrill, and the many hours of toil will hopefully continue to pay dividends - the manuscript for my first novel is presently sitting at a publisher waiting for the green light.