Destination Unknown

For anyone who’s been following my progress with Like The Prose, this is a brief interlude- I’m still doing LTP but I also entered a one-off contest on the autocrat website which gave the first line of a story and then asked people to complete it in not more than 1500 words. As an added challenge, after a week, writers were asked to try to remove repetition and to incorporate a given last line (resulting in a kind of literary taxidermy). The story below is my entry:

Snails Across The Sahara

We reached the third day of our journey and, to be honest, things were not going well. Who would have thought that giant snails would travel so slowly in the desert?

Before me, golden sand still stretched endlessly despite the hours we had spent trekking across the Sahara. The gritty substance was everywhere: in my nostrils, in my mouth, in my clothing. I itched constantly, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I was still contemplating the scene before me when Hakim’s snail sidled up to mine. The two of us had been racing snails since we were youngsters and it was wonderful to see the way he moved in synchronicity with his outsized gastropod as if the two of them were welded to each other.

Hakim looked at me now, his large, brown eyes full of mischief. “How do you feel about making this a little more interesting?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” he drew out the vowel tantalisingly, causing me to wait to see what he had to say. “We’re a team, right, and this contest says we all have to get across the Sahara before the final deadline which is still –“

“Five days away,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, well, what if …”

Again, that suggestive pause. Hakim had always been able to manipulate me like this: he was the master at making me pause to see what crazy scheme he’d concocted for the two of us.

“What if we make it a personal race between the two of us?” he murmured. “Whichever one of us gets to the finish line first has to give the other one whatever they want.”

My mind whirled. Surely this was just a plan for Hakim to scam me? After all, everyone knew that my father was one of the richest guys in the state whereas his family were technically just our lackeys. Despite this, we’d always played together as kids, being a similar age, and the social gap between us hadn’t stopped us remaining close friends as we went through elementary and high school together. Sure, when the summer was over, we’d have to go our separate ways – I’d be off to Harvard and he’d be enrolling in some kind of community college – but right now, we were having our final fling of friendship, making the most of the months before we had to start living in the real world.

I wondered now what Hakim had in mind. Was he going to ask my dad to put him through university, for example? Or would he ask for cash so that he’d have a bit of independence?

“You do know I can’t touch any of my trust fund until I’m twenty-one,” I told him now. “If you win and I have to give you anything you want, it’ll have to be something I already have.”

“What I want is something only you can give me,” he breathed huskily, his hand sliding over my thigh as I sat sweltering under the relentless sun.

And at that moment, I saw the longing in his eyes and suddenly knew what this contest was really about …

*

I was probably thirteen when I fell for Hakim. It wasn’t just a physical thing, you understand, although he’d already developed into the most gorgeous specimen of humanity I’d ever seen. As the next few years crawled past, I found myself staring at him more and more, noting the way his dark hair curled at the nape of neck, admiring his finely chiselled limbs as he stood by the pool. He was beautiful and funny and clever and arrogant – and I knew he could never be mine. It would have given my father a heart attack if he’d thought I was harbouring any sort of feelings for one of the hired help. Hakim’s dad was our chauffeur; his mom was our housekeeper; and he had an older brother who was part of the grounds team – once he was old enough, Hakim was drafted into helping out in the garden, and then he became our pool boy. It probably wasn’t the kind of relationship my father had in mind for me.

You might be wondering why, if I liked Hakim so much, nothing had happened between the two of us before. Opportunity – or lack of it – is the simple answer to that. Even for the past three days, ever since we’d set off on this ridiculous challenge, we’d been consigned to separate tents – me, all alone, in my luxury abode which was more of a marquee that anything else – Daddy’s money had sure come in useful there! – and then the rest of the team (including Hakim) in a far inferior structure without any of the finery I enjoyed on a nightly basis.

I looked behind me now, to the back of the caravan where the worker snails were towing the various trailers that carried all the equipment. I knew that I had no friends amongst the other staff who’d come with me – if any of them even suspected something between Hakim and me, I’d be shipped back home faster than you could blink, without being allowed to finish the race.

My attention returned to the hand on my thigh and the eyes that were staring intently into mine. Hakim seemed to be offering me everything I’d wanted for the past five years – but could I really trust him? What if he was seeing me as the real challenge here? What if he’d only agreed to be part of my team because he thought it would be a short cut to my heart? And if he didn’t win … I allowed my mind to contemplate the possibility. If he didn’t win, what would I ask him to give me?

At that point, I think I suddenly realised that we were both after the same thing.

*

We’d left the others far behind as our snails slithered across the sand in the moonlight. No overnight camping for us tonight!

“Feeling worried yet?” Hakim asked.

“Should I be?” I countered.

On and on we went, our beasts moving as one with us beneath a sky full of stars. At that moment, life had never seemed more magical. From time to time, I stole a sideways glance at the boy my heart was longing for, imagining how it would feel when one of us won the race and claimed the other as the prize.

Finally, I could bear it no longer. “Why are we doing this?” I asked softly.

He looked at me, his lip curved in an amused grin.

“Frightened you’ll lose?”

“You know neither one of us is going to lose.” I pushed the words out with an effort. This was now the time for truth. “We both want the same thing, ergo we’ll both be winners.”

Time stilled for a moment. I was sure I could hear our hearts beating in unison as life slowly returned to normal.

“Tell me,” his voice was deceptively casual, “what it is that we both want.”

“I want you,” I said honestly. “And I think you want me.”

He was silent then, thinking over my words.

“All this wanting,” he said at last, “is it like longing for the cake you see before you: you are desperate to have it, but once it’s consumed, it’s quickly forgotten? Or is it like yearning for the stars: wishing for something you can never truly have, something so far above you that you know it will always be an impossibility.”

When I did not answer, he nodded sadly.

“Am I really what you want?” he asked again. “Your life is so different to mine – you can have anything you desire. You and me – it’s like a fish mating with a bird. How can we ever fly to the stars when we inhabit opposite worlds?”

He was right: in my world, Hakim would always be a fish out of water, never truly belonging. The only way for me to make him mine would be if I gave up my money, my name, and threw my lot in with his.

“If someone wanted you enough,” I laid my heart bare, “then wealth and class wouldn’t matter. I would give it all up in an instant if I knew we could be together forever.”

At this he laughed and it was a strange and hollow sound. “A bird who leaves the nest does not automatically become a fish!” he told me. “Besides,” and his words were painfully honest, “how will I learn to fly with no money?”

He slid off his snail and came towards me. I joined him on the sand and his hand reached out and touched my face. “For future reference,” he said, kissing me slowly, “I’d rather be a bird than a fish.”

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