Rob Berzel checked his watch, cursed and pressed the pedal, making the cloud of dust behind him, bigger.
“Damm. Carla is going to be on the warpath” he predicted. It was the third time he was late to fetch Aggie and he was going to hear about it. Now flying along the coast road, he couldn’t help but enjoy the view. Wryly he wondered if he would be looking at it through a black eye tomorrow.
He headed into Ballito at a speed, stopping at the school at 2h17 – 17 minutes late. Aggie was sitting on the cement blocks immersed in a book. He ignored the glare from her class teacher as she pointedly looked at her watch.
“Dad!” jumping up she shouldered her bag and ran up to him. Holding his daughter he realised that any amount of crap from her mother was worth it. Cuddles over he pretended to throw her into the truck and pulled away.
Aggie spoke non-stop. Rob knew all about her class, her teacher, her self-portrait which she thrust under his nose expecting compliments, which she got. She continued barely taking a breath, her rundown of everyone in her class including “that bully Jake”. Rob nodded smiling and making the appropriate noises, enjoying the little girl’s chatter.
The drive home was a lot slower than his trip to town was. They both drank in the lovely coastline with its azure, sparkling sea and golden beaches. It was God’s country this part of the world, just paradise.
“Shadoooooooow…” Aggie yelled when they got home. Dropping her bag, she knelt down to hug the bouncing German Shepherd who was all tongue and tail. Old Willow also came for cuddles just much slower. She was 16 and the days of running were long gone.
Rob picked up the school bag, walking into his ramshackle beach house with dogs and kid in tow. He inherited the double-story from his parents on their death 6 and 4 years ago. He still turned to talk to them occasionally, forgetting that they were gone. He often felt their presence and it gave him comfort rather than scared him.
Abbie was staying the weekend again, and he loved it.
“Sausages or steak? Billy and Bird are joining us.”
“Steak! Yay I love Bird” the little girl squealed. Most of his friends were “their” friends and had stopped calling after Carla had left him. He didn’t mind. He kept to himself very much and didn’t suffer fools easily. Rob and Billy had grown up together and were like brothers. Neither had siblings and rather than be alone they had struck up a lifelong friendship. Rob was straight down the line and liked people to be the same with him.
This was one of the reasons Rob and Carla didn’t work out. She was secretive, deceitful and didn’t communicate well. When they realized she was pregnant he had to marry her, no child of his would grow up without him in their lives. He was secretly relieved when she left just before Aggie turned 2, the only down-side was seeing less of Aggie.
That also seemed to be changing though as Carla now had a new man in her life and had less time for Aggie. Bobby was obviously keeping her busy. As long as he was good to Aggie, Rob wished them luck.
Arms stacked with lunch sandwiches, juice for Aggie and a beer for him, they sat on the deck watching the view. He was a born beach baby. Leaving the sea caused him anxiety and returning calmed his soul. Aggie seemed to be the same. She snuggled up to him drinking her juice and munching away, for him it was heaven on earth.
Looking East he noticed a bank of grey, churning clouds and wondered briefly if the weather would upset their outdoor evening. He hadn’t heard anything about a storm on the radio. Watching it for a while he was surprised at how dense it looked. At least it was moving slowly.
Rob started the fire. Eating early before the storm hit sounded like a good idea. Bird and Billy arrived and the evening was dam near perfect. Aggie got teased and tickled and the food was superb, Billy threw together a creamy coleslaw and Aggie ate hers on her roll with her steak. Just the way she liked it. The fire died down slowly.
“That storm cloud looks odd” Rob pointed with his beer. They stood looking at the roiling clouds moving along directly on the water. They churned and curled and were a purple-black color.
“Its like something out of an animated movie, those colors” laughed Bird.
“Glad we ate early, we may end up sleeping here.” They often crashed on the couch after a few beers. The sand road was tricky and even more so in a storm.
“That’s settled then.” Rob said, cracking open more beers.
“Ags, into the bath please.” With a sigh the tired little girl moved past her dad exaggerating her speed. He playfully swatted at her butt, but she squealed and maneuvered around it, giggling.
Rob and Billy were eyeing the storm. It was creepy, almost at shore and had a defined edge. There was no wind, no rain, nothing. It was dead quiet. They waited, watching apprehensively.
A sweet-smelling Aggie came bouncing outside.
“Daddy, can…” all 3 adults got a fright causing the little girl to burst out laughing.
Rob scooped her up tickling her tummy. Laughter turned to squeals as she tried to get away, they all laughed.
“Did you brush your teeth?” rolling her eyes, she nodded.
“Come on, I don’t like you outside after you have bathed, come and watch a movie until bedtime.”
‘Ooohh I wanna see Lilo.”
“Again? How about a documentary on penguins…” Rob pretended to look for it as Abbie hugged Bird and Billy goodnight.
“No daddy.” More giggling.
He put the movie on for her, gave her some hot chocolate and covered her with a fluffy blanket. Kissing her forehead, he left her to it.
Bird, Billy and Rob sat watching the slow approaching storm as the sun set. The clouds twisted and turned into themselves, without any noise or lightening, it was very odd.
“It’s quite beautiful.” Bird said.
“Almost spooky though. It’s so quiet.” Billy answered.
They kept chatting to themselves, keeping an eye out but not feeling any concern. They should have. They should have run inland, but they never knew what was coming.
When the wind hit, it was instantly insane. The umbrella shot off in the wind, as did the tablecloth pulling everything off the table. Bird screamed. Billy and Rob jumped up and started collecting things to take inside. The wind beat their ears and threw sand and grass into their eyes. The fire flew into the air filling it with tiny star embers.
“Leave it” Rob shouted. “Just get inside” he forced open the door, standing against it holding it open with difficulty. “Come” he shouted with urgency. All 3 made it inside and Rob managed to ease the door closed in the harsh wind.
They stood back behind the glass in shock. It was dead black now and everything was blowing around. The plastic furniture blew away, leaving the metal chairs and concrete bench. Rain hit the window, sheeting off it, muddy with sand and debris.
“What the hell…” Billy said still wiping his eyes as Bird clung to him. Rob wondered if he looked as scared as they did. None of them could believe the speed and force that the storm had hit. 3 minutes ago they were enjoying the sunset.
Rob checked Aggie, she was fast asleep thank goodness. He made a fire, it was chilly as hell now and he thought it would comfort them. There was a chance the power would go off in this storm and it would keep them warm. The cracking and popping instantly warmed the room, Rob refilled their glasses and they started to settle.
“What the hell…” Bird said this time, walking to the window. “Rob put your outside lights on, there’s someone out there.” Both men shot to the windows and peered into the darkness. Pressing the button Rob gasped and stepped back. Three men stood just at end of the light. Anger filled him, no-one came onto his property without permission.
Forcing the door open against the wind Rob shouted “Hey! Get the hell off my land this is private property.” They just stood there, three dark shadows staring at him. It was creepy as hell. Billy stood behind Rob hoping that as there were two of them, the three men would leave. Suddenly four more shadows appeared behind the men.
“Rob” Billy whispered. He couldn’t hear him against the raging wind, which didn’t seem to affect the intruders. “Rob” he whispered more urgently putting his hand on Rob’s shoulder. “Step back inside. Come” he pulled at Rob. Rob was frustrated and concerned, his daughter was inside and he wouldn’t allow anything to happen to her. Stepping back Rob latched the doors. Bird was dialing the local police on her cell. She explained that there were intruders at the house and asked them to come quickly. They agreed to come straight away.
“Fizzz zap…” the power went out scaring all of them. The men in the yard disappeared into the darkness. The light from the fire danced shadows all over the walls and they were grateful it wasn’t pitch dark. Rob quickly brought 2 emergency power lights from the kitchen hoping that they were fully charged. He put one in the passage and one against the window. He didn’t want to illuminate them inside but couldn’t put the lamp outside due to the screaming wind. They waited.
“The police will be here soon, not to worry” Billy patted Bird’s cold hand. She stared at the windows knowing that they were out there still. Slowly they saw the men close in to just outside the circle of light. Rob ran to the dresser, getting out his gun he shoved it into the back of his shorts. He picked up Aggie and carefully hid her in her blanket behind the couch. He prayed she wouldn’t wake up if he had to shoot, it was an impossible request.
The men stepped forward all at once into the light and stood almost against the glass. Bird gasped, too terrified to scream, they stared. These weren’t men at all, they were … creatures. None had ever seen anything like them before. They looked like something out of a pirate horror movie. Dressed as men, their bodies were covered with waving, clawing plants! Some looked like feathers, some like ferns, all were black and spine-chilling. Several had suckers on the end that seemed to be tasting the air, their tiny mouths opening and closing continuously. Black, lifeless eyes stared out of pale, puffy faces. They were dripping wet. That was an understatement, the water was pouring from them. It was terrifying.
“Move!” Rob screamed running to collect Aggie. Bird and Billy just stood there shocked. “Move!” he screamed again, this time they did, grabbing the passage lamp as they went. They heard the men step through the glass door as if it wasn’t there. Glass rained down, tinkling on the tiles. Rob was too terrified for Aggie to even worry about damage. He ran into the laundry room, the only room in the house that had a strong door and tiny window.
Aggie woke up with the crash and clung to her dad. “Ssshhhhh, its ok” he smiled down at her scared face. “Its fine we are safe now”.
“What is it dad?”
“Its some bad people hon, they are inside but we are safe locked in here. They can take all the valuables, we can replace them.”
Aggie’s eyes filled with tears “What about Bambi?”
“Your teddy? He’s fine!” Rob said with conviction. “They only want money, cell pho…” The scratching at the door scared the hell out of them and this time Bird screamed, a high-pitched wail that pierced their ears.
Rob tried to put Aggie down but she was going nowhere. Billy stepped forward and banged on the door, “Leave us alone, the police will be here any minute. Take what you want and leave us alone or I will shoot you.” He said with much bravado, belying his pale face. The noise moved away for the time being, they sighed with relief.
“What the f…hell were those things?” Rob asked glancing at his daughter. Billy who had studied marine biology said, “I have seen something like this before, but I can’t believe it.”
“What?” Bird and Rob said together.
“Er… they… they look like zoophytes.”
“What?” they said together again, making Aggie smile.
“Zoophytes. They are animals that usually resemble plants. They can grow on a host but how the hell they grew on humans…”
“Zoophytes?” Rob repeated. ‘Do they take over the body or…?” he just looked confused.
“I’m not sure they can take over a body and I have never heard of them growing on humans.” He shook his head, struggling to explain.
“They live in the sea and attach themselves to a host, then grow. Usually they don’t affect the host much, if research is to be believed and no-one has ever seen them. Zoophytes died out centuries ago, only drawings remain. No photographs or modern research exists.” Billy pulled his hand through his hair making it stick up in all directions. “I can’t believe it” he said to himself again.
“Bang” they all screamed.
“Bang” the creatures were trying to get in through the door.
“I will shoot” Rob shouted. “Leave us alone.”
They all backed away, shielding Aggie. Rob looked around, petrified he realized his mistake. They couldn’t get out. The tiny window that he thought would give protection, allowed no escape. They were trapped, they would have to fight. “Here!” he handed Billy a broom and Bird a mop. They stood shoulder to shoulder, a ragtag group with limited weapons. Scared and determined.
Two bangs and the door hinges sagged like an old lady’s chest. It wouldn’t hold. Aggie was crying and Rob did his best to comfort her, they were all frightened. The door gave in and landed in pieces on the floor, they all stared. A huge, ugly creature stood before them. The zoophytes wiggled grotesquely out of the “man’s” cheek, along his chin and from behind his neck.
“What do you want?” Rob screamed, brandishing his gun.
“We need stock.” A wet, watery voice said, confusing the group.
“Take what you need and leave us alone.”
“We need stock. Of men.”
“What? I…I don’t understand” Bird said in a shaky voice.
“Every 100 years we can walk on land to add to our crew.”
Rob looked at Billy “We’re not going anywhere, go somewhere else.”
“Choose one or we take you all. You cannot fight us, we are too strong.”
“It’s the curse!” Billy shouted.
“Remember Rob, your father told us about this. The “Man-O-War” curse. The ship that collects men and makes them join the crew! We laughed at the time, but he was serious. Remember…”
Rob did but never believed it.
“It cant be.” Shock filled his voice. “You cannot take any of us. Not one. We will fight!”
“Its pointlesssss.” The watery voice continued, its zoophytes looping and waving in the air as it took a menacing step forward.
“Choose one or you all go.”
This can’t be happening Rob thought. Looking at Aggie, he felt such a wave of love for her that his eyes filled with tears. Maybe its just a nightmare he thought desperately, but he knew it wasn’t. He couldn’t believe that a horror story he had heard many times as a child, was real. It was awful. One of them would have to go. Maybe he could escape once Aggie was safe.
“I will go.”
“NO…” Aggie screamed and Billy and Bird grabbed his arm. Dropping to his knees, he hugged his daughter, imprinting her smell and warmth onto his soul, in case he never saw her again. Aggie sobbed, clinging to him and his heart broke.
Rob pulled a screaming, clinging Aggie off him and handed her to Bird, tears in his eyes and stepped forward. Rob hugged Billy and Bird, stared into Aggies tearful face and turned away. The creature stepped back to allow him past. Suddenly everything went black. Rob awoke a few minutes later to Aggie and Bird crying and trying to revive him. Billy had whacked him on the head and taken his place.
“Noooo” Rob ran outside but the clouds were already over the sea. He ran onto the beach, screaming for Billy. They continued on their way, having fulfilled their quota and were returning to the sea. Rob sat down hard on the wet beach, crying for his friend. Billy had sacrificed himself for all 3 of them and he loved him for it. Tears flowed.
The police didn’t believe the story they told and spent weeks searching for Billy. They never found a trace of him. Eventually their suspicions subsided and it became a cold case.
No-one ever heard from Billy again. Although he spent years looking out to sea, the cloud never returned in Rob’s lifetime. But his gratitude and love for his friend remained strong.