Pack Animals

A short story that explores the complexity of one woman’s independence, of wanting to be free of a man, but wanting to be part of the pack…

by: Kristina Tate

Kate sat in a quiet cove, gazing at the blue-green water like she’d done every morning for two months. In Kuta, unlike in Texas where she grew up, or even in L.A. where she went to art school, it was easy for Kate to be alone. She’d just been for a swim and was watching the surfers in the distance. She liked the way their bodies whipped through the waves, gliding up, down, over and across, as though floating, before they were swallowed by the sea again. They had a kind of control maneuvering nature that Kate had always lacked. When the waves lifted them, instead of being knocked off balance, they were standing tall, riding the current.

Salty air rushed into her lungs and sand warmed the backs of her thighs. The beach was sheltered by two giant cliffs folded into a peculiar W, creating the perfect protected splash of sand and water. Several feet from where Kate sat lay the ashen colored mutt that had been periodically showing up wherever Kate went. Unlike the hundreds of other strays that roamed the island, who traveled in packs, begging tourists for scraps or chasing the chickens that ran free, this girl seemed to be a loner. Like me, Kate thought. She gave the dog a nod, and with her finger, scribbled a drawing in the sand, wiped the markings away, and scribbled another.

Lombok, an Indonesian island, was home for the summer. After a couple of weeks visiting various towns around Bali, Kate had sought Lombok specifically because it wasn’t Bali. For years after reading Eat, Pray, Love, Kate had harbored an embarrassing reverence for Bali. She, like so many of the young women she’d come to know in L.A., believed in its transcendence, but when she arrived a couple of months earlier, what she found instead were overcrowded streets, crammed with people and motorbikes that zipped in and out of chaotic tangles of cars, trucks, and more motorbikes. As Kate had walked the streets of Seminyak, all sorts of random motorcyclists had stopped and asked her if she needed a ride. No? Miss didn’t need a ride? Then please let them refer her to the closest massage parlor, restaurant, or tour guide. In Ubud, the heckling was worse. They were either trying to sell her a ticket to a fire dance, the monkey forest, or the latest yoga studio, sure to provide enlightenment. Kate couldn’t stand it. She’d taken the first ferry out of town, and had happened upon Lombok several hours later.

It was Ramadan so the town was especially quiet. Although Kate wasn’t religious and she didn’t like many aspects of Islam — like the signs outside of mosques instructing women to cover themselves — there were things about Islam that Kate could appreciate. Ramadan, in particular, moved her. The islanders’ belief in Allah was absolute, they starved themselves for him. Kate had never seen such devotion, especially for something completely unseen.

Kate had planned to spend that summer thinking about her future. She’d recently finished art school and her boyfriend, Carlos, had asked her to marry him. But instead she went to coffee shops and the pop up beach bar, and she struck up meaningless conversations frequently about the weather, which was always the same and always amenable for surfing.

Carlos was a venture capitalist, and he was perfect — confident, successful, charismatic, and interesting. But more than that, Carlos was patient. In the year they’d dated, Carlos had always encouraged Kate to follow her heart. He was so very good for her. Why shouldn’t she marry him? she thought. All of their friends were married, his three older brothers and one younger sister had all thrown huge Mexican weddings. They were buying houses, having babies, and throwing the “we” around like it was the most normal thing in the world.

She loved his huge family and how supportive they were of her art — so different than her father. But every time she tried to talk in the “we’s” that Carlos did, her mouth froze. Carlos wanted what his parents had: marriage for over fifty years and a huge, beautiful family. She didn’t blame him. It was what they had always talked about, the escape she had always dreamed of, but the harder Carlos pushed, the more stifling their love became.

She’d packed up some of her sketchbooks and come to Indonesia to think, alone. When she first arrived, she had sent him a couple quick notes — here safely, the food is great — and on that particular morning, she’d gathered her laptop from the hostel, had unlocked her motorbike and started toward the Internet café intending to say more, but then, the ocean was mesmerizing that morning. The dog lay tentatively, with her paws stretched out in front of her, not looking at Kate. She was watching the ocean, too.

Kate did not surf. She’d tried before on a Spring Break trip with Carlos. He had been so patient in helping her slide onto the board again and again, and she’d kept trying because he seemed intent on her learning. But she’d never been able to stand, and instead, she developed a disdain for the sport. Never again did she want to slide her stomach onto a gritty surfboard or feel her body tossed aside by the current as though she were a crumb in the universe. The best part about the surfing in Kuta was that nobody was trying to get her to do it.

Kate’s father was a rose farmer in South Texas. He inherited the Lee Family Rose nursery from his father who had inherited it from his before him. Her mother, a young Maryland darling, with curly brown hair and green eyes, had studied agriculture in Texas. She’d met Kate’s father on a research trip to his farm and was pregnant two months later. When Kate was too small to talk, her mother had packed up and left. Nobody knew where she went, and her father, a stubborn man, never spoke of her. It had always been Kate and her father.

They were not religious people. Kate’s father didn’t believe in anything that he couldn’t see, and the only thing he devoted himself to without refrain was the endless fields of roses. He used to say that the rains came because they were supposed to — not because God was smiling down on them. When she was little while the other farmers gathered at the local church, a small Presbyterian congregation, and prayed for a good crop season, her father sat at home, with his once nightly beer and a bowl of slowly melting vanilla bean ice cream rested on a footstool in front of him. “It ain’t about faith,” he said. “It’s about hard work and planning.”

When Kate was young, their rose nursery was just a small, modest one, supplying roses to neighboring towns and the occasional funeral parlor a few counties over. But the Texas rains had been slim one year and the state went through a crippling drought, and Kate’s father implemented a method of dry farming, using the residual moisture in the soil instead of irrigation. While other farms went out of business, their competition closing by the dozens, theirs flourished. Soon, they were shipping roses to all sorts of far-flung places. They would pack them into huge refrigerated trucks, sending Lee Family Roses to stretches of the country that were unimaginable to Kate.

She’d never traveled, had never been farther than Mexico where she went with friends in high school despite her father’s protestations that “Mexico was a dangerous place.” Sometimes, when she’d help her father with the shipments, she would lock up at the last refrigerated truck, a thousand pink bushels ready for Omaha, Nebraska, close her eyes and imagine what each tiny rose might see on its journey. 

In afternoons back then, Kate used to walk the rows of roses, on her way to the fields to do sketches, and her heart would swell with pride at what her father had accomplished. Then, quickly, as if she had to feel pride first in order to think of anything else, she would start to wonder about the world. Nestled between the square splotches of yellow roses, she’d sit on the cool brown mulch; her head barely reached the splash of canary yellow and she would close her eyes, and listen. Sometimes, if she listened hard enough, she’d swear that she heard something like a gentle voice whispering through the thorny branches: go.

She took art classes at the community college an hour away, and at first her father had supported her exploring degrees at the university nearby, but when she expressed an interest in L.A., he’d grown reticent. “You better marry rich, then,” he started to say often. “If you want to keep making this art, you better find a benefactor.”

She went to L.A. anyway, and conversations with her father became sparse. He wasn’t a communicating man, and when she wasn’t right in front of him, it was harder to connect. On visits home, they moved through the house like ghosts, texting each other from the next room about mundane things like chores or dinner plans and nothing else.

On one visit, right before she was supposed to leave, he came to her room and in his calm, Texas drawl, he said, “It’s time you stay home.” He croaked the words, glancing down at his feet while he kicked the mesh rug of her old bedroom. She wanted to go to him, to throw her arms around his broad shoulders, to promise she wasn’t leaving forever like her mother had, but instead, she stood rooted at the foot of the bed. She could smell the light scent of wet soil emanating from his farming coat.

Was this how her mother had felt? Had she woken up one day, with the Texas wind bouncing off the hills, kissing her cheek, like it had so many times on Kate’s own face, smothering her. There had to be more to life than flowers. Kate looked up and her eyes found her father’s.

He was hurt. “You bring Carl round here. It’s where you belong.” Part of her knew — Carl might be a man her father could get along with. Carlos was another story.

“Okay, daddy,” she said, disgusted by her own lack of courage.

Kate packed up the hundreds of sketches she’d done over the past decade, drawings of animals, the deer and rabbits that lived in the forest behind the rose fields, that had always seemed more real to Kate on paper than they’d ever been in life, and she left her father’s farm. She hadn’t been back in a long time.

Evenings in Kuta came alive. After the locals returned home for prayer and the first meal of the day, tourists — model grade beauties from countries like England and America but mostly Australia — filled the streets. Surfers zoomed by on motorbikes, screaming about evening plans. Stray dogs circled restaurants, weaving in and out of lines of beautiful white people out the door, and the occasional restaurant owner came outside with their switch and held it up, sending the dogs scurrying away and the line of beautiful people rippling with laughter.

Kate was plain compared to the women who glided through Kuta like they were walking on clouds. It seemed to Kate that these women all had long flowing blond hair, and large breasts, and every time she saw one, Kate automatically pictured her running in slow motion, Baywatch-style down the beach. And the men! It was as if their bodies were built from clay. They were chiseled, flawed in just the right places, with tan muscles and perfect beach blown hair.

At the bar, boisterous Indonesian men served beer from a small mobile cart that they wheeled on and off the beach every evening. They lavished all their attention on the Westerners who, the drunker they grew, passed increasingly more rupiah through the cart’s small window. Beach bars were illegal in Kuta, but as long as the local women didn’t frequent them, and the men cleared the beach of evidence regularly, the police turned a blind eye.

Kate ordered a beer, choosing between the normal 12-ounce size and a 40-ounce that was only a dollar more but would surely be warm by the time she’d nursed it to its finish. As she leaned onto the bar’s flimsy wooden counter to pass the smiling bartender some coins, she noticed the bags of fungi scattered along the bar. She picked one up. It was a clear bag, inflated to protect the contents like the one she’d received when she and her father had driven two hours to the main town to get a goldfish in elementary school. Just like every other living thing that Kate had ever owned — a squirrel the size of her fist, a puppy that had been hit by a car two days after they’d gotten it, the dozens of potted plants or science projects, including a small stint with a chia pet that turned moldy around the ears and tail — that goldfish had died. Whatever was inside this plastic bag looked like it was already dead. She shook it. The tiny morsels, like the stems of small wilting flowers, trembled inside the plastic.

“What’s this?” she asked the bartender.

He swooped up the bag that she had been inspecting and moved toward the blender, all the while jabbing his pointed finger between her and the bag. Only then did she realize, with embarrassment, what he meant. “Oh, no, no, no,” she said, shaking her head, snatching her beer, and turning toward the live music. She tripped on her way across the sand and stubbed her toe into one of the bamboo poles. “Fuck,” she cursed under her breath. She bent down and rubbed her toe consolingly. She’d only ventured to the bar because she’d spent that evening sketching, and had become increasingly frustrated. She was trying to draw the cows that drifted freely through Kuta, as though it were grazing ground, but every time she created a new picture, she was disappointed with how flat it felt. She couldn’t capture the mist that clouded over Kuta, folded around Kuta’s animals, and hung above its oceans and cliffs like a snow globe. It was something that couldn’t be drawn. She’d shoved aside her sketches and wandered into the evening instead.

It was hot and sticky. She straightened her back against the bamboo pole. The music vibrated through her chest and Kate took it as a good sign that the pole she leaned against was vibrating too. She’d only finished half of her beer when the fight broke out.

A tall local man grabbed Kate’s arm and yanked her out of the way. He pressed his arm outstretched, across her body, like a mother protecting a child in the front seat when she slams on the brakes. As far as Kate could deduce, two local men were fighting over a Canadian woman, a brunette with long hair that reached her lower back and from the edge of the fight, she was screaming, black mascara running down her face.

In a circle, men like the one who had whisked Kate out of the way, were holding their arms outstretched, keeping people back; they were letting them fight. For a few minutes the fighters tangled back and forth, the circle stretching and tightening around them. They swung to the left, and the man pressed Kate back. They swung right and the crowd pressed her forward. Dogs howled in the distance. The noisy crowd let out raucous, indistinct, calls. There were cheers for the fighting, screams against it, and shared shock. One of the fighters pulled a knife. Its glint caught Kate’s eye. She panicked. “Help!” she screamed. “Knife!”

The man who had protected her, she learned later that his name was Aali, gave her a reassuring smile that Kate understood to mean, we got this. She quieted. The scuffle only lasted a few more moments. The two men, disoriented, were soon carried off by a large group of locals, all of them drunk and laughing; the crying Canadian woman was gone too. The dogs stopped barking, the reggae music resumed, and the crowd dispersed, folks returning to their idle conversation or dancing in small clusters on the sand.

Aali turned to Kate, her heart was still beating hard. “What’s your name?” he asked, and she shook her head at him.

“You don’t have a name?” He was smiling. Like the other surfer boys from Kuta, Aali had long wild hair that he wore down, but his eyes were a surprising shade of green.

“No, I, uh. Kate”

“Where are you from, uh, Kate?”

“I have a boyfriend,” she said. The fact surprised even her as it spilled out—she wanted him to know that she wasn’t like the other Western girls in Kuta.

“That’s great, I have three girlfriends,” Aali said.

“My boyfriend is actually at the hotel waiting for me. We are here together.” Kate leaned back against her trusty bamboo pole. The reggae band was playing Bob Marley’s, “No Woman, No Cry.”

“My three girlfriends are all here. Maybe they will fight next.”

Kate laughed. Aali shrugged. “I’m just kidding. I don’t have three girlfriends, but I would like that.”

“I bet,” Kate said. After that, Kate and Aali became friends. She rarely stayed late at the bar, preferring to avoid the mysterious mushrooms and any unexpected altercations, but she returned nightly, always to chat with Aali.

On the beach one morning, like usual, Kate and her canine friend were the only observers. She’d grown accustomed to watching the same four locals dart in and out of the waves, and now she recognized Aali among them. She nodded as he ran toward her.

“Getting out early, huh?” she said.

Aali pointed at the storm clouds in the distance. “They’ll be here soon, ya,” he said. He whipped his knotted hair around, shaking off the excess seawater. It ran in small diamonds down his thin but defined chest.

Aali slumped in the sand beside her. “So you hear about Baasir?” he asked. Aali liked to tell Kate about Kuta, the gossip, romantic turmoil or the familial intricacies that ran like an undercurrent through Kuta’s foundation. She was beginning to appreciate that Kuta had a different way of doing things. The night of the fight, for example, Kuta’s locals had been policing. They’d allowed the boys to fight because Kutans believed that the altercation should be settled, but when the boy pulled the knife, he’d broken all the unspoken rules that so neatly sewed the laws of Kuta — weapons were forbidden.

“Which one is Baasir again?” Kate asked, folding her legs into a pretzel in the sand and sitting up straighter.

“The guy who pulled the knife,” Aali said.

“Oh right, the one who looked like Will Smith’s son, with the afro.”

Aali laughed. On the night of the fight, Baasir had stabbed the other man for trying to kiss his girl. They’d fought over her like she was property. Who did she want to kiss? It didn’t seem to matter.

Afterward the locals had been divided over the fight, some agreed that Baasir had a right to do what he did, others did not. But Baasir had disappeared and a couple of weeks later, when the girl’s visa had expired, she’d disappeared too.

Aali plucked a shell from the sand and started passing it back and forth from one hand to the other. “He’s been sick,” he said, sighing between hand exchanges. Thunder grumbled in the distance.

“Sick with what?” Sickness was not uncommon in Kuta. Often folks were stung by mosquitoes carrying malaria or even dengue and they’d be taken to the hospital a few hours away, in a city much more sophisticated than Kuta, but Aali’s answer startled her.

“They put a spell on him.”

It wasn’t the first time Aali had mentioned black magic. Many Kutans believed in magic. But it was the first Kate had heard about spells. She stared at him.

“He almost died,” Aali went on.

Kate could tell from his gaze that Aali believed what he was saying. “Who cast the spell?” she asked, finally.

“Dahi’s Mother. She practiced the black magic for years.” Aali flung the shell out into the sand in front of them.

“Why?”

“She wanted to kill him, for stabbing her son.”

“Will he die?”

“No. Baasir’s mother went and begged her to lift the spell. They went to the hospital together. But she said if her son ever has a weapon out like that again, she’ll cast another and she won’t lift it for nothing.”

Aali pointed to the clouds that were growing darker and he stood. “Don’t stay too long,”

“Do you think it worked?” Kate asked before he was gone.

“What?”

“The spell? Do you think Baasir will bring another knife to the bar?”

Aali tucked his surfboard beneath his arm. “Hell no.”

She laughed. “I’m sorry, but that’s absurd.”

“You don’t believe in magic?”

She didn’t hesitate. “No, I don’t.”

“Stick around,” Aali said.

Carlos was an advocate of talk-therapy and had been seeing the same psychologist twice a week since he’d gotten sober seven years earlier. He believed in self-awareness and applied his learnings to their relationship with vigor. Before long, Carlos had Kate seeing a psychologist too. Kate was timid at first, but during their sessions, they discussed art school and her anxieties about failure, and when she suddenly found herself unable to draw, she turned to the therapist for help. In their sessions, he asked about Kate’s past. She was up front about it: her mother left when she was young, she sometimes had fears of abandonment, but she didn’t think her problem with art had anything to do with that. Later, when the therapist started probing into what Kate had long considered to be a very tidy bundle of emotions around her father, she found herself increasingly agitated.

The therapist was a thin man with an agile face, straight out of a Kandinsky painting, and he wore glasses on the very tip of his nose that he was constantly pushing up throughout their sessions. “Perhaps you cannot draw because your father doesn’t accept you,” he’d said one day.

Startled, Kate bit her lip. “Like I am subconsciously seeking his love by not doing art?” After months of therapy and a year dating Carlos, Kate had become versed in the language they threw around like ping-pong balls.

“Carlos tells me he’s never met your father.” The therapist scribbled on his notepad. He re-fixed his pointed nose at her. “Perhaps, there’s a deeper reason for that.”

“My father is in Texas.”

“Sometimes it’s the answer that we think it’s not,” the therapist said, pausing to jot something down.

Kate shifted on the black leather couch. It was the middle of a heat wave in L.A. and the backs of her thighs clung to the sticky surface like Saran wrap laid flat on a countertop. They made a loud sucking sound as she peeled them off to readjust.

“He wants to get married,” she finally said.

“Oh?” The therapist’s pen scratched again. “Do you?”

Kate hesitated. “Like you said, he’s never met my father.”

That night, after Kate told Carlos of the therapist’s behavior, calling him peculiar, they cooked dinner and speculated. “What was he scribbling?” Kate said, a question just as directed at Carlos as it was to the empty space.

“Oh, don’t get too caught up on that.” Carlos waved his hand.

“But, can’t some of it be off the record? I just feel like he’s documenting my every word.” Even as she said it, Kate thought she sounded paranoid. It wasn’t that she didn’t want documentation to exist, it was that she wasn’t yet ready to face what the documentation said.

“It can be annoying,” Carlos said.

Kate noted, he’s acknowledging my feelings like he’s supposed to.

“I understand why you’re feeling that way.”

He’s validating my feelings. He’s supposed to do that too.

“Try not to get too stressed. He’s trying to help you.”

He’s making light. He’s dismissing. Is he dismissing?

Kate’s head began to hurt. She speared the zucchini that Carlos had just piled onto her plate, and shoveled it into her mouth. 

It was two weeks later that Carlos had started bringing her three canary yellow roses once a month. Each time, he came home, his tall dominant figure charging into the kitchen with a sweet, half smile on his face, and all she could hear was: call your father.

When the first drop fell, Kate was still at the beach, staring at an enthusiastic dot on the horizon. She wondered if maybe it was a bird, or perhaps a dolphin, trapped there between the sun and the water. The wetness of the rain surprised her, and then the warmth had been unexpected. It wasn’t her first tropical storm since being in Kuta, but it was the first that she’d been immersed in. Marveling at it, she completely forgot about the laptop in her bag. She leapt up.

Her motorbike was parked behind the skeleton of an old bamboo awning, its roof fallen and deteriorating. She was drenched by the time she reached the shelter of a cafe awning. Frantic, she ripped her bag from the front basket and ran under the patio. It was early, and the cleverly named ‘Corner Café’ wasn’t open yet. She threw her bag on one of the outside tables and began fumbling with the zippers.

“No, no, no!” she said, cursing under her breath. She felt someone staring at her, and slowly she looked up.

“How’s the surf?” a man asked, his tone friendly.

It was as if he’d spoken French. She stared at him and then down at her bag.

“You speak English?”

“I don’t surf,” Kate said to the inside of her bag.

“But you’ve just been to the beach?”

Kate held her soaked laptop and looked at the man. She remembered that she was wearing her bathing suit. “I was at the beach,” she managed.

“Well? How are the waves?”

Kate wanted to scream. Her laptop was ruined! But her upbringing restrained her. Kate’s father was always saying that no matter how rude someone was it did not warrant rudeness in return. She noticed the giant surfboard at the man’s feet.

“Wet,” she said.

“You reckon?” he smiled. “I’m Peter.”

Only then did Kate take in how handsome the man was. His beard, peppered with white specks, was unshaven and stubbly. He had on a backwards hat and bits of his brown-grey hair shot messily out from beneath. She guessed that he was mid-forties, possibly even fifty.

“I’m Kate.”

“Well, I hope you get your lappy sorted, Kate.” Peter’s Aussie accent was suddenly apparent.

“Thanks,” she muttered. She looked down at her soaked things and thought of what a mess she appeared. Her hair was wet from the rain and scraggly from days without washing. She still smelled of sea salt and sand, a body odor that she secretly adored, but was the first thing Carlos used to complain about on their beach vacations.

Kate scooted her ass along the sand’s coarse sparkling surface — like diamonds, she thought. It had been exactly eight days since she’d met Peter. Peeee-ter. His name rolled off her tongue like the unraveling of a fruit roll-up, or a tingling thistle of tumbleweed. Tingling thistles.

“Thistle,” She laughed.

“Thistle?” Peter asked.

She pressed her body against his. Their fingers found the others’, interlaced. As the waves lapped against the shore licking the tips of their toes, the moon, hoisted high above them, cast a spotlight across their bodies, across the huge looming rock near the coast where all the beachgoers and partiers usually peed, pee rock.

The wind blew a light gust showering them in warm air. She pulled the breeze over her, allowing it to roll like a wave — it was part of her, she part of it — and she melted into Peter’s body. “This is the picture of perfect,” she said, feeling like she could relax for the first time since leaving L.A., maybe for the first time ever.

He sighed. “I knoooow.” His ooooo’s exhaled into space. This man, this beach, this warmth, was hers. A feeling that was ancient, like what she had imagined to be the meaning of everything filled her every crevice. From the tips of her fingers, to the tiny spaces between each of her toes, she could feel that this was right. She knew this man — from another life?

“Do you believe in magic?” Peter whispered.

She wanted to scream. To exalt. To promise to the universe and beyond: YES.

What felt like hours later, Peter nudged her. An array of dogs barked in the distance and the beach party that was still jingling behind them brought Kate back to the present: Indonesia, a beach, nestled into the armpit of a strange man. She sat up suddenly.

“Whoa,” Peter said. “You ok?”

Kate told him that she didn’t know. The mushrooms they’d shared sent her senses into unexpected waves of tumult and then catapulted into desire before wafting into a comfortable space of safety. Kate had been unsure about the mushrooms when Peter had ordered them a shake to split. “Don’t worry, doll, I’ll look out for you,” he’d whispered in her ear, and she had wanted to let him.

Everything around her was pulsing. Pee rock, with its thin layer of fuzzy moss, glowed in the soft light of the moon. She remembered Carlos, his parents, art school, the impending marriage. Her father.

Peter’s voice was soothing. He went on, talking about serenity and peace, and she felt the blanket wrap around her again. Kate’s dress was riding up her thigh and Peter pulled it down gently, covering her leg. A group from the bar swayed by, walking toward pee rock, glowing like angels.

The mushrooms came in waves and for a moment, the world rooted in place. “I have to pee,” Kate announced. She rested her shoulder on Peter’s chest. He smelled like sea salt and sweat. She licked her lips. “Are you coming with me?”

“To pee?”

She nodded. Normally she wasn’t out late enough to need pee rock, but all evening, she’d seen women going in groups, holding hands, escorts.

“I’ll wait for you here,” Peter said, and she didn’t argue.

She took a deep breath, and gathered her strength. Walking on the sand was like climbing along the moon; her limbs were buoyant, but she couldn’t quite get her footing. A few steps in, she established a rhythm.

Though mere feet away, pee rock was a pilgrimage. It was a limestone karst, partially in the water and partially on the sand. She walked around the side, trying to find a place where she’d be hidden from the moonlight. Her feet partially in the water, she pulled down her underwear and hovered over the ocean, using the moss-covered rock for balance. Heat flowed over her as she released her bladder. She sighed, and then remembered herself. Looking around, she tried to discern whether she was alone.

At the edge of the rock, where the water was deeper, she saw a figure crouched in the shadows.

Suddenly alert, she narrowed her gaze. Was it real? The figure moved slightly and she could make out the outline of long arms. She peed faster, commanding her bladder to empty, but this was the pee that would never end. Like a crab, she stepped one foot sideways, away from the man.

The stars sparkled furiously and she felt another wave coming on.

“Hey!” she screamed, trying to scare the man, “Stay away!”

When he moved towards her, she yanked her pants up, not caring whether they were covered in pee and she turned to flee.

She found Peter splayed on the shore.

“There was a man!” she said, frantic.

“What? Where?” Peter sat up and took her hand. She was safe, but her heart beat like an animal against her chest.

“He was watching me pee.”

“What?” Kate detected fury in Peter’s voice and she looked up with a start. “Where is he now?” Peter didn’t wait for an answer. He stomped away, leaving her standing in the spot where he’d been laying. A few minutes later, he returned, shaking his head. “He’s not there now. What a pervert!”

Kate had calmed down, and she was sitting in the cool sand.

“I never should have let you go alone,” Peter said. He paced in front of her and she could see the heat rising from his shoulders, lifting into the night sky.

“I’m ok,” Kate said.

“I never should have let you go I didn’t even think about it.”

“I don’t need a companion every time I have to pee, just at night.”

“Wait, every night?”

Kate laughed, but suddenly she was exhausted. As a woman traveling alone in a foreign country, there were all kinds of things Kate didn’t do alone. Pee rock was just the beginning. She didn’t walk the streets alone at night. She didn’t make large purchases without help. She tried not to go home alone, though sometimes that was unavoidable. She always pressed a doorstop beneath her door, and checked all the locks before sleeping.

Peter looked stunned when he finally sat down. “I’ve never thought about that.”

Kate rested her hand on his arm. It was warm, and his arm hair was soft like a blanket. She didn’t respond. The ocean lapped onto the shore and then ran back out again.

“We should go,” Peter said after a while. She gave him her hand and he lifted her off the sand. “Katie,” he said, his words like a whisper that had been on his lips for years. “Let’s go home.”

They reasoned they should drive their motorbikes since it was common for thieves to graze the area after the inebriated tourists wandered home, but on the walk, Kate started to worry. Could she really drive? Should she go with this man?

“I’m too afraid,” she said, stopping between the beach bar and the parking lot.

“To drive?” Peter was clinging to her hand, his fingers woven tightly through hers.

She nodded. It was dark and the wind had picked up slightly. “I don’t want to.”

“I’ll be right beside you.”

Kate ran her free hand down her face. “I don’t know you.”

“You know me.” Peter’s voice was firm. He was so sure. But she couldn’t see his face. The dogs began barking in the distance.

“I don’t.”

The dogs barked louder. One came running from the beach. Two followed. Then another. And another. The wind swirled around them, running toward Kate and Peter at full speed. Kate recognized her ashen-colored mutt from the beach, though she had never seen her in a group before. Some of them nipped at the others, yelping and screeching like a roar of canine fury.

Kate continued, a scream now. “I don’t!”

“You have to calm down,” Peter begged.

Energy pulsed through Kate. The molecules in her arms, the pores of her skin, the organs in her chest, were all pressing against her harder, harder, harder. She was surging.

The dogs barked like mad. They were crazed, looking to Kate for direction. Kate lifted her arms, standing before them like a wizard. She heard the intelligible cry of a woman. She realized the cry was hers. She closed her mouth. The barking stopped. The wind calmed. Peter, beside her, stared in awe. He looked between her and the dogs. He never let go of her hand.

 

Kristina Tate’s work has been published with NarrativelyGuernicaBOMB, and Proximity Magazine and is forthcoming in the print issue of Inside Himalayas. She is currently working on a memoir about trauma and the healing powers of female friendship, as well as a novel that explores relationships within an immigrant community in South Lake Tahoe. You can find more about Kristina at her website kristinatate.com

Header art by Jessica Watts.

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