No way can anyone have got behind me. I’d have heard them. The tangled driftwood at the end of the crack is impossible to get through without smashing whole branches. Only tiny lizards can move silently there.
This is my place. My little beach. I like to be alone here.
But, a couple of metres away, a girl crouches on the sand like she’s about to pounce on me. Reflected firelight weaves across her pointed nose and high cheekbones. She’s looking me up and down, sniffing the air and cocking her head to one side. She looks about my age, seventeen.
A girl, alone on a beach, in the dark.
She didn’t swim here. This place is cut off until after dawn and, anyway, her T-shirt and jeans are dry. That means climbing down twenty metres of smooth, vertical rock. That’s impossible too.
Her wide eyes look me up and down. There’s a tension in her that could snap whole trees.
I say, ‘I’m Jason. It’s OK. You’re safe with me. I won’t hurt you.’
A thundering wave crashes among the boulders. It roars and rattles loose shingle, then hisses and retreats with a sad whisper.
The girl crouches feet apart, one hand on the sand, fingers digging in.
She’s weird, a bit frightening.
I offer her toasted mackerel on a stick. It sizzles and drips. My mouth waters as the steam wafts to my face. I break a piece off and bite into it, my lips sucking, pillaging the juice and rich oils. I wave the rest at her.
I say, ‘Come on, take it. I’ll cook another. A fire, a fish and a stick, what more can a person wish for?’
I look at my row of mackerel on the sand. Fresh and hard, shining spearheads of blue and silver. I’m a good hunter, fast in the water. I don’t go hungry. There’s plenty for her as well.
With a bamboo tube, I blow my embers white hot. Sparks dash out, twirling and dancing. The growing blaze lights up a crater and disturbed sand behind the girl. So, she jumped from the top of the cliff and landed there.
She should be dead.
Shit, she’s right beside me. I didn’t see her move. Her toes touch the barbs of my harpoon.
She’s all raw, animal power. Like some predator that has me trapped. I’m calm, the frozen moment that goes with knowing there’s nothing you can do. Give in; wait to see what happens next.
Ignoring the fish, she puts her hand in my hair and tips my head back. Her face is millimetres from mine. She’s panting and looking at me through huge pupils. Her nose goes to my mouth and I hear her deep intake of breath as I exhale. She buries her face in my hair for long moments, her cheek rubbing my head as she sniffs my scalp. She’s so confident, just doing what she wants. I don’t have any say in what happens.
She radiates fierce heat and musk, the smell of wildness. A sharp tang that switches my pulse from fast to faster. Her red curls fall over my face. I breathe through them. I’ve never come across such a scent, so deep and heady.
She sighs and rocks back. Her shoulders and limbs curve and twist in an odd way. It’s like her body moves in tune with her emotions and thoughts. If I’m right, she’s confused at the moment.
She kneels in the sand, fingertips splayed on it. She tips her head up. Her laughter, pure joy, echoes from cliffs and cuts through the roar of another wave.
I wish I could catch her laughter and listen forever.
She takes the stick from me and sniffs hot mackerel. The tip of her tongue licks its length and her eyes widen again. They fill with mischief and she says, ‘I’m safe with you. You won’t hurt me.’
But she talks as if she’s just copying my words and tones.
My head is a storm of hopes, surprise and confusion all striking sparks from each other. She’s jumped down from a fatal height, her skin is hotter than is possible and she’s behaving like some wild animal.
She’s licking the fish and whispering ‘Anna,’ again and again. I ask her if that’s her name.
Her head goes on one side. She stops moving, just looks at me. She whispers, ‘Anna… Fish anna stick.’ Her lips break up the tender fish and pull morsels off. Her tongue flicks over glistening lips. ‘Is that my name?’ Her head goes back, there’s that feral laugh again breaking through the air. ‘Anna is my name!’
I slide another mackerel on my stick and thrust the end in the sand. The fish waves over the embers. Smoke curls round its shimmering skin.
* * * *
These few days with Anna by my side: perfect. I didn’t know life could be so good, a person so intoxicating.
She talks more now. Like me, she knows loads of words. It’s like she’s not really used them much, but she’s so fast at learning.
She’s still a mystery and winds me up by making me guess who or what she is. But it’s all fun, a game we play.
She can act so normal at times. We’ve even gone for a meal.
A tiny town, near my beach, on the south coast of England. A restaurant by the shore. An outside table for two, lit with a candle. I’ve never had money to buy food. Anna has though, even twenty-pound notes. I don’t know where from.
She circles the last fragment of moussaka with her fork and gazes past her slender fingers through the plate and the table… like she’s staring into infinity.
Her huge, dark eyes flick up to mine. I see them move. It takes effort to stop looking at the dancing candlelit shadows of the red curls on her forehead.
Her lips smile and open, she asks, ‘Are you thinking about Pre-Raphaelites again?’
We looked at the pictures today, in a magazine we found on the beach. She lapses into silence.
Lots of long intimate silences these days.
She says, ‘It’s so sweet, you and me. You know what I like best? When you lay your head on my shoulder and stroke the side of my neck with your lips, like you’re hardly touching me. I wish I could let you do that forever, but I go wild every time.’
My mind reels and seizes up. I’ve just realised that everything has changed for me. I don’t just have a now, I have a future: a life with Anna. All sorts of things could happen. I ask her about us having a child; would it be like her or me? She leans her head in her left hand, her eyes reflecting candlelight and adding laughter.
Her pupils grow, questions in them. She says, ‘I don’t know. Does it matter if it’s like me? I am what I am and not so different to you as you think. A slate falls from a roof and kills someone. A cat catches a bird. Our feet crush insects as we walk over grass. There is no good or bad, right or wrong. You live your way, I live mine.’
She puts the fork down and says, ‘I’m still so hungry, but I really want to walk along the beach. It’s a lovely night, another night of our forever.’
Warm evening air and the smell of sea. When the moon breaks through the faint, high cloud, the beach glows. Our hands interlock and swing to the hiss of bare feet on sand. Long, lazy crescents of foam glow on the sea, crowding together by the land. Anna leans her head on my shoulder. Her fingers stroke the seaweed necklace I made for her this morning.
‘You are kind and thoughtful,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know people could be like that.’
She drops her sandals, pulls me to a stop, lifts my T-shirt over my head and leans her head on my chest. Her skin almost burns against mine; she’s excited about something.
‘We’re so lucky,’ she says, licks my nipples, glances up at me and tells me she wants to swim.
She adds, ‘Lie on me. It’s all right; I’m stronger than you could believe. I know… another bit of my weirdness. Lie on my front, and I’ll do backstroke.’
We’re naked in moments and racing into the sea until the water drags around my thighs and I fight against the resistance. It doesn’t slow Anna. A huge sheet of spray erupts, like the water is trying to get away from her. She turns and falls back. I lie on her, resting my elbows on hot shoulders.
I lick salty spray from her face as she surges through the sea. She’s so strong. My head and back don’t touch the surf. Her arms hardly make splashes. Arcs of minute bubbles gleam behind her hands.
Anna is so hot. I press against her to keep warm. She laughs.
We return to the beach. I can’t see our clothes. Anna doesn’t care.
She lets me go and pirouettes in the sand. How can she be so graceful and have so many knees, elbows and angles? The moonlight reflects from small tanned breasts.
‘You’re safe with me!’ She laughs the words. An announcement, not a question.
I tell her I know.
She says, ‘Not like that. You know I’d never hurt you. I mean I can keep you safe. It’s a promise.’ She turns, points up the beach and asks, ‘Can you see that man?’
‘No.’ I wish I could see in the dark as well as she can.
‘He’s found our clothes and he’s holding my underwear. Can you see the moonlight on his knife?’
‘A knife?’ My heart beats faster, muscles tense. No one will hurt Anna, not with me here.
‘Jason, I don’t think he’s a very nice person.’ She takes my hand and leads me towards him. She’s stroking my arm and telling me not to be nervous. She’s giggling, confident, walking fast.
I hear the tearing and snapping of wood as the man breaks a piece of railing from a beach hut.
Anna’s fingers grow hotter, her eyes wider. She’s more hunting animal than human, like when I first saw her.
Close now, the man looks big and strong. He has the knife in one hand; the other holds the broken railing as a club. As we approach, his eyes take in Anna’s body and turn to me, sizing me up.
Naked and all smiles, Anna dances towards him and takes his hand. He’s tense. I think her friendliness and lack of fear confuse him.
I watch. She lifts his knuckles to her lips.
His mouth flops open. Eyes roll up. He’s dead and collapsing. Features disappear as if he’s a shapeless bag of liquid. He spreads out flat among his clothes, and shrinks.
Anna still grips his hand, sucks him in. All of him. Like she’s taking the deepest breath in the world. Like she’s inhaling a crumpled sack. The last bit of the man’s skin and body whips from his sleeve, snaps between her fingers and into her mouth. His empty clothes lie crumpled on the sand.
She leans forward a little, her arms stiff and straight behind her. A sea breeze wraps hair across her face. She laughs; a pure, wild, happy sound. She skips to me and takes my hand.
She laughs again. ‘I don’t need to eat for weeks.’
Her head goes on one side, hands on my shoulders. She asks, ‘You all right?’
I tell her I’m fine, and kiss her eyelids. I’m confused: dizzy. I don’t know how I feel. She just killed someone, right in front of me, but it seemed natural, not evil, not wrong. A cat catches a bird…
She returns to the man’s clothes and undoes buttons, unties laces.
Looking up at me she says, ‘It’s like he took his clothes off and went swimming.’
She takes some of his money, but not all of it. The leather wallet creaks as she slips it back into the man’s jeans. She passes the notes to me, spins the piece of railing, whirring it in the air, and catches it with the other hand.
She says, ‘Then we throw this stick back by the beach hut, and everyone’s happy.’
It flies too fast for me to see, but moonlit sand bursts up in front of the hut and the stick clatters against the railings. We get our clothes, grabbing, tangling and throwing or snatching them from each other.
Giggling, she puts her bra round my chest. It doesn’t fit. I blow a raspberry on her belly button.
Dressed again, we hug. More perfect silence. I’m calm and only a bit troubled. Whatever Anna is, I can’t see evil in her. I’ve hunted fish and lobsters for years, so I kill too.
We walk by the water, our fingers tangled. The wavelets caress the sand again and again, stroking and whispering into it.
* * * *
Anna’s soft voice tells me the sun is rising, that the tide is coming back, and there’s blue, blue sky. ‘I want a kiss, whether you’re awake or not,’ she whispers through the blanket. It’s wrapped around me and I’m wrapped around Anna, warm and musky Anna, who eats people, who can jump from cliffs, who doesn’t feel the cold. The only person who’s ever loved me.
The air is warm already; it’s going to be another hot day in the hottest summer I’ve ever known.
She asks, ‘Can we get eggs today? From the farm, not the supermarket. I don’t want one good one and the rest all pale and manky, like last time.’
I open the blanket. My lips travel up her neck and kiss the corner of her jaw. The deep natural scent of un-perfumed hair drives me mad.
‘Nice,’ she moans, ‘But I want a proper kiss.’
‘How can you be talking about food already? I thought you didn’t need to eat for ages.’
‘Stop giggling at me, Jason. I like food. Today I fancy eggs, lots and lots of them. Fried.’
Her thin fingers invade my hair, tangling, tightening. She pulls my head up so my cheek brushes hers. She tells me she won’t get fat, and asks, ‘Would you still love me if I was fat?’ She’s rubbing the tip of her nose against mine.
I laugh and say, ‘If you got really fat, I could fold you around me and then I wouldn’t need a blanket.’
‘If I got that fat, you’d never find the bits of me you like to play with.’
‘Yes I would.’
Anna releases me and rises with the grace of a lynx. Lithe, wild, like her body is saying, ‘Look at me… danger.’
I roll over and sit up. Sand hisses from the blanket.
Two crescents of foam miles away in the bay, fast boats making white curves. Anna’s head goes on one side. She’s frowning and staring through me.
She says, ‘Look at me and see what you don’t expect to see. Let your eyes pick up what’s there, not just what you think should be there.’
I look at her, through her.
She shakes her head and says, ‘Stop your brain telling you what it thinks I should look like, and see me properly.’
Half my mind says it’s too early for stuff like this. The rest thinks dawn is probably the right time for magic and fairies. I try to look at her like I do with those newspaper pictures that go three-dimensional.
There’s a fragment of something spectral, iridescent red and blue. No, it’s gone. Yes, a pattern, like the shell of some symmetrical sea-creature, beautiful, complex. It radiates behind her, flows as she moves, like a flashing cloak blown upwards.
I say, ‘Is that you? You’re even more beautiful… What’s that?’
‘That’s me, all of me. I’m not very big. I don’t want to be, not since I met you. What you see is that man yesterday, what’s too big to fit in me. Some of us have the same thing as that but huge…’
Her eyes widen, pupils dilate, muscles stiffen. She looks down at her jeans. Fingers jab into her pocket. She snatches a black object from it.
I say, ‘I didn’t know you had a phone. How do you keep it charged…?’ But she’s ignoring me. I’ve never seen her look worried. She looks around, head and shoulders turning, hair flying out. Looking everywhere, like she’s being hunted.
Her eyes lock on mine, she pushes the phone back into her pocket.
She wraps around me, her hot tears on my face.
She’s crying and saying, ‘Jason! You never met me. All you saw was a girl looking at you from the top of the cliff over there. She jumped down and ran into the sea.’
Then Anna pulls away, all tears and choking sobs. She tugs money from her jeans, notes scatter. She pushes the rest into my hands.
She shouts, ‘I love you!’ Sand flies up from her feet. She runs so fast. Into the sea. Spray rises ten metres in a rainbow fan.
Reviews of Expect Civilian Casualties:
“It was poetry, it was travesty, it was dramatic and tragic and beautiful and horrendous and infinite.
But hot damn, this just redid my circuits. My scale of value was reinvented. How am I supposed to judge other books now?” Goodreads.
“Written in seemingly simple prose that wastes no words, the story evolves in a fast-moving plot that kept me on the edge of my seat. Bonn has the ability to move seamlessly from scene to action-packed scene with hardly a hint at what the outcome will be. And he’s created an addictive protagonist that I miss dreadfully now I’ve finished the book.” Amazon Reviews.
“Bonn’s ideas are strong, his characters are lovely and the breathless journey he takes us on just has to be experienced. It’s a book that compels you to be in the moment and ride it out even when the world moves so fast we can’t know right from wrong, or who to trust. Be like Jason… just go with it.” Goodreads.