Twisting and turning, the narrow, rocky path sloped downward till I could barely see the top of the cliff to my left. As though creaking in the wind, a low moaning sound passed through the dense brambles on either side of me and through the overhanging trees, but the air was still. It filled my lungs with its weight. At last the path widened, the brush fell away, and I saw the wide beach stretched out some two yards below where I stood, and in the distance, the sea.
As I stepped out of the forest shadows, the heat of the afternoon rushed down on me like a blast from a smelter, and I dropped my beach bag. The sun hung high in a cloudless sky, so intense it blotted out the blue. It seemed to drip liquid fire onto the burning sand. I had moved from a world of gray into a world of white – not a blade of beach grass poking through the white sand that stretched uninterrupted beneath a white sky until it merged into the blinding white patina of the sun reflected on the sea.
A small scattering of naked men sat or lay on the beach, soaking up the sun. It surprised me not to see a single beach umbrella. Surely they would blister, no matter how much sunscreen coated their skin. Then it struck me. Not one of them had a blanket to lie on or even a towel. I bent down to check that I had brought enough water and had a full bottle of sunscreen. My bag had disappeared. Could I have left it in the car?
I was about to go back for it when I stopped to admire a line of athletic-looking young men running naked along the water’s edge. They ran lifting their knees high, as if the sand scorched the soles of their feet. To see them reminded me of the title sequence from Chariots of Fire, and from then on I could not get the theme music out of my head.
They swerved and jogged into the surf, but the water around their calves did not splash up when they thumped their feet down into it, nor did it impede their progress. There was no ocean, just the shimmer of a mirage, heat rising from the baking sand as far as the eye could see.
What kind of place had I come to? This was not how I had imagined the gay paradise I had heard so much about and had finally gone to see for myself and, yes, to hook up with someone if I could, giving in to temptation after years of repressing my desires.
A half-dozen men rounded the corner beneath the outcropping of rock where I was standing. One of them glanced up at me and cried, “Hey, would you believe who’s come to join us! If it isn’t Mr. Straight Man!”
I recognized the voice, but not the person – Bruno of the beautiful body whom I had lusted after in secret, his skin bright pink, peeling and blistered, the lovely golden hair on his head dull and singed, his eyebrows burnt away, the hair on his chest and limbs like a coating of ash on his body. “Bruno, are you here?”
“Where else would I be?” he asked. “You know how I lived.”
The men joined hands and ran in a circle at my foot as he spoke. “We can’t stop moving,” one of them explained, “or the fire will land on us as it does on the blasphemers.”
“Of all God’s ironies, this is the cruelest,” Bruno continued, “to have to wait until here to see you with your clothes off. You’re more handsome than I imagined you. It won’t be long before you’re as charred as we are.”
Was he out of his mind? I wasn’t about to climb down onto that beach! And what did he mean, with my clothes off? What about my swim trunks and Hawaiian shirt? I looked. They, too, had vanished, like my beach bag. The wood behind me had closed like a wall. There was no sign of a path.
Bruno dropped the hand of the man beside him and reached out to me. “Come run with us.”
Unforgiving God! Was it enough to have sinned in thought? Had setting out with the intention of sinning damned me forever? To hell with Him, then, not to reward me for having lived a hell on earth! No, don’t even think that. Better to run with my fellow faggots than to lie on the sand like the blasphemers.
I jumped down onto the beach, landing on my hands and knees. In a second I was on my feet, my palms and shins seared from my brief contact with the sand. I exchanged a first and last hug with Bruno, and we followed his companions as they ran off across the endless desert of