Category Archives: issue #3

Poppy, Jessica Sheridan

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Anthony was awake before the alarm. The volume was set to maximum, or so his grandson told him. But he could never quite catch the sound; just a muted buzz like a mosquito above his head. Sometimes it was louder when he forgot to take his hearing-aid out before bed. That had happened more and more lately. Above him the ceiling fan whirred, around and around. His thoughts spun with it, as far off memories appeared like flashes in the darkness; bright, burning flashes that hurt his eyes.

He sat up with an automatic moan, feeling the strain on his lower back as he pulled himself out of bed. The sky was still dark outside and the whole world seemed to be sleeping. He squinted at the red light in the face of his clock, and thought he could make out the time: 0400. The strain made his tired eyes sting and he reached up to rub them. Behind the blotchy darkness of his eyelids, the shadows still fought to be seen, memories refusing to clear.

Beside him, Margaret snored. It was probably louder than what he could hear, because it never woke him. Softly he rose from the mattress, being careful not to wake her. Even though she wasn’t joining him, she’d laid out his favourite olive-green suit, freshly ironed with razor-sharp edges down the sleeves. Quietly he dressed, and opened the wardrobe door to look at himself in the mirror. The jacket was the last piece of his once-a-year uniform. He slid it over his shoulders, shrugging a few times until it sat properly on his back. The medals pinned to his chest clanged together as he straightened up.

Before leaving, Anthony moved to the other side of the bed and tried to lean down to kiss Margaret, but the strain made his back ache. Feeling deflated he turned to leave, but saw her hand was peeking out from beneath the covers. He gave it a gentle squeeze. Her hand felt fragile and soft; delicate despite the lines that wrinkled them. Not like his own hands. They were coarse and covered with the hard streaks of age. Thick skin coated his fingers and the white scars of callouses were like craters in his palms. He couldn’t remember a time when he had soft hands.

~          ~          ~

‘Put your back into it, boys!’ The ground is like gum. Hard, over-chewed gum with a seal of slime on top just thick enough to cause your feet to slide apart if you aren’t careful. Tony brings his shovel down again into the clay, watching it barely break the earth. The rain is growing heavier, and the sergeant is pissed. Nobody expected the ranks to stretch so far north towards the coast. But the assault is endless. Tony knows it. Bill knows it. Hell, even the Germans across no-man’s land know it. The war is going nowhere fast, so all they can do is extend the line.

Tony lifts his leg to step on the shovel, stomping down with all his weight behind it. Again the ground yields next to nothing, spitting out a crumble of dirt as he lifts the spade away. Despite the freezing rain whipping at his face he can feel sweat pooling in his armpits and under his helmet. He looks up and squints through the mist. Some men have abandoned their packs, leaving them to soak in the mud. Tony knows better. Still the weight is heavy and his back is screaming as he digs the shovel in again.

But it’s nothing like his hands. He’s only a foot or so down into the gunk and clay and already his hands are bleeding. For all the crap they issue as standard, they forgot gloves. Blisters that broke weeks ago have started afresh. His hands burn against the grain of the shovel. The spot at the base of his thumb is grinding along the handle and carving away the flesh. A crevice of callouses works its way along his palms and the skin on his knuckles cracks and bleeds. When he lets go of the shovel he can see his hands shaking in the rain.

~          ~          ~

Anthony skipped breakfast. He could never eat this early in the morning. Besides, he was already so full of memory. On his way to the door he stopped by the kitchen to collect his keys and wallet. He pocketed both, but as he turned to leave he caught a splash of colour beside the phone. He stopped for a moment to look at it; blood red petals spilling out around a heart that left black pollen on the bench, like ash. He swallowed hard.

‘Poppy?’ Anthony turned to find little Lucy shuffling towards him, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. ‘Don’t forget your flower.’

Anthony smiled. ‘What are you doing up kiddo? It’s too early for you. Nan will be cranky.’

‘I wanted to say goodbye.’

Anthony ruffled her chocolate-brown hair. ‘I’ll be back around lunchtime. You’ll barely notice I’m gone. Get back to bed.’

Lucy stood for a few moments frowning with puffy, tired eyes. She was missing a sock and her hair was tangled like a bird’s nest. ‘Will you be ok by yourself? Won’t you be lonely?’

‘Darlin’ I’ll be fine.’ He squeezed her shoulders. ‘She’ll be right. Besides, I’ll have my flower. Back to bed with ya, then.’ Gently he spun her around and nudged her back towards the hallway.

Once she was gone, Anthony turned back to the blood red poppy by the phone. It waited for him silently on the bench, and he knew he had to take it. Gently he picked it up, twirling it a few times between his fingers before sliding it into place among his medals where it belonged. Anthony angled it so the red face stared out at the world, the petals curled over like eyelashes. He patted his chest before finally walking out the door.

Outside the air was brisk and the streetlights were still glowing overhead. He could barely see the stars past their light. Once in the car Anthony strapped himself in, being careful not to crush the flower. He reached up to adjust the rear-view mirror and found his reflection looking back. His face was criss-crossed with age, etched into his skin like scars. Creases pulled down his cheeks and there were lines like crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes. They scratched away at his youth, making him look angry and frustrated. The man was a stranger to him. ‘She’ll be right,’ he said softly, watching his reflection say it with him before turning over the key.

~          ~          ~

Tony watches the officer scribble his loopy signature onto the form. A spring breeze ruffles a pile of other applications towering on the fold-down table. A single paper weight shaped like the globe sits atop the papers from almost every man in town. Tony realises he is fidgeting and moves his hands to his sides, curling them into fists. The officer raises a brow at the paper in front of him. ‘You’re writing is a bit shaky there, son,’ He points out.

Tony stares ahead and lifts his chin. He can feel the eyes of his mates watching him from near the oval’s old fence line to his left. He thinks he can hear Bill laughing.

‘Especially around this part where you’ve put your date of birth…’ His voice trails off and Tony knows that the officer has figured it out. The jig is up. He forces himself not to look across at his mates.

Tony swallows hard and tries to sound confident, but his voice still breaks like a child when he speaks. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Sir?’

The officer puts down his pen and lifts the tiny globe to file Tony’s application with the others. ‘Welcome to the army, son. Next!’

Tony clenches his fists to keep his composure as he turns away from the table. But his eyes meet Bill and his goofy face perched on the wooden fence and Tony can’t help but smile. He tries to walk but ends up running towards the boys with two thumbs up. They welcome him in with congratulations and pats to the back.

‘You looked like a bloody guilt-ridden criminal when you handed in your form, though,’ Bill chortles, holding his hands up and pretending to tremble in fear. Tom and Clancy laugh.

‘I thought he was gonna catch me out.’ Tony can feel his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. ‘I was nervous.’

Bill rolls his eyes. ‘Yeah but you didn’t have to seem so obvious about it. Sam and his brother made it in no worries, and they’re even younger than you.’

Tony shrugs, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. He looks down at his feet. ‘I know, but I’m pretty sure that officer knew I wasn’t eighteen. Asked about my birthday and everything.’ Tony frowns. He didn’t even know what would happen to someone caught lying about their age to the army.

Bill slides down off the fence, landing steadily on his feet before smacking Tony across the back. ‘Get a grip, mate. She’ll be right.’

~          ~          ~

The road was long and the sky was black and he’d lied. Anthony was lonely. He didn’t know why, but he always went alone on this annual pilgrimage. He’d never let Margaret join him, and for some reason she understood even though he didn’t. The drive just felt like it should be made in solitude. Even the highway was empty. He flicked on the radio, but it was droning away with pre-breakfast talkback featuring lonely hearts, truck drivers and bakers.

Anthony caught the poppy looking at him in the rear-view mirror. Its face was wide open now, like it was watching the world pass by as he drove. It sat so comfortably across his heart that for a fleeting moment he lost his loneliness and let himself remember.

He pulled into the carpark at 0520. After turning a few laps he found a spot, but it was at the far end. He checked himself one last time in the mirror, straightening the red companion on his chest before swinging open the car door and stepping out into the brisk air.

As he shifted his weight onto his left leg he felt that familiar twang of pain in his calf, and sank back into the car to rub the cramp out. He could feel the old injury that drew its way down the back of his leg, from his knee to his heel. The white scar was barely visible anymore, but to touch it was different. Anthony could always feel that line of tissue, just a subtle bump on the skin that would never fade.

~          ~          ~

The metal is hot but the pain is searing. Tony had promised himself he would never shed a tear on the battlefield, but he has broken his promise. His lungs explode with screaming as the jagged piece of shell begins to cool deep in the flesh of his leg. He can feel tears running down his face, mixing with the rain and the dirt and the sweat. Somewhere behind him, another mortar makes its mark on the ranks.

‘Tony!’ A familiar voice is calling out to him. Dust still falls from the air. He can’t see anybody. Another shell flies overhead, whistling through the sky. Blood is drizzling from the hole in his calf, where the metal sticks out like a shark’s fin. He can’t stand, he can’t breathe. Tony lifts his arms, trying desperately to reach down to his leg. Suddenly Bill catches him by the elbow and grips him tightly. Tony clutches him back, digging his nails in as the pain begins to poison his body.

‘Tony?’ He tries to keep his eyes on his friend as Bill pulls him away from the rubble. His toes are beginning to grow numb and he starts to feel his mind wash away with the blood and rain. Someone passes Bill a cloth and he tries to stifle the bleeding, but it just pushes the metal deeper.

‘We’ve got you, Tony. Don’t worry mate, you’re gonna be fine – get a stretcher, get him out of here!’ Tony can sense movement all around him now, as men climb over each other in the narrow crack of the trench. Some offer dirty bandages and ripped uniforms, but Tony is losing consciousness. The last thing he can remember is being propped up in the elbow of his best mate. ‘She’ll be right, Tony. Just hang on.’

Somewhere in the distance, foreign rifles begin their fire.

~          ~          ~

 ‘Would you like a poppy sir?’

Anthony stopped abruptly. He was almost through the gate when a young woman with a basket of freshly cut flowers spoke to him with a smile. He blinked at her, his thoughts still far away.

Her eyes travelled to his chest where the string of badges crossed his heart. ‘Oh, you’ve already got one I see.’ The girl pulled back her hand awkwardly, the blood-red flower dancing between her fingers. Her face softened as she looked back up at his face. ‘Thank you.’

Anthony felt uncomfortable, but smiled in reply.

At last he passed into the courtyard. Here it was silent, like the darkness. Even the birds stopped their usual morning calls. A few light-poles lit the area, revealing the many tired faces that had risen before the sun to be here. Babes slept in the arms of mothers and fathers, old men stood in groups wearing suits and polished shoes, grandchildren clutched their parent’s hand and stared about with wide eyes that fought sleep. Hundreds of faces standing with him, and still he felt left behind.

A flash upon the stone wall caught his eye, and Anthony turned to see a large photo of familiar faces standing in a trench, covered in dirt and sweat and fighting grins. The image melted away to form another; men training in Egypt and laughing at a camel. Somewhere behind the crowd the projector changed again, and this time the image of men lying in beds covered in bandages illuminated the wall. Picture after picture of people, all in black and white, and all more familiar to him than anything else.

Anthony touched the poppy at his chest, angling it towards the photos.

At 0530 the lamps slowly dimmed and the black dawn swept across the courtyard. The slideshow of memories upon the wall ended with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ and even the children grew sombre. Anthony looked to the head of the memorial, standing alone within the crowd.

Somewhere, a bugle sounded.

 

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Bipolar Disorder: One Woman’s Story, Francesca Tichon

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I’ve grown up around mental illness. My mum worked as a teacher’s aide in a class of severely mentally disabled children when I was a kid, and my sister and I would often spend Take-Your-Daughter-To-Work days there. To us, the kids were funny and harmless, often pretending to be tigers or elephants and playing silly games with each other. But then Mum would come home with stories of colleagues having to go to hospital when the games got out of control and the ‘tiger’ got angry and scratched the teacher hard enough to draw blood.

American feminist and writer Rita Mae Brown once said, ‘The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four people are suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they’re okay, then it’s you’ . That’s pretty accurate. According to Sane Australia, an award-winning national charity that focuses on campaigning, education, and research relating to mental health, ‘around 20% of adults are affected by some form of mental disorder every year’ and ‘nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives’ . Only 3% of adults are actually disabled with mental illness though, some like the kids I grew up with. Most of the time though, you wouldn’t even know if your neighbour, colleague, or sometimes even friend had a mental illness.

Earlier this year, I found out one of my close friend’s mother has bipolar disorder, which really shocked me. My previous experience with mental illness had all been so obvious, but Anne Naylor was a whole different story.

Anne Naylor @ http://becauseofbipolar.com.au/photos-of-my-paintings/sometimes-there-are-fireworks-2/

Landscapes of the Mind. Artist: Anne Naylor @ http://becauseofbipolar.com.au/photos-of-my-paintings/sometimes-there-are-fireworks-2/

I had always admired her strength and ability to juggle work and raising a family including a son with serious mental disabilities (including Down syndrome, mild autism, a severe speech and communication disorder, a mild hearing loss, obstructive sleep apnea and depression), and yet I had no idea that she had been in that 3%. Most people had no idea.

Anne Naylor is a teacher, a mother, an artist, and an author. But about ten years ago she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It wasn’t out of the blue; bipolar is a slippery slope, and it took four different psychiatrists and multiple diagnosis before reaching bipolar. You’d think a correct diagnosis would be a good thing, that she could be treated and get on with her life, that’s what I thought at least, but you’d be wrong. It’s much more complicated than that.

Sane Australia defines bipolar disorder as ‘an illness, a medical condition’ that ‘affects the normal functioning of the brain, so that the person experiences extreme moods – very high and over-excited or very low and depressed’. These mood swings can vary in severity, but generally however high one becomes, the individual will experience an equal low. Usually, it’s the lows that lead people to seek help, presenting with severe depression, unable to go to work, look after their family, do the grocery shopping, or even get out of bed. According to Anne, you’re so depressed you’d commit suicide ‘if you could be bothered’. It’s the highs that are the truly destructive part of bipolar though.

Anne got off pretty lucky with her behaviour when she was spiralling out of control pre-diagnosis. ‘For me, it didn’t start with photocopying, but looking back that was one of the indicators. I was planning a party for my son’s eighteenth birthday and decided it would be very creative to display large photographs of him in a continuous border at eye height around the room. I chose the photos I wanted and took them to work. Every day after my colleagues had left the office, I enlarged, copied and laminated photos, 200 of them in total, in what I recognised later as a ‘frenzy of photocopying’’. She would stay up until 3am every night, doing the washing, ironing and folding, cleaning the house, working on the computer, never tiring. She asked her husband for a lime green Holden Monaro for her birthday, and if she couldn’t have that then she wanted a tattoo (‘a big one with beautiful flames of red, orange and yellow, flaring up my right arm from my elbow to my shoulder’). She decided, in her 40’s, that she wanted to be an ice-skating champion, taking classes and confident that she ‘would be great’. She even began writing erotica, leading to a very inappropriate flirtation with a male colleague.

Others suffer much greater consequences from their mania though. In the book Mastering Bipolar, one woman tells of the financial consequences of her mania:

‘It becomes a devilishly expensive dance. I lose control over the purse strings. I need a new outfit; it must be black and sultry. I love it so much I don’t take it off for days. And always, the music. I have been known to buy twenty CDs at a time whilst high. All bought randomly, for their cover or some weird connection to something else that I can’t remember in the end. I love books too. And don’t the booksellers love me. I choose books on colour or because they contain quotes I like or maybe they just smell good. I am unable to stop at just one or two. The only thing that distracts me in the bookshop are all the men. All these gorgeous men seem to be shopping with me. I am admiring eyes, necks, beautiful hands, and even their glasses or the way their hair is parted. I have truly become part-woman and part-werewolf.’

Another woman tells of her husband losing control: ‘Receiving a phone call from him on his mobile at 30,000 feet in first class informing me that he is Neo from the Matrix and that I am to arrange a Porsche to collect him from Heathrow Airport is not a call I wanted to receive, nor could have ever anticipated’. After being released from hospital, he then went shopping and ‘clocked up an extra $3000 (on top of the $15,000 he had already shelled out pre-hospital when he was en route to his £400-a-night suite in London’s Park Lane)’. Whilst in hospital, the husband was also unwittingly allowed unsupervised access to email ‘which sent him straight back into attempting to develop a network for his reality TV idea, and enabled him to denigrate many colleagues for their lack of support, via a global email in which he also lovingly included many a personal detail about our relationship, and espoused our love story as the ultimate in blockbuster epics’.

The things people do when manic can ruin lives. You lose sight of what’s important, think you’re indestructible, and many become sexually promiscuous. According to Anne, the philosophy of a person under the influence of mania is ‘always surrender to temptation for it may never pass your way again’. ‘Some [people] have spent so much money that they have lost their homes. Some have slept with people they shouldn’t have and become pregnant and/or lost their families because of it. Some have driven way over the speed limit and crashed their cars, or been caught driving under the influence, once, twice or three times. Some have found God, or thought they themselves were God,’ she explains sombrely.

Getting a correct diagnosis of bipolar can take years. For many people, bipolar does not develop until later in life, and there’s usually a trigger. For Anne, it was the onset of menopause. For others it’s puberty, pregnancy, or any other shift in hormone levels, and for others it’s not known what the trigger is. Anne was diagnosed with ADHD at first and put on Dexamphetamines, a central nervous system stimulant whose actions resemble those of adrenaline. It’s supposed to calm those with ADHD, but for Anne it was ‘as if someone had plugged me into an electricity socket and switched me on,’ she laughs. She could concentrate, lost her appetite and consequently lost weight, and had plenty of energy. There was a sparkle in her eye and she became quick and witty (or so she believed), and her sex life became mind-blowing. But all this was just kindling for the fire that is hypomania, making her ascent even faster and more exhilarating, and her descent into depression even more crushing.

There are countless stories in books and online of people’s manic episodes. Anne suggests that this is because ‘in hindsight, the ups can provide some hilarious stories, and a great way of coping with the mood swings is to laugh about them,’ as she does when recounting the stories of her sudden passions for cars, erotica, ice-skating, and tattoos. No one wants to talk about the lows though. Sane Australia describes the lows as ‘feeling helpless and depressed, with difficulty making decisions or concentrating’. That’s an understatement. This is how Anne describes it in her book Art From Adversity, A Life With Bipolar:

‘I couldn’t do much. The only thing I could do was sleep. Every morning I would wake up and think, ‘not another day, another long, awful, agonising day that I have to somehow endure until it is time to close my eyes again’. The only respite I had was when I was asleep and yet, during the day, I kept going, forcing myself to do the things I had to do.

I was tired, desperately, achingly tired, with absolutely no energy at all. My limbs were strangely heavy. I saw everything through a fog. Literally. I couldn’t see properly. I was sure there was something wrong with my eyes, even though two optometrists told me otherwise.’

Anne was unable to make decisions on what to wear, what to eat. She couldn’t even read or watch TV. ‘Every single thing I had to do was impossibly difficult,’ she says. ‘I felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen.’ She couldn’t even remember what it was like to feel happy.

Though her family were generally supportive and caring without being overbearing, her friends’ reactions, though well-meaning, were not helpful. They would say things like ‘what can we do to help?’ and ‘I’m surprised you have no resilience. Can’t you control it?’, but there was nothing they could do to help, and she was trying to control it.

It ultimately ended in her bipolar diagnosis and a stint in a mental institution.

A correct diagnosis and treatment does not fix everything, however. For some people, the diagnosis offers relief and an explanation for their behaviour, but then there’s always the question of who to inform of your diagnosis. Many people only disclose their bipolar to close friends and family, and only those who must know in their place of work or study. There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, and disclosing your bipolar diagnosis to people who do not need to know can often lead to uncomfortable situations. In Mastering Bipolar Disorder, one person explains that, ‘sometimes the knowledge burdens others or, worse, is titillation. Sometimes no matter how much you explain, people will never understand.’

When Anne was first diagnosed she took an extended period of leave from work and then resigned due to her illness and side effects from the medication she had commenced. She told only a few close colleagues of her diagnosis and received mixed responses. One refused to believe her and Anne had to try to convince her that she really was mentally ill, another became very embarrassed and suggested this was ‘personal information’ that she should have kept to herself, and another, whilst initially supportive, gradually distanced herself from Anne, and their relationship became uncomfortable and strained. Ashamed and embarrassed due to these reactions from people she had considered friends, Anne never told her boss of her illness. Though her rights should have been protected by legislation, she didn’t want her professional reputation to be compromised due to confidentiality not being respected and people finding out about her being mentally ill.

Once she had stopped working, Anne, who has always been a passionate and motivated woman, was determined to get a handle on her bipolar. She found out as much information as she possibly could, found a psychiatrist that she trusted and saw him (now her) every week (now every few months). She followed his/her advice (such as eating well, exercising, not over-exerting herself in any way), and took her medication religiously.

‘Having to take medication is the pits,’ she says with a resigned laugh. In her book, Anne says that ‘approximately forty percent of people who have bipolar disorder take three or more psychotropic medications and eighteen percent take four or more.’ Everyone is different in what medication works for them, and what works is always changing.

The side effects of medication can be horrendous, and they can’t be predicted. ‘Except in my case,’ says Anne dryly. ‘I seem to get almost all of those so helpfully listed on the information sheets from the drug companies.’ Here is just a sample of some of the side effects listed for Anne’s various medications:

Fatal skin rash, vomiting and nausea, dizziness/unsteadiness, headache, drowsiness, double vision, blurred vision, tremors, trouble sleeping, memory loss, irritability/aggression, joint/back pain, constipation, dry mouth, runny/stuffy nose, fainting, uncontrolled movements of the tongue/mouth/cheeks/jaw, sudden increase in body temperature with sweating or fast heartbeat, restless leg syndrome, seizures, allergic reactions, diarrhoea, excessive and rapid weight gain, inability to control the bladder or bowels, slow or irregular heartbeat, slurred speech.

To many people, these side effects would be too much to bear. But, as one woman puts the choice between sanity and side effects, ‘it scares me, taking a drug to control my mind. But the thought of another episode scares me more.’

Personally, I think the hardest thing to lose would be the creativity so often associated with bipolar highs. Some people, mostly with less severe degrees of the illness, suggest that the creative highs can be harnessed to advantage. Most, however, refuse to allow their mood swings any leeway, knowing how quickly they can get out of control.

When Anne was very ill, she took up painting. Before the onset of her bipolar, Anne had no interest, experience, talent or training in arts. ‘The idea came upon me suddenly, out of no-where. I knew in my mind exactly what I wanted to do, and that was to paint large works and hang them all through my house,’ she explains. She started taking private art lessons, and then enrolled in a TAFE art course specifically for people with mental illness. She went on to study at an art school, and would lock herself away in her studio for hours to paint, often ignoring all of her other responsibilities, finding it soothing and addictive.

Bipolar has affected so many artists, musicians, writers, and other creative’s throughout history, so much so that John McManamy, a renowned mental health journalist and author, has pointed out that this list reads like an ‘honour roll’ . He also says, however, that this runs the risk of glamorising the severity and seriousness of bipolar disorder.

So what is it that connects bipolar with creativity? Apart from the fact that a bipolar high makes the world a brighter place (you can see colours more vividly, feel the music, taste the sunshine. One woman even suggests that you can understand what the frogs are saying), Kay Jamison says that ‘individuals with bipolar disorder … possess the rare ability to think along unrelated tangents, then put the pieces together (‘making connections between opposites’) into a grand visionary whole’ , and that ‘unbridled self-assurance and manic energy fuel the creative fire’ . What I wonder, though, is whether the tunnel-vision and manic energy of a mental illness unburden a person of their other responsibilities enough to allow them the time and inspiration to give an outlet to the creativity they have always had within but never had a chance to express, or whether mental illness creates something within a person that was never there before. Medication makes the world grey though; music is just music, sunshine is just sunshine, and the frogs go back to just making noise, but what if it didn’t?

As hard as living with a mental illness can be at times, those with any mental illness should not be pitied. As Anne will tell you, pity only makes you feel worse. And a woman like Anne Naylor should not be pitied. She is an incredibly accomplished woman with a beautiful family and (now back at work) a job she loves. ‘I take every opportunity to educate people who don’t know anything about bipolar disorder or mental illness and I do my best to empower those who do,’ she says with such passion it gets everyone around her excited by her cause. ‘I am lucky. I have a supportive, loving family and a few very close friends who understand and don’t care about my mental illness. … I am courageous and strong and I am continually surprised by the hidden talents and strengths I find within myself. I celebrate every day, because however long I live, my life will be over in a flash.’

 

Sources
Eyers, K., and Parker, G., (ed.) (2008) Mastering Bipolar Disorder, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
Interview with Anne Naylor, 16th August, 2013, Anne’s residence, West Pennant Hills .
McManamy, J. (2012) Madly Creative, McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web, http://mcmanweb.com/creativity.html (last viewed 8th October, 2013)
Naylor, A. T. (2013) Art From Adversity: A Life With Bipolar, Glass House Books, Cairndale, Queensland
Sane Australia (2010) Bipolar Disorder, http://www.sane.org/information/factsheets-podcasts/199-bipolar-disorder (last viewed, 9th October, 2013)
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When Adam Found God Under the Kitchen Sink, Toby Wools-Cobb

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From certain books in the cathedral, came the idea of the boy. The old man walked to and from each of the bookcases that circled the room and withdrew books, flicked through the pages, thought through the words, and then returned them to their place. He then sat at his table, took his pen and began to write.

He placed his character, the boy, somewhere quiet and alone, a place unto himself for the duration of his use – his own bedroom in an apartment complex. The old man then bestowed the bedroom with a bed, a closet, a door and a window arranged into a pleasing manner.

The boy found himself on his knees, beside a pale wall, running a blue crayon along a rippled crack in its surface. Tears ran down his hot cheeks and he hiccupped between sobs. He did not remember why he was crying, or what had happened before entering his bedroom, or what had happened the day before or the day before that, or his name. He suddenly knew he had a mother. And a father. A sister too but only for a moment and then she was gone, as though caught in a riptide and swept away. He cried.

The crayon slid into a hole in the wall and the tip broke. Shavings crumbled to the floor. The hole glowed at his elbow, no bigger than his thumb. Light sunk into it like a puddle in a notch. The boy lay down on his stomach and peeked through. On the other side, he saw a thicket of twigs and thorns like a tiny, fierce forest. A deer stepped into the clearing and began to nibble a berry from an overhanging branch. He watched her soft, elegant legs pace around as she broke off more berries and ate them. His tears dried and he let out a shuddering breath. It startled the deer and she looked up at the hole, watched for a minute, and slowly stepped closer until the boy could only see her hooves and the tawny fur of her legs. She lowered her head down to lap the stream trickling from the hole.

That evening, he drew the scene with crayons – the sky a crumbled blue – and showed his mother, who hugged him to her breast and told him what a wonderful son he was. ‘Thomas,’ she called him. She was a lean woman, her cheek-bones cradling her eyes, the smell of lavender in her skin. His father walked into the kitchen, a letter crunched in his diesel-streaked hands. His mother showed his father the drawing and his father showed her the three day pay notice.

 

Days passed and the boy watched the little deer eat and rest under an overhanging thorn. To his delight, he had found another world; a crack in the hall that, when peered through, he saw a balcony overlooking a garden of violets, gillyflowers and lavenders circling myrtles. The garden glowed like coral in the moonlight, and a dark-skinned man would appear from behind a reed trellis, dressed as a prince in a turban and silk shirts, leading a sabino horse by the reins. He called out in beautiful Arabic, and a princess came to the balcony, a green satin gown cascading from beneath her floral brocade, flowing between the balusters and down the balcony like mandevilla vines to touch her lover’s fingertips.

The boy’s sister, written into the family at some time, mistook him – clutching his hands around the sides of his eyes and staring into the wall – as though counting for a game of hide-and-seek. She would hide, and later cry because he didn’t play with her anymore, but he could not remember ever having played with her before.

The boy found more and more openings in the walls. A hole in his parent’s bedroom revealed a maiden galleon capsizing into the Baltic Sea, its harbour visible on the horizon. Through a splintering in the kitchen floor the boy watched an eagle soar amidst clouds over a city of white marble far below them. Through a hole under the sink stretched the nave of a cathedral with the pews removed. Bookcases mounted the walls and culminated in the dome of the apse so that the occasional book slipped from the ceiling and fell like a nesting dove that had been struck down. At the far end, in the middle of the sanctuary, an old bedraggled man in a grey gown paced around a desk. He coaxed dust-covered books from shelves at either end of the room, leafed through them for a minute only to return them a moment later, muttering louder each time.

The boy tried speaking to the deer, but scared her away. And his shouts alerted the palace guards who arrested the Arab prince. So when he came to the old man in the cathedral he only whispered, ‘Hello?’

The old man looked up from behind his desk. He frowned and, easing from his chair, walked down the aisle and knelt to the floor so his face was level with the hole.

‘Thomas?’ The old man did not speak to the boy but seemed to look past him. ‘Why do you disturb me?’

‘Why are you under the sink?’

Impatiently the old man said, ‘“Why” is the prelude to “what is” and does not need explaining – why trouble a man who writes with questions of why he writes? Is it not satisfactory enough that which is, is written?’ With a sudden smile the old man claimed, ‘You may as well be Adam and ask why he was created?’

‘I’m under the sink in the kitchen, in my apartment. Apartment number twenty-two. Where are you?’

The old man’s eyes flicked to the boy’s. ‘Apartment you say?’

‘Yes, number twenty-two.’

‘And there’s a hole under the sink?’

‘Yes. But this isn’t the only one, there’s lots. There’s a deer and a bird, and a boat on the water!’

‘Ah!’ The old man’s face wrinkled with a smile. ‘Yes, they would be mine as well.’ He chuckled and with a sly grin he asked, ‘Did you enjoy the deer?’

‘Yes, very much.’

The old man bellowed with laughter. ‘What nonsense! Like an ape commenting on the refinery of the Sistine Chapel! Or a child admiring the remarkable spark in a mother’s womb! Thank you, Thomas, most amusing.’  He returned to his feet with a huff and walked back to his desk.

‘Hello?’ The boy said. ‘Hello? Hello? Hello?’

The old man took a deep breath and exclaimed, ‘Be silent! Be silent!’ He murmured to himself and crumpled a piece of paper in his hands as he approached the hole. ‘Like a rat in the wall with its squeaking – it will squeak! And squeak! And squeak until it is gone for good! Conversation with you is as productive as remembering a dream!’ With that, he plunged the paper into the hole like a plug.

 

The next day, huddled in front of the heater in the lounge room, the boy sat between his mother’s legs while she combed his hair. It was raining outside, pouring musical notes onto the bitumen. His mother said his name, ‘Adam’. ‘It’s always been your name silly,’ she cooed.

The front door opened and a cold breeze unfurled inside and rippled over the boy’s shoulder before being sucked into the wall’s cracks. He heard his father’s rustic coughing and the curses he threw down the hallway. His mother joined his father in the kitchen and the boy listened as his father talked about the rent, coughing hoarsely between each sentence. He heard a sudden thud as his father collapsed to the floor.

His father kept to his bed with a sickness. His chest sunk into itself and his skin draped over his ribs. His blood-shot eyes rolled in their sockets, abandoned, and his speech became the murmuring of dreams. When the boy asked his mother where his sister was, she gave him a faint smile and said, ‘Maybe someday, when your father gets better.’ During the nights the boy listened to his mother crying in the next room, or the delirium of his father, and crept from his bed. He would fall asleep on the floor, curled beside the hole, to the sound of the deer pawing the earth.

When it seemed the boy’s father would die, he crawled under the sink and pulled the grubby paper from the hole and said, ‘Hello? Help! Please, you must help me!’

‘Hello? Help! Please, you must help me!’

The old man looked up from his chair. He sat to the right side of the nave, in front of a make-shift hearth of plywood. An orange glow was brewing, consuming paperbacks piled together. He tossed in the book was holding and came to the hole.

‘My father is sick! My mother is tired! I don’t know where my sister has gone, and the landlord sent us a letter -’

‘And yet you remain!’ The old man paused. A look of resignation came to his eyes. He turned his face to sanctuary and wailed, ‘What must be done to destroy an idea from the mind? I could destroy the world with a flood – but this Noah, this Manu, this Gilgamesh would survive! Were he bound to a book I could burn him to ash but the smell would forever stain the walls!’

‘Please, I just want my family to be better. I’ll never bother you again!’

The old man caught his breath and he grabbed the wall as though to grab the boy.

‘Yes! A bargain. Adam? I promise you your family will be complete once more. You may do what you like; choose your own path, but I need you do one thing for me in return.’

‘I promise.’

‘I want to never hear you, see you, or dream of you again. I want you expunged from my mind?’

‘Okay, I won’t -’

‘What is the landlord’s name? In charge of your apartment. Does he have a name?’

‘I – I don’t know. He lives in the room downstairs.’

‘Adam,’ the old man eyes darted in worry, ‘you must never open the door to the landlord’s apartment, I never got around to creating him. Do you understand? It’s a hole I never filled.’

‘Yes.’

‘What mustn’t you do?’

‘Open the apartment downstairs. Apartment number twenty-one.’

The old man’s eyes searched the boy’s. ‘Good.’

 

The next morning the boy found his father in the kitchen, his chest filling out his work clothes, his eyes bright, and his jaw cleanly shaven. His father kissed his mother on the cheek and left for work. When the boy tried to ask his mother what had happened, and tried to describe his father shackled to his own corroded body, his sister skipped into the room and giggled, ‘Adam’s having dreams again! I heard him talk in his sleep!’ At the sight of his sister, the boy broke down in tears and grabbed hold of her by the shoulders and shook her, screaming into her face that she was not here, she was not here. His mother scolded him and then held him to her breast and hushed him. ‘You’ll grow out of such nightmares sweetie. Don’t you worry.’

Later that day his sister wanted to play hide-and-seek and so the boy ran to the cracked wall with the sinking galleon and stared into the fissure between the flaps of the white wallpaper and saw only the minute grains and splinters ending in a dark, closed line. He ran from room to room, checking every crack and hole in the walls. He took a torch from the kitchen and drove the light through the floorboards. His sister toddled from her room and cried that he wasn’t playing. His mother scolded him but he ran to his room, collapsed to his knees and pressed his eyes to the hole with the deer. She too was gone, along with her forest of thorns.

Days passed, and then weeks, or months, it all seemed the same day to the boy. He would wake up in the morning and find his father in the kitchen, kissing his mother goodbye and leaving for work. His sister would skip into the kitchen and demand a game of hide-and-seek. He played the first few times but then stopped trying. Each day he would wake up in the morning and find his father in the kitchen, kissing his mother goodbye and leaving for work. His sister would skip into the kitchen and demand a game of hide-and-seek. He eventually came to rest his head against the wall but rather than count, he wept.

He tried piercing holes in the walls with pencils, or a nail loosened from a floorboard, or kitchen knives or forks, but when his mother found out she hid anything sharp and had his father repair every hole or crack in the apartment. ‘Lest the landlord make an inspection.’

 

On the passing of the month, the boy found himself standing on the landing outside apartment twenty-one. He was not sure why he felt he needed to open the door. He only knew he needed to see something unknown to him, something different, and apartment twenty-one had grown the magical allure of any latched chest or arcane door that is forbidden.

Inside the landlord’s apartment was the cathedral, the nave broadening out from the doorway. On the other end of the room, in the sanctuary, steam rose from a white mug beside a stack of crisp blank papers. A breeze brushed past the boy’s legs and sailed across the nave, carried by the ripples in the marble floor. It broke into itself against the leg of the desk and unfurled upwards, plucking the papers one by one into the air like feathers.

The old man appeared through an archway on the left side, wrapped in his gown, his jaw unshaven, towelling his wet hair. When he reached his desk he looked at the papers rising into the apse, then towards the door, resting on Adam’s face for quite some time and then finally watching, in sudden horror, Adam’s feet as he stepped into the room and walked towards him.

The old man was frozen; his eyes wide, unblinking; his mouth agape; his breath trembling; his hand pressed against his thudding heart as the boy stood before him and stretched out his fingers. He touched the old man’s hand.

‘Are you okay?’

In a deathly whisper, the old man announced, ‘It would be no more of a shock to me to learn that I did not father the child that I have loved so dearly,’ and fell to his chair. On seeing his tired eyes, the boy fell to the old man’s lap and began to cry into his gown.

 

The old man watched as the books trembled from their shelves and the shelves collapsed into a bed of bricks and dissolved mortar. He watched them drift away. He watched the door and nave fade as though he was becoming blind, and watched his desk sink into the brick floor. He watched the last remaining books, suspended amongst the apse, as though spun together, go their separate ways one by one, and then he watched the apse be withdrawn as though by an invisible hand.

He placed his hand on the boy’s head, smiled meekly down at him and said, ‘I am sorry, Thomas, I have been such a fool.’

 

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Pieces Apart, Shannon Baker

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The photograph sat in a wooden frame on the foyer table. It showed my family, standing in a park by the beach. Even then Alice appeared fragile, like she could blow away in the wind. Mum smiles, content and relaxed in loose white linen pants and a kaftan. I’m wearing a short white dress, squinting at the camera, wrapped under dad’s arm. Dad’s white shirt is pressed against his chest by the wind. His smile is friendly and his eyes reflect the sea. His other arm is wrapped around Mum; he towers over her small figure. My sister Alice is standing separate from us, hunching her shoulders away from the camera. She gives the camera a small smile. We look like sisters; we’re both tall and blue eyed. We almost look like twins in that photo, except her hair is strawberry blonde while mine is stubbornly mouse brown. It was taken a few months before she was admitted to hospital. Mum’s free arm is reaching out as if to pull Alice closer to her, but there is a clear gap between the three of us and her.

I turned from the photo and I took a deep breath, looking at my reflection in the foyer mirror. I walked down the hallway and into our kitchen, where my Mum was bobbing a tea bag in a mug. I quickly said goodbye to her and grabbed my school bag.

‘Ellie, why don’t you invite a friend around on the weekend?’

I shrugged in a non-committal way. I didn’t want to explain to my friends why my sister wasn’t at home, or why I didn’t feel like going to parties or outings.

‘Remember tomorrow we have to be up early to get Alice from the airport.’

‘Yep I know,’ I said over my shoulder as I headed for the door.

At school, the courtyard was packed with my old friends. I smiled at a girl in my Maths class. She raised an eyebrow at me and turned back to her group of friends. They burst into giggles. I retreated into the shade of the gym and sat down, leaning back onto the cold brick wall. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun and tried to pretend I was somewhere else. My old friends were giggling again; I kept my eyes firmly closed, in case they were looking my way. Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. Will sat down next to me.

‘Hey. How are things?’ He smiled his casual smile. Will was tall, slim and strong. He had brown hair flecked with blonde. I caught his eye and he winked. His eyes were a startling green. After four years of friendship, I was still struck by those eyes. His shoulder brushed mine and I felt a warm shiver down my back.

‘Fine. Yeah okay. Alice is coming back from Melbourne soon.’ I replied.

‘I hope she’s doing well.’ He said, looking down at the concrete.

Two years ago when Alice spent weeks in hospital, attached to metal poles by drips and feeding tubes, Will was the only one I would talk to. I remember the late nights; Mum and Dad taking shifts trudging to and from the hospital, carrying overnight bags with clean clothes and memories from home. I would stay awake watching the television flicker in the dark. When it was turned up all the way, so that the noise echoed throughout our big house, I could relax. When I was alone the house seemed eerie and I would toss and turn, unable to sleep. I would call Will, and we would talk for hours and watch the same shows. The rumble of his deep voice over the phone was always comforting.

The shrill ring of the bell interrupted my thoughts. Will jumped up and grabbed my hand, helping me up. The rest of the school day was a blur. Will was the only person who spoke to me. I was almost grateful to be left alone with my thoughts.

The next day I set my alarm for six; I was anxious to see my sister after months apart.  Mum chatted all the way to the airport, more nervous and excited than I was. The airport was crowded with families, couples and friends. Air hostesses’ heels clicked on the tiled floor. A few people dashed past us towards a gate, their suitcases rolling behind them. A pleasant voice made an announcement over the PA system. We walked towards the gate where Alice would be arriving. Mum kept looking at her watch.

A few minutes later I saw Alice’s strawberry blonde hair amongst the arrivals. As she got closer a coldness washed over me. She was wearing a long dark trench coat that flapped around her knees. The collar was pulled up against her neck as though to ward off the wind, though it was a warm October day. Her clothes swamped her; under the mass of fabric her tiny frame was still painfully apparent. Her fringe was swept low over her eyebrows. Her skin was the colour of skimmed milk. Shadows gathered under her eyes. Her cheeks sunk steeply into thin lips. She looked like she did the last time. She stood awkwardly a few feet away from us, fumbling with the sleeves of her coat.

I could almost feel my mother’s heart break. Her whole face seemed to fall, sagging into itself. She slumped under the crook of my dad’s arm.

Dad’s smile was faltering. ‘Let’s get your bags then.’

These were the only words spoken between us while we left the airport. During the car ride home, I sat in the back seat gripping the door handle. Alice stared resolutely out the window, as cool and still as china. Mum hummed a little too loudly, trying to fill the awkward silence. Dad busied himself with the GPS system, though there was only one road home.

That night I watched Alice stare at her lap while her dinner turned cold and congealed. I looked at my mother closely and noticed for the first time the tiny creases etched into the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were glassy, threatening to spill over with tears at any moment. Dad’s cheeks turned red with the effort of remaining calm. Alice tossed a few peas around her plate.

When Dad spoke his voice was low. ‘We know you haven’t been eating. You’ve probably eaten the bare minimum all the time you were in Melbourne. We’re not stupid Alice. That was our one condition. You go to Melbourne only if you maintain your weight.’

Mum put her hand on Dad’s arm.

‘I’m fine,’ Alice’s said adamantly.

‘You are not fine,’ he said, clattering his knife and fork down on the table. I studied the wall tiles on the other side of the kitchen. Mum gave a small choking sound, almost like a sob. She shot Dad a desperate look, imploring him to stay quiet.

‘She is fine. Just very stressed. With the internship, staying somewhere unfamiliar and having to make new friends,’ Mum said.

‘Yes that’s right. I really had no time to prepare meals when I was over there,’ Alice replied carefully. ‘But now I’m back home it will be much easier. I’ll be back in my own place with my old routine. Don’t worry Dad, it’s not like before.’

That night, hours after I heard Alice’s car drive away, I could still hear the murmurs of my parent’s conversation downstairs. Mum was speaking in a hushed, earnest tone, overcoming Dad’s intermitted injections. I heard him say, ‘I know, I know,’ and ‘yes’, before going quiet. I didn’t understand how either of them could have believed her. I felt like she was slipping away again.

Two weeks later, I caught the bus to Alice’s apartment. She had been avoiding our calls, leaving short text messages saying she was really busy at work. I wanted to surprise her, and to see that she was doing well like she said she was. It was a small block, four apartments all with narrow balconies bordered with glass walls.  Alice’s door was closed but unlocked. I walked in and called her name. I walked down the hallway, passing her bedroom, and a pokey laundry room. I remember hearing a strange humming noise that grew louder as I continued down the hall. It was a soft mechanical whirr. A withering pot plant sat scrunched in the corner. It was then that I found the source of the noise. Squeezed in between the couch and the television was a treadmill. The treadmill belt was racing and rolling, and whirring to itself. Alice was crumpled between the treadmill and the wall, her legs squashed awkwardly beneath her. One white limb was caught on the treadmill belt, flopping uselessly. Her arm was blazing red and grazed. I couldn’t see her face; her cheekbone was pressed into the carpet. I quickly turned the machine off. I bent over her and moved her arm away from the belt.

‘Alice?’

A towel had fallen from the treadmill, and was slightly tangled around her.

‘Alice wake up,’ I shook her a little.

Her eyelids fluttered for a moment and she shifted her weight. It was then that the towel came off her.

Her bones were stretching and straining against her skin. I could see every ridge in her body, every dip and rivet. She tried to move again and I could see bone scrape against bone. Her skin was like paper, red raw in places from the treadmill belt and so pale. Her fingers were tinted blue. Through her sports bra, her shoulder blades protruded from her back, as though straining against the confines of her skin.

I don’t remember leaving the apartment, but I remember crying to a woman on the street, ‘please help my sister’, wondering how anyone could help someone so intent on hurting themselves.

She was taken straight to hospital; the nurses told my mother she would have to stay there for some time. I took four days off school, ignoring Will’s calls. I spent the days wrapped up in a blanket, watching mindless television shows. On Friday I decided I couldn’t avoid school any longer. I had walked half-way through the car park before I saw him; he was leaning casually against the wall of the gym. He rushed towards me looking relieved.

‘Alice is back in hospital.’ I said.

We started walking slowly towards our first class.

‘I’m sorry.’ His voice was low and his eyes stayed locked on mine.

‘I feel a bit guilty…that she has to be there while I’m-’ I searched for the word ‘healthy.’

He nodded.

‘I’m visiting her this afternoon,’ I continued.

He grabbed my hand and I felt safe, like I was anchored to something steady.

That afternoon I drove to the hospital with my parents. Mum gave me a reassuring smile as I left them in the waiting room and walked down the linoleum hall to Alice’s room.  I hesitated by the door before knocking lightly, as though I was visiting a stranger.

‘Alice?’

I walked slowly into the room. Alice had a private room. The walls were painted a relentless oatmeal colour. A small window looked out onto a park that bordered the hospital. Alice was curled up under a white cotton blanket. I tried to not look at the tubes that connected her to the IV pole that sat like a permanent resident in the corner.

She was facing away from me, looking out the window. Her hair was limp and lank. I reached out and tentatively brushed a strand from her face. She recoiled from my touch like she had been burned. She looked up at me with fierce hollow eyes, before turning and facing the window again. I backed out of the room, dashed down the hallway. There were people congregated around the elevator so I headed for the stairs, racing down two at a time. A few minutes later I walked quickly from the stairs to the main exit, dodging wheelchairs and visitors. Outside the automatic doors I took a deep breath of fresh air. I pushed down a familiar sense of rising panic. I wasn’t going to let myself fall to pieces.  A few minutes had passed before I saw him. Will was leaning against a tree near the entrance to the car park. People weaved in and out around him.  I walked to him and he wrapped me in his arms.

‘You don’t have to stay here,’ he said. I felt his voice vibrate against his chest. His hand stroked my head, and my tears started flowing. I pulled back and looked up at him.

‘Yeah. We can go now.’ I gave him a wobbly smile.

He laced his fingers through mine and we walked up through the car park.

Later I opened the front door and stepped through the threshold, with him following close behind. I walked into the kitchen and saw Mum standing in the kitchen. She turned when she heard our footsteps. Her smile reached her eyes.

‘Alice told me you’d left. I’ve been talking with your father. I’m going to be home more for you this time’. She said.

I walked towards her and engulfed her in a hug.

‘We’ll be fine,’ she whispered into my hair.

I pulled back and nodded. I walked over and sank into the couch. Will wrapped his arm around me.

‘You can come and stay with me for a while, if you want.’ His voice was soft. I looked into his eyes and was tempted.

‘I think I’ll stay. I want to go back to the hospital again, maybe not tomorrow but soon. I’ll just sit with her. Even if she hates me, I’ll just sit for a while.’

I knew I would still visit her, even if she flinched when I touched her. Alice was caught up in the circle of her own hateful thoughts about herself. My thoughts were clear. I couldn’t stop her from hurting herself, but I could be there if she needed. I knew that I would be fine, that despite the damage done, I would be strong enough to piece together the gaps.

 

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Broken Lines, Christopher Suffield

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The ward was quiet as shards of light shone between the blinds. They cast rectangles of brightness against the grey linoleum floor. A continuous, methodical beeping sounded from the only occupied bed in the room. It was accompanied by the soft puff and whirr of a respirator. Wires and tubes ran from the patient to all manner of apparatus and cables sprouted from under the crisp white sheets. Both the blanket and sheets were neatly tucked in, covering the bulge of one leg and foot, but hung limply where the other leg should have been. Electrodes pressed against Andy’s scalp while another ran up one nostril. His chest rose and fell gently, the only movement in the room.

Josh was slumped on a chair in the corner. His head lulled against the backrest and his eyes were closed. One of his eyes was blue and purple, his nose bent slightly to the left. His bottom lip had been split and a scab covered the cut. A cast held one forearm, the red fibreglass encasing his arm from elbow to wrist. A few signatures were scrawled on the cast in black ink. Soft snores came from his open-hanging mouth and a dribble of spit had dried against his cheek. The morning light came to rest where his ankles were crossed over each other. One snore came louder than the others, rousing Josh from his sleep and his eyes fluttered open. He yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his good hand. Blinking a few times as he sat up, Josh looked over to the bed.

‘Damn it, Andy,’ he muttered.

He pulled the cord beside the window, raising the blinds and shielding his eyes with his bad arm. Josh stared into the distance once his eyes had adjusted to the light. The glare of headlights, the screech of rubber on tarmac and the crunch of the impact were still fresh in his mind. He hit his cast against the wall in frustration. Josh could taste the metallic tang of blood and shook his head as he tried to clear it.

‘I’m such a fucking idiot,’ he said. His let his forehead bump against the glass, leaving it there as he closed his eyes.

* * *

The light turned green and Josh stabbed at the pedal with his foot. The engine growled as the ute jumped forwards with a screech of rubber on tarmac. His white-knuckled hands gripped the wheel. The sun was dipping below the horizon but the glare was still enough to make Josh squint. One hand lifted from the wheel for a moment to flick the sun visor down as the stereo blared, but it couldn’t overpower the grumbling of the V6. The red circle on a white background of a speed limit sign flashed past on the side of the road but Josh didn’t see the number inside. The number on his speedometer was well above it anyhow, the car whining as it hung at the factory maximum.

‘Why do you have to go so fast every fucking time?’ said Andy, glaring over at him.

Josh laughed. He loved the rush that came with such speed. Things had become strained between them recently. Ever since he had his license suspended for the first time it felt like Andy had changed. Josh knew he was being reckless but he’d never admit that to Andy. The speedometer was nudging one hundred and eighty, almost a hundred over the speed limit but he didn’t slow down. Tyres slid against the bitumen as the car flew around the corner. Josh flicked his visor back up after rounding the bend. The broken white lines on the road came so close together it was almost as if they were a single line. The sky was darkening from the bright blue of the day as a few puffy clouds turned from pink to purple, but neither boy noticed.

‘Josh, slow the fuck down. You’re going to lose your license again,’ Andy said.

‘Shut up, Andy. You’re such a fucking wuss,’ Josh shot back.

‘I wish I had my Ps already. This thing is a death trap.’

‘You’re just jealous you don’t have your own car.’

‘Do you really think I’d waste my money on a ute?’

The last comment stung. It had taken him months to save for the red Holden, and some birthday money from his grandmother left him just able to afford it. It might have been a little rusted, but Josh was proud of it. Josh put Andy’s resentment down to envy. Rounding another corner, the tail lights of a car appeared up ahead, only just visible in the diminishing light. They grew rapidly but Josh kept his foot on the pedal. The broken white lines merged into unbroken double lines, as Josh pulled out onto the other side of the road. Only once he had pulled into the other lane did he see the oncoming car.

‘Fuck!’ Josh shouted, yanking the wheel to the right.

Tyres screeched for a moment before the car flew off the road, the sound changing pitch as tarmac turned to dirt. Skidding to the sounds of blaring horns and the crunch of gravel, Josh slammed on the brakes. He wrestled with the wheel as the road pulled away from them, bending around to the left.

‘Josh! We’re going to hit a fucking –’

His eyes screwed shut just as the passenger side door smacked into the trunk of the tree, windows shattering as the door was punched inwards. The airbag exploded into Josh’s face. Josh thought he heard a scream before the ringing in his ears drowned it out. Something cracked in his chest as he was flung against his seatbelt and blood began to stream from his broken nose. He shoved the door and stumbled out of the car. The taste of his blood was metallic on his lips as he licked them. His head was spinning.

‘Fuck me,’ he groaned as he looked back at his pride and joy from his hands and knees. Inside Andy wasn’t moving. ‘Andy! Fuck!’

Josh crawled back into the car, fighting against the stubborn seat belt and sliding his hands under Andy’s arms. He dragged him across the centre console and onto the gravel. Blood smeared over the car’s interior and the ground as Josh laid Andy down. His friend’s chest rose and fell as t-shirt turned a deep crimson. Andy’s left arm and leg were crumpled against his side, blood drenching his jeans and dripping from his crushed fingers.

‘Fuck!’ he shouted. He reached for his phone, pulling it from his pocket with trembling fingers, fumbling as he entered his password, the phone vibrating in its refusal once before Josh got it unlocked. For the first time, Josh was truly scared. A moment later he held it to his ear, sniffing loudly to clear the blood from his nose. The phone began to ring.

‘Fuck, hurry up,’ he said before the ringing stopped.

‘You have dialled emergency Triple Zero. Your call is being connected,’ said the recorded voice on the other end of the line.

* * *

Josh wiped his brow with the back of his arm, grease smearing across his forehead. His t-shirt had been discarded hours ago and sat crumpled in the corner, still damp from his sweat. He grabbed a brand new spark plug from the bench and walked back over to the Toyota. Bending back under the bonnet, he shoved the spark plug in before standing back up, smacking the back of his head on the raised bonnet in the process.

‘Fuck,’ he grunted.

The car only needed a simple service, but it was much more difficult than it should have been in the heat. Although it was thirty degrees outside, it felt twice that inside the garage. Josh grabbed his water bottle and guzzled half of it as he looked back over to the bench.

He stared at the crumpled bit of metal hanging from a nail above the workbench. Rust gathered at the edges and some of the yellow and black paint had crumbled away. It was the only remnant of his old ute that remained. Josh glanced up at it occasionally, reminded of his mistakes. It reminded him just how lucky he was to be alive. The car was a write-off, but it wasn’t the damage he caused to his car that hurt. He grabbed the last spark plug, leaning under the car’s hood once again. Josh replaced the part and stood up, this time avoiding hitting his head before slamming the car’s bonnet. He quickly drained what remained in his drink bottle. Josh picked up his shirt, wiping the sweat from his face before hanging it over his shoulder.

‘Hey Josh, you finished with my car yet?’

Josh grabbed the car’s keys off the bench and turned to face the voice. He lobbed the keys over the car and a hand shot out to catch them.

‘Good catch. And yeah, I just finished,’ Josh responded.

‘Awesome,’ Andy said as he pushed towards the car.

It had been a few years since the accident now and Andy acted as if it never happened. He’d lost his left leg and all feeling below his hips, but these days he seemed happier than Josh remembered, even back when they played footy together. To Josh, it was like the wheelchair had become a part of Andy, but Josh couldn’t escape the guilt he felt. He didn’t have to pay the price for his stupidity, Andy did. He was envious of how easily Andy had come to terms with everything.

Andy rolled over to the car and flung the door open. His arms were heavily muscled and he easily lifted his body from the chair and onto the car seat. His leg followed limply and he flicked it in front of the seat.

‘Chuck the chair in the back, would you Josh?’ Andy asked.

Josh nodded and pushed the wheelchair around to the back of the car. He couldn’t understand how Andy was so casual about his situation. Andy would never walk again and yet Josh was the one who couldn’t move on. He picked up the chair and placed it in the car’s boot, closing the boot once it was positioned correctly.

‘There you go, mate. Anyone home to help you out?’ Josh asked.

‘I’m picking Alice up from netball. What do I owe you?’

‘Call it a hundred. Changed the spark plugs and all your fluids and checked the brakes. Everything else was fine.’

Andy handed Josh two fifties and closed the car door. It was a generous discount but he didn’t tell Andy that. He waved as Andy backed out of the garage before turning to look up at the number plate on the wall.

‘Why can’t I fucking move on?’ Josh muttered.

He reached for the scrap of metal, pulling it down from the wall. It was cold. He could taste blood every time he held it, every time he remembered. Josh threw the plate in the skip bin outside, the clang of metal on metal feeling strangely satisfying.

* * *

The pub was crowded that night but Josh sat alone, nursing his beer in the corner. He always drank too much when he was in a bad mood. The glass emptied faster than he expected and he wandered over to the bar to order another one.

‘Hey Josh, my shout,’ called Andy as he rolled towards the bar.

‘Hey mate, thought you were taking care of Alice,’ Josh said.

‘Nah, she’s over at a friend’s place tonight. You drinking alone again?’ Andy laughed. Josh said nothing, took the beers and moved back to his table. Andy followed. He had known Andy would find him tonight. Every time he felt like this, Andy would show up. It reminded him of those days he’s spent by Andy’s side at the hospital, wondering if he would ever recover. Josh sipped his third beer quietly before glancing over to his friend. Andy sat in silence, as if waiting for Josh to say something.

‘How do you do it?’ Josh asked.

‘Do what?’

‘You know, the wheelchair, not walking, everything.’

‘Mate, what choice do I have? Mum and Alice need me. Even you need me.’ Andy took a long drink as Josh watched. How could it be that simple?

‘It should have been me. I fucked up, not you. It’s not fair mate.’

‘Get over yourself, Josh. Do you want my fucking sympathy or something?’ Andy spat, glaring at his friend.

‘I, uh …,’ Josh trailed off, his cheeks flushing as he realised the truth behind Andy’s comment.

‘Life’s not fair, mate. Roll with the punches. Stop beating yourself up over it. We’re still alive, right?’

Josh smiled weakly and took another sip. How could Andy put everything in perspective so easily? In those weeks after the accident, Josh wasn’t sure if Andy would make it. But he recovered much faster than anyone had expected. He was determined not to let the anything slow him down, especially doctors. Andy had been in the gym before the doctors allowed him and his arms quickly grew stronger than Josh’s would ever be.

‘So what should I do, Andy?’ Josh asked. Andy paused for a moment.

‘Get rid of that number plate and live your life, mate,’ Andy said.

‘It’s already gone. I threw it away this arvo.’

‘About fucking time, mate. Anyhow, I found this guy online selling his old racing wheelchair but I need you to help me to pick it up. That cool?’

Josh looked down at his drink again, the glass cool against his palm as he took another sip. ‘What kind of racing? Sprints?’

‘I want to do a marathon. Why do you think I’ve been in the gym so much? Gotta use these guns for something,’ Andy said, flexing his right arm. Josh stared at him like he was crazy before laughing and nodding.

‘Show off. I’ll help you out but you’re absolutely crazy. Want me to coach you? We’d make a great team.’

‘Fuck you, Josh. What do you know about coaching?’ Andy laughed.

Josh smiled and punched Andy in the arm before draining the last of his beer. They talked long into the night, the drinking forgotten as they talked until closing. Josh knew something had changed. A weight had been lifted from his shoulders as the two friends talked like they did before the accident. Josh would never forget what happened but if Andy could move on, then so could he.

 

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Joshua & 1000 Words, two works, Aidan Wondracz

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Joshua

static

– The difference between a man with religion and a man without is that the man with religion spends his life fulfilling a purpose   whilst the other spends his life searching for one.

follow this road: rugged and rude/ joshua and adem rattle along. dawn brightening to azure day/ falling ochre/ settling to dark waters— spheres glimmering/ in that sky/ that flinches from touch—draining to day/ and back again. sleep/ puffed/ under eyes that want for rest/ on that familiar sight/ home.

static

-And who has the harder path? You may say it belongs to the one without purpose. But how can this be? He can do nothing wrong, for there is nothing right to mark him by. He can make no immoral statements, for there are no moral judges. Such concepts do not exist in a world without purpose.

sun is settling/ ochre chalks the sky/ silhouette landscape/ nigerian border is the horizon/ three-kilometres of sleeping trucks: waiting for inspection/ waiting to cross/ joshua parks in line.  adem turns the radio up.

static

-When he kills a man he does not say, I have killed one of God’s children, for he does not believe in God. When he sleeps with another man’s wife he does not think, I have tempted Eve, for he does not know who she is. He lives free, but lacking life.

joshua lurches out/ onto the ramshackle road/ bordered by rusted huts/ with broken frames/ jutting the sky. charisma of/ safari of red sun/ over red land/ lost to image of/ safari of slums/ poverty’s tread.

static

– He may experience the warmth, the flowering and never the fall, but he will always feel the wintery cold— the same freezing that stems from emptiness. Without purpose, what is anything for?

taxis cycle past/ joshua saddles on one. adem/ obsequious/ stays locked behind/ guarding the wheels from those/ desperate/ to save their hands/ guarding the cargo from those/ desperate/ to sell/ guarding the truck from those/ desperate.

static

– No, the harder path belongs to the man with religion, for every religion brings purpose. He who wishes to fulfil it must walk a path that is hurdled with bumps and hollowed by potholes. And following not too far behind, is Temptation.

nigerian border/ road settles to dust/ dusk settles to dark. no streetlights/ passing cars are the light of the night. old gum-smacked lady sitting on folding chair/ drinking the moon away/ coaxing a smile.

static

– It whispers for us to strike the one who cast the first stone. So we do, and we trip, not seeing the bump. It tells us to steal a glance from another man’s wife. So we do, and we fall, not seeing the pothole

joshua pays taxi/ that curls away/ under blanket of night. he heads along veins/ away from beating heart/ horns echoing/ fading. huddles between shacks and passers/ the way gets narrower/ the way becomes darker.

static

-And sometimes it is easier to lie face down on that ground, or hide in that hole, rather than to show your face. But, for those who grow tired of being numb—for lying too long on the cold—and sallow—for hiding too long in the darkness—the path does not end. Rather, the struggle to rise begins. And you realise that you are not walking on the path of virtue, for virtue is our purpose, and virtuosity is our end. No. The path is hurdled with bumps and hollowed by potholes. It is the path of Error, and the hardest of all. For though the fall is definite, the rise remains uncertain. The ones who leap, knowing this, are the bravest of all. It is in faith and for faith that we do this. And that is all.

a shack/ no bigger than the others/ but smaller than some/ a broken wall/ serving drinks/ tables perched out front/ he pushes to the counter/ counts his counters/ pays/ sits and drinks. warm neon glow of mosquito light/ melts with moonlighting/ over that hunched frame/ brooding/ a sip for thought from a glass filled with drink/ shy of one- and- two- naughts. zephyr of night/ turns to gale of noise/ voices rise/ glasses clink/ urine flows/ shacks rattle/ all passing/ the hunched and brooding frame. into the dark pool of thought/ he looks/ his eyes have greyed/ his stretched lips/ lamed by weariness/ all that shows/ is a hopeless frown. ladies of the night/ splash their feet/ clean to step in. heels flicked on tables/ rags raised above thighs/ dogs go howling/ market’s opened. rensia: pulled- back black hair/ flower dress with ripped petals/ runs her red licked nails/ across joshua’s neck/ whose eyes always set/ on that drink/ shy of one-and-two-naughts. she floats away/ to another man/ happy to rub his face in the flowers. revelry recedes/ silence comes again/ joshua in his bubble/ of blue and moonlight/ sinking deeper/ into that drink that’s turned/ shallow. visions fall behind drooping eyes/ of past time/ sailing the horizon in truck/ sitting where adem sits/ obeying driver as adem obeys/ staying behind as adem stays/ not knowing where driver goes/ now/ joshua knows/ and he shall go. he slips through puddles/ trips over bottles/ staggers to a shack/ heaving inside/ it is busy/ stumbles to another/ whimpering inside/ it is busy. travelling deeper along/ darker it becomes. plastic lawns/ cracking under heel/ he passes through narrower/ darker/ spaces/ shacks almost touch/ clouding moonlight/ hands against walls/ guiding blind feet/ through hanging rags/ painting the laundry/ with sweaty face/ clammy palms. a murmur a rustle/ both at once/ woman appears/ in doorway/ she nods/ she walks inside/ temptation whispers/ he walks inside: one room/ four corners/ bed lies in one/ hatched quilt over stained sheets/ woman sitting/ arms stiff/ leaning over/ he sits beside/ spring pokes through/ deflated condom by his foot/ silence. she shivers/ thought of night carrying/ longer she must sell. he rattles/ thought of night losing/ less he’ll enjoy. he strips her threadbare/ of her threadbare clothes/ she paws for pillow for protection/ lying underneath/ neatly wrapped/ she tosses the plastic/ he flinches/ shakes his head/ she shakes hers at his/ and he shakes again. she pushes the plastic/ into his hands/ his palms are too clammy. condom hits ground/ His face up/ Je n’ai pas dit[1] reads across/ he presses against her/ she pushes away/ deal is off. he rises/ distraught/ disconcerted/ He spoke/ Je n’ai pas dit/ He spoke Je n’ai pas dit. he pulls out fists of money/ she spreads/ deal is back on. onto the streets/ shirtless/ missing a shoe/ joshua staggers/ leaning over/ fist anchored in red/ scrunching money/ whining grows distant. through and through/ he travels/ slipping/ sliding. from behind a shadow/ which one he does not know—perhaps from same one he is standing in—appears four/ three grown/ tall- like/ gleaming teeth/ the other/ small- like/ not yet man/ soon to be. surrounding him/ three umbrella thorns and one bushwillow/ joshua trips. trees bend down/ helping him by the hands/ bushwillow brushes his face/ branches rattle/ tempest subsides/ forest clears/ joshua lies/ blood wrapped/ hands/ emptied.


[1] ‘I said no.’

 

intermission

dawn swallows the dark/ smoke chokes the air/ distant horns/ joshua’s eyes recede/ consciousness catches up/ head goes spinning/ tastes blood/ he fumbles and tumbles/ checks his empty pockets. the night is what he remembers it to be/ dark/ gloomy/ obscure/ a woman sitting on hatched quilt/ he touches groin/ Je n’ai pas dit/ he said no. he crawls his way back to the heart/ with crowds of cars/ and people/ marching through/ market- stands standing in the way/ of every passer-by/ merchants run/ accessories assorted on wooden plates/ marked with prices negotiable/ Je n’ai pas dit/ why did she say no? he touches groin/ car noise exacerbates/ sight blurs/ three kilometres back he travels/ he reaches that familiar sight/ that’s not home/ finds adem curled in seat. joshua and adem move forward/ along that rugged and rude road/ adem pushes back the sleep/ he sits up/ dashboard is too high for him/ to

see

 

an

 

end.

 

 

1000 words

 

Artwork

‘I don’t like the painting. It’s too postmodernist.’

‘It is quite minimalist.’ Francesca tilted her head. ‘But you gain a sense of urgency from The Artisan— a cry for recognition.’

Marion crossed her brows. ‘How?’

‘Well, the red is obviously overwhelmed by the white,’ Francesca continued, ‘it’s as if the artist believes he’s insignificant—like a dot— and feels he is floating in the white. Yet, he manages to triumph because we’re always drawn to the red instead.’

‘I don’t know,’ Marion said. ‘It just doesn’t speak to me as suddenly as his others.’

‘What’s wrong with a bit of a tease?’ Francesca sipped from her glass, sticking a scarlet kiss on the rim, ‘I like my men with a bit of mystery. Though, they can’t be too enigmatic—I still like to have some sort of a hold on them.’

‘Paintings and men are completely different.’

‘The only difference between the two is one is stroked by the brush and the other can’t stop stroking their own, and both have the equal capability of amazing or disappointing.’

‘They always disappoint past first inspection.’ Marion sighed and lifted herself to laughter with Francesca.

The empty floor catered to the high heels and polished shoes that sauntered across the room; women, choked in tight dresses, and men pressed in suits had gathered to pamper and praise The Artisan’s paintings along the walls. However, The Artisan himself was nowhere to be found.

‘Speaking of which,’ Marion searched for a signature on the painting, ‘where is he, and why does he never sign?’

‘You know how artists are; always wanting to avoid the spotlight because they think it will fade the colour of the paint.’ Francesca fidgeted with her cleavage bursting from her dress. ‘I’d be surprised if he actually showed up to this demonstration.’

‘He never does show up to any of them, does he?’ Marion gazed obstinately across the room. ‘I’m never going to understand this male.’

A man, wearing frames without glass, overheard and squeezed himself between the pair.

‘From what I’ve heard,’ he muttered in his glass, ‘he’s homosexual.’

‘And what makes you say that?’ Marion drew tight eyes at the unwelcome company.

‘Well, why else would The Artisan be so shy of public eyes? He’s scared of being berated for his sexuality.’ He turned to Marion, clumsily twirling his wine. ‘There’s nothing wrong with being homosexual, dear. But they have to make a big deal out of it and, judging from the rumours, there’s not even much to make a deal about.’

‘I don’t care if he’s homosexual,’ Marion snapped.

‘Oh, my.’ The man beat his palm to his chest. ‘It seems that we have a bit of an obsession. There’s nothing to blush about, dear. Everyone is bound to fall in love with The Artisan sooner or later. And who wouldn’t! Just look at the paintings. This one is my favourite. I think it captures the true essence of his sexuality and frustration of being unable to speak out.’

Impressing herself upon people was an unshakeable desire of Francesca’s— sometimes she even managed to impress herself— and she replied in a tone that was not too far sounding from ostentatious,

‘The dot represents his loneliness in the world and its centring would show that he holds his sexuality as a core value, but he’s afraid to speak out, because once he does, his value might not remain at his core; he’s afraid of losing his sexuality.’

The man clapped his hands, smashing the glass and splashing the wine,

‘An artist too afraid to lose his homosexuality, why, he’s a proud Tchaikovsky! And you, my dear,’ he lost his footing and held onto Francesca, ‘are magnificent. If only you could peer into my soul, the things you could tell me that I don’t even know.’ And the drunken socialite tearfully tore himself away in search for another glass.

‘They should keep a tab on how many drinks people can have.’ Marion watched the drunken man cradle a stranger in his arm before beginning to sing.

‘No one would turn up to these, then.’ Francesca laughed wiping wine from her arms. ‘And it’s nice to have some character in this room, especially when the artworks lack it. They’re all just colours, shapeless characters; different hues of boredom.’ Francesca took Marion’s sniffing as an obvious expression of the question she wanted to ask, and answered, ‘Just because a painting has meaning, doesn’t make it interesting. It might be interesting to find out what it is implying, but the actual work itself mightn’t be anything fantastic. I could hang this painting on the white wall at home, and the only difference you’d notice was a perfectly rounded, tiny, red stain. No matter what cleaner you used it would never wipe off, and it’d annoy you for being so pretentiously rounded; an irksome red against the white.’

And it suddenly occurred to Marion that the artist did not paint the work for recognition, or to express his sexuality, but rather to become unrecognised. Even though he had layered himself in mysticism, avoiding the public lights, he could not remove his name—The Artisan—the core sentiment of identity. No matter how small a being he made himself, his name had marked him a noticeable red.

Marion relaxed to a look of content. ‘Whether there is anything to look at or not, this painting is still interesting. I like it.’

‘Like what you will, but that doesn’t affect my opinion— I’d prefer a much more interesting stain on my wall,’ Francesca replied.

The front doors opened. A combed man, smelling of lavender, walked in wearing a dress of leather shoes, white collared shirt, black blazer and pants. All eyes were agape; all mouths closed. His hands were timidly crossed in front, but he smiled warmly. After clearing his throat of some uncomfortable phlegm, he opened it to speak.

Francesca leaned over to Marion and whispered, ‘That suit doesn’t match his character at all.’

 

1000 words.

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Nicki, Vivienne Psaila

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I have a black and white photo of Nicki. Not some digital wish wash but the actual thing, one that I can hold in my hands and rip up if I want to. He’s hunched over the kitchen table scribbling into his notepad smoking a cigarette. He didn’t know I was taking the picture. He was lost in whatever he was doing. He’s bare chested so you can see the bits around his collar bone that look hollow because he’s so skinny. He never ate anything because he was constantly smoking. Still, he had a boyish masculinity about him that girls seemed to like. But they all babied him in a way, like they were trying to fix him up or be that special girl that could change him. But I don’t think anybody can change anybody else. I remember this one girl Elyza, bought him skin stuff with mud masks and everything. She got all clinical on him and told him he had to use it three times a day. Nicki’s skin was pretty bad, but whatever. He just used the products as a type of paint and drew portraits of Elyza wearing trannie makeup. We stuck them around our place and called it art. I think I still have one of them somewhere. Whenever Nicki drew self portraits, he drew a little stick figure with a huge head. He could laugh at himself. That’s important. I remember after I took the photo I made him bacon and eggs. I always cooked the cheap home brand bacon because it tasted the saltiest. Once Nicki made me watch a YouTube clip of pigs chewing on their cage bars as these fat farmers ripped piglets off their teats. He told me I had to stop buying it. But I still buy it.

I think the last proper meal I ate with Nicki was at Star City over in Pyrmont. He licked the plate clean. He picked the thing right off the table and held it up to his face so that his nose squashed against the plate. He said, ‘that’s some good tucker.’ We went to see his mum at the pokies after that. That never took long. Especially this last time.

‘Hey Ma,’ he said. I’ve never seen him look at someone’s face the way he did at hers. She didn’t even look at him.

‘Hey Ma.’

‘I’ll give ya twenty bucks to piss off.’ That’s all she said, so we left.

We met about three years ago at a house party in the western suburbs. He was wearing a gold cowboy hat and his hair was long like Kurt Cobain’s. It was cold because people started tearing pages from books to make a fire in the backyard. They were tearing up all kinds of books. They even tore up 1984. It was the penguin cover with Big Brother’s face all patched up in a collage of different coloured paints. I was leaning against the fence getting all hot and not doing anything about it when Nicki turned around to me and said, ‘that’s the kind of thing that could get me to go to war’.

He moved into Glebe with me soon after that. Amidst the chain stores and the plastic glow of the world’s 7/11s. The bloated and gluttonous franchise that is Westfield. The Lansdowne pub with half of its signage broken so it read ‘DOWNE’ in pink neon. We drank coffee and tallied the number of girls flaunting wrist tats, slobbering over tally hoes, rolling their own cigarettes. We flicked through Brag and Drum Media, looking for the boldest band names we could find. ‘Milk Titty’ still takes the cake. We laughed at hipsters that carried ripsticks about like handbags and girls that had obviously spent hours perfecting the ‘homeless-chic’ look. We were there, amidst our instagramming, tweeting, hashtagging i-generation, slopping through all the caffeine and bullshit trying to figure out what it all meant.

Glebe became a real home to Nicki and he worked three jobs to keep it that way. He did his best to cover rent, but I usually paid it. He wasted most of his money on alcohol and cigarettes. I get money off my parents. They own a big house in Edgecliff and go travelling all the time so I never feel guilty about it. I don’t see them much and I guess that probably bothers them. My brother James still lives with them. He doesn’t get out much. He’d fuck his computer if he could.

We used to spend heaps of our nights at the Kings Cross Hotel. It’s right opposite the big red Coca Cola sign on William Street. Every weekend the street was teaming with girls stomping about in their cheap plastic heels. I was always so curious about those girls because I never felt anything like them. Usually we’d drink at our place before we went out. Then Nicki started drinking alone before I was home to join him. For his nineteenth birthday last year, we were supposed to have friends over for drinks at our place. I came home from work around six and there were beer cans and bottles and scratched records all over the floor. Nicki had written ‘Meet you fuckers down on Jubilee Street’ on the wall. He’d blue-tacked my Push the Sky Away vinyl there too, so that it made up one eye of his self-portrait. The face looked demented, like something Francis Bacon would get off on. I wiped the walls with a wet chux and collected all the empty cans before everyone came over. Lucky he’d drawn the whole lot in chalk.

When I met up with him at Kings Cross Hotel, he was sitting alone on the first floor balcony wearing a stupid red party hat. The ones that look like upside down ice cream cones. I stuck my finger up at him as I was crossing the street. He just stared and sort of flicked his wrist at me. I bought a round and sat with him outside.

‘Hey, Happy Birthday fella.’

He raised his party hat to me and took a swig of beer. Three girls with noticeably orange skin came and sat down at the table next to us.

‘Oh my gawd Laura, how much was your skirt?’

‘Like, twenty dollars from Mink Pink.’

‘Actually? Looks literally, so amazing.’

Nicki turned to me blankly. ‘I unenrolled from uni today as a birthday present to myself,’ he said.

‘But you only had one semester to go.’
He shrugged. He was watching a homeless man walking along the street asking people for money. He never wanted to talk about why he dropped out so we never did. I remember the next day there were stacks of old papers by the front door. They were Nicki’s poems and essays. He had been doing an arts degree or something at Sydney uni. I read through some of his stuff. Almost everything he wrote had something to do with a girl. ‘She’ this and ‘she’ that. Some of the poems were pretty nasty and I guess those were directed at his mum. The others I’m not so sure about. He mostly got marked distinctions, if not better.

After he dropped out of university, he went to work with his dad as a mechanic. His dad’s name was Bruce, so we called him Springsteen. Springsteen punched Nicki in the eye when he found out he quit uni with only six months to finish. He had a black eye for a week. All he said about it was, ‘Springsteen’s just in a big old wax right now, that’s all.’ When I asked him what his mum thought he said ‘yeah yeah, enough chit chat,’ and walked off. He suited the look of a mechanic in an innocent kind of way. He would come home all black and greasy and I used to imagine he jumped in a vat of black milk and swam around like a baby all day. He seemed pretty happy around that time. Maybe it was just being around his dad that made him that way, but I liked to think it was because he floated in that tub of black milk and felt weightless for a bit. It probably would have been good for him if he could feel like that some of the time. Maybe that’s why he drank so much. After work with his dad, he taught English as a second language to people in Pitt Street. One time he brought a student called Ashvindar back to our place because we were having a party. We called him Ash. He was quiet. Probably uncomfortable with the wayward air we had about us. Some guy named Stuart was there. He had the Southern Cross tattooed on his forearm. What a knob. No one had ever met him before, he was just someone we knew through a friend. He offered Ash a VB but Ash didn’t want one.

‘What? Australian beer not good enough?’ he said. Ash looked at Nicki because he didn’t know what to say.

‘It’s VB, that’s Victoria Bitter,’ Stuart continued, ‘and I reckon you better love-it or leave-it.’ Then Nicki did something pretty weird and smashed his beer bottle against the table and shoved it at Stuart’s face and told him to get the fuck out. Stuart scrunched up his face at Nicki like he was crazy, but he got out of there pretty quick. I always thought Nicki had an okay temper, but not after that. I made a joke and said, ‘that’s how we do it here in ‘straya.’ Everyone laughed except Nicki. Even Ash laughed. Nicki disappeared into his room and stayed there for the rest of the night. I didn’t want to make a scene so I left him alone. Now I think of it, nobody ever went to see if he was okay. I saw Ash out at the end of the night. After that, Nicki didn’t bring any more of his students home, or anyone at all really.

The next day I had to put baking soda on the carpet stains Nicki made when he smashed the bottle. The carpet was green and always laced with cat fur. ‘We don’t even have any pussies!’ Nicki used to yell and that always got us in a chorus screaming ‘I got the no pussy blues, I got the no pussy blues!’ We’d bang on the walls and roll around thrusting at each other like depraved sex addicts. He never did treat me like much of a girl. Our neighbour owned some cats. He never let them outdoors so whenever I passed by in the hallway, I heard them scratching at the door. Nicki used to coax them into our place with a little butter on the nib of his finger. He liked animals. He told me when his parents were still together they owned a black cat named Roger Waters. He showed me a photo of the day they found it shoved in a pillow case on the road near their house in the western suburbs. They were all crouched over it and kissing it. The photo was probably ten years old and they all had huge smiles on their faces. Nicki had the biggest.

At our place in Glebe, the bathroom door was broken. Lucky my parents never visited me or they would have lost their shit about it. I had to use a case of Tooheys as a doorstop. It worked well enough. Nicki walked in on me once. I was standing side on to the mirror looking at my boobs. I’d put a pencil underneath each of them because a guy told me that was how you tested if they were a good size. Anyway, he walked in and I jumped and the pencils hit the floor. We looked at each other awkwardly for a couple of seconds then Nicki goes ‘people are funny things.’ He lingered at the door like he wanted to say something else, but I told him to get out.

Yesterday I saw Nicki at Coles in the aisle where they sell birthday cards and soft porn magazines. I almost didn’t recognise him. He’d cut his hair off and it was super short at the sides. He had filled out and his pale arms were all bloated and spotty. I followed him for a while, watching from a distance. I haven’t seen him since we had to move out of Glebe. His dad made him move back in with him because he got done for drink driving. When my parents found out, they got all serious on my arse. Like I had something to do with it. I wasn’t even in the car. I tried to visit him but he lived so far away in the suburbs. He stopped coming into the city so I stopped inviting him to come out with us. People just sort of forgot about him I guess. I said hello to him.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked, pointing to the card in his hand. It was a tacky photograph of a blue rose overlaid with the word Mother.

‘Mum.’

‘How is she?’

‘She’s alright.’
But today my friend Carl told me she was in rehab. I told him I was surprised because Nicki didn’t say anything to me when I spoke to him. I wonder if Springsteen is taking care of her. After we spoke for a bit Nicki said he had to go but he didn’t say why. I don’t even know why he was in the city. I said goodbye and watched him wander off ahead of me. He paled against the clean white light of the grocery aisle like a dying flame, only more delicate. Then he turned down another aisle and was gone. I don’t think I’ll see Nicki again. I just have a feeling about it.

Nicki wrote me something once. I found it in my desk today. It’s mostly rubbish but I kept it anyway. He wrote it while we were having breakfast one morning. Right after I took the black and white photo actually. I was throwing cornflakes and bits of dried eggshell at his head trying to lodge them in his hair.

‘You should wash your hair Nicki,’ I said, ‘you’ve got food in it.’

‘One sec.’

‘Nicki Nicki Nicki! I’ve put some cornflakes in your hair to take for lunch.’

‘Hold up, one sec Frankie.’

‘I packed some for old mate Springsteen too.’

‘A-huh, ‘preciate it.’ He was still trying to write.

‘Hey, do we have to see your mum again tonight after dinner?’

‘Yeah, we do.’

‘Gay.’

I think that really annoyed him because he stopped and scrunched up whatever he was writing and threw it at my face.

‘I’ve got uni now, I’ll see ya.’

I read it that morning and I read it again after I saw him yesterday. And again today. It reads:

beneath this skin
rests a nightmare
two hundred sleeping hands
all lifeless, bloodless
but one

supine golden
warm as the sun
she

Then it just stops because he never finished it. I like it. But I still wonder what Nicki meant by all that stuff.

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Burdens, Olivia Whenman

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DAMON HILTON

Constable Derrin was standing behind me whilst I was on the phone. In high school we used to call him Herc the Lurk.

‘I love you baby. Please! I won’t do anything like this again. Please baby. Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!’

But she hung up. I turned around in defeat. I was face-to face with Herc. It reminded me of when we were forced to partner up in self-defence class. He kicked my arse. Ugh, in high school he was a loser. Actually, he’s still a loser. The only difference is the school blazer’s now a badly pressed uniform and its emblem a poorly shined badge.

‘Who was that?’ Herc asked.

‘Mara,’ I said.

“She like princesses or something?”

‘What?’

‘Come with me mate,’ he said.

His mother was Greek. Called him Hercules or some shit after a Greek god who fought monsters. I don’t know. I don’t care. There’s not even anything particularly godly about Herc. I bet the only monsters he ever gets to fight are underage offenders. They aren’t even monsters, they’re just bored.

‘Check out ya face,’ he said.

He opened the bathroom door and let me in. Water had leaked underneath the mirror leaving a mass of black ooze in the corner. My face was blue under the light. On the side of my face there was a stain and on my cheek a splodge. Mara. Black eyeliner and pink lip-gloss. Her signature. I didn’t wipe them off. I left them there for company. I missed her already.

‘You like being a princess?’ Herc said.

‘Yeah, maybe you can be my Knight in Shining Armour and save me? Wait, aren’t you a god or some shit?’ I asked.

‘Yeah real funny wise guy. I won’t be saving your arse until I know it wasn’t you. So until then I can’t let you go.’

‘What does that mean? Is there going to be a line-up?’

‘Yeah mate, there’s going to be a line-up.’

The cell bed sagged in the middle where various arses had been before. I’d been lying there for at least an hour.

There’s a photo stuck above my bed. It’s a school photo of Mara. It was taken in Year 11 a couple of months before we started dating. Her hair was blonde and long, and her lips tinted with pink lip-gloss. Sometimes I’d see sticky residue on the collars of other boys in my year. But then we started going out. After that the lip-gloss smears disappeared.

In Year 12 I used to smoke every afternoon at the train station. I’d smoke one, two, three cigarettes. Commuters would stare. I’d fight with Mara at the station because she wouldn’t kiss me. She said my mouth tasted like shit. Then she said second-hand smoke was even worse than the real thing. She said that it caused cancer and if I kept it up I’d be dead by the age of 30. Than my brother Levi died. So I stopped.

The year after we finished school Mara decided she was going to move away and go to university. She ended up staying. I’m pretty sure she stayed for me. I was glad because I didn’t really care about anyone else in our shithole of a hometown. Mara’s best friend Larnie moved away though. I could tell Mara missed her. But she had me. She still has me.

‘Mate you awake?’ Herc asked.

‘Ugh yeah,’ I said.

‘It’s time.’

I stood against a white backdrop with seven random guys. Actors? Picked off the street? Other cops? I don’t know.

‘Is there anywhere in particular you want to stand?’ Herc asked.

‘Nah not really,’ I said.

Honestly, I just wanted it to be over and done with. Through the observation window I could see the witness’s hair in some sort of bun. There was a vein bulging on the left side of her temple. Frustration? Anger? Exhaustion? I’d seen her three times before. She worked at the jewellers.

She pointed straight at me. Her lips tight.

‘It was that one. He broke into the jewellery store… again.’

Herc took me by the right arm. He gripped it tightly as he walked me back to the holding cell, told me that in the morning they were going to take me to a corrections centre, a new fancy fucking way to say ‘jail’.  I was a repeat offender. Breaking and entering as well as theft was my specialty. This wasn’t the first time I’d stolen something from that store. But it was the first time I’d stolen an engagement ring.

Herc leant against the cell wall, hands in his pockets. He was chewing gum that squelched around inside his mouth.

‘You wanna know something?’ Herc asked.

‘Ok,’ I said.

‘So you and Mara started like dating in year 11 or something, right?’

‘Yeah. What of it?’

‘Nothing mate. It’s just she’s a huge bitch.’

‘Fuck you! You talkin’ shit about my girlfriend? I’d fuckin’ kill for her.’

‘Are you fucking serious? Mate you gotta draw the line somewhere. She’s a bitch. That ring you stole was for her wasn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Yeah thought so. Just like all that shit you took last time? You know what your fault is mate? You’re massive idiot,’ he said as he shut the door.

Yeah I thought. I am a massive idiot. But I love her.

 

CATS ARE BETTER THAN DOGS

Joel Hilton hit me because I said his dog was stupid.

‘Cats are better than dogs. Dogs can’t even look after themselves. You have to clean dogs. You don’t have to clean cats.’

‘Yeah well dogs are better than cats. Dogs can play fetch! Cats don’t do anything, they just sleep all day. Borrrrring.’

‘No they don’t! I play games with my cat all the time. He likes to play games with this stick thing. It’s got a string on the end and you like wave it around and he chases it and tries to eat it.’

‘That sounds boring Gabby. Your cat sounds stupid. He’s trying to eat string. Cats can’t eat string.’

‘He’s not stupid! Your dog is stupid.’

‘Nuh-uh, my dog’s smart. He can play dead and everything.’

‘Yeah well he’s probably so stupid he should be dead.’

We both have time out tomorrow at lunchtime because Mrs Burrell says so. She says it doesn’t matter if cats or dogs are better. She says I shouldn’t have said what I said. But I don’t think she understands. Cats are better. They just are.

I hit Gabby Wright because she said my dog was stupid. But he’s the smartest dog I know. He’s smarter than Gabby. She’s so stupid. Mrs Burrell says I shouldn’t have hit her. So I’ve got time out tomorrow at lunchtime. Anyway dogs are better than cats. It’s not my fault Gabby doesn’t understand.

It’s lunchtime and everyone else is outside in the playground. It sucks I’m stuck inside on time out. I asked my Mum if cats are better than dogs. She said yes. She said cats are better than dogs because cats are independent. I think she means that cats can go and catch birds and eat them if they’re hungry.

I’m in time out. My brother told me I shouldn’t worry about it. He used to get put on time out all the time. He also said that that dogs are better than cats because dogs can help blind people. All my friends are outside playing. Gabby and her cat suck.

Did you know in ancient Egypt the mummies loved cats? They made statues and pictures of them and stuff.

Did you know one of the first animals in space was a dog? I wish I could go to space with my dog.

Cats always land on their feet.

Dogs are used by the police to find things.

Garfield is a famous cat.

Snoopy is a famous dog.

Cats are better than dogs.

Dogs are better than cats.

Cats are better than dogs.

Dogs are better than cats.

‘Have you two learnt your lesson?’ Mrs Burrell asked.

 

LUNCHBOX

 It was the 17th of January 1963 when the Bray family came to town. Fourteen children + one mother + one father + one uncle + one aunt + one grandmother = nineteen unwelcome Brays.  Their clothes, tacky with tropical dampness, had dirtied in the dust as they set up their makeshift homes. Now they were all brown. George Wright watched through his bedroom window. His mother Patricia shouted from her sewing room, ‘You stay away from them, you hear? They’re filthy people.’ But George ignored her. She never let him do anything. At church he’d often pictured God’s arm crashing through the ceiling and grabbing his mother from the pulpit and taking her away like King Kong did to Ann Darrow.

Pa Keith was the only interesting grown-up he knew. He was 86 but George liked the fact that the wrinkles on his face were so deep he could stick a half-penny in there and it would stay. He also took George to see King Kong at the movies and let him have a whole bottle of Coke. Pa Keith told him it was their little secret. George’s Mum never let him have Coke. She said it would ruin his teeth. She never trusted anyone with bad teeth.

By late afternoon, the vacant lot had been transformed into ‘Brays’ Land’. Their six horses ate the fresh, green grass beside their four caravans placed in a line like peculiar storefronts. Each wooden body had been decorated with patterns and pictures. The doors were round.

There were five girls and nine boys in the Bray family. George counted them on the morning of the 18th of January as they ran around the oval giggling and yelling. His mum said he had to stay inside because of his allergies. George knew she was lying but his dad was home so he couldn’t argue.

George’s dad had really white teeth. George’s dad wore suits and only suits. His pyjamas were even ironed to have the same starchy stiffness as the business suit he sported every day over his body like a second skin. But it was a Sunday and Malcolm Wright was in his home office making telephone calls because ‘A banker never rests son. One day you’ll understand. Now what’s one + five + nine + two?’

‘17.’

‘Good.’

At 11:00am Patricia Wright left for one of her ‘Women’s Meetings’. She took Pa Keith with her and dropped him off at the RSL to play bowls with his friends James and John. George left the house at 11:15am and walked to the oval with his lunchbox, packed with a sandwich just in case he got hungry.

‘Who’s that?’ the oldest Bray asked when he saw George walking towards the cluster of children sitting underneath the only tree on the vacant lot.

‘Oi, who are you?’ he asked George.

‘George Wright. Who are you?’ George asked.

‘Gary…  Ain’t you been told to stay away?’

‘Mum said to stay away yesterday. I thought we could play or something…’ George smiled.

‘Nah it’s alright. We gotta enough kids to play with already. Whatcha got in that lunchbox?’

‘A sandwich.’

‘Can I have it?’

‘It’s turkey. But can I play with you?’

‘Yeah but only if ya give me ya lunchbox.’

‘Ok.’

George played tips with the Brays until their legs were too tired to run anymore. Then George helped them feed the horses. His favourite was called Onyx. His favourite Bray girl was called Maggie. She gave George a kiss on the cheek. Her teeth were yellowed and gritty. She smelt like ants and melted sugar cubes.

‘You’re nice,’ she smiled and then walked away.

George blushed.

‘George William Wright!’ Patricia Wright screamed.

‘I need to go home,’ George said.

‘Don’t you want to stay for supper?’ one of the Brays asked.

‘I can’t.’

George saw his Mum crossing the vacant lot. Her blue dress threatened to lift and expose her underwear.

‘What did I tell you? What did I tell you about going near these filthy people?’ she said.

‘I was just…’

‘You never listen to me George! Why is that? Why are you disobedient? And why does that boy have your lunchbox?’ she pointed to Gary Bray.

George Wright knew what would happen if he told her the truth. A bar of soap in the mouth, a few smacks with the belt and no dinner.

‘I was having lunch in the park and he stole it so I came over here to get it back.’

‘Gary didn’t steal nothin’! That’s a lie!’ Maggie said.

‘Shut up you filthy little liar! Shut up!’ Patricia Wright said.

On the morning of the 19th of January the revelation that a Bray child had stolen George Wright’s lunchbox was the talk of the town.

‘You can’t trust anyone these days,’ Pa Keith said.

‘Yeah, you can’t trust anyone,’ George said as he sipped some Coke.

The police said they couldn’t do anything so a group of men including Malcolm Wright went to the vacant lot. George heard that Mr Bray had some of his teeth knocked out by a cricket bat. They cracked and splintered. Little white dots like breadcrumbs thrown for the birds on the green grass. The Bray family packed up their things and left.

 

NARCISSISTIC MUCH?


How’s the train ride going? J

I’ve got some bogan sitting next to me. He smells like that Lynx chocolate spray all the guys used to spray on themselves after P.E.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA it smells so bad! Sucks to be you!

Fuck you. I’ll buy you some for your birthday. P

Ok. All the boys will want me cause I’ll smell so good!

You wish bitch.

LOL. I’ve gotta go. Talk later. xx

 

My skirt is riding up my leg again.

The guy sitting next to me on the train looks like such a pervert. Shit, he’s looking at me.

Great so I picked the carriage with the seedy looking guy. His red windbreaker reminds me of James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ But he isn’t James Dean. A curly orange mullet cascades down the back of his freckled neck. He has a suitcase. His nose is inflamed and crusted around the nostrils. Wait. Crust around the nostrils. Cocaine? OMG you are such a prude Martina. He keeps twitching. Fidgeting. There’s sweat on his upper lip. Why can’t he keep still? I get my book out of my bag. Sense and Sensibility. I’m just going to ignore him. He’ll eventually get off.

‘Hey is it alright if I leave this here?’ I hear someone say.

‘Ummm yeah. Yeah that’s fine… Wait, what?’ I reply.

I look up and no one’s there. I look backwards down the aisle and I see the guy with the red windbreaker already moving in the space between carriages. Where’s he going? Why’d he leave his suitcase?

I read the tag. It says his name is Sam Bray. I go back to reading my book.

40 minutes later and that guy hasn’t come back. I’m trapped. Trapped forever in an endless sea of green seats and beige plastic walls. I just want to know if he’s coming back. I just want to know why he left his bag because like, is it even normal to leave your bag with a stranger?

It’s been over an hour now. I remember reading a sign once at the station that said you should report unattended baggage. I’m not overreacting am I? Wait, is this even unattended? He sort of implied I watch it, right?

Fuck. Maybe he’s somewhere doing drugs? Maybe he’s hiding in the bathroom snorting more cocaine? OMG what if he’s left me with his stash of drugs? What if the cops come on and do a random bag search? I’m not a drug mule!

Some guy left his bag with me and disappeared. He’s been gone for like an hr. Wat do I do?

IDK. Move to a different carriage? xx

OK.

I put my book in my bag and stood up to leave.  I walked past an elderly couple sleeping in a huddled mass. The woman was snoring like a pig. The thump of footsteps stopped behind me.

‘Hey! What are you doing? I asked you to watch my fucking bag!’

‘I was! You were gone for like an hour!’

‘Yeah so. Just let someone steal my fucking bag instead yeah?’

‘But you were gone for ages.’

‘Yeah and? I was on the phone to my Mum OK. Is that a crime?’

‘No.’

‘Fuckin’ bitch.’

 

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Greyhound, Jeff Thomson

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The silver dog streaks through the day and through the night. Traversing hundreds of miles of interstate highways, moving the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. A symbol of the ideals of meritocracy that modern America was built on; the maligned who ride these buses bring with them a ragged sense of hope.

 

The passengers were packed in tight, the boxes in the back of a FedEx truck, handled with as much care as those minimum wage delivery drivers. Everyone had too much luggage. They crammed it into overhead racks, coerced it under seats, or just left it in the aisles.  This made Jess nervous. Her backpack fitted neatly under her feet. Should she have more? It was her first time on a Greyhound bus, and she never expected it to be so intimidating.

Jess had been one of the first to board. Her seat was near the back, by the window. As more passengers got on, she felt boxed in. Even before the bus began its slow roll out of Spokane she was trapped. She tried to block out the regrets, but they continued to pile up against the inside of her forehead.

By the time the bus was speeding along the I-90 the dam was full and the questions overflowed to take her full attention. Was she abandoning her brothers? She knew what it was to be abandoned. She knew her brothers might never forgive her, might never talk to her again. She had only a handful of memories of her father before he left. Her attitude towards him often flittered from hatred to pining. Is this the way her brothers would think of her?

‘No,’ she decided. Immediately blushing as she realised she might have said the word out loud. Staring at the seat back in front of her, the man beside her didn’t seem to respond. This wasn’t forever, she continued, making sure to keep her thoughts to herself. She just needed to put herself first for a little while. Jess was sick of not living her life, sick of fronting up to work to bankroll her mother’s habits. She’d come back, she knew that much, but one can’t return without leaving in the first place.

Jess wanted to hold her breath until she reached Canada; she couldn’t relax until she knew she’d pulled it off. Looking out the window she saw only piles of snow swept aside by the ploughs. It wasn’t the clean white snow of Disney films, but the gritty, muddy slosh of the real world.

Beside her sat a fat black man, his eyes closed and his head lolled backwards onto his headrest. On his lap sat a big cardboard box, and covered in brown packing tape. The way he wrapped his arms around it, even while he slept, suggested it was of great value. The box blocked her view into the aisle and of the passengers on the other side.

Giving up on the views to her left and right, Jess stared forward. Her face was flushed and sweaty, her teeth clenched. Her fingers absent mindedly bunched into tight fists. The dark grey felt of the seat in front of her was riddled with stains of dubious origin. Her examination also revealed little colourful bumps protruding slightly from its base. Jess had an idea.

She felt under her own seat. She ran her fingers along the bumps of dried gum. The gum could have been there for years. She returned to the bleak scenery that streamed along the first bus she had been in since high school. This in itself didn’t bring back happy memories.

Her jaw was beginning to ache. She could feel the pressure building near her ears. She jammed her tongue between her top and bottom teeth, an effort to starve of the pain. She closed her eyes and reached under the seat again.

She slid her fingers over the gum. Quickly passing what felt like the oldest, the crustiest, the hardest. Then she came across a mound that seemed to be the freshest she would find. Slowly and gently she pried it from the metal – not a task her short bitten nails were suited to. Holding the gum under the seat she looked around, the sleeping man was still sleeping, and his box and the high chair backs blocked the view of any other passengers. Quickly the gum went from her hand to mouth. The first bite was crusty. Disgusting. She’d never eaten old gum before.

For a number of hours she chewed, before eventually returning the gum to its home under the seat. Then she leant her head back and slept. All the while the plains of Washington whipped past her window as they travelled towards the coast.

* * *

‘But that’s in four hours!’ Jess pleaded with the woman at Greyhound ticket counter.

After lining up behind three other people at an unmanned desk for far too long, someone had finally appeared. Jess had broken from her prison camp, balancing the thoughts of freedom with the risk of capture, only to find another barb wire fence. She was in no man’s land. She hadn’t expected to be spending four hours in Seattle tonight.

‘The bus to BC leaves at nine-thirty, honey. Always has,’ was the only explanation offered by the overworked woman. Jess stepped away from the counter, her bag slung over one shoulder, dejected.

Pushing the heavy glass doors, she stepped out onto the dark street. A blast of cold air hit her face. It was a dark street. Three huge letters hung out of the side of the building, B U S, but only the latter two were lit up. U S they said, flickering occasionally they reminded her that all was not quite as it seemed. The Greyhound station: the place for us. The place for the rest of us.

Jess retreated from the cold, back into the building. To say the bus station was grimy would be to say too little. The architecture dated to the seventies at least. Despite the mop sitting in the corner, it seemed like the floor hadn’t been cleaned in just as long. Even then, it was hard to picture this place in a condition that could ever have been described as new, or clean.

She found a place on one of the few metal chairs crammed into the small space between the vending machines and arcade car racing games. The metal was cold a first, but she appreciated being away from the wind. Soon a man sat down next to her. Jess avoided looking over, but he waved an open packet of Red Vines in front of her.
‘Wauld yoo lar-k one?’ He asked, his words distorted by the chewy candy hanging out of his own mouth.

Jess hesitated, her mother’s voice echoed in her head. She slid a Red Vine from the pack without saying a word. As she brought it closer to her lips she tentatively smiled. Her dad used to bring her Red Vines. Aside from the ticket lady, this man was the first person to talk to her all day. He put down the packet on his knee and stretched his raspberry liquorice from his mouth until it snapped.
‘Where ya headin’?’ His voice was clearer with his mouth free from the candy.
‘Canada,’ Jess replied.
‘BC, ‘ey?’ He mocked Canadian speech.
Jess silently chuckled and looked at him properly. He was an older man, with a round face and stubbly grey whiskers. His skin that looked like it had seen some hard times.

‘I’m going south, myself,’ he went on, gonna see me kids. Haven’t seen ’em for years.         ‘Why not?’ Jess twisted in her seat so she was looking towards the old man more.
‘They didn’t wanna see me. I dun blame ’em none either.’ He scratched his beard. ‘I walked away from my duty. I was on the drink in those days, but that still dun make it right. I ain’t try’na make excuses, but it’s the truth.’
‘You must be happy then, that you can see them now.’
‘Darn right I’m happy. The good Lord gun smile of me today.’ He smiled a grin as big as his character. Jess smiled back, and they sat in silence a moment.
‘The name’s Harry. Harry Jenkins.’ He extended his right towards Jess.
‘Jess,’ she replied, consciously leaving out her last name. His fingers where stubby but his palm broad, and he wore fingerless navy blue gloves. She shook his hand, and found his firm grip soothingly paternal.

They stopped talking and shifted their focus to the television suspended in the corner. A news bulletin was on the screen. Jess looked at the pictures, but didn’t take any of it in, just let it all wash over her. The segment finished and an ad came of the screen. Harry turned back to her.
‘So why are you running?’
‘Running?’ asked Jess.
‘Jess, look around,’ he motioned towards the other people waiting in the bus station. A woman leaning on the wall as she spoke into a pay phone, a few people tapping at cell phones, a man asleep in a chair. ‘- Everybody here’s runnin’. Just a question of whether you are running away or running towards.’
‘Umm. I don’t think… I guess…’ Jess paused, ‘I guess I am running away.’ On this realisation a lone tear slipped from her right eye and trickled down her cheek.
‘Why ya running away, Jess? Your Momma no good to you?’

On this question, her left eye let out a tear. ‘No, that’s not it.’ Another tear. ‘It’s just, sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes I’m trapped. Sometimes I can’t take it all. Sometimes…’
Harry kept watching her eyes.
‘Sometimes I’m scared of failing.’
‘You can’t be scared of failing honey. Listen to this old man, cos he knows a thing or two about failing. This old man hasn’t spoken to his own kids in twenty-five years; he knows a thing or two about failing. Failing’s what makes us who we are, ya know that?’
She shook her head.
‘Ya know how many time Edison failed to make a light bulb?’
Jess shook her head.
‘Ya know how many times Einstein failed to make the bomb?’
Jess shook her head.
‘Hell, I was in Vietnam, I know a thing or two about failing. So you don’t worry ’bout failing.’
‘Okay’ Jess said, sheepishly.
‘Now if ya wanna runaway, I’m not gonna stop you. But don’t be running away to avoid failure. The man that never fails is the man that never tries. The man that never fails is the man that doesn’t ever really know himself.’

* * *

Soon enough Jess was on another bus. She was back on the I-90 again, but this time, heading east. She wasn’t going to Canada, she didn’t need to go to Canada. She was going back home, she was going back home to her brothers, and she was going back home to her Momma.

It was very dark now. The scenery of the mountains, the scenery she’d been too caught inside her on head to notice on the way in, was now hidden in the darkness. A few times Jess cupped her hands around her eyes and pressed against the glass, but it didn’t help on this moonless night. She hadn’t cared about the scenery earlier on, but now, more relaxed, she wanted to take in as much as she could. Despite the darkness she could feel the mountains surrounding them. Occasionally she saw a headlight glisten on a still lake beside the road.

When the mountains finally dropped the interstate from their embrace, Jess could feel it at once. The plains opened up again. This openness gave a sensation of freedom that Jess hadn’t experienced before. Perhaps it was familiarity, or perhaps it was the comforting knowledge that escape was possible. But the once dreary and restrictive landscape that had depressed her felt different. She hadn’t realised just how claustrophobic the city had made her feel until she was in the open again.

This late bus heading inland was nearly empty, there were maybe four other passengers besides her. The nap on the bus earlier hadn’t been a restful or satisfying sleep, and with the stress of the day she soon became drowsy in the darkness. Now it was the calm drowsiness that makes your heart warm when your head hits a soft pillow. It was the same satisfying drowsiness of being warm in bed on a cold rainy night.

 

The passengers slept, but that silver dog continued to chase down their dreams.

 

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Outburst, Charlotte Marsh

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As I sit in Doctor Malone’s office I start to laugh. She doesn’t really appreciate my jokes but silence always has a way of making me really tense. It’s all textbook to her; I make jokes in order to avoid confrontation. To be fair I’m only half kidding. I do genuinely feel bad for Malone, she could have been kicking it back at the beach and instead she’s sitting here with me. She looks even more tired than usual and I’m hardly surprised. Our meeting was definitely not on her itinerary.

‘Bree, are you listening?’ Malone’s voice bounces off the coat tails of my nervous laughter and springs me back to the room.

‘Y-yes,’ my words fumble out before I can catch myself.

Malone frowns. ‘I asked you about your medication, how is it going?’

‘As medicated as ever,’ I say, and she inhales forty-five years worth of air and sighs.

‘I know you haven’t been taking them Bree.’

Gee, nothing gets past her does it? ‘Have you been spying on me again Doctor?’

‘It’s been six months since I gave you a script and it was only for three months of medication.’

To be fair it’s really her fault for not keeping track of my scripts and it’s not as if I’m going to remind her. ‘Urghhh, that stuff makes me sick and it takes forever to kick in.’

‘You’re supposed to take it with food, please tell me you’ve been-’

‘Yes, I’ve been eating. Come on, Doc, at least try to earn your fee.’ I start pinching my nose; I just hate all of this.

Any other person would have probably smacked me by now, but Malone is pretty cool – instead, she just turns away into her papers.

‘Always the comedian…so last night.’

‘Whoa there Doc, let’s not spoil the ending before we’ve even finished the opening credits.’ I figured I might as well try to stall. Malone removes her glasses and gives me the ‘I’m disappointed’ face.

‘Bree.’ It’s all she needs to say.

**

‘Bree, did you do an entry today?’

I was barely seated at the dinner table before Mum began her questioning. I could always count on my parents to step in whenever Malone wasn’t around. I had to credit them for that at least; an A+ for badgering their daughter constantly.

‘Yes.’ But I hadn’t and she knew that perfectly well.

‘You know I’m going to check after dinner, right?’ She didn’t though, she always forgot.

I rolled my eyes so far back into my head that I my veins threatened to break apart from my sockets.

‘Mum, I did the entry, I did the absolute hell out of it; it’s just positively oozing with my most deep and dark thoughts.’

Mum just frowned at me. Geez, tough crowd…

**

‘Good to know I’m not the only one you lie to,’ Malone cuts in.

I’m kinda expected to do these ‘mood logs’ as part of my agreement with Malone; I could stop weekly visits and in return I write down whatever I’m feeling, if anything, every day for the next few weeks. Who seriously writes in a diary anymore? That’s something an old lady who doesn’t have the internet would do. It kinda sucks because I have to do them and I’m slightly unnerved about the idea of jotting everything down. If there was something the Doc couldn’t get out of me, what makes them think I’ll put it in writing? Of course that’s all gone to shit now. I’ll be lucky if they ever trust me again.

**

Mum continued back to her steak. Her knife ground against the surface making tiny brown grains crumble on the top. It baffled me that she hadn’t yet realised that she’d grabbed a butter knife by mistake. But she continued to grind away hoping for the cooked, rippling surface to break through. I sat there with my parents in total silence for a while.  That’s how most of our dinners played out, Mum asked about my entry and then nothing. Before I came back from observation all their dinner discussions were most likely about me. I mean, what else could they talk about? Now that the topic was staring at them right in the face it suddenly wasn’t so interesting. I was only there for a freaking week and somehow I’d completely killed all conversation between my parents.

‘Something interesting happened to me today.’ Dad’s voice broke out. Mum lifted her brow but her eyes were firmly planted on the steak. Man she really is something.

‘On the bus today a young boy tried to get on without any money,’ he went on.

‘Sounds riveting Dad, truly, I am honored that you chose to tell us this tale.’ I stopped as Dad began to eye me.

‘Well, did he get on in the end?’ I asked.

**

‘Not that this isn’t interesting, Bree, but let’s not go into every detail ok?’

I hate it when people cut you off – even if the story doesn’t interest you it’s polite to humor them. I notice my back is aching from my hunch so I straighten up and try to shrug off Malone’s intrusion.

‘Right. Well…it didn’t matter anyway. Dad didn’t even remember if the kid got on or not, can you believe that?’ Malone gives a small grunt; she just wants me to get to the point. ‘So then Dad asks what I’m doing after dinner-’

‘Why do you think he would ask that?’

I hate it when therapists ask those stupid ‘how does that make you feel’ type questions. It makes me miss observation; or rather I miss the solitude. Like, people were watching me but they didn’t really speak to me or anything. I guess they were waiting for me to say something but I never did. I don’t even really remember what I did during that week but I certainly didn’t talk to anyone. They wouldn’t have let me come home if I had done anything strange, unlike the other kids there. Lucky for my parents I’m not the outburst kind.

**

‘Fortunately for you guys I’ll be staying in.’ I say after Mum asked what I was doing after dinner.

‘You don’t want to see anyone?’ to which I wondered what invisible people she had envisioned for me to see. But I guess all mothers are under the delusion that their children are socially apt enough for friends, despite how obvious the reality is.

‘Nope, I am a child of considerable predictability.’ I started to squish my peas onto the plate with my knife. ‘It’s one of the joys of being the second off the chopping block.’

‘I don’t follow,’ Mum said and I rolled my eyes again.

‘When the first kid drops parents are all set to get their mistakes out of way. If it doesn’t die they’re all good for a second.’

**

‘Where was your sister at the time?’ Malone asks.

I don’t say anything for a while, partially because I genuinely don’t remember, but also because I’m a little scared to remember.

‘She came to dinner a bit late, but she wasn’t there yet.’ Even though my eyes are in my lap I can tell Malone is checking me, weighing up what words to say.

‘How about we skip to when she arrives, ok?’ She speaks with a certain care, as if I were stupid enough to not know what she wants, but the longer I can put it off the better.

**

‘Get out of my seat.’ Olivia barely looked at me when she came in; she had it stuck in her head that we had a special seating arrangement in the house. Dad at the head, Mum to his left with her to the right. I was put next to Olivia but personally I was not fond of such rules. She jabbed her finger in my side, it was like getting a sharp stab with a blunt knife. It was enough to get me hunched over so that she could lightly push me from the chair and take her rightful place at Dad’s side. No one said anything as I stumbled to the next chair. Of course no one said anything. Olivia placed her hands carefully across the table; her fingers looked just like Mum’s, really long and slender, it’s the only thing about her I like.  Dad’s fingers are tough and fat like overcooked sausages, which makes him look like the kind of Dad who fixes stuff around the house. Everyone in my family has hands that tell lies.

‘Bree, how about you answer my question huh?’ Olivia’s voice completely ripped me out of focus. ‘I asked if you were glad to be home, not that you look it.’

I could always count on my dear sister to leave every sugary statement with a twist of lemon in my mouth. I dignified her question with a one shouldered shrug; not worth the involvement of both. She just rolled her eyes to our parents and gave a ‘can you believe this girl?’ look.

**

I look up at Malone and her eyes are glued to me. She says nothing but her gaze has an intensity to it that begs me continue. Even when it’s about me, it’s always about her, naturally.

**

‘Wow must be so hard to sit around all day with no school or parents. Maybe I should become crazy too,’ she laughed to Mum and Dad. They said nothing again. She went on about some friend of hers who she hates and it was like I wasn’t even there anymore.

‘What would you know about hard?’ I mostly said it to myself but I figured it was equally relevant for Olivia.

‘Excuse me?’ I hated how she always talked to me like I was stupid kid and she was this super mature adult. She tossed her knife and fork down and turned toward me. ‘Please go on about how super difficult your life is.’

My cheeks began to give me away and I wasn’t so cool anymore; all of a sudden I had nothing. No cool quips to throw back, nothing, and so I just sat there looking at my dinner like it was the most interesting thing ever.

**

‘Having an older sibling can be tough.’ Malone speaks like I’m only hearing this stuff for the first time. What a stupid cliché.

**

I really wanted to say something to shut her up, but I just kept staring down at my plate, rolling my fork between my fingers. Olivia snapped her head back to her plate and resumed her dinner, ‘It’s not the ‘Bree Show’ you know, we all have our issues and you don’t see me going off for a holiday.’ My grip tightened a little.

‘Stop it, you two,’ Dad says, but what he really meant was stop it Olivia and it always had to go unsaid, because that would just be too mean. No matter how much I scrunched my face; it wasn’t enough to send a signal to Olivia’s brain to tell her to shut up.

**

‘So that’s when you-’

‘No!’

Malone jumps and I realise I need to breathe, ‘No…that happened…later.’ I really want to stop; surely it’s been an hour by now.

**

‘Whatever, it’s not my problem that Bree wants to act like everything’s about her.’

Every word she spoke made my jaw really hurt and I could feel my nails pressing against my palm as I gripped my fork.

‘You let her get away with so much; this is why she’s so wound up in herself. I would have never been allowed when I was her age.’

Mum and Dad pretended to not hear and I pretended like I didn’t exist. My hand began sweating a little; the fork was so warm from holding it.

‘I don’t know why you even bothered sending her there.’

Despite not having eaten I felt the constant need to swallow, hard and smooth like a marble that kept getting bigger and just wouldn’t go down.

‘She’s not even saying anything, because she knows I’m right. See? She’s not even-‘

**

Malone’s pen stops, there’s no real need to continue. She knows the rest.

**

It’s kind of a haze or at least that was my excuse. There was screen of silence the second I slammed my fork into the back of Olivia’s hand. Before I even had time to think, it completely shattered and I was drowning in her shrieking and the groaning of our wooden chairs as they ground against the floor. It’s me who stood up first, Olivia sobbed over her hand like a needy mother clutching her baby. I can still see the mark I left; four little red squares on the back of her perfect hand. Branded forever with four perfect squares as if there’s one for each of us; Dad, Mum, Olivia and me. Olivia shook as she turned her way up to me. I was almost scared she was gonna hit me or something until I saw her face.

Complete fear. Not only for herself, but for me, fear for the hatred I held for her and what it had turned me into.

Either Dad pulled her away to the next room or I looked away, I don’t remember. It doesn’t really matter; her eyes are still with me. I can’t stop seeing them.

I grabbed my face, pulled on it like I wanted to tear it off.  My jaw screamed for me to open so that I could let out some kind of sound but I just couldn’t. Not in front of Mum.

I was wrong, so wrong; turns out I was the outburst kind after all.

Mum choked out something but I don’t really remember. It wasn’t until she tried to pull my hands away from my face that I started.

‘You let her say that to me,’ I mumbled like a stupid kid. ‘You never say anything…not a goddamn thing,’

‘Bree…’

‘No every time! Every fucking time you don’t do a goddamn thing about it.’ At that point I couldn’t even tell where I was facing anymore; I couldn’t see anything. Olivia cried while Dad consoled, I cried while Mum made the call.

**

‘It’s so weird when you hear your parents trying not to cry.’ Malone doesn’t respond. ‘I can’t stop hating her.’

**

They left me alone in the dining room. Olivia had stopped crying and it was quiet again. I looked around the broken room of unfinished dinner, scattered chairs and the small beads of Olivia’s blood. I hate her, but I hate myself more for hating her.

**

Malone just gets up and says something but I don’t retain it. I realise that I’m tracing my fingers over the back of my hand when she tries to hand me another script. She asks me to come back next week and suddenly I’m no longer in her office. I meet Mum in the car, she tries to say something but it’s all muffled and I’m just really tired.

 

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