Category Archives: Fiction

Squinting Against the Sun, Laura Neill

Tess opens her eyes. A sandwich sits half an inch from her face, the crust nearly grazing the tip of her nose. A mangled mess of chicken shoved between two planks of frozen bread.

She rolls onto her back and scratches at a crust of dried spit in the corner of her mouth.

‘Right.’ Mick is sitting on an upturned milk crate in the corner of the room. ‘Two days is enough sulking time, kid. Better eat something or I’ll have the coppers round here charging me with child abuse.’

Tess hauls herself up. Little brown dots freckle her vision.

‘Can I’ve a smoke?’

‘Since when do you smoke?’

‘Please.’

Mick tosses the pouch to her and she teases out a clumsy lump of tobacco. The wax-white band of skin on her ring finger sends a spear through her empty guts.

‘Your mother rang again. The bed’s all made up for you down there. She’s offered to come get you, so you don’t have to drive.’

Her mother. Flitting around like an insect trapped inside a lampshade.

‘Just a few more days.’

‘Tess, mate. She’s bloody beside herself. And you know I’m not—’

‘Dad. I’m not here for your famous hospitality, alright?’

‘I know what you’re going through, kid. I remember it.’

‘I’m surprised you remember anything,’ her voice cracks.

Mick looks at his hands. A fly lands on the corner of the bread and begins to clean itself with its furry feet. Tess doesn’t shoo it away.

‘Hey, listen.’ Mick straightens up, clasping his hands together. ‘There’s a south-easterly blowing. Why don’t we go for a paddle later – like we used to.’

Tess watches the fly crawl over the sinews of chicken flesh. Mick rises to his feet and pauses at the door, as if about to say something else, but then changes his mind. The door closes.

She crushes her cigarette into the top of the sandwich. It extinguishes with a soft hiss.

Mick trots across the dirt the canary-yellow kayak under his arm and his wetsuit peeled down to his waist. Tess trails behind him, shrouded in a beach towel despite the heat.

She steels herself for recognition, but the streets are empty. On the corner, the surf club stands unchanged, like an old photograph. The hours she’d spent in that carpark, scratching her name on the salt-crusted breezeblocks, listening to the beer glasses clink inside. How she’d climb up the lifeguard tower to try and catch a glimpse of him behind the bar.  The smell of his uniform when he’d finally emerge, stale beer mixed with a perfume too sickly-sweet to be her mother’s. Those late night “dinners” of canned spaghetti “thickened” with a raw egg. Once, a dinner roll filled with the cold horror of apricot yoghurt that she’d hurled against the wall.

When she’d finally left, there were still flecks of dried yoghurt stuck to the lounge room wall.

On the beach, the sun is blinding. A string of surfers bob like black beads in the water, waiting for the next set to roll in. The tide is retreating, leaving behind crusted tidelines of debris; scraps of fishing net, cuttlefish skeletons, scabbed stumps of cunjevoi. Mudjimba Island stands stoic against the horizon, her green bulk fuzzed in the heat. ‘From here, it looks close,’ Mick used to tell her, pointing out to the island before pushing her out on the kayak. ‘But it’d take you a day to get ‘round it. So don’t get any ideas.’

Now she stood on the same beach, with the same kayak, looking out to the same island. As if nothing in the universe had shifted.

‘What a pearler,’ says Mick, beaming at the water.

Tess’s legs are gelatinous with exhaustion. She trudges behind her father as he drags the kayak down to the shore, following the groove the hull cuts into the wet sand. They wade out until the water licks at their knees and the kayak butts and nudges between them.

Mick holds out the paddle, squinting against the sun.

‘In you get.’

‘Me?’ A thousand excuses bottleneck.

‘What’s worse, out there or in here?’

The words hang suspended between them. Tess takes the paddle. Mick holds the fibreglass hull still as she climbs in and straightens out her legs.

‘Go easy now, don’t go trying to—’

‘Dad. I know.’

They wait for a break between sets and Mick pushes her out. Tess strokes forward, slowly at first then gaining strength, dipping and scooping, rising and falling over the increasing swell of the waves. The water grows darker and she paddles stronger, rope-burn in her shoulders and biceps. Every stroke in perfect synchronicity with her ragged breath.

Dip, scoop.

Churning water.

Slicing further, deeper into inky murkiness.

The island drew closer; the outlines of foliage now visible on the crest of the headland. At this time of day, there’d be a long afternoon shadow falling behind her.  The water sparkles, gold on tile-blue. She closes her eyes, but the light remains, shifting, flickering on the insides of her eyelids.

On the shoreline, Mick stands tiny and concave like the spine of a broken shell. If she hadn’t arrived unannounced yesterday, he’d be leaning on the balcony of the surf club right now, a beer in his hand, looking out to the same horizon.

He raises his arms now, in a semaphore wave.

Tess tries to turn the kayak, but her arms are heavy. The horizon gently lifts. A set is rolling in.

It seems to happen in an instant. A crystal wall of water, shards sparkling, curled, poised. A rollercoaster drop. Tess is thrown from the kayak, water crashes, blasting, deafening, her body grinding into the sand. She claws and breaks the surface, dragging a lungful of air before being forced back down again. Galaxies explode behind her eyelids. She instinctively thrashes, her toes curl and cramp. Lungs tighten, ready to explode. A lifetime of seconds.

She’d heard that trivia fills the mind in the moments before drowning, but all she sees is a series of quick, colourful images.

The green island.

Yellow fibreglass.

Red bricks, splattered with yoghurt.

Seawater scorches down the back of her throat as she tries to stroke forward. Then a yank, a tearing in her scalp. Her head snaps back and her face breaks the surface. She can hear someone else’s gasping. She grows heavier and heavier and then her heels are dragging, bumping along wet sand and she is plopped down like a rag doll on the shoreline.

Her chest swells again, this time quick and urgent. She leans forward and coughs up slimy foam and bile-infused seawater.

She coughs again, and drags in a breath, her lungs burning. A string of saliva dangles from her chin.

Breathe. In and out. Her whole body pounds.

Mick holds her upright, one arm across her chest and the other hand cupping her forehead. His grip trembles.

Tess gives his hand a squeeze.

‘Next time we’ll go on the river, eh?’ The joke rings high and he forces a chuckle.

They remain on the shore as the tide recedes further and their shadows slant long and lean across the sand. Nobody approaches them.

After a while, the pain in Tess’s chest fades, replaced with a new sensation; a growling ache in her stomach.

A piece of yellow slices her periphery, as the kayak slips back onto the shore.

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Radio Face, Elizabeth White

Ebony Janssen was walking from the train station in her school uniform. She could feel a clammy glide of sweat lubricating the movement of her thighs. In a modest attempt to firm her thighs and put an extra shield between the world and her underpants she wore bike pants underneath her dress. They had rolled up and were now like thick tubes around her legs.

The black lycra soaked the salty moisture and alleviated the premature signs of chafe. She tried to adjust them by pulling at their hems through her uniform.

She had been walking for ten minutes since stepping out of an air-conditioned train and onto the steaming black asphalt platform at Bowen Hills station. She didn’t know anyone who caught the train to Bowen Hills. The surrounding streets were lined with industrial buildings and mid-rise office blocks without many windows. She hadn’t walked past anyone since leaving the train station, but felt a pang of fear every time a car drove by. She kept her school hat on her head and pulled it down at the front to obscure her face. Her parents thought that she was working on her history assignment in the library after school. Although it wasn’t likely that they would drive past her, she kept worrying that someone that she knew might. What would they think about the way she was walking, trying to keep her thighs separated, causing her steps to angle out diagonally?

Two incidents in Ebony’s life had taught her that other people noticed her faults. One morning in Grade 3, Ebony had been sitting on the carpet with the rest of her class while Mrs. Wilson shared with them the daily news. When Mrs. Wilson asked Ebony and the other students to return to their desks, Ebony put her hands on the carpet in front of her, uncrossed her legs and got up from her hands and knees. Brandon Francis noticed the way she used her hands to get up instead of swiftly powering up in an unsupported motion, the way he did with his own lanky frame. Once Ebony returned to full height Brandon sniggered at her, ‘That’s how fat people get up.’ A new concept began to shape itself on Ebony’s unmarked psyche. Brandon had just brought it to her attention that she was fat, which was not something she had noticed or believed about herself before, but he had. She now understood from things she had heard in the playground, that fatness equated with ugliness.

The second instance had occurred on the train home one Friday afternoon earlier in the year. Now in Grade 10, Ebony had been standing inside the door of a train, gripping the handrail that hung down in the centre of the carriage entryway. Olivia Johns stood opposite her. They weren’t usually companions on the train trip home, but on this particular day, all of their friends had been picked up from school by their parents. Ebony was conscious that Olivia was cooler than she was, and therefore she made an attempt to appear up to date with the latest gossip circulating through their grade. ‘Did you hear about the party that boy from St John’s had? Apparently some guys from Macarthur High gatecrashed, and then the cops turned up.’

‘Yeah, I was there,’ Olivia replied. She avoided looking at Ebony by watching some schoolboys sitting down the other end of the carriage. Ebony tried to keep the conversation going. ‘Do you know many guys from St John’s?’ she asked. The only boys Ebony knew were on the soccer team she played on. But she never really spoke to them unless they said something to her first, which wasn’t very often.

‘A few. I went out with one for a while,’ Olivia said, still watching the boys further down the train.

‘That’s cool.’ Ebony hoped that one day she’d go to parties and hang out with some boys.

‘Hey, why don’t you wash your face?’ Olivia turned back and centred her attention on Ebony, looking at her through the metal handrail.

‘What? I do.’ Ebony’s face started to feel warm. The train came to a halt at a station. Losing her footing, she tried to grab onto the handrail and rebalance. She turned back to Olivia and mentally chastised herself for her inability to remain balanced on the train.

‘No you don’t. You’ve got blackheads on your nose and pimples on your forehead because your face is dirty. You should start washing your face.’ Olivia’s eyes scrutinised Ebony’s appearance.

‘But I do,’ Ebony tried to vindicate herself.

Olivia didn’t know that every morning and evening Ebony showered and washed her face with Clearasil. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the small bumps that littered her face. Each spot was a tiny embodiment of her imperfection. Ebony prayed, she pleaded, and she bargained with God. ‘Please make my skin perfect. I’ll believe in you if you do.’

Ebony’s mother had told her that she would eventually grow out of her pimples, the way she had when she was a teenager. But Ebony couldn’t stop the feeling of disappointment that she experienced when she looked at herself in the mirror, a haunting reminder that what she saw was ugly. If she noticed it, she was certain that everyone else did too.

Now, on this hot afternoon, standing on a corner, Ebony pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and checked the address she’d scrawled on it. 14 Brookes Street.

Looking at her surroundings she concluded that the place she was looking for was just a bit further ahead. She was going to see Dr. Hayward. She wasn’t positive that he was a real doctor. She was only positive that if she had any other options she wouldn’t be walking down an industrial road on her own with her birthday money in her schoolbag.

The front of the building was plain and undistinguished. There were no signs and the windows were all blacked out from within. Ebony noticed three pot plants that were lined up beside the front door. Their leaves were green and supple, signs of excellent care and attention. This was a good omen for her appointment. Ebony walked through the door and saw a man sitting behind the reception desk. She assumed that he must be Julian, the receptionist she had spoken to when making her appointment. Until she spoke with Julian, Ebony hadn’t made an appointment for herself before. When he answered, his voice has been friendly and approachable.

‘Good afternoon. Skin-Deep Clinic. Julian speaking.’

‘Hi. I want to see Dr. Hayward. Please. I have pimples.’

‘Darling, of course. Let me see what I can do for you. I need your name first, please.’

‘Oh, sorry. I’m Ebony. My name is Ebony Janssen. Can Dr. Hayward fix my pimples?’

‘Lovely. Ok Ebony. Dr. Hayward is booked up for the next few weeks. What time of day works best for you?’

‘Umm…I need to see him one day after school. And I have soccer training on Tuesdays and Wednesday afternoons. Oh, and games on Fridays. Is he free on a Monday or a Thursday afternoon? Please. Thank you.’

‘You’re a sporty little thing Ebony. And has anyone ever told you, you have a lovely phone voice? Maybe you could be on radio.’

‘No. They haven’t. Thank you.’

‘Now, I can fit you in to see Dr. Hayward on Thursday 6th November, 4:00pm. Does that work for you Ebony?’

‘Yes. Yes it does. Thank you.’

‘Wonderful! We’ll see you in a few weeks. Take care till then Ebony.’

‘Ok. I will.’

Now, she could put a face to the nice man on the phone. He wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, underneath a navy suit. His glasses were tortoise shell and round, his hair brown and combed back in a perfect wave above his forehead, and he didn’t have any pimples. Ebony approached the desk the way she’d seen her parents do when they arrived at an appointment.

‘Hi, I’m Ebony. I’m here to see Dr. Hayward at four,’ she said.

‘Hello Ebony, you’re the girl with a voice fit for radio. It’s lovely to see you. Take a seat. The doctor will see you shortly.’ Julian’s warm reply lightened Ebony’s apprehension about her appointment.

Ebony found an empty leather chair with wooden arms. In the centre of the room was a large fish tank that stood from floor to ceiling. Ebony watched the fish swim around in their bottled blue ocean while she waited for Dr. Hayward. A harmonic progression of classical music sounded from two speakers that sat on a filing cabinet behind the receptionist’s desk. Ebony didn’t pretend to know about classical music, but she listened to Classic FM frequently. She believed that the calming sounds might relieve the stress that was probably causing her pimples.

Ebony kept a record of the different methods she had used to try and makeover her skin and outward appearance. She started with different soaps, noting which made her outbreaks worse, or which brought slight improvements. She attempted to eliminate soft drinks and lollies from her diet, but very often failed to say no when they were offered to her. She tried drinking more water, but that only made her have to go to the toilet all the time. She tried to be a better person; hoping people would think she was nice. But none of these approaches rid her of her blemishes.

The waiting room was deserted except for one other patient, a woman asleep with her head crooked back. She was dressed like Ebony’s mother: a pearl necklace, white denim skirt with a red polo shirt and matching red loafers. Shortly after Ebony sat down, the woman let out a low moan and slouched back into her chair. The receptionist whispered, ‘Never mind Mrs. Tyson, Ebony. She’s just coming to after a little procedure.’

‘What was her procedure?’ Ebony asked, feeling uneasy about how she might find herself after her own appointment.

‘I’m afraid I can’t say. Patient confidentiality. But really, she’s fine.’ He stopped working on his computer and looked over at her with reassurance.

Ebony didn’t get time to consider Mrs. Tyson’s situation any further. Dr. Hayward appeared at the doorway beside the receptionist’s desk and called her name. She slung her school bag over her shoulder and followed Dr. Hayward into his office. He ushered Ebony into the seat in front of his desk and sat down opposite her.

Like other doctor’s surgeries that Ebony had been in, she noticed that Dr. Hayward had his certificates of qualification hanging on the wall. He looked younger than her parents, but old enough to be an experienced doctor. He was the best-looking man she’d ever spoken to. Ebony thought that Dr. Hayward had probably never had any trouble with pimples on his skin, or if he had, he had obviously been able to cure himself. He had smooth, faultless skin.

Dr. Hayward pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and held it ready to write. ‘Ebony Janssen,’ he said, reading her name off the manila folder on the desk between them. ‘Yes?’ she said, looking at him.

Ebony sat on the doorstep outside her house. The sky was dark and her phone began to buzz in the bottom of her school bag again. She didn’t answer. She’d been sitting in the dark for fifteen minutes trying to deny the consequences of her pursuit for beauty. Finally, she resigned to her situation and opened the front door. Her mum rushed down the hallway towards the stairs. ‘Ebony? Is that you?’

‘Yes Mum.’ Ebony kept her head down and took off her school shoes, leaving them beside the door with her school bag. Her mum reached the top of the stairs and looked down at her.

‘Ebony, it’s eight o’clock! Where have you been? God! What happened to your face?’

‘Hi Mum,’ Ebony looked up at her, ‘Sorry I missed your calls. I went and saw a doctor about my pimples. I want to get rid of them.’ Her mum rushed down the stairs, reaching out her hands to hold Ebony’s face.

‘Who? What doctor? Where? How did you get an appointment? What happened to your face? Ebony, it’s all red. Does it hurt?’ She looked at Ebony’s face closely, examining the moist blisters that had appeared.

‘Sort of. I heard a girl at school talking about this doctor, apparently he helped her. I just called up and booked in.’ Ebony, shook herself free of her mother’s hold and started to bend down again, this time removing her socks.

‘Where?’ Her mother bent down, trying to reconnect with her daughter’s gaze.

‘A place in Bowen Hills.’ They both stood up again and looked at each other.

‘Bowen Hills? Ebony! What specialist practices in Bowen Hills?’

‘Dr. Hayward.’ Ebony picked up her bag and started moving up the stairs.

‘I thought you were at the library!’ her mother followed after her, ‘You should have been home hours ago! I’ve called your school! I’ve called your friends! Your father is driving around trying to find you. And you were in Bowen Hills seeing a doctor, who’s burnt your face! Ebony, I’m going to have to take you to a hospital. What else did he do to you?’ Ebony walked into her bedroom at the end of the hallway.

‘Nothing. It’s fine Mum. He said it would be a bit red for a few days, then new skin will form and I won’t have pimples.’ Ebony pulled out her school books and placed them on her desk.

‘A bit red? Ebony what did he use? What possessed you? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have gone with you.’ Her mother took Ebony’s lunchbox as she handed it to her.

‘Mum, I’ve asked you for help before, but you just said it would be fine. It’s not fine. I hate my face. I hate the way I look. And you don’t seem to care.’

‘Ebony, what am I supposed to do?’ Her mother reached out to move strands of hair that had become stuck to Ebony’s blisters.

‘Whatever.’ Ebony brushed her away, sat down at her desk, and started flicking through her schoolbooks to do her homework.

She was copying notes from the blackboard at the end of her German class when someone placed a note on her desk while they walked past. A lined piece of paper had been folded to half the size of a business card, and her name was written on the front in a fancy cursive. She grabbed it and put it in her pocket, and quickly scrawled the last of the notes into her exercise book.

Once she was back at her locker, Ebony opened the letter and glanced first at the bottom to see who it was from. Olivia Johns. Unease gripped Ebony’s stomach. She couldn’t separate herself from the shame and embarrassment the thought of Olivia caused her to feel. Ebony didn’t have pimples anymore, what would Olivia say was wrong with her now?

Hi Ebony,

How are you? You must be really good at German, you write down all the notes! Frau Martin is so boring. Anyway, we haven’t really chatted in a while, but I wanted to tell you I think you look really pretty lately. I’m not sure what you’re using on your face, but it’s really working for you! My friends and I sit in the second train carriage from the front on the way home, you should come and join us this afternoon, it would be good to catch up!

Don’t dog me!

Xo Olivia J.

Ebony folded up the letter and put it in her locker. She turned around and surveyed the lunchtime commotion in the locker room. Girls were rushing in to drop off their books and grab their lunch. Everyone wanted to make the most of the break with their friends. Ebony saw Olivia over the far side of the room. She was leaning against a locker, eating an apple while she waited for one of her cool friends to get her own skinny girl lunch. Ebony thought of the sausage sandwich in her lunchbox that she’d been waiting all day to eat. Olivia and her friends existed on a diet of fruit and vegetables. But if ever they strayed, it was common knowledge that they’d go and vomit up their indulgences in the bathroom. Olivia was looking at Ebony. Ebony looked away and then looked back at her. Olivia was still looking at her. Ebony felt like it was a challenge, a new chance to prove she was cool. Ebony wondered if she should walk over and say something. She felt awkward and hesitant. What would she say? ‘Thanks for your letter. It’s nice that you think I’m pretty now. I went through a lot of pain to look like this. There are parts of my cheeks that I can’t feel anymore and my parents think I need to see a counselor because they don’t know how to handle me.’ Or, ‘Hi Olivia, I guess you know I wash my face now. Can you introduce me to some of the boys you know from St. Johns?’

No, she thought, that would sound too desperate. Ebony was still scared of Olivia; her clear skin hadn’t changed that. Olivia continued looking at her. Ebony turned back towards her locker and got out her sausage sandwich. When she turned back Olivia was walking away with her friend. Ebony felt relief. She couldn’t be Olivia’s friend; she’d have to give up her sandwiches, and her friends. And somehow, she felt that would only be the start.

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The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Aylish Dowsett

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

So is a lot.’

Albert Einstein

Okay, I know this looks bad. And very much illegal. But really, what else was I supposed to do other than to whack it on the head and drag it here? Don’t roll your eyes at me like that. It saw me; and we all know what could happen if the humans ever found out we still existed. Poof, gone, we’d be wiped out before Bob ever became anyone’s uncle. And is that? Urgh, ew, it’s bleeding. Human blood is so gross. You can pull that face all you like, but I’m not touching it again. Yes, I could’ve just let it go, but then what? I really didn’t want The Order to find the human and then they’d have found out about…well, you know. Not that I’m hiding anything. Why am I telling you anyway? I bet you’re just another filthy human, prying into, no, invading everyone’s business like usual. You should really take a good long look in the mirror, idjit. You’re the monster, not me.

But seriously, why the fuck is it so cold down here?

Jinx tugged at her jacket, the wool from her gloves snagging on the brass buttons. Great.

This was why she never came down to the cellar. Aside from the fact that, well, it was a freezing shithole, she could’ve sworn she’d seen a pair of eyes, glinting from the jade bottles that lined the walls. It must’ve just been from the dust that choked this place. Hallucinating on dust was the least of her worries right now though. She had…that to deal with.

Jinx grimaced, her eyes gliding over the human’s wilted head. Copper curls hung meekly down its arms; the hair having twisted itself around the metal of the chair. Freckles decorated its cheeks, along with smudges of thick, sticky blood. The lingering stench of damp and blood made Jinx want to gag. It was a Fae’s worst nightmare all right.

‘Is she…can I…is she awake yet?’

A blonde head slowly peered around the nearest door, his sheepish eyes darting from the curly mess to Jinx. He seemed to whimper at the sight of her, as though he might collapse under her gaze alone.

Jinx rolled her eyes, extending a gloved hand towards him. ‘Hand it over Seb,’ she sighed. ‘If you’d taken much longer, the Queen would’ve been dead and buried by now.’

Seb’s tawny eyes widened. ‘Oh yes, yes, I have it. It’s just,’ he scurried through the door, ducking under its frame. ‘It’s just, I had to…had to make a few alterations.’

Jinx looked at him blankly and snatched the burlap sack from his bony fingers. ‘I hate looking at its face,’ she said, screwing her own up. ‘At least now,’ she stepped forwards, throwing the sack over the human’s head, ‘we won’t have to, and I can actually think.’

The sack did not land with great accuracy, and instead, sat horribly slanted with what appeared to be

‘What are those!’ Jinx swivelled to Seb who recoiled instantly, shielding himself with his teal overcoat. The sack stared at them; two large cotton eyes were stitched in the middle, with a matching, happy, but wobbly mouth.

‘I did-did say that I made a few alterations, there were quite a few hole-holes in it, in all the sacks.’ Seb had faltered against the wall now, his fingers clutching the crumbling brick. ‘I think a family of moths had been enjoying it, perhaps a little too much,’ he mumbled, barely audible. ‘Maybe they smelt the potato residue? Did you-you know that Gypsy moths can lay up to one thousand eggs per—’

‘I don’t care about the ruddy moths Sebastian, fucking hell!’ Without warning, Jinx swung around and punched the wall behind her. The dusty bottles, thankfully empty, tumbled to the floor and clattered into silence.

The two Fae paused, the stillness engulfing the space between them. Seb gulped. Jinx examined her bleeding knuckle. And the sack gawked stupidly.

‘Well don’t just stand there!’ Jinx snapped back to Seb, her pupils tiny. ‘Fix the damn sack and pick these bottles up! Why do I always have to do everything? Why did I get stuck with a fledgling rather than a real healer?’

Seb had paled to the colour of sour milk, his lip quivering slightly. ‘If you allowed me to heal her, Jinx, she would recover. It would take a m-mere few minutes.’ He side-stepped to the sack, adjusted it gently over the human’s head and skirted around her to the fallen bottles. ‘She’s b-bleeding Jinx. We need to alert The Order.’

‘We’re not leaving Sebastian and it’s not going anywhere. It stays until I figure this out. I’m thinking a Gravel Grot could wipe its memory? But they charge a fortune…’

‘But if we—’ He grabbed a bottle, wiping its dusty body on his sleeve. He was avoiding looking at Jinx, studying the bottles instead with deep concern. ‘If we took her to The Order, they could erase her m-memory.’

Jinx glared at him, kicking a nearby bottle with a booted foot. ‘Yeah, and I’ll be striped of my ranking for having ‘maimed’ a human. Fat chance of that.’ She took a step forwards, leaning towards the unconscious girl. ‘No, I’ll deal with it myself. This piece of filth will go straight—’

But then the sack twitched. And Jinx practically flew straight into Seb. Seb, admirably, caught her, but she shoved him back hard, leaping away with a growl.

The human began to thrash around now, nearly toppling off its chair with a scream. But Jinx was there, her hand stuck out in its direction, tensing. It stopped moving instantly, but that didn’t stop its muffled cries.  

Seb had retreated into a corner, clutching a Rosé bottle desperately. ‘She’s awake, she’s awake! Ah! What do we do? What do we do?!’

‘Will you shut up!’ Jinx spat. Her hand trembled, still pointing at the very-much-awake human. ‘I don’t know! I was hoping it was dead! These things are so fragile! I thought a good whack on the head would’ve killed it, but apparently not!’

Seb’s eyelids fluttered in disbelief. ‘But you said it was an accident. You said you didn’t mean to hit her. That you panicked. What were you doing Jinx?’

‘None of your damn business fledgling!’

‘I HAVE A GUN! YOU TRY AND LEG IT AND I’LL SHOOT YOU, WHOEVER YOU ARE!’

The pair froze, their eyes jolting towards the stairs to the cellar: the only way in and out.

‘If you’ve hurt my sister, I swear I’ll kill you!’ cried the mysterious, quivering voice. It was getting louder. ‘DON’T YOU TOUCH HER!’

Jinx and Seb looked at each other then, both equally as terrified as the other.

Oh fuck.

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The Wedding Eve, Alison Graham

Altan had hardly expected to enjoy the day of the pre-wedding celebration, but things took a significant downturn after the rehearsal.

One of the girls had decided to ask him a question.

‘Shouldn’t you be with your future bride?’ she asked, teeth bright in a cheeky smile. She was a pretty thing with large blue eyes, cinnamon skin and unusually bright auburn hair. Her question sent a ripple of giggles undulating among the other girls surrounding the prince, glittering butterflies orbiting a single bright flower.

Altan stifled a scowl, glancing at the figure in the corner of the ballroom.

His betrothed cut an embarrassing figure. She was too slight and pale, garish in a puffy purple gown in the style of her homeland. She was rarely dressed in such finery, and it showed in how her calloused fingers tugged uncomfortably at her ruffled hems and pulled at the brocaded waist. Flowers had been woven into her glossy dark braid, but its beauty did little to offset her perpetually red cheeks and nose, and she hunched awkwardly over the glass in her hand. He knew she sipped at it to keep her hands and mouth busy, to hide the fact that nobody was talking to her.

Next to him, they made a bizarre pair, so he preferred to keep his distance. Altan was lithe and dark, with fine features. His mauve kaftan skimmed his figure perfectly, comfortable as a second skin. His jewellery was carefully placed, each link of gold painstakingly measured, garnets chosen in just the right colour to match his orange eyes. He was better suited with one of the glimmering courtesans currently surrounding him, but they lacked the power or lands that better piqued his mother’s interest.

He swallowed these thoughts, deciding instead to deflect the girl’s question. ‘My bride and I will be spending plenty of time together soon enough,’ he said, sliding an arm around the girl’s waist. Her cropped blouse and the gap left by her draped sari meant his hand travelled along bare goosebumps. ‘Are you ungrateful for this limited time left with me?’
Another peal of giggles dispersed through the group, and the auburn-haired girl flushed.

As the laughter settled, Altan felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and found himself facing the hard stare of his mother’s advisor, Odval.

Odval’s eyes were the cold hardness of amethyst, and even on this occasion she hadn’t traded her simple black abaya for anything more festive. Only a jeweled chain headpiece over her hijab gave any indication of her rank, and her face was as stern as if there was nothing to celebrate.

‘Your mother would like a word, Highness,’ she said in a low voice. She tilted her head, and Altan’s eyes followed the direction. Sure enough, his mother had sequestered herself by a gilded fountain. She was barely a shadow from his distance, but her golden-eyed gaze was clear across the hall.

He sighed, extricating himself from the auburn-haired girl. ‘All right, Odval,’ he said, following her as the dumpy-silhouetted woman led him through the throng towards his waiting mother.

The queen of Baliqas greeted her son with a lengthy sigh. ‘Altan, sun of my stars,’ she said, taking his hand. Her gold-lacquered nails pricked his palm. Where Odval was plain and utilitarian, Aigiarn was bright and effervescent with jewels and colour. She’d worn a purple gown that consisted of so many sheer layers that she seemed to float more than walk, and her long inky hair was woven with pearls and gold chains. A gold ring made a feature of her regal nose, and gold paint along the rims of her eyes accented her dark skin.

‘Mother,’ Altan said. ‘Odval said you wanted a word.’

‘I see you’ve been enjoying your rehearsal ball,’ Aigiarn said, eyes scanning the huge ballroom.

‘It seems all have been merry, except for one very key reason for the revelries, sweet.’

Altan fought to keep his expression neutral. ‘She seems to be enjoying herself just fine.’
‘Altan,’ Aigiarn stated. ‘Sascha has been hiding in the corner by herself since we finished the ceremony rehearsal. She looks utterly despondent, watching her groom flirt with every young person in the room but her. Would it torture you so to even smile at her?’

Altan’s hand clenched ever so slightly on his mother’s grip. ‘I’ll have all the time in the world to smile at her after tomorrow, Mother,’ he said carefully. ‘I’ll be the happiest prince alive once we’re wed, I can promise you.’

Airgiarn’s glittering eyes narrowed. ‘I take flattery and dressed lies from many, child-of-mine, but I won’t take them from you.’

‘So you know, the truth is I don’t want to marry her,’ Altan hissed, dropping his voice so low he wasn’t sure even his mother heard. ‘That’s hardly a surprise to you. We’ve never gotten along!’

‘You’ve never given her a chance,’ Aigiarn murmured, steel in her voice.

‘And what chance was I given? You dropped a little girl I’d never seen in front of me one night when we were both six years old, and you told me to be nice to my future wife. Did you really think I’d do just that?’

Aigiarn took a deep breath as if to speak, then paused, exhaling slowly. Her eyes still darted across the room, never ceasing to monitor the guests.

‘I’d always hoped you’d grow to care for each other eventually,’ she said softly. ‘I expected resistance – of course I did, Altan. You’re my son. But I’d hoped you’d inherited some of my… I don’t know. Romance? I thought you’d at least feel sorry for her, this poor princess taken to a foreign realm where nothing is familiar. I saw long ago I was wrong.’

Aigiarn paused to straighten and square her broad shoulders, flashing a quick smile at a passing courtier. ‘Nonetheless, the marriage is necessary,’ she reminded Altan. ‘And you know this well, otherwise you wouldn’t bother putting on a show. You know what this means, both to our nation and hers.’

Altan looked across the room again, at the forlorn girl in the corner. He knew exactly what was at stake and what he needed to do, but it didn’t mean he had to enjoy it. He dropped his mother’s hand.

‘I’ll be all smiles and blissful marital delight tomorrow,’ he muttered. ‘I promise. But at least let me have fun tonight.’

Aigiarn pursed her lips. ‘I wish you’d see her from a different perspective, Altan.’

Altan turned away. ‘Enjoy your night, Mother.’

He could see the girls as he’d left them, no worse for his absence. But as he approached them, another hand landed on his elbow. Scowling, he pulled away and turned to face whoever now demanded his attention.

Huge brown eyes looked at him, jarring over an unlovely face and downturned mouth.

Oh.

Sascha.

‘What?’ he asked.

She was little; at her height, she had to look up at him, like a child. She hesitated, chewing her lip, and Altan’s frustration flared. She was so timid. ‘Get on with it,’ he snapped.

Her milky cheeks filled with colour. ‘I just wanted to ask how you were,’ she said in a low voice that mirrored his exasperation. ‘I saw you’d been speaking to your mother. You looked unhappy. I wanted to see if everything was alright.’

Altan reared back. ‘If I needed comfort, I wouldn’t seek it from you,’ he said.

Sascha blinked slowly, breathing in deeply. ‘Forgive me for my concern, Highness,’ she said, and turned to walk away.

As she left, the auburn-haired girl peeled away from the group to greet him. ‘I think you need a moment in peace,’ she said, grinning at him and taking his hand.

She led him out of the hall and outside, into one of the quiet courtyards littered across the palace. This one was mercifully quiet, with only a light breeze and faint birdsong accompanying the pair. The sun was low in the sky, painting a pale sunset behind the palace’s white marble.

‘You seem troubled, Highness,’ the girl said, skimming a hand over Altan’s shoulders. ‘I am surprised a prince would have woes on the eve of his wedding.’

The orange light lit up her skin and made her blue eyes appear to glow. Altan smiled and caught her hand.

‘No woes,’ he said. ‘Merely concerns. Political marriages are not all bliss.’

‘Your bride seems less happy than you,’ the girl said, raising her eyebrows. She pulled Altan over to a seat bordering a little stone-bounded patch of greenery, a fine maple reaching over bright flowers and shrubs. Altan obliged her and sat, ignoring the cold stone for the girl’s warm skin.

‘I am sorry for her,’ the girl continued, twining a finger around a lock of Altan’s blue-black hair. ‘She seems so lonely. How long has she been here? Enough to make friends?’

‘Twelve years,’ Altan said. ‘She arrived here when we were six. She made friends, but…’ Altan waved a hand in the air. ‘Palace staff, pot-scrubbers and guards’ daughters.’

He could envision them so clearly – the woman who taught the pair to ride, lovingly easing Sascha into the saddle while unceremoniously dumping Altan onto the back of his lioness. The sword master who left him covered in bruises, while Sascha’s fair skin remained unblemished. A young cook who’d sneak up to their chambers to share leftovers with Sascha, the two of them giggling when Altan grimaced at the homely food.

All people who could not be invited to the wedding festivities. Altan didn’t know if he should have felt guilty or smug when he saw Sascha alone.

‘Did you never try to befriend her?’ the girl asked.

Altan could not hide the wince he made. ‘We are very different people,’ he said.

The girl laughed. ‘They say opposites attract, Highness.’

‘There is such a thing as being too different to be compatible.’

‘I don’t know,’ the girl said. ‘I think sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. Do you view a person’s differences as flaws, or as unique attributes?’

‘I don’t know,’ Altan said, starting to feel irritated. ‘I didn’t realise you wanted to come out here just to talk about her. Of all things, she’s the last person I want to think about tonight.’

The girl’s blue eyes narrowed. ‘It’s a shame for you to be so cruel to her, Altan. I would have liked to think you’d give her more of a chance.’

Altan blinked, shifting away from the girl. ‘Did my mother send you to talk to me?’

‘Your queen?’ The girl laughed. ‘She’s in no position to order me around, I’m afraid. No, I attended because I wanted to see how the wedding would play out. I didn’t realise the Baliqan prince was such an ass towards his bride, though. She seems nothing if not sweet.’

Altan’s mouth fell open. ‘Who do you think you are to speak to me like that?’ he demanded.

The girl sighed, smoothing a hand over her face and hair. As her palm passed over her features, they shifted. Her skin became as green as a sapling’s leaves, and her ears grew long and pointed. Her nose and cheekbones were sharper, her shapes harder, becoming too strange and beautiful to look directly at. Wings flashed kaleidoscopic colours as they shimmered into place. Only her hair, clothes and eyes remained the same.

‘My queen is interested in the dramas of your court,’ the fairy said. ‘She sent me to collect gossip for entertainment – I’m no spy. She won’t be entertained by a spoiled prince’s arrogance, though. I will need a better story to tell her, so… I think it’s time you had a change of perspective, dear Altan.’ She laid a slender, gentle finger on his chest.

A sharp pain bloomed in Altan’s stomach, a ripping sensation that spread outwards. He grunted. The pain surfaced, sending jolts of it over his skin, not unlike pins and needles. He looked at his arms; his clothes were melting into his skin. He stared in horror as the silk sank in, morphing; turning into gold-orange scales the same colour as his eyes.

The pain enveloped him completely, as his bones scraped and popped and groaned and changed. His lungs tore into shreds, and he felt long gashes slice across his ribs.

His fingers fused, his hands flattening and becoming translucent, the same occurring to his legs.

He gulped for air to scream, only to drown.

He felt himself being grabbed, and thrown. He splashed against water. The impact stung, but at last he could breathe. He gasped, sucking at the water. He tried to kick, but found he couldn’t move his legs. He couldn’t move his head to look at himself.

He drifted motionless for a moment, registering the new form of his body. There was a tail, and fins. He wriggled the tail, and could swim forward.

He looked up, and the fairy was grinning down at him, her face distorted by the surface of the water. He swam up and broke the surface. She smirked. ‘Welcome to your new home, prince,’ she said. ‘I hear goldfish make wonderful companions.’ Then with a flutter of her glittering wings, she was gone.

Altan looked around him. He was in a stone pool, with algae-covered rocks at the bottom, several plants, and other goldfish. They swam in lazy circles around the pond, apparently oblivious to the newcomer.

Altan propelled himself upwards, pushing himself out of the water. If he pushed hard enough, he could glance out of the pond for moments at a time. The pond was in the centre of a circular courtyard that now seemed gargantuan, bounded by trees and a tall iron fence. Large glass doors led in to what appeared to be a bedchamber.

He knew where he was.

These were Sascha’s chambers. She had a large pond in the courtyard outside her bedchamber, filled with bright little goldfishes that she cooed and chatted to. And now he was one of them.

There was a bang, like a door slamming. He heard footsteps, and the rustle of crumpled fabric. Someone came into view, slumping by the pond. He looked up to see milky cheeks blotched red, soft brown eyes watery. Tear stains tracked down the cheeks of a face he’d known for twelve years, that he’d never seen so close, or from below.

‘You’ll never believe the night I’ve had,’ she sobbed to the fish.

Altan sunk low into the pond as she raged and wept and lamented her many frustrations with him that she never voiced in his presence.

New perspective.

Right.

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After the Phoenix, Kirsten Oakley

Please Play while reading

 

 

Your ashes are in my mouth. I swallow the bitter taste as I crouch. But I cannot follow you. They need me here.

In the small bathroom their shrieks reverberate against the tiles. I want to cover my ears but my arms are weighed down with their soapy bodies. I cannot even close my eyes as I know that it only takes a second, a moment of inattention. Instead, I watch them as the tepid bathwater rises and falls with their bickering. I ignore their illogical arguments and try to hold those slippery limbs still. I rearrange my lopsided mouth. Does that look like a smile now? I can’t remember the last time I looked at my own face in the mirror. Even now it is at my back, capturing only the faces of my mischievous sons as they dart away from me, and vegemite and dirt slides away from my grasp.

From far away, the noise of the doorbell peals. My neck snaps sideways, listening, exasperated. It rings again and I have called out half a syllable of your name before I remember. Half of you hangs, spoken in the air, reverberating in the empty house.

Their voices clamour and I drag them from the bath, wrapping them in one toweled arm each. I heave and move to exit but our bulk won’t make it through the door. I was never good at judging angles, distances, practicalities. That was your department. We jam in the doorway, a three headed monster that sends the cat tearing away from our path. As I untangle us, the towel sweeps a plastic bottle from the makeshift shelf onto the floor. From the cracked bottle a pool of your anti-dandruff shampoo seeps out. Did you imagine that in your new life that you would no longer shed your skin?

I leave the mess and drop one son, wrapping him in his own towel. He leads us down the hall, trailing a path of shampoo, snakelike, for us to follow.

I tell myself that they will be my world, but the water from their wet bodies has already seeped through my t-shirt and is chilling me in the darkening night. Their faces are damp but dirty as the youngest loops chubby limbs around my neck, leaving vegemite in my hair.

I hold them tighter as I peer through the rusted screen at the empty doorstep. I stare at the space where somebody had just stood. There is no-one but me here now. I wonder how soon I can start the rituals of sleep.

At night I will sip the port that your mother gave us as an anniversary present. I will remember the whispered plans we used to make, dreaming of a time beyond sour vomit and cubed food and endless cheap plastic. I will click through the images of you as you inhabit that space of clean, bright newness. I will watch you emerge, trapped in my den of blue light.

This yearning will not snap the tether of small fingers, dark eyes, the smell of breast milk and the tug I feel all the way through the seven layers of my Caesarean scar. I am anchored to them skin and bone. But your ashes are in my mouth as you rise.

 

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Brief History of the Blood Curse, Celine Perczynski

It was commonly known that the Curse was not well thought out. There was humming, not shouting. No licking of stones or puppets. Though the ingredients were ground into thin powder, they were snorted not swallowed. Nothing was done properly.

Still, it was not a complete disaster.

Instead of turning into crows, women bleed once a month.

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Riot, Adele Sandercock

Sarah had spent much of the previous week in bed, rising only at night to make a piece of toast and smoke a cigarette. Cradling her phone in her hand, she would scroll through the news, bouncing between any online media outlets she could find. She had called in sick for each of the three days she had been rostered on.

On the days she woke to silence, she would move to the large computer in the study.  Her body was weak with an intolerable sadness she couldn’t articulate. The larger screen aided in her rumination and she spent hours searching and reading. The photographs on a larger screen hit her harder. Faces reached out to her, bloody and weeping with a sorrow that grabbed at her chest, pulling her down lower and lower. Was this what the crushing of a soul felt like? If she, on the other side of the world, in no way affected aside from measly words on a page and photographs on a screen, if she could feel this dread, this pain, then what about them? What must they feel? Her guilt compounded the feeling of losing little bits of herself, fragments of innocence were being chipped away.

Still, she looked on. Images of masked men stalking cobblestoned streets, carrying knives bigger than she knew possible. Wailing mothers and press conference promises.  Later, in the comfort of her darkened room, she wondered what they did with the bloodstains. Perhaps a lone council worker with a wet broom and bucket slowly scraped it away, his hope and faith swirling dejectedly alongside the diluting blood.

She had not dreamt last week.

Sarah ate her muesli, unblinking as images of steel barriers and riot squad police flickered across the television screen.

‘Members of The United Patriots Front are now arriving on Stafford Street with police already here to…’

A note sat on the kitchen bench:

Will be home late. Please do your washing and make something for dinner. Being productive will make you feel better. Mum xx

‘..composed of Neo-Nazis and fundamentalist Christians and led by convicted criminal Blair Cottrell.’

Her spoon hovered over the breakfast bowl as she watched steely faces pace across the screen. Black eyes matched leather jackets embroidered with words of menacing fear.

Sarah slipped on her thongs, wincing as the rubber grazed at the blister between her toes. She was sick of thinking. Her fingers tingled with the urge to check her phone. She stood quickly, before her thoughts tangled themselves. Pulling her bag over her shoulder, she walked out the front door.

Sarah’s usual seat on the bus was taken by two teenagers, not much younger than her but exuding a confidence she lusted for. She sat a few seats behind them and put her headphones on. Both girls had long hair that fell thick and heavy across the neon blue seats.

Sarah could hear their voices over her music. One was loud, the other had a pitch that would bring dogs to their knees.

‘Noooo, don’t draw the M like that, there needs to be space for three more words, remember!’

The girl shrieked to her friend.

Sarah pulled one headphone from her ear.

A piece of black cardboard stretched across the girls’ knees, a thick white pen hovered over an M. They continued to argue over letter placement and size – they too must be heading to the rally.

The bus ride to Stafford Street was usually short, but the road closures meant frustrated drivers were taking detours. With every swaying stop of the bus, Sarah felt familiar, dizzying nausea. She gripped onto the seat in front and looked out the window. Crowds of people stood ahead, holding angry placards. She had arrived. As she stepped off the bus, the cool fresh air instantly releasing the knot in her stomach.

The girls got off behind her, one holding their sign, the other carrying a shared backpack. Sarah turned, curiously squinting against the mid-morning sun. The girl holding the sign noticed Sarah’s interest and raised it.

‘NAZI SCUM NOT WELCOME HERE’

Her eyes widened.

‘It’s great isn’t it?’ the girl beamed.

‘Yeah, it’s.. it’s great – amazing. I wish I had one.’

The girls continued walking alongside her.

‘Don’t worry, you can come with us, we can take turns holding it. I’m Celeste.’

The girl with the backpack held her hand out and Sarah was again struck by their self-assurance, their ability to just be.

‘Thanks, I’m Sarah.’

‘Olivia,’ The girl with the sign strode on, smiling back.

‘Let’s go!’

More people had arrived since they had left the bus and a clear separation of groups had occurred. Some wore mostly black with the Australian flag either draped across shoulders or sitting high on carried poles. Others carried placards, some just pieces of paper with illegibly scribbled messages, others professionally printed with screaming red letters.

PROTECT OUR PEOPLE SECURE OUR BORDERS!

A quiet fell over the three girls as the crowd swept them in. Sarah looked around and was surprised by how far they’d moved.

It was like getting caught in a rip, she thought, the waves might be small, but they were strong.

The vigorous chatting between Olivia and Celeste was replaced by tentative whispers, then they stopped walking. They were on the wrong side, only by a few  metres, but they were now surrounded by large, bulky men, many of whose faces were covered by bandanas, only their eyes visible. And angry. They reminded Sarah of the men she had seen on the news carrying machetes. Dizzying, she grasped Olivia’s shoulder to steady herself, but quickly let go, embarrassed at the intimacy of the touch. Despite Olivia’s reassuring glance, Sarah was reminded of how long it had been since she’d let someone hug her, how foreign the pushing of bodies against her felt. Skin against skin.

After tentative whispers and silent instructional head-jerks, the three slowly pushed their way towards the line of police separating the two groups. The crowd was surging forward. The air felt heavy with anticipation, like watching the lighting of fireworks, the nervous trepidation before the sparks caught and flew into the air. Sarah held her breath against the acrid odour of bodies mingled with stale tobacco. Celeste led the way, the poster secured under her arm. They moved quickly, sidestepping and hopping until a man stepped straight into Sarah’s path, separating her from the girls. He was tall; she was at eye level with the FUCK ISLAM emblazoned across his thick, dirty jumper. He smirked, his teeth bleached white in perfect symmetry. Sweat beaded upon his lips, threatening to run into his open mouth.

‘Excuse me,’ Sarah said. She looked down and stepped to his left.

He moved to block her.

‘You’re not excused Lefty,’ he responded to a few pitiful cheers around him.

Sarah flexed her fingers, teeth clenched, a tingling in her stomach. She searched the crowd for the girls, but they were lost in a sea of national flags and the pulsing collective rage.

She looked up, steely eyed.

‘Aren’t you hot?’

His smile gave way to a frown.

‘What?’

‘I said aren’t you hot? In that jumper. Aren’t you hot? It’s 30 degrees.’

‘The fuck? No. I’m not hot.’

Sweat dripped from his eyebrows and cascaded down hollow cheekbones.

Sarah caught sight of Olivia a few metres away, her elbows locked behind her by a man twice her size. He laughed as she kicked and screamed, looking at Sarah with a determination, a conviction that refused to be squashed.

Sarah liked making herself small, especially when the weight of the days became too much. Knees pulled to chest and blankets up to earlobes, she was almost undetectable when her mum would come to check on her. A small mound on the bed like a pile of unfolded washing. An insignificant presence. Olivia’s eyes, fierce with purpose, reminded her that there was more than blackened bedroom windows and bad news.

Sarah raised her voice, ‘You’re really sweating. I think you need to take your jumper off. You might overheat.’

Her voice, although loud and demanding was patronisingly sweet, hiding a gurgling swell of emotions. She stared into his furious blue eyes. The man puffed out his chest, pushing it towards her. Unmoving, she laughed at him loudly, heartily but without the familiar rush of warmth. She continued to laugh despite the sneer and gritted teeth that hovered inches from her face.

With a sharp kick in the shin and a flurry of angry words, Celeste had pulled Olivia from the clutches of the still-laughing protesters and they pushed their way towards Sarah, quickly pulling at her arms to leave.

‘Stupid bitch,’ the man yelled.

‘Far out girls! What were you doing?’ Celeste yelled once they had escaped the throng of thick necked nationalists.

‘He was a piece of shit,’ Sarah replied.

Olivia was quiet.

‘Well, yeah of course but the police were so far away and wouldn’t have seen any of that,’ Celeste said. She and Olivia looked concerned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Sarah said, confused. Hadn’t they met only an hour before? It had been a long time since she’d seen her friends. There was only so many times she could lie or make excuses about going out before she stopped responding and they stopped asking.  She was happy with her room and the television. But she appreciated the company of these strangers today. They began moving towards the sea of colourful banners.

ONE RACE = HUMAN

A chant was beginning just as they connected with the counter protesters; a group that now seemed much larger than the other side.

‘DON’T GIVE IN TO RACIST FEAR, MUSLIMS ARE WELCOME HERE, RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI GAY, FACIST BIGOTS GO AWAY!’

The volume rose with each round and Celeste held her banner high.

Sarah yelled and sang until her voice cracked. Olivia slung her arm around Sarah’s shoulders as they swayed back and forth, the crowd moving as one.

Sarah’s feet hurt; new blisters had emerged between each toe. The United Patriots Front had shrunk considerably in size as the afternoon wore on. Their catalogue of ‘war cries’ was limited, and their voices barely heard over the much larger crowd of counter protesters. Many had slunk away as the sky turned an orange pink and the shadows grew longer. Her phone buzzed in her back pocket. Her mother: Are you ok? Please come home now. But I am glad you got out of the house and I am hoping it was productive.

Sarah smiled. She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Deciding whether she would stay in bed for the day sapped more energy than she had left. Today, the holes inside her had shrunk somewhat, and that was enough for now.

Darkness began to settle upon the city street. The air lost its spark, and a quiet calm fell as the police dismantled the steel barriers.

The three girls, weary but content, slowly walked back to the bus stop.

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The Wave that Breaks, Tanya Davies

The beach curves away from us, limber and inviting. But you don’t want to walk.

If I was alone now, I would wander and remember the times of beaches. The people. Their scents slotted into the salt, the crushed shells and tea trees.

‘Let’s make a pattern,’ you say. ‘Then we can look at it from up there.’

You try to engineer wavy lines, like sets of sound waves that surge and cross, but the sand spills, gets chopped up, and you give up. You ask what we can play.

The first time we came here you were five months old – you slept for a full half an hour and I felt a shard of myself, my old self, cut through. And I loved you; soft, pink, breathing so deeply. The rest of us, the three of us, tried to be a family, but the shoreline was garlanded with a slew of bluebottles, a string of whimsical blue, and your sister refused to swim and your dad sulked in his usual humid cloud of anger.

He proposed to me on a beach in Cornwall, which sounds just as I would like my life to sound, but it was only the location that was right. I had told him I didn’t love him, and he had cried, and held me more tightly, refused to let me go. So I said I would be proud to be his wife, which was true.

I grew up beside the beach – a world-away beach in a town of wind and rain, an ancient town that’s now spoiled and shamed by its crumbled stone and muddy tides. Cold walks on the promenade on Sundays. Water lashing the sea wall every November, throwing bricks into the road.

It was a beach for windy walks with dogs, tangled hair, gloves and woolly hats; a muddy ocean with a tide that receded right out to France, or hurled itself at the sea wall, spraying onto the road. In all those years we only sat on the sand twice, in swimsuits, sun on our pale skin. Some friends came to visit from London, and we ran down to the shoreline where my brother flung a scoop of wet sand at me, plastering my eyes shut with sodden grit, and I howled as my mum hauled me to the first aid tent, ashamed that he had embarrassed us once again.

When I was older I lay beneath the pier, on that hard sand and fucked a man I thought I loved, desperately digging for my identity and coming up empty.

On the honeymoon we went back to Cornwall. I had forgotten my shoes and had to course the cliff side in your dad’s too-large slippers and I forced myself to laugh as I slipped and slid. I thought of falling, the marital metaphor of not knowing where I would land, and the wind bit into my cheeks. But no man had taken me away before, even to a freezing windswept shoreline. I’d only been to Brighton with a boyfriend, which of course I had paid for. And only then a day trip on the train. Fish and chips, and making your sister into a sand mermaid, then back on the train into Hackney – to the kitchen sink drama and window envelopes – before bedtime.

Apparently, some people like the mountains or the rainforest or lakes. I suppose that must be fair, true, though I can’t think what pulls them there. Perhaps it’s the peaks that reach closer to the sky, or the canopy closing in like a blanket that protects them from people.

I could say I like to stand at the intersection of land and sea but I think I just like the noise, the hard vibrations, the infinite shine of mirrors on the water, or, like now, the noiseless crackle of raindrops pricking the blue skin.

We weave along beside the water. The weather is awful but I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s only September.

‘You know, Christian and I used to watch a TV show when we were really young. Grandma would always sleep in late on Saturdays, and we’d watch these weird Saturday morning programmes. There was one about beachcombers. They collected driftwood and shells and bones and things off the beach, and then I think they sold them or something. I can’t really remember.’

It was some American thing at the end of the seventies. A schmaltzy theme tune, probably. I dreamed of picture book idylls, strips of colour torn from paradise, bone-coloured beaches, peridot bays. I would be a beachcomber, collecting washed up treasures.

You are just months from puberty. You smile at me, still interested in my stories. ‘Did you want to be a beachcomber?’

‘I did.’

‘What did Dad want to be?’ Although you’ve asked before, of course.

‘He wanted to be a superhero. Fighting baddies.’ I can’t say that he wanted to be a bank robber and an assassin. This is why I tell you about me, because I have to lie about him. Sorts of lies, anyway.

‘We can walk a bit more if you want to,’ you say.

But I know you’re not impressed with the rhythmic and relentless pushing and breaking of the waves, the wait and watch for the swell, the small disappointment of the feint, the satisfaction of the grand roaring break, collapse.

You’re not impressed by the scale, the depth, the improbable way the land drops away and is filled with a bowl of salted water that urges, clamours, crammed with the odd and uncanny, in colours whose names cry out to be stated: cerulean, cyan, bioluminescent.

The rain is coming down harder, and the wind sloshes my breath about in my throat. Your dad would have loved it today, with the flat grey sky bottling above us and the rain crackling. He’d say it reminded him of Cornwall, when we ran into the sea and ran out frozen-numb and grinning.

Your friends are growing taller, their voices scraping and gravelling, and their skin becoming shiny.

‘No, I’m okay. I can walk anytime. What do you want to play?’ I get the soccer ball out and begin creating a set of rules, trying to just talk rather than think. If you hit my legs I have to run to the steps, if you hit my torso I have to run to the steps and up and down them twice, and if you hit me above the neck you get tickled, so you’d better run! This seems to please you, so we begin. I’ll add in new things as the fears, memories, regrets, fade. As I run, with the cold salt air in my throat. As I hit upon another thing that might make you laugh, keep you talking to me, keep you looking at me, before you grow another inch or two, shifting, moving, and I lose you too.

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Along Enemy Lines, Jacqueline Greig

The sullen heat woke Emile, pressing against him as he became aware of the birds squawking outside.  He sat up, pulled the heavy window shades back, and the morning light streamed into his room. Walking through swirling motes of dust, he felt the tiles, cool and reassuring against his feet as he padded down the corridor. Then he remembered that yesterday, everything had changed.

At the end of the darkened hallway he thrust open the door and stepped into the humidity. The two tall palms still reached skywards from the front garden and Rama, the street-sweeper, was pushing his cart and brushing away leaves with his twig broom. His familiar smile crinkled his eyes as paused to wave at Emile.

Where were they? The soldiers Emile had expected to be marching down the street with guns and bayonets. Was too it early? Hadn’t they finished eating breakfast yet?

Down the road, a desultory, horse-drawn wagon progressed passed Toko Okumura, the shop where he and Wim had bought ice creams yesterday. Now, tacked to the wall was a poster, its corners lifting in the lazy breeze.

Were Mr and Mrs Okumura his enemies now?

He scampered across the road, its surface already hot enough to bite his feet, and stood before the poster.

CITIZENS OF BATAVIA

Strategic necessity has led to the surrender of Batavia. The Japanese occupation army will arrive shortly.

Please avoid walking and travelling about unnecessarily.  Abstain from any hostility, or demonstrations of anger, against the occupiers. Fighting the enemy is the role of the army not of civilians.

Maintain peace and order, and trust that the local authorities will do their utmost to protect your civilian rights.

Food and water are readily available at present.

God give you strength.

 

‘There’s a notice on Mr Okumura’s shop,’ Emile announced as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. Through a mouthful of porridge, he continued, ‘It says we’re not to fight the Japanese.’

His mother looked up from the breakfast she and Alya were preparing.

‘You are not to walk down the street on your own!’ Mama admonished, her voice sterner than he’d ever heard before.

‘Where’s Wim?’ Emile demanded. There was no bowl at his older brother’s seat.

‘He’s gone to Tjimahi to find Papa. He’s bringing important things from us, clothes and letters. Remember, you wrote a letter too?’

‘Why? Why didn’t he take me with?’ Emile protested, blinking furious tears from his eyes.

Ag, Mieltje…you know it’s dangerous. I can’t risk you going,’ Mama replied.

‘Where’s Tjimahi?’

‘Very far Emile. Too far for you. And I need you here to help me. You and Cahya have to do all the men’s jobs now.’

He spooned brown sugar onto the porridge and watched a sweet, aromatic pool form before he stirred it into the depths. Many years later he would recall how quotidian each mouthful had been, but now he said nothing, ate slowly, and waited until Mama and Alya had left. Then, heart pounding, he grabbed a bamboo steamer from the cupboard and carefully placed two slices of bread with jam and several left-over dumplings in it. He checked the lid was tightly sealed.

He recalled his aunt, Tante Snet, had talked about a Japanese prisoner camp at the harbour, Tanjong Priok. Yes, he thought, they had taken Papa there!

‘What’ye doing?’ Cahya asked, materialising as quietly as a cat. He leaned against the doorframe, scratching his bare foot along his shin.

‘I’m going to Tanjong Priok to look for Tjimahi camp. I’m going to find Papa.’

Cahya’s eyes, shiny brown as lychee pips, widened. ‘How d’ye know the camp’s there?’

‘I just know.’

‘Tjimahi means ‘lots of water’ – maybe that’s because it’s at the harbour?’ said Cahya.

‘P’rhaps,’ Emile replied

‘Can I come too?’

‘No. They’ll notice if we both go.’

‘I could help.’

Emile considered this for a moment, wishing Cahya could come along, but he shook his head.

‘Stay here and don’t tell anyone where I’ve gone. Promise!’

‘Okay,’ Cahya said, slumping against the doorframe.

Emile called out to his mother, ‘Cahya and I are going out to the garden.’

‘Be sure to come back in if it gets too hot, and stay under the trees,’ she replied, her voice drifting from the sewing room where the women had already gathered for the day’s work.

Emile slipped out the gate feeling Cahya’s wistful gaze follow him as he started down the road. A few soldiers lounged in the shade of the roadside palms; he avoided their eyes and hurried across the bridge. The women below waved at him as they spread their washing on the river rocks and slapped it in rhythmic waves against the canal wall.  Wim had once told him if you followed the canal, Kali Sunter, it would take you to the harbour. He set off along the edge of the deep, green waters.

The heat rose around Emile, making his clothes cling to his body and his feet clumsy in their boots. Mama never let him walk barefoot like Cahya. He imagined himself a desert adventurer arriving at a river oasis. Such a hero would drink from the water and cool his tired body in its freshness. Emile perched at the edge of the swiftly flowing canal and took off his shoes. His feet swung into the current and the water swirled and eddied in turquoise rills around them. How deliciously cool it felt. He knotted his laces and slung the shoes around his neck before continuing on, now walking in the shade and avoiding the stones. Already he could not avoid the hunger gnawing at him, and the thoughts of the dumplings he carried.

‘No, they are for Papa!’ he said fiercely.

The path stretched, an endless white before him, and he counted his progress in groups of ten steps. The waters of the canal were becoming sluggish and brown, above which sunlight glanced from a viridescent haze of midges and mosquitos.

 What would Wim and Papa say when he arrived? Papa and Wim would be happy to see him.

In the distance a dirty, faded dog appeared, trotting towards him with her tail and rump swinging and her ears laid back.

It can smell dumplings, Emile thought.  I must not touch the dog. Mama said that dogs could be dol, mad, and they bit you for no reason. Then you become dol too.

Emile stared ahead, ignoring the dog. Nose to the ground, she followed him hopefully and soon he got used to her small, brown presence. Cahya had told him that dead people could come back to earth as animals. The dog must be a friend, come back to protect him. He clutched the thought, holding it tight.

Without warning, the dog whined and flattened her body, thin and quivering, on the path. Before them stretched a grey wall, high intimidating with its spiked wire slung along the top.

There it is, thought Emile, excitement filling him. The prison where I’ll find Papa. I’ve walked so long. It’s here!

Three soldiers leaned against a gate set in the concrete; their cigarettes glowing as they talked in low accents. The boy and his ragged dog were merely the landscape of this strange place where they found themselves.

Emile walked up to them while the dog slunk back in the shadows.

Sayonara,’ he said, using the word Mama had taught him. ‘Papa?’ he added, pointing at the walled enclosure.

The youngest of the soldiers waved him away, turning an impatient back on this intrusion and lighting another cigarette.

Perhaps they understand English, Emile thought.

‘Sayonara…. Daddy?’

The young soldier lunged at him and Emile saw his disdainful eyes before ducking the blow that whooshed past his ear. Another of the men bent over Emile and pointed to the camp. ‘Daddy?’ he asked, his tone rough and strange to Emile’s ears.

Emile nodded, his heart galloping in his chest.

The soldier extended his white-gloved hand and Emile felt his tight grip. He looked up at the man’s dark eyes, the stern hair combed from his forehead, and the blemished cheek that glared at Emile. Unsmiling and silent, the man led him along a scrub path which lay shadowed by the wall and up an embankment of loose stones and scree that slipped and crunched beneath their feet. The man bent down, and Emile smelled cigarettes and sweat. Firm hands gripped his body and he swung wildly through the air, his breath snatched from him.

Then he stood on a ledge overlooking the wall. Below stretched a parade ground where Dutch men, some in KNIL uniforms, marched under the shouting scrutiny of Japanese soldiers. He strained to identify his father. His fingers tightened, gripping the wall as he scanned the distant men. There was a man marching in an officer’s uniform. His back was straight and tall. His hair short and dark.

Papa?

No… no it wasn’t him. He wasn’t there. Emile recognised no one and, feeling his throat tighten, he blinked away the burning in his eyes.

The black-eyed man looked up at Emile in expectation.  The small boy shook his head and let the strong arms lift him down. They walked back along the path, separate and still.

The steamer! He had forgotten the steamer. Mama would be angry. Emile raced back up the path. The soldier, arms hanging limp, watched the child’s run and return. His mouth hinted a smile when Emile offered him a dumpling, but he shook his head and joined his companions at the gate.

The younger soldier picked up a stone and aimed it at the dog. He was rewarded with a dull thud as it hit her side and she ran off yelping.

Emile watched the dog disappear. She had not been his friend for long, but he was alone without her. He didn’t look back as he walked along the canal through the cicada-buzzing heat. The monotonous, insistent koo-eel of a cuckoo mocked him from trees that threw long shadows across the path.

Evening dark was flowing up from the river when he finally crossed the bridge and turned into his street. In the distance he saw Mama. He broke into a run.

 

My recollection may no longer be precise; it’s been so long since I was told this story. I believe my father’s eyes held mine and, given to rumination as he was, he concluded, ‘I have no idea why the soldier tried to help me that day. Perhaps because I was only six years old or maybe we stood together at the edge of a world in which neither of us knew the rules.’

 

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Crazy Norm, Teresa Peni

 

‘Can I have a word?’ Olive asked Norm.

‘Sure,’ he said, shuffling outside.

Norman stood six-foot tall between Olive and the café, blocking her from her own business. The sooner this was dealt with, the better, she thought.

‘Norman, you can’t come in and drink the water anymore.’ Olive smiled as she said this; she was too nice, even whilst booting him out.

‘You can’t talk to Sophie either, not unless you’re ordering a coffee–don’t tell her she’s beautiful, don’t bring her wine–’

‘Why not?’ he implored.

‘Because it’s not appropriate. You can order food or drinks, but stop pestering her.’

‘Can I wait for the bus, inside? You’ve let me do that…’

He was trying to salvage some of it–any of it–he didn’t have enough money to buy coffee every day, didn’t even like coffee… But he liked Sophie. Oh, she was a pretty one.

‘But Olive…’ The boss lady was shaking her head.

That’s it. Another place he wasn’t allowed to go. He looked down at his scuffed shoes and a good idea popped into his head: he would stand (and smoke) at the bus stop and watch Sophie from the street! He liked her little jeans that were shorts, she wore them with thick black stockings. A hole was beginning to wear out near her bottom, she needed to buy new ones. He wondered if that was something he could bring her.

‘And no smoking near the door either–you can’t smoke within four meters of the café.’

How big was four metres? Probably all the way to the bus stop.

Olive had reached her limit. He’d already been in twice today, standing at the water jugs pouring himself endless cups, staring at Soph, then sitting and shuffling the magazines. He was bothering the customers. Sweet Norm, but not right in the head. Yeah, she felt sorry for him, but he was stalking Soph, who was too young to handle it. This is my café, Olive thought, and I must deal with the weirdos.

Norm wandered off toward the chicken shop, where he liked to watch raunchy video clips; at least he would be out of her hair.

 

Norm was absent the following day. And the next. He must be catching the bus at a different stop, thought Olive, and she felt relieved; she had tons on her ‘to do’ list before her cruise holiday. This would be her first proper break in five years since she started the café. She finally trusted her staff to keep things rolling, it was time for a recharge. The night before her departure, Olive sweated in the dark and stared at the ceiling. But whatever worries that bothered her, she pushed them away with her plans: sleep-in every day, pretty cocktails, spa treatments, yoga at dawn looking out to sea… It will be alright, she whispered to her pillow.

 

On Monday morning Norman stood outside the café, smoking and admiring the pink clouds blanketing the horizon. He was serene and looked a little bit stylish. Wearing a wide-lapel, baggy brown suit and an old trilby felt hat, he’d traded his cruddy old Reeboks for leather brogues that were buffed to shine. Neither was he carrying the Coles bag that usually accompanied him everywhere. He sat on his bench, puffing away.

This was how Soph discovered him as she trotted up to the café door. She gave Norm a polite wave, but he barely noticed her; he was off with the pixies. Soph felt nervous. This was an important day, being trusted to manage the café. The pavement was riddled with puddles, the wind messed her hair, and her legs were cold. Autumn’s coming, she thought, fumbling with the keys; it was always a struggle to open the café door… that’s right, the square key first, then the oval one.

‘Can I help you, Dear?’ Norman was standing right behind her. Sophie flinched, the key found the sweet spot, the lock sprung open.

‘No thanks, Norm,’ she blurted without turning around, thrusting the door shut behind her. He stared through the glass. She couldn’t lock the door–that would be admitting he’d spooked her–but she avoided looking in his direction, even though he was just standing there. He could read the ‘closed’ sign. Sophie began the usual routine: warm up the coffee machine, slice the breakfast fruit. She put music on and checked her watch: Paz, their morning chef, would arrive in twenty minutes.

The rain began to pitter-patter. Norman sat back down on the bench, opening a collapsible umbrella he’d stowed in one of the generous pockets of the suit. In the other pocket was an old tin–carefully packed and extremely precious. Today was a special day and he must be bold, face his fears and reach his objective. He had been awake most of the night, plotting.

The café began to warm up. Sophie made herself a strong cappuccino and stirred the muffin mixture: apple, coconut and white choc chips. She washed the salad greens. A new album was playing because everyone had got bored of Jarryd James, now it was Lana del Rey. She lowered each chair down from the table tops as if they were dance partners, to Lana’s purry voice.

Olive’s cruise ship was probably departing the Sydney Heads this very moment. Shame about the weather, thought Soph, although it would no doubt be perfect in the Pacific Islands. She decided she would fish out her black jeans from the bottom drawer when she got home. Paz finally bowled up; his cheeky Peruvian grin beamed from under a beanie. He sniffed the air, perfumed with baked muffins, then darted back out of the kitchen, ‘I gotta get some tomatoes,’ and headed for the greengrocer down the road.

Laying out date and banana bread slices, her head buried deep in the cake cabinet, Soph realised a figure was standing on the other side of the glass–a man in a brown suit. Still holding the metal cake-slice, she stood up, her face blank as a round plate.

‘What would you like, Norman?’ It was in fact opening time.

Norman stood as erect as his old back could bear. ‘How are you Sophie?’

She scanned him for clues: hair swept back into a damp mat under a hat, saggy face scrapped of the usual grey stubble, cheeks faintly pock-marked with acne scars probably from decades ago. His eyes were shimmering in their watery sockets, dull yet sane green points trained on her like gunsights. He was waiting for her answer, not shuffling his bag or feet for once.

‘I’m well, thank you Norm,’ she replied, and suddenly, Soph meant it. She was twenty-two and in charge of the most popular café in the street, and not afraid of Crazy Norm. Today he seemed less… imbecile… more a clean, quiet soul… albeit still bothering for her attention. She could handle him.

Paz bounced back into the cafe, ‘Forgot the money.’ His chirpiness vanished when he realised who was standing there. He moved slowly behind the cash register, flicking his eyes to Sophie in a bid to gauge her reaction.

‘Just grab that twenty bucks under the sugar,’ she said, pointing to a note she’d stashed earlier for such errands.

Paz considered staying, to make sure Norman was not going to get weird; but Sophie was acting confident, so he figured she had it covered. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ he declared, hoping Norman would get the hint and not hang around.

‘Okay–oh–get some salt, too, will ya?’ added Sophie.

She decided to show Norm who was boss now.

‘Norm, I’m very busy. Is there anything I can get you… otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside for your bus.’

Simples.

‘As a matter of fact, I would like to buy a cup of tea,’ he said, ‘Take-away.’

She wondered why he was ordering a drink–he never buys anything.

‘You realise it’s three-dollars-eighty?’

‘I realise that, my dear, and I have money.’ He plucked a fifty dollar note out of his pocket and lay it reverently on the counter. It looked as though it had been ironed.

She arched one eyebrow and delicately placed the cake-slice down, picking up the note, rang up the tea, then counted out his change. His large puffy palm caught the money as he watched her fingers with obvious fascination. Her body amazed him, the way young skin clung to muscle and bone underneath.

Soph turned to make tea, slightly worried he might start raving. He sometimes mumbled to himself or read the paper out loud.

He watched her flick her hair out the way. She was so much like an African mammal, like the zebras he’d once seen at Taronga Zoo–taut, exotic–he remembered how their buttocks quivered when flies bothered them, they’d flick their bushy black tails. His father had taken him to Taronga for his fourteenth birthday.

‘My father died last week,’ he said.

‘Oh, oh that’s very sad. I’m sorry to hear it.’ She stopped dipping the teabag for a second.

‘Ah, he had a good innings. He was in the Navy, you know. I’m taking him to Coogee–some of his ashes, that is.’

Norm patted his father’s cigar tin in the pocket.

‘I think he’d be happier there, back with the ocean.’

It would be just Norman to do the scattering; he didn’t know how to contact Dad’s old Navy mates. ‘I have to catch the 373 from Circular Quay,’ he thought aloud.

‘Do you want some sugar in your tea, Norm?’

‘I’m not taking my medication anymore,’ she thought she heard him say. Today was so weird.

‘Oh,’ was all she replied, heaping two sugars in. Then noticing the time: the 7:10am to the city will be along any minute. She placed the tea in front of him.

‘There you go, Norm, and a complimentary muffin to help you on your mission.’ Oops, now she was encouraging him. ‘You’d better get moving if you want to catch the bus.’

‘Thank you love, you’re very kind,’ he said, squishing the warm paper bag into his pocket alongside the tin.

Norman picked up his tea carefully, like a large child. He thanked Sophie once more and left, passing Paz, who had returned with the tomatoes and salt. He stepped back into the damp street, glittering now from the morning sun that had worked its way free of the heavy cloud and was giving the early commuters something to be cheerful about.

 

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