Category Archives: fictionissue12

The Rider, Sonia Lal

Anya could hear the stars ringing in her ears. It had started the day the sun had disappeared, and the world became cloaked by the night. In the shadow of darkness Anya was alone and she witnessed as the world crumbled around her. Fear of running out of electricity, food, and water had driven the populace to madness. In the dark people changed and evil found them. Chaos erupted. It oozed through the streets.

With the sun gone the temperature had dropped drastically and snow and rain became the common climate. Plants had begun to wither, and the tress began to sigh. The squirrels that used to scurry across Central Park, had all but disappeared. They, like the birds and the butterflies, were unable to survive the eternal winter that had descended upon the earth.

Anya had become a membership desk assistant at The Frick Museum shortly after moving to New York. However, three months after the sun had disappeared people had stopped coming to see the artworks in the museum. Slowly the other staff began to disappear as well. A month later Anya’s apartment had been broken into and she decided to move in to the museum.

Anya adjusted. She didn’t have another choice. She let herself succumb to the ravenous city and its darkness. No one had wanted her skills as an artist. Art itself ceased to have any meaning as everyone in the city became consumed with themselves. So, Anya’s fingers were used in other ways, for other forms of satisfaction. And the stars. They never let her forget it. They screamed in her ears from the moment she awoke, to the moment she slept. Constant reminders that everything had changed.

One night a disheveled man arrived at the doorstep. He was drunk and had mistaken her for a woman that he had paid to sleep with a few days before. Anya profusely explained to him that he had her mistaken for someone else and eventually he left her alone. Yet the encounter remained stuck in her mind. As Anya’s money dwindled and her food supply became minimal the wad of money the man had held in his hand flashed constantly before her eyes.

A few weeks later Anya was out at the store again and had caught a man staring at her. She left the store and could sense him behind her. Anya stopped abruptly and spun around to face him. She demanded to know what he wanted. The man was taken aback. His golden hair fell across his face like tendrils and his blue eyes were bloodshot. He wanted to spend the night with her. The same anger that had filled Anya during the encounter with the man that had followed her rifled through her body again. But when he pulled out a stack of notes the anger slowly seemed to diminish. All Anya saw was the notes. She wasn’t the kind of person that chased after money, but a little voice in the back of her mind reminded her that all she had left was a ten-dollar bill, and three cans of beans and a quarter of a loaf of bread. She had to survive. No matter how much she wanted things to be different, this was the world she lived in now, but it hadn’t always been this way.

*

The field of orange tulips swayed in the sultry Portland four o’clock sunlight as Anya and Noah lay watching the clouds play in the sky. Anya hadn’t known Noah for long, but in the four months since she had met him Anya knew nothing else.

‘It’s clearly a dragon,’ said Noah pointing to a large white cloud. ‘See its even breathing fire.’

Anya screwed up her nose the way she always did when she was concentrating and gazed at the clouds. The sunlight had sprouted freckles on her nose. Noah looked at her and smiled.

‘No,’ she asserted. ‘It’s a phoenix.’

Anya shifted closer to Noah until their knees kissed. ‘See its wings are flapping as it flies towards the sun. It’s so beautiful.’

‘You’re beautiful,’ Noah whispered into Anya’s ears, like it was a secret he had kept buried in his chest. A secret she now knew. Anya’s eyes blinked away from the clouds and fixated on Noah’s. She saw the sky reflected in them. The phoenix touched the sun, but Anya only saw Noah’s eyes. She could see herself in them.

‘When I look at you…I would rather look at you than all the clouds in the sky. I would rather look at you than the stars perched next to the crescent moon, and the fluorescent tides at twilight. I would rather look at you than the bees buzzing around the trees, or the fireflies sneaking around the tendrils. When I look at you, I catch myself forgetting to look away.’

*

Anya watched as the man stood in his doorway and fumbled around for the money, he owed her. Like confetti rain fell from the sky and drizzled as she waited. Anya didn’t mind, because the sound of the rain hitting the corrugated roof above her mildly drowned out the ringing in her ears. He finally retrieved the sum required and handed it to Anya. Without a word he closed the door, and Anya turned back towards home.

She was tired. Anya had had a few clients that day. Even though she wasn’t far from the gallery her legs were sore from being pressed up against her chest. The backs of her knees ached. Anya walked across the front lawn. Pools of mud and water had formed in the dead grass. It swam beneath her feet, it lapped at them. The door seemed so far away, but Anya trudged along. Her body sagged, and so did the sky.

Anya’s footsteps became smaller and her eyes began to groggily close shut. Suddenly, Anya felt something prod at her funny bone. The sensation jerked her awake. The brittle branch of the magnolia tree had stretched as far as it could until it touched the young woman. With all its strength the magnolia tree wrapped its branch around Anya like a blanket and lifted her until she was safely inside the gallery.

Once inside Anya collapsed onto her mattress in the West Gallery, like a puppet whose strings had been snipped. The emerald silk-velvet walls matched the carpet and wrapped around Anya, forming a comforting cocoon of green around her. The branch of the magnolia tree had slowly retreated into its trunk. The feat had left it breathless and the rain that currently fell upon it provided both the magnolia tree and Anya with relief. Anya’s sleepy mind could hear the rain become heavier outside. The thunder sang, and the lightening danced to the thunder’s boisterous voice. Through the cacophony the stars couldn’t yell at Anya as loudly. All she could hear were their distant shrieks. That would do, Anya thought as she lay her head down onto the pillow.

Anya had stopped counting the nights. The men didn’t mean anything to her, and she was nothing to them. Simply a bed to be slept in at night, when their wives weren’t watching, or their appetites had been filled from stealing and killing. In the darkness Anya had no one, except for her paintings. Yes, she thought as sleep was on the precipice of hoodwinking her, they are mine now, for no one else will be.

The hum of the paintings gently sang Anya to sleep. The red, greens, and blues twittered and whirled around her as she began to sleep, and The Polish Rider descended from its position above Anya’s mattress.

He removed his red fur lined kuczma from his head, letting his thick wavy brass hair flow as the mountain breathed behind him. His gaze remained dead ahead. His white tunic top had no crease despite the wind. The stallion his sat upon stood as still as statuary.

Anya sat staring. Her eyes were unable to remove themselves from him. Suddenly, his hand reached out. His palm was facing up and was pointed in her direction. Enthused by his arrival Anya’s fatigued body got up and closed the small distance between herself and the rider. She let her hand hover over his. His gaze never once broke, but his hand remained unmoving and outstretched. The life lines engraved on his palm were a deep burgundy. Anya stepped back. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take his hand. She didn’t deserve to go with him. Suddenly, the rider’s arm snapped back into place and he spun his stallion around and galloped back through the frame.

Anya returned to the mattress and fell like crumpled autumn leaves into it. Even though Anya’s thoughts were consumed by the rider’s hands another thought entered her mind. When the rider had arrived, the ringing had stopped.

*

‘If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?’

Anya leaned back into Noah’s chest. His arms wrapped around her.

‘The Frick.’

‘What is that?’

‘It’s an art gallery in New York.’

‘And why would you go there?’

Noah absentmindedly played with Anya’s hair. Like guitar strings he ran his fingers through her ebony strands.

‘To see The Polish Rider.’

‘You would travel all the way from Portland just to see a painting?’

‘Mmmhmm.’

‘What’s so special about this painting?’

‘It’s believed to be of a soldier that defended his country against invasion. He stands tall even though he faces an enormous faceless danger. He is completely unfazed by fear as he sits upon his white stallion. The mountains behind him are bare and barren, and there’s an esoteric building behind him. I’ve always thought it was a fortress. Somewhere he could go to escape whenever he did feel a little scared. There’s dark, deep water surrounding him, and off in the distance there is a fire that burns.’

‘It sounds like quite a painting.’

‘It is. Can I tell you something?’

Noah’s nose brushed up and down against Anya’s hair, so she knew he was nodding.

‘I’m so glad I haven’t been to The Frick yet.’

‘Why?’

Anya turned around so that her nose almost touched Noah’s.

‘Because it means we can go together for the first time. And then you’ll see that The Polish Rider wasn’t unknown at all. The faceless painting has just one face, and it’s yours.’

*

Bang.

Someone was knocking at the door.

Bang.

Anya walked to the front door of the gallery, uncertain of who was waiting on the other side.

Anya opened the heavily brandished oak door.

He stood in front of her. His once dark curly hair had been shaved so that there was only a thin layer   of hair left. His scalp was scratched and bruised. There were scars on his left cheek, as if someone had attempted to claw off his face. His thin frame was engulfed by the tattered and torn brown trench coat that trailed behind him on the floor—muddied at the hems. But his eyes. They were the same. An unchanged blue. The same blue that used to be the sky.

Anya was about to say his name when he reached into his trench coat pocket and pulled out a scrunched-up handful of bills. He shoved it towards her. He didn’t recognise her.

The rain had stopped.

Anya’s ears rang.

Anya took his outstretched hand and placed it back beside him, his fingers still gripping the money. She took his other arm and led him inside. She led him past the West Gallery and into an upstairs bedroom.

Noah looked at Anya. The fire in his eyes exploded into the room. His chest lit up in the places that her fingers touched. The colour reflected the orange of the fire. Noah began to kiss Anya and she let him. He began to unbutton her dress. She let him. The fire spread across the room. She could see the figures in the artworks running as the flames began to engulf the room.

The ringing in Anya’s ears transcended and deluged the room. It was as if a thousand alarms had gone off at once, and there was no switch she could flick to silence them. The ringing crescendoed. Anya barely registered Noah removing his shirt. All she could see was the stars that had descended upon the ceiling. The fire licking at them as they multiplied. Anya closed her eyes and lifted her hands to her ears. She pressed hard against them until it hurt.

Hours later Anya slipped out of the bed and sauntered down the staircase. She entered the West Gallery and stood in front of The Polish Rider. She thought of Noah’s limp body in the bed above her. She didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Anya was buried under a weight she thought would keep her safe.

‘I’ve been sleeping for so long, but now I’m more awake than I have ever been before.’

Anya lifted her hand and reached for that of the rider’s. He leaned forward and took her hand, pulling her towards him.

There had always been a choice and she was choosing to leave. She wanted to be in the sunlight again, where she could be herself. Where her fingers could be used to paint again.

*

Anya was The Polish Rider. She unfroze from her stance upon the white stallion and removed her fur lined kuczma. Her long raven hair flowed as wildly as the wind that coursed through the dusty mountains behind her. The wind carried droplets of water from the lake through the air. Anya stuck her tongue out and let the droplets fall on her tongue. The subtle saltiness tanged on her tongue.

‘Go.’

The stallion galloped through the mountains towards the fortress on the hill. However, she didn’t stop to talk to the people gathered inside its sandstone walls. Instead

Anya urged the stallion to gallop even further, and even faster until the fortress and its people, until the mountains and the lake, and until the world cloaked in night, had transformed into little blots of paint in her periphery. Rembrandt’s brush strokes moved as Anya cantered towards the Village Among Trees.

White clouds danced above a brown cottage that was nestled in a clearing amongst green grass and variegated leaves of oak trees. The chirping of birds filled the air. Anya got down from the stallion and watched as it trotted away and started munching on some grass. Anya simply stood. She wiggled her toes, letting them feel the blades of grass rub in between them. The air she breathed in was fresh and smelt of roses. Anya looked up. The sun was blazing above her, and the cerulean sky gleamed down upon her. Anya smiled. The ringing in her ears had long gone.

 

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Drown Me Out, Salvatore Pedavoli

My thoughts, like smoke,

cloud my mind.

I cough and splutter.

It’s killing me.

 

I’m holding the rim of a steel sink, focusing on my reflection. My heart is almost in time with the muffled music outside. I can feel it pulsing in my throat.

Pull yourself together.

Someone staggers to the sink beside me and starts washing their hands. They spit up something and cough. I brace myself and leave the bathroom disgusted.

As soon as I’m back on the dance floor the beat reverberates through my entire body. My ears are screaming.

I work my way through the crowd of dancers. Escaping through a security door and down concrete stairs into a quieter room. The walls are thick, it’s as though the room upstairs doesn’t exist. The music is softer. The faint fog of the melody drifts through the space.

‘Welcome back,’ says Tony as I approach my small group, ‘I bought you another whisky.’

A glass of amber liquid sits on the table between him and his friend, Nicky. I thank him and take a sip.

‘You like Fireball, right?’ he asks.

I nod and sit down.

‘Sophie will be here soon,’ says Nicky.

Tony asks me how I’m feeling and I shrug my shoulders. I’m terrified, but he doesn’t need to know that.

‘All you need to know is that she went through a bad break up,’ Tony explains, ‘And she really loves fancy cheese – like you!’

Well, that’s wonderful. We can spend the night talking about cheese and her shitty ex boyfriend. Fantastic. I’m going to be the guy she vents to all night. I bet this is all just so Tony and Nicky could go out but not feel guilty about their sad friend. Figures.

You’re just some nice guy that girls talk to. Not a real man they want to hook up with.

My knee bounces out of time with the music and I glance around the room as though she’d suddenly appear. I don’t even know what she looks like, I don’t understand why I even bother.

Nicky jumps up suddenly, tapping furiously on her phone. She announces that Sophie has arrived and whisks away to go find her.

I take a deep breath. Tony asks me if I’m alright.

‘I really didn’t need to be set up,’ I say, ‘I can find a girl on my own.’ I smile. He’ll think it’s a joke if I smile.

Tony gives me one of his impish grins. ‘Yeah, I know – but you’ve been busy with work, and kinda stressed out lately. Plus, Sophie said she wanted to come out, and you guys’ll get along really well. Trust me, you’ll like her.’

That doesn’t mean she’ll like me.

 

A person worth being,

I wish I was worth knowing.

If only pretending to be someone else,

was as easy as wearing their clothes.

 

In the moments leading up to Nicky returning with Sophie, my stomach had rung out all its acids and my heart started violently beating within my throat. I’d rehearsed nine different ways of saying ‘hello’ without settling on which one I’d use.

In the end it didn’t matter because, when they arrived, I was looking down at my knees and didn’t notice them approach.

‘Sophie, this is Erik.’

I look up just as Sophie says hello. She’s a small girl with a veil of blond hair that falls gracefully over her shoulders. Her blue eyes rival the bright lights of the dance floor.

Oh, those eyes.

I manage to say hi.

Sophie looks at me with a soft expression, and for a few seconds we’re in silence. She fidgets with the straw in her drink. I should think of something to say, but in that moment all I can think about is how much she actually knows about me.

How blind is this date to her?

Erik,’ says Nicky, pulling me out of my head, ‘Sophie likes blue vein cheese – tell her she’s nuts.’

‘But… I like blue vein?’

She lets out an exasperated sigh and tells us we’re both crazy. She and Tony decide it’s time for a cigarette. They bolt for one of the smoker’s rooms without inviting us.

Sophie sinks down into one of the chairs.

‘She says the cheese thing every time I meet someone. You’re the second person who’s been on my side.’ She sips her drink and cringes.

‘Strong?’ I ask.

‘It’s basically vodka with a shot of orange juice.’ She inhales sharply, ‘Not the worst Vodka Sunrise I’ve had, though.’ She nods in my direction, ‘What’ve you got?’

‘Fireball Whisky.’

‘That’s the one with cinnamon, right?’

My heart begins to calm as we settle into a discussion about alcohol. Conversation with Sophie moves fluidly. I’m struck by how easy it is. She asks questions, and gives answers that I can respond to. She doesn’t seem nervous at all and that puts my mind at ease.

I look down into my near empty glass and wonder if it’s time for another drink. There’s a soft tingling in my head. It’s muffled the intrusive voice that’s been whispering unkind words. In its place is a tipsy friend who wants to have fun.

Sophie starts to ask about where I work when she’s interrupted by Nicky. She and Tony have returned, shrouded in the smell of cigarette smoke. They command us to scull our drinks because it’s time to dance.

We gaze at each other and, without thinking, I wink at Sophie. She smiles as I consume what’s left in my glass and follows suit. Her face scrunches and she exclaims that it was too much vodka.

Tony urges us onto our feet. Eventually we make our way down to the dance floor. Everyone seems to be packed in tightly; I wonder how we’re expected to dance. Tony takes hold of Nicky and together they disappear into the throng.

Sophie leans toward me, ’I need another drink.’

We fight our way to the group of people lining up at the bar. I buy rum and coke for both of us. We drink slowly, sticking to the edge of the room. I’m bracing myself for the inevitable discomfort of being within the dancing crowd.

‘I can’t dance,’ Sophie admits.

I look at her and shrug, ‘Same.’

Sophie downs her drink and waits for me to do the same. We ditch our glasses. I’m surprised when she takes my hand and pulls me. She leads me through the fray to a less dense corner of the room. We stand at arms length and move awkwardly to the music.

I want her closer to me.

She isn’t moving her hands much. I take hold of them and wave them around. This makes her laugh so I pull her towards me. She doesn’t object. Her hands crawl around my shoulders. I hold onto her hips. We’re moving with the music, bodies pressed against each other.

I become aware of every limb she’d be able to feel and a voice inside my head whispers:

Can she tell?

The voice dissipates when she looks at me. Those bright blue eyes take hold. We’re so close I can feel the warmth of her breath. I could kiss her. Should I kiss her? Would she let me?

 

I dreamt about a beautiful girl

with eyes as hard as stone.

She told me I wasn’t enough.

What woman could love half a man?

 

It’s almost three in the morning. Sophie and I are sitting on the balcony of a hotel room playing Snap as quietly as possible. Tony and Nicky have taken up the bed. We were letting fate decide who gets the couch.

Sophie is very competitive.

‘I don’t think it matters,’ she says, her eyes are trained on the pile between us, ‘I probably won’t sleep anyway.’

‘Why not?’ I move a card towards the pile, her hand twitches and I laugh.

She doesn’t answer until I place the card down. She swats my hand. It wasn’t a matching pair.

‘I usually sleep with a noise machine, like one of those white noise things.’

I watch her hand pull a card from her deck.

‘What’s that do?’

‘It’s supposed to, like, block out negative sounds…’ she puts the card down and smacks it almost instantly, ‘Haha! Suck it!’

‘You cheated, your hand was hovering.’

Sophie laughs and scoops the pile towards her.

‘So, why do you need to block out negative sounds?’ I ask.

‘Ah, it’s like…just something I read ages ago. So, I tried it and now I don’t sleep easily without it. But I have, like, mild anxiety and it’s been helping with that.’

A gentle curtain of rain begins to fall. I stand and walk to the edge of the balcony, extending my hand to catch a few drops. There’s a lingering haze in my mind. The intrusive voice is quietly murmuring in the background. It asks me to find out how much she knows.

If she’s gonna reject you, you may as well find out now.

You done with Snap?’ Sophie asks, ‘Do I get the couch? Did I win?’

I turn around and lean on the balcony, ‘Nah, you cheated.’

Sophie stands and points at me, ‘I won.’

I call her a cheater again. She moves towards me, sticking her head out under the rain for a moment. Again, I question how much she knows about me. Is she waiting for me to bring it up? Does it even need to be brought up? Maybe this night won’t go any further than drinking, dancing and playing snap on a balcony.

After a prolonged silence, she leans back and looks at me.

What is she thinking when she looks at me? If she doesn’t know, does she just see a man? What kind of man does she think I am? What was her ex like? Does she wonder if I’m better than him? Does she wonder what secrets I’m hiding?

Would a real man have tried to kiss her by now? Was she waiting for that? Does she think something’s wrong with me because I haven’t?

My heartbeat quickens because she’s still looking at me. She’s expecting something from me. I can feel it. I look down at my shoes.

Real men are in control.

Erik,’ she says.

Real men aren’t afraid.

I look at her.

Real men don’t have secrets like this.

Sophie moves in front of me. She cups my cheeks with her hands. They’re soft against my skin. I look at her. She closes the gap between us; kisses me very gently. I feel it surge through my body, but only for a short moment.

I pull away from her.

 

half

inauthentic

fake

liar

 

Sophie steps back and apologises. She blames it on alcohol and suggests it might be time for bed. Her voice is shaky. I’ve upset her. Why did I pull away?

‘It’s not you,’ I say quietly.

She laughs and warns me not to use that line. There’s a bitterness in her voice and she turns to the balcony door. I move to stop her, grabbing her shoulders. She pulls away from me.

‘Did they even tell you?’ I say curtly.

She turns, ‘Tell me what?’

They didn’t tell her? No, they did – she’s just pretending not to know. Or, maybe not.

I don’t know!

Idiot. Should have kept kissing her.

I back away from her and return to the balcony. I’ll have to tell her now. You can’t just drop a line like that and pretend it was nothing.

‘Tell me what?’ she repeats, she moves beside me.

I shake my head. Maybe she’ll back off.

She lets out and exasperated sigh, ‘I know…enough about you. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have kissed you. It’s too sudden, I’m just…’

I look at her. She’s leaning on the balcony again, gazing out into the rain.

You’ve upset her.

‘If it’s too quiet I start thinking,” she says, “and if I start thinking too much I’ll make myself cry.’

‘So, you kissed me to stop yourself from thinking too much?’

After a few seconds she smiles, laughs slightly and looks at me, ‘It sounds stupid when you say it out loud, but yeah,’ she turns with her back to the rain. ‘I just…need something to block out the…’ She waves her arms around her head for a moment, ‘Voice.’

‘You sound psycho. I just use alcohol…or music.’

‘We all have our ways of dealing with shit.’

‘So you make out with random guys?’

Don’t say that!

She frowns, ‘I hang out with people, yeah…’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I shouldn’t have implied…I mean…’ I shrug, ‘I’m a dumbass.’

‘You are.’ She’s smiling again.

I glance at her. Has she been feeling like this all night? Has this all just been her way of covering her anxieties? Was she just trying to block out an intrusive voice?

Isn’t that exactly what I was doing?

‘You hide it very well.’ I say.

She bursts out laughing, covering her mouth. She shakes her head, ‘Hide what? My crippling anxiety?’

I nod.

‘Well,’ she turns and taps me on the chest lightly, ‘Now you know it’s all just a facade.’

 

I’ve made a suit of armour,

with the skin of men I’ve known.

I’m Frankenstein and his monster,

a Mister Hyde that I’ve sewn.

 

I hold the rim of the porcelain sink, focusing on my reflection. It’s quiet enough that I can hear the steady ticking of my heart. I breathe slowly. I’m going to tell her my secret.

It’s almost four in the morning. Neither of us believes we’ll get any sleep. We’ve decided to share the couch, but we’ve pulled the cushions off and manufactured a bed on the floor. We’re going to talk until one of us falls asleep.

I breathe in deeply.

When I come out of the bathroom she’s lying on the bed, curled up on her side with her back to me. There’s a blue blanket thrown over her legs; it might be big enough for the both of us.

I lay down beside her.

‘Sorry I took so long.’

No response. I prop myself up and lean over her. Her eyes are closed and her hand is hanging over the edge of the couch cushion. Her phone lies just below it, there’s a video playing.

I nudge her gently but there’s no response.

She’s fallen asleep.

There’s always next time.

 

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Paper Walls, Amelia Pike

I stared absently out the front window, barely concentrating on keeping the car between the two white lines of the lane. Jason prattled beside me.

‘It wasn’t like I had planned for her to stay over last night, obviously,’ he continued, ‘but when the Uber stopped at my house she said she had no money to get back home and it was so late. I honestly didn’t think anything of it …’ He paused, giving me a second to process it. ‘And you shouldn’t either.’ The road hummed beneath my car as my heart thudded in my chest. He stayed quiet as my insides burned out, spreading heat across my cheeks in a red flush. I gave him a quick look and he met my eyes, expressionless.

I hadn’t said anything since he had started telling me about the night before, and how Jessica had supposedly ended up at his house in a strange, unfortunate turn of events. Jessica was his ex-girlfriend of five years, someone I was constantly envious, jealous and suspicious of. I had seen them together a couple of times, hanging out and catching up, but Jason would only shrug it off and call me crazy. I’m frightened of losing him; frightened that he’ll get bored of me and go back to her. My mind was running wild with thoughts of them together, and I tried to control my hands so he wouldn’t see them shaking on the steering wheel.

We were now about three hours out of Melbourne, heading to a camp ground at Lakes Entrance. Jason had suggested a camping trip this weekend as a romantic getaway. He had said that I deserved to be taken away. I considered now what that had meant, knowing he had been with Jessica only hours before we left.

‘Babe, I love you,’ he said, pulling me out of my thoughts. I felt tears threatening to fall on my burning cheeks.

‘Where’d she sleep?’ I asked.

‘What?’

‘Where did she sleep?’ I asked again, slower.

‘I can’t believe you would ask me that,’ he said, blowing it off.

‘Answer the question, Jason. Please?’ I asked. He was quiet for a minute, and I felt my stomach fall a little more with every heartbeat.

‘Well,’ he took a breath, sighed, opened his mouth and then closed it again. ‘You know how my mum is with girls being in the house and stuff!’ he argued. ‘Zach is only twelve, and I knew she’d blow my bloody head off if she saw Jess on the couch or something.’

Hearing this, I jerked the van into the emergency lane, smacking the hazard lights on as I turned my body to face him.

‘Keep going,’ I urged him, the left hand indicator ticking like a clock in front of me.

‘Well it was so late that I assumed we’d both just crash anyway, and she knew where my room was, so she naturally just headed up there.’ His eyes were in his lap as he avoided my eye contact. I wanted him to face me so that I could read his expression but from the side it looked blank.

‘And?’ I prompted him. The world around us had shrunken away so that nothing else consisted in my mind, outside of this car. There was a long pause and I could tell he was trying to think of the right words to say.

‘She kissed me, okay? And I was drunk, and I wasn’t thinking, but she started it!’ the words fell effortlessly from his mouth and without being able to catch them in time, he froze. ‘But I love you! You know I see my future with you and I know I said I wouldn’t do it again, but people make mistakes!’

‘You told me you were done.’ I knew I had heard it all before, but it hurt more this time after he had promised not to go back to her. Had I really pushed him to this again?

‘I know, baby, I know. But you have to trust me!’ his voice quivered with remorse, but I could only stare at him and wonder if it was fake. ‘You do trust me, don’t you?’ he asked.

‘Get out, Jason. Get out of the car,’ my voice was flat, emotionless. He shook his head.

‘Babe, we just need to talk about this.’

‘Get out, now!’ this time louder. As we stared at each other, our minds screamed noiselessly at each other.

‘No, don’t be stupid I’m not getting out of the car,’ he scoffed. He thought I was joking. Was this all a game?

‘Get out!’ I screamed. His mouth gaped open and hung limply for a little while. Then he shook his head in disbelief and nudged the door open, calling me a crazy bitch under his breath. After unbuckling his seatbelt, he paused and looked at me, before swearing under his breath and sliding off the seat and onto the dusty highway. Cars were flashing past and the wind hurt my eyes, but I kept staring at him, not allowing myself to cry.

‘You don’t have to do this, Rita. Please, let’s just talk about this,’ he begged.

‘Close the door.’ My voice was almost a whisper, but he followed my instructions. As soon as the door hit the latch I pulled off and back onto the highway once more. I looked once in the rear-view mirror as I drove off, and I saw his shadow slowly fading away, arms raised, body jumping. I turned the radio up. Even at full volume, I couldn’t drown out my thoughts as my brain repeated the scene over and over. I started to cry.

*

I remember seeing Jason around campus before I’d ever even talked to him, and it used to make my day. His hair fell dangerously well around his eyes that seemed to pay no attention to my existence whatsoever. I couldn’t write down the immense drag I had to him in any other way. He was perfect. He was so mystifying and beautiful and just out of reach, to me. I’ve always known that I’ve been a little more infatuated with him than he is with me, but I’ve tried to never let it bother me. The first four months of our relationship were a rush of cute beachside picnics and unexpected flowers. But after the first time I caught him cheating on me with Jessica, well that’s when the flowers stopped. We entered a rut, I would say. I had caught them hooking up at a bar one night when I was meant to be picking him up from a boys’ night. He told me that I pushed him to do it, that I’d been too controlling, and he felt upset and stressed. I had cried for days, not eating and ignoring his calls. All I could think was how could I have pushed someone I love, to do something so horrible to me in return. My mum sat there with me, every day that I stayed in bed, and pleaded for me to listen to her.

‘It’s not your fault, you haven’t done anything wrong!’ She repeated, over and over. But my stomach did somersaults as I thought of ways to make him forgive me.

The day in the van had been the exact same feeling. I had turned around after about fifteen minutes of driving alone. My indecision had driven me crazy. I was so worried about Jason, and how angry he would be with me that I lost the ability to think about anything else. Consumed with worry, I picked him up and patiently waited as we drove, for him to speak, and for me to listen.

*

When we finally reached the campground, it was absent of people or anything remotely comforting. We started a fire, and the crackling of the embers alongside the soft lapping of the muddled river water finally put me at ease. I was tired. I felt little comfort in the fact that Jason was by my side again, and I was confused as to how I became so panicked in the car by myself. As the night stretched on and we went to bed, there seemed to be a constant noise inside my head. It was my thoughts, teeming with indecision and sadness. I could barely hear the river lapping at the shore as both my sight and hearing were consumed with thoughts of my relationship. As I closed my eyes, I watched beautiful memories flash through the darkness to show their face and remind me of who it is that I love. But my head kept replaying the way Jason had treated me today, and I just kept asking myself the same question. Why?

Pulling me out of my thoughts was a noise a few meters away, sounding like someone was approaching the van. Scared and alert, I sat up, my ears burning to hear more. At my movement, Jason’s soft snoring stopped, and it wasn’t long before I felt a sleepy hand fumble its way over the bed to find me.

‘Relax,’ Jason cooed, ‘it’s probably just a wombat or kangaroo or something.’ I stayed rigid trying to peer out into the darkness. A long sigh followed before Jason lifted his head from the pillow. ‘Babe,’ he said, more firmly. ‘Lie down.’ His hand moved around my wrist, tightening his grip and pulling me towards him with force.

Feeling him around my wrist, I forgot about the noise and remembered the threat of my own situation. My heart ached a little, when I thought so negatively of our relationship, but as he stared at me in the darkness I couldn’t help but feel I was without a choice. I pushed gently on his grip and moved my body back against the mattress, into his awaiting arms. It wasn’t too long before I felt completely safe and happy enclosed in his tight grip.

‘You can’t keep doing this, you know,’ I whispered, feeling like it was a safe time to speak my mind.

‘What are you talking about?’ he replied sleepily.

‘Hurting me.’

I could feel him chuckle beneath his breath as his body moved against mine.

‘You hurt me, remember? You left me, stranded on the side of the road. You remember that, right?’ he asked.

I thought it over for a while as silence consumed us once more. I felt guilty as I laid in his loving arms. He was right. I had left him stranded on the side of the road—something he would never do to me. I nudged his neck with my nose and kissed him apologetically. His body moved with mine as if in acceptance.

‘Don’t worry, baby, I forgive you.’

I felt my body involuntarily wince as he said he forgave me because he’d said it earlier that day. When I had pulled the van over in the original spot that I had taken off from, Jason had got back in the passenger seat and slapped me hard across the cheek with the back of his hand. I tried not to cry, but my eyes betrayed me and I sat there a weak mess as he stared at me. There was a coldness to his slap, like he had had no remorse whatsoever. He had never hit me before, so I knew what I had done was bad, and for the afternoon I felt thankful that he had forgiven me so quickly. But it made me more frightened now, to slip up, to act out, or to do anything that might upset him. I had been overwhelmed in the van, and when he commanded me to start driving again, I did so in silence.

‘Next time I might not be so understanding, though,’ his voice pulled me from my thoughts once more. I laid, staring up at the empty space in front of my eyes, and desperately waited for the warmth of sunlight to bring on a new day.

*

When I first met Jason, my mum was so happy. She loved the idea of me finally settling down with a man who would look after me and treat me right. When I was growing up on our property out in Berwick, I never really knew my dad. He was always coming and going, saying he’d be there for things but never showing up. Mum struggled, as much as she tried to hide it, and I knew that me finding someone to treat me right was a big thing for her. About five months into my relationship, Mum started getting less excited about Jason. She stopped inviting him to family dinners, and never asked how he was. One night, unexpectedly, she stopped me before I was leaving to see him. She held my arm softly and asked if she could ask me a serious question. I had nodded, pretty confused.

She asked, ‘Are you happy?’ She was looking very intently into my eyes, and I gave her a nervous laugh in return.

‘What?’ I asked. ‘Where is this coming from?’ She squeezed my arm lightly and smiled reassuringly as if to say, it’s okay, go on.

‘I mean, are you happy with Jason? Does he still make you happy? Does he treat you right?’ I couldn’t really understand why she was asking this, so a smile spread across my lips, but she stayed completely serious. We looked at each other for a few moments, not talking.

‘I love him!’ My words had hung limply in the air, for as much meaning as I had put behind them when I said it, all had seemed to disappear. I could tell Mum was dissatisfied with my answer, so I repeated myself. ‘I love him,’ I said again, with the same level of emotion as the first time. But once again her disbelief seemed to shatter the words as they left my mouth and all I had said seemed make-believe. She shook her head and pulled me over to the kitchen table, myself following like a little puppy. Sitting down, she took a deep breath and looked at her hands as she placed them on the table.

‘Your dad told me he loved me every time he would come back into our lives for a short while before disappearing again without a note. You saw how much that hurt me and I saw how much it affected you,’ she paused, not taking her eyes off of me. ‘I don’t want you to feel like I did. I felt trapped, but also constantly scared that he was going to leave me, and not come back. He made me think it was okay for him to hurt me and make me feel small.’ I could see Mum trying to blink away the tears forming behind her lashes, but all I could feel was anger. Was she jealous of what I had? Why was she saying this?

‘Jason is nothing like my dad!’ I yelled back at her, enraged with what she was trying to suggest. She tried to cut in, saying that wasn’t what she had meant but I wasn’t listening. ‘I love Jason. I need him, okay?’

I had stormed out of the room without giving mum a chance to respond. The next morning when she got up, she would have been greeted to my empty room. I had packed my clothes and things and thrown them in my car a few hours after she had gone to bed that night. I couldn’t have brought myself to see her face; I knew she would have been broken hearted. But when I had gotten to Jason’s that night, I was so distraught that I had unloaded everything she had said, to him. He, in turn, was so angry.

‘I can’t date you, knowing you live with that old hag.’ He had spat the words at me as I was still crying. The only thing I could do was apologise, and then, move out of home. But I miss her. I always knew, deep down, that she was only trying to look out for me. But I just keep reminding myself, when I miss her or when I’m sad, that I have Jason. I love him, and I think he would do anything for me. This is just one of those hurdles that people go through for love. But you have to get over hurdles because it’s the only way you move forward. I would get over anything—for Jason.

 

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Running On, Aleksandra Zaskalkina

 

CW: Swearing, sexual content, emotional abuse

 

i remember

the gallery through the trees

 

It was a warm and sunny Valentine’s Day. He held fast to her hand as they walked. Her grip was lax, distracted. He gripped harder.

‘The things I do for you,’ he joked. ‘Going to a gallery for Valentine’s.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly, quickly.

He gave her a noncommittal shrug.  ‘You wanted to come here, so why not, I guess.’ That conversation ended there.

 

saying how much it meant to me

 

‘That was so boring,’ he said, as they left the sandstone building. ‘Half of that was just some weird shit stuck together. It sucked!’

‘Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it suck,’ she said quietly, as they crossed the road back into the park.

‘But it was so stupid!’

She shrugged in response. ‘I liked it,’ she said quietly.

‘Well then you’re stupid.’

*

riding trains, running trains, stopping trains, going trains

 

His hands were gripping hers once more. The carriage swayed and shook as the train ran on past station after station. The sun was holding out and shining in through the windows, brightening her blue denim dress and his icy blue eyes.

‘Did you have fun today?’ he asked gently.

She nodded in response and did her best to smile softly at him. He seemed satisfied and she looked back out the window, watching cracked and decrepit buildings dart past.

 

overgrown old buildings flowing into meadows, into flowers

my childhood hands pick them, small fingers weaving a crown

i seem to have lost it

*

‘You said sex wasn’t that big a deal for you!’ he half yelled in his annoyance.

She was laying half-naked on the bed, trembling like a leaf, as he withdrew his hand.

‘Every time with this shit!’ He leaned in close to her face and stared straight into her eyes. ‘Do you even love me?’ He sounded so wounded, so lost, like she had ripped his very heart out.

‘Of course I do.’ Her voice was small compared to his giant.

‘Then what’s the problem?’ he asked, innocently trailing his hands up her body.

She didn’t want him to, but she loved him, but she didn’t want him to. But his hands were soft and strong, but she still didn’t want him to.

He tried to kiss her. She twisted her head away, nose planted firmly into the pillow. His lips sealed and seared on her neck. She shuddered in a rattling breath.

 

gilded pillows in my gilded cage

rich green flower pattern carpets covering the stone ground

you trapping me in the sheets, i wanted to escape

*

‘Why can’t we be like that?’ he asked, poking her playfully in the side.

They were watching a movie on his TV, at his house, laying on his bed. His arms like bands around her. The couple on screen was cuddling happy in white sheets in a haze of post orgasmic bliss. Their smiles painted on their faces in ways that only an actor’s brushwork could achieve.

She looked up at him to see that he was smiling softly at her. It was a joke. It was always a joke. She smiled at him and dragged her eyes back to the screen, silently thankful to the world that the couple there had gotten out of bed.

*

you ran a carnival where i was the attraction

that gilded cage at centre stage surrounded by your eyes

to keep me in a convenient place

 

‘Hey,’ she said, coming up to stand next to him.

‘Hey,’ he said dismissively, ‘I’m talking to people.’ He gestured at the group around them.

They waved at her and said hello. They were polite. He was not.

‘Could you come back later?’

‘Um,’ a split second of hesitation, ‘I need to talk to you though.’ Insistence was not her strong suit, but she did try.

‘We can talk later. I’ll come find you,’ he said, waving his hand over his shoulder.

‘I’ll just hang around here,’ she beamed at him. ‘’Cos, you know, you did say…’ she trailed off and looked up at him. He did say that he wanted her to hang around his friends more.

He did not look impressed, his smile almost a sneer as he spoke. ‘Aren’t your friends going to be missing you?’

‘Um…’ She looked away from him, down to the ground, giving a submissive nod. ‘Yeah, I guess. I’ll be in the library.’ Her voice was meek, quiet, afraid. She didn’t want another fight.

‘Aren’t you always?’ he laughed.

She drew in a breath and gave him the best smile she could muster, then turned around, and walked back to her place.

*

green spots, green leaves, green socks, green grass

 

Another sunny day lit up the grass on the fields. Surrounded by people. Surrounded by friends. Surrounded by light. It was a good day. He held her hand, and she his. They talked together. They laughed and kissed, and everyone called them cute.

She let go of his hand to take a drink and turned to talk to a friend. She and the friend talked about tea, and chocolate, and books they’ve both read. He looked on and grew cold. She laughed with the friend, and he walked away. She looked after him with concern. But her friend asked her a question, and she responded.

 

i spend days guessing, not knowing what you want

then days cursing myself for knowing all along that I cannot give

but you want and want and want

 

He came back when it was time to go and he grasped her hand again, so tight now that it hurt. Her friend walked on in front of them, and she turned to him.

‘Hey, are you OK?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ he replied too fast to be genuine. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘You just kind of left without saying anything?’ The words small and uncertain between them.

‘Oh, I didn’t know that I had to ask for your permission,’ he muttered angrily, making her inch as much away as she could with his hand clamped on hers. ‘Besides,’ he continued, fixing her with his ice blue eyes and a disappointed slant to his lips, ‘you looked like you were having fun talking to your friend. I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you.’

She blinked at him, confused and afraid. She could feel the argument coming, could feel it breathing down her neck, tempting her to engage further.

And she did.

‘That is complete bullshit and you know it.’ Hers is a quiet rebellion.

He looked at her like she just slapped him. ‘Are you saying that you didn’t just completely ignore me for your friend?’ he growled. They were among people once more and neither wanted to cause a scene as they descended the stairs into the station.

‘I wasn’t ignoring you,’ she hissed at him. ‘I spent half the day with you. I’m sorry you’re not the only person in my life.’

He threw her hand down and they came to a stop on the platform. ‘Can you not? You’re embarrassing me.’

She breathed heavily, looked at his face contorted in rage, his eyes burning with arctic fire. She breathed heavily, bit her tongue to not say all of the things that flashed through her head. She breathed heavily, turned around, and walked down the platform just as the train was arriving.

She apologised to him three days later.

 

i could not walk away from you

all i could do was hide in my own head, rebuilding a palace

i was once queen of this, but now

*

They were standing together under a covered walkway, hiding from the light drizzle the sky was gifting them that day.

‘I still don’t understand,’ he said, hands on her waist.

‘What don’t you understand?’ she asked playfully.

‘You always say sex isn’t that big of a deal for you.’

‘It’s not,’ she prompted, less happy, now knowing what he would say next.

‘But every time I try anything you always say no.’ He sounded hurt by the very idea.

She allowed herself a few moments where she could consider a new way to explain. ‘I just-’ There were so many reasons that she could list for him; his aggression, his control, her discomfort, but she could not get the words from her thought to her lips.

‘But you love me,’ he insisted, ‘don’t you?’

‘Of course I do,’ she nodded.

‘And it’s a way for two people show that they love each other.’ He tilted his head down and looked at her through his lashes. ‘And you refuse to show me that.’

Before she could respond, he was distracted by his friend walking past. His friend smiled at them, and kept going.

‘Great,’ he said bitterly, looking at his friend’s receding back.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, confused.

‘Now he’s going to give me shit ‘cos I haven’t had sex with you yet.’ He looked back at her, eyes slightly burning with a small spark of the annoyance, of that anger.

‘Oh,’ she looked down in embarrassment. ‘Sorry.’

 

i try to run, you always catch me

wrap your hands around me, drag me back to you and kiss me

i dread the marks you’ll leave

 

The sun was out by midday. They walked across the field. His arm was around her waist as they laughed together, playfully pushing each other. She tilted her head up in a laugh and saw a sky as blue as his eyes. She looked into those eyes that were smiling at her, and fell in love again.

She buried her face in his neck and he laughed, stroking her waist with a thumb, bringing his other hand to wrap around her, resting his palm on her back. Stopping, they looked at each other, smiling like fools, like they were in love. The moment, theirs. The world, theirs. This love, theirs.

They heard her friends calling her over, and the spell was broken as his expression soured.

She smiled at him apologetically. ‘I’ll be quick. They said they wanted to talk to me.’

He offered no response. He simply let go of her.

She missed the pressing warmth instantly, but she turned and began to jog towards her friends.

‘Oh no you don’t,’ is all the warning she got before arms ensnared her and pulled her back with a sharp tug.

The wind rushed out and the world was knocked off kilter. She stumbled back into him and he held fast, turning her around so fast she could feel the blood in her head slosh about. He sealed his lips on hers, cutting off the sound she was not certain she could make.  She didn’t kiss back.

He let go of her with a smirk, sharp and pleased. She looked back at him, shy and small. His smirk cracked into a grin as he turned to look at her friends.

A quick smack to her ass left her red faced and panicky with embarrassment.

*

i know now you’re not good for me

i cannot help the sick dreading thrill that fills me

i think of you and i cannot

 

‘I’m just not getting what I want out of this relationship anymore.’

Words said quietly over a phone.

She sat there, trying with all her might to not let the first tear slip from her eyes. If one escapes, the dam will break.

‘What do you mean?’ She tried to keep her voice level and sure. She was almost sure she didn’t succeed.

‘It’s been months,’ his voice sounded strained from the other end, ‘and we still haven’t had sex.’

‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ she said quietly.  She had many things to tell him, to cry at him, to scream at him. But none of them would save her right that moment, so she didn’t.

*

there has been time and time again

i think that i may lie and let you take and take again

but my torn crown won’t let me

 

‘Hey,’ she says coming up to him.

‘Hey,’ he says confused. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘You said you wanted to talk?’

The sky was grey that day. A mirror image to his storm blue eyes.

‘Yeah,’ he said, uncertain. ‘Have you thought about what I asked you?’

‘Yes,’ she said, looking him straight in his eyes, trying to catalogue every detail of his face.

‘And?’ he prompted. ‘Can you give me what I need from you?’

‘No,’ she said, holding eye contact. Not backing away this time. Not this time. Not now.

‘Well then,’ he sighed, ‘that’s it.’

‘That’s it?’ she asked. It was not as big a blow as she thought it would be. She did not feel anything.

‘That’s it,’ he said firmly.

‘Okay.’

She walked away. She did not cry that day.

Those blue eyes. Ever pressing, ever present, like the sky above.

*

their arms around me now are yours

they do not understand why i shy away

i ran and ran and ran from you

i ran into my palace, my new crown waiting

i wear it now as i did then

i wear my crown, i am a queen

beating you back with an armada of thoughts

 

i tried and tried my best with you

i cried and cried my best with you

 

i let you

i let you

I let you no more.

 

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The Deathless, Jeremy Nigro

I signed danger to Kira and Luke using our language; a mix of traditional American sign language and the tactical hand signals used by the old military. They repeated the message down the line and the other seven members of our party squatted down amidst the dense undergrowth of the forest; our hooded, olive-green ponchos near completely camouflaging us. We stop, look, smell, taste and touch but we cannot hear. We are all profoundly deaf.

There shouldn’t be anyone out here. It’s one giant, wet forest. The terrain is hilly, dotted with ancient clusters of mighty trees, separated by dense, mossy ferns and shrubland. Rain is a constant, forever supplementing the abundance of creeks and rivers which crisscross the misty lowlands.

There is no indication of any immediate danger, so I continued towards the object which has attracted my attention, signalling to Luke and Kira to stay.

They shook their heads vigorously in response. The waves of concern radiating from Kira’s worried eyes contrasted with Luke’s usual expressionless visage.

I repeated the sign again, forcing them to hang back. They have no choice; I am the leader.

Raising my rifle, I continue my approach, slowly stalking my way through the underbrush, imagining myself as stealthy as a leopard.

I hate having to carry guns. We all do. It is not our way.

It has been two weeks since the first group was sent in to verify reports of a small band of aliens living deep in the heavily wooded mountains. The only information they had to go on was their general area of activity and a name: The Deathless.

Considering it had been almost ten years since the aliens left, it was unusual to hear of any aliens being left behind, like castaways marooned in a cosmic sea. We never found out why they came. One day they appeared, dropped a bunch of bombs on us and wiped out most of humanity. Many of the survivors, predominantly those in the outer suburbs, were left permanently deafened by the ear-splitting detonations of the alien devices.

On that day, I remember seeing a bright purple light and hearing the last noise I would ever hear. I stumbled out into the street amidst all the devastation, the deafened survivors crying, wandering around hopeless and confused. Ears bleeding, screaming but hearing no sound. I was ten years old.

Coming closer to the object, I realise it is some kind of totem-pole; a giant, wooden stake, sharpened at the top and about twice my height, covered with small pale objects I can’t make out.

The council decided a second team would be sent in and they would be armed. My father, currently the leader of the council, assigned me to lead this mission. I would’ve volunteered anyway, considering my partner Kira’s sister, Madi, had been in the first group. It’ll be my first time as leader though. I wonder whether tasking me with this responsibility is his penance for sending the original group off unarmed.

Closer now, I realised with horror what the pale objects attached to the pole were. I turned around to find Kira and Luke standing behind me. I tried to turn Kira away from the totem, but she was already backing away with her hands over her mouth. Her eyes began to well-up as she ran back to the group. Luke was as astonished as I’d ever seen him.

Nailed to the totem, from base to tip all the way around, were roughly two dozen pairs of severed human ears.

*

Twenty-two. Could be worse.

I cocked an eyebrow at Luke.

Could’ve been thirty. His expression was stoic.

It had been impossible to tell if they were our people, all the jewellery had been removed.

We were back with the group, some distance away from the grotesque totem. Kira was slumped on forest floor, being consoled by some of the others. It was hard to stay composed seeing Kira in the mud. Tears concealed by rain streamed down her face in rivulets. It wasn’t lost on anyone the chances of finding Madi and the others alive now.

Our community is several thousand strong. Nearly everyone is deaf and those who aren’t, use sign. You’ve no choice but to be cooperative when everyone is deaf and fighting for survival. We don’t carry weapons, we build and trade. We’re in no rush to rebuild humanity. Our lives are peaceful.

Grant, the largest member of our party, suddenly emerged from a thick patch of ferns from the direction of the pole, his trusty crossbow in hand. A barrel of a man, middle-aged and beardless, Grant had fought the aliens from the very beginning.

Path, he pointed in the general direction we’d been heading.

I said thanks by moving a flat hand forward and down from my lips towards him.

He nodded and melted back into the foliage.

I approached Kira, gesturing the others to move away. I cradled her head in my hands, tilted her face up towards mine and gently kissed her forehead.

We will find Madi, I assured her.

She looked up at me, her eyes moist and red. Alive or dead? she asked.

I brought her head to my chest and embraced her trembling body.

*

We could see the faint glow of their camp over the hill ahead. It was easy to spot once the moonless night rolled over.

I decided Luke and I would scout the camp from a distance and Grant would be left in charge.

Kira hugged me, put her hands together in two ‘K’s and moved them in a circle; the sign for careful.

We headed towards the glow. It was emanating from the lower side of a long sloping hill. A thin river ran along the western side, turning into a cascading waterfall once it reached a steep cliff-face at the bottom of the slope. It was a near perfect place for a base as the only clear avenues of approach were from the north and east.

We moved closer to get a better look. The camp was surrounded by a crudely constructed palisade wall, made from nearby forest timber which also created clear sightlines for the defenders. A large bonfire blazed in the central courtyard around which were several, crudely constructed structures. A smattering of tents and smaller dwellings were scattered about further out from the center.

There could be fifty aliens in a camp that size. Far too many for us to handle. I looked over to Luke whose face mirrored my concerns.

We started to head back to the group, but standing directly behind us were a pair of black armoured, helmeted aliens.

The last thing I saw was the butt of a gun heading towards my face.

*

I awoke as the sun rose, its low, white beams piercing through the misty underbrush.

I looked around with groggy eyes. I was on the muddy floor of a cage slightly taller than me and a couple of meters wide. How could I be so stupid? Never send the leader out to scout. A rookie mistake from a rookie leader.

I noticed several other wooden cages in a haphazard semi-circle pushed up against the inside of the palisade wall. To my surprise, three familiar faces from the first group were inside the only other occupied cage. A huge weight lifted off my chest when I discovered Madi among them.

An older woman wearing worn clothes, with long, grey-black hair was sitting just outside their cage. She passed a skin of water through the cage to Madi. I wondered why the woman outside the cage didn’t run? There was nothing stopping her.

Luke was slumped in a ball in the corner of my cage. I roused him awake.

Madi and I smiled at each other in relief.

The others? I asked Madi.

Her smile faded. She shook her head. Dead.

I began to ask how when I noticed the older woman scurry away from the cages. Seconds later, three helmeted figures approached. All wore a mishmash of clothing and the tenebrous, chitinous metal of alien armour. The alien in the centre, noticeably bulkier than the others work a necklace of human ears around his neck.

Madi and the others retreated to the backs of their cages, recoiling in the dirt.

The lead Deathless removed its helmet to reveal it was not an alien at all, but rather a wild-eyed brute of a man, with long grey-black hair and a scraggly beard. The other two were a middle-aged, blonde woman and a tall bald man, who had a hideous burn on one side of his face, the centre of which was now a useless milky eyeball.

The leader approached us and launched into a spittle-filled, deranged diatribe. His eyes blazed with unrestrained anger and hatred. At the end of his speech, he pointed directly at me and Luke, before he slowly ran his forefinger across his throat from ear to ear, simultaneously mocking our deafness and signalling his intent. Then they walked away.

Luke remained sitting, letting no hint of fear or surprise cross his passive face.

I looked over at Madi and the others; she was signing something which I couldn’t quite decipher. It appeared similar to not deaf—which seemed obvious—then she brought her hands up wider as if encompassing the whole camp and made the sign again, this time adding the at the beginning.

It took me a few moments to understand, but when I did, I realized how foolish we had been.

They must have spread the rumour that they were aliens to keep other humans away. The self-titled Deathless had in fact been a group of non-deaf humans all along.

*

It was early afternoon when they finally came to get us. The sun had vanished and the barely dry earth was sodden once again.

We were in the main courtyard where the large bonfire was. Luke and I in the centre, down on our knees, whilst Madi and the others were off to one side. A crowd of villagers gathered around us. For the first time, I noticed the regular folk of the camp. They were thin, dirty and scraggly dressed. There were mostly women with scarcely a young person among them. I recognised the woman who’d helped Madi. She was staring at the ground, looking sullen and empty.

The leader of The Deafless emerged from the largest structure. He sauntered around us, grinning and talking the whole time. He stroked Luke’s smooth, bald head like one would stroke a priceless bust. Whatever the leader was saying had turned parts of the crowd from a languorous, pathetic bunch into a pack of wild animals. He slowly unslung a nasty looking sawn-off shotgun from his back.

Luke nodded at me once, bowed his head and closed his eyes.

He pointed the shotgun back and forth between Luke and I. I didn’t have to be a lip-reader to know he was saying ‘eeny, meeny, miny.’ The barrel got closer to my face with each swing until he touched my nose with it. I tried to focus on the smell of metal and gunpowder and the feel of cold steel rather than my impending execution.

Tears streamed down my face and I clenched my teeth in anticipation. I’d failed and I only had myself to blame. I closed my eyes.

I felt a thud as something heavy hit the ground in front of me. I hesitantly opened my eyes to find the leader laying on his side directly in front of me, with an arrow sticking between a pair of still grinning, madman’s eyes.

Chaos ensued. The tall man with the burnt face rushed towards us before violently staggering back twice in quick succession.

The few other fighters in the camp haphazardly fired their weapons towards the hill. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air and the cracks of nearby gunshots hit me in the gut with each vibration. Sticking to the ground, I risked a quick glance around; the two sentries on the palisade wall were already down, a crossbow bolt sticking out of one of them. The few remaining guards were being struck down one by one seemingly from nowhere. Soon, it was all over. All the Deafless who’d put up a fight were down or had surrendered.

The main gate opened and our group entered with all the precision and synchronization of a well-oiled special forces team. Grant was in the lead with his crossbow raised. I should’ve known they’d come. At least I’d made the right decision leaving Grant in charge.

Luke and I got to our feet as the others approached. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the tall man with the burnt face hobbling towards me, one hand clutching his stomach and the other holding the leader’s menacing shotgun, which he now aimed squarely at me.

An instant later, there was a burst of bright purple fire and the man was gone, disintegrated in an instant. I turned around to see Kira standing behind me, her alien pistol pointed in the direction of the recently atomized Deafless.

*

After the fighting had finished, the villagers emerged; the oblivious audience to a pantomime which would ultimately decide their fate.

Look what they became, Grant was signing, a grim look on his face. They’re savages.

They didn’t end up like this because they’re not deaf, Madi pleaded, still in the arms of her older sister.

They would be a danger to our community, Grant was vehement.

I tried to stay out of it, assessing both sides of the argument knowing the decision was ultimately up to me. I sympathised with Grant. His daughter had been killed by a human scavenger not long after the bombs fell.

Let them decide, Luke suddenly signed, still expressionless.

Grant threw his hands in the air in exasperation.

We looked at the pitiful bunch of villagers gathered around the square, illuminated by the dying light of the untended bonfire.

Eventually, the woman who’d helped Madi hesitantly approached me. She bent down, scratched something in the mud with her finger before retreating back to the others.

It was one word. It said please.

I repeated it by moving a flat hand in a clockwise circle around my chest.

Kira smiled at me and signed, There’s something we haven’t considered. 

Then she maternally caressed her stomach with one hand.

Someone will need to teach the children how to speak.

 

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Peak of Silence, Arran Paix

Part I: The City

A chorus of roosters crowed outside her window, disjointed, long and loud. Her eyes snapped open and the hustle of the city outside crashed into her room, exploding her temples. Vendors shouted over each other: Bananas! Melons! Pineapples! Beef! Chicken! Fish! Carrots! Potatoes! Corn! Dogs barked, hurtling after stray cats that hissed and wailed as they fled. Small children giggled, kicking up dust, dodging the outstretched hands of their mothers. Stampeding kids in school uniforms with bags slung over their shoulders shouted greetings to one another from bus doorways. Melodies drifted upwards from the river as women trudged along balancing baskets on their heads, bars of soap clutched in their hands. Tuk-tuks and cars greeted the morning in an orchestra of blaring horns.

The noises reminded her of home and the heartache that awaited her there. Anger and hurt flooded her mind but she forced it aside and squeezed her eyes shut, breathing deeply. Brows furrowed, she growled in frustration. Rising quickly, she grabbed a bottle from beside her bed, the cool water washing the dry taste of morning from her mouth before dressing and shoving her gear into her pack. Sweeping the room with a keen eye, she headed to reception.

She strolled towards the bus station, savouring the smells that met her at every turn. The scent of meats cooked in spices wafted out from small shops. The earthy aroma of fruits and vegetables lingered at stalls lining the road. She gasped, hit by the bitter odour of vehicle exhaust, and held her breath, until she let it out in disgust. With that, came the stench of animal faeces and rotting garbage rising from the gutters, making her lips curl. She gagged, hurrying past a particularly fragrant patch of urine until relief encased her in the heady scents of the orchids and jasmines at the end of the street.

Around the corner, the bus station appeared; a plain building with mini buses parked out the front, whose white paint and blue characters were half-hidden by dirt and dust. Between the buses and the building sat several stalls, stocked high with pineapples and pawpaw, sweet little bread rolls and cakes, and unknown liquids stored in large square containers: yellow, orange and red in colour. She wandered around, selecting a few items, including a red drink, her eyes widening at the small plastic bag with protruding straw handed to her. At the first sip, the familiar sweetness of watermelon flooded her mouth. As she bit into a round cake ball, the crispy outer layer of fried batter gave way to a burst of liquid coconut. She moaned and gobbled it down, eyeing the next one. She sat heavily on a nearby cement block, letting the flavours of the city carry her away, forgetting for a moment the events that had brought her there.

*

Her shoulder hard against the bus window, she fluttered the front of her shirt away from her sweat-soaked skin with her forefinger and thumb. As she stared out a slick, black Mazda cruised past, the driver in a suit and tie speaking rapidly into the Bluetooth headset over his ear. Next, a tattered-looking tuk-tuk pedalled by a tattered-looking man, pulled two young men in white cotton shirts, sipping from water bottles, their expressions hidden behind dark Ray-bans. After them, on a small, wooden-slatted cattle truck too many goats shuffled against each other, bleating in unison. She spotted a scooter moving slowly through the morning traffic, heavily laden and piled high with green bananas, its rider obscured beyond her vision. As the ocean of humanity crashed into the city, her forehead fell against the window and her eyes glassed over.

Barely a few hours later she reached the entrance to the national park; it’s headquarters a mauve building with white trims in a classic style. The air outside the bus hit her like an early morning wave: fresh and cool. She breathed it in, her chest rising and falling. She adjusted her pack and opened the heavy-set door to the building. Her accommodation sorted, she hurried back outside, relishing the wait-time until a minivan displaying the hotel’s blue logo pulled up.

Part II: The Mountain

A lone rooster crowed outside her window, long and loud. She woke slowly, stretching her muscles and sighing as the world outside seeped in. The high-pitched ding of the elevator signalling its arrival on her floor and the thump of a suitcase brought furrows to her brows. The drone of a vacuum cleaner and the clatter of something metal careering along the tube into the dust bag forced her eyes shut, worry lines creasing the corners. The pounding feet of children chasing each other, and the thud of parents following them brought images unbidden to her mind. She rolled over, pressing her ear to the pillow but the splash of water and the echo of a sinister tune played relentlessly in her head.

She tensed when the thoughts of home threatened to engulf her. Her lips narrowed, and she gritted her teeth, willing her thoughts to order. Small pockets of fresh air found her lungs and slowly the anger receded, though intense pain still strangled her heart. Flinging aside her sheet, she rubbed her cheeks hard and packed her bag with newfound determination.

The smell of roasted coffee beans and bacon cooked until crispy, with eggs and sourdough bread, meat cooked in savoury spices with herbs and the sweet scent of pilau rice bombarded her the second the elevator doors opened. A smile spread across her face at the sight of pineapples, bananas, and lychees with goat’s milk yoghurt and laced with honey. Her mouth watered. Sighing, she pulled a muesli bar from her pocket and imagined it as well-cooked bacon. A frown from the receptionist broke through her daydream and she returned the bar to her pocket.

Seated atop the stairs outside, she returned to her breakfast, ripping at the bar and squirming in the still air. It soon became suffocating even in the early morning, and her skin and face already flushed red. Rolling the tension from her neck and shoulders, she closed her eyes. The faint sound of running water and the stream of chatter from the restaurant slowed her breathing, and she chewed with less urgency.

She jolted at a blaring horn. A minivan with chipped silver paint around the door handles had pulled up, its engine whining for her to get in.

A half-hour later, she swung down from the bus and gazed up at the single-tiered pagoda that marked the start of her trek. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth and a shiver ran through her, as she read the yellow words of welcome painted on the aged wooden beam above the entrance. She scanned the area, taking in the unfamiliar species of trees and undergrowth and settled the backpack on her shoulders. Taking two steps, she began her ascent.

*

Her feet ached from hours of walking, and the weight of her pack bruised her shoulders and hips. She took the last few weary steps into the campsite, dumped her bag and slumped against a fallen tree trunk, her chest aching from the uphill climb.

From her prone position she surveyed the area: a bamboo forest, broken only by the path back down the mountain, marked one side of the clearing. The other side disappeared over the edge of the ridge on which the campsite sat. If she craned her neck she could catch a glimpse of tiny buildings in the valley far below. Across the open space before her, charcoal and half-burnt planks were encircled by charred rocks, and around those, makeshift log seats. The rest of the site lay empty, and the ground bare, worn through to the dirt floor by pitched tents and heavy boots.

Above her, blocking the late afternoon sun and casting a shadow over the area, the mountain loomed; an intimidating statue that cut through the blue sky in a jagged line of rock. She whistled in awe, forgetting for a moment her fatigue, anticipating the spectacle from the mountain’s peak.

She leaned to her left, dragging her bag closer, and tossed out some clothing and her camping stove, before hauling her tent from the bottom. She assembled it with ease, relying on muscle memory from a childhood of camping, and stood back ten minutes later smiling, hands on hips. The fading daylight prompted her to light her camp stove and soon the air filled with the vague scent of freeze-dried beef curry and rice, a far cry from the real thing but stomach filling.

She relaxed against the tree trunk, savouring each mouthful before washing it down with water from her bottle. She sighed, patting her belly and burping before placing her dirty plate and cutlery on the ground. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she inhaled the woody whiff of bamboo. Somewhere in the forest, she heard the rasping call of a warbler to its mate. Closer, the undergrowth rustled where a small mammal ambled through it, already hunting for its dinner.

Pushing off the tree, she stood and wandered towards the edge of the ridge, gazing down at the buildings in the valley below, their tiny lights like fireflies. The thought brought a crease to her brow and a pinprick of pain to her heart as she remembered her family and her home: at once haunting and enflamed. But this time it felt different. More fleeting. Less intense. Here, its hold on her weakened. As if the mountain distanced her from the raw feelings of despair and loathing. She didn’t push the memories away this time. She let them flow freely like the leaves she’d watched earlier in the day, floating on the current of a stream. Her mind’s eye settled on each picture along with the emotions they evoked, but released them just as quickly, disappearing downstream.

She stood still for some time, reliving her past until she blinked and released a shuddered breath, tearing her gaze from below and turning towards her tent. Her mind now as spent as her body, she shed her clothes and stumbled into bed.

Part III: The Peak

She stirred in the early hours of morning wondering briefly what had happened to the rooster and its long, loud crow. She strained to hear the explosions of human activity familiar to her in her half-awake state. She cracked an eyelid on the muted world, where the faint beat of leather wings and distorted cries of bats replaced the stream of blaring horns and motor engines. Where the hoot of an owl and shriek of its prey played out instead of the ceaseless chatter of people and the clanging of metal. Here too, the rustle of foraging animals replaced the thud of incessant footsteps.

It was early, 4am by the brightly lit numbers on her watch, and she lay still atop her sleeping bag, her eyes closed and her breathing even. Her mind wandered back to the view from the mountain peak, and a surge of energy pulsed through her body, bringing life to her limbs. She rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands, dragged them open and stretched awake.

Grabbing her torch, she dressed quickly and wolfed down a breakfast of cereal and powdered milk, the cold liquid dripping down her chin in her haste. She dismantled her tent in record time and gathered her scattered belongings; yanking on her boots. She donned her pack, securing it at her waist, the straps on her shoulders and hips digging into her tender skin. Sweeping her torch over the campsite she nodded and turned towards her final ascent, confident in the coming hours of the new dawn.

*

After two hours walking up a winding path, and another two climbing over boulders, her skin was once again coated in sweat and her shirt soaked through. Her pack weighed heavily on her with every step, and her calves and biceps ached from the effort. But each painful breath brought her closer. Twenty or so metres ahead the mountain changed from an almost vertical climb to a more horizontal gradient. She gritted her teeth and ran a hand over her damp hair, pulling it back from her face and retying the loose ponytail. Sucking in a few more breaths she manoeuvred her left foot into a small crevasse, testing it with her weight before reaching out with her hand and finding grip on the cool, rough surface of the next rock.

Short, sharp intakes of breath; her mouth half-open as she panted. Her heart beat fast, booming in her chest, a continuous thump, thump, thump in her ears. Her boots scraped against rock and water swished against the insides of her half-empty bottle. Soft grunts burst from her lips as she pushed with her legs.

One final heave, pushing on tired legs brought her over the edge of the last boulder. Standing on shaky limbs, she unclipped her pack and let it slide down her body, uncaring as it fell to the ground. Wobbling up the final five metres to the peak, she collapsed just as the sun poked out over the horizon.

Golden rays spilled across the mountain, casting shadows where the peaks stood tall and blocking the light from chimneys of rock below. A sea of crests lay scattered around her, rising and falling like waves where a million years of weather had shaped it. Beyond those, valleys of green rushed forward to meet the grey, contrasting starkly against the dull tones of the mountain.

She gazed at the beauty before her and breathed in deeply, relishing the cool air and catching the faint hint of bamboo mixed with the sea. She turned to the left and squinted, spotting the weak blue tinge of the ocean far off in the distance. A sharp cry to her right drew her attention and she swivelled, her eyes following the outline of an eagle gliding on warm air currents before disappearing amongst the boulders on a neighbouring peak.

She closed her eyes, basking in the eagerness of the sunrise and the promise of day. Her muscles ached beyond measure, and her bones barely held her upright, but she accepted all the summit had to offer. She focused on the warmth of the sun on her skin and the steady beat of her heart. Slowly, her muscles eased, and her thoughts no longer darted around images of fear and pain but remained in the present, gathering in the beauty of the mountain. Climbing the peak had brought her release—from her past, from her doubts, from her sadness—for the first time in her life. She laced her fingers in front of her mouth and revelled in the silence.

 

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Hard of Hearing, Benjamin Hendrie

Aaron’s parents were sitting on an uncomfortably small couch just behind their son, watching him with worry creeping onto their faces. Aaron’s eyes were glazed over as he stared at the moving pictures on the TV screen. His head snapped away from the cartoon, towards the hall. Only eight years old, the young boy had a heavily cheerful demeanour.

‘I’ll get it!’ he said, and swiftly stood up and headed for the front door.

His mother smiled half-heartedly, watching him go. ‘That’s the third time tonight.’ she whispered to her husband. ‘I haven’t heard a single doorbell, have you?’ she asked, rearranging herself on the lumpy lounge as anxiety edged into her tone.

‘Nothing.’ His Dad confirmed solemnly, rubbing his tired eyes.

‘What exactly did the Doctor say again?’

‘A form of tinnitus… they think.’

‘They think!? What do they mean they think, Andrew?!’

‘I don’t know.’

‘It doesn’t seem too bad now, maybe it’ll get better!?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Can’t they do anything? Aren’t there treatments for tinnitus, or whatever he has?’

‘I don’t know, Mandy.’ The strain in his voice communicated to his wife, he knew just as much as she did, which was just as much as the doctors did.

Mandy couldn’t keep quiet. ‘He said it was getting louder, the ringing I mean, does that mean it’s going to keep getting worse? What if he has this for the rest of his life?’

‘Breathe,’ Andrew interrupted.

‘When he was born he was perfectly healthy, and we’ve done everything right, how could this happen to us? I don’t…’

He clasped her hand with his own and together they breathed in deeply. A thousand dreams for a perfect child had begun to drift away as their nightmare drew closer.

‘Mum! Dad!’ Aaron burst back into the living room with a small, ragged ball of fur in his arms. ‘He’s so soft, can we keep him?’

The bundle of dirty fluff peeked out from Aaron’s arms, and the parents both jumped. A fake smile plastered the mothers face as she leaned in to whisper into her husbands’ ear ‘I think I’ve seen that cat hanging around recently.’

‘Those eyes,’ replied Andrew, ‘seems unnatural.’

‘What do we do?’ Although neither of the parents wanted this strange creature in their house, they could not deny the unbridled joy in their damaged son’s eyes.

*

Aaron couldn’t decide between fish & chips or a burger. He really loved fish & chips, but he’d had that for dinner just yesterday. Aaron’s diet had become poor since he’d moved out of home, and as he stood in the local chicken shop’s line his mouth began to water at the prospect of another greasy dinner. Staring down the menu, he noticed many of the customers were looking his way, embarrassment etched onto their faces. Turning slowly, Aaron was greeted by a rather angry looking man who seemed to be yelling at him.

‘Oh, hello there,’ greeted Aaron. ‘Is there a problem?’

Taken aback, the angry customer lowered his voice a little. ‘You cut the bloody line!’

Aaron could only just make out the man’s words. ‘Oh, really I didn’t notice, so sorry.’ He stepped to the side for the slightly overweight individual to take his rightful place. The man mumbled something about Aaron being deaf on his way past. He only caught a little of this, the buzzing in his ears muffling the insult. After waiting in line quietly he ordered fish & chips and once they were done Aaron walked back to his apartment, just down the road.

Opening the door, he was greeted by Softy who rubbed himself in-between Aaron’s legs, looking up at him with his dark, red eyes. Aaron placed his take-away on the kitchen table, grabbing cutlery. Softy jumped up on the bench and sat patiently. He was surprisingly agile for a sixteen plus year old cat.

Aaron couldn’t always hear Softy’s meows. Sometimes they were blocked out by the sharp ringing. Therefore, Softy communicated through slight ear movements, blinking and licking his chops. It was a language Aaron knew well. Tonight, the message was simple. Aaron cut off some fish and placed it on the bench. He smiled, watching the cat play with his food, knocking it back and forth before claiming the trophy in his mouth.

Softy sat down after finishing his titbit and blinked.

Aaron much preferred cats to humans. At school there had been little sympathy for those with learning challenges. Often Aaron had found comfort in his hearing impairment blocking out teasing voices.

‘You’re welcome.’ Replied Aaron, a smile began to spread across his face, but faltered as Softy maintained eye contact. Softy blinked again, slower this time, his eyes almost humanlike as they conveyed their thankfulness. Aaron was a little unnerved, unsure what the feline was trying to tell him, but responded with a blink of his own.

Later that night, Aaron tucked himself into bed, Softy hopped up, and instead of settling at the end, he snuggled next to his owner. Aaron ‘s brow furrowed, but he didn’t think much of it, due to how cold it was tonight.

*

When Aaron awoke, glancing at the clock, it was only 3AM. Softy wasn’t on his bed. He must have gone for a drink. Closing his eyes once more, the sound in his ears was now a loud chirp, as if a smoke alarm had been set off in his brain, to warn him.

Aaron dragged himself up, his feet flinching at the cold bedroom floor. Wandering out to the living room, there was no sign of Softy. Aaron called out to no avail. As he moved through the room, the chirping sound seemed to be getting slightly louder. Making his way into the kitchen, he noticed the window was ajar. He didn’t remember leaving it open. He left a small saucer of ice-cream under the window, then went back to bed, the alarm receding into a low hum.

*

Sitting in front of a computer screen for eight hours, looking at mortgages, was usually rather easy for Aaron, as his condition blocked out many different office sounds. Today however, the hum between his ears was a low rumble like distant thunder. The rustle of the air conditioning, buzzing of computer monitors and casual conversations snuck past the rumble. He hadn’t known that the photocopier could make such an annoying beeping sound, or the door hinges to squeak so violently, so often. Through all this sound, thoughts of Softy hadn’t stopped plaguing his mind since he’d found the untouched puddle of ice-cream this morning. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Aaron noticed a loud tapping sound had entered his mind, joining the other office sounds to create the beginning of a painful headache.

After a few moments, he realised the tapping was his own fingers rattling on the desk, continuously drumming an anxious tune. There was no point for him to be here if he couldn’t focus on his computer screen. Slowly, Aaron got up, walking past the other cubicles, his fists clenched. It was only mid-afternoon, but the only thing he could think about was Softy.

On the train home, the sound in his ears changed. Now it was like radio static. The train rattle echoed through his thoughts as Aaron flinched a little. It was unusual for any sound to be this loud for him. He got off at the next station, deciding to walk home. It was a longer walk than he’d expected, and sweat drenched Aaron’s, now creased shirt, when he found himself home much later than usual.

He hoped that Softy would be waiting for him when he opened the door, rubbing in-between his legs to greet him. Aaron opened the door slowly, no one to greet him. Dragging his feet into the apartment, he realised he hadn’t picked up anything for dinner. Looking in the freezer there was a packet of oven chicken nuggets. ‘They’ll do.’

As the nuggets were cooking, Aaron wondered what the best course of action was, in finding Softy. Should he put up a poster? Or ring the vet? Maybe one of the neighbours had seen him. A buzzing filled his head as he attempted intelligent thought. For once the buzzing seemed to be outside his head. The noise drew his attention to the overhanging light in the kitchen. Aaron wondered if it had always made that sound. He imagined there was some sort of bug trapped inside the light, flapping frantically to escape. A thought popped into his head. What if Softy was trapped somewhere dark and alone, unable to come back to him? He wished his condition would take over, bringing his mind back into the solace of a familiar ringtone. The light didn’t heed his wish, instead prying open his ear dumbs to crawl inside his brain. Softy missing, his tinnitus failing him, this stupid buzzing light, Aaron couldn’t take the pressure, he lashed out at the overhanging light, knocking it so hard that half of it fell, with the last remaining wire still connecting it to the roof. The light immediately went out. Aaron breathed, as he shook his throbbing hand.

Grabbing his phone, he found his mother’s number and texted his situation. It was unlikely she’d reply for a while, but she’d know what to do.

The chicken nuggets were slightly burnt as he cut through them in the dark, separating a little for Softy. Aaron stared at the lonely crumbed piece of chicken, his expression forlorn. Checking his phone, there was no reply for his mother’s imperfect son, and no cat to keep his feet warm tonight. For as long as Aaron could remember, it was the longest time he and Softy had ever spent apart.

*

A couple days later, the sharp ting of a message woke Aaron on Saturday morning. His mother had finally replied.

‘Have you tried the animal shelter?’

He almost kicked himself. The animal shelter made a lot of sense. Google told him there was one a short walk from his apartment. Aaron didn’t want to waste any more time. With Softy on his mind, he threw on some clothes and run out the door.

Walking briskly down the busy street, a few faint yells splashed against his ringing as he pushed past the crowds. Crossing the road, Aaron was so focused on the path ahead that he was oblivious to the red pedestrian light, screaming at him to stop. Unharmed, he continued past a group of young buskers, strumming quiet chords, and onto the animal shelter.

Swinging open the door, he was greeted by an elderly woman at the front desk. He was able to make out what the woman said, without too much trouble. ‘Hello, there sir, looking for a pet to brighten up your day? Or maybe you’ve…’

‘My cat is missing!’ Aaron blurted out.

The woman’s brow furrowed. ‘Have you tried calling your cat? You know cats have pretty good hearing, usually with high pitches, I’ve heard even better than dogs, how high is your voice? I imagine probably not too high, being male. Though I have met some males with beautifully high-pitched voices and they…’

‘Can I just see what cats you have,’ Aaron brashly interrupted. The lady was almost as infuriating as his mother.

The lady led him to the back room with an array of cages full of mostly cats or dogs, along with the occasional ferret. The animal’s scratching and screeching were dulled by his tinnitus pumping through his head. Aaron searched a row of cages at a time. There were ginger cats, tortoise shells, tabby cat’s, but no Softy.

‘Where is he?!’ Aaron desperately checked each cage again. ‘He has to be here, he has to…’

The woman sighed quietly ‘It doesn’t look like he’s been handed in.’

‘Do you have any other pets here?’

She could see the anguish in Aaron’s eyes, ‘I’m sorry, I really am. I’m sure when you get back home, he’ll be waiting for you.’

‘No, he won’t,’ tears burned in his eyes. Aaron ran out of the shelter and onto the street. Thousands of voices surrounded him as he looked around urgently. He swam through the sea of sound. The ringing in his head was a small droning reverberation, unable to prevent the cacophony of the city. He forged onwards.

Passing the buskers once more, the twang of their guitar strings overpowered his croaking voice as he cried out for Softy. Once more, he ignored the stop light and crossed the road without looking, focused on finding his friend. Car horns blared around him in an inhuman frequency, but he paid them no mind

Aaron trudged through the damply lit streets as the sun set. His legs aching and voice breaking, there wasn’t a cat in sight. The number of people on the streets had diminished. It was quiet now, apart from the low ringing always weighing on his mind. He found a small alleyway where he collapsed against the wall. Aaron cried out for Softy one more time as he sobbed into the bricks. He hadn’t realised how much that little ball of fur had meant to him until now. Sliding his back against the cool brick wall, Aaron brought his knees in close as protection against the cold evening. A few stars had begun to shine through the night sky, protruding through the darkness.

Aaron remembered looking up at the stars as a child, around the time he’d been diagnosed. He had thought the stars were singing to him. Softy had sat next to him that night, looking up as if he could hear them too. Now, it was as if the stars remembered. His tinnitus began a tune in his head. A soft shimmer of sound that cascaded down the waterfall of his memories.

A familiar presence hobbled up next to him. A singular meow broke away anxieties’ grip over Aaron’s heart. ‘Softy!’ sitting next to him was a small ball of fur, red eyes blinking. The feline’s front-left paw was held up and looked to be broken. ‘What’s happened to you?’ the injured cat tilted his head as to offer an explanation. Stroking Softy’s back, his fur was knotted and dirty, but the cat purred, delighted to have found his owner.

Slowly Softy limped into Aaron’s lap and settled down with the hurt paw spread outwards. Aaron let out a sigh. He finally relaxed as the stars continued their song, now full of joy. He thought to himself how glad he was that Softy and himself had found each-other. Both unwanted, except by the other.

The song turned back to tinnitus as reality set in once more. ‘It’s time to go home now.’ Aaron whispered to his companion who nuzzled into Aaron’s knee. ‘Alright, we can stay a little longer.’

Once more Softy gazed up at his owner and blinked slowly.

Aaron blinked back.

 

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Yet Another Tuesday, Nicholas Lamberton

Scott bolted down the footpath, his leather shoes creased near the tips from having to bear his frantic sprinting. He adjusted his red tie while he ran, not having the time to properly straighten it while he was getting dressed. Of all the days to sleep through his alarm, it just had to be the day he was due to present the new project plan to the board of directors. They were sticklers for punctuality, and he’d never get that promotion if he were late. If there was anything he wanted to avoid, it was having to welcome Donna back from her holiday with the news that there was no pay rise for him and that they couldn’t afford to renovate the kitchen after all. He continued to push forward, only slowing to avoid crashing into other pedestrians. The train station came into view. The platform still had people all over it, but he barely had time to smile when he heard something in the distance. The distinct squeal of a train beginning to brake. Scott summoned all the strength he had and raced up the road. He had barely made it to the stairs into the station when heard the train pull in. He leapt up the stairs, three steps at a time. The train stopped. He made it to the top and immediately sprinted across the overpass. The train doors opened. He raced down the stairs to the platform, pulling out his Opal card along the way. The guard blew her whistle. He tapped on, and then dived through the nearest door, seconds before it closed.

Gasping for air, he searched for a place to rest his aching legs. He carefully stepped past the standing passengers to the lower level. Not a single empty place to sit. He turned back and checked the upper level. All full as well. He sighed and sat down on the stairs. He pulled his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves. The train slowed down. The train never slowed down at this point. Scott nervously tapped his hands on his knees.

Martha looked at the sweaty man sitting on the stairs, drumming on his knees. City people always looked like they were on edge. Their brains must have been thrown out of whack from being crammed into such a small space. She had been living in the city for about a month now, and she still couldn’t get used to it. The odd smells, the slow traffic, the tall buildings, the loud noises. How the rest of the uni students dealt with it was a mystery.

She dug around in her pocket and took her phone out. It was a few years out of date, but only had a single scratch as evidence for its age, unlike the heavily cracked screens she tended to see with similar models. City people seemed to be a clumsy bunch. She got a case for her phone like her flatmate suggested. It was a simple orange shell, with no patterns or artistic flair to speak of, basic, but enough to remind her of home. She opened her photos, navigated her way to her “Home” folder, and was greeted with the picture she took the day she left. Rows upon rows of orange trees stretched out across the farmland. The phone’s little screen couldn’t do it justice, but she clearly remembered the orchard’s citrusy smell, the serenity of the countryside and the inviting warmth of the sun. Her phone buzzed. Mum had just sent her something. She switched over to her messages and found that her mother had attached a video. She plugged in her headphones and played it. Pete, their old Border Collie, was lying in the sun out the front of the house. Mum was waving a tennis ball in front of his face. His eyes remained on the ball, tracking its every motion. Mum threw the ball across the yard. It landed by the fence, but nothing went after it. Mum looked back at Pete, who couldn’t be bothered to get up. Martha couldn’t help but chuckle to herself. He was such a funny old pup.

Jonathon rolled his eyes at the young woman laughing at her phone. She had probably gotten another like on her Instagram, or whatever they were on. He didn’t deny that smart phones could be useful, but it seemed like the youth of today needed them just to breathe. He was able to live without one as a young man, so what was their excuse? That gravelly feeling came into his upper chest again. He produced a pale yellow handkerchief from his breast pocket and coughed into it. A large amount of phlegm coated the handkerchief. He reasoned that his persistent cough probably wasn’t a major problem, but he couldn’t help but worry anyway. The light of his life had already gone, but he didn’t feel prepared to join her. He still owed his son Lucas an apology for ignoring him for his entire childhood. With the damage that had already done, Lucas would only go to his funeral out of obligation. Jonathon would fly out to Chicago right that instant, but he didn’t have nearly enough money for that. A letter was affordable, but useless without an address, postal or e-mail. Perhaps the chance for redemption had slipped past him years ago.

The train raced into the underground tunnels of the city and Jonathon rose from his seat. The train arrived at his stop and the doors slowly opened. The passengers squeezed their way out of the train, and he slowly hobbled behind them. He trudged up the stairs, being overtaken by dozens of people, all talking to each other or to their phones. Eventually, he emerged at street level. He walked past a café, dozens of people crammed like sardines inside. A young couple was excitedly talking, holding coffee cups, right in the middle of the footpath. Jonathon frowned. Some people just loved to stay in their own little world.

Over the hissing coffee machines and the hubbub of the customers, Patty heard an old man yelling outside. She wondered why the elderly were always so grumpy. Maybe they felt living so long was so much of an accomplishment that they should have the right to be as angry as they want. She wiped her hands down on her green apron, and got back into making the next batch of orders. Regular flat white. Small cap. Small mocha. Long black. Espresso shot. Regular cap, soy milk. Small flat white, skim milk. Regular flat white, triple shot. Small—crap! That two looked like a three. She swiped the previous cup, hid it below the counter and started remaking the order. She’d have thrown it in the bin if Chris didn’t get fired for that last week. Apparently Jordan really hated product going to waste. She’d need to find an opportunity to drink that botched coffee. All that caffeine would likely leave her anxious. Well, more anxious than usual.

She never thought that being a barista would be stressful at her last job. It was in a cozy little place in the suburbs. Even during peak periods, she could brew at her own pace, and more importantly, make some friends. She still remembered Mrs Ball and her endless stories about her children, and Jake the writer who always came in at 1pm on Tuesdays, ordered an iced coffee, then sat at a table with his laptop, moving his fingers across the keyboard like a pianist until closing time. Here, it was all business for the patrons. Just grab and go. She always made sure to hand out orders with a smile, but only out of professional courtesy. Gradually, the crowd inside began to thin. A few more, and she could take a breather. Two regular caps. Large flat white. Large mocha. She wiped the sweat from her brow. Crummy café or not, she took pride in her work. That pride did a lot to make her smiles look less forced. Patty called out the last few orders and handed them off to the customers. Another job well done.

Pablo sipped his mocha and watched the girl disappear into the back of the café. Her smile was rich with passion and cheer. She must’ve been into him. He probably should’ve asked for her number. Next time. He left the café and made his way down the street, taking in the sights. Cars honking, storefronts showing all manner of luxury items, a cavalcade of different kinds of people walking every which way. The whole city was a smorgasbord of stimuli. So why was the well of inspiration still dry? He finished off his coffee, and then got his sketchbook out of his backpack. Its cover was a flat blue. The colour of the sea. But while an ocean could hide all manner of interesting secrets beneath its plain surface, the sketchbook only had dead ends under its cover. He flipped through the pages. Unfinished drawings of parks and mountains, rough faces, drafts of abstract pieces. Nothing inspired, nothing that should be continued.

He stuffed the book away. Artist’s block was a natural dilemma to have, but it didn’t have to strike in this critical period. He still didn’t know how he could pay next month’s rent. They say that a true artist doesn’t do it for the money, but that idealism isn’t attractive when food and shelter are at stake. His next piece had to be more than simply good. It had to be a moneymaker. He briefly considered making some post-modern art, something really basic that questioned the nature of the medium. No. He was almost broke, but he still had standards. Typical post-modern art always came off as an excuse to be lazy, and too many people had already asked the question “What is art?” without even attempting to answer it. But maybe he should be the one to try and do it. He turned around and began making his way back to his apartment. Pablo may not have had a plan, but he had drive. And sometimes, that’s all you need to get things done.

Steve watched a Mediterranean-looking man jog right past him. Most people didn’t give Steve the time of day, but tourists in particular tended to ignore him. They were so caught up in the glitz and glamour of the city that its dirt and mess was invisible to them. He sat up on his thin mattress and looked down on his few possessions. An indigo blanket, a few bottles of water, and an empty Chinese food container with some coins in it. Depending on the charity of strangers was risky business. He could only really count on receiving one note a week, and even that wasn’t certain. The vast majority of passersby acted as if he didn’t even exist. A few dropped in some loose change, but not nearly enough. Debit cards had become so convenient that few still carried cash, and it wasn’t as if he could set up an eftpos machine at his spot on the sidewalk.

It was not a life he should be living, but it wasn’t as if the life he left behind was much better. Every day, it was a guess as to whether his new bruises would come from his father or his brother. His mother wasn’t any help, more interested in drowning her own pain than soothing anyone else’s. He needed to leave. But with no money, no skills, and no friends, the street was the only home left. A cluster of coins landed in his container. He turned towards the woman who dropped them in and thanked her. She just kept walking. Steve looked at the rest of the people walking past him, hoping someone else would be casually generous.

Michael almost threw up from the hobo’s stench. He noticed the change on the ground and frowned. All that hard-earned money was given away to someone who’d just spend it on drugs. He shook his head and tightened his violet scarf. There was no point in dragging it out. He reached the stairs leading underground. Only fitting that he was getting closer to hell. He made his way into the train station, his heart beating faster and faster. Sweat poured down his face as he descended down another flight of stairs to the platform. With the morning rush over, there weren’t many people waiting for a train. The only other person at the far end of the platform with him was a bald thug wearing a white T-shirt and jeans.

Michael’s blood ran cold and his legs shook. He found it difficult to believe that he came this far. Could he really go all the way to the last stop? He thought about his family. He did everything he could for them, so why did they think that wasn’t enough? He thought about the guys at his former workplace. Why didn’t anyone take his side? He may have made a few bad decisions, but he did his fair share. Were they just waiting for an excuse to kick him to the curb? He thought about Miranda. Why did that bitch make him think there was always someone he could fall back on before she broke his heart? They weren’t spending that much time together, but he didn’t have all the time in the world. Everything didn’t have to be about her, did she really need to betray him like that? He wiped his eyes. Every road he walked was paved with thorns. He had been asking himself if humanity was just that cruel for a few weeks, but an answer wasn’t what he needed. What he needed was a way for the pain to stop.

He looked at the timetable. One more minute. He stepped up to the yellow line. An indistinct sound could be heard deep in the dark depths of the tunnel. The sound got closer. His heart raced. A light began to poke around the bending tunnel walls. He braced himself. Suddenly, a hand gently guided him away from the platform’s edge. The bald thug smiled at him. ‘Careful, you might fall.’ The train roared into the station. He stood frozen. Why the hell would this meathead be so nice to him? The doors opened, and the bald man moved aside to let everyone get out. He then stepped in and turned to Michael. ‘You coming?’ Michael shook his head, and the man headed to the upper level. The doors closed, and the train departed. He was left alone on the platform. The next train was just fifteen minutes away. He thought about that man, and everyone he had blamed. Michael turned and walked back up the stairs. If he was wrong about one person, could he really be right about anything else?

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Do You Copy, Over?, Richard Duong

Stationed in an Iraqi city, our PMC, Grey Ghost Company, had just received an emergency call from our client, Fadhil, a weapons and rations supplier for the militia. His warehouse was being attacked by the insurgents when contact from him was suddenly cut off. Mike and I were first out in our armoured SUV. REBEL Team, our CAT, needed time to finish up maintenance on the hate truck.

I don’t particularly like the guy. He reminds me of those damn politicians, like the mayor who criticised my SWAT team back in the States. Had to leave because of him. The Captain was kind enough to let me resign to keep my record clean though. But I know Fadhil cares about his family, even his guards. I don’t want to see him dead.

We are now almost at his warehouse. Our mission: find and protect him. If possible, secure the area. If not, extract him. We’ve been paid good money, and he’s helping out the militia, which takes the heat off of us and the military. If he dies, our reputation will go down, and clients will look for another PMC. Everyone in Grey Ghost has taken care of me since I arrived half a year ago. I won’t let them down.

Hands firm on the steering wheel, I take a hard right onto the road leading to the warehouse two-hundred yards ahead. I scan around for any signs of the insurgents—situational awareness is key. The area around the warehouse is empty—a bad sign. They might still be there, and they may be setting up an ambush.

Without our CAT, Mike and I are just two guys with small arms. We won’t be able to do much if there are too many of them, or if they’ve brought armoured vehicles, but we can still scout and take out several of the insurgents before REBEL team arrives.

‘You ready Mike?’

‘Yeah man, I’m ready.’

I look over at him. He pulls back the charging handle on his rifle, selector on burst-fire.

Eyes back on the road, ‘Keep your eyes out for IEDs,’ I say and slow down before the T-intersection.

‘Got it.’

One set of eyes is never enough. If I end up missing a potential IED, the next guy might be able to pick up on it.

Eyes peeled, I take the left turn.

‘REBEL, this is CARRIER-THREE. We’ve arrived at the warehouse, over,’ Mike says.

I stop the car just before the entrance. The gate’s open. I look around, eyes on the houses in the area. The entire place is deserted, and no cameraman means one thing.

Good, no ambush.

I shut down the engine and take the keys. We step out of the car and dart to the stone pillars on either side of the gate.

‘REBEL, this is CARRIER-THREE. We’re here, over,’ he says again.

——I look at him and ask, ‘It ain’t going through?’

‘I dunno man.’

‘Have you charged it?’

‘I don’t always forget to man,’ he replies, and unhooks it, ‘Look, it’s still on.’

The screen looks fine. It might be malfunctioning.

‘Okay, get it checked later,’ I say and clutch mine, ‘REBEL, this is CARRIER-TWO. We’re at the warehouse. Do you copy, over?’

——There are five members in REBEL team, so they shouldn’t be taking this long to respond.

Might be a jammer.

‘Was there anything on the INTSUM this morning?’ I ask, ‘I don’t remember there being anything about the military in the area.’

‘Yeah, there was nothing about military, man.’

The insurgents are probably responsible. I try the monitor switch—static. I take out my cell phone and check the bars—no signal.

‘Fuck, it’s a jammer.’ I say, ‘REBEL team’ll be here soon. We’ll just scout for now.’

‘Got it.’

Up ahead, several feet away, is the security booth—small, white, able to fit two people at most. Beyond it is an alleyway leading to the back. To the left of that is the warehouse, L-shaped, five-thousand square feet, walls made of corrugated iron sheets. We have the floor plan, even visited a few times, so unless someone used explosives to level some areas, we know our way around.

There are two rows of shelves, running along the side and back of it, usually filled to the brim with supply crates. The cafeteria is at the back, next to a fenced-off area, chain-link, where Fadhil keeps his two German shepherds. His office is right in front of us. A part of the warehouse, its windows face parallel to our position, but its blinds are down. To the left of the office and jutting out is the loading dock. He’d said that he was in the office, so that’s where we’re heading.

‘Jack, dock’s open.’

I lean right. The metal shutters are up and inside are two white pickup trucks, facing away from one another.

Assuming that the two trucks belong to the insurgents, that’s somewhere between four to six guys, maybe more if they were riding on the back.

Fucking insane religious radicals leading a bunch of kids and stupid adults to war, putting civilians at risk and killing anyone who goes against them. They’re poor, and they’re pissed, so you’ve gotta feel sorry for some of them, but that doesn’t excuse their actions. They’ve violated and denied the rights of others to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and they’ll pay for doing so. We as contractors will do what we have to, not only to protect ourselves but also the civilians of this country.

‘I think I see the jammer. Back of the pickup on the left, black, several antennas,’ he says, ‘Use your optics.’

‘Roger.’

I look down my sight and there it is. A large black box, with several antennas sticking up from it. Maybe two or three times larger than the ones I operated back in SWAT, which were a little bigger than a backpack. It probably doesn’t do jack to the military’s comms, but it’s bad for ours.

‘Okay, no insurgents outside,’ I say, ‘We’ll close the perimeter around the warehouse so our CAT can safely come in and support us. I’ll keep eyes on the loading dock while we’re moving. You need to clear the security booth and keep eyes on the alleyway. Once we’re there, hold that corner on the right. I’ll keep eyes on the front entrance and check if he’s still in his office. Sound good?’

‘Sounds good, man.’

‘Okay, let’s go. On three. One, two—’

We move quickly toward the warehouse, rifles to the ready. I watch for any movement from the loading dock, leaving my six to Mike. My life is in hands, and his in mine.

‘Clear!’ he shouts, ‘There’s a dead guard. Anyone in the loading dock?’

‘No movement.’

That’s one of Fadhil’s guards down. He has more, but there are only five here at any given time. He calls us whenever he needs to go somewhere. Since there’s no-one here to greet us, and no gunfire, they’re either holed up somewhere, or dead.

*

‘Securing the alleyway,’ Mike says.

‘Roger.’

Keeping my reticle on the front entrance, I move forward, the office windows in my peripheral vision. Propping my rifle up, I knock twice on the nearest window.

‘Fadhil! You there?’ I shout.

——I bash on the window. If he’s in there, he should be able to hear us.

‘Fadhil! It’s Grey Ghost Company! If you’re there, tell us! We’re here to get you out!’

‘——He might be in the cafeteria, but I don’t hear his dogs.’ I say.

‘Who knows man. He might be dead.’

I sigh.

Chances of him being alive are slim. The insurgents aren’t all that well-trained, but give them enough chances and they’ll hit their target.

‘——Mike, we’re getting comms back up. Leave the alleyway.’

‘Got it.’

We need to secure the front, but, without comms, we can’t give REBEL team a SITREP. In war, information is vital. Situational updates may determine whether we live or die, succeed or fail.

He places his hand on my shoulder—ready to go. Keeping my eyes on the doorway, I move straight toward the left pickup truck.

‘Keep your eyes on my three,’ I say.

‘I’ve got eyes on it.’

We’re one man down. If Simon were still alive, and if we had a ballistics shield, I’d head right in and clear the entire compound. I’ve applied for one, but it hasn’t arrived yet. This was just really bad timing.

Inside the warehouse, apart from the areas lit up by the sunlight coming in through the loading dock, it’s dim, especially at the back. The only other source of sunlight comes from the opaque panels on the roof. The lights are all off, and you need a key to turn them on. Fadhil’s stingy when it comes to his electricity bill.

‘Lights on,’ I say.

‘Lights on.’

We both switch our rifle lights on. The insurgents have the advantage if they’re watching us from the dark, but we can use strobes to blind them if they come out.

I look into the truck—clear—and then at the aisle beyond it. On the ground is an insurgent, clothed in black, rifle on his right arm, a white insignia on the keffiyeh around his lower head—’For His Glory’ in Arabic.

‘Dead guard near reception,’ Mike says.

That’s another one.

‘Roger. I’ve got one EKIA down the aisle. There are probably five, maybe more in the area. Stay frosty.’

‘I’m watching the back aisles.’

‘Roger.’

I go around the front of the truck and look down the next two aisles. They’re all clear. Taking the chance, I switch my laser on, lean left and look down the left-most aisle at the back. The cafeteria door is ajar, and on the ground are two more insurgents.

‘I have eyes on two more EKIA just outside the cafeteria.’

‘Got it.’

They can still be hiding nearby.

‘I’ll clear the aisles on this side. Then we can shut the jammer down.’

‘I’ve got you covered.’

I continue down the length of the aisles, glancing right for movement near the cafeteria.

‘Grey Ghost Company! Fadhil! You there!?’

——I reach the final aisle—all clear—turn my muzzle toward the aisles along the back and back away.

‘Mike, cover me! I’m gonna shut down the jammer!’

‘Got it, man!’

I look at the trunk. Once I get on, I’ll be visible from the back. Who knows how many of them are in here.

Letting my rifle hang, I vault onto it.

Okay, where’s the damn off switch.

I squat down and inspect the jammer. Large, cube-sized, black, a low buzz coming from the generator. Not as good as what the military uses, but still mil-spec as far as durability is concerned. There are several sliders on the front for picking frequency, and switches beside each of them, all on.

This looks heavy as fuck.

I flip each of them off.

‘Okay, try—’

‘I’VE GOT MOVEMENT! LA TTHRK!’

Mike orders them to stop moving in Arabic. I dive off the right side of the truck and roll, quickly get up and aim down the aisle, at the corner of the shelf nearest to the cafeteria door, cutting off their only exit.

‘Where’re they at!?’

‘HE RAN RIGHT! HE RAN RIGHT! HE’S GOT A HANDGUN! I’VE GOT EYES ON THE AISLES! WATCH THE CORNER!’

‘Roger!’

I rush forward to cut off the corner near reception, using the second pickup truck as cover. Resting my foregrip on the hood of the truck, I look down my optics.

‘I’m in position! Mike! Find some cover! I’ll contact REBEL!’

‘GOT IT!’

I move the butt of my rifle over to my left shoulder so I can quickly engage the target, and clutch my radio.

‘REBEL, be advised, we are inside the warehouse, loading dock, engaging a hostile! There may be more! When you get here, watch the alleyway! They may try to ambush you from there! Over!’

I bring my hand back on the grip of my rifle, finger off the trigger and ready to fire. Trigger discipline. It’ll be a shitshow if Fadhil suddenly comes out.

‘CARRIER, this is REBEL-ONE! We are Oscar-Mike to your pos! Give us one-mike! We’ll be coming in hot with the Brownie, over!’

‘REBEL-ONE, roger, solid copy! CARRIER-TWO, out!’

Okay, they’re almost here. We just need to wait a little longer.

I glance at the cafeteria door, now hidden by the shelf. If I don’t keep an eye on it, insurgent reinforcements may come in, and we’ll be in trouble. The same goes for the alleyway on Mike’s side.

‘YAZHR! IN NAWDHIK!’ Mike shouts, urging the insurgent to surrender.

Quick footsteps echo toward us. He’s just beyond that corner.

‘YAZHR! IN NAWDHIK!’

We’ve given him the chance to surrender peacefully, so I’m not taking any chances. He doesn’t even need a second to get off several shots.

‘Mike, —’

‘—Wh—’

‘—if he’s still holding his gun, drop ‘im!’

‘Got it, got it!’

If you dare come out with a gun, I’ll pump you full of .308.

——Jammer’s off.

‘REBEL, call Fadhil and see if he’s okay! And get his location, over!’ I say.

‘This is REBEL-THREE. I’ll give you a heads up when he’s on the line. REBEL-THREE, out.’

We’ve almost got all the info we need. Once we know where he is, and if he’s alive, we can decide what to do next.

——The rumbling of an engine penetrates the warehouse’s thin walls.

‘CARRIER, we’re just outside! Fadhil’s on the line. ——He says he’s hiding inside the kitchen. ——He has three guards with him watching both exits. ——There should be only one hostile left. ——Young male, black shirt and tracksuit pants, black keffiyeh around his lower face. ——He wants us to clear the compound, over.’

There are no more insurgents and he’s watching our blind spot. I can focus my attention on the remaining insurgent.

‘This is CARRIER-TWO! Watch the office’s windows! Tell Fadhil to stay put, over!’

——‘This is REBEL-ONE! We’ve got movement in the office windows! —’

‘——CUT ‘IM OFF! CUT ‘IM OFF!’ I shout.

We run toward the reception area. I lean left and keep my laser on the office’s open doorway, trapping the insurgent inside.

‘This is CARRIER-TWO! We’ve cut ‘im off! He’s inside the office! If he fires at you, light ‘im up! Over!’

‘This is REBEL-ONE! Wilco, over!’

The insurgent comes running out and brings his right arm up, gun in hand. Lasers on his upper torso, we pull our triggers. A red mist fills the air, red patches cover his face and chest—he drops. My heart races, a continuous rush of air comes in through my nose, my hands firm on my rifle, reticle on his body. If we’d missed, we could’ve died. But we didn’t.

‘——This is CARRIER-TWO. Tango down. Secure the perimeter, over.’

 

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The Falcon, Emily Shaw

Nobody in Berlin knew where Herr Fischer found the items that were for sale in his shop. Not even Anikó knew where the merchandise came from and she’d worked at Herr Fischer’s Antiques for almost two years. She’d heard virtually every single theory though; a fresh one entered the store whenever a new customer waltzed in through the revolving doors. I heard he buys everything on the black market, one lady had stated last week before purchasing a porcelain bowl. Someone, the other day, claimed that Herr Fischer must have had a liaison with aliens, after spotting an Egyptian sarcophagus propped against the wall. After all, the customer had commented in that flat tone everyone reserves only for reiterating the most basic of knowledge, aliens did build the pyramids.

But no matter how bizarre or mundane the theory was, the customer would always look at Anikó once they’d finished talking as if to say, Well? Am I right?

Anikó never gave her opinion, never indulged in their fantasies. She’d just respond to the customer’s questions with a smile while silently assuming that Herr Fischer’s antiques were nothing more than fakes. She retained that belief until the day she met the falcon.

It was waiting for her when she arrived at work one Sunday morning, perched in an antique laced cage. Herr Fischer had placed the cage up onto the counter top and was studying it with a magnifying glass. His eye bulged through the circle of glass so large it looked like it was on the verge of popping out of his skull.

Herr Fischer tapped the side of the cage, lowering his magnifying glass. ‘Recognise it?’

The bird was a slight thing. Dark circles framed its eyes so that the creature looked like it was wearing a permanent mask across its beak. When it lowered its head to peck at the bottom of the cage, Anikó caught a flash of its wings; crests of all different shades of brown melded together in a mosaic of feathers.

‘It’s a male red-footed falcon,’ Anikó murmured. She cocked her head to the side, and the bird’s gaze latched onto hers. They stared at each other for a moment, weighing up the situation they’d both found themselves in. ‘They’re only native to Eastern Europe and Asia. I used to see them all the time on my parents’ farm in Hungary.’

‘Never seen one before, personally,’ Herr Fischer commented.

‘Where did you find him?’ Anikó tested, wondering whether or not he would ignore her.

‘He found me,’ Herr Fischer replied.

‘What? Was he just sitting here, waiting for you to come in to work this morning?’

Herr Fischer scoffed, as if the answer was so obvious it didn’t need conveying. ‘Of course.’

Anikó considered his words. ‘That’s weird.’

‘Is it?’ Herr Fischer turned back to the falcon. ‘But never mind. I want to show you his strange cry.’

He pursed his lips together and the sound of his raspy whistling filled the room. The bird perked up at the noise, craning back its neck and opening its tiny hooked beak.

Red-footed falcons don’t sing. They screech and chatter; their throats incapable of making a tune that doesn’t sound like static on a broken television. But for some reason, as soon as the falcon’s call slipped out of its lungs and into the room, everything Anikó thought she knew about falcons shattered before her eyes.

The falcon’s tune was fiercer than any grasp Anikó had ever felt. She could feel it inside of her, gliding down her spine and pressing against her skin. The noise rose and fell, twisted and turned; each note hanging in the air for a moment longer than it ought to. Its song sounded like a mourner’s wail, drenched in so much fresh pain that it could only belong to someone who had been stripped of all they cared about. Nothing that was happy could make such a noise.

After what felt like forever, the falcon’s song faded into silence.

It took a few moments for Anikó to gather her thoughts and several more before she could speak again. ‘I’ve heard red-footed falcons before,’ she said, ‘and none of them sounded like that.’

‘It’s an odd sound,’ Herr Fischer mused. ‘Most would call it ugly but I find a strange beauty in it.’

‘Ugly?’ Anikó echoed. ‘Who would call that ugly?’

‘It sounds a bit, you know—’ Herr Fischer gave a vague gesture as he fumbled for the right words, ‘—Screech, screech.’

‘You’re joking, right?’ Anikó said. ‘That tune was—’

‘Awful enough to make one’s ears bleed?’ Herr Fischer finished.

Anikó frowned, searching his face for any sign that he was joking—a smirk, an out-of-place frown. But his expression was blank. ‘Why have it if it’s so awful?’

Herr Fischer’s eyes glinted, nodding at the collection of customers growing by the counter. ‘I don’t control what comes in to be sold any more than I control the customers who walk through the door.’

Soon the thought of the falcon receded to the back of her mind as Anikó continued her work, oscillating between punching numbers into the computer and wrapping purchased items in paper. Before long, the sun began to set, and the shop’s oil lanterns spilt their halos of golden light across the store. Herr Fischer and all the other customers had left long ago, and now, Anikó was alone to the daily ritual of closing up the shop. She vacuumed the floors, counted the money in the cash register, and flipped the ‘open’ sign on the front door to ‘closed’. When she was finally finished, she stood at the shop counter, hands on her hips, surveying her work.

But there was one thing that caught her eye as being unfinished.

The falcon was still perched on the counter top, waiting patiently inside its iron cage. Anikó bent down to get a closer look at it, hooking a finger through a gap in the metal lacework.

‘You’re a strange little thing,’ she whispered.

The bird looked her straight in the eye as though it knew exactly where her consciousness lay. She’d never seen a bird stare straight into a person’s eye.

‘How did you get all the way to Berlin?’ she continued. ‘Are you lost?’

As soon as the words left her mouth, Anikó’s gut felt a pulling sensation as if her internal moral code was alerting her that she was about to commit some heinous sin.

She glanced over her shoulder, checking that there was nobody watching her, but the only thing she could see in the store apart from the falcon were shadows. They covered the entire store in a heavy mist, blocking out all of her surroundings in grey.

She glanced back at the falcon. Around its cage, Herr Fischer had tied a strip of paper with the price 250 scrawled on it. Anikó’s hands fiddled with the note, flicking it back and forth between her fingertips.

And then, acting entirely on impulse, she grabbed the top handle of the cage and marched out the front door, only stopping to lock the shop up behind her.

She paused outside on the footpath, heart thrumming in her throat, restricting the air from entering her lungs. The streetlights outside were broken, caging Anikó and the falcon in darkness.

‘Well,’ she muttered to the falcon, ‘I may now be unemployed.’

With nowhere else to go, she began her walk home.

*

Anikó lived in a room that she’d found advertised on a telegraph pole two years ago when she first arrived in Berlin. It was nothing but four walls of red brick containing a bare mattress and a small desk. The light switch only worked if you punched it with your fist first, and there was a leak in the corner that dripped even when it wasn’t raining.

Normally when she returned home after a day of work, she’d go for a walk through the city, aching to be outside after being cooped up inside for so long. But today was different because she was no longer alone.

Anikó placed the bird’s cage on top of the desk and then collapsed onto her bed. She watched as the falcon took in its new surroundings, cocking its head as it studied the steady drip drip of the leak in the corner.

As she lay there, studying the falcon, her mobile phone pinged from within her pocket. And then, after not even a minute of silence, the familiar sound pinged again and again. It was like an agitated child begging for attention, whining and crying and pulling at her with determined hands.

Lazily, she drew out her phone to glance at the messages that had appeared on her screen.

 

Message One

7:15pm

Anikó, hogyan ván Berlin? Thank you so much for sending the money last week. The farm has been looking much better these past few months.

Message Two

7:16pm

We all miss you.

 

As soon as her eyes finished glancing over the words, a heavy feeling grew in her chest as something lodged itself between her ribs. Heimweh, Anikó thought—it was a slightly different word than homesick.

Heimweh was home pain.

That was when the falcon began to sing. Its voice was so soft at first; Anikó could barely hear it over her thoughts, but with each note it rendered, its tune grew into a crescendo, building itself up so that it drowned out the outside world. The song was a coloniser; it had lodged itself into her brain and was claiming every single synapse as its own. She couldn’t fight it, couldn’t stop it, and so she did the only thing she could do.

‘Stop,’ Anikó commanded.

The bird stopped.

Anikó stood up and walked over to the cage, hooking her index finger through the metal bar. The bird studied the intruding finger as if deciding whether or not it was edible.

‘How did you get here, kis solyóm?’ she asked.

The falcon ruffled its feathers as if preparing for flight but then quickly stopped, realising its caged surroundings.

Anikó’s hands dropped to the cage’s lock. It was a traditional antique padlock, and she could feel its rust prickling her fingertips.

She’d unlocked a similar padlock once before.

It had been on a night when Anikó was nine years old. Another blackout had choked all of the power out of her family’s home, and so she had been sent to bed early. As she lay beneath her blanket, she noticed an eerie cry crawling in through her bedroom window. At first she had mistaken it for an illusion, a kind of hunger induced hallucination—food on the farm was scarce—but the noise continued to grow louder and louder, completely derailing the possibility for sleep.

She pulled herself out of bed, crept out of the house and followed the noise, eventually finding herself standing outside the farm’s barn. But tonight, the barn was different. Its wooden frame was alive—shaking and heaving, coughing and rattling as if it had caught the flu.

Something was inside.

With curious fingers, she slid open the barn’s lock, but as soon as the door sprung open, she realised that she’d just broken a spillway.

A flood of falcons flew out of the barn. There were thousands of them, tearing through the air, crying out into the night. The force of them threw her to the ground and she lay there for what seemed like hours, feeling their feathers beat against her skin, their claws scrape down her back.

The next morning, she showed her mother the lesions.

‘It was just a dream. After all, red-footed falcons aren’t nocturnal,’ her mother declared, rubbing cream across Anikó’s skin. In the bathroom mirror, Anikó watched as her open wounds ate the antiseptic. ‘You must have scratched yourself in your sleep.’

The memory of the antiseptic’s sting sent a shiver across Anikó’s old scars. She’d forgotten her mother’s touch, but she hadn’t forgotten the burn of freshly carved wounds.

Frowning, her gaze fell back to the lock.

Anikó’s brain ordered her fingers to open the cage but her nervous system refused to carry the order down to her hands. She sat there, paralysed, staring at a breed of falcon that she hadn’t seen in years.

Anikó groaned, pushing her body off the desk so that she collapsed head first onto her mattress.

*

When Anikó woke up the next day, sunlight was pouring in through the window, dripping down the curtains and onto her bed. She blinked. Through the open window, she could hear cars beeping and pedestrians chatting and trees rustling. But there was one sound that was very much absent. Frowning, her eyes scanned the room, trying to find what was different. When her gaze settled on the birdcage, her pulse stopped.

The cage was empty.

*

Even though Herr Fischer’s Antiques opened every day at 9 o’clock in the morning, Anikó always arrived five minutes earlier, and today was no exception.

Herr Fischer was already balancing the cash register when she approached him. He didn’t glance up when the doorbell announced her entrance, nor did his body give any sort of indication that he noticed her.

Anikó stood awkwardly opposite the counter, shifting her weight between her feet.

‘You’ve noticed the falcon is missing,’ she commented, feeling a blush creep up her neck.

Herr Fischer didn’t look at her. ‘I thought it wouldn’t be here for longer than a day.’

‘Are you angry?’

‘Why would I be angry?’ Herr Fischer finally glanced up. ‘I wondered whether the falcon was for you. You were the only one who could hear its true song, am I correct?’

‘Why would someone deliver a falcon for me?’

Herr Fischer exhaled, giving Anikó a thoughtful frown. ‘This shop has the habit of giving me just what I need. I assumed it would eventually do the same for you.’

Anikó gaped. ‘You mean … you need things to sell so the store just gives them to you? Straight out of thin air?’

‘Must I repeat myself?’ Herr Fischer replied, turning back to the cash register. ‘Now close your mouth and get to work before a bug flies into it.’

Still reeling, Anikó did as Herr Fischer asked. But just as she was about to flip the shop’s ‘closed’ sign over so it would read ‘open’, she noticed something outside.

Sitting on a skeletal tree lodged into the sidewalk outside was a bird. It had familiar streaks running down its back; different shades of brown creating a mosaic of perfectly arranged feathers. The falcon studied her with curious eyes.

‘It’s a long way to Hungary,’ Anikó murmured. ‘You’d better start flying.’

*

Herr Fischer was polishing the countertop when he heard the doorbell chime announcing someone’s exit. Reflexively, he glanced up just as Anikó stepped through the doorway and onto the sidewalk. He blinked—only for a second—but when he reopened his eyes, the street outside the store was empty.

He smiled.

 

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