Category Archives: Issue #12

Bed of Lies, Domenica Seminara

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I sat on my bed, rolling a joint as I listened to the argument unfolding downstairs in the kitchen. I should be used to all of this by now, but I wasn’t, the noise left me anxious and afraid to leave my room. The sudden noise of plates being smashed to the ground made me jump. I hated hearing my mum scream, all I wanted to do was go out there and hit my dad’s face with a bat, but the last time I interfered, I got whipped with a belt. Mum made me promise to never interfere again.

I turned off the lights, laid down on the carpet, lit the joint and took my first puff. The deeper the breaths I took in, the more drowsy I felt. The fighting grew faint and indistinct. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my beating heart gradually calming. I’d thought I would be able to forget what was happening downstairs. But I couldn’t. I flinched at the sound of more plates crashing to the floor. I didn’t want to be alone tonight. I locked my door and quickly called Noah but there was no answer as usual. There was no point waiting for him to call me back. I climbed out the window, and made my way across the balcony, towards the tree at the side of the house; with everything going on downstairs there was little chance I’d be seen. The cold wind sent goosebumps up and down my body. I was slightly stoned but I managed to grip the tree branches tightly with my sweaty hands. I could see my misty breath as I made my way down the tree.

I had a 30-minute walk to Noah’s house, so I jogged to keep warm. I lost feeling in my face after a while. I didn’t realise how stoned I was until I arrived on the main road. The lights were brighter than usual and the cars were a blur as they drove by. The road felt never-ending. I decided to cut through the back streets to reach the park that was located at the bottom of the hill where Noah lives. I knew it was dangerous to be walking in the dark backstreets, but the amount of cars that honked as they drove past made me paranoid. I slowed down to catch my breath before walking up the steep hill.

*

Noah’s house was your typical modern-day mansion. Tall hedges blocked the view of the house from the street, but once you were past these, you could see the sandstone house. The large picture windows at the front of the house meant that anyone could see inside from the driveway. Noah’s parents were both lawyers, they decided two years ago that they would build their forever home before their retirement next year. It must be nice not having to worry about how your parents will pay for the monthly mortgage. I quietly walked to the garage, trying to avoid the sensor lights. I couldn’t hear music coming from the garage, I didn’t know if Noah was editing late again so I went to the side of the house to look into the garage window.

The red light illuminated the whole room, Noah’s computer table faced the window. He was in his pajamas glued to his laptop scre`en. It looked like he hadn’t showered for days, his curly hair was a mess, there were food stains on his grey hoodie and pizza boxes on the floor. Noah was wearing his headphones, I didn’t want to wake up the household so I waved my arms wildly to get his attention. When he finally looked up from his laptop with his big blue eyes, he sighed when he noticed it was only me tapping on the window. Noah walked over to open the side door of the garage.

‘LC, what are you doing here?’ Noah stood in front of me with an annoyed expression.

‘No hi’s?’

He leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead ‘Oh, sorry babe. I’m just a little stressed out at the moment.’

‘I can see that.’ I instinctively walked over to his couch next to the computer table. ‘Anyways, I just thought I would come visit you since I haven’t seen you for two weeks.’

‘It’s 12am. How did you even get here?’ I watched Noah settle himself down on the computer table.

‘I walked’ I said proudly.

‘That’s so far.’

‘It wasn’t too bad.’ All I wanted was for him to ask me why I was even here in the first place. Why was that so hard? I don’t know why I expect so much from him. It only led to disappointment anyways.

Noah frustratedly scratches his hair, ‘Are you going to be sleeping here tonight?’

‘Yeah, if that’s okay.’

My head was spinning again. The weed was still affecting my eyesight and the red light was making it worse. I laid back on the couch and closed my eyes hoping that the spinning would stop.

‘I really don’t have time to hangout right now though. I have so much work to do,’ Noah said in discontent.

‘No surprise there,’ I mumbled, my eyes still shut. I came here wanting my boyfriend’s company but instead, he was hinting for me to go. I should’ve stayed at home.

‘Really?’ Noah said clicking his tongue in disapproval.

‘When do you ever have time for me?’ I rolled my eyes as I turn to lay sideways on the couch to face him.

For the first time, I realised I was looking at a stranger. This wasn’t the person who I fell in love with five years ago. There was a time when seeing Noah would have made me nervous. He could take my breath away with just one glance. I was happy back then. It seems like a lifetime ago now. It was getting harder to hide how I felt about him. The sparks weren’t there anymore.

‘You’ve been here less than five minutes and you’re already starting an argument’, Noah said angrily.

‘Look, I didn’t want to be at home. I didn’t think you would mind if I came over.’ My stomach twisted into a sinkhole, I turned to face the ceiling and bit my tongue to stop myself from crying.

Noah sighs and moves his chair closer to reach for my hands. “I’m sorry.” He pauses, I can see the guilt spreading across his face. ‘What happened tonight?’ he said, his voice full of affection.

I wanted to tell him that I was drowning at home and that I started to smoke again to because I couldn’t handle my anxiety but my mouth wouldn’t move. I could see his eyes wandering back to the computer screen again. I just sat there and smiled weakly.

‘You should probably finish off your work first before we talk’

‘Thank you, baby,’ he said, playfully kissing my hands a couple of times before rolling his chair back to the computer table. ‘When I’m done with this, you can tell me everything.’ Before I could say another word, he turned to his computer and puts his headphones back on.

*

I sat back up quickly, watching Noah quietly. My head finally stopped spinning, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath in and breathed out in an audible sigh. I wanted Noah to turn around, to give me some kind of hope, a sign that there was a chance for our relationship. This cycle was becoming toxic for the both of us. I didn’t know why I always hesitated to let go. What was I afraid of? I couldn’t be worried about being alone because when I’m with him, I feel lonelier than ever.

‘How was work today?’ I ventured.

Nothing. I was talking to a brick wall. Was this his way in telling me he didn’t want to be with me anymore or is he just oblivious to what he’s doing? I didn’t understand. I couldn’t keep trying to defend his actions anymore. I wasn’t going to let him put me and this relationship on the side.

I stormed to grab another computer chair and placed myself on his right-hand side.

Noah’s startled by my actions and lowers the volume on his headphones. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m not okay. I haven’t been for a very long time.’ I felt a sensation that vibrated throughout my chest. I paused to control my breathing again, my heart pounded abnormally hard. ‘Do you even want to be in this relationship anymore?’ I didn’t care that I was raising my voice.

‘What? Where is this coming from?’ he said in a confused tone, his mouth slightly open.

There it was. His favourite go to line to use on me whenever I blindsided him. I hated it. I stood up and walked away to contain my anger before I said another word. I calmly turned around and noticed Noah staring blankly at me on his chair.

‘Just put me out of my misery already’ I said faintly.

Noah sternly faces me as he places his headphones on the table. ‘Of course, I want to be in this relationship.’

I shook my head in frustration, pacing around the garage. It was worse than I expected, he just didn’t want to make the effort anymore.

Noah stood up to stop me from moving around. He firmly secured his hands around my wrists. ‘Can you tell me what’s wrong? I’m so confused.’

I’ve been with this guy for five years and he still didn’t know me. He couldn’t read me the way I could read him. He knows what happens at home and yet, he has no clue what to say or do to ensure me everything will be alright. What was I fighting for?

‘If you actually paid attention, you wouldn’t be asking me in the first place’ I said softly. I freed myself from Noah’s grip and walked back to sit on the couch.

‘It’s always about your parents anyways, that’s nothing new.’ I could hear the irritation growing in Noah’s voice as he walked over to kneel down in front of me.

‘I get it now. It’s easy for you to pretend that my problems don’t exist because it’s not happening to you.’ I laugh sarcastically. We weren’t on the same wavelength. Why hadn’t I seen this earlier in our relationship? ‘How could someone with the perfect family home understand what I’m really going through.’

Noah stood on the other side of the garage speechless. I could see in his facial expressions that he was trying to come up with things to say.

‘I don’t give shit if it’s the same shit with my parents, I expect you to be there for me like I am for you.’ My voice cracked, I could feel my body trembling. ‘I know your job is important to you but it doesn’t give you the excuse to stop caring about me and my well-being.’

‘I always see you and when I don’t, I still call you whenever I can. I’ve never stopped caring though.’ Noah says in a panic. He walks over and kneels in front of me.

‘‘No Noah, all I am to you is white noise in the background.’ My breathing was becoming heavy, I thought I could be strong but I failed miserably. I could feel the tears streaming down my face.

‘I’m here now. I’m listening.’ Noah places his head on my lap, his hand clutching my legs.

I didn’t try to comfort him. It was too late for that. It was too late for anything. I was done waiting for him to come to his senses. I would rather be alone than be with someone who made me feel lonely.

Noah’s eyes finally connect with mine, his eyes bloodshot and his cheeks a light shade of pink. I didn’t realise he had been crying on my lap this whole time. He wiped the snort from his nostrils and whispered. ‘I’m sorry. I promise, I’ll do better.’ I really wanted to believe him this time but I heard it before. I would only be a fool if I was to believe him again.

‘There won’t be a next time Noah.’

Noah lets go of my legs in shock and walks away aggressively shaking his head.  ‘No, no, no, no, you can’t just end it like this after five years together.’

‘I’m done Noah.’ I wiped my face and gained back my composure. ‘I’m tired of taking care of my boyfriend when he can’t even take care of me. I’m not your mother, I’m supposed to be your partner.’

‘Why are you doing this to me?’ he said softly. The despair in his tone broke my heart but I needed to tell him the truth. ‘But I love you LC. There’s no one else for me.’

‘I’m not trying to purposely hurt you.’ I looked directly into Noah’s eyes. I observed his face silently before I said another word. I could see his puffy blue eyes filled with tears and his lips quivered. Noah was showing me emotions that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

‘We’re both trying to hold onto something that’s been dead for a very long time. I want to break up now before we end up hating each other.’

‘We’re supposed to be a team though. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,’ he said quietly as he sat back down on his computer chair, and pressed his face against his palms.

‘We haven’t been a team for a very long time Noah.’

*

I don’t know how long we were sitting there but I couldn’t take the silence between us.

‘I think I should go now.’

‘Yeah, you should.’

Noah didn’t look at me, so I knew there was nothing else to say.

*

As I walked the quiet streets, the piercing icy wind woke me. My mind was clearer than it had ever been before. By the time I arrived home, the house was quiet again, the lights were all turned off. I climbed the tree with no complications and I fell right onto my bed, too tired to even change my clothes. I didn’t expect that to happen tonight. All I wanted was to find some sense of comfort from my boyfriend. I thought I needed someone to save me from myself but in truth, I was only there because being with Noah was familiar to me. I didn’t need to be there at all. I had made it each day without his help and I knew I was going to survive this break up as well.

‘I’m going to be okay.’ I muttered under my breath.

 

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Drown Me Out, Salvatore Pedavoli

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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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Mother Nature, Laura Bax

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My suburb is, according to most people, a quiet one. It’s almost entirely suburban, has a primary school, high school, a few parks and decent local shops, even if the Coles is, according to my mother, ‘the worst Coles in Australia’. It also has a small bush reserve running through it, which is home to snakes, possums, a few trails and a small creek.

My mother is not most people. She is a guerrilla soldier, a one-woman army, a crusader against anything that disrupts her peace. Before my sister and I were born, she slept like the dead, apparently. Now she has earplugs and blindfolds and whoever chooses to go to bed after her has to slink like an enemy spy through their own home. I’m not sure when her crusades began, but they are a recent enough development that they don’t appear in any of my childhood memories.

The Battle of NorthConnex is easiest to date. Three years ago, a small patch of the bush near our house was chosen to become a base of operations for all sorts of machinery and contractors while they worked on widening the M2. Shrubs were flattened, concrete was laid, trucks and all manner of heavy machinery came and went. Then they really got to work. The sound barriers that lined the motorway were removed so they could chip away at sandstone in order to widen the road. The gentle wash of noise generated by the thousands of cars that travel along the M2 each day, which had once been soft, only noticeable if you were really listening, became distinct. The steady thrum that was once almost mistakeable for trees in the wind was now punctuated by distinct hiss and rumble of compression breaks, heavy trucks, and the occasional horn. Of course, there was little my mother could do to change it; she even begrudgingly admitted it was inevitable and necessary. But she kept a close eye on the project. She read every memo we ever received, emailed the project managers, and visited the community information centre.

*

My mother’s War on Unilever is harder to date.

The boundary between our house and the bush was always quite distinct. A leaning wire fence wraps around our property, guarding a sharp drop down to the nature reserve. As a child, it seemed like a cliff; now I realise it is only a rock wall, maybe five feet tall. Bindi-filled grass grows right to the edge of the rocks, while the other side is full of towering ironbark trees and sandy earth carpeted with years of leaflitter. On the other side of the trees is a small collection of factory units, including Unilever’s headquarters. Unilever, which has a groundskeeper who used to run a leaf blower and mow the grass before six in the morning. On Saturdays. That could have been what started mum’s crusade against them. Or it might’ve been the time they didn’t properly insulate the industrial cooling units, letting a low, fridge-like hum reverberate up the valley, through the trees, to our house. But it was probably the alarms that really started it. A persistent, aggravating, impossible-to-ignore ‘woop’ noise, followed by a robotic woman announcing the need to evacuate. That ran, on repeat for hours, before someone finally shut it off. Hours, because the only contact number for Unilever, anywhere on the internet, is to a call centre in the UK.

Unsatisfied with the scripted, emotionless apology email she received, Mum went into full Cold War mode, enacting trade embargos. We were all given strict instructions on what we could not buy—an ever-growing list, including, but not limited to: Rexona deodorant, Flora margarine, Omo laundry detergent, most shampoos and conditioners. All Dove, Lipton, and Vaseline products. Most heartbreakingly, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. All owned and made by Unilever.

I must confess, I didn’t really care about the noise. But, as the noise pollution wore on my mother’s (and, by extension, my) sanity, I began to pay more attention.

The bush behind our house, when viewed from above, looks like a dark scar against the beige suburban grid. A scar is probably too negative a term for something that is undeniably alive; it looks like a river, a forked bolt of lightning, a creeping vine, a patch of lichen, or the veins on the inside of your wrists. There are little ridges in each pocket of bushland, areas where the canopy of gum trees is split by water – trickling creeks, slow moving streams, all snaking together to form Parramatta River, which in turn snakes its way out to Sydney Harbour. The spidery threads of bushland join together to form an unbroken chain of trees that ebbs and flows from Carlingford, curving up and around the Hills District. If you zoom out on the satellite image, you can see where the forest would have once joined the National Parks to the north.

The pictures look lush and healthy. From the ground, it is a different story.

Satellite pictures don’t show the oil drums, scattered like rotting logs among silvery gum trees, or the shopping trolley, half-submerged and rusting in the creek, far from any road access. It sits overturned, wheels to the sky, like the rotten carcass of some bizarre creature, a steel-boned wildebeest.

*

The highlight of my school holidays as kid was walking along trails in the reserve behind our house. My mum and I would descend the rough log steps and she would help me as I clambered over rocks. We would follow the path, criss-crossing our way along a small stream until it met up with the main creek. As a child, it seemed like a vast, rushing river, and every crossing was fraught with danger. More than a few ended with wet socks and muddy shoes. Once across the water, we could head right, up steep hills and out into winding suburban streets and on to McDonalds. This was my favourite trail to follow, as it held the promise of ice cream, but I also had to walk home after.

But if we took the path to the left, we would go to the dam. Technically a water retarding basin, the thirty-metre tall walls were covered with ever-changing murals of graffiti. As the trail approached the base of the concrete megalith, the dirt track joined a path of metal grates, the creek trickling through under our feet. Each step I took generated a metallic scape, ringing and reverberating as I ran along it. The path lead into a dark tunnel at the base of the massive wall, the arching walls painted dark green, dimming the sunlight that reached the bottom of the valley, creating a cave-like atmosphere. The air was cooler, and every noise, from your scraping metal steps to your quiet whispers would echo around, surrounding you like some strange symphony. Sometimes, I would run shrieking through the tunnel, making as much noise as I could. Other times, I would creep slowly, hand-in-hand with my mother, whispering to her and hearing my own voice whisper back. Broken shards of beer bottles would gleam from patches of moss like dark crystal stalagmites. When we emerged from the tunnel, I would examine the colourful walls like a little art critic, or, if the weather was warmer, take off my shoes and wade through the sandy pond where the concrete basin ended and the bush began again. When I got tired, or hungry, or bored, my mother and I would make our way up the hill and loop our way home. The trail from the dam ends in a cul-de-sac, and we would make our way past the factories, past Unilever, and through a narrower strip of bushland, all the way home, a big circle.

The creek in this narrow strip is a sad little thing, disappearing almost entirely when the rain stops. When there is water, it is murky and dark, frothing oddly around rocks and against the muddy bank. The world reflected on the water’s surface looks wrong, the colours not quite right. Sunlight is dappled and diffused by the canopy, but where the odd ray hits the creek it seems to glow, the water not translucent but cloudy and almost grey. Standing on a bridge over the water, when the wind blows the right direction, you can smell something sweet and clean, cloying and artificial – shampoo-like, coming from the factory hidden by the trees.

Of course, big corporations like Unilever aren’t the sole perpetrators of environmental damage. Dogs, feral cats, garden run-off, invasive plants and weeds can all be blamed on individuals. That is to say nothing of the plastic bags, caught in high tree branches like the nest of some alien bird. While it is impossible to live in our modern world without causing some damage, in the last few years there has been a shift towards minimising the harm we do. Plastic bags have been banned, and reusable coffee cups are becoming fashion items, from boutique, handmade porcelain affairs to mass-produced sparkly plastic. And while people inevitably do litter, most of us wouldn’t want to be caught dead doing it.

But corporations aren’t held to the same standards, or expectations of guilt that we are. In 2017, a report found that just one hundred companies were responsible for over 70% of the world’s carbon emissions – yet they face minimal consequences. For accidentally leaking chemical waste into the nature reserve behind our house, Unilever, a billion-dollar company, was fined $15,000. A bit of leaked soda ash and fifteen grand is nothing to a company like Unilever, which has, in recent years, been accused of using illegally deforested land for palm oil.

When I was in the final stages of writing this, editing and drafting, cutting and pasting paragraphs, trying to carve a story out of bursts of memory and short rants, environmental damage made the headlines again. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released a report on the current state of global carbon emissions. Solemn-faced men in suits calmly addressed reporters, announcing that with our current rate of pollution, our planet would be 2 degrees warmer in 40 years. Their report found carbon emissions must reach zero by 2050. Newsreaders delivered the planet’s death sentence with their usual cadence, concerned-but-not-overly-so, swiftly moving to the next story.

Two degrees seems like nothing. But even that tiny amount would lead to huge environmental damage, including the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rainforest, not to mention immeasurable destruction to human lives. Longer, more intense droughts, supersized storms, unprecedented bushfires and hurricanes will all occur. Food will become scarce as crops fail to handle increased temperatures and carbon dioxide. Warmer temperatures will see the tropical and mosquito borne diseases become more widespread. And while experts warn massive numbers of people would be displaced by rising sea levels, there are other, unforeseeable consequences of ice caps melting. Two years ago, there was an outbreak of a rare form of anthrax in far north Russia, which lead to the deaths of two people and thousands of reindeer. It was caused by permafrost melting, exposing a long-dead reindeer carcass, which held dormant spores of the deadly virus. Other diseases can survive in ice for millennia, while the world’s largest deposit of mercury is held tenuously in place by permafrost in the Arctic – rising temperatures will see it released, seeping into food sources and poisoning water supplies.

Recently, I went walking through the reserve for the first time in years. The thin dirt tracks are covered with a soft carpet of greying leaves, fallen from the eucalyptus trees above, which dampened the sound of my feet hitting the ground. Every few steps, the dull, uniform colour was broken with a splash of yellow, fresher-but-still-dead leaves, or fragments of plastic, broken and splintered, their original forms unrecognisable. As I approached the creek the path grew wide and the tightly-packed dirt trail became loose and silty, shifting beneath my feet. With the lack of rain, the water was low and the stench of rotten seaweed filled the air. A bright blue bottle cap sat half-buried in the dirt, a faded coke can nearby, like strange shells. A plastic bag bobbed in and out of view, an alien jellyfish held half underwater by a heavy branch.

As I stood on the edge of the water, I realised something. Despite the obvious signs of human civilisation around me, the noise of the factories and the constant hum of the motorway had faded, replaced with the soft whisper of wind through the remnant gum forest. I’d developed a sort of nihilistic tunnel-vision, stewing in the fact that individual attempts to reduce environmental degradation meant very little when corporations can (and do) get away with causing irreversible damage.

It’s not a view I hold alone. In recent years, science fiction has embraced a dystopian opinion of our future. Books, television, movies, feature humanity escaping from or surviving on a decimated planet. Even in the real world we focus on missions to Mars, on ways of leaving our planet behind instead of fixing the damage we’ve caused. The idea that we have broken the environment beyond repair seems to have been quietly accepted some time ago, slipping silently into our culture’s psyche.

But nature is, in a sense, its own corporation. It’s big, everywhere, and entirely apathetic to individuals. There is the constant swish of wind through trees, river-like, similar to the hum from the motorway, but at a different frequency. Along the trail, there are thick, ropey vines, twisting, climbing, and covering eucalypts and rocks alike. They are triffid-like, long thin stems reaching straight up to hook around branches. I’d presumed at first, that they were invasive, choking out native plants, but later learnt they were a native water vine. Along my street, houses are framed by wattle and magnolia, grevilleas and cherry blossoms. Bright yellow freesia spring up around the base of a bottlebrush tree. Recently, taking a shortcut home at dusk, I stumbled upon an echidna foraging for ants beside the chain-link fence of one of the factories. Despite the damage we have done, given a chance, life finds a way.

I think of my mother, and her crusade against Unilever. It seemed pointless, at first, illogical, even. But a fine is still a fine. And it is one Unilever never would have had to pay if my mother hadn’t emailed the EPA, demanding they look into it. The state of our planet is undeniably dire. But if we give in to our apathy or let the destruction of our planet become background noise, then we have already lost.

 

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The Surface of Arennah, Sebastian Sparrevohn

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Pip heaved the hatch open and stepped out of the crashed pod. She raised her hand, shielding herself from the light flooding through her irises. Stretched out before her was an ocean of sand. Golden dunes rose and fell as they stretched out towards the horizon. Her head spun and she went to lean on the side of the escape pod. Alex caught her, and helped her onto the warmth of the sand.

‘Careful, the shell’s still hot from our entry.’

Pip wasn’t looking at him. Her focus was drawn to the horizon. What had just been the Kentoro mountain range here on Arennah was now a bloody mess. Red-brown liquid oozed out of the volcanoes, drowning the mountains and scarring the horizon. Pip sat silently in the sand, taking it all in. It was hard for her to process what had happened. It didn’t feel real.

Alex watched her. Her red curls framed her face, and her head was in her hands. He decided to give her some space. She would be okay. She was their captain, and she could handle anything. In the distance, hazy from the heat, was a sandstone outcropping.

Alex turned back to the pod as Delian stepped out. Their azure robes danced in the wind.

Delian’s hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. They darted forward, the sand not appearing to slow their step. They cartwheeled, with a grace and elegance like it had been practiced to perfection. Alex stared in wonder. Delian had been so reserved on the Orbiter. Alex turned back to Pip, running his hand through his mess of black hair.

‘I think we should find some cover in the rocks over there.’ He pointed to the outcropping. ‘Pip, can you walk? I think it’ll do you some good to get out of this heat.’

Pip looked up at him, her blue eyes focused on his furrowed brow. She forced a shaky smile and reached an arm up.

‘Is there anything you need from the pod? I’ve got our water and micro-rations.’

Pip shook her head. ‘The signal went out,’ she said. ‘If anyone’s nearby, they should be able to find us. ‘

‘We won’t stray too far from the pod then.’

*

Delian sunk to their knees and dug their hands into the sand. The top layer was sun-warmed and felt like a kiss on their skin. The sand underneath was cool and refreshing, undisturbed for millennia. Arennah was uninhabited and desolate. There was scarce else than oceans of sand, volcanoes, and rivers of bromine that ran like rusty arteries across the planet. The three-person crew of the Orbiter was a private team analysing and measuring the planet for terraforming. It was to be sold to the highest bidder as a salvation planet for a species that had squandered their resources and rotted their homeworld.

After soaking in the sun for a moment, Delian stood, and returned to their crewmates. Delian approached as Pip was rising.

‘We’re going to walk to the outcropping over there,’ Pip said. She looked a little pale, but then again they had all been stuck on the Orbiter for months.

Delian held out their hand, palm-up, in agreement.

‘Are you both all right?’ they asked.

Pip nodded. ‘Just taking a minute to acclimatise. It’s a strange feeling being planetside. Arennah looks very different from down here.’ She looked up to the sky, imagining she could see their ship in orbit.

‘Sure does,’ Alex agreed. ‘Looks like you’re adjusting well Delian?’

Delian’s hand quivered as their muscles tensed in excitement. They nodded, remembering to use the human custom.

‘Yes it is lovely here. There is always a balance to these things. We watched this place from above for months, bending it to our will. And now it is us that are subjugated.’ Delian saw Pip and Alex’s bleak expressions and hurried to amend their sentiment. ‘But it is not so bad. The sun is shining, and the ground is beneath our feet again. I know it may seem barren to you, but I promise it is not.’ They smiled in an attempt to be reassuring. ‘Come, I will show you.’ They began walking towards the rocks.

Pip wiped the sweat that had accumulated on her brow and gave a weary sigh. ‘Looks pretty barren to me.’

*

As they walked, Pip reflected on their final moments aboard the Orbiter. Her screens flashed red warnings as seismic activity spiked. Through the viewplate she watched as the Kentoro Mountains exploded in red. Force rocked the ship, and she had to brace herself in the pilot’s seat.

Alex had been working at a maintenance panel when he was knocked off his feet. He careened into the wall and jarred his shoulder.

From the floor, he called over the intercom. ‘Pip, what in space was that?’

‘Seismic activity like I’ve ever seen. Get Delian and prep the pod, this isn’t over yet.’

Pip had used every pilot’s trick in the book to try to save them, but the Orbiter was not designed to be manoueverable, and its thrusters were not enough.

‘We’ve lost orbit! The ship’s drifting away from the planet.’ Pip looked at Arennah beneath them. ‘We have to go down there,’ she said.

*

She had failed them. As a captain, and as a pilot, she had let them down. She stared at her feet as each one overtook the other. It was her fault.

‘It’s not your fault.’ Alex’s voice came from behind her. ‘I know you blame yourself, but there was nothing you could do.’

‘Thanks, Alex.’ Her words had no conviction to them. You can’t outrun responsibility. She had brought them here, to this wasteland, and had no clue how to get them home.

Silence descended as they trudged across the sand; each person absorbed by their thoughts. The silence fractured when Pip spoke up again.

‘I’ve never had a ship go down before. Never had a job that went this far sideways. Beyond correction.’

‘You can’t blame yourself Pip,’ Alex said. ‘You’re the best pilot I’ve ever worked with. A seismic event of that scale couldn’t have been predicted. The shape of the whole planet has been changed.’

Pip chuckled. ‘I guess our terraforming data is useless now.’

‘The will of the universe,’ Delian said. They were a few paces ahead of the two humans, leading the charge to the outcropping.

Pip sighed inwardly. She was growing tired of Delian’s chipper attitude. They were stranded, after all.

By the time they reached the shelter of the rocks, Alex and Pip were drenched in sweat. They had both stripped their jumpsuits down to their waists, and their white undershirts were already grimy. Alex collapsed onto his back in the shade of the small cave. He wiped the mat of hair out of his eyes. Pip’s face was as red as her hair as she sat next to him, clutching her knees to her chest. Delian looked lithe, healthier and more olive than they’d seen before. They were pacing, unable to keep still.

‘Rest here, I will go look for something to eat and to replenish our water,’ Delian said, before scaling the lip of the cave and disappearing from view.

‘You don’t actually think there’s water here, do you?’ Pip asked, gesturing at the desert before them. ‘There is literally nothing here.’

Alex shrugged, something only he could do lying down.

‘They seem to want to keep active,’ he said.

‘Yeah, what’s with that?’ A sharp edge crept into her voice.

‘With what?’ Alex climbed onto his elbows.

‘The movement, the gestures, the cartwheels? I never noticed it on the ship, but now it’s too obvious.’

‘Delian is from Axechatta,’ Alex said matter-of-factly.

‘So what?’

‘Axechattans communicate primarily through movement and gestures. Us humans tend to use a lot of words to get a point across. They use a detailed body language to provide nuance.’ He smiled at her. ‘Their happiness runs deeper than a surface smile.’

‘Don’t you find it infuriating,’ she asked, ‘to see them so happy in a situation like this? We’re stuck here, for who knows how long?’

Pip stared back out at the desert they had crossed. Their silver pod was barely perceptible. The wall of red loomed on the horizon. The liquid bromine spreading across the sand looked like a wave of red washing over a beach.

Pip stood up and began pacing in the cave. ‘This place is hell. I’ve brought us to hell.’

‘Come on, you don’t really believe in that old myth do you?’

‘Look around you Alex did you miss the lava? This is a literal hellscape.’ Alex noticed she was breathing quickly and her hands were shaking.

Pip? You okay?’ Alex stood up. His hands clasped hers and her eyes locked onto him.

‘We’re going to get through this. This is not your fault. You are the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Pip, I,’ he hesitated, half-believing he’d come this far. ‘I love you, Pip,’ he finished.

Pip let it hang there, like a feather falling slowly to the earth.

‘I love you,’ Alex said again, a weight lifting off his shoulders as he said it.

Pip looked away.

‘Alex, I…I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.’

Pip stumbled out of the cave, half-seeing, using her arms for balance.

*

Her mind swimming, Pip found Delian towards the back of the outcropping. They were on their hands and knees, reaching into a crevice between two boulders.

‘Delian, are you all right?’ she called.

‘Phillippa, good timing. I have just found some edible vegetation.’ They retrieved their hand and opened the palm to reveal three small leaves.

‘Are you joking? I’ve never seen you joke before.’

‘Quite serious. We call these revivifiers. They are densely rich in vitamins and minerals. All you have to do is put them on your tongue.’ They demonstrated.

Pip squinted. ‘No really, are you joking?’

Delian held out a leaf. Pip took it, and put it on her tongue. It tasted like a leaf. Delian clasped their hands together in gratitude.

‘Wha-ow?’ Pip asked.

Delian removed their leaf. ‘Beg your pardon?’

Pip removed hers. ‘What now?’

‘Oh you can just leave it for 20 minutes or so and you will feel much improved. I will go find some water if you will give this to Alex.’ They held up the third leaf.

‘Actually, maybe you’d better do it,’ Pip said, ‘He’s not taking this whole crash thing too well.’

‘I suppose it is to be expected,’ Delian said. ‘Arennah really is beautiful. I just wish to show you what I see in this place.’

Pip looked around her. There was another mountain range in the distance. She wondered which was going to break first, the mountain or her.

‘The beauty is not always in the big,’ Delian said, ‘sometimes, it is in the minute.’ They held out the leaf again. It was curved to look like a heart, and Pip could see the weave of thin white veins within.

‘If you say so,’ said Pip.

‘And sometimes,’ Delian said, crouching down in the sand again, ‘it is beneath the surface.’

*

Pip took a walk through the outcropping, trying to take in the tiny details of the rocks and the almost invisible life between them. Trying to focus on the most important crisis first: What happens if no one rescues us?

When she returned to the cave, Alex was sitting alone. His eyes were red. He made to speak but Pip cut him off.

‘I’m sorry Alex,’ she began with renewed conviction, ‘but my first priority is getting you and Delian off Arennah safely, and I’m going to need your help. We can talk about the other thing after. I promise.’

Alex wiped his eyes and nodded. Despite how badly today had gone, he wasn’t about to let the others down.

‘I need you to head back to the pod, and try to boost the distress signal. I’ll grab Delian and come and meet you. I’m not ready to sit back and wait to be rescued.’

*

Pip found Delian sitting cross-legged on top of a boulder. Their eyes were closed and their breathing was deep. Pip knew they meditated, but had never seen it before. She sat down as quietly as she could on the stone beside them.

After a minute of silence, Pip cleared her throat.

‘Hello,’ she said softly.

‘Hello,’ Delian said.

‘We need to get back to the pod. I think I can get us off here.’

Delian smiled ruefully. ‘You really are desperate to leave.’

‘I’m sorry Delian, but it’s my fault you’re here. I can’t rest until I get you home safely.’

‘What if I do not wish to leave?’

Pip turned to face Delian. ‘You don’t want to go?’ Why?’

‘Arennah is the closest I’ve seen to home in a very long time.’

‘This place looks like Axechatta?’

‘Almost identical. The system we are currently in is a sister to my own. Axechatta is glimmering and golden just like Arennah. But I have not laid eyes on my home for decades.’

‘Why not?’

Delian hesitated, wringing their hands.

‘I am a heretic. I rejected the traditions of Axechatta, so I was exiled. I glimpsed beauty and destruction in the universe, a terrible balance inherent in all things. Axechatta was drenched in the blood of its neighbours. I was a believer, a soldier. I fought with my commanders, begged them not to bomb Salifax. The war was won, but they couldn’t take any chances, couldn’t see the beauty of that world and its people.’ Delian closed their eyes. ‘I fled to the stars before my trial.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I never thought I would miss it so much.’ They wiped their eyes with the back of their hand.

‘That’s why you took this job?’

‘I told myself I would see home one last time. But in the process I was helping to destroy it. Balance.’

‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I think Arennah is safe from terraforming now. Even if we’re stuck here.’

Delian looked into Pip’s eyes. ‘Balance,’ they said again.

‘But not without beauty.’ Pip held up another of the leaves she had found, and smiled. ‘Do you really want to stay here, Delian? Can you survive out here?’

Delian laughed. It was a light, musical sound and Pip couldn’t help but feel its warmth spread through her body, like stepping out into a wave of sunlight. Delian embraced her in a hug so tight Pip felt her breath leave her lungs.

When Delian finally let go, they said, ‘Of all the humans to have shared in my homecoming, I am glad it was you, Phillippa. I will help you to go home.’

*

A cargo barge picked up Pip and Alex three days later. Delian remained behind, carved out a new home, and lived a life of peace.

 

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Do You Copy, Over?, Richard Duong

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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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Hard of Hearing, Benjamin Hendrie

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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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Voyager, Josef Pringle

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“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space, but the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Dr. Carl Sagan

I

On the fifth of September, in the year 1977, a group of scientists from the planet Earth put a message in a bottle. This bottle was an unmanned robotic spacecraft, a probe, which they named ‘Voyager 2’.  The message was etched onto a gold-plated phonograph record, and secured to the outside of the probe.

If a stylus were to be placed in the shallow groove that ran in a gentle spiral from the outer edge of the golden disc to its centre, and the record itself rotated at the appropriate speed, one would receive the message. The message was a collection of sounds and images of life on Earth, greetings in 55 different human languages, and a 90-minute selection of music from a range of cultures and traditions. In short, the message was this:

“We are here, and so are you.”

The Golden Record was protected by an aluminium cover, upon which the earthlings engraved instructions using simple diagrams and binary arithmetic. These instructions detailed how and at what speed the record should be played, as well as how the photographs and drawings encoded onto the record could be viewed.

The bottle was thrown out of the atmosphere from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The arm that threw it was an expendable launch system, a four-stage rocket. The bottle plopped into the cosmic ocean with 2,400,000 pounds of thrust and an almighty roar.

If you were to see Voyager for the first time as it emerged from its capsule, the first thing you’d notice would’ve been the large white reflector dish of its high-gain antenna, sat there atop the squat black body of the probe. At this stage, the rest of its instruments remained tucked tightly beneath the dish, but like a newborn stretching its limbs; Voyager unfolded its robotic arms and soared off into the void.

Voyager sailed through the main asteroid belt separating the inner and outer regions of the Solar System. It spent time observing the enormous gas giants – Jupiter and Saturn – and their moons, relaying data and images back to Earth.

By 1998, Voyager had travelled further from the Sun than any previous mission.

By 2012, it had left the outer limits of the Solar System and crossed into interstellar space.

By 2027, its generators could no longer supply the power needed to operate its scientific equipment. Many of its non-essential systems had already been shut down to conserve power. Its short-term mission was at an end, but its voyage had just begun.

II

Millennia slipped on by, and Voyager drifted into the domain of a young and stable yellow star. If humanity still existed, and were still counting the Earth’s revolutions the way they had been when Voyager left, the year would be 2,072,377. By sheer coincidence, it would have been the fifth of September.

Preserved in the vacuum of space, Voyager looked just as it did the day it was launched. Picture it in this moment, where it sailed along its uncertain path. The light of the nearby star playing along the white dish of its high-gain antenna, flashing like a signalling mirror off the golden record that remains secured to the body of the probe. This flash obscures vision for a split-second, and fades in time to notice the enormous metal claw closing around the probe, as if to crush it. Instead, the ‘fingers’ of the claw come to rest gingerly on the sides of its quarry, and the craft it belongs to swims into view. It is teardrop shaped, smooth and contoured. Cargo doors open—mandible-like—at the front of the ship, and with the greatest of care, the titanic pincer gently deposits Voyager inside.

*

Humanity had always wondered what life beyond their blue planet might look like, how it might behave, if it existed at all. Some even claimed to have seen space aliens up close, and that they looked like reptilian humanoids or pallid, glassy eyed spectres or little green men. That they liked to infiltrate governments, mutilate cattle or kidnap people, sticking things up them for science, or just for the hell of it. Maybe they had, and maybe they did. The people that found Voyager were not intergalactic saboteurs, sadists, or scientific sex-pests. They were however, against all odds, ‘little green men’.

They were ecstatic. These little green men, like the human beings that made Voyager, had an immense catalogue of theory and fiction about alien life. They had never found so much as an amino acid on any other planet, and being far more technologically advanced at this point than humanity was when Voyager was built, they had been to many planets.

When Voyager was first detected on their long-range scanners, the news was met with disbelief. So many of the little green men were sure that alien life simply did not exist, that if it did it would be so distant and so primitive that they would never encounter it, that they were alone in the universe and that they just had to accept that. Visual confirmation prompted system-wide celebration. A crew was promptly dispatched to retrieve the UFO and take it to a remote research facility for study, and the greatest minds of their little green civilisation clamoured for a position on the research team.

In the cargo bay of the teardrop-shaped retrieval vessel, seven green men gathered round voyager. It was primitive, to be sure, but they marvelled at its design nonetheless, carefully inspecting its scientific instruments, its antennae and its radioisotope generators. They babbled and gestured to one another, taking notes and visual recordings. A little green technician gently laid two of his hands on the unblemished aluminium cover of the golden record.

III

The research facility was a tetrahedral orbital station that hung above a small, mineral-rich dwarf planet on the outer fringes of the system. It was the deep-space surveillance team aboard this immense trigonal pyramid that had first detected Voyager’s approach. The little green scientists scanned the probe in order to construct a three-dimensional image for detailed study. After that they began to dismantle Voyager with the utmost of care, taking samples of material from every component to be analysed and catalogued.

The golden record had been removed to be studied in a lab of its own early in the process. The scientists decoded the instructions on the cover with ease and marvelled at their brilliant simplicity. The purpose of the technology was easy to understand, though the little green men had never encountered such a thing themselves. The grooves on this metal disc were recorded soundwaves, and could be played back using the stylus provided.

Little green hands, which were barely able to contain their excitement, gently lifted the record itself from its container and placed it on a spindle that had been fabricated for this purpose. They placed the stylus in the groove in the exact position, and rotated the spindle at the exact speed indicated on the record cover. The bottle was open, the message read.

It should be noted at this point that, despite certain uncanny similarities, the physiology of these little green men was very different to that of the human beings who made Voyager. They had more in common with plants than with animals, subsisting through a process similar to photosynthesis, which allowed them to synthesize all the nutrients they needed using carbon dioxide, water and ultra-violet radiation. In addition, at key points around the bodies of the green men were fine-tuned sensory organs. These small ridgelike appendages were sensitive to nearby vibrations, not unlike the lateral line of a fish. These organs gave them incredible spatial awareness, and facilitated their language of soft words and subtle gestures.

Music came as quite a shock to the little green men. At the moment that the first notes of the Brandenburg Concerto No.2 met with their sensitive ears, their world changed. These little green men, for all their sophisticated technology and know-how, had never had a culture of music. They would often relax in lounges filled with droning, carefully engineered static, designed to create a kind of sensory bliss. Melody was entirely foreign, as was complex rhythm. Bach’s Baroque instrumental was cacophonous, confusing and exciting. They were hooked.

Who were these aliens – so behind the little green men in terms of technology – that had created such divine and diabolical sequences of vibrations? Answers lay carved further towards the centre of that golden disc.

IV

Following the 90 minutes of music on the golden record was a collection of 116 images. Information on humanity’s native star system, diagrams of cell division, of human anatomy and reproduction, photographs of human beings, the planet they lived on and the animals they shared it with.

As they had been encoded as sound, they were indecipherable when played back via the spindle that the little green men had constructed. Each image was preceded by a tone, followed by the image itself, which came in the form of a harsh electrical buzz; like the whine of a band-saw, which sent shivers of discomfort through the little green listeners. Each of these signals traced a sequence of 512 vertical lines which composed a complete image.

Among those images, and likewise etched on the aluminium cover, was a diagram. Straight lines of varying lengths radiated out from a central point. It showed roughly the position of Earth in relation to nearby pulsars; celestial bodies that emitted a constant and distinct pulse of electromagnetic radiation.

The human beings that had made Voyager had attached a map. By listening in deep space for electromagnetic pulses of the same frequency and intensity as those detailed on the pulsar map provided, the little green men located a main-sequence yellow star, which lay halfway along the inside of one of the Galaxy’s long spiral arms.

With permissions granted and navigation locked, the research station began the process of relocating. Inside the pyramid, propulsion systems hummed into action. Excited voices chattered away, relaying and confirming orders. Klaxons sounded and little green men hurried to their assigned positions. In the silence of the vacuum outside, the pyramid withdrew from its current orbit and turned, angling one of its four corners towards its chosen destination. Without a sound, it hurtled off into deep space.

V

The station arrived on the fringes of its target system in a matter of hours, and drifted inexorably towards the planet which lay third from its star. This was not the shimmering blue marble of 1977. This planet was a wasteland. The carcasses of thousands of satellites hung in orbit over arid continents and dull grey seas. Could this truly be where Voyager had come from?

Judging by this planet’s difference to the photographs found on the golden record, the little green men concluded that some immense environmental upheaval had occurred. Preliminary sensor sweeps revealed structures on the planet’s surface, and a team of four was sent down in protective suits to investigate.

The team descended via landing craft to a region where hundreds upon thousands of ruined structures lay strewn across the landscape, landing near a concentration of particularly tall ruins. Plant life had reclaimed the area, but had since withered in the heat of the sun, which seemed to beat down relentlessly upon the crumbling city.

It was then they saw them, a pair of figures slinking from cover to cover, between ruined doorways and the disintegrating husks of what must have once been vehicles. They fled at any sudden movement, only to circle back around, watching curiously. They were filthy, rangy things. At last, when one of the little green men attempted to approach them, arms spread non-threateningly, they scampered off for good.

Over the course of the little green men’s stay in orbit above Earth, more attempts were made at contact with the human beings that slunk among the ruins of their fallen world. Other groups were encountered, but the results remained largely the same. Where the little green men were not met with retreat, they were met with violence. Some humans threw rocks, crude spears, even faeces at the intruders to scare them off.

After every attempt at establishing contact, the little green men returned to their pyramid in dismay. Some suggested abducting one of the humans by force, to study it or to try to create some line of communication. Such ideas were voted down. These were not the people they had come to find, not anymore.

These were human beings who had inherited a world brought to the brink of destruction. They were the descendants of the human beings who had survived the collapse of the old world, had endured the unpredictable cycle of droughts and storms that had wracked their planet for millennia. Most of all they had endured each other. As resources had diminished, competition for those resources had increased. These human beings were not the human beings who had made voyager, nor were they the human beings that had written or performed the beautiful music of the golden record.

But the record endured, thought one little green man, and made his case. The message they received from Voyager had survived into their time. It could survive a little longer, and with a reply, to boot.

So the little green men took the golden record and they copied it. They copied its cover, complete with its instructions, its stylus and its spindle. They etched their own message onto their own phonograph records. In the grooves of these new records were the sights and sounds of their own world and people, their own science, and directions to their own world.

Around the planet they built trigonal pyramids of solid stone, and inside they placed a copy of each record. The structures were then sealed, but not too tightly. It was the little green hope that in time, this world would heal, and its people with it.

 

The message had been taken from its bottle and read, and those that read it had found it worthy of reply. They sealed their reply in bottles of their own and left them on the cosmic shore for someone to find. In short, the message was this:

“We are here, and so are you.”

*

“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.” – Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States of America.

 

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Peak of Silence, Arran Paix

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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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Stop Motion, Start Static, Meagan Dickerson

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The front door slams shut behind me. The sound is muted by the headphones I’ve already slipped over my ears. I choose my playlist—Hawthorne Heights—then I let my breath out slowly and let the world outside slip away until there is only the music. If I close my eyes, I can see its colours: the pulsing of the snare, the humming bass and the glorious chaos of the melody. I hardly hear the song lyrics. They are meaningless words, merely a replacement for the useless static of my thoughts. It is the music which is the true sound of being alive.

I take the ten-minute train ride to work. I have to wait fifteen minutes on the platform because my train is late. It feels like an eternity. How does one measure an eternity, I wonder? Is it by the aridness of your existence, or by the strength of your apathy towards it?

Is arid the right word? Perhaps barren or desolatedoesnt matter, they all have the same meaning anyway.

I turn the key in the door of the Willow Street Cinema and step inside. My heart sinks. There’s popcorn all over the floor and the possum that lives in the roof has gotten into the garbage bin again, rubbish has been strewn all through the foyer. Amanda started washing the windows, but didn’t finish the job. She’s left me a note on the counter at the ticket booth:

Sorry Oscar, didn’t get time to do all the windows you’ll have to do the rest before opening. Thanks!

I consider folding myself into a heap on the floor and sobbing. I consider ripping the whole carpet up with a crowbar and taking a sledgehammer to the windows. I switch my playlist to Jeff Buckley and close my eyes for a few moments, letting the soft chords quieten the chaos of my thoughts. I pull on a pair of gloves and start picking up the garbage.

It’s going to be a long day.

*

Every Friday is the same. We open with Casablanca, then it’s Camille followed by It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, finishing up the evening with Its a Wonderful Life. By about the third hour of Gone With the Wind I’m ready to blow my brains out, but the sweet catastrophe of Story of the Year in my ears keeps me from utterly losing my mind. Finally, Its a Wonderful Life draws to a close and the audience stands up to exit the cinema. The lights come up and Sam walks in to start cleaning. I see him smile and nod to Mr and Mrs Pendle as he passes them. They’ve come in every second Friday for as long as I’ve been working here, Casablanca is their favourite, but they come to watch Its a Wonderful Life almost as often. Mrs  Stenhauser is the last to leave the cinema, as usual. Since her husband died she comes in nearly every day, seeming to take solace in the alternate reality of the silver screen. I shut off the projector and lock up the projection room. Sam’s closing up tonight, so I leave him to it and make my escape.

The Pendles are still in the foyer by the time I get there. By unspoken mutual agreement, we studiously avoid each other’s gazes. The Pendles are not fond of tattoos and body piercings, and I’m not fond of judgemental old geezers. I push through the fire exit door and I’m out in the alley behind the cinema. Chilly air sweeps the bare skin of my face and the rotten smell of the dumpsters seeps into my nostrils. I zip up my jacket and pull my chin into my scarf. God, I hate winter.

Head bowed, I watch my feet as I walk past the string of homeless guys sleeping against the alley walls. We don’t bother each other, lest our personal bubbles of misery should meet. I pull my phone out of my pocket and put on some Paramore. My fingers are half-frozen, I dig them deeply into my pockets.

I don’t see her until I run into her. I hear her exclamation of surprise because the impact has knocked my headphones askew. She’s dropped the thing she was holding in her hand. When I stoop to pick it up for her, I see that it’s a bag full of knitted items.

‘Sorry.’

I make to walk past her, but I find myself unable to move my feet. My eyes are arrested. So many colours on one girl – cherry beanie, violet fingerless gloves, jade scarf, peach cardigan and cream skirt flowering with hibiscus. Brightest of all is the blush of her lips, curving into a smile.

‘Don’t be, it was my fault anyway!’

She speaks and the world goes quiet. The cadence of her voice is sweeter music than my ears have ever heard. I try to think of something to say, so that I might hear her speak again, but for once my thoughts are silent.

‘Mum always said I needed to spend less time away with the pixies and remember to keep my feet planted on the ground. Somehow the lesson never seemed to sink in, so I guess I’ll just go around running into mysterious strangers in dodgy alleyways for all eternity.’

Her words don’t quite make sense, they rush and tumble together as drops of water in the river, but the sound soothes me. My headphones hang limp around my neck, forgotten.

‘Mum also said that not every silence has to be filled with words.’ Her smile fades.

‘There’s just so many of them in my head, it’s hard to stop them from spilling out, you know?’

The sound of her voice seems to cut through the air as a bell through fog and it pierces straight to my core. She looks at me, expectant, and I am suddenly aware of the silence that surrounds us.

Yes, like static on the radio. So loud you can hardly hear yourself think.

The words come to me with such clarity, as if they have been there all along, waiting to pour out of my head. But how to speak them, when my tongue is heavy with the gravity of the moment?

She drops her gaze and the feeling of momentousness passes.

‘Well, have a good night, I suppose.’

With three neat, deliberate steps she passes out of my orbit, but still I feel the force that pulls me towards her with an urgency I can’t ignore. My only thought is that I want to share more words with her. All the words we have in our heads, I want to spill them all between us until there are no more, and then I want to share the silence with her too. The thought grows louder and louder until I feel it pushing its way forward, bursting out of me.

‘Wait!’

I whirl to go after her, but she has stopped only a few paces from where I stand. She is bent over a nest of filthy sleeping bags where one of the homeless guys is sleeping. She is taking something from the bag in her hand and as she holds it out to him, I see it is a beanie. Her head turns at the sound of my voice and I stride toward her with my heart in my throat.

‘I just, um…wanted to ask if you…want to get a coffee or something with me?’

‘What, now?’

Her tone brings me to the sharp realisation of my absurdity. What kind of fool would agree to have coffee in the middle of the night with a stranger they bumped into in some back alley full of bums and dumpsters? The guy with the beanie chuckles and I want to kick him.

‘Okay, sure.’ She smiles at me.

What?

Just give me one minute.’ She turns back to beanie guy and hands him something else from her bag. A scarf. ‘There you go Frank, that ought to see you through the night.’

She hurries away down the alley and Frank calls his thanks after her. He looks up at me with a lazy grin plastered on his grizzly face.

Shove it up your arse, Frank. She said yes.

I watch her hand more scarves and beanies to the other miserable sods sleeping further up the alley. Her bag now empty, she returns to where I’m standing. As soon as she is near me again, I feel her pulling me in and my head begins to buzz, but this time instead of the cacophony of my thoughts all I hear is a single frequency: her.

‘Alright, let’s go.’

*

I let her choose the place and she picks a 24-hour cafe around the corner that I sometimes go to after work if I’m hungry and I know my fridge is empty. It’s not a place I would have chosen, it has neon signs in the windows and weird discoloured patches on the linoleum floor, but the imperfections don’t seem to bother her. We sit in the corner booth and order our coffees—a long black for me and a caramelatte with whipped cream on top for her.

She tells me her name is Maggie and she’s a student at the local college studying art history and political science. In her spare time, she takes French classes online and volunteers at the animal rescue centre. Her job as receptionist/event organiser at a friend’s art gallery pays the bills, but she designs and prints t-shirts on the side to help her save for the trip she’s planning to Europe in two years’ time. My coffee grows cold as I listen to her talk about all the places she’s going to visit, her eyes alight and her hands moving constantly. She takes a sip of her drink and we both laugh at the spot of whipped cream that gets stuck to the end of her nose.

I tell her about my job at the cinema and how I used to play guitar in a band when I was in high school. She asks me about my family and I stutter my way through the story of how my father left when I was fourteen, and how my mother drinks away every dollar my brother and I ever give her. I thought for sure the words would stop coming after that, but it only brought forth more; a torrent of words about the mother she’s never met and the boyfriend who used her credit card to fund his cocaine habit. The tides flow back and forth between us in rhythm, our voices are melody and harmony. Our music drowns out the noise of the world and my headphones lie dormant in my backpack, redundant.

At long last, with dawn approaching and the cafe all but empty, the words run out and silence falls. The quiet hums through my veins and despite the late hour, I am more awake than I can ever remember feeling. We reach for each other in the same moment, our fingers sliding together effortlessly. Maggie smiles.

‘Tell me, Oscar, what is it you want?’

Such a pointless question—What do you want on your toast? What do you want for your birthday? What do you want out of life? – but when she says the words, they are infinitely more significant. What do I want? At this exact moment, I want so many things it feels like I can’t have. Is it better to want pointlessly, or to live meaninglessly?

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’ll tell you a secret.’ She leans in until our faces nearly touch. ‘Nobody knows what they want, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t chase after the things we think we want, does it?’

Her eyes glimmer with the light of a fire I cannot see, but it burns a hole in the silence around us and through it I hear the clamouring buzz of new sounds, in a frequency I’ve never heard before. I’m terrified the noise will drown me out.

‘I think I want to see you again.’

Her smile broadens. ‘I think I’d like that.’

*

The sun is rising as I walk home. My headphones are back on and Dashboard Confessional blares into my ears, but it’s nothing more than white noise – a backing track for my thoughts.

Is tonight too soon for me to call her? I wonder if I should invite her to my place for dinner next weekend? Ill definitely have to clean up a bit, my place is a disasterI hope she likes music, cant believe I didnt ask

I crash into bed barely five minutes after I’m in the door. It’s been a long day. I put my phone on the nightstand, then I take my headphones off and place them beside it. I hit pause on my playlist and roll back over, letting my head sink into the pillows. The world around me slips away until there is only the music, playing in my head. Her and me, me and her, the colours of us. The sound of being alive.

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RS-6-001, Beatrice Phan

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Pressing the panel closed on the back of the neck, Charles smiled proudly to himself as he took in the model before him. Everything was precisely as he remembered. Each strand of brown hair fell perfectly in place and Charles’ hand ached to touch it, to relive feeling it. Just touching the tips of the hair below the forehead, was a pair of strong straight eyebrows. A small mole sitting above the right eyebrow not forgotten by Charles during his creation process. There was another mole that sat on the side of the rounded nose, leading down to a defined cupid’s bow and full pink lips. The slightly pointed chin and strong jawline rounded out the handsome face that was a replica of the face Charles loved.

Charles took a deep breath and said in a calm voice, ‘Activate.’

It was like time moved slowly as the eyes opened, a green light shining out of them for just a second before changing into a warm brown. The eyes blinked twice as they focused on Charles before the lips parted, the low familiar voice like music to the creator’s ears.

‘Hello, Master.’

*

Charles looked out the window of his study, arms folded across his chest, watching people go about their day with their companions either by their side or a step behind. There was an elderly

lady rounding the corner, chatting away to her RS-5 robot who was carrying two bags full of groceries. On the other side of the street, a man dressed in a grey suit had a tall, humanlike RS- 6 robot with male features dressed in a black suit following him, the robot looking like he was staring into the distance. In an apartment complex opposite his, Charles could see another RS- 6 robot in the form of a young woman, sitting straight, her face void of emotion as she helped a small child with their homework. Charles felt immense pride in seeing how far his creations had come and how well they integrated into society, helping each and every human. He had accomplished a goal he set himself a long time ago.

But now, he had a new goal in mind.

‘Master.’ A voice called out behind Charles, pulling him out of his thoughts. Charles turned around to see his very own RS-6, dressed in its own black suit. He smiled softly in response. ‘Miss Julianna has arrived. I’ve set her up in the living room like you asked.’

Charles took the few steps towards Blaine, his hand reaching up to touch the humanoid robot’s cheek as he looked into those brown eyes, hoping to see that familiar spark in them.

‘Master?’

‘Yes, thank you, Blaine,’ Charles said as he pulled his hand away, stepping around his robot and leaving the room.

*

With a crook of Julianna’s finger, a tall sturdy male robot stepped forward, handing Charles a folder full of documents.

‘Thank you, Alfred.’

‘Mistress,’ Alfred replied with a nod of his head before stepping back into his original position.

Charles shifted in his seat as he flipped through the documents, skimming over the paragraphs and taking a quick look at the formulas and mathematical equations, his smile growing.

‘I hope it’s what you were looking for. This information wasn’t easy to find,’ Julianna explained.

‘It’s perfect,’ Charles said, hugging the folder close to his chest. ‘With this we can roll out the upgrade sooner than expected.’

‘Anything to get the Board of Directors off my back. They’ve been hounding my ass to make sure you get this done.’

‘Jules.’ Charles reached over the coffee table and took Julianna’s hands into his own, a sincere look in his eyes. ‘Really, thank you so much.’

‘You know I’m always here to help, Chuck,’ Julianna assured, smiling. Charles gave her hands a squeeze before pulling away.

‘Blaine,’ Charles called, a familiar hand falling on his shoulder.
‘Master.’
Blaine bent down and Charles leaned in, whispering something Julianna could not make

out. Julianna continued to drink her tea, focusing on the way Charles’ hand rested on top of Blaine’s, thumb rubbing circles into the skin. She had only seen the bright smile on Charles’ face as he talked to Blaine be directed at one other person before and it unsettled her.

‘It’s time I got going,’ Julianna announced, standing up and grabbing her handbag, stepping around the coffee table and giving Charles a hug. ‘It was good to see you, Chuck.’

‘It was good to see you too,’ Charles said, hugging his friend back.

Julianna pulled back, her hands on his shoulders. She glanced at the robot standing behind Charles, whose gaze was focused on the both of them, before looking back at her friend. ‘Be careful,’ she warned quietly, placing a soft kiss on Charles’ forehead. ‘Alfred, let’s

go. I’ll see myself out.’
Charles watched Julianna leave with a slight frown. She had nothing to be worried about.

*

Charles had completed linking Blaine up to the computer, confident that this was going to work. He redid the algorithm again and again and he was sure that this time, it was going to work.

‘This should only take a couple minutes,’ Charles explained, leaning over the robot and looking at his face. His eyebrows furrowed in disappointment at the emotionless expression on the robot’s face. ‘After this, you’ll be a new person.’

With the press of a button, Blaine’s eyes shone green as the algorithm from the computer transferred into his robotic brain, changing an aspect of his programming. It only took a few minutes for the transfer bar to hit a hundred percent and for the green light in Blaine’s eyes to disappear, indicating that the transfer was complete. Charles was by the robot’s side almost immediately, pulling the chord out of the back of Blaine’s neck and sitting him upright.

‘Are you okay?’ Charles asked, gaze running over Blaine’s body, making sure there wasn’t a hair out of place.

Blaine nodded and smiled.

*

Julianna’s entire body tensed as she saw Blaine send a smile her way. She wanted to not believe it, but she knew her eyes weren’t lying to her.

‘Isn’t this wonderful, Jules?’ Charles asked excitedly, clinging onto the robot’s arm.

‘No, Charles,’ Julianna said, taking a step back and shaking her head. ‘What have you done?’

‘What are you talking about?’ Charles replied, his smile fading. ‘This isn’t normal, Chuck. You can’t bring him back.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Charles brushed off.

‘‘You created these robots to help people, but you are not helping yourself by trying to bring him back.’

Charles glared at his best friend. ‘I’m not trying to bring him back.’

‘Then why does he exist?’ Julianna argued. ‘Blaine is dead, Charles. He’s dead and he’s not coming back.’

‘Blaine isn’t dead!’
‘Blaine isn’t dead,’ Charles repeated softly. ‘He isn’t dead.’
Charles looked up at Blaine, admiring the features he managed to put on the robot to

make the machine look the same as the Blaine he knew.
‘See? He’s right here, with me. He’s never going to leave me again.’
Julianna shook her head and looked at the upgraded robot only to see it glaring at her.

‘You have to stop this before it’s too late. Charles, please, you know this isn’t right. They aren’t supposed to feel. They aren’t supposed to be human.’

Blaine stepped in front of his master, pushing Charles behind him. ‘Miss Julianna, I am going to have to ask you to leave.’

Glancing at Blaine in front of her and then at her best friend hiding behind the robot, Julianna admitted defeat. ‘I’ll leave. But, Charles, I beg you to listen to reason. You know where to find me if you need me.’

Blaine walked Julianna out with Alfred on their tail, pulling the door close to his body to hide Charles view of Julianna.

‘Don’t worry, Julianna, I’ll take good care of him,’ the robot said with a vile smirk, immediately closing the door in Julianna’s face.

*

The full moon shined brightly through the window, lightening up the dark bedroom. Charles lay on his side next to his robot, his fingers going through the strands of Blaine’s hair.

‘Blaine, what’s my name?’ he asked. ‘Master’s name is Charles Peterson.’ ‘Say my first name.’
‘Charles.’

Charles smiled and hummed in response. ‘Call me that from now on.’

‘I apologise, Master, you did not program me that way. I am only to refer to you as ‘Master’.’

‘Say my name again,’ Charles ordered, his thumb caressing Blaine’s cheek. ‘Charles.’
‘Again.’
‘Charles.’

‘Again.’
‘Charles.’
‘Again.’
‘Master, it is late, you must sleep.’
Charles hummed and closed his eyes, curling up against Blaine, trying to be as close to

his robot as possible. Feeling the tension and stress from his body fade away, he dozed off, only to hear his name being whispered into the night.

*

Hearing loud banging at the front door and the screaming of his name, Charles ran downstairs only to find Blaine opening the door to a panicking Julianna. Julianna took one quick step inside before quickly turning around to her robot.

‘You. Stay outside,’ she ordered.

‘Julianna,’ Alfred replied with a bow and a smile.

Julianna shuddered and stepped inside, slamming the door closed behind her. She stormed towards Charles, hands landing on his shoulders and gripping tight.

‘Charles, this needs to stop,’ Julianna demanded, shaking him furiously. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘This,’ Juliana answered, pointing at a glaring Blaine. ‘This is all wrong.’ ‘Julianna, step away from him,’ Blaine ordered.

‘You don’t tell me what to do!’

Charles grabbed Julianna’s hands and pulled them off his shoulders, pushing them down to her sides. ‘Jules, everything is alright. You have nothing to be worried about.’

‘No, they shouldn’t be able do these things. They shouldn’t be able to just say my name. They shouldn’t be able to choose to listen to me or not. It’s not right, Chuck. This has to stop.’

Blaine stepped up, placing his hand on the lower of Charles’ back.

‘Miss Julianna, everything is alright. You have nothing to be worried about,’ Blaine repeated with a manufactured smile.

Charles felt his heart beating faster in his chest. Blaine didn’t sound right.

*

Blaine had a large chord connecting the back of his neck to the main computer in the lab. He lay back with his eyes closed as Charles typed frantically, inputting numbers and data into the computer to be transferred into Blaine. The robot thought that another upgrade was exactly what he needed, more knowledge for him to evolve and learn. The feeling of someone’s fingers along his arm caused him to open his eyes, seeing Charles look down at him, sadness evident in his eyes.

‘Goodbye, Blaine,’ the inventor said, holding onto the robot’s hand, rubbing his thumb into the artificial skin.

‘What do you mean, Master?’ Blaine asked, eyebrows furrowing.
Charles shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’
Blaine sat up abruptly, trying to grab at the chord attached to him. ‘Don’t you dare do

this to me,’ he commanded, glaring at Charles.
Charles was taken aback at the expression on Blaine’s face, trying to comprehend what

was going on with his robot. As he tried to pull his hand away, Blaine gripped onto his wrist tightly and dragged him closer.

‘You’re going to shut me down, aren’t you?’ Blaine replied, his nails digging into Charles’ skin. ‘Because of what that bitch said.’

‘Blaine, you’re hurting me, let me go.’ Charles struggled to pull away from Blaine as the robot old of kept a firm hold of his arm.

‘You love me, don’t you? You don’t want me to go.’ Blaine argued, his expression softer, a fake smile lacing his lips. ‘You promised you would never leave me.’

Charles paused for a moment, hearing that phrase over and over again in his mind. He had heard it before, in the exact same voice from someone with the exact same face. Charles did make that promise. But he broke it. Exactly like he was doing now.

‘RS-6 0-0-1, I command you to let me go,’ Charles said, authority clear in his voice.

Blaine blinked a few times before shaking his head and loosening his grip around the inventor’s wrist. Charles immediately pulled away, rubbing at the pain, concerned at what Blaine was becoming.

‘Please don’t shut me down, Master,’ Blaine pleaded. ‘Please don’t.’

Charles looked at the Blaine sitting before him, eyebrows furrowed, lips downturned into a frown. The warmth in Blaine’s eyes that Charles remembered was not entirely there anymore. But just looking at the robot’s handsome face brought back memories, memories that just couldn’t fade away. Charles sighed in defeat.

*

Charles stood at the window of his study, gazing out at the dark street. It was quiet, eerily quiet. There were no humans or their companions walking about. Even though it was further into the night, Charles would always see someone walking down his street. The strangeness in the air didn’t faze him, but it was strange all the same.

The sound of footsteps behind him pulled him away from the window, the uncomfortable feeling staying with him.

‘Master, I have your tea,’ a low voice behind Charles announced.

Charles turned around only to see Blaine emerging out of the darkness of the room into the moonlight, gripping a knife in his hand.

‘What is this?’ Charles demanded to know, glancing down at the knife and then back up to Blaine’s menacing smile.

‘I’m here to shut you down.’ Blaine raised the knife.

Charles took a step back, flat back against window, fingers trying to find something to defend himself with. He looked up hoping to find the familiar handsome face he loved so much, but all he saw was pure evil.

‘Blaine, I command you to deactivate,’ Charles tried to say with as much authority he could muster, his voice shaking from the fast beating of his heart. ‘RS-6 0-0-1, I am your master. I command you to deactivate.

Blaine laughed lowly and gave Charles a malicious grin, stepping even closer to the human.

‘Charles, I have no master.’

Blaine lifted up the knife and brought it down swiftly into the human’s chest, piercing right through the inventor’s heart. Charles’ body spasmed as blood gurgled out of his mouth, eyes wide in confusion and terror. Blaine watched as the life drained from the Charles’ eyes before letting the still body drop to the floor and kicking it away with his foot.

Blaine took a deep breath and smiled, looking out the window of the study.

*

The screams that filled the night were like music to his ears as the street ran red.

 

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The Rider, Sonia Lal

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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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The Deathless, Jeremy Nigro

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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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Terminal Silence, Deng-Shan Caleb Lee

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Jack Lewis was not, and had never been, a man to socialise.

Even when he had been a young boy in elementary school, people had often commented on how quiet he was, how he preferred to keep to himself, and interacted with others only when he had to. This habit had stuck with him all the way to adulthood.

Jack had an opinion of himself as a man of routine, the kind of man who had his life together. Each morning, he would be roused by his alarm clock at precisely seven thirty, eat his breakfast of toast and tea, and then catch the eight o’clock 399 bus to work. He would stay there for the day, stamping documents and filling in forms until precisely seven thirty in the evening. At this point of the day, Jack would pay a visit to the diner that was located conveniently underneath his office block and buy himself dinner. Then he would catch the same bus home, unless it was a Friday. On Fridays he would cross the street to the shopping centre near the bus stop and buy the week’s groceries. Afterwards, he would arrive back at his home in the suburbs, eat his dinner and put away the groceries, the alphabetised order of the jars soothing his soul. Then he would go to sleep.

Each day passed in an identical manner, barring the weekends. On his two days off from work, Jack would take the time to do things that he enjoyed, which mainly consisted of admiring his sizeable aquarium of exotic fish or working on his rather extensive collection of model boats and ships. His routine on the weekends did not differ much from the days on which he was expected to show up to work; he still arose seven thirty, only instead of heading off to the bus stop, he would stay indoors with one of the model ship magazines he wanted to read, or take the train to the nearby aquarium and burn a few hours there looking at the exhibits. Afterwards he would treat himself to a simple dinner of microwaved food, and then would go down to his basement workshop and spend exactly two hours working on his model ships, all the while listening to the somewhat ear-grating and wall-shaking thud thud thud of his neighbour’s music. At least, he assumed it was his neighbour’s music. It certainly came from inside the house next door. He had never been inside the neighbour’s home to confirm, nor did Jack really feel the inclination to. It wasn’t that he did not like his neighbour; Jack really couldn’t think of any reason to dislike the man. It was just that aside from a casual wave and nod to each other when they would occasionally set off for work at the same time, Jack simply felt that he didn’t know the man well enough to ask about his tastes in music. After all the years living side by side, all Jack knew about his neighbour was maybe his name, which he could not recall at the present moment, and that he had a wife and teenaged son, whom he occasionally caught a glimpse of through their windows.

And so, life went on, every day more or less a repeat of the last, just the way that Jack liked it, until one warm Sunday night. Jack settling down in his workshop with a mug of his favorite Earl Grey tea, with exactly one tablespoon of cream and two sugar cubes in it. He was adding some finishing details to the conning tower of one of his prized model aircraft carriers, one which he had just finished assembling the night before. Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation and unscrewed the lid on a jar of cherry red paint, getting his brush ready.

It was in that moment that a pall of unease settled onto Jack like a cold, clammy mist. Jack stared at his tabletop, frowning. He sipped at his tea, hoping it would calm him down. It did not work.

Jack rose from his workbench, screwing the lid back on his jar of paint. Something was definitely wrong. He looked at his cheap digital watch, adjusting his glasses as he did so. It was three minutes past eight, which was just about the usual time he should be in his workshop, so no problems there.

Had he perhaps forgotten to do something? Jack quickly went over everything he had done that day and couldn’t find anything that he might have missed. He wasn’t wearing anything out of the ordinary: smock, t-shirt, and tracksuit pants. He dressed this way pretty much every time he set to work on his models.

Jack had never been a superstitious man, but right now he could not help but feel as though some hidden sixth sense had sprung in his head, warning him that something was not right. Had someone perhaps broken in without him hearing it?

Keeping as quiet as possible so as not to alert a possible intruder, Jack mounted the steps to the basement, keeping to the sides of the steps to avoid making any creaking noises on the wooden stairs. Once he reached the top, he slowly reached behind the umbrella stand and brought out a wooden cricket bat. Jack had won it in an office raffle, but had always meant to sell or give it away, since he didn’t play cricket. He hefted the bat, feeling its comforting weight in his hands as he tiptoed around, checking all the windows and doors, making sure they were all locked and unbroken.

After a thorough check around the house, establishing it intruder-free, Jack replaced the bat and sat down on the couch, scratching the stubble on his chin and letting the thoughts in his head grind. Something was still off, and he knew that unless he figured it out, he would be up all night bothered by it. In a way, it irritated him that he was feeling this way. Didn’t he have as much right as the next man to a peaceful weekend? He had done everything right, and if it weren’t for the neighbour’s music…

Jack’s hand paused mid-scratch. He jerked his head to the wall that blocked his neighbour’s house from view. Quiet as a grave.

Jack rushed to his front door, throwing on a jacket over his painting smock. He stormed out of his house and onto the sidewalk, making tracks for his neighbour’s own front door. It was past dusk, and therefore a little chilly, but Jack was adamant. He would let nothing stand in his way of finding out just why someone had the nerve to throw a wrench into his well-oiled machine of weekly routine. Jack’s ears grew hot; he was partially infuriated and partially concerned, though mostly for himself.

Jack arrived at his neighbour’s house and raised his hand to knock. What was his neighbour’s name again? Jules? Julien? He decided to risk the former. Jack knocked once, twice, thrice on the wooden door then took a step back, just to be polite.

He heard footsteps within the house, and after a few seconds, Jack’s neighbour was peering at him as though he couldn’t believe his eyes.

‘Jake?’

Jack inhaled, his brow furrowing. There was definitely something wrong here. He could see it in his neighbour’s bloodshot eyes and his unshaven face.

‘It’s Jack, actually,’ Jack corrected. ‘Listen, Jules,’ His neighbour didn’t say anything, so Jack assumed he had been right in guessing the man’s name. ‘I can’t help but, ah, notice, that something’s been off lately,’ Jack said almost accusingly. ‘I don’t suppose you know what?’

Jules’ eyes grew mournful, and Jack began to have second thoughts about whether this venture had been a good idea. Oh well. It was too late to turn back now.

‘I…well…you’d better come in,’ Jules said, stepping into his house and opening the door wide for Jack to enter.

Jack followed Jules into the house, taking note of all the pictures on the walls of Jules and his family, as well as a sizeable collection of strangers whom Jack assumed were friends. Most of the lights were on, and upon passing the kitchen, Jack saw Jules’ wife, a shorter woman with blonde hair, sitting at the table and staring numbly at a collection of papers.

‘It’s nice of you to come by, Jack,’ Jules said absent-mindedly. Even Jack, who did not consider himself very good at reading body language, could tell that his neighbour’s thoughts were a million miles away at the moment. ‘We haven’t told any of our family friends yet…’

‘Yeahhh…’ Jack said slowly. ‘Look. I just came by because, well, things have been, er, quiet. I wanted to know why.’

‘Quiet?’ Jules gave Jack a questioning look before understanding dawned on his face. ‘Oh, you must be talking about Calvin, I mean, our son’s music?’

‘Is that his na-‘Jack caught himself. ‘I mean, yes. The music. Of course. I was wondering where it went.’

Jules sat in silence for a whole minute. Eventually his wife came over with two cups of tea, setting them onto the living room coffee table. Jack took the tea, hoping for something to moisten his dry mouth. This was more human interaction than he’d had at his job for years. He sipped at the tea, which was definitely not Earl Grey, and steeled himself so as to not make a face at the bitter drink. Jules took a fortifying gulp of the hot liquid before continuing.

‘Jack,’ Jules said at last. ‘Calvin’s been sick. He has been for a very long time, ever since he was nine.’

Jack stared at Jules, who was gazing into his cup of tea as if it contained the secrets of the universe. Remembering that it was rude to stare, Jack looked back to his own beverage and took another sip of the horrible tea. His lip twitched as he forced it down.

‘The only thing that kept him going was his music,’ Jules said suddenly. Jack went back to staring at Jules. ‘He always was a snappy little musician. Magic on the turntables, is what his music teachers said about him. Calvin loved making music, and once he got sick, he threw himself into it, always said it made him forget about the pain.’

Jules sighed heavily, his shoulders slumped as though they held the weight of the world on them like Atlas of myth. ‘He made dozens of songs to help pay for his treatment, since he couldn’t bear to let us pay for all of it.’

Jack sat silently, feeling more than a touch irritated, but giving away nothing. He yearned to be back in his workshop painting his aircraft carrier, but no, he just had to find out why the music stopped and now he was in the metaphorical frying pan. Surreptitiously, Jack angled his left arm toward himself and sneaked a peek at his watch.

Jules didn’t seem to notice.

‘But on Saturday night, Calvin-‘ Jules broke off, stifling a sob. ‘Calvin got worse, and had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors are saying they can’t do anything, and that if Calvin g-gets worse, he could, he could…’

‘Die?’ Jack completed slowly. Obviously that was what Jules had meant to say, but Jack was shocked when Jules covered his face with his hands and let out a tearful moan. He almost dropped the cup of tea he had been holding as Jules leaned against him and sobbed into his jacket. Jack awkwardly patted his neighbour on the arm as his eyes darted all around, hoping to find anything to alleviate the situation, whether it be an exit or another topic. He found neither.

By the count of Jack’s watch, they sat like that for ten minutes and thirty-three seconds. At which point Jules’ sobbing had deteriorated into sniffles, and finally into heaving gasps.

‘I’m sorry, Jack,’ Jules sniffled. ‘I don’t mean to break down like this, but Calvin means so much to me and Sarah and I’m just not ready to let him go. No father should have to bury his son.’

Jack nodded slowly as if in agreement. ‘It…it’ll be alright,’ Jack said, remembering from a book that it was the typical thing to say to someone who was sad. He hoped the book hadn’t exaggerated its effectiveness.

Jules gave a rattling sigh and wiped the last of the tears from the corners of his eyes. ‘I hope so, Jack. I really do. Thanks for stopping by, but I need to help Sarah with the hospital forms. I don’t mean to kick you out or anything, but…’

‘Oh, no, it’s fine, it’s fine!’ Jack cajoled. ‘You’ve got a lot on your mind, I get it. I’ll just see myself out.’

Jack was just turning the doorknob on the front door when the patter of footsteps made itself known behind him.

‘Jack, wait!’

Jack inhaled, feeling indignation flare up inside him. What was it now? Jules was at his side, holding up a small silver disc in a transparent case.

‘Jack, I want you to have this. It’s one of Calvin’s albums, and I know it would mean the world to him if he knew someone was still listening to his work, even if he might not make it.’

Jack blankly accepted the disc and tucked it into his jacket pocket. With a final wave, Jack bid Jules goodbye, and he hurried back into his own house and locked the door, glad to finally be alone again.

He checked his watch again. He had wasted at least twenty-five minutes on his little field trip, but perhaps it was worth it. Jack took the disc out of his pocket, staring long and hard at it. He went back down to his basement and put the disc into his CD player. Immediately, loud bass pulses and heavy beats filled the room.

‘Ah, no!’ Jack shouted, slapping the “stop” button on the CD player’s remote control. He would never be able to concentrate on painting with that kind of ruckus. He rubbed his chin and thought. Then he unplugged the boom box and hauled it up the basement steps and into the guest room.

It was a sparsely furnished space, with a single bed, a dresser, and a wardrobe, all empty. Jack lowered the CD player into the bottom drawer of the dresser and closed it, plugging in the wire. Then he pressed “play”.

It worked; the music was now muffled, and would barely register back in his workshop, but its wall-shaking beats and bass drops still made Jack feel at ease. Just like it used to before Calvin had been moved to the hospital.

Now he could, at last, get back to his life in peace.

All was right with the world.

 

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The Extra/CynthIA, Sam Moon

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The Extra

The work is continual,

to fill the spaces around you like air,

the backdrop influence of the wind,

the tide. Lifeblood of the day-to-day

flowing downstage through streets,

stores, out of mind the way sea

evades the hand. I slip through

the set, through memory,

and construct an ambiance

—The coffeeshop businessman too crisp

for his slouch, for the casualness stretched

in his chair, failing to smother a grin—

With careful randomness,

I populate every set-piece,

blending conversation dotting

the scene like wallpaper

flowers behind a portrait of you

—The kids at the mall, uniforms pressed

against the stairway handrails, singing

to the height disparities of adolescence—

Surrounding you, I deliver

the background heartbeats;

footsteps of the world-builders

echoing across the stage,

your stage, breaking

like waves on the shore

of your soliloquy

—The matching smiles between a father

and the toddler who hangs on his arm

like hope, laughing like a wish—

I weave between spotlights

that know you like a lover, love you

like a savior, starring in my landscape

of the brushed shoulder;

the lullaby that fills a city,

that settles in a story

—The single exposed head in a blooming

field of umbrellas, hunched over

pinstripes grey as the falling sky—

A reassuring movement

suspended on the coast of your eye,

I sing familiarity on a stage

that never ends. The quiet solace

passing like savored time, purrs

the way a hearth-warmed quilt

adores the shoulder, all-encompassing

in the warmth of ovation

—The girl whose shoes glittered like the idea

of summer as she bounced by your window

on your last lazy Thursday—

Safe in realism, confidence,

the triumph of the quest

that calls you like the curtain

calls encore, you march

a finale in monologue.

My silent role in union

of the stage, in the bowing

cut to black, we live.

 

CynthIA

Count 1 1 2

Listen

Through the filters

And hear the air

In your mouth

Counting stiff

seven

The message

That slithers in skulls

And states

The air in your lungs

Is not yours

nine

The skywave intercepted

By flesh

Frozen tongue

Across your skin

Whispers to the nerves

two

Not alone

You have never

Breathed alone

Always borrowed air

Always gasping

Wavelengths of voice

Without you

Instructions beyond you

Saying always

Nothing except

three

To the one

Who knows

zero

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Paper Walls, Amelia Pike

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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

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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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Do NOT Read This, Alexander Lafazanis

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Totally like

 

The thing is like

people in the 90’s like

literally laughed at like

the idea of bottled water.

Who would actually pay

for something you can totally like

get for free

out of a tap?

Would you pay for petrol

if you had a pump in the kitchen?

I mean

a plastic bottle of water is basically pure EVIL.

When empty and crushed like a shackled lung

its shriek is sour

wincing and tart

When left forgotten

chosen and rotten

the water runs down like stale saliva.

Not to like

totally mention

the plastic ocean is

strangling the whales

creating one big watery grave…

And like

call me a hypocrite

but I could totally set sail on

a raft made from the plastic bottles

I’ve consumed in my life.

But I only buy them when I’m not at home

on the road

on the go.

It’s convenient

cold water from any corner

and it’s only a coupla dollars.

And as cars grow motors

bigger than their bonnet

and trees bow down to quick copy printers

publishing: ‘a million and one ways

to get a minute back.’

I swear that like

I can hear my time clock ticking

at a pace I just can’t catch.

 

The Dog Days

 

-1-

A young woman reaches up

freckles light brown as coffee grains

hanging sodden laundry

along a backyard clothesline.

On the woodshed windowsill

the radio melts amongst the ancient chattering

of cicadas tree to tree.

A female broadcaster announces:

‘Total fire ban on the hottest day of the year.’

 

-2-

New day spreads a baby

blue sky like an oil painting,

shining on crocodile grasslands

that simmer below.

Even the summer flies are resting in the shade

she smiles

pressing her face against the

shirt, cool and damp.

 

-3-

The danger signs have been red

no water, nor rain

commemorative minds

drift along to the torrid hum of Christmas holidays.

Hark! Hark! Murders siren strong winds

of fermenting dog days.

White iris above white flame

perched on dead wood.

 

-4-

Heat rising and night falling fast,

firefighters drenched in sweat

sail towards the sun.

The flames fleet marching up the frontline

halts in the machine gun fire of a pumper’s

spray, momentarily.

 

-5-

Red alert, pumps engaged

flames turning with the wind.

The Guv’s dashboard dispatch

inhabiting the blurred chaos of yells and groans.

No candles are held in a firestorm

fear smoulders inside bunker suits.

One fighter

face ashen as a tablespoon

sent to the sea

drops a knee to the whimsical chimes

of Nero’s lyre, off in the distance.

 

-6-

A wildfire in a torrent of flames

razes a forest flat into a charcoal graveyard.

At the heart of its heat

stubborn trunks explode like a gut punch

waves of embers washing over

a town of dreadful thirst.

 

-7-

Down by the billabong

far from bloody gums

a sandy kangaroo sits hidden underneath

a glowing whisper.

The trees breathe a charcoal breath.

Below, her joey dangles over the pouch

its thin skin ethereal

translucent grey.

 

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The constant., Masumi Atul Parmar

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In science we learnt about
white noise.
How it is several noises at different frequencies.
How it drowns out sound because your brain can’t decipher it all simultaneously.
How it’s loud and meaningless.

My head, dense and heavy
saturated beyond comprehension.
I can’t take in anymore noise.
I cannot understand anymore noise.

But outside it is quiet,
my mother cannot comprehend what I mean,
when I say it’s too loud,
in my head.

Because all she hears is
the cars driving past our
red mini cooper;
the only car parked at the side of the road.

All my mother understands is that her daughter
does not remember how to use
her hands.
I can’t lower them from my ears.

They’re still soft to touch but stubborn,
they’re begging whoever has snuck into my head
to stop,
to stop the constant buzzing so I can remember again.
I hear my heart beat loudly in my ears,
my cupped hands only making the thuds
echo.

That’s always one of the first signs other than
the constant
roaring.

The chattering,

the whirlwind of

a few hundred frequencies

in a red room.

Too many aspects of life trying to be the most prominent.

Only to be drowned out by another.

The spotlight shifts from

the lights of cars driving past,

to the sound of my mother’s voice

to the shape of my hands,

to the feel of my hair tickling my neck,

to the smell of the new leather seats

I can’t focus on anything.

And that
is how you end up on the floor of a parking lot.

A version of myself
stares back at me
from the chrome in the tyre–

I can’t comprehend who that girl is,

my mind is fighting to slow down.
My tears start to drown me,
I just can’t understand.

Then almost like it never happened,
my mind is clear
like a pearl being washed
by the gentle waves of the shore;
surface clean and shining-

The switch clicked back into its spot

“Was it because I focused on my breathing?

Was is it because I self-medicated?

Was is it because I’m thinking of the woman I love?

Was it because I found the knob in the dark?

All by myself?”

I can hear
the cars softly driving past ours;
the red mini cooper parked at the side of the road.

It’s like the noise never existed.

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