Category Archives: Issue #7

Twenty Seconds, Charlotte Smith

Cindy McMann slept sprawled across her older sister Stacey’s lap, in the police interview room, as Brian watched through the other side of the mirrored glass. He knew he was not going to be their saviour and his heart raced as he listened to the monotonous dial tone on the end of the phone. His wife was a lead caseworker with child services and he would often call her at a time like this for advice. He had worked on a couple of cases similar to this one in the past. Junkies overdose all the time and it seemed as though it was always the kids who found their parents. Usually these kids were already in and out of foster care, and not to say he didn’t care as much about those type of kids, but he did find it a lot easier to hand them over to the authorities. He thought most of them were little shits anyhow. He had proved this suspicion over and over in court. There was no better feeling to Brian than watching their faces as his evidence proved these suspicions.

There was something about the McManns that intrigued him though. The father of the girls, Jason McMann had moved out from Scotland over 30 years ago as a loud mouthed, 18-year-old, leather clad, tattooed lead singer for ‘The Toasties’.  His high school girlfriend followed him and also married him two years later. The band remained a success throughout the 90’s and even won a few awards. They were the Kimye of Australia at the time, with their eldest daughter Stacey always snapped in the papers with her curly blond bob and designer overalls, waddling after her parents at different events.

As the girl got older, she would pose for the paparazzi, wearing her school uniform and showing off trophies she had won at school. The pride for their only child at the time emanated from Marienne and Jason McMann as they would allow the girl to chat away to local journalists and pose for photos.  Brian observed the girl now, with her hair pulled back into a braid. Stacey looked exactly the same, just slightly more mature. Cindy was almost identical to Stacey with brown curls bouncing across the 3 year old’s face. Brian reflected back to 2003 when the girls’ father announced he was leaving the band. Quickly the family had transitioned into living a low-key lifestyle. After a few years the paparazzi stopped recognising him and by the time his youngest child, Sophie, was born even the shows that no one watches on late night television had stopped showing footage of The Toasties.

Although Brian and Meryl were too old to listen to rock music themselves, their son had collected all ‘The Toasties’ albums over the years so they had become quite acquainted to the deafening claps of thunder coming from their son’s room throughout the 1990’s. Now, years later Brian found himself in the position of needing to help the same child who was once plastered over the weekend papers. Interrupting the dial tone was his wife’s soft voice. Brian tried to stop his own voice from shaking as he explained the situation to his wife. In most scenarios like this it was rare for there to be no next of kin. Through the glass he could see the pained expression of Stacey McMann, causing his voice to break as he explained the situation to his wife.

‘They will probably be put in temporary care together until something gets sorted. Not my area to assess Brian, you know that.’ Meryl hated not being able to help her husband, but in cases with no next of kin it was always so icky. She could never let herself get involved, as she was one to get attached. That was the last thing she needed at 57 years of age.

‘It’s Jason McMann’s kids, love.’ He didn’t know why he said it; he knew he was breaking regulation.

Sensing her husband’s emotion, Meryl took a deep breath before addressing him. ‘I know you can’t see it now, love, but rock stars die all the time. They leave lots of money behind too. These kids will be fine.’

As Meryl hung up the phone Brian felt the tension release from his shoulders. He knew nothing about the financials of the McManns, but he assumed his wife was probably right. Looking back into the interview room at the two girls, Brian felt a tinge of guilt over the thought of the girls ever reading his report about their mother. According to his report all the evidence at the scene in which Marianne McMann’s body was found showed signs of an overdose. There were drugs and drug paraphernalia found inside the pockets of Marianne’s leather jacket. The autopsy was yet to be carried out, but he could predict the results of that just by looking at the scene in the home where Marianne was found. Forty years of experience under his belt gave him insight into these sorts of cases, and although he was intrigued by this high profile case, he couldn’t let that blur his judgement when it came to reporting the evidence he had come across. He wondered if he could ever avoid going to the press with the case to prevent the media shitstorm.

Tensely, Brian watched as his partner entered the room and comfortingly handed Stacey a hot chocolate. In fact, everyone in the police station tensed at that moment. The coldness drew closer as Brian was introduced to the child services worker. Brian shook his head thinking he could only hope for the best from then on. Reminded of what his wife said he was comforted with the thought the kids would have lots of pocket money in the future.

*

The heat of the sun snuck through a slit in the curtains and covered Stacey’s face as she squinted and tried to readjust her eyesight to the morning sunlight. The stained walls surrounding the bed reminded her of where she was—the boarding house attached to the private girls’ school. She stared at the bland, off white walls and thought of the colours that splashed her own bedroom, wishing she could go back there. She did have the keys, and it was her home. She knew from the reading of the will that the house had been left to her. Nothing about the boarding school was familiar to her despite having attended the school her whole life. After the death of her mother the school had awarded her a scholarship that provided free boarding and education costs. The musty, sweat-stained air reinforced the unfamiliar feeling that bubbled away in her guts—a feeling that was weening its way into her life way too regularly lately. The shuffling of soft footsteps in the hallway reminded her that a boarding house manager was going to knock on her door shortly to make sure she was awake. The warm sheets surrounding her were the only things stopping her from getting out of bed. The safety and security of the sheets wrapped around her shoulders, replicating the feeling of safety that both her parents used to provide to her. The feeling she would never feel again. Stacey would always be loyal towards her parents regardless of what everybody else thought or said. They had provided her with everything she would need in life so why would she cave to the rumours? She hated how everyone treated her now. The whispers as she passed the other girls in the hallways at school taunted her. They watched her as she walked past, the sympathy etched in their eyes following her in the afterhours. Living in the school meant she could never escape the looks of judgement. No one would ever say anything to her face, their furrowed brows and soft smiles said it all though. Stacey had never wanted the sympathy; she had never understood it. Regardless of the circumstances she knew she was still better that the stupid judge’s A-grade daughter, or the wanker bankers’ prefect daughter.

As Stacey’s mind wandered from the present to the past, the replay of memories that had been unable to escape pushed their way into her thoughts. The image of her mother, Marianne, lying dead on the couch, her face looking so content and dreamy never left her mind these days. She wondered whether Cindy would ever forget the image. She was still angry at whoever leaked the autopsy to the papers. Stacey knew it was because someone had seen an opportunity to make some quick money. She was so enraged when the rumours about her parents came out.  Despite fighting with her self over the lies she knew deep down that her parents weren’t completely innocent and they had used drugs at times. They were not junkies though! Stacey’s body twitched as she felt the hot tears roll down her cheeks and she imagined her father sitting at the end of the unmade bed, smiling his goofy smile and convincing her to go out and face the world. A soft rapping on the door echoed through the emptiness around her. ‘Stacey. It’s time to get ready or you’ll be late.’ Stacey wiped her face and leapt off the bed and across to the door, catching her foot on the pocket of her suitcase and spilling all its possessions on the way. When she reached the door and opened it she shyly tilted her head up to see the school’s social worker standing at the door, sympathy etched in the furrow of her brows. Stacey tried to fight the urge to yell at that sympathetic face. Even the social worker didn’t understand her. ‘I didn’t expect you to get up so quickly. No school today, Stace. By the time we finish with the lawyer and child services it will be too late.’

The tension in Stacey’s shoulders tightened as the thought of Cindy sitting in a strangers lap in the child services office fought its way into her mind. Trying to distract herself from the negative thoughts brewing she turned her attention to the spilt contents of her suitcase. Within seconds she had given up and sat back on the bed. As she drew in her breath, barely letting it reach her sternum, her chest tightened. Staring at the contents strewn across the ugly faded red carpet she caught a glimpse of her mother’s favourite leather jacket. After weeks of arguments with the police, she had won and the jacket was rejected as evidence and handed down to her, the rightful owner. The jacket was covered in zips, the typical attire of her 90’s punk rock mother. As a child, Stacey would play with the zips and it would keep her captivated for hours while waiting backstage for her father to finish gigs, or on the tour bus or planes or whatever other event she had been dragged along to. She remembered how after years of being teased by all the zips she had eventually discovered only 4 out of the 28 zips actually opened and contained secret pockets. Finding the exact zip she wanted she wiggled two fingers into the opening until she felt the plastic slide between her fingers. Pulling the contents of the satchel out of the pocket, Stacey sat on top of her unmade bed and let the tears scroll down her face as she contemplated whether to use the drug or not.

*

Meryl watched her husband curiously. For hours he had been sitting in the dim corner of the living room on the PC their son had bought them a few years back. It had always sat in a dusty corner of the living room taking up the space where her old sewing machine used to be. Meryl had never seen the point in actually owning a computer. She had one at work and something always seemed to go wrong with it. Her husband, Brian, also hated the stupid PC, taking any opportunity to openly voice his hate for technology. Yet, here he was intrigued with something on the clunky thing in the corner of their living room. Her curiosity begging to know what it was that kept her husband so intrigued pulled her out of the reclining chair and walked her to the corner. Brian sat inspecting a photo. ‘It’s Cindy McMann, love.’ Her husband’s words echoed as Meryl observed the girl’s pale skin and brunette curls that complimented the sparkling blue eyes staring back at her. She thought of the little girl in the foster home and her heart sank.

Ever since the death of Jason and Marienne McMann, Brian had been hinting at his wife to help the children. The idea of fostering came up, but Meryl had insisted she wanted to keep her professional life as a foster care caseworker separate to her home life. The eldest girl, Stacey, had since turned 18, so Brian’s latest idea was to adopt the youngest child, Cindy, and provide her with a happy life with the possibility of Stacey being a big part of the little girls’ life. Since this conception, Brian had visited all the specific agencies and had completed all the required paperwork. Although, Meryl still had her doubts she had agreed to consider the idea. She hadn’t signed anything yet, but did feel obliged as it wasn’t often Brian insisted on things. She did have doubts of their capabilities though, especially as Brian approached 60. Adopting a child was not her idea of a quiet retirement. She thought of her son and his pregnant wife and wondered how they would react to the idea.

Feeling her husband’s hand grasp her arm, she turned her attention to him. The creases around his eyes deepened as he stared across to the television, his grasp tightening as he listened to the afternoon news reporter. ‘Yes, that’s correct. It is the daughter of the late Jason McMann. She was a boarder at St Michael’s Boarding House, a prestigious school here in Sydney. At the moment it looks drug related. There was a leather jacket found with what is thought to be heroin. Parents of the community must…’ Meryl listened to the comments from the reporter as they splashed pictures of the teenager across the television. The picture bracing the screen was the cover of an old women’s magazine. The photo, taken fifteen years earlier at Bondi Beach, showed Jason and Marienne McMann cuddling Stacey between them on the shoreline. Meryl had seen the photo years earlier. Looking at it again now, she couldn’t help but to notice the resemblance between Stacey and Cindy.

‘This is fucking ridiculous. Do they not consider this poor little girl?’ Brian angrily banged his fist onto the keyboard, causing the desk to shake and spill the unsigned adoption papers across the floor.

Meryl watched as her husband stormed towards the television remote and turned the news off. She remembered being told once that it only took twenty seconds for someone to die of a heroin overdose. The thought gutted her that it only took twenty seconds to change a life in such a negative way. Catching a glimpse of the adoption papers scattered on the floor she thought of Cindy and she knew what she had to do. It would only take twenty seconds to change and reverse the negativity. She could feel Brian’s eyes burning through her as she picked up a pen from the desk and began sorting the adoption papers until she came to the final page.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Twenty Seconds’

Tagged , , , , , ,

Soul 3396, Hannah Bell

‘On February twelfth the accused was arraigned before me,’ Chief Justice Ellins begins, his voice flat and dry, conserving itself for the long judgment to follow.

Astrea’s hands are wet. She hides them in her lap, wipes them on her thighs.

‘She faces charges of malicious damage to property and using a hoax bomb to cause alarm. In addition to these terrorist offences, the prosecution has sought to confirm that this woman is the eleventh reincarnation of soul number 3396, formerly known as Ezekiel Armstrong, and sentenced to twelve lifetimes in prison for war crimes. To avoid prejudice in considering this very serious accusation, it was agreed that this case should be tried by a judge alone, rather than by jury.’

The rest of the courtroom is stiff with silence. Astrea’s breathing is louder and far more laboured than she’d like; each inflation of her lungs is a weightlifting exercise. She crosses her legs at the knee, uncrosses them, crosses them again at the shin. The trial has taken months, the route by which she’s found herself here much longer than that—but as Ellins methodically reads through his decision Astrea can’t bear to wait even a minute more.

 

17

 

Astrea was seventeen—very nearly eighteen—by the time she felt any connection with her past lives. A late bloomer. There were just weeks left until Confession Day. She was putting on lipstick when the blood started welling up under her tongue, staining her teeth, dribbling down over her lips. It painted them so much more vividly than the waxy balm of Revlon’s fuchsia shock. She coughed, expecting liquid to spew out onto her vanity, but it didn’t. The fingers she brought to her mouth came away with pink, not red, tips.

It was only the mirror, then, that was bleeding. Astrea was not relieved.

Reflections were a common unlocking point for transincarnational residue—deposits of history or intuition that stayed tucked away within the soul through death and rebirth. Dreams, hallucinations, feelings of déjà vu—all were potential clues about former lives, and would appear with increasing frequency as the brain reached maturity.

Astrea ripped her eyes from the mirror as her reflection’s cheeks grew hollow and sickly. The phantom taste of hot iron stuck in her throat.

Residual blood is an indicator of significant violence in a soul’s history. That was what the textbooks all said.

She found her aunt Kath out on the porch, lighting a fresh cigarette with the cherry of the one before.

‘You saw something that scared you,’ Kath observed, face half-obscured by a cloud of smoke.

Astrea nodded.

‘Well, babe, you’ve got two weeks to get really good at acting like everything’s fine. Think up some cute stories to tell them about your visions—maybe you’ve dreamt of your past lives caring for sick animals, and the smell of jasmine flowers reminds you of a long, happy marriage. If they see you’re scared shitless at Confession they’ll suspect your soul’s got a number on the Registry. There are a couple of major ones supposed to be turning eighteen this year, so they’ll be watching.’

Astrea felt bad for making her aunt talk about the Registry. Beginning on her own Confession Day, Kath had served the remaining three years on her past life’s sentence for a hit and run. Kath herself had never driven. Dad used to say that she never even liked to take the bus to school when they were growing up—residual instincts showing through as phobias, was his theory.

‘Don’t give them any reason to believe there’s a sentence hanging over you.’ Kath tilted Astrea’s face up, examining it. ‘You should wear that lipstick to the ceremony,’ she added. ‘It’s cute. Sweet. All the things you need to show them that you are.’

 

18

 

Astrea was just lucky that Confession Ceremonies weren’t what they used to be. At school, she’d had to write essay after essay about the legal overhaul that prohibited soul-searching in the physical sense—the culmination of decades-long campaigns by human rights groups, people suffering PTSD after their search procedures, many legal professionals. The UN, which, ever since its inception, had condemned the entire concept of the Soul Registry. Even if she hadn’t had anything to hide, Astrea would still have been glad not to be waiting half-naked in a hospital gown outside a sterilised, soundproofed exam room, watching as the other eighteen-year-olds walked in and hobbled back out.

Confession Ceremonies were conducted state-wide each month. None of Astrea’s friends shared her February birthday, so she filed into the huge city hall by herself. The girl she sat down beside was hunched over, apparently scribbling something on her forearm. Maybe, Astrea thought, she was writing notes to prompt her in the interview. If she needed notes, it could well be because she was planning to lie. The idea that there was someone else lying—someone doing it less carefully, someone more likely to be caught than Astrea—was comforting.

The girl shifted her posture, holding her wrist up to the light to observe it, and Astrea saw that instead of writing notes she had been drawing flowers with her blue biro.

The girl turned further and caught Astrea watching. ‘I want to get this tattooed one day,’ she said. ‘Dad’s always saying people will find tattoos suspicious, but it’s just art. I know I was an artist in a past life. There’s already art all through me. Why not on the surface?’

Astrea nodded sympathetically.

‘My name’s Lita, by the way.’

‘Astrea. You’re going to be an artist for this lifetime too, then?’

‘I’m in beauty school right now, so my art will be makeup and hair. Designing tattoos on the side, hopefully. It’s different to oils on canvas, but it’s all variations on a theme, you know? We live different lives, but I don’t think we ever really change at heart.’

Before Astrea could decide whether it was wise to argue a hush fell over the hall.

‘As I’m sure you are aware, we are no longer able to use invasive measures in order to identify individual souls,’ Commissioner Francis spoke from up on the stage. He looked damp under the spotlights, his posture as wooden as the podium he stood behind. ‘Evidence relating to transincarnational residue is now our greatest weapon when it comes to ensuring the serious criminals in our midst are put behind bars. We are reliant on interviews, and on information provided to us by yourselves. If you see or hear something suspicious, you have an active duty to report that information to police. Failure to do so could result in your being charged with a criminal offence. Today, you become adult members of our society. That means you take on significant responsibilities. I hope that is clear to you all.’

Where they would once have been sent to physical exams, they were called away to interviews.

‘I really hope you find the souls you’re looking for,’ she told the Senior Constable conducting hers. He was fairly young, but had a hard look in his eyes that she thought would probably be considered incriminating if he were in her position.

‘You’re free to go,’ the officer told her.

Astrea smiled at him, smiled at everyone she saw as she walked back out of the hall, smiled until it hurt, smiled with fear because she didn’t feel free at all.

 

24

 

The coffee had barely even been an afterthought; Astrea’s head was whirring with case names and dates for her final-year exams, aching with the friction of them all, and the decision to recaffeinate before the interview for the clerkship was instinctive. She checked her makeup as she waited, bracing herself against the stream of blood that ran from her nose in the little round window of her compact. She heard a scream—a raw, dying sound that cut off too suddenly. No one around her reacted. Please! I said we surrend—

Astrea did her breathing exercises and let the memories play themselves out. She smoothed composure on over her face like her Bobbi Brown setting powder. The residue was always most unsettling when she was stressed, but she’d had five years of practice at swallowing her reactions.

This interview had to go well. Justice Ellins had been a driving force behind the amendments that outlawed soul-searching, and Astrea had wanted nothing more than to work for him ever since she’d read his work in first-year Jurisprudence.

She promised herself that once the interview was over she’d squeeze in an extra yoga session at the gym.

‘A caramel latte?’ Ellins raised an eyebrow as she offered him one of the twin coffees in her hand. ‘That’s certainly not my regular order.’

‘I—’ Astrea had blown the interview already. Her resume was not exceptional enough to counterbalance some bizarre, presumptuous slipup. ‘I’m so sorry—’

‘More of a guilty pleasure from my youth,’ Ellins took a long sip of the drink, set it down on his desk, and regarded her intently. ‘How did you know?’

‘Maybe I read it somewhere?’ Astrea floundered.

‘No, you wouldn’t have. It’s Astrea, isn’t it? How old are you?’

‘Twenty-four.’

‘That seems right. And how much have you discovered about your past lives?’

‘Nothing illuminating,’ Astrea’s response was automatic.

‘I see. Are you familiar with the name Nathaniel Chan, by any chance?’

Astrea went cold. ‘He and his family were part of the same Anti-Registry campaigns you were,’ she answered. He knows, went the rhythm of her pulse, too loud in her ears. He knows. He knows.

She remembered the afternoon she’d read about Chan. She had been researching for an assignment, sitting in a cafe and soaking up the coffee and wifi on offer there.

Nathaniel Chan, the tenth incarnation of soul 3396 since the notorious Ezekiel Armstrong, died in prison from several knife wounds. Chan’s parents released a statement saying they stood by their son’s innocence, as they had done since he was imprisoned upon Confession twenty-three years earlier. Chan, who as a child was a musical prodigy and aspiring astronomer—

‘Hey, you alright?’ the waiter had interrupted Astrea’s reading as he’d cleared away her most recent coffee cup.

Astrea had nodded politely, only just able to hear him over the piano notes that seemed to be resonating from the fibres of her muscles, emptying out pockets of memory buried deeper within her than she’d ever gone before.

‘Are you alright, Astrea?’ Justice Ellins asked.

‘Of course, Your Honour,’ she blurted out.

Ellins laughed. ‘None of that. In fact, you should call me Arthur. I wonder whether maybe you’d like to take a trip to the observatory sometime? I used to go there with a friend of mine when we were just boys; he always found it quite relaxing.’

 

28

 

It was impulsive, stepping into the unfamiliar hair salon the day before her biggest trial yet was due to begin.

‘I was thinking of copper highlights, as well as a touch-up of the blonde,’ she told the hairdresser, who reached around to fasten the cape across Astrea’s front with arms covered in rose tattoos.

She wasn’t sure what identified her, but Lita stopped her movement and met Astrea’s eyes in the mirror.

‘Did we meet at Confession?’ she asked. ‘Ten years ago. I swear you look like—’

‘We did. I see you got your tattoos—the permanent version.’

‘As permanent as anything in a single lifetime is. What are you up to now? You’re dressed all corporate.’

‘I’m working as a defence lawyer, currently,’ Astrea explained. Crown Prosecutor was the ultimate goal, but she kept that quiet when Lita leapt at the defence aspect.

‘Wow, sounds stressful. That explains why you’re so tense, I guess. I’m sure you’re helping a lot of people—now that it’s harder to, you know, identify souls, lots of average folk are needing good defence lawyers to vouch for them. I reckon there are so many that are wrongly accused.’

Astrea shut her eyes while Lita worked, listening to the steady stream of chatter the hairdresser kept up.

‘My boyfriend’s the president of Green Souls—you might have heard of us, but if not, we’re all about taking radical action to stand up for the environment. We’re doing a protest soon, actually. I can’t tell you the details yet, but you should keep an eye out for us in the news. Actually, have you got a business card or something I can take?’

Astrea gave Lita her card, but she didn’t get a call, and she didn’t see anything about Green Souls on the news. Not that year, at least.

 

36

 

Astrea was always dazzled by the stars. The wide open space of the sky was a comfort she’d missed for many lifetimes. She had long ago begun to suspect that Arthur was bored of the observatory, but he humoured her.

‘There’s a case coming up that might be the one,’ Arthur told her quietly. ‘Eco-terrorism charges, so not an unconvincing match for Armstrong’s war crimes. And she’s thirty-six.’

‘Lita.’ Astrea had seen the case in the media, but she’d have known the name regardless. ‘It’s crazy, Arthur—I sat right next to her on Confession Day.’

Arthur frowned. ‘You can do it, though? You will?’

With every new arrest of someone Astrea’s age, or even close to it, there were new questions about soul 3396. Among those the media suspected there was even a client Astrea had defended several years ago, before she finally made the transition to prosecution. Joseph Stene, the client, had murdered his wife and young daughter. This is what people expect from me, Astrea had thought, flipping through the tabloid pages despite her better judgment. Every word she’d spoken in Stene’s defence felt like a confession of her own. I’m just doing my job, she’d had to remind herself. Everyone should know it’s just my job.

There was only one way to make it stop. Once the world finally had its soul 3396, it wouldn’t matter what Astrea said anymore. She could even advocate for the abolition of the Registry without feeling like she was exposing herself. She could do good, that way.

‘It’s the perfect chance,’ she gave Arthur a decisive nod. ‘I’ve been on the run for half my life; I’ll do whatever I have to.’

 

37

 

Arthur takes his time reading out the verdict. Even though Astrea knows what it’s going to be, she needs to officially hear the words and be out of this courtroom so that she can breathe, cry, rest, scream. To finally be acquitted of being will surely be an unimaginable relief.

She casts her eyes across the room to where Lita sits. Her floral wrists are cuffed in her lap. It’s unfortunate. Not what Astrea would want. But it’s self-defence. She watches on with a hard look in her eyes that might have been considered incriminating, had she been in Lita’s position.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Soul 3396′

Tagged , , ,

The Valley, Anna Blackie

Marcus hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. He marvelled at how insignificant it seemed from this height. Turning his focus to what lay above him, Marcus hauled himself through the crack in the sky, the tantalising scent of fresh air luring him out of his comfort zone. Finally, he lurched over the rim of the Valley, scurrying onto a thin ledge and standing shakily, desperately pushing his aching muscles, both terrified and excited by what lay before him.

*

  The air was warm and thick, despite the relentless movement in the Valley. They had long ago realised that fresh air was not easy to come by, all breeze barred by the vast mountains that surrounded the small town. Marcus clung to the tree beside him, his fingernails digging into the soft bark. The ground trembled incessantly, the vibrations growing stronger and stronger with each passing second. Marcus analysed the movement of the earth, careful to note the way the ground folded and creased as the disturbance played out. The earth continued to shudder violently, those who were unprepared sent soaring through the air. He watched as Mr Roy, the baker, flew past him, the stout man bracing himself for the inevitable impact against the Valley wall. As suddenly as they had begun the tremors ended. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to the small crack of light shining through the top of the Valley. He watched closely, waiting for change, some movement, just a flicker of light, anything…   With a deep sigh Marcus released the tree, his fingers unfurling to reveal two large handfuls of dirty bark. He gently released the debris, opening and closing his hands in an attempt to restore the blood-flow.
‘Marcus!’ Mr Roy called from behind him. Marcus turned to watch the small man make his way back up the hill, his white apron askew, and face bright red from the effort.
‘All right there, Mr Roy?’ He called back to the baker.
‘Yes, yes, this isn’t my first disturbance you know.’ Mr Roy chided as he reached him, the bakers ruddy face glistening with a layer of sweat. ‘But you know how these things are, let your guard down for five minutes and you’re soarin’ out your kitchen window!’ Marcus laughed, life in the Valley certainly did have an element of the unexpected.
‘How’s that research of yours coming?’ Mr Roy asked as the two men walked together through the Valley.
‘Oh, you know,’ he mumbled in reply, ‘No breakthroughs yet.’
‘Well you just keep on keeping on, Marcus’ Mr Roy said, his jovial tone before suddenly turning serious, ‘If anyone can crack the code of this place, it’s you.’ With that, Mr Roy gave Marcus a firm clap on the back and made his way back into his bakery.

*

  The origin of The Valley had been speculated over for as long as there had been people inhabiting the tiny enclave. The Church of the Palm spoke of a hand that reached down into the Valley and released life onto the land. The non-believers spouted stories of people falling from the sky, of fish growing legs and emerging from the Valley’s deep, stagnant lake. Children were told tales of men sprouting from the ground, like seeds growing from the soil. Marcus seemed to be the only citizen of the Valley unable to stand the ambiguity; even as a boy he remembered questioning the fables their home was built upon, the myths and folklore not enough to satisfy his thirst for the truth. Although, it wasn’t until the arrival of disc that Marcus fully began to question the Valley, becoming desperate to know what lay outside the only reality he had ever known.

Marcus followed the outer wall of the Valley home from school, his small fingers running against the smooth barrier that surrounded him. He moved with a bounce in his step, a somewhat unexpected side-effect of the spongey Valley floor. As he grew closer to home he caught the sound of voices, the walls surrounding the town making it almost impossible to have a private conversation outdoors without your dirty laundry echoing throughout the town.
‘Do we tell him?’ he heard his father ask apprehensively.
‘Of course we tell him.’ his mother replied, ‘don’t we?’ she added with uncertainty. Marcus stopped and listened to the conversation, sure that his parents were talking about him.
‘This is just the sort of thing he’d obsess over…’
‘Well, we can’t very well hide It.’ his mother declared. Curiosity burned through him, and Marcus began to sprint towards his home, the sprung-floor of the Valley bouncing his tiny body higher and farther than he could have managed alone. He rounded the corner and spotted his house.

The small cottage hugged rocky boundary of the Valley, its walls and roof anchored to the side of the cliff. Marcus followed the sound of voices to the small garden outside. His mother and father stood in the centre of the grassed area, his younger sister Jenny hugging their father’s legs, her small body not even reaching his knee. Marcus was too excited to focus on his family, his attention immediately drawn to the object. It lay in the corner of the back-yard, squishing half of the vegetable garden. The disc was huge, at least three times the size of their house. Marcus approached it slowly, as if afraid the inanimate silver object would rear up and bite him. His family stayed quiet as they watched him inch closer, sensing the fervent excitement that lay beneath his hesitation. He walked slowly around the object, amazed by the vast size, taking its metallic sheen and the massive, stern face chiselled into its surface.
‘What do you think it is?’ he asked his parents who had silent moved to stand behind him. Marcus’s mind was reeling with possibilities of the disc’s origin, each more unlikely than the last.
‘They used to tell us stories about silver discs in school. Myths of these objects falling from the sky and crushing whole houses.’ His father told him quietly, ‘I always thought they were just fairy-tales, scary stories…’
‘Where did it come from?’ Marcus asked as he crouched down to touch the object, caressing its cold, hard surface. ‘How did it get here?’
‘It arrived while you were at school,’ Jenny announced from behind Marcus, making him jump slightly as he had been so involved in the object that he’d forgotten she was there.
‘I was lying in the garden looking up at the sky,’ she gestured to the sliver of light shining through the roof of the Valley, ‘then suddenly it got really bright, and that thing,’ she gestured to the mysterious silver disc, now glistening in the dim light, ‘started to fall towards me. I jumped up and moved, it would have squished me flat if I hadn’t!’ Jenny finished her story, beaming from ear to ear. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, the moment Marcus had been waiting for. Of course it was Jenny who saw it all go down.
‘It came from the sky?’ Marcus repeated, running the words through his head, trying to make sense of the senseless.
‘That’s what I said.’ Jenny replied, clearly miffed at Marcus’s lack of appreciation of her near-death experience. Marcus plunked himself down next to disc, not willing to give his younger sister the satisfaction of appreciating her story. Despite his overwhelming jealousy, Marcus knew he had to find out the origins of the disc.

*

The disappearance of the disc was as surprising as its arrival. Each morning Marcus had ventured out into the garden to perform his daily tests. First he measured it, struggling to reach his tape measure over the diameter of an object so much larger than himself. He often dreamed about the disc growing through the night. He would run into the garden the next morning, disappointed to discover nothing had changed. After he’d taken his measurements he would sketch the object, careful to include every detail. When the disc had first arrived Marcus left gifts of food next to it morning and evening, at least until his father had found out and stopped him, unwilling to waste the food on an inanimate object that had crushed half of their vegetable garden. Unable to provoke a reaction from the disc any other way, Marcus had begun to speak to it. He would tell it his dreams as he performed his tests, then inform it of his day at school in the afternoons. Despite the disc’s obvious inanimate nature, Marcus had become quite fond of the object and the plethora of secrets he imagined it held.

Marcus had fallen behind on his testing schedule on the morning of the disc’s disappearance. He’d been unwilling to enter the conscious realm, his dreams filled with silver objects raining from the sky, the faces etched on the discs filling his ears with stories of the world beyond the Valley. When he finally awoke and made his way outside he was greeted with a sight much more spectacular than that of his dream. An enormous hand emerged through the crack in the sky. The hand was more massive than anything Marcus had ever imagined, thousands of times bigger than the disc. The light emanating from the crack in the sky caught on the hands gargantuan surface, illuminating its full scope while darkening the valley below. Each finger was alarmingly thick, the giant fingernails grubby with dirt. Marcus stole a look at his own hand and marvelled at the similarities, unable to form a coherent thought about what was unfolding before him. A thick wrist covered in dense black hair came into Marcus’s view, lowering the hand closer and closer to the disc. The fingers flexed towards the object, reaching to capture it in its grasp. Marcus scurried to the side of his garden, sketching the scene transpiring before him, a voice in his head screaming to him, telling him this is what he had been waiting for. The hand plucked up the disc, lifting it as if it was no more than a piece of paper. Marcus watched in awe as the hand rose higher. The wrist disappeared through the crack pulling the hand and disc along with it.

Speculation as to the origin of the disc and hand ran rampant throughout the Valley. The Church of the Palm experienced an influx in their patronage, the towns’ people believing that God had finally begun to take an interest in their home, the hope being that this Almighty force may be receptive to the prayers of the people. Those of religious orientation began to pray day and night, waiting for a hand big enough to destroy them to reach down and grant their wishes. Others were less optimistic, believing the hand and the disc were signs of the apocalypse, and thus began to prepare themselves accordingly. However, as the weeks past with no sign of the hand, disc or anything else out of the ordinary (despite the regular tremors, which the people of the town had long since accepted as a fact of everyday life) the people began to forget, and soon questions of the unknown were put aside and people moved on with the mundane flow of life. All, that is, except for Marcus. The appearance of the coin had sparked something within him, a deep, searing curiosity that consumed his every waking moment. For the next five years the coin, the hand and the origin of the Valley were all he thought about.

*

Marcus had worked tirelessly to prepare himself for what lay beyond his home. He had developed strong, muscular shoulders from spelunking and climbing throughout the Valley. He had also grown to match his father’s height. At 16, Marcus was already a head taller than all the citizens of the Valley and showed no signs of a decline in his growth. As he continued to grow, he found his climbing exploits became gradually easier. His length allowed his to reach further and pull himself higher along the enclosed walls of the Valley. One day he found himself further up than he had ever been before. The view was magnificent, Marcus could see the entirety of the Valley stretched out before him, his friends and family ambling along beneath him. From this vantage he could see the overhang of the crack in the sky, like a rock shelf, certainly one that Marcus could hoist himself onto. He had no idea what would be on the other side, but he was sure that it was the key to the mystery of his home.

‘Climb out?’ She repeated incredulously, ‘How do you even know there is an out? For all we know you could get to the top and fall into nothing.’ His parents sat across the table from him; his mother ringing her hands as she spoke, while his father remained stoic and silent, apparently deep in thought.
‘There has to be something more out there, Mum’ he pleaded with her, ‘the hand, the disc, they had to have come from somewhere.’
‘But Marcus-’ she started, struggling explanation to placate her sons curiosities.
‘No Mum, we both know it’s true. There has to be more than this…’
‘He needs to go,’ his father announced.
‘What! How can you support this Jeremy?’
‘If we don’t let him go now he’s just going to find a way to do it eventually anyway, right Marcus?’
‘Yes,’ Marcus answered, avoiding his parents gaze.
‘But if he goes now and we help him prepare, then, maybe, he’ll have a better chance.’ Marcus’s mother listened incredulously, unable to accept the idea of releasing her only son into the unknown.
‘I need to know what’s out there Mum,’ Marcus told her, gripping both her hands in his, ‘If I don’t figure this out it will eat me alive.’ Tears cascaded down her face as she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded.

  *

He hung on the precipice of the Valley, looking down into the only world he’d ever known. Marcus reached out to haul himself through the hole in the sky, his aching muscles screaming in protest as he heaved his long body through the crevice and out into the open air. The sky Marcus saw as he emerged from the crack was more spectacular than he could have dreamed, the light so bright he was forced to cover his eyes. The weak rays of light that had shone down into the Valley were nothing in comparison to the huge, burning ball of bright heat that hovering miraculously on the skyline, causing Marcus’s eyes to water as he peaked at it from behind his hand. Marcus’s vision began to adjust as he took in the breathtaking view before him. He had done it. Finally, gloriously, he had done it.

Eventually he tore his eyes away from the marvel before him and looked back down towards the Valley. He could now see that his home was a deep crevice, carved into the side of what appeared to be a colossal mountain. As Marcus craned his neck backwards to take in the scope of the mountain, a deafening sound ruptured through the silence, followed by a vicious rumbling underfoot. Marcus grabbed hold of the closest ridge and clung for dear life. The disturbance outside the Valley far more violent than he could have anticipated. Around him he saw a flurry of movements. The hand appeared, Marcus watched as a long arm protruded out from behind it. A desperate excitement inside him screaming that the truth was almost known. Marcus could see now that the arm was attached to the mountain. His brain exploded with millions of attempted explanations, struggling to comprehend what he was transpiring around him. Before he had time to digest this breakthrough, he felt the shuddering increase. A sound louder than anything Marcus had ever heard broke through the air around him- a barking cough amplified to the highest extend. The violent tremor of the mountain was unrelenting. Marcus’s grip faltered and he slipped down the ledge, grappling wildly in an attempt to grab hold of the cracked opening of the Valley. Before his hands could make purchase, Marcus was flung from the mountain. Sheer terror flooded through him as he felt himself freefalling away from everything he had ever know and the answers to the mystery which he had devoted his life. As he fell backwards he looked up towards the mountain, his perspective and the shock of his imminent death allowing him to take in the enormity of what stood above him, and process what he saw him with no scepticism or fear.

A huge man, the scale of which beyond anything that Marcus could have possibly imagined stood before him, draped in the mountain that Marcus now realised to be a huge overcoat. Marcus continued to fall, the air pushing past him at a phenomenal speed, but he no longer cared. It was a man, no mountain or Valley, but the biggest man Marcus had or would ever see. A sudden wave of tranquillity washed over him as his minuscule body hurdled to the ground.

 

Download a PDF of The Valley

Tagged , , , ,

As We Go On, Mary Lou Raposa

‘… at ten-thirty.’

Her hands tighten around the phone. ‘I know.’

‘Don’t be late.’

Her vision melts into a multi-coloured blur as she considers how to best answer the command. ‘I’ll try.’ The sound of laughter forces her vision to refocus. Two teenage girls walk past her and she watches them as they cross to the next carriage. ‘I’m gonna go.’

‘Okay. Take care, Gwen, okay?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Remember: ten-thirty.’

Yes.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow—love you.’

‘Love you too, mum.’ Sighing, Gwen disconnects the call and drops the phone on the tray. She doesn’t rise; instead, she glances at the folded piece of paper beside the phone—she was in the middle of unfolding it when her mother called. She continues to stare, breathing deep, heart lurching as she exhales. Fingertips shaking, she takes the paper and resumes unfolding. The page opens within seconds, but she barely reads the first word when her heart jumps up her throat. She scrambles to refold the paper and stuffs it in her trouser pocket. Pain and guilt radiate in her chest as her heart continues to race.

Later she promises. Sleep—that’s all she needs; she hasn’t been sleeping well for the past few nights. She curls into herself, rests her head against the window, and closes her eyes.

*

‘I got lucky with my kids.’

‘Yeah?’

The words floated from the kitchen to the living room. Thirteen year old Gwen ate blue M&M’s and turned from the TV to look at the kitchen where her mother and Melanie’s nanny, Ella, stood.

‘Mhm. Seven years apart, but no big problems. It was hard at first, though, let me tell you. Hallie was a rascal and she had all the attention. She threw some massive tantrums when she found out about Gwen—even chucked toys at me when I began to show.’

‘Oh no!’

‘Yeah… she stopped when Gwen arrived, though—good thing too. Gwen’s shy—easily bullied… Hallie was all she had. Now they’re close and everything; I don’t worry about them.’

‘Aw. Siblings are good, aren’t they? Melanie’s an only child, you know—’

‘Mmm.’

‘And Mr Kingston’s always busy so she had to do things alone. Meeting Gwen was the best thing for her.’

‘Oh, Absolutely. Thick as thieves, those two!’

Laughter exploded out of the kitchen as Gwen heard footsteps behind her. She turned and saw Hallie approaching, expression expectant. ‘You’ve twenty bucks for a cab, Gwen?’

Gwen hesitated. ‘Uhm…’

‘Please? If I’m late again they’ll fire me.’

Hallie’s words stabbed guilt into Gwen and she couldn’t resist. She retrieved her wallet. ‘Maybe… you should stop being late?’

‘Shut up. I was up all night for an assignment.’

‘Sorry.’ Gwen held out the bill and Hallie snatched it. ‘I really need this back.’

‘I’ll try—but you know I’m saving up for a car, right?’ Hallie kissed Gwen on the head before striding towards the door. ‘Love you!’

Gwen felt Melanie’s eyes on her, but she ignored it as she resumed her seat after Hallie left.

‘Has she paid you back for last week?’

‘Not yet.’

‘You should tell your mum.’

‘Why? Hallie needed help, that’s all.’ Gwen grabbed a handful of her M&M’s and nicked a few of Melanie’s red ones. Gwen laughed and tried to escape when Melanie attempted to flick her ear. Soon Melanie relented, leaning back just as an M&M commercial came on.

‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have purple M&M’s?’ Gwen blurted.

‘That’d be awesome, actually.’

*

At fourteen, Gwen entered the airport for the first time. Melanie’s father was going to Singapore for a five months business trip and Melanie, with Ella, had to see him off. Gwen accompanied Melanie at her request.

Father and daughter exchanged farewells while Gwen observed from a short distance. She expected tears, but it was all perfunctory. The hug didn’t last five seconds and when they parted the words that came out of Mr Kingston were: ‘Stop causing trouble in school, okay? Every call I get from the principal is a waste of our time.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Concentrate on your studies.’

‘I will.’

Mr Kingston nodded and turned to Gwen. ‘Take care.’

‘Have a safe flight, sir.’

The girls and Ella watched Mr Kingston depart for the gates, only facing each other when he finally disappeared into the crowd. Gwen noticed Melanie’s eyes glistening and draped an arm around her shoulders. ‘Let’s eat?’ she said.

‘Okay.’

*

‘So pumped for this movie.’

‘Same—mum! We’re going!’

‘Take care!’

Gwen, fifteen, opened the door. Melanie nearly stepped out when footsteps echoed in the living room.

‘Gwen! Help me out with my assign—oh. Going out?’

Gwen tensed and faced Hallie. ‘Yeah, the movies… I told you yesterday.’

‘Really? I forgot. Was hoping you’d help me.’

Gwen winced, but before she could say anything Melanie took her shoulder. ‘You’re a big girl, Hal; you’ll be fine,’ she quipped.

‘No shit.’ Hallie snorted. ‘Back to work for just me then—you girls enjoy.’

Gwen couldn’t say goodbye as Melanie pushed her out of the flat. Inadequacy and guilt plagued her as she walked down the hallway. If she only knew earlier then she could’ve spared more time—

‘Stop.’

‘What?’ Gwen glanced at Melanie.

‘Stop feeling guilty.’ Melanie raised her brows. ‘You’re not Hallie; you’re not responsible for her uni work or her life.’

‘She just needed help—’

‘You always say that. She’s an adult; she needs to stop relying on you—it should be the other way around, actually.’

‘I don’t need help. Besides, she’s my sister.’

‘So?’

Their eyes met, each gaze challenging, but neither said another word as stifling silence fell between them.

*

Gwen, sixteen, waited at the back gate for Melanie—the teacher held her back to discuss detention. Gwen wanted to wait outside the classroom, but Melanie told her to go on first. Now, she glanced at the gates every few minutes and wondered every time if Melanie was okay.

Minutes trickled on and the crowd of students diminished as they boarded their respective buses. Often, Gwen glanced up the school. Finally, as the worry threatened to overwhelm her, Melanie emerged from one of the buildings. Her expression was impassive and flanking her were three girls. Gwen’s stomach dropped at the sight of them. Those girls belonged in their grade and she knew them… though, not for the right things.

She watched them approach; soon, they were near enough that she could hear their conversation:

‘You having a party?’

‘No… just dinner and stuff.’

‘Really? It’s your sweet sixteenth, but.’

‘Yeah, we was thinking you’d have a party.’

‘Uhm… that’s not really my thing.’

Melanie smiled at Gwen and she smiled back, though she wanted recoil when the other girls noticed her. They only gave her saccharine smiles as they said farewell to Melanie.

‘You seem close.’ Gwen said after they left.

‘Sort of.’

‘Since when do you guys talk?’

‘Oh… we had a group assignment in English.’

‘I see.’ Gwen widened her smile and decided not to push the matter for now. ‘Dinner? You did that last year.’

‘I lied.’ Melanie sighed. ‘It’s just me. Dad decided to stay longer in London.’

Gwen’s smile vanished. ‘What? Wait… didn’t he come home last night?’

‘He called yesterday and said something came up. I don’t know.’

Gwen remained silent. Soon, Melanie’s car arrived, driving off after the girls slid into the backseat. The journey was thick with silence, the tension so dense that it was suffocating. Gwen stole glances at Melanie and made her decision.

‘You’re sleeping over.’ Gwen said as the car stopped in front of her house.

‘What?’

‘Come on.’ Gwen grabbed her backpack and stepped out of the car.

‘Seriously?’

Yes! Let’s go!’ Gwen grinned when Melanie jumped out of the car. She pulled her backpack forward as the car drove away, fishing keys out of the front pocket. ‘This’ll be great,’ she said. ‘We can buy cake—if not, we’ll make one. It’s gonna be crap, but better than nothing, yeah?’

‘Gwen?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Thank you.’

Gwen looked at Melanie, saw the red cheeks and glistening eyes, and embraced her. ‘Don’t mention it. Come, we’ll order pizza—I think we still have M&M’s somewhere.’

*

‘Cigs’re gone. What’d he say?’

‘He grounded me… from everything.’

‘Well, you deserve that.’

‘It’s just a bit of fun.’

Gwen, seventeen, rolled her eyes and closed the bedroom door behind her with more force than necessary. ‘Defacing public property is not fun.’

Melanie sighed. ‘All right. Thanks for helping, by the way.’

Gwen sat on the edge of the bed. ‘You should stop.’

‘Stop what?’

‘Whatever you’re doing. Stop hanging out with those people. Stop ruining your life.’

‘They’re not bad—’

‘They’re not good for you!’ Gwen snapped. ‘This is beyond skipping school, Mel. This is far from—from shitty test scores and back-talking teachers. This is illegal—do you want to be a criminal?’

‘… No.’

‘I don’t either—wait.’ Gwen glanced at her phone when it buzzed and saw a text from Hallie: gwen im short on rent money cover for me pls i’ll pay u back love u! Dejection settled heavily in her stomach. ‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously what?’

Gwen brought the phone back to her ear. ‘Nothing.’

‘Hallie?’

‘No?’

Melanie scoffed. ‘Okay. You need to stop.’

‘Wait, don’t change the subj—’

‘Listen: giving Hallie everything you have is ruining your life. You have to stop enabling her.’

Gwen rubbed her face in irritation. ‘But she needs m—’

‘Stop saying that! She’s using you, Gwen! If you let her she’ll keep using you until you die! Is that what you want?’

Gwen’s lips trembled, but remained silent.

‘Stop enabling her… or I’ll tell your mum.’

Tears dampened the corners of Gwen’s eyes. She bit her lip. Neither girls said another word, but the line remained open and the silence between them stretched for a long time.

*

Gwen, eighteen, laid flat on the couch. The TV showed the news, but she wasn’t listening. On the floor a poster covered with signatures, sketches, and messaged leaned against the coffee table. The urge to cry hung at the back of her throat and she had to swallow hard repeatedly to keep the tears from escaping. Resentment danced in her mind—right now, she didn’t want to see Hallie’s face.

Somewhere in the city her classmates celebrated graduation. She mean to go—saved for it the week before, but two days ago Hallie was short on rent money again. What could Gwen do?

Minutes melted into hours. A game show replaced the news, but Gwen remained on the couch. Thoughts of the celebrations filled her mind—she could’ve been with them.

The sound of a lock releasing shattered the silence. Gwen didn’t move when her mother called her name until—

‘Melanie’s here.’

Gwen sat up and saw her mother approaching. Melanie stood by the door. Gwen’s shock at the sight of Melanie diminished under growing confusion when she caught the way Melanie avoided her eyes and the sombre expression on her mother’s face. ‘What’s… happening?’

‘Gwen…’ her mother hesitated. ‘We need to talk about Hallie.’

A cold feeling spread across Gwen’s back. She stared at her mother in horror before turning to Melanie. ‘You told her.’

‘I did.’ Melanie finally looked at Gwen.

Gwen stood and approached Melanie. ‘But… it’s none of your business! Why would you do that?’

‘I’m sorry—I can’t stand by anymore. You’re meant to be celebrating with us, Gwen… but look what Hallie did. I’m so sorry, but I’ve had enough. I had to do something.’

Gwen shook her head as her hands balled into fists. ‘Get out.’

‘Gwen—’

‘Get out!’ Gwen shoved Melanie out of the flat and slammed the door in her face.

*

Gwen stared at her phone. No messages in the past three months; not one phone call. This was the longest they went without talking. The fact that she didn’t notice until now…

Gwen’s anger at Melanie lasted for a while. Hallie avoided Gwen after their mum found out—it was expected, but it didn’t lessen the hurt. To distract herself from the absence of the two most constant people in her life, Gwen applied for jobs and volunteer work. Then university started, the new experience overwhelming her. Often she’d stare at her mobile lonely, dejected, and tempted to call Melanie, but her mind persistently returned to that night—after what she’d done, why would Melanie want to talk to her? That call never happened. Work, stress, and anxiety piled high above Gwen’s head and she struggled to resurface.

Then one night she received a call from the local hospital about Melanie Kingston.

Gwen’s head snapped up from the phone when she heard a groan. Her throat constricted at the sight of Melanie moving and scooted forward to take her hand. ‘Hi.’

‘Gwen?’ Melanie struggled to open her eyes, voice rough.

‘Yeah.’

‘W-what’re you—’

‘Apparently, I’m your emergency contact.’

‘Oh… yeah.’

Gwen stroked Melanie’s hand. ‘I had to call your dad, though. I hope that’s okay.’

‘Might as well.’

Gwen didn’t say anything and continued to stroke Melanie’s hand. She eyed Melanie’s arm, examined the scars and bruises marring the inside of it. Her stomach felt hollow. Melanie didn’t have these the last time they saw each other… they’ve only been apart three months. How was this possible?

‘Gwen?’

Gwen swallowed hard. ‘Yeah?’

‘You forgive me yet?’

The words were casual, rough. Tears sprang to Gwen’s eyes unbidden. She bowed her head, gripped Melanie’s hand, and rested her forehead on it. ‘I do. I forgive you.’

*

Eleven-fifteen.

Fists deep in her coat pockets, Gwen appraises the church from the bottom of the steps. A faint male voice echoes through the open doors and glues Gwen’s feet to the concrete. She swallows hard and inhales sharply before dragging one foot in front of the other. Like a machine, she repeats the action until she reaches the top of the stairs.

‘When I almost—almost lost her a year ago… it opened my eyes. Right then I promised her that we’ll be a proper—proper family.’

Gwen enters, presence muted, not making a sound. Half of the church is filled with guests, but she doesn’t know most of them. She sits on an empty pew, unable to join the sea of black. On the podium is Melanie’s father; he spots her and smiles gratefully. She returns the gesture reluctantly.

‘For the past year we were… uhm… happy. I learned… so much about her—’ he sobs and bows his head. ‘When s-she overdosed again and I-I finally lost her… it’s c-cruelty I never expected.’

Regret is pointless, Gwen thinks. It doesn’t revive the dead… it doesn’t forgive the living either. She tunes him out and stares at the casket separating him from the guests. The lid is closed, the lower half covered with white lilies. Knowing what’s inside sucks all the air out of Gwen’s lungs. Disbelief suspends her out of the bubble of grief. She doesn’t believe it, but the next second she wants to scream. Tears dampen the corners of her eyes as the desire to keel and pull her hair claws her body. She steels herself by gripping the folded paper in her trouser pocket.

‘We now invite Gwen Morgan, Melanie’s best friend, to speak.’

She shuts down the moment all the guests turn to stare at her. She doesn’t remember rising from the pew or the walk to the dais. The next time she becomes aware is when she stands behind the podium, her hand still gripping the paper. She stares at the casket and freezes—she’s glad the lid is closed. She doesn’t want to see what Melanie looked like in there. Instead, she thinks about the times when Melanie smiled, joked, and was alive. She steals courage from that and pulls the paper out. Her fingers remain steady as she unfolds it, but when she leans towards the mic and tries to speak, no words come out. Her tongue feels like glue in her mouth. She clears her throat and tries again. ‘Thick as thieves… that’s what my mum said about us. But… we’re more than that.’

 

Download a pdf of ‘As We Go On’

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Robota, Alice Maher

The bots stared glassily ahead as dozens of off-duty humans milled about them.

‘The Sophisticated Models, or SMs, are self-decontaminating; I suppose that was important for OH&S back in the pleasure houses, and it’s just as useful here. We don’t care as much about the BASE models, but the SMs can clean all forty or so of them in only a few minutes, so we get that out of the way too.’ A plump woman who had introduced herself as ‘Quebec’ but never asked for Jin’s name, was showing him around the mining facility: his home for the next three-year rotation. Currently, she was leading him through the large hangar where the ‘mining tools’ were kept when not in use.

All the bots were second-hand. Even if Quebec hadn’t joked about the cost-saving prowess of the Mars Mining Initiative (MMI for short), Jin could still have guessed. It seemed like every factory and pleasure house on Earth shipped their outmoded bots up to Mars to be repurposed as a miner. The MMI must offer a price slightly higher than the scrap-merchants, but still low enough to be economical. Despite this clear desire to cut corners, Jin noticed that all of them, from the two squads of BASE Models (little more than expressionless crash-test dummies with a polycarbonate frame) to the thirty-three more human-looking SMs, were clothed. To be fair, it was an odd jumble of outfits that made the bots look shabbier than ever. All of it looked laundered and well-maintained, but was all still permanently stained Mars Red and Coal Black.
Jin side-stepped a small group of his fellow humans, who were crowding around an SM with a shirt that said “I BEAT JONA’S BURRITO CHALLENGE.” ‘Why clothe them at all if they’re just here to mine coal?’

Quebec laughed a little embarrassedly. ‘Well, initially we just clothed the SMs. They’re all anatomically correct, of course, and a lot of us workers found it…distracting, to see them working in such a state. So we got some old clothes sent out to make them decent.’

‘And the BASE models?’

‘Ah, well after covering up the other ones, it seemed proper to clothe everyone. The SMs looked too human, standing next to the BASE models with their faces and clothing, and the BASE models by comparison didn’t look human enough.” She shrugged as though embarrassed.

Earlier, Jin had been shown the main workstation, where the humans monitored the mine from the safety of the facility. A massive window overlooked the scarlet-black scar of its entrance. He had watched from on-high as the bots marched from the mine back to the facility. They had seemed creepy then, out on the Martian landscape, and they were downright unnerving up close.

At least Jin thought so. Everybody else seemed eager enough to be around them, inspecting them with more than just professional diligence. Quebec had practically dragged him down here once the shift ended, to show him ‘the best part of the tour.’ She stopped by a female SM that had drawn the largest crowd.

‘Quebec, that the new kid?’ one of the other workers asked.

Quebec nodded but didn’t make introductions. Would anyone ever care to learn his name?

‘He gonna draw lots for The Supervisor?’

‘Who?’ Jin glanced around for an authority figure.

The others laughed and Quebec gestured to the SM. ‘We call this one The Supervisor because she’s in the best shape, so we usually send her down with the transmitter.’ It was protocol that every time the bot team entered the mine, a communication device was sent with them.

The Supervisor had a delicate nose and straight black hair: like Jin, she was clearly of Japanese origin. But where his features were organic, the bot was too symmetrical, her complexion too flawless. Only the faded overalls looked like they changed over time, and this helped to soften the striking image. She (it?) was certainly beautiful, a classic pleasure model. After a moment Jin realised that was exactly why they were crowded around her.

Quebec confirmed his suspicions. ‘We draw lots to decide who goes first,’ she explained, and one man made a crude gesture.

Jin suddenly felt very young. He saw that other humans, less picky or less lucky, had activated different SMs and were leading them away to rooms beyond.

Before he could speak, Quebec reached up and felt around the nape of The Supervisor’s neck. There was a low hum like an old-fashioned computer booting up, then the bot blinked and looked around.

‘Hello everyone,’ she purred, and Jin yelped. It was common knowledge that pleasure bots could speak (unless ordered not to), but he hadn’t been prepared for how…human it sounded. He’d half expected the Morse code that had trilled over the loudspeakers earlier, when the bots were finishing their shift. Had that been The Supervisor?

The bot was staring at him, and her gaze was unselfconscious. Jin was reminded of a tiger he had seen at a museum in Osaka. Its eyes had been glass beads, its skinned pelt draped over a metal frame, but Jin had still half-expected it to spring at him. He knew he would be the first to look away now.

‘They’re just machines,’ Quebec said after a moment, also staring at him. Her human eyes were more animated, the windows to an actual soul with the actual capacity to harm him, if Quebec chose. But he still found it easier to look at her than at the bot.

Just Machines. Just machines with human faces and human voices. And even the BASE Models had human clothes. What did a bot know about Jona or his burritos? And pockets, too; bots had no use for them, but there they were, in every pair of jeans or battered coat that had once belonged to a real person.

The other workers were getting restless, and soon Jin was forgotten even by Quebec, who must have figured his first day had been informative enough. The Supervisor had also turned away from him, and was smiling demurely at the workers clamouring to ‘go first.’

Quebec found him later, after she and the others had had their fun. Jin could tell she wanted to talk about it, put the new kid’s concerns to rest before they festered. But he brushed her off, laughed, talked about anything else. Mechanical movements.

*

Jin soon learned to avoid the entire ground floor of the facility, where the storage hangar was located. Worker’s quarters were on the higher levels, near the main workstation and technical offices; but there were several old storerooms and such on the ground floor that the crew utilised during their downtime with the bots. Jin stayed up top, reading books and recording messages for his family back on Earth.

Nii-san,

So far this job has been easy enough. I mostly fetch and carry, and occasionally they make me do data entry. So far even you could do it!

I thought I would have a lot more to do with the mining itself, but no. Why try to oxygenate the mine for humans and risk blowing the whole thing up with a loose spark, when bots can do all the work? There are almost a hundred of them, and they don’t need air or even suits; so not only is it a less volatile environment for the coal, but it all works out far cheaper when none of us humans ever even leave the facility. Occasionally one of the bots will send a message over the transmitter- I’ve had to learn Morse code since arriving- but usually it’s almost boring for the people, stuck here in the facility.

Speaking of which, don’t tell Mama this, but the workers here use the bots for sex in their free time. I know that was probably their purpose once, but I still don’t think it’s right. Quebec told me not to think about it like the bots had feelings. ‘High-tech sex toys,’ she called them.

I saw them up close on my first day, and they’re way more realistic than I thought. Kenta told me he visited a pleasure house in Kabukicho once, and was with an SM. Atsuko too, she said her sister rented a male one for her graduation. They’re all beautiful of course, but they’re too real. They even have normal clothes, not just lingerie like in the catalogues. All the looks of a proper human, none of the feelings. I avoid them.

Sorry to bother you with stuff like this. Don’t tell Mama.

-Jin

*

Nii-san,

Today, I got sent down to the storage hangar with Salva, one of the engineers. I had to hold some tools and take some notes while she did her routine check-up of the motor functions of the bots. I asked her why she chose me to assist her, and she said it’s because I don’t use the bots. I don’t think she does either.

We had to strip each bot, to check it for damage. The SMs have particularly delicate outer shells. It’s still much stronger than human skin, but the crew are paranoid about any little tear on their ‘toys.’

For the SMs, Salva switched them on and asked them to strip down by themselves. That was almost worse than us doing it; like part of a routine. I just stared at my clipboard.

Salva even chatted with some of the bots as she inspected their naked bodies. I know it’s just a personality modification that allows them to ‘chat,’ but it’s still creepy. They’re so realistic, I don’t know how people can use them in the way they do. Sending them down the mines to work, taking them away for sex…it’s like slavery. I know I sound like those radicals with the megaphones who hand out posters at Roppongi. But I don’t believe they have real feelings or anything. I don’t think they need to have feelings for it to be wrong.

After we finished inspecting them, we collected up the laundry. This happens every few weeks. The first time, I started shaking out their pockets like I do with my own clothes. Then I realised there was no need. What would a bot ever put in there, after all? So now they’ll just stand there naked until the clothes come back clean tomorrow; no need for spares. No need for decency, at least not while the humans aren’t around. No need to empty out their pockets before throwing them in the wash.

They really are just machines.

*

Jin sat at a desk in the main workstation, the rickety one that he could claim as long as nobody more important wanted it. The other workers tapped languidly at their keyboards as they calculated batching numbers. The bots had been down in the mine doing the real work for about five hours.

Just as Jin thought about going and making a coffee, all the radios in the room sparked to life with a series of beeps. The echoes were too chaotic for Jin to make out the code right away, but after a second Gordin, the head batcher, played the transmission through the loudspeakers and shouted for everyone to shut up.

_._./._/…_/./../_.

It was repeated several times, with barely a pause between the final dit and the first dah.

CAVEINCAVEINCAVEIN…

Everyone started talking at once, over the top of the beeping.

‘Who’s got the transmitter down there?’

‘Message back for more information.’

‘I think it’s The Supervisor.’

‘She won’t give more information if you don’t ask for it.’

‘Ask her how many we’ve lost.’

‘Just tell them to get out of there!’

Gordin tapped out a short message on the straight key, and the transmission shut off. ‘I’ve told them to come back to the facility at once,’ he said, and then crossed the room to stare out the window. After a moment the others followed, clambering for a glimpse

Jin had been sitting close to the window, and was in a good position to see out. It took fifteen minutes of tense anticipation, but eventually the bots began to trickle out of the mouth of the mine. Usually they marched two-by-two, with carts full of coal trundling along between them. But now they staggered out in drips and drabs, dragging limbs that bent at unnatural angles. The first few were only about as dirty as they ever were, but most were covered head to foot in coal dust. They looked like shadows moving across the red rock.

‘Must’ve been buried,’ someone said. ‘Dug themselves out.’

Gordin swore. ‘Salva, I want you to check them out once they’re all in. They look pretty banged-up.’

After a while the procession of bots dwindled down to one every few minutes. Workers began to return to their desks and deal with the expected fallout from the cave-in. Salva kept watching, and Jin, who had no job to do and no desk now that everyone was actually busy, stayed with her.

The engineer grunted. ‘Damn things. There’ll be no end to their glitching now.’

Jin was about to reply when a klaxon drowned him out. He glanced around. The workers seemed as surprised as he.

‘Something in the mine?’ Quebec asked, and Gordin shook his head.

‘No, it’s in the facility. Fire crew to storage hangar, now!’

‘The bots,’ Jin breathed, and Salva fingered her radio.

‘Supervisor, come in Super,’ she called. Now that the bots were inside the facility where there was air, they could send spoken transmissions.

For a moment there was nothing but the klaxon and human chaos. Then there was a crackling noise and the too-human voice of The Supervisor.

‘Copy, Salva,’ she spoke placidly. ‘I’m afraid I cannot speak for long. There is a situation in the hangar.’

‘I know that!’ Salva snapped, ‘That’s what I’m calling about. What’s going on down there?’

‘There is a fire.’

‘How did it start?’

Silence. Then, ‘I am not sure. There seems to be a high concentration of coal dust in the air.’ After another pause, The Supervisor said, ‘I am sorry Salva, but the fire is damaging my outer shell. Emergency protocols are compelling us to leave the facility, to prevent further damage.’

The radio clicked again, and the voice was gone.

The indicator light for the depressurisation chamber lit up green. Only Jin and Salva noticed. Most of the others had left or were leaving, desperate to contain the fire.

‘One of the bots must have sparked and caught alight,’ Salva said, more to herself than Jin. She seemed uncertain, out of her depth. ‘It doesn’t add up.’

Jin wanted to give some reassuring comment, tell her a spark probably did just catch on a piece of clothing, and would be snuffed out the second the bots went outside. But then, what had The Supervisor said?

‘The pockets.’

‘Hmm?’ Salva glanced at him. ‘What’s that?’

‘The pockets. The tunnel collapsed and buried them. They dug out. They came back covered in coal dust.’

‘That still shouldn’t have been enough to-’

Jin interrupted, ‘But the pockets. They all have human clothes, but no understanding of what humans use clothes for. They don’t ever put anything in the pockets, so they never think to empty them out.’

He could tell by Salva’s face she understood. Several dozen sparking bots had just brought in several dozen pocketfuls of flammable dust to the oxygenated hangar. By now the fire would be unstoppable, and greedy to consume any fuel it could reach.

Even as that realisation clawed its way into Jin’s too-young heart, the bots marched naked back out on the surface of Mars. Instead of making their usual beeline for the mine, they halted, gazing up at the facility. They looked horrific: still blackened, still with mangled limbs, and now the added gruesomeness of burnt synthetic hair and skin, peeling back to reveal the circuitry below. They stood inert, no thoughts in their metal head of the souls trapped within the building, fifty five million kilometres from home.

They were just machines, after all.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Robota’

Tagged , , , , ,

The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

Download the PDF of ‘The Outskirts of Benslimane’ here

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Dignity Estranged, Christopher Norris

A Molotov cocktail cut through the summer air. Glass smashed, petrol burned. A swarm of people danced around the flames, desperate to escape the inferno.

‘Fucking hell!’ screamed Leighton, as he pushed a stocky man named Jason away from the flames. He stumbled as his shoe got tangled in the human wall, his ankle twisted as he staggered backwards.

The petrol, no longer contained, swam towards the protestors. It licked at their heels. A circle of about twenty metres opened up as the bodies attempted to evade the searing heat, the fire consumed all of the oxygen in the dense pit, with dozens raising t-shirts to their faces as the vapour dried their throats.

The Pride Parade was an annual event held in Sydney’s CBD. An extremist group who called themselves The Reclaimers had crashed their event. The narrow footpaths were fenced off on both sides, forming a steel funnel. Police were ready to push fence jumpers back into the mix. Fifty metres separated the two groups. The supporters of the Pride Parade were dressed in a variety of colours. In the confined space they looked like a giant hundreds-and-thousands cookie; a sea of pink mixed with flecks of red, white, and blue. Some had brought guitars and the crowd had sung tunes like The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love.’

Onlookers flanked each side of the barricade. Anticipating trouble, a boy got out his phone and began filming. His mother pulled at his shirt, dragging him away. A dog barked as a firework was thrown in between the groups. A policeman touched his radio and mopped his brow.

Leighton dodged a rock, the projectile flashed past his right eye. A drummer from the other side started banging, The Reclaimers marched, waving banners that cut through the smog. They bore slogans such as ‘men are men, women are women!’ and ‘X does not equal Y!’

Jason, the leader of the Pride Parade, had seen this before. He had been bashed in the 2005 Gay Pride Parade, his nose broken by a hateful fist. He had organised the rally to protest the fascist regime of The Reclaimers. Jason’s Twitter hashtag #Sydneypride had taken off, and thousands had bombarded their activist account with messages of support.

Jason turned away from Leighton and shot silly string into the air. He laughed as the synthetic goo covered a few onlookers. He draped a rainbow coloured flag around his shoulders, and mocked the protestors by clapping to their drum-beat. He raised his hands and shook them. Leighton laughed at his eclectic dancing. Plastic bottles bounced around them; The Reclaimers used anything they could grab as make-shift projectiles.

Police had underestimated the event and, with an annual bike ride through the city taking place on the day, they were outnumbered by the swarm of people. Those at the back of the Pride Parade had decided to flee; banners were ditched and slogan-covered tops were removed. Some went without their shirts to protect themselves.

Sirens blared in the distance as The Reclaimers marched closer. The gap was reduced to twenty-five metres.  Jason grabbed his megaphone, ready to plead with both parties. He pushed his fringe back from his forehead, the dried petrol making his skin prickle. His left hand gripped the megaphone, his right stayed clamped by his side, the fingers played with the cotton of his shirt.

Leighton noticed a protestor, a blonde haired girl in her early 20s, hiding behind a group of older, sign-brandishing men. She hid like a child does when they are meeting new people for the first time. Her eyes darted, refusing to make eye contact with the Pride Parade supporters. She wore black Converse shoes, a knee length dress and her face was plain, unmade. A silver chain hung around her neck. A cross no bigger than a postage stamp weighed it down. Her hands played with the chain, the cross turned around her neck as she spun the metal around. She flicked the cross behind her as if to protect it from the proceedings.

Twenty metres apart, they locked eyes. Someone handed her a flag to fly. She dropped it, pretended to swipe for it, and then, when she was sure she had not been noticed, stepped over the fallen symbol. Leighton smiled. He wondered why she had dropped the flag, why she wasn’t protesting with fist raised like many of the others. Her face wasn’t twisted in unnatural hate and flecks of spit did not stick to the corners of her mouth.

‘Watch it, mate,’ said Jason as Leighton stood on his shoe. His ill-timed steps made the row behind him stop momentarily. Two arms stretched out to guide him back into position.

The two groups descended into chaos. A guitar bearing man used his instrument as an impromptu bat, the varnished wood cut into the side of a Reclaimer. The guitar splintered, showering the crowd with polished chunks. Only the neck of the instrument remained. Leighton kept his eyes on the girl. A gray-haired man locked eyes with Leighton as placed his hand on the small of her back, pushing her forward. The man shook his head in Leighton’s direction and spat at his feet. The sheer volume of the crowd meant she was unable to sidestep his hand, shoulders boxed her in. The Reclaimers were out in force after the showing of a film in schools promoting gay parenthood; they had stormed Sydney’s local schools, cafes, and train stations, plastering walls and handing out leaflets. Leighton remembered seeing one at Redfern station, stuck to a wall of the staircase. He yanked it off the wall, scrunched it up and dropped it to the ground.

A placard struck Leighton in the head, it left a jutted incision. Leighton, who did not see his assailant, yelped and fell to the ground. Jason’s flying shoulder battered through two Reclaimers. A third grabbed him by the waist, and slammed him down to the ground. A crevice had opened up in the human wall. Leighton touched the back of his head and brought his index and middle fingers back to his face; blood trickled down his fingers and smacked the sweaty pavement. He drew his hands towards his hips and rose up like a surfer catching a morning wave. He teetered as he attempted to regain his composure, pushing both friend and foe in an attempt to make it into the relative safety of the middle of the crowd.

A NSW Public Order and Riot Squad van had arrived. The jet black van was covered in cameras, its sirens blared; Leighton felt the tiny bones inside his ear pulsate. Twelve well-armed men began marching, riot shields out, towards the ruckus. They used their batons to drum on their shields, plastic sounds echoed off the surrounding houses.

Unabated, the front two rows of the Pride Parade and The Reclaimers pushed, shoved, and spat on each other. A man in a suit and tie attempted to swat at one of the girls in the Pride Parade from outside the metal confines of the barriers. His arm reached over a bunch of protestors, he clawed at air like he was trying to swat a dog on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

A tear gas canister hit the ground in the middle of the riot; it belched white smoke. Leighton pushed to the left, forcing his way through, pushing some of his own people with reckless abandon. Gagging on the chemicals, he doubled-over onto the fence. After retching, he grabbed the barrier and hauled himself up. A body bumped into his feet, sending him sprawling on the concrete, head first. Leighton felt a searing pain in his right shoulder.

A hand reached out, urging him to take it. It was the girl. Sweat rained down her face, a trickle of sick stuck to her chin, trailed down to the top of her dress. She put her hand over her face in vain, hoping to dispel some of the toxic fumes that permeated through the chaos.

‘C’mon, let’s go. They’re going to fuck you up.’ The girl barked into his ear and she yanked him, by his right shoulder.

‘Fuck, my shoulder; I think it’s dislocated,’ Leighton yelled out, and cradled his arm; the limb dangled like that of a ragdoll.

‘Leighton!’ Leighton turned at the sound of Jason’s voice, but he could not see him. The police continued in a line. Their shields made an impregnable wall as the make-shift drums got louder. Anyone caught in the line, injured or not, was bundled over, hauled to the ground and arrested. Leighton saw a flailing pair of legs, a torso pinned under black boots, knees in backs and discarded placards.

He staggered to his feet. The pair dashed away, ducking down a side-street. They found a crevice between two old semis that were marked for demolition, they ignored the construction sign and entered the passage. They leaned against a peeling wall, unable to sit in the slit-like passage.

‘What’s your name?’ Leighton squared up to the wall and rammed his shoulder against it. He let out a wail. His left arm spun outwards and he shook his hand. It looked like he was trying to start a lawn mower.

‘Bessie,’ she mumbled as she wiped the back of her hand across her face, yellow sick smeared across her cheek, touching her left ear. Bessie tucked the silver chain underneath her dress; she grimaced as a few stray strands of hair were yanked out.

‘What were you doing with those bigoted assholes?’ Leighton pushed the rage out; he spat on the pavement, looked her up and down, and shook his head.

‘Calm down. Those idiots are my family; I’m forced to be here.’

Leighton raised his left hand and clicked his fingers upwards like he was tossing a coin, dismissing her excuse. He noted the early stages of bruising and swelling as he explored the pink prickled flesh with his left hand. The bruises had small spots of blue that were beginning to join the larger areas of pink. Those bastards, he thought. He felt the anger rise up inside him. He imagined his father, at home watching the cricket or having a beer. He imagined families enjoying the spoils of brunch; full bellies and smiles. He wondered why, out of the thousands who pledged to be there, only a few hundred had shown up.

‘Look at what they have done to me!’ Leighton pointed to the back of his head. He felt crusted blood as he rotated his shoulder upwards.

A shout echoed down the crevice, shaking off the grogginess of the afternoon. The sound preceded the owner; it travelled down the passage way, eating up the air in the stuffy alleyway. Leighton could only guess that it belonged to one of the extremists. He imagined they had seen the pair leaving the riot, desperate to retrieve her, and injure him.

‘Shit! We have to go, Leighton.’ Bessie tried to grab Leighton by the arm, but he brushed her off. The adrenaline from the riot started to leave him, a wave of sickness crashed through him, the nausea coursed up from his stomach. Thick yellow sick dribbled out of his mouth, the taste of tear gas and petrol collided against his tongue.

Bessie side-stepped the puddle and forced Leighton upright, she yanked his hand and they began to run. As they left the shelter of the crevice, a bottle hit the entrance way, dregs of beer dripped down the wall.

The city streets were narrow and event parking meant there were next to no cars to hide behind. Leighton realised that they had to make it into the heart of the city, or on to a train, anywhere. He wondered if Jason had gotten out. The riot squad were not known to be gentle; many of their supporters had been roughed up when being taken in for questioning, sometimes their stories even made the papers.

He began to tire as they hurtled down the city street, ducking as the occasional projectile flew passed them. He thought back to the countless hours he had put into campaigning, fund-raising. He had helped many people be themselves, feel less vulnerable. He remembered helping a transgender girl, who called herself Kate. He had stayed up all night, talking to her on Facebook. She was a studious young woman, bright, bubbly, friendly, confused.

Leighton felt angry as he realised how easily his own supporters gave in to violence. His shoulder ached with every step, as the pounding of his feet forced the vibrations into his arms, reminding him of the earlier fall.

The NSW Police had shut down the streets, issuing a lockdown in Sydney’s CBD. Bessie and Leighton made their way to Darling Harbour. Leighton sat down against a pole on one of the wharfs. Dirty water lapped up against the side of the pier, seagulls swarmed on rubbish and people ignored each other in dignity estranged. The teenagers looked like party-goers. Leighton smelled the stale air, cigarette-butts lined the wharf; rubbish hid in between wooden slats.

‘What’s going to happen to you?’ Leighton turned to Bessie, his lips pulled tight and his eyes squinted.

‘They’ll kill me.’ Bessie turned away from Leighton. She remembered Catholic school; the firm stance, the iron-clad scripture and Sunday school with Sister Callaghan.  The way the sisters spouted the same passages and ignored her questions frustrated her to no end.

‘God has an answer for everything,’ chirped Sister Callaghan in lyric baritone; the sugar syrup seeped from her mouth, Bessie felt sick.

Leighton and Bessie talked late into the afternoon. The faint sounds of sirens drifted through them as the sun started to dip. Leighton’s heart raced, his mind flashed to those in the riot. Signs, flags, symbols and colours had been turned into weapons. He wondered if Jason had survived, if he’d been arrested or even killed. Leighton sighed and forced himself up.

Leighton exchanged numbers with Bessie, thanked her for saving his life and headed towards Town Hall station.

Bessie watched him stagger until he disappeared into the distance. Bessie felt the wind pick up. The chain brushed up against her breast. She took the chain from her neck and threw it into the ocean.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Dignity Estranged’

Tagged , , ,

Pass Over, Alec Mallia

I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

I flew to the city when she was admitted and managed to get a room half an hour away in a share house. At four or five in the morning my eyes would open to the cracks in the roof, shying from the window light as if sleep was ever going to come back into the picture. Pulling the dusty cover off my razor, I’d make sure every single hair was cut to the skin. Little red welts would begin to wrap across my chin, and I’d remember why I kept the beard back home. Before walking out the door there would be three perfect circles, five scratched attempts and two games of noughts and crosses on the morning’s paper. On the way there the red needle of the speedometer nestled exactly to each road’s speed limit. When an orange light came on in front of me, I’d slam the breaks – safety first.

Eventually I got lucky and someone rammed straight up my backside. It was one of those utes that sat three tires above all the other cars on the road. Couldn’t see a scratch on its actual body but apparently I messed up his precious bull bar. He was waving his arms about and screeching this-that and the other. I did my best impersonation of a copper, talking all slow like ‘HAVE. YOU. BEEN. INJURED?’

He was having none of it, and by the time that got sorted I was at least an hour late.

 

Coming down the hill to the car park I’d circle round the first floor, finding the nicest little spot with a twenty-point reverse park job. On the colder mornings I smoked in the fire escape, eventually shuffling in the building to one of the reception desks. There was a lady there most Sundays; her name was Michelle Zhao. Grandma would always tell me that getting someone’s name, ‘and all of it,’ was the polite thing to do. Of course I was terrible with names, worse with faces, and although this never bothered me, I had begun to try with Michelle.

‘Michelle Zhao!’ I called, with a sort of coughing, shuddery-ness from the lingering accident’s adrenaline. She waved, almost crouching under her desk from her startling, but a smile nonetheless.

‘It’s good to see you Mister Davies, I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

I did the ‘gloom’ smile and nodded, ‘Didn’t think I’d be back again so soon, but here we are.’

She grabbed a nurse and eventually we found the ward, stopping outside her room. The nurse briefed me that things might not seem right with her mind, that her lungs weren’t looking ‘optimal’ either. She was staying for monitoring.

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

The nurse opened the door, and I sat down on the plastic chair across from her. Gran tilted her head a little towards me. The bed was your standard, stiffish, folding piece of work that could be found in most hospitals.

‘Close the curtains will you?’

They smelled of that musky, second-hand perfume – week old daisies shoved into a bottle of brandy. A slightly rotund man danced about on the television with his hair slicked back,

‘I’m Jonathan Brian and this is MONEYGRAB!’

 

I cleared my throat and she raised an eyebrow towards me, ‘How’re you feeling Gran?’

She looked up and down, squinting.

‘I know you.’ Her brow scrunched up behind her glasses. I leaned forward and showed my teeth.

‘I’m JONATHAN BRIAN and this is MONEYGRAB!’

She smiled a little, shifting in the bed and propping herself upright. A couple of nurses went by past the window. My foot started tapping on the floor, ‘It’s Ian, Gran…’

‘Oh of course, sit! Please!’ She smiled, nodding as I gestured to my already seated bottom.

‘What have you been up to hey?’ I reached forward before her hands squeezed the bed so hard their veins popped out.

I leaned back.

She raised an eyebrow and looked past me, leaning slightly out of the bed towards the figures moving past the door.

‘You’ve done it Ros! You’ve won a thousand dollars!’ The TV rang out, bells dinging. Bright green cartoon stacks of money flashing on the little box.

Gran coughed and smacked her lips together, ‘Did she come with you?’

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

I shoved my hands in my jacket, ‘She’s not here. She’s not coming’

She, my mother, was dead. I know that for a fact. Saw the photos of the crash. Car was wrapped around a power pole, ‘Speed suspected in cause of incident.’

As the years go by it’s getting harder to recall what she had to do with me, let alone who she was. I remember a couple of beaches, being in the back of the car, a foggy birthday or two. Gran would slip details now and then before snatching at her cross and shaking her head. Her name was Kate. Gran said she did ‘bad things’ and that they had to ‘save’ me from her. The photos I had of her were from her last couple of high school years. I remember the sound of the fights they used to have. You could feel my grandfather’s voice in the walls. We used to have a wooden spoon in the house that was chipped where Gran smacked her with it a couple of times. After they’d sent me to bed I’d hear the intro to ‘The Bill,’ and sooner or later they’d start talking if she wasn’t home – which was often in her last years. I used to sneak down the stairs and stick my ear through the paling to try and hear things. I’d never get more than a grunt out of Grandad, but Gran had a sort of hiss when she spoke about Kate. It was never good.

She died around my eleventh birthday. By then I hadn’t seen her for two years.

The day after the funeral Gran found Grandpa in the garage with a hose from the Alfa’s tailpipe to back window, driver side. We didn’t speak of her at all after that, or at least I didn’t ask.

‘When bad things happen, we don’t stare.’

Not that I ever had the chance to bring it up — boarding schools were Gran’s tool of choice, military high schools with brief holidays. I’d spend those days away from her and that house. By the time I got to university I was already living a few hours away.

Gran’s fear of ‘her’ and ‘she’ was the first time she was on our lips since those days.

But she forgot her the moment the words left her lips. We talked about Melbourne for a while and my ‘big job’ coming up before I left. I made sure to use vague enough terms to make sure she was both proud and uninterested.

Things complicated, and I moved back to the old house. My room had been stripped to a bed and empty drawers. Down the hall Gran had turned Kate’s old room into a kind of study. There was just a leather chair and half-filled bookcase left. On the second Sunday night I sat in the chair and stared at the shelves. Any kind of book was stacked right next to its opposite.

EncyclopediaBritannica– 45 Volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a strong display of Tolstoy and a few other Russians. Beneath that an array of war books ranging from Gallipoli to the Battle of Long Tan. Just above the olive-drab spine of Gallipoli was a corner of a page or piece of paper. It stuck out between the back and the jacket. An envelope, shoved into the ‘about the author’ page. The front of it simply read ‘Sorry’. It was unsealed, and the letter slipped out of it.

‘I am sorry for what I did just now, Ian, Janet.’ Handwritten in jittery blue pen. After that line a few words had been struck through a handful of times until they were scratchy blobs.

‘…but I’m more sorry for what we did to you, Kate.’

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

‘I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness or sympathy.’

There was nothing else. I left the letter on the chair and closed the door.

Before the fourth Sunday I was sitting on the edge of my bed. It had poured all day. The night was missing the rolling moans of buses, the splintering leaves and animal noises. It was all black after the window, and there was no sound to tell me otherwise. White shone up from the desk, and my phone crunched in vibration on to the floor. I scrambled to pick it up, answering the call but saying nothing as I pulled it to my ear.

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

I scratched my nose and brushed my hair to one side, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘Mr Davies there has been an incident with your grandmother,’ the earpiece crackled.

‘What sort of incident?’

She had suffered some sort of stroke going to toilet, banged herself up pretty badly. The accelerator stayed pressed on the orange lights.

Michelle was working that night and she grabbed the doctor for me. ‘Mental trauma’ and ‘risk of comatose’ filtered through amongst muffled words. There was the slightest smell of orange on his breath. ‘Not much time.’

We arrived at her room in the ward and the doctor pointed, ‘She can hold conversation, but I would be careful not to give her stress or upset her’.

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

I watched her little glazed eyes staring straight through to the wall, juddering sometimes towards the odd nurse that’d pass her by. When they brought her food they’d follow the trays to her lap. It took a few tries for the nurse to feed her but eventually she managed to pull through it. Her eyes rolled back into position — staring into nothing. I waited another minute before walking in. She was glued to a spot that was a few inches right of the television. Her face stayed the same regardless of what flickered across the screen. I sat next to her, and she didn’t move a bit. There was an aerobics class on the television.

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

Her eyelids twitched and she looked away. I pulled the chair closer.

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

She blew air, trying to heave into a full-body eye roll.

‘Gramps said that you both did something to Mu- Kate.’

She stayed silent, and I watched the reflections in the window before she spoke again, ‘I don’t want to hear this now Ian.’

I pulled the chair beside her and shook my head, ‘Did you ever ask her to stay? Did you ever ask what she needed?’  I bit my lip, and for some reason chuckled.

‘She left you.’ Her hands gripped the bed, ‘Left us.’

She looked at me for a second before snapping back to the other side of the bed.

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

‘I need you to be honest with me Gran,’ I said to the back of her head.

Nothing. Could barely see her breathing, but I could hear the whistle and hack of her inhale/exhale routine. She might have said something under the coughing and spluttering but I didn’t hear it. I pulled at her shoulder and turned her around towards me. Her eyes would never meet mine.

That last Sunday night I drove through a red light on the way home. I parked in the garage and locked the old roller. In the house I made sure that every switch was off, every cord pulled, every curtain shut and every door closed. My effects were splayed out on the guest bed, and they fit decently back into my bag. The alarm was off, the door unlocked.

I started walking east.

 

Download PDF of ‘Pass Over’ here

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Lansdowne, David Nolan

In hindsight, it was a strange way to live. At the time, everything was a little bit odd to me out there so I didn’t think anything of it. My grandparents never made an issue of it, so I figured that’s just the way it was.

I was staying with my grandparents in a small town by the name of Chesterfield. I spent much of my school holidays out there. The first time I went I had no idea what to expect; I hadn’t seen my grandparents in years. Fortunately, they both knew what to expect with me and had plenty of books for me to read with them and talk about.

Chesterfield was essentially there to cater for the surrounding farms. There was a schoolhouse for the local kids, a single-person police station and my grandparents’ corner shop, with about fifty houses spread out over the rest of the town. There were more tractors and 4WDs than any other kind of vehicle, with most people using a horse or bicycle to get around when they had to.

The townspeople and the surrounding district would get their supplies from my grandparents’ corner shop. Each person would have a particular product that they’d need for their crops, horse or dirt bike and my grandparents would remember each and every one. It was while helping out in their shop that I met Hank.

The first time Hank came into the store, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He pushed in his rusted trolley (with only three working wheels) and asked for ‘the usual, thanks, champ.’

As a nine-year old who had no idea who he was, my eyes went wide hoping that one of my grandparents would come back out front before he asked again. Thankfully, my grandfather unknowingly fulfilled my wish by coming out and getting Hank what he needed. When my grandfather introduced us, Hank noted that I looked just like my grandfather. I must have reacted noticeably as they both laughed.

My grandfather loaded up Hank’s trolley, but Hank didn’t take it with him. Instead, after paying with cash he got out of a freshly opened envelope, he left his loaded trolley in the shop and wandered back out. I wasn’t sure what to make of Hank or the pile of cans he left behind in his trolley.

When I woke up the next morning, the trolley had gone. After my grandmother confirmed that Hank had taken it home that morning, I asked her about him. She explained that he was ‘just a silly old man. He never really got used to normal life after the war. Shame, because he has quite the head on his shoulders.’ This confused me at the time, although it made perfect sense after I got to know him.

I asked my grandmother why he left his trolley behind. She explained, ‘He lives in Lansdowne, down the road. He wheels his trolley up when he gets his pension, buys the food he needs, then spends the rest at the pub and wheels it back in the morning.’

I’d never been to Lansdowne. No one had apart from Hank, since the mine fire forced the town to evacuate. Chesterfield was, in a way, built as Lansdowne’s replacement. Hank was the only person who moved back to Lansdowne when the town was declared safe and he remained its only citizen.

It wasn’t until a year after my first encounter with Hank that I finally did make the walk down the road to Lansdowne. Hank had had to have surgery on his knees and wasn’t able to make his weekly trip up to Chesterfield. My grandparents sent me with a trolley and mobile phone to take Hank’s supplies out to him.

An hour and a half of walking down the highway with nothing around but flat fields dotted with the occasional flame tree and I arrived in Lansdowne. It had never been a large town, only having around 100 residents when it was evacuated, and only half of them had lived in what could actually be called “the town”. The centre of Lansdowne was made up of two dozen houses, what used to be the shop/post office/police station and a ‘schoolhouse’ that only looked like a regular house if not for the ‘School’ sign out the front.

Looking around Lansdowne, I realised I had no idea which house was Hank’s. Some of the buildings had large chalk X’s on their front door. I was wondering what they were for when I heard a door open. I looked down the street toward the noise and watched Hank hobble out onto the veranda of one of the houses and wave me over. That saved me knocking on every door.

As I approached his house, Hank hopped down the stairs with a crutch under his right arm. I could see the bandages from his operation wrapped around his knee. He gave me a broad smile and picked up a couple of cans out of the trolley, reading the labels in satisfaction.
‘You deserve a drink after that long walk,’ Hank said to me as he nodded towards his house. Together we lifted the trolley up the stairs and through the front door. He told me to sit in a chair just inside the door while he wheeled the trolley into a different room, carefully avoiding putting any weight on the bandaged leg.

The room I was in seemed to be the main living space, with three old sofa seats and a tea table in the middle, all arranged to focus on the fireplace in the corner. The wallpaper was faded; it might have been bright blue once but now was a grey almost ashen colour. I began to suspect it actually was ash when I sniffed the air.

The room was filled with two things: empty food cans and books. The empty cans were mostly in piles in the corners and out of the way. The books, however, were all over the place. The tea table had at least thirty on it; the other chairs were in a similar state. The chair I walked to was the least covered: it only had ten books on it.

I picked up some of the books and read the covers. It was a broad mix of subjects and genres: Frankenstein, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Diary of Samuel Pepys. I’d read none of them before and hadn’t heard of many of them. They were all older copies, their spines held together by single threads in some cases. They smelt old too; many different hands had turned their pages.

‘You a reader there, champ?’ The voice made me jump. Luckily I didn’t drop any of the books but put them down gently before I turned to answer that I was indeed a keen reader.

Hank smiled. He hobbled over to the table and set down a glass full of lemonade for me. He sat down in one of the other chairs with a sigh of relief, carefully avoiding sitting on any of the books.

As he scratched his bandage, he told me, ‘I’ve talked to your grandparents about you. They told me about your love of reading. I wanted to introduce you to my collection.’ He gestured to the piles scattered about the room.

I picked up the glass of lemonade and took a sip. Hank gestured for me to sit, which I did although only on the edge of the chair as I still hadn’t moved any books off it. ‘It’s an impressive collection,’ I said, unsure of myself.

‘Is this what you do all day?’ I realised the almost-rudeness of the question only after I said it.

Fortunately, Hank saw the question as intended. He answered, ‘For the most part. I have always been an avid reader, and now that I live here alone, I indulge my lifelong hobby and read all my favourites and the classics I never got to.’

By this time, I had learnt that asking personal questions could be considered inconsiderate, but I was also too curious to not ask questions when I had one I wanted to ask. So I asked Hank, ‘Why do you live here alone?’

Hank smiled grimly and sighed ever so slightly. ‘Because of some mistakes I made that I couldn’t fix.’ He leant forward with his elbows resting on his knees and he rubbed his unshaven face. I was worried that I had hurt him by asking but he seemed to make peace with the story as he began, ‘When I came back from the war, I had experienced some things.’ He spoke slowly and carefully chose each word, being very aware that I was still a kid. ‘These things stuck with me, they call it post-traumatic stress disorder now, but back then the closest thing they had was shellshock or battle fatigue.’

I thought to myself that this must have been what my grandmother was referring to when she told me about Hank. I wondered how much she knew of Hank’s life story.

Hank continued, ‘I found myself trying to deal with my condition while also trying to get into the workforce. There were a lot of former soldiers trying to find work back then. I was lucky; I found a job working in a steel mill. Hard work, it was, but simple enough. It was not long after that I met my wife, Sally.’

I noticed Hank got a little smile in the corner of his mouth as he remembered meeting Sally. I could also see the tears in his eyes, reminding me that something must have happened for him to end up alone in Lansdowne. I wanted to stop him from crying so I butted in, ‘Was she pretty?’

That made Hank laugh softly and smile. ‘Yes she was: blonde hair, bright eyes, and the sort of smile that made everyone around her want to smile too. She was also quick-witted and knowledgeable.’ Hank sighed again. ‘She really was just about the perfect girl.’

There was a long pause as Hank tried to gather himself and I thought about the idea of the ‘perfect girl’ and whether I’d ever get to be that to someone. I wasn’t all that fond of myself at that stage so the idea of someone else being so attached to me seemed unbelievable. Hank rubbed his mouth again. ‘Here is something very important for you to learn now: you treat your people right. You hear me?’

I was kind of thrown by the way he suddenly got worked up, but I understood the sentiment so I nodded quickly.

Hank nodded back at me. ‘See, that was my problem. Well, one of them. I just didn’t know how to treat my people right. You have to be honest with yourself, first. From what I hear though, you know how to do that.’

I felt myself shrink back into my chair. I wished my family wouldn’t share my secrets with other people. They keep calling me brave; I’m just trying to feel comfortable and live. I remember that being a consistent theme in my thoughts back then.

Hank tried to put me at ease. ‘Yeah, your grandparents told me about you. Don’t worry. We’re different, we need to support one another.’ He breathed in deeply as he looked around, and it seemed more like he was surveying his domain than just the room. ‘I’ve found something resembling a place of my own; I’m sure you will too. Hopefully it’s a lot more populated and welcoming than my little corner of the world. I think that would suit you more.’

I rubbed my hands in the nervous way I did when I didn’t know what to say or do next. Hank was still staring into space with a sad smile on his face. Wanting to stop the silence, I asked him, ‘So is this your whole collection?’

‘No, not by a long shot,’ Hank answered with a slight laugh. He pulled himself up onto his crutch again. ‘These are just the ones I’m up to right now. I keep a few hundred in whatever house I’m living in and keep the rest in the other houses.’

‘The other houses? All of them?’ It didn’t seem real for someone to do such a thing.

Hank nodded. He moved over to an opening next to the front door and went through. I followed him and came into a stuffy room filled with even more books, although this one was more ordered, with the books arranged on bookshelves.

Hank stood at one of them and started looking through the shelves. ‘I have the other houses arranged like this. Except for the ones I’ve already lived in. Those are filled with empty cans. Don’t go in any of the buildings marked with an X.

I nodded, only half listening to what he was saying because I was too caught up in seeing what books were there. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Gilgamesh and The Once and Future King are the ones that I remember noticing, mostly because those are the titles that stuck out at me at the time.

I heard Hank pull some books off the shelf as he said, ‘Here we are. These should suit you nicely.’ He moved over to me and handed me four large books. I looked at the top book and saw The Hobbit was its title and there was a drawing of a dragon snaked across the bottom. Flicking through the pile, I saw the other three books were The Lord of the Rings.

‘Those there are what started my love of reading about, oh, 50 years ago,’ Hank told me. ‘I think you’ll enjoy them.’

I looked up at Hank and thanked him profusely. He just waved it off and walked me out to the kitchen. I helped him unload his cans and put the books he had given me in the trolley. Hank walked me out to the street and saw me off. The trip back to Chesterfield was much easier than the trip out to Lansdowne; with my new books to look forward to, I was also much quicker.

Over the next ten years, Hank and I continued and developed our friendship. Whenever I went up to Chesterfield to visit my grandparents, I would also make the walk out to Lansdowne to see how Hank was getting along. We would talk about books and my life back home. He would provide great advice on just any about topic I asked him about. He even supported me through my transition, even as I lost some friends who wouldn’t deal with it. It was partly thanks to him that I worked up the courage to start the process. Once I started university, I couldn’t make the trip out as often as I’d have liked as I had study, work and a romance to maintain at home. But, no matter if it had been a year or more between visits, we could still talk freely.

Hank died last month. I made the trip out to Chesterfield to visit his grave with my boyfriend. I didn’t realise how sad I was until I saw the words written on his headstone. He didn’t leave me without saying goodbye though, his collection of books was left to me along with a parting message: ‘Audrey, you’ve been a friend. You treated me right. Thank you. You’ll live a good life as a good person. I’m sorry I never got to meet your man. You are his perfect girl now.’

Walking back to the car, I had to lean heavily on my boyfriend as my knees refused to hold me up properly. As he drove, I stared out the window in the direction of Lansdowne and thought of Hank, my friend, and his little corner of the world.

 

Download a pdf of ‘Lansdowne’

Tagged , , , ,

Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

08/09/15

CARNEGIE POLICE DEPARTMENT

PART 2 OF AUDIO RECORDED INTERVIEW

 

ADAMS: Am I a suspect?

POLICE: The body was found in your apartment, Mr. Adams. We need to know why.

ADAMS: So I am a suspect. [laughs] People keep telling me that the police are getting duller, but shit man, I didn’t believe them ‘til now. Your parents must be so proud.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, I’m going to ask you to remain civil and answer the question.

ADAMS: Right. No, of course! Please continue, I’d hate to stand in the way of justice.

POLICE: Can you explain why Eric Compton was at your residence on the night of the fifth?

ADAMS: Never heard of him.

POLICE: Can you explain why your phone records show that you called him twenty-six times on the day he was strangled? Choked to death in your very room?

ADAMS: What can I say? I’m clingy.

POLICE: So you do know Eric Compton?

ADAMS: Eric Compton the drug dealer? I’ve never heard of him. I’m a model citizen.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, the more you cooperate, the faster you can leave.

ADAMS: I can leave when I want. No handcuffs, see?

POLICE: Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning, Mr. Adams. Can you tell us how you lost your arms?

 

They say war changes you, and I have to agree. There’s just something about getting your arms blown to hell and having surgery in a bloody tent that makes you see things differently. Really changes your perspective – although that might just be because I’m practically blind in my left eye and can’t see for shit. And then there’s the damn morphine. Now that changes you. They like playing God with it, giving it and taking it away. They wean you off it like as if you won’t remember how good it feels to not be in constant agony. You get prescribed other shit, but God, nothing does it. So you bet your ass I was buying it wherever I could find it. I wasn’t an addict or anything, I could live without the drugs. I just didn’t see why I should. But it was getting harder to get the good stuff, even after I pawned off my medal for cash. The monthly allowances barely staved off my hunger, and the pain wasn’t getting any better. They call it phantom pain. You think your wrist itches and you go to scratch it, but then you realise that you don’t have a wrist anymore or anything to scratch it with. But God, the itch doesn’t give a shit about whether it’s supposed to exist or not. It just keeps on existing, starting off small – you could almost ignore it. Then it just grows and grows until it’s a clenched uncontrollable mass of scorching muscle that twists in on itself. It drives you crazy. Panadol just doesn’t kick it.

I’m going to be honest, before I was in the army, I was a bit of a thief. Shocker right? Me – the morally upstanding citizen with the medal of ‘bravery’ in one non-existent hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. It was mostly petty though, nothing too serious, but you start to miss that extra cash. I was good with my hands, could get a wallet from a man while he was still walking. It was easy living. You can’t really do that with a prosthetic. Can’t really do shit with a prosthetic except drop things. I could have gone my whole life living on that money alone, maybe get a crap job somewhere if I had to. I don’t know why I joined the army. I guess I thought I needed direction in my life. Instead I got a bloody IED. I still have the scars from the shrapnel. It’s been six years, and they don’t look like they’ll fade any time soon. Arms don’t show any sign of re-growing either, but you can always hope.

Listen, before I get to the bit about my arms, my real arms, you should know that I didn’t kill anyone. Not even in the army. Call me a thieving druggie, sure, but I’m no murderer. I’m practically a pacifist. Sure, Eric was my dealer and he was a piece of shit, but he’s the one who got the drugs in me. I wouldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, I swear.

*

‘Just one prosthetic arm? You couldn’t afford two?’

‘The army didn’t think I needed another.’

‘I see. Mr. Adams, you were taken in for petty theft before you joined. Have you attempted any other such crimes since then? Theft? Drugs? Murder?’

‘Of course not. I’m armless.’

‘Where did you get the money to purchase drugs from? Did you have someone steal it for you? Or did you owe Eric Compton a lot of money? Is that why you killed him?’

I didn’t kill Eric.’ ‘Then who was it?’

*

I think it was quite early on. I remember Eric had come in to shoot me up and he had brought a friend with him, a guy called Boxer who looked 85% steroids, 14% beard and 1% brain – and that was being generous. Arms like he had stuck balloons under his skin. I think he had come along to have a laugh at the poor tin soldier, but I was too far gone to give a crap about them. Anyway, that was the first time I noticed it. I was in this beautifully tempered bliss, no pain, no nothing. I’d started thinking I’d got my arms back and I was lifting them up and marvelling at the creases and joints. They looked so real I was convinced they’d grown right back. Drugs will do that to you. Stay in school kids.

Boxer and Eric were leaving, either trying to get out before the cleaner came or because they were bored of watching me look like I was about to drop off. Even disability loses its charm sometimes. Boxer had been amusing himself by throwing shit at me all day and yelling ‘think fast’ or ‘catch’, and then just as he was leaving, he tossed the keys right at me – straight for my face. Out of pure instinct I put my hands up, and of course that shouldn’t have made a damn difference, but it did. I swear the keys hit my hands instead of my face and I felt them hit my hands as well. It wasn’t a phantom feeling, God no. It was real.

For a moment, I thought my arms had actually grown back and I was whole again. That was probably the happiest moment in my entire life. It didn’t last. I tried touching my face, but it didn’t work. Later on, I told myself it was the drugs and the keys had really hit my face. I started to believe that was true, but then it happened again and I hadn’t even taken a chewy vitamin. I was at the checkout and the lady was giving me my change when a coin dropped, and instead of going for it with my prosthetic, I went for it with a hand that didn’t even exist. Except I actually caught the damn coin, and it bloody well hovered in mid-air for a couple of seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like forever. I checked the cashier’s face to see if she was as shocked as me, but people don’t like to look at you when you don’t have arms, like amputation can be ocularly transmitted or something. But I really had caught the coin and I had actually used my arms – the ones that didn’t even exist. Holy shit, right?

Well, I was psyched. I was convinced that my arms were slowly going to become more and more physical until everyone would be amazed at how I actually regrew my arms. It was the power of love, I’d tell them. I even tried telling my therapist, but she went on about PTSD and hallucinations. Couldn’t prove I was right could I? I had no control over when my arms would work and when they wouldn’t, but they would work sometimes, usually when I wasn’t thinking about it – instinct you know? Impulses and stuff. That’s when I could catch things from the air. I used to pretend that I could see my arms back when they first got blown off and my imagination was never really up to scratch, but now I could actually see them, every single wrinkle and hair. It was mostly through my half blind eye, so they looked kind of fuzzy and vague, but sometimes they’d clear up – those were usually the times when I could use them as well. Sometimes I’d forget I didn’t have my prosthetic on and I’d be using my real arms to do things instead. Of course, the moment I’d realise, it would all fall apart. But it was happening more often and I was getting better at it, not very quickly, but I really was. Soon I could use it consciously. I practised as much as I could, only when there wasn’t anyone around, but the whole thing was exhausting. Lifting a paper was like lifting at the gym when a pretty girl was watching how many weights you put on. Hell, I was getting pretty ripped. It was a damn shame that no one could check out my mad biceps.

Here’s the thing though, my arms were great when I was controlling them, but when I wasn’t, the pain was ten times worse. I’d be staring at my arms and they’d be blurring in and out of focus, mottled red things with the veins squirming like worms and the fingers blackened with oozing gashes, bits of metal shrapnel sticking out everywhere. I’d be screaming like a mad man and I was convinced that somehow my left eye was showing me what my arms looked like before they were cut off by the doctors. My arms started working normally more often, which was great, but I couldn’t stand the God damn pain anymore. Eric and Boxer were over a lot more often. Sometimes Boxer came alone and then afterwards Eric would show up bruised like a bad apple. I didn’t ask questions.

I only had so much money though, and Eric and Boxer were burning through all my emergency savings. I was barely eating once a day, and I still couldn’t really afford groceries after I got my shots and the more shots I got, the less they worked. I needed money badly and I had no way of getting more. And then I had a stroke of sheer brilliance. You remember how I said I was a great pickpocket? Never got caught in my life and I had bet that I’d have an even better record with my hidden arms. What kind of cop was going to arrest a man for stealing when he doesn’t have any hands to steal with? I figured it out on the train one day. This lady’s phone started ringing from inside her bag. So she opens the giant thing, fishes the damn phone out then starts yammering away at it without closing her purse, so it’s just wide open and I can see her wallet right at the top. And I thought, if I can pick up all those other things with my hands, what’s stopping me from picking people’s pockets? It was genius, and even though I wasn’t nearly as good as I was with my old arms, this job had its own perks. Sometimes, you’d get people who noticed what was going on you know, felt something moving in their pockets, and they’d turn around to glare – but I was a freaking disabled man, and they weren’t about to stare at me for more than a second. They’d actually feel bad for suspecting me! It was better than being invisible. It was like I was the Pope. No one thought I was capable of crime. Sometimes I’d take to wearing my camo and I bought a little veteran’s badge type of thing. God, the way they’d blush when they saw me like that. I was a freaking saint, and they were criminals for suspecting me. I started to regret selling off my medal. People would have shit their pants.

The money was rolling in, and you can bet that I got the morphine as quick as Eric could give it. On the days that he couldn’t commit, the pain was incredible. It was almost like it increased according to how much I used my arms. My fingers would be twitching like an electrocuted chicken, and I’d be feeling my heart throb in my arms instead of my chest. Boxer was showing up more often and sometimes he’d watch me screaming for five minutes before he did anything. He liked watching people suffer.

*

‘So you’re saying Boxer killed Eric.’

‘I’m saying I didn’t kill Eric.’

The officer scribbled something down, and I took a deep breath. It had been three days since my last dose and I could feel myself losing control, and this idiot with his questions wasn’t helping.

‘So what happened the night of the murder?’

*

I had started promising Eric ridiculous amounts of money for the morphine, but something was up with his suppliers. I had been in control for the last three days, the longest I’d ever gone, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer. When the pain came, it was all-consuming.

I was on the floor when he got to me, damn insane with how bad it was. My arms were on fire, they just wouldn’t stop clenching and unclenching, making jazz hands at the ceiling then ready for a fist fight. Anyone could see that I needed some damn help, but Eric, bless his soul, just stood there and laughed for a moment. Not an all-out laugh, more like an audible acknowledgement of something funny. And me on the ground, with my hands playing an invisible game of peek-a-boo, faster now that he had laughed, like my arms were glad there was an audience.

*

‘Was Boxer there that night?’

He was looking up at me expectantly now, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus by talking. I couldn’t let my arms take over again. I was breathing faster now, practically hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t stop it?

*

Eric was smiling down at me. If I could have moved my hands I would have punched him. But then again, he also took the time to inject things into my ass, so he couldn’t be that bad. A part of me wondered if Boxer was with him, ready to make me wait five minutes. Eric knelt down and leaned over me, and suddenly my arms stilled, falling to my sides.

*

The officer was leaning over me now, concerned, and my arms were becoming mutilated before my eyes, twitching and clenching. They were turning red now, red and blue and black and now here was the metal, growing out of the dappled skin like pea plants. I couldn’t control them anymore. God, they were shaking. I couldn’t stop it. The pain was snaking up, and my hands were curling in for a clench – shit! Was that blood in my nails? I knocked over a glass of water, and the officer’s eyes widened.

‘Did you do that?’

‘No! No, it wasn’t me!’

They were going spastic now, and the pain, oh God, the pain. And then, with one last clench, they stilled and settled on the table. Oh God, not again. Not again, please no. The officer was too close and he reached for his radio but my arm got to him first, grabbing on to his, I couldn’t control it, I swear, and then, while he was looking at me with those God damn wide eyes, just like Eric’s, my other arm reached inside his chest. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t control it. But God, I could feel my hand squeezing. One hand clutching his heart and the other twisting my face to look at his, look at those eyes that went wide then blank like Eric’s.

 

When the others rushed in, it was too late. The cop was on the floor, leaking blood like a faulty tap. They were looking at me, but I was looking at my hands. Still red and black, still uncontrollable but no longer clenching. Instead they were drumming on the table. Impatient almost.

 

Download PDF of ‘Phantom’ here

Tagged , , , , , ,