Category Archives: Issue #10

Something Good, Clare Davies

Stu stood on the edge of the curb, his heart thumping in his chest. Here it comes, any second now. It wouldn’t take much, just a single step. A single step he could manage easily. Bam. Game over.

Gathering his courage, he felt the muscles in his legs tense as he prepared to step off the safety of the footpath. He just hoped this wouldn’t scare the driver too much. But then, why should he care about frightening those wealthy enough to afford a car?

‘There’s nothing good about this city, I tell you. Smells of piss and shit. Only the rats like it here,’ a grouchy voice declared behind him.

Stu frowned, hesitating where he stood. The car whizzed past him, and Stu couldn’t avoid the spray of filthy gutter water that shot up beneath its whirring wheels. Disappointed at having missed his opportunity, he turned towards the sound of the voice instead and came face to face with a pair of elderly gentlemen. The one who had spoken was chewing on his cigar and puffing smoke directly on Stu’s face. The man caught him staring, frowned, and growled, ‘The hell do you want, pipsqueak? Beat it!’

Stu hadn’t been sleeping well, his temper was short already, and he almost had the nerve to confront the pair. Almost. Staying quiet, he merely rolled his eyes and tried to wipe the muddy brown water off, but in spite of his best efforts, it left dark stains on his threadbare, slightly too short trousers.

Swearing under his breath, Stu straightened up and looked behind him again, but the man was already stomping his way across the street, the shattered glass over the faded green man blinking in time with the man’s steps. The man, despite his age, was much too fast for Stu to ever catch him with his uneven gait.

Stu didn’t cross. He stood on the side of the road as the light turned red again. The traffic roared past him, filling the air and his lungs with its horrible fumes, staining the surrounding buildings an even darker grey. They’d given everything, as a species, in pursuit of that oil. Everything was grey now, the sky, the streets, the skyscrapers, the rubbish, all of it was grey. Now that he really thought about it, Stu couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen something that reminded him of life.

‘When I was a kid, there were rolling hills of green, far as the eye could see.’ Stu heard his grandfather’s doddery old voice in the back of his mind. ‘And the sky even turned blue every once in a while.’

‘It’s not all bad,’ Stu muttered to himself. He’d grown up in this city. No matter how ugly it was, it was still good. ‘I’ll prove you wrong,’ he promised the old man, who was already disappearing in the distance.

‘Excuse me, young man, could you help me?’

Stu snapped out of his gloomy daydream and turned towards the voice. He found an elderly man at an ATM, probably the only one left working in the entire city. If one thing had survived all the chaos, it was the banks.

‘Sure, what’s wrong?’ he asked, strolling closer.

‘Sorry,’ the man laughed, ‘I’ve forgotten my glasses, and I can’t read the screen.’

‘No problem.’

Large pipes and scaffolding lay in the way, from a skyscraper that had been blown in half some years earlier. Stu clambered through the rubble and creaking metal shrapnel to approach the man and peered at the screen, which listed the options for the card in block grey letters.

‘You’re withdrawing cash?’ he guessed.

The man nodded, so Stu pointed at the top one. The man pressed the screen, typed in $500, and waited a little. Stu felt his heart beat faster at the number on the screen. He tried not to be jealous, but it was hard not to be after he’d just been laid off. ‘We have to make cuts, ya know? Budget and all that,’ his boss had offered, but Stu knew that wasn’t true. With the kids growing up and joining the workforce, the factory didn’t need the likes of him anymore. He was replaceable, and no one felt the least bit guilty for replacing him.

‘And now press enter,’ Stu suggested after a moment, and the man obeyed with a cheery smile. The screen then asked for his PIN, and Stu was about to politely turn away to give the man privacy but lingered a little in case he needed help. He felt good. That old grouch at the crossing could go stuff himself.

The smile vanished from the man’s face, and he turned to scowl at Stu.

‘You ain’t getting a reward, buddy!’ he snapped.

Stu opened his mouth, and awkwardly closed it again, taken aback by the abrupt change in attitude. As the man continued to glare at him, he rolled his eyes and hobbled away. So much for being nice.

He went past the park he used to go to as a child, back when the grass was still sort of green. Now, it was all ugly yellow, twisted lumps of thistle and weeds, giving the grey and brown climbing frames an almost sepia tone. Stu realised with dismay that, while there had been two climbing frames in his youth, now there was only one. The skeleton of the second stood, blackened and scorched, like a bad memory.

On the swing set, Stu spotted a little boy sitting by himself. The boy had the tell-tale ribs and tattered clothes of one of the countless homeless children. Stu felt a twinge of guilt watching the boy, knowing he was going to ignore him. He was still cringing from the time he’d tried to help a little girl who’d fallen over and grazed her knee.

He hesitated for a moment. Maybe today he could do something good, properly good, and help the little boy. ‘Get away from my daughter, you pervert!’ the woman’s words echoed in his memory, as she’d hit him with her handbag. People weren’t kind anymore. That’s why he didn’t want to stay among them much longer. Swallowing his guilt, he pressed on, hating himself with every step.

His feet led him to the corner shop, and he peered in. Beyond the tins of spam and beans, he saw a few shelves of sad, withered fruits and vegetables, wrinkling with age and attracting flies. There wasn’t a lot of variety since the farms all started failing. Back in the Resource Wars, the government had promised that with their victory would come more farming land and more food for everyone. They won, and they took the land, but it was all worthless anyway. None of it could support a single grain anymore, not after what the nukes had done. Stu chewed his lower lip and felt his wallet weighing like a stone in his pocket. Against his better judgement, he walked into the store.

Stu left several minutes later with an apple, the best he could find, though it had eaten into his dwindling savings. It gleamed a soft red and smelt sweet and crisp. Stu’s mouth watered at the sight of it. Most of what he ate came out of a tin. He limped back to the park and found the boy still sitting there.

‘Hey,’ Stu called, forcing a smile onto his lips.

The boy’s eyes shot up, and immediately narrowed when he saw Stu, staggering towards him with his twisted legs, ‘I was wondering if you wanted this?’ he said, holding up the apple in offering.

The boy wiped his snotty nose on a filthy sleeve, before he snatched the apple, and pegged it as hard as he could straight at Stu’s chest.

‘Fuck you, freak!’ the boy shouted and ran off, as Stu clutched his chest, gasping. That was the last child he was ever going to try to help.

When his breath returned, he continued his walk. He’d grown up in this city, lived here all his life, surely he could find one thing, one good thing, to redeem it.

The wind picked up, setting the street garbage in a flurry around him, plastic and chip packets clinging to his legs. The fumes from a smoking vent in the street filled his lungs, giving him a hacking cough that made his eyes water. The cough didn’t stop for several minutes, and his already bruised chest ached with the strain of it.

‘Goddammit!’ he swore between heaving breaths, kicking a rubbish bin over in frustration. It clattered to the ground, but nothing spilt out of it since no one ever bothered to fill it in the first place. A couple of old women looked up in surprise, shooting him dirty looks. He often received dirty looks, no one much liked to look at him anymore.

Eventually, when he’d recovered from the cough and the embarrassment of his temper tantrum, Stu gave up on his search and decided to go home. This whole venture had been pointless, and now his ankles were starting to ache from climbing over the rubble of fallen buildings.

He’d been so proud of his apartment when he’d first got it. Now, its dank, dingy atmosphere, with moulding walls and untreated floorboards filled him with disdain. Stu shoved the front door closed behind him with his foot, kicking it when the swollen wood stuck in the frame. He stood for a moment in the silent room, staring absent-mindedly at all the junk he’d collected over the years, cluttering up the space. So how did it all feel so empty? He caught sight of his own reflection in the mirror on the far side of the room. His twisted, mangled legs that barely worked anymore, his face and arms riddled with shrapnel wounds and burn scars.

Tossing his keys aside, Stu strode across the room to his desk. He pulled it forward, scraping across the floor until he had access to the electrical socket behind it. Stu unplugged his ancient computer from the wall and yanked the cord out of the back of the machine. Tugging it slightly to test the strength, he tied a loop at one end, just big enough for his head. Climbing onto his couch, he swung the cord around one of the cross beams on the ceiling and tied it there. He leaned his full weight against the cord, and it held.

Stu stuck his head through the loop at the end and felt it settle on his neck. He took one last look around the room, and his eyes drifted towards the window. The city he’d grown up in, the one he’d tried so hard to love again, stared back at him: the permanently thunderous sky that blocked out the sun, the dilapidated skyscrapers, half their original height, and never rebuilt after the wars and the bombs.

With a sickness in his stomach, he remembered the pride he’d felt when he enlisted. Everyone was cheering, sending the young off to defend their country, as they’d called it. Stu had relished it at first, the order of the army, how his body had felt as he grew stronger from the relentless drills and training. He genuinely thought it was making him a better man, and that he could spread his strength to other lands. Patriotism, and all that. Stu still couldn’t sleep most nights after what he’d seen. He’d given the best years of his life to protect this country, fought in wars that had left his body all bent and broken. No one thanked him for it, and even though they’d won, it hadn’t been a victory. Stu sighed. He wondered when he’d started seeing the world for what it really was—worthless, dead.

He toed the edge of the couch, and mentally apologised to his landlord, who no doubt would be the one to find him when his rent was late. He was about to take the last step when something caught his eye. There, by the window, partially hidden by the fire escape. A burst of colour in a world of grey.

Stu stood utterly frozen, uncertain what to do. He just stared at it for what felt like forever. Gingerly, his fingers crept up to his neck and removed the noose. He stepped off the couch, his lungs still working when his feet touched the floor. For all he knew, time may have slowed down, each step taking an eternity as he crossed the room.

The window was jammed and took almost all of his strength to open, but eventually, with a grating sound that made his ears bleed, it slid up. Half hanging out of the window, Stu could barely believe his eyes. On the edge of the fire escape, in a pile of broken brick and dust, was a tiny little plant. Its green leaves stretched towards the sky, aching for the sun, and it was so small it was barely visible but for the little pink and yellow flowers that swayed in the breeze.

For a long time, Stu could do nothing but stare at it. His heart ached with the sight of it; he didn’t think he’d ever seen anything so beautiful.

The wind picked up, and the little flowers quivered. Snapping out of his reverie, Stu lunged back into his apartment. He ignored the sofa and the cord hanging from the ceiling. He ignored the ache in his legs and the tickle in his lungs of another hacking cough. He ran straight to his kitchen, where he began looking for something that might make a suitable flowerpot.

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Tropical Bliss, Ariel Norris

A wave lapped at her feet, sending chills up from her toes to the back of her neck. Her nose twitched, and she sniffled. Grace Moretti’s sandy-brown hair reached down her back, just shy of the printed one-piece swimsuit she had on. That winter, the odd twenty-five degrees-celsius day had excited her—at first. But then they kept coming. Week after week, throughout winter, the news headlines announced:

 

Sydney set for another summery weekend 

Slip, slop, slap: spring has sprung early!

Unusual weather highs contribute to shopping lows, says Myer CEO

 

Grace couldn’t stand the way the media embraced the heat without a negative word on global warming. Her feet sunk deeper into the sand. When she had learned about climate change in primary school—five years ago now—she thought of it as a distant future. Something that her parents would have taken care of before she turned sixteen.

The sun broke through a cloud and the heat intensified on her back. The salty ocean air pulled her hair. She turned to look at Long Reef headland. She saw a golfer practising swings before hitting the ball. On the footpath, a couple was walking a pair of excitable chocolate Labradors, who were nipping at each other’s ears. There was a little girl who giggled and waddled quickly in a fruitless attempt to outrun her father.

How much longer would she be able to walk up there, look out and see the rock platform at low tide?

 

 

The ends of Grace’s world dipped in and out of focus. The trees grew to towering heights and then shrunk down to her ankles, still fully-formed.

Her daughter Melanie cried out. I have a daughter? There was a thick white substance—akin to sunscreen—on Melanie’s face, hardened and cracked at the edges. She picked the little girl up and soothed her. Melanie’s salty tears trapped between her duct line and the sunscreen. She cried harder. A handsome man took her from Grace’s arms. Her science teacher, Mr Ivan Heidler. She stared at his tan face. His green eyes and dusty-blonde hair gleamed in the hot sun. She felt her stomach turn with fear and excitement.

‘Ivan,’ she whispered. But he could not hear her. The sounds of protesting shouts interrupted the scene; suddenly, she was thrust into a crowd jostling with anger.

‘Keep the mines open! Send the Greenies home!’

She felt herself tripping over her feet as the mob swelled into a seething surge of pushing and shoving. She shut her eyes and reached out to break a hard fall to the ground.

Opening her eyes, she was on Long Reef beach. Mr Heidler stood beside her and held her hand. He squeezed it.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’

She jerked away in confusion. The sand beneath their feet pooled like lava and burnt her legs. She screamed, and Mr Heidler melted away.

 

 

 

‘Grace? Grace!’ Her head snapped up from where it had been laying on her desk. Anika let go of Grace’s hair, which she’d been yanking to wake her friend.

‘Do you want a detention with Mr Heidler?’ Anika hissed at her. She blearily traced the words written at the top of her workbook, Climate Science. The sunshine reflected off its plastic cover and bounced a sunbow onto Anika’s glasses. The transformation of its burning rays into art.

Mr Heidler had managed to convince the Cromer Campus Science faculty that a term at least should be dedicated to learning about climate change. The sunny September day her Year Ten class visited the rock-platform, they’d been dismissed at Long Reef beach. Herself, Anika and a few of their friends had snuck drinks in their bags. They splashed each other at the shoreline, the salty spray and the watermelon vodka-cruisers on their lips. Tipsy, she had stumbled onto her sandy towel and lay down. The sky was hazy from the heat. The shimmering, greying horizon weighed on her mind until she couldn’t bear it. Her slurred voice called out to Anika as fat tears rolled down her cheeks. The apocalypse would be so beautiful. One last ditch to convince the deniers that something was wrong, that this tropical bliss had a bitter taste, a ladybug. A warning most just let sit on them.

They walked up Dee Why beach, each sandy step sobering them some more. She wanted to be taken seriously when she talked to her parents about the future that night.

A month on, the dream had revisited Grace in various forms. Sometimes the world she imagined was much less forgiving. There were visions of wildfires that towered and clambered over her Cromer Heights home fence. Tendrils of flame like frying oil sparked and leapt at her as she fruitlessly threw water at the blaze. She could hear Melanie crying, Ivan— Mr Heidler!—shouting at her to run. They got into Mr Heidler’s Prius, and the engine wouldn’t start. Air-raid sirens echoed across her dreamscape. She couldn’t see the sea but knew it was rising. Long Reef headland became an island. But perhaps the sunken rock-platform would be a popular spot for divers; beneath the surface life still flourished. Her dream gave her warped hopes.

After class, Anika and Grace walked to the school canteen. It was that same dream again; maybe she should see the school counsellor?

‘What, and have your mum find out your super-crush on Ivan?’ She elbowed Anika in the side.

‘He’s just a really good science teacher,’ said Grace, blushing. ‘Anyway. Aren’t you scared?’

‘Not really. Dad says they’ll just push up the prices of petrol and we won’t be able to travel as much.’

She watched as Anika pulled a passionfruit out of her bag. She asked her if it was locally grown; Anika squinted at the fruit’s small sticker.

‘South Australia.’

Was that in season? She had no idea.

‘The world isn’t going to end because of a passionfruit, Grace.’

‘Shut up!’

 

 

 

That night, she curled up on the brown living room couch beside her old tabby cat, Moozie. She closed her eyes. The television whirred with the opening music of the ABC News. She felt a pillow slowly push into her stomach. She groaned.

‘Gracie, Gracie! You’re so grumpy these days!’ Her father, Renato, stood over her.

‘I heard you again last night,’ Her mother Leigh called from around the corner in the kitchen.

‘I had a baby again, Mum.’ After much deliberation, she had divulged parts of the dream to her parents. Parts being everything except for Mr Heidler.

‘You take the world too seriously, Gracie,’ said Renato.

She jumped off the couch and planted her hands on her hips. ‘No, you don’t take it seriously enough!’ He put up his hands in mock-surrender, and she glared.

‘Honey, we’re lucky. If the planet does… heat up or whatever, we can afford to adapt,’ said her mother. She came up behind her and stroked her daughter’s hair slowly. But Grace jerked away, angry.

‘That doesn’t matter! What matters is, is…’ Her face contorted and her eyes went hot with tears. She turned away. No one understood what was going to happen, not even climate scientists. It would be too late by the time they did.

She turned to avoid the disappointment on her father’s face and didn’t stop running from her mother’s reprimanding shouts. She dashed up the stairs into her room with a slam of her door. She slumped into herself. Her breath quickened, faster and faster, until she was gulping and gasping for air. At the sound of footsteps approaching, she linked her hands over her mouth to cover her lungs’ desperate wheezing. She felt her head pulsing and her eyes fluttered. Leigh knocked and called Grace’s name. She gripped her face tighter. She held her breath – one, two, three – and exhaled for six counts. She grabbed the nearby dresser and pulled herself to her feet, almost falling over in the process.

‘Come in,’ she rasped out.

But no response came. She leaned on the wall and caught her breath until her head cleared. She collapsed into bed. Eyes, weighted heavily by her dread of the dream, shut in reluctance.

 

 

 

‘Mum, I can do it!’

Grace looked at… her daughter. Sitting on her mother’s lap, Melanie pushed herself off. She sighed. Melanie was getting old enough to put on her own sunscreen now. She had taught her how to cover every inch of exposed skin with the thick, gooey substance. A much stronger formula than before. It did not sink into the skin but rather set on top of it; at the end of the day, it was peeled off.

She could hear chatter in the background. Voices were announcing the end of the hot season excitedly and condemning the deniers viciously. Clashing tones and pitches made Grace’s head spin. She clutched at it and closed her eyes.

She opened them to the heat of the fifty-degree rays, suddenly trudging with Melanie to school. She had visions of Ivan —Mr Heidler—and her comforting Melanie. The five-year-old had a rash that developed into ulcers.

Then there was a doctor, who looked exactly like Grace’s mother. But her hands had kept turning into snakes. She watched the wrinkled lines wax and wane on the woman’s face as she spoke, the snake-hands reaching and hissing at Melanie. She pulled Melanie back, frightened. She could never hear the doctor herself. Her daughter’s face was contorted with callouses, taut and rough with pain.

In the dream, it was always May. The temperatures had cooled to low fifties, but the heatwaves rolled in whenever they pleased.

 

 

 

She stirred at a scratching at her door. Half-asleep, she let in Moozie, who meowed her gratitude. As Moozie settled into bed, she woke up more. She checked the weather on her phone; it was still twenty-one degrees at four in the morning. She felt too tired to be sad or scared, but too awake to go back to sleep. She dreamt about WWII briefly. In lieu of her recent imaginings, it was a relief to her. But then the dream had morphed into a disastrous future again. A war dream would be easier to deal with—certainly one that had already happened.

Sometimes the dream began at the birth of Melanie; other times it would start with Melanie at the doctors. She was always with Mr Heidler, and they always had Melanie. If her sleep went unperturbed, the dream would evolve into a full-blown apocalypse, where she carried Melanie in aching arms, where she would lose Mr Heidler—Ivanin the throes of bushfires and floods.

Grace used her phone to search in the dark for her 4Ocean charity bracelet. A glimmer of green beads, half-hidden under a jumper, caught the light. She reached, and her heart leapt to her throat. Grabbing the bracelet faster than strictly necessary, she hid back under the covers. She slipped the jewellery on. Moozie purring at her side, She tried to remember the last time she felt safe at home. Or anywhere, really. In the past month, her fears had only seemed to ratchet; whatever guise she had been living before was long gone.

 

 

 

Even in Science class the next morning, the dream sat at the forefront of her mind in vivid detail.

‘And that would be…’ Mr Heidler cast his eyes around the room. ‘Grace?’

‘Coastal erosion?’

Mr Heidler smiled at Grace; with a quick nod affirming her answer. She looked away quickly and savoured the moment. She pulled up her school cardigan sleeves. She almost didn’t bring it, since she kept sweating on the walk down to school. But it was cool in the classrooms.

She snuck a glance at Anika, who raised an eyebrow back at her. Much to Anika’s annoyance, Grace had refused to use her phone in Mr Heidler’s class and resorted to passing notes instead.

Invite him to Bridget’s??

She rolled her eyes and mouthed, ‘No.’

Anika pushed another note over; she was prepared.

Presentation night??

She blushed. She had planned to ask Mr Heidler since he told her about the volunteering opportunity at Dee Why Surf Lifesaving Club. She volunteered her weekend mornings cleaning up the beach. It was a contradictory process; she would begin the day with a heavy heart, wondering what trash she would pick up and what the wildlife might have already consumed. By the end of the two-hour shift though, her step had a spring, and her smile was wide. She’d dig into the staff fruit platter, tan her legs in the sun, forget what had disturbed her sleep just hours earlier.

Early Saturday morning, Grace was on the bus. She was fond of the view from Edgecliffe Boulevard over the long strip of Narrabeen beach. Out on the horizon, the sun broke through the overcast day to highlight a small strip of white-gold water. She watched, mesmerised. No one was waiting at the stop that boasted the view, and before she knew it, she was looking at ritzy houses again. She unfolded her hands from her lap to put her hair up; it was beginning to stick to the back of her neck. She tightened the bracelet. Maybe she should skip buying drinks this weekend. Spend the money on another fundraiser-bracelet. She looked out the window again. There was smog on the horizon.

She would definitely save the money.

 

 

 

‘I dunno, I’m saving, and mum was suss last time—’

‘You can have some of my drinks, I’ll have some of yours next time. Just come!’

Anika struck a pose in one of Grace’s favourite dresses. She’d asked Anika over to help her pick an outfit for the Lifesaving Club Night. She wanted to look mature for Mr Heidler’s promised attendance. Much to her delight, he was ‘Keen to support the local community.’ She shook off her excited thoughts and put on one of Anika’s get-ups. It was a navy floral button-up, paired with her high-waisted white jeans. She loved it but refused Anika’s offered stilettos in favour of her own trusty tan flats.

They drove down to the surf club and unbeknownst to her parents, her mother parked them next to Mr Heidler’s metallic-blue Prius. Anika snorted. They walked into the community hall, and she fumbled with her notes on volunteering. Her speech was met with polite clapping and some enthusiastic whoops from Anika.

‘The world needs more people like you,’ said Mr Heidler, approaching her afterwards. He looked her in the eyes and put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Keep punching!’

Her face turned beet red, and her voice wobbled as she gave her thanks. For the rest of the night, she floated.

 

 

 

It was a cool May day; a pleasant twenty-seven degrees. The sun sizzled the tip of Grace’s nose, and she reapplied more sunscreen. In Year 10, Anika shrugged off applying sun-protection to anywhere other than her face and shoulders. By high school graduation—Class of 2020—Anika was generously coating exposed skin with sunscreen.

She fiddled with her bracelet continuously.

‘You’re making me nervous, and I’m not even speaking!’ said Anika. In twenty minutes, Grace would present her first set of climate analytics to the CSIRO with Ivan. She asked Anika for lunch beforehand but had only managed half a salad and a black tea.

‘Ivan’s done this for years—I’ve just graduated!’ She groaned.

Anika reminded Grace she was wholesome and winsome and all the other ‘somes. She rolled her eyes but smiled gratefully. Anika farewelled her when Ivan arrived. He took her hand and showed her a picture of the new Long Reef marine sanctuary sign. Behind it, the headland was out of focus. Full of life, vibrant as ever.

Tropical Bliss, Ariel Norris PDF

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Affliction, Emi Marriage

‘Audrey. Audrey.’

His grip tightened on my shoulder before he spun me to face him. His eyes were clouded with concern. ‘Did you hear me, babe? Don’t go out tonight.’

‘I’ll be fine.’ I shook him off. ‘It’s just a little rain.’

Liam was sweet, and had been nothing else for the six months of our relationship. A part of me, though, resented this aspect of him. His need to always be with me was smothering sometimes. Everywhere I looked I saw traces of him. A shirt slung over the back of a chair, books stacked on the coffee table.

‘Don’t you ever watch the news? They said it’s set to be a thunderstorm.’

‘Of course I do,’ I answered. And I did, though it was all the same story lately: news about the Affliction. I did my best to tune it out, but little slivers of information managed to lodge themselves in my mind. There had been an upsurge in cases in recent years; men were most commonly affected, the disease causing them to lash out and harm those closest to them. Rehabilitation centres were overcrowded and understaffed, though there was no evidence that rehabilitation was an effective treatment.

‘I’m not going to let a storm ruin my night.’ I picked up my lipstick and leaned toward the bathroom mirror to inspect my reflection as I applied it. He watched me from the doorway with his arms crossed.

‘Got a hot date, huh?’ His tone was light, but there was a hint of hurt pulled taut like a cord beneath it. I rolled my eyes, unable to keep the smile from playing on my lips.

‘No. It’s Aimee. I told you already.’

It had been a last-minute arrangement. I’d needed some space, and she’d suggested catching a film together. The latest action flick, just like old times. Laughing over the overdone fight sequences had been our main bonding activity since high school.

‘Oh.’ His voice dropped. ‘Her.’

‘I wish you would at least try to like her for me.’

Liam raised his hands in a defensive gesture. ‘Hey, I’ve tried plenty.’

I raised an eyebrow and said nothing.

It took only a few seconds for him to cave. ‘Okay. I just think she hangs around you too much. It’s a little…obsessive, to be honest.’

‘She’s my best friend.’

‘And you have other priorities…’ He pulled me towards him and leaned in for a kiss. Normally that trick might have worked, but I was overdue for a night out. It had been months since I’d seen anyone socially.

‘I’m going.’ I pulled away and headed out of the bathroom and to the front door.

‘Oh, come on.’ He followed me, and something about the heavy thudding of his footsteps made my heart jump in my chest. I was reaching for the doorknob when his fingers wrapped around my other wrist. ‘Babe, don’t leave.’ His voice was pleading, dripping honey, but his grip on me was like a vice.

‘I’ll be back soon.’ I laughed and tugged lightly on my wrist, expecting it to give with little resistance. My breath hitched in my throat when he didn’t immediately release me.

I pulled and twisted to no avail, my skin stinging and rubbing raw where he held on.

‘Liam.’ I laughed again, the sound of it high and trembling even to my own ears. ‘Let go of me.’

‘No.’ He wasn’t smiling anymore. Something cold had crept into his voice, sending a chill into my veins. ‘I can’t ever let you go.’

 

 

 

On our first date Liam had bought me a flower bouquet, pulled out my chair for me, picked up the cheque. He’d been a proper gentleman, but it was his personality that drew me to him. His face had lit up whenever he talked about his friends or his parents or his younger sister. He was a keen listener, an easy laugher. Relaxing around him was almost second nature. Still, I hadn’t let him walk me home until the fourth date, and I hadn’t invited him inside until the sixth. I’d been careful. Maybe not careful enough.

I waited until I was certain he was asleep before I dared to move. Even that was difficult since his right arm was slung across my stomach, pinning me in place. I could feel each breath he took tickling my cheek and making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I disentangled myself from him inch by inch, second by painstaking second. He remained oblivious in his slumber, so I picked up my phone from the nightstand and slipped out of the room.

I’d told Aimee that something had come up at work, and she’d accepted my explanation without question.

‘No dramas, let’s just catch up next time!’

The glow of her cheery text illuminated the dark hallway. Aimee wouldn’t have understood if I’d told the truth about what happened. She would have twisted it to use as ammunition against Liam, when it really wasn’t anything to worry about. He had wanted me to stay in tonight and I’d agreed. Simple.

I examined the red marks patterning my wrist where his hand had been. Those hands that made me feel so secure when they were resting on my shoulders or wrapped around me. They had left an almost perfect circle on my wrist. A bracelet. A bruise in the making.

They were called Secondary Symptoms; the marks that manifested on those people closest to the Afflicted, detached from the disease itself but still directly related. I remembered them from all those commercials for the National Affliction Helpline: black eyes, bruises on the face or neck. Apparently early intervention was key, so that the Afflicted could receive necessary support. I’d always hated those commercials. I’d seen bruises like that before, and I knew without doubt that nobody could unthinkingly inflict such damage on another person. It couldn’t just be a disease. It had to be a choice.

‘You’re awake?’

I almost jumped out of my own skin at the sound of Liam’s voice. He stood at the bedroom door, rubbing a hand over his face.

‘Just getting a drink of water.’ I walked back towards him, a moth drawn inexplicably to a blinding flame.

He cupped my face in his hands as he leaned down to kiss me, warm and sweet. ‘Come back to bed. Not the same without you there,’ he slurred sleepily. And he was himself again. The Liam that I loved.

‘Okay,’ I whispered.

But even as I lay beside him in the dark, slowing my breathing to match his, I couldn’t shake the image of Aunt Alexandra sitting on our couch all those years ago.

She’d had her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders were rapidly rising and falling as she took shuddering breaths. I had noticed immediately that she was thinner, smaller, so different from when I’d last seen her. Being eight at the time, I was old enough to know that something was wrong, but too young to pinpoint exactly what. My mother had stroked soothing circles in her back while murmuring something. I’d only heard snippets of what she’d said: ‘it’s alright’, ‘not your fault’, and ‘Harold’. My Uncle.

Aunt Alexandra’s voice was hushed and punctuated by sobs. When she’d finally looked up, she was nothing like the person I remembered: purple bruises bloomed across her neck and up one side of her face, her lip was cut, her eye almost completely swollen shut.

Stifling a gasp, I had shrunk back behind the door, out of sight. I couldn’t reconcile these two different versions of her in my head: the woman who smelled like sunshine and brought me presents and sang me to sleep at night, and the woman I saw that day.

This was nothing like that, I reminded myself as I rolled over to face Liam. The marks would fade quickly. Couples arguing was nothing new, and this one had been brewing for a while. I’d made the right decision by staying in tonight; things had been so busy lately that I hadn’t made enough time for Liam. But he was a good guy, a nice guy. I knew that.

Uncle Harold had been a nice guy, too.

 

 

 

A month passed, and then two. I learned to stick by the unspoken rules of our relationship; to spend all my time with him, to text him whenever we were apart just to keep him updated. He didn’t like not knowing where I was.

There were some days where Liam was inexplicably moody no matter what I did. Small things like leaving the dishes in the sink or forgetting to start the washing machine became fuel for much bigger fires. Those days were rare, though, and for the most part I avoided the never-ending arguments, the heated words and the cold shoulders that followed. The routine was good, it worked. Until it didn’t.

The trains were delayed.

The trains were delayed, and my phone was dead.

Sickening dread clawed at my stomach as I stared at its blank, unresponsive screen. Useless.

A tinny broadcast played overhead, the announcer managing to sound apologetic yet cheerful as she said that the train would be another forty minutes, sorry.

I paced the length of the platform and back again. My eyes darted to the people around me, but their faces and voices all merged into a churning sea. I could barely hear them over the beating of my own heart in my chest, in my ears, pounding in my head.

I could catch a taxi, but it was rush hour. I could borrow someone’s phone, but his number wasn’t one I knew by heart. For a crazy moment, I contemplated not going home at all. But that was ridiculous. It was my apartment.

My hands clenched then unclenched, tighter each time until my nails left marks on my palms. I stood still and let the shakiness run through and out of me. He would understand. He had to.

‘I’m sorry.’ The first words out of my mouth as I opened the door. ‘The delays—’

‘Sorry?’ Liam was on me in an instant. He’d been waiting in the hallway all this time. ‘I called you! I kept calling you! What happened?!’ His voice rose with each word, like a siren growing louder the closer it got. I realised then that I’d been bracing for this the entire way home. It was almost a relief to get it over with.

‘My phone died. I’m sorry.’

‘Your phone…’ He stared at me. ‘You didn’t charge your phone?’

‘I must have forgotten. I know. It won’t happen next time.’

‘Next time?’ He ran his hands through his hair and pulled at the ends of it.

‘Can you stop parroting everything I say? It was just a mistake.’ I couldn’t help but snap at him. The annoyance bubbling inside of me ebbed immediately afterwards. I wished I’d never spoken at all.

He moved before I could flinch, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me hard.

‘Do you know how fucking worried I was? I thought you were dead. I couldn’t reach you, I didn’t know where the hell you were. How could you do that to me?!’

‘Liam…’ Hot tears pricked at my eyes. My head hurt. Everything hurt.

‘And this?’ He snatched my phone from my hand. ‘What’s the point of this if you don’t fucking charge it.’

‘No, don’t!’ I cried as the phone hurtled at the wall. It hit with a thundering crack before falling to fragments.

‘Can’t even remember to do that. You’re useless.’

‘Get off me,’ I mumbled. Then louder, ‘Get off me!’

A stinging slap hit my cheek before I managed to push him away. The tears spilled over as I held a hand to my face.

Liam only laughed. There was no trace of remorse in his eyes. ‘You really have no idea, do you?’

I did now. And I’d never be mistaken again.

‘Screw you,’ I said. He started towards me, and I ran back out of the door, slamming it in his face.

 

 

 

The apartment building was the same as I remembered it. Short and squat, its grey concrete lined by dozens of small, eye-like windows. I wasn’t expecting to remember her address, but it was still lodged in my mind from when I was younger. I’d spent most of my afternoons here waiting for my mother to pick me up after she finished work. That had been before everything that happened. I wasn’t even sure if she still lived here.

My chest fluttered with apprehension as I knocked on the door, and my stomach tied itself into knots in the moments of silence that followed. Finally, it swung open, and relief coursed through my veins.

‘Aunt Alexandra.’

‘Audrey?’ Her eyebrows rose. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Well–’ A lump formed in my throat that I tried desperately to swallow around. I’d already shed enough tears for a lifetime, but they seemed to just keep coming. ‘It’s…Liam.’

Instantly her expression cleared. She nodded to me.

‘I think you’d better come in.’

It felt like no time had passed since I’d last been here, sitting at her kitchen table while she made tea. Only now we were on equal ground. Her life and all its messy complications were all too easy for me to understand. At first I couldn’t find the right words, but once they started spilling out I didn’t know how to stop them. Aunt Alexandra listened through it all, and the understanding was plain on her face.

‘I just don’t know…’ My voice finally exhausted itself. ‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘What can you do?’ She sighed. ‘I went through it all with Harold, and it was a bunch of crap. Weekly couples’ counselling, rehabilitation that they made me pay for. As if that would help anything.’

I hadn’t heard her talk about Uncle Harold since that night in our living room. She’d been frightened then, but this time she only seemed weary.

‘How is he doing now?’ I hesitated. ‘Is he still Afflicted?’

Aunt Alexandra’s face hardened. Her hands balled into fists at her sides, squeezing then releasing. ‘Last I heard he was back in rehab. His second wife is paying for it this time around…’ She closed her eyes. ‘He should be locked up.’

I thought about having to see Liam every week, having to support him through it all, when I had given so much of myself to him already. I thought about letting him slip away to find someone else to keep under his thumb.

‘It’s okay, you know,’ Aunt Alexandra said.

‘I know, and I’m leaving him.’

And that was enough. It had to be.

 

 

 

Download a PDF of ‘Afflicted

Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Patrol 4 by Imogen Wiggins

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With The Deepest Regret, I Wish To Inform You…, Sarah Joseph

Parker pushed his bike up the red dirt path to the top of the hill, panting. He turned around briefly, seeing his friend, Declan, close behind. Cole was further down the hill. The young boy struggled to push his bike up the path which had been created by the three boys’ frequent visits to the hill.

‘Come on, Cole,’ Parker shouted down to his younger brother, ‘We’re almost there!’

‘The shower should start at approximately 23:34,’ Declan panted, kicking the stand out on his bike as he and Parker reached the top.

Parker saw him push up his sleeve to check his watch.

‘We’re right on schedule! Excellent time, lads,’ Declan declared, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and walking over to their spot.

Finally, Cole reached the top of the hill and Parker ruffled his dark hair.

‘Didn’t think you were going to make it, buddy!’ he said, as Cole aggressively pushed him away.

Cole punched his brother’s arm and ran over to Declan, his bike dropping and creating a cloud of dust as it skittered to the ground. Parker meandered slowly over to the others.

‘Look! There’s one!’ Cole shouted, bouncing on the soles of his feet.

The older boys followed Cole’s finger to a large shooting star. It burnt up in the sky, casting a long tail, and skimmed across the dark, quiet town below them.

‘Another one is coming in,’ Declan said, throwing his mouth open and head back, squinting up at the sky.

Parker watched the steady stream of stars for a few minutes before he sat down against a redgum tree. He absently picked at loose threads on his old joggers as he watched Cole and Declan. Cole was still bouncing, excited because this was the first time Parker had let him sneak out with them. He always felt guilty for leaving his little brother at home, but Cole was too much of a liability. Parker watched him squealing with delight, thinking back to how long it had taken them to sneak out that night because he kept making too much noise.

‘Look at that one!’ Cole shouted, clapping his hands.

‘I’ve never seen one that bright.’ Declan squinted up at the star. ‘It must be a larger mass than the others we’ve seen.’

‘It could be Martians!’ Cole exclaimed, and Parker rolled his eyes. ‘A Martian spacecraft!’

‘This isn’t one of your comic books. There’s no such thing,’ Parker called out from his seat, crossing his arms behind his head.

‘I know that,’ Cole shot defensively back at Parker, sticking his tongue out. ‘But it could be. We don’t know what the shooting stars really are.’

‘Well, actually—’ Declan started, beginning to spill facts he had read from a textbook.

Parker immediately stopped listening. He knew Declan had spent all summer holidays with the flu, hunched over tattered old textbooks. He had heard that exact spiel many times before on that very hill. It took a few trips out there and a few spiels before Parker had calmly explained he wasn’t even slightly interested.

He looked over the small town, the few blocks that encompassed the entire thing. From the hill, he could clearly see the main street. It was deserted. It used to be full of the people in the grades above him; and those freshly graduated, driving their parent’s cars, going to the pub or just sitting in their parked cars, playing music. All the guys were gone now; most of them signed up for the war the first chance they got. The girls were all in the city, working for the war effort too. The remainders, those attached to their family or work, had been the only life left in the town. They had all been conscripted over the last three years.

The only lights were coming from the garage and the pub on the corner. Inside would be the old veterans, celebrating the good news. The Germans were defeated at last. They announced it a few weeks ago.  The war was over. That would lead them into reminiscing the Great War. Parker knew they’d be talking about how they had it hardest in Gallipoli, and those missing troops in Asia, and the rumours of the railroad through Burma. That’s all they ever talked about.

Parker’s thoughts drifted to his father, and then his eyes moved off the main street to his house. It was dark and still, his mother sleeping alone. Waiting. They hadn’t heard anything from him in months, so they were left unknowing. His mother took it as a good sign. No news is good news, she said. His grandpa had whispered conspiratorially to him a few weeks ago that maybe his father had been taken as a POW. Parker didn’t know who to listen to.

It was a story he knew too well. Sons and fathers sent to Africa, Southern Europe, Asia, and never returning. Declan’s older brother and father hadn’t come back yet. They hadn’t died like many others from their town, but they had moved on. His brother was still helping with the War Office somewhere in Germany, the last they had heard. He would probably come home soon. But his father was another story. Declan had never given Parker much of the story because he didn’t like talking about it. But from what he had heard, Declan’s father found another woman while he was away. She was an English girl, a nurse or something. And they were living together now.

Parker worried about that more than he worried about his father dying sometimes. When he was conscripted, Parker had just started high school, and Cole was too young to remember. His father told him to look after his mother and brother, to not let anything happen to them, to be the man of the house while he was gone. But how could he protect them from a broken heart, like Declan’s family?  He just wanted news. Any news.

He looked over at Cole, his brother’s brows creased into a v shape.

‘Declan,’ Parker sighed, ‘You have to explain it really dumb. He’s only six.’

‘Almost seven!’ Cole shot back.

‘Lads! Look, another one!’ Declan interrupted.

The boys fell silent and watched the star shoot across the town, lighting up the whole sky. It burnt up just above Old Man Peter’s place below their hill.

There was suddenly a loud bang and a flash of light from the house. Then silence.

‘What was that?’ Cole asked.

Parker’s heart raced, and he exchanged glances with Declan.

‘We should check if he needs help.’ Cole picked up his bike, and took off down the hill.

‘Cole!’ Parker grabbed his own bike and raced after him. Declan wasn’t far behind.

 

 

 

When they got to the old weatherboard house, the veranda was caving in on the left, and the gum tree out the front littered the ground with dried leaves. They lay spread across the scorched red dirt, so that the boy’s feet crunched as they jumped off their bikes. Parker caught Declan’s eye. His throat tightened as he looked over at Cole, who was already walking towards the front door.

‘Cole, wait!’ he called out, running after him. His bike clunked to the ground.

He grabbed Cole’s arm just as he was stepping onto the veranda.

‘We have to see if Old Man Peter is okay!’ His brother’s voice was small and worried.

Parker looked back at Declan, who was still holding onto his bike, his knuckles white. They both knew what that sound had been and what it probably meant. Old Man Peter lived out here alone since his sons went off to war. He hardly left the house anymore. Leanne from the corner store even drove supplies out here for him once a week.

He remembered overhearing his mother talking to Diane, their neighbour, over tea last week.

‘Di, don’t say that!’ his mother gasped. ‘Of course the boys will come home.’

‘I don’t have a good feeling about it. They were so young. David was how old?’

‘Nineteen?’

‘God. Nineteen. And Reggie was underage! I can’t believe he left his father to run off after David and his mates. He always idolised him.’

‘It’s devastating. It would utterly destroy Peter if they didn’t come home. Those boys are everything to him.’ His mother fanned herself with a book.

‘You’re lucky your own boys are too young.’

‘I am grateful to God every day for that,’ his mother said quietly.

‘I do worry about your husband, though. Often.’

‘Di!’ His mother slammed her hand to the table, making Parker jump behind the door.

‘What?’ Dianne shrugged. ‘You have to prepare for these things. My Stan never came back.’

‘I know. But you ought not to talk about it.’

Parker let go of Cole’s arm and stepped onto the wooden veranda. He could hear the wireless playing softly inside, the sound of piano floating out on the breeze. He looked at Cole’s wide, bright eyes and called out to Declan.

‘Cole, you stay here for a minute,’ he said, and before Cole could protest, he continued, ‘Declan and I have to make sure it’s safe.’

‘Safe? From what?’

Parker wracked his brain.

‘From Martians, of course, like you were saying before! They fly their ships down here during meteor showers as cover.’

Cole’s eyes widened, and he nodded vigorously. He walked back to the bikes and stood beside them, keeping a look-out.

Parker bit his lip and locked eyes with Declan, then reached across to open the front door. It wasn’t locked, so the boys walked right into the living area.

The lights were on, casting a soft, yellow light on everything in the room, chasing the shadows in the corners. The fire was crackling quietly, and the wireless was still playing soft piano music; it sounded like Debussy, his father’s favourite. Comfortable looking armchairs sat in front of the fire, fraying from age and use.

Parker walked across to the kitchen table. Breakfast was still placed at the table, even though it was past midnight now. The cold, half-eaten eggs and a single strip of bacon had hardened fat upon them. Two flies were buzzing atop the food, dancing around each other; a synchronised dance only they knew.

The kitchen bench was a mess. There was a half loaf of bread that had gone hard from being out all day. Dirty plates and cups lay in the sink. A pan sat on the stove with a thick layer of hardened grease from the bacon. He turned around and saw Declan looking at something on the table. He picked up an open letter that was lying next to the cold breakfast.

‘Parker,’ he whispered, shakily pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘It’s a commiseration letter.’

Parker walked back over to the table and saw the War Department header on the letter. His heart dropped.

‘Both boys,’ Declan sighed. ‘Reggie was only a few years older than us. And David…’

Parker quickly turned around and walked across the lounge to a hallway. A door at the end was ajar, more soft, yellow light spilling into the hallway. He knew what he would find down there. He walked up the hall slowly, his feet padding on the threadbare hall runner.

The walls were lined with photographs. David and Reggie grew up as he kept walking, turning from bald infants into bold, dark-haired boys on the backs of horses. There were photos of them with Parker and Declan when Parker was years younger. Reggie was in his footy club. He was always good at sport; the coaches’ pick every time. They said he would get a sports scholarship and get into university in the city. The whole town was behind him.

David was just as loved by the town. He worked on the farms, helping out wherever he could. He was a hard worker, attractive, and was sweet with the Mayor’s granddaughter in the town over. The people physically felt his loss when he was sent off. Parker heard his father say it was unjust, unnatural, to send the boys away. This community would die without them. And he was right.

Parker pushed the door at the end of the hall open, slamming his eyes shut as he did. He jumped when he heard Declan swear behind him, completely forgetting that he wasn’t alone. He very slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was the red splatter on the wall behind Old Man Peter’s lifeless body. The yellow light couldn’t soften the dark shade on the white wallpaper. Then he saw the gun in the old man’s limp hand.

‘We need to get Officer Winston.’ Declan’s voice was urgent.

‘He’s not here during the week.’ Parker couldn’t drag his eyes away from where Old Man Peter’s head used to be.

‘Well… we need to get someone. Doc’s here, I saw him today. We need to report this. I need to get—’

Declan raced out of the room, coming back to grab Parker’s arm and drag him out too.

Out the front of the house, they were met by Cole’s watchful eyes.

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

Declan grabbed his bike and sped off before Parker could do as much as protest. Cole watched him peddle away and then looked back at his older brother.

‘Where’s Old Man Peter?’

Parker gratefully knelt on the ground in front of Cole; he hadn’t realised how heavy his body was. He took Cole’s small hands in his own and stared into his eyes.

‘You were right, Cole.’

‘What?’

‘It’s Martians. They’ve taken him.’

Download a PDF copy of ‘With The Deepest Regret, I Wish To Inform You…’

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Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

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Harvest, Gianina Burlan

I grew up a lot that night, the way adults do. I was placed in front of doors that opened into fields no child should know about. New feelings stuck themselves onto me and slowly started to burn. My skin had already turned black before I knew where the pain was coming from. A word I heard only a few times before, shaped itself into its dark meaning. Guilt had only been a word I would hear on TV by those stylish men and women on the news. But the word quickly became a weapon that my parents were throwing between each other.

My younger brother Aaron was nowhere to be found. We had been playing in the park at the end of the street and when I couldn’t see him anymore, I turned back home. On our bare feet, my mother dragged me back to the park to look for him. When she asked what I was doing, I took the drawing pad out of my pocket and proudly showed it to her. Unimpressed she threw the pad on the ground and told me that I was supposed to look after him not just draw stick figures.

Once we were back in the house, she made a few calls and the neighbours started to fill the front yard. Soon after it got dark, policemen were crowding our house, leaving the front door open. Their black leather boots were drumming the stairs, walking in and out of my brothers’ room. I was summoned to the kitchen by my father who told me that the police have to ask me a few questions. My mother was standing at the corner of the table with her head towards the ground. She was talking loudly while her left hand was moving uninterrupted as if she just dropped something and could not pick it up. When she saw me, she quickly turned and wiped her eyes. My parents, two policemen, and I sat down at the kitchen table. The older policeman was asking questions. A few times he asked the same question with different words as if my answer was wrong. My mother would always find a way to cut me short and answer the questions for me even though Aaron and I were by ourselves in the park. There was something in her voice I could not recognize. It seemed as if someone else was talking.

Three times we went through everything. Where we were, what we did, who else was there, and if anyone saw us. And three times my mother made a mistake. The same mistake.

‘His T-shirt was definitely green. I dressed him this morning,’ my mother repeated.

‘But it was blue. You have to believe me,’ I said to the policemen, hoping they would take my word and not hers.

A search party for my brother was organized that night. Our neighbours gathered in the living room. The coffee table was full of batteries and Mr Lee from across the street was placing them inside flashlights. My mother wanted to go as well but my father and his sister Grace insisted that she should stay home. With her head constantly nodding she was walking from the kitchen to the living room and back saying that Aaron must be hiding somewhere. A large map was unfolded on the kitchen table. The search party was divided in two teams. More policemen entered the house, some of which had dogs.

‘Team A will search Heathcote Park and team B will search Dharawal. We can search the Royal National Park in the morning,’ one police man said.

‘We can’t think about tomorrow. We have to find my son by daylight,’ said my father.

None of the policemen lifted their heads from the map. Aunt Grace placed her hand on my father’s shoulder.

Some left with their cars and some on foot. Although my mother said she could look after me by herself, Aunt Grace remained in the house. It was past midnight and my mother could not sit down for more than a few minutes. Aunt Grace made tea for all of us, but my mother’s cup remained untouched. My yawns got bigger and bigger. After a long blink, it was daylight. The search parties were in front of the house. My parents were in the kitchen, whisper-shouting at each other. My mother was accusing everyone of not looking hard enough for my brother. No matter how many times my father tried to tell her that they did everything they could she would wave her hand and talk over him.

‘I don’t need the police to make posters. I can make them myself,’ my mother said while walking towards her study.

She slammed the door shut and my father went to the front yard with coffees. Aunt Grace made a fruit salad and let me eat it on the couch. She turned on the TV for me but the volume was too low. By the time my mother came out of her study, the search parties were gone. Another search party was organized for that afternoon.

My mother placed a pile of papers on the coffee table. Half of the page was covered with a picture with Aaron that was taken a few weeks before. I took one poster and ripped it in half. The description was wrong. For the first time, I screamed at her that his shirt was blue but she only stared at her teacup that was still full. When I got up the rest of my fruit salad fell on the floor. This made Aunt Grace get up and immediately start cleaning but my mother’s face was like a sculpture.

I ran towards Aaron’s room and stopped at the door. The air was still and everything smelled like him. The light cream carpet had multiple boot prints on it. I wondered why the policemen didn’t take off their shoes. Carefully, I started going through his shirts and found a green one. This was enough proof that I was right until I found a blue shirt. Taking all the shirts, I ran back down taking two stairs at the time. When I reached the living room Aunt Grace looked at my mother and then quickly moved her face into her teacup. My mother ripped the shirts out of my hands and opened her mouth as if she was about to scream. When my father walked in she closed her mouth and almost smiled. Dad took the shirts and we looked at them together. He didn’t talk much so I went to sit on his lap, something I hadn’t done for a while. With his hand shaking, he felt the fabric while my mother was looking at the front door with her hands folded. The wave of silence was broken by Aunt Grace who picked up the remote and turned the volume up. On the right side of the screen was the same picture from the posters. I knew that the lady was talking about Aaron but her voice could not reach me. The sounds from the TV echoed beside our still bodies.

For the next few days, Aunt Grace brought my meals to my room. Groups of people, some of whom I’d never seen before, were leaving in the mornings from our house always returning without Aaron. My parents kept coming into my room to talk but always separately. They insisted I should return to school, so I did. The drive was no longer fun and the radio’s buttons were starting to collect dust. My mother would drive in silence and often made short stops to give people posters, which made me the last one to arrive to class. At the sight of my mother, who no longer followed her grooming routine, some people backed away and other parents would pull their own children closer. Because I was also the last one to be picked up, the other parents felt the need to smile pitifully and offer rides home. Unable to speak, I would only reply with shy nods.

Watching my friends getting picked up made me feel as if I’d swallowed something sharp. After an entire day of complaining about what their siblings did to them, they could spend half an hour close together in the car and argue some more. Aaron and I never did this. We didn’t say mean things or hit each other.

The days started to get shorter. I was waiting at the edge of the curb, away from my friends. We had just gotten out from school and I didn’t want to be next to people or talk. Without saying goodbye, I started walking down the street. I knew that only a few noticed and it was really hard not to turn back to see who was looking but my face was deep under tears. On a wooden pole on my way I saw a poster. All the phone numbers underneath were gone and one corner was unstuck. From my backpack, I took out a marker and completely covered the word ‘green’ then wrote ‘blue’ above it. I threw the backpack on the ground and opened the zipper. There should have been some tape in there somewhere. Determined to find it I took out my notebooks but I still couldn’t see any tape. Behind me, a pair of steps was slowly approaching.

‘Did you lose anything?’ asked Jonathan who lived next door.

‘Do you have some tape?’

‘Yeah,’ he said looking through his backpack.

I took the tape from him and stuck a piece on the loose corner. When I turned, Jonathan was putting the notebooks back in my backpack. I stretched my hand to give the tape back and he told me I could keep it.

Jonathan’s mother and my mother used to take turns to take us to school or pick us up. This stopped after my brother disappeared. Aaron was too young to go to school and my mother would take him with us in the mornings. Strapped in his seat he would look out the window and name the colours of the cars passing by.

Jonathan helped me put the backpack back on. I thanked him and started walking down the street.

‘Do you need a ride home?’ he asked.

I didn’t answer, I just kept walking. With the marker in my hand, I wrote on every poster that came my way. I don’t know how long I walked for but even though it was almost winter, I could feel my shirt stuck to my back. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car pull up next to me. My mother got out of the car and came to me running.

‘Are you going to make me look for you too?’, she asked. ‘You can’t just leave school like that.’

I looked straight at her and for the first time in a while, she looked back. From her pocket, she took out a used tissue and wiped my face.

‘Let’s go home,’ she said opening the door of the car.

‘I can’t come home right now. I have to fix the posters and look for Aaron.’

‘Please Eve, get in the car.’

She never really said please before and the word almost hit me. I went past the door and got up in the front seat unsure if I was legally allowed to sit there. She shut the back door and came behind the wheel. We didn’t speak but it felt like we were both in the car, together again. She drove straight home without stopping to give posters.

When we got home there was an Arts&Craft paper bag on the counter. My father was putting groceries in the fridge which were bought by Aunt Grace since my mother no longer paid attention to these necessities.

‘This is for you,’ my father pointed at the bag.

Inside it was two drawing pads, a piece of wood and water-soluble pencils. I had stopped drawing since that day but I didn’t think they would notice.

 

 

 

Five years later my parents and I were having dinner. I was allowed to cook now and was preparing roast beef with mashed potatoes. My mother and my three-year-old brother Alan were in the backyard. Alan had just discovered gardening and the pleasure of digging. The TV in the living room was on Chanel 7. Something made my father get up from the kitchen table quickly and I followed him in front of the TV. Two boys that were playing in a park in Penrith had disappeared the week before. The two families were holding pictures with their children offering a reward to anyone that had valuable information. My father was not looking at the TV but through the living room windows at my mother and Alan whose pants were covered in dirt.

Throughout dinner, my father smiled and was encouraging Alan to use the spoon himself but I could see he was holding back tears.

Two weeks later I came back from school, a police car was parked in our driveway. The door was ajar so I pushed my body inside. My mother was holding Alan in the middle of the living room and my father was on the couch with a cop on each side.

‘Just wait in your room please,’ my father said.

‘No! You have to tell me.’

‘They think they found Aaron.’

‘They think?’

‘They may have found Aaron’s…’

‘Where?’

‘Megalong Valley.’

Because my father and one of the detectives, Mr Burton, became friends over the years, I was allowed to accompany them. After a long drive, we arrived on a farm. The entire place was surrounded by police. My father remained in the car. Behind the farm was what looked like a barn. Inside were surgical instruments and mattresses on the floor. The sheets were no longer on the mattresses and they were still kept in their plastic covers. Mr Burton said they kept them like that so they wouldn’t need to change them if the ‘patients’ would piss on them or bleed out. This was the place where the elite would buy organs for their sick children. Only one of the children from Penrith survived but without a lung. The other didn’t make it. Mr Burton didn’t tell me why.

On the floor were laid out children clothes. Mr Burton said they knew which belonged to the boys from Penrith but the rest of the clothes were a mystery. I walked near them and I recognized Aaron’s shirt. The shirt was blue.

 

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The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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Peculiar Perception, Laura Treglown

 

The clouds cried and the droplets poured down onto Henry’s head.

He ran across the zebra crossing to the shelter of Figtree Mall. Even inside, he could hear the bang of thunder rip the clouds apart. One… two… three… four. He counted the kilometres between each one. Jon Carver had taught his son, Henry, this trick from a young age, as a coping mechanism of sorts. To act as a comforting substitute for when he was absent. It helped calm the boy down by showing how far away the thunder was, despite how close it sounded. As a child, Henry believed they were bombs. At first it had made Jon laugh, then it became a nuisance. In the end it wasn’t the thunder that scared Henry, but the explosion that was his father. Jon liked to call himself a simple man. He believed in good old fashion business, a hard work ethic, and sound family morals. But, he just didn’t get his son, and Henry could tell.

Henry knew better now than to believe in unnatural ideas like bombs blowing up the sky and fatherly love. It was seven seconds after seeing the sky light up that he heard the bang, crackle, and pop. Once the rain dissipated, Henry was sure that the noise would too. He shook his shaggy hair slightly with his hands, attempting to spread and minimise the water clinging like a bad smell, before heading deeper into the mall.

His friend Tod had texted Henry awake from an eleven-hour coma earlier than usual this morning. His best guess was that Tod hadn’t slept all night—instead, rampaging and trolling the battlegrounds of World of Warcraft. Ordinarily, Henry wasn’t opposed to a bit of melee at Warsong Gulch under the guise of his druid night elf. Especially since a few weeks ago he had received Mythical Level 760 bracers in a drop from the boss, Grand Magistrix Elisande. But recently, he had simply replied busy to Tod. This kind of thing was becoming a common occurrence.

Due to his morning wake-up call, Henry arrived at the mall earlier than he typically did. It meant he had gotten stuck in the 9 am soccer-mum traffic at the roundabout on Gibson Road leading to the high school, primary school, and preschool. Henry’s only thought was what idiot had planned it that way? He also had to wait three two-minute cycles of the traffic lights before Pearl, his old creamy Mazda 3, could finally turn right onto The Avenue. Due to his morning escape, he arrived at Figtree Mall far too early. On the bright side, for once he didn’t have to wrestle some old lady or mum with a pram for a parking spot. The threat of just another day munching on chips, sculling soda and mashing keyboards with Tod was enough to force him out of his routine.

His mother had arrived back from her Bali cruise only several weeks ago and therefore Henry’s mall escapades had become more frequent than they ever had been. Since quitting her job and entering a premature retirement because—as she often proclaimed—she deserved it, Louise Carver had become an inescapable presence in his home. After Henry graduated from high school six months earlier and deferred from a Bachelor of Business at Wollongong University, nothing had happened. At least that was what his mother enjoyed telling him. Henry, on the other hand, knew he couldn’t stop the cogs from working hard in his mind as he tried to comprehend his future. It was only at the mall where the world stopped spinning and time was nothing more than an absent thought.

 

 

 

At 10 am, coffee was a necessity. In Henry’s mind, caffeine was better and far more important than oxygen. It somehow managed to keep him sane, at least, in his opinion. He was definitely no connoisseur, and always scooped in at least four teaspoons of sugar. Henry liked the effects of coffee more than the actual taste of it. With an ice-cold latte in hand, he looked around, hoping to find a spare seat somewhere within the vicinity of the coffee shop.

An elderly woman was precariously perched on the corner of a bench. It looked uncomfortable, but Henry guessed that she had plenty of practice at this position by sitting on the bones of young children. He imagined her settling into their bones with a satisfying crunch and a pleased and pleasant smile. He went over and she glanced sideways at Henry as he dropped down beside her. Her skin was saggy, as if trying to run away from her body as it drooped. Much like the rest of the population when they finally saw the truth about sweet old Granny. The rings shoved onto her spindly fingers seemed to be the only thing holding the skin in place. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, but she was obviously uninterested. Even if the idea of escaping life for a day tantalised Henry, he was too old to suit her taste buds. Her eyes kept scanning the area around them. Edith’s eyesight was the only thing about her that still worked perfectly fine.

She came to malls much like this all the time, he thought, because it was where the children got lost. One second they were holding Mummy’s hand and then they were nothing more than headshots on milk cartons. She never went to the same mall twice. No, she wasn’t a rookie at this—that was how you got caught. One had to stay on the move. Henry smiled at the irony of this thought, as the old lady was running nowhere, quick.

As he sat next to her—she looked like an Edith—all Henry could smell was beef. It filled his nose and choked his senses. So, he took a long swig of his coffee and instead, tried to breathe in that meaty aroma. Even after many years of awkward and potent hugs from his mother, Henry still struggled not to gag from her smell. Edith must have been cooking soup this morning. She was planning on having it for dinner. It had to stew all day because the child was not as plump as she would usually like, and muscle tends to need much longer to soften and tenderise than the fat ones. But the fat ones were much harder to get into the pot. Henry couldn’t help himself: a scoff escaped his mouth at the thought of this elderly woman, in her tiny wooden cottage hidden deep in a forest, attempting to put a child into a pot, only to realise she didn’t have one big enough. Edith looked over. She had a questioning look on her face, but Henry simply smiled, stood up and walked away. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about him.

 

 

 

The mall was the place where people got lost. No mall in particular; it was just something about the rows upon rows of neatly organised shops that caused people to lose themselves in the sense of chaos. That was why Henry liked it. He enjoyed falling down the rabbit hole and finding himself somewhere completely different. Even though Henry liked to see the darker, purgatory side to the mall that robbed people of their souls, money, and time, he knew in reality, it was nothing more than a concrete-laden building. Yet he still loved to succumb to the mystique and wonder that it drew out of different people. He relished in exploring, not only the shops and places, but also the people it created.

That is what he decided to do today. On days like these, when the sky was crying buckets of rain, there was really no choice but to stay inside. He turned left and right, and right, and back around the way he came, only to turn left. Past the bright colours of Cotton On, the light and airiness of Swarovski, and the clatter and hubbub that was the food court. It was all at random. That was the best way to do it. He kept travelling in this labyrinth for quite a while. He couldn’t tell exactly how long. There wasn’t time to check his phone. His head had to stay up so he could see the world that existed around him instead of the pixels that plagued his phone.

On a lap past the food court, a young man stepped his New Balance trainers directly in front of Henry and blocked his path, almost as if he knew where Henry would be. The top button of his vintage collared shirt strained against his Adam’s apple as he spoke.

‘Hi mate, can I grab a minute of your time?’

Although a cap obscured his face, Henry could see the truth. He saw the dark violet bags that clung underneath his eyes. The scratchy and scruffy beard that came only from weeks of not shaving. The man’s hands clenched at his sides as he grasped a blue clipboard. It was plainly obvious, even to Henry, that it had been weeks since he had slept well at all. It wasn’t from the many assignments he had piling up though. No, he didn’t care about those at all. It was the dreams that kept him up at night. Dreams of the future, of course.

Henry knew that it all began one drunken night with his five friends, an Ouija board and the internet. It was a fun night at first, rounds of shots every time the board answered a question. Throughout the course of the night, up until 4 am, they only became cruder and cruder. It was the next day, when his hangover was ebbing, that he fell into an internet wormhole.

Henry knew far too much about internet wormholes; they started with searching tomorrow’s weather and ended five hours later on Wikipedia, looking at the breeding cycle of Fairy Penguins in Northern Tasmania. But Louis—as Henry decided he looked like—had ended up falling into a hole of Southern Louisiana dark magic. At 2 am the next morning he found himself on some questionable website overflowing with spells, pigeon in hand, and knife on the coffee table in front of him. Days later, Louis still couldn’t get the blood out from underneath his fingernails. That wasn’t the only thing he was struggling with. It had done something to him, and although most of these mall-goers couldn’t see it, Henry could see that the man in front of him had unknowingly made a blood magic trade to see the future.

Louis could see the small problems that would arise tomorrow. Like a traffic jam on the Princes Highway he would have to face on his drive to work, or that they would run out of milk in two days at 9 am. Those things used to matter to him. He would normally lay awake at night worrying what he would have for breakfast if there was no milk left. But now those worries didn’t even make him flinch because he had seen his own death.

He had barely even made it to his job handing out flyers this morning. Henry was shocked that he was actually here in one piece. Although Louis didn’t know exactly when it would happen, he knew that he would be in a car crash. Seeing your own death wasn’t exactly fun and it had shaken him to the core. Henry though, just smiled at Louis for the first, and perhaps last, time before ignoring his questions and continuing to lap the mall. It was an awkward enjoy your day and your death kind of interaction. Henry wondered what he would do if he knew what was lying in wait just around the corner. He’d probably move out and away from the iron grip of his mother for starters. At least he was safe for the time being, he concluded, as he lost himself.

 

 

 

Eventually, as always, he gave up. He found a lone silver metal chair and collapsed into it. He could feel the stiffness begin to set in as his muscles quietened. They had been screaming from the constant walking and now they were settling down, their complaints becoming less severe.

Across the café sat a young girl. Henry guessed she was eighteen, just like him. Though she seemed to be relaxing in the newly-opened Starbucks, her mind was in the dungeons, wrestling with her latest problem. She sipped coffee and stared at the book she had propped haphazardly between her jean-covered legs. Henry tried not to judge her based on her taste in coffee. He was sure that she had a no-foam-caramel-cappuccino with three sugars in her hand. It was easy not to judge her though, because she was beautiful. Henry shuffled in his silver throne, made awkward by his own creepiness. He couldn’t help but notice things about her. Her long blonde hair continually fell in front of her face and blocked her view of the book. Henry had only been there for a few minutes, and already he could tell that reading was second nature to the girl. Henry was stopping himself from going anywhere else because he enjoyed watching her unique quirks, like the way she thumbed the corner of the page with anticipation. Or how her foot tapped to the rhythm of her reading.

She was just his type. Weird enough that not many understood her, but not weird enough to fit into the Dungeons and Dragons scene with ease. She still loved board games and card games, of course. She’d spend every Friday night with her friends, laughing and eating as they threw cards down on the table. She was unusually good at cards compared to everyone else. Henry shuffled in his seat and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. On Saturday nights she would go to the casino. That was how she was paying her way through university, by counting the cards on the Black Jack table. No one knew, no one suspected her. I mean, who would? Just look at her. Even Henry could barely believe it himself.

Henry did know one thing for sure—he was intrigued by her. So, he waited until he heard the crisp flick of the page and knew it was his moment. The chair screeched against the tiles as he stood and walked over. He put his hand on the back of her metal silver throne.

‘Hi,’ was his opening line, and hers was dropping the half-full coffee cup into her lap in surprise. It was meant to be the end of the chapter—Henry had planned to make a suave literary joke. Instead, he looked down at the warzone that was her lap, at a loss for words, before mumbling something that he hoped sounded like an apology, and staggering away with his tail between his legs. He couldn’t believe it. Henry knew it was much earlier than usual, but he just couldn’t bring himself to stay at the mall. What if he saw her again? He kept walking, head down, out of there, to where the bombs were still going off in the sky, to the bomb of a life that waited for him at home.

 

 
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In Your Head, Anneliese Downer

Thursday December 21st, 2017, 5:00pm UTC-04:00, Atlanta, Georgia

 

Jet lag was a bitch.

 

Colby’s shoulder twinged as she took a seat on the hotel bed. Instinctively, she rubbed the spot through her clothes and let out a long yawn. Thank God she would get to her sister’s house the next day to sleep on a more comfortable bed. Right now, she was too tired to contemplate finding a way there. Seeing as her sister had a newborn and was probably just as tired, Colby had insisted a hotel was fine.

If it wasn’t for the fact she’d promised to Skype Sienna when she arrived, Colby would have already crawled under the covers to sleep. Instead, she dug out her laptop. Finding Sienna’s icon once it was all connected, she noticed it said she was away but tried to call anyway. No answer. What time was it in Australia again? Colby had already forgotten. Her girlfriend was a nurse though, maybe she’d gotten caught up at work.

Closing Skype, she headed to the Facebook homepage instead. Colby had yet to sort out her phone, so she figured a Facebook message would just have to do for now. Clicking on Sienna’s name in her inbox, she typed a quick message.

Hi babe!

Am safe in my hotel and am about to take a nap.

Talk to you later! Can’t wait for you to get here too!

Love, Colbs.

Sienna had barely been able to wrangle time away from work and was due to fly out in three days. She’d barely make it in time for Christmas and that was her being lucky. Colby was about to close the window when she realised she should maybe make a general status update to let everyone know she had landed safely. When she loaded her newsfeed, a headline in the sidebar caught her attention.

International Intervention in Australia Leads to Quarantine at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

Fear gripped Colby for a moment; that was where Sienna worked. Maybe she’d been made busier by it all though—surely she wasn’t quarantined? Her mouse flew so quickly to the link that it froze for a moment before the page finally loaded.

 

INTERNATIONAL INTERVENTION IN AUSTRALIA LEADS TO QUARANTINE AT ROYAL PRINCE ALFRED HOSPITAL

Thursday 21st December 2017, 8pm UTC+11:00

Thomas Dasher

Australia has been rocked by news of a virus that has spread rapidly through the Emergency Department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Scrambling to organise a reaction, Australia’s lack of a National Centre for Disease Control has no doubt hindered efforts to contain the virus. Sources tell us that along with patient zero, three nurses and two doctors are thought to be infected and anyone else who has been in contact with patient zero or the other infected have been quarantined, causing a whole department to be closed off.

Specialists from the US and China have been flown in to study this as yet unrecognised virus. All we do know about it so far is that it causes periods of psychosis, in which the infected are prone to attack, bite and scratch those around them. If you are worried about someone you know, authorities encourage you to call the number listed below.

 

Thursday 21st December 2017, 7:45am UTC+11:00, Sydney, Australia

Colby roused from her sleep when she felt the bed dip slightly behind her, followed shortly by a hand brushing through her hair. Forcing her eyes open, she yawned before smiling sleepily up at Sienna, who returned the gesture with a different kind of exhaustion. The nurse had just come off a twelve-hour shift and had obviously been run off her feet since 7pm the night before. Colby rolled over and then sat up against the headboard to wrap an arm around her girlfriend, who leaned in eagerly.

‘Big night?’

‘It was crazy, Colbs. We had a man admitted who must have been on a cocktail of drugs. He was thrashing and trying to bite everyone. It took six of us to strap him down to a bed.’

‘Jesus,’ Colby muttered, now brushing her fingers through Sienna’s ginger hair. ‘I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t be a nurse, you see all the crazy shit.’

‘Truthfully, I rethink it every day,’ Sienna admitted. Her fingers idly traced a cut along her arm and Colby zeroed in on it.

‘Babe, what happened?’ The blonde carefully took hold of her girlfriend’s wrist to tug it over and inspect the angry scab.

‘It was that patient, I didn’t realise until after we’d managed to get him strapped down and sedated that he’d scratched me. Figured it was better not to cause a fuss so I disinfected it and kept on going. You know what administration is like about injuries.’

Huffing, Colby started to slide off the bed and tugged Sienna with her. She knew all about the issues with hospital administrations reluctance to take responsibility for nurse injury. Even though she gave a playful whine, Sienna still followed her into the bathroom. Colby dimmed the lights and started running a bath, making sure to pick Sienna’s favourite scent before stealing a short kiss.

‘Sounds like you deserve some pampering.’

A small grin crossed the redhead’s face and Colby reached out for the hem of her shirt, slowly guiding it up and over her head. Once her girlfriend’s pale torso was exposed, she ghosted her fingers over the freckles that had even painted Sienna’s waist. Making quick work of the buttons on her jeans, Colby quickly had them off and tossed into the corner of the bathroom.

She couldn’t help a soft chuckle at the sight of Sienna, wearing a matching bra and panties set even though she’d been on a twelve-hour shift.

‘You just have to match, don’t you?’ Colby traced lightly over her girlfriend’s collarbone, enjoying the blush that spread over her freckled cheeks. Sienna just nodded, but the dimples that indented her cheeks gave away the smile she was fighting. Colby smoothed her fingers over the silky material until she reached the clasp which she expertly unclipped and tugged away. A few short seconds later, Sienna was completely nude and Colby could tell she was fighting that adorable but shy urge to cover herself.

‘You’re beautiful.’

Sienna’s blush darkened and instead of replying, she decided to return the favour. It took less time to strip Colby of the satin nightdress she’d been sleeping in, baring her tan skin free of any undergarments. Impulsively, Sienna reached out and slapped Colby’s generous ass, making her girlfriend laugh softly.

‘Sorry, can’t help myself.’

‘I wouldn’t want you to,’ Colby assured warmly. Linking her fingers with Sienna’s she tugged her over to the tub, twisting the taps off before the two of them sank down into the warm water.

‘How long do we have before you have to go?’ Sienna asked, leaning back into Colby and humming with pleasure as her girlfriend’s hands slowly trailed down her body.

‘About an hour. And I’m all packed so all I need to do is spend that hour focusing on you. We might only be apart for a few days but I’m going to miss you so I plan to indulge.’ She nibbled on Sienna’s neck, making her giggle.

‘What am I going to do without your cheese?’

Colby hushed her, capturing one nipple between her thumb and forefinger before squeezing. It made Sienna gasp, pressing against the blonde, who responded by easing her fingers between the nurse’s legs.

An expert in reading Sienna’s body language, it wasn’t long before Colby felt her squirming with the build-up of pleasure. Only today, instead of crying out, Sienna bit down on the blonde’s shoulder as her orgasm rushed through her. Colby winced as her teeth broke the skin but kept working her through it, leaving the both of them panting when the moment ended.

‘Shit, Colbs—you’re bleeding! I’m so sorry!’ Sienna rinsed the mark with a handful of water, flinching when Colby winced again. The blonde responded by pressing a kiss to Sienna’s forehead.

‘Relax babe, it’s okay. It was pretty hot, though maybe next time you could avoid breaking the skin.’

‘I’d better put something on it.’ Sienna fretted and before Colby could stop her, she was standing up. Not that the blonde didn’t appreciate the view, eyes lingering on her girlfriend’s shapely behind for a moment before she too rose up out of the water.

‘I was supposed to be pampering you,’ Colby reminded her as Sienna wrapped her up in a towel and made her sit on the closed toilet. This time, she gritted her teeth as Sienna dabbed at the wound with some kind of antibacterial ointment and carefully taped some gauze over it. Once the nurse was satisfied she’d done a good enough job, Colby scooped her up to carry her playfully back into the bedroom.

Somehow Colby had managed to tear herself away from the gorgeous red-head in order to make it to the airport in time to check in for her flight. Knowing Sienna had probably fallen asleep while Colby was on her way there, she messaged her sister to let her know she was waiting for her flight and killed some time on her phone. She wouldn’t have it for a little while once she landed in America.

 

Her seatmate was a handsome guy who looked a little too dressy for the occasion. For the life of her, Colby couldn’t understand why he would wear a suit for the almost fourteen-hour flight. They were only about an hour in when he’d stuffed his suit jacket up in the overhead locker and another hour later he’d unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up, smiling sheepishly at her.

‘I’m Alex,’ he introduced himself. ‘Headed to LA on business, but probably should have reconsidered the business-wear on a long-haul flight. Not so comfortable. Is it too obvious I’m new at this?’

‘Colby,’ she answered with a chuckle, taking the hand he offered and shaking it, ‘Only stopping briefly in LA on the way to Atlanta. First-time Aunt, visiting her nephew. A suit wouldn’t have been my choice for such a long flight but hopefully you’ll make it through.’

Considering they were going to be stuck with one another for quite a few hours more, Colby was relieved to find they had enough in common to get along. The in-flight dinner had just been packed up when the turbulence started and even though she wasn’t the most nervous of flyers it soon saw her anxiously ripping at her nails with her teeth. The plane jolted sharply and one hand flew out to grab Alex’s wrist tightly, ragged nails tearing through his skin along the way.

It was another moment before she could even gather herself enough to apologise, unlocking her fingers and realising that she’d injured him. ‘Sorry!’ Was all she got out before the plane jerked slightly again and made her go green. Alex jabbed the flight attendant button and requested a sick bag for Colby, pulling out a tissue to dab at the scratch beading with blood.

‘Don’t worry about it. Can’t blame you for being antsy with this kind of turbulence. Lean over now, just focus on breathing.’ He soothed, even rubbing her back. Count on a long flight to turn strangers into friends.

Fortunately, the flight had evened out again soon after that and Colby managed to sneak in a nap before landing in LA. After exchanging their Australian numbers, she and Alex went their separate ways. Finding her flight lounge, she now turned to a book to kill the hour and a half before her next flight to Atlanta.

 

Thursday December 21st, 2017, 5:10pm UTC-04:00, Atlanta, Georgia

Colby’s heart pounded hard as she stared at the computer screen, white noise fizzing in her ears. What if Sienna was one of the infected nurses? She scrambled for her phone before remembering it was currently useless. Her shoulder twinged in pain again, objecting to the lunge across the bed and she remembered.
The bite.

Yanking her shirt off, she ran into the bathroom and ripped away the gauze with a shaking hand. Her breath fogged up the mirror as she panted in fear, leaning in to study the bite mark as though it would show her an exact answer. The skin around the small teeth shaped scabs was red and swollen. Suddenly it felt hot and she thought it seemed to be giving a pulsating throb, as though it had taken on a life of its own but Colby couldn’t tell if that was paranoia.

Sweat broke out on Colby’s forehead and instinctively she lifted her hand to her mouth, about to anxiously chew on her fingernails when she remembered Alex. Oh no. She’d scratched him on the flight. Suddenly she couldn’t remember if scratching someone would be sufficient enough to pass on the virus, nails were dead matter, weren’t they? But she’d been chewing them, maybe her saliva still gave it a chance of spreading. Standing there staring at her own reflection, tears streaking down cheeks too numb to feel them; panic clouded her mind and she struggled to come up with any answers to the questions it just kept repeating.

Did she call someone? But who was she supposed to call? God her neck was so itchy. Colby’s fingers grasped at the edge of the sink, squeezing tight as she sucked in a deep breath. It didn’t help. Was Sienna in quarantine? Was Sienna infected? Had she infected Colby? Had Colby infected Alex? Was it even possible for her to infect him through a scratch?

 

And what the hell did she do now?

 

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