Category Archives: Young Adult

The Ballad of Stanley Peters, Satyajeet Marar

Her eyes were murderous.

Satin sheets lay upturned as wind-whispered lamentations crept through the insidious fog into the master bedroom. For a moment there was only silence, her own breathing flowed in intermittent bursts. A stillness transfixed three bodies in their place.

The love of her life lay before her, pants down to his ankles. Completely defenceless. His bedfellow was a thin silhouette clutching the satin sheets to her full breasts. Some doe-eyed, shaven-pubed wench.

She gripped the pistol axe tighter, its sharpened edge glistened in the Monday moonlight. His eyes offered neither explanation nor remorse – only horror. The pure, crystallised 42% proof  horror that comes to those who’ve always known deep down they would end up in their present predicament. Their deaths would not be quick. The police would not arrive in time to stop her. The paramedics would be too late to breathe life into their broken bodies.

She brought down the axe with all of a scorned woman’s strength. His skull lay caved in as sinewy brain tissue splattered across the Queen-size bed. His whore’s gasp was fearful yet futile as his blood-soaked right eye flew over her shoulders. She would be next. The-

 

Timothy Coombs had read enough to get the gist of where this was going.

 

‘I’d like to talk to you about something.’

‘What do you want to know?’

He gently placed his glasses on his desk and massaged the lines streaked across his forehead, beneath the hairline that had receded in the wake of his last divorce. He had been the principal at Clearwater High for seven years.

‘Is everything ok at home?’

‘Yeah, everything’s fine.’

‘Are you sure? Nothing going on in your life you’d like to talk about?’

Stanley shook his head. A flake of dandruff landed gracefully on the desk in front of him, falling off dark curls.

‘I don’t understand why I’m here.’

‘Your teachers and I are a little concerned.’

 

‘Why, because I write dope stories? Have you seen what the muppets in Standard English write? I’d rather contract venereal disease from a dingo than read that shit.’

‘Stanley, no swearing. This is my office.’

‘Fucking bullshit, man.’ He sank into his chair and crossed his legs. ‘This school sucks.’

‘Fantasies of murder are not appropriate for a high school creative writing class.’

‘Do you think I’m going to shoot up the school?’

‘Excuse me?’

You know what this is?’ he picked up the handwritten notebook papers his principal had just thumbed through. ‘This is reality, man, what real people live every day. Not this Pythagoras theorem crap, genuine human tragedy. Karma, retribution – all that good stuff you pretend doesn’t exist.’

‘Do not raise your voice.’

‘What are you going to do, cane me? Cane me daddy, I’ve been a naughty boy!’ He massaged his nipples through a crumpled school shirt. ‘Cane me, you fat fuck.’

‘That’s it, I’m calling your parents.’

‘You want them to join in too?’

 

*

 

‘Oye, spare a ciggy?’ Moey grunted.

The detention room was tepid and reeked of boredom and boy-sweat. Stanley stared at the clock on the wall – 4 pm. His parents would arrive soon and he’d be called back into the principal’s office to be hung, drawn and quartered.

‘Nah, man. I only smoke weed.’ Stanley replied.

The ditzy substitute teacher ‘supervising’ them had wafted out the door ten minutes before. He didn’t know what was more depressing – sitting in that room with his fellow riff-raff despondents or the thought that someone would put themselves through four years of university to become the person doing her job. He wouldn’t blame her for having a cheeky ‘smoko-and-cry’ sesh in the staff toilet.

‘That shit’s haram, bro.’

‘Moey’ shook his head disapprovingly as he lit a cigarette passed to him by one of his mates. He was a burly teen of ‘middle eastern and/or Mediterranean appearance’. Peach-fuzz chest hair poked through the undone buttons of his shirt, due to grow into a majestic rug over the next few years. The faint, bassy undertones of a Tupac Shakur song about keeping bitches in line seeped through the earphone stuck in his left ear.

He passed the cigarette packet back to his compadré. It had a large-print warning about the risks of smoking accompanied by a picture of a deformed human foetus resembling a scrambled peach. Stan realised that he hadn’t eaten since 12.

‘Stanley Peters, report to Principal Coombs office immediately.’ Blared the speakers.

‘Well, gentlemen. It has been a pleasure. Unfortunately, I must be off to see the lynch mob.’

 

‘…..’

‘….Bro, who da fuck is Lynch?’

 

 

*

 

‘Hi Dad, Hi Rosie.’

They sat crossly and glared at the 17-year-old encumbrance that just walked into the principal’s office.

‘Sit down. Your parents and I are going to have a very serious conversation with you.’

‘Orgy cancelled already?’

‘Stanley, shut up.’

His father’s nostrils flared so hard, he thought steam would pour out.

‘Sorry, just thought I’d cut through the ice a little bit.’

‘Stanley…’

‘Yeah?’

‘What is this story supposed to be about?’

He pondered the question for a moment. He had been fairly baked when he wrote it and couldn’t remember exactly what had inspired him.

‘It’s actually about feminism.’

‘Feminism?’

‘Yeah. The protagonist is a strong, independent woman. She’s taking her life into her own hands.’

‘By killing people with an axe?’

‘Yeah. She’s smashing the patriarchy.’

Principal Coombs shook his head.

‘…Shaven-pubed wench’ Does that sound like feminism to you?’

‘Patriarchal beauty standards, man.’

‘I don’t think you quite understand what feminism means.’

 

*

 

‘What does feminism mean to you?’

Of all his attempts to think of a chat-up line, this was probably the worst.

A week ago, Stanley found himself next to a particularly gorgeous blonde from another school with those little dimples that light up the face when a smile strikes.

In the distance were the sights and sounds of the classic teenage house party. Broken glass, hip-hop and a mix of people chugging and people chundering. But none of that mattered because he had survived 10 minutes of conversation with a heavenly blessed angel whose beauty was divine and everlasting.

In that moment, they were the only two people in the universe. Stanley resisted the Goon-fuelled urge to make punnet squares in his head like he had in Biology class but it was futile. Blonde was a recessive gene and everyone in his family had dark hair so their kids would probably have raven hair and blue eyes since blue eyes were recessive but they both had them. They’d also have a pet Poodle and a large palatial mansion in the North Shore where they could grow old together. She was so hot. Fuck.

‘To me it’s about being treated the same as anyone else. I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a woman. I want to be respected for who I am and what I’m capable of. We can be just as tough as men.’

‘Interesting, interesting. So you think chicks should enlist in the army?’

‘Well, yeah. The army isn’t all biceps and bravado.’

‘I’m sure you could provide that, you’re a real GI Jane.’

She blushed. Holy shit Stanley, you smooth motherfucker.

 

‘What do you do for fun, Stanley?’

Don’t ruin it by talking about weed. Don’t ruin it by talking about weed.

‘Well, I enjoy a bit of cooking. I’m all about breaking these gender stereotypes.’

‘Really? What do you cook?’

‘Brownies.’

‘What kind of brownies?’

‘Chocolate.’

‘Cool, they’re my favorite.’

‘So I know you’re a feminist and all but I’m sure you enjoy a bit of chivalry.’

‘Yeah, sure. It’s nice from time to time when someone opens the door for you.’

‘Maybe they’re doing it so they can look at your butt.’

What the fuck man that was fucking risky and random oh shit she isn’t reacting shitshitshit

‘…By the way, I think you’ve got a nice butt.’

..And she was laughing. She found it funny, maybe even a bit endearing. It worked.

‘Thanks, I guess?’

‘Just telling it like it is. So anyway, before the cops come shut this thing down, it has been a real pleasure meeting you. Let me take you out on a date some time?’

She smiled. Her dimples lit up the world around her as her golden locks swayed gently in the breeze. Those blue eyes gazed deeply into his own.

‘Aw, no. Thanks, though.’

 

*

 

‘And all this violence and sex… we’ve warned you about this before. Why do you feel the need to include so much of it in your work?’

Stanley pulled out a crumpled set of English notes and brandished it in front of Principal Coombs, his father and Rosie.

‘See this? Area of study – ‘belonging’. What is belonging? Some vague, uniting concept that makes it super easy for people who got half the ATAR scores they expect us to get when they were our age to mark our papers. Wow, such a universal concept! Everyone just wants to belong to something! Well, suck me off if that isn’t sheer genius.’

‘So you give us these ‘texts’ we’re meant to read, right? Classics like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’. They’re great books, sure. But it’s a little hard to enjoy them when you’re too busy looking for the answers to those shitty little homework questions you chuck at us. And you wonder why so many kids stopped reading for fun after the last Harry Potter book came out. At least the girls with daddy issues have 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight and Bacardi cruisers.’

‘Ah but then, creative writing! The one chance we have of forming our own original thoughts. Not like we get a chance to do that in math class. Or history class – Write ‘Australia was settled’ and you get a free lecture on racial sensitivity from Mrs. Clarke, who’ happens to be whiter than Chandler Bing from Friends.’

‘Anyway, I’m digressing. So yeah, creative writing. It’s great. Except that instead of judging us for how well we write, we get marked on how we convey some generic, meaningless concept. Like corporate recruitment adverts flashing buzzwords like ‘Synergy’ and ‘Diversity’ that some blowjob from HR came up with. It’s a system designed to reward people with crew cuts who iron their underwear and dream of a cushy public service job where they can get paid to sniff their own farts. Our ability to use fully sick techniques like ‘imagery’ in smooth lines like ‘a lone tear cascaded down his cheek as he recognised his daddy’s face’ gets rewarded. Gee, thanks guys. Now I feel like the contents of my stomach belong in a barf bag. No one gives a fuck about that shit in real life.’

‘Stanley…’ Principal Coombs wearily interjected. ‘All this ranting is getting us nowhere. You have said nothing about why you use violence and sex.’

‘Huh?’

‘Violence. My question was about violence and sex.’

‘… Oh right, that. Violence is pretty cool and sex is edgy. It’s fun to write and keeps things gritty and exciting.’

‘..That’s it?’

‘I guess so.’

‘Alright. I’m going to suspend you for a period of two weeks. I’m also referring your parents to a child psychiatrist who might be of some assistance. I hope you learn from your mistakes today or I can tell you there will be no place for you in this school.’

 

*

 

But there would be a place for him at the school.

After being diagnosed with ADHD, Stanley went on to become one of the most prolific Ritalin dealers in the whole Inner-west school district. Stanley matured in the years to come as he realised that getting in trouble might bring his lucrative dubious and unethical side-business to an end.

After school, Stanley went on to work as an investment banker and amassed a fortune through leveraged buyouts and laundering funds using a shell company set up in the People’s Republic of Hedonistan.tm He employed a diverse and synergistic workforce of child labour strong, independent women.

 All these experiences had taught Stanley a valuable lesson – the sense of belonging he had been yearning for had been within him all along and he had rebelled against it. None of this success would have been possible without the love and support of his family and teachers. A lone tear cascaded down his cheek. 

The End.

Student id: 4258390

School: Clearwater High

HSC Creative Writing – English Paper 1 

 

 

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Black Sandman, Chelsea Ainsworth

Shadows swept across the room like wild beasts. They wound over walls and threatened to gnaw off any limb that dared protrude over the safety of the bed. Snickering, they rattled closet doors and mocked the weak ward of the nightlight’s glow. ‘Sssh…’ A hand caressed the cheek of the terrified youth, whose hair was strewn across her pillow after a fitful sleep.

‘Don’t fret precious, I’m here.’

The voice soothed the shadows still and silence fell over the bedroom. With a gloved hand, the figure drew out a pouch from within the folds of its robes. The mystical drapes shifted the shades of late twilight as tattered ends weaved into wisping smoke. ‘Lay your head down, child. I won’t let the Boogeyman come.’ A soft tug and the pouch loosened. The sandy contents were poured into its palm before a breath carried it over the child. Like starlight the sand danced and sparkled, singing songs of grand adventure. Under the growing weight of slumber, the child’s muscles slackened, eyes drifted closed.

Now a fading presence from the world the figure rose. Standing over the bedside it wiped its hand, studding stars onto its robes.

‘Goodnight, Lilian.’

*

The lurch of the tram threatened to send Lily toppling with each stop-start at the CBD’s lights. Skin paler than ivory, her skeletal fingers clung to the overhead railing as a lifeline, an anchor point in the passing tide of each station. Her fingers tapped against the railing while she fiddled with the button on her phone. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. Lock.

She could have sworn the permission sheet had read nine.
Or were they meeting earlier for roll call?

Uncertainty roused an unsettled churn in her stomach, the smell of hunger rising on her breath. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d got it wrong. What if she had again? She could always trust herself to screw something up somewhere. She couldn’t do anything right… and she was going to get chewed out by her parents again for it. No doubt the school would call them for her being late.

A bump from a passenger’s elbow jolted Lily from her thoughts. She recoiled, running her hand over her arm as if she’d been touched by fire. Had the tram always been this small? It had become pretty crowded… Her breath began to draw short, catching sharp in her chest.

Not now. Not here. Not with all these people watching.

Lily shut her eyes tight but the overwhelming sea of voices followed her into the dark. She bid herself to breathe and focus on smaller things. But as always that was easier said than done.

‘Pay no mind to the rabble.’

The words reverberated as a distant echo, yet were distinct over the bustle of the tram in its familiarity. Lily forced a breath, her knuckles turning ghostly in a death grip on the railing. Her finger pressed the volume of her phone to amp her music to near deafening. The voice, and those of others present, were lost to the swift sound of piano and violins as L’Impeto Oscuro streamed through her headphones. ‘Headphones on. World off.’ Lily quietly reassured herself.

Despite her anxiety spiking, Lily managed to steel herself enough to focus. Answers were what she needed. She could text someone for them. That was an idea.

‘Meeting at gallery at 9?’

It took the fourth attempt for the text to send without the automated response of an inactive number. While awaiting a text back, Lily loaded the route timetable for her ETA. She was close and, thankfully, it wasn’t long before her music feed paused to the jingle of a text.

‘Yeah. Um. Who is this? How did you get my #?’
‘Lily. We had a group assignment last year.’

No sooner had she replied the tram suddenly jerked and launched Lily forward into a man, almost knocking his iPhone from his hands. She mumbled a profuse apology, the words tumbling as badly as she had. A frightened rabbit, Lily bolted through the still opening doors, onto the platform, and into the street. Unaware, she’d gotten off two stops early and forgotten to tap her Myki card.

In a mad dash, she’d managed to make it to the gallery with mere minutes to spare. Lily ignored the gathered students as she stood hunched, wheezing pained breaths, her hand pressed against the neighbouring storefront. That was stupid. Oh so stupid. She’d have scolded herself had she not felt her thoughts would be lost to the war drums pounding in her ears. But at least she’d made it. If the lacking presence of a teacher was enough to go by.

Once the pain in her chest started to subside Lily straightened, stumbling from a feeling of light-headedness. A scent of bodily tang brought a new sense of alarm. Immediately Lily folded her arms, trying not to look as gauche as she felt, and subtly patted the underarms of her school dress. Not too damp so she was probably in the clear for sweat marks. Just as well, for she met the gaze of an arriving classmate.

The two awkwardly held eye contact for a silent moment. At this point, one of them was going to have to yield and acknowledge the other.

‘Hey.’ He waved with a smile she assumed was as false as her own.
Lily hurriedly folded her arms behind her back, wiping her hands on her dress, all while trying to make the gesture look discreet.
‘Heeeeey…’
Oh god, please don’t come over. She hoped. She prayed. But of course, he did. Worse still, he drew Lily into idle chit-chat over the morning’s traffic.

‘He is only speaking with you to be polite, you know.’

Lily’s smile strained and her eyes fell. She’d planned to excuse herself yet, before she could, a nearby group of girls chimed in about how Melbourne transport sucked. Their train was late or something like that. Lily wasn’t really following, didn’t really care to. She was only eager to fade from participating since they seemed content to discuss without her.

‘You should pay no mind to what other voices say. They don’t care about you.’

The whisper brushed against her ear and along her face. It sent her body rigid, flinching, as the sensation of a cape swept over her shoulders in an embrace. An unseen weight pressed just over her shoulder as if someone were resting their head.

‘Like I do.’

Lily resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. She clenched fistfuls of the back of her dress, the fabric keeping her nails from digging into her palms. A call of her name brought her back. The conversation had fallen silent, replaced by questioning looks. ‘Just a shudder,’ Lily reassured with a forced sheepish laugh and released her grasped. ‘Somebody must’ve stepped on my grave.’ She stepped away, to stand out of earshot. No doubt there’d be talk about what just happened… The teacher finally arrived, a box of guidebooks under his arm. Keen for a distraction, Lily stepped forward to collect hers and flipped it open to the table of contents. ‘The Pantheon: A Taste of Greek Myth.’ She read aloud when one title caught her interest, her eyes falling to a photo of one of the exhibitions main draws, a painting of Persephone.

Once rollcall had been taken the students piled into the gallery. Winding figures of welded scrap-metal pillared the open space. Their metallic branches stretched skyward to crumple against the ceiling, a representation of a ‘concrete jungle’ supposedly. Or so the tour guide said. But Lily was having difficulty following, her attention lost in a thickening fog that blanketed her thoughts. She edged to the back of the group, needing to get off her feet for a moment.

It would be embarrassing – and rude to the guide – but the woozier Lily felt the less inclined she was to care.

There’d have to be a bench or chair for her to sit on. Hell, even the floor would do. She glanced across the room for one, instead spotting a familiar figure among the pillars. As always, lavish robes adorned its masculine frame. The crescent curls that hung over olive skin made it look like a painting come to life. Of course Nephron was here, it was the last thing she needed right now. ‘This is why you take your tablets, Lily,’ she muttered to herself. Nephron circled the pillar intently, confused, but curious. Its thumb tapped under-chin in interest before its eyes flicked from the artwork, sensing Lily’s gaze. Swiftly she turned away, refocusing on the tour as her frown turned harsh. If she ignored it, it’d go away eventually.

Passing minutes dug in their heels and the growing sense of exhaustion strengthened. It beckoned her to rest her eyes – if only for a moment. Vibrant colours dulled to the darkness that crept into the corners of her vision. Like a wild beast, it pounced, swallowing the world whole. Lily staggered and collapsed back towards the corner of a display. But, as she fell, Nephron caught her wrist and swung her sideways in the instant before it vanished as Lily’s consciousness slipped.

Lily woke to the frightened calls of her teacher. Reality struck, terror jolting her from her stupor and returning senses with a harsh clarity. She became all too aware of the looming wall of people that surrounded her, their eyes fixated as they towered above her. She couldn’t breathe. She pleaded for the darkness to take her back. For it to reach through the floor and drag her into the deepest pit of Hades, far away from all these eyes. Far away from everything.

The teacher waved the students back but many barely budged.

‘Are you alright?’ He pressed. The unease in his voice made it clear that it hadn’t been his first time asking since she’d awoken. Lily merely nodded in response.

‘You were lucky. You nearly cracked your head open.’

‘You should’ve,’ Interrupted one of the boys who was met with a deathly glare in response from the teacher. “No, I mean it! You didn’t see it! She was falling but before she hit the thing she swerved in mid-air… then bang!’ He finished with a clap of his hands.

It took an hour for Lily’s father to drive from work to take her home early. She battened down the hatches, knowing what was sure to follow.

‘This is what happens when you don’t eat breakfast, Lillian. I’ve told you.’ He began with eyes flicking between her and the road.

‘I know.’

‘That’s what you always say. Don’t just say “I know.” Actually do it!’

He paused.

‘Did you take your iron tablets at least?’

Lily hesitated. ‘…No.’

Her father slapped his hand atop the steering wheel and gave a frustrated groan.

‘Lily you have a deficiency. You can’t just not take them otherwise this happens!’

‘I didn’t mean to not take them!’ Lily snapped back, lifting her head from against the passenger window. ‘I was running late because I had trouble sleeping! I forgot to have breakfast so I forgot to take my tablets too!’

‘That doesn’t work if you forget to have breakfast every other day. Don’t be so…’ He paused again to point at his temple. ‘Stupid. You easily could have been hurt. You almost broke your jaw the last time you fainted. If you hadn’t been on the bloody laptop all night you wouldn’t have been running late.’

And. There. It. Was.

‘It’s not the laptop’s fault! You’re always so quick to blame it for everything but it’s not the reason I have insomnia!’
Lily threw herself back to the window, lightly banging her forehead against the glass. She wasn’t going to bother continuing. This wasn’t an argument she could win, unless she wanted to be institutionalised that is. ‘Fuckwit doesn’t know anything…’ She thought bitterly. Her fingernails dug into her arm, leaving raw tracks as she ran them back and forth. The pain distracted from the sharp sting in her eyes. She didn’t dare cry in front of him.

The remainder of the trip was made in silence. From the front door, Lily darted up the stairwell to the bathroom, taking some fresh laundry from the banister as she passed. She ran the shower hot, the water near scalding. It painted her skin in red splotches, blending in the mark of tears and silent screams. Once dry Lily slipped on a blue nightdress and threw her old clothes into the wash basket.

‘One pill makes you larger. One makes you small. And the pills that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all.’

The distinct sound of 60’s bass guitar greeted Lily in the hallway. Dad must have been playing his vinyl collection while cooking again. The melody followed her into her bedroom which, as her mother put it, was a victim of ‘flat-surface syndrome.’ Every available surface was covered in something, be it clothes, books, towers of CDs, posters or travel magazine clippings. Early afternoon light filtered through the blinds of her lone window. It cast dark bars across the opposite window, caging a bird’s silhouette as it sat upon the outside streetlight.

With a heavy sigh, Lily crashed onto her bed. Sprawled across its length, her arm rested over her face to shield against the light. She felt the mattress dip to a weight at the end of her bed, causing her to jerk upright and press herself against the backboard.

‘Nephron.’ Lily spluttered. ‘I-it’s been a while since you appeared in my room.’

Nephron gave her a half-way glance as it shifted to prop one leg over the other, arms folded ‘Oh? Are we speaking now? It’s been a while since you last spoke to me.’ It responded with feigned insult.

‘Yeah, well, it stopped being acceptable to talk to your imaginary friends at eight.’ Lily quipped defensively, unsure why she felt the need to justify herself.

‘But…’
‘But?’ Nephron prodded with a grin.
Lily swallowed, her hand running over her already bruised wrist. ‘You’re not imaginary, are you? The gallery… What are you?’

With a chuckle, Nephron rose to its feet.

‘After all these years and only now do you care to ask, flower? One name, of two, your kind has given mine is Sandman.’
‘And the other?’

For an instant something malevolent crept into the Sandman’s grin, leaving Lily thankful it hadn’t answered.
‘What do you want?’ Lily asked unnerved by the sudden turn.

‘What I’ve always wanted.’ It replied nonchalantly, pacing the small room to brush its hand over a childhood doll atop the bedding box, a white rabbit.
‘To keep you safe.’
‘Safe from –’

Nephron cut her off abruptly, appearing before her in an instant. Its hand grasped her wrist, drawing out her arm, while the other brushed over the raw streaks from the drive home.

‘Yourself. Safe from pain, and truth, and choice, and other poison devils.’

The Sandman’s voice was melodic and made Lily feel guilty as she yanked her arm free. Nephron, however, was unfazed by the gesture and simply offered out its hand. It smiled down at her as it had throughout her younger years. Lily found herself yearning for the simpler time and the reassuring presence that lingered whenever she’d grown tired.

‘You have lived in this world and have seen how cruel and unforgiving it is. Stay with me, safe and ignorant, in a realm where dreams needn’t just be dreams.

Lily stared up at the Sandman’s eyes, its most striking feature by far, as she felt herself caught in the amber gaze. Like a sunset they were calming, something to look at with admiration. Her fingertips brushed against the surface of Nephron’s hand, hesitantly withdrawing before finally taking hold.

 

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Andromeda Bounty Crew, Rhiannon Heggie

In the year 2516, there are 389 billion galaxies in the Galactic Register. In Caldwell 5 – a dwarf galaxy just outside of the Local Group and the newly emerged Milky Way – lies a glowing emerald planet almost completely covered by water.
The planets’ most evolved inhabitants are The Eight [ѶΙΙΙ], a race of conquering cephalopod molluscs who live in hive colonies along the ocean floor. Giant, transparent pods, sit atop each other, resembling plumes of smoke. Ten different colonies inhabit Yharnams’ dark waters and all vie to be the sole governing body. To secure this position, it is common practice for a colony to invade another, replacing its residing queen with their own.

 

*

 

Sirens pierced the air.
An ѶΙΙΙ was breaching the external pressure system.
ѶΙΙΙs in the defence sector barked orders,
‘Seal off all of the exits! Switch on the circulation!’
There was a blur of cobalt blue as Mikha’el slipped through a vent in the metal wall. It took only a few minutes to swim through the small maze of vertical tunnelways before arriving at another vent. This is it! The trove of treasure his Queen had hidden away! Two of his tentacles reached ahead, popped open the passageway and pulled the young mollusc forward into a dark, murky room. Black silt blanketed the floor. Strips of long-dead algae hung to the glass like wallpaper. The ventilation unit must have been turned off for this whole area. An empty trophy room lay before him; nothing more than a memory of the expeditions his Queen had commissioned. Inky tears bubbled upwards from the corners of his eyes. He swiped at them, leaving black streaks across his sunken temples. Of course, they had found it all, and had taken it for themselves! Clasping her empty amulet – a twist of gold – tightly between his yellow suction cups, Mikha’el turned and punched the emergency release. A flat, red panel popped open with a clack, and he tapped in the code. Originally intended as a failsafe should the indoor-water circulation malfunction, it would now be his only way out and to freedom. A haunting echo wavered through the vent.
‘-y did he go?’
The boy’s breath escaped his beak as a strangled whimper. That was his brothers calling. They had been sent out to find him, to bring him to her, for punishment. He would be dead before he’d ever had the chance to look for more treasure. His tentacle clenched the amulet. The doors in front of him beeped loudly. Overriding the control system would take a few minutes. Panicking, the cephalopod’s cobalt limb slammed the release three more times. Black ink sweated from pores on the back of his bulging head. After a series of beeps, the water-lock finally hissed open – barely three inches. He slipped through and reached for a mask and suit off the wall. It was worn and mouldy but still stretched to accommodate his frame, instantly adding an internal water barrier. BEEP BEEP…. SSSSsssht. Unfiltered, murky water flooded in. It slammed Mikha’el against the internal door, lifting him up and out into the abyss.
Mikha’el flicked on the helmet’s torch. Ahead of him stood the ѶΙΙΙ’s colony home – a massive erection of cold, glass cells connected by a maze of tunnelways. But around him swarmed so much life! A small creature whipped past his mask. It disappeared in a whirl of purple tendrils that disguised knife-like spikes. As he neared the ship deck, he spotted two lone guards. Good. That meant the colony thought he was still inside. Sliding past them, he spied his ride – a blackened glass roof and misshapen double-barrel propulsion system – and climbed inside. Small and compact. Familiar with the old settings, he breathed a sigh of relief as his tentacles flicked the pod to life and received a whir in response. The guards were alerted to the sound of engines starting up. One disappeared to alert others while the second strained to open the door. Before the guard could react, he was incinerated by the pressure of the pod’s escape as it shot forward and up.
The boy’s eyes lingered on his planet. A dark green mass of rapidly swirling whirlpools appeared and disappeared instantaneously. Jagged rocks, sharpened from the force of the wind, formed the only land in sight. His head spun. They must have moved the treasure to a more central location… The only place large enough would be the old throne room. Mikha’el had no chance of knowing for sure until he returned. He pulled his gaze away to check the pod’s navigation.
SEARCHING FOR: NEAREST LIFEFORMS…
…LIFEFORMS 03 SECONDS AWAY.
‘What?!’
Before the young alien had time to react, his pod blasted through the side of an orbiting ship, ripping open a sharp, jagged hole in the hull.

The ship’s ion shield was obliterated, waking Stella from the process of repairing the internal systems.
‘Stella!’ the ship’s AI immediately recognised the baritone voice of Andromeda Dave.
AUTOMATIC REBOOT: INITIATED.
‘My ship!’ Dave’s voice shrieked with incredulous rage.
VISUAL SYSTEMS: ONLINE.
Before the ship’s central monitor stood a man sporting a tiger emblazoned, sequin jacket, and the curly orange quiff of a 1950s Rock & Roll star. Protruding from underneath Dave’s arm was the bloated head of a squid. His trailing tentacles dragged behind them the charred remnants of a space suit.
‘You wrecked my ship, you goddamn slime bag!’
Mikha’el squirmed free and scrunched up his large black eyes. Without warning, Andromeda Dave’s handsome face was covered in a violent spray of black ink.
‘My… my beautiful face!’ Dave sputtered ‘That’s it! Out he goes!’ He spun around towards the airlock, arms swinging.
‘Dave, there is an issue of higher importance to attend to…’ Stella’s automated voice crackled from the screen.
‘Yeah yeah, we can deal with it after I deal with this slimeball!’ He made for the exit. The alien curled under his grip like a kitten.
‘My name is Mikha’el!’
Andromeda Dave sneered at his hostage. ‘Squidboy then.’
‘Despite the ship’s shield preventing oxygen loss,’ Stella continued, calmly, ‘we will have to find parts in order to safely complete interstellar travel.’
Dave dropped the alien with a thud, turning on his heel to face the ships monitor. Deep in thought, he caressed the main control panel. A rusted screw snagged on the skin of his hand, causing it to bleed.
‘Okay, easy! So we go to the nearest repair station, fix my baby up and then continue on the path to fame and glory!’ Wiping his palm on his pants, he glowered at the crumpled hitchhiker.
‘Impossible.’ Stella trilled. ‘Maffei Station is the closest at just under 24,000 light years away. However, the ship’s status suggests the internal-engine-capacitor could trigger an explosion at any moment.’
Dave’s brows furrowed with frustration as he considered his options.
Timidly, Mikha’el spoke up. ‘Could you… fix it if you had the right parts?’
Andromeda Dave viewed his stow-away warily.
‘What if I told you that I have some on my planet? Old spaceship parts that you can use!’
Dave glanced briefly at the monitor, then back towards the squid.
‘Sorry kid, but don’t think I’m falling for that!’ He stepped forward.
‘There’s treasure!’ Mikha’el cowered in the corner. Tentacles raised for protection.
‘Hmm?’
‘There is a trove of treasure amassed by my Queen during her reign…’ The young alien gripped a rusty chain around his neck. Now Dave was interested.
‘If I could just grab a few pieces to remember her by… you can take as much as you can carry!’ Mikha’el continued.
‘OK.’ Andromeda Dave shrugged, turning away as he feigned nonchalance. ‘Treasure and ship parts… Just like that!’ He spun around, bending so that his nose was pressed up against the boy’s beak. ‘What’s the catch, Squidboy?’
Mikha’el’s protruding eyes darted from Dave to the monitor and back again. ‘If we make it back out – you bring me with you,’ his expression was determined.
Andromeda Dave appraised the boy with a raised brow.
‘The kid has guts!’ he turned to the monitor ‘We don’t need this slimeball, do we?’ He said conspiratorially.
A dark tentacle wrapped around Dave’s arm, anchoring him in place.
‘If they find me there, it will mean my execution!’ Desperation dripped from Mikha’el’s beak.
‘This option does leave us with the lowest possibility of malfunction. We only require metal sheet and wiring. All the tools we need are already on board.’
Dave slumped in the button-back captain’s chair with a squeak of red leather. Shaking slime off his jacket’s sleeve, he reached up to clean out the translation device that lived, at all times, snuggly in his ear. He sighed and absentmindedly probed his right nostril with a pinkie.
‘Well!’ Standing abruptly, Dave swept out his arm and with an unmistakable glint of excitement in his eye, ‘To Yharnam we go!’

 

*

 

Andromeda Dave, safe inside a fluorescent orange astronaut suit, followed Mikha’el as they sunk deeper into the icy depths of Yharnam. They were soon swallowed by a thick blackness.
‘The escape pod is unrepairable.’ Stella had explained only minutes earlier, after testing Dave’s underwater communication device. ‘You’ll have to swim down to the colony yourselves.’
A small, blue light suddenly appeared before the two, quickly increasing in size.
‘There it is!’ Mikha’el’s voice shook. ‘Stick with me and stay out of the light – we can’t be seen!’
Their descent slowed as they swum down to the sea floor. Andromeda Dave’s eyes widened. A beautiful structure lay before them – brightly lit glass pods resembling pockets of air, held in time. Light ebbed from the structure, illuminating all life that swum just outside its walls.
Mikha’el led them towards an unlit tunnelway marked by a pale green torrent of bubbles which threatened to send them tumbling backwards.
‘We’ll enter through the circulation tube.’
Dave shook his head dubiously.
‘It’s the only way you’ll fit undetected! Here.’ Mikha’el held out a strip of sticky suckers which promptly wrapped around Dave’s elbow. The boy tugged them over to the opening. Once his suckers were secured, Mikha’el pulled Dave through and together they began to infiltrate the place he had so recently referred to as ‘home.’

 

*

 

A pale-blue ѶΙΙΙ patrolled the hallway Andromeda Dave and Mikha’el had just entered. In an instant, Mikha’el had them pressed flat against the inside of a metal-grey doorway. He camouflaged his body so well that the toes of Dave’s bright orange boots were all that could be seen. Dave held his breath and the guard passed without a glance in their direction.
They set off, passing through brightly lit tunnelways and huge entryways, all finished with clean-cut glass. Mikha’el slowed and stopped, indicating for Dave to do the same, before peeking around the next corner. They had arrived at a massive hallway. At the end stood two colossal crystal doors, their glass opaque with carvings telling tales of the ѶΙΙΙ’s history. Two guards floated on either side of the installation, tentacles wrapped around glass spears.
‘We must get them away from here…’ The young alien turned to whisper a strategy.
He was greeted by an empty space.
Spinning around, he saw the horrifying image of Dave swimming, unarmed, towards two very angry inhabitants. Frozen in place with fear, he watched, useless. As though in slow motion, Dave twisted the first spear from one guard and rammed it, flat end first, into the ѶΙΙΙ’s forehead. The guard drifted to the floor like dried seaweed. Despite his agility, the second guard barely had time to react before he was whacked across the side of his midsection. Out like a light. His spear fell to the floor with a clang.
The huge doors opened silently, and cold water rushed out to greet them. They dragged the guards in with them and propped them up as doorstops. Andromeda Dave turned, dusting off his palms, and froze. His eyes widened in amazement. Piles of gold were expected but the sheer number of vessels! There were small Skyships! Sails eaten away by time, yet decks still sturdy enough to carry 15 men. Underneath precious metals and gemstones as large as apples, lay the enormous carcass of a submarine. Rusted through in several places, the faded white letters on the side were unrecognisable. As Dave rubbed the goose bumps from his arms, he spotted a ship that resembled his own, and he headed over to search for parts.

‘It must be here…’ Mikha’el’s voice echoed from the centre of the room. Dave was distracted from his task. BZZT! The wires he’d been cutting sent an electrical current pulsing through his body. He emerged from the ship with his prize, hair frizzy and hand smoking, as he added the cables to the metal sheet in his rucksack. Mikha’el knelt, tentacles hunched over a plain iron chest that sat, isolated in a clearing.
‘Here it is!’ The boy jumped up and spun around to display his prize. An iridescent purple stone rested gently on his suckers. He held up the entwined casing that hung from his neck, and carefully slipped the stone inside. His face was set with determination.
‘Before she died, my mother, the Queen would always wear this. She once said that a part of her soul was here. Now I’ll have her with me forever.’
Andromeda Dave smiled and backed away, leaving the alien to his discovery. There was one more task to complete. Hopping around the piles of gold, he gathered a few metal plates and rings – items easily melted. Handfuls of diamonds and large precious stones followed, adding to his already-bulging bag.
Andromeda Dave appraised his surroundings, a satisfied smile in place. ‘We good to go?’
Mikha’el nodded, as together they pushed open the heavy doors.
Pale blue tentacles wrapped themselves around Andromeda Dave’s legs. He twisted free and saw Mikha’el, disappearing in a cloud of ink. Alerted by the lack of guards at the door, three ѶΙΙΙ had planned an ambush.
Dave heard a strangled yelp as Mikha’el tried to free himself.
‘Squidboy!’ Dave glanced at the exit. A plan…I need a plan!
‘Dave!’
Without thinking, Dave turned back towards the cloud.
‘Cover your face kid!’ He yelled. He then began to wildly kick and punch at the ink that now curled around him. His foot came into contact first – with something soft and rubbery – then his fist.
‘Ugh!’ a guard sunk below the dispersing cloud. It parted to reveal Mikha’el, covering his head with his front two tentacles, floating between two guards. Dave reached out and pushed one to the side, grabbing Mikha’el’s arm as he somersaulted and started swimming.
“Let’s go!” he screamed inside his suit. Mikha’el’s cobalt blue head and wide eyes trailed behind, followed closely by the last guard.
‘Up ahead!’ Mikha’el located the circulation pipe they’d struggled through. They had only moments to prepare themselves before jetting up the passageway in a slurry of bubbles…
As their heads broke the waters churning’ surface, Mikha’el panicked. ‘They’re coming! We need to get away from here!!’
‘Shh,’ Dave hushed ‘Give her a second…’
Mikha’el’s flustered retort was cut off by a deafening whoosh. Skimming across the water, heading straight for them, was the burnt umber hull and blue fins of Dave’s ship.
Hovering above them, a metallic ladder unlocked from the ships rear and plunged down towards the two, screeching to a stop just above Mikha’el’s head.
Andromeda Dave grabbed it in one gloved palm and heaved himself up, out of the churning water.
‘Climb aboard,’ the ship trilled. ‘We’ll complete repairs in orbit!’
Dave turned back to the boy and paused, despite straining under the rucksack’s weight.
‘Look kid. It doesn’t look like you have much to stick around for here and you’ve got guts, so you might as well jump aboard,’ he yelled down. ‘There’s just one thing you gotta do first!’
‘Anything!’ Mikha’el replied, breathless from the adrenaline.
Grinning, Andromeda Dave turned and continued to make his way up.
‘You’ve gotta commit to the bounty hunter pledge! Do you vow to write your own destiny, hunting loot around the galaxies?’
‘Yes, I’ve always loved treasure!’ Front tentacles wrapped around the rope, Mikha’el followed.
‘Do you declare that you will always protect your shipmates, facing, if need be, the oppression of authority?’ Dave pulled himself up and into the open airlock before bending and offering a hand.
‘Of course! It’s easy!’ The boy’s suckers wrapped around Dave’s arm.
‘But, most importantly, do you promise to drink, gamble and get with the ladies?’
‘Uh…I’m not sure about the odds of that last one, but I guess… I do vow to be the best bounty hunter there ever was!’
With that, he was pulled up and over, into the belly of the ship. In front of him stood his new Captain.
‘Mikha’el,’ Dave popped his helmet and placed it underneath his arm, peering at the boy from the corners of his eyes. ‘Welcome to the Andromeda Bounty Crew!’

 

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The Tree, Catherine Hughes

The words seemed so casual. Slipped so easily into Mum’s stream of consciousness that I almost missed them. She’d been talking for an hour or more, filling me in on the news of the last few months. The family was gathering tomorrow for Dad’s eightieth birthday party. Phil and the girls were arriving tonight and I’d come early to help Mum with the food, although she never really let me do much. So far I’d picked some herbs, peeled the potatoes and made the morning coffee.

One of our rituals on my visits home was for Mum to catch me up; about Fred from the post office and his bad knee, Hazel’s recent pilgrimage, and Mum’s latest community choir concert. Who had left and who had arrived in our tiny town.

I sat at the kitchen table, warm and drowsy, lulled by the sun on my back, the flow of Mum’s voice and the thick, muddy coffee that warmed my hands and coated my throat.

I almost missed his name. A slight break in the narrative and a softening in her tone pulled me back to the words.

‘You heard about Rick’s accident? I thought you must have, although I was surprised you didn’t come back for the memorial service. I assumed someone would have told you. We didn’t find out until we got home a couple of days after. I did wonder that you didn’t seem to have been here.’

An almost imperceptible pause and then the stream flowed on. ‘I saw Aunty Pat up the street the other day and she said they were surprised you hadn’t come, or phoned, or something. So I wondered whether maybe you didn’t hear. But you did, didn’t you? I know he hadn’t been back for a while, but I assumed that word would have got to you somehow. Unless they thought we would tell you. But we weren’t here.’

Another pause…

‘You did know, didn’t you?’

When the flow finally stopped I found I had shut my eyes, resisting the words and the story they inferred. It made no sense. An accident meant one thing. Rick had an accident when he fell out of the tree.

 

******

 

‘Don’t be idiots,’ they shouted after us. We’d been in the pub all afternoon and decided to celebrate the end of school by climbing the tree, right to the top, higher than ever before.

‘You can’t climb trees in a storm. Rick, mate, if you want to be stupid don’t take Katie with you.’ The barman, I think it was Stan, followed us out to our bikes, leaning on the edge of the verandah.

Rick looked at me and shrugged. ‘You better stay here then,’ he laughed before taking off and shouting over his shoulder. ‘Last one to the top has to buy the first round tonight.’

Of course I went with Rick. Always with Rick. We got to the top. To the fine, small branches, balancing in the fork of the trunk, as far up as it was possible to go.

Too much beer to let us think. Not enough to make us too clumsy to try.

 

******

 

Don’t think about Mum’s words. What they might mean. What they can’t mean.

Stay in the tree. That’s much safer. Well it wasn’t really, but it might be, set against what Mum had said. Accident. Memorial. Safer than that. The tree could have killed him. Could have killed us both. But it didn’t, not that day, not any day, through all the years we lived alongside it.

That afternoon, the last time we climbed, the noise was immense. We clung to each other, scratched to billyo, whipped by branches cracking against each other and beating against our skin, exhilarated beyond words. Right at the top, looking over the town, pummelled by the wind.

The chair beside me creaked as Mum sat down. Her hands covered mine, still clutching my cooling coffee. ‘I’m sorry pet. I was sure you would know. Can I tell you what happened?’

If I didn’t open my eyes, if she didn’t say the words, maybe there wouldn’t be a tale to tell. Except for the one about Rick and me and the tree, on the day of our last exam.

The sun was still warm on my back. I uncurled my fingers and carefully placed my hands palm down on the uneven tabletop.

I shook my head.

Just stay in the tree. I can hear the wind thrashing on that wild afternoon. And now it was thrashing through my belly, just as it did on the day that he fell.

 

******

 

I thought he’d died, but it was only a broken arm and a concussion. The branch that snapped and took him to the ground was like a gun going off beside my head. Suddenly his grinning face, so close to mine, was gone, disappearing in the midst of twigs and bark and shards of branch. He could so easily have been killed, probably should have been. He looked so fragile, his flannelette shirt a splash of red in the grey and brown debris far below.

My trip to the ground took forever; the tree an enemy for the first time, gripping and clutching, trying to stop me getting down. There was no one to call, no mobile phones. Just the two of us off on our own. When there was something silly to be done, it would just be us. Enough beer and adrenalin and we thought we could do anything. Until that day anyway.

Rather than killing him the tree actually kept Rick alive. So much stuff fell with him that it cushioned his landing. He was bruised all over and one arm hung at a very strange angle but by the time I reached the ground he was conscious, groaning and laughing.

‘It was first to the top not the bottom who had to buy the next round. There was no need to push.’

I was so relieved that I threw up in the middle of the mess, which made him laugh, and groan all the more. Somehow, I got him out from under the branches and twigs. There were so many jagged edges that could have gone straight through his body if any one piece had been in a slightly different place. I threw up again. And again when I thought about it later that night and over the next few days when I dreamt about it.

 

******

 

I still have that dream. Looking down from a great height at a body, tiny and still far below. Sometimes it’s Rick, sometimes my children, occasionally it’s me I’m looking at. And then, the desperate scrabble to reach the ground, before it’s too late.

My own personal recurring nightmare.

But the tree didn’t kill him. That was Rick’s accident. It had to be. The only one.

Mum stroked the back of my hands. My eyes stayed resolutely shut. If I didn’t look at anything maybe that would work. The tree – that was the accident. He was alright after that.

We left home and went to uni; Rick to become an engineer, me a physiotherapist. We shared houses and friends and watched each other’s backs for years, inseparable, until Susie came along. Rick fell for Susie like he’d fallen from the tree, suddenly and without warning.

Just after they got together Rick came home one night, subdued and nervous, completely unlike him.

‘Susie doesn’t think it’s a good idea for us to live together or see so much of each other. She thinks you distract me and don’t let me concentrate on things I should be concentrating on.’

‘What, like her?’ I snapped.

For hours I raged, argued and ridiculed, but I lost him that night. Susie was strong and beautiful and completely overwhelmed him and our friendship. In a month he had moved in with her. Six months later they moved to Western Australia and then they were married. I was invited to the wedding but it was too far, too expensive and just too hard to think about. Although we were never a couple, he was still my other half and it was a long time before I really forgave him for letting her shut me out of his life.

We met up over the years when our visits home coincided but it was always awkward with Susie. Occasionally Rick came to Sydney for work. Without Susie, he would always leave a night free so we could catch up. A couple of times he stayed with us and Phil and Rick had a great time bonding over my strange quirks and idiosyncrasies. I went to bed and left them comparing notes and drinking whisky.

‘He’s a male version of you.’ Phil whispered gently through his hangover, the morning after one of these long nights. ‘You obviously spent way too much time together when you were kids. How can you finish each other’s sentences when you’ve only seen each other half a dozen times in the last ten years?’

Usually though, we went out. Phil didn’t mind that every now and then I would get a phone call that made me sing around the house before I disappeared for a very, very late night with another man.

The chair beside me creaked again as Mum pushed herself to her feet with a heavy sigh. A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on the top of my head and she retreated back around the benchtop to continue her work.

No matter how tightly I clamped my eyes and clenched my teeth she kept intruding.

The last time I saw Rick was very different.

It was about five years ago. Phil and I had been steadily drifting apart. We were both tired; tired of mindless work, the endless stress of trying to live well, desperate not to make mistakes with our kids, and always to be on top and in control. We had stopped talking, stopped communicating at all.

I was feeling pretty miserable when Rick called.

‘Hey Kit. I’m going to Canberra for a couple of days next week. Any chance you could come down? I won’t be back for a while and I’d really like to see you.’

‘You’re coming on your own? What’s the matter, babe? You sound awful. Are you sick?’

‘I’ll tell you next week.’ He cut me off abruptly. ‘Please come.’

Phil nodded vaguely, and I was off.

Rick had been offered a job in a diamond mine in South Africa and was in Canberra to organise an urgent visa.

‘Why Africa?’ I asked over dinner the first night. ‘And why so urgent?’

‘It’s more why not Africa than why,’ he replied quietly.

Susie had left him for one of their closest friends. They didn’t have children and after nearly 20 years of marriage his life was suddenly a vast and empty ocean.

We spent the next two days talking; about what was going on in our lives, how sorry we were that we had lost each other, and how bitter and disappointed we were in so many ways.

After dinner on the last night we traded memories of all the stupid things we’d done, including the day Rick fell out of the tree. Many hours and much wine later, our laughter dissolved into tears. I hadn’t seen Rick cry since his dog got run over in front of his house when we were about ten. When I returned to my husband and daughters I left my best friend with much sadness and many tears.

Funnily enough, those few days with Rick were a catalyst for me and Phil to sort ourselves out. I told him Rick’s news and said I was scared we were going to end up in the same place. We began to talk about the disappointment and frustrations we felt towards each other and our life, and gradually began to find each other again.

We’d heard from him occasionally during the intervening years. In the last email, about a month ago, he said he had a girlfriend that he knew we’d like and that they would be home for Christmas.

I hadn’t got around to replying.

‘I’m going for a walk Mum. No…on my own. I won’t be long. Please…just don’t fuss me.’

Head down, eyes open but my mind still doggedly closed, I strode towards the centre of town. A goods train stopped me at the level crossing. Unconsciously I began to count the carriages, beating my fist against the barrier. With every beat, another memory.

 

******

 

‘What are you doing?’

Rick was looking up, staring intently into the traffic safety mirror that guarded the crossing.

I was about four. Kristie in her stroller, and me and Mum had just collected the mail. Mum and Rick’s mum were talking. I stood alongside Rick and looked up. It was so funny; we were completely squished out of shape. Rick was like a giant ginger head with no body, freckles swimming across his face.

‘What are you doing?’ I repeated, giggling. ‘You look like a munchkin.’

Without moving Rick replied solemnly, ‘How do you reckon the cars get their shape back before they get here?’

Our first proper conversation.

 

******

 

‘Please Tam, come look, you’ll see what I mean.’

The time he tried to convince Tam Rowland, the Rural Fire Service chief, that the fire that burnt the post office down was started by a spark between the mirror, some rubbish and the afternoon coal train. The reflection of the setting sun in the gaps between the carriages was so blinding.

 

******

 

‘Rick, Rick, don’t be a dick

If you keep me waiting

I’ll give you the flick.’

As I swung around the pole, aged fourteen, waiting, always waiting for him to arrive.

 

******

 

Rick and Phil’s first meeting, unexpectedly one weekend when we were home. While I jumped about excitedly, sure they’d get on, Susie stood, looking away, impatient to leave.

 

******

 

The train passed. I crossed the track, ducked under the mirror and headed up the hill.

When we were kids the tree rose above the town, an ancient gum, vast in the middle of a paddock. A pine wind break ran along the boundary line, protecting the farm house further round the hill from hot westerlies and storms from the south, but the gum stood aloof.

As I got older and the population grew, chunks of properties were carved off and subdivisions appeared. Smart houses behind pristine hedges replaced the cows on the hill behind the town. But for many years the tree had remained, just beyond the edge of development.

I saw the shiny new gate as soon as I turned the corner, shut against the field where the tree stood. That shouldn’t be there. This day was just full of things that shouldn’t be.

The tree was still there. I could see it in the clearing, powerful in its isolation. The core of my life, as essential as my family, the home I grew up in, and Rick.

‘God help you if it ever came down,’ I muttered, slightly disgusted at my dependence.

But there shouldn’t be a gate. The tree belonged to us all; we always assumed it did anyway.

The sun was dappled, still warm but diffused by shadows from the wind break that remained on the boundary fence. The huge pines looked incongruous now, rough and ugly along one side of the avenue that was lined with elaborate topiaried hedges and architect designed mansions on the other. The wind high in the pines sounded like the sea pounding the shore and a heavy scent followed me as I headed towards the gate.

There shouldn’t be a gate. The tree was meant to help me, save me from the truth of the news I walked out on. Save Rick, save us all. How could it do that from behind a gate?

I didn’t lean on the gate. That would give it legitimacy. Instead I stood slightly back and pretended it wasn’t there. I was so weary of all the things I was pretending that day. It wasn’t in a paddock any more, just another block of land to be built on, with fences all around.

The thick knotted rope we had badgered Rick’s dad into hanging so we could get into the tree was still tied to the lowest branch. We were probably six or seven.

I couldn’t imagine letting my daughters out at that age on their own, knowing they were going to spend the day trying to climb a tree. Maybe we were older; I think our parents were just braver.

 

******

 

‘Dad, we need the rope. We really need it. Really, really need it. You wouldn’t want us to get hurt, would you? It’s so much safer with a rope.’

‘Come see Dad. Reckon we can jump down. Course we won’t be silly. Safe as…come tie it up for us and we’ll show you.’

 

******

 

I remembered the feel of the rough rope in my hands as I swung from knot to knot until I reached the smooth fork at the base of the climb.

Raging angrily at the barrier before me and at Mum’s news about Rick, I noticed a small clump of new leaves snared in the gate. Without actually touching the wire, I unhooked them and held them to my face.

And waited.

Waited until I could absorb the truth that Rick was dead.

Until I was brave enough to unclench my body and let that truth flood me.

Until I was ready to walk back home and let my mother hold me and to let myself mourn.

I crushed the leaves against my cheeks, the scent of the eucalypt gradually earthing me, while I desperately tried to ignore the truth that I wouldn’t see him, not at all, not ever again.

My other half, my tree dwelling friend.

 

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From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

Download a pdf of Shattering

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From Young Warrior, Jacqueline Brown

Young Warrior is an adventure novel for middle school children. Eleven year old Kevin Jones stumbles on a strange and mysterious dojang, from where he is transported to a fantastical realm to train with Master Cheng, and to be taught the ancient secrets of the monks, martial art and combat. But when the magic force that keeps peace in the realm begins to fade and Master Cheng goes missing, Kevin will need to use everything he has learned, as well as a few tricks that only a modern kid would know, to save Master Cheng and his world.

 

Chapter One: The Strange Shop on Orchard Street

Today wasn’t the first day Kevin Jones had stood outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street. Its narrow red door had a brass knob no bigger than a brussels sprout. Its little square windows were dirty and grey. Hanging from the roof on rusty chains was a small wooden sign that might once have been colourful and grand, but was now tired and faded.

The sign read:

J.Brown_image1

For a long time Kevin hadn’t even known about Orchard Street. Kevin’s quickest route from his school to home was to turn right out of the front gates, pedal all the way down the main road, then turn left, right and left again. In a hurry, with his school bag over his shoulder and a jumbo juice-box in his hand, he could make it home in four minutes and fifty-two seconds, if he threw his bike down on the lawn and his mum had left the front door unlocked.

J.Brown_image2

But it hadn’t been fast enough. Not after Levi Baxter transferred to the school. Not after Levi Baxter, who was two years older and twice the size of Kevin, took a special disliking to him. Not after Levi Baxter started waiting for Kevin at the school gates, chasing him down on his pushbike that was bigger and fancier than Kevin’s (whose bike had been bought in a ‘Bargain Sale’ of unpopular stock the shop was desperate to get rid of). Four minutes and fifty-two seconds was no longer fast enough for Kevin to make it home without his tie missing, a dead arm and his grubby school shirt pulled over his head.

The last time Kevin cycled the main road home was on the Thursday before Easter. His class had been let out early for the school holidays, and he was flying down the street, his skinny legs pumping on the pedals, a giddy grin on his face. ‘In your face, Levi Baxter!’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see you catch me today!’ Then as Kevin rounded the corner…

Levi Baxter stepped out in front of him. Kevin turned the front wheel sharply to the left and tried to ride straight past him, but Levi grabbed the strap of his school bag as he went past, and yanked. Kevin yelped as his bike slid out from underneath him, and he dropped to the ground. Levi’s meaty face stood over him, grinning. ‘Caught you, Jones!’ Then he wrestled Kevin into a headlock until he couldn’t breathe.

That was also the last time Kevin saw his school bag. By Easter Monday, Kevin heard that his exercise books were seen strewn around the local oval — lodged between tree branches, hanging over the goal posts. One was even stuffed up a down-pipe. Levi Baxter had been busy.

Kevin Jones had spent his Easter holidays devising a new route home from school.

 

Kevin’s New Plan To Ride Home

  • Do NOT go near the front gate! Exit by back gate instead.
  • Go down the concrete steps (twenty-two of them, must stand up and use legs as shock absorbers or Owww!)
  • Zig-zag through the back streets (practise my wheelies!)
  • Peddle down Mrs Mac’s driveway and across her yard (get a good speed first so I won’t get caught)
  • Go through Mrs Mac’s back fence where the palings are missing
  • Go across the oval
  • Then under the trees on the far side (duck for branches)
  • Peddle up the dirt jump and over the creek (Whooooooo!)
  • And cut through the very end of the odd little street to HOME!

 

The ‘odd little street’ was, in fact, Orchard Street, a street which Kevin had only just discovered. The quiet dead end street seemed forgotten by the whole neighbourhood. At the very end was a narrow path between two fences (just wide enough for Kevin’s handlebars to fit) which popped out onto Kevin’s street. From there he could make it safely through his back gate and home. Kevin wasn’t as big and his bike wasn’t as fast as Levi’s, but he was nimble, he could weave in and out between trees and land small jumps easily. He was certain if Levi tried to follow him home on this route, he wouldn’t get caught.

J.Brown_image3

On his last day of school holidays Kevin had timed it on his stopwatch. In a hurry, with his new school bag worn like a backpack and with both hands on the handlebars, he could make it home twelve minutes and ten seconds.

But he never did. Because at eleven minutes and thirteen seconds each afternoon since that day, Kevin stopped outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street, and pressed his nose to the dirty glass.

Can you see it on the map? It’s the little rectangle in red.

The first time Kevin looked inside, the windows were so dirty that he couldn’t see in. He pulled the sleeve of his jumper over the heel of his hand and rubbed on the glass. It made a loud squeak. He jumped back. Had the people inside heard? He turned to pick up his bike to leave, but stopped. Who was inside? What did they do in there? Kevin pulled up his sleeve and rubbed again, this time a little more carefully so he didn’t make a noise. After a moment, the dirt began to come off and there was a small patch in the middle that he could see through. He pressed his nose firmly against the glass, cupped his hands around the side of his face to cut out the glare, and stared in.

The room was dingy and dim. There was no furniture and the grey walls were bare. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long wire, giving off a pale light. In the centre of the room stood a squat looking man dressed in long robes of orange cloth, with large panels of gold embroidery around the collar, on the sleeves, and on the bottom hem which brushed his bare feet. The man was staring downwards, the bald crown of his head towards Kevin. His arms were outstretched, and between his hands was a gold bladed sword, its tip touching the stone floor in front of him. Suddenly in one swift motion (Kevin would swear from outside he heard a ‘whoosh!’ as the air parted) he lifted the sword high above his head and…

Kyup!’

Kevin leapt away from the window. What was that? He looked around. No-one else was on the street. No-one else was there to notice. He crept back up to the glass, and when he peered in again, he was astonished.

The little room he’d been looking in was utterly different. It was bright and modern. Lights were on, the walls were painted white and packed with photographs. There were mirrors at the far end, with two flags above them. Kevin recognised the Australian flag, its blue, red and white, with the Union Jack and Southern Cross. But the second flag was unlike anything Kevin had seen. It was square, on a turquoise background with a golden tower in each corner and a red flame in the middle. Through the glass it almost looked to Kevin as if the flame was flickering. There were blue mats across the floor, and a bald-headed man (who Kevin was certain he had seen a few moments ago wearing robes and holding a sword), was dressed in a black outfit with red edging. He was pacing along the front of the room, shouting instructions with a sound Kevin hadn’t heard before.

There were four students, lined up in two rows of two, each dressed in black pants and jackets, (‘dobok’, Kevin would later practise saying, enjoying the way the ‘bok’ burst from his lips). They had coloured belts around their waists. Every time the instructor shouted a different word, the four students punched, and gave a funny yell.

‘Hana!’             

‘Kyup!’

‘Tul!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Set!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Net!’                

‘Kyup!’

‘Tasot!’             

‘Kyup!’

Suddenly the instructor stopped shouting and looked through the clear patch in the window straight at Kevin. Kevin stepped back. He shouldn’t be peeking. But the instructor merely nodded slowly in acknowledgement of him, with a hint of a smile, then turned his attention back to his students.

‘Yossot!’            

‘Kyup!’

The four students threw another punch.

Kevin grabbed his bike and pedalled home, his heart beating fast. He felt a little scared, a little excited, and most of all, he couldn’t wait to look inside again tomorrow.

For two weeks each afternoon after school, Kevin stopped at the shopfront, pressed his nose against the window and watched the students on the blue mats. The tall student with a blue belt around his waist could somersault over a pommel horse and land back on his feet! The student wearing a green belt kicked quick and high. The other two children were small, and the legs and sleeves of their uniforms so long, that they had been rolled up. They were wrestling on one of the mats. Kevin watched the students curiously. If he could learn to do that, would he be better prepared against Levi Baxter? Then he pictured his mum. ‘Maybe next year,’ he saw her saying, as she always did when he asked about something that needed money. She would follow it with a quiet sigh. Plus, he was still in trouble for ‘losing’ his school bag (completely unfair as it wasn’t even his fault!) Besides, there was something else that bothered him. It was the instructor.

Only occasionally did Kevin try to get a peek at the instructor. Shorter than the student in the blue belt, his head was shiny and domed like the top of a brown egg. When he demonstrated kicks, his legs moved so fast Kevin only saw a blur, followed by a crisp thwack as his dobok pants snapped. But even out of the corner of his eye, Kevin couldn’t forget the image of the orange and gold robes, a glinting sword, the sound of a whoosh as it cut through the air…and it made him shiver.

 

Today, as Kevin was pedalling out of the school grounds, dark clouds blew over the sky. By the time he reached the oval, raindrops were falling. He stood up in his pedals and rode faster. Too wet to stop today, he thought. He jumped his bike over the creek, and turned onto Orchard Street when a fierce wall of wind howled down the road and hit Kevin from behind. Woomph! It blew through his woollen jumper and chilled him from his back to his elbows. Where did that come from? he thought. Kevin mounted the curb and cycled down the footpath, out of the rain. But the wind followed him. Wooooomph! It hit him again, this time whipping around his legs, and he wobbled on his bike, but he kept pedalling. He was almost at the shop when the hanging sign began to swing on its rusty chains, sending an eerie whine down the footpath. Kevin stared up at it as he cycled underneath and then WHAP! A piece of paper smacked him right in the face. It covered his eyes, he was cycling blind! Kevin snatched the paper away with one hand, just in time to see the shopfront directly in front of him. His bike slammed into the wall, and he tumbled to the ground.

Owwww!’

Kevin rolled over, and lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He rubbed the back of his head, a small nugget was already forming there. He examined the rest of himself. A few scratches on his knuckles and he’d have bruises tomorrow, not too bad. But his bike hadn’t been as lucky. The front wheel was bent and the tyre had burst open. The handlebars were scratched and the shiny bell dome was dented. Kevin pressed the thumb lever. Instead of a sprightly ‘briiiiingggg’ to announce itself, the bell made a disappointing ‘vvvvvvvvvvv. Kevin slumped. Replacing the bell would take the last of the ninth birthday money he had stashed in his piggy bank. The rain was getting heavier. And he would have to push his bike home. What a stupid day. He stepped forward to see if anyone from inside the shop had heard anything, when a dreadful sound boomed from the end of the street.

‘Jones. I SEE YOU!’

Levi Baxter!

‘This is how you’ve been getting away!’ he shouted.

Kevin stepped backwards, and reached down for his bike. ‘Stay away from me Levi, or I’ll…I’ll…do something!’ he said. He swung his leg over his bike and pushed on the pedal, but with the bent wheel it wouldn’t move. Levi started to laugh.

It must be explained here that Levi Baxter didn’t laugh like other eleven year olds. His laugh was slow and menacing, and his chin and throat puffed out like a bullfrog (Josh Sampson had passed a note around the class while they were watching a video about bullfrogs in science lesson — ‘Looks like Levi Baxter’s twin brother!!!’ it said. The note made it half-way around the class before their teacher Mr Hutchins spotted it, and Noah Samuels ate it on the spot). Now Levi was pacing, step by step, down Orchard Street towards Kevin. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. He was close. Too close. Kevin pushed on the pedal again, but it wouldn’t budge. Levi had nearly reached him. Kevin threw down the bike and started to run. ‘You’ll never outrun me, Jones!’ And Levi leapt after him.

Without thinking, Kevin changed direction and threw himself at the red door. He grabbed and turned the brass brussels sprouts handle, threw the door open and jumped inside. Bang! There was an eerie echo as the red door slammed shut behind him. Kevin stared, terrified, as the door handle rattled and the red door shook, but it didn’t open. Levi banged on the outside. His voice was muffled through the door, but Kevin heard him. ‘You can’t hide in there forever! Next time, Jones. Next time I’ll get you, you wimp!’ He heard the sounds of his bicycle being stomped on. The crunch of metal. A final ‘vv v v v v v …’ from his bike bell. Then silence.

‘Phew.’ Kevin turned away from the door.

Standing in front of him was the bald-headed instructor.

The instructor looked calmly at Kevin. Then he slowly bowed his head. When he raised it again, Kevin noticed his face was older than he’d thought. His golden skin was wrinkled like a shrunken balloon and his eyes were little half-moons. His eyebrows were pale with flecks of gold. Unsure what was expected, Kevin awkwardly tried a bow.

‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘I am Master Cheng.’ His voice was gentle but confusing, an accent Kevin hadn’t heard before. ‘I am waiting. You are here for free lesson.’

Kevin looked blankly. Master Cheng nodded in the direction of Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked down. Clutched tightly in his fist was the small piece of paper that had hit him in the face as he had cycled down the road. He hadn’t realised he was still holding it. He smoothed it out and read what was on the paper.

J.Brown_image4‘And you are owner of paper, yes?’ said Master Cheng.

Kevin thought about it. If it flew into his face, did that make him the owner? The door behind him had stopped rattling, but he had no idea whether Levi was now waiting quietly in ambush outside. So he nodded. Master Cheng smiled.

‘Then your time has come, young jeonsa.’ My young student. And he pointed Kevin in the direction of the dojang.

 

Download a pdf of Chapter One of Young Warrior

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

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Grace’s Room, Emma Dorreen

The edges of the house are indistinct — no matter how hard I look. It seems American though: solid, large, old. Not what we’re used to. It has two storeys, plus an attic. Stone stairs ascend to a deep porch. Large windows front generous rooms. I can see no context to the house — no neighbours, street, or garden even. Inside, a long hallway — hardwood boards — leads to a substantial timber staircase.

Other details are vague, colourless. I’m uneasy in the house. I know there is a room here that I dread. Above. It is on the attic floor, under the eaves. This room and the stairs to it are clear and precise. Inevitable. My skin creeps with the knowledge of the room. I gather all my courage, on an intake of breath, and look up the stairs: the long flight to the first floor landing, the shorter one leading only to the small door. There it is. It repels me.

I convince myself to climb. I don’t want to. But I make it up the first flight. Then pause. Then a few more stairs. Almost all the way, just four steps shy of the top. I don’t want to look. But I have to. Look into the room. It is empty, except for one small metal chair. There’s no window. The low ceiling slopes to the right. The carpet is stained in gruesome patches and bears the marks of long-gone furniture. I want to be sick. The wallpaper is old, nasty, peeling, a faded figure of a daisy repeats itself; to the left then right, over and over. The print register is slightly off. The whole effect makes the room seem even smaller. Airless. Suffocating. The room is empty, bland, yet I sense crushing hands at my throat and the worst horror I can imagine.

All the time I am in the house, I feel the threat of this room above me. I visit in my dreams, often.

 

‘You never want to hear about the dream.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘You say that it’s not important.’

‘Well… is it?’

She saw a flash of impatience disturb his carefully composed face. Kate was not going to answer. She wanted to win one. She listened to a single car glide past, down on the wet street below. The ticking clock on the wall grew louder to fill the silence. He tapped the rubber end of the pencil on the edge of the desk. Eventually, he began.

‘Why don’t you tell me about the dog?’

A win then, though Kate did not want to remember the dog.

‘I’ll tell you about Jodie Metzler.’

The pencil grew still, poised and ready. ‘You never liked her.’

‘No I did not.’

‘You thought she was a bad influence. A threat.’

‘At the beginning, I was pleased that Grace had a friend.’

‘That was Britney.’

‘Yes, Britney. Metzler. The daughter. Nice enough kid. But so perfect, you know? Perfect hair, and teeth and skin and perfect little bosoms she liked to show off.’ Kate was on surer ground.

‘Anyway, Jodie. The first time I met her, was through the window of my car when I picked up Grace from school. She — Grace, I mean — had been asking to visit her new friend. I was reluctant. Hadn’t met the family. But then, this woman thrust her head through the car window and introduced herself. Shook my hand actually. Pushy. I thought she looked like a TV evangelist’s wife.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You know, lacquered hair, too much makeup, glue-on fingernails. Perfect, but everything fake.’

‘You let her go,’ he prompted.

‘Yes, I let Grace go. She was so excited. We’d been in town for six weeks and this was her first friend. It’s my fault; I’ll admit I am a bit of a hermit. Grace is much more outgoing. And I knew she’d been staying home so much on my account, to keep me happy.’ Kate paused. She pushed her thumb up deep into her right eye socket, under the brow, to stem the coming ache. Surely that was enough for now, but he would, as always, keep pushing.

‘Can I get you something for that?’

‘How about a taxi to the airport?’ He didn’t even smile at the joke.

‘It was hard for you,’ he continued. The pencil was on its side, being rolled slowly back and forth with slender fingers.

‘Yes.’

‘To let her go.’

‘Yes.’

He was sitting to the side of the desk, close to the pencils in their perfect white cup. Every pencil sharp and new. Sitting with an ankle crossed over a knee, carefully casual. She often wondered what he thought of her. Crazy? Paranoid? A hopeless old wreck of a once-attractive woman? Did she care?

‘Hard for you. But it went well?’

‘I suppose. I waited for her by the window. I didn’t know quite what to do with myself — that sounds funny doesn’t it? Silly, overprotective mother. Eventually Jodie dropped her home and Grace spent the rest of the evening talking about Britney and her house and all the cool things they had.’

‘Did James ever meet her?’

‘No. As you know, he is away a lot. And flying long haul is tiring work. When he comes home, he likes everything to be peaceful. So we have lovely dinners at home. Just us. Lovely family time.

‘So it didn’t matter so much about New York. It had sounded like an adventure when James first suggested it. I’d thought it would be like being 25 again, visiting galleries, restaurants, all that thrilling noise and activity. In reality, though, Montville was much better for us. Good schools, quiet, handy for James for Newark. And I could always do a day trip to Manhattan. If I felt like it.’

‘Did you? Did you go?’

‘I did go. I didn’t stay. Too many people.’

He stopped fiddling with the pencil and wrote a note in his book. He didn’t do that very often any more.

‘You enjoyed the move?’

‘I… It’s very different to home. The seasons are opposite. They drive on the other side of the road. All the sounds are different. Like, in the morning, the birds, the garbage trucks…’

Kate turned and looked out the window, as if to confirm her idea of this difference. Grey, prematurely dark, the occasional passing car made a too-quiet swish as it cruised the wet road. Her whole new world a mystery behind fog and drizzle and unknown strangers behind closed front doors.

‘Do you want to talk about Grace?’

‘What’s the time? Do we have time?’ Kate stood straight up from her chair. ‘I need to go collect her.’

‘You forget. Relax. There’s no rush.’

‘Okay then,’ Kate smiled, sat. ‘You know I like to talk about Grace. She is properly beautiful, you know. Naturally. She doesn’t need to paint herself up, though her skin is going through that difficult time just now. She’s incredibly bright, “conscientious” — all her teachers say that. She can be a bit of a dork; I mean what sort of a girl still tells terrible corny jokes at 14? Just… the other day, for example, she said to me “What’s brown and sticky?” Do you know the answer?’

‘You tell me.’

‘A stick! I laughed so hard I choked on my cereal. A stick! Still makes me laugh. I know parents who look forward to their children leaving them but I never would. We do everything together. We even share a bed sometimes when James is away. I really have to go though. Can I see you tomorrow?’

‘Can we talk about the dog then?’

Kate would not reply.

‘Come tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’

 

I climb the long staircase. Slowly. My feet are leaden and the effort of each difficult step makes me want to retch. Sometimes I stop, breathe slowly. In, out. I distract myself by picking some lint from the stair, or examining my fingernails, as I take one more sickening step. Finally, I make it all the way to the top. I surprise myself. I am standing just a few paces from the open door of the room. The busy wallpaper seems to twitch, in time with the beating of my pulse. There’s a ringing in my ears. The carpet stains are grotesque. Suggestive. Animated — did they reach for me? Something very bad has happened here.

 

‘You had a good night?’ He was looking at her, but the computer screen reflected blue in his glasses and she couldn’t see his eyes.

‘Yes, I slept well.’ Liar.

‘No bad dreams?’

‘You don’t want to hear about that.’

‘As you say.’ He smiled… reassuringly, Kate supposed. ‘Let’s pick up where we left off then. Grace was spending more time with the Metzlers.’

‘Yes, more time…’ The room was quite dark, apart from the glow of the computer. Outside, the grey sky was thickening to black with impending rain, making an early dusk. Kate felt, foolishly, that she was attracting the gloomy weather. But she must try, must give him something today.

‘Jodie,’ she began. ‘She’d do anything for us. Always a bit pushy, she’d break down all my excuses. You know, “Grace can do her homework here”, “we can give her dinner”, that kind of thing. The girls went bowling, to the movies. Jodie would drop Grace home. Very occasionally I was in the Metzler house — one of those big old timber places on Horseneck Road. I’d always be taken to the “parlour”, given a cold drink. I could look at all their happy family photographs and china collectibles, but I never saw much of the rest of the place. Jodie was always “super nice” though. Much too nice. That’s always suspicious, isn’t it? Being too nice? Like people who always say “I’d never lie to you”. Don’t you think?’

‘I wouldn’t know.’

‘You must have some opinion on that, some educated view?’

He only smiled. The blue light reflected off his glasses, so the eyes didn’t join in. ‘Please carry on.’

‘I’d like to. I’ll try. So. All Grace could talk about was the Metzlers. You know — how great they were. All the things in their lives that were so different to ours. I was losing. Then, one day, she asked if she could go to “service” with them — they’re into some born-again Christian outfit that sounds like a cult. I really didn’t like the sound of that. I said “no”.’

‘Until?’

‘I never said “yes”. But that’s enough.’ That was as far as she could go, in this miserable weather. Outside, the streetlights reflected off wet black asphalt. Her arms were folded, eyes far away.

‘So short today?’ He may have been annoyed but Kate couldn’t tell, couldn’t see his eyes. ‘Can we talk longer tomorrow? Can we talk about the dog?’

 

It is a dreadful effort, climbing all the long stairs to the room. Crossing the threshold is hardest of all. It requires incredible strength. There is a force pushing me back, a force I can’t see. Like heading into a wind strong enough to knock you down. The air is solid, pushing at me. I force my body sideways to make progress through the mass. There’s a screaming in my ears, terrifying. I cover my ears. I cower. The wallpaper swirls and throbs. Dirty brown daisies won’t stay still. There is nothing here, yet something. Something evil. I want to flee. Run. The force of the room finally pushes me back out the door, invisible hands pushing and shoving. Out, headlong, I stumble down stairs, through the hallway, outside into bright day. I don’t look back.

 

‘Do you believe some people can see the future? Psychics, that stuff?’ She sat straighter in the chair today.

‘That’s an interesting question; what makes you ask?’ He had returned to his pencils, holding one midway, between index and middle fingers, flipping it left/right/left/right. It was still raining outside. So much moisture: the air itself a solid thing after all the rain.

‘Forget it. Forget I said anything.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

‘Okay then. Can we talk about the dog?’

‘I’ll start with Jodie.’

‘Whatever makes you comfortable.’

‘I’m trying to do a good job, you know.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’

‘I’m trying to get things straight. I don’t sleep right. I dream. Which I know is irrelevant. But I know there was something bad about that room…’ Kate took a moment. She looked at her hands in her lap. She had a tissue already, balled up tight in her fist. She exhaled.

‘That Saturday, then, Grace was over with the Metzlers. I knew something wasn’t right. Grace had been excited about this visit, but trying not to show it. Jodie picked her up — my car was having some work done on it. She, Jodie, looked like she was hiding something.’

‘Was that important?’

‘Yes, it was fucking important.’ The pencil tapping grew stronger. He was unimpressed.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the bad language. Anyway, late in the afternoon, when I was expecting Grace, I got a call from Jodie. One of those “Face Time” calls, so I could see her shiny, fake face on my phone. She wants to know if Grace can stay overnight. They’ll look after her. They’re at a special retreat with their church. You know, that huge, weird Christian place out near the football club? Jodie said there was going to be barbecue and a movie and that the girls really wanted to stay.’ Kate’s attention drifted out to the wet street past the window. He drew her back in.

‘And then?’

‘And then — I noticed the wallpaper.’

‘What wallpaper?’

‘You know, from my dream. From the room. The daisy wallpaper I told you all about.’

‘You could see wallpaper pattern on a smart phone?’

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

Kate had had enough of this. No one ever heard her. So she would be silent. Arms folded again.

‘I apologise,’ he said. Kate was unmoved. ‘Please continue. I’m really very sorry.’

‘You’re so smart. Tell me,’ she put her hands on his desk, ‘if the room with the wallpaper is not important, why do I dream about it every goddamn night?’

‘I guess it must be important then.’ He was rolling his pencil again, with his piano-player fingers.

‘You don’t believe me. No one believes me. No one ever listens.’

‘That’s not true. I am listening. Please continue.’

‘Someone needs to find the room. Please.’ Kate un-balled her tissue and blew her nose gently.

‘If we could just put the issue of the room to one side,’ he said, ‘could we continue? I know you’re doing your best. We will work it out, you’ll see.’

‘All right. Yes. My best. I’ll try.’ A deep breath. It would be a heroic effort. ‘Well, behind Jodie was that wallpaper I hated and I knew right away that Grace was in danger. I was terrified. I tried to ask very calmly to speak to Grace. Jodie made excuses, but I said she wouldn’t be allowed to stay unless I spoke to her. Eventually, she did put her on. I told Grace to get out — to escape. She was in danger from these people. I’d always known it. I needed her home with me. Just “get out, get out, get out of that place and come home and I’ll explain later.” She told me not to worry.

‘I went to get my keys then remembered my car wasn’t there. I panicked. I tried ringing three taxi companies before finding one that would take me — it was a busy Saturday evening. I couldn’t bear the wait. I just wanted to run the five miles and get my daughter out of that place. But if I ran, the taxi would turn up and I wouldn’t be there and it would take even longer.

‘Finally, the taxi arrived. I practically screamed at the driver to hurry. It was dark by then and the roads were wet, with all the lights reflecting off the black asphalt. We had to go down residential streets to get out to the Metzler’s church and they’re not well lit. I kept urging the driver to hurry.

‘That’s when the dog ran out in front of the taxi. We hit it. We had to stop. I was desperate to carry on to Grace, but the driver insisted that we stop and take care of the damn dog. Even though it was already dead. So I went rushing from house to house, knocking on doors, shouting, screaming, tripping over hedges, trying to raise the alarm and find the dog owner. I had to get to Grace. No one answered their damn door. No one came to help. My daughter was in terrible danger. My knuckles were bleeding from knocking on doors. I didn’t know what to do.’

Kate had the back of her hand to her wet face, sucking the remembered blood.

‘Look at the dog.’

‘No.’

‘Look properly.’

‘It’s just a mutt. A stupid cross-bred mutt that had run out onto the wrong side of the road. You see, the traffic is all on the wrong side. Its bicycle was completely twisted and broken.’

 

Now the pencil was put away, back in its white cup. He had a reassuring hand on hers.

 

‘It’s in our house,’ Kate remembered.

‘Yes.’

‘The room.’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s our rented house. Of course. That room is there at the top of the stairs.’

‘You know it well.’ He smiled. She was doing a good job. He was pleased with her. She’d come back to the place she didn’t want to be.

‘Yes. I spent days and days in the attic room with the door locked, just looking at the wallpaper. She was coming home to me, you see. Borrowed a bike. She was a good girl. She knew I needed her home.

‘But she looked the wrong way — the cars are all on the wrong side of the road. I remember it straight this time.’

 

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Golden Drachmas, Claire Catacouzinos

Thasians wrestle with malleable metals. They mine, smelt, mint, and tend to hot furnaces, wrought with much toil. They are iron-willed smiths like Hephastios, forger of the three-forked thunderbolts. They should be equal to other Hellenic cities; but why has Athens seized their markets and a gold mine at Thrace? Why do the Athenians’ believe they can rule them? Thasos is the golden island, caved with quarries of gold, marble, lead, and iron. For they are masters of hammers, strikers that can crumble empires, not sooty anvils that tolerate threats.

 

Limenas, Thasos, 463 B.C.E

 

Sixteen year old Nesaea, an orphaned Abderan now living at Thasos, grabs a silver blank disk inside the minting workshop, and places it in between two blocks of iron, the dies that have carved designs. She raises her hammer, tightening her grip, and strikes down on the first die; the punch made. Yes, she thinks, as she takes the disk out, another great coin for today. She stares at one side, touching its edges, checking that the image of four tiny squares is smooth. Perfect, she thinks, as she then flips the coin to the other side, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the sight of the bald-headed, bearded satyr, kneeling to his right as he carries a struggling nymph. She imagines her master, Aglaophon, that four-plumed monster, carrying her to bed like he does with the slave girls at night. Thank sweet Demeter he does not know about her disguise.

She tosses the new coin to the pile of forty-nine drachmas that she has made on the marble table, listening to slaves outside smelting metal. Out the window, she sees sweating faces, men’s short tunics damp, their skin tanned just like her own, and their callused hands with disjointed and purple-bruised fingers holding metal clamps. They pour the molten metal into circular, shallow pits that are narrow at the bottom, and wait for them to cool.

Turning away, she stares at her messy nest of coins. If only these were hers, every piece for her to keep, to help her start a new life away from Thasos. She suddenly feels wetness in her loincloth. She knots her eyebrows, thinking it can only mean one thing. She holds in her breath, her skin tight against her ribs like leather stretched to make a tympanon, a hand drum, and touches the dampness in between her thighs. The god Deimos creeps upon her when she realises with dread what it is. Damn the gods, she thinks, my gorgon has escaped her case.

She hears her friend returning to the workshop and she knows she needs to get back to her master’s house and grab a linen rag. Why did she not remember to wear extra rags today? Last night she tried to count on her fingers, to remember the last time her blood flowed, but her mind was empty like her clay cup beside her bed. It has been months, she thinks, so many months since my body has done this.

Wiping her hand on the inside of her brown chlamys, she pins her cloak to her right shoulder, snatches a few drachma coins, hides them in her breast-band, and runs out of the mint workshop.

‘Where are you going, Nireus?’ her friend asks as she passes by.

‘I will be back,’ she says.

‘You cannot leave,’ he says, grabbing her arm, ‘the official will cut your throat!’

She yanks his arm away. ‘I will return in an hour, just cover for me until I get back.’

‘The things I do for you, Nireus. Just think, one day it will be us shitting on the golden hills!’

Yes, she thinks, one day we will be living on solid mountains of gold in our own houses…one day.

She hurries past the three minting workshops and peeps behind the stone wall. She sees her red girdled supervisor with his pot-belly, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, a leather whip in his hand. For a moment she wishes she had her long hair again, braided to the side by her mother’s milk-skinned hands; but once she hears the loud crack of a whip, she’s glad she hacked it off. There is no work for her as a slave girl, besides selling herself at brothels, having older men’s oily and hairy bodies upon her. She remembers what her mother told her that day the Athenians ransacked her home, two years ago, ‘You run, you hear me, Nesaea, you run and take care of yourself.’

She sneaks past the slaves blistering in the heat, and runs out of the back entrance of the metalworking precinct on the west side of the agora, the market place. She passes Thasians ambling near their struggling slaves, and dodges the fresh-smelling stalls of bakers, but it is when she sees a young couple, holding hands, the woman’s stomach swollen, and the man’s hand caressing her belly, that she slows down. Her heart still racing, she watches the woman and touches her own stomach, feeling its hollowness, her body not ripe. One day, she thinks, staring at the woman, rubbing her belly, one day soon enough, I will be like you, with my own husband beside me.

When she sneaks into her master’s house, and hides behind a marble column, both hands touching the cold frame, she sees Aristophon, her dear friend, one of her master’s sons, painting on a wooden board in the garden courtyard, with its cream and brown pebbled mosaic floor. Aristophon, the man whose name she whispers at night in her sleep, wishing to share her bed with him, to feel his hands on her breasts, hands that are stained with pigments and powder that are mixed with egg yolk inside an oyster shell, to bind the colourful paints. How she yearns, longing to tell him every day of her true identity, to have him look at her with those cerulean eyes, like he does with the Thasian maidens at festivals that dine with him, who are dressed in silk, one sash fastened to their waist, another under their plump breasts, their heads adorned with wreaths, their bangles and gemstones shining.

Oh how Nesaea wishes to dress like a girl again, wearing these expensive dresses, and her body, oh how lovely and thick and round it will be, plumped with fine slices of fish that are salted with thyme in fig leaves, and sesame-cakes. Aristophon likes wealthy girls, not scrawny girls that bind their breasts with linen, smelling like foul, muddied swines, and diseased pigeons.

I wish you knew, she thinks, then I could kiss you.

She turns away from the column and sneaks past him, entering the slave quarters. None of them are in sight and the room is crammed with four beds, all the coverlets bedraggled. She hurries to her bed, bends down on her knees and searches through Satorneila’s wooden chest. They have to be in here, she thinks, they just have to. As soon as she lifts up a black, tattered dress, she finds the linen rags. Thank you, merciful Zeus, she thinks, standing up and wiping herself clean. She changes into a fresh loincloth and places a rag inside. The bloodied rags are still in her hand.

‘Satorneila!’ someone calls.

Nesaea slams the chest shut. By the gods, no, she thinks, looking around the room to hide herself. But there is no time. Damn the gods, what is she going to do?

‘Satorneila, have you made my oxtail soup?’

The door opens and Nesaea does not move, her body feeling heavy like the stout iron block the slaves hammer metal on.

‘Nireus, what are you doing home so early?’ Aristophon asks, his hand still on the door handle.

I can lie, she thinks, or I can tell him the truth. Perhaps it is time he knew, but what of the master, what will he do? Will Aristophon tell his father; surely he would not do that to me?

‘I…I,’ she says, looking down at the rags in her hand, ‘I had an accident at the workshop.’ She sits down on the bed, touching her chest. Yes, that will have to do.

‘You’re hurt,’ he says, running over to her and bending down on one knee.

Their eyes lock. Nesaea’s heart beats faster, her palms damp. All she wants to do is tell him the truth.

‘Where are you hurt?’ he asks, touching her shoulder, looking at her legs, her hands, her arms, her neck, and her face. ‘Where are you bleeding?

It’s his eyes that torture her, those blue depths weakening her heart. ‘Ari,’ she says, smiling inside, thinking about that sweet name she calls him, and drops the rags and grabs his hand, ‘I need you to listen.’ He squeezes her hand. Please, she thinks, please do not hate me.

‘Did someone at the workshop hurt you,’ he asks, shaking her hand, ‘I will have them removed from the place.’

‘No, no,’ she says, taking his other hand as well, ‘it’s not that.’ She looks down at both of his hands, rubbing her callused thumbs against his smooth skin, her back hunched over like a wilted flower, its petals browned, shrivelled and soft. ‘I…I need to tell you something,’ she chokes. Tucking a short strand of hair behind her ear, she holds both of his hands again in her lap, bringing them close to her mouth to kiss. He smells like olive oil, she thinks, mixed with lemons and yellow yolk. When she looks up, teary, and stares into his eyes, her cheeks reddened, his eyebrows are knotted, his mouth agape. It’s her teary eyes that make him see; she is a girl.

He blinks four times, and jerks away.

‘You lied to me,’ he mutters, letting go of her hands and stepping away from her. He holds his mouth shut and turns away.

‘No, Ari, you need to listen to me,’ she pleads, getting up and grabbing his arm, ‘you need to listen to me.’

He moves away from her, and she clasps both hands to her mouth, sucking in a deep breath. He walks sideways, touching his forehead now as he stares at the ground.

‘You are always keeping secrets from me,’ he says, turning around and looking at her.

Nesaea feels like a wooden spinning top that the gods have unwound, her life unstrung, staggering to its last turnings of hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and prays — please, Hera, oh please, help me.

She opens her eyes, still holding her hands together, and rests them under her chin. ‘I need to protect myself,’ she says, looking at him.

‘You always say that!’

‘I know, Ari, I know, but I did not want to die on the streets.’

‘You should have told me,’ he says, ‘I thought we were like brothers.’

‘How can I be that close to you when I was bought by your father?’ she asks, her eyes tearing again. She thinks about his father hitting her over and over again on the head when she drops a tray of fruit.

Silence. The goddess Hesykhia forbids the branches to sway outside, the birds from warbling, and Nesaea’s mouth to move.

Aristophon clenches his fist. ‘Who are you then? Are you really someone from Abdera?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what is your name?’

Shaking her head, she closes her eyes, her clasped hands in front of her lips now. I want to tell you, she thinks, oh how every night I want to tell you; but you know now. Nothing good will come from this. Nothing.

She opens her eyes and she can see the pain on his face, just like Achilles when he lost his beloved friend, Patroklus. ‘I cannot,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘I cannot tell you.’ She flees from the room and runs into the courtyard.

‘Come back!’ Aristophon shouts.

She ignores him and sprints out of the lion-sized door, never looking back, never wanting to see the pain in Ari’s eyes.

‘Stop!’ he yells, ‘Nireus, come back!’

I cannot, she thinks. Your father will have his way with me now. She keeps running, past the chunky trinketed Thasians, and thin, short-haired slaves holding amphorae and sacks of food. Past the stalls selling corn, wheat, leather and rowlock thongs, jars, and nets of garlic and olives and onions, until she is one in the midst of the sweating crowd at the temple of the god of war, Ares.

Looking around the area, she tries to find a gap to escape through, when she hears a man say, ‘This sacrifice will scare those Athenians away!’

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

Go away, she wants to yell. She pushes past the Thasians, and trips. Wincing, she looks down at her skidded knees, grimy and bloodied. When she looks up, Aristophon sees her. Damn the gods. Her heart pounding, she runs faster and faster, hearing the pan-pipes and reed pipes pierce her ears as people chant to Ares — hail to the spear-wielder! She sees strangers’ blurry faces of toothy grins, bushy eyebrows, and black-pigmented eyes staring at her. She passes cracked buildings and stalls opened with fresh caught tunnies, codfish, and mackerel. Following the cobblestone footpath, she heads to the docks, listening to the shouts and commands by the boatswains, the sounds of sailors hammering in dowels.

‘Nireus, wait!’

She sprints east to the iron mines that she first worked at disguised as a boy, when she was fourteen, before Aristophon found her.

She pants now, each step thudding with the beat in her ears. Twelve fishing boats at the dock are swaying in the breeze. Once she’s in front of the hollow cave, she touches the bronzed and red-tinged edges of the entrance, her eyes catching sight of the layers of smoky iron rocks with their dark raspberry and ebony spirals at the foot of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, Aristophon’s running, his cheeks reddened, his eyes determined like a foot runner returning home with an important message from an enemy. The sky above him is turning grey and cloudy by the Nephelai nymphs; they will soon pour water from their pitchers, casting rain across the land and sea.

Nesaea scurries into the iron mine, her feet slugging through the damp dirt, her legs splotched with mud. There are no oil lamps. If she stays quiet, hidden, Ari will not see her.

Further into the mine, she raises her hands to help her move around, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. When she can walk no longer, scared of losing the light from outside, she turns around and sits down on the ground, the cold dirt freezing her skin. A tiny drop of water drips in the distance. As she huddles her legs and wraps her arms around them, she rests her chin on her knees, staring at the opening of the cave; she listens to the pounding of her heart.

A figure nears the entrance; please go away. Biting down on her lip, she waits. The figure draws near. The body of a man appears, the light from outside framing him.

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

She squeezes her eyes shut, tightening her grip around her legs. A cold breeze blows her hair away from her face, a gasp decamps her lips. Opening her eyes, she watches him.

‘Please come out so we can talk,’ he says, holding the side of his waist, leaning down and panting.

‘I do not want to,’ she says.

‘You can trust me, you know you can. How many times have I helped you?’

Too many times, she thinks. Even when she bought the wrong grapes one day for her master, he went with her back to the agora and showed her the dark purple ones that were prized by his father.

‘Can you at least tell me your real name?’

But that will mean I will never be able to hide again, she thinks. My name is all I have left from my home.

Aristophon leans against the cave entrance. ‘I am not going anywhere until you come out.’

‘I will be cold by sundown,’ she says, letting go of her legs and rubbing her arms now.

‘Well, my dear little friend, that will be your choice,’ he says, folding his arms.

She knows she has to decide whether to tell him the truth, or to get out of the mine and run. But am I done hiding? What is there stopping me?

She leans forward and sees Ari at the entrance smooth back his brown hair from his face and wait. If he has come all this way, she thinks, then he must want to help me. He must care for me.

She stands up now, taking slow steps towards him. She can see it now. Back to the first day she met him. Here. At the iron mines, deep in the tunnels, when he offered her water, that rich, delicate water that quenched her thirst. ‘I am Aristophon,’ he had said.

Out in the open where the wind makes her shiver, he turns and looks at her. This is it.

‘My name is Nesaea,’ she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He ushers for her to come closer, and puts his arm around her. ‘A name of a nymph,’ he says, kissing her forehead, ‘I do not know what I will do without you.’

His words swell her heart, but she sees in the distance a trireme ship sailing towards them with its huge white sails and daunting eyes and its nose slicing through the water. Who are they? How many men are on that ship?

She keeps looking beyond Ari in front of her, her hand on his chest. ‘Can you see them?’ she asks.

‘I see you and only you.’

Thunder cracks in the sky; the rustling breeze is bringing the rain. He needs to look, he needs to see what is approaching us, she thinks.

‘Nesaea, speak to me, my girl of golden hope.’

She looks back at him. ‘My girl of golden hope,’ he called her. I am his golden girl, she thinks.

‘I want to be with you,’ she says.

‘And I want to be with you.’ He touches her hand on his chest. ‘You are special to me like Aphrodite loving Adonis.’

‘What are we going to do? What will your family think of us?’

‘We will leave!’ he says, ‘but I cannot leave the island empty-handed, we must return home.’

‘What if we get caught?’

‘How can we when I have you?’

Men chant nearby and Ari turns around.

In one moment, they see the trireme ship with one-hundred and seventy bronzed armoured men row past them on the rocky hill in front of the iron mine, curving west towards the hub of the city. In one moment, one man raises a shield to the sky, the crest of Medusa with her serpent coiled hair, lolling tongue and sharp fangs stare at them; the Athenians. In one moment, Ari rises from his seat, and that’s when Nesaea sees an archer, pulling his bowstring.

‘Holy Hera, no!’ she shouts, pushing Ari out of the way. The arrow pierces her flesh, blood trickles down her arm. No no no, this cannot be!

‘Hail to Athena!’ the soldiers chant.

Four arrows hit Aristophon in the chest, one after the other; he gasps, grabbing one near his heart. ‘Run!’ Ari shouts, pulling the arrow out, ‘run, Nesaea!’

Her eyes frightened, she’s frozen, staring at him as he pulls the other arrows out. You cannot die, she thinks as the rain begins to fall. ‘I cannot leave you,’ she weeps, touching his shoulder. I cannot abandon you, she thinks. ‘You have to let me help you.’

Blood froths from his mouth. She wipes the sanguine smear from his lips, holding his chin. He clutches her wrist, ‘You run,’ he says, ‘you hear me, you run and live your life.’

More arrows are fired at them and Ari embraces her in his arms, protecting her as the sharp-pointed arrows puncture his legs and arms and back and neck and skull.

You are my girl of golden hope, he had said.

Nesaea holds in her breath, thinking, please do not leave me too, as he stirs in her arms.

 

You came and I was crazy for you, and you cooled my mind that burned with longing. We live, the opposite [lives], daring. Loves new.

— Sappho of Lesvos, Fragments 48, 24A & 59

 

Download a pdf of ‘Golden Drachmas’

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Five Loose Screws, Jamie Derkenne

J.Derkenne_image

Note: do not try any of this at home.

 

As she was leaving my mother handed me an envelope.

‘It has the screws for the bed head in the second bedroom. I’m sure you can do it by yourself. It won’t take you more than five minutes.’

‘I’ll try my best.’

She handed me a screwdriver. ‘I even remembered to bring you the screwdriver,’ she said. ‘I knew you’d insist. Not that you really need one.’

The family holiday house I was staying in and which she was leaving was forty-five minutes by rough road to the nearest town.

This was a remote corner of the world. Police recently caught a murderer whose location they knew, but could never find. He had been on the run for seven years. The terrain was so rugged they could never quite catch up with him. There was a single cable power line that came up the valley. That was it. No phone, no TV, no post, no shops, nothing. Sometimes on a cloudy night you could pick up a radio station broadcasting from Sydney, but there was so much static that you couldn’t really make out what was being said or sung.

My mother drove down the road, her dust cloud slowly settling on the road and verge behind her. I stood on the veranda clutching the envelope of screws, and the small green family screwdriver. I looked at the screwdriver. The shaft was bent.

My mother was the tradesman about the house. ‘My tools are words,’ my father said. ‘If you want something done with a hammer, then you employ a carpenter. I do not expect a carpenter to be able to prepare a brief, and nor should a carpenter expect that I be able to use a hammer.’

But my mother had a different view. Household maintenance could only be a matter of common sense.

Years before, my Woodworking class made plywood puppets. We cut out the shapes using scroll saws. The body and legs were separate. The idea was that the legs would be pinned to the body and by pulling a string, you could make the puppet’s legs dance. Our teacher told us we had to drill the holes and secure the legs for homework.

‘Your dads will help.’

I knew, however, that this was my mother’s territory. ‘It’s just a matter of common sense,’ she said. We took my puppet bits to outside the laundry and lay them down on a saw-horse. The saw-horse had seen better days, and wobbled quite a bit. It was very old. I think it had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I often wondered who had taught her so many practical things. Maybe it had been him. She once told me he had been an accountant. My mother went to the garage and came back with a large electric drill. It was very heavy, like the power tools from the 1940s on display in the Museum of Technology. The casing was made of metal, and the power cord was made from frayed woven fabric.

‘I’ll show you how to use a drill,’ she said. ‘First, we have to use the chuck key and put a drill bit in.’ She looked along the cord. There was a rubber thong which had perhaps once held a chuck key, but the rubber had perished so much that it couldn’t hold anything. There was no chuck key. ‘We can use the screwdriver,’ she said. Using the screwdriver — there was only the one, and it was the same one I was holding in my hand now — as a chuck key was difficult, but she eventually managed to get a drill bit in and the chuck reasonably tight around it. The drill bit looked worn. The tip was polished and rounded. I felt it with the tip of my finger. It felt cold and smooth.

‘You place the drill exactly where you want the hole to go, and then lean into the drill as much as you can, then turn it on. I’ll show you.’ She positioned the drill carefully over the ‘X’ I had marked on the plywood and leant on it with all her weight. The drill made a groaning sound, and the bit started spinning. It didn’t seem to be drilling. The wood started spinning. She stopped and I held the wood in place. We started again.

‘I need to lean in more,’ she said above the din of the drill. Smoke started to rise from the plywood. The drill was screaming. A small flame erupted. My mother stopped and examined her handiwork. There was a slight ebonized indentation where she had been drilling. The drill bit glowed a dull red.

‘Must be hardwood,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should just punch a hole through with a nail. Have you ever used a hammer before?’

I shook my head. I had used a hammer in Woodworking class, but the school hammers, I knew, were not like the household one. The only time I had ever used a hammer like my mother’s was once in Metalwork class.

‘I have the hammer in the kitchen. I’ll go and get it.’ My mother returned with a large rusty hammer and a four-inch nail. The head of the hammer was ball-shaped. The wooden handle had a large split going down the middle. She had got the hammer and nail from the second kitchen drawer, the one she kept the broken carving knives in. The first kitchen drawer was for cutlery. The second was my mother’s toolbox. It was exactly the same arrangement at the holiday house. First drawer for cutlery, second for house maintenance and broken carving knives.

‘The trick with nails is that you give them a few light taps to heat them up, then you bang like fury.’ She showed me how. She tapped lightly on the nail, and then delivered an almighty blow. The nail clanged as it hit the clothesline and there was a clack as bits of hammer handle hit the concrete ground.

‘No problem. I know what to do.’ She hurried off to the kitchen and returned with a lump hammer. The lump hammer also had no handle. I had never seen the lump hammer before, but then the second kitchen drawer was three times as deep as the other drawers.

‘We just grip it like so and hit the nail with it this way.’ She banged the nail a few more times, gripping the lump hammer head in such a way that she could strike the nail with its side. The nail went through the wood. My puppet made a splitting, wood crunching sort of sound. My mother took the nail out and examined the split wood and nail hole.

‘Nothing that can’t be fixed.’

My mother kept a large roll of gaffer tape in the drawer as well. The gaffer tape was an extraordinarily useful tool. She had repaired refrigerator shelves, garden pots and even the garden hose with that gaffer tape. Once she had even done some temporary repairs on a pair of school shoes. She tore a piece of it off with her teeth — the family scissors hadn’t worked properly since the time they had been used as an awl — and smoothed it over the hole.

‘Now it’s your turn.’

I aimed my nail carefully over the mark on the remaining leg and tapped, a bit more tentatively than my mother, as I wasn’t used to using a lump hammer without a handle. My nail went through without incident, but the wood was slighty burred on the other side. After prising the nail out, my mother carefully peeled the wood splinters away from the hole. One splinter kept peeling until it reached the other side of the plywood.

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘You see, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.’

‘Mr Robinson had said we should use brass split pins to join the legs to the body.’

‘I’ve never heard of those. We don’t need to buy expensive complicated dooverlackies. We’ll just use some two-inch nails. It’s so easy. I’ll show you.’

I couldn’t remember Mr Robinson ever saying that split pins were expensive or complicated. My mother lined up a leg hole with a body hole, and tapped a nail through, into the saw horse, so that it was about half-way into the saw-horse wood. She then bashed the top so it was bent over, extricated the nail from the saw-horse, and then did the same on the other side. It worked like a pin, but because of the thickness of the nail, the leg jutted out at a strange angle.

‘What is this?’ Mr Robinson asked holding up my puppet with his thumb and forefinger. He said it with the same tone of voice Mr Rodgers used when handing me my marked Maths papers.

‘It’s my puppet, Sir.’ Someone at the back of the class sniggered. I didn’t come last in the form, though. That position was reserved for Alan Bertwhistle, who had moved interstate half-way through the year, and as a consequence had not done any assessable projects for at least six months. Mr Robinson wrote on my report at the end of the year that ‘James tried his best.’

I watched my mother leave, then folded the envelope, put it in my pocket, and went into the bedroom. I lined up the bed head against the bed. Bed head and bed had been separated some weeks before by my mother so they could be carried up in the trailer. Maybe my mother was right. Maybe it would only be a five minute job. After all, she had managed to get the screws out. How hard could it be to get them back in?

The bed head was attached to the bed with two metal brackets. The idea was that you screwed the metal brackets to the bed head, then screwed the brackets to the bed. Only it hadn’t been done that way. Whoever had assembled the bed head and bed in the first place had screwed the brackets onto the bed first, so that the only way of screwing the bed head on was to guess where the metal holes of the bracket were from the other side of the bed head. There should have been six holes, but there were in fact thirteen, as many of the holes hadn’t quite lined up with the bracket holes. Seven of the holes were near misses.

The obvious solution was to unscrew the brackets from the bed, but they were firmly screwed in with three large slotted flat-head screws on each bracket. There were no screwdrivers except the one my mother had given me, which was small and bent. However, my mother had years before showed me a practical solution to this very problem: carving knives.

I was taught how to use carving knives as screwdrivers when she showed me how to do my own electrical repairs.

‘The trick with electrical repairs,’ my mother said, while carefully using the tip of the carving knife to unscrew a little brass screw that held two wires together, ‘is to make sure the colours are the same. If you have a red wire, you should always make sure it connects to another red wire. Same for green, same for black. It’s that easy. And to think some people pay electricians for this.’

We had to wait until my father was out of the house before we started the project. That very morning he had pleaded — begged — with her to hire an electrician. She had agreed, but now that he was out of the house, she had changed her mind. My mother had never hired an electrician, ever.

We were wiring in a new light fitting, one that terminated in two halogen lamps. She had bought it on special at Ikea for just a few dollars — there was a discount on the discount when she had complained there was a dent in the packaging. She unwrapped it and looked at the wires. There was a blue one, a brown one and a red one. She looked at those, and looked at the black, red and green wires from the old fitting.

‘Hmm. Looks like they got the colours wrong,’ she said.

‘Maybe they just changed them,’ I said.

It was all a bit complicated, because in the old fitting there were two blacks and two reds. She hadn’t been expecting that. The two black wires were together, but the two red ones were in different sockets.

‘I suppose brown means red. Maybe they ran out of the proper coloured wires,’ she said. ‘That means blue means black and green is of course green.’

‘This may look complicated to you, but it isn’t really,’ she continued. ‘All we need to do is wire up the new fitting the same as the old fitting. We’ll draw a diagram so we won’t forget. You should always draw a diagram or make notes if you have any doubts.’

She drew a diagram and on it with her unique handwriting labelled each wire so we could tell what colour it was and what slot it belonged to, guessing at its colour equivalent. Red and brown seemed reasonable. I wasn’t too sure about black and blue. The blue was a vivid blue. Almost an electric blue. She put Gr for Green, Bl for Blue, Br for brown and Bk for black.

She then got the carving knife, and using the very tip, loosened the little brass screws that held the wires in place on the old and new fittings, prising the wires out. We then looked at the diagram for guidance.

All her life my mother had writing and reading issues. If she was growing up now she would have been diagnosed as dyslexic, but she was just told she was stupid. In order to cover up the fact she had trouble writing words, she invented a spidery curly script where one letter was almost indecipherable from another. She perhaps worked on the theory that people would spend so much time working out what the writing said that they’d forget about the spelling. In my adult life I have received perhaps six or seven letters from my mother. I’ve never been entirely sure what any of them said.

I looked at the diagram with its Bk, Bl and Br annotations. I could make out the B, but wasn’t sure if the next letter squiggle represented any letter in particular.

‘Is that a Br or a Bl?’ I said, pointing to the diagram.

‘Bk. Definitely a Bk. This digital age. My own child can’t read his mother’s handwriting.’

Using the carving knife, my mother started tightening the screws. The tip snapped.

‘Get me another knife will you?’ she asked, handing me the broken carving knife. I went to the kitchen and put the carving knife with the others in the second drawer next to the gaffing tape. I took a new one out of the top drawer. My mother bought carving knives six at a time from St Vincent De Paul for 50 cents each. She preferred the long thin ones with the bone handles, because they were good for getting bits out of toasters.

After she finished the wiring, my mother asked me to screw the fixture to the ceiling.

‘Shouldn’t we test it first?’ I asked. She agreed that it was probably a good idea. I went outside and turned the power back on. I came inside, and on her nod, turned on the light switch. There was a loud pop as one of the bulbs exploded. The rest of the lights in the hallway remained dark. Now none of the lights worked.

‘Maybe it was Bl after all,’ my mother said, frowning.

‘It’s the fuse,’ I said. I knew how to mend fuses. My mother had taught me. Our fuse box was the old fashioned type, the ones with the ceramic insulators and a little bit of fuse wire. The power company had once offered to update the fuse box to something more modern and safer for a nominal fee, but my mother had declined, saying their bills were too expensive, and they weren’t going to get yet more money out of her. I went outside with a fresh carving knife, and turned the power off. I took the fuse out and examined it. The wire had melted clean through, which was surprising because my mother never used a single strand of fuse wire.

‘It’s cheap nasty stuff. You need to twist at least four or five strands together for the wire to last,’ she had once said.

I fixed the fuse, using just a single strand, and leaving the power off I returned inside. I was deep in thought. I was trying to do a mental calculation. There were five sockets in the new light fitting, and five wires that had to meet three wires, two of completely different colours to the old wiring. How many permutations, would that be, mathematically speaking, before we had gone through every possibility? I couldn’t work it out. I wasn’t any good at maths. I suspected the answer was ‘lots’.

Which brings me back to the lots of screw holes in the bed head. Armed with a carving knife, I inserted the back of the blade into a screw slot and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. I looked at the screw. It had a fine brown layer of rust on it, almost indistinguishable from the shellac veneer on the wood. This was an old bed. On a lacquered paper plate next to the bracket were the words ‘HS Joyner and Sons, 132 Lambton Road Broadmeadow,’ and then the letters ‘TEL’ and then a four digit number. I never knew that phone numbers once only had four digits.

I wasn’t going to shift the screws in a hurry. The next best thing was to line up the bed head and guess which of the thirteen holes my five screws were supposed to go in. I lined up the bed head as best I could, and opened the envelope. Inside were five loose screws. I looked at them carefully for at least a minute or two, turning them over in my palm one by one.

The screws were amazing. In a way, they were a testament to the ingenuity of man. Each and every one of them was as different to the other four as a screw can be from another screw, and still be called a screw.

The first one had a brassy look and a wide flat slot head. It was about an inch long. Screw number two had a small rounded silver star head, and a thread that looked like it had been originally used to screw two bits of metal together. Number three was rusty, and the same sort as the screws on the bracket that I couldn’t shift with my carving knife. It perhaps had been an original part of the bed. Number four was much the same, except it had a round head and a bent shaft. Someone had tried to straighten out the shaft at some stage by hitting it with something heavy. The threads were all mashed on one side. Whoever had tried to straighten this screw hadn’t succeeded, but had, from the state of the screw, delivered some forceful blows in the attempt. The last screw was black, and had a wide thread, the sort you get for particle board screws, and had an Ikea key head. It was one of the many screws my mother had kept as left over bits and pieces from Ikea projects. My mother loved Ikea furniture, because you could assemble it yourself. She never followed directions which were always printed on a large sheet of paper using graphics and as few words as possible, probably in deference to the fact the Ikea furniture is international furniture. She always preferred to work things out for herself. Had she been asked why, she probably would have said following instructions was somehow cheating. She always managed to assemble the pieces of furniture, but often had bits and pieces left over, which she attributed to careless packing. What hardware we possessed in our house, we possessed because of St Vincent De Paul and Ikea’s careless packing.

I started with the Ikea screw first. The holiday house was practically bereft of tools, but did have a huge assortment of Ikea hexagonal keys. My mother kept them in an old coffee tin in the shed. There were maybe fifty or sixty Ikea keys in that tin. It took me a while to find the right one, and a bit of jigging around to find the right hole, but eventually I got the screw in. From the four remaining screws I took out what looked like the sturdiest, and using my crooked screwdriver, screwed it in. This was hard work. Screwing in a rusty screw with a short bent screwdriver into what may or may not be the correct hole requires patience, considerable strength and callused hands. I had none of these qualities. I blistered the palm of my hand on the screwdriver handle getting that screw in. But now I had one screw either side, and a bed head that was precariously attached to the bed. I had three screws left.

Wondering vaguely whatever had happened to the sixth screw (it definitely hadn’t been in the envelope), I tackled screw number three. It was too tough for the screwdriver, so I resorted to the carving knife. I had it almost all the way in before the carving knife snapped. Carving knives weren’t going to work on this screw. I needed a proper screwdriver, but how?

I remembered I had a little toolkit in my car, under the back seat. It had a tyre jack, and a tool for levering off the hub caps and undoing the tyre bolts. The lever bit looked like it doubled as a giant screwdriver, maybe the sort you need for tinkering with the engine. I found the tool kit, a black leather satchel and took out the tool. It was about 15 inches long, and did indeed have a screwdriver end. A massive screwdriver end. The sort you would use for maybe taking screws out of an engine block. I took it inside and tried to turn a screw with it. The screwdriver wouldn’t fit into the screw slot. It was too big. Maybe, I thought, I could use a hammer, forcing the head into the slot. I didn’t have a hammer, of course, but there was a fist-sized lump of quartz by the back door. I took that and hammered the tyre tool onto the screw head. After about three minutes of repeated blows the screw head fell off. It took with it the piece of screw sticking out of the wood. That would do for that one.

The next two were relatively easy. The fourth one went in so easily that I could push it in and out with my fingers. I thought this might be a problem, and decided to pack out the hole with sawdust and wood glue, a handyman trick my mother had taught me. For some reason there were several small piles of very fine sawdust underneath the bed head. I have no idea where they had come from, as I certainly hadn’t done any sawing. I went to the kitchen drawer where I knew lay a small bottle of wood glue. It had been in that drawer since we first bought the holiday house, about twenty-five years ago. My mother had used it to repair some plastic wall power plugs, and it had lain there since. It took me a while to get the cap off the plastic bottle. The top half was watery, like thin milk. But the glue underneath seemed good. I mixed up a sturdy putty, and using my fingers, crammed it into the hole, and pushed the screw back in. I imagined that in a few hours it would set like concrete.

Concrete, by the way, is a great way of repairing outdoor furniture. My parents once had western red cedar chairs and a small outdoor table that they didn’t look after very well. After some years, the chairs has such deep weathered grooves in them that sitting was uncomfortable. My mother smoothed over the wood with a ferro-cement mix, and they were as good as new. Or they would have been as good as new if my father hadn’t chucked them out sometime over the next few days. My father, without permission or a by-your-leave from anyone, went out and bought a whole new set, taking the old one to the dump by himself. We only found out several days later. My mother was very cross about it, and would still get cross just remembering the incident.

‘For God’s sake Elaine,’ my father would say, his voice straining with exasperation and carefully enunciating each syllable so it was a rifle shot, ‘Why can’t you just go and spend some money instead of trying to fix everything yourself?’

‘At the very least, he could have waited until I got the screws out of the chairs. We might have been able to use them. Completely wasteful,’ she had said.

By the time I got the last screw in, it was dark. It had taken me about four hours to do the job, but I had done it despite a dearth of tools, and a complete unconformity with the screws. I lay down on the bed, my back leaning on a cushion against the bed head. It felt good, sturdy. The kind of bed head you could rely on.

My father’s favourite tune was a song that has many names. He called it ‘Waly Waly’. He’d sing it when he was happy, but it was a sad song. It had a stanza that went something like:

I leaned my back against an oak

Thinking it was a mighty tree

But first it bent, and then it broke

So did my love prove false to me.

I often sing that song inside my head when I’m feeling good about something, when I feel I have accomplished something. Today I had accomplished something. I had, despite the various difficulties, put the bed head back on the bed, without even losing my temper, much.

I knew my mother’s handyman hints were wrong, and that things would have been a lot easier had I bought myself a tool set. But I hadn’t. I should have expected my mother would have some project planned for me. And now, in an isolated cottage I had had to resort to my own ingenuity, meaning the things my mother had taught me. It’s funny how we fall back on doing things because we are used to doing them, not because it makes any sense.

Of course the bed head snapped. Deep down I sort of guessed it would. I didn’t know it would snap exactly, but I knew something would go wrong. I thought maybe my mother would change her mind, and buy a new bed head, or a complete bed ensemble. That was unlikely. Maybe it would catch fire, like the transistor radio she fixed when I was thirteen. But I knew a bed head could not have an electrical fault, and my father had long ago put a complete ban on electric blankets. It was stupid to imagine the bed head could catch fire. Maybe someone would steal the bed head. I tried to imagine someone stealing the bed head. Why would they do that? But then, why did my mother keep all those broken carving knives?

‘Snapped’ is perhaps too strong a word for what the bed head did. ‘Disintegrated’ might be a better way of putting it. I was leaning against it, thinking my thoughts, when it fell into several bits. I got off the bed and examined one of the bits. Where it had broken, the bare blonde timber showed. It was riddled with little holes, and covered with a fine dry powder. In one of the holes I could just make out something moving, like a beetle.

The pieces of wood came away easily from the screws. There was only four of them sticking out, as the one I had wood-glued had fallen out completely. I decided to let them be. I gathered up the bits of wood and took them to the stove to start a fire. Now that the sun had set, it was getting cold. All I had to do was put a match to the bits, as between the dry wood, the little holes, and the ancient shellac, it roared into flame. It was a bed head that was meant for burning. At least I was doing something useful with the wood. My mother would approve.

 

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