Tag Archives: ambiguity

Succour, Michael Moriarty

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My front door shut behind me and I stomped down to my Commodore in the driveway. Ignition roaring, I swore under my breath. The world could burn.

I reversed out, changed gears and floored it along my tree-lined suburban street. It was 8 am.

Breaking hard, I swerved to the gutter. “Need music,” I muttered. Grabbing my phone, I scrolled through the albums. Nothing would contain the irrational fury seething inside. The image of shrouded Death destroying worlds pricked my attention. Blast beats and down-tuned guitars screamed from the speakers as I accelerated away.

Weeks of sleepless nights weighed darkly beneath my eyes. My unironed shirt stank of yesterday’s sweat. I was late for work. Exiting my suburb at high speed, I cut off a sedentary Camry.

Joining the main road, I gunned my family sedan up to eighty. Driven by death metal I wanted speed, but cops were about. Last thing I needed was a fine. What would I tell my wife?

Into a school zone I quickly decelerated to forty. Forget the fine, the last thing I needed was a child’s death on my hands. The thought of a crushed skull crashed through my head. “Too much,” I growled, quitting the death metal.

In the silence my anger rose. What a chaotic morning. No breakfast. No caffeine. No sense of perspective beyond my exhausted brain.

Past the school zone peak hour traffic backed up. I missed an orange light after the car in front broke early. “Learn to drive,” I yelled.

I had been up with my girl three times during the night. Her little screams were only silenced with milk.

“Fuck you!” I bellowed as a hatchback swerved through a roundabout and cut me off. My middle finger instinctually saluted the other driver. I followed the hatch, but it screeched to a halt, causing me to stop dead. Hatred flared through my blaring horn. The hatch sped off and I fired the engine to give chase.

Yet, something brought me pause. I relented and drove away. Who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t.

Traffic seethed around me. Trucks got in the way. Arseholes broke road rules. Every red light had my name on it.

Finally, near work, a traffic jam.

“What the hell?” I shouted, beeping. “Go! Go!”

Music! Electronica drone washed through the car, settling my brainwaves.

My baby girl swam into focus. I didn’t sign up for this. I’m too old to do this again.

The cars before me crawled along.

It was a surprise when my wife fell pregnant. I hadn’t considered it. Now, endless nights demolished my sanity. Stuck in the burbs, married with children, rushing to a soulless job, I wasted my life alongside a coterie of morons. “Priceless.”

Reaching the start of the traffic jam, I rolled through the intersection.

An ambulance, lights flashing.

Lifeless on the asphalt, a pedestrian.

Nearby, a small car, its bonnet crumpled.

I grimaced, suddenly sober. “It can always be worse.”

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The Mystery, Lauren Ford

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It was simple enough: click on the link, pay the money, and wait for the package to arrive. There was mild suspense: what would the documents reveal? What deep, dark secrets was the government releasing? Would I finally discover that my grandfather was a post-World War II Soviet spy who had generously been given asylum in this distant, exotic, desert land?

One week passed and my suspense waned with the days, but my imagination scuttled under the dull, energy-efficient light of my slapdash dining table desk. I was picturing an awkward, middle-aged, cardigan-wearing government employee slowly foraging through a large X-Files warehouse of boxed files.

Weeks meandered by, and I had almost forgotten about the whole order until a deadline popped up on my screen reminding me to submit my latest poetry drafts to my supervisor. I had nothing more to write; my poetry was merely outlining the mundane, predictable details of my grandfather’s blotchy journey through Europe in the late 40s before suddenly disembarking a boat in Sydney in 1950. There was no depth, conflict, intrigue. Maybe I had to make it all up; it was only poetry, after all.

Now I was torn between fantasy and bureaucratic reality: were they debating whether these files were safe enough to be dispersed into the public netherworld? Or was it simply a matter of my order (which email confirmations and bank debits assured me had been received), sitting somewhere in the midst of a pile on some underpaid employee’s—or worse still, work experience teen’s—cheap Office Works desk tray.

The former was undoubtedly more glamorous, but I had to admit that the latter was a whole lot more realistic. So, I continued to wait, trudging on through the muddy waters of my grandfather’s story and producing substandard poetry about this mysterious, unknown figure.

And then finally, the documents arrived. There were four in total, which confused me somewhat, since I had only ordered two, but I quickly realised they had sent each email twice. It was unromantic, really, to receive the secrets as a set of auto-generated, accidentally duplicated emails.

The first set was uninspiring: his arrival date, boring employment papers, and a mildly thrilling passing reference to him breaching some regulation by not telling the government in a timely enough manner when he married my grandmother. I couldn’t think why this could possibly have been sealed for so long.

The second set began with an official letter stating they were sensitive regarding the security of the Commonwealth. My excitement burned as I wriggled further into my cold, metal, pale green IKEA chair and readied myself for the Great Revelation.

It started harmlessly enough: a letter from my grandfather requesting his naturalisation certificate. And then nothing. Thirty pages of documents about another Romanian-Hungarian with exactly the same name, who had arrived in Sydney 5 months earlier and ended up at the same migrant hostel in Orange, before settling in Queensland. I sighed. This journey through history was taking me backwards.

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Blue, Georgia Buley

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The following is a true story. It happened to me, only a few weeks ago. Even now, it feels fake, like I’m rewriting a dream someone told me years and years ago.

I work in a hotel in the CBD. Though there’s plenty of spooky stories attached to it – it used to be a children’s hospital, and the Housekeeping staff swear six ways to Sunday that the morgue we turned into a storage room is haunted by the ghosts of dead children – nothing really properly frightening has happened to me. I love scary stories. Cryptids, unsolved mysteries, all that Bermuda triangle kinda stuff. I’d have loved for some creepy ghost to come flying at me in the corridors of our back-of-house. But this is different. This is truly just… unsettling.

I work nights but my shift ends closer to dawn, so I still have the pleasure of checking out some of the early risers as they come down for breakfast, or to catch an early flight. It was a Monday morning, busy: all the corporate-types were on their way out. Down come four people who hop into line in front of me. I’m on my own, but they’re understanding, and the process is pretty streamlined so the wait’s not too bad. First a lady with peroxide blonde hair, then a businesswoman in a real snappy pantsuit. No problems. Then there’s a man with a scruffy white beard and the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I remember those eyes the most. They felt like they cut through you, those eyes.

Our system has a timer on it, which logs out a user after a short amount of time spent inactive. I’d been distracted: his conversation was a nice change of pace. By the time he’d left, the system had logged itself out, and I lost the billing screen I’d had up to process his charges. I checked out the last person in line, and then open up the bearded man’s room number again.

Error.

The room number, the surname, all details I remember clearly are all showing up with errors. There is, nor never has been, someone staying in our hotel with those details. But I have the room number and the name – 1502, Fenris – written down on my notepad. I know I’m not misremembering, because those words are there. I wrote them.

I went through an hour’s worth of security footage, painstakingly moving the cursor through each frame, but he wasn’t there. There was the lady with the blonde hair, there was the businesswoman, and there was– the last guest I checked out. No time skip, no gap, nothing. Just my flawed memory of a man who didn’t exist.

Even now, when I think about it, he seems faint, like drawing his face back to mind is a strain. I’m sure in a few weeks I won’t even be able to remember what he looked like. But those eyes… those piercing blue eyes. I’ll remember those forever.

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The Free Runner, Eva Matheson

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Every teenager in my school wants to be a Free Runner. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, or they want the money that comes with the title, or both.  Everyone, that is, except for me.

“Move Cassie!” Mr Downs is yelling at me again.

I glance down to where he stands on the stadium sidelines. He stares with a thin smile. He looks brown and shrunken, like a small cooked chicken. I guess that’s from spending his days bullying students in this obstacle course. My chest is aching, and I’m holding my breath so tight it hurts. My face is hot. I grip the baton tighter in my hand because I know his yelling will draw more attention. Mr Downs is one sadistic bastard. He set the game at level 4 at exactly my turn. He’s the kind of person that could drown fluffy kittens. Level 4 is the second hardest parkour course, with an extensive range of death drops.

I know exactly what Mr Downs is doing. He’s setting me up to fail. He wants to make an example of what happens to the weak minded. I know this because he’s done this to me before. Another girl from class, Ivy, stands on a platform on the other side of the gap. I’m supposed to pass her my baton. She’ll take it and do her part of the course and then pass it on to Johnny. He’s watching me with a finger inside his nose and a bland expression. He’s been waiting longer than I realised. Ivy’s face, on the other hand, is seething with irritation.

“Stop being such an attention seeker Cassie, just run and jump! It’s not rocket science!” Ivy hisses.

Attention. That was the last thing I wanted. I rock my weight back and forth. Breathe, calm down. Just. Do it. I lean forward, and then I stumble and stop.

“This is your last chance, Cassie! Move it, or else!” Barks Mr Downs.

I know what that means. He’ll move the setting up to Level 5, and that will add another metre to the width of the death drop. If he does that, I may as well flop off the edge and dangle in my harness, like a big baby. Students are watching, I can see faces popping up at the windows everywhere. Even a few teachers coming to see the Cassie show. I want to lie down on the steel and melt. The students in my class start to chant my name and clap their left hand against their right shoulder. It’s not friendly, it’s just a stadium chant at a real Free Runner race. A droning sound of unity. Slowly at first then faster and louder. Soon they’re all doing it, below me, behind the glass windows.

Provoke the Free Runner, encourage their Hunter. Mess with their heads.

Fall. Fall. Fall.

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The Turtle and the Knife, Bruce Cherry

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Sunlight rakes the kitchen as I wash leftover hummus bowls and glasses of flat beer tails. My head hurts.

Tapping sounds from the balcony. Peter is out there, smoking.

I know he’s upset, but today I don’t have anything for him. I am hung-over.

The glasses are lemon fresh and I am rinsing suds from our big kitchen knife when the tapping becomes a thudding. Peter is kicking the makeshift balcony table. I wash a ladle. I am scrubbing a plate when the balcony door bangs open.

‘Stop. Making. Noise.’

His voice is different.

I freeze. The plate in my hand drips into the sink.

He is having an episode.

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Okay, Peter. It’s me, Martin.’

I slide the plate into the dish rack.

‘Stop.

Making.

Noise.’

He steps towards me. I glance at the axe we have hanging on the kitchen wall, in case the Mahabharat raid us and we need to smash the hard-drives.

‘Okay,’ I say.

I back towards the lounge room door. I wonder where Donatello is.

Donatello is a turtle a friend gave us. Donatello gets more kicks than she should because we let her roam the apartment. I do not want to step on her. I watch Peter.

‘STOP MAKING NOISE!’ shouts Peter and grabs the big kitchen knife from the dish rack. It flashes in the sunlight. This is like a film, I think, then I’m ducking backwards as Peter takes a swipe at me with the knife. I stumble into the lounge room and around the table I built a few months ago.

Peter follows me, shouting. He’s speaking his own language and I can’t understand any of it. My eyes are on the knife, but as I’m backing away I’m trying to scan the ground at my feet. Where is Donatello?

Peter comes for me.

We circle the table like a nursery rhyme. I am in my head and out of it, wondering where the damned turtle is, how to get the knife. I grab one of the couch cushions and we do another lap of the table.

There! Donatello is scooting out from under the bench. If we do another round of the table one of us is going to step on her. I make a break for my room.

Bad idea. A dead end, except for the second storey window.

Peter rages through my door, knife first, and I bring the cushion down on it.

We scuffle.

I am much bigger than Peter. I wrestle him onto my bed and I hold him down as gently as I can while I say, ‘I am Martin. You are Peter. You are gentle. You are kind,’ over and over.

He fights me but then he sobs once and is suddenly asleep. I collapse on him.

Donatello pushes her arduous way into my room. I watch her until she disappears under my bed.

Beneath me, Peter stirs.

‘Mama?’ he asks.

‘Yes, mama is here,’ I say.

We cry.

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Incident at Sushin, Tara Roberts

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For the last two years of high school, my friends and I frequented our local strip mall sushi joint. We adored Sushin (a straightforward name that fit its suburban simplicity). In Murfreesboro, our town in the middle of Tennessee, eating sushi granted us a rare degree of sophistication—or so we believed. We loved the crunchy shrimp rolls and the chicken teriyaki. But most of all, we loved that we could munch on them while inhaling Marlboro Lights in the smoking section.

One Wednesday, I cruised to Sushin with my friend Sarah in my car’s passenger seat. I’d been driving for six months, and my Mitsubishi Eclipse was the center of my world. I must have gotten distracted dancing to the hip-hop we were bumping, because I nearly missed the turn and had to jerk the steering wheel hard to swerve into the entrance. It was a mistake. The Eclipse slammed into a thick wooden post supporting a mailbox. With a sickening crunch, the wood splintered and the mailbox plummeted.

‘Oh my God.’ My fingers trembled as I twisted the volume dial down. Tears filled my eyes. I’d wrecked my car and obliterated Sushin’s mailbox.

They would ban me for life.

How much would it cost?

My parents were going to kill me.

‘Should we leave?’ Sarah whispered. Amidst the panic, her loyalty touched me.

I eyed the glass door of the restaurant. Somehow, the crash hadn’t brought any employees outside. Still, I shook my head solemnly. ‘I have to tell them.’ I don’t know where the conviction came from.

The tremble had worked its way through my body so my limbs were quivering. I backed the car from the wreckage and moved it to a parking space, then sprang from my seat to see the damage. Unfathomably, maybe magically, there was none. My car was in perfect condition.

However, the magic didn’t extend to the mailbox. The wooden post was severed. It was time to confess my crime. Summoning my courage, I squared my shoulders and went inside.

The hostess stood behind a cash register and a bowl of ginger candies.

Breathlessly I blurted out what had happened. Wide-eyed, she ran to the back to get the owner while Sarah went to our friends’ table to explain. After a moment, the owner emerged: a suspicious-looking middle-aged Japanese man. I repeated my story.

Wordlessly, he walked outside to examine the damage. I followed. For a long time he stood with his back to me, hands on his hips, and took in the carnage. I awaited my fate.

Finally he faced me.

‘Thank you!’ He threw his arms out wide as his lips stretched into a grateful grin.

I watched him, bewildered.

‘What?’

‘We’ve wanted to knock that down for a long time, but it’s too big. You did it! Thank you!’

I stared in disbelief. ‘Really?’

‘Yes, really!’ Sunnily, he turned and sauntered back into his restaurant.

After a minute, I followed. I needed a crunchy shrimp roll and a cigarette, stat.

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A Nudge in the Night, Bohdi Byles

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A ghost tour at a gaol, and my friend and I would be sleeping overnight in the cells. I could finally tell people I had slept in a prison.

The tour was interesting, and a little bit creepy. The tour guide had actually been a prison guard back in the day, so he was telling us the graphic stories of murders in the showers with sharpened toothbrushes, and riots in the courtyard with people having their everything broken.

When we stopped at the prison cells for us brave souls to be locked in for the night, he pointed at the cell next to the one I was sleeping in.

“Someone hanged themselves in there,” the tour guide said with a shrug. “I don’t believe in ghost stories because I still have to patrol these grounds at night, but have fun.”

The most unnerving thing was the writing on the wall.

Of all the things I’ve lost.

I miss my mind the most.

“Oh, and one last thing,” the guide said, resting against the huge cell door. “These doors are very heavy so be careful opening and closing them. I saw someone’s fingers get chopped off from the door slamming on them.”

Once he’d left, we laid down to sleep. We were going to be sleeping on air mattresses on the cell floor, no pillows, and no blankets. When lights went out, they really went out; I couldn’t see anything at all. I rolled over and curled up into a ball, my usual sleeping pose, and closed my eyes, the stories of the nights swirling through my mind.

Twenty minutes later was when it began.

Nudge, nudge.

It was like someone was pressing into the foot of the mattress, and I could feel myself rising and falling. My heart began to thump just a little bit faster, but I ignored it. But there it was again and again.

“What do you want? Just stop it!” I sat up in bed and glared at my friend, only to realise she was snoring and facing the cell wall.

When my head was back on the mattress, it started up again.

Nudge, nudge.

A gut feeling sank through my whole body, and I clenched my eyes shut. Something inside, whether it was divine guidance, intuition, or just pure anxiety, was telling me not to open my eyes or look at the foot of the bed.

Nudge, nudge.

Horrific images were flooding my mind, the most poignant being a man hanging from the ceiling in the cell next door. He was swinging back and forth like a pendulum, threatening to fall. And all I could hear was that message from the wall.

Of all the things I’ve lost.

I miss my mind the most.

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The Memory, Melissa Farrell

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I have this early memory of my mother. We’re in the house where we lived for a couple of months before we moved to Italy, while my father was in Naples organising our new home. I must have been two years old because I turned three soon after we moved. This memory is like looking through a lens that won’t quite focus. I’m sitting on a blanket. There is some sort of pattern to it, but I can’t quite make out the detail. A collection of soft toys lies beside me. One might be a rabbit. I’m looking out through the bars of a wooden cot. My mother and a man. Sitting close together on a couch. Murmurs that don’t take quite take the shape of words. My mother stands. Leans down and kisses my forehead. Then she and the man disappear down a set of stairs into a darkness below. That’s it. That’s the memory.

We were in Italy for three years. My father had an engineering contract in Naples. I have some memories from our time there but they’re of moments lying outside the context of the larger world: sipping a sour orange soft drink from a thick glass bottle, riding in the back of a car through honking traffic, walking through an endless space while clutching my father’s hand as we gaze at paintings on the walls.

My sister, Anna, was born in Italy. She was born several months after we arrived. She was a chubby white baby who our Italian nanny would bath outside in a big wooden barrel. The nanny’s name was Giulia and she could only speak a few words in English. She taught me to speak Italian. I’ve forgotten the language over the years since we returned to Australia, having nobody to speak Italian with. I can remember stories Giulia told me, long stories about strange creatures who lived in magical forests. She must have told me these stories in Italian, but I remember them in English.

We have photographs from our time in Italy. Black and white ones. There are lots of my sister and me. Even in tones of black and white you can see my olive skin, inherited from our father’s side of the family and further deepened by the southern Italian sun, in contrast to my sister’s pale skin that would turn red but never seemed to hold a tan.

I watch now as my sister passes her new son to our father. Our mother stands by his side. I can smell the brandy in the morning coffee she holds tightly. He carefully takes the baby and leans down to kiss him on the forehead. The baby has my sister’s pale skin and a soft white fuzz on top of his head. My sister’s smile is wide as she watches our father with his first grandchild. I pull out my phone and take some photographs. It’s time to create new memories.

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Legs Off An Ant, Lachlan Marnoch

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I remember that when I was little, maybe three or four, I found an ant in our bathroom. Because I was still a cruel, insensitive child with no understanding of empathy, I proceeded to pull all six of its legs off, one by one.

I can’t remember whether my mother caught me or whether I actually took it to show her, git that I was, but either way she was very angry at me. She told me to think about how that would feel for the ant. And at that point, I had this epiphany, as though her words unlocked some door in me: this was a living, feeling creature in my hand, no different from me. I felt terrible. Probably not as bad as the ant, though.

It worked, apparently, because later I found a dead fly on our windowsill. This made me sad. I knew by then that you buried people after they died – to me there seemed no reason that insects should not be afforded the same honour. I picked it up and asked Mum if I should give it a little hexapod funeral.

She gave me a funny look and said I could if I really wanted to, but I had to wash my hands afterward. I took the tiny carcass into the front yard, scooped out a little hole in the dry soil, and buried the fly. None of its family or friends made an appearance.

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Speaking Plainly, K.J. West

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What you need to understand is how much pressure a teacher is under. Especially a younger teacher. I’d gained my position through an interview with three middle-aged teaching executives; women whose disinterest seemed to compound with each stare over their outdated glasses. So I exaggerated. I told them something to make them lean forward and stop writing their notes on me. I claimed to be a state runner-up in a prominent public speaking competition.

It was a safe bet. A winner of a state-wide competition could be found online, but the runner-up only featured in blurry photographs. I could have been any mousy-haired student stuffed into an ill-fitting school jacket in those pictures. I’d only ever got through a local final once, but I knew my stuff. So I promised them a champion. They’d offered me the position the next day.

So really, I had to do it. I needed a winner, and though I’d advertised the practices to the shuffling masses at assemblies throughout the summer, the only child who was left by winter was a nondescript senior student.

It was the student’s idea, to write her speech on cultural appropriation and how unfair it was. She had a passion for the subject and when she started arguing it, the flush rising up her olive skin was convincing. So we wrote it. Mostly her, of course, that’s the rules. But I did think of an engaging opening for her, and I’d given her some quotes and data to use, and suggested some anecdotes, and I had changed her ending because it wasn’t working. But it was her speech.

But we needed something more. I asked casually one day for a picture of her parents, wondering if we couldn’t find a more personal connection to the subject, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, they were just as uninteresting and mousy-haired as me. Her olive skin had to be a throwback to some distant ancestor.

Nevertheless, I convinced her to start using some personal pronouns in her speech. “You are insulting my ancestors,” she practiced, “my heritage, my people.” It wasn’t enough.

I found the answer next door, as it happens. I had known Simrit Kaur for years, and I often minded her kids in the holidays, so she was happy to help. Getting her to ditch her jeans and put on the worn sari from the drama department’s wardrobe took more convincing. But it was worth it.

I didn’t sit her in the front row, of course. I sat her right in front of the adjudicator, in the back. Simrit really acted the part, taping the whole speech on her phone and cheering loudly. We probably would have won anyway, but it certainly helped our credibility.

Unfortunately, when the adjudicator mentioned her mother later, the student realised what we’d done. Misconduct, they called it, when the executives called me in. I just don’t think they ever understood the pressure that I felt.

 

This author has decided to publish under the pseudonym K.J. West

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