Tag Archives: Australian fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Almost seven!’ Cole shot back.

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

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

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

‘What was that?’ Cole asked.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nineteen?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Safe? From what?’

Parker wracked his brain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

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

‘Where’s Old Man Peter?’

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

‘You were right, Cole.’

‘What?’

‘It’s Martians. They’ve taken him.’

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Intro to House-Ape Studies, Lachlan Marnoch

The spring sun was warm and the breeze carried a staccato orchestra of bird-sounds. Ardi and Selam were strolling to their lesson. The trees lining the path—host to a flock of foraging bush-parrots—oozed a delicious, fresh-leaved scent. Ardi reached over with her trunk and tore off a strip of bark. She chewed it slowly, relishing the sharp flavour.

Ardi and Selam lumbered towards the Lithium Building, joining the stream of mrithi. The stream thickened into a river, and filled the air with the mixed grumble of a student body. Mrithi from across the world thronged about them chatting, holding trunks, chewing stim-beans and charging to class, their heavy gait muffled by the springy turf. Further down by the lake, a female offered herself to a bull, who reared up behind on broad pillar-like legs to accept her offer.

‘Where are we going? Isn’t it in Lithium?’ Selam asked.

Ardi waved her trunk to signal ‘no’, replying:

‘Oestrus is scrambling your brain. The lecture’s in Argon.’

‘You didn’t tell me that,’ Seram moaned. ‘I never would’ve signed up.’

‘You got the same timetable I did. Not my fault you didn’t read it.’

‘I don’t have time to read.’

‘You’re a student.’

‘Exactly! Oh my god, look at those tusks,’ Selam gasped. A huge bull, with two overgrown prongs of ivory jutting past his trunk, was sauntering towards them. Selam lengthened her gait and raised her head.

Ardi gave her trunk an irritated flick. This was shaping up to be Selam’s third bull in four days. Okay, so if Ardi was in oestrus she’d be the one flirting outrageously. But still.

Selam caught the bull’s eye as he passed, letting out a low call:

‘Selam.’

He responded with a rumble that even Ardi had to admit was pretty sexy:

‘Karabo.’

Ardi could smell the testosterone rolling off him. He was in musth, alright. She sighed. Selam would never be able to focus now.

‘Come on, Selam. We are not going to be late for our first lecture.’

Ardi dragged Selam away, the latter rolling her eyes. The two of them were panting and flapping their ears by the time they reached the Argon building. An adjustable arm, with a small screen on the end, extended from each lectern. Ardi lowered hers to her eye, then pulled a triangular slate from her tusk-bag and set it on the lectern. Bumps and ridges bulged from the computer’s matte surface. The four fingers at the end of her trunk danced over them, and the protrusions withdrew and moved about in response. The lumpy marks at the edge of the slate formed the characters of the Phakathi alphabet, while the middle became smooth space for her to fill.

The room was filling up. Several of the students were mothers, each with a child clinging to her tail, tusk or trunk. One of them looked like a newborn, a week old at most, her four little legs working double-time to keep up with her mother’s stride. Ardi waved. The infant flared her ears and gave a shrill trumpet.

‘Adorable,’ gushed Selam, earning a thankful trunk-curl from his mother.

‘I really hope I have a daughter first,’ Selam whispered to Ardi.

Ardi shifted her feet. ‘I don’t mind either way.’

‘I should have guessed, you egalitarian. You want your kids to be smart though.’

‘Bulls can be smart.’

Selam snorted through her trunk. Just as she did, the teacher—clearly a male—climbed onto the podium. He was just Ardi’s type as well—short tail, round buttocks. Ardi pointed him out.

‘He must be smart enough.’

Selam looked up from her slate, ‘Oh, great. This is going to stink.’

Ardi was perfectly ready for the next round of fiery debate—even if she knew Selam was just tugging her tail—but as she opened her mouth the teacher raised his trunk for silence. This materialised just a bit more slowly than it probably should have. Male scientists were becoming more common (despite the best efforts of certain old-hat female scholars Ardi could name) but even so, he was unusually young—the grey skin on his forehead was smooth, and his tusks were short.

‘He’s so sexy,’ Ardi whispered to Selam.

‘What?’ Selam said. ‘Gross. He’s tiny. I’ll take a big beefy Ubude any day.’

Ardi smiled. Two could tug at tails. Tiny was a bit of an exaggeration—he looked about Ardi’s mass.

‘Welcome to Intro to House-Ape Studies.’

He had an odd accent, a continental mix with hints of his islander roots.

‘Scholar Ples couldn’t be here today. I’m Toumaï, her under-scholar, and I’ll fill in for now. Um… I’m going to jump right in.’

He tapped at the slate on his lectern. The eye-screens switched on to an image of a half-buried fossil skeleton, its empty eyes staring at the camera.

‘House-apes are an extinct species of bipedal primate. They disappeared during the last mass extinction, about ten million years ago.’ Toumaï raised and lowered his front legs in turn as he spoke.

‘75% of all animal species on the planet went missing at around that time—including all other apes. So, why do we care? What makes the house-ape so special?’

The next slide was an ancient tool, probably for digging.

‘In short, because they were like us. The house-apes were the only technological civilisation we know of besides our own. They had buildings, tools, complex language.’

He was actually kind of engaging once he got into it. Shisayo seemed to be his second language, but he was quite comfortable with it.

‘The house-apes evolved in Phakathi, alongside our own ancestors. Like us, they migrated outwards, displaced or interbred with their close relatives, and emerged as the dominant species.’

Now a world map; a circular projection of familiar landmasses with the South Pole at the centre. Green lines, overlaid like a continental skeleton, represented the mrithi exodus over the last hundred thousand years. Ardi had seen this map many times in her mrithi evolution class, but the red dots, declared by the legend to mark house-ape fossil sites, were a new feature. There were a lot of them.

‘House-ape bones are the single most common fossil on the planet. We’ve found them on every major landmass, including Ithiphu, which was completely icebound in their time. I was going to bring a skull with me to pass around, but I guess my bull-brain forgot.’

His voice, although not as deep as a larger bull, had an agreeable timbre to it.

‘The house-apes probably numbered higher than a billion, and the estimates go up to ten billion. They left a lasting impact on the planet—we’re still digging up their bronze and ceramics. Plastic micrograins, once assumed to be a natural mineral, are probably the degraded remains of their industrial products.’

His slide changed to something that looked like a four-legged copper spider. Alongside it was a crumbling vehicle, standing on a grey desert under a black sky.

‘Very recently—and you probably heard about this in transmission—one of our probes found their machines on the Moon! The Moon artefacts are the best-preserved in existence, and have already told us a lot more about the apes. We estimate they weighed about a hundredth what we do, making space exploration much more viable. The wheeled apparatus in that image seems to have accommodations for the animals themselves, which indicates that they travelled to the Moon in person—a step further than we’ve managed.’

Another slide-change, this time to a dig. Dozens of house-ape skeletons lay in neat rows. A scholar was posed next to one, pointing at one of the skulls with her trunk-fingers.

‘Many of the best house-ape sites are arranged like this, suggesting they buried their dead—perhaps ritually.’

Ardi suppressed a shudder. She’d been to her old Matriarch’s wake, her great-grandmother. They had taken her body to her favourite spot in the mountains, covered it with leaves, and left it to decompose naturally. Ardi wasn’t sure how they did it in the city, but burial sounded awful.

‘Not only did this preserve an exceptional number of them as fossils, it also hints at empathy and transmitted culture.’

‘Who caaaaaareees,’ Selam whispered.

‘Can you not?’ Ardi hissed back.

An infrasonic rumble, among the constant background of quiet vibrations from outside, carried Selam’s name through the floor. The voice sounded suspiciously like the bull Selam had made a pass at. She shifted on her feet and gazed towards the exit. Ardi clenched her trunk sternly.

‘Don’t you dare. I’m not lending you my notes again.’

Selam pouted.

‘Fine.’

‘…despite the similarities, they must also have been very different to us. Their dentition suggests they were omnivorous. They were probably apex predators—there are fossils of our precursor species, the largest land animal on the planet at the time, with marks from their weapons. Their garbage sites are associated with vast, vast numbers of animal bones—along with several species that show signs of rapid evolution by artificial selection. This means that not only did house-apes eat meat, but they bred animals specifically for that purpose, the same way we breed ungulates for hair and wool.’

As he talked, Ardi noticed that his bottom lip curled upwards in a way that was very cute.

‘As for why they disappeared, the sixth mass extinction remains a mystery in many ways. Some argue that climate was to blame—others suggest random cosmic misfortune, as befell the great-reptiles. But we still don’t know. I have my own thoughts on it all, but they’re outside the syllabus, and I don’t think Scholar Ples wants me to plant my rogue scientific notions in you.’
Ardi chuckled.

 

 

 

‘Finally!’ Selam gasped, a little too loudly, making straight for the exit. When she noticed Ardi wasn’t next to her, she turned back.

‘You coming?’

Ardi nodded her trunk towards Toumaï.

‘I’m going to talk to him.’

Selam touched her chin in a gesture of perplexed distaste.

‘Seriously? He’s a scientist! You might as well date a female.’

Ardi gave a dismissive wave.

‘Go find your bull, Selam.’

Ardi’s friend threw her trunk in the air and left.

‘That was fascinating!’ Ardi said, approaching Toumaï while he packed up. The wrinkly skin around his eyes crumpled.

‘Thank you! It was my first lecture.’

‘I’ve never seen a house-ape fossil up close, I was really looking forward to that,’ she lied. Her Matriarch owned a house-ape femur, Ardi’s favourite toy as a calf. She had broken it chasing her brother Daka around. The two of them, panicked, had buried the shards, not realising this might have been exactly what the bone’s original owner would have wanted.

‘I’m sure Scholar Ples will bring one in,’ she caught his eye, and he paused.

‘Or I could show it to you now! I don’t have any plans in the very immediate future.’

‘Really? I’d love that.’

There was a new couple by the lakeside as Ardi and Toumaï ambled back along the path. Ardi curled her trunk, amused—the pleased moans were Selam’s.

‘That was quick.’

‘Sorry?’ asked Toumaï.

‘Oh, nothing. Are house-apes your field?’ Ardi asked.

He tipped his trunk in the affirmative. ‘And you? Are you studying palaeontology?’

She indicated ‘no.’

‘It’s an interest subject. I’m studying genetics.’

‘Excellent. My father wishes he studied genetics, but things were different then.’

He’d said something odd, and it took her a few moments to put her trunk on it. ‘Wishes? Do you still know him?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, a little sheepish. ‘He raised me, together with my mother.’

‘Oh!’

He winced. She tried to back up, mortified.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean offence. I’m from the country, things are more conventional there. At least, that’s my excuse.’

He curled his trunk. ‘Don’t worry. What was your home like?’

‘Full nuclear family—matriarch, mother, aunts, older sisters, cousins. There were so many kids. I loved them all, but it was super crowded. I couldn’t wait to get out on my own.’

Ardi smacked herself on the forehead. She’d forgotten to transmit home last week. Mother wouldn’t be too fussed, she understood how busy it got, but Matriarch was always anxious to hear from her. Matriarch prided herself on keeping close tabs on the whole family, even arranging regular transmit-talks with those on other continents. Well, the females, anyway. Ardi was the only one who kept in touch with Daka, and her male cousins may as well have gone to live on the Moon.

They arrived at Toumaï’s workspace in the Carbon Building, a small cubicle among many—barely room for the two of them. Ardi took the opportunity to press casually against his side; his round belly was slimmer than her past mates. She liked it.

‘This is where they keep the male scholars!’ he joked, but most of those in the surrounding cubicles really were bulls. He rummaged through a box, his trunk emerging with a petrified house-ape skull. The mandible was fixed to the cranium with a wire hinge, forming a complete head. She took it from his trunk-tip. It felt more like stone than bone.

‘She might have been a palaeontologist, like you. Digging up great-reptiles,’ she said.

‘I’ve had the same thought. But actually, this is a male.’

He slipped the tip of his trunk, which had a mischievous crook to it, through the skull’s base. He made the jaw wave up and down with his fingers.

‘What’s your opinion on the deposition rate of limestone?’ the skull addressed her in a mock professorial tone.

Ardi gave a brief trumpet of laughter.

‘No rock talk, Mister House-Ape. I want to know more about you.’

‘Ask away.’

‘What happened to you? What caused the mass extinction?’

‘We did.’

Ardi’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

‘Do you really think so?’ she asked Toumaï, forgetting to address the fossil-puppet.

Toumaï passed the skull back, trunk uncurled.

‘Yes. I think the house-apes did more than die out.’

Ardi looked at him closely. His tusks were as pale as the Moon.

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Really? I’m sure it’s not terribly interesting.’

She tipped her trunk, now with the stone skull at the end. ‘It’s interesting to you.’

His trunk coiled with gratitude.

‘House-ape civilisation existed for an instant. In the fossil record, it’s not there, then it is, then it isn’t. About ten thousand years, out of the four billion this planet has been here. It might have been less, but we honestly can’t resolve a smaller timescale in the fossil record. One second they were a few packs in Phakathi. The next, there were billions of them. And then zero. At the same time, three-quarters of all living species went extinct. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if those events were unrelated.’

He paused, and Ardi gestured interest by splaying her trunk-fingers.

‘Like I said in the lecture, house-apes must have had a profound impact on the environment. The sheer extent of their garbage sites demonstrates how wasteful they could be. And as predators, they clearly weren’t averse to killing other animals. Plus, it seems like the arrival of a technological species will disrupt any ecosystem—we certainly have, wherever we’ve travelled, if perhaps not as deeply as house-apes. Just their existence, their behaviour, I think, was enough to endanger the biosphere. And in such large numbers, it never stood a chance.’

‘If they caused the extinctions, how did they die out themselves?’

He lifted his trunk. ‘Plague? Famine? Sterilisation? You would think at least some of them would have survived. But that’s an even deeper mystery.’

‘They could go to the Moon, but they couldn’t avoid destroying themselves or the planet?’

Toumaï gave another trunk-shrug. It was a habit she found annoying in general, but for some obscure reason, it was endearing in him. ‘Who are we to judge? We’re probably doing the exact same thing. Maybe to a lesser degree. Maybe not. We could be headed for the same fate, whatever that is.’

This was a troubling thought.

‘Don’t forget,’ he added, ‘if they didn’t disappear, we never would have evolved the way we did.’

Ardi made two rings with her fingers, gesturing thoughtfulness.

‘What if they didn’t die out? What if they left?’

He looked at her curiously.

She shrugged her trunk. ‘They travelled in space. Maybe they decided to stop the damage they were doing.’

‘Hmm. Could be.’

The thoughtful look on his face was enough to win her over. She put the skull down and twined her trunk with his. He started, then relaxed and gave a gentle squeeze back.

‘You can tell me more over lunch,’ Ardi said.

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Twenty Percent, Jasmine Aird

His body arcs through the air, slamming into the brick wall. I wince. The part of me that once felt pain is fairly certain that would hurt

‘Bitch,’ he says, spitting blood on the asphalt. He glares at me, something that might have been more menacing if his eyes weren’t puffy and blue.

He rises to his feet and manages—despite the state he’s in—to pull a knife from his boot. Why can’t they ever just stay down? He stumbles towards me, half falling, like the drunks I see leaving the Serpent’s Nest at 3 am. I take pity. I’ll make this quick. I bring my right fist up and pop him squarely on the nose. Metal bites bone. He slumps down, face landing in a puddle. This time he stays there.

I pull out my pistol and shoot him once in the back of the head.

He deserves this, I remind myself, as I attempt to scrape off a stray piece of brain matter, which is sticking like gum to the edge of my boot. He’s one of them—a Purist. They all deserve this.

As I stand over the man’s body, I catch my reflection in the puddle. At first, she looks almost normal: a tall woman in her twenties with choppy hair that falls to her chin. Then you notice something’s off, something’s different. Perhaps it’s the lack of pigmentation, freckles and body hair. Or maybe it’s the newly formed gash on her right arm stretching from elbow to wrist; the synthetic flesh peels away exposing the titanium alloy underneath. It’s a good thing he went for my right arm instead of my left. If he had cut my left arm then he would have drawn blood.

‘Well done Eve,’ Alfie’s voice chimes in my ear. If I turn the dial beneath my earlobe I can adjust his accent and language. Today he’s British, tomorrow he’ll probably be South African. These are the things I do for amusement.

‘Maybe this time I’ll get paid,’ I say, as I light up a smoke, a habit that Alfie disapproves of despite the fact that it cannot harm the synthetic tissue in my lungs.

‘I’m afraid that’s unlikely, as 80% of your body is composed of Genesis technology, you are only 20% human and are therefore classified by state law as property. Genesis is not in the habit of paying its property.’

‘I was being sarcastic, Alfie.’

‘I am not programmed to detect sarcasm. I do however know several jokes. Would you like to hear one?’

‘That won’t be necessary,’ I say, as I pull out a hipflask—another habit that Alfie disapproves of—and begin pouring the whisky over the body.

I close my eyes for a moment of silence. Like raising a glass or lighting a candle, this is my small way of paying tribute to the dead—whether they deserve it or not. Once, I might have crossed myself or bowed my head in prayer. But those days are over; I abandoned such beliefs shortly after my transmutation. It’s difficult to hold out for an afterlife when my current state of purgatory isn’t exactly heaven. So instead, I suck down the last draw of my cigarette, flick the lit end onto the corpse and turn away.

The alley falls behind me as I begin manoeuvring my way through a series of back streets. The night air brushes over me, raising hairs on my left arm—my human arm. There are no streetlights in this part of Eden, not that I need one. My cat eyes slip into UV vision, pouring over the alleyway, revealing its secrets, like the urine staining the vandalised brickwork and the semen spattered across the cement. I cringe. If I had a stomach it would be turning.

‘I’m sending you the coordinates for your next mission,’ Alfie says. ‘Your objective is to interrogate the merchant, Abel Zane. He’s a known Purist sympathiser. Genesis suspects he’s in league with your targets.’

‘Who’s the target?’

‘A Purist, who has recently been involved in the infiltration and destruction of a large shipment of Genesis tech. Your orders are to dispatch of the target.’

Dispatch. A small part of me, the part that’s still human, grows uneasy at these words. I swallow her down—along with a healthy nip from my flask—and nod my head.

‘And Eve, if you fail to complete this mission then according to Genesis protoc—’

‘You’ll pull my plug, I know, you tell me every time.’

I turn the corner onto the main drag. The City of Eden draws me in like a cigarette. My eyes are immersed in colour. The browns and greys of the alleyway peel away to reveal a world doused in LED light. High-rise buildings line each side of the street, their spires slice through the smog which hangs over the city like a bad cold you can’t shake. Billboards and digital signage layer the buildings like body armour. The flashing lights and whirling colours cloud even my enhanced vision. I feel a headache coming on. Yes, I still get those.

I begin walking down the street, wading my way through the sea of people. I’m not interested in what’s above, I’m interested in what lies beneath. The cacophony of the Night Bazaar cocoons me. Stall after stall is pitched on the pavement. Merchants stand to attention, exchanging goods for digits, hollering to anyone who passes. I see one woman examining a pile of crinkled silks and another man sizing up a heavy phase rifle. Illegal, yes, but who’s going to stop him? The police stroll by with their hands in their pockets; they don’t care what’s sold so long as the merchants give them their cut.

‘Eve, I urge you to take caution, recent data suggests that there is a strong presence of Purist sympathisers in this sector of Eden.’

‘You don’t say,’ I reply, as I notice a Genesis billboard above me. The fruit-bearing tree—which is Genesis’ corporate logo—has been vandalised. Splayed across the trunk, in blood-red letters, is the Purist motto:

 

 

 

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

 

 

 

Genesis will not be pleased—and neither am I. If I’m not careful, I’ll be nothing more than a burning pile of circuits and wires. I unroll my sleeves, pull my hood down over my head and continue walking.

I pass a spice merchant’s tent. The scents of sumac, saffron and garlic waft through the air. I wrinkle my nose—I still have one of those, though the sensory receptors in my nostrils more closely resemble a dog’s than they do a human. I spy a hooded pair of men standing in a darkened corner between stalls, dealing in who knows what illicit substance. The underbelly of Eden comes to life in the bazaar. Anything can be bought here—for the right price.

‘Love, who wants some love? Swallow this pill and you’ll be swooning!’ a man calls from his stall, as I turn into a quieter section of the markets. I stop and pretend to examine his goods. Bottled pills in every colour line his table, each promising a different emotion. And they say I’m the one who can’t feel.

‘How about some love for the lovely lady?’ the merchant asks, stroking his beard.

‘While I’m fresh out of love, that’s not what I’m in the market for, Abel,’ I say as I lower my hood.

‘Just as well,’ he sneers, realising what I am. His left hand disappears beneath the counter, probably in search of a weapon. ‘Your kind aren’t welcome here, mutt.’

‘Come now, that’s no way to make friends. All I want to do is talk, you have information I need.’

‘I said you’re not wel—’

‘And I said you have information.’ I reach out and wrap my fingers around his neck. If I squeeze tight enough his bones will pop. ‘Drop your weapon.’

He obeys, his left-hand reappearing above the counter.

‘Where are they?’

‘I don’t know wha—’

‘Where are they?’ I tighten my grip and his face turns red. A man from a nearby stall turns his head.

Abel’s mouth flattens into a hard line, an expression I recognise all too well. This one will be a tough nut to crack. I’ll have to try a different tactic. My eyes roll over the contents of his stall. Behind the counter—sandwiched between two bottles of neon green pills—is a picture frame.

‘She’s beautiful,’ I say, nodding towards the frame where a little girl, roughly five years of age, is spinning around in circles. ‘I bet she’s very dear to you.’

‘Okay, okay.’ He raises his palms up, pleading. I release him. That was easy.

He rubs his neck as he gives me the address. I lean in towards him, so close that I can smell his dinner on his breath. ‘Thanks for the tip-off. And remember, I know your face… and hers.’ Abel quivers as I turn away.

‘Now that I’ve given you what you want, can Genesis guarantee our safety?’ he calls after my retreating form.

‘I’m afraid not,’ I say, as I continue walking. ‘We don’t negotiate with Purists.’

I turn back onto the main drag, heading for the exit. I spot another cyborg as I’m walking. His legs move in stiff strides like a marching soldier, though he’s no fighter: his clothes are covered in plaster and dust. He’s probably a tradesman, a blue-collared worker. Maybe he injured himself once; had a bad fall or was hit by a bus. Then, some company swooped in and patched him up. Now he works for free, just like me. Though, judging by his parts—which are primitive at best—he’s no piece of Genesis tech, just a cheap knockoff. His head isn’t hooded either, so he’s easy to pick out of the crowd. And I’m not the only one who sees him.

‘Abomination!’ one woman screams.

‘Mongrel!’ another man spits.

I watch, from beneath my hood, as heads begin to turn and people start to notice him. They move forward, circling him, like a pack of wolves playing with its prey. He tries to push past them but it’s no use. They lunge at him: kicking, shoving and spitting. Even with his outdated parts he is stronger than them, not that it helps—he’s outnumbered.

I take a step forward.

‘I strongly advise against that,’ Alfie says. ‘If you were to proceed with that course of action I cannot foresee any possible outcome that would result in your survival.’

As much as I’d like to ignore this prediction, I obey, and step back, clenching my fists. I watch the cyborg struggle against the crowd; his outstretched fingers reach above them, grasping at the air as if he’s a drowning man who is trying to break the surface. Yet he only succeeds in being pulled further beneath.

‘I hate them, Alfie,’ I say, as one man draws a Hot Blade from his coat. He raises the weapon and slashes at the cyborg; the edge of the blade pulses with thermal energy as he brings it down, severing a metallic limb.

‘It would appear the feeling is mutual,’ Alfie says, as the man raises the prosthetic above his head, holding it up like a trophy.

The crowd cheers and rushes forward, following suit. They tear at the cyborg with anything they can get their hands on: knives, fingers and even teeth. Two officers stand off to the side of the rabble with their hands on their hips. They don’t move. They don’t intervene. They don’t have to. A cyborg is property, not a human. Property damage is punishable by corporate security, not the police. According to the law, no crime is being committed.

There’s nothing I can do here except stand aside and be useless, so I turn away and continue walking.

 

 

 

‘This is taking forever, Alfie,’ I say, as I drop my cigarette into the growing pile of butts that lay at my feet. ‘I should just go in.’

I’m hidden in the alcove of an old printing factory, which, like most of its kind, had shut down years before. Across the street, a number of shadows move behind a closed set of blinds. I can see them, but they can’t see me; I have the element of surprise. Now would be the perfect opportunity.

‘You overestimate your abilities, Eve. I am detecting a number of human beings present within the building. You have one target, not twenty.’

Movement stirs across from me. The doors open and a pair of men saunter out, heading for their vehicle. I recognise my target from the footage Alfie sent me; a tall man with shaggy blonde hair. The two men hop into their car, an old model that doesn’t fly. I guess Purists don’t get paid much either.

They start the engine and take off down the street. I follow their vehicle, which isn’t difficult—I had placed a tracker underneath the rear bumper while I was waiting. After several blocks, I arrive outside a dingy building, which looks—in polite terms—like a well-functioning crack house.

‘Eve, my data confirms that this property belongs to Abel Zane.’

‘The merchant?’ I say as I pull out my pistol. ‘I guess they found out we spoke.’

I cross the street and slip inside. Despite the building’s rough exterior, I’m standing in a typical family home, complete with children’s toys and school photos.

‘Please, don’t hurt us, it wasn’t my fault, they threatened my daughter!’

I race into the kitchen, where, I can see, Abel has been shot. He leans against the wall, holding his side, which is bleeding heavily. My target is standing over him, gun raised and ready for round two.

I’m about to intervene when I spot the other Purist reaching beneath the kitchen table. He yanks at the ankle of the little girl, who kicks him in the face with a fluoro pink boot. I raise my gun towards this man and shoot. He slumps down onto the tiles, leaving the girl alone.

My target’s attention snaps towards me, followed by his gun. He fires, which is a waste of time; the bullets bounce off my chest like oil from a hot pan. He fires again and again and again. I stand there and take it, like a boxer takes a punch, waiting for him to run out of ammo. He reaches the last bullet; it cuts through the air and slams into my left arm—my human arm. I cry out in pain, something I haven’t felt since I was human. I stare down at the torn flesh. That’s going to leave a mark.

I raise my gun and shoot. He hits the floor and stays there.

‘My target is dead, Alfie,’ I say, as I press down on my arm, applying pressure to the wound.

‘Genesis requires that you dispatch of all the Purists present.’

‘And the kid?’ I ask, holding my breath.

‘She is not a Purist.’

I exhale and walk across the room to stand over Abel’s slumped form. He glares at me as I raise my gun towards his head. He’s still holding his side, not that this helps—he’ll bleed out within minutes without proper medical attention. I glance at his daughter, who is peering at me from beneath the table, her face wet with tears. I could still let him go, for her sake, if not for his. Perhaps, if he somehow made it to the nearest hospital—and Genesis didn’t already have someone else there waiting for him—he might live. I would die, of course. My dear friend Alfie would have my plug pulled in seconds. But maybe this is bigger than that. Maybe this is bigger than me.

‘Damn you, mutt,’ he spits.

But then again, maybe not. A part of me screams. I swallow her down and pull the trigger.

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Bad Girls, Suvi Derkenne

Boys walk over to the public pool because of the giggling and stay because of the girls. A youngster with auburn hair bursts into tears as he watches the tantalizing pink dip under the surface. Unable to move away from the edge of chlorinated blue he grabs his crotch for comfort.

‘It’s our tails,’ Madison tells August and Crystal as they swim, ‘girls don’t have tails.’

August flicks her iridescent scales. Having crashed through the nebula with her sisters, the forty-degree heat at Katherine Low Holiday Park isn’t what she imagined sunshine to be.

‘How do you know?’ She asks Madison.

I just do, okay.’

So they cut them off with a plastic steak knife Madison finds in the cabin’s kitchen drawer. To drown out the shrieking Crystal puts Saturday VMAX on the television turning the volume up loud. After, the girls lock their circumcised flesh in the bathroom and dance on raw toes.  Madison and Crystal fight over which song is better, Talk Dirty or Don’t Cha, mimicking the pop and grind of the dancers. August sings from the couch as her sisters leave bloody footprints over the lino, ‘Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish you girlfriend was a freak like me? Don’t cha wish you girlfriend was raw like me? Slow banging shorty…’

‘Shut up August, you’re ruining the song.’

At night, as Madison and Crystal peel off each other’s sunburn, August creeps into the bathroom. She chucks Froot Loops straight from the box into the tub, the tails thrash hungrily in the water, snapping at her for more as she licks coloured sugar off her palm.

On Sunday, Madison buys a red suitcase from the shopping mall in town in which to hide the tails. The boy at the local café, acne erupting underneath stubble, gives her free ice cream. Crystal leans over the counter and licks his ear, ‘Greetings loved one. We can melt popsicles’. He gives Crystal and August free ice cream too. The girls grin, vanilla dripping down their chins.

 

When the money runs out they hitchhike north, lost in fields of bitumen and fireweed. August pulls the suitcase, it leaves a trail of water as its wheels bounce over the gravel. She swaps arms, struggling with the weight – exposed, her skin burning. She worries that she’ll crack in the sun and bubble into foam. The tails whimper inside, scratching at the zipper. Crystal and Madison look over their shoulders, squinting and dizzy in the light. They hiss at the tails, giving them a kick. August lags behind her sisters, her sandals cutting into her toes. Each step a blade slicing against her arches.

‘Hurry up August,’ Crystal sighs, taking the handle.

Semis and four-by-fours eat up the road. The girls are coated with grit as the traffic shoots past. August watches Madison walk ahead into the bruising light, head high. Before they ran away, Madison and Crystal told her ‘You’re mum’s favorite. Stay if you want to.’ But, somehow, being a favorite isn’t such fun.

Headlights search over the road, catching Madison’s hair. A sedan slows, warm exhaust air slapping against their knees. The passenger window rolls down.

‘Hi girls.’

August looks the other way. She keeps her head down and locks arms with Crystal.

‘Where you girls going? I’ll give you a lift?’

‘Leave us alone.’

‘Come on girls.’

‘Don’t talk to him Crystal,’ Madison looks sideways at the sedan. The setting sun hits her eyes. She can’t see the man behind the wheel.

Crystal keeps pulling the suitcase. Madison tries to catch a better look.

‘Come on, where you headed?’

August tugs on Madison’s arm but she shrugs her off. Madison smiles, ‘Nowhere you’re going.’

‘I don’t bite. Youse girls can all sit in the back.’

Madison stops. The man pulls over. August watches as her sister leans into the car, wriggling in her dress.

The man shouts over the throb of the engine, ‘I’m heading to Rabbit’s Flat.’

‘Yeah?’ Madison asks, pouting her lips. None of them know where Rabbit’s Flat is.

‘Yeah. Where you girls from?’

He laughs. ‘Alright no questions. Youse getting in or not? It’s getting dark out.’

August watches her sisters open the car door and get inside, unsure of where her sisters are going, except that they’re going toward it.

Suitcase in the boot, August climbs into the backseat. The man, cleft lipped and blue eyed, tells them his name is Clint. His head brushes the roof of the car, knees up in his chin. ‘Dad was watching Play Misty for Me at the pics when Mum went into labour,’ he says. He doesn’t pause for breath, showing pictures from his wallet of his dogs. ‘The one with overbite is called Daphne. She don’t look it but she’s a real sweetheart.’ Madison climbs into the front to hold onto the steering wheel while Clint pulls up his sleeves to show off his scars. He turns on the interior lights. ‘See? The ones that keloid glow a bit. Got eighteen stitches for this one. Haven’t touched a chainsaw since – pain was something else.’ He smiles, eyes crinkling into well-worn expression lines. He takes the wheel back, ‘Cheers love.’ August clutches onto her seatbelt, watching birds, soft scaled and razor-lipped, fly home. Clint peers at her in the rear-view mirror. ‘Cat got your tongue huh?’ August shakes her head.

‘She mute or something?’

‘August doesn’t talk to strangers.’ Crystal wraps her arms around the headrest. Madison shrugs her off before asking Clint, ‘Do you have any music?’

He lights up a cigarette. ‘You can try, mostly just get static out this way though.’

Madison zips through the radio stations. Bass and shouting fills the car. Clint opens his window, smoke blowing into the backseat as he taps out his cigarette. ‘You girls here on holiday?’ he asks.

Madison turns up the volume even louder, the car rocking as she starts to dance. You know the words to my songs, our conversations ain’t long. But you know what is… She grins at Clint, ‘You know this song?’

He looks away. ‘Yeah.’

Madison looks back at Crystal. ‘This is our song isn’t it?’

Crystal nods, thrusting against her seatbelt, brushing her fingers against the roof of the car. Madison starts to sing. ‘Close to genius, sold out arenas, you can suck my penis, guns on deck, chest to chest, tongue on neck….’ She locks eyes with Clint. ‘Every picture I take, I pose a threat.’ Clint tightens his grip on the steering wheel. ‘You girls visiting family?’

Madison ignores him. ‘You don’t need explaining…All I really need to understand is, when you will talk dirty to me.’ She leans out of the passenger window, shouting at passing traffic, ‘Talk dirty to me!’ She falls back into the car, cheeks flushed and sweat glistening over her top lip. Clint turns down the music.

‘Can’t handle it?’

‘Bit loud for me.’

‘It’s a great song isn’t it Crystal? It’s our song.’

‘You already said that Madi.’

‘Shut up August, nobody asked you.’

Clint lights another cigarette. Wind and ash whips through the car.  Madison takes off her shoes and rests her feet up on the dashboard, her dress falling around her thighs. She opens up the glove box, finds a packet of mints and pops a few in her mouth. The road turns to dirt, the tails jostling up and down in the suitcase over the potholes. August puts her hands over her ears as the tails scream out in anger. Clint turns the music off completely. ‘You girls hear that?’

Madison pulls a mint out of her mouth, wiping lip-gloss across her chin. ‘Did you hear them scream? When I was just a girl, I asked my brother, What will I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty? Will I be pretty?’

‘That poetry or something?’

‘Or something,’ Madison says, turning in her seat. ‘Crystal what are the rest of the words?’

Crystal shrugs. Madison turns the volume back up, her hand hovering over the hand rest – daring Clint to turn it down again. August stretches out, falling asleep and pillowed on the buoyant lap of her sister.

 

Later, August wakes to find that they’ve made a pit stop at a servo. Wiping drool off her cheek, she finds Crystal and Madison arguing by the open boot.

‘What’s going on?’

‘The tails.’

August looks down at the suitcase and the puddle it has left on the upholstery. She wipes her nose. ‘They’re hungry. For real food.’

‘I know idiot,’ says Madison,

August pulls up a fallen strap on her dress, waiting for her sisters to snap out a plan. Madison watches Clint paying at the counter.  She licks her lips. ‘He’s pink.’  August turns to watch Clint buy a packet of Marlboro menthols. ‘You gonna do it?’ Madison frowns, ‘If you’re so keen why don’t you do it?’ The silence is filled by the hum of the petrol pumps. August slams the boot shut and gets back into the car. Madison and Crystal follow, not looking each other in the eye.

 

No one asks for the radio when Clint rejoins the highway. They eat the rest of his mints and gnaw on peppered beef jerky, homesick for Titan’s seas. August looks past the sand flats at what looks like an old wheat silo. It looms ahead for hours before they pass it, the silo’s roof crumbling inward. Clint catches her watching. ‘Hasn’t rained up here for years now, farms are all dead.’

When he lets them out at the corner of the Rabbit’s Flat Motel, Madison lingers high and dry on the footpath. ‘Don’t cha want to come with us?’ she asks. Clint grins. ‘Nah love, you’re okay,’ he says before driving off. Crystal puts on her sunglasses. ‘You should have chewed your words more. You frightened him off.’ Madison scowls, pushing past in her high-heels.

The motel’s windows have been boarded up with timber scraps and cardboard beer cases. Inside, regulars well past the first round watch the rugby. Backs to the door, the men look up from their drinks to watch the girls sit down in the corner. August slides next to Madison, her thighs sticking to the leatherette bar seats, conscious of being watched. A floor fan, its white plastic yellowed, brushes the girls’ hair off their shoulders. The barman breathes in deeply as he wipes down the counter. He smiles at August, the cloth leaving its own smear. ‘You right love?’ She glances at Madison, who speaks for her before looking back at the menu. ‘She’s fine.’ They order bacon and eggs, with potato wedges and sour cream. They lick butter off their fingertips, hungry for more. Crystal gazes at a man high up on a stool across the room. He cracks pistachio nuts with his teeth, sucking the salt off the shells that won’t open and spitting them back into the bowl. He winks at the girls, his shirt unbuttoned. He walks over, and gives Crystal a cider. He watches her as her lips pull at the straw. ‘We haven’t the likes of you for a while,’ he says.

Embarrassed, August looks down at her drink. She tries to sip around a dead fly that bobs between cubes of ice. Her belly heavy, she gets up. The suitcase dribbles along the carpet as she drags it behind her towards the bathroom.

‘Wrong room sweetheart.’

August turns to hurry out, but the man keeps talking. ‘Unless you’re hiding something up in that dress,’ he says. Zipping his fly, his lips wet, he leans over to close the door. The suitcase whimpers. August watches as he picks up his beer off the sink. ‘Shh. Our little secret.’ Up close his hands smell like salt-and-vinegar chips.

 

Madison and Crystal giggle with the mining boys, their skin blackened underneath Chesty Bonds and high-vis vests. They tell the girls about Nambeya Lake. ‘Most beautiful place on earth.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

Madison and Crystal want to see beauty. The boys lean in, wrinkling freckled noses as they laugh. They describe an avenue of paperbarks and dagger wattle, Crystal imagines green seaweed growing upside down and swaying in invisible tides. Madison makes the boys draw a mud map on a paper napkin, stealing a kiss and biting down on a sunburnt lip.

‘Whoa love.’

Madison giggles. Crystal whispers, ‘She eats meat for breakfast.’

Leaving the boys to stare into their beers, Madison and Crystal stumble into the Ladies, mascara-smudged and cranberry-vodka-stained.

August walks in, the suitcase rumbling on the tiles. She pushes past her sisters and washes her feet furiously in the sink with hand soap. The tails stretch against the fabric of the case as she squishes suds between her toes. ‘They’re starving.’

‘So?’ says Madison.

August watches as her sisters apply eyeliner and pout at their reflections. The girls appear to float in the mirror, sundresses hugging their hips.

‘Can we go home?’ asks August.

Madison lights up one of the cigarettes she stole off Clint. ‘You’re such a pussy.’

August sits down on the suitcase. She pulls dead skin off her thumb. ‘Mum will be worried.’

‘Mum doesn’t give a fuck. You didn’t have to come you know.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re not gonna be a baby are you?’

‘I’m not a baby.’

August picks at the frayed edge of the zipper of the case. Madison slaps her hand away. ‘Don’t, we don’t want them to escape.’

Crystal scratches flakes of dried snot off her nose, inspecting every inch of her face in the mirror. She pulls at her dress, grasping her breasts. ‘Why are they so small?’ She rolls up toilet paper and pads out her bra, looking enviously at Madison. ‘How come you got the better skin?’

August reads graffiti on the toilet walls as Madison and Crystal argue. Women have written poems in pen and pencil, or drawn crude images of castrated ex-boyfriends next to Exodus 21:7-11.

Snapped wrist, and pierced,

If you ever feel powerless

Remember love is the greatest gift

God has given.

Underneath, scrawled in pink, are the words Can I return it? Followed by others, in black, Keep fucking and preaching sista. August leans her head against the cool porcelain of the sink. She brings her hand up to touch a patch of missing hair, her scalp stinging. ‘I don’t feel well.’

Madison sighs. ‘You gonna moan this whole time?’

‘No.’

‘Cos you’re being such a bitch.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘Fine.’

Madison smirks and leans against the sink. August walks out into the car park, the wheels of the suitcase catch her ankles. There is nothing outside but an odd tourist S.U.V speeding through, bullbars splattered with the blood of road kill. August tugs the suitcase over the gravel and walks off.

Inside, the barman clears the table. He stares down at the teenage girls all pink limbed and soft. Crystal pushes at escaping toilet paper peeking over the neckline of her dress.

‘Last orders?’

‘You buying?’ asks Crystal.

‘Nah love. No cash no drinks.’

Crystal sucks her lip, fingering the boys’ map. ‘What’s the quickest way to get to Nambeya Lake?’

‘You girls not from around here then?’ He asks. ‘Just follow the road girls. If you head off now, you can catch a look before it gets dark. You by yourselves?’

They shrug.

‘Well, unless you girls are thinking of paying for a room, I’m closin’ up.’

Night presses in as they hurry to catch up with August. She hasn’t gone far, the wheels of the suitcase have caught in the salt scrub. Out of breath, the girls are startled as the mining boys roar past in their utes, wolf whistling and catcalling ‘Real nice baby!’ Madison winks back but no one pulls over. As the tail-lights disappear over the crest Madison lights another cigarette. She lets it burn to the stub without ever bringing it to her lips. By the time they find the turnoff into the National Park the sun bleeds into the sky, mopped up by trails of cotton clouds that can’t staunch the flow of red. As the girls stand by a fading signpost for the lake, they gaze out at beauty. Madison juts out a hip, and asks no one in particular, ‘Is this it?’ Taking off her shoes her blisters ooze into the sand. Crystal pulls out the congealed clumps of toilet paper from her bra. She shakes the paper flesh from her fingers. August sets down the suitcase and slumps by its side; the tails haven’t stirred for hours. She looks up. Home looks so far away, an orange infinitesimal speck.

Nambeya Lake stretches out alien and empty. Nothing but pink salt and bass bones that fade into the horizon. Burning light sets the clay banks ablaze and the girls cannot tell if it is dusk or dawn.

 

 

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