Tag Archives: family

Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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Morgan, Kimberley Milton

Creak. I pull my blankets up to my chin and listen to the Milkman’s symphony. The gate strains as he makes his way into their front yard, trundling up the steps of their veranda to leave four glass bottles of milk. He stomps back down to close the white picket gate behind him, careful not step on the perfectly manicured lawn as he slouches over to the next house. Each time a gate is opened it reveals its squeaky hinges and I find a sense of comfort in this irritating flaw in our neighbourhood. I brace myself for the Milkman’s entrance to our neighbour’s front yard, but there is an extended silence.

My chest fills with a sudden nervous flutter and the blankets surrounding me begin to feel like a straight jacket holding me down. I fling them off and rush to my window. I slowly pull back the curtain and my vision fills with white. The domes have made it to our street.

Suddenly, a gap appears in the dome and three figures slowly emerge. I can see a man in a white suit, the black tie around his neck draws my eye to his throat and I am filled with hate. Next is a small woman, loose strands of red hair peek out from the curlers that cover her head. Her pink nightgown is pulled in at her waist by the arm holding her. My eyes move up to the tall figure beside her, his eyes the same blue as Tenille’s. I strain to look past the tall figures that are her parents, desperately searching for a sign of Tenille’s red hair and kind smile.

‘Tennile!’ I scream. I press my hand against the glass, as though I can will it to disappear. I want to run outside and rip through the dome, save Tenille from whatever horrors she is about to face. But my legs feel like they are stuck in ice, burning and stiff.

‘Wake up Nathaniel,’ I slap myself. ‘This is just a dream. Snap out of it.’ But nothing changes. My window is still filled with the white material and the gap in the dome remains sealed. But the slap has done something else and my legs are once again free.

I run to my bedroom door and fumble with the doorknob. ‘Shit,’ I scream as I punch the door. Finally, I get the door open and run down the stairs, taking two at a time, not at all concerned with falling down. With a click I unlatch the front door and am temporarily blinded by the glare from the dome.

I will my vision to clear as I seek out the two people I have questions I most need to see.

‘Who was it?’ I pause between each word. The calmness in my voice terrifies even me. Tenille’s parents just stare at me. Their stupid dumbstruck faces make me want to scream. Their slippered feet shuffle backward as I move toward them.

I repeat the question, this time a little louder. I’m close enough now to see their eyes darting around, looking for any chance of escape. This only makes them look guilty.

‘Who was it?’ I’m screaming now, shoving her dad. ‘She would never have a writing instrument and you know it. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ I turn to Tenille’s mum and look straight into her eyes. Her dad seems like he’s going to make a move to stop me, but he’s abruptly taken away by a white suited man.

‘I know it was you.’ I whisper. ‘Tenille saw you with your precious diary. She told me all about how you would write in it when you thought no one was home. What did you do? Hide it in her room and call them?’ My head turns toward the men in the white suits.

My head snaps back to my arm as a sharp pain radiates down it and I see Tenille’s mum clutching my bicep, her fingernails digging into my flesh.

‘You think you’re so clever; that you know everything. You know nothing Nathaniel.’

She releases my arm, but reaches up to my sleeve and gently brushes away the creases.

‘Soon no one will remember her.’ She whispers into my ear. I clench my jaw and my hands form fists, my knuckles turning white.

‘Nathaniel?’ My mum calls. She is running across the grass of our front garden towards me. Her face is a mirror of the sadness and desperation I feel. Tenille’s mum drops my arm and backs away, moving towards her husband.

‘I’m so sorry, Nathaniel,’ she takes me in her arms and holds me against her; I can feel the steady beating of her heart. I suddenly drop to the ground, falling from her arms. She bends down and holds me whilst I weep. In the distance I can hear the Milkman’s symphony.

 

*

 

All this crying is so boring. So she’s gone, big whoop. She’s not dead. But I guess they don’t know that. I can see my big brother crying and my mum crying and Mr Smyth crying and Mrs Smyth not crying. She really needs to try harder than that if she wants to look normal.

I have had to put up with this family for eight years. It’s exhausting trying to be happy and cheerful all the time. But soon I finally get to take my Circle Standard and become a Nineling. Mrs Smyth says she has big plans for me.

Master Isaiah really knew what he was doing when he created the test. All you have to do is draw a circle. Simple right? Wrong. Draw a perfect circle and you are thrown out of Mallar because they think you are insane and dangerous. So I figured it has to look weird and not like a circle that should be enough to pass. The only problem is that they stick a big needle in you before you take the test so you go into, like, some sort of trance thing. But that’s where Mrs Smyth came in. She failed the Circle Standard, but no on ever knew because she swapped her circle with someone else and they disappeared forever. So now she steals writing implements and gets kids that she thinks are special to practice drawing imperfect circles, or sometimes gets them to sometimes just fill a whole notebook with perfect circles to get it out of their system.

I think I’m up to notebook number seven. I need lots of practice at not being perfect.

 

*

 

Two months have passed since Tenille disappeared and I seem to be the only one who remembers she existed at all. Whenever I mention her name or start talking about a memory I have of her, everyone just looks at me like I’ve gone crazy. Especially my sister Morgan, who has been acting really strange, but that could just be because she’s nervous.

In a couple of weeks she will take her Circle Standard and become a Nineling. She’s been spending a lot of time in her room with her door closed. I can hear strange scratching sounds coming from inside her room and every now and then she will let out a frustrated cry. Mum thinks that she’s just tidying her room, but I don’t think that she’s right.

People of Mallar.’ Master Isaiah’s voice booms from the speakers in our house. ‘Please make your way outside to welcome the Ninelings. Each one has successfully passed the Circle Standard. Please help me in congratulating them as they march through the streets. I look forward to their contributions to our fine city.’

The smell of springtime fills the air as we make our way out the front door. The sudden clean air and warm sunshine makes my fears seem ridiculous and they melt away.

Before long the sound of cheering and chanting can be heard. The sounds of muffled footsteps begin to build and before long the streets are filled with a new batch of Ninelings. The sound of their tiny footsteps mirrors the sound of soldiers marching towards battle.

Soon the Ninelings begin to pass by. Their little faces are beaming. Some are jumping up and down with excitement, breaking the illusion that a perfectly trained army was marching towards Mallar, but they were quickly put back in line by their parents who are all proudly watching from the crowd.

Morgan stands in front of me. I find it hard to believe that this sweet little girl, wearing a blue and white checked dress, could be anything but cute. She is waving so enthusiastically to her friends that I am afraid her arm might act as a propeller and she will take off into the air.

Suddenly, there is a slight change, almost as though a ripple passes through her. It is so subtle that I may have missed it if I hadn’t been looking directly at her. Morgan is staring straight into one of the Nineling girl’s eyes. She moves her hand to her neck and at first it looks like she is scratching, but her thumb extends out and draws a straight line across her throat, her head slightly tilted to the side, her face blank. Any remnant joy has been wiped away. Morgan moves her hand from her throat to her ear in an effort to appear inconspicuous. The joy that she had showed earlier returns to her face and she continues waving to her friends as they pass by, as though nothing has changed.

I can’t move. I am pierced by fear and my body goes into immediate fight or flight mode. The tell-tale signs of fear begin to appear. Sweat forms on my brow and my breath quickens. My heartbeat is so loud and fast in my chest; I am sure everyone around me can hear it. Clearly someone does, because in the next moment Morgan whips her head around to look at me.

‘You okay big brother?’ A huge grin spreads her lips wide. It would have seemed like a cute gesture from a little sister to a big brother, but after what I just witnessed I see it as a warning. All I can see is her mouth, full of teeth.

I reach forward and touch my mum’s arm to get her attention.

‘Mum, I’m just going inside to get a drink.’ She gives me a quick nod and then goes back to waving and smiling at the children, pulling Morgan to her and giving her a big hug. ‘This will be you next year,’ she announces to Morgan, squeezing her so tight her shoulders are forced up to her ears.

The next morning at breakfast I can’t look at Morgan the same way. The threat that she made to that little girl is still etched in my mind. It plays over and over on a loop.

‘Nathaniel?’ I am snapped back to my kitchen, where Morgan sits opposite me munching on her piece of toast with strawberry jam. ‘What are the white domes for?’

I freeze and scan the room for any signs of mum or dad. ‘Where did you hear about them Morgan?’ I whisper.

‘I just remember the look on your face when Tenille’s house was covered in that dome. Too bad she’s gone. She was nice.’ A sweet smile spreads across her lips. She pushes back her chair as she stands up. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her voice is low and measured and it terrifies me. She turns and skips away.

Words escape me and I chase after her. How does she know?

‘Morgan! Open the door. Tell me what you know.’ There is silence behind the door. I reach down to turn the doorknob, but it’s locked. ‘Damn.’ I clench my fist and pound on her door again, over and over, calling out her name. The sound has done nothing except draw my parent’s attention.

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

‘I just need to talk to Morgan.’ My mother’s face softens as she senses the desperation in my voice.

‘How about you sit down with her this afternoon? You are both going to be late for school if you don’t leave now.’ She places a hand on my shoulder and directs me to the stairs. ‘Have a good day at school sweetie.’

I grab my backpack on the way out and reluctantly start trudging off to school. I glance over my shoulder at my sister’s bedroom. She’s standing in the window, framed by two pink, chiffon curtains. Morgan doesn’t move, or smile or wave. She just stares at me. I turn around and focus on my shadow as it moves ahead of me, quickening my pace to leave the image of my sister behind.

I can’t focus on anything at school today except for what happened this morning. My teacher is droning on about algebra, but my head is swimming with questions. Should I tell Mum? Is Tenille still alive? Does Morgan know what happened to her?

The more I think about my sister’s strange behaviour, the more I begin to realise she’s behaving the same way as Mrs Smyth. Both are normally so kind and sweet, but that day when Tenille disappeared and she grabbed my arm was unlike anything that she has done before. The cruelty behind her eyes signalled her words as a threat. ‘You know nothing Nathaniel.’ Her words replayed through my mind and I freeze. Morgan said the exact same words this morning.

Suddenly, I spring from my chair and it rocks precariously on its legs, threatening to fall to the ground. Every head in the classroom turns towards me.

‘I’m not feeling well.’ I announce as I lift the lid of my desk to retrieve my backpack.

‘Okay Nathaniel, just go to…’ but I don’t hear the end of the sentence as I have already bolted from the classroom.

I run home, my feet pounding against the pathway and my backpack thumps against my back. Each perfectly manicured lawn taunts me as I run by. The perfection is too much.

1:00 pm on a Wednesday should place my sister in class, my dad at work and my mum at the grocery store. This is the only opportunity I would get to search my sister’s room.

The sound of our gate creaking no longer fills me with comfort. It only reminds me of the horror of that morning. But as soon as the door closes behind me I am overwhelmed with relief. It creates an instant barrier between Morgan and myself.

I race up the stairs, two at a time and fling open her bedroom door. Her delicate chiffon curtain sucks against the open window as I enter her room. The pink pillows are arranged on her bed in the usual way, but I can see a small white corner peeking out from underneath them. This seems too easy. I push aside the voice and rush towards the pillows. This was it, Morgan’s secret. I needed to know what she has been hiding.

I slowly open the front cover of the book, expecting to see a blank notebook, or perhaps a diary. We’d been taught that people used to keep track of their lives with forbidden pen and paper, instead of using computers like we do today.

I open to the first page and my throat goes dry. Adorning every page are circles, hundreds and hundreds of perfect circles. I drop the book and it falls flat onto the floor, opening up to the middle spread revealing even more pages, each circle mirroring the other. The breeze from the open window rifles through the pages as through they are moving by themselves; revealing their secrets to me. The sound of the turning pages mimics the sound of waves lapping at the beach and it lulls me into a false sense of security.

I pick the book up from the ground and flick through it. Every page is the same. There is barely any space left and almost all the white areas have been filled with menacing circles. I start turning the pages faster and faster.

That’s when the curtain is suddenly drawn against the window. Someone has entered the room. I slowly turn around, my breath struggling to move in and out, as if it is getting caught between my teeth. Morgan and Mrs Smyth stand in the doorway.

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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Twenty Seconds, Charlotte Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

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

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

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

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

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Pass Over, Alec Mallia

I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

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

‘Close the curtains will you?’

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

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

 

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

She looked up and down, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

I leaned back.

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

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

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

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

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

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

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

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

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

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

‘What sort of incident?’

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

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

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

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

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

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

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

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

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

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

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

I started walking east.

 

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Being: Mark Four, Melanie Adams

I.

 

The winter of ’92 had infected my mother with its frosty failure

It clutched her womb with barren hands

She haemorrhaged a me, mark three.

 

With a grievous contraction, she expelled

The coagulated nothing

Spurned by her body.

 

The stab was familiar.

 

In 1980, first blood seeped from her young form

Rippling tides of relief.

 

Summer of ’92, it had gripped her viscera

The day after the miniature cardiac throb caressed her ears

And the surge of maternal love sparkled in her chest.

Her arid figure cracked and crumpled.

 

My father’s shirt had promised them a daughter.

Draped in the vivid spirits of the Violent Femmes

His mind incanted: Let me go on.

 

My father bought a bounding ball of puppy fuzz

For my mother, as consolation.

 

Later, I heard ‘constellation’

Picturing all my selves that never were

Coalescing into celestial objects.

 

Doctors told my mother

Her anatomy was the great antagonist

Bellicose, designed to obliterate.

And yet, this determined speck

Clambered out of the mire of non-existence

A scatter of atoms, at first

Uniting into lungs, a brain

And a heartbeat.

 

And so I was.

Born all aperture, drinking my surroundings

With large brown spheres

Gleaming. Winking.

Slung from stellar oblivion.

 

II.

 

I was fourteen years, crushed up

A thousand tiny shells spat out by the sea

With its wringing tide.

 

Sinking in its mouth

Until my bones lodged in the back of its throat.

Life coughed up my skeleton.

 

The Violent Femmes and their jagged colours hung about my ribs

Fluttering, gored into strips by a decade of spin cycles.

 

I had grown from a clot of cells

To this, a self-immolating bush

Destined to blacken and burn out.

 

They said God’s hands had

Plucked me from the astral plane

Of their empty bodies

Flinging me through incandescence

To this dimension.

 

Why would God waste his divine fingers

Stitching something to squander?

 

My bled-out siblings called

From the belly of the earth.

I ruptured and burst like a tired star.

 

I was the sprout that had struggled

Through the concrete fissures of the footpath

Poking its fecund face

Into suburban spring.

 

I wanted to crawl back down.

 

To slide back down the spiral at the centre of the world

To slink back into

The hull of my mother

To sleep within her dormant walls

Secreted for a century

Before my renaissance.

 

Instead I was an unblinking eye

Inhaling weltschmerz

Without slumber.

 

Eating the city’s grime and feasting

On its acrid disappointment.

 

The shirt’s prophecy unravelled

Me, a violent woman

Dreaming of gunshot wounds

 

Pockets groaning with stones

Weighed down in the river

Hoping to sink.

 

Diffuse like light pollution

Lying limp on the floor.

Atomised. Paralysed.

Shredded to a joyless confetti.

Floating away.

 

III.

 

The moon mirrors my mother’s love

Luna urges me as she does the ocean

To lift its arms. To rouse itself from its bed.

To swell and embrace the salty shoreline.

 

My fragments, like iron filings

Magnetised back together.

 

I raise myself as a filament

Conducting light. Throwing it back

To my family, who so loved me

That they shovelled the soil of debt on their own shoulders

Just to hold me. Just to see my newborn face

And hear my infant giggle —

The mellifluous tinkle of chimes

Thirteen years in the making.

The shirt sacrificed itself to us.

Its vibrant creatures stretched and ripped

Beyond recognition.

I still feel the noble ghost of its ribbons

Stroking the crevices of my back.

 

Existential guilt still hums

A covert wasp’s nest crafted in my skull.

I will spray it away someday

But for now, I will cradle this tender glow

Cupping my hands

Over the blazing candle

Of being.

 

 

Works Cited

Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun.”1983. By Gordon Gano. Violent Femmes. Slash Records, 1983, Cassette.

 

 

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Deda’s Secret, Melinda Wardlaw

It was so cold out that Eli’s bones ached. A fierce wind rushed through the laneway and flattened his parka against his back. Lowering his head to buffer the gust, he dug his small hands deeper into his jacket pockets and trudged onwards through the cobbled laneway, steadily drawing away from his cosy row home and closer to the marketplace where he was to meet his Deda. Clumps of snow clung to the edges of the stone path; the middle was a shallow mess of sludge and dirt, making his journey treacherous. He slipped on a patch of black ice and threw his hands out to his sides to stay on his feet. ‘Woah!’ He kept on, lowering his face even further from the wind that gusted off the Vltava River as he got further from his small, but cosy home and closer to the city centre where he was meeting Deda at the marketplace. Miss Zvonicek had told his class that in the United States they call Chicago the ‘Windy City’. He thought maybe they hadn’t been to Prague in the winter; some days the wind was so strong he felt like it was going to blow the city right off the map.

Eli had his entire life savings—225 koruna—in the zipped inside pocket of his red parka. He stopped every few minutes to check that it was all still there. It had taken him a whole year to save up this much money; he hadn’t spent any of his birthday money and he was always trying to figure out how he could earn more. He often helped his neighbours by chopping and carrying in their firewood and Mrs Herink paid him five koruna each week. It wasn’t much, but it was all they could give. Sometimes money was too tight and they would offer a weak smile and a few logs to take to his mother, or a quarter of a bag of potatoes. He always said ‘thank you’, but he hated it when they paid him with potatoes. They were often soft with green parts and had weird bits growing out of them. Mostly he threw them away; Mum said not to bother bringing rotten vegetables home—they would only make everyone sick.

Deda always said that winter was for working and summer was for playing. He spent most of the days huddled in his small workshop at the back of his pre-war cottage sawing and chiselling blocks of oak into furniture to sell at the marketplace. That’s why Eli was headed there now, to help Deda sell his furniture. It was his first real job. Deda said he would give him another 225 koruna if he helped him sell his woodwork at the markets on Sundays. It wasn’t a job to be taken lightly. Eli was warned that it would be a very long day with a lot of standing up and little time for breaks. Some days, the worst days, snow fell quickly and the wind whipped up fierce and it was just horrible to be outside. On those days the marketplace was mostly deserted; there were never any customers to buy the furniture, which lead to a boring, freezing day with no sales and no money. Deda and Eli both knew that the following week would be tough with hardly anything to eat and a low supply of firewood.

Eli stopped when a scrawny ginger cat holding a small silvery fish in its mouth sprang out of a doorway and slunk past him soundlessly. He glanced down at the red scratch marks on his right hand from his last encounter with a stray before he ran on past a large stack of wooden crates balanced at the end of the laneway. He jumped over the low stone fence and out into a bustling street at the edge of the Old Town. Deda had said that the best way to get to the market was to stay away from the riverbanks and to cross over Charles Bridge, past the Astronomical clock, and into Old Town Square.

Eli had taken only a few steps onto the old bridge when he saw puffs of smoke coming from the direction of the marketplace. The hairs on his arms sprang up and he broke into a run, dodging a dawdling group of older ladies coming from the opposite direction. His pulse quickened and he rubbed his hands together. He turned his head over his right shoulder and called out to the ladies: ‘Did you see the fire?’

A round-faced lady wearing a red patterned headscarf turned to look at him. ‘Fire? What fire? There is no fire, boy.’

Eli pointed across Charles Bridge to where the smoke was thickening. ‘THAT FIRE!’

The five ladies turned and their eyebrows shot up. The shortest woman clasped both hands to her face and gasped, ‘Oh! It looks to be the marketplace.’

What? The marketplace? Eli sprinted the rest of the distance across the bridge. The Astronomical clock was nothing but a blur as he streaked along the cobbled streets. He passed an electronics store that had a wall of plasma screens showing the semi-final of the Czech Cup. He slowed just enough to get a glimpse of the score. Sparta Prague was up 2-1. Yes! He pumped his arms and picked up speed again. All he could think about was Deda and if he was okay; he wasn’t thinking about the cold or his life savings as he ran faster towards the Square. Suddenly, his left foot slipped on the ice and he skidded forward, losing traction. He waved his arms wildly to keep his balance, but it didn’t work. He fell heavily onto his knee, tearing a hole in his only pair of jeans and scraping a layer of skin off. He cried out, but there was no one around to hear. The pain shot through his leg and it swelled up immediately; a trail of blood ran down towards his shin. Eli kneeled there on all fours, stunned for a moment before he caught his breath and heaved himself into an upright position to inspect the wound. He brushed the snow off his knees and tried to run on towards the Square, but pain rushed into his knee and the best he could manage was an awkward limp. He had to get to Deda. He had to help him move the furniture.

The money in his pocket meant nothing anymore.

His knee ached and he stopped for a moment, hoping the pain would pass. It didn’t. Eli took a deep breath and hobbled on towards the marketplace. He covered the distance as quickly as he could, but soon the smoke spread further and stung his eyes; breathing became harder and he choked back air that burned his throat. He limped on and his shoulders tensed when he saw several hefty men scurry across the Square with hoses and large white buckets of water. He wiped an arm across his brow, quickened his pace, and covered the fifty long meters to the marketplace, hobbling on his sore leg. When he reached the tents of the marketplace he stood on tippy toes to try and see where the flames were coming from, stretching his neck to see further. ‘DEDA! DEDA!’

No one answered.

At the back of the marketplace he saw that the flames had already devoured the end rows of trestle tables, scorching everything in their path. The blaze moved on and was licking the narrow legs of the next row of stalls. Deda’s furniture was directly in the path of the blaze and all he could do was watch. He turned and weaved through a line of ornate black lampposts that framed the outer stalls in the search for his grandfather. The knots in his stomach tightened when he couldn’t see any sign of Deda, or any hint of the other stall holders. Where are the people? The tables towards the front had been abandoned even though they had been prepped for sales, only today there were no sellers and buyers. Eli pushed past a pile of purple velvet and ran deeper into the marketplace calling out to his grandfather. ‘Deda! Deda! Where are you?’

Still no one answered.

He stood and looked all around at the chaos not knowing what to do. Determined flames licked hungrily at the tables and took hold, devouring every last morsel it touched. From behind him, he heard the sound of heavy boots stomping on the cobblestones. Two of the hefty men ran past struggling with a hose, the one wearing a reflective jacket yelled out to him. ‘Kush, Kush, little man. Get out of here before your tail catches fire!’

Eli’s heart raced in his small chest and the heat prevented him from staying within the markets. He limped backwards, not able to take his eyes from the flickering flames.

Eli watched a balding man run to the back stalls and signal to someone to turn the hose on. Water spewed out and onto the tables drenching everything that had been burnt and ruining anything else that hadn’t. Eli turned and hobbled out of the marketplace. Outside, the smoke enveloped him and his breath became raspy as stinging tears streamed down his cheeks. Eli wiped his eyes with his sleeve and was amazed to see Deda’s little fluffy cat, Churchill, slink out from behind a garbage bin and sit on the kerb twitching his singed tail. He ran over to Churchill and hugged him close. The small cat miaowed and rubbed his head on his shoulder. He then frantically looked around him and felt the knot in his stomach tighten again. Where is my Deda? He couldn’t see him anywhere. He was alone and he didn’t know what to do.

A moment later, he heard heavy footsteps and, like a mirage through the smoke, Deda appeared and put a protective arm around his shoulders. ‘Eli! There you are! Come now, come.’

Churchill jumped out of Eli’s arms and ran straight to Deda, weaving in and out of his legs. Eli threw his arms around Deda’s waist and held on to him as tight as he could and he felt the knot in his stomach disappear. They walked away from the marketplace and headed in the direction of home, but before they reached Charles Bridge Deda steered him off into a nearby pub. Eli looked over his shoulder to make sure that Churchill followed closely behind.

A beer and a glass of lemonade were placed on the bar and the two sat and drank in silence. After a time Eli spoke. ‘Deda, where were you?’

‘Eh? I was looking for you!’

Eli smiled weakly. ‘So what will we do now? How will we buy food this week?’

The older man looked earnestly into his grandson’s wide eyes and sighed deeply. ‘We will manage with what we have. Times have been tougher than this.’ Deda patted Eli’s knee and continued, ‘Not everything goes to plan, but we go on. We have to look past what has happened and live for what comes next.’

Eli sipped his lemonade and nodded. He felt hope that everything would be okay. The furniture was gone and Deda seemed to be alright about it. His shoulders slumped forward and he sighed deeply.

He glanced up when he noticed that Deda had swivelled in his seat and placed a rough hand on his knee, pointing to the flat screen television showing the Sparta game where the score was 2-2. Eli nodded and gave a weak smile. He loved the football and he dreamed of going to watch a live game someday. That would be the best thing ever. But he knew that there was no way he would have enough money to go.

A huge cheer erupted from a group of merry men huddled around a small table. They were staring at a flat screen TV where the semi-final had just finished. Sparta Prague had won the game 3-2 by a last minute goal. One of the men jumped out of his seat and fist-pumped the air, beer flew from his upraised glass and landed in a splat onto the gaudy carpet while the others all laughed and clapped. Deda laughed along with them and winked at Eli.

‘See? All is good.’

Then he dug his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket, brought out a narrow white envelope and handed it to Eli, motioning for him to open it. Eli’s eyebrows lifted and he flicked a glance at Deda before he turned the envelope over and tore it open. He found a folded piece of paper inside, but he could feel that there was something else folded up with the letter. Eli looked up into Deda’s twinkling eyes and took a breath in. He looked back down at the letter and unfolded it quickly and gasped. In his hand he held two tickets to Letna Stadium. Oh wow! Eli’s eyes widened and he looked slowly up at Deda and then back to the tickets. His arms were covered in goose bumps and his mouth dropped open. How did he get these? Eli tried to speak, but no sound came out. Deda clapped a light hand on his back, lent in and kissed him on his forehead.

‘We are going to the final next Sunday. Stop worrying. Everything is good.’

 

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Solid Sand and Broken Water, Hannah Baker

i.

He had soft sage and lavender fingers

When his mother took him up the estuary

To his brother’s tiny grave. Her first-born,

She told him, still-born, but still borne.

For months she carried him, thinking only

Of his potential, then lost him like a limb.

 

Suddenly become a second son,

He doesn’t feel like a miracle.

Unless they’re supposed to grow

More insubstantial, year by year.

 

Now he can’t help but hold sensations,

Keep them pressed into the soft mud of

His muscles, either side of his stony spine

 

Like the smell of cold grass, broken and

Sharp, wound round his little knuckles

Until he felt the hair-thin roots give.

He shuddered and stopped tugging

But those blades bit back and dug

Their imprint deep into his fingers.

 

Surely his brother would only be bones,

And even those pitted in this acidic soil.

 

Porous surfaces never used to panic him,

But the stinging sight of honeycomb now

Swells his tongue back to close his throat.

 

He tries to run, to only glide over the earth

And so ward off its patient hollow hunger,

But gravity forces his feet to knead the ground,

And long for rest on this grassy headland.

 

Though his soles are callused they still sweat,

And the veins show through his instep,

Blue and green like branches and streams.

 

Thick clay skin means nothing

When the cracks threaten to leak

His beaten blood.

 

Even the sea breeze bores into him

But the warm honey sun is soothing

And from this high the sand is as solid

As anything can be.

 

Every direction leads, he thinks,

Not to headstones holding old bones down

But to ribs exposed like mangrove roots.

 

ii.

Death happens, not easy but often.

Entropic, all matter is mostly vacuum,

It would be easy for lethargy to sink into

Atoms, and for weary rock to turn to sand.

Observed closely enough, coastlines are infinite,

And molecular gaps keep anything from ever truly

Touching. But somehow matter retains, regains,

Its energy, even advances to animation when

Bodies meet, or bloody waters break and

Out of the lather erupts something new.

Not easy but often, life happens too.

 

iii.

She laughed out sea roses as a child,

When her father warned her off wanting.

Still the smell of certain perfumes and the sea

Clearly recalls to her the sticky softness of

Petals unfurling and clinging to her tongue

Before tumbling off the cliff of her lips.

 

He told her she had been born too early.

Half-knitted, with fluid in her lungs

And a film of foam for skin,

She might have unspooled again.

But she chose to cough and cry instead.

 

Surviving with just this, she sometimes still

Feels like a miracle, and marvels at herself:

No tiny flame wind’s whim could flicker out.

 

By holding heart-sized stones she learnt to

Swim in a lake as cold and sharp as glass.

Her lungs already knew the worth of leaking,

But gravity needed help to hold her down.

 

With hands like lace she dried and sewed

Lilies and larkspur between her petticoats

And cocooned herself, as if with paperbark

 

Then paced, finally leaving distinct prints,

But passing unstung through the bees in the

Clover, over pine needles and rosemary, into

The solid embrace of the wind. Sand blows

Into the old scars of her eyelids, still she reaches

For the shape into which she wants to grow.

 

She will expand, year by year, from within,

And when all her layers chafe she knows

Her pumice-light bones will keep her afloat.

 

The bruises that bloom and linger only show

Where everything else ends and she begins.

 

Her pulse beats in her lips, drowning out

The pounding waves. Her heart had been,

Before her birth, only ghostly filigree:

Useless, however delicate and complete.

 

Now she’s dense and centrifugal, feet planted

In shifting sands, scoured by salt spray and

Spitting rain. She can afford to shed a little;

She’s known plenty of loss, but no lack.

 

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Attached, Elín Kristjánsdóttir

‘WHERE IS THE MONEY?’
‘I – I…’

‘WHERE IS IT?’

‘My – my – my friend…’ her voice vanished. Ploy cried, and Ton stood silent, sympathising. Their empathy would not save her. The salty taste of tears wet her mouth. The strike hit her skin, and every muscle in her body contracted.

*

The rooster crowed and the sun had not yet risen. Dim was already awake. Her tailbone rubbed through the thin mattress against the wooden floor as she struggled to find a comfortable position. Only a few more minutes, she thought. Her siblings piled up next to her like puppies unconsciously fighting for the warmest spot. Ton was at the other end, still like a mummy, wrapped in the only blanket that was to be shared, while Ploy clung to her own hug, shaking like a leaf caught in a typhoon. Dim stood up and spread the blanket equally over her siblings before covering herself in a floral green and gold sarong. She felt the chill of the morning breeze as she stepped into the dusk. Drizzling, shiver-awakening showers were heard in the distance and Dim dipped the bucket into the river before releasing the bitterness over herself. The drizzle bit her skin like a pile of nails, digging deeper into her bones with every dowse. Deprived of physical sensation, Dim shakily changed into torn shorts and a faded purple tee, and the tingling de-goosing skin eventually generated a radiating feeling.

The jetty was slippery and as she walked, Dim continuously imagined a scene in which she would fall silently into the river. She didn’t have the faintest idea of how to swim. She had been afraid of depths ever since she remembered herself. Dim recollected that deep within the lifespan of her unconscious soul, was a coda, situated somewhere in the depths of an unknown darkness. Dim’s passage of thought was disturbed when she discovered her grandmother in the kitchen, already cooking her dumplings.

‘Yai! What are you doing? You don’t have to do my work!’

‘Mai pen rai, child. The freezing breeze has already awakened me, and since I have nothing to do, I might as well help you. Your mother is already gone, so we have to hurry.’

‘Yai ka, have you chopped everything?’ Dim asked.

‘Oh, yes child. I have chopped the sweet lettuce, the garlic and ground the chicken already. Why don’t you fry the ingredients while I grind the peanuts? You fry it just the way I taught you remember?’

Dim was very talented when it came to memorizing recipes and methods of how to prepare Thai delicacies. In fact, she was so gifted that her mother withdrew her from school as she concluded that there was more advantage in having Dim cooking and selling treats at the street corner of Lad Phrao 68, than being brainwashed by a governmental figure. Dim poured the oil over the wok pan before throwing in the garlic. The fumes dominated her senses.

‘Hom jang, gratiem lan sao,’ her grandmother sang as a compliment.

‘Kob khun ka, Yai,’ Dim thankfully replied and added the ground chicken, stirring it sharply. She dropped the sweet lettuce into the blend and continued stirring before adding the palm sugar along with other flavours. She measured the soy sauce with great attention, never less than three splashes and never more than five. Too much saltiness easily destroyed the entire process, while too little saltiness resulted in dull-looking dumplings. The perfect portion of soy sauce produced a finger-licking tastiness, good-looking dumplings and a successful day of vending. Therefore, perfection was essential.

‘Oh, you’re at that stage already! Hang on; let me add the peanuts,’ her grandmother exclaimed. Dim stirred the dish until it was non-sticky, and a smile snuck through her lips. The aroma watered her mouth while her tummy trembled for a taste.

‘Now take the wok pan off the stove dear and put a smaller pot on for the garlic.’

She took the ground garlic and soaked it in vegetable oil before putting it on the stove to be heated. Meanwhile, she joined her grandmother in kneading the filling into small beads. Then she drained the tapioca pearls, which had been soaking overnight, added four tablespoons of vegetable oil, and gave the dough a light massage. It was astonishingly soft. Those dumplings would melt so nicely in one’s mouth that there would be little need for chewing. Once again, she smiled, frothing over her own creation. Not a single soul would find her dumplings undesirable. The smell of the filling was still haunting, as Dim struggled not to lick her dumpling-infused fingers.

‘That’s perfect dear! Now let us knead the filling into pockets of tapioca shall we? We are running out of time,’ her grandmother said.

Dim took a bead and just the right amount of tapioca and rubbed it around the bead, sealing it perfectly. The mouth-watering, stomach-crumbling process of steaming took an hour, and then the dumplings were ready to hit the road. Dim’s grandmother soaked the cooked dumplings with garlic oil while Dim placed them neatly on the stall, and strew fried garlic over them as a final touch. The dumplings stood on the show-table, incredibly proud for being dumplings, her dumplings, Dim thought. The slightly visible kneads shone beautifully through the transparent pockets of tapioca pearls, with their light garnish of garlic. They were the rulers of the stall’s kingdom, kings and queens dominating over all other dumplings in the Universe.

‘Have you washed the cabbage and the chilli dear?’ her grandmother asked when the stall was otherwise ready for departure.

‘No I haven’t!’ Dim replied and hurriedly washed what was to be served with every portion of Saku Sai Gai. Dim imagined the cabbage and the chilli being servants of her highnesses. Ton and Ploy were already up and about, picking at Dim’s majesties when they thought she wasn’t looking.

‘HEY! You can only take two pieces each!’ she said, slightly annoyed.

Dim secretly examined Ton’s abraded back as he stood devouring the savoury, feeling sorry for him. She could feel the twinge splitting her skin, thinking about it. It hadn’t been his fault. That bastard girl of their father was the one to blame. The coal on her face obviously gave it away, but their father took his second-wife’s side, blaming Ton for the trouble that spoiled brat had caused. Their useless father regularly made up his own truths, intoxicated by distilled sugarcane residues, causing trouble, which was not as private as he tended to think, rather it was trouble for everyone but him. His unreliable facts were nothing but rubbish, for which their repressed and co-dependent mother constantly fell victim. Dim’s self-claimed responsibility was to endure that misery to protect her younger siblings. Love was nothing but an infinite torment she thought, for which she was determined never to fall. Dim had no chance of protecting her brother this time. Indistinct utterances in the dust, her objections were. Without shedding a single tear, Ton had stood steady as a bull while his back was torn to shreds. He stood for his dignity, like an honest person would, for he had no reason whatsoever to light his own house on fire.

‘Thank you Pee Dim! The dumpling was absolutely yummy-yum-yum!’ he called out with a smile that melted her heart. Nothing took that boy’s joviality away, no matter how often he was unfairly and hard-heartedly treated.

‘I’m happy you liked it nong chai.’

Ploy was hiccupping like a stressed baby. It made Dim feel uneasy, since hiccups always meant something bad.

‘You silly-bean! You ought to drink water when you chew on the dumpling. Your throat is too small to chew it like pee Ton.’

Dim gave Ploy a glass of water, which she drank like a thirsty dog. Dim made sure she swallowed the hiccup away before leaving, since that silly toddler could easily forget that it had a hiccup, heaven forbid, whatever it could bring about.

‘I’m off guys. Take care of yourselves and behave so you won’t get into trouble… and don’t leave your hiccups unattended!’ Dim said before taking off with the stall. She was wearing the new apron that her grandmother gave her. It was yellow in colour with a detachable money-pocket. There were still a few coins in it from yesterday’s salary, however her mother had certainly emptied it from the day before, leaving nothing but necessary change. Her grandmother stood looking at her, smiling.

‘Chok dee na, lan sao! Kho hai ram hai ruai na ja!’ she said in a teasing voice. Dim placed her palms together and lowered her head.

‘Kob khun ka yai.’

‘No need to Wai for me dear, I know how grateful you are.’

The traffic slowed Dim down, as she hurriedly pushed the stall towards her destination. Kids clad in white shirts and navy bottoms howled continuously as they sat at the back of moped-taxis, passing through much quicker than the standstill cars. Vendors were already sweating heavily. Impatient customers had their eyes fixed on their watches and Dim could hear their bellies crumbling. She sped up, for she knew that time was money.

Dim wondered if Fon would join her in the afternoon. She had never introduced or mentioned her to her mother. Dim’s mother didn’t like people who weren’t family.

‘They can’t be trusted,’ she stressed over and over again.

Fon had been incredibly helpful for the past few weeks, coming over every other day. They used to go to the same school, before Dim was pulled out to work. Fon helped Dim with the customers and kept her company. She was pretty funny, but sometimes she expressed childish behaviour. It got on Dim’s nerves slightly, but most of the time she ignored the fact that she often found Fon annoying. Dim thought it was better to have some company rather than no company at all. Fon had never invited Dim to her home, or told her where she lived, neither had Dim invited Fon to her house, for that matter. Dim was surprised to see the first customer of the day already waiting at her spot. Perhaps not so surprising anymore, it was the boy who had been her first customer daily for the past three weeks.

‘Two portions, krab,’ he ordered his usual, with a big grin on his face. Dim put ten pieces of dumplings in two separate boxes and placed them in a plastic bag before adding fresh cabbage and chillies. The boy was obviously excited to receive his first meal of the day. Dim couldn’t help but wonder what he found more exciting; eating her dumplings or touching her hand.

‘Kob khun krub, khun suay,’ he said staring at Dim, waiting for her to respond. She felt quite awkward.

‘Mai pen rai,’ she said, and he thankfully took off. Flirting was such an awkward act, she thought, especially when she had no interest in getting involved with anything that had to do with love. Dim hoped that he would give up his hopes soon enough, he would have better luck flirting with Fon.

There were always two peak hours during the day in which the dumplings disappeared like a spill in the searing sun; the mornings between seven and nine and the afternoons between three and five. Normally, Dim would be out of dumplings at three thirty. Fon joined her at noon, chewing on two, then three dumplings, and babbling about her day. Dim had saved some money that she kept in a secret pocket in one of her two long-pants which she would use to pay for Fon’s dumplings later that afternoon. Expressing gratitude was something her grandmother had taught her. As Fon bragged about a boy she had a crush on, Dim wondered if Fon appreciated her generosity, but Dim’s attention was caught upon hearing the word Silom.

‘SILOM?’ Dim replied flabbergasted; ‘That is like two hours away and only rich people live there!’

‘I know right!’ Fon replied; ‘He said that he would get me a job.’

‘What kind of a job?’ Dim replied suspiciously.

‘Oh who cares when it’s in Silom! Probably at a hotel or something. I will be working around the rich and wealthy and in the end that will get me a rich man and a very nice life,’ Fon said. Dim decided to keep her mouth shut, as she didn’t wish to ruin Fon’s fantasies. A girl, merely a teenager would never get a job at a nice hotel in Silom. There was something dodgy about that boy of hers, Dim thought, he was most likely a third-rate character, that is to say, if he was real.

About fifty dumplings were left and peak hour was approaching when Dim realised she couldn’t hold it out without going to the toilet. Fon recognised her agony.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked.

‘I really need to pee… Would you mind watching over the stall and taking care of the customers for 5 or 10 minutes, please?’

‘Ohh I thought you were unwell! I don’t mind at all! I will guard the stall with my life and sell the dumplings like a pro,’ she said with a cunning grin on her face.

‘Thank you… I will leave you with the apron in case you will need some change if it gets busy.’ Dim said. Without thinking, she took off her apron and sprinted towards the toilet.

Her need was great enough that Dim worried she would indeed wet herself. An attempt of ripping the door open failed for it was locked, leaving her agonized. Dim lowered her clenched legs and secretly pushed against her lady pocket, swearing she would have it cut off. The waiting felt like an entire lifetime. It was Lung Pui that eventually came out, the vendor from across the street. Ashamed, he looked at Dim as he saw her releasing the hold of her nose.

‘Oh, hey Dim, I didn’t realise it was you… I am so sorry about the stench in there… I got a slight food poisoning,’ he looked at her guiltily as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. He did look sick indeed. Dim rushed into the toilet without offering any kind of comfort to Lung Pui. She had already watered herself slightly, and the rest was due to escape if she failed to hit the bowl in time. A euphoric reflex ventured throughout her body like a flux of released feelings of repression, but Lung Pui’s horrendous odour managed to make its way to Dim’s senses all the same. She began retching uncontrollably, and ran out as if being chased by a noxious ghost. It wasn’t until the toilet was out of her sight that the retching finally stopped. And a hiccup throbbed her throat like a Glawng Yao. Dim was petrified. She ran towards her stall convinced that something bad was happening. She worried about the various scenarios of Fon’s troubles, was she being bribed? Whatever it was, something was not right. Dim squinted her eyes to make sight of the stall in distance as she ran. Speed increased with every step as the sight of the stall became clearer.

The stall was vacant, abandoned. The fifty or so dumplings vanished, and Fon was nowhere to be seen. Dim circled around the stall in a panic. She wondered if her savings were enough to replace the loss, the chances were slim. Thinking back to her younger brother, knowing she was bound to receive the same fate; the skin-cutting strikes, the blood streaming and the scars to be left on her skin, made her shake like Ploy this morning, the leaf caught in a typhoon. She spotted her apron few metres away from the stall and ran towards it, full of perhaps unrealistic, desperate expectations.

Later, when Dim’s back was beginning to heal slightly, Lung Pui claimed to have spotted Fon disappearing onto a bus with a bag full of dumplings in one hand, and Dim’s detachable pocket in the other. She seemed to have quit school; for Ton never saw her there after the theft, and neither did the entire neighbourhood. It was a peculiar case; it was as if the earth had swallowed her. Recalling that boy she had mentioned, Dim deliberated whether Silom had befallen her.

 

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The Worst Kind of Pain, Ceyda Erem

I watched them quickly approach us as I held her back, her piercing shrieks and cries ringing in my ears.

‘My son! Michael, my son! Please!’ she yelled through tears, her hands balling into fists as she pushed her weight against mine. I underestimated how much upper body strength she actually possessed. The smoke made it harder to breathe. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for that little shit. Through the greyish haze they reached out to us, helping me hold Emily back.

‘Ma’am, I need you to stay calm for me. There is no way I am letting you back into the house. Now, if you give us two minutes, I’m about to send in my best men to go and find your son. We’ll get him out,’ he shouted affirmatively, adjusting his helmet. ‘For now, I just need you guys to stand back and try not to inhale the smoke, okay?’

‘Two minutes?! This is my son! We don’t have two minutes!’ Emily cried, while going red in the face and forcing her body forward as hard as she could. She turned to me. ‘Anthony, do something!’

‘Em, they’ll get him. It’s gonna be okay,’ I lied, attempting to pin her arms down. There is no way I’m letting her in, that kid will have to figure it out himself.

*

Mum always told me that the fire alarm was important. And that the batteries needed to be changed often. Maybe I should’ve listened. I mean, when she would come home from work, she’d normally go right into the kitchen and start cooking dinner. Maybe she told me because it was my job to change them. But what about Anthony? He’s taller; he could’ve done it. Mum even said that when he moved in he would help out more.

I smelt the smoke while I was doing my homework. I thought mum had just burned something like she always does, even though I didn’t hear her come home. At one point I thought I heard a door slam, but I figured I was just hearing things. Kinda funny that she’s a chef and she still manages to burn dinner sometimes. She calls it stress. Then the smell started getting worse and I figured something wasn’t right. I went out of my room and ran downstairs. The lounge room was empty except for bright orange fire that was sitting on the couch and climbing across it. I screamed loudly and turned around to run back upstairs.

There was no one home, how could this have happened? My house is on fire, my house!

With each step I took, my stomach climbed higher and higher, tempting itself to fall out of my mouth. When I finally reached my bedroom I knew that I would need my big, grey jacket. I wasn’t leaving without my dad’s stuff. He died, well, passed away (that’s what mum tells me to call it), three years ago in a car accident. I was seven. Mum let me keep some of his stuff and the rest we gave away; by force, you might say. I only kept the things that were important; like his fishing rod and his favourite tie.

The things that made him special. I didn’t know how I was going to carry everything out on my own, but my jacket pockets were deep and I had to try.

They taught us about fire safety in school so I knew what to do. They told us to crawl out of the burning house so that you don’t inhale too much smoke. I made a list in my head of the things I had to get that belonged to my dad. First thing I needed was all of our pictures together; they were in my desk drawer. Those would definitely fit in my pockets. I ripped my jacket off its hanger and rolled the big sleeves up. Mum said I would grow into it eventually. While fumbling with the knob of my drawer, I knew I had to act quickly or I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I scooped my hands underneath my school clothes and threw them onto the floor. The photographs lay at the bottom of my drawer, concealed from the world. I was tempted to quickly flip through some of them but the sudden burning in my throat changed my mind. It started to become harder for me to breathe and an uncontrollable cough took over. Before I took another step, I couldn’t help but notice the photograph that was stacked at the top. It was the first time my dad had taken me fishing on the water. I had my short blue rod dangled over the boat with my dad standing behind me, helping me.

‘Dad, I can’t breathe in this life jacket, can’t I take it off now?’ I had asked, struggling to lift my arms up. I could feel the sun burning down the length of my back and neck and the choppy waves made standing still look like a job. But I was happy regardless because my dad was about to teach me how to cast a line. He had told me to keep an eye on the string as it flew out and to be aware that if it got tangled, you were screwed.

‘Your mother will kill me, so no,’ he had answered with a smile, looking over to my mum who was preparing lunch. He moved behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders, preparing to help me cast for the first time.

‘That’s right, leave it on, sweetheart,’ my mum interrupted, reaching for the camera that sat at the top of her bag. My mum had always been one to savour every moment; ‘for the future!’ she would say.

‘Oh please, Mum, no,’ I complained, rolling my eyes as she prepared to take the photo. She shifted her body towards us and gestured that my dad and I move closer together. ‘One day you’ll thank me for all these photos, Michael.’

‘Smile!’

Carefully, I placed the photos within my pocket with one hand while the other covered my mouth. I could feel my eyes stinging as the smoke had started to seep from under my door. Tears started to run down my face when I realised that I had been storing away fear. My mind went to my mother still stuck at work having no idea what was going on. That the house we’ve lived in together for as long as I can remember was currently falling apart. Or Anthony, who should have been home by now. He married my mum last year in Fiji a week before my ninth birthday. I wasn’t allowed to go because I was ‘too young’; well, that’s what he told me. When we first met he would just stare at me, like I was an insect that needed to be terminated. I don’t think he wanted to be a father.

‘This is Anthony,’ my mother said with a glowing smile. ‘He’s going to be living with us from now on. I know you two will get along.’

We didn’t.

One of the things I had managed to smuggle into my bedroom was my dad’s favourite tie. He’d wear it when he knew he would have a good day at work. My dad enjoyed his job a lot and it made me realise that I wanted to be as happy as he was when I grow up. Mum said he was a businessman, which is why he was always in a suit. My dad’s tie was hung at the back of my cupboard, so no one would think to steal it. He had promised that one day I would have it, so I was just keeping up his end of the deal.

‘Michael, one day you’re gonna have to know how to tie one of these,’ he told me one morning while standing in front of a mirror. ‘All men have to learn how to do it. My dad taught me and now it’s your turn.’

‘But I’m not a man yet, dad,’ I answered while watching his hands wove around the tie. The way his hands moved looked like magic.

‘Who says you’re not?’

I shrugged my shoulders in response.

‘You do your homework every day, don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘You help your mum with the dishes when I’m not there, don’t you?’

I nodded again.

‘Well, it sounds like to me that you already are a man. They get things done even when they don’t want to. Now come closer and watch how I do it.’

With a deep breath, I started to walk towards my bedroom door. I didn’t know what to expect on the other side but I knew it couldn’t be good. For a moment I thought it was stupid to have gone back for the photos and tie, but I couldn’t help myself. It was Anthony who forced us to give the stuff away, probably from fear that my mum would miss my dad too much. My heart wanted to grab the fishing rod too before I left, but there was no time. I started to cry knowing that I probably would never see it again. I hoped my dad wouldn’t be mad at me for losing it.

I finally built up the courage and forced my hand around my doorknob. I almost wanted to close my eyes as I turned it but I knew I would have to face the outside of my bedroom eventually. I felt it was best to ‘take the plunge’ as they say and fling the door open. I gasped as I saw that the fire had almost reached the staircase. Carelessly, I threw the tie around my neck and hesitantly walked to the top of the stairs, my hands glued to the railings. As I walked I could reassuringly feel the photos, which moved as I did in the depths of my pocket. I was determined to keep them safe. When I looked over my heart began to race; the living room was gone. The coffee table and the couches had been reduced to nothing. My head had started to spin and my coughing intensified but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I couldn’t bring myself to be scared. I was just sad. Every memory that had been created and lived through within this house had vanished. Crumbled. The stitching of my house had come undone.

The wooden tables that circled around the dining table had been forcibly chiselled down to sharp points. The smell of burning wood was normally a favourite of mine, but right now, all it did was fill me with hate. With a heavy heart I watched as the fire seeped into the heart of the dining table and begin to swallow it whole. Every night at dinner my dad would tell a terrible joke to make my mum and I smile. Sometimes we’d laugh, but we’d mostly just smile at how terrible they were. It was our version of saying grace. Now that memory had been replaced with ash. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the front door.

It felt like it had been hours since I moved and my head felt as if it was about to fall off. They told us at school what would happen to you if you inhaled too much smoke. My stomach had started to feel queasy and churn violently. My lungs felt as heavy as cement and each breath I took became increasingly difficult. One of the neighbours must have seen the smoke by now. Did they call for help? Do they know I’m inside? Does mum know? I couldn’t wait any longer; I needed to get out of here. As I walked down the stares, my vision began to blur and my body started to droop uncontrollably; I was tired and weak. It was bad enough that the fire and smoke had torn my house apart; now it was trying to take me down.

I wasn’t gonna make it to the bottom of the stairs.

*

When they had told me I had gone into labour I panicked; I wasn’t ready. James had thrown in me into the wheelchair, screaming for the nurses to help. My contractions had started to appear every couple of minutes and I knew it was time to be taken to the hospital. James and I had been married for only less than a year but we were itching for a family. I could only see white fly past me as James raced me down the hallway with two nurses following speedily behind. He was running so quickly, I thought I was going to fall out of the wheelchair.

‘James, slow down, it’s okay,’ I cried out, my hands cupping the gigantic bump that was searing with pain. I didn’t really know if I was coaxing James or myself. It was then I realised that you could read as many books as your mind could handle, take as many breathing and nursing classes as you could afford, but you’d always end up unprepared. The nurses helped me onto the bed as I held my breath. They propped me up and leaned me against a stack of soft pillows that catered to my aching back.

‘You alright, Em?’ James asked while squatting beside me and reaching for my hand. He had looked more nervous than me.

‘Shhh,’ I replied immediately while squeezing his hand cruelly, feeling my nails dig into his skin. ‘Just please…don’t talk.’

‘Here if you need me,’ he smiled, knowing I didn’t mean to be so rude.

Minutes had turned into hours and I still had not seen or held my baby. I had reached my limit. Somehow through my constant screaming and crying I had managed to tell James to get the nurse nearby.

‘Everything all right?’ she asked cheerfully coming around the corner. I almost hated how happy and carefree she was.

‘How…much…longer,’ I groaned, squinting my eyes shut. She pouted her lips pitifully and walk to crouch near my legs, assessing my dilation.

‘You’re at 8 centimetres, you shouldn’t have long to go, dear,’ she told me softly. ‘Just hang in there for a little more.’

James tended to the building sweat that was now dribbling down my forehead and onto my lips. I could feel my heart race; it felt like it was bouncing off the inside of my chest. My body was in agony and I was ready to give up.

‘I can’t do it anymore, James,’ I whimpered, shaking my head as I spoke. ‘It hurts so much, I can’t.’

‘You can, Emily,’ he replied, stroking my hair softly. ‘I know you can.’

*

‘Sweetheart, look!’ I said to Emily, pointing to the dark shadows that were slowly emerging from the house. I squinted my eyes and tried to find Michael; either being carried in their arms or slowly walking behind them. As they got closer I could see the boy draped over one of their shoulders. He wasn’t moving.

*

Everyone says that labour is the worst pain imaginable.

They’re wrong.

Losing a child hurts more.

 

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