Tag Archives: family

Pass Over, Alec Mallia

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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

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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

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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

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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

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‘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

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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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Shrouds Without Pockets, Julian Knight

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‘Hello?’ I shout into the grey abyss around me for what is probably the hundredth time. ‘Can anyone hear me?’ I’ve been in this horrible place for what seemed like an eternity. I can’t honestly say how long I’d been here seeing as my watch hadn’t been there when I’d woken up. In fact when I’d woken up I’d had nothing but my clothes.

I’d walked, run, sprinted and even just sat down and waited in this place to try and make something happen, but so far I’d accomplished nothing.

I reached into my pant pocket to pull out my phone, but like the past ten times I found nothing there. I kept going to call my wife, Jean, and each time I found no phone.

Someone had stolen from me, that much was for sure. Then again, that was less of a problem given that they’d also stolen me. I was still in one piece though, I thought someone might have hurt me while I was out, but there wasn’t any sign anyone had so hopefully Jean and my daughter Abbey are okay as well.

I’m just standing here in an infinite grey void with no idea what I’m doing here. I’d simply woken up with no recollection of how I arrived or what I’m supposed to do. The last thing I could remember was getting in the car with Jean and Abbey.

This place was an anomaly to me, just an infinite grey mist stretching out in all directions. I couldn’t even make out a distinct floor.

It wasn’t hot or cold either, or any temperature at all. In fact, I couldn’t feel anything in this place, not even the pressure of my feet upon the ground.

There were shapes out in the void. They could be people, they did seem to be moving, although I had no way of knowing for sure. No matter how hard I’d run, I hadn’t seemed to get any closer or further from them.

Or maybe all the shapes were a reflection of me. Maybe I’d been drugged and put here as part of an experiment.

I’d heard of places like this before. It’s an optical illusion that makes it look like you’re in empty space, but it’s really just a round room with mirrors and smoke that trick your mind into walking in circles.

That must be it, that’s the only explanation that makes sense. With this revelation in mind, I set my shoulders back and strode forward purposefully, hoping to run into the wall I knew was right there.

I walked for a minute.

Then two.

Then I started jogging for five.

And then as my heart started to beat faster and I realised this wasn’t working I screamed in anger, and started sprinting.

After a second I suddenly tripped on my own feet and collapsed forward.

I nearly screamed as I fell forward into the abyss, only to be stopped by whatever invisible floor allowed me to stand.

I rolled over and lay on the floor for a second, feeling my rage turn back to despair. This damned place was endless, what could I possibly do?

“I have to find them!” I said out loud, that’s what I could do. Being in the car with Jean and abbey was the last thing I remembered, so maybe they’re here too, in this void or in another room if it really was an illusion.

I stand up and start running, this time screaming; ‘Jean! Abbey! Are you here?’

*

‘Come on girls!’ I shouted, sitting in the leather seat of the car, ‘The shoe shop closes in an hour!’

I heard a distant giggle as a response and sighed, smiling slightly to myself as I saw them get out and close the front door behind them in the rear view mirror.

I closed my door, letting the cool AC in the car start to cool me down as Jean and Abbey walked down the drive towards the car.

I sat and watched the cars go past in front of us. We’d bought a house on a main road as that was the only house that we could afford when we got the happy news Abbey had gotten into a selective school nearby. That hadn’t stopped me being unhappy about being near a main road, though; it was so loud and dangerous.

The passenger and back door opened and slammed closed as they got into the car.

Before I could start driving, Jean laughed slightly to herself and reached over and undid the top button of my shirt.

‘We’re going to buy shoes, not a house, you can relax.’

I smiled at her, and felt my shoulders slump a little as they un-tensed. This move had really taken a lot out of me.

‘So, are we ready to go to buy some shoes for this new school?’ I asked as I put the car into gear and began to role forward.

‘I don’t want new shoes Dad,’ Abbey said sadly all of a sudden, ‘I want to wear my old school shoes, at my old school.’

‘I know Abbey, I know.’ Jean responded, as I saw an opening on the road, ‘But this school is going to be good!’

I heard a honk from the right as I pulled onto the road.

Before Abbey could respond I felt a sudden strong force hit me and slam me against the arm rest, and then nothing.

*

I was panting hard as I ran, my voice hoarse from all the shouting.

That flashback had seemed so real I had to supress a shiver as I felt the AC blow against my arms.

As I slowed to a walk my heart slowed and the fire in my veins subsided, leaving an empty feeling in my stomach.

So I’d been in a car accident. Whoever made this place must’ve taken me after that. No wonder I hadn’t seen their car, they probably meant to run into us.

Suddenly, I heard a gentle cough from behind me and my heart leapt into my throat.

I span as fast as I could and nearly jumped out of my skin.

There’s a thing standing in front of me.

The thing had arms, legs and a head, but beyond that it had no features, it was just made of mist. It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

I swallowed my first response, which was going to be a scream, and simply asked, ‘Hello?’ My hands were shaking. ‘Who are you?’

‘Greetings.’ It nodded at me. Its voice was eerie, echoing like it was talking right next to my ear, although I could clearly see the shape floating a metre away from me.

That was not the answer I expected. I also didn’t expect the British accent that came with it. We just stood there for a second; I guess it didn’t want to answer the second question.

‘Did you put me here and take my things?’ I asked suddenly, my most pressing questions coming to mind.

It laughed at me, ‘I know not who put you here, and as to your things…’ It trailed off, ‘Have you not heard before? Shrouds have no pockets. You have naught but your soul.’

‘Shrouds?’ I asked, confused. ‘Is that what you call someone in this experiment?’

Again the thing just laughed, this time turning away from me. It began walking away.

I started following, asking it more questions as I realized it was getting further away from me, my voice slowly turning to a shout as it moved away from me.

‘Wait! Please just tell me why I’m here, what do I need to do to get out? Where are my wife and daughter?’

If it could move away from me it must know how to break the optical illusion in the room, if I could just stay with it maybe I could escape.

So I sprinted after it, even as it got further and further away, less distinct against the grey backdrop, until I realized it wasn’t discernible from the other shapes out in the void.

Out of breath I dropped to the floor.

‘I do have pockets, they just don’t have anything in them.’ I muttered under my breath, before breaking out laughing.

I laughed for a long time, although it slowly turned into a sob and then crying.

I had no idea what I was doing or even where I was.

I finally sighed and lay still.

*

I’d spent a lot of time on this floor.

Or at least I call it a floor. I’d felt very afraid and ill when I’d first woken up, floating in the void, I’d panicked and it’d taken me a while to get over the vertigo, and I still really didn’t like looking down.

If this is an experiment, maybe they’ll let me go if I refuse to participate.

If I just sit here and do nothing for even longer surely I’ll prove I won’t take part and they’ll let me out.

I’ll die eventually with no food or water and they can’t let that happen, I think.

I’ve probably been missing for hours now, let alone all the time I was unconscious. My mind turned to Jean and Abbey again.

I reached behind me to take out my wallet so that I could look at my picture of them.

As I put my hand in my back pocket I realized the stupidity of what I was doing. ‘No pockets, remember,’ I said to myself with a chuckle.

But I put my hand in my pocket anyway, and to my surprise, I found something. Instead of my wallet, I found only one thing.

A photo. Of my wife and daughter.

We’d had a professional photographer take it before we moved house. We’d gone down to a national park near our old house and all sat together, laughing and playing while the photographer stood back and took photos. There were a lot of good photos, things to put on the Christmas card we send out every year, but this one had been my favourite.

All three of us were rolling on the grass, me and Jean tickling Abbey as she tried to wriggle away. I felt a smile begin to form on my face. Even through the hard times, changing schools and moving houses we’d stuck together. And most importantly we could still smile together.

But then my smile started to fade and I came back to the grey abyss around me.

Why did I have this pictures and nothing else?

Were they here to taunt me? To threaten me?

In a fit of rage I stood up again and with the photo clutched in my hand I started walking again.

I was going to figure this place out, and most importantly, how to get out and find my wife and daughter.

As I took my first step everything went black.

*

Blood. Why could I taste blood? And the pain, all over my body. It was excruciating, like having every bone in my body break at the same time. I desperately hoped that’s not what had happened

Sirens where blaring somewhere nearby, or at least I think it was nearby. It could have been right next to me but my ears felt so muffled I couldn’t tell.

‘Quick, we’re losing him he needs a blood transfusion now!’ I heard a voice shout.

I tried to open my mouth to talk only to feel my mouth fill with the iron tang of even more blood.

I choked on it, and felt pain stab into my chest and stomach.

What was this, where was I?

I felt myself slipping again.

I heard a flat line beeping somewhere as it all went dark again, the shouting starting up again, but I couldn’t understand it anymore.

*

What the hell was that?!

Did I just die?

Or am I dead already and only just remembering it?

I realized I was collapsed face first on the floor, just staring down into the abyss.

I picked myself up and brushed myself off, even though there wasn’t dust in this place.

Whatever this place is. Purgatory? Hell?

Or did they drug me again and that was a delusion?

‘Oh!’ I heard a voice exclaim behind me in a rich British accent, ‘It’s you again.’

I turned slowly as I saw another shape, a shroud I guess, standing in front of me. It must be the same one, it had the same British accent and definitely seemed to recognise me, not that I’d be able to tell it from any other shape in this abyss.

‘I’m dead aren’t I?’ I asked, anger seeping into my voice, ‘That’s what you meant when you said shrouds don’t have pockets, that’s why I don’t have anything but my clothes.’

‘Yes, that’s the one. Welcome to what I guess must be Purgatory.’ It said with a small amount of humour, its arm like appendages raising and gesturing around ‘It took you a while to realize.’

My anger rose at that, but before I could shout at the shroud I realized there was no point, it was just some dead person too.

Suddenly something occurred to me, ‘Why do I remember the flat line? If I was dead how could I hear it?’

‘The soul only moves so fast, and it gets anchored to things, like your body, hence why many shades remember dying. Your soul still hasn’t let go, has it?’ it said gesturing to the photo

I’d forgotten about the photo, I must’ve kept clutching them when I passed out.

‘Why do I have this?’ I said staring at my closed fist. ‘I thought shrouds didn’t have pockets’

It laughed deeply at that, ‘You’re right, shrouds don’t have pockets, but our souls are not just us, they are also all the things we touch, and that memory must be a strong one for you to bring it with you here.’

I felt the numbness that had set in lift slightly, and my hand unclenched from around the photo and let me look at it again.

‘Does that mean I can find them?’ I asked looking back up at the shroud, ‘If I’m anchored to them?’

‘I don’t know, they might not even be here, they might’ve moved on, or maybe they survived whatever sent you here.’ It said in a tone which made it sound like it was shrugging, even if I couldn’t see the movement.

‘Wait, move on? Move on to where?’

‘Heaven I assume.’ It responded. ‘I don’t think this is all there is to the afterlife, that would be most boring.’

‘How do I get out of here?’ I asked, my hand clenching around the photo again

‘How should I know?’ it chuckled ‘I wouldn’t be here if I knew, I’m just a shroud like you. Some people do leave though, though it takes a wiser man than me to do it.’

‘Well I’ll do it,’ I said stamping one foot on the invisible ground. ‘I’ll get out of here, and I’ll find my wife and daughter, or wait for them wherever I end up.’

He laughed fully at that, his form shimmering and moving with the sound, ‘Maybe you will do it then, maybe determination is the key.’

‘Maybe we’ll see each other again?’ I asked, ‘Here or somewhere else’

‘Not likely I’m afraid, this is the first time I’ve met the same shroud twice. Maybe in the next world though. I wish you luck with finding your wife and child.’ It said

‘Thank you, good luck to you to.’ With that said I turned and strode away, leaving the other shroud behind.

This wasn’t an angry walk, or a despondent walk, this time I walked with purpose

I gripped the photo in my hand tightly as I walked. I was dead. Admittedly that wasn’t great. But there was hope that I could get out of here, either to meet Jean and Abbey in what would hopefully be a better world, or to wait for them.

 

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Lost, Ashna Mehta

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It was a quarter past nine. Rubbing her eyes, Evie sat up in bed, roused by the scent of frying butter and coffee wafting into her room from the kitchen. Untangling her legs from the quilt, she swung them over the side of her bed and stood up as she registered the familiar Saturday morning sounds coming from downstairs. She could hear the television in the family room blasting Spongebob Squarepants, which had become Benny’s favourite show as of late. Evie heard her father clattering around in the kitchen, no doubt making a celebratory brunch for her mother—she was due home from New York this afternoon after being abroad for close to a month for work.

Enticed by the idea of a big fry-up and coffee, Evie stepped out of her bedroom and made her way into the family room. Still in his pyjamas, Benny sat cross-legged on the couch, his eyes glued to the screen, thumb in his mouth. He looked up and gave her a toothy grin when she walked into the family room, his arms flailing for a hug.

‘Mama’s coming home today, Evie!’ He crowed, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist. He looked up at her, his face ruddy and crusted with Weetabix. He beamed at her and she grinned back.

‘Are you excited, Benny?’ she chuckled, eyeing the clumsy ‘Welcome Home’ banner that Benny had drawn for their mum. He’d spent ages the night before colouring it with his crayons and pleading with Dad to let him stay up just a little longer to finish it. Now the banner sat folded on the coffee table, ready to be hung up by the front door, although Evie knew her father would never get around to it. Ben gave her his best gap-toothed smile and nodded. Evie ruffled his hair and padded into the kitchen, where her father was making pancakes.

‘Will Mum be home in time to watch The Magic School Bus with me?’ Ben called out, his voice hopeful. Evie laughed.

‘Sorry, kiddo. Her flight doesn’t land until 11:00,’ her father answered, smiling. He had a spatula in one hand and was wearing an apron over his sweatpants and Rabbitohs T-shirt. Evie studied her father’s face as he flipped the pancakes on the griddle. His hair was still mussed from sleep and he hadn’t bothered to shave since her mother had left for her trip. His face had grown wider over the years and reminded her of a gruff but kindly headmaster.

‘So, miss.’ Sensing her presence in the kitchen, her father turned to face her, holding the spatula like a microphone. ‘What would you like with your pancake?’ He gestured to the kitchen island, where he’d set up a cornucopia of pancake toppings, replete with maple syrup, apples in cinnamon butter and chocolate chips. Evie felt a little burst of contentment unfurl in her chest; she loved mornings like this, when her Dad would make them celebratory brunch. Today, they had two reasons to celebrate; her mother’s arrival from New York and the first day of summer holidays.

‘The chocolate chips, definitely,’ she replied, perching on a barstool by the island. Moments later, a plate of warm pancakes was set before her, along with a steaming mug of coffee. A second plate and mug was placed next to hers soon after as her father settled beside her.

‘Are you excited Mum’s coming home?’ he asked, taking a sip of coffee.

‘Of course I am—but what’s she going to say when she sees the state the house is in?’ Evie asked. Her father glanced up from his breakfast, a forkful of pancake held comically in front of his mouth. He surveyed the kitchen, taking in the clutter and general detritus that seemed to accumulate twice as fast in her mother’s absence. Her father shook his head, a small smile dimpling his cheeks.

‘I’ve never seen your mother lift a finger, yet somehow the house is always spotless.’ He sighed. ‘Having said that, knowing her talents in the kitchen, you’re lucky I’m the one who made brunch today.’ Evie’s father winked.

Evie nodded, grinning. ‘Remember the meatloaf fiasco last Christmas?’ she reminisced, referring to the time her mother had become inspired by Nigella Lawson’s cooking tutorials online and had decided to make an entire Christmas dinner herself. Predictably, her mother’s attempt at domesticity had ended with shrieking smoke detectors, a charred meatloaf and takeaway boxes from the local Thai restaurant.

Her father laughed, his eyes crinkling in mirth. ‘Oh yeah—we made her sign an agreement that she’d never enter the kitchen unsupervised again.’ He nodded, his features softening as he remembered.

‘So are you leaving to pick Mum up from the airport soon?’ Evie asked, pooling syrup onto her plate.

‘Yep, just as soon as I’ve showered.’ her dad answered.

It hadn’t been easy, adjusting to Mum being away for so long. While the initial concept of having pizza for dinner and Pop Tarts for breakfast had thrilled her, Evie found that she couldn’t wait to have her mother back home, if only so she could stop looking after Ben while her dad was at work.

‘Good point. Big day for you, huh? Are any of your friends coming over today?’ her dad asked, draining the last of his coffee.

‘No—I haven’t made any plans with friends,’ she shook her head, swallowing a mouthful of pancake. ‘I was just going to relax at home today,’ she finished.

‘Okay, well try to coax that little cretin into the shower,’ her dad gestured to the family room, where Ben had resumed watching his cartoons. Evie gave her father a dubious look, remembering Benny’s cereal-encrusted pyjamas.

‘I’ll do my best.’ Finishing the last of the pancakes, she stood up and went to wash her plate in the sink. Her dad placed his plate and mug beside hers on the counter and went upstairs to shower. Evie enjoyed the sensation of the cool water on her hands as she washed the dishes, her mind absorbed in the pleasantly mundane task. Twenty minutes later, she heard her dad clatter downstairs, clad in jeans and a Polo shirt, his face shaved.

‘Evie, before I forget.’ He began, entering the kitchen where Evie had progressed from doing the dishes to tidying. ‘Please clean up a little around the house so your mum doesn’t think I kept you kids in a den of iniquity while she was away.’ he coaxed, a wry grin on his face.

‘Alright, as long as you promise to fix the porch light when you get home.’ She bargained. ‘Mum’s been nagging you to fix it for ages.’ Evie continued, wiping down the kitchen counter.

‘Sure thing, Evie.’ Her father chortled, patting his pockets for his car keys. After a brief scavenger hunt, they found the keys nestled in Ben’s toy box. Evie returned to the kitchen and kept tidying, the muted sounds of Spongebob and Patrick keeping her company. She heard her father shout a hasty farewell, followed by the familiar creak and groan of their ancient garage door rolling open. Soon, her father had gone, and it was just her and Ben.

*

Two hours later, Evie sat on the porch swing, a tattered paperback on her lap. A pitcher of iced tea sat on the coffee table by her side, sweating in the afternoon heat. Having spent the last two hours wrangling Ben into clean clothes, vacuuming the family room and tidying her bedroom, Evie felt like she’d earned a break and had decided to relax on the porch. Evie felt her phone vibrate from the pocket of her jeans and frowned as she went to answer the call; her father never called her. He always preferred to text.

‘What’s up, Dad? Is the plane delayed or something?’ she asked, noticing that her parents should have been home by now.

‘Honey, I don’t want you to worry because I’m still trying to get the details, but there’s been some sort of accident,’ her dad began, his voice strained.

Evie sat up on the swing, her eyes wide. ‘What sort of accident? What are you saying?’ she stammered.

‘I don’t… There’s been an accident. I’ve called Mrs Cassini and she’s going to watch you kids while I’m at the airport. She’ll be over soon,’ he spoke in a rush. Evie felt as if she had missed a step going downstairs; her stomach swooped and her heart seemed to stop for a few moments as her father’s words registered in her brain. Her mother, in an accident? The image did not compute; her mother was the most cautious person she’d ever known. This was the same woman who never gambled, drank only one glass of wine a week and drove five kilometres below the speed limit. Her mother, who would fret and call Evie if she was even five minutes late to pick Ben up from kindergarten every day.

‘Evelyn, are you still there?’ her father barked. Evie nodded, forgetting that he couldn’t see her over the phone.

‘Yes, I’m here,’ she croaked. ‘I’m scared, Dad,’ she quavered.

‘It’ll be alright. It will be fine,’ he answered, his voice slipping into autopilot.

*

They didn’t know much, but they knew that her mother’s plane had crashed. Hours later, Evie sat frozen on the couch, her eyes unfocused. Their neighbour, Mrs Cassini, a plump woman in her sixties, sat across from her, a skein of wool and the beginnings of a scarf in her lap. She had come over shortly after Evie had gotten the first phone call from her father and had sat with her and Ben while they waited for more news.

The TV was playing the five o’clock news, with segments every ten minutes about the plane crash. After a while, unable to bear hearing the same news over and over, Evie had muted the television and resisted the urge to chuck the remote at the wall. Her phone had been set to its loudest ringer, so as not to miss her father’s calls.

‘Try not to worry, petal. I’m sure your mama will be alright.’ Mrs Cassini consoled, glancing up from her knitting needles. Evie bit back a retort, but couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. She couldn’t see how Mrs Cassini’s irritating platitudes would help and resumed staring at the TV, her thoughts jumbled. The two of them sat in silence, with Evie staring at the TV, and Mrs Cassini engrossed in her scarf. Earlier, Evie had tried to settle Ben down for a nap. Picking up on the tension, Ben had become churlish and recalcitrant. He’d cried out in his sleep twice, but had otherwise been silent. Evie’s heart rate spiked as she heard the creak and groan of the garage door as it opened. Her father was home.

She was off the couch in a second, her palms moist. Her father entered the family room, his face weathered and beaten, as if he’d aged twenty years in a day. Worry lines creased his face, his eyes red and raw.

Evie stared at him, biting her lip. ‘What are they saying, dad? What happened to Mum?’ she questioned, stepping closer to her dad.

‘The airline said that there was a problem with the wing design, which caused wing failure,’ he answered. He sat down on the couch, burying his head in his hands. Evelyn waited, feeling dizzy.

‘The plane experienced mechanical failure over the Blue Mountains, and crashed somewhere above the ranges,’ her father continued. ‘They’ve sent helicopters and are making their best efforts to find survivors in the rubble,’ he finished, his voice breaking on the last few words.

Through all this, Mrs Cassini had listened in silence, her jaw slack. ‘But… Surely they must find survivors. In this day and age, there must be some,’ she wavered. The old woman’s unflinching optimism made Evie want to put her fist through a wall. Evie closed her eyes as she felt tears prick her eyelids. She didn’t want to imagine her mother hurt, scared and alone. Better to imagine her mother at home, dressed in her comfiest tights and tank top, singing along to Queen.

At a loss for words, Evie hugged her father, burying her head into his chest like she used to when she was little. He hugged her back, but his arms were stiff and mechanical. Sensing that he needed to be alone, she went upstairs to her parents’ bedroom, which was exactly how her father had left it this morning, before the accident. She closed the door behind her and walked through her parents’ bedroom like it was a museum.

All day she’d refused to cry, believing that it would somehow mean her mother had gone. But now, standing alone in the darkened bedroom, she dropped to the floor and leaned against the bed, her shoulders wracked with sobs. She remembered the kind of cries Ben used to make when he was a baby, but this felt different. This felt like grief with no end. Evie cried so hard she could hardly breathe, but her tears eventually slowed to long, deep sighs punctuated by the occasional sniffle. She heard muffled voices from downstairs, and listened, wiping her eyes. Mrs Cassini was trying to console her father, but her presence in their home felt downright intrusive now.

‘Listen darl, they wouldn’t have sent search and rescue teams to the crash site if they didn’t think there were any survivors,’ Mrs Cassini began. ‘Your Alison is a strong, wilful woman. I’ve no doubt she’s waiting for rescue right this moment in an air pocket. She’s got so much to live for!’ Mrs Cassini cried. For a few moments there was silence, before a loud slam echoed around the house. Evie flinched, her eyes wide.

‘Damn it, there are no air pockets! They don’t exist!’ her father bellowed. ‘She’s gone. My Allison’s gone,’ he groaned, his voice cracking. Mrs Cassini fell silent.

Tears began trickling down Evie’s face again; she’d never heard her father raise his voice to anyone. She heard Ben wail from his bedroom; her father’s shouts had woken him. Doing her best to wipe her face, Evie crept across the landing and into Ben’s bedroom.

He was curled up in bed, his face creased with worry. His lamp cast a warm yellow glow around his bedroom, reaching all the way from his bed to his bookshelf.

‘Why is dad angry, Evie?’ Ben asked, gazing up at her.

‘He’s not angry, Benny. Just upset,’ Evie soothed. She pulled a pile of books off the shelf to read to him just like her mother did whenever Ben couldn’t sleep.

‘About Mum not coming home?’ Ben mumbled.

‘Yeah, about that.’ sensing a change of topic was needed, she told Ben to pick a book from the pile she had chosen. He picked Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. Evie hesitated for a moment, but opened to the first page, nestling closer to Ben in bed. A picture of a young mother cradling her baby son greeted them and Evie read aloud, ‘There was a mother who had a new baby and she picked it up and rocked it back and forth and sang,’ her voice was hoarse from sobbing, but she persisted.

‘I’ll love you forever; I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living,’ here, she glanced down to Ben’s face. It was streaked with tears, his sobs so quiet she didn’t notice at first.

‘My baby you’ll be,’ Evie finished the song she’d heard her mother sing countless times before, tears rolling down her cheeks.

‘Is Mum going to come home, Evie?’ Ben sniffled.

‘I don’t think so, Benny,’ Evie whispered.

 

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Rip the Stitches, Jacqueline Bunn

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The crowd was all scraps of unfamiliar skin and dark clothing; black dresses and suits circling her in the church foyer. The chatter faded and swelled like an unrelenting tide and Lorraine, pulled to and fro by murmurs of sympathy, let herself be swept away.

What all these people had in common with Sally, Lorraine had no idea. But, she thought, people just show up at funerals. They were like weddings that way – disguised in the right attire and disposition, anyone could consider themselves welcome. Offering their condolences filled attendees with a calming sense of having done their bit, and what’s more, that evening they could turn to their spouse over the dishes and say, ‘Well, darling, I went to so-and-so’s funeral today. It was a lovely service.’ Then their spouse could ask who preached and whether the sermon was any good, and perhaps for a moment or two they both might feel very sad about the idea of death, but eventually they would wipe down the sink and watch some television and forget about it all.

Standing behind the kitchen servery window, a woman with long hair pinned into a perfect bun was explaining to Lorraine how very much her sister would be missed on the morning tea roster. Apparently no one had been quite as good as her at mixing the cordial the way the kids liked it. Incapable of really listening, Lorraine could only wonder at how early poor Susan was going grey. She herself was nearly seventy-two, and only just now starting to gain silver threads around her ears.

Realising how few nods and ‘hmms’ were required for Sue to continue in her reminiscences, Lorraine allowed herself the freedom of gazing through the grubby glass of the door behind her. Outside, the grey November sky was falling down in rivulets, dripping through the shadesail and flooding the lawn.

Not for the first time since her sister’s death, Lorraine found her thoughts taking her back to Papua New Guinea.

In the Papua New Guinean ‘dry season’ it had rained every second day. In the wet season, the downpours became so frequent that twenty-four rainless hours seemed unnatural. Mostly the deluges would arrive in the afternoon, right in time to drench her young sons’ games of tag at the Ukarumpa International School. These didn’t bother her, so long as she got her washing off the line in time. When the rain came in the morning, though, she would wake up cold to the wind and the melancholy patter on the corrugated iron roof. Her husband James would often be long gone, the ghost of a kiss pressed to her cheek as he left to drive to the villages that kept him away from her for days at a time.

Her favourite storms by far, though, would arrive angry in the evenings, coming in clouds that pulled the dark with them, swallowing up the town in starless black until the sky ruptured, dividing, dividing, and dividing again with eerie streaks of white that lit the world for tiny, staggering moments. In the early years, those were the times she had been most thankful that her older sister had joined them on the mission field. The locals were used to such displays – even the expats who had been there a little longer than them (like that irritable American schoolteacher, Judy) weren’t particularly impressed. Only Sally shared her delight. When it rained at night Lorraine would ask James to puff up some popcorn on the stove, or she would make something else special, like vegemite on toast, the salty taste a reminder of home. Then she, her boys, and Sally would sit out in the screened verandah watching the ‘lightning show’ being put on just for them.

Sipping at her mug of weak, church-kitchen tea, Lorraine brought herself back to the present with some exertion.

‘Sue,’ she said, keeping her voice as polite as she could. ‘I’m just going to duck to the ladies, if you don’t mind.’

*

Natalie had cried. She hadn’t expected to. It wasn’t that Sally wasn’t worth crying for; Natalie just didn’t cry a whole lot.

Standing in the back pew, though, the organ echoing out the melody of ‘When We All Get to Heaven, Heaven,’ she had been swept back to her last morning at school in Hong Kong. Ten years old, walking dry-eyed up the stairs to her classroom, praying to Jesus would he please, please, please let her cry? You couldn’t leave your home and your friends, forever maybe, without crying. It wasn’t right.

As it had turned out she needn’t have worried. Her teacher had given her a scrapbook with photos and farewell messages from the whole class, and Natalie was choking on the sobs before she realised they’d begun. Her best friend, Ling, had drawn flowers around her goodbye note.

‘Niu,’ it said – for that had been her name back then – ‘we’ll always be best friends. I’ll see you again when I’m rich enough to fly to Australia or else in heaven maybe.’

Twelve years later, they hadn’t seen each other since. As the music had faded to a final, hollow note, Natalie thought she might have been crying for Ling as much as Sally. Both of them were gone, were no longer her friends but memories instead, to be enclosed in photo albums and pocketed away until she needed to cry again.

It was after the service, when Natalie was reaching to dab at her eyes with a scrap of paper towel in the bathroom, that the seam under the sleeve of her dress split neatly down to the strap of her bra. It was the only black dress she owned that fit the occasion, and apparently she’d bought it a little too long ago, as it no longer fit her. Hearing the noise as it tore, like the slow undoing of a zipper, she swore under her breath. Remembering immediately that she was in church, she flinched, lamenting the dirty habit that high school had taught her. Closing her eyes, she silently apologised to God and held her breath, hoping that whoever was in the occupied stall behind her hadn’t heard.

She heard a flush, and the lock clicked open.

Natalie watched in the mirror as the occupant of the stall exited behind her, and cringed at God’s sick sense of humour. She recognised the woman, of course, The black gored skirt, the neat court shoes, the fragile skin worn down from its years of devoted service to the Lord – it was the same woman who’d given the eulogy not half an hour ago. This was Sally’s sister, and here she was, caught with a foul mouth and her underarm on display.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a safety pin, would you?’

It wasn’t the most refined way to introduce herself, Natalie knew, but ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ when your not-so-recently-shaved underarm was making a bid for freedom from your dress didn’t seem appropriate either.

The woman mumbled something about a sewing kit somewhere, reached into her bag and began to rummage. Natalie felt for a moment like she was watching Sally again, digging through her ridiculous knitted bag before scripture class on a Friday morning for her lipstick, her pen, or the bag of lollies she brought along to reward the gremlins for correct answers. She smiled at the memory as the woman pulled a small purple case out from the depths of her handbag. ‘Sally had a Mary Poppins bag too.’

Sally’s sister – Lorraine was it? – studied Natalie. ‘You knew her.’

It was an accusation, Natalie just couldn’t figure out what of.

‘I did, yeah. We taught scripture together. She was a great lady. All the kids loved her.’

Lorraine pulled a needle from the case and began to unravel a small bobbin of black thread. ‘What’s your name?’ She asked, snipping the thread with a pair of nail scissors.

‘Natalie.’

‘I can sew this up for you, Natalie.’

*

Lorraine’s new acquaintance stood patiently, one arm in her dress, the other slid out as the older woman worked.

Sew it shut, sew it shut. The mantra hummed in Lorraine’s mind as she stitched the cheap cotton together under the fluorescent bathroom light, her hands not quite as steady as she had expected.

Sew it shut – and the slice of the needle seemed to be her only defense against the memories that threatened to gush free and swallow her.

Sew it shut – but it was too late, already she was back in Papua New Guinea, careening past mudslides and over rickety bridges in the backseat of the jeep, tears clogging her throat, clutching a cloth around her son’s finger as the pain dragged him into unconsciousness.

The whole damn thing was pulling open now, coming back no matter how hard she fought it.

They had been on a village trip some six hours drive from Ukarumpa. James was to work with a local translator while Lorraine visited families in the village with Dean and her younger son, Harry. Harry in her arms, she was in the middle of a halting Pidgin conversation with the matriarch of a household, when she heard Dean scream.

A teenager carried him from the courtyard where he had been playing into the thatched room. A crowd of bodies, of men with pierced noses, of women with their bare breasts dangling to their stomachs, gathered outside the door, yelling words so fast that she struggled to comprehend. ‘Pen bilong em han!’ Dutifully, she looked to her son’s hand and saw the blood that dripped from his index finger to the dusty floor. It was mangled, crushed to the bone, torn and bleeding profusely.

‘Maritaman – bilong mi maritaman!’

‘My husband, my husband.’ It was all she could piece together at the time, but before she had even tried to get any further, two men came running from the other side of the village, hauling James along with them. Lorraine pulled off her cardigan and bundled it around Dean’s hand before James could see the injury. He tended to pass out at the sight of blood, and she needed him alert to navigate the hairpin turns down the mountains as they drove.

They made it back to Ukarumpa in the darkest hours of the morning. James carried Dean, floppy and feverish in his arms, from the car to Sally’s door, kicking at it with his boot, bellowing, ‘Sally, wake up! Dean’s done his finger!’

Her sister, the quintessential nurse, was the kind of person that the missionary kids ran to when they grazed their knees and wanted sympathy that their parents wouldn’t give them. Opening her door to Lorraine’s family that night, her purple dressing gown cinched at her waist, she had hustled them quietly inside the moment she realised Dean was hurt.

‘Sally, can you fix it? Can you sew it up?’ Lorraine knew she sounded hysterical, but she needed to know, she needed to be sure that her sister could make this okay.

‘What happened?’ Sally’s voice was measured and kind, and Lorraine felt herself begin to breathe again.

Here, it was James who spoke. ‘Kid stuck his finger in a coffee grinder.’

Lorraine thought she saw a rare flicker of disquiet cross her sister’s face, but it was gone as quick as it came, and soon they had Dean across the road in Sally’s little two-room clinic (the best hospital they had, at that point) and they were ready to operate. Even though she shuddered with every one of her son’s anguished cries, Lorraine watched her sister close his wound from a chair by his bedside, and felt safe. James had taken Harry back to their house; it was just the three of them in the room. With no diesel on hand to turn the generator on, Sally worked in total silence under the flicker of two gas lanterns, squinting at the little hand splayed out in front of her, sewing it up stitch by painful stitch. For that long hour, the sisters could have been in a world entirely their own, wrapped up in the pale blue walls of the clinic, and Lorraine allowed herself to be enveloped in the comfortable familiarity of the moment.

The next morning, though, it was raining.

Sally came over to their house early to check on Dean, and Lorraine realised quickly that something had changed.

‘Now the stitches will have to come out in about three weeks, alright?’ Sally told her. ‘And you’ll have to do it, I’m afraid. I’m booking to fly back home about then.’

‘What – already?’

‘Well, you knew it was going to be soon. Ukarumpa’s just – well, I’m not sure this is where God wants me right now. But don’t worry, you’ll be fine, won’t you Lor?’

And she had been, Lorraine thought as she stitched. She and her family had called that place home for fifteen years without Sally. But when they returned she had folded up the memories and stored them away from her sister, cramming them into boxes in the garage. She’d sewn her past up neatly and got on with her life, but now, in the ladies bathroom of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Sally had torn everything open again.

*

Natalie gingerly lifted her arm to inspect Lorraine’s handiwork in the mirror. It wasn’t as good as new, but it would get her through the rest of the afternoon tea without embarrassment. ‘Thanks,’ she said.

Lorraine nodded, but was quiet, her hands trembling slightly as she put away her needle. A pregnant pause had Natalie wondering if she should just go ahead and leave the bathroom when the older woman turned to her and asked in an odd voice, ‘Did my sister – that is – did Sally ever talk to you about her missionary work?’

Surprised, she replied that yes, she had often heard Sally talk about Papua New Guinea. ‘We used to debate the differences between Papua New Guinean churches, Chinese churches, and Australian churches. Actually – I think she was the one who convinced me leave the Cantonese service for the evening one I’m at now! I remember her saying something about how the church was a delicious soup with all different flavours and ingredients blended together, and that I couldn’t always hide myself away in a safe little clump of noodles, I should get out there and make the soup as tasty as I could.’

Natalie smiled at the memory of the conversation. ‘She could be a real nurse sometimes. Great with the kids, a little pushy with adults.’

Lorraine softened, and looked ready to agree, but then before she could a careful but firm knock sounded on the bathroom door. ‘Excuse me – is Lorraine in there? It’s James.’

Lorraine’s voice was steady. ‘I’m sorry love, I’m coming.’

Leaving the safety of the bathroom behind them, Natalie and Lorraine ventured back into the fray of mourners. After a cordial farewell, both women pocketed away the memory of each other, but perhaps, they decided, not quite as deep as usual.

 

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Grace’s Room, Emma Dorreen

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

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

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

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

 

‘You never want to hear about the dream.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘You say that it’s not important.’

‘Well… is it?’

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

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

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

‘I’ll tell you about Jodie Metzler.’

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

‘No I did not.’

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

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

‘That was Britney.’

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

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

‘How do you mean?’

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

‘You let her go,’ he prompted.

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

‘Can I get you something for that?’

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

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

‘Yes.’

‘To let her go.’

‘Yes.’

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

‘Hard for you. But it went well?’

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

‘Did James ever meet her?’

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

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

‘Did you? Did you go?’

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

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

‘You enjoyed the move?’

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

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

‘Do you want to talk about Grace?’

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

‘You forget. Relax. There’s no rush.’

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

‘You tell me.’

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

‘Can we talk about the dog then?’

Kate would not reply.

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

 

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

 

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

‘Yes, I slept well.’ Liar.

‘No bad dreams?’

‘You don’t want to hear about that.’

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

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

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

‘I wouldn’t know.’

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

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

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

‘Until?’

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

‘Forget it. Forget I said anything.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

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

‘I’ll start with Jodie.’

‘Whatever makes you comfortable.’

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

‘Yes, I can see that.’

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

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

‘Was that important?’

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

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

‘And then?’

‘And then — I noticed the wallpaper.’

‘What wallpaper?’

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

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

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Look at the dog.’

‘No.’

‘Look properly.’

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

 

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

 

‘It’s in our house,’ Kate remembered.

‘Yes.’

‘The room.’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

 

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