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Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
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Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Almost seven!’ Cole shot back.

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

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

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

‘What was that?’ Cole asked.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nineteen?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Safe? From what?’

Parker wracked his brain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

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

‘Where’s Old Man Peter?’

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

‘You were right, Cole.’

‘What?’

‘It’s Martians. They’ve taken him.’

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Peculiar Perception, Laura Treglown

 

The clouds cried and the droplets poured down onto Henry’s head.

He ran across the zebra crossing to the shelter of Figtree Mall. Even inside, he could hear the bang of thunder rip the clouds apart. One… two… three… four. He counted the kilometres between each one. Jon Carver had taught his son, Henry, this trick from a young age, as a coping mechanism of sorts. To act as a comforting substitute for when he was absent. It helped calm the boy down by showing how far away the thunder was, despite how close it sounded. As a child, Henry believed they were bombs. At first it had made Jon laugh, then it became a nuisance. In the end it wasn’t the thunder that scared Henry, but the explosion that was his father. Jon liked to call himself a simple man. He believed in good old fashion business, a hard work ethic, and sound family morals. But, he just didn’t get his son, and Henry could tell.

Henry knew better now than to believe in unnatural ideas like bombs blowing up the sky and fatherly love. It was seven seconds after seeing the sky light up that he heard the bang, crackle, and pop. Once the rain dissipated, Henry was sure that the noise would too. He shook his shaggy hair slightly with his hands, attempting to spread and minimise the water clinging like a bad smell, before heading deeper into the mall.

His friend Tod had texted Henry awake from an eleven-hour coma earlier than usual this morning. His best guess was that Tod hadn’t slept all night—instead, rampaging and trolling the battlegrounds of World of Warcraft. Ordinarily, Henry wasn’t opposed to a bit of melee at Warsong Gulch under the guise of his druid night elf. Especially since a few weeks ago he had received Mythical Level 760 bracers in a drop from the boss, Grand Magistrix Elisande. But recently, he had simply replied busy to Tod. This kind of thing was becoming a common occurrence.

Due to his morning wake-up call, Henry arrived at the mall earlier than he typically did. It meant he had gotten stuck in the 9 am soccer-mum traffic at the roundabout on Gibson Road leading to the high school, primary school, and preschool. Henry’s only thought was what idiot had planned it that way? He also had to wait three two-minute cycles of the traffic lights before Pearl, his old creamy Mazda 3, could finally turn right onto The Avenue. Due to his morning escape, he arrived at Figtree Mall far too early. On the bright side, for once he didn’t have to wrestle some old lady or mum with a pram for a parking spot. The threat of just another day munching on chips, sculling soda and mashing keyboards with Tod was enough to force him out of his routine.

His mother had arrived back from her Bali cruise only several weeks ago and therefore Henry’s mall escapades had become more frequent than they ever had been. Since quitting her job and entering a premature retirement because—as she often proclaimed—she deserved it, Louise Carver had become an inescapable presence in his home. After Henry graduated from high school six months earlier and deferred from a Bachelor of Business at Wollongong University, nothing had happened. At least that was what his mother enjoyed telling him. Henry, on the other hand, knew he couldn’t stop the cogs from working hard in his mind as he tried to comprehend his future. It was only at the mall where the world stopped spinning and time was nothing more than an absent thought.

 

 

 

At 10 am, coffee was a necessity. In Henry’s mind, caffeine was better and far more important than oxygen. It somehow managed to keep him sane, at least, in his opinion. He was definitely no connoisseur, and always scooped in at least four teaspoons of sugar. Henry liked the effects of coffee more than the actual taste of it. With an ice-cold latte in hand, he looked around, hoping to find a spare seat somewhere within the vicinity of the coffee shop.

An elderly woman was precariously perched on the corner of a bench. It looked uncomfortable, but Henry guessed that she had plenty of practice at this position by sitting on the bones of young children. He imagined her settling into their bones with a satisfying crunch and a pleased and pleasant smile. He went over and she glanced sideways at Henry as he dropped down beside her. Her skin was saggy, as if trying to run away from her body as it drooped. Much like the rest of the population when they finally saw the truth about sweet old Granny. The rings shoved onto her spindly fingers seemed to be the only thing holding the skin in place. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, but she was obviously uninterested. Even if the idea of escaping life for a day tantalised Henry, he was too old to suit her taste buds. Her eyes kept scanning the area around them. Edith’s eyesight was the only thing about her that still worked perfectly fine.

She came to malls much like this all the time, he thought, because it was where the children got lost. One second they were holding Mummy’s hand and then they were nothing more than headshots on milk cartons. She never went to the same mall twice. No, she wasn’t a rookie at this—that was how you got caught. One had to stay on the move. Henry smiled at the irony of this thought, as the old lady was running nowhere, quick.

As he sat next to her—she looked like an Edith—all Henry could smell was beef. It filled his nose and choked his senses. So, he took a long swig of his coffee and instead, tried to breathe in that meaty aroma. Even after many years of awkward and potent hugs from his mother, Henry still struggled not to gag from her smell. Edith must have been cooking soup this morning. She was planning on having it for dinner. It had to stew all day because the child was not as plump as she would usually like, and muscle tends to need much longer to soften and tenderise than the fat ones. But the fat ones were much harder to get into the pot. Henry couldn’t help himself: a scoff escaped his mouth at the thought of this elderly woman, in her tiny wooden cottage hidden deep in a forest, attempting to put a child into a pot, only to realise she didn’t have one big enough. Edith looked over. She had a questioning look on her face, but Henry simply smiled, stood up and walked away. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about him.

 

 

 

The mall was the place where people got lost. No mall in particular; it was just something about the rows upon rows of neatly organised shops that caused people to lose themselves in the sense of chaos. That was why Henry liked it. He enjoyed falling down the rabbit hole and finding himself somewhere completely different. Even though Henry liked to see the darker, purgatory side to the mall that robbed people of their souls, money, and time, he knew in reality, it was nothing more than a concrete-laden building. Yet he still loved to succumb to the mystique and wonder that it drew out of different people. He relished in exploring, not only the shops and places, but also the people it created.

That is what he decided to do today. On days like these, when the sky was crying buckets of rain, there was really no choice but to stay inside. He turned left and right, and right, and back around the way he came, only to turn left. Past the bright colours of Cotton On, the light and airiness of Swarovski, and the clatter and hubbub that was the food court. It was all at random. That was the best way to do it. He kept travelling in this labyrinth for quite a while. He couldn’t tell exactly how long. There wasn’t time to check his phone. His head had to stay up so he could see the world that existed around him instead of the pixels that plagued his phone.

On a lap past the food court, a young man stepped his New Balance trainers directly in front of Henry and blocked his path, almost as if he knew where Henry would be. The top button of his vintage collared shirt strained against his Adam’s apple as he spoke.

‘Hi mate, can I grab a minute of your time?’

Although a cap obscured his face, Henry could see the truth. He saw the dark violet bags that clung underneath his eyes. The scratchy and scruffy beard that came only from weeks of not shaving. The man’s hands clenched at his sides as he grasped a blue clipboard. It was plainly obvious, even to Henry, that it had been weeks since he had slept well at all. It wasn’t from the many assignments he had piling up though. No, he didn’t care about those at all. It was the dreams that kept him up at night. Dreams of the future, of course.

Henry knew that it all began one drunken night with his five friends, an Ouija board and the internet. It was a fun night at first, rounds of shots every time the board answered a question. Throughout the course of the night, up until 4 am, they only became cruder and cruder. It was the next day, when his hangover was ebbing, that he fell into an internet wormhole.

Henry knew far too much about internet wormholes; they started with searching tomorrow’s weather and ended five hours later on Wikipedia, looking at the breeding cycle of Fairy Penguins in Northern Tasmania. But Louis—as Henry decided he looked like—had ended up falling into a hole of Southern Louisiana dark magic. At 2 am the next morning he found himself on some questionable website overflowing with spells, pigeon in hand, and knife on the coffee table in front of him. Days later, Louis still couldn’t get the blood out from underneath his fingernails. That wasn’t the only thing he was struggling with. It had done something to him, and although most of these mall-goers couldn’t see it, Henry could see that the man in front of him had unknowingly made a blood magic trade to see the future.

Louis could see the small problems that would arise tomorrow. Like a traffic jam on the Princes Highway he would have to face on his drive to work, or that they would run out of milk in two days at 9 am. Those things used to matter to him. He would normally lay awake at night worrying what he would have for breakfast if there was no milk left. But now those worries didn’t even make him flinch because he had seen his own death.

He had barely even made it to his job handing out flyers this morning. Henry was shocked that he was actually here in one piece. Although Louis didn’t know exactly when it would happen, he knew that he would be in a car crash. Seeing your own death wasn’t exactly fun and it had shaken him to the core. Henry though, just smiled at Louis for the first, and perhaps last, time before ignoring his questions and continuing to lap the mall. It was an awkward enjoy your day and your death kind of interaction. Henry wondered what he would do if he knew what was lying in wait just around the corner. He’d probably move out and away from the iron grip of his mother for starters. At least he was safe for the time being, he concluded, as he lost himself.

 

 

 

Eventually, as always, he gave up. He found a lone silver metal chair and collapsed into it. He could feel the stiffness begin to set in as his muscles quietened. They had been screaming from the constant walking and now they were settling down, their complaints becoming less severe.

Across the café sat a young girl. Henry guessed she was eighteen, just like him. Though she seemed to be relaxing in the newly-opened Starbucks, her mind was in the dungeons, wrestling with her latest problem. She sipped coffee and stared at the book she had propped haphazardly between her jean-covered legs. Henry tried not to judge her based on her taste in coffee. He was sure that she had a no-foam-caramel-cappuccino with three sugars in her hand. It was easy not to judge her though, because she was beautiful. Henry shuffled in his silver throne, made awkward by his own creepiness. He couldn’t help but notice things about her. Her long blonde hair continually fell in front of her face and blocked her view of the book. Henry had only been there for a few minutes, and already he could tell that reading was second nature to the girl. Henry was stopping himself from going anywhere else because he enjoyed watching her unique quirks, like the way she thumbed the corner of the page with anticipation. Or how her foot tapped to the rhythm of her reading.

She was just his type. Weird enough that not many understood her, but not weird enough to fit into the Dungeons and Dragons scene with ease. She still loved board games and card games, of course. She’d spend every Friday night with her friends, laughing and eating as they threw cards down on the table. She was unusually good at cards compared to everyone else. Henry shuffled in his seat and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. On Saturday nights she would go to the casino. That was how she was paying her way through university, by counting the cards on the Black Jack table. No one knew, no one suspected her. I mean, who would? Just look at her. Even Henry could barely believe it himself.

Henry did know one thing for sure—he was intrigued by her. So, he waited until he heard the crisp flick of the page and knew it was his moment. The chair screeched against the tiles as he stood and walked over. He put his hand on the back of her metal silver throne.

‘Hi,’ was his opening line, and hers was dropping the half-full coffee cup into her lap in surprise. It was meant to be the end of the chapter—Henry had planned to make a suave literary joke. Instead, he looked down at the warzone that was her lap, at a loss for words, before mumbling something that he hoped sounded like an apology, and staggering away with his tail between his legs. He couldn’t believe it. Henry knew it was much earlier than usual, but he just couldn’t bring himself to stay at the mall. What if he saw her again? He kept walking, head down, out of there, to where the bombs were still going off in the sky, to the bomb of a life that waited for him at home.

 

 
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The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

She had been looking at him all night. Quick, furtive glances from across the crowded bar before looking away again. Felix’s gaze jumped from patron to patron. He watched friends and co-workers laugh and chat. He spotted couples out on a date night and families coming together for a meal. But his gaze always returned to the dark-haired woman, and each time he caught her watching him.

She was about his age, and he found her intriguing. Though he wasn’t sure if that was just because of the attention she was paying him. She and five others—her friends, Felix assumed—filled a booth against the wall of the bar. Felix sat on a stool against the bar in the middle of the room, holding a drink.

It was a crowded Friday evening of city workers celebrating the end of another week. Felix sat alone, but he didn’t feel it. How could he amongst so much life? Spending time around people going about their lives was a reminder he too was alive.

His gaze moved back to the woman in the booth, and sure enough she was looking back at him. This time, however, she didn’t divert her attention when Felix’s eyes met hers. So intense was her stare that Felix wasn’t even sure she’d realised he was looking back at her. What about him was causing her to examine him so closely? Felix shrugged to himself and raised the glass in his hand toward her in greeting. The movement snapped her out of her trance, and she turned back to her friends.

Felix returned to watching the room, drinking the water in his glass—he wasn’t game enough to ever drink anything else—and picking at the salad in front of him. He turned to a movement in the corner of his eye and was surprised to see the woman walking from the booth to where he was sitting.

‘Sorry for staring, but I swear I know you from somewhere,’ she said, taking the empty seat next to him and leaning on the counter.

‘Felix Kingston,’ he introduced himself, ‘the only person in the world without a heart.’ The woman’s expression switched from surprised recognition to elation. It wasn’t the usual reaction Felix got to this statement.

‘Of course!’ sitting up straighter and moving a little closer. ‘I’ve read about you. Doctor Moretti’s famous patient. World’s first synthetic heart.’

‘It’s always nice to meet a fan,’ Felix said with a laugh.

‘I’m Sarai. Sarai Romero. Your doctor is a big inspiration, actually. His work on synthetic body parts is ground-breaking.’

‘Nice to meet you, Sarai. You’ve studied his work?’ Felix asked.

‘You could say that. The company I work at is currently developing an artificial lung, to improve the lives of people with lung diseases.’

‘I can’t say I’ve ever thought of this thing as an improvement. A regular heart doesn’t need its battery charged.’

‘I’d say being alive is an improvement to the alternative,’ Sarai smiled at Felix. She had such an energetic smile.

‘Can’t argue that,’ Felix conceded, smiling himself.

‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’ Sarai asked.

‘Oh. Thank you, uh, I don’t really drink though. I avoid alcohol,’ Felix said, indicating his glass of water.

‘Really? But your heart should be able to handle a bit of alcohol. Enough for a single drink at least. It is designed to react to impulses from the brain, so it will respond to any effect on heart rate or blood pressure,’ Sarai trailed off. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture.’

‘No, it’s fine. You probably know more about this thing in my chest than I do,’ Felix said, waving her apology away.

‘Did you know it basically makes you a cyborg?’ Sarai asked. Felix paused to think, then responded with a chuckle.

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

Sarai sat in a cafe, waiting for Felix to arrive. It was their third get together since meeting in the bar two weeks ago. It had started off with her wanting to know all he could tell her about his mechanical heart. He told her about the regular check-ups, how the silicon plate—silicon so as not to restrict his movement—covering his heart had to be removed each time.

In turn, he asked her about her own work and she expressed how eager she was to move onto her own projects. Her passion lied in augmentation. One day humanity could be using machines to enhance vision, hearing, strength, and possibly even intelligence. She wanted to be at the forefront of that movement.

Somewhere along the way Sarai had started to think of them as dates, though she wasn’t sure if Felix felt the same. He was easy to talk to, and even easier to laugh with. The last time they’d met the conversation had flowed seamlessly from her questions about his heart, to her work, then to their interests, ending in a friendly debate about chocolate of all things. There was a connection, but he’d never made any moves. Sarai found herself hoping he would, but was starting to think she might have to act first.

Sarai looked out the window, spotting Felix’s black, un-brushed hair above the heads of the pedestrians passing by. He stepped into the cafe and Sarai waved at him as he approached, taking the seat opposite her. Asking how his week had been, the conversation immediately turned to his heart as he described his most recent check-up. Some pumps were getting a bit worn, so Doctor Moretti had replaced them with new parts.

‘The ventricle pumps?’ Sarai asked for clarification. Felix nodded in confirmation, before continuing his recount.

She found herself staring at his chest, where she pictured the machine driving blood around his body. Doctor Moretti, the heart’s architect, was like a modern-day clock maker. An artisan creating a finely tuned device designed to perform with absolute precision.

‘My eyes are up here,’ Felix chuckled, waving for her attention.

‘Can I see it? Your heart?’ Sarai asked, her voice soft.

‘What? Here?’ Felix asked, surprise in his voice. Sarai looked up, remembering the cafe they were sitting in.

‘No, I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate,’ she said, then allowed a smile to curve her lips, ‘but my apartment is nearby.’

 

 

 

Felix stepped into Sarai’s apartment, as she held the door open for him. A couch sat in the middle of the room with a jacket thrown over the arm. Books were haphazardly arranged on a shelf, and an open DVD case sat next to the television. There was a wooden dining table covered in mechanical components and tools. Meals seemed to be taken at the sofa, as her breakfast bowl was still sitting on the ground.

Closing the door, Sarai stepped past Felix. She cleaned up the remains of her breakfast with an apology, and explained how she often took work home. With a smile as strong as a promise she told him to get comfortable, and she’d be right back after taking care of a few things. Felix watched her walk away, vanishing into the hallway at the other end of the room. He often found it difficult to pick up on signs, but he was beginning to think there was a slight chance she was interested in more than his heart.

Felix busied himself by looking at Sarai’s collection of books. The lower shelves had thick tomes on the human body. There were also a lesser number of texts on cybernetics. Only one text crossed both topics, and it was one Felix immediately recognised. It was authored by Doctor Moretti, and contained several chapters around Felix and the machine in his chest.

Footsteps behind him alerted Felix to Sarai’s return. She crossed the room, taking a seat on her couch and motioning for Felix to join her.

‘I could sign Doctor Moretti’s book for you. You’d be the envy of your colleagues,’ Felix joked as he took a seat beside her. Sarai shifted a little closer once he was seated.

‘Maybe not as much as you think. Most of my colleagues aren’t quite as passionate as me,’ Sarai’s eyes were focused on his while she spoke, but dropped down to his chest as she went quiet.

‘Do you want to see it now?’ Felix asked, receiving a nod from Sarai in response. He undid the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open. Felix didn’t look down. He knew what would be there: a flesh-coloured, silicon plate welded to his chest by a glue-like substance designed to hold it in place and stop skin growing over it. Instead, he watched Sarai’s reaction.

Sarai seemed like the sight of his chest had caused her to forget how to breathe. In fact, Felix thought it seemed like she wasn’t aware of anything else right now except for the machine in his chest. She reached out with a hand, stopping short of touching it. She looked up, as though suddenly remembering Felix was there.

‘May I?’ she asked, gesturing to her heart.

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

Sarai’s heart was thumping in her chest. She was expecting to feel the same from Felix as she rested her hand on his chest. The silicone was soft to the touch, yet so different to skin. But she felt no heartbeat.

She moved closer, leaning over him to press her head against his chest. She realised she hadn’t even stopped to see if Felix minded. He gave no protest. She listened to his heart, and knew she was listening to a sound unique to Felix.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, but it had rhythm. The sounds of pumps rising and lowering, pushing his blood around, entered her ears. There was a symphony of machine sounds as the various parts that kept his body functioning moved in unison. Felix was the future. He was beautiful.

Sarai placed her hand back against Felix’s chest, feeling the silicon plate give a little to her touch. There was a slight vibration travelling from his chest to her hand. His heart rate seemed to be increasing.

‘You’re nervous?’ she said, half questioning, as she looked up at him.

‘Or excited,’ Felix said with a smile. He took Sarai by surprise as he lowered his head, touching their lips together and drawing her into a kiss. Her shock was brief, and as his arms wrapped around her she returned the kiss. Her hand remained on his chest as the hum of his heart sang to her a melody.

With regret, but needing to catch her breath, Sarai pulled away from Felix. His hand came up to cover her one pressed against his chest. He clasped it tightly, pressing her hand hard against his chest. His grip was almost too strong.

‘I think my heart skipped a beat,’ he said, breathing hard.

‘Tell me about it,’ Sarai laughed, giddy at the closeness they’d just shared.

‘No, I—’ Felix cut off suddenly, his grip over her hand going limp. Sarai cried out in shock, moving out of the way as Felix crumpled to the side.

‘Felix!’ she called out. Sarai wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him, as if he was only sleeping. She ignored these instincts. Instead she laid him on his back and felt for his pulse, finding nothing. Finally, she put her hand over his chest, hoping for that distinctive, mechanical beat. The machine in his chest had stopped.

Sarai stood up, scrambling to her cluttered dining table. She knew she only had a few minutes at best. Time wasn’t on her side. As she grabbed the tools scattered over the table she gave a quiet thanks to her habit of bringing work home.

Kneeling by Felix’s side she tried to lift the silicon plate from his chest, but couldn’t budge it. The adhesive holding it in place was too strong. Taking a scalpel, she cut into the silicon. Each slice left her worried she’d cause further damage, but she couldn’t let that stop her. She might already be too late.

With a final cut, she peeled the silicon off Felix’s chest. The device sat within a metal-ceramic cavity of artificial bone, joining with his ribs. Plastic tubing connected with arteries. Sarai would have been mesmerised if the situation wasn’t so dire. Even so, she couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering.

Where the ventricles would be the machine instead had complex pumps. Like a ventricle, they were designed to pull blood from an artificial atrium, and then push the blood around the body. Sarai noticed one of them had stopped, and the other didn’t seem strong enough to move the blood on its own.

Glancing back at her table, Sarai wondered if she had a pump. She saw the prototype lung she was working on. Could that work? It didn’t have to be a permanent fix, enough to get the blood moving again. The lung was designed to act as a big pump.

Sarai hurried back to the table, grabbing the lung. She had to try.

 

 

 

Felix opened his eyes to a familiar, but unexpected ceiling. The ceiling that always greeted him after waking from check-ups on the machine in his chest. He had no memory of coming in for a check-up. It felt like his chest was still open as well. He lifted his head slightly, looking for his doctor, and an explanation.

His movement must have been noticed, as Doctor Moretti was quickly at his side. The doctor questioned how Felix was feeling, but was already checking Felix’s pulse and glancing at the mechanical heart.

‘What happened?’ Felix managed to ask. His voice felt like it hadn’t been used in days.

‘Ventricle pump jammed up, stopped the blood flowing,’ the doctor answered. ‘The second pump should have been enough to keep you on your feet until the faulty one could be replaced, but theory doesn’t always turn out in practice.’

Felix laid his head back against a pillow, taking in the doctor’s words. It was his biggest fear realised, the machine stopping without warning.

‘But,’ Doctor Moretti continued, ‘I am working on some new pumps. Should prevent this occurring again. Actually, I’ve got the young lady who brought you in assisting me. Her quick thinking saved your life. Jury-rigged an experimental lung-pump to your heart, just to get the blood flowing again. I’m impressed with her ingenuity.’

‘Sarai saved me? Is she here?’ Felix asked.

‘She’s just outside. Let me go get her,’ the doctor said, leaving Felix’s side.

The worst may have happened to Felix, but he was still here. He was still breathing and, despite his machine heart doing what he’d always feared it would, blood was still flowing through his body.

Felix heard the door to the room open, and he turned his head to the sound. Sarai stood there, framed in the doorway looking both pleased and relieved to see him. He gave her a small smile, and she hurried to his side, reaching for his hand.

Felix took Sarai’s hand in his, holding the woman who had mended his heart, and he knew he was alive.

 

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

 

Rio Linz was a mostly normal boy who lived a mostly normal life. He attended school and maintained average grades and was able to mostly keep himself out of trouble. He lived with his parents, both of whom worked. Everything about Rio was for the most part completely and utterly unremarkable.

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

Rio’s first ghost was his former nanny. Her name was Madalyn.

The boy used to look up to see the elderly woman’s face, when his head barely reached her waist. Wispy white hair trailed down, splitting into two halves before ending just shy of her chin.

She still looked down at him. Her gaze wandered over his features curiously as she examined him. Her weathered lips formed a thin line as they pressed together. Her eyes blinked once as he stared at her intently.

‘Rio?’

Not trusting himself to speak, Rio nodded his head sharply.

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

Understanding quickly dawned upon her features as her grey eyes locked with his brown ones.

Hesitantly, Rio reached out and held her hand in his grasp.

 

 

The next four months saw Madalyn developing a routine. It fit with Rio’s easily enough. She would walk alongside him on his way to school and then waited for him until he came back out after school closed for the day. They would usually discuss mundane things such as the weather and how their respective days carried out.

Sometimes they didn’t speak to each other; they just walked next to each other in silence.

Rio noticed that Madalyn always wore the same clothes; a baby blue blouse and a dark skirt. He recalled that she had worn similar clothes when she was alive. He once asked why she never changed and the ghost replied that she simply couldn’t.

Madalyn would visit Rio several times on the weekend while he was in the backyard doing his homework in the tall grass or just drawing on a piece of paper. One time she offered to help him with his work and he accepted. This continued every weekend that followed. She excelled in story writing and geography, but hated maths even more than he did.

Rio never once thought to ask Madalyn what she did when she wasn’t spending time with him.

 

 

‘Madalyn.’ The said woman perked up when Rio said her name. The two were walking next to each other.

‘Yes, angel?’

Rio paused for a moment to consider how to best phrase the question before continuing.

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

‘What is it. . . leading you to ask such a dark question?’

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

Madalyn mulled over the question quietly for a moment before replying in a sombre tone.

‘Many hearts as a matter of fact. Colin. I guess you wouldn’t remember him… he was my husband, he fell to lung cancer several years prior to myself. Naturally, my dear parents passed long—’

‘I don’t mean that. I meant if you know any other ghosts,’ Rio cut across her.

Madalyn looked surprised. She was silent before making a noise of understanding in the back of her throat. Rio had tapped into her one sadness and though she tried not to dwell upon her loneliness, she couldn’t help at times but wonder why only she remained on Earth.

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

The boy was unable to completely hide his disappointment. Madalyn easily picked up on it.

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

‘Then you know that if you need someone to speak to, don’t hesitate to ask me. Some things are best kept secret, but not all things. It’s okay to share your thoughts with people that you trust. Even if we’ve lost people, its best to try and focus on who we still have.’

 

 

Rio’s primary reason for wanting an authentic camera was because of his invisible companion. He wanted to prove her existence to his parents. It had been the highlight of his eleventh birthday to receive one from them.

However, when he tried to take a picture of her, he came up short—the image of his backyard lacked a ghost. Madalyn had initially been sceptical about the idea, but her facial expression fell slightly when it had failed.

Madalyn suggested that he use his birthday gift for something else. Eventually, he decided to see what he could capture outside. Having nothing else to do, his former carer accompanied him.

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

Their meeting was similar to the first time Rio met Madalyn, yet almost entirely different.

They stood in the park, several feet from an ice cream vendor that was selling to a line of children from the street. Rio had finished taking photos of things Madalyn liked and was moving to the skateboard park with her trailing behind him, when he noticed the man. He seemed occupied, harassing nearby pedestrians. Rio noticed that they showed no response to his presence, which was surprising if one considered his physical appearance.

Kane was a big man, easily much taller than Rio and Madalyn. Muscles beneath his skin were practically bulging under an orange jumpsuit. He was covered in tattoos of spiderwebs and foreign kanji that decorated his domed head.

Wanting a photo, Rio looked for a good position. Once in location, he looked through his lens and saw no one there.

Confused, the boy lowered the camera and saw that Kane was still before him.

Once Kane had realised he was in the presence of someone who could actually see him, he was initially quite vocal, letting off a stream of new words.

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

The brashness caught Rio off guard. To his credit, he quickly recovered.

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

Kane glanced at Madalyn, who squinted her eyes at him in distaste.

The giant glared.

‘Something you want to say to me, bitch?’

Once the excitement had passed, however, getting words out of him was harder than drawing blood from a stone. Despite Rio’s best efforts, his newest ghost kept his mouth firmly shut.

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

Rio and Madalyn went back the very next day after school, to the same spot as last time.

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

‘Do you think you can walk through walls?’ he asked Madalyn

A moment of silence passed.

‘I don’t know about that darling… I’ve never tried it.’

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

‘I’m sure I would have known by now if I could do something as whimsical as that.’

A moment passed and in that beat, Rio’s breathing quickened and he felt hot. He’d always felt unsure of how to approach a particular question and if, indeed, he should.

‘How did you die, exactly?’

Madalyn glanced at him before looking away. She didn’t answer.

Her mannerisms were quite contradictory; her distant and sometimes awkward behaviour clashed with the times that she was exuberant and full of life.

Kane wasn’t there when they arrived. Rio tried to wait but was forced to take off after Madalyn when the old woman lost interest.

 

 

Rio saw Kane a second time only five days later, hovering outside of a rundown house that had most certainly seen better days.

To his surprise, Madalyn was also there. They were speaking to each other. Standing several feet apart, their appearances were a sharp contrast to each other. His interest getting the better of him, Rio decided to investigate. Thanks to his size, he was easily able to hide his small frame behind a rubbish bin.

He strained to pick up their words.

‘Moping won’t help you stand straighter, boy.’

Rio was surprised by the tone of Madalyn’s voice, possessing a sharp edge that he never before knew existed.

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

‘Thanks for your fucking advice. I don’t remember asking you to give a shit.’

Madalyn was silent for a moment. Then she spat out, ‘Try to make an effort to understand your situation—our situation,’ she insisted, urgently. ‘You and I are both still here instead of completely passing on.  In a way, this second chance has—’

She was interrupted.

‘What “we” is there? Let me tell you something, you dumb bitch—hospital and fucking prison are as different as ice and cannabis. Needles don’t mean squat. Just go and leave me the hell alone.’

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

One month after meeting Kane, Rio decided to take his interest in photography and art to new heights.

Armed with his trusty camera, Rio went out by himself.

He lived in a rather rundown neighbourhood full of plain colours. His family wasn’t poor, but they were very far from well off. More than a few houses showed signs of neglect and old age, a few broken windows here, some rotten wood there. The surrounding neighbourhoods possessed the same atmosphere. There were weeds showing on several front lawns, driving up from beneath the ground like untameable servants.

Frowning at the lack of potential snapshots, Rio’s young mind struggled to come up with ideas.

Rio found Madalyn sitting on the stairs of the front porch outside his house.

She was completely unprepared for his request.

‘Sorry, I must confess. . . I am not quite sure what it is you mean.’

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

‘And how would this be of use to you?’ Madalyn asked.

Rio nodded.

‘I figured that if I can’t take photos of ghosts, I can use this camera in other ways to help.’ He deliberately paused for dramatic effect before continuing. ‘If you can take me to where you lived and other places that you liked when you were alive, I can retell your story through pictures of the things that meant the most to you.’

It only took two minutes to convince Madalyn of the idea.

 

 

‘Of all places, why here?’ Rio asked, holding his camera in both hands while looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

Both he and Madalyn were standing in the backyard where they did Rio’s homework together.

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

‘Because this place has meaning to me. Here with you, on this little patch of grass, is where I now spend most of my time.’

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

Soon, photographs began to replace the various sport and motorcycle posters that took up the wall space in his small room.

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

All of them were places of significance to Madalyn. Rio’s latest one was a shot of a creek that Madalyn liked to walk alongside. Another was her favourite café in the shopping centre. They, along with several others, were all titled under Madalyn’s name.

 

 

As Rio’s photographs of Madalyn began to accumulate, the pair approached Kane and tried to rope him into the idea.

They failed.

 

 

While walking near a stream surrounded by an assortment of pebbles that lay underneath an overpass, Rio and Madalyn noticed a girl. She was young, sickly and petite, wearing torn jeans and a rainbow sweater with a woollen beanie covering her short brunette hair. She was bright and cheerful despite her pale complexion and somewhat unkempt appearance.

She approached the pair as they were about to move on, a mischievous grin betraying the general nature of her intention. He had seen it before in movies, when a person did something mischievous in exchange for attention.  From the corner of Rio’s eye, he noticed the yellow armband encircling her wrist.

She began to lean in, past what Rio considered his personal space. This merited asking her what she wanted. Madalyn beat him to it.

‘Is there something we can help you with, dear?’

She yelped and jumped back as if she had just received an electric shock. Scrambling back, she nearly tripped over.

‘You can see me?’ the girl asked him, her eyes wide. A look of understanding came over her as she stared at him. ‘You can see ghosts?’

Rio replied with a yes.

‘That’s incredibly cool,’ was her response.

 

 

The first place that Natalia, their newest companion, dragged Rio and Madalyn was to a carnival circus that took place once every June. Amongst the cacophony of noises there, including Natalia’s laughter, Rio wasn’t very sure where to point his lens.

Madalyn found herself struggling to keep up as her body ached in protest while pursing Natalia. Eventually she was forced to stop, leaning against a food stand for support.

Natalia seemed to have the knack of getting ahead of herself.

 

 

When Rio decided to ask Natalia about the places that held any sort of significant meaning to her, Natalia had taken Rio to the aquatic centre at night after closing. This led to Rio getting arrested for breaking and entering—only to get photos of himself in the water at night.

While sitting in the chair waiting for his parents to arrive, with Madalyn and a guilty-faced Natalia standing on either side of him, Rio overheard something. According to two officers who were standing outside the office, a teenager had broken into the pool eleven times over a three-year period.

Apparently, the girl ran away from the hospital at night just so that she could swim with no one else in it.

Natalia had the decency to blush as Rio turned to look at her with incredulity. They made eye contact and her skin tone practically went from a mild pink to a rich scarlet as she fiddled with her hands. It took several seconds for Rio to realise that Madalyn was also looking at Natalia, her soft eyes charged with disdain. Fortunately, the centre kindly decided to drop the charges when they realised Rio wasn’t their regular culprit.

 

 

Rio approached Kane and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project he was undertaking one last time.

The ghost refused.

 

 

After recovering from his grilling at home, the first thing Rio did was head up to his room to return to his work. Once it was done, he hung up his newest picture and stood back to admire it properly. Looking over the photos he had taken for Natalia, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the pride swelling up in his chest like a balloon fit to burst.

Alongside the collection that he had created for Madalyn, they formed the tales of two people who had already lived out their full lives.

 

 

Download a PDF copy of Can You See Ghosts? by Jamie Creswell

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

 

The first time Alex saw him, she was indifferent. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor incident, she probably would have brushed past him. The murmur of the supermarket was monotonous in Alex’s ears; her mind was fixated on the broken wheel of her trolley. Rattle, rattle. Rattle, rattle. Alex sighed. She wondered if Dad had ever helped Mum with the shopping. Not that it mattered, now. She reached for a loaf of raisin bread, then hesitated at the thought of Mum’s tantrum the other day.

‘I’m sick of eating this crap!’ Mum had shouted as she threw the freshly buttered toast against the wall. ‘If your Dad was here—’

‘Well, he’s not. And this is all we’ve got in the pantry, so you can starve,’ Alex had snapped as she walked out of the room with the empty plate.

Her hand hovered over the beckoning bag of bread before she threw one, then another, and another, into the trolley. She smirked.

With the trolley piled high with groceries, Alex wheeled it down the health food aisle towards the checkout. Then, they collided. The details of his appearance bypassed her memory except for one small feature—his glasses. Thick-rimmed with additional shades, one side of the frames were wrapped with a Band-Aid, holding them together. They fell off his face and clattered onto the linoleum floor as Alex swerved her trolley, barely missing them.

‘Oh! Oh… I’m so sorry! Are you okay?’ Alex said as she picked up the glasses.

She handed them over to the man, who hesitated at her gesture. He took them, observing her with alarm. Slowly and silently, he walked away.

Alex noticed that other people were staring at her with the same expression on their faces. Any other day, this might have struck her as weird, but she realised the time—Mum had been home alone for longer than she should have been.

 

 

 

The plastic bags rustled as Alex treaded carefully into the dim house. She closed the door gently and when the lock clicked, turned quickly towards the hallway. Silence.

Quietly, she opened the blinds of the living room. A shrill ring broke the peace.

‘Shit!’ Alex muttered, as she clambered over the sofa reaching for the phone. ‘Hello?’

‘Alex, is that you?’ An English accent crackled through the bad reception. ‘It’s Auntie Sue. I just wanted to check in, how’s your Ma going?’

‘Oh! Hello, Auntie Sue. Mum’s alright, the same old.’ Alex fidgeted with the cord in her hand as her eyes nervously watched the hallway.

‘Would you like me to fly over?’ asked Auntie Sue.

‘Oh no! That would be such an inconvenience!’ Alex pulled a face. She couldn’t think of anything worse than to have Auntie Sue fussing around.

A door creaked open down the hallway. Alex perked her head up.

‘I better get going now. I think Mum is awake,’ Alex whispered hoarsely.

Alex watched nervously as the ghost-like figure appeared along the passage. Her hair was disheveled, eyes vacant, and her face was as pale as the silk nightgown she was wearing.

‘John?’ Her shrill voice quivered, echoing off the walls.

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

‘Oh, Alex…’ Mum’s voice was soaked in disappointment as she observed the empty living room.

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

‘I know.’ Mum stared at the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen bench. A card with the word ‘condolences’ peeked through the leaves.

Alex watched Mum walk back into her room with her head hung low. You could see her bones protruding through her nightgown. Alex wanted nothing more than to get Mum out of her room, to open the windows and curtains and change the bed sheets. A pungent smell had started to arise from in there; a rotting stench that seemed to infiltrate Mum’s grieving body. Alex wrinkled her nose. It was getting worse.

 

 

 

A week later, Alex’s feet were crunching through the autumn leaves as she made her way to the bus stop. Three weeks felt like a very long time away from work. She missed the buzz of computers inside the busy office. A cold gush of wind sent a shiver up her spine; it felt like a breath of fresh air. Alex had never been a patient person, she knew it was only a matter of time before she would snap. She had begun to throw away the condolence cards and sometimes left the phone unplugged. But no matter how hard she tried, the memory of her Dad’s death seemed to taunt her. Even the crowd of black coats at the bus stop triggered memories of his funeral. Alex released a dramatic sigh, receiving side-glances from the people near her.

When the bus appeared around the corner, the drowsy crowd started to stir. Feet shuffled as everyone hungrily inched forward in hope of getting a seat on the bus. Alex had seated herself comfortably and was drinking coffee from her thermos when she saw the man jump onto the bus; the same man from the grocery store. Alex held her thermos in mid-air as she eyed him. He hasn’t paid for his bus fare, maybe he is poor. He took out a notepad and started scribbling. Every time she looked up, she felt him glance away. Alex felt the hairs on her arms stand on end—it was as if he knew she was watching him.

When her stop approached, she carefully made her way down the aisle, seeing him fold the piece of paper as she drew nearer. The closer she got, the more she noticed a pungent smell, and scrunched her face in disgust—it was the rotting smell that had started to infiltrate Mum’s room, and it was coming from him. She covered her nose and looked around madly, but no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Just in time, the doors opened and Alex flew out. She stared with a gaping mouth at the bus as it continued on.

 

 

 

By their third encounter, Alex felt an uneasy dread. She had organised to meet Toby for a date night, which they hadn’t done in a while, since the passing of her Dad. Waiting in line at the movies, Alex felt restless being in such a busy space. All the noise of people chattering seemed to echo in her head, and the smell of the buttery popcorn made her stomach churn.

‘You alright?’ Toby asked as he put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Alex replied, her foot tapping impatiently.

The two of them waited in line behind a big family; a toddler wailed in a stroller and another two ran wild. Alex crinkled her nose.

‘I think that baby’s nappy needs changing,’ she whispered to Toby. ‘It’s making me feel really nauseous.’

Toby raised his eyebrows and shrugged sympathetically. Then one of the children bumped into a person waiting in the queue, making them turn around. It was him. Alex froze as the man turned in her direction. Their eyes met for a few seconds—an icy shiver ran up her spine. His face was expressionless, not a flinch nor a flicker.

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Do you see that man? The one in front of the family?’ Alex’s voice trembled.

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

‘There, don’t you see him?’ Alex tugged Toby’s shirt in desperation.

‘There are many men in this line, Alex. Which one are you talking about?’

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

‘I keep seeing the same man,’ she said.

Toby looked at her quizzically before stroking her hair. ‘Does he look like your dad?’

Alex shook her head, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

‘You sure? I think it might be.’ Toby gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘It’s okay, Alex. You haven’t even had a proper chance to mourn, with the way your Mum has been.’

Alex shook her head again. ‘I told you, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

Toby nodded and gave her a light kiss on the forehead, as if politely dismissing her behavior and worries as a figment of her imagination, a mourning strategy, or a cry for attention. Alex bit her lip.

Yeah, maybe I’ve gone fucking mad as well,’ she said.

‘Come on, Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.’ Toby tilted his head to the side.

‘No, I think that’s exactly what you mean,’ Alex muttered through gritted teeth as she pushed Toby away from her and started running.

Weaving through the crowd of people, Alex was determined to confront this mysterious man. I’m not crazy, she repeated in her head. Her eyes darted from left to right across the bustling food court. I’m not crazy. Sure enough, there he was standing in the far corner, staring at her as if he knew she would find him. Alex made her way through the people, drawn to his stare.

‘Alex, stop!’ Toby had grabbed her arm and turned her swiftly around, ‘Where are you going?’

‘He’s there! I need to talk to him,’ said Alex, pointing at the man.

‘Okay, where? Where is this man?’ asked Toby.

‘Just there, in the corner!’

Toby paused, staring intently, ‘Alex, I don’t see anyone standing in that corner.’

She jabbed her finger in the air, ‘Look! He’s right there!’

Toby looked again, then shook his head silently. He pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. She looked past his shoulder and watched the man walk away, slowly disappearing into the crowd.

 

 

 

That night, as Alex lay awake in her bed, she could hear her Mum’s muffled sobs in the room next door. It wouldn’t be a surprise if I was going mad too, she thought. Toby had suggested they book an in-home psychiatrist for her mum. He was worried about her condition, but Alex knew that his underlying agenda was really Alex. She hugged her pillow tightly as she listened to Mum’s whimpers softening, until there was finally silence. A soft breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside whilst a storm brewed in Alex’s mind. She imagined herself barging into Mum’s room, shaking her frail body and shouting, ‘No more, Mum! No more! I can’t handle this anymore!’ Alex’s body shuddered. She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

 

 

 

The next day, Alex received a text from Toby saying that he had booked an initial consultation for a therapy session at 6pm.

‘Just for your Mum. You can listen in if you want, up to you,’ he added.

When Alex arrived at home at exactly 5:45pm, the lights were on in the living room. Strange, Alex thought as she fumbled with her keys. She was greeted with warm air as the heater had been turned on, and she could hear her Mum’s high-pitched chuckle. The house had come alive again. Alex frowned, disturbed by the sudden change.

‘Mum?’ Alex called as she made her way to the living room.

‘Oh, Alex! We have a visitor!’ Mum called.

That smell hit her before Alex could see him. She covered her nose and froze in shock at the sight of the man. He rose onto his feet, pushing his glasses up.

‘He said he was an old friend of your Dad’s. High school friends, did you say?’ Mum looked over at him in admiration, then at Alex quizzically, ‘Why are you doing that?’

‘I… I… ’ Alex mumbled behind the hand blocking her nose.

She edged her way toward Mum. What the fuck is going on, she thought.

‘Mum… you can actually see him?’ Alex asked cautiously.

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

The man cleared his throat. ‘May I have a word with your lovely daughter?’

‘Oh, yes of course!’ Mum sprang to her feet. ‘I’ll just make some more tea.’

‘Sit down, Alex.’ The man gestured. His voice was low.

Alex shuddered as she sat in the furthest seat away from him, her trembling hands gathered in her lap.

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

‘I’ve… seen you around,’ Alex replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Which you shouldn’t have.’ The man peered over his glasses. ‘I knew something was wrong when I first saw you at the supermarket. Normally, people like you can’t see me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex’s eyes were wide.

‘It means I have prolonged my stay. My job here proved to be more, well, complicated.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘You see, the fact that I am starting to be seen means that I need to leave this planet as soon as possible. But the problem is, my job is not done. I had a list of people to select from, and I selected you.’

‘Am I going to die?’ Alex whispered, her voice trembling.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘because that is the fate of all humans.’

He took out a clipboard and started scribbling notes indifferently, as if he was sending off a parcel.

‘And it seems you have already become very sensitive to death,’ he said, nodding.

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

‘Like a rotting corpse, or simply, the fragrance of death.’ The man shrugged. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

‘But… I can’t die,’ Alex said. ‘What about my Mum? What about—’

‘No one gets to choose their death, Alex. Death is a natural occurrence whether it be sudden or expected,’ the man said as he peered at his clipboard, ‘and yours will be… sudden… the result of a natural cause.’ The man put down his clipboard, ‘I’m ready when you are.’

Alex felt an adrenal surge of mania rush through her blood, as if all the anger and frustration that she had contained was finally bursting. She stood up abruptly, looking around for something to aide her escape.

‘Stay away!’ she roared, her arms in front of her in defense.

‘Please, don’t resist. It never works.’ The man stood up.

Alex threw a vase of flowers at him and the glass shattered on the floor. The man shook his head. ‘You can’t cheat death, Alex.’ He halted at the sight of blood tricking down his injured arm and growled. ‘And it seems that I am really running out of time.’

Alex watched as the man threw his glasses onto the floor—the same glasses that had clattered onto the floor of the supermarket, the same glasses with the Band-Aid wrapped around the side. All of a sudden, he looked different; his eyes looked darker and his face hollower. A Grim Reaper, hungry for life.

He lurched and grabbed hold of Alex’s arm, covering her mouth with his other hand.

‘You won’t even know it’s happening,’ he whispered.

Alex’s eyes widened as she watched a golf club rise up behind the man. It hit him square on the head. He swayed on his legs, as if confused by the pain, his mouth opening and closing in silence. Alex watched in horror as her Mum swung with all her strength. Swoosh, thud. Swoosh, thud.

‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ she growled through gritted teeth, between each forceful stroke.

It was the sight of a madwoman. She didn’t stop until the man had buckled over into a limp heap. Unconscious. Dead. Mum was panting, with sweat running down the sides of her face.

Alex was screaming.

‘Shush!’ Mum hit Alex lightly on the shoulder.

‘Mum, are you insane! Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ Alex blundered over her words.

Mum tucked her hair behind her ears as she tried to find her composure. Her chest was still heaving.

‘Whether it be a man or a ghost or some weird shit like that, I’m not losing any more people. Now get the shovel.’

 

 

Download a PDF copy of The Shadow by Suzin Lee

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Intro to House-Ape Studies, Lachlan Marnoch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t have time to read.’

‘You’re a student.’

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

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

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

‘Selam.’

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

‘Karabo.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bulls can be smart.’

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

‘He must be smart enough.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Welcome to Intro to House-Ape Studies.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who caaaaaareees,’ Selam whispered.

‘Can you not?’ Ardi hissed back.

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

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

Selam pouted.

‘Fine.’

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

‘You coming?’

Ardi nodded her trunk towards Toumaï.

‘I’m going to talk to him.’

Selam touched her chin in a gesture of perplexed distaste.

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

Ardi gave a dismissive wave.

‘Go find your bull, Selam.’

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

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

‘Thank you! It was my first lecture.’

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

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

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

‘Really? I’d love that.’

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

‘That was quick.’

‘Sorry?’ asked Toumaï.

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

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

She indicated ‘no.’

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

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

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

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

‘Oh!’

He winced. She tried to back up, mortified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ardi gave a brief trumpet of laughter.

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

‘Ask away.’

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

‘We did.’

Ardi’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

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

Toumaï passed the skull back, trunk uncurled.

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

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

‘Tell me about it.’

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

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

His trunk coiled with gratitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a troubling thought.

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

Ardi made two rings with her fingers, gesturing thoughtfulness.

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

He looked at her curiously.

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

‘Hmm. Could be.’

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

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

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Wednesday, Bridget Corke

Bing bong.

I look up from where I am crouching on the floor, legs tucked under me and a wine bottle in each hand as I restock the shelves. A face with more wrinkles than my shirt peers down at me through square metal-framed glasses that magnify the eyes to alien-like proportions. Those same eyes follow me as I push myself up from the floor until I am the one looking down.

‘Hi Mrs Foster. Will it be a green ginger wine or a sherry today?’

Those big eyes get even larger, then blink, as she tries to figure out which drink will be the best company over the next couple of weeks; and which will put the smallest dent in her pension. Once a fortnight on a Wednesday, after she has collected the pension from the Centrelink down the road, Mrs Foster comes into the shop to refill her stock. Her swollen hands, riddled with arthritis, finger the collar buttoned at her throat. A fine gold chain drapes down her chest; a diamond ring with intricate work around the central gem hangs from the chain and swings as she shuffles closer to me.

‘Mmm, I think I’ll take a green ginger tonight, thank you, Jay. I need a little spice in my life. This is the only way I can get it, ever since Eddie died.’ This statement is followed by a wink in my direction.  I slap a smile on my face and try not to let on that inside I’m cringing. Mrs Foster needing ‘spice’? Nope. Not going there.

In a few strides, I have grabbed the fortified wine and am at the counter. I’m hoping to get Mrs Foster out of here before she says anything else that I’ll have to spend the rest of the night forgetting. Slipping the bottle into a brown paper bag, I put out my hand for the coins with which Mrs Foster will inevitably pay. Slowly, she counts out the $8.90, starting with a few gold coins and then methodically counting out the silver shrapnel.

‘$7.80…$8.30…$8.40…’

Finally, satisfied that she has provided me with the correct change, Mrs Foster trots to the door, wine in hand.

 

*

 

Bing bong.

I’m in the fridge, stacking cartons of Carlton Draught and shifting from leg to leg trying to stay warm, when a man wanders into the shop. He appears to be in his late 30s with a paunch that rests over his trackie pants. He has on runners with the soles worn away and dirt smudged across the front and the top. A frayed t-shirt clings to his chest and back where sweat has soaked through the material, leaving dark patches. He looks around the shop blankly. I catch a glimpse of the bloodshot whites of his eyes and his tiny pupils. He doesn’t seem to take me in as he continues to glance around, standing in the middle of the aisle and making no move to get anything. I wonder if he’s forgotten whatever it was that he came in for. As he again turns his head my way, he jerks back as he realises that I’m standing on the other side of the cooler room door. For a few seconds, he stands there looking at me while I stand there looking at him, and then he wanders back out of the shop.

Bing bong. 

A group of guys, not much younger than me, maybe eighteen or nineteen, walk in. With heads held high, hands in pockets and some shoving, they make their way to their Holy Grail, the premixed drinks. They crowd the fridge door and pull it open.

‘How ‘bout two six-packs of the Woodstocks?’

‘Nah, we need more than that. Get the Woodies and a ten-pack of Jack Daniel’s.’

‘Fine, but you’re paying for it.’

‘Fuck off…I paid last time. This is your shout, you tight arse.’

The smallest of the group looks over his shoulder, sucking on his lip, then turns back to the fridge and sticks his hand in. After some more shoving and arguing, they come over to the counter. Two six-packs and a ten-pack hit the bench. A dark-haired individual with a patchy moustache that looks as though it has been drawn on with a felt tip pen, leans against the counter as he waits for me to ring up the grog.

As I scan the packs of alcohol, I notice that the lip sucker is now standing off to one side, hunched over and with his arm around his middle. Subtle. I’ve seen enough people shove bottles up their tops to know what a thief looks like.

The patchy moustache holds out some cash, but I don’t take it.  Instead, I lean on the counter and look straight at the thief. My eyebrows draw together, and my nostrils flare.

‘Hey mate… planning on paying for that?’

He turns red and looks down at his hoodie.

‘Oh… uh… yeah. S-sorry, I totally forgot about it.’

He puts a cheap bottle of red on the counter along with the other grog.

 

*

 

Bing bong.

It’s five minutes until closing when the same dishevelled man from earlier stumbles back through the front door and sways over to the spirits. He picks up a bottle, looks at it without really seeing it, then puts it back down, too close to the edge of the shelf. He repeats this process as he makes his way up the aisle, every few bottles looking over at me with pupils that seem to be even smaller than before. I tap my fingers on the counter. This isn’t looking good for me. Peering over in my direction again, his gaze flicks down. I follow it until I realise I’m looking at the till.  Great. My heart begins to thump, throwing itself against my chest as though it can make a break for it. Sucking in a breath, I glance at the door on the other side of the room and then back at the guy perusing the spirits. Who designed this goddamn trap?  Someone who obviously couldn’t be bothered to think about providing future employees with an easy escape route. Dick.

Christ, where did my boss say the panic alarm was? I can picture Dave’s round bearded face smiling up at me, welcoming me to the shop. I remember him telling me about the staff discount, but nothing else springs to mind. I really should have been paying more attention. Now I’m stuck in the shop with this dodgy bloke eyeing the till and a panic button whose location I don’t know.

I think about calling the cops. He hasn’t made a move yet, but the longer he stays here, the more the knot in my stomach tightens and bile rises in my throat. When I put my hand into my pocket and feel nothing but a few empty gum wrappers, I remember that my phone isn’t here. I left it at TAFE this morning. Bloody hell. I was so tired that when it was time to leave I left my bag in the locker.

I reach for the landline on the counter only to see the fluoro pink post-it note stuck on top. It’s broken and won’t be fixed until Friday. While I go through my options, I watch the man continue his way around the shelves. Maybe he won’t try anything. My heart continues to pound in my chest. Trying to get out and save itself while leaving the rest of me to deal with the situation at hand. Maybe he will leave like he did earlier, although, now that I think about it, that could have been him casing the joint.

Bing bong. 

We both look over at the door as Mrs Foster enters. She doesn’t seem to notice the man standing a few metres away from her.

‘Jay, I got home and decided that I might as well buy a sherry too, just in case of emergencies.’  She winks as she walks down the aisle towards me. I glance at the man who has now turned and is facing us.

‘Sure thing Mrs Foster.’

The sherry is on the shelf half way between us. I edge around the counter and try to calmly make my way towards the bottles. He hasn’t changed his position; he just continues to stare at me. His dirt covered hand moves near his side, and I see a flash of silver. Yep, pretty sure that’s a knife. I grab the bottle closest to me then head back to the counter in an awkward side shuffle, ensuring that my back is never turned to him. I place the bottle on the counter and notice that Mrs Foster has begun to open her purse to pull out more coin shrapnel.

‘This one is on the house, Mrs Foster.’

‘Oh no, I can’t possibly take it for free, it’s-’

‘Please just take it.’

‘No, that wouldn’t be right.’

‘For Christ’s sake just take the bloody bottle!’ I shout, shoving it across the counter and into her hands.

Her eyes open wide and her mouth quivers. I’ve never been anything but pleasant with her before, but if that was a knife, she needs to get out of here before the shit show begins. As I walk to her on shaking legs, preparing to shoo her out of here, the man takes a few steps forward. I freeze, not sure what my next move should be. He is looking at the ring on the chain around Mrs Foster’s neck and raising his hand, which I can now clearly see is holding a knife.

‘Gimme the riiing,’ he slurs as he lurches forward.

Mrs Foster stumbles back into me. I can feel her body quaking against mine.  She’s so small that the top of her head barely reaches my chest. Her hand wraps around the ring, and she shrinks back from the knife-wielding nut job in front of her.

‘I said gimme the ring.’

‘No! Eddie gave this to me fifty years ago. I’m not giving it to you.’

‘I don’t give a fuck about this Eddie bloke. Gimme the goddamn ring,’ his attention shifts from Mrs Foster up to me, ‘and you, gimme the cash!’

My big hands become useless, causing me to fumble with the till. I’m basically swatting at the register and hoping that it will open. Jesus Christ! Finally, the drawer dings open and I grab all of the notes, shoving them into a brown paper bottle bag. When that’s done, I grab a handful of coins, then look at the knife-wielding fiend.

‘Uhhh, did umm… you want the coins as well?’

He stares at me for a few moments as though weighing up whether or not it would be a good idea.

‘Nah, too much hassle. Just the notes and the ring.’

‘Look m-mate, it’s her engagement ring given to her by her dead husband. I can get you a Hennessy Cognac from the special liquor cabinet. That one’s worth about three and a half grand. Probably more valuable than that ring.’

The longer he is here, the more sober he appears which is frightening in its own way. His thick brows pull down to meet the creases in between his eyes. I hold my breath as I wait for his answer.

‘And how will I make any money from that? I don’t know anyone in the market for a fancy bottle of grog, but I know plenty of blokes who’d fork out for a nice piece of jewellery. Now stop pissing about and hand it over, you stubborn old bitch.’

I look at Mrs Foster and see her jaw tighten and her eyes narrow. No one’s coming to help us and Mrs Foster isn’t going to back down. I round the counter and push Mrs Foster aside, barging into the intruder. Having not fully come down off his high he is still unsteady on his feet, and he falls backward onto the wooden floor. His free hand latches onto the front of my polyester shirt, taking me down with him. I wriggle and pin down the arm with the knife, but he’s strong, despite his unhealthy appearance. We roll on the ground. He tries to stab me while I avoid the blade and try to hold off the arm attached to the knife. Every breath burns my lungs, and my arms ache as I try to wrestle the knife from his grasp. The man’s struggling begins to weaken and I let my gaze drop to the knife.

THWACK.

I rear back and place my hands on my forehead. The fucker head butted me!  The pain in my head feels like my skull has been cracked. A hard ache radiates from the point of impact to the base of my head. I try to stop focusing on the pain remembering that the bastard has a knife. He’s coming at me with it now. With one hand still clutching my head, I scramble backwards until my shoulders hit the counter. He’s still advancing on me, and there isn’t anywhere else for me to go. I close my eyes and wait for the inevitable.

CRACK.

I hear a hard smack and open my eyes to figure out what has happened. Through bleary vision my watery eyes, I see Mrs Foster standing over the two of us, her bottle of sherry raised and fire in her eyes. She kicks aside the knife in the man’s limp hand. My heart continues to race as my aching head tries to take in the scene before me.

‘I’ll take up that offer of a freebie Jay.’

 

 

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Harēna, Nicole Crichton

Harēna (Latin)

Sand

Sandy desert, waste

A sanded place, ground marked off for combat, amphitheatre or arena.

 

Dearest Aemilius,

The wine here is most comparable to your family’s orchards. Who would have believed that grapes from Syria would taste as good as grapes from Rome? The Roman army too is thriving in the desert and we expect that soon the Emperor Shapur will fall in battle, his desert empire ripe for harvest! Won’t you come to Dura Europos to taste glory, Aemilius, like Alexander the Great? And then perhaps we will drink like him too!

Domitius.     

 

*

 

They heard the Parthians before they saw them. Their deep rumbling made the Roman cavalrymen whisper to their gods and their horses nicker nervously to one another. Aemilius expelled a shaky breath and willed his hands to steady as his brown stallion flung his head backwards and shuffled his hooves. He ignored the stares of the men around him, their eyes transfixed on the blood and ink staining his arms and iron scale armour. Though, at their commander’s signal, their staring was cut off and the meagre force charged into the open wasteland.

Swarming across the endless sand were thousands and thousands of Parthians. Both man and horse were draped in robes of armour, the metal shimmering like a mirage.

You promised me glory, Aemilius thought as he blinked sand out of his eyes.

‘You assured me domination of the barbarians,’ Aemilius whispered as hundreds of pounding hooves rattled his bones.

‘I had imagined an emperor’s welcome in the streets of Rome!’ Aemilius raged as he was submerged into the shimmering army.

Arrows shot all around his head and buried into his legs.

His sword clashed and pierced through armour.

He swung from side to side to avoid the bucking hooves of riderless horses.

Aemilius wrenched the reins, narrowly avoiding a collision with another Roman, but steered himself into the path of a galloping Parthian, his arrow poised to release directly into Aemilius’ head…

 

*

 

Aemilius exhaled deeply into the hot darkness. The blackness felt solid. He shifted uncomfortably in the large, empty bath, his back scraping against the rough rocks and the water sloshing gently at his movement. Cupping his hands in the water, Aemilius brought the perpetually warm liquid to his face. Massaging the water into his dry skin, he tried to ignore how bony his cheeks and chin had become, and he swore that his eyes had never been this sunken. Some of the water trickled into his mouth and Aemilius pulled it around his tongue and from cheek to cheek. With an aggressive ptt, he spat it out over his shoulder, but it was never enough to dislodge the grains sticking to his gums, wedged between his teeth and clinging to the back of his throat.

‘I confess that I have not found the same adventure that you…’ Aemilius rehearsed, his voice trailing off into the darkness. Letting his head fall backwards, Aemilius imagined the bath at his family’s villa with its painting of Vesta on the ceiling; the plump goddess with pale skin lounging above the water, her red lips a shy smile and robe enticingly askew. As a boy, Aemilius used to sink his body below the surface, the rippling water making him feel like they were swimming together; a boy the guest of a goddess.

But this dark bathhouse was not Rome.

Aemilius felt bile rise to his throat. He swallowed it as he rose out of the water. His worn muscles trembled as he dressed his wet body in his faded red tunic, iron scale armour and leather sandals. Fitting his sword into his weathered belt, Aemilius reached down again but felt only rough stone. He shook his head, he’d lost his grandfather’s silver clasp days ago, and he’d already searched the bathhouse. With a pain in his stomach, Aemilius thought of the tiny treasure; five people on a ship with several oars reaching the bottom of the hull, the bow rearing back like the neck of a gigantic sea-monster.

‘Wishing you a safe tide for your journey to Dura, and a safe tide home,’ his father had said as he fastened it to Aemilius’ tunic. Aemilius had simply smiled past the obvious incongruity that he would be riding to Dura Europos, not sailing.

Home. Aemilius’ stomach churned at the prospect as he calculated, for the hundredth time, how long it would take him to saddle his horse and ride north along the Euphrates until he reached Cappadocia, and then west, and west and west; following the coastline all the way past Cyprus and Greece, and then into Gaul before turning south into the alps and home. Aemilius closed his eyes and conjured an image of the Italian countryside stretching out before him, of endless fields turned golden by the sun; a paradise for his eyes after the harsh glare of the desert.

I confess I will not miss the desert’s…’ Aemilius began as he willed himself to remain calm, and walked out of the bathhouse.

The desert sun dried his skin the instant he walked under its searing rays. A cacophony barrelled towards him, shouts and cries of barbarians and Greeks as they scurried about the stone-walled city, brandishing papyri or hauling food to sell or worshipping to their gods; foreign gods with bulbous bodies and bunches of round hair. Aemilius cringed as the shouting between an older Greek man and a younger barbarian crashed into him, the pair gesturing wildly to one another.

‘I have the grapes and the wine, you want wine? For some oil you’ll get some wine….no, no spices won’t do, for some oil you’ll get some wine…Wine from here is good…for oil you’ll get some barley and some wine…’

‘I confess that I prefer Homer to…’ Aemilius started, remembering a boyhood spent repeatedly reciting and copying sentence after sentence of The Odyssey under the strict instruction of a permanently bristled Athenian, a boyhood spent with – Aemilius shook off the memory and wandered away, eyes scouring the sand and hand reaching for the fabric at his neck. Had it been months, not days since he’d lost it? Of all the places for the clasp to be lost, out of all the men in his family to hold it in their possession –

Aemilius gulped, guilt thick like sickness.

A flash of white caught his eye and Aemilius froze, gaping at a figure standing in the middle of the small amphitheatre. Drapedin a blinding white robe, the man pointed an accusing finger at Aemilius, eyes glaring.

‘No, not you again,’ Aemilius whispered, but he was unable to turn away from Elpidephorus, the tragic-actor. Whipping a hand behind his back, the actor pulled out a long, shining blade. Aemilius blinked rapidly, trying to – but it was too late. Elpidephorus turned the blade towards himself and plunged the shining metal into his stomach, over and over and over again. Aemilius heaved as he watched the actor’s blood stain his robe and spill onto the sand, tasting that metallic tang on his tongue.

The actor vanished.

Aemilius gasped for breath.

‘W-Why? You’re d-dead,’ he rasped, ‘I buried you in the desert.’

Sweat dripped off Aemilius’ face and he felt his tunic wet against his skin again. He braced his hands on his knees as his head fell, eyes cast again upon the sand.

How long had it been since he’d lost it?

Aemilius shook his head. Forcing himself to cut off his eye’s hopeless searching, he drew his gaze upwards and saw Domitius’ quarters, a large stone building, loom above him. A coldness swirled in the pit of his stomach that even the desert could not thaw.

‘It’s time for your confession, Domitius,’ Aemilius breathed.

 

*

 

Domitius stood hunched-over at the window of his private room, hands braced on the hip-high wall and gazing out at the rushing Euphrates; an apt station for The Commander of the River Bank. Aemilius stared at his – he shook his head and raised his knuckle.

Knock, knock, knock.

Domitius swung around and skittered to the side, eyes wide.

‘Aemilius?’ He asked, voice shaky.

The cavalryman nodded. He noticed ink stains on Domitius’ fingers and tunic.

‘I-I was not expecting you,’ he said warily.

‘I sent a message,’ Aemilius lied.

Domitius pursed his lips, trying to decipher Aemilius’ steady expression.

‘I must have lost it,’ Domitius replied, gesturing to the room around him. Aemilius briefly scanned the papyrus cluttering every desk and chest, some spilling onto the floor. After a pause, Domitius approached him and tentatively wrapped Aemilius in a loose embrace. Aemilius kept his arms hanging by his side. Domitius lingered for a few seconds before inching away, their faces so close that Aemilius could see grains of sand in the lines below his eyes.

‘Wine?’ Domitius asked, glancing to a clay orange jug sitting on a table, its spout barely visible above the mountain of papyri.

Aemilius nodded.

Domitius continued to scrutinize his gaze as he took a few steps backwards to the table and pulled out the jug and two matching cups, causing more papyri to tumble to the floor. As Domitius poured the dark liquid, Aemilius thought of Caecilius, his younger brother, meticulously tending to the family orchard; one hundred and eighteen rows of the sweetest, plump grapes – grapes that Aemilius had been banned from harvesting nine years ago. He smiled as he felt a familiar pain in his right hand. Aemilius had yet to see a man as livid as Caecilius had been when he discovered that not all of the grapes would become wine. How many times his brother had punched his thieving hand, Aemilius could not remember, but he had spent the afternoon soaking it, as purple and blotchy as the grapes, in the cool of the garden fountain; the sweet taste still on his tongue.

But this was not sweet, and the orange cup made the wine look black.

‘What are you doing here?’ Domitius asked, voice light as he placed the jug back on the table. Aemilius took a long breath.

‘I was here for victory,’ he replied.

Domitius’ cautious gaze stiffened and he looked quickly down at the papyri, eyes scanning their contents so rapidly that Aemilius doubted he read a single word.

‘I was here to dominate the desert like Rome’s forbearers – like you promised we would.’

Domitius searched for a pen, dipping the point of the reed into the pot of ink so forcefully that he knocked it over. Hissing, he grabbed handfuls of papyrus and attempted to stem the stain, the blackness spreading all over his hands as he worked.

‘I lied about the messenger. But you also lied in your letters to me.’

Domitius swallowed nervously and shook his head. Aemilius was unsure if he was denying his claims or trying to shake his words away.

‘You were aware that Emperor Shapur was laying waste to every Roman city he encountered; burning them to the ground and taking whoever was left as prisoners.’

The stain now contained, Domitius plucked pieces of papyrus at random and signed them.

‘Had you always known that we would never return to receive cheers like victors – that we would never have glory?’ Aemilius raised his voice, stilling Domitius’ writing. He looked up to the cavalryman, brow furrowed.

‘Glory is in death, Aemilius – we will receive an applause worthy of emperors when we arrive at the Elysian plain,’ Domitius replied, and then looked back down to the papyri. A tremble ran through Aemilius’ body, causing wine to spill over his fingers. Blood running hot, he tried to compose anger into a courteous reply.

‘I confess that I shall not be receiving that applause with you, Domitius.’

Domitius looked up to him again, eyes narrowed, and Aemilius wondered for a brief moment if he could sense its rehearsal. Even so.

‘I have no taste for glory, only for good wine, and plan to be riding north shortly.’

The men stared at each other. Aemilius felt his heart pound in his chest and took another breath.

‘Our family will drink to you, and I hope that Elysium is all that you’ve desired – I am not enough of a warrior for us to meet again.’ Placing the cup on top of a stack of tax records, Aemilius turned on his heel, footsteps light as he headed for the door. He reached again for where the silver clasp should have been pinned, for the curl of the sea-monster’s neck, feeling nauseous at the thought of his father’s expression when he would return without it.

‘The die is cast, Aemilius,’ Domitius said, voice almost echoing in the stone room. Aemilius paused, the flicker of rage reigniting in his chest. He strode back to Domitius and seized him by the robe at his neck.

‘How dare you even think of Caesar?! Though even he misjudged how many friends he possessed!’

Domitius cringed, smudging Aemilius’ arms and armour with ink as he tried to push him away.

‘A-Aemilius,’ Domitius gasped, ‘the d-die is c-cast,’ he spluttered, clutching a crumpled piece of papyrus. Aemilius snatched it out of his grip and read:

Their army stretches further than the desert itself.

Aemilius felt his muscles turn to liquid.

‘The P-Parthians will lay siege s-soon,’ Domitius whispered as Aemilius stared at the message.

‘There is no time to ride north, Aemilius; nor south nor west nor east,’ Domitius gripped Aemilius’ shoulders and pulled himself upwards, ‘there is only away.’

Aemilius could no longer swallow his rage.

‘You have condemned me to death!’ he roared, lunging forward and drawing his sword. Domitius pleaded incoherently and held up his hands as he scuttled backwards, knocking the table.

Crash!

The rough, clay jug and the cups fell off the table and smashed into pieces, wine pooling on the stone floor and soaking papyrus.

Aemilius gripped one of Domitius’ writhing arms and pricked his side with the sword.

‘P-Please A-Aemilius, l-let us s-sail to E-Elysium t-together!’

Anger burned through Aemilius’ veins, a searing harsher than the desert sun.

‘The die is cast, Brutus,’ Aemilius whispered, staring into Domitius’ wide, terrified eyes. Face slackening, great heaves wracked Domitius’ body but his scream was cut short into blabbering chokes as Aemilius’ sword pierced his stomach. He convulsed violently and Aemilius felt sticky blood cascade over his hand. Domitius frantically attempted to pry Aemilius’ fingers off the handle. Legs weakening and choking mute, Domitius fell. His twitching muscles stilled.

Between long, heavy gasps, Aemilius felt his white-hot rage evaporate as he stared at the stranger splayed on the stone floor, eyes still open. Hands trembling, he backed away, almost slipping in the pool of blood around him, and ran out of the stone house. Heartbeat pounding in his ears, Aemilius was deaf to the panicked chaos of people fleeing a city about to be besieged.

 

*

 

The Parthian’s grip on the bow and arrow were deadly still. He seemed blind to the carnage of arrows, bodies and blood; seeing only the Roman cavalryman. Aemilius felt his blood run cold, a numbness washing over him like water.

‘The die is cast,’ he whispered, and closed his eyes.

 

 

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