Tag Archives: Fiction Issue 9

Bad Girls, Suvi Derkenne

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

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

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

‘How do you know?’ She asks Madison.

I just do, okay.’

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘Hi girls.’

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

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

‘Leave us alone.’

‘Come on girls.’

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

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

‘Come on, where you headed?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah. Where you girls from?’

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

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

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

‘She mute or something?’

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

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

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

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

He looks away. ‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

‘Can’t handle it?’

‘Bit loud for me.’

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

‘You already said that Madi.’

‘Shut up August, nobody asked you.’

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

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

‘That poetry or something?’

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

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

 

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

‘What’s going on?’

‘The tails.’

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

‘I know idiot,’ says Madison,

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘Wrong room sweetheart.’

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

 

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

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

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

‘Whoa love.’

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

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

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

‘So?’ says Madison.

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

‘Can we go home?’ asks August.

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

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

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

‘I know.’

‘You’re not gonna be a baby are you?’

‘I’m not a baby.’

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

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

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

Snapped wrist, and pierced,

If you ever feel powerless

Remember love is the greatest gift

God has given.

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

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

‘No.’

‘Cos you’re being such a bitch.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘Fine.’

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

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

‘Last orders?’

‘You buying?’ asks Crystal.

‘Nah love. No cash no drinks.’

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

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

They shrug.

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

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

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

 

 

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The Course of Empire, Mischa Parkee

Part One: The Savage State

empire_savage_state

Thomas Cole, The Savage State. Oil on canvas, 1834

This is the savage state. You are the savage that charges down into the wilderness; a hunter with only eyes for your prey. This is your basic human instinct, yet you are susceptible to the expectations of consummating an empire. The light of dawn is struggling to break through the clouds and maintain brightness in the severity of the anticipated storm; your rawness of emotion, your untainted early stages of desire, your ultimately savage state. But the sun is soon to be unsuccessful; the figurative native is soon to be dispossessed from the land he calls home.

 

*

 

It is raining the day she goes to see Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire. The humid wetness soaks through the layers of her dress and her skin, and her bones shudder in exhilaration. The paintings from Cole’s collection are on loan for only a matter of weeks before they are to head back to the New York Gallery of Fine Arts. Mercy had driven the two and a half hours from Sydney to Cessnock to spend the day absorbed in the rich and rustic textures of the converted town hall, now known as The Hunter Gallery. Cole’s is the biggest collection that the esteemed rural gallery has ever commissioned and she is excited about finally getting to see one of her favourite artists’ works in the flesh. She had studied his brush strokes, his technique, and his harboured ambition to illustrate a pessimistic vision – the rise and fall of civilisation – for her thesis at the National Art School.  But now, looking at the dark palette of The Savage State, she sees it, not for its commentary on man’s early relationship to nature, but for what it really is. She sees the chaos that had been her relationship with Lucas; the cavernous wilderness in the foreground is like a giant gaping hole waiting to swallow the charging native, whose only thoughts are on securing their prey. She sees the vast openness of the land and danger of the looming storm clouds, and how easy it had been to be swallowed by her ideals.

There had been something about him that had made her ravenous. The movement of the days became more like that of poetry. The sun would lull into the moon, the days unknowingly become nights. All her thoughts were consumed by the burning beneath her skin, that instinctive impulse to secure her prey. It was as if her concept of time had become nothing but an inconspicuous blur as her hunger took over her senses and ravaged her thoughts. As it kept slipping into new day after new day, time seemed to escape her conscious thoughts until she was nothing but the shell of her former self; nothing but a fleshy animal of desire and hibernation. She had been part of the real world when she was first with him, but part of a fantasy with her own set of unattainable expectations, oblivious to the poison of her prey.

Mercy had always tried to make contact; when they went to the little Tapas restaurant on their first date, or when they walked down to the pub to get a quick bite before they went to see the latest superhero film that Lucas liked. Every so often she attempted to subtly let her hand catch the back of his as they walked in a strategic dance, like a hunter stalking its prey. Although Lucas seemed not to notice, she was sure that he had just been playing hard-to-get. Looking back, however, she thinks herself foolish for not seeing it earlier, for wanting to capture the feeling of it all with oils on a piece of canvas when every moment a little piece of thread had been unravelling from a jumper; the storm of the Savage State had been closing in on the sun.

 


Part Two: The Arcadian State

empire_pastoral_state

Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State.  Oil on canvas, 1834

This is Arcadia. It represents the space inside your mind that believes in miracles and impossibilities. The storm has cleared to reveal the idyllic alternative to the savage state. The part of you that is unpredictable; aligned with the hunter’s mindset of securing your prey. Much of the wilderness’s uncertainties have given way to ploughed fields and pruned bushes, depicting the foundations of what will eventually be your empire. It is the fabled world of knights in shining armour, of princesses who always find their ‘happily ever afters.’ It is the greeting-card picture world of your brain; the world that never came into being, and that never can.

 

*

 

Lucas hadn’t felt the rain. He wore only one layer of clothing, and Mercy noticed that he had no goose-flesh and did not shudder. Mercy, who sat in the passenger seat of his Toyota as they made their way back to Annandale after seeing one of Lucas’s unmemorable superhero films, remembers feeling the cold wetness of the rain seeping into her pores as if she had been sprayed by a garden hose. Her eyes continually glanced sideways, searching for Lucas’s eyes, for a reaction from him; an acknowledgement of her coldness, for him to take her hand or turn the heating on. His eyes met hers once, briefly, and then continued watching the road ahead.

She was wearing the crimson blouse she knew Lucas liked best. He had told her on one of their first dates that it had gone well with her long ebony hair. Mercy had been in a particularly jovial mood despite the weather. She was imagining all the ways in which it might prompt him to encourage her into his bedroom. He would take off her wet clothes and warm her body against his own. It would be a feeding ground. Her, pulling his see-through white shirt over his head, and him, tugging at each little red pearly button of her blouse with the fumbling hands of desire. They would kiss each other greedily, devouring one another until there was nothing left but scraps – leftovers for a morning feast.

‘I’ve never felt this close to anyone before,’ he had whispered, jolting her awake from her fantasies.

Mercy knew from bits and pieces he had told her that he wasn’t close to his parents – though she hadn’t quite deduced why at that point – and that this had fractured him somehow, like there was a magnetic field inside of him that would always find a way to repel.

Her heart swelled. ‘Neither have I,’ she replied.

But of course, that wasn’t exactly true. She had felt a similar way at least once, or possibly twice before. There was Darren in Year 11. He had wooed her with his surface level love of Romantic poetry, which had an unwavering ability to satisfy her youthfully primitive desires when they should have been studying for biology exams. And then there was Noah during her first years at art school. Mercy had fallen for his bad-boy-misunderstood persona, although she quickly tired of him when his façade wore thin, and she discovered that really he prided himself on taking inspiration from Picasso simply so he could paint whatever the hell he wanted and claim it was ‘abstract.’ But she didn’t want to ruin the moment with Lucas. She didn’t want their relationship to fall. She had wanted the idyllic pastures of their early and neatly defined relationship to remain perfectly ploughed, ready for the next stage, which meant responding in ways she knew he wanted. She was the hunter, and he was merely her prey.

Mercy wonders now, however, whether or not Lucas had been playing hunter as well.

 


Part Three: The Consummation of Empire

empire_consummation

Thomas Cole, The Consummation of Empire. Oil on canvas, 1836

Within the Empire, the majestic sturdy columns have slowly been constructed to form the foundations of your idealised relationship. Each brick, each stone, each pillar represents a struggle you believe you have conquered together, that you have built over time to finally form the beloved city of your dreams. The knights and princesses of your Arcadian state often visit this idle place to feast with their old friends and laze beneath the sail of a lulling boat, drifting without direction. It is a monument of achievement and pride, a soundly built structure of your desires. But an Empire built of ideals is doomed to fall. You cannot live in the Empire, feasting and idling for long. Soon you will have to face reality, and in reality your beloved Empire has been consummated to fail.

 

*

 

Mercy was preparing the fruit platter. The setting sunlight twinkled softly through the window of their kitchen.  The thought of finally having a space of their own, one that they had built themselves to create their very own personal empire had overwhelmed her with pride. She was starting to truly believe that their relationship was reaching sustainability, that they were compatible, that they understood one another beyond the initial hunger. By the time she had placed each watermelon slice, each strawberry quarter, each little plump blueberry into its prospected spot on the plate she had created quite a well-constructed tower.

‘Looks good,’ Lucas said, peering his head around the corner of the kitchen door.

She remembers feeling at ease in their new kitchen, preparing for their small housewarming as if she had done it a thousand times before, as if her and Lucas’s joint preparation was some sort of anticipated ritual. Looking back on it, however, Mercy thinks about how when she was doing the vacuuming, Lucas hadn’t even offered to lift up his feet.

When their guests arrived – an eclectic mix of Mercy’s old friends from Fort St High School, artsy classmates, and Lucas’s joinery buddies – she poured drinks and smiled like she was the face of a toothpaste ad. And later in the evening, when they had all had a bit to drink, talking over the top of one another about their lives and where they saw themselves in the future, Lucas reached across her to pour himself his sixth whisky of the night. Mercy forced herself to feel an indifferent sense of contentment as his arm brushed against hers, and she gave him what she thought was a playful glare of admonishment.

‘Just one more,’ Lucas declared.

‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough,’ she said, reaching out to place an affectionate hand on his sun-tanned arm.

Lucas drew away. ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Mercy! I can have one more drink.’ She was shocked into immobility at his hostility as he grabbed the whisky bottle in a fumbling display. The act might have been considered funny – a humorous anecdote to be passed on at the next dinner party; “remember that time Lucas got really drunk and made such a fool of himself? And remember how caring Mercy was, taking him off to bed like that? If that was my boyfriend, I would have left him in a heap on the floor.” That was if he hadn’t lost his footing and catapulted straight into her festooning fruit display with a loud and echoing clatter.

Mercy remembers watching the watermelon pieces drop with a deflated sounding squelch, the carefully quartered strawberries hit the floor, and the perfectly plump blueberries roll off in all directions (she had found little collections of them under the couch and beneath the shelves later). With the blinds tightly shut and the lamps casting a harsh glare across the mess, she noticed how the light was suddenly shining on things differently.

 

Part Four: Destruction

empire_destruction

Thomas Cole, Destruction. Oil on canvas, 1836

Destruction is dawning. This is what has become of your meticulously constructed Empire. This is what happens when you refuse to let nature take its course, when you become too distracted by the ideal. This is what happens when two people come from incompatible magnetic poles; they repel. Nature is dissatisfied with the idealised, man-made structure. The Empire begins to crumble, to fall apart at the seams. The savage clouds that the sun fought so hard to overcome are thickening, planning their destruction. The knights and princesses of Arcadia attempt to flee, terrified of the city’s crumbling walls, the rising water, and the fire’s ravenous rage. But there is no escape. The native is coming to reclaim the land that rightfully belongs to him.

 

*

 

‘Let’s go see the factories,’ Lucas announced one overcast weekend in July. ‘I want you to see where I work.’

He was reaching out. He must have been. Desperation filled Mercy’s lungs. He hadn’t initiated an outing in a long time. She couldn’t quite remember how long it had been, but she thought sometime around when she first moved into Lucas’s apartment about nine months prior. She didn’t know how she should answer. The desperation to connect clouded her judgement.

She had been reading Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the time. She remembers this because she found her copy a few days later, discarded amongst an array of trashy Woodworker and GQ magazines. Her heart had beat faster at the thought of Lucas pondering Chaos Theory and the analogy of stirring jam into pudding. On a lazy Sunday afternoon perhaps, when the sun hovers in that perfect transitional stage between day and night upon the horizon.

She never before considered the possibly that he had simply tossed the book there without even realising it was hers. Had he known it was one of her favourites? Surely she’d told him – although, staring blankly at the flames of the Destruction, she can’t quite recall.

When they arrived at the factories, they had lain on the concrete of the deserted carpark and watched the smoke leak from the heavy industrial chimneys as casually as if they were watching stars. Mercy wanted to see what he saw in the smoke, his furniture-making and the industrial world it came from. But in her mind, she was lying in an uncomfortable position with the pressure of the oily concrete beneath her head, watching pollution fill the air, slowly taking away their oxygen.

Is that what he sees too? Mercy had thought. By the look on his sombre face, he must have seen something more. He seemed to possess a connection to the factories and their smoke that ran deeper than a workplace affinity.

Maybe he saw how soullessly mechanical they were, that all they were able to do was something they were programmed to achieve. It concerned Mercy that there was not an ounce of life in the factories and that the same emptiness she associated with them she also saw in Lucas’s eyes. A vast, yet polluted nothingness, like the clouds of smoke that ooze from the chimneys, resembling giant cigarettes. The smoke had no purpose. It was simply what was left over from the mechanical workings of the factories where most of Lucas’s time was consumed.

Maybe that’s what he saw, Mercy thinks, a resemblance to himself.

 

Part Five: Desolation

empire_desolation

Thomas Cole, Desolation. Oil on canvas, 1836

The desolation will arrive slowly. The remains of the Empire will decay, until there is nothing left of it but a cold hard emptiness. You brought on the desolation yourself. The chaos of a deteriorating ideal has taken its toll, and nature has finally taken back what belongs to it. Beneath the surface of the mysterious water lie the remnants of destroyed cities, the desolate state of relationships passed, of artificial empires. People may visit it, take pictures, commemorate what might have been. But in the end, it is completely void of life, nothing but a past to be consumed by the earth until there is nothing left of it except dirt. From the dirt, with time, the wilderness of the savage state will return, slowly replenishing itself until the cycle begins again and another idealised relationship builds its first brick in what will eventually become this once again: desolation.

 

*

 

Mercy stares at the landscape of the final painting. There are no people in it, she realises for the first time. Perhaps they all drowned in the expanse of water whilst she had still been forcing herself to remain on the surface, too afraid to be dragged down to the bottom where all of those dead souls lie. There is nothing there but a sky of savage clouds, devoid of the mystical dawn light she so desperately wants to see in everything.

But, like jam cannot be unstirred from pudding, she knows that time cannot turn backwards. Mercy is there with them now, sinking beneath the surface to let nature swallow her. She embraces the desolation. She no longer feels like one wrong move could fracture her meticulously crafted world, no longer feels like the native of The Savage State is displaced from his homeland.

Mercy walks down The Hunter Gallery’s stone steps with purpose, out into the greying light of the late afternoon. When she reaches the final step, she turns back around to glance at the converted town hall. Its sturdy sandpapery columns look like the entrance to a tomb, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire locked tightly away inside. A moment passes before she turns and takes the last step to the bottom, making her way down the long, winding path back to where she parked her car.

The empire that she built up with Lucas had fallen, leaving her in the vast solitary space that stretches out beyond the horizon – further than her idealistic eye can see. And she is free to do anything she wants with it.

 

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Morgan, Kimberley Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nathaniel, what are you doing?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You shouldn’t be here big brother.’

 

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The Ballad of Stanley Peters, Satyajeet Marar

Her eyes were murderous.

Satin sheets lay upturned as wind-whispered lamentations crept through the insidious fog into the master bedroom. For a moment there was only silence, her own breathing flowed in intermittent bursts. A stillness transfixed three bodies in their place.

The love of her life lay before her, pants down to his ankles. Completely defenceless. His bedfellow was a thin silhouette clutching the satin sheets to her full breasts. Some doe-eyed, shaven-pubed wench.

She gripped the pistol axe tighter, its sharpened edge glistened in the Monday moonlight. His eyes offered neither explanation nor remorse – only horror. The pure, crystallised 42% proof  horror that comes to those who’ve always known deep down they would end up in their present predicament. Their deaths would not be quick. The police would not arrive in time to stop her. The paramedics would be too late to breathe life into their broken bodies.

She brought down the axe with all of a scorned woman’s strength. His skull lay caved in as sinewy brain tissue splattered across the Queen-size bed. His whore’s gasp was fearful yet futile as his blood-soaked right eye flew over her shoulders. She would be next. The-

 

Timothy Coombs had read enough to get the gist of where this was going.

 

‘I’d like to talk to you about something.’

‘What do you want to know?’

He gently placed his glasses on his desk and massaged the lines streaked across his forehead, beneath the hairline that had receded in the wake of his last divorce. He had been the principal at Clearwater High for seven years.

‘Is everything ok at home?’

‘Yeah, everything’s fine.’

‘Are you sure? Nothing going on in your life you’d like to talk about?’

Stanley shook his head. A flake of dandruff landed gracefully on the desk in front of him, falling off dark curls.

‘I don’t understand why I’m here.’

‘Your teachers and I are a little concerned.’

 

‘Why, because I write dope stories? Have you seen what the muppets in Standard English write? I’d rather contract venereal disease from a dingo than read that shit.’

‘Stanley, no swearing. This is my office.’

‘Fucking bullshit, man.’ He sank into his chair and crossed his legs. ‘This school sucks.’

‘Fantasies of murder are not appropriate for a high school creative writing class.’

‘Do you think I’m going to shoot up the school?’

‘Excuse me?’

You know what this is?’ he picked up the handwritten notebook papers his principal had just thumbed through. ‘This is reality, man, what real people live every day. Not this Pythagoras theorem crap, genuine human tragedy. Karma, retribution – all that good stuff you pretend doesn’t exist.’

‘Do not raise your voice.’

‘What are you going to do, cane me? Cane me daddy, I’ve been a naughty boy!’ He massaged his nipples through a crumpled school shirt. ‘Cane me, you fat fuck.’

‘That’s it, I’m calling your parents.’

‘You want them to join in too?’

 

*

 

‘Oye, spare a ciggy?’ Moey grunted.

The detention room was tepid and reeked of boredom and boy-sweat. Stanley stared at the clock on the wall – 4 pm. His parents would arrive soon and he’d be called back into the principal’s office to be hung, drawn and quartered.

‘Nah, man. I only smoke weed.’ Stanley replied.

The ditzy substitute teacher ‘supervising’ them had wafted out the door ten minutes before. He didn’t know what was more depressing – sitting in that room with his fellow riff-raff despondents or the thought that someone would put themselves through four years of university to become the person doing her job. He wouldn’t blame her for having a cheeky ‘smoko-and-cry’ sesh in the staff toilet.

‘That shit’s haram, bro.’

‘Moey’ shook his head disapprovingly as he lit a cigarette passed to him by one of his mates. He was a burly teen of ‘middle eastern and/or Mediterranean appearance’. Peach-fuzz chest hair poked through the undone buttons of his shirt, due to grow into a majestic rug over the next few years. The faint, bassy undertones of a Tupac Shakur song about keeping bitches in line seeped through the earphone stuck in his left ear.

He passed the cigarette packet back to his compadré. It had a large-print warning about the risks of smoking accompanied by a picture of a deformed human foetus resembling a scrambled peach. Stan realised that he hadn’t eaten since 12.

‘Stanley Peters, report to Principal Coombs office immediately.’ Blared the speakers.

‘Well, gentlemen. It has been a pleasure. Unfortunately, I must be off to see the lynch mob.’

 

‘…..’

‘….Bro, who da fuck is Lynch?’

 

 

*

 

‘Hi Dad, Hi Rosie.’

They sat crossly and glared at the 17-year-old encumbrance that just walked into the principal’s office.

‘Sit down. Your parents and I are going to have a very serious conversation with you.’

‘Orgy cancelled already?’

‘Stanley, shut up.’

His father’s nostrils flared so hard, he thought steam would pour out.

‘Sorry, just thought I’d cut through the ice a little bit.’

‘Stanley…’

‘Yeah?’

‘What is this story supposed to be about?’

He pondered the question for a moment. He had been fairly baked when he wrote it and couldn’t remember exactly what had inspired him.

‘It’s actually about feminism.’

‘Feminism?’

‘Yeah. The protagonist is a strong, independent woman. She’s taking her life into her own hands.’

‘By killing people with an axe?’

‘Yeah. She’s smashing the patriarchy.’

Principal Coombs shook his head.

‘…Shaven-pubed wench’ Does that sound like feminism to you?’

‘Patriarchal beauty standards, man.’

‘I don’t think you quite understand what feminism means.’

 

*

 

‘What does feminism mean to you?’

Of all his attempts to think of a chat-up line, this was probably the worst.

A week ago, Stanley found himself next to a particularly gorgeous blonde from another school with those little dimples that light up the face when a smile strikes.

In the distance were the sights and sounds of the classic teenage house party. Broken glass, hip-hop and a mix of people chugging and people chundering. But none of that mattered because he had survived 10 minutes of conversation with a heavenly blessed angel whose beauty was divine and everlasting.

In that moment, they were the only two people in the universe. Stanley resisted the Goon-fuelled urge to make punnet squares in his head like he had in Biology class but it was futile. Blonde was a recessive gene and everyone in his family had dark hair so their kids would probably have raven hair and blue eyes since blue eyes were recessive but they both had them. They’d also have a pet Poodle and a large palatial mansion in the North Shore where they could grow old together. She was so hot. Fuck.

‘To me it’s about being treated the same as anyone else. I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a woman. I want to be respected for who I am and what I’m capable of. We can be just as tough as men.’

‘Interesting, interesting. So you think chicks should enlist in the army?’

‘Well, yeah. The army isn’t all biceps and bravado.’

‘I’m sure you could provide that, you’re a real GI Jane.’

She blushed. Holy shit Stanley, you smooth motherfucker.

 

‘What do you do for fun, Stanley?’

Don’t ruin it by talking about weed. Don’t ruin it by talking about weed.

‘Well, I enjoy a bit of cooking. I’m all about breaking these gender stereotypes.’

‘Really? What do you cook?’

‘Brownies.’

‘What kind of brownies?’

‘Chocolate.’

‘Cool, they’re my favorite.’

‘So I know you’re a feminist and all but I’m sure you enjoy a bit of chivalry.’

‘Yeah, sure. It’s nice from time to time when someone opens the door for you.’

‘Maybe they’re doing it so they can look at your butt.’

What the fuck man that was fucking risky and random oh shit she isn’t reacting shitshitshit

‘…By the way, I think you’ve got a nice butt.’

..And she was laughing. She found it funny, maybe even a bit endearing. It worked.

‘Thanks, I guess?’

‘Just telling it like it is. So anyway, before the cops come shut this thing down, it has been a real pleasure meeting you. Let me take you out on a date some time?’

She smiled. Her dimples lit up the world around her as her golden locks swayed gently in the breeze. Those blue eyes gazed deeply into his own.

‘Aw, no. Thanks, though.’

 

*

 

‘And all this violence and sex… we’ve warned you about this before. Why do you feel the need to include so much of it in your work?’

Stanley pulled out a crumpled set of English notes and brandished it in front of Principal Coombs, his father and Rosie.

‘See this? Area of study – ‘belonging’. What is belonging? Some vague, uniting concept that makes it super easy for people who got half the ATAR scores they expect us to get when they were our age to mark our papers. Wow, such a universal concept! Everyone just wants to belong to something! Well, suck me off if that isn’t sheer genius.’

‘So you give us these ‘texts’ we’re meant to read, right? Classics like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’. They’re great books, sure. But it’s a little hard to enjoy them when you’re too busy looking for the answers to those shitty little homework questions you chuck at us. And you wonder why so many kids stopped reading for fun after the last Harry Potter book came out. At least the girls with daddy issues have 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight and Bacardi cruisers.’

‘Ah but then, creative writing! The one chance we have of forming our own original thoughts. Not like we get a chance to do that in math class. Or history class – Write ‘Australia was settled’ and you get a free lecture on racial sensitivity from Mrs. Clarke, who’ happens to be whiter than Chandler Bing from Friends.’

‘Anyway, I’m digressing. So yeah, creative writing. It’s great. Except that instead of judging us for how well we write, we get marked on how we convey some generic, meaningless concept. Like corporate recruitment adverts flashing buzzwords like ‘Synergy’ and ‘Diversity’ that some blowjob from HR came up with. It’s a system designed to reward people with crew cuts who iron their underwear and dream of a cushy public service job where they can get paid to sniff their own farts. Our ability to use fully sick techniques like ‘imagery’ in smooth lines like ‘a lone tear cascaded down his cheek as he recognised his daddy’s face’ gets rewarded. Gee, thanks guys. Now I feel like the contents of my stomach belong in a barf bag. No one gives a fuck about that shit in real life.’

‘Stanley…’ Principal Coombs wearily interjected. ‘All this ranting is getting us nowhere. You have said nothing about why you use violence and sex.’

‘Huh?’

‘Violence. My question was about violence and sex.’

‘… Oh right, that. Violence is pretty cool and sex is edgy. It’s fun to write and keeps things gritty and exciting.’

‘..That’s it?’

‘I guess so.’

‘Alright. I’m going to suspend you for a period of two weeks. I’m also referring your parents to a child psychiatrist who might be of some assistance. I hope you learn from your mistakes today or I can tell you there will be no place for you in this school.’

 

*

 

But there would be a place for him at the school.

After being diagnosed with ADHD, Stanley went on to become one of the most prolific Ritalin dealers in the whole Inner-west school district. Stanley matured in the years to come as he realised that getting in trouble might bring his lucrative dubious and unethical side-business to an end.

After school, Stanley went on to work as an investment banker and amassed a fortune through leveraged buyouts and laundering funds using a shell company set up in the People’s Republic of Hedonistan.tm He employed a diverse and synergistic workforce of child labour strong, independent women.

 All these experiences had taught Stanley a valuable lesson – the sense of belonging he had been yearning for had been within him all along and he had rebelled against it. None of this success would have been possible without the love and support of his family and teachers. A lone tear cascaded down his cheek. 

The End.

Student id: 4258390

School: Clearwater High

HSC Creative Writing – English Paper 1 

 

 

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Live a Little, Laura Schwebel

When I stumbled upon Mr Simmons, on the office rooftop, standing on the ledge that wrapped around the building, I thought two things. Firstly, I was not convinced it was a suicide attempt and the second was, ‘Bullshit!’

‘Aha! Annabel! Glad you could make it’ Mr Simmons remarked, as if he’d been expecting me to find him like this.

‘Glad I could make it?’ I shook my head in confusion, ‘to what? Your funeral?’

My relationship with Mr Simmons was rather unconventional. I met him on my first day at Unblocked (a publishing company with its hands in every pocket – books, magazines, newspapers, and journals) and I found him to be quite the character. Noted by his orange jeans, and navy and white polka dotted shirt. While initially I’d found his uniqueness quirky, and a little bit charming, it grew tiresome quite quickly.

‘My funeral?’ He laughed, ‘don’t be daft girl. I don’t want to die.’

Could’ve fooled me, I thought. ‘Then why don’t you come down?’

This was not the first time I’d come across Mr Simmons in a compromising position. During my first week, I found him first in the female bathroom. He was taped to the end toilet, rope wrapped around his feet and hands. ‘It’s not what it looks like!’ he yelled when I had appeared. I don’t recall having thought it looked like anything except a man who was in dire need of help. I reasoned that how he’d found himself in this position was none of my business. Plus, truthfully, I didn’t want to know. So after untying and untangling him, time spent counting my blessings I had not found him, a middle-aged man, naked, I bolted. Afterwards, I tried my best to avoid him. I assumed he was caught up in something, exactly what I was unsure of and I didn’t want any involvement.

But of course, there was a second time too. I found him next when I was working back late. My fourth week in and already there had been a push to work over time. Working overtime meant more books on the shelf at the end of the year. And more books equalled more money. At around 6:30pm, when I’d assumed everyone else had left, I heard a loud BANG! Strange, I remember thinking. On shuffling out to inspect the noise, which had come from the lobby, I found Mr Simmons hanging over the glass railing that stretched across the building, connecting two sets of parallel stairs. A bungee rope tied to his ankles.

‘What are you DOING?’ I yelled, running out into the open space so he could see me.

Caught off guard, he stammered, ‘it’s not what it looks like!’ And then as an afterthought, ‘what are you doing here?’

‘Working! Because…’ I gestured with my hands, ‘…this is a work place!’

‘Ha! For some.’

Since my arrival at the company, I’d heard about an elite group who completed dangerously risky challenges. Who was in it? No one was sure. The danger of these challenges was resigned to getting caught or getting killed. Like taping someone to a toilet or bungee jumping in the lobby. And whilst I was concerned about what I was hearing, I never had any open conversations about it. I did, however, often find myself within earshot of other people’s speculations. Yet, I still kept to myself. But with each conversation I overheard, I found more of my attention turning towards Mr Simmons. I began to watch him to see what he was up to. He only ever appeared to be very engrossed and motivated by his work, however. If I had not caught him in action, I would have believed he was the perfect employee.

By chance, I had caught a glimpse of Mr Simmons sneaking into the stairwell as I emerged from a meeting. Curious, I thought. Why go up to the rooftop? I didn’t have to think – I followed him.

‘But I don’t want to get down Annabel! The view is just marvellous!’

‘I am sure it is. But I am pretty sure you can still admire it from of the ledge’ I tried reasoning to him.

His eyes suddenly lit up, ‘Come join me!’

Is he being serious? He was being serious. ‘Join you? Are you crazy?’

He looked at me inquisitively, ‘maybe a little.’

He turned away from, and began to side step along the ledge. My heart stopped, I was certain he was going to fall.

‘Get down,’ I yelled. I couldn’t handle this. I was going to witness him die.

‘Did you follow me up here?’ He asked suddenly, rotating his body so he was facing me. His face had contorted into annoyance – not a quality I had ever associated with Mr Simmons. ‘It must be the only explanation for how you found me up here…’ Realisation dawned on him, ‘you know! Don’t you!’ He was like an excited child.

‘How about this… you come in off that ledge and I’ll tell you everything I know.’

Delight. Utter delight ran across his face. At least it did before conflict appeared. He was torn between removing himself off the ledge, which could result in him plummeting to death, and finding out what I knew.

‘Seriously? You have to think about this?’ That got him. Sighing he turned towards me and, with ease, jumped down. He’s done this before, I thought. That crazy bastard has done this before.

He sauntered over to me, hands on his hips. I watched as he surveyed me, pondering what he going to say. Possibly even pondering what I was going to say. He brought his hand to his chin and stared. He was safely off the ledge. But I had a nagging feeling that if I did he would hop back up again.

‘Are you going to speak?’ My eyes narrowed in on him. ‘I came down safely…’

Somewhat safely,’ I muttered.

‘…So you would speak. And now you’re standing here not saying a word,’ he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Alright then, up I go again.’

I snapped, ‘oh stop it! Fine I’ll speak! But if you so much as take one more step I will scream so loud you won’t know what will happen. The bloody riot police could show up.’

Laughter. Does he think I’m joking? He probably did. He didn’t know much about me. And there I was, claiming I would yell and scream and make a ruckus when all he had probably examined of me was my quiet exterior. I didn’t blame him for laughing. I could be a little uptight.

There was patio furniture atop the roof I had not noticed before. Perhaps, because this was the first time I had been on the roof. Spotting the nearest seat, I took off towards it. I needed to sit down. Mr Simmons followed suit and sat down opposite me. When I didn’t speak straight away he began tapping his foot against his chair. Ignoring him, I said, ‘all I know is some of the staff challenge each other to weird and dangerous tasks – like the ones I found you doing.’

Laughter. Again. He needed to stop that soon. My patience was wearing thin.

‘Weird? Dangerous? That’s close but not really.’ I didn’t reply. He continued, ‘we push each other’s limits, we complete challenging tasks to feel a release.’ He waved his hands in the air, ‘release from the office life, from what is boring.’

‘If it’s so boring, quit. It could literally save your life.’ I deadpanned.

He considered me. I didn’t have anything to say, so I stayed quiet. It was ridiculous. Endangering your life for a release? Work wasn’t that bad. Was it?

‘You should try it.’

‘Pardon?’

‘You need to loosen up’ he seemed sincere. ‘You need to take risks.’

I didn’t answer. I did not know how to. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. Opening it, it read: 23 Cove Way, Pineville. ‘I hope to see you there.’ And with that he sauntered past me, leaving me to wonder if our encounter had really happened.

The remainder of the day I didn’t see Mr Simmons. I suspected he’d taken off early. I had a mountain of work to sift through but couldn’t concentrate enough to do it. Instead of answering phone calls, I ignored them. Instead of attending meetings, I sat imagining what could have happened if I hadn’t found him on the roof. Would he have fallen? Would he have died? Will he go up there again? And then, what will happen if I turn up at that address? Nothing. I wasn’t going.

I deliberated these questions all day, even as I walked home from work.  When I stood at my front door I needed a moment to process where I was. I had been so lost in thought I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. Turning my bag to the front I sifted through for my keys. I found them, but something was missing.

‘Where are you?’ If ever there was a night I needed to go inside and have a glass of wine, it was then. But my house key was missing. My car key was there, my gym key was there, and even the key to my parent’s house was there.  ‘Where are you?’ I asked again. I tipped everything out onto the pavement. I sifted through my mess and eventually picked each item up to inspect it and make sure my key had not fallen off and gotten lost in the mix. I hadn’t. It definitely was not there. What I did find was a note:

Missing something…

23 Cove Way, Pineville

Mr Simmons had stolen my house key. It was clear. I just didn’t know how. ‘Little snitch!’

‘I beg your pardon?’ I turned to the sound of Mrs Barker’s, my neighbour, voice. She stood a few metres away, a fence in between us, and had garden clippers in her hand.

‘Not you Mrs Barker.’ I coughed, ‘some…someone else.’

‘Alright dear.’ She was unconvinced, but went back to her business and didn’t say anything else.

Ignoring the contents of my bag at my feet, I stood staring aimlessly at my front door. I willed it to magically swing open. But it did not. This left me with one choice. ‘Alright Mr Simmons, give me your best.’

The address was further away from my house than I thought. But I made it. It was an abandoned building with no lighting and not a single person milling about. Waiting in my car seemed like the best solution.

I waited for five minutes. For ten. When twenty-five minutes ticked over I decided sleeping in my car outside my own house was the safest option. I felt I was being watched and it was not a nice feeling. I turned my car on, put it in reverse and began backing away. Until, a figure appeared at my window and began thumping on it with their palm.

‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’ I couldn’t exactly make out his face but I knew it was Mr Simmons. His voice is rather unique – like a little boy who had not completely grown up. ‘Don’t you want your key?’

Of course I wanted my key. What a stupid bloody question. ‘Yes. Hand them over.’

Laughter. Again. ‘You’ve got to come inside first.’ And then he disappeared.

I didn’t want to do it. Whatever these people were into, I didn’t want any part of it. They’ve literally forced me into doing this, I thought. I don’t have to be here. I knew I could’ve walked away – I had every right too. But there was this nagging sensation in the pit of my stomach. I’d never experienced anything like it before. And while, for a second, I thought of bolting, I knew there was something in there I needed to face. I also knew Mr. Simmons wouldn’t have gone as far as he did to get me there if he didn’t think it too.

Sighing, I conjured up a plan. It was simple. I’d do in, suss it out. But if it was too scary, I was backing out. I’d fight him for my key instead, if I had too.

I turned my car off again and finally got out. I hadn’t exactly seen where Mr Simmons had disappeared, but I knew the general direction, so I headed in it. As the distance between the building and myself shortened, a cut out appeared on the side of the building. It was a door, with light peeking through the bottom crack. I latched onto the door handle and pulled it open. Twenty sets of eyes turned on me. Mr Simmons appeared amongst them. He looked like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. ‘Took your time,’ he muttered, as he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the centre.

I recognised several faces. Although no one said anything so I didn’t say anything back. This must be a usual thing, I decided. They are used to new people just turning up.

‘Are you ready?’ Mr Simmons suddenly asked.

I frowned a little. No I wasn’t ready. I just wanted my key. ‘Give me my key Simmons.’

‘All you’ve got to do is jump.’

‘Jump?’ I looked around. ‘Up and down?’

He did not answer me. Instead, he looked up and pointed. My eyes followed, and began examining a tall building – with a ledge.

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is ridiculous. Give me my key!’

‘Just follow me.’ He didn’t leave me with a choice. I had to follow – up four flights of stairs.

I was surprised when we reached the top. It was quiet and peaceful. Well, quiet except for my hammering heart.  It was just the two of us. And unlike me, glued furthest away from the ledge, Mr Simmons walked straight over and peered down.

‘Come have a look,’ he said with his back to me.

‘I’m fine where I am thanks.’

‘”Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all…” do you know who said that?’ Nope. ‘Helen Keller.’

I snorted. ‘I’m pretty sure that doesn’t translate to jump off a tall building.’

He sighed. ‘Do you know why I got you here?’

I didn’t answer. He knew the answer was no.

‘You need to push yourself. Take a chance. Think heedlessly!’

‘If it’s not already obvious by my being content to stay as far away from the ledge as possible, I am not wired that way.’ I took a further step back to prove my point. ‘I’m sorry but you’re going to have to find someone else to take my place.’

‘What are you scared of?’ A sarcastic comment was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t think this was a surface level question.

‘I don’t think I understand what you’re asking?’ I frowned a little.

‘Do you think you’re here by accident?’

‘Are you proposing that each time I found you was a part of some master plan to help me overcome a fear – that I don’t know I have?’

He didn’t answer this question. Instead he smiled at me, his eyebrow arched. ‘I cannot confirm that.’ Who’s following whom now? ‘What I can say is you work back late, and do more for other people than you do for yourself. You need to live a little. Take more risks. Perhaps not as risqué as me, but at least something that gets your heart racing.’ When I didn’t answer he continued, ‘we’ve all done this and we’re fine. So you’ll be fine.’ He moved towards me. ‘Look, just take a look. If that’s the biggest risk you’ll take than it’s a start. Just don’t come back down for at least ten minutes. Otherwise no key.’

I took a deep breath and walked towards the ledge. I think it’s because I really wanted my key. There was no other explanation. While doing so I couldn’t help but think of the places I’d rather be – bed was the first on my list, with wine close by. Walking closer, I peered over. A black hole was in the centre. I turn to Mr Simmons, he just grinned at me. If it was a scare tactic, it was working. I was literally shaking. I hoped because I couldn’t recall any recent deaths at the office, that there was a net at the bottom. This helped me step forward. My heart rate picked up, and sweat beaded across my forehead. All I wanted in this moment was to be at home sipping wine, maybe doing some work before tomorrow. When I woke that morning, I was not expecting my day to end up like this.

Anxiety filled me. I rubbed at my neck. Tingles ran up my arms, and my stomach began to heave. How did I get myself into this mess? I didn’t. It found me. I didn’t want to do it. But that nagging feeling had grown. He was right, and I knew it. I needed to do this. I gulped – Just stop thinking. I hopped on the ledge, bent my knees and jumped.

At first, I didn’t feel anything. Then gradually I felt a slight draft as it began wailing in my ears. I could no longer feel my heart but I was certain it was thrashing hard. Then, unexpectedly, every muscle in my body began to relax. I had my eyes closed but I opened them. And instead of plummeting to the ground, I was winding through a tunnel. At first it was a tight fit, but as I wound around and around, it grew – wider and longer. I went up and down. Up and down. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And just as I did so, a hole at the end opened and I flew out. I hit something. It was not soft but neither was it hard. It was a crash mat.

‘How was that?’ Mr Simmons was at my side instantly. He reached out his hand and helped me out. ‘Are you glad you took the plunge?’

It was loaded question. He knew it, I knew, and everyone knew it. But was I? Maybe a little… But I would admit, only to myself, that answer. ‘That’s all I am ever doing! Because that’s what you’re really asking isn’t Mr Simmons?’

‘It was only a tunnel!’

‘Mr Simmons…’

‘Tim. Call me Tim.’

‘Tim, you’ve tried to bungee jump in the lobby and you’ve almost jumped off a building… I know for a fact that next time it won’t be a tunnel.’

He smiled his usual smile; the kind of smile that always came before a laugh.

‘Now hand it over.’ He did. And I was gone.

 

 

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Black Sandman, Chelsea Ainsworth

Shadows swept across the room like wild beasts. They wound over walls and threatened to gnaw off any limb that dared protrude over the safety of the bed. Snickering, they rattled closet doors and mocked the weak ward of the nightlight’s glow. ‘Sssh…’ A hand caressed the cheek of the terrified youth, whose hair was strewn across her pillow after a fitful sleep.

‘Don’t fret precious, I’m here.’

The voice soothed the shadows still and silence fell over the bedroom. With a gloved hand, the figure drew out a pouch from within the folds of its robes. The mystical drapes shifted the shades of late twilight as tattered ends weaved into wisping smoke. ‘Lay your head down, child. I won’t let the Boogeyman come.’ A soft tug and the pouch loosened. The sandy contents were poured into its palm before a breath carried it over the child. Like starlight the sand danced and sparkled, singing songs of grand adventure. Under the growing weight of slumber, the child’s muscles slackened, eyes drifted closed.

Now a fading presence from the world the figure rose. Standing over the bedside it wiped its hand, studding stars onto its robes.

‘Goodnight, Lilian.’

*

The lurch of the tram threatened to send Lily toppling with each stop-start at the CBD’s lights. Skin paler than ivory, her skeletal fingers clung to the overhead railing as a lifeline, an anchor point in the passing tide of each station. Her fingers tapped against the railing while she fiddled with the button on her phone. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. Lock.

She could have sworn the permission sheet had read nine.
Or were they meeting earlier for roll call?

Uncertainty roused an unsettled churn in her stomach, the smell of hunger rising on her breath. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d got it wrong. What if she had again? She could always trust herself to screw something up somewhere. She couldn’t do anything right… and she was going to get chewed out by her parents again for it. No doubt the school would call them for her being late.

A bump from a passenger’s elbow jolted Lily from her thoughts. She recoiled, running her hand over her arm as if she’d been touched by fire. Had the tram always been this small? It had become pretty crowded… Her breath began to draw short, catching sharp in her chest.

Not now. Not here. Not with all these people watching.

Lily shut her eyes tight but the overwhelming sea of voices followed her into the dark. She bid herself to breathe and focus on smaller things. But as always that was easier said than done.

‘Pay no mind to the rabble.’

The words reverberated as a distant echo, yet were distinct over the bustle of the tram in its familiarity. Lily forced a breath, her knuckles turning ghostly in a death grip on the railing. Her finger pressed the volume of her phone to amp her music to near deafening. The voice, and those of others present, were lost to the swift sound of piano and violins as L’Impeto Oscuro streamed through her headphones. ‘Headphones on. World off.’ Lily quietly reassured herself.

Despite her anxiety spiking, Lily managed to steel herself enough to focus. Answers were what she needed. She could text someone for them. That was an idea.

‘Meeting at gallery at 9?’

It took the fourth attempt for the text to send without the automated response of an inactive number. While awaiting a text back, Lily loaded the route timetable for her ETA. She was close and, thankfully, it wasn’t long before her music feed paused to the jingle of a text.

‘Yeah. Um. Who is this? How did you get my #?’
‘Lily. We had a group assignment last year.’

No sooner had she replied the tram suddenly jerked and launched Lily forward into a man, almost knocking his iPhone from his hands. She mumbled a profuse apology, the words tumbling as badly as she had. A frightened rabbit, Lily bolted through the still opening doors, onto the platform, and into the street. Unaware, she’d gotten off two stops early and forgotten to tap her Myki card.

In a mad dash, she’d managed to make it to the gallery with mere minutes to spare. Lily ignored the gathered students as she stood hunched, wheezing pained breaths, her hand pressed against the neighbouring storefront. That was stupid. Oh so stupid. She’d have scolded herself had she not felt her thoughts would be lost to the war drums pounding in her ears. But at least she’d made it. If the lacking presence of a teacher was enough to go by.

Once the pain in her chest started to subside Lily straightened, stumbling from a feeling of light-headedness. A scent of bodily tang brought a new sense of alarm. Immediately Lily folded her arms, trying not to look as gauche as she felt, and subtly patted the underarms of her school dress. Not too damp so she was probably in the clear for sweat marks. Just as well, for she met the gaze of an arriving classmate.

The two awkwardly held eye contact for a silent moment. At this point, one of them was going to have to yield and acknowledge the other.

‘Hey.’ He waved with a smile she assumed was as false as her own.
Lily hurriedly folded her arms behind her back, wiping her hands on her dress, all while trying to make the gesture look discreet.
‘Heeeeey…’
Oh god, please don’t come over. She hoped. She prayed. But of course, he did. Worse still, he drew Lily into idle chit-chat over the morning’s traffic.

‘He is only speaking with you to be polite, you know.’

Lily’s smile strained and her eyes fell. She’d planned to excuse herself yet, before she could, a nearby group of girls chimed in about how Melbourne transport sucked. Their train was late or something like that. Lily wasn’t really following, didn’t really care to. She was only eager to fade from participating since they seemed content to discuss without her.

‘You should pay no mind to what other voices say. They don’t care about you.’

The whisper brushed against her ear and along her face. It sent her body rigid, flinching, as the sensation of a cape swept over her shoulders in an embrace. An unseen weight pressed just over her shoulder as if someone were resting their head.

‘Like I do.’

Lily resisted the urge to look over her shoulder. She clenched fistfuls of the back of her dress, the fabric keeping her nails from digging into her palms. A call of her name brought her back. The conversation had fallen silent, replaced by questioning looks. ‘Just a shudder,’ Lily reassured with a forced sheepish laugh and released her grasped. ‘Somebody must’ve stepped on my grave.’ She stepped away, to stand out of earshot. No doubt there’d be talk about what just happened… The teacher finally arrived, a box of guidebooks under his arm. Keen for a distraction, Lily stepped forward to collect hers and flipped it open to the table of contents. ‘The Pantheon: A Taste of Greek Myth.’ She read aloud when one title caught her interest, her eyes falling to a photo of one of the exhibitions main draws, a painting of Persephone.

Once rollcall had been taken the students piled into the gallery. Winding figures of welded scrap-metal pillared the open space. Their metallic branches stretched skyward to crumple against the ceiling, a representation of a ‘concrete jungle’ supposedly. Or so the tour guide said. But Lily was having difficulty following, her attention lost in a thickening fog that blanketed her thoughts. She edged to the back of the group, needing to get off her feet for a moment.

It would be embarrassing – and rude to the guide – but the woozier Lily felt the less inclined she was to care.

There’d have to be a bench or chair for her to sit on. Hell, even the floor would do. She glanced across the room for one, instead spotting a familiar figure among the pillars. As always, lavish robes adorned its masculine frame. The crescent curls that hung over olive skin made it look like a painting come to life. Of course Nephron was here, it was the last thing she needed right now. ‘This is why you take your tablets, Lily,’ she muttered to herself. Nephron circled the pillar intently, confused, but curious. Its thumb tapped under-chin in interest before its eyes flicked from the artwork, sensing Lily’s gaze. Swiftly she turned away, refocusing on the tour as her frown turned harsh. If she ignored it, it’d go away eventually.

Passing minutes dug in their heels and the growing sense of exhaustion strengthened. It beckoned her to rest her eyes – if only for a moment. Vibrant colours dulled to the darkness that crept into the corners of her vision. Like a wild beast, it pounced, swallowing the world whole. Lily staggered and collapsed back towards the corner of a display. But, as she fell, Nephron caught her wrist and swung her sideways in the instant before it vanished as Lily’s consciousness slipped.

Lily woke to the frightened calls of her teacher. Reality struck, terror jolting her from her stupor and returning senses with a harsh clarity. She became all too aware of the looming wall of people that surrounded her, their eyes fixated as they towered above her. She couldn’t breathe. She pleaded for the darkness to take her back. For it to reach through the floor and drag her into the deepest pit of Hades, far away from all these eyes. Far away from everything.

The teacher waved the students back but many barely budged.

‘Are you alright?’ He pressed. The unease in his voice made it clear that it hadn’t been his first time asking since she’d awoken. Lily merely nodded in response.

‘You were lucky. You nearly cracked your head open.’

‘You should’ve,’ Interrupted one of the boys who was met with a deathly glare in response from the teacher. “No, I mean it! You didn’t see it! She was falling but before she hit the thing she swerved in mid-air… then bang!’ He finished with a clap of his hands.

It took an hour for Lily’s father to drive from work to take her home early. She battened down the hatches, knowing what was sure to follow.

‘This is what happens when you don’t eat breakfast, Lillian. I’ve told you.’ He began with eyes flicking between her and the road.

‘I know.’

‘That’s what you always say. Don’t just say “I know.” Actually do it!’

He paused.

‘Did you take your iron tablets at least?’

Lily hesitated. ‘…No.’

Her father slapped his hand atop the steering wheel and gave a frustrated groan.

‘Lily you have a deficiency. You can’t just not take them otherwise this happens!’

‘I didn’t mean to not take them!’ Lily snapped back, lifting her head from against the passenger window. ‘I was running late because I had trouble sleeping! I forgot to have breakfast so I forgot to take my tablets too!’

‘That doesn’t work if you forget to have breakfast every other day. Don’t be so…’ He paused again to point at his temple. ‘Stupid. You easily could have been hurt. You almost broke your jaw the last time you fainted. If you hadn’t been on the bloody laptop all night you wouldn’t have been running late.’

And. There. It. Was.

‘It’s not the laptop’s fault! You’re always so quick to blame it for everything but it’s not the reason I have insomnia!’
Lily threw herself back to the window, lightly banging her forehead against the glass. She wasn’t going to bother continuing. This wasn’t an argument she could win, unless she wanted to be institutionalised that is. ‘Fuckwit doesn’t know anything…’ She thought bitterly. Her fingernails dug into her arm, leaving raw tracks as she ran them back and forth. The pain distracted from the sharp sting in her eyes. She didn’t dare cry in front of him.

The remainder of the trip was made in silence. From the front door, Lily darted up the stairwell to the bathroom, taking some fresh laundry from the banister as she passed. She ran the shower hot, the water near scalding. It painted her skin in red splotches, blending in the mark of tears and silent screams. Once dry Lily slipped on a blue nightdress and threw her old clothes into the wash basket.

‘One pill makes you larger. One makes you small. And the pills that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all.’

The distinct sound of 60’s bass guitar greeted Lily in the hallway. Dad must have been playing his vinyl collection while cooking again. The melody followed her into her bedroom which, as her mother put it, was a victim of ‘flat-surface syndrome.’ Every available surface was covered in something, be it clothes, books, towers of CDs, posters or travel magazine clippings. Early afternoon light filtered through the blinds of her lone window. It cast dark bars across the opposite window, caging a bird’s silhouette as it sat upon the outside streetlight.

With a heavy sigh, Lily crashed onto her bed. Sprawled across its length, her arm rested over her face to shield against the light. She felt the mattress dip to a weight at the end of her bed, causing her to jerk upright and press herself against the backboard.

‘Nephron.’ Lily spluttered. ‘I-it’s been a while since you appeared in my room.’

Nephron gave her a half-way glance as it shifted to prop one leg over the other, arms folded ‘Oh? Are we speaking now? It’s been a while since you last spoke to me.’ It responded with feigned insult.

‘Yeah, well, it stopped being acceptable to talk to your imaginary friends at eight.’ Lily quipped defensively, unsure why she felt the need to justify herself.

‘But…’
‘But?’ Nephron prodded with a grin.
Lily swallowed, her hand running over her already bruised wrist. ‘You’re not imaginary, are you? The gallery… What are you?’

With a chuckle, Nephron rose to its feet.

‘After all these years and only now do you care to ask, flower? One name, of two, your kind has given mine is Sandman.’
‘And the other?’

For an instant something malevolent crept into the Sandman’s grin, leaving Lily thankful it hadn’t answered.
‘What do you want?’ Lily asked unnerved by the sudden turn.

‘What I’ve always wanted.’ It replied nonchalantly, pacing the small room to brush its hand over a childhood doll atop the bedding box, a white rabbit.
‘To keep you safe.’
‘Safe from –’

Nephron cut her off abruptly, appearing before her in an instant. Its hand grasped her wrist, drawing out her arm, while the other brushed over the raw streaks from the drive home.

‘Yourself. Safe from pain, and truth, and choice, and other poison devils.’

The Sandman’s voice was melodic and made Lily feel guilty as she yanked her arm free. Nephron, however, was unfazed by the gesture and simply offered out its hand. It smiled down at her as it had throughout her younger years. Lily found herself yearning for the simpler time and the reassuring presence that lingered whenever she’d grown tired.

‘You have lived in this world and have seen how cruel and unforgiving it is. Stay with me, safe and ignorant, in a realm where dreams needn’t just be dreams.

Lily stared up at the Sandman’s eyes, its most striking feature by far, as she felt herself caught in the amber gaze. Like a sunset they were calming, something to look at with admiration. Her fingertips brushed against the surface of Nephron’s hand, hesitantly withdrawing before finally taking hold.

 

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Andromeda Bounty Crew, Rhiannon Heggie

In the year 2516, there are 389 billion galaxies in the Galactic Register. In Caldwell 5 – a dwarf galaxy just outside of the Local Group and the newly emerged Milky Way – lies a glowing emerald planet almost completely covered by water.
The planets’ most evolved inhabitants are The Eight [ѶΙΙΙ], a race of conquering cephalopod molluscs who live in hive colonies along the ocean floor. Giant, transparent pods, sit atop each other, resembling plumes of smoke. Ten different colonies inhabit Yharnams’ dark waters and all vie to be the sole governing body. To secure this position, it is common practice for a colony to invade another, replacing its residing queen with their own.

 

*

 

Sirens pierced the air.
An ѶΙΙΙ was breaching the external pressure system.
ѶΙΙΙ’s in the defence sector barked orders,
‘Seal off all of the exits! Switch on the circulation!’
There was a blur of cobalt blue as Mikha’el slipped through a vent in the metal wall. It took only a few minutes to swim through the small maze of vertical tunnelways before arriving at another vent. This is it! The trove of treasure his Queen had hidden away! Two of his tentacles reached ahead, popped open the passageway and pulled the young mollusc forward… Into a dark, murky room. Black silt blanketed the floor. Strips of long-dead algae hung to the glass like wallpaper. The ventilation unit must have been turned off for this whole area. An empty trophy room lay before him; nothing more than a memory of the expeditions his Queen had commissioned. Inky tears bubbled upwards from the corners of his eyes. He swiped at them, leaving black streaks across his sunken temples. Of course, they had found it all, and had taken it for themselves! Clasping her empty amulet – a twist of gold – tightly between his yellow suction cups, Mikha’el turned and punched the emergency release. A flat, red panel popped open with a clack, and he tapped in the code. Originally intended as a failsafe should the indoor-water circulation malfunction, it would now be his only way out and to freedom. A haunting echo wavered through the vent.
‘-y did he go?’
The boys’ breath escaped his beak as a strangled whimper. That was his brother’s calling. They had been sent out to find him, to bring him to HER, for punishment. He would be dead before he’d ever had the chance to look for more treasure, and… His tentacle clenched the amulet. The doors in front of him beeped loudly. Overriding the control system would take a few minutes. Panicking, the cephalopod’s cobalt limb slammed the release three more times. Black ink sweated from pores on the back of his bulging head. After a series of beeps, the water-lock finally hissed open – barely 3 inches. He slipped through and reached for a mask and suit off the wall. It was worn and mouldy but still stretched to accommodate his frame, instantly adding an internal water barrier. BEEP BEEP…. SSSSsssht. Unfiltered, murky water flooded in. It slammed Mikha’el against the internal door, lifting him up and out into the abyss.
Mikha’el flicked on the helmet’s torch. Ahead of him stood the ѶΙΙΙ^’ s colony home – a massive erection of cold, glass cells connected by a maze of tunnelways. But around him swarmed so much life! A small creature whipped past his mask. It disappeared in a whirl of purple tendrils that disguised knife-like spikes. As he neared the ship deck, he spotted two lone guards. Good. That meant the colony thought he was still inside. Sliding past them, he spied his ride – a blackened glass roof and misshapen double-barrel propulsion system – and climbed inside. Small and compact. Familiar with the old settings, he breathed a sigh of relief as his tentacles flicked the pod to life and received a whir in response. The guards were alerted to the sound of engines starting up. One disappeared to alert others while the second strained to open the door. Before the guard could react, he was incinerated by the pressure of the pod’s escape as it shot forward and up.
The boy’s eyes lingered on his planet. A dark green mass of rapidly swirling whirlpools appeared and disappeared instantaneously. Jagged rocks, sharpened from the force of the wind, formed the only land in sight. His head spun. They must have moved the treasure to a more central location… The only place large enough would be the old throne room. Mikha’el had no chance of knowing for sure until he returned. He pulled his gaze away to check the pod’s navigation.
SEARCHING FOR: NEAREST LIFEFORMS…
…LIFEFORMS 03 SECONDS AWAY.
‘What?!’
Before the young alien had time to react, his pod blasted through the side of an orbiting ship, ripping open a sharp, jagged hole in the hull.

The ships ion shield was obliterated, waking Stella from the process of repairing the internal systems.
‘Stella!’ the ship’s AI immediately recognised the baritone voice of Andromeda Dave.
AUTOMATIC REBOOT: INITIATED.
‘My SHIP!’ Dave’s voice shrieked with incredulous rage.
VISUAL SYSTEMS: ONLINE.
Before the ship’s central monitor stood a man sporting a tiger emblazoned, sequin jacket, and the curly orange quiff of a 1950’s Rock & Roll star. Protruding from underneath Dave’s arm was the bloated head of a squid. His trailing tentacles dragged behind them the charred remnants of a space suit.
‘You wrecked my SHIP you goddamn slime bag!’
Mikha’el squirmed free and scrunched up his large black eyes. Without warning, Andromeda Dave’s handsome face was covered in a violent spray of black ink.
‘My….My beautiful face!’ Dave sputtered ‘That’s it! Out he goes!’ He spun around towards the airlock, arms swinging.
‘Dave, there is an issue of higher importance to attend to…’ Stella’s automated voice crackled from the screen.
‘Yeah yeah, we can deal with it after I deal with this slimeball!’ He made for the exit. The alien curled under his grip like a kitten.
‘My name is Mikha’el!’
Andromeda Dave sneered at his hostage. ‘Squidboy then.’
‘Despite the ship’s shield preventing oxygen loss,’ Stella continued, calmly, ‘we will have to find parts in order to safely complete interstellar travel.’
Dave dropped the alien with a thud, turning on his heel to face the ships monitor. Deep in thought, he caressed the main control panel. A rusted screw snagged on the skin of his hand, causing it to bleed.
‘Okay, easy! So we go to the nearest repair station, fix my baby up and then continue on the path to fame and glory!’ Wiping his palm on his pants, he glowered at the crumpled hitchhiker.
‘Impossible.’ Stella trilled. ‘Maffei Station is the closest at just under 24,000 light years away. However, the ships’ status suggests the internal-engine-capacitor could trigger an explosion at any moment.’
Dave’s brows furrowed with frustration as he considered his options.
Timidly, Mikha’el spoke up. ‘Could you… fix it if you had the right parts?’
Andromeda Dave viewed his stow-away warily.
‘What if I told you that I have some on my planet? Old spaceship parts that you can use!’
Dave glanced briefly at the monitor, then back towards the squid.
‘Sorry kid, but don’t think I’m falling for that!’ He stepped forward.
‘There’s treasure!’ Mikha’el cowered in the corner. Tentacles raised for protection.
‘Hmm?’
‘There is a trove of treasure amassed by my Queen during her reign…’ The young alien gripped a rusty chain around his neck. Now Dave was interested.
‘If I could just grab a few pieces to remember her by… you can take as much as you can carry!’ Mikha’el continued.
‘OK.’ Andromeda Dave shrugged, turning away as he feigned nonchalance. ‘Treasure and ship parts… Just like that!’ He spun around, bending so that his nose was pressed up against the boy’s beak. ‘What’s the catch, Squidboy?’
Mikha’el’s protruding eyes darted from Dave to the monitor and back again. ‘If we make it back out – you bring me with you,’ his expression was determined.
Andromeda Dave appraised the boy with a raised brow.
‘The kid has guts!’ he turned to the monitor ‘We don’t need this slimeball, do we?’ He said conspiratorially.
A dark tentacle wrapped around Dave’s arm, anchoring him in place.
‘If they find me there, it will mean my execution!’ Desperation dripped from Mikha’el’s beak.
‘This option does leave us with the lowest possibility of malfunction. We only require metal sheet and wiring. All the tools we need are already on board.’
Dave slumped in the button-back captain’s chair with a squeak of red leather. Shaking slime off his jacket’s sleeve, he reached up to clean out the translation device that lived, at all times, snuggly in his ear. He sighed and absentmindedly probed his right nostril with a pinkie.
‘Well!’ Standing abruptly, Dave swept out his arm and with an unmistakable glint of excitement in his eye, ‘To Yharnam we go!’

 

*

 

Andromeda Dave, safe inside a fluorescent orange astronaut suit, followed Mikha’el as they sunk deeper into the icy depths of Yharnam. They were soon swallowed by a thick blackness.
‘The escape pod is unrepairable.’ Stella had explained only minutes earlier, after testing Dave’s underwater communication device. ‘You’ll have to swim down to the colony yourselves.’
A small, blue light suddenly appeared before the two, quickly increasing in size.
‘There it is!’ Mikha’el’s voice shook. ‘Stick with me and stay out of the light – we can’t be seen!’
Their descent slowed as they swum down to the sea floor. Andromeda Dave’s eyes widened. A beautiful structure lay before them – brightly lit glass pods resembling pockets of air, held in time. Light ebbed from the structure, illuminating all life that swum just outside its walls.
Mikha’el led them towards an unlit tunnelway marked by a pale green torrent of bubbles which threatened to send them tumbling backwards.
‘We’ll enter through the circulation tube.’
Dave shook his head dubiously.
‘It’s the only way you’ll fit undetected! Here.’ Mikha’el held out a strip of sticky suckers which promptly wrapped around Dave’s elbow. The boy tugged them over to the opening. Once his suckers were secured, Mikha’el pulled Dave through and together they began to infiltrate the place he had so recently referred to as ‘home.’

 

*

 

A pale-blue ѶΙΙΙ patrolled the hallway Andromeda Dave and Mikha’el had just entered. In an instant, Mikha’el had them pressed flat against the inside of a metal-grey doorway. He camouflaged his body so well that the toes of Dave’s bright orange boots were all that could be seen. Dave held his breath and the guard passed without a glance in their direction.
They set off, passing through brightly lit tunnelways and huge entryways, all finished with clean-cut glass. Mikha’el slowed and stopped, indicating for Dave to do the same, before peeking around the next corner. They had arrived at a massive hallway. At the end stood two colossal crystal doors, their glass opaque with carvings telling tales of the ѶΙΙΙ’s history. Two guards floated on either side of the installation, tentacles wrapped around glass spears.
‘We must get them away from here…’ The young alien turned to whisper a strategy.
He was greeted by an empty space.
Spinning around, he saw the horrifying image of Dave swimming, unarmed, towards two very angry inhabitants. Frozen in place with fear, he watched, useless. As though in slow motion, Dave twisted the first spear from one guard and rammed it, flat end first, into the ѶΙΙΙ’s forehead. The guard drifted to the floor like dried seaweed. Despite his agility, the second guard barely had time to react before he was whacked across the side of his midsection. Out like a light. His spear fell to the floor with a clang.
The huge doors opened silently, and cold water rushed out to greet them. They dragged the guards in with them and propped them up as doorstops. Andromeda Dave turned, dusting off his palms, and froze. His eyes widened in amazement. Piles of gold were expected but the sheer number of vessels! There were small Skyships! Sails eaten away by time, yet decks still sturdy enough to carry 15 men. Underneath precious metals and gemstones as large as apples, lay the enormous carcass of a submarine. Rusted through in several places, the faded white letters on the side were unrecognisable. As Dave rubbed the goose bumps from his arms, he spotted a ship that resembled his own, and he headed over to search for parts.

‘It must be here…’ Mikha’el’s voice echoed from the centre of the room. Dave was distracted from his task. BZZT! The wires he’d been cutting sent an electrical current pulsing through his body. He emerged from the ship with his prize, hair frizzy and hand smoking, as he added the cables to the metal sheet in his rucksack. Mikha’el knelt, tentacles hunched over a plain iron chest that sat, isolated in a clearing.
‘Here it is!’ The boy jumped up and spun around to display his prize. An iridescent purple stone rested gently on his suckers. He held up the entwined casing that hung from his neck, and carefully slipped the stone inside. His face was set with determination.
‘Before she died, my mother, the Queen would always wear this. She once said that a part of her soul was here. Now I’ll have her with me forever.’
Andromeda Dave smiled and backed away, leaving the alien to his discovery. There was one more task to complete. Hopping around the piles of gold, he gathered a few metal plates and rings – items easily melted. Handfuls of diamonds and large precious stones followed, adding to his already-bulging bag.
Andromeda Dave appraised his surroundings, a satisfied smile in place. ‘We good to go?’
Mikha’el nodded, as together they pushed open the heavy doors.
Pale blue tentacles wrapped themselves around Andromeda Dave’s legs. He twisted free and saw Mikha’el, disappearing in a cloud of ink. Alerted by the lack of guards at the door, three ѶΙΙΙ had planned an ambush.
Dave heard a strangled yelp as Mikha’el tried to free himself.
‘Squidboy!’ Dave glanced at the exit. A plan…I need a plan!
‘Dave!’
Without thinking, Dave turned back towards the cloud.
‘Cover your face kid!’ He yelled. He then began to wildly kick and punch at the ink that now curled around him. His foot came into contact first – with something soft and rubbery – then his fist.
‘Ugh!’ a guard sunk below the dispersing cloud. It parted to reveal Mikha’el, covering his head with his front two tentacles, floating between two guards. Dave reached out and pushed one to the side, grabbing Mikha’el’s arm as he somersaulted and started swimming.
“Let’s go!” he screamed inside his suit. Mikha’el’s cobalt blue head and wide eyes trailed behind, followed closely by the last guard.
‘Up ahead!’ Mikha’el located the circulation pipe they’d struggled through. They had only moments to prepare themselves before jetting up the passageway in a slurry of bubbles…
As their heads broke the waters churning’ surface, Mikha’el panicked. ‘They’re coming! We need to get away from here!!’
‘Shh,’ Dave hushed ‘Give her a second…’
Mikha’el’s flustered retort was cut off by a deafening whoosh. Skimming across the water, heading straight for them, was the burnt umber hull and blue fins of Dave’s ship.
Hovering above them, a metallic ladder unlocked from the ships rear and plunged down towards the two, screeching to a stop just above Mikha’el’s head.
Andromeda Dave grabbed it in one gloved palm and heaved himself up, out of the churning water.
‘Climb aboard,’ the ship trilled. ‘We’ll complete repairs in orbit!’
Dave turned back to the boy and paused, despite straining under the rucksack’s weight.
‘Look kid. It doesn’t look like you have much to stick around for here and you’ve got guts, so you might as well jump aboard,’ he yelled down. ‘There’s just one thing you gotta do first!’
‘Anything!’ Mikha’el replied, breathless from the adrenaline.
Grinning, Andromeda Dave turned and continued to make his way up.
‘You’ve gotta commit to the bounty hunter pledge! Do you vow to write your own destiny, hunting loot around the galaxies?’
‘Yes, I’ve always loved treasure!’ Front tentacles wrapped around the rope, Mikha’el followed.
‘Do you declare that you will always protect your shipmates, facing, if need be, the oppression of authority?’ Dave pulled himself up and into the open airlock before bending and offering a hand.
‘Of course! It’s easy!’ The boy’s suckers wrapped around Dave’s arm.
‘But, most importantly, do you promise to drink, gamble and get with the ladies?’
‘Uh…I’m not sure about the odds of that last one, but I guess… I do vow to be the best bounty hunter there ever was!’
With that, he was pulled up and over, into the belly of the ship. In front of him stood his new Captain.
‘Mikha’el,’ Dave popped his helmet and placed it underneath his arm, peering at the boy from the corners of his eyes. ‘Welcome to the Andromeda Bounty Crew!’

 

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Vainthrow, Nicolas Fuentes

The takeover was swift and precise. It only took three days for the Liberstats government to impose their rule over the citizens of Vainthrow. All it took was a firing of flares and the power fetish of one man, the ruthless dictator President Kithgo. October 28th of 2057 marked day one, the beginning of a new period for the city’s citizens. Vainthrow – a city marked by its obsession with technology, where street signs are holographic, and goods are distributed through self-service kiosks. Fronted by Kithgo, once a Lieutenant of the tactics division within the military, the Liberstats announced their plans for the city’s future. To ensure civility and compliance with the new regime, Kithgo deployed the disciplinarians to patrol the streets. They represented the regime’s most faithful adherents and were to occupy their thoughts with one sole aim – guard Kithgo’s revolution. Equipped with a precision rifle, Vainthrow’s citizens were coerced into compliance by the disciplinarians.

On the large digital screen attached to the skyscraper of Titan Industries, the pale face of the President appeared. In a repressed compliance, those being held captive in the plaza looked upward at the screen with looks of horror. Drones filmed the central plaza address to ensure that viewers at home would not miss this pivotal moment in Vainthrow’s history.

 

‘People of Vainthrow,

What you just witnessed was my fireworks display to you. A heartfelt welcome to you and the new era of civilisation we are about to embark on. In close alliance with science giant Titan Industries, we have developed a new system of living. It will alter you both physically and psychologically in a way that is, simply – better. Remain calm and follow the instructions. Let the disciplinarians be your guide…’

 

*

 

Richard is an elderly man. He lives life on his lonesome after his wife fell victim to a deadly brain tumour. Richard longed for an extension of his life, for he felt that his time had been misspent. He devoted his entire life to working as a risk analyst inthe finance department of Titan Industries. He would often clock sixty-hour working weeks, spending too much of his time inside the office at the expense of seeing his grandchildren grow up. On the day of the takeover, Richard was at home pruning the weeds of his home’s garden bed. The violent explosion startled him and caused him to drop his hedge clippers and turn his attention to the smoke trail rising in the distance. Grabbing his cane, Richard hobbled his way into their modest sized home and switched on the daily news on his television. On the screen, Richard set his eyes on the following address by Kithgow:

 

‘… A turn of events, my people of Vainthrow. The Liberstats have partnered with Titan Industries, the forerunner in scientific innovation. As we both only want to advance human welfare, we created a dual-system of sorts…’

 

Richard had a vague idea what this was about. During his employment at Titan, he had overheard conversations about controversial tests being conducted in the Labyrinth. While biological ethicists had expressed their concerns, the financial and political might of the Liberstats was far too strong for the dissenters.

 

‘…The transfiguration pods – these capsules give you the power to control your physical appearance. They are also designed to add anywhere between sixteen and nineteen years to your life. For your convenience, we have organised courtesy trams to the GRIDS, the sites where these pods are placed. Upon completing this mandatory transfiguration, all citizens will be distributed an iD-Chip, a handheld device that must be possessed at all times. Please proceed to the GRIDS immediately. Failure to do so will result in forced evacuation.’

- K

 

Richard stared at the television screen in disbelief. What had his city become? He had several questions, yet the state of limbo he was in delivered him no answers. He knew of the atrocities that Kithgo had committed in the past. Whether it was the Grand Massacre that took place during the War of 2042, or experimentation on the debilitated at the close of the war, stories of Kithgo’s war crimes were common folklore in Vainthrow. Staring on, Richard observed the imagery captured by the flying drones. The plaza was unidentifiable. The fountain which once rhythmically spurted out water at the plaza’s centre had been covered by smog. He vaguely made out faces of desperation as they stood helplessly at the behest of individuals dressed in a khaki green. To Richard, this entire event resembled a military coup. He looked onward at the screen to see the disciplinarians holding necks in headlocks and small children being dragged without care. Bodies were being ushered into semi-trailers and driven to a place unknown to him. The media outlets reported the following:

 

‘MASSACRE AT VAINTHROW: LIBERSTATS RULE BY FORCE’

 

*

 

Richard’s eyes awoke to see the GRID site. He had been smothered and taken there after a disciplinarian knocked at his home’s door. Surrounding him were people seemingly embracing the idea of transfiguration by the pod. The CPU, on the pod’s exterior, allowed people to choose their new appearance. Each veiled by a thick white tarp and manned by a Liberstats disciplinarian. Those that waited their turn were not permitted to see their neighbours during the process. They would wait in confinement bays, fed glug and water by the authorities and instructed to wait patiently, sometimes days. Upon leaving the pod, people were given their handheld iD-Chip and sent back to their homes via the trams. From there, citizens had to follow the instructions on the iD-Chip’s screen and continue living their days.

Richard was called to one of the pods. ‘Richard… Alright, old man, you get one shot. What’s it going to be?’ Dressed in the khaki colours and proudly displaying the freedom stars of the Liberstats, the disciplinarian talked down at Richard’s frail stature. Richard fixed his eyes on the CPU screen and attempted to make sense of the prompts. ‘Just press the features you want, old mutt. You telling me you don’t know tech?’ Ignoring the reproaches, Richard perused through the list of features he could select for himself. A large part of him was curious about the process, reasoning that at last there was some excitement in his otherwise empty life. HAIR: luscious golden locks, or perhaps a simple, slick back? His hair was silver and thinning so he could do with a younger look. TORSO: a broad set of athletic shoulders, that ought to do it. After finalising all the essentials, Richard arrived at the most important consideration – AGE LIKENESS. ‘Hurry up old timer! We’re on a tight schedule here, and you ain’t got any special privileges to be taking longer just because your hair is falling out’.

With caution, Richard typed 3-5 into the CPU and waited for the avatar of him to emerge on the screen. Projected on the CPU screen was a digital Richard, five decades younger and sporting a neat, slicked back hairdo. The squiggly indents on his forehead had disappeared, and his frame appeared reasonably muscled. While Richard felt deeply anguished by the political state of Vainthrow, a tiny fragment of his was thrilled with the prospect of added years. At this point, his curiosity had taken over, for he had not yet seen how people were emerging on the southern side. Standing behind a thick steel slab, Richard stripped himself of his clothes and placed them in a bucket labelled “CLOTHING DEPOSITS”. He lethargically carried his bony frame into the confined space of the pod. Numerous suction pads attached to dangling wires hung from the pod’s ceiling. On the pod’s back wall were fastened platinum shackles, one at the neckline and two presumably for the wrists. Lastly, there was a heavy leather belt that appeared to belong to the waist line. ‘Alright old man, you ready yet?’ Called the disciplinarian. Richard responded with a croaky affirmation. Richard was ordered to stand at the back wall. The disciplinarian affixed each suction pad to his body, one at each of his droopy nipples and one at the sternum. The belt was fastened tightly around his waist and, at disciplinarian’s press of a button, the neck shackle loosely pulled his throat to the wall. It wasn’t far off from a strangle hold. ‘We will meet again on the southern side, old man.’

 

*

 

‘Greetings, #471, welcome to your new life, a world of possibility. All you need to rememb — or – shall I say, do, is to follow the prompts on your viewfinder. Here is your ID-Chip, with compliments from President Kithgo and the Liberstats’. Richard was handed a handheld device with a screen. He noticed that the digits “471” were etched onto the plastic. He ignored a prompt on the screen to follow an introductory video, putting it aside for later. These GRID encampments were on the desolate outskirts of Vainthrow and all that Richard could see was the barren land on the horizon. They were a one-hour tram ride from the city centre which allowed for enough secrecy and continual surveillance. A faint call was heard in the distance to return to the tram station. Richard sluggishly followed the marked signs and returned to the arrival point, an area which he had no recollection of. Confusion immediately overcame him as he tried to make sense of his surroundings in a trance-like state. He felt blank, and it seemed that, at this point, that was all he was capable of feeling. As he entered the tram, he was met by the stares of unfamiliar people. Fellow human beings, but he had no label for them. It was as if he was processing information for the first time.

On the way back to the city centre, an announcement began to play through the loudspeaker inside the tram. Richard perplexed alongside the convoy of bodies left in waiting, listened attentively to the words spoken. ‘It is normal to feel dazed. This is new territory for you. Once you arrive home, get some rest. The turn of tomorrow will come and a new day awaits. Further instructions will appear on your iD-Chip.’ Richard looked down at his iD-Chip with its confusing list of functions and operations. The tram moved at its forty kilometres an hour as Richard sat idly staring out the tram window into nothingness. It seemed that everyone in the tram shared his confusion.

 

*

 

The tram re-entered the residential district of Vainthrow and began to disembark the Vainthrow citizens. Each seated passenger looked out the glass window as the disciplinarian led each passenger back into their home. The return journey from GRID was made in complete silence. In between curious glances at the unfamiliar outside, passengers fixed their sights on screens of their iD-Chips. Recurring footage of turmoil and suffering met them. There were moving images of yelping mothers crying out for their infants, as well as a frame of an elderly woman trapped in the firm grip of a disciplinarian. It was difficult to bear the images of these people squirming for their survival. The subtext reeled at the bottom of the viewfinder screen:

‘THE EMANCIPATION: LIBERSTATS’ FIGHT TO VICTORY’

Richard mused over the tragedy of it all. He could only hope that he would never have to encounter anything like it in his lifetime.

 

*

 

The tram pulled up on Richard’s Street. He was led back inside his family home by a Liberstats disciplinarian. He opened the front gate and walked down the narrow strip of asphalt that led to the front door. Still rattled by his surroundings, Richard asked the disciplinarian ‘Where are we and what are we doing here?’ The Liberstats guide told him not to worry and commanded him to enter the dwelling. He explained that the only thing that Richard ought to worry about is following the instructions on the iD-Chip’s viewfinder. ‘This is a prosperous time. Consider yourself fortunate, #471.’ Richard could not understand why he should feel this gratitude and, more importantly, what this iD-Chip even was. He entered the home and scanned the first room. His eyes met an impressive mahogany bookshelf positioned in the far left corner. Richard sluggishly moved over to the bookshelf to examine it. ‘#471, we recommend you rest your body. You ought to lie down and shut your eyes.’ The digits 4-7-1 echoed in Richard’s mind.

Images faced him as he approached the bookshelf. On the upper timber shelf lay a bundle of photos. Richard perused through them, processing the information contained therein. An image of an elegant lady, approximately in her mid-thirties, wearing a silky white gown. The silken fabric left a trail and extended behind her. It was the most beautiful image he had seen in his lifetime. She was clenching a bundle of flowers; a feature he had observed while walking into his home only moments ago. He wondered why she would pluck them from his front lawn. Beneath the image of the elegant figure lay another. He saw a man and a woman standing side by side, one with its arm extended around the shoulder of the other. They stared back at him with a joyful expression. Flipping the image on its back, its reverse side read:

 

Wilma and Richard – 50 Year Wedding Anniversary at Vainthrow Cottage

21st February 2057

 

Richard put both photos into his trouser pockets without the disciplinarian noticing him. His eyelids had become heavy and were beginning to close in on themselves. He determined the carpet to be a suitable resting spot and so without hesitation; #471 dozed off.

 

*

 

Awoken by the sound of the iD-Chip, #471 rose from a deep sleep cycle. An announcement came through the viewfinder and the face of President Kithgo propped up on the screen. ‘As you have hopefully read by now, it is government policy that you maintain a faithful record of the places you visit and the people you interact with. Use the camera inbuilt to the iD-Chip. Data collection makes us better.

An hour later, #471 ventured out of the unknown dwelling. The sun shone brightly, and the streets filled with others walking with their eyes immersed in their viewfinder. #471 remembered Kithgo’s instruction and took out the iD-Chip. The two photos he snatched earlier emerged as well. #471 withdrew them and curiously studied them. His eyes gazed at the two figures dressed in their formal attire, a male wearing a suit and tie with his arm around the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Something seemed strange in these images. Upon leaving the front walkway, as instructed, he switched on the iD-Chip’s camera to record his daily events. #471 pondered the photograph again. Wife…

He aimed the lens at the street and took a snapshot of the holographic street sign. Instantaneously, the iD-Chip assigned a default label to the photo:

 

No. 471: Memory #1

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The Uselessness of Aversion, Erica Genda

The tension in the room felt like fire. My eyes burned, and my cheeks were wet. 

It was then that Emma came home, and saw Aaron with his hands clenched in a tight fist. She stood before us and released her shopping bags uneasily to the floor. In the background, the television screen, still stagnant, shone into the dark room. At that moment, I wished I could have turned back time, or been able to force it forwards. I wished to be anywhere other than in that moment.

 

*

 

I couldn’t believe I was here. This moment made me wish to be back with my parents in Melbourne.

Emma greeted me at the door of my new home in the outskirts of North Sydney. It was here that I was to live, with two new housemates. They looked like white supremacists, with their pale and freckled skin, light blonde hair and deep blue eyes. I had friends similar to them in primary school. But the minute they saw my mum wearing a hijab they weren’t my friends anymore.
‘Yasmin,’ Emma said. ‘How’s it hangin? Happy to have a new roomie! Need some help with ya gear?’

I politely accepted and felt bad for judging her. I was such a contradiction.

Emma carried my big boxes inside, and I carried the small ones. My justification being I am petite and was already exhausted from the mess that was my life. After only a few hours, I was almost through unpacking my life’s belongings into my new ridiculously tiny bedroom. In the room next door, I could hear my new roomies yapping loudly. I wanted to join them, but I needed a breather. I lay back on my bed and grabbed my phone to Face-Time my mum.
‘Yasmin, my sweetness, you look so sad, what’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Just moved into my new place. I have housemates Ma…it feels weird.’
‘Are they nice?’

In the background, I could hear my father yelling.
‘Why is dad yelling?’
‘We are making kebbeh, and he’s asking for my help in the kitchen. I don’t know why – he’s made it a thousand times!’
‘Did you want me to call you later?’
‘Ok Yasmin, just be nice and make friends. It is impossible not to like you. I love you,’ she said blowing me a virtual kiss. I rolled over and saw a message from her with a picture of my Dad in the kitchen with mince in his hands. I missed them so much.

‘Ey! Newbie. I mean, Yaz, come out!’ shouted Emma from the lounge room. ‘Thought I’d properly introduce ya to Az, or Aaron as he prefers, who you’ll notice sits on the lounge a lot at night. I have a TV in my room for privacy, but sometimes we enjoy watching a bit of the  Bach together. For the drinking games!’
‘Love it,’ I said.
‘By the way Az, this is Yaz, or Yasmin – which I like, might start calling you that,’ said Emma as I gave a small wave to Aaron.
‘Righto,’ said Emma, and took my hand as she guided me into the kitchen. She gave me a sheet of paper titled ‘Emma & Aarons Pet Hates’. After that list, there was a smaller list of things not to eat or to get for myself if I wanted any. There were a few other house rules on the sheet, but Emma told me to forget them because Aaron wrote them and who gives a fuck about him anyway. I thought she was joking, but couldn’t tell. She popped open a bottle of VB and offered me one, but I hated VB, so I took water instead. Emma leant on the counter, waiting for me to say something.

‘Thanks so much’ I said, ‘but I better finish unpacking.’

I was hopping off the bar stool when Emma said, ‘so what’s ya story? New to Sydney or what?’

I raised my eyebrows. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share everything straight away, but I sat back down.
‘Oh sorry, sensitive question is it?’ Emma continued.
‘No, no! I’ve been here for a while, few years. But, um, I just split with my ex, so I had to get out of his place ASAP.’

I couldn’t look up, as I knew that if I talked about him, my eyes would start to water. How embarrassing!
Emma leant over the counter and gave me a bumpy rub on the shoulder. ‘Fuck him!’ she said.
‘Shut up Em! I’m watching the news,’ Aaron called out. There was no wall between the kitchen and the lounge area.
‘Stop being a dick,’ Emma bit back.
‘Sorry, no offence,’ Aaron said, turning to look at me. I nodded that it was okay even though it irritated me. Though I was probably just being sensitive.
‘How did you guys meet?’ I asked Emma,
‘He’s my brother’s best mate. My brother moved out with a girl, so he moved in. Helps pay the rent, so he’s not that bad – Are ya Az?’ She had a cheeky smile on her face like she thought he was great or something.
‘Please, don’t listen to her. Call me Aaron. I’m not a bogan like some!’ He joked.

I laughed, even contemplating the VB for a moment. It seemed to me that I had walked into a wacky, yet playful friendship and I felt like I was being invited to join in the fun. That was the nicest way to think about this situation.
‘So what did this guy do to you?’ asked Aaron, not paying attention.

I didn’t exactly want to get into the details with someone who wasn’t even listening.
‘Did he cheat on ya?’ Emma prodded.
‘Um, yeah,’ was all I could say before I lost it. I began sobbing into my chest as quietly as I could. I must have seemed like a complete lunatic.
‘Oh shit! I’m sorry babe. It’s okay, Yasmin. Don’t worry. A week from now you won’t even be thinking about this fucking idiot.’

Emma’s tone was suddenly not so loud anymore. She came around to my side of the counter to hold me. That was the moment we became friends.
Emma spent a lot of time with me after that night. She took me out often. Not to clubs, but to dinner and bars where we could enjoy each other’s company. I had become stressed about being on my own. And I felt anxious about being around people who I didn’t like or didn’t like me! But now we were drinking VB every Friday night. The taste was dismal, but the company was nice.  It was comforting to have someone like Emma. We spoke about the important things in life just as easy as the not so important things. I loved that. Aaron joined us on most Fridays too, but he was hooked on the news. It was tiresome. Terrorist bombings and sieges were always being pushed onto viewers, like some kind of fear mongering. No one wants to hear about that on a Friday night. Plus, I found it funny, in a not so funny way that they never spoke about the effects these things had in Middle-Eastern countries. Like Lebanon, where my parents were from, or Syria, where people were likely to die if they stayed or if they fled. I hated seeing all this hate coming from faux Muslims, making the world hell for the good ones. At first, it just broke my heart. Then, I grew furious. Emma would tell Aaron to ‘shut that shit off’, as she could see it visibly upset me. But he never listened.
‘Don’t you find it depressing to watch the news constantly?’ I’d ask him, interrupting a small pecking session between him and Emma.
‘Nah, my dad homeschooled me, and we did a lot of news watching. He always said that it’s good to be informed. There’s a lot of crazies out here.’

He motioned to the lone gunman on the screen who had just been caught. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just agreed that the man was crazy. But I guess Aaron and I had a different view of what led to crazy.
I became sidetracked with a message from my mum. Another photo, it read, ‘My Turkish friend from work made me this Kanafeh. You would love it! Wish you were here! Miss you!’ Her missing me was nothing new. Ever since I moved to Sydney, our emotions ran high, and we found it hard to be apart. I knew she would have felt it more because I had less of a need to call her as I was finally settling in.  Our catch-ups became less frequent, but we always had a way of letting each other know we were still there. I sent a message back saying, ‘ I love you Ma, tell Dad I say hi and I miss you both. Will call soon.’

I think she knew that I had to make a life for myself, and I was beginning to.
‘So are you two official yet or what?’ I asked sitting on the lounge as Emma and Aaron nestled up to one another.
‘Oh stuff off,’ Emma cringed slightly but looked happy.
‘Well, why not I guess,’ Aaron said smiling. They kissed, and it wasn’t even gross, but I still threw a pillow at them.

 

*

 

It had been about two months since Emma and Aaron had hooked up exclusively. I was sitting on my laptop at the kitchen bench as Aaron watched TV. There was a brief mention of a protest happening in Melton on the news, which is close to where my parents live in Melbourne.
‘What is that?’ I asked,
‘Anti-Muslim protest, they approved a Mosque in Melton,’ Aaron scoffed.

I couldn’t figure out his tone. I took my laptop to the bedroom and Skyped my parents.  My dad answered, and I could see my mum in the background crying with her head down. My dad was whispering like he didn’t want my mum to hear. He told me about a man who threw a beer can at his car as he drove past. The man then yelled, ‘What’re you hiding under there?’ to my mum in the passenger seat, referring to her hijab.

‘It’s horrible Yasmin. Just horrible! I don’t know why these people hate us. We don’t do anything. We keep to ourselves! These people, they come and even eat at our shop! It’s like they have lost their minds.’
I found it hard not to cry, but I didn’t want to show my dad how much it hurt me too. He needed to see that I was okay.
‘Your mother and I are worried for you. What is it like for you there? Is it multicultural? Are you okay?’

He looked desperately sad. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.
‘It’s okay dad, tell mum I’m fine. I have friends, and it’s not the kind of place where that stuff happens. I’m safe.’

 

*

 

Following the Melton protests, I had a sick feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t budge. But I never voiced my concern. I called or messaged my parents every day. They weren’t distressed anymore, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. It was time for dinner, but I didn’t know if I could stomach a full meal, so prepared a coffee and was going to sit with Aaron and watch some TV. As I was about to sit down, he yelled, ‘Fucking Muslims!’

My heart began beating fast and hard; I could feel it against my rib cage. I tried to sip my coffee but my hands were shaky, and I ended up spilling some.  I tried listening to the news, but Aaron just shouted over the top of it.
‘What a twisted, fucked up race! Shoot them all!’

At that moment, I realised that Aaron had no idea that I was Muslim. I clenched the paper towels I had used to clean up the coffee. Aaron kept going and going like he was having a conversation with the television.

‘Can you shut up!’ I snapped.
He paused the TV. There was silence between us.
‘You know you’re being completely racist right?’

‘What’s it to you?’ he said. ‘I can see you’re brown, but I didn’t think you were some Arab.’
‘I’m Lebanese. My parents are Muslim. They’re good people, and it’s disgusting to hear this shit in my living space,’ I replied. My voice shook, but I stood strong.
‘Well let’s get one thing straight then, yeah – this is my place, and I’ll say what I want – you can get the fuck out for all I care.’

Aaron pointed towards the door, and I knew he meant it.
‘I don’t get it. You can’t seriously watch one crazy person on TV, who just happens to be Arabic and think we’re all murderers?’
‘It’s not just one crazy person. There are heaps of you.’
‘That’s not us. That guy stalked that girl; he didn’t kill her with some extremism motive, that’s just the news spinning shit… Or, you, you’re spinning shit!’
‘I’m telling you, Muslims are violent and fucked up. You can see it with your own two eyes.’

He gestured towards the TV.
‘You are completely fucked up Aaron! I hope you know that.’
The tension in the room felt like fire. My eyes burned, and my cheeks were wet. It was then that Emma came home, and saw Aaron with his hands clenched in a tight fist. She stood before us and released her shopping bags uneasily to the floor. In the background, the television screen, still stagnant, shone into the dark room.

‘Turn it off,’ Emma said, her voice trembling. ‘Turn it off now, Aaron!’
‘Are you seriously going to do this?’ He threatened.
‘Do what?’ She said ‘Stand up for my friend?’

I never spoke about my background with Emma, but she wasn’t an idiot. I think she had noticed the photos in my room of me with my parents. She knew I wasn’t like them.

‘To be honest Em, I don’t think I can live here anymore,’ I said and turned away towards my room. I had to get my car keys so that I could get out. I didn’t know what I expected from Em, and I didn’t want to get in between her and Aaron, even if he was a racist asshole.

‘Don’t go,’ she said. As I walked to leave she grabbed my arm,‘it’s just stupid talk. It doesn’t mean anything. He didn’t mean it.’ I felt sad for her defending him like that.

‘I bloody do mean it!’ he said. ‘Next thing you know, she’ll be wearing a fucking burka and yelling Allahu Akbar at me!’
I exhaled a shocked kind of sigh. I had to leave. Emma rushed behind me, but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t have any more words.

 
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Bright Star, Emma Stubley

Before, the crowd hid us.

Amongst the swaying dancers, no one even noticed two girls kissing. But when Athena pulls me on the DJ’s stage with her, we become the center of the universe. She puts her hands on my waist and the crowd slows. Suddenly everyone is looking at me. I stand on my tiptoes, slipping on the beer-polished floor as I try to make out the glowing exit light hiding behind the swarm of heads.

‘Relax,’ she whispers in my ear and the crowd growls in response.Athena just dances, head down, eyes squeezed tight, ignoring the attention we are drawing.

There’s got to be an exit in here somewhere. But it’s not near the bar, or at the back of the room. The crowd stares at me. They are a pride of growling lions, hungry, shoes scratching against the floor. It makes my skin crawl. We don’t fit in here.

‘We should leave,’ I mutter, grabbing her hand.

They turn to watch a man with slicked back hair, a white shirt buttoned to the top and crocodile-skin shoes. He is front and centre, the king of the pride. His eyes undress me, picking out my weaknesses. He doesn’t move, his chest neither rises nor falls. He is still, except for the mechanic movement of his wrist that swishes wine in his glass, around and around. My palms sweat and he watches me rub them down my thighs. His mouth twitches, smirking at my submission.

He takes a sip and nods. A path appears in the sea of footy shirts and flower crowns, revealing a door, light from the wharf outside seeping underneath. I grab Athena’s wrist and pull her towards it, holding my breath in anticipation of a crushing wave that never comes. Just before we push out the exit, I look back. The man is still staring at us.

Who is he?

 

‘Do you want to find another club?’ she asks as we wander down Darling Harbour. She teeters along the edge of the wharf pretending it’s a balance beam. She is so carefree, holding her arms out and wobbling.

‘Didn’t that bother you?’ I ask as I count the shadows around us. None of them move.

‘Just try not to think about it, yeah?’ She runs to me and kisses my hand, leaving a ghost of lipstick on my knuckles. ‘How about Scary? We’ve not gone for a while.’

I look around to see if anyone saw us. Only the shadows. There was a day, before the eggs cracked on my car, before the love letters spray-painted on my front door, when I didn’t look behind me. I didn’t care who noticed. I held her hand as we danced down the escalators to the harbour, greeting the flying whale on the way. We ran through fountains with the other kids and kissed in the back row of the Imax; 3D glasses discarded, eyes closed. Later, we sat on the wooden boardwalk, feet hanging off the edge. Hands touching. Carefree. The world glared at us and we just watched the sunset. We told ourselves we could survive here. Belong here.

We don’t.

 

 *

 

It’s midnight. We stand in line in the 7-Eleven. Athena has grabbed a sausage roll from the pie warmer and the grease soaks through the paper bag.

‘It’s too early to go home,’ she says, wiping her hands down her dress. ‘Besides we have to wait ‘til your mum falls asleep.’ She rests her chin on my shoulder, waiting for an answer.

I stare at the wall of cigarettes as I hand money over, ignoring the cashier’s eyes as he notices how close together we are standing us. He calculates each of the three atoms, nodding as though he has proven our sin.

Outside the shop, streetlamps yawn in a lazy flicker that barely illuminates the shadow-littered street. With only a pregnant moon watching us, I take Athena’s hand. For a moment, quiet reigns.

A shadow stretches across the pavement. It is long and thin and peels away from the brick wall, forming the shape of a leg. A crocodile-skin shoe follows, bringing with it a man – no; The King. Yellow lips stretch into a plastic smile. I feel greasy, itchy. He balances a cigarette between his fingers. Tendrils of smoke reach out, filling the air between us.

‘Ladies, you can’t be going home so soon?’

I recoil, only to find Athena transfixed, breathing in the smoke. She smiles at him, leaning closer. I grab her wrist, attempting to pull her away.

‘I can show you a new world. One where girls like you belong. A safe place.’

Athena tugs back, and I stumble closer to him.

‘It could be fun,’ she sings to me, her fingers dancing up and down my arm. They fiddle with the sleeve of my shirt. She looks back at him. ‘Where is it? Oxford Street?’

‘Somewhere new.’

I can smell the fruitiness coming from the cigarette smoke. Cherries. I am intrigued. ‘It could be fun,’ I repeat.

Athena giggles, taking a bite of her sausage roll before she skips off down the street.

 

*

 

The moon is pinned between 12 and 1 as we climb the graffiti-covered staircase to the club. A shadow curves up the stairs with us. My stomach tightens as we follow a path of phone numbers and lewd advertisements. From the top, the King smiles at me with the same overstretched grimace as before, reaching a hand down. Shadows buzz around him. Maybe this was a bad idea. I take a breath and step inside this so-called paradise.

The walls are painted like rainforests. Ivy drips off a balcony outside. A fishpond lies sunken into the middle of the room. It paints the ceiling with the silvery glow of its water. Koi fish jet beneath the surface like shooting stars. Bouncers guard the edge of the room, roses tucked into their lapels. On the dance floor, girls dance with other girls, their lips too close and hands too wandering to just be friends.

We move to the bar where an ibis sings pop songs. The bartender, a lion-faced man with a mane pulled into a bun, serves us a shimmering drink in a coconut.

‘Ambrosia,’ he says. I take a sip. It is sweet. A pomegranate and strawberry blend. It tastes like summer, like immortality. My muscles instantly relax.

‘Dance?’ I ask, as I pull Athena onto the dance floor. The ibis sings Bohemian Rhapsody and we sing along. Athena’s eyes are closed, hips loose. Light dances across the glitter on her cheeks. Her hands run up my snakeskin tights and slip around my waist. I wrap my arms around her, letting our hips rub against each other. Her breath tickles my neck. My ponytail becomes looser with every song until my hair bounces on my shoulders. Athena wraps her hands in it. She is so beautiful. I draw her hair behind her ear and lean in. Just as I am about to kiss her, the King appears behind us.

‘Don’t you just love it here?’ he says, handing me another drink. As I sip it, I smile at him, slightly woozy, and take his hand.

‘It’s fantastic,’ I say.

He smells so sweet. Fruity. I pull him close to me. Athena is confused. She grabs my hand but I push her away. I take another sip as a bouncer taps her on the shoulder. The shadows swallow her, but I’m too busy staring into the endless galaxy of his eyes to notice.

We sip back the ambrosia, lining coconut after coconut along the bar while the ibis sings jazz tunes. It is just him and me now, everyone else has melted away. We laugh, heads thrown back, feet kicking. I kiss his cheek, his nose, his hands. The ambrosia has made me ravenous. The moon grows heavier as the song gets louder and I become drunker.

A slow dance plays, and his hand rests on the small of my back. We spin, dazzling and perfect, Cinderella and her king. ‘You and me, we are the golden ratio. We can be so beautiful,’ he says. ‘Together.’

I want this to be beautiful. I want to believe in this safety. It is so much easier. So I kiss him. I tuck my hair behind my ear, place my hand on his chest and kiss him. And it is perfect.

Until it isn’t. His mouth tastes of maraschino cherries. It is sour and artificial. My stomach turns. I push him away.

I’m going to be sick.

 

I find myself dry-heaving in the bathroom sink. A glass of pink liquor rests on the marble counter and I chuck it back, hoping it’ll soothe my stomach.

Then, he appears behind me. ‘Look how perfect we are. Together,’ he says.

I stare at my reflection in the mirror. My body redefines itself to his desire as his hand caresses my cheek. Sharp cheekbones. Plump lips. Curls graze against my shoulders, bouncing in a kind of effortlessness that takes hours to perfect. He kisses my neck. My breasts grow plumper and my waist grows thinner. Am I really this pretty?

I reach out to touch my reflection. It smears, leaving grease on my fingers and revealing the truth. Smudged mascara. Cracked lips. My t-shirt hugs my collarbone and hangs loosely, hiding any curves. The bathroom smells of vomit and cherry air freshener. I push him away from me.

‘This isn’t me. This is just an illusion. Just the promise of emptiness,’ I cry.

He grabs my wrist and spins me to face him. His fingers dig into my skin, and I feel the bones move. I gasp. I try to pull away but his grip is too strong. He pushes me back against the bathroom counter. The impact of the marble flashes up my spine and I’m ripped out of his fantasy. My vision goes black.

 

I sit across from Athena. Steam from a coffee machine perfumes the room. The cafe is filled with small children weaving between tables. Athena flicks grains of sugar at me and I hold my spoon up like a shield, giggling. Her nose scrunches at the bridge from the faces she pulls. I brush my fingers along her hand. This is the perfect day, the perfect future. The coffee machine splutters. Children knock a table and cutlery clashes to the floor. I look up, only to see him. He can’t be here. This is my dream. He doesn’t belong here.

Our cups explode into shards of porcelain. In the blast, I am torn away from her. Ivy wraps itself around her arms and she struggles to reach me. I try to crawl to her but something grabs my ankle, stopping me.

 

‘Wasn’t it easier to be with me?’ he asks ‘Isn’t this world safer?’

I knee him in the groin, and push him off me with more force this time. I dart out of the bathroom, back into the club. The music has stopped and shadows lurk on the dance floor. She has to still be here. But where?

The bottles behind the bar are filled with murky liquors, and the bartender bares his teeth at me. His mane slips free of its bun, flaring wildly around his face. She’s not near the barstools. I spin around the room. Crocodiles crawl out of the pond, snapping their jaws. Above me, bats hang from flickering lights. Snaps of light pierce through their wings like makeshift strobe lighting. I see no trace of her. Flapping wings swarm towards me, biting my neck and clawing at my face. I grab a fire extinguisher off the wall, and hold it like a weapon.

Something moves outside. Athena? I push through the glass doors, and out onto the balcony. She’s there, collapsed at the edge of the balcony. Her hair spills across the ground like spilt milk. Her arm is trapped beneath her body but reaches out, as if calling to me. Ivy from the balcony creeps towards her, twisting around her limbs- half-blanket, half-chains.

Oh God, be alive.

The King steps in front of her, appearing in a crack of thunder that buckles the concrete beneath us. He stands in the broad moonlight. Gnarled knuckles. Yellowing teeth. Skin stretched across his gaunt face. He is horrific. Why couldn’t I see it before?

The bouncers pour out from the club, onto the terrace. Their arms are covered in thorns. Pink petals have replaced their heads in the form of a grotesque face. They circle me, standing side-by-side with interlinking arms. The thorns grow across their chests until I am trapped in a caged rose bush. I swing the base of the extinguisher at the wall, hoping to make a hole.

The cage barely even budges. Instead, the thorns grow around it, swallowing the tank. I punch the guarded wall. Kick it. Flail against it. The rose faces just blink at me. A leafy arm uncurls itself from the cage and wraps itself around my neck. Its grip is just tight enough to make me gulp for air. Thorns dig in and drops of blood seep out staining the neckline of my shirt.

‘Come with me and you can save her,’ the King says. ‘I can protect you. Be the home you always wanted. You could be free from all of this pain.’

The cherry smell appears again, forcing me to imagine a life with him. The small suburb. The Toyota. The dog. The smiles shared with neighbours while taking out the bins. A peaceful life. Without Athena.

I remember the way her breath tickled me on the dance floor. The way her hands, those soft hands, accept me, the way they always have. The way she felt like safety more than anything else in the world. More than anyone else.

Here I stand, a girl in front of a king.

Fuck him.

I shove my hand through the cage of thorns. They scrap up the length of my arms, but I reach through. I won’t be paralysed by fear anymore. The petals flake away. Pink turns to brown, then dust. Thorns fall apart. The tendrils release their grip on me. The extinguisher clanks to the ground and rolls near my feet.

I pick it up and turn to face the King.

‘You were never protection. Only decay.’

The metal extinguisher is cool in my hand. I raise it. Point it at his face. Something fills his eye, perhaps fear. I squeeze.

Snowflakes line his eyelashes. He blinks and frost grows across his skin. He crashes to the floor. Gone.

Athena wakes up in a gasp. The ivy withers, shrinking back onto the balcony. I run to her.

‘You are my family. My home. I want you. I will always want you,’ I tell her.

I kiss her.

 

The sky has sweetened since we entered the club. We walk up the black footpath to Wynyard station and slip onto a train just as the doors close. Something draws my glance back to the platform. A man stares at me, hair slicked back.

 

*

 

I sneak Athena into my bed as the morning takes its first breath.

‘Tell me a story,’ I say.

She creates a constellation, pinning together the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. ‘In a great empire kissed by the gods, no one has to hide between moth-laced jumpers,’ she starts. ‘There, we are bright stars, luminescent, gorgeous.’

I close my eyes. ‘Where is this world?’

‘Far away,’ she sighs. She rolls over to me and rests her chin on my chest.

Here, we are still less than beautiful.

But, for now, it is enough.

 

 

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