Tag Archives: Fiction Issue 9

Heart of the Storm, Jacqui Chami

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Rhythmic island beats from our neighbour’s dorm serenaded the rain. But the rain was relentless. Cyclone Winston was a force to be reckoned with. The wind was like a sadistic puppeteer pulling its strings – no mercy. Trees had been uprooted from the earth as though their grounded existence was a cosmic joke. An abandoned white bed sheet clung onto its last peg, flailing about on the clothes line. Empty boxes were strewn out in the pool of muddy rainwater collecting between the campus buildings, resembling a river. Towels had been piled up beneath the windows in all the rooms on the left side of the hall to absorb the leaking rain water. The rooms on the right side of the hall were untouched by the rain, both Neha’s and mine. Images flooded my mind as I lay in Neha’s bed, holding her safe and warm in my arms. It was less than a month ago when we first met at Suva airport, Fiji. We’d both been granted a scholarship from Wakeford University to study for a semester here at the Sandy Valley University. It’s hard to believe there was a time when we could have walked past each other at Wakeford as complete strangers. Now, I couldn’t begin to fathom life without her.

 

Homes had been torn apart, but our concrete walls stood high and mighty. The days and nights had morphed into one. The power was out. No cooking. No water. More importantly for some, no wi-fi. I recognised Ana’s loud hyena-like laughter echoing through the walls of Neha’s room. I smiled at the sound of it. It was only a month ago when I first met these girls. Our night had consisted of blaring loud music to drown out the sound of the pouring rain. I might have busted my speaker in the process. Ana braided my hair as we all sat at the dining table and shared stories, going through our supply of breakfast crackers and canned food. Even though the cyclone had confined us to our dorms, I had never felt more free.

 

I listened to the background voices die down as the girls slowly retreated to their rooms. Neha and I had left the others early to watch a movie on her laptop. Her laptop sat abandoned on the corner of the single bed, dimly lighting up her room. The wind danced against the shutters. I looked up. They remained tightly locked in place. I imagined the wind circulating the building, searching for a way in, tearing through whatever stood in its way. Shaking the thought from my mind, I pulled Neha in close and wrapped my arm around her waist. We lay on top of her bed sheets. Even the rain couldn’t drown out our heat. Her long, dark hair cascaded across the pillow we shared. The smell of her cherry blossom shampoo wafted through my nostrils. I nuzzled up to the curve of her spine. My fingertips wrote fleeting thoughts across her soft arms. Her hairs stood on end. My hot, heavy breath sent goosebumps crawling along the back of her neck. She tentatively held my hand close to her chest. Her heart was racing with mine. I swallowed, sliding my bare legs against hers. She responded, releasing my hand, running her fingertips down the side of my leg.

 

Wait, Neha’s straight, isn’t she? All she’d ever talked about was this Henry gamer dude on Team Speak who I couldn’t give two fucks about. Aren’t they in some weird, virtual relationship? Was I misreading this entire situation?

Her ass pressed against me.

Holy shit.

This could ruin everything. You’re friends. You cook together, you live together! Her oversized shirt slid up her body, revealing black laced panties. My fingertips teased her perfect mocha skin. Her body twitched in response as my fingertips danced down her waist. I slid my hand down the slope of her hip, enamoured by her curvy figure. My lips brushed against the back of her neck. A stifled moan escaped her lips.

Fuck it.

‘Do you want me to kiss your neck?’ I whispered in her ear. No response. Oh God. She doesn’t want this-

‘O-okay.’ Holy shit. Taking a deep breath, I lightly pressed my lips against the back of her neck. Her body tensed against mine.

‘Do you want me to stop?’ I asked through heavy breaths.

‘N-no.’

My lips caressed her skin, slowly tracing the length of her jaw. A moan escaped her mouth as she reached back, her fingers entwined through the strands of my hair. Her body turned to face me as I gripped her thigh, nails digging in, our legs entwined. Rolling my body on top of hers, I pressed myself against her warmth. She gasped, sliding her hands down my lower back, my tee hanging loosely from my chest. Running my finger over her parted, plump lips, I leaned in.

She pulled away. ‘I-I don’t think we should do that,’ she murmured, her heavy breath on my cheek.

‘O-oh, okay,’ I replied, hovering over her hesitantly. I watched her chest rise and fall, mirroring my own. She smiled at my confused expression. Lifting her head, she pulled me in to kiss her neck again. I kissed trails down to her chest. Her hips rolled against me. I did the same, causing a loud primal moan to escape her mouth. Giggling, I covered her mouth before pulling her on top of me. Bemused, I watched her confused expression as she tried to position herself. Sitting up, I undid the buttons of her plaid shirt, kissing my way to her chest. She gasped, falling down on top of me.

 

*

 

We lay for a short while in each other’s arms. It felt safe, warm.

I’d almost forgotten about what was going on outside these walls. The rain had died down, and the wind had become a whisper. Its soft breath tickled my ear, taunting the sound of my frantic heartbeat. Neha’s face rested against my chest as she caressed my exposed stomach.

‘S-sorry. My heart is beating so fast,’ I gasped through heavy breaths. ‘It won’t slow down.’

Neha laughed. ‘It’s okay.’

Bzzt. Bzzt.

I glanced over at her vibrating phone lit up on the bedside table.

Neha groaned, reaching for her phone. ‘Fuck,’she jerked upright. ‘It’s my mum.’ Buttoning up her shirt, she walked over to the chair by her desk, answering the call. Asalam wa alaikum mama?’

I curled up under her sheets as she spoke to her mum. I couldn’t stop smiling. Holy shit. That was my first experience with a girl. Finally. But what does this mean for our friendship? Is this going to be a friends-with-benefits sort of thing? Will this even happen again? Could Neha also be bi? I glanced over at her. We briefly made eye contact before she looked away, hanging up. She proceeded to scroll through her phone.

‘Everything okay?’ I questioned.

‘Yeah, my mum was just checking what we ate for dinner. She really thinks we’re living in poverty eating all this canned food.’ She laughed, scrolling through her phone again.

‘Okay, how are you not freaking out right now?’ I hammered, sitting up. ‘This changes everything.’

She put down her phone, looking at me. Her deep, brown eyes bore into mine. ‘I don’t want this to change anything. This doesn’t mean I’m bi or whatever…’ Her voice trailed off as she stared intently at the floor. ‘I don’t know why, I just felt comfortable doing that with you.’

She could be in denial. ‘Till next time then?’ I suggestively grinned.

‘No…’ She ran her hands through her hair, avoiding eye contact. ‘Mary I feel bad. I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s against my religion.’

‘And having an online relationship with a non-Muslim guy isn’t against your religion?’ She flinched. That got her attention.

‘Please don’t make me feel any more guilty,’ tears welled in her eyes. My heart battled with my brain. I chose my brain.

‘So that’s why didn’t you kiss me?’ I pressed on. ‘Because the flaws of your faith only have room for Henry, not me. Am I right?’ I snapped.

‘I didn’t kiss you because I want my first kiss to be with a boy. I’m sorry but I don’t see you…that way.’ Her voice treaded carefully as though it were tiptoeing on eggshells.

‘Mary, I’m straight. I’ve never done anything before tonight…I just got carried away in the moment.’

And suddenly, I saw tonight for what it really was.

‘Look, we’re still cool, right?’ Neha questioned.

‘Yeah. Yeah, we’re cool.’ The pitter, patter of rain filled the silence in the room. I glanced over at the space on the bed where she laid moments before. ‘Will we ever do this again?’ a small voice I didn’t recognise escaped my throat.

‘I don’t think so. If we ever did, it would just be for fun. Could you handle that?’ she asked.

I hesitated, falling back onto the pillow.

‘Sure. Sure, I could handle that.’ I could handle it. Right?

 

*

 

3 months later

I dragged my purple, dirt stained carry-on through the front door of our 11th halls residence. It was 6am, everyone was still asleep. I hesitated outside Neha’s bedroom door. It would be so easy to knock on the door, see her face, spend the day asleep in her arms. Taking a deep breath, I took a step back. I had to be strong. Fighting the urge to wake her, I rolled my luggage down the hall to my room.

 

Kicking off my stained white chucks, I collapsed on my bed. Grabbing my journal from the bedside table, I flicked it open to my last entry.

May 19th

Dear Diary,

Everything I thought was real is nothing but an illusion. When I’m with her, I forget everything and everyone else. Yesterday put everything in perspective. She fooled around with Henry the same day she’d fooled around with me. She insisted on staying in my room after she told me. She could tell I was upset. I needed my space, so I frantically left for the bathroom. I sat in the cubicle, thinking. Eventually I snuck out to Rita’s room downstairs and told her everything. That was before Neha figured out where I was and intruded my ‘safe space.’ Technically, Neha didn’t do anything wrong. I know we’re not in a relationship. But when we’re together, I don’t think straight. I love her. This has to be love. Why else would I let myself feel so much pain?

 

I turned the page, hovering my pen over the paper. I was too tired. My journal lay abandoned on the mattress as I rolled onto my stomach, letting sleep take hold of me.

 

*

 

The sound of laughter resounded from outside my window.

Groaning, I rolled onto my back, slowly opening my eyes. The room was almost completely dark, faintly lit by my phone screen. I grabbed my phone, squinting at the screen. Holy shit. How long was I asleep?

11.30am: Neha: Hey! Weren’t you supposed to be back early this morning?

4.30pm: Neha: I miss you. When will you be back?

Smiling at my phone, I bounced out of bed, fixing myself in the mirror. Tentatively, I stepped out into the hallway. Weird. It was so quiet. Everyone must be chilling in their rooms. I strolled down the hall to Neha’s room, knocking on her door.

‘One second!’ I listened to the bed squeak as she got up, making her way to the door. My foot tapped anxiously. I finally get to see her. She opened the door. Her high pitched squeal rung through my ears as she embraced me in a warm hug.

‘Oh my God, you’re here! When did you get back?’ she beamed. Her long, black hair hung softly over her grey Star Wars shirt.

‘6ish? I’ve been asleep since I got here,’ I laughed, leaning against her doorway.

‘How was it finally seeing your family?’ she exclaimed, perching herself at the head of her bed.

‘It was amazing…’ I shut the door behind me, approaching her bed. ‘I didn’t realise how much I missed my mum and bro till I saw them.’ I sat opposite her, her laptop between us. ‘Nadi was incredible. I wish I was rich and could take my mum anywhere. She’s done so much for Carl and I, raising us on her own.’

‘She did an amazing job.’ Our eyes met. Everything felt warm and fuzzy.

‘Thanks.’ All I wanted to do was close the space between us and kiss her.

Ding!

My eyes drifted to the laptop between us.

‘Oh, sorry. Were you on a call before I came in?’ I imagined Henry waving his crippled gamer fingers from behind his laptop screen.

‘Pfft, that can wait,’ she closed the laptop and set it aside. ‘I missed my masseuse,’ she grinned.

‘Eh, this masseuse has had enough of her bossy client,’ I teased. ‘Her name’s Neha. She thinks just because she’s studying to be a teacher, she can teach the master of masseusery?!’

‘Wow,’ Neha laughed. ‘And this bossy client has had enough of her masseuse thinking she can invent new words, just because she’s a writer. Masseusery? Really?’ I snorted.

‘Okay, who should go first?’ Neha routinely asked. She laughed, reading the look on my face. ‘Okay I’ll go first, as usual. You’ll just end up falling asleep if I massage you first.’

‘Hey! That was one time!’ I laughed.

I shifted to the side of the mattress, giving her space to lay on her stomach. She slowly slid off her shirt, revealing black laced panties. I’d seen them many times before, yet they still had the same effect. Taking a deep breath, I perched myself on top of her, gently squeezing coconut oil onto her back. I watched her tense as it trickled down the arch of her spine. Setting the bottle aside, I spread the oil across her soft skin. My thumbs moved in circular motions up and down the edges of her spine. She moaned in approval. My hands worked their way to her neck, moving in intricate circles. Leaning forward, I rested my body on hers, running my nails along her arms. I watched goosebumps form as my nails followed their familiar route along her arms, down the sides of her back. I felt her butt twitch against me as I reached her ticklish spot. I moaned in response, gripping her hips. She giggled, placing her arms protectively by her side.

I leaned in till my mouth was inches from her neck. She stifled a moan as my breath caressed her skin.

‘M-Mary, we talked about this. I thought we weren’t going do this anymore. It’s been 3 weeks since we’ve-’

‘I’ve been counting the days too.’ I ran my lips lightly over her skin, silencing her. ‘I need you.’ Gripping her hips, I pulled her body against my warmth.

‘M-Mary. This isn’t fair on you. We talked about this-’

‘I’m done talking,’ my fragmented thought process escaped my throat in a broken whisper. ‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Are you sure?’ Neha’s body spoke on behalf of her mind. Reaching back, she placed her hand over mine. Thoughts flooded my mind.

Soon we’ll be back in Sydney. That means no walking down the hall to Neha’s room in the middle of the night when I miss her. Which was most nights. No cuddling when I feel lonely. No massages to relieve my physical pain, briefly numbing my emotional scars. It was inevitable that this would come to an end. Things would never be the same once we leave Fiji. I was willing to hold on for as long as I could, before letting go.

‘Mary?’

I silently wiped a tear away with my shoulder, staring at the back of Neha’s head. I would regret this, I knew I would. ‘I’m sure.’

Our bodies became one as our minds watched on in be-known silence.

 

 

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The Nightlight, Kate Dawson

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Gail watched as the house across the road continued to burn. She saw others gathered outside pointing and staring, children crying and that mutt from next door yelping.  There was a body only metres from the house, lying face down in the grass. It looked like a man. He was wearing pyjamas. Her fingertips turned white as she squeezed the rail of the balcony. The flames were eating away at that weatherboard house. She didn’t know her neighbour very well but had seen him in passing. An odd fellow with glasses, who was always fidgeting or rushing somewhere. And there were always dark circles under his eyes. She should probably call that woman, Joan. The one who had come around one afternoon bearing lemon slice and wishing to speak about Gail’s new neighbour. The one who had been worried about her son; she had begged Gail to watch out for him. The distant sound of sirens grew closer as a fire truck sped down their little street. The firemen ran as fast as they could in their huge boots.

 

*

 

Matt was supposed to outgrow his nightlight, but it hadn’t gone to Vinnies with his old clothes. Neither had it been stuffed away in a drawer. While it was plugged into the wall, it ensured his safety from the horrors outside. The orange glow from beside his bed encouraged books, shoes and an outdated computer to come to life; they were shadows on the wall. An open notebook lay on the desk, with envelopes of mail beside it. Some were torn open, while some remained sealed. The light let the room be filled with a warmth, rather than a presence. But there was a rustling and Matt’s eyes snapped open.

Something was outside.

It’s just a possum, he thought and closed his eyes again. But another noise scraped the side of the house, as if a tree branch had decided it would grow a fingernail. His eyes sprung open once more and he creased his brow. There it was again.  It’s just an animal. It is not a person standing outside the window. Matt tried to pull the curtains shut tighter, not willing to invite the darkness in. He tossed over to the other side and pulled the blanket back over him. The night continued to age and soon Matt was asleep.

Outside the wind grew and the trees shook, dancing to show off their moves and rid themselves of extra weight. Blades of grass moved as one. The limbs of trees relocated to new places, some finding refuge on the corrugated iron roof. The roof, however, would not accept these visitors silently.

The orange snapped into blackness, shadows became invisible. Matt sprang up, wheezing for air. He went to grab his glasses from the bedside table and felt his hand knock them. There was the unmistakable sound of plastic skating across wood and hitting the wall.

Damn it.

The glasses were trapped behind the bedside table.

‘No…no…no.’

Light was his priority. Matt tried to switch his nightlight back on – nothing.

He shouted for his parents.

Matt rolled to the floor from his bed and began to crawl, shivering though his body was covered in sweat. His fingers gripped at the thick carpet, afraid of what lay ahead. The smell of satay noodles drifted through the air from the takeaway Matt had ordered earlier. Dinner seemed so long ago.

‘Mum, Dad,’ he whispered, but the response – nothing.

Hand after hand he crept ahead, searching for the doorframe. When his hand found it he reached up along the wood, clutching the wall for support as he grasped for that switch. Hopefully it was only the nightlight that was broken, but the switch clicked without gifting any light. He slumped back to the floor, still shaking. Where are my parents? Are they even alive? Are they tied up?  He could hear his heart pounding in his chest and his breath was loud and quick. He brought his knees in close and held them tight, trying to stay still and silent so no one would know he was there. His eyes weren’t adjusting to the night. Without his glasses, they couldn’t.

My parents don’t live here.

He realised he had been calling out to strangers or to no one. So they might still be alive.

In the kitchen, there would be a torch, but that was miles away. And with the wind still speaking, who knew what was out there? How could he go out unarmed? But if he didn’t risk it, he would not make it through the night. The rustling sound came again and then that fingernail scraping. He covered his ears and sunk into the carpet.

‘Stop, stop, stop,’ he whispered, begging as he clutched at his ears, shaking on the floor. The sound eventually faded. Matt carefully lifted his hands from his ears, hoping whatever it was couldn’t see him.

He had to get to the light, which meant getting to the kitchen. If he crawled, then he wouldn’t knock himself out by bumping into anything. It will be safer. He placed his hands back on the carpet, reached ahead to make sure it was clear, and began to crawl. The wind had started outside again. Or was it rain? It was difficult to tell. It had a voice that screeched and howled like a banshee.

Matt felt like he’d been crawling forever. Reaching his foot back, he hoped for it to reach nothing but carpet. It touched the doorframe.

‘Shit.’

Trying not to be discouraged, he continued forward.

He tried to slow his breathing. ‘Just take a deep breath and focus,’ is what a psychologist would have said, had he ever been brave enough to go. But the hypnotherapist his mother had sent him to as a child hadn’t helped.

An animal cry pierced the darkness. Matt covered his mouth to stifle the scream he felt rising in his throat. Is that thing in here?

Then it happened again.

What is that?

A dogRelax, probably belongs to the neighbours to complement their irritating kids. 

Matt’s hand touched something sticky. He shuddered and tried to ignore the germs that must be writhing within the fibres of the carpet. Wiping his hand on the carpet to remove the stickiness, he bumped the leather couch to his left. He needed to change direction soon. Only now did he realise the painful irony that he hadn’t bought those sensor lights. The ones he had been looking at in Bunnings only a few days before. They were so magical. You walked past them and suddenly – light! That beautiful thing that allowed us to see and gave us warmth. Curse you sun for not being out all day and night. Forget the other side of the world! We need it more. I need it more.

His face knocked into a wooden chair. His eyes tried to make out the shapes in front of him, but they didn’t look familiar. He’d forgotten where things were placed in the house. His eyes squinted as he looked ahead at the distortions in front of him, which were fuzzy around the edges. They could be pieces of furniture, or just as easily a ghost or creature. These shapes reminded him of an earlier time when he didn’t wear glasses, when everything was blurry or seen in double. As a child he’d felt like his friends had evil twins. He had a sharp sense of hearing, but his sight had always been both terrible and frightening.

Matt moved ahead, weaving around objects through the carpet, dirt and hair.

His own hair covered the tips of his ears and his mum had always disliked it. She would complain it was too long and nag him to get it cut. His fingernails were ripped short; he hadn’t been able to kick the habit of tearing the tips when they grew to a reasonable length. The flannel pyjama pants hid his lean body from the world. And that was the way he liked it, never wearing shorts that would expose his pale chicken legs.

A cold, smooth sensation ran under his hand, interrupting his train of thought. He pulled it away instinctively as if he were trying to avoid a burn from a pot. But he had to continue on, so he reluctantly placed his hand back on the surface, trying to decipher this new texture.

Lino. Could it be?

The kitchen.

Relieved, he wiggled forward and placed his other hand to accept the cold and felt his knees hard against the floor. The usual humming of the fridge was silent, as if it had lost its voice. The silence was not his friend. He reached to the left letting his hand find the kitchen drawers. He felt the edges and figured out which one was the third drawer, ‘the miscellaneous drawer’ he had called it when he first moved in. He now regretted making that secret hideaway of random junk which had no place. He searched the drawer for that keyring-torch-thing his Mum had given him last Christmas. He had thanked her, knowing she was just trying to help. She had always been worried and had hoped he would grow out of it. But when he didn’t, when the fear followed him, she had felt helpless. The keyring was a gift meant as kindness, but really it just drew attention to everything, to the darkness, to his inability to sleep through the night. To the fact he had fallen short of being a man.

He didn’t want to look at the torch and be reminded of what it represented, as it   dangled next to his keys.

So he’d hidden it, and now was sifting through the drawer for it. But in amongst everything else, he could not find it. His hands fumbled through the drawer, passing over pegs, Blu-tack, batteries, an emergency pack of cigarettes. Then his hand came across a small box with a rough edge. A nervous but excited laugh escaped his lips and hung in the darkness. He shook the box and heard the small pieces of wood hit the sides. He attempted to light a match, but it didn’t take. His hands were shaking as he tried another. Light spread in front of him as a flame was born. An unsteady glow of light allowed the shadows to dance and sway. Matt exhaled in relief and continued rummaging through the junk searching for the torch. The flame of the match bounced around, providing little light to assist.

Then there was a sound at his feet. Matt stopped and looked around trying to figure out what made the scuttling sound. Something hairy ran across his foot. Gasping, Matt jumped backwards trying to escape what he hoped he had imagined. He could not shake the feeling of that thing. He felt it all over him. His shoulders hunched and his hands curled into fists. Then he noticed light in the corner of his eye. Matt turned towards it, towards the fire that was spreading across the carpet. The hand that held the match was empty. His eyes widened as he stepped back. The fire was growing, fast. He had to do something.

He yanked the tablecloth from the dining table, sending the fruit bowl spinning and a mug crashing to the floor. He threw the tablecloth over the fire hoping it would smother it, that the fire would surrender. For a second it worked. But then the edge of the tablecloth began to burn and smoke seeped out as the fire began to consume the fabric. Matt leapt backwards and pulled his pyjama top over his mouth, trying to avoid the harsh smoke filling his lungs. This smoke wasn’t comforting like a cigarette. This smoke was evil; it wanted to swallow you. It stung Matt’s eyes. He had to get out of there.

Dropping to his hands and knees, Matt headed for the door. It was becoming even more of a challenge to breathe and the fire was bright. Sweat dripped from his skin. When he hit the door he scrambled to open it, thumping and banging, trying to escape. When he found the handle he screamed as he touched it, withdrawing his stinging hand. He used his shirt to cover his hand, and turning the handle he finally rolled out into the darkness and onto the grass. The darkness brought a cool freeing air to his lungs. He felt the grass on his cheek and rolled over to get more air, his hand throbbing and his face and eyes wet. Outside suddenly felt so safe.

 

*

 

There were shouts from the road and a child crying. Neighbours had gathered outside and the sound of sirens were loud. A middle aged lady appeared in front of him asking if he was okay, waving a blurry hand to see if he could understand her. He tried to answer but his energy had left him. Attempting a nod was the only response he could return. At the sound of footsteps he turned to see firefighters run past in black and yellow, helmets and masks covering their faces. The lady told him she would call his mother and rushed to get him some water. The glow from the house softened as the firefighters shouted commands to each other.

The nightlight hadn’t survived.  It would be nothing more than a piece of melted plastic within his empty home. Tomorrow he would face the night again and he would face it alone.

 

 

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