Tag Archives: FictionIssue9

Wednesday, Bridget Corke

Bing bong.

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

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

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

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

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

‘$7.80…$8.30…$8.40…’

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

 

*

 

Bing bong.

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

Bing bong. 

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

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

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

‘Fine, but you’re paying for it.’

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

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

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

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

‘Hey mate… planning on paying for that?’

He turns red and looks down at his hoodie.

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

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

 

*

 

Bing bong.

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

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

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

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

Bing bong. 

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

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

‘Sure thing Mrs Foster.’

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

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

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

‘Please just take it.’

‘No, that wouldn’t be right.’

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

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

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

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

‘I said gimme the ring.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THWACK.

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

CRACK.

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

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

 

 

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Harēna, Nicole Crichton

Harēna (Latin)

Sand

Sandy desert, waste

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

 

Dearest Aemilius,

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

Domitius.     

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

His sword clashed and pierced through armour.

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

But this dark bathhouse was not Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aemilius gulped, guilt thick like sickness.

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

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

The actor vanished.

Aemilius gasped for breath.

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

Knock, knock, knock.

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

‘Aemilius?’ He asked, voice shaky.

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

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

‘I sent a message,’ Aemilius lied.

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

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

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

Aemilius nodded.

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

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

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

‘I was here for victory,’ he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their army stretches further than the desert itself.

Aemilius felt his muscles turn to liquid.

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

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

Aemilius could no longer swallow his rage.

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

Crash!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

 

 

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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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Portrait of a Life in Watercolour, Daniel Bingham

He wakes up to the sound of rain and grey light seeping in around the curtains. His covers have been thrown off in the night, and the wide mattress stretches away empty on all sides. He was woken by a dream, and in the moments before his alarm rings he tries to remember what it was.

Passions were bright in sleep, and colours bold, but they fade quickly in the waking air. He is left only with the sensation of movement. This, as much as the buzz of the alarm, pulls him out of bed. His bare feet sink deep into the dark carpet, and he walks naked to the bathroom where the shower drowns out the rain and the soap leaches away the last wisps of dream. He closes his eyes against the hot water and the humming fluorescent light and stands in his own darkness.

The shower stops, a few last drops pattering on his shoulders, and he steps out into the steam-filled bathroom, reaching for a towel. The fan is not working properly, and the walls are streaked with condensation. In the foggy mirror, he is only a shadow. He dries himself as best he can in the humid room, and leaves the door open.

Colours are hard to come by here; he decorates from catalogues and glossy winter collection magazines. Opening the curtains lends the bedroom no warmth; the rain has Pollocked the windows in silver streaks.

Dressing requires little thought. Today’s suit was bought only last week, shiny and charcoal, with lapels like razors. It is too dark for his complexion, its lines too harsh for his long frame, but it fills the windows of men’s outfitters and the pages of magazines, and so he will not wear anything else. His wardrobe is full of dead seasons’ fashions. There are suits here, and shirts, and ties uncounted, that have not seen daylight in years. Dust has settled deep on the shoulders and into the lapels. He tells himself they did not suit him, but keeps them anyway.

 

He leaves the apartment at eight o’clock, with plenty of time for the peak hour commute. Halfway to the elevator, he remembers seeing a tagline in Men’s Fitness – ‘Get 30% of Your Daily Exercise on the Stairs’ – and decides to walk to the garage instead. It is six flights down. His glossy black shoes click on the steel stairs and the marble landings. He strips off his blazer and, halfway, loosens his tie and is glad that it is a cold morning.

The garage is mostly empty, and his footsteps echo off the concrete walls. It smells of exhaust fumes, motor oil, and water; the rain has left a delta of tiny rivers down the exit ramp. His car, a tan Mercedes, is waiting beneath an air duct, and a slow drip of rainwater is wearing away the paint on the hood. The car’s glossy finish has faded to a satin sheen, and the once-crisp treads on the tires are beginning to blur. He wonders if it might be time to trade it in for a newer model – there have been a few new cars turning up in the office garage lately, Audis, Lexus’, BMWs. He imagines parking next to a line of brand new cars.

He’ll have to look online for a replacement; he does not trust car salesmen, but knows their pitches will work all the same.

 

There is traffic in the city – a typical Sydney traffic jam, filled with drivers who have forgotten how to cope with wet roads – and so by the time he pulls in to the parking lot at his office, he is boiling over with self-righteous road rage. Every red light, every missing indicator, every tailgater, has had a stream of vitriol directed at them – but softly, softly; he is too afraid of being heard, and so he mutters a string of recycled and stale insults to himself about female drivers; no, Asians; no, the bloody council roadwork that everyone in the office tells him is a waste of money and time. He tweets about it from his phone as he circles the parking lot. Each tweet vanishes into the ether, never to be read or retweeted. He passes a row of ‘RESERVED’ signs, each with a glossy new car crouched beneath, black and chrome and predatory. Finally, he finds an empty space, sandwiched between two hulking silver four-wheel-drives, both of them spotless; these cars have never left the city, for all that their owners dream of an outdoor life. He squeezes out of his car, his door a hair’s breadth from the neighbouring vehicle, and holds his breath, trying not to rumple or snag his new suit.

 

There is a coffee cart in the lobby, and he steps from the elevator into the queue of charcoal suits waiting for their espressos and lattes. He cannot decide what he wants; the words on the menu shift and blur into abstract chalk lines, street-art for the terminally caffeinated. Someone has drawn a tree in the corner of the menu. The tiny blob of green is the one bright spot of colour in the chrome-and-marble lobby. It grows in his eyes until he can see nothing else. Last night’s dream stirs in the back of his mind.

The barista is talking. He is at the front of the queue.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘What can I get you?’ She is dye-red hair and torn jeans, tattoos, piercings, impatience. Her shirt is smudged with coffee grounds and chalk dust, bright streaks out of place in the chrome-and-marble lobby. He blinks at her and tries to read the menu.

‘Uhm…’ It makes no sense to him. Cursive chalk letters spell out drinks he thought he knew, but now… Hoping for the best, he mutters ‘Same as the last guy, cheers.’

He walks away clutching a cup of chai-scented disappointment. Behind him, the queue moves on, and he is forgotten. He packs himself into a full elevator and tries to reach the button to take him up to the office. Too late, he realises the elevator is going down.

 

*

 

The office is filled with a busy silence, the white noise of fingers rattling on keyboards, the whir of printers, the muted mumble of his colleagues with their heads together in corners, and under it all the endless rattle of the rain against the floor-to-ceiling windows. He can see his cubicle from the door. Some of his co-workers decorate theirs, pinning up photos of their kids or the colours of their football team until Management requests their removal, but he has no pictures to share or colours to sport. Curled inside the grey felt walls, he fires up his sleek silver office computer and prepares to start the work of the day.

A knock interrupts the start-up whirr of the PC, and a suit leans over the top of the cubicle, looking much better on its owner than his own does on him.

‘G’day, mate. Sorry to interrupt, got some A1-N1’s we need you to fill out. Just drop them off with the secretary when you’re done. Cheers.’ And like that, the suit is gone, leaving behind a brick of forms in a manila folder. He sighs, and searches his desk for a pen – he wants blue, but there isn’t one, only black. He opens the folder and drags over the first of the forms.

When the office has settled down, and the last stragglers have arrived with their coffees and their excuses, he logs in to Facebook. There is nothing to see, and he watches it eagerly. Someone he vaguely remembers from high school has had a baby. Someone else has just lost their dog. A co-worker has posted a selfie of his new car – #Sydneytraffic. He ‘likes’ the picture, then realises the co-worker will know he’s on Facebook instead of working, and un-likes it before bowing his head and filling out six forms in quick succession. For the next ten minutes, every time someone walks past his cubicle he thinks it must be Human Resources coming to talk about proper use of company time.

The forms march from in-tray to out, each one requiring signing, double-signing, initialling, details, details, details. After a couple of dozen, he notices something written on the back of each:

write-only document – do not mark this page

He has filled out a dozen more before he realises what this means.

The rain patters on the windows. Outside, the sky is a sheet of dove-grey cloud and the streets are dark, though it is not yet midday. He wishes for colour, and turns again to Facebook, but there is nothing new there. He looks at the online catalogues of Armani, Hugo Boss, Yves-Saint-Laurent; the models are dark-haired pallid streaks in black and grey suits too much like his own, and looking at them makes his head ache – or perhaps only reminds him that it is aching. He clicks further afield, deeper into the internet and away from A1-N1’s, chasing travel ads of holiday destinations in bright greens, blues, and golds, as ephemeral as dreams. He rubs his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to shake the malaise – it must be the weather, he thinks, and that’ll clear up in a day or two – but this does not help. He’ll look for a new car, he decides, and he searches the websites of Ford, Audi, Lexus, BMW, each advert promising newer, faster, bigger, better cars – but looking at the pictures, he can’t see how they differ from his own. The thought troubles him, and he throws himself back into his work.

Forms spiral across his desk, each beneath his pen for only a moment before leaping away, glistening with fresh ink. With each finished form, the words write-only document – do not mark this page stare up at him from the desk. He wonders what the forms are for, but reading them doesn’t help. Like the coffee menu earlier, words he thought he knew might as well be Aramaic now. He wants to ask someone, but he can’t remember who gave him the forms. He peeks over the top of his cubicle hoping to spot them, but all he sees are charcoal suits, charcoal suits from wall to wall, as if the entire staff had been printed out of a photocopier. His head is aching and the rain beats write-only against the windows.

He does not slam his pen down, but caps it and sets it neatly in place on top of the remaining forms. He abandons his cubicle, walks to the rain-streaked window and rests his head against the cold glass. In the street below, the headlights of passing cars flicker in the fog. Behind that pale curtain, it does not matter what make or model they are – each is only a passing shadow. He wonders if, were he to walk out into the mist, the cars would see him in time to stop; and if they did not, how long it would take the other grey suits to notice that he was missing.

He returns to his desk, grabs a fresh form, and uncaps his pen with a pop like a cracked knuckle. When his hand descends, it describes great curling swoops and gyres on the page, signing and initialling in florid cursive. He fills out the whole form in moments, then takes up another. This time, he draws a little tree in the corner of the page. On the next form, he draws a car. The next, a man in a suit. A man without a suit. A cartoon Mona Lisa. He gives her a nose piercing, and she looks a little like the barista downstairs.

He reaches for the last form, fumbles, and it slips off the bare desk. Reaching for it, he is suddenly struck by what he has done. If he is found out, he will be… what?

He fills the last form out slowly. His writing is cramped, his signatures ordinary. He reaches the end, and turns it over.

write-only document – do not mark this page

He looks at this for a long time. At last, in hurried strokes, he draws a smiley face under the bold text. Whoops, he writes. It looks tacky, forced, and all of a sudden he wishes he could take it back. He takes the forms he has scribbled on and stuffs them in with the rest, squaring the edges against his desk. With trembling fingers, he tucks the pile of forms back into its manila folder. With weak knees he carries it to the secretary’s desk. She’s on the phone, pinning it between her ear and shoulder as she flashes out a smile and an open hand to take the heavy file.

For the next twenty minutes he watches and waits. At last, she puts the phone down and takes up the stack of forms. She disappears into the head office. He swallows, wishes he hadn’t finished his chai tea so he could wet his mouth.

The door of the office opens, and the secretary slips out. He drops his head down, typing furious nonsense into a blank Word file as she returns to her desk.

He waits. Someone will come soon, he thinks. His manager, or perhaps he’ll get a call from HR, or maybe they’ll just tell him to clear his desk – which won’t take long – and throw him out. But nothing happens, and continues to happen. The office stays quiet. The only phone that rings is the secretary’s, and she answers in too low a voice for him to eavesdrop. Keyboards and the rain keep making their soothing white noise.

At lunch, he gives in, and goes home early, prepared – if anyone should ask – to claim a touch of ‘flu. No-one does. He walks through the lobby, empty except for the barista closing up her coffee cart. He drives, too fast, through the soaked and foggy streets with the rain scribbling accusations on his windshield. Home again, he leaves his suit in a crumpled mess on the floor and collapses into bed, staring at his open wardrobe. He falls asleep that night with the sound of rain washing over him.

 

He wakes up to the sound of his alarm, and lies with the covers tucked smoothly around him. He turns the noise off, and lies for a moment, remembering. Across the room, his wardrobe hangs open. Dusty wool glimmers in the early sunlight. Already yesterday feels like a dream.

In the office lobby, the barista smiles at him as he orders a cappuccino.

‘Hey, I like your suit. Blue looks good on you.’

The other workers watch him in the elevator. He can feel their eyes on him as he walks to his cubicle. A grey figure, last glimpsed behind a stack of forms, stops in the hall as he passes.

‘Looking good, mate! New suit?’

He grins, and brushes some dust from his lapel. Behind him, the sun shines through the windows, and turns the office gold.

 

 

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Misguided, Ben Lawrence

The fire crackled, green logs spitting sap into the small inferno. A man and a woman huddled close to the fire. Their silhouettes danced around them. They sat on the cracked flagstones of a ruined tower. The rest was tumbled out around the hillock, long overgrown with moss and lichen.

The woman wore a circlet of gold on her greying hair. Her face was dominated by a hawk-like nose that kept watch over lips set in a sharp line. She wore studded leather pants, with thick riding boots and a coat of plates that had once been fine, but was now scarred and dull. On her shoulders she wore ornate pauldrons set in the likeness of a lion’s head, the eyes set with precious gemstones.

A snore came from the prone figure on the other side of the fire. She looked at the pile of blankets and creased her brow in a frown.

‘Bard’

‘…’

‘Bard!’

The man jolted awake at the Queen’s bark, grumbling under his breath. He was dressed in a much simpler fashion. Woollen pants, supple hunting boots, a dirty linen shirt and a simple leather vest. His blonde curls sat in a tousled heap on his head, giving him a youthful appearance.

The Queen’s frown deepened,

‘You are addressing Queen Ysabel of White Shore.’

‘Raise the dead with that shoutin,’ you will.’

She bristled at his lack of respect.

‘You would do well never to speak to me like that again.’

‘Aye, and you might do just as well to keep ye voice down… M’lady. No tellin’ who or what lurks in these parts at night.’

He could feel her baleful gaze drilling into him from across the fire, but she didn’t deign to retort. Probably never been told to shut her trap, he thought.

Instead, she rummaged in her pack and drew out a whetstone. Her sword lay next to her on the flagstones and now she inspected it. With a sniff of annoyance she set the stone to the blade and began honing its edge with long, purposeful strokes. The Bard watched from across the fire, the flames highlighting her movements. They were graceful, exact, and deadly, just as they had been in the battle against the Griffon that day. She did not wear the armour or sword simply for show it seemed.

He inspected his own sword. It was a utilitarian tool, solid iron with a wooden handle and a bronze cross piece. There were several nicks along its edge and some rust spots at the base of the blade. He shrugged and placed the weapon on top of his pack alongside his harp. He didn’t feel like sharpening it just now.

The night was deathly silent. No owls hooted, no critters scurried along secret paths, and the rasping sound of stone on steel set his neck and arm hairs standing on end.

‘Why sharpen it?’

‘Because it needs doing,’ she said in between strokes.

He pushed the sound to the back of his mind.

‘Why? The Griffon’s dead, the battle fought and won.’

‘This battle,’ she said, looking up at him. ‘And who are you to question the Queen of White Shore? You were hired to write a song about my victory over the Griffon. Nothing else, understand?’

He was not surprised by the shortness of her reply. He was used to being looked down on by those of higher station. Yes, they would pay him handsomely enough for a song of their brave deeds, but at any mention of a truth that was not their own, he would be discarded. Just another peasant who didn’t know how to respect his betters. What truly shocked him was her coldness.

‘That beast slaughtered a hundred of ye knights today. Their blood is nawt cold and here ye are preparing for the next battle? Why so cold, mistress?’

‘Are all Bards fools? Or just you? I would think that singing songs of great heroes all day would teach you a thing or two. There is always another battle, another war. To not recognise this is to die a fool.’

He shook his head in disbelief, his mind recalling the images of the battle against the Griffon. He saw again how the Queen had ordered her knights to charge the beast, and how the knights were cut down by the Griffon’s foul claws. All the while, she watched, searching for an opening. He saw how she had urged the last of her knights forward to their death, and how she had charged behind them, trampling those who were wounded in order to strike the killing blow.

‘Aye, I sing songs of heroes, mistress. But none so cold as you.’

She regarded him with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow, and if she hadn’t been raised a Queen, she might have chewed her lip.

‘You truly are a fool. All heroes are heartless at some point. That is the part the tales leave out.’ She reached inside her pack and withdrew the trophy she had taken from the Griffons’ corpse. It looked like a feather, but it was about half a metre long and rich gold in colour. The fibres were malleable, but he had witnessed swords shatter against them. As his eyes ran along its sleek surface, he noticed how the colours changed, from gold to bronze to brass, and at the very tip, bright silver.

‘How much do you think this is worth, Bard?’

He thought for a moment, but couldn’t think of a number high enough.

‘I don’t know, mistress.’

‘Exactly,’ she said as she twirled it in her hands, the firelight making it look like liquid gold. ‘It is priceless. It is power, and glory, and riches. And this is just one. When I harvest the rest from the Griffon’s corpse tomorrow, I will become more powerful than all the Kings on this continent. And I will start an Empire the likes of which the world has never seen. Yes, my knights died. But they died an honourable death serving their Queen.’ She said this all without taking her eyes off the feather. She seemed to be somewhere else, as if in a daydream.

The Bard didn’t understand.

‘An honourable dead man is still a dead man, mistress. And you’re already a Queen. You’ve a whole kingdom, hundreds of kilometres of land and wealth. Why be an Emperor?’

She tore her gaze away from the feather, although it seemed to pain her to do so.

‘And? Hundreds will become thousands, tens of thousands. I will have it all. And no man will ever dare to question my rule again.’

He was lost for words. Granted he had always wanted a bit more. A few more coins to jingle in his pocket would have been nice. A new harp would be good if he could afford it, and he did want to settle down someday with a plump wife that would give him many sons. But she was a Queen. The idea that she could possibly want for more just did not make any sense to the Bard.

An idea struck him.

‘Do you know the history of this tower?’

‘Of course I do!’ she snapped. ‘It is the seat of the Old Empire.’

‘Right you are, mistress. But do ye know how it came to be nawt but a ruin?’

Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. A grin split his face, revealing crooked teeth.

‘Worry not, mistress, let me tell ye the tale of the great Empire of Abernia, which stretched all the lands to the north and most to the south, all of it ruled from right here in this very castle.’

‘Get on with it, Bard, I assume this tale has a point?’

‘Aye, it does. Now, the Empire was at peace, had been for years. But the King was a vain man. He loved nothing more than to sit on his throne and count his coins. Then, one day, during a feast he held as celebration for the conquest of another nation, a real threat came to his kingdom. Or at least, the news of one. A farmer crashed through the door to the great hall, weak and weary from travel. “Dragon! Great, terrible, fire breathing dragon! A vile creature, evil to the core! Please O’ wise and noble King, send your knights to slay this beast and deliver us from fear,” said he. Naturally, everyone at the feast was shocked by such news, but they were even more shocked by the King’s reaction. “Good man! Thank you for bringing word of this threat to our safety. Sit! Feast! On the morrow, I will lead my knights and slay the creature.”

“O’ Wise King, O’ brave King! God’s praise you! The creature is truly evil. It killed ten farmers with one fell sweep of its claws, and then set the buildings alight with its wicked breath.”

“Fear not, brave fellow, my knights and I will slay the beast, of that you can be assured!”

‘So, that settled, they feasted into the night and when morning came, the King and his knights and the farmer set out to find the dragon.

‘They travelled far to the south where the King’s grip on the land was not as tight. The farms he passed were far dirtier, and far poorer than the pretty ploughed fields outside his castle. “Look at what this beast has done! My poor subjects suffer greatly at the hands of its evil.” His knights agreed, but the farmer was confused. The creature had only attacked his village. These farms had not been affected and to him looked as they always had. But he didn’t say so, far be it for him to question his King.’

‘If only all men were as noble and loyal as this farmer’ remarked the Queen, voice thick with derision.

‘Aye, mistress, if only,’ the Bard replied, knowing full well the comment was aimed at him, and recalling that the Queen’s sword was now very sharp. But he continued anyway, hoping his tale would reach her. ‘When the King and his knights came upon the man’s village, ravaged and savaged as it was, they found the dragon sleeping on a pile of bones. The King ordered the charge and the battle was on. For a day and a night it raged, but finally, the beast was slain. Many brave men died in the battle, including the poor farmer.

‘As proof of his victory, the King brought back a large scale from the beast’s breast, crimson and gold in colour. Now, as I said, he was a vain man and wanted to assert his wealth and power even though he was an Emperor. He flaunted his prize and gloated with glee… And was promptly assassinated by jealous rivals.

‘Without a King, the Empire crumbled, and all because the man who had it all, wanted more.’

‘A fine tale, Bard, you obviously have some skill,’ the Queen said begrudgingly. ‘But it is a tale, nothing more than myth and legend based on an old fool.’

As he had been talking, a red sun had begun to rise. It was still an hour or so until dawn, but the first tendrils of crimson light were filtering in from the east, creeping over their camp.

The Bard’s shoulders sagged. He had failed to have an effect on the Queen. She remained stoically silent as she watched the world awaken to the new day.

Eventually, she spoke.

‘Tell me, Bard, what song have you written of me? How shall my victory over the Griffon be remembered?’

‘I haven’t written anything yet, mistress’ he lied.

‘I have seen you practice at night as we travelled from White Shore, and you have just proved you have some skill in the art. Come, sing it to me. Now.’

With a sigh he relented. He picked up his harp, plucked a few strings and adjusted them. Then, satisfied, he began to play a slow melody.

‘There once was a Queen, greedy and bold,

She went chasing legends of old.

 

For o’er yonder hill from White Shore,

There was a creature who she was sure

If not slain, would be her shame,

So she set out, to gain her fame.

 

Over high mountain and deep river,

She voyaged with barely a shiver.

 

She took a hundred knights to meet their maker,

All in the hopes that she could be greater…’

‘Enough!’ she screamed. ‘Your arrogance knows no bounds. You have insulted me beyond forgiveness this night. As Queen of White Shore, I sentence you to death.’ She rose from her sitting position, sword in hand and advanced. ‘The Lords of White Shore have always been their own headsman. Bow your head so that I may make it a clean death, though you don’t deserve one.’

The Bard scrabbled for his blade, regretting his laziness earlier in the night. She was old but experienced, and he lacked training but was young and fit. He took the guard position he had been taught as a child, feet braced apart, sword raised in front. She swung her sword in lazy arcs as she advanced, the blade whistling as it cut the air.

She feigned left then lashed out with a right-hand cut. He blocked to his left then slashed wildly, forcing her to jump backwards. She immediately stepped forward again, bringing her blade down in a swift overhead motion. He barely managed to get his blade up in time, and the force of the blow made his hand go numb. She was much stronger than he had anticipated.

He lunged forward, but his blade was easily swept aside. Overbalanced, he had no choice but to continue the motion. He knew he couldn’t bring his sword around in time, but neither could she, so he threw his fist into her chin as he careened forward.

She fell hard but instinct saved her. As soon as she hit the ground she was rolling, and his sword struck the stones where moments before her head had been. He advanced on her again and she lashed out with her heavy boots, catching him on the knee. He howled in pain and was forced to moved back, giving her enough time to regain her feet.

They had the measure of each other now and the duel settled into a steady rhythm, the clash and clang of their sword’s echoing through the pre-dawn light, giving a grim feel to the red light of morning.

Her sword sliced into the Bard’s arm, her superior skill giving her the upper hand. He grunted in pain and frustration, blood flowing freely down his arm. She advanced again and he backed away, unable to keep his sword raised. He tripped on the fire as he retreated and the Queen’s boot caught him in the chest as he struggled to maintain his balance. He sailed backwards over the fire, losing his sword as he fell, severely winded. Fighting for breath and in immense pain, he dragged himself across the ground toward the Queen’s pack. She advanced, ready to drive her sword into his exposed back.

He reached the pack and frantically rummaged. The Queen brought her sword down just as he rolled, so instead of skewering him, her sword only cut him superficially, grating as it glanced off his ribs. But he had what he had been searching for in her pack, and he drove the feather into The Queen’s neck. Blood erupted from the fatal wound and poured down the feather onto the Bard’s hand.

Her eyes widened in shock as she fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering. A pool of blood quickly formed as she clawed at her ruined neck, fighting for a breath that would not come.

The Queen of White Shore died with the Griffon’s feather still protruding from her neck, shining crimson and gold in the light of dawn.

 

 

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Weathering the Storm, Claire Jones

Naomi stared up into the sky, darker and more threatening than the Sunday Nippers were used to.

The girls huddled together, like penguins in their matching swimsuits, trying to stay warm and protected from the sand being hurled at them by gusts of icy wind. The notoriously flat Collaroy surf was large and violent today. The water events had been called off and the sand events, Naomi hoped, would shortly follow.

‘Alright, Under Fourteens.’ the supervisor called, ‘take your marks.’

Reluctantly, the girls separated and took their places – their backs facing the water. Naomi knelt on the sand, inching back until her toes found the groove of the freshly drawn line. She gave a quick glance down the line of competitors before lying flat on her stomach. The sand felt cold against her body as she folded her hands neatly on top of each other, elbows out to the side.

‘Heads up.’

Naomi raised her head up from the sand and stared out at the Collaroy Surf Club in front of her. The normally bright yellow building dulled in the absence of any sun. She turned her gaze right, about a kilometre down the sand, to the two-story houses that lined the beach – hers amongst them. In their back garden that opened onto the sand stood the lean-to shelter her father had built. It displayed the first surfboard he’d ever used and his father’s before that, spanning four generations. The limited space of the lean-to was currently occupied by a small group of mothers, including her own, taking refuge from the wild weather. Naomi envied them.

‘Heads down.’

Naomi placed her chin back down on her folded arms, her body clenched tight with cold and nervous anticipation. The optimistically applied sunscreen stuck grains of sand to her arms, smelling thickly of creamy chemicals and salt.

Phwoot!

The whistle blew and Naomi jumped to her feet, turning to run into the wind for the hosepipes sticking out of the sand a few meters behind her. She plucked a hose from the end of the row as she ran past it, sand hitting her legs as two girls beside her dove for the same flag. Satisfied, she gave the hose to the supervising lifeguard and returned to the start as the course was reset. Walking back to the line, she picked her father out from amongst a group of lifesavers gathered closely together under the big red tent. This wasn’t unusual, quite the opposite, but Naomi could tell from the way he and the others were standing, furrowed brows and arms crossed or gesticulating wildly between the waves and the buildings, that something was off. She lay back down on her stomach, ready for the whistle. But her eyes and mind were still on her father. It’s not a shark, or someone in trouble, or they’d by running for the rubber ducky, she thought. A big rip? No, they don’t need a group talk about moving the flags. What’s going on?

Lost in thought, she didn’t register the starting whistle, springing up a second after the others. Damn! She was close enough to her neighbour to be in with a chance if she dived, but Naomi didn’t like diving into the sand – that’s what the ocean was for. She kicked at the sand where the flag had been and headed over to the tent.

‘Out already, Naomi? What happened there?’ Paul asked. Naomi shrugged.

‘Just wasn’t concentrating, I guess.’

‘Not to worry.’ Paul clapped her on the back, ‘you’ll get ‘em next time.’

‘Is everything okay? You’re all looking worried.’

Paul took a deep breath, recreating his troubled stance from before.

‘There’s a low pressure system moving in from the east, apparently bringing one heck of a storm with it.’

‘A cyclone?’

‘No, sorry love.’ Paul laughed. ‘Just a big, windy storm with some pretty sizable waves.’

‘Will you have to close the beach?’

‘Yeah, we’re starting to send people on their way now.’

Meanwhile, the company of mothers in their yard had dispersed. Trinny, Naomi’s least favourite of the mothers’ group, approached them. Her whiter-than-white smile looking even more unnatural against the ever-darkening skies. Please don’t talk to us, please don’t talk to us, please don-

‘Paul! Darling! Young Mark over there was telling me you’ll likely be evacuated with these king tides. Well, you three are always welcome with us up on the plateau there. You could keep an eye on your house from the lounge!’ Paul smiled tightly while Naomi tried to mask her horror.

‘Thanks, Trinny. But we’ll be right. People like to over-warn to avoid lawsuits.’

‘Well, if you’re sure, darling. My door’s always open if you change your mind!’ Trinny gave Naomi’s arm an intrusive squeeze and, after an uncomfortable wink in Paul’s direction, she was gone. Paul let out a frustrated sigh.

‘Look, Naomi… even if we end up being evacuated, it’ll only be as a precaution. Your mum will probably want to pack up a few things just in case. But I promise you, there’s nothing to worry about.’ Naomi felt a slightly terrified thrill working its way up her chest. Her cousins in the Blue Mountains had been evacuated countless times during the fire seasons, and she thought it sounded like quite an adventure. Nothing like that ever happened to Naomi and secretly, she resented it. Maybe this year she’d have a good story to share at the Christmas table.

The heavy clouds unleashed, rainfall rapidly building. The yellow sand turned dark and the beachgoers were sent packing. It was then that Naomi’s mother, Angela, arrived from the house, bringing Paul a travel mug of fresh coffee and a kiss on the cheek.

‘Will you be needed here for long?’

‘Only about an hour after the beach is closed. I think the weather will keep people away.’

‘I gave my mother a call after I saw the storm warnings. She’s happy to have us if needs be.’

‘Thank god.’ Naomi said with relief, ‘I’d rather drown than spend ten minutes with Trinny.’

‘Naomi!’ Angela gasped, giving her a light slap on the shoulder. ‘We’d better get to the house, start packing what we can.’

‘Just in case.’ insisted Paul.

‘Just in case.’ Naomi nodded back.

 

That evening, Naomi stood at the window of her unlit bedroom, the immense power of the storm shaking the window in its frame. It was exhilarating being so close to the raw elements, only the tremoring glass pane separating her from the thrashing storm. The rain pounded relentlessly on every surface. The streetlight cast the trees’ shadows against her wall, moving violently from side to side. The weakest were branches ripped from the trunks and flung in every direction. She was transfixed. What would that feel like, to be at nature’s mercy? Could I end up in Oz, like Dorothy? A deafening crack came from somewhere nearby and the street was plunged into darkness. Before iPhones, a blackout always meant her parents pulling down the candles from the top of the pantry, the three of them sitting in the dim light around the dining room table. They’d draw pictures, and play cards or board games until it was time for bed. That was the part Naomi looked forward to most. Getting ready for bed while her mother followed her around with a candle made her feel like an eighteenth century princess. For nostalgia’s sake, she fumbled through her cupboards for a candle and matches by the light of her phone. She placed the lit candle on the windowsill and sat down in the middle of the room, hugging her crossed legs to her chest and staring at the orange glow against the black.

Not long after the blackout the Emergency Evacuation Alert had come through on their phones. Naomi was breathless; whether from fear or excitement she could not tell. She bombarded her parents with questions as they drove their packed car up to Angela’s mother’s house on higher ground, asking, could their house get flooded? (Possibly.) Would next-door’s fish drown? (No.) Could Grandma get evacuated too? (Unlikely.) After much fussing from her grandmother, Naomi had settled on a roll-out bed in front of the unseasonably lit living room fire, her parents on the fold-out couch behind her. The fire crackled, it’s heat warming her face. Rain pelted down in the background , the occasional clap of thunder barely discernible above the wind. Naomi had assumed her parents had fallen asleep until her father spoke softly.

‘Say it.’

‘What?’

‘I know what you’re thinking, just say it.’

Angela sighed reluctantly.

‘I’d feel a lot better right now if the sea wall had been put in. I wouldn’t keep imagining the beach collapsing from under our house.’

‘Ange, if a seawall had been put in, there’d be no beach to collapse. No nippers for Naomi, no life saving for me. Just a kilometre-long concrete slab.’

‘You don’t know that, Paul. Not for sure.’ Angela paused before mumbling, ‘I don’t think Naomi even likes nippers.’

Naomi could remember the seawall causing conflict between her parents a year or two before.

‘Do you know what we’re doing here, Naomi?’

Naomi shook her head, eyes squinting in the glare of the morning sun. Her hand felt tiny, grasped in her father’s.

‘We’re drawing a line in the sand.’ Paul said.

Naomi looked out at the line of people stretched along the beach, from Narrabeen to Collaroy, where they stood.

‘Woah! It looks like hundreds of people!’

‘Thousands!’ Paul grinned widely.

‘Millions?!’

‘No, honey.’ Angela said flatly, adjusting her sunglasses and looking at her watch.

The seawall had been a contentious topic at the dinner table the night before.

‘There’s no evidence that sea walls will prevent coastal erosion.’ Paul had insisted. ‘In fact, it may well do the opposite. The water will just hit the walls and drag the sand back in. Eventually there’ll be no beach left.’

‘Trinny was saying-’ Angela started.

‘Oh god, not Trinny.’

‘She was saying that the council could use all the sand they dredge from Narrabeen lake and some of the other lagoons to replenish the beach.’

‘That’s not just sand, that’s sediment and sea grass and all sorts of crap. Do you want to turn our beach grey? That Trinny is an idiot.’

‘Let’s hear your great idea then, Paul.’ Paul leant back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head.

‘Not my job. That’s what the local government and its fancy think tanks are for.’

Angela had simply shaken her head in an angry silence as she cleared up the plates to the kitchen.

‘We’ll show ‘em what’s what at the protest tomorrow, eh?’ Paul had said to Naomi with a wink. Naomi scrunched up the left side of her face and blinked hard in an attempt to wink back.

 

The storm raged on for another twenty-four hours. Naomi was glued to her iPhone, transfixed by the images and videos on social media capturing the increasing severity of the damage. Narrabeen Lake had spilled over, flooding sections of the main road. People were filmed kayaking in the side streets.

‘Idiots.’ Angela said, shaking her head.

‘Still not as stupid as the people driving through the flood waters.’ Paul replied.

‘You wouldn’t run into a bushfire, so don’t drive into a flood.’ Naomi read aloud from her Facebook feed. Then she saw it.

An eleven second clip taken the night before by one of the Collaroy residents, showing a backyard pool being dragged into the sea along with barbeques, garbage bins and outdoor furniture. Police lights flashed in the background. What was on the other side of the pool punctured a hole in Naomi’s stomach. Is that…

Her back garden. At least, it was where her back garden used to be. Now it was a straight drop into the tide, barely a metre from their back door.

‘Dad? Dad!

The lean-to was gone. The family’s boards were nowhere to be seen. The table, chairs, her mother’s roses, those were replaceable. But ….

‘Shit.’

‘Paul! Language!’ Paul took the phone from Naomi and showed it to Angela.

‘Oh my god. Oh, Paul. Wha-what do we – how will…’ Angela trailed off in despair. Paul handed Naomi her phone. He left the room without a word. Naomi felt paralysed. She had wanted something exciting to happen. But nothing like this. She felt her mother’s arms wrap around her shoulders.

‘It’s okay, Nomi,’ Angela whispered, ‘We’ll be okay.’

 

*

 

Naomi waded into shore, looking out at the reserve that now separated Collaroy beach from Pittwater road. Small children with ice cream-smeared faces played on the grass as their parents watched from a picnic table. That used to be my living room. Water dripped from her hair onto the sand as she bent to collect her belongings. She straightened, car keys firmly in hand, and noticed her father’s dusky orange van beside her dented Mazda in the car park. She spotted him stepping off the short wall that separated grass from sand. He held a close-to-melting ice cream in each hand.

‘A graduation present.’ Paul held out an ice cream, ‘congratulations.’

Naomi exchanged it for a kiss on the cheek and sat down on the wall, toes digging into the dry sand. It’d been six months since she saw him last. She’d stayed with him in Byron Bay shortly after her mother’s wedding, Naomi and her grandmother vacating the house in lieu of a proper honeymoon.

‘How long are you here for this time?’ Naomi asked, catching drips of ice cream with her tongue.

‘Just for the week, then I’ll spend a few days in Coff’s on my way back. Do you want to join me?’

Naomi counted out the days in her head, realising with disappointment that she had to work.

‘Another time.’ Paul promised. Naomi watched as Paul looked around behind her, biting into the cone as he contemplated the recreational area standing in place of the houses. Once it had become clear the large-scale storms would be a more than annual occurrence, beachfront homes at Collaroy, like Naomi’s, were no longer viable. Bit by bit, the land was sold back to the state and transformed into a reserve. Though Paul had held out for as long as possible, Angela and Naomi having already moved in permanently with Naomi’s grandmother, the fight was eventually one he could no longer afford. Naomi gave him a friendly nudge.

‘At least the beach is still here, right?’

‘Yeah.’ Paul conceded. ‘They could’ve done worse.’

‘Speaking of, Dad…’

‘Mm?’

‘Trinny sends her love.’

‘Naomi, that’s not even funny.’

 

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The Nightlight, Kate Dawson

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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