Tag Archives: grief

>Delete File: Y/N?, Sheriden Goldie

Silver pulls the eye-patch away from her left eye. Her fingers press the skin around the metal protrusions, unable to rub in case her skin should pull away from the edges. She closes her one eye, stretches and feels the slight grind in her shoulders. Metal plates and screws pop over each other. She returns to the screen. Silver aligns her aug-eye’s interface over the display’s and selects ‘upload.’

Feeling behind her ear, Silver slides the memory card out of its slot. The patch of synthetic skin hangs loose, and she imagines she can feel the cool air touching a circuit. All phantom feeling, but she shivers anyway. The frame of the screen has a glowing port that she presses the card into. It zips closed, the download of data starts ticking over at the bottom of the screen. She cracks the plastic seal of a new memory card, and slots it in, pressing the synthetic skin back into place. There is a faint buzz and hiss, as the internal vacuum seals the opening.

A blue icon flashes at the edge of the screen. Silver taps the glass table top, and it opens. Mei’s avatar smiles from the corner of the message box.

Mei: You heading home yet or what?

Silver smiles, without parting her lips. Her fingers draw a circle on the table top, and a keyboard illuminates. Silver types.

Silver: Changing over memory cards, just waiting for the download to finish.

Mei replies with a thumbs up.

 

A second blue icon flashes. Silver frowns, tapping it open.

Rosalie: Has sent you a parcel.

Rosalie: Wish you were here…

Silver aligns her internal interface.

>Open parcel

>Data received

>Image file received.

>View now? Y/N

The image unfolds, spreading across her screen. Silver feels the lower edge of her eye quiver. The city sprawls behind Rosalie, hugging the base of the mountain. She is standing with her back to the camera, but her head is turned, the sunlight catching red hair and haloing her face. The tear falls hot and quick, and Silver’s hand darts out to catch it.

 

*

 

The phone vibrates on the table. The sound interrupts snores from under the blanket. Silver’s arm reaches for it. Long fingers catch an edge, spinning the phone away. She caterpillars to the edge of the bed, picking up the phone. It’s buzzing stops.

‘Hello?’ she says. Her aug-eye boots.

>Interface activating

>Date: 2567.05.07

>Time: 08:37

>Ready for input

She feels the buzzing through the base of her skull.

‘No, I’m in bed still, it’s my day off remember?’ Her sandpaper voice bounces off the walls. She sits up, swinging heavy legs over the edge of the bed. The blanket slides away, half onto the floor. She doesn’t pick it up.

‘What do you need me to come in for?’ Her fingers trace figure eights around her eyes, sweeping the sleepiness away. She presses her feet into the carpet. The blinds begin to rise as her augmented interface systems boot up. The sunlight creeps up the wall slowly. Silver mutters into the phone. She goes to the alcove that serves as a kitchenette. The coffee machine sputters.

‘Sorry, say that again… Couldn’t hear you…’ The coffee mug trembles in her hand.

>Biometric warning: Breathing – Erratic. Pulse – Increasing. Blood Pressure – Falling.

‘Do you know-’ she pauses, waiting for the voice on the other end to finish. ‘Yes, of course, I’ll come in straight away.’

>Biometric systems: Increase fluid intake. Regulate breathing. Sit down.

Silver’s hand still trembles as the coffee drips into the mug. She focuses on the rhythm of her breath: inhale, exhale, repeat. The coffee burns her tongue, and the feeling of lightness behind her eyes begins to fade slowly.

 

Standing outside the precinct, Silver watches the passing traffic. Her aug-eye boxes and tracks the cacophony of movement. Her other eye is bloodshot. Silver slides up the optic cover, and wipes the moisture away with an unsteady hand. The cover hides her tears from the other agents inside. She is glad of that. She slides the cover down. The ache in her stomach won’t let up. Her hands tremble, so she pushes them into her pockets. A dark car rolls to a stop.

The last time she had seen Rosalie. Outside the hospice. They had fought Rosalie ripped a branch off a Japanese Maple, and lunged wildly at Sliver. Stabbing for her face, neck, eyes. She had screamed to turn it off the whole time. The nurses pulled Rosalie away with sad nods. They saw this all the time. They left Silver standing in the garden until a dark car had driven her away. The branch of the Japanese Maple remained cast aside on the manicured lawn.

Silver is drawn back to the present as the car door swings open. Silver realizes it is now dark blue, not the black one she remembered.

‘Sil, is it true?’ Donna’s impeccably coiffed hair, chemically set into a wave, has a distinctly greyer tint than the last time Silver had seen it. Donna’s arms wrap around Silver’s shoulders. At the touch, Silver suddenly feels cold, but her biometrics remain stable.

‘They wouldn’t let me see her…’ she says. Silver’s eye fills with tears, seeping under the edge of the cover. Donna squeezes her shoulders, and they walk inside.

 

The room is clean, but the walls were the sort of beige that reminds Silver of stained sheets. Donna sits next to her; a tissue box placed in front of her. Silver plucks one out and holds it under her eye.

‘She hasn’t called home for weeks,’ says Donna, speaking to some other unseen entity.

‘When was the last time you saw her?’ Silver asks.

‘Around June’ Says Donna. Silver waits for her to continue. ‘She came home for a while; continued her treatment remotely. She struggled. We struggled. She asked us not to visit anymore when she went back in.’ Her voice wavers.

‘She sent me a photo,’ says Silver, ‘yesterday. She was standing on a lookout.’

‘That must have been from when she came home. We tried to take her out, get her to see beauty again.’

Silver examines the table top in minute detail.

>Composition: Wood veneer. Polychip filler. Recycled metal frame.

>Structural integrity: 98%

>Projected product lifespan: 150 years

The swirls in the veneer are suddenly shadowed.

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Silver looks up at her boss. He is looking back at her, his aug-eye shifting in spirals He sits in front of Donna, and starts to deliver the speech Silver had heard so many times before, but never from this side of the table. She doesn’t realise she is shaking until Donna touches her hand as they stand to leave. Her boss says ‘I’ve approved your leave Sil, take some time to process this.’ She mouths words. A waved hand silences her protest.

Outside the precinct, Donna and Silver stand together, waiting for Donna’s car to return.

‘We knew she would die. We expected a call from the hospice. Not this, never like this…’ Says Donna. Silver’s aug-eye boxes and traces the paths of the traffic. It keeps her mind busy, distracted. Donna keeps talking about Rosalie. The disease had eaten away at her body. Leaving her hollow. Her organs were removed bit by bit, replaced by wheezing machines, augmented substitutes, or not at all. Donna sighed, and Silver could feel the aching relief seeping out of her.

‘I’m still going to miss her.’ Says Silver.

‘Of course,’ says Donna, ‘call anytime.’ She said. Silver knew she wouldn’t.

 

*

 

The quilted foam of the Sync bed is velvety under Silver’s exposed shoulders. The visor slides down over her face. Her aug-eye syncs up, the optic cover projects scrolling text.

>Archive File Retrieval Commencing

>3…

>2…

>1…

 

There is a shimmer as the visor becomes opaque. Silver lets the screen blur in and out of focus. A wave of nausea passes over, as the images whirl, mixing her own internal interface with the memory bank construct. Vertigo passes as the image stabilises. Adjusting to her focus range and muscle triggers.

Her eye watches the visor’s projections of the building’s mainframe through the patch. Her aug-eye follows the paths that light up across the screen. The data-streams of the different departments, all flashing in a disharmonious pattern. She focuses on the archives. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. But her mind is already queuing up the commands through her interface.

>Case File Search: Rosalie Flanagan

>Result: 1 File Found

>Unpacking File…

The report streams out, and Silver feels the bile rise in her throat. The images sear themselves in her brain. The crumpled dress around the withered body. A bare branched sapling tossed amongst the wind. Chipped dollar-store nail polish, pale fingers, lying curled on the dark road. Silver shivers, and feels the velvet ribs of the bed press against her skin. Her biometrics trigger again.

The visual recording of the investigating agent fast forwards at a flickering pace. It flashes through the day. Silver lets it run while she reads the coroner’s report.

Cause of death: Asphyxiation

Time of death: 01:35 am

Notes: Victim was pedestrian. Brain chemistry suggests unstable mental state.

The video stream shivers and she is watching the road through a windshield. It skips passed the sprawl, through the suburbs, into a driveway, a house. Silver watches the flickering lights of home, children, wife. It keeps all of it, every recording, every minute… The thought runs through her head, repeating. Since the install, since logging the cards…

Her mind is wandering, under watchful sensors, and she finds her own files scrolling across the visor. I shouldn’t. But she lets her mind reach. The data file opens, softly like petals to the sun. Her rookie days. She was leaving work early. The video skips through and then there she is. Rosalie. Sun-kissed and carrying the rabbit bag she loved. Silver had called it childish, but the nurses had encouraged Rosalie to keep it. We were going to the movies, she thinks, recalling the feeling of Rosalie’s hand pulling her along. They had been happy that day.

Silver felt the edges of the memory caving in, could feel the archive recording, absorbing her feedback. A message rolls across the screen,

>Time to jack out.

She folds the soft edges back in, packing the happy face of Rosalie like an origami crane. Silver tags the memory, filing it away in the archive. She begins to withdraw, mentally pulling away. The archive fades out across the visor. She surfaces, taking a deep breath, the recirculated air tastes metallic at the back of her throat.

‘That was a serious dive, Sil’ says Mei,

Silver slides the visor away from her face. She ignores Mei standing over the bed, and goes to the coffee machine. ‘Keep going like that and you’ll begin to corrupt your memory files you know,’ Mei’s voice echoes around the archive room. Silver focuses on the dark stream of coffee dribbling into the cup.

‘Mei, has anyone ever deleted their own files?’

‘Sure, sometimes. But you can only delete the parts that aren’t relevant to cases, so they have to be screened before deletion, get all the approvals, you know.’ Mei leans against the edge of the sync bed, arms crossed, while Silver nods her head.

‘Do the file deletions affect the brain – you know, the sync?’

‘Yeah, so we’ve heard, it’s not supposed to.’

‘But…’

‘But people delete files, then in about a month – gone. Completely un-retrievable.’

‘Completely?’

‘Yeah, we tested a group of agents. Zero memory bleeds after deletion. And no memories for them to corrupt.’

Silver picks up the coffee and sips. The steam warms her face, and she can feel the place where her cheek is damp. She wipes away the tear, smearing the sheen across her cheek. Mei sighs,

‘If you changed both eyes, you wouldn’t have this problem,’

 

*

 

The city sprawls around the base of the mountain. Silver stands, leaning against the railing of the lookout. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and the light haze of the city is growing. A network of nodes, flashing lights, towers, and hubs. Silver’s eye adjusts to the light differential in increments. She feels the cool metal of the railing through her shirt. Here in the quiet stillness, she can feel the miniscule vibrations of her aug-eye. She traces a finger along the ridges of metal framework, all plugged in under the skin. She stares into the valley below. The wind that slides down the mountain side rustles the treetops. The optic processor in her aug-eye works overtime.

I can delete it all. I can forget. If I delete, delete… Rosalie.

>Opening data file…

The ellipses flash in sequence. Opening, unpacking, synthesising. Silver waits, her legs swinging back and forth.

>Files ready for review

A message pops up; Silver had to remain linked to the agency network to access the memory files.

Mei: You can just skim through them you know, then authorise the deletion.

Silver: Thanks, I’ll think about it.

Mei: No one would think badly of you, heaps of people do it, you know…

Silver: I’ll let you know.

Mei: No problem, talk later.

>Open files Y/N?

Silver slides down her optic cover, fixing it over her organic eye. The data begins to unpack, lining up in sequence. She picks one in the middle.

She is staring at Rosalie. The memory’s sense-net begins to overlay and dampen her physical senses. The cold air from the open window raises goose bumps on her skin. Rosalie’s eyes are bloodshot, and there is a dribble of clear mucus under her nose.

‘I hate it!’ she says, ‘why did they do that to you?’ She is running her hands up into her hair. The rise of her jumper exposing the pale belt of skin under the navel. ‘I can’t be here! Not with… that!’ Silver’s own voice cuts through,

‘I had to get the augmentation to move into the force, it wasn’t exactly negotiable!’

Hacking sobs follow. Silver remembers the anger, the heat in her chest. The sense-net enflames her cheeks.

‘I don’t want that!’ Her voice choked around the hacking sobs rising from her chest. She paced, gnawing at her fingertips. ‘What is that? I don’t know if it’s even you anymore!’

‘Of course, it’s me,’ says Silver, the feeling of her stomach falling away bled into her voice.

‘But who else is in there, Sil?’

Rosalie walked across the room. Her hands grabbed Silver’s face. Rosalie put her face close, eyes darting back and forth. Frantic. Searching. Silver slipped a hand up and slid up the optic cover.

‘It’s still me, Rose,’ she said, softly.

‘No, that’s not what I meant…’ more sniffs.

Silver feels the tear. Is that mine or the sense-net? She stops the playback. The overlay of senses lessens, but the tear still rolls down.

She remembers how that argument ended.

They had lain together, for hours, curled close. Silver shut down the aug-eye interface and Rosalie traced figure eights around her eyes. Rosalie had learnt not to press too hard. Skin split from the protrusions bled for days.

Silver felt the tingle in her cheeks as the memory faded out of her vision. It would take all of it. She thinks. It would take all of her part of me away. Her lips are dry, and she licks them, feeling the numbness in her gums, the tightness in her throat. She wonders if Mei is still monitoring her.

 

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Pass Over, Alec Mallia

I was paying to watch her die, every week.

 

I flew to the city when she was admitted and managed to get a room half an hour away in a share house. At four or five in the morning my eyes would open to the cracks in the roof, shying from the window light as if sleep was ever going to come back into the picture. Pulling the dusty cover off my razor, I’d make sure every single hair was cut to the skin. Little red welts would begin to wrap across my chin, and I’d remember why I kept the beard back home. Before walking out the door there would be three perfect circles, five scratched attempts and two games of noughts and crosses on the morning’s paper. On the way there the red needle of the speedometer nestled exactly to each road’s speed limit. When an orange light came on in front of me, I’d slam the breaks – safety first.

Eventually I got lucky and someone rammed straight up my backside. It was one of those utes that sat three tires above all the other cars on the road. Couldn’t see a scratch on its actual body but apparently I messed up his precious bull bar. He was waving his arms about and screeching this-that and the other. I did my best impersonation of a copper, talking all slow like ‘HAVE. YOU. BEEN. INJURED?’

He was having none of it, and by the time that got sorted I was at least an hour late.

 

Coming down the hill to the car park I’d circle round the first floor, finding the nicest little spot with a twenty-point reverse park job. On the colder mornings I smoked in the fire escape, eventually shuffling in the building to one of the reception desks. There was a lady there most Sundays; her name was Michelle Zhao. Grandma would always tell me that getting someone’s name, ‘and all of it,’ was the polite thing to do. Of course I was terrible with names, worse with faces, and although this never bothered me, I had begun to try with Michelle.

‘Michelle Zhao!’ I called, with a sort of coughing, shuddery-ness from the lingering accident’s adrenaline. She waved, almost crouching under her desk from her startling, but a smile nonetheless.

‘It’s good to see you Mister Davies, I’m sorry about your grandmother.’

I did the ‘gloom’ smile and nodded, ‘Didn’t think I’d be back again so soon, but here we are.’

She grabbed a nurse and eventually we found the ward, stopping outside her room. The nurse briefed me that things might not seem right with her mind, that her lungs weren’t looking ‘optimal’ either. She was staying for monitoring.

‘We’ll see how she goes’.

The nurse opened the door, and I sat down on the plastic chair across from her. Gran tilted her head a little towards me. The bed was your standard, stiffish, folding piece of work that could be found in most hospitals.

‘Close the curtains will you?’

They smelled of that musky, second-hand perfume – week old daisies shoved into a bottle of brandy. A slightly rotund man danced about on the television with his hair slicked back,

‘I’m Jonathan Brian and this is MONEYGRAB!’

 

I cleared my throat and she raised an eyebrow towards me, ‘How’re you feeling Gran?’

She looked up and down, squinting.

‘I know you.’ Her brow scrunched up behind her glasses. I leaned forward and showed my teeth.

‘I’m JONATHAN BRIAN and this is MONEYGRAB!’

She smiled a little, shifting in the bed and propping herself upright. A couple of nurses went by past the window. My foot started tapping on the floor, ‘It’s Ian, Gran…’

‘Oh of course, sit! Please!’ She smiled, nodding as I gestured to my already seated bottom.

‘What have you been up to hey?’ I reached forward before her hands squeezed the bed so hard their veins popped out.

I leaned back.

She raised an eyebrow and looked past me, leaning slightly out of the bed towards the figures moving past the door.

‘You’ve done it Ros! You’ve won a thousand dollars!’ The TV rang out, bells dinging. Bright green cartoon stacks of money flashing on the little box.

Gran coughed and smacked her lips together, ‘Did she come with you?’

‘Who?’

‘You know who.’

I shoved my hands in my jacket, ‘She’s not here. She’s not coming’

She, my mother, was dead. I know that for a fact. Saw the photos of the crash. Car was wrapped around a power pole, ‘Speed suspected in cause of incident.’

As the years go by it’s getting harder to recall what she had to do with me, let alone who she was. I remember a couple of beaches, being in the back of the car, a foggy birthday or two. Gran would slip details now and then before snatching at her cross and shaking her head. Her name was Kate. Gran said she did ‘bad things’ and that they had to ‘save’ me from her. The photos I had of her were from her last couple of high school years. I remember the sound of the fights they used to have. You could feel my grandfather’s voice in the walls. We used to have a wooden spoon in the house that was chipped where Gran smacked her with it a couple of times. After they’d sent me to bed I’d hear the intro to ‘The Bill,’ and sooner or later they’d start talking if she wasn’t home – which was often in her last years. I used to sneak down the stairs and stick my ear through the paling to try and hear things. I’d never get more than a grunt out of Grandad, but Gran had a sort of hiss when she spoke about Kate. It was never good.

She died around my eleventh birthday. By then I hadn’t seen her for two years.

The day after the funeral Gran found Grandpa in the garage with a hose from the Alfa’s tailpipe to back window, driver side. We didn’t speak of her at all after that, or at least I didn’t ask.

‘When bad things happen, we don’t stare.’

Not that I ever had the chance to bring it up — boarding schools were Gran’s tool of choice, military high schools with brief holidays. I’d spend those days away from her and that house. By the time I got to university I was already living a few hours away.

Gran’s fear of ‘her’ and ‘she’ was the first time she was on our lips since those days.

But she forgot her the moment the words left her lips. We talked about Melbourne for a while and my ‘big job’ coming up before I left. I made sure to use vague enough terms to make sure she was both proud and uninterested.

Things complicated, and I moved back to the old house. My room had been stripped to a bed and empty drawers. Down the hall Gran had turned Kate’s old room into a kind of study. There was just a leather chair and half-filled bookcase left. On the second Sunday night I sat in the chair and stared at the shelves. Any kind of book was stacked right next to its opposite.

EncyclopediaBritannica– 45 Volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a strong display of Tolstoy and a few other Russians. Beneath that an array of war books ranging from Gallipoli to the Battle of Long Tan. Just above the olive-drab spine of Gallipoli was a corner of a page or piece of paper. It stuck out between the back and the jacket. An envelope, shoved into the ‘about the author’ page. The front of it simply read ‘Sorry’. It was unsealed, and the letter slipped out of it.

‘I am sorry for what I did just now, Ian, Janet.’ Handwritten in jittery blue pen. After that line a few words had been struck through a handful of times until they were scratchy blobs.

‘…but I’m more sorry for what we did to you, Kate.’

Another bird’s nest of tangled rewrites.

‘I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness or sympathy.’

There was nothing else. I left the letter on the chair and closed the door.

Before the fourth Sunday I was sitting on the edge of my bed. It had poured all day. The night was missing the rolling moans of buses, the splintering leaves and animal noises. It was all black after the window, and there was no sound to tell me otherwise. White shone up from the desk, and my phone crunched in vibration on to the floor. I scrambled to pick it up, answering the call but saying nothing as I pulled it to my ear.

‘Hello? Mr Davies?’

I scratched my nose and brushed my hair to one side, ‘Hello, who is this?’

‘Mr Davies there has been an incident with your grandmother,’ the earpiece crackled.

‘What sort of incident?’

She had suffered some sort of stroke going to toilet, banged herself up pretty badly. The accelerator stayed pressed on the orange lights.

Michelle was working that night and she grabbed the doctor for me. ‘Mental trauma’ and ‘risk of comatose’ filtered through amongst muffled words. There was the slightest smell of orange on his breath. ‘Not much time.’

We arrived at her room in the ward and the doctor pointed, ‘She can hold conversation, but I would be careful not to give her stress or upset her’.

The letter was dangling on the edges of my sight.

I watched her little glazed eyes staring straight through to the wall, juddering sometimes towards the odd nurse that’d pass her by. When they brought her food they’d follow the trays to her lap. It took a few tries for the nurse to feed her but eventually she managed to pull through it. Her eyes rolled back into position — staring into nothing. I waited another minute before walking in. She was glued to a spot that was a few inches right of the television. Her face stayed the same regardless of what flickered across the screen. I sat next to her, and she didn’t move a bit. There was an aerobics class on the television.

‘Gran?’

‘Gran?’

‘I found the letter.’

Her eyelids twitched and she looked away. I pulled the chair closer.

‘The,’ she spoke, ‘letter?’

She blew air, trying to heave into a full-body eye roll.

‘Gramps said that you both did something to Mu- Kate.’

She stayed silent, and I watched the reflections in the window before she spoke again, ‘I don’t want to hear this now Ian.’

I pulled the chair beside her and shook my head, ‘Did you ever ask her to stay? Did you ever ask what she needed?’  I bit my lip, and for some reason chuckled.

‘She left you.’ Her hands gripped the bed, ‘Left us.’

She looked at me for a second before snapping back to the other side of the bed.

‘You never tried to be better for her?’

Her lips were shut.

‘I need you to be honest with me Gran,’ I said to the back of her head.

Nothing. Could barely see her breathing, but I could hear the whistle and hack of her inhale/exhale routine. She might have said something under the coughing and spluttering but I didn’t hear it. I pulled at her shoulder and turned her around towards me. Her eyes would never meet mine.

That last Sunday night I drove through a red light on the way home. I parked in the garage and locked the old roller. In the house I made sure that every switch was off, every cord pulled, every curtain shut and every door closed. My effects were splayed out on the guest bed, and they fit decently back into my bag. The alarm was off, the door unlocked.

I started walking east.

 

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We all fall down, Catrin Shaw

‘He tried to eat his family.’

‘Did not.’

‘Did too. When the porters came to collect the bodies, his parents had bite marks on their arms and legs. His father even had a chunk of flesh missing from his thigh.’

‘You’re lying.’

‘Am not. It does that to you. Turns you mad.’ He leant forward over the counter, his lip curling upwards.

Maggie gripped her little sister’s hand and attempted to steer her towards the door, but Anabel was adamant.

‘No it doesn’t. I’ll bet you haven’t even seen an infected person.’ Anabel pouted, cocking her chin upwards.

‘Have too seen one,’ he called out after the sisters as they left the bakery.

Maggie tucked the loaf of bread under her arm. The baker’s son had dug it out of the waste barrel for them and the bread was heavy, the crust burnt and blackened, but it was the only food they had managed to find.

On Saturday mornings the town square was usually filled with market stalls, the air warm and woody with the smell of roasted chestnuts. The shop fronts would hum as people pushed past one another, silver coins clutched in outstretched fists as merchants bottled ounces of milk, counted out apples and weighed slabs of meat. But today, most of the shops had been boarded up and the stalls abandoned, the meat just left out on hooks to rot, swarms of maggots tunnelling their way through the browning flesh.

The rest of town wasn’t much different. Doors had been sealed shut and marked with crosses, the gloopy paint drying to the colour of blackened blood. On one door, someone had scrawled something above the cross. Maggie looked up at the writing as they walked past: ‘Lord have mercy upon us,’ the letters bleeding tears of red that had dripped and hardened on the wood.
Around the corner, Maggie and Anabel passed someone huddled in the shadows, their body encased in a pile of blankets, a single square of cloth tied over their mouth. Anabel stopped, staring down at the hunched over body.

‘Don’t look.’ Maggie wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders and led her down the adjoining laneway.

‘They don’t really eat people, do they?’ Anabel asked. Her earlier confidence had disappeared, reminding Maggie of just how young her sister really was.

‘He was just trying to scare you, making up silly stories like he always does.’

Anabel scrunched up her face, trying to hold back tears. ‘But what if I get sick and-’

Maggie stopped and knelt down in front of Anabel, her hands gripping onto her sister’s arms just above her elbows.

‘Stop this,’ Maggie said, her voice cracking. ‘You’re going to be fine, you hear me?’

Anabel nodded, a thin trail of snot bubbling from her nose.

Maggie sighed and grabbed the small knife that she always kept in her pinafore. At the next house they passed, Maggie hoisted herself over the front gate while Anabel watched wide-eyed from the laneway. Maggie ducked across the front garden, rummaging through the undergrowth until she spotted half a dozen carnations growing beneath the boxwood. Their stems had drooped but the flowers were still intact, the white petals threaded with pink. Maggie gathered the flowers in her fist, slicing them off just below the blossoms with her knife. She then pulled the ribbon from her hair and knotted the frayed satin around the flowers, holding them together in a bunch.

‘Maggie?’

Maggie emerged from behind the bushes and clambered back over the gate, her pinafore freckled with splotches of dirt.

‘Here.’ Maggie bent down and tucked the carnations into the front pocket of her sister’s dress.

Anabel frowned and reached into her pocket, her fingers closing around the bunch of flowers. ‘What are these for?’

‘Make sure you keep them with you,’ Maggie said as they continued walking. ‘I remember mother saying how the smell of flowers can help ward off the sickness. It’ll keep you safe.’

 

That evening, Maggie and Anabel split the bread between them on the floor of their bedroom. Beneath the burnt crust, the innards of the loaf were tough with grit, but Maggie didn’t care. She demolished her portion while Anabel picked and prodded at hers, pulling off tiny pillows of bread and letting them dissolve on her tongue.

A rat scurried across the windowsill, its whiskers twitching as its nose darted backwards and forwards, sniffing at the air. Anabel smiled and pulled off a chunk of her bread, crossing the room and holding it out in her hand. The rat sniffed at the bread timidly before grabbing it in its claws. Anabel giggled as she watched the rat eat, its front teeth gnawing away hungrily at the crust.

The sound of retching echoed through the house and Anabel froze, her breath hitching in her throat as the rat hurried outside through a gap in the windowpane. Maggie got up off the floor and walked out into the kitchen. She pressed her ear against the adjacent door and listened. Through the cracks in the wood, she could hear a rattling cough, the wheezes thick and tacky with phlegm.

‘Should we give her some?’

Maggie turned around to see Anabel standing behind her in the kitchen. Her hand was outstretched, the remainder of the bread sitting on her palm.

Maggie shook her head. ‘She’s fine. Come on.’

‘But she hasn’t eaten all day.’ Anabel moved closer to the door, her hand reaching out towards the doorknob.

‘I said she’s fine, ok.’ Maggie smacked Anabel’s hand away and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her sister back inside the bedroom. She slammed the door behind them and Anabel ran to her bed, her back to Maggie as she buried her face in her pillow.

Maggie sighed, leaning her head against the wall as she watched Anabel’s shoulders shake and tremble.

‘Anabel-’ Maggie began but she couldn’t think of anything to say. After a minute of silence, she opened her mouth to speak again, but decided there wasn’t anything she wanted to say anyway.

 

Anabel’s muffled crying eventually stopped, her sobs levelling out into deep even breaths as she fell asleep. Maggie lay awake on the other side of the room, her eyes fixated on the ceiling. Their mother was getting worse. Every so often, she would heave and splutter from her bedroom and Maggie would glance at Anabel, praying that the sound wouldn’t wake her.

Maggie lifted her head and peered down at the foot of her bed where a small leather suitcase lay half packed, an assortment of clothes spilling over the edges and out onto the floor. Maggie didn’t know how the sickness spread but she knew that it spread fast and once you got it, you didn’t have long left. Within the week, half of the town was sick while the other half were too scared to leave their homes, and not just because of the sickness. At night, Maggie had watched from her bedroom window as gangs of men moved through the streets of the town. Mainly peasants from outside the town walls, they rioted and plundered as they pleased, breaking open cells in the local gaols and setting fire to the homes of the town officials. Maggie knew the streets weren’t safe at night, but she could no longer be sure that they would be safe inside either.

Maggie got up and stripped the moth-eaten blanket off her bed, bundling it up and tossing it on top of the pile of clothes. She then grabbed a handful of candles from the table by her bed, along with a fire striker, and slipped them into the suitcase before clasping it shut. Maggie felt her chest tighten as she glanced over to Anabel’s bed. She was still fast asleep, a string of drool running from her mouth, glistening and bubbling down her chin.

‘Anabel.’ Maggie shook her sister to wake her.

Anabel rolled over and blinked, her eyes heavy with sleep. ‘What is it?’

‘Come on, get up.’ Maggie pulled back the covers and Anabel sat up, squinting as she looked out the window.

‘What are you doing? It’s still dark out.’

‘We have to leave.’ Maggie grabbed Anabel’s hand, helping her up off the bed. Maggie handed her sister a cardigan before bending down to slip her feet into her boots.

‘Why? What’s happening?’

Maggie steered Anabel outside of their bedroom, stopping briefly in the kitchen to check they had everything they would need.

‘Maggie? Where are we going?’

‘We should have left yesterday,’ Maggie said as she fumbled with her bag. ‘It was stupid of us to stay, we can’t risk staying in the same building as someone who’s infected when we don’t know how it’s spread.’

‘But Maggie, that’s Mama.’

‘She’s dying Anabel, how can you not see that? And if we stay, we might die too. And I’ll be damned if I let that happen.’

Anabel stared at Maggie blankly for a moment before shaking her head as she took a step back towards the bedroom. ‘We can’t leave Mama, Maggie.’

Maggie turned away from her sister, pushing her nails deep into the flesh of her palms. Without warning, she slammed her fist against the wall of the kitchen. Anabel flinched as one of the wood panels cracked, the pots and pans from above the grate knocking against one another from the force.

‘Fine,’ Maggie spat, flexing the fingers on her now aching hand as she took her coat off the hook by the door. ‘Stay with her if you want. I’m going.’

Maggie swung the front door open. As she stepped outside, she stopped herself and looked back into the kitchen to see Anabel still standing there by the grate.

‘You coming or not?’ Maggie sighed, her voice softening.

Anabel nodded tentatively and with a glance at her mother’s bedroom door she followed her sister outside. Just as Maggie began to pull the door shut, Anabel turned back around.

‘Hold on,’ Anabel said as she disappeared back inside the house.

‘Anabel, come back. We don’t have time.’ Maggie spun around to look down the street, her eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement.

Anabel re-emerged a few minutes later, her cheeks wet with tears.

‘What was that for?’

Anabel stared at her feet, her arms folded protectively across her chest.

Not wanting to loiter on the street any longer, Maggie decided not to press for an answer. She brushed her hand across Anabel’s cheeks, her thumb catching the last of her sister’s tears as she locked the front door and slipped the key into her pinafore. The sisters hurried down the street, ducking down the narrow laneway that bordered their house. As they walked, Anabel slid her hand into the now empty pocket of her dress, her fingers toying with a single flower petal that had fallen from the posy.

 

Maggie made sure to stick to the shadows as she and Anabel wound their way through the labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways. Once they reached the town square, they stayed away from the open centre, instead moving from stall to stall, careful to keep themselves hidden. As they passed the stonemasons tent, Maggie thought she heard the distinct sound of metal on metal, followed by the patter of footsteps. She glanced back over her shoulder, glimpsing what looked like a shadow disappearing behind the alehouse. Maggie grabbed her little sister’s hand and, linking their fingers together, they slipped away behind a nearby house, following the path that ran between the buildings. As they neared the end of the next street, Maggie heard the footsteps again, the sound closely followed by the echo of muffled voices.

‘In here.’ Maggie ducked across the street towards the church. The door at the back of the building hung limp on its hinges and she pulled it open easily, hurrying Anabel inside before securing the door with a table that she pushed across from the nave.

The church had been pillaged, just like the rest of the town. Everything of value had been taken, the altar stripped bare of its ornaments and the stained glass windows splintered with jagged edges where they had been smashed in.

Maggie rested her hand on Anabel’s shoulder as they walked down the aisle and towards the door by the altar. Upon reaching the door, Maggie removed the knife from her pinafore, carefully slotting the blade into the gap by the lock and prying the door open.

‘Come on.’ Maggie bent down, letting her sister climb up onto her back. With Anabel’s arms wrapped securely around her neck, Maggie climbed up the narrow staircase towards the loft.

Just like the nave, the loft had also been raided, the room bare but for two white clerical robes that hung limply from hooks behind the door. Letting Anabel down, Maggie flicked open the clasp on her suitcase, rummaging through the tangle of clothes before pulling out her blanket and handing it to her sister.

‘Try and get some more sleep. We’ll be safe here for the rest of the night.’

Anabel nodded as she took the blanket from her sister.

‘You understand now, don’t you,’ Maggie said as she bunched a selection of clothes into a makeshift pillow for herself. ‘You understand why we had to leave?’

Anabel’s brow furrowed as she nodded. ‘I think so.’

Maggie gave her sister a small smile. She couldn’t expect her to understand everything, she could barely comprehend it all herself. But as long as Anabel knew she was trying, that was all Maggie needed her sister to know.

While Anabel burrowed herself beneath the blanket, Maggie lit a candle, pooling the hot wax on the ground and standing the candle upright, the fabric of the clerical robes casting ghost-like shadows across the walls in the newfound pool of light. She sat down next to Anabel, brushing a strand of strawberry blonde hair off her sister’s face as she drew the blanket up to beneath Anabel’s chin.

As Maggie lay down, she rolled over onto her side, wrapping her arms around her legs and drawing them to her chest. She closed her eyes but instead of black she saw her mother, lying alone in her bed, her skin masked with puss-filled boils. Her eyes had sunk, the bloodshot whites barely visible beneath the swollen lids. As she blinked, a drop of blood oozed through the slit, dripping through her lashes before pooling in the hollow beneath her eye. Maggie could hear her voice as she called out for her daughters through the empty house, her voice growing weaker and weaker with each cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ Maggie murmured against her skin as she felt her arm grow wet with tears. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’

 

As their mother took her final breath, the smoke began to filter through the floorboards of the loft. The rioters had lit the fire in the nave, tossing scraps of alcohol-soaked cloth through the empty windows of the church. The pews caught alight as the flames travelled down the carpeted floor, adding fuel to the already growing fire. Within minutes the flames were licking at the walls, the rafters collapsing as the fire hollowed through the wood, engulfing the church in a single blaze. As the sun rose and the fire died to glowing embers, the girls’ bodies were barely visible, buried beneath a blanket of smouldering rubble. They were still lying next to one another, Anabel’s arm linked through Maggie’s, entwined even in death.

 

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Rorka, Rohan Viswalingam

Blood be the body

Surging in it and out of it

Dribbling over the dimming eyes

Separating those eyes

 

Sending the fire out of the mind

Spurting it out of the head

Giving the body supremacy over the city

Drenching the windows in a fiery dark

 

The unmixable smoke

It penetrates the body

Hollowing it out of life

Destroying the centre

 

The crunching face rages with fury

Breathing the black smoke from the air

Sending it down through to the lungs

Deeper deeper go the tainted vapours

 

The city will fall before me

My power will snap the infrastructure

The statues will crumble

Until the rubble will be a second sea

 

The sea will roll interminably

Burning the bodies falling from the surface

Swallowing the enfettered souls

And I will watch those ghostly pained faces

 

Sulphur will penetrate the safe havens

Where the innocent are hiding

In their shady burrows

Warmed by their fleeting love

 

The Black Widows will peak out from the gaps

Come sprawling

Out over the totems of falling civilization

Possessing the newly purged landscape

 

Mercy, there will be none

Just a reminder ever brutal

That homes are temporary

That the reckoning is inevitable

 

The spirits have just been waiting

Forcing a false sense of security

To the lethargic inhabitants

That nothing will come of their decisions

 

But the nature of the land will take hold

Giving no creature a second dice roll

Erasing all hope in their prayers

Leaving but the peaceful silence before annihilation

 

We will teach the people

Of the hierarchy of breath

The legions of emissaries will show no mercy

And the land will be cleaned flat

 

The sea will calm

The Widows will relinquish their thrones

Leaving a vacant, dusty city

Waking up to a new age

 

And it is without the stragglers

For they have whittled themselves away

In the dark crevices that we made

The ones they hid in before perishing

 

The new sun will be born of water

The water of their blood

That ran down the buildings into the stream

And the sun will be called Rorka

 

The purity will be the rage

The rage of extinction

The seething hate of being chosen

Chosen to be vanquished by the upper power

 

The sun will warm the new places

Giving pulse to the dried up swamps

Giving jobs to the legged cripples that survived

And leaving the fallen rubbed into the darkness like charcoal

 

The old safe place is gone

The rebirth is complete

Total Completion

Purity from a sun

 

A new form must be made

A new leader of the second sun

Born from the new sea

And from the shadows of before

 

Build it

Start with the teeth

With black sperm squeezing through the gaps

Forming the gums and lips

 

It all comes back to what we destroyed

A refreshing of the old body

To make a new one

To command the Widows and sea

 

Fetch the parts from the old coves of death

Feed the veins from the seabed

Supply the bones from the graves in the buildings

Give me the soul from the Second Sun

 

The soul will be the centre

Herding the water around it

Connecting the tendons

Latching the veins together

 

Then an earthly being will form

A disgusting new being

A sick reminder of the past

But eventually a new ideal for the future

 

There will be no skin

Only the crimson muscle

And perfect white tendons

No shroud of skin to hide the lies

 

And Skinless will sit on a throne of waves

Constantly nourished by the water

Held above the rusted buildings of old

Giving it elevated reprieve from this sordid world

 

No new citizen will be forgotten

They will come to worship Skinless

They will fill the buildings

Stepping over the stale bones of the past

 

New words will come from Skinless

And the new citizens will learn the past

Learn the present

And they will know the future

 

 

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Being: Mark Four, Melanie Adams

I.

 

The winter of ’92 had infected my mother with its frosty failure

It clutched her womb with barren hands

She haemorrhaged a me, mark three.

 

With a grievous contraction, she expelled

The coagulated nothing

Spurned by her body.

 

The stab was familiar.

 

In 1980, first blood seeped from her young form

Rippling tides of relief.

 

Summer of ’92, it had gripped her viscera

The day after the miniature cardiac throb caressed her ears

And the surge of maternal love sparkled in her chest.

Her arid figure cracked and crumpled.

 

My father’s shirt had promised them a daughter.

Draped in the vivid spirits of the Violent Femmes

His mind incanted: Let me go on.

 

My father bought a bounding ball of puppy fuzz

For my mother, as consolation.

 

Later, I heard ‘constellation’

Picturing all my selves that never were

Coalescing into celestial objects.

 

Doctors told my mother

Her anatomy was the great antagonist

Bellicose, designed to obliterate.

And yet, this determined speck

Clambered out of the mire of non-existence

A scatter of atoms, at first

Uniting into lungs, a brain

And a heartbeat.

 

And so I was.

Born all aperture, drinking my surroundings

With large brown spheres

Gleaming. Winking.

Slung from stellar oblivion.

 

II.

 

I was fourteen years, crushed up

A thousand tiny shells spat out by the sea

With its wringing tide.

 

Sinking in its mouth

Until my bones lodged in the back of its throat.

Life coughed up my skeleton.

 

The Violent Femmes and their jagged colours hung about my ribs

Fluttering, gored into strips by a decade of spin cycles.

 

I had grown from a clot of cells

To this, a self-immolating bush

Destined to blacken and burn out.

 

They said God’s hands had

Plucked me from the astral plane

Of their empty bodies

Flinging me through incandescence

To this dimension.

 

Why would God waste his divine fingers

Stitching something to squander?

 

My bled-out siblings called

From the belly of the earth.

I ruptured and burst like a tired star.

 

I was the sprout that had struggled

Through the concrete fissures of the footpath

Poking its fecund face

Into suburban spring.

 

I wanted to crawl back down.

 

To slide back down the spiral at the centre of the world

To slink back into

The hull of my mother

To sleep within her dormant walls

Secreted for a century

Before my renaissance.

 

Instead I was an unblinking eye

Inhaling weltschmerz

Without slumber.

 

Eating the city’s grime and feasting

On its acrid disappointment.

 

The shirt’s prophecy unravelled

Me, a violent woman

Dreaming of gunshot wounds

 

Pockets groaning with stones

Weighed down in the river

Hoping to sink.

 

Diffuse like light pollution

Lying limp on the floor.

Atomised. Paralysed.

Shredded to a joyless confetti.

Floating away.

 

III.

 

The moon mirrors my mother’s love

Luna urges me as she does the ocean

To lift its arms. To rouse itself from its bed.

To swell and embrace the salty shoreline.

 

My fragments, like iron filings

Magnetised back together.

 

I raise myself as a filament

Conducting light. Throwing it back

To my family, who so loved me

That they shovelled the soil of debt on their own shoulders

Just to hold me. Just to see my newborn face

And hear my infant giggle —

The mellifluous tinkle of chimes

Thirteen years in the making.

The shirt sacrificed itself to us.

Its vibrant creatures stretched and ripped

Beyond recognition.

I still feel the noble ghost of its ribbons

Stroking the crevices of my back.

 

Existential guilt still hums

A covert wasp’s nest crafted in my skull.

I will spray it away someday

But for now, I will cradle this tender glow

Cupping my hands

Over the blazing candle

Of being.

 

 

Works Cited

Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun.”1983. By Gordon Gano. Violent Femmes. Slash Records, 1983, Cassette.

 

 

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Dasvidaniya, Claudia Frazer

I was taught to be brave. To hold my head up. To keep smiling. Some days it was hard, especially towards the end. My feet were tired from running, then walking, limping, then holding my aching body up and dragging it across the ground. The shawl I had stolen from a farming couple’s laundry along the way slipped from my shoulders, the rough material grazed my neck, tempting my fingers to lean back and scratch. Instead, as I half ran half staggered, my fingers combed through my now tangled red locks. With each step a fresh shot of pain raced up my leg. I walked until I couldn’t take the throbbing in my leg anymore, my breath coming out in staccato gasps as I gripped myself, mentally trying to overcome the pain of my escape.

Frantically looking to my left and my right then both behind and in front of me, even above and below in case someone was to crawl out from the ground or jump on top of me from one of the tall overhanging trees, I looked to see if I was followed. Pausing a moment I held my ragged breath so that I might listen for the tell-tale signs of an intruder. After a moment when there was no sound of foot fall I let out a tiny gasp of relief and hobbled over to some nearby shade. Collapsing beneath the entangled limbs of a giant tree, I leaned my head back and shut my eyes. Curling a small tendril of hair about my finger, I tried to process what had happened. Silent tears trundled down my cheeks as I fell into an uneven slumber.

*

‘Come quickly!’

The little girl gripped her mother’s hand, her red curls bouncing against her back as they followed after her four older siblings, her father and her younger brother. They continued to walk until they stood before a short older man whom introduced himself as Yakov Yurovsky.

Head held high, her father looked Yakov in the eyes as Yakov spat that, as the Tsar, her father was to be put on trial for his handling of the workers strike, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Bolsheviks wanted him to be present for his trial, but he was not permitted to wear any epaulettes, they would not give him that honour.

The older two girls gasped. The eldest, Tatiana, went to say something but was silenced by her father with a stare. The little girl bit her lip as she reached for her hair, tangling a single strand around her finger, she watched in silence as her father won the unspoken battle between himself and her older siblings.

‘I would ask that-’

‘You dare ask for anything?’ Yakov raged. ‘After everything you have done to this country! For Bloody Sunday. For the war! For listening to that snivelling svoloch, Rasputin! You have done enough for this once great nation.’ Motioning to the guards he demanded they take them from his sight.

*

Unable to fitfully sleep, I picked the lining on my dress. The thread barely giving as the dirt clumped the strands together, making it difficult to get to the tiny fragments hidden beneath. Hints and glimmers of emerald, rustic traces of ruby and small suggestions of diamond could be made out through the grime beneath the fragments of thread I was tugging at. They were sewn into pouches beneath the lining of my dress created by myself and my sisters to conceal the jewels whereabouts. It felt like only days before that Mama sent a telegram telling me to hide the family medicine. My eldest sister was unsure of the coded message, but it was written for me, why hide medicine after all? I gathered the family jewels and made my sisters aware of the meaning behind Mama’s simple scrawl. It took us days to successfully sew the jewels into their hiding spots. It all seemed like a pointless waste of time.

My nails wedged dirt into the crack beneath my nail bed as I scraped the thread, my concentration focused solely on my task to remove the precious gems I had sewn into the lining merely days before. The more I scraped, the more frustrated I began to get. The pattern of removing the jewels now reminiscent of when my sisters and I had first hidden them. My lip began to quiver as I mentally urged it to stop. A sob escaped my unsteady lips as I tried to hold myself together. Tears fell freely, drawing paths through the dirt on my face. A mix of homesickness and pain from the throbbing wound beginning a fresh batch of tears. Drawing myself into a ball, I could see that the base of the boots I was wearing had started to crack. Head throbbing in time with my heart I cried until I was raw.

With an unsteady breath, I gathered my skirts and eased myself back onto my feet. A shot of pain rushed up my leg as I unsteadily regained a standing position. Throat parched, every muscle in my body begged me to stop, lie down, to rest. I wondered how far I had walked, if I had made it out of Yekaterinburg and if the bullet that tore through my upper calf would get infected. Pausing against a thick barked tree, I swiped my blood soaked dress from my legs and prodded the wound. Tiny stabs of pain prickled where I touched. Drawing my head closer for a better inspection, the clumps of dirt, drying and still liquid blood, and the oozing bits of yellow ignited a strong queasy feeling within my stomach. Dropping my dress, I leaned over my shoulder and heaved everything left in my stomach onto the drying clumps of grass behind me.

*

The little girl, who was now almost a woman, could hear the whispered voices from down the hall as they slowly got closer to where she was hidden. Her hair, darkened to a burnt red with age, was tied back in a style more fitting for a Tsar’s daughter than the loose curls she had adorned before. She held her breath, knowing full well the repercussions if she was to be discovered this far from her assigned quarters. The footsteps stopped a couple feet from her hiding place.

‘We cannot let the white army get them.’

‘What shall we do?’

The thunderclap of a pair of steel capped boots pounded the tiles and the imposing voice of Yakov broke the silence. ‘Gather the Tsar, the Tsarina and her children, take them to the cellar. Tell them it is for their own protection.’

*

I would not be moving from this spot for some time. Wincing slightly, I tugged at the thread and watched the first jewel fall from its hidden spot. Finally. Rubbing the small gem between my thumb and index finger a silent tear rolled down my cheek as I recalled Mama. Her smile would lighten up the ballroom as the nobility, the Dvoryanstvo, would beg for a single dance. Falling elegantly at her hips, her dress, an off-white colour, would stand out in the court as so many others opted for bold hues. Smiling, I recalled the soft ruffles as they embraced her torso, my father smiling sweetly as her hand lay in the crook of his arm.

I pulled another thread and another gem, this time a ruby, fell into my palm. This one had been hit by one of the many bullets. It was broken into a thousand fragmented pieces, the jagged edges getting caught on the material. Bits of the disintegrated jewel blew in the breeze and clung to and around my open wound. Shiny hints of red now seen intermingled with the drying darkened clumps of blood. A soft breeze rustled my hair as I inspected the jewels, wisps of red grazed my vision as I lent closer to inspect. Tucking the loose strands behind my ears, I threw the broken pieces of gem in frustration. They hit the bark of a tree a few feet from me. I must not let it get to me. I was taught to be brave. To be strong.

*

The young woman ran back to her assigned quarters. She regaled Tatiana and Olga, her older sisters, what she had just over heard.

A look of understanding passed Tatiana’s eyes. Her long brown hair contained small traces of Romanov red when she stood in direct light. Rushing to the closet, she threw two dresses upon the bed. ‘Get dressed,’ she urged her younger sibling, ‘quickly.’

‘What is to happen to us?’

In response Tatiana threw the beautiful brocade the sisters had earlier modified with hidden gems towards both her sisters. Instructing them to adorn them silently and quickly. Once dressed, she asked her younger siblings if they were able to move freely.

‘Yes, if need be. What is it, Tatiana? You’re scaring me,’ the young woman whispered as she tangled a strand of red around her finger.

Tatiana opened her mouth then shut it quickly, a guarded look replacing her features. She marched towards the door then paused at the threshold, her delicate hand resting on the handle. With a quick glance at her younger sibling, she instructed her to remain alert and be ready before passing through the still open door.

*

Carried on the next gust of wind, I could hear a faint chanting. Someone was approaching! My heart thudded against my chest as the voices hit a crescendo. The pattering of boots against the ground drummed against the dirt in a rhythm parallel to my heartbeat. It must be quite a large group! The rumbling of a horde of boots vibrated the earth. Panicking I began to fear the worst.

*

Shoving and butting their rifles, the soldiers prodded the young woman and her family, directing them towards the cellar. The soldiers lined them up against the back wall under the directive of Yakov. The oldest two girls clasping the younger two’s hands. Their mother and father stepping forward to protect the children. That’s when the firing began.

The loud crackle of ignited gunpowder echoed in their ears as they fired first at the Tsar, then moving swiftly on to his wife, and then their children.

The Tsarina was barely given a chance as she rushed to push her body in front of her offspring. Her only thoughts were of the lives of her children. Stumbling back she fell next to her husband. Each child slowly falling after hers. Their bodies convulsing with each bullet tearing its way through their flesh and blood spraying with every impact of metal to busted flesh.

The pelting of the bullets lessened as the soldiers slowly ran out of ammunition. The soldiers then began stepping over the fallen bodies as they waded their way through the room. They prodded the bleeding corpses avoiding the blood and bits of flesh cascaded across the floor as the gun smoke slowly settled about the room.

*

Attempting to stand, I pushed myself up against the tree, using the firm structure as a wall. My leg throbbed where the wound was located and my legs gave out as I collapsed back against the tree, letting out a faint strangled cry. The footsteps were coming closer. Tugging the dress, another couple of broken gems tumbled to the ground. I kicked them away, as they would only prove my identity. Wide holes now replaced the rubies location in such a way that I could now hide other items if need be. Wrapping the shawl about myself, I arranged it in such a way that it would cover the most of my bloodied dress. I dangled it across my shoulders and positioned it in such a way that it hid the tops of my legs, hiding the still bleeding wound from sight.

The beating rhythm of soldier’s boots slowly hit its crescendo until they were nearly upon me. Before they made it past the copse of trees and would be able to see me, I grabbed handfuls of dirt and rubbed it vigorously through my locks to dim the vibrancy of the red. Smearing leftover smidgeons of dirt across my face, I hoped to conceal my face. I scrubbed with an intensity yet unbeknownst to me, with a strength I did not believe I had left. Tucking the edges of my skirt into the bottoms of my boots, I tarnished over the blood spots until they too were invisible. Pushing the majority of my skirts in between my legs, I hoped to conceal any trace of blood upon my dress that might still be visible lest I forgot any small smidgeon. With a small gulp, I looked towards my fate.

*

Blood trickled down the young woman’s leg and dripped from the base of her shoulder as she slowly lifted her head. Bodies were strewn haphazardly, limbs entangled every which way as blood smeared every crevice. An indiscernible mess.

Soldiers stepped carefully, their guns held at eye level and extended towards the closest body to them. Some were fearful, others showed no emotion, each remained alert.

‘This one’s not quite dead, her body lattice seems to be working as some sort of armour, komandir!’ A tall soldier shouted above the din. The young woman made him out to be closest to his mother. Soft whimpering could be heard. She prayed they would spare whichever poor soul it was that made such a mournful noise.

‘Shoot her again then! This time, aim for her head,’ Yakov spat.

The young woman kept silent. A single boom ricocheted off the walls. She fought to gain control over her quivering lip and shudders before the soldiers made their way towards her. She willed her shoulders to stop shaking and her breath to even out enough so as to make it unnoticeable. Words she longed to scream would fester and burn inside her. If she was to release them, they would sear anyone who heard them. Instead she remained quiet, hoping to be overlooked, to be spared.

*

I could see a couple of soldiers making their way towards me. They were dressed in the dark green colours of the red army. I tried to quieten my quivering heart, fearful that they could hear it pounding from my chest. One was shorter and stockier than the other; they must’ve lost the bet to check on me as they both looked upon me with upturned noses.

The closest turned to his companion upon sight of me. Arms crossing against his chest he exclaimed, ‘Pah! Tis but a krest’yanin, a lowly peasant girl.’

Without a second glance, they turned their backs to me. As I watched them walking back to their group, I could hear small snippets of conversation on the wind, ‘we must keep searching…. he believes her still alive…’

They were almost out of hearing range when the shorter companion’s response set my nerves alight once more, ‘the Romanov’s might be all dead, though one daughter may be still alive.’

 

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Solid Sand and Broken Water, Hannah Baker

i.

He had soft sage and lavender fingers

When his mother took him up the estuary

To his brother’s tiny grave. Her first-born,

She told him, still-born, but still borne.

For months she carried him, thinking only

Of his potential, then lost him like a limb.

 

Suddenly become a second son,

He doesn’t feel like a miracle.

Unless they’re supposed to grow

More insubstantial, year by year.

 

Now he can’t help but hold sensations,

Keep them pressed into the soft mud of

His muscles, either side of his stony spine

 

Like the smell of cold grass, broken and

Sharp, wound round his little knuckles

Until he felt the hair-thin roots give.

He shuddered and stopped tugging

But those blades bit back and dug

Their imprint deep into his fingers.

 

Surely his brother would only be bones,

And even those pitted in this acidic soil.

 

Porous surfaces never used to panic him,

But the stinging sight of honeycomb now

Swells his tongue back to close his throat.

 

He tries to run, to only glide over the earth

And so ward off its patient hollow hunger,

But gravity forces his feet to knead the ground,

And long for rest on this grassy headland.

 

Though his soles are callused they still sweat,

And the veins show through his instep,

Blue and green like branches and streams.

 

Thick clay skin means nothing

When the cracks threaten to leak

His beaten blood.

 

Even the sea breeze bores into him

But the warm honey sun is soothing

And from this high the sand is as solid

As anything can be.

 

Every direction leads, he thinks,

Not to headstones holding old bones down

But to ribs exposed like mangrove roots.

 

ii.

Death happens, not easy but often.

Entropic, all matter is mostly vacuum,

It would be easy for lethargy to sink into

Atoms, and for weary rock to turn to sand.

Observed closely enough, coastlines are infinite,

And molecular gaps keep anything from ever truly

Touching. But somehow matter retains, regains,

Its energy, even advances to animation when

Bodies meet, or bloody waters break and

Out of the lather erupts something new.

Not easy but often, life happens too.

 

iii.

She laughed out sea roses as a child,

When her father warned her off wanting.

Still the smell of certain perfumes and the sea

Clearly recalls to her the sticky softness of

Petals unfurling and clinging to her tongue

Before tumbling off the cliff of her lips.

 

He told her she had been born too early.

Half-knitted, with fluid in her lungs

And a film of foam for skin,

She might have unspooled again.

But she chose to cough and cry instead.

 

Surviving with just this, she sometimes still

Feels like a miracle, and marvels at herself:

No tiny flame wind’s whim could flicker out.

 

By holding heart-sized stones she learnt to

Swim in a lake as cold and sharp as glass.

Her lungs already knew the worth of leaking,

But gravity needed help to hold her down.

 

With hands like lace she dried and sewed

Lilies and larkspur between her petticoats

And cocooned herself, as if with paperbark

 

Then paced, finally leaving distinct prints,

But passing unstung through the bees in the

Clover, over pine needles and rosemary, into

The solid embrace of the wind. Sand blows

Into the old scars of her eyelids, still she reaches

For the shape into which she wants to grow.

 

She will expand, year by year, from within,

And when all her layers chafe she knows

Her pumice-light bones will keep her afloat.

 

The bruises that bloom and linger only show

Where everything else ends and she begins.

 

Her pulse beats in her lips, drowning out

The pounding waves. Her heart had been,

Before her birth, only ghostly filigree:

Useless, however delicate and complete.

 

Now she’s dense and centrifugal, feet planted

In shifting sands, scoured by salt spray and

Spitting rain. She can afford to shed a little;

She’s known plenty of loss, but no lack.

 

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The Worst Kind of Pain, Ceyda Erem

I watched them quickly approach us as I held her back, her piercing shrieks and cries ringing in my ears.

‘My son! Michael, my son! Please!’ she yelled through tears, her hands balling into fists as she pushed her weight against mine. I underestimated how much upper body strength she actually possessed. The smoke made it harder to breathe. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for that little shit. Through the greyish haze they reached out to us, helping me hold Emily back.

‘Ma’am, I need you to stay calm for me. There is no way I am letting you back into the house. Now, if you give us two minutes, I’m about to send in my best men to go and find your son. We’ll get him out,’ he shouted affirmatively, adjusting his helmet. ‘For now, I just need you guys to stand back and try not to inhale the smoke, okay?’

‘Two minutes?! This is my son! We don’t have two minutes!’ Emily cried, while going red in the face and forcing her body forward as hard as she could. She turned to me. ‘Anthony, do something!’

‘Em, they’ll get him. It’s gonna be okay,’ I lied, attempting to pin her arms down. There is no way I’m letting her in, that kid will have to figure it out himself.

*

Mum always told me that the fire alarm was important. And that the batteries needed to be changed often. Maybe I should’ve listened. I mean, when she would come home from work, she’d normally go right into the kitchen and start cooking dinner. Maybe she told me because it was my job to change them. But what about Anthony? He’s taller; he could’ve done it. Mum even said that when he moved in he would help out more.

I smelt the smoke while I was doing my homework. I thought mum had just burned something like she always does, even though I didn’t hear her come home. At one point I thought I heard a door slam, but I figured I was just hearing things. Kinda funny that she’s a chef and she still manages to burn dinner sometimes. She calls it stress. Then the smell started getting worse and I figured something wasn’t right. I went out of my room and ran downstairs. The lounge room was empty except for bright orange fire that was sitting on the couch and climbing across it. I screamed loudly and turned around to run back upstairs.

There was no one home, how could this have happened? My house is on fire, my house!

With each step I took, my stomach climbed higher and higher, tempting itself to fall out of my mouth. When I finally reached my bedroom I knew that I would need my big, grey jacket. I wasn’t leaving without my dad’s stuff. He died, well, passed away (that’s what mum tells me to call it), three years ago in a car accident. I was seven. Mum let me keep some of his stuff and the rest we gave away; by force, you might say. I only kept the things that were important; like his fishing rod and his favourite tie.

The things that made him special. I didn’t know how I was going to carry everything out on my own, but my jacket pockets were deep and I had to try.

They taught us about fire safety in school so I knew what to do. They told us to crawl out of the burning house so that you don’t inhale too much smoke. I made a list in my head of the things I had to get that belonged to my dad. First thing I needed was all of our pictures together; they were in my desk drawer. Those would definitely fit in my pockets. I ripped my jacket off its hanger and rolled the big sleeves up. Mum said I would grow into it eventually. While fumbling with the knob of my drawer, I knew I had to act quickly or I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I scooped my hands underneath my school clothes and threw them onto the floor. The photographs lay at the bottom of my drawer, concealed from the world. I was tempted to quickly flip through some of them but the sudden burning in my throat changed my mind. It started to become harder for me to breathe and an uncontrollable cough took over. Before I took another step, I couldn’t help but notice the photograph that was stacked at the top. It was the first time my dad had taken me fishing on the water. I had my short blue rod dangled over the boat with my dad standing behind me, helping me.

‘Dad, I can’t breathe in this life jacket, can’t I take it off now?’ I had asked, struggling to lift my arms up. I could feel the sun burning down the length of my back and neck and the choppy waves made standing still look like a job. But I was happy regardless because my dad was about to teach me how to cast a line. He had told me to keep an eye on the string as it flew out and to be aware that if it got tangled, you were screwed.

‘Your mother will kill me, so no,’ he had answered with a smile, looking over to my mum who was preparing lunch. He moved behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders, preparing to help me cast for the first time.

‘That’s right, leave it on, sweetheart,’ my mum interrupted, reaching for the camera that sat at the top of her bag. My mum had always been one to savour every moment; ‘for the future!’ she would say.

‘Oh please, Mum, no,’ I complained, rolling my eyes as she prepared to take the photo. She shifted her body towards us and gestured that my dad and I move closer together. ‘One day you’ll thank me for all these photos, Michael.’

‘Smile!’

Carefully, I placed the photos within my pocket with one hand while the other covered my mouth. I could feel my eyes stinging as the smoke had started to seep from under my door. Tears started to run down my face when I realised that I had been storing away fear. My mind went to my mother still stuck at work having no idea what was going on. That the house we’ve lived in together for as long as I can remember was currently falling apart. Or Anthony, who should have been home by now. He married my mum last year in Fiji a week before my ninth birthday. I wasn’t allowed to go because I was ‘too young’; well, that’s what he told me. When we first met he would just stare at me, like I was an insect that needed to be terminated. I don’t think he wanted to be a father.

‘This is Anthony,’ my mother said with a glowing smile. ‘He’s going to be living with us from now on. I know you two will get along.’

We didn’t.

One of the things I had managed to smuggle into my bedroom was my dad’s favourite tie. He’d wear it when he knew he would have a good day at work. My dad enjoyed his job a lot and it made me realise that I wanted to be as happy as he was when I grow up. Mum said he was a businessman, which is why he was always in a suit. My dad’s tie was hung at the back of my cupboard, so no one would think to steal it. He had promised that one day I would have it, so I was just keeping up his end of the deal.

‘Michael, one day you’re gonna have to know how to tie one of these,’ he told me one morning while standing in front of a mirror. ‘All men have to learn how to do it. My dad taught me and now it’s your turn.’

‘But I’m not a man yet, dad,’ I answered while watching his hands wove around the tie. The way his hands moved looked like magic.

‘Who says you’re not?’

I shrugged my shoulders in response.

‘You do your homework every day, don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘You help your mum with the dishes when I’m not there, don’t you?’

I nodded again.

‘Well, it sounds like to me that you already are a man. They get things done even when they don’t want to. Now come closer and watch how I do it.’

With a deep breath, I started to walk towards my bedroom door. I didn’t know what to expect on the other side but I knew it couldn’t be good. For a moment I thought it was stupid to have gone back for the photos and tie, but I couldn’t help myself. It was Anthony who forced us to give the stuff away, probably from fear that my mum would miss my dad too much. My heart wanted to grab the fishing rod too before I left, but there was no time. I started to cry knowing that I probably would never see it again. I hoped my dad wouldn’t be mad at me for losing it.

I finally built up the courage and forced my hand around my doorknob. I almost wanted to close my eyes as I turned it but I knew I would have to face the outside of my bedroom eventually. I felt it was best to ‘take the plunge’ as they say and fling the door open. I gasped as I saw that the fire had almost reached the staircase. Carelessly, I threw the tie around my neck and hesitantly walked to the top of the stairs, my hands glued to the railings. As I walked I could reassuringly feel the photos, which moved as I did in the depths of my pocket. I was determined to keep them safe. When I looked over my heart began to race; the living room was gone. The coffee table and the couches had been reduced to nothing. My head had started to spin and my coughing intensified but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I couldn’t bring myself to be scared. I was just sad. Every memory that had been created and lived through within this house had vanished. Crumbled. The stitching of my house had come undone.

The wooden tables that circled around the dining table had been forcibly chiselled down to sharp points. The smell of burning wood was normally a favourite of mine, but right now, all it did was fill me with hate. With a heavy heart I watched as the fire seeped into the heart of the dining table and begin to swallow it whole. Every night at dinner my dad would tell a terrible joke to make my mum and I smile. Sometimes we’d laugh, but we’d mostly just smile at how terrible they were. It was our version of saying grace. Now that memory had been replaced with ash. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the front door.

It felt like it had been hours since I moved and my head felt as if it was about to fall off. They told us at school what would happen to you if you inhaled too much smoke. My stomach had started to feel queasy and churn violently. My lungs felt as heavy as cement and each breath I took became increasingly difficult. One of the neighbours must have seen the smoke by now. Did they call for help? Do they know I’m inside? Does mum know? I couldn’t wait any longer; I needed to get out of here. As I walked down the stares, my vision began to blur and my body started to droop uncontrollably; I was tired and weak. It was bad enough that the fire and smoke had torn my house apart; now it was trying to take me down.

I wasn’t gonna make it to the bottom of the stairs.

*

When they had told me I had gone into labour I panicked; I wasn’t ready. James had thrown in me into the wheelchair, screaming for the nurses to help. My contractions had started to appear every couple of minutes and I knew it was time to be taken to the hospital. James and I had been married for only less than a year but we were itching for a family. I could only see white fly past me as James raced me down the hallway with two nurses following speedily behind. He was running so quickly, I thought I was going to fall out of the wheelchair.

‘James, slow down, it’s okay,’ I cried out, my hands cupping the gigantic bump that was searing with pain. I didn’t really know if I was coaxing James or myself. It was then I realised that you could read as many books as your mind could handle, take as many breathing and nursing classes as you could afford, but you’d always end up unprepared. The nurses helped me onto the bed as I held my breath. They propped me up and leaned me against a stack of soft pillows that catered to my aching back.

‘You alright, Em?’ James asked while squatting beside me and reaching for my hand. He had looked more nervous than me.

‘Shhh,’ I replied immediately while squeezing his hand cruelly, feeling my nails dig into his skin. ‘Just please…don’t talk.’

‘Here if you need me,’ he smiled, knowing I didn’t mean to be so rude.

Minutes had turned into hours and I still had not seen or held my baby. I had reached my limit. Somehow through my constant screaming and crying I had managed to tell James to get the nurse nearby.

‘Everything all right?’ she asked cheerfully coming around the corner. I almost hated how happy and carefree she was.

‘How…much…longer,’ I groaned, squinting my eyes shut. She pouted her lips pitifully and walk to crouch near my legs, assessing my dilation.

‘You’re at 8 centimetres, you shouldn’t have long to go, dear,’ she told me softly. ‘Just hang in there for a little more.’

James tended to the building sweat that was now dribbling down my forehead and onto my lips. I could feel my heart race; it felt like it was bouncing off the inside of my chest. My body was in agony and I was ready to give up.

‘I can’t do it anymore, James,’ I whimpered, shaking my head as I spoke. ‘It hurts so much, I can’t.’

‘You can, Emily,’ he replied, stroking my hair softly. ‘I know you can.’

*

‘Sweetheart, look!’ I said to Emily, pointing to the dark shadows that were slowly emerging from the house. I squinted my eyes and tried to find Michael; either being carried in their arms or slowly walking behind them. As they got closer I could see the boy draped over one of their shoulders. He wasn’t moving.

*

Everyone says that labour is the worst pain imaginable.

They’re wrong.

Losing a child hurts more.

 

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Lost, Ashna Mehta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘About Mum not coming home?’ Ben mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Crossroads, Alix Rochaix

 

I

What is it about the small hours?
Those between say, 2.00 am and 4.00 am?

‘These hours are as small as a human heart
— with no hope left in it.’
No. Too tragic.
‘These are the hours in which
to unleash a dam burst of
… creative agony.’
Worse.

I (for one)
rap out thousands of words
in these wee
small
hours
my face surreal in a monitor light.
(But you will never read them)
I hold schizophrenic dialogue with myself.
I may mutter.
Take my own pulse
— peevishly.
I examine my mad eyes in the mirror.
You know.
You have been here too
— in these same small hours.

What is it about the crossroads?
In these hours I can hear every sleeping scream
slamming door
and all the bottles
that have ever been hit
strike the pavement.

 

II

If we care at all about image
— as we doubtless do.
I would prefer to be seen as mad rather than bad.
You to be seen as crazy rather than stupid.
I’ve heard you smugly identify yourself
as a bastard
— even a cunt.
Because that to you, derivations aside,
implies power.
I think you have felt very powerless.
A bit like I do now in fact.

We know that misinterpreted power corrupts.
I know that it reduces the function
of a human heart.

 

III

I am alone in the room.
The room is sparse and loveless.
An oversized Asian washroom
— white tiles, cold surfaces.
No tell-tale signs of emotion here
— for you have sponged them from your life.
Everything on wheels.
As you decreed.
My heart shrinks and shrivels.
Outside it’s hot, heavy, acrid.
Fires in faraway mountains, but not here.
Here there is only the haze
and I have stumbled about in it.
The air is as heavy and polluted
as this ‘love affair’.
I can’t go out there.
The smells, the smoke, your silence
— are all strangling me.

I have thrashed about on blistered feet
trying to find a place to belong.
My scream is like Kahlo’s,

Diego!

I am alone.

 

IV

I stand outside the terminal.
You are waking to find me gone.
And all things shining and stationary
on their wheels.
I’m such a klutz.
I can’t do anything effectively
A stranger lights my cigarette
— face full of tender concern.
Can I get you anything?
What? A paramedic?
They don’t have an antidote
for disappointment.

This is the crossroads.
This is where worlds collide
and shove and push all things on wheels
— toting their collective baggage.

I must be a sight.
Tall blonde woman with tear-bloated face.
I inspire pity.
I have cut across the global rush
and served as a small reminder.
Stare if you dare
— or if your culture permits it.
Gabble about me assured
that I don’t understand
— because I really don’t.
Confusion is as much in the admixture
of my tears
as catharsis.

 

V

My last-minute escape flight
my adrenalin flung flight
— cancelled.
Grounded.
Thwarted.
This is no dramatic exit.
I make my displeasure known
to the blank face
beyond the counter.
I’m powerless, he says.
I may have ranted.
I did call a state of emergency.
You’re at the top
of the wait-list
he lies.
We’ll call you.
What to do
in this wasteland between
imprisonment and flight.

I check through the leather bag
bought at Bvlgari.
You thought it would make me happy.
It didn’t.
Now I’m inspecting it meticulously
— to ensure there’s no mysteriously materialised
shreds of marijuana.
Now that would be a thwarted exit!
Arrested
at Changi Airport.
For the tiny scumblings
of the marijuana I smoked
to make me happy.
The irony of that
makes me laugh out loud.
People’s heads pivot.
The thought then
of an immense space-age auditorium
this terminal
full of heads pivoting
at the sight of a tall alien
scraping her nails through
a Bvlgari bag,
feeling the surge
of hilarity hysteria
sometimes brings.
And this thought too
is hysterical.
Strange person
who stands alone

laughing.

I buy cigarettes.

 

VI

I stand outside the terminal.
Smoking and sniveling.
Yes. Yes.
I am a spectacle.
I’ve had a bereavement
a breakup
a breakdown.
Thank you.
Nothing to see here.
Move on.
Only the kind stranger stopped
at the sight of she
who scrabbled about in a
flashy bag muttering.
I’m such a klutz.
cigarette clamped
between her teeth.

I buy cigarettes.
But no lighter.

However,
being a spectacle pays sometimes.

For I am called.

 

VII

In the sky I splash my face
paint my lips a pink called Pashin’.
Take my seat and see
the blue that has stretched
gloriously above untainted
by the haze.
I had nearly forgotten it.
Eyes wide, clear now
as this sky.
— it must have been the smoke.

I can laugh out loud
at a stupid movie,
finish a forgotten novel buried deep
in the grinning gape
of a Bvlgari bag.

 

VIII

When you say,
What the hell?
We could have talked.
I say we could have.
But we didn’t.
And it was the silence
you see.
I need words and laughter.
You need your sad guitar
and silence.
And without words
I shrivel to a smudge
on the tiles
of Singapore
smoking and toting
a burdensome bag-full
of shredded dreams.

 

IX

So I stay awake
in the small hours
rewriting words.
But I can only start
at the ending.

This is a little story
— a flight, some sleepless hours,
a few words.
I thought, at least,
I should address it to someone,
rather than leave all that
folded up in the dark.

What is it about the crossroads?
There’s always small hours
of grief and madness …

Aren’t there?

 

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