Tag Archives: relationships

The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hollow Love, Brianna Sawyer

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, sticky droplets dribbled off stalactites, freezing to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones.

 

 

 

12 hours earlier

Love knocked on the wooden door and twisted the handle. Stepping inside, the smell of stale bread and mouldy cheese made her scrunch her face. Her mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling. The moth-bitten blanket engulfed her petite frame. Spider webs clung to the closed curtain and tittering squeaks could be heard in the walls. Love swallowed, and lifted a tray of goat milk and crusty bread.

‘Mum, you have to eat something,’ Love said, glancing at her mother’s chest bones, which protruded against her veiny skin.

Hollow rolled away, tufts of brown-silvering hair spotting her head. Love straightened her spine and placed the tray on the side table. Breathing through her mouth, she pulled the ratty blanket up and tucked it under her mother’s chin. Turning away, Love walked to the door, but stopped to glance over her shoulder.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ she paused, looking at the flaking citrine wallpaper, once a vibrant yellow. She cleared a lump in her throat.

‘I love you, mum.’ Love held her breath, waiting.

Her mother’s body language gave no indication of hearing her, though Love knew her hearing was fine. Love squeezed her eyes shut then reopened them, nodding sadly as she let the door click softly behind her.

 

 

 

The breeze from the ocean slipped around the three huddled figures along the edge of the sandy cliff-face. They shivered in their black bearskin coats. The sun peeked over the horizon, bathing their bodies in an orange warmth which did nothing to rid the chill in their hearts. After all, today was another funeral.

‘Why would Cliff venture up onto the cliffs? His deathname was plain enough, why would he go anywhere near them? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.’ Love questioned, shaking her head. Arrow’s pale blue gaze flitted over to her.

‘Why am I an archer’s apprentice, when my deathname is Arrow?’ Arrow quirked an eyebrow, combing her fingers through her wind-woven red tresses. ‘Old-man Cliff didn’t want his deathname to control his life no more. Suppose he wandered up to the cliffs to see what he’d been missing during his cliff exile.’

‘Exile? Deathnames aren’t punishment, Row. They’re precaution,’ Love said automatically, staring down at the funeral procession happening below them on the sand-bed.

Arrow scoffed. ‘What a load of mud. You’ve seen the self-barricaded townhouses. That’s not precaution, Lo, that’s paranoia.’

Love mumbled noncommittally, her attention snagging on the gaping black mouth of the Calling Caves, where every newborn received their deathname from the oracle within. The villagers called him The Caller. As Love stared, the black hole seemed to widen, revealing a cloaked figure by the entrance. She shivered, the wind tearing through her coat and making her eyes stream.

‘This makes nine funerals in five days, don’t it?’ Arrow clicked her tongue against her teeth. Love wiped at her watery eyes, fixing her attention back on the grey body atop the funeral pyre.

‘It’s unheard of,’ Love agreed.

‘What’s unheard of?’ Trip piped up, sweeping a tangled strand of black hair out of his preoccupied eyes. He was heavily involved with the making of a sandcastle. Conversations never excited Trip; they never shaped into anything with gritty substance.

‘Your complete and utter lack of attention,’ Arrow shot back, pointedly looking at his sand abomination. Trip shrugged and Arrow huffed out a breath of smoky air. Love sat between Arrow and Trip, and she felt her heart ache in response to their bickering.

Love knew there were different versions of love you could have for someone. She made a hobby out of identifying them in the people she encountered. The bakers’ cherub-faced daughter twirling on her toes so her baby brother stopped crying. Arrow’s mentor shooting her proud smiles when an arrow hit its mark. Trip stealing glances of Arrow when she was busy detangling her red mane. Seeing these gestures, Love had also become an expert in spotting a lack of love. After all, she dealt with the absence of it every day of her life. The wide berth the other villagers gave her. An ever-expanding detachment between herself and her friends. Including her own mother. But Love understood why.

No one wanted her to die.

It didn’t stop Love, however, from craving that which would kill her.

‘I should get back, my mum…’ Love trailed off. Arrow’s frown softened considerably. Trip had even stopped moulding sand into a misshapen castle, which was then quickly conquered by the whistling wind.

‘My mum, she—she’s refusing to eat anything now. I try feeding her dense foods and warm liquids, but it’s not working. Her body is shutting down. She—she’s just giving up.’ On me, was the add-on both her friends knew lingered there, unspoken. Arrow squeezed her shoulder a moment, then let go.

‘Her deathname is Hollow,’ Arrow said quietly, and bit her tongue when she saw Love wince, ‘do you think an outer-region disease is emptying her out?’

Love breathed in the crisp cool wind, looking out to where the ocean caressed the sky. Love was half convinced she was the disease.

‘I’ve tried the medication we had in storage, but with no food in her stomach, the meds just make her sicker. I don’t know what else to do.’

‘Talk to her,’ Trip murmured, accompanied by a solemn head nod. Arrow’s mouth twitched.

‘This advice coming from the man-of-few-words himself. Surprise after surprise, it is with you,’ Arrow replied. Love laughed as Trip mimed an arrow plunging through his heart. Arrows twitching mouth stretched into a smile.

Then the pyre sparked a blaze and their smiles melted away. They all looked on as licking flames engulfed the lifeless body. Moisture gathered in the corner of Trip’s usually untroubled brown eyes. Arrow shuffled behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Love shut her eyelids but couldn’t shut out the images of her mother, bedridden and helpless, morphing into a pale corpse surrounded by hissing flames as her skin peeled off her bones. She kept shaking her head but the image kept searing her brain, like a branding iron. A shake to the shoulder made her eyes fly open. Love gulped down cold air to settle her laboured breathing.

‘Trip’s right, talk to your mum, Lo,’ Arrow whispered, her head resting against Trip’s shoulder blade.

‘If she can stand to look at me,’ Love snorted, tearing her attention away from the fire. The Caller was hovering by the entrance of the Calling Caves. She blinked—despite the roaring wind, his cloak remained completely still.

 

 

 

Hurrying through the main courtyard, Love could smell fresh garlic and sizzling meats in the brisk air. Drawn to the stand by the sweet fragrance, Love exchanged her pouch of four chicken eggs for a slab of caramelized lamb and rosemary sprigs. To her left, she saw the closed sign on the door of Cliff’s Carrot Cakes. Now there was no one left to tend to the fireplace inside, allowing the front window to gather a thin skin of ice. Turning away, her eyes travelled to the boarded-up houses and businesses lining the cobbled courtyard. Wooden slats were secured over windows and doorways, dozens of nails sticking out haphazardly.

Every so often, Love caught flickers of light between the wooden beams when a person moved behind them. Collision, a mother of twin sons, Arti and Choke, had locked her family behind the walls of their home. A widower named Rod had closed his metalwork shop and disappeared when he lost his wife, Bee, to an unidentified infection. Taking a deep breath, Love could taste the salty ocean air and the tang of fear lingering along the skin of everyone she passed. Scratching at her arm, she looked up. Love stood before an unlit townhouse. Trudging forward, she pulled the key which hung around her neck and opened the front door. Letting it swing shut behind her, she was greeted by a wave of rotting flesh.

 

 

 

Rinsing her hands at the sink, Love reached for the ragged towel. Atop the tray, she tossed the caramelized lamb with rosemary sprigs and set a chipped limestone jug of water next to the platter. Walking down the dimly lit hallway, she paused before entering her mother’s bedroom. Her hands were trembling, making the contents of the jug slop over the side. She needed to talk to her mother; Arrow and Trip were right. Without knocking, she turned the door handle and entered. Love kept her eyes on the tray, but could hear her mother’s shallow breaths.

‘It’s lamb, your favourite,’ she said, setting the tray on her mother’s lap. Love picked up the jug of water and lifted it to her mother’s lips. Tilting her head back, Love managed to get the water into her mouth without it pouring down her chin, unlike the times before. Setting the water down, she looked at her mother’s sunken cheeks and the purple discolouring under her cloudy, brown eyes.

‘You’re killing yourself,’ she said, moving the tray onto the side table. Her mother continued to stare upwards, her gaze unfocused. But her mouth tightened slightly, Love noticed.

‘Say something. Talk to me.’

The silence was a crushing weight.

Love sprung from her perch on the lumpy mattress and paced the room. Glancing at the corner, she watched a black beetle scuttle under the bed. Love couldn’t even muster disgust at the sight, more revolted by the sickly creature lying on top.

‘I don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to help,’ Love began, twisting her hands together. ‘I’ve fed you, bathed you, cared for you. All for nothing? Is that it? You’re happy to waste away? I know death haunts us here, in this paranoid village. It lies on the end of every breath. But I’m haunted by your death every time I shut my eyes. The house is falling apart. I’m falling apart. Because you’re giving up. You’re giving up…’ Love bit her lip, hard. A metallic taste flooded her mouth.

‘You’re my mother,’ her voice cracked, ‘why don’t you love me?’

From the gloom, a scratchy voice spoke.

‘You know why.’

Love looked away.

‘Do you think I’m selfish because I want to be loved?’

‘I think you’re foolish,’ her mother coughed, sputtering. Her unfocused gaze, however, remained fixated on the ceiling.

‘Because being loved is how I’m going to die?’

‘Yes,’ croaked Hollow.

‘You think I have a death wish?’

‘Yes.’

‘I get it from my mother, apparently,’ Love snapped.

Hollow’s face seemed to cave inwards. Her eyes closed, then fluttered open and rested on Love’s face. Love thought they resembled the eyes of funeral goers: pained and resigned.

‘I’m sorry,’ Love bowed her head. Her mother opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again.

‘Not loving you kills me,’ Hollow said, barely above a whisper. ‘It eats me up inside.’

The quaver in her mother’s tone made something quaver inside Love. She dropped to her knees beside her mother, feeling the confession settle like a weight on her chest. Her mother’s face broke apart, knowing Love had come to the realisation Hollow had known for some time. Tears began spilling down Love’s cheeks and Hollow reached out a trembling hand to wipe them away. It made Love cry harder. She gathered her mother’s hand in both of her own and pressed her lips to it. Love could feel the thin bones pushing against her mother’s cold, rubbery skin. She thought back to Cliff’s Carrot Cakes, cold, abandoned. Love couldn’t help but feel as if her mother had lost her fire too.

Suddenly, the hand she held went limp.

Releasing a shaky breath, she placed the arm across her mother’s stomach, then stood. Her knees wobbled. Looking down, Love saw her mother’s gaunt face and half-open eyes, staring blankly. She backed up until she collided with the wall, flakes of teal raining down on her. Unable to support her weight, she collapsed on the carpet matted with stains.

Love, herself, felt like a stain for existing. For on the bed, her mother lay utterly still. Her chest did not rise, as her heart, devoid of love, could no longer beat.

 

 

 

In a daze, Love raced down the sandstone stairs. The ocean tides at the bottom were flooding the stretch of sand between the staircase and the Calling Caves. Plunging forward, Love waded through the freezing water which climbed to her waist. Hoisting herself free from the seawater, Love stood facing the black mouth of the Calling Caves. Inside, the cave walls were coated with moisture. A ping ping ping of falling water echoed throughout the chamber.

Where are you?’ she screamed, breathless.

‘Where I’ve always been,’ came the reply.

‘Bring her back. You can save her. You have a direct connection to the Fates.’

The Caller didn’t respond.

‘Please, just bring her back.’ A black-robed figure seemed to detach itself from the darkness. Love lurched back a step. The Caller tilted its mouth. The smile looked slightly unhinged. Love shook, her lips turning purple.

‘What’s dead, stays dead,’ said The Caller.

Love squeezed her eyes shut. Behind her eyelids, she saw her mother’s body, still and lifeless. Hollow.

‘Love me,’ she begged.

The figure encased in shadows stilled, eyes glistening. Above, stalactites dribbled sticky droplets which froze to ice pebbles as they fell through the frigid air.

‘Please,’ she fell to her knees, unable to support her quaking bones. Her breath turned to puffs of cloud in front of her.

‘You wish to die,’ The Caller stated. Love shook with silent tears, nodding. A hissing rose from The Caller. Love froze, realising the oracle was laughing. Something cold snaked down her spine. She heaved herself onto her shaking feet.

‘Are you my people’s oracle?’

The figure grinned, shifting into the dark recesses of the Calling Cave.

‘What are you?’ she breathed.

‘Impatient,’ it teased, a clicking reverberating against the cave walls. ‘Want to know a secret, Little Love?’ The voice twisted around the caves, coming from every direction. Love flipped around, certain the creature was behind her.

‘You were never going to die from love.’

Love flinched.

‘It was all for nothing?’ She saw her mother’s motionless body behind her eyelids, pale and cold. ‘You’re lying,’ she spat.

The creature bared its pointed teeth. ‘Insulting a God? Little Love, I could squash you into the Earth where you belong and watch you wriggle like all the other worms. Nothing but insectile, pink flesh rolling in your own filth.’ It hissed, spittle flying from its mouth. ‘But you do secrete tasty treats.’ The creature breathed in deeply, nostrils flaring as its eyelids fluttered closed.

‘Why are you here?’ she panted, her voice trembling. The creature opened its bulbous black eyes and smiled sharply.

‘To call and collect.’

Why?’

Why?’ the guttural voice mimicked, ‘Mmmm. I like to toy with my food, Little Love, before I feast. And your mother was my favourite. Playing with a second generation to manipulate the first. The sweet patience it took. The sweetest reward. There’s nothing more delicious than a sacrifice.’ The creature whetted its pale, flaky lips.

She faced the creature as it loomed closer. Her eyes welled with pain and resignation.

And the Death God welled with satisfaction. It bared needle-like teeth, saliva slipping down its jaw.

Love closed her eyes and let her guilt swallow her whole.

 

 

 

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The Course of Empire, Mischa Parkee

Part One: The Savage State

empire_savage_state

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

 


Part Two: The Arcadian State

empire_pastoral_state

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Part Three: The Consummation of Empire

empire_consummation

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

‘Just one more,’ Lucas declared.

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

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

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

 

Part Four: Destruction

empire_destruction

Thomas Cole, Destruction. Oil on canvas, 1836

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part Five: Desolation

empire_desolation

Thomas Cole, Desolation. Oil on canvas, 1836

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

 

Download a PDF of ‘The Course of Empire’

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Westfall, James Renshaw

1.

At Saldean’s Farm was where I first met you rustling in the silverleaves,

in briarthorns, between the haystacks and broken-down harvest watchers.

Your low-poly green hair mismatched Westfall’s orange oversaturation,

and the ambient loops were far too calm, too quiet, for the way you ran

along the ash-brown stick fences, to the herbalism nodes and back again.

I yelled out to you (I meant to whisper)   /yell lol hey what r u doin

And everyone knew.   Swiftthistle      you wanted them for alchemy.

/yell whats alchemy    You /laugh      I traded you bread and water.

You gave me back the water.

 

2.

On the long stretch of Westfall’s coast was where we fished for treasure.

The wreckage spawns, spread thin beside the schools of oily blackmouths,

had linen, wool, and lockboxes. You could pick lockboxes. You could fend

off the packs of gurgling murlocs as I fumbled B for my 6-slot newbie bags,

looking for space. I had offered to help you when you stealthed and sneaked

up close to them for mageroyal and chests. (I could sheep) (I could nova)

(would dampen you) but you told me     /p dw i got it     /p roll on malachite

and     /p run away if i die                   I didn’t.     I died with you, chasing

your wisp form as a ghost, running to our lifeless bodies on the sand.

 

3.

When it rained over Westfall, the grass fields rendered in a sombre lime hue.

I was gathering your swiftthistles while you queued for Warsong Gulch, and

up on the Dagger Hills, I could see the flicks of low-res raindrops falling down

on the water by the lighthouse. You loved the thrill of PvP: running to and from

between the desert and the forest, capturing red flags, defending your own

Alliance blue. In there you chugged through speed-pots faster than we could

make them. The gold we could have made on the AH, we’d have epic mounts

ready for 60.    (You wouldn’t ever be 60)      /w its fun playing with you

you whispered me as you flew back to Sentinel Hill on a griffon taxi.

 

4.

At the Dead Acre was where I last saw you farming on the old tilled soil,

between the derelict mill and the wagon sunken in the ochre overgrowth.

You were killing off the harvest watchers, the strongest in the zone, but the

loot was glittering, and greyed-out names dotted my FOV. (I ran to see you)

(sprinted out from Duskwood)   I   /wave /wave /wave   and you /yell stop

(you meant to whisper). You partied up with me and said     /p im gonna quit

You traded me swiftthistles. You gave me back the bread. Then I watched you

in the Westfall night counting down from 20 to the exit.       You whispered me

/w you were a good friend             And I hearthed away when you logged off.

 

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The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

Download the PDF of ‘The Outskirts of Benslimane’ here

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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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Bad Faith, Christopher Grady

I dreamed I was rolling an immense boulder up a hill. I awoke before I saw how the dream would end. The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. I had to go to work.

I did some push-ups and sit-ups to curb a cubicle body. I showered and dressed. For a moment in the dark I watched my girlfriend, Sarah, sleep. We had met a few times at parties. We had the same three conversations every time we met, one of which was how we had the same two conversations every time we met. Now we didn’t speak at all.

I kissed her on the forehead then kissed the baby on his. He was an accident. When Sarah told me she was pregnant I wanted her to have an abortion. I didn’t have the nerve to bring it up. Why pluck this child out of nonexistence only so it will fear the same nonexistence hurtling towards it. I could frighten it with religion like I was. Feed that down its throat foie gras style, like my father did. When I was little my father woke us in the middle of the night saying the end is now. He made us get in the car and drove into the middle of nowhere awaiting Christ’s glorious return. On the way home Mum hummed “Coming Round the Mountain” and Dad demanded her to shut up. After that Dad broke down and Mum took over. She sent me to a Montessori school so I could work out what I was into. My parents were very different people.

It was still dark when I reversed out the driveway. I remember driving past people waiting at bus stops or in cars in congestion when I was at university. People on their way to work before the day had awoken. I knew I never wanted to be that person. I became that person. I never wanted to be an inmate of this sandstone university then that job with its lack of prospects and rungless ladder. I became that person. I started at the law firm out of uni as a paralegal, thinking it was a good deal, delaying desires, hopes and aspirations because the money was good. I was closer to ten than I was to forty, then. Now I’ve been of legal drinking age longer than I haven’t.

The traffic was frozen. A woman in the car next to me did her make up in her rear-view mirror. Sometimes I wished a plague would thin out the herd like wildfire freeing up these lanes a little.

I had the radio on. The news told me how someone was mugged at filthy syringe point, how the Lolitas of someone of coin or cloth had grown up and come out against them, how a wife beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, how a man armed with a sandwich and a coke was shot down while a helpless rich man’s child was exonerated for affluenza. And then, on top of that, my tooth hurt, number two-seven or two-eight (Dad was a dentist).

Work was a lot of the same. I repeated what I had to repeat. I tongued my tooth and sometimes I had to photocopy something. This was never good; there was always someone else there. I waited and the person in front of me sneezed.

He looked at me. ‘You didn’t say bless you,’ he said.

I walked away.

Then came lunch. I spoke two languages while being surrounded by others who struggled with one. A young guy sat next to me. Out of all the spare seats he chose that one.

‘Hey, man,’ he said, ‘when they say jelly wrestling do they mean KY or Aeroplane?’

I didn’t work in a law firm. I was immersed and playing the role of someone working in a law firm.

The day ended. It was dark and when I looked up I couldn’t see the stars. I sat in traffic and the news was just as bad. I pleaded for that plague.

Later, I looked across the table to my girlfriend, a glass of wine in front of both of us. She pretended not to notice that I would finish the bottle and I pretended not to notice the cigarette smoke clinging to her clothes. Our relationship was built on pretending. I could see the glow of primetime TV where confectionery rotted the teeth of amorous lovers, but they’ve already done all their smiling. Sarah spoke to her mother on the phone. Her grandfather could predict the weather with his knees and her grandmother was dying of cancer with liver rot and alcoholic dementia to boot. She’d tell stories of her past, that she had danced the Charleston to the troops when in fact with calloused fingers she had sewed pockets in trousers in perpetuity.

The earth makes another rotation, the sun rises, the sun sets, the waves crash again and again. And there will come that dream.

*

A few weeks later there was a work cocktail party at an upmarket bar close to the office. We celebrated a case we had won. I had very little to do with it. I didn’t look forward to it. Everyone talked shop, if not they talked about money and what they’d bought or were going to buy. That’s how they searched for their happiness, like King Solomon, nouveaux riche. I’m sure they all had sore elbows from patting themselves on the back.

I drifted away and sat at the bar. I talked to this girl. She would have been mid to late twenties, I think. I asked about her accent. She told me her name was Charlotte Dumonde and came from Belgium, a little town called Ecaussinnes. I asked her where that was.

C’est près de Soignies et La Louvière,‘ she said.

I shrugged my shoulders. She told me it was about an hour from the French border. She told me she had worked in a chapellerie in Lyon and had travelled down to and through Madagascar. She told me she would do it all again soon.

We laughed and her lipstick stained her drink’s skinny straw which, while she made a point, she pretended to smoke real elegant and Holly Golighty-like, tapping away imaginary ash. The moment reminded me of when I first met Sarah. It sparkled like jewellery and champagne. The drinks caused a blossoming glow to radiate in my chest like a sacred heart. We were the kind of drunk where every idea was a good idea, all of which couldn’t be done too soon. Later, I backed her up against a wall and kissed her and put my hand down the front of her jeans. She was doing everything I had wanted to do but never did. For years I rationalised my stagnant existence and arrested development, my fundamental dissatisfaction. I looked for right in what I knew was ultimately wrong. I looked for something where I knew there was nothing. That’s why we find faces in clouds, a man on the moon and the Mother Mary in toast.

Charlotte went off to the bathroom. I went back to the bar. She didn’t return and I couldn’t find her.

*

The baby cried. I ignored it like it was someone else’s. I looked at Sarah across the table. I thought I’d feel something. I thought there’d be a cocktail of guilt and the desire that caused it. What put my head in a whirlwind was the complete lack of guilt I felt.

Over the coming days and weeks I thought of Charlotte. She’d left a lesion on my brain. No, that sounds contaminating where what she left was enriching and mesmerising, like a murmuring of starlings creating geometries. I kept going back to that bar in hope of finding her. I didn’t. I packed a bag and left it in my car. I stared at it in traffic every morning and evening. The news was always bad. That plague never came. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted out of Maggie’s Farm. I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission. I’d rather regret action than non-action. I was ready to be happy.

One morning, I left. I wrote a note of no more than ten words. Love was not one of them.

*

I flew to Lyon via air conditioned Dubai. I looked out the window at the incomprehensible desert receding into city.

It was raining in Lyon. Pluie Prudence road signs advised. Straight away I looked for her. I found the hat store she had told me she had worked at. The English lady who owned the store told me Charlotte had visited a week or so ago. She told me Charlotte frequented a café not too far away.

I went to Le Lion, on the corner of Quai Saint-Antoine and Rue de la Monnaie, and asked monsieur, who stood behind the counter next to hanging salamis, if he’d seen her. He said he had. He said she came in every day. I did the same. I’d sit by the window sipping a coffee in the morning and a beer in the afternoon, looking up at the basilica on the hill which overlooked the entire city. Every morning and afternoon I asked monsieur about Charlotte. He always said I missed her until one day he said he hadn’t seen her at all. I went back to the hat shop. I was told Charlotte had left for Madagascar. I was told the name of a place Charlotte had mentioned. I took the first flight I could.

*

If the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the earth, Madagascar was the end. I took a train destined for Charlotte. The carriage I rode was painted and by the door was written: 1ère Classe. The second class carriages weren’t painted at all. I shared that carriage with a couple. They were white, bovine tourists, fat fucks in jeans and joggers. I turned and ignored them.

At one of the stops were merchants and markets and hungry children. There was a bouquet of black begging hands, bare chested girls with glockenspiel ribcages or bulbous bellied boys. I felt like a cunt because earlier I got annoyed by the heat and that my clean, bottled water wasn’t cold enough.

*

I ended up at a colonial mansion. One of those buildings the French left behind with the language. This was the place I’d been told about. There were only two others staying there and they spoke English. Christian was a teacher from Cameroon with African accented French and Ganesh was a paediatric surgeon from Malaysia of Sri Lankan blood.

I was told they’d seen Charlotte a week or so ago. She had said she was going away for a bit but was coming back. They told me I should stay there until she returned. She had left some possessions so they knew she would. I liked this idea.

We all sat out on the white veranda overlooking green hills. A soft rain fell. Ganesh told me he had left his two daughters and wife at home to work with Médecins Sans Frontières. He asked if I had a wife or kids. I said I didn’t.

*

I did nothing all day while Christian and Ganesh worked. I drank gin and tonics to ward off malaria and listened to the BBC World Service on a crackling radio. Something had gone down in Liberia, or maybe Libya. I don’t remember.

Sometimes I took walks down to the markets where in wicker baskets lay cathedrals of cumin, cayenne and turmeric. Chilli peppers towered taller than the squatting children peeling pistachios beside them. All I could smell was fish and sweat. Car horns honked and vendors hawked, there was a pounding of a goat-skinned drum and a street preacher with tattered black bible in hand warned of hell and sweated like a soul singer.

Most of the time I stayed at the mansion, sitting out on the balcony drinking those gin and tonics or local beers surrounded by the stray cats and dogs who seemed to reside there. Cats roamed with their tails held high showing off their assholes. Next to me a dog whimpered in its sleep. One million stars burned like a furnace and I imagined somewhere someone was awaking unwillingly for work.

*

I knew Charlotte wouldn’t return. I left post-it notes on my vanity mirror. I wrote: you piece of shit, you worthless fuck, et cetera. I changed them every week. They quickly held no effect over me, they became as normal as brushing my teeth. Ha-ha, self-loathing, the black truffle of brain diseases.

*

One afternoon Ganesh returned with wilted posture. He slumped in a chair on the veranda and demanded a beer. Clouds gathered and the sky turned a gun-metal grey. A storm would soon strike. He lost a six year old in surgery. He blamed himself and cursed the static air around him. I thought of my son.

*

I don’t know how, but Christian and Ganesh found out I had a girlfriend and son and had left them. They felt they had scalpelled open my chest, my true self spilling out.

‘Shame on you. You’ve seen the children here beg and plead,’ Christian said. ‘You know the motherless and fatherless ones and the restavecs.’ Restavecs were children staying with relatives who took advantage of them. Restavecs were common day Cosettes.

Christian and Ganesh didn’t want me around. I told them I wasn’t leaving. They ignored me. I’m sure a few more bad surgeries or a mother dying in childbirth would make them forget all about my sins.

*

A few weeks later Christian broke his silence and said he’d heard word about Charlotte. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He said she was only an hour away by train and that he’d take me. The train left in the evening and he said he’d go straight there after work and we’d meet at the station. I packed all my things. Ganesh wouldn’t shake my hand. He asked me what my girlfriend and son’s names were. I lied about both. I knew he saw right through me.

At the station I couldn’t find Christian. I boarded and walked down the crowded carriages. He wasn’t there. I knew he had no intention of getting the train.

I was in unpainted 2ième Classe. The train rocked and swayed and everyone stared. Maybe because I was the only white person, maybe because they too could see my chest bared open revealing everything like an old lady dropping her prescriptions showing the world all that infects her. I understood the pounded gavel, the disdain and hatred held by Christian and Ganesh and everyone cramped inside that train for its fourteen hour crawl.

Some part of me still believed the train would lead me to Charlotte. It didn’t. There came that dream.

 

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The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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Eye Opening, Crystal Gralton

Lexie receives some money at the end of each week—usually an amount carefully calculated by her parents in regards to how much they can spare. She always places each valuable coin and note in a large, glass jar; she isn’t the type to store her money in elaborately designed boxes or even in a bank account where most people her age would logically choose to deposit their money. She needs to be able to see the money, needs to see that she is getting closer to her goal. Her family always questions why she never spends any of her pocket money and her brother often teases her with his never ending guesses of what she might be saving for. She never gives in, never gives her family the slightest hint of what she has been planning. She slides another coin through the opening and listens to the familiar clinking sound; then she watches the colourful notes squish together after she feeds them through the thin hole soon after. The truth is there is no big secret to what she is saving for—no huge elaborate plan to travel the world or book out an entire Taylor Swift concert. All she wants is to pay her way through college so that the financial burden is off her parents. She decided to hide this from them because she knew they would take it hard, always wanting to give her as much as they could—and in a way they had. Technically, the money had been given to her by them; they were paying for college, but she knew they wouldn’t see it that way. Well, the money had been for college. This suddenly changed the day she met an unlikely friend at the local park.

*

‘Lexie don’t you think it’s time for breakfast? You don’t want to be late for your class.’

Her mother’s voice grabbed her attention at once. She picked up her faded blue backpack off of her bedroom floor and rushed out her door, nearly sending the globe sitting on her desk tumbling to the ground. Realising what she’d knocked, she stopped and turned to inspect the damage she may have caused. Lexie held her breath as she saw the globe balancing on the edge of the desk, scared that even a slight change of oxygen in the room could end in a shattered mess of bits and pieces on her floor. She had spent many nights when she was younger nagging her parents to buy her that globe; from a young age she had a keen interest in exploring the world and venturing out on as many adventures as she could. Quite often her brother would rat her out to her parents, revealing that she had spent another night awake, spinning the delicate round ball of countries, stopping it with her finger and day dreaming about an adventure in the nation it had landed on. She sighed in relief when the object finally stilled.

‘Lexie?’

‘Coming, Mum.’

Lexie headed down the staircase and into the kitchen. She immediately smelt the familiar scent of her mother’s famous zucchini surprise and sat down at the wooden table that was noticeably worn from constant use. Her mother slid a plate with a slice of zucchini quiche on it across the table. Lexie brought the plate to a halt and quickly stuffed the delicious food into her mouth. Her mother watched her with amusement and laughed.

‘You’re going to make yourself sick!’

Lexie tried to answer, but her reply came out in unrecognisable mumbles. When she finished, she left her dirty plate on the kitchen table. Guiltily, she walked towards the door, throwing a quick sorry over her shoulder as she quickly shut the door behind her. She walked at a much faster pace than usual down the concrete path that led to her college and soon noticed her friend’s recognisable long, auburn coloured hair in the distance. She decided to pick up the pace and finish the rest of her journey in a slow jog. When she finally caught up to Ashley she was so out of breath she clutched her chest in pain.

‘Hi Ash, how ar—’ Lexie’s greeting was cut short when a huge gust of wind brushed past her and knocked her assignment sheet out of her hands. She panicked and raced off after the windswept papers. Ashley followed close behind her. They both turned a corner and then another. Lexie’s lungs felt as though there was a raging fire trapped within from all the running she had endured in the last ten minutes. Soon they both came to a halt as they realised the wind had died down and was no longer carrying her papers on a never ending journey. Lexie was surprised when she noticed a figure hunched over, sitting next to where her assignment lay. He was an older man, huddled in a mass of blankets to shelter himself from the harsh chill winter always brings. Lexie hesitantly walked up to him, half fearful and half curious to know about the man she had incidentally come across. Ashley stayed behind, too uninterested to follow after her. Lexie was so lost in her own thoughts, imagining every possible scenario as to why this seemingly harmless man had to create a home on the streets, when her feet collided with his. Lexie quickly jumped back and blushed in embarrassment.

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise I was so close.’

“That’s okay. Here, I believe these are yours,” the man replied while he picked up the various sheets of paper and gave them to her with unsteady hands.

‘What’s your name?’ Lexie asked.

‘Arthur,’ he replied with a genuine smile.

She decided to ignore the annoying voice in her head pressuring her to ask Arthur all the questions that were bouncing off the walls inside her brain. It isn’t her fault that she is so curious; it’s her dream to become a journalist, it will be her job one day to find out people’s unique stories and question them for information. At least that’s what she continually tells herself when her friends decide to call a sudden intervention, pointing out her need to question and investigate even the simplest things in life.

‘It was nice meeting you,’ Lexie said with a frown forming on her forehead.

‘Is something wrong?’ Arthur asked.

‘It’s just…’ Lexie turned around and noticed Ashley rolling her eyes and motioning for her to hurry up. ‘Never mind, maybe another time’ Lexie added, smiling at Arthur and making her way back to Ashely. The pair made it back to class in silence, Lexie too consumed with her own thoughts.

Every day she had classes to attend at college. After that, she made sure to leave ten minutes earlier so she had the chance to speak to Arthur again. Each day she started to find out more about him. Piece by piece, she started to put together the puzzle of his story. She learnt that he used to work as an ambulance officer. He used to save lives every day, but the one life he was unable to save was that of his wife. His wife fell ill and there was nothing the doctors or he could do to save her. He had sat by her beside every day that she was there. That cost him his job, but he didn’t care. She had limited time left on this Earth and he was determined to spend every last moment with her. He had to sell his house to pay for all the numerous and highly expensive medical bills to keep her comfortable and pain free for as long as possible. This is how he ended up here, on the street that Lexie stumbled upon.

Lexie had also made another sad discovery. One day she visited Arthur to discuss the book she had given him. She had allowed him to keep her favourite book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. She hoped he would find it interesting and engaging rather than childish. She loved the book when she was younger and it is still a story she holds close to her heart today. Lexie loved to read and she was hoping that he would share this same passion.

‘Did you start reading the book I gave you?’ she asked.

‘I can’t say that I did,’ Arthur replied with a grim face.

After a few more curious questions from Lexie were answered she learnt the disheartening truth: Arthur had poor vision and was losing his eyesight at a rapid rate. Every time he tried to read the words would start to blur, creating a sea of black ink. After wracking her brain for ideas on how she can make the situation better, she ran back home later that day with an idea.

When Lexie returned home, she was greeted by her father, ‘Hey, Lexie. I have something for you.’

‘What is it, Dad?’

‘Here’s your pocket money, don’t spend it all at once,’ her father joked.

Lexie took the money that her father gave her and ran up the stairs with a purpose. She closed her door and dropped to the ground, rummaging through the items under her bed until she found the one she was looking for. She weaved the glass jar out from underneath the rest of the items and popped the lid open. She placed the coins inside and put the jar on top of her desk next to her globe and her copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which she had retrieved from Arthur when she realised he wouldn’t be able to read it.

*

That was how her collection started. This is what she has done every week for the past two years, placing each coin and note she gets into the shiny glass jar. She picks up the glass jar and places it into her backpack, not needing to count the money as she already knows the exact amount from constant, careful calculations. She knew exactly how long she would need to save in order to reach her desired amount. She swings her backpack around her shoulders and walks down the stairs to go talk to Arthur about the idea she has.

When Lexie arrives at Arthur’s usual spot, she is finally able to tell somebody the plans she has for the money. She explains her detailed plan to gather enough money to be able to pay for the eye operation that he desperately needs. She knows he has been through a lot over the last decade and she wants to be able to provide him with an escape. Books have always been a tool she has used to feel as though she is going on an adventure and to be transported to another time and place. She wants him to be able to read so that he has something other than the negatives to focus on while he spends his days on the streets. She also knows how important vision is and would be heartbroken if he lost his when she could have done something about it. What she didn’t count on was Arthur’s reluctance to accept her help.

‘No Lexie, you keep your money.’

‘You gave up everything to pay for your wife’s medical bills, let someone do the same for you.’

‘You still have college to pay off; I’m not worth wasting your money on.’

‘I will still be able to pay for college it just might take a little longer.’

‘Lexie, I can’t take your money.’

‘You can and you will, you need this operation.’

After a few weeks of convincing him, Arthur was finally checked into the hospital for his eye operation. While Lexie waits for his operation to finish, she places Journey to the Centre of the Earth on the table next to the bed he will be recovering in. Her mother walks up beside her and places a hand on her shoulder.

‘I thought you were saving up for an adventure,’ she says.

‘I was saving for an adventure, just not my own,’ Lexie replies.

 

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Singledom, J. Juarez

Kara remained happily enveloped by her Ikea quilt as she scrolled through her news feed, squinting from the sudden glare of her mobile screen. A few funny gym memes appeared, followed by some annoying vines of people failing at life, before the influx of Valentine’s Day shout outs began to pop up. As her finger swiped the screen, all she could see were pictures of her friends preparing for a romantic evening out with their significant others. Post after post they continued, their captions even cheesier than the pictures themselves that could only make you cringe if you weren’t the type to publicly display your affection. For Kara, however, the feeling of loneliness sunk in as her quilt no longer felt like a warm burrito embrace, but a suffocating entrapment into singledom.

At twenty-seven years old, she began to ponder on the possibility of posting up something romantic herself, but alas, the only relationship she had was with a packet of salt and vinegar chips to reinforce her sour expression. Forcing herself to troll through the pages of loved up couples, she stumbled across an interesting article. Reading through the questions and answering with a reluctant ‘yes’, Kara soon began to indulge in her own self-diagnosis: Anuptaphobia. The fear of being or staying single. In bold capital letters, the word appeared to jump out from the screen, echoing in her ears like an entrancing tribal chant of sorrow. She felt a sudden pang in her chest, unsure if it was from her second bag of chips, or her tub of chocolate fudge ice cream, or just the fact that she was alone on Valentine’s Day for another consecutive year since she was born.

*

Reuben loathed Valentine’s Day.  In fact, he loathed the idea of being in love. Tainted by his parents’ divorce when he was a child, he distanced himself from any potential possibility of developing a relationship, finding solace in the gym where the only object (or objects) of his affection appeared to be the weights. Having never had a relationship, Reuben remained persistent on avoiding the idea of developing any emotional attachment. He was certain that he would be single for the rest of his life. He was his own island, self-sufficient and content. His friends had nicknamed him Phil for philophobia, given his fear of falling in love. Reuben didn’t mind the tag; after all, he knew it was true and he was proud of it.

*

As Kara walked through the shopping centre, heart shaped balloons and pink confetti speckled the shop windows. Bouquets of flowers flooded florist stands on the street, attracting a large portion of the male population. Couples walked arm in arm, others with their hands placed ever so snugly in each others’ back pockets, while the rest simply stood inconveniently in the middle of the paths to share a kiss and snap a photo.

Weaving through the crowds, Kara felt as if she was the only weed in a flowerbed. The word reappeared in her head and rang in her ears. She ran for the elevator in a desperate attempt to escape from the reminders of her spinster life and headed down to do her grocery shopping.

As she perused through the frozen section, bright yellow stickers advertised the daily specials—a lean cuisine meal for two, at only half price. Scanning the shelves, it appeared that they had all been taken. Her eyes panned down to the great stock of single meals that unfortunately remained at full price.

‘Ugh’, she sighed, as she tossed the packets into her basket.

*

Reuben enjoyed working the late night shifts at the shops. He always found the customers to be far more interesting than the early morning risers. As he began scanning the next customer’s groceries he noticed an overwhelming amount of pre-packaged meals for one—from teriyaki chicken, to lasagne, to the odd batch of vanilla rice pudding close to its expiration date. Looking up he saw the woman loading them up on the counter. Her hair hung in untamed curls covering her face. She was petite which was quite surprising, given the substantial number of meals she was, or potentially would be consuming, he thought. As he watched her load the last of her items onto the conveyer belt, he noticed she refused to make eye contact, her eyes planted on the floor.

‘Seems like someone’s gonna be all alone this Valentine’s Day, aye?’ he said with a wink.

‘Excuse me?’ replied the woman, looking up with a sassy attitude, tossing her hair out of her face to stare him out.

‘Well you’ve got a lotta meals here only for one, so you’re either having a singles party or a party for one,’ he laughed in an attempt to lighten the mood. He watched on as she struggled to pluck up a response to defend her choice in groceries.

‘That is none of your business!’ she snarled.

‘Don’t worry. It’s better to be single. Look at me! I’m proof!’ he smiled, ‘You don’t need to worry about anyone but yourself!’ he said, trying to make her feel better. His chuckles were met with silence as she stared at him with a hard, cold look. ‘That’ll be sixty-five dollars and seventy cents,’ he said with the hope of diffusing the situation and avoiding any further awkward tension in the atmosphere.

He watched patiently as she rummaged through her purse and handed her loyalty card and cash. Plucking the card from her fingers he scanned and watched as her name appeared on his screen.

‘Kara…is it?’ he said, awaiting for a response.

As she stood before him, he noticed her twitch in discomfort, her face flushed with red, unsure if it was from her rage at his inappropriate joke, or the notion of asking her name.

‘Yes it is…Reu-ben…’ she hissed, her eyes latched on his nametag that hung from the pocket of his shirt.

‘Well enjoy those meals! Let me know which one’s the best!’ he replied, handing back her change and card, relieved to be moving on to the next customer.

*

Kara returned home and loaded her first single meal of the night into the microwave. While the microwave hummed in the kitchen, she scrolled through the list of romantic films on her Apple TV, preparing to wallow in her own self-pity. Ding! The microwave called out to her, signalling that her meal was ready. As she peeled back the clear film from the container the steam rose up, releasing the comforting aroma of creamy, cheesy béchamel and tangy Bolognese sauce.

Holding her hot meal with a tea towel, she planted herself in her sofa and started what would be a binge night of romantic re-runs and pre-packaged meals. Staring at the lump of lasagne before her, a sudden cackle of laughter rang through her ears. The image of the check out chump judging her shopping choice infuriated her. Each beep of the scanner felt like a jab to her gut, stabbing away at her feelings of inadequacy. How dare he ridicule her like that! As she replayed the whole scenario in her head, the steam of her lasagne fizzled down.

But as she continued to reflect on what had happened, she pondered on the possibilities of his intention. Maybe he didn’t mean to insult her. Perhaps he was just trying to get the conversation flowing. As the contents of their small conversations raced through her mind, she began to reassess his body language. The wink. The smile. The fact that he openly stated he was single without ever even being asked. Perhaps he didn’t mean to ridicule her. Perhaps he just wanted to have a chat. Perhaps he was flirting.

‘Yes…flirting,’ she whispered to herself, afraid that someone would hear.

As she replayed the whole spiel in her mind, she began to magnify each scene. She would be the leading lady, and he the gentleman.

‘Reuben,’ she said. It had a nice ring to it, she thought, as she continued to repeat it and imagined the possibility of them being together.

*

Reuben stood in his usual aisle. It was strangely quiet for a Thursday night, he thought to himself as he fumbled with the cash in his till. In the distance a familiar figure approached. Squinting his eyes to get a look, he soon recognised it to be the crazy, meal-for-one chick from the week before. He watched as she made her way towards him, her shopping trolley filled with everything but pre-packaged meals. Plastering on a smile to mask his discomfort, he greeted her with his chirpy check-out-chap voice. ‘Hello again!’

‘Hello,’ she replied.

‘Kara, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, Kara.’

Reuben was slightly surprised by her significantly chirpier attitude, a vast contrast from their first encounter. Fearful that any comment on her grocery shopping could potentially result in a public display of her revealing her previous character, he avoided any discussion of food.

‘So, how are you today?’ he asked.

‘I’m well. As you can see there are no frozen meals for me today,’ she chuckled.

Oh no! Reuben thought to himself, struggling to ignore the awkwardness of the situation. He could feel himself flustering at the idea of any confrontation with this woman as he tried to work up a response.

‘That’s nice’, he replied. Short, simple and sweet. Surely she wouldn’t find that offensive, he continued to think to himself.

‘How are you today, Reuben?’ she asked.

The sound of her voice saying his name, sent goose bumps running through his body. Discretely scratching his pocket, he plucked his nametag off and hid it under the counter, fearful of any other potential creepy customers.

‘I’m pretty good, thanks,’ he uttered under his breath, still managing to maintain a calm demeanour.

‘That’s good,’

A few moments of silence passed as he continued to scan and weigh the contents of her trolley. As she stood there before him, watching him intently, Reuben began pondering for something to say.

‘So have you got any plans for this weekend?’

‘Nope. Nothing really. What about you?’

‘Erm…I’m just heading to that film festival in the city. You should check it out,’

As the words escaped from his lips, her eyes widened.

‘Oooh… that sounds like fun. Maybe I will.’

*

Kara wandered through the gardens, sifting through the clusters of picnic blankets and people strewn across the grounds.  After a solid hour of scanning the premise, she spotted Reuben sitting by himself near the back. Adjusting her top and sweeping her tangled curls behind her ear, she approached him.

‘Hey there!’

Surprised at the sight of her, Reuben almost choked on his packet of chips. With a few loud coughs and a pounding of his chest, he managed to utter a croaky response. “Oh hey!”

‘You here by yourself?’

‘Umm yeah. My mates couldn’t make it. You?’

‘That’s a shame. Yeah I just came by myself too. Mind if I take a seat?’

‘Uhhh yeah go for it,’

Unpacking her bag she laid out her own picnic blanket beside him and an assortment of foods to feed more than just one person.

‘Want some?’ she asked, offering him some crackers and dip.

‘Thanks!’ he said, scooping a generous amount onto his cracker.

As the speakers blared and the opening credits rolled, the entire audience hushed down.

*

Despite reluctantly obliging in offering her a seat, Reuben began to enjoy Kara’s company and more importantly the assorted range of crackers, chips and dips she brought with her. The more he chatted, the more he felt comfortable, unperturbed by their previous awkward moments of silence at the shops. As the movie finished and the last of the picnic blankets was folded away, he walked her to her car. Offering to take him home only exacerbated his feelings for her, her kind and caring demeanour surpassing his expectations.

*

By the end of the night, Kara was tired and bored of listening to Reuben. He was, as she had originally thought, an obnoxious pig. He had eaten all of her snacks, and even double dipped, leaving nothing for her to eat and no room in the conversation to speak. She couldn’t even enjoy the movie as his voice bellowed through the gardens, annoying not just herself, but the entire audience. He unashamedly laughed at the most ridiculous times of the movie, completely oblivious of the people surrounding them, leaving Kara to feel the stares of the rest of the audience pierce through her very soul.

As she drove him back home, her repulsion towards him only grew, as he continued to burp without any consideration for her nose. She soon realised how content she was with her single life, with no need to look after anyone but herself. She had the freedom of doing everything by herself and relished in her independence.

Pulling up to his driveway, she could feel herself regaining her freedom.

‘Well I’m really glad you came tonight!’ said Reuben, stepping out of the car.

‘Umm…yeah,’ said Kara unsatisfied.

‘Maybe we can do it again?’ he asked, closing the car door behind him.

Imagining the idea of what their future would be like together as a couple almost made her vomit as the taste of celery and guacamole crept up the back of her throat.

‘No thank you,’ she said as she drove off back home to her pocket world of singledom.

 

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