Tag Archives: Young Adult

From Young Warrior, Jacqueline Brown

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Young Warrior is an adventure novel for middle school children. Eleven year old Kevin Jones stumbles on a strange and mysterious dojang, from where he is transported to a fantastical realm to train with Master Cheng, and to be taught the ancient secrets of the monks, martial art and combat. But when the magic force that keeps peace in the realm begins to fade and Master Cheng goes missing, Kevin will need to use everything he has learned, as well as a few tricks that only a modern kid would know, to save Master Cheng and his world.

 

Chapter One: The Strange Shop on Orchard Street

Today wasn’t the first day Kevin Jones had stood outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street. Its narrow red door had a brass knob no bigger than a brussels sprout. Its little square windows were dirty and grey. Hanging from the roof on rusty chains was a small wooden sign that might once have been colourful and grand, but was now tired and faded.

The sign read:

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For a long time Kevin hadn’t even known about Orchard Street. Kevin’s quickest route from his school to home was to turn right out of the front gates, pedal all the way down the main road, then turn left, right and left again. In a hurry, with his school bag over his shoulder and a jumbo juice-box in his hand, he could make it home in four minutes and fifty-two seconds, if he threw his bike down on the lawn and his mum had left the front door unlocked.

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But it hadn’t been fast enough. Not after Levi Baxter transferred to the school. Not after Levi Baxter, who was two years older and twice the size of Kevin, took a special disliking to him. Not after Levi Baxter started waiting for Kevin at the school gates, chasing him down on his pushbike that was bigger and fancier than Kevin’s (whose bike had been bought in a ‘Bargain Sale’ of unpopular stock the shop was desperate to get rid of). Four minutes and fifty-two seconds was no longer fast enough for Kevin to make it home without his tie missing, a dead arm and his grubby school shirt pulled over his head.

The last time Kevin cycled the main road home was on the Thursday before Easter. His class had been let out early for the school holidays, and he was flying down the street, his skinny legs pumping on the pedals, a giddy grin on his face. ‘In your face, Levi Baxter!’ he shouted. ‘Let’s see you catch me today!’ Then as Kevin rounded the corner…

Levi Baxter stepped out in front of him. Kevin turned the front wheel sharply to the left and tried to ride straight past him, but Levi grabbed the strap of his school bag as he went past, and yanked. Kevin yelped as his bike slid out from underneath him, and he dropped to the ground. Levi’s meaty face stood over him, grinning. ‘Caught you, Jones!’ Then he wrestled Kevin into a headlock until he couldn’t breathe.

That was also the last time Kevin saw his school bag. By Easter Monday, Kevin heard that his exercise books were seen strewn around the local oval — lodged between tree branches, hanging over the goal posts. One was even stuffed up a down-pipe. Levi Baxter had been busy.

Kevin Jones had spent his Easter holidays devising a new route home from school.

 

Kevin’s New Plan To Ride Home

  • Do NOT go near the front gate! Exit by back gate instead.
  • Go down the concrete steps (twenty-two of them, must stand up and use legs as shock absorbers or Owww!)
  • Zig-zag through the back streets (practise my wheelies!)
  • Peddle down Mrs Mac’s driveway and across her yard (get a good speed first so I won’t get caught)
  • Go through Mrs Mac’s back fence where the palings are missing
  • Go across the oval
  • Then under the trees on the far side (duck for branches)
  • Peddle up the dirt jump and over the creek (Whooooooo!)
  • And cut through the very end of the odd little street to HOME!

 

The ‘odd little street’ was, in fact, Orchard Street, a street which Kevin had only just discovered. The quiet dead end street seemed forgotten by the whole neighbourhood. At the very end was a narrow path between two fences (just wide enough for Kevin’s handlebars to fit) which popped out onto Kevin’s street. From there he could make it safely through his back gate and home. Kevin wasn’t as big and his bike wasn’t as fast as Levi’s, but he was nimble, he could weave in and out between trees and land small jumps easily. He was certain if Levi tried to follow him home on this route, he wouldn’t get caught.

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On his last day of school holidays Kevin had timed it on his stopwatch. In a hurry, with his new school bag worn like a backpack and with both hands on the handlebars, he could make it home twelve minutes and ten seconds.

But he never did. Because at eleven minutes and thirteen seconds each afternoon since that day, Kevin stopped outside the strange shop that was tucked in the corner of Orchard Street, and pressed his nose to the dirty glass.

Can you see it on the map? It’s the little rectangle in red.

The first time Kevin looked inside, the windows were so dirty that he couldn’t see in. He pulled the sleeve of his jumper over the heel of his hand and rubbed on the glass. It made a loud squeak. He jumped back. Had the people inside heard? He turned to pick up his bike to leave, but stopped. Who was inside? What did they do in there? Kevin pulled up his sleeve and rubbed again, this time a little more carefully so he didn’t make a noise. After a moment, the dirt began to come off and there was a small patch in the middle that he could see through. He pressed his nose firmly against the glass, cupped his hands around the side of his face to cut out the glare, and stared in.

The room was dingy and dim. There was no furniture and the grey walls were bare. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long wire, giving off a pale light. In the centre of the room stood a squat looking man dressed in long robes of orange cloth, with large panels of gold embroidery around the collar, on the sleeves, and on the bottom hem which brushed his bare feet. The man was staring downwards, the bald crown of his head towards Kevin. His arms were outstretched, and between his hands was a gold bladed sword, its tip touching the stone floor in front of him. Suddenly in one swift motion (Kevin would swear from outside he heard a ‘whoosh!’ as the air parted) he lifted the sword high above his head and…

Kyup!’

Kevin leapt away from the window. What was that? He looked around. No-one else was on the street. No-one else was there to notice. He crept back up to the glass, and when he peered in again, he was astonished.

The little room he’d been looking in was utterly different. It was bright and modern. Lights were on, the walls were painted white and packed with photographs. There were mirrors at the far end, with two flags above them. Kevin recognised the Australian flag, its blue, red and white, with the Union Jack and Southern Cross. But the second flag was unlike anything Kevin had seen. It was square, on a turquoise background with a golden tower in each corner and a red flame in the middle. Through the glass it almost looked to Kevin as if the flame was flickering. There were blue mats across the floor, and a bald-headed man (who Kevin was certain he had seen a few moments ago wearing robes and holding a sword), was dressed in a black outfit with red edging. He was pacing along the front of the room, shouting instructions with a sound Kevin hadn’t heard before.

There were four students, lined up in two rows of two, each dressed in black pants and jackets, (‘dobok’, Kevin would later practise saying, enjoying the way the ‘bok’ burst from his lips). They had coloured belts around their waists. Every time the instructor shouted a different word, the four students punched, and gave a funny yell.

‘Hana!’             

‘Kyup!’

‘Tul!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Set!’                 

‘Kyup!’

‘Net!’                

‘Kyup!’

‘Tasot!’             

‘Kyup!’

Suddenly the instructor stopped shouting and looked through the clear patch in the window straight at Kevin. Kevin stepped back. He shouldn’t be peeking. But the instructor merely nodded slowly in acknowledgement of him, with a hint of a smile, then turned his attention back to his students.

‘Yossot!’            

‘Kyup!’

The four students threw another punch.

Kevin grabbed his bike and pedalled home, his heart beating fast. He felt a little scared, a little excited, and most of all, he couldn’t wait to look inside again tomorrow.

For two weeks each afternoon after school, Kevin stopped at the shopfront, pressed his nose against the window and watched the students on the blue mats. The tall student with a blue belt around his waist could somersault over a pommel horse and land back on his feet! The student wearing a green belt kicked quick and high. The other two children were small, and the legs and sleeves of their uniforms so long, that they had been rolled up. They were wrestling on one of the mats. Kevin watched the students curiously. If he could learn to do that, would he be better prepared against Levi Baxter? Then he pictured his mum. ‘Maybe next year,’ he saw her saying, as she always did when he asked about something that needed money. She would follow it with a quiet sigh. Plus, he was still in trouble for ‘losing’ his school bag (completely unfair as it wasn’t even his fault!) Besides, there was something else that bothered him. It was the instructor.

Only occasionally did Kevin try to get a peek at the instructor. Shorter than the student in the blue belt, his head was shiny and domed like the top of a brown egg. When he demonstrated kicks, his legs moved so fast Kevin only saw a blur, followed by a crisp thwack as his dobok pants snapped. But even out of the corner of his eye, Kevin couldn’t forget the image of the orange and gold robes, a glinting sword, the sound of a whoosh as it cut through the air…and it made him shiver.

 

Today, as Kevin was pedalling out of the school grounds, dark clouds blew over the sky. By the time he reached the oval, raindrops were falling. He stood up in his pedals and rode faster. Too wet to stop today, he thought. He jumped his bike over the creek, and turned onto Orchard Street when a fierce wall of wind howled down the road and hit Kevin from behind. Woomph! It blew through his woollen jumper and chilled him from his back to his elbows. Where did that come from? he thought. Kevin mounted the curb and cycled down the footpath, out of the rain. But the wind followed him. Wooooomph! It hit him again, this time whipping around his legs, and he wobbled on his bike, but he kept pedalling. He was almost at the shop when the hanging sign began to swing on its rusty chains, sending an eerie whine down the footpath. Kevin stared up at it as he cycled underneath and then WHAP! A piece of paper smacked him right in the face. It covered his eyes, he was cycling blind! Kevin snatched the paper away with one hand, just in time to see the shopfront directly in front of him. His bike slammed into the wall, and he tumbled to the ground.

Owwww!’

Kevin rolled over, and lay on his back for a moment, catching his breath. He rubbed the back of his head, a small nugget was already forming there. He examined the rest of himself. A few scratches on his knuckles and he’d have bruises tomorrow, not too bad. But his bike hadn’t been as lucky. The front wheel was bent and the tyre had burst open. The handlebars were scratched and the shiny bell dome was dented. Kevin pressed the thumb lever. Instead of a sprightly ‘briiiiingggg’ to announce itself, the bell made a disappointing ‘vvvvvvvvvvv. Kevin slumped. Replacing the bell would take the last of the ninth birthday money he had stashed in his piggy bank. The rain was getting heavier. And he would have to push his bike home. What a stupid day. He stepped forward to see if anyone from inside the shop had heard anything, when a dreadful sound boomed from the end of the street.

‘Jones. I SEE YOU!’

Levi Baxter!

‘This is how you’ve been getting away!’ he shouted.

Kevin stepped backwards, and reached down for his bike. ‘Stay away from me Levi, or I’ll…I’ll…do something!’ he said. He swung his leg over his bike and pushed on the pedal, but with the bent wheel it wouldn’t move. Levi started to laugh.

It must be explained here that Levi Baxter didn’t laugh like other eleven year olds. His laugh was slow and menacing, and his chin and throat puffed out like a bullfrog (Josh Sampson had passed a note around the class while they were watching a video about bullfrogs in science lesson — ‘Looks like Levi Baxter’s twin brother!!!’ it said. The note made it half-way around the class before their teacher Mr Hutchins spotted it, and Noah Samuels ate it on the spot). Now Levi was pacing, step by step, down Orchard Street towards Kevin. ‘What are you going to do?’ he said. He was close. Too close. Kevin pushed on the pedal again, but it wouldn’t budge. Levi had nearly reached him. Kevin threw down the bike and started to run. ‘You’ll never outrun me, Jones!’ And Levi leapt after him.

Without thinking, Kevin changed direction and threw himself at the red door. He grabbed and turned the brass brussels sprouts handle, threw the door open and jumped inside. Bang! There was an eerie echo as the red door slammed shut behind him. Kevin stared, terrified, as the door handle rattled and the red door shook, but it didn’t open. Levi banged on the outside. His voice was muffled through the door, but Kevin heard him. ‘You can’t hide in there forever! Next time, Jones. Next time I’ll get you, you wimp!’ He heard the sounds of his bicycle being stomped on. The crunch of metal. A final ‘vv v v v v v …’ from his bike bell. Then silence.

‘Phew.’ Kevin turned away from the door.

Standing in front of him was the bald-headed instructor.

The instructor looked calmly at Kevin. Then he slowly bowed his head. When he raised it again, Kevin noticed his face was older than he’d thought. His golden skin was wrinkled like a shrunken balloon and his eyes were little half-moons. His eyebrows were pale with flecks of gold. Unsure what was expected, Kevin awkwardly tried a bow.

‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘I am Master Cheng.’ His voice was gentle but confusing, an accent Kevin hadn’t heard before. ‘I am waiting. You are here for free lesson.’

Kevin looked blankly. Master Cheng nodded in the direction of Kevin’s hand. Kevin looked down. Clutched tightly in his fist was the small piece of paper that had hit him in the face as he had cycled down the road. He hadn’t realised he was still holding it. He smoothed it out and read what was on the paper.

J.Brown_image4‘And you are owner of paper, yes?’ said Master Cheng.

Kevin thought about it. If it flew into his face, did that make him the owner? The door behind him had stopped rattling, but he had no idea whether Levi was now waiting quietly in ambush outside. So he nodded. Master Cheng smiled.

‘Then your time has come, young jeonsa.’ My young student. And he pointed Kevin in the direction of the dojang.

 

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

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Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

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From What She Knew, Vanessa Ryan

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This is an excerpt from a novel in progress entitled What She Knew, which is written for an adult female audience and falls into the genre of Contemporary Literary Fiction. Kitty is a traumatised and emotionally numb young woman trying to run from the ghosts of her past by changing everything she can about herself, partying hard and travelling the world in her quest for a perpetual summer. However the ghosts won’t leave her alone. She soon realises that she has to face up to the fact that her father is a murderer and that she is the sole witness to that murder twenty years ago.

 

Chapter One

June 2007, Berlin

On the day Kitty is forced to give up her fake life she calls in sick to her job as an English Language Teacher and heads to Viktoriapark to drink cheap white wine with her best-friend Sylvana.

‘This looks like a good place to sit,’ says Kitty, plopping herself on the ground in the deep shadow cast by the wide arms of a willow. She slips her shoes off and flexes her toes over the soft grass. Her skin is as white as a ghost-gum from avoiding the sun for years because she grew up in Australia and is paranoid about skin cancer. Sylvana is from Malta and doesn’t give a crap about skin cancer. She stretches out in the sun, lowering her bra straps over her shoulders to avoid tan lines.

‘I always wondered why the ground here is so uneven,’ says Sylvana looking at the grass field that slopes up and down like a toddler’s drawing. The lawn is dotted by groups of sunbathers, drinking beer or wine, smoking dope, reading books, eating hummus, playing the bongos. A group of Turkish boys kick a ball around, their dark hair soaked with sweat.

‘There are World War Two bunkers under the ground,’ Kitty says. ‘I think people used to hide in them when there were air raids.’

‘Ah, right. Mystery solved. You’re so smart Kitty.’

Kitty shrugs. ’I just read about it in a guidebook once.’ She opens the wine bottle with a Swiss Army Knife, pours it into two plastic champagne glasses and hands one to Sylvana. They hold their glasses up, Prost!, Kitty sips delicately, the wine is tart and makes her mouth pucker.

‘Anyway. Do you know that so-called photographer, that pink-haired Swedish girl?’ asks Sylvana.

Kitty nods, recalling the pretty Swedish girl with washed-out pink hair, who turns up at art shows regularly, looking hip and vain.

‘Well, I heard that she’s not a lesbian. She says she’s a hobby lesbian so she can score cool points with the gay art community and all the lesbians have a huge crush on her. She’s a pussy tease. She’s as straight as a…’ Sylvana searches for a word, ‘as straight as a banana.’

Kitty frowns, ‘Bananas are crooked?’

‘She is crooked,’ replies Sylvana.

Kitty snorts and lights a filter tip cigarette, takes the bottle of wine and tops up her plastic cup. She leans back on her elbows in the grass and feels the earth under her fingers, spongy and damp. She smells water in the air and knows that the good weather isn’t going to last long, so she decides to enjoy this moment, the air still and calm, the sun’s rays rinsing the world in mellow amber. Kitty has a vision of them sitting in a moving painting, and she and everyone around her perform these orange-hued, warm actions over and over again in a simple sepia-stained loop, always framed in gold. Before her lies the sea of possibilities, winding out like every mid-summer evening, the heady scent of summer flowers, a constant stream of wine, every person an old friend who is happy to see you, the music swinging, the sound of laughter.  She wants to freeze this one perfect moment and keep it in a locket around her neck.

Sylvana chatters on about the saga of her almost-ex-boyfriend and his intense hatred of her new boyfriend. Kitty is nodding along, when her relaxed mood is interrupted by the sound of a low rasping voice, talking intensely.  A chill shoots through her. She listens harder, Sylvana becomes background noise as Kitty concentrates on the rhythms of the speaker. She recognises her father’s timbre, hollow and singular. Her stomach clenches, the wine sloshing uncomfortably. She glances up, and wills her head to turn in the direction of the voice, trying to look casual, and is relieved to see it isn’t her father, but a man in his mid-thirties, talking in the ear of a woman who looks stricken. The pair standout like a dirty smudge on the bright green grass, the woman dressed in a drab grey track suit, the man wears a filthy white baseball hat and a pair of dark sunglasses. Kitty realises that if she stands, walks over to him and whisks the glasses from his face, she will see the same eyes her father had, animal and hypnotising, like a lion. He rests his arm casually over the woman’s shoulders, owning her with that one gesture. The woman’s body leans away from him, her eyes searching, as if looking for help, and for a moment she locks on Kitty, who turns her head and stands suddenly.

‘I have to go,’ she says slipping her shoes back on.

‘Are you ok?’ Sylvana asks, ashing her cigarette.

‘I forgot, I promised to meet Fabrice in half an hour, so I should go,’ says Kitty shrugging her shoulder.

‘Sure, ok. Call me later, yeah?’ says Sylvana, handing Kitty her bag.

‘Ok,’ says Kitty, who turns and walks out of the park, not daring to look to see if the man is still there.

 

Kitty and Fabrice are lying naked on Fabrice’s bed, the sheets are soft from sweat and smell like sex and dope from the countless afternoons they have laid there talking and dreaming. A browning orchid sits on the windowsill, a pile of dirty clothes are heaped in the corner next to Fabrice’s drum-kit.

‘Tell me a secret,’ she says, her head in the crook of his elbow.

Fabrice takes a drag of his joint and blows a plume of smoke out above his head, the earthy smell of marijuana floating in the room.

‘A secret? I don’t have any secrets,’ he says, his voice slow and soft, his French accent stronger now that he is stoned. She looks at his face, high cheekbones, aquiline nose and thinks to herself that it is carved from pure light.

‘Sure you do, everyone has secrets, sometimes they don’t even know they’re hiding them,’ she says running her finger around his nipple.

He catches her hand. ’That tickles,’ he says laughing.

‘Come on, you must have something,’ she says. Suddenly she has to find out what is behind his placid smile.

‘Ok, uh, when I was in Nepal I snuck over the border of Tibet in the back of a truck, and then the truck driver tried to blackmail me into paying him a hundred dollars or he’d turn me over to the Chinese government, so I hit him and ran off and hitched a ride back with a different driver who I paid a hundred dollars to get me out of there.’

‘That’s not a secret, you’ve told me that. That’s an adventure story,’ she sighs, plucks the joint from his hand, rolls over and takes a drag.

‘Ok, sorry my secret isn’t secret enough. Do you have a secret that will show me what type of secret I might be secretly hiding?’

‘You’re so stoned!’ she laughs.

He laughs too, his white teeth flashing, eyes half closed. She takes a drag of the joint and sits up, her naked body cold in the smoke-filled room.

‘Yeah, I got a secret, a real weird one. I think my Dad is a murderer. I think he killed two girls,’ she says. Her voice echoes in her ears, and she feels that what she’s saying can’t be true, it’s an absurd joke.

‘Bullshit,’ he laughs, taking another drag.

‘Yeah. It’s true. I was just a kid. But I wasn’t Kitty back then, I was Lisa,’ she says, her former name rolling around her mouth like a slippery stone. She feels her hands shaking and holds them trying to stop the tremor, but her arms start to shake instead. Fabrice looks at her, confusion on his face.

‘Really, I think he killed two girls that lived next door to us and hid their bodies. The police questioned him and everything, but the bodies were never found,’ she says. Her chest wells up as if a tight white ball is inflating inside her and she’s afraid that if she says anything else it will explode and her body will fly apart.

Fabrice sits up, his smile gone.

‘That’s heavy,’ his shoulder slumping, a line furrowing between his brow.

She snaps back to the room, realising that she’s said too much. She doesn’t want him to ask questions, she’s scared she’ll blurt everything out and then she’ll have to face things she doesn’t want to know about. She doesn’t want to know what she knows.

‘No, I mean. Nothing happened. The police just wanted to question him, and they did and then nothing happened,’ she says, backpedalling.

‘Really? Then why did you say you think he’s a murderer, when he only got questioned?’

‘Because, I don’t know, I don’t remember,’ and it’s true, she can’t remember.

‘I’ve got to go,’ she says, untangling herself from the bed sheets. She picks out her fishnet stockings from the pile of clothes next to the bed and pulls them on.

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Fabrice, grabbing a pair of ripped jeans.

‘I want to be alone,’ she says glaring at him.

His hands, holding the crumpled jeans, stop in mid-air. He looks at her and doesn’t say anything. She smiles.

‘It’s bullshit,’ she says, zipping her black denim skirt shut and picking up her bag.

‘Ok. See you at the show?’ His eyes are hopeful.

Kitty sighs. She’d almost forgotten they had to perform that night.

‘Yeah. See you,’ she says, walking out of the studio apartment, slamming the door.

It’s only when she is half-way home that she realises she forgot to kiss him goodbye.

 

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

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They would have their revenge one day, these bastard children, sons of bitches and Helot slaves, they were filthy mutts, unworthy of Spartan rights and citizenship. Their Spartiate fathers had disowned them after the First Messenian war, their Helot mothers tried to protect their puny sons, but they were better off to be thrown over Mount Taygetos, down into the chasm of the Apothetae. They were named, the Parthenians, the sons of virgins, born out of wedlock, and wherever they went, they were attacked with cacophonous insults from the Spartans, that scathed their hearts. For they were inferiors, half-bloods; but they would have their rancorous vengeance, oh yes they would, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Amyklai, Lakonia, 706. B. C. E.

 

In the month of Hekatombaion, Neophytos the Parthenian was at the Amyklaion sanctuary celebrating the Hyakinthia festival among the Spartans, Periokoi and Helots. It was the second day of the festival. Neophytos was lined up behind other men on the right side of Apollo’s temple, waiting for the sausage contest to begin. There were six older men in front of him, wearing the red cloaks of Spartan men. He looked above them and gazed at the almighty, towering statue of Apollo; he wore the Corinthian helmet, held a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right that pointed down towards the entrance of his rectangular temple. Neophytos could see through the marble columns the priestess offering a chiton the women had sewn for the festival, and watched as she placed it down on the pedestal shaped as an altar that the statue was built on; a gift to Apollo, rejoicing in honour of him and his lover Hyakinthos. May they be blessed, he thought, looking away and staring at the cooked pieces of pig intestines filled with pork mince in front of him, hanging on the wall. Each sausage was pierced with a spear to keep it in place – by the gods, they looked delicious to eat. Neophytos licked his lips as he heard someone laugh beside him.

‘You look hungry Neo, I can see you desire to test your tongue.’

‘All in good time Timaios,’ he said, laughing with his friend. ‘But I will win the eating contest today.’ Of course he would, his stomach was grumbling for food, he could eat four pigs like Dionysos feasting, and then drink it all down with diluted wine; he could salivate on the tenderness of each meat – ah, he wished the damn contest would start already.

‘I am not so sure, Apollo standing before you is on my side today, have you not seen the hyacinth flower I wear?’

Neophytos looked down and saw the red flower attached to Timaios’s belt. The bastard, Apollo would favour him today. ‘Where did you get that?’

‘From your averter of unlawful desires.’

‘My Oreithyia?’

‘Yes, she entered the sanctuary moments ago with the other dancers, they are handing the flowers around for good fortune. It seems I am in more luck.’

Neophytos turned away from his friend, looking for his beloved – where was she? More men joined the two lines for the contest. Neophytos looked over their heads, searching for the girl who doted him with her honey-sweet love. When was the last time he had seen her, four days ago? She had been preparing with the other girls for the procession dances for their three-day Hyakinthia festival.

People were scattered everywhere: other Spartan men were near the lounging statues of couples who lay on marble recliners shaped as lions feet, children raced each other to the left of the sanctuary near the marble buildings, and outside of the precinct chariot races would be starting soon, after the parades of carts decorated with Spartan girls and women finished going around. Then to his right, on the other side of the temple, were four rows of choir boys and girls already competing amongst themselves, playing the kitharas and aulos, and singing the celebration song to Apollo; Oh great Apollo, hail! God of the golden bow and the creator of the hyacinth flower. Oh great Apollo, hail!

People everywhere wore crimson tunics: the women wore short chitons, Spartan men were draped with their red cloaks, and they all wore grassy wreaths – except for the Helots, Neophytos’s mother amongst them. They stood out like deer, waiting for their predators to strike them down. They wore the symbol of their social class; dog-skin caps, that shielded their faces from Helios’ rays. Why could they not have a day off from wearing them? Neophytos thought.

He turned away from the groups of Helots and saw a couple of women walking around with baskets filled with hyacinths in their arms, their long, violet chitons lapping and fluttering in the wind like Pegasus’s wings; their veils covering their braided hair. One of the girls, Oreithyia, bent down and handed a child a red flower. She smiled at the little boy and Neophytos felt an overwhelming feeling of love that swelled his heart and made him smile. Ah, my Oreithyia, he thought.

He watched the little boy, a couple of metres in front of him, place the flower amongst the many others that rested against the circular altar. Neophytos remembered how he had gone to the altar yesterday with his mother and half-siblings, and placed their own red flowers amongst the rivers of red and purple flora. It had been the sorrowful day, the first day of the Hyakinthia festival where everyone mourned with Apollo for the loss of his lover, Hyakinthos. The hyacinth flowers spilled along the circular altar like the spilled blood of Hyakinthos when he had been killed by a discus. Neophytos could not imagine losing Oreithyia. How long had it been now since their secret union when they had first tasted each other’s lips? He watched her rise from the ground and place the basket on her head, the flowers complementing her rosy lips and tanned skin. May Apollo bless her, she looked like a sun-light Hesperides, rich and luscious like the golden apples they were entrusted to care for. If only he could hold her in front of everyone like they did every night when her betrothed, Dexios, was away, fighting in battle with the other Spartans. He watched her compose herself, and when she was ready to walk away from the altar, she looked up, and Neophytos and her locked eyes on each other, and without being aware that Neophytos had been watching her, thinking about their relationship and her beauty, she stood there and smiled at him, Neophytos the Parthenian, the man she truly loved, and she wondered if they would ever be together, to hold hands in public. However, she would be ridiculed if she married him by the ever-watchful Spartan women, whose eyes were all-seeing like Argos-Panoptes; but she could not help thinking that if only Neophytos was a full-blooded Spartan like Dexios, they would be able to wed and create their own family. Yet, Neophytos had lost that right once he was born a half-blood, he had been dishonoured by the community to remain wifeless like the rest of the Parthenians. She did not know how their love affair was going to end, and when, and if Dexios returned, she could go through with marrying her betrothed. She looked away and bent down to give a little girl a flower – may her fate be different to her own.

Neophytos turned back to Timaios who had been watching him stare at Oreithyia. He was the only man who knew of their affair, but he had told them, their secret was safe with him. Just as Neophytos was about to talk about Oreithyia with Timaios, an old man shouted behind him, ‘Move, you dirty Parthenians.’

Timaios elbowed Neophytos, but he ignored his friend.

‘Are you deaf, boy? Move out of the way, you bastard child!’

Neophytos folded his arms, ‘Wait your turn, you old brute, there is plenty for all.’

Move.’

The Spartan men in front of him now turned around. ‘Let him through, show some respect to your elders,’ one said.

‘Did your mother teach you any manners?’

‘With this one, how could she when she is bending over like a dog,’ another said, who wore wristbands.

Neophytos clenched his fists while his arms were still folded; he tightened his jaw, wishing he could put these men in their place.

‘I bet ten drachmas a Helot is breathing hot desire into her bosoms and thighs,’ the man with wristbands continued.

‘Shut up, you cock-sucking swine,’ Neophytos yelled.

‘Come at me, boy. I will rip your balls off; there is no use for them in our city.’

‘You dare make war upon me, I scorn the threats you vomit forth.’ Neophytos lunged at the man in front of him, but the old man, who had tried to push through, knocked him in the ribs. He let out a breath full of air as the old man grabbed his arms behind his back.

No sound echoed throughout the sanctuary anymore; the choirs of girls and boys stopped competing. All eyes watched the men in front of the temple of Apollo.

‘Let him go!’ Timaios yelled.

‘Silence him,’ the man with wristbands yelled. Another Spartan punched Timaios and he fell to the ground.

‘Do you know who you are speaking to, boy?’ the man asked Neophytos. He did not care; he was a pig-headed brute, just like the rest of the Spartans. He did not answer him, but fumed out his anger.

‘Hold him steady, I want to admire the craftsmanship my son did to this Parthenian years ago.’ He pulled down the tunic from Neophytos’s chest and exposed the scar of the letter P above his left breast.

‘You are Dexios’s father?’

‘Yes, I am Doriskos.’

Neophytos remembered that day like any other when he had been bashed and ambushed by the Spartan boys, before they went to the barracks and trained in the agoge. Two boys had held him down while Dexios straddled him and carved the letter into his skin, branding him as a Parthenian forever. Someone had yelled for him to stop, Neophytos had thought the torture would end, but once the man approached them, he had said, ‘keep going, son, you need to carve deeper than into the flesh.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw as Doriskos’s face was so close to his own. This was enough, there had to be a change, he had to be respected, to be an equal. He head-butted Doriskos and watched the man fall back to the ground. The men stood still, shocked with what he had done. Neophytos was able to loosen his hands from the old man’s grip and punched him in the face. He grabbed Timaios’s hand and yanked him up. ‘Victory for the Parthenians!’ he chanted.

Spartan men now lunged for them, throwing punches to stop them, but other Parthenians around joined in – this was not about a misunderstanding.

Women yanked their children away and ran out of the sanctuary, screaming. Dirt lifted into the air as people rushed away over the precinct wall and down the hill of the sanctuary into the bushes.

‘The gods will have their heads,’ someone screamed.

Neophytos punched another man to the ground with Timaios beside him. He looked around the rushing crowd but could not see the purple figure of his beloved. He was about to run to the circular altar to look for her when someone pushed him into the marble wall of the temple. The pork sausages fell to the ground, some hit Neophytos’s head. He saw a wristband coming at him and he was punched in the face. He shook his head, drool falling to the ground, and took a swing at the man, punching him in the face. He jumped up, grabbed hold of Doriskos’s shoulders and kneed him in the genitals – now who would not be able to use his balls? Neophytos thought. With his hands full of Doriskos’s hair, he bashed and bashed his head against the temple wall – more sacrificial blood for Apollo. The man fell to the ground, blood frothed from his mouth, dyeing his beard the colour of wine. Neophytos with one knee, knelt down on Doriskos’s chest. Timaios approached him from behind, blood smeared on his cheek and mouth, a sword in hand, and gave it to Neophytos.

He smiled down at the man, shouts and screams drilled into his hears, but he let them fade away; this was his sanguinary time. ‘Tell your son you were defeated by Neophytos the Parthenian.’ He hoisted the sword and took his strike. A croaked yelp, spurted blood, hacked bone, an annihilated arm – ah, the smell of victory.

Timaios smacked Neophytos on the back, ‘That will teach them; we will bring death upon the enemy.’

‘Let this one live,’ Neo said, ‘his son can see the mark I have left behind for him.’ He wiped the sweat dripping from his face, noting that he needed to change his headband once he got home, and turned around. He could see red cloaks twirling in dirt, and ripped crimson tunics moving side to side like snakes. He felt like a suppressed dog that had been suffocated by a leash, had finally bit back and ripped its teeth into its master’s arm, puncturing the skin; the blood oozing, the bitter taste and smell reassuring the dog of its freedom.

Neophytos noticed that amongst the blood and tunics, there were scattered hyacinth flowers around the circular altar. Had Oreithyia escaped? He was about to run over to the altar when he saw an arm appear with bangles, leaning on the ground, and a purple figure revealed herself closer to the flowers, bent down on her knees and looking around the sanctuary. Her veil had fallen from her head; parts of her hair had fallen out of her braid. Oreithyia looked up and Neophytos caught her eye. They stared at each other – if only he could take her to safety, but she could take care of herself, she had been doing it for a long time since her mother had died, when she was younger. Oreithyia stared back at Neophytos; blood soaked his hair, his hands covered in it. When would the fighting end, she thought, when would all of this frightening end?

‘Neo, come help me,’ Timaios called, fighting two Spartans.

He took one last look at Oreithyia and motioned his head to the right – go, run, he thought. He took a bronze dagger from a body on the ground and hurled it at one of the Spartans. It hit the man in the chest and he fell to the ground. Neophytos ran towards Timaios, snatched a sword from another body and struck another man down in his way. He followed Timaios away from the temple and jumped on top of one of the reclining couples statues, and fought another Spartan. The man’s sword cut into Neophytos’s arm, but he ignored the pain and thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. He thought he was in a bloody bath as he watched the blood purge out of the man once he withdrew his sword.

‘Stop this madness,’ someone yelled.

Neophytos looked up, still mantled on the statue, and saw his friend, Phalanthos, on the steps of the temple, holding a spear like the statue of Apollo above his head, but with blistered hands, and an index finger missing.

‘Heed yourselves.’

‘They must be put in place,’ Neophytos yelled, jumping off the statue and walking towards Phalanthos. He kicked a flinching hand on the ground that tried to grab a sword.

‘You are all fools, they will gather more Spartans and they will come find us and kills us.’

‘Not if we take the upper hand,’ Timaios yelled, stepping closer to Neophytos.

‘They will come, they will kill our families, we must go, now.

Neophytos looked at Timaios, perhaps if they killed the two Spartan kings they would not have to leave the city. They needed more weapons, they could fight them off?

‘We must go, leave the dead; the women will return and bury them.’ Neophytos watched as Phalanthos hurried down the stone steps, his long blonde braid swishing side to side as he walked right up to him. ‘Follow me; they will drive us out of the city.’

‘The gods will ensure us victory if we stay.’

‘Hold your tongue, Apollo will smite us for this treachery. We have spilt blood on a day of celebration. Gather your belongings from Messoa and we shall meet at Therapne,’ he turned away from Neophytos. ‘Hurry, men.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw, but listened to Phalanthos’s wise words – he was always right. He was the first Parthenian to train and educate the other Parthenians to be strong and fearless warriors, when all the Spartan boys at the age of seven left to go live in the barracks and train. Phalanthos would take them to the Plantanistas, a secret place that was surrounded by plane-tree groves, a couple of metres south of the tribe of Messoa. Two groups of Spartan boys would brawl with each other there for a couple of months, biting and gouging each others’ eyes out until one group won. Neophytos had learned how to fight with his fists and legs. The first time he had trained with daggers was the day he had been attacked by Dexios in the marketplace at night. If Phalanthos had not found him with Timaios, he would have not been able to take his spiteful revenge.

Timaios turned to him, ‘We could still raise an attack.’

‘I think Phalanthos is right, we are not able to control this.’

They followed the Parthenians down the sanctuary hill. It was going to take a good hour heading north on foot to get to Messoa and far away from Amyklai. Neophytos then noticed that Timaios’s hyacinth flower under his belt had missing petals, a couple still held on, but they were ripped and damaged – discoloured, just like Neophytos’s own heart.

 

Neophytos was beating down a sheet of bronze material later on that night, when the blacksmith’s workshop door slammed open.

‘They are going to kill you; they are sending the krypteia out tonight!’

‘Let them come,’ he said, looking up, ‘I will cut their throats.’

‘Why must you shed more blood to be heard?’ Oreithyia took a step closer to him, her golden bangles jingling. He liked the sound of them, how they reminded him of her and when they had first kissed. It had been the Karneia festival and he had been watching her dance, her bangles and anklets clinking together with every precise twist and flick she made with her hands, her body whirling in the ring dance with four other chosen girls who were unmarried; he had become enchanted by her like Aphrodite herself, and that day, he had talked her into watching him during an athletic race. They had kissed afterwards behind one of the tents set up for the festival. She had revealed she had always been filled with pothos, passionate longing for him, since that day in the marketplace when he had given her food to take home. It had been raining, and it was the dreadful time she had lost her mother to childbirth. How things were changing now, he knew she did not want him to fight for his cause.

‘They will kill you; you will leave me and go to Hades.’

‘My rightful place is to be honoured, to be respected as an equal.’

‘Do not let your pride suffocate you.’

‘How can I when they have taken my right to marry, am I to remain wifeless because I was born a Parthenian?’

‘They are going to kill you.’

‘I am leaving with the others.’

‘What about me, are you going to leave me all on my own?’

Beads of sweat travelled down Neophytos’s face, his olive skin was alight by the fire in the corner that was illuminating the dark room. He ignored her and kept bashing down the bronze material, he needed to finish this, he had to get it right, it would be his last job as a blacksmith.

‘Do I mean anything to you?’

He stopped. His hand unclasped the hammer and he leaned forward on the stone bench, his weight pushed on his arms, his head bent down. She had to come with him, he could not leave her with Dexios; he could not leave her here. He clenched his jaw, wiped his face with his arm and stood up. Their eyes interlocked and they stared at each other.

‘You will come with me.’

‘I will not die for your cause.’

‘I am waiting for Phalanthos’s orders’ we are planning on leaving the city.’

‘But I thought – ’

They heard a noise outside. Neophytos walked in front of Oreithyia – Zeus forbid, had the krypteia been sent out already? He grabbed his sword from the wooden stool where he had left it and watched the door pull open. He raised his sword, ready to strike.

‘I have word,’ Timaios said, taking in deep breaths, leaning forward.

Neophytos withdrew, and threw his sword on the stone bench. ‘What is the news?’

‘Phalanthos has returned, there is word going around that they are attacking us tonight.’

‘We must go.’ Neophytos grabbed his sword and the bronze armour he had been beating down to fit him. ‘Oreithyia, you must come with us.’

‘I cannot leave my family.’

‘If you want a life with Dexios and to bear his children, stay, but if you want to be with me, to be free of these people, come with us, we will marry, I will be able to marry you.’

They left the blacksmith’s workshop, Neophytos holding Oreithyia’s hand, his woollen cloak flapping in the wind, Timaios behind them. They travelled south to Neophytos’s family home and once they were in, his mother, Krateia, stood up from the hearth she had been sitting near.

‘Where have you been, I thought you were killed?’ she hugged her son, and Neophytos let go of Oreithyia’s hand.

‘We are leaving the city with the other Parthenians.’ He told her of their plan and the Spartan’s attack tonight. ‘You must stay indoors; they could kill Blathyllos and Elatreus if they see them.’

His mother called his half-brothers over to sit at the hearth where his half-sisters, Kydilla and Limnoreia were slurping down their broth soups in wooden bowls. ‘Will we not see you again, my boy?’

‘Boethus will take care of you all, I will send a messenger if our plans have been a success, but if you do not hear from me in a couple of years, you must find peace.’

He saw his step-father, Boethus, another helot, carving into wood, making a figurine. He did not move. His mother looked at Oreithyia behind him and Timaios, and she smiled. She looked up at her boy for the last time and cupped his face, ‘May the gods be with you all, my son.’ She kissed him twice on both cheeks and he hugged his siblings goodbye.

His step-father finally stepped forward, ‘Your mother will be fine with us,’ and handed him the figurine he had been carving.

They left the house and saw a snake of light approaching Messoa from the citadel of Sparta. The enemy was coming. They climbed onto their horses and travelled south to Therapne and met up with the other Parthenians and Phalanthos. Before Neophytos left, he looked down at the wooden figurine in his hand, and saw that it was Zeus Tropaios – he who turns to flight.

The Parthenians would find a new fate with order and law, by their own making, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Glossary

Agoge                                    Spartan system of education and military training

Apothetae                             deposits

Aulos                                      an ancient wind instrument like a pipe

Argos-Panoptes                   a one hundred-eyed giant

Drachmas                              ancient coinage/currency

Hekatombaion                     July/August Summer

Helot                                      captured Greeks of Messenia and turned into slaves for Spartans, they were subjugated and carried out domestic duties and farming

Hesperides                            nymphs who attend a blissful garden

Kithara                                  an ancient musical instrument – a lyre and similar to a modern harp and guitar

Spartiate                               Spartan men of equal status and known as peers

 

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Skyfall, Stephen Henry

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It was a way to fill in two hours and a velvet darkness that promised forgetfulness and escape, so Kyle bought a ticket to the latest Bond movie without even considering the name – Skyfall. He chose a seat at the side and settled in to the soothing murmur of other cinema goers, the softness of the seat and the gentle sound of cola and ice in a paper cup. He closed his eyes and fought that familiar sense; of a mindfulness of the present that teeters on the edge of the abyss… that threatens to fall and lose itself in the past.

The lights had no sooner dimmed for the previews than Kyle heard the giggle and ‘Shit!’, as popcorn was spilled and a teenage couple found their seats behind him. The

chatter began directly as the boy commented on the kiosk worker, ‘That guy really was a prick – he just ignored us for about ten minutes’. Then a read-aloud text from the girl – her friend wanting to know where she was.

‘Don’t tell her,’ said the boy.

Their attention was diverted to the screen, but the boy determinedly maintained the chatter as the new instalment of ‘Madagascar’ was previewed.

‘Mum’s gonna drag me along to see that next week, wants me there to help look after my little brother.’

‘He’s such a freak, you know he pinched my phone and sent a message to Ruby, telling her she has a big ass.’

They had a comment about every preview. ‘She’s fat.’

‘He’s hot.’

‘What a douche.’

Kyle thought about turning around. He should have hissed at them or told them to keep it down. A year ago he would have, if Megan had been with him, she would have, without a doubt. She probably would have told them to shut up or get out. Now though he didn’t have it in him. Besides that – he was thinking that he used to be like that,  that there was a time when as a fourteen year old, he crept sweaty-palmed out of home for the movies with Megan, and his heart was thumping and his mouth was dry and he was glad when she took his hand. They’d laughed their way through ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and shared a strawberry milkshake afterwards. She’d worn skinny jeans and a white blouse and had tied her hair up with a red ribbon, which he’d wanted to touch. So perhaps he should let the rituals of teenage romance take its course.

There was a faint scent now in the cinema, a perfume just out of reach and he half turned to the empty seat next to him before stopping himself. He took a sip of cola and swirled the ice, stretched his legs out under the seat in front of him and then tuned in to the couple behind again. They were weighing the merits of an actor in an upcoming sci-fi movie.

‘Ruby thinks he’s so hot but I think his neck is too long, see how his head just sits way up there?’

‘And he’s nearly bald anyway, I don’t really get what his movies are about.’

Their attention waned, but their conversation didn’t.

‘Hey, check this bruise out will ya? It’s kind of glowing here in the dark, all yellow and shit.’

‘That’s so freaky, how did you get it?’

‘Fell over, chasing my kid brother, knocked my knee on some rocks . . . didn’t hurt though.’

That little bit of bravado reached out to Kyle. He and Megan had discovered a mutual love for everything outdoors not long after Megan’s family moved into the area when Kyle was ten. Exploring the bushland behind Megan’s place, they had climbed or scrambled up whatever they could find, from small rock faces to the larger railway cuttings or the old willows with the ribbed bark that crowded down by the creek. One day they both scraped their right knees after running and falling among the mossy stones that lay scattered along the clear flowing water. Kyle had sat there barely holding back the tears while Megan laughed at him and called him a ‘sissy’. Later, Megan’s mother had stood them against the wall and hosed them off like baby elephants at the zoo before looking at the matching bruises and calling them a ‘pigeon pair’.

Kyle thought that once the feature started the pair behind him might shut up.

They didn’t, but their comments were drowned by the opening action in which Bond commandeers an excavator on the back of a moving train and uses it as a shield. Kyle was more interested in the backdrop as the train moved from a Turkish cityscape to the more scenic setting of sheer granite mountainsides and pine forests. He found himself automatically assessing the cliffs as potential jump sites and wondering what lay at their feet. By this time Bond had made his way onto the roof of the passenger section and was wrestling the villain for a gun as the train rolled over a high stone arch bridge that spanned an impossibly deep ravine. Eve, Bond’s accomplice, had stationed herself above and was looking down her gun sights at the two men fighting atop the train. She hesitated despite being ordered to ‘take the shot’ and hesitated again before squeezing the trigger. She winged Bond sending him sideways and over the edge of the train. Kyle’s breath caught as Bond fell head first, the camera refusing the urge to slow him down, in his grey suit he plummeted like a misshapen lump of granite into the swift flowing river at the base of the ravine. Kyle imagined the train rolling on into the mountains and Eve left there with the heaviness of the gun and its smell, the silence of the pines and the sky, broken only by the distant sound of that rushing river.

If he’d been thinking clearly he would have got up then an there and walked out of the cinema into the gathering twilight instead of sitting there while a nightmare underwater-world formed a surreal backdrop to the opening credits and the boy behind him commented stupidly on Bond’s remarkable ability to hold his breath.

He really was about to say something a little later when the smug little comment, ‘It’s a sawn off shotgun’, floated forward to the on-screen accompaniment of a man . . . sawing off the end of a shotgun.

In fact he was about to turn around and say, ‘You know about guns do you?’, and toyed with the idea of asking the precise make and model of the gun, or for an explanation of why shotguns are sawn off but realised he had no idea himself. Besides, there was that time, when he had pointed out a ‘Harley’ parked out the front of the corner pub. Only, when he had taken Megan over to admire its leather and chrome he’d noticed the ‘Honda Gold Wing’ insignia and hurried her away on some other pretext.

He and Megan had started some more serious hiking and abseiling together as teenagers, but the desire to feel the weightlessness of flight and air had made Kyle restless and Megan didn’t take much convincing. Their first attempt at hang gliding had been from a sea cliff on a day when the whitecaps on the Pacific looked small below but the instructor had suggested they wait for the wind to die a little. After lumbering to a take- off both had been struck by such a strong updraft that it blew them back up the slope to the tree-line, snapping a wing strut, puncturing a wing and leaving them laughing at their inability to fall. They had been introduced to base jumping by one of Megan’s friends and the jumping seemed to be a natural progression from the adventure sports that had come to dominate their life together. Their first trip out of Australia had been to jump from a span over a gorge in New Zealand generally used for bungy and from there they had ventured further afield. There was the terrifying morning they’d flung themselves from the bridge that joined the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and then a series of jumps in the south western states of America.

Kyle leaned back into the softness of the cinema chair, unable now to avoid thinking about the world of Bond and the world of certain types of men. Guns and motorbikes and falling from the sky without dying, men were expected to know about these things—he supposed. Although the last two years had shown him that such things often demanded a high price from boys and young men, and offered little in the way of redemption at the end of the process.

The action scenes on the screen had given way to the dark timbers, candlelight and cane furniture of a classic Shanghai hotel room. A perfumed Eve and a showered and towel-waisted Bond were getting dangerously close to each other, separated only by a razor. When she’d finished the shave, Eve’s tilt of the head and ‘That’s better’, were met by ‘Yeah’, from behind. He thought about the drama being played out so close to him and realised that the boy was testing out his desired role, weapons expert, one shot wonder and smooth talker. Over the next hour Kyle was privy to a mysterious process of becoming, amidst the popcorn smells and darkness of the cinema.

The boy started to respond on Bond’s behalf.

‘I didn’t think you could come up here’, queried Moneypenny.

‘You can’t’, the boy replied.

He tried his hand at repartee.

Bond: Everyone needs a hobby.

Bad guy: What’s yours?

Teen Bond: Kicking your ass.

He strategized like Bond.

‘He’s heading for the river dude, cut him off.’ He even started to give advice to Bond.

‘Leave him there under the ice, the bastard.’ As if Bond was his sidekick now, Robin to the teenage Batman.

Kyle wondered what the girl thought of the magical transformation of her boyfriend into wise cracking lady’s man secret agent. For the most part she sat there in seeming silence or simply murmured some indistinct response.

The silver Aston Martin DB5 represented the young Bond’s best chance though. He confidently announced it as a ’65 Aston Martin’ and kept up the patter as it took its usual place in the action. At one stage Kyle felt a sudden kick and pressure on his back as up on the screen a car chase took place. He realised that the boy had shoved his foot into his chair and was pressing down hard on the accelerator as Bond’s car came through the top of a corner.

Despite the initial discomfort, Kyle simply settled deeper into his chair and allowed himself to drift, back to that day, his car, Megan riding passenger. He was taking the corner on a rain slicked road just before dawn, jamming the old silver Skyline into fourth. The first glimmers of light could be seen to the east and the windows were down. It had rained last night and might rain again, the air a mixture of wet soil and eucalypt, but he figured they had at least three or four clear hours to get up there for the jump. Megan was looking west to catch the first glimpse of their next challenge. Her hair was hidden under a black cap but as she turned he caught a flash of red. This was to be their tenth jump together, but the first from an antenna mast. Their previous jump had been on their trip to the US, from the top of the sheer El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. There had been a light cover of snow over on the top of the Half Dome across the valley and the westering sun had changed the usual grey tones of the rock to a burnished bronze. The valley floor had moved into early shadow by the time Megan launched herself into space. He watched her grow small and the red of her opening chute below was like the flare of a distant match struck over the darkening valley. He had followed, and felt like some comet falling through the sky, for a moment giving no thought to whether his chute would open or not. The air numbed his cheeks and the tops of the pines rushed up to meet him. He glimpsed the river, ice blue from snowmelt before being jolted back up into the air by his harness. He’d landed next to Megan on the washed gravel of the riverbank and they’d built a driftwood fire there that evening as a way of holding on to such a moment and such a place. They’d talked for a while under the stars but their voices disappeared into the vastness of it all and so they sat, back to back, and fell into a sleepless quietude.

They were planning on another trip, Europe this time, and had been scraping some money together by doing some training work for a small sky diving company and working odd hours in the sports store owned by Megan’s brother.  So this jump was an indulgence, and a recognition that they were linked by the intangible nature of air. They were to be the first to jump from this particular antenna mast situated on the lower slopes of Mt Picken, overlooking the coastal plain on the north coast of NSW. The base of the antenna mast was a little way back from the road and they cut their way through the chain link fence surrounding it. A last check of equipment, harnesses, canopies, footwear, first aid and they started their climb. The first sixty metres was a steel ladder but after that they climbed using the spikes welded to the inside of the antenna. They stopped twice on the way up, the first time to watch the sun lift above the horizon and the second at a small platform two thirds of the way up for the warmth of thermos coffee and a pastry. The highest antenna array was three hundred and fifty metres above the plain and they arrived there, short of breath, forty five minutes after starting their climb. The sun, now well above the horizon, had turned the serpentining river course silver. This was the rich farmland of the river delta and the fields were a patchwork of gaffer green and stubble brown, the ocean, mirage-like, glimmered on the horizon. The adrenalin and the breeze which whistled through the guy-wires made normal conversation difficult, but they didn’t need to say much anyway.

As had become customary, Megan opted to jump first and eased herself to the exterior of the mast. She looked back at Kyle and smiled before turning her attention to what lay in front of her, the distant ocean and the patchwork below.

‘Three, two, one’ . . . the familiar jump, the abandoning of the self to the air, a gust…the shiver of a guy-wire, its tug and release, the sight of her hands spread wide to catch the sky and a glimpse of her face, pale under the black cap and then a flash of red as she twisted unnaturally, not like her at all, plummeting, misshapen, the wind now screaming.

He angrily pulled himself back to the cinema, shaking his head and focusing on the screen. Bond had found his moment of redemption. Kyle thought about how ridiculous that was, an impossibly smug bastard Bond, surviving falls and gunfire and wrecked cars, wisecracking and womanising all the while.

He gathered his rubbish and was about to stand up when he felt the movement behind him as the teen couple, quiet at last, stood to leave. He watched as they came into this field of vision and moved down the steps towards the exit.

In the half light, Kyle caught a glimpse of hair tied back with red.

He was alone again, back at the top of the antenna mast, the serpentining river, the wind through the guy-wires and the moment of his un-becoming – when the sky – just – fell.

 

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Leporine, Alexandra Parsons

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Primal is a young adult novel set in Australia, in the not too distant future, after a corpse-reanimating disease has swept the globe. We follow a group of young martial artists as they fight for access to a ‘safe zone’. After a mission in the bush, our main protagonist, Kaye, has been bitten by one of their infected friends (Tirin).

 

Serena drove the knife down into the back of Tirin’s neck. She leaned on it, pushed down with her weight. She could feel the blade grating over vertebrae and it sent reverberations up into her chest.

The outstretched arm that had reached towards Kaye clanged down onto the tray like a headless snake. It twitched once and then finally, the thing that had been Tirin, was still.

Thoughts began to rage through Serena’s mind like a bush fire. Had Tirin really spoken? Had she really heard the word? The plea for death?

She knelt in front of her sister, blocking the view of the body, but Kaye stared straight through her. It was as though she could still see the corpse of her friend there, reaching out for help in her final moments.

Kaye held her wrist tucked close to her chest like an injured paw. The bite mark bubbled red with puckered skin.

Serena had been looking over the top of the Ute, out to the battlefield, when she had heard the scream. Then she had seen the bite – Tirin’s barred teeth melding into flesh. She had smelt the salt of a fresh wound.

It was pure instinct that had caused her to kick out at the thing attacking her sister, like it was a rabid dog. Now the idea that it was Tirin who lay dead beside them was unfurling, hot and painful, in her mind. And worse, that Kaye might end up the same.

‘Get the med kit!’ she shouted to Fyke and Gruff. She could see a rectangle section of Fyke’s face in the rear-view mirror, panic-stricken.

She cupped her hands around her sister’s face like she had once seen her mother do.

‘You’re alright, Kaye-Kaye. It’s fine. You’ll be fine,’ she lied.

 

Fyke pushed himself out from the front seat of the Ute and vaulted into the tray where Kaye was folded in one corner, wrist drawn tightly to her chest.

He saw the body, Tirin’s blood already coagulating with grit and rust. Guilt licked a cold tongue down his spine.

Casualties are a part of war, son, came his father’s voice in his mind.

He stepped over the body.

He saw Serena crouched over Kaye. Then he saw the bite mark and knew what it meant.

He gripped the handle of the Dragon sword on his hip.

Kaye’s head was turned away from him and away from Serena. Eyes down. Resigned.

The leather grip creaked against Fyke’s palm as his hand tightened. He felt the loose rust from the tray’s edge there. Tiny flakes of metal embedded themselves in his skin.

He could feel the midday sun burning on his hair and rippling hot waves over his oilskin jacket. Sweat droplets were sprouting in his palm, making the grip slippery and uncomfortable.

The world has no time for sentimentality, his father’s voice said.

Already he threatened the whole team by bringing an infected host into the compound. Every second she lived, the parasite grew within their walls.

Unblinking, he slid his eyes over her form. He located the soft, pale skin of her neck.

He swallowed hard.

It’ll be quick, he told himself.

In that moment he noticed small things – the sweat droplets making mini river courses down her neck. The tiny, fine hairs disappearing into her hairline. The determined line of her mouth that he knew well.

Then he saw the blood escaping from the wound, rising over jagged flesh mountains, down valleys of puncture marks.

The parasite would already be spreading.

This is how we survive, his father had said.

Survival at all costs.

Fyke gripped the scabbard with his left hand. He flexed his right and re-grasped the hilt. He took a deep breath. And drew –

 

The blade thunked through bone and muscle, solid and final.

It glinted in the fire light and in his father’s green-grey eyes. But he didn’t once look up at Fyke.

Now his father hacked the rabbit’s extremities off with precise, well-practiced blows – head, front legs, back legs, tail. He tossed the parts into the fire and Fyke looked away. But he could still smell the burning meat.

The audible rip of his father pulling the skin from the carcass broke the silence. He gave a few final tugs to free it from white sinew and muscle. Fyke didn’t want to see that pink, mottled body.

‘This is how we survive,’ his father had said. Then he tossed the limp, hollow skin at his son’s feet. In the dusky half-light, Fyke couldn’t help looking at the twisted fur.

The softness was all gone now.

Fyke thought of when he saw the rabbit that morning. He had felt stifled in the morning sun, the heat just building up for a summer day. It was reflecting off the grass, evaporating the 4:00am dew still clinging to the cuffs of his camouflage jacket and pants. They hadn’t shot a single thing yet and he could feel his father’s frustration growing at the clumsiness of his son’s ten year old feet. Compound bow hunting required silent stalking and Fyke kept scaring the rabbits away. He would step forward and suddenly the brush would flicker with movement as they scattered away.

‘Be patient – a soldier has got to be patient,’ his father had said. But that had been hours ago. He hadn’t said a word since.

Then Fyke had seen something that wasn’t the disappearing white flash of a tail down a hole. Instead, it was a rabbit with its back to him, loping on the outskirts of the grasses. It was young, a kitten.

It nibbled obliviously in the morning sun. Fyke could see its nose twitching, its mouth chewing tiny mouthfuls. He even noticed the texture of the rabbit’s sooty brown fur. And when it moved, the light picked up hints of amber and gold.

Too easy, thought the predator in Fyke. But also too young, he thought.

He went to turn away. But his father, crouched behind him, blocked his path. Eyes locked on the kitten.

‘This is survival,’ he said in a low voice. ‘We’re not here to play games.’

Fyke looked at the rabbit. He hoped for a fleeting moment that it had moved into cover. But it remained, mouth chewing furiously and full of grass. The arrow was already nocked. The arrow release mechanism was on his wrist and clipped to the string.

He looked back and his father’s eyes were on him.

So he raised the bow.

The rabbit seemed even smaller in the circle of his sight.

He could feel his father behind him, like a weight pushing between his shoulder blades.

Fyke took a breath and pulled the string to full draw.

‘Survival at all costs,’ his father whispered.

 

It was when his father made him retrieve the body that he felt the frail weight of the creature. He felt the tiny bones sliding under the fur. He had run a thumb over its ears, briefly, so his father wouldn’t see. And they felt just like the plant that was named after them – ‘rabbit’s ears’ his mother had told him as they knelt in the garden. Because the floppy leaves were covered in fine, soft hairs.

That moment – when the sun cut across the grass and picked up the golden flecks in the kitten’s fur – it was just a memory now. Just a moment of sentimentality.

And the world had no room for sentimentality.

That’s what his father had said that night by the camp fire. And he had said it many times since. When Fyke had sat alone in the stands after losing a Taekwondo tournament. When he was found reading a battered copy of T.S. Eliot’s poems. When he came home with his first black eye. And when he watched the black hearse that held his mother’s body drive away.

 

As the sword cut through the air, he looked at Kaye, hunched leporine-like and shaking. He saw the fine, soft hairs running up the curve of her neck, inches from the blade.

No room for sentimentality, his father had said.

But his father wasn’t around anymore.

He had opted out long ago.

Every muscle in Fyke’s body seized. The joints and ligaments froze and screamed as they tried to stop the sword’s path. The blade sped towards Kaye’s jugular vein –

But it stopped.

He stood panting. His arms felt ripped apart and he could barely lift them to sheath the sword. It slid back with a shink and Kaye looked up at him. In the light, he saw that her brown eyes were flecked with gold.

 

Leporine

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Custodian, Lindsey Hodder

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Shadows blew across the ground, gently caressing the streets of packed dirt. Ghostly echoes of the clouds that threatened to blot out the moon the shadows provided ever growing opportunities to be taken advantage of, if one wished to remain unseen. One did. Emme hovered in the meagre shadows cast by the piles of debris that were all that was left of the shipwright district. Misty clouds of wasted breath hung before her in the cold night air. She hugged her shawl tightly to her ribs as she waited for a brief break in the clouds to pass.

In… out – mist, in… out – mist; she narrated her breaths with a single minded concentration. Overhead the clouds thickened as rain began to spit down, adding a layer of damp to her freezing form. She jolted herself to movement once more. Darting from one dark shadow to the next. Always on the lookout. Always listening for a hint of activity. She swore her staccato heartbeat could be heard back through the city all the way to the citadel proper itself. It mimicked the tramping of soldier’s boots, and she shook her head at the thought. Not now. Not tonight.

She paused beside a blackened shell. Once a house, the roof was now gone – the walls dark with ash that would never wash off, no matter how hard it rained. These houses, this district, had once been the pride of the city. It had been the first thing the invaders destroyed. She shook her head again, harder this time. She had to keep her mind sharp. This was the most important part. All her care was for nothing if she was spotted now. Living on the streets she had been constantly on the wrong side of the law simply to survive. This was so much bigger than all of those times. She wouldn’t be able to wriggle her way out if she they realised what she was caught up in. She’d be thrown in one of the dungeons in the cold and damp and dark to rot and –

Shrink back against the wall. Let your eyes lose focus. Watch for movement. Count three times to one hundred. The memory of the spoken words calmed the hammering of her heart for a moment as she forced her thoughts away from capture. She wasn’t going to get caught. She ground her teeth together in frustration. She hadn’t been so jumpy since she was a kid. The rain was growing harder, the smell of burnt wood filling her nostrils as the ground was slowly soaked. She wrinkled her nose and tried not to think about that either.

She reached her third one hundred, forcing herself to make the full count despite growing winds that tore at her, lifting her hair and thrusting the cold deeper into her bones. One last glance up the street and she was satisfied she was alone, pushing off the wall with sweaty palms. One, two, three steps… her heart began racing anew. She darted across the last laneway, each step propelling her faster. The pile of rotting wood on carefully disguised hinges protested at its abrupt opening as she thrust it into the air, the screeching sound caught by the wind to echo down the street. Emme jumped down through the trapdoor, almost landing on the figure that caught the timber before it could slam back down.

‘Were you seen?’ Nicolai’s words were harsh, abrupt. She shook her head, the pounding in her ears subsiding now she was safely inside. He stood behind her as she secured the latch of the trapdoor. She could feel his glare on her as she tied the knots he couldn’t. The knots he should have re-tied after his own arrival. The reminder that she bested him, in this at least, once would have soothed her. Tonight, she hated it. ‘Are you su –’

‘I wasn’t seen!’ The words came out louder than she intended. Who was he to question her? To doubt her? The older boy’s face tensed and his arm jerked halfway to her face. His glare deepened before he closed his eyes and relaxed with conscious effort, his hand returning to his side. He hated the situation even more than she did. She turned her back and started walking deeper into the makeshift shelter. Last week he would have hit her. The strain of their situation was forcing him to civility even as it was turning her into a cowering wreck.

She didn’t make it two steps before he lunged forward to drag her back.

‘You have to convince him to stay.’ She could hear fear and anger in his voice, mingled with familiar disdain. What was he afraid of, anyway? He wasn’t going to have what she was sure would be the entirety of the continent after him. ‘He won’t listen to me. Tell him tonight’s no good.’

Emme yanked her arm out of his hand. ‘What good do you think it’ll do, huh?’ She turned and started down the corridor again, pretending it didn’t bother her even as she wrapped her arms around herself once again. The damp wool of her jacket smelt of wet ash. The entire district smelt of wet ash in the rain now. It used to smell like freshly sawn wood and drying varnish. Usually, she hated the new smell; yet another reminder of the war. Tonight she desperately wished she were back outside – anywhere but here. On the threshold of the old cellar she paused. How did you get into this mess? The sound of Nikolai’s footsteps in the hall jolted her to action. She wouldn’t let him see her moment of weakness. She hugged her ribs tighter, disgusted with herself for needing the extra comfort, and forced herself into the old cellar.

Light flickered from a sputtering candle, illuminating a frail figure hunched over an old door balanced on piles of rubble. The makeshift desk had been buried in precarious stacks of moulding paper and rotting books for months now. Paper, Elias had told her, was precious, fragile. It was meant for palaces and libraries – not the damp air by the docks. It had been the first time she’d seen books up close, though she’d tried to hide her interest. Palaces and libraries didn’t welcome the likes of her. The papers and books that had covered the desk had been a fraction of Elias’ collection. Yet they had been all the scholar could save when he fled from the citadel during the war.

Now the desk before the old man was almost empty – the books and papers burnt, though their musty smell still lingered. Emme hadn’t seen the fire-blackened base of the door that had served as his makeshift desk since they first pulled it from the wreckage of the house the next street over. Being the closest to the docks these streets had borne the brunt of the destruction, though the invaders hadn’t neglected to ruin the rest of the district. Setheyi’s famous shipyards were now ruined, holding only the crude shelters the invaders had thrown together to hold their prisoners. The shipwright district itself had been abandoned, the jagged remains serving as a ghostly reminder of just how broken the city had become. It was, Elias had explained when she had first been roped into helping him, the perfect place to hide.

The candle flame flailed in an errant gust of wind from the building storm outside. Nicolai rushed to Elias’ side as their shadows danced on the walls, fiddling with the shutters on the old lantern until the flame was strong once more. Elias remained still, his attention on the thing in front of him. Emme watched as Nicolai opened his mouth once, twice. Hovering.

‘Are you sure there’s no other way?’ Nicolai’s last ditch objection burst forth, breaking the old man’s concentration.

Elias finally turned, his eyes meeting Nicolai’s. ‘It must leave the city. It must have the best chance. There is no other way.’ His slow, careful way of talking infuriated her almost as much as Nicolai’s general manner. Elias turned to her and her annoyance faltered; the lines etched across his face were deeper than she remembered from even yesterday, the mouth turned further down at the corners. ‘Emme is its best chance.’

‘But –’

‘Alchemy is a feared art, Nicolai, you know this. Misunderstood, but its accomplishments must be saved. And my time has run short.’

Emme shivered. The thing still gave her the feeling of spiders crawling up her spine. Her brief annoyance seemed petty in the face of fear. It was suddenly so very real, what she was helping them do. She had been the one to learn the guard was getting close to locating Elias, the one that had pushed Elias’ plan into motion. She and Nicolai had debated hard that night, on the same side for once, for him to simply move his hiding place, bide his time.

The alchemist had declined, caring more for its safety than his own. He repeated his words tonight, eyes unfocused, staring past the patched walls of the cellar into a past she had no part in. ‘I am tired of hiding in the damp. I wish to see the citadel one last time.’ If she’d known what his plan had been that night she would have argued harder. If she’d known from the beginning she would have abandoned them both long before she’d grown to care for the patient old man.

Now he moved away from the worktable, holding his hand out to Emme. She crept forwards, hesitant to the last; still wary of the trust he’d managed to steal from her. Nicolai couldn’t come, for all the alchemist’s apprentice had fought to be a part of saving his master’s creation. He had even been willing to put up with her. But he was on the run as much as Elias was, though the price on his head was smaller, and the mannerisms of a privileged life made him too noticeable. Elias was too old, and he didn’t want to go. The task fell to her, the street rat who’d made the mistake of trying to steal from an alchemist. She was the hateful thing’s best chance, the one with the personality to adapt and the skills to hide in plain sight.

She stepped up to the bench. Propped up on the old vase filled with the ashes of Elias’ precious books the manikin sat with its long spindly limbs splayed across the table – the old man’s life work. She was to take it far from where it would surely be destroyed. Elias had been cast out of the citadel for daring to believe the thing possible even before the invasion, and both sides of the war had been earnestly looking for the old scholar before he could complete it. Once they learnt that he had… she would be pursued without restraint. Even in the midst of a war, the existence of such a thing was a blasphemy that must be destroyed. She was to take it out of the reach of all of them, to the place Elias had told her its protection would be ensured. Then it would no longer be her problem.

Pulling the rucksack off her back she placed it on the table beside the manikin and opened the flap. An army of spiders swarmed up her spine as the manikin picked itself up, dusted itself off, and stepped in.

 

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From When the Dust Settles, Ellen A. Williams

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When the dust settles, Elsie is running; running into the quiet suburban night, retro kitchen scales clutched to the ridges of her side. The dish was lost a block back, the clang onto the concrete barely registering above the rhythm of pounding feet in her head, pounding blood in her ears. The dial jerks between the grams, an unhealthy clunking in time with her beat. Her feet burn. Tiny footpath rocks imprint into her raw skin, make her faster. Elsie runs, leaving those conclusions behind.

 

The frosted doors slide open and there they all are— the faces, so many expectant faces. Elsie’s gut steps up a gear. The crowd’s shoulders drop. She pushes the trolley down the ramp and scans across the disappointment for a flash of the familiar. A toddler runs loops around a bollard, foil balloons hover impatiently. A squeal somewhere, then hands waving as if trying to shake them off at the wrist.

Elsie lingers in the collecting pool of fatigued travellers and feels the back of her neck. It feels strange still, three (four?) days after the cut, or ‘hack’, as probably better describes the moment of madness with the Danish girl’s fold-up scissors.

‘Keep movin’ thanks,’ an ocker voice instructs from Elsie’s right. She doesn’t know why it sounds so strange— it’s only been a month, and there was never a lack of Aussie accents broadcast across hostel common rooms. Will Ryan sound funny? It was hard to tell in her last jittery Skype conversation.

The plastic clip of her mum’s old hiking pack scrapes along under the trolley. Disappointment swells to her eyes. She’d had twenty-six hours to contemplate the greeting— the hug, the kiss, the ‘I missed you so much’ whispered urgently into her ear.

Elsie finds a seat at Krispy Kreme, scrapes at the gravy stain on her t-shirt and tries to forget the memory of her reflection in the baggage claim toilets.

Will everything be the same?

She closes her eyes against the surrounding clamour. The patterned darkness behind her eyelids is inviting. She forces them open to keep a look out.

A thatch of hair catches her eye; not quite blonde, nothing close to a strawberry. Her heart knocks in her chest. She can see the line where his hat has been. ‘Ryan.’

He turns, recognition, then confusion settling on his brow. ‘Elsie.’ He doesn’t hurry towards her.

Elsie’s hiking boot catches in the bag strap as she gets up. She grabs for the trolley handle. Ryan’s arms shoot out to steady her. Her face burns. ‘Thanks,’ she manages. It feels like their first date all over again, dorky and clumsy.

Ryan looks at her shoulders, where hair used to rest in a limp nothingness. Elsie waits for him to say something. Do something.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ he recovers, ‘didn’t know there were so many arrival gates.’

‘Do I get a hug?’ Elsie feels stupid.

‘Der!’ Ryan pulls her in under his arms. She breathes in his hoody. The deodorant and faint engine smell makes her want to cry. ‘You’ve had a haircut,’ he says carefully.

Elsie pulls away. ‘You haven’t!’ She reaches up and ruffles his hair.

‘Careful. Haven’t washed that for awhile.’

‘Meh, me neither.’

‘Gross!’ He laughs. His usual, unforced smile, dimples beneath his stubble. Elsie grins. She’s home.

 

The tiles are cool and the water hot. Elsie props herself up with her forehead and closes her eyes against the blackness growing in the grout. The water surges onto the back of her neck, and she retrospectively misses the shower. She’s glad her parents haven’t fitted a water-saving showerhead, and notices for the first time this contradiction given their eco-warrior stance on everything else. Right now, she doesn’t particularly care about those unnecessary litres.

Elsie thinks about her last shower; the mass of blonde hair in the drain, the pubic hair taunting her from the sticky shower curtain, the lukewarm needles she forced herself under. She doesn’t want to know how long ago that was, or how long she wore those undies for.

She pads along the hallway to her bedroom. Her eyes flick around the wall­— band posters, the photo collage; it’s all so familiar, but distant like a memory or déjà vu. She stares longingly at her bed.

‘Want a coffee, Hon?’ her mum calls from the kitchen.

‘No thanks. I’d love a tea, though.’

‘Oooh, how very proper.’

Elsie laughs and scrounges in her wardrobe for her favourite trackies.

Coffee and baking hang in the warmth of the kitchen. The lightshade splays its woven pattern onto the roof.

‘Better?’ Elsie’s mum shimmies Anzac biscuits from the oven tray.

‘Much.’ She pulls up a stool next to Ryan, already wearing his Man U jersey. He tears an Anzac biscuit in half and drops it onto the plate. He blows on his fingers.

‘Soft ones, my favourite.’ Elsie smiles at her mum, and looks around the kitchen. The pantry door hangs from the one hinge still. Her postcard of The Giant’s Causeway is pinned on the noticeboard over the electricity bill. ‘When did the kitchen shrink?’

Ryan looks at her like she’s gone mad.

‘Now, now, world traveller,’ her dad scolds from across the room. He lowers the form guide. ‘Don’t go outgrowing your own home.’

‘She’s been out in the big, wide, world.’ Her mum leans her chin into her hands like a child, and gazes at Elsie. ‘Now let’s have a proper look at that new ‘do.’

‘I just washed it. It’ll be all fluffy…’

‘It’s a boy’s haircut. We’ll have to call you Elsie-Ray instead of Elsie-May.’

‘Oh shut it Greg.’ Elsie’s mum tosses the oven mitt at the paper. His eyes stay on the print, but his smirk stretches into a smile. ‘It looks fabulous,’ her mum gushes. ‘So mature, don’t you think?’ She looks over at Ryan.

‘Yeah, it’s nice I guess. Different.’

Elsie knew he didn’t like it. She had a feeling at the time he wouldn’t like it. But she adored Marta’s pixie cut, admitting how much she wished she had a face that suited short hair. Marta reckoned everyone’s face suited short hair. ‘It is only hair. I will buy you a hat if it looks terrible. Or you could follow Islam…’

‘I was feeling adventurous,’ Elsie says into her tea. She doesn’t feel adventurous anymore; she is beyond tired.

 

At the edge of her subconscious, Elsie is aware of another presence. At the other end, black fatigue paralyses each muscle and fibre of her body. In the fleeting semi-awakeness, Elsie panics that she is dead, that her soul is disengaging from her body.

A mug is set down next to her head. She recognises the big old speaker that Ryan uses for a bedside table. Her vision sharpens and settles on the grey scuffmarks on the white ceramic. Elsie hates drinking tea from mugs.

‘Hey, sleepy monster.’ Ryan drops down, too sudden, too heavy.

Elsie practises movement in her mouth, and wipes at the sourness on her chin.

‘It’s six.’ He curls around her banana body, pressing himself into her tailbone. The doona is a safety blanket against his gentle poking.

‘I can’t wake up.’ Her eyelids lock back into place.

‘Did you come to see me or to sleep?’ An acerbic edge betrays his joke.

‘You.’ She wills her brain to kick into gear. ‘Jet lag.’

‘Jet lag? You got back four days ago!’ Ryan sits up against the salmon wall. ‘I did twelve hour days while you were gone.’

‘I know.’

‘And you’ve been at uni for what, three hours today?’

Elsie levers herself up. She presses her fingers into her scrunched eyes. She wants to tell him that jet lag is like being on the train home from the Big Day Out, times a hundred. She wants to explain how hard it is to concentrate in a three hour tutorial, how the fluorescents hum louder each passing hour. She can’t be bothered. It’s easier not to fight. ‘Thanks for my cuppa.’

‘Did I get the milk right?’

‘Yep.’ She decides to wait until next time to ask him to take the teabag out.

Ryan half rolls off the bed and finds a printout on the floor. He puts it on Elsie’s swaddled lap. She looks at the black and white thumbnail of a weatherboard house and next to it, Thur 5:15pm in Ryan’s left-handed scrawl. ‘Ryan… you know­—’

‘Know what? That you want to wait ‘til you travel? Hello, got your passport stamps, don’t you?’

‘I can’t afford this.’ She stares at the price in bold. It clinks in her vision like cash registers in cartoon eyes. ‘I’m broke. I don’t even know if I can get my job back.’

‘I can afford it.’

‘It has three bedrooms!’

‘It’s perfect!’

‘It’s Mayfield.’

‘It’s affordable.’

‘But it’s Mayfield!’

‘When did you become such a snob?’ Ryan snatches the paper from her.

Elsie feels the tell-tale heat behind her eyes. His shoulders relax back down. He folds the paper in half carefully.

‘I’m going to go look at it still. You don’t understand how tight the market is. It’ll take us ages to get one.’

She hears the apartment door open, Dan’s work boot holding it ajar, then grocery bags being passed in from the lobby. At the bottom of her mug, the teabag is a soggy clump of brown.

‘Is it really her? Globetrotter extraordinaire!’

‘That’s a bit of an overstatement.’ Elsie blinks her eyes into focus under the kitchen light. Everything looks green.

Dan straightens up from packing his food into the veggie crisper. ‘Holy shitballs! Check out the hair.’ A broad smile splits his browned face. Only Dan would have a tan in winter. ‘Seriously, you were made for that haircut.’

‘Oh stop it,’ Elsie swishes at an imaginary fly. She glances at Ryan, propped against the wall on a backless chair. His head tips to the side slightly, like he’s considering a painting. Maybe he’s getting used to her hair. Or her lack of it.

Ryan jumps up and jiggles some pizzas free from the freezer. The vodka bottle scrapes against the frost. Elsie squeezes her shoulders to her ears at the sound. Dan settles into Ryan’s chair with a mandarin. ‘What a welcome home feast!’ he winks at Elsie. ‘Ah McCain, you’ve done it a-gain!’

Ryan and Elsie look from each other to Dan.

‘Right, right. I keep forgetting I’m an old man! It used to be an ad for microwave pizzas.’

‘Gee Dan, how old are you?’ Elsie clears the seat at the other end of the tiny wooden table. Since Ryan moved in with Dan a year ago, she’s only known him to be vaguely older than them.

‘Twenty-nine.’ He sighs.

‘Wow, you’re totally old! You should be married and all that,’ Elsie jokes. She pulls her arms back through the sleeves of Ryan’s jumper, and hugs herself against the cool air.

‘Yeah, well, tried that.’ Dan peels off a mandarin segment. ‘Wasn’t for me,’ he laughs.

‘Shit, sorry, I didn’t know.’ She looks at Ryan with his head in the oven to check it’s on. He glances back and shrugs.

‘Water under a bridge,’ Dan waves away her pity. ‘Boring story. Tell me all about your trip. I want details, I want drunkenness, I want debauchery!’ He pounds the table with his fist.

Elsie snorts. ‘Wait, I’ve got something for you.’ She comes back and tosses a chocolate bar at him.

Dan studies the label and hoots. ‘Yorkie. It’s not for girls.’ He holds it up to Ryan. ‘Check it out, even has a cross through the picture of a chick.’

‘Actually I forgot to declare it…’

‘Contraband, my favourite.’

‘How come I didn’t get a Yorkie?’

Dan holds it out to Ryan. ‘Swap you for your jersey.’

‘Get stuffed.’

‘See? This is what I’ve had to put up with since you’ve been gone!’

Elsie laughs.

‘A whole month of Mr Mope Face.’

Ryan turns his back on them. ‘Piss off.’

Dan shoots Elsie an uh-oh, we’re-in-trouble look.

 

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The Great Roaring Noise, Bruce Naylor

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This is sort of a kid’s story. Not that I believe in kid’s stories… I am currently expanding it into a novella, which is turning out to be rather macabre, so perhaps it’s more of a nightmare than a story. However, this is the short story where it all began….

 

‘But what was it like Da?’ whispered Seamus in the gloom. ‘Tell us about the Great Roaring Noise.’

Da chuckled, ‘I keep forgetting that you kids are all too young to have heard the Great Roaring Noise.’

Nine little sets of eyes blinked in the dark, eagerly waiting for him to go on. It was one of their favourite games to pass the time. They would give him no peace now, badgering and pestering him, until at last he would sigh, and then in his slow and dreamy voice, begin to talk of the life that had been before.

Before the Dark.

‘Go on Da,’ Seamus pleaded, his tiny high voice penetrating the silence, ‘Tell us what was it like.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ hissed Da, ‘or you’ll wake him, and then you’ll have nothing to worry about except which one of you he’s going to eat for lunch.’

They all froze, hardly daring to breathe, hoping that he wouldn’t hear them. He was over there in the other corner, nestled amongst the trash. Occasionally, in the soft dusty dark, they might hear an antenna twitch, but Old Man Cockroach had barely moved since he ate their brother, Blod, yesterday.

After a long while, the one they called Ten, simply because he was the last one of them born, and Da had run out of names after the first nine, grabbed Da by the leg.

‘Please Da.’

Da sighed and settled back into the dust. With his front legs he slowly cleaned the dust off his palps before beginning in a slow whisper, ‘Well, you couldn’t really call it a noise…’

‘What do you mean,’ whispered Buck into the frightened hush, his outsized fang that gave him his name, glinting in the gloom.

‘Well, it’s not like the sort of noise you might hear. Like when Old Man Cockroach gets hungry and comes looking for us, or even a scream like Blod made when he was being eaten,’ and here, Da’s voice fell away.

None of them would ever forget the terror of that moment, as Blod was swallowed, piece by awful piece.

‘No, it’s more like the sort of noise that you feel first. And it’s only later, when it’s all over, and you realise you’re still alive, that you might think about what it sounded like. It’s like, I don’t know, like…like the sound that the walls might make if they fell down, like the sound you might hear inside your head if it was being crushed by the jaws of a cockroach.’

Ten whimpered with fright when Da said this, but Da didn’t seem to notice, he was in the grip of a powerful memory.

‘It was like the sound of a thousand spiders screaming as they’re being boiled in hot water. Except it wasn’t the sound I heard first, but the wind.’ Da paused for effect. ‘It was the wind that really frightened me. I had never seen a wind like that before. I remember that day so clearly. I was in my corner working the web early. We’d had a good harvest the night before, with the flying ants just throwing themselves at us. Our webs were groaning with food. I was so stuffed! Couldn’t have possibly eaten another one. I’d been up most of the night, wrapping and storing the harvest for a rainy day, but still I woke up early before all the others, to repair the tears, to check the tension. Our family have always been like that. We’ve worked that corner for generations.

You have to understand that in the old days, on the Outside, you didn’t have Old Man Cockroach to worry about. They stayed down there on the floor where they belonged, and we had the skies. Things had an order then. We all had our place, not like now, not like this topsy-turvy time.’

Da was on a roll now, his voice soft with longing. This was what the children loved. Tales of the old world – when a spider wasn’t too scared to move, lest he be eaten.

‘And the light,’ Da went on, ‘Oh the light, it was so bright, like nothing you ever get here. With light like that, you could see the flying things clear across the room. You could set your web up just right, catch ‘em on the updraft. No spider ever went hungry in those days.’

‘No hunger!’ squeaked Pip. Not one of them could remember a day when they had not been hungry.

‘So anyways, when this wind started up, I did what we’d always done. I called the alarm to tell all my brothers that something was up. I grabbed the web just like you’re supposed to, and shook it with all my might, so they could all see, so they could run and take cover, and to frighten whatever it was, to warn it off, but it wasn’t frightened at all. It just kept coming, up the edge of the roof, and heading straight for me.’

‘What’d it look like?’ whispered Ten, in the faintest of voices.

‘It was huge, like some silver beam of light, and on the end is this black mouth as wide as five spiders, and that’s where the terrible great roaring noise is coming from. And it’s hungry, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Not even like Old Man Cockroach over there,’ said Da, gesturing with his head towards the other corner. ‘He just comes over ‘cause he’s a little bit hungry and fancies a bit of young spider for afternoon tea. This thing was different. It was insatiable. It sucked up everything in sight. Whole webs, whole families that had worked the north roof for countless generations, back to the dawn of time, gone in the shake of a leg. It was terrible,’ Da shook his head, lost in grief. After a long moment, he raised his great shiny head, his eight eyes glinting in the dark. ‘Now, where was I?’

‘The Great Roaring Noise,’ they all said together.

‘Ah yes, The Great Roaring Noise. Well, it came straight for me. I see the edge of the web start to lift off the wall, and I run. Just in time too. I just made it back to the corner, as the whole web was sucked straight off the wall. All the ants I had so carefully wrapped and hung from the roof for a midnight snack – gone. My three brothers who were working the west wing – gone. Your grandfather, your grandmother, my sister, all gone. But still, the beast wants more, and the faster I run, the faster it follows me. It’s then that I realise, that it’s after me. Every time I duck and dive it changes direction. And it’s gaining on me. I can feel it’s cold breath on the back of my neck. Finally, I make a desperate dive for the Crack.

‘The Crack,’ breathed Max.

‘Tell us about the Crack,’ continued Jax, finishing Max’s sentences as he always did.

‘My family,’ said Da, before pausing to correct himself, ‘your family, have used the Crack for hundreds of lives. It had never failed us before. I just make it inside the Crack, before it gets to me, and that terrible noise passes over the top of me, and moves on up the wall. I don’t mind telling you kids that at that moment, I’m crying, I’m sobbing like a baby, I’m panting with rage and screaming at the top of my voice. But finally I get a grip on myself. I have a look around me and I notice that there is no one else in the crack. I’m the only one who made it back. That Roaring Noise got everything. My whole family, all our supplies,’ and here, Da’s voice wavers a little, and he pauses before continuing, ‘at least I’m alive, I tell myself, I’m safe, here in the Crack, it can’t possibly get me. The Great Roaring Noise is still out there, but for the moment, it moves on and leaves me alone. Nevertheless, I wedge myself in tight at the back of the Crack, get all my eight legs in close, and push against the walls.’

‘It came back didn’t it?’ squeaked Pip.

‘Yes, my little one,’ said Da, gathering Pip under his foreleg, ‘it came back. But this time it comes right up to the Crack, sucking and pulling. The pressure was incredible. The wind was so great. It felt like my insides were being sucked out my mouth. There was nothing I could do, so I let go.’

Nine little gasps of astonishment punctured the dusty dark.

‘Then what happened?’ breathed Bobbin. He had a raspy nasal voice that sounded like he had a permanent cold. Da said that he was probably allergic to house dust in the Belly of the Roaring Noise.

‘Well, I remember flying through the dark like I was falling down into a great pit, and then nothing.’ Da looked slowly around at his children. ‘When I came to my senses, I was here. Oh, those first few moments were horrible. I’m feeling around me in the dark, and the dust is so thick that I feel like I’m breathing nothing but dirt. All around me I hear screaming. There are spiders everywhere. Your family, and all the other great families of the North Roof.  All the different ones too, even the big black ones, all mixed together. Most of them with missing legs, and some of them, poor souls, have been turned inside out like a sock by the Great Noise. Then I hear my sister,’ and here Da’s voice fell so quiet that they all had to lean in to catch the next bit, ‘Your dear mother. She’s lying right here in this corner where we are now, and I can see at once that she’s hurt bad. She whispers to me to come near. “I’m done for,” she croaks. I hold her close and say, “No way, you’ll make it Mildred –” but she shakes her wise old head. “You know what to do,” she says. And I do, but I don’t want to. “It’s for the children,” she says, “Do it for the children.” And I’m weeping and wailing, but I have to, so I take my teeth, and tear open her abdomen. Then, with a great cry, she dies, and in that moment, you all tumble from out of her, and that’s when I take each one of you, each a tiny, but already fertilised egg, and I tuck you in the dust, away from the other spiders, and all the terrible things that live down here, and as I do so, I name each and every one of you.’

Da looked around at all their little faces, so intent, so serious. He had never told them the whole story before, and none would move a muscle in case he stopped. They didn’t want to hear it, but at the same time, each of them wanted to know their history, their whole history, for the first time in their short lives. With his foreleg, Da indicated each of the assembled spiders in turn.

‘You Seamus, you were first born and brave, you have always been. Fastest and strongest of all your brothers and sisters, then Blod of course, the sweetest and gentlest of you all, then Nero, and you, Grace, tangled up together in each other’s legs, inseparable at birth as you have been ever since. Bobbin was next. What can I say, he tumbled out like a jack in the box ready for action, and hasn’t stopped since!’ Da gently cuffed him about the head. ‘And you, Buck, always ready to eat anything and everything. I’ll never forget that day you tried to eat that marble and broke one of your fangs.’ A little ripple of mirth passed around the group, their abdomens shaking as they giggled at one of the family’s most cherished stories. ‘And of course, not forgetting Pip, though I swear that squeak will be the death of us all, and Max and Jax, always fighting. You two,’ said Da sternly. ‘Just remember that family don’t eat family, no matter what! You hear me?’

They both solemnly nodded, remembering that day, in the depths of a terrible hunger, when Max had chewed off Jax’s back leg. Max hadn’t been able to sit down for a week after Da had finished with him. They all smiled at the memory.

‘Except for Mother,’’ piped up Ten.

‘Yes,’ replied Da, gruffly, ‘well, that was different. She would have wanted it that way. I don’t think I would have made it through those dark times without your mother’s ample body to feed you all. Particularly you, Ten, you were so small, I used to mistake you for a speck of dust in those days.’

They all laughed. Despite having a ferocious appetite, Ten was still the smallest of them all, by far.

‘Now listen up, all of you, and listen carefully. Never forget that you are descended from one of the great families, and you must stick together, even when I am gone.’

At this mention of a life without Da, Pip gave a little sob.

‘None of that now Pip, you have to be strong. That is what makes us different from him over there,’ said Da in a hoarse whisper. ‘I’ll never forget those early days. They had no mercy for each other, because you understand, he wasn’t the only cockroach in the belly of this beast.’

‘There were more of them?’ said Bobbin.

‘Oh yes, there were small ones and big ones and skinny ones and fat ones. But when they got hungry, they turned on each other, the filthy animals.’ And here Da lowered his voice as if he didn’t want the cockroach to hear, and whispered, ‘They even ate their own children!’ They all gasped in horror at the thought.

Da shook his head solemnly. ‘Old Man Cockroach over there, he’s just the last cockroach standing!’ Da spat a long thin stream of venom into the dust to underline just what he thought of that. ‘They have no sense of family, they are nothing but the scum of the earth, and maybe one day, when we find a way out of here, once more when we rule the sky,’ said Da, his voice thick with emotion, ‘we’ll be free of them forever!’

‘There must be a way out of here,’ said Seamus, fiercely.

‘Maybe there is son, maybe there isn’t,’ replied Da, slowly, weighing his words carefully. ‘I haven’t had much time, what with looking out for you all, to turn my thoughts to that. I feel in my waters that there is, and if there’s anyone who can find a way out of the Belly of the Great Roaring Noise, it’s…’

But they never did hear what their beloved Da would have said next. It all happened so fast. In flash, Old Man Cockroach was upon them.

‘Run children,’ screamed Da, ‘Run to the ten corners of the earth! I’ll hold him off.’

With a great war cry, Da threw himself at the cockroach. The old warrior was taken by surprise for a second; he had never seen a spider move so nimbly. As the children ran to hide themselves amongst the dust piles and the collected bric a brac of lost thimbles and scrunched up tissues, wads of chewing gum and safety pins, bread bag ties and lost 5c pieces, Da climbed on the back of the cockroach and bravely sank his fangs into the cockroach’s back. But the Old Man hadn’t outlasted every other cockroach in the Belly of the Beast to be taken by surprise by a simple spider, and with a flick of his ragged wings, he threw Da from his back. Turning with the speed of a boxer, his legs working in opposite directions like a well-oiled tank, armour flexing as he did so, the cockroach pinned Da to the ground with one of his legs. His hideous mouth hovered over Da, mandibles slicing the air like knives.

But the Old Man hesitated for a moment. The truth was, that cockroaches didn’t really like spider too much. That’s why he had left them to last. They were too bitter for his taste. But he had no choice anymore, he was starving, and besides, they were so arrogant, they deserved to die.

Fighting back the urge to vomit, he got a firm grip on the spider’s skull with his jaws, taking care to avoid those fangs, because despite being so feeble, spiders were also quite poisonous. He bit down gently, feeling Da’s skull flex in his mouth. The cockroach thought he might just carefully rip off the spider’s head, where the poisonous glands were, before sitting down to a nice nibble on those legs. They were more to his taste.

Da screamed in agony, and nine other voices echoed him, as his charges watched in horror from their hiding places. They screamed, and the screams got louder and louder until the noise filled the air, and in that moment, a sort of miracle happened. A great wind picked Old Man Cockroach up, and slammed him against the back wall of the Beast. His wings; crippled and chewed and broken from his many battles, were his undoing. The wind had got underneath them and they opened out like an old umbrella in a storm, lifting the old cockroach up in the air, slamming him against the back wall. For what seemed like an eternity, the Roaring Noise screamed through the belly as more and more dust piled on top of dust. All the children were safe though. Da had been training them from birth to run and hide themselves in the soft piles of dust, upon his command. When he had cried, ‘Run to the Ten Corners of the Earth’ they had instinctively obeyed him, just as he had drilled it into them, time and time again. Somehow, he must’ve known that this day would come. But Old Man Cockroach did not fare so well. His wings were twisted backward by the force of the wind, his nose ground into the dust, his body pelted with the rubbish of the screaming void. Then they heard, above the wind, a strange rattling noise coming towards them.

Then complete silence.

‘Shit!’

A voice from outside.

‘Bugger.’

Then a clicking noise, and from where Seamus crouched, safely nestled in the house dust, he saw a giant round window open in the roof of the Belly. The most dazzling light he had ever seen, shone down from above in a golden shaft, burning his eyes, but he couldn’t look away. Then an eye as big as three spiders, like a watery globe, pressed against the giant window.

‘Oh for god’s sake, Dave, have you got the tongs? The bloody vacuum cleaner’s sucked up my tweezers.’

As Seamus’s eyes adjusted to this rich and wonderful light, he couldn’t help but follow the shaft of light as it cut through the thick cloud of dust that had been stirred up by the Noise, and there, against the back wall, where the heavenly shaft of light illuminated a small circle of the dust on the back wall of the Belly of the Beast, lay the most ghastly spectacle.

Old Man Cockroach, his body twisted and broken, was skewered to the ground by a shiny pair of steel tweezers piercing his vile belly, and in his jaws, firmly gripped between his mandibles was their beloved Da’s head.

Without knowing where it came from, and without even thinking, Seamus lifted his voice, the sum of all Da’s patient lessons coursing through his body, and cried, ‘Run my children, to the air, to the air!’ and without hesitation, the nine sons and daughters of Da, ran up the sides of the Belly, and out through the light drenched window in the roof of the Great Roaring beast, and down its shiny sides. They fled for the cracks in the walls, and for the high places where the gentle night breezes blow:  the breeze, that to this day, still guides the delicious flying things of the air into their skilfully woven webs.

And all the children of Da, through their countless generations since, have been taught from birth, to fear the Great Roaring Noise.

No more do they shake their webs in vain attempts to frighten the thing away. Now they know better. As soon as the Voice of the Beast is heard, they flee for the Deepest of the Cracks, behind the ceiling boards, where they have learnt that they will be safe, free from the Terrible Breath of the Great Roaring Noise.

 

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From Fae’s Labyrinth, Eva Matheson

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‘Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine‘

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

 Bonnie is the new school councillor after the usual one ‘disappeared’. Sarah must routinely visit the councillor, due to her home situation. Hayley is Sarah’s mum’s best friend.  For the past five years she has been the carer of both Sarah, and her mum.

Harry holds his distance from Sarah in social situations, but is aware of her every move. We don’t know his true intentions yet. He is fairly good-looking, but has dulled down his looks in an effort to appear more human. He has half-human blood (as does Sarah, which she has yet to discover) and half-Fae blood, from an elfin bloodline. Harry is Scottish and Sarah is English. The setting so far, is London.

 

SARAH

 

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. After talking to Bonnie, the school councillor, at my redundant weekly session, I was convinced the weekend holiday was not a good idea. Then after seeing Harry, talking to Harry, I felt strangely…. adventurous. It wasn’t much like butterflies in my belly, more like a whole bunch of beetles wiggling for space till I could barely stand it anymore. A blend of nerves and excitement I hadn’t felt since I was a kid going away on holidays. Long before Mum got sick. I arrived home from school, the front door creaked, and Hayley’s dogs barked from the back garden.

‘I’m doing the dishes!’

I walked to the den of a kitchen where Hayley stood facing the window.

‘Hi Hayley, looks like rain this weekend. What are your plans?’

Man I was talking fast. Hayley stopped washing the dishes, her pink-gloved hands still in the bubbles. She glanced back over her shoulder. I knew she was onto me.

‘Could you look after Mum?’ It was lame, but I pouted anyway.

‘Do you mean the whole weekend?’ Hayley went back to the dishes.

I lent my elbows on the kitchen bench next to Hayley and fiddled with the silver locket on my chain. ‘Some friends are going to the countryside. We’d be staying in their Auntie’s house, honestly.’

Hayley made a tutting sound with her tongue. She was always doing it. When she watched bad news on T.V, she tutted. If the newspaper was delivered late, she tutted. At the rising price of fuel, she tutted a lot. It was her way of disapproving of bad things, and occasionally her way of teasing the good.

She looked out the window as she washed the dishes. I followed her gaze. Mum was sitting at the table on the lawn. Her hands in her lap, her body completely still. Hayley’s two golden retrievers dozed at her feet.

‘No trouble at all Hayley. Go, pack, don’t worry about your Mum, we’ll be fine.’

I was relieved at how quickly she agreed, after all, it meant giving up her entire weekend to cook meals, bathe, walk, and put Mum to bed.

‘Thanks, I owe you,’ I replied, and squeezed my arms around her.

Hayley smiled and pulled the sink plug.

‘You can pay me back by doing your own dishes sometime!’

I grimaced as I bounced up the stairs behind her.

I didn’t pack much. Two changes of clothes, toiletries, and a book called Little Women to read for the umpteenth time. I turned the first page and read Mum’s birthday message inside. I was 11 years old then, the last birthday before she got really sick. A week later Hayley moved in.

I walked back down the stairs and that seed of guilt began to grow in my gut. How could I leave my Mum?

They were sitting at the kitchen table, the room now smelly from a slow cooked dinner. Mum stared at a wall with her hands around a cup of tea that would be cold and untouched. Hayley was chatting away about the cafe she was planning to visit for lunch the next day. Her cup was long empty. I knelt beside Mum.

‘The bus comes in ten minutes so I’d better get going… Mum?’  She looked like a fragile porcelain doll, except for the roots of silver in her hair, and the wrinkles that dolls never get.

I rested my hand on the back of her chair. Mum didn’t respond, so I touched her shoulder. She glanced over, looking at me, but her expression genuinely blank.

‘Mum, I’ll be back on Sunday. Will you be okay without me?’

She stared at me for a long moment; her blue eyes had tiny dots for pupils. Her eyes didn’t look like they even worked. Then her lashes flickered.

‘Sarah.’ She confirmed softly.

I froze. Mum hadn’t spoken in weeks, let alone recognised me.

‘Yes Mum….will you be okay here, with Hayley?’ My throat grew tight. Somehow this stopped tears.

Mum looked across the table to where Hayley sat, silhouetted by the window. Hayley was smiling back.

‘Yes.’ Barely a whisper. Then I could see in her eyes, she was fading again.

‘Pinkie promise?’ I reached my hand up, offering her my arched pinkie like I had done so many times when I was little.

Mum raised her hand and linked her finger with mine. Her mouth twitched at the corners. Then she looked to me and in the slowest motion ever, placed a warm, frail hand on the side of my face, cupping my cheek and chin.

‘I know you,’ her voice was hoarse, leaking with confusion.

I could only nod and place my hand over hers. It hurt when she was lost inside herself, and it hurt when she wasn’t.

‘I’ll be back soon. I love you Mum.’

As quickly as she had returned to the land of the living, her eyes glazed over and the porcelain doll face returned to the window. She was gone, somewhere deep inside her mind, somewhere out of my reach. I looked to Hayley, calm and collected, Mum’s best friend; and the only reason I had stayed out of foster care all these years.

‘Go Sarah, we’ll have fun, and so should you.’

I didn’t move.

‘Tut tut tut. Go.’

I nodded, and wrapped my arms around her; my throat was feeling tight again.

She was right, and it was in this moment that I realised just how wrong Bonnie was. I wasn’t being selfish like she had said.  I was just trying to be like a normal teenager with something that resembled a social life.

‘Thanks Hayley.’ I pushed my chair back. Mum didn’t react in the slightest to the scraping noise. Hayley leaned forward and gave me her serious face. She played the role of Mum, in Mum’s absence.

‘Be safe, have fun, and please don’t worry. She will be safe as long as she’s with me. I promise’.

I looked back one last time as I left the kitchen. For a moment I thought Hayley’s face seemed sad and worried, even though she gave me a smile and a wink. I hoped I wasn’t making a huge mistake.

 

HARRY

 

There she was, Bonnie, the school councillor, standing in the shadows to the rear of the platform. She was dressed in a full-length black dress; her hair fell about her shoulders, her pretty face painted with pretty make-up. She watched the small crowd entering the train station. Even in the dark she looked beautiful, and if I didn’t know better, I would have found her striking. But I did know better. I knew exactly what she was. And she was waiting for Sarah.

A water witch cleverly transformed. Naturally grotesque webbed feet, much too wide for human footwear; Bonnie wore long dresses all the time. That was my first clue. But the biggest give away was the smell leaking from her flesh.

A smell like clothes left to go damp in a laundry basket. The first time I met her, the smell was so subtle, but that odour and her feet were enough to give away her disguise. And yet, as clever as her disguise was to the inexperienced, this witch sure wasn’t good at spotting others in camouflage.

I looked at the clock on the wall above the platform. Bonnie hadn’t seen me yet, and the train would be here in five minutes, and that meant Sarah would also be arriving at any moment. I needed to get rid of the witch before she could get her claws into Sarah’s mind and convince her not to get on the train.

I knew what had to be done. It wouldn’t be the first time, and there really wasn’t any other choice.  My job was to protect Sarah and bring her to the manor where the others waited, no matter what it took. I walked lightly on my feet towards Bonnie, adjusting my backpack over my shoulder as I went. Bonnie was hidden in the dark, and distracted by her goal.

She didn’t notice me until I was standing close to her, just behind her right side. I glanced around; no one was looking our way. I pulled my dagger from my jacket pocket, and held it out of sight, but ready nonetheless. It would take only one strike through the heart, and she would be finished quickly, and quietly.

But Bonnie turned and I was caught.

‘Harry! What are you doing here?’

Bonnie smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I noticed her mouth twitch. I had caught her off guard. ‘Waiting for Sarah,’ I replied.

Her smile disappeared. She eyed me up and down with suspicion. Her eyes tore at my skin like invisible fingernails, as she tried to see if anything lay beneath my outer appearance. Is he human? Or is he not? Her eyes questioned.

I took a step closer and gripped my hidden dagger. It had to be done, now. Suddenly, Bonnie’s eyes widened, and she stumbled back.

‘Romus!  I can see you… No, please Romus, no. I will leave her alone. Please don’t do anything.’ Bonnie began to cower and shrink before my eyes.

This was murder. This was not how my clan had raised me. I had only done it once before, cornered in a cave by a pissed off red-cap goblin. It had to be him or me. Today, it was me or Bonnie.

Maybe I could let this witch walk away? I hesitated, my dagger still by my side, but Bonnie embraced my hesitation as her opportunity. Her pretty face turned grey, her smile transformed into a jaggered, diseased grin of teeth.

My arm twitched.

Bonnie whipped a hand up to the spot behind her neck and drew a long thin knife, concealed by her blanket of hair. She cocked her head, cracking her neck.

‘Oh, it feels good to be me.’

My fingers tightened around my dagger.

She was fierce in her lunge as her jaw clenched, but I was faster, and my dagger dug deep up through her ribs, destroying her heartbeat. The witch dropped to her knees as I withdrew my dagger, and in her final breath, she transformed to her true appearance. Her body was grey all over, with gills carved up and down her throat, a hunch back, twisted bony arms, and a face and chest wet as though coated in Vaseline. Her eyes were hollow now, and black, cocooned by a drawn and sagging human-ish face.

Bonnie’s knife fell to the ground with a tinkle, followed by her limp, grotesque body. No one noticed a thing tucked away in that dark corner.

I managed to control my shaking enough to wipe the grey blood matter from my dagger, onto the witch’s dress. I couldn’t help but wonder if this kill was just the beginning. There was still a long way to go. I pushed her body back against the wall. It was already shrivelling, and soon she would be just a pool of dark water and wet clothes. In my stomach, and in my head, I was queasy, and there was sweat beneath my clothes. It might have been easier if I hadn’t known her, and it didn’t help to see the gruesome corpse transformation. Then I heard the train approaching, and as I did, I watched Sarah step onto the platform, her eyes searching for friends.

I moved along the wall, concealed by the shadows. I approached Sarah far from where the witch lay.

‘Hey! I’m real happy you came,’ I smiled, and shoved my sweaty hands in my pockets.

‘Hey, Harry. So, where are the others?’ Sarah asked, glancing around.

‘They’re catching the morning train. Dunno why, they didn’t go into detail.’

I knew I was talking too fast. I was sounding contrived. I imitated a yawn.

‘Thanks for meeting me. I probably would have gone home if no one was here.’ Sarah shrugged; I thought I saw a small smile.

The train doors slid open as we talked. People were beginning to find their seats.

‘Come on. It’ll be warmer on the train.’ I reached out my hand, but I knew I shouldn’t have, not to her. It wasn’t my place, even though we were on the human side. I could hardly believe I was about to succeed in bringing Sarah back. I didn’t want to let her go. The others would be waiting. She took my hand, and we stepped inside the train.

 

SARAH

 

We sat in a strange, easy silence. The train seats were like lumpy rocks. They smelt of feet, or bad food, or both, and were structured in rows, dappled, with people all facing the wrong way. By the time the train left the city, it was so dark that I could barely see a field or a tree. Harry and I piled up our backpacks and propped our feet on them like footrests. I glanced at Harry’s reflection in the window. He looked so deep in thought. I hardly knew him, even though he’d been hanging out with my group for most of term. I’d see him at the shops and movies, or whatever was going on that weekend.

Most of the time he just sat with the boys, not that he was anything much like them. He was…kind of weird, polite in an old fashioned way, holding doors open and saying, ‘After you.’ And he always looked so serious.

‘I heard about your mum.’

‘Heard what?’ my words cracked like a whip. ‘You heard she’s brain damaged? Gone crazy? A vegetable? A retard? What?’ Oh god shut up Sarah.

Harry was staring, his mouth parted.

‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to –’

‘Don’t.  Don’t pretend you understand.’ It was so dark outside I could only see my face in the window.

I looked back at Harry.

‘I didn’t think you had green eyes.’

Harry was staring ahead. He dropped his eyes, and turned to me.

‘I don’t. They’re brown.’

As the train rolled on, Harry got a message on his phone. I pretended to stare through the dark window, but I was carefully watching his reflection. He looked worried at first, but when his phone beeped with a reply message, he smiled.

The motion of the train was winning. I closed my heavy eyelids; it was what they wanted. I didn’t know how long I slept for, but when I woke, my head was on Harry’s shoulder, and the train was slowing.

 

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