Wonder Boy, James Melham

Photo by Gursimrat Ganda on Unsplash

Tom waited impatiently at the metal doors for the countdown to reach zero. The lights had all been turned down in anticipation, as if for fireworks, or for a comet to pass, and the numbers above the doors glowed red. From here, Tom and his roommate had listened to the riots on the streets below. They had opened up the curtains to watch through the large clean windows the first flecks of ash fall from air as the bushfires began. They had looked on with increasing misery as the ash piled up like snow on the disused cars and the broken down brick walls, and the hours turned to days and then into months. Tom’s heart beat against his ribcage with increasing vigour, but he wasn’t scared, at least he didn’t think he was. For the first time in a very long time, they were going outside.

Tom kicked the door.

‘Hey man,” his roommate began, ‘are you okay?’

Tom could see the blurry reflection of his roommate behind him. He could also hear him sucking in air through his mask noisily.

‘Yeah Wonder Boy, just mind your own business, okay?’

If the door didn’t open up soon, Tom thought he would throttle his roommate. Not that he could. Wonder Boy would definitely kick his ass again.

Hurry up.

 

– One minute to go –

 

Wonder Boy had arrived the week before the fifth lockdown and things had started out well enough. Tom remembered how they had played board games, watched re-runs of soccer matches, talked all night about anything and everything.

Wonder Boy would spend hours telling Tom about all the trophies he had won, back when there were trophies to win. He described in vivid detail the glamorous parties he had gone to, the nights he had spent with beautiful women.

It hadn’t bothered Tom that he had never won any trophies; he had never been on any dates either. He used to imagine it was him in the stories, winning those trophies, going on dates, having parties thrown in his honour. Not spending what should have been his high school years looking after his mother, cleaning up the puke from the hallway, hiding his money in the oven, or listening to his mother retching into the toilet in the middle of the night. The stories were a welcome distraction from the memories of repeatedly collecting his mother from rehab, and mere weeks later, returning her again like an unwanted Christmas pet.

In the end it wasn’t the booze that had killed her, she drowned.

In the last few weeks, the weeks following the announcement that they would be let outside, things had begun to go wrong. The stories had become different somehow. They had grown stale, but even more than that, they had become offensive: a never-ending list of things that Tom never had, and never would have. At least Wonder Boy had had glory days. What had Tom had?

Two weeks prior there had been an argument over what to watch on television that had descended, as many drunken arguments do, into something personal. At its conclusion, Wonder Boy had wanted an explanation of why Tom ‘had been such a dick lately’ and Tom had been happy to tell him. The problem, Tom had said, badly slurring, was not the TV, not the stories, it was that Wonder Boy snored so fucking noisily, breathed noisily, ate noisily, showered noisily, exercised noisily, masturbated noisily, he lived too noisily. There was not enough of the grey room for both of them… Wonder Boy needed to go.

Tom had tried to hit Wonder Boy with an empty bottle. Had he meant to kill him? No, just to concuss him a little bit. To have just a few small hours of peace and quiet. But it was Tom that went sprawling over a footstool, shattering the glass bottle on the floor and slicing a hole in his elbow that bled sticky red wine on the carpet.

Tom kicked the door again.

On the security monitor, Anne and her roommate from 6C appeared in the corridor, returning to the room opposite. Her hair was windswept and covered in ash like confetti. She was beautiful in a way that rewired things in Tom’s brain and stopped him from doing simple things such as talking.

‘Hey man, look it’s the girls,’ Wonder Boy said, abruptly interrupting Tom’s daydream. He reached over Tom to bang on the door and smacked against Toms shoulder repeatedly in the process.

The two girls smiled at the camera and waved before quickly disappearing into their room.

 

– BEEP –

 

The locks on either side of the door shot back into the walls and the door sprang open automatically, sending a gust of air and residual ash into the clean room.

‘Go-Go-Go!’ Wonder Boy shouted excitedly, shoving Tom out into the corridor.

Tom tripped and staggered forward, falling in a heap against the door of 6C. Tom could feel the girls watching on their monitor.

‘You fucking asshole,’ he said, ‘what was that for?’

‘Sorry man,’ Wonder Boy replied with a shrug.

Tom pushed away Wonder Boy’s attempts to help him up and got to his feet. It was the second time that Wonder Boy had laid him out in as many weeks and Tom could feel his face and his fists throbbing with embarrassment and anger.

If it had been the other way around Tom wouldn’t have shoved Wonder Boy, he would’ve warned him that the countdown was nearly up, he would’ve given him a subtle poke that said ‘hey buddy, let’s go.’ He wouldn’t have made his roommate look like an asshole was the point. Next time it was Wonder Boys turn. That fucker was in for it next time, yes sir.

Tom walked through the lobby and swung open the heavy doors that led outside, rattling the thick glass panels set into the frames.

A strong wind sent hot flecks of ash and dust into his face that, despite his goggles and mask, made Tom turn away from their approach. Only a bland white light now penetrated through the veil of swirling ash and smoke and the image of desolation that greeted him was more painful than he had imagined it to be.

‘Hey man,’ Wonder Boy called. ‘Sorry I pushed you.’

‘What!?’ Tom could barely hear him in the gusting wind.

‘I said I am sorry I pushed you!’

Tom wished he would stop being so fucking nice. But then again, he did just apologise. And perhaps a little shove was better than missing the exit window because he had zoned out.

That would have looked even worse.

Right?

High above the ash clouds two water bombers zoomed overhead, returning from dousing the endless bush fires, to refill and refuel. Later that afternoon one of the bombers would hit a tall red brick tower in the eastern suburbs that had been hiding in the ash storm all these months, waiting to kill everyone on board.

The HyperMart was Tom’s destination, mostly because it was the only building, shop, or anything else still open now. It was an old-fashioned shopping mall with all but one of the entrances blocked and all of the windows shuttered against the ash storm, which became worse as they drew near.

At the entryway, Tom placed his Vax Cert and ID face down on the scanners and the machine vomited out a little slip of paper with the words ENTER printed on it in blurry red lettering.

‘What do we need to get?’ Wonder Boy asked as he emerged from the doorway.
He had removed his mask and gloves and smiled at Tom with his oh-so-perfect white teeth. He knew exactly what they needed. They had already discussed how far their credits would go and what they would be spent on at least a million times.

‘We need milk, bread, eggs, chocolate, whisky, cigarettes and replacement filters for the masks,’ Tom replied.

‘Great, can you get those?’ Wonder Boy said, handing over his wallet.

‘I’m going to take a look around.’

‘What?’ Tom was on one hand relieved he didn’t have to do all of the shopping with Wonder Boy, but he was also equally pissed off that Wonder Boy expected him to do all the work.

‘Don’t worry man,’ Wonder Boy said, ‘I’ve got my phone in case I see anything good.’

Tom stood speechless for a moment. He could feel the vein in his temple bulging and sweat beginning to prick his forehead. He wanted to look around too, but they only had an hour and it took twenty minutes to get to the HyperMart. If he went gallivanting off like some sort of doomsday tourist, they would be stuck with goddamn Government beans until the next countdown. Why was he always the one left holding the bag? Why did he have to do the shit work? That fucking asshole was going to get it one of these days all right, Wonder Boy my ass.

After a brief search, Tom found a filter dispenser beside a disused cola vending machine near the old cinema. Tom pressed the button for a pack of twenty-five filters and inserted Wonder Boy’s credit card. If he was doing the shopping, he wasn’t doing the paying. He noticed that the plastic frontage of the cola machine was smashed in and where Santa’s jolly face had once been was a black hole.

Tom put the filters in his pocket and returned the card to Wonder Boy’s wallet, noticing his Vax Cert and ID were still both inside. Tom removed the Vax Cert, newly printed that morning on one of those horrible cheap pieces of paper that doctors used to use for prescriptions, and without thinking tore it in half and dropped the two pieces onto the floor. One half landed in a puddle of coolant seeping out of the Cola machine and began to coil up.

After Tom had bought the groceries, he walked back to the entrance thinking about the Vax Cert. If anything, he thought, Wonder Boy deserved to lose his Vax Cert by not keeping it with him at all times, like you were supposed to.

But there was that thought again, was he actually that bad? Did he deserve to have his Vax Cert torn in half? He did play shitty music, and he did jerk off three times a night. But it could’ve been worse right?

Fuck fuckety fuck.

Wonder Boy was definitely NOT going to get through the security checkpoint, and he would know exactly who was to blame. Tom could picture it. Wonder Boy would be all like ‘Hey man, where’s my certificate?’ And Tom would be all like ‘what certificate?’ and then Wonder Boy would say ‘it was in my wallet that you had,’ and then the shit would hit the fan.

Tom wondered if it would be worse if Wonder Boy hit him, or if Wonder Boy was arrested.

Being hit, duh.

And right on cue, there was Wonder Boy coming down the strip of boarded up shops at a jog.

Fuck fuck fuck.

‘Hey man,’ Wonder Boy said, ‘how’d you go?’

‘Yeah fine,’ Tom replied, ‘here’s your stupid wallet. Let’s go.’

Tom went through the security door, scanned his Vax Cert and ID, prompting the machine to vomit out another little ticket that said EXIT, but this time the red letters were smeared across the length of the cheap paper.

Tom considered for a moment that maybe he could just go back to the room and forget all about Wonder Boy. He wouldn’t have to see him get arrested. He wouldn’t be accused of anything.

The silence of the room sang to him in the same way that booze had sung his mother’s name for so many years. He could read the news without listening to Wonder Boy’s goddamned breathing, or his goddamned music. Tom decided to go.

‘Hey Tom!’

After a few minutes, Tom heard his name on the wind.

‘Hey Tommy!’

Was he going fucking crazy?

‘Tom!’

There it was again, this time louder. Tom wasn’t imagining it. He turned towards the HyperMart, and there was Wonder Boy coming once more at a jog.

‘Hey,’ Wonder Boy said as he caught up, ‘sorry I couldn’t find my Vax Cert, but the guy there let me through anyway.’

Tom clenched his teeth behind his mask. He felt angry, although he wasn’t sure why. Was it because he hadn’t been found out? Or was it because Wonder Boy was still going to be there when he got back? How nice would it have been if Wonder Boy had been stopped at the gate, how good?

Tom suddenly felt like he was driving his mother home from the hospital again, knowing that tonight would be another night of listening to her coughing and laughing and puking.

‘Anyway, I guess I will have to get a new one,’ Wonder Boy said. ‘No biggie.’

Wonder Boy began walking quickly through the storm and Tom followed. He was thinking about Wonder Boy, thinking about his mother.

Fucker.

Tom could hear himself breathing audibly through his mask now; it was difficult to keep up with Wonder Boy.

That smug fuck.

Tom’s heart raced as images of the previously empty apartment were filled with Wonder Boy’s presence, his noise, his smell, his mere being was surely enough to drive anyone insane. It wasn’t Tom’s fault, it was completely understandable to feel this way. Tom remembered how he had been pushed over, how he had been thrown through the doorway. That noise every night. He needed the room to himself. He needed quiet. He needed Wonder Boy to go away. Like he had needed his mother to go away.

Yet all it had taken then was to run her a warm bath and hold her under, was this so different?

Tom bent down and retrieved a brick from beneath the smooth blanket of ash.

Tom reached the apartment with seconds to spare. The previously clean grey room had a layer of dust and ash on the carpet and Tom trod dark footprints across the floor to the basin. His sleeve was warm and wet and ash clung to the deep red stain that had appeared there. Tom’s face was colourless in the mirror aside from two dark grey ash streaks that ran down his cheeks. It was quiet at last, aside from the sound of a siren wailing in the distance.

 

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Touched, Kimberley Carter

Photo by Muillu on Unsplash

When was the last time you dreamed in any colour other than gold? You wish there was a dial or perhaps a valve that you could use to drain the world of that particular metallic hue. Maybe then, the world would return to the way it was before.

You find the memories from the time before especially difficult to keep straight. Memories are strange. They are never straight forward. They are like quantum particles that when observed, change direction. One afternoon, after a bland and tasteless lunch, you sit your children down in the dining room and do your best to explain to them the beginning and the before. You fumble a lot, lose your place and ramble. Your voice is muffled through your mask and your hands are sweaty beneath your gloves. You find there is no real place to start, no way to explain these things clearly to children who only know the after. Somehow, this seems important though. These are things they can only experience if you tell them.

You try and begin with a simpler time. You describe in vivid detail crowded concert halls where your head gets jammed in a rockers damp, un-pruned armpit. You tell them about hugging friends in greeting and kissing strangers, and travelling. Travelling! To them, it’s a foreign concept. Communities are now so small. They are closed off, locked and barred. The only good stranger now is a familiar one. The children make faces at you. They are still young.

*

Somewhere along the way, you tell them about a girl. You think her name was Amelia. Or maybe it was Emma. It is hard to know. You only met her once. You were a pharmacy assistant at the time. Young, fresh and roped into doing the job that no one wanted. You don’t remember the house being anything special. The weeds were stretching tall in their stolen beds and the grass was high as a wheat field. So high it almost obscured the hastily erected sign out front. It read, ‘Caution: Quarantine Zone. PPE must be worn at all times.’ Already, even then, that sign was familiar.

You knocked on the door and when there was no response, you knocked again. You must not be knocking loud enough, you thought. You call out instead.

‘I’m from the pharmacy,’ you say, ‘I’m delivering your medication.’

You don’t forget what she looks like when she opens the door. You describe her to your children as hunched and small. Her pyjamas are old and filthy. Her hair is matted and oily, she is like an underfed lion hiding in the wheat field waiting to pounce. Her eye bags are like new moons, carving circles into her cheekbones. Your children ask what was wrong with her. ‘This is what loneliness looks like,’ you answer.

She slides the cash under the fly-screen and tells you to keep the change. You think you see her in your newsfeed, months later. Or maybe you didn’t.

*

Your children ask you ‘What is cash?’. You take them to a dusty unused corner of the house and pull out an old box hidden among the shelves. Inside, carefully filed, named and catalogued, are notes and coins. You make them sanitise before and after touching them. After all, cash is now a dirty collectable.

You are glad they are showing interest. You are glad they are asking questions. Questions are good. Questions are better than blank stares and obvious fidgets. You decide to tell them how it started. That the first spark was a man in the media; a shaky video that most people discounted as fake. But a fake virus does not multiply the way this one did.

You are losing their interest. You can see it but you cannot stop. Some stories need to be told simply for the sanity of the speaker. This is what you tell them, you say: Imagine your senses being flooded every hour, every day with news of this new virus. Look at all the pictures of brightly coloured microorganisms spiked like maces. Listen to the ever-growing list of people posting videos about how they feel, what they’ve been through. Read what the government has to say. That it’s contained. That it’s non-threatening. That it’s a naturally caused mutation of a pre-existing virus strand. No one believes it, not even you. How could you? The statistics were bleak. You thought perhaps you were seeing the end. After all, what kind of virus could possible exist that turned people into gold?

The different stages of the virus became predicable once you got used to it. And you did get used to it. Humanity adapts surprisingly quickly to world changing events. You have started sympathising with world war two survivors, you don’t remember when. You picture yourself on par with them, sitting down in the rubble of a train station, listening to the bombs above and saying to one another, ‘How was your day today? Anything exciting happen?’

Your children chime in. They say ‘We know! We know!’ in feigned boredom. Of course they know. There are signs everywhere. In every classroom, in the libraries, in the halls. There’s even a magnet on your fridge written in large red letters ‘Know the symptoms of the Midas Touch. Protect yourself and others.’ Your children may know this but knowing is different to understanding.

You explain anyway. You have to now. You cannot stop. You are winding up the toy, racing towards the punch line. Why is this so hard? The first stage of the virus is the slight yellowy shimmer in the whites of the eyes. Next, the Touched person’s veins change colour, from a deep blue to a rich gold. The worst symptoms, you say, are the invisible ones. The loss of taste, and the stiff limbs that feel like running through water. It’s like the gold has been heated in a furnace than poured into your body shaped mould and left to cool.

You tell them about the great debates over where it came from, whether it was purely spread by touch, about how long it could survive on surfaces and whether the virus was small enough to become airborne. The last stage of course is the golden hue the skin takes. That’s what people will remember, not that most died from their hearts giving in or their lungs collapsing. You were too young to remember SARS or measles. You hope that your children will not remember the Touch but you know you are wrong.

You are afraid you have bored the children. They will no longer sit still. They see the sun glinting through the window and beg for the chance to play. It is already getting late. You are running out of time. You look into their eyes and you find yourself unable to say no. You haven’t told it yet, the most important part. You convince yourself it can wait till tomorrow. You retreat into the half-light of your office. Your mind is full of the things not said.

There is one image that sticks most clearly in your head. This, you do not share with your children. This, you file away like a postcard and every now and then it comes knocking on your skull.

*

You remember seeing an elderly couple on a park bench, their skin stiff and covered with a golden sheen. They were the first Touched you saw in person. Over the years, you have questioned and wondered and imagined how they died. Who were they? How did they get there? What was the last thoughts running through their gold-riddled minds? You remember it like this:

They are two statues; mannequins dressed in their nicest clothes. The woman is wearing a loose-fitting dress covered in sunflowers. The man is dressed in some stretchy slacks and a blue checkered shirt. In the small space between them their hands are clasped together. They are smiling into each other’s eyes. Those facts never change.

You think maybe one night, the woman notices the dull distant look in her husband’s eyes. Maybe she sees the golden veins creeping up his throat and says to him, ‘let’s go for a walk’. Then she helps him dress. She grabs his cane, his hat and his glasses. She leaves the masks and gloves at home. When she opens the door, she helps him through the threshold. And when he stumbles on the way up the hill, she supports his arm in hers and tells him ‘Your cane! Use your cane!’. They make it to the park that’s little more than a grassy hill. She sits him down to wait for the sunrise. Or is it sunset? No, you are sure it must be sunrise. There is nothing more fitting. The mist coils around their shoes and the dew on the bench seeps through their clothes. She talks to him about anything and everything and always she holds his hand. You imagine the comfort that would have bought the old man. The comfort of physical touch that fades so quickly from memory. The comfort of knowing that someone was there with you, and they weren’t going to let go. You miss the feeling; it nags at you like an ache in your chest or a pressure behind your eyes.

The night then starts to lighten. The mist seems to raise from the ground, briefly bringing the world to life in a glow of pure white. Then the sun starts peeking through. You’ve always thought that sunrise is best; more special. You hope they were watching the sunrise. You hope they managed to see it. You can picture them, sitting on that little bench holding hands as they are bathed in the warmth of a new day.

Did she look into his eyes as he died? Did she cry tears speckled with golden flakes that glittered in the dawn? Did she simply decide not to let go? Did she decide to hold his hand as it stiffened, and wait? Would it have been a relief when her own skin hardened and took on that golden hue; when she lost the ability to move and her thoughts dulled and slowed. Whether it was her heart or her lungs that gave first doesn’t matter to you. Neither does it matter if it was the man or the woman who died first, or the sunrise or the sunset that they watched. The truth lives in their smiles as they stare into each other’s eyes and the clasp of their hands on the bench between them.

You secretly hope no one touched them, that they were given dignity. You hope no one took their clothes or broke their arms off. You wanted them to sit together on that bench overlooking the little grassy park, a frozen moment in time. A tribute. They faced the Touch together and for that they are immortalised, if only in your mind.

The postcard image would come knocking often, especially in the first few months of the pandemic and always while you were at work. Even through the protective barriers, the gloves and the masks, you still saw something of the world. You remember a little girl, maybe around eight. She was wearing tiny pink gloves and a mask with flowers on it. They were a matching set. You saw her wandering the store, not touching a thing. Instead, she amused herself by jumping on the X’s. Every two metres, a bright blue X has been ironed onto the floor. Later, a more permanent solution would replace them. The little girl in pink was too small to jump from one X to the next, so she jumped and shuffled, jumped and shuffled. It occurred to you as you watched her, that this was her normal. Jumping on the X’s will be a part of childhood. Already children were making songs and games to play together using the X’s, and their masks, and the sanitiser their parents drenched them with.

*

Outside, you can hear your children playing, they pull your mind back to the present. You will not allow them to go further than the yard. The games they play are different to what you had grown up with. Their laughter settles like a heavy sadness in your bones.

You wonder at the changing world. You wonder when you last touched somebody, or saw a stranger’s face, embracing them without paranoia or fear. You wonder when it started feeling wrong to have someone standing behind you in a queue. You wonder when money started feeling dirty and why you didn’t notice it disappearing.

Your head drops to your desk. What is it you are trying to teach them? What is the point about chattering on about the past? You know the answer. But you are afraid. You do not want the past to be forgotten. The air in your office feels stuffy, your throat is tight and dry from talking and your shoulders are slumped. Tomorrow. You will tell them the rest tomorrow. You will say goodbye properly then. You will tell them how much you love them and how much you wish you could hold them.

You decide to go for a walk; a long one, even when you know you shouldn’t. You are surprised at how normal everything looks. At how the wind rustles the trees and sends the grass shivering. At how dogs are unafraid to approach you. You see a man flying a kite that is harnessed to his waist. You watch him for a long while, see how the kite bends and twists, dancing in the air and how the man pulls and strains and desperately spins to keep it airborne. As you walk, the sun begins to set. The sky turns gold. You lie down on the highest hill, ignoring the quiet complaining of your joints. You are so tired. As you lie there, you forget for a moment whether it is sunrise or sunset; whether there is a tomorrow or a yesterday. You thought you would hate the colour gold. Detest it. Despise it. But in this moment with your limbs heavy with liquid gold, the grass vainly pricking your skin and the wind stroking your hair, all you can think is that it’s warm.

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Hikikomori, Alice Maher

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Hikikomori was awarded 1st place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Haibun
The title Hikikomori refers to a Japanese social phenomenon whereby adolescents (and some adults) withdraw from the outside world to seek extreme isolation and self-confinement.
A Haibun is a Japanese form combining short prose with poetry; in this case, a haiku.

I am not clover. My roots, if I have roots, run shallow and thin. I do not spread and I do not travel. My sun is an incandescent bulb, and it does not move across my ceiling sky. My days and nights are not bound to natural lights. If I am awake, it is day. I sleep, and it is night. Food is left at my door, coldly waiting for me to creep to it. Morning meals of bread and miso arrive when I am tired. Evening meals of rice and fish accompany my waking yawn. Sometimes I eat and am grateful. Sometimes, craving warmth like the clover I am not, I venture to a darkened kitchen and heat an always-full kettle.

Mother’s love for me
Cup ramen in the cupboard
Never running out

I may not travel, but every day I journey. My portal awaits, one of three choices, but the one I always take. One is a third-storey window that leads nowhere I care about. It is death, and I am not quite desperate enough to step out yet. One is a door, safe at certain times. Quick dashes to the bathroom and the kitchen, hiding my body from my mother like it’s a game we agreed to play. My portal sits on the desk and hums in a soothing voice. Its light is more important than the bulb, far more important than the sun. I step through, plodding familiar paths. Here, people are words. I am also words, when I choose to be. Mostly, I like to be eyes.

Eyes that see a world
Where ‘avatar’ means more than
Simple godly things

Every so often, my journey is interrupted. My god-eyes turn away from the screen, to give my human ears a chance to hear. Voices: Mother. And some other. Noises like murmuring, but harsher, more demanding. I sit in the dark and ignore their building rhythm. I ignore the breathy voices calling to one another. I do not hear the moment breathy becomes breathless. I squeeze a plastic cup of broth, willing warmth back into it. But it has sat for hours, quite stale. Nothing I want anymore.

I feel a leaving
I sit and almost enjoy
The sound of sobbing

I never understood the human world. I am like a beast, hiding in my hole through an endless winter. Humans pass over my buried head but do not disturb my sleep. Humans with their crying sounds. Humans with their human food, left on the ground at the entrance to my burrow. Humans with their animal coupling and their human way of complicating even simple things. My mother is a human. I caught a glimpse of her recently, quite by accident. It was the time that humans usually spent in bed. I dashed from my shelter to satisfy my needs, but this time I was hunted. My mother’s face glowed in the dark. It burned a ghost behind my eyelids.

‘Kenji, listen dear.
I can’t do this anymore.
I’ll leave you some cash’

No more bread. No more fish. Some rice and miso has been left, optimistically, but I do not know how to make it into food. No more crying, or noise of any kind. I can walk the house freely, at any time. But still my room feels like the only space that belongs to me. I ventured into my mother’s room, half-fearful of her ghost. But there was a disappointing amount of nothing. My room grew fuller and fuller of stale smells, unwashed sheets and dishes. My mother’s room smelled like no human. I let it be.

What happens later,
When the cup ramen runs out?
I eye the money

I am eight years old. My mother is holding me, and I am drinking in her warmth. My father has left us, and now we are a pair. That’s what my mother murmurs into my hair. You and me, we have to be strong now. I want to please you so much my stomach hurts. My hand curls around you right before you push me gently back. You stand, pulling me up with you. You tell me I am your special boy; no, your special man. I will look after you, I say. I know you will. I know.

Everything I am
Refolded, crammed further down.
We are now a pair

I start rationing the ramen. Every time I go to the cupboard and see the plastic towers dwindling, or refill the empty kettle, my heart empties too. Then, slowly, my stomach follows. I crawl on my belly like a snake, hugging pillows to my crushed abdomen. The money sits on the kitchen counter where she left it. A bundle of notes, and a credit card. I can’t breathe.

Come back, please mother.
I forget being a man
Please teach me again.

I tread delicately down pixelated paths, this time on a quest. I tap the keys, ignoring my usual sites. A map appears on the screen, of the area just outside my apartment. I barely recognise it. It looks dense, packed with buildings, roads, and other signs of human activity. Dots appear, a whole cascade of them. Are there really that many places that sell food nearby? My belly howls with impatience even as my tongue becomes swollen and stiff. I sift through the listings one by one, searching for key phrases.

Key phrases such as:
‘Open 24/7’
I start making plans.

The paths I tread now are hostile. It is 3:30am and I thought I would be safe from human eyes, but they persist. I dodge down side streets, lit only by foxfire lanterns leading on to homely haunts. Places mentioned on my map but unsuitable for my needs. The thought of sitting, ordering food, waiting among strangers and then eating among them, is far too much. Even my current mission, far more modest, sends my palms sweating. Everyone can see how uncomfortable I am. I am one of those stray cats, an abandoned pet to be turned back at any threshold I am presumptuous enough to approach.

Finally I see
Blue and green: ‘Family Mart’
Ironic perhaps.

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Until the Light, Thomas Dennis

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

A bleak morning shadow loomed over the city; countless sleepless lights lost within silence. Once, every candle and streetlight would dance in a warm blaze; twirling to a jumbled, disruptive symphony… But that was a long time ago.

‘That time again?’

Darren snapped up from his boots, smiling slightly at the young woman standing over him. ‘Amelia…’

‘I know. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?’

Darren scoffed. ‘Doesn’t make it any easier.’ He sighed as he tied the last knot firmly. ‘Maybe I can bring something nice back this time? You want anything?’

Amelia gave a smile and shook her head. ‘Just some bread.’

Darren watched as she walked away, past the dining table. He glanced sadly at the vase that sat in the centre; a tall, beautifully crafted piece that had been empty for almost a year. She always asked for something simple. Something necessary. Never anything for pleasure’s sake.

‘Alright, I’m off!’ No sooner had his hand touched the knob did a tap grace his shoulder.

‘Here, you can’t forget these.’ A dull sensation reawakened in Darren’s temple as he took the objects out of Amelia’s hands. Indeed, he could not. Not the small grey cloth that wrenched across his mouth, the cords that dug into his hair as they fastened tightly together. Not the thick, clear gloves that dragged his fingers in and squeezed his hand.

With content, he sank into Amelia’s arms. He trembled and smiled behind his mask as her soft lips brushed his cheek. He gave one final wave before closing the door. The tremendous, dull bang of the mahogany clashing against the doorframe echoed through his head as he floated down the stairs. Each flight felt hours long until he reached the basement car park.

The old girl sputtered and fumbled before roaring to life, her heavy tyres screaming as they crawled out onto the road. On most days, the drive to work felt like cruising through a ghost town. But not today. Darren’s eyes widened as he pulled up to the lights, car after car rushing past him as the light turned green. Although glad to see them, his mind was consumed by a disturbing thought.

When was the last time there was this many cars out at once?

Darren shook his head as he turned on the highway. No time for that, let’s move!

However, a long, terrible screech caused him to flinch, slowing to a crawl as the car ahead of him suddenly stopped. He groaned as he rolled up to join the long queue of cars waiting for their turn – the most irritating obstacle on this trip.

The Checkpoint.

A long concrete blockade that affirmed the district border, barely enough space for one car on either side to come through at once. Stationed on each side was a small company of officers, some in black and blue, others in green and brown. All noticeably armed.

Darren’s grip on the wheel tightened, knuckles whitened as he watched car after car pass through. The sun’s barely up and already these people have decided NOW was a good time to try their luck?! A queue that usually lasted ten minutes slowly rolled into thirty.

No. Settle, Darren. Settle. Remember: 1, 2, 3. 1. 2. 3. 1… 2… 3.

‘Identification, please.’

Darren smiled at the officer in black, reached down for his wallet, which was sitting on the passenger-side seat.

He fished out and handed over both his licences. First, his standard NSW driver’s licence. Then, and more importantly, his Sanctioned licence. A small, blue card with his photo, name, and a bar code that spanned the bottom edge.

The officer eyed him sceptically. ‘Sanctioned Code, please.’

‘Sanctioned Code T26-N19570.’ Darren replied robotically. ‘Designation: Food storage and procession.’

Every Sanctioned licensee was expected to memorise their code. Precautions to distinguish the safe from the scum, as general opinion had it. The officer handed the licence to his partner, who swiped it through a mobile scanner. A few seconds later, both officers nodded, and Darren got both his licences back.

‘Alright, you’re good to go.’

‘Thank you, officer.’

‘Be careful out there. Don’t go causing trouble.’ Darren nodded as the gates slowly swung upwards.

Once through, the world once again passed him by, except now, cars were fewer and farther. Every McDonalds, every KFC, every car repair and everyday shop – they all flew by, utterly invisible. The cries of car horns, a distant memory. Time was ticking and there was road to burn.

It took ten more minutes to reach his destination: what was once a grand shopping centre, full of life, was now as cold and dead as its walls. Darren hurried into the carpark, only to face another Checkpoint, where a grouchy-looking guard shook his head.

٭

‘You’re late.’

Darren rolled his eyes at his manager, Mr. McCann, who didn’t even bother to glance up from his desk.

‘Only by a few minutes, sir. Sorry. Traffic was… surprisingly hectic today.’

‘Yes, I noticed. It’s been like that since 5.’

It’s been like that for three hours? The hell’s going on?

‘Cormac!’ McCann snapped. ‘Listen. Today’s the same old, understand? Some disturbing rumours are going around, and I don’t want them to continue.’ Darren nodded before leaving the office.

He busied himself with his work routine, inspecting the produce in the stock storage to ensure the fruits and vegetables were satisfactory for purchase. The new kid, Ryan, ran over.

‘Hey, did you hear? There’s gonna be a big gathering in the streets today.’

Darren held back a sigh. He had always liked Ryan. The kid always brought a smile to his face, his sheer energy was something this world dearly missed. Every day they were rostered together, the pair would spend their breaks discussing video games or making the most absurd theories about the strangest television shows.

Like Darren, Ryan had good reason for joining the Sanctioned. Every shift, he would come out in place of his parents. If he was not discussing the weirdest, nerdiest topics, then you could never get him to shut up about his sister. A little girl, no older than six, with her big brothers’ golden hair, blue eyes and bright smile.

‘Where did you hear about this?’ Darren muttered as he started counting the fruit boxes.

‘In chatrooms. On Twitter. You know, everywhere.’

Darren shook his head. ‘Ryan…’

‘Look, hear me out, yeah? Most people are tired of all the restrictions the bloody government’s putting on them. I mean, only one person per household once every two weeks for food and meds? It’s ridiculous.’

Darren didn’t respond, the taste of iron in his mouth. He had heard these arguments countless times over the last year. In video after video, people would spam all social platforms to rant and rave. Faces creased like prunes, screaming about the ‘Injustice of Isolation’. After a while, watching paint dry didn’t sound so bad.

‘Hey, maybe we should join it too.’

Darren stared blankly into those eyes, those young wide eyes, trembling, pleading, before turning back to his checklist. He heard Ryan’s fading footsteps as he scanned the boxes of potatoes, making sure his counts were correct.

He smiled as he filled the last spot on the checklist. Everything was under control. Now it was just about checking to see which tables needed filling and which could wait. However, his smile became a frown when he stepped back onto the floor. The quiet, empty floor.

Darren narrowed his eyes as he checked each untouched table. Barely anything had been taken, but the shop had been open for at least an hour. He left the produce section and took a lap past each of the aisles. Virtually nothing on the shelves had been taken, at least not compared to every other day. Every co-worker he passed looked just as confused and concerned as him. Even the few customers in the aisles, who should be rushing to get supplies as fast as they could, were perplexed by how… easy that day was.

Suddenly, there was shouting outside. Without a second thought, he raced towards the front registers, where McCann was talking to a lone security guard amidst the thundering shouts that echoed in from outside.

The shopping centre hallways seemed like a tomb. All the other grocery shops were dark behind shutter doors, and those few clothes and accessory shops that were still open had employees standing out at their entrances, waiting for that first wave of customers while trying to make sense of the shouts.

‘Your whole team’s outside right now?’ McCann asked the guard.

‘Yes. Only a few of us stayed behind to watch the store entrances.’

‘What’s going on?’ Darren said, walking up to the pair. ‘What’s all that noise about? Where is everyone?’

McCann sighed, rubbing his temple. ‘The rumours…’

Darren’s eyes widened. He turned to find the rest of the staff had gathered at the front, some confused, others curious, all trying to work out what was going on. All but one…

‘Where’s the kid? Anybody seen Ryan?!’

‘What about Ry– HEY!’ Darren ignored his boss’ question as he bolted down the empty hallways. Profane thoughts cleaved through Darren’s head as he ran; the echo of each of his footsteps was quickly drowned out as the centre front door got closer.
Before he even opened the door, he could hear them. Countless booming voices clocked his ears as he stepped outside, bearing witness to the vast but burgeoning parade of people standing in the street in front of the centre. If not for his hanging mouth, Darren would have rolled his eyes at the countless voices, screaming and shouting over each other to the point where he could not even understand them. Slogans like ‘Bring down the Walls’, ‘#FoodForChildren’, and ‘This is a Government Scam’ seemed to be the more tactful slogans that were sprawled across the signs.

HONK!

Oh no…

The blaring car horn seemed to calm the crowd, at least enough for Darren to find the source. A red two-seater sat in the middle of the street, surrounded by a ring of similarly sized cars. Each one had a young person, mid 20’s at most, standing on the roof. They had small black boxes at their feet, faced out towards the crowd.

And there, standing on the roof of the centre car, was Ryan.

Ryan raised a hand, lifted it to his face, and tore off his mask. Seconds of silence rippled out over the street, before an old but familiar sound came faintly over the crowd. Sirens.

‘Listen to them!’ Ryan’s voice roared into the streets like thunder, ‘The cops are on their way!’

Murmurings began to rise. Looks of anger, worry and even panic came across the face of the protestors as the wails grew louder and louder. ‘People! Listen!’ Ryan called their eyes back to himself. ‘This is what we came here for. The cops, the army, they just want to bully us, to push us into our homes. To keep all the food for themselves. All in the name of some ‘pandemic’?’

The murmurs began shifting towards agreement. ‘We cannot let this stand! They can’t keep us away from the world! My little sis, she…’ Ryan paused for a bit, taking a moment to breathe before he spoke again. ‘She can’t even go to school. She can’t see her friends unless I pay for her to ‘see’ them through a screen!’

The murmurings grew louder as the signs began rising. Darren shook his head, staring in disbelief at this boy who would use his position as a Sanctioned, and his own kid sister, to rile these people up. A loud beep cut through the noise. The signs lowered just enough for Darren to see one of the boys standing on the cars holding up a card. A card that was flashing red.

Every non-Sanctioned family gets one civilian card, a card that only lasts three hours. Three hours to get whatever rations you can for two weeks.

He turned to Ryan, who nodded back. With a defiant roar, the boy threw the card toward his feet and smashed it beneath his heel. The cheers were slower this time, but louder as people began to follow suit, lifting their cards and throwing them onto the pavement.

‘Yes! Yes! No more restrictions! The government would only Sanction a few of us, enough for them to monitor and enslave while everyone else waits for scraps! NO MORE!’

‘NO MORE!’ The first unanimous cheer.

For two long minutes, Darren watched the parade, shaking his head at everyone who looked back at him. He sighed as countless cars flooded the surrounding roads, dazzled in a red and blue disco. Within moments, thunderous footsteps shook the streets as lines of uniforms marched towards the crowd, the morning light gleaming off their riot shields.

‘Attention, citizens! Attention! This will be your only warning. Complete your shopping or return to your homes now! Failure to comply will result in the use of force!’

Darren could barely hear the announcement. The crowd just kept getting louder as Ryan and his friends called for them to march against enemy lines. As the crowd between them thinned out, Ryan finally met Darren’s eyes. A joyous look came across Ryan’s face as he called out – called out to his friend, his mentor.

But Darren gave no response. Only turned around slowly and headed back inside, closing the door as he heard the first bang.

*

Darren sighed as he wandered to the near-barren bakery. Silence had plagued the rest of the day. Even when the afternoon bustle began, smiling still seemed taboo.

It was always difficult to find a good loaf by closing time, but, just as he found one, something caught his eye. Bouquets of roses, rich as scarlet, radiating from the flower stands.

Darren’s mask hid his wide grin; he knew who loved red roses. They always reminded her of her favourite childhood film.

‘Not quite our anniversary… but just one can’t be too selfish, right?’

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Night Market, Ry Feder

Photo by Julie on Unsplash

Circle

The markets glimmer in the dark like firelight.

It’s the fairy lights draped over each booth, Jamie thinks, and the lanterns that criss-cross the paths between them. Individually, each bulb is small. They don’t produce much light. But together… massed together, they’re breathtaking.

It’s a nice metaphor. Jamie mentally notes it down to use later in a story.

‘Okay, we got a bunch to do. Where first?’ Jack asks the group, his arm slung over Callum’s shoulder. Jamie glances sidelong at them, then away.

It’s not jealousy, exactly. It’s not like they miss being with Jack specifically, and he and Callum really do make a good match (hell, Jamie had been the one to suggest that Callum ask Jack out in the first place). But of their circle of friends, Jamie is the only one who doesn’t have someone and sometimes that loss feels like lead in their stomach.

It had been their choice, they have to keep reminding themself of that. It had been Jamie who had told Jack it wasn’t working, and they have no one else to blame.

And they’re at the markets, and they’re big and bright and bursting with life and maybe, maybe they can find someone here, find a connection. Somewhere amidst the lights and the lanterns, the arts and crafts, music and sound, amidst the swell and push of humanity, maybe there is someone here who they can connect with.

Coffee in one hand, and they won’t sleep well tonight. But Jamie’s wandering feet have led them to a stall bursting with music and movement, a keyboardist spinning songs from their fingertips. Jamie stops and watches, lets the music sink into their bones, and the song comes to an end and the keyboardist looks up and meets their gaze.

There’s warmth, there. Curiosity, fascination. The potential for a connection, maybe, if they dare. They hold Jamie’s gaze for a moment, then a smile crosses their lips.

Jamie smiles back.

The Artists

Danica hands over the sketch, accepts the ten dollars, and gives a sunshine-bright saleswoman smile.

‘Pleasure doing business with you!’ she beams, tucking the note in the tin. She’s already planning out the groceries – eighty cents for a half-kilo tin of lentils, two bucks forty for peanut butter, a dollar sixty for the no-name supermarket bread…

There’s a gap in the music; she glances up from her list. ‘Hey, Lucc? White, wholegrain, or multigrain?’

The pianist runs a hand through eir hair with one hand and reaches for the water bottle with the other. ‘Uh, dunno. We already get rice?’

‘Yeah, two pictures ago.’

‘Wholegrain.’

Danica nods and jots it down. ‘Cool. We almost have enough for bananas.’

‘Bitchin’.’ Lucc grins and launches into a cover of The Banana Boat Song; a few of the market-goers pause to sing along to the old standard. Smiling back, Danica drums against her little table to provide some accompaniment, a few red curls escaping their clips to bounce around her face as she sways to the song.

The movement helps. Movement means catching people’s eye, catching people’s eye means they’re more likely to look at the paintings she has for sale or, more likely, the ten-dollar sketches she does (‘While you wait!’). It works out well, sharing a booth with Lucc. They split the vendor fee, eir music attracts people who might buy Danica’s art; those browsing her art will inevitably listen to Lucc’s music and maybe contribute a few dollars to the tip jar, maybe buy an EP.

Rent does not come cheap.

Lucc has wrapped up the cover and gone into one of eir own compositions. A few stick around to listen, including a cutie with freckles splattered over their face like paint and a jacket adorned with a riot of colourful badges. They (there’s a nonbinary flag amongst the badges) have one hand on their cocked hip, a smile on their lips. Danica is about eighty percent sure they’re flirting.

‘This next one,’ Lucc says as ey finishes up, ‘Is dedicated to all the beautiful people out here tonight.’ Ey winks at the one in the jacket, Danica laughs at the blush it produces and turns back to set up her sketchpad for the next portrait.

It’s on the ground, along with her pencils and eraser, stool overturned. The kneaded eraser is half buried, and there’s the imprint of a boot in its soft surface.

‘What the hell?’ she mutters, straightening up the stool, trying to work the mud out of the eraser. It’s well and truly ground in, unusable without leaving streaks of dirt over the paper, and she bites her lip savagely.

Kneaded eraser, four dollars ten. Broken 4B pencil, eighty cents for one or two bucks for the three-pack for the cheap ones…

The thing is, she’s starting to realise, is that the stool had been tucked away in the middle of their little stall. It’s not somewhere where people might randomly bump into it, where they might accidentally knock her supplies to the ground. To get the imprint of a boot like that (and Danica’s boots have a different print, and Lucc has not left the keyboard since she last saw her sketchbook), it would have to be deliberate.

The cash box hasn’t been touched yet. Danica hesitates, then slips the money out and into her jacket pocket, buttoning it shut.

She hates not trusting people. Hates it. Danica likes to think herself an extrovert, that the people she surrounds herself with are good at heart. She likes to think that the people at the night market are people who care, who are seeking homemade food and handcrafted art, to hear live music and to exist within humanity’s heartbeat.

Vandalism doesn’t come under that category.

There’s a break in the music and, just on the edge of her hearing, a few whispers. Some muffled laughter. The sound of something tearing. She turns just in time to see one of her earlier sketches drift to the ground like a feather.

Her jaw sets. ‘I need to check something out,’ she murmurs to Lucc, and then she darts around the side of the stall just in time to see someone disappearing into the darkness.
The fairy lights and lanterns might be atmospheric, but the light they give is dim. Danica wavers, bites her lip.

Trying to catch them would be futile at best. She’s not dressed for running through the dark, over uneven ground. She would be better off brushing her things off and getting back to drawing, let market security deal with the issue.

But it’s left a stain on the evening. A sharp reminder (in the form of a trodden-on eraser) that she has to fight for every scrap of independence. That it’s not enough to be able to survive in the city with her art, with Lucc’s music, with friendship and the markets at the hub of it all. That there are forces actively working against her.

She doesn’t even know who they are. Wouldn’t even be able to pick them out in a line-up. She doesn’t know if they’re vandals on a mission, or just reckless kids acting up.

Slowly, she picks up the sketch from where it had fallen, brushing off some of the dirt. Slowly, she pins it back up, rightens the stool, sets her things up again.

She has work to do.

Torn Paper

Miri’s fingers are stained grey.

She has her hand shoved in her jeans pocket, tight around the cash and feeling hideously conspicuous. Matt’s advice (‘Don’t look guilty, don’t run, just walk around like you own the place’) feels utterly inadequate; she’s sure that everyone can see the handful of fives and tens she took from the noodle stall through the fabric as she weaves through the stalls.

Apparently that damn artist had been using some kind of super-pencil. When she had ripped the drawing off the wall, it had covered her skin in glossy charcoal grey.

Stupid Matt. Stupid, charismatic, charming Matt and his stupid, charismatic, charming friends.

None of them are in sight, of course. They all scattered the instant the artist had nearly caught them in the act, leaving Miri with stained fingers and the sensation of being dangled over a cliff in her stomach.

She needs to wash her hands. Then she needs to find the others. Then she needs to… she needs to…

One clenched finger at a time, she lets go of the money in her pocket and wipes the tips of her fingers against her thigh. No one will notice the dark streaks on dark denim, and it gets most of the surface stuff off, at least; she doesn’t look too immediately guilty.

Doesn’t look it, anyway.

What the hell is she doing? Stealing and breaking things, causing trouble, hurting people, just to win approval? Matt might rule the school, he might be funny and clever and have really nice blue eyes, he might throw the best parties and have the best car, but…

But…

Her older sister Sarah is a genius. Her older brother Jack, he’s an actor and everyone loves him. Her parents are wildly successful and always telling them what they need to do to be great in life, and here is Miri, resorting to vandalism to earn the friendship of the coolest people in school.

No, not even friendship, because Matt had made it very clear that she was still only part of the group on a trial basis. She still isn’t being invited to the parties; she still hasn’t been given a lift in Matt’s car. She’s doing this to become their lackey, with friendship a distant hope.

They’ve ditched her, probably. Knows that if they’re caught, it’ll be her with the pencil marks on her fingers and a pocket full of stolen money who’ll be the liability.

Is it worth it, after all?

Miri slips her hand back in her pocket, wraps her hand around the notes, and decides, no.

New

Between customers, Rupert rests her leaden arms against the counter and sighs.

She likes cooking, truly. Wouldn’t be a cook if she didn’t. But working the markets is wearying, and towards the end of the evening she feels weighed down, the ache deep in her shoulders and biceps from flipping, folding, and filling gozleme.

It’s good money, though. Makes Jess happy, and making her wife happy is one of Rupert’s favourite things to do (along with cooking, lounging, and naps). And that, there, is the source of her current discontent.

A customer. Minced lamb for this one, with a scoop of mint yoghurt; she accepts the payment and serves it with a smile.

‘Thanks, man.’

Beneath the beard, Rupert’s smile turns a little pained.

What is she going to do? She’s not sure how much longer she can stand being like this, a woman stuck in a man’s skin. She wants to be herself. Wants to hear ‘ma’am’, not ‘man’. Ditch the beard. Grow her hair out. Try heels. (Fall over in heels. Twist ankle in heels. Go back to sneakers. Rupert is nothing if not a realist.)

But Jess married a husband, not a wife. If Rupert spills her heart to her, she could lose her forever.

There’s another customer waiting, a girl glancing between Rupert’s gozleme and the Hokkein noodle stall one over before settling on her. ‘Spinach and feta, please’ she says, a soft little thing, gaze fixed at the stall counter.

Poor kiddo. Must be tired.

Rupert musters a smile for her and starts heating one up. ‘Long evening?’ she asks sympathetically, and the girl glances up in sharp surprise before looking away again.

‘Uh, yeah. I guess so.’ She scratches at her temple, leaving a dirty smudge there; silently, Rupert offers her a wet wipe. ‘Oh. Uh, thanks.’

‘Well,’ Rupert says conspiratorially, ‘You know the coffee stall a few down? They do a really good Turkish coffee, if you need to stay up. Tell ’em Rupert sent you and you’ll get a discount.’

The girl doesn’t reply, just stares at her hands, at the counter. ‘Okay.’ She worries at her lip, scratches the back of her hand; Rupert keeps cooking and watches her with a concerned eye. When she finally speaks again, her voice cracks. ‘I don’t think coffee will solve my problem.’

There’s something small and vulnerable and afraid about her; Rupert’s heart twinges. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she offers gently, far too aware of the incongruity of her appearance; not a maternal, gentle older woman, but the very appearance of a middle-aged man with a beard, paying attention to a teenage girl. She can’t get too involved, can’t help too much just by how she looks. Hates it.

Silently, the girl shakes her head. ‘Just –‘ she starts, stops again. ‘Just… I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I’m doing stupid, shitty things to try and be, like, acceptable, and it’s… stupid.’ She repeats the word, softly this time. ‘It’s stupid, not being myself.’

Something in Rupert’s chest twists. ‘Do you want to be yourself?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then you should. You should be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else just to please others, that only breaks you up inside.’

She has to take the chance. Has to risk telling Jess, even if it breaks her heart. Has to be herself, because the only life she has is her own.

‘Yeah. Yeah.’ The girl gives Rupert a watery smile, then pays for her gozleme and picks up the paper plate. For a moment, she hesitates, then pulls out another small wad of cash, fives and tens, half-crumpled. ‘I took this from the noodle people next to you,’ she says, and her voice is steady now. ‘Can you give it back to them and tell them I say sorry?’

And she turns, runs before Rupert can speak a word, runs and leaves a grubby handful of stolen notes behind.

Rupert gives the noodle people their money and the girl’s apologies. Cooks food for people, good food to nourish them. Packs up as the markets slow down like it’s falling asleep.

The artist from the stall across from her wanders by with her sketches and gear, an expression of grim determination on her face. Behind is her musician friend struggling by with their keyboard, a freckly-faced young person in a badge-covered jacket helping wrangle it down the path before stealing a kiss. Rupert thinks of bravery and authenticity and a fistful of money left with an apology.

She’s going to go home. Talk to Jess, no matter what may come of it.

Around her, the market goes to sleep, and the lights flicker out like embers.

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Swan Lake, Swarna Pinto

Photo by Andrew Reshetov on Unsplash

If you keep walking west along the Woodend Road, passing newly built double story houses with double garages and flower pots at the front, you will come to Blue Gum Tree Lake Reserve without noticing my house. It is the last house on the street and is hidden behind large weeping willows. Overgrown apple, plum and apricot trees surround my house. It is a weatherboard with curly peels of white paint hanging onto timber slats. My front and back yards are big and get overgrown with weeds and grass until a council gardener turns up. My old Holden Sunbird, covered in dust, sits on the driveway.

I like to sit on the porch at dusk to watch people coming back from walks in the reserve or picnics near the lake and to hear them talking. Sometimes I hear them talking about me. You know there’s an old woman who lives there all alone. Gives me the creeps. I like my solitary existence and I like my house. The best thing about my place is that I can see swans gliding on the lake from the backyard. Before coming here, I lived in a few different places with different people. Now they are all but fading memories except for my memories of Sasha and Jana.

*

I met Jana when I was a scholarship student in Soviet Russia. My university was in Astrakhan, a city by the Volga River in southern Russia. I lived on campus in Hostel Number 7. After classes, I hung out with three other girls from my tutorial group–Jana, Anu and Meena–who came from Sri Lanka like me. Jana had a boyfriend in Sri Lanka who wrote long letters to her. He was called Saman. Anu, Meena and Jana were classy and beautiful. Jana was the most beautiful. I was plain and awkward. My left hand was useless. It hung limp. It had been like that since I was about ten, after I fell off my bicycle while trying no-hands down a steep slope.

All three of them went out a lot and usually missed morning lectures. Jana even missed tutorials. But it didn’t get them in trouble because I let them copy my lecture notes. I let Jana copy my assignments.

We liked to talk about boys. We all agreed that Sasha was the cutest. We saw him at morning math lectures. He came in at the last moment and hurried out just as the lecture finished. He sat in the back row where guys usually sat, but two or three seats away from them. Jana was very keen on Sasha although she was dating Arun, a mature PhD student from India who looked like a movie star. She also had Saman waiting for her back in Sri Lanka.

Once, Jana said that Sasha looked like a Greek god.

‘He’s not Greek, he’s Russian,’ I blurted out.

The moment those words went out of my mouth, I knew I had made a big mistake. Jana rolled her eyes.

‘What does it matter to you?’

She left the rest to hang in the air: you who are ugly.

Jana was like that. She would hurt me but later would make it up to me.

A week or so prior, Jana asked Meena and Anu if they wanted to go to a party on Saturday. Both declined as they had dates.

‘I’ll come,’ I piped up.

‘You can’t dance. I’ll ask Oumou, she’s terrific.’

Two days later Jana followed me into the stolovaya. She put her tray on my table and sat across me. I finished eating my lunch and got up.

‘Sit down and eat this. Please.’ She pushed a plate with two pieces of cake towards me. By the time we were descending the stairs, I was laughing with her. She stroked my hair and said she wished her hair was smooth like mine.

‘Have you done your Chemistry yet?’ I asked, knowing that she had not. Then I let her copy my assignment.

But when Jana implied that I was not worthy even to talk about Sasha, I detested her. I liked Sasha very much and felt that he liked me as well. At the lectures, I would feel a thrilling tingle on my nape, encouraging me to turn around. Sasha would smile and my heart would leap, shooting an exciting warmth inside my whole body. I was sure that he was going to talk to me soon. Then Jana came to a morning lecture.

After the break that morning, Sasha did not return to his seat. I was secretly happy because I knew that Jana came to strike up a conversation with him. Jana fidgeted beside me for a while, then abruptly went out. I thought she was going back to catch up on her sleep.

The next day in math class Jana was glowing. She told us how she had met Sasha in the stolovaya the previous morning. While Sasha ate his kasha, Jana had sipped a hot chocolate. Then they had gone out for a walk along the Volga. It had been cold and Sasha had draped his jacket over Jana. He had bought hot savoury piroshkies from a roadside vendor to eat while walking.

‘Did he kiss you?’ Meena asked.

Anu squealed, ‘She’s blushing.’ Then she whispered, ‘Arun will kill you’.

‘He doesn’t need to know.’

Meena said that they made a smashing couple and Anu agreed. They said the same thing when Jana hitched up with Arun.

‘Congrats,’ I heard myself say in a strange voice.

Jana wouldn’t stop talking about Sasha. I tried to switch off but heard that they were going to the movies that night.

‘You should find somebody and have some fun,’ Jana advised me, while pointedly looking at my limp and useless left hand.

Meena and Anu looked at me and then at each other.

‘She likes Sasha,’ Jana explained. ‘Haven’t you two seen how she turns back in class to look at him every five minutes?’

Then she looked straight at me.

‘Sasha is mine.’

I did not hear anything after that. At the end of the class Jana wanted to talk to me. I ignored her and gathered my books.

‘Are you upset over Sasha?’

My pencil case slipped and landed near Jana’s feet. I thought she would pick it up for me as I was holding books with my right hand.

‘Are you?’ Jana insisted.

I placed my books back on the desk and bent down to get my pencil case.

‘Pathetic. He knows about you.’

I picked up my pencil case and rushed to my hostel.

Pathetic? Sasha knows about me? Am I pathetic? Did everyone think I was pathetic? How could Jana hurt me like that just after copying my math assignment? I decided not to let her do this to me anymore.

I remember coming into my room and wishing there was somewhere I could go, for Jana was sure to come and see me as she always did on her date nights. She would chassé into my room ostensibly to check her make up in my mirror but in fact to show off and to hear my compliments. After she left, her perfume would linger and torture me well into the night.

I threw my books on my bed and went out. I walked on Tatisheva Street, turning my back on the direction to the cinema and Volga. I pictured Jana and Sasha walking: Jana on Sasha’s arm, the way Russian couples walked. Jana would be leaning on Sasha. He would bend his blond head and kiss her glossy lipsticked mouth.

A sudden rush of warm air threw me backwards and I landed on my useless left hand. A goods train thundered past me. My heart pounded. Two more steps and that train would have killed me.

Tears came unbidden as I lay there. I cried until I was spent. Then I got up and looked around. I knew that the station was only a half an hour walk from my hostel, but I did not know which way the station was. The railway line disappeared into birch trees in both directions. If I walked the wrong way I would be lost and frozen to death.

It was getting dark and the cold was seeping right into my bones. My wristwatch had stopped at 2.30, the time the math class had finished. I guessed it was around six by then.

I started walking along the railway, making sure to keep a few feet distance. If I didn’t see any lights in about half an hour, I would turn back and walk the opposite way. I was thinking whether to go further or to turn back when I heard a bird flapping its wings above me. I shivered as a huge dark shape disappeared into the night. It’s only a bat, I told myself. A sliver of a pale moon peeked from behind grey clouds calming me a little. I kept walking. Under my boots and gloves my feet and my fingers were numb from cold.

A dog howled from somewhere far away. It was a mournful howl. My teeth chattered when I spotted two yellow eyes in the distance. The eyes belonged to an animal much bigger than a dog. It advanced, keeping its gleaming yellow eyes trained on me. It was a wolf. Quickly, I hid behind the closest tree. The wolf came closer but stopped about ten yards away from me.

It bent its head and sniffed at something on the ground which looked like one of my gloves. I looked at my hands and saw that the left glove was missing.

Take it and go. But it left my glove and continued to come towards me. Could it hear my teeth chattering and my heart thumping? I closed my eyes and clamped my teeth together and stayed rigid despite the shivering. The wolf padded around my tree and stopped right behind me. Prey in sight, it was waiting for me to make the first move.

I don’t know how long I had stayed that way when I felt a tingle on my nape and heard a familiar voice say, ‘Priviet.’ (Hello.)

I spun around.

‘Sasha?’

‘Vsio normalna?’ (Everything okay?) he asked.

I whimpered, ‘There’s a wolf.’

‘Mmm?’ Sasha looked around. ‘I don’t see a wolf.’

‘Pashli,’ (Let’s go) he extended his hand.

He picked up my glove from the ground and put it on gently. Then he placed my left hand on the crook of his right elbow and covered my hand with his other one. We started walking and Sasha suggested crossing Swan Lake.

He wanted to know what I was doing back there. I asked him where Jana was.

‘You must answer me first.’

As I struggled to compose myself, Sasha looked into my eyes with such tenderness I burst into tears. He let me cry on his shoulder. When I became quiet, he asked again.

‘To watch trains.’

‘Very funny. That’s a decommissioned line.’

I shivered uncontrollably and Sasha removed his winter coat and draped it over me. He would take me to his Babushka’s house to warm me up.

It was then I told Sasha about Jana’s hurtful remarks. I said that she had just finished copying my math assignment when she said those things.

‘Forget Jana. You are very sweet and very intelligent.’

Swan Lake was gleaming white right in front of us. Sasha glided around the lake holding me tightly to his warm body. The moon was out and stars twinkled in the dark purple sky. He sang a Russian folk song, Moscow Nights, in a beautiful baritone.

The wind picked up as we approached his Babushka’s house. It was an old weatherboard and stood among a few bare trees. There were no other houses near it. From the moonlight that fell on it I saw that the windows were boarded up. We climbed some wooden steps and Sasha opened the front door with his key. He then scooped me up and carried me into the lounge, while floorboards creaked all the way. He placed me gently on a sofa in front of an old log fire place and adjusted his coat over me. I saw cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and from framed portraits on the walls. In no time Sasha built a roaring fire. I felt deliciously warm and drowsy.

‘Ona budet v poryadke,’ I heard somebody saying from far away. I wanted to ask who was going to be fine but I could not talk. I could not even see who was talking. I knew I was sleeping, but had no idea where I was.

They said I was found lying on a bench near my hostel on a very cold morning. The temperature had been five degrees below zero during the night. I was barely breathing and they had rushed me to the hospital. I had been very ill for over two weeks.

‘I don’t know what happened,’ I told everyone who asked me, although I clearly remembered the night with Sasha. Anu and Meena came one morning to take me back to the hostel. I didn’t ask after Jana.

I was not allowed to go to classes for another two weeks and I mostly slept. A nurse from the campus Medpunkt visited me daily. She massaged my left hand which was coming to life. One afternoon the Faculty Dean came to see me. He questioned me about the night I was found on a bench.

‘I went for a walk up to the station and got lost. I don’t know how I ended up on a bench.’

‘Jana was with you that night?’

‘No.’

Then he said that Jana hadn’t been seen since the day I was found on the bench. I lifted my eyebrows and kept quiet. But when he said that Jana had been sighted near Swan Lake an audible gasp escaped from me. He looked straight at me as he continued talking in his measured tone.

‘On that night, the ice on the lake would have cracked even if a small child were to step on it.’
He stayed a few more minutes, telling me how to catch up with the lessons.

‘Don’t worry. We’ll find her.’

*

The next day my nurse had found me in a delirium. This time I stayed much longer in another hospital. More than a year had passed by the time I could attend classes.

The first thing I did was walk to Swan Lake. The morning was bright and crisp, the sun reflecting off the pure white snow. My boots made soft crunch … crunch …noises as they made imprints in the snow. The lake was a flat white sheet. Swans had already migrated to the other side of the world as they did each year. For a while I watched people skating on the lake. It was snowing when I walked back and my footprints disappeared under the falling snow.

I decided to immigrate. I would go wherever and do whatever. I applied to UK, Canada and Australia. Australia replied and within six months I was in Melbourne. Once in Melbourne I could not find a research position and ended up becoming a cleaner. I cleaned up other people’s messes. I learned to clean mine.

Now that I have all the time in the world to think, conflicting thoughts swirl in my mind. I know that I was very ill in Astrakhan all those years ago. I also know that severe hypothermia can cause hallucinations and confusion. But I would like to assure you that my night with Sasha, the most beautiful night I have ever had, was real.

I left Astrakhan and went to Moscow to forget Jana and Sasha. Then I came here to Melbourne for the same reason. I wanted to forget the past. But the mind is a tricky thing. It keeps all the memories I have wanted to forget. And I am glad to have those memories intact. That’s all I have now.

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The Hosts, Selin Aydogar

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Mask on, spray, wipe, repeat.

The television on the wall sits above me playing the News. It’s always the same old thing and I prefer not to watch it, but the customers always rather watch the news than some random movie.

‘Another fifteen people from Shadow Falls in Sydney taken to ‘The Island’ today. That makes a total of thirty-six hosts this week. Authorities at ‘The Island’ are still refusing to provide any information on this matter. In other news…’

Shaking my head, the itch in my nose makes me play with my mask. Fifteen people have gone to ‘The Island’. Every day it just keeps increasing— I wonder what those poor people are doing there. How are they surviving without any sort of communication? Shaking my head again, I continue wiping the excess water off the cups before I put them into the sterilising machine with my clear latex gloves. A customer leaves the table, her cash payment in a clear plastic sleeve, winking at me. I walk towards her seat, hospital grade disinfectant spray and wipe in hand, ready to sanitise the table and chair. Focusing on my task at hand, I make sure that everything is thoroughly cleaned for the next person. I take the cash back to the register and ring it up. Finally having a moment to myself, I take a sip of my water bottle and regard the customers. Plain black mask, plain white mask, floral pattern, skulls. There is something so familiar about the way these people behave. Everyone is acting the same yet adding their own version to it. The guy in the back cleans his AirPods with wipes before putting them in his ear, he puts his mask on a tissue before sanitising his hands and taking a sip of his coffee—which he insisted be placed in his reusable cup. An older woman behind him wipes the table first, sanitises and then puts the mask in her bag. My eyes stray from her and follow the sight of Leon, my co-worker as he takes the temperature of the people waiting at the door.

I spent a few days of the week here at the Café and some days at the Lab where I intern. My interest in science only grew as the pandemic continued and my working at the Lab only heightened my love for it. A few months back, I discovered a new organism which could potentially cure many diseases. It was a big breakthrough and my work was headlined. Tomorrow I had a meeting with my supervisor, and I was itching for it to come.

As I observe the café once more, the reality of our situation hits me again. It’s utterly disappointing and sad that we have to accept this as our new normal. I like to think that this is a big test from God. From Him to the world. Perhaps to treat each other better, perhaps to learn to be hygienic. Or maybe it’s to understand how much freedom we have compared to others. Because truly we don’t know the value of freedom until it is taken from us.

I remember the day that I found out. In all honesty, I didn’t think anything of it. In fact, I had made a joke about it. Lena, my cousin in Melbourne called me as I was walking into work to tell me. She was laughing, ‘They found a new disease, it’s on its way to Sydney.’

I had responded with giggles of my own, ‘I’m sure it’s fine.’

I feel like the world had personally jinxed me. I mean, I know that logically I wouldn’t have been the only one to underestimate it but sometimes logic flies away.

I have never seen anything as eerie as this. The streets were empty, with a stray person walking their dog here and there. The shops were filled with people in masks, rushing to buy their essentials before they rushed back home to change their clothes and disinfect their food. Toilet paper was gone as were any other perishables. We were in lockdown, barely allowed to leave our homes. Each suburb looked different, some civilians in certain areas were more cautious. Always with a mask and gloves on. In others, some were more laid back. No concept of social distancing or masks. The suicide rate was higher than ever. Some people had hope and others didn’t. It’s as if this big grey cloud has just been hovering over the earth. I could taste the sadness in the air. If I thought my anxiety was bad before the pandemic, then I don’t know what I was thinking at all. I was worse than ever. But it was nice having my family home.

Oh, how I missed the freedom to sit at a café with my mum without the fear of getting ill. Or even having the opportunity to reluctantly go to the gym. My family; aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents… we didn’t see each other for about three months. I never thought I would miss the smell of my Grandma’s house or her yelling at me to stop being lazy and help cook. Things got better, and then they got worse. There were so many theories floating around the world. Was this a manmade virus?

Society started to change, the hope of going back to normal was long gone and we all had to accept our fate, that our world had been altered forever. There was no adequate vaccine so when things started to get really bad the authorities took the infected and placed them on an Island. Completely isolated from the world, with no way to communicate. The streets were filled with paraphernalia about ‘The Island’, a constant reminder of so many people’s fate. But I think the world started to relax, until they realised that it would be their family, their friends who would be there, with no way to see or talk to them. Soon, so many people were sent there that the world felt quiet. There was barely a hustle on the streets, some people liked the quiet and others didn’t. I didn’t really mind but there were some moments when I would be in the shopping centre and something as simple as a tranquil food court would make me upset.

The virus mutated, impacting people in different ways. First the signs were minor: fever and a cough. But this virus evolved into something scarier— more distinctive. The biggest impact of the virus then became physical appearance. Faces would become distorted with features morphing into one another, hair would fall out. Some people died and some didn’t. Most didn’t, but they were changed forever anyway. Things started to go awry, it became more than just about a virus. The authorities believed that we should live in a ‘clean society’. Meaning; aesthetic. They didn’t want the ‘deformed’ around us, claiming that it will cause mass hysteria and panic. So they sent them away. Unfortunately, most of civilisation also supported this idea. Their minds and souls were still working the same; they were merely a host. The virus would come and spread its wings around us like some sort of dark fairy and sprinkle us with its dust. The world felt eerie in its presence.

The world changed, for the better or worse I’m not sure. That answer will depend on the person. The virus didn’t care for status; the rich and the powerful were also sent to the Island. I remember reading somewhere that this was a whole scheme to start a new civilisation. A new world, with new concepts blooming from fresh soil. Thousands of people went to the Island first as volunteers, with the intention of not coming back. This was the first bad sign to me. Would thousands of people really leave everything behind for the sake of society? From what the authorities told us, those people didn’t receive any rewards either.

Interesting.

‘Hera!’ I come out of my stupor and look at Leon.

‘Sorry! I was just day dreaming.’ I give him a small smile as I place my bottle back down on the bench.

‘No worries. But I think your shift is over.’ I look outside after his words and notice it’s nightfall. The dark sky is bare, only with a few glittering stars and moonlight to illuminate us.

‘It is too. Today went by so fast,’ I say to Leon as I untie my apron and hang it up on the hook. After bidding farewell, I grab my bag, sanitise my hands and leave the café. Just as I’m fixing my bag on my shoulder and grabbing my keys, I hear soft footsteps behind me.

‘Hera.’ I turn around and see Leila, an old friend of mine. A friend who the last time I spoke to was being sent off to the Island because she was a host. She didn’t look much different than before. Only a slight difference in her nose and lips. If anything, it just looked like she’d had bad plastic surgery.

‘Leila… What are you doing here? Weren’t you on the Island?’ I take a step back from shock. My heart pounds as I try to register exactly what I’m seeing. Her hair is the same light brown and her eyes the same dark brown. Seeing her in front of me for the first time in years brings back all the memories we had together. Leila and I were always close but in the last year before the virus hit, things were quite tense between us and we were just never as close as we had been before. She reached out to me when she got infected, saying she was leaving for the Island as soon as possible. I knew that we had both changed and our friendship would never be the same as it once was, but I would have never wished that on her. The thought of not seeing her really upset me and I mourned for her. I mourned for her family. But there was just nothing I could do. Now, seeing her across from me is something I wasn’t expecting. In fact, it’s illegal.

‘Hera, I escaped.’ She walks towards me. ‘There is so much I need to tell you.’

I look up to the night sky for some clarity and the stars wink at me mockingly.

‘I’m not sick, don’t worry. But we need to talk right now.’

‘Um, okay okay. Get in the car.’ I shuffle nervously towards my old Wrangler, my scruffy black and white converses squeezing my feet after my long day at work.

I drive to the lookout my friends and I always used to go and on occasion for a breath of fresh air I would go alone. Opening the door, I stretch my legs and face forward. I’m not sure I want to hear what she has to say.

‘What are you doing here?’ I fiddle with my evil eye necklace as I wait for her to speak up.

‘I escaped. Hera, life there is different. They’re starting things from scratch. All the powerful people came together to build something new.’ She rushes out.

‘Wait, what? I don’t really understand what you’re saying.’ I continue to fiddle with my necklace.

‘Okay, okay. Look, when I got there, things were peaceful. It wasn’t some place where there were doctors everywhere. Everyone was friendly, acting like they weren’t infected. There were restaurants and fields, farms and animals. Isn’t that weird for some place that was meant to be an isolated, deserted island? Because that’s what they told us, that it was an isolated, deserted place. It was the start of a civilisation and the Island was rich too. All these big, powerful people bought their money and built. Hera, they built. There are buildings, businesses, currency, everything is there.’

I stare at her, unable to form words. It’s one thing to see someone who I never thought I’d see again, and it’s another to hear what she’s saying. I guess what I read about is true. But I still have questions. What is she doing here? How did she get here? I feel a small sting on my palm and look down. Blood trickles down my hand, caressing my skin maliciously. I watch it fall— as if in slow motion— down my finger and onto my shoes. In my hand lay pieces of my necklace. The royal blue stones winking at me, the silver stones tainted by my blood. I didn’t realise I was putting that much pressure on the pendant. Leila knows me well enough to realise I’m too stunned to speak. So, she continues talking. I wish she hadn’t.

‘I met someone there. He’s the son of one of the powerful men. He told me everything. Hera, there is a cure to this virus on the Island but they’re keeping it to themselves until the time is right, they’re going to sell it but there is no virus left. They’re cutting off communication with the world. This is like a selection. After most people died, they made a list of all the next people to depart. One or two from every family that’s left. Mainly people with important skills or jobs, but random people as well. Our physical effects are something else. Somehow, they’ve given us something to change our appearance, I’m not sure how and Titus doesn’t know either. But they’re saying that we’re positive, that we’re hosts when we’re not. Titus has connections here, that’s how I was able to come back. I left illegally.’

‘Leila, why are you here? Why are you telling me this and not the rest of the world?’ I place my hand with the broken pendant on my heart, trying to stop myself from hyperventilating.

‘Titus has been helping me keep track of my family. No one is left. I have no one but you. H-Hera,’ she stutters, her eyes a brutal mix of emotion and fierceness. ‘I saw the list. They saw the news about your new discovery in the Labs. They want you and you’re next.’ She blinks at me, ‘this is your warning call.’

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Helios and Luna, Harry Trethowan

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unspash

The screech of the apartment complex’s 6:00 AM siren pierced through concrete walls. It signalled to the room’s singular resident he was permitted to wake. The steel door constraining the man inside the room clunked as magnetic bolts slid back into its frame. It was an empty gesture on behalf of the Government in control of the complex. The vault-like door to the building itself wouldn’t unlock for the man until his designated time in the park. Another minute passed before the siren’s vibrations subsided from the room’s metal entryway and the man felt brave enough to tease open crusty eyes. Plastic bedsheets crackled as he slid bruised and swollen feet to the floor and the man shivered as his soles brushed the ground. One more week until he had enough tokens to trade for a carpet.

As he stretched his arms and yawned, the man left grimy fingerprints on the ceiling. He was painfully aware of his vertebrae as they cracked and dug into taut skin. The barricaded LCD screen embedded in one of the walls flickered on as the floor’s pressure recognition registered his weight. Yellow text rolled across the screen as the man nervously scratched his stomach, hoping the briefing for June 22, 2048, was different. Carbon emissions were expected to fall by December 1 below the global 42 billion metric tonne benchmark claimed by the federal Government to be the “beginning of sustainable change”. No foreseeable alterations to offset sequestration measures were to be announced until at least a half billion tonnes were removed. No changes to the zero-child policy in Sydney were to be expected until another one billion tonnes were removed. This brief had been identical since December 1, 2047, when three billion metric tonnes more carbon in the atmosphere were present.

There was a whirring sound from deep within the ceiling and the man felt a breeze lick against his bulging bones as the air filters turned on. The circular monitor surgically inserted between his collarbones and over his trachea glowed a bright green, beginning to track his daily exhalations. If he exhaled more than a particular amount of carbon dioxide the monitor would expand, compressing his trachea if he walked more than two metres from a carbon filter. There were no reports of death from tracheal compression for four months, which conveniently corresponded with the release of the V.2.01 dogs. No one risked leaving their apartment hoping to see another human scurry back inside their own now that company was readily, but expensively, available.

An electronic stutter from the foot of his bed marked the time as 6:15 AM, when his own dog was hardwired to turn on. He had even saved up enough weekly tokens to trade for a voice box with the vocal recording of an old school student. It had cost him another fortnight worth of tokens to get installed but was worth the human sound.

‘Good morning, sir.’

The man felt butterflies jitter up inside his stomach. The voice emanating from the microphone lodged in the dog’s iron maw was feminine. He recalled the note that came with the voice box telling him the student’s name was Luna. The man ignored the static and focused on the sleek tone of the recorded voice. It stirred a warm emotion in his lower chest he hadn’t felt since high school. The man whistled, walking across to the Perspex window next to his bed and the machine squeaked over to sit obediently at his side. The window offered a limited, ground floor view of the park at the heart of the apartment complex. As he did every morning whilst stroking Luna’s head, smudging dirt into her silver scalp panel, he watched the first park visitor of the day.

The woman was the closest thing he would refer to as a friend other than Luna. She was first on schedule each day to be allowed outside to plant her carbon-quenching tree seeds provided by the Government. Only one person was allowed to be exhaling their carbon outside at a time. After planting, residents were given free time until their carbon exhalation limit was reached. Brief socialisations during the crossover period as the next resident was allowed outside were also tolerated. Over the past few months this woman’s carbon exhalation limit had been reached quickly. Each of the V.2.01 pets were required to be refuelled using one of the fuel pumps scattered throughout the park. Every resident on the release day of V.2.01 had their carbon monitors wirelessly linked to the pumps which also slashed the permitted exhalations. This woman had saved tokens since March to trade for a beautiful Labrador replica whose engine required almost daily refuelling.

The man had not taken notice of her for the few years they had been locked away planting trees, until the day she went for a walk with her new dog. The smog overhead had experienced a mild respite, and rare sunlight glinted of the machine’s golden hide. His bottom jaw cracked as it fell. He remembered splaying his fingers against the Perspex, forehead trying to press through the impermeable material, staring at the dog. The woman had noticed him staring at her lonely routine and stopped her walk for the first time. The man tried to mouth a question, but she shook her head and gestured at her ears with a fingernail as clean as her dog’s shining panels. The man opened his mouth and exhaled on the Perspex, glad the smell of his breath could not penetrate the material. He traced in the condensation:

What’s its name

The woman smiled and repeated the action, and the man followed the trace of her slender finger. He whispered each letter as she wrote:

Helios

He smudged out his first question and wrote back:

Mine’s name is Luna

*

Ever since that first exchange, he imagined her voice sounded just like his Luna whenever they exchanged words with breath and fingers. The man was third in line to plant his tree and had never heard her speak. But every day they traded stories about their dogs, neither caring about repetitiveness. She seemed as fascinated by Luna as he was by Helios.

Today, as the woman scooped dirt over her seeds, a nasally voice came over the man’s personal intercom informing him he was to plant second today. The usual resident had fallen ill and passed away from a bacterial infection obtained from park soil. The man froze. Nerves ensnared him, not too different from those he felt before his first date at seventeen years old, decades ago. It took the woman straightening from her seeds, and the sight of her fingers stroking the head of Helios, to shake him from the uncanny spell. He reached for the dirt-encrusted flannel shirt curled up in a ball on his bed and strode out of his room buttoning it. Luna trotted behind him, the metal chain fixed to her back clinking in her wake.

Grey blades of grass snapped under the man’s feet as he made a beeline through the park to where he had watched the woman and Helios plant their seed. The chain bolted into Luna’s metallic hide bit into his wrist. He had wrapped it around purple fingers two, three, four times. The cold metal cutting into his malnourished carpals reassured him that Luna was still there. No, he couldn’t lose her. Luna’s warmth seeped from her side as she clanked along with the shivering man, wafting dirty mist that tickled the hairs of his arm and warmed his skin. For every extra degree of warmth Luna gifted him, he could feel his carbon permittance drifting away. He hurried his step and tried to shallow his breathing.

He eyed the woman stepping slowly, purposefully, on the other side of the park on the cement pathway. She was approaching his apartment window and he took notice of her neck craning to try and catch a glimpse of his presence. This would be the first time in months they did not converse through the window and they had only a few minutes until her carbon monitor changed red. The soft thud of her rubber shoes reverberated throughout the colourless park and the silence of Helios’s oiled panels was overridden by Luna’s rusty squeaks.

Every nut and bolt of Helios was flush with polished metal, gleaming to a holy shine. The man though it was more yellow than the sun, and it probably was warmer too. She must have spent all her tokens on Helios. Oiling him, upgrading his paints, maybe even a voice box of his own. The man’s butterflies turned scalding as jealousy squeezed his throat. He couldn’t buy gold paint. He couldn’t even buy a carpet for his apartment. Maybe he could ask for a panel from the Helios’s pelt. A screwdriver would twist out those perfect little bolts from Helios, then he’d pry off a panel of Luna with a branch from one of the bigger trees.

He jangled the chain around his wrist and yanked Luna along more sharply than he ever had previously. Luna accidentally spoke as her voice box was mechanically activated.

‘Good morning, sir.’

He saw the woman pause at the refuelling station above the dusty ground nearest his window. He peered at Helios from behind a row of skeletal shrubs as he got closer. She never refuelled Helios at that station, and her head was turned to look at his window. Was she waiting for him? This was the longest she had been in the park without seeing the man since they began to talk. If you could call it talking. He saw himself whispering as loudly as he could to her, pleading for a single sheet of Helios’s metal. Or should he say hello first? Would she want to talk to him if it wasn’t through a window and the vapour of their saliva? A fuzzy rumble grew in his stomach at the idea of her responding. He could not frame her words or imagine the words’ content or even what he would say himself. The only thing he knew for sure, was that he wanted to trade a piece of Luna for a piece of Helios.

The woman slid the pump’s nozzle into Helios’s jaws and the woollen sleeve of her jacket slipped down her wrist. The scratchy clothing and Helios were the two most expensive things the man could imagine, and her self-discipline saving tokens ignited his admiration. He had eaten nothing but refrigerated pasta that month and had prayed to whatever it was people decided to believe in these days that he wouldn’t get sick. It was the cheapest option, and he still couldn’t afford a carpet.

He had almost reached the woman as she withdrew the pump gracefully from Helios’s maw, the dog’s mouth dripping fuel. He slapped his bare feet slightly harder on the ground now he was on the pathway, hoping she would notice him before he spoke. The gurgling sound of the petrol settling in Helios’s aluminium windpipe didn’t allow his wish to come true.

‘Hello Helios.’

His gentle greeting paralysed the woman. His voice was obviously different to the previous resident with whom she had exchanged few light words with as their shifts were exchanged. He yanked Luna’s chain and stepped back to the dirt and grass, hoping the distance would evoke the same sense of security as Perspex. She was a tall woman, taller than him, something he hadn’t noticed through the window considering the park grounds were slightly indented. For the second time that day he picked at his stomach in uncertain anticipation. He knew he was not an impressive man, a nobody with sliced feet and a filthy flannel shirt. And Luna. He took a slight step forwards, teeth bared in an unaccustomed smile.

‘You both look nice today’.

He stopped moving as quickly as he started. He didn’t want her to leave and Helios was so much nicer up close. Polished enough that you could see Luna’s robotic panting in its side, silver-grey turning bronze in the reflection. A panel from Helios would make Luna so much prettier. The woman nodded as slow as her tightly coiled muscles would allow. He took it as an invitation.

‘Would I be able to touch him? You can step back if you want.’

She looked like one of the Government’s recording-owls, only her eyes were dull blue and lacked the beautiful glow that emanated from the owls’ bulbous eyes. The owls weren’t turned on until after sunset, so they didn’t need to worry about those either. No one ever worried about them anymore because no one had enough carbon to exhale by night, but the Government kept the owls anyway.

‘Helios hasn’t touched anyone but me before.’

The woman was beginning to relax and her pupils were beginning to widen in the way they did when she saw the man through the Perspex. He was still aware he needed to finish the conversation fast. He hadn’t yet planted his own seed and her time was running out.

‘Do you think Helios and Luna could swap a panel? You can paint away the rust a little bit maybe. If you wanted.’

‘With Luna?’

‘Yes. I can buy a screwdriver instead of a carpet and we can take out a bolt a day to keep our monit-‘

The woman’s tracheal monitor cut to red. Her eyes widened to match her growing pupils as fear snatched at her attention. She needed to get back into her apartment and to her carbon filter. With one last glance at the man she hurried past him, cheeks puffed out as tried to hold her breath. But first with a paling face, she managed a smile in the direction of Luna and nodded. As she fled the park, the man planted his seed right there below his window, butterflies flitting around in his stomach again like a schoolboy. He was back in his own apartment well before his own carbon limit was reached and placed an order for a screwdriver express the next morning.

*

The next morning, the man leapt out of bed to swing open his apartment’s steel door. He tenderly picked up the sleek black box wrapped with red ribbon on the floor that contained his order. His heart was pounding, and he wished it would slow down. He needed as many exhalations as he could get today. At this thought, the nasally voice over the apartment intercom spoke to the man again. He was to plant his seed first today. The first resident had died from tracheal compression after her exhalation limit was reached. For the second day in a row, the man froze. He untied the box’s ribbon and pulled out his screwdriver.

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The Old Dog, Aislinn McKenzie

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

A strong breeze was blowing from the ocean, spinning the washing line into a frantic twirl, as if the old bed sheets and t-shirts were some elaborate patchwork skirt. The house groaned and whistled, and occasional pelts of windblown sand or the scraping of branches would rattle the windowpanes. An older woman struggled to attach her washing as the sheets blew over her head, spinning away from her hands so that she had to try and hold onto the line as she bent down for her clothes. Her name was Marie, and she was the resident of the creaky house, and the owner of the very old dog that watched her worriedly from the front porch. The dog’s grey peppered head lay wistfully on her front paws, and nothing but her large brown eyes moved as she watched the trees sway in the heavy winds. The woman laughed to herself.

‘Should have been born with feathers, little chicken’ she muttered under her breath, eyeing the dog affectionately.

She was a great dog. The best of company and the strongest thing when she was young. She used to run with such freedom that it made Marie laugh.

‘She’d make a great working dog’, Marie used to tell her husband, ‘she’d have been better on a property, where she had all the space in the world’. Marie’s husband would nod half attentively, fixated on the tv, his eyes shining blue and vacant from the glow of the tv light.

She walked solemnly towards the house, the wind whipping her hair, tangling it into awful knots.

Marie stood with the porch door open, the basket fitting snugly into her hip as she waited for the dog to get up. The dog’s arthritic legs moved her stiffly into a sitting position till she was finally able to slowly walk towards the open door into the house. Placing the basket on top of the washer, Marie picked the dog up and laid her gently on the couch and went to make some tea for herself.

The dog used to be able to jump onto the couch, her favourite little spot, and Marie’s husband would shoo her away, sharply poking her in the ribs. Marie would always let her stay though. It fascinated her that the dog had chosen that little spot for herself, just as if she were a little person.

The wind continued to shriek under the door and between any crack it could find as the pale cloudy sky gradually turned a dark bruised blue. A storm was blowing in across the water. It seemed that those cold breezes just blew right through her these days, rattling her bone. It was akin to the times she had caught a chill when she was younger, except no amount of warmth ever seemed to remedy it now.

‘Just another one of those days’ she said, as she gently warmed her hands against the rising steam of the kettle, her eyes alight with swirling clouds as she gazed out the window.

With a heavy sigh, Marie turned away from the window and walked gingerly to the couch, making sure that when she sat, she was close enough to the dog to feel the warmth of her body against her thigh. She cupped her hand around the mug.

‘See no sound’ she said to the dog, as she tapped her fingers against the ceramic. She didn’t miss the clink of her ring. She had worn that ring for so long, and yet taking it off had not elicited any pangs of sentimentality. There had certainly been some grief after her husband’s passing, but she felt it wasn’t all for him. There had been something else, a greater sense of loss over one’s life that came from the acceptance of mortality. Either way she couldn’t bear the pity that crossed people’s faces when she said she was a widow, their looks of embarrassment and how they reflected how lonely she must feel.

She wasn’t alone, she had her dog.

The loneliness that one feels in an old house with their dog is nothing to the loneliness felt amongst the company of others.

‘Never marry young’ Marie said, pointing her finger at the dog in mock reprimand. Her dog stared bemusedly in her direction, the little eyebrows furrowing before she rolled onto her side and sighed.

Marie stared at the hands holding her mug, her smooth skin had wrinkled to a translucent sheet that could no longer hide the knotted veins beneath. Her legs had similarly mottled and atrophied, and she couldn’t help but remember how plump and strong they used to be. She used to take the dog for long walks, sometimes all afternoon, exploring various caves and crevasses in the nearby mountain. How peaceful it had felt to traverse such expanses of land, like a wandering nomad or shepherd.

‘Let’s run away, just the two of us’ she used to say to the dog.

Maybe she should have, when she’d had the strength to do so. Now both of them were too old and tired to walk any further than the washing line.

Large round droplets began sporadically plonking against the windows, darkening the sand that had encroached upon the once manicured lawn. The dog pricked her ears towards the increasing loudness of the rain but did not raise her head. Briefly Marie glanced at her washing out on the line, but ignored it, choosing instead to rest her head against the dog’s side, listening to the little rattles of breath and the tiny faint heartbeat that still fuelled her body.

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The Showman, Scott Monk

Photo by Marco ten Hoff on Unsplash

Applause and confetti rained down on the Showman. Thousands and thousands of fans rose to their feet and stood, spellbound, for another five minutes, as he walked to each corner of the stage serving out kisses. Camera phones pop-pop-popped, each reflecting blue light and freezing their owner’s whimsical faces, double chins and yawns. Fathers ushered their families to the aisles with rolled up programmes to beat the traffic, while the majority stayed, half respectfully, half expectantly. Finally, the band riffed and the Showman waved the crowd goodnight.

Backstage, a line formed as the Showman appeared. He pressed hands and smiled for photographs before finally meeting a mother and daughter. His heart sank. The girl, about ten, was shaved bald. Her eyes were defeated and her skin the colour of self-abandonment. The mother was a fusser. No doubt she’d ironed the girl’s clothes, then dragged this poor wretch here, even though the child was clueless about who he was. Now she was prompting her to tell the Showman her story. In detail.

He listened. Patiently, of course. Nodded at the appropriate spots. Caught himself drifting and re-focussed. Was thankful his family wasn’t like theirs.

A female producer with a headset interrupted them and asked to borrow the Showman. The show had to go on.

‘It’s been an honour to meet you,’ the girl said, reaching out to shake the Showman’s hand. Hers was warm but fading.

‘Ask him,’ the mother said, nudging her in the back. ‘What you said to me in the car.’

The Showman looked to his producer and she bent to steer the girl away. ‘Maybe next time.’

‘Ask him,’ the mother insisted.

The girl spoke so softly that she had to repeat herself. ‘What would you say to someone who’s sick like me?’

The Showman glanced down at those surrendered eyes and he felt a flicker of… what?…creeping fear?…mortal insecurity?

‘Believe in yourself, sweetie, and you can overcome anything.’

The producer ushered the pair away, then found the Showman in an editing suite. He was studying the checkerboard of monitors replaying his performance. Cheshire teeth… white. Tonal range… confident. Power dressing… crisp. Make-up?… A tad too orange. ‘Can you lighten my skin tone? We don’t want fifty million viewers thinking I spend all my time in tanning salons. This is one hundred percent Florida!’

The producer cleared her throat. ‘Your ride’s here.’

The Showman glanced at his gold Audemars Piguet timepiece, straightened his silk tie with one quick tug, snapped his bespoke jacket collar then strode in his Louis Vuitton waxed alligators through the rear maze of the stadium.

‘What are the numbers?’ he asked, not breaking stride.

‘Forty.’

He stalled as she handed him the electronic tablet. ‘Four-zero?’

‘Well, thirty-nine with change.’

‘Love offerings?’

‘An extra three.’

‘With change?’

‘No. Flat.’

The Showman’s face glowed as he scrolled through the night’s takings, looking for a mistake – or better yet, an extra zero to carry.

‘Who was on the buckets?’ he asked calmly.

‘Teams D, E and F.’

He slid his hands into his pockets and breathed thinly. ‘Replace them. Put something up on Instagram calling for new volunteers. From now on we always finish with fifty on the books, even if we have to send the buckets around a second time.’

‘Who do you want to –’

‘People with charisma. Women – or even better, young people. Let them be a model to everyone else.’

When the producer raised an eyebrow – just a smidge, but a smidge nonetheless – the Showman softened his tone and shone his immaculate teeth. ‘Look, I know times are tough and everyone is under a lot of pressure, including myself. But we’re doing good work here. World-changing work. You more than most. We just need to pull together and put our best foot forward, and the rewards will come. Don’t you agree?’

Magnanimously, he opened the door, still smiling, then followed her in the loading dock. His face dropped, however, when he saw the black stretch limousine waiting for him.

‘Your driver called in sick,’ the producer said immediately. ‘Appendicitis.’

He held back, then spoke quietly when he pulled her aside. Behind them on the limousine’s hood, sat a rotund Nepalese man in his fifties. He sported a cheap black suit, a bottom-of-the-drawer tie, an orange and pink Dhaka topi on his bald head and a red tilaka between his thick eyebrows. ‘Find another driver with a different car. I can’t go to the airport in that.’

‘We tried. Twice. We even offered to double the fare. But there’re no cars available. All that’s left are taxis…’

The limousine was a peacock on roller skates. The interior discoed with red, blue and green party lights – the kind that turned drunk, snorting passengers into blinking Andy Warhol portraits. Even the number plate danced with small globes, which, mercifully, was simply 2CO R11 and not something horrid like or WATZ UP, GET SUM or I GOTA P. The music system (which he’d asked to turn down) quaked even the surrounding cars, and the air conditioning (which he’d asked to turn up) smelt of cloves and citrus. Factory-made citrus. Worse, the backseats were white leather with a heavy red trim but shaped like the famous giant lips emblem of the Rolling Stones. Want to be swallowed up by Mick Jagger? No thanks.

The Showman had instead chosen the front seat, though now it only added to his distress. Strung along the dashboard were dozens of miniature toys: grinning pigs, pugs, kittens, monkeys, boys, girls, unicorns, pandas, hedgehogs and those ghastly Funko Pops. Most were bobbleheads, and as one, they nodded smugly at the Showman: ‘We know what you’re thinking. Cheerful, eh?’ The only ‘normal’ thing he recognised was the central idol: a statue of the Hindu god Shiva.

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ the driver said with a thick accent into his Bluetooth earpiece. On the other end, a woman spoke in a foreign language, his mobile phone listing her as SHE 01. ‘I’ve got the VIP at the moment. The five other passengers can wait.’

He cancelled the call and eased the limousine to a stop at a red light.

‘You spoke very impressive tonight, sir,’ the driver said.

‘Just drive, please,’ the Showman said.

‘I saw the last twenty minute myself. Many people walked away happy.’

The Showman reached for his mobile but the battery signal flashed red.

‘A man like you must be happy all the time,’ the driver added.

‘Not tonight,’ the Showman said, pocketing his phone.

‘You’re a very popular man, am I correct? I’ve seen you on television. Even back home in Kathmandu, you’re on TV.’

‘I hope so.’

‘Whenever I change the channels, I check up on you. Big stadiums. Big crowds. Big rock bands. Lots of people singing. Happy people. I thought: this man brings lots of joy to the world. Must meet him one day. And here you are!’

‘Look, how long is it to the airport? I really need to – ’

‘Twenty minutes. Thirty max. Your jet has filed a new flight plan. Your producer has everything under control. You’re in safe hands with me.’

The light turned green and the limousine powered forward. There was an awkward pause before the silence weighed too much on the driver.

‘So you’re a priest, sir?’

‘A pastor,’ the Showman said.

‘Are they not the same?’

‘A priest dresses in robes and carries out rites. A pastor is…well, he pastors people.’

‘Sir, my apologies. English is only my third language. What does this word mean? Pastors?’

‘It means you care for others. You counsel them and lead them.’

‘Lead them where?’

‘To God.’

‘Oh! Like Hindu priests. They help people find gods too –’

‘No, to God. The one God.’

‘But they believe in Him too.’

‘I don’t think so,’ the Showman said.

‘Yes, yes, they do. Your God is one of the many gods we Hindus believe in. Look!’
The driver singlehandedly dropped open the heavy glove box to reveal dozens of statues of Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Buddha, Mary, numerous saints, a ceramic beckoning cat and even Thor. Not some metal Norse representation, but the Marvel action figure.

‘I swap them every few hours,’ the driver said, replacing Shiva on the dashboard with the archangel Raphael. ‘When I need patience, I put Buddha up here. When I need protection, I go with a saint. When I need better fares, I put them all up here!’

‘You can’t do that. That’s – That’s blasphemous!’

‘But very, very profitable!’ the driver laughed, slapping the glove box closed.

The limousine continued through the streets, ghosting large crowds of revellers in its headlights. The caller, SHE 01, rang back. The driver’s conversation was curt. ‘We’re on our way, okay? Tell them it’s not the end of the world.’ He chuckled, ending the call.

‘Sir, you are a man of great wealth, no?’

The Showman sighed. Save me, he thought. ‘I get by.’

‘I heard you speaking to that crowd tonight. You said everyone can get happy. How can I get happy?’

‘You won’t understand.’

‘What wouldn’t I understand, sir?’

‘It’s complicated.’

‘Was it complicated for those people in the stadium tonight?’

The Showman burned. He breathed out then remembered the mantra from his own bestseller: Reward others and you’ll be rewarded.

‘Okay, okay. I’d prefer you come to my church. But it’s a simple secret that’ll change your life.’

‘Why, thank you, sir. Very grateful.’

‘I always encourage people to wake up each day, and to do their best. God is always watching. And when God’s always watching, He’s always expecting. So when you do your part, God will do his part. You following me so far?’

‘Very much, sir.’

‘The problem is, most of us wake up every day thinking we’re not worthy of God’s blessing. We let our emotions tell us we’re not good enough. So we become unhappy. But we are good enough. We’re good people inside. And so we need to live our lives like we’re totally triumphant. God told us to go out and live good lives – and we can only do that if we’re triumphant over our fears and worries, anxiety and pain, poverty and money. He created us to be prosperous, not paupers.’

‘I don’t want to be a pauper, sir.’

‘None of us do. That’s why if we do something good for God, He’ll give it back to us in spades.’

‘Like money?’

‘Money, good health, relationships…you name it. He’ll supply it. He wants you to live in prosperity now.’

‘But how do I do that?’

‘Get a vision for it.’

‘A vision? Like seeing an angel?’

The Showman chuckled. ‘No, friend. Imagine it. Think about what you really want and focus on it. Do everything in your power to make it become real. But most importantly, be generous in your giving.’

‘Giving?’

‘To ministries like mine. God rewards those who reward others.’

The driver changed lanes. ‘So, what you’re saying is: if I want a boat, I should focus on it in my mind, and then give money to you –’

‘– for my ministry to others –’

‘– and then God will reward me with the boat?’

‘Exactly! God wants you to be happy because you are His treasure!’

Expectantly, the Showman glanced at the driver but the man looked perplexed. ‘Sir, forgive me, maybe my English is bad. I’ve read the Bible many times – many times! – and can you tell me where I can find that?’

‘Well…it’s everywhere. I’ve been preaching this for years.’

‘But can you tell me exactly what verses, sir? I’d like to read them myself.’

The Showman reached to Google it, then remembered the flat battery. ‘Trust me. It’s in there,’ he smiled.

‘Forgive me again, sir, but I’m still confused. I’ve read the holy books from all religions, and I’ve written plenty myself, but what about the cross?’

The Showman half-laughed. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Why did Jesus die then? To make us wealthy? He was poor Himself, wasn’t he?’
‘Ah, you see, He died to make us happy –’

‘But if you’re poor, then does that mean God doesn’t love you?’

‘That’s a very simplistic view –’

‘And I heard a passenger say the other day that Jesus died on the cross to save us from the wrath of God because we are sinners. I have to say, sir, I felt anything but happy –’

‘Yes but –’

‘We don’t earn eternal life, but it’s given freely. By Christ alone.’

‘Look!’ the Showman said. ‘The Bible’s a very difficult book to understand. You need years of talking about it to understand it. Just trust yourself and your heart will find the truth.’

The limousine paused at another traffic light and silence ticked between both men. Thankfully, the driver’s mobile phone chirped a third time, flashing with SHE 01 again.

‘He’s ready,’ he answered, his accent gone. ‘No chance of redemption.’

Bewildered, the Showman glanced at the driver, suddenly realising that he was the subject of their conversation. It appeared that the driver had not only grown in confidence, but stature. ‘Who are you?’

‘Why, your biggest fan.’

‘Huh?’

‘The one who’s been with you from the beginning. The one who holds your money bags. The one who whispers in the night: ‘Judas! Judas!’’

‘What?’

‘You know, the Devil in the detail.’

‘Is this a prank? Because if it is –’

‘You don’t know God, friend, but you definitely know me.’

Ignoring the red light, the driver pumped the accelerator and the limousine lurched forward into incoming traffic.

‘Are you crazy?!’ the Showman yelled, grabbing the door. ‘You’re going to kill us both!’

The driver laughed. ‘What? Are you afraid of death?’

Headlights, horns and squealing tyres filled the night air before the limousine exploded in metal and glass. Another car crashed into them and the Showman felt his entire body and soul ricochet.

Moments later, when everything came to a halt, he sat alone in the front seat. Shaken. Bloody. But breathing. The driver had vanished, and later no one admitted actually seeing such a man.

A woman in a tow truck uniform and cap peered down at the Showman through the smashed passenger’s window and whistled. ‘Praise the Lord! You’re alive. It looks like you’ve made a mess of yourself there,’ she said. ‘Hi, by the way. I’m Grace. How can I help you?’

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