EPIPHANY, Jo Crocker

She is stitched to her destiny with golden thread, needles stabbed through her fingertips to tug her along. In a cottage choked by ivy and honeysuckle, she is clothed in pale pink and dark brown, sickening fairy floss and sturdy trees. She dreams in false memories: a mother and a father, a queen and a king, a cradle soft and safe, a spell ghostly and green.

She holds a candle close to her finger so she can see the shadow of the bone. She worries her skin will melt like spun sugar sucked into nothingness. She worries she will fall into the strange dreams and be stuck as a baby, shrouded in embroidered silk and the sharp curse of a disregarded witch.

 She learns how to stifle her waking scream. She treks into the woods to scream. She climbs trees. She falls out of trees. She learns to tie her shoes. She grows out of her shoes. She bakes cakes. She burns cakes. She learns to sew clothes. She grows out of her clothes. She rips her clothes. She learns how to mend clothes.

She is strictly supervised by her godmothers when she has a needle in her hand, fingers tightly wound with tape, jammed with thimbles. They perch next to her or hover in front of her, wringing their hands as if they’re struggling to stop themselves from reaching out and snatching the fabric and needle and thread away. She is not allowed to hold the knives when she helps them cook, instead measuring out shards of sugar and messy clouds of flour with smooth wooden spoons, tipping careful quantities into glass bowls and thick-bottomed pans, stirring and sifting and staring out the window at the forest.

She decides that her skin must be made of paper, although she has been out in the rain many times and she has not yet dissolved. If she were to be nicked or stabbed or sliced, the wound would not heal, and her own heart would pump her determinedly into death.

She walks through the woods, grass wet beneath her feet, leaves whirring overhead like shimmering beetle wings. Sunlight slides through the gaps in the branches like drops of honey. She is searching for something freshly mythical, like always. She’s so used to seeing the magical in the mundane that it’s lost its charm. She wants wonder again, and so she worms her way out of chores and worry, sprints through the trees, picks bright handfuls of wildflowers to display in a vase or press dry or twist into a crown.

Their saturated stems snarl around her fingers as she stumbles steadily deeper. The trees grow closer together here, tangled around each other, making her feel like an ant trotting through a maze of grass. The green grows deeper, dimmer, darker. Her body absorbs the shadowy shade, eyes adjusting, shivers stopping.

There is a crack of golden light in the distance. Her eyes spill open. The trees block her path, tripping her on their roots and bumping her to the ground with their trembling trunks. She makes a game of it, laughing as she dives and delves through the army of green and brown. The rough texture scrapes threateningly at her skin and she stops her laughter, pulling out of the claw-like clutches and struggling into a mad dash towards the flourish of phosphorescence. She squeezes through the splintering branches and finds herself in a clearing. The space is awash with the movement of spiralling colour, grass gleaming with remnants of dew, flickering butterflies, glinting beetles, swaying flowers.

A boy stands in sharp relief against the softness. He is perfectly still, staring at her. He looks too human for such a pretty place, except for the staggering sunlight making his skin glow gold and his hair gleam white-hot, like a melting candle.

‘Hello,’ she says. ‘Are you the magic?’

‘I am the monster,’ he says proudly.

‘You don’t look much like a monster,’ she says, chin high, as if she’s seen many monsters to compare him to.

He bares his teeth and she recoils, but then steps towards him, dropping her flowers to grab his chin to stare at them.

‘Wow,’ she says, because his teeth are monstrous. There are too many of them. They stick out at strange angles, sharp grey triangles, jagged slices of shattered slate shoved into his gums. She pokes the flat edge of one. He snaps at her finger, shrieking with laughter at her gasp of fear. She hits him once, misses twice, falls over her own laughter and ends up lying on the grass.

He flops down beside her.

‘If you bit me, I would die,’ she tells him, sitting up to face him.

‘No, you wouldn’t. I would save you. I would bandage you up.’

‘It wouldn’t work. If I bleed, I die.’ She says it with affected casualness.

‘Why?’

‘My skin is made of paper.’

He pokes her.

‘No it’s not. Your skin is made of skin. Same as mine.’ He places a finger under her wrist to guide her hand into the air, pressing his palm against hers once she holds the position. His hand is warm, browned by the sun and radiating the absorbed heat. He curves the tops of his fingers over hers.

‘How did you become a monster?’ she asks. He drops his hand away from hers, busies himself with gathering up her scattered flowers, sorting them into piles of colour: daisies like folded paper, poppies like frozen fire, hyacinths like small blue stars, pale pink wild roses like blood that’s too set in to be properly washed out.

‘I was cursed.’

‘Why?’

‘I stole an apple.’

‘Why?’

‘I was hungry.’

‘And then what?’

‘And then I got caught and cursed and cast out. And now I live all alone, on the outskirts of the woods.’

‘Me too. I’m alone. I have my godmothers, but they’re more like birds than people, sometimes. They make noises for the sake of making noise. They’re colourful for the sake of being colourful.’

He laughs. ‘Maybe your paper skin is a curse as well. Maybe we match.’

His fingers nimbly knot the flowers into a crown. He sets it on her head. He smiles with all his teeth. Her hand still hangs in the air, wilting like a plucked flower. There is a storm gathering overhead, rustling thick grey skirts. She should go home. Her heart expands at the thought, pounding with fresh pain like new petals.

He presses the remaining flowers into her suspended hand and her fingers automatically curl around them. His skin brushes against hers. It burns, like touching a section snipped off the sun.

They sit in steady silence as she blows on her scorched fingers and begins making another looping crown. Hers is neater than his, but the precise pattern makes it less pretty. Two poppies droop down over her forehead, partially obscuring her vision with bright splashes of red. She closes the circle. He is lying on his back, eyes swallowing the colour from the sky. She nudges him to sit up. She sets the crown on his head.

‘We match,’ she tells him. He smiles with all his teeth. She bares her own in return, resenting their bright whiteness, their sleek neatness.

The sky tips over. The rain is warm at first, a soft summer shower, the sunlight peeking through the clouds to make it shimmer silver-gold.

‘Maybe this will be the time I dissolve,’ she says, swiping her damp hair out of her face.

He laughs, the sound made brighter by the downpour muffling the creaking forest. He tilts his head back to drink the droplets.

She reaches out again to hold his mouth open, examining the ragged roughness, the serrated edges leading up to precise points.

She presses her thumb against the point of his tooth. A slice of red pain blooms. Her hand shakes as she raises it up to examine it. The rain floods over the wound.

She falls, racing her spilling blood to hit the glossy ground.

.

It’s still raining when she wakes up. She is lying on her back. He is holding her hand, tongue poking out as he ties a bow in the bandage he’s wrapped around her finger.

‘Told you I’d save you,’ he says. The rain rushes down his face, dripping onto her hand. The flower crown is tangled with her hair, plastered across her face. Her pink dress is drenched to dark purple. ‘You were right, as well. You died a little death,’ he grins. ‘You’re alright now. I kissed it better. My mother always used to, when I would trip and fall.’

‘Where’s your mother now?’

‘She cast me out. I was always too difficult. It doesn’t matter. I am a monster. I don’t need anyone.’

‘I don’t think you’re a monster,’ she says. He finishes the bow with a flourish and she hastily tangles their fingers together, worried she’ll melt away into the mud if she doesn’t have something to cling to.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says.

The sinking sun spins the rain into sparks of orange and purple, the writhing forest into grey browns and greens like a freshly watered garden bed.

‘I am,’ she says, regret taking root in her chest, tugging in two opposing ways — she needs to go home before her godmothers flurry up into worry; she doesn’t want to leave him, she wants to stay in this secluded sanctuary till the sun stops setting entirely, and the earth crumbles to moonlight beneath her.

‘Where are you going?’ he asks.

‘Home,’ she says, and an idea worms its way out of her head, cleverly burrowing down to her chest to twist her appeal towards it. ‘Would you like to come with me?’

The freshly spun stars sprinkle down, competing with and complementing the rain. The light shatters in silver sparks against his teeth as he smiles.

Her own lips curve in return, golden thread hooked through the corners of her mouth and tugged up towards the sky.


Jo Crocker lives by the sea with her pet rats, fish and a border collie. When she’s not scribbling ideas in notebooks or weaving those ideas into stories, she enjoys reading fantasy and horror and playing violin. Her short story ‘Epiphany’ has been long-listed for the Future Leaders Writers Prize.

TIP KIDS, Kyla Hetherington

Remi ran away to find the King of the tip-kids and bring him home. She stands on top of an Everest of waste, shading her eyes with one hand and cradling a brown paper bag against her chest with the other. Garbage bags, in various stages of decay, cluster together to form large hills: a narrow path weaving between them. Remi tried hard to see right to the outskirts of the tip – but failed. She shuts her nostrils against the smell, a grotesque mingling of healthy soil and rotting fruit, trying to inhale through her mouth instead. Before she can decide where to begin, the pile of rubbish beneath her foot gives way, and she falls to the bottom of the hill, dropping the precious paper bag on the way down.  

A stooped figure, concealed in the shadow of an old fridge, watches the girl dust herself off. Her white stockings are ripped, and a cut on her knee gapes like a macabre Halloween smile while she scrabbles to the top of the trash heap and begins to look around for something. There’s something old-fashioned about the girl’s clothes. She wears a loose grey pinafore and scuffed mary-jane shoes, and the foal-like awkwardness of her limbs marks her as being close to thirteen. As she searches, she throws uneasy glances over her shoulder. 

Remi uses the toe of her shoe to lift a black t-shirt off a mound of mouldering food teaming with maggots. Gagging at the sight, she jumps backwards only to land on a jar filled with disturbingly life-like doll eyes. The hairs on her arms sizzle. The bag is important, a gift, but she feels exposed here, her cleanness marking her as an intruder. Flipping a mangled number plate that reads RUNNNN is the final straw, and she imagines she can feel the word breathing at her back as she races down the hill onto the path. She had come here to find her brother, who had become a tip-kid. She hopes.

The watcher had seen exactly where the bag had landed. When the girl’s swishing ponytail becomes a blur, they hurry forward and pick it up. Inside, lie three gold-foiled Easter eggs. 

*

Lion tried not to laugh at five-year-old Remi’s attempt at looking stern. Her brow puckered in an approximation of their father’s scolding expression, but on her pudgy face, it only looked adorable. 

‘I promise, Rem. If you plant this Easter egg, a chocolate tree will grow,’ he said gravely. At ten years old (that was all her fingers), Lion was the authority on everything. One week later, Remi made him close his eyes as she led him into the garden. In the spot where they had planted the egg was a single, scrappy dandelion. Lion made a show of inspecting the petals and measuring its height with his hand. 

‘Ah, yes. This is definitely a cocoa tree,’ he’d declared to her delighted smile. 

When their father mowed the lawn the next day, Remi was inconsolable.  

‘Don’t cry, Rem.’ Lion patted her on the back, ‘Look what I managed to pick last night.’ He pried open her palm and dropped two Easter eggs onto it. When she tried to offer him one, he shook his head, saying he’d never much liked the taste. She’d hidden them under her pillow to avoid being scolded by her parents for the insult to Christ’s sacrifice. Of course, Lion would inevitably argue, so she was saving him from their father’s belt too.

*

Plastic bottles and disposable gloves pepper the ground everywhere she looks; rotting food waste deforms old appliances; everything is in ruin. The Children of the Son are as frugal as they are faithful, so she has always been raised to use and reuse everything. They grow their own vegetables and always compost; her mother had made her three dresses identical to this one from an old curtain. Desperate as she is to find Lion, she hates it here.  

She stops to rest in a shaded gully carved out by fridges and washing machines that stick out from the ground like a giant’s ribcage. Hunkering down next to an enormous chest freezer, she lays her burning cheek against its side. She’s tempted to climb inside just for the cool relief of darkness. Her father says that Lion has always been the reckless one, but she knows it’s the other way around. He’s thoughtful, a planner who wouldn’t be silly enough to suffocate inside a freezer at the tip. He’s probably sitting on a throne of glass bottles, wearing a crown of bleached chicken bones. 

Lion had made up the story about the tip-kids when they were little. When they got in trouble at home, they would whisper to each other about joining the gang of runaways and castaways out here. Lion joked that he would be their leader, the King. But they’d grown out of that fantasy years ago; she’d barely remembered it until last week.

‘We had a job lined up for you — with Jacob Opperman,’ said her father at dinner.

‘I don’t want the job you choose; with the people you choose. I’m happy at the café,’ said Lion, jaw pulsing.   

‘Ah yes, mixing with heathens. Think of the example you set for your sister, Lion. You’re reckless.’ Father always knew how to wound him.

‘I’m reckless?! Well, maybe I am. But you’re liars. You hide us from the world in the name of love, but you only want to control us.’

‘Enough.’ Her father stood but didn’t have to shout; his tone had them bowing their heads. ‘If you want to go and live like the garbage you are, then go,’ he flicked his fingers to punctuate the last word, before storming off. 

Lion had laughed bitterly, ‘Christ, I’ve always thought I’d be happier at the tip anyway.’

Remi’s only response had been to scold him for taking the Lord’s name in vain. 

Now, she wanted to snatch those words back and stuff them down her throat like a sword. Truthfully, she’d been scared, scared that he would be free – without her.

Pshh.

She wonders if that was the sound of the sun finally cooking her, like an egg. 

‘Pshh. Girl. Over here!’

A nondescript pile of rubbish and rags was trying to get her attention. Squinting, she makes out a pair of tanned, weather-beaten hands. They beckon her over. 

‘What are you doin’ out here, girl? And with no hat on!’ the voice chides as soon as Remi is close enough. She instantly dislikes this dirty lady, with her deeply lined face and shopping trolley filled to the brim with more rubbish. Unclean, her mother would say. 

‘What’s it to you?’ Remi snaps. Realising that this stranger might be able to help, she adds hastily, ‘I’m just looking for my brother.’

The watcher ignores this, ‘And look at you bleedin’ all over the place.’ The old lady doesn’t want any trouble, but she’s sorry to see the girl starting to blend in – with her sagging ponytail and crumpled pinafore. Decided, she sets off down the path, only thumbing her chest and saying, ‘Lettie’ by way of invitation.  When Remi doesn’t follow, she turns and holds out the lost paper bag, the gift for Lion. 

‘I know how to find anything out here,’ Lettie winks. 

Well, Remi reasons, this might be her only chance. 

Lettie leads her to a precarious-looking litter shelter. Just as she had, it blends so well into the surrounding junk that you had to come at it sideways, like a magic eye puzzle. Pieces of tin form the walls, eaten through by rust. Inside, a vomit-coloured couch sits in one corner. They duck to avoid the sag in the middle of the ‘roof’, which is just a tarp smeared with an ominous brown stain. 

‘I’ve got a few of these cubbies here and there just in case, but they never found one,’ Lettie smiles proudly over the top of the large box she’s holding. Two of her front teeth are missing. 

‘Who are they?’ Remi asks hopefully.

‘Pshh, the trucks, o’course. Those ones that squash the rubbish together and tip more out on top. We’ll reach the sky one day,’ she smiles again; Remi cringes at the view of the dark void of her mouth and the tender, pink gums. 

‘Remember, I said I was looking for my brother? He looks like me, only a lot taller. I think he came here. To live,’ Remi adds meaningfully.

Lettie waves off the inquiry, ‘We’ll get to all that, but first, we gotta fix up that knee and then tend the darlin’s.’ She gets to her feet. 

Remi is suddenly conscious of being alone with this strange woman. Am I the ‘darlin’? she wonders. Maybe Lettie lured kids here so she could knock them out and steal their teeth. Lips tucked together protectively, Remi stays still. Lettie rummages through a bag and locates a box of band-aids and a squished tube of betadine before tossing them to Remi. 

‘Thanks,’ she says, and Lettie clucks at her surprise. 

‘Almost anythin’ you could think of in the world has been chucked out here. A lot of it’s still good too.’ 

After her knee is sufficiently cleaned and taped, Lettie shows her inside the box. Two puppies with swollen, raisin eyes and sleek black fur lay inside. Their round tummies lift with their staccato breaths. 

‘Now we tend the darlin’s,’ she repeats. 

The one she passes to Remi is called Atlas; his sister is Laura. Both are glossy and tender. They feed them baby formula from mismatched bottles. Remi is so hypnotised by the marshmallow fragility of their little bodies that she barely notices herself speaking, telling Lettie the story of how she came to be here.  

‘So, please tell me, Lettie. Where is he?’ she concludes. 

‘As I said before, I might know somethin’, but you can’t go off chasin’ him with an empty belly.’ 

While the sun sets, they share a box of muesli bars and an apple in remarkably good shape. Lettie notices the girl happily accepts these offerings. The tight set of her mouth has softened with fatigue or even warmth. The girl thinks she needs her brother to remind her how big the world is, but she’s already learning it on her own. She looks almost content as she tucks Atlas under her chin, inhaling his mossy smell.

‘They can’t stay here,’ Lettie says. 

‘Who?’ Remi asks, thrown. 

‘Atlas and Laura.’

‘Why not?’ her eyes feel hot, ‘someone threw them away like rubbish! You rescued them,’ she says. 

Lettie only puffs up her cheeks and raises her brow, ‘Hush now. Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll tell you what I know once you’re rested.’ 

She sleeps deeply, with the puppies curled into her stomach, until Lettie wakes her with a question, ‘Did he say he was coming here, then?’ 

Remi is groggy but has held the strands of their conversation in her dreams all night; she answers, ‘He said he wished he could be free, like the tip-kids. Then he left. It can’t be a coincidence.’ 

‘And not even a goodbye?’ Lettie sounds disappointed. 

‘Well, I don’t think he was allowed,’ she whispers. Yesterday morning, she had caught fragments of a conversation between her parents. Lion will be back, said her father. Her mother’s voice was cold as she replied, he’s been shunned. Don’t speak his name in this house. I have no son.  

 ‘Lion turned eighteen last week,’ Remi lets the statement hang. ‘Please, tell me how to find him.’

While Lettie stares at the brown constellation on the tarp, Remi has the sudden urge to stop her from saying whatever she is about to say, but it’s too late.  

‘He’s not here.’

She can tell Lettie feels sorry to say it. 

‘It was always just a story. There isn’t a body livin’ out here ‘cept me.’

Remi doesn’t need to ask if she’s sure. She doesn’t cry or get mad. Atlas is chewing on a fluffy, pink slipper while Laura goads him to play, darting forward to bite his face and hopping backward just out of reach. 

‘I can take them,’ Remi says instead, ‘The puppies, I mean.’ 

Lettie puts a finger to her chin, ‘Your parents?’

‘If I’m not allowed to keep them, I’ll find nice families for them, I promise,’ she says and then adds hurriedly, ‘Not that you’re not nice.’ 

Lettie chuckles, ‘It’s alright, girl. I need to let them go. Let them be happy.’ 

Before Remi leaves, she tells Lettie that she’s sorry. 

‘What do you have to be sorry for, child?’ Lettie asks. 

‘I thought you wanted to steal my teeth.’ She worries that she has been thoughtless and hurt her feelings, but Lettie laughs so hard she begins to cough. Shuffling over to the couch, she collects a beaten-up Roses tin and hands it to Remi. Inside are dozens of old dentures; some are chipped or crooked, others are marred with ochre stains, and a few look pristine. 

‘I don’t need your teeth, girly. I told you – people throw everything out.’


Kyla Hetherington lives in Ballarat, Victoria, on the land of the Waddawurring people. She is an Emergency Services dispatcher and second-year undergraduate student who spends her free time travelling or chaperoning Larry the Labradoodle on hikes. Her poetry has been published in The Quarry issue # 18.

LITTLE BOY BLUE, Rosa Burrell

At 11 o’clock most nights, Bud Blues stood in front of an open fridge.  He hated himself for eating too much, but he never seemed able to resist the temptation.  I’ll just eat one Tim Tam, he’d say to himself.  Or one chicken leg, some cheese and ham, two pieces of bread and mayonnaise, and maybe a handful of potato chips.   Eating gave him relief; it gave him pleasure, until he felt full of food and disappointment.

 Bud Blues had had a liking for food since he was a child.  He would always observe life from the outside looking in, and because he was vulnerable and shy, he was bullied at school.  ‘Dud Bud’ the boys in his class called him, and ‘Fatso’.  When he was left out, he’d find a place on his own in which to sit and, head down, close his eyes, the tears rolling down his cheek.  Then, he’d pull a muesli bar from his pocket and eat it slowly.

He found those early years really tough.  He would run around the grounds from tree to tree, hiding, waiting for the bell to ring. When a group of girls from the grade above him, sensing his loneliness, asked him to join them at lunchtime, he was so relieved, sharing his sandwiches with them.  He could just about get by then, but for the boys in his class.

 ‘You’re a girl!  You hang out with girls!’ they said.  He told his class teacher but when her back was turned, they only teased him worse.  They took to hiding his lunch box.  And he was constantly last to be chosen on the playing field.  He tried to hold his nerve.  However, one day at recess, he punched the ring leader in the face until the boy cried.  That felt good at first, but left Bud feeling guilty, because he did not want to be like them.  He grew tall, put on weight, and lost his interest in running, instead, he would buy a snack at the school canteen – a carton of milk or a meat pie.

*

By the time he was eleven, Bud was already five feet six, and when he went to swimming lessons with his grade, he stood out.  He had shiny chestnut hair, a little longer than the other boys, with a wavy fringe down the left side of his forehead, and olive skin.  

‘You think you’re so good, do you?  Pretty boy!’ they harassed him. On one occasion, four of them surrounded Bud.  They laughed and sniggered at his body.   He felt like shouting, kicking, retaliating.  Suddenly, he lunged, pushing two so that they slipped on the concrete surface, and two fell in the pool.  Laughter came from the crowd of children.  The teacher, who had been watching the incident, addressed the five boys.

‘Right!  Detention, this lunch hour, and fifty lines, ‘I must not make fun of other people.’

At night, before he fell asleep, he wondered why they bullied him, the tears were bitter in his eyes.  How long could he stick it out for? 

He must tell his father.  That would make it better.   He loved his parents.  They made him feel safe.  He sat with his Dad on the couch watching footy.  He spoke with a lump in his throat.

‘I don’t get why they pick on me, Dad.  Why are they so mean?’ 

His father’s first reaction was to tell the head mistress, but Bud thought that would make him look weak. With his arm around his son, his Dad told him: ‘Bud, you’re ten times better than any of those kids.  Don’t take any notice of them.  They’re just jealous.’  He’d lean against his father’s body for a while; the warmth, the smell that Bud knew well comforted him. 

*

When Bud was in senior school, a girl came along who wanted to stick up for him.  Her name was Melissa, she was sweet and shy, and she gave him hope.   They were able to talk about the dark days.  She was bullied too, because she was quiet and liked reading.  The girls in her class would say, ‘Go to hell, Mel!’ as they ran ahead into the playground, laughing and leaving her behind. 

     ‘Don’t worry about it,’ Bud reassured her. ‘They’re all just a bunch of dick heads.’ The two found a secluded spot in the playground where they’d sit at lunchtime, hand in hand, to forget the others. 

‘I’m glad we’re friends,’ she had said, smiling at him.

They walked home together, along the main street through the crowds of students. He’d buy her an ice cream and himself a Fanta or packet of chips.  They studied together, often at his house, and other times at hers.  In winter, they sat indoors, where it was warm and ate buttered fruit toast, and in summer they sat outside and ate frozen yoghurts.  They were comfortable reading to each other, helping one another with their work.  But when she had held her head close enough for him to kiss her, he didn’t know how to do it.

What if she doesn’t like it?  Then she won’t like me, he thought, and he looked away.  Bud knew he would regret that. 

By the time school was over, they separated.  She soon went to university in London, and he got a job at a supermarket.  With her being so far away, he didn’t know when he’d see her again.

Why didn’t I kiss her?  He would agonise.  He felt like such a coward.  Lonely much of the time, he turned to food to comfort himself and contain his feelings.

*

Now twenty two, Bud was renting his own place, and growing older, he figured he must carry his life and its burden on his own.  Six feet six, weighing 115 kilos, he felt too heavy, too visible walking to the bus stop and avoiding looks from other passengers on the way to work.  Bud began spending his evenings at home.  He’d sit down at the end of the day, and eat a large lasagne, or sometimes he would cook himself a chicken dinner with gravy and veg, and eat at the table, his thoughts keeping him company.  He liked to watch TV at night, with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of beer.

On Friday nights, he’d go to the local sports bar to watch the league and mingle in the crowd.  Recently, standing out on the side walk, beer in hand, two men approached him, one asking for a light, the other brushing past, spilling Bud’s beer, as if trying to knock him over.   

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ Bud said.

‘Alright mate, keep your shirt on!’ said the first man, whilst the other came right up to him, close enough to spit in Bud’s face.  ‘You got a problem dearie?’ he said.

 Bud had reached his limit.  ‘Yes I have actually, so fuck off!’ throwing his bottle on the ground, he swung his right hook at the guy, who fell back, tripping over the curb,   Bud stared at the two thugs as if to say, ‘just try it!’  The second guy got up from off the ground.  ‘Now get the fuck out of here.’  Bud said, and he watched them back away. 

He tried to believe he was just the same as everybody else, more or less.  But he didn’t feel the same.  He felt alone.

*

This night, a lonely Tuesday at ten o’clock, Bud lay awake.  He pulled the covers over himself, but he could not help the tears streaming down his face.  He thought of his mother and how, when just five or six, he had fallen out of a paper bark tree, grazing his knees and shins, making him cry.  She picked him up and held him. 

‘There, there, Bud.  It will be better soon,’ she had told him, stroking his hair.  He put his hand on his head and tried to remember the touch of hers.

 Getting out of bed, despairingly, he dragged himself downstairs to the kitchen, sitting down in front of the open fridge.  He started pulling things out from the cold, plastic shelves.  A box of half eaten pizza, a chocolate cake, a bottle of fizzy drink.  Forcing the food in his mouth he began to sob.  He let the sobbing come without fear of its sound.  Impulsively, he threw the food on the floor, almost emptying the contents of the fridge.  He snatched at an orange and without peeling it, he took a large bite, the juice dripping down his chin.  Lying down to sleep on the kitchen floor, his dressing gown kept him warm.

Bud often had dreams, but this night would be different.  As he found himself dreaming, he looked down at his arms and legs and rushed to the mirror.  He was dressed in a striking blue pin suit and matching hat, tilted to one side, in a 1940’s fashion.  Stepping back, he was beautiful, skinny and attractive.  He looked older, and he liked what he saw.  Then, through the window, the intruding moonlight pierced him and he felt some peculiar change.  He tore off his jacket and hat and howled at the top of his lungs.  

Now, to his horror, hair was emerging on his face, and where his hands had been were claws.  He felt overwhelmed by the sight.  What was happening to him?  He ran from the room, down the unknown steps that seemed to go further and further down.  When he reached the darkened street, he was surrounded by people, some turned in fear, some tried to strike him; he felt the urge to bite every one of them.  Finally, he grabbed hold of one – a woman.  She had sympathetic dark eyes.  He bit her on the arm, then the shoulder.  He bit gently at first, then hard.  She cried out.  Then he kissed her.  He felt alive.  He placed his arm around her back, pulled her to him, then touched her face with his paw.  Her lips were warm, and so were his. 

Suddenly, he felt ashamed.  He let go of her, and she stumbled back, nearly falling.

‘Sorry,’ he said.  He ran again. 

He ran until he came to a river.  The full moon was shining overhead, and looking in the water, he could not resist its pull, the luring of it.  He flung himself in.  Submerged, he was unable to swim.  He felt the chill of the water, drinking it down, like medicine.  It was as if there was some choice to be made – live or die.

*

He opened his eyes.  Groggy and cold, for a moment, he didn’t know where he was.  The clock was ticking loudly.  It was after two-thirty.  He picked himself up, pulling his dressing gown around him.  He went slowly back up the stairs to bed, thinking of the dream. 

What was that?  He remembered the warmth of her lips, the cosy feeling of her body in his arms.  Was she Mel?  What about the river bit?  Ok, he realised almost scared, things are pretty bad.  Grabbing hold of his pillow tightly, he fell asleep. 

When he woke, it was a quarter to eight.  Waves of morning light peeped through the curtains.  He felt shaken, not fully himself.  He called in sick. 

It was like walking into a crime scene, when he went downstairs to make coffee.  The kitchen floor was littered with food.  A carton of split milk, loaves of bread, a sauce pan of spaghetti and a can of baked beans.  He would have his coffee black.  It was hard not looking in the fridge.  He felt torn between his desire to eat, and inevitably eat too much, and his will to stop it from happening.  With a feeling of self-loathing, he obeyed the craving for something sweet.  He opened the freezer door and reached for the ice-cream, then picked up a jar of strawberry jam from the cupboard, and a spoon from the drawer.  As he was licking the spoon, he closed his eyes, lowering his head, he was beginning to cringe.  Was he going to continue to drown himself in food, or was he going to do something about it?

He had to be strong, he told himself, opening his eyes to examine what was left in the fridge.  There were steaks in the meat tray, and left over burgers and fries and milkshake containers in the vegetable compartments.  This wouldn’t do anymore.  He must get some help.  He went to the window and looked out over the city, opening it to let some fresh air in.  Then he turned and began cleaning up the mess.  He would be kind to himself  now.  He realised he had the strength to make a change.  Picking up the phone, he dialled his parents’ number.  He remembered Mel’s face, her sweet smile and her hand; how nicely it fitted into his.  He’d made himself alone, and he didn’t want to do that anymore. 

MONSTER AT LARGE, Vitoria Camporeale

If Carina knew how to read, she would have read this in the sky above her:

            Monster at large.

            Surrogate Phoebe Tallman wanted by Authorities for the kidnapping of a Sarai baby. All citizens must report unaccompanied Fertiles in the Greater North Sydney via your iWatch. Train and road closures in affected areas.

            Scan QR code for details on how this will affect your travels.

Two days earlier:

             The Sydney Harbour Bridge fell away into the distance as the bullet train sped into Kirribilli. Instantly the landscape shifted from the grey and drabby concrete sprawls, into the bright colours of rolling green hills and crystal white houses. But Phoebe didn’t see any of this, her eyes were clamped shut and her fingers were pressed into the pliable material of the safety harness. She was vaguely aware of the disapproving tongue clicks of the businessman next to her as her bottom overspilled the boundaries of her seat and the U-shaped harness barely made it over her extremely large pregnant belly. It reminded Phoebe once again that these trains weren’t made for her people.

              Phoebe slid her eyes open for a second and was met by a wave of nausea and the snippet of an advertisement suspended in the sky. She immediately closed her eyes again but behind her eyelids she could still see the man, woman and small child leaning down into the centre of their circle with bleached white smiles as they unwrapped a newborn baby from a gift-basket. Underneath it in bold red writing, although Phoebe couldn’t make out the words, it said: FertilityNow: Get the best price today!

              To get their eerily white smiles out of her mind, Phoebe began to count. 278… 279… Today meant it was exactly 280 days of gestation. Technically, she would’ve been induced today, but the Bios wanted the baby to share its birthday with Abraham day. This was typical. And the thought of it made a laugh scratch up into her throat, like it did on the day she had signed the contract in the Agency’s office. Then the Agent pointed down at the gibberish on a page in the contract and said or you forfeit 10 grand of your compensation, and immediately it became less funny. Phoebe had looked down at the page and understood two things: the agent had written down her age as eighteen, which they both knew to be untrue (she was fourteen) and the number sitting loudly at the bottom of the page, $20,000.

              The numbers rolled over again in her ears. 20K for your first delivery as a Surro, then 35K after you proved yourself as a successful and fertile Surro, and then it could potentially go up by 10k for every delivery… depending on your success rate, of course. Phoebe would never forget, even though she was young at the time, the bidding war that ensued over her Great-Aunt’s twenty-second delivery.

              And that’s what got Great-Aunt Madge out of the South and past the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For a second, Phoebe let herself fantasise about her own house in a Northern community with a picket white fence, her own children running around- then she shook her head, Madge was a one off, an anomaly. Phoebe needed to support her own family, the 20k plus her Mum’s incoming 80k would help pay their bills and groceries for another year, then she’d need to sign up again. And… there was Carina, her little sister whose prospects of being a Surro were not looking good. If she couldn’t pass the weight and measurement test, she’d just make the bare minimum as a Nanny and Phoebe would have to look after her for the rest of her life. Goodbye picket white fence, goodbye Northern house.

              The bullet train came to a sudden stop and as she came out the station, eyes darted in her direction and landed on her oversized belly. And she could see, like a bubble over their head, the question arose: what was a Surro doing here?

              Madge didn’t live far off the main road, and as she walked up to the doorstep, she noticed the new decorations on the white picket fence. She wondered whether Madge had also taken notice of the painted blue words, or even knew what they meant.

              HAGAR BITCH!

              GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM

             Phoebe rang the doorbell and Madge’s voice grumbled from within the house, ‘OPEN!’ The door obeyed immediately, and its hinges flung wide open. Madge limped over to the entrance, her brown stained dress hung loosely off her body and her clouded cataract eyes darted manically around Phoebe’s face. 

              ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she grunted before turning back to the hallway. ‘Take your shoes off before comin’ in.’

             Phoebe slipped off her moth-eaten loafers and entered, hitting her head on the doorframe as she walked through. ‘Who were you expecting?’ she asked as she followed Madge through to the living room, rubbing her head.

             But Madge ignored her, waving her away. ‘Help me down, would ya?’

             Phoebe grabbed her by her heavily veined arms and brought her down to the couch.

             ‘You’re getting big now,’ Madge said, gesturing down to Phoebe’s belly.

             ‘I’m at exactly 280 days, Gran.’ Two days away… Her throat closed-up like she had swallowed a seed.

               Madge’s mouth pulled into a grimace. She had never learnt to count. ‘All those fancy numbers won’t get ya nowhere.’

             ‘Grandma Phyliss always said-’

             ‘Don’t listen to my sister, look where she ended up- dead, and look where I am,’ she gestured around her, ‘I made it to the North.’ She jeered, revealing three blackened teeth. Even though she was in the North, it didn’t mean she could afford dental care. Although Phoebe didn’t know the details, she had guessed that Madge had spent all her money on the property- it was a decent sized house but was in no way as luxurious compared to the other houses around her.

             Phoebe hovered awkwardly over her, unsure what to do with herself. ‘Can I make you something to eat?’ she asked.

             Madge stared up at her suspiciously, her clouded eyes flattening down into slits. ‘Why are you here? Who sent you?’

             ‘Madge it’s me. It’s Ph-’

             ‘I know what you want,’ she shook a thin wrinkled finger at her. ‘Well, I’m telling ya now, I don’t have any more money for you. And you can tell your money-hungry Mother I’m not leaving no inheritance for you ungrateful rats.’

             Phoebe took a step back like she had been punched in the gut. She tried to remind herself, Madge didn’t mean it- it was the dementia talking. Maybe. But knowing Madge, she probably wasn’t going to leave anything to them- dementia or not.

             ‘Madge, you wrote to me specifically to keep you company. So I’m here. And I’m going to make you a soup, okay? You’ll feel better.’

             ‘I feel just fine,’ Madge barked. Phoebe ignored her as she made her way to the pantry. When she opened it, her face fell. The pantry was empty except for an open jar of almonds. … Phoebe peered at the jar up close, but immediately jumped backwards. Shiny white maggots squirmed between the almonds.

             ‘When was the last time you did the shopping?’ Phoebe asked as she waddled back to the living room.

              Madge frowned and brought her long nails to the top of her head to scratch her scalp. ‘Huh? Yesterday.’

             ‘There’s nothing in there,’ she said, pointing back to the kitchen.

             ‘No I did,’ she said defiantly. There was no winning with Madge when she was in this mood, Phoebe dropped the subject. She would have to make the journey back to the South and bring the groceries by bullet train. And probably never be paid back, Phoebe thought spitefully. And it was no use trying to shop at one of the grocery marts in the North, they’d never serve her without a Sarai escort.

             At night, Phoebe tucked Madge into bed. Her great-aunt winced as she got in, holding onto her sagging stomach, until finally she settled in.

             After a minute, Madge’s breathing deepened and a rough snore crept up through her nose. Phoebe began to waddle out of the room as Madge’s body began to thrash under the sheets, her mouth hanging wide open as she murmured about rivers running red and white flesh. Phoebe closed the door quietly behind her, knowing very well these night fits would only get worse. Her own grandma had the very same dreams about the Great Flood where the water had pulled up the buried baby boys in the fields and carried them down the streets in great streams. Nowadays, the government created incentives to make families want to keep the boys, right now the offer was one grand per boy born, but even Phoebe’s own Mum said this wasn’t enough. It was still another mouth to feed. In fact, when Phoebe thought about it, she only knew a handful of boys in her community. They would eventually become labourers and do the dangerous jobs that still needed to be done by hand, like her own Dad did. But really, her Mum was the one who made sure mouths were fed- and now Phoebe would be able to help her.

             Before Phoebe left, she went around and ran her hand across all of her great-aunt’s furniture. It came with the house when she bought it, and so they were all deliciously northern in style- plush and eye-wateringly colourful, unlike the beaten-up grey furniture in their apartment block. Phoebe felt a sharp pang of jealousy hit her stomach.

              She came to the doorway and admired the one thing that Madge had brought with her from the South. It was a small black emblem on the wall, in small gold writing it said: Reward for Most Babies Delivered Successfully 2098.

             Phoebe tried to mouth the words, but it was lost on her. Even though she couldn’t read, she knew what the award stood for and what it meant for Madge. She had consolidated her wealth, kept every penny for herself (Phoebe’s Mum would mutter bitterly) and made sure she had never had any kids of her own. And now, at fifty years old, she was living the dream. Without ever guaranteeing her extended family a lick of the pie.

             Phoebe felt a single tear run down her face then left the house.

Two days later:

             On the morning of her inducement day, her Mum kissed her goodbye, their pregnant bellies giving their own sort of kiss down below, and then Phoebe was waddling down the stairs towards the black car waiting outside their apartment building.

             Her sister, Carina, watched from the inside of the blinds, her fingers leaving a white fingerprint on the otherwise dusty shades. The question arose again for her, when would her menstruation come? When could she help out too?

              Her Mum came up and placed a hand over her bony shoulder, ‘come on, let’s get to work,’ she said. And then they left for the factory together.

             In the factory, after pushing their thumbs into the time sheet hanging by the entrance, her Mum greeted the familiar faces and found an empty seat, and Carina went around methodologically collecting the bins. Today they seemed to be working on a new line of baby clothes. Summer was the theme, the vivid colours of yellow and green screamed along the production line belt in contrast to the sleepy grey layout of the factory.

             Carina emptied the huge vat of lint and debris and made her way outside to the big bins, dragging the garbage bags behind her. She dropped the rubbish into the factory bin with a grunt and then looked up into the sky, squinting into the sun to catch the glimmer of bright red writing.

             Carina turned from the gibberish in the sky and took a second to take in the warm sun. Yes, summer would be coming soon.


Vitoria Camporeale grew up in Cairns, Queensland, later moving to Sydney where she is currently completing her Law degree at Macquarie University. When she is not curled up reading a Stephen King novel or working on her writing, she is working on her day job as a social media content creator. Vitoria tends to explore societal and feminist issues in her short stories through the use of idiomatic language and local Australian landscapes.

GUARDIAN, Eleah Webb

This story contains themes of sexual abuse

There was a point in the existence of the universe before humans when beings known as angels reigned supreme; they were creatures of infinite hope designed to keep the peace. With the universe requiring balance, the angels wondered, what was the purpose of keeping peace if there is no chaos to subvert? So, these creatures held a lottery amongst their people and a select few were chosen to perform the far too easy task of sowing the seeds of dissent. Those chosen came to be known as demons. For a while, in the space between the stars, these angels and demons fought amongst themselves; neither side winning nor losing but rather thriving off the actions of the other.

 Then, in one tiny speck of the vast cosmos, something new began to grow. Life where there was no life before; a new toy for these beings of cosmic power to play with. In the blink of an eye, a small but colourful planet emerged with a species that dubbed themselves ‘human’ and the angels and demons found their jobs almost obsolete. These humans were capable of both sustaining and destroying themselves in equal measure. When the angels went to plant the hope of relief from tyranny in the minds of those in need, they found the humans already devising plans for revolution. When the demons went to plant ideas for devious and bloodthirsty acts, heads were already rolling across the floor. What purpose did these cosmic beings have, if a few tiny animals could already do what they had always done? The angels and demons had grown bored of fighting amongst themselves, and these humans were the most interesting thing they had seen since before time even existed. If they weren’t needed for creating peace and chaos then, like the humans, they would find a new way to keep themselves busy.

The angels, who could never remain still, devised a new role for themselves. They would each be assigned to a newly born human being and they would follow them through life as a guardian of sorts, keeping them safe from harm and the horrors of the world. The demons, whose job had never been all that difficult to do anyway, were quite happy with this new game. Their role hadn’t changed all that much, now they simply messed with the humans rather than their siblings. Most demons could be found lurking in the shadows, whispering in the ears of the deranged and tormented, and hiding under the beds of small children. The angels and demons became content with their new roles in the universe. There was one demon, however, who wasn’t content; one demon who was incredibly disheartened with their lot in life as they spent each revolution of this small planet creeping through its dark and dreary corners.

This demon, whose shape was barely distinguishable from shadow and who moved like a billowing mist during an early winter morning, called themselves Seraph. They had spent eons tormenting and corrupting the souls of the tenacious human beings and even longer fighting with their siblings in a war with no possible resolution. Though Seraph was good at the role they were forced to take, they found it lacklustre, pointless…completely unfulfilling. Something was missing in their life, and it seemed to leave a gaping hole within them that no amount of terrified screaming or complete mental collapse of their victims could fill.

Seraph continued on in their role as the creature of nightmares as the world of humans continued to grow. More and more of the fascinating little beings popped out of one another and the angels quickly realised that they couldn’t keep up; unlike the humans their species were not made to reproduce. With a limited number of angels and an ever-growing number of humans, the angels moved from caring for all newly born humans to choosing a ward and following them throughout their entire life. This, of course, meant that a great deal of humans went through life without an angel looking out for them. The angels did not care, and the demons enjoyed the easier prey.

On a brisk autumn evening, Seraph was lurking amongst the trees of a small, wooded park. The interlocking branches blocked out the light of the moon and the path that crossed through the area was blanketed by a layer of fallen leaves. Seraph waited patiently and sure enough, their next victim entered the vicinity, a young woman rushing home in the dark from a day at work. Already fearful of her circumstance, the woman kept her head down, her pace quick, and her keys clutched in her fist. Seraph scoffed at the fear wafting from the woman (Were they even necessary on this planet?) which caused a gust of cold air to blow the leaves up off the ground. The woman jumped at the sound of rustling, looking quickly over her shoulder to ensure no one was there.

Seraph slipped from one shadow to the next, following closely behind the woman as they let their presence exude out into the world. The woman looked again, sure that she had felt a breath at the back of her neck, but the path was empty. Despite this reassurance of her solitude, she sped up as she exited the park onto a street of modern houses that shared the same facade. The streetlamps placed at regular intervals flickered ominously at Seraph’s insistence, all except one which glowed a bright warm yellow, and as the woman stepped into its field she stopped. Her shoulders relaxed and she felt calm for the first time that night, her house was two doors down and she could see the lights on. She knew that her partner would be in the kitchen cooking dinner, ready to welcome her home after a long day. This time, as she kept up a brisk pace, it wasn’t because she was scared but rather it was because she was home.

Seraph stopped, their form came in and out of focus as the other streetlamps flickered. They watched as the young woman opened her front door and escaped into her home. Seraph’s eyes found those of the being perched on top of the light that had ruined their night. The angel grinned at Seraph, their twinkling eyes and teeth camouflaging with the night sky, before taking off like a shooting star to follow their charge. Seraph rolled their eyes; they had a quota of terror to fill, and they were running behind. It was then, coming from a barely ajar window of a house across the street, carried through the air to Seraph’s sorrow-attuned ears, that they heard the sound of a child quietly crying. This was perfect, Seraph thought, it was always easier to terrorise someone who was already scared.  

It was the middle of the night, and the shadows were at their darkest as Seraph slunk through the window of the mundane suburban house. The bedroom they entered was full of stuffed toys, bears, rabbits, unicorns, and even some that depicted creatures Seraph had never before encountered. The plastic glossy eyes of these childhood defenders glinted in the rays of blue coming from the small glowing orb of a night light. They seemed to say to Seraph, be cautious of what you do here for we protect this realm. Seraph turned from the army of toys and made their way to the small bed in the centre of the room, they drew themselves up, looming in a hulking shadow on the wall. Spindly fingers of darkness reached down to pull the covers back on the bed, and as they did another small and pitiful whimper was heard. Children were such easy prey, but the lump underneath the flannel purple sheets was not a child but a large golden yellow bear. Where was the young one hiding Seraph thought, placing the sheet back over the bear.  As they gazed around the small room the quiet crying continued, seeming to echo all around. Seraph didn’t take pleasure in these cries; they were only doing their job; they never took pleasure in their job.

Heavy footsteps alerted them to the presence of another human and as the handle to the bedroom door began to rattle and turn Seraph quickly slid under the bed. The crying got louder, and Seraph turned their head to see a small golden-haired child huddled in a ball beside them. This child had been terrified before Seraph had even entered the room. In a room so cosy and protected by the many brave warriors within it, what could this small child be so scared of that they would rather hide under the bed than sleep in it? The door creaked open and peering out from their vantage point Seraph watched as a man, that closely resembled the weeping child, crept up to the bed. The man leant over the decoy bear lying under the sheets, reaching out with a large hand he whispered, ‘Shh Lucy, you know the rules. Now be a good girl.’

The crying of the child had stopped as soon as the man spoke, but beside Seraph she still trembled in fear. Seraph had not felt such terror in a very long time, even the acts they performed did not produce this much.
            ‘Why do you always try to hide from me?’ The child’s ruse had been discovered.
            Lucy’s father searched the room, each stuffed toy moved from its post before being replaced when it revealed nothing. Lucy attempted to make herself smaller as one by one her stuffed soldiers were defeated by a monster whose calculated calm reminded Seraph of his siblings. Eventually, there was nowhere else to look but under the bed.
            Lucy’s father approached the bed and crouched down to reach a hand under the hanging covers, he felt around blindly for a small ankle or wrist.
            ‘Please, no, Daddy!’ Lucy whimpered.
            The father remained silent as he searched, there was no need to speak. It was only a matter of time before he had what he desired within his grasp.

            As Lucy tried to keep out of reach of her father’s searching hand, Seraph made a choice. Why should angels be the only ones to watch over the humans? As the stuffed toys had proven, there was more than one way to be a guardian. Seraph could protect this child and still produce terror within the world. They wrapped Lucy in a cloak of darkness and let the seeking hand grasp one of their tendrils.
            ‘There you are,’ the father said as he pulled Seraph out.
            Seraph’s form grew and grew, filling the room with cold misty air and shadow as they spoke in a twisted, eldritch form of Lucy’s voice.
            ‘Here I am…and here I’ll stay.’
            As Seraph smothered the petrified shriek of the man, they felt content for the first time in their existence, it was as if they finally had a purpose for their actions. Lucy would sleep peacefully in her bed from now on, but her father would forever cower in his. Seraph knew they had found what they had been missing as a demon; to produce terror with a purpose, as a guardian.


Eleah Webb is an author and illustrator who dips her toe in many different genres, even though she doesn’t like swimming. She currently lives in Queensland, Australia surrounded by much-loved friends and family. Rumours abound that she is actually a robot sent to Earth to assimilate with the humans.

WHAT SHE SAYS GOES. Hannah Wotton

This story contains murder, violence and strong language

‘She was such a wonderful woman’, is the general utterance around the office today. A crooked photo of Marian Forester – a plump, cheerful lady in her late forties – is lovingly thumb-tacked on the announcement board; the proverbial eye of a storm. Scattered Post-it notes with various messages of heart-felt commiserations have been placed to surround the blown-up and distractingly pixelated quality of Marian’s face.

Fucking Mondays. Claire jams her finger into a cracked yellow button labelled

‘capcino’. The standing coffee machine is a relic from the ‘90s and remains obstinately quiet, withstanding her increasingly pointed jabbing. She really needs a coffee right about now; the tearful whispers and I’m sorry for your loss’s have pushed her to the absolute limit. Two years of non-stop grinding and barely any sleep; getting her work out fully edited and at least three days earlier than everyone else’s; the promises of your time is coming, the reassurances of you deserve this more than anyone and now? Goodbye promotion and bonus, hello redundancy.

Marian died but so what? People die all the time, no need for it to interfere with Claire’s work. She can already feel yet another headache coming on (they’ve been getting worse and more frequent after Marian’s promotion and then subsequent disappearance about a week ago) and this stupid fucking machine just wants to add to her ever-growing list of reasons why she should just fucking-

‘Claire.’

She startles at the sound, knocking back into the machine. It rumbles to life with a deep groan, like a cavernous beast ready to consume. Mr Michaels, her skeletal-framed, yellow-toothed boss leisurely strides over to her with spidery fingers wrapped around a Starbucks frappe.

‘I need the finalised Windoms Report by today. James was meant to finish it with you, but seeing as the prick has gone MIA for whatever reason, I need you to get it done ASAP.’ He says in the cadence of someone talking to a small child. Plastering her best attempt at a nonchalant smile, Claire determinedly ignores the halitosis wafting into her face – the smell is like decomposition.

‘No worries sir, I’ll get it done.’

He nods in a self-satisfied manner and turns to leave, but pauses. Claire braces her nose for the next onslaught.

‘Oh by the way, sorry to hear about your botched promotion.’ It’s barely an apology, more a wedge of lemon rubbing into a salt-flecked wound. ‘I know it was really neck-and-neck but you haven’t worked here as long.’

‘…Thank you.’ She forces out through near-gritted teeth.

‘Isn’t that Marian’s?’ He asks, silver-tipped brows furrowed and motioning at the now full ceramic blue mug she’d placed in the machine. She glances over her shoulder and responds with a completely deadpan, ‘huh.’ Mr Michaels nods again, with a graceful air of pity this time. ‘Yes’, he murmurs, ‘what a shame, the poor woman. Her promotion was so well-deserved.’

Claire thinks that Marian is a thieving cow (or was) and got what was coming, but she silently turns to grab the cup, effectively ending the conversation. She bids the gaunt man a curt ‘sir’ and scurries to her desk before he can entrap her into another of what she is sure to be a titillating exchange of banter.

Somebody’s crying in their cubicle, broken by an occasional nose blowing. The longer it goes on, the more obvious it’s Sonia, the office darling, trying to be quiet. Claire barely gets to sit in her chair – ergonomic and bought with her own money – when the sniffling woman stands to talk over the divider.

‘I can’t believe someone… murdered her,’ Sonia blubbers, ‘she was -hic- the nicest person -hic- I’ve ever known.’

Claire tries not to look at her disdainfully and takes a sip of her coffee instead. The sour taste of burnt grounds and clumps of chocolate syrup coats her tongue. Sonia mistakes her grimace as a dismissal and disappears back over the wall with an offended hic.

Fucking Mondays.

*

Claire finishes the report in four hours with thirty minutes left before clock-out, and is excessively pleased with herself until she realises that the printer is out of paper. She spends the next hour and a half in a desperate hunt for any blank A4 sheets that she can scrounge up from nearby desks and paper baskets; Mr Michaels cannot fathom why people nowadays use all that newfangled technology and worry about the hubbub of transferring files and the such, when paper is so reliable and after all old is gold.

            Mr Michaels has a lingering smile like the cat that got the canary when she runs in and drops the wonkily stapled report onto his desk, pausing from packing his briefcase for the day.

‘Just on time, eh, Claire?’ He asks, in that way where it’s not really a question – Claire herself,

has done it many times, but to be on the receiving end makes her bristle.

            ‘Er, yes sir.’ She tries to be congenial anyways.

            ‘Well,’ he hums, delicately picking up the papers with a lifted pinky, ‘try not be late with your submissions if you still want Marian’s position.’ He casts an indiscernible look her way, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I know how murderously competitive you can be.’

            It’s hilarious but Claire can’t let on, and responds in a slightly too-eager, ‘I’ll try my hardest, sir.’

*

Driving to James’s apartment usually takes twenty minutes from her place, and a thirty minute drive from the office. It takes her an hour and a half to slog through the slough of traffic, and by the time she’s managed to find a parking spot – because James’s car was still in the resident’s underground car park – the early evening skies have opened up to release a torrent.

            Claire runs for the building entrance as best she can in her sensible loafers, holding her briefcase over her head in a vain attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity. When she stumbles through the sliding doors, she’s soaked to the bone. An elderly lady seated in the lobby – a retired starlet from the ‘60s visiting her estranged grandson –  gives a pleasant chortle. She’s got a trembling, white Maltese Terrier in her lap – basically half blind from all the crusty eye bits – and a wizened hand with a firm grip around its middle.

            ‘No umbrella, dear?’ She asks with a grin, patting her poor dog who looks like one who’s my gorgeous, lovely angel away from hurtling itself into oncoming traffic. Claire stares blankly then abruptly turns to stomp to the elevator, leaving a trail of puddles behind her. The smile freezes on the old lady’s face and slowly falls as she watches the dripping woman walk away.

            Claire barely has enough patience to ignore the good-humoured jab but when the elevator button doesn’t light up, the gradually unravelling thread – twisted filaments breaking loose and stretching further and tighter – just-

SNAP!

Something cold and hard settles deep in her stomach. She straightens, pushes one more time and the elevator arrives. James is where she’d left him earlier this morning, in the living room and limp in his chair – not ergonomic – like a puppet with cut strings. When she bends down to cup his face, his eyes blearily blink open and take a second to focus on her.

‘Evening.’ Her tone is saccharine, dripping false honey.

Claire pulls her arm back and hits him hard across the cheek and he topples to the side like a sack of potatoes, still strapped to the chair. His head bounces off the panelled wood floor with a loud thunk and he cries out, muffled by the tape over his mouth. A crimson line slowly forms over his eyebrow and then begins to weep, steady trickles of ruby-red trailing down the curves of his brow and forehead to drip onto the floor.

A clear stream of snot starts to leak from James’s nose, dribbling over the duct tape and soon enough, his whole face is host to his various somatic liquids of blood, sweat, mucus and tears. Being strapped to a chair for the past two days has left his whole body aching, both from the pains of Claire’s blows and being unable to stretch. It’s a physical strain to pull his eyelids open and look at her, standing over him with a slightly unhinged smile.

‘No, no,’ she tuts at him, ‘don’t look at me like that.’ A whimper leaves him unbidden.

‘No,’ she says, snappier, ‘I was a veritable ray of sunshine and you just fucked me

over.’ The words are pouring from her like a broken dam. ‘I mean seriously, I have never known someone as dogged as you when it comes to plagiarism. The amount of shit I have to deal with already as a young woman in a corporate hierarchy based on age and inherently biased against my gender and then you come in and steal my project?’ She can’t help but scoff. ‘I’ll admit, the gall is fucking unheard of.’

            James tries to tell her I’m sorry, I’m sorry but all that comes out is a wet blubber. Claire is completely unimpressed and continues, lost in her disbelieving outrage.

            ‘Why is everyone so determined to just fuck me over? I try to be nice, I don’t actively interfere with anyone else’s shit so why,’ she stresses, squatting down to meet James’s eyes, ‘does everyone keep messing with my shit?’

            She riiiiips the tape off and James yelps in pain. ‘Explain yourself.’ A moment passes as he struggles to speak through the tears and clogged nose but as soon as he opens his mouth, Claire immediately regrets ever removing the gag.

            ‘Claire, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to plagiarise. And ok, I took your fountain pen and, and-’ he babbles, nearly incoherent and desperately pleading with her, ‘and I swear, I never would have taken your chair if I knew how expensive it was and, and I swear I’m not a bad guy ok? I have so many female friends-’

            The more he talks, the more her eyes drop. She huffs and goes to pull out a knife from the standing block in his kitchen. Panic shoots through James like a bolt of electricity and he jerks in his bonds, yanking hard at his restraints from his position on the ground. She notices and saunters back over, admiring the clean shine of the blade, the heft of the handle. ‘A whole Wüsthof set? Holy shit, how much was your bonus?’

*

It’s when she’s cleaning up the smattering of pools and droplets that she hears a sharp rap – knock knock! – at the front door. The baking soda has already been sprinkled onto the exposed blood, so she quickly tears off some paper towels and drops them over the areas to hide them as best she can.

She quickly ducks into the bathroom to double-check James’s body is neatly arranged in the tub, the majority of his blood contained in the porcelain. A deep exhale leaves her and she pulls on a friendly face, stretching her mouth to form a kindly smile. The knife is resting in the sink so she grabs it and hides it behind her back as she unlocks the door.

It opens only for her to see the bleak, gaunt outline of a looming figure she knows all too well.

‘Mr Michaels?’

‘Tessa Li, Paul Beecham, Marian Forester and now James Garcia.’ He drawls, spidery fingers clasped in front of him. ‘My, my, you have been busy.’

A cold wave douses her, the feeling of ice shards trickling down her spine. Her smile is frozen in its place and static fills her head as she struggles to unstick her tongue to form words, something, anything, just, fuck-

            ‘I-I…’

            Mr Michaels smiles at her with those yellow teeth, except they seem much larger than usual. ‘Oh don’t be modest Claire, you’ve been so singularly clever.’ His eyes seem to penetrate her very soul, digging into the little crevices and nooks and unlocking every dirty thing she’s ever done, every nasty gory detail-

            She shoves him back hard and bolts.

*

Claire runs. She doesn’t know where she’s going and how but she runs. The knife is clutched tight in her white-knuckled fist and her breaths are coming out harsher and harsher as she flees, not bothering with the elevator and slamming open the fire escape door, taking the steps two at a time.

            She goes down, down, down until she reaches the ground floor and shoves her whole weight into shoving the door, stumbling with her momentum into the brisk night chill. It’s no longer raining, but the dampness has sunk into the ground and freezes her skin, her breaths coming out as cloudy white puffs that dissipate quickly.

            ‘Where are you going, Claire?’ Mr Michaels calls from behind her, candidly pushing open the door. ‘Let’s just have a little chat, us two.’

            Blood roars in her ears and she struggles to gain her bearings; the edges of her shoes catch onto divots in the dirt and stray rocks, making her feel dangerously unbalanced and entirely too prey-like. ‘What,’ she says, swallowing a hard lump, ‘could we possibly have to talk about?’

            ‘Well, don’t be so shy, we’re more alike than you think.’ His countenance is the very picture of languid, but she can’t help imagining him as a lurking tiger, approaching her in a slow crawl. ‘How do you think I got to where I am? Wasn’t through any hard work I’ll tell you that.’

Her heart is rabbiting in her chest, beating against her ribs like it’s trying to burst free. Desperate, she slashes the knife at him in a large swipe and bares her teeth. ‘Don’t come near me, I’ll kill you.’

The threat is true and he knows it, but if anything, it sparks a little flare of joy in him. ‘Oh, please try.’ He croons, advancing on her with those skeletal fingers outstretched and appearing all too claw-like.

            Trying to back away, she trips over her own feet and falls back with a startled shriek, slashing with the knife in distress. Mr Michaels pounces onto her, fingertips digging into her arms and piercing the skin deep.

His mouth stretches open into a red, dripping maw and Claire only has a few seconds of vivid, terrified awareness before his teeth close over her head.


Hannah Wotton is an award-winning author currently pursuing a BA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University with an interest in Early Childcare Education. She is an avid coffee and tea drinker, to the detriment of her wallet. Her writing characteristically deals with mental health and manifestations of fear which is reflected from her own experiences.

VENUS, Abbey Lawrey

‘A small almond cap, thanks.’ I reach into my bag, fumbling for my wallet around the supplies that clank as I walk.

Sunrays stream through the French windows that run across the front of the café. Plants hang from the ceiling, small adornments of flowers on the centre of each table. Baby’s breath, peonies, dahlias, buttercups, daisies. The rays bringing warmth back to my clammy skin as I take a seat in the centre of the light.

The day is beautiful and bright. The light reflects on the shiny polish of the coffee machine. The flowers tilt towards the sun’s warmth, the leaves running along the counter seem to stretch towards the rays.

I set aside the small vase of flowers and take out my sketchbook, an A3 leather-bound beauty with thick paper, perfect for light sketching, to using watercolours and heavier paints.

Something about this café, contently sized where the feature wall is a pattern of lemon bunches, and the most attention-seeking patrons are the live plants that cover any and every surface that’s not in the way.

And then of course… there’s the barista. He works so fluently, his flow not interrupted even if he looks away, his smile brightening his face and crinkling his eyes as he listens to customers that wait for their order, or laughs with his co-workers at something somebody said. Occasionally there’ll be a break or stall in someone talking, where he’ll look wistful, head inclined towards the sun.

I sigh. I brought a friend here once. ‘Yeah, he’s attractive,’ she’d said, ‘but he’s no Italian shoe.’ A.K.A. her celebrity crush, Timothée Chalamet. To me, he looks like an Italian shoe.

‘Maybe that’s why I like him,’ I’d replied.

Maybe it is. Maybe it’s how the sun seems to illuminate him, and the electric amber of his eyes against his golden skin, the dark brown of his hair turning to bronzes and coppers. Maybe it’s the fact he seems to enjoy what he does, and maybe that’s why I chose this café to keep coming back to. Maybe it’s also because this place is furthest away from the darkness, with all its brightness.

So much of the time when I meet people for coffee, they choose somewhere dull, or somewhere failing to achieve a sunny disposition. Employees attempting to genuinely smile, fake it, or not try at all. The unclean work spaces. The sticky, unbalanced tables.

Le Soleil Brille, French for “The Sun Shines” the barista once explained to me. His dad founded the café, has kept it running for thirteen years.

He laughs lightly at something someone says, before he looks down to put the lid on a takeaway coffee.

Nothing special… everybody is special.

His dad comes to whisper something to him and he flushes. His dad ruffles his hair as he walks away, then the barista looks up again—at me.

My heart lurches into my throat. I find myself frozen, unable to look away. The corners of his lips up turn as he leans across the counter to slide the coffee to a customer, and mouths, ‘Hi’, while looking at me, before he goes back to work, that smile still on his face.

All this time I’ve been coming here, and I still haven’t had the courage to even ask his name, despite being able to hold a conversation with him.

I avert my attention back to the blank page before me and look up again. I see him, I see his work, I see the people standing—waiting—but they’re a blur. I see the plant that sits beside the syrups and sugar. The small twigs branching off into flat paddles with a pink centre that turns to green spikes at the paddle’s end. One of the maws closes around a fly.

With the image engrained in my mind, lighting a fire behind my eyes and in my nerves, I begin to draw, hand sweeping over the page.

I sketch the coffee machine first, the tiled countertop, the outline of what’ll become the blurred patrons, the pot the plant sits in, and the syrups standing beside.

Creating the illusion of shadow is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of drawing. It’s everywhere, different shapes and shades of monochrome. Depth is what makes a drawing a picture.

Shading is also messy, and the charcoal on my fingers wedges its way into the ridges of my fingerprint and under my nails.

I don’t note the feet padding toward me, until an arm dusted with cocoa powder sets down a coffee in front of me. I gape as I look at the image of a cottage against what could be a field of flowers or bushes, created with cocoa powder in the froth.

‘I know you’re an artist.’ The barista shrugs and nods at the coffee. ‘This is my art.’

My tongue feels loose and stunned at the same time. ‘I’m amazed,’ I breathe, ‘creating something so detailed and intricate with… milk,’ I laugh softly, ‘and cocoa powder.’

‘I know you pay attention to detail.’ He fidgets. ‘Admittedly, I look over your shoulder to see what you’re working on each time you’re here.’ He looks down at the beginning of my sketch, then up at me expectantly.

‘O-oh. I’m—well,’ I blush, covering my mouth, ‘I’m drawing you.’

He looks down at the page again, eyebrows furrowed.

‘I haven’t drawn you yet.’

He smiles again, looking back at me. ‘Let me know when I am.’

I nod.

He chuckles, leaning down towards me. ‘Hang on a moment.’ He returns behind the counter, only to return a moment later with a damp cloth. He brushes it over my cheek. ‘You have charcoal, there—and here.’ He dabs the cloth around my face and sets it down by the vase of flowers, out of my immediate way.

‘Thanks.’ I blush. ‘But don’t you need it?’ I point to the cloth.

He shrugs. ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’ He smiles and returns to work, taking over from his co-worker.

I wipe my charcoal fingers on the cloth and blow the steam from my coffee. I don’t want to disturb the serenity of the image he’s created, but I’d feel horrible if I didn’t drink it for that reason. I sip at it, relishing in the warmth spreading through my body.

He’s the only one wearing all black in the café, staff and patrons alike. I wonder if it’s uniform, or whether he just likes the colour. Maybe he’s more susceptible to the cold, so the black absorbing the sun’s heat helps keep him warm, that and working with hot beverages too. Maybe that’s also why he wears black, to convince himself he’s not stained with coffee.

I chuckle at the thought and begin to draw the outline of him. The flex of his arm as he inserts and twists the coffee filter into the machine. I draw him in a picture of joy, laughter, and delight in his stature as he focuses on his work. It’s not a product of my imagination, he’s right in front of me; beautiful.

‘I’m looking good.’ He grins, observing my sketch after I’d waved him over.

I cover my mouth as I smile, and nod slowly. ‘I’m going to take it home to colour it and polish up the lemon wallpaper.’

He looks behind us at the bright feature wall. ‘I love that wall. I love the way it creates a warmth in the café.’

It creates a yellow haze too.

‘Are you sure you’re going to remember it? What you want to draw?’

‘I come here often enough that I see it when I close my eyes.’

He licks his lips. ‘Let me rephrase, are you going to remember me? Do you need a model?’

I chuckle. ‘I see you too, don’t worry. I appreciate the offer, but you’re so photogenic and the image of you in my head is so candid. If you tried to recreate it, it wouldn’t be the same.’

He gazes at me. ‘Maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to spend time with you outside of work.’

My cheeks warm, my chest aching. I don’t know what to say…

‘Another time.’ He straightens and turns to leave but pauses. ‘I see you, too.’

I watch as he walks back, mouth agape. I’m worried I upset him, until our eyes catch several times, even as he continues to work, and he seems to relax with relief. It’s an effort to pull my eyes from him, but I find myself glancing back at that plant by the syrups. Although I can’t remember its name, I remember sticking my finger inside its paddles as a child, giggling when it closed around me, thinking it could pin me down.

 Another coffee is set down beside me.

‘I-I didn’t order another one,’ I protest as he straightens, picking up my empty mug.

‘I know.’ He smiles, standing to his full height. ‘This one’s on me.’

‘Oh. Thank you.’ I point with my pencil to the plant with the spikes. ‘What’s the name of that plant again? It’s on the tip of my tongue…’

‘Why would you need the name to draw it?’

I laugh. ‘I don’t, but it’s bothering me that I can’t remember.’

‘Venus flytrap.’ He chuckles.

‘Ah. That’s right.’ I purse my lips and he laughs. ‘They’re quite beautiful.’

‘Not all monsters are ugly.’

‘You think it’s a monster? I’ve seen worse monsters.’

He sets my empty mug back down and considers the flytrap as it snaps up another fly. ‘I think… its doing what it must to survive in its own way, its own grotesque way.”

My heart thumps and I swallow around the lump in my throat. ‘Aren’t we all?’

‘To some extent maybe.’

‘Hm.’ I tilt my head to look at it from a different angle. ‘Venus flytrap. I wonder what made someone decide to call it “Venus.”’

He cocks his head in question.

I give him an obvious look. ‘Venus? The Roman goddess of love? The Greek version of Aphrodite.’

‘Oh.’ He laughs lightly. I note the quick rise and fall of his chest as he gazes at me thoughtfully. ‘How do I not know your name yet? Surely, I would’ve heard it. I read and call out hundreds of names a day.’ The sun illuminates him from behind as it sinks lower into the afternoon, accompanying the wistful look on his face.

I shrug. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know yours either.’

‘I’m Silas.’ He holds out a hand.

I grip it. ‘Antoinette. But I get Anti or Ant.’

‘Ant!?’ He grins. ‘You better stay away from Venus then.’ He nods his head to the flytrap. ‘Not that you’re a bug,’ he clarifies.

‘I’m glad you can tell.’

He covers his face with his hands. ‘Oh god. Forget I said anything.’

I laugh. ‘You’re so photogenic,’ I note again, resting my chin on my hand.

He grips the table and gulps. ‘Wait for me.’

‘Hm?’

‘I finish my shift in ten. I don’t know what we’d do, I just know,’ he lets out a puff of air, ‘I just know I want to see more of you and spend time with you outside of work.’

‘Okay,’ I say softly, smiling at him. ‘I’ll pack up and finish my complimentary coffee.’

He grins. ‘Perfect.’

We both look back at the plant, and back at each other with a shared smile.

Plant. Venus… love…

Maybe.



Abbey Lawrey is a lover of fantasy and romance, writing worlds spurred from her imaginings. She gladly drowns in her extensive collection of novel ideas and WIPs that range from contemporary love stories, to dark, knife-against-the-throat, mythical fantasy worlds inspired by Ancient Greek mythology.

BAD BLOOD, Brendan Hore-Thorburn

Lorrenz sat alone and unseen. He looked out over the fields of frost covered grass that spread down through the shallow, wide valley below Castle Argostine. The sounds of drinking and shouting forced their way up to his solitary perch in the attics above the great hall. He couldn’t bring himself to join them. What was there to celebrate? The whistling winds that fell from the mountains above helped him block out the sounds of merry making but neither could distract him from the dark shape he watched on the horizon. The winds danced and slipped between the walls, towers and halls of the great squat castle at the head of the valley. He had spent much of his youth in these less frequented reaches of the castle, trying to avoid the constant work that his father forced upon him. The King siring a bastard was bad enough, but an idle bastard was a recipe for disaster. Far in the distance great dark shadows grew as they snaked their way over the crumbling roads that lead up the valley. He wouldn’t have long before he would be forced out of his father’s stronghold. He had been found out.

Despite all the care he had taken they had discovered the truth about his rise to the throne. He paced back and forth over the creaking, splintery floors of the attic. How much the lords knew he couldn’t tell, but they knew enough to have already rallied their bannermen to war. Their first real action since the succession wars that saw his grandfather crowned. The lords of the Argos valley were not skilled diplomats nor feared warriors, their long peace was born out of having been forgotten by the wider world. Their pettiness and division kept them out of the thoughts of greater powers. Perhaps his false prophecy about the beast that stalked their lands had set the groundwork for this union that they now brought against him. He shook his head in frustration and the crown shifted out of position slightly. He knew that they would blame him for everything. They would ignore their own part in crippling the kingdom. They never learned. They refused to.

The King, Lorrenz’s reluctant father, had raised him out of a half hearted guilt that he felt towards Lorrenz’ common born mother. Who knows what his bastard fate would have been if she hadn’t saved the King some embarrassment by dying so soon after his birth. Occasionally out of some vague paternal instinct the King would drunkenly pass on useless advice but always followed it quickly with a boot or a cuff out of instinct. Beyond that their relationship was purely one of king and subject.

Lorrenz looked at the large, brass hand-bell that rested on the floor of the castle’s attic. He couldn’t sound the alarm yet. If he did, the mercenaries he had garrisoning the castle would grab what they could and run for the mountains. No. He could only wait until it was too late for them to escape. He wouldn’t give them the choice. They only stayed for his promises of more gold. They drank and celebrated in his name and yet he couldn’t bring himself to join them. Years of thankless service in the shadows and the one feast at which he was welcome seemed so hollow. He didn’t deserve it. But none who wore this ill-fitting crown ever had. Lorrenz had watched his father let power slip through his fingers; he watched the lords grow bold and the land fall into disrepair out of laziness and greed. All this they simply ignored as long as their bellies and beds stayed full. The dark columns of their drab uniformed soldiers inched slowly closer over the crumbling roads, past empty unworked fields.

Perhaps a second prophecy could cement his rule. If only he hadn’t strangled the ragged priest he had brought down from the mountains to deliver the first. He wasn’t proud of what he had done, but he had no regrets. Sebastine had been the man’s name. He had walked the streets announcing the prophecy of the beast for three days and three nights before Lorrenz put an end to him. He couldn’t have the foul tempered old man wandering freely, knowing that there was no beast dwelling in the woods; he would have sparked questions about Lorrenz’ half-brother’s death. The nobles had all wanted the bitter old man’s story to be true. It was kinder to them than the truth that they caused the kingdom’s sorrows. Sebastine had been consumed by his resentment for the world that had forgotten him up in the mountains. Tending to his shrine that none ever visited. He had jumped at a chance for revenge. A bag full of gold and a chance to fool them all… he had looked so scared when he realised that Lorrenz was going to kill him. That was how Lorrenz knew it was right. The priest had lived a bad life. He feared his death because he knew his soul would be found wanting. His disappearance had just added to the mystery of it all, which suited Lorrenz perfectly.

Those long dark nights out in the fields dragging animal carcasses around to leave evidence of the beast, the risks taken sneaking gold out of the keep to pay the mercenaries to be ready to support him when his time came and the endless hours of mixing and testing poisons to find the right one for his father. It had all been with the people’s best interests at heart– he hadn’t once thought of himself. Things couldn’t go on as they had; someone had to take action. The beast had been the story that the lords had wanted to hear. They just shut off and ignored anyone who blamed them for mismanaging the lands and not planning for harsh winters. The people died and they waited in their holds, warm and merry. The beast deep in the woods spreading pestilence and corrupting the earth around it was the convenient tale; it aligned with the lies they told about their ancestor’s heroic deeds and they saw their chance for glory that the painfully long peace had deprived them of. When the true prince, his half brother, brashly jumped at the task of hunting the great beast, their own sons were spared. No-one examined the situation too closely. They had no interest in seeing the truth. It had all gone perfectly. Yet here they were, that grim host that should know no master but him, come to clumsily grind him into the dirt to repay his regicide. Maybe he should go and enjoy the fruits of his horrible labours, even just for a few hours. Was that so wrong?

He once more adjusted the crown that sat awkwardly atop his head, always weighing heavily upon one or other of his jug handle ears. He removed the gloves he had taken to wearing to hide the burns and sores on his hands from exposure to his own vile concoctions. He pressed the cool metal of the crown against them once more, to dampen their constant pain. He was shocked by how grotesque they had become. It must have been penance for the cowardice of his actions. He hadn’t even been there to watch his father die, he had gone to lay an ambush for the returning prince rather than bring him back to be crowned king. He was sure that his vile younger brother watched him now from his shallow grave deep in the woods. The crossbow bolts in his back twitching from the shudders of his dry corpse laugh as he saw Lorrenz’ hard work come to nothing.

He couldn’t deny, even to himself, that his brother’s death wasn’t a more personal matter. He may have gone on to become a good king. But Lorrenz didn’t have it in himself to forgive the brat who tormented him daily knowing that his bastard status forbade any retaliation.

For so many years Lorrenz’ only focus was the throne and what he could do for the people once he was there. But what had he done? What was his legacy? To have bled the coffers as recklessly as his father to keep his mercenary muscle loyal and ready. Emptied the larders, even taking from the villages to keep his army strong. He told himself it was only for a season, but what end was there in sight? Nothing had changed. Maybe time wouldn’t be enough. He wasn’t enough. So far he had preyed upon the people just as much as those who came to dethrone him.

The columns of soldiers were now clearly visible, bristling with ranks of rusty spears and surrounded by their scattered horsemen who scoured the valley for resistance. He deserved whatever fate they felt was just for his crimes. Noone else should have to suffer for what he had done.

He rang the bell as violently as his thin arms would allow, his body vibrating as its peals echoed through the stone towers and high walls before letting it fall out into the courtyard below, clattering and bouncing off slate roofs and cobblestones. He wandered numbly down the winding staircases in the wake of this sound. The merry making turning to panicked shouts as awareness dawned on the mercenaries. They still had a small window of time to try to grab what they could and run for the mountains. They dashed to and fro below him trying to decide what would be worth taking but the effort was farcical. Once Lorrenz was among his mercenaries they continued to rush past him in their mad scramble. He was as invisible as he had always been in this castle, just part of the furniture. The crown askance, his hands raw and throbbing, Lorenz stumbled through the halls of chaos to the mighty oak doors of the entrance. He took the crown, now robbed of meaning, and hurled it so that it bounced along the pavers ringing with long loud notes; quickly snatched up by one of the mercenaries before it had come to a stop.

Lorrenz crossed the shadowy courtyard that the sun could not yet reach over the walls and made for the still half open front gate of the castle. No-one had taken the time to close it: they had no interest in a siege. Once out in the open beyond the walls he was bathed in the pale light of the autumn sun through a thin screen of clouds. He could hear the faint rumble of hooves striking the hard ground over the soft crunch of his boots on the frosted grass. A few minutes passed as he walked onwards between the sparsely scattered trees in front of the castle. Their branches well on their way to wintry nakedness, only holding onto the occasional red or brown leaf. How could he think that he could truly be king?

The column of soldiers crested the shallow rise before him, their hollow cheeks and tired eyes filled Lorrenz with pity. At the column’s head sat Count Orlands with his many chins poking out over his ill fitting chest-plate. His displeased look lingered on Lorrenz for several seconds as he grasped at foggy memories of the boy. None came to mind as he had spent his time at the castle feasting with his back turned towards the bastard prince, except shake his silver goblet above his head rather than verbally demand more wine. He couldn’t waste time emptying his vast and busy mouth.

‘Come to do the right thing have you?’ Orlands asked with surprising nonchalance.

‘Yes.’ he said solemnly, knowing that he was signing away his life. He had gone too far.

‘Good, can’t have a bastard running about when the king and heir are dead. Could have a bastard on the throne if we’re not careful. It’d be an abomination… Go’on string him up.’

They didn’t know about any of what he had done. He was being killed for being born. Lorrenz was dumbfounded. The crowd of soldiers before him showed no interest in his death. Only a handful bothered to watch as he kicked and thrashed, hung from a straggly birch barely able to hold his weight. They could at least have hated him, the way they had hated his beast. But no. Instead they would remember the beast that was never there and continue to kneel at the feet of monsters.


Brendan Hore-Thorburn is an emerging writer who focuses on otherworldly fantasy and science fiction. He is studying a bachelor of arts majoring in ancient history and minoring in creative writing, has published in Macquarie University’s The Quarry and has been highly commended for the Future Leaders Writing Prize.

A FOR ARACHNOPHOBIA, Bruna Gomes

Colson says he believes in aliens. I’m not so sure. He says they are crawling around the beach. I don’t believe that, not even for a second, but he says it is obvious aliens are real because when they wear bikinis, they have hair on their tummies and under their arms, and even on their legs, like really gross and stuff

I wonder if Colson knows he has hair on his legs, too?  But I don’t say so because I don’t want to be, like, mean. It’s not much hair but I think it is growing.

In the garden I saw a daddy long-legs and watched it run away. I also saw a tarantula and thought it was a new-born kitten. My mummy says NEVER TOUCH A RED-BACK! But my big sister says her pimples are normal, they’re just hormones, and you can get them not just on your back, but on your face and chest, too. 

My big sister talks a lot about hormones. She says when I grow up into a lady there will be a big hairy beast in my panties. 

My mummy says that her past haunts her in her sleep. All the share houses and unpaid bills. I say but you still share a house with me and Gabby and she says that is not what she’s talking about. She’s talking about fungus and winter and leaking roofs. I tell her that one thing is for sure: a leaking roof would scare me, too, because Santa breaks into all the houses with holes in them. She says HO HO HO! I remind her that Santa has a red back and she shuts right up. 

Santa comes in fourteen days. I’m going to hunt down all the holes in our house and make sure they are sealed real tight. Mummy always says I have to protect my privacy. I don’t know why Mummy doesn’t properly barricade the house if she knows someone dressed as an ugly old man is going to break in.

Colson says his brother is an astronaut and that, apparently, there is a lot of curve appeal in space. He says especially on Uranus and he cracks up laughing like a pig. I tell my big sister about it and she says Colson is a slimy lying insect who wouldn’t even be able to stomach R18+ Blood and Gore. I tell Mummy about Uranus and she says that I must never get caught in a web of lies. Speak straight and speak true. Don’t swim in murky water, muchacha! 

Mummy talks a lot about the good old days, too. She talks about kayaking with the homies and dancing in the dark. She doesn’t even let us do any activities because they cost, like, an arm and a leg! But she says kayaking is different, it’s gliding across the big unknown, muchacha, and your arms burn like they’re on fire. Sounds like hell to me. 

Update on the beast in my panties: it will look less like a beast and more like the face of a cat.

Colson says we should go alien-hunting at the beach. He says he has a laser gun and binoculars that his daddy never uses. So what did he buy them for, anyway? Colson says spiders and stuff

Mummy says that if she kills three husbands she can be a black widow. I ask if she would ever kill me and she says NO! which is a relief. How many have you killed so far? She says none, because deep down, she is soft. Soft! Soft as my elbow.

Mummy says kayaking is cool because you have, like, two extra arms. 

Today at school there was a tarantula in the canteen. Everyone was screaming, but I had already seen one before! The teacher on canteen duty said don’t get too close to it, missy, or else its big fat poisonous hairs will shoot all over you and you will die. I picked the spider up and put it in my lunchbox and made it promise not to eat my sandwich. The teacher snatched my lunchbox from me and threw it against the canteen wall and it exploded. The tarantula crawled right past the teacher in a flash and she screamed so loud that her face caught fire. She needed to calm right down! I swear it just looked like a new-born kitty!

I found a trap-door at the back of the kitchen today after school. I unlocked the hatch real easy and crawled through. I felt like a secret agent. But it just led to the garden. My big sister says that the door was probably a booby-trap in the good old days. Gross! Anybody who traps boobies is a sicko. 

Today Colson says he once saw my mummy and he thinks she has a moustache. I told him that he is a slimy lying insect and his daddy has a moustache so there.

Mummy says that when she was in her youth, she was walking through the desert and tripped over a placenta buried in the sand. She says how dumb it was to bury it in the sand and not in the soil. But I thought that burying it in the sand was smart, so all the creepy crawlies can’t come along and infest it. Mummy says, no, muchacha, if you are in the desert and you have a placenta on hand, you may as well go ahead and eat it.

*

Yesterday at school we extracted the DNA from a strawberry. It was so gooey! Extract is a new word that I learned. Extract my tooth for the tooth fairy. Extract the secret agent. Extract a hair with the tweezers. 

Santa comes in twelve days. I hope he shaves his beard right off. Santa has short legs and probably couldn’t run away if I chased him with an axe or a laser gun so that is good news. 

Update on the beast in my panties: my big sister says that if anyone tries to knock me about, all I have to do is lift my skirt and BAM! The cat is out of the bag. But I still have a while to go before I am a lady and can use this secret weapon.

Mummy says kayaking is cool because a big rogue wave could come and wash you right out, itsy bitsy spider!

Today in school we had to write an acrostic poem. I chose the word CAT: C for Colson, A for Arachnophobia, T for Trap-door. 

Mummy takes me shopping and lets me buy a bikini. It has frills on the edges. In the changing rooms, she makes sure that my bottom isn’t totally hanging out and tests to see if the straps will fall off my shoulders if a big rogue wave comes crashing on top of me in the ocean. 

Mummy says that this counts as a Christmas present so I can only wear it after Santa gives it to me. But I’m worried he will have to check if my bottom hangs out before he puts it under the tree. I don’t want his big hairy face in my swimsuit. 

My big sister plaits my hair into two big braids. Que guapa! She’s even better at braiding than Mummy. All my friends are so jealous of how tight and neat and sexy my hair is. Other girls have braids but their wispy bits fly everywhere. 

At school today we learned about fangs. In big cats and in poisonous insects and in sharks. Sharks! I told Mummy about it and she said that she kayaked over sharks in her youth.

She also said that she once shared a house with two skinny girls who never paid rent on time. The house haunts her in her sleep. There were cobwebs in every corner and bed bugs in her mattress. And those bugs don’t pay rent, either! When she got enough money she fanged it out of there and rented her own place by herself where she could keep a watchful eye on the cobwebs and brush them off the ceiling with a broom.

*

Santa comes in four days and all my friends are baking cookies for him. Gross! 

*

Today my big sister told me something very scary. She said that when I become a lady, I have to pour burning hot wax all over my legs and then plaster strips of paper on top and then rip out all my hair. I said that’s impossible! No way, José. But she said she does it all the time. She made me touch her legs. They were so slimy! But she was very proud of them, and she said that when I am a lady, I will braid my hair all by myself and wear big hoops in my ears, just like her. I asked if I could just wear the hoops now. She said ask Mummy

Colson is dying to go to the beach but I say we have to wait till after Christmas so I can wear my new bikini. I tell him I’m a bit scared that Santa is a pervert. He says Santa isn’t even real. As if I didn’t already know! Everyone knows, but they still send him sugar-daddy letters and everyone puts his chubby face in their houses and everyone sits on his lap in the mall and sooner or later he’s gonna quickly check if my bottom is hanging out from my bikini or else he has to take it off my wish list like mean, chubby God. 

Colson says that he doesn’t care about that, because he knows Santa isn’t real, because nobody he has ever known in his entire life has ever received coal except for the kids with parents who work in the mines

He also says he knows aliens are real, so maybe I should text Santa so he can hurry up already with the delivery. I don’t even have a phone!

I asked my mummy if I can wear hoops with my braids and she said NUH-UH, NOT TODAY, MUCHACHA! I was actually a tiny bit relieved because I don’t even have my ears pierced yet.

Today my friends secretly told me that a female dog is a very bad thing. I said not to worry! Sooner or later we’re all gonna have cats.

I saw a daddy long-legs again and decided to trap it in a jar. 

Mummy says that when she was a little chica there were spider monkeys swinging around her backyard. She says they were lethal and that she had to constantly have a watchful eye like a secret agent. Mummy says she learned karate. Mummy says she learned jiu-jitsu. Mummy says she can swat at anything and kill it instantaneously. Mummy says she lived very far away from the ocean so there was no such thing as kayaking or bikinis or rogue waves. 

I really think she might kill three husbands if she has the chance.

Santa comes in two days and I think we should barricade the house. I beg my mummy to teach me karate in case Santa crawls into my bedroom but she takes me kayaking instead. 

While we paddle across the ocean Mummy talks non-stop about the good old days. She chats about trekking through the desert and fishing scorpions out of her socks and camping in the moonlight. I think about if a shark leaped out of the ocean and started kayaking with us. Probably Mummy would karate-chop its head off because of its fangs. 

Mummy checks to see if my arms are completely burning up! No, Mummy, because why would I even want that to happen, anyway? She says paddle harder, muchacha! So I paddle like my life depends on it. 

*

Santa came but he didn’t check to see if my bottom was hanging out. He was probably scared that I would swat his red back instantaneously. I wore my bikini for the whole day because I think it really suits me, even though I had to wear my clothes over it because my mummy didn’t want me walking around like some Barbie blonde. Barbie! Blonde! All the blonde girls at school have the thickest and ugliest eyelashes I have ever seen. They are like creepy legs crawling out of their eyes. My big sister says falsies are en vogue, but I don’t even speak French! 

Mummy says my eyelashes are the prettiest because they are natural, que guapa! so I better not go running around gluing them together with that sticky black poison.

I finally went to the beach with Colson. He screamed ALIEN! but when I looked around I didn’t see anything. Then I realised he was pointing at my tummy where there is a trail of brown hair that goes alllll the way from my belly button down into my bikini. I looked up. Colson wasn’t there.

Update on the beast in my panties: people get one peek at its web and fang it!


Bruna Gomes is the author of How to Disappear and Triple Citizenship. In 2022, she was a Writer in Residence at The Museum of Loss and Renewal, Italy, where she ate copious amounts of pastries and saw fireflies for the first time in her life. Bruna was long-listed for the 2022 Future Leaders Prize.

THE WHEELS, Victoria Barbara Kanellis

Four-thousand, eight-hundred and thirty-two. Saline water trickled down my spine searing through old scars and worry lines. Naked in the dark, her body flush against mine steered me through the devil’s gate. My feet spurned as small specs of skin splintered off. She led me down the hall, where a rogue shopping basket swung at my side while the Heeled Lady grabbed two loaves of bread and shoved them inside.

The produce aisle was fine. There were sweet smelling strawberries and freshly rinsed herbs whose cool droplets tickled our funny bones. Patrons lined their plastic produce bags with puffs of air to spare their fruit from bruising. The melons packed an awful punch, putting pressure on our chests and starving our brains of oxygen. Brush potatoes were a close second, their soot filled our lungs and constricted our delicate airways. But the butcher’s booth was where the horrors started. Wafts of animal blood seared our nostrils and slimy raw chicken slowly seeped into our pores. The humans waited in droves for their cuts of prosciutto and legs of lamb, all the while leading the horses to water. Our faces to the glass we dissected our designated dance partners every move.

A man in a button-down shirt picked his nose on the way in, wiping his wet snot on the naked spine of trolley Three-Hundred and Nineteen. Meanwhile, Eighty-Six minded a newborn in desperate need of a nappy change. The smell of shit-smeared fabric wafted through the store causing even the strongest of stomachs to heave. And the plucky Two-Hundred and Sixty-Four escorted a blonde haired beauty with perfectly manicured fingernails and a soiled sanitary pad in her purse.

Then came the toiletries. Spearmint toothpaste, mouthwash in every shade and colour and an incessant amount of hair product. My lady ventured off; her high-heels click-clacked off towards a woman in a puce green blouse. While I lay in wait, Two-Hundred and Sixty-Four played a game of cat and mouse with Pad Lady. Her bony fingers played his spinal cord like a fiddle, while her pointed shoes bore holes in his heels. She made blows to his chest and shook him down but with all her bravado the young lad’s feet were planted to the ground, the wheel-brake bending to his every whim. She whined and she kicked, all the while trying to maintain some air of decorum. Finally, she stepped away from the battlefield, averting her gaze long enough for Two-Hundred and Sixty-Four to slide down the corridor and narrowly avoid a slipper-clad man reaching for Metamucil. The cool breeze from the air conditioner kissed his skin as he pranced around the store.

Eventually, Pad Lady noticed her trolley dancing away and marched down the ramparts to claim her corella pears and Bonds underwear. She somehow managed to get him in her clutches, pulling him close and tight. To her surprise he eased into her vice grip and slowly steered her down the corridor. His gradual pace lulled her into a false sense of security, she was so sure their problems were behind them that she failed to notice her trolley – that she was holding much too tightly – was slowly but surely speeding down the aisle. Or that he was taking them that little bit off course. Before she knew it they’d crashed head-first into the aloe-vera tissue display with small orange boxes flying in the air. The lad was a wraith of anarchy, a beacon of hope for future generations and while he waged his war I leant into the clammy touch of my stiletto clad lady who wheeled me towards the canned foods.

We swung into the stacks crashing into Three-Hundred and Nineteen, and the well-dressed Mucus Man. Two cracked ribs, a bruised hip and the serpentine hiss of a snot-sleeved man did nothing to dissuade her. To her the world began and ended with the half-priced cans of chickpeas and sharp-edged pasta boxes that pinched my insides. Then came the tuna; regular tuna, chili-infused tuna, spring water tuna – two of every kind made their way into the arc. With each carefully chosen item I felt heavy, like an iron ball thrust into an endless ocean. My mind was not my own and something evil had taken route in my body, I was possessed by painted aluminum and cardboard. With every step I felt my soul shatter, too exhausted to go on. The sleek strips of metal on the tiled floor shocked me back to life. My only comfort was the thinly veiled hope that Heels managed to get Mucus Man’s gargantuan booger on her silk blouse.

We were going faster now, inching towards that finish line. This is the part where people get impatient. Steps are skipped, turns are sharper and any shred of spatial awareness evaporates into thin air. In all of that chaos, details are missed but in the grand scheme of human experience I am the details. So, I saw how a misjudged turn led to a stumble, which caused a teenager taking two steps too many to knock a stack of peaches. A humble peach rolled down the dirt-lined floor, finding refuge under the slipper of the Metamucil Man. The man scrambled to find his footing, determined to stay upright and in his dance like movements managed to sucker punch Eighty-Six.

Typically, a seasoned trolley could recover from such an assault but she was distracted by the smell of the shit-smeared baby and the wafts of ripe cabbage and stomach acid. Caught unawares Eighty-Six tumbled down the floor crashing into the cool-room dolly; Gala’s, Granny’s and Kanzi’s all fell to the floor with a resounding kerplunk! Their tragic plight fell on the death ears of the Heeled Lady who vented to the store clerk about her especially stressful morning. The boy smiled and nodded while politely placing her Wart-Off into its designated paper bag.

The sky opened itself up to me, it’s warm tears kissed my forearms. Heels led me down the loose pavers and into puddles deeper than quicksand. Her own flimsy feet struggled to find their footing, clinging to my fragile frame for safety. It was in that dreary carpark I saw glimpses of fallen friends, buried in bushes, or fashioned into makeshift waste-bins. Some could be cleaned, brought back through the automatic doors to spend their nights in temperature-controlled rooms, wrapped in their brothers and sister’s arms. While others fell prey to warmongering pre-pubescent neanderthal’s. These rebels without a cause who pitted brother against brother, while cortisone dried on their spotty chins. For as much as we craved freedom, the human world provided no surety for our kind. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The rain trickled as the last paper bag made its maiden voyage to the car boot, everything was going according to plan, when a reminder sounded on her phone. The clicking of cicadas – the first trumpet from Revelations. Her eyes veered from left to right, checking the terrain, and dodging the withered glances of passers-by. When the coast was clear, she spun me into the neighbouring car-spot and with a click of her heels drove all the way home. Hers had been the first face I saw that day, she was the first to touch my skin and all the disinfectant in the world could not clean the marks she left. Heels took her pound of flesh and sped off into peak-hour traffic leaving me to fend for myself.

The trolley rack was empty and the carpark was stacked. This meant two things. No one would be out to collect me for ages and I was in the worst place possible – the coveted empty parking space. I considered using the wind as leverage, soaring over the asphalt like Icarus fleeing Crete. With cars coming from every direction, I thought the better of it. My only other option was staying put, to sit idly by hoping that some Samaritan would lead me home. But I’d seen too much of the cruelty of man to hope, at best they would push me into the shrubbery or spin me towards the street. All around me people packed their cars with fabric softeners and broccoli puffs while I faced my own catch twenty-two.

It wasn’t long before the hordes came in, like vultures to a carcass. A woman with beehive hair spun out of a Suzuki Swift, a man with thick rimmed glasses crossed the way, and a gentleman who moments ago tried running down an old man at a pedestrian crossing, made very intense eye contact. His piercing green stare was enough to instil the fear of god into the most stout-hearted trolley. He would sooner crown me ‘King of the Concrete’, grind my bones into scrap metal and leave me in the dust, then steer me to the designated trolley-rack.

My moment was nigh! This was to be my final stand, my swan song, all there was left to do was … A young man took the wheel. His firm grip kept me and One-Hundred and Twenty-Four from harm. I eased into his touch; his oatmeal infused hand-cream soothed my irritated skin. He gently manoeuvred us up the pavement, past the gargantuan puddles and a spot of spilled coffee. A valiant effort, a moment of human connection. It was these minute acts of kindness that almost gave our days a shred of meaning. He steered us all the way home planting us like pieces in a puzzle. I bathed in the light of his warmth and kindness, taking but a moment to wonder if maybe it was all a matter of perspective. When you’ve done this for so long you only see the bad. But before I could catch my breath, the rough hands of the prospective hit-and-run driver yanked me from the rack and tossed me back in the fire.  My day had just begun.

At the end of each day, I make a list of all the days injuries big and small. I add that number to an existing total, todays marked four-thousand, eight-hundred and thirty-two. Four-thousand, eight-hundred and thirty-two; cuts, sores, and blue bruises that no one ever seemed to notice. People played at my skeletal system like a xylophone, instinctively knowing which keys to tepidly tap and which to bash. Trolleys never recover we’re an endless raw nerve. Our days are a Sisyphean pursuit with no end in sight – there’s no sweet kiss of death or promise of eternal rest. One day an Oklahoma store owner in his infinite wisdom built us to serve and suffer and not much else, save for the excruciating envy.

That egregious green eyed monster that eats away at you on the long hard nights. It’s true our callous captors leave a lot to be desired. They’re fatally flawed, consumed by their own self-interest and yet they enter this world with something my kind can only dream of – possibilities. It varies from person to person but there are humans who can go outside as they please, feel the free air and bathe in the warm rays of the sun. They can rest for more than two hours at a time allowing sleep to wash over them and cleanse them of the day’s ills. The lucky ones change their occupations, move across countries and dictate the course of their own lives. Humans fall in love, and form connections we simply do not have the time for. There are bonds that can’t be broken and fierce friendships that span entire lifetimes. Age shows on their skin like a map of all their days spent on this floating space rock. Their cuts bleed, their bruises show and their bones are given time to mend. Their injuries are almost always acknowledged either through scraggly markings on a plaster cards or get well cards.

Our lives are so entangled, we spend more time with our captors than our own kind. They live their lives with the things we break our bones fetching for them. They leave traces over every square inch of our fragile frames. But we’ll never be close. There is no bond of fellowship between man and their shopping trolleys. Even if we could communicate, discuss the details of our lives it wouldn’t be enough. There otherness will never wash away, for while their lives have some sense of purpose ours are empty shells. Trolleys can’t move around without drawing attention or traipse the great outdoors in metal wolf-packs. This is it. Four-thousand, eight-hundred and thirty-two, and counting.




Victoria Kanellis is a Sydney based writer who attempts to document the awkwardness of the human experience. Her inspiration stems from the lived-out histories of those that surround her as well as the extent to which mental illness colours an individual’s perception of the world.