Touched, Kimberley Carter

Photo by Muillu on Unsplash

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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The Showman, Scott Monk

Photo by Marco ten Hoff on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ask him,’ the mother insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Forty.’

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

‘Well, thirty-nine with change.’

‘Love offerings?’

‘An extra three.’

‘With change?’

‘No. Flat.’

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

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

‘Teams D, E and F.’

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

‘Who do you want to –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just drive, please,’ the Showman said.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I hope so.’

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

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

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

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

‘So you’re a priest, sir?’

‘A pastor,’ the Showman said.

‘Are they not the same?’

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

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

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

‘Lead them where?’

‘To God.’

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

‘No, to God. The one God.’

‘But they believe in Him too.’

‘I don’t think so,’ the Showman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You won’t understand.’

‘What wouldn’t I understand, sir?’

‘It’s complicated.’

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

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

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

‘Why, thank you, sir. Very grateful.’

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

‘Very much, sir.’

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

‘I don’t want to be a pauper, sir.’

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

‘Like money?’

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

‘But how do I do that?’

‘Get a vision for it.’

‘A vision? Like seeing an angel?’

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

‘Giving?’

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

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

‘– for my ministry to others –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s a very simplistic view –’

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

‘Yes but –’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why, your biggest fan.’

‘Huh?’

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

‘What?’

‘You know, the Devil in the detail.’

‘Is this a prank? Because if it is –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonder Boy, James Melham

Photo by Gursimrat Ganda on Unsplash

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

Tom kicked the door.

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

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

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

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

Hurry up.

 

– One minute to go –

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom kicked the door again.

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

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

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

 

– BEEP –

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I said I am sorry I pushed you!’

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

That would have looked even worse.

Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m going to take a look around.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck fuckety fuck.

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

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

Being hit, duh.

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

Fuck fuck fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey Tom!’

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

‘Hey Tommy!’

Was he going fucking crazy?

‘Tom!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fucker.

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

That smug fuck.

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

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

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

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

 

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Decontaminate, Natasya Currie

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

There are bodies on the sidewalk. Quinn’s eyes dart to them briefly. The closest of them, a man dressed in a tailored black suit, lies half-curled in the foetal position near the bus-stop. Another woman has collapsed two metres away from him, a half-eaten muffin fallen from her outstretched hand. A speckled finch cocks its head and hops closer, heedless of the wide berth given to the bodies by the rest of the early-morning crowd.

They’re not the only ones. There are other bodies: each one an unmoving stone in the flow of commuters. Quinn counts one, two, a trio over there, another in front of the alley, before she catches herself and tears her gaze away. The light ahead turns green and the bus rolls forward, nudging Quinn further into her seat. The bodies soon disappear, though her awareness of them lingers.

The bus trip takes twenty minutes. Quinn spends eleven of those fiddling with the cord of her earphones and the rest nervously cataloguing the other passengers. There’s a man in a black suit to her left across the aisle and two women spaced carefully at the front. They’re wearing masks, like Quinn, but above the blue fabric their eyes are half-lidded and weary. Quinn smooths unsteady fingers down the sides of her nose bridge, pushing the mask wire flush against her skin. They don’t look sick… but that doesn’t mean they’re not. The thought that one of them could be a carrier spikes anxiety into her stomach.

Through the window, Quinn spots the corner café she works at: Morning Brew. She stands as the bus draws closer, presses the buzzer, and waits as the bus driver pulls to the side of the road. When she pulls her hand away from the pole, the icy imprint of the metal stays like a brand on her palm. Quinn holds it stiffly at her side as she walks to her work.

Another dead body is slumped two feet from the entrance. It’s a girl, maybe the same age as Quinn herself. She’s wearing bright yellow heels, but the shoes are scuffed and almost falling off her feet, meaning she was dragged here—off the main footpath, perhaps, or out of the road. Quinn stares at the body for a long time, her keys clenched in her fist. Briefly, and selfishly, she wishes the girl had the forethought to die somewhere else. But she hadn’t, and neither had the person who’d moved her, and now it is Quinn’s problem.

She can’t move the body—can’t touch it—but the council truck won’t be by for hours and won’t it scare away customers? In the end, she leaves it there, not knowing what else she can do.

Quinn’s been working the opening shift for months. Now, the familiar mantra runs through her head like a printer churning kitchen dockets. Unlock the door, turn on the lights, drop your bag behind the counter and grab an apron. Keeping track of the places she touches is just another running list: key, door, light switch, cupboard handle. Her co-workers on the closing shift should have disinfected everything already but Quinn can’t trust that alone. She’ll go over everything again before the café opens. But first – as she thinks about the dead girl on the café’s doorstep – her hands.

There’s sanitiser tucked beneath the counter. Her hands are still raw from this morning, when she scrubbed her hands free of bacteria after getting on the bus. Quinn smooths the cold gel over her palms, along the backs, in the gaps between fingers and on the half-moons of her fingertips. The cracks in her dry, roughened skin reveal themselves with stinging complaint but the ache, too, is routine. She dries her hands with a flick of her wrists and moves on to the rest of the café.

For a half-hour, she’s alone. Then the bell above the door rattles when she’s in the middle of fitting the filters into the coffee machine and Quinn glances up. It’s the new hire, she realises. He’d replaced Alyssa, she remembers, after the poor girl was found keeled over in the backroom. The café had been closed for a week for de-contamination. The new guy’s name was… Kenny? Kyle? Then the young man gets close enough for Quinn to glance at his name tag. ‘Hey, Kevin,’ she manages, hiding her relief.

‘Hi! You’re Quinn, right? I can’t believe this is our first shift together!’ exclaims the other guy. He’s grinning at her as he sticks out his hand. For a heartbeat, Quinn moves to shake it – and then the realisation clicks in and she steps back instead.

‘Woah,’ she says. ‘Did you sanitise yet?’

‘Oh.’ Kevin pulls his hand away from Quinn and covers his mouth as he laughs. He’s touching his face, Quinn thinks, dismayed. ‘Whoopsie-daisy! Sorry, I’m just, like, still getting used to it all. Did you see that girl outside? I totally almost went to ask if she was okay before I realised, she was, like, dead. You know?’ He laughs, but it comes out nervous and brittle.

Quinn can sympathise, even as her heart trembles at Kevin’s near miss. That instinctual empathy – the desire to help – had almost been their downfall when the sickness had first emerged, before they’d learned to avert their eyes and keep their distance instead. A government ad campaign had been reinforcing that lesson for weeks now: SAVE OUR BUSINESSES, NOT THE BODIES! The economy, after all, was what would save them.

No one said how exactly, but Quinn has been told it enough times to know it’s true. It’s why she’s here, in the café, setting up while there’s a dead girl outside the doors and more bodies in the street than she can count. And, speaking of the economy… Quinn sighs and beckons for Kevin to follow her behind the counter where they keep the sanitiser and PPE. ‘Come on,’ she says, and reaches for a pair of gloves. ‘We have to move it.’

‘Move what?’ asks Kevin, and then he pulls a face. ‘The girl? Ew, Quinn. Can’t we just wait for the council truck?’

‘That could take hours,’ she counters. ‘The café opens in twenty minutes.’ And we’ll both get fired if we don’t, she thinks.

Kevin huffs – but Quinn is right, and they both know it. After a moment’s hesitation, he sanitises his hands and reaches for a face shield. Once they’re both covered head to toe in multiple layers of protective equipment, Quinn leads the way to the door. Outside, a few people do double-takes and then veer in a wide circle to keep clear of them both. Quinn senses Kevin’s grimace even through the mask.

The dead girl has listed slightly to the side since Quinn saw her, her blue eyes open but sightless. Quinn swallows against the sudden lump in her throat and averts her gaze. ‘You take her ankles,’ she suggests. ‘I’ll grab her wrists.’

‘And take her where?’ whines Kevin, and Quinn feels a flash of irritation. Does he think she wants to move the body? ‘The dumpster?’

Quinn shakes her head. ‘There’s a collection point down the street. We’ll take her there.’
Despite her brave face, Quinn fights a physical wave of revulsion as they manoeuvre the body flat onto the ground and then she wraps her fingers around the girl’s slim wrists. Even through her plastic gloves, Quinn can feel her ice-cold skin and imagines the sickness slowly transferring through their touch. The thought is almost enough to make her panic.

She fights the feeling as they struggle down the street, the body swinging stiffly between them. The streets are emptier now, but the few pedestrians hold their hands over their masks and hurry onwards when they see Quinn and Kevin with the body between them. No one wants to be near the infected.

The collection point is marked by the spray-painted warning signs on the surrounding ground and the four-post pavilion. The cover is supposed to protect the bodies from the elements, which Quinn supposes she appreciates. The bodies start to stink if they’re left out for more than a few days already; she can’t imagine the stench if they were left out to be roasted by the sun or bloated by the rain. Today, fortunately, the collection point is almost empty. There’s only an old man settled at the centre and a young girl, a child, placed carefully right on the edge. Quinn’s grateful for it; she doesn’t know how her nerves would have held up if she’d had to add to a pile. Even the thought of it makes her skin crawl.

With a grunt, Kevin throws the girl’s ankles down. Her battered yellow heels thud lifelessly against the pavement. Quinn winces and lowers the upper half of her body with slightly more care. Then she steps back and realises they’re too close to the edge. She checks her watch, though the face of it is dim and hard to read through her plastic scrubs. It’s almost time to open. Quinn bites her lip, deliberating quickly. She doesn’t want to be left alone with the bodies, but if the café doesn’t open on time… Well, then she’ll really be dead.

‘Go back to the café,’ she instructs Kevin eventually, who visibly sags with relief. ‘I’ll follow. And don’t touch anything!’

Kevin acknowledges her with a brief salute and then turns back. She watches him for a moment, wishing he’d offered to stay. Then, resigned to her task, she turns back to the body and grabs her ankles this time. Her blue eyes are still, awfully, open. Quinn tucks her chin into her shoulder and drags her closer to the centre, away from where an unsuspecting pedestrian could stumble into her radius of infection.

Invariably, though, after she settles her, Quinn’s gaze drifts back to the dead girl’s face. Dragged like this, the girl’s blonde hair—once neatly curled—has become filthy and matted. Her mascara’s smudged, too, in black streaks beneath her eyes. And Quinn knows it’s stupid but until the sickness, she’d thought all dead bodies were supposed to look peaceful.

Quinn knows better now. Underneath the dirt, and the black smears, and the emptiness behind her eyes… she looks scared, just like the rest of them. Hell, Quinn knows that fear intimately. She had been terrified when the reports had first flooded in: people dropping dead on the streets, stiff bodies left to rot on sidewalks. She’d thought the world as they knew it was ending. Two weeks later, though, it’s still business as usual, minus the corpses on her daily commute.

But she’s adjusting to those, too. Like everyone else is.

She turns and goes back to the café. True to her instructions, Kevin’s finished opening—though fortunately, with Quinn still in her PPE, there’s no customers inside to be scared off yet. She slips inside and goes straight to the backroom to strip it off: her gloves, mask, face, shield and scrubs. Kevin’s is already neatly bundled into a sealed plastic bag, ready to be burned. When Quinn finishes up and re-enters the serving area, she sees Kevin mopping her contaminated footsteps off the floor. His wrists are still pink: he must have scrubbed his hands raw after he’d returned to the café, terrified that the sickness would transfer.

Quinn sanitises her hands again and ties on a new mask. She’s disinfecting the countertops—again—when the doorbell jingles. The cheerful noise is jarring after the stress of the morning, and Quinn nearly jumps. She takes a deep breath to collect herself, ignoring the sweat beading on her forehead, and then glances up from the counter. Kevin’s already pulled away to greet the trio of customers, his brown man-bun wobbling precariously atop his head. It’s selfish, Quinn knows, but she stays behind the counter instead of joining him. Her earlier exertion has left her tired and flushed, so she’s not in the mood to put on a customer-service smile.

Once the customers are seated and their orders taken, Kevin saunters over so that Quinn can punch it into the register and get started on their drinks: a mocha and two lattes for the three women. She pivots to grab three cups from the cupboards, but a wave of dizziness knocks her off-balance. She halts, reeling from the sudden light-headedness.

Kevin, watching from the other side of the counter, notices immediately. ‘Are you alright?’ he asks.

Quinn hates that she knows exactly what he’s thinking, hates that she’s thinking it too. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she snaps, harsher than she meant to. ‘I’m fine. Just tired from moving the-’ She hesitates, glancing at the three customers. They’re not paying attention, but she lowers her voice nonetheless. ‘The body.’

‘Yeah, it was pretty heavy.’ Satisfied, Kevin turns his attention to the machine again. ‘You’ll make ‘em, right?’

Quinn flicks an irritated glance in his direction. Kevin would have been taught how to make all the different drinks on his first shift, so it’s not like he needs her help. But Quinn’s the senior employee: she should set the example. ‘Fine, but you can plate their pastries.’

Once he’s gone, Quinn refocuses on her task. By now, the process of each drink is routine and almost mindless. She’s pouring the steamed milk into the second latte when another wave of dizziness hits her, stronger than the first, and the metal jug slips from her hand. It falls to the floor with a loud crash and hot milk arcs over the tiles.

Quinn barely sees it. Darkness swims at the edge of her vision and her balance is gone—she stumbles, catching herself against the edge of a counter. She hears Kevin call her name, panicked, but it’s distant, muffled—like he’s in another room. A third wave of dizziness slams into her and she falls to the floor.

When Quinn manages to lift her head, she sees Kevin and the three customers staring down at her, shocked. They must have run to see the source of the commotion.
But they’ve kept a careful distance from her. A metre or two; Quinn knows, instantly, that they won’t help her. They can’t. Suddenly, bizarrely, she has the urge to laugh.

Her last thought, before the darkness closes in, is that the café will need to be decontaminated.

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Swan Lake, Swarna Pinto

Photo by Andrew Reshetov on Unsplash

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What does it matter to you?’

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

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

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

‘I’ll come,’ I piped up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did he kiss you?’ Meena asked.

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

‘He doesn’t need to know.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she looked straight at me.

‘Sasha is mine.’

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

‘Are you upset over Sasha?’

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

‘Are you?’ Jana insisted.

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

‘Pathetic. He knows about you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I spun around.

‘Sasha?’

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

I whimpered, ‘There’s a wolf.’

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

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

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

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

‘You must answer me first.’

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

‘To watch trains.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Jana was with you that night?’

‘No.’

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

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

‘Don’t worry. We’ll find her.’

*

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Market, Ry Feder

Photo by Julie on Unsplash

Circle

The markets glimmer in the dark like firelight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie smiles back.

The Artists

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, two pictures ago.’

‘Wholegrain.’

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

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

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

Rent does not come cheap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vandalism doesn’t come under that category.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She has work to do.

Torn Paper

Miri’s fingers are stained grey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t look it, anyway.

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

But…

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

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

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

Is it worth it, after all?

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

New

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks, man.’

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

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

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

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

Poor kiddo. Must be tired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Old Dog, Aislinn McKenzie

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t alone, she had her dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afterlight, J. A. Phelan

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

WELCOME TO THE RiteWell!™ DATABANK
> You have selected the following transmissions for mass erasure
> CONTINUE?

TIME: 3.2MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > journalism > press releases for work
TITLE: Kion and Estian Peace&Prosper Alliance Announcement


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

…okay… so… I’m running, my throat is raw… from the thick smoke… blanketing the city. My chest is just… ridiculously tight, feels like a giant hand… is clutching my chest, trying to squeeze… the life out of me. I’m coming from the Institute Cent-centre… we were all waiting for a…an announcement from the Kion when all… chaos just erupted. And now… obviously have my RiteWell!™ with me, copy… copying this into the databank, maybe… not sure if it’s still standing. I’m… wait, hold on a sec *unable to transcribe audio*

\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
recovering…

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Right, okay. Hopefully… I’m whispering now, hopefully loud enough… for it to be picked up. Found…an-an abandoned drone store and… it’s rank in here, so rank. The walls are furry with mould, and I’m pretty sure I’m sitting in a puddle. It’s ridic outside, people are running everywhere, I don’t know if the audio is picking it up but I can still hear them screaming. And the smell. One second we were standing around waiting for it to start, and the next there was a massive crack and the fire came from everywhere. Five minutes earlier and I would’ve been burning too, I’d already started to push to the front and prepare my RiteWell!™ for the announcement. I guess… I guess the explosion was the announcement? I’m not sure what even happened. I think ours was the first though, then more erupted, like a distant, booming echo.

My father always used to say it was never going to happen to us. We are too well-behaved, too quiet, too grateful to the Kion. But there have been whispers for some time, that the Kion were going to take over, and that they already have been, patiently and out of the spotlight. Whispers about their true reasons for bringing our planet back from the brink of destruction. I- the screaming is starting to fade now; it’s becoming quite distant. Ah, I can hear glass crunching outside. I…hey! Stop. Venris?

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.2MPTS     DATE: 980.76.34.7     USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: turns out I’m right, ha!


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Well I don’t want to say I told you so, but, you know, I told you so. I told you, Navka, if you’re reading this, I TOLD YOU. And you thought I was crazy. I think my last Afterlight update was that story about my father telling me to cut you out of my life, Navka, while I still can. He said the Afterlight was coming, and it was best I had no Estian friends, we were going to help you all see a better way of life, help you progress as a people, or whatever the damn he said. Sounds like bullshit to me though, not that I told him that.

Anyway, I’m coming to find you Navka, shit is going down and we need to go somewhere far away. You better not be lying dead somewhere near that stupid Centre or I’ll kill you myself. Imagine you dying over some shit news story? Not if I can help it.
Wow my father is about to kick my bedroom door down, he’s gonna kill me for sneaking out. I gotta go.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.4MPTS     DATE: 980.76.34.7     USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: Navka lives!


BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Update! I found him! Navka will you stop struggling, I’m not going to hurt you, you stu- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\\[-multiple voices detected-]
formatting…
owner detected [VENRIS NETION]
formatting…
unknown user detected [UN]
formatting…

UN: Venris how did you even find me?

VN: I pinged your RiteWell!™, I figured you’d hide somewhere where you could record on that stupid thing.

UN: Stupid? What do you think you’re holding? How ab-

VN: You can yell at me later, you really need to get out of here.

UN: Me? Why? What about you?

VN: Those were Kion bombs! The Afterlight is coming! I told you my father wasn’t just some loner with a saviour complex. This thing is big, so big. Like, planet-wide big.

UN: But why? Your people have spent so long helping us, teaching us better ways, why destroy it all? It makes no sense.

VN: Look you really need to go, we can argue the reasoning of the invaders later, once you’re safe.

UN: Go where? And why does it sound like you’re not coming?

VN: They’re rounding up Estians out there, and if I’m seen helping you, I’ll be in just as much danger. I’ll meet you in the Willow Wood at 4.0MPTS, where we used to play vinyo, and we’ll figure this shit out from there.

UN: Venris, I really think we should stick together!

VN: Stay safe, I’ll see you soon!

UN: Venris!

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.6MPTS    DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: running for my life, I guess

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I am… already… so sick… of running. I’ve just stopped in… in an empty shop. Front windows… smashed in. Estians are fighting back out there, but we’re hopelessly outnumbered by the Kion. And I think… I think they have synthasium weapons, which is definitely against our P&P Alliance. They’re only supposed to be helping us replenish our natural resources, not use them to make weapons.

Venris found me before, when I was in the drone store, said the explosions were bombs from the Kion. Synthasium bombs. If only my father could see this now. He was always wary of those green bastards, as he used to say.

I still don’t believe this is really happening. I wish Venris was still with me. We’re always better together. He said his father had spoken of something called the Afterlight, and that we would soon be introduced to it and enlightened, or some such nonsense. I thought it was some religious business, or a new galactic policy, not a literal invasion. I don’t think anyone realised how deep this runs, it’s ridic.

Briefly the Estian news was on, confirming the bombs, but then the power cut. Now there’s a Kion on there, demanding everyone remain calm, don’t resist, this is all for our benefit. They’re going to show us the way to a New World.

Well, they’re certainly showing us something. Reminds me of gazing at Estia as a child, it’s image broadcast from a neutral space station during the first meeting of Estians and the Kion. Patches of green and blue scattered on its pink surface, three of our four moons just visible over the curve. That image is what our planet could look like, instead of the blackened, dying thing it was, but only if we accepted the Kion technology that would allow it to thrive again. And so we did, and it was wonderful and prosperous, until now.

Now, they’re just reducing it back to how it was. What a waste. This chaos, it all makes no sense. Fires are raging everywhere outside, the smoke has turned to a thick haze, making it difficult to see more than a few steps in front. The screams are constant, and I can hear a child crying, somewhere.

I’ve seen… I’ve seen dead bodies in the street, purple skin like mine fading as souls left their bodies for the stars, with no stone to hold them.

I want my mother.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.7MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: a mistake I have made

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I don’t think I should have left Navka alone. I could see he was scared, but, I figured it be easier for him to hide on his own. And… maybe I’m a coward. I didn’t want to have to see him get hurt, if we were caught. Shit. What if… no. That won’t happen. I should have pretended I was escorting him somewhere, or something like that. Shit. Actually… he’ll definitely have gone back home. Damn it all. Shit, shit, shit. I need to go there. He’ll be getting his mother’s soul stone. We should have stayed together.

Oh f- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
recovering…

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

…are you doing! Get your hands off me! I’m not gonna hurt you, stop! I’m one of the good ones! Stop this, wh-

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 3.9MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: still running

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Okay so I decided to quickly dart home and grab something. It’s on the way to the Wood anyway. And I couldn’t leave my mother behind. I’m almost there. The fire is spreading quickly though, I hope Venris is already there.

I’m walking now, thank the stars, and whispering again. Not sure if the audio is picking them up, but the emergency sirens have finally started. Better late than never I suppose. Enforcers are out patrolling, rounding us up, all of them Kion. I saw a group of them collaring some Estians and chaining their wrists. The Kion have established control quickly. Too quickly. Plans must have been in place for a long time. Maybe my father had the right idea after all…

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.1MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7      USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: at the Wood

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Venris is late. Which is not unusual. But in this circumstance, it makes me nervous. It’s well and truly dark now. The fires have sputtered into smouldering spreads. I’ve hidden in a hollow tree trunk. It’s much nicer than the drone store.

I know he wouldn’t have gotten lost. He wouldn’t have stopped anywhere either. Unless maybe… maybe someone stopped him. Maybe his father found him. Or some Estians did. Maybe I should go look for him…but then what if he turns up here? Argh. Venris. Please be okay.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.1MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Venris Netion
RACE: Kion (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > Afterlight shit
TITLE: ——-

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Navka… help me…


Do you want to send a RiteWell!™ emergency ping beacon?
All nearby RiteWell!™ users will be alerted

>yes< no
< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.3MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > I don’t even know
TITLE: Venris pinged me

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

Well… at… least… he’s alive… right? Although… it was… an emergency… ping. Oh no. Oh… I see him. He pinged every nearby RiteWell!™ user, the idiot. He’s surrounded by Kion. Oh no no no no. Now what- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\\[-multiple voices detected-]
formatting…
owner detected [NAVKA TORLAND]
formatting…
unknown user detected [UN]
formatting…

UN: Hey you! Get back here!

NT: F-*unable to transcribe audio*

UN: I’m not going to hurt you! We just want to-

NT: Get off me!

UN: We just want to help you See. We want to teach you our ways, and help your people progress and prosper. We mean no harm, you’ll see. Come along now. Come and join your friends in the New World.

< / END TRANSMISSION

TIME: 4.4MPTS      DATE: 980.76.34.7    USER: Navka Torland
RACE: Estian (see more USER data)
CATEGORY: Audio Transcript > Personal > ——-
TITLE: ——-

BEGIN TRANSMISSION / >

I… I don’t feel so good. I feel like I’m floating. Where was I? The… the Wood. That’s right. But it’s not important anymore. I needed to tell you… something. I needed to tell you something? But I can’t remember what. I was just… in the Wood. Yeah, and… and someone… and then… yes, I was bathed, bathed in the glow… of the Afterlight.

And it burned. It’s burning me. I can’t remember.

Hey, please don’t take that… please don’t take that out of my hand. I’m talking to someone. Who… V… Vvvv… someone. I need that. Don’t take it. I need it. I need it- *unable to transcribe audio*


\SIGNAL CORRUPTED\
\ERROR\
\ERROR\


< / END TRANSMISSION

RESTART?     >ERASE<

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Hikikomori, Alice Maher

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Until the Light, Thomas Dennis

Photo by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

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

‘That time again?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Checkpoint.

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

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

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

‘Identification, please.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Alright, you’re good to go.’

‘Thank you, officer.’

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

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

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

٭

‘You’re late.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren shook his head. ‘Ryan…’

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

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

‘Hey, maybe we should join it too.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HONK!

Oh no…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘NO MORE!’ The first unanimous cheer.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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