Tag Archives: Short Story

The Memory of Superman, Kimberley Carter

Photo by AD_Images from Pixabay

Maria lived in the land of Giants. She was a giant too, of course. She could hold a car in her palm. But her parents were even bigger. Papa could lift her up and spin her around as if she was a baby. She wasn’t a baby. She was seven. In those moments she became a bird, soaring high above the houses and driveways and cats on cars.

She had wild hair like twigs, flushed pink cheeks and hazel eyes. She ran around the house on her chubby little legs with a towel for a cape, covered in fluff from the hall carpet and a car held high. Mama and Papa didn’t like her playing with boys, cars or superheroes. They wanted her to be a good girl, wear dresses and brush her hair. They said Barbie should marry Ken, not Superman or the Flash or Wonder Woman.

She ran into the kitchen, socks whispering as they slid along the lino. Her parents were talking, voices low. Maria couldn’t understand what they were saying. Papa wore leather shoes with scuffs on its toes. Mama wore flats with the pretty flowers falling off. They didn’t know she was there. She hid behind the counter.

Papa stopped suddenly; he perked up his ears like a dog. He must’ve been listening for Maria, her usual bangs and giggles absent. He poked his head out to check the living room. Maria giggled and Mama found her.

Maria offered up the car to play with, but Mama took it angrily. She pulled the towel off Maria’s shoulders and grabbed her arm, dragging her back to her room.

The pink beads on Maria’s door handle jingled as Mama twisted it open. She marched over to Superman and plucked him from his wedding to Barbie along with his Best Men Green Lantern, the Flash and Hulk. She found Spiderman on the windowsill, the Bat Mobile racing around the nightstand and brave Buzz Lightyear sleeping on the pillow (he called out ‘To infinity and beyond!’ in surprise when he was picked up).

‘You shouldn’t have touched these!’ Mama cried. ‘Why did you go into his room? How did you unlock the door?’

Maria fidgeted with the frayed edges of her bright orange sleeve. She wasn’t supposed to go in the Dark Room. But the door had been ajar and through the crack she’d seen it all: the bed with its spaceship blankets and bear-covered pillows; the rug that ran with roads and houses and stop signs; and all those toys! Maria had found the Cave of Wonders. All the toys she’d asked and asked for that Mama and Papa refused to buy, right there!

‘I’m afraid that’s my fault dear. I forgot to lock the door again after…I, uh.’

Mama stared at Papa while he stared at Maria’s pillow. Mama looked like Peter Parker when Harry Osborn revealed he was the new Green Goblin.

‘Why did you-’ she croaked.

‘Because, Sarah,’ Papa strode forward and placed his hands on Mama’s arms, ignoring the pointy, plastic toys between them. ‘I wanted to see it again. Memorise it. Every inch.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I want to pack it up.’

Mama gasped and dropped the toys.

‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘No, no no you can’t. We can’t- oh.’ She knelt and picked up the battered superheroes, a desperate note in her voice. With the toys in her arms, she rushed out of the room, Papa following.

Maria was alone surrounded by creamy walls, a purple bed and butterflies on her wardrobe. She was the only girl on the planet; an ant that got lost on the way home. She didn’t like being alone. Her eyes pricked and her face heated up and she knew she was going to cry.

‘Dear!’ Papa called out. ‘Sarah please, let me explain.’

‘No! We can’t forget him, Jamie. We can’t.’

‘I KNOW!’ Papa yelled. Then quieter, ‘I know. I just… It’s been three years. It’s past time we moved on.’

‘Past time.’ Mama spat, as if she ate her least favourite food in the world: Olives.

They fell silent. A door slammed and scuffling came from the Dark Room. Mama was putting the toys back. Maria didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did know Mama was upset that she took the toys. Maria moved to the door. Papa didn’t seem as mad as Mama. Maybe he would give her a hug. She really needed a hug.

‘We won’t forget him, Sarah.’ Papa said quietly to the Dark Room’s door. ‘It’s just, we need to let him go. Focus on Maria. Our daughter.’ Mama didn’t answer so he kept talking. ‘And if she happens to like the same things he did then we should support her. God knows why she thinks we don’t like her playing with action figures and boys.’

Maria pulled on Papa’s sleeve. Papa rested a hand on her head.

‘I’m sorry,’ came Mama’s voice from the depths. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t– not yet. I’m sorry.’   

The phone rang. Mama opened the door and slid past Papa and Maria. She had replaced all of the toys except for one, his blue eyes and red cape gleaming. She answered the phone.

‘Mother,’ Mama said shakily. ‘Yes, I’m fine. How are you?…’

‘Papa,’ Maria whispered, ‘Why won’t Mama share her toys? Does she hate me?’ Maria’s tears finally fell, loud and messy. Mama winced from across the room, shaking her head. Her own gigantic tears fell on Superman’s face. Now he was crying too. A worried whine seeped through the phone and Mama stammered that everything was fine. Papa knelt before Maria and held her face in his hands.

‘Hey sweetie, hey, shush. It’s not your fault. Mama doesn’t hate you. Hey.’ Papa wiped Maria’s tears and hugged her tight. He kissed her hair and whispered, ‘Mama’s just in pain.’

‘Where?’ she sniffled into his shirt.

Papa pulled away and placed her tiny hand on his heart. ‘Here.’ 

Papa was warm. Maria ducked and put her ear to his chest, listening to the solid thump, thump thump. He gently stroked her hair and held her close.

‘Is Mama’s broken?’ she asked. ‘Does she need a doctor?’

‘A doctor can’t fix her. But, I think we can if we work together.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. If we both go over and give her a really big, long hug I bet we can make her smile. And if we give her one every single day her heart will get better a little bit at a time. Can you do that?’

Maria nodded. Papa smiled.

‘Good.’

Mama put the phone down and sat on the couch, head resting against Superman like a prayer.

‘What did your mother say?’ Papa asked softly, holding Maria’s hand and inching forward.

‘She’ll be here soon. She’s worried.’

‘I don’t blame her. You’re a great actor.’ Papa let go of Maria’s hand and gently nudged her towards Mama, mimicking a hug. She cautiously faced Mama, unsure. Maria placed her hands lightly on Mama’s knees, fingers curled to clutch the fabric. Mama looked up.

‘Papa said if I hug you, your heart will get better.’

‘Did he now?’

Maria nodded. Mama smiled weakly and held out her arms, still clutching Superman like she couldn’t let go. Maria flung herself forward, burying her face in her side. Mama’s hands rested on her back. Papa sat down beside them and placed his arm around Mama’s shoulders. Maria was the plant in the boot, kept alive and warm by Wall-E and Eve.

‘I’m sorry, Maria. These toys belonged to someone else. I miss him a lot and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.’

‘Who’d they belong to?’ Maria asked, curious.

‘Someone very special. You don’t remember, but he used to sneak into your room and take you back to his bed. Your papa and I would go to wake you, only to find you gone. We’d find you curled up sleeping next to little Carlos.’ Mama’s arms tightened around Maria and Superman. Maria could vaguely picture Superman pyjamas.

‘Is he your little Superman?’ Maria looked between Mama and the toy.

‘Yes,’ Mama said, Papa wiping away her tears. ‘He was my little Superman.’

‘And,’ Papa said, ‘You’re our little Supergirl.’

Maria wrinkled her nose. ‘I want to be Spiderman!’

‘Okay,’ Papa patted her head. ‘You can be Spiderman.’ Mama choked on her laugh, pulling Papa and Maria close.

‘I love you, Maria. Very much,’ she whispered. Papa gave them both a squeeze and Maria sighed contently even though Superman’s tiny hand was digging into her back.

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A Literary Homicide, Jasmine Oke

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Cherry. It is only a six-letter word. One vowel, consonants five, two coupled syllables. If you were to flip open a dictionary and glide over its pages for the term ‘cherry’, you may find something resembling this:

Cherry /ˈtʃeri/

noun, plural cherries

1. —the fruit.

2. —the state of virginity.

3. —something new and unused.

adjective

4. —bright red; the colour of love.

You, Reader, enjoy the idea that in a single room there exist thousands of tiny universes, bound in leather and sitting tranquilly on shelves. Or perhaps the libraries themselves are actually the universes, housing galaxies and worlds and dying stars and black holes, largely undiscovered and untouched. Lying just beyond the surface, so you would not quite know it is all there… A universe in a universe. Perhaps the world is a library. Maybe you are just another book on the shelf. We know she is. It is sort of a comforting thought. You love books, love other people’s words. It is now time for you to experience my words; images and sweeping swells of emotion that carry those poetic nuances with them.

You enter the shadowy room with too few windows and too many dust particles. You creep further to the back, feet whispering over the wooden floor, the shadows of the room getting a little deeper, the dust swirling a little heavier. Where the books sit quieter from years of being untouched. You feel an odd twist of sympathy at that, and you swipe your fingers across their spines, titles barely visible under the stress of time. Just for a little attention, a little something. So that they know they have not been completely forgotten.

It has now been a month since you met Her in that library. Since you memorised the tattoo of Her lipstick on the rim of the biodegradable coffee cup. The shade? ‘Lost Cherry’ by Charlotte Tilbury. How ironic when the non-fictional you have become the subject of a missing person’s case; you have not paid your bills, attended work or even stopped by your parents’ for the fortnightly bonding session over your mother’s infamous cherry pie. Are you not going to introduce Her to them? But you do not care. Like a mosquito, you are drunk on Her. Your lips dance. Tango. Cha-cha. Waltz. They bend to the rhythm as cherry blossoms would the breeze. No. No care at all. I will take back control of my narrative.

And so, the Author attempts to wrap you both back around his smallest finger. It is the blackest night and almost cold, the wind ruffling the moth-eaten curtains as it glides into the room through the open window, unyielding and curious. The moon sort of glows and there are a few stars that he can spot, just above orange blankets of pollution. He finds himself resenting the moon and wishing it were the sun, gripping a cigarette between long, pale fingers, his nails bitten down. He does not smoke. He does not bite his nails. But he brings the damp paper to his lips and sucks in the toxicity, breathes in the lilac fumes and watches the ember alight as the curtains tickle his dry, bare knees.

The patched-up blue velvet chair speckled with cigarette burns has moulded to his figure around the third hour. He focuses all of his energy into accessing those parts of his mind not spattered with ink. Ink that forms the words of tens of thousands of voices, echoes of which he hears even in moments of slumber: ‘Author’s debut novel Her a disaster’, ‘things you didn’t know Author meant in Her’, ‘Protagonist in Her would actually react this way.’ His notebook sits empty in front of him, the blunt tips of his nicotine-stained fingers tapping discordantly atop the surface of the cherry wood desk. The varnish is chipping away. Each hour after the fifth, the shadowy ink transforms more distinctly into the fine lines of Her plump, cherry-stained lips. Those born to be under his command. The soft padding of his pining fingers strokes against the page.

Left.

Left.

Left.

Right.

Left.

His hand darts swiftly across the battlefield. He scans his paint selection, mentally plucking up tube after tube and squeezing them purposefully on the palette.

They stand amongst chrysanthemums and daisies on a cobblestone path. Gazing up at a chaotic sky tinged with citrus hues, he pinches a few of the crisping petals between his fingers, paint dug into the creases of his nails. A distinct cherry wood aroma travels on the breeze. The undertones are what really draws him in; cedar, vanilla and musk flowing from her wrists, her neck, her most vulnerable parts.

Her cheeks are splashed with fuchsia as she catches his gaze, though the majority of the cherry tint is concealed beneath a porcelain coating. His grin widens, revealing a fine set of teeth that are almost predatory.

‘We need to work together if we are going to make it out alive. If you want to make it out alive. I invented you, you cannot be without me,’ the Author challenges.

‘I need someone who’s going to believe in me and plead for my happiness and success with each turn of the page. Not someone who forces me to behave and act the way they see fit.’

Her rejection and disagreeableness come with a gentle rise and fall of her half-naked shoulders. Her hands rest before her, dainty fingers laced and lax. All she does after delivering that final blow is shake her head, slow as poured honey, fringe falling upon her eyes. No apology in the green, the grey, the blue.

The words scrape his throat, his scalp, his brain, as they work their way into his body. They are so quiet, yet the loudest he has ever heard. Th-thump. Th-thump. Th-thump. He was one of the three little pigs and she the wolf; the antithesis of what he had anticipated. He would be damned if that stick house could ever be repaired. Now the jagged fragments are lodged deep in his heart, much like the stalk of a cherry; hidden beneath the glossy skin and sojourned into the fleshy inner core. His hand clenches tighter around her arm, nails creating crescent moons. But she never explains herself further. Never offers him sympathy. Like the heroine of any nineteenth-century romance novel, she flees. And so, he turns on his heel to leave. Almost. In reality, the only part of him that remains is still standing on that path. In that blue velvet armchair. All that is really left of him are the clothes on his back. So, a ghost walks home in his clothing.

The cherry pops and the Author is drenched in the aftermath. The crimson juice coats the entirety of his wounded expression which spreads from the outer corners of his downturned lips to the highest arch of his creased forehead; he knows this will stain. He has lost the battle. He is the Author. They were his words, his words to be read and interpreted as he intended. She was his story, his character to act and feel as he articulated. She was his. And now she will become nothing but his swan song. Shakespeare’s cursed pen may hast writ this very moment. He may be-est dotting its i’s currently, in whatever gloomy pearlescent vision of heaven sticks in thy head. The Author’s blood runs cold. It runs. Until it doesn’t. And so the tragic musk of white roses settles on the air.

Under the comforting blanket of heavy darkness, just moments before the breaking sun shatters the sky with blinding light, Her lethargic limbs travel toward the bathroom. The monotonous tone of the news presenter travels through your flat, anchoring her attention, but only because of the words that tumble into the stuffy air.

‘A man in his late 40s was found dead in his townhouse yesterday, with six stab wounds to the left side of the chest. At this point in time, the injuries are suspected to be self-inflicted.’

The bottomless glass above the basin swallows her whole, not even bothering to spit out the stone or pull out the stalk. Her lathered hands intimately read the curves of one another. This happens six times. Not five. Not seven. Six. Re-enacting Lady Macbeth’s obsessively compulsive post-murder hand washing. However, a little water does not clear you of this deed.

As she returns, you notice the resemblance between Her and the cherry blossom trees outside; both wilted and void of colour and life. You, the Reader, don’t know the first thing about the arts, but you know that you want to paint her with colours and textures that haven’t even been invented. And so, you do.

We spend our first night alone together walking aimlessly. Fingers laced with fingers and the clicks of our heels syncing as we laugh. I almost swear I can hear our voices mingled in the sky, twirling and prancing amongst the stars. There’s a delicate moon-laden moment, lost in each other’s gazes. Time might have actually stopped. Hands having stopped their rhythmic march across the clock face. I’m only ever going to write about this. About right now. About the fragility of openness and the feel of Her fingers carving their places into my skull, about the way the soft light of the moon emblazons Her skin cells and flickers in Her presence. I’m going to write about the soft look in Her eyes – the soft look that’s reserved for me, the Reader, only me, and is still there after all this time, after everything. I’m going to write about the dust and the creaky floorboards and warm skin against warm skin and I’m going to write from my soul because she is my soul and I’m not afraid and I’m not ashamed and I know it isn’t wrong. She is part of him, but she is connected with me. Interwoven and beautiful.

The moon seems to sigh above them, and if you look close enough, puff out a smoky breath of cigarettes. Almost in a poetic way. It knows they’re in love.

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Pretty Boy, Caitlin Hickson

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

‘Such a pretty boy,’ people always say when they first see me. I have heard more sentences about my bone structure and the size of my waist than about the bruises on my skin. The audience throws me roses, no matter what I do. I think they would applaud if I just stood and smiled or undid another button of my shirt.

I stand there and smile in the mirror for my instructor and she tells me to push harder. My bones are aching, and my smile is breaking but I do the routine again. I feel the ground reaching up to me, I feel it embrace me and I hear my breath leave.

The first thing I think about when I fall is my face. If I get another bruise on my face, I’ll be done for. No audience will cheer for me if I don’t look perfect. I’m not stupid, I know that’s why they come to see me. They don’t really care about my steps, my talent, or the hours I spend in this practice room.

My instructor doesn’t say anything as I stand back up.

She sends me home early. I can tell she thinks I fell in practice today because I haven’t been sleeping. To be fair, she would be right. It’s just not easy to fall asleep with my parents in the room next door, their hatred seeping through the wall like a bad smell. She tells me it’s okay to be tired and take a break, but all I can hear is my father’s voice.

He says I’ll never amount to anything.

And maybe he’s right.

The downside to leaving the studio early is that there are people at the bus stop. Boys from my school, to be specific. They’re on their way home from soccer practice, balls under their arms and mud on their socks. I shove my ballet shoes in my bag on instinct, but it’s too late. One of them sees me and elbows his friend.

‘Well, if it isn’t the pretty boy. How’s life as a ballerina?’ he asks, lips stretching into a sneer.

I ignore the nickname and push past him to stand below the bus stop sign. He doesn’t care about my dancing, he’s just bored. I don’t even think he knows my real name. I try to tune out their conversation, but their laughter carries.

It’s the same every time.

‘With that hair he looks like your sister.’

‘Hey, don’t insult my sister like that.’

‘Do you think he wears tights and tutus?’

‘Probably, you have to be at least half a girl to do ballet for fun.’

I’ve heard it all by now. But it still stings when they laugh, like all of this – my hair, my face, my dream – is all just a joke.

And the more I hear it, the easier it is to believe.

The other major downside of being let out early is that my parents are awake when I get home.

The first thing I do when I walk in the door is hide my ballet shoes. I slip into the skin of the boy my mother wants to see. The boy with good grades and lots of friends who has come home from soccer practice, or boxing, or any other acceptable extracurricular activity. We both know I’ll never really be able to be that person, but we can pretend.

She sits at the dining room table, dinner laid out and waiting. She welcomes me home almost as if she’s happy to see me. I smile back at her, forcing my eyes to stay open, my screaming muscles to act as if there is nothing amiss. But my head is spinning, and my lack of sleep is catching up to me. I’m tempted to lay my head on the dining table and never wake up again.

Instead, we talk. We talk about school like we always do. She tells me about the sons of her friends, the ones with stable careers and bright futures. I know she tells me this because that’s who she wants me to be. Then I tell her about my day – I don’t tell her I fell in the dance studio.

As soon as my father walks through the front door, I shut up. I won’t say a word unless he asks me to. His disappointment in me so quickly turns into anger and I’m not in the mood to gain any new bruises tonight.

He isn’t drunk right now, but he looks at me like he wishes he was. At least if he was drinking, he might be able to forget that his only son dances with girls and grew out his hair just to spite him.

I slip away as soon as I can to my room. It’s as I’m climbing the stairs that I hear him say my name. My foot freezes mid-step and I hold my breath. I wait for him to turn the corner. Drag me back down the stairs. And punish me for my existence.

My skin itches in anticipation. I wonder if he’ll bruise me so bad that I can’t go to the studio again. I really can’t afford to miss another practice.

But he doesn’t turn the corner, instead I hear him pull out a chair. His voice is low and not quite angry yet as he speaks to my mother. ‘All the effort it took to raise him, and the only thing he turned out to be was pretty.’

I don’t get much sleep that night either.

The next day at practice I fail the jump again.

I meet the ground and stay there.

I close my eyes and I hear the disappointment in my mother’s voice when I brought home my first pair of ballet shoes. Her longing for me to be someone else. I feel my father’s shame like the hard floor against my ribs. I smell the breath of the boys in my face, taunting me. I hear them all calling me a girl like it is a dirty word.

I clench my fists and stand back up.

I tie my hair.

I do the routine again.

This time I don’t meet the floor when it calls. This time I land.

The corner of my instructor’s mouth turns upward. Not a smile, but almost. And it’s better than a hundred roses. It means I am worth something. It means I did something right. It means I am more than my face and my waist and all the things I am not.

It makes me feel as if the marks left over on my skin from my father’s shame are worth it. His taunts ricochet in my mind as I land the flip over and over again. And each time I land his words grow fainter. Nothing can touch me here, not even him.

When my instructor leaves for the night, I stay. I practice until my eyes are blurry and my legs are jelly. I’ll catch the last bus home and then I’ll do it all over again tomorrow. And one day, they won’t be laughing anymore. One day, they will look at me and see more than my face, more than my parents’ hatred, more than someone to be teased. One day I won’t have to hide myself anymore.

At the bus stop that night there’s a girl. The first thing I notice is her face. She’s pretty in a tired sort of way. She looks like the kind of attractive girl my mother would want me to invite home – exactly the type of girl I want to avoid.

And then I notice the bruises on her legs. I can’t help it; she’s sprawled across the seat and the marks stand out in the harsh glow of the streetlight. They bloom around her knees like roses and my bruises ache in solidarity. Her hair is tied up, just like mine.

In her hands she holds a hockey stick like it’s the only thing holding her to the earth. I wonder if that’s how she got her bruises. I study her eye bags and the tight grip on her stick, and I think that maybe there’s more. Maybe she learnt to fight the same way I did, by herself against the world.

She looks at me, sizing me up. I know she sees the ballet shoes in my hands and how I carry them like they’re the only things that matter. I tighten my grip defensively. When people see the shoes, they always follow up with questioning looks and laughter. But I’m too tired to even pretend to hide them tonight. I prepare myself for the insult, praying she’ll just ignore me.

She’s looking at me and she doesn’t look at my face, or even at my shoes, but rather at the yellowing bruise on my elbow.

Then she moves over and leaves room for me to sit.

‘I like your shoes,’ she says.

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Radio Face, Elizabeth White

Ebony Janssen was walking from the train station in her school uniform. She could feel a clammy glide of sweat lubricating the movement of her thighs. In a modest attempt to firm her thighs and put an extra shield between the world and her underpants she wore bike pants underneath her dress. They had rolled up and were now like thick tubes around her legs.

The black lycra soaked the salty moisture and alleviated the premature signs of chafe. She tried to adjust them by pulling at their hems through her uniform.

She had been walking for ten minutes since stepping out of an air-conditioned train and onto the steaming black asphalt platform at Bowen Hills station. She didn’t know anyone who caught the train to Bowen Hills. The surrounding streets were lined with industrial buildings and mid-rise office blocks without many windows. She hadn’t walked past anyone since leaving the train station, but felt a pang of fear every time a car drove by. She kept her school hat on her head and pulled it down at the front to obscure her face. Her parents thought that she was working on her history assignment in the library after school. Although it wasn’t likely that they would drive past her, she kept worrying that someone that she knew might. What would they think about the way she was walking, trying to keep her thighs separated, causing her steps to angle out diagonally?

Two incidents in Ebony’s life had taught her that other people noticed her faults. One morning in Grade 3, Ebony had been sitting on the carpet with the rest of her class while Mrs. Wilson shared with them the daily news. When Mrs. Wilson asked Ebony and the other students to return to their desks, Ebony put her hands on the carpet in front of her, uncrossed her legs and got up from her hands and knees. Brandon Francis noticed the way she used her hands to get up instead of swiftly powering up in an unsupported motion, the way he did with his own lanky frame. Once Ebony returned to full height Brandon sniggered at her, ‘That’s how fat people get up.’ A new concept began to shape itself on Ebony’s unmarked psyche. Brandon had just brought it to her attention that she was fat, which was not something she had noticed or believed about herself before, but he had. She now understood from things she had heard in the playground, that fatness equated with ugliness.

The second instance had occurred on the train home one Friday afternoon earlier in the year. Now in Grade 10, Ebony had been standing inside the door of a train, gripping the handrail that hung down in the centre of the carriage entryway. Olivia Johns stood opposite her. They weren’t usually companions on the train trip home, but on this particular day, all of their friends had been picked up from school by their parents. Ebony was conscious that Olivia was cooler than she was, and therefore she made an attempt to appear up to date with the latest gossip circulating through their grade. ‘Did you hear about the party that boy from St John’s had? Apparently some guys from Macarthur High gatecrashed, and then the cops turned up.’

‘Yeah, I was there,’ Olivia replied. She avoided looking at Ebony by watching some schoolboys sitting down the other end of the carriage. Ebony tried to keep the conversation going. ‘Do you know many guys from St John’s?’ she asked. The only boys Ebony knew were on the soccer team she played on. But she never really spoke to them unless they said something to her first, which wasn’t very often.

‘A few. I went out with one for a while,’ Olivia said, still watching the boys further down the train.

‘That’s cool.’ Ebony hoped that one day she’d go to parties and hang out with some boys.

‘Hey, why don’t you wash your face?’ Olivia turned back and centred her attention on Ebony, looking at her through the metal handrail.

‘What? I do.’ Ebony’s face started to feel warm. The train came to a halt at a station. Losing her footing, she tried to grab onto the handrail and rebalance. She turned back to Olivia and mentally chastised herself for her inability to remain balanced on the train.

‘No you don’t. You’ve got blackheads on your nose and pimples on your forehead because your face is dirty. You should start washing your face.’ Olivia’s eyes scrutinised Ebony’s appearance.

‘But I do,’ Ebony tried to vindicate herself.

Olivia didn’t know that every morning and evening Ebony showered and washed her face with Clearasil. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the small bumps that littered her face. Each spot was a tiny embodiment of her imperfection. Ebony prayed, she pleaded, and she bargained with God. ‘Please make my skin perfect. I’ll believe in you if you do.’

Ebony’s mother had told her that she would eventually grow out of her pimples, the way she had when she was a teenager. But Ebony couldn’t stop the feeling of disappointment that she experienced when she looked at herself in the mirror, a haunting reminder that what she saw was ugly. If she noticed it, she was certain that everyone else did too.

Now, on this hot afternoon, standing on a corner, Ebony pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and checked the address she’d scrawled on it. 14 Brookes Street.

Looking at her surroundings she concluded that the place she was looking for was just a bit further ahead. She was going to see Dr. Hayward. She wasn’t positive that he was a real doctor. She was only positive that if she had any other options she wouldn’t be walking down an industrial road on her own with her birthday money in her schoolbag.

The front of the building was plain and undistinguished. There were no signs and the windows were all blacked out from within. Ebony noticed three pot plants that were lined up beside the front door. Their leaves were green and supple, signs of excellent care and attention. This was a good omen for her appointment. Ebony walked through the door and saw a man sitting behind the reception desk. She assumed that he must be Julian, the receptionist she had spoken to when making her appointment. Until she spoke with Julian, Ebony hadn’t made an appointment for herself before. When he answered, his voice has been friendly and approachable.

‘Good afternoon. Skin-Deep Clinic. Julian speaking.’

‘Hi. I want to see Dr. Hayward. Please. I have pimples.’

‘Darling, of course. Let me see what I can do for you. I need your name first, please.’

‘Oh, sorry. I’m Ebony. My name is Ebony Janssen. Can Dr. Hayward fix my pimples?’

‘Lovely. Ok Ebony. Dr. Hayward is booked up for the next few weeks. What time of day works best for you?’

‘Umm…I need to see him one day after school. And I have soccer training on Tuesdays and Wednesday afternoons. Oh, and games on Fridays. Is he free on a Monday or a Thursday afternoon? Please. Thank you.’

‘You’re a sporty little thing Ebony. And has anyone ever told you, you have a lovely phone voice? Maybe you could be on radio.’

‘No. They haven’t. Thank you.’

‘Now, I can fit you in to see Dr. Hayward on Thursday 6th November, 4:00pm. Does that work for you Ebony?’

‘Yes. Yes it does. Thank you.’

‘Wonderful! We’ll see you in a few weeks. Take care till then Ebony.’

‘Ok. I will.’

Now, she could put a face to the nice man on the phone. He wore a white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, underneath a navy suit. His glasses were tortoise shell and round, his hair brown and combed back in a perfect wave above his forehead, and he didn’t have any pimples. Ebony approached the desk the way she’d seen her parents do when they arrived at an appointment.

‘Hi, I’m Ebony. I’m here to see Dr. Hayward at four,’ she said.

‘Hello Ebony, you’re the girl with a voice fit for radio. It’s lovely to see you. Take a seat. The doctor will see you shortly.’ Julian’s warm reply lightened Ebony’s apprehension about her appointment.

Ebony found an empty leather chair with wooden arms. In the centre of the room was a large fish tank that stood from floor to ceiling. Ebony watched the fish swim around in their bottled blue ocean while she waited for Dr. Hayward. A harmonic progression of classical music sounded from two speakers that sat on a filing cabinet behind the receptionist’s desk. Ebony didn’t pretend to know about classical music, but she listened to Classic FM frequently. She believed that the calming sounds might relieve the stress that was probably causing her pimples.

Ebony kept a record of the different methods she had used to try and makeover her skin and outward appearance. She started with different soaps, noting which made her outbreaks worse, or which brought slight improvements. She attempted to eliminate soft drinks and lollies from her diet, but very often failed to say no when they were offered to her. She tried drinking more water, but that only made her have to go to the toilet all the time. She tried to be a better person; hoping people would think she was nice. But none of these approaches rid her of her blemishes.

The waiting room was deserted except for one other patient, a woman asleep with her head crooked back. She was dressed like Ebony’s mother: a pearl necklace, white denim skirt with a red polo shirt and matching red loafers. Shortly after Ebony sat down, the woman let out a low moan and slouched back into her chair. The receptionist whispered, ‘Never mind Mrs. Tyson, Ebony. She’s just coming to after a little procedure.’

‘What was her procedure?’ Ebony asked, feeling uneasy about how she might find herself after her own appointment.

‘I’m afraid I can’t say. Patient confidentiality. But really, she’s fine.’ He stopped working on his computer and looked over at her with reassurance.

Ebony didn’t get time to consider Mrs. Tyson’s situation any further. Dr. Hayward appeared at the doorway beside the receptionist’s desk and called her name. She slung her school bag over her shoulder and followed Dr. Hayward into his office. He ushered Ebony into the seat in front of his desk and sat down opposite her.

Like other doctor’s surgeries that Ebony had been in, she noticed that Dr. Hayward had his certificates of qualification hanging on the wall. He looked younger than her parents, but old enough to be an experienced doctor. He was the best-looking man she’d ever spoken to. Ebony thought that Dr. Hayward had probably never had any trouble with pimples on his skin, or if he had, he had obviously been able to cure himself. He had smooth, faultless skin.

Dr. Hayward pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and held it ready to write. ‘Ebony Janssen,’ he said, reading her name off the manila folder on the desk between them. ‘Yes?’ she said, looking at him.

Ebony sat on the doorstep outside her house. The sky was dark and her phone began to buzz in the bottom of her school bag again. She didn’t answer. She’d been sitting in the dark for fifteen minutes trying to deny the consequences of her pursuit for beauty. Finally, she resigned to her situation and opened the front door. Her mum rushed down the hallway towards the stairs. ‘Ebony? Is that you?’

‘Yes Mum.’ Ebony kept her head down and took off her school shoes, leaving them beside the door with her school bag. Her mum reached the top of the stairs and looked down at her.

‘Ebony, it’s eight o’clock! Where have you been? God! What happened to your face?’

‘Hi Mum,’ Ebony looked up at her, ‘Sorry I missed your calls. I went and saw a doctor about my pimples. I want to get rid of them.’ Her mum rushed down the stairs, reaching out her hands to hold Ebony’s face.

‘Who? What doctor? Where? How did you get an appointment? What happened to your face? Ebony, it’s all red. Does it hurt?’ She looked at Ebony’s face closely, examining the moist blisters that had appeared.

‘Sort of. I heard a girl at school talking about this doctor, apparently he helped her. I just called up and booked in.’ Ebony, shook herself free of her mother’s hold and started to bend down again, this time removing her socks.

‘Where?’ Her mother bent down, trying to reconnect with her daughter’s gaze.

‘A place in Bowen Hills.’ They both stood up again and looked at each other.

‘Bowen Hills? Ebony! What specialist practices in Bowen Hills?’

‘Dr. Hayward.’ Ebony picked up her bag and started moving up the stairs.

‘I thought you were at the library!’ her mother followed after her, ‘You should have been home hours ago! I’ve called your school! I’ve called your friends! Your father is driving around trying to find you. And you were in Bowen Hills seeing a doctor, who’s burnt your face! Ebony, I’m going to have to take you to a hospital. What else did he do to you?’ Ebony walked into her bedroom at the end of the hallway.

‘Nothing. It’s fine Mum. He said it would be a bit red for a few days, then new skin will form and I won’t have pimples.’ Ebony pulled out her school books and placed them on her desk.

‘A bit red? Ebony what did he use? What possessed you? Why didn’t you tell me? I could have gone with you.’ Her mother took Ebony’s lunchbox as she handed it to her.

‘Mum, I’ve asked you for help before, but you just said it would be fine. It’s not fine. I hate my face. I hate the way I look. And you don’t seem to care.’

‘Ebony, what am I supposed to do?’ Her mother reached out to move strands of hair that had become stuck to Ebony’s blisters.

‘Whatever.’ Ebony brushed her away, sat down at her desk, and started flicking through her schoolbooks to do her homework.

She was copying notes from the blackboard at the end of her German class when someone placed a note on her desk while they walked past. A lined piece of paper had been folded to half the size of a business card, and her name was written on the front in a fancy cursive. She grabbed it and put it in her pocket, and quickly scrawled the last of the notes into her exercise book.

Once she was back at her locker, Ebony opened the letter and glanced first at the bottom to see who it was from. Olivia Johns. Unease gripped Ebony’s stomach. She couldn’t separate herself from the shame and embarrassment the thought of Olivia caused her to feel. Ebony didn’t have pimples anymore, what would Olivia say was wrong with her now?

Hi Ebony,

How are you? You must be really good at German, you write down all the notes! Frau Martin is so boring. Anyway, we haven’t really chatted in a while, but I wanted to tell you I think you look really pretty lately. I’m not sure what you’re using on your face, but it’s really working for you! My friends and I sit in the second train carriage from the front on the way home, you should come and join us this afternoon, it would be good to catch up!

Don’t dog me!

Xo Olivia J.

Ebony folded up the letter and put it in her locker. She turned around and surveyed the lunchtime commotion in the locker room. Girls were rushing in to drop off their books and grab their lunch. Everyone wanted to make the most of the break with their friends. Ebony saw Olivia over the far side of the room. She was leaning against a locker, eating an apple while she waited for one of her cool friends to get her own skinny girl lunch. Ebony thought of the sausage sandwich in her lunchbox that she’d been waiting all day to eat. Olivia and her friends existed on a diet of fruit and vegetables. But if ever they strayed, it was common knowledge that they’d go and vomit up their indulgences in the bathroom. Olivia was looking at Ebony. Ebony looked away and then looked back at her. Olivia was still looking at her. Ebony felt like it was a challenge, a new chance to prove she was cool. Ebony wondered if she should walk over and say something. She felt awkward and hesitant. What would she say? ‘Thanks for your letter. It’s nice that you think I’m pretty now. I went through a lot of pain to look like this. There are parts of my cheeks that I can’t feel anymore and my parents think I need to see a counselor because they don’t know how to handle me.’ Or, ‘Hi Olivia, I guess you know I wash my face now. Can you introduce me to some of the boys you know from St. Johns?’

No, she thought, that would sound too desperate. Ebony was still scared of Olivia; her clear skin hadn’t changed that. Olivia continued looking at her. Ebony turned back towards her locker and got out her sausage sandwich. When she turned back Olivia was walking away with her friend. Ebony felt relief. She couldn’t be Olivia’s friend; she’d have to give up her sandwiches, and her friends. And somehow, she felt that would only be the start.

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After the Phoenix, Kirsten Oakley

Please Play while reading

 

 

Your ashes are in my mouth. I swallow the bitter taste as I crouch. But I cannot follow you. They need me here.

In the small bathroom their shrieks reverberate against the tiles. I want to cover my ears but my arms are weighed down with their soapy bodies. I cannot even close my eyes as I know that it only takes a second, a moment of inattention. Instead, I watch them as the tepid bathwater rises and falls with their bickering. I ignore their illogical arguments and try to hold those slippery limbs still. I rearrange my lopsided mouth. Does that look like a smile now? I can’t remember the last time I looked at my own face in the mirror. Even now it is at my back, capturing only the faces of my mischievous sons as they dart away from me, and vegemite and dirt slides away from my grasp.

From far away, the noise of the doorbell peals. My neck snaps sideways, listening, exasperated. It rings again and I have called out half a syllable of your name before I remember. Half of you hangs, spoken in the air, reverberating in the empty house.

Their voices clamour and I drag them from the bath, wrapping them in one toweled arm each. I heave and move to exit but our bulk won’t make it through the door. I was never good at judging angles, distances, practicalities. That was your department. We jam in the doorway, a three headed monster that sends the cat tearing away from our path. As I untangle us, the towel sweeps a plastic bottle from the makeshift shelf onto the floor. From the cracked bottle a pool of your anti-dandruff shampoo seeps out. Did you imagine that in your new life that you would no longer shed your skin?

I leave the mess and drop one son, wrapping him in his own towel. He leads us down the hall, trailing a path of shampoo, snakelike, for us to follow.

I tell myself that they will be my world, but the water from their wet bodies has already seeped through my t-shirt and is chilling me in the darkening night. Their faces are damp but dirty as the youngest loops chubby limbs around my neck, leaving vegemite in my hair.

I hold them tighter as I peer through the rusted screen at the empty doorstep. I stare at the space where somebody had just stood. There is no-one but me here now. I wonder how soon I can start the rituals of sleep.

At night I will sip the port that your mother gave us as an anniversary present. I will remember the whispered plans we used to make, dreaming of a time beyond sour vomit and cubed food and endless cheap plastic. I will click through the images of you as you inhabit that space of clean, bright newness. I will watch you emerge, trapped in my den of blue light.

This yearning will not snap the tether of small fingers, dark eyes, the smell of breast milk and the tug I feel all the way through the seven layers of my Caesarean scar. I am anchored to them skin and bone. But your ashes are in my mouth as you rise.

 

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Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Patrol 4 by Imogen Wiggins

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Peculiar Perception, Laura Treglown

 

The clouds cried and the droplets poured down onto Henry’s head.

He ran across the zebra crossing to the shelter of Figtree Mall. Even inside, he could hear the bang of thunder rip the clouds apart. One… two… three… four. He counted the kilometres between each one. Jon Carver had taught his son, Henry, this trick from a young age, as a coping mechanism of sorts. To act as a comforting substitute for when he was absent. It helped calm the boy down by showing how far away the thunder was, despite how close it sounded. As a child, Henry believed they were bombs. At first it had made Jon laugh, then it became a nuisance. In the end it wasn’t the thunder that scared Henry, but the explosion that was his father. Jon liked to call himself a simple man. He believed in good old fashion business, a hard work ethic, and sound family morals. But, he just didn’t get his son, and Henry could tell.

Henry knew better now than to believe in unnatural ideas like bombs blowing up the sky and fatherly love. It was seven seconds after seeing the sky light up that he heard the bang, crackle, and pop. Once the rain dissipated, Henry was sure that the noise would too. He shook his shaggy hair slightly with his hands, attempting to spread and minimise the water clinging like a bad smell, before heading deeper into the mall.

His friend Tod had texted Henry awake from an eleven-hour coma earlier than usual this morning. His best guess was that Tod hadn’t slept all night—instead, rampaging and trolling the battlegrounds of World of Warcraft. Ordinarily, Henry wasn’t opposed to a bit of melee at Warsong Gulch under the guise of his druid night elf. Especially since a few weeks ago he had received Mythical Level 760 bracers in a drop from the boss, Grand Magistrix Elisande. But recently, he had simply replied busy to Tod. This kind of thing was becoming a common occurrence.

Due to his morning wake-up call, Henry arrived at the mall earlier than he typically did. It meant he had gotten stuck in the 9 am soccer-mum traffic at the roundabout on Gibson Road leading to the high school, primary school, and preschool. Henry’s only thought was what idiot had planned it that way? He also had to wait three two-minute cycles of the traffic lights before Pearl, his old creamy Mazda 3, could finally turn right onto The Avenue. Due to his morning escape, he arrived at Figtree Mall far too early. On the bright side, for once he didn’t have to wrestle some old lady or mum with a pram for a parking spot. The threat of just another day munching on chips, sculling soda and mashing keyboards with Tod was enough to force him out of his routine.

His mother had arrived back from her Bali cruise only several weeks ago and therefore Henry’s mall escapades had become more frequent than they ever had been. Since quitting her job and entering a premature retirement because—as she often proclaimed—she deserved it, Louise Carver had become an inescapable presence in his home. After Henry graduated from high school six months earlier and deferred from a Bachelor of Business at Wollongong University, nothing had happened. At least that was what his mother enjoyed telling him. Henry, on the other hand, knew he couldn’t stop the cogs from working hard in his mind as he tried to comprehend his future. It was only at the mall where the world stopped spinning and time was nothing more than an absent thought.

 

 

 

At 10 am, coffee was a necessity. In Henry’s mind, caffeine was better and far more important than oxygen. It somehow managed to keep him sane, at least, in his opinion. He was definitely no connoisseur, and always scooped in at least four teaspoons of sugar. Henry liked the effects of coffee more than the actual taste of it. With an ice-cold latte in hand, he looked around, hoping to find a spare seat somewhere within the vicinity of the coffee shop.

An elderly woman was precariously perched on the corner of a bench. It looked uncomfortable, but Henry guessed that she had plenty of practice at this position by sitting on the bones of young children. He imagined her settling into their bones with a satisfying crunch and a pleased and pleasant smile. He went over and she glanced sideways at Henry as he dropped down beside her. Her skin was saggy, as if trying to run away from her body as it drooped. Much like the rest of the population when they finally saw the truth about sweet old Granny. The rings shoved onto her spindly fingers seemed to be the only thing holding the skin in place. He smiled at her, and she smiled back, but she was obviously uninterested. Even if the idea of escaping life for a day tantalised Henry, he was too old to suit her taste buds. Her eyes kept scanning the area around them. Edith’s eyesight was the only thing about her that still worked perfectly fine.

She came to malls much like this all the time, he thought, because it was where the children got lost. One second they were holding Mummy’s hand and then they were nothing more than headshots on milk cartons. She never went to the same mall twice. No, she wasn’t a rookie at this—that was how you got caught. One had to stay on the move. Henry smiled at the irony of this thought, as the old lady was running nowhere, quick.

As he sat next to her—she looked like an Edith—all Henry could smell was beef. It filled his nose and choked his senses. So, he took a long swig of his coffee and instead, tried to breathe in that meaty aroma. Even after many years of awkward and potent hugs from his mother, Henry still struggled not to gag from her smell. Edith must have been cooking soup this morning. She was planning on having it for dinner. It had to stew all day because the child was not as plump as she would usually like, and muscle tends to need much longer to soften and tenderise than the fat ones. But the fat ones were much harder to get into the pot. Henry couldn’t help himself: a scoff escaped his mouth at the thought of this elderly woman, in her tiny wooden cottage hidden deep in a forest, attempting to put a child into a pot, only to realise she didn’t have one big enough. Edith looked over. She had a questioning look on her face, but Henry simply smiled, stood up and walked away. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about him.

 

 

 

The mall was the place where people got lost. No mall in particular; it was just something about the rows upon rows of neatly organised shops that caused people to lose themselves in the sense of chaos. That was why Henry liked it. He enjoyed falling down the rabbit hole and finding himself somewhere completely different. Even though Henry liked to see the darker, purgatory side to the mall that robbed people of their souls, money, and time, he knew in reality, it was nothing more than a concrete-laden building. Yet he still loved to succumb to the mystique and wonder that it drew out of different people. He relished in exploring, not only the shops and places, but also the people it created.

That is what he decided to do today. On days like these, when the sky was crying buckets of rain, there was really no choice but to stay inside. He turned left and right, and right, and back around the way he came, only to turn left. Past the bright colours of Cotton On, the light and airiness of Swarovski, and the clatter and hubbub that was the food court. It was all at random. That was the best way to do it. He kept travelling in this labyrinth for quite a while. He couldn’t tell exactly how long. There wasn’t time to check his phone. His head had to stay up so he could see the world that existed around him instead of the pixels that plagued his phone.

On a lap past the food court, a young man stepped his New Balance trainers directly in front of Henry and blocked his path, almost as if he knew where Henry would be. The top button of his vintage collared shirt strained against his Adam’s apple as he spoke.

‘Hi mate, can I grab a minute of your time?’

Although a cap obscured his face, Henry could see the truth. He saw the dark violet bags that clung underneath his eyes. The scratchy and scruffy beard that came only from weeks of not shaving. The man’s hands clenched at his sides as he grasped a blue clipboard. It was plainly obvious, even to Henry, that it had been weeks since he had slept well at all. It wasn’t from the many assignments he had piling up though. No, he didn’t care about those at all. It was the dreams that kept him up at night. Dreams of the future, of course.

Henry knew that it all began one drunken night with his five friends, an Ouija board and the internet. It was a fun night at first, rounds of shots every time the board answered a question. Throughout the course of the night, up until 4 am, they only became cruder and cruder. It was the next day, when his hangover was ebbing, that he fell into an internet wormhole.

Henry knew far too much about internet wormholes; they started with searching tomorrow’s weather and ended five hours later on Wikipedia, looking at the breeding cycle of Fairy Penguins in Northern Tasmania. But Louis—as Henry decided he looked like—had ended up falling into a hole of Southern Louisiana dark magic. At 2 am the next morning he found himself on some questionable website overflowing with spells, pigeon in hand, and knife on the coffee table in front of him. Days later, Louis still couldn’t get the blood out from underneath his fingernails. That wasn’t the only thing he was struggling with. It had done something to him, and although most of these mall-goers couldn’t see it, Henry could see that the man in front of him had unknowingly made a blood magic trade to see the future.

Louis could see the small problems that would arise tomorrow. Like a traffic jam on the Princes Highway he would have to face on his drive to work, or that they would run out of milk in two days at 9 am. Those things used to matter to him. He would normally lay awake at night worrying what he would have for breakfast if there was no milk left. But now those worries didn’t even make him flinch because he had seen his own death.

He had barely even made it to his job handing out flyers this morning. Henry was shocked that he was actually here in one piece. Although Louis didn’t know exactly when it would happen, he knew that he would be in a car crash. Seeing your own death wasn’t exactly fun and it had shaken him to the core. Henry though, just smiled at Louis for the first, and perhaps last, time before ignoring his questions and continuing to lap the mall. It was an awkward enjoy your day and your death kind of interaction. Henry wondered what he would do if he knew what was lying in wait just around the corner. He’d probably move out and away from the iron grip of his mother for starters. At least he was safe for the time being, he concluded, as he lost himself.

 

 

 

Eventually, as always, he gave up. He found a lone silver metal chair and collapsed into it. He could feel the stiffness begin to set in as his muscles quietened. They had been screaming from the constant walking and now they were settling down, their complaints becoming less severe.

Across the café sat a young girl. Henry guessed she was eighteen, just like him. Though she seemed to be relaxing in the newly-opened Starbucks, her mind was in the dungeons, wrestling with her latest problem. She sipped coffee and stared at the book she had propped haphazardly between her jean-covered legs. Henry tried not to judge her based on her taste in coffee. He was sure that she had a no-foam-caramel-cappuccino with three sugars in her hand. It was easy not to judge her though, because she was beautiful. Henry shuffled in his silver throne, made awkward by his own creepiness. He couldn’t help but notice things about her. Her long blonde hair continually fell in front of her face and blocked her view of the book. Henry had only been there for a few minutes, and already he could tell that reading was second nature to the girl. Henry was stopping himself from going anywhere else because he enjoyed watching her unique quirks, like the way she thumbed the corner of the page with anticipation. Or how her foot tapped to the rhythm of her reading.

She was just his type. Weird enough that not many understood her, but not weird enough to fit into the Dungeons and Dragons scene with ease. She still loved board games and card games, of course. She’d spend every Friday night with her friends, laughing and eating as they threw cards down on the table. She was unusually good at cards compared to everyone else. Henry shuffled in his seat and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. On Saturday nights she would go to the casino. That was how she was paying her way through university, by counting the cards on the Black Jack table. No one knew, no one suspected her. I mean, who would? Just look at her. Even Henry could barely believe it himself.

Henry did know one thing for sure—he was intrigued by her. So, he waited until he heard the crisp flick of the page and knew it was his moment. The chair screeched against the tiles as he stood and walked over. He put his hand on the back of her metal silver throne.

‘Hi,’ was his opening line, and hers was dropping the half-full coffee cup into her lap in surprise. It was meant to be the end of the chapter—Henry had planned to make a suave literary joke. Instead, he looked down at the warzone that was her lap, at a loss for words, before mumbling something that he hoped sounded like an apology, and staggering away with his tail between his legs. He couldn’t believe it. Henry knew it was much earlier than usual, but he just couldn’t bring himself to stay at the mall. What if he saw her again? He kept walking, head down, out of there, to where the bombs were still going off in the sky, to the bomb of a life that waited for him at home.

 

 
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The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

 

Rio Linz was a mostly normal boy who lived a mostly normal life. He attended school and maintained average grades and was able to mostly keep himself out of trouble. He lived with his parents, both of whom worked. Everything about Rio was for the most part completely and utterly unremarkable.

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

Rio’s first ghost was his former nanny. Her name was Madalyn.

The boy used to look up to see the elderly woman’s face, when his head barely reached her waist. Wispy white hair trailed down, splitting into two halves before ending just shy of her chin.

She still looked down at him. Her gaze wandered over his features curiously as she examined him. Her weathered lips formed a thin line as they pressed together. Her eyes blinked once as he stared at her intently.

‘Rio?’

Not trusting himself to speak, Rio nodded his head sharply.

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

Understanding quickly dawned upon her features as her grey eyes locked with his brown ones.

Hesitantly, Rio reached out and held her hand in his grasp.

 

 

The next four months saw Madalyn developing a routine. It fit with Rio’s easily enough. She would walk alongside him on his way to school and then waited for him until he came back out after school closed for the day. They would usually discuss mundane things such as the weather and how their respective days carried out.

Sometimes they didn’t speak to each other; they just walked next to each other in silence.

Rio noticed that Madalyn always wore the same clothes; a baby blue blouse and a dark skirt. He recalled that she had worn similar clothes when she was alive. He once asked why she never changed and the ghost replied that she simply couldn’t.

Madalyn would visit Rio several times on the weekend while he was in the backyard doing his homework in the tall grass or just drawing on a piece of paper. One time she offered to help him with his work and he accepted. This continued every weekend that followed. She excelled in story writing and geography, but hated maths even more than he did.

Rio never once thought to ask Madalyn what she did when she wasn’t spending time with him.

 

 

‘Madalyn.’ The said woman perked up when Rio said her name. The two were walking next to each other.

‘Yes, angel?’

Rio paused for a moment to consider how to best phrase the question before continuing.

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

‘What is it. . . leading you to ask such a dark question?’

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

Madalyn mulled over the question quietly for a moment before replying in a sombre tone.

‘Many hearts as a matter of fact. Colin. I guess you wouldn’t remember him… he was my husband, he fell to lung cancer several years prior to myself. Naturally, my dear parents passed long—’

‘I don’t mean that. I meant if you know any other ghosts,’ Rio cut across her.

Madalyn looked surprised. She was silent before making a noise of understanding in the back of her throat. Rio had tapped into her one sadness and though she tried not to dwell upon her loneliness, she couldn’t help at times but wonder why only she remained on Earth.

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

The boy was unable to completely hide his disappointment. Madalyn easily picked up on it.

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

‘Then you know that if you need someone to speak to, don’t hesitate to ask me. Some things are best kept secret, but not all things. It’s okay to share your thoughts with people that you trust. Even if we’ve lost people, its best to try and focus on who we still have.’

 

 

Rio’s primary reason for wanting an authentic camera was because of his invisible companion. He wanted to prove her existence to his parents. It had been the highlight of his eleventh birthday to receive one from them.

However, when he tried to take a picture of her, he came up short—the image of his backyard lacked a ghost. Madalyn had initially been sceptical about the idea, but her facial expression fell slightly when it had failed.

Madalyn suggested that he use his birthday gift for something else. Eventually, he decided to see what he could capture outside. Having nothing else to do, his former carer accompanied him.

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

Their meeting was similar to the first time Rio met Madalyn, yet almost entirely different.

They stood in the park, several feet from an ice cream vendor that was selling to a line of children from the street. Rio had finished taking photos of things Madalyn liked and was moving to the skateboard park with her trailing behind him, when he noticed the man. He seemed occupied, harassing nearby pedestrians. Rio noticed that they showed no response to his presence, which was surprising if one considered his physical appearance.

Kane was a big man, easily much taller than Rio and Madalyn. Muscles beneath his skin were practically bulging under an orange jumpsuit. He was covered in tattoos of spiderwebs and foreign kanji that decorated his domed head.

Wanting a photo, Rio looked for a good position. Once in location, he looked through his lens and saw no one there.

Confused, the boy lowered the camera and saw that Kane was still before him.

Once Kane had realised he was in the presence of someone who could actually see him, he was initially quite vocal, letting off a stream of new words.

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

The brashness caught Rio off guard. To his credit, he quickly recovered.

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

Kane glanced at Madalyn, who squinted her eyes at him in distaste.

The giant glared.

‘Something you want to say to me, bitch?’

Once the excitement had passed, however, getting words out of him was harder than drawing blood from a stone. Despite Rio’s best efforts, his newest ghost kept his mouth firmly shut.

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

Rio and Madalyn went back the very next day after school, to the same spot as last time.

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

‘Do you think you can walk through walls?’ he asked Madalyn

A moment of silence passed.

‘I don’t know about that darling… I’ve never tried it.’

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

‘I’m sure I would have known by now if I could do something as whimsical as that.’

A moment passed and in that beat, Rio’s breathing quickened and he felt hot. He’d always felt unsure of how to approach a particular question and if, indeed, he should.

‘How did you die, exactly?’

Madalyn glanced at him before looking away. She didn’t answer.

Her mannerisms were quite contradictory; her distant and sometimes awkward behaviour clashed with the times that she was exuberant and full of life.

Kane wasn’t there when they arrived. Rio tried to wait but was forced to take off after Madalyn when the old woman lost interest.

 

 

Rio saw Kane a second time only five days later, hovering outside of a rundown house that had most certainly seen better days.

To his surprise, Madalyn was also there. They were speaking to each other. Standing several feet apart, their appearances were a sharp contrast to each other. His interest getting the better of him, Rio decided to investigate. Thanks to his size, he was easily able to hide his small frame behind a rubbish bin.

He strained to pick up their words.

‘Moping won’t help you stand straighter, boy.’

Rio was surprised by the tone of Madalyn’s voice, possessing a sharp edge that he never before knew existed.

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

‘Thanks for your fucking advice. I don’t remember asking you to give a shit.’

Madalyn was silent for a moment. Then she spat out, ‘Try to make an effort to understand your situation—our situation,’ she insisted, urgently. ‘You and I are both still here instead of completely passing on.  In a way, this second chance has—’

She was interrupted.

‘What “we” is there? Let me tell you something, you dumb bitch—hospital and fucking prison are as different as ice and cannabis. Needles don’t mean squat. Just go and leave me the hell alone.’

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

One month after meeting Kane, Rio decided to take his interest in photography and art to new heights.

Armed with his trusty camera, Rio went out by himself.

He lived in a rather rundown neighbourhood full of plain colours. His family wasn’t poor, but they were very far from well off. More than a few houses showed signs of neglect and old age, a few broken windows here, some rotten wood there. The surrounding neighbourhoods possessed the same atmosphere. There were weeds showing on several front lawns, driving up from beneath the ground like untameable servants.

Frowning at the lack of potential snapshots, Rio’s young mind struggled to come up with ideas.

Rio found Madalyn sitting on the stairs of the front porch outside his house.

She was completely unprepared for his request.

‘Sorry, I must confess. . . I am not quite sure what it is you mean.’

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

‘And how would this be of use to you?’ Madalyn asked.

Rio nodded.

‘I figured that if I can’t take photos of ghosts, I can use this camera in other ways to help.’ He deliberately paused for dramatic effect before continuing. ‘If you can take me to where you lived and other places that you liked when you were alive, I can retell your story through pictures of the things that meant the most to you.’

It only took two minutes to convince Madalyn of the idea.

 

 

‘Of all places, why here?’ Rio asked, holding his camera in both hands while looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

Both he and Madalyn were standing in the backyard where they did Rio’s homework together.

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

‘Because this place has meaning to me. Here with you, on this little patch of grass, is where I now spend most of my time.’

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

Soon, photographs began to replace the various sport and motorcycle posters that took up the wall space in his small room.

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

All of them were places of significance to Madalyn. Rio’s latest one was a shot of a creek that Madalyn liked to walk alongside. Another was her favourite café in the shopping centre. They, along with several others, were all titled under Madalyn’s name.

 

 

As Rio’s photographs of Madalyn began to accumulate, the pair approached Kane and tried to rope him into the idea.

They failed.

 

 

While walking near a stream surrounded by an assortment of pebbles that lay underneath an overpass, Rio and Madalyn noticed a girl. She was young, sickly and petite, wearing torn jeans and a rainbow sweater with a woollen beanie covering her short brunette hair. She was bright and cheerful despite her pale complexion and somewhat unkempt appearance.

She approached the pair as they were about to move on, a mischievous grin betraying the general nature of her intention. He had seen it before in movies, when a person did something mischievous in exchange for attention.  From the corner of Rio’s eye, he noticed the yellow armband encircling her wrist.

She began to lean in, past what Rio considered his personal space. This merited asking her what she wanted. Madalyn beat him to it.

‘Is there something we can help you with, dear?’

She yelped and jumped back as if she had just received an electric shock. Scrambling back, she nearly tripped over.

‘You can see me?’ the girl asked him, her eyes wide. A look of understanding came over her as she stared at him. ‘You can see ghosts?’

Rio replied with a yes.

‘That’s incredibly cool,’ was her response.

 

 

The first place that Natalia, their newest companion, dragged Rio and Madalyn was to a carnival circus that took place once every June. Amongst the cacophony of noises there, including Natalia’s laughter, Rio wasn’t very sure where to point his lens.

Madalyn found herself struggling to keep up as her body ached in protest while pursing Natalia. Eventually she was forced to stop, leaning against a food stand for support.

Natalia seemed to have the knack of getting ahead of herself.

 

 

When Rio decided to ask Natalia about the places that held any sort of significant meaning to her, Natalia had taken Rio to the aquatic centre at night after closing. This led to Rio getting arrested for breaking and entering—only to get photos of himself in the water at night.

While sitting in the chair waiting for his parents to arrive, with Madalyn and a guilty-faced Natalia standing on either side of him, Rio overheard something. According to two officers who were standing outside the office, a teenager had broken into the pool eleven times over a three-year period.

Apparently, the girl ran away from the hospital at night just so that she could swim with no one else in it.

Natalia had the decency to blush as Rio turned to look at her with incredulity. They made eye contact and her skin tone practically went from a mild pink to a rich scarlet as she fiddled with her hands. It took several seconds for Rio to realise that Madalyn was also looking at Natalia, her soft eyes charged with disdain. Fortunately, the centre kindly decided to drop the charges when they realised Rio wasn’t their regular culprit.

 

 

Rio approached Kane and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project he was undertaking one last time.

The ghost refused.

 

 

After recovering from his grilling at home, the first thing Rio did was head up to his room to return to his work. Once it was done, he hung up his newest picture and stood back to admire it properly. Looking over the photos he had taken for Natalia, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the pride swelling up in his chest like a balloon fit to burst.

Alongside the collection that he had created for Madalyn, they formed the tales of two people who had already lived out their full lives.

 

 

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The Shadow, Suzin Lee

 

The first time Alex saw him, she was indifferent. In fact, if it wasn’t for the minor incident, she probably would have brushed past him. The murmur of the supermarket was monotonous in Alex’s ears; her mind was fixated on the broken wheel of her trolley. Rattle, rattle. Rattle, rattle. Alex sighed. She wondered if Dad had ever helped Mum with the shopping. Not that it mattered, now. She reached for a loaf of raisin bread, then hesitated at the thought of Mum’s tantrum the other day.

‘I’m sick of eating this crap!’ Mum had shouted as she threw the freshly buttered toast against the wall. ‘If your Dad was here—’

‘Well, he’s not. And this is all we’ve got in the pantry, so you can starve,’ Alex had snapped as she walked out of the room with the empty plate.

Her hand hovered over the beckoning bag of bread before she threw one, then another, and another, into the trolley. She smirked.

With the trolley piled high with groceries, Alex wheeled it down the health food aisle towards the checkout. Then, they collided. The details of his appearance bypassed her memory except for one small feature—his glasses. Thick-rimmed with additional shades, one side of the frames were wrapped with a Band-Aid, holding them together. They fell off his face and clattered onto the linoleum floor as Alex swerved her trolley, barely missing them.

‘Oh! Oh… I’m so sorry! Are you okay?’ Alex said as she picked up the glasses.

She handed them over to the man, who hesitated at her gesture. He took them, observing her with alarm. Slowly and silently, he walked away.

Alex noticed that other people were staring at her with the same expression on their faces. Any other day, this might have struck her as weird, but she realised the time—Mum had been home alone for longer than she should have been.

 

 

 

The plastic bags rustled as Alex treaded carefully into the dim house. She closed the door gently and when the lock clicked, turned quickly towards the hallway. Silence.

Quietly, she opened the blinds of the living room. A shrill ring broke the peace.

‘Shit!’ Alex muttered, as she clambered over the sofa reaching for the phone. ‘Hello?’

‘Alex, is that you?’ An English accent crackled through the bad reception. ‘It’s Auntie Sue. I just wanted to check in, how’s your Ma going?’

‘Oh! Hello, Auntie Sue. Mum’s alright, the same old.’ Alex fidgeted with the cord in her hand as her eyes nervously watched the hallway.

‘Would you like me to fly over?’ asked Auntie Sue.

‘Oh no! That would be such an inconvenience!’ Alex pulled a face. She couldn’t think of anything worse than to have Auntie Sue fussing around.

A door creaked open down the hallway. Alex perked her head up.

‘I better get going now. I think Mum is awake,’ Alex whispered hoarsely.

Alex watched nervously as the ghost-like figure appeared along the passage. Her hair was disheveled, eyes vacant, and her face was as pale as the silk nightgown she was wearing.

‘John?’ Her shrill voice quivered, echoing off the walls.

‘Mum, it’s just me,’ Alex called out.

Light footsteps pattered on the floorboards.

‘Oh, Alex…’ Mum’s voice was soaked in disappointment as she observed the empty living room.

‘Mum, remember Dad is—’

‘I know.’ Mum stared at the bouquet of flowers on the kitchen bench. A card with the word ‘condolences’ peeked through the leaves.

Alex watched Mum walk back into her room with her head hung low. You could see her bones protruding through her nightgown. Alex wanted nothing more than to get Mum out of her room, to open the windows and curtains and change the bed sheets. A pungent smell had started to arise from in there; a rotting stench that seemed to infiltrate Mum’s grieving body. Alex wrinkled her nose. It was getting worse.

 

 

 

A week later, Alex’s feet were crunching through the autumn leaves as she made her way to the bus stop. Three weeks felt like a very long time away from work. She missed the buzz of computers inside the busy office. A cold gush of wind sent a shiver up her spine; it felt like a breath of fresh air. Alex had never been a patient person, she knew it was only a matter of time before she would snap. She had begun to throw away the condolence cards and sometimes left the phone unplugged. But no matter how hard she tried, the memory of her Dad’s death seemed to taunt her. Even the crowd of black coats at the bus stop triggered memories of his funeral. Alex released a dramatic sigh, receiving side-glances from the people near her.

When the bus appeared around the corner, the drowsy crowd started to stir. Feet shuffled as everyone hungrily inched forward in hope of getting a seat on the bus. Alex had seated herself comfortably and was drinking coffee from her thermos when she saw the man jump onto the bus; the same man from the grocery store. Alex held her thermos in mid-air as she eyed him. He hasn’t paid for his bus fare, maybe he is poor. He took out a notepad and started scribbling. Every time she looked up, she felt him glance away. Alex felt the hairs on her arms stand on end—it was as if he knew she was watching him.

When her stop approached, she carefully made her way down the aisle, seeing him fold the piece of paper as she drew nearer. The closer she got, the more she noticed a pungent smell, and scrunched her face in disgust—it was the rotting smell that had started to infiltrate Mum’s room, and it was coming from him. She covered her nose and looked around madly, but no one else seemed to be bothered by it. Just in time, the doors opened and Alex flew out. She stared with a gaping mouth at the bus as it continued on.

 

 

 

By their third encounter, Alex felt an uneasy dread. She had organised to meet Toby for a date night, which they hadn’t done in a while, since the passing of her Dad. Waiting in line at the movies, Alex felt restless being in such a busy space. All the noise of people chattering seemed to echo in her head, and the smell of the buttery popcorn made her stomach churn.

‘You alright?’ Toby asked as he put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ Alex replied, her foot tapping impatiently.

The two of them waited in line behind a big family; a toddler wailed in a stroller and another two ran wild. Alex crinkled her nose.

‘I think that baby’s nappy needs changing,’ she whispered to Toby. ‘It’s making me feel really nauseous.’

Toby raised his eyebrows and shrugged sympathetically. Then one of the children bumped into a person waiting in the queue, making them turn around. It was him. Alex froze as the man turned in her direction. Their eyes met for a few seconds—an icy shiver ran up her spine. His face was expressionless, not a flinch nor a flicker.

‘Toby…’ whispered Alex.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Do you see that man? The one in front of the family?’ Alex’s voice trembled.

‘Where?’ Toby inclined his head.

‘There, don’t you see him?’ Alex tugged Toby’s shirt in desperation.

‘There are many men in this line, Alex. Which one are you talking about?’

The man walked away as Alex watched in horror.

‘I keep seeing the same man,’ she said.

Toby looked at her quizzically before stroking her hair. ‘Does he look like your dad?’

Alex shook her head, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

‘You sure? I think it might be.’ Toby gave her shoulder a squeeze. ‘It’s okay, Alex. You haven’t even had a proper chance to mourn, with the way your Mum has been.’

Alex shook her head again. ‘I told you, it’s got nothing to do with that.’

Toby nodded and gave her a light kiss on the forehead, as if politely dismissing her behavior and worries as a figment of her imagination, a mourning strategy, or a cry for attention. Alex bit her lip.

Yeah, maybe I’ve gone fucking mad as well,’ she said.

‘Come on, Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.’ Toby tilted his head to the side.

‘No, I think that’s exactly what you mean,’ Alex muttered through gritted teeth as she pushed Toby away from her and started running.

Weaving through the crowd of people, Alex was determined to confront this mysterious man. I’m not crazy, she repeated in her head. Her eyes darted from left to right across the bustling food court. I’m not crazy. Sure enough, there he was standing in the far corner, staring at her as if he knew she would find him. Alex made her way through the people, drawn to his stare.

‘Alex, stop!’ Toby had grabbed her arm and turned her swiftly around, ‘Where are you going?’

‘He’s there! I need to talk to him,’ said Alex, pointing at the man.

‘Okay, where? Where is this man?’ asked Toby.

‘Just there, in the corner!’

Toby paused, staring intently, ‘Alex, I don’t see anyone standing in that corner.’

She jabbed her finger in the air, ‘Look! He’s right there!’

Toby looked again, then shook his head silently. He pulled her towards him in a tight embrace. She looked past his shoulder and watched the man walk away, slowly disappearing into the crowd.

 

 

 

That night, as Alex lay awake in her bed, she could hear her Mum’s muffled sobs in the room next door. It wouldn’t be a surprise if I was going mad too, she thought. Toby had suggested they book an in-home psychiatrist for her mum. He was worried about her condition, but Alex knew that his underlying agenda was really Alex. She hugged her pillow tightly as she listened to Mum’s whimpers softening, until there was finally silence. A soft breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside whilst a storm brewed in Alex’s mind. She imagined herself barging into Mum’s room, shaking her frail body and shouting, ‘No more, Mum! No more! I can’t handle this anymore!’ Alex’s body shuddered. She didn’t feel like herself anymore.

 

 

 

The next day, Alex received a text from Toby saying that he had booked an initial consultation for a therapy session at 6pm.

‘Just for your Mum. You can listen in if you want, up to you,’ he added.

When Alex arrived at home at exactly 5:45pm, the lights were on in the living room. Strange, Alex thought as she fumbled with her keys. She was greeted with warm air as the heater had been turned on, and she could hear her Mum’s high-pitched chuckle. The house had come alive again. Alex frowned, disturbed by the sudden change.

‘Mum?’ Alex called as she made her way to the living room.

‘Oh, Alex! We have a visitor!’ Mum called.

That smell hit her before Alex could see him. She covered her nose and froze in shock at the sight of the man. He rose onto his feet, pushing his glasses up.

‘He said he was an old friend of your Dad’s. High school friends, did you say?’ Mum looked over at him in admiration, then at Alex quizzically, ‘Why are you doing that?’

‘I… I… ’ Alex mumbled behind the hand blocking her nose.

She edged her way toward Mum. What the fuck is going on, she thought.

‘Mum… you can actually see him?’ Alex asked cautiously.

Mum frowned, ‘What do you—’

The man cleared his throat. ‘May I have a word with your lovely daughter?’

‘Oh, yes of course!’ Mum sprang to her feet. ‘I’ll just make some more tea.’

‘Sit down, Alex.’ The man gestured. His voice was low.

Alex shuddered as she sat in the furthest seat away from him, her trembling hands gathered in her lap.

‘You know me, I presume,’ he said.

‘I’ve… seen you around,’ Alex replied, avoiding eye contact.

‘Which you shouldn’t have.’ The man peered over his glasses. ‘I knew something was wrong when I first saw you at the supermarket. Normally, people like you can’t see me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex’s eyes were wide.

‘It means I have prolonged my stay. My job here proved to be more, well, complicated.’ The man paused for a moment. ‘You see, the fact that I am starting to be seen means that I need to leave this planet as soon as possible. But the problem is, my job is not done. I had a list of people to select from, and I selected you.’

‘Am I going to die?’ Alex whispered, her voice trembling.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘because that is the fate of all humans.’

He took out a clipboard and started scribbling notes indifferently, as if he was sending off a parcel.

‘And it seems you have already become very sensitive to death,’ he said, nodding.

‘The smell…’ Alex mumbled.

‘Like a rotting corpse, or simply, the fragrance of death.’ The man shrugged. ‘It’s an acquired taste.’

‘But… I can’t die,’ Alex said. ‘What about my Mum? What about—’

‘No one gets to choose their death, Alex. Death is a natural occurrence whether it be sudden or expected,’ the man said as he peered at his clipboard, ‘and yours will be… sudden… the result of a natural cause.’ The man put down his clipboard, ‘I’m ready when you are.’

Alex felt an adrenal surge of mania rush through her blood, as if all the anger and frustration that she had contained was finally bursting. She stood up abruptly, looking around for something to aide her escape.

‘Stay away!’ she roared, her arms in front of her in defense.

‘Please, don’t resist. It never works.’ The man stood up.

Alex threw a vase of flowers at him and the glass shattered on the floor. The man shook his head. ‘You can’t cheat death, Alex.’ He halted at the sight of blood tricking down his injured arm and growled. ‘And it seems that I am really running out of time.’

Alex watched as the man threw his glasses onto the floor—the same glasses that had clattered onto the floor of the supermarket, the same glasses with the Band-Aid wrapped around the side. All of a sudden, he looked different; his eyes looked darker and his face hollower. A Grim Reaper, hungry for life.

He lurched and grabbed hold of Alex’s arm, covering her mouth with his other hand.

‘You won’t even know it’s happening,’ he whispered.

Alex’s eyes widened as she watched a golf club rise up behind the man. It hit him square on the head. He swayed on his legs, as if confused by the pain, his mouth opening and closing in silence. Alex watched in horror as her Mum swung with all her strength. Swoosh, thud. Swoosh, thud.

‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ she growled through gritted teeth, between each forceful stroke.

It was the sight of a madwoman. She didn’t stop until the man had buckled over into a limp heap. Unconscious. Dead. Mum was panting, with sweat running down the sides of her face.

Alex was screaming.

‘Shush!’ Mum hit Alex lightly on the shoulder.

‘Mum, are you insane! Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ Alex blundered over her words.

Mum tucked her hair behind her ears as she tried to find her composure. Her chest was still heaving.

‘Whether it be a man or a ghost or some weird shit like that, I’m not losing any more people. Now get the shovel.’

 

 

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