Copenhagen – Jamie de Jong
Sea – Caroline Masters
House Rules – Sandra Arnold
The Hibiscus Flowers – Gretchen Carroll
The Drop Off – Stephen O’Connor
Things forgotten or not yet remembered – Martin Porter
The Station – Jacqui Hammond
Unexpected visitor – Keith Nunes
Dream State Drug – Christopher Keene
Old Women as Ghosts – Jane Swan
The day my brother drowned – Melanie Dixon
These Scars – Ronnie Smart
Jubail – Marjory Woodfield
We Will Be Alright – Alex Reece Abbott
The End of the Word – Nick Fairclough
Feature Artist: Rebecca Harris
Micro Feature: Best Small Fictions Micro Competition Winners
Book Feature: Jan FitzGerald
Points of Origin
The beach is wide and I’m wearing a bikini, the blue one with bows tied at my hipbones. It’s been ages since I’ve cartwheeled. Sand shifts beneath the heels of my hands, but my arms are strong and filled with sunshine. I hold in my stomach. Sky and sea switch places and maybe my legs are a bit bent because when I turn back the right way up, hair wild across my cheeks, Lorna says, “Not quite right.” Her stomach is flatter than mine.
After the Chinese restaurant, my feet swell from the MSG so I carry my shoes. Rain-oiled tarmac squeaks beneath my bare feet. Our meal was served in dishes to share, placed on a circular wooden disc that turned so we didn’t have to pass or stretch. Lorna makes great fun of the fact it is called a Lazy Susan. For weeks afterwards she says it as she spins me around.
I try, but my stomach does not flatten and my hair cannot be tamed. At the boarding house I sit on a fringed cushion, leaning against the thin wall of her room while she tells stories of people we both know. I don’t recognise them in her stories. Next year, she says, we will flat together but when the time comes there is only one place available in the flat. Lorna has a series of boyfriends, some of whom I never meet. They’re all ‘arseholes’ by the end, even the ones I met and kind of liked. Her mascara runs each time.
I doodle in the margins of my lecture book. Boulders mound up one on top of the other. Koru frame notes about educational theorists. Piaget has such a lovely curly g. Lorna borrows my notes. I’m just the sort that gets As, she says, as if it’s thoughtless of me.
I practice eye contact when I make toasted sandwiches at the coffee bar. The pay is shit, the conditions are shit, but I get to eat the cut-off crusts, scoop the last kernels of creamed corn from the can. The guy who makes the coffees slips me one as we clean up. I am awake all night, my head spinning, my fingers tracing onion-juice rings in the space above my duvet. Later, I have sex with the coffee guy and it turns out he’s an arsehole. I only cry because of the onions.
Lorna has a tattoo of a mermaid scratched into the skin below her collarbone. She enjoys pulling down the front of her blouse to show people. You can see the lavender lace on her bra. Or pink. She tells me I should get one too but all my bras are skin tone.
When I drive back home after our first term of teaching we talk about the kids in our classes and call them ‘our children’. When I ask to catch up at Christmas, she is busy but we fit in a drink in a bar that has bubbles of light on the ceiling. We have bubbles in our stomachs. Our words are bubbles. I meet her man-about-town, whose noise fills her ears so my bubble words float away. I say I have to go. She has already turned before I reach the door. I hadn’t planned to stay for long, anyhow. Lorna is blonde now and her freckles are covered with foundation.
I hold her hand after the procedure but she says “Get me a drink” so I sit on a cushion while she tells stories about the dreadful people at the private school where she works. “Thanks,” she whispers when the man arrives. “I can always count on you.”
When I ask Lorna to be my bridesmaid she squeals and carries on about shoes. Later I get a parcel in the mail. It’s a hair iron.
I’ve been practicing my signature. We are hyphenating. Now I get a gorgeous curly g to my name. It comes with an n in front and I have to teach my parents how to say it right. The children from my school gift me a pounamu. I message Lorna that I will wear it over my wedding dress. She phones me this time. “You going all Māori on us?” she says. She pronounces Māori as if it is only full of ‘a’s. She says we need to talk and then tells me: the man is the father of one of her pupils. He said her mermaid tattoo was tacky-hip but he’s an arsehole who was only maximising his investment in his daughter’s education. She’s heading to London. He’s already paid for her tickets, so she won’t be around for the wedding.
My feet are bare with raffia flowers between my toes. The wind blows the spinifex seed heads across the sand and they run up against our guests’ legs. He runs his fingers through my straight hair, says it feels like water. I shouldn’t have bothered; it gets tousled in the night, during which he kisses the koru etched into the skin of my hip.
When I join Facebook the first person I search for is Lorna. She has a family profile picture – a pigeon pair – and a long narrow back garden with a fishpond. I don’t send a friend request. After all this time, I leave that to her.
The beach is covered in sharp shells so we wear shoes and when we twirl with our arms out straight the centrifugal force sends blood to our fingertips. We are dervishes. We clamber over rocks and my daughter sits, says she is a mermaid and combs wild hair with her fingertips. I say, “I knew a mermaid once and they are fickle creatures.” She tugs at the top of my shorts to trace a koru surrounded in silver streaks. When she leans down to pull off a cats-eye I cannot forestall my words. “Careful, darling!” She falters. Later, on the cool grass, I will teach her to cartwheel with her legs straight.
Jamie de Jong
I am in Copenhagen. With my green Kathmandu backpack, I got here myself. Quickly, I learn the capital is pronounced Go-ben-hauwn, and spelt Kobenhavn. It rolls around in my mouth, like a big blue lolly. I am meeting Frederikke. I am in love with her. I am to say her name more like Fre-duh-rigg-uh, but in New Zealand, she was Freddie. This travelling freedom feels like a cocoon: I am so safe and ready (dangerously so). I text Freddie on my EU phone, she tells me where to get off the bus and I do. Then she is there, in a fur coat, pink earmuffs and suede gloves: the quintessential Danish woman. We embrace but not for long (the Danes are apparently not very sentimental). “How was your trip?” she asks. “Great, I was so alive and alone.” “Good, now we must get some things to eat.” We go to the store and get dark bread and young cheese and eggs, pastries, oranges and coffee. I pass a man on the way, a real Viking with a white beard and shoulders like cliffs. I want to take a photo but I am too late. We get to her apartment. The bottom half of the walls are painted light green, and the top half is off-white. I document everything with the camera on my phone, details like these seeming most important. This makes Freddie mad. “It’s just my house, you know, you live here too.” The two bedrooms have simple futons with one bare dark wooden closet in each. One room is her father’s when he comes to town for business, but Freddie will stay in there while I am here. Everything is in its place, and there is so much room. The only ‘thing’ is a beautiful brown globe behind the TV. “An antique,” Freddie says. I can call her this because it saves her having to cringe when I say her name wrongly, although I still try in vain. She spins the globe with one finger. I can’t think but that she conquered the whole thing: Delhi, Tokyo, Perth, Buenos Aires. That night I sleep like a baby – something about it being so cold outside and so warm in the apartment. I think about home, and that it would be nice to hold her hand.
The next day her friend Jo takes me around to the porridge shop to fill me up. It is called GrØd, but it is pronounced like a short growl. We eat porridge flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg. We keep going to the park. I take note of the well-known names on the plaques, to tell Frederikke. I know she will like this.
When I met her, in Wellington, I was hauling clean laundry through the street. My parents were in town for a few days and I was doing my washing at their hotel. I was sweating and stopping at each lamppost to readjust my composure when, someone asked if I needed help. I took it, unknowingly. “I could have been a criminal,” she said. With her long blond hair and clean skin I found this very unlikely (later, however, I thought she could be anything at all). We walked to the Cable Car and I asked where she was staying. She said she didn’t know yet, so I offered her my roommate’s bed while she was away. We spent every day together, and she would talk of things I didn’t know about: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. “The Russians are the best storytellers,” she said. On the wall of my hostel, she pointed out an illustrated Soren Kierkegaard quote. “He was the first existentialist, you know,” I was told. It was as if I had personally offended her by not knowing who he was.
We went swimming in June. She went nearly naked. It was freezing, and we had coffee and cigarettes after to defrost ourselves. She smelt like sweat and liquorice and I loved it.
But that was not why I loved her.
That night, in the hostel, we lay on my hard single bed, with her doing all the talking. She offered phrases in Danish and French, and phrases she’d learnt from TV shows in English. She was someone who could hold something in their hand and know every corner of it. Although I had the feeling she knew this about herself too. The thing about people like this – with atmosphere – is they always know why they love something. She read to me, that night: Sherlock Holmes. She loved Sherlock Holmes because it was so classically gripping. After she had finished reading, we were silent for a long time. She leaned up on her elbow, as if she were going to say something, but didn’t. The heater made the room hot. She held my hand for a second, and we made eye contact, the sly kind, like when you both know what the other one wants. If I were to say something it would be, “This is not how we do it in New Zealand. We only kiss each other when we are drunk and slurring,” and “Intimacy is never this intimate.” I looked up and she kissed me. Soft and wet and leaving me slurring. Then she hopped off to bed.
The next day, she left me. I dropped her on the cusp of the motorway. I told her I was worried, but she said, in so many words, “I have a knife,” and “I’m perfectly fine.” She wore my orange jumper with the turtle neck. I watched her get in a car, and off to Australia.
I was not in love, per say. Just enamored with all things her. Her chosen wall paint, her brown globe and the Vikings. I put them in my hand and tried to learn everything about them. Like she’d grasped all things me, with a kiss.
The wind is a far-off sea that swells in the kauri on the hill, pours into the valley, sinks into the forest and pulls the sky under. We left the doors open for the moon. No sheets, only air brushing the backs of your knees and thighs; a current sweeping over your back. The air is a warm-blooded sea, your skin is hot sand. The sky flickers under my eyelids and your breath against my neck becomes the sea, the trees.
Soon after moving in I learned that I could never rely on the house to maintain its equilibrium. Some days it was petulant beyond belief. As long as I made it the centre of my world it gave me its best. But whenever I tried to introduce change, for example, the time I brought the kitten home, it sulked. Light bulbs blew. The windows stuck. The washing machine broke down. In the end it was easier to comply. After I returned the kitten to the shop the house settled down and hugged me again. Cushions stayed on the sofas. Cupboard doors stayed shut. Knives stayed nicely lined up in the drawers.
I once tried to explain that I did get a bit lonely since my mother died, even though the money I inherited from her enabled me to buy my dream home. I felt the house soften at the words ‘dream home’ so I risked telling it that after twenty years of looking after my mother I missed having a living being to care for and the kitten would have been a nice companion. That was a mistake. Windows flew open letting in the wind and rain. Mould grew overnight in the shower. All this meant extra work for me, of course, and I realised the house felt I should be content just taking good care of it. After all, it did provide me with comfort, warmth and a beautiful garden ready to fill with flowers. So, yes, I could see that I must have come across as ungrateful. I tried to make amends by spending more time cleaning and polishing and digging.
One day a brochure arrived in the mail advertising river cruises in France. I hadn’t had a holiday in years, so on the spur of the moment I rang the travel agent and booked one. I felt guilty packing my case and almost changed my mind. Next morning I saw my clothes strewn across the floor and my passport torn in two. I cried with disappointment, but I’ve never been good at confrontation so I cancelled the holiday. The house breathed again.
A week later I bumped into one of my neighbours in the library. I’d noticed him in his garden occasionally and we’d nodded and smiled and gone on our way. This morning, however, he stopped, introduced himself as Adrian and asked how I liked the house. I replied that I loved it, though it was hard work. He commented that I’d been the longest occupant there that he could recall. “It was waiting for the right person,” he smiled. “Someone who would treat it the way it deserved.”
After that, Adrian took to stopping at the gate whenever he saw me in the garden and sometimes he brought me cuttings from his own plants. One day he noticed the rosebush I’d transplanted was wilting and said he’d drop off some rose food. That evening there was a knock at the door. Adrian stood there with a big bag of Rose Gro and a bottle of Merlot.
I invited him in. We drank the wine and talked about roses and the best way to make compost. When he left I realised I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages. I even started humming as I washed the glasses. One slipped from my hand and smashed on the floor. As I picked up the shards a particularly sharp piece sliced my wrist. A spout of blood arced from my arm to the wall. I grabbed a tea towel and pressed down hard. When the bleeding stopped I felt so light-headed I went straight to bed.
Next morning I opened the kitchen door to find all the contents of the cupboards and drawers on the floor. My mother’s best china lay in pieces amongst splattered sauces and jams. Again I cried, but recriminations were pointless, so after sweeping and washing the lino I decided to walk to the library to calm down and leave the house alone to reflect on its behaviour and, hopefully, feel ashamed of itself.
Adrian was passing the gate as I walked out with my books. He said he was going to the library too and asked if I fancied a coffee afterwards. I did. And this time we didn’t talk about compost. He said he kept his yacht in the harbour and asked if I’d like to go sailing with him at the weekend. In a spirit of rebellion, I said yes.
How the house found out, I have no idea. I took great care not to alter my routine. I tried not to appear too happy. I read my book every evening as usual. On Saturday morning I dressed in my weekend jeans. But when I put my key in the lock to open the front door it jammed. I tried the back door and the side doors and even the windows. All stuck fast. I knew then the house wouldn’t let me out. I knew too that it no longer trusted me. It would watch my every move. It would disable my car every time I tried to leave. I wondered what would happen when I ran out of food. I picked up the phone to call Adrian. The line was dead. I heard a crash and ran into the kitchen. The knife drawer was on the floor. The walls were shaking. Bits of plaster were raining from the ceiling. I’d never witnessed such anger, such determination to make me comply. So I had no choice.
I snatched the firelighter from the stove and headed for the curtains. In retaliation a shelf full of teapots dislodged itself from the wall and aimed at my head, knocking me to the floor as the curtains ignited. I lay there in a spreading viscous pool. Through smoke and flames I thought I heard the house screaming. I thought I heard a fire engine. But I wasn’t certain I’d heard either.
The Hibiscus Flowers
It is forty-two days since Neela moved into the apartment block next door. I didn’t recognise her, but as I later discovered, my mother knows her mother. Her family are Fijian Indian too and immigrated to New Zealand about the same time. This is a good sign: it’s easier if families know each other when it comes to marriage. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the first couple of weeks, we just said hello over the fence. Then I summoned up the courage to say something more. “My name’s Danesh. Why aren’t you at work?” I think it was. And it turns out that we both work nights; she’s a waitress at a restaurant and I fill shelves at a supermarket. Another good omen.
I’m not quite sure what is about Neela that I find so attractive. She’s beautiful of course, but I don’t usually get caught up in romance. In fact I never really have. My family has given up on me in that regard. When I told my brother Krishna about Neela, he looked surprised, and laughed for longer than I thought necessary. Although only two years older, he has met up to my parents’ expectations much better than I have – good job, nice wife, one child with another on the way. Yet I’m the one who went university; Krishna thought it too boring. I simply don’t find people easy. So I stack shelves, while he has a successful business. I’m pretty sure that’s what you call irony.
I also told Simon about Neela and he was more encouraging. Simon’s my only friend, and with more knowledge about these matters than me; I take his opinion seriously. He said I should try to make an impression. I didn’t know what this meant, but I pressed him for more detail and examples, and I’ve come up with a plan. Which I’m going to implement today.
It was easy enough to cut the red hibiscus flowers from my brother’s garden early this morning. Krishna won’t mind, or at least not too much. Having walked the short distance back to my flat, I then found some tissue paper to wrap the flowers, an easy task given I like to keep things in marked drawers. Krishna says Neela wouldn’t ever go for me because I’m boring, yet I think she wants some stability. And thoroughness can be quite exciting, I’ve found.
For the occasion I’m wearing my best clothes today – a pair of pressed khaki trousers, with a blue polo shirt tucked in. While I don’t have many outfits, I did try on a couple of shirts when I was practising what I’m going to say in front of the mirror. I can’t stop checking my watch repeatedly, and looking out of the kitchen window down to Neela’s courtyard. She isn’t sitting out there yet; I have to wait until she is having her morning cup of tea. I wonder why she’s running a bit late today.
My phone starts playing the Darth Vader theme; it’s my parents calling. The worst time.
“Hello. What do you want?”
“Good morning, Danesh. That’s hardly a way to answer the phone, is it, son?”
I sigh; it’s my mother. I look out the window and I take a sharp intake of breath. Neela! Oh no, I need to get out there now.
“And her mother said you talk to Neela a lot and while it’s very flattering, Neela already has caught someone else’s attention, do you understand? Are you listening, Danesh?”
I have no idea what she is talking about, but time is critical.
“Sorry, Mum, I’ve got to go. Bye.”
I end the call, and look around frantically for the flowers. They have wilted in the sunlight pouring through the kitchen window – how could I have forgotten how delicate hibiscus are! I groan. I can feel perspiration gathering under my armpits; this isn’t going how I imagined. The flowers would have to do.
I rush out the door, down the stairs to where the clotheslines are. Sweat has started to pour off my forehead.
“Neela! Hi!” I wave frantically.
She looks up and smiles. “Hi Danesh, just finishing my cup of tea, in a bit of a rush today.”
“Oh really? You aren’t usually on a Saturday morning. I’ve brought you some flowers.”
I thrust the flowers in front of me over the fence.
“Oh. They’re nice. They look thirsty though.”
She doesn’t reach out for them, and stays seated on her backdoor step.
“Um, yes. I thought you’d appreciate them, given red hibiscus is symbolic of the Hindu goddess Kali.”
Neela looks at me with what I can only guess is confusion, but I plough on. My speech wasn’t going to plan.
“Do you want to have dinner with me some time?”
In an attempt to stem the flow of sweat dripping down my forehead, I wipe it with my handkerchief; it ends up soaking wet.
“Oh, Danesh. Look, it’s my Aunt’s birthday today and we’re having a family lunch. I have to go. I’m helping set up.”
She isn’t looking at me in the eyes; surely that is a bad sign.
“Maybe I’ll see you here tomorrow?” I couldn’t lose our cup of tea chats at least.
“Sure, sure. Bye, Danesh.”
She turns around, goes inside and closes the back door. I stand there holding the flowers for a few moments. Even for me, that went remarkably badly. I throw the pathetic bouquet into the compost bin, and wonder why people bother with love.
The Drop Off
The SUV had purred from the brown plains to the green coast, but on the gravel road it rolled easily, shaking the two crates, forcing Sherry to steady them.
The driver glanced back. “They won’t find out, will they?”
“No, paperwork will cover it,” Sherry replied.
The vehicle turned into a narrow drive with native bush beyond. They stopped, got out and opened the tailgate, as a grey warbler sang shrilly.
“I didn’t want them to go overseas,” said Sherry.
They carried each crate into the bush and then opened the doors.
Two tiger cubs bounded out.
“They belong here.”
Things forgotten or not yet remembered
My birth. My brother’s birth. My mother.
My eldest sister folding my clothing when they were tiny. The haze drifting across grey fields during one cold winter when we walked to the temple. The impossibly hot sun during that summer just before I became a man.
My wife. No, scratch that entry out. Place it in the house with my mother and all other people I will remember always.
Spring sowing, autumn reaping. Winter crops, crisp, fresh.
Burning my father after battle.
Sharp eyesight. Strong teeth. Stews. Broths. That long, misty path to the temple. My death.
Meeting my mother.
“He’s a kicker,” the woman says, smoothing her stomach.
Always the wrong people, thinks Julie, stuffing in egg sandwich.
The morning light blazes, falling pretty, dappled. The wind rattles abandoned newspaper; moves through them, side-by-side, on the wooden bench.
Julie checks her watch, again. This time, dropping coffee, startling the pregnant woman, who glares, arm flying to her ripe bulge, vulnerable, like an unpicked peach.
Julie’s apology hovers, the moment aching, before it’s scattered. Gone.
Later, it’s dark, her cheeks wet. Always the wrong person, thinks Julie, listening to the long legs of the bus run her far, far away.
Keeton trawls through the streets of the Maniototo Plains town.
He’s here because of a rumour, because he wants to see her, he wants to see that she has disintegrated, that she’s a dried up mother of ten little brats and is scared of her punchy ploddy farmer husband.
There was no surname or actual street address attached to the rumour but her first name – Saskia, well…
Keeton engages a shopkeeper at the hardware/post office store and then slips in her Christian name which induces a nod.
“About 15k down Eastern Drain Road No 2,” says the avuncular retailer.
The dirt road powders Keeton’s Honda like a botched make-up application.
The Dennetts live here on the fence beside the mail box.
He climbs out of his vehicle, opens the gate, gets back into his car and drives off leaving the gate open hoping for an exodus of sheep but they’re far off dotting the flat earth like maggots.
The house is cream brick with a dark brown colour-steel roof – modern, elongated.
The cavernous garage houses just one vehicle – a new-model four-wheel drive.
Keeton twists a thought: Mr Dennett is probably out there playing with his flock.
The white front door opens as he’s about to knock.
“I heard the car on the gravel. What are you selling? Brian isn’t here right now.”
She’s slightly weathered, he thinks, but not surprising living out here under this furnace of a sun.
He almost sighs. She’s wearing a plain light blue shirt, jeans, is barefoot, auburn hair pulled back, no jewellery and still those captivating turquoise eyes.
“Saskia,” he says boldly.
“Jesus, Keeton!?” she says holding onto the door, not making any move.
“Correct and only slight hesitation,” he says. “Maybe the beard threw you a little.”
“You, you shouldn’t be here Keeton … the terms of your release…”
“I need to clear up a few things,” he says. “You never answered my letters … Twelve years, Saskia!”
“I don’t need this, Keeton. I want nothing from you just silence and … nothing.”
“I need to come in, sit down, talk things out … What about a cold beer? I’m dehydrating out here…” And he edges toward her.
She steps back and tries to shut the door but he shoves it and she falls backward onto the tiled floor. He enters and slams the door behind him.
He stands over her, fists pulsating, knuckles whitening.
Her face is a glowing crimson, her breathing is uneven as she rises up on her hands, back slightly lifted off the floor.
The phone rings and wakes the baby who starts crying in the lounge.
They both look toward the lounge.
Keeton looks back at Saskia.
“I want some comfort from you. Do you know what I mean?” he says forcing some sort of smile.
“Yes, I do,” she says sitting up.
“I want twelve years of comfort, a little extra for the last two years because they were the worst.”
The phone’s ringing, the baby’s crying.
“Where do you want me?” she says standing uneasily.
“In front of your wedding photos. I’m sure you have some displayed on the walls somewhere.”
“In the bedroom.”
She leads him down the corridor past two bedrooms and a bathroom.
The phone’s still ringing, the baby’s still crying.
“Do you want me naked or just pants off?” she says, standing beside the bed.
He looks around the room.
“Everything’s beige; that’s not like you,” he says. “And doesn’t Mr Dennett look just like he’s supposed to … a rosy-cheeked solid bloke. You’ve come a long way to go nowhere.”
He focuses back on her.
“Naked, of course. I want to see what childbirth has done to you … seeing you wouldn’t have one with me.”
She sits on the bed, takes off her shirt, jeans, panties and bra.
“Lie down,” he says, gesturing. “Well, you’ve come off relatively unscathed.”
“What now?” she says, looking up at him as he remains standing alongside the bed.
“I want you to explain why you framed me for killing your father. Why you let me to go prison for something you did. I loved you but not twelve years of prison worth.”
“I needed his money,” she says calmly staring straight at him. “He wouldn’t part with any of it and you were handy … couldn’t miss the opportunity. You were fun for a bit but that’s all. I could see a life ahead of me but you … you were always bound for the bottom of the pond.”
The phone stops ringing and the baby stops crying. Both of them hear a vehicle approaching on the gravel driveway.
Keeton looks over his shoulder and then back at Saskia.
She nods from the bed still lying on her back.
“You’re fucked again, Keeton,” she says, putting her hands under her head.
The front door opens and the husband calls out to his wife.
“Hey, hon, where are you?”
“In the bedroom, babe!” she calls back unmoved.
Keeton moves aside so his back is not toward her and he’s facing the door.
“Where’s the little one?” he calls out.
“In the lounge sleeping, honey,” she says.
After some shuffling sounds and cooing the father enters the bedroom with the baby in his arms.
He looks at his wife on the bed and then takes in Keeton standing toward the corner of the room beside his wife’s dressing table.
“Okay, so someone say something,” he says, agitated.
“You go first, Keeton,” she says, looking up at him.
Keeton digs into his shirt pocket, holds out a phone and replays the entire conversation he and Saskia had from when he arrived at the house.
Dream State Drug
from Stuck in the Game, a LitRPG adventure
Sue and I stood in David’s dark, BO-smelling room for half an hour before I realised he wasn’t going to wake himself out of his game. Or maybe he couldn’t.
I kicked his bed and screamed at him in frustration. He was so far under that I doubted he even flinched under the Dream Engine helmet.
During high school, I’d enjoyed playing MMO games as much as David and Brock, the third musketeer of our little group of friends. It was during this time that I’d met Sue, who had always been annoyed when the three of us would spend too much time on our computers.
When Brock started playing the new Dream Engine, or the ‘harder stuff’ as we called it back then, we were shocked by how addicted he became to it. By then Sue and I were going out, and, after seeing how the games had turned Brock into a recluse, we were both completely against being sucked into them.
Now that David was getting into Dream Games as well, it felt like the game had stripped me of my best friend.
Sue’s dark hair whipped around as she made for the door. She hated the Dream Games far more than I did. It was like she was on a crusade to get them banned.
Frustrated, I’d stolen a bottle of soda from his bedside table while we waited. From the way two of them were left out, I’d assumed one was for me anyway. As I left, I gulped it down and then threw the bottle into the recycling bin outside.
I followed Sue out to my car. She was sitting in the passenger’s seat, her expression showing that she was unimpressed by the state we had found David in and that she was eager to leave.
We took off down the back road, heading for the highway. My jaw clenched as I sped up, thinking about all of the controversies I had read up on about the Dream Engine.
Schizophrenia, narcolepsy, drug overdoses: there were a myriad of boogeyman-like risks being rumored about online to scare the parents of any gamer who might have considered buying the new system. Were any of these true? Probably not, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Being skeptical of the connection between smoking and lung cancer didn’t help those who died from it.
“If they think a game is more important than spending time with you then you’re better off not being friends with them,” she said as we stopped at a red light.
It was getting darker and beginning to rain, the approaching night close on the heels of the overcast clouds. I turned on my lights while trying to simultaneously keep my attention on the road and her words. “Neither of us have tried it before so we don’t really know what it’s like for them. Maybe it’s just that fun?”
She snorted and I didn’t know what sounded less attractive, that or the car horn going off behind me a second after the light turned green.
“True,” Sue said, “but they could at least do it in moderation.”
The impatient driver who beeped at me continued to ride my tail even as I turned my car onto the highway. To make matters worse, his lights were on high beam, so I could barely see anything in my rearview mirror. As I shifted my gaze back to the road, my eyes began to blur.
“Whoa…” I squinted, trying to clear my vision. “I mean… it’s their choice how they spend their life, no matter how we feel about it.”
I didn’t know why I was defending them. I was just as against their kind of gaming lifestyle as she was, and besides, I was beginning to feel light-headed.
Sue crossed her arms, screwing up her mousy face. “Still, I would never say a life where you have to take mind-altering drugs to have a good time is a good life. Didn’t Brock tell you that a bunch of people died from overdosing on DSD?”
“I’m not sure how seriously we should take his story.” I shook my head roughly, but not because I was disagreeing with her. A sudden weariness was wrapping itself around me like a warm blanket, making my eyelids droop. “The guy has… ” I yawned. “Watched a few too many conspiracy documentaries. Besides, I think he likes you, and he knows that if he talks about DSD, you’ll listen.”
“Well, Brock said he’s going to mail me the video evidence on a flash drive today. It should really add weight to my petition to get DSD out of stores and – ”
She was interrupted by another roar of the horn from the car behind us. It jolted me from my stupor. Sue turned in her seat and flipped him off when we arrived at another set of traffic lights. “What’s your problem, huh?”
That’s… a very good… question.
I couldn’t focus on the road. With a quick glance through the rain-streaked windscreen to check for lights in the darkness, I eased on the brake to take a left off the highway. I had to pull over and take a rest before I caused an accident.
Time seemed to skip for a moment and I heard Sue scream, “Noah, stop!”
I jolted up just in time to see that there were lights ahead of me and that they were coming straight for us. I didn’t have time to wonder why I hadn’t seen them before. I floored the accelerator, hoping to cut past them. I wasn’t fast enough. A truck slammed into my car. The sound of shattering glass and folding metal overpowered the car horns as we spun from the impact.
Old Women as Ghosts
You will see one on any street, inconsequential as a sparrow. An old woman hugged in her exoskeleton of winter coat, despite the heat.
Yesterday I observed such a creature – Miss Annie Herbert. She had already done the grocery shopping and left three plastic bags at the bus station to claim for her trip home. What was she thinking as she scurried past Rosina Gowns? She carried as usual, a battered, brown suitcase and knotted under her chin, a blue headscarf patterned with yachts in full sail.
Did Miss Herbert delight in choosing which scarf to wear? Did she linger over them, letting the silky cloth run through work-worn fingers? Did she have a favourite? A treasured gift from a long-ago suitor?
Once she had a companion, Old Mrs Herbert, her mother, though it was difficult to see any real difference between them. Identical lisle stockings enclosed stick legs which poked out from tweed skirts; they wore handknitted gloves except on the balmiest of days. Only the plumage of their headscarves had set them apart from each other.
I have decided that the Mrs Herberts of this world are happy. Miss Anne toddles along on little feet into this shop, and that, scrabbling in her purse for the exact change for her humble purchases. An HB pencil, a book of stamps please, a ball of yarn from my lay-by, thank you, dear.
But a question has been bothering me lately. Am I one of the few people who can see Miss Herbert? Or is she a ghost?
Following her down Main Street, the yachts heeling over on their course round her head, four or five gangly youths came towards us, laughing, joshing, Princes of the Footpath. They did not notice an old woman, only saw an obstacle and tacked carelessly round her. She fell awkwardly, her cardboard suitcase flying under a sales table of cheap lipsticks and cheaper perfume. She had been skittled like a sailboat under a steamer.
“Oh dear,” she piped as I helped her up.
“Thank you, thank you. I’m only a little shocked.” She smoothed her skirt. “I shall be fine in a minute,” and fainted.
The pharmacist helped revive her and she was assisted into the shop, propped up on a chair out the back and administered hot, sweet tea under protest.
“I’ve a number of messages to attend to before the bus leaves,” she said when the colour had returned to her cheeks amid the faint aroma of lavender talcum powder, and refused offers to summon Dr Mendicott or be driven home. She seized her suitcase as stoutly as any footsoldier grabbed his pitchfork, and sallied forth. I followed at a discreet distance marvelling at her resilience.
The youths passed her again, still oblivious to any world other than that of their own making. They’ll be old one day. How will they like being invisible? But they are male, so less likely to disappear.
Miss Herbert’s bravery inspires me, and I seize mine as I too walk towards the young men. They stop suddenly in front of the ATM machine blocking the way so that shoppers begin to go round them into the gutter. I stand my ground. “Excuse me.” They look down on me and I realise that I am fading fast. I have become an Old Woman, not even available to do their washing, so no use to anyone. They set me adrift on an iceberg of indifference. I have reached the stage of life’s journey where, like my grandmother, I should arm myself with an umbrella, for the waving of.
I step forward, edging into the widest, tallest lad’s hemisphere. “Excuse me. There’s people trying to get past.”
The youth peers down at me as if I am flotsam or jetsam, not that he is likely to know the phrase.
I take another step. “You’re blocking the footpath, guys. Show some respect.”
The man-mountain shuffles, retreats. “Huh?”
Then a change comes over him, he squares his shoulders, braces himself and addresses his cohorts.
“Move back, y’all. Let this lady through. Show some respect.”
We may be on the way to the breaker’s yard, the Mrs Herberts of this world and I, but there’s life in us old girls yet.
I grasp my handbag and sail through.
The day my brother drowned
We were getting ready for Christmas in the way only a middle-class, English family does. My father had bought a freshly-cut spruce on his way home from work, and tied it to the roof of his car. “Ho ho ho!” he called as he carried it in through the back door, its branches scraping along the hallway walls, leaving needles across the grey, wool carpet. My mother fetched the stand, and together they heaved the tree into place in the corner of the living room. The same place the Christmas tree had stood for as long I could remember.
“There. Perfect.” My mother wiped her hands on her navy-blue jeans, then picked a couple of stray spruce needles off her Marks and Spencer’s jumper. She beamed and kissed my father on the cheek. He grinned, running his hands through his thinning brown hair. Loosening his tie, he released the top button of his shirt. “I’ll be in the study,” he said, wriggling his grey-socked toes free from tight, leather shoes. “I’ll leave you ladies to it. Let me know when you’re done.”
That’s just how it was in our family.
My mother and I decorated the tree. We draped the lights across the branches, and put the star on top. Then came the tinsel and the silver and gold baubles my mother had decided were all the fashion that year.
I ran upstairs to grab the box that had been carefully tucked at the top of the airing cupboard. The one with the stockings my mother made for Ben and me when we were small. She said it had taken her hours to hand-embroider our names across the top. Benjamin and Isabella. I sat in front of the tree and opened the lid.
“Not yet,” my mother urged. “Wait until Ben’s home. We’ll do it together, as a family. He won’t be long.” Everything had a time and a place and my mother liked things done a particular way. We had to do the stockings together, so we’d wait. Forever. Instead, I helped my mother string the cards neatly across the living-room walls. The same greetings from the same people, year after year. That’s how she liked it. She stood back, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind one ear. Finally, she let me light the single candle in the lantern on the coffee table.
“Food?” she winked at me, as we tiptoed past the office door together, so as not to disturb my father.
In the kitchen, my mother put four mince-pies into the oven, filling the house with the warm, rich aroma of mid-winter spiciness, all the time humming Christmas carols to herself.
“You should get your violin. I love hearing you play Christmas tunes.” She gazed at me with more pride than could be justified. I was hardly talented. Not like Ben.
There was only a week to go. Just one week before the arrival of relatives, the presents, and the feasting. One week before Father Christmas would come on his sleigh in the middle of the night, just as he did every year. One week before the funeral.
My father appeared from his office. “I smell Christmas,” he chortled, a glass of whiskey clutched between his ageing fingers. He worked too hard, always had done, worked impossibly hard to make a comfortable life for all of us. Or at least that’s what my mother said. The truth is I never really understood what my father did, only that he left for the office early each morning and often wasn’t home until after Ben and I were in bed.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Absolutely.” My mother arranged the mince-pies on a plate patterned with snowflakes and dusted them with icing sugar. “Let’s go.” We paraded down the hallway into the living room. This was the moment. We stood in the semi-darkness, our shadows dancing in the candle-light. We always did it like this, the ceremony of Father switching on the tree.
“I just wish Ben was here,” my mother whispered as she squeezed my hand.
“He said not to wait.” It was odd, me trying to reassure my mother like that. It felt wrong. Ben had said he was going to a friend’s house to finish an assignment before the end of term. I knew he was lying, but I’d promised not to tell.
My father stooped to flick the switch and the tree came to life. “Marvellous.” He wrapped an arm around my mother’s waist, pulling her close. The only thing that could have made it more cliché would have been snow gently starting to fall outside, but it was raining, that kind of continuous, cold, soaking-dark rain you only get in England in December.
So now you can picture the scene; me, my mother and father, standing in the living room, admiring the decorations. That’s when it happened. Not that it was particularly startling at the time. The front doorbell rang. There’s nothing remarkable about that, is there? It happens often enough. Nobody jumped up and said, “Goodness.” My father sighed, his bliss interrupted, and put his whiskey down on the mantelpiece. My mother stared at her watch, as though this was somehow the fault of time itself. I scuffed at the carpet with my slippers, there was no way I was going to answer the door, it might be some sort of maniac. I was still at an age where danger lurked around every corner, when I was convinced every stranger was going to try to murder me in some awful manner. My mother tells me I was an anxious child.
It was my father who plodded to the front door, whistling ‘Silent Night,’ while my mother straightened the placements on the coffee table The front door creaked as it swung open and my father’s whistling fell silent.
“Graham?” My mother’s voice echoed down the hallway.
History lives in us.
See these four scars. I’ve placed them in the white space in front.
In this picture, there’s a freckle-cheeked boy, hair in a bowl-cut, with a fine-toothed fringe chopping over his forehead. At his temple is a soft groove made by sharp scissors. He used to struggle when people cut his hair. Even now cold steel at the back of the neck makes him tingle; the hairs still stand up to be cut.
Looking into the school library, two boys, one urged on by the other, sliced the back of their hands with craft knives. The open flesh stung; the blood sticky underneath the palm. Today, the white lines are much smaller, a trail made by tiny snails on the back of the fist.
Softer lighter patches of skin stretch over his neck and chest. That’s where the spotty youth suffered under dermatologists: liquid nitrogen burns, steroid injections into cysts. One day the volcanoes calmed down, leaving damage in their wake.
Here, a test of strength: one hand crushing a tin can that once held tomatoes. The lid went in, a flap of skin went up: fish scales, pushed in the wrong direction. Red juice came out. A small white smile winks from the side of the right thumb.
Their car trapped in desert sand. They dug. Found an ancient wall. Walked around the remnants of columns marking a nave. Looked up. A roof of palm branches. The main entry leading east to a sanctuary and altar. They photographed a frieze above columns. Four stone crosses sculpted onto walls. From the time of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, built for Assyrian Christians. The Department of Antiquities put up a fence but no sign. Archeologists do not visit. The stone crosses have disappeared. Marks they left behind erased by the desert.
We Will Be Alright
Alex Reece Abbott
They don’t want to go to the party.
Everything is raw, too raw to celebrate anything, but they make themselves go. Annie would have gone.
Of course she would. The hosts are her oldest friends in Stralia, far older than her marriage. She always goes – went – to their joint birthday celebrations. Every November. They tell themselves and each other that it will be good for them. The first party since…
It’s a barbecue. Blaring music, and a lot of drinking – which is normal. Tonight, there’s an added intensity, everything is touched and defined by an edge.
No one says it.
Lee feels her.
Present by her absence.
She loved that dry wine. She loved that music. That spicy marinade was her favourite.
Lee hangs back, eavesdropping on matey reminiscences. Remember that time, when she stripped off and ran up the main street of Toorak for a dare…Nah, she’d never have done that back home down Queen Street. She loved Melbourne.
A legend in her own short lifetime, Annie is even more fabulous now she’s gone.
Lee understands an unspoken rule: they must be the last to leave.
She shifts to water and picks at the greasy little boys, the salt-crusted potato chips and the sharp olives.
Annie’s husband’s brother is the designated driver. Nice enough guy, but by the end of the night, Lance is legless. Lee tries to grab the car keys off him. He staggers and fends her off. Other men – men she doesn’t know – gather. Circling jackals, they tell her straight.
Get off his case.
He’ll be right.
Outnumbered, she drops it.
They should not travel in his car, she knows, she knows. But it’s early in the morning, so the traffic is light, and they are…where the hell are they? Annie was her road-map. Somewhere in Melbourne’s ’burbs, the infinite, rambling outskirts. And, they need to get home.
Annie’s husband is acting strangely sober for the amount of beer he’s chugged.
“Lance drives okay when he’s far more slaughtered. He’ll be right,” he slurs.
Lee looks at him. He knows full well that Lance isn’t safe to drive.
He looks away and busies himself with gathering up her small niece, Kerry.
Not consoled, Lee slithers over the vinyl back seat of Lance’s big Holden sedan.
The cardboard tree dangles like a Christmas ornament from the rear vision mirror.
It fails; artificial pine mingles with tobacco, sweet-sharp booze, melon aftershave and smouldering charcoal.
She straps in Kerry, then fastens her own seat-belt.
They set off in silence, the kid dozing between them.
The streets are quiet, apart from taxis. Soon, they are on the Eastern Freeway.
Freeway. Annie’s Escape to the Big Smoke. Only sixteen hundred miles from Auckland, and suddenly, it’s not a motorway any more. Freeway. Four lanes, not two. The driver’s headrest is blocking her view of the speedo. Are they speeding? Or going too slow? Or, both? They are drowsy, saturated with grog and post-party gloom; nursed by the soft, warm, spring night, lulled by the motion of the car.
They weave, drifting into the other lane. Lance straightens up with a jerk, big hands tightening on the steering wheel.
Lee chews on her cheek. Guilt burns in her gut for not fighting her sister’s corner and stews with her anger at being ignored. Annie wouldn’t stand – have stood – for this crap. Wouldn’t have put her kid-sister – let alone her daughter – in the car with a drunk-driving pisshead.
He likes a drink.
He’ll be right.
Annie would have grabbed his keys and thrown them away. Grabbed her kid and told
Lance where to get off. Caught a cab, however much it cost. Lee knows she should have done that too. She winds open the window and makes herself breathe slowly. Her last few shreds of belief went in the ground with her sister. Without a prayer, she invents a silent mantra.
We will be alright. We will be alright. We will be alright.
The car slides, a giant skateboard, skittering before mounting the curved, concrete median strip that holds back the tide of oncoming traffic.
We will be alright. We will be alright. We will be alright.
The streaming light trails remind her of a road safety campaign she did years before, a night photo-shoot of a man with a head injury who’d taken a ride with a drunk driver.
She closes her eyes.
Time is slowing. Time is flying. They will fly. They will surely somersault, then land on the roof, wheels spinning in the air, like a scene from a Seventies cop show. It’s all too predictable. She has let Annie down.
Metal skin grazes concrete with a banshee squeal. The car shudders, rights itself and lands on four wheels, in their lane again. A passing driver swerves, blasts them with his horn, and flicks them a two-finger salute.
“Asshole,” shouts Lance.
Kerry dozes on, unaware of their automotive acrobatics. Annie’s husband winces and shifts in his seat, bracing himself against the door. And, whether it’s down to the shock, exhaustion, survivor guilt – or, a collective death-wish – they collude. They let Lance carry on driving. As if getting home safely was some test of fate, all down to a merciful act of the Gods.
The shock and adrenaline rush of his near miss sober Lance slightly, and they make it back from the party, shaken and raw, but alright. Back to where Annie used to live.
Lance leaves them on the doorstep and roars off down the street, clipping the wing-mirror off a neighbour’s parked van.
Lee holds Kerry in her arms and watches Annie’s swaying husband jabbing the key at the front door. Head hanging, he has all the calm of a man who has passed a test.
Guess she’s watching over us, he mutters.
The End of the Word
After three days of rowing, he has lost his bearings. There’s no land in sight. No landmarks. No rock outcrops. No contour of familiar shores. He can only see the horizon – and even that is indistinguishable in the overwhelming grey.
He looks over his shoulder: more grey.
Shadows in the water below look like sharks, or ghosts. The hollow of the boat might be his refuge from the depths but offers no salvation from the above. Fortunately, the weather has calmed today – seems the storm has passed and with it the swells.
His face is weatherbeaten from a few tough days at sea. Salt has crusted his stubble, eyelashes, and hair as if he’s a caught fish being preserved. His arms are heavy and ache with the weight of the oars; the water starts to feel as thick as the fog in his mind.
Come with me, the sea calls, I’ll take you to The End.
The sea is glassy and grey. A mirror of the overcast sky. It’s so flat it could be mistaken for a lake, yet he can taste the salt on his dry lips. He takes a swig of water to relieve his parched throat, and tears off a portion of bread. Like his energy, his rations are getting low. He’s anxious he won’t make it. He’s becoming more and more delirious.
Grey sea. Grey sky. Grey ghost. Pale grey spirit. Sunless mist being. Ashen faceless thing. Nondescript mysterious hazy grey nothing. The intangible somewhere.
He breaks out of this mad cycle of thought and continues to row.
All he can hear are the thuds of the oars as they submerge, displacing the still water, the surge as the oars resurface like orca coming up for breath then the drips, gentle rainfall, as the oars rotate in the air. And his breathing, heavy and laborious. In between strokes, there are brief moments of silence as he watches the gentle wake dissipate into the iron-grey sea.
He looks over his shoulder. He stops rowing. The oars hang outside the boat.
Drifting with momentum and ocean current, the boat slows and slows, until it feels as if it’s barely moving. He’s afraid and so hopeful. He pulls in the oars, closes his eyes, and waits. His mind is racing with irrational thoughts.
He looks up. The boat’s floating gently, still, in the same direction.
He pauses. It’s a long pause.
A breeze arrives. The water ripples. The layer of cloud breaks open, unveiling the naked sky. He sits quietly and observes the change in weather. Maybe tonight he will see the stars.
After some time, he rows, for what else is he to do?
He looks over his shoulder. In the distance, he spots what could only be a sea bird in flight.