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Fiction

The Library

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Far above the towering mountains that stretched for the heavens, and higher than the strongest most fearless birds dared to rise, above the dark water-laden thunderclouds and beyond the delicate semi-formed mists rose the gigantic city of Theoria. Ancient and proud it had floated between the clouds and stars for countless generations, bustling with activity and progress.

The streets were paved with stone, the houses a mismatched puzzle of brick and metal. Street lamps framed the sidewalks like silent sentinels, throbbing with artificial light all through the night, while the day was presided over by life.

Children ran through the streets, their parents calling after them to be careful,  workers climbed aboard the overflowing trains while their bosses commuted in chauffeur-driven limousines, and the persistent wildlife lurked and expanded within the overlooked cracks of society.

Two large national parks had taken the journey along with the city up into the heavens. One grew at the centre of the constructed jungle, small, quiet and peaceful. While the other grew ravenously to the north, untamed and cautiously explored. Both had allowed animals to flourish, and were the only source of nature that the occupants of the city had. However, isolation from the wild was a small price to pay for safety.

Thriving at the heart of the city were the four colossal skyscrapers that resided over the entire enterprise, each as different and as arrogant as the next. Government met in a steepled spire, carved and opulent like a castle from the ancient stories. The city’s administration was conducted in an elongated oval tower. The tower that spiralled up to a gigantic point marking the highest building in the city and the nerve centre for all communication.

The final and stoutest of the skyscrapers was the building of experimental science that consequently was frequented by explosions every few weeks—it was regarded with a fair amount of confusion and suspicion, as nobody really knew what went on there.

The entire city was encompassed by an electromagnetic dome that allowed the occupants to breathe while artificial gravity kept them walking on the ground rather than the ceiling, and although the systems were old they were kept in pristine condition, as was the engine that had raised the city into low orbit.

Countless generations ago when the ancestors of Theoria lived on the surface they were faced with a near impossible decision: to destroy a unique and unparalleled wonder or to leave Earth behind.

Discussion waged for decades and ultimately divided the globe. Scientists attempted desperately to find other solutions but to no avail, and as the nations tore each other apart a new order emerged. Lead by a man worthy of legend, but whose name was no longer spoken after his death, the cause grew in power as the least likeliest people found something to fight for and the discussion was closed.

Another twenty years passed and society was further ravaged by the danger that had initially divided them, but finally the space city was completed and named Theoria: the Vision.

It rose above the clouds with a noise like the end of the world and a shaking that collapsed almost half of the buildings, but the occupants rebuilt and thrived in the safety and freedom of their new haven, while those that remained behind on the surface fought for stability.

With the departure of the city the surface became more dangerous; the outbreaks more unpredictable and unstable. Half the population left on the planet were wiped out and with every update the occupants of the city became less and less hopeful that the surface could be saved.

And then one day everything went silent.

A semblance of control was established on the surface and casualties were reasserted to a minimum. The occupants of Theoria could rest easy, high above the danger and those on the surface were able to preserve their charge. Slowly and carefully the guardians reshaped the world in order to protect it until it sat, slumbering like a lounging dragon in its hoard: an endless expansion of corridors.

The Library covered the entire planet, stretching far across every landmass and connected by determined tunnels that traversed the ocean floor. It was a feat of apparent impossibility and extravagance, but also a feat of utter beauty.

The bookshelves stood tall and magnanimous, books reaching high into the dark recesses towards the towering ceiling, rows upon rows extended far beyond the size of any reasonable building, corridors twisted and turned like Daedalus’ Labyrinth and every surviving book that had ever been written on paper with ink, resided upon the shelves.

A plan had been commissioned to reconstruct the Library with marble floors and dazzling wide windows, with crystal chandeliers and giant staircases that seemingly led to the heavens. But it was all impractical and abandoned. The logistics to build such a thing was impossible to accomplish without setting off the slumbering enemy.

Silence hung thick and deafening through the aisles. There was no breeze to make noise or stir up the dust, and no movement of any kind. To walk through the stacks was to freeze time, to leave the world, to never die and yet never live. It was another world, never-ending and eternally drenched with stillness, yet buzzing with energy. It sent shivers down one’s spine, caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand on end, movement in the corner of your eye, whispers just out of earshot and the terrible, constant feeling of being watched.

And the knowledge that you were.

The greatest enemy and wonder the world had ever faced was so simple and so complex that it had been impossible to predict, defeat or understand. The unquenchable enemy were the books.

It was discovered that the combination of organic ink, organic paper and abundant passion that had been directed into each page had resulted in immortal energy being forged within the covers. It was the unbreakable bond of thought and life that resided within the paper-thin pages that could never be snuffed out. It was imagination stronger than love and spirit. It was hope. It was magic.

The energy had of course remained dormant for thousands and thousands of years until something awoke it. Theories were abundant.

Had it been the meteorite that crashed into Australia’s desert? Was it the sudden increase in temperature from global warming? Did it have something to do with the destruction of the Bristlecone Pine Forest in California? Or was it an indicator of the end of the world—the dead rising again to plague the living?

And rise the books did. The energy stated discharging randomly, lighting fires and burning entire buildings but leaving the books themselves unharmed. They began to move by themselves, falling off shelves then throwing themselves across the room, at people and through windows. Some seeped black goo, others leaked water and then they started affecting things completely separate from themselves.

Four nuclear bombs exploded in their silos, three previously extinct volcanoes erupted and five dams burst from increased pressure.

The episodes were impossible to predict and grew worse and worse, until it was realised that it was the interaction with life that affected the books worst of all. For the pages were created from trees and became decomposing dead life, as was the ink, and the addition of an everlasting idea, emotion and imagination forged something more powerful than science.

The Library could never be renovated, for the interaction with life would be too unpredictable; and so the shelves stood as they had for generations. The ground was metal, the walls coated with glass, the bookshelves twisted pieces of wrought iron, and each book separated from the next by a piece of inorganic material that had never lived before.

Slowly the complex became more difficult to care for, the tunnels begun to leak, sections collapsed and the books discharged once more; but the guardians remained vigilant, continuing their sacred job of protecting knowledge and imagination. The surface remained relatively stable and Theoria neither understood nor cared about the working of the giant Library and never interfered.

But curiosity cannot be prevented, and in time there comes someone new who isn’t sated by stories read through screens, who is intrigued by stories that take up space rather than gigabytes, and who may be related to the hero whose name was forgotten so long ago.

“Is it true I’m related to the hero?” A small wavering hand shot into the air, and a small face with round eyes blinked eagerly up at him.

“Well—”

“No stupid, he was talking about me!” The boy next to her snapped.

The girl’s face grew red, her eyes flashing angrily with the tell-tale sign of the beginning of another fight; and the teacher in the corner stepped forward with the intention of ending it, and story-time, before it started.

“In actuality, no one knows what happened to the hero. He could be related to any one of you.” The storyteller continued swiftly, settling the dispute and salvaging the rest of his lesson.

The small hand shot once more into the air. “But didn’t he stay on the surface to protect the books?”

The storyteller leaned back slightly and nodded. “That is what he did at first. He was one of the original hundred guardians that remained to protect the Library, but it is said that prolonged proximity to the books changed him; it gave him long life and extensive knowledge of all things. He could be anywhere; he could be in this very room.”

The children all gasped and looked around, suddenly suspicious of the cupboards, tables, ceiling and even each other.

The storyteller fought back a chuckle and addressed them once more. “Of course this is just a story, and although the magic isn’t quite so real the Library itself remains on the surface. It needs new guardians who care for the books like they are living things, because they just might be.”

“Okay then.” The teacher smiled widely and strode decisively forward. “If you will all thank Mr Wyle for his enchanting story we will then return to our maths.”

The children obediently burst into applause, the occasional thank you was called out, and the storyteller bowed before making his way to the door.

“Miss, is the story real?” A young boy blatantly asked the teacher.

“No, of course not Jared. Now go get your computer.”

The man paused, one hand on the doorknob and turned around. The young girl who’d interrupted him was staring, her face scrunched up in confusion and deep meditation. He smiled, brought a finger to his lips and winked.

Maybe the Library could still be saved. Maybe there were still some guardians to be found in the new generation. Guardians that still believed in magic.

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Human Collisions

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The policeman swings his gaze over the railings into the grey river. Beside him, a mother crouches in a paramedic’s arms, a large pram rests on its side. Its contents are sprawled across the footpath; spare nappies, a bottle, a fleece blanket, a soft little giraffe. All except the baby. The river is murky with silt and city pollution; the policeman searches for the pale body and the red jumpsuit that hugs it. “Size 000…he’s wearing a red jumpsuit…size 000 from my Aunt,” the mother repeats.

The bridge is made of unforgiving asphalt and steel. A greying woman sits in an ambulance and through the open doors, the policeman can see her fuchsia dress, grazed arm and Southeast Asian heritage. Her basket trolley leans against the bridge railing, full of bruised groceries.

The policeman’s phone emits a small ding and vibrates in his pocket. “Hey, Jason, Oliver, take their statements, yeah? I’m heading back to the HCU.”

On the banks of the river, the policeman can see them searching for the red jumpsuit. The policeman is returning to the Human Collisions Unit. The river flows fast and cold.

As the policeman enters the office, he is greeted by his friend, Mary, “Morning, Andy! How’d you go with the incident on Princes Bridge? Looked pretty grim. Wasn’t the millennial the one speeding?”

“Yeah, but as always, both of them are to blame here. Grim is the right word for it. I doubt they’ll even find a body.”

“God, that’s tragic.”

The policeman’s stomach tightens. It was rare to hear that word from Mary. He shrugs off his damp jacket and hooks it on the back of his chair.

A small interrupting ding sounds from his pocket.

“This one reminds me of the first case. Just four years and a media circus apart.” The policeman settles at his desk and his computer whirrs white, “The speed recommendations aren’t working and this has gone beyond broken arms and the occasional freak accident.”

“We’ll see, Andy. No one ever looks up.”

Ding.

The policeman spends a few hours filling paperwork on the Princes Bridge incident. He finishes at exactly five o’clock. “I’m off!” He grins to Mary on his way out.

In the lift, the policeman finally pulls his phone from his pocket as it erupts in a flurry of dings. It unlocks at his touch and notifications flood his screen. The usual emails, an ad for the new album by his favourite band, ‘We Were Hipsters Once’, an automated fastest tram route home…and fifty-four Facebook notifications. “Ah, so you’re the culprit!” He mutters triumphantly before tapping open the app.

It’s a photo of his sister, her arm around him, in their childhood backyard with overgrown lawn and a springy trampoline in the corner. The policeman chuckles. They’re maybe eight and seven respectively. He remembers seeing the photo once before in his mother’s photo album. Only then it was overexposed in places and tainted with mould in others. Now, a perfectly lit, focused and framed photo devours his screen. His eyes were never quite that blue.

More dings. The photo has been captioned with a long gushing note that ends with, ‘You’re my partner in crime forever and ever! I love you, little bro!’ As the policeman watches, ninety-nine likes becomes one hundred and tiny helium balloons and confetti float across the screen. He shoos them away with his thumb before scrolling down to read some of the comments. They vary between exclamations of ‘cute!’, vague promises of brunch plans, to the poorly punctuated messages from older relatives. Everyone loves the photo.

Before he can reach the bottom of the comments, the lift doors open. The policeman catches himself still scrolling as he walks across the lobby. He dutifully pockets the phone and steels himself for the grey rain outside.

The already delayed tram rattles to a halt halfway to the station. The contents of the tram spill across the road and nearby pavement. The policeman disappears in the grey tide of commuters. Ever-growing tides of commuters are drifting in and pooling on the edges of walkways and buildings; they were dripping out of office buildings and shops; they were heading home.

The policeman shifts his key in the lock, once, twice, and finally the door clicks open. His first steps leave dirt-speckled puddles at the doorway. He fumbles with the grey laces before cradling the shoes in his arms and jogging swiftly through to the laundry sink. The small enclosure of the laundry is dry and cosy with drooping sheets on the line above his head. He pulls off the sopping jacket and pants and a woman appears at the doorway, a bundle of soft clothes in her arms. He pulls her to him and her hands are warm as they run over his numbed back. “Oh, Andrew, you’ve got goose-bumps!”

“Yes, it’s pretty wintery out there.”

They embrace, cocooned in the dry cream sheets. He squeezes her slightly, “We need to get that lock fixed. How’d you go today?”

“Oh, alright, rough morning, of course.”

He can smell bathroom cleaner on her, “So, morning sickness still bad?”

“For the moment. It’s a little reminder that it’s all happening, I suppose.”

He begins to pull the dry clothes on. “Any word on the maternity leave?”

“Yeah, they approved it. Only thing is, they are essentially going to redistribute all my clients and projects when the time comes.”

“Ok…but that’s to be expected.”

“No – they’re going to redistribute them permanently. When I go back, they’re making me start from scratch.”

“Fuck! Can they do that? Lauren, you’ve just really established yourself.”

The woman leads him out of the laundry into the kitchen where she stirs a pot of spaghetti sauce. “I don’t know, Andrew. We’ve got a couple more weeks to think about this.”

The policeman wipes down the bench with a damp sponge, “The timing is a bit off, that’s for sure.”

“Not to mention, the place…I read an article about what happened on Princes Bridge today, figured you were there.”

The policeman sighs and runs the warm tap over his fingers. He watches the water run over them, pool in his upturned palm and cascade into the plughole below. “How old is size 000?”

“About…3 months, I think.”

Ding.

The woman is watching him and her disappointment curls tightly in the interstice, heaving and billowing out because she can’t help but hate these people who are colliding again and again. The policeman knows that he is becoming part of it.

“Let’s eat.”

In the enveloping darkness of their bedroom, the policeman sees the glitter of the woman’s open eyes. He is tired but he asks, “What are you thinking about?”

“People are disappearing.”

“What?”

“Off social media. It’s very strange, people I knew from school, uni, even family.”

“I don’t understand.”

Her voice is racing, but she whispers, “One day they’re posting as usual and the next, they’re gone! Not on my friend list, nothing. I think it’s some kind of social phenomenon. But for the first time in years, I can’t be sure because no one is talking about it. That’s the strangest part. No one is talking.”

Ding.

“Are you sure?”

In the grey light he can just make out the edges of her face, “Yes, I’m certain.”

The policeman stretches his arms above his head. Beside him, Mary is typing furiously, her headphones are on and her eyes are darting between her two screens and the papers before her. The policeman shrugs his jacket on as he wanders out of the office. At the coffee shop in the lobby, he sips from a disposable cup and unlocks his phone.

He opens his messages and blinks. He scrolls down, then up, closes and reopens the app. He types her name into the search bar. No results. Nothing. His palms are clammy, his fingers slippery on the touch screen.

Up at his desk, he tries again on his computer. No results. “Fuck.”

He stands and taps Mary’s shoulder, his voice wavers, “I’m off.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just picking something up from the chemist.”

As the policeman reaches the lobby, he begins to jog. The streets are crowded and the tram is slow. At his street, there is a large family of tourists bunched around the doors. He squeezes through the commotion. He’s sprinting as he reaches his front yard, almost losing his balance on the walkway, he stops short as he almost collides with the front door. It sways on its hinges, the hallway is still and dark. The policeman steps inside. There is a soft light fanning out from the laundry and the woman is humming.

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Bitter Winter

Bitter-Winter-(Sa-Pasa)

 

When Anna’s grandmother was seventeen years old, Russia faced its most bitter winter yet. The snow fell day and night, covering homes in a thick layer of white. The wind blew so fiercely that even the Moscow residents got wind rash when they stepped outside, and as the temperature lowered, the rumour once again entered homes.

 

ANNA

“I’m just saying that if it gets any colder, we may see her,” says Anna.

Alex leans so far back in his chair that he almost falls over.

“And I’m saying that if we start believing in the Snow Queen, we may as well believe in Baba Yaga, and the numerous children she ate. Why stop there? Why don’t we just say that every fairy-tale is true, and base our lives off that?” The windows rattle as a particularly strong wind blows. “It’s just a cold winter.”

“No, Alex, it’s our coldest winter since 1947.”

The breeze blows perfectly formed snowflakes into the miniscule wooden kitchen. “I don’t care. Can you close that window? You’re letting all the warm air out.”

NICK (as heard by Anna)

“Backpack?”

“Yep.”

“Pencil-case?”

“Yep.”

“Hair ribbon?”

“Yep.”

“Scarf and gloves?”

“Yep.”

“Okay, great. Put your arms through here, button up, yep, nice job, let’s put that scarf on…”

[shuffling noises]

“Your sister’s waiting by the elevator. Have a good day.”

[door opens and shuts]

“This is insane. I have to go to work, and instead of sleeping in or reading the Bible, I have to dress the girls and send them off to school. And you’re sitting here, drinking at eight in the morning.”

[bottle smashes]

“That’s it. I’m going to work, and when I come back, either you’re sober, or you’re gone.”

 

MASHA

The walls are thin and her rocking chair is right against them. She reclines, listening to her neighbours bicker about fairy-tales. When she was a child, the Snow Queen was an undisputed woman, equivalent to General Winter and Koschei. Now the belief has faded from the people. They don’t worry about mushroom picking in the forest, they don’t cast spells for fortune, and they definitely don’t pickle fish with vodka like they used to.

Her entertainment ends early when one neighbour leaves for work, and the argument dissipates. She turns on the TV, moves her rocking chair a significant distance away from it, so as not to catch any radiation, and she sits, listening to news reporters discuss the bitter cold and the frostbite that always comes when the snow falls.

“This will be the year to see her,” says Galina, brushing perfectly formed curls away from her face.

“Kids, keep an eye out!” The two news reporters laugh and Masha lets her eyelids slowly close, listening to the laughter and whistling winds, and thinking of the way her mother’s hands trembled when they talked about the winter curse.

 

ANNA

For a moment, Anna sees the Snow Queen. Then, as the coffee begins to set in, she realises that it is just her neighbour’s wife, Vera, dressed to the nines. A white fur coat that almost reaches the ground, white gloves with tiny grey pearls on them, and a cream scarf wrapped thrice around her neck.

“Hi Vera, is something the matter? Are the kids alright?”

Perfume oozes from her pores, but it doesn’t cover the scent of whiskey that pours from Vera’s mouth. “I just can’t do this anymore. I never wanted to be a mother, you know? But then I got pregnant, and he proposed, and my grandmother was so happy…” She takes a long breath. “Here,” holding out a letter. “Could you give this to him?”

“Vera, I really don’t want to get involved,” but the letter is put in Anna’s pocket anyway, and before Anna can give it back, Vera has a suitcase in each hand.

“Bye, Anna,” says Vera, and Anna is left standing with her apartment door open, watching Vera leave in a flurry of white.

 

MASHA

“I’m sorry to disturb you; it’s just that I’m not sure who else to talk to.”

Masha steps back from her door and motions to the kitchen. “Come in, Anna, let’s talk over some tea.”

As the kettle boils, Masha is filled in.

“The winter curse,” she replies. Anna frowns.

“That’s what my mother called it. People spend too much time indoors; they start to go a bit crazy. Then, the temperature drops, they get sick, the electricity bills tower, they worry about how they’re going to pay for the heat and the new boots and then the kids start coughing…” Masha sighs. “The winter curse.”

“I don’t think Nick cares about the winter curse.”

“Well, that’s his folly,” Masha pours the tea, “I’m picking the girls up from school in a few hours. He gets home late, give him the letter then. The girls can sleep in my room.” There’s a pause. “Ever since Kostya died, I can’t handle sleeping in there. I like the lounge now, with the television. Radiation is better than a lonely bed.” Masha smiles at Anna and reaches over to pat her hand.

“People leave all the time. They’ll adjust,” says Masha, and she cranks open the kitchen window to a sliver; just enough to see neighbourhood children on their slow walk home from school.

“I should get going,” she adds. “The girls will be finished soon. Don’t worry too much. It’s all in God’s hands now.”

 

NICK

The apartment is cold and empty. No children, no wife, no life at all. Coats hang loosely from the rack, no longer stuffed together like sardines. Snow flutters in through the open kitchen window, but before he has time to close it, there’s a persistent knocking on his door.

“Oh, evening, Anna, this really isn’t a good time for me.”

“It’s cold in here. Open that window any further, and the Snow Kingdom will march on in.”

“Really, this isn’t –” The letter is held out. “Oh, wrong address again?”

“I’m sorry Nick, Vera gave it to me.”

To Nick, the room feels a lot colder. The reality begins to sink in. He grabs the letter and rips it open. Words upon words, excuses, apologies, nothing of substance.

“She can’t do this to me. Surely not.” Nick grabs his car keys. “I have to go. I need to find her.” Faster than two shakes of a lamb’s tail, Nick leaves, marching past Anna, through the hallway and down the stairs. Twelve flights, but he has no patience to wait for the elevator.

“My lord, Nick, you’re going to freeze!” Anna yells, but he’s gone, so it’s up to her to grab a coat and a scarf and race after him.

When Anna catches up, he’s sitting in his car, head in his hands, turning the key over and over.

“The engine’s frozen. It’s too cold to start.”

They sit in silence, until he lifts his head. “There’s no point. What on Earth am I going to do?”

“Well, first, come back inside and drink some tea.”

It goes quiet for a long while, until Nick says, “the girls…”

“Are with Masha.”

He nods.

“I need to think over this.” He accepts the scarf and coat, and they step out of the car.

There, in the late night, they both see her, standing regal as can be. Crown of ice, powder blue hair, a coat so white it seems to have fallen straight from heaven. Then, just as she looks straight at them, the wind changes direction, and she is gone.

The coldest winters have the warmest summers, his mother always said, and the Snow Queen only came out when the lakes froze solid and the children caught colds.

“I think I’ll be just fine,” says Nick, and for the first time since Vera’s pregnancy, he begins to see a good future for himself and his girls.

 

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Postcards from the Middle

Postcards-from-the-Middle-(Yusra-Shahid)

 

DAY THREE

Two more days to go and I really hope Suzy learns how to shut up. Just stop talking to me. Fuck. I mean, how hard could that be? I get that we’re all here to ‘make friends’ and ‘learn leadership’ but there’s a line. Why isn’t there a workshop about knowing when to leave someone alone?
“No, Suzy, I haven’t watched any movies recently.”
Who has that kind of money? And time? God.
Why can’t Annie ever bother me like that? I’d talk to her myself but she’s always surrounded by everyone else and I don’t need that kind of social anxiety in my life.
I come into the workshops, participate, stare at her a bit, and then leave. I’m a solitary person. I value my space. She’s killing that vibe. And honestly? I think Suzy might have a crush on me. How do I let her down gently? She’s not bad or anything but she’s just too friendly. Is that a thing? Could someone theoretically list down ‘being too friendly’ as a flaw on their resumé?

SKILLS: Photoshop, photography, second language (Spanish).
FLAWS: Friendly. Way too fucking friendly.

I think she’s trying too hard. She does it to everyone. Always saying hi. Smiling and shit. Completely unnatural. She’s too nice, but I can’t tell yet if it’s fake or not. Punchline is, everyone else seems to like it.
Suzy’s talking to Peter right now. Laugh, smile, serious comment, chuckle, high-five. It’s a conspiracy. Is she recruiting them for something? We’re already part of a cult, what does she think we’re doing at camp? That high-five looked really good, though. Strong, timed right. Hands looked solidly red. 10/10. It could probably make the Hall of Fame of high-fives. Maybe I should high-five Annie. Looks like a great way to establish contact. Will need a situation first. Can’t just high-five her out of fucking nowhere.
How does Suzy do it so easily? She just goes for it. Whoosh, here I am! Hurricane Suzy. Just come in and fucking demolish the place with my never-ending, oh-so-wonderful, Playschool ‘kindness’.
Any idiot could smile and wave.
I’ll try it tomorrow.

 

DAY FOUR

Whoever said friendship is a gift is a fucking liar.
I spent the worst five hours of my life sipping warm beer, watching people play an assortment of beer pong, cards, Charades, and a mix of all three.

Bonus: Annie was there. She was playing beer pong. A girl after my own heart.
I reckon the people who advertise this socialising shit don’t actually understand how stressful it can be. I’m there, and I’ve said ‘hi’. I accepted someone’s offer for a drink. I cheer when someone finally gets a shot in. I joked about how shitty that one lecturer is. Patted someone’s back when they told me they should be doing a 3000 word essay right now.
“That’s rough, buddy.”
They’d forgotten their laptop. The essay’s due on Monday. They’re going to die.

 

DAY FIVE

Fuck. Shit. Fuck. I did it again. Shit.
On the way back, the bus broke down near a gas station with a Maccas, so I bought Annie a McFlurry and she thanked me. She kind of looked like she was crying, so I asked her if she was okay.
But wait! How could you fuck up asking if someone’s okay?
Here’s a hint: ask her if she’s okay à la Michael Jackson’s 1987 hit classic ‘Smooth Criminal’.

I literally saw the light leave her eyes, and I could have fallen on to my knees begging for forgiveness. I think she actually hated me for three seconds.
She kept the McFlurry at least. Didn’t tell me why she looked like she was crying. Fair enough, since even I wouldn’t have spoken to me. How would I feel if someone sang a song at me because of my name? I don’t think about these things enough.
Later, I told her I thought she’d make a good leader. She won that prize with her group at the end of camp. I probably cheered louder than necessary, but I was sort of, like, actually proud. People were still loopy from hangovers (I found out who stole my booze).
We’re all feeling pretty leadership-ed out.
Sidenote: Suzy’s been leaving me alone. Reckon she got the message. I think I might have actually said “Fuck off, Suzy” out-loud and not in my head. I was drunk, so it’s fine. She knows I was drunk. She just laughed and high-fived me.
I got back home and my first thought was how that guy with the 3000 word essay was doing. Is he doing it right now? Is he okay?  Is he playing DOTA? Is he crying?

 

DAY SIX

This is sort of fun. I reckon one day we’ll all just forget how to write with our hands. All we’ll know is how to point. What’s gonna happen to the drawers and painters?
Not at camp, which means I’m back at home and back to telling my mum to stop gossiping about the man two houses down. Just let him walk his dog. Jesus Christ. But she can’t help herself.
She’s a little racist. He’s tall and doesn’t smile. She’s fascinated. She wants to know everything, and if she can’t find out everything then she’ll guess. This is what happens when you move to a country halfway through your life and settle in a suburb where everyone else has come from somewhere else. You’re bored and stuck, trying to figure out what the fuck you’re meant to be doing now that you’re here.
This is what you get. You get an Asian lady calling her sister and now they’re comparing notes. Turns out my aunt has ‘criminals’ on her street too. She lives in the south-east so I don’t know why I’m surprised. I’m just glad they’ve stopped bothering me about not dating anyone.
Wonder if Suzy has ‘criminals’ on her street. Gangs! Maybe that’s why she’s so over-friendly. She’s just used to being friendly to save her life.

 

DAY SEVEN

Can’t make any of the Wonder Woman showings this week because I’ve got unrecorded lectures, tutes, labs, and then work. What the FUCK.

 

DAY EIGHT

First meeting since camp and how does Annie look better than last time?
Made sure not to reference Michael Jackson at all, or any other artists of the 70s, 80s, and beyond. Wouldn’t want to trigger anything. Maybe she has a brother called Jessie. And a sister called Stacy. And all of her dogs had been let out at one point. I don’t know.

Meeting was boring, just went over everything. What went good. What didn’t. I suggested we tell people not to steal other people’s booze. Trent asked how exactly I planned to implement that. I shrugged and asked her: isn’t this why we have meetings? For ideas to be told and then other people actually doing it? He told me that there’s no point to an idea if you can’t follow it up with a plan.
For fuck’s sake. Can’t even brainstorm anymore. I can’t believe I ever liked him. Asshole.
No one else brought it up too, so I guess everyone’s fine with having their booze stolen.
Annie stayed pretty silent. She mentioned that we can’t really control people that much, they’re all there for a good time. Sure.
Suzy didn’t high-five anyone today.
Same, Suzy, Same.

 

DAY ELEVEN ?

Will I ever have my shit together.

 

DAY SIXTEEN (FUCK I DON’T KNOW)

What if we all collectively decided to not give a shit? Asking for a friend.

 

DAY 22 24

How do I get so tired from not doing anything? I go to uni and I sleep in lectures. I go to meetings and I sleep in meetings. I go to work and I sleep on the bus. I get home and I don’t sleep, and then I’m tired the next day. Shouldn’t they all cancel out or something?

Sidenote: I don’t think I’m a very good leader. I forgot I was the mentor of five jaffies (I can’t be completely at fault, though, because they never contacted me).
Maybe I could be the leader of some quiet group or something. All I have to do is book a room, open the door, let people in, and we could all just enjoy each other’s silent company. No need to get to know anyone else, this is Where the Silent People Are.

Our constitution:

  1. Be silent.
  2. Don’t pressure anyone to talk.
  3. Always have booze.
  4. Don’t steal anyone’s booze.
  5. Don’t judge people for being quiet. Fuck you, if you do.
  6. Listening to music on earphones is permitted, but not loud enough so we can hear it.
  7. High-fiving is encouraged.

Maybe I can book two rooms: one for the Totally Silent and one for the Somewhat Silent, so people who actually want to exchange a few words can do it in there. I could have snacks there too. Food gets noisy when you chew. Mouth-breathers go in this room too. That way, people like Suzy can come in, to balance it all out. I reckon I could probably have her as VP or something, so you got someone quiet and you got someone loud to, like, help people who are quiet. Yeah.

I caught up with Suzy after a lecture. Never realised she was in the same lecture as me but I knew we did the same course. Always thought she was the type to say things all the time and actually participate and answer the lecturer’s questions. Turns out she’s been sitting two rows behind me this whole time. SHE was the one who always took pictures of lecture slides on her phone. Never participated once. Small world.

She told me her cat died. It was a long-winded story about how she adopted him, and then how long the cat had been in the family. Then something about her uncle being allergic to cats, so she had to chase him out of the room all the time. The cat, not the uncle. I reckon she’d been waiting to tell someone about her cat for a while, and I didn’t have much else to do but study so I stayed. She also had some chips with her and she was sharing. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet.

I had an essay to finish start but to be honest, I thought this was a good opportunity. Experience the other side for a bit. Suzy In Camp was draining and annoying and really just leave-me-the-fuck-alone, but Suzy By Herself wasn’t all that bad. Wonder if people think that way about me.
The last thing I remember from what she said was that her cat’s name had been Annie. So, I did it again: I asked her if Annie was okay. Thank God she found it funny (I think), because I could NOT go through another five minutes of wondering if someone secretly hated me. Then I asked her if she was okay. She said she was fine:

“Just…fine.”

 

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The Animals

The Animals (Sa Pasa)

 

Kelowna Secondary felt enormous to Ahmed, too big to be an actual school. But in reality, because Ahmed’s year level was very small, and because the select-entry Christian College up in the hills had finished construction, the school was emptier than it had been for years. Over the scorching summer all the portable buildings had been wheeled away, and the playing fields now seemed to stretch out endlessly from the double-storey building, leaving it an island stranded in a golden, sun-dried sea.

Ahmed met up with Ibrahim before school and was rendered speechless at first. Ibrahim had ditched his usual jeans and leather jacket in favour of an imam’s outfit: a long white robe that reached to his ankles and a taqiyah on his shaved head. Ibrahim wasn’t exactly smiling when Ahmed found him next to the bike racks, but his face was proud.

“You look like my dad,” Ahmed managed to choke out while Ibrahim watched people pass by him to get to the school doors.

Ibrahim’s robes flapped a little as he shifted his weight, and he nodded slowly, magnificently. “It’s better than looking like your mum though, isn’t it?” He broke into his usual grin as he looked down at Ahmed.

“You’re not far off her either,” Ahmed mumbled as the bell rang and they made their way inside.

Ahmed cursed Ibrahim for the rest of the day. Not just for the stupid robes, but also for making him think about his mother. For the whole day, she was all Ahmed could focus on, and everything else felt like a dream.

 

His mother had been beautiful, even though everyone who had only known their mother when they were young said that. She was a small woman, shorter even than Ahmed’s dad, and had black hair that fell to her waist. When he was very little they played a game Ahmed called ‘Butterfly Queen’, where they jumped together on his parents bed and then his mother would flop back so that her hair spread out in every direction.

“Am I the Butterfly Queen?” she would ask, looking up at him with searching, smiling eyes.

Ahmed would pause for a second and lightly run his fingers over her smooth strands.

“Yes, you are the most beautiful Butterfly Queen!” he would yell, and she’d beam and hug him tight.

* * *

Maheera doubled over laughing when she saw Ibrahim. They had all met up near the car park, where the basketball courts were.

“You idiot! I didn’t think you’d actually do it!” Maheera was standing with a girl Ahmed didn’t recognise, but next to Maheera the girl looked plain. Like a dandelion next to a sunflower.

 

“Be the fearful cobra…” Ibrahim intoned deeply, looking around at them.

“…and shrink not from your nature…” Maheera followed on. They both looked at Ahmed to finish.

“…for you are as He has made you,” Ahmed finished, reluctantly.

Ibrahim bowed his head and spread his palms. “I am now the cobra.”

The girl Ahmed didn’t know was watching them carefully.

“What’s that from?” Her eyebrows jolted as she spoke. “The thing you just said.”

Maheera stepped in. “It’s from a book we all just read. Inara, these are my friends, Ibrahim and Ahmed. Guys, Inara’s from West Side and she goes to the mosque there.”

 

They all shook hands, which felt so strange to Ahmed, like they were old people at a country club. He glanced at Maheera and before he could help himself, he was thinking about how if his mother was beautiful, then Maheera was radiant, like the sun compared to the moon.

Ibrahim was in the middle of asking Inara something convoluted about what she thought about a certain verse in the Quran, when suddenly an object flew into their little circle and hit Ibrahim square on his big, round nose.

Laughter rose from the other side of the basketball courts and Ibrahim swore under his breath while he grabbed his face. A patched up football lay wobbling at his feet.

None of them knew what to say, even the usually reactive Maheera, and Ibrahim kept quiet while he searched for the source of the football. Then they spotted the group of tough-looking boys and girls on the other side of the court, and saw a skinny, hunched figure start striding towards them. Ahmed felt like he was watching it all through glass, like at the aquarium when the sharks closed in on the fish dumped into their tank at mealtimes. But then he realised that it was just Dylan walking towards them, not a shark. He almost raised a hand in welcome, but then saw Dylan’s red, angry face.

 

“I bet you liked that, didn’t you?!” Dylan yelled at Ibrahim, while staying a safe distance back. “Getting your face slapped by some pig skin. You’re all pig-fuckers, aren’t you?” He shot a nervous look back to his group and someone made an ‘oink’ sound.

Ibrahim kicked the ball out to him and Dylan stooped to get it. Ibrahim was glaring, but uncharacteristically holding his tongue. Ahmed realised that he was scared, Ibrahim’s eyes kept flicking over to the big group.

 

“You’re animals,” Dylan spat, before turning to leave, but his voice wavered so it sounded more like he was answering a teacher’s difficult question than actually insulting them.

 

“Shut up,” Ibrahim counteredsaid, finally regaining his voice.

“Sand-monkeys!” someone shouted from the group, and they all took it up as a chant. “Sand-monkeys! Sand-monkeys!”

 

And as Dylan re-joined them, head hung low, Ahmed glimpsed Angus, standing in the middle, his long, curly hair like a halo around his head. Suddenly, Ahmed knew why Ibrahim’s outfit had so unsettled him. Ibrahim had made them – Ahmed, Maheera, and now Inara – stand out, scapegoats for anyone to use. Angus and his friends now had a shockproof way to begin high school, gathering people to them. After all, Ahmed thought numbly as the jeers and laughter rang through the air, having someone mutual to hate is a great way to make friends.

 

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The Sea

The Sea (Julia Chetwood)

 

I thought long and hard before deciding to move the fifth pawn from the left two spaces forward.

Then I waited as the wind of the sea blew at my long golden hair, whispering a soft apology into my ear.

❖ ❖ ❖

I died some days ago with tears in my eyes – salty, bitter tears that threatened to overflow. Before I died though, my life was a utopian dream where animals from all walks of life lived together, each animal with its young by its side. But in my utopian dream, nothing was done to save those animals when my tears overflowed. So I cried even more when I saw the tides engulf the lionesses and her cubs, submerge the owls and her owlets and drown the turtledoves and her squabs. I cried even harder, and my tears, which came in tsunami waves, swept away the lambs grazing in the green pastures. The lambs were white like the room I died in some days ago after my visit to the sea. Everything was white in that room where there was only myself on the bed, and the saltiness of the sea that clung firmly to my hair and hugged my skin. White and empty… blank and empty. Empty like the pastures where the animals used to live; white like the lambs, nowhere to be seen. When my tears overflowed and drowned the animals, no one saved them because everyone was busy with their own lives.

 

I moved the bishop on the King’s right side, three spaces diagonally left. Then, I touched the ring that Adrian had given me and noticed that the ring’s golden plating had chipped and faded into a dirty yellow that was beyond repair.

❖ ❖ ❖

For my naivety of believing in the possibility of a golden life with Adrian, I was cursed with a continuous sourness in my mouth – a taste one could only attain through countless days of drinking lemon juice. But the lemon juice I had choked down was full of pulp and seeds, and although the seeds were hard to swallow at the beginning, I swallowed them nonetheless. When I was young, my mother had warned me not to swallow the pips and seeds of fruits, since it would grow inside me and kill me. And that she would be very, very sad if that ever happened. But I always wished that the seeds would grow inside me, sprouting little shoots that grew into sturdy trees. I always hoped the lemon seeds I swallowed would grow into lemon trees and bear fruit, because the one Adrian planted in our backyard didn’t. I think it was because the soil wasn’t fertile enough. High salinity, the Gardener had said, as though the garden had been watered with salt. Then, on days when I wanted lemonade, there were no lemons and God didn’t give me any either. God never gives you lemons. I don’t understand why people always say he does.

 

My fingers flittered near the Queen, hovering inches above her crown as I contemplated my next move. Then I helped her glide two spaces diagonally right before I looked up at the horizon.

❖ ❖ ❖

The sun was setting, igniting the sky with a demonic spritz of yellow with tinges of red and orange. The delicate voice of the sea called out to me, caressing my ears with the softness of its breath. But I couldn’t give in. After the incident some days ago, I had vowed never to return. I loved the sea with all my heart but it hurt me and I promised myself that no matter how much it apologized I would never forgive it for what it did… to me, to Adrian and to our golden life. It had stolen from me something that could never be replaced, and it left behind a cavity. And when the man in the white coat told me, I died in Adrian’s arms in that empty, white room. But now, I was back at the sea again. However, I didn’t give in, nor did I forgive it, so instead, it continued apologizing by singing me a soothing melody of “…ta vie est blanche, ta vie est blanche, ta vie est blanche…” to which I nodded melancholically to the rhythm and agreed whole-heartedly.

 

I shifted the Queen again, this time, four spaces forward and knocked out the pawn.

❖ ❖ ❖

“Checkmate”, I whispered as I looked up at the horizon with a wry smile creeping on my face. The wind whipped my face and my smile quickly vanished. My eyes widened as I saw a little boy standing there between the horizon and myself, eclipsing me of the warm view of the setting sun. We stared blankly at each other for a while as if we were exhibits for each other’s speculation.

“You can’t play chess with no pieces”, he scoffed, and immediately began to run back to his mother who was disappearing into the distance. I glanced down at the empty tabletop of the picnic table where my hands were neatly placed. Then, I looked up in the direction of the little boy.

I saw him catch up to his mother and when he reached for her hand to hold, an insatiable feeling swept over me. God, I hate kids, I thought as a tear slid down my cheek before I could even stop it.

 

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Sunset

Sunset (Leitu Bonnici)

 

As the boy sprinted through the trees, his body jolted with each heavy footstep as it hit the ground. He felt his heart pounding as if it were a drum and the blood rushing through his face like a heat wave. Although the piercing cold wind was beginning to cut his numb face, the boy did not care. He ran until he could not take a single breath more and collapsed under a canopy of trees. The leaves below him crunched under his weight, and his eyes fell shut as if a bid to soften the blow. When he opened them, he saw the clear blue sky peering through the branches high above him; with beaming rays of light bouncing mosaic patterns over the canopy. As he took time to simply be, he noticed a vibrant parrot sailing from branch to branch. How he longed to see what it could see! As he breathed in and out, he smelt the sweet sap of the tall sycamore trees towering over him.

Amidst the silence, the boys’ serenity was abruptly disturbed by the sound of distant screams of laughter. After a moment of silence, he heard more laughter, just as robust as before. Curious, the boy rose from his bed of leaves and followed the sound. Although he was not typically socially inclined, the boy forgot all insecurities, emphatically drawn to the source of the disturbance. As he got closer to the sound, he noticed how joyous and carefree it seemed and his compulsion to reach it grew. And as it grew,  his pace quickened. Before he knew it, the boy was once again soaring through the trees. He felt the familiar rush of blood coursing through his veins and his heart pounding heavier than ever before.

The boy suddenly burst into a clearing in the trees and found himself surrounded by a group of three children he had never seen before. They stood frozen for a split second, startled by the sudden appearance of the boy, before one girl stepped towards him and offered her hand as if to say “welcome”. The boy looked at her, bewildered, for he had never experienced this companionship before. In a cloud, he felt an overwhelming calmness and trust he had never known and followed her without resistance.

She gripped his hand tightly as she ran, so briskly that he struggled to keep up. The other children ran alongside them, all it seemed with the same destination in mind. The boy was running in the middle of the pack; in the middle of an act of unity. He was no longer on the outside looking in through the window. Someone had let him in.

They kept running for what seemed like days to the boy, but he did not wish to tire. He watched his surroundings whip past him. The trees all blurred into a collage of greens and browns with the light mosaics dotting the surface. The air had become thin at the speed they were travelling, so when the pack finally slowed, the boy was relieved. They stopped and caught their breath in a comfortable silence. As the boy looked up, he saw they were standing below the most magnificent trees he had ever spied. They stood so tall and strong that he believed they never ended and their thick, sturdy branches reached so far outward they seemed to go on forever. More than anything, to the boy they looked inviting.

When the boy looked back towards the earth, he saw that the other children had each chosen a tree and were beginning to climb. The girl turned and spotted him staring and waved him to her tree. Again, he obeyed. He felt an overwhelming desire for the tree, and the girl allowed him to feel comfortable in his need. And so, he climbed. And as he climbed, he noticed the vibrant parrot again as it soared past his nose and watched it disappear high above him. He felt his heart pounding as it did when he ran, and felt the blood rushing through his veins with such gusto he felt as if it launched him from branch to branch. He turned and watched the others climb their trees with the same air of liberation he felt. Their laughter rang in his ears and he felt the wind on his face more and more as he climbed higher and higher; until the entire sun shone on his face.

The light was bright and warm on his skin. He squinted through the sun and looked around him to find each of the other children at the top of their trees alongside him, squealing with excitement as their skin glowed in golden sunlight. When he met the girl’s eyes, she beckoned him. And as if they were connected, the boy knew what she wanted to do. But she did not look fearful, and the boy noticed that he too was not fearful. With a smile, the girl turned around; and in a blink, she had disappeared from his sight. He did not hear a noise, but rather a most beautiful silence.

The boy looked up into the warm sun. He stayed for a while, and watched it slowly begin to set. Although he knew it happened each day, he felt as if today it was setting just for him. As it slowly melted into the earth, it surrounded the boy with deep oranges and pinks that extended as far as his eye could see. As he looked out, he felt free. He was at peace, yet had never felt more alive. He bathed in the still serenity that surrounded him and smiled. Throwing his arms back with careless force, the boy relished in the sun, and he flew.

But the next day, unlike every other, the sun did not rise.

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Relative Size

Relative Size (Caitlin Brown)

 

Life has a tendency to demand decease in its wake; there is nothing without cost. 

 

Relative size. Emi remembers learning the term in art class back when she was in high school. She remembers the scraggly hair of her teacher, and the weird mismatched hippy clothing she used to wear. Everyone said the art teacher was crazy. If you have ever had the misfortune to attend an art class on a ‘theory day’, you will be well acquainted with the disappointment you feel when will not be dipping crusty paint-brushes into ‘just good enough’ paint, smearing it onto large sheets of blank paper, being quiet with intense concentration, and listening to trashy pop songs on the crackly radio, which was eternally covered in dried-up Clag (for some unknown reason). These were the kinds of lessons she liked. These lessons were fun, they let her imagination run wild, enveloping her angsty, adolescent mind in a sensation that felt like peace. For two hours, each week, Emi could pretend that she was no longer a painfully ordinary sixteen-year-old, full of self-hatred and petty worries. In art class, students were transformed into tranquil, ageless beings. They were nothing but harmonious brains and dexterous fingers, and it was the best time, space, universe in the world. Well, she cannot speak for the other students really. At least, that’s how Emi felt.

Theory classes, on the other hand, were a pain for everyone concerned. To this day, Emi has never met anyone who has expressed anything but complete disdain for the practise of art theory. “Have you got your books?” Our crazy art teacher would whisper, a vacant stare lingering passively on her wrinkled face. Sometimes she spoke so loudly that it was borderline aggressive. Other times her voice was too quiet, and Emi could barely hear her at all. This was one of those days. There was usually one smart-arse who would raise their hand. This was always followed by a domino of eye-rolls. Emi swears every art theory class she took at school was the same. Elements and principles – every time. It wasn’t particularly difficult; the art teacher would draw examples of all the art principles on the whiteboard, and the mass of half-hearted students would have to copy them down into their workbooks. Usually the back of an exercise book designated for some other subject, like English or Maths. There was no point having one specifically for art, considering the lack of written work required.

‘Cropping’ was always accompanied by a drawing of an eye with the rest of the face left out. ‘Contrast’ was always two circles – one black, and one white. They were easy enough – it was just that nobody cared about this sort of stuff. Pupils were happy to meddle aimlessly with random stuff found while rummaging in the messy art cupboard, making their own discoveries and getting ink and glue all over their eager hands. ‘Juxtaposition’ was the theory term that was intriguing – the one Emi found just a little bit difficult to get her head around. The teacher always drew a wine glass next to what Emi assumed was a bottle of wine. No one got it. “I don’t get it” they would mumble as they copied the illustration, still annoyed that it was theory and not ‘prac’. “Relative size” the art teacher would whisper back as she stared into space, batty as ever. Everyone said she had overdosed on Zoloft once, and that’s why she was so offbeat. “They define each other”, is what she said after a pause that was too long to indicate continuity, but her students were so used to her eccentricities of speech that they accepted this additional utterance without much thought.

Emi does not notice the ants, the microscopic organisms she destroys as she prances upon the smooth, white-grey footpath. She is the greater force; the bottle to the glass. Other people move around her on the pavement, and everyone subconsciously takes part in the subtle – but critical dance that must be performed in the presence of society. It is dependent on visibility, self-awareness, and on all of the participants knowing exactly where to stand, when to duck, and when to sway to one side. Everyone has their own special role; if you’re a child, you cling to a guardian so that their mobility is slowed. If you are small, but no longer a child, you weave in and out of the crowd, a master of stealth and adaptability. The entitled move ahead without thought, the disadvantaged make way for others. The more important a person feels they are, the less often they will assume the role of the chameleon. The less likely they are to mould themselves around others. The dance is dependent on the awareness we all have of relative size. Bottles of rich red wine plummet down the white-grey footpath. Tacky plastic shot cups lurk at the edges. Everyone’s eyes are drawn to the tall sparkling champagne flutes, lithe and elegant, slight but noticeable.

The journey is short; her destination is close-by.

The art gallery is the most majestic building Emi has ever laid her eyes on. The great, looming building diminishes her meagre body to a tiny cluster of biological matter.

Emi often feels like there is so much art in the world that maybe it makes up for all the bad stuff. She likes being surrounded by things that humans have made – stuff that doesn’t really have a practical function, but that means something to people. It’s nice to think that not everything has to happen for the sake of progress.

When Emi enters her office, there is a large sculpture of – well, she isn’t quite sure to be honest. It looks like a massive bee – or a beetle perhaps. The sculpture is at least three metres tall, and must be as wide as her dinner table at home. It’s made of silver wire and coloured wool. Emi thinks it is a truly hideous creation, but gets to work assessing the work for curation. A child gawks at her through the state-of-the-art windows, that pose as walls but fail miserably. The downside of working at the gallery is the general preference for aesthetic over comfort and privacy. The child’s eyes flicker to Emi, and then to the giant bug, and back again. Emi, not one to be distracted at work, offers a grimace and resumes her assessment. She thinks that if the school-group tour guides weren’t so fixed on lecturing children on the theory of art (which no-one, absolutely no-one cares about – especially not little kids), then perhaps fewer students would ‘go missing’.

We are giants, but we are also mice.

Never are we more minuscule, more insignificant and minute than when our bodies and minds unwillingly surrender to the terror of greater forces.

As she arrives at the station after work, Emi is informed of an accident with the trains. Someone was hurt, and she cannot help but hear the noises – the sharp, loud cracking cacophony that must have sounded; the voice of a human creation claiming one of Emi’s own as its prey.  She thinks of the giant sculpture, and the small child, her dinner table back at home, the art gallery and her own humble body. She thinks of the train, and the person it hit.

And she thinks of the wine glass, and the bottle which is probably full of wine.

And Emi is faced with her fundamental insignificance, demonstrated, symbolised, emphasised, by relative size.

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Jim & Julie

jim and julie

 

Staring, catatonic at the screen; before him, young men jumped and ran, crowds cheered their heroes on, and in his mind, he almost forgot that he existed on this brown, sagging couch. A shrill and electronic interruption of the phone jolted his spine straight and his heart all but stopped for that moment, before commencing its stuttering pace. And so the phone carried on and on. He gripped the side of the couch and the cushions below him firmly as he rose and began his way to the phone. He was almost halfway when the click of the answering machine preluded a smooth voice: “Hello, this is Julie calling from Media Reach Surveys. I was just calling to collect Jim’s survey results –”

Jim grabbed hold of the phone and raised it to the side of his head, calling out, “I’m here! I’m here! Hello.”

In the midst of her automatic answering machine spiel, Julie heard Jim. She started, unprepared for actual human interaction, “Oh! Hello, Jim. I’m Julie from Media Reach Surveys. How are you?”

“Very well, thank you, just watching the telly, the Bombers are playing! And yourself?”
She could hear the dust in his voice as it quavered and cracked after days of silence. Their eagerness to talk always made her uncomfortable. Most people, nowadays, slammed phones down on cold callers, giving a curt goodbye at most. She was guilty of this herself. And yet, these people that she called, these generous, waning people, were always so pleased to hear from her. “I’m pleased to hear that,” – her expression had plateaued two hours ago at a dull glare, but through the phone she sounded sweet – “Is this a good time to collect your survey results?”

“Oh yes! I filled it out just as it arrived in the mail; I’ve been keeping it next to the phone since then.”

Julie heard the rustle of papers and she knew that he would take a while to get to the page starting the survey itself. They always did; their dry and papery fingers fumbled and couldn’t turn the pages.

“Hang on a minute, would’ya love? I just need to find my specs,” before his eyes, the numbers swam and drifted upstream.

Jim hurried off to the bedroom to locate his glasses, his slippers scuffing the wooden floorboards. He settled back by the phone, heart racing, he gasped, “Are you ready?”

Julie’s cheery reply spread a smile thick across his face: “Ready when you are!”

“Steady! Go! 3 – 3 – 7 – 1 – 2…4 – 3 – 7 – 6 – 1 – I’m not going too fast for you?”

“Not at all,” Julie sighed away from the mouthpiece.

They almost never were. She kept her eyes fixed on the paper; the satisfaction of filling in each blank square was wearing thin. Each number corresponded to the rating of a show or a personality. She never knew which shows they liked or hated, because she never bothered to check; but she did know that box 72 got a 7, so he must have liked it, whatever or whomever it pertained to.

And so for eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds it went on – Jim droning on from one end, and at the other, Julie hastily filling in blanks. Until, all at once, Jim, in the middle of a four, inhaled sharply and toppled over.

The phone hit the ground and Julie, on the other end, jerked away from the noise and whilst the thud wasn’t distinctly human, what had happened was unmistakable. “Jim? … Jim, are you there?”

Through the line came the tinny voice of the footy commentator. Julie hesitated before calling out again. After a minute she lowered the phone and hung up. She looked down at the half finished survey and clutching the sides of the desk, pushed away from it, the wheels on her chair spinning into the carpet. Her tongue was rough against the roof of her mouth. Picking up the empty mug beside the phone, Julie left the room.

She wandered through the narrow corridor. Glossy photo portraits of men in suits hung around and her shoulder twinged with the sensation of being watched. Their stares dropped away as the corridor opened up into a wide room. There was a white kitchenette off to the side, sticky dishes tottering in the sink, a bench and a coffee machine in the centre, and a corner of vending machines. The broadcasting station was always empty at the time of night that she worked. Julie poured herself a mug of hot water and dunked a tea bag into the steam a few times. As she turned back towards the corridor, a disgruntled South-East Asian lady came around the corner dragging a cart of cleaning equipment. The two exchanged fleeting smiles as they passed, the cleaner all but smearing her face with war paint as she approached the sink.

Back at her desk, Julie dialled Jim’s number, she was greeted with a hollow beep, his phone was off the hook. On her left lay a stack of surveys yet to filled, on her right, the few that she’d already completed, and in the centre, Jim’s half-filled sheet. She could not move forward with the others with this one incomplete, however; she now had no way of completing it. She picked up her phone for the final time that night and dialled three numbers. Glancing down at the sheet, she relayed Jim’s address and details to the emergency services before packing up her things and heading out into the night.

 

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Cabin 85

Man in Train Compartment1

 

Emanuel K had missed his stop. Hat over his eyes, en route to his job at the bank, he had fallen fast asleep the moment the train left off.

Jolted into consciousness, Emanuel snatched his satchel and dashed for the door at the next station, fearful of being late to work. Waiting impatiently for the train to stop, Emanuel tapped his foot over and over as the carriage pulled into the next station, . Again, the dragging wait for the light to flash above the door played on his patience, eager was to alight the train and catch a cab in the hope of making it to work.

But it seemed this would be denied to him.

A tall attendant, dark hair and surly moustache, as impeccably groomed as his pressed and cleaned uniform, held his hand before the door

“I am sorry sir, but you cannot get off at this station” he said impassively. Emanuel’s mouth fell open with a look of doubt. The attendant, Monsieur Jean by his nametag, had directly refused him leaving the train. Had there been some emergency he had not become aware of? When Emanuel pressed Monsieur Jean, who looked in no way French, he was told to simply to:

“Wait in your cabin for the time being, sir.”

Assuming nothing serious had occurred, Emanuel returned to his room and began the newspaper he had originally planned to read on the trip down.so to his newspaper. He had no way of contacting work about the train, and would have to explain his lateness as the result of a delay, or a particularly overzealous attendant who had putting his bags in the wrong compartment. One of them would see him suitably forgiven.

Again the train pulled off, but evidently no one had boarded either. Something must have been wrong with the station then? Renovation work, or repairs. He recalled one of the stations being scheduled for something like that earlier that month. They must have been mid-way through it by now then. Yes, that must have been it.

Emanuel heard the sound of the train’s horn again. They were nearing the next stop.

His worn, khaki suit felt stiff as he pulled himself peeled himself from the seat. The wait between stops was long, and his back felt as equally as inflexible as it did after a day in his cubicle. Emanuel pulled the sliding door open to the passageway, again it seemed he was the only person who wanted to exit. This did not surprise him, most rode this line directly into the city, and this was just a minor pause. The passageway was free even of the crew as he made his way toward the door. Activating the door, a familiar voice spoke.

“I am sorry sir, but you cannot get off at this stop,” spoke Monsieur Jean, whose sudden appearance and close proximity made Emanuel pull back his hand back in shock. Monsieur Jean now kept his whole body between Emanuel and the doorway, politely, but firmly, barring the way. A look of uncertainty, and even mild concern spread over Emanuel’s face, but Monsieur Jean was soon to console him with the words, “wait in your cabin for the time being sir”, repeating the phrase as before. Emanuel raised his voice to speak, before clenching his fist around his newspaper and returning to his cabin. He did not hear Monsieur Jean leave, though when he turned round again to demand an explanation, once more conjuring his courage in the hope of receiving an explanation, Monsieur had left the doorway, presumably returning to his duties aboard the trains other carriages.

The train rocked as it pushed on toward the city. There were scarce few articles left in the paper for Emanuel to read through now, limited now to advice columns and the personal ads, both areas he tended to avoid. The steady rocking of the train threatened to send him to sleep again, though the desire was staved off by the ever-increasing anxiety he felt as he moved further and further away from the bank. It was a commendable position, though with few prospects for higher employment.  The branches location and overall obscurity ensured the highest Emanuel could see himself rising was general manager, a man of modest hours and an equally modest salary.

A third time the train jolted to a stop, a third time Monsieur Jean barred his way. Taken with frustration, Emanuel attempted to occupy his time by visiting one of the other passengers with whom he shared this carriage. Shuffling past his cabin, he knocked on the door to its left. A sour voice answered back to him.

“Yes?” A woman — many years his senior — bid him inside her compartment. Clearly not one for travelling lightly, a selection of fold- out suitcases furnished her with everything she could need for an extended field journey, including mirror, iron, and washbasin. She sat meekly on the seat, as if her seemingly perfunctory frame merely hovered over the cushions rather than displacing them with any weight.

Her enviable collection of luggage was matched only by the wealth of jewellery she kept within them, much of it spilling over the sides as if she’d been unable to decide what to wear that morning and had haphazardly thrown them back in into drawers as one does with clothes when rushing for a party. She was a Dowagess, she explained, her voice harsh voice cracking as she spoke. Emanuel said little during the interaction, the Dowagess apparently quite content to spill her opinions at a moment’s whim, the deficiency of the cabin service, the length of the trip, all to her were equally detestable as they were topical. The train was deathly silent; and despite the soundproofing of the cabins, it felt as if they were the only two in the carriage, if not the whole train.

The Dowagess’ conversation droned on: “never free” she was, “now she could finally be herself,” she said. Emanuel increasingly desired the sound of the next train horn, unable to think of a polite reason to depart. Instead, frustration, a question quite simply burst out of him: Why could they not get off the train?

Before the Dowagess could answer in her sandpaper voice, the cabin door slid open.

A whirl of movement found a pair of lithe hands tightly gripping his arms. Sleeves pulled taut, he was spun back to face the carriage. Monsieur Jean stood straight-backed before him.

“I am sorry sir, but you cannot visit the private cabins of others,” Monsieur Jean rattled off. Emanuel K. did not protest, and chided himself for not predicting this outcome. He was held in place by two men — the train guards presumably — whose freshly pressed uniforms held a surprising stiffness as he was pulled up against them.

“Wait in your cabin for the time being, sir,” he heard Monsieur Jean calmly say as he was escorted back, the guards promptly opening the door and tapping him inside in one efficient movement, drawing the exterior blind as they left.

Sealed inside his cabin, Emanuel considered why he was continually denied exit. Nothing was mentioned of it in the paper, which, within the next few minutes, he would have succeeded in reading cover to cover in order to distract himself from the preposterous situation he was in.

Emanuel rhythmically tapped his foot against the bottom of his seat, reading through the statements for his late afternoon appointment, familiarising himself with the facts so that when he arrived, if he arrived, he could attempt to make up for lost time. It did not hold his focus for long. The situation on the train had become increasingly present in Emanuel’s mind, his thoughts over and over: what in fact could be going on? Was there even an issue outside? Was it something happening on board? One possibility sparked his mind. He had not looked properly into the other carriages, he was not sure if this was isolated simply to his.

He would find out.

Emanuel K. slid across the chair toward the door. He would ask, nay, demand an answer from this Monsieur Jean who continued to impede him. Emanuel burst into the hall, only to find it deserted.

Emanuel K. was awfully ambivalent about this fact. Initially brimming with purpose, such energy now deserted him. The emptiness left him on edge. The blinds were drawn to the dining carriage, leaving Emanuel no way of knowing if Monsieur Jean was there.

Emanuel K., however, had forgotten to check behind him. The sudden bump of another body against him sent a shriek from his lungs as he jumped around to face what had hit touched him.

Before him stood a short, pudgy looking man whose shirt sagged under the weight of an impressive collection of medals, bestowing upon him an air of authority that singled him out as the train’s captain. Flanked by the same two guards, and Monsieur Jean behind him, the Captain and his crew had effectively barred his way. The captains bearded chin lowered just enough for the words,

“I’m sorry sir, but you cannot change compartments” to flow familiarly from his mouth and into the ears of a disconcerted Emanuel K. The man’s honey-coated voice did little to calm him as the guards walked forward and promptly lead him back to his room, the Captain repeating that familiar phrase,

“Wait in your cabin for the time being, sir.”

So flustered by these events was Emanuel K. that it did not cross his mind that trains do not typically have a Captain. Thoughts swirled in his head. Surely such peculiarities could not be isolated to him alone.

Was it that the guards had a special interest in him, or was there simply some issue they refused to announce? Either way it played on Emanuel’s nerves.

The Dowagess, he would ask her as to his predicament, perhaps her position would make her privy to information he was not.

Stepping into the hallway, Emanuel’s head darted around. Satisfied the crew were out of earshot had moved on, Emanuel K. turned toward the Dowagess’ compartment.

Again, the girth of the train’s captain blocked his path, backed again by the silent guards and the implacable Monsieur Jean. He was not even surprised to see them this time. Emanuel heard no sign of the Dowagess in her compartment, no babbling to herself as last time. Angered, Emanuel K. listened to the Captain speak.

“I’m sorry sir…” Emanuel K. cut him off, he knew the rest.

“Wait in your cabin for the time being, sir” The Captain continued in that polite tone he imagined a diplomat would use during negotiations; exasperation behind a cordial façade.

Padding back into his cabin, Emanuel K. threw himself onto the seat beside the window, the familiar rattle of the tracks underneath rumbling through the walls. Emanuel had lost complete track of time now, his inability to leave the carriage leaving him lost within the walls. How far along the line was he now? What station would he be refused next? Emanuel’s arms shook with rage as he reached out to draw the blind.

His eyes darted up, a startling sight beheld him.

A hand, tight around the string held the blind in check over the window, plump fingers gripping its coarse length. Turning his face up, Emanuel K. noted the crew bending down across his window, bodies tightly packed into the cabin, who, from Emanuel’s lowered position, now seeming impossibly tall and impossibly wide. Weary of the coming words, Emanuel K. looked on in complete horror as the crew announced in unison.

“I’m sorry sir”

Emanuel screamed.

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Burnt in Bali

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No moisturiser, no drink and certainly no lawyer.

On the afternoon following the Brexit vote I woke up in my suite on the bottom floor of the Komaneka Bisma- an expansive property on the edge of Ubud, a village in central Bali. As I woke up, I was greeted to a slow-burning pain all across my stomach and inner thighs, the previous day’s post-lunch lounge by the pool having left me with such severe sunburn that scores of empty Aloe Vera bottles lay sprawled around my bed. My journey to the shower proved difficult, pockets of green sludge unsteadied my footing and the burn had affected my quads so harshly that every step brought sharp and destabilising spasms.

There is no question that I was duped into an elaborate joke by the staff there. I was told the bottles of spray on each lounge chair side table was certified “Grade A” 50+ SPF sunscreen. In hindsight, the muck I was rubbing on my skin appears nothing more than the drained oil from bargain-bin tuna cans. Where my wintery and pasty Melbournian skin suffered dearly under such duplicity, the blonde wife of a Russian oligarch had profited greatly. On my balcony later that evening, over a quart of American Bourbon, she loudly revelled in the impending jealousy of her Moscovian sisters upon witnessing her tan. Playing the femme-fatale beautifully, she consoled me for falling into such an obvious ruse then suggested I sue the bastards for punitive damages. I sighed and explained I didn’t have access to a Balinese lawyer who specialised in these sorts of things.

As I was reeling from the shock of my egregious overconfidence in the power of hotel-provided sunscreen, the world too was recovering in a similar manner from United Kingdom’s vote to get out of the EU. None of the King’s Court soothsayers anticipated such a decisive victory for the Leave camp, over a million votes favoured a Fractured Kingdom over a United Europe. What was framed by the Brexiteers as an opportunity to precipitate a renaissance of the United Kingdom, has unsurprisingly yielded the exact opposite result. In the hours since the vote, all that’s clear is that the entire contemporary European and Global political narrative will have to be rewritten. British political elites have begun sharpening their knives for what is sure to be a grand feast at the political theatre. I imagine David Cameron, having lost the vote and ultimately his Prime Ministership, has wasted no time scouring his teledex for contacts in the Cobblestone Underbelly; naturally surveying his options for retribution.          

One hell of a sunburn.

A call was forwarded to my room straight from the Labor Party HQ on Collins Street. The receptionist explained that they had reversed the charges, asking for permission to put it on my room’s bill. Upon my loud and profane protestations, he put me on hold. The Australian Left believes they can get away with this sort of penny-pinching tomfoolery. The xylophonic holding music finally ceased, the receptionist stressed that the call was urgent and insisted that I accept the charges. I agreed and told him to connect me in 25 seconds, on the sole condition that my caller be subjected to the holding melody at its maximum while they waited.

I rushed over to the fridge and grabbed four dark miniatures to mix myself a drink; undoubtedly I was about to be swooned over by a secretarial hack and like shit I was going to allow it sober. The mystery caller turned out to be an old drinking buddy of mine from my brief stint at Melbourne University. He and I developed a habit of camping out at the Mahogany Room’s craps tables in Packer’s Casino. We’d spend our time there on our parents’ dollar, usually with the purpose to start revising for our politics exam scheduled for the forthcoming afternoon.  

 

‘Kim Carr, I should’ve guessed it! You fucking snake, where do you get the gall? No doubt  extracted from the testicles of fresh-faced Socialist-Left recruits?’
‘Jesus Charlie! You are in Bali aren’t you? I’m told this resort they’ve got you in is more luxurious than Bob Hawkes’ bayside manor. You’ve got no good reason to be so strung out.’
‘Kim, ol’ darling, I know your kind don’t care much for private credit but this is some serious cheek. Charge it to the party!’  
‘That’s why I’m calling.’
‘Ho ho! In a spot of trouble? Don’t tell me the next great Australian headline is going to read; Labor Heavyweight- in both figure and reported stature- uses campaign money to fund Bikie-run pooch nabbing scheme.
‘No, no, we gave up on that enterprise in 05’ Charlie! Calm down and listen to me! It’s much worse than Bikies. Our Accountant tells me Campaign Central’s run dry of funds, they mistakenly approved the printing of four million glossed pamphlets to be sent to each marginal household in Victoria. The order was irreversible and now we owe millions to some unregistered paper supplier in Ararat.’
‘Ararat? Jesus Christ. There’s no industry there Kim, only housing for paedophiles and tourists venturing into Western Victoria on poor intel. This sounds much worse indeed. Have you spoken to your attorney? By god man … speak to the Courts! Surely someone in your Shadow Government is shutting down their sham-fucking outfit. ’
‘For the last time Charlie we don’t need your legal advice, Dreyfus has already got his best lawyer on it. I have more immediate concerns. We’ve got about eight seats that are so close you could measure the margin on Danby’s dick – without any more money we won’t just lose them to the Libs but also the op shop combing north-side seats to the Greens.’
‘Give up on em’ Kim, the bookies are saying Batman will be more bruising than Howard’s loss in Bennelong. Fuck that gaff-prone fool Feeney anyway, he deserves to lose to an academic. Cut him loose, redirect the volunteers, save yourselves a few fundraisers.’
‘This is bigger than Batman, Charlie!’
‘Alright, time for the hard-ask. Hold the line Kim, lemme anaesthetise before you close the last stitch’. I ventured back over to the minibar to simultaneously refill my drink and deliver on my New Year’s resolution to never speak to a politician while sober. *
‘I’m back Kim, go for it.’
‘Alright, I’ve already hit the Krauts, the Lebs, the St. Kevin’s crowd and even the Church but it’s not enough. They’re telling me a Porcine Magnate known to you has boarded himself up in Potts Point with a Polish dancing troupe, word is they’ve got enough cocaine on call to keep the Bolivian monopoly going for another few years. This is the break we need Charlie, the Billionaire’s secretary isn’t taking calls and you correspond with him on Whatsapp for the love of Christ. His cash that you secured for us in the 04’ election kept the Victorian chapter alive, he seemed very-’
‘He’s turned his sails to the hard-right since then Kim. The prospects of a $50 billion tax cut bodes well in his circles. I doubt he’s willing to part with so much dirty cash in this political climate. We don’t know who’s going to win this marathon fucking election. Bill’s run and Bus across Australia only succeeded in revealing his Keynesian leanings and it’s done well to alienate the Reinhart lot. More budget deficits means less income tax cuts. He won’t give up the money Kim- no matter the ludicrous coke-to-blood ratio.’

 


‘Charlie, the Reds may be relegated to the campuses but the Greens are thriving in suburbs. If the ALP vote crashes through in this election we’ll lose all credibility and may never recover in Victoria’. ‘Credibility? Kim, what did credibility do for King of the Con-men; David Cameron? What happened in the UK this morning is a sign of things to come; the centrists are losing their shine. We’re entering an era of extreme promises and hard consequences. These new Millennials coming through are fucking the status quo. Electoral politics is going through a once in a generation shift and the Labor Party’s primary concern is guaranteeing Shorten manages to lose 10kg in 4 weeks.
‘Charlie, shut up for a second. You don’t understand the gravity of what I’m telling you. If you don’t get this injection for us the Greens will be the only one on the beat north of the Yarra. Once they get hooked in Labor will never be welcomed back, believe me, friend. ’
‘Every call I get from you Kim, only works to hammer in this perception that Australian politics is headed for crisis. The Dam is quickly reaching breaking point; it can only sustain so many gallons of blasted tripe before it bursts. I’ll give it some serious thought and get back to you this afternoon. Does Shorten known about this?’

‘This entire call is on his instruction.’

‘I’ll be in contact Kim.’

I put down the phone with rancorous haste. His reply had deeply unnerved me. The hurried lighting of a cigarette on my balcony calmed my angst, but in that mix of smoke and Indonesian humidity emerged rapid introspection. Bill Shorten had instructed the most senior left-wing Senator in Victoria to milk his contacts for an emergency slush-fund to save Labor’s vote from a fatal and awe-inspiring self-induced wound. The immediate parallel to that morning’s Brexit vote astounded me. Cameron had used Western democracy’s most powerful structure-shifting mechanism – referendum – as a quick fix to quell party room dissent, only to fall on his sword spectacularly. Then, in Australia, the Labor party had taken advantage of a natural friend of the left, the environment, to not only wastefully produce tonnes of useless paper fucking pamphlets but to also squeeze dry the last drop of cash in Baby’s College Fund.

A phone call such as this, then in that silence when the receiver touched its base revealed something that I had not known nor could escape. I am as pained by, but persist in the political apparat as I do my sunburn. A life-time membership to the Royal Australian Political Theatre grants the commentariat unparalleled privilege over other private citizens, a privilege that dooms me to watch empires collapse and see old friends turn dirty. Such a burden it is to trade secrets in this era of Murdochracy. But alas, it puts me by pools and sends me to the tropics.

That’s all for now,

Menthol Charlie.

I’ve divided my advance towards the next issue with the diligence of an accomplished jurist. Half for Mint Juleps and the other for Ibogaine. No other pharmaceutical interaction could mimic the extractive capacity of a ouija board so effectively. After all, the boorish editor of the Telegraph had the cajones to run a piece on Bill Shorten and a certain Gentleman’s club on King Street. This calls for serious reflection, especially because that motherfucking Labourist hasn’t squared our debt from that evening…

 

*A few weeks later in Melbourne I was subjected to another lecture by my editor on the impending collapse of print media. She warned the paper’s primary budgetary expense could no longer read; “Rum and Bourbon coolers for anonymous sources”.

 

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