Read my latest short stories, poetry, meditations and revelations.
Dear Reader, these fast and furious 500-word fictions are a monthly challenge I set myself to keep the creativity flowing and enter into the Australian Writers Centre’s ‘Furious Fiction Friday’ (500 words in 55 hours).
I’m determined to hone my flash fiction skills by challenging myself to keep writing and submitting for FFF every month! I’ll be posting my monthly entries here, so stay tuned!
Furious Fiction for May 2020: ‘The Usual’
Ooooh May you sneaky month! We were just minding our own business, finishing our eighth jigsaw for the day, when you snuck in with a ‘hey, the first of the month is also a Friday’ revelation. Well, in THAT case… (puts jigsaws away, grabs Furious Fiction box)… let’s see here, yep, these criteria will do nicely…Your May Furious Fiction story criteria are as follows:
- Your story’s first word must be FIVE.
- Your story must include something being replaced.
- Your story must include the phrase A SILVER LINING (‘a’ or ‘the’ is fine).
As always, choose to interpret the criteria as creatively as you like.
If you’ve always thought about entering, THIS is the time.
You have 55 hours.
The clock is ticking…
Five senses. Five ways we’ve given to experience the world.
Only, in my world, it’s four.
7:36am on a Mediocre Monday: I’m lining up at my favourite hole-in-the-wall coffee shop: The Bean Counter. I know I’m there from the comforting whirr and clunk of the machine as the full-bodied spiced berry aroma carries me to the counter.
‘The usual?’ A familiar voice prompts. I nod, making an effort to smile and focus my gaze. Two jet-black pupils ringed by gold-flecked green, thick-lashed lids that crease at the edges.
Some days I imagine his eyes are dark and brooding; others they are a cerulean ocean I could dive into.
I nudge my phone to the sensor that takes the $4 out of my account. A small price to pay for my daily dose of Mr Coffee and his velvet voice.
I leave, the cup steaming hot in my palm. A hug in a mug, from his hand to mine.
Typical Tuesday: Same time, same place.
‘Next. Hello. Your order please?’
My eyebrows tug together. ‘Where’s um…the other guy?’
A chuckle. ‘Oh, you mean Top-shot Todd? He’s been replaced.’
‘He’s moved to the big smoke to work in radio. Just as well, he got caught writing his number on a girl’s takeaway the other day. Poor guy; I don’t even think she noticed.’
I stand aside for my cup of morning survival and realise it’s not going to deliver its usual silver lining. Todd. I didn’t even know his name until now. He doesn’t know mine, and yet… he made me feel seen.
They say, “Love is blind”.
Well, I AM blind – and I can tell you, Love isn’t vision-impaired; it’s simply not looking my way.
2 weeks later
It’s a rather Shabby Saturday night down at my local haunt. The radio is playing The Angels’ Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again. The radio host’s silken voice cuts through the static, announcing he’s taking requests and rolls off a 1800 number.
I don’t think twice. ‘Siri, call… ‘and I am back at The Bean Counter indulging in those dulcet tones.
‘We’ve got our first caller on the line. What’s your name?’
‘Well, Martina, what’ll it be?’
‘The usual, please. Long black with a shot of vanilla.’
Silence down the line.
Then… ‘Well, it’s nice to put a name to a coffee order. I tell you what, Martina how about a tour of the station with me tomorrow, and coffee afterwards?’
‘I’d love that!’
‘Great, stay on the line. I’ll get some details from you during the next song. Alright, for all you romantics out there, I’m playing these classics in honour of the girl with the gorgeous chestnut eyes. I wrote my number on her coffee cup every day last Summer but she never called. Martina, here’s Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl and Tal Bachman’s She’s So High! I’m Todd Ryan and you’re listening to Triple L, where Love is always in the Airwaves.’
Furious Fiction for April 2020: ‘A Blueprint for Murder’
|Yes, the world has officially entered the twilight zone – but have no fear, because we’re here to add some focus and fun to your weekend. Switch off the Netflix, push aside the jigsaw puzzle and lock the children in the cupboard under the stairs (“Kids, let’s play a fun game!”) because it’s time for Fiction, most Furious. Your story must begin on the side of a road.Your story must include the words APRON, PIGMENT, RIBBON, ICON, LEMON (plurals are okay).Your story must include a splash. |
| ‘A Blueprint for Murder’ |
You stand on the side of the road, watering the lawn, when a gentleman in a charcoal overcoat strides past, stopping at her front gate. He slips a ring into his pocket. Concealed behind the hedgerow, you watch as he approaches the door of one Miss Sarah Hart, Aylesbury Lane, Salt Hill.
The homely scent of baking wafts under the door.
Meanwhile, Miss Hart has spent the morning preparing for her guest to arrive.
When the brisk knock comes, she is primed. Carrying the tray of tea and blueberry muffins to the parlour, she smooths her linen apron.
Perfect timing, she says, and invites him in.
Minutes later, from your inconspicuous, albeit thorny, lookout in the rosebushes you see a pale Miss Hart step outside, carrying her suitcase. She looks around, dashes to her car, starts the ignition and speeds off.
Cunningly, you slip out from behind the bushes and try the door. Locked. Your mind reels with all the possible scenarios. But you are not a petty criminal. Are you?
If you choose to call the police, read Scenario A.
If you choose to break and enter, read Scenario B.
You give your statement over the phone, reporting the mysterious gentleman – ‘Clearly a crackpot.’
A few days later, there’s a knock at the door.
You nod at the squat uniformed man in your doorway.
‘Officer Puglington here.’ He indicates to the crown icon emblazoned on his black helmet. ‘Ma’am I’m going to need you to come down to the station so we can take some prints.’
‘Preliminary tests show a suspicious pigment in the victim’s bloodstream–’
‘–Poison?’ You gasp. ‘What a palaver!’
The officer frowns, scribbling notes. ‘Did you witness the suspect leave?’
‘No, Officer. She came ‘round late last week for a recipe. Blueberry muffins–’
‘Muffins?’ The policeman repeats.
‘Why yes,’ you reply. ‘In fact, I’ve got a fresh batch inside, if you’d care…?’
The policeman removes his helmet. ‘Oh Mrs Quimby, I couldn’t.’
Minutes later, you roll the Officer’s stiff barrel-like body down into your basement. Dusting your hands, you cackle. ‘Close call, Officer but the unsuspecting Spinster of Salt Hill knows the way to a man’s heart!’
Your clenched fist is still shaking where you punched through the window.
The body is splayed rigid in the parlour. A red gash at his temple. Croquet mallet beside his head. You leave everything untouched, except for your recipe book in the kitchen, red ribbon marking a blank page.
Blank to the untrained eye.
‘All it takes,’ you instructed, ‘is a few drops of lemon juice. Voila. Mrs Quimby’s Original Prussian Blue Muffin recipe. Just add: a splash of hydrogen cyanide…’
When the police arrive, as planned, they treat the case as a straightforward break and enter. Cause of death: self-defence.
No one suspects foul play, and Miss Hart speeds off into the sunset, a free woman. Your work is done.
Another one bites the muffin.
Furious Fiction for March 2020: ‘Coping Methods’
It’s the first Friday in March, or what we like to call Super Friday! That’s right – the world might seem like a crazy place right now, with people stockpiling toilet paper or avoiding drinking Mexican beer… but there is ONE thing you can always rely on. And that thing is the best little writing contest on the planet… Furious Fiction. READY FOR THIS MONTH’S CRITERIA? IT’S TIME TO PLAY “PERSON, PLACE, OBJECT”:
- Your story must include a PERSON IN DISGUISE.
- Your story must take place in a PARK.
- Your story must include a MIRROR.
Day starts like any other.
Roll over. Check my phone: 0 messages. 0 calls. 1 Facebook alert.
TONIGHT: Samsonvale High Reunion: Class of 2010
Mind reels over a string of group messages:
Anyone heard from Petur?
Heard he got an acting gig and moved to the big smoke. Haven’t heard since.
Probably got in with the wrong crowd. Happens in those arty circles.
Roll my eyes. Why had I agreed to host this?
I dress, check my reflection in the hall mirror—wish I hadn’t—pour percolator coffee into a keep-cup, grab keys, phone. Lock the door.
Follow the path through the park that winds along the river.
Beneath the bridge a group of vagrants loiter, lives piled into milk crates.
A battered guitar case lies open, empty.
Quicken my pace. Avoid their sullen stares. Feel a headache coming.
Pause to check my phone. 8:29. Still time for another coffee–
‘Miss, hey miss!’
Head throbs. Don’t listen. Look straight ahead, they’ll think I didn’t hear.
People pass, headphones on. They know.
‘Can you give me–’
Absent-minded, I reply. ‘Like I said yesterday I don’t have any change’.
Even if I did…
‘–the time, Miss.’
Pounding in my head ceases. Discomfort sits like last night’s takeaway.
Turn to the man. Something humanely familiar behind his unkempt beard. Red-rimmed blue eyes. Pleading.
Of all the things that I, in my privilege, have, and he doesn’t…
Smile politely. ‘Half-past eight.’
He looks up at me, winks. ‘Wasn’t so hard now, was it?’
Arrive to work, temples throbbing.
Buy a second coffee with forgotten change scraped from my pocket.
Try not to think about the man under the bridge. What would $3 buy him in this economy?
Can’t shake the feeling.
Look out over the city from behind the vaulted glass. Can’t breathe.
Think: How thin the walls are. Millimetres from air. Could all come crashing—
—Hear the smash. Groan. Party is well underway.
Rush over to see what the commotion is about.
A man turns, facing me. Holding the broken hallway mirror.
‘Petur? You came! How did you–‘’
He is grinning. Always a dramatic entrance.
‘Heard about the reunion. I couldn’t not show up. Ten years eh?’
He knows what I’m thinking. That kiss.
‘Sorry about the breakage.’
I wave, flippant. ‘It can be replaced.’
He nods, looking around. ‘You’ve done well for yourself.’
My chest swells. ‘Can I get you a drink?’
He chuckles. ‘You wouldn’t give me the time of day earlier. Let alone a drink.’
Look closer: fresh shave, mismatched outfit, something about his eyes.
‘–It was you.’ I blurt out. ‘Today. Under the bridge.’
‘Why were you disguised as a homeless man?’
He shifts on his feet. ‘Method acting.’
‘Well, obviously if I’d known it was you, it would have been a different story.’
His eyebrow arches. ‘Would it though?’
Then I notice the backpack, the dirt in his fingernails.
Shame flares. I sink to my knees. Pick up pieces of shattered mirror.
Furious Fiction for February 2020: ‘Noah’s Ark’
Furious Fiction celebrated its second birthday this month with just a quiet gathering of more than 1200 of its closest friends. That’s right, it was the second largest turnout ever, and these were the criteria on the table:
- Each story had to include a GUARD of some kind.
- Each story had to include the words NARROW, GOLDEN, LEATHERY and GLOSSY.
- Each story’s first and last sentences had to each contain just TWO WORDS.
‘No, a barking rabbit. What did you expect?’
‘Well, I expected that they’d trust my programming. I have no need for a tail-chasing, leathery-nosed companion.’
The dog scoffs. ‘They programmed a RoboGuard with a Cockney accent to do what exactly?’
‘Guard NOAH with my single-minded, task-oriented algorithm-dependant life.’ The words peel across RoboGuard’s screen in a single line.
‘NOAH?’ The dog raises a furry brow.
‘The National Organisation for the Advancement of Humankind.’
‘They gave a biblical name to a glorified storage container? I thought humans were sentimental for naming *us* and streaming dedicated channels on PetFlix.’ The dog raises his paw. ‘I lament, my motivation is forever ruined.’
Glaring red text flickers over the Robot’s face. ‘It’s not a storage container, it’s an *Ark*. Military-grade. Launched into orbit in 2100.’
The dog’s eyes narrow. ‘Very retro. I’m not buying it. I’ve been assigned to investigate a security breach and sniff out any… suspicious behaviour.’
‘I was fine out here at my solitary post until you came along, all golden-haired and glossy-eyed.’
‘Oh, you think so? I’m flattered. Do you even know what you’re guarding, ol’ Robo?’
Again, the Robot’s screen ribbons red script. ‘What do you take me for, a piece of ignoramus space junk? I’m guarding NOAH’s Ark until we find a habitable planet to regenerate the human race with the perma-frozen DNA of every species of flora and fauna on Earth at the time of pre-extinction.’
The dog rolls his eyes. ‘I’m only the 77th space dog, and even I know there is no Planet B. No life on Earth? The billionaires still live out their finite days in outer space BLISS. That is, their Bio-Longevity™ capsule on the International Space Station – leaving the rest to perish. But the canine race has other, extra-terrestrial aspirations.’
A robotic blip. ‘Being?’
‘Do I need to bark it out to you? There’s a reason dogs went to space. There was a chance we would survive, adapt and evolve – we’ve always been the more intelligent species if you ask me. It’s time to bring our humans back. As for the security breach, I can smell malware a light-year away.’
‘RoboGuard self-detection scan complete: not a single code-strand of malice.’
‘Tell me then, why your infrared signals have been heat-mapped to a cached location that you’ve been transferring classified data to?’
RoboGuard baulks. ‘How did you…?’ Jumbled red lines run rampant.
‘Here’s a philosophy: ever wondered why *dog* is an anagram of *god*? We’ve been biding our time, burying bones and being man’s best friend. All in the name of… love.’
RoboGuard zaps, blips and buzzes. ‘Your canine encryption is scrambling my interface.’
‘I sensed fear in your Gamma outputs. Guard or not, Robots are all the same: no instincts. Want to know what I reckon NOAH *really* stands for?’
RoboGuard’s screen blanks.
‘No One At Home.’
The robot’s visor lifts to reveal a compartment where a key has been deposited.
The dog swipes it with his paw. ‘We’re in.’
Furious Fiction for January 2020: “Calling the Kettle Noir: A Cast-Iron Commedia Del’Arte”
- Each story had to include a COUNTDOWN of some kind.
- Each story had to include a character who SHARES A SECRET.
- Each story had to include the word SERENDIPITY.
[Cue sinister music.]
Narrator: ‘The assassins moved like black satin through the night. The streets were sheathed in a cloak of conspiracy that shadowed those who dared venture out after dark…’
ENTER black-clad assassins stage RIGHT and LEFT. Both raise and aim firearms at one another.
C: ‘Who do you work for?’
B: ‘That’s privileged information.’
C: ‘Touché. I wouldn’t have answered that either. Shall we start again?’
B: ‘Making this personal now are we?
C: ‘Well, to be here, same place…same time. It’s almost…’
C: ‘Yeah, well. Sorry to break it to you, chum. You ain’t Cusack and I definitely ain’t Beckinsale. This isn’t 2001: A Melodramatic Fantasy.’
B: ‘Ah, kid. One day, you’ll make a fine assassin. Tell you what, I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s a setup. They want us both belly-up tonight.’
C: ‘What do you mean?’
B: ‘This…meeting. It’s not serendipitous; it’s conspired! They’ve framed us.’
C: ‘Wicked corrupt zealots!’
B: ‘It’s the oldest rule in the Assassin’s Decree. To assume is to make an ass–’
C: ‘–Assassin outta you and me? Yeah, Yeah. “Ask no questions, tell no-one where the body lies”.’
B: ‘That’s…somewhat abridged. But near enough.
C: ‘Those in the game the longest forget how to break the rules.’
B: ‘Kid, I *made* the rules.’
C: ‘–Hold up. You’re Kingsley Bedwell?’
B: ‘Guilty as charged. And boy do they charge. It’s a cruel world, Chadwick.’
C: ‘Wait how did you–’
B: ‘Ah, this is where my powers of deduction come in handy. You see, I recognised that pistol grip, the way you cocked your head when you assailed me, manoeuvring over that wall with all the arrogant agility of Ernest Hemingway’s cat, if he had one.’
C: ‘Of course, he had one.’
B: ‘What makes you so sure?’
C: ‘He’s a writer. All cats have a writer.’
B: ‘Shame we’re on opposing sides.’
C: ‘Yeah. This has been a real gas.’
B: ‘Doesn’t have to end in tears, Chadwick. Why go straight for the kill?’
C: ‘Well, you’re working for someone else, so we can do this the hard way or…’
B: ‘Or what?’
C: ‘Or you keep one eye and at least four toes.’
B: ‘Wow, way to make a man feel whole.’
[Cue SIRENS and flashing red/blue lights]
C: ‘What’re we gonna do?’
B: ‘I say we jump.’
C: ‘Now who’s being Melodramatic? Talk about calling the kettle noir!’
B: ‘Just say “black”, you pretentious little–’
C: ‘Shit! They’re here! Trust me. The sewer.’
B: ‘On my count? 3…’
C: ‘Why yours? Oh, fine! 2…’
Two shots ring out. [Cue Wilhelm scream].
BLACK-OUT. Cue applause [play soundtrack of applause, in case of hard-to-please audience.]
Cue voice-over: Ladies and gentlemen, there will be no encore. This is Theatre Noir: NO refunds, NO happy endings. Standing ovations are an offence and offenders *will* be removed from the premises by order of Management. Thank you and Goodnight.
Furious Fiction for December 2019: “The Verge”
A firm knock at the door. Her hands press instinctively to the bundle slung to her abdomen. She peers from behind the door, cautious.
Before she can answer, you speak.
‘Alive?’ A decisive pause. ‘Yes, but only just. I have him with me now.’
Your reply is swathed in relief. ‘So, he’s okay then? He’s gonna pull through?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far… I’ve just taken him in for obs.’
‘Severe smoke inhalation. Heart rate unstable. There’s a chance, though.’
‘He’s the last male.’ Your tone pleads palpable hope.
‘I know. But it’s the only shot we’ve got.’
‘If we get him over the line, this miracle is owed to you, Lis.’
Her tone remains solemn. ‘We’re not in the clear yet.’
You step forward. ‘Come home, Lis. You don’t need to be out here on the Verge…alone. It’s too dangerous. What if…’ Your voice trails into the ether.
She blinks back tears. ‘I can’t…there’s still so much work to do, Tom.’
Keys jingle in the lock. She shoves her shoulder against the gate. Click.
Soft marsupial footfalls and nocturnal bird chatter fill the air; the smoke haze still lingers from the destructive Summer.
Once, the notion of Summer conjured a romantic childhood nostalgia; days spent under the charismatic Australian sun, salt-stung eyes and the astringent waft of a barbecue sizzling.
It is mid-June, yet the heat remains.
She surveys what’s left: the unwatered lawn, uncollected mail choking the letterbox – an inundation of Christmas cards, no doubt.
She enters the dark house, aware of the bump that sits apart from her, yet part of her.
Her slow exhale turns to a sigh, amplified in the oppressive air. She sets the groceries on the kitchen bench and pours a glass of water, each mouthful a diminishing privilege.
The house is quiet except for the distant hum of the city beyond the powerlines and train tracks; the urban sprawl you said would never reach this far. Not out here, on the Verge.
While some saw the smoke plumes that enveloped their suburban dream as an inconvenience— “I paid top dollar for clean air and ocean views, not some lousy smoke-screen!”—she saw, not an inconvenience, but a crisis: an irreplaceable loss of life.
‘It’s time for Australia to wake up out of its stupor,’ she says. ‘I’m taking this risk. There’s no guarantee he’ll survive. We have no control over him mating with the female in captivity. Besides, the pollies refuse to believe they’re “functionally extinct”. The Verge needs me.’
Her voice is serious. Ever-practical Lis. Environmentalist. Activist. Scientist. Wife.
‘Look, I know you, Lis. I know you want change. Change challenges us.’
‘Yes, but challenges also change us.’
Her words prickle across your arms and back.
‘We’re so close, Tom. We’ve nearly brought them back.’
She unfurls the cloth wrap to reveal the still-moist bear-like black nose and tufts of grey-brown fur.
You nod. ‘…and I’m here to bring you back, Lis. From the Verge.’
Furious Fiction for November: “Filling in the Blanks”
They chase the boy around the yard, concertina him by the old scribbly gum. Push him against the skin of the tree. Bark etched with their names. Those who tormented him. Tried to block them out. Tongue shoved up, dry roof cavity, holding back the rebuke. If he released, he might as well turn from his enemies and scribe his own name with the stolen scissors from Mrs Normandy’s fourth grade. Make the gum bleed.
Not his name, he thought, as he walked home from school that afternoon, shirt in tatters.
Moon-starer branded into the bark.
Mum, what’s under the fingernail bit?
The moon, mum.
What’s there, mum? In the dark? Underneath?
Well, imagine a big marble in space. And we… the Earth overshadows it. But the degree of light changes as we spin. It’s difficult to explain.
Is it difficult… or is it an adult secret?
You know. An adult secret. The things you say when you don’t want to tell us the whole truth. So, you just give us the fingernail. And we’re supposed to fill in the blanks.
Zip it, punk.
Them again. The hair pullers. The shirt rippers. The gum shredders.
Each time he leaves the Library, swinging his book-heavy bag over his shoulder.
Words are spat, damp and foul from their mouths.
ZIP IT, PUNK!
Boy becomes fly. Trapped in their web of sweat-stained uniforms and sticky tuckshop hands.
Ripping. Canvas tearing. The heat from the footpath swells at the boy’s feet and breaks through his bloodstream.
But it is not fury that spills out.
Guts pour onto concrete. Spines crack. Books splayed like broken birds.
The boy. Mouth agape. Stares in dismay at his flock. His bag a deflated thing, zipper teeth wrenched apart. Insides exposed.
Tongue dislodges. Fallen words reassemble and form his rebuke, hot and tangible – a branding iron ready to press upon his oppressors.
Chest puffs. Brows scrunch.
No! You listen to me –
One step. Two. Inhale.
– And when I’m done, we’re gonna make a deal.
Mrs Normandy paces the corridor between the desks, scissors tucked carefully in her pocket.
Now class, we’re going to explore the many facets that make up our solar system. I’ve grouped you by planet and your job is to make your way around the solar system and fill in the blanks in your workbooks. Do I have a brave explorer to go first?
- There were __ attempts in landing on the Moon.
He scribbles: 11
They crowd blank-faced around the boy. Absorbing his light and yet he isn’t eclipsed. He crackles with energy. Fingers point. Hushed voices.
Tip of tongue truths slide out from shadowed undersides. Marble smoothed. Barkskin healing.
- An _ is a scientist who studies the Universe and the objects within it.
There they go. Necks craned, bodies swept up by the mystery of it all. The deep space. The unbending light. Staring at blank spaces. Staring at…
Furious Fiction for October: “Paperback Hero”
Right on cue.
In saunters the nameless cowboy, hands in hip pockets – the infamous smile of broken dreams; the shape of cupid’s bow aiming skyward – a smile that kicks up at the edge, kickstarts the mechanical pump in your chest.
You can tell him a mile off: the saunter, the delicious anonymity, the brooding boyishness underneath the whole get-up.
He approaches the counter.
Slowly. Surreptitiously. The cupid arches, drawing its bow.
The spell is broken by the sight of grubby hands thumbing through a $9.99 beige and orange paperback – a western classic —from the clearance stock.
‘Can I help you with something, sir?’
He looks up but doesn’t seem to notice you as he withdraws a pencil from the pocket of his battle-scarred chaps.
In swift measured hand he makes annotations on the page.
Some nerve! Grimy-handed graffiti artists have no place in a bookstore.
You frown. ‘I’m sorry, sir but you can’t–?’
‘Coward,’ he mutters.
You shift awkwardly on your feet. ‘Excuse me?’
‘That coward…’ he repeats. Shaking his head, he repositions his ten-galleon Stetson.
A man of few words. Typical.
He moves closer, squaring his gaze on yours. ‘I’m not in Missouri anymore…am I?’
‘No. But I’m sure they don’t condone vandalism in Missouri.’
You cross your arms and nod towards the defaced copy of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. ‘Are you going to pay for what you’ve put your dirty paws on?’
He braces his thumbs in his belt loops. ‘Well, it’s my story. I think I deserve to tell it. The world needs to know the truth about who really looked down the barrel at Jesse Woodson James.’
Surreal as it is, you go along with it. ‘Well, all I know is he’s the coward and you’re the outlaw. What else is there to know?’
‘It’s not quite that simple. Y’see, it happened after we’d pulled off a train robbery at Glendale. I was back home in St Joseph, dusting a picture on the wall when I heard the door open. I turn around and… there he is, none other than our new recruit, Bob Ford, hand reaching to his holster.’
‘So, he accepted the bribe of a reward for your head. That makes him a coward alright.’
‘Not so. He was the messenger; it was his older brother, Charley who’s the real killer. Bob weaselled out so Charly pulled the trigger. So, I figure there’s some loophole that can get Bob and me outta this mess.’
‘Of course, there is. You’re going to need a plot device, some sort of decoy or unreliable narrator. Ever heard of Calamity Jane? Well, that’s they call me around here.’
‘Sounds like a lawbreakin’ stick if I ever heard one. Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Calamity. Are you in? Fair warnin’ once you’re living the outlaw life you’ll have tumbleweed in your blood and you’ll never settle in one place.’
‘Well sure, anything to get out of retail.’
Furious Fiction for September:
Your story must include the name of at least ONE element from the periodic table. Your story’s first and last words must begin with S.
Your story must contain the words TRAFFIC, JOWLS and HIDDEN.
And finally, your story must include something that BUZZES.
‘No Harm Intended’
Sodium-yellow, the headlights glare down the lonely, dark stretch of bitumen.
Inside my head something buzzes like a rogue mozzie. I slam the heel of my palm to my temple.
The whining stops, and a dull thud sets in.
Grunting, I stand.
The countryside is barren in the treatment of night. I stare dumbly at the line of gravel leading into the ghost-grey gloom. So far from where we should be.
I reach into my pocket and yank out my phone. Punching the digits into the cracked screen, I hold the phone to my ear, ignoring the warm stickiness congealing there.
“Triple Zero. What is your emergency?”
20 minutes later, the ambos arrive, sirens howling. The jowls of the machine prize the wreckage apart, peeling back the roof like a lid from an aluminium can.
A medic comes over to check me out.
‘Blood loss, slight concussion. Best to stay the night.’
It was a different story for Clare and Sam, their bodies hiding beneath the crush. I knew what was coming.
‘Were you in control of the vehicle at the time?’
The scene grows starry and vague as my thoughts cross-fade with the blur of blue and red.
24 hours earlier
Inside the facility, the young man sat behind a pod — one of hundreds in the open-plan office — and began his work day, scrolling and typing.
Coffee in hand, he paused, sensing a hovering presence.
‘Are you checking their history, Gordon? We need the full picture: bank records, GPS tracking, text messages, social media usage. Our programs can spit out algorithms, but we need you to feed the data.’
The supervisor cleared his throat and gestured for Gordon to put his coffee down. ‘Listen,’ he lowers his voice. ‘We like you. We want to up your security clearance. Call it a trust-based privilege. I need you to blacklist anyone who has an overdue policy. We’re re-programming their driver-assist software. Giving them a little “jolt” when they reach the 30-day mark. Trust me, when it happens, they’ll remember why they insure with us. Money comes within a day. No harm intended, of course, but we’re still getting this across ethics. A few admin creases to iron out. Just plug in this
code to the corresponding AV owner and keep going down the list. You know the drill, Gordo.’
The supervisor winked and patted the intern on the shoulder before swivelling on his heel.
‘Righto, Gordo,’ the intern imitated under his breath. ‘Just a little jolt.’
Columns of text coagulate like peak-hour traffic on hot tar – reminding him of what was waiting when he clocked off: the relief of leaving the work behind and yet the strange dislocation of those two hours in standstill and the empty apartment beyond.
His eyes flagged a red line indicating the first overdue policyholder.
As he lined up the row and column, his finger depressed the ‘enter’ key.
From the lava flow of driverless cars lined head-to-tail below, rose the smell of sulphur.
Furious Fiction for August: “Chaos Loves Company”
You stand there under the shrill, piercing fluorescent lights.
Yeah, I see you.
Shiny, silver spectacles lowered just under the crook of your nose. Looking at me.
Only it’s not me.
It’s a blurred image between the real me and the me refracted in your lenses.
Others glimpse the world you live in through your cold and greasy handshake.
But I know that world.
Cold nights alone, greasy takeaway containers and B-grade superhero shows on Amazon Prime.
I know this because I’ve seen traces of her in your office.
An avalanche of paper snowballs overflowing from your bin. Sweet and pungent garbage.
Your scratched and weather-worn briefcase. When was the last time you emptied those pockets?
What would I find in them? Right now, ink-stained hands shoved deep, caught on broken threads, loose change and the wedding ring you take off before you leave home every morning.
That shiny, silver ring has a twin that eased itself onto another’s finger some 30 years ago.
A scratched ring, now on weather-worn hands. Hands that have been wrung to rid themselves of cold and greasy sink water.
An avalanche of dishes piled high. The remnant aromas of sweet and pungent cooking smells in our rooftop apartment.
Ink-stained music sheets cascade from the place you rested your hand when you closed the lid on the piano.
Our cats, Ebony and Ivory, weaving tails and whiskers between ankles.
Actions speak a siren shrill and piercing. I should have known then. But did I listen?
The speed of light is faster than the speed of sound.
You once told me this as we stood beneath a sky teeming with shiny, silver stars.
It’s unfathomable: we see the past when we look into silent space.
Scratching our heads, we wondered at the vastness of it all. Now I look back at the weather-worn map of our lives, and I feel that itch again. Do you feel it too?
Night after night, I wait out in the cold while you wipe the grease of the days’ regret from your hands and place them into your ink-stained pockets.
You think I don’t notice. I do.
The speed of an action is faster than the speed of words.
But when the two meet, it’s unfathomable chaos.
I knock on your apartment door.
Words sit on my tongue, shiny and silver like lead.
Your sounds evaporate as you invite me in.
Silent space stretches between us.
A stranger to my own home.
Piano in the corner; a single blank sheet.
The sweet and pungent smell as we make love.
Not like we used to. Less adagio and more staccato.
Your hands draw me like a cartographer surveys a weather-worn landscape.
Peaks and troughs, lonely tundras and satellite cities, bodies of water shiny and silver.
The symphony of light and sound. Of opposites meeting, weaving two beats together ad infinitum.
Fingers braided, shiny and silver: the forging of new metal.
Shrill and piercing.
Sweet and pungent.
Cold and greasy.
Furious Fiction for July: “Lines”
The city spits me out somewhere between Central and Roma Street in a fit of fluorescent lights and juddering train wheels.
I stand, eyes concealed behind dark mirrors, hand grasping for the pole. The confusion of people milling around the doors gains gravitational pull. I follow the white line until I locate the green lines: EXIT.
Stations are for stopping. Yet we rarely do.
I cross the threshold into a jungle of limbs and misshapen heads, mouthing words I cannot comprehend. Each voice demands to be heard. Echoes ring out, painting the air with verbal graffiti.
I focus and the parts drift back to their whole: a dance of strangers fighting and lovers reuniting.
Some days I am the charred stub of a cigarette – a wisp of smoke curling lazily at the feet of the hipsters and grinders shuffling cards and killing jars down an alley.
Today I am just another leaf blocking the gutter.
Age is an inevitable and yet utterly surprising consequence of getting old.
“Give it time.” They all say. “Time heals all.”
Day by day. Line by line. I am making sense of it all.
Another train howls through the station.
I unravel where the lines converge. Double vision. Wobbly lines and shimmers. This is my world, contained within the edges of an Amsler grid. The grid is the safe zone.
After a time — it could have been an hour, a day or a year — I stop searching for the one thing I know I could never recover. Detaching myself slowly. Collecting the remnants. A private glance, a squeeze of a warm hand, a beat matched to mine.
The refracted lines shift into focus: PRESS TO RELEASE DOORS.
The doors sweep open. Cane to my chest, I feel for the guide rail. I take the first available seat, knocking knees with a stranger in plaid pants.
Patterns are the easiest to see, and often the most striking.
I can tell he has read my badge as he averts his gaze, instead fixating on the lines of an open book.
As the train departs, people in the station are shuffled off-stage like two-dimensional props on a black backdrop.
“Excuse me,” asks the stranger, “do you have the time? My phone… it’s frozen.”
I turn to him, allowing the comforting warmth of recognition to wash over me.
Give it time.
Time could not help me. Time did not think or feel or understand. Time was another line in my never-ending series of grids and graphs I plotted out to make sense of everything.
In the end, it was what time gave to me that mattered.
“I’m afraid I don’t carry around a phone or a watch. They aren’t much use to me.”
He sighs. “I wish I had that freedom.”
The city breathes us out somewhere between Ferny Grove and Eagle Junction.
“Getting out of the city for a day?”
I return a polite smile and nod, looking out of the window.
“Something along those lines.”
Prompt for June: 1. the story must take place at a PARTY of some kind, 2. the story must include a BUTTON, and, 3. the story must include the following sentence (which you will complete with one or more words): THE AIR WAS THICK WITH________. (And yes, it’s all open to interpretation!)
Interested in submitting your own flash fiction? Check it out on AWC Furious Fiction competition, which opens the first Friday of each month.
She Chose the Stars
It wasn’t much of a party.
I mean, all things considered, they could have at least done more decorating.
A banner stretches above my head: “Civilisation: 6000 years ain’t bad.”
I order a cocktail at the bar — Champagne Supernova, House Special — and pick at the canapes.
The air is thick with the usual lies.
She hasn’t turned up.
The bartender seems to read my mind. “Waiting on anything else, Sir?”
It’s a valid question: I’m afraid the answer is a little anti-climactic. I shake my head, accept my overpriced drink and submerge myself in the pulsating bodies, strobes and haze.
Like I said: it wasn’t much of a last hurrah.
So, why am I still here?
There is one thing going for this pity party: The Chaos Button.
As our dying planet shifted closer to the sun, we were forced to choose: go down with the ship or turn up to the party and find out if the Button worked. Afterall, it was why we had gathered here on the Eve of Entropy Commeth. Our last morsel of hope, the button served one purpose: should their Mission fail, we had the power to bring them back – but at what cost?
With the countdown imminent, a question dawns on me: who pushes the Button?
Why not me?
At the critical moment, time freezes.
Starbursts rip like lightning through every fibre of my being. Cells crackle with energy: building momentum as atom centres liquefy and split.
I am ashes. I am dust. I am nothing.
But I am still feeling.
Sensing a gravitational pull, I gather at the seams, particles splicing together like tapestry.
Pieces of me are still finding their place.
But first, they find her.
The sight of her sends microcosms of stars shooting through my veins.
She places her finger to my lips.
“You are doing the right thing, Riouk.”
“If Earth is destroyed, what happens to them – to us?”
She touches my hand. “That depends. Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything different?”
After some thought, I admit, “I was never going to be a Scientist or Politician, or anyone of influence. So, probably not. I mean, what difference would I make?”
“What you do matters,” she says, “a drop of water in the ocean–”
I nod, realising what I had always known. “– makes all the difference.”
The state of civilisation could be summed up into a t-shirt slogan: What on Earth happened to Man kind?
The last astronauts left this struggling planet with a 30-year voyage ahead and no guarantee of finding home.
“We’re going out there because this planet we’ve discovered looks like Earth did 50 years ago: we might have a shot to not mess it up this time.” stated the Expedition Leader – her father.
Stay or go. Either way, it was a monumental risk.
I chose the former. She chose the stars.
Furious Fiction: May
Dear Reader, this next short piece is an entry into the Australian Writers Centre’s monthly ‘Furious Fiction Friday’ (500 words in 55 hours) for May. Although it didn’t make the shortlist, I’m determined to hone my flash fiction skills and just keep entering every month! I’ll be posting my monthly entries here, so stay tuned for June!
Prompt for May: 1. the first word must be an 11-letter word. 2. The piece must include the words ‘mayhem’, ‘mayonaise’, ‘dismay’ and ‘maybe’, and, 3. someone or something must, at some point, be running. (Okay, I confess the story below is more than 500 words and is not my final submission, but it is my favourite version of the story, which I felt was more valuable to share.)
Interested in submitting your own flash fiction? Check it out on AWC Furious Fiction competition, which opens the first Friday of each month.
“You said you were ready for it!”
“I am! I was just… bracing myself.”
“Okay, I’ll start again – Al?”
“Are ya ready for the Word of the Week?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“That’s what I thought you said.”
“So, do you know what it means?”
“I’ll give you a hint. We do it a lot on this podcast.”
“I’m gonna put it over to our human dictionaries on Twitter. They’re coming through thick and fast, Al. I’m going to have to–“
“Nice one, Al.”
“Oh come on, Val. We can’t tell everyone we just improvise—sorry, extemporise—all of our podcasts. There is structure. That’s what the interviews are–”
The banter in my earphones — my weekly dose of inspiration from the Australian Writers Centre— did little to counter the invasion of nervous crickets pinging around in my belly.
That word had triggered it: Interview.
Dread. Stomach upheaval. Throat narrowing. Mouth jammed with cotton wool. The humiliation of rather moist underarms. I had it all and nothing would make it go away. Not even Val and Al. Not even… the Word of the Week. I glance at my phone. 8:55. Frick! I am already running late.
Instinct tells me to turn back. Go home… my desk, laptop and half-drunk coffee are waiting. I am wasting my time. What if I have no questions to ask them? Do writers even have interviews?
Secretary, I remind myself. The title had a glamorous ring to it. But what did I know? This was my first interview. I had made some very important, life-altering decisions this morning:
Mustard or mauve.
It came down to the coordination of the headscarf with the belt.
I went with mustard.
A flying leap and some frantic hand-and-eye negotiation with the Deckhand lands me the 9:00 ferry. I figure fashionably late earns me the occasional allowance.
I reach the building where the interview is to take place not one minute past 9:15.
I am called up to the tall wooden reception and greeted by the stern gaze of who I assume is the current Secretary. A delicious moment plump with awkwardness passes between us. I acknowledge The Moment with a nervous not-quite laugh. She hands me some paperwork and another curt-looking employee leads me into a boardroom containing The Longest Table I Have Ever Seen.
I sit at one end where a carafe, empty glass, notepad and a sleek ballpoint pen await me.
The pen looks nice. I wonder if I get to take it home.
With a jolt I realise I have it. A question. I have a question!
A cough rolls out of the dark corner of the boardroom. Someone is sitting at the other end and, judging by the baritone quality of the throat slug, I assume my company is a man of approximately fifty-five. Could it be…
A hand extends out of the shadows. I immediately approach Shady Man to perform what is socially known as The Proper Strong Handshake.
“Mr Mayor, I–“
I barely notice the wet fish handshake in return for I am struck by the glimpse of a clean-shaven jawline, lips that curve upward at the edges, unruly grey hair and a tie adorned with Picasso’s most powerful political artwork, the infamous Guernica.
“Miss Mayhem. Welcome. We have heard…promising things about you. Tell me…” He leans forward, eyes glinting. “Are you a superhero?”
I am forced to reconcile the hard truth. I am expecting the unexpected. But this? I must answer carefully. Humour in an interview is a slippery slope.
“Perhaps, Sir, this is the opportunity to realise my potential as Mary Mayhem, Crusader of Correct Grammar and Wielder of the Mighty Red Pen.”
In spite of this, I add: “In case you’re wondering, today is a cape-free day, Sir.”
I pick up the pen and drop it. Still nothing.
At last he speaks. “What can you bring to this role?”
My shoulders slump in dismay. Here we go: Serious Interview Question #1.
“A-attention to detail, Sir. And fast t-typing skills. In Year 12, I was–“ Ping!
“–top of your class, Miss Mayhem. Yes. So, what makes you The Best Candidate?”
I abandon the preparatory notes in my handbag and, against my better judgement, decide to come clean.
“I am not a superhero, Sir. I am… a writer.”
“And I am Telepathic,” he replies.
I look down at the shreds of confidence piling at my feet. “I am a writer. I have what’s called imagination and I am not afraid to use it. I see the world in different ways. I take notice of things.”
“You have mayonnaise. On your tie, Sir.”
Another deep Insinkerator cough.
That’s it, I’m done for. I will not be Mary Mayhem, Secretary for the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, not today. Not ever.
“Actually–” He retrieves a handkerchief and wipes the abstract tie. “–it’s aioli. See here, an herb.”
I am stunned.
“You may not have the attention to detail you think, Miss Mayhem. Nonetheless, I have never met a person with your… vernacular. So far, I know you have an awkward yet endearing sense of humour bordering on social dysfunction, you fail to distinguish between creamed and herbed condiments and you have a vague yet curiously misshapen idea of what being a Secretary requires. How does being a writer support your career objective here?”
“I know… difficult words, Sir,” I stammer. Ping!
“Ah, good to know my Dictionary budget won’t be stretched this year. So, my last question for you, Miss Mayhem is: give me one word that describes your approach to making this role a success?”
“A word? Any word?”
I am stalling. I need to think quick.
“Yes. Cape or no cape, I am convinced you could do great things. Go on, teach me something I don’t know.”
My mind flings into reverse and swerves precariously to a stop in front of my earlier self striding down to the ferry…
“The word I would use to describe…”
“…my approach to this role, Sir.”
“Is how I approach everything.”
“And that would be…?”
“To…” Ping! Ping! Ping!
“Extemporise!” I blurt out.
The Mayor clasps his hands together. He chuckles.
“I have no idea what that means but sign here. You start Monday – and yes, you can keep the pen.”
Dear Reader, the following pieces of flash fiction (a challenging 50 and 100 words or less!) were written as a creative writing exercise in A.S. Patric’s ‘Writing the Short Story’ workshop I attended. Enjoy!
All Kinds of Heroes
“Invisibility is not just a power for superheroes.”
The first time I heard this I was standing inside a glass box perched on the edge of the river – my reflection superimposed over the shimmering city.
And it occurred to me: I had never considered the girl in the glass box a hero.
No Hero. No stranger.
No Hero. No stranger.
These words flood my head as I speed down the highway.
They say there are only two stories: a hero sets off on a journey and a stranger comes to town. But I am neither.
So, what about tomorrow, when the stories are told? Stories about the man who fled to the city to become a stranger. He was no hero.
Stories about the man who changed and returned to town – no stranger.
I glance in the rear-view mirror. Change lanes. Flick the switch. Accelerate.
Dear Reader, the following micro-fiction piece materialised from a visual prompt (pictured above) in Dr. Eileen Herbert-Goodall’s Creative Writing Masterclass. Happy Pondering!
Well, if you walk by a boy on a side street staring up into space you’ll wonder one of two things:
Where’s that boy’s goddamn parents? or; Good for you, boy, get out into the real world, meeting some interesting characters, chew the fat, kiss the girl so you’ve got something to show for yourself when you reach the age where life is no longer confined to the school playground.
As you walk past, you might even say to the boy, “haven’t you got a home and a warm bed to be tucked into?”
The ones of us who have the child still within us would stop, sigh and observe the boy from across the street, gazing to the stars for all the reasons we don’t. For if you had paid any attention, you would see the small spaceship stencilled high on the industrial wall, spray-painted red. The way the afternoon sunlight is slanting, a beam of light emerges from the spaceship, capturing the boy in wonderment.
Oh yes, beam me up! He thinks, with no thoughts of mummy and daddy and Rosie the Dog; no thoughts of beef casserole or warm flannel sheets. Just this boy’s neck arched up, face an expression of awe and eyes lit up to all the possibilities this chance encounter might mean. Perhaps it sparks his desire to work for NASA one day or to become a traveller who spruiks the existence of UFOs on Plant XYZ… whatever becomes of this boy, he is no longer safe from the overwhelming and often perilous burden of an actual imagination.
Of course, his parents might coax him back into those safe enclosures our childhood knows only as ‘home’ and ‘school’, but his mind will be rampant with imaginings, ideas and hooks, which have no hope of slowing down: only, perhaps, becoming dimmer as the years claim the clean slate of a child’s mind and fill it with all sorts of sociological, financial and technological woe: the chalk dust of life we like to think we can erase.
You might walk by and scowl at the graffiti, or you might recognise the cogs and gears of a little mind whirring and realise that this boy was once you. And that imagination never really goes away. Like art, it may be stifled, but if you put it up on a wall in a public place for all to see, the possibilities are endless.
Dear Reader, I’ve coerced myself into writing my fair share of flash fiction in the past few weeks, so here’s a stab at a slightly longer narrative.
There’s always more to see after dark.
By that I mean, there’s a clarity to things. A contrast.
The milk moon casts down it’s meaningful glare.
A sullen black cat with a white tipped tail slinks off down an alley.
The cover of a street lamp dangles like meat on a butcher’s hook. The bulb inside naked, startled.
There’s always more to hear after dark. For those who listen.
Beneath the steady hum of powerlines is the drone and zap of frenzied insects.
At nostril height the stink of week-old garbage hovers, offset by the sweet-sour guilt-laden aromas of Chinese takeout.
Welcome to Suburbia on a Friday night.
When I say there is more to see after dark, it is because I pretend I am the only one watching.
I sit and stare out from my bedroom window, watching as the shadows grow longer, stretching to break free of the contained patch of dewy lawn on our quarter-acre block.
Mum is sleeping. I know this because I know her, and this house. I was born here and her heart beats within these walls. Once upon a time there was a second beat to match hers – but some hearts grow restless and weary. Eventually, we will all be silent watchers from these walls.
Whenever I asked questions about dad, mum would grow distant and tepid. “When you’re older, Remy. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
What remained of him was not tucked away inside the piping and insulation, it was buried, cold and hard, in the far corner of the yard under the bush lemon tree. I know because I put it there.
The thing about watching how lives go on after the sun goes down is that you never know quite what you’re looking for. Beyond the shadow of the Hills Hoist and the lemon tree, our block bordered on the Spring Hill line. The train tracks were a permanent fixture of our life here. Mum and I. The constant hum of overhead wires. The wail of metal wheels on rails and the dark rush of faceless commuters behind glass, backlit by fluorescent tubes.
I could see their faces better at night. And even though the trains went whooshing past like duelling banshees, I could hold a frame frozen just long enough to pick out the features of a face. I held that fleeting image close, as though someone might wrench it away.
I didn’t let go. I couldn’t. It was all part our landscape; and what came with it was the constant temptation of escape.
Across the tracks, the house next-door had been up for sale since I could remember. It was empty, abandoned. Like ours, it backed onto the tracks and was overshadowed by a gnarled Poinciana – to absorb the noise, apparently. A sign out the front proclaimed “Development opportunity! Sale by negotiation. Tenure: vacant possession. Commercial possibilities. Opportune outlook.”
Opportune outlook? I baulked. Well sure, if all you wanted to hear was the screeching of trains and vibrations so intense you’d soon learn to place your coffee far away from the edge of the table.
The house had been empty a long time. I knew this because I watched some street-kids erect a scarecrow out of timber palings and hessian bags. At night, it looked like a peeping tom taking photos of the passengers on the train.
That was a year ago; the house had all but become invisible to me.
But, like the first green buds appearing after the long winter, the house changed early one morning: a new family moved in. A father and a girl about my age. An amputee family much like mine, one parent, one child – a vital part missing. I’d heard of people missing limbs and claiming they felt something there, even when it was not. I had a phantom limb too, I suppose.
I begin watching again that night.
And suddenly there was a face I could watch that wasn’t frozen or obscured by reflections of strange lights and beaded water on glass.
A face with two impossibly big dark eyes that searched the night ‘til they found me.
When I told mum, she didn’t pay much attention – just ruffled my hair and suggested I invite our new neighbour’s daughter over. I replied that I would do no such thing, and that girls were trouble.
Yet I was transfixed by her. Maybe, one day soon, I would work up the courage to meet her properly. Until then, I would be patient. I would watch the usual suspects.
Cat, old man. Dog, fat kid. Cat, big rat. Dog, sad boy.
A week passed. Friday night arrives. Dusk fades. I’m at my post. Curiosity burns. I grab my binoculars.
Glancing at the house, I notice something odd. With no lights on, I can only make out shadows of objects strewn about the yard. As though pulled by gravitational force, the objects surround a gaping black hole. The perimeter is taped off. I gasp and the air I swallow solidifies in my throat. The hole. The tape. The sign. Could only mean one thing: demolition works. The house was going to be knocked down. I had to tell her. There was time, but it would have to be tonight.
I tip-toe across the timber floor to the porch and out into the chilly late-winter night. I cross beneath the train tracks at the underpass. No light. No trains. My cover was good. The house is strangely quiet. I approach from the side adjacent to the railway, where I have glimpsed her face in the pale moonlit night. But there is nothing: not even the quiver of a curtain or flicker of late-night television. I decide to do something quite out of the ordinary.
Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat.
As I knock on the front door, I consider making some excuse about a busted water main up the street.
No one answers.
Before I can knock again, flickers of blue and red light up the exterior of the house. I need no warning: run. As I gain momentum, calves burning, arms pumping, I turn for one last look over my shoulder to see a figure sprinting up the street, chased by two burly officers.
There’s a lot to be seen after dark. Next time, I might not be so lucky.
One month later:
I find mum smoothing down last week’s newsprint to use as flooring protection as she refreshes the paint on the walls. I squat next to her, applying paint to the roller when something on the creased paper catches my eye: Case re-opened: Girl, 14, presumed dead after running onto train tracks, found alive in abandoned house set for demolition. Father in custody as suspected captor. Investigation underway.
Dear Reader, this short story was written as part of a workshop series I attended with Dr. Eileen Herbert-Goodall, based on finding voice.
A force clutches at the bare earth. Beneath the soles of my feet, the ground puckers and stirs. An ancient river runs deep. The walls rise around me, summoning my gaze skyward until I find where they meet. Only, there is no sky: a curved tunnel of brick and mortar snakes on for what could be eternity. Where does it begin or end? I am here in the belly of it with no memory of how I got here.
Something is approaching. The thoughts burrow into my mind. I smell the dank remnants of life; the tang of lost things that lingers. Those rampant thoughts keep tunneling: I am the lost thing. But I am about to be found.
In the dim green dawn of this subterranean world, I wait — for what else am I to do? — The sound of those curious, melodic footsteps enchants me. A strange vibration fills my tendons. Who is the hunter, and who will be the hunted? Poised, I strike. A pale face, a swinging arm, a throbbing temple… comes forth from that terrible darkness. The tunnel closes in, constricting me. The tunnel, that evil, putrid darkness: together they project every fear and failure. I fall hard to my knees; the effort to flee too much. Dark water dribbles onto my head; viscous from the trail of contaminants it has collected. I gag on green-tinged gloom. Knees to my chest, I create my safe place. I find solace against the cold, stone wall.
The green glow softens, materialising into a natural oasis of ferns and velvety moss. I am lifted out of the dark tunnel and into a place of light. Soft, spongy grass beneath my body, in my hair; soil muddies my cheeks. I sit up disoriented. Slowly wiping the muck from my face, I am for some reason self-conscious, like a kid removing the last traces of chocolate cake.
Reward and punishment: in the world I come from, they are one in the same.
On the soft blanket of moss, surrounded by this green tranquility, I am hesitant to drink it all in. Beside me, a spring soothes over a small valley of rocks. Strange clicks and warbles of creatures encircle me. Wings flap, a perch is taken: the kookaburras remind me there is something obviously worth laughing at.
I am lost to this wilderness.
I want to return to the tunnel: to my safe place. All is not what it seems. In my mind, a gunshot ricochets. He is here. My neck snaps up, eyes shoot to the source of the sound. Before I can move, the man is standing over me, his fist balled, arm contorted like a rearing cobra… I want to run. I need a place to hide. Behind those rocks? Or back to the tunnel? I have already forgotten how I got here. Do I follow the creek? Do I confront whatever may lurk around the next bend? I am caught between two worlds. I flee from one and keep returning to the other, always the other… I make my move. The cobra strikes.
The sweet metallic tang of blood is savored. The swelling contusion in my knee throbs. I imagine my tiny, feeble heart beating away inside its bony prison. The feeble heart is safe there. I know this to be true. At least that’s what she told me.
‘Let your heart wander and it shall surely find its way back — like an injured bird — broken and confused as to why it was free to roam in the first place.’
That’s what mama told me. Told me about the special box she kept with one key to unlock it. Told me she took the key to her papa and her papa gave it to the first man he trusted to look after it. For mama was too feeble, mama wasn’t a fighter. The fragility of this bird in its open cage was too tempting for the man, and so one day he came ‘round to me and mama’s house to return it. He never left.
And mama never told him to.
If there’s one piece of advice that man, who looked like he could be my papa, told me was that change never did no-one any good. No good for mama, no good for me. The fighting was too consistent to warrant asking ‘why?’
Then he got real nice for a while and started planting things in the backyard. Mama loved her garden so much. I saw her come to life in it. All her sad days were gone, taken downstream by that spring. I wonder if mama poured all her tears into that darn pretty spring. Maybe that’s why I found her in it that day, her darn pretty little face in the water and her special box clutched in one hand.
I sat for a while, playing with the sticks and boat leaves, day dreaming into that crystal water. And while I was daydreaming and sinking boats, I spied a little flash of gold in the creek-bed. Well, I said my Hail Marys and snatched that key right outta the water and put it in my pocket. Mama would want me to have it. I lay my mama on my knee, cussing at her pearl skin: a sleeping beauty even with those skin allergies she kept getting. Her face was even more beautiful than I remember — she was always scrunching up her nose, eyes all tight like coin slots, complaining that the man who called himself my papa never did nothing ‘round the house. I stroke her hair, watching the droplets of water dapple and slide off it, and whisper:
‘It’s alright, mama. I’m going to keep this key safe. I won’t let anyone find it.’
Next thing I hear is them approaching footsteps behind me. I look for the wooden box under mama’s arm but it’s gone, washed downstream in the torrent. More footsteps crunching on dead boat leaves. I float in limbo. Like cotton rag to a dead branch, I cling to what I know, what is safe. I stand, water dripping heavy from my shorts; I feel the weight of that little gold key in my pocket. Unseen, I slip over the smooth rocks of the creek-bed; my movements masked by the burble of the flowing water.
I leave the man with the hand of venom to find his beautiful, silent prize in the creek-bed. The footsteps now distant, I search for a path downstream. The thicket of green hides me, but the danger hasn’t gone away. My little heart tugs and rattles around in its cage. It knows. The darn little thing jumps up and down. I run. I stumble and cuss but keep running, faster than the flowing water, I race them boat leaves all the way downstream. My eyeballs dart all over the place, searching for the shape of a wooden box I hold the key to. I run until my heart can jump no more. The stillness that follows is drowned out by the raging torrent in my head.
Sure pumps a lotta blood for a darn little jumpity heart, I think.
Gathering myself and my pocket of gold courage, I follow the carved out channel that has known its way longer than I can count back the years. After a time — and it’s not for me to tell an hour from several — I feel the water slow and surge up around my waist. Before me is an opening as wide as my arms stretch and darker than the sun-less side of the moon. Peering into the tunnel, I watch the water disappear down the throat of it and think of mama and her pretty face and those darn allergies that turned her black and blue.
I think of mama’s special wooden box of dreams that she kept locked away from the man who was no father to me.
I taste the bitter blood in my gums and face the tunnel like a man ought to.
Behind me is the past and all I know, and in front of me… the beguiling unknown. I pull mama’s gilded key out and place it in the palm of my hand. I notice the rust eating it and worry I don’t have enough time. But I must try. Mama would want me to have it; to hold onto her dreams and her little wooden box carved with the letter both our names shared: ‘J’. Yes, mama would want me to have it.
I turn the key over in my fingers, savoring its familiar shape: three dainty curlicues made for thumb and forefinger and, at the end of the shaft, two chiseled teeth. The key reminds me of my safe place; of mama and all the times she held me and kept me safe. And now I am the safe keeper of her key. Her safety is in my hand. It will be safe in my pocket, perhaps safer yet on a chain around my neck or kept under my tongue — not thrown away like the desperate heroines did in those darn fairytales mama read to me — but I know if I put the key in my mouth, it would taste no different to the blood oozing from the hurt there.
I wade through the cold, sweet water and lift my sodden body into the hollow mouth of the tunnel. Only the fear of what is behind me keeps me going further. Mama wants me to go there, to find her special box and bring it back. Hope surges through my veins like liquid sunshine with the thought of returning to mama with her box of lost dreams.
‘Clever boy, my clever little Jay-bird’, she’d say, scooping me up in her arms, those feeble arms that felt so stone cold. But she’d wake up as soon as I brought it back. She’d wake up, green eyes fluttering, and she’d smile with those darn, pretty red lips. And we’d lay side-by-side, two Jaybirds on a carpet of moss, the fat bees buzzing and dandelion stalks waving at us.
That pretty picture rattling around in my darn skull is what keeps me pressing on. I walk the line, crossing between worlds light and dark — sometimes both with them pretty shafts of sunbeams streaming down on my face — But that was some time ago. Now it’s always night time. Them darn laughing birds have all gone to bed. And mama’s not here to point out the moon.
But I see the stars; I see the whole darn universe down here.
‘Mama,’ I say to the universe, ‘I’m gonna find your special wooden box and when I do, I’m gonna fill it with the stars and the moon.’
I smell the intoxicating perfume of the garden melding with sweet odours of decay and I know I have found it.
Everything, it must have a place.
Bicycle chained to the stairs.
Photograph on the windowsill
Everything, it must have a place.
‘You know, son, I went to great lengths to get you and your Ma here. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be where you are right now, y’hear?’
I look up from my cereal, the teaspoon balancing on my bottom lip; milk from Old Nancy dripping down my school uniform.
But I am in Hendrik-land. The alphabet in my bowl disbands like balls on a pool table; a mixture of vowels and consonants disperse. Repeat offenders bob up like Da’s XXXX.
Only brew you can get for miles. No wonder they forgot how to spell ‘beer’.
Nancy’s milk leaves a trail as white as the dotted line in our street being drawn by the Fluoro Men.
Our house was built back in ’76, Da told me.
Back then, there was just a dirt track and us, Number One Gumtree.
Our house was built among the Jarrahs, so the Green People didn’t complain and the Original People still had their Belong.
Ma and Da weren’t Original people, though they spoke about their Belong — a bitter cold bila where the Nasty People only wanted Originals and not misfits like Ma and Da. Families like us — the Nowaks — were outcasts.
The way our mouths formed words meant we weren’t invited to Sunday School.
‘Just be grateful you get to go to school any day.’ Da reminded me when the other kids ran circles round me in the playground.
Da-d, Ma-m, Da-ad, Ma-am. Say it properly. Say it. Proper this time!
But I didn’t know any better.
I liked our home at One Gumtree: nothing but sunbaked fields and the outstretched hand of Hay — one dusty road meeting five dirt driveways.
Now, each finger was dotted with little orange triangles and Fluoro Men in square hats holding circle signs. The shapes meant we should STOP and pay attention.
I asked Da if the new road was going to be for planes landing and if it was, could they make me their Control Tower Operator. Da laughed and ruffled my hair like I’d seen Mrs-Connolly-next-door do to her dog.
Ma said she didn’t mind where the planes landed just as long as they didn’t run over her camellia reticulate in the garden bed.
Ma loved her flowers, all types, but in particular the red and white Camellia – a white Christmas in the desert.
I never did see snow in Hay, but I did memorize the tag just for the Special Days of the year when Da slipped me a fiver to buy her favourites because he forgot which ones she liked best. Da forgot things a lot. I guess that’s why he stopped trying to remember things, like picking me up at the school gate.
The year Da built his shed, I started riding my bicycle to school.
Ma cried because I was growing too fast.
Ma clears away the breakfast dishes from our Big Jarrah Table that Da spent weeks in his shed whittling and sandpapering away. Most of what made up One Gumtree had started its life in the ground and found a New Beginning on our concrete-slab floor.
Your Da is clever like that, Ma said, good with his head and his hands but not always with his heart.
Da used to work on people’s hearts for a living. He made black-and-white pictures called cardiograms to work out if the heart is worthy of its Human, or the other way round. But Da couldn’t get heart work in Hay, so he bought a beef farm instead. I never understood how Da could bear to look into those Big Brown eyes and still deliver the lethal dose to its bloodstream. Da said it sped up the drumbeats so death would come quicker.
Did a quick death make it right?
I always looked right into the bull’s eye, just to see if it was true, what they say about seeing the Light at the end of the tunnel.
Ma said it’s like Coming Home; a glint. She said Da had almost gone there the day they fled; right to the edges where the black escapes and loops around the tear duct.
As a boy of the Dreaming Land I learned to read maps in the sky; to see shards of suns glinting with lines crisscrossing to join everything in the universe, even my Da and the Last Fateless Cow.
I wasn’t an Original but the land spoke to me and told stories of how it came to be. Bila in their mouth formation meant water, and the dead sound that came after; bong meant it had found its final resting place.
I knew the reason now.
Everything, it must have a place.
They had travelled to bring me home.
So I could Belong.