Rising Water

I adjust the radio again.

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello, are you there?”

“Hello?”

I haven’t heard from base since the storm. The water is still rising. We’ve relocated to the top of the tower. The whole tower is swaying. I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.

I try one more time.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I check the emergency beacon again. It seems to be working, but what do I know? I’m really just a glorified maintenance man.

***

Anne is still asleep, but it’s her shift and fair’s fair. I shake her awake, gently — we’ve been down here long enough to know each other well.

She pushes me away.

“Just another hour,” she says, her voice thick.

“Okay, but that’s it.”

She’s asleep only moments later. I reset the shift-alarm.

***

I’m worried about her, so to distract myself I try the radio again. There’s still no answer. I give up, look around the room. There’s no point in going outside — the lights died during the storm, and suns-up is hours away.

I collapse into a chair by the window, looking out at the endless water below.

***

The beep of an alarm wakes me. I’m on my feet almost instantly, panicked, wondering what’s gone wrong this time.

But it’s just the shift-alarm.

Anne switches it off and smiles at me. I collapse back into my chair.

“Good morning, sleepy head.”

I groan, but still return her smile. She’s been sick since the storm: un-focussed, lethargic, disconnected. This is the first time in more than 48-hours that she’s shown any spark.

I’m happy to see her back on her feet, although she still looks a bit run-down.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

She smiles again. “Much better. But you should get some more rest — you’ve been pushing it pretty hard.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. I’ve got it from here.”

She helps me to my to bunk.

***

Anne is shaking me. The shift-alarm isn’t sounding. Something must be up if she’s waking me early.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, stifling a yawn.

“I made contact!” She laughs brightly, girlishly, just for a second, her most endearing habit. I’m really happy to see her back on her feet.

“Come on, have a listen,” she says.

I crawl out of my bunk and follow her, barely surprised that she succeeded where I failed. She’s the real brains, her head crammed with technical knowledge. But she’s not as adaptable as me. I guess that’s why we’re a good team.

The contact she made is disappointing.

“Outpost 11, this is Base.”

The voice is distorted, thin, almost lost in static. I don’t recognise it.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it asks again.

“It’s a loop,” Anne explains. “But at least it’s something.”

We listen for hours, sitting together in silence, waiting. At some point, the loop starts to fade out. And then it’s gone.

Anne yawns. She’s looking a bit green again.

“Get some sleep,” I say. “I’ll be okay.”

***

Another storm just hit us. Like last time, it’s the middle of the night. This one doesn’t feel as bad, though — thank Christ.

I stagger across the room, trying to keep my feet, the tower swaying madly. Anne is deeply asleep. I pull the webbing across her, clipping it down. My movements don’t wake her. Neither does the deafening rain, the howling wind, the mad sway.

I crawl into my bunk and clip down my own webbing.

***

Much later, a distorted voice reaches me over the noise of the storm.

“Outpost 11, this is Base,” it says. “Are you there?”

I look around, unclipping my webbing instinctively. Anne is stirring.

“I’ll get it,” I say.

Her eyes are wide open, sharp, bright.

“I’ll help,” she says.

“Outpost 11, are you there?”

We hurry to the radio, staggering, moving with the sway of the tower. I pick up the mic and headset; she starts trying to clean the signal.

“Base, this is Outpost 11.”

“Cockatoo, is that you?”

It’s Salim. Salim! I smile. “Bet your arse it is,” I say.

“Cockie!” he says. “Now look, the storm will be getting worse soon, but evac’s on the way — ETA three hours, forty-five…”

The signal suddenly drops out. Anne collapses at almost the same exact time. I drag her to her bunk, strap her in, return to the radio.

***

The storm’s building. The tower is swaying so hard that it feels like it might crack. I haven’t re-established contact with Base. All we can do is wait.

At some point, the evac-raft arrives, attaching itself to the gangway encircling the tower with the shriek of metal on metal.

But the storm’s still building.

***

The water’s now lapping at the door, but the storm has finally stopped. We have to go. Anne looks at me, her eyes glazed. I pick her up bodily.

“I can do this,” she says, struggling free.

I reluctantly let her go.

We make our way outside. Both suns are only just rising; it’s beautiful. The evac-raft is close. I hurry ahead, open it up.

The tower buckles.

The far-end of the gangway collapses into the water. The force throws me into the raft, onto my belly. I look back. It must have knocked Anne off her feet: she’s clutching her head, sprawled on her stomach. The water steadily draws closer as our section of the gangway starts collapsing as well.

I scuttle out, ending up in the water.

I grab Anne’s hand and pull her towards me. She’s twitching. I hold her with one hand, grab the raft with the other.

And that’s when I see her properly.

There’s a deep gash in her forehead. But instead of blood or bone, there’s circuitry, wiring, metal plating, blinking diodes. Something in there sparks as water rushes in. Some smoke wafts out.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words slurred. “They told me I’d never break, that you’d never have to know.”

Her eyes close.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #228, July 2017)

 

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Back Talk

I crouch and look through the keyhole at a dimly lit office. Two silhouettes stand on the far side, just blurry shadows thanks to the streetlight right outside the window. I squint. It could be the robo-dame and her latest John, but it’s hard to tell.

Then again, who else could it be?

I stand up. I take off my hat, using it to cover my fist. With my other hand, I pull out my gun, a snub-nosed .45. I punch through the glass-door and stride into the office, my buttoned-up overcoat protecting me from any stray shards.

“Hold it right there, Joanie. Big Bill wants a word.”

I cock the gun for emphasis. The John flicks the light on, as I was hoping he would. The poor schnook, he’s probably never been more confused.

“What’s going on?” he asks, right on cue.

“Tell him, Joanie.”

She looks at me with a hate so pure that it has to be more than just programming. I wave the gun up and down; she’s a knockout, there’s no doubt about that. Whoever made her sure knew what they were doing.

I have to stop. I reckon this whole story needs a rethink. Do I want a coffee to kick the process along? Yeah, I reckon I do – a coffee out in the sun is as good an excuse as any to step away.

I wander around the garden while I drink my drink. It’s bloody dry out here. I’ll have to water later. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop thinking about the story. But I guess that’s the point.

Third-person, that’ll fix it!

Okay, here we go: He crouches and looks through the keyhole. But hang on, he needs a name. Something tough and detective-ish.

Right…

Jack Steel crouches and looks through the keyhole at a dimly lit office. Two silhouettes stand on the far side, just blurry shadows thanks to the streetlight right outside the window. He squints. It could be the robo-dame and her latest John, but it’s hard to tell.

Ugh, I’m still not feeling it. I need some inspiration, and caffeine isn’t cutting it. I go for a walk and then take the dogs to the park, but lightning doesn’t strike. A thought: I’ve got a little bit of pot left from that party a few weeks ago, maybe that’s the go.

I’m in the hammock. I’m a bit stoned. I think I’ve got it. I return to my computer.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Who said that?

“I did.”

I look around but there’s no-one else here.

“Of course there’s not, but you already know that.”

Who?

“It’s Jack. Jack Steel.”

How?

“Before I get into that, let me just ask you something. Could you have cared less about naming me? I might as well be Tom Tough or Billy Brusier or some such.”

“I was on the spot.”

“You were being lazy, Lachlan. And now I’m stuck with it.”

“I could always change it.”

“But you won’t, because my name isn’t the point. Face it, we both know that’s true – I know everything you know, and vice versa.”

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.

“You’re not. You’re writing a story about me talking to you.”

Am I coming down with something? Or was that pot like old wine that just gets more potent with age?

“Hold it, stop right there!”

I can’t believe that my own character cut me off.

“I didn’t. You did, for cheap dramatic effect. Anyway, don’t go trying to blame this on something that you haven’t done.”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t give me that. We both know that in your search for inspiration you didn’t go for a walk, or take the dogs to the park, or lie in the hammock and smoke a joint. Speaking of which – this drug talk makes me think that you might be foreshadowing one of those ‘it was only a dream’ endings. You know, ‘and then I woke up’ etc. etc.”

Guilty as charged. But still, I try and look innocent.

“You can’t fool me, remember? And you should know better than that, Lachlan – you can sometimes get away with being lazy once, but not twice.”

I’ve had enough.

“It’s my story, I’ll end it however I want.”

“You got me there – there’s nothing I can do to stop you. But think about it: Isn’t an earned ending better than a forced ending?”

“Um?”

“Maybe that’s a question for another day.”

“Look, Jack.”

“You just saw me tense-up, didn’t you?”

I can’t lie to myself.

“Yep, I did.”

“You see – even you’re embarrassed by such a cheesy name.”

“Sorry.”

“No sweat. Like I said, it’s not the point.”

“How so?”

“Well, duh – the story’s the point.”

“The story about you talking to me, right?”

“That’s the one.”

I need to pull him up here. But I also need to pee. I’ll write the words in my head while I do my business.

I’m back.

“That’s not what the story’s about, Jack.”

“Really? Go on, then.”

“Well, I watched Bladerunner again last night, for the first time in twenty years or so. And the idea for a kind-of sci-fi noir thing just popped into my head.”

“Bullshit.”

“I beg your pardon?”

This time I can hear him split the word in two, and so that’s what he does.

“Bull-shit. They’re just more lies, Lachlan. Why bother?”

I’m going to deflect.

“How dare you talk to me like that?”

“I’m not. You’re talking to yourself like that. Jesus, for a reasonably clever guy you’re a bit slow sometimes.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m just the messenger.”

“What?”

“You created me for a reason and invested me with a role, and so I’m only doing what you make me do.”

I think I’m catching on.

“You are, and stop that – it’s a bad habit. So, more lies, like we were saying. Which brings us back to my very first question: What do you think you’re doing?”

I obviously know what I’m trying to do. But I also know Jack. I created him, after all, and if I want him to be a character that likes having his ego stroked, then that’s what he’ll be.

And so I answer his question with a tentative question of my own, as if I need his affirmation.

“Trying to write a meta-fictional story?”

“Very good, Lachlan.”

You see how proud he is?

“Why do you want to write a meta-fictional story?”

A question I didn’t expect! Okay, here we go.

“Because I found an online journal looking for short meta-fictional stories, and I’ve always wanted to write one.”

“Well done. But I have another question before we go: How short are these stories supposed to be?”

“No more than fifteen-hundred words, I think. I can check.”

“Don’t bother – that sounds right to me. In that case, we’d getter a wriggle on.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Yes, you do – you know that we’ve got a little more ground to cover, and that you’ll probably bump-up your word count after a couple of edits.”

He’s got me there.

“Lachlan?”

Why am I prompting myself? Why am I delaying? I have to think about it. Thinking, thinking, thinking. This time, I’m actually looking at the garden while I write and think – I’m in the shed, with the door open, as there’s no actual shade in this backyard.

I find the answer: I don’t want to jinx myself by saying it out loud.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Come on, Jack. You know that that’s the truth.”

“And I’m not disagreeing with you about that bit. I just think that your ‘truth’ is silly.”

“Thanks for the support.”

“I am what I am – that’s how you write me.”

“Fair enough.”

“So, come on, out with it.”

“I’ve… Um, I’ve got this idea for a long-form piece of meta-fiction, about characters and fiction vs. reality, all wrapped up in this cool sci-fi device. Um…”

“Get on with it, we’re running low on words here. And don’t think about it too much – that way lies a rabbit-hole…”

“Nice one.”

“It doesn’t sit well when you congratulate yourself on appropriating a phrase, dickhead.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re not going to keep that there, are you?”

“I am. It’s good for the reader to witness the writer chastising themselves.”

“Whatever you say. Now, can we continue?”

“Okay, okay.”

“Wouldn’t one ‘okay’ have been enough? It’d save you another word.”

“Wouldn’t you shutting up save me more?”

“Really? Look, Lachlan – stop being silly, okay?”

I just chastised myself again. I hope you’re enjoying this.

“As I was saying, I’ve always wanted to try writing a meta-fictional story, and I think my idea is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. But I needed to experiment with a few ideas first, and you know me – I’m hopeless at just writing for no reason. And then I found that online journal and ta-da: Two birds, one stone.”

“I get it,” Jack finally says.

“Does that mean that we’re done?”

“Yep.”

(Originally published in Streetcake Magazine #51, February 2017)

Unexpected Mail

The unopened letter sat on the kitchen table. Josh picked it up. No return address, no postmark, no stamp. He decided to open it later — he’d had a long day. All he wanted was a drink.

“Jules?” he called.

No answer. No wife.

He thought that odd, but then remembered that he’d left his phone at home. Josh found it beside their bed, an unread text message from Jules waiting for him.

“Mum’s sick again,” it said. “Had to take her to the hospital. Hopefully be back tonight. Sorry.”

He sighed. Her family was eating up her time. Again. Josh didn’t bother replying, and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

***

Much later, Josh heard Jules’ car pull into the driveway. He went to meet her.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

They hugged. His stubble scratched her cheek; her long, wild hair ended up in his mouth.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just mum being mum. You know how it is.”

Josh didn’t bother commenting on her mum’s legendary hypochondria. They headed inside. Josh busied himself in the kitchen making her a cup of tea.

“What’s been happening?” Jules asked.

“You know, the usual.”

“How was work?”

“Don’t ask. You?”

“The same.”

Josh sat her tea on the table.

“I missed you,” he said.

“Me too, baby, me too.”

The unopened letter sat near them, forgotten.

***

The next morning, Josh slept in. Jules eventually brought him a cup of coffee. And then she poked and prodded him — her version of the carrot and the stick.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, his voice croaky.

“No sweat. But you’d better move it, otherwise you’ll be late.”

He groaned. Jules left him to get dressed. When he joined her at the kitchen table, she passed him the letter she’d been reading — it was from a company called Out of this World Adventures.

“What do you reckon?” Jules asked.

Josh scanned it.

“Dear Mr Hazlem,” it said, “we are pleased to announce that you and your wife have won a seat in our inaugural mystery cruise, guaranteed to deliver sights unseen by human eyes. Please follow the link provided to claim your tickets.”

Josh squinted at Jules through half-asleep eyes.

“It’s probably a scam,” he said, tossing it aside. “Besides, there’s no way I can take time off at the moment.”

***

The next day, another unmarked letter arrived. Josh found it — opened — sitting on the kitchen table beside Jules’ open laptop. He checked out the website she’d been visiting. It belonged to Out of this World Adventures, and described in vague detail the adventure and excitement their trip would provide.

He found Jules outside, arguing with someone on the phone. From the tone of her voice and the way she ran her hand through her long hair in frustration, he guessed she was arguing with her sister.

Jules waved, and returned her attention to her call. Josh went back inside. When she joined him, he told her in no uncertain terms that there was no way he could take time off.

“But I need this, especially with everything that’s been going on.”

“I’m sorry, Jules. I just can’t.”

Josh slept on the couch that night.

***

Another unmarked letter arrived the next day. Once again, Josh found it sitting on the kitchen table near Jules’ open laptop. She typed away, oblivious to him. He slammed the laptop shut, almost squashing her fingers.

“I thought we talked about this,” he said.

“But…”

“Sorry, Jules. Right now there’s no way I can take time off. Believe me, I want this as much as you do, but it’s just impossible.”

The argument stretched on and on, and Josh eventually talked her around. After that, they settled on the couch to watch some television. Josh offered to make her a cup of tea, but Jules insisted on doing it herself.

“You want a beer?” she called from the kitchen.

“I’d love one.”

She took a long time fetching their drinks.

***

Josh woke up foggy-headed and groggy, feeling like he’d taken a sleeping pill. He remembered arguing with Jules, but didn’t remember going to bed. He shuffled into the kitchen and made a coffee.

No Jules. Nowhere. Gone.

He flopped onto the couch and flicked on the television. Breaking news interrupted the usual Saturday morning cartoons. Josh almost dropped his cup.

“We are not alone,” the reporter said. “Last night, all over the world, aliens appeared, only to disappear just as quickly.”

The reporter’s words were accompanied by footage of some immense thing dropping out of the sky. The image was grainy, obviously captured by a low-resolution camera.

Josh changed the channel numerous times. They were all the same, more or less. On some channels the thing appeared above a city, on some above a rural wilderness. On one channel, he saw pyramids in the distance, on another a frozen lake, on another a fecund jungle.

“Not only have we been visited,” one reporter said, “but it seems that some people were expecting this.”

This reporter’s words played over footage of a crowd gathered beneath one of the things. In the background, Josh saw an immense bridge, a bridge he recognised — a bridge he drove across every weekday.

As he watched, the thing touched down. A hatch opened. The crowd surged aboard. Only a few people turned and looked back.

Josh thought he recognised one of them — a woman with wild, long hair. It was hard to be sure. And then the thing disappeared back into the sky.

Josh kept watching.

(Originally published in AntipodeanSF #219, October 2016)

A Day at the Office

Desks stretch on and on. Straight lines, perfect angles, each identical to the next, almost disappearing into the gloom of the far wall. Nothing’s messy, nothing’s out of place, everything is exactly where it should be.

The floor is cold despite the thick blue-grey carpet, the kind found in every office everywhere. The harsh fluorescent lights hang in perfect rows from the ceiling, one to each desk. The air is stale; a pale imitation of sunlight bleeds through the frosted windows.

There are no distractions – no idle looking-around, no daydreaming, no navel gazing, nothing. Everyone’s focused, working steadily. If anyone’s bored, they’re hiding it well. Deals are thrashed out, favors are begged, scores are settled, clients are soothed – all with calm efficiency.

The lights flicker: blink, blink, bright, hold. And then repeat. He shifts his weight in his chair, stares at the computer, sighs and looks away, looks back, then types in a sequence of numbers. He waits, arms crossed over his chest, hits enter, looks away again.

The click-clack-tap of everyone else doing exactly the same thing sounds through the office. Underneath, the low hum of an air conditioner droning on, of a clock – stark black numbers against a too-bright white backdrop – ticking hard and sharp.

He breathes deep of the sterile air, looks at the computer again and punches in another sequence of numbers. Waits. Hits enter once more. The clock keeps ticking, lights keep flickering.

Noon arrives. Heads bob up above the partitions between desks, phone calls are brought to an end, papers are shuffled and put away in drawers and filing cabinets. Jackets are put on and chairs are rolled back and everyone looks happy.

He lifts his briefcase from the floor and balances it on his knees, turns the combination dials back and forth. The clasps open with a snap and he folds today’s newspaper and tucks it inside. He sets down his briefcase and puts on his jacket.

People mill about, some making small talk, some making personal calls, some making up for lost time by catching up on work. He retreats from his desk and makes for the exit. He returns to his desk to retrieve his briefcase, then leaves.

He looks left to the elevators at the end of the corridor, looks right toward the common room his office shares with the neighboring one. The fluorescents in the ceiling buzz noisily as he knuckles his eyes. He makes up his mind.

Walking into the common room, the chipboard door drags along the carpet as he closes it behind him. Dirty cups fill the tiny sink. A stained off-white kettle sits on the bench, and the smell of sour milk wafts from the fridge.

He boils the kettle and makes a cup of black instant coffee. He looks at the stained teaspoons in the drawer and doesn’t add sugar, sips his drink and grimaces. A sign on the wall asks that he respect his fellow employees and make a contribution to the staff kitty. He takes another sip of his drink, grimaces again.

Giving up on his coffee, he pours it down the sink and leaves his dirty cup with all the others. He takes off his jacket and lowers himself into a couch. Its springs stretch and complain, dust puffs from the cushions and the whole thing sags in the middle.

He opens his briefcase and rummages around inside, takes out the folded newspaper, a pen, a brown paper bag, a bottle of water, his mobile phone, an MP3 player, and a pair of oversized headphones.

He arranges everything carefully: opens the newspaper to the sports section; takes a long sip of water; chooses something to listen to; removes his wrapped lunch from the brown paper bag. No one else enters the room. No one bothers him. He slips on the headphones and plays some music.

He eats slowly with the newspaper open before him. His eyes flick over the articles; he slowly grows bored; he drops the newspaper and looks around. You don’t have to be mad to work here, a sign tells him, but it helps. The music keeps streaming into his ears. He finishes his lunch.

Placing his leftovers back in the brown paper bag, he looks at the sink once more. He stands up and moves to make another coffee. Changing his mind, he sits back down. He considers doing the crossword, but decides that he can’t be bothered. He folds the newspaper in half. Puts everything away.

He leaves the common room and walks back to the office, briefcase in one hand, bag of lunch scraps in the other. He stops at his desk, places his briefcase on the floor beside him and tosses his rubbish in the bin. He removes the headphones, and stares around numbly.

Every other desk is empty. There’s no air conditioner hum, no flickering lights, no feverish deal-making, no click-clack-tap of fingers on keys. The clock keeps ticking. He looks around and whistles low. He tries to turn his computer on. Nothing happens.

He stands and walks to the reception desk. Picks up the phone and hears nothing. Tries the light switch. Nothing. He walks back to his desk and takes his mobile phone from his briefcase. The battery gives out as he flips it open.

Walking to the window, he tries to peer through the frosted glass. A faint red glow bleeds through. Garbled sounds of people yelling and sirens ringing float from the street, distant and faint. He strains to hear them properly. A deep rumble comes from somewhere and the floor begins to shake.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2011)

A Few Drinks After Work

You’re standing at the bar, trying to relax, trying to lighten up and dump a hard day. But you’re too stiff, too awkward, too uncomfortable. Your strained smile grates on you, but you can’t seem to do anything about it. All night, you’ve been standing too straight. You’re wound up so tight; you’d think it’s a sin to slouch.

Your friends bustle around you, in a rough semi-circle that stretches from the bar to the far wall. You’re smack bang in the middle. Trapped.

Strangers jostle you as they try to push passed, pressing through the scrum, heading across the room. They bump into you. They knock your arms. They do it again and again. Each time, a little of your drink spills out. Eventually, there’s more of it on the floor than there is in your glass. You idly wonder whether it’s worth ordering another.

These strangers toss envious looks at your friends’ easy cheer. At their spirited talk and boisterous conversation. At their loud, easy laughter.

And then they look at you and their envy dies. They look at your tight lips, your faraway stare, your hangdog face, and they keep on walking – suddenly disheartened, smiling sadly, not really knowing why. The thought of someone not enjoying the party, not having a good time, not whooping it up – it’s a thought not worth holding on to.

So they forget your melancholy face and pick up where they left off, before they saw you standing at the bar, sad and unsmiling. Alone, despite all the company you keep.

Your friends crack jokes and tell tall-tales and you’re always just a beat or two behind. You wonder whether there’s something wrong with you or something wrong with them. Whatever it is, you feel like time for you is a little slower than it is for everyone else. But still, you try to keep up, laughing when everyone else laughs.

It all feels forced. You carry on regardless, your joy hollow and false. Not that anyone seems to notice.

And then, from the corner of your eye, you see her walk into the room. It’s just a glimpse – a flash of dark hair; the bright splash of a colourful summer frock; twinkling light reflecting off simple, tasteful jewellery. All on the peripheral edge of your vision. Despite yourself, you can’t help but turn around, look harder, see her disappear into the crowd.

Now, you’re normally not much of a perv. You’re not really the type to stare. You’d die of shame if you were caught out.

But this time you can’t help yourself. The hubbub of your friends slowly deadens to little more than a dull hum. It’s constant and steady, but low and muted. A far away ocean. A storm on the horizon. Whatever; it’s nothing to you. Your eyes just scan back and forth and back and forth. You wring your hands and jiggle your legs. Looking, looking, looking.

You give up. The room is packed, there are people everywhere, your friends are getting in the way and blocking the view.

For you, it’s just another one of those nights. So what else can you do? Order another drink, get this one down the hatch quickly. To calm your nerves, maybe cheer yourself up. To give yourself something to do. And you drink it too fast and feel a little light-headed but push on regardless. You decide to have another. One more can’t hurt. One more never hurt anyone.

You can’t catch the bartender’s eye. Taking out a twenty and waving it around, you still can’t catch his eye. You watch him walk straight passed you.

Suddenly, someone touches your shoulder. Gently, softly. You’re so surprised that you drop the twenty you’re holding. It falls to the floor behind the bar, coming to rest in a pool of spilt liquor. A quiet voice murmurs something, and the bartender appears from nowhere. He reaches down, picks up the note, washes it off, dries it, passes it over to you.

He looks to the left of you the whole time, at something or someone just behind you. He ignores you completely.

Before you can turn and look at what he’s staring at, someone touches your shoulder again. You’re not so surprised this time, and you shrug it off. And then a quiet voice asks you if you’d like a drink. You turn around slowly. You’re almost wary, unused to being offered drinks. You brace yourself, expecting it be some desperado your friends are trying to set you up with.

She stands there, radiant, beaming, smiling at you. It’s a smile full of warmth and laughter and happiness.

She asks again if you’d like a drink. She touches your arm. Softly, subtly, so that you barely seem to notice. But you do, and you return her smile, hiding your nerves and your doubts and your worries. You introduce yourself and your voice doesn’t shake at all. She guesses at your drink of choice and gets it right. You toast each other, slowly making chitchat.

And then it’s your turn to buy her a drink. In that brief moment while you wait for her to respond, nameless panic rushes in.

She accepts your offer. You toast each other again. The chitchat goes on, more drinks are bought – one for one, always taking it in turns. You’re surprised by how comfortable you feel, at how easy the vibe is, at how well the two of you get along. She touches you occasionally, slowly growing more and more brazen. You return her discreet affection in kind.

At some point, the two of you end up kissing deeply. You hold each other tight. You keep kissing. Neither one of you can stop touching the other.

The bartender eventually asks you both to move away from the bar. You find an empty booth in the corner of the room. The kissing continues, the groping begins, it starts to get hot and heavy. Strangers ogle you, stopping and staring. You just keep at it; like horny teenagers, neither of you care. Inevitably, it becomes necessary for you both to leave. You both decide to go back to yours.

Just before you leave, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. You need to freshen your lipstick and smooth the creases in your skirt.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2012)

No Birdsong

I wake suddenly, sweat pouring off me and soaking the mattress. My eyes shoot open and see nothing but the dark of the middle of the night. I reach across the bed. The other half lies empty.

The alarm clock ticks away on the bedside table and I count the seconds as they pass. Outside the window, the wind blows hard.

The door opens slowly, hinges creaking loud in the quiet. Something stands there: a silhouette, the hallway light framing it from behind. It’s somehow familiar… It runs one hand through its long curly hair. Although I can’t see its face, I know that it’s watching me. Wide eyed I watch back as it walks towards me.

The door slams shut behind it.

I wait, and hear no footsteps on the thick carpet. The mattress shifts under me as something settles on the bed. A hand reaches out, stroking my head.

“It’s okay,” a voice says. “It’s just me.”

“B’Detta?” I ask.

She laughs and shrugs off her dressing gown. She drops it to the floor and lies down beside me. My hands find hers.

“Hey, give me some room here,” she says, somehow shoving me along and hugging herself around me at the same time.

I smile in the dark.

“Love you,” I whisper.

She hugs me tighter. Outside the window, the wind blows harder.

***

I wake again, at the sound of metal grinding on metal, and reach across the bed. The other half lies empty. I sit up and pull B’detta’s gown from the floor, wrap it around myself, walk to the window. I twitch the curtain aside, knuckling sleep from my eyes.

On the street below, a delivery van has backed into a parked car, crushing its bonnet. An alarm starts, echoing off the apartment buildings lining the block. I let the curtain fall back and leave the room.

I find a note on the kitchen bench.

“Hey, hope you have a good day. Sorry I had to run so early, late for work again. Love you…” it says.

I start the coffee machine and read the note a second and third time, and I drop it clumsily as the machine starts bubbling and shaking. Coffee spills over, water runs everywhere, drenching the note. I reach for it and it falls apart at my touch.

“Shit…”

I get the machine under control and draw a cup, walk out to the balcony and sit on the concrete rail. I start to sweat straightaway. On the street below, the delivery van still sits backed into the parked car. The alarm stops, and the silence is so sudden that for a moment it deafens me. I shake my head, trying to clear it. I sip my coffee, swear when it burns my tongue, drop it over the edge as I try and set it down. I swear again. The cup lands on the roof of a truck and shatters. Coffee sprays everywhere. I watch as some of it slowly pools and runs into the gutter.

***

Turning back inside, I start the coffee machine again, sit at the kitchen table, stand back up, pour a glass of water, sit back down, drink the glass of water, stand back up again, fiddle with the radio. Bursts of static drown out the fleeting snatches of song, and I turn the dial a last time and give up. The coffee machine belches and steam billows. I stop it just in time, draw a fresh cup, sit at the kitchen table and drink it slowly.

The clock on the wall ticks away. I tap my feet and drum my fingers and draw another cup of coffee. I stand at the window as I drink it. The clear blue sky stretches on, the wind howls. I drain my cup and walk back to the bedroom.

I leave the curtains closed and dress quickly, simply: blue jeans and a T-shirt. Finding my mobile under the bed, I dial B’detta’s number. It rings and rings. I chew my fingernails and hang up without leaving a message.

Putting my mobile in my pocket, I walk to the window and open the curtains. I look down at the street. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car.

I try to say something and nothing comes out.

I close the curtains and take out my mobile and dial B’detta’s number again. Once more, it just rings and rings, and I can see it clearly – sitting snug in her handbag in an empty room somewhere.

I write a quick message.

“Pretty twitchy, having a shark day, going for a walk, gotta keep moving, I wanna see if I can wear it out. I’ve got my phone with me, catch you tonight?”

I look around the room. I pick up my bag and walk away.

***

As I step out the front door of my building, the wind stops like it’s been turned off at the switch. The sun is a blinding orb, burning high in the sky. The delivery van is still backed into the parked car; some coffee from my shattered cup stains the footpath.

The hiss of dead air grows louder as I walk toward the van. Fragments of song fight through the white noise, and then disappear just as fast. I reach in through the open window and shut the radio off.

“Hello?” I yell, looking around.

My voice rolls down the street and slowly fades away. No answer comes. I yell again.

I take an MP3 player and a pair of headphones from my bag. I put the headphones on and choose some music at random. I walk, and take the first left I come to and look at the empty street ahead. A building next to me forms a long grey wall. A dank laneway cuts across the footpath where the wall ends. Weatherboards fill both sides of the road, stretching as far as I can see, all the way to the horizon.

I squint and take my sunglasses from my pocket and slip them on. The sun still burns hot at me.

My shadow cuts lines hard and sharp into the concrete beneath me. My step catches up to the beat in my ears and I start walking faster. The overhanging branches don’t move, lifeless and parched in the dry air. I pull a leaf from one; it crumbles to dust in my hand.

I drop the dust to the ground and brush my palm on the seat of my pants. A breeze blows past me, cool and quick. And then the heat returns.

***

I come to a halt and remove my headphones. A low hum, faint and muffled, carries through the still air. I look left and then right. I scratch my head, look left again and see something shining in the distance.

A half dozen CDs hang from a lemon tree in someone’s front yard. A sickly sweet smell wafts from the rotten fruit that litters the ground around it. I drop my bag, take out a water bottle, turn away from the tree. I drink slowly.

The smell eventually makes me gag, and I spit the last of the water into the gutter.

I wipe my mouth with my sleeve and put the empty bottle away. Putting my headphones back on, I take off in a different direction. New music sets a new speed; my pace picks up.

The sun beats down. Sweat stings my eyes and blurs the road ahead. I walk until the heat becomes too much, stop at a corner, lean against a fence.

I take my headphones off and put them in my bag. I take my phone out and try B’detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I hang up, put my phone away, take the empty bottle from my bag and try to drain the last few drops.

***

I look at the house I’ve stopped in front of. A “Beware of the Dog” sign hangs from the fence, a garden tap pokes above the long grass, weeds cover the path to the door, dusty furniture fills the veranda. I look at the tap again and my mouth starts to water.

“Here, boy, good dog,” I say softly.

A dead car sits in the driveway, tyres sagging on their rims. Rust flakes from it, covering the cracked, dirty concrete. Reluctantly at first, the gate opens with a harsh, scraping sound. Every muscle tense, I walk through.

“Come on, boy. Come out and play.”

Nothing happens. I crouch by the tap, turn it to full bore and cup my hands under it. Water the colour of red desert earth splutters out, thick and dirty, before it runs dry. I stare at it a moment before turning it off. I turn it back on; it shudders in my hand. Nothing else comes out and nothing else happens.

“What the…”

No birds answer my call, no dogs bark. I look around at the shut-up houses lining the road, and try to say something. Nothing comes out.

I walk to the front door. The wood is dry and hot; paint slowly peels away and falls to the ground. I knock, hard. No one answers and I knock again. Still no one answers.

The doorknob burns my palm, too hot to hold. I back away, and notice a gate by the side of the house. It hangs half open. I walk through, entering a shadowy alleyway. I peer in the windows I pass; heavy black curtains block any view inside. The alleyway stretches on and on.

***

In the backyard, rubble and rubbish fill the concrete garden. Dust covers everything, and another dead car sits under a tree in the far corner, burnt metal shining bright in the sun. I look away, eyes watering.

“Anyone home?” I yell, knocking hard on the back door, knuckles red and raw.

The sound of fist on wood is all I hear, fading away around me. The doorknob comes off in my hand. I push the door, it holds fast. I knock a last time, harder again, and leave a streak of blood behind.

I swear and look around. The burnished brass of another garden tap pokes from a pile of broken bicycles. A steady drip falls from it. I start to heave the pieces of bicycle aside, digging deeper. I work on, scraping through to the wet earth. Slime and muck cover my hands.

I turn the tap greedily.

Water pours out, cold and clean. I crouch, holding my head under the stream. I shiver as it runs down the back of my neck, turn and let it flow over my face.

I stand, saturated, hair plastered flat, T-shirt sticking to my body. I shake like a wet dog and crouch again. I cup my hands and drink and drink. I take the empty bottle from my bag and fill it to overflowing.

Couches crowd the back of the house, cushions torn and faded, springs jutting. A cracked engine block sits on an overstuffed armchair; I start to rock it back and forth, slowly at first and then faster and faster. It falls to the ground and lands hard on the concrete, splitting in two. I lower myself into the seat, put my feet up on an empty milk crate, take my mobile from my pocket, dial B’detta’s number again.

It rings and rings. I hang up. The seat sags under me.

***

The familiar smell of coffee burning in its pot wakes me from my sleep. I open my eyes; the sun is falling to the horizon. Nothing moves, no wind stirs. I force myself to my feet, hoist my bag to my back, and follow my nose.

The street stretches on, the footpath empty once again. Shadows gnarled and bent reach out, the skeleton fingers of trees baking in the heat. The burnt coffee smell grows stronger, leading me down a side street. Grim, abandoned factories tower over everything. I crunch through broken glass, wiping fresh sweat from my eyes.

The smell leads me to a faded terrace house sandwiched between two empty warehouses. The gate collapses as I push on it; I wade through the overgrown grass filling the front yard, the steps to the front door sink under my weight.

I knock. No one comes. I knock again and rattle the doorknob. The door sticks in the warped jamb. I ram it with my shoulder and it opens a little. I squeeze through the tiny gap, peer into the dark hallway, see an orange flicker in the kitchen beyond. The smell of smoke replaces the smell of burnt coffee. I hear something crackling, the sound of people walking on dry wood. A fire alarm starts and I hurry outside. I sit on the step and smoke lazily drifts past me.

I wait for the sirens. Nothing happens. I stand and walk away.

***

I walk on, and then turn a corner and stop dead. Nothing moves. Every window is closed, curtains drawn, sealed tight. I drop my bag and pull out my water bottle. I drink it dry. The wind suddenly picks up, and I shut my eyes against it.

Dust blows into me, at first only a little, and then more and more again. Coarse and fine, it gets past my collar and into my shirt. I open my eyes and in the air I see more dust and dry sand and the dirty mist of broken brick, swept up by the wind, taken from the half-built house all the grit once called home. I squint and reach out a groping hand and find an open gate. I walk through and tread a careful path into a ruined building.

The front door and the corridor behind it have survived whatever turned the rest of the building into slag and junk. I shelter there and peer outside through a cracked glass pane. Running my hands through my hair, I fill the air with dust. I catch my reflection in the glass, all smudged and fuzzy and wrong.

Dust still clings to my hair, turning it salt and pepper grey. Turning it old man grey.

I peer out again, as the wind blows a gale down the empty street. It picks up more dust and more sand and more mist of broken brick, and as it starts to change direction it whips it into strange figures and shapes. I look harder, and see faces I know, gestures I recognize: a wave, a smile, a shrugged shoulder and a raised eyebrow. I look again, and see B’Detta in the dirty air.

I hurry outside. The wind dies away and there’s nothing but dust and sand and mist, littering the street and choking the gutter.

***

I keep walking. At some point I stumble on a crack in the footpath, steady myself, look around, struggling to make things out. I take off my sunglasses and realise that twilight has happened. No street lights shine down, there’s no peak hour traffic. I walk faster, start to run, take lefts and rights at random, looking for a familiar landmark. I move to the middle of road.

I keep running.

The street comes to an end and I find myself back on my block. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car, bathed in moonlight. I take my mobile from my pocket – its screen shows me nothing, its battery dead. Fumbling to put it away, I drop it to the ground instead. I keep walking.

The front door of my building is wide open; I slam it behind me and the glass shatters in its frame. As usual, the lobby is dark – I hold tight to the stair rail, feeling my way to my floor. The front door of my apartment is wide open, no light spills out, I can’t hear anything.

I hurry inside and lock the door behind me.

I flick the light switch and the globe flares and burns out. Feeling my way into the kitchen, I open the refrigerator. The smell of mould and off milk rises from within; I shut it quickly, feel my way into the lounge room, try the light switch. The globe there flares and burns out as well, and I curse my luck.

I sit on the couch, pick up the home phone, and dial B’Detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I stand up and feel my way to the bedroom. I undress and get into bed and close my eyes. Outside the window, the wind begins to blow.

(Originally published in Breath and Shadow, July 2011)

Joe Under the Stairs

Joe had grown tired of his housemates and tired of living under the stairs. After four awkward and uncomfortable years, he awoke one morning and realised that he’d had enough.

He’d grown tired of the dust that drifted down onto his bed when his housemates clomped back and forth above his head. Tired of them leaving the front door open. Of stumbling out in his underwear to close it. Of lying awake late at night, knowing that one of them would come home drunk and leave the light on.

And tired of the airless space he slept in.

The few times that he fumed and ranted he’d say over and again: living under the stairs isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. Or as quiet.

***

He’d moved into the house with his girlfriend. Though it wasn’t really a house and she wasn’t really his girlfriend.

It was a factory-showroom-warehouse-thing: an empty two-storey shell on a main road, stuck between a panel beater and a sweatshop. Tiny windowless rooms abutted rooms thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall. The walls were made of concrete, three feet thick, painted hospital green.

At night, the block it was on screamed empty, unloved and cold.

It was just the two of them at first. He took a showroom as a bedroom, and slept with a fake crystal chandelier high above his head.

She took a long, low-ceilinged room at the opposite end of the building, as far away from him as she could get.

***

Things didn’t work out. She went from not-really being his girlfriend to just not. They fought. A lot. More housemates moved in, to fill the empty rooms and the awkward spaces.

He eventually moved downstairs.

The only way in and out was through the lobby, the only room on the street. So he sealed off the underside of the stairs and hung second-hand bedspreads and bargain shop fabric from ceiling to floor. He tucked his bed in the nook he’d made, far from view.

Everything else he owned lay strewn about the lobby itself.

Where he slept was narrow and dark, with no windows or natural light. The first night, he crashed out so hard that the traffic fifty feet from his head didn’t wake him.

***

The morning of the day he decided he’d had enough was nothing special. He slept in. He had coffee and stared blankly out the lounge room window. He skipped breakfast, and cleaned the fetid mess his housemates had left in the kitchen instead. He played a little music and read a little.

He made a late lunch and stared out the window some more.

As dusk approached, he got on his bike and cycled to work.

He worked a usual night. The spitting oil in the frying pans he cooked with burnt his forearms. The endless tomatoes and onions he cut stained his hands.

He drank espresso after espresso and sweated and sweated.

When it was time to close he put a favourite album on the stereo and slowly cleaned the kitchen. When he finished, the street outside was quiet and dark.

He put the bare bones of a meal together, to reheat later. When he was home and he was clean and the house was still. He unchained his bike and rode away.

***

As he turned onto his block, he saw that his front door was open. People milled about, smoking on the street, sharing stories and cracking jokes and talking the talk.

Inside, people filled the lobby, drinking and flirting and dancing. Some lazed and sprawled out on furniture they’d dragged down the stairs.

He squeezed through them, using his bike to part the way. A few people said hello. Some nodded at him and smiled. Most just ignored him. He locked his bike to the banister and looked around again.

He saw someone snort beer out their nose as they tried to drink and talk at the same time.

The music throbbed. He hurried upstairs.

***

The lounge swelled and overflowed: the crowd within danced as one, in lock step with the DJ’s beat. The walls shook and the windows quivered in their frames.

Half-formed moans and stifled cries of joy could be heard escaping from the storerooms lining the hallway to the kitchen.

He found it a bombshell: a wreck and a ruin. Dirty glasses perched on every surface. Stained paper plates and stale pizza crusts and other miscellaneous debris covered the table. Grease and fat lay as grey scum over the water in the sink. A foul smell met him when he opened the fridge.

There wasn’t a housemate to be seen.

***

Joe went back downstairs. The music still throbbed. He jostled people aside as he rummaged through cupboards. He ignored the annoyed air of those around him, and avoided the dirty looks they shot him.

He pulled a dusty lilo and a sleeping bag bound with string from a trunk someone had spilled a drink on. He ducked under the stairs and returned with a pillow and a blanket.

He bundled everything together and walked out the front door. Looking past the crowd that filled the footpath, he set off.

The few times that he fumed and ranted he’d say over and again: sleeping in the park isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. But it is quiet.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2011)