Challenge: Matching First & Last Paragraphs

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” they asked. I fantasised. Doctor. Actress. Athlete. Fire-fighter. All the great things that we should aspire to be as we grow older. Many of my classmates were thinking long and hard before they wrote their answers. 

I didn’t have to.

Scientist.

Alongside my answer I doodled a stick-picture of myself pouring one beaker full of a strange and wonderful chemical into another, and held up my hand to indicate that I was done. Miss Flowers, my teacher, wandered over, surveying the class with her bright blue eyes as she passed each desk. She looked at mine and nodded approvingly, and I grinned widely as she put a ‘well done’ sticker onto my sheet.

—–

Had it really been nineteen years since I’d written that? The memory was surprisingly vivid, no doubt helped by the worksheet I now held in my hands once again. Other alumni of Morning Grace College around the room pointed and giggled at their own answers, amused at what their eight-year-old selves had dreamt of and aspired to be.

Our ten-year reunion had so far been, perhaps a little surprisingly, a blast. Some nostalgic tunes played over the speakers as old friends and even some old enemies reunited to talk about their favourite memories and, inevitably, what they were doing with their lives now. I’d avoided that question six times since we’d arrived.

More than a few of the friends from my graduating class who I was still in contact with had been wishy-washy over attending and had been hesitant to come, myself included. Only the persistent efforts of our former history teacher, Mr. Gudjohnssen, had persuaded us down from the fence, and in the end we were glad he had.

A large ‘Welcome back class of 2004!’ sign was draped over a stage set up at the front of the beautifully-decorated function room. The building hosting the event had only recently been finished, containing a new theatre, gymnasium and media room, as well as the function room we were currently in.

“They always build the good stuff after you leave, huh,” commented Eliza.

“Too right, baby,” I replied. “Why, just twenty years ago they were probably saying the same thing about the four-square courts they painted in the courtyard!”

“Har de har,” said Eliza. She knocked back the rest of her champagne.

“Actually”, said a familiar voice, “as someone who was there, I can confirm that is one hundred percent true.”

There was no mistaking the Scandinavian-infused accent of Mr. Gudjohnssen, nor his amusingly large-framed glasses. The man had been my favourite history teacher for years. He was funny, approachable, and had a tendency to cut the crap and tell it as he saw it – all qualities that too few of my teachers had possessed.

“Those four-square courts got me through some difficult times, Sadie. I don’t mean to brag, but I had a mean backspin palm!” He posed as if he’d just hit the world’s best four-square shot. Which, you know, he could have. I wasn’t exactly an expert.

“I’m sure you did, sir.”

“Oh, you don’t need to call me ‘sir’ anymore,” he said with a broad smile. “’Andy’ will do fine.”

I blushed. “There is absolutely no way I can call you ‘Andy’, sir.”

“Well, how about we compromise on ‘Mr. G’? Good? Good. But forgive me,” he apologised, turning to Eliza and extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Mr. Gudjohnssen, or ‘Andrew’, if you can manage.”

“Hail and well met, Andrew,” said Eliza, shaking his hand. “I’m Eliza, Sadie’s wife.”

“Oh! Well, congratulations to the both of you! You must be extremely quick-witted to be with Sadie, I’m sure.”

Eliza smiled wryly at me. “She keeps up with me… most of the time.”

I shuffled to the other side of Eliza to let the two of them get acquainted. As I slowly looked around the room, observing the old art assignments and pieces which the staff had brought out to decorate, I overheard Mr. Gudjohnssen discussing how his kids were now at the school, and I winced a little in secret as Eliza mentioned that we weren’t planning on having children. A waiter came over and offered more champagne. I passed one to Eliza and then took two more, drank both within fifteen seconds, and breathed deep before returning to the conversation.

“So, Sadie. Eliza tells me you’re working at a bakery! That must be-“

I coughed immediately. “Sorry, I’ve gotta-“, I began, motioning toward the bathroom and heading in that direction before losing myself in the crowd and heading outside.

My head was a mess. Why did people have to ask? Why him, of all people? I’d said to Eliza before we came that I was feeling absolutely fine. I hadn’t had an anxiety attack in eight months. Why now? I forced myself to breathe, opening an app on my phone which helped me to breathe rhythmically and calm myself down.

After five minutes or so the attack subsided. I sat with my legs spread on the courtyard bricks, leaning backwards on my palms and looking up into the sky with my eyes closed.

I

only

wanted

to

sit

here

forever.

 

 

 

 

 

“Lovely night, huh?”

It was Mr. Gudjohnssen.

I breathed in tensely again, expecting another anxiety attack might arrive at any second, but he simply pulled a tennis ball out of his pocket and smiled.

“It’s alright. No questions. Just thought a game might help take your mind off of things.”

He pointed to the bricks. I looked down to see I had inadvertently sat down on the ‘Queen’ position of the school’s four-square court.

“Oh,” I stumbled, “I’m not – I don’t think I can-“

He just smiled again. “Relax. Non-competitive – you just hit the ball back to each other. I wasn’t fibbing earlier when I said it got me through some difficult times.”

I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I stood up inside the Queen square. He hit the ball towards me, using his palm to bounce it off the ground, and I returned it in the same fashion. A warm breeze blew over as we hit the ball back and forth for a few minutes. Who would’ve thought four-square had such relaxing qualities?

“So you’re not happy at the bakery, huh?” he asked suddenly, continuing to pass the ball.

“No, no, I’m not unhappy… I’m..”

“But you don’t want to talk about it.”

“…not particularly.”

We kept playing for another minute before he spoke up again.

“Sadie, I haven’t taught you for ten years now. Why are you so concerned about what I think of your life?”

Nail, meet hammer. Damnit. I caught the ball in my hands and looked down at it.

“It’s just – I mean – you were-“ Pause. Breathe. I sighed, and gathered my words for a moment, using what little mental fortitude I had to look him in the eye. “You were my favourite teacher. It’s why I always paid so much attention to your comments in my old report cards. ‘Sadie has tremendous potential’. ‘Sadie has an exciting future ahead of her’. How could I not care what you thought of me tonight? I told you all my dreams about being a scientist, having kids, all that jazz – none of that lasted ten years. I’m just disappointed. I disappointed you, and myself, and probably Eliza-“

“Okay, stop,” he interrupted. “Disappointed yourself? Have you really? Let me ask you – and you have to answer honestly – does Eliza make you happy?”

“Of course she does, but-“

“Do you want to have kids with her?”

“No, but-“

“Who do you regram more than anyone on Instagram?”

I didn’t reply immediately, half out of surprise that Mr. Gudjohnssen knew I had an Instagram and that he must have followed me on it, and half out of surprise that he knew the word ‘regram’.

“Uhhh… Heston Blumenthal, I guess, but I don’t see what that has to-“

“Your food blog has over a hundred and fifty thousand followers, Sadie. Do they know your recipes are as much science as they are baking?”

I was too befuddled to reply.

“Sadie, you don’t have kids, but you’re married to an incredible woman, who, assuming she’s not lying, is incredibly proud of you and what you do to love and support her. You’re not working in a laboratory, but you’re teaching cooking science to thousands upon thousands of people without even really knowing that you’re doing it. Why does what you what you told to a crummy old teacher about what you thought you wanted ten years ago make any difference to you now if the way you’re living now brings you joy?”

I didn’t know.

“I don’t know.”

“I didn’t expect you would,” he said. There was kindness in his eyes and a light smile on his lips. “Your serve. If you win the point you can stay out here as long as you want, I won’t make you go back inside. Those questions about what you’re doing with your life can be hard to answer when the grass seems greener on your classmates’ lawns. But if I win the point, you head back inside and tell your wife you love her. And maybe get her to slow down on the champagne – I think another girl from your class winked at her while you’ve been gone.”

“Sir!”

“I’m joking, I’m joking! Come on – your serve.”

I palmed the tennis ball towards him. We rallied for all of three seconds before he played a shot I couldn’t have even hoped to return. The ball bounced out into the carpark and he walked back inside.

“Told you I had a mean backspin,” he called over his shoulder.

I looked down at the court, took a deep breath, and returned to the function room foyer. Eliza was waiting for me, although Mr. G had been right about the champagne.

“Come on,” she said enthusiastically, “your old principal is about to do a – hic! – an activity!”

Ms. Khan – still the principal at Morning Grace ten years on – was already speaking at the podium as we returned to the main room.

“When we returned these sheets to you at the beginning of the night, we hoped they would inspire you not only to look back but forward. At the side of the room there is a table with brand new, incomplete versions of that same worksheet. In your own time, we hope you will fill them out with your hopes and dreams for the future. All of you are now heading towards thirty, but you still have time to, as we say, ‘grow up’ even further. I look forward to reading your responses.”

A polite round of applause went around the room and a number of people headed for the table Ms. Khan had pointed out. Eliza dragged me in that direction and handed me a pen. I looked across at others writing their responses, then down at the sheet.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” it asked. I fantasised. Doctor. Actress. Athlete. Fire-fighter. All the great things that we should aspire to be as we grow older. Many of my classmates were thinking long and hard before they wrote their answers.

I didn’t have to.

Happy.

Challenge: Matching first and last paragraphs

The longest days were the ones I was in. Those days full of minutes and moments and I was present in all of it. Despite the sadness and the fear, the lasting emotions thrown about the room, I was always stoically there. The witness to the pain. The witness to the day.

There is always one relative that isn’t quite like the rest. I know as I say this, yours jumps to mind and you picture them, sitting aside at family gatherings, not quite excluded but definitely on the fringes. The one people speak to with less eye-contact and more excuses. Or perhaps they are the sadder of the slighted, those for whom oblivion serves them well and others poorly. Who force their poor conversation and insubstantial social skills on others, interrupting and offending and laughing with gleeful cluelessness. Either way, we all have one.

Most of the time it’s not too difficult to escape them. We ally ourselves with trustworthy cousins and create secret signals to bail one another out when we get trapped in a conversation. Well, we do if we have use of our bodies. Mine was pretending to check my watch, which I wasn’t wearing. When I was cornered, I would simply check one wrist, oops, check the other, shake my head as if cursing myself for forgetting to wear a watch (as if I ever wore one) and looking back up at Aunty Mary. ‘What were you saying?’ One of my two reliable cousins would see the cue and rush in, ‘Sorry to interrupt, Jacinta I think your dad is looking for you.’ Conversation over. Sigh of relief.

But these cues relied on someone noticing them and, of course, the ability to make them.

Family never really fails to be, if nothing else, an interesting mix of individuals. Thrown together by genetics and obligation more than choice, the personalities make for a much more interesting encounter for a fly-on-the-wall than friends. Where friends sink into comfortable laughter and make fun of each other’s mistakes and shortcomings, family conversations more often end in arguments or bitchiness or, simply put, miserably tolerating each other’s company. Another Christmas done, three months until Easter. Just long enough to take the edge of bitterness off.

So to be a fly-on-the-wall for the first time in my 22 years was, truly, an enlightening experience. I got to see my friends and my family when they thought they were alone. Talking aloud to nobody, playing on their phones, and, mostly, crying.

I think that was the hardest part to bear. I could hear my mother’s stifled sobs in the chair in the corner of my room as she tried to process what was happening. I could smell my dad’s cologne as he paced back and forth, cracking his knuckles and not even realise he was doing it. They told stories about me as a baby, as a toddler, as a child. They laughed sometimes and cried more. I saw the for the first time as a married couple with a child, as strange as that sounds. They were always my parents, but now I could see them as they were, without me. Their love was strong, but their grief was stronger. I wondered if they would survive this. I hoped with all my strength that they would. They deserved that happiness.

My friends usually came to visit in groups. First they would sit quietly and talk in hushed voiced about how they hoped I would wake up soon. Then the conversation would slowly drift into what they had been doing; the movies they saw, who went out for drinks with who, the new guy at Hannah’s work who looked just like Chris Hemsworth. They started to giggle and playfully banter and forget where they were, until a nurse would come in and check my stats. Then the awkward, guilt-ridden silence would fall, and they would leave hastily, ashamed that they had had fun at a time like this. They needn’t be sad. I enjoyed being part of their world again, even as an outsider.

But then at 4pm, just like clockwork, good old Aunty Mary would come by. She would pour herself a cup of tea and try to show me photos of her new cat. The new neighbours had moved in next door and, by golly, were they an interesting troupe! Seven children! Can you imagine? And they spent all of Saturday playing in the front yard!

She would ramble and rave and complain and giggle until 5:30, when the dinner trolley would arrive. I don’t quite understand the logic of meal service, as if the smell of hospital-quality roast turkey dinner could cure a coma, but breakfast, lunch and dinner were methodically wheeled in, then removed, untouched, half an hour later. Either way, the turkey became my new forgotten watch. Dinner would arrive, Mary would leave to feed her cat, and I would be left alone again to sleep, or to think, or to wait.

I don’t know how long I slept most days. Sometimes I would wake to Mary leaving, some days I would lay, aware, for hours just waiting for a visitor to listen to. But most of the time I just lay and wished I could end it. I was through with hearing my family cry, through with the bitter jealousy that my friends were healthy. I was living in a constant triangle of anger, boredom, and heartbreak. There was no getting better, there was no waking up.

The longest days were the ones I was in. Those days full of minutes and moments and I was present in all of it. Despite the sadness and the fear, the lasting emotions thrown about the room, I was always stoically there. The witness to the pain. The witness to the day. And there is no waking up.

Guest Author: Adam Heap

Adam has multiple degrees in a variety of humanities, which is reflected in his creative writing and communication styles. He is the creator and host of the We Read The Book podcast, available on iTunes, and has written five pantomimes for the University of Western Australia Pantomime Society. He is able to perfectly combine humour with honest observations. and we are very privileged to have him write for us this month.

Prompt: Gun Control

Darren waited in the wings, counting his breaths. In and out.

Here was the final assembly, and it was odd to think that this phase of his life would soon be ending. Odd to think that he would be losing something that was familiar. That anything had soaked in and become something he could say was normal. That he could use the word normal to describe any part of his life.

Not that the last year could be called that. What a feather in his cap, an essay that won him a prestigious internship with a government agency that let him travel all over the country. What college would turn him down with that on his student transcript.

Darren slowly clenched and unclenched his right fist, a childhood tic. He breathed: in for four, out for six.

Here was the vice principal, that same lady who pulled Darren into her office just over a year ago. Good marks and good behaviour she had called him. Had he ever thought his experience could be used to help others and leverage entry to a good college?

Thirty or so trips and a few hand-shaken senators later Darren thought: yeah maybe.

There was his name announced and an answering murmur in the crowd. None of the other schools had done that. Darren pressed his lips together and tried to peer out against the stage lights.

Rebecca and Sam, his friends (his friends!), he couldn’t see but knew were here somewhere. There was Marguerite with her swinging red hair and Jake twining his fingers in hers, pressing is thigh against hers from hip to knee.

There was Sorcha, rude, and Adam, funny, and Mrs Natale who thought he got on quite well despite it all.

What would it be like, Darren thought, not to deliver to an anonymous sea? He forced his right hand to unclench.

Would his parents come? The thought made him feel suddenly nauseous. Marguerite, Jake, Sorcha, Adam, Mrs Natale could be fine. But not Dad.

Thirty trips and still no Dad. Mum as his main guardian accompanied most of the visits, except the one after she sat in on his presentation and had to leave. Aunt Jess took the trip after that.

Dad wouldn’t come.

Darren stood with nothing in his hands. Thirty schools, test runs, and hotel practice sessions had left his whole presentation burned onto his tongue. He could see the words scrolling past on the back of his eyelids. He breathed.

There was one thing he was particularly grateful for in all this; that they let him do his home school last. Some talk early on had been about making Greenmont SHS his dry run, just to see. But he’d put up his hand and suggested maybe it could be good to do it last. So his senior year might be bearable.

And now he felt wrung out and dry, like he’d been on an ill thought out holiday. And it was time to do what he always did and turn a normal, familiar life into a freak-show.

There was his name again, and a polite round of applause. Darren let his right hand clench as he walked into the heat of stage lights and took the podium.

He could feel little spots of colour pop across his face as he blushed a little. He felt like he was all skin and no bones.

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Darren.”

YEAH! (A voice from the crowd)

“For those that do you’ll have been wondering why I’ve been in and out over the past year, and not once have I got a detention.”

Scattered laughter.

“Well, it’s a bit of a long story but it starts with this,” Darren unclenched his hand. He breathed in and then out.

“When I was six years old I accidentally shot my sister Lilia in the face.”

Prompt: Gun Control

Sandy closed the car door and looked up at the building. It loomed over her, three stories tall and wider than a football field. Windows upon windows filled with displays; this seasons’ fashion, home-wares and sporting goods. She had parked several rows away from the main entrance. On any other day it would have been an inconvenience.

Each step that carried her closer her closer to the mall was momentous. Her heart was racing and she could feel the cool, damp sweat from her palms now on her forehead and back of her neck. She tried not to think about it. One foot then the next. Just walk in. Just walk in. she repeated to herself. It did nothing to calm her nerves but gave her something else to focus on which was a gift.

As she walked her hand drifted self-consciously to her pocket. No, she told herself. Don’t draw attention. Walk normally.

The mall was getting closer and closer; it was happening too fast. She suddenly felt a wave of nausea creep over her. She slowed her pace for a moment to regain her breath.

“Are you okay ma’am?’

She startled. An elderly woman reached out and touched her on the elbow. “Ma’am?”

“Oh, yes. Sorry. Just a bad headache” she lied.

The woman smiled empathetically and nodded. “You take care of yourself, sweetie, okay?”

She feigned a smile. “Of course. You too”. You too.

The woman walked into the mall. She was so close. Only a few paces away. She wanted to stop and turn around. Get in the car and go home and forget all about this, but she knew she couldn’t. It was the principle. She had been a victim for too long. It was her time to take control.

She took a deep breath and kept on walking.

The automatic glass doors opened, welcoming her in. Two teenagers stood just inside the doorway, making out. She glimpsed at them and kept walking. So young.

She walked into the middle of the atrium and looked around. The fountain trickled merrily and lovers sat on its edge, feeding each other ice-cream and stealing kisses. The upper levels of the mall overlooked the airy space and the sounds of families shopping together surrounded her. Happy chatter punctuated by honest, open laughter. People were smiling as the spent time together, trolleys full of groceries and gifts. They are so oblivious.

As she stood her hand slowly drifted to her right pocket. She felt it through the fabric of her khaki pants. She slowly slipped her fingers into the pocket and brushed her edges. Hard and unforgiving. Ha she laughed cynically to herself. Unforgiving, of course.

She paused for a moment and closed her eyes. She could see it now. Broken glass and blood. Screams and stampede. The panic and fear and chaos. It permeated her. Opening her eyes, she was shocked that nobody else could sense it. They were so organised and peaceful and, well, happy. Sandy tried to remember what happy felt like. She was so hurt.

Her fingers had wrapped around it without her even noticing. It was cold beneath her skin. She moved to pull her hand out but it caught on the seam. She stood, awkwardly, hand half-buried in her pocket, scared to keep it there and scared to tug it free. This was her moment.

I’m not ready.

Yes, you are

No. I’m not.

Then you never will be. Silence.

Sandy suddenly felt exposed. All these people walking around and she was just standing under the glass roof, hand in pocket, trapped in panic. She knew it was her time to act.

She relaxed her grip and released the trapped edge on the corner of her pocket. Slowly she pulled it out and caressed it in both hands in front of her stomach.

She had expected people to scream, for there to be immediate panic and chaos. Nobody even noticed the slight forty-something year old woman. There was no time to pause anymore. Her time had come.

She lifted it up to eye level and immediately felt her eyes fill with tears. Her baby girl, smiling back at her from the swings at the park. Only eleven years old, just weeks before she had been gunned down in this atrium while looking for a new backpack.

She placed the photo on the edge of the fountain and the weight of grief fell upon her like a deluge.

I’m ready. Goodbye my princess.

The tears continued to fall as she turned and made the long walk back to the car.

Genre Challenge: Horror

The lesson is – don’t wish.

 

**

 

Mariah was dreaming. It wasn’t going very well.

The air was sticky and burning with a horrendous stench. She was pressed close and breathing was difficult, but her immediate concern was not being able to feel her left leg.

Mariah’s right knee was pushed up and she tried to press out with her foot, but there was barely any give and the movement brought a wave of noxious liquid rolling over her face. It was so dark.

Her breath came short and far apart. She thought about relaxing and closing her eyes in the darkness but it seemed important to resolve the feeling of her leg. Her arm pushed out against the wall and found her right knee, letting her shin guide her to her own hip.

Air was a problem. It was bad and there wasn’t anywhere near enough.

Her fingers found the ragged edges of her pants, pants that should have been long but now stopped below the pocket. She found wet mush, a nerveless mess, and then the scrape of jagged bone.

A low moan escaped her. She became aware of her skin, everywhere, stinging unbearably.

Two thoughts began running on repeat – a shark, a shark ate me.

She grasped at unconsciousness.

**

Continue reading “Genre Challenge: Horror”

Red

 

My dreams are revisionist history.

I see her in the pin of my eye.

 

Her hair is coloured like a fire-hydrant, bright in the street spotlights and a deep purple when the shadows stripe her. Her boots pucker at the front, lacing into shiny corsets for her long, inelegant legs. Each step echoes along the dirty street, scattering fat brown cockroaches like skittle-pins. When the streetlights catch her, her lips are just a dark slash across her cattish face. They have been painted black so many times that now, in the gloaming hours, they are undead grey.

Although her red hoodie reads ‘I am Woman, hear me ROAR!’ her barely-budding breasts and the boyish swagger of her hips suggest that she is not so much woman as girl: young enough and dumb enough to be smuggling vodka cruisers into parties and getting white-girl wasted in the park. There is a slight possibility that, to a stranger, she seems old enough to drink legally – but it doesn’t seem likely.

I am fond of this girl. In these years, she is more likely to believe in fear than in God or politics, but none of those are high on her list of priorities. She aggressively reshapes her identity with the turn of the moon, and right now she is a post-modern feminist-goth. She dabbles in Plath and Angelou and has recently decided that T.S. Eliot was an asshole. She is a vegan and a pacifist, officially, but there’s no accounting for what she eats when she has a hangover, and she once punched a guy in the balls for calling her a slut.

Her only consistency is the Look – that perfectly-sculptured minute pause between a question and an answer that suggests her complete superiority and disinterest. Her ribby body is filled with something I can’t quite put my finger on; ‘pluck’ isn’t the right word, and neither is ‘hostility’. It’s something grand and fierce, in-between. I’m not sure if I like her, at this age, but I love her.

A car screams by, blaring dub-step and skidding until the tires leave an acrid stench in the air. She breathes it in like river-mist. She is to smoke as a fish is to water, loving the earthen smell of cigarettes and the dusty ash of fires. Even the sourness of kerosene is appealing. For a few months, she was a pyro, and the fascination lingers even if the obsession has slid across to beat-poetry and interactive theatre.

Her fingers twitch into her pockets, scrape around for the lighter she has accidentally left at the park. She has more at home, and she doesn’t even have a cigarette to light, but she spits out curses like she’s a rapper. She likes that lighter, and she just refilled it. It’ll be gone now, nabbed by some hobo or a stupid kid. Probably Jacob. Somewhere in the core of her belly, beneath her irritation, there is latent pity for Jacob, who must be the loneliest boy she’s ever met. He hangs around the park all day and bugs everyone.

She’s never been lonely, not for a day in her matchstick life. She doesn’t know how to be forlorn.

Her legs swing around the corner and she steps into darkness. This street, two blocks from home, smells stale and dirty. Pipes drip overhead, a steady plip into a puddle on the pavement. She fishes into her satchel (LGBT ALLY, GHOSTBUSTERS, and RHONDA AND KETUT 4EVA blare from the badges that stud the canvas) and pulls out her phone. She always has it close to hand when she rounds this corner, passing the park. She ain’t afraid of no ghost – or man or woman or dog, either – but there’s no one here to see her be a cautious dork, so there’s no harm in it.

This park is not her turf. It backs an ANZAC memorial, a crumbling pillar with a worn plate at the base; the words are impossible to read, and the brickwork has been scrawled with graffiti. Once a year, wreaths are laid in front of it, for the sun to wilt and rot, or for teens to snatch for their boyfriends and girlfriends. There are benches and a table, even an old gazebo, but the trees have grown thick and dark, and the park sinks into a sullen, concealing hill.

People gather there at night – not her crowd. Her people are loud and boisterous, breaking bottles and shouting at passers-by. The people in this park are silent. She can feel their eyes on her, and she tries to look at them without being obvious about it. They move quietly, lurching from one foot to the other like zombies at a Bruce Springsteen concert. She walks faster, taking comfort in the shuffle-click of her boots.

“You okay?”

She thrusts her jaw out, kicks her legs into a stride.

“Hey. You okay? Walking all alone. It’s getting late. Need someone to walk with you?”

The other girl catches up. She’s petite, pretty, platinum-blonde. My girl hates her on sight.

“I’m Chloe. You wanna slow down? Be cool. I just thought you’d like someone to walk with. I’m on the way back from Chicken Treat myself…” She holds up a brown paper bag. “…I’m heading this way, but it’s darker than I thought it’d be. My bus didn’t come. Can I walk with you?”

“Can you back off?”

Chloe falters, then doubles her step to keep pace. “Be cool,” she says again. “C’mon, please? Unless you have a spare can of mace in that satchel? I bet you do, hey. Girl like you, right?”

Girl like you. That smarts, hits her in the soft of her throat.

“Piss off.”

They round the corner, away from the park and into the quiet suburban streets. Chloe is too close, jittery and breathless as she talks about bus schedules and university parking fees and urgh. Whatever. The girl, my girl, pulls her hood over her face and hunches her shoulders. It muffles the sound a little, but not enough.

“Hey, where are you going anyway? Are you going home, or, like, to a rave?” Chloe grabs her shoulder, painted nails snicking in the material. “Do you live with your parents? Do you live alone?”

The girl notices for the first time that Chloe’s big eyes are mismatched. They are in the glow of a solitary streetlamp now, and Chloe is too bright, too pale. The girl steps back. She does not like the adoration in the tuck of Chloe’s cheeks. There’s something kind of ‘Annie Wilkes’ about it.

“Um, my Nana’s, no, no, no, and no. Go away now.”

She hopes to put Chloe off with her curtness, but Chloe only draws closer and opens her smile so that it eclipses her face. This close she doesn’t look as pretty any more. She has buck-teeth, and her ears stick out.

“You’re so cool,” Chloe says.

The girl fixes Chloe with the Look, deliberately drags her words into insincerity. “Uh, thanks?”

“What about me? Am I cool?” Chloe’s eagerness is like the scrape of teeth over scar-tissue.

“Um. Sure. Get lost now, though.” Her Nana’s house is right there, across the road, at the back of a duplex.

“Oh. Are…is this you? Are you going in now?”

“Um, yes.” The girl turns and saunters towards her Nana’s house. “Seeya.”

“Seeya!”

 

This is where, in my dreams, the revisionist steps in. I whitewash the moments that follow the clatter of heels on pavement, the broken light-switch and the fumble of keys. With a fine red pen, I scribble away the click and crunch of flesh and bone, the smell of wet dog.

I am a woman, I ain’t afraid of no ghost, and I don’t believe that the creature that night had mismatched eyes that gazed at me with Annie Wilkes adoration.

I see them both in the pin of my eye. I see the blood and the bite.

 

She did not know a howl could be whispered.

Now she does.

 

 

 

Guest Author: Meg Caddy

Meg Caddy is a fantastically talented young writer who puts all other 24 year olds to shame. She holds a BA in English Literature and History from the University of Western Australia, and her skill and passion for writing is evident through her many achievements. Her short story Amphibian Summer was shortlisted for the Questions Writing Prize, her poetry shortlisted for the Ethel Webb Bundell Poetry Prize, and her debut novel, WAER, shortlisted for the Text Prize. You can purchase WAER at textpublishing.com.au/books/waer or at most Australian bookstores.

You can be kept up to date with her writing, including the progress of her current work-in-progress at http://www.megcaddy.com

We are delighted to have Meg as a guest author this month to take part in our genre challenge.

Genre Challenge: Horror

Kate’s dreams were interrupted by a single cry. She kept her eyes closed in the dark night and hoped to drift back to sleep, staying where she was and hoping there wouldn’t be any subsequent cries. She waited and silently counted one… two… and silence remained. Three… four… five. A sigh of relief. The night lay quiet and still around her and she shuffled deeper under the warm covers, getting comfortable again. The quiet was a gift from heaven. She smiled gratefully and waited for sleep to reclaim her.

Another cry. In the peace-filled night it was blaringly loud by contrast. The clock was bright in the cold night, beaming 2:37am

Kate groaned and allowed herself a moments indulgence in the soft bed before swinging her legs off the bed and using them to feel for her slippers. The floorboards send a shock of cold through her feet as they connected. Kate had always loved winter nights until the time she’d had to leave the refuge of her bed every few hours.

The crying intensified, piercing the stillness. ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’ she muttered to herself and stood up. She shuffled towards the door having forgotten she was searching for her slippers. The sleep deprivation was starting to really impact her. Not just forgotten slippers but doors left open, keys left in the freezer, and sentences left unfinished.

The hallway was dark and stretched on as she made her way towards the nursery. Such tiny lungs made such a huge sound. Kate picked up her water bottle as she passed the kitchen bench and nudged open the nursery door with her foot as she took a mouthful of water.

The elephant-shaped nightlight cast a soft glow over the sleeping baby. His tiny body which had been swaddled so snuggly two hours ago was now free of its blankets. Angry fists clenched tightly and flailed wildly, demanding food and warmth.

Kate picked him up and held him close to herself as she settled into the nursing chair. She took another deep breath and he started to nurse. She sat back in the chair and closed her eyes.

The last three weeks had been a blur. Days and nights seemed interchangeable, all hours and hours of sitting in this seat, filling his little belly and thinking about how much her life had changed. She was tired and sore and missed being able to do what she wanted whenever she wanted. But she was happy.

As she gently rocked in the soft chair her shoulders started to drop. Good, she thought. Maybe I won’t have such back pain tomorrow. The babe in her arms rhythmically fed, the steady beat of suckling lulling her. She realised she was starting to succumb to sleep and sat herself up more upright in the chair. Staying awake had never been her strong-suit, but she had never had a tiny life dependant on her wakefulness before. Every night. For weeks. And it was only the beginning,

No, I’m loving this she reminded herself, though she wasn’t convinced of it in the early hours of the morning. Motherhood is fine. I can do this. The self-talk standards dropped every minutes, until the baby will sleep eventually was the most optimistic she could manage. Still, he fed and she rocked slowly in the quiet night.

He drifted off while feeding and she sat in the silent house, enjoying the peace. She knew she would have to wake him up and make him keep on feeding or he would wake again hungry in an hour.

Taking a deep breath she pushed herself up out of the chair and started to change his nappy. He launched immediately into cries of protest as the cold night air covered his legs. She changed him as quickly as possible before settling herself back down into the chair to keep on feeding him.

Halfway through, not long until I can go back to sleep.

The quiet night was interrupted by soft footsteps coming down the hallway. Kate stayed in the seat, waiting to hear the fridge open. Her husband has always been a heavy sleeper but lately he had been waking throughout the night and was unable to get back to sleep, which would have been convenient if he were able to feed the baby. But instead when morning came they both emerged from the bedroom looking just as bedraggled as each other, fumbling through the day in an attempt to look human still.

‘Fancy seeing you here’ Kate said softly to Peter, who would have been in the kitchen by now. She looked down at their son and wished he would finish feeding so she could take Peter’s hands and lead him back to bed, and they could drift off together again.

He hadn’t heard her.

‘Can’t sleep?’ she asked, slightly louder this time. He stopped walking and silence filled the house again. ‘Peter?’ she called after a moments’ silence.

He didn’t answer.

‘Hey, I’m in the nursery’ she called, louder again.

Still no reply.

Kate strained her ears, curious about what he was doing. The chair she was in had a partial view through the door, but it opened up to the lounge room so she couldn’t see the kitchen from where she was. He was probably standing in the open fridge, staring blankly at all the choices for a midnight snack. She snickered to herself, imaging him silhouetted by the fridge light in his underwear, debating whether to go with cheese or a mandarin.

The footsteps started again, but slower. Step, then a pause. Step, pause.

‘Peter?’ she called.

Through the quiet house, she heard him cough quietly, just the type of cough to clear a throat. A delicate, gentle cough, that came from the bedroom all the way down the hall.

‘Peter?’ she called, louder still.

She waited for a reply but was met with silence. No cough, no footsteps. She sat, completely still. Surely she had imagined it. Perhaps she had drifted off for a moment and he had walked back to bed, cheese in hand.

The baby pulled away from her and lay still in her arms, sound asleep. Kate stayed in the chair a moment longer, still feeling anxious and unsettled.

Then the footsteps started again in the kitchen. Step, and a pause. Slow, deliberate footsteps.

There’s somebody in the house.

She sat in silence and weighed up her options. They were in the kitchen, with knives and rolling pins and all sorts of things that can inflict harm. She was in a nursery armed with a soiled nappy and a plush rabbit toy. Should she call out or remain silent? Hope to scare them away while giving away her position.

She started to stand up slowly, gingerly, trying not to wake the baby. She would put him in his cot and peek out the door into the kitchen, see who was there.

He was sound asleep and as she extended her arms to lay him down he stirred and stretched that full-body stretch that only newborns can do. He let out a groan and a sigh. Kate froze, listening. No footsteps.

She placed him down and made her way to the doorway. She hesitated, trying to gather her courage. She just needed to poke her head out and around the corner and she would see them. She could call out and Peter would come from the other side of them. He would protect her.

She breathed quietly and clenched her hands. Now or never she rallied.

Into the silence the baby let out a loud cry again. Kate startled and turned to face the cot. He was writhing and squirming, and started to whimper and grunt.

The footsteps started again, walking towards her. Intent. Purposeful. Kate walked backward away from the door, placing herself between the intruder and the baby. She recoiled in fear waiting for him to round the corner. Her heart was thumping and she broke into a sweat. Breathing quickly she frantically tried to think of a way to defend herself and the baby.

Then, just as the footsteps got to the doorway, they stopped. He had stopped, right around the corner. She heard him breathing, a harsh, rabid sound.

Kate couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. He must have been less than 3 meters away and was toying with her.

The baby had stopped wriggling and was fast asleep again, belly full, completely oblivious to the danger that stood sinisterly around the corner.

Kate stood and waited. There was nothing else to do. The silence stretched on and on. She knew he was still there, he hadn’t moved. There had been no more footsteps, and her old floorboards allowed no one to move unannounced. She stood, still too frightened to move.

Another cough came from the bedroom. Kate waited to see what the intruder would do, but there was no response. She realised she had walked backward slowly and was pressed against the far wall of the room. A minute passed. Then another.

She knew she couldn’t stay standing here all night, she had to do something. She scanned the room for something more dangerous and her gaze fell on a photo frame she had been gifted. It wasn’t large or heavy enough to cause damage, but could stun somebody long enough to allow her to run past, into the kitchen and defend herself.

She pulled it off the shelf and gripped it in both hands. She was sweating despite the cold night. She glanced back at the baby, making sure he was fast asleep. Her maternal urge to protect him grew stronger and solidified her resolve. She took small steps to the doorway and prepared herself. She only needed to take one large step out and she would have a clear shot. His breathing was fast and heavy.

She took a breath counted down three… two… one and stepped out into the empty room.

 

We’re Back!

Hello Slayers,

After taking a break for the last 3 months to move house, change jobs, travel the world and have a  baby, us Darlings are thrilled to announce we’re back!

We have a momentous rest of 2016 planned including genre challenges, new themes and guest authors. So sit down and get your reading glasses on; it’s going to be good.