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Fever Loss

Alana tried to avoid looking at herself; her body, partially submerged in the green bathwater, bulged against the plastic. Subcutaneous treachery multiplied by soft refractions. She shut her eyes.

Sweat and steam filled the room. The automatic tub beeped, sensors pushing out heat to keep the temperature steady. Alana shifted uncomfortably – the Homeostatic House gave her the creeps. All she wanted was to go unobserved, and now even the walls were tuned in to her body. She could feel the folds of her belly press against each other.

Claire would be here in an hour, and together they’d get the shots. Fever loss would make her healthy.

*

Streetlights slid across Alana’s lap as the car skimmed through the city. An electric billboard loomed, the perfect face foreshortening grotesquely as they passed beneath it. Claire tapped her hands on the steering wheel, though the vehicle was set to automatic. “You seem worried,” she said, glancing over.

“A bit.”

“Well, don’t be. I did fever loss tonnes of times when I was…when I was like you.”

“Sure.” Alana searched around for a way to vocalise her squirming stomach. She looked at Claire’s collarbone, which somehow always reminded her of a deer antler, and at the lips of skin beneath her friend’s eyes. There was always something to lose. “Does it hurt?” she asked.

Claire shrugged. “Some people feel light headed – but that’s just an endorphin rush. It can bring you down, sure, but I wouldn’t say it hurts. Sometimes it’s like all your happiness has sweated out with the adipose tissue, but you’ve just gotta see the fever through.”

Alana nodded, but she didn’t understand.

The car turned into a high-rise. Alana breathed deeply.

“Let’s do this then,” said Claire.

Ambient light from the electric concrete followed them down a stairwell into a sour smelling alley. Alana pulled her coat tight, felt the fabric press against her flesh. “Where’s Ito?”

“He’ll be here.”

Soft lights activated as they walked, twitching nerves of circuitry responding to their bodies. The city was alive, and Alana felt like a dead lump of matter.

A message appeared in the wall’s LED matrix just below their eye-line: this is nobody’s home.

“Ephemera graffiti artists, hacking the wall,” said Claire.

“Hello, ladies,” said a voice behind them.

Alana could taste her own heart. She and Claire turned and saw a small Japanese man with an eggshell jacket and frameless glasses. He held a metal brief-case.

“Ito,” said Claire, “you got the shots?”

The man’s eyes slid over Alana.

“Sorry, but I can’t do business with you today.”

“What?” Claire stepped forward, her fists bunched.

“Fever loss is for fatties. Your friend can’t take it – I don’t sell to anorexics.”

Alana felt a flush of shame.

“You sold to me,” said Claire.

Ito shrugged. “That was before. Now the lab is wising up, and I need a moral defence.”

Claire laughed bitterly. “You’re scum, Ito.”

The dealer pursed his lips. “Say I give you half. Then at least your friend won’t die.”

“Deal,” said Claire.

He opened his brief-case and pulled out a vial of semi-translucent liquid. “Two weeks – six percent of your body fat lost. This one’s vicious, so be careful.”

“Whatever, Ito,” said Claire.

A rotten feeling corkscrewed through Alana’s gut. She felt light-headed already.

*

Claire’s apartment was dark. A pile of washing spilled from a plastic tub onto the floor, and the air tasted stale. Claire smiled. “I broke the Homeostatic House, now it doesn’t know how to look after me and I can take care of myself.”

Alana felt strangely relaxed – without constant architectural monitoring she didn’t feel the need to perform, to present herself.

“So, half each,” said Claire, running a finger along the hypodermic.

A swampy heat pressed down on Alana, and she felt dizzy. “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

Claire knelt beside the coffee table with her arm out flat.  “More for me then.”

Alana looked away. In the black mirror of the television screen she could see a notation of herself, suspended in an ill-defined space. “I could always unplug my house,” she said quietly.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Claire stretched out on the floor; the needle still had a few beads of liquid inside. Alana could feel blood in her ears. “I’m going home,” she said. This is nobody’s home.

“Why?”

“I need to be alone.”

“Fat chance in this city.”

As she left the apartment Alana felt a strange endorphin rush.

She was going to unplug that bath.

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Shooting Stars

The booster was strangely bright against the flat blue sky, a silver midday star fighting to be visible beside the sun. Alec watched it grow larger, closer, a gloved hand shielding his eyes. Perspiration beaded his forehead. Beside him Ramiro spat out a glob of phlegm into the sea.

“It’s coming in pretty slow,” Ramiro said.

Alec continued to stare at the bright point. “Not that slow,” he said. The landing pad was floating half a kilometre away, anchored to the ocean floor. When the booster hit, he and Ramiro would go in to retrieve it.

The two stood for a moment and then retreated to their stations. Alec dragged a bud into one ear and pulled his scratched plastic goggles down over his eyes.

“Wouldn’t catch me in space,” said Ramiro’s voice through the plug.

“You could never afford it,” he replied.

His co-worker’s nervous laugh crackled against a rising din.

“Funny, how we’re the ones out here every day, and yet we’ll never get up there.”

The booster-stage enlarged as it plummeted, and at the right moment parachutes blossomed from its silver top. A jet of fire streamed from the base; Alec thought the flames looked like the tail of a phoenix.

Far above, impossible to see, would be the rocket – three hundred high-society men and women enjoying the in-flight champagne and looking down at the big blue marble. Or maybe it didn’t go far out enough to see the Earth’s curvature; Alec wasn’t really sure.  He dimly remembered learning about the atmosphere in school, diagrams showing the stratosphere, the troposphere, other names that hadn’t stuck. He turned to look at Ramiro, who grinned with leathered skin.

There was a roar and rising concentric waves.

“Our time to shine,” Ramiro said.

*

The bar was brightly lit, with fluorescent shafts sliding over steel tables. Alec walked in, found the others in the usual spot. There was something of a stain rising up the wall behind them; Alec fancied that it was lifting away from their bodies, the grime, oil and sunburnt skin polluting the institutionalised surfaces. He sat down next to Ramiro.

“Almost thought you weren’t going to make it,” said Ramiro, with an unfocused smile. His breath was hot and acidic.

Alec shrugged. “Every week I tell myself I’m not coming – and yet here I am.”

The other workers laughed. Ramiro nudged him in the ribs. “You’d miss us if you left.”

“He can’t afford to leave, economy the way it is,” said Myra.

Carl walked over from the bar balancing two pints, and dumped one in front of Alec. Alec drew it to his chest but felt suddenly queasy, as if he might pitch forward into it. “What’s the plan this week?” he asked.

There was a murmur, and the familiar spark in the whites of his co-workers eyes. They’d be dim by morning, Alec knew. But the routine was somehow comforting. It was worth sitting through their recycled politics for the illusion that fate was in their hands.

“We’re organising a protest, outside Hermes headquarters,” said Myra.

“Oh? How’s that all going.”

“Still laying the groundwork – we need support to get noticed. We’ve put up a page online so people can read about the atrocious safety conditions, the insulting pay, the unsanitary rooms.”

“Any hits?”

Myra shifted in her seat. “Ten. But we’re working on it.”

“I can’t wait to bash some heads,” said a man whose name Alec couldn’t remember.

Ramiro laughed; Myra frowned.

“It’s going to be a peaceful protest, remember. We want our cause to seem legitimate.”

“Only way to show we’re serious is to break some noses. And some windows.”

Alec stood up, chair scraping backwards on the metal floor. “Got to piss,” he said.

*

There was a puddle on the bathroom floor; Alec didn’t want to know whether it was urine or just a leaking cistern. He stood for a moment before anything came out.

“You okay?” said Ramiro, pushing through the door.

“Yeah. Just sick of it all.”

“All talk,” said Ramiro, gazing blankly at his reflection in the mirror.

“The thing is, none of them is right. Or all of them is. And I don’t know which to think.”

“You’ve had too much to drink, mate,” said Ramiro.

Alec shook his head. “Just exhausted.”

Alec remembered that the other man’s name was Stuart. He pictured the Hermes guards dragging Stuart into an armoured van.

“Why did we come out here?” he asked, to Ramiro or the mirror.

Ramiro shrugged. “Work is work.”

“You’re lucky you’re afraid of heights.”

Ramiro’s face scrunched in confusion, then loosened. “I get it. Spend all day servicing rockets, but you’ll never get into space.”

“Rich bastards, looking down on us. Literally.”

Ramiro patted him on the back. “I think you’ve been coming to a decision, and maybe tonight’s that night.”

Alec sighed. “I know. I think it’ll be my own protest, in a small way.”

Ramiro smiled, eyes glassy. “It’ll be hard, finding another job.”

“It’ll be worth it.”

*

Alec left through the back door. He didn’t want to face the others; he felt like he’d finally taken hold of his life, and yet at the same time that meant leaving them behind. Change wasn’t an amalgam of personal decisions. Or maybe it was. In the inky sky he saw a moving point of light – he watched its smooth trajectory, silently wishing for his future, not sure whether it was a shooting star or a canister full of millionaires.

Death Date

 

This story was originally published on needleinthehay.net on the 6th September.

 

The number for Better to Know is still on the screen, along with the length of the call: 2 minutes, 23 seconds. I hold the phone in one hand, seeing the slight tremor of my wrists tilting its flat surface, and feel numb. The backlight dims into a black mirror in which the ghost of my face swims, eyes scooped out into shadows and lips blooming like grey bruises.

I didn’t want to know, but it’s too late now.

Paper walls surround me, a cardboard kitchen that might blow over at any moment. It was Claire’s idea to come down here, to her parent’s beach house on the toe of the peninsula. The bay on one side, the ocean ragged on the other, no traffic, no internet, no worry. Pots and pans from the seventies in the little cupboard, and copper pipes that swell as the water heats and send shards of ice against my back in the shower. A place, Claire might have thought, where time could not touch us.

But I had dialled the number. I had given my name, George Briggs, my date of birth, 5 October 1978, and the zombie voice from Better to Know had told me the exact year, minute, second, that I would die.

A wet concrete block sluices through me, from chest to gut, settling low against my groin. I blink and wait for my body to fall backwards into the salt-brushed chair, an inanimate lump of flesh and nerves acting beyond my own will. But I remain standing, phone in one hand, looking at the linoleum tabletop, at nothing in particular.

A car door sounds from the drive, followed by a wind-swish of plastic bags. Claire’s neat shoe-steps clap the concrete as she walks around from the driver’s seat, probably lifting the groceries from the back. I drop the phone into my pocket, feel it sink like a lead weight against my thigh. With both fingers I try to mould the clay of my face, my lips and cheeks, into something like a smile. I hear Claire coming up the wooden steps.

When the scientists figured it out, how to calculate chance and count the biological ticks, I didn’t want to know. Not my own date. Millions of other people clamoured to find out, fixated on the exact moment when life would evacuate their fleshy bodies, and so services like Better to Know and Liberate had emerged. Any skepticism quickly gave way beneath the frightening accuracy of the dates.

There were two common reactions to finding out the death date: people either went away, or fell apart. Few people stayed on and continued life as before, like Claire. She had another forty-five years left. She didn’t want to drop life and run, but did suggest that a quick sojourn down the coast might get us out of the frenzied death-obsessed city. This decision from Claire came suspiciously soon after I had my “accident.”

The key rattles in the door.

“George?”

Claire’s voice precedes her into the room. She stumbles in with groceries swinging, her face flushed pink, whipped with salt wind and evening sun. Her straw coloured hair is dragged back into a pony-tail, like a wrinkle-eyed school girl.

She dumps the bags on the table and we kiss, a ritual movement to each cheek, her lips grazing my stubble. My wife’s eyes flick to my hands and back. “What have you been up to?” she asks.

I shrug. “Nothing.”

The flicker of a frown presses against her lips. “Have you been reading your book?”

“No.”

“Been out to the beach?”

“Not yet.”

“You’ll feel better if you get some fresh air.” Her eyes touch the puckered white lines across my wrists. “You should grab hold of this free time whilst you have it, George.”

That’s how we talk about it: free time. Not unemployment, not fired from the job I’ve worked since I was nineteen. We speak in the language of leisure and rest, like I wanted to walk away from my only means of going on.

And beneath Claire’s words I sense something else, something of the nagging duty to ‘live in the moment’ that has become a ubiquitous pressure since the death-date technology. I feel the phone, heavy in my pocket, and turn slightly so that it is concealed by the table-top.

Claire and I put the shopping away in silence. A seagull squawks out on the veranda, sounding very much like an injured cat. Beyond it the crush of waves forms a white-noise backdrop.

Claire closes the fridge and turns to me, her eyes flat. “I thought we could walk along the back beach,” she says, “not the bay but the proper ocean. Would you like that?”

I smile and the movement hurts my jaw.

Claire drives. I stare out at the white line which runs between the car and pavement, threads of painted bitumen held together by our movement. It diverts around bus stops, following the edge of the road, an endless, unbroken line.

I hear my boss’s voice inside my head. I’m very sorry George. I can’t keep overlooking this. You’ve been late every morning for the past year – I know you’ve worked here a long time, but coming in to work at 12 o’clock is not acceptable.

Trying to explain that I couldn’t get out of bed, that I couldn’t sleep at night, that I had started seeing a psychologist, none of it any use. He assumed I’d seen my death date and had decided to pack it in early, like so many others.

My working life packed up into a little box with a limp plant. I shut my eyes and listen to the road noise. Another image swims into my head, eclipsing my last day at work; a year, a minute, a second. I feel sick.

Claire pulls into the carpark and switches off the engine. I sit for a moment in the petrol residue and then step out, pulling my jacket tight.

The back beach is mostly rock, pools forming at the ragged edges of waves. We look down on it as we walk along the cliff, bypassing the little wooden staircase that would lead us to the sand. Claire keeps her eyes straight ahead, arms swinging by her side, as if the point of this excursion is simply to be outside, to walk, and the location is of little importance. It’s a therapeutic exercise.

The jagged tips of rocks seem to float on the surface, green-grey plants spread on them like slime. Froth like spit in a sink rushes together and apart under its own internal logic. From the low-slung sun appears a ship, forming in the white spots where my eyes can’t go; it’s the same dust-yellow that scatters across the sandy path, onto my shoes.

Beyond the rusted fence footprints venture towards the cliff edge, shallow bowls with grey pooling in them. Perhaps they’re from unafraid pioneers who know they’re not going to die yet. Mortals become invisible.

“Listen to those waves,” says Claire, her voice a low hum.

They sound like cars on a highway. “They’re nice,” I say. We round a corner, following the cliff-edge, to where another staircase leads onto the adjacent beach. The tide is out, the sandbar raised. I point at it. “I want to go down onto the sandbar,” I say.

“Now? The tide’s coming in.”

I shrug.

Claire rubs one eye with her knuckle and seems to sigh, though the sound is whipped away with the wind.

“I won’t be long,” I say.

“Ok. I won’t join you though – I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’ll see you back at the house.”

Kiss on each cheek, our necks stuck out like birds, our bodies not touching. Claire’s eyes jump to my wrists as she turns away.

I walk down onto the sandbar, straddling the zone where white-lipped waves lick the shore. My trainers sink into the soft sand, letting water in. On the horizon a monolithic ship cuts a single line through the ocean.

When I reach the furthest point I turn and look back. It’s not too far to the shore, but far enough. I lie down and close my eyes.

 

The edges of the sea bite my elbows. I jolt awake, eyes opening onto a charcoal sky, a shard of ice running through my side. There’s a fishy smell in my nostrils, not like salt on scales but the heavier scent of flesh that moulds the fragile bones together. Freezing water splashes around my fingertips in its bid to consume the sandbar.

I shut my eyes again. Wet fabric clings to my skin, itchy and sore. Sand has clumped in my hair and gotten into my socks, and my feet have swelled inside the sodden trainers. A strange, stinging tickle runs through my sides as the water rises against me, lapping and retreating like a wary animal.

I feel completely numb.

A year, a minute, a second, indelibly stamped onto my body.

The sea enters through my nasal passage, stings my throat. My mouth is water-logged. I keep my eyes tightly closed, trying to hold my breath, and air seems to be expanding inside my head, pushing against my skull. I could stand up now, wade back to the shore. My muscles twitch.

No. Think of the beige plastic waiting room at the welfare centre, the fish-eyed woman behind the desk. Zoom in on the thin line of the boss’s mouth, ex-boss now, the skin between his eyebrows pinched. Sleepless nights and fitful mornings blurring one into the other, seemingly endless, this humiliating, painful life. Feel only the coolness of Claire’s cheek as I kiss her, because she doesn’t like the taste of my lips, doesn’t want to look at me.

I can’t go back. I can’t go on.

The end is here.

The ocean swallows me. I struggle for a fraction of a moment, and then let myself sink, red and black patterns bursting on the underside of my eyelids. Down, down, and I’m gone.

The ocean spits me out again.

Face down on the sandy rocks, a greyscale night surrounds me. The waves break, endlessly, inside my eardrums. I push myself up, pain radiating from my elbows, acid tearing up my throat. Vomit splatters onto the grey sand, bits of carrot and cornflake, and is stolen by the reaching water. Sand clings to my face, my eyelashes, my stubble. I let my head drop again.

I can feel a dead weight by my side, bumping rhythmically into my leg with the insistent current. Slowly, a spasm running through my arm, I reach into my pocket, take hold of the phone.

It’s dead, but the date is still there, the screen stiffened with rigor-mortis. I look through salt-stained eyes at the time of my death.

I don’t want to go on.

I didn’t want to know.

The death date sits there blankly, a year, a minute, a second. I can’t force it to come any earlier, I can’t put it off.

I have another forty-nine years to live through, and there’s no way out.

The Devil’s Roar

This story was supposed to be something like pulp adventure fiction. It was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay. 

It was originally published on 9 August 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-the-devils-roar-lydia-trethewey/

 

Michael Ignatius Theodos grinned in the dark. The musty smell of ancient sands filled his nostrils as he inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with sparse air.  He flicked on the torch and swung the beam around the caverns, pillars of rock showing the sediment layers of geologic time.  Paintings of angular figures danced along the walls, around the horned head of a beast which might have been a predecessor of the cattle now grazing in the plains above.

“Can you believe these are still here?” he asked, walking towards the wall.

The soft footsteps of his translator, Didem, followed tentatively behind.

“I suppose you can,” he continued, reaching for the bare stone without touching it. “How long has your village known about this underground city? A thousand years?”

“You do us an injustice with your suspicion,” she replied, her pupils huge in the darkness. “Revolutionaries re-discovered these caverns during the war. It is modern history.”

Michael laughed, the sound echoing harshly into untold depths. “Me, suspicious? One old woman told me that if I entered here the devil himself would swallow me. Imagine, the eighth wonder of the world, kept secret because of local superstition.”

Didem remained quiet.

Michael Ignatius walked through a narrow opening, brushing the cool wall with his fingers. Didem followed, her eyes lingering for a moment on the painting of the horned beast.

For a while they crept in silence, the torch beam illuminating endless walls. Eventually the narrow passages and small rooms opened onto a cavernous chamber. The torchlight barely touched the upper limits.

Michael whistled. He looked sideways at Didem, saw that she had her eyes averted. “You don’t believe the old tales, do you?” he asked.

She lifted her chin, eyes like deep pools. “When I was a child, I heard the devil roar. The ground shook and our houses trembled, even though the noise came from across the desert.”

“It was probably an earthquake,” Michael replied, waving a hand. “You’d be surprised, but underground structures are the sturdiest. This place has probably outlasted an ice age or two.”

Didem shook her head slowly. “It wasn’t an earthquake. Some people from the town went to investigate, but when they returned they all grew sick, shrivelling up like something was eating them from the inside. The devil’s putrid breath infected them.” She shivered, but then her face grew impassive. “Of course, I was only a child back then, easily swayed by bedtime stories. The roar was terrible, but it wasn’t the devil.”

They crossed the chamber, the torchlight skittering around the vast walls. Another tunnel swallowed them.

Michael could feel the earth slanting down beneath his feet. His teeth chattered in the cold and he set his jaw firmly.

“What’s that?” said Didem suddenly, stopping still.

Michael pricked his ears. From somewhere above came the distinct sound of footsteps. He lifted a finger to his lips.

They stood like stone statues, hearts pounding. The footsteps grew louder, winding towards them from an upper level. Michael switched off the torch and they pressed back against the wall. Through the nearest door an orange light grew brighter.

A man stepped into view, dust coloured fatigues and a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.

“Run,” hissed Didem.

The two of them turned, stumbling blindly in the dark. The man shouted something in Turkish that Michael couldn’t understand. Didem grabbed his hand.

They ran.

Pain sprung to his nose as he collided with something solid. Feeling blood on his lip, he flicked the torch on. A wall of collapsed rock blocked their path.

“This way,” he said, shining the torch into another opening.

More footsteps joined them, and glowing lights like orange flames licked their backs. Another collapsed wall, and another, as they twisted and turned through the labyrinth.

Finally they stopped, panting for breath. Ahead was a wooden door, bolted crudely to the rock. Michael pushed it open and dashed inside.

The chamber was low, and long. Against the far wall were a number of large, grey cylinders: undetonated warheads.

“Shit,” Didem said.

“Didem,” Michael replied, backing towards the door, “I think I know what makes the devil roar.”

The footsteps were upon them.

 

Check out the rest of the short-list here: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-eighth-wonder-award/ 

 

Jaws of Life

“People don’t want selectively bred cabbage, but they’ll buy designer dogs.”

This story was originally published on 6 October 2015 on Needle in the Hay: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey-jaws-of-life/

 

A tiny gleam of light seems to emanate from the bars of my cage. I squint against the darkness, pen tracing invisible arcs across the fragile paper. The concrete floor chills my body, and an empty space stretches behind me into untouchable blackness. Somewhere within it Bathsheba stirs, her powerful flanks pacing a steady circle. I smell the dampness of her breath and the phrase “jaws of life” rises from my tired brain. For me the words have always conjured images of mighty beasts, tearing strips of flesh from their prey as fuel for the overwhelming force of their life.

But I’ve not yet introduced myself, dear reader. You’ve doubtless heard my name, tossed carelessly about on the lips of the righteously indignant. The pasty face and watery eyes I inherited from my father, now newsroom fodder to fill in the gaps between the nightly fear-mongering. I can almost hear the reporter asking is this Australia’s sickest man? And with the acrid smell of dead animals stroking the insides of my nostrils, I wonder that I am.

I am Wendell Lambert, and if you’ve somehow missed my fifteen seconds of infamy put down this memoir and spare my memory. For as I scratch these word laboriously on the tender skin of toilet paper, I do not seek to defend myself, only to apportion my shame so that you might pause on your way to condemn me.

The name Wendell was my mother’s choice. It means wanderer, adventurer, and proved an ill-fitting title for a boy with a persistently sickly countenance, not entirely borne of hypochondria. My mother wanted to give me the world to explore, and as I grew I watched mutely as her hopes fell away from her aging eyes and bunched sadly beneath them. I do not want your pity, dear reader, only to divulge the substance of the man you despise so you might see that what I made of my life was not carried by intention but awash with meek acceptance.

Huddled on the floor of my cage the stale stench of urine clogs up my mouth, and the mournful whimper of a surviving dog lifts occasionally through the quiet. I feel the rumble of Bathsheba as she rolls the idea of me backwards and forwards across her tongue.

When the journalistic vultures descended I was taken unawares. The tip-off came from a client who had purchased from me before, a woman named Bebe Klein. She’d had jewels clasped to her throat and a kale juice in one hand, and as she’d sniffed between cages of pure-breds she’d told me without hint of irony that she was avoiding all GM foods. That’s the way it is; people don’t want selectively bred cabbage but they’ll buy designed dogs. Distracted by the shiny coat, nobody notices that the skeleton is bent out of shape.

Dear reader, don’t suspect me of trying to shake off my guilt. I led them around, the waif-like women and stallion men, down the basement stairs and along the gleaming cages. Beautiful people wanting beautiful animals, and I smiled and offered my wares. They were usually people like Bebe, protected by a veneer of ignorance from which all accusations slide off.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the media vilified me because of the dogs. No, no, it was the cats that caught their interest. My first import was a savannah cat, a striking, limber creature. Illegal in this country, of course. She sparked in the imaginations of some of my buyers a lust for the exotic, and soon followed a booming trade in servals, ocelots and caracals. Then came my prize, my love, Bathsheba. It pains me to think she will likely be discovered soon, and pass into uncaring hands. The thought scratches its way into my brain like a fever.

Through the bars I see the key, fallen from my pocket.

The back of this cage runs deeply like a tunnel through a mountain. Blind in the dark basement, I hear the whisper of an alpine wind beckoning the powerful legs of a great beast. Water trickles slowly down the rounded walls of my imagination, divulging an earthy scent. A fathomless, salivating hole is opening, one that leads inwards and outwards towards freedom.

Now I’m crawling on all fours, the memoir forgotten, thoughts panting and rasping towards the cave. The concrete floor becomes grittier, littered with small stones, cold to the touch. I hear the sway of faraway trees and taste boundless clouds. A deep indulgent purr greats me at the threshold. In the gloom a flicker of stripes, white peaks opening around bottomless night.

I open my arms wide and welcome the jaws of life.

 

This story won the “Rat in a Cage” award on Needle in the Hay. Follow the link to read the rest of the short-list: http://needleinthehay.net/tag/the-rat-in-a-cage-award/ 

This version has been slightly altered from the original. 

Levitate the Birds

Have you ever wondered that the clouds seem to move faster when you’re watching them, and slow to nothing when you look away? “Levitate the Birds” was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (needleinthehay.net). 

This story was first published on 12 April 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey/

 

I was on my way to the pharmacy to pick up some paracetamol for Miriam when I met the old man. He was sitting on a park bench, staring into the white sky, watching flocks of swifts play patterns in the air. As I passed, his roaming eyes fell to me, and a gnarled finger curled and uncurled in beckon.

‘Say young man, what brings you into the park on such a cold morning?’

I stopped on the balls of my feet, hovering, hoping I wasn’t to be held hostage by the musings of a stranger. I told him my business, and he smiled creakily.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Frederick.’

‘Well, Frederick, do you know what I’m doing here?’

I shook my head.

He leaned forward conspiratorially.

‘I’m levitating the birds.’

My bemusement must have been evident.

‘See.’ He nodded upwards with his whiskery chin. ‘They seem to be flying, but every now and then you see them jump, startled in the air as if an invisible hand has given them extra lift. That’s me. I have powers, you see. I can move things with my mind.’

I nodded, looking away to the road and the pharmacy, not wanting to encourage him.

‘You know why I beckoned you here Frederick?’

Again I shook my head.

‘Because you have the same power. I can sense it. You can reach out and grasp things with your mind.’

I smiled awkwardly. In my head I pictured Miriam, half-asleep in bed, plagued by migraines.

‘You may not realise it yet,’ continued the old man ‘but you will begin to notice, that the leaves move more when you look at them, that the birds seem more weightless when you’re around.’

‘Ok.’ I smiled again, and turned my feet towards the pharmacy. At the edge of the park I looked back over my shoulder, and saw the old man watching the sky.

Miriam was asleep when I returned. Quietly I began to make lunch, chopping carrots by the sink. Through the window swifts winged in the sky.

In the muffled Winter light I noticed beads of water on the lettuce. Convex white droplets, patterned with reflections of the window. As I stared a droplet slid down, quicker than seemed natural. I shook my head to banish the thought; a trick of the mind, nothing more.

Now when I walk to work in the morning, I watch the leaves and wonder if I have a hand in the way the wind picks them up and sends them skidding across the pavement. I stare up and see clouds expand and break, faster than seems natural, malleable to invisible winds. They seem not to move at all when my attention is elsewhere.

Sometimes I think about the old man and wonder who he was. I watch the flocking birds above the park, suspended in the Winter sky, and it seems they slip occasionally from their wheeling trajectories.

 

This story won the “Soup Heroes” award on Needle in the Hay. Follow the link to read the rest of the short list: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-the-soup-heroes-award/

I can’t help but look at the final sentence and think that “wheeling trajectories” contradicts “suspended.”

 

The Man with the Rotting Tongue

I’d been wanting to write a fantasy story that conformed enough to the rules of reality to almost not be. “The Man with the Rotting Tongue” was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (needleinthehay.net). 

This story was first published on 27 October 2015: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey-man-rotting-tongue/

 

Luce emerges from the icy bowels of hallucinatory sleep with her lips pressed against the cold stone floor. She shivers, her shaven body naked in the dim cell, ridges of red criss-crossing her skin where the gaoler’s razor cut too closely. Through the gloom she hears the gibbering of a fellow prisoner, his voice struggling up as if from beneath a black ocean. With one eye open she peers through the bars.

Two men press the prisoner against a wooden frame and bind his shaking limbs. The doctor opens his case with a flash of metal, the gaoler leans inquisitively forward. The prisoner’s teeth chatter and saliva spills down his bare chest.

A horrible shriek rents the air as the doctor makes two long incisions through the fatty skin of the patient’s scalp. Carefully he peels it back, exposing white bone. Muscles bunch in the man’s neck as he bellows like a wounded animal, straining against his bonds as the doctor rubs blood from his skull and incises a mark for the trephine.

Luce pulls her legs up to her chest and rocks gently on a sea of nausea. The man’s screams continue, unending, unfathomable, as a hole is drilled through his head.

Eventually his shrieks dribble away into whimpers, and then silence. Luce looks up and sees the doctor glaring down at her, his eyes full of quiet fury.

‘Witness how futile your efforts are, daughter of Satan. Your black magic may bring lunacy into the minds of innocent men, but by morning those demons will have fled through the passage I’ve opened in his skull. Tomorrow I will rejoice in seeing you hanged.’

He disappears down the darkened corridor and Luce falls backwards into tainted unconsciousness.

~

Two days earlier the man with the rotting tongue entered the village.

He drags his feet behind him like an injured animal, grinning around grey teeth and breathing putrefied air. His tongue is swollen and decomposing in his mouth, so that in the morning he has to pick maggots from between his teeth. When he flexes his vocal chords all that passes his tongue turns to garbled wickedness.

Luce stands inside the apothecary, sorting willow essence from cormorant’s blood. From a secret cupboard in the cramped storeroom she retrieves a small parcel of raskovnik weed, wedged between the bezoars and the ox fattened owl meat.

‘Are you sure you can handle the store by yourself?’ Elìngunnur asks, taking the wrapped weed and walking out to her horse.

‘Yes master,’ Luce replies.

‘Be careful. It’s not often safe for a woman to live alone, without a male companion.’

Luce smiles tightly.

‘What is the raskovnik for?’

‘A lady has taken ill in the next village. They say it’s a curse. Raskovnik weed, kissed by the spirits of the earth, unblocks any foul passage and opens any closure.’

Master and apprentice bid one another goodbye, and Elìngunnur rides away into the icy sunlight.

Three hours later the man with the rotting tongue spies the apothecary.

Staggering and swaying, drawn forth from his chin as if guided by invisible strings, he pushes open the door and approaches the counter.

‘Wah-ye-goth-ca-hel-me-fi-i-mi-li-la-e?’ he says, the swollen purple tongue rolling around inside his mouth.

Luce gags from the stench of decay that bursts forth with every utterance. The man’s eyes are yellow with mould, his chattering lips black and bloated.

‘Ple-i-ca-hel-ple-i-nee-som-i-ca-cah-ngh,’ he says, choking on every sound.

He stares glassily at her as if looking up from the bottom of a well. Luce senses the glinting desperation in his face, and pity swells in her stomach.

‘I might have something,’ she says, edging backwards into the storeroom.

Raskovnik weed resembles clover, but is darker and smells of earth. Luce grabs the remaining store and takes it to the man.

As he chews the man’s breathing eases, his panic eking away. The wildness leaves his face, replaced with something more human. He lets out a gurgled hiccup, and follows it immediately with a laugh as the engorged passage of his throat opens wide.

‘I can’t believe it,’ he says, touching the inside of his mouth with a finger.

Luce smiles. The ecstatic man bounds out into the street.

Only one day passes before he returns, with the sheriff in tow. Inflating his chest, garbed now in a handsome coat and boots, the man speaks smoothly through his blackened lips.

‘That woman is a witch!’

~

The prisoner in the other cell whimpers in his sleep, mumbling nonsense words. Through the bars Luce hears the sound of approaching footsteps and feels a phantom rope tighten at her neck. Someone stops before her cell, breathing silently in the gloom.

‘Luce?’

The familiar voice tickles her ear. Luce starts violently and scrambles to her knees.

‘Elìngunnur?’

The master apothecary grins.

‘Don’t ask how I got down here, lest I too face the charge of witchcraft. Suffice to say the guards have big appetites and are now indisposed.’

Elìngunnur’s eyes glint and she removes a small parcel from beneath her dress.

‘I did warn you to take a male companion. Good wives aren’t often accused of maleficium.’

Fingers whispering in the gloom, Elìngunnur takes a small leaf from the parcel and rubs it into the lock. With a click the door swings open.

‘How—’

‘I thought you of all people would know, nothing works better for unlocking than raskovnik weed.’

 

Writing this story, I had 16th century Iceland in my head. Which is odd, because I’ve never been to Iceland, or to the 16th century, and I don’t really know anything about how the two overlap. In any case I was hoping (in the limited word count) to conjure the ocean and the ice through descriptions (of torture). The name “Luce” arose by shortening “Lucifer”, though really she’s quite nice. 

“The Man with the Rotting Tongue” won the “Spoken Weird” competition on Needle in the Hay. Read the rest of the short list here: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-spoken-weird-award/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Night

Some days I think protest is important; others I think it is impotent. Either way it’s necessary. “The Long Night” (still a working title…) was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (needleinthehay.net).

This story was first published on 15 March 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/short-story-flash-fiction-lydia-trethewey-the-long-night/

 

Soft grey light falls across Lucy’s face as I gently open her bedroom door. Hair spilling messily across her pillow, Mr Giraffe tucked up by her chin, my daughter dreams.  She has a bead of dribble at her mouth, catching a slither of moonlight from the crack in the curtains.

I lean my cheek against the cold doorframe.

There are two reasons why I know it’s time to leave. One was seeing Ruben again, the half-moon of his face disappearing into the crowds in Forest Place. The other was a letter slipped into the mailbox, no name, no address.

Perhaps it seemed safer than contacting me online. Watching Lucy’s chest rise and fall, I picture men in trench coats and dark glasses scanning my emails; the one to Beth about meeting for coffee, to the hairdresser to book an appointment, to the coordinator at the school about volunteering at the upcoming fete. Maybe the spooks have a pin-up board with a photograph of my face, bits of string mapping a constellation of my possible whereabouts. It’ll have my old name, Julie Walker, and the date of my disappearance, October 18th 2016.

I tiptoe across the carpet. Lucy sighs in her sleep, her mouth slightly ajar. I bend down and kiss her head, breath in deeply, filling my lungs with her. She moves slightly, rolling into the pillow.

As I retreat to the doorway the room dissolves in tears.

From the other end of the house I hear Shane’s grunting snore. Will he roll over soon, reaching across the empty sheets, wondering where I’ve gone? Wake up and see our wedding photo on the bedside table, his boyish grin, unaware of the ghosts in my past.

My bag has been packed since I glimpsed Ruben yesterday afternoon. Twenty years have collected around his burning brown eyes, and yet I recognised him immediately. It’s an omen: time to run. Ruben wouldn’t come out of hiding except to send a message.

I hadn’t seen Ruben since 2016, when we were young, when he and I and Mitchell stayed up late cooking bombs in their dingy apartment.

We’d all met at university, in the socialist club. We shared a blunt anger at the world, a mixture of rage and resignation. Anger because Ruben and Mitchell weren’t allowed to marry, because being gay still meant being a second-class citizen. Anger at the people who told Mitchell he was mentally ill, asked him what genitals he had. Anger at the way society tried to numb us and tell us everything was ok.

But mostly we were angry about what was happening to the refugees.

“How is it that nobody gives a shit?” Ruben would ask, sitting in the flat surrounded by unwashed clothes and bent paperbacks. “They’re fleeing from war, and we lock them up like animals.”

Mitchell and I would nod vehemently.

“It’s totally inhuman. Men and women being abused, children committing suicide. And the media thinks that we should be afraid of them.”

Children no older than Lucy is now, behind barbed wire fences.

That was around the time when an egomaniacal millionaire businessman was running for president in the US, saying he’d build a massive wall to keep immigrants out. In Australia, both our political parties had long been aware that fear-mongering about asylum seekers won them votes.

Ruben and Mitchell got arrested at a march protesting the abuse of refugees. I was shaken around a bit by the cops and then let go. My friends stewed overnight in a dank cell, and by the next day had decided that peaceful marches were no longer effective.

Another of Shane’s loud snores rips through the silence. It’s a microcosm of a sound I remember, that the bomb made as it tore through white stone and neat lawn. A deep guttural boom which seemed to come from all around. The explosion was far larger than we’d intended. Little of parliament house remained in the smouldering morning.

Lucy rolls over, leaving Mr Giraffe dangling off the bed. In the other room my husband sleeps, perhaps plagued by dreams of work in the morning. This is real life, not just a cardboard cut-out. Not a disguise. All my love, my memories, my life. Here.

I unfold the letter.

The time has come. We wanted to march through the long night and break into dawn, but again we must run and hide. Remember the place by the railway – that’s where we’ll be. R & M.

With a click I close Lucy’s bedroom door. A lump fills my throat. Another piece of my life, severed. I hope Shane can carry on without me. I hope with me gone they’ll be safe. I hope my daughter knows I’ll carry her in my heart until the end.

 

I wonder whether I can be angry on behalf of someone else, someone who doesn’t ask for it, whose life I don’t live. What does anger do anyway. Can empathy become engorged to the point where it smothers the person it tries to understand? How do we help the voiceless people? The character in the story didn’t know, still doesn’t.

Follow the link to read the rest of the short list: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-all-night-march-award/

 

 

The Best Thesis Defence

I’m not a fan of Kant. I think placing a disembodied human mind in the centre of the universe poses some serious problems. But anyway, here’s a story about some students trapped in a house haunted by dead philosophers. 

This story was first published on 27 June 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/best-thesis-defence/

 

“It’s creepy in here,” says Genevieve, hugging her shoulders.

The other two look around at the shadowy recesses of the abandoned house.

“The professor said he came here to develop his research skills,” says Winston “We should keep going.”

A thin grey light seeps from the ornate cornice. As the students watch, a pearly ghost appears, sporting a long beard and a toga.

“It’s the ghost of Socrates!” shouts Oliver.

“It’s not Socrates,” says Genevieve “Socrates didn’t have a beard. Gorgias says so.”

“Not true,” says Oliver. “Most men in Athens had beards. Socrates was a man in Athens. So Socrates had a beard.”

With a piercing shriek the ghost swoops on Oliver. “THAT’S INDUCTIVE REASONING,” it bellows “NOT REDUCTIVE REASONING. IT ONLY PROVIDES PROBABILITY, NOT CERTAINTY.”

The apparition passes through Oliver’s body. The skin on his face flakes off as if hit with an atomic wind, and his raw bones collapse into a pile on the ground.

“Run!” screams Winston.

The two students tear down the creaky hallway and dart into another room. With a hiss Socrates bursts through the wall.

“I have an idea,” says Genevieve, stepping forward. “No cat has two tails. Every cat has one more tail than No Cat. Therefore, every cat has three tails.”

The ghost lets out a gurgling scream and tears transparent nails down its face. “That’s a trickery of language, you’re exploiting the ambiguity of absence! Unfair!”

With a hiss like bubbling chemicals Socrates melts into an ectoplasmic puddle.

“Language,” says Winston, his eyes wide “Language is power here.”

“Did you hear something?”

A horrible figure staggers through the door, its yellow skin sagging off a skeletal frame: an animated corpse, living long past its relevance.

“Immanuel Kant!” the students yell.

Kant leers and shuffles forward, arms outstretched.

“Wait,” says Winston “You called your Critiques a Copernican revolution, but Copernicus ejected humans from the centre of the universe. Your work did the opposite: in placing the human mind at the centre of existence, you were anti-Copernican.”

The corpse halts for a moment, and then grins, revealing rotten teeth. “You think semantic hair-splitting can stop me? Ha! I am the most powerful philosopher in the universe!”

Kant opens his mouth and releases a rancid breath that seems to wail across centuries.

Something rattles behind them. Genevieve and Winston throw themselves to the floor as two European spectres burst through the wall.

“Husserl!”

“Merleau-Ponty!”

The newcomers glare at Kant. “It’s time you died,” they say, not really in unison.

The students roll out of the way as the spectres charge.

“For phenomenology!” the ghosts shout.

With a mighty crash the philosophers engage.

Genevieve and Winston scramble from the room, heading for the exit. A shadowy figure blocks the way, looming over them. It’s Heidegger, with a hammer in-hand.

“I will destroy your ontic being,” says Heidegger “and your ontological Being, which is the being of being, or Dasein.” He raises the hammer.

“Huh?”

Winston scrunches his eyes shut and holds out his hands.

“What are you doing?” Genevieve shrieks.

“I can’t prove that the world exists, only that I exist. This could all be a dream. That means I can make anything happen.”

“This isn’t the time for Cartesian Doubt! It’s so problematic.”

Winston holds his arms like a pantomime knight. “I am holding a sword,” he says. A shining blade appears in his fist. He glares up at Heidegger.

“Why didn’t you conjure a way out?” says Genevieve.

“Because this is what the professor wants us to learn,” says Winston, readying his weapon. “The best thesis defence is a good thesis offence.”

 

I’m not a philosophy student (which is likely evident in the story) but I do engage with a lot of philosophy in researching/writing my PhD exegesis. This story was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (needleinthehay.net) called “Horrors & Heidegger”. The prompt included a quote by Heidegger about writing – which I found ironic, given Heidegger’s writing (at least in English translation) seems unnecessarily circular and difficult to read. Originally the Heidegger in this haunted house was going to be sporting some Nazi apparel, but in the end I thought I should focus on his work rather than his personal life. Still scary though. 

Follow the link to read the rest of the short list: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-horrors-heidegger/

 

 

Paper Makers and the Silver Intruder

Paper wasps have a strange encounter. 

“Paper Makers and the Silver Intruder” was written for a competition on Needle in the Hay (needleinthehay.net). The prompt was to write a story of an animal having first contact with an alien; I wanted to tell the story from a point of view that would seem alien in itself. 

This story was first published on 12 January 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/paper-makers-silver-intruder-lydia-trethewey/

 

Warmth lifts away from the ground as it colour-shifts to blue, sunlight disappearing behind a cloud. Clicking her mandibles uneasily, Yellow approaches the Grass Expanse, feeling wind brush the membranous silk of her wings. Perhaps there is a Brooder in the grass, which she can take home to Nectar and lay her eggs in. She feels venom pulsing into her Vital Point.

At the edge of her vision a dark grey blur, moving stealthily along the ground. Yellow twitches her antennas nervously, tilting her head sideways. It’s a Many-Segments, far away but gaining steadily. Its hundred legs rise and fall in a mesmerising ripple.

Irascible, nettled, Yellow lifts off from the hot touch of dirt and loops towards the nest, where it hangs suspended from the Tin Sky. She lands gently in one of the open combs.

The nest smells like home, a residue of her fellows. Walls built from their saliva and splinters of wood, they the paper-makers, secreting the shape of their world. Legs and wings twitch inside the delicate cells.

‘Home?’ Nectar asks as she climbs onto the rounded top.

‘Home.’

He turns one of his compound eyes towards her.

‘Brooder?’

She shifts nervously to one side.

‘A solitary traveller passes, noontime,’ he says, twitching his antennae. ‘Traveller drags an Eight-Legs, paralysed, writhing skin carcass. Disappear into Grass Expanse.’

Yellow flicks her proboscis in and out.

‘Solitary is Dirt-Wasp, home in ground. Vases built from mud, hidden from the sun-bleach, killer of the Eight-Legs. Not have nest or other wasps.’

Nectar tilts his head.

‘Only Brooders, for Paper-Wasp,’ she says.

Yellow senses an acute shift in light through the oscelli eyes triangulated at the vertex of her head. She moves closer to Nectar.

‘Shadow,’ he says, quivering. Danger pheromones drift from his body.

A change in light, like satin, ripples through the air. Above, a shimmering slither peels like bark from a tree off the Tin Sky, and a small body falls through.

The two wasps flinch backwards in alarm.

‘Dirt-Wasp!’ Yellow buzzes angrily.

The unknown creature lands atop the paper nest, writhing as if caught in the silken thread of an Eight-Legs. It’s spindly limbs jerk, body twisting in panic as wings flap impotently. There are too many wings though, six of them, folding out one from the other. Yellow feels venom come to her Vital Point.

‘What are?’ she demands

It twitches feebly, caught on its back.

Yellow approaches, standing tall. Nectar radiates the hormone signal for intruder.

All at once she feels calm. In the unknown creature’s presence, the threat of danger melts away into a chemical repose, a tranquilizer. The intruder buzzes weakly and flips onto its frail legs, eight of them like an Eight-Legs. Panic pricks deep within Yellow’s slumberous unconcern, but her pheromones won’t secrete and her antennae movements are sluggish as if moving through raindrops: she can’t speak.

She senses Nectar close behind, similarly indisposed.

‘Don’t alarm,’ says the creature, waving its cadmium-coloured antennae.

Confusion blooms inside Yellow. The creature’s body looks like a wasp, with an extra set of wings and legs, but it is silvery-white in colour and the bright orange antennae shout danger.

‘We come to find you, kin of the blue dew-drop.’

Yellow doesn’t understand. What is the meaning of ‘we’ and ‘you’?

‘Please,’ the creature says, struggling to stand ‘I am from the iridium-plated wanderer. We search the Black Expanse for other intelligent life. Our home is cold and barren, but you the paper-clan …’

The creature tremors, and its hold of calmness wavers. Fear seeps through Yellow’s exoskeleton. Her antennae twitch.

‘…we know that you are the most advanced civilisation on the dew-drop. We seek refuge from the Black Expanse. You are our last hope.’

The intruder collapses onto the saliva-papered surface, struggling as if against a mighty invisible force. It spasms the way Yellow’s last brood did when the dwellers-within-the-earthen-walls came with their powerful spray which makes the air unbreathable.

Fear surges through her. Angling her Vital Point, Yellow charges forward, burying the sting deep within the intruder. The creature shudders with pain and seizes up, six wings and eight legs curling up against the silver-white body.

 

My favourite thing about this story is the title. I liked it better upon first writing it than on looking back – the wasp point of view is perhaps too disjointed. Maybe I will revisit Yellow and Nectar in a different setting. 

Follow the link to read the rest of the short list: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-kneel-in-the-grass-bison-award/