On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


To Blog or Not to Blog

13 November 2010
As of today, this blog is closed. It’s been a long, hard year and we’ve decided that we can’t go on anymore. The risks are too great. The existing posts will remain here for the foreseeable future, but the shop will be closed. Any and all further requests for purchase will be denied.
Please be assured that this is not what we wanted. To our supporters – thank you for standing by us. To our detractors – fuck you.

“I think we should start a website.” Leann stated suddenly in the silence.He rolled over dreamily, slipped his arm over her stomach, caressed her bare belly, “Mmmm?” he mumbled.She turned towards him, her eyes blazing with excitement, “Yes! It’s a great idea! It would be awesome, David! What do you think?””If I agree with you, will you let me go back to sleep?”
The couple lay in bed, a lazy afternoon breeze curled through the window and caressed their sweat-soaked bodies.  The sun slanted onto the bed, it had shone directly on them as they made love, and was now giving up the last of its warmth before setting for the evening. Leann watched as David drifted back off to sleep. The muscles in his face relaxed, and his mouth slackened. She watched his eyes move behind his eyelids – shifting with the short confused dreams of early sleep, as he descended down the short ladder into an afternoon snooze. His dark curly hair lay in tangles across the pillow. She moved her hand over the muscles of chest, and down to the soft paunch of his belly, running her nails through the dark hairs she found there.
Leann was completely wide awake, sleep distant now her initial drowsiness had worn off. Her mind was busy turning thoughts over, thinking through her brilliant idea. Eventually, she slipped out from within David’s embrace and pulled on the clothes that lay tangled on the floor. She stepped out of the warm room, leaving behind the musky smell of sex, and in to the house proper.
The lounge room was cool in the growing darkness, and dim with gathering shadows as the day passed below the horizon. Leann sat in the gloom, lit by the glow from her computer screen.

On the fourteenth floor, a small meeting was underway in a corner of the marketing department’s office suite.”The results are back from the customer survey.” Brendan stated.”And … ?””It’s not good.””Somehow, I expected that.” Wendy sighed and closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “What do they say?”He looked down at the sheaf of papers in front him, flicking through them as he listed out the salient points, “Our image is dull; we’re old-fashioned; our products are considered unhealthy; the imagery is unappetising …” he flapped one hand at the documents, and then sat back in his seat. “Basically, we sell products that no one wants to buy, no one wants to cook, and no one wants to eat.””Damn” she muttered under her breath. “So what do we do?”He shrugged, and folded his hands behind his head. It was getting dark outside, the lights of the city flickering to life below them. He watched as the city slowly shuffled off its day time suit and replaced it with a glittery evening gown, and tried to form the words that would herald the beginning of the busiest and most stressful time of his corporate life so far. This conversation could make him the most respected marketing manager in the consumer packaged foods world, or it could earn him a lay off and his career. He took a deep breath, and began, “Well, there’s a few things we can do. I want to do a total redesign of the product line, right down to the logo and the packaging itself. A completely new feel. We need new images, new fonts, new ideas. I want research and development tasked with designing new bottles and sachets, and I want Creative to bust their collective arses on a new layout and brand. In the meantime, I want new photographs, images that actually make people want to eat the stuff that’s in the packet. I don’t care if it bears zero resemblance to what they end up with, as long as looks good on the packet.”Wendy looked at him through her half moon glasses, “You know you’ll never get the budget to do all that.””I know.” he added softly, dropping his hands, and leaning forward to look her directly in the eyes, “But I intend to do it somehow. I don’t care what it takes.” He paused slightly, trying to guage her reaction to his daring plan. After a moment’s silence, and holding her gaze with his own, he slid a perfect square of white paper across the glass-topped table, “And I want you to start here.” he said softly. The piece of paper had a single line of writing on it, in Brendan’s curling hand writing. It was a web address.Wendy looked at him quizzically, took the piece of paper, read it, and slipped it into the front cover of her notebook. “I’ll check it out.” she said.

When David woke, the house was cold and dark. The only sound was coming from the lounge room, the sound of tap tap tap as Leann typed away. Wound in a kimono, he padded out to the lounge room yawning loudly. He flicked the light on. The shadows scuttled back into the corners, but Leann did not lift her eyes from the screen. “Hello, darling” she said softly, smiling, her eyes remainign fixed on what she was doing.David flopped into a loungechair, and put his feet up on the side table. The kimono fell away from his legs and scraped the hardwood floor.”Hello” he said, finally.Leann turned her head to look at him, her eyes reluctantly peeling themselves away from the text in front of her, “You’re awake.” she stated.He nodded slightly, “I am.” He paused, drinking in Leann’s blue grey eyes, her fair skin. Dark curls fell in her face, and she palmed them back with one hand, the other hand resting lighly on the mouse. “What are you working on?” he asked.”A project.” she said, a tiny teasing smile dancing on her face.”Ah.” David responded, not allowing himself to be drawn into her ruse. “Are you hungry?””Yep.” Leann said, still smiling. “What’s for dinner?””It’s Sunday” he shrugged. “Let’s get a curry””Like this one?” Leann’s smile grew broader, she clicked twice, and then tilted the screen so that he could see. On the monitor was a photograph of a chicken curry, the detail so clear it looked as though you could dig a spoon right in and eat it. Every grain of rice was perfect. The light reflected on the creamy sauce, and the colour of coriander and chilli showed through. The picture was familiar to David, he had taken it only the week before. The recipe was Leann’s own. The picture was nestled under an artistic-looking heading, a combination of their names: LEanndAVID. The words were diaplayed over one of Leann’s favourite photographs: a collection of different coloured chillies, nestled in a blue and white bowl that had belonged to Leann’s grandmother. The photo had been taken after they returned from the fresh food markets one weekend, and Leann realised she had bought chillies in so many different varieties that they had eaten nothing but curries and other highly spiced creations for nearly two weeks, until the last of them finally went soggy and had to be thrown away.David raised an eyebrow.”Do you like it?” Leann asked.”What are you doing with it?””I thought we should make a blog. I’ll cook recipes, and you can take photos of them. We’ll put them up on the web site, and people can vote on their favourites. We could also sell the photographs, if we wanted to. Maybe print them up on our flashy printer in your studio, and mount them on card for people to hang on their walls. Put your signature in black pen on the corners, so people don’t forget your name.”David nodded thoughtfully, “It sounds like a lot of work” he said tentatively.Leann shrugged, and turned back to the screen, “We wouldn’t have to do anything much more than we do already. I cook and you take photos all the time. All we need to do is transfer a recipe to the blog every few days. It doesn’t take much time to get the recipe typed up.”David shrugged again. He put his feet down and leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Well, I guess we can give it a try. Check it out for a month or two. If we get bored, we can just stop right?””My thoughts exactly, darling.” Leann smiled, “My thoughts exactly”.

10 November, 2010
Some of you have noticed that our shop has been disabled. Well, okay. A lot of you have noticed. Please stop emailing me about it. Hopefully this is just another temporary disruption, although we don’t know yet when we will be able to relist everything. At the moment we’re trying to work out a way to continue selling without getting ourselves into any further trouble. It’s not easy. It seems that if images are available, they are pretty much fair game for anyone bold enough to try and take them. Please, if you do reproduce any of our images, credit David Forrest as the artist, and link back to this blog.
In the meantime, please enjoy the recipes, please keep commenting on the forums, and please keep letting us know what you think.
Don’t forget that we still have our PayPal link in the corner of this blog. If you like the site, please consider a donation to help us keep it up and running, and to help us fight the people who think they can take whatever images they like, just because they’re on the internet.
Today’s recipe is a simple summer recipe for steamed fish with a Thai-style salsa. Serve it over rice and it make a lovely warm-weather meal that will still fill you up …

Leann was sitting at the computer, checking emails, when David came up from behind and leaned over her shoulder, “How many hits today?” he asked.She clicked over to a new browser window, and opened up the statistics counter. She smiled every time she saw the line steadily rising over time. The LEanndAVID website had been running for only three months, but the hits had been ever increasing. Once people found the site, they kept on coming back. And even better they kept on telling their friends about it. “Seventy eight yesterday,” she said, then clicking a couple of times more, “And eighty three today”. She turned her head and smiled up at him, “it’s your beautiful photos” she said.”Don’t be silly. Your recipes are amazing. I’m so lucky.” he bent his head and kissed Leann on the forehead.”So what’s for dinner tonight?” he asked.”Cheese on toast” she responded, teasing.”I bet it’ll taste wonderful” he said, grinning.”And I bet you can make it look like five star gourmet!” she answered. They were both smiling as their noses met and they kissed.
Later that night, Leann was busy serving up a traditional lamb roast dinner. David had stolen a perfectly presented plateful already, and had set up his hand made light box around it. He adjusted it slightly, taking photographs from different angles, getting the final image just so. The warm smells of rosemary and garlic were on the cool evening air, and the lamb lay slightly pink and very tender on the plates, nestled alongside crispy skinned potatoes with delightful soft centres, and an array of colourful baked vegetables. Leann finished putting everything on the table, and took off her worn cotton apron, ready to sit down and start eating. As she lifted the apron over her head, it caught on her hair clip slightly. She gave it a tug and the old fabric neck tie gave way where it was attached to the bib of the apron, and broke completely. Leann gave a little tut as she examined the damage. “Well, there’s that apron gone.” she said, “That was my favourite too.””At least you have an excuse to get a new one, anyway.” David said, his eyes still glued to the lens of his digital camera.”Yeah, I guess so.” Leann settled into a dining chair. She spooned mint sauce over the lamb, and then poured a veritable river of gravy over the whole plate. “You know, I’d really like one of those new styles of apron that you see everyehere now. Not the ones with stupid slogans on them, but the heavy black cotton ones, with beautiful images on them.”David finished with the light box, and brought the plate over the to the table. He spooned gravy over it carefully, and then ground salt on top as well.”Ugh, how can you go and put salt all over that?” Leann scolded him, “You’ll overpower the other flavours.”David shrugged, “I like it like that.” he said, cutting into the meat, and putting a forkful in his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, and said, “You know, you could probably get someone online to make you a custom apron, if you send in a photo you like. Like, maybe, one of mine.” he suggested with a twinkle.Leann smiled, “Like I’d want one of your photos on an apron.” she teased.David laughed, shrugged, and continued to eat, “It was just an idea.” he said.”Actually, it’s not silly. I love that photo you did of the chillies in Grandma’s old china bowl. And it’s in the main page banner  on the web site too.” She paused slightly, chewing on a piece of lamb thoughtfully. Suddenly, the pointed with her fork at David, and said animatedly, “We should open up an online shop. We can make aprons and … I don’t know …. tea towels and things. Get your photos printed up on them through one of those print on demand places. People can pick their favourite photograph, pick a bit of merchandise, and then buy them!”David looked impressed, “That’s not a silly idea.” he said.”I might have a chat to some of the web site developers at work, find out what I need to do to get it set up.” She returned to her meal, pleased with her idea, “Yes, I like that idea. I’m very glad I thought of it.” she grinned at David.David was too busy shovelling potatoes in to answer.

Leann came in from outside, shaking the rain out of her hair as she came. She took her shoes off, mud caked on the soles, and left them just out side the door. Her feet were wet in her stockings, and she made slapping noises on the floor boards as she walked in to the house. It has been another long day at the office, and she was exhausted. She flicked lights on as she moved through the house, throwing her handbag and coat on the bed, then dropping her laptop bag on to the desk in the lounge room. She knew she needed to get another recipe up on the blog tonight, but she wasn’t sure she was capable of making a bowl of cereal with any success at the moment, let alone something to inspire the fashionably foodie masses. She left the laptop in the bag for now, and went to put the kettle on.
She was staring blankly in to her mug, the tag of the teabag dangling listlessly over the edge, the kettle boiling slowly beside her, her mind completely blank, when the back door opened, and David came in from his studio out the back. He pushed back strands of wet hair off his forehead, blowing melodramatically, and said “Wow, it’s really coming down out there! Did you get caught in on your way home too? Was traffic awful?” as he moved in close to her for a kiss. She kissed him quickly, muttered “uh huh” quietly, and then returned to pondering the tea bag, as though it contained the great answer. David cocked his head to one side, “You okay, Lee?” he asked in a softer voice. She looked up at him with tired eyes. Steam was rising from the shoulders of his tshirt in the warm kitchen. She smiled wanly, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just worn out.”The kettle clicked off, the water boiled, and Leann made a move towards it. David blocked her gently. “Go and sit down. I’ll make this.”Leann smiled again, more genuinely this time, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before going over and flopping on to the couch.
At full stretch on the couch, Leann felt the tension in her spine start to release, the knots slowly detangling. She gave a sigh. She saw David coming towards her over the back of the couch, a steaming mug of tea in one hand. He approached, and was just setting it down on the side table when the phone rang. Leann moaned. “I’m not here!” she called to David’s back as he went to answer it.”Hello? … Yes, that’s me … Uh-huh.”Leann tuned out then, and started to drift off to sleep.
David put the phone down and gave out a loud whoop, and Leann jumped up on the couch, “What?” she yelled, startled, “What is it? What happened?!” She was ready to get off the couch and go and find him, when David came just about dancing into the room, a grin plastered across his face. She looked at him, her heart still racing, and grinned back at him in bemusement. “What the hell is going on?” she repeated, this time without the note of panic in her voice.”You’re never going to believe this,” David gasped, still elated, “But that was a reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald. They want to write a story about us. About the blog.””You’re …” Leann stammered, “You’re joking? Right?”David shook his head, the goofy grin still big on his face.”You’re not joking? Oh wow. Well, OK, so what do we do now?”

2 November 2010
It’s been a little crazy around here recently. We have been spending a lot of time down at the lawyer’s office, trying to work out how we can continue to sell our stuff here without ending up in a lot more hot water. So far, the prognosis isn’t looking good. Please be assured though, that at least for now, the shop is still open, and we’ll try and keep it that way for as long as we possibly can. If you are planning on purchasing something, please consider giving us a little towards our legal costs as well. You’ll find a PayPal box in the sidebar. It’s your donations that are keeping this site alive at the moment, and without them we will have no choice but to shut down for good. And we don’t want that. We are sure you don’t either.
We have a new recipe up for you, the last of the heavier dishes for a while as we head into some lovly warm Spring weather. This one is a simple dish that I like to serve up for a lazy Sunday lunch. It is a modern twist on a simple favourite from when I was a kid – macaroni and cheese. This version has some fine strips of shaved ham, diced tomatoes, and a little bit of baby spinach to make it a little more interesting …

“Thank you very much for your attention, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Brendan finished. He was standing in the small conference room that formed part of the marketing department’s suite of offices. A presentation was projected behind him, the final slide now visible with the United Foods logo prominently displayed along with his name and business title – United Foods Product Manager. “Are there any questions?” he asked, spreading his arms magnanimously at the small assembled crowd. All eight board members and a good amount of vice presidents were here, and he noticed one or two of them eyeing the bottles of champagne cooling in silver buckets off to the side of the room. His presentation had gone on too long, he chastised himself.The Chief Executive Officer raised his hand slightly, and Brendan glanced at him, nodding slightly. The man rose from his chair slowly, knowing he could take as long as he wanted to, and drew a languid breath before stating, “Mister Malcolm.”Brendan nodded, encouraging him to continue.”Mister Malcolm.  You have told us a lot about the research you have done. The product reviews, the customers surveys, etcetera. But you have not provided us with the expected revenue increase from this particular campaign.” The man cast a side long glance at the Chief Financial Officer, who ducked his head and coughed slightly, before fixing his gaze back on Brendan.Brendan squared his shoulders, and used both hands to readjust his neat grey suit lapels slightly. “Mister Grayson, of course, you are correct. I understand that Ms Waterhouse has been working with Mister Franton in the finance department, and they predict an overall sales increase of …” he consulted his notes, as though he had something meaningful written there, and then plucked a number out of the air, “upwards of seventeen point five percent across the range, once the new product imaging has been compeltely rolled out.”The Chief Executive nodded without smiling, “I expect you will have a report for me on that matter?” he demanded.”Of course, Mister Grayson.” Malcolm nodded, and made a mental note to get Wendy Waterhouse on to that. “Well,” he added, casting a glance over the uncomfortable looking group, praying that no one else had a question, “I think that wraps things up. Judy has arranged some refreshments for you all, and of course the new “Fresh Face of United Foods” product range is also there for your comment. Thank you.” he nodded slightly, and stepped away from the lecturn. His personal assistant, Judy, killed the power to the projector, and the presentation went dark. She smiled up at him, “Wonderful, Sir” she said fawningly. Malcolm smiled slightly as he packed up his tiny laptop, and moved it back into his own office space.
Wendy blinked as she walked into the marketing director’s office suite. The entire suite was dark, except for a corner of the conference room that was lit with high intensity halogen globes. They were directed at a small table with a white linen tablecloth that reflected the light back. Brendan was crouched in front of the table, studiously examining the full range of United Foods products. He had completed a promotion launch that afternoon, the products all reflecting their new packaging. She walked up behind him, placed a manicured hand on his shoulder, and he turned his head to smile up at her.”What do you think?” he asked, his voice soft.”They’re wonderful.” she murmured, “I absolutely adore the new look. It’s fresh, and new, and …” she paused, trying to find the right word, “Tasty. They look tasty.”Brendan nodded, “Yeah.” he agreed, “That man certainly has a flair for food photography. Perhaps we should try and get him on staff.”Wendy laughed brashly, “Like he would.” she stated. “Once he discovered we’ve used his photographs, he’s going to think we’re the worst company in the world.”Brendan shrugged. “It’s worth whatever we have to pay to get these photos on our products. We would never have gotten him to agree any other way. This way, he’ll either never notice, or never have the gall or the money to sue us over it. Either way, we win.”Wendy laughed again.

The journalist met them at a fancy cafe beside the harbour. The sun was shining, although a cool breeze off the water promised a chilly evening ahead. They sat outdoors, overlooking the water, watching the ferries punt up and down the harbour, passing each other gracefully as they moved in and out of the shadow of the Sydney harbour bridge. The journalist was dressed in a white linen pants suit, a mass of expertly curled blonde hair piled on top of her head and held with a silver ibis clip. Leann thought it had probably cost her hudnreds of dollars to get it looking so artfully unkempt. She brushed her own dark, naturally unruly hair back out of her eyes with the heels of her hands, and resettled her black conducter’s cap on top of it all. She had worn a pale pink satin blouse and black tailored pants, but next to Fran Descartes-Smyth she still felt poorly dressed.
The waiter brought bruschetta for them: thick slices of crusty bread, topped with diced roma tomatoes, fresh torn basil, and lashings of garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The smell alone made Leann salivate, and when she bit into it, she closed her eyes with pleasure. This was good, she thought. She could get used to being wined and dined by journalists, asked for her opinions, and having them hang on every word. She smiled at Fran, who was scribbling in her notepad as David enthused about his photography business, and tried not to worry about whether or not she had a piece of basil between her teeth.

Duo Dream Up a Winning Foodie Combination
Leann Roberts and David Forrest seem to have a match made in foodie heaven. David is an established photographer with his own marketing and promotional photography portfolio. Leann works for a high tech firm in North Ryde by day, but spends her evenings creating gourmet fare. Leann is the proud bearer of a Masters in Food Technology, but says she doesn’t work in the industry because “the hours are obnoxious, and my real passion is creating, not serving up the same dish over and over again”.
Their website – LEanndAVID.com – melds the couples’ passions together perfectly. Leann creates stunning recipes, explained in exquisite detail that alone makes the reader salivate. David photographs the entire process from preparation to presentation in their well-equipped but tiny suburban kitchen. He then uses a specially designed light box that he made to make the final product come to life.
Leann and David had been creating recipes in this way for many months before deciding to put their collective efforts up on a blog for the world to see. David says that they enjoyed doing it for themselves so much that one day Leann convinced him that perhaps other people would enjoy it much as they do.
Well, they weren’t wrong! The blog has been available to the public for little over six months, yet they are receiving in the order of one thousand to fifteen hundred visitors every day, with that number steadily growing. It was incentive enough for the pair to include an online shop on the site, where readers can buy their favourite photographs as posters, or on various items of apparel, including aprons. All the recipes – complete with photographs – are available to download direct from the site, and print out to recreate Leann’s masterpieces in your kitchen.
The couple say they have no intention of writing a photographic recipe book just yet, but also hinted that they might be open to the idea, saying “well, we will just have to see where the winds of fortune blow us”. The winds of fortune have, indeed, already been blowing favourably.

David stopped reading, and lowered the newspaper to peer out at Leann over the top of it. He raised an eyebrow and said in a mock plummy accent “The winds of fortune have been blowing favourably, my dear”. Leann giggled from where she was on the couch. “So has the blog melted down under the pressure of Sydney Morning Herald readers yet?” she asked.David turned to his computer, and called up the statistics. “Umm …” he said hesitantly. “When did you last check these?”Leann shrugged, “I’m not sure. A few days ago, I guess. Why?””Well, today’s Saturday, right?”Leann nodded, “Yeah.” she agreed. “The paper only came out this morning, so I don’t think you’re going to see a significant change until tomorrow or Monday, really”.”Well, this is strange. It says that on Thursday, we had 1753 hits, right?””Yeah, that seems about right.””And on Friday, we had 2,632.”Leann sat up suddenly, “We had what?” she shrieked.”Two thousand, six hundred, and thirty two. Hits”Leanne was at his side in an instant, disbelief clear on her face. “But that was the day before the paper came out! Surely the dates must be out or something. What’s it say for today?”David clicked a few times, Leann following his mouse movements eagerly. She gasped as the numbers appeared on the screen, as David slowly whispered “Five thousand … two hundred … and twenty one. Hits. On our blog.”They stared at each other dumbly for just a moment, until Leann suddenly let out a squeal of joy, and David wrapped her into a bear hug, jumping out of his office chair in excitement.
Leann was still reeling from the shock of the extra readers when the phone rang, and David picked it up in the office. He spoke for only a second before calling out, “Lea! It’s your mother!”.Leann sighed, and got up off the couch to grab the cordless handset from him. “Hi Mum” she said, walking back out to the lounge room.”Leann. Dear. Why didn’t you tell me about this web site of yours?””I did, Mum. It’s the same one I told you about a couple of months ago.””Nonsense, that one sounded terrible.” her mother dismissed.Leann rolled her eyes, “It’s changed a bit since then, Mum.” she pointed out.”Well, it must have! You know Ann? Not your sister, Anne, I mean Ann Frowley down the street. Well, she told me that her husband Frank read about you th other day. In the newspaper, Dear. Did you know you were in the newspaper?””Yes, I did, Mum. They interviewed us for it a few days before it came out.””Well!” her mother exclaimed, “Well! It’s caused quite a fuss around here you know, you’re quite the celebrity around these parts. They’re all saying, “Ohhh, you know Leann Roberts – That’s Liz Roberts’ daughter”. It’s quite exciting!””So it would seem.” Leann commented, “Tell you what, Mum, I’ll send you a few bits and pieces to give out to your friends. Some recipe cards and things. How’s that sound?””Oh, that would be wonderful, but don’t go to any trouble on my account, will you?””No Mum, of course not. I’ll send you a few things I have here, okay?””Oh that sounds just wonderful, thank you Dear.””No trouble Mum. I love you,” Leann stated with fainality.”Love you too, Dear. Do you have to go?””Yes, I do, sorry, Mum. I’ve got dinner in the oven, I have to go grab it out.” Leann llied.”Oh, alright then. Do call soon, won’t you?””Yes, Mum. Sure will. Talk later. Bye.” Leann finally hung up the phone with relief. She was a hit amongst her mother’s friends, anyway, she thought wryly, and then burst out laughing at herself.

The following Friday afternoon, Leann got home to find a pile of mail on the kitchen table. On top, quite prominently, was a distinctly shaped long thin envelope. She recognised it as a standard US letter size, and, curious, picked it up and started tearing it open as she kicked her court shoes off. It contained a single sheet of paper, and a cheque. It was a few moments before she realised what it was, but eventually it dawned, it was from advertising revenue. And it was for over two thousand dollars. She let out a squeal.
She always made it a habit of not interrupting David when he was in his studio, but this time she decided to break that unwritten rule. She opened the back door, and tore across the tiny yard. She reached the triple garage they had built in the back yard in three long flying steps, and tore around the corner to the doorway like a precision tuned rally car. When she got there she pounded on it, shouting David’s name. The cheque caught her eye as it flew, clutched in her fist. Two thousand dollars! It repeated in her mind like a mantra. Two thousand dollars! Suddenly, the door opened, and she virtually fell inwards, waving the cheque in David’s face as she threw her arms around his neck and squealed, “Two thousand dollars! Two thousand amazing dollars!” was all she could say.David, bemused, but caught up in her excitement all the same, gently pushed her back, so he could see  the piece of paper she was holding. When she stopped waving it around, he saw it was a cheque, and briefly noticed the payer’s name before taking in the amount.”Two thousand dollars?” he gaped.”Two thousand dollars” she nodded,  her face flushed.David gave out a whoop and drew her back into his arms.Laughing, Leann turned her head towards him, planted a big smacker of a kiss on his lips and then stared him straight in the eye and said, “Let’s go out for dinner.”David laughed then, too, “OK. You choose the restaurant. And we’ll let Google pay.”
Over dinner, Leann regaled David with stories of her mother’s new found fame, and her own ideas for the further development of the site. David told her of an upcoming shoot he had planned for a local spice blend company. They finished off a bottle of wine, and for a moment it seemed as though everything in the world was laid out for them on a platter. Life was good. For now.

When Wendy received the email from Brendan and read it, she paused a moment, and then read it again. She gave a unbridled little yelp in her tiny glass walled office, and then quickly looked around to see if any of the other marketing staff in their fish bowl offices had noticed. When it seemed as though she had gotten away with it, she jumped up from her desk, grabbed her notebook and a pen, and strode the short distance to Brendan’s office, which had the luxury of two non see through walls. She knocked quietly, and then pushed the door open a crack. She stuck her face into the small gap, and saw Brendan sitting at his own computer. He lifted a finger to indicate that he would only be a moment, his eyes remained fixed on the screen. He pointed to the small table in the walled corner behind him, and then brought his hand back to the keyboard to type out a fast patter of keystrokes. Wendy sidled into the room, closed the door softly behind her, and took a seat at the table. She stared out of the opposite wall and watched the lunch time crowds many storeys below her as she waited.
Brendan turned suddenly, and said, “Sorry about that, Wendy.” so abruptly that wendy jumped in her seat, startled from her reverie.”Oh, no problem, Brendan.” she said hurriedly, trying to hide her discomfort by patting her heavily hairsprayed coif, tucking an imaginary stray auburn hir back behind one ear. “I got your email.” she added pointedly.Brendan broke into a giant smile, “Goo-ood.” he grinned at her, dragging the middle syllable out.”It is. It’s ery good. OK, so we have permission, what happens next?””We ride Creative to get the logos happening, and we start choosing photos.” he grinned again.”The … the photos you … you asked me to check out?” she stammered slightly.”Yes, those ones. Have you looked at them?”Wendy nodded.”What did you think?””They’re very good …” she started.”Aren’t they?” he agreed happily, “I think they’ll do wonders for us.”She nodded again. “Are you sure … I mean …” she bit her bottom lip, and rouged her top teeth with lipstick as she did so, “Are you sure we’re not going to get in trouble over this?” she questioned timidly.Brendan waved a hand dismissively, “It’ll be fine, Wendy. Even if there is an … issue … we just hand it straight over to Legal to deal with. It won’t be our problem.”Wendy nodded again, and rose to leave.Brendad waved vaguely towards her mouth and said, “Your teeth, Wendy. You have … er … lipstick … yeah, there.””Thanks” she aughed nervously, swiping at her mouth. She picked up her notebook again, and left the room, still rubbing at her front teeth with embarresment.When she was gone, Brendan sat down heavily at his desk again, and sighed. He hoped that Wendy’s fears were unfounded, and he had done a good job of convincing her, but he asn’t quite convinced himself. Still, they needed those photographs, he told himself, and there was no other way to get them.

Five weeks later, when the second ad revenue cheque arrived for almost double the amount of the first one, Leann and David went out for dinner again. This time they saw a movie as well. It was in the car on the way home that Leann first brought the subject up. She had pulled the car up at a red light, it was nearly midnight and there were no other cars visible on the street. She turned to David, his face washed with the red light reflecting and refracting through the windscreen, and said, “I’ve been thinking …””Uh oh” David mocked.”No, I’m serious.” she laughed. The light turned green, changing the interior colour scheme of the car from gory B-grade thriller to The Wizard of Oz, and she eased into the intersection, switched lanes, and indicated to turn left before continuing. “I’m thinking, now that the blog is making us some money …””A good amount of money” David pointed out.”Yes, a really good amount of money. Between the store items and the advertising revenue, it’s netting us nearly as much as what I earn in the office. Which got me to thinking that maybe I should throw some more time into this. I’m thinking of dropping back my hours at work. I could go to part-time, and that would give me more time to spend in the kitchen. We could increase the blog posts to daily – or almost daily – and we could increase the amount of stock we sell in the store, because I could spend more time packaging and posting.” Leann paused for a breath.”Yea-ahh” David said, dragging the word out as he thought the idea through.Silence hung in the car as Leann waited for him to pick holes in the plan. The silence grew, and Leann concetrated on driving down the highway. She had been mulling over the idea all day, ever since the cheque had arrived the day before. She had turned it around in her mind every which way, and she was convinced it would work. David though – ever the conservative – was likely to think it was too big a risk. She wondered if she would be able to pick up the hours again if the plan went awry, and had to confess to herself that it wasn’t likely. It was a gamble, but it seemed like a pretty safe bet to her.
By the time Leann navigated the car up the driveway and parked, David still hadn’t said anything. He got out of the car in silence, and she followed him in, worried about what he would say, whether or not he would agree. Whether she was totally crazy, or on to a good thing. She was so churned up about it all, she couldn’t tell any more.

25 October 2010
We have just gotten back from what will hopefully prove to be our very last appearance in court. The final verdict was good, but not great. We could – at least theoretically – continue as we were going, but we’ll need to make some changes around the site first. For now, nothing is changing, and we’ll be spending some more time with the lawyers trying to work out how to continue things going as best we can.
Thanks again for all your support. Please don’t forget to order something from the store while you still can, the entire site will be going down for extensive maintenance very soon, and it might never be quite the same again, so get in fast. Also, thanks so much for all the donations – we would never have gotten this far without them. Please keep them coming – you will find the donation box in the side bar.
In the meantime, I have another curry for you. This one is a family recipe that has been shared with me by a very good friend of mine. It’s a traditional Indian curry that works well with either lamb or – more traditionally – goat meat, and it uses a fabuous mixture of spices to give it a really amazing flavour with an absolutely awesome texture. It needs to be cooked slowly to get the full experience, but if you have a pressure cooker use that instead. You will get the same result in a much faster time …

When they got home from the movies, David yawned, and said he was off to bed. He still hadn’t made comment about Leann’s plan. She smiled, kissed him softly, and watched his back as he retreated to the dark bed room, and undressed without turning on the lights. She listened to his sigh as he collapsed into bed, then gave her own sigh to match it, turned, and sat down at the computer, randomly surfing the internet to kill time until she started to feel sleepy. The sun was starting to inch over the horizon when she finally yawned, flicked off the monitor, and padded up the hallway to the bed room.
In the morning, David was gone from the bed before Leann had even rolled over. By the time that Leann had gotten out of the shower and stumbled into the kitchen for a cup of tea and a piece of toast, his car had disappeared from the driveway as well. She felt miserable. It appeared that he wasn’t going to agree. He was always broody and thoughtful when he had a big decision to make, but he rarely switched off for this long. By the time Leann was sitting at the table, munching morosely on her toast and flicking the pages of a magazine without seeing a single one of the glossy pages, she had decided that the idea was crap, David was just trying to work out exactly how to tell her that, and she was a fool for even considering it. She reached for the phone, and put in a call to the receptionist at the office. She wouldn’t be coming in today. Within half an hour, she had returned to bed.
When her phone buzzed with a text message an hour later, she didn’t bother to get up and check it.

David was out on a photo shoot with a client, watching her three boys scramble over the trees and each other in the park. The client herself stood off to one side with her sister and her baby. The baby screamed, the client complained, and the sister ignored the complaining to comfort the baby. He hated doing family shoots. The wind was up, a cold chill in the air promising the beginning of winter. He pulled his jacket closer, winced through the lens of his camera, and snapped another few shots of the boys before they murdered each other.
As he watched them, Leann’s plan continued to churn in his mind. He had been giving it a lot of thought. When David had first started his own photographic studio, they had often had to rely on Leann’s stable income base to see them through the times when clients were late to pay, or just thin on the ground. To lose that stability bothered him. But he could see the argument, too. They were earning good income from the web site, more than Leann could earn in the office. He had toyed with the idea of asking her to seek a raise, but decided it was not only unlikely to happen, but unlikely to be enough to match the advertising and online shop revenue. If Leann could spend more time on the site, then they would potentially be earning even more than they were now.
Screaming cries of “MUUUUUUM! He HIT me!” snapped him back to the shoot. He watched the youngest boy through his lens, following him in black and white, watching the child’s expression. He clicked of a series of exposures, capturing the child’s indignant face. The client would either love them or hate them. Probably the latter.
It was over an hour later, and David was starting to wish that the boys would just strangle each other and have it over with, when he noted storm clouds gathering in the west with a huge sense of relief. He packed the digital camera he was using into its soft case, carefully removin the lens first. He walked over to the client and her sister and niece, stopping first to stow the lens in its hiding place inside the larger bag that held his other cameras. When he reached them, he frowned, pointed to the sky, and mumbled something about not wanting to get his gear wet, that he had gotten a lot of good natural shots, and that he would call them tomorrow.
The client gathered up her protesting, fighting, children, and bundled them and about seven tonnes of equipment into her big four wheel drive. He shifted the car into gear, but idled with his foot on the brake as changed the CD in the car to something less depressing. He needed to clear this bad mood he was in. The music fixed, he reversed out of the car park, and followed his client’s car out on to the highway.
As he approached the exit off the highway that led to home, he slowed the car, indicated left, and moved into the exit lane. But at the last minute he changed his mind and swung back into the stream of traffic and continued on. He found his phone in the centre console, and dialled a number from memory. It was a short conversation, and he was smiling by the end of it. He sang along to the CD playing in the car for the few minutes he took him to get to his destination.
An hour and a half later, he emerged from the house, still happy. He paused in the driver’s seat for a moment, and tapped out a text message. The message sent, he reversed down the drive way and into the suburban street. He weaved his way through narrow residential streets, before hitting the highway again. His hair was still slightly damp, and he drove home with the window down to dry it before he got there.

Leann had finally convinced herself to drag her sorry arse out of bed when she heard David’s car pull up behind hers in the drive way. Her heart sank, presuming that he was either going to come in and want to argue about things, or would disappear out to the studio not to be seen until after dark. She presumed that seeing her car in the drive way would at least pique his interest, though.
Surely enough, the next sound she heard was the front door lock disengaging. She huddled over her tea mug on the table, letting her hair drape her face and obscure her features. So when he bounded up the hallway and shouted brightly, “Hi honey! Everything OK?” she frowned. This didn’t fit her gloomy picture.
She looked up as he walked into the room, and noticed the flash of concern on his face. She had been expecting anger, or annoyance, but not this.”Hey Lee … are you sick? Why didn’t you call me?”Leann just shook her head, stuck for words.”Anyway, did you get my text message?” he continued brightly from the kitchen. Cupboards banged loudly, the fridge opened and closed, cutlery and crockery clashed. He was apparently hunting for something to eat. “Man, I’m absolutely starving. I left early for that stupid family shoot, I hope I didn’t wake you up. Were you up very late? Tell you what,” he continued, as he prepared a sandwich, “let’s never have boys. At least, let’s never have three of them. Or if we do, let’s teach them how to be something other than short homicidal maniacs.” David reappeared at the kitchen table, only to be met with Leann’s blank stare.”What text message?” she asked softly.”Oh, I sent you a message about half an hour ago.” He said airily, “When I left the shoot”.”No. I didn’t get it. I mean, I haven’t checked my phone.” she stammered.David paused mid bite, and peered at her closely, “Are you OK Lea?” he asked again, “You look pale. Can I get you something? Tea maybe?”Leann nodded at her nearly full cup in response, cleared her throat a little, and said in a firmer voice, “What text message, Dave? What did it say?””Oh, not much, just that I thought you should have a chat to your boss about the part time thing. But you’re not at work, so I guess you haven’t”. He resumed the attack on his sandwich.Leann closed her eyes slowly, and just as languidly opened them again. A slow smile began to spread across her face, her features awash with her relief, the tension around her eyes suddenly slackening. She smiled gently, “No, I’m not at work.” she said softly, the corners of her mouth twisting in a wry little smile, “So I guess I haven’t.”

David was in his studio, going through the photographs from the shoot earlier in the day, while Leann created a new recipe in the house. She had the stereo on, blasting a hot sexy salsa, and she was dancing in the kitchen, incorporating the rhythms into the recipe. Twirling rapidly from the hot plate to the sink, shimmying from there to the cutting board, then sliding gracefully over to the oven to check on progress. She hummed to herself, danced for her own amusement, and cooked for her own pleasure. She was happy.
The phone suddenly rung, and she frowned a little in annoyance. Quickly, she grabbed the remote control on the bench top and turned the volume down, then grabbed the cordless handset off the table where it had been left, “Hello?” she enquired a little breathlessly.”Hi Sweetie, it’s Mum””Oh, hi Mum,” she answered, tucking the phone under her chin, and continuing to dice the potatoes. The blade of her knife flashed as mother and daughter went through the customary preliminary conversation. Her mother would have carried on forever about her varicose veins, Leann’s lack of children, and her father’s tendency to golf if Leann hadn’t eventually cut her off mid sentence with, “So, Mum, what’s up?””Well,” her mother harrumphed, “I’ve just been down to the shops and picked up this jar of curry sauce.”Leann rolled her eyes, said “Mmmm” without commitment, and started to fill a large saucepan with water to boil the spuds.”The thing is, you know that United Foods have just done that big redesign on all their jars?””No, I didn’t” Leann said, to no avail.Her mother barrelled straight on, “Of course you do. Anyway, I was looking at this jar because I was checking the salt content, and your father looked at it form the other side and said that the photograph looked very familiar. Well, I thought so too, but I wasn’t quite sure at first. But then I went and got my apron out – you know the one you bought me for my birthday last year? With the lovely picture on it of the chillies that David took?”Leann was only barely listening, she had the oven door open, and was busy extracting a spoonsful of sauce to test, “Uh-huh” she mumbled, blowing on the spoonful of sauce.”So I said to your father, ‘Richard, go and get that apron out of the cupboard for me so I can have a look’ because you know that I never wear it, I wouldn’t want to spill anything on it, I don’t think the picture would last properly if I washed it.””It will wash fine Mum, it’s designed to be used” Leann interjected, her mouth still smarting from the hot sauce. She turned to the spice cupboard, looking for paprika.”Yes, I know dear, but I don’t want to risk it. Anyway, when your father finally found the apron, we held it up to the jar of the sauce, and you are not going to believe this, but it’s looks just the same!”Leann suddenly felt a sudden drop in the pit of her stomach, “Mum? Are you sure?””Well, I’m not quite sure, I mean, it’s backwards on the jar, and it’s a little bit wonky on one side. And I think it’s got a little bit of a different colour in places. And it’s not as big as the one on the apron. Well, of course, because the big one on the apron wouldn’t fit on a little jar of curry sauce, would it?” she gave  a little laugh, “Did David do some work for United Foods?””No, he hasn’t …” Leann said slowly, standing still in the middle of the kitchen, her eyes fixed on the bubblling Osso Bucco casserole in the oven, but seeing only the picture of chillies. She knew it intimately, it had been a best-seller in the online store, especially on aprons, blazened with the words “Hot Stuff!” across the image. They were out of stock at the moment, and the back orders were piling up. She had called to hassle their supplier only that morning.”Well, it must be a different picture, then.” Her mother gave another litle titter of a laugh, “Silly me! My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, is it? Which reminds me, did I tell you about Ann? Not your sister, Anne, I mean Ann Frowley down the street. Well, she’s had cataracts would you believe? She says she is having them out next month …”Leann tuned out, let her mother ramble on for only a few more minutes, before finally cutting in with “Look, Mum, I have to go. I’ve got potatoes on the boil and need to take them off.””Oh, Okay. No trouble, Sweetie. Call me soon, alright? You know I love hearing what you’re getting up to. You and your sister are both too busy these days to bother calling your dear old Mum, I don’t want you both to forget that …””Yes, Mum.” Leann interrupted, “Yes, I know. I’ll call you. Thanks for ringing.” she rambled as she pulled the phone away from her ear, and inched her finger towards the ‘end’ button … “Yep, love you too Mum. Bye”
As soon the call was ended, Leann turned everything off in the kitchen, and headed out the back to talk to David.

At the supermarket, Leann and David ran straight to the pre-packaged foods section, and were taken aback by shelf after shelf of United foods products, all bearing David’s photographs. They stood for a moment, dumbfounded, and then Leann started walking up and down, lightly touching each different bottle or packet she found. “Dave?” she said softly.David was still standing back, staring slack mouthed at the sight before him, “Yeah?” he replied.”I think you had better go and get me a shopping trolley.” she said numbly.David did as he was told. By the time he returned wheeling a trolley with a recalcitrant left front wheel, Leann had her arms full of different bottles and jars of curry sauces, meal bases, and various flavourings and spices. She dumped them into the trolley haphazardly. “Who the hell buys this shit, anyway?” she mumbled under her breath. “Have you seen the ingredients on these things? Full of sugar, full of salt, and virtually no nutritional value whatsoever. It’s all salt and flavourings and artificial colours.” she ranted.When they were done in that aisle, they sought out the Asian foods aisle, and picked up as many products as they could find that they didn’t already have. By the time they got to the checkout, they had accumulated over one hundred dollars worth of United Foods products, and the checkout operator stared at them stupidly before asking, “Do you guys work for United Foods or something?””No.” David answered quickly.”Absolutely not!” Leann shouted at the same time.The checkout operator raised her hands quickly, “Okay, sorry. It’s just …” she waved her hand over the bags of sauces and meal bases, lost for words, “It’s just … well … that’s a lot of curry.” She finished helplessly.Leann leant in close to the frightened teenaged girl, lowered her voice, and hissed, “I like curry. Okay?””Okay, alright. No problem.” the girl hurriedly stammered. “Umm. Have a great night!” she added with false brightness.

Within an hour, Leann and David were at the kitchen table, surrounded by various United Foods prepackaged sauces, meal base powders, and curry pastes. Every single one of them bore one of David’s photographs. Most of them had been altered in some way – flipped, stretched, recoloured, cropped – but every single one of the photos was recognisable.
David had a portfolio out, the one that contained all the photographs from the blog. He was going through the photographs on the packages, critiquing each one, his artist’s eye picking out every subtle variation, every shadow that had been removed, every reflection that had been added.
Leann just sat and watched, dumbfounded.

24 October 2010
Well, tomorrow is the final day in court, with any luck. I know I’ve said that before, but this time it really should be. Our opponent – the complainant (and complain they do) – are attempting to argue their very final last-ditch argument to shut us down. We’ve spent the afternoon at the lawyer’s office, and we’re pretty sure it’s not going to fly for very long. Of course, it all comes down to who the magistrate is, though. Get one with half a brain, and we should be just fine.
On more practical matters, we finally found the time to put up another recipe or three. One is from the archives, but the other two are new. Please try them, and if you like them, why not order the photograph on a shirt or apron? Every one you buy now might be the last one we sell. And who wouldn’t want a limited edition LEanndAVID.com picture? We also have our donation box still operating, which is about the only thing feeding our ravaged legal team right now …

Leann had spent the morning at work, struggling to stay focused on the job, but constantly finding her mind wandering back to drafting the letter to United Foods. In her mind, it varied from coldly polite, to bitterly angry, to venomous, and back again.
Last night, David had spent hours analysing every last shadow, every single colour, but when he had finished, they had talked. It was as though he had spent the time sorting out the argument in his head while his mouth and eyes worked through the picture details. Leann was angry, and wanted to hire a solicitor and sue the lot of them. David was, as always, more level headed. He suggested writing a letter pointing out that United Foods had made use of copyrighted material, and see what they said.”They didn’t do this by accident, David” Leann pointed out archly.”You don’t know that. It could have been some work experience kid. Or someone who really didn’t know any better. It’s not hard to right click on a picture and save it. And the photos we have on the blog aren’t watermarked or anything.” David explained.”Yeah, well, they’ll be watermarked tomorrow, I can tell you. I have no intention of leaving them unmarked for someone else to steal.””I bet if we write a letter to them, they’ll realise they’ve made a mistake, they’ll send us an apology, and it will all be sorted in no time.”Leann grunted angrily. She wasn’t so sure about that.

United Foods3 Industrial WayGreatpark NSW
To Whom it May Concern.
I couldn’t help but notice that your entire product line has recently undergone a brand image update. As part of this redesign, your marketing department have chosen a series of photographic images to illustrate each product.
The images chosen all appear to have been taken from the picture recipe web site LEanndAVID.com. We are the owners of that website, and David Forrest is the photographer and copyright holder of all images contained on that site.
We assume you were unaware that the original artists had not granted permission for the use of these images you LYING PACK OF ARSE HOLES.

Leann swore aloud at the computer, erased the last sentence, and took a deep breath. She stared at the words she had typed, empty and ineffectual in their saccharine sweetness. Frustrated and angry, she got up from the computer desk, and paced around the room. Another deep breath, and she convinced herself to sit back down and complete the damned letter.

We assume you were unaware that the original artist has not granted permission for the use of these images, and would like to request that the images be immediately removed from all packaging.
If you wish to discuss this further, please contact us.
We trust this settles the matter,
[signed]Leann Roberts   David Forrest

It was past two o’clock in the morning when Leann finally got to bed that night, but by then all the photos available on the website had a large watermark image splashed across them, and the name of the website in large letters. They had been naive. She wasn’t going to let it happen again.

Wendy marched into Brendan’s office, waving a single sheet of plain white paper, a short letter printed on one side.She dispensed with the formalities, and instead stated “They’ve written to us, Brendan”.He looked up from where he was going through large colour prints of the redesigned product images from Creative. “Who have written what to us?” he asked, frowning at the intrusion.”The owners of the photographs, Brendan.” She lowered her half moon glasses on to her nose, and read from the letter dramatically, “They assume that we are unaware that the original artist has not granted permission for the use of the images”.Brendan leaned back in his chair and chuckled softly, “Unaware, huh? Yep. Definitely unaware. Tell you what, write them a letter back, stating that we created the images ourselves in our own marketing department. I’ll send a message down to Creative that the images all need to be manipulated in some way to differentiate them, we’ll just flip them around, crop them out, maybe change the background colour or something. Then we can argue that they’re not the same images at all. We obtained copyright on the new images as soon as we altered them.”Wendy stood, looking slightly shocked at Brendan’s audacity. She raised a perfectly plucked and re-coloured eyebrow at him in protest.”It’ll be fine Wendy. In the meantime, let’s cover our arses and get half a million dollars approved through finance in case we need to flash some cash at them.”Wendy continued to stare.”It’s still cheaper than a photographer of that man’s standard.” he pointed out.Wendy sighed, and turned on her heel. “You’re playing with fire.” she said softly as she walked out.Brendan pretended that he hadn’t heard her, and turned back to his proofs, tapping the top of his pen against his teeth as he looked over them.

Sweat poured from Leann’s body as she neared the end of her weights training session at the gym. She was lying down on the weight bench, straining to hold the weights upright without locking her elbows. Her face was red, and a grunt escaped her as she gradually lowered the weights, completely controlled, and dropped them back into position. Her arms dropped, feeling simultaneously like rubber bands and lead weights. She lay there for a moment, catching her breath, and then slid out from under the bar and sat up on the end of the bench. There was a double row of treadmills and stepping machines in front of her, and she watched an odd assortment of scantily clad bottoms jiggling to their own individual rhythms as the after work exercise fanatics walked to nowhere in their pursuit of fitness. Her eye was drawn to the bank of television sets descending from the ceiling as a commercial break came on all twelve monitors at the same time. A smiling plastic woman was cooking improbably coloured food in a wok, her smiling plastic son at her elbow. Her smiling plastic husband walked in to the clinically designed kitchen dressed in an impeccably neat suit, and gave her kiss on her plastic cheek. He stole some improbable food from the wok, and she smiled sweetly at him, instead of slapping his fingers with the hot spatula, as Leann would have done if David had tried that. The image dissolved into a product shot, and Leann gaped as the now familiar United Foods all in one stir fry sauce bottle appeared on the screen, adorned with one of David’s photographs. It was the one that went with her Thai red curry beef recipe. She lay back down and gave the weights another ten quick repetitions, fuelled by anger alone, and then got up and went to the showers.
In the changing room, with the shower on as hot as it would go, steam rising from her wet body, and her skin turning bright pink, she decided it was time to take further action. They had sent the letter a week ago. She would not wait any longer.

After two hours of drafting and redrafting, Leann finally sat back from the computer screen and read over the blog post she had created. It was good, she decided. Caustic, yes, but definitely good. She felt better. She wondered if anyone from United Foods would read it. She decided that they would – eventually. Someone would know someone who would tell someone who mattered. It wasn’t going to be long before the blog post was read at the highest levels of management within the company. And then heads would start to roll. Or so she hoped.
It wasn’t fair to expect that just because United Foods was a huge national company with billions of dollars worth of revenue that they could just go and take whatever the hell pictures of the internet that they wanted. They had the kind of advertising budgets that would allow them to hire their own photographers, their own chefs, their own product placement experts, their own food presentation artistes. They didn’t deserve to steal work that they relied on to keep a roof over their heads. They didn’t deserve to have people like them do the hard work for them.
They didn’t have any right to steal their work – their labour of love. And Leann would do whatever it took to make sure that they didn’t do it again. To them, or to anyone else.

David was washing up in the kitchen, cleaning the remains of the chicken parmigiana off the plates. He was chatting to Leann over the back of the couch as she lounged with a glass of wine, her feet up on one end. They both laughed as he described a photo shoot that he had done that day for a magazine, trying to make kids party food look appealing. Not to mention the kids eating the party food.
Before long, the conversation came around to United Foods, as it so often did at the moment. No letter had been received, no apology offered. Certainly no retraction. David felt disheartened, Leann just felt angry. She mentioned that she had put a rant about it on the website, and related its contents for him. David laughed, “You’re evil”, he pointed out.”Oh, I don’t know,” she replied airily, “It might be just what they need to get some action happening. God knows it certainly wasn’t happening before.””True.” David agreed, “I’m not sure it’s going to get us a positive result, though. It might just piss them off.”Leann suddenly turned serious, pushing herself up on to her elbows and using her wine glass to emphasis her point, “You know what? I hope it does. I hope it pisses them off. And not just the marketing department. I hope it pisses them all off, right up to the CEO. I hope it pisses them all off so royally that they actually think about what they have done, and realise that just because we’re plebeians doesn’t mean they can walk over us. We need to fight back, David. If we don’t fight back, what happens to the next person that they try to do this to? What happens when they steal someone else’s work and they don’t have the guts to fight back? What about when they steal someone else’s work and they don’t even notice? We have to fight. We owe to all the people they’ve already done this to … and to stop them from doing it to anyone else.”David nodded morosely. He wouldn’t have gone the same way about it, but he couldn’t argue with Leann’s reasoning. He sloshed plates around morosely in the soapy water for a few minutes more, and then decided to join Leann in a glass of wine on the couch instead.

David had more or less given up hope that they would ever hear anything from United Foods, let alone get any kind of retraction or compensation for the work. He was far from happy about it, but in his usual way had decided to just try and make the best of the situation. He didn’t care – or thought he didn’t care – enough to try and fight the copyright argument in the courts. He didn’t understand the law of copyrights enough to feel confident that he had done everything right, and United Foods everything wrong. He wondered if it wasn’t just better to let people know that they were his photographs anyway. Take the credit for them, without being officially notified. In a lot of ways, the use of his images was very flattering. It was testament to his ability, to his creativity, to his vision, that a company like United Foods wanted to use his work on not just one prouct, but their entire product line. Not enough to pay for it, unfortunately, he thought ruefully to himself, but then pushed that thought away again. He would focus on the positives. He decided to add the images to his portfolio, and if people thought that United Foods had paid him to do their product placement ads, then who was he to disabuse them of the notion?
All this was in his head as David drove home, a McDonald’s bag between his knees, and his steering wheel greasy from the fat on his hands. Leann was an amazing cook, and made the most incredible and tasty meals, and knew there would be another waiting for him when he got home tonight, even though he couldn’t remember what it was she was planning right now. But every so often he just wanted something tasty, salty, greasy, and completely devoid of any and all nutritional benefit. The once a week or so drive through indulgences were his secret, and would remain that way.
He pulled into the driveway behind Lean’s pale blue hatchback, and rummaged around in the glove box for a mint, fishing the last of the sticky bread from his teeth with his tongue. He balled up the rubbish, and threw it into the wheelie bin as he walked past, crunching the mint and swallowing it down. He noticed the mail hanging out of the letterbox, and grabbed it out. He was still fishing through the pile as he walked into the house.”Wow, dinner smells fantastic.” he called as came into the kitchen.Leann looked up from where she was stirring something in a saucepan, her face flushed and a stray strand of blonde hair snaking over her cheek and the side of her mouth. She smiled. “It’s just onion an bacon at the moment. Nothing to get excited over”.David pushed the strand of hair aside, and then kissed her softly, before looking back down at the pile of mail in his hand. As he flipped through the envelopes, his mouth made a little moue of surprise. He pulled the envelope out of the pile and held it up for Leann to see.Her eyebrows shot up as she noticed the distinctive logo of United Foods, the little globe bouncing happily beneath the words, as she had seen so many times before.Leann dropped the spatula back into the frying pan and grabbed the envelope out of his hand. She tore it open in a swift motion , and extracted a single piece of paper from it.”What does it say?” David asked urgently, trying to see what was written on the paper. She moved out of the way, and so he could only watch as her face fell slowly, and then hardened into an angry scowl. He almost didn’t need to hear the words as she read them aloud:

Dear Ms Roberts and Mr Forrest,
Thank you for your correspondence. We understand your consternation, but wish to point out that the photographs used in our recent “Fresh Face of United Foods” product redesign campaign were all produced in our very own United Foods marketing and public relations departments.
We apologise for any confusion.
Yours sincerely.
[signed]Brendan MalcolmUnited Foods Product Manager

“Apologise for any confusion?!” Leann muttered, not quite under her breath.David just looked morose.”They APOLOGISE?! For any CONFUSION?!” Leann said again, more emphatically this time.David repeated “confusion” softly, breathlessly, and shook his head sadly. He looked like an old, sad dog, muttering and shaking his head, his whole face lax and depressed.Leann was just getting started, though, “They APOLOGISE for any fucking confusion!” she yelled, finally, “Like there’s any confusion at all! No, mister Brendan I have a first name for a last name Malcolm United Foods product Manager, the only CONFUSION here seems to be in your own head. Unfortunately, you seem to have confused US for people who are going to get taken in with your bullshit!” She looked up from the letter, and stared into David’s miserable face, pointing with the corner of the letter in her hand, jabbing at him to make her point, “And you know what? I’m not going to take it. I will NOT stand here while some fucking bureaucrat steals your work! You deserve better, Dave, and I’m not going to let them take this off you.”David looked up, his eyes flashed with the barest reflection of Leann’s anger, and he turned to the stove. “You’re burning the onions” he said very softly, and picked up the spatula to stir them. They were black, and probably beyond rescue.”I don’t care about the fucking onions!” Leann yelled, “I don’t care about them, I care about you. About your work. And I care about what United Foods and Mister Brendan fucking Malcolm are doing to us.”The fire alarm in the dining room suddenly broke into shrieks, masking the sound of Leann’s sobs, as she broke down into tears. Tears of anger, tears of frustration, but most of all, tears of impotence.

David felt the grease from his earlier take away settle in the pit of his stomach, congealed there like a great glob of fat that had been scraped out of a deep fryer after too many batches of chips.  It didn’t matter that dinner had started out as a gourmet quality pasta and sauce, with sprigs of fresh basil and free range grilled chicken, and ended up as toast. He wasn’t able to eat any of it. He felt ill. United Foods knew they had stolen the images, and did not care a jot about it. They knew – or at least thought they knew – that he was too small, too unwilling, or too unable to fight back. And they were right, how could they fight a multi-billion dollar national company? He wouldn’t mind so much if they had just apologised, and then gone on their merry way, he realised. It wasn’t abuot money, it was about recognition of his art, his creations. But a company like that was about as willing to make a confession of guilt as they were to murder a few kittens on national television. They would deny knowledge until the moment that a court proved they had done it, and then continue to deny it even while they were found guilty of copyright infringement. Companies like that had money to burn on corporate lawyers, the best barristers, and a small army of paralegals, all willing to toe the party line, and do what it took to keep the story out of the press, out of the public eye, and miles away from tarnishing their shiny public image. And they didn’t care who they had to crush in order to do it. Especially if that person was some two bit small town photographer with a passion and a conscience. It had taken a while, but the very beginning glimmer of anger was starting to rise in the pit of David’s stomach, and United Foods were doing nothing but fanning it.

If David had a glimmer of anger growing within him, Leann had a raging bush fire. She was completely consumed by the force of her ire. She stomped around the house yelling for a while before throwing herself into her desk chair in frustration. She started typing, not even paying attention to what she was writing at first, just letting the words flow out unfettered. Before long though, she started to come back to herself, and read what she was writing. It started to form into cohesive sentences, logical thought progression, and whole ideas, instead of a meaningless angry rant. The more she wrote, the more she realised that people needed to understand what United Foods were doing. It wasn’t just about stopping injustice against small artists now, but about telling the world what this evil corporation were doing. You didn’t need to be an artist to appreciate that what United foods were doing was wrong, immoral, unfair and just plain mean. Before she’d even thought it through properly, the word ‘boycott’ had slipped from her digital pen, and an idea solidified in her mind.
Within the hour, the “Boycott United Foods” website was up and running, and news of it had been sent out to every single person she had ever had any online contact with. Word began to spread.

20 October 2010
We received the discovery documents from the other side today. They arrived with mere hours to spare. We almost thought we were going to have to get a new court date thanks to them stuffing us around yet again. Their expensive legal team doesn’t seem to have done anything too much to earn their presumably extraordinary hourly rate. There’s nothing new in the documents that we didn’t already know, so that’s something of a relief. We’re keeping our defence very close to our chest , of course, but we’re at the eleventh hour now, and everything is still looking good for us. Send good luck vibes our way. Oh, and money. We need that too. There’s a PayPal donation box in the sidebar. Please help!

The ringing cut into Brendan’s confused dreams, and he lay in bed confused for a heart beat before working out what the incessant bells meant. He reached out a hand, discovered the cordless phone wasn’t on his bedside table where it belonged, and decided it wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. The red illuminated numbers on the clock read 5:42. He had managed only four hours sleep. He lay motionless in bed, his eyes open – awake now – and listened as the answering machine in the kitchen kicked into gear.”Hello, you have called Brendan Malcolm! I’m not about right now, but I’m probably not too far away. Please leave a message and I will call you back just as soon as I can! Cheerio!” his own voice sounded chirpy and surreal in the darkness, it’s digitized enunciation a parody.”Oh .. ah … Hi Brendan, it’s Wendy. I think you need to get in to the office. We’ve got a problem. It’s … uh … not quite six. I know it’s early, but … well, this is important. If I haven’t heard from you within the next few minutes, I’ll try again soon.” There was a slight hesitation, and then the machine registered a clatter, and the phone line went dead. The answering machine resolved into a series of beeps, piercing Brendan’s sleep addled brain, and ensuring he was completely awake.Reluctantly, he rolled out of bed, and padded to the bathroom. He swore to himself for perhaps the millionth time that he was going to start working shorter hours. He knew even as he said it that he wouldn’t. A corporate career relied on puttting in the extra effort, he knew. Arriving at 6am and leaving at ten was expected if you wanted to be considered a valuable employee. Too climb the corporate ladder, you needeed to earn your position. You did that by forfeiting sleep, he thought to himself.

David started sneezing. The spices were starting to get up his nose. He tried to hold it in, worried that he would disturb the product for the photographs. He was doing product photography for a local spice blend company, and was hoping that he could score a few samples for Leann. She loved seeing how different people blended things in new and interesting ways. He had begun drooling right at the moment that he had stepped into the small professional kitchen this morning, but the rich smells were starting to grate on him a little now. He was craving fresh air. Vintu and Alistair, the owners, were cooking something new for him to photograph now, though, so he wasn’t going to be out for at least another hour he realised. It took a lot of time to cook, plate, present, and photograph each individual dish. On the bright side, he at least got to eat the curries once they were finished with them, and even reheated they were still good. He finished snapping photographs of samosas just as Alistair brought a hot saucepan into the tiny dining room he was in, the chicken tikka masala still sizzling slightly. Grace bustled over fron where she had been sitting, found a plate amongst the hundreds in the cabinet, and set about plating the curry. David had worked with Grace many times before. She had a flair for food presentation that he had never seen in anyone else before. They got along with each other well, and together they had created prize winning displays with all different kinds of food, including one memorable experience with giant pumpkins at a rural show. The photograph had ended up being sold to a newspaper and, later, to one of the growers of the enormous vegetables. It now adorned his massive public dining room that had been converted from a sheep shearing shed, and now played host to all manner of concerts and events.Grace laughed suddenly, and David tuned back in to the conversation. Alistair was explaining how Vintu grew all the spices herself in the back yard, and was mimicking his wife gardening, throwing his hands up in the air dramatically exclaiming about weeds in a tremulous falsetto.
At that moment, Vintu herself walked in and Alistair and Grace giggled behind their hands like naughty school children. Vintu mock scolded them in an accent so crisp you could feel each syllable, and laughed primly to herself, enjoying her own joke, “You be careful, Alistair, or you will end up without any spices to cook with at all.”He laughed, and retorted, “So then what will you have for dinner? I will have to make you a United Foods curry, from a jar.”Vintu pretended to retch, hamming as though she were going to throw up, before laughing again, loudly. In the meantime, Grace had been rummaging around for some coriander to garnish the dish with. She poked it into the curry very carefully and then presented it to the couple with a flourish, “No United Foods curry has ever looked this good!” she said proudly.David harrumphed loudly, “Yeah, too right.” he said, “Even if the photographs do.”Grace frowned, and Vintu demanded that he explain.”They stole my photographs off our website, and used them on all their packaging.” he explained. “And then when we asked them to remove the photographs, they denied that they were even mine.” David’s face flushed pink as he heard the whining note creeping into his own voice. “Leann got so mad she started up a website, trying to convince people to boycott them.””Well, I’ll boycott them without any website telling me to!” Vintu declared.Grace looked miserable, “Gee, I’m really sorry to hear that, David. Your photography is stunning, you deserve to be recognised. I’ll definitely check out Leann’s site. Can I tell my friends?””Please do,” David said, touched, “the more people know about it, hopefully the better we can send a message to United Foods that we won’t just stand by and watch them do this.” With that, he drew his camera up to his face and started photographing the curry, to hide his blush.

Brendan wandered out of the elevator on the fourteenth floor, a larg paper coffee cup in one hand, his laptop bag slung over one shouldr, and stubble thick on his chin. He stopped by Wendy’s glassed-in cubicle and realised she wasn’t there. He headed over to his own office, intending to drop his laptop bag on his desk and wait for her to arrive. On the way he, ducked his head into the conference room in the middle of the floor, and saw Wendy with her laptop out at one of the white table cloth covered dining tables at the back of the room, near the windows. She had a laptop open in front her, the power cable snaking across the floor to a point in the wall. She was staring off into the distasnce through the window. Brendan noted that the sun was fully up now, and while the streets still were not crowded, it was only a matter of time before the morning Sydney commuter rush started. He knocked lightly on the door to get her attention, and Wendy jumped at the intrusion.”Oh! Brendan, hi! Thanks for coming in so early.””No problem at all,” Brendan lied, still thinking of his lost sleep. he felt as though he lived at the office some days, and just went hom to shower ocassionally. He moved into the room proper, placed his own laptop bag on the table next to Wendy’s, and noticed the lines around her eyes. She hadn’t gotten much sleep, either, he realised. She looked dishevelled all over, actually, he realised. He tried to remember what clothes she ahd been wearing the before and couldn’t, so he had no way of telling if she’d been home last night or not. “So, what’s bothering you?” he asked, and took another mouthful of coffee from the paper cup.”We’ve got problems.” Wendy said, staring directly at him, her eyes dull.”What? New ones?” he joked.”Yeah. Well, old ones blowing up, maybe.”Brendan waited for her to continue.”There’s a site just gone live called boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com. I’ve been trying to trace the information, and I can’t prove it yet, but I have a pretty good hunch our boy wonder photographer is behind it.” She paused, eyeing his coffee cup jealously, and then continued, “But in all my digging I did find out something very interesting.”Brendan looked up from contemplating the tablecloth, and said, “Yeah?””Yeah. Photo boy has a girlfriend – her name is Leann Roberts. Want to know who she works for?” She didn’t wait for an answer before saying, “Infologic Systems.” with a flourish.”Who’s that?” Brendan asked, clueless.Wendy looked deflated, rolled her eyes, and explained “They’re the people who maintain United Foods’ website. Didn’t you know that?””No, I’d never thought about who did that.” Brendan paused, thinking. “Listen, I think I’ve got an idea about how to handle this, but I need more caffeine. Why don’t you come for a walk with me down to the kitchen, and we can work out the details.””Sounds good.” Wendy replied, and then stifled a yawn as she got up and started packing away her laptop, “It’s been a long night.”
By the time the sun was setting again, turning the fourteenth floor offices into a cacophony of red and purple streaks, an anonymous phone call had been made to the Legal department. The informant had told them that a woman named Leann Roberts had used her work connection to hack into the unitedfoods.com group of websites. Within an hour of the notification, the websites had been secured further than evr before, a company wide password reset had been set in place, and Infologic Systems had been informed of the breach, and that they were about to lose their most lucrative contract if something didn’t happen with the culprit within the next twenty four hours. They strongly recommended that she be given her marching orders.

Within a week of the site going live, boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com had been blogged by most of the major food-related blogs, and many of the smaller ones. People had discussed it on Twitter for days, and it now had its own hash tag on the site to make it easier to follow the conversation. It was only three weeks old when the anonymous email address that Leann had used to set up the site started getting requests for interviews. She responded to them all in writing, and left the emails unsigned.

On Monday, Leann arrived at her desk late. It had been a long stress filled weekend, and when the alarm had gone off this morning, Leann had just about thrown it against the wall in her frustration and anger.  Eventually she had dragged herself through the shower, made a passing attempt at dressing, make up and hair, and despite pushing her hatchback as fast as it would go down the highway, missed her usual train by more than five minutes. She waited at the station, pacing the full length of the platform as the minutes ticked slowly past.
By the time she had completed the train journey and walked the few blocks to the office, she was in a foul mood. She walked into her cubicle, dumped her handbag on the floor under her desk, and pressed the power button on her desktop computer. It came humming to life as she collapsed into her office chair and grabbed her headset. She entered her login details and password on the computer terminal, and thumbed the telephone system into life as the welcome splash screen faded with the discordant jangle of its electronic fanfare.”Welcome to Infologic Development Systems, this is Leann. Can I please start with your customer number?” she prattled efficiently. The young harried sounding man on the other end of the phone was flustered for a second, as though caught off guard, and then read off a number. She tapped it into the customer management software program on her computer, and then listened as he broke into a babbling string of issues. She offered monosyllables to urge him to continue, and as he did her eyes settled on the cacophony of papers and stationery on her desk. Laying on top was a yellow post it  note, its black letters highlighted in green. The words stood out bold, almost yelling at her: “Come and see me in my office as soon as you get in. -Gary”. Her heart sank, and her stomach clenched. Was it  because she was late? Surely not, it was only 20 minutes. She completed the call as soon humanly possible, and switched her phone off again.
As she walked through the cube farm on her way to the boss’s glass-walled office, some people looked up and said hi with a wave or a nod, others simply ignored her – either on calls or absorbed in their own work. As each step brought her closer to the office, it seemed her confusion grew. She approached the office, and could see Gary leaning over his desk, writing, his face a study of concentration. It was a facade, though, she knew. She was within ten paces of the office door when he looked up, saw her, and smiled. She knew instantly that it was a very measured action, planned from the moment she had stepped into the corridor, and performed to perfection. He did it every time, she was well used to him sitting in his office and watching for people moving around the office, like a watchful lion, sitting in the field and surveying his domain.
He got out of his chair with perfect timing to meet her at the door. He opened it with a flourish, and turned his practised smile on his subordinate, “Leann!” he said with false affection, “How are you my dear? Sit down, sit down.” he gestured towards the visitors chair at his desk, as he settled into his own high-backed executive chair. Leann perched on the edge, putting her arms down straight at her sides, her hands grippi8ng the edge of the seat.    She noticed that her palms were sweaty, even though she had no reason to believe that he had called her into his office for anything problematic. Maybe he’s going to offer me a pay rise, she thought to herself, and nearly laughed aloud.”Running late this morning, Leann?” Gary asked, more a statement than a question, she noticed.”Ah, yeah. Just a little bit. I missed the train.” Leann stammered, “sorry”, she added as an after thought.”Never mind. Make sure you let me know if it’s going to be more than half an hour or so, though, please.””Yeah, of course. No trouble at all.” Leann waited to find out what the real reason for this meeting was.”Leann, I don’t know how much you understand about the other divisions in this company.”Leann looked puzzled, “Umm. A bit. I mean, I know we do software development, and also some web development. And then there’s marketing and finance and internal infrastructure, of course. And us, naturally, the help desk.””Customer Support Management Services” Gary corrected, almost absently.”Yeah, CSMS, I mean.” She paused, still waiting.”Okay, so you know we do website development then.” he paused, and for the first time ever, Leann sensed that he seemed uncertain. His charisma seemed to flicker for just a second, and she caught a glimpse of the man he really was, not just the corporate animal he showed to his employees. “One of our customers – one of our very large customers, I might add – one of our customers has got a problem.”Leann raised an eyebrow. What did any of this have to do with her?”It seems as though someone – someone outside, a member of the public – has got a bit of a vendetta against them. This person wants to see the company suffer, and is doing some things to make that happen.”Leann sat there, confused, and waited for Gary to get to the point.”Well, they seem to think that you might know something about it.””Huh?” Leann said stupidly. “What the hell would I know about anything like that?” she retorted, affronted.Gary held his hands up in supplication, the relief clear on his face, “Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. But I’ve had this memo about it, and I thought I’d better ask you about it. I told them I doubted you had anything to do with it, but I’ve got to be seen to be doing the right thing. Anyway, I trust you, Leann. And if you say you had nothing to do with it, then that’s good enough for me. If you do find anything out though, if you … I don’t know, hear something in the lunch room or whatever. Let me know, won’t you?””Yeah, for sure.” she said, still slightly puzzled. “Is that all?” she asked, half rising.”Oh yeah, sure. That was all. Thanks for clearing that up.” he gave a rehearsed smile as she stood up and moved towards the door. Leann had one hand on the door, and was about to step through when a thought struck her and she turned around, “Which company? Which website?” she asked.Gary looked up from where he had returned to his paperwork, looking slightly distracted, “Hmmm? Oh, it was unitedfoods.com.” he said absently, “But you didn’t hear that from me.” and then put his head back down.Leann paused for only a moment before forcing herself to regain her composure, and stalking back to her desk.

“They’ve found me out” she announced breathlessly as she walked into the house that evening.”Who have found what out?” David called from the bathroom.”United Foods” she responded as she took off her shoes and flung them into the bedroom on her way past. “They’ve worked out that the boycott site is me.” she continued.David came out of the bathroom, wrapping a towel around his waist. “How?” he asked. His hair was still wet, and he had a smattering of water droplets across his shoulder blades.”Dunno” she shrugged, “But Gary called me into his office today. Apparently United Foods have asked that the company track me down and quiz me about it.””What did you say?” David asked, running his hands roughly through his wet hair.”Not a lot. I didn’t realise what he was talking about until later on, he was being as vague as usual about the details. So I ended up acting suitably clueless.” she wrapped her arms around his damp shoulders. “Don’t bother getting dressed.” she said softly.David grinned, as he returned her hug, and kissed her on the nose, “Okay.” he agreed quickly. “You’re subversive and obnoxious and a pain in the butt. But you’re still amazingly sexy.””And I can cook” Leann reminded him, as her lips found his.”How about we worry about that part later on?” he replied, and led her to the bedroom.

Brendan marched into Wendy’s cubicle.”Have we got an email address for photo boy and his girl friend?””Yeah, I have three – one for the Boycott United Foods site, and one each for the pair from their recipe site.” She paused. “Why?””We haven’t got the approval on the payment yet, but hopefully Legal have them running scared already. The woman – what’s her name again? I can never remember it …””Leann?””Yeah, Leann, that’s her. Hopefully she’s been kicked out of her job already, or is at least close to it. They’ll be panicking by now, surely. Let’s ramp things up a little, and contact them. Tell them you’re ready to do a deal. Give them your direct number and wait for them to call though. Don’t discuss any details over temail, we don’t want things in writing.”Wendy nodded, a sly smile creeping on to her face. “You know something, Brendan? You are an evil man …”Brendan smiled and gave a slight bow as he stepped back out of the tiny room, “Why thank you, Wendy. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”Wendy laughed as Brendan swept an imaginary cap off his head, and backed out of the office.

Clicking through email on the Boycott United Foods email address, Leann binned most of them without even reading them. A lot of spam, a lot of people with messages of support, a small number of insane trolling rants. She had made the mistake of reading a few of those, but had given up before too long. Poorly spelled, barely understandable language, and nut job arguments made them a waste of time. When you had hundreds of emails to get through daily, they weren’t worth the minor giggle value they provided. She was so busy deleting emails that she nearly sent the one marked “Action Required: Urgent Message from United Foods” as well. At the last minute, she opened it instead:

Leann and David,
We understand why you have started this movement. Please contact our office on 02 9238 1452 to discuss settlement of this matter.
Yours Sincerely,United Foods.

Leann laughed aloud. Yeah right, she thought. As though it was even a real United Foods representative sending that. She checked the email address it had been sent from: “noone@unitedfoods.com.au”. It did nothing to convince her – the United Foods domain was unitedfoods.com, without the .au suffix. She was a bit disturbed at the frank addressing of the email to “Leann and David”, but decided that someone had just put two and two together, and made a good guess. She wondered if United Foods had done that themselves, too. Were they that smart?
When she got to work the next morning, there was an email in her work email inbox from noone@unitedfoods.com.au as well. She felt a flutter in her stomach this time, despite convincing herself that it wasn’t anyone from within the company. She double clicked on the subject, opened the body of the email address:

Leann,
We’re serious about the settlement. Please call.
Unless you don’t want this resolved?
Yours sincerely,United Foods

What a ridiculous concept. Of course she wanted it resolved. She wanted nothing more than to have it resolved. She didn’t think that this person was going to offer them that though, even if it was a genuine United Foods representative. And why would a large company write such cryptic emails anyway? It was very unprofessional.
Leann brought up the white pages in her browser, and tapped in United Foods. She located the phone number for the central head office in Sydney – 02 8138 1444 – and hesitated for just a second before calling the number from her mobile phone.”United Foods, how can I direct your call?””Oh hi, my name is Mandy Johnson, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of a problem. You see, I met one of your employees at a conference about a week ago, and he gave me his extension number, but I’m afraid I … well, this is a little embarassing … but I’ve forgotten his name.””Oh, I see.” the receptionist responded frostily, “I don’t think I’m permitted to give out that information, I’m sorry.””Oh, sure, I see.” Leann said sadly, “Ummm. You see it’s …” she gave a girly giggle, trying to get the woman on side, “You see, he was just … oh, just stunning. I mean really gorgeous. I was hoping I could get in touch with him again so I could, ah … well …” she let the sentence hang, and was rewarded with the sound of soft laughter.The receptionist dropped her voice, as though she were afraid of being overheard, “Ohhh, I see. Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt. What’s the number, honey?””It’s 8138 1452” Leann replied quickly, before the woman changed her mind.She could hear the sound of finger taps on a keyboard, then a pause, “The man’s name is Waterhouse …” she said, reading from the database, “First name … Wendy? Honey, what was that number again?”Leann hung up in a hurry. Her heart was racing. But she had a name – Wendy Waterhouse was noone@unitedfoods.com.au. She called up the Boycott United Foods web email account, hit the “Compose New Mail” button, and began typing.
The email complete, she hesitated for just a moment, her finger poised on the mouse button, the cursor resting on “Send Email”. Then, she took a deep breath, and clicked. She envisioned the email being converted to binary form, the ones and zeroes flashing across the copper lines of the telephone network, and reforming on Wendy Waterhouse’s computer screen. She wondered what Wendy’s face would look like when she saw her own name written there. The idea made her smile.
There was still no response in her inbox when she got home that night, and she felt almost disappointed. Leann got up early the next morning, and still nothing. She checked it obsessively all that day, and the next. Eventually, talking about it with David over a lamb tagine that night, they decided that either the email address was not genuine in the first place, and the phone number just happened to match a real United Foods employee by chance; or that Wendy really was serious, and was arranging things to be able to put an offer on the table. Leann couldn’t decide which of those options she preferred.

Wendy saw the email from mail@boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com and her heart immediately began to race. She clicked on it, waited impatiently for the fraction of a second that it tok the mail program to fetch the full text from the server, and display it on her screen.

Hi Wendy,
Any settlement you want to do can be done over email. What are your terms?
Yours sincerely,boycottunitedfoods.com

Wendy took a deep breath, and picked up the phone, her finger poised over the speed dial button that would connect her to Brendan’s office, before realising that whoever had written the email – Leann she assummed – had referred to her by name. How the hell had she gotten her name?

David was checking his own email on his iPhone, in the car between photo shoots. He was eating an apple with one hand, and was trying not to get sticky juice on the gadget with the other when he stopped suddenly, startled. There in his inbox was an email from the now notorious “noone@unitedfoods.com.au”. He double clicked on it, and nearly choked on the piece of apple he was chewing on:

Hi David,
United Foods are ready to make you an offer. Please call on 02 9238 1452 to discuss settlement of this matter.
Yours sincerely,United Foods

“Do they think I’m an idiot?” he mumbled to himself, swallowing the fruit. He punched numbers on the touch screen of his phone, and waited impatiently for Leann to pick up her mobile.”Hi Gorgeous.” she answered brightly, “What’s up?””United Foods is what’s up! Wendy has sent me an email.””Oh?” Leann replied, curious, “She took her time. What’s it say?””The same thing she sent to you as far as I can tell. They want to settle, and gave me a phone number. Signed United Foods, but it came from the noone email address.””What’s the phone number?” Leann asked.”One sec”. David pulled the phone away from his ear, and flicked back to the email. He read the number aloud, and could hear Leann checking things on her own phone.Eventually, she came back on the line, “Yeah, that’s Wendy.” she confirmed. “What is this woman up to? Does she think we don’t talk to each other?””I don’t know. Maybe she thinks that if she can’t get you to call her, maybe I will. Sounds daft though. Everything we do on the website is a joint effort, so she’s got to know that we are working together.””Maybe she thinks I’m the mastermind behind it all, or something. Remember that I’m the one doing most of the boycott stuff. I wonder if they connect me to it more because of my job? The company developed their website, so maybe they think I have special knowledge or something?””Dunno” David grunted, and took another bite of his apple.”Anyway, I’ve got to get back to work. How’d the shoot go this morning?””Oh, good. ” he said non-noncommittally through a mouthful of fruit, “I’ve got to get going too, though. Just wanted to let you know about that.””Yeah, thanks. I guess we need to work out what our next move is going to be.””Yep. I’ll see you tonight.””Okay. Love you.””You too” David rang off, hastily munched the rest of his apple, and threw the core out of the window. He backed out of the carpark, and headed off to his next appointment, his brain still whirring.

“Brendan Malcolm, Marketing” he sang into the phone.”Malcolm. Franton here.” the finance man stated shortly.”Hello, Mister Franton, how are you?” Brendan asked politely.”I’ve got a request here for a one-off payment of five hundred thousand dollars to one David Forrest.””Yes?””Did you authorise this?””Yes. I did.” Brendan acknowledged.”Well, it’s been denied.”Brendan squeezed his eyes shut. Shit, he thought. He took a deep breath in an attempt to keep his voice even. “Okay. Thank you Mister Franton. I appreciate you letting me know.””Welcome.” Franton statedThe phone went dead in Brendan’s hand. Brendan put his hands up to his forehead, and laid his head down on the desk. The cool wood did nothing to ease the headache that had sprung up suddenly behind his eyes. “Shit.” he said again, this time out loud.

That night, still picking pieces of steak and prawns from between their teeth, David and Leann hunched over the computer. Signed in to the Boycott United Foods email address, they composed a new message.

Hi Wendy,
We will not call you. If you are – as you say – ready to cut a deal, then go ahead and tell us your terms so we can consider them.
In the meantime, we offer some terms of our own: Take the infringing photographs off all stock within 14 days and issue a public apology to LEanndAVID.com. In return, the Boycott United Foods site will go dark, and we will leave you alone.
If you don’t want to agree to our terms, either offer some of your own, or sit back and watch as we ramp up the campaign to hurt your company in as many ways as we can. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, people will see your products on the shelf and think “that’s the company that steals people’s intellectual property”.
Yours sincerely.Boycott United Foods

“I don’t know …” David said.”I like it.” Leann stated happily, “It’s lovely. It’s demanding and caustic. It’ll put the wind up her.””I think it’s too harsh. I think it’s just going to piss her off, dig her heels in more.””Did you really think she was about to offer us a million dollars for the photos?” Leann asked, incredulously.”We-elll … maybe. I mean, she might have …” David stammered.Leann gave a barking laugh, “Yeah, right. They’ve got no intention of that, and never had. I say we go after them. We can’t let them get away with this David. Put it this way, if someone took a bunch of my recipes and published them in their own bstselling recipe book, you’d go out there and scream blue bloody murder wouldn’t you?””We-elll …” David repeated.”Wouldn’t you?” Leann insisted.”Yeah, I guess so. But only because they’re yours. I mean, it’s my job to look after you …”Leann silenced him with a furious glance, “Yeah, and what do you think I’m doing? It’s not actually your job to look after me, but you do anyway. And I look after you. And that’s what I’m doing. It’s about protecting you, your art. I won’t let them steal this from you. Your photography is good enough to be on products like that, David, but they should be there with your name on them, with good money in your pocket for you. Just because they’re a big company doesn’t mean they have the right to stel it off you.” Leann stopped, breathing heavily, her face flushed.David sighed, “I can see your point, honestly I can. I just don’t know if it’s worth it. This is a big can of worms, they’re a big company with lots of money. We can’t afford to fight this – we don’t have the time and we don’t have the money.””No, but we have a lot of supporters. Let’s get them to help. Let’s find out if they’ll donate to the cause. There might even be a copyright lawyer out there … We have to fight, David. If we let them win, let them take your work without paying for it, how are we going to have the time and the money to keep going? And what about all the other struggling artists that don’t have fans to help them? What’s United Foods going to do to them?”David nodded again, “Okay, Okay. I get the point. But don’t send the email tonight while you’re all fired up. Let it rest for a little while. Overnight. Okay?”Leann nodded, “Okay. I can do that. I don’t think I’m likely to change my mind, though, to be honest.””That’s alright. Just let’s sleep on it first.”
In the morning Leann got up and pressed send on the email. That afternoon, her world exploded.

“This is insane.” Brendan muttered into his sandwich.”They’re not going to go away, Brendan.” Wendy pointed out. The sound of him chewing was grating on her nerves, and all she wanted to do was to get out of the office as fast as she could, and go and eat her own lunch somewhere. In the stationery storage cupboard, maybe, she thought ruefully, where there’s no computers to deal with, and no emails, and no sandwich chewing managers to listen to.”No, you’re right.” he said thoughtfully, before taking another bite of his lunch.”We are going to have to drop it. We don’t have the money to buy them out, let’s just pull the images from the packaging now, cut the production run short, and get something else on there quickly. The fuss will die down and hopefully it won’t hurt us too much.”Brendan was thinking. He swallowed loudly, and then said thoughtfully, “Or we could fight them.””I think the fighting has gone on long enough, now, don’t you? Seriously?””The fight has just begun Wendy. It’s just begun.”
His lunch finished, and his plan thought through, Brendan placed another call upstairs to the United Foods’ legal division. The department had been re-arranged in the past few days, and Leann Roberts now warranted her own case manager, in the form of Francis (“Just call me Frank”) Dupree. Brendan was transferred through to him after speaking to two secretaries and a personal assistant. Once he had gotten through, he discussed the case with Frank, and learned that Leann was still – for the moment at least – at her position with Infologic Systems.”For the moment, anyway.” Frank said, almost laughing, “That’s likely to change … ahh … tomorrow. Probably. Maybe Thursday.”Brendan paused slightly, uncomfortably, and then changed the subject, “Do you know about that Boycott United Foods web site?””Of course I do. Doesn’t everyone? We’re all in a spin about it up here let me tell you. Why? What do you know about it?””Well, you didn’t hear this from me, you understand …” Brendan hesitated.”No, of course not.” Frank was quick to respond, too quick maybe.”Well, the man behind it goes by the name of David Forrest.” Brendan said, almost in a whisper, although there was no one to overhear him, “That’s with two R’s.” he clarified.There was a pause on the other end of the phone, as the lawyer wrote down the name. “Is that all you know?””Isn’t that enough?” Brendan asked archly.”There is probably more than one David Forrest in the world you know. But that’s alright. We’ll find him.””Right. Good. Remember, you didn’t hear that from me.””Who are you?” Frank asked lightly, joking with him.Brendan did not find the joke amusing. He said good bye politely and hung up the phone. He had felt smart when he came up with this plan, but hearing the glee in the legal man’s voice over prosecuting this pair was just a little close to home. He checked the clock – it was only three o’clock, but he decided to log off and go home anyway. He needed some sleep.

4 October 2010
We went to court today to get the date set for the criminal hearing. Another wasted day, really, sitting around watching drunk drivers be fined and have their licences taken off them. But, we have a date – the 25th of October. Come one, come all! We would love to have your support in the court room on the day.

Leann was at home, working on a blog post, when she heard a solid knock on the door. She stood up, frowning at the distraction, and walked to the front door. She opened it, only to be confronted by a police officer in full uniform. He frowned at her.”I’m looking for a Mister David Andrew Forrest.” he stated, as though he expected Leann may be him.”Uh, he’s out.” she said shortly. The police officer raised an eyebrow in disbelief, and waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t.Eventually, he pulled a business card from inside the back cover of his notebook and handed it to her. She took the proffered card but didn’t look down at it. “My name is Senior Constable Frank Proud.” he stated eventually. “I would like to speak to Mister Forrest in relation to Section 474.17 of the Crimes Act, which is Using a Carrier Service to Harass, Menace or Offend. Dos he reside here?”Leann reeled, “Yea-ahh.” she said hesitantly.”Can you contact him Ma’am?””I can … get a message to him, yes.””Okay. Can you please ask him to contact me as soon as possible. The number is on the card.” He flipped open his notebook and produced a pen from nowhere, “Your name ma’am?”Leann stammered, her mind going blank, “Umm. Ahh, I’m Leann Roberts.””Date of birth?””Um … twenty ninth of February. Nineteen Seventy Six.”He raised an eyebrow, and Leann rolled her eyes, a conditioned response. “Yes really.” she stated drily.Proud scratched the figures in his notebook, and Leann watched him put a big question mark next her birth date.”Just get Mister Forrest to call me please, Ms Roberts.” he  said, snapping his book closed, and making it disappear. Leann nodded, but he had already turned and headed off back to his unmarked car, parked at the curb. Leann closed the door, and rested her head against the cool glass centre pane. She could feel her heart pounding, her pulse racing. She listened to the sounds of her body for just a moment before shaking herself, giving a quick laugh at her own reactions, and then heading back into the office to find the phone and call David.

David was just getting into the car after the second day of shooting at at the spice company. He unlocked the compact four wheel drive with the remote, and Grace ducked around to the passenger side to get in just as he heard the iPhone in his pocket start to jangle. He fished it out, and thumbed the touch screen to answer as he got in behind the wheel.”Hey Gorgeous.” he said happily, shifting the car into reverse and preparing to back out of the tiny carpark.”Hi.” Leann responded coldly, “I’ve just had the cops around here.”David shoved the car roughly back into park, and shoved his foot back on the brake. “You’ve had what?” he said incredulously. He could feel Grace’s stare boring into the side of his head, but couldn’t think about that right now.”The police. One Senior Constable Frank Proud.” she said, reading from the card. “He cited chapter and verse at me, but I can’t remember what it all was. Something about a carrier service to harass and menace or something?”David was speechless.”I can only assume it’s about the emails to United Foods.” Leann continued.”Yeah, but. Why me?””Don’t know.” Leann said, as perplexed as he was. “I really don’t know. I can’t work it out either. Anyway, I have his number here, you’ll need to call him. Have you got a pen?””No, I’m in the car.” he said, shifting the car back into reverse.”I could text it to you?””No, that’s okay. I’m just going to drop Grace back to her place, then I’ll be home. Twenty minutes, tops.””Alright. See you soon then. Don’t speed.”David laughed softly, “Yeah, or I’ll have Officer Proud after me.” he said humourlessly.”God forbid.” Leann retorted, and hung up the phone.
David looked at Grace, her face full of questions that she didn’t quite know how to ask. David gave her a brief smile, and leaned over the centre console to give her a kiss. “Guess I won’t be staying this afternoon.” he said softly.She smiled sadly, “Life intrudes yet again.” she said dryly.

Leann was watching the clock, and when the door opened and closed, letting in a breath of air thick with the promise of rain, and David walked in, she didn’t look up immediately, just stating “that was twenty eight and a half minutes”. She reached for the police officer’s business card on her desk, and held it up for him, her eyes still locked on the blog post she was working on.
David dropped his equipment at the door to the office, and grabbed the card from between her fingers. He studied it, then reached for the telephone. She followed the movement of his hand with her eyes, eventually raising her face to look at him for the first time. Her eyes flashed and he looked back at her, the number only half dialled. “What’s up, darling?” he asked, confused.”What’s up?” she asked archly, “What do you think is up, David?”David had no answer. It was him who was busy making the telephone call to the police, not her, he thought to himself. His own heart had been hammering like a piece of industrial machinery ever since she had called him. He put the phone back down on the desk, looked Leann in the eye, “I … I don’t know. Was it the copper? Did he say something to you?””It’s not that he said something, David. It’s that he was here. Is there something going on that I don’t know about?”David’s mind slipped involuntarily to Grace, the kiss he had given her in the car less than half an hour ago, and his heart beat increased to a point that he thought his chest would burst with the force of it. Then he realised that she couldn’t possibly be referring to that little indiscretion. “What … what do you mean? Leann? Like what? What could be going on that you don’t know about?” He wondered briefly if he had overdone the hurt reaction, but then decided she was thinking along completely different lines. She knew nothing about Grace.”I don’t know, David. But what we’ve done isn’t illegal. It isn’t harassment or menace or any of that stuff. So why are the cops here? And why did they want you?”David looked helpless, “I don’t know, Baby. I really don’t. But how about you let me call them, and find out? Maybe they can tell us something that will help us to work out what’s going on.” He lifted the phone again, and made a move to start dialling the number again. All eight digits were in and the handset was against his head, the sounds of the phone call being patched through loud in one ear, when Leann said softly, “Okay, but when that phone call is done, you need to pack your stuff and leave.”David ended the call for the second time, “I’m … you’re … huh?” he stammered, shocked.”Yeah, I mean it.” she said softly, cruelly. “I’ve already put a bunch of your clothes in a suitcase. Make that phone call, and then you’re walking out of the door.””But I … I mean … I don’t … What is this? What’s going on?”Leann stood, put her hands on her hips, and stood to face him, lifting her chin at him to make her point clear, “I don’t know, David. But something is. And until you tell me what it is, then you’re not welcome in my house.””Your … I … Right. Okay. I have no idea what’s going on here. I’m not hiding anything from you, I have no more idea what this is about than you do, Leann.”She looked incredulous. She was not in a mood to be able to make amends. David felt that he was only digging his hole – this mysterious, unexplained hole – ever deeper with each word he spoke. He stood still for a moment, trying not to argue any further. His brain started to shut down, doing the mental version of running away from the argument, and he simply stood blankly for a moment. Leann gave an annoyed sigh, threw her arms up in frustration, and dropped heavily back into her office chair. She swivelled away from him, mumbling cruelly under her breath “yeah, and that’s an attractive look, dopey”.David shook himself, tried with a limited amount of success to get his brain functioning again, and once more lifted the phone. He stared at it blankly for a moment, as though he couldn’t quite remember how to work it, and then tapped in the number for the police officer for a third time. He lifted the receiver to his ear, listened as the phone on Proud’s desk rang once, twice … five times. After the eighth ring, when David was just about to hang up, the phone was answered by a series of clicks and whirrs, and an electronic voice informed him that Detective Senior Constable Frank Proud was not available, and that he would need to leave a message. He stammered slightly, his nervousness showing in his voice, as he left his name, and his mobile phone number, then hung up slowly. He stared at the back of Leann’s chair, but she didn’t turn around. “Darling … ?” he started tentatively.”Get out.” she said without turning, “And if you decide to start telling me what’s going on, you know how to find me.”David, deciding that there was no way he was going to be able to get her to see sense at the moment, grabbed his photographic gear, and went to the bedroom to find a hastily stuffed suitcase on the bed. He didn’t bother checking the contents, just zipped it shut, and hauled the lot out to his car. What on earth had just happened, he asked himself as he turned the key in the ignition. He sat in the drivers seat for a moment, fighting back tears of anger, tears of frustration, and then finally backed back out of the driveway, and drove. Just drove.

Leann sat silent and brooding, not allowing herself to think any thoughts at all, until after she heard the door open and close; the car start in the driveway.  She waited, holding her breath, for the sounds of tyres on the gravel drive, and when it eventually came, she let it out in a rush. Why was he lying to her? What had he done that he felt he couldn’t tell her about it? He was maintaining this absurd idea that he wasn’t holding back anything, but the police didn’t come knocking on your door just because you wrote one strongly worded email, did they?
Did they?

The headlights cut through the darkness, highlighting damp streets and obscuring landmarks. The radio was up loud, the words passing through David and leaving onl a feeling, an emotion, underscored by a rhythmic beat, a hypnotic drum line, an overpowering feeling of the bass trembling in the pit of his stomach. A trembling that was not tears. No, it was not tears at all.
He was only mildly surprised when he turned into a driveway, stopped the car, and realised whose house he was parked in front of. He had been driving here along, without putting any conscious thought into it at all. He tried to continue not thinking about it as he got out of the car, and stepped through the puddles on the path to the front door. He knocked at the panelled wood, and was about to give up and get back in the car when he heard a soft voice on the other side, asking “Who is it?””It’s me, David.” he responded.The door was unlocked with a short symphony of metallic clicks, and the door inched open, Grace’s eye appearing through the gap, followed by her lithe body, clad in tracksuit pants and an old tee shirt, smattered with tiny holes.She frowned at him, the door still only partially open, her body completely blocking any entry to the house, “What’s up?” she asked brashly. David noticed sweat beading on her brow, and wondered idly what he had interrupted.”Um. I … It’s … Well, Leann kicked me out.” he stammered.Grace’s eyebrows shot up quickly, and then her face softened into that of sympathy, “Oh, Sweetie, I’m so sorry to hear that.” she cooed, the change in her tone almost a complete reversal. She opened the door completely, and stood back to let him in, “Can I make you a coffee?”David nodded as he kicked off his wet shoes inside the door, “Thanks. That would be lovely.”

Leann finally convinced herself to eat something. She put the toast in the toaster, and while it was cooking, she stared at her computer monitor from across the room. She could see the main page of the blog up, and though the words were too small to read, she knew what they said. More importantly, she could see the picture. It was the final picture for the steamed fish recipe, the one with the Thai style salsa. The piece of fish was folded over, barely concealing a colourful blend of tomato, spring onion, lemongrass, and coriander. It was all nestled on a bed of white rice, and though she couldn’t see it from here, she knew that if she looked closely, she would be able to see a drip of perfect yellow butter on the verge of dropping off the edge of the fish, and landing softly on the rice. The photo – David’s photo – was perfect. His photos brought her recipes to life in a way that they just didn’t do on their own. His photos made her recipes look better than even she imagined them, when she was planning how the spices would blend, the colours mix, and the flavours come together on the plate. The toast popped, and she heaved a sigh as she retrieved butter and Vegemite from the fridge.

David’s mobile phone rang on Grace’s kitchen table and David jumped, spilling the hot coffee on the table cloth. “Oh, sorry!” he yelped, jumping up out of his seat, and fumbling in the unfamiliar kitchen to find a cloth, some paper towel, anything.”Don’t worry about it” Grace mentioned, casually rising and finding a dish cloth. “Just answer your phone, will you? That ring tone is irritating.””Sorry.” David mumbled back, reaching for his phone, and jamming his finger into the touch screen to answer the call before it went to voice mail.”Huh … hello?” he said, too loud.Grace wiped the table, listening intently, but trying not to show it.”Mister Forrest?” came a business-like voice on the other end. David was confused for only a second before realising that it would the police officer that he had called earlier. He had been so wrapped up in the argument that he and Leann and just had that he had almost forgotten about the message he had left.”Uh, yeah. That’s me.” he said, finally.”Mister Forrest, I’d like to have a word to you about the email you sent recently to an employee at United Foods.””Um, okay.” David said, disarmed. He still was having trouble believing that the single email he had sent could constitute anything that the police would be investigating, “Was there … is there some problem?””Yes, Sir. Those emails constitute an offence under Section 474.17 of the Crimes Act. The title of that offence is “Using a Carrier Service to Harass, Menace or Offend”. Do you have anything to say in relation to that, Mister Forrest?”David paused, gathering his thoughts. The charge certainly seemed serious, and he guessed he could work out how the police could construe the intention of their last email to be offensive. He had never realised that offending someone was illegal before, though.”I don’t, ah … I don’t really know what to say about this. I don’t really know what was so bad about the email. Or why you’re calling me for that matter. Have United Foods made a complain against me or something?””United Foods Proprietery Limited have asked the police to investigate a series of emails that they have been receiving. Those emails have been traced to you Mister Forrest. Now, I would recommend that you cease emailing the company in question, and issue a public apology to United Foods Proprietary Limited as soon as practicable.””Well, okay. I guess. Yeah, I can do that.” David fumbled the words out, thinking that it should be so easy to fix the other problem in his life. Say sorry, everything goes away.”Thank you very much, Mister Forrest. I will let the other party know and I’m glad that you understand the seriousness of this matter. What you have done so far is a crime, Mister Forrest, and if you do decide to continue this ‘campaign’ of yours, then you can be assured that I will not hesitate to press charges against you.””Ah, no. I understand.” he paused, not able to find the appropriate words, before saying “Thank you” in an obligatory fashion, just to allow him to end the call.”Good bye Mister Forrest”  Proud stated, and the phone line went dead in David’s hand.David dropped the phone, and put his forehead down on the tablecloth, only for it to get damp with spilled coffee and washing up water. Reluctantly, he lifted it again, and wiped it clean with his hand. Grace giggled nervously.”Everything okay?” she asked softly.”No.” David responded bluntly. “No, everything’s not okay. Everything is turning to shit. How did this happen Grace? What do I do?”Grace shrugged disengenuously. “Go to bed?” she asked, coquettishly.David gave a dry harrumph that was somewhere in between a humourless laugh and a sob, “Yeah, alright.” he said eventually, “What the hell else is there to do?”

13 September 2010
Well, it looks as though we have had the AVO over turned in the civil court. Yay! So that means that transmission can return to normal. You will now be treated to a bulk publish of all the the recipes I have written up but not been able to publish over the past two months. There’s probably not as many as you would expect, given the amount of of time, but we haven’t exactly been sitting around and twiddling our thumbs with nothing to do. It turns uot that building a defence against an extremely litigious corporation and a bunch of clueless cops is not as easy as it seems. And isn’t it wonderful to be able to write that without far of another knock on the door!
Anyway, here’s fifteen new recipes for you. I won’t go into detail about them all, but leaave them as a complete surprise for you to dig through at your leisure. Please keep the comments and photos rolling in. we love nothing more than seeing how you recreate these dishes in your kitchen!
The shop is also open again, and I’m hoping to ship all back orders today. I know I’ve said this before, but apologies again to those people who placed an order just before we had to suspend operations, and missed out on having their stuff shipped. You are all top of my list, and you will get something a little extra in each of your parcels. Thanks for all your patience!
You might also notice that the PayPal donation box is in the corner too. We really do appreciate any contributions you can make, this whole fight has become a whole lot more expensive and stressful than we ever realised it would, and your donations are a saving grace!

David’s eyes popped open, and just like that, he was awake. There was no light showing through the gap between the curtains. It was early. He lay in Grace’s bed, staring at the ceiling. She was curled on her side, facing away from him, her breathing even, deep, and nearly silent. He had never stayed after they had sex before. They had slept together only four times previously, but each time he had gotten up, showered quickly, and left. This felt too much like a real relationship. Its reality made it seem weightier, somehow, and he found his thoughts drifting to Leann. Would she have sought solace in another man’s arms? He didn’t think she would have. He imagined her lying in bed – their bed – sleeping lightly, tossing and turning, unable to sleep properly. Something like what he was doing, here, in another woman’s bed. Frustrated, and knowing that sleep was a long way away, he slipped out from under the cotton sheet that covered them, found his clothes scattered on the bedroom floor. He dressed quickly, and left the house without waking Grace.
The door snickered closed behind him, as though reminstrating him for what he was doing to its occupant. He wondered what Grace would think when she woke up. He didn’t think that she would take it too badly. She hadn’t ever expressed a desire for a real relationship with him. She had always kept her professional distance except for when they were alone, in bed. He pushed thoughts of Grace aside, stepping along the concrete path with care in the complete darkness peculiar to those early hours of the morning. The witching hours.
He pressed the remote control, and winced at the volume of the beeps the car made as it disengaged the door locks. The hazard lights flashed, and provided just enough light to direct his final footsteps to the driver’s side door. As he slid into the driver’s seat, he pushed the key into the ignition, one hand at the volume knob on the stereo ready to turn it down. He remembered how loud he had had it turned up the night before.
The night before seemed like a month ago now, but he could deny the reality of the situation. Leann hated him, he was being investigated by the police for some reason he didn’t fully understand, he had just had sex with another woman who had just walked out on without saying goodbye, and he was also homeless. Just how much worse could things get?
He started the car, praying he wouldn’t wake Grace inside the house, and backed slowly out of the drive way, noticing every stone crunch under his tyres. Once on the road, he headed out to the highway. Somewhere he could drive fast, and just think. He adjusted the radio to a n early morning talk back program. He wanted to hear the other lonely people awake at 2 o’clock in the morning, bored and desperate enough to call up and attempt to have a discussion with some deejay doing the graveyard shift. He hoped that in some strange way, it might make him feel better about his own life.
He hit the accelerator, shifted the car into top gear, and pushed the speedometer up over a hundred and twenty. He wound the window down, to feel the reality of cold air on his face, and followed his headlights at a dangerous pace through the darkness and headlong into the unknown future.

When Grace woke up, she stretched, smiled, and rolled out of bed to go and go and have a shower. She was glad David was gone, he was bringing her mood down, despite the unexpected sex bout. Was she the only woman in the world who got partners come around to her house to moan about how badly their other relationship was going? No, she supposed she wasn’t, but certainly wasn’t something you would call up your friends about, was it?
She was washing her hair when the phone rang, and singing loudly along to the radio. She didn’t hear it the second time, either.

“And my next caller is Graham, from Parramatta. He has something he wants to say about relationships, don’t you Graham?””Yes, Bob, that’s right. Am I on air?””You’re on air, Graham, go right ahead.””Ah, well, you see I’ve just split up with my wife …””I’m sorry to hear that Graham.””Oh, ah. Thanks Bob. We were married for eighteen years, but things had been rocky for a while before we called it quits. But we tried to hold it together as long as we could, you know, for the kids and all.””Ahh, yes. I understand. That’s very a very common story.””Heh. Yeah, I guess it is, ain’t it? Anyway, things had been pretty bad for a while, and I … ahh … well, I was having a bit of a thing on the side for a while just to … well, heh, you know how it is.””Haha, yes I do, Graham. Yes, I do.””Heh-heh. So it was this one day I was driving from her house, back to my missus, and I had this thought. By ah … sleeping with another woman, I was disrespectin’ my wife, you know? Even if the missus didn’t know about it, I wasn’t giving her everything she deserved from her husband, you know?””So you’re saying, Graham, that even though your wife didn’t know about the affair, you were still doing her wrong?””That’s right, Bob. That’s exactly right. Well, I broke it off with the girl not long after that. Never did tell the wife, you know, but I felt like at least I could offer her everything I had to offer. Not much, heh, really, but better than sneakin’ around and all that. I think it helped us keep together a little longer. Gawd, I hate to think what she would have done if she’d found out, though … heh””Thanks very much for that insight, Graham. Did you have something final you wanted to say to all those listeners out there, particularly if they’re engaged in some … ah … extra-marital activities, shall we say?””Yes, Bob. I just want to say to you fellas out there … if you’re cheatin’ on your wife or girlfriend, you are doing her a disservice. Decide which woman you want to be with, and be with her.”Thanks very much Graham, enjoy the rest of your morning.””Thanks Bob, I will do that.”

Leann had finally fallen into a fitful, dream filled sleep in the early hours of the morning. When the first ray of light fell across her bare legs, the doona was rumpled in a corner of the bed, and she was sprawled messily across the mattress. Although she was finally asleep, her dreams gave her no relief from the turmoil she had been torturing herself with for most of the night.
When the phone rang, she initially tried to block it out of her consciousness. Trying desperately to hang onto the filament threads of her dreams as they nevertheless faded between her fingers, like strands of mist, reality filling the ribbons in between, as though preparing to crush her with their weight. She groaned, rolled over, and curled into a ball, trying to shut out the jarring noise.
Eventually, though, she gave into its incessant grabbing at her. She reluctantly stretched out an arm, found the handset on the bedside table, and with only a few false starts, dragged it back to her ear. “H’lo?” she grumbled.Her greeting was met only by silence.”Hello?” She said more forcefully, ire rising unbidden in her throat, “Who is it?”When still all she received in reply was the hiss of an open line, she moved the phone away from her ear again, to press the end button. Then, dimly, she heard a tinny “Leann … dont’ hang up” from the receiver.She brought it back to her ear, listening, wondering if she’d imagined that voice – his voice.”Are you still there?” he said, softly. It sounded like he had been crying, his voice wsa husky and the words blurred.”Yeah.” she replied.The silence grew again. “Are you still mad?” he said eventually.”No … yes. Oh, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” she felt the tears rise up in her throat again, and she quashed them angrily, “I guess I am. I don’t know what I’m angry at though.”The silence rushed into the space again. Leann tried not to let it bother her. This space where they used to have words to put in there. This space had never existed between them before, and she didn’t like it. It gave her something to focus her anger on, though. Something to make her feel like she had something solid to be angry at.”Can I … can we talk? Somewhere. I don’t care where. Wherever you want.””When?””Now?””Where are you?”The silence again. Now Leann noticed the other sounds in the silence … wheels moving over tarmac, maybe. The quiet purr of the engine, almost invisible. Eventually, David’s words cut over the top of the other sounds, “I’m not sure, exactly. Goulburn. I think. Around there.”Leann frowned, “What the hell are you doing there?” she asked, her voice rising.This time, the silence went on so long that she thought he had gone. “I’m sorry.” she said eventually, trying to keep her voice modulated. “But, honestly, why are you in Goulburn?” she asked again, calmer this time.”It’s on the highway. I was just driving. That’s how far I got.” He paused again, “I’m pulling over now, I’ll turn around, come back. Can I come and see you?”This time it was Leann’s turn to provide the massive silence. It was not broke by her answer, though, but by a squeal of tyres, a cacophony of honking horns, and the terrible sound of crushing metal. Dimly, she realised that she was screaming, and that her screams were echoed by David’s, coming through the telephone.

By the time she got in the car and had raced through suburban streets to the highway, Leann realised that what she was doing was probably foolhardy. Whatever had happened,  it was almost certain to be completely cleaned up and over and done with by the time she got there. She was at least three hours away, even with the advantages of going against the morning traffic coming in to Sydney. And even if she did get out there, she had no way of knowing where exactly it had happened, since David had been less than specific with details. She hesitated at the onramp, earning herself an angry horn blow from the car behind her, wondering what else she could do. Eventually, with no other option, she entered the highway, drove under the toll gates, and sped down to the next exit to come off again. Within ten minutes, she was back at home, pacing the hallway and trying to come up with a plan of attack.
An hour later, after a series of phone calls, she discovered that David was alive, but his car was completely wrecked. The man had been taken to Goulburn Base Hospital, with some broken bones and a lot of bruises, but otherwise in one piece. The car had been towed to a wrecker for an insurance assessment, with a bent axle, and rear bumper that now resided at least partially in the front passenger seat.
She got back in the car, significantly more decisive about her destination this time.

David was awake. Sore, but awake. His right leg in a cast to above his knee, and his whole body ached. He suspected the drugs were wearing off. Idly, he wondered what tie it was. Time seemed to stand still in a hospital. Minutes, hours, days all blended into periods of pain, and periods of drug-induced stupor. Nothing else mattered. He wondered if Leann had been able to find him. If she cared enough to drive out here and see him. He wondered if anyone would come. He had no idea who the police might have contacted from the scene of the accident. He wondered about the other guy, the guy who had hit him from behind as turned into the emergency crossing lane. They had hit hard. It was lucky for David that he had been turning right across the median strip, and not left off the highway. Not so lucky for the other guy, he suspected.
Tears welled up in his throat, and he let them flow. He cried for the guy that had hit him, he cried for himself and his pain, he cried for Leann, and the fact that she wasn’t there beside his hospital bed. But most of all he cried for himself, wallowing in the self-pity that made him realise it was his fault. If he hadn’t slept with Grace, if he hadn’t argued with Leann, if he had done things differently, he wouldn’t have been there. Oddly, the words of the talk back dee jay rose in his mind, “You’re on air, Graham, go right ahead”. And then the answering voice of his caller, “if you’re cheatin’ on your wife or girlfriend, you are doing her a disservice”. He was doing Leann a disservice, alright, but what the prophetic Graham hadn’t mentioned was that you do yourself just as much a disservice. Maybe even more.

It was noon when Leann finally drove into Goulburn, and while she hadn’t eaten at all since her piece of toast the night before, she felt only thirst. She saw a petrol station on the way into town, and stopped to fill the car up. The fuel light had been on for nearly twenty kilometres now, and she suspected that the poor thing would just give up before too long despite all the fuel-saving features the salesman had regaled her with when she purchased it. Even the most economical car could not run on no petrol at all. The car full, she went in the shop to pay, grabbing an over sized bottle of water from the fridge, and a packet of chips because they were there. The console operator looked her up and down as she walked in, and cokcked his pimply head to one side, “Big night, huh?” he asked.She regarded him suspiciously, said “Pump number four, thanks.” and brandished her eftpos card.The transaction completed, she waved off the receipt he proffered, and stalked out without making any further conversation. It was only as she got back in to the car that she realised her hair was lank and greasy,and  she was wearing yesterday’s jeans and an old tee shirt of David’s … inside out. She sighed. There was nothing much she could do about it now. She quickly ripped the tee shirt over her head, reversed it, and slipped it back on the right way. She glanced over at the console operator, through the shop window, who pretended that he hadn’t been staring at her. “Hope you enjoyed the show.” she muttered under her breath, and pulled out of the service station, opening the bottle of water as she went.

When the door to the ward opened, David had succumbed to the pain killers once again, and was fast asleep. Leann spotted him quickly, walked over to his bed, and drew the curtains around so the other occupants of the ward couldn’t see them. Despite herself, she almost cried at the sight of him. One leg was in plaster, hoiked up into the air with  a complicated system of pulleys and ropes. What was worse, was the bruising. His face and exposed arms were a mass of red and yellow bruises, some with obvious cuts in their centres, others with no clear definition, just a mass of injured flesh. A cut ran across his face, from his hairline, down over his cheek. Other, smaller ones, criss crossed it at intervals. His entire face was swollen, his features not quite recognisable.  She wondered how long it would be before his looks returned to normal. His foppish school-boy charm had been lost in a moment, to be replaced by a face that looked like it had seen too much hurt, and too much of it his own.
She bent to kiss him gently on the lips. “I’m sorry.” she whispered, “I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I yelled. I’m sorry I told you to leave. Don’t leave me.” a tear slithered down her nose, and dropped onto his cheek. She wiped it away gently, and he winced slightly in his sleep. She frowned, trying to keep back the flood of tears that threatened, then leaned back away from him. She slipped her own hand into his, said softly “I’ll be right back, darling. I love you.” even though she knew he wasn’t hearing her. And with that that, she slipped back out of the ward to find a bathroom, and the cafe. Now she had seen him, reassured herself that he was okay – well, as okay as could be expected – she needed something to eat. And a shower. But she suspected that that would have to wait.

David opened his eyes groggily, and the meagre sunshine coming through the window pierced his sleep-sodden mind. He didn’t want to wake up. He tried to roll over, and belatedly remember his leg up in the mechanism. He was confined to his back. He settled for turning his head away instead, and tried to close his eyes. Slowly, he drifted back off to sleep again.

In the dingy cafe, Leann shifted on an uncomfortable plastic chair, and wolfed down a stale sandwich and cardboard chips. It tasted awful, but filled the hole in her stomach, which had been her main objective. The little room was unoccupied for now, except for herself and a wearied cook behind the counter, who was busy cutting up ingredients for the next day’s sandwiches. There was no incentive to linger here. Her meal eaten, and already transforming itself into a lump of lead in the put of her stomach, she rose, threw the wrapper in the bin, and made to leave. At the window behind her, a bolt of lightning flashed, and the rain of last night returned, softly at first, and then all of a sudden heavy, beating against the plastic windows. She turned her back to the storm, and meandered back through the hospital, exploring on her way to the ward.
She stopped in a toilet stall, went to the toilet, and washed her face. She realised that the console operator at the service station had a good point – she did look like she’d had a rough night. Nearly no sleep, being woken by the phone call from David, hearing a car accident from nearly two hundred kilometres away, and then the panicked morning drive down here to a town she did not recognise, seeing her partner in the hospital and completely unresponsive … she supposed it had been a big night, after all.
Leann headed back to an information desk she had spotted on the way in. There, a volunteer smiled kindly at her, trying hard not to look at her greasy hair, her filthy shirt, and failing miserably anyway. She managed to smile without visibly wrinkling her nose, though, for which Leann was thankful.”How can I help you, Dear?” she asked kindly.”Um. I was just wondering, I need to go back and see my partner upstairs, but is there a hotel or something close by that I could call? Just somewhere that I can go and have a shower and that.””Oh, sure.” she responded, “In fact, there’s one just down the street. Would you like to use the phone?””Oh, I have my mobile here, if you’ve got the number … ?”The lady smiled, located the number in a directory, and turned the book around so that Leann could see. She tapped the numbers into her phone, and in a moment’s coversation with the receptionist at the motel, had a room booked for that night.She smiled at the volunteer, said “Thanks”, and headed back up to the ward to see if David was awake yet.
Upstairs,  David was still asleep, but he had shifted on the bed. His face was slightly flushed and his brow beaded with sweat. Despite the cool temperatures brought by the storm, the room was almost claustrophically warm. Leann dragged a plastic framed and padded chair over to the bed, and drew the curtain around them both. David’s keys and phone sat on the bedside table, and she sat down in front of them. She listened to the rain smattering against the window, unseen behind the curtain, curled her legs underneath her, and started to drift off into much needed sleep.

18 July 2010
Well, the nonsense just keeps coming. I never thought I could be so continuously surprised by the inadequacy of our police officers. Anyway, the site has gone dark for now, apparently to stop anyone’s feelings from being hurt. Our utmost apologies to all of you – our customers, our readers, our supporters. We will of course be doing everything we possibly can to get this site up and running again as fast as we possibly can. A lot of that depends on the legal and judicial systems, though, which moves a lot slower than most of us would like. So, for now anyway, we bid you farewell.

Leann was jolted out of sleep, yet again, by the sound of a telephone. For a moment, she was transported back to the early hours of this morning, and reliving the horrible sounds of the car crash coming down the line. Before long, though, she brought herself fully awake, twisted at an odd angle in the horribly uncomfortable visitor’s chair, and realised it was David’s iPhone on the bedside table causing the noise. She reached for it, glancing at David to see if he was awake, and when she realised he was still completely out of it, she answered the call, “David’s phone”. Her voice was husky from sleep, and she cleared it softly, unsucessfully.”Hello. I was hoping to speak to Mister Forrest, please.” came an officious voice.”You can’t right now, I’m sorry. I can tell him you called if you like?””Yes please, can you please tell him to call Detective Senior Constable Proud as soon as possible?””Ah, sure. I guess. Can I tell him what it’s about?” she asked archly.There was a slight hesitation, as the police officer debated whether or not to tell her. Eventually, he said, “Yes, just tell him that as he has not yet provided an apology to United Foods Proprietary Limited, they will be commencing further legal action against him.””Huh? What?” Leann almost yelled. She rose quickly, and barrelled through the curtains and out of the ward. She didn’t want to get in trouble for yelling at people. “What apology? Do you have any idea what’s just happened?””Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I can’t discuss this matter with you. I need to discuss it with Mister Forrest himself. If h then chooses to tell you, he can.””The hell you can’t discuss it with me!” Leann exploded, “I’m in this just as bloody deep as David is. What apology? What action? David’s in hospital, he’s not going to be talking to anyone for at least a few days. Doesn’t the highway patrol mob talk to the rest of you?”For the very first time, Leann heard Proud stammer slightly. She’d thrown him. “David offered an apology to United Foods when I spoke to him last night, but that apology has failed to materialise. As a consequence, United Foods have requested that we pursue criminal charges against Mister Forrest. I am sorry that Mister Forrest has been injured, but it does not excuse him from making his apology, as he promised.”Leann’s voice dropped suddenly, her voice poisoned, “Listen to me,” she enunciated very carefully, “David is in the hospital. He has had a car accident. He will not be making any apology. And when he wakes up, I intend to tell him what you’ve told me, and he will continue to refuse to make an apology. Do you understand, Detective Proud?””Miss Roberts, if you continue to threaten me, I’ll have you up under charges as well. Just ask Mister Forrest to call me as soon as possible, please. Good day.” the phone line went dead.Leann almost screamed out loud in frustration and anger. She paced up and down the hallway a few times, absently rubbing the touch screen of the phone with the hem of the tee shirt she was wearing. After a little while, and a few deep breaths, she collected her senses enough to walk back itno the ward. She opened the curtain around David’s bed, and he was staring at her.”Leann!” he grinned.Leann’s anger dissipated almost immediately, she was so glad to see him awake. She rushed to him, and gave him kisses on his lips, his nose, wherever her lips could reach.”Ow ow!” he protested, although his grin had not faded at all, “Careful! I’m rather battered.””I know, I’m sorry.” she said, and leaned back to drink him in, as though it had been weeks since they had seen each other, instead of merely days. “I’m sorry, David.” she said eventually, softly.David let a little smile play on his face, “Sorry for what?” he asked charmingly.Leann’s face crumpled, and she looked as though she was going to cry again, but instead she took a deep breath, as though even thinking the words hurt, and then it all tumbled out, “I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I thought you were up to something. I’m sorry I panicked. And that cop? Proud? He’s a fuckwit.”David looked almost comically shocked at the little outburst, and then smiled again. He stretched his neck up, angling for another kiss as best he could from where he was confined to the bed, “It’s okay, Lea. I love you too, Darling.”Their lips met, softly, only barely brushing each other in a tender kiss, “I love you.” he repeated under his breath, barely moving his lips from hers. She smiled, and then moved in closer for more.

Lunch was served in the hospital at half past one. It was typical hospital fare, and neither of them touched it, although David shifted the unrecognisable mess around with his fork a little bit, in an effort to feel hungry that was doomed to failure.”So tell me about this copper?” David prompted her eventually, when she seemed unwilling to bring the subject up.Leann’s face dropped, “Ugh. He called before, on your phone, and I picked it up.”David nodded, the noise had woken him from his drug fuelled sleep, although it wasn’t until Leann had left the ward that he came awake enough to understand what was going on, so he had missed most of the conversation. “What did he say?” David asked.”He said that you’d promised to apologise.”David nodded, “Yeah, I did. But I hadn’t done it yet.” he gave an awkward pause, before continuing, “I was driving around, and to be honest, I … well … I forgot about it, I guess.””Why would you apologise? What have you done?” she asked, the  hint of suspicion coming back into her voice.”It’s just over that email we sent. You know … the one that said that if they didn’t take the pictures down, we would go ahead with the Boycott United Foods site.””But … but what’s illegal about that? There’s nothing in that email that’s illegal. Why on earth do the cops care about it?””I don’t know, honestly. I asked him about that, but he’s so arrogant, he just carried on about it without answering the question.””Yeah, figures.” Leann said dryly.”So he’s complaining about no apology yet, then. I guess you told him I’m … ahh … indisposed?”Leann chucked at his choice of words, “Yeah, I told him. It didn’t make any different to him, though. Apparently just because you’re in hospital that’s no excuse for not doing what you said you were going to.” She rolled her eyes, “Because issuing an apology on a website is so easy to do from a hospital bed.””Well, there’s the iPhone …” David pointed out.”He doesn’t know that!” Leann retorted, “And besides, you had other things on your mind! Where does this idiot get off?””They’re the cops. They don’t get off. They just keep on going, keep on worrying at the problem until they find the solution. Like a bulldog and a piece of meat.”Leann looked glum.”So was that all?” David prodded her after a while.”More or less. He says that because you haven’t apologised yet, United Foods are going to continue to pursue charges.” she continued, morosely.”What charges?” David asked, his eyebrows arched.Leann shrugged. “Dunno, really. That one he quoted before – menace, harass and whatever. With a carrier service. I guess.””Yeah, I guess so. Gee, I don’t know how that email fits in to that description, but I guess we’re going to find out sometime soon.””You bet.” Leann replied, and pressed her lips together tightly, as though to keep any further angry words from escaping.

After leaving David’s bedside, Leann set off for the motel. It was getting dark outside, and she hesitated before setting off in the direction that the information volunteer had given her. She hadn’t lied when she said the motel was close, though, and Leann found it within minutes. She went to front counter, gave her name, and was rewarded with a single key on an over-sized perspex fob, declaring that the Goulburn City Quality Motel was the “premier motel in Goulburn”. Considering it also boasted three stars, she figured the competition in the city wasn’t too stiff.  The rooms were arrayed on three sides of a square, set around a gravel quadrangle. They had put her in room 43, and she set off across the quadrangle to locate it. She stuck the key in the door, turned it, and was greeted by that  smell that was familiar to all small town motels – a combination of stale air, lemon-scented surface cleaner, tired mattresses, and broken dreams. She went to the toilet quickly, then wandered to the hospital carpark to retreive her hatchback and move it into the motel carpark instead.
She stopped by the supermarket, which appeared to be the only thing open at 6pm, and bought a five pack of cotton underwear, and a plain blue tee shirt sold in a plastic packet. The jeans, she decided, could do another day. Back at the hotel, her car parked safely at the door, she showered and washed her hair with the soaps provided by the motel. Dressed again, and feeling clean, she went back out, took the car through a drive-through take away outlet, and then sneaked the whole lot into the ward to share with David. It made them both feel a little like truanting teenagers, sneaking greasy semi-cold french fries from a bag, and trying not to get caught by the ward nurse on duty.

The next day, partly in true public hospital style, and partly because of David’s insistent complaining to the hospital staff, they discharged him. He was given a set of hospital issued crutches, and told to visit a hospital closer to home to get the plaster taken off in eight weeks’ time. By lunchtime, they were bundled into Leann’s car, the crutches sticking out of the back window. They stopped by the wreckers to see the car, and retrieve what they could out of it. After sorting out insurance details with the smash repairer, they were back on the road. The trip gave them a good opportunity to fully discuss everything that had been going on, and by the time they got back into Sydney and pulled into their driveway the air between them had completely cleared. David felt happy, and Leann – for the first time in over a week – didn’t feel angry any more. It was a wonderful feeling. They went home and straight to bed, and didn’t rise the next day until nearly noon. The storm had cleared, and sunshine poured into their room, and over their prone bodies. It reflected their moods perfectly.

Leann returned to work, citing illness for her absence, and David returned to his studio, learning to operate his camera in conjunction with his crutches. For a few days at least, things seemed to going back to normal, and the polce officer’s threats of charges seemed thankfully distant. One night, after dinner, they sat down and made a carefully worded and almost completely insincere apology, and posted it on the Boycott United Foods website. No further word was heard from either the police or United Foods themselves, and they waited for some kind of indication that the photograps were being pulled from the United Foods packaging.
When a week had passed, and nothing had been received to say that the photographs were being replaced, Leann started getting angry again. She spurred David into conversation about it, and he encouraged her to wait, be patient, the announcent would come.  Two weeks went by with still no word of a removal, and Leann decided that they were unlikely to receive one. She pulled the apology down off the Boycott United Foods blog, and announced that United Foods had not upheld their end of the bargain.
The next morning, Leann went to work as usual for the morning. She let herself in to the house at half past two, and by four o’clock she was at her office desk, writing up recipes, a pasta sauce bubbling on the stove in the kitchen and filling the house with the smell of fresh parsley and basil from the garden. She was idly staring out of the window above her desk, thinking of nothing in particular, when she saw a group of five uniformed police officers walking up the front path, led by none other than Detective Senior Constable Proud. Her heart leaped into her chest, and her pulse pounded in her ears. She rose from a chair, and met them at the door, opening it just as Proud lifted his hand to knock on the glass.”What are you doing here?” she demanded before he could speak. At that moment, she also noted the officer standing behind Proud and slightly to one side. She was a stern looking woman, brandishing a video camera with the red light blazing on the front. Leann closed her eyes, trying to catch herself before she exploded in a rage.”Miss Roberts.” Proud stated.Leann said nothing.”Miss Roberts, this is Constable Gray, with the video camera. Behind me here is Sergeant Halloway. He is here to oversee things this afternoon.” He left the remaining two officers without introductions. None of them smiled.”What things?” Leann asked.Proud brandished a sheaf of papers, and thrust them at her. She peered at them, but her vision was blurring, and her heart thumping behind her forehead. She could make no sense of them, except that they had hers and David’s name on them, United Foods’ name, and their address. “What is this?” she demanded of Proud.”This is a what is known as a Search and Seizure Warrant. It allows us to enter your property and search for the things here on this list: that’s any computer equipment belonging to you or Mister Forrest, including storage devices and media; any information pertaining to you or Mister Forrest’s email addresses, websites, or other online activities; and any documentation relating to United Foods.”Leann boggled, still trying to make sense of the papers she held. “Can I stop you?” she asked finally.”No.” came the direct answer. “If you attempt to, you will be inhibiting a legal police search, and we will have no choice but to arrest you.”Leann shrugged her shoulders, “It doesn’t look like a get a choice, then, does it?” she sighed, and stood aside to let the men in. She wanted to ask them to remove their shoes, but eventually decided against the idea. Perhaps it was better not to actively try and piss them off, she thought idly.
The search continued for over an hour, and the process only served to confirm Leann’s original thoughts about Proud. He appeared to have no significant technical knowledge at all. He had asked for all their computer equipment, but taken less than half of it, including leaving behind the server that the blog was hosted on. Leann had used her big old laptop to host the LEEanndAVID.com site, but apparently laptops did not count as real computers. They took the only desktop machine in the house, which David used only to access the internet. She would laugh about it if she wasn’t so angry. Of course, the main website that they were interested in, she assumed, was the Boycott United Foods site … and that was hosted anonymously by wordpress. She told them that, and Proud rewarded her with a blank stare. “Who owns that?” he had asked.”Who owns WordPress?” she asked, confused.”Yes, who would we talk to about that?” Proud’s pen was poised above his notebook. The video camera rolled silently beside him.”Ahh. It’s WordPress. I don’t know. WordPress own it.” she responded, baffled at his lack of understanding. “It’s on the internet.” she added, redundantly.He scribbled a few things in his notebook, attempting to look as though he understood perfectly.
They also asked for recent telephone and internet connection invoices. She provided them, although what they proved she had no idea. She mentioned that she also had a jar of United Foods curry sauce in the pantry and offered it to them with more than a little snark. Proud declined the offer. They never went out in the back yard, and Leann failed to mention the over sized studio out there.
After the police had left, with as much pomp and ceremony as they could muster, Leann slumped in to a lounge chair. Despite her bravado and snark to the police officers, now she felt small and shivery. She lay on the couch, unwilling to move. Her heart was pounding again, and she felt like curling in to a ball, crawling into a hole, and letting the world turn around without her, if only for a little while. She was still there nearly an hour later when David arrived home. He came in, spotted her wan face slumped in the lounge chair, and frowned. He came over, gave her a quick kiss and a hug, and then found his own spot in the lounge chair next to her. He didn’t speak. Eventually, Leann gave a world-weary sigh, and said softly, “we got raided this afternoon.””Raided?” David repeated, confused as to her meaning.”Yeah. Raided. By the police. They took your desktop machine.””Shit.” David swore under his breath. “What else?””Not much. Some invoices – phone and internet. Didn’t look twice at the web server.””Why not?””No idea, honestly. I suspect that laptops don’t count as computers. Not real ones, anyway. Maybe you can’t do anything illegal on a laptop.” she shrugged, almost not caring anymore. She just felt tired.”But … but why? Why raid us? Everything’s up on the internet, they could just print it off. They have copies of the emails if they’ve spoken to United Foods, which we know they have. None of that stuff is on my machine anyway.” he paused, deep in thought. Then, a thought struck him, and he asked “They didn’t take the external hard drive too, did they? The terabyte one, with all my digital images on it?” he almost didn’t dare breath while he waited impatiently for her answer.”No. It’s out in your studio isn’t it?”He breathed a sigh of relief. “Yeah, it’s on the desk. Didn’t they see it?””Nope.” she gave a small, tight grin, the best she could manage under the circumstances. “They didn’t even go out there. Not only is it impossible to do anything illegal on a laptop, people don’t do anything illegal in backyard studios either.”The silence hung between for a moment, incredulity clear on both their faces. And then the tension broke suddenly, and they both laughed. They laughed too hard, tears streaming down their faces, and rocking back in their chairs with mirth. But it helped. Suddenly, it felt as though they were in some nineteen sixties comedy show, and the bumbling police officers had just been through the scene – running into each other, and falling over their own feet. It felt good to laugh about it.
After talking through the event for hours, Leann had passed on every piece of information she could recall. They analysed every question asked, every piece of equipment Proud had looked at or touched, and pulled apart every sentence he had uttered. By the time the sun had dropped below the horizon, and the room had begun to grow dark around them, they were no closer to having any answers. Completely exhausted, they had an early night instead, crawling beneath the covers, and holding each other tight as they both drifted in restless dreams.

The following day, despite feeling as though their world had been turned upside down, despite feeling as though they were running at the whim of some unseen grand master, despite feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted, the sun rose. The day started, Leann had to get to work, and David had to complete the product shoot at the spice company. He had been putting the final shoot off for about three weeks now, and he caught himself trying to think up another excuse for putting it off again today. He didn’t want to do a shoot outside of his studio, and he didn’t want to go out when it might rain on his cast. He didn’t feel like being sociable. He didn’t feel like being trapped in the heady atmosphere of the kitchen. But most of all, he didn’t want to have to see Grace.
Leann made a movement to get out of bed, and David rolled towards her and grabbed her around the waist. She giggled and squirmed beneath his embrace. “Let me go, Baby. I have to get to work.” she laughed.”Not yet.” he pleaded.”Yes, yet!” she retorted, “I’m nearly half an hour late already. If I don’t get up now, I’m going to miss my train again. And I don’t want to risk the wrath of Gary. If I’m late again he’ll have my head.”David nuzzled into her soft neck, breathing in the musky smell of her skin, tinged lightly by the woody scent of her shampoo. “I don’t want you to go to work. I want you to stay here. With me. All day. Let’s stay here all day and only get out of bed to eat.” He wrapped his arms even tighter around her, and felt her melt towards him.Leann laughed and said, “Darling, that sounds wonderful. But I really must get up. I’ve taken too many days off, and been late too often. I don’t want to lose my job.””We’ve got the blog.”Her laugh turned dry, “Yeah. At least until United Foods shut us down, anyway.”The mood turned suddenly sour, and David released his grip. Leann gave him a quick peck of a kiss on the side of his mouth, and got out of bed.
David lay in bed, feeling perfectly morose about the day ahead, while listening to the sounds of Leann in the shower. She was singing softly to herself. It was hard to pick the song through the sounds of water, but it sounded like it might have been Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name”. Though he couldn’t be sure.

David watched through the window as Grace pulled into the driveway and turned the engine off her car off. She sat, for a moment, just staring out of the windscreen to the front door. What the hell was he going to say to her? What the hell was she going to say to him? That was even more concerning. The radio was on softly in the lounge room behind him, playing some love song, and he turned around and jammed his finger into the power button to kill it. He began to reach for his crutches, to walk up to the door, and then decided against it. She wouldn’t be able to see him from here, he was pretty sure. He waited as she got out of the driver’s side door, and went around to the passenger side, apparently to clear off the seat. As he waited, watching, he tried to work out what to say to her, but the words that would make it all better just wouldn’t come to him. He was going to have to wing it. Too quickly, she was walking up the path, and he heard her knock loudly on the front door.  He called out “Coming!”, and grabbed his crutches. He got to the door balanced neatly, and opened it.  She was dressed in black pants, the crease down the front a knife-edge, and a somber plum blouse. Her hair was caught up roughly on top of her head, but auburn curls traced their way down, framing her face. David caught himself thinking how beautiful she was, and then hurriedly banished them from his mind. “Keep it professional, David.” he reminded himself silently. She smiled at him, and simultaneously noticed the crutches. “What happened?” she asked.”I had a car accident.” he responded shortly. “Thanks for coming to get me.””No problem, you’ve picked me up often enough. It’s time the favour was returned.” she said slyly, her face belying the truth between her words, that David’s offers have lifts had never been motivated by generosity, but lust.He ignored the suggestion, though, and asked if she would mind carrying his two bags of photographic gear. He picked up the tripod, and hoisted it under one arm with a practised move.
The delicate operation of getting David, his broken leg, and all his gear in the car completed, they set off with the silence hanging between them almost palpable. Eventually, she said, “So … tell me about the accident? What happened?””I … ummm. I got hit from behind. It was in the rain, he didn’t see me.” David was deliberately short on details. He didn’t want to tell her that it happened after he left her place, that it had happened in Goulburn. That it had happened because he was on the phone speaking to Leann, after he had tried and failed to call Grace. He didn’t want to tell her that it happened because he was trying to cross the highway and go home to a reconciliation.”Sorry to hear it, David.” she said primly, knowing that there was more that he wasn’t saying. “How’s the car?” she asked, making conversation, and saying the things that social conventions said you had to when someone had been in an accident.”Oh, it’s a write-off. Just going through the insurance stuff now. We’ll pick something new out on the weekend, I guess.” he replied airily.”Uh-huh.” Grace said, and paused, trying to work out how to phrase her next question. Eventually, it spilled out, “So you and Leann are back together then?” she asked.David nodded, not quite trusting his voice to answer.”Well. That’s good then” Grace stated, not believing a word of it. She wondered what this meant for her, but left the question unasked.
Trapped within the confines of the heady spice-filled kitchen again, David was succumbing to the fussing ministrations of Susan as she waited for something to finish cooking. The simmering curry had filled the air with the scent of cumin and coconut milk, and he could feel his stomach rumbling, despite his melancholy mood. Susan was buzzing around him and his broken leg, making sure he was comfortable, making sure he had all the equipment he needed from his bag, making sure he had a glass of water and a samosa or seventeen to nibble on. Grace, in an exercise in polar opposites, was ignoring him. Her face was set and her gaze fixed on the meal she was preparing for photography. He watched her as she set up the plate on a piece of natural white cotton wadding, and placed a coloured glass water carafe behind it. She got out a little spray bottle and sprayed droplets of water on the carafe, to make it look as though it were filled with iced water. David started automatically framing the shots he would take in his mind, lining things up and working out how best to focus on the curry. Thoughts of Grace and the conversation he had told himself he needed to have with her slipped easily from his mind, and he let them go without argument, falling naturally in to his position behind the lens. He asked her to rotate the plate around slightly to take better advantage of the wan winter light coming through the window, and started setting up his flashes, balancing neatly on one crutch.
He was on his way back to Grace’s car, Susan and Alistair both carrying his camera gear in its bags as he crutched his way through the tiny carpark. Grace was ahead of him, and he tried to concentrate on the shifting gravel beneath the rubber feet of his crutches, instead of the back of her black pants. He couldn’t wait to get the cast off, having everyone run around after him was beginning to bug him. They were all packed into the car, and Grace started the ignition and put it in gear. Before backing out though, she turned to him, “Coming back to my place for a coffee?” she asked him coyly.David ignored the innuendo, and shook his head, “No, just straight home, thanks.”She arched a carefully plucked eyebrow.”I’m feeling pretty tired.” David added, “The crutches are hard work.””Right.” she said finally. The silence hung heavily, and not a further word was said.

11 July 2010
boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com
This site published an apology on the 25th of June, 2010. That apology is now being retracted.
On the seventeenth of June, the maintainers of this website offered United Foods a deal. The deal was that, if United Foods removed the copyrighted images from their products, we would publish an apology here, and close the site closed down. United Foods, through a third party, agreed to that deal. Subsequently, we posted an apology here on the seventeenth, and the remainder of the site was removed from public view. Just over two weeks has passed since that dte, and United Foods have made no contact with the copyright holders of the images. The products are still on the shelf bearing those photographs, and no attempt has been made to remove them from supermarkets, or replace them with other images. Subsequently, this website has been replaced in all its former glory. The apology, however, has not.
We will not apologise for saying that United Foods steal artists’ work, when it is true.
We will not apologise for asking United Foods to remove copyright infringing artwork, when it is illegal.
We will not apologise for trying to protect small artists work, when companies like United Foods are sucessfully stealing from them.
We will not apologise to a company that agrees to a peace deal, when that company refuses to uphold their end of the bargain
The existing apology has been removed from this web site, and no further apology will be made.
If United Foods want to continue using the copyright holder’s artwork on their products, they will need to make some other deal. One that does not involve this web site issuing apologies. For no apology will be made.
[753 comments]

“Welcome to Infologic Development Systems, this is Leann. Can I please start with your customer number?””Ah, yeah, sure, it’s CR874-637D””I have Blackburn Electronic Logistics Australia. Is that right?””Yep, that’s the one.””And who am I speaking to?” Leann asked.”My name is Kenneth Dyer … Ken.””Thanks very much, Ken, how can I help you today?”The customer began to outline a networking problem he was having. Leann made notes as she listened, and at first only glanced at the notification that popped up on her screen. It was Terri at reception, “Someone is here to see you. Urgent!!!! -T” it said.Leann quickly tapped out a reply, “On cust call. Can it wait 10?”The response was almost immediate, “No!!!!!!”Leann sighed. Terri’s abuse of exclamation marks was irritating. Her ever-present urgency more so.”I’m sorry Ken, but I’m going to have to pass you on to another operator. Can you please hold on for moment while I explain your situation to them?”Leann didn’t wait for his response before hitting the hold button, and sticking her head around the cubicle wall to speak to her co-worker.  The call successfully passed on, she locked her computer terminal with a single click, and headed up to reception. Who on earth would need to see her this urgently? Hopefully David was alright. She picked up the pace, and was nearly running by the time she got to the glass door separating the cubicle farm from the over-designed space of the reception area. Through it, she could see a uniformed police officer, and her heart started to pound. He hadn’t had another car accident had he? she thought. She was so close to panic that she could barely grasp her security pass, and had to try three times before the sensor recognised her and let her through the door.She stepped into the room, glanced at Terri for confirmation that this police officer was, indeed, here to see her. The young man stepped forward towards her, and held out his badge, “Miss Roberts?” he asked.”Uh-huh” Leann stammered.”I’m here to serve some documents.” he said, and Leann reeled in confusion. She had been so focussed on the idea that he was going to tell her that something had happened to David that she couldn’t quite comprehend what he had said instead.”Oh. Um. I’m sorry?” she asked anxiously.The policeman brandished a sheaf of stapled papers, “Would you like to step outside Miss Roberts?” he asked, with a quick glance to Terri who had been watching intently from her spot behind the long brightly colours reception desk.Leann followed his gaze, and nodded a little, “Yeah, okay.” she said. Now that the panic she had induced in herself was starting to fade, and rational thought began to kick back in again, she wondered what the police were really here for. What did police officers usually serve? Charges, she guessed. What were they trying to charge her for though? It was David they had been threatening with charges, although neither of them knew why. Perhaps they had started to cotton on to what was really going on. She nearly laughed at the thought, as she stepped through the door that the police officer held open for her.Out on the street, the wind blew a cold chill that slapped her in the face. She pulled her thin knitted cardigan around her with little result. Her jacket was inside on the back of her desk chair. She hadn’t expected to be going outside to chat with an officer of the law when she stood up.”I’ll try and make this quick so you can go back inside.” he said kindly. He handed her the papers, and Leann disentangled her hands from her cardigan. She glanced at it quickly, and then hugged herself again.”What is it?” she asked.”It’s an Application for an Apprehended Violence Order.”Leann nearly choked, “A what?!” she shrieked.”An Apprehended Violence Order, Ma’am. They’re designed to protect one party against violence or threats of violence made by someone else. An organisation called …” he checked his notebook briefly. The cold appeared to be having no effect on him at all. “… United Foods Proprietary Limited have asked that we enforce an Apprehended Violence Order against you.”Leann just stared at him, her mouth open in surprise.”I don’t have any further details, I’m sorry Miss Roberts, I’m not working on this case, I’m just delivering the documents. There will be a date on the paperwork, you need to be in court on that day for the preliminary AVO.””You’re joking?” Leann whispered.”I’m sorry?” he asked, frowning, and leaning closer to catch her words.Leann shook herself, said “Never mind. Um … thanks. I guess. Is that all?” and turned to walk back inside.”Yes, that’s all. Thank you Ma’am.”Leann didn’t answer. She walked back into the warm reception area on a cold breeze, and glanced at Terri. Terri’s eyebrows were up so far they nearly met her hairline, “Are you alright?” she asked in awe.”Yep.” said Leann shortly. “Thanks Terri.” she let the internal door back to the cubicle farm bang behind her.
By the time she got back to her desk, Gary was waiting there for her, his arms crossed against his chest. Neither spoke as she drew closer, and just as Leann began to feel that she was caught in a strange version of a staring contest with her own boss, he spoke, saying “Hello Leann.” in an ominously quiet voice.Leann stopped in front of him, staring at him over her office chair, “Hello Gary.” she responded, equally disingenuously.”I heard there’s been some … problems.” he stated softly.”You might say that.” she agreed.”I think it would be best for everyone if you stayed home until this is … sorted out.”Leann clamped her lips together, trying hard not to insult him.”Right. Okay.” She nodded towards her desk. “Can I clean up my stuff first? Or is that in the AVO too?” she asked, waving the sheaf of papers in her hand.David looked aghast at her direct reference, and then sheepishly stood aside, “Yeah, of course. Clean your stuff up. When it’s sorted out, give me a call, and we’ll organise what to do next.””Right. Well. I won’t say thanks.”Gary nodded sadly, and turned to go. He apparently changed his mind at the last moment, and turned back to Leann, who was busy staring daggers at his back, “Leann,” he began, “I’m sorry to do this, I didn’t want to. You’re a good worker, and I want you back again soon, alright?”Leann said nothing, not believing a word of it. It was her turn to stare at him, her arms folded. Eventually, Gary turned away again, and walked back to his office.

Leann did not go back to work that afternoon, instead she went straight home, and headed out the back to David’s studio. She knocked, and upon his gruff “Who is it?” she responded “Just me” as she opened the door.David looked up from his computer where he was editing a digital photograph of what appeared to be a plate of curry. He smiled at her, and then checked his watch. “You’re home early.” he said, his face questioning.”Yeah. I got a visitor at work today.” she said dryly.”Who?” he asked.”Copper.” she answered curtly. She pulled out the paperwork that she had just about memorised on the train ride home. “It’s an Application for an Apprehended Violence Order” she said, reading from the papers in her hand. “Apparently, United Foods Proprietary Limited are now “protected persons” and I am to attend court on the twenty sixth of July to for the interim orders.” She stared him, her face stoic, while she waited for his reaction.David closed his eyes, and pressed the tips of his fingers into them. “When is this going to go away, Leann?” he asked, opening his eyes. They suddenly looked tired, and the lines around them more pronounced than Leann had ever seen them before. He looked almost instantly old.She allowed the muscles that had been taut in her own face all day to relax, and her features drooped. She realised distantly that she probably looked as old as David did in that moment. “I don’t know, Darling. I don’t honestly know. United Foods have it in for us. And for some reason they have Detective Senior Constable Proud running errand boy at their beck and call. He may be clueless, but he’s still police, and he can still hurt us.”There was a pause, and David swivelled in his chair to face Leann properly, and put his arms out for her. She stepped forward, placed the paperwork down on his desk on top of some large colour prints, and allowed herself to be enclosed. She rested her cheek against the collar of his jumper, and breathed in the scent of aftershave that still lingered in the hollow of his throat.”It’s not the worst of it, though.” she said, her voice muffled against his chest. “If the AVO goes ahead, then I can’t go to work.””What?” David yelped, and pulled her away slightly so he could see her face, “Why not?””Because the company does their website. I’m not allowed to use any company systems under the AVO, in case … I don’t know … I guess it’s in case I hack into their website or something.” She paused, looking miserable for a moment, before continuing, “I guess they think I’m technologically savvy enough – and that I care enough – to want to sabotage their online product marketing.” She sniffed, and wiped away the tears that had leaked on to her cheeks, “Maybe I should take that as a compliment.” She tried to laugh at herself, and failed as it turned into a choking sob. She put her head back down into David’s neck, and allowed him to engulf her in his arms.”It’s alright, Baby. We’ll work it out. I have no idea how, but we’ll work it out somehow.” He bent and kissed the top of her head where her hair parted.Leann let the tears come, and tried not care about putting snot on David’s jumper.

11 July 2010
boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com
The developers of this site would like to an issue an apology for the things printed here against United Foods Proprietary Limited. All previous posts on this site have now been removed from public view.
[comments closed]

The first thing Leann did on the first morning she had at home, was call the human resources department of the company she worked for. During that phone call, she discovered that she had two weeks annual leave accrued. It was enough to cover them until the hearing for the interim orders came through, and then for maybe a few days afterwards. At that point, they were sailing into the abyss unless David picked up a lucrative project. She had no idea what they would live on after that. She sat at home, feeling a bit lost, and read the application for the AVO paperwork a few more times. The grounds for the application were all typed out on the second page, and she couldn’t understand how they were grounds of anything. She spent hours on the internet, looking up information, and by the time the afternoon came around, she was none the wiser.

David came bounding in to Leann, who was morosely flicking channels on the television, bored out of her mind.”Guess what?” he asked excitedly.”You’ve just won the lottery, and we’re never going to have to worry about money ever again?” Leann asked dryly.”Nearly!” David was almost panting with his excitement.Leann looked at him over the back of the couch, and raised an eyebrow.”The insurance money for the car came in!” he announced, “Let’s go car shopping!”Leann took the cheque he was waving out his hands, and checked the figure, “Awesome!” she said, excited now, “We can get a whole new car for that, and maybe even have some change.””I know. What should we get?” he asked, landing on the couch next to her.”Don’t know. Something small, so we can keep the change for groceries.” she said.David laughed, “Yeah, that’s not a silly idea at all.”

The solicitor read the application for the AVO again, and then sucked his upper lip. His moustache moved inwards, and Leann wondered briefly if it would go all the way in and disappear.”This is quite remarkable.” he said finally, releasing the tormented moustache. He enunciated every syllable very carefully, as though he had to remind the muscles in his mouth how to say each word before he said it.Leann and David sat silently, waiting for him to elaborate.”The grounds for the application that are detailed here are quite … odd.” he said. He pulled his glasses down on his nose and looked over them at the couple sitting across from him. “The general practise for an Apprehended Violence Order applciation is to stipulate the grounds of the violence or threat of violence that has occurred against the protected party.” he paused, apparently to see if his audience was suitably confused. “This application, however, is significantly longer than I would generally expect, and covers a number of somewhat … unusual events.” He looked up again.Leann leaned forward, and asked, “Um. Exactly what do you mean by “unusual” Mister Galloway?”The solicitor gave a tight smile, “Mitchell, please.””Mitchell, sorry. Can you tell me what’s unusual about it? What can we do about that?””Well, there’s not a lot you can do.” he said, emphasising the last word as though it were completely foreign to him. “No, there’s not a lot to be done. You still have to proceed through the process, as it were. But I would be inclined to perhaps start questioning the methods that the police have used, in this matter.” He paused again, thinking, “You couldn’t go through the details of the search again for me, could you?”Leann did as she was bidden, with David providing interjections ocassionally, trying to make sure they had the details all correct. Galloway sat with his elbow on the large blonde desk, his hand stroking the formidable dark moustache as they spoke. Leann tried not to look, lest she be distracted.”Righh-ighhht” he said, stretching the word out until it had somewhere close to five syllables. “Hmmmm. I do have a number of concerns about police procedure in this matter.” He lifted a hand and ticked the items off on long, thin fingers as he spoke. “Firstly, and most importantly, this is not really a matter of harassment, per se. It is more a matter of a … what I would be inclined to call … dispute.” He glanced at them over the rims of his frames again, and then continued with his list, “Secondly, asking for an Apprehended Violence Order against a company is, in itself, quite bizarre. Thirdly, the grounds for the AVO appear to be, oddly, more about protecting the protected persons’ reputation.” He fixed them with his sharp eyes again, while stating, “You have not threatened violence against them at any point. You have threatened their business, and their good standing in the business community.”David took a deep breath, “So you’re saying that Leann shouldn’t be under an AVO at all?”Galloway smiled as though he were a kindly benefactor, and responded “No, not at all. It is a very strange thing to happen, in this situation.””Alright. Well, that’s good.” David said, “So can we get it thrown out of court next week then? What do we have to do?”Galloway gave a sudden brash laugh that startled both of them, before saying with mirth in his voice, “Oh no! No, it won’t be “thrown out” as such, Mister … uh … Forrest. Next week we will merely be setting a date for the court to decide what is to be done. Next week I will simply go to court, and state that you oppose the Apprehended Violence Order. You, Miss … uh … Roberts, will then be under an Interim Apprehended Violence Order until the next court appearance. On that date, we will argue the order is unfounded in reality.” he chuckled again, “In a few more words than that.” he added, apparently merely to amuse himself.
Leann and David left the imposing building that housed the solicitor’s office feeling only slightly more relieved about the situation than they had when they arrived.

Both of them spent over an hour getting ready that morning, slipping into suits that hadn’t seen wear since a wedding they had gone to almost a year previously. Leann smoothed her hair down, and pulled it back tightly. David shined his shoes, although he was only going to wear one. They were both nervous, even though they both knew that nothing much of importance was going to happen today. When they got to the court, Mitchel Galloway was already there, in a dark grey pinstriped suit, a soft leather briefcase at his side, fat with paper. They shuffled into the court room, found seats in the stalls while Galloway gracefully perched in one of the chairs at the solicitors’ table towards the front of the room. He smiled and chatted with the other lawyers, looking relaxed. Leann could only compare his demeanour with her own butterflied stomach, although she knew that he did this every week, and she had never been here before.
Leann’s butterflies had nearly dissipated with boredom by three o’clock when her name was finally called. The endless parade of drink drivers and petty criminals had had a numbing effect on her brain, and David nudged her slightly when the magistrate said “In item 3762, Ms Roberts. Mister Galloway, is your client here?”Galloway stood in his place, “Yes, she is, Your Honour.” he answered to the bench, bowing slightly. Then, turning to Leann, he motioned to the seats behind him. She stood, and moved to the seat he indicated, feeling very conspicuous out in the middle of the courtroom. She focussed on the magistrate, and tried to keep her face nuetral and passive. Within two minutes, a new date had been set for the thirteenth of September – seven weeks away, and the interim AVO was in place over her. The magistrate dismissed Leann and within seconds David was at her side. They walked to the imposing double doors, turned and gave self-conscious nods to the bench, and then left the courtroom. They heaved sighs of relief in chorus, and then Leann gave a nervoud laugh. “Well, now that I’m officially not allowed to go to work nor anywhere near United Foods, what do we do now?” she asked.David shrugged his shoulders, and then said, “Let’s go have a coffee.””Best idea I’ve heard all day” Leann answered.
That night, at home, Leann shut LEEanndAVID.com down, possibly for good. She felt silly for it, but closing the blog was almost like saying goodbye to a friend.

When David and Leann emerged from the hospital, David’s leg was no longer encased in plaster. He was still on his crutches for now, until the muscles in his leg had started to strengthen up again, and his leg was pale and skinny from six weeks in the cast, but he was feeling happy it was gone, even though he still couldn’t put any weight on it. They walked together to the car park, and laughed for a moment when they couldn’t locate the new car. Eventually they found it, and David insisted on driving now that he could finally fit his leg in the driver’s side foot well again. They bundled themselves in, and before turning the key in the ignition, David turned to Leann who had her seat belt on, expectantly.”We’re going to be okay, you know.” he said softly.She lowered her eyes, “Yeah. I think so. I just wish we didn’t have to fight anymore. I’m tired of the fighting.””Me too. But it’s worth it. United Foods shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this. If they weren’t doing it to us, they would be doing it to someone else.”The corner of Leann’s mouth turned up wryly, “You know, you’re starting to sound like me, Mister.”David chuckled, “Maybe I should start up a blog.” he said pointedly as he turned the key. He popped the automatic transmission into reverse and backed out of the parking spot.

David came in from the studio with two big prints of the same plate of a chicken tikka masala curry sitting on a brightly coloured table cloth, and found Leann at the stove, stirring something in a tagine. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.”A lamb tagine. It’s still too runny though, I need to let it simmer a little more I think.” she replied, preoccupied.”I love having you home more, you cook all these wonderful things through the week that you used to only cook on the weekends.””That’s what happens when you have too much time to spare.” she replied, looking at him over a spatula as she taste tested the casserole. “Mmmm … more coriander. Darling, pass me that last stalk of coriander on the cutting board would you? And the scissors there.” She took them off him and started snipping the leafy herb directly into the dish, “What’s the photos for?” she asked as she stirred it in.”Oh!” David said, as though he had almost completely forgotten about the prints in his hand. “These are from the spice shoot I’ve just wrapped up. I can’t decide if the light looks strange on these. What do you think?” he held them up for her, and she turned to look at them properly.”Hmmm. It looks tasty.” she said, and laughed, “I don’t know about the light though. They look okay, I guess. This one looks maybe a little yellower, though.” she said pointing with her nose because her hands were full.David shrugged, “Okay, so the other one then?””Yeah, I think so.” she said, turning back to the tagine. “You know, I’ve been thinking.”David was still studying the photos in his hands, comparing them by moving them so that the light caught them in different ways. “Mmmm?” he asked.”Well, it’s no big deal, really, I mean … about work.”David looked up, “What do you mean?””Well, witth the AVO and everything. I mean, it’s not like I have a big attachment to the job. I’ve been wondering if maybe I should just go out and do something else, maybe. I don’t have to work on a help desk.”David looked lost in thought, “No-oo,” he said eventually, drawing the word out, then thoughtfully repeated, “No, you don’t have to work on a help desk.” He paused again, and then added, “What would you like to do instead?”Leann’s eyes lit up, “Well, this is the thing. I never went into cooking because I didn’t want to claw my up from the bottom. Now I’ve got a little bit of recognition through the blog, do you think I could maybe do something with that?””I don’t know.” David answered honestly, “I really don’t know. What kind of thing?”Lean shurgged, and gave a little nervous laugh, “I don’t know either, to be honest. I guess I need to think through this a little more yet.”He laughed at that, and gave her a glancing kiss on her ear as she was looking at the casserole on the stove. “I love you.” he said, and with that, he took his photographs back out to the studio. Leann caught herself smiling into her tagine.
The tagine was ready, and Leann was waiting for the jug to boil so she could start preparing the cous cous. The stereo oozed acid jazz from its speakers, and Leann was grooving around the room as she finished preparing the meal. She considered going outside to ask David to bring in his camera to take a photo of the tagine, it looked amazing, but then decided against it. It was too harsh a reminder of everything they couldn’t do at the moment. When she heard the knock on the door, she expected it to be a salesman or a pizz guy with the wrong address, and she took her wooden spoon with her, sipping from it as she went. She opened the door, and the jazz escaped to greet Detenctive Senior Constable Darnell. She paused with the wooden spoon still in her mouth and just stood, staring, as her brain froze. After her heart had started working again – at seemingly double the speed – she took the spoon out of her mouth and said “Proud”. It wasn’t a question, merely a statement of fact.”Yes, Miss Roberts. Can I come in?” he asked, almost graciously.”Do you have to? I’m about to serve dinner.” she responded coldly.”Ah okay. Well, is Mister Forrest home?””Yeah. Let me get him.” she responded shortly. She shut the door, and locked it. She didn’t want Proud in her house again, he made her feel like her space had been violated.She headed out the back to the studio, and rapped her knuckles on the door quickly before opening it and sticking her head through.”Proud’s here again.” she said shortly, the muscles around he mouth taut. “He’s waiting out the front to speak to you.”David looked up from the light box he was shooting into, shocked out of his work-induced reverie, and said “What the hell?””I don’t know. He hasn’t told me anything. I doubt he’s here because he wants to apologise, though.”David put his camera down, and came towards her, limping only slightly now on his bad leg. “You okay?” he asked softly as he met her at the doorway.Leann only shrugged in response, “Yeah, I guess.” and then followed him in to the back door, through the house, and to the front. He went to open the door, realised it was locked, and turned to give her a strange look as he pulled back the latch. Leann shrugged again in explanation.”Hello.” David said to Prou when he opened the door.”Mister Forrest. How are you.” the police officer responded. The question however, was not asked out of any interest in how David actually was feeling though, he guessed, and left it unanswered. Proud continued, “I have some paperwork here for you, Mister Forrest”. He produced about six pieces of paper, all neatly stapled together in the corner, and handed them to David, who took them numbly.”This is a Court Attendance Notice. It tells you that you’ve been charged with the following crimes: the first one is Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act “Using a carriage service to menace, harass, or offend”. The second is Section 545B of the Crimes Act “Using intimidation or violence to unlawfully influence a person”. You will need to appear in court on the fourth of October. If you fail to apepar in court, you may be arrested by police, or the matter may be dealt with in your absence. Do you have any questions?”David just looked shocked for a moment, before mumbling, “No. No, I don’t think so.””Alright then. Have a good evening Mister Forrest.” he nodded towards Leann, who was standing with her mouth agape, still weilding the wooden spoon, as though she were about to hit him with it, “Miss Roberts”.  With that, he turned on his steel-capped heels, walked back down the concrete path, unlocked his unmarked patrol car, and got back in.When the police officer was gone, David closed the door with a bang, and turned the thumb lock.”Shit.” he said.

9 June 2010
boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com
United Foods steals from small independent artists. They have the resources, the money, and the ability to hire any photographer they wished to produce their packaging images. Instead, every picture you see on United Foods packaging on the supermarket has been stolen. And when artists contact United Foods to protest their images being stolen, what do United Foods do? Apologise? Take the images down? Try to compensate the artist? No. They do none of those things, they simply deny that the work was stolen. They claim the image as their own, produced in their own internal departments.
United Foods lie.
United Foods steal.
United Foods cheat.
Boycott United Foods.
If you see or hear of United Foods stealing from independent and struggling artists, let us know and we will share the stories here.
[1,146 comments]

“I could teach.” Leann announced over red wine and garlic lamb shanks. They had been slow cooked for nearly eight hours, after being marinaded overnight, and the meat was literally dripping off the bone. The sauce dripped perfectly over creamy mashed potato.David piled another mouthful in, chewed it, swallowed, and said “Teach what?””Cooking, what else?” Leann said, loading another forkful from her own plate.David concentrated on his dinner, and said “If you could teach other people how to cook this good, you would be world famous.”. He was only partly teasing.”But I can. That’s my point. This stuff is easy to do, and no one cooks anything from scratch any more because they all think it’s too hard, or they don’t have the time. But there’s plenty of things you can cook from basic ingredients that take no more time than … than … opening a bottle of bloody United Foods curry sauce!” she said triumphantly.David stopped and looked at her, his fork poised before being filled again. “You’re serious, aren’t you?””Of course I’m serious, David.” she scowled, “I’ve got to do something with my time. I can’t just sit around on Facebook all day. We’re going broke, fast, and there’s no chance of me going back to work before September, and even then there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be a job for me. I would think that even if everything goes well with the AVO in court, there would be some reason why they don’t want me back. So I need to think up something. I want to capitalise on the little bit of a boost the LEEandAVID.com site can give me, and see if I can’t do something with food. I thought teaching might be a good way to do it.”David put his fork down with a clatter, and rounded on Leann with a ferocity that he rarely showed, “Leann.” he said forcefully, “Don’t you think you’re over reacting just a little? I mean, Galloway has said the AVO is virtually a dead duck, and if Infologic refuse to take you back, that’s a breach of the employment contract you have with them. They just can’t do it. Besides that, the LEEanndAVID site isn’t exactly running with rave reviews any more is it? What are you trying to prove, Leann? I’m putting the finishing touches on the spice portfolio right now, we’ll have the money for that within a fortnight. We’re not going to die. We’re not going to lose the house. Things are a little tight for the next week or so, sure, but we’re going to be okay. The court case is only a few weeks away now, and then you’ll be right back at work. Stop panicking, stop carrying on like a crazy woman. Just let it go.”Leann stood up very deliberatley, her anger rising like a slow burn in her chest. “No.” she said firmly. “No, David, I will not. You do not get to choose what I want to do with my life. You do not get to choose where I spend my days at work. Quit the misogynist bullshit and pull your head out of your arse.” She stood there, her eyes smouldering.David pushed his chair back so fast the legs scraped loudly across the hard wooden floor. He stared back at her, said nothing, and left through the front door. Moments later, Leann heard the engine start, and the car back out of the drive way. She sat, and ground her teeth until her jaw ached.
David pulled into Grace’s driveway, and instantly wished he hadn’t. What on earth was he doing here? What problem was this going to solve? He asked himself these questions, yet still found himself getting out of the car. Before he knew it was knocking on Grace’s door, and there was no turning back.”Who is it?” Grace called from inside.”It’s me.” he responded, feeling deja vu, and hoping this visit didn’t turn out the same way as the last one.The door opened, and Grace stood there in a flippy dress, her hair tied up with a big red flower pinning it. She had a glass of wine in her hand. She said nothing, and didn’t move from the door way.”Hi.” he sai sheepishly, to break the silence.”Why are you here, David?” she asked shortly.”I … um.” David stammered. He had no answer.Grace stepped outside on to the mat, and closed the door behind her. “I have visitors. Get to the point.” she paused, and when David continued to say nothing, she pre-empted him, “Did you have another fight with Leann?”.David nodded, unable to find the words.”I thought so.” Grace lips disappeared as she pressed them together, turning them white. “Well, do you want to know something lover boy? I’m not here for you to run to when your girlfriend won’t put out. I’m not here to feed you coffee and sex whenever you feel miserable. I am most certainly not here for you to shag one night, and then forget about for five weeks until you want another one.” She paused, her breath coming fast, and a flush rising high on her cheeks. “Do you understand, David?” Improbably, her angry eyes suddenly looked wet.David nodded again, his face miserable. “I’m … I’m sorry, Grace.” he stammered softly.”I was holding out for you David. I thought you might decide to be with me. But clearly it’s not going to happen. And I’m sick of being second best.” She jutted out her chin, and took a gulp of her wine. She swallowed hard, as though she was trying to remove the lump from her throat. “And you know what? I don’t actually care about your argument with Leann. I don’t want to know what happened. Who said what, and what happened next. So don’t even think about telling me about it.” she paused again, and took another draught of wine from her glass, drawing courage from the alcohol as though her life depended on it, then narrowed her eyes, “I loved you David. But I can not … can not … I can not put up with this.” She sniffed suddenly, and David watched a tear track from the inner corner of her eye, down her nose, and hover for just a second at the tip, threatening to drop into her wine glass, before she hurriedly wiped it off with the back of one, shaking hand. “Good bye David.” she said pointedly, her voice wavering only slightly.David hung his head, mumbled, “I loved you too, Grace. Good bye.” and turned to leave.Back in the car, he turned the radio on, and was reminded of the late night talk show he had heard over a month ago now, and how it had made him realise that he needed to end it with Grace. He hadn’t had the courage to do it, and now she had dumped him. It would be laughable if he didn’t feel so shattered over it. He tuned the radio to a station that played uninterupted music. He didn’t want to listen to the chatter of the deejays and their wisdom-filled callers tonight. He avoided the highway this time, too.
The beach lay inky black before him, the waves visible only by their milky white crests. He turned the car off, and walked out into the mild night air. It was early September, and the cold was starting to yield to spring. A pleasantly cool breeze blew off the water and ruffled his hair, and he turned his face up to meet it, and let it help to clear his head. He perched on the wooden railing that bordered the carpark, and looked out to sea. He thought about Leann, and about Grace. He wondered about the court case, and about Galloway the solicitor. He sat there thinking, until the cool breeze turned cold, and ice started to creep into his bones. He wrapped his jacket around himself tighter, but it was not much longer until he gave in to the weather, and moved back into the car. He fired the ignition, turned the heater on to his cold feet, and drove home.
It was after midnight when David drove back into their driveway. He let himself into the house, tip toed into the bedroom, and quietly undressed. Leann’s silent form under the doona didn’t move until he slipped under the covers with her, and wrapped his arms around her from behind. She gave a little happy moan, and allowed him to embrace her. She folded in to his arms. “I love you.” she whispered.”I love you too. I don’t like fighting with you.” he replied, just as softly.”Me neither.”David let a heartbeat pass, “I think you should write a book.” he whispered. He felt Leann’s body tense as her eyes flew open.She turned suddenly within the circle of his arms, and sought out his face in the darkness with her eyes, “A book?” she asked.David nodded.”Do you mean a recipe book?”David nodded again.Leann kissed him quickly, and then wrapped her arms around his head and neck and held him closely, “Oh, David. What a wonderful idea!”David smiled, his grin hidden in her hair, and held her tight. It wasn’t long before they were both fast asleep, still wrapped in each others’ arms.

The night before the AVO hearing, Leann slept badly. She had lain awake most of the night, and whenever she did get a moment of  sleep, she was plagued with stressful dreams. She got out of bed a good three hours sooner than she really needed to, showered, and moped around the house drinking strong black coffee, trying to clear her head. When David finally joined her, she was lying prone on the couch, paperwork surrounding her, going through every minute detail of the case yet again. A half drunk mug of coffee sat on the lounge room floor beside her, within easy reach. David picked her feet up, sat down on the couch, and resettled her legs over his lap. He yawned ostentatiously and leaned his head back on the sofa.”There’s more coffee in the pot if you want some.” Leann said without looking up.”Oh good. I’ll grab some.” David responded, but didn’t move. “So, are you ready for today?””Ready as I’ll ever be.” she shrugged. She lowered the paperwork, and looked at him frankly, “I don’t feel very ready, to be honest.” she confided. “But I don’t know that there’s anything else I can do right now. It’s really up to Galloway at this point, isn’t it?”.David nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah, pretty much.” he agreed.
They moved into the now somewhat familiar court room. This time, it seemed, they had beaten Galloway here. Leann tried not to panic about the solicitors absence just yet, but she was jittery anyway, and it was hard to tell how much of those jitters were caused by the missing legal representative, and how much were just expected nerves. They watched others stream in, a good dose of young men looking uncomfortable in ill-fitting suits, and a few that just looked bored. At least one woman with a haunted face who sat alone, huddled in her clothes, and then there were one or two who looked like they did this every Monday, just for sport, and seemed to be quite enjoying the whole situation. The magistrate entered at two minutes after the starting time, and they all struggled to their feet, attempting to look solemn. When the rabble were all seated again, Leann noticed with a massive sigh of relief that Galloway had somehow, mysteriously, appeared at the solicitor’s table at the front of the room. She nudged David, smiled, and whisperd triumphantly in his ear “he’s here!”David smiled in response. The cases were starting.As expected, the court had recessed for lunch before her name was called. She had barely eaten during the break, nerves putting paid to any hunger she might have had. She had drunk three glasses of water while she watched David put away a sandwich and a plate of hot chips, and now she was worried she was going to wet her pants before her case was heard. She crossed her legs, and tried to be patient.Eventually, Galloway stood in his place and announced her name, “Item 4851, Your Honour. Miss Leann Roberts.”The magistrate shuffled some papers in front him, and then said, “Ah yes, the AVO. Is Miss Roberts here, Mister Galloway?”The solicitor motioned to her to come forward, and she made to stand up. David gave her a quick kiss on the temple and whispered “You’ll be fine” before she0 again took the short journey to the seats behind the solicitor. She nodded briefly to the magistrate, who ignored her, and then she sat down, feeling tiny in the expanse of space that lay around her.”Miss Roberts.” the magistrate demanded.Leann stood slightly, and said, “Yes, Your Honour.”The magistrate turned his attention back to the solicitor, and asked, “Miss Roberts has been under an interim AVO for … nearly two months now. Does your client agree to continue those charges under a full AVO?”. He sounded bored, Leann thought.”No, Your Honour.” Galloway responded quickly. “The charges are inappropriate.”The magistrate looked up from his paperwork, and dropped his head slightly, so he could examine the solicitor down his thin nose. “So that’s a not guilty, then, Sir?””Yes, Your Honour.”The magistrate turned to the police prosecutor, who sat bored at one end of the solicitor’s table, fenced in by piles of teetering manilla flders that threatened to spill all over the floor at any moment. He was gingerly picking through them now, trying to find the appropriate file. “Do you have the grounds there, Mister Franks?” the magistrate asked just as the prosecutor trumphantly pulled a thin fole from the stack by his left elbow.”Yes, I do Your Honour.” he replied, barely lifting his backside from the seat as he flipped the folder open and started to look at the paper enclosed within. A court clerk was at his elbow, her hand out, waiting for the paper work. He found the appropriate piece of paper, pulled it out, and then as though something had caught his eye, he frowned at it. His eyes skimmed the lengthy report written on it, and Leann watched happily as his frown deepened. The magistrate cleared his throat impatiantly, and then asked, “Is everything alright, Mister Franks?”The prosecutor looked up as though shaken out of a reverie, mumbled, “Oh yes, my apologies”, and handed the papers over to the clerk, who swiftly transported them to the bench before returning to her unobtrusive seat in a corner.”Please have a seat while I read the accompanying documentation.” the magsitrate asked pompously, waving his hand at Galloway and Leann. Leann was suddenly reminded of her need to go to the toilet and shifted in her seat, crossing and recrossing her legs.The court room was silent.”Right.” the magistrate said, looking up suddenly. He fixed his gaze on the prosecutor, and asked, “Had you read this brief before today?”Franks stood slightly, said, “No, I hadn’t, Your Honour.”  and sat again quickly.The magistrate said nothing but “Hmmm.” and stroked his chin lightly as he glanced over the papers again.”Mister Galloway, please give me your argument.” He paused and when the solicitor didn’t speak immediately, he continued archly, “I assume you have one, Mister Galloway?”Galloway cleared his throat, and tried to hide his excitement, “Yes, You Honour I do. The defendent in question has no prior criminal convictions. She is an upstanding member of the community, and reasonably well known for her recipes on the internet. She is involved in a volunteer work with two different charities, and divides the majoity of her time between working on a computer assistance help desk and maintaining her website, which generates a fairly significant amount of income through advertsiing and merchandise sales.” he took a quick breath, watched the magistrate’s fce to guage his interest, and then continued, “The protected party in this case a company, and in particular a representative of that company, a Mrs Wendy Waterhouse. Miss Roberts and Mrs Waterhouse have never met, and have never conversed over the telephone. In fact, the only contact they have had is a short email exchange that Mrs Waterhouse initiated, and Miss Roberts responded to. Copies of that corespondence have now been handed to the bench.” as he said this, he held out a small pile of papers to the clerk, who jumped up from her seat and shuffled them up to the bench. The magistrate took them, and laid them out in front of him, while indicating with a motion that Galloway should continue his narrative. “I woudl also like to mention that Miss Roberts has been temporarily stood down from her position as a result of this AVO application, resulting in seven weeks of reduced income for her. This is despite the fact that her position in no way compromises the protected person’s security, nor that of the company listed here.”Leann noted idly that Galloway spoke almost like a normal person when he was in court, and wondered what that said about where he was most comfortable. She struggled to refocus on the conversation. Galloway was finishing by stating, “Your Honour, I would like to ask tht the court withdraw the interim AVO, and that no further orders be placed on my client.”The magistrate nodded, and Galloway returned to his seat. Leann noticed that his face was flushed, but excitement was clear on his face. He got a rush out of this.The magistrate was quiet for a few moments, flipping through the papers in front of him. “Hmmmm.” he mused aloud. “Mister Galloway, I must say I’m inclined to go along with you on this one.”Leann had to hold herself in her chair to stop herself from jumping up and cheering.The magistrate turned once again to the prosecutor, “Mister Franks, this application is a disgrace. I can’t figure out how it got to this point. Do you know the officer in charge of this case?”Franks rose partially, and said, “No, Your Honour. I don’t.””I suggest you get to know him, Sir.” the Magistrate responded archly, “And perhaps teach him a thing or two about investigative procedures.” He turned to Leann, and granted her benafactor’s smile, “Miss Roberts?” she stood, blotted her hands on her suit pants briefly, and then hid them behind her back. She forced herself not to let her eyes flick towards where David was sitting, not trusting her face to remain impassive. “Yes, Your Honur.” she said, her hammering heart audible in her words.”Miss Roberts,” the Magistrate repeated, “The interim orders have been repealed. Additionally, no further charges will be enacted in this matter. You will receive a letter to that effect in the post shortly. You are free to go”.Leann stood rooted to the spot for just a moment, before ducking her head slightly and shakily mumbling, “Thank you, Your Honour”. Galloway turned around and beamed at her, holding his hand out. Leann shook it, conscious of her damp palms, and then turned around to see David at her side, holding her handbag out to her. His grin stretched improbably across his face, and he leaned in towards her to grab her elbow, and steer her out of the court room.Outside, the door to the court closed firmly behind them, Leann gave a little squeal, and nearly swooned in her excitement. “Oh my god, David! Did you hear that? It’s over! I’m free!”They hugged each other tightly, and David lifted her feet off the ground just a fraction and spun her around in a quick half circle. Leann squealed again, then laughed, “Oh, let go, I need to pee something shocking.” With that, she dashed off to the public toilets, and David stood looking after her as she went, still grinning from ear to ear.

The following morning, Leann woke up early, and spent an hour getting the LEanndAVID.com website back up online, and sending out emails to let people know it was back up and running. She then emailed everyone who had made orders that had not been filled yet, and assured them that they would be in the post within the next few days. She had boxes of custom-printed aprons and poster prints of David’s photographs taking up space in the corner of their lounge room, ready to be shipped.
As soon as she knew he would be at his desk, Leann called her boss to let him know that the AVO against her had been overturned. He seemed surprised, and was somewhat over-enthusiastic in his congratulations. Leann felt as though he was doing the verbal equivalent of pumping her hand. Eventually, she steered him around to the purpose of her phone call.”So what time do you want me in tomorrow then?” she asked obtusely.Gary stammered a little, flummoxed, and eventually spat out, “Oh, ummm. I … ahh …I think I’ll ah … need to speak to human resources about that, Leann.”Leann was silent, waiting for him to continue.”You see … umm …” Gary continued, “You see they’ll need to … ahh … do some paperwork, I imagine.”Leann remained silent, and when Gary’s stammering eventually tapered off into dead air, she asked archly, “So you’ve taken me off the books?””Well, not so much taken off, Leann. But, we ahh … we had to do something while you were … away. Since it is was for so long.””It’s called a leave of absence, Gary. Human resource departments do that kind of thing all the time. What you mean to say is that you were so certain that I was in the wrong, and United Foods was in the right, that you never expected I would be coming back so soon. Isn’t that right Gary?””No! No, of course it’s not. I’ll call Beth over in HR now and get it all sorted out. I’ll call you back this afternoon, and have a date for you that you can start back.”Leann rolled her eyes, even though she knew Gary couldn’t see it, and said “Thanks” insincerely.”It really is wonderful news, Leann, honestly. I’m so happy for you that this all got sorted out so well, I really am.””Thanks”. she repeated dryly. “Good bye Gary.” she added.”Oh right, well, good bye Leann. Thanks for calling and letting me know the good news.””You’re welcome Gary. Good bye.” and with that, Leann put the phone down heavily. She didn’t want to go back to that place. But how long would it take her to write a book and get it published? Months? Years, maybe? Leann sighed heavily.

“We need to find two thousand dollars” David announced suddenly.Leann looked up from her book, “We need to what? Why?””Two thousand dollars.” David repeated breathlessly. He was holding a letter from Grey, Galloway, and Hunt – Solicitors. “We need it for Galloway. His list of costs thing has just arrived, and we need to cough up. By next Wednesday.”Leann sat back in her chair, and ran her hands through her hair “Shit.” she muttered.”Yeah.” David agreed, pulling out the chair next to her, and falling heavily into it. “Two thousand dollars. And you don’t have a job.””Don’t I know it.” Leann said drily. “I could probably ask Mum and Dad.” she made a face, the idea was less than appealing.”Yeah, I could probably ask my Dad for something. Tell you what,” David said, “Why don’t we ask my Dad for a grand, and your folks for another grand?””Hmm. That’s an idea. Alright, I guess.” Leann closed he eyes for a second, thinking, and then opened them again and said, “I’ve got an idea, how about we put something on the website? Can we put a PayPal button or something on there?”David looked surprised. The idea had never ocurred to him that readers of their site would be inclined to pay them money to keep it running.Leann continued, “Do you think they love us enough to fund our solicitor’s bills?”David made a face, and said, “I don’t know. They might. I guess there’s no harm in trying.”Leann nodded. “Alright. I’ll set something up, let’s see what happens.”

For the third time, David slipped into the local court room. He found what he now thought of as ‘their’ seats in one corner, and tried to wait patiently for the magistrate to arrive at the bench. Even though he knew this hearing was nothing, that it was just setting a date for the criminal trial, he couldn’t help but jitter, fiddling with the cuffs of his jacket in the stuffy court room, positioning and repositioning his tie. Leann had asked to come, but he had refused her. She had been busy working on the layout and design of her recipe book, in the hope of getting an agent and this hearing was not important. He wanted her there for the next one though, he thought to himself as he waited.
Leann was out in David’s studio using one of the desktop publishing programs on his computer. She was trying to develop a good design for the pages in the recipe book, a delicate balance between words and photographs. Leann was finding that every recipe was different, and required a different layout. Some required many more photographs than she could possibly fit on the page, and others required far fewer. She had spent the last day or so going through every recipe, deciding which ones needed to be in, and which ones didn’t. She had spent a lot of time trying to work out chapter headings and sections. Leann was happy with the work so far. Now she just needed to lay out the main recipes, and turn them into a proof of sorts. If she wanted to avoid going back to work at Infologic, then she needed to get something happening on the recipe book instead, she had decided. She finished the recipe she was working on, sent it to the big colour printer next to her, and opened a new file to begin on the next. As she did, she wondered briefly if David had been seen by the magistrate yet, and been given a date for the hearing. She wondered when this chapter of their life was going to be over.

21 May 2010
boycottunitedfoods.wordpress.com
Welcome to the Boycott United Foods Website! This website has been created by a small group of concerned citizens. Do you buy United Foods products? You probably do. They make popular meal bases, quick cooking sauces, and a range of other products that Australians have been buying and using for over twenty years. Unfortunately, this household name has not only been supplying Australians with cooking sauces, but they’ve also been lying to us. How have they lied? United Foods have been using the work of a small independent Aussie photographer on their packaging. Good for the artist, you might say. But the problem is that they stole these photographs from the artists’ website. The artist was not asked if their photographs could be used. The artist was not told that their photographs were going to be used, or what they were going to be used for. The artist has not been paid by United Foods, or given any kind of recognition.
In short, United Foods have stolen the work of a small independent artist.
Let’s send a message to United Foods that they can’t ignore. Next time you go shopping, buy a different brand instead. Not only will you be sending a message to United Foods that Australians will not accept big business stealing from small artists, but you will be part of a grass roots movement that can prove the power of a small number of dedicated individuals.
Have United Foods hurt you in some way? Have they stolen from you, lied, or acted dishonestly? Why not tell us about it, and then tell your friends about this website.
In order to protect small artists’ rights, BOYCOTT UNITED FOODS.
Email: boycottunitedfoods@gmail.comTwitter: @boycottunitedfoods

“Hi, I was hoping to be able to speak to Leann Roberts please?””That’s me.” Leann answered.”Oh, hi Leann. It’s Beth from HR at Infologic Systems. How are you?” the young voice on the telephone asked.”Fine thanks, Beth. I was expecting your call a week ago.””Yes, sorry about that, Leann. It took us a while to sort everything out.””Lucky I haven’t been off work without pay for the past two months, then, huh?” Leann asked sarcastically.Beth cleared her throat awkwardly, and changed the subject, “I wanted to discuss your new start date with you, Leann.”Leann waited.”We can have you start on the first of November. How does that sound?””That’s a month away!” Leann exploded in surprise, “I’ve been off for two months and the best you can do is pick a start date another month in the future? What the hell are you lot on? I can go out and get a whole new job in that time!””I’m sorry, Leann …” Beth began.”No you’re bloody well not!” Leann interrupted. “You terminated my employment didn’t you?” Leann didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “You terminated my employment the day that United Foods slapped that farce of an AVO on me, and now you don’t even have the guts to stand up and tell me that’s what you’ve done! You don’t have the guts to tell me that you didn’t trust me. Well, you know what, Beth?” she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and wondered if she was doing the right thing only briefly before she spurted it out, “You know what? I don’t want your stinking job anyway. Go jump.” she hung up the phone, trembling slightly, although she suddenly felt an amazing sense of elation. She didn’t know how David was going to take it, but she would just have to sort that out when it happened. In the meantime, she was free to work on her recipe book. And she had better get started on finding an agent for it, or they would be in all kinds of serious trouble before the end of the year, she thought grimly.

Leann looked up from her meal and asked suddenly, “What happens if they don’t deliver the documents?””The police?” David asked.”Yeah. What happens if the police don’t deliver the documents to us? I mean, here it is the twentieth of October, the hearing is on the twenty-fifth …” she trailed off.David nodded thoughtfully, “Well, I don’t know. I guess they could hand them to us the morning of the hearing, in theory. As long as it’s before the court date.””That’s bullshit.” Leann said softly. Being angry at the police and the court system was starting to get tiring.”Although, I would imagine that Galloway would put up a pretty big stink if they tried it. He would want to have time to go through everything.”Leann sighed, “So, in other words, they hand the documents over late, Galloway asks for more time, the case gets adjourned, and next thing you know the whole problem rolls into next year and we keep on going. Where does it stop, David? Where do we get off this ride? I’m sick of it, and I don’t want to play any more.”David stood, and wrapped his arms around her in her seat. She held him around his waist, and rested her face against his belt buckle. “I’m tired, David.” she said softly.”Me too, Baby. Me too.”
David was washing up after dinner, and Leann was making mugs of tea when a knock came on the door. Activity in the kitchen ceased, and they looked at each other, questioning.”I’ll go.” David said, wiping his hands on the tea towel, and hurrying down the hallway to the front door. Leann followed him, only two steps behind.David opened the door, only to see yet another police officer.”Mister Forrest?””That’s me.” David said tiredly, “What do you have this time?””Just some documents, Sir.” he said politely, handing over a sealed manila envelope.David raised his eyebrows, as though the police officer had offended him by not serving him with some new criminal charges. “Right, okay then. Thanks.” he said, and went to close the door.”Sir?” the police officer interrupted, stepping forward slightly to stop the door from closing completely.David opened the door again, frowned, and asked “Yes?”.The young officer frowned, his brow wrinkling as though he was trying to find the words to say something he knew he probably shouldn’t be saying. “Sir … ” he stammered, “I just wanted to say good luck for the hearing on Monday.” Within moments, and without a goodbye, he had turned and practically flown down the path. He jumped in the car and gunned it out into the street.David closed the door slowly, and turned around to Leann, “Now that was weird …” he said slowly.Leann nodded, “I don’t think he’s going to stay in the police force for very long, somehow.” she observed.

Galloway began piling the mess of papers back up into a neat bundle, and stuffed them back into the manila envelope. “We-elll …” he said. “I don’t think we will perform too badly on Monday, David. I am very glad you have those images printed up and analysed so neatly. To recapitulate our argument before you leave, I do not know if you will be permitted to use the images on your … ahhh … website. But the main ruling we are asking the magistrate for, is that the complainant withdraw the images from their packaging. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that they will remove the images with expedience, but that must be our most pressing request.” He looked questioningly over his glasses at David, who nodded. “Are you considering a police complaint?” he asked suddnely.David looked at Leann, who looked just as confused as he felt.”Can we?” Leann asked the solicitor.”Oh, of course you can, Ms Roberts.” he said with a little chuckle, “Of course you can. In fact, I would suggest you do, regardless of the outcome of the case.””What would a police complaint achieve?” David asked, scepticism clear in his voice. “If the case has already been tried, then what effect would complaining have? Even if the case turns out badly for us, a police complaint won’t change that outcome. Would it?””Probably not.” Galloway conceded. “But at least it could stop it happening to some other person, further down the line.” he paused, apaprently deep in thought, and David and Leann looked at each other, both considering the prospect that Galloway had a social conscience. Galloway shook himself suddenly, and handed the envelope back to David. “Anyway.” he said finally, rising from his chair and holding out his hand, “Good day. I’ll see you in court on Monday.”

14 May 2010
This might seem a little off-topic for this blog, and I must confess that it is – in many ways. I don’t tend to buy pre-made sauces of the variety that United Foods creates, but I know that many of you out there would at least be familiar with them. Recently, it seems, United Foods have undergone a brand redesign, and in doing so they have added new images to their entire product range. If you are a regular – or even only semi-regular – reader of this blog, then it might interest you to head out to the sauces section of your local supermarket in the next few days. Check out the images they’ve used. Seem familiar? They ought to. Every single image has been stolen off this blog.
We went down to our local supermarket after hearing about this, and bought as many different United Foods packets as we could find, and then pulled out David’s original photos. United Foods have digitally altered a few of them (badly, we might add), but all are still very much recognisable as David’s photographs, and all have at some point been displayed on this website.
We are furious about this. We run a very small private operation out of our own home, producing and selling these photographs, and their acoompanying recipes. A large company like United Foods have the resources to be able to produe their own photographs, yet they decide to steal someone elses. Naturally, we wrote to them about their use of the images, but, like the cowards they are, they have not responded.
All we want is for United Foods to either recognise David as the artist, or remove the photos. Hey, both would be nice. In the meantime, we’ll continue writing awful things about them, and making sure we tell everyone we meet what United Foods is like. We suggest you do the same.

David was sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by paperwork from the case. Galloway had not inspired a terrible amount of confidence, and he wanted to be sure that he understood the nuances of the case completely. He was wondering if the solicitor had missed something, if there was some angle that they could approach it from, to guarantee a good result. He had spent a lot of time looking up the exact wording of the legislation in online legal databases, and he was beginning to get to a point where he felt as though he knew the case better than Galloway ever could. After all, David had been living and breathing this for months, but Galloway had probably dozens of cases to deal with on a daily basis.
David heard Leann come in before he saw her. She gave out a big whoop as she walked in the door, and as she swept around the corner and in to the dining room, she threw a handful of mail on top of David’s cleanly organised paperwork, and then wrapped him into a bear hug.”I’ve got an agent!” she crowed, releasing him from her clutches and dropping into the dining room chair next to him.”You’ve … what?” David stammered, confused by the sudden changed of topic from what he’d been so deeply engrossed in.”An agent!” she sid airily, flapping a piece of paper in the air. She swivelled sideways in her seat and put her bare feet up on David’s lap. She was grinnning like a loon.”A real agent? For the recipe book? Already?””We-ell. They haven’t exactly agreed to take me on as a client yet … in so many words. But they are interested in the book, and they want to meet up with me next week.”David was stunned, “Wow. That was really fast. I thought you’d be chasing an agent for years.””So did I.” Leann agreed, her voice slightly less flippant. “But it’s a good book, David. I’m really glad you made me do it. And I guess the reality is that a publisher could still be years away. Just because an agent takes it on doesn’t mean they’ll be able to sell it.””Pfff.” David responded dismissively, “It will be a hell of a lot quicker with an agent than trying to convince someone to publish it on your own.”Leann nodded, pleased with herself, “Yeah, it will.” she agreed. “I can’t wait!”David grinned. It was the happiest he’d seen Leann in a long time.
Eventually, over a prawn laksa, the discussion turned back to the court case. They turned the argument around, picked it apart, and re-assembled it, looking for arguments and loopholes. They bickered over putting in a police complaint. Leann wanted to do it, David thought it would be a waste of effort with very little result. When it was all boiled down, they realised that they really didn’t know whether they were going to succeed in court or not. The photographs were David’s, that much was clear, but what was on trial was whether or not David had acted improperly by publically shaming United Foods. They considered arguing that Leann had been the one to actually compose and post most of the messages, but then realised that it would only make them charge Leann instead, prolonging the agony. In the end, they realised that they had to fight this case on its merits. They had not at any point threatened violence against United Foods, but they had incited people to boycott their products, meaning that they had – with malice aforethought – actively damaged United Foods’ income stream. David had been poring over United Foods financial statements for the past week, trying to work out if they had actually shown any noticeable impact from the Boycott United Foods website. There was a dip in sales about a month after the site went live, but it was impossible to prove that it was related. He had no doubt that United Foods would have the sort of corporate lawyers that could do so, though.

“Are you going to court tomorrow, she how the legal eagles perform?” Wendy was leaning against the glass fronted office building, lighting a cigarette. It was dark, although the evening was mild. Her briefcase was between her feet on the concrete path. When the cigarette was lit, she took a deep breath as though her life depended on it, picked up her briefcase, and fell into step beside Brendan as they wandered to the car park.”I don’t know.” Brendan said eventually, “I’m curious to find out what’s going to happen, but I’m not sure that I want to be there if it goes badly.”Wendy nodded, and blew smoke through her nostrils. Brendan waved the tendrils away from his own face with a flapping hand. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.” he said.”Sorry. I’m nearly done with this one anyway.” She took another deep drag, inspected the butt in her fingers, then dropped it on the ground, and stepped on it. She turned her head to blow the smoke, but it blew back to Brendan anyway. He tried not to cough.”Anyway, are you going?” he asked.”Yeah, I might.” she said, “What am I going to do otherwise? Sit around in the office drinking coffee and trying not to think about it?”Brendan laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. Well, I’m not sure still. I might send you a message in the morning, let you know whether I’ll be there or not. If you’re there, then you can just send me a message when you know the outcome, maybe. If you wouldn’t mind of course.””Of course not.” She answered. They had reached the carprk, and Brendan opened the pedestrian gate for Wendy to go through first. “Such a gentleman.” she commented archly.”It’ss my pleasure, madame.” he responded.”Madmesoille, if you please.” she said, mocking him.Brendan laughed, “You know, if you weren’t a smoker, I’d probably ask you out to dinner or something.” he said suddenly.She turned and looked him in the eye, “And if you weren’t a co-worker, I’d probably say yes.” she responded archly. With that, she clicked the remote in her hand, her car beeped, and she opened the driver’s side door, “See you tomorrow!” she called, before getting it and starting the ignition.

For the fourth time, they entered the court room. They were starting to recognise some of the solicitors besides their own, and it was beginning to bother Leann immensely. She didn’t want to be the sort of person who knew intimately how courts worked, who sat where, what the protocols were, and how to address the magistrate. She consoled herself with the idea that at least it was nearly all over. This should be the last time they had to do this. And with any luck, it would be a good verdict, and they could walk away with their heads held high, never to return.
This occasion differed from the previous three times. They didn’t have to sit through the endless drunk driving and minor offense cases, which was good in some ways, although Leann had somewhat enjoyed the voyeuristic nature of watching those cases in the past. This time they had an allocated period of three hours, which meant no waiting around for their turn on the list of cases. Leann waited in the rank and file of the spectator seats, while David sat in the hot seat behind Galloway. United Foods was represented by not just one lawyer, but a tribe of them. Five homogeneous looking young men in black suits and starched white shirts. Their neat hair was cut short and combed flat. Their slim black briefcases sat sedately at their sides, and their pink legal notepads lay open and ready to be written on with expensive pens. The only point of differentiation between them appeared to be their choice of writing instrument – Mont Blanc and Parker in gold and silver inlay, names and initials engraved on their edges. All different, but in a startlingly similar way. Leann sighed at the legal clout they represented, and her stomach sank.
The court clerk entered with a flurry, and everyone bustled to their feet for the imminent arrival of the magistrate. Leann stood, although it felt as though her stomach remained seated. The magistrate sat, rapped her gavel, and with a grunt, ordered everyone to sit. They did. The solicitors started shuffling papers, the pink note pads were marred, the magistrate ordered the trial to start, and their final day in court was underway. Leann sat back and let it wash over her.

10 May 2010
We had a bit of a nasty shock today. Leann got a phone call from her Mum. But that’s not what did it. She called to tell us that she had seen United Foods new packaging, and the photograph on the packet she had bought matched the photograph on the apron we had given her for her birthday. And she was right. We went down to the shops ourselves and bought all the packets we could find. Every single one of them bore one of David’s photographs.
Unfortunately, congratulations are not in order. David has not been commissioned by United Foods to produce their packaging photography … much to our chagrin, of course.
At this stage, we are assuming that someone in United Foods has bungled. We’ve written them a letter about the situation and are waiting to hear back from them. Fingers crossed they’ll either remove the images since they don’t own them, or compensate us (and gee, wouldn’t that be nice!). In the meantime, watch this space to find out what’s going on.
To try and avoid this happening again, we have gone through and water marked all images on this site, including those in the previews for products in the online store. Naturally, the actual products you receive in the mail will have the water mark removed. If you want to use any of the images available on the site, then please contact us for an original high-resolution version. If you just want to use an image on your own site, then leave the water mark in place, acknowledge David Forrest as the photographer, and we would also appreciate a link back to this site.
Now, on to the recipes. Today we have added a chicken parmiagiana recipe. It’s a simple Italian classic, and you can change it around to suit you in so many different ways. I prefer a lightly crumbed schnitzel with a really spicy tomato sauce, but feel free to mix it up however you like …

“In the matter of United Foods Proprietary Limited v David Andrew Forrest, against the charge of Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act “Using a carriage service to menace, harass, or offend”, I find the defendant …”Leann caught and held her breath.”Guilty. Against the charge of Section 545B of the Crimes Act “Using intimidation or violence to unlawfully influence a person”, I find the defendant … Not guilty.”She let her breath out in a rush. She didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Had they won or lost? She locked eyes with David across the court room. He looked as confused as she felt.The magistrate went on, “The defendant, Mister Forrest,” she said, eyeing him from her seat high up on the bench, “acted inappropriately. The emails and website posts were inflammatory and caustic. The company has provided evidence that they have indeed been negatively effected by the actions of Mister Forrest and his partner Ms Roberts.: The magistrate paused slightly, and David shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Every single on of the solicitors was scribbling madly, heads down. “However, ” the magistrate continued suddenly, “United Foods Proprietary Limited have also acted extremely inappropriately. The photographs we have seen here today,” she waved a hand towards the table where the body of evidence was collected, having served its purpose in the earlier arguments, “are very clearly the work of the defendant, and United Foods have not been able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were ever granted permission to use them on their products.”Leann noticed a sly smile spreading on David’s face, though his head was bent slightly.”To that end, I am making the following orders: Mister Forrest is under a good behaviour bond, for a period of twelve months. Mister Forrest, I strongly suggest you temper your anger in future correspondence, and choose your words more wisely in the future. United Foods must remove the images used without permission. I understand that the images are already in circualtion, and on supermarket shelves. You have twelve months to remove the images from all packaging in all retail locations and replace them with permitted images. I am also requesting that United Foods pay Mister Forrest the sum of five hundred thousand dollars in compensation for the use of his images.” The magistrate gave a sharp rap of her gavel, and stood abruptly. The clerk also scurried to her feet and bawled, “All rise!”Leann sat stunned, and it was only when those around her were already standing that she managed to struggle to her feet also. She felt as though they had won the lottery. She tried to see David through the standing throng, but couldn’t spot him. People were mingling around, collecting bags and papers. She picked up her handbag and hurried through the court room, and towards the door. She finally caught up with him standing outside searching the crowd, and she threw her arms around his neck. She had no words, but both of them wore grins of triumph.

“They’ve shut the Boycott United Foods site down.””Competely?” Brendan asked.”Yep. It’s black. Nothing but a 404 Not Found error when you put in the address.”Brendan smiled into the phone. “Thanks Wendy. That’s great news.”

Leann walked into the glass fronted building, wearing a suit that was starting to see more wear than it had in almost a decade. She was nervous, but in a much better way than any of the previous times she had worn this suit. Her heels clicked loudly on the marble floors as she crossed the expanse of the foyer, heading for the bank of elevtors on the other side. She punched the button to go up, and waited mere seconds before one of the elevator doors gave a grand sounding “bong!” and neatly camoflouged arrows illuminated. She walked to the lit elevator shaft, just as the cool metallic doors slid poen to reveal a mirrored elevator car. It was empty. The lack of people in this massive expanse of building was starting to disconcert her. It was although the entire building had been deserted for a fire drill or something minutes before she arrived. There was no sense of industry gonig on behind closed doors, just an overwhelming sense of emptiness. She entered the car, found the button for the twenty third floor, and as she was whisked upwards into the building, checked her hair in the mirrored walls. She gave her reflection a smile, and noticed how nervous she felt. Suddenly, the elevator bounced slightly, and the doors slid open. She stepped out oin to the hall way and her heels sank into the deep carpet, making it difficult to walk with anything less than a goose step. She felt ridiculous, and hugged her bulky proof copy of her recipe book a little closer to her stomach, as though it would protect her. She found the door for French and Freedman Literary Agents, and pushed the door. A receptionist glared at her loftily, and she nervously announced herself. She was told to take a seat, and she collapsed into a deep lounge chair tin the waiting area. She sank so far into the soft armchair that she wondered if she would ever get out again. What was eith the ultra soft furnishings, she wondered to herself, grabbing the single Vogue magazine on the glass coffee table, and trying to look as though she hung out at literary agents’ offices all the time.
“Ms Roberts?” a soft voice called, and Leann looked up from the magazine to see a tall woman in a simple black shift dress and a string of pearls. The woman smiled, and Leann attempted to struggle out of the too soft lounge chair. By he time she was upright, and had straigthened her suit out, the woman had disappeared down a corridor. Leann hurried after her, feeling foolish. The woman – who Leann assumed to be Gail French, Literary Agent – was waiting by an open door for Leann to catch up. As she rounded the corner, she smiled. Leann smiled back.”Hi Leann.” she said, following her into the vast office, directing her to another white leather lounge chair by a plate glass window with a stunning view over Sydney Harbour, the famous bridge just visible off to the left, the opera house shrouded in early morning haze barely notceable behind it. “I’m Gail French, it’s lovely to meet you.” Gail extended a delicate hand, and Leann shook it. Despite her fragile appearance, her handshake was strong. It was a handshake that clearly said she meant business.”Likewise.” Leann responded, as she sat down. This lounge chair, Leann noticed wih relief. not as soft as the previous one, and much more comfortable. She perched on the edge of it, watching as Gail prepared a drink at the small bar in a corner of the offie. “Would you like something?” sh asked.”Oh, just water, thanks.”Leann watched as she filled two tall glasses with ice, topped them up with water from a thin silver faucet, and then brought them back to the small glass-topped table between the two lounges. Gail settled into the other couch, took a small sip, resettled the glass, and said, “I love your recipe book.””Oh, um.” Leann mumbled, thrown off guard at the other woman’s directness, “Um. Thanks.” she smiled.Gail reached out a hand, a large glittering stone dripping from her forefinger and Leann handed her the proof copy of the recipe book shead been clutching. Gail flipped through the pages very delicately, a small smile flitting across her face as she turned each leaf. “Yes, this is wonderful. It’s just wonderful.” she muttered softly to herself, before looking up again, and addressing Leann directly. “You have a real talent, here Leann. You and … your partner … what is his name, again, sorry?””David.” Leann said, “David Forrest.””David Forrest.” Gail repeated softly. “Yes, you and David have put together something really wonderful here. I read about you in the Sydney Morning Herald months ago, you know. You said something then about not being interested in publishing a recipe book. What made you change your  mind?”Leann’s mind whirred, trying to think of an answer appropriate to this woman, and to their current surroundings, “I … um … I decided that if I could just publish the recipe book, then I wouldn’t have to continue my part time work any longer. We decided to make the website and the recipe book into a full time activity.” She smiled to herself, yes, that sounded pretty good, she though.Gail must have thought so too, because she smiled, “That’s excellent. I’m very glad you changed your mind. I was quite upset that you wouldn’t be publishing when I read about it, I think you both have a lot of talent, and what you have put together here is really quite marvellous.”Leann beamed, “Gee. Um. Thanks.””Now, I have two or three friends that I think I would like to send this to. There is going to be a lot of interest in this work so we need to play our hand carefully, and only release to the people that we know are going to be sensible with it. Ideally, we will release it to just a select few publishing houses, and create a little … ah … bidding war, shall we say, and try and get you the biggest advance possible.”Leann gaped.

Galloway stared at them from across his desk yet again. This time, though, he was smiling.”Congratulations.” he said, looking from David to Leann, and back again. “I think that went very satisfactorily, don’t you?” he asked.David and Leann both nodded enthusiastically.”Yes, it was a very good result. A wonderful result, indeed.” Galloway nodded to himself.  “But now we must decide what to do with the web site for the future, do you agree?”Leann frowned slightly, “What about it? Can’t we just fire it all up again to how it was before?”Galloway chuckled softly, “Well, I guess you could. But I certainly would not recommend that course of action.””Why not?” Leann asked.”Well, as much fun as this has been, Leann, and as much as I have enjoyed having you both as clients, I am not sure it is an activity that you would both like to repeat, is it?””Oh.” Leann said shortly. “Yeah, I can see your point. But what can we do about it? You can’t be going to tell us that we just can’t have any pictures on the site? That’s what makes the site special, the photos. Without them, it’s just another recipe blog.”David nodded his agreement.Galloway chuckled again, much to Leann’s irritation, and said, “No, you can still have the photographs up there. I would suggest that you consider removing the photographs that United Foods er … stole, though.” he raised a hand to ward off Leann’s protestations, “Just until the pictures have been removed from the products, you understand, not indefinitely.”David’s face fell. The photographs that United Foods had used were some of the best on the site, and many were integrated into header and other brand images. The whole look of the site would need to change. “I’m not sure that that’s going to work so well, Gall … Mitchell. I mean, those photos are pretty important to the look of the site.”Galloway waved his hand again, dismissively, “Don’t be silly, David. People redesign web sites all the time. Of course, you will have to go through and make sure everything is watermarked. There’s also some technical … ah … technical trickery that you can do to stop people being able to simply save the images off the website and on to their computers. I will also draft up a copyright notice for you to display prominently on every page.  You might also want visitors to the site to go through a legal disclaimer that they need to agree to before being able to enter the site at all. Now, about the shop …”Leann waited, her stomach sinking.Galloway continued, “The onine shop is where the problem is, unfortunatley. I think you are going to have to close the shop section of the store, and discontinue sales. It is too easy for customers at the online shop to see images, save them, and re-use them.” Galloway stopped talking, and looked up at them.Both Leann and David were grim.”You won the court case this time.” Galloway stated, “But you might not be so lucky next time.” His point was clear.
When they got home, Leann went straight to the computer, and shut down the online store on the website. They decided to wait a few days to decide what to do with the rest of the site.

30 April 2010
First of all, welcome to all our new readers! It is simply wonderful to have you along. We were recently written about in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Food and Wine Section, and I have to say we’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the response to the article. If you’ve never been here before, we are Leann and David. Leann creates foody goodness in her kitchen in suburban Sydney, and David takes photographs of them. The emphasis is on simple food that you can cook yourself at home with fresh ingredients from the supermarket. No fancy stuff that you need to go to a specialty store for, or spend a whole lot of money on. This is stuff that you can make when you get home from work and still have people think you are a culinary genius. David’s photography brings each step in the process to life, and shows you exactly how wonderful things can look without going through a process that takes hours and requires a degree in culinary artistry.
We hope you enjoy the recipes, we try to post up a new recipe at least twice a week, more if we can. If there’s something in particular that you would love a recipe for, drop us an emai at recipes@leanndavid.com.
You might also notice that we have a shop. In there you can buy recipe cards featuring David’s photography and Leann’s recipes. You can also buy some of David’s more popular photographs as prints, or on various merchandise items. Our aprons are a favourite. We suggest you buy one.

Wendy came flying in to Brendan’s office, and Brendan looked up suddenly from where he was reading his emails.”Brendan, you have to come see this!” she said breathlessly.”See what?” he asked, half rising even as he asked the question.”I’ve just gotten last month’s financial statements from downstairs, and they’re quite remrkable. Let me show you.”She grabbed his hand, and pulled him out of the office and into the conference room next door. She had papers strewn across two of the dining tables in there. Some of them were highlighted in great swathes of yellow, others had sticky notes attached to them, with scribbled comments in Wendy’s messy hands.”What’s going on?” Brendan asked again, boggling at the mess of papers around him.”Check this out,” Wendy said excitedly, and started jabbing at different columns on different bits of paper.”Stop showing me, Wendy.” Brendan said, irritated, and use words, please. I don’t understand an of this stuff”.Wendy took a deep breath, and tried to calm her excitement down a little. She struggled to find the right words to explain what was going on, but eventually she managed to do it. Breathlessly, and emphatically waving her highlighter to make her points, she started to explain.”When the Boycott United Foods site went live, it brought the figures down, right? Now, a lot of that had to do with the time of year, our sales always struggle a little in the warmer weather because people want to barbecue, not make curries at home. Some of it also had to do with that traditional dip we always see when we have a package change. People look for what they are used to, and when they don’t find it sraight away, they often go elsewhere. Also, it cost us a lot of our budget to get the new packaging designed and printed, so that cut into our revenue as well, which makes the profits look worse.” She took a deep breath, considering where she was going with this, “Okay, so a lot of it we would have seen anyway, but that didn’t account for the whole lot. A lot of it had to do with the Boycott United Foods site. So people were starting to actively stop buying our products. Our competitors all saw slight revenue increases during the month or so that the Boycott site was active abd attracting hits, because the people who didn’t buy our stuff just bought one of our competitor’s prodcusts instead. So then, when the Boycott site went down, we expected to see a slight bounce back in the figures. It wouldn’t be normal for people to bounce back immediately, because some people wouldn’t know about the site going down, and some would still think it’s a good idea. Some people might even have decided they liked our competitiro’s product better, and have decided to stick with it. But this is where it gets weird. After the Boycott site went down, we didn’t just see a bounce back. Our sales actually increased to more than what they were before the Boycott site went live – to more than what they were before we changed the product packaging, even.”Brendan raised his eyebrows, and said, “Really? Why?””Well, that’s the thing,” Wendy continued, “We don’t really know. The best explanation that Finance have got, and I have to agree with them, is that the coverage from the Boycott Site, and the court case, has brand awareness, even though the coverage was largely negatieve.””But that doesn’t make sense.” Brendan argued.”No, it doesn’t, does it? But what else could it be?”Brendan laughed suddenly, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Well, they say that any advertising is good advertising, don’t they?”Wendy laughed too. It was a good day.

“Hello?””Hi, can I speak to Leann Roberts please?””That’s me.” Leann responded.”Hi Leann. This is Geraldine from French and Freedman Literary Agents. I’m calling on behalf of Ms French. I’ll put you through to her office now.””Thanks.” Leann said, as she took a seat on the couch. From experience, she now knew it could take a  while to get put through. She hadn’t decided yet whether it was becaus Geraldine the secretary was useless, or because Gail just didn’t pick up imediately, even when she had asked the call to be placed. As she waited, David wandered in, saw she was on the phne, and raised a questioning eyebrow.Leann covered the speaker with her hand and said, “It’s Gail French. I’m on hold.””Has she heard back from the publisher’s yet?” he asked.”Don’t know yet. I guess I’ll find out.”David nodded, and at that moment the phone in her hand burst into life, “Leann!” Gail piped, her voice sounding flustered.
David watched as Leann became animated, speaking to the agent. After a few “uh-huh’s” Leann’s face went slack suddenly, stunned. Her eyes sought David’s, and he shrugged, wondering what had happened.”You’re kidding?” Leann almost whispered into the phone.David wondered what had happened.Eventually, Leann hung up, but continued to stare at the phone for a few seconds, as though she couldn’t quite believe what news it had just imaprted. She looked up slowly, and said something in a tiny voice.David moved closer, “Sorry, what was that? I couldn’t hear you?””We’ve got a book deal.” she said, only fractionally louder.”Great!” David said, smiling.”They’ve offered us an advance.” Leann said, still not quite believing it herself.”Awesome!” David enthused.”It’s three million dollars.” Leann continued.”Three million … Three million dollars?!” David yelped.Leann nodded slowly, her eyes wide.

30 April 2010
It is my absolute pleasure to announce that our new online store is now open! So many people have asked after poster prints of David’s photography, that we decided to offer a range of our favourites for sale right here on the web site.
Currently, there are ten different images available for purchase, including the one of the chillies in the top banner of this page. Choose your favourite image, and then choose how you would like to have it displayed. You can buy a poster print in four different sizes, with or without a frame. You can also print it on a range of merchandise – aprons, tea towels, coffee mugs, and fridge magnets. Once you have decided, you can pay through Pay Pal, and we’ll get it printed up especially for you to your specifaction, and posted out to you.
And of course, if there’s anything you really want to have, and we haven’t got it available in the store, just email us at merch@leanndavid.com and we’ll do our very best to get it happening for you.
And now, a new recipe for you … this time it’s a traditional lamb roast, complete with timings for vegetables and gravy. Have you ever cooked a roast and ended up woth raw vegetables? Or burnt veggies and meat that’s still raw in the middle? Try it with this method, and you’ll never fail …

“What are we going to do about the blog, Leann?” David asked. They were lying naked in bed, the sheets and blankets kicked off on to the floor. It was a hot night, and a pedestal fan standing at the bottom of the bed blew a cool breeze over their sweating bodies.”I don’t know.” Leann sighed, “I don’t want to think about it at all, to be honest.””Yeah, but we have to. Galloway was on the phone again today, asking me about it.”Leann sighed again. “I don’t want to shut it down, David.””I know, I don’t either. But do we want to make people jump through legal hoops to get to it, either?” David asked pointedly.”No, I don’t. I don’t think its fair for the readers. And what is it really going to do anyway? If people want to steal the images, they’ll find a way to do it. All that stuff that Galloway wants to do to the site will just make it easier to go to court against them. The point is, we’ll still have to go to court, even if it’s trivial to win.”It was David’s turn to sigh, “So, we either shut the site down and probably never have to go back to court, or we make our readers go through endless legal disclaimers and still maybe end up back there.””What a choice, huh?” Leann said dryly, turning to David beside her.”I don’t think we have a choice at all.” David replied, wrapping his arms around her naked form. “I think we have to shut it down, Baby.”Leann nodded, suddenly unable to speak. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

Leann had been out doing food shopping, and when she walked in, there was a large express post bag sitting on the kitchen table. Her name was written on it in big black letters, above their address. She put down the shopping bags, and hurriedly put the groceries away in the fridge and cupboards. She set the kettle on to boil, foud a mug and slipped a teabag in to it, and then wandered over to get the parcel, burning with curiosity. It was heavy, she realised. She grabbed the kitchen shears, and slit open the heavy duty envelope. From the padded interior, a hefty book slid out, and she immediately recognised it and grinned. “Photographic Adventures Through Slow Food” was the title emblazoned on the front, above a stunning photograph of chillies in one of Leann’s grandmothers’  heirloom china bowls. In smaller writing, at the bottom of the cover, was embossed “Recipes by Leann Roberts. Photography by David Forrest”.
At that moment, the doorbell rang, and she went to the door, still clutching the first real copy of her recipe book. It was a man from a transport company, a white box at his feet. He held out an electronic device for her to sign, smiled, and then offered to bring it in for her. “It’s pretty heavy.” he said, “Been ordering house bricks, eh?”Leann had no answer, she didn’t know what it was. She allowed the delivery man to bring it into the kitchen for her, and then thanked him as he left.She broke open the tape holding the box, and lifted off the lid. It was another twenty copies of the book. She laughed out loud, and reached for the phone to call everyone she knew.

Brendan struggled out of bed at eight o’clock, and dragged himself through a shower. He shaved carefully, squinting at his reflection in the steamed mirror, and then pulled his best suit out of the wardrobe and forced himself into it. He checked his reflection in the mirror, resolutely ignored the shadows under his eyes, and grabbed his wallet, car keys, and two mobile phones off the kitchen table. He had an important meeting to get to.
In the office, Brendan bypassed the fourteenth floor, and went directly to the top of the building. He gave his name to the personal assistant in the foyer, and subjected himself to a careful but surreptitious inspection by the young man. He seemed to have passed some unwritten examination, and eventually he was granted access to the inner sanctum of the top floor. Burgundy carpet with a ridiculously thick pile met his black loafers, and made him realise that they were seriously overdue for a polish. He straightened his tie, adjusted his jacket, and continued down to the meeting room at the end of the corridor, where Dan Grayson sat languidly at a glass topped table, similar to the one in Brendan’s own office. The chief executive officer was resting back in the lounge chair, his legs crossed in front him, and one arm slung casually across the back of the chair. His jacket was unbuttoned, and hang down to his sides, exposing a perfect white, perfectly pressed, collared business shirt. He didn’t smile as Brendan entered, but gave a slight nod to indicate the chair across from him.”Good morning Mister Grayson” Brendan said nervously as he sat.”Good morning Brendan.” Grayson said officiously. Suddenly, he sat up straight with the grace of a much younger man, and lent forward towards Brendan, his elbows on his knees. “How are you Brendan?” he asked, as though he were actually interested to know.”Ah, fine, thanks.” Brendan answered, uncertain what was required of him.”Bit tired?” Grayson asked. There was no concern in his voice, he just wanted to know the facts.”Um, yes. A little bit. I’ve been working some long hours recently.” This Brendan said with just a hint of pride. He wanted to prove to his boss that he had been putting in the hard work for the company, not out partying or whatever it was other people did.Grayson nodded. “Well, you should be. You’ve been working hard.”Brendan nodded. He was having trouble working out what this was all about, where it was going.”Well, despite that bloody bleeding heart whatever his name was … Forrest, wasn’t it? I think you’ve done a marvellous job, Brendan.”Brendan was struck. He smiled and gave a little nod, but couldn’t think what to say, so he kept his mouth shut.”You had a brilliant idea for the redesign, and the Boycott United Foods web site nonsense actually ended increasing our revenue in the end. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you staged the whole thing yourself. It got hairy there for a few months, but you pulled us through., Brendan. Well done. And thanks” Grayson stuck his hand out suddenly.Brendan took the older man’s hand, pumped it limply, and stammered out, “You’re … You’re welcome. Mister Grayson. Thank you”Grayson retrieved his hand, and gave an officious nod, and stood up. “I’ve asked the HR woman to sort you out a pay rise. You’ll need to speak to her about it. Oh, and there’ll be a good Christmas Bonus for you, too. Take some time off, why don’t you? Go on a holiday.”Brendan stood also, nodded, thanked him again, and moved to leave the room.As the door closed behind him, Grayson added to the empty meeting space, “And get some sleep you dumb bastard. You look like shit.”

Leann watched their reflections in the shop windows as they walked past, their effigies liquid and wrinkled in the glass. She pondered the past few months, reflecting on everything that had happened, how far they had come, the changes that had happened since that warm day in early April. She recalled lying in bed, lost in afterglow when the idea struck her to start a blog with her recipes and David’s photographs. How could she ever have guessed that they would end up treading the path they did. It was all so heady and exciting at first, and it all went south so very quickly. She wondered if they would have been better off not starting the blog in the first place, and couldn’t decide. She had learned a lot in the process – they both had. It was also the only thing that had made them sucessful in terms of both David’s photography, and her cook book. If it hadn’t been for the blog and the subsequent legal mess that they found themselves in, the book would never have become a reality. She sighed, and held David a little tighter. It had been a tough year, but they had come out the other side, relatively unscathed, and the wiser for their journey.
David was lost in his own thoughts too, when he noticed Grace walking down the street towards them. He panicked at first, and then gave her a quick nervous smile as she got closer. She was walking with a man by her side, and as they approached, she grabbed his hand and glared at David as though he had challenged her right to be there with someone else. He dropped his head.”Wasn’t that Grace? The product placement woman?” Leann asked suddenly.David looked up, startled, “Uh, yeah. Yeah it was””She didn’t look very happy.” Leann observed.”No. No, she didn’t, did she?” David replied thoughtfully. He leaned in towards Leann suddenly and said, “I love you, Leann.”Leann laughed, “I love you too, David”.

4 April 2010
Welcome to our new site – LEanndAVID.com. Here, we hope to put up some of our favourite recipes, complete with photographs for every step.
Leann cooks, David takes photographs. It was a natural progression. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting up some of my favourite recipes. I’d love for you to come along and try them, and let me know what you think.
Bon Appetit!
<div style=”text-align: center;”>~*~</div>

Share


Leave a comment

The beast within

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.

Gloria Steinem

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is coming up again. And so, like many other writers (both professional and aspiring), I’ll be setting aside the thirty days of November to pump out 50,000 words of a novel, or about 1,600 words a day. This is in addition to the thousands of words I pump out every month as part of my role as a technical writer, of course. The question here is, what on earth makes someone who writes all day for a living, want to go home and write all night as well? It sounds like a Dr Suess story: “Oh I say, we write all day. Write, write, we write all night”. The really peculiar thing is that I’m not alone in this endeavour. There are many tech writers out there moonlighting as novelists every November. Don’t try to take a tech writer out to dinner in November, unless you’re willing to have them with their laptop out at the table … taptaptaptappitytap

nanowrimo


I suspect writers are born, not made. That’s not to say that good writers are rare, I actually suspect that they’re quite ubiquitous. Many of them never actually become writers. They become all manner of other things – butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers – but that drive to write exists within them still. They might write a private journal, be secretly working on a novel, submit letters to the editor, write lengthy letters to their friends, submit stories to a website, or keep a blog.  Or just wish they had the time.

All of this means that, as a writer, when you meet another in the street, you see that gleam in their eyes. There’s a passion, an excitement, a certain joie de vivre that they only truly experience when they are head down and writing. Have you ever wandered down the street, completely lost in thought trying to work out a plot twist, a character development, a particularly witty piece of dialogue, only to realise that you’re grinning your head off, looking like a loon? Then you’re a writer. And here’s my advice to you: don’t fight it.

I have a stack of manuscripts in my desk drawer. Will I ever submit them to a publisher? No. Will I ever give them the edits and re-writes they really need? No. Will I ever look at them again? Probably not. So why bother creating them in the first place? Because I need to write. There is a living thing inside me that is only satiated when there are words flowing through me. What happens to those words afterwards is entirely irrelevant. I think them up, I write them down, I make sure I like the way they sound, and then I let them live on without me.

So if you share my passion, why not join me in November? And if just one month a year of crazy writing isn’t nearly enough, why not apply for a job?

Cross-posted to http://fossdocs.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/the-beast-within“>Foss Docs

Share


Behind These Eyes

NaNoWriMo has started with a bang! I’ve just gotten home from the Kick-off party for Canberra. It was followed by a write-in and I’ve managed to set the first 500 words or so to paper (or digital memory, anyway). The NaNo site is struggling under the load right now, but I’ll be updating my word count as soon as I can persuade it to play nice. Hopefully my widget over on the left will play nice too. Here ’tis … enjoy!

 

——————————-

Preface

 

People say, “Oh how sad, to live in a world of darkness” but my world is full of colour. Red is smooth, cold, and hard. Blue is rough, warm and solid. These are the colours as I see them.

 

People say, “Oh how sad, to live in a world without beauty” but my world is full of beauty. The touch of a friend, the kiss of a lover, a breath of wind across my face. All these things have beauty. I get as much enjoyment out of a day at the beach, out of a picnic by the lake, out of laughing with friends as anyone else does.

 

Why must my life be thought incomplete, simply because I am without sight? My life is rich, perhaps richer, because I am blind. Not despite it.

 

 

Mandy

 

The day had begun. What a cruel world – it seems that it is ony when one is at their lowest that the day dawns with sunshine. A cloud free sky could be glimpsed in the chink between the drawn curtains. Birds could be heard twittering as they came into the yard to gather seed from the feeder hanging from the tree. This morning, Mandy hated those birds. She detested the sunshine. She rolled over, burying her head in the pillow, and cursed the fluffy white clouds hanging in the sky. They, even more than the sunshine, represented how low her life had ebbed. If the weather was to represent her mood accurately, a storm would be threatening. The clouds would be hanging low in the sky, dark and heavy with unspent rain and there would be lightning strikes around the horizon, making the air crack and sizzle with electricity. The sunshine was just further proof of the world being a cruel taskmaster. Offering everything, and delivering nought.

 

The sound of morning television from the loungeroom eventually persuaded Mandy to get out of bed. She crawled out into her sister’s spare room, looking around at the mostly unfamiliar surroundings. The bookshelf was full of worn and tired paperbacks. Some children’s stuffed toys that Mandy remembered from her own childhood sat in a haphazard pile in the corner. The chest of drawers was topped with clutter of dust-catchers, trinkets and curios that her sister had collected or been given over the years.

 

Mandy’s mouth was dry, and she stepped into the ensuite for a drink. Her eyes fell on the guest towels on the rack, the novelty soap in the dish. She knew that the mirror would show only the reminders of the evening before, but still she had to look. The left side of her face was swollen, her eye a mere slit looking through the yellow bruise rising under the skin. Her lip was split, the cut ragged and bloody still. She felt hot tears rise in her throat but swallowed them down defiantly. She would not let herself fall apart. The time for falling apart was last night, and god knew she had done it well and truly. But not today. Today, she had to pick up the children, and tell them that their father was the evil person they had all refused to believe he was. Today, she had to start putting her life back together again.

Belle heard the car first. She always did. “Mum’s back!” she called to her sister. As the words left her mouth she was already on her way out the front door. By the time Mandy had turned the ignition off, both Belle and Alyssa were standing in the open doorway. She stepped out of the car, sunglasses covering the worst of the damage to her face, but by no means all, and went to the girls with a grin. She hugged them both and it was only when they pulled away that Alyssa noticed, and frowned. Then Belle frowned as well, “What’s wrong?” she asked. Often Alyssa tried to get things past her sister by not making any noise, but Belle had an uncanny sense of what was going on. Like many with a vision-impairment, she was able to pick up on subtle changes in tone or unusual sileces. It was as though the smelled tension in the air, could hear a smile or a rolling tear.

“Liss? Mum? What’s wrong? Something is wrong.” she said when no one responded immediately, and the silence continued.

Mandy shook herself slightly, smiled a tight, nervous smile at Alyssa, and then said to both of them, “How about we go and get ice cream?”

 

 

Neither of the girls had ever seen their father hit their mother, but both had seen what he did to her. Normally, the bruises were in places easy for Mandy to hide – high on her arms or legs, or on her belly and breasts. It was only when he totally lost control that he ever hit her on her face.

 

Although it was difficult to leave their father – and Mandy to leave her husband of twelve years – it was an unspoken relief not to have to live with the fear of his wrath anymore. Eventually, with a great amount of help from Mandy’s sister and brother, they found a three bedroom flat in an older suburb, filled it with second hand furniture and clothes, and moved in.

 

They never heard from Peter again. Although some financial help would have been welcome, and both Allysa and Belle often wondered if he thought about them any more, the three were perfectly happy not to have to worry about him anymore.

 

Eventually, their lives began to settle into new routines. Alyssa started high school, made friends, got good grades, and agonised over who was going with who to the end of year twelve formal dinner. Belle learned to read braille, and entered the school system, helped along by a tutor and afternoon sessions at the school for the blind. Mandy took on a string of part-time jobs, eventually securing a full-time position as a receptionist at the local medical centre. She rediscovered her self-confidence, and when she asked out to dinner and a movie by one of the doctors, she gladly accepted.

 

Their lives hadn’t changed dramatically when Jamie entered their lives, but it had very gradually gotten easier. Jamie started coming around for dinner once a week or so, then more often. Eventually he was staying for breakfast too, and about a year after that first movie, Jamie and Mandy decided to move in together. Alyssa and Belle were consulted, and both seemed pleased with the arrangement. Alyssa was due to finish school soon, and was wrapped up in final exams, university applications and the all-important dress and makeup planning for the formal. Belle, now in year ten and trying to work out what her future held, was just happy to have Jamie around on a more regular basis so that she could beat him at Monopoly. Jamie had helped her convert a regular Monopoly game with braille labels on the properties, and she had become a skilled and ruthless player in short order.

 

Mandy was desperate to leave behind the poky apartment, and the memories of struggle and poverty that it held. When Alyssa announced that she had been accepted into the university course she wanted, but at a university that was four hours away in a beachside suburb, they decided to start looking farther afield. General practise doctors were always in demand, and on Jamie’s income there was no rush for Mandy to find work. Eventually, they found a house two blocks away from the beach, with a self-contained granny flat for Alyssa and enough room for an office and a backyard. When moving day arrived, most of the second hand furniture was donated back to the charity shops they had come from, although Mandy held on to a few of the more serviceable pieces. They left the flat and the dingy old suburb shrouded in drizzle, with dark foreboding clouds overhead, and eventually arrived into sunshine, the smell of salt in the air and the sound of waves on the breeze. The weather perhaps a better indicator of Mandy’s mood than it had ever been before.

 

 

I never wanted to be anything special. Although others thought I should have been. Consciously, I always just wanted to show others that I could do … stuff. It didn’t matter what the stuff was, I just wanted to prove that I could do it. Of course, I’ll never be able to see, but there’s plenty of things that I can do without that. I can ride a bike, I can swim, I can read, I can turn cartwheels, and I can think. Yes, most of all, I can use my mind. Why do so many amongst the sighted imagine that because I am blind I am also without thought, imagination, dreams, without intelligence? Perhaps it is because, in the case of so many, sight allows them to suspend rational thought. Because they can see something, they don’t have to think about it. They see something, and then immediately cease to think any further about it. They don’t ever say “why did that happen like that?”, “how did that situation arise?”, “what will happen now?”. These things, to me, are more important than what was seen. They are what gives humanity and society its depth of colour, it’s richness.

 

Sometimes, if I am walking through a park or a train station, I hear a little piece of conversation, like a torn bit of ribbon – no beginning, no end, just a little piece from the middle. I wonder what brings two people together at that moment, to that place, that conversation, that instant in time. Like candid photographs, capturing a fleeting moment and holding it still in time forever more, I collect these fragments and put them in a photo album I keep in my mind. Little insights into a another world, another dimension.

 

 

Christmas was spent in the new house, with the four of them going down to the beach in the afternoon. Mandy sat on the sand, reading, while Jamie and Belle swam in the surf and Alyssa dozed on a towel in the sun. Mandy looked up over her paperback every so often, and smiled as she watched the two halves of her life – the old one, that her daughters been part of for so long, and the new one, that she was going to share with Jamie – come together as one.

As the tide rose and the heat started to seep from the air, they gathered their towels and walked back to the house. They picked at the leftovers of Christmas lunch, still too full to want much more than that, and Belle challenged everyone to a game of Monopoly. Alyssa declined, and retired to her room to call her friends and catch up on gossip, but Mandy joined in. Belle went easy on them, but won anyway. Belle, especially, went to bed happy, and slept late.

 

Alyssa was dancing, watching her reflection in the big mirrors that lined the dance studio. It was the same dance school that she had gone to as a young girl -still in preschool – but Alyssa wasn’t that preschooler anymore. She was wearing a pink leotard and soft shoes with ribbons. She had loved those ribbons as a little girl, loved watching her feet in the mirrors as she spun. Now, in this dream, she spun, watching her feet, but as she did so she noticed a reflection in the mirror behind the spinning ribbons. A hand, sliding along the floor, the fingers skeletal, the nails pointed and long, reaching for her ankles. Alyssa knew it was only a reflection, but a reflection of what? She spun faster, pirouetting out of reach of the hand, but still it came, and with no body to follow, just a long endless snaking arm. Alyssa shrieked, wanting to run. Run and run away from these clutching fingers and their snake-like arm. But she found that the harder she tried to stop turning, the faster she spun. Before long, she was spinning so fast the world became a blur, and she could no longer see the arm. Suddenly, her vision exploded into a sea of red, and she saw the hand grasping for her eyes instead of her ankles. She screamed, in real life as well as in her dream, and woke up with a start. She sat up in bed, her eyes wide with fright, her brow sweaty and her hands trembling, and a funny, creepy little rhyme the only solid thing in her mind:

I had a pretty little dolly

I told it my little worry

But then it went red

And now they’re all dead

I am so terribly sorry

Alyssa trembled, the rhyme running through her mind over and over again. Eventually, sleep far away, she got out of bed and went for a walk in the dawn light, trying to clear not the nightmare so much as the rhyme from her head.

 

In the morning, when Belle eventually stumbled out of bed, the house was silent. She went into the kitchen, still feeling her way around the strange house, getting used to where the corners and walls were. She found the fridge, opened it, and found the ham in its damp bag by smell more than touch. She pulled it out, and carefully cut a few slices with a knife from the block on the bench. She was making toast when she heard laughing from outside, then the slamming of the door. Her mother and Jamie were outside on the verandah, and Alyssa had just arrived from somewhere, Belle surmised. When her toast was ready, she put the ham on top, and holding breakfast with one hand and feeling her way with the other, made her way out to the front of the house.

 

Alyssa had been down to the beach, and was washing her feet under the tap. Belle could smell the salt as she did it.

“Morning Sleepy head,” Mandy said as Belle sat down at the table, “did you find everything in the kitchen OK?”

“Yeah, I’m getting used to it already.” Belle responded. Alyssa climbed up on to the verandah and made to snatch a piece of Belle’s toast. Belle moved the plate and smacked at her hand before she had a chance, and Alyssa laughed, “I have no idea how you do that, Belle.”

“I can smell your evil intentions,” she retorted.

Alyssa gave a playful pout as she dropped into the only empty chair. She quickly jumped up again to grab something out of her jeans pocket. She sat again and handed it to Belle, using her other hand to guide Belle’s to the tiny item.

“What is it?” Belle asked. Before Alyssa could respond, Belle yelped and jumped out of her seat. She barely noticed as the chair fell back on the ground with a bang. When the little trinket had hit her palm, she had felt as though someone had poured hot fluid over her head. She could smell, even taste, the copper of blood and now she scrubbed at her face to get rid of the sensation. Almost as soon as it had came, it was gone, although she could still feel the rush of adrenaline through her veins.

Alyssa, Mandy and Jamie had all jumped up when Belle did, and Mandy had grabbed Belle, as though to protect her from whatever it was that Alyssa had given her. Now, the fear turned to anger, and she rounded on Alyssa, yelling for her to tell her what had just happened. Alyssa, shocked, just shook her head and stammered. She picked the trinket up off the table, gingerly, as though she thought it might bite – after all, it seemed to have bitten Belle – and held it out to her mother with a trembling hand. Mandy peered at it, not willing to touch it. It was very small, a tiny little piece of twig lying in Alyssa’s hand, with a scrap of cloth wrapped around one end. Mandy frowned, “it’s a little doll,” she said, questioning. She looked from the doll to Alyssa’s shocked face, then to Belle, who was still standing, but who seemed to have mostly recovered, then to Jaime, who just looked confused and a bit bewildered.

“It’s a worry doll, I think. I found it on the beach this morning, someone must have dropped it. I … I thought Belle would like it.”

Belle felt strange. Her heart rate had returned to normal now, but the experience still lingered. Alyssa and her mother were saying it was a little doll. She’d heard about worry dolls – a friend of hers had had a set back when they were in primary school. Little dolls made out of twigs or cardboard, with colourful outfits made from scraps of fabric. They came from Guatemala, and the legend was that if you told your worries to the doll. and left it under your pillow, the doll would worry for you, so you didn’t have to do it yourself. She had played with those dolls all those years ago, and never experienced anything like this before. Alyssa seemed to have no trouble holding it, she had picked it up and carried it in her pocket, held it in her hand when she gave it to Belle. What was different about this doll, that it had given her such a scare?

 

The doll sat in the middle of the table now, no one quite willing to pick it up, although all – with the exception of Belle – leaned in towards to get a better look. Alyssa picked up Belle’s chair, and Belle thanked her quietly, and plopped herself back down. An awkward silence had descended.

 

Eventually, Jaime picked up the newspaper, folded it, and stood, “I’m going to go and get started on the mowing”. He leant down close to Alyssa as he walked behind her and said softly, “it might be a good idea to take the doll back where you found it, huh?”. Alyssa nodded mutely.

 

 

Alyssa had intended to take it back to the beach. She thought she’d build a little sandcastle and poke the doll down into the top. Eventually the wind or the sea would claim it, take it back to wherever it had come from. For now though, she took it and propped it on the top of the bookshelf in her little unit, leaning against a textbook. Why had the doll had that strange effect on Belle? It didn’t matter which way she turned the events, she couldn’t get them to make sense. It was like one of those logic puzzles, with an answer filled out wrong. Every time she thought she’d figured something out, it invalidated an answer she already had. And that rhyme – but then it went red, and now they’re all dead – was still spinning, spinning in her mind. Alyssa turned the television on, hoping to drown it out but still – and now they’re all dead, now they’re all dead – she couldn’t shake the rhyme, or the cold chill that had persisted since she woke up in the early hours.

Belle had still felt very strange, even hours after the weird event with the worry doll. She had taken a shower immeditaely afterwards, trying to rid herself of the sticky feel of blood on her face, in her hair, on her skin. She had turned the water as hot as she could stand it, scrubbed at her skin until it burned, but still the sensation lingered. It would have been a relief to be able to see her skin in the mirror, see that it looked normal – whatever normal looked like, she thought wryly – because her normally reliable senses were still fooling her into thinking that she was daubed with blood. She wondered where the little doll was now, if Alyssa had taken it back to the beach, or if it was still in the house somewhere. She could almost sense that the doll wasn’t far away, although that was of course nonsense. How could a little scrap of twig with a tiny cloth skirt be signalling its presence to her. But then, how could a little scrap of twig have made her react in the way she had? It was all nonsense, she told herself, but somehow the thought didn’t ring true.

 

 

I was still quite young when I realised that people reacted one of two ways to me. Sometimes they would either fuss over me, be extra attentive, and generally over compensate for the fact that they found my disability daunting and didn’t know how to deal with it. These people were generally well intentioned, and over time they would normally start to relax and eventually the difference would fade, the awkwardness would disappear. The other type never seemed to change – they were the ones who spoke louder, because apparently your ears don’t work properly when you’re blind. They were the ones who felt they had to explain things to you, because apparently you have the mental capacity of one much younger when your eyes don’t work. I always appreciate it when people describe things for me – like the location of the pedestrian crossing, the difference between two possible jackets, even something as banal as where the foods are on my plate, or if I have a stain on my shirt – those things make my life a lot easier. But why do some insist on also making a choice for me, apparently because I am incapable of doing so for myself?

 

 

Over the next week, the worry doll was gradually forgotten. Although all had seen the effect it had on Belle, after a while their memories faded, and the incident became a mere curiosity, rather than the mystery it seemed at first. Memories – misremembered, subconsioucly altered, blithely cross-patched – changed the event until it was just a strange reaction to a perfectly ordinary occurence. The worry doll was not mentioned again, and even Belle didn’t spare it an extra thought after some time. Alyssa, busy with school and friends, never quite got around to taking the doll back to the beach, instead it languished on the bookshelf for a while, until it got knocked by a book, and fell down behind the shelf. It wasn’t missed.

 

 

School was back in. Belle had started year ten in a new place, Alyssa had launched into first year chemistry. Jaime had begun in a small practise not far from their home, and Mandy found herself home alone most days. Unaccustomed to the amount of spare time she suddenly found herself with, she scoured newspapers for community groups to join, jobs to apply for and charities that required volunteers. Belle was finally given a guide dog, after more than five years on the waiting list. After the two of them spent some time together in the dog’s foster home, Belle brought home a golden labrador retriever named Rudolph, so named for reasons no one really knew. With her new friend and the ability Rudoplh gave her to get around unaided, Belle began to explore the area around the house more. Life settled in to a new routine that revolved around Jaime’s shifts, Alyssa’s lectures and Belle’s visits to friends and the shopping centre.

 

 

Belle was sitting on the beach chatting with her friend Kayla, Rudolph sitting obediantly between them, cadging pats from both girls. Belle knew what he really wanted was to go for a swim, and she decided to take his harness off and let him very soon, but right now she just wanted to sit. Her feet were buried in the warm sand, her hand was buried in Rudolph’s warm fur and they were chatting about nothing in particular. She could smell sand and salt, hot dog and the very faint smell of Kayla’s perfume. She felt relaxed, happy, and she didn’t want to get up in case it broke the spell. Eventually though Rudolph turned towards her, whined a little, and stood slightly, “let’s go,” he was saying. Belle smiled, she had very quickly fallen in love with the labrador, and asked Kayla to come with her down to the water’s edge. As they walked over the hot sand, Rudolph pulled harder on the harness, and when she felt the hard-packed, wet sand underneath her feet, Belle knelt and unstrapped him, told him to go and have a swim. Rudolph ran off without hesitation and Belle smiled as she heard him yapping in the waves. Kayla laughed, a sweet high laugh, “Oh I wish you could see him, Belle!” she said, “he looks as though he is enjoying himself so much.”

Belle laughed too, “I can hear him, I know he is. I’m glad he found me. I don’t think he would have been as happy in the city.”

“That’s true. You two are great friends already, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, we sure are.” Belle agreed.

 

Together, they stood on the beach for a while, waves lapping over their ankles and their feet gradually sinking into the wet sand. When he was thoroughly wet and compeltely worn out, Rudolph came back and Belle let him run free for a while to dry his fur before replacing the leather harness. He would dart out along the beach, yapping at the waves, then race back to Belle. He had already learned that the beach was the only place he wasn’t expected to lead, but he was still a guide dog at heart – he wouldn’t go too far away without Belle. They were getting ready to leave and head back home, and Belle called to Rudolph to get his harness back on. She knelt and patted him to make sure he was properly dry, but as she went to put the harness over his head, he kept on nuzzling her hand instead. Kayla looked down, “Oh he’s got something, Belle. He’s giving it you.”

“What is it, Rudolph?” Belle asked, holding her hand out. The dog dropped something into her palm and immediately Belle felt a pain in her chest. She dropped the thing Rudolph had given, brought her hands to her chest and started to cough and splutter. At the same instant, Kayla asked what the problem was, and Rudolph began to howl. Almost as soon as it had arrived, the pain passed, Belle caught her breath again, and she lay curled in a ball on the grass.

“What the … what happened, Belle? Are you OK? Should I call a … I don’t know … an ambulance or something?”

Belle could only nod, she was fine, she just needed time to recover from the shock, but suddenly a fragment of a rhyme occured to her:

I had a pretty little dolly

I told it my little worry

It wrapped around in her mind, repeating and replaying, but not making any sense, but a connection had been made in Belle’s mind, and she scrabbled around in the sand. “Can you find it, Kayla?” she asked

“Find what?” Kayla replied, mystified.

“What it was that Rudolph tried to give me.” Both girls, with the dog’s negligable assistance, scrabbled in the sand for some time, but the item could not be found. All the same, Belle knew what it was. It was a worry doll. Maybe not the same one as Alyssa had found months ago, but a worry doll all the same.

I had a pretty little dolly …

 

Mandy had been at a job interview. She had decided that she needed a job in order to keep her sanity. She had worked all her life, with only minimal time off when the children were born. That and the last ten years of constant struggle just to keep food on the table had ingrained in her mind that to stay at home all day was something akin to death by slowly sinking in to insanity. She had never aspired to be a ‘kept woman’, a ‘society lady’ or a ‘woman of means’. The idea repelled her, in fact. Of course, it would also be nice to have her own money again, and to be able to use it buy things she wanted, rather than the bare neccesities, without having to ask Jaime for ‘pin money’. Add to that the somewhat depressing thought that, if her relationship did happen to fall apart again, that she would have a nest egg to help her, and the deal was sealed. She had enjoyed her receptionist job at the medical centre in the old place, and so it was natural to continue searching for the same type of work again.

 

She walked in, still in her best outfit, and put her handbag down on the table with a bump. All she could think about was how desperately she wanted to get out of these pantyhose. It was a hot day, and the pantyhouse weren’t helping. She went into the bedroom, shedding her jacket and shirt as she went. She sat on the edge of the bed to remove her heels, then peeled her pantyhose down off her legs. She dumped the dirty clothes into the basket, and sat down at her vanity to wipe her makeup off. The vanity was one of the few pieces of furniture that she had kept when they moved into the new house. It was in an art deco style, with a full mirror that wrapped onto two wings. The mirror was spotted with age, but still very serviceable.

 

Rummaging through drawers for makeup remover and a cotton pad, Mandy let her mind drift over the interview. It had been rather terrible, the heat had made it hard to concentrate, and the little room was stifling. She kept finding herself wanting to jump up and open the window, and having to hold herself back. But she had answered the interviewer’s questions, possibly not as well as she could have. She reasoned that she didn’t really want to work in a place without air conditioning, at any rate. Not in this climate.

 

With the bottle of makeup remover in hand, Mandy straightened and began unscrewing the lid. She poured the liquid onto the cotton wool and lifted her eyes to the mirror. She had already taken the first swipe at her eye makeup when she noticed the figure standing behind her own reflection, and she turned quickly, her heart pounding, but there was no one there. Mandy frowned, thought it must have been a trick of the light. She turned back to the mirror, only to see the same figure standing there, but this time the girl’s hands were to her head, blood gushing through her fingers. Mandy screamed, wheeled around again and, without looking to check again if the girl was in the room or not, fled from the bedroom. When Jaime arrived home over an hour later, she was still sitting at the bottom of the stairs, the door locked behind her, half dressed and with her makeup smeared across her face. She still held the now dry cotton pad in her hand.

 

 

Jaime sat with her on the bottom stair, the light fading around them, and tried to work out what had happened. Mandy would not speak at first, would only allow him to hold her, to stroke her hair. He didn’t want to ask directly what had happened, afraid it would just upset her further, so instead he tried to coax her to come inside, let him make her a cup of tea. She was shivering -how much from the chill in the early evening air, and how much from whatever shock she had experienced he could not guess. Eventually, though, she nodded against his chest, and half supported, half carried her into the kitchen. He got her seated at the table, and watched her as he moved around making a cup of tea for her. She was curled in on herself, still shivering, and casting wary glances towards the bedroom. As he waited for the water in the kettle to slowly rise to a boil, Jaime walked behind Mandy, rubbed her bare arms, and told her that he was just going to go and get her a jacket. She nodded mutely but he noticed that her eyes were glued on him as he moved towards the door.

 

He found the room just as it should be. Jaime wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but given that Mandy’s strange reactions seemed to be centreing on the room, he had expected to see something out of the ordinary. A pair of Mandy’s heels lay on the floor near the bed, the chair from the vanity was pulled out slightly, the doona cover slightly rumpled in one spot. Nothing out of the ordinary. He opened the wardrobe door cautiously, half expecting something to leap out at him, simultaeneously chiding himself for such B-grade horror movie ideas, but still not quite convincing himself. When the wardrobe, too, appeared perfectly normal, he found a zippered jumper of Mandy’s, closed the wardrobe door, and headed back out to the kitchen.

 

Mandy must have been staring at the door the whole time he had been in the bedroom. Her eyes locked with his the instant he walked back into the room, relief flooding them almost instantly. He wrapped the jacket around her shoulders and she wriggled into them. Jaime folded her into his arms and kissed her, a lingering kiss that said more about his deep affection for her than words ever could. She let herself be taken away by it. He had just proven, without saying a thing, that there was nothing to fear in the bedroom. Whatever she had seen in the mirror had been her imagination running away with her. Maybe the sun had gotten to her. Suddenly, she felt a little ashamed, letting her imagination get the better of her, and giving Jaime a terrible fright, finding her like that. When the kiss eventually ended, Mandy almost felt like her normal self again. She gave Jaime a little smile that was self-deprecating and apologetic, and he returned the smile with one of his own – slightly perplexed, but pleased to see her smile, all the same. Still unwilling to talk about the incident, Mandy moved towards him again, seeking his lips. Jaime responded, and they kissed again, harder this time.

 

In the kitchen, the kettle boiled, clicked off, and the water started to cool again.

The next morning it all seemed like a shared bad dream. Mandy had not quite forgotten the shock of seeing the girl with the head wound in the mirror, but she could no longer work out why she had run from the room in terror, and sat on the step half naked and shaking for the better part of an hour. It seemed like an amazingly out of character thing for her to do, really. The two of them had not really spoken about it too much. Partly because Mandy didn’t really want to discuss it, and partly because Jaime didn’t want to push her into talking about it until she was ready. Mandy would much rather put it down to heatstroke and an over active imagination, than to anything more real – and more sinister – than that.

 

 

Alyssa stood in the middle of her room, looking around, and wondering how she could improve it. The room was one of three in the granny flat that was attached to the new house. The bedroom cum living room was the largest, and held a futon, a small computer desk, a bookcase and an entertainment centre. The living room gave on to the little kitchen by way of a breakfast bar. The kitchen was not much more than a microwave and a sink. Mandy had put a portable burner in one corner, but Alyssa had not yet bothered to work out how to operate it. She was quite content to join the rest of the family for meals, and so her kitchen held no more than a jar of instant coffee and a bottle of milk that was fast turning sour. An ensuite led off the kitchen.

 

There was not much room for movement, but the morning sun was slanting in through the curtains and falling in broad strokes across her face early in the morning, so she had resolved to move the futon against a different wall. Unfortunately, in order to do so, she would need to re arrange the whole room. She had sat down at her desk and drawn up a plan, and now she just needed to put it into place. For that, though, she was going to need some help.

 

 

Belle got home from school and wandered with Rudolph into her bedroom. She dropped her bag on the bed and then went into the kitchen to find something to eat. She was getting bread out to make a sandwich when she noticed voices coming from the other side of the kitchen wall. The ensuite in Alyssa’s flat backed onto the kitchen in the house probably because the water supply was shared between the two. Now Belle paused, listening. She couldn’t catch the words, but she recognised Alyssa’s voice. The other voice was male, but didn’t sound like Jaime. Besides, he wasn’t home, his car wasn’t in the driveway. Mandy wasn’t here, she was off on another job interview, Belle guessed. She thought this over while she buttered the bread and layered sliced ham on it. The voices were laughing – Alyssa’s voice unnaturally high pitched and the man’s voice a low amused chuckle. Belle shoved the sandwich in her mouth, took a bite, and then went out to check on Rudolph’s water bowl. She unharnessed him and left him there to drink while she investigated what was going on in the granny flat.

 

 

Still munching, Belle knocked on the door of Alyssa’s flat, “Liss!” she called. From inside came the sound of a thud, scuffling, giggling, and finally footsteps. “What is it Belle?” Alyssa responded. Belle waited for the door to open before she replied.

“Just wondering what all the noise is about. Who’s here?”

Alyssa hesitated slightly, and Belle imagined her looking over her shoulder at her guest. “Just a friend.” she replied eventually.

Belle raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to introduce me then?” she asked, archly.

“Ahh. Yeah. Belle, this is Luke. Luke, my sister Belle. Luke’s just been helping me move some furniture around.”

Belle stuck her hand out in what she imagined was Luke’s direction. He hadn’t spoken yet, so it was difficult to judge. Eventually, he took it, pumped it perfuncturally twice, and said with a forced casualness, “Errr. Nice to meet you, Belle.”

Belle smiled, “It’s OK. I’m blind. You don’t have to pretend you didn’t notice.” She couldn’t be certain if this statement had made any difference to Luke. Or if it, what kind of difference. For someone who seemed quite talkative a few moments ago, he was being rather silent now. Belle had a feeling it wasn’t just the fact that she was blind that was causing it. There was something else up, and it made Belle wonder what they were really up to. She didn’t think it was just moving furniture somehow. She decided to make a graceful exit, and quiz Alyssa later on. She smiled again, in what she hoped was disarming and playful “Well, nice to meet you, Luke. See you at dinner, Liss.”

She turned to go, and was negotiating the single step down into the yard, when a hand fell on her shoulder. Belle wheeled around, a slight smile still playing on her lips.

“Umm … about dinner,” Alyssa said. Belle looked expectant. “I won’t be at dinner tonight. Can you tell Mum?”

“Yeah, sure.” Belle allowed a pregnant pause to creep in. “What should I tell her?”

“Just … tell her I’m out at the movies with some friends.”

“Friends, huh?” Belle raised the eyebrow again.

Alyssa’s voice took on a defensive tone as she said, “Yeah. Friends.”

Belle smiled again, with false innocence, “OK, Liss. No problem. I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks” her sister replied wryly, “that’d be great.”

Belle listened to her footsteps retreat into the flat, the door closing behind them. It wasn’t long before she caught the murmer of Luke’s voice again, and her sister’s giggle. Yup, she thought to herself, not much furniture removal going on there. She thought “friends” might just be “friend”, too. She gave herself a little chuckle as she walked back into the house, and whispered under breath, “Lyssa and Lu-uke, sittin’ in a tree …” somehow, the next line became “I told it a little worry”, and suddenly it wasn’t so funny any more.

 

 

Mandy hadn’t quite dared to look into the dressing table mirror since she saw the girl with the head wound. This morning, she had gotten dressed in front of the mirrored doors of the built-in wardrobe instead. She had done her hair in the fogged bathroom mirror – wiping patches of it clear with her bath towel and leaving smears of white thread all over it. Still, like the child who knows the monster is under the bed, and just because they can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t, she had expected to see an ethereal figure behind her, had spent more time watching the background rather than her own reflection. She had chided herself over again for being over-cautious, superstitious, childish. She was an adult, she shouldn’t be jumping at shadows, she reminded herself. There was no such thing as the boogey man and there was certainly no invisible, mortally wounded children in her bedroom who could be seen only as reflections. The very idea was absurd, the other mirrors in the house proved the fact – they were steadfastly free of ghostly images, except for those of her own house, and herself.

 

 

Belle got back into the house and found her mother cleaning up in the kitchen. The smell of onion and garlic was in the air, and although she could hear the hum of the oven fan she could not yet feel heat from it.

“What’s for dinner?” she asked.

“I’m making a lasagne,” Mandy replied, “I’ve done the mince and the bechamal sauce, I just need to put it all together now.” She turned to Belle, throwing the damp tea towel over her shoulder. Belle felt the air move as it displaced around the towel, and shrunk back a little involuntarily. “How does that sound to you?”

Belle gave a smile, although she struggled a little. A deep feeling of unease had come over her. It was related to the discussion she had just had with her sister, but somehow that wasn’t the root cause. “Sounds great! When will it be ready?”

“About half past seven, I guess. It’s six now.” she added.

Belle thought her mother sounded strained, even through the happy, everything is normal kind of tone she was using. “Oh, I was just out speaking to Allyssa,” she mentioned casually.

Mandy didn’t answer, she had her head in the pantry, hunting out lasagne sheets. Belle could hear tins, jars and boxes all shifting and something falling over. Mandy’s under the breath curse, followed by her exclamation when she found what she was looking for. When Belle sensed she had Mandy’s attention again, she continued, “Yeah, she said she was going out to a movie.” Belle paused, “With a friend.”

“What, tonight? Oh, what a pain. Still, never mind, more for us, huh?”

Belle could hear the smile in Mandy’s voice, but somehow, she didn’t believe it. It was there, but not quite real.

 

 

Jaime was not worried. Not at all. He was at his desk in the little consulting room, fiddling with an oversized paddlepop stick tongue depresser. He realised that Mandy had seen something in the vanity mirror that had frightened her. A movement in the trees outside, reflected from the window, or a piece of clothing, caught in the breeze. It had given her a fright, and she had reacted badly. It certainly wasn’t a cause for alarm. He grabbed one of the wrapped lollies he bribed the children with, unwrapped it and put it in his mouth. She had been in a state of shock, but had come around quickly enough by the time she came inside. Probably the temperature had exacerbated the effects of the shock. She had run outside half naked, sat on the step in the baking heat and then a cool breeze as the sun dipped below the horizon. What might have passed in a few moments under normal circumstances had been made worse under those conditions. Jaime had been trained to think rationally, that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction, that every disease had symptoms, and every medication had side-effects. In this case, his rational mind told him there were perfectly explainable reasons why Mandy had reacted the way she had. He ran the tongue depressor through his fingers, twirling, twirling, the lolly dissolving in his mouth. His sub-conscious, however, tried to convince him otherwise. There was no way the vanity mirror could pick up a reflection of the trees blowing in the breeze, it said. Besides, the day had been still – hot and still. The temperature hadn’t dropped that far, it said, not far enough to make the effects of Mandy’s shock worse. Jaime attempted to stop this voice of un-reason. This harbinger of truths he didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to believe. Wouldn’t believe. He looked to his computer to check the name of his next patient. Stood, and went to the waiting room to call them. When he returned, patient dutifully trailing behind him, he noticed the strips of balsa wood – what remained of the tongue depressor – on his desk, and quickly swiped away the mess into the bin.

 

 

Alyssa surveyed her room again, this time feeling more pleased. Luke had helped her move quite a lot of the bigger things, the whole time chatting away about things he and his mates had gotten up to, making her laugh so hard she grew too weak to help. Afterwards, Luke had gone down to the shops, brought back fish and chips, five DVDs and a plastic shopping bag of chocolate bars and bags of lollies. When he got in, he held it up sheepishly and said “I couldn’t choose,”. They had settled onto the futon – folded up now into a lounge – and watched a DVD together. They had never quite made it to a movie, despite what Allyssa had told Belle. Some time around midnight, after they had put the futon out and fallen asleep side by side, the second movie running unwatched as they slept in front of it, Luke had gotten up, stared silently at Alyssa as she slept on, and pulled the doona up around her shoulders. He stared for a little longer, then stepped out, closing the door silently behind him. Awake again now, basking in the warm glow that the encounter had left her with, Alyssa stood in the sunlit room and decided that she needed a reading nook. A couple of swathes of sheer fabric and some thumb-tacks would do it, she thought.

 

 

Jaime had commented on Alyssa’s absence from the dining table, and Mandy had responded with a raised eyebrow and the fact that she was out at the movies. Jaime pointed out that the lights were on in the granny flat and a strange car parked in the driveway. Mandy gave a strange look and Belle responded with a knowing, “Yes, she told me she’s going to the movies … with friends.” Jaime looked confused at first, and then realised what was going on, “Oh,” he replied, “with friends, huh? Seems as though the friends have decided to stay in, rather than go out.”

Mandy gave a quiet chuckle. She knew exactly what was going on, had seen the lanky teenager go out for half an hour and come back with shopping bags and DVDs. A movie night was definitely what was happening, but not in the way that Alyssa had told Belle it was going to happen. At least, they didn’t seem to be going out for it, anyway. Mandy laughed again, it reminded her of when she was a teenager – telling her parents one story and acting out another, thinking they never had a clue. It was only when she became a parent herself that she realised they had known all along, had just gone along with the story she told them in full knowledge of what was going on. And now her eldest was doing it to her too – wheels turn.

 

 

Memories are malleable. This has been proven through history – false memories implanted; misremembered facts; self-delusion; re-interpretation of history – and seen over and over throughout the human race. People do things, see things, take part in events, and afterwards, the memory of those events become what the person wants them to be. Good memories get coated in a layer of gloss; bad memories surrounded in shadow. Sometimes, memories are changed to suit – if a person is rewarded for a traumatic experience by being pitied and lavished with love, then that traumatic experience will be relived to the point that it no longer resembles fact. The person who remembers it still thinks it is was happened, even though the memory may have changed to be almost unrecognisable. If a good memory is tarnished – by a spurned lover, a death, or an embarresment – then that memory gets redrawn with shadows, and loses some of its sparkle. The remembered event is not what is important. What is important is the way the person doing the remembering does so.

 

 

On Sunday night, as the sun was sinking low in the sky, Jaime convinced Mandy to go for a walk with him along the beach. Alyssa had surfaced from her flat earlier in the day and sheepishly introduced Luke to them all before taking off in his car for dinner somewhere. Belle had looked on enviously, and then retreated to her room with her laptop. Mandy could hear the sound of her text-to-speech reader as she browsed Facebook behind the closed door.

 

The beach was deserted at this hour, except for one other couple like themselves, strolling the hard packed sand near the waterline in the gathering dusk. They walked hand-in-hand, not talking, just enjoying the feeling of being together, and being where they were. Mandy watched bare feet as she walked – watched the sand kicked up by her toes fling forward with every step, only to be flattened by the next. She kept an eye out for shells, seaweed, jellyfish and other flotsam as she went, stepping around them when neccesary, stopping and picking up an interesting shell and showing it to Jaime before throwing it back to be found by someone else. After some time of walking silently in this way, Mandy could sense an unease in Jaime and she turned to him to ask what was bothering him. He frowned, breathed in as though to speak, then let it out silently, uncertain how to start. She waited and eventually Jaime found an order for the words he had tumbling around in his head.

“What did you see that day?”

No further explanation was neccesary – Mandy knew exactly what he meant. She was quiet for a while – she, too, had trouble sorting out the words that would describe not just what she saw, but how she felt about it. How to describe the horror of the little girl, the blood pouring from between her fingers, the realism – the solidness – of the vision, the way she had not just seen the blood but smelled it, the fear she now had of mirrors, of reflections. Eventually, she opened her mouth, and let the words tumble out in their own way. She laid her heart and her mind bare, and afterwards felt somewhat cleansed and whole again. Jaime on the other hand, felt worse now that he knew the whole story. It hadn’t been the wind, after all.

 

 

Mandy was at home on Monday, as every other Monday. This afternoon she was preparing a slow-cooked curry and meandering through a crossword puzzle. It sounded terribly idyllic, but Mandy felt like tearing the book apart in frustration. It wasn’t that she she found the crosswords challenging, but that they weren’t challenging enough, and she couldn’t think of anything better to do. She had once heard someone say that they had “read the internet, and it’s all boring”. At the time she hadn’t understood, but now she understood all too well. She had spent time on the computer, time doing crosswords, time cooking, time cleaning and time gardening. She had too much time, and not enough things to do in it. The more time she spent meandering around the house the more she felt alone and worried. Since the conversation with Jaime on the beach she had felt better about what she had seen in the mirror, but she still didn’t feel entirely confortable with spending time alone in the house, either. She yearned for one of the girls to walk in and demand food, for Jamie to come home with a kiss and a suggestion for dinner.

 

She was trying to come up with a ten-letter word for “portend” when the phone rang. She was still sifting through possibilities as she stood and picked up the phone.

“Mandy Tibbots?” the woman on the other end asked.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Oh, hi, Mandy. This is Elaine from the Riverview General Practice Centre.”

Mandy’s mind raced through names and interviews, trying to match the name to a medical centre. She had not quite managed this when the woman continued, “You came in and saw us last week, and we would like to offer you the position.”

“Oh!” Mandy replied, surprised, “That’s great!”

“Yes, we would love to have you on board, Mandy. When can you come in and get the details sorted out?”

Mandy floated through the rest of call, arranging to go to the surgery the next morning and pick up paperwork and a uniform. For the first time in days, ethereal figures in mirrors seemed a world away from reality. Which is exactly where they belonged, Mandy thought.

Alyssa had spent most of Monday morning sprawled on throw cushions in her new reading corner, sun filtering through pink and blue sheer fabric to lay in coloured streaks across the page. She had spent a good deal of the time with text books, a lecture pad and coloured highlighters in front her, while she daydreamed about laying in Luke’s arms. Every so often she would force her eyes back to the page, only to find herself drifting off again only sentences later. She checked her watch. She was due to leave for a lecture in half an hour, and she was still no where near getting the reading done. Alyssa sighed and shifted on the cushions, trying to get into a position that would make her concentrate on her reading, rather than everything but, if such a position existed. As she shuffled things around, getting into a more upright pose, something on the floor caught her eye, just peeping out from under the corner of a throw rug. She stared, and leant down to pick it up in her fingers. It was the little worry doll … the little one that she had found on the beach and forgotten to take back. It must have surfaced again with all the furniture removals. She looked down at her other hand, and realised she had been writing in her notepad, an agry scrawl slashed across the page that in no way resembled her own curved writing. The words “I had a little dolly, I told it my little worry” were scratched on the paper, the pen strokes had broken through to the next page in spots, as though the words were trying to escape out of the note pad. She dropped the pen as though it were red hot, and turned to stare at the doll, then she dropped that too, as if it had burned her.

 

 

Belle, with Rudolph in tow, arrived home to find her mother singing in the kitchen. An event which, ordinarily, would not have been remarkable, was now. The past week or so Belle had been aware that her mother was not acting her normal self, most of it was probably loneliness – it was clear that she wasn’t happy being at home all day long on her own. Even though Belle thoroughly enjoyed having her around when she got home from school – an event that she couldn’t remember ever happening before – she didn’t enjoy having her mother feeling so unhappy. Mandy tried to hide it, but Belle could tell, nevertheless. She wondered if any of it had to do with the worry doll that Alyssa had brought home and then stopped herself – where on earth had that random thought come from, how could it have made a diference? Belle had not told her mother – or anyone else for that matter – about the worry doll that she thought Rudolph had found on the beach. There was no evidence that that was what it was, anyway, she told herself.

 

Belle dropped her bag in her room, and took Rudolph’s harness off so he could go and have a drink. She wandered into the kitchen and stood just outside the entrance, smiling as she listened to her mother singing a bad rendition of “Murder on the Dancefloor”. After a little while, she staged an entrance, plugging her ears theatrically and saying “Just what is that awful noise? Mum! I think someone is trying to strange a cat in our kitchen!”

Mandy stopped mid-wail and cuffed Belle as she walked in. Belle ducked at the last minute and asked if there was anything to eat.

“There’s bread and vegemite, biscuits in the jar, just the normal fare, I’m afraid. But,” she gave a dramatic pause for effect before blurting out, “I’ve just been offered a job!”

Belle was already raiding the bisuit jar, feeling through them for the ones she liked, and she shoved one in her mouth whole before replying, “Mm Mmm Mmmmm?”

“You’re spraying crumbs everywhere, Belle!” Mandy exclaimed, “Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” but her voice was smiling, even as she chided her.

Belle swallowed hurriedly and repeated, “A job where?”

“Riverview Medical Centre. I’m going in tomorrow to sort out the paperwork and everything. I’ll start next week.”

“Hey, that’s excellent news, Mum!” Belle gave her Mum a hug. As much as she loved having her Mum around the house a bit more, it was worth her going out and getting a job, if only so that she acted herself again. Hopefully, this meant that things would start to get normal again. A little voice added in her head, quite unexpectedly, “and no more worry dolls …”

Alyssa stared at the little doll, lying on the floor not a metre away from her nose, and fought the urge to recoil further. It was a doll, for goodness’ sake, why was she so terrified of it? It hadn’t actually harmed her, like it seemed to have hurt Belle that time, but it had certainly given her a shock. And what was with the writing? It was nothing like her own, but she had definitely written it. She still had little marks in her fingers, where her nails had dug in as she gripped the pen tight. She had nearly broken her own skin in one spot on her middle finger, she realised now. And the words, they were from that poem that had been rolling around in her head the day she found the doll on the beach. Thinking of that morning made her think about the nightmare she had had – in the dance studio, spinning, spinning, and then the hand reaching for her with the razor sharp nails. Alyssa shivered, and tried to banish the idea from her mind, but the image was with her now. Like a stubborn piece of meat caught in between her teeth, the image was stuck in her mind, and it wasn’t going to shift without some effort, she realised.

 

The sun filtering through the sheer fabric and onto the page no longer seemed conforting and romantic, but claustrophobic and stifling. She wondered what was lingering out there that she couldn’t quite see. And the doll, staring up at her from the floor, as though it was telling her that she was a bad girl. A bad, bad girl. But then it went red. And now they’re all dead. You’re a wicked little girl. Alyssa jumped up, startled, and whipped aside the curtains. Her room was as it should be. Except for the taunting little doll on the floor of the reading nook and the torn pages with their eerie message, everything was fine. She took a deep breath. Everything was fine.

 

She reached down to the notebook and tore out the page she (had she? who else could it have been?) had scrawled on, and the two pages beneath it, where the impression of the letters still stood, then threw them down the garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. As she watched the hungry machine chew them up, she had another idea, and went back to the reading nook to grab the doll. But it was gone. She lifted the throw pillows, tossed them aside in a frenzy, but the doll was nowhere to be found. It had, however, left that image in her mind, and she couldn’t almost hear it scratching in the corner of her brain – you bad, wicked girl. Now they’re all dead.

 

 

Mandy picked up her new uniform blouse – plain white and tailored, with the kitsch logo of the practise on the left breast – and peered inside it for tags. They were there, with a little bag containing a spare button. She tore them off with a single tug, and put them aside on the dressing table. She would add the button to her collection in the sewing kit later on. The pants, seams sharp enough to spread butter, also sported all sorts of tags and labels. She was going to need scissors for this lot, she thought. She meandered out to the kitchen in her bra and underpants, to find the nail scissors and snip them off. Back in the bedroom, she detached the tags, and stepped into the pants. They were a good fit, she thought, looking in the mirrored doors of the wardrobe. She sat down at the vanity to do her makeup – just a little natural colour, she thought, don’t overdo it. She finished, stood, and shrugged on the blouse, watching her refelction in the vanity mirror as she did up the buttons, and shrugged her shoulders, getting it to hang nicely. Eventually, nodding appreciably, she left the room. She didn’t notice the woman behind her reflected image in the vanity mirror, and walked out humming under her breath, ready to start on her first day.

 

 

Jamie was at the end of his shift. It had been a long one, and he was tired. The patients had been nothing but a long, non-stop line of whinging, sniffling and complaining. Some days, he found himself wondering what had possessed him to go into general practise in the first place. Why hadn’t he done like all his peers had – found a speciality and gone on to be a surgeon, make the big money. He was sure that he had had compelling reasons to go into general practise at the time, but he could be buggered if he could remember what they were now.

 

He packed the last of the equipment – sterilised and ready for a new day – away in the drawers, grabbed his briefcase, and headed out, pulling the consulting room door shut behind him. In the reception area, the medical receptionist was busy packing away his own desk – finalising the day’s takings, putting the money in a bank deposit bag, and shutting down the twin computers on the front desk. Jaime popped his head in behind the counter to say a quick goodbye. Robert looked up, smiled briefly, and wished him a good night. Jamie thanked him, and then stopped short as he spotted something on Rob’s desk. He pointed and, unable to find his voice at first, eventually stammered out, “Wh … what’s that?”

Rob looked up, startled, then followed Jamie’s pointing finger with his eyes. He picked up the little doll on the desk, and held it out so Jamie could see, “What this? Well, I believe it’s a Guatemalan Worry Doll.”

Jamie recoiled from the proffered doll, mentally chiding himself, but unable to stop himself, “Where … where did you get it?” he said in a voice that was nothing even close to normal.

“Why, it was left here in reception. I guess a patient dropped it.” Rob paused, searching Jamie’s face, “Doctor? Are you alright? Can I get you a glass of water or something?”

Jamie shook his head, trying to clear it, and recover from the shock of seeing the little doll here in the practise. “I … yes, I’m fine. Thanks Rob. Why don’t you … take it home with you, huh?”

“Ah, well, I was thinking I’d leave it here for now. Someone might come back for it.”

“Oh. Hmm. Good point.” Jamie moved around into the public area again, “Well. I’ll … I’ll see you tomorrow then.” Jamie paused, checking to see if he could see the worry doll from this position. Pleased when he realised that he couldn’t, he added, “Actually, it will be Wednesday. I’m off tomorrow.”

“Yes, no problem.” Rob gave him another searching look, “Are you sure you’re alright, Doctor? You’ve gone white as sheet.”

Jamie nodded. He was getting a grip on himself again now that he couldn’t see the doll from behind the high-topped desk. He even managed a halfway normal smile. “I’m fine Rob, just felt a bit strange for a while there. Must be these long hours. It’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix.” He gave another smile to punctuate the lie, and tossed a wave over his shoulder as he walked out the door, leaving Rob alone in the practise. With the doll.

 

 

When Jamie finally got home, it was after eight o’clock. The girls were nowhere to be seen – Belle holed up in her room and Alyssa studying in her flat, he guessed. Rudolph greeted him lazily from under the kitchen table, but didn’t get up. He could see a plastic-wrapped plate sitting on the kitchen bench and he put it into the microwave and set it going. While he waited, he wandered into the bedroom, looking for Mandy, and found her sitting up in bed, reading. Or at least, she had been. The book – a paperback copy of a John Grisham novel – had slipped closed from one limp hand, and she was fast asleep in a sitting position. He stopped, smiled down at her, the only thought in his mind how beautiful she was, then leant down to kiss her forehead. Her eyes fluttered gently, and she opened them with a yawn, “Oh, hello you.” she murmered.

“How are you, Darling? How was your first day?”

Mandy stretched, and recovered her book. She reached over to the bedside table to put it away as she answered, “Oh, pretty good. It’s all pretty much the same as I’m used to. I have to get used to the computing system, but the office manager and the doctors all seem quite nice.”

Jamie smiled, sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled off his shoes so he could lie down beside her. He had an itch the arch of his foot, inside his sock, and he scratched at it absently, then pulled the sock off. A little piece of twig, wrapped in a scrap of cloth, fell out of the sock and on to the carpet. Jamie caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, then jumped up suddenly when he realised what it was. He uttered a little unvoluntary cry, and Mandy sat up in bed, her eyes questioning. They both stared at the little doll on the floor – Mandy from the bed, and Jamie standing nearby. From the kitchen, the microwave began to beep. Jamie ignored it.

 

 

Belle had heard Jamie come in, she was lying on her bed with her laptop open, an online book being read to her through the text-to-speech system. She had also heard the microwave beep to indicate it had finished its programme. In two minutes it beeped again. And then again. Belle wondered what they were up to. When it started beeping for the fourth time, Belle paused the book reading, and got up with a sigh. She wasn’t going to put up with that beeping all night. And it would go all night, the microwave wouldn’t let up once it on to a good thing, she knew. Also, she decided she needed a cup of coffee.

 

In the kitchen, Belle hit the Cancel button without looking inside the microwave. She knew it would be Jamie’s dinner in there. She filled the kettle from the tap, set it back on the base, and switched it on. She couldn’t hear any noise from the rest of the house – everything was eerily still, until Rudolph gave a strange little whine from his place under the table. Suddenly, a little trickle of fear began to slide into the pit of her belly. Something was wrong.

“Mum!” she called. Listened. Nothing. “Mum?” Belle held her breath, straining to hear anything over her own heartbeat. Rudolph whined again, louder this time.

“Mum?!” She was just about screaming now, and she heard the edge of panic on her own voice. The trickle of fear had began a hot stone sitting in her stomach, weighing her down. Rudolph was suddenly at her side, leaning his warm body against her leg. It was comforting in its own way, but not what she needed right now. She patted him, murmered “what’s going on, Roo?” then pushed him away gently as she began to hurry towards the entrance to her mother’s bedroom. Moving too quickly, she rapped her thigh against the corner of the kitchen table, and swore under her breath. When she reached the door, she found it open, and called out again, yelling “Mum?! Are you in here?”

As though waking from a trance, Mandy looked up at her daughter, “I’m here Belle. Don’t shout.” she said dreamily.

“Mum? What’s happening?”

“Happening?” Mandy said, as though she didn’t understand the word.

“Yeah. The microwave …” Belle trailed off, not really certain what had caused her flutter of fear, now. “And Rudolph. He was … well, he was whining.” Belle felt suddenly foolish at her own panic.

Mandy gave Jamie a look, and although Belle didn’t see it, she sensed the ripple in the air. “What’s going on, Mum?”

Belle listened to the bed springs shift as Mandy got up off the bed, heard the shuffle of her footsteps on the carpet, masking Jamie’s. Then Mandy’s arm was around her shoulders. “Nothing’s going on, Belle. What’s got into you?”

Belle frowned. She could tell something was going on, but she couldn’t begin to guess what it was. Mandy went on, in a false voice, “How about I put the kettle on, huh?”

Alyssa was in a lecture, towards the back of the theatre. It was a bad place to sit with this lecturer, she was quickly learning. She made a mental note to make sure to sit closer to the front in the future. He was an older man, white hair poking out in tufts above his ears, and he had a tendency to wander around the lecturn as he spoke. Much of his address appeared to be directed at his projected notes, rather than his audience, and subsquently his voice got lost in the cavernous roof of the lecture theatre. Alyssa yawned. This was the last lecture of her busiest day of the week. To be cursed with a lecturer who was this hard to concentrate on was going to be bad news for her results, she could just tell.

 

She was doodling in her notebook as she she tried to concentrate, little pictures of flowers and love hearts intermingled with Luke’s name and words that she picked up here and there from the lecture. She sighed. These lecture notes weren’t going to help her study later on. She continued doodling and her mind started to drift sleepily. Luke was coming to pick her up in his car after this class. It was the only thing stopping her getting up and leaving – she knew he wouldn’t be there until 6pm, so she might as well stay and try to absorb something in the meantime. Her mother knew not to expect her for dinner on Thursdays now. Alyssa’s Thursdays started with a Biology lecture at 10 o’clock, and went through virtually non-stop until this 2 hour Ethics in Medicine class at 4 o’clock. Punishing, but it was made up for by an easy two lecture day on Fridays. She hoped she could even things out a little next year. Maybe when she got used to how things work, she would be able to plan it a bit better. Luke was a second year engineering student, he seemed to have a much better schedule than her own. But then she suspected that he was a bit selective about which lectures he went to sometimes. She checked her watch yet again – still an hour to go. She wondered where Luke would take her for dinner. She decided she would ask if they could find a curry – Indian maybe. Or Malaysian. They had been going out more or less officially for nearly a month now. They hadn’t slept together yet, although Alyssa though it probably wouldn’t be long. She was still a virgin, and while she wasn’t aching to give it away, she certainly wasn’t keen to hold on to the status for too much longer. Luke had been quite the gentleman so far, always leaving before dawn, and never pushing her past where she was comfortable going. It was relaxing, reassuring, and the lack of pressure made it easier for her to lay back and let it happen. She wondered why more men didn’t realise this. When they icnreased the pressure, women were just more likely to increase resistence, surely. She scribbled a little graph, showing the positive correlation between sexual pressure and sexual resistence, and smiled to herself. Always the scientific brain, that’s what her mother told her. Alyssa guessed she was right. She had always been analytical – thinking in terms of numbers, statistics, graphs and correlations. She made sense of the world like that. It worked for her.

 

 

Belle was chatting on the phone to Kayla, trying to convince her to come out late-night shopping with her and a few other friends. Kayla claimed she had homework to do, and Belle scoffed. “It’s only March! How much homework could you possibly have at this time of year?”

Kayla laughed, then pointed out that her History teacher this year was particularly fond of lengthy research assignments, “I swear, this is the second one already, and she’s already planning the third. I’m sure she only does it so she get us all to do library research during her classes, instead of having to actually teach us anything. Mind you, Mrs Greene is particularly sadistic. Perhaps she gets some kind of cruel pleasure out of seeing us all turning ourselves inside out to get five thousand words written on the rise and fall of the Roman empire in less than three weeks. I mean, seriously, there’s only so much you can write about a bunch of guys running around in togas.”

Belle giggled at the image that conjured up in her mind, “Well, OK, how about instead of coming out, you bring all your stuff around here and I’ll help you with it?”

If Kayla and Belle ever wanted to study together, it was better to do it at Belle’s place, so that they had access to the Braille editions of the textbooks, and the text-to-speech software on her laptop. Besides, as Kayla pointed out, Belle’s Mum bought nicer biscuits. And they had better coffee, too. Belle agreed on the coffee, at least.

Kayla gave a little sigh on the phone, but Belle sensed that she was cracking. Both of them knew that once she got there, very little study was going to happen, but Kayla was considering it anyway. “Oh, okay.” she said eventually, “But I’m only staying until 10. No later.” she stated.

Belle laughed, “Yeah, right. I’ll meet you at McDonald’s for dinner first. Say in an hour?”

“Yeah, OK, sounds good, Belle.”

“See you soon.” Belle responded, and hung up with Kayla’s laughter still tinkling in her ears.

 

 

Mandy and Jamie were dining alone – Alyssa was on her fast becoming normal Thursday night date with Luke, and Belle was out somewhere with Kayla. The weather was still warm, and Jamie had finished work early and cooked dinner for Mandy. A simple salad, light ingredients thrown together in a sweet mango-tanged sauce, a bought barbecue chicken and fresh Turkish bread from the bakery Jamie passed on the way home. They were eating outside, enjoying the last hour of sunshine offered by the remaining few weeks of daylight savings. Mandy was commenting that it wouldn’t be long before she unpacked the slow cooker and got back into the habit of casseroles and curries. Jamie agreed, lamenting the dying days of Summer. He suggested they should make sure they got to the beach again this weekend, before it got too cold to enjoy it for a few months. Mandy nodded, her mouth full of salad.

“You know, now I’m working again, I haven’t gotten to the beach in weeks.” she said, once she had swallowed.

“Yes. You know, you don’t have to work full-time, Mandy.”

“I know, Darling, but I prefer it this way. Besides, the practise needs me at the moment. They’re so terribly understaffed. It’s no wonder they jumped at the chance when I applied. To get someone who had half a clue, let alone a clue, was quite a shock for them, I think.”

Jamie nodded, thinking that as long as Mandy was happy with it, he would go along with the idea.

Mandy launched into a story that had happened to her the other day. The senior office manager had gotten flustered over a scheduling problem, and Mandy had jumped in with a suggestion. She had come across the problem in her previous position, it seemed, and her experience gave her the requisite knowledge to handle the issue. She was laughing, recounting the look of shock on the manager’s face, as she went back to the salad for seconds. She spotted something hiding amongst the shredded lettuce and, thinking it was a little grub, started to chide Jamie abotu it, “you really must make sure you wash the lettuce, Jamie. Although, you know what they say, it’s better to find a whole worm in your salad than half a …” her sentence was cut off by a blood-curdling scream, she leapt off her chair and stood staring at her plate in horror.

“What? What is it?” Jamie asked, worried.

“It’s a. Oh. My God,” Mandy stammered, a hand over her mouth as she tried to regain her composure. “A doll. A worry doll. In the salad.” Her hands still covering her mouth, as though she was afraid she was going to throw up, she looked at Jamie, and he noticed how haunted they looked.

“What’s going on, Jamie? What’s happening to us?”

Jamie shook his head, not knowing how to answer.

“What does this mean, Jamie? Just what does this mean? And what are we supposed to do about it?”

Belle and Kayla had eaten a leisurely dinner at McDonald’s, chatting and laughing with some other friends they had run into there unexpectedly. The other group were going bowling, and invited them both along. Even though Belle didn’t bowl, she had gone along before, and sat and gossiped as the others played. Belle had deferred to Kayla this time though, and Kayla had said she had to study. The bowlers had left not long after, leaving Belle and Kayla alone to finish their meals.

 

Belle was naturally a tidy person, although blindness had made it nearly obsessive. If she knew where she put things, she could easily find them again. She ate methodically, tidying away the wrappers as she went, and when she was finished everything was packed into a neat bundle to be thrown in the bin. Not a single sesame seed remained on the table. Kayla, on the other hand, aided by sight, picked at the various options. When she finished, she bundled the hamburger wrapper up into a ball, and shoved it all into the paper bag it had came in. She added Belle’s neatly folded wrappers to the bag as well, and was standing to take the whole lot to the bin when she noticed something still on the table.

“What’s that, Belle?” she asked.

“What’s what?” Belle responded.

“On the table. It’s a …” Kayla bent down to get a closer look, and recognised it, “Oh! It’s a little worry doll!” she exclaimed. “I use to have a bunch of these when I was little.”

Kayla trotted off to the bin, holding the worry doll lightly in one hand.

Belle had jumped slightly when Kayla had said the words worry doll, but was immediately glad she hadn’t reacted more seriously, like the last two dolls she had come across. Of course, she hadn’t actually touched it. Yet. But where had it come from? It couldn’t be either of the other two dolls, surely. The first one Alyssa had taken back to the beach, the second one – the one that Rudolph had found in the sand – had never even been really found, merely glimpsed, never to be seen again.

Kayla didn’t notice how pale Belle looked until she got back.

“What’s up Belle?” she asked, “you look strange.”

Belle shook herself slightly, trying to break free of her rather disturbing reverie, and gave a little smile, “Oh, nothing.” she said, “just thinking.”

 

 

Mandy put the new worry doll – the one she thought of as the salad doll – in a little plastic bag with the one they had found earlier, the one that had dropped out of Jamie’s sock. That one had been a girl doll, with a green dress. The salad doll was a boy doll, with little legs encased in blue trousers. She wondered what had become of the one that Alyssa had found on the beach, the one that had given Belle such a shock out on the deck that morning just after Christmas. Jamie had told her to put it back where she found it. As Mandy hadn’t heard anything more about it, she figured that’s exactly what had happened. By putting them in the plastic bag and sealing the zip seal, she took a strange kind of comfort and thinking that she was suffocating them. Although they most certainly were not alive – she had never seen one move, or breathe, or walk around – they still had a presence, as though they could move, or breathe, if only they chose to do so. Allowing a shudder of repulsion shiver through her, she put the bag containing the two dolls back into the vanity drawer, pushed them all the way to the back, and shut the door firmly. Out of sight, out of mind, she thought. But what they be doing there in the dark?

 

 

Alyssa and Luke were out having dinner as well, this time at the local Malaysian restaurant. Over shared curries and plenty of boiled rice, they had chatted – the subjects ranging from the mundane to the metaphysical, traipsing through politics and popular culture on the way. Alyssa decided not to share her story about the worry doll she had found. Both the worry dolls she had found. That event was still hers. Once she had worked out what it was all about, she would talk to Luke about it. If she ever made sense of it, that is.

 

 

Mandy was lying in bed, in that place that only exists in a narrow beam of light between being awake and being asleep. It had been a long day, a long week really, and she was exhausted. She could feel the pull of sleep dragging her downwards, but at the same time she marvelled at the ease with which she was caught in this in between state. She felt happy, content, but could sense a little undercurrent of trouble. She tried to keep her thoughts in the warm spot of sun that existed here, knowing – even in this half awake state – that those thoughts would keep her awake later on. Like a cold draught seeping under the doorway, though, it curled around her chest, demanded her attention.

 

Mandy attempted to struggle awake, to allow her rational mind to take over, remind her that everything was OK, but the sleepiness had pervaded her being, dragging her down into what she imagined was going to be a troubled sleep. The unease grew, and she imagined she heard a sound. A little squeak, maybe, like a door inching open. She was awake now, sleep had been told to release its clutches, at least for the time being, but her rational mind – the thing that was supposed to remind her that there was no such thing as the boogey man – appeared to have gone on strike. Her heart was hammering in her chest.

 

She sat up in bed, trying to locate the source of the sound, and suddenly it came again. Where was it coming from? Mandy held her breath, listening, and was giving in to her screaming lungs and snatching another breath when the sound came again. Her eyes latched on the vanity cupboard. There! The right hand door was, ever so slowly, creaking open of its own accord. She watched it warily, her heart still dancing to it’s own erratic beat, her burning curiosity the only thing keeping her from screaming.

 

Creak …

 

Another pause.

 

Cre-eak …

 

The time spun out like gossamer thread. And then, suddenly – pop! The door was open, swinging slightly on its hinges. Mandy jumped slightly, but remained where she was, silent. She waited. Just as she was about to give up, go back to sleep, she heard another noise.

 

Scra-atch …

 

This time it was the top drawer within the cupboard. Slowly, ever so slowly, it creeped out on its runner, until there was a slim gap exposed along the top of the drawer. The adrenaline started to pump its poison into her veins, Mandy’s heart stopped dancing, and started running, all her neurons were screaming at her to Move! Run! Scream!

 

She did none of these things. She sat up a little straighter, allowed her breath to come faster, but kept her eyes locked on the little gap created by the slowly-widening drawer.

 

When she saw the two little heads of the two worry dolls poking out of the top, she finally allowed her better mind to do those things it had been wanting to do. She screamed …

 

Mandy sat up in bed. Blinking. She was awake. Her eyes flew back to the vanity. The door was closed. Not a worry doll in sight. A dream. That’s all it had been. Just a dream. She lay back in bed. It had been a dream.

 

 

Belle was asleep. She had been out with friends, shopping, and gotten home late. Her mother had been panicked and jittery when she got there, wondering where she had been, who she had been with, why hadn’t she called. Belle had used her mother’s concern to further push her case for a mobile phone, and the stress had turned into an argument. Eventually, they had stormed off to their respective rooms, the argument that had been simmering for months still unresolved. It was after midnight, and Belle, exhausted, had fallen into bed and gone nearly straight to sleep. It was some hours later when she had been woken by Rudolph, who slept on his own bed in the corner of her room, whining softly. She whispered to him, and he came up to the bed and nuzzled her dangling hand. “What’s wrong, Roo?” she murmered, and he whined again in response. Belle tried to gather her thoughts, wake up enough to be able to make sense of the situation. She sat up on the edge of the bed, and reached down for Rudolph again. “What is it, boy? What’s bothering you? Are you sick?”

Rudolph trotted a few steps away, came back, whined. Belle got the idea and got up to follow him. He wasn’t wearing his harness, but he was easy enough to sense in the still of the night. He didn’t go far though, only over to the desk, where Belle’s laptop sat, closed for the night. He nuzzled her hand, encouraging her to touch the laptop, and Belle frowned when she realised what he was trying to do. “You want me to use the computer? Roo, it’s the middle of the night!” She reached over to the bedside clock, hit the button on top, “Three. Forty. Two. Ay. Em.” it said in its mismatched electronic voice.

“Not even four o’clock!” she exclaimed to Rudolph, “What is this?” Frowning now, feeling grumpy and tired, she went back to bed. She pushed her legs down under the doona and shuffled her pillow around to the right spot as she scolded him, “Go back to bed, Rudolph”.

The laptop was plugged in to the wall, but in hibernation mode. Or so Belle thought, until she heard the CPU whirr into sudden life. Expecting it to die off again, she jumped when it beeped instead. Listening closely, she jumped when the text-to-speech synthesiser suddenly spoke “I had a little dolly. I told it my little worry. But then it went red. And now they’re all dead … ” Before it had finished, Belle was screaming. Rudolph barked in unison with her.

Jamie walked into the bedroom, exhausted. It had been a long day, and he was feeling exhausted. Mandy had been having nightmares, keeping him awake, and the surgery was demanding longer hours, as a a senior doctor had retired and they had not yet found a suitable replacement. But he also knew thay it wasn’t just work that was making him feel like this. The worry dolls were bothering Mandy, and if the truth was known they were bothering him too. He tried not to let it show, but the cracks in his facade were starting to become noticeable. Badly. Since the office manager Rob had found that one in the waiting room, even the surgery didn’t seem safe from the little dolls. He kept on expecting them to show up on his desk, on the floor, in the filing cabinet, in the racks of sterilised surgical equipment. Yesterday, he had moved close to a patient to check her ears, and had a sudden vision of finding one lying there – malevolently – in the ear canal. Even though they were just little dolls – a child’s entertainment, tiny, malformed little figurines with cheaply made outfits, they seemed imbued with evil. He had no idea how his brain could have made this leap. Surely, it was a case of a little girl having lost a group of them that they kept showing up. It couldn’t possibly be anything more sinister than that. Could it?

 

 

The sun still held a fierce heat, despite the fact that it was already Autumn, and Winter was fast approaching. Alyssa used her hand to shield her face, the edge of it up against the brim of the baseball cap she was wearing. She peered into the light, trying to pick Luke out from the field of footballers. They all looked the same from here. She found herself wishing she’d brought a book with her, but then realised the glare would have made it unreadable anyway. She allowed herself to doze slightly, leaning back against the grandstand seats, the intense light creating red and purple swirling shapes on the backs of her eyelids. She was watching the shapes, daydreaming and trying not to think about her face burning in the sun, when she felt a kick between her shoulder blades. She opened her eyes, turned around, struggling to focus, and she heard a “sorry!” from the kicker as he sidled up the row behind her to sit with friends. She frowned, grumpy now, and wondered how long until the game ended.

 

She was properly asleep, head drooping, when Luke finally approached her and tapped her on the shoulder. She sat up, startled, and looked up at him with the eyes of a sleepy owl, as thought she couldn’t quite work out where she was, or what he was doing there. Luke’s face showed half a smile, like he had caught her doing something she shouldn’t have been, which, in a way, he had. She smiled, sheepishly, “Did you win?”

Luke brightened, nodded happily, “Sure did. I scored, too. Did you see?”

“I would have, but the sun …” she waved to indicate the way the light had been shining in her eyes, “I couldn’t see a thing.”

“Ah well, never mind. Next week, huh?”

Alyssa nodded, all the while thinking, yeah if you manage to drag me along again. She didn’t say it, though. They stood together, walked down off the grandstand and onto the sidelines of the field. Alyssa waited patiently while Luke packed his gear up, all the while chattering about the game. He was interrupted constantly by mates coming up to him, slapping him good naturedly on the back and calling their congratulations. Alyssa couldn’t help but consider the whole situation as a very large masculine show of macho bon homie. It felt somehow distateful, but she let it ride. It was only a football game for goodness’ sake.

Luke had sat down on the bench to pull off his football shoes and socks. Alyssa wrinkled her nose as he peeled the long football socks – wet from sweat – from his legs, the damp hair sticking to his legs. He balled them up, threw them into the bag, and missed. Laughing, he bent down to pick them up and shoved them in the end pocket. Suddenly, socks still in hand, he paused, frowned, and extracted something. He looked up and Alyssa, and opened his hand. It was a little worry doll. Alyssa nearly screamed, but managed to keep it in. Just barely. She didn’t attempt to take it from him. Luke frowned back down at it, and put it in his pocket instead.

 

He finished shoving things into his bag and zipped it. Hoisting it in one hand, he took Alyssa’s hand with the other, and called goodbye over his shoulder to the rest of the team. Walking out, they came across a group of young girls playing on the fence to the car park – performing twirls and handstands. Luke stopped one them, reached into his pocket and handed her the little doll. He smiled as the group of girls gathered around her to see what he had given them. Still smiling, they went to Luke’s car, got in, and drove back to Alyssa’s flat.

 

 

Jamie was on a day off. Mandy was at work, but being a Saturday she would be home around lunchtime. He had slept in, gloriously languishing in bed until nearly 10 o’clock and trying not to feel guilty about the day slipping away. Eventually the sun pouring in the window – unseasonably hot for the time of year – chased him out of bed, and he wandered into the ensuite for a shower. He sang gruffly as he showered, thinking wryly that it was probably a good thing that he became a doctor and not a pop star, and when he stepped out to wrap a towel around himself, the steam in the little badly ventilated room curled around his legs and obscured the fittings. He was in a little cloud, he mused, and thought that perhaps a day off was all he really needed to clear his head, get life back on track and start feeling like a normal human being again. He thought that perhaps he would share this idea with Mandy. They could take off for a day or two, maybe, find a little bed and breakfast in the country and get away from it all. Forget about work, about long hours, and most of all, about silly little worry dolls.

 

Feeling better having just made the decision, he wandered into the bedroom, towel wrapped around his middle, to find something to wear. He stood in front of the open wardrobe, finding shorts and a tshirt, still humming tunelessly under his breath and considering places they could take off to. Clothes picked, he put them on the bed, finished drying himself and stepped into the pants. He pulled the shirt over his head, already starting to move towards the door, thinking about breakfast and coffee. As his head emerged from the neck hole, he caught a glimpse of himself in the vanity mirror and ducked to look closer. He used his hands to smooth his hair down a little – the closest thing it ever got to a comb. As he did, he glimpsed a movement out of the corner of his eye, and instinctively turned. There was nothing there, nothing seemed amiss in the room. He frowned, turned back to the mirror, and saw the reflection in clear detail. There, sitting on the edge of the bed – on the edge of his bed – was an old man. Bald except for white tufts above his ears, the man was stripped to the waist, the skin of his once muscled chest now drooping and thin, like rice paper. A smattering of grey hairs covered his body, thick in between his nipples, thinning as they dove to his belly, which sagged slightly over the belt of his pants. Jamie was holding his breath, not willing to believe that the man was there, but still not quite willing to turn around and dispel the image. The man was breathing heavily, his mouth hanging open. Jamie watched his chest move in and out, the movement gradually becoming more rapid and sweat shone across forehead. The old man grimaced, and his arms rose to his chest, he clenched his fists together, the knuckles going white with pressure, and pressed them into his chest. Jamie watched the pain spread across his face as though it were water splashing across dry concrete. Watching the man, still not quite daring to turn around, he knew what was happening. The man drew in a sudden ragged breath and, eyes closed and fist still drawn tightly to his breast, he fell back on the bed with a soft thwump. It was the first sound Jamie had heard from the man, and instinct kicking in and taking over, he whirled around to the bed to help him.

 

There was no one there.

 

He turned back to mirror, watched as the old man, clearly unconscious now, writhed on the bed like a fish out of water. Although the man’s mouth was open, Jamie could hear no noise from him, although the bed springs protested softly. His need to help the man overcoming him, he turned again, wanting to go to him, perform first aid, stop the heart attack in its tracks. When he turned around, there was still no man there. He existed only in the world over his shoulder, the world reflected in the mirror.

 

The man shuddered again, and was finally still. Jamie couldn’t help but stare at the bed – in the mirror, it contained an old man, dead now of a heart attack. In real life, it contained the depression left by him, but no corpse.

 

 

When Belle walked passed the bedroom door, Rudolph on her heels but not harnessed, Rudolph gave a little bark. It was the one that Belle had learnt to interpret as “hey, look over here!”. She stopped, listening, and Rudolph led her over to her mother’s bedroom door. He gave another bark and Belle, knowing her mother wasn’t home yet, said warily, “Jamie?”

She heard Jamie give a little surprised grunt, and at first she thought she had woken him up, until she realised that the noise was too close to be coming from the bed.

“Jamie?” she said again, “Everything okay?”

“Hmmm? Ahh. Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. I guess. What’s up Belle?”

“Nothing’s up, Rudolph seemed concerned about you.” While this statement might seem absurd about any other dog, they all knew that Rudolph was special, simply by virtue of his training. He had been taught to be aware of human moods, pick up the subtle changes in demeanour, whoever they were. Jamie walked to the dog, gave him a bit of a pat, “You were worried were you, boy? Well, what were you worried about, hmmm?”

Rudolph gave a little whimper of happiness as Jamie rubbed his neck.

“Well, he seems OK now.” Jamie pointed out.

Belle gave a little suspicious frown, and said “Yeah. He seems fine.” She gave a dramatic pause before adding, “Now.”

 

 

Why was it that when families most need to talk to each other, they seem to clam up. All of a sudden it becomes a case of survival of the fittest. I won’t tell you what I know about a situation, because you might use that knowledge against me. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Although, surely the family unit would become stronger if they shared knowledge? Maybe it is more human and less instinctual than that. Perhaps it is simply a desire to not be thought a fool. If I express my concerns about this issue, you might think I am crazy, or stupid, or unable to cope. Coping. A lot of family life is about coping. Mothers, proving that they can cope with employment, children, the house work. Fathers, proving they can be good providers while still showing their children – especially their sons – how to be adults, how to cope. Coping again. Children have to learn how to cope with school, friends, relationships, society, life. The world demands coping of its citizens.

 

 

The heat wave had finally faded and, mere days before the beginning of June, and Winter, the temperature plummeted. The sudden change brought with it storms – hail, lightning and sleet heralded night fall. When the storm had calmed to drizzle, Belle could be found on the front verandah, or in the back yard, face up to the rain, a smile large on her face. She couldn’t enjoy the light show, but she sure as hell could enjoy the fresh feeling as the rain washed away the heat, returned the world to one of trees, water, and the smell of damp soil. The grass gave a final spurt of life before winter, and the last of the tourists finally gave up on the beaches and drove home. Alyssa started to go for more beach walks, sometimes with Luke but more often alone, enjoying the isolation of the deserted beaches, feeling as though the tourists had finally given it back to nature for caretaking. Gradually, the detritus on the sand changed. Discarded ice-cream wrappers, lost pieces of random clothing and crushed soft drink cans gradually became seaweed, pieces of cuttle fish, shells of all sorts of shapes and sizes, washed up bits jelly fish.

 

 

It was on one of Alyssa’s beach rambles that Belle and Rudolph decided to join her. The three of them wandered through the sand. Rudolph, unharnessed, ran between and around them, and the sisters discussed various subjects. Belle wanted to know about Luke, Alyssa told her most of what she wanted to know, although she was cagey when asked if they had “done it” yet. Belle decided that they had. Alyssa did not try and deny it, but she gave herself a secret smile. Alyssa quizzed Belle on school, cute boys and friends. Belle gave her the lowdown on the latest gossip going around the rumour mill, who was currently considered ‘hot’ in class, and what teachers were dragons and which weren’t. To Alyssa it felt like the days when they had both been at school together, back before Jamie had come into their lives. Jamie had made their mother happy, and he had definitely made their lives better in a lot of ways. Things were more settled now, there was a sense of normalcy around daily life that they hadn’t had in the years following their parents’ seperation. Both of them liked him, but both girls also realised that since their move here, they had drifted further apart as a family. Alyssa didn’t think it was Jamie’s fault, although Belle pinned a lot of the changes on him. Alyssa said that she thought it had a lot more to do with her going to uni, living in the granny flat rather than in the house. She pointed out that it would have been worse if she had moved away. She ask Belle, in all seriousness, if she should consider moving into the house, rather than being in the flat. Belle laughed, “No! I don’t want to hear you shagging all night long!”. Alyssa had laughed then too, realising that her little sister was growing up. She wondered if her surprise at thinking this was because Belle’s disability had made her seem somehow incapable of becoming an adult, or if it was just a normal part of being an older sibling. It was while she was lost in these thoughts that she spotted a big pink conch shell, and bent to pick it up. She held it to her ear, to hear the ‘sea’, but was disappointed. She shook it a little, peered inside, and dropped the shell in a hurry when a worry doll fell out, “Shit!” she exclaimed. Belle whirled around at the profanity, “What is it?”

“Another bloody worry doll!” Alyssa exclaimed. She had found so many now, they were starting to get tiresome, rather than scary, although the thought of the automatic writing she had done months ago still sent shivers up her spine.

“A worry doll?” Belle responded. They had stopped walking now, and Rudolph ran around them, wondering why they were not going anywhere anymore, trying to move them along. “Like the one you found that other time?”

“Yeah, I’ve been finding them everywhere, this one was in a shell! This is just crazy!”

Belle was silent, trying to decide whether or not to tell her sister about the event with her computer and the text-to-speech system that had happened a few months ago. Her memory of it was somehow dream like now, as though it not really happened, but she had read about it in a book, or had heard someone else tell the story.

Alyssa was lost in her own thoughts, and eventually she said in a soft voice, “I’ve been finding the wretched things all over the place. What about you, Belle? This can’t be a coincidence any more, surely.”

“I haven’t been finding them. Well. Not really. Rudolph found one, I think, ages ago. Here on the beach. But when he gave it to me I … I felt strange. Sick. Like my chest was all tight and I couldn’t breathe. I dropped it – if that’s what it was – and then I couldn’t find it again. So I don’t know if it was a doll or not, but it. Well, it scared the crap out of me, to be honest.”

Alyssa didn’t really know why – the story was pretty far fetched – but she believed it. She probably wouldn’t have, but she had seen how Belle had reacted with that very first doll, and this seemed very similar. A germ of an idea began to grow in her mind, but before she could say anything, Belle began to talk again.

“You know, there was something stranged happened a few months ago, too. At night …” Belle started slowly, but she warmed up to the narrative. They started walking again, much to Rudolph’s relief, as Belle told Alyssa what had happened with the laptop. Strangely, she remembered the poem too, and when she told Alyssa, she stopped dead in her tracks. “You too, huh? This is getting really weird.”

Belle stopped again too, and patted Rudolph idly when he came back to her, wondering why they were stopping again, but she said nothing.

“Belle? I’ve got an idea. You can say no if you want to, but I am interested. What happens if you hold this doll?” She still held the new worry doll in her hand, and now she propped it gingerly between thumb and forefinger, between them.

Belle frowned, shrugged, “I guess I can just drop it. I’m feeling shaky already though, just anticipation I guess.”

Alyssa reminded her that she didn’t have to do it if she didn’t want to, and Belle shook her head, “I think I should. How are we going to find out what this is all about if I don’t?” She paused. “Do you feel anything when you hold? Anything at all?”

Alyssa concentrated on the little doll in her fingers, and shrugged, “No, nothing. I mean, it gives me a strange feeling of … I don’t know the right word … badness, maybe. Like it has the potential to do damage, but just doesn’t want to.” She laughed, “That sounds crazy.”

“So does the idea of a doll making me feel like I’m having a heart attack.” Belle dead panned.

Alyssa’s laugh faded into a wry smile, “Yeah. I guess it does.” She looked into Belle’s unseeing eyes, “You sure you want to do this?”

Belle said nothing, but held her hands out, cupped in front of her. An invitation.

Alyssa hesitated slightly, then held her breath and dropped the doll into Belle’s waiting hands.

 

 

There were times during that whole crazy ordeal with the worry doll when I thought that I would not survive. It was not that I was ever in real mortal danger, more that it felt as though I could be. That was because we were dealing with unknown. Could it kill us? We didn’t know. We knew it could hurt us – and in many different ways; not all of them, or even most of them, physical. It’s a natural progression that if something you don’t completely understand can hurt, then there’s a good a chance that it can kill. I often wonder if perhaps we were just lucky – we just happened to deal with it in a way that, while it might not have been the best, it was at least going to keep us alive. I guess that it is entirely possible that we could have taken a wrong turn, made a bad decision or failed to interpret something the right way. Well, of course we interpreted a lot of things the wrong way, but what if we had interpreted the wrong thing the wrong way? These questions will never be answered, of course. But they continue to bother me, all the same. Even now.

 

 

When they returned from the beach – both girls feeling uneasy, but both glad of the other’s presence – it was already after dark. They had gone into the house, had a quiet dinner with Many and Jamie, and then Alyssa had invited Belle out to the flat to watch a movie.

“Luke not around tonight, Liss?” Mandy asked, trying not to sound as though she was as curious as she actually was.

“He doesn’t come around every night, Mum.” she replied indignantly, but Mandy just smiled. She knew how often he was around – the car parked out the front was a dead giveaway – and Alyssa was right, it wasn’t every night. This was the first night in nearly two weeks that he hadn’t been around though, and she hoped it didn’t mean there was a ripple on the surface of young love. Alyssa refused to be drawn further, turning to Belle and explaining that she had some new DVDs and microwave popcorn. Belle agreed, and they headed outside. Alyssa took Belle’s hand out of habit and, even though Rudolph was tagging along too and she didn’t really need the assistance, she was glad of the contact. Perhaps, she thought, Alyssa was too.

 

 

Alyssa made popcorn and coffee, but they didn’t put a DVD on. The bowl sat between them on the couch, and they talked. Alyssa told the story of finding the original worry doll on the floor in the reading nook, the strange automatic writing that she had put down the garbage disposal, the way the doll had disappeared. She also told Belle about Luke finding the worry doll in his football bag, and how he had given it away to the group of little girls. She spoke, pausing for popcorn every so often, and after she had told everything, she stopped. Belle didn’t speak.

“Do you think they are alive?” Alyssa asked after a while.

Belle shook her head fervently. “They’re not alive. They don’t move. They don’t think.” she paused, “I think. Therefore I am not a worry doll.” The both laughed, but there was no mirth in it. They lapsed into silence again.

“So what happens? What is it like when they … do what … whatever it is that they do to you?” Alyssa stammered over the question, not sure how to describe it.

“I don’t … I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s different every time. Well, it has been different every time so far. This time, just now on the beach, it was burning pain in the side of the face. Like I was standing to close to a fire or … or maybe like I’d been slapped, or punched, maybe.” Belle lapsed into silence again, and her hand crept unconsiously to the right side of her face as she relived the expereince. “The first time, I felt like I had blood all over my face. And pain too – there’s always pain. The first time it was here,” she pointed to a spot high in the middle of her forehead, where her hairline came to a slight peak. “That time I could smell it too. The blood, I could smell blood. The second time I didn’t notice a smell, just panic because I couldn’t get my breath. Actually, now I think about it, there was a smell tonight too. This doesn’t really fit though – it smelled like frying bacon.” Belle lifted her eyes to her sisters, “that doesn’t seem right does it?”

“None of it seems right, Belle. But I get your point, bacon is a strange thing to be smelling while you’re being slapped. But then, you said it felt like being too close to a fire too – maybe the bacon caught alight.” Alyssa wanted to laugh, it was an amusing concept, but somehow it seemed like it could actually mean something. She stuffed some popcorn in her face instead, and swallowed the giggle back down. She was afraid it would just come out sounding manic.

Belle wasn’t smiling. She had just had a thought. “Worry dolls come from Guatemala.” she said suddenly, Alyssa nodded, “Ah huh.” she agreed, wondering where this was going.

“Do you know how they work?” Belle asked.

“Do you mean the legend?”

It was Belle’s turn to “Ah huh.”

“Well, you have the dolls, and you tell them your worries.” She had almost said “a little worry”, but had caught herself just in time and rephrased it. The idea of that little poem creeping into her speech scared the pants off her.

Belle took up the story, “Right. So you tell these dolls your worries. Then you put them under your pillow. What do they do with them?”

“Do with what?” Alyssa asked, confused.

“What do the dolls do with the worries you tell them?”

“They worry about them. Don’t they? Isn’t that the idea? They worry about things for you, so you don’t have to.”

“Right. So you give your worries to the doll to worry about them. What happens when you don’t need to worry about it anymore? Do the dolls still have that worry? Can you get them to throw it away or something? What about when they …”

“This is insane, Belle!” Alyssa interupted, “That’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard! Are you saying that these dolls have been told all these worries, and now they don’t know what to do with them? That’s just … no, that’s just … unbelievable. Absolute fantasy.”

Belle lifted an eyebrow. “Okay.” she said after a while, “you give me a better story.”

Alyssa thought, then sighed. “I don’t know, I don’t have anything better. But that’s not even plausible. Why are they coming to us, then? How does that help?”

“I’m the only one who can … tap into them. I’m the only one they can tell the worry to, maybe. No one else seems to be able to the way I can.”

There was another unsettling pause.

“Maybe,” Alyssa said, slowly, testing Belle’s reaction as she spoke, “Maybe it’s because you tune in to people. The same way that you know when people exchange a look, even though they make no sound.” She paused again, trying to read Belle’s expression, “Maybe it’s because you’re blind.”

Jamie was busy in the office, looking things up on the internet. Mandy was asleep in bed, and the house was still except for the clicking of the mouse button as he browsed. He had been trying to make sense of what he had seen in the mirror on the weekend, and when thinking it through on his own had nearly driven him insane, he had decided to give Google a try. The only sites he could find though had been written, as far as he could tell, by members of the lunatic fringe. No solid information was forthcoming from this source, even though he had never really thought that there would be. It had given him an opportunity to think about the situation though, without irrationality and hysteria creeping in – well, aside from some of the web sites he had found anyway. The more he thought about, the more he realised that it must have been an optical illusion, or a kind of personal flight of imagination. Nothing else stood to reason. He had been working long hours, he had overslept, had an extremely hot shower. Of course he hadn’t been thinking properly – who would have been in that situation? He had been feeling a little odd becaise of the strange little wory dolls that had been showing up recently, and that was in itself caused by stress, he realised. That, added to the big sleep in he had had, and it made sense that he had seen something a bit strange. He started shutting down the machine, thinking to himself that this was the only really plausible explanation for the whole event. Nothing to see here, move along, he thought to himself, and gave a little lopsided grin. As the computer tinkled its little goodbye tune, he pushed the keyboard back in under the desk on its rollers and got up. When he walked into the bedroom to get undressed, his eyes didn’t fall on the vanity mirror.

 

 

When they had been talking about it over popcorn the other night, Belle’s theory had seemed kind of crazy, but still a good explanation of what was going on. Now, wrapped in Luke’s arms and considering sharing the story, Alyssa wasn’t so sure. Now, the whole thing just seemed ridiculously far fetched and super crazy. She cuddled up closer to him on the futon, and raised her face for a kiss. He bent and obliged her, his lips lingering on hers. She closed her eyes in pleasure, and asked him wordlessly for more. When no kiss was coming, she opened her eyes again, planning on working her arms around his neck and bringing his face down to hers again. What she saw made her frown, though. His eyes were fixed on a middle distance over her shoulder, his face showing not fear or surprise, but a kind of confusion. She looked into his eyes, waiting for him to say something – an explanation. When the silence strated to string out, she turned to work out what he had seen. At first, she didn’t see anything, and she turned back to him. He was still just staring, confusion playing across his face.

“Luke?” she asked, “Babe? What is it?” she frowned up at him, starting to get worried.

His eyes didn’t move from their place, but he spoke, his voice papery and kind of thin, like a man of fifty, not one of 19, “The dolls …”

Alyssa turned again then, and she finally saw them. Her heart leapt into her throat, just as Luke cleared his throat roughly and said, “Do you see them, Liss? They’re little dolls. There’s … wow! There must be dozens of them! Hundreds, even. I just … oh wow.”

 

 

Belle was concentrating on her homework when she heard Alyssa’s voice at the front door, “Belle! Come here! Quick!” she sounded excited, hyped, but there was a strange note to her voice too, that Belle thought was almost fear. Kind of the same tone of voice she heard froms her friends after they came out of a scary movie, or maybe off a rollercoaster. Kind of scared, but mostly excited.

“Coming!” she yelled back, and marked her place in her book. She stood, and made her way to the bedroom door, wondering where Rudolph was, since he didn’t seem to be hanging around her bedroom. When she came around the corner and into the hallway leading to the front door, Alyssa told her to stop, and to put her hands on the carpet. Belle gave her what she hoped was an incredulous face.

“Come on, Belle! Just do it! Rudolph is here with me. Luke’s here too.” she added, almost as an afterhtought. Belle, grudgingly, did as she was told, and recoiled almost immediately. As soon as her fingers touched the carpet she felt as though she was going to black out, and she stumbled a few steps back towards her bedroom wall, bumping into the corner of the wall as she did, and banging her shoulder.

“What the hell?!” she cried. Suddenly, Rudolph was at her side, his wet nose pressed into her hand.

“Sorry Belle, but you wouldn’t have believed it if I just told you. They’re worry dolls … hundreds of them, all over the floor. They’re in the flat too. And in a path, all the way over to the house.” Belle could hear Alyssa moving closer, jerkingly.

“Are you picking them up?” she asked her sister, her own voice trying to jump registers with nerves.

“Uh huh.” Alyssa replied, “What else am I supposed to do with them?”

“Ugh, I guess so. I don’t want to touch them.” She paused, thinking, “Well, not unless I have to, I guess.”

Alyssa stopped, her hand full of dolls that she hasd picked off the floor. Luke held a large plastic salad bowl that she was putting them into. “Why would you have to, Belle?” she said, her voice curious.

Belle shook her head, not willing to share this idea quite yet, “I’ll tell you later.”

Alyssa, not easily put off, put on her on best big sister voice and pointed out that Belle shouldn’t be keeping secrets about somehting like this, it might end up being important.

“I’m not keeping secrets and you know it Liss. I’ve been thinking, that’s all.” Belle changed the subject, “So are these things just scattered everywhere or are they in a … I don’t know … a trail or something?”

“It’s definitely a trail, we’ve been following it from the flat.”

 

 

Feeling a little bit like Hansel and Gretel, Alyssa and Belle followed the trail, assisted by Luke and Rudolph. Alyssa led the little group, gathering the dolls up in handfuls as she went, and putting them into the bowl held by Luke. Rudolph clung by Belle’s leg, and gave a low growl if Alyssa missed one. He was as wary of the little figurines as Belle was, maybe because she was, and he was careful to make sure that Belle didn’t accidentally get too close to one. The dolls wound through the house in an almost random fashion, and the bowl was clsoe to overflowing when it finally ended in Mandy’s bedroom. Mandy and Jamie were out, conveniently, for dinner and a movie and – unbeknowst to the two girls – planning a weekend away on paper serviettes. Now, they crept into their mother’s room, picking up the last few dolls that remained on the floor. Luke set the bowl down on the dressing table as Belle set foot into the room. Rudolph, beside her, paused at the entrance, raised his hackles, and growled. Belle, at the warning, took a step back into the adjoining dining room.

“I’m not going in there until Rudolph stops doing that.” she pointed out.

Alyssa stood in the centre of the room, glanced at Luke as though to say “Sisters!”, and then slowly turned around, looking into every corner of the room as she did so. Her reflection turned in the vanity mirror with her. Finally, she shrugged, “There’s nothing here, Belle. I don’t get it. It’s just a room, nothing ….” She stopped suddenly, when she saw Luke’s face. He had gone compeltely pale, even underneath his footballer’s tan, and was pointing mutely at Alyssa’s reflection. Alyssa’s eyes followed his finger, looked puzzled, and then returned to his face, “What? Luke, what is it?” She suddenly felt cold all over. Belle took another step backwards out of the room, and Rudolph began to bark.

 

 

Luke was transfixed, Alyssa, Belle, even the barking Rudolph, had faded into another existence, he was aware of the noise they were making, he udnerstood on some level that Alyssa was calling his name, but it all seemed to be happening in some other place, some other time. Right now, he was watching a woman in the mirror. She was crying, crouching beside the end of Mandy’s bed, her arms over her face and her head bowed down almost into her lap. She was screaming, but Luke heard nothing. He could see her body heaving with her wracking sobs, see her brace her body as she yelled out, but the only sounds he heard were the distant voices of his girlfriend, her sister, and the guide dog. Then, strangely and very suddenly, the woman in the mirror reared up as though terror had finally moved her to feet. She looked like she was about to take flight, to run from the room – straight past Alyssa (surely she would notice the scared woman then? he thought wildly) – but instead her eyes widened even further, her mouth opened in what should have been a blood curdling scream, if only he could hear it, and she flicked her body as though trying to avoid some unseen projectile. Luke watched as her hands suddnely flew up to her face as though to ward off an attacker and then, suddenly, horribly, the side of her face flattened grossly and immediately began to redden. He had time to see blisters raising on the strangely flat surface of her cheek, and turned around to flee the bedroom in utter horror as the woman finally dropped to the carpet, her mouth open in that silent scream, and blisters rising on her broken cheek. He threw up on the tiled floor of the dining room.

 

 

By the time Luke turned around and bolted out of the room, Belle and Alyssa had descended into an argument. Rudolph howled over them. Alyssa wanted Belle to come into the room, to see if she could ‘sense’ anything. Belle refused to be Alyssa’s experimental lab rat and said that until Rudolph calmed down she wasn’t taking another step. Alyssa acused Belle of being a scaredy cat, and Belle accused Alyssa of treating her like a canary in a cage down a coal mine. Rudolph continued to howl and Luke continued to be spaced out, staring into the mirror at something no one else could see, with his hands up to his mouth as though he was going to throw up. Which, of course, was exactly what he ended up doing. He was apologising profusely and asking for a cloth when finally Alyssa and Belle dropped the argument unresolved. Rudolph started to calm down, and Belle realised that she didn’t know whether he had been barking because whatever he – and Luke – had sensed in the room, or because of the raised voices. Maybe both, she thought. When finally they had cleaned up the mess – with much protest and exclamations of “Ew!” and “Gross!” the three of them, and Rudolph, decided to head back to the flat. Alyssa ducked back into the room to grab the bowl of worry dolls, and took a good long hard look into the mirror. She saw nothing but her own reflection.

 

 

Back in the flat, they chatted. Luke was implored to tell all and, with a couple of interuptions while he hung his head over the toilet in the little bathroom, coughing up bile, he recounted the story of the woman he had seen in the mirror. The way she had been cowering and crying, then defensive and finally … broken. He couldn’t explain it. He tried, valiantly, and in the end he could just not find the words to explain what he had seen. He looked apoligetically first at Alyssa, and then at Belle. Belle had a strange look on her face, as though she was holding back a secret, and when Luke’s words finally dried up at a loss, she took a deep breath and spoke quietly.

“It was a frying pan. She had been cooking bacon.”

This was all Alyssa needed to suddenly see the connection. When Belle had described what she had intuited when she held the worry doll on the beach that night, she had said her face had felt like it was burning, but that she had been able to smell bacon. Alyssa had made a bad attempt at a joke that night, saying maybe the bacon had caught on fire. Maybe, Alyssa thought now, she had been closer than she realised with that joke. The bacon hadn’t caught fire, but that woman’s face had been hit with a bacon grease filled frying pan. A hot bacon grease filled frying pan. Alyssa winced just thinking of the pain that would cause. The question of course now became who was the woman? And what on earth were they going to about her?

Belle felt entirely drained after the incident. She wandered slowly back to the house, leaving Alyssa and Luke sitting up, still talking it all over. Unusually, she stumbled on the step, and bumped her shoulder as she rounded the corner into her room. Both times, Rudolph was there beside her. Even unharnessed, as he usually was at home, he tended to keep an eye out for her. After what seemed like miles, her shins brushed up against the bed, and she tumbled into it, too tired to even be bothered undressing. She slept dreamlessly, and woke some time after midnight – cold, uncomfortable in her jeans, and with her face rumpled.

 

 

Alyssa and Luke were still awake, still talking, when Belle finally got out of bed to get undressed and then got back in and under the doona. They hadn’t gotten any closer to explaining what had happened. Alyssa felt like they had been talking in circles all night, but she was unwilling to let the topic go now that it had – finally – been brought up. As far as they could tell, the worry dolls contained worries that had previously belonged to other people. Belle, somehow, seemed to be able to tap in to these worries, and Alyssa was convinced it was because of the sixth sense that she had developed because of being born blind.

“You see, she’s always been able to do this thing,” she explained to Luke, “where it’s almost like she knows what look is on your face. You can be talking to someone, and give them a funny look and she’ll be on to it, saying “what’s wrong?” and stuff. She can walk into a room where no one is talking at all, and know what the feel of the conversation was before she arrived. She senses it. We’ve always laughed about it, sometimes it’s like she’s not blind at all, you know.” she giggled a little, remembering times when her sister had surprised her with this technique, and then continued, “Anyway, I think she picks up on some kind of … wave length, or something, that ordinary people don’t get. I think the worry dolls are transmitting on this wavelength, if that makes any sense, and she’s picking up on it. When she holds on one of the dolls, she feels whatever it is the worry is. Last night, she said that the side of her face had gotten hot, like she was too close to a fire, or she had been slapped. She also said she could smell bacon frying. That …”

Luke interupted the monologue, “That’s what that woman would have been feeling, but worse, I guess.” his eyes drifted over to the big salald bowl, brimming with little tiny worry dolls, “Do you think that … every one of them …” He left the thought unfinished.

 

 

Eventually, they had fallen asleep, entwined on the futon. Luke didn’t stir until the sun was well in the sky. Alyssa was already up making coffee, her hair – wet from the shower – tied up in a towel. Luke sat up blinking, and Alyssa brought a steaming mug over to him, “Good morning, Sleepyhead.” she said coyly.

Luke gave a little smile and took the proffered mug, “I guess I didn’t wake up.” he said sheepishly.

Alyssa folded herself onto the futon beside him, clutchng her own mug in both hands, and blowing on it to cool the coffee down. She took a tentative sip before replying, “No. I guess you didn’t.”

“Are you,” he cleared his throat before continuing, “Do you have to go to uni today?”

Alyssa stared into her coffee as she blew on it, “Not until 2.” There was a pause, and she added, “It’s only 8, now.”

Luke put his coffee down on the floor carefully, his actions deliberate. He straightened, ands gently took Alyssa’s cup from her and placed it on the ground next to his own. When he sat up again, Alyssa had a little smile playing on her lips – she knew what he was up to. He leant in close to her, the smell of soap, shampoo and coffee mingled and made him feel heady. He kissed her gently, and she responded. The kisses got deeper, more sensual, and after a little while he brought his hand up to her chest, lightly cupping her breast. He felt her moan beneath his lips, and her body arched towards his, asking him for more, offering him what he wanted. Slowly, he began to undress her.

 

 

Belle had woken late, and been in a rush to get to school. Rudolph had virtually pulled her down the street to the bus stop, and they had arrived just as the bus pulled up for them. She had been pre-occupied all day, though, thinking through the events of last night now that she had gotten some sleep. Last night, she had been too tired to make sense of what had gone on. This morning, she still couldn’t make sense of it, but at least she could turn the concepts around to see how they fit. By the time school was over, she was in a hurry to get home and try out a theory. She was going to need Alyssa, though. She hoped she was at home.

 

 

When Alyssa and Luke finally emerged from bed, satiated and hungry, it was nearly noon. They had made love and slept, then woken and done it again, but slower, enjoying it more now that the original neediness had been taken care of. Feeling like she was walking on clothes, Alyssa went and showered again and, when she came out pink and steaming under a towel, Luke was up and making more coffee. He had picked up the full mugs that they had forgotten earlier, washed them, and was busy filling them up again. Alyssa drank standing up in the tiny kitchen, covered only by the towel, and Luke joined her, appreciating the generous view of her legs, and half hoping the towel would fall off so he could take her back to bed. Instead, Alyssa demanded food. Specifically, she wanted a BLT. Luke agreed to take her out to a cafe on the beach.

 

 

At 2 o’clock, Alyssa was sitting back in her chair on a deck overlooking the sea. It was a cold day, but the sun was shining, and the breeze was blowing gently. She had a rollneck woollen jumper on, and she wrapped herself in it, enjoying the view over the water – frothy white tipped waves rolling in and beyond them great shipping boats just barely visible on the horizon, looking like kids bath toys. From the corner of her eye, she could see Luke, rocked back on the rear two legs of his chair, also enjoying the view, and pretending not to be staring at her. She smiled to herself. There was no way she was going to uni this afternoon. If she could be bothered to move off this deck, she thought to herself, it would be to go home and back to bed.

 

 

When they finally did get back to Alyssa’s flat, Belle came tearing out of the house to accost them. Luke gave Alyssa a quick kiss, not at all the kind of kiss she had been hoping for, and said he had better get home, before jumping back into the drivers seat and turning the car around. As he crunched over the gravel driveway, Belle frowned in the direction of the road, “He was in a hurry.” she stated.

Alyssa didn’t reply, but went to unlock the flat and go inside, “Do you want a drink?” she asked.

“Coffee is good, thanks Liss.” she flopped on the unmade futon and wrinkled her nose a little, “Ew, what have you two been up to? This lounge stinks.”

Alyssa reddened, glad that Belle couldn’t see her, and shooed her sister off the futon so she could get rid of the sheets. Sometimes, she thought, having a sister with an acute sense of smell was a serious pain in the arse.

 

The sheets taken care of, Alyssa went back to making coffee. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she asked Belle what was bothering her. Belle had found a spot in the reading nook, sprawled over cushions, and it was from here that she recounted her idea. Alyssa brought coffee halfway through, and together they sat, shrouded by bright gauze hangings, and discussed it. They debated whether or not to bring Mandy and Jamie in on the theory, and speculated over how much they knew. They both decided that they probably knew nothing, and eventually came to the conclusion that they would decide to tell Mandy depending on what the results of the experiment ended up being.

 

 

Mandy was at work when Jamie walked in. She didn’t notice him at first, and one of the other girls spoke to him. As soon as he opened his mouth though, she looked up, and smiled. “To what do I owe the honour of your presence, Sir?” she asked playfully, and he held out his hand for hers, and replied in the same tone, “Young lady, I am so enamoured by your beautiful demeanour that I have come to ask you out for lunch. Do you think your lovely boss,” at this he flittered his eyelashes presumptuously at the other woman behind the counter, “would allow me to whisk you away for some gastronomic delights?” At this, all three of them began laughing, and Mandy got shooed out of the building by her manager saying, “After that kind of introduction, how could I say no? Now go!”

 

 

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Mandy fussing over the time, Jamie produced a cardboard envelope. It was the tickets for their weekend away, just as they had planned it only a few days ago. Mandy looked over them, pleased, it looked perfect. Nothing but sleeping, massages and lying around a pool for two whole days. She had already asked for the Saturday morning off work, and Jamie had scheduled his patients around the expected holiday. In less than three days, they would be gone.

 

 

The family sat down together over dinner that night – even Alyssa joined them for the first time in weeks. Mandy excitedly shared the details of their impending trip away, finer details being provided by Jamie. Belle nudged Alyssa under the table with her footwhen he mentioned that they were leaving on Friday night, straight after work. Mandy knew what she meant – she wanted to do the experiment then.

 

Afterwards, Jamie was washing dishes while Belle dried and Alyssa stacked them in the cupboard. It was a neat process that they had begun to perfect in the months since they moved to this house. Belle was discussing the possibility of a Monopoly challenge after the dishes, and Alyssa had agreed, eager to get out of studying. Jamie agreed on one condition – that he be the banker. He was beginning to suspect that Belle was purposefully skimping on his change. Belle handed the tea towel to Alyssa to finish the last few things, and took off to set the game up. She had only just opened up the box when Jamie joined her in the dining room. She was just about to lever out the board to reveal all the pieces, when something made her stop. She paused and ran her hand lightly over the surface of the folded game board, horribly certain already what she was going to find. When her fingers touched the worry doll, she heard a rushing sound in her ears, obliterating all other noise. She pulled her hand away and realised she had been holding her breath. She took a deep breath, tried to recover her senses, and then picked up one end of rhe board. She gave it a flick to dislodge the doll, and the movement caused Jamie to look up from where he was clearing clutter off the table, “What is it, Belle?” he asked, concerned, “You’ve gone pale.”

“It’s uh …” she was about to say nothing and give some lame excuse, when she had a better idea, “it’s another worry doll, would you believe?” she said craftily.

“Another one?” Jamie exclaimed without thinking. It was only later that he realised that both he and Mandy had assumed the girls didn’t know anything about the dolls. And how wrong they had been.

 

 

By the time Alyssa entered the dining room and went to the box to select a Monopoly piece, Jamie and Belle were deep in conversation. Instead of picking a playing piece, she noticed the doll sitting in amongst the little houses and hotels, and picked it up instead. Holding it out she waited for a pause and then said softly, “Belle. Did you touch it?”

Belle was counting cash, using the braille pin holes they had punched in the corners to identify the different notes, and with this she looked up, startled. She hadn’t yet told Jamie about this part of the puzzle.

Alyssa saw him look with confusion between her sister and herself, and she shot him a look with a raised eyebrow that said, Wait for this, this is good.

Belle stammered slightly, trying to work out what she was going to say, and then just decided to answer the question. Jamie would work it out soon enough, she guessed. “I, uh, yeah, just quickly.”

“And what happened?” Alyssa asked, like a teacher quizzing a recalcitrant six year old.

“It was, ah, a rushing sound, I guess.” Belle tried to relive the brief moment, in order to be able to explain it accurately, “It was like when you put your head under in the swimming pool, but louder. Like being dunked at the beach, but by a really big wave. I was holding my breath.”

“Any smells?”

“I didn’t notice any, this time.”

At the reference to this time, Jamie looked up again, and noticed that Mandy had drifted in to listen. She was standing at the arched entrance to the room, her hand up to her mouth, as though she couldn’t quite believe what was being said, “This time?” Jamie echoed.

Belle turned toward his voice, and added, “Yeah, this is the … the fourth time. I didn’t touch it for very long this time, though. And I didn’t hold it in my hand, just brushed it with my fingers. It wasn’t as strong.”

Mandy spoke up then, demanding that the two girls tell the whole story, from beginning to end. After shooting Belle a look to find out if she was going to start, Alyssa took a deep breath, and began at the beginning.

The two girls finished their version of events, including their account of what Luke had seen in the dressing table mirror and Alyssa’s theory that Belle’s disability made her somehow more receptive to the dolls’ worries. Alyssa looked at Belle, wondering if she had anything further to add and, when her sister didn’t speak further, she looked at first her mother, and then Jamie, to guage their reactions. They both looked stunned, but not as stunned as perhaps they should have been. Mandy had moved to the kitchen table and sat down during the recount, and now she was idly shaking the pair of dice from the game in her hand, as though if she rolled them, they would give her an answer. Of course they would, but not an answer that would help her unravel this mystery. Jamie took a breath, as though to speak, and then let it out again without saying anything. Mandy seemed as though she hadn’t even registered the silence, her head down, her hands with the dice inside them shaking, shaking.

 

 

Eventually, Jamie found the words he wanted to say, and began saying them. Slowly at first, but gradually warming to the narrative, he told of the endless worry dolls the two of them had found – in the salad, in the surgery. In his shoe. Eventually, he came around to the old man he – just like Luke – had seen in the dressing table mirror. Belle looked up as he recounted the story of the man apparently having a heart attack and passing away on the bed, but said nothing. He spoke of the indentation the reflection had left on the bed, and of his feelings of impotence.

 

Mandy looked up as Jamie stumbled to a halt, and added her own story. Jamie had not yet heard it in full, and he listened as raptly as the two girls as she spoke of the girl she had seen – no more than twelve, and the amazing head wound she had spouted while Mandy’s head was turned, looking for the girl in the real room behind her.

 

All four of them had made the connection now, between the experiences Belle had had with each of the worry dolls, and the visions they had seen in the mirror. But what it meant, none of them could begin to guess.

 

 

There were a lot of pauses, a lot of “ummms” and a lot of nervous glances, but eventually, they decided to go into the master bedroom and peer in the mirror to see what evils lurked there. Belle had experienced the worries of four of the dolls, but between them – and including the now absent Luke – they had seen only three in the mirror. As preparation, Belle had been convinced to hold the doll she had found in the Monopoly box to determine the nature of the scenario. It was the first time she had voluntarily picked up a doll for a second experience, and the knowledge of what was coming made her nervous. Alyssa picked up the doll and Belle held out her hands to take it, just as they had on the beach the last time. Belle’s heart was racing even before the little doll dropped into her cupped palms, and this time the experience was stronger, more powerful than ever before. The rushing noise filled her head, blotting out all other sound, and she immediately began to struggle to breathe. As she tried to suck in air – a blockage like a wet rag low in her throat, and restricting any attempt at respiration, a vague idea came to her that she should drop the doll. The sentence made little sense to her, what she wanted was air (drop the doll) and she sucked harder, in vain. Then even the lack of oxygen (drop the doll) started to seem unimportant, and the rushing sound (i had a little dolly) faded and seemed almost comforting. She began to drift, her mind (now they’re all dead) empty and her panic a lifetime away. She floated on the rushing sound, like a radio that had slipped off the station and was picking up nothing but static (i’m so sorry), and just let go …

 

 

Alyssa was watching Belle, wondering when she was going to drop the doll, and it was only when Mandy began screaming that she was suffocating that she realised it has been too long. Jamie was jumping to his feet and trying to revive her and Mandy was still screaming when Alyssa reached out almost casually, and slapped the little doll out of her sister’s hands. Almost immediately, Belle took a deep, shuddering breath, and her eyes flickered open. She frowned, and blinked a few times, apaprently totally bemused at the panicked faces around her. “What happened?” she croaked, her throat still dry, “What just …” she put her hands down on the table, and Alyssa swept the doll out of her reach. Mandy was still hysterical, yelling at Alyssa that she could have killed her, yelling at Jamie for not having reacted sooner, yelling at Belle for having tried such a crazy stunt in the first place. It was a state common to parents – anger borne through fear, and subsequent relief.

“It was the doll,” Alyssa said quietly, “The worry doll.”

Belle frowned for a moment before the memory came flooding back at her. The doll, she remembered now. She hadn’t really been drowning, but the doll apparently had been worrying about it.

 

 

When Mandy finally stopped yelling at everyone, she looked around as though she had just woken from a stupor, and went into the kitchen. She found a wine glass in the cupboard, and fished a cheap bottle of cooking wine out of the fridge. She didn’t drink much usually, and it was in there to be used for deglazing the pan when she was cooking, but now she sloshed a good dose into the glass. She drank it down like a kid will glug a medicine cup full of cough mixture, and grimaced at the burning sensation as it wound its way towards her stomach. Fighting the urge to throw the alcohol back up and into the sink, she poured another glass, and hurled the finished bottle into the bin. She picked up the glass and made her way somewhat unsteadily back into the dining room. Jamie raised an eyebrow as she moved past him, but she said nothing. She didn’t trust herself to speak.

 

 

When they were all sitting at the table again, Alyssa looked around at all of them. She had been taking charge of the evening all along so far, and saw no reason not to continue. Jamie and Belle both looked forlorn, Jamie staring at his hands as the lay on the table, only his restless fingers tying themselves into knots giving away his nervousness. Belle looked lost in thought, her mind a million miles away as she turned the problem over in her mind. Mandy looked spaced out, and Alyssa realised that this wasn’t her first glass of wine. Her mother didn’t drink much, but even she couldn’t get drunk on only three tentative sips of cooking wine. Alyysa cleared her throat. Jamie looked up at her, the other two seemed stuck in their own worlds regardless.

“Well, are we going to go and look in the mirror?”

“Liss, I’m not so sure that that’s a great …” Jamie started.

“Yes.” Belle interupted. “Yes. I wanted to do it beforen just to find out what happens, but now I think we don’t have a choice. We have to look.”

This was greeted with silence.

“I need you to be the eyes, Liss. You need to look, and tell me what you can see. Can you do that?”

Alyssa, realising that the control she had had – if she had ever had it – had been wrested from her now. The control, the power, lay with Belle and she realised that it really had all along. Belle was the one who could receive the dolls’ messages, and so she was the one who would call the shots. She needed Alyssa to ‘be her eyes’ as she put it, but she was clearly in control. Alyssa nodded, cleared her throat again, and said, “of course I can.”

Belle nodded, although she had known all along that Alyssa wouldn’t refuse her, and said softly, “Let’s go, then.”

 

 

Belle stood, Alyssa stood with her. Jamie sat watching the two of them, and eventually stood too. Mandy drained her drink, and put her head down on her arms. Belle wondered idly where Rudolph was, it wasn’t like him not to be sitting under the kitchen table. Perhaps he had wandered off when all the excitement began. Suddenly, she didn’t seem nervous about entering her mother’s room, although it been only mere days ago that the idea had scared the life out of her. She wished Rudolph was around, to give her an indication about how she should be feeling about going into the room, wondering if her own sixth sense was fooling her into a false sense of security. Redgardless, she walked slowly to the room, taking each step carefully, and measuring the distances with care, to avoid running into the walls. She didn’t want to go rushing in, just in case she missed something important. She didn’t know what that might be, but she was sure she would recognise it when it happened.

 

 

Alyssa followed Belle into the room, at the snail’s pace she set. She had a sudden image from a book she had owned as a child, of a family going on a bear hunt, and creeping through various obstacles – long wavy grass, thick oozy mud, and a whirling swirling snowstorm – and the thought nearly made her giggle, in spite of the seriousness that had descended over them. Jamie was following closely behind her, she could hear him breathing hot and fast. Alyssa suspected that her mother, still in the kitchen, had dropped into an alcoholic stupor. Well, she couldn’t really blame her. The idea seemed rather appealing even to Alyssa, if her urge to just retreat from the whole messy experience hadn’t been completely overcome by her curiosity. When Belle reached the bedroom door she paused. If Alyssa didn’t know better, she would have thought that she was looking for something in the room, but as it was she guessed she was waiting for a feeling, an emotion, a signal of some sort. Alyssa and Jamie waited impatiently, eager to just get into the room and discover what lay in the mirror. The theatrics seemed uneccesary and over dramatic.

 

 

Belle wasn’t aware of the impatience of the two behind her, in fact she wasn’t really aware of them at all. Their presence was not what was important to her right now, although she knew that Alyssa’s eyes would become important to her soon enough. For now, her own internal eye could see more than Alyssa’s ordinary ones ever would. She stepped gingerly into the room, and was unsurprised when Rudolph padded out from underneath the bed. He came up to her, lifting his head for a pat. She crouched beside him, fondled his soft ears, and whispered to him, “What is it, Rude?” she murmered, “What can you see, hmm?”. Rudolph responded by nuzzling her cheek, and she interpreted it to mean that the room was clear. She wasn’t just unthreatened by anything, but was being invited in to partake of the super-normal events that the worry dolls wanted her to see, she imagined.

“Okay, let’s go.” she murmered softly, more to herself than to Alyssa and Jamie, and took the few steps over to stand in front of the dressing table. Rudolph stood close by her side, she could feel his heart beating against her leg even through the fabric of her jeans.

 

 

Alyssa and Jamie shuffled into the room behind Belle and Rudolph, and the four of them stood staring into the mirror, waiting for it to share its secret. Alyssa started to feel a little silly. Jamie was about to pipe up and declare that clearly they were making a big fuss over absolutely nothing, when Belle began to murmer under her breath. At first they couldn’t work out what she was saying, and then Alyssa picked up the rythym …

… I’m so very sorry

I had a little dolly

I told it my little worry

And then it all turned red

And now they’re all dead

I’m so very sorry

I had a little dollly …

Belle continued the mantra, and reluctantly Alyssa picked it up as well, murmering the words under her breath. Jamie stood looking at first Belle, then Alyssa. Even he was beginning to notice the electricity in the air, the choking feeling that was rising up and threatening to consume them all. He wanted to yell out, to get them to stop chanting, but the rhyme went through him, piercing him and making unable (or unwilling?) to call this crazy idea off.

 

The girls kept chanting, Alyssa and Jamie both staring into the mirror. Rudolph continued to pant, his eyes locked on Belle. Belle, for her part, had her eyes closed – all the better to see you with, my dear, she thought crazily, incoherently – and was swaying slightly on her feet. Jamie watched her image wavering in the mirror, and wondered if the only thing he would see reflected there would be Belle fainting. He positioned himself so that he could catch her if she fell, and tried to watch the reflection of the room in the mirror, rather than Belle herself.

 

As the chanting continued, the tension in the room continued to rise and, just as Belle began to think that she was going to spontaneously combust from the pressure building up inside her head, she heard Alyssa cry out behind her. A moment later Jamie’s voice joined her, the words indistinct, barely distinguishable, “Oh my dear sweet Lord! What the hell is that?”

Belle tried not to allow the voices behind her to break her concetration, although she needed to hear what it was that Alyssa could see. Come on, Liss, she begged silently – to open her mouth now would be to break the spell – come on and tell me what’s happening, Liss.

 

 

Finally, Alyssa realised that she needed to explain what she was seeing. This was what Belle had meant, she suddenly thought, when had asked Alyssa to ‘be her eyes’. Alyssa had been Belle’s eyes nearly all her life, but this was a completely different demand, she thought, and it became clear why Belle had asked specifically this time. Because, whether Belle had understood it or not, being her eyes here – now – was a lot more complciated than telling her where on the plate the sausages were. She opened her mouth, tried to form what her eyes were seeing into some kind of words, and began to stammer, “It’s a … well, mostly it’s smoke. In the mirror, the reflection. It’s white, like smoke off a … well like smoke from a smoke machine, not like smoke from a fire.” she paused again, trying to explain the image further, and Jamie jumped in, his voice excited and nervous, “But there’s faces in it, Belle. All different faces. They’re mostly sad, but some are angry, and some are … ” at this point, Belle realised that she was no longer hearing the two of them with her ears. Their voices no longer contained words, but images, ideas, emotions. She was tapping directly into their thoughts, she realised so suddenly that she nearly severed the connection with her surprise. Instead, she tried to tune into them, but she couldn’t distinguish Alyssa from Jamie and the two of them from the rest of the images swirling in her mind. She attempted to unravel the ideas, find the end of a string so she could follow it through the tangled pile, but every time she grasped one concept, one idea, another one crashed in on top of it and she lost her grip. Eventually, it became too much for her, and she let go. Everything went black.

 

 

Alyssa saw Belle drop to the ground, and realised that she had stopped actually speaking. Even as she rushed to help her sister, she wondered when that had happened. She had still been thinking that she was speaking out aloud, but now she tried to recall the words she had used, she couldn’t. She knelt beside Belle, and Jamie appeared at her elbow. The strange feeling in the room had dissapated now – the sense of crowding had cleared, and the claustrophic atmosphere had washed away, like summer heat after an evening storm. She looked down into Belle’s face, and was surprised to find that she was breathing normally, her face clear. Jamie knelt beside her, and said gruffly, “Let’s get her into bed.” Then clarified, “her bed. Get her out of this room.” He picked her up as though she was a baby, her prostrate form flopping over both his arms as he raised himself, with her, into a standing position. Alyssa followed along behind them, noticing as she did that the dressing table mirror – free now from smoke and ethereal faces – had a crack running right the way across its middle, even through the wings, although they were seperate pieces of glass. She shivered suddenly, as a finger of ice crept up her spine, and then followed Jamie and her sister out of the room.

 

 

Minutes after Jamie laid Belle on her own bed, she opened her eyes. There was no confusion, no moment of wondering where she was. One moment, everything had been black and voices and thoughts and pictures had been intertwined around her, the next, she was lying face up on the bed in her room. She sat up, and Rudolph was at her side, licking her hand. She smiled, gave him a pat and hugged him awkwardly around his head. “Good boy, you’re a good boy.”

 

When Alyssa poked her head into Belle’s bedroom later on, she was in her pyjamas and tucked up under the doona. Alyssa smiled and, although she badly wanted to know what Belle had just experienced, she let her sister sleep.

 

Back in her own flat, Alyssa made herself a cup of coffee. The experience hadn’t made her tired, as it had Belle, it had gotten her keyed up, excited, nervous. She wanted – needed – an answer to this mystery. The scientist in her demanded it.

When Belle woke up it was early and the house was silent. She didn’t want to hit the button on the clock to find out what time it was, even its soft voice was too loud in the quiet hours before dawn. Rudolph was asleep on his bed in the corner of the room, she could hear him snuffling quietly in his sleep. She lay in bed, thinking over the events of the night before. She wondered what it was she was tapping into. Some kind of collective conscious of the dolls – if dolls could be said to have a conscious mind. These ones certainly seemed to. She wondered what it was that the dolls wanted. Because surely they wanted something. She guessed it was up to her to find out. If she work out what they wanted, maybe she could find a way to give it to them. Maybe that would silence them. Like the old Halloween rhetoric about the dead haunting the living until they had made amends – perhaps the dolls needed to do something, or express something, or make contact for some reason. She imagined it had something to do with the worries they held – after all, that’s how they had manifested themselves, in terms of the worries they each possessed. Each doll only seemed to have one, at least only one that they were sharing with Belle, but that one worry had – in the four cases so far – been a big one. A gushing head wound, being hit with a hot frying pan, these weren’t minor worries. Belle wondered if maybe she was expected to track down the perpertrators of these vicious acts, but that reasoning didn’t stand for the man with the heart attack – surely no one in that situation could rightly be called a perpertrator. Maybe they were premonitions, and she was supposed to be somehow avoiding them, stopping them occurring. But she had no way of identifying the victims. When she experienced the worries, when she held the dolls in her hand, she always took the part of the victim. She felt what the victim felt, smelled what the victim smelled. She didn’t see the victim though, she didn’t know whether they were young or old, tall or short, male or female. She didn’t know who they were, where they were, or what had gotten them into the situation they were in. As much as Belle felt in control at the time, now she just felt lost and very confused. What did the dolls want from her? And how was she going to deliver it?

Before Mandy had even opened her eyes the light pierced her lids like blades. Her head felt about twice the size it should be, and some kind of dead animal seemed to have crawled into her mouth and taken up residence where her tongue should have been. She seemed to be on the lounge, clearly she hadn’t gotten to bed last night. She couldn’t hear noise. She tried opening one eye, but decided against it and squeezed it shut again. SHe contemplated getting up, but decided against it too. It just seemed too difficult right now. She tried to work out what day it was, and decided that it could be Friday. That would be OK, she had the day off for … something. Something was happening. She would work it out, she guessed. The house seemed still. She guessed everyone was out already, or still in bed. She couldn’t tell how early (or late) it was. Just that it was daylight.

 

 

Surprisingly enough, Belle was feeling fantastic, despite the events of the night before, and despite lying awake thinking about it in the early hours. It was though the worry dolls had sapped the strength from her last night, but when she had slept it off, she had gotten it back with interest. She felt fantastic, alive, energised. Even Rudolph could hardly keep up with her as she danced around getting ready for school.

 

When she made her way out of the bedroom to get breakfast, the house was quiet. Jamie had already left for the surgery, and her mother, oddly, was passed out on the couch. She could smell the cheap wine from last night surrounding ehr in a noxious cloud and, although it surprised her a little, she decided to leave her be. Perhaps she was taking this whole situation a little hard, Belle thought. It was a bit strange, though. After all, it wasn’t Mandy who couldn’t pick up a worry doll without finding out what worries they held, and in a rather too personal way sometimes.

 

 

It was some time later when Mandy became conscious again. The thumping in her head was still there, and the light still hurt her eyes. She needed a drink quite badly. She realised she was going to have to get up to get it, or die of thirst. With effort, and her eyes cracked open to mere slits, she swung her legs down on to the floor and braced herself against the arm of the couch. She stood, slowly, her head complaining, and tottered into the kitchen to find a glass of water.

 

Leaning over the sink, her head drooping, water still dripping from her lips and hands where she had scooped water into her parched mouth, she began to think. What had happened? Gradually, the details started to come back to her – the Monopoly game that had never gotten started, listening to Belle, then Jamie talk about the worry dolls, holding the dice and shaking, shaking (always the dolls), listening to the stories of what they had seen in the dressing table mirror, sharing her own (oh god had she … ?) story from the mirror. She looked down at her hand, and realised she had poured herself a glass of sherry from the pantry. She shrugged, drank it down. The headache started to fade, and she began to smile instead.

 

 

Alyssa half opened one eye, and decided to close it again. She wasn’t getting up yet.

 

 

Jamie was at work, but his mind was focussed on a mirror. He had seen things in the dressing table mirror last night that not only did he think he would never see but, more to the point, things he didn’t think he would ever believe that he had seen. The strange thing was not even that though. The strangest part was that he wasn’t even quite sure what it was that he had seen. He knew that it had started off like smoke – as though someone had blown a great lungful of cigarette smoke at the glass, but from the wrong side. Then, the smoke had started to boil and shimmer, and images started to apepar in it. What, exactly, those images were, he couldn’t see. Faces certainly, but what else. Hands? Maybe. Animals? There could have been. It was as though he hadn’t seen them with his eyes, but with his mind. He guessed maybe that was what had actually happened. Perhaps these things hadn’t happened in the mirror, but in his own head. But what had Alyssa seen? She had started to describe it, she was acting as Belle’s eyes, just as Belle had asked too, and her description had been close to what Jamie had seen, although her words hadn’t been able to convey the sense of muted horror that the images had seeemed to contain. But what had she seen after that? Was it the same as what he had seen? But what had he seen? Did Alyssa know what she had seen. And then came the thought he had been trying not to think – what had Belle seen?

 

 

Alyssa had located her phone, gone to the toilet, and crawled back to bed. Hiding under the doona, she quickly tapped in a text message and sent it to Luke. She droped the phone on the floor and was just dozing off again when the soft double beep of an incoming message woke her. She snaked a hand out and retrieved the phone, “Im on my way xx” it read. She smiled and dropped the phone again. Then pulled the doona up over her head and dropped back into a snooze.

 

When Luke arrived less than half an hour later, Alyssa was dead to the world. He snuck into the room, stepped out of his jeans, and lifted a corner of the doona to sneak in next to her. He wrapped his arms around her and she moaned slightly in her sleep, and snuggled her sleep warm body into the curve of his.

 

 

Friday afternoon, and Belle and Kayla arrived, laughing over a story that Belle was telling about one of the boys in school. Belle stopped outside to unleash Rudolph, and then went to unlock the front door and let them both in. She frowned when the key turned easily in the lock, and pushed open. Surely neither Jamie nor her mother would be home yet. She walked in, cautious, and called out for her mum. Kayla trailed along behind her. Belle heard noise coming from the direction of the dining table, and called out “Who is it?” before they could get too close. She jumped when a voice responded, “Belle. It’s me, Jamie.” and then realised who it was and smiled instead.

“Jamie! I thought you were at work! You gave me a fright.”

“Sorry, Belle.”

Belle paused, and then asked, “What’s wrong?”

There was silence while Jamie gathered his thoughts, “It’s weird how you do that Belle.”

Belle shrugged, she had been told it many times, and although Jamie had become a member of the family now, he still sometimes remarked on somehting that the rest of the family just took in their stride. She waited for him to go on.

Eventually, realising Belle wasn’t going to let him off the hook, he gave a bit of a sigh, “How about you sit down and I’ll make you a cup of coffee?”

Kayla realised what was going on, and went to make a gracious exit. Belle, who hadn’t told Kayla anything about worry dolls or visions apearing in dressing table mirrors, let her go. She wanted to hear what Jamie had to say, she had a feeling it was important, but she didn’t want to drag Kayla into the situation. She told her to call her in the morning, and they would go shopping, or to the beach or something. Kayla said she would, but Belle caught the scent of a lie. She was thinking that Belle was having some serious kind of family trouble, she guessed, and Belle decided that she would make sure to go out tomorrow to make it up to her, and explain that everything was okay, although she doubted she would tell her the whole story.

 

By the time Kayla had left to walk the few blocks to her own house, Jamie had set a cup of steaming coffee in front of Belle, and sat down at the table across from her. Belle realised that they were sitting in the same positions as they had been the night before. The Monopoly board lay on the table, the pieces packed away but the box remaining as a reminder. Belle pulled it towards her and wordlessly started setting up a game, as Jamie began to talk.

 

 

“We were supposed to be leaving on our holiday today.” he started, bluntly and Belle realised that she had forgotten all about it. There had been too much happen in between the time she had been told, and the time it was to happen. She waited for him to go on. “Anyway, Mandy was going to take todsay off, to pack ands tuff I guess. I was goign to work this morning, and then come home at lunch time. We were going to leave around,” he checked his watch, “around an hour ago. But we. Well, we haven’t. Obviously.” he took a deep breath, and rubbed his face vigorously with his hands. By the time he looked up, Belle had finished setting up the board. Without discussion, he picked up a dice, threw it, and Belle did the same time. She touched the raised faces of the dices and smiled, then picked up both of them, and rolled them together, moved her piece. “Bought” she said softly, and they exchanged cash and a title deed card. The game continued almost ritualistically as Jamie continued, “Anyway, I got home around one or so, and Mandy was … she was … Bought.” A quick exchange of cash again, and Jamie picked up the narrative, “Mandy was passed out on the couch. She’s been drinking. There’s an empty gin bottle in the bin.”

“Bought.”

“I didn’t want to look, it feels like I’m spying on her, but … I had to, Belle. I had to know. You owe me fifty dollars for opera tickets.”

Belle handed the cash over, “Where is she now? She’s not on the couch.”

“Thanks. No, she’s not.” Jamie added the cash to the pile in front of him, and Belle picked up the dice, rolled, “I moved her into the bedroom.”

“Bought.”

“I didn’t know what else to do, but I didn’t want to leave her on the couch. She didn’t even wake up. Bought. She’s not catatonic or anything, she doesn’t need to go to the hospital, but she’s had a …”

“That’ll cost you fourteen dollars.”

Jamie picked out a ten and four one dollar notes, and handed them over, “She’s had an awful lot to drink. I guess she’ll sleep it off and it’ll all be okay.” He paused, watching Belle count out a roll of eight. She picked up a card, and returned it to the pile, moved her piece around the board, and collected two hundred dollars salary. She didn’t speak.

“I just, well, I’ve cancelled the weekend away. I can’t very well just bundle her into the car like …” he waved his hand in the direction of the bedroom, “well, like that.” Jamie picked up the dice and paused, holding them cupped in front of him, “Do you think it’s because of the shock?”

Belle didn’t say anything, but she was thinking hard, and not about the game.

“Bought.” Jamie said, then “I mean the shock of the, of seeing the … stuff … in the mirror. Maybe seeing you last night when you were holding the … that was, well that was pretty scary for her, I think.

“Scary for her, you think?” Belle muttered sarcastically, and Jamie had the good grace to blush, even though Belle couldn’t see it. She picked up the dice, rolled, and landed on one of Jamie’s properties.

“Twenty three dollars.” he stated, and she handed it over. “I don’t know what else could have … could have, brought it on, I guess.”

There was silence, and the game progressed with as little conversation as required. Belle achieved a full set, and started building on them. It was when Jamie landed on the set and didn’t have the cash that she decided to speak, “I want to look in the mirror again.”

Jamie looked up from mortgaging properties, “You … want to do that again?” he was shocked, he certainly had no desire to repeat last night’s experience. But then, the more he thought about it, the more the idea was strangely attractive. Maybe it would provide an answer, maybe he could work out what he had seen the first time, if only he could look again.

“Yes.” Belle said, finally, “But without Alyssa. I want you to be my eyes this time.”

Belle had been thinking durign class, and realised that part of the problem she had experienced was that she couldn’t unravel the voices of the dolls – if that is where those voices were coming from – and the voices of Alyssa and Jamie. It was like trying to listen to three conversations at once, but, somehow it was different to that too. More like trying to listen to three streams of consciousness at once. There was too much detail – and too much sensory input. She was getting thoughts and ideas, smell and touch, all in one big package. When she tried to sort through it, to find the narrative that she needed to be able to make sense of it all, she couldn’t find the end of the piece of string. It was like a big ball of sticky spaghetti. No matter how much she dag through it to find the main string, the ball got more and more complex, more tightly wrapped up, and more impenetrable. She had wondered if, by reducing the number of people feeding information to her, she could help to cut through it. She didn’t want to go alone though, because there was something in her that realised that the images in the mirror were important.

 

 

Jamie got up and made another cup of coffee, and by the time the two cups had been finished, Jamie had claimed defeat. They packed up the game and as he put the lid on the box, Jamie looked up, “When?” he asked.

Belle thought for a minute and then said, “Now.”

Jamie frowned, “What about your mother?”

“How out of it is she?”

“Hmmm.” Jamie sighed, “Yeah, she’s pretty out of it.”

“So. Now, then?”

Jamie hesitated, then nodded in agreement, “Yeah, okay. No time like the present, huh?”

Belle raised a corner of her mouth in a cheeky smile, “Gee, thanks, Jamie, you didn’t have to get me a present. It’s not even my birthday.”

“Ha, ha.” Jamie deadpanned.

 

 

Belle led, just like last time, but she didn’t move as cautiously as she had that time. She crept into the room, listenign for her mother, and hearing only the very barest of breathing – steady and slow – Jamie was right, she thought, her mother was really out of it. She hoped she was alright, and then turned her attention to the mirror, the worries, and the dolls. She concenrated hard to block out Jamie behind her, her mother prone in the bed, and tried to just clear her mind. She was in front of the dressing table now, she could reach out her hand and brush the cold glass with her fingertips. Slowly, she began to mutter under her breath, trying not to think too much about what she was saying, letting the dolls – or whoever – speak through her, use her mouth to communicate whatever they needed to tell her.

“I had a little dolly,” she began, “I told it my worry. And then it went red, and now they’re all dead. I am so terribly sorry. I had a little dolly, I told it my worry …” she continued on, but felt nothing. In fact, she started to just feel a little bit silly. She became conscious of Jamie standing behine her, watching her, watching the mirror. She stopped, abruptly, and turned to him, “Can you see anything?”

“No, nothing.” Jamie replied.

“There’s nothing there. They are not there.”

Jamie paused, thinking, and eventualy nodded and said, “Yeah, I think you’re right.” He turned to look at Mandy and then asked Belle softly, “Do you think it’s … it’s because of Mandy?”

Belle frowned and shook her head, “No, I dont’ think so.” She paused again and then realised something, “I think it’s because of Alyssa.”

“Alyssa?”

“Yeah, I think they want her. I don’t think they want me.”

“They? Want who? Why?” Jamie stammered.

Belle shrugged her shoulders, and headed outside, calling for Rudolph.

 

 

Belle found Rudolph sitting outside near his bowl, but he jumped up when Belle arrived, and offered his head for a pat. Belle obliged, and decided to head out to the flat to see if Alyssa was around. She knocked at the dor, but there was no answer.

 

 

Alyssa and Luke were out having dinner. They had emerged from bed sometime in the middle of the afternoon and then decided they were both hungry. Luke had driven them to a Chinese restaurant in the main shopping strip that ran parrallel to the beach. They were laughing over the chopsticks as Alyssa tried to teach him how to use them, and Luke sent various pieces of Dim Sim and stir fry all over the table cloth. Eventually, after complaining that he was starving, he resorted to a spoon, watching Alyssa enviously. She laughed and showed off, and ended up flicking rice all over the place. Laughing, she started picking up individual grains of rice and feeding them to him.

 

Worry dolls were the furthest thing from their minds.

 

 

Jamie decided to leave the bed to Mandy, and sleep on the couch. He slept in fits and starts, his dreams plagued by reflections and mysterious little worry dolls. He relived the old man’s death a million times over (more), never being able to do anything to help him. He relived the moment that the mirror went cloudy the other night, and saw the faces, but the prominent one was of the old man, struggling on the bed that his wife now slept – catatonic – in. When, at last, the first streaks of light were showing in the sky, Jamie was sitting out on the back verandah, shivering in the cold. He couldn’t rid his mind of the images that had plagued him through the night. When, finally, he heard movement inside, he went in himself, expecting to see Belle. Somehow, he didn’t really think that Mandy was ever going to get up again, and when he went into the kitchen to brew himself and Belle a coffee, he gave a start when he saw Mandy, pale and haggard, with her head hanging in the sink.

“Honey?” he said softly, and moved towards her.

“I need a drink.” she slurred, almost inaudibly.

“Honey, I don’t think you do. How about you have a shower instead?” he paused, as Mandy attempted to frown at him, and only succeeded in crumpling her face up like a child throwing a tantrum. “Come on, Darling,” he said, trying to sound encouraging. He put his arm around her, tried to lead her away from the sink. She resisted at first, but then came willingly enough. She was very unsteady on her feet, and Jamie allowed her to rest her weight on him. The two of them maneouvred into the ensuite, and Mandy stood swaying slightly as Jamie undressed her. He had undressed her many times before, but there was nothing remotely erotic about this. Her body was slick with sweat, despite the cool weather. He reached out and turned the shower on, adjusted the temperature, and then wondered what to do. After a little while, he simply stepped out of his own clothes, and jumped in with her.

 

 

When Belle did get out of bed, Mandy was slumped at the kitchen table. Belle could smell old alcohol, barely masked by soap, shampoo and perfume. Jamie was cooking breakfast in the kicthen, and as she moved into the room the smell of frying bacon hit her like a wall. Almost immediately, Belle had a flash back to the afternoon on the beach, and she raised a hand to her cheek. She fought the urge to cower.

“Morning Sleepy Head!” Jamie piped happily from his place at the stove.

Belle tried to put the idea of the woman behind her, cranked a smiled on to her face, and said as brightly as she manage, “Morning Jamie. What are you cooking?”

“Bacon, eggs, toast. And mushrooms if you want them.”

“Fried or poached?”

“Fried, all fried. I thought Mandy could use fried.” he said in a slightly softer voice.

Belle laughed, “Yeah, I guess she could. Don’t suppose you could poach one or two though? Just for me?”

Jamie laughed along with her, “Yeah, alright. Just for you. Do you want bacon?”

Belle’s stomach did a slow roll, and the taste of bile reached up into the back of her throat. She swallowed, “No, no bacon. Just eggs and mushrooms. Thanks Jamie.” She smiled sweetly, not knowing whether he was facing her or not, and went back out into the dining room.

 

 

Belle moved into the dining room, and ran her hand along the rise of her mother’s shoulders. She did this frequently, as a way of working out where people were sitting when they weren’t talking. She found a seat directly opposite Mandy, and sat in.

“Morning Mum.” she said fairly softly.

“Mmmf” her mother responded. The sound was muffled, and Belle surmised that her mother had her head on her folded arms.

“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked cagily.

There was a pause, where Mandy lifted her head and tried to focus on her daughter’s face. “I’m alive. I guess.”

“Well, that’s a good start.” Belle said brightly. “Jamie’s cooking breakfast. You’ll feel better if you eat, he said.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Mandy’s voice drifted into mumbles as her head drooped back down again.

Belle sighed, clearly her mother was not going to be conversational. She got back up, went back into the kitchen, and offered to help Jamie make toast. He accepted, gratefully.

 

 

Alyssa woke up, and decided to go in to the house to find Belle. When she smelled bacon frying, she immediately agreed to stay for breakfast. The four of them sat at the table together, Alyssa piling bacon on toast, and Mandy pushing her food desultoraly around the plate. Belle ate quietly, and then went into her room. Alyssa, still wiping bacon grease from her lips, followed her shortly afterwards. They sat together on the bed, talking about everything except the goings on with the worry dolls, until eventually Belle decided to tell her exactly what happened the day before. She recounted the story with little emotion, before droppign the bombshell, “I think they need you Liss. They didn’t want to talk to Jamie.”

“But what could they possibly want from me? I don’t feel anything when I touch them, I can’t see anything in the mirror. Even that night when we were all there, all I could see was smoke.” she paused, thinking, before adding, “Well, that’s all I remember seeing.”

“You saw more.” Belle said matter of factly. “You saw a lot more.”

 

 

That evening, Mandy was starting to feel her normal self again. Well, not quite her normal self, she thought, that person was still off wandering in the wilderness somewhere, wondering where everything had gone awry, and how she had come to take entirely the wrong turn. But she was feeling better. She wasn’t sure how she was going to cope if someone decided to have a little chat to her about the (don’t say it, don’t you dare say it) recent events, but as long as she tried not to think about it, as long as she could believe that it had all been a strange collective dream, then she felt well, alright. Not great, and certainly fragile, but she was okay. It was all going to be (red) okay. When Jamie reminded her about their failed weekend away, and gently suggested that they should go and make the most of what was left of it, she agreed. Perhaps that was what she needed – time away to come back to normal, and forget the strange events of the past few days.

 

 

Belle found Jamie’s excitement amusing. He was running around the house like a five year old on Christmas morning, packing and unpacking, madly trying to find some needed item and then repacking. Mandy was attempting to share his enthusiasm, but Belle could tell it was forced. Her mother seemed strained, somehow, as though someone had forced her brain to go through an aperture the wrong size, and now she was all bent out of shape and confused. Belle realised that the worry dolls had affected her on a deeper level than it had the rest of them, but she couldn’t work out how, or why. Or what to do about it. She was still puzzling over this when, finally around lunchtime, Jamie bundled Mandy into the car, and the two of drove off down the driveway. Alyssa and Belle stood at the front door to wave them off, and were not at all surprised when the car got to the road and, instead of turning left to go out to the highway, started reversing back down the short driveway. The driver’s side window rolled down as Jamie pulled up in front of them, and his head stuck out, “Would you mind grabbing a box of tissues?” he called. Alyssa dashed into the house, found the box from the lounge room and brought it back out to them. This time, the car dove up the drive way, and Jamie completed the left turn on to the road. The car drove away and finally disappeared around the next bend.

They were still standing on the front verandah when Belle sighed and said “Man, I’m kind of glad they’re gone”.

There was a pause, then Alyssa gave a little giggle, “Yeah. Me too.”

 

 

They were sitting in Alyssa’s flat, discussing a plan to go in and look in the dressing table mirror again, when Luke showed up. They had agreed that they needed to get in there while Mandy and Jamie were away, and Belle explained her theory about having too many people in the room causing too much mind traffic for her to be able to decipher anything. She reiterated the salient points to Luke, and was surprised when he eagerly agreed to wait outside the room when they went in. It was only later that she realised the whole idea terrified him. There was a moment of silence in the tiny room and eventually Belle stood. Rudolph, who had been sitting in the corner, roused himself and came to her side, and she reached down absently to pat him. “Well, Liss.” she said, “You ready?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” her sister replied, “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Belle smiled, “Let’s go then.”

 

 

For the third time, Belle crept into her mother’s room, and stood before the dressing table mirror. She was flanked by Rudolph on her right and Alyssa on her left. The three of them stood, solemn, as Belle attempted to clear her mind. It was faster this time, she didn’t have to think about what she was going to say, she just the words start to flow, and she had barely said the first few words of the ominous little poem when the force of Alyssa’a thoughts slammed into her with physical force. Belle’s world, usually black, went suddenly white, and all of a sudden she was seeing. She saw the mirror, its surface cloudy, the mist roiling behind the glass. Tentatively, she turned to her right and looked at Rudolph, saw him for the very first time. He had a dark tip on the end of his tail, she noticed, and smiled. When she turned towards her sister, she realised that she looked exactly how she thought she looked, and this surprised her. The novelty of sight almost made her forget why she was there, and she had to fight back the urge to just run out of the room and look at everything. She realised, though, even in the excitement of the moment, that she was only seeing what Alyssa could see. She was, quite literally, using her sister’s eyes. Alyssa looked almost as though she were asleep. Her eyes were open, fixed on the mirror in front of her, but the expression on her face was slack, immobile. Belle had the idea that she was somehow stealing from her, and tried not to get too carried away by the idea that she had sight. Stop (looking) thinking about it, she chided herself, just go (run) with it, where are the (I had a little) dolls, she needed to contact the (I told my little worry) dolls. She put all her attention into the mirror, and watched the roiling (souls) smoke in the glass, trying to make sense of what she could (but this can’t be) see. She saw nothing at first, nothing but vague (faces) images that meant nothing to her, but gradually the mist coalesced into (victims) all sorts of images. So many that she had trouble telling one from the other. There was a face, it’s mouth open in horror, then laughter; a hand, clenching in a fist, then softly holding a child’s; eyes, wide with fear, then creasing into a smile. The images came fast, faster than she could put words to what she was seeing. She started to feel overwhelmed, and struggled to pull her (mind) eyes back from the individual happenings in the mirror. She tried to take in the mirror itself, and to stop concentrating on the (worries) fine details, the images of love and hate, affection and anger. Eventually her (thoughts) eyes started to see another image, a larger one that was made of the tiny individual pieces – a face, it’s features created by the smaller images, constantly moving as the tiny scenes played themselves out within it. As she watched, the face began to smile, the edges of its mouth moving, always moving, but forming into a smile all the same. She watched the face, waiting for it to speak and at that exact moment, Alyssa cried out in surprise, Rudolph barked, and Belle’s world reverted to the darkness she had always known.

 

 

When Belle woke up, she was expecting to be back in her own bedroom, but instead it seemed as though she was still in her mother’s. It seemed as though she was still lying on the floor in front of the dressing table, Rudolph snuggled up beside her, his breath whistling in and out as he slept. She wondered how much time had passed. She had a blanket over her, and a pillow under her head, but her hip was aching from the hard floor, despite the carpet. She realised that they hadn’t had Jamie to pick her up, so they had just left her where she was, and covered her with a blanket.

 

She sat up, feeling that same surge of energy she had felt last time. She was awake, energetic, and ready for anything. She didn’t know what time it was, but she decided to take advantage of the situation. She raced outside to the flat and banged on the door, Rudolph hot on her heels.

 

 

Inside the flat, Alyssa and Luke were both fast asleep in pre-dawn darkness. When Belle banged on the door, Alyssa rolled over and mumbled in her sleep, but neither of them woke up.

 

 

Not to be discouraged, Belle raced back into the house. She decided she was going to take advantage of this energy. She wanted to duck into her room to find out what time it was, but then decided against it, she didn’t want to waste a moment. Instead, she went back into her mother’s room, kicked the blanket and pillow out of the way, and stood in front of the mirror, RUdolph panting at her side.

 

 

This time it happened quickly – almost too quickly. Belle felt sucked into the world fo the dolls this time, not as though she had gone voluntarily. Before she knew it, there were voices in her head. She opened her eyes, tried to focus, and found that she almost could. She didn’t seem to be able to see colour, and the edges of things seemed shimmery. Her sense of smell, ordinarily pretty good, being absolutely amazing, and she got the idea that she was smelling where things were, more so than seeing them. Before long, she realised what was happening. Because Alyssa wasn’t there, see was seeing with Rudolph’s eyes – and nose – instead. She laughed out loud, thinking, well, thry do call them seeing eye dogs, after all. This time, she couldn’t make out the individual figures in the mirror, Rudolph’s eyesight just wasn’t that good, it seemed. Somehow, it made it easier to focus on that larger image – the face. This time it didn’t seem to be smiling though. In fact, it seemed … angry, almost. When it begam speaking, Belle listened.

 

 

When Alyssa woke up, the sun was just starting to streak through the window of the flat, the beam of light a blade slicing from in between the curtains and cutting the room in two. Last night when she had woken up after seeing the face in the mirror, she had had a terrible headache, the same as she got when she had been studying for too long at a time, but about ten times worse. This morning, the pain behind her eyes lingered, although the sharp edge had gone. She closed her eyes, wanting to go back to sleep. But sleep didn’t seem to want to take her. She slipped out of bed, trying not to wake Luke. She got dressed, found a couple of Nurofen and swallowed them. She decided to go and check on Belle.

 

 

When she got inside, the house was very quiet. Although the air was still, it felt kind of … full. As though the house was filled with invisible fairy floss, and she had to wade through it. What was going on here? She walked into the master bedroom, looking for Belle, and found her – somehwat unsurprisingly – standing in front of the dressing table, Rudolph at her side. Belle was staring raptly into the mirror, her head nodding as though she was agreeing with someone. Rudolph stood eyes open, breathing rapidly, but otherwise for all intents and purposes asleep. His features drooped, his bottom jaw hung open, tongue lolling with a long column of drool waving with his breath. Alyssa couldn’t see anything in the mirror except for the reflection of the bedroom. She decided to sit on the bed and watch what unfolded.

 

 

Belle continued to nod, as though listening to some interesting conversation, and Alyssa kept wondering why the dog didn’t fall over. Alyssa could see her own reflection behind Belle’s, and she wondered who Belle was listening to. She was acting almost as though she was talking to someone only she could see in the mirror, but of course the idea was absurd. As much as some weird stuff was going on with this mirror, and with the dolls, she didn’t think it was enough to give sight ot the blind. The very idea was a cliche. Alyssa repositioned herself on the bed, laying on her belly, with her feet on the pillows and her head resting on her hands so she could watch her sister and her dog. She wondered how long they had been like this, how long they still would be, and gradually drifted off to sleep. When she woke up, Belle and Rudolph were gone, and there was a clutch of worry dolls on the carpet where they had been. Alyssa jumped off the bed, gathered up the dolls, shoved them in the pocket of her jeans, and went in search of her sister.

 

 

She found both Belle and Rudolph back out in the flat. Belle looked tired, sipping coffee with Luke. Rudolph had found a throw cushion and fallen aslepe on it in the reading nook. When Alyssa opened the door they all looked up at her, and she smiled at them. “I fell asleep”, she said sheepishly.

Luke returned the grin, “Feel better Sleeping Beauty?” he teased. Alyssa stuck her tongue out at him, and asked for a cup of coffee as she flopped onto the futon, and crawled under the doona to go back to sleep, “My head still hurts.” she moaned.

“Your head hurts.” Belle muttered, “You should feel mine.”

 

Alyssa suddenly remembered the worry dolls in her pocket, and sat up in bed. “Hey Sis,” she called.

Belle looked up, “What?” she grunted.

“I think you dropped something in Mum’s room.”

Belle frowned, and came out into the living area of the flat. “Huh?”

“More dolls,” Alyssa stated, and Belle stopped dead. Alyssa frowned at the look on her sister’s face, “What’s wrong? You don’t have to touch them if you don’t want to …”

Belle sighed, and resumed walking towards Alyssa and the wory dolls, “Yeah, but i do.” she said, “That’s the thing. I do have to touch them. And then you have to see it in the mirror.”

“But … but I’ve never seen anything in the mirror!” Alyssa argued.

Belle shook her head, “But you have, Liss. You’ve seen more in the mirror than you realise.”

“I’ve seen smoke. Smoke and mirrors, ha ha. That’s hardly anything like what the others have seen. Jamie with his heart attack victims and Mum with the girl with the head wound.”

Luke stepped out of the kitchenette and into the loungeroom, “Alyssa …” he cautioned, and Alyssa rounded on him, “You just keep out of this, Luke. I know you think you’re involved, because you saw the frying pan woman, but you’re not. Okay? You’re not involved.”

Belle waited for Alyssa’s tirade to end and then said softly, “But he is, Alyssa. He’s just as involved as I am. As you are. As Rudolph is. We’re all involved in this. Jamie, too. And Mum. Did you wonder why Mum reacted the way she did, Liss? Did it ever occur to you that she over reacted just a little?”

Alyssa looked shocked, but said nothing, she hadn’t thought about her mother much at all, to be honest. She had been so busy either trying not to think about the whole situation at all, or trying to work out the intricacies of the whole thing – why the dolls, why the worries, why Belle, why herself – that she hadn’t actually wondered why her mother had gone off the rails. All of a sudden, it seemed odd that she hadn’t thought about it, and she felt a bit ashamed.

“They’re coming because of Mum. They’re here because they want Mum to help them. They can talk to me, but they need Mum. And I need you, and Luke, to help me get the message across. Mum’s fragile enough as it is right now, any more pressure is going to break her in two and we’ll be carting her off to the asylum in a white jacket. Or finding her passed out on the bathroom floor with a vodka bottle.” Belle paused to let the message sink in.

Alyssa was shocked, and she spoke quietly, as though Belle had clearly already gone mad, and should be treated with care, “Belle, first you said they wanted you, then you said they wanted me, now you’re saying they want Mum. What next? Rudoplh? And who are ‘they’ anyway, Belle? Explain that much to me. And what kind of help? What’s Mum got that no one else has?”

Belle shrugged, she didn’t have answers to any of these questions. “I don’t know, Liss. I just don’t know. Come with me back to the mirror. Let them talk to you.”

Alyssa sighed, “Let me have an hour’s sleep, then I’ll come with you.”

 

 

While Alyssa slept, Belle convinced Luke to play a round of Monopoly with her. She was busy claiming over five hundred dollars in rent off him when he finally asked her what had happened last night, and this morning.

Belle wondered how much to tell him, and then decided to go for the whole thing, “I could see. Last night, I used Alyssa’s eyes, and I could see.”

Play stopped. Luke held cash in one hand, and a mortgaged property in the other, You … you what?” he stammered eventually.

Belle said it again, as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world. “I could see. Rudolph has a dark tip on the end of his tail. I saw that. I saw it with Alyssa’s eyes.”

Luke allowed his own eyes to wander over to Rudolph, still sleeping in the reading nook, although he already knew that he had a dark tip on his tail. It was out of the ordinary for a golden labrador, they were normally a solid colour, and it had caught his eye when he had first met him. “I don’t … I don’t really understand. How could you … how did that work? Can you see now?”

“No it only worked while I was in the mirror. You know the strange thing, I did it again, this morning, when Alyssa wasn’t there. And I saw through Rudolph’s eyes. But he doesn’t just see with his eyes, he sees with his nose, I could smell things, Luke. You have no idea what that sensation is like.”

Luke gave a dry laugh. “Yeah, you’ve got that right. I don’t know what it would be like to be blind, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to see things with your nose.”

Play resumed, and Belle grew serious again. After a few rolls she spoke softly again, “You know, I was told a lot of stuff this morning by … well, by someone. I don’t know who they were, but they had … authority. Of some sort. Anyway, they told me a lot, but I don’t remember the words they used. It’s like they spoke to me in pictures, or ideas. Or maybe it was that they didn’t speak at all, they just fed ideas into my head. It wasn’t organised, like it is when someone describes something to you, it was like a big dump of information, but I need to unravel it a little bit at a time, bit by bit. It’s like I can’t access the end of the story, until I fully understand where it started, and all the other things that happen on the way.”

Luke didn’t meet her eyes, just continued to play the game. Eventually, he spoke nearly under his breath, “I think you’re something more than just a little bit special, Belle.”

“What do you mean by that, Luke?” she asked suspiciously.

“I mean that you’re … you’re somehow more than human. More than … well, more than normal, I guess.” he laughed a little, “That sounds really strange, but I don’t know how else to put it.”

She laughed at that, but somehow the statement had made her uneasy. She was glad when Alyssa woke up, slightly less grumpy now, and broke the filament of tension that had arisen between the two of them.

 

 

This time, Alyssa led the procession into the bedroom. She was determined to be more than just a pair of eyes this time around. Luke, convinced to come into the house at least, hung around in the dining room, ready to be on hand in case he was needed. He would at least be needed to drag someone into a bed after it all, he thought ruefully.

 

Alyssa wasn’t going to be nearly as cautious as her younger sister was. She marched in and stood in front of the mirror as though she was challenging it to speak to her. Rudolph eyed Belle, and then reluctantly went and stood beside Alyssa, his flank pressed to her leg. Belle stood on the other side of Alyssa, not really knowing why she was there. It was not as if Alyssa needed someone to be her eyes. The two girls closed their eyes, and together they began to chant,

“I had a little dolly,

I told it my little worry

Then it went …

Ooooohhhhhhh” Alyssa suddenly moaned. She could feel a force in her head, behind her eyes, like a hand had roughly pushed its way in, and was feeling about for something it had lost. Alyssa struggled, wanting the feeling to (get out! get out!) go away, and she entered a mental struggle with the (spirit) force in her mind. She opened her eyes, and started to scream. Belle’s head snapped, as though she had been hit, and she cried out as well. Rudolph began to howl. In an instant, Luke was in the room. He went first to Belle, Alyssa still screaming, her hands clawing at her (get out!) skull, pulling at her (brains) hair, and clawing at her (soul) eyes. Luke started to drag Belle out of the room, and she started to yell, “No! Get Liss! Get her out of here!” Luke stopped, confused, and then, as though suddenly energised by Alyssa’s contined screams, he grabbed her under the armpits and dragged her, still screaming at top volume, out of the room.

 

 

As soon as Alyssa was out of the room, Rudolph calmed down. He went straight to Belle as nuzzled at her as though to check that she was okay. Belle was about to lean down and scratch him behind the ears when she felt a force in her own mind. It was blinding, just a flash, but the message that was imprinted in her mind was very clear. Alyssa was not welcome. Not now. Not ever.

 

 

When Luke pulled her out of the room, the connection between Alyssa and … whatever it was snapped like a wire pulled too tight. One moment the sensation of (the one) something inside her head was there, the next it was (broken) gone, as though it had (but it had been) never been there. She struggled out of Luke’s grip, shook herself, and said haughtily, “I can walk, leave me alone.”

Luke looked sheepish, “Sorry. I … just wanted to get you out of … whatever that was.”

Alyssa’s gaze softened and, although she didn’t apologise, she went to him and wrapped her arms around his neck, buried his head into the cleft provided by his collar bone. He allowed her to hug him, but her rebuke still stung him. After a while, he disentangled himself, and they both took a seat at the dining room table. Neither of them wanted to go back into the bedroom, but they didn’t want to stray too far either. This whole situation was getting more and more unpredictable all the time.

 

 

Belle sat down on the end of the bed. Any energy she still had from this morning had been thoroughly zapped by the reaction of the (one) worry dolls in the mirror to Alyssa, and the subsequent blinding adminition that had been delivered direct into her (soul) mind. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to lie down and sleep, go and get somehting to eat – maybe coffe, the caffeine might be good, or bad, she couldn’t decide – or just lie down here where she was and sleep. The mirror seemed dead now, and even though it was still strangely compelling, she didn’t think that it was going to let her in again for a little while. Almost as though it had given her a (blank) time out, like a naughty child. Belle sighed and, still not entirely sure what she was going to do, stood up, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

 

 

Luke and Alyssa both looked up expectantly when Belle loped into the room, Rudolph trotting at her side. She ignored their gazes, even though she sensed their eyes upon her, and continued into the kitchen. Sometimes, being blind meant you could casually ignore things, and people let you get away with it. Not her sister, though, it seemed, as Alyssa’s voice followed her into the kitchen, “Don’t ignore me, Belle!”

Belle ignored her anyway, filled the jug at the tap, settled it on its base, and switched it on. She stood, listening to the water heat, the base of the kettle cracking is it warmed. Belle raised her hands to her face and scrubbed at it to try and wake herself up. She thought that, if the coffee didn’t do the trick, she was just going to have to have a sleep. She wondered how late in the day it was, her sense of time was all over the place, although she was conscious of them running out of time before Mandy and Jamie got back. She needed to work out what she was supposed to do before they got here, so that she could go ahead and do – whatever it was – when they arrived.

 

 

Belle made coffees for everyone, unbidden, and brought them one by one into the dining room. She had the habit of always leaving one arm free, either to hold on to Rudolph’s harness, or to feel for obstacles. When she had brought all three mugs in and found herself a seat, the expectant silence descended over her like a blanket, and she could feel Alyssa and Luke’s eyes on her, waiting. Under the table, Rudolph settled himself on top her feet, which made her smile.

Eventually, Alyssa, unable to contain herself any longer, blurted out, “What was that all about, Belle?”

Belle remained silent, and she could sense Alyssa getting angrier and angrier as the silence dragged on. Eventually, she foudn the words she wanted, “They don’t want to speak directly to you, Liss. I’m sorry. I got a … a flash, of … something. I don’t know what to call it, but it was very clear. They don’t want to speak directly to you. I think it’s best if you just, well, just bring your eyes.”

Alyssa was, strangely, silent. Eventually, she gave a grunt, stood up, and stalked off back to her flat. Luke, somewhat reluctantly, stood as well. As he passed Belle, his hand settled on her shoulder, squeezed lightly, and was gone.

 

 

Belle decided to have a little sleep, despite the caffeine. When she got to her room, she hit the button on the clock, “Eleven. Forty. Two. Ay-Em” it said in its electronic voice. She was surprised it was still morning, so much had happened already, although it made her realise she had started a lot earlier than she had known at the time. No wonder Alyssa and Luke had still been asleep. She set the alarm for one o’clock in the afternoon, deciding that at that point she would wake up, have something to eat if she felt like lunch, and then go and have a chat to the (one) voices behind the mirror. With or without Alyssa.

 

 

Luke followed ALyssa out to the flat, and as soon as they were outside she rounded on him, “What does she mean, they don’t want to speak directly to me? Who? Who is ‘they’? And why does she have some kind of a monopoly on them? And what about all this crap about Mum? What’s she got to do with any of it all? It’s not my fault she decided to have a nervous breakdown over a couple of worry dolls, is it? And what’s the go with that, anyway? We haven’t found one in ages … well, except for the ones I found this morning, of course, but I’m not sure they count. I just dont’ understand why Belle thinks she’s just so fucking import …”

During the tirade, Alyssa and Luke had arrived at the front door of the flat. Alyssa pulled the door open and, when she saw what was inside, the flow of angry words just dried up into nothing. The salad bowl full of worry dolls that had sat on her desk for days, virtually forgotten along with her school work, had apparently been upended. The dolls covered every available surface – the floor, the bed, the desk, the bookcase, the breakfast bar, even inside the reading nook she had created. There were hundreds of them, and every single one was tipped out of the bowl and into the small room. Alyssa screamed, more out of frustration and anger than fear. Luke, feeling completely nonplussed, worn out and exasperated, turned around, fished his car keys from his pocket, and drove away, without saying a word. Alyssa let loose with a tirade at his fleeing vehicle, and eventually just sat on the flat’s front door step and cried.

 

 

Belle stirred and rolled over with the commotion outside, decided to ignore it, and went back to sleep.

 

 

When the alarm went off with the stilted, “Alarm! One. Oh. Clock. Pee-Em. Alarm!” Belle still felt tired. It was incredibly tempting to just switch the alarm off, roll over and go back to sleep. Rudolph padded over to her and rested his muzzle on her bed, “Rudolph,” she said patiently, “Much as you are a wonderful dog, I wish you woulnd’t leave drool on my bed sheets.” With this, she sat up, and swung her feet on to the floor. She gave Rudolph a pat to shw him that she still loved him, and he rumbled happily at her, and followed her into the kitchen. She picked through the well organised fridge for sandwich ham, found bread in the bread box, and fixed herself a sandwich. Knowing her mother would have a fit if she knew, she fixed Rudolph one as well, and let him eat it on the kicthen floor, while she stood and ate hers. She poured herself a glass of water from the tap and drank it down. Satiated, she decided she couldn’t put it off any longer, she was going to have to go back in there, and confront the (one) whatever it was.

 

 

Alyssa decided that, instead of facing the destruction that the worry dolls had wrought on her (life) flat, she was going to go for a walk. It was an overcast day, and the weather was cold, but the wind wasn’t blowing too hard, and she decided the beach would be deserted – just what she wanted. She certainly wasn’t in the mood to speakto anyone. She walked the couple of blocks to the beach, trying to work out how she had gotten to this point. She wondered what Belle was doing, was she in front of the dressing table mirror now, calling out for her ‘eyes’? Was she fast asleep, sleeping off the efforts of the morning? Was she in some dreamland, communing with a bunch of worry dolls, and getting grand ideas about herself, Alyssa, and their mother, amongst who knew what else? Increasingly, she thought about Luke. Would he come back? She understood that she had been more than a little hysterical, but come on, wouldn’t anyone be? Surely he could understand that? She arrived at the beach, and stepped onto the sand, the hard crust crunching under her joggers and breaking to reveal to soft, dry layer of sand beneath. It was a good analogy, she thought, the top layer looked tough and unbreakable, but it cracked under just a little pressure, and revealed the soft interior just below the surface. She felt the same, her hard exterior now full of cracks, and exposing her own soft interior. She wasn’t coping well with this. When she got down to the hard packed sand near the water, she wasn’t all that surprised to find that, instead of the usual shells and bits of seaweed, the beach was strewn with worry dolls.

 

 

Belle stood in front of the mirror yet again, Rudolph in his usual spot, resting against her right leg. This position was becoming horridly familiar, she thought ruefully. It was with a feeling not quite of impending disaster, but of possibly disastrous inevitability, that she fell into the world beyond the mirror. The world where the dolls where ruled by the one, and the worries were the local currency.

 

 

Alyssa returned from the beach feeling, if not quite relaxed, at least calmer than she had been, despite the worry dolls at her feet, She had at least realised she wasn’t going to be able to escape whatever the dols had in store for her – for them. Still she was not quite willing to face the worry dolls strewn around her flat, and went into the house to find Belle instead. She intended to apologise, but also she wanted to make sure she was okay. The thought had occurred to her that her sister might be attempting to contact the dolls again while she was wandering on the beach trying to gather her thoughts, and could possibly need her help.

 

When she got to the bedroom, she discovered Belle in the now familiar position in front of the dressing table mirror, Rudolph leaning against her leg, looking as though he was sleeping with his eyes open. Belle wasn’t nodding this time, but gazing with rapt attention into the mirror as though it afforded all sorts of delights. Alyssa, predicatably, couldn’t see anything except Belle’s reflection, and beyond that the bedroom, herself included. She perched on the end of the bed, sitting cross legged, with her elbow on her knee, and her chin in her hand. And waited.

 

 

This time, the communication lasted longer, and didn’t end abruptly as had all the previous ones. Belle thought as she rose once more to the surface of reality, that perhaps she was getting good at this. A strange talent to possess, perhaps, but useful in the circumstances, nevertheless. She felt tired, but not overwhelmingly so. She blinked as she came back into the darkness of her reality, the lights winking out in a fashion, and plunging her back into her usual blind state. At the same time, she became aware of someone sitting behind her, and she turned, “Alyssa?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s me.” her sister replied. “That was … calm.”

Belle smiled, “Yeah it was. Nice change, huh?”

Alyssa reddened, “Yeah. I deserved that. Sorry for … before.” she added.

Belle shrugged, “No big deal. This whole … thing … is weird. We all deal with things diferently. Where’s Luke?”

“Gone.” Alyssa stated simply, “My flat is … well. My flat is over run by worry dolls. When I saw it I … I lost it, and he … well, he left. I went for a walk … on the beach.” she stammered, “But I wanted to say sorry. I was a bit of an arse.”

“Like I said, no big deal. Will he come back?”

“No idea.”

“Do you care?”

Alyssa paused, asking herself the same question and trying to come up with answer that was honest. Eventually she said, “I’m not sure.”

Belle shrugged again, taking the admission in her stride, as she did most things. “I’m going to make another coffee, and then I’m going to have a lie down.” she stated.

“I might join you for the coffee.”

“Okay. Did you have plans for dinner?”

“Not yet. Want to get a delivery? Chinese maybe? Or pizza?”

Belle wrinkled her nose, “Not pizza. Chinese would be good. I could murder a Mongolian Duck.”

“The poor duck.” Alyssa laughed as she stood. The two of them walked out of the room, Rudolph between them, wagging his tail happily.

Alyssa made the drinks, and Belle slumped at the table, her mind still whirling with all the things that she had learnt. Just like before, she had been given a great lump of information, but not the means to be able to understand it all. She knew that Alyssa was burning to know what had happened, but that she was too ashamed of her most recent behaviour to be able to demand that Belle tell her all about it. She wondered how she was going to work out what she had to do before her mother and Jamie got back. She was running out of time.

 

 

Over coffee, Belle agreed to help Alyssa out with the cleaning up of the flat. She wasn’t sure how she could help, but she guessed she could push a broom, or at least offer moral support. Or something. She guessed it was a good idea to do this before Mandy and Jamie arrived back home, anyway, and apparently it was already late in the day. She had been in front of the mirror for quite some time, it seemed. Belle could feel Alyssa’s eyes burning her, wanting to know more, and eventually Alyssa worked up the courage to ask, “So, what happened in there … before?”

Belle gave a sigh, “Look, I don’t know that there’s anything I can tell you. It’s strange, I get given these lumps of information. It’s like … imagine a big ball of chewing gum, that’s gotten stuck in your hair. You can’t just rip it out, you need to untangle it slowly, from the outside in to the middle. I don’t know how to disentangle that big knot. I don’t know how to find out what’s in the middle.

“You cut blobs of chewing gum out of your hair, you don’t disentangle them.”

Belle’s lips straightened into a frustrated line, and before she could speak, Alyssa interrupted, “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. That was mean.”

Belle sighed again, “It’s okay. I know it’s frustrating for you, but it is for me too. I need to think about this for a while, I think a sleep will help. I feel really whacked out. But I always seem to feel a lot better after a sleep.”

Alyssa nodded sadly, even though Belle couldn’t see it, and then said suddenly, “What’s it like, Belle? When you … go in to the mirror?”

“I don’t know if I woudl call it going in to the mirror, it’s more like …” she paused, thinking, “It’s more like they come out to me. Well, the one does. But the one is made up of the many.” she gave a laugh, “that sounds stupid.”

Alyssa was thoughtful, a memory had occurred to her all of a sudden, “No,” she said slowly, “It’s not stupid. I remember that. A face, in the mirror, that was made up of … smaller faces. Not just faces, either, hands and mouths and eyes and people, changing, changing into things. From good things to bad things and sad thing to happy things.”

By this time, Belle was nodding. That was exactly what it was.

“So who are they, Belle? Who are those people? And who is the one?”

Belle raised a hand in a stop sign, “Slow down. One question at a time. The people, the small faces in the mirror, are the worries that the worry dolls hold. Or, more to the point, they are the people who have had the worries. The changes in them are the worries themselves.” Belle shook her head, “That doesn’t make much sense. The idea is that the people who worry, they worry about changes in their normal lives. Like, they worry that someone who is happy is going to suddenly be unhappy, or that the smile they see is a lie, or that they are healthy now, but won’t be very long, or they are sick but instead of getting better, they might die. Does that make sense?”

“Strangely enough, yeah, it does make a kind of sense.”

“The one is … I’m not sure. The one is like a collective consious, maybe, of all the dolls, and all the worries. It’s like a … a guiding force for them, or something.”

When Belle stopped, Alyssa said nothing, she was taking it all in. Eventually, she raised her head, and looked at her sister again, “Why are they in the mirror?”

Belle shrugged, “No idea. Not even an inkling.” she paused, “How about ordering that chinese meal? And waking me up when it gets here?”

Alyssa chuckled, “Okay, but you have to promise to help me clean up after dinner.”

Belle smiled, “Sure. But I want sleep and duck first.”

“You’re on.”

 

 

When Belle woke up, she felt marginally better, although she realised that she what she really needed was a full night’s sleep. She guessed she would get it soon enough. For now, though, the smell of soy sauce and jasmine rice was drifting through the house, and it was making her stomach rumble. She padded out to the kitchen, for once without a trailing dog. He was still asleep on his bed in the corner of the room, snoring softly in his doggy dreams.

 

Alyssa was paying the woman who had made the delivery out of the money that Jamie had left for them under a magnet on the fridge. She thanked Alyssa and left, and Alyssa brought the bag into the dining room. Belle was already assembling plates with chopsticks for Alyssa, and a fork for herself. Behind blind did not make the use of chopsticks easy, so she chose to forgo them in preference of being able to actually eat something. They sat at the table and Alyssa pulled things open, explaining to Belle what they were as she did so. Belle munched on a dim sim as this was happening, and as soon as Alyssa had everything open she dove in. She was starving.

 

When the phone rang, she ignored it. Alyssa got up to answer and Belle continued eating.

 

 

“Hello?”

“Hi Liss, it’s Mum.”

“Oh hey Mum, how’s the holiday?”

“Good! Really good. The weather is lovely, it’s been good to just relax.”

“That’s great, Mum, I’m glad you’re having a good time. So are you coming back tonight?”

“No, that’s partly why I’m calling. We thought we might come back tomorrow night instead. Will you girls be okay?”

“Yeah, we’re fine. We’re just having dinner now.”

“Ah great. What are you having?”

“Belle wanted Mongolian Duck, so I ordered Chinese for her.”

“Excellent. Excellent. So, um, how’s everything been … otherwise?”

“Good Mum. Great. We’ve just been sitting around watching DVDs today. We’ve been relaxing too. The weather’s pretty cold and miserable.”

“Oh I see. Well, that sounds alright. Can you make sure that Belle gets to school alright in the morning?”

“Mum, she’s fifteen. I think she can get herself ready for school, don’t you?”

“Heh, yeah, I guess so. I forget sometimes, how grown up you both are now. Okay, well, behave yourselves, and we’ll see you tomorrow night. Make sure you call me if you need anything.”

“Sure Mum, of course. Enjoy the rest of your holiday. And stop worrying about us.”

“Ha! I’ll never stop worrying about you two. See you tomorrow, Liss. Love you.

“Love you too, Mum. Bye”

“Say love you to Belle, as well, okay?”

“Of course Mum. Bye.”

“Bye”

 

 

“Mum says she loves you” Alyssa reported dutifully.

“Oh right.” Belle muttered through a mouthful of duck, she swallowed and asked, “When are they coming back?”.

“Tomorrow night, she said.”

“Excellent.” Belle said brightly, “I need an excuse to stay home from school tomorrow then, unless I suddenly work out what this thing is about in the next hour or so.”

“Why?” Alyssa asked, frowning.

“Well, I know that Mum’s involved somehow, but I don’t know how. And I want to try and work it out before they get back. I think I’m going to have to approach Mum pretty carefully, whatever I have to talk to her about. She seems just seems so … fragile right now.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Alyssa agreed, thoughtfully, “She sounded as though she wanted to know what had happened with the worry dolls, but like she wasn’t quite brave enough to ask. I didn’t tell her anything,” she hastened to add, “I told her we’d been watching DVDs all day. She did say to make sure you got to school alright in the morning though.”

Belle raised an eyebrow over a mouthful of rice.

“Yeah, I know. I told her you were old enough to get yourself to school these days.”

“Too right.” Belle mumbled indignantly.

 

 

After dinner, they packed the dirty plates into the kitchen sink, but didn’t wash up. Alyssa made Belle promise to do it tomorrow, in return for her not telling their mother about her missing school tomorrow. Belle, all too readily, agreed. Together, they traispsed out to Alyssa’s flat to clean up. Rudolph had woken up in time to join them, and now walked out between the two girls. The had barely stepped outside when Alyssa suddenly stopped. Belle frowned at her, “What is it?” she asked.

Alyssa swallowed, as though she was nervous, “Luke’s here.” she said shortly, nervously.

“Oh good,” Belle said guilelessly, and continued to walk towards the flat, “he can help us clean up the dolls.”

 

 

Belle waited at the door of the flat, Rudolph at her feet, for Alyssa to catch up. Partly, she didn’t want to walk in without someone to tell her where the dolls were on the floor, but mostly, she wanted to hear what happened between Luke and her sister.

 

 

Alyssa waited where she was for Luke to come up to her. She had no idea what she felt in this matter yet. She wasn’t ready for a confrontation, and she wasn’t sure if he was coming bearing an apology or an argument. She tried to steel herself for either. He unfolded his lanky body from the driver’s seat, but kept his eyes down. She tried to work out if the lack of eye contact was from anger or shame, but couldn’t decide. She watched him walk towards her, willing him to lift his eyes, and eventually he did. The hang dog look in them nearly broke her heart.

“Hi.” he said softly as he got closer.

“Hi yourself.” she replied, just as softly.

“How are you?” he asked, out of politemess, but also to put off the words he knew he had to say.

“Good thanks.” she responded, formally, although the flash in her eyes as she said it belied the words the spoke.

“That’s good.” He paused, “I came to say I’m … came to say that I’m sorry.”

Alyssa nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak, and dropped her own eyes from his gaze. Softly, with tears threatening to choke her, she said “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have,” she swallowed, trying to remove the lump from her throat, “I shouldn’t have, yelled at you.”

“You didn’t yell at me. You were yelling at the situation. I’m sorry I took off. I was angry.”

Alyssa shrugged, and Luke caught her shoulders as she did so, and pulled her in to him.

“I love you, Liss.” he mumbled into her hair.

Alyssa let the tears flow, then.

 

 

Alyssa finally broke away from the embrace, scrubbed at her face, and sniffed.

“I have a very messy flat.” she said finally.

Luke laughed, “Yeah, I guess you do.”

“Belle was going to help,” Alyssa looked up at her sister, who was standing at the door to the flat and pretending she wasn’t listening, “But I’m not sure how useful she’ll be. She’s dead tired too, she’s been at the mirror most of the day.”

“I’ll help you,” Luke said, “Maybe she can lie on the futon and tell us about what she’s been seeing.”

“Yeah, maybe. She hasn’t told me much so far, but I’ve been such a bitch to everyone today, I haven’t wanted to press too hard. Mind you, she says she hasn’t worked it all out yet.”

“I say we go clean up, and just let her talk if she wants to talk. Come on.”

Luke took Alyssa’s hand, and led her to the door of the flat. It surprised both of them when the door was opened, and the flat was devoid of a single doll. Even the salad bowl stood empty.

They all tramped into the flat, incredulous, and Belle stretched out on the futon while Alyssa and Luke wandered around looking, unsuccesfully, for stray worry dolls, with dubious help from Rudolph. Eventually, when they had not found a single one, Luke perched near Belle’s feet on the futon, and Alyssa decided to make popcorn. With the smell of butter and salt drifting into the air, and the popping of the kernels in the bag noisy in the otherwise silent room, the three of them avoided each others’ eyes, uncertain how to bring the feeling in the room back to normal. It was only when Alyssa brought the popcorn bowl out of the kitchen, put it between Belle and Luke on the futon, and settled herself on the floor, that the silence was broken, “So, Belle,” Alyssa said, as she stuffed a handful of popcorn into her mouth, “Perhaps we should update Luke on happenings?” It was only then, as Alyssa looked to her sister for her opinion, that they realised she had fallen asleep, mimicking her dog that lay beside her on the floor, also dead to the world. Alyssa and Luke looked at each other and laughed, and eventually decided to pull the floor cushions out from the reading nook, and watch a movie while they waited for her to wake up.

 

 

When Belle did wake up, the movie was coming to an end, and Luke and Alyssa were entwined on the cushions, asleep, their breathing deep, even, and almost perfectly synchronised. Belle had that energised feeling again, and she swung her feet to the floor and stood up all in a rush. She padded over to the toilet and, when she came back in, Luke was sitting up on the floor, Alyssa still asleep beside him, “Hey Belle,” he said softly, to let her know he was awake.

Belle smiled, “Hey Luke,” she parodied.

“Feeling better?”

“Yup.”

“Excellent. Can I, ah, make you a coffee … or something?”

“Yeah, that would be great. Thanks.” she replied. She stepped cautiously past the prone form of her sister on the floor, grabbed the blanket off the futon, and headed out of the front door. When Luke joined her, steaming mugs in hand, she was sitting on the step, wrapped in the blanket, breathing deeply, her face turned up to the night air.

 

 

Luke settled beside her, wrapping his jacket around himself to ward off the chill in the air. There was no moon tonight, the only light that cast from the door behind them, affording him no more than a few metres of vision. He wondered idly, and not for the first time, what it was like in Belle’s world, to not have even this much vision, to be caught in a permanent and unrelenting blackout. He couldn’t imagine it.

“The other night, you said something, and I have been thinking about that.”

Belle said nothing, waiting for him to elaborate. The silence hung between them like a physical thing.

“I … um. You said that when you look in the mirror you can see, and I was wondering what you meant by that.”

Belle remained silent, and only when it appeared that he was being serious, and expecting a serious answer, did she say shortly, “I meant I could see.”

The silence grew. Eventually, Belle decided to elaborate, “I mean, normally I can’t. When I look in the mirror, and talk to the one, I can see. Like, stuff. Whatever. Like you do.”

“I don’t … I don’t understand.” Luke stammered, clearly uncomfortable with this admission.

Belle frowned, “I don’t know how else to explain it, Luke. Are you dense on purpose, or what? Normally, I can’t see anything – nothing at all, just blackness. When I go to the mirror, and I speak to the one, or the one speaks to me, I can see. I can see the room, the mirror, the images in the mirror. I can see the people who are in the room with me. I can see. How else can I explain this?”

“So when you say you can see, you mean you an actually, like, see stuff? I thought you might have meant it, I don’t know, like metaphorically or something. That’s … wow. That’s weird.”

“You’re telling me.” Belle said dryly.

“Who’s the one?” Luke asked abruptly.

“The one? The one in the mirror. The mirror is full of worry dolls, and of the worries they hold. The one is all of them, all at once. The one can explain it, all of it, and the one is the thing that’s going to help me understand it. I think.”

Luke nodded, and the two of them lapsed back into silence.

 

 

Belle and Luke were still sitting in a companiable silence, the coffees now consumed, when the door cracked open behind them and Alyssa peered out, her hair messy and her face rumpled. “Oh, here you both are,” she mumbled in a sleep-riddled voice, “I was wondering what had become of you both.”

Luke stood, and hugged her, kissed the top of her head, and bundled her back into the flat, mumbling something about keeping her warm. Alyssa allowed herself to be taken back inside. After a few minutes, Belle followed them in, saying “What happened to the popcorn?”

“We ate it.” Alyssa pointed out, “Hours ago.”

“Damn. Got any more?”

Alyssa thought briefly before saying, “Yeah, I think there’s another packet in there. I bought a box of them not that long ago.”

Belle went to the kitchenette, started opening cupboards and ratting through them, feeling a packet of microwave popcorn, until Alyssa came in behind her and said impatiently, “You’ll have everything on the floor doing that Belle, here let me look.”

Belle, mission accomplished, went back into the loungeroom and sat down on the futon, legs crossed. She leant over and gave Rudolph, who was still sleeping soundly on the floor, a pat, and he didn’t budge under her hand. She smiled to herself.

“Well,” she said as soon as she heard Alyssa put the popcorn into the microwave, “I think I’ve got the beginnings of an idea.”

Neither Alyssa nor Luke said anything, but she could tell that suddenly, and possibly like never before, she had their full rapt attention, and she gave another smile.

“Yeah, I think I’m starting to understand waht’s going on. But I need to look in the mirror again. This time, Alyssa, I need you to come with me.”

“Ahh, Okay. I guess. Are you going to tell us the plan first?”

“No.” Belle said simply, “I think you’ll understand better if you hear it from the one. Luke, will you join us?”

“Err. I guess so.” he stammered, taken by surprise.

“Great! What you will need to do is wait until Alyssa and I are in, with Rudolph, and then come and hold our hands, and will bring you in with us, but no earlier, okay?”

“Ah, okay. Yeah, I guess I can do that. How will I know when though?”

The microwave beeped, and Belle waited while she listened to Belle tip the hot popcorn into the bowl, her mouth watering at the smell, and then smiled in Luke’s direction, “It’s okay,” she said finally, “You’ll just know.”

 

 

Belle sat cross legged on the futon, the popcorn bowl balanced delicately on her ankles, and shoved handfuls into her mouth as she spoke, “Okay, the thing is this, the one only exists when the dolls – well the worries, the dolls aren’t really there, it’s more the worries – need it to. So it seems as though they’ve needed something for a while, I’m not quite sure what it is, but it’s something important, and they’re getting impatient. I know they’ve been trying to get to Mum, but I think the problem is that Mum can’t – or won’t maybe? – let them talk to her or, whatever it is that they need to do. So they discovered, somehow, I don’t know how, that they could talk to me instead. Or maybe it’s Rudolph. Could be both of us. Anyway, I tried to contact them without Rudolph, but it didn’t work. At first I thought it was because you weren’t there, Alyssa, but that can’t be right, because I’ve done it without you since then. It might have been because Jamie was there … anyway. It doesn’t matter, I guess. The point is that they can contact me and, even though it’s taking a while, gradually I’m starting to get more and more of the story.” she paused in this monologue to feed more popcorn into a mouth, and was still munching as she continued, “So anyway, the one – the worries – have been around for … well, forever, maybe, or a long time, anyway. People let their worries go, I don’t know if the worries are always told to a doll, or if that bit is only the legend, not the fact, but anyway, people let their worries go … into the mirror I guess, into wherever it is that the worries are, that the one is. I think when there’s too many worries, they kind of build up like … like the steam when you boil water in a saucepan with the lid on. So the worries have to go somewhere, and I think they sort of become more … powerful, somehow. I don’t know what’s supposed to happen then, but that’s the point that they’re at now, and, well, something is going to happen. I think we need to find out what. And what the hell we’re supposed to be doing about it. So, I want us all to go to the one, and ask it – her, them, whatever. I can’t have more than one person there when I go in though, other than Rudolph of course, and that has to be you, Alyssa, but I’ll be able to bring Luke in later on, I think. Well, I’ll try, anyway.” Belle pushed another handful of popcorn into her mouth, and realised that Rudolph had woken up at the sound of his name, and was sitting eagerly beside her. It seemed as though he had gotten an energy burst from the sleep as well. “So, anyway, you ready?”

“Ready?” Alyssa echoed stupidly, still trying to take in the wad of information that Belle had just landed on her, “What? Now? You want to go now?”

Belle nodded happily, her mouth full.

“It’s nearly three in the morning, though Belle!” Alyssa exclaimed.

Belle shrugged and smiled slightly, “It’s all the same to me. Why are sighted people so finicky about the time always?” the corner of her mouth curled up with the irony.

“Because light is important to some of us,” Alyssa grumbled, “And so is sleep. Let’s all get another few hours sleep, then we can go exploring behind the mirror. I made you popcorn, the least you could so is let me sleep.” With that, Alyssa shooed Belle over to one side of the bed, and climbed in under the doona herself, “Now stop talking, and leave me alone for a while.”

Belle moved over, affording her sister some room, and Luke curled up on the throw cushions again. Long after both Luke and Alyssa had fallen asleep, Belle and Rudolph lay awake, Rudolph waiting patiently for the humans to wake up, and Belle’s mind racing with thoughts. Eventually, she too dozed.

 

 

When eventually the three of them woke, much to Rudolph’s delight, Alyssa insisted on coffee and breakfast before she went anywhere. Belle and Luke both agreed with the coffee, but convinced Alyssa that they would go out for breakfast to her favourite cafe on the beach, immediately after they had glanced into the mirror. Belle was starting to grow impatient. Over the drinks, Alyssa asked Belle to reiterate exactly how she wanted to run things. There was no doubt that Belle was leading the show now. Belle carefully explained the process she wanted to follow, her enthusiasm tempered somewhat from the night before, and having returned to her normally slightly taciturn self. Rudolph sat at their feet, and paced around the flat by turns. Luke got up and opened the door for him, and the dog headed out and relieved himself, ran around a little in the yard, and then came back in on ly slightly calmer than he had been before. Rudolph knew that this was going to be something big, and he was acting as though he just wanted to get it started, so that they could get it over. Belle was feeling much the same way.

When finally they got Alyssa moving, Belle was impatient to get it done. She could sense that she was getting closer to the real information now, and she was hoping that it was all going to become clear with this final trip behind the mirror. Belle and Rudolph led the way into the house, and through to the dining room – the kicking off point into the bedroom, and the mirror. She stopped, reiterated the instructions to Luke, which consisted of little more than “you’ll just know when”, and grabbed Alyssa’s hand. Alyssa squeezed it, and together they walked into the room.

 

 

Still holding hands, the two sisters stood in front the mirror. Rudolph took up his customary position on Belle’s other side, leaning lightly against her leg. His breathing was rapid, Belle noticed, but then noticed that so was her own. Alyssa seemed calm, but her palm, entwined with Belle’s own, was damp and clammy. Quietly as first, but with growing confidence, they began to chant:

“I had a little dolly

I told it my little worry

But then it went red

And now they’re all dead

I’m so terribly sorry

I had a little …”

The vision came suddenly this time. One moment it was black, and then, like being struck by a bolt of lightning, she could see. Belle blinked, becoming accustomed to the sudden light. She glanced at Alyssa, and noticed that her face had gone slack. Theire hands were still held, and Belle noticed that Alyssa’s – warm and damp before – was suddenly dry and slightly cool. She was just beginning to wonder where Luke was when she saw (saw!) him hovering at the door. She beckoned very slightly with her free hand, and he smiled and walked in. He stood slightly behind them and then, with Belle’s gesture, stepped in between her and her sister. He took each of their wrists gently, and pulled their hands apart, not breaking their link, but stretching it by adding himself in between. Suddenly, Belle’s vision doubled slightly – she was picking up Alyssa’s as well as Luke’s, she realised. She blinked a few more times, and slowly her new found sight came back into focus. Occasionally it would double again, and sometimes even triple as she picked up on Rudolph’s smell-sight, but then it would coalesce into a single image. Before too long, she started to see the faces in the mirror, slowly becoming that by now familiar face – the one.

 

 

Hello Belle, Rudolph. And Alyssa. Who is this?

This is Luke.

Luke. Hello Luke.

Ah, hello. Hi.

Belle, you are to ask for some answers.

Yes, I am.

I know. I have offered you many answers so far, Belle.

Yes, you have. And for that, I thank you. I wish to know more.

You wish to know more. And how much do you know, now?

I know many things. I know who you are, and I know why you are here. I do not know where you are from, or why. I do not know where you go, or why you go, or how you go. I do not know how I can help you.

That is a lot of questions, Belle.

Yes, it is.

We are from – forever. We are here because – always. We go to – eternity. We go for – life. We go as we always go – with the mirror. You can help us – by moving the mirror to the next host.

Your answers make little sense to me. Where do you want the mirror moved to?

You can not move the mirror.

But I … I don’t understand.

No. You don’t. But you will.

Help me to understand.

Only you can help you to understand, Belle.

Yes, as you have told me before.

As I have told you before. Very good.

Thank you.

Farewell, Belle.

Farewell.

 

 

Together, all four of them – the three humans and the one canine – blinked, and foudn themselves back in the reality of the bedroom. Belle’s new ofund sight blinked back into darkness, and normality was restored yet again. They had all heard the one speak, the strange conversation that had taken place between it (they) and Belle. Alyssa and Luke felt just as confused as they had been before. Belle however was ecstatic, “The one has never spoken that clearly before, wow! I think we should write this down. I need my laptop. Hold on.” with that, Belle took off at a trot to retrieve her computer from the bedroom. When she returned, she handed the laptop to her sister and said, “You type, Liss. You’re faster.” and they settled at the kitchen table.

 

 

When they had the conversation – as best as they could remember – written down, Alyssa had the text to speech program read it back to them. The computerised voice made the words lose their magic, and they just became confusing, seemingly understandable.

“”You can help us by moving the mirror to the next host.”” Belle quoted aloud, “At first I thought the one meant moving the mirror to somewhere else in the house or something. But now I’m wondering about the word “host”. What does “host” mean?”

Alyysa, thinking out loud, said, “A host might be the person who holds a party, it could be something a parasite is on – a dog or a person or something like that. I guess it’s, well, it’s someone that provides something to someone else. A party, a meal, a habitat.”

“A parasite …” Belle echoed, lost in thought.

“Do you think the … the one … needs a host?” Luke said thoughtfully, “Maybe the one needs … something. Like a parasite, or a party guest, they need whatever it is the host can give to them.”

“Yeah,” Belle echoed, “If the one – the worries – are a parasite, they need something from us. We already know that, I guess. So we’re the host. They need a new host.”

“We need to give the mirror to someone else.” Alyssa said triumphantly.

“Yeah.” Luke agreed.

“But who?” Belle asked, “And if we can’t move it, who can?”

 

 

Alyssa connected Belle’s computer to the printer, and printed off the conversation. Belle harnessed Rudolph and, with the piece of paper in hand, they wandered down to the cafe for breakfast. It was still early in the morning, and being a Monday there were few patrons in the cafe. They were shown a seat near the big glass doors that overlooked the deck. They were glad to be inside in the warmth, as they watched the wind whip up frothy white tops on the breakers coming in to the beach. Winter had arrived. They ordered, and the food arrived quickly. Over eggs benedict, pancakes and strong, aromatic coffee they laid out the now crumpled piece of paper, and tried to derive more meaning out of it. The only conclusions they reached were pure speculation, though, and by the time Belle slopped maple syrup onto the paper, obliterating much of the type, they knew it off by heart, but still understood virtually nothing.

 

 

When they got home, all three decided to have a snooze. Rudolph crept into his bed in the corner of Belle’s room, and Alyssa and Luke retired to the flat. When Belle awoke, it was still only 10 o’clock in the morning, and she decided to go back in, with Rudolph only. She shook him awake.

 

 

Alyssa and Luke made love, and afterwards, fell asleep in each other’s arms. Some time later, they woke up together, and made love again. Alyssa felt relieved that they had gotten through their first argument, and made it to the other side.

 

 

When Alyssa and Luke finally emerged from the flat, freshly showered and inseperable, they were surprised to find Belle still in bed, Rudolph curled up in his bed beside her. Alyssa wondered if they should try and wake her, they were running out of time before Mandy and Jamie arrived back. Luke suggested timidly that maybe they should attempt to contact the one on their own and Alyssa, whose memory was still fresh of what happened last time se had tried to take charge, glared at him, “No way. I’m not trying that again.”

 

They were discussing dinner options, assuming that Mandy adn Jamie would be back late, and Belle would be starving, when Belle suddenly bounced into the room, Rudolph at her heels. Alyssa jumped, then smiled, “Hey, Sis”

“Hello, hello!” Belle fairly bubbled, and trotted into the kitchen. Alyssa could hear her scrabbling in the fridge for drinks, and called out, “Do you need a hand?”

“Nope.” Belle replied, her voice muffled byt the fridge, “I’m all good.”

Shortly after, Belle emerged with a glass of coke and a ham and cheese sandwich. Rudolph was licking his lips, and Alyssa suspected he had been slipped bits of ham as well. He’s been working hsard too though, she thought, and guessed that he, at least on some level, deserved it.

“I’m starving,” Belle said, her mouth half full of bread.

“Yeah, thought you might be. We were thinking that we might order pizza for dinner.”

Belle made a face, “Nah, let’s cook. There’s stuff in the fridge isn’t there?”

Alyssa frowned, “No, if you’re cooking, you’ll need my help, and I couldn’t be bothered. Besides, don’t you want to go and look in the mirror again?”

“Nope.” Belle said brightly, “Well, maybe once more, but I need to take Mum.”

Alyssa looked incredulous, but before she could speak, Belle went on, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got it sussed. Come on, help me cook some spaghetti bolognaise, and while we’re doing it, I’ll tell all.”

 

 

Alyssa agreed, but Belle danced and darted about the issue as they cooked, instead managing to distract her with jokes and stupid stories. Luke hung around in the background, trying not to get in the way, and laughed along with them.

 

 

When dinner had been cooked and served, and they had all eaten plenty – Belle had three plates full, and even Rudolph got a small amount of mince on top of his regular dog food – they sat around the table, still avoiding the issue. Alyssa was expecting that the door would open at any minute. She wondered if Belle was delaying the issue, waiting for them to get home, or just though reluctance. Eventually, she asked the question out loud.

Belle shrugged in response, “It’s still unformed, I guess. But I guess I can tell you most of it.”

Alyssa waited for her to go on and, when she didn’t, she prompted her, “Well, go on then,”

Belle was silent for a few minutes longer, gathering her thoughts, that were stringing out like beads on a broken necklace, trying to gather the neckace up without losing all the beads, and find the ones that had slipped away. Eventually, she took a breath, and began, “Well, the worries have existed since, well, forever. Like the one said.”

Alyssa nodded, remembering “We are from forever. We go to eternity.” she said softly.

Belle smiled, “Yeah, “we are from forever”. They have existed forever, since before some villagers in Guatemala created worry dolls from scraps of cloth and little twigs. The worry dolls just gave them form. A form that people would understand, and could use. But the point is that worries have always existed, and they always will. Humans, no matter how advanced they are, will always have things to worry about. They might be worrying about the wheel falling off the buggy, or a horse going lame, or they could be worrying about their laptop being stolen, or someone getting promoted ahead of them at work. Maybe one day those worries will be running out of rocket fuel in the space ship, or some other astronaut forgotting to put the seat down up in the space station central. You get the idea, anyway.” Belle paused, “Does anyone else want ice-cream?”

“Belle!” Alyssa cried, indignant.

“It’s okay,” Belle said, rising, “just let me get ice cream, I’ll come back. You want some?” she asked, already in the kitchen.

Belle came back with a bowl piled high with vanilla ice cream, a generous crown of chocolate sauce, and a topping of coloured hundreds and thousands. A spoonful had already been dug out of the side of the dessert, and Belle held a smeared spoon in her other hand. She plonked herself down in the seat opposite Alyssa, and repeated, “You sure you don’t want some? It’s good.”

“I’m fine.” Alyssa said.

“Well, okay. As long as you say so. I don’t mind making more, if you want.”

“It’s fine,” Alyssa said again, “Now get back to the story. Please?”

“Hmm. Okay. Where was I?” Belle paused, “Oh right. Well, the worries – with or without the dolls – have been around forever,”

“I think we got that bit.” Alyssa pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess so. Well, the point is that the worries have been gathering for a long time. Just building up and building up. People have been releasing worries since time began, and they all end up in the same place – behind the mirror. I guess what happens then is like a … distilling process … of sorts.”

Alysa frowned, “This sounds pretty far out there to me,” she said dubiously.

“What? And the idea of a bunch of worries collecting behind a mirror and having a chat to you every so often doesn’t? Wait for it Alyssa, let me explain.”

“Okay, go on.”

“Right, well, the worries collect up into a big bunch, and then – somehow, I’m not sure how – they distill them down into something that’s not so much a worry as a … well, a mild annoyance, I guess. Then these are sent out again and – this is where it gets kind of interesting, Liss – they get sent back to the other side of the mirror, our side of the mirror.”

“And what then? We all just wander around, bumping into mild annoyances? This is crazy, Belle. I mean, the whole thing is crazy, but this is so far out there, it’s just … no, this doesn’t make sense. Sorry, Belle, but I just can’t believe that.”

At that moment, Rudolph’s head perked up under the table, and he gave a little bark. Belle heard it next, a car pulling into the driveway. Soon, ALyssa and Luke heard doors slamming, and voices drifting in from the dark. Mandy and Jamie were home.

 

 

Mandy fairly floated into the house, her face tanned and her hair free. She graced everyone, uncluding Rudolph a radiant smile, and then went into the bedroom to set down the overnight bag she was carrying. Jamie followed her, looking relaxed and happy, despite his pink sunburnt ears, and carrying the rest of the gear. He said a cheery hello to everyone, and shook Luke’s hand. When the bags were dropped, and Mandy and Jamie had made it back into the dining room, they both dropped into chairs with visible relief after the hours of driving. Belle offered ice cream, but no one took her up on the offer. Alyssa didn’t bother asking, she just went and put the kettle on. By the time she arrived back in the dining room, with mugs for everyone, Mandy had already launched into an excited account of everythignt hat had happened on the trip.

 

 

When the story ahd been told, and the coffee drunk, and Mandy had promised – again – that she would upload the photos to the computer tomorrow for them, Jamie asked what they ahd been up to while they were away. Alyysa glanced at Belle and watched in shock as Belle said, “Well, it’s funny you should ask, actually,”

Mandy raised an eyebrow, and then followed it with a hand, palm out in a stop sign, “If this is about worry dolls, I’m not interested right now.”

“Mum …” Belle said ominously.

“Well, I’m just not. I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow if it’s that important. But not right now.”

Belle knew better than to push Mandy once she got that tone of voice on, so she dropped the subject. Alyssa felt relieved, even though she knew it was ony postponing the inevitable.

“Well, I should get home, I guess. My goldfish haven’t been fed all weekend.” Luke pushed out his chair, and stood to go. He gave Alyssa a chaste kiss on the cheek, and rech over to shake Jamie’s hand again, “Welcome back, I’m glad you had a good time.” he said politely, and with that, he was gone. Moments later, the sound of his car starting drifted to them and then even that was gone. Alyssa frowned.

“Did he just say that he had to feed his goldfish?” Belle pointed out disengenously.

“Yeah, I believe he did.” Alyssa mumbled. “He doesn’t even own any goldfish.”

 

 

Mandy and Jamie made their excuses and ambled off to bed shortly after Luke’s suspicious exit, and Belle and Alyssa tackled the mountain of washing up that had been left all weekend. Alyssa washed, and Belle dried. Alyssa took the opportunity to pick up from where she had left off when Mandy and Jamie arrived home.

“HOw have you come with this idea, then, Belle?” she asked.

“What idea?”

“The idea that these worries are … what was the word you used? Distilled. The worries are distilled into what was it?”

“Minor annoyances.”

“Yeah, minor annoyances. Where’d this idea come from?”

Belle shrugged, “Same place they all come from. What I get from the one is more than just the conversation. When I work out a little bit of the puzzle, like the hosts, then I can understand a little bit more – like the distilling.”

Alyssa paused with her hands dangling in the sink, soap dripping from her fingertips, “Okay, so, presuming that I believe that these worries get distilled into …”

“Minor annoyances.” Belle interjected.

“… get distilled into minor annoyances, what happens to them then?”

“Well,” Belle started slowly, “that’s where the host comes in. They get pushed back out to the host.”

“But I thought that the host was where the worries were coming from.”

“Ah, no, you’re wrong there. The worries come from everywhere, all around, all the time, everyone, everwhere. They’re constant. That’s why I said distilled, because they don’t just reduce in emotion, they reduce in size, in quantity, as well.”

“Okay, so these distilled worries get pushed back out the host. Is that all the host is good for?”

“Pretty much. You see, the one can’t process the emotional energy that comes from the worries. The worries themselves stay, sort of like creatures of some sort, the idea of them never really leaves. But the emotional energy gets drawn out of them, and sent back out to the host. The host can process that energy, and send it back out into the world.” Belle paused and thought for a second before adding,”Kind of like trees and photo … what is it?”

“Photosynthesis.” Alyssa said vaguely, she was still trying to work through the idea of distilling.

“Photosynthesis, yeah. The way the trees go through that process, and release oxygen back into the air, that’s kind of like the worries. Because the worries – and the one – can’t handle all that emotional energy, they put it back out into the world, to be recycled.”

“Hmmmm. Well it makes a certain amount of sense,” Alussa grudgingly admitted, “I still think it’s pretty far fetched though. And what has it got to do with us anyway?”

“I don’t think it’s us,” Belle said, her voice low, “I think it’s Mum. I think she’s the host.”

 

 

“The host of what?” a voice send behind them. Alyssa dropped the plate she was washing back into the water, and a tidal wave of grotty washing up water slopped over the front of her t shirt, “Mum!” she said in surprise.

“Yeah, Mum,” Mandy said dryly. She walked the rest of the way into the kitchen and pressed the button on the kettle. The silence that had descended was suddenly filled by the sound of the water heating in the jug. Mandy reached up to get a mug, and then dropped a teabag into it. “So, are you going to tell me what I’m hosting, then, or not?”

“I, uh …” stammered Alyssa, “We were … ummm. Belle?”

“We were talking about the worry dolls.” Belle said in her usual blunt fashion.

“Oh my, not the worry dolls again.” Mandy sighed, “I went on holidays to try and get away from this, and I found it’s all you two have been thinking about all weekend. Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

“Mum,” Belle interjected, “I think you need to listen to this though …”

“No.” Mandy interupted, “No, I don’t need to listen to you, you two need to listen to me for a …”

“Mum!” Belle yelled suddenly, “Mum. This is important. We can make the dolls go away. Do you hear me? We can make them go away. But we can’t do it without you, so you need to listen to us.” she dropped her voice again, “You need to trust us, and stop trying to run away from this situation.”

Mandy, taken by surprise, dropped her voice slightly too, but hers was menacing, not conforting, “Belle, Alyssa, I love you both, but we need to stop talking about this. It’s going to send me around the twist. It very nearly has already. Jamie and I were talking about it …”

“It won’t go away on it’s own, Mum, it’ll keep getting worse.” Belle said queitly.

“Belle’s right, Mum. It’s not going to get better. I’ve seen the dolls, I’ve seen what they do to Belle, and I’ve seen what tey do to you. But I’ve been beyond the mirror too, and I know that we can make it go away. But you need to listen to Belle. She has the answers, and she can make it happen.”

Mandy got the look of wildlife caught in headlights, and suddenly her defences dropped. Her shoulders sagged, and the lines around her eyes reappeared underneath her fresh tan, “Okay.” she said finally, “I’m going to make a cup of tea, and then we’re going to sit down at the table. You will both then have an hour to make me believe that what you’re saying is true. Am I understood?”

Both girls nodded mutely, and both wondered how they were ever going to convince their mother that what they said was true, they hardly believed it themselves.

Belle started at the beginning, telling how the worries out lived the dolls, and finished at the place where they had been when they were talking in the kitchen. “Basically,” she said, “Well, at least as far as I can tell, anyway, the worries sort of build up behind the mirror. They need to recycle the emotional energy, they can’t store it, so they distill it down. That way it’s not so … potent, I guess. Gradually, the emotional energy builds up and the host – that’s you, Mum, as far as I can tell – starts to feel a bit, well, I’m not sure. I would guess that stuff would start to happen to you that was a bit odd, and you would start to feel like you would want to move the mirror. Ideally, the mirror would be moved out of the house – given to someone else, or maybe even turned into some other kind of furniture, I don’t know. But whatever it is that keeps the worries in – for us it’s a mirror, but I guess it changes over the years – eventually ends up with someone else, and that person becomes the host instead. So to fix the problem, we need to give the dressing table away. I think.”

There was silence. The sudden quiet spun out like a thread of gossamer … stretching and stretching until Belle became convinced that if someone didn’t break it soon, she was going to have to break it herself, just to get rid of the tension out of the room.

Finally, words dropping like stones in the thick atmosphere of the room, Mandy stated “So you are both trying to tell me that I am a … some kind of a conduit for emotional energy?”

Her eyebrow was arched, and her voice doubting.

Belle nodded earnestly. Alyssa took a sudden interest in her fingernails, thinking that the next thing out of her mother’s mouth would be an hysterical laugh.

 

The gossamer thread of silence started to spin out again, until Belle took a deep breath and said softly, “How much time do we have left?”

 

Mandy checked the clock, “About fifteen minutes.” she said archly, implying that there was no way that the girls could achieve this. Alyssa was thinking the same thing.

 

“Okay.” Belle said suddenly, assertively, “Come with me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

By unspoken agreement, this time Alyssa waited out in the dining room, and Belle took their mother by the hand, and led her in to the nedroom. She called for Rudolph as they went, and in less than a minute he trotted into the room, and went straight to Belle’s side. In the bedroom, Jamie who was reading in bed, looked up at the sudden intrusion. He shot an unspoken question at Mandy and she returned it with a loaded look.

 

“Sorry Jamie,” Belle said, “But I’m going to have to ask you to leave the room for a little while. There’s something I need to show Mum.” She paused, and when Jamie didn’t move in the bed, she added, “If you go out and wait in the dining room, Alyssa will let you know when you can come back in.”

 

Jamie gave Mandy another glance, this one resigned, and moved to get out of bed. He slipped his feet into the slippers on the floor and, his finger still marking his place in the paperback he held, he padded reluctantly out to the dining room.

 

Belle turned around so that she was facing the mirror, and held out her left hand for her mother’s. When she held it firmly in her own, she used her right hand to give a gentle low on her right leg, and Rudolph moved in closer. His breathing was calm, her mother’s was not.

 

She started slowly, softly. Gently murmering the words under her breath. She was surprised when her mother suddenly joined in,

 

“Then it went red

 

And now they’re all dead

 

I’m so terribly sorry

 

I had a little dolly

 

I told it my …”

 

 

 

And then they were in. Alyssa and Jamie slipped into the room behind them, and Alyssa demonstrated how to join the group. Once Alyssa was in, Jamie joined them like a filament, and shortly afterwards there was a bright flash of light. Belle’s sight doubled, tripled, quadrupled, before she could bring it under her own control, before she could focus on the one. Yet again she saw the faces of the worries int he mirror, grinning and crying, laughing and screaming. Yet again those faces gradually coalesced into one big face. The one. They were back behind the mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belle, Rudolph. Alyssa, Jamie. By what name does the host go by?

 

Uh. Um. I’m Mandy.

 

Mandy, then. Hello Host.

 

Ah … hello. Who … who is this?

 

Well, I should think you already know, Host – Mandy.

 

I … I am afraid I don’t. Why do you call me Host?

 

Because that is who you are. You are the host. We have been trying to reach you for a long time now. You are stubborn. And difficult. And blind.

 

I am not blind.

 

Oh, but you are.

 

No, it’s Belle who is …

 

Hush! Belle has more vision than the rest of you put together. She sees more, and she understands more. You, host, are the blind one.

 

I don’t understand, what do you mean?

 

Stop asking questions. It is not your place to ask questions. If you listened more, and watched more, then you wouldn’t need to ask questions. I no longer answer questions. I have answered enough. Now is the time for action, not words. Host – Mandy – I shall put this simply so that you understand it. You are to move the mirror to a new host. Immediately. Do you understand?

 

I … no, I don’t understand, what do you mean by move the mirror?

 

We need to move on. You must … who is this?

 

Ahh … it’s Luke. Remember me?

 

Who invited you here?

 

I, uh, I wanted to come back, to apologise. I ran off before, but I wanted to come back. To help.

 

The help of people who run away is not wanted. Now leave!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Belle woke up, she felt as though she had ben punched in the face – her head throbbed and her eyes felt like they were too large for their sockets. When she tried to sit up, a bolt of pain shot from both her temples into a spot just behind the centre of her forhead. She dropped back onto the bed and pulled the blankets over her head. Before long she was asleep again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alyssa spent most of the week trying to call Luke. His car was in their driveway, with the keys in the ignition, and after a few days she and Jamie took it back around to Luke’s little flat. No one answered the door, and so they left it in the empty carport. They slipped the ignition key under the locked front door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mandy went to bed, and stayed there. Every so often, she got up long enough to go to the bottle shop and smuggle a litre bottle of vodka back into the house. She stashed it in the dressing table drawer, and tried not to notice the worry dolls, still pristine in their little snap lock bag, and looking like nothing more menacing than what they were – some little bits of twig with scraps of cloth wrapped around them. Depending on how much of the vodka she had sneaked direct from the bottle before she got it into the drawer, they sometimes spoke to her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jamie went back to work, and tried to bury himself in his job. He had always loved his profession, and he started to recapture some of the joys of general practise again. He found himself working longer and longer hours, to avoid having to face Mandy, and after a few months, he began to contemplate moving out of the house they shared. There was a block of duplexes across the street from the surgery, and one had just come up for rent. He told himself – and the two girls – that it was so he didn’t have to travel so far on the nights he worked late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belle woke for only minutes at a time, and in agony, for the best part of two weeks. Alyssa and Jamie brought her meals, and eventually she managed, with help, to get out of bed and start moving around again. She went back to school, but started spending more time with her sister in her flat. When she went for an annual checkup, the opthamologist found that she had gained about five percent sight, after living fifteen years with none at all. He called it a medical miracle, and he wrote a paper that was published in the Lancet medical journal. A reporter from the local newspaper came out and took Belle’s photograph, but few people outside of the medical establishment recognised the significance of the event. Five percent sight, after all, is still very much blind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was about a month later when Belle found herself in the house alone. Her mother had disappeared on some errand, of what variety Belle didn’t want to know, although she could guess. Her mother was more or less a non entity in her life now. Belle sneaked into her mother’s bedroom and, wrinkling her nose against the smell of the unwashed bed linen and stale alcohol, she stared into the mirror – seeing now a hazy outline instead of the blackness she saw last time she was here. She called Rudolph to her side, and started to mumble the little rhyme under her breath, but discovered that she couldn’t quite remember the words. There was no energy in here any more. The worries, the dolls, and the one – if they had ever existed – were gone now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alyssa eventually stopped trying to call Luke, and when months later she had a phone call from the police, she told them the truth. She had last heard from him on the night when Mandy and Jamie had returned from their weekend away. He had seemed nervous, and had made an excuse and left. She decided to leave out the part where he had shown up in a collective hallucination about worry dolls living in a mirror. She definitely didn’t mention the scorched bit of carpet that now existed in her mother’s bedroom, right in front of the dressing table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Belle found her mother lying unconsious in bed one afternoon after school, she didn’t immediately think much of it. It was only when she tried to wake her up a bit to have something to eat, as she did once a week or so, that she realised that she seemed even more unconscious than normal. She didn’t respond at all, even to vigorous shaking, and Belle started to panic. She grabbed the cordless phone from the bedside table, and had begun to dial emergency services before she realised it was flat. She ran out to the kitchen, to the wall phone, and called triple zero. She had to put the phone down every so often to check on her mother as the emergency services operator asked her to do different things. At one point she left the operator waiting while she dashed outside to find Alyssa. Rudolph spent the whole time beside Mandy’s bed, ocassionaly licking the hand that had drifted out from under the cupboards. Once Alyssa was inside, she took over in the bedroom, and the two commenced a shouted conversation, as the emergency services operator suggested different things to do. By the time the ambulance arrived, Mandy’s heartbeat had dropped to dangerously low levels. By the time they got her to the emergency room she was dead. Some time later that night, sitting at the dining table with Belle, both of them in shock but not really shocked, Alyssa realised that she should have called Jamie hours ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The funeral was a dismal affair. Belle and Alyssa both cried in the front row, although a distant aunt later mentioned that she didn’t think they had cried quite enough for her liking. The two girls distanced themselves from the relatives as much as possible. They knew that Mandy had never been close to her family, and they were beginning to understand why. The wake was held at the funeral, and they both agreed after five minutes to leave the others to their moaning. They escaped to a nearby McDonald’s, and spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the complicated relationship they had developed with their mother in the past year. They did not mention the mirror, or what had happened beyond it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alyssa became Belle’s legal guardian, to avoid Family Services having to track down their long absent father, and the two of them settled back into a semblance of normal life. They both missed a lot of school for a while, and Alyssa eventually took a year’s leave of absence so she could work to support them both. She started work as a chemist’s assistant, and shortly after she got her first paycheck, the two of them met up with Jamie to discuss a settlement. He was surprisingly generous, given that he had no financial obloigation to his girlfriend’s children, and offered to give them the house they lived in. Not long after that they heard that he was going out with someone he had met at the surgery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belle took on a part time job after school, but was determined to make it through to the end of year twelve. She did, and then found a job as a teacher’s assistant at a local preschool. She found the children incredibly stimulating, and enjoyed watching them learn and grow. In her spare time, she started writing picture books, and eventually was offered a publishing contract. The advance was enough to enable her to go to university, and she studied part time for her teacher’s certifcate. She continued to write, and continued to help out at the school when her timetable allowed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alyssa and Belle, over the years, gradually changed the house to reflect their own personalities. Alyssa moved back into the house proper, and converted the granny flat into a dual purpose room. One half contained a basic lab for her, and she resumed her studies. The other half was a writer’s den for Belle, where she laid out the pages of her books, and met her illustrator. In the house, Alyssa claimed the spare bedroom for herself, and the main bedroom, despite having the ensuite, was made into a spare room. They gave the dressing table away to a second hand furniture store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

 

 

Richard and Deanne had just moved in together. They had been going out for just over a year and, after an anniversary dinner at a fancy restaurant, Deanne had nearly choked on an engagement ring hidden in her glass of champagne. They had held a backyard engagement party at Deanne’s parents place and asked for money in lieu of gifts. The money had then been used with their individual savings to out down a deposit on a two bedroom unit in a nice suburb. It wasn’t fancy, but it would suit them for now. Richard was a real estate agent, and he had decided that the area would only improve in value. After a couple of years, he told Deanne, we’ll sell the unit and be able to upgrade to something bigger and a bit nicer. Maybe something with a backyard, because maybe by then they would be considering a child or two.

 

 

 

The unit was partly furnished, which suited them well. They moved in and had a big house warming party with all of their friends a few weeks later. The party was a big success, although Deanne drank a little too much punch, and ended up passing out on the loungeroom floor shortly after the last of the guests had gone home. They had both laughed about it afterwards, and Richard teased her about it for a few weeks until the incident was forgotten.

 

 

 

Life continued on for some time, and Deanne found herself wrapped up in wedding plans. It consumed most of her spare time, and Richard was working as hard as could to earn the extra commission. The comission money got put into a wedding fund, and their parents both contributed to the fund to ensure they had a good honeymoon that they would never forget.

 

 

 

It was when they returned from a week in the Maldives, that things started to go a little strange. They dropped three wine glasses in two days, and not long after that the toaster died. Shortly after that, the toilet backed up. Then one day Richard went to the washing machine to hang the clean clothes out, and water had flooded the laundry.

 

Richard burned himself quite badly retrieving a lamb roast from the oven. It required a visit to the emergency room for a dressing, and it left a scar on his left arm, but the burn wasn’t as bad as they had at first feared, and they were told that the scarring would fade well, and be almost unnoticeable in less than five years.

 

 

 

Not long after that, they were both involved in a car accident when another can a red light in front of them, and barrelled into the passenger side. If they had been a mere metre further back, the car would have plowed into the place where Deanne had been sitting, and she would have been badly injured, or more likely killed. They considered themselves lucky, and Richard jokingly bought a lottery ticket to see if the adage held true. They didn’t win the jackpot, but did manage to win back the price of the ticket. They laughed about it with their friends at a dinner party the following week.

 

 

 

Around about the same time, Richard was vacuuming in the bedroom when the vacuum cleaner sudndenly clogged up. He switched it off, and pulled apart the wand and hose to find the blockage. After some shaking, and the production of a lot of dust that, he realised grimly, would need to be vacuumed up yet again, he discovered a clutch of little dolls in the vacuum head. He tipped them out, wondering where they had come from, and sat them on the nearest piece of furniture. He put the vacuum cleaner back together and continued vacuuming, managing to whack his shins on the dressing table as he did so. It bruised quite badly, and he called himself a klutz for having done it.

 

 

 

Deanne unexpectedly fell pregnant, and all of a sudden the dressing table seemed to be jumping out at her all the time. She was constantly running into it, just like Richard had earlier, and her shins were a colection of colourful marks from her encounters with it. She put it down to the awkwardness that came with her expanding belly – the pregnancy books never seem to mention these things – and Richard and a friend were eventually convinved to move the offending piece of furniture. They had very little space in the tiny flat, so instead of re arranging everything, the dressing table was moved out into the garage.

 

 

 

The impending arrival was enough to spur Richard to start keeping an eye out for new a place to live. They put the little flat on the market, and spent the next three months in a flurry of manic house cleaning, open homes and strangers tramping through their house. Because of the conflict of interest, a colleague of Richard’s represented them and it wasn’t too long before he had found a buyer. With the flat sold, they began the whirlwind process of house inspections and open homes. They scoured the real estate pages of the paper, and Richard’s colleagues kept their noses to the ground, trying to find something suitable for them. It was the week before the contract on the flat was going to settle, and they finally found a new, bigger house that was much closer to the beach. They made an offer, the offer was accepted, and it was only three weeks before they moved in.

 

 

 

Moving day was a disaster. The removalists showed up late, got lost on the way to the new house, and then dropped a box on the way in between the old kitchen and the removal truck. It was the box containing the crockery that Deanne’s mother had given her for their wedding. It had been her grandmother’s, and now about a third of the pieces was smashed. When Richard came into the kitchen in the new house to check on the progress of the unpacking, he found Deanne – now eight months pregnant – sitting on the floor surrounded by crumpled newspaper and broken pieces of vintage china, crying like a child. He sat on the floor and comforted her, and shortly afterwards went outside to argue with the removalists.

 

 

 

With all the problems they faced with the removalists, it was nearly a month before Deanne remembered the dressing table that had been languishing out in the garage at the flat. She wondered briefly what had become of that, and then thought that it was no great loss. Hopefully the new owners would find some use for it.

——————————————————————————–

Well, it’s over for another year. It all got a bit hairy there after falling sick at the beginning of the month, but a big push last weekend and a lot of late nights saw me cross the finish line a couple of days early. Which is just as well, really, since this weekend is the Great Weekend of Much Dancing Madness (more on that later).

 

How do I feel about the novel? Right now, reasonably ambivalent. I don’t think it’s as good as last year’s effort (Stopping All Stations), but with a little bit of editing it might yet be an enjoyable read.

 

For those of you who have been reading along, thank you for your support. As much as I write this stuff for my own enjoyment, it’s gratifying to know that there are people out there who are (hopefully) enjoying it also. For those of you who haven’t read any of it yet – don’t. Wait until I’ve given it a bit of a scrub and a polish, and that way you won’t have to sidestep the typos and mind those plot holes.

 

 

Don’t forget to check back next November for more NaNo madness, but in the mean time it’s back to your regularly scheduled programming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share


Stopping All Stations

??Prologue

A figure shimmered slightly in the fog, and eventually coalesced into the shape of a man – a darker shadow in the pre-dawn dark. He was traipsing through the dense early morning fog, the night darker now than it had been when he set out. The moon had sunk below the horizon and the sun was yet to show its face. It had been a long walk from Redton station and he was unaccustomed to extended periods of exercise – the breath misting in front of his mouth and nose came quickly – but he had been reluctant to take the train for fear of being noticed and remembered. The figure approached the house slowly but eventually, feet crunching loudly in the silence, he arrived at the side gate. He slipped a practised hand through the hole in the worn boards and flicked the catch, releasing the gate to swing inwards, scraping along the loose gravel. The gate hadn’t been used in a while and the figure had to push hard to exert his will against it. There was no dog, and the man entered the backyard unchallenged. He stepped through, pushed the protesting gate back home, the catch sliding closed of its own accord, and walked around to the back door. There was a covered porch area at the back of the house and to the side of the pavers lay a garden hose. The hose lay in a messy coil below the tap, still affixed at one end. The man groped in the darkness, stumbling slightly on a loop of hose and, using his hands as his only form of sight, removed the hose from the tap by pulling sharply on the plastic connecting piece. He dropped the hose end and ran the tap, the water whistling through the pipe and spurting out in a gush, splattering his shoes. He paid the mess no mind, and quickly rinsed his hands under the cold water. He pushed both his hands in the water, up to the elbow, and gave them each a soapless wash with the opposite hand. He then raised his wet hands to his face and accorded it the same treatment. The cold water was a shock to his warm face, sweaty from the exertion, but it felt good to be clean.

 

The man twisted the tap and shut off the flow of water, shook his arms to remove the excess, and squelched in his wet runners over to the back door. He took off his shoes and socks and, realising as he did so that his tracksuit pants were drenched almost to the knees, slipped them off too. Standing in his boxers and a grotty tee shirt, he reached out to the screen door and tried the handle. Smiling as it slid open easily and revealed the darkened laundry, he stepped into the house, dumped the dirty and wet clothes into the laundry tub, and padded quietly into the main bedroom.

Sunday Afternoon

Elouise

 

Elouise lay in bliss on the sun-drenched balcony, sunk down on her chair with her feet up on the railing and her eyes half closed with sleep and sun. She had a book out – a Marian Keyes – but she wasn’t reading it. The book lay open flat across her chest, face down. From this perspective, all she could she of the cover was a gaudy red cartoon-smile watermelon. Elouise wasn’t thinking about her book, she wasn’t thinking about the lovely sun-drenched summer day, she wasn’t even thinking about the barbeque dinner she had planned for that evening with some old friends. Like a love struck teenager, Elouise was thinking about the man in her life. Zach set her heart fluttering – even after all this time. He was tall, much taller than Elouise, with a solid build. The kind of guy who simply emanated strength, support and confidence – a typical Mills and Boon hero. That was where the similarity to a romance novel ended, though. While the masculine heroes in those novels were either outdoor working men or polished, educated doctors, Zach was an artist. Mostly, he painted oil on canvas, and Elouise had never confessed that his paintings made little sense to her. But also he was a poet and an astonishingly good songwriter. Zach had written her countless little poems over the years they been spent together – pressing handwritten little snippets of paper into her hand as she boarded the train. She had lost her mp3 player for an entire week once, had been just about to give in and buy another when Zach presented it to her one morning – completely filled with songs he had written and recorded just for her.

 

As she trawled through these glamorous, rosy memories of the moments she and Zach had spent together, Elouise smiled and reached out lazily for a drink. The ice cubes rattled in the bottom of the glass as she picked it up and as she brought it to her lips she realised that the only liquid left in the bottom was melted ice. With a regretful sigh, she left her memories on the balcony without her for a moment, put the book down on the boards beneath her chair, and rose to refill her glass.

 

Elouise would have described herself as ‘average’, were you to ask her, and were she to answer frankly. From an outside perspective though, she was disarmingly attractive. Slightly overweight, although only Elouise noticed, she was 36 with dark, slightly curly mid-length hair and olive features. She stood slightly taller than a lot of women and it was this height that allowed her to carry the extra weight – with it, she simply looked healthy and curvy, without it she would look under-nourished.

 

The kitchen seemed very dull and cold after the bright sun and warmth of the balcony. She automatically reached out for the light switch, before realising that her eyes would adjust soon enough and pulling her hand away. She went to the fridge, found the orange juice and poured another drink on top of the half-used ice cubes in her glass. She found fresh ice cubes and topped it up and while she was putting the tray away in the freezer her eyes found the vodka bottle she kept stashed there. She briefly considered adding a splash to the glass, but then decided to hold out until her guests arrived for dinner. She didn’t want to be half drunk before they even got there, and she knew that as soon as she had one, there would be no more plain orange juice for her. She picked up the refreshed glass in one hand and headed back out to the balcony to pick up her daydreaming where she left off.

 

As she stepped out through the sliding door to the balcony, she heard activity in the garden below – ominous clanging and banging of the barbeque and associated paraphernalia, then the hiss of the gas bottle as it was connected. She heard the pilot light ignition click once, twice, three times but didn’t hear the whoosh as the gas caught. More clicking, still no luck by the sounds of things. Now fully shaken out of her lovely romantic day dreams, she walked over to the railing instead of sitting back down, hanging right over to see into the garden below. As she did, the man tending the barbeque looked up at her and smiled sheepishly, “Hey El, there you are! It seems as though we’re out of barbeque gas. Would you mind running down to the petrol station and getting another, Hun?”

 

Eloise sighed, put the drink down, and straightened slightly, fixing her husband with a steely glare. “How many times this week have I asked you to check that thing, Robert? I hope you have some cash in your wallet.”

 

Her good mood totally dashed, and thoughts of Zach now horribly far away, Eloise stamped back through the house, grabbed her handbag, and got into the car to get a gas bottle.

 

Megan

 

Megan stood slowly, pressed her hands into the small of her back and stretched her protesting spine backwards and her belly upwards, counteracting the weight of the baby, then laughed at the typical ‘pregnant woman’ pose she was doing and relaxed with a smile. She glanced over at her husband on the lounge, but Dalton appeared to be asleep in front of the cricket. He had been giving her a gentle ribbing recently about her waddling, she could only imagine what he would say about the back stretching she had just been doing. With the baby due in only a few weeks, she was finding the physical aspect increasingly hard to deal with.

 

Chuckling softly to herself, she turned back to the work she had been doing on the kitchen table, readjusting the cushion on the hard kitchen chair as she carefully sat back down. The work surface was covered in tiny baby-related paper cut-outs and Megan was busily pasting them onto an album page, ready for the moment that they had some real baby photos to add to it. At the moment she had a few blurry ultrasound photos that looked more like blobby bits of custard swimming in a dark night ocean, but they were proof of the fact that there was, indeed a baby, so they were going in.

 

Megan was 32, only a year a husband’s junior, and the baby she had been carrying for just over thirty-seven weeks was her third pregnancy. They had suffered through two miscarriages in the past four years, deciding after she lost the second at only twelve weeks that they weren’t going to keep on trying, the emotional strain and physical damage was starting to take its toll. Then, late last February she had missed a period and, terrified of losing yet another baby, they had kept the news quiet until late in May, when the swelling under her tee shirt could no longer be easily concealed. She had been confined to bed rest and, as a result, had quit her job as a medical secretary. Finding herself with a pregnancy stretching ahead of her with nothing to do but watch daytime television, she had taken up all manner of hobbies – crochet, tatting, cross-stitch, watercolours and glass etching had all had a run, now she was stuck on scrapbooking. She sat with her head bowed over the oddments of paper and ribbon, her dark hair cut in a bob scraped her chin as it hung, and she pushed it back with the heel of a hand still pinching a paper cut-out of an old-fashioned style baby carriage.

 

Engrossed as she was in the album page in front of her, she didn’t notice her husband standing behind her until he kissed her in the bare spot behind her ear. She jumped, a neatly sorted pile of ribbon snippets flying off the table in every direction, and Dalton grabbed her by the shoulders, “I’m sorry!” he squawked, “I didn’t mean to frighten you! Are you okay, sweetie?” the nervous edge to his voice had been there since they found out she was pregnant again, nerves borne of so many prior disappointments. She smiled sweetly to reassure him, and as she stood to face him the hangdog look on his face made her throw her arms around his neck, the baby between them in an embrace. To prove that he or she was still there the baby gave Dalton a good kick, and he bent to kiss Megan’s belly. Megan poked the baby gently, “Oi you!” she said, still laughing, “Settle down in there! You need to wait a little while longer, I’m not ready to work out how to get you out of there yet!”

 

Lawrence

 

Lawrence had had his eyes on Ariana since he first set eyes on her at the party on Saturday night. So far, he thought it was going pretty well too. He had thought that she had been impressed by his degree – a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Law that he invariably told people was a “Law Degree”. He had finished midway through last year and graduated in September, and he considered it the most amazing achievement of his life so far. As such, it ranked highly in his conversation with Ariana. What hadn’t featured quite so highly in the conversation was the fact that he had just started a new a job in the city – as a dogsbody for a personal assistant. How embarrassing. At least he got to wear a suit to work, anyway. And at least it was in the city. This way he could at least spend the train ride to and from work every day, holding his briefcase which contained nothing more than a sandwich, an apple and a broken ballpoint pen, imagining that he had a high-powered and very stressful executive position on the board of directors. What Lawrence didn’t realise was that, even though this little fantasy played out well in his head, to the others that shared his commute, he was still a 22 year old kid with a cheap suit and a cardboard briefcase. Nevertheless, and never one to let the truth get in the way of a good fantasy involving power and riches, he maintained the dream for as long as he could, and tried to portray this character to his new found friends, Ariana included.

 

Lying on a bean bag in a corner of his mate Ben’s living room, Lawrence surveyed the clutter and detritus that surrounded him. The television was on, blaring a music video DVD to the room at large. The cheap speakers in the discount-brand widescreen television had come to the end of their life approximately two months after purchase, and now spouted a terrible crackling and hissing version of growled and snarled lyrics to what should have been a familiar tune. It didn’t matter too much, no-one was paying any attention to the aural abomination. However, the room was far from empty – at least four bodies lay around the floor and couch, in varying degrees of alertness. Ben, the ever-gracious host of the party last night, dominated the couch – head back, mouth open, legs and arms thrown wide – snoring loudly, but not loud enough to drown out the music from the television, unfortunately. Two other men were passed out in the room, one on the recliner and a second on the carpet, neither of whom Lawrence recognised, although he vaguely remembered having a very in-depth conversation with the guy who now seemed passed out on the rug with his hand still in a bowl of nuts. What were they discussing, he wondered, and eventually recalled it had something to do with the possibility of intelligent life landing on Earth and blowing up Microsoft. Lawrence heaved a sigh and hoped he was mistaken in that recollection. As for the fourth body, from Lawrence’s position he couldn’t see anyone, but he could hear snoring from behind him somewhere, forming a tenor counterpoint to Ben’s bass.

 

The other person Lawrence couldn’t see was Ariana. He mentally kicked himself for drinking way too much last night. If he hadn’t had the last five or so bourbon and cokes, he would have been able to get her into bed, he was sure of it. Ariana was beautiful – long, pitch-black hair straight down her back, and a pair of the loveliest breasts. Lawrence tried to remember what she’s been wearing last night, hoping to catch a glimpse of her through the door into the kitchen, but he struggled and couldn’t recall. He had spent a large amount of time looking down her cleavage, but he would be damned if he could remember what it had been wrapped in. Damn shame about those last few bourbons, taking Ariana to bed would have given him bragging rights to his mates for weeks. Months, even, maybe.

 

Slowly, and with the variety of sluggishness only an A-grade hangover can provide, Lawrence performed a personal physical inventory. He still appeared to be in possession of all his major appendages. He didn’t dare try to move them any more than a few centimetres, but upon inspection they all seemed to behave in an appropriately correct manner. He didn’t seem to have any sticky patches that couldn’t be explained away by alcohol, so he figured that he hadn’t, despite his best intention, gotten anyone (Ariana included) into bed. This was a minor disappointment, but one that he was pitifully accustomed to. Lawrence turned his head slightly to see if his neck was working properly, and a light-sabre of sun sliced through the venetian blinds and hit him square between the eyes. He closed them and instinctively reached to his head for his sunglasses. They weren’t there – damn it. Normally a permanent fixture day or night, he must have lost them off his head when he collapsed on to the bean bag. He carefully weighed his options – he could sit here with his eyes shut and wait for the light to fade, which could possibly take hours as he had no idea what time of the day it was and whether this was morning or afternoon sun; or could haul his sorry ass out of the bean bag and go looking for his sunglasses. After careful deliberation and a small alcohol-induced slumber, he decided, however foolishly, to try and extricate himself from the clutches of the bean bag.

 

He started by rolling to one side, hoping to roll right out. The bean bag was obstinate however, and held on firmly, refusing to tip him out on to the floor. Lawrence was nothing if not persistent though and rolled the other way, at which point the bean bag decided to give up – suddenly and reasonably unexpectedly, at least to Lawrence’s alcohol-addled mind. He landed, splat, on the carpeted floor, finding his nose in a suspiciously sticky patch on the carpet, and his shoulder hard up against the foot of the couch. His left leg appeared to have taken up residence under the coffee table. If it wasn’t for this unfortunate series of events, Lawrence may have decided to remain there until more of his hangover had passed, but the stench from the carpet was enough to make even Lawrence move and, very carefully, he rose to his feet.

 

Once the room had ceased the most wild of the careening it was currently undertaking, Lawrence stepped gingerly over to the blaring television and punched random buttons through blurry eyes until the noise mercifully ceased. He watched with interest as the picture faded to a single pinpoint of light and winked out, and revelled in the silence that can fall only after a DVD that has been on constant repeat for close to ten hours has been silenced. With this problem solved neatly, Lawrence dug around the bean bag for his sunglasses, finally finding them, bent and with a lens missing, He stared at them, deliberating, and then decided to put them on anyway. Something was better than nothing, right?

Monday – 4:56am to the City

Dalton

 

It was early, the sun had only barely crept above the horizon and the usually hot November air still had a chill lingering at the edges, although that would not last much longer. Dalton tramped steadily around the bend in the road approaching the train station, his Styrofoam lunchbox swinging loosely from his hand, hitting him in the knee on every second swing, and his safety orange shirt the only spot of brightness in the otherwise overcast morning. Dalton liked his job, he enjoyed being outdoors all day, even in the variety of harsh summer sun that only Queensland seemed able to produce. He enjoyed working with his hands, building things that were sturdy and functional, and for the most part he got along well with his workmates. In fact, the only thing he didn’t like about his job was the early starts. He had always been a late riser, even while he was still in nappies, and despite over fifteen years of working in the building industry, he had never been able to train his body to rise in the darkness. He had resigned himself to it, and the early finishes went some way to repairing the damage, but he looked forward to a day when he could sleep in every day, for as long as he wanted. Dalton – known as Tony to his mates – was 33, and counting down the days until he could retire and get some hard-earned rest.

 

The train station gradually hove into view around the bend and Dalton, with nothing better to study as he walked, stared lazily across at the opposite platform. As was normal just before the 4:56 into the city, there appeared to be no one in sight. The ticket booth wouldn’t open for another hour and a half yet, and the commuters didn’t arrive in earnest until after seven normally. Dalton felt a brief stab of jealousy – the joy of being able to get up at half-past six and meander slowly down to the station for the 7:44! This passed quickly, as he realised that these commuters may have great working hours, but they had to sit behind a desk and push paper and red tape all day for the privilege. Comforted slightly, he reached the staircase that led over the train line, and started to climb.

 

As Dalton climbed the stairs, a sudden movement at the far end of the platform caught his eye and he whipped his head around to investigate. Unaccustomed to having company on his early forays to the station, his heart leaped into his mouth when he spotted a dark, hunched over creature shuffling towards the farthest bench on the outward bound platform. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be an elderly gent with a hat and a mostly empty-looking black plastic garbage bag. Dalton gave himself a sharp mental rebuke for getting startled over a homeless man, but continued to survey the platform to put his mind at ease. He could see the general detritus left over from a weekend typically full of teenagers with nothing better to do – some empty beer and spirits bottles thrown around and some fresh graffiti on the walls of the shelter. Otherwise, nothing appeared out of the ordinary except for a bundle of what appeared to be old clothes, or maybe a blanket, just outside the fence line, where the station ended and the long paspalum grass delimited the edge of the public car park. The old man had trundled to his seat from that direction, and Dalton assumed it was where he had spent the night. As if hearing Dalton’s thoughts, the old man suddenly looked up and stared back at him. Dalton averted his eyes out of shame and pity, and continued over to the other platform.

 

Dalton purchased a weekly ticket from the vending machine kindly provided by City Rail and thankfully working for a change, and found a place to sit at the far end of the platform, as far from the homeless man as he could. Trying to be casual, he laid back on the uncomfortable seat and pondered why anyone – homeless or otherwise – would choose to try and sleep on one. They appeared designed specifically to discourage people from spending any time on them. He could understand why the old man would sleep on a blanket in the grass instead. Dalton checked his watch – only 3 minutes to spare – half closed his eyes, and waited for his train, enjoying the warmth of the early morning sun on his upturned face.

 

Walter

 

Walter didn’t normally come out to the station on a Monday. He liked to come out on Sundays, mostly because there were less people around, and he could just watch the trains without having anyone call the police. Walter had lived on the railway line since he was born and had wanted to be a train driver for as long as he could remember. When he was 14 he took on odd jobs at the railway station near his house and, joy of joys, had finally become a driver at 26. He offered forty-five years of loyal service to City Railways as a driver, and was eventually forced into retirement against his wishes. Then two years ago, when his wife fell into a diabetic coma that she never woke up from, Walter had begun spending more and more time at the station, watching and photographing the trains that had formed such a large part of his life. Now, at 73, Walter had become a more or less permanent fixture at Redton station, although he came at irregular enough times and faded into the background enough that the commuter population rarely saw him, although he was well known to the station staff. The older staffers knew Walter from his days as a driver, and one guy regularly sat down and reminisced, although Walter suspected it was more out of pity than friendship. The younger, newer ones rarely spoke to him at all, although they appeared to recognise him and left him to his train spotting without interfering. The grand majority of Walter’s problems came from the general public, since that horrible business in America a few years ago people saw an old man loitering around public transport and taking photographs they assumed they were going to fall victim to the next terrorist attack. As a result, Walter had also become reasonably well known to the local police officers, who still occasionally came out to check things over, but mostly just reassured the hysterical public citizen over the phone that Yes, Ma’am, they knew who he was, and they also knew that he was totally, utterly harmless.

 

Yesterday morning Walter had fully woken from his usually disturbed sleep at 3am, intending to head down to the station while it was still nice and quiet, and watch the sun rise over the train line. When he had gone to swing his legs over the edge of the bed, sharp-edged pain had gripped his right hip and with a cry he had fallen back to bed. After some time of repositioning his worn body, he gingerly managed to get out bed and stumble to the bathroom to find some pain killers. He swallowed a few of the stronger variety, then shuffled back to bed, allowing the drugs to take over. By the time the analgesics had taken their blessed, longed-for effect and Walter felt well enough to rise again, it was almost lunch time. By painful experience, Walter knew that all those who had been shopping in the city on their day off would be returning throughout the afternoon, and there would be no helpful staff member to calm any panicked member of the public. He chose to spend the rest of the day not looking at the real ones, but watching the miniature variety in his lounge room instead. They were a poor substitute, but would serve to while away an otherwise lonely and boring afternoon.

 

So it happened that Walter was at the station on Monday morning not long after dawn, which today had broken just after half past four. His right hip still ached, and the short walk from his bedsit up the road to the station was painful, but he knew it would be worthwhile once he got there. He clutched a black plastic garbage bag in his right fist which contained his camera, a notebook, and his reference book – “Australian Trains Past and Present: A Pictorial History”. He clamped his fingers tighter around the top of the bag with every bolt of pain from his hip, willing himself to just take another step, take another step, keep walking, don’t fall.

 

With the pain in his hip now extending across his back and down his right leg, and his vision starting to grey at the edges, Walter finally stepped into the railway car park, preparing to take the few steps through the long grass then slip through the break in the fence to the end of the platform. Focused as he was on the pain in his side and back, and the simple act of just making it to the bench on the station, and compounded by the overcast morning, he didn’t see the bundle hidden in the grass until he stepped on the hem of the blanket covering it. At first he just thought it was just a bunch of old clothes, left behind by the hoodlums who had no doubt been around the station over the weekend. But then he realised that, for a bunch of old clothes, it was surprisingly person-shaped. Not wanting to touch it, but curiosity getting the better of him, he shifted his weight carefully to the left side, and used his right foot to give the bundle a gentle nudge. His bad hip gave an almost audible shriek of protest and he pulled his foot away before managing to move the blanket at all. Suddenly, his long-gone wife spoke up in his ear, saying Leave well enough alone, Walt. See no evil, remember? With the sudden realisation that he might be meddling in something that he certainly did not belong in, he turned away, and fell into a stumbling half run up to the platform.

 

Visibly shaking, and with the pain in his hip now all but forgotten, Walter staggered up the incline through the waist high paspalum grass, scrambled up onto the concrete of the platform, and fell onto the bench. He leaned forward, putting his head between his knees, and counted haltingly to ten, then twenty. With his heart rate only slightly lowered, an ache in his chest and burning fire throughout his entire lower body, he raised his head slowly and saw a man in a bright orange shirt watching him from the pedestrian overpass. Walter opened his mouth to speak, to bring this stranger into his confidence and share the burden of what Walter could only assume was a horrid, grisly discovery, and found that he couldn’t form the words. What could he possibly say, that would not make this man turn tail and run? Defeated by his own inability to form the sentence that would make this man trust him, Walter slowly lowered his head again. This time he counted to one hundred.

Monday – 06:14am to the City

Shannen

 

Shannen checked her watch as she approached the station and didn’t quite break into a run, but picked up her pace so that it would not be much of a stretch if she chose to. The 6:14 was due in less than a minute, and she hadn’t bought a ticket yet. Silently and without breaking pace, she sent up a prayer to whoever was listening: for once, make sure that train runs late. As she approached the car park she saw a dark-haired woman getting out of a late model silver sedan, apparently humming to herself. Shannen saw her most mornings, knew she got off the train at Central, and had marvelled at how happy she always seemed to be. Shannen saw her every morning, nodded and smiled every morning, noticed when she had washed her hair, knew what different outfits she owned, yet did not know her name. Shannen had often pondered the senseless cocoon that people routinely tried to wrap themselves in on public transport, but she did not have the time for such deep thoughts this morning – if she missed this train she would be late for work at the supermarket for the third time this week, and she would be damned if she would lose a perfectly good job because she was hanging around a train station philosophising.

 

Shannen brushed past the other woman as she closed the car door and locked it, and on a whim, decided to head through the long grass and up to the station, rather than going the long way around to the overpass. She knew she would be able to pick up some more speed running along the empty outbound platform than she could across the rough and broken footpath. She took two steps into the long grass, and was preparing to vault through the narrow gap beside the fence up on to the platform, when something buried in the grass caught the toe of her shoe and tangled in her ankles. Shannen cried out and fell hard on the still slightly dewy ground, and felt her knee land on a strange, unnatural bulge in the ground. Looking down, almost dreamlike, she saw a blanket lying in the grass, covered with filth and for a moment could not fathom what it might mean. Time, which had previously been racing, now slowed and seemed almost to stop, as her gaze traversed the length of the blanket-covered object and finally alighted upon a bare, pink, human toe. Shannen had time to analyse the nicely cut toe nail, the pink, sparkly polish that had started to wear along the cut edge, and finally her voice caught up to her vision, and she began to scream.

 

Elouise

 

Elouise grabbed her bag off the passenger seat, got out of the car and turned to close the door and lock it. As she did, a young brunette woman dashed past her, in an obvious hurry. Elouise checked her watch and realised the train was due any minute. She wasn’t overly concerned, the only reason she took the early train was so that she could spend more time with Zach, who she knew would be waiting for her at Central, but she had no intention of raising a sweat and breaking a heel to catch it – there would another along in fifteen minutes, and she certainly did not want to look a wreck for Zach.

 

Humming tuneless nonsense to herself, she turned away from the dashing woman, locked the car, and began to walk up the footpath that led to the pedestrian overpass. She was in too good a mood to worry about the broken pieces in the concrete, simply stepping over the potholes, taking the opportunity to admire her new shoes as she did so. They were a grey fabric, with lovely black patent toes and a ridiculously high heel. She had spent way too much money on them, imagining what Zach might think of her purchase as she handed over the credit card that was in her husband’s name. Rob had not noticed that she had new shoes, but then she had not expected him to.

 

Eloise was just completing her crossing of the overpass as the train came to a clanking, brake-squealing, shuddering halt beneath her. She quickly trotted down the steps on the other side, thankful that she had a ten trip ticket that had not yet expired, and boarded the train just as the guard’s whistle blew. She did not see Shannen fall in the grass on the opposite side of the platform, and she did not hear the scream that pierced the Monday morning of a working week that was going to be far from ordinary.

 

Zach

 

Zachary waited at Central at the farthest end of Platform Eight. Elouise was due to arrive in less than three minutes, and suddenly Zach felt nervous. He had trouble pinpointing the source of this nervousness, and after a minute or so of reasonably shallow searching – Zach made it a point not to ever delve too deeply into his emotions – he eventually blamed it on an underlying sense of ever present guilt. He had been seeing Elouise for about three years now, they met right here at the end of Platform Eight five mornings a week, and in that time Zach felt he had learnt just about all there was to learn about Elouise. She was attractive, and about ten years younger than him, which made her instantly eligible in Zach’s eyes, but he had started to feel the affair fade in the past few months and he was in two minds about what to do about it. Zach knew he was not the kind of man to settle down, let’s face it, he’d been single for 43 years, he wasn’t about to change his habits now, and the relationship with Elouise had started to sink into a routine. They met in the early hours at the station, they drove round to his studio in Frank street, they fucked, then he drove her to work. Not that he was complaining about the sex, even bad sex in Zach’s book was still worth having, but he was bored. He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, and the fun and spontaneity had winked out like a light bulb at the end of its life. If Zach and Elouise had have been married, or in an open, less clandestine relationship, he thought he would probably put in the effort and try and revive the sexual energy that had existed between them for so long. But he was tired, he was bored, and he simply did not feel that Elouise was worth it. She was getting older, her looks would start to fade before too much longer, and he made a point never to hang around that long. What had once been exciting, passionate and somehow dirty and erotic, had now become routine, boring and joyless. He had to end it.

 

The train pulled into the station, a minute late, and Zach watched as people poured off the last carriage. Elouise was not one of them. Zach gave an involuntary sigh of relief and rose to leave, thinking that he would go online later on and catch her at work, that she would explain how she missed the train, that she was devastated he hadn’t waited. He would apologise, bring her flowers tomorrow, and then do the deed that he had been putting off for so long. Zach had taken just one step toward the exit when he was nearly bowled over by Elouise at a full run.

“Oh, Zach, baby! There you are! I almost missed the train, had to get on at the other end. Oh, I’m so glad I caught you!” Elouise’s words came out in a breathless rush, the last sentence spoken directly into Zach’s shoulder as they embraced.

“Baby doll … Elly! Settle down, I can feel your heart racing.” he pulled her away from his chest, looked her up and down appraisingly, taking in her heaving chest and the red flush that crept from her neck and down into her cleavage. He opened his mouth to give her the bad news, but at the last moment noticed the swelling in his trousers. Ah, what the hell, he thought, one more day wouldn’t hurt, “Come on Babe, let’s go, huh?”

Elouise grinned, nodded and stuck one toe out in front her, “What do you think, Baby?”

Zach swallowed a groan, plastered a smile on his face, and started to lead her out of the train station, “I love them! Did you get them on the weekend?”

Monday – 08:23am to the City

Kasey

 

While her mother was busy getting dressed so that Zach could drive her to work, Kasey was wandering down to the train station to go to school. Kasey was due to finish Year Eleven in two weeks and after that there was only a year to go before she was blessedly free of the public school system. For Kasey, the end of high school couldn’t come soon enough. She was a moderately good student, but would definitely not be getting dux this year, she was enough of a realist even at sixteen to recognise that. Kasey had a dream of living on her own, maybe with a few good friends, of working somewhere so that she had own money to spend on whatever she wanted, with no parents telling her what was ‘sensible’, or what was a ‘waste of money’. She was considering going to university, only because her parents expected it, and thought that perhaps doing an arts degree would be a good way to spend a few years of her life. That way, her parents would be happy because she was doing further study, and she would be doing something that, she assumed, wouldn’t be too taxing on the brain. Above all, Kasey disliked studying. If she could get a degree by drawing a few pictures and being Creative, then that was what she intended to do.

 

Kasey had developed a love for art since she met her boyfriend two and half months ago. He was quite a lot older than her, older than her mother even, although she would never dare to tell her about him. He didn’t act like an old guy though, he was daring and funny and, more to the point, artistic. He did fabulous oil paintings with what seemed thousands of swirled colours that made her feel as though she was falling into a hole like Alice down the rabbit hole – down into a crazy, mixed-up world where colour became touch, taste, and scent all at once. Kasey found drawings of recognisable pictures – cows and fruit and vases of flowers – to be predictable and boring. But her boyfriend’s paintings were imaginative, complex and completely enthralling. Yesterday after school, she had stood in front of one of his paintings for close to twenty minutes, and would have stayed longer if her boyfriend hadn’t started to undress her as she stared, entranced. He was so passionate, she mused, recalling how they had spent the afternoon curled up on his bed, him teaching her things no boy her own age would ever know. She felt so lucky to have such an imaginative, talented and loving man. And a man too, not a boy like the kids she went to school with. How could Brianna, her best friend, be even remotely interested in those boys? She just couldn’t see the attraction in them at all.

 

Absorbed in her ponderings, Kasey did not at first notice the commotion around the train station, but as she came closer a small group of people broke away from the larger mob near the car park end of the platform. Through the gap they left Kasey suddenly noticed a strip of tape, flapping loosely in the slight breeze. Although she had never before seen it in real life, she had certainly seen enough cop shows on television to recognise it for what it was – police tape. Thoughts of boys, art and friends suddenly banished from her mind, she stopped, shielded her eyes against the November sun sitting low on the horizon and tried to work out what was going on.

 

Directly in front of her was the wooden stairs that led up and over the train line to the city-bound platform, which was where Kasey had been heading. Police tape was now covering the span between the hand rails not just on this side but also, she realised, from the other side of the tracks as well. While the staircase was empty, people having been deterred by the copious amounts of tape, and the city-bound platform appeared deserted, the outbound platform was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. There were also people standing in huddles through the long grass at the end of the platform, spilling out into the car park, which was full. On closer inspection she saw her mother’s silver Fairlane, with the ELOU15 vanity number plates, surrounded on all sides by police vehicles, parked hastily and haphazardly across the white painted lines. All the people, both in uniform and those without, appeared to just be standing around, Kasey couldn’t see what the cause of the commotion was, but it appeared to be out in the grass near her mother’s car, just on the other side of the little white fence at the end of the outward-bound platform. She knew her mother usually took the 6:14 to the city in the morning, and that she had left that morning at the usual time, so it was not strange that her car was here – after all, Kasey saw it parked in the same spot every morning when she came down to catch the train to school. She had complained that Elouise should go in to work at a normal time, like regular people, so that she could drive Kasey to the station and save her the walk, but her mother had fobbed her off, explaining that it was important that she be at work early. Her mother was the personal assistant to one of the three partners of a big legal firm in the city, and she had explained to Kasey that she needed to make sure she was at work before her boss, so that she could have everything ready for him. Kasey thought that it sounded like an awful lot of arse kissing, but had wisely kept this opinion to herself.

 

Kasey didn’t feel frightened, standing on the footpath down the road slightly from the station, watching the commotion. If anything, she was excited – something different was happening! After all, it wasn’t every day you got to see the station wrapped up like a birthday present with police tape and with cops crawling all over it. Seeing her mother’s car in the middle of all the chaos made her slightly uneasy, but the sheer excitement of the event was overshadowing any nervousness she might be feeling, at least for now. Snapping back to reality, Kasey realised that she wasn’t going to be able to get to school this morning. She wasn’t displeased, at least she had a fantastic story to tell.

 

Kasey swung her backpack off one shoulder, so she could paw through it for her mobile phone. She found it in a front pocket, pulled it out and speed-dialled her Mum’s work number. It rang and rang … paused slightly, then rang again, indicating that her call had been transferred to the front reception desk. Kasey thought that her mother must be in a meeting with her boss – it was likely that the CEO had just arrived and Elouise was busy running around getting him a cup of coffee or something she supposed. After what felt like an eternity of ringing, finally a prim voice said “Woodworth, Schultz and Bird, can I help you?”

“Ah, hi. I need to talk to Elouise Walker? I’m her daughter, and it’s an emergency?”

“Please hold. I’ll transfer you to her desk.”

Kasey did as she was told, watching the activity on the station and praying she didn’t run out of credit on her phone before Elouise answered. The phone rang five more times before it was finally picked up again, this time by a man with an uncertain, “Er … Hello? Elouise’s desk.”

“Hi, who’s this? I’m looking for Elouise Walker, it’s Kasey …”

“Oh hi, Kasey, this is Lawrence – Larry – your Mum isn’t in yet. Can I give her a message or something?”

Kasey frowned as Lawrence gave her this information, staring over at the station as pieces slowly slotted into place – her Mum’s sedan in the usual place, the police cars in the car park, the tape everywhere, her Mum not at work … “Oh … My God …” she breathed into the phone, “Larry, I think something awful might have happened …”

“Something awful?” Larry repeated, dumbstruck, “What do you mean, Kasey? Kasey?” But the line was dead, Kasey was gone.

 

Brianna

 

Despite the loud music pouring into her ears from the mp3 player, Brianna noticed that there was something going on at the station as soon as she turned the corner. She approached from the car park end of the platform, and as a general rule she met Kasey at the foot of the stairs leading over the tracks. This morning, however, there was definitely some kind of a problem – cars, much more than normal, were parked in no particular order all over the car park, there was a massive amount of people milling around, although none seemed to be actually doing anything to speak of. The centre of the melee seemed to be in the long grass in between the car park and the end of the outbound platform, but Brianna couldn’t see what the focus of their concentration was on, there was too much of a crowd, and whatever it was was well hidden in the paspalum.

 

Brianna slowed her pace, in order to more fully concentrate on the commotion at the platform. She was merely curious, had not yet realised the implications of what might be going on. Only as she noticed the large amount of uniforms, and the swinging, flapping police tape that was draped liberally around the place, did she start to realise that something pretty majorly serious must have happened. Oblivious to the turmoil Brianna was now experiencing, Avril Lavigne continued to yell in her ears, “‘Cause life’s like this. Uh huh, uh huh, that’s the way it is”. Brianna stepped onto the coarse gravel at the farthest end of the car park, and stopped to pull the headphones out of her ears. Avril was reduced to a tinny whistle from the ear bud speakers until Brianna killed even that by hitting the power button on the iPod. The silence was pierced only by the murmur of voices from the railway platform.

 

Brianna’s usually sunny face had clouded over, and she surveyed the scene with troubled eyes, wondering where her friend might be, and worrying that she might not be able to find Kasey’s familiar face in the crowd. Then, thankfully, her eyes fell on a familiar figure in a school uniform close to the bottom of the pedestrian overpass. Brianna broke into a run and, as she drew closer to Kasey she saw her friend bring her phone down from her face, and stare at it as though she had no idea what it was.

“Kasey!” she yelled as she ran towards her, “Kasey!”

Kasey turned as though in a daydream, and Brianna could see her speaking although she could not hear the words. As Brianna drew alongside her, she wrapped her arms around her oldest friend, “Kasey, what’s happened? What’s going on? Are you ok?”

Kasey pulled away from her grasp, and Brianna looked her in the eyes, trying to decipher what lay behind them. Contraband mascara ran down Kasey’s tear-streaked face as she dragged her eyes from Brianna’s gaze and dropped her eyes to the ground. She pressed her lips together tightly, as though she didn’t want to let the words out, and kicked a coke bottle lid along the ground with the scuffed toe of her school shoe. Brianna reached out a hand and swiped the black tinted tears from her friend’s face, creating a ghoulish grey blusher on both sides of her nose, and Kasey looked up again, her lips still pressed together. All the blood appeared to have drained from her face, and her hair had come loose from the elastic holding it. “Bree,” she said in a whisper, “I think that might be my Mum down there.”

 

Robert

 

Summonsed by an hysterical phone call from his daughter’s best friend, Robert had no idea what kind of situation he was about to drive into but, whatever it was, he was getting there fast. Pushing his work car to its limit, he had run every yellow light from work to the Redton train station, his brain on hold, simply refusing to entertain any kind of possibilities, in fact pretty much refusing to think of anything at all except the fastest way to get back to Redton. He screamed through the final intersection, hooked a sharp right hand turn on to Station Road, just about putting the Prius onto two wheels, its little electric engine protesting. The crowd around the station hove into view through Robert’s passenger side window and he suddenly braked, stopping the car in the middle of the road, and taking a bare second to take in the scene that suddenly presented itself to him. For some reason he had believed that, once he got here, it would turn out that the girls had played a practical joke, that there would be nothing out of the ordinary. He would be able to yell at Kasey for wasting his time, and his perfectly ordinary life could go on in its perfectly ordinary manner. In the same second, he had realised all along that that was not going to happen, that it had been a mere hope, and that he had known this as soon as he had heard Brianna’s strangled voice on the telephone, and Kasey’s weeping in the background.

 

Robert slowly eased the car to the side of the road, hardly tearing his eyes from the cluster of people at the station, and stepped out onto the road. He left the keys in the ignition – they weren’t important right now. Right now, he needed to find his daughter, and then, he needed to find out what had happened to his wife. Panicky, his gaze skittered over the crowd, searching for a school uniform and blonde hair – he couldn’t remember how Kasey had done her hair this morning, and he mentally cursed himself for not taking more notice. Then, above the murmur of the crowd, he heard a voice yell out, “Dad! Rob! Over here!” Robert whipped his head around to see his daughter bearing down on him at a run from the other end of the station, finally crash tackling him with an embrace. Brianna was not far behind her, and he met her eyes over Kasey’s head. Brianna shrugged, as if to say she had no idea what was going on. Rob thought she probably had a better idea than he did, but didn’t push the issue, the poor girl looked petrified.

 

Slowly, he extricated himself from Kasey’s grasp, bent his head slightly to look in her eyes, and asked her to tell him what had happened. Haltingly at first and eventually with a gush of words that flowed without the benefit of punctuation, Kasey told her story, from walking to the station and seeing the police tape, to ringing the law firm and speaking to Lawrence. Slowly, like a gushing tap slowing to a drip, Kasey’s flow of words slowed, then halted. She looked as though she had sagged, somehow, Rob thought absently, as his mind whirled trying to piece together the information he had just received. His natural ability to deny, deny, kicked in and his first thought was that nothing was confirmed, it was a series of events that were not necessarily linked. Simultaneously, and in contradiction to his better reasoning, he started to panic.

 

With a massive effort, he took a breath, grabbed Kasey around the shoulders, and led her to the kerb to sit down. Kasey looked shrunken, haunted. Rob watched her pull her knees into her chest and curl into a tight ball, and he wrapped what he hoped was a fatherly, comforting arm around her. Brianna sank down on the other side of her friend, and copied the gesture, looking like what she really wanted was someone to do the same for her.

 

Softly, trying not to upset her, Rob asked her if she had gone down to the platform to speak to any of the police lingering there. Kasey shook her head, no. Rob fell silent, pondering his next move, then spoke again, “Kasey, baby-girl, I’m going to walk down there and see what I can find out. I’m not going to be gone for very long. Can you sit here with Brianna for a little while?”

Kasey responded with silence, and Rob thought that she hadn’t heard him. He opened his mouth to repeat himself, but then saw Kasey’s shoulders lift slowly, and fall, “OK” she said softly, barely audible.

Rob rose, planting a kiss on the top of her head, “I love you, Kiddo. I’ll be right back.” he murmured into the tangle of blonde hair.

 

Rob steeled himself mentally for what might come next, ducked under a line of police tape, and headed down into the crowd of people. Once he reached the platform, it became obvious that there were not as many people as it had seemed from the car park. He elbowed his way through to the centre of the crowd, most of whom were in emergency services uniforms. It seemed as though people were just standing around in knots, waiting for something to happen. Rob and the two teenage girls had proven to be a distraction for most, it seemed, and they were curious. Rob got to the end of the platform and stopped before stepping into the trampled grass. The scene that had been obscured by milling people before, now laid itself out before him, and he drew a sharp breath as he took it in. The body, for it was clear that was what it was, despite it being shrouded by a filthy blanket, seemed to be lying on its side, with knees drawn up into its chest. The position reminded him horribly of how Kasey had sat drawn up on the kerb. He fought down the bile that rose in the back of his throat, and turned his face skyward to ward off the tears that threatened. Only slightly calmed, he looked down again, to find he was being stared at by a man in a blue police uniform. Robert cleared his throat softly, willing his voice to work, and opened his mouth to speak. Before any words had formed on his tongue, though, the police officer rebuked him, “Sir, I don’t know what you think you are doing, but this is my crime scene. You had better have a good reason for having trampled on it.” the voice was rough, the words callous, but Robert sensed that he had been given a chance, albeit minor, to offer his case before being hauled off the platform.

“Umm, I don’t … My wife … She …” Words failing him, Robert pointed with a shaking finger at the body that lay under the blanket, felt the bile rise in his throat and his eyes wash with tears. He vomited violently on the concrete of the platform, his knees gave way, and he sank to the ground, hands grabbing his body as he went down. Robert let them take him, all the fight having left him.

 

Brianna

 

Brianna sat silently beside Kasey on the kerb, awash with emotion. She was afraid, scared, nervous, upset, but somehow recognised that what she was feeling was not even a fraction of what Kasey must be going through. She was starting to come to grips with the situation though, starting to lose that feeling that the world had just been set afloat on an uncertain and unpredictable sea.

 

She heard a commotion down on the platform and decided to stand up and have a look at what was going on down there. She stood, but didn’t move away from the kerb – she didn’t want Kasey to think that she was going to leave. Through the scrubby trees at the edge of footpath, Brianna could see down onto the platform. There didn’t seem to be as many people now and those that were there all appeared to be in uniforms of one description or another. She could see a huddle of people right on the edge of the platform, where the gap next to the fence let you step down onto the grass. A group of people leaned over someone who appeared to be lying on the ground. With a start she realised that it was Kasey’s Dad, it looked like he had passed out or something. Her heart stopped, and then she watched as they got him to sit up on the edge of the platform, his back to the fence and his knees pulled up to his chest. Brianna let go of the breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding as he lifted his head, spoke to someone, and took an offered bottle of water. He was alright, it seemed.

 

Brianna let her gaze move over into the grass. Large pieces of black plastic had been put up around the grassed area to block the site off from public scrutiny, but it did not hamper the views from above. The police officers, noticeable in their neat hats and light blue, short-sleeved shirts, all appeared to be hanging back a bit more now. It looked as though some forensic investigators had arrived, and gloved and gowned, they were now poking around in the grass. Finally, she let her eyes fall on what she had been so far avoiding, the shrouded bundle in the centre of the trampled grass. She couldn’t adequately see through the trees, but it definitely appeared to be a body, covered over with a blanket or something similar. She shuddered slightly, trying to keep her composure, and wondered if it could really be Kasey’s Mum. She knew Elouise arrived early to the train station, Kasey had bitched about it often – that if Elouise left later Kasey would be able to get a lift – and Briana assumed that something could have happened to Elouise when she arrived. There wouldn’t be very many people around at that time of day, she assumed.

 

Idly, Brianna pieced together the story Kasey had blurted to her father only minutes before, and tried to work out how Kasey could be so certain that something terrible had befallen her mother. It seemed as though it was possible that this event could have happened after Elouise passed through, or even before, if no one had discovered it yet. Although that didn’t explain why she wasn’t at work when Kasey had called. On impulse, Brianna pulled her own mobile phone out of her pocket, still there from when she had called Robert. She knew she had to call her own parents at some stage, let them know what had happened, but first she wanted to try and call Elouise.

 

Kneeling down beside Kasey again, Brianna touched her lightly on the arm, and told her that she was just going to go and make a phone call, that she’d be right back. She waited for Kasey’s nod, and wandered over towards the empty end of the railway station, hopefully out of earshot of her friend. She brought up the contacts lists stored in her phone, and scrolled down to E, she smiled slightly as she found the number she wanted and pressed the call button. The mobile phone in Elouise’s handbag began to ring and Brianna heard a click then a familiar voice, “Elouise Walker speaking”.

Monday – 09:32am Outbound

Elouise

 

The phone call from Brianna had been strange, to say the least. Elouise had hung up the phone deliberately, and stared at her blank computer monitor for a moment while she waited for the swirling thoughts in her head to subside. She had just sat down at her desk as the phone had rung, had not yet fired up her desktop machine. She had not even had a coffee yet this morning, and she briefly considered the possibility that she was still lying in Zach’s bed, dreaming the morning away. She couldn’t quite make herself believe that little fantasy though. She watched as Lawrence walked past her door, looking in from the corner of his eye as he did so. She called his name, and he stopped, retraced his last two steps, and stuck his head in. Elouise, wrapped up in the strange events of the morning, did not notice the sallowness of his skin, or the grey pouches under his eyes. If she had, she would have mentioned them. Lawrence examined Elouise, wondering what on earth was going on with her this morning. The phone call from Kasey had been cryptic enough, but now Elouise had turned up at work and gone from acting normal, sunny even, to this strange staring creature with a haunted face.

“Is … Um, is everything ok, Elouise?” Lawrence stammered.

“Ahh. Yes, I think so,” Elouise responded slowly, “but something has come up that I really need to deal with. Is Mister Schultz in his office yet?”

Lawrence said that he hadn’t seen their boss arrive yet this morning, but offered to investigate, and Elouise asked him to please do so. As soon as his head had disappeared from her door, she looked back at the blank monitor, searching it for answers that it did not have to give.

 

The phone on her desk sprang into life with the shrill bell of an internal call, and Elouise jumped, startled out of her blank reverie. She picked up the phone and spoke her name, trying not to sound shaken, but her normally brusque “Elouise Walker” nevertheless came out sounding flat and wary, even to her own ears.

“Oh, Elly, it’s Francine over in Mister Bird’s office, are you alright? You sound tired,” Francine and Elouise had worked side by side as personal assistants to two of the partners of the firm since they had been promoted together from the secretarial team a little over three years ago – right about the time Elouise had started seeing Zach.

“Fran, hi, yes I’m alright, I think. I’ve just had a little personal emergency, and I’m going to have to go home though. It seems as though Kasey has gotten herself into some trouble. But what were you calling for?”

“Look, Elly, Kasey is much more important, I’ll bug one of the other PA’s with this one. You go to Kasey and I’ll cover you today.”

“Thanks, Fran, I appreciate that. Hopefully I’ll be back this afternoon, but I’ll send you a message and let you know what’s happening.”

“Don’t come back today, Darl, just get things sorted out. We’ll all still be here in the morning. Now go!” Francine’s tone told Elouise there was no point arguing further and, knowing her co-worker and friend would be able to handle things for the morning at least, Elouise said goodbye, hung up the phone and reached for her handbag.

 

Elouise was back at Central station, waiting for the next outbound train and practising reasons for her absence from work this morning by the time Lawrence stuck his head back in her office. Lawrence frowned, figuring it must have been pretty urgent. At least he wouldn’t have Elouise looking over his shoulder all day now. He turned to his own computer terminal, opened a browser window, and called up Facebook.

 

Kasey

 

Still sitting in the gutter with her back to the train station and what she suspected was her mother’s body, Kasey strained her ears to hear Brianna’s hushed conversation. She couldn’t hear anything other than an occasional word here and there – ‘train station’, ‘police everywhere’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s closed off’, ‘yeah, ok’. She guessed that Brianna was asking someone to come to the station and get them, letting her parents know what was going on, probably. Kasey kept her head down on the knees, feeling as though she wanted the ground to swallow her up, how had today gone so terribly, terribly wrong so very, very quickly? She heard Brianna hang up the phone with a ‘See you soon, then. Bye.” and the crunch of the rough bitumen as her friend came back and sat down. She felt Brianna touch her arm, and smelled the musk of her body spray as she leaned in close. Brianna spoke softly in Kasey’s ear, her breath tickling the fine hairs on her cheek. Kasey heard the words she spoke, understood each of them individually, but could not make sense of them as they were strung into a sentence. She looked up, and stared at Brianna, disbelief and misunderstanding clouding her pretty features, “Don’t lie to me Bree,” she said under her breath, enunciating each word carefully and with a touch of malice, “That will not help right now”. Brianna shook her head, “I’m not lying Kase,” she said, a smile starting to play on her face now, “I just spoke to your Mum, she’s okay, she’s on her way here now”. The second time the words were spoken, the meaning started to crystallise, and ever so slowly, and completely unexpectedly, a smile crept up on Kasey too.

 

The friends held each other closely, this time crying tears, not so much of happiness, but more of relief and release. Slowly, the tension in the air began to unravel, like threads from a torn woollen jumper, flapping in the breeze as it dried on the line. Kasey felt layers of stress peel off her back, her shoulders and though doubt would continue to linger until she could lay her eyes on her mother, alive and well, she suddenly felt a fool. With this realisation came the understanding that her father was down there on the platform, what could he be doing, if it was not her mother’s body lying in the grass? Kasey stood suddenly, left her school bag lying on the footpath, and ducked under the police tape leading down to the outbound platform, “Dad!” she yelled as she ran, “Dad! Dad, she’s alright! Mum’s ok, Dad, she’s ok!”

 

People made a path for her as she ran, and like looking down the aisle of a church, she saw her father sitting, broken, with his back against the fence at the end of the platform. She watched as he ever so slowly raised his head, noticed the gleam of hope shine in his eyes quickly followed by a sharp sliver of doubt. He tilted his head to the side, trying to work out what she was doing and as she collapsed beside him on the hard ground he gathered her head up into his shoulder, resting his blonde head on top of hers, their hair flowing together, indistinguishable from each others, “Baby-girl, tell me again, she’s okay … ?” Kasey heard the upward inflection of hope, her father’s statement that was somehow a question, but the lump in her throat prevented her from speaking, so she nodded her head against his white shirt, leaving a trail of tears and snot on his shoulder. Finally, she managed to get something past her tears, and she whispered, “She’s ok, Dad, she’s ok. We’re going to be ok.”

 

Elouise

 

Elouise sat on Platform Twelve at Central Station, waiting for the next train that would take her out to Redton. Her mind was totally occupied, thoughts jostling each other for room, for her attention, for enough time at the forefront of her mind to be explored fully. Brianna had told her that there had been some kind of body found at the train station and that Kasey had for some reason that it was her, Elouise, when Lawrence had told her that she hadn’t arrived at the office yet. Brianna had also said that her husband, Robert, had arrived at the station and had been talking to the police. Elouise wondered how he had gotten there so fast. It seemed so unlike him to put thought into action so quickly, although she had never seen him under this much pressure. It made her realise how much she must mean to him, for him to react so violently, without thinking the matter through fully. The thought disturbed her, she had always thought that he felt much the same way she did – the relationship was okay, they had fallen into a rhythm long ago, and each played their role, husband, wife, mother, father. She had even assumed that he had probably had relationships of his own outside the marriage, although she only had her own infidelity as proof of his.

 

Elouise felt curiously elated at the fact that no one had suspected what she had been up to, why she was really late to work, although the fact that everyone had thought her dead was reasonably discomforting in itself. Though it didn’t help her explain where she had been. How was she going to explain away the missing two hours or so from her morning? Another thought suddenly hit her, and the force of it made her reel – it wasn’t just Robert and Kasey who she was going to have to explain the missing hours to, her explanation was likely going to have to withstand the scrutiny of the police also. Elouise swallowed uncomfortably. She checked her watch – and realised that she had only about twenty five minutes to come up with a story that was sufficient enough to hold up under questioning by the police, and also wash with her husband and daughter. She did not for a minute think that the truth would suffice. She had no intention of leaving Robert, and, until now, no intention of leaving Zach either. The problem, she realised, was that she had gotten away with it for so long now, she had started to get complacent. She idly wondered if she was going to be forced to choose now, if Robert had gotten wind of the situation.

 

The train pulled into the station on a noxious cloud of fumes and squealing brakes. Elouise stood as the train slowed to a stop and she stepped into the carriage, her mind like a shaken gumball machine full of high-bouncers. She took a seat near the window on the near empty train, rested her head against the cool glass, and tried not to think about the fact that she now had less than fifteen minutes, and still no excuses. She watched the buildings flick past the window through unseeing eyes, the cars on the highway alongside the rails. Everyone was in such a hurry, it seemed, when all Elouise wanted was for the train to suddenly reverse directions, rewind through time and take her back to Zach’s studio, Zach’s bed, where she never had anything to worry about, unless it was where she had left her underwear. What on earth could she say? To have ‘lost’ two hours was quite an achievement. She couldn’t blame it on a meeting – it would work on Robert, but the police would be sure to check it out. Could she have been having breakfast somewhere, alone? They would check the venue, she imagined, so that wouldn’t work. Elouise tried to think up something she could have been doing, alone, that wouldn’t be verifiable. Her mind was far from blank, in fact it was positively filled with thoughts, unfortunately one of them were providing her with a suitable excuse for her absence this morning. She was being posed a lot more questions this morning than she had answers for.

 

Before Elouise was even close to ready, she saw Redton station pulling into view ahead of them, and prepared to rise on wobbly legs. She was busy concentrating on making her legs hold her weight, when she realised that the train wasn’t slowing for the station. A typically unintelligible announcement came over the train’s public address system, she caught none of it, but she could tell that they weren’t stopping at Redton. As this thought went through her mind, Redton station flashed past the windows in a blur of signs, seats, buildings, and blue uniforms. Elouise sat back down with a bump. Redton had been shut – there had been an ‘incident’. All of a sudden, it seemed even more real than it had previously. Her mind had been so occupied with trying to come up with an excuse that she had given no thought at all to the fact that someone had been murdered, she wondered who they had been, where they had come from. She knew so many people by sight at the station – did she know the victim? Her stomach churned, to match the liquidity of her legs and, suddenly, the train pulled in to the next station, slowed, stopped. The doors opened. Elouise stood shakily, and virtually fell onto the platform, keeping her feet only barely in her heels – the heels she had been so proud of this morning, and which seemed so terribly unimportant now.

 

Robert

 

Robert was back in the car, heading west along the train line to Eaglehill, the next station out from Redton. It had taken some time for Kasey’s words to sink in to his brain, and somehow he had still not been able to believe it until he heard Elouise’s sweet voice on the phone. She had sounded distant, somehow apologetic and mournful to his ears, which seemed strange, illogical. It was not Elouise’s fault that Kasey, and Robert for that matter, had jumped to conclusions, certainly no one blamed her for the misunderstanding. Elouise rarely reacted mildly, he was so used to her flying off the handle whenever something went wrong, that to hear her sounding forlorn and sorry in this situation, which was not remotely of her own doing, seemed at cross purposes, like a single red sock in a load of white washing. All Robert could feel at this moment was sweet, pure relief – his baby was alive, well. He pushed the thoughts from his mind, attempting to convince himself that he was over-analysing the situation, and tried to concentrate on driving instead.

 

Despite his best efforts, his mind wandered back to his wife. Robert knew the relationship had gotten tired, but he tended to view his marriage like a favourite armchair. It fit him perfectly, they worked well together, it was comfortable and relaxed and he certainly had no wish to see it end. He wouldn’t dare express that comparison to Elly, she certainly wouldn’t appreciate being compared to old furniture, but he assumed she felt the same way, although she would definitely have a more glamorous analogy to describe it. He, like many of his similarly married friends, was comfortable in his relationship. He could appreciate a fine figure or a shapely thigh when he saw one, but the thought of straying never crossed his mind. The very idea of seeing someone new, someone he had to impress, flatter and notice, filled him with dread. He knew that Elouise knew how much he loved her, he knew that Elouise knew that he wasn’t all that observant, he knew that Elouise knew that he appreciated the little things that she did for him, day after day, year after year. He knew that Elouise knew that he had eyes only for her, and that she had eyes only for him. They were two of the lucky ones. So many of his friends had been separated, divorced, and he and Elly just kept on keeping on. It was a wonderful feeling, and when he thought he had lost her so suddenly, it was like his whole world had opened up, yawning at his feet, begging him to just step on down.

 

Robert snapped out of his reverie when he noticed the street sign pointing to Eaglehill station, the little stylised picture of a steam engine directing him down a narrow back street. He indicated at the last minute, turned the corner a little too fast and braked suddenly when he saw Elouise stepping carefully across the broken footpath towards the drop off point in ridiculously high heels. The sight of her was like balm to his eyes, she was okay!

 

Elouise

 

Elouise picked her way across the footpath in front of the Eaglehill railway station. She heard a car taking the corner too fast and looked up to see Robert’s company car come speeding around the bend. Rob, eyes wild and hair sticking up in tufts, peered through the windscreen at her, as if he was trying to determine if it was, indeed, Elouise. When the identification was positive, he grinned like a mad man and hit the brakes. The little hybrid car came to a screeching halt in the centre of the road in front of Elouise, and he leaned across the passenger seat to open the door for her. Elouise plastered a smile on her face in return, although she could feel that it wasn’t quite reaching her troubled eyes, and climbed into the open car. She had hardly gotten both feet into the footwell when Rob had reached across the centre console, grabbing her and holding her tight. She felt, rather than saw his tears – smelt rather than heard his relief.

“I love you Elly,” he murmured, “I love you so much, when I thought you were … well. I’m glad you’re not, anyway. I am just so happy you’re okay.”

 

Elouise wasn’t sure how to cope with the rush of emotion, and her throat clamped up. She was nervous, petrified, but most of all, guilty. Her guilt was like a living thing inside her – a black, viscous slug of a being, writhing and threatening to choke her if she so much as opened her mouth to offer her husband a platitude. She nodded her head against Robert’s chest, unable to speak, and hoped that he would take her reticence as being overcome by emotion, rather than overcome by pure, filthy guilt.

 

Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Elouise who had not dared to break the embrace, Robert released his hold on her, sat back in the driver’s seat, and gently appraised her with his eyes. She tried to smile, but it felt like a tight, false thing, so she relaxed the muscles around her mouth again, and looked back at him, wondering when his questions would start. Surprisingly, Robert didn’t say anything. He simply turned to look through the windscreen and, with a small irrepressible smile playing around the corners of his mouth he dropped the car into gear and pressed the accelerator.

 

Elouise’s reprieve did not last long, however. They had been driving for mere minutes when Robert pulled up at a red light, turned to her and, looking almost sheepish, said softly “You gave Kasey and me a hell of a scare this morning. And Brianna too. What happened? Where were you, Hun?”

Although she had been expecting it, the question when it came was like a blow to Elouise, the air rushing instantly out of her lungs, leaving her breathless and gasping. Slowly, she swallowed, trying to gain some composure, then, stuttering, “Well, you see, it’s … well, recently I’ve been spending some time in the mornings in the park. You know, the one near Central there? It has a little man-made lake in it. And I have been spending some time there. Just, you know, working on reports and such. Nothing … nothing else, really. This morning, well, I guess this morning time got away from me. I spent longer than normal there, didn’t get in to the office until late. It was, it is, rather … well. Rather unfortunate. I guess.” The words, which had been so difficult to come up with in the first place, were surprisingly easy to say in the end. Once they had left her mouth, though, Elouise could feel them hanging in the air between them. She realised she was holding her breath, waiting for Robert to give some kind of indication of whether or not he believed her. Eventually, Robert smiled, nodded slightly, and Elouise released the breath she had been holding.

“It would be nice weather in there at the moment. Early in the morning it would be quite pleasant, I bet. I wish I could do something like that before work”. Elouise relaxed further, felt a smile come to her face. A real smile this time, not a fake, plastered on one. Finally, she felt able to respond to Robert’s declarations of love, and she looked him in the eye, reached a soft, manicured hand to his stubbled cheek, and whispered, “I love you too, Rob. Thank you.” Robert grinned in response, the light changed to green, and they sped off, reconciled, at least for now.

Monday – 3:21pm Outbound

Dalton

 

Dalton felt pleasantly tired after work, and the gentle rocking motion of the 3:21 outbound train was soothing. He was sitting up the front of the train, hunched down on the seat with his legs splayed in front of him. His now empty cooler box lay on the empty seat beside him, and he could hear a bunch of raucous school kids horsing around behind him. He saw Redton station come into view through the graffiti-covered plexiglass window, swept up the cooler with one fist and swung himself into a standing position. Rolling with the rhythm of the train like a seasoned sailor, he moved to the exit then, as the train glided to a stop, he pressed the button that unlocked the doors and stepped out onto the platform. His good mood instantly evaporated as he took in the scene in front of him – what on earth had happened here? he thought as the swarm of school kids swept around him.

 

The first thing Dalton saw was the small huddle of police that were standing almost directly in front of him as he stepped off the train. The second thing Dalton noticed was the temporary, hastily erected black plastic scaffolding that surrounded the very end of the platform, where there should have been a gap in the fence leading to the car park through the long grass. The third thing Dalton noticed was the stench lingering in the air. The smell seemed to have substance all of its own, a foul, viscous mixture of rotting meat and flyblown household rubbish. Instinctively, Dalton began taking shallow breaths through his mouth. The smell made him feel like retching, and he swallowed thickly, trying to push the rising bile back down to his gullet.

 

Dalton’s first instinct was to continue on his way and he began to turn towards the main exit from the platform, following the children. Suddenly the memory of the homeless man he had seen at the station that morning rose in his mind, and he wondered if there could be a connection. At odd times throughout the day, while he had been going about his business, his mind would retrieve the memory for him like a photograph – the old man with his head down on the bench, the bundle of old clothes in the grass. The more he had thought about it, the odder that bundle of clothes had seemed. Now he was being faced with a scene where the police were clearly present and there was something rotting on the air, he couldn’t help but wonder what the old clothes may have concealed. His curiosity piqued, he turned back towards the police, who had almost instantly disregarded him, and resolutely started walking towards them.

 

There were three men standing together, two in the familiar blue uniforms of general duties officers, and one in casual pants and a collared shirt. Dalton assumed he was a detective of some sort, based only on his knowledge of American television shows. Of the two in uniforms one appeared older and slightly thicker around the waist. Dalton noticed he had two embroidered chevrons on his epaulet, but couldn’t remember what rank that would make him. The other was younger and quite tall, his epaulets without ornament, fresh-faced and clean shaven yet his eyes were tired, the stresses of police work already beginning to show on his young face. The one in plain clothes appeared in his late-thirties, strong and lean and with an expression of distrust, not a man to pick a fight with, Dalton surmised. As he approached the small group their lacklustre conversation lulled and ceased, and the three turned towards him as one, suddenly alert – instinct raising invisible hackles and throwing up emotional shields. Suddenly the older cop opened his mouth and barked “Yes, Sir, how can we help you?” Dalton stopped a few paces short, the challenge apparently thrown down by the officer making him question his actions.

“Uh, I was just wondering, um … I was just wondering what was going on. I was here this morning you see …”

The officer who had spoken tilted his head to one side thinking, then eyed the detective meaningfully. The detective must have given some signal that Dalton didn’t catch, because suddenly the cop’s attitude changed. His features softened ever so slightly, although the suspicion never left his eyes, and he pulled a notebook from his uniform shirt’s breast pocket. Fishing the pen from the spiral binding, he looked directly into Dalton’s eyes, the human version of a polygraph, Dalton assumed, and asked him what train he had caught this morning. Dalton hesitated only slightly before telling him it was the 4:56 to the city, the same train he caught every day. The officer asked him his name and occupation, and Dalton gave him the requested information, spelling out his surname and the name of the construction company he worked for. This was dutifully copied down in the notebook and then an uncomfortable silence fell as the officer flicked back in the notebook two, three, four pages. He was still looking down at the indecipherable scrawl on the small page as he begun speaking again, “Look, Mister … ah … Richmond. I won’t beat around the bush, there was a dead body found here at this station this morning, and we’ve begun an investigation into how that body, ah, came to be here. Now if you’re right in your recollections, Mister Richmond, and you came through here at approximately 4:56, or slightly before, then I believe you may be able to help us in our investigation. Do you think that you might have something that you can add to this case, Mister Richmond?”

Dalton, realising immediately that the cop really didn’t care what he thought, that he was going to be questioned regardless, nodded slightly, “You can call me Dalton, or Tony, if you want. Mister Richmond is my father. I, um, I don’t have a lot to tell you, but it’s been bugging me all day. Can I tell you here … now? Or … ”

The cop gave a tight, humourless smile, nodded slightly and then responded, “All right Mister Richmond – Dalton. How about you start here and now, and we’ll decide if we need to go to the station once we know what you saw? By the way, I am Senior Constable John Mitchell, this,” he indicated to the plainly dressed man on his left, “this is Detective Sergeant David Ward, and this here,” he nodded towards the young uniformed cop, “is Constable Michael Platt. Now, how about you start when you arrived at the station. Did you drive Mister … Dalton?”

Dalton’s mouth was suddenly dry and, though he knew he carried no guilt, he felt sure that Mitchell was capable of making him question his own innocence. Determined, now that he had started, to simply get through the interview which hopefully would be over soon, Dalton swallowed, tried to ignore the stench in his nostrils, and began, “I don’t drive, I live just up the road. I know I left home about a quarter to five, so I got here around ten to. I was walking over the pedestrian overpass to the city bound platform …” Dalton continued, uninterrupted, for ten minutes as he gave his impressions of the homeless man, the bundle of what he had mistakenly taken for clothes, and when he had finished, his story exhausted, Mitchell looked up his notes, nodded his head, and said gravely, “Mister Richmond, I think you had better accompany me down to the station. We’ll need fingerprints from you, and a formal statement.”

 

Without waiting for an answer, Mitchell turned away from the group, and spoke into the radio that had suddenly materialised in his hand. The conversation was unintelligible to Dalton, who stood slightly stunned, looking in confusion at the other two police officers who had not yet spoken a word, wondering if they would be able to tell him when he had gone from being a source of information to a suspect, and waited for Mitchell to turn back and deliver him his fate.

 

Zach

 

Zach paced up and down Platform Twelve at Central. Where the hell was she? The 3:21 outbound had been and gone. Zach checked his watch again, compared it to the station clock on the platform, and the arrivals board above him. The next outbound train came through at 3:38. He paced a little more, considered waiting in case she had missed the usual train, then decided that he had better things to do than wait around after a bit of arse. Yeah, it was great arse, but he had no doubt it would be there for him tomorrow too. Sullenly, and thinking of the romp he was missing out on, Zach stalked back out of Central Station, up the stairs and to his car. He hit the button to roll the top down on the convertible and, the wind in his hair making him feel at least slightly better, decided to go home and paint something. He decided he was going to use a lot of dark colours to match his mood – red and black, crimson and pitch. To hell with women, they caused nothing but trouble.

 

Walter

 

Walter had stumbled home from the station as soon as his hip had allowed him to stand and walk again. Even the trains had not been able to take his mind from the horrors that lay in the grass to his left, and the station had lost its appeal, at least for today. He just wanted to be home, where people didn’t show up unexpectedly dead, wrapped in filthy old blankets and left out in the cold for strangers to find them. It had taken him close to an hour to traverse the kilometre or so back to his house, and when he had arrived he had collapsed into bed with exhaustion, fear and anguish crowding his mind. After ten minutes of lying in agony, the confusion of the morning refusing to allow him to slip into sleep, he snagged the bedside phone by its cord with shaking fingers, and punched a speed dial button. His niece’s husband had set the phone system up for him years ago, patiently sitting beside him one Sunday afternoon, teaching him how to use the speed dials, and which one to use for what service. Since then, he had had a falling out with his niece’s family, they had accused him of being senile since all he did was stare at trains. Later, when he had refused to go into an assisted living facility because it was too far from the train line his niece and her husband had ceased contact and now he hadn’t heard from them in years. Most of his old friends had passed away or moved out of town, and so Walter rarely had visitors anymore. Although he missed the company, at least he didn’t have to explain to anyone why he was at the station so much. He could come and go as frequently and at whatever time he wished, without having to justify the action.

 

The line was picked up at the other end, startling Walter out of his memories, and for a moment he forgot who he was calling and why. Then the pain in his hip reminded him, not so subtly, and he asked in a soft voice whether or not Rosemary would be able to come around that afternoon. He had had a bad night, he told the nurse on the telephone, and a bit of a scare this morning, and he was in a bit of pain. Although Walter’s words did not reveal the level of discomfort he was in, the nurse was practised and had heard from Walter often enough to know from the sound of his voice that he was in urgent need of medical attention. When Walter ended the call with a pleasant, “Thank you, Lovey.” she immediately dialled Rosemary’s personal mobile and called her in on her day off. She knew that Walter needed the best care right now, and that Rosemary would provide just that.

 

After swallowing two pain killers from the bottle above the bathroom sink, Walter finally found peace in the form of drug-induced sleep for a few hours, and was woken when he heard Rosemary knocking on the front door, calling out, “Walter! Dear, are you home? It’s Rosemary, from Home Nursing”. He slowly and carefully rolled out of bed, throwing aside the last remnants of pleasantly dream-free sleep, and padded in his socks to the front door. He unlocked it with the key he kept in a jar on the window sill, and checked above the chain before opening the door wide. Rosemary entered with an undisguised look of relief on her face. Chattering pleasantly, apologising for being late and saying how worried she had been about him, she grabbed his elbow and gently steered him back to the bedroom. Walter allowed himself to be led back into bed, let her check him over, Rosemary exclaiming over his bumps and bruises. She noticed the pain evident in his eyes as she gently manipulated his leg to gauge the damage in his hip and then went to her bag for some appropriate medication. Walter took the pills without question, swallowed them with the glass of water she fetched for him. She elicited promises from him that he would go and see the specialist, both of them knowing full well that he wouldn’t. Rosemary waited, engaging Walter in general, light hearted conversation, as the drugs took effect, and once he was again asleep, Rosemary slipped out of the room and left the house, ensuring the door was locked tightly behind her.

 

Walter awoke some hours later and lay in bed listening to the sound of the trains as they passed behind his small house. Judging by their frequency, it was late in the afternoon. After an hour or so of daydreaming as the last vestiges of the medication faded away, Walter rolled over to check the clock – nearly half past three. He had virtually slept the day away, he realised, and with a resolve found from the faded pain in his hip, and a trace of unfounded guilt at sleeping for so long, he carefully rose from his bed, and shuffled into the kitchen.

 

With his half full coffee mug in one hand and toast crumbs clinging to his lips, Walter shifted into the living room, and studied his model trains. He set the coffee down carefully on a side table and picked up an engine from the collection at the miniature rail yard. Placing it on the track, he had just flicked the switch to set the train in motion when a knock came on the door. He assumed that it must be Rosemary returning, perhaps she had forgotten something, and he switched the power off and went to the door.

 

He unlocked the door with the key and, because the chain hadn’t been replaced when Rosemary had left the house, opened the door wide. Instead of the friendly face of the home care nurse, though, Walter saw the stern faces of a pair of police officers – one older, one younger. Walter gave an involuntary cry and fainted on the doorstep.

Monday – 5:13pm Outbound

Lawrence

 

Lawrence watched the clock in the corner of his computer monitor count down the seconds to five o’clock. If it went any slower it would go backwards, he thought morosely as 4:46 ticked over. Figuring it would take him at least a few minutes to pack up, he stood with his coffee mug and wandered into the kitchen to wash it up. He dawdled back to his desk, realised only a minute had passed, and morosely hit the send/receive button on his email. Nothing. He heaved a sigh, and then decided to shut down his computer anyway. Elouise wasn’t here, she would never know. He happily clicked his mouse, instructing the machine to shut down. The jingly, electronic tune of the machine’s shut down process was music to his ears and, looking around furtively to see if anyone was paying any attention, he grabbed his empty briefcase and headed for the door.

 

The walk to Central station was a short stroll through a trendy shopping precinct, and Lawrence arrived on Platform Twelve just as the 4:59 pulled up to the station. Thanking his good fortune, Lawrence jumped onto the train, along with what seemed like hundreds of other commuters, all just as willing to get home slightly early as he was himself. The train was packed to the rafters and the chance of finding a seat was next to non-existent. Lawrence didn’t bother, he wedged himself into a corner near the exit doors, and let his eyes drift into the unfocussed, dreamy gaze of a regular commuter.

 

Almost completely oblivious to his surroundings, only barely taking in which stations they were stopping at and tuning out everything else, Lawrence began to think about some of the stuff that had happened since the weekend. What a crazy day! Late on Sunday afternoon, he had wandered back around the block to his own flat from his mate Ben’s place, and had stayed up pretty late playing Halo 3 on X-box. He had woken this morning feeling a bit tired and run down from the party, but the worst of the headache had gone. He still couldn’t remember much of what had happened at that party – there had been a lot of people there, not all of whom he’d known – not all of whom even Ben had known, he suspected. Not that that was particularly unusual, Ben had a flair for throwing pretty wild parties that seemed to end up encompassing more people than anyone ever expected.

 

He had gotten to the station and caught the 7:56 into the city, arriving at the office shortly before half past eight, which was his designated starting time. Of course, that was when things had started to go really pear shaped. The phone in Elouise’s office had rung and rung and he had been relieved when it stopped, transferring back to reception, and the pressure had been off him to answer it. But then it had started again and Lawrence had figured he’d better answer it. Elouise was rarely in much before nine, so there was no chance she was in her office ignoring it. And if it was important, she would be irritated if he hadn’t gotten a message. So he had stepped, somewhat nervously, into Elouise’s office, picked up the phone and spoke to Elouise’s daughter Kasey, who had seemed upset and out of sorts, but who had not given him any information whatsoever. He thought it was strange that Kasey had seemed so surprised when Elouise wasn’t in her office. Elouise had told him in the past that she usually caught the 8:23 into the office in the mornings, so she should have left home around about the time Kasey called him in the office, unless he had miscalculated somewhere along the line.

 

But then Elouise had finally arrived, right around the normal time, received a phone call on her mobile just as she walked into the office, and then had appeared all dreamy and worried and nervous, and had fled again. Lawrence hadn’t seen or heard from her for the rest of the day, which was strange. In the two months Lawrence had been working with Elouise, he had not known her to even take a lunch break, let alone a whole day off at no notice.

 

Something familiar in the scenery made him snap out of his thoughts, and he realised that the train was beginning to pull into Redton station. He elbowed his way through the press of people and stepped through the doors as they opened onto the platform. A stench rolled off the air and hit him like a fist in the face as he did so, and he took a small involuntary step backwards before regaining his composure and his balance and starting to move toward the southern end of the platform, intending to duck through the narrow gap in the fence and through the car park towards his flat. As he neared the usually long grass, he thought at first that it had been mown, but then realised it had been trampled flat. The smell seemed to get worse as got closer to the edge of the concrete platform, and when he stepped through the gap in the fence onto the trampled grass, a fresh wave assaulted his nasal passages. The smell was remarkably similar to the kitchen bin in his house just before he got up the energy to take it out, and he guessed that an animal had died in the grass overnight, the heat of the daytime sun putrefying the flesh and creating the smell. Finally, he got to the car park, where he crossed the street and continued on his way. At least the air was a bit clearer here.

 

Shannen

 

Shannen twisted the key in the lock and pushed the door of her apartment open. It swung inwards, revealing her lounge room. The furniture was old, sourced from op shops and second hand dealers of dubious integrity, but the room was neat and clean. Shannen stepped over the threshold, placed her handbag on the old fashioned hall stand where it belonged, and went to the kitchen for a cup of tea. She had already switched the kettle on and reached up to the overhead cupboard for a mug before a thought suddenly hit her – alcohol would be so much more welcome right now, surely discovering a corpse on the way to work was enough to justify a Monday afternoon drink. She put the mug away and grabbed down a glass instead, then went to the top shelf of the pantry for the Baileys. She poured a good measure of the smooth smelling liquor into the bottom of the glass, hesitated, then sloshed in another fingerful, before recapping the bottle and returning it to its place. She topped up the glass with milk from the fridge and then took the glass to the balcony.

 

The sun was low on the horizon, although still about an hour away from setting. Shannen sat down on the low couch, which was wedged into a corner of her tiny balcony, and pulled her legs up to her chin. She had put the drink down on a small table beside the couch, and now she wrapped her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees. She closed her eyes, but the only images dancing behind her eyelids were of a filthy blanket-wrapped body, a pink painted toenail, and the distrustful faces of police officers. In despair she opened them again, and watched the wind chime turn lazily in the only barely there breeze. The chime was unusual, the product of a lazy Sunday morning searching the more obscure markets held along the beaches south of the city. It had blown glass tubes in varying, swirled colours that produced a high pitched yet pleasant chime, but the most interesting part about it was the feature hanging from the central ball. It was a glass phoenix, wings lifted as it eternally rose from unseen ashes. She had bought it for its slightly quirky charm, but in the past twelve months it had come to symbolise a lot more to Shannen. The traditional symbolism of the phoenix represented rebirth and new life, and indeed the purchase of the chime had represented a new chapter in Shannen’s life. It had ended the part of her life that had been concerned only with drinking, partying and general hell-raising, and had heralded the current chapter, where she had gone back to university, gotten and held a steady, albeit menial job, regained contact with her mother. She still missed the partying – not so much the drugs and alcohol, it was a refreshing change to wake up with a clear head in the morning – but more the social aspect, the friends (although many had turned out to be not so good friends in the end), the constant, yet often unsavoury, company. She craved the daily interaction with others, yet still somehow coveted her own space, which had made her very difficult to spend time with in recent years. She had had a boyfriend for a few months, on more than one occasion, but had been unable to reconcile time spent with a significant other and time spent alone, and the relationships had died rather natural deaths. Shannen had chalked them up as learning experiences. Through the confusion of departing false friends and strained personal relationships, one friend had risen up above it all, though. Ariana had offered her a hand up, a shoulder to cry on and most of all love, right when she needed it most. Many nights had been spent over endless cups of tea, and the occasional glass of wine, and the two had formed a strong bond as together, although it was an unspoken pact, the two young women tried to make some sense of their lives and rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes that their own teenaged selves had created.

 

When Shannen had started down this path of betterment and self-awareness, she had known she would face some hurdles. She knew that false friends would tempt her, that the partying would exert its pull, that the pills would call her name. And so they had, frequently, sometimes irresistibly. She hadn’t always managed to stay away from the temptations, but she had always managed to get back on the ladder. It may have been a few rungs lower, but she never found herself right back at the bottom. Although all these things had been expected, that many battles had been fought and most had been won, she had never expected that being drawn into a murder investigation would be among them. The thought of drinking herself into oblivion, of finding a little something to take the edge off, of sinking into that wondrous world where everything sparkled and even strangers glowed with love (except for when they didn’t), teased her, and she pushed the thought back down. Struggling a little at the moment, knowing the struggle was only going to get worse as the night wore on, she wondered what to do. If she could keep busy, maybe that would keep her mind occupied. If her mind was occupied, she wouldn’t be thinking how she could obtain some pretty little pills, she wouldn’t be thinking about the bottle of Bailey’s in the pantry, or the gin stashed in the back of the cupboard.

 

Struck with an idea suddenly, Shannen got up from the couch and trotted into the lounge to snag the cordless phone from its charger base. She dialled the number from memory as she stepped back outside, and watched the sun dip its bottom edge below the horizon as the phone rang in her ear. It was picked up mid-ring, and Shannen opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again as she heard the pre-recorded voice, “Hi, this is Ariana’s phone. I’m not answering, so leave a message. If you’re sexy I’ll call you back.” The slight tinkle of laughter that came after the message was abruptly cut off by a jarring beep, and Shannen did as Ariana had instructed, “Hey, girlfriend. I was hoping you were free for a bit tonight. I’ve had an absolutely shitty day and the bed bugs are bitin’. Give me a call back, ok?” Shannen hit the button that terminated the call, laid back along the length of the couch, and hoped that Ariana would call back soon. Slowly, the sun sunk in the sky, and as the last few rays of light shone over the horizon, Shannen resigned herself to having to fight her demons alone. Resolutely, she got up, grabbed the glass of Bailey’s and milk, and carried it into the kitchen. She poured the contents of the glass into the sink, watching the milky concoction swirl down the plughole, leaving a scummy trail behind it, then ran the tap for a few seconds to clear the drain. Shannen turned to the kettle, hit the switch with a vengeance and grabbed down a mug. She plopped a teabag in and waited for the water to boil.

 

Elouise

 

Elouise lay in bed, wide awake, mind reeling. Rob was asleep beside her, lying on his side, her back to his wife, his breathing heavy but not quite a snore yet. Elouise was, as usual, thinking about Zach. This time though, it wasn’t a pleasant recollection of the times they had spent together, the time they had spent together this morning, the way his eyes undressed her, or the way his touch sent sparks into her groin. This time, she was trying to think what to do about the whole sorry mess. The events of this morning had completely disarmed her; she had been so totally unprepared, so completely wrapped up in her invincibility. The charm that had surrounded the affair from the beginning had always seemed to extend to the possibility of being found out. She had been so sure that she wouldn’t slip up, that the only way Rob would ever find out would be through her own doing, that the possibility of it occurring through something as random as a murdered stranger and as simple as a phone call, something she had absolutely no control over, was almost mind boggling in its obviousness. Elouise realised that she had become complacent, and the thought of Rob finding out chilled her to the bone. However, the thought of breaking off the affair filled her with dread. How would she get up in the morning, without the thought of Zach meeting her at Central? How would she get through the day at work, without the memory of the morning she had spent with him, the animal scent of their sex still lingering on her skin? How would she get through the menial evenings as dutiful wife and attentive mother, without the prospect of doing it all again tomorrow?

 

She had been with Zach for so long now, had led a double life so successfully for so many years, that she wasn’t sure if she would be able to go back to being what she thought of as ‘normal’. Her choices, though, were limited. She could call it off with Zach tomorrow morning at Central, walk away as though the past three years had meant nothing, and go back to being wife to Rob, mother to Kasey, the morning commute suddenly a painful, endless chore. She could spill the truth to Rob, tell him all, beg him for forgiveness, and hope that they could salvage some love, some trust, some pitiful scrap of their relationship, their marriage. She could choose Zach instead, dump Rob in a blazing argument over his lack of attention, his dirty clothes on the floor, his resistance to going out for dinner more than once a month – any excuse would do – and then announce to Zach that she was all his, forever more. Elouise sighed under her breath, covered her face with her hands. None of those options were suitable. What she really wanted was to continue the way she had been – indefinitely. But after this morning, she knew that she had to make a decision – before a decision was made for her. Because in a flash of realisation today she had come to the conclusion that a decision surely would be made for her. And she knew that whatever that decision was, she probably wasn’t going to like it.

 

Elouise sneaked a look at the clock – 11:47, nearly midnight – and sighed. Her body desperately needed the sleep after the series of stresses that the day had dealt her, but her mind refused to shut down, still filled with thoughts. Reluctantly, she got out of bed, ensuring that she didn’t wake Rob, and slipped downstairs. She would sit up and watch late-night television with a herbal tea for a while, try and get her brain to shut down for the night.

 

Robert

 

Robert felt the bed rock slightly and rose slowly into consciousness just in time to see Elouise pad over to the bedroom door and head out to the stairs. He lay unmoving on his side, still climbing through the spider web threads of his dreams, attempting to sort out fantasy and dreams from the reality of the bedroom, his house. He listened to the muffled sounds coming from the kitchen – the tap running, the kettle set to boil, the clink of a cup and saucer. Eventually, the click as the kettle shut off, the liquid sound of boiling water sloshing into the cup, more clinking as the cup was picked up and taken away … into the lounge room as far as he could tell. Then the sound of the television, too loud at first in the sleeping house, then quickly turned down.

 

Fully awake now, Robert realised that Elouise must have been having trouble sleeping. A herbal tea and bad late night television was her usual remedy for sleeplessness, although he hadn’t noticed her do it in, well, possibly years, he realised. It made him wonder what was keeping her up, but put it down to the confusion and stress of the day. Once Kasey had seen Elouise and the last of the doubt and confusion had been cleared up, the family had spent most of the rest of the morning with the police, both at the railway and later at the local police station. It had been a harrowing day for all of them and all three had fallen into bed early after a quick take away dinner. Robert knew that he had fallen asleep almost instantly, sheer exhaustion taking over. It seemed as though Elouise hadn’t been so lucky.

 

Robert considered going downstairs to talk to her, try and help her unravel her thoughts enough that it would allow her to sleep, but he always felt uncomfortable in the role of confidant with Elouise. She had never been the type to express her feelings to him, put her heart on her sleeve, so to speak. He assumed she did a lot more of this with her girlfriends, but recently, even those seemed to have drifted away. Elouise rarely had time for coffee mornings, casual dinners or telephone gossip sessions with her friends recently, it seemed. Suddenly and for the very first time, he wondered why that was. It had never occurred to him to question it before, put it down to increasing maturity on Elouise’s part and a greater commitment to her work since she was promoted a few years ago. But now something niggled at him. With the clarity of hindsight, Rob realised that Elouise had definitely shown a change, and he tried to think back to when this change had occurred. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it centred around the time she was promoted. He guessed that perhaps the promotion could account for much of it, but there were other things that seemed strange, now he analysed it. She had gotten edgier somehow, less tolerant, more prone to fly off for a minor misdemeanour or a perceived slight. Never an early riser, she had started getting up in the pre-dawn hours, taking early trains to work. At first these had been accompanied by excuses – she had too much work on, her boss was coming in early, there was a big presentation first thing in the morning – and eventually it had become the norm, no more excuses given, or requested.

 

His thoughts jumped to the conversation they had held in his car, stopped at the red light on the way back to Kasey at Redton. At the time Elouise’s explanation for her absence – that she had been sitting working on a report in the parklands near Central, seemed entirely reasonable. But now that he could give it more rational, less harried thought, it seemed strange. Elouise had never been an outdoors type. They had gone camping once, in the early days before Kasey was born, before they were married even, and Elouise had done nothing but complain bitterly the entire time. Needless to mention, they had never gone again. Robert knew Elouise well enough through nearly twenty years of marriage to know that she was simply not the type to want to sit in parklands and watch the sun rise over the lake. Unless she was undergoing a sudden want to get back in touch with nature as she got older.

 

Robert yawned, weariness overcoming him again. He dismissed his disturbed thoughts as paranoia, brought on by a stressful day, rolled over and readjusted the pillows, then closed his eyes and drifted into sleep again. He would ponder this more in the morning, when surely it would seem a lot more rational.

Tuesday – 6:14am to the City

Shannen

 

Shannen had woken early, feeling worse than she had the night before, despite over eight hours in bed. She had resisted the pull of alcohol, alone, waiting for Ariana to call back, until shortly before nine o’clock. It was around then that the events of the day had started to catch up with her. She had been sitting on the balcony since the last light had seeped out of the day, reading a light-hearted paperback novel by flickering candle light and listening to classical music on the stereo. After a while she had been unable to concentrate on the page, felt compelled to force her eyes back to the top of the page again and again, because the words simply weren’t making sense any more. Finally, she had given up trying to follow the story of the words in front her and closed the book. She stared at the cover for a little while, a picture of a house painted in airy watercolours with a tree and a horse-drawn carriage in the foreground, a strangely happy looking Clydesdale horse with a blade of grass dangling from the corner of a whiskered mouth. Overwhelmed by the cuteness of the picture, Shannen closed her eyes and let her head fall back on the arm of the couch, lying prone along the length of it, legs dangling from the knees over the opposite end. She had attempted to call Ariana several times throughout the night, had left messages the first few times and then had given up, disconnecting the call when Ariana’s bright recorded “Hi…!” came over the line again and again. Eventually, she had picked her weary body up, and put herself to bed.

 

Shannen had not slept well however, her dreams filled with demons and cadavers, lost friends and failed relationships. She had woken throughout the night a number of times, had on one occasion gotten up to go to the toilet and had ended up wandering the small apartment, checking doors were locked, windows closed, blinds drawn. Reminding herself that no one was about in the house apart from herself, trying to convince her brain to just stop thinking, allow her to rest. Eventually she had gone back to bed, despite not feeling any more reassured than earlier, but with the knowledge that she had at least checked the house.

 

When the alarm clock shrieked at five am, Shannen had been awake for some twenty minutes already, had been steadily watching the second hand on her old-fashioned, op-shop bought clock tick down the minutes that she was not going to get any more sleep in. Fully awake, but far from refreshed, Shannen got out of bed and showered with the water turned as hot as her body could stand. When she wrapped the towel around herself, she noticed how red her skin had gone from the hot stream of water, and noted that it didn’t seem to matter how hot the water was, she still felt the stench of death lingering on her skin. She hadn’t touched the body, had seen nothing more of the body than a pink painted and slightly chipped toenail, but somehow she could still smell the scent of the corpse surrounding her.

 

Shannen found a clean uniform shirt and slipped it over her head, then found yesterday’s pants lying in a crumpled heap on the floor. She picked them up, shook them out, inspected them half-heartedly, and climbed into them. She quickly pulled her dark hair back with a black elastic, the end of the pony tail skimming the back of her neck. She leaned forward, examining her face in the mirror. She was naturally slender, her cheek bones fairly prominent underneath the olive skin. She had brown eyes set beneath long dark lashes, and, as of this morning, she had dark crescent-moon shadows beneath them. When she looked closely, she could see the beginnings of crows’ feet extending from the outside corners of her eyes, a slight vertical crease beginning at the top of her nose. Shannen considered putting on some make up to hide the worst of the stress showing on her face but a yawn caught her suddenly, stretching her mouth wide. She decided to just quickly smear some mascara on – any more than that would be just too much effort this morning. She performed the ritual quickly, then blinked and turned away from the mirror.

 

Shannen went to the kitchen and slowly made herself a cup of tea, which would serve as breakfast until she got into work. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she began thinking of Ariana again, wondering why she hadn’t called back last night. She finished making the tea and sipped it slowly as she grabbed the phone, hit redial, and nestled it into her neck. It rang a while, then “Hi, this is Ariana’s phone…”

 

Elouise

 

Elouise was startled awake by the jarring sound of the morning radio breakfast announcers suddenly braying synthetic-sounding laughter from the clock radio beside her bed. It was five am, and still caught up in her dreams as though they were lace curtains for her to peep through, she tried to make sense of the morning. Her body cried out to be allowed to go back to sleep, but then the thought of meeting Zach in an hour or so pried her eyes open. Until she remembered what had happened yesterday. With the sudden recollection of the angst she had been struggling with into the early hours of this morning, she closed her eyes. Zach’s face, the comfort she knew he would offer, faded in her mind’s eye, and Elouise allowed the call of further sleep to pull her back under, where she didn’t have to make a decision between her husband and her lover – between surety and security and lust and laughter.

 

Walter

 

Walter lay in the narrow bed, eyes closed and dull pain coursing through his body. His mind was foggy, the memories of the past night hazy, and he wasn’t entirely sure how he had ended up here, or even where here was. There had been nurses come in and out through the night, taking blood pressure, changing the bag hanging from the intra-venous drip, asking him to swallow more pain killers. He wasn’t certain where the pain was located anymore. It had started in his hip, but the drugs, the fall on his doorstep and the general fogginess which now overtook him made it seem to be emanating from everywhere, and nowhere. He half opened his eyes and, without moving his head, took in the room around him. Hanging above the pitifully small hospital bed was the ever-present IV bag, hanging from a flimsy pole poking out of a groaning, whooshing pump. He followed the tubing down with his eyes to where it disappeared into his right wrist. He flexed his wrist experimentally but felt no pain, at least none associated with the drip as far as he could tell. Looking back up above him, he could see the oversized standard-issue bed head, upside down in his point of view, and completely rigged up with strange valves and spigots, incomprehensible acronyms on the labels below them. To his left, he could see a table, the sort that was designed to be rolled over the bed, it had an unopened newspaper and a nearly empty bottle of water on it, and was littered with the little plastic cups that they brought his tablets around in. Further to the left, there was a window. The view to outside was dingy and it was difficult to see, but he could discern the barren tops of high rise buildings in the middle distance, although everything beyond this was just haze under a grey sky. His gaze slipped from the view and suddenly alighted on a figure sitting in a chair beside the window, apparently staring out the window, watching the rain as it dropped from the sky.

 

Walter gave a start when he realised that someone was in the room with him. The chair had been turned halfway towards the window and the person sitting in it had turned to the rest of the way to look out, so their back was towards him. It was unlikely that they had realised he was awake, Walter realised. Walter examined the figure closer, a weedy body, thin shoulders clad in light blue serge, hair concealed underneath what appeared to be a policeman’s cap. The figure was wearing dark blue pants to complement the lighter shirt, and Walter realised that the person was a police officer, although he could not determine of what gender. Why a policeman would be in his hospital room, he had no idea, but then he didn’t understand why they had come to his door last night either. He guessed that there was something they needed to talk to him about, but why would that necessitate putting a policeman in his room, waiting for him to wake up?

 

How had he gotten here anyway? He knew he had been here for some time, since late the afternoon before, he assumed. The last thing he could remember was opening his door to the police officers the night before. He cast his memory back, tried to work out if one of those was the one here in his hospital room now, but couldn’t make a positive identification either way. The policemen at the door must have called an ambulance, brought him here. Which would indicate that this was the large public hospital about twenty kilometres from his home. And now there was one of the boys in blue in the room, waiting.

 

The thought of having to face this police officer if it was discovered that he was awake made him nervous and upset. It occurred to him that if he continued to sleep, the event would at least be put off, if not cancelled. He shifted onto his side, so that the figure in the room was behind him and out of his range of vision, and closed his eyes again. He waited for the drugs to wash their foggy cloud over him and send him back to blissful, unknowing sleep. Eventually, they did, and Walter slept.

Tuesday – 8:23am to the City

Lawrence

 

Lawrence’s mobile blasted out a particularly bad rendition of In da Club by rapper 50 Cent, and Lawrence was out of bed and in the lounge room answering it before he had even realised what had happened.

“Larry, mate, you awake man?” Ben sounded wired, as though he had been awake for hours, and Lawrence decided that he must be either on some heavy drugs or had been up around the clock, because he’d never known Ben to be out of bed before ten am otherwise. Ben was lucky enough to have parents who could support him through his uni degree, and he had so far managed to make a career out of changing his mind. Lawrence had calculated that Ben had spent somewhere close to seven years studying now, and he was no closer to finishing a degree than he had been five years ago. All this had added up to a lot of late night, drunken parties at Ben’s house, and a lot of mornings where everyone except Ben had had to get up and go to work.

“I am now, aren’t I?!” Lawrence answered grumpily, “What the hell do you want? What time is it anyway?” As Lawrence grumbled into the phone he glanced at the LCD display on the DVD player and gave a start – it was nearly 8 o’clock already, he was going to be late for work. What had happened to his alarm clock?

“Listen, Larry, did you ever see that chick you were chatting up again?”

“Huh? Which chick? When? What does this have to do with anything? Look, Ben, I’m gonna be late for work, I’ll talk to you later, ok?” Lawrence had pulled the phone from his ear and was lining up the ‘end call’ button with his index finger when a tinny voice squawked from the receiver. Reluctantly, he brought the phone back to his ear, “What?! Ben, I’ve gotta go!”

“Larry, mate, this is important! Don’t hang up on me, OK? Remember the chick you were chatting up on the weekend? Tall, dark hair, built like a peg?”

“Uhh,” Lawrence searched his hazy memories of Saturday night, trying to piece together the events that had begun to, mercifully, fade from memory, “Umm. It was a funny name … Aalia or something? That wasn’t it … but it was like that. Why?” He paused, then added, “And make it quick.”

Ben ignored the question, sounding strangely far away now, “Aalia, you reckon? Hmm … ok, thanks mate. Listen, I’ll call you tonight, ok? Try and remember the name for me, alright?”

 

Lawrence stared at the phone for a second after Ben hung up and the shattered tone of the disconnected line started pulsing in his ear. Then he shook his head slightly and pressed the button to disconnect the call. He had no idea what that had been about, it just seemed as though Ben was on some weird drugs. He possibly was, but he had seemed rather lucid, if a little vague at the end.

 

Lawrence saw the clock on the DVD machine had ticked over eight o’clock, and he forced thoughts of Ben and the girl from the party from his mind. He dashed back into the bathroom, turned the hot water on, and stripped. Thinking of nothing now but getting to work on time, he jumped into the shower.

 

He was halfway through lathering himself with soap when the girl’s name jumped into his head – Ariana! That had been it! He’d have to remember it and tell Ben when he called tonight, assuming Ben even remembered of course. Feeling slightly better, he finished washing, dressed, and ran all the way to the train station.

 

Elouise

 

Elouise couldn’t find a parking spot at the station. Normally when she arrived, there were places right up close, but that was at six o’clock in the morning. By eight, she saw, all the good ones were gone. Kasey was in the car with her, happy because she had, for the first time in years, gotten a lift to the station. Elouise had felt that there had been a certain amount of suspicion from both Rob and Kasey over her decision to go in late today. She had brushed it off, saying she was just too tired after yesterday to go in early. Indeed, her face had been showing the strain of the sleepless night when she looked in the mirror this morning. Whether or not Rob had noticed, she didn’t know, although she suspected he hadn’t – he didn’t generally notice things like that, she thought wryly to herself. What mattered was that she had seen it, and she had subsequently over compensated with makeup to cover it. She suspected by the greasy, heavy feel of the products on her face now, that she looked a little like a fairground clown. If she just opened her mouth and moved her head back and forth, she thought, and almost chuckled in spite of herself and her dismal mood. Kasey turned slightly, and gave her a funny sideways look, and Elouise quickly wiped the smile from her face.

“Mum,” Kasey said slowly, like she couldn’t find the right words, “Mum, are you ok? I heard you up last night. And you look tired.”

 

Elouise was taken aback, when had her daughter gotten so astute? She felt a little tremor of shock run through her as she realised that her baby was turning into a woman, and she had a fleeting feeling of missing out on something major somewhere along the way. She realised that the pause was growing in the air between her and her daughter, and she struggled to put some words into it, if only to fill the void, “Oh yes, I’m OK,” she said, “just tired I guess. I just couldn’t seem to get my brain to shut down last night.” Elouise gave a chuckle, but it sounded false to her. Like so much else she spoke at the moment, it was just a layer of lacquer over what was underneath, hiding it from view.

 

Kasey gave a half-hearted, “Hmm. OK then,” but Elouise could tell she wasn’t convinced. She sensed Kasey want to take the matter up further, but then stopped herself, and she wondered what she was thinking.

 

Suddenly, a parking spot appeared like a beacon in front of her sedan, and she hit the brakes quickly, and performed a neat reverse park into the gap. The two women, older and younger, got out of the car and retrieved briefcases and umbrellas from the car boot. Elouise locked the car with the remote key, and the two walked side by side down the rough footpath, sidestepping puddles. Neither woman looked at the other, the unspoken conversation hanging between them like threads of silken spider web – too dense to ignore their presence, but too difficult to wrap words around them and make some sense of the emotions. Suddenly, Kasey spotted Brianna up ahead, just about to cross the pedestrian overpass, and she called out to her.

 

Before racing off to meet her friend though, she turned to her mother, stopping her in her tracks.

“Mum?” she said softly, “I love you. Don’t work late today OK?”

 

Elouise nodded mutely, struck by the depth of the emotion she felt buried in Kasey’s words, and on an impulse, wrapped her arms around her daughter, their bags tangling together in an embrace of their own. Elouise could smell the fruity shampoo that Kasey had used in her hair this morning, the hair that was so much like her father’s. She vowed to herself that, no matter what, she would be there for her daughter. Regardless of what she decided to do about her tangled relationships, she needed to ensure that she was never less than the best she could be – not for herself, not for her partner, whoever that turned out to be, but for Kasey. She owed her that much.

 

Reluctantly, Elouise pulled away from the embrace, and the two chuckled as they disentangled the various accessories – bags, earrings, umbrellas and identification tags had all gotten caught up with each other. Once they were separated once more, they smiled at each other and Elouise realised that, although the tension had lifted, Kasey still looked somewhat troubled. Still, Elouise felt marginally more relaxed, and somehow one step closer to a decision than she had been this morning.

 

Kasey ran ahead to meet with Brianna, and Elouise watched the two, heads together and talking seriously, as they crossed the overpass ahead of her, disappearing into the crowd of commuters that surrounded the station. Yes, maybe she knew what she had to do. She didn’t have to decide between two men – she had to decide between a man and her daughter. And, not surprisingly, that decision was a lot easier.

 

Lawrence

 

Lawrence tore down the footpath as fast as he could go, praying that the broken concrete, slick with the drizzly rain that had been on and off all morning, wouldn’t catch one of his shoes. These shoes were not designed for running in, he thought vaguely, as he watched his black dress shoes with the silver buckles thump the footpath in rhythmic foot falls. His breath was coming in ragged gasps now, and as he saw the pedestrian overpass looming ahead of him, the thought of getting over all those stairs made him feel like giving up. But then he saw Elouise’s stern face in his mind’s eye, and, knowing there was no way she would miss two days in a row, he used the last of his energy to propel him up the old wooden stairway. As he hit the catwalk at the top, he heard the crackly announcement from the platform, the words with their peculiar inflection common only to pre-recorded public transport announcements the world over, were distinguishable only because he had heard them so many times, “The train arriving on. Platform two is a. City train. Stopping. All stations to. Central.” The announcement was cut off abruptly by the rumble of the train approaching, and the squeal of brakes as it pulled in to the station. Lawrence put the rest of his energy into getting down the stairs, and made it to the platform just as the guard’s whistle blew. He stepped through the nearest pair of open doors, just as the too cheery warning announcement – “Doors closing! Please stand clear!” – chorused in every carriage, and the doors snapped close with a vengeance. He had made it!

 

As the train pulled away from the station, Lawrence stumbled slightly with the sudden movement, and grabbed the nearest handhold, which was suspended from the ceiling immediately in front of the double doors. He brushed against someone in his haste, and turned to mumble an apology, realising at the last minute that is was none other than his boss, Elouise.

“Oh! Elouise! Hi!” he said, still breathless, and trying unsuccessfully to not to show his surprise at seeing her in his voice. She was standing on the packed train, holding the dangling handhold next to the one he was hanging from, and her concentration appeared to be on the tiny silver phone in her hand. She appeared to be reading a text message, deep in thought, and she looked up vaguely when she heard her name.

“Hmm? Oh, Larry, hi. How are you?” The question was polite, not inquisitive, Lawrence noted, but answered anyway, in the interests of making polite conversation,

“Oh, pretty good thanks. Running a bit late today,” he gave a rough laugh, a quick, “Heh,” before he realised how peculiar he sounded. “It’s, uh, it’s a bit wet outside isn’t it? Makes public transport fun, huh?”

Elouise’s attention had returned to the phone, and Lawrence noted a slight crease had appeared between her eyes, was that confusion or irritation, he wondered. And was it directed to him, or to the phone?

She looked up again, distracted, and said “Huh? Oh, the rain. No … I mean, yes, it is wet outside.” She looked out the window as though it was only Lawrence’s pointing it out that had made her realise the miserable weather. Lawrence just watched her, her attitude confusing him. Drawing her attention back to the interior of the carriage, she spotted an empty seat and pointed to it, “I, um, might take a seat. These heels …”

Lawrence nodded and watched as she moved to the empty seat, swaying with the motion of the train. Either she really didn’t want to speak to him, or there was something very strange going on in her life right now, Lawrence thought. He turned his back to her and stared out the scratched and misted window instead, watching as the daggy old shopfronts and messy backyards sped past, his brain moving just as fast, wondering why everything seemed so topsy-turvy at the moment.

 

Brianna

 

Kasey and Brianna had wandered down to the far end of the city bound platform before the train pulled in. Mostly it was because they always rode in the end carriage, but today it had the extra advantage that it was out of earshot of Kasey’s mother. The two teenagers sat down on the concrete of the platform, away from the other commuters, facing each other across their crossed legs, their school bags dumped unceremoniously on the ground next to them.

 

Kasey had been filling Brianna in on what had happened yesterday once they parted ways at the station. She told of going down to the local police station in the patrol car, about trying to answer all the questions that she had no answer to. They had checked her shoes, taken a print of the soles for matching and, eventually, had driven the three of them back to the train station, where they had gotten in the two cars they had abandoned there and headed home. In the middle of Kasey’s story, the train had arrived and they had gotten on, swaying from the hand straps in the centre of the carriage. It was busy even in the last carriage on this train as all the office workers who started at nine and most of the school kids caught this one.

 

When Kasey got to the end of the story, they were pulling out of Central station – only one more stop before they got school, and Kasey leaned in close to Brianna, her eyes twinkling slightly and a little smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Brianna realised that the initial shock seemed to have worn off completely and Kasey appeared to be caught up in the excitement of it all now that she was aware that it wasn’t someone she knew, someone she was close to. Now it was just something out of the ordinary, something that not only had given her day off school, but something that would provide her with gossip to last days, possibly weeks. Brianna leaned forward to catch the snippet of information that Kasey was about to impart.

“I know who it was,” Kasey breathed into her ear, and Brianna looked at her, eyebrows knitted in confusion,

“You know who did it?” Brianna breathed, shocked yet mystified.

But Kasey shook her head, “No, silly! If I knew that I’d still be down there at the police station, explaining it all to those hunky coppers. No, I mean I know who it was … who the body was. I mean, I don’t know her, but I know what her name was.”

Brianna’s eyes widened as she realised what Kasey was telling her, and she leaned in close again with the swing of the carriage, “Who?”

Kasey smiled with the increased stature of knowledge before imparting the little nugget of knowledge, preceded by a caveat, “Well, you didn’t hear it from me, because I don’t think I was supposed to hear it. But I had gone to look for the toilet in the police station, when a young copper – cute too, he was – came tearing into an office, yelling that they had worked out who it was. Her name was Ariana Mathers, he said.”

Brianna took in the information, and frowned slightly. This was not the reaction Kasey had expected, it seemed, because she looked at Brianna strangely, her head tipped to one side, “Brianna … ?” she asked, “What is it?”

Brianna looked up, into her friend’s face, and gave a sudden, sunny smile “Oh, nothing, it’s just that name seemed familiar. I can’t place it though, must be a name I heard on TV or something.” she brushed off the momentary chill that had passed over her, when her heart had stopped for a moment as she had tried to put a face to the name. She couldn’t quite lose the feeling that there had just been a slight shift in the universe, though. As though something had tipped slightly, and the earth had just twisted a fraction of a fraction of a hair’s breadth off course – enough that everything still seemed normal, but was something was just … wrong.

?Tuesday – 3:21pm Outbound

 

Kasey

 

Kasey’s train pulled into Central station. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Brianna had dance and singing rehearsals, Kasey travelled the single station from school to Central, and got off there to meet her boyfriend before continuing the journey home on a later train. She never had to explain the hours or so absence to her parents, as both of them worked full time and neither arrived home before six, as long as she got home before then. She had always assumed that if she was ever asked she could claim to have been studying in the library, but she hadn’t been questioned yet, and this had been going on for over a month now – almost forever in Kasey’s reckoning.

 

Kasey was on her feet as the train stopped and the doors opened, and she fairly bounced out of the train with her excitement. She had missed seeing him yesterday, and wanted to make up for it double time today. She looked to the far end of Platform Twelve and her heart stuttered as she spotted him standing apart from the small crowd on the platform. She picked up her pace, trotting up to him, smiling.

 

Zach smiled back at her as she came towards him, and he held his arms out to her, wrapping her in a hug that lifted her off her feet. They kissed passionately, Kasey trying to apologise between breaths for missing yesterday, Zach trying to get her to stop talking and just kiss him, damn it! Zach’s hand stole into Kasey’s school blouse, and she wondered how he had gotten the button undone so fast and with such stealth. She gasped and pulled away as he squeezed her breast, then slipped his thumb inside her bra and brushed her nipple. She gave him a look of mock anger, and looked down at her chest as she buttoned her blouse. She noticed both her nipples were showing, badly, through the thin material and she looked up at him again, pushing her chest out to show him the evidence of her arousal, “Now look what you’ve done!” she scolded playfully, and he gave her a puppy dog look in return, before they both cracked up laughing and fell into another embrace.

 

Zach bent down and whispered in her ear, “Hey, Baby, let’s get out of here, huh? I can’t do what I want to do to you here on the platform.” He punctuated the statement with a gentle bite on her neck and a low growl and Kasey smiled her agreement. The couple separated and, her hand stuck in the back of Zach’s jeans pocket, they walked out to his convertible, and drove around to Frank Street.

 

Dalton

 

Dalton sat on the nearly empty train, his feet up on the facing seat in front of him, a commuter’s discarded daily paper open on his lap. The pages of the newspaper were soft from being thumbed by who knew how many hands throughout the day. He flicked the pages idly, not really reading, just skimming the headlines, looking at the grainy photos. Dalton wasn’t much of a reader – like the old song said, he could get all the news he needed from the weather report – but it was nice to have a distraction on the train sometimes. As he lazily turned the pages of the worn paper, his thoughts drifted back to the day before at the police station. They had taken prints of his shoes, prints of his fingers, a DNA sample. They had questioned him, repeatedly and from all angles, about what had happened that morning – where he had walked, what he had seen, what the old man had done, what he had looked like. Dalton had learned a few things about what had happened, although the officers had been pretty determined not to let any more facts go than they had to. But he had learned that the old man, the man he had taken for a vagrant, was most possibly a train spotter who was known to the police. He had also learned that the bundle of clothes was a body – a body belonging to a young woman. He had asked who she was, but nobody was willing to give up the information, regardless of how many times he asked. Finally, after hours of questioning and putting through no less than three phone calls to his panicked wife, Dalton was escorted home, where he had proceeded to recount the entire experience yet again, this time to a rapt Megan. She had been shocked by the events, at the speed with which they had escalated, and asked him why he had not called her in the morning. Dalton had explained that it hadn’t seemed significant at all then, that it hadn’t, in fact, become significant until he stepped off the train and saw the police on the platform.

 

Dalton’s brush with the law had been somewhat exciting, an interesting break from his usually dull daily routine, mostly because he knew he wasn’t involved enough to be accused, once the initial shock of being dragged down to the police station for questioning had worn off. However, he was glad it was over. Dalton was not a man who took well to uncertainty, in any form. He had been young when he married Megan, although so had she, and they had very easily fallen into a steady pattern of daily chores, work and snatched private moments. It just seemed to suit them both, and their marriage had become a solid foundation, the centrepiece around which the rest of the world revolved. Now that Megan was pregnant, and with the knowledge of the past miscarriages, though, Dalton had realised how tenuous life could be. The thought he could lose Megan, even as he gained a child, was almost unbearable. He knew he had become overly cautious with her recently. Even now, when the pregnancy was nearly at its end, and the idea of having a real live baby was becoming more sure by the day, he worried. What if something went wrong with the labour, or the baby was born deformed or, worse, stillborn – there was still so much for him to worry about.

 

Dalton flipped a page idly, and a headline in the local section grabbed his eye – “Murder Victim Found at Suburban Rail Station”. He frowned slightly, and read on,

In the early hours of yesterday morning, at a suburban City Rail station, a regular commuter came across the shock discovery of a body. The victim is believed to be a local resident, Ariana Grace Mathers, 22, of Tallen Heights. The cause of death is as yet unknown, and police are appealing to the public for assistance. If you saw anything on …

 

Dalton ignored the plea for help at the end of the article, he had certainly assisted as much he possibly could already. But now he had a name to place to the face. Ariana. It was a pretty name, he thought idly. On an impulse, he tore out the corner of the newspaper that contained the story and tucked it into his breast pocket. He carefully refolded the paper and placed it on the seat, ready for the next commuter who needed some reading material, then stood up. His station was next.

 

Damien

 

The piercing ring of the phone cut into the dreamy half sleep that Damien had been in. It was afternoon, and he was working the night shift at the hospital tonight. His alarm wasn’t due to go off for another few hours yet. Cursing people who felt they had to do things during the daytime, he pulled himself out of bed, and padded out into the lounge room, following the madly bleeping phone to its hiding place under a pile of papers on the kitchen bench. He retrieved it just as it stopped ringing and, swearing under his breath, took it back to bed with him. If it was important, he thought, they would ring back.

 

Damien lay awake for a while, still cursing the damn phone, and was just slipping back into that sweet place between awake and asleep where all adults become children, and nothing seems important anymore, when the telephone went off again. Damien jumped up, startled fully awake, groped for the phone that was now tangled somewhere in the sheets. He found it, punched a button, and held it to his ear, “H’lo?” he grunted,

“Damien! It’s Ben! Is Larry home?”

“No. Why would he be? Call after six. See ya, Bye.” Damien hung up without ceremony, dropped the phone onto the carpet, and laid back down in bed. He rolled onto his side and tried to reclaim the sensation of floating he had experienced only moments before.

 

It was close to four when the phone rang again, and Damien was fully in the grips of a dream. It took a few rings for the signal to reach his brain, and for his brain to send the appropriate messages to his limbs. He sat up in bed, leaned down for the handset and picked it up again, “H’lo?” he grunted again.

“Damien! Larry there, mate?”

“Ben,” Damien said, threateningly, “I don’t know what shit you’re on, but he won’t be here until after six. Goodbye.” He punched the button to disconnect the call, then, on second thoughts, held it down until the backlight on the screen lit up and instantly died, turning the handset off. He dropped it to the carpet, rolled back over, and dropped back to sleep.

 

When the phone rang for a fourth time, it rang only at the second handset, which was hidden beneath the couch cushions. Damien didn’t hear it, but his dreams were full of ringing telephones and he slept lightly for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Kasey

 

Kasey was lying on the king size bed in Zach’s studio. She was flat out on her back, arms thrown wide and a grin on her face as she watched Zach drink up the view. The blouse of her school uniform was unbuttoned, and the bra she was wearing just reinforced to Zach that she was a sixteen year old. It was a blue gingham pattern, with white lace edging, and it just made her look even more like a school girl. This had a mixed effect on Zach. He experienced a tinge of guilt over it, a little bit of caution, which was not a familiar feeling for him, but the overriding emotion was one of this being a sweet, sweet taboo. What made it all the sweeter was the knowledge that, unbeknownst to either, he was fucking mother and daughter – one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Just thinking of it again made him hard and, in his sudden angry need, he reached down to Kasey and pulled her skirt up, revealing matching briefs. He growled, an instinctive, animal sound low in his throat and rested his weight on top of her prone body. She smiled, wrapped her arms and legs around him, then said huskily, “How badly do u want it, baby?”

“You have no idea how badly I need you right now, baby doll.” he responded, nibbling at her ear, pushing his nose through her hair, breathing in her scent – fruit, tinged by the musky smell of sex.

 

He pulled back up onto his knees, bringing her upper body up with him, and stripped off her shirt and bra quickly, efficiently. She moaned and arched her back as he lowered his head to her breast, sucking and biting at her nipple until she pushed him away. He let her pull his t-shirt off clumsily, assisting her a little when she couldn’t get it over his head, and then laid her back down again. He slipped a hand down between their bodies, into her briefs, and she stifled a little squeal, her breath catching in her throat as his fingers slipped inside her. Oh she was ready alright, Zach thought, and he quickly finished undressing her. He would have to get her home to her parents soon.

 

Shannen

 

The train came to a screeching halt at Redton station and Shannen stepped off amid a crowd of jostling, laughing school children, dodging their swinging school bags as she did so. She wasn’t paying attention to the kids, though, her mind was busy worrying about Ariana. She hadn’t heard back from her all day, her calls had gone unanswered except by Ariana’s recorded voice. It was certainly unlike her to be this reticent, a message on Ariana’s voicemail rarely had time to cool its heels before it was picked up and called back. Shannen could think of only one possibility, and it wasn’t a comforting thought. Her mind’s eye involuntarily brought up a vision of Ariana, passed out, only possibly alive, lying on the kitchen floor. Depending on exactly how apocalyptic Shannen was feeling, this scene was accompanied by blood, effluent or spilt alcohol and broken glass, sometimes a combination of all. With determination borne of friendship and fear of what she might find, she decided as she walked out of the station precinct that she would go around to Ariana’s house now – immediately – and check.

 

Shannen walked back out to the car park, oblivious to the school children calling to each other, throwing things across the street. She found her car, fished in her bag for the keys, and slid behind the wheel as she jabbed the key into the ignition. The car started and she checked over her shoulder as she pulled away from the parking spot, the station fading behind her as she drove down the street. At the main street, instead of turning left to head down to her own apartment building, she turned right and drove towards the old pre-war Queenslander style house where Ariana lived in Tallen Heights.

 

Shannen pulled up to the house, parked on the street with two wheels up on the kerb. She got out and locked the car, praying that she wouldn’t be rear-ended while she was parked there. From the footpath, her nervousness suddenly hit her again, and she stopped, looking up at the house, its iron-laced verandah suddenly looking imposing and fortress-like. She swallowed, worried about what she might find, and walked up the steps to the front door.

 

She lifted her hand to the door, knocked once, twice and then lowered it again. She stared at the paint, peeling in sheets from the door and chewed at her bottom lip as she strained her ears for any sound coming from within the house. She lifted her hand, knocked again, called out Ariana’s name. Nothing. She chewed her lip some more, and vaguely noted that it had started to bleed. She was debating with herself what to do, when she heard a shuffling noise behind the door, a scrabbling at the lock, and it suddenly swung open.

 

The woman who stared back at her had deep lines around her eyes, the corners of her mouth were turned down, and her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. She looked suspiciously at Shannen, but said nothing.

“Uh, hi.” Shannen stammered, reeling slightly from the shock of seeing someone who was very definitely not her friend, “Umm. I’m looking for Ariana?”

“Ariana?” The woman said, as though she had never heard the name before, and her swollen eyes closed as though speaking the name had caused her physical pain, “Ariana. Ariana’s gone, love. I’m sorry. I’m Ariana’s mum, I’m here to … well, to clean up her things. You had … well I guess you had better come in.”

 

The woman stepped aside, and Shannen stepped over the threshold she had stepped over so many times before. But this time she stepped over it as a stranger.

Wednesday – 5:24pm Outbound

Damien

 

Damien was doing his rounds of the general ward of the hospital. He checked his watch and decided that as soon as he had finished doing the observations for the last few patients, he would go down to the main entrance and hopefully get most of a cigarette in before Lawrence and his mad mate Ben showed up. He had a suspicion he knew what they wanted to talk to him about, and he thought that if he could get a good hit of nicotine into his system before they arrived it would help him answer their questions with a lot more calm and indifference than he actually felt.

 

He finished up with the second to last patient and wheeled his little blood pressure trolley into the next room, giving the police officer at the window a nod that was barely returned as he entered. It had been strange, at first, the cops hanging around this old man twenty four seven, but Damien had gotten to know a couple of them over the past day or two, and they were generally happy enough to have a chat to relieve the boredom. The old man had done nothing but sleep since he got here, and it was no wonder when Damien saw what drugs they had been pumping him with – enough to put a race horse to sleep for a few days, he thought. The young officer who was on duty now – Damien knew him only as Constable Platt – had been rather chatty last night, had let slip that Mister Walter Spinner, the old guy, had been witness to a murder down at Redton station, and he, Platt, was waiting around until he was awake enough to be questioned. Damien had pricked his ears up at that, and tonight he was determined to get some more information from him.

 

He leaned over Mister Spinner, and shook his shoulder gently, “Mister Spinner,” he said in a slightly raised voice, “Mister Spinner, it’s Damien Everett, I’m an orderly here at the hospital. I’ve come to do your obs – your blood pressure and such. Mister Spinner!”

 

As usual, the form in the bed muttered slightly, flapped his hands weakly, and fell back to sleep. Damien sighed loudly, disentangled the old man’s arm from the blanket, and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around the old man’s withered bicep. While the automatic blood pressure monitor sighed and moaned its way through its routine, Damien inserted the thermometer into a fresh disposable sleeve and stuck it into the corner of Mister Spinner’s mouth, resting it carefully so it wouldn’t fall out from between the slack lips. Instead of waiting idly while the measurements were taken, Damien turned to the police officer, watching him from his post by the window.

 

“So, Constable, how’s things? Sick of waiting for His Nibs to wake up yet?” he said with a slight chuckle and a thumb jabbed in Walter’s direction.

“Yeah, you bet,” Platt answered, “You guys must have him on some heavy duty gear, he barely opens his eyes at all.”

“Hmm. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy painkillers he’s on.” Damien replied and then asked cagily, “So, do you reckon he did it?”

Platt laughed slightly, “Nah. No way he could in his condition, I reckon. But I reckon he could’ve seen who did do it. He’s about the only half solid lead we’ve got right now. I want to be the one to question him. Earn me some brownie points with the boss.” Platt winked roughly at his own quip, his face screwing up slightly as he did so. Damien stared at him, thinking how very young and inexperienced he must be to give so much away so easily, either that or extraordinarily bored, he thought wryly.

 

The blood pressure monitor squawked just then, and Damien turned back to the machine. He pulled Mister Spinner’s chart out of its plastic holder on the end of the bed and scrawled the number displayed on the monitor into the book. He retrieved the thermometer from the old man’s mouth and recorded that too. His eyes fell on the opposing pages as he did so, where there was a list of the different drugs that had been fed to him through the intra-venous drip. It was mostly saline to keep him hydrated, but they were giving him some pain killers intra-venously now that he wasn’t waking up enough to take the tablets all the time. An idea began to blossom in Damien’s mind. He became so pre-occupied with the thoughts in his head that he forgot to say goodbye to Platt. He realised later that he should have thanked him.

 

Megan

 

Megan stretched out in bed, feeling the muscles and tendons in her back relax and realign as she moved, causing pain that was the forerunner to total relaxation as the pressure came off her strained spine. The baby within her kicked and rolled as she stretched, finding room it hadn’t had before and, she thought wryly, probably gearing up for a night of acrobatics. Dalton watched her as he undressed, the corner of his mouth lifting as he watched his wife’s look of pleasure when she straightened out. He pulled on a pair of cotton boxer shorts and slid into bed beside her, his hand slipping over her satin-covered belly to feel the baby move, pulling himself as close to her as possible.

“How do you feel, honey?” he murmured gently,

“Mmm. Good. Tired.” She yawned as she said it, then turned her head to look at him, “I’m glad we went to see Walter.”

“Hm. Well. I guess it wasn’t all as bad as I thought. Still, the trip wore you out. I don’t think you should be doing so much walking.”

“You’re trying to change the subject.” Megan said, playfully poking him in the ribs as she said it. “Besides, the baby can come along whenever she’s ready to. Much as I don’t really want to go through it, I’d rather have her out than in at the moment.” She stuck her belly up as far as could to emphasis her point, “I feel like a beached whale.”

Dalton laughed, “Yeah, but you’re the cutest beached whale I’ve ever seen.” He looked at her quizzically, “and since when was the baby a she, anyway?”

Megan winked, “Since Great Uncle Walter told me so.”

“Ah, so that’s what he told you is it? Any other prophesies I should know about, then?”

“Prophesies? No, I don’t think so,” she said airily and then, her tone becoming serious once more, “But he did go on about some strange stuff, I thought. Asking me to pass on messages.”

“Oh really? What kind of strange stuff?”

Megan shrugged, the afternoon had taken a strange turn toward the end of the visit. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

There was a pause as husband and wife got lost in their own thoughts. Megan was wondering if there was more than met the eye with her great uncle. When they had arrived, Walter had been in the room on his own, only barely awake and, after the initial introductions and a brief recapping of her mothers’ branch of the family tree, he had nodded sagely and they had spoken of general things, centering mostly on the pregnancy and the imminent birth. They had been discussing using private versus public care (the Richmond’s had chosen private due to the previous complications Megan had experienced), when a uniformed police officer had entered the room. He had only been young and, seeing guests, had nodded politely at Megan and Dalton, and had ducked back out of the room. Megan had at first thought he must have been visiting a sick relative of his own and had come to the wrong room by accident but as they had gone to leave, he had been sitting patiently outside, waiting for them to leave. Megan had started slightly at this, and had begun to replay the conversation she had held with her great uncle, sifting through it for clues as to the presence of the policeman. Unsuccessful, she had nodded politely at him and grabbed Dalton’s arm, wondering if he was going to question the man or walk straight on past. It was then she had heard the wavering voice from within the room, calling, “Oh, Megan, love!”. She had patted Dalton’s arm then, to instruct him to remain where he was, and had gone back into the room.

 

Walter was sitting up slightly, looking worn out after the visit, yet a spark lit his eyes from within, as though he had a very important message for her. The uncomfortable thought crossed her mind that this was how he would look if he had a dying wish to impart, some final parting words on his deathbed, but she pushed the thought to the back of her mind. She doubted he was dying, just convalescing, recovering from his hip injury. She stepped to the bedside, the chairs they had been using had been replaced so she perched on the edge of the bed as best she could with her swollen belly. Walter had found her hand, his paper thin desiccated skin rasping against hers as he had spoken, “I want you to know something, lovey.” and Megan had nodded, steadying herself. “There’s a lot of bad eggs between your mother and I, but all of that is water under the bridge, now.”

Megan nodded again, wondering if she would ever find out what ‘a lot of bad eggs’ might entail, and resolved to question her mother at length about it one day, when Walter continued, “But I want you to look up a name for me, find this girl’s family, and pass on a message. Can you do that, love?” Walter’s faded blue eyes pierced her suddenly, searching her face for honesty, and she nodded again. Finding her voice, she said “I can try, what’s the name?”

Apparently satisfied with the answer she gave, he nodded sagely, and instructed her to find a piece of paper and a pen on the side table. She did as instructed and, using the cheap blue pen on a piece of paper emblazoned with the hospital’s logo, she had written down the name as Walter spelled it out from memory.

“Find her mother, her father, and tell them this. I don’t know what happened, but I am sorry, so sorry. No young person deserves what she got, and no parent deserves to have a child taken from them in that manner. I wish I could have done more. I should have done more, and I will live in debt to that family for not doing more. And now, seeing you with child, you need to make sure you keep that child tucked under your wing. Teach them how to fly, but always fly right by their side. Do you understand, child?”

Megan nodded yet again, mutely this time, not understanding what had caused this monologue, but somehow feeling its powerful undercurrent, the emotion behind them if not the meaning. She put down her pen, where she had been scribbling the message he had given her and wrapped both hands around her unborn child, caressing the skin as though her own body no longer existed as a shield between her and her offspring, and she stroked the skin of the child itself. Tears sprung to her eyes, unbidden, and she swiped at them quickly, forcing a chuckle when Walter looked at her questioningly, “Damn hormones,” she muttered under her breath. But it was not hormones that caused the tears this time, it was the deep emotion she had felt in every one of her great uncle’s words, even though she didn’t fully understand the meaning.

 

Walter nodded again and, with a little burst of energy, he sat up slightly in bed and reached out with his hand, placing it feather light at the top of her belly, where the swell begun under her breasts. He had looked directly into her eyes, his gaze searching her own, and she had resisted the urge to look away, to blink. Eventually, he had dropped his eyes to her belly again, and looked back up. “She’s going to be a lovely little girl, Megan. Healthy, too,” he laughed as a kick swelled the skin around his hand. Then he lifted his chin towards the door, “You’d best be going, I think. Your husband is looking restless.”

Megan looked up to see Dalton’s head poking around the corner, and she smiled at him and stood up, smoothing her long maternity shirt over the elastic-waist pants she wore. She planted a kiss on Walter’s rice paper cheek, and whispered as she did so, “I’ll find them, I promise.” As she lifted her head, she saw Walter’s smile, and at that she turned and walked back to her husband. She grabbed his arm and the two had left the room, leaving Walter to sleep.

 

Once Megan had described all this to Dalton, he looked at her, bewildered, and sat up straight in bed. She smiled as he thought this over. She had always loved the way he thought things through slowly, so carefully, before making any move. He would not speak before he had ordered his thoughts, would not lift a tool before he had planned the project from start to finish, would not make a mark on paper until he knew what he was going to write.

Eventually, thoughts apparently organised, he lifted his head, and said, “I think he’s just an old man, Meg. It’s probably something that happened forty, fifty years ago. Look it up if you must, but the message seems hardly full of meaning.”

Megan had nodded slightly, “It meant a lot to him, though, I think. I would like to do it. Maybe not now, immediately,” she said, laying a hand on her stomach as reason, “but eventually.”

Dalton nodded and sank back down into the sheets. Megan did likewise, turning on to her side. Her back was to her husband and Dalton wrapped a strong arm around her, pulling her in to the curve of his body. They lay together, breath slowing in duet, when, sleepily, Dalton murmured, “What was the name, anyway?”

Megan pressed back into the warmth of his body, enjoying the heat despite the warm night, and trying to sink further into sleep, not wanting to talk, said, “I don’t know, it was a pretty name, Ariana something?”

Dalton’s eyes flew open at the name, “Ariana Mathers?” he said, awake now.

Megan turned to look at him, relinquishing the thin hold on the threads of sleep that she had, “Yes, I think so. Why?”

Dalton looked suddenly pale and, whispering, said, “That was the girl at the station.”

Megan started, and rolled over to look him in the eye, “The dead girl? Just the other day?” she questioned.

Dalton simply nodded. Neither got much sleep that night.

 

Lawrence

 

When Ben arrived at Lawrence’s place at half past nine, they were both as jittery as each other. They had climbed into Ben’s car and driven in silence for a while, before Lawrence had finally piped up, and asked Ben if he thought that Damien had had anything to do with it. Ben had thought about this for while, chewing at his bottom lip for a while, and when Lawrence had been about to ask the question again, he finally answered, very deliberately, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. But he can at least fill in the next part of the story. I mean, the last either of us saw her was when they left the party. He went with them, so I guess he will be able to tell us what happens next. Maybe he will be able to tell us if she went off with someone, what his name was. But I think that, if he knew anything of any significance, he would have said something by now. I mean, you live with the guy, you would have noticed if something was off, right?”

 

Lawrence nodded miserably, thinking that he probably wouldn’t notice if something was “off”, to use Ben’s words. He’d had a few weird days himself with all Elouise’s strangeness going on at work, and anyway, he didn’t see Damien all that much when he was on night shifts. Lawrence shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wishing suddenly that Ben had never called him, and he had never gotten dragged into this mess.

 

Well before Lawrence was ready to confront his flatmate over the matter, Ben swung his car into the emergency entrance and stopped in the space marked “Reserved for Ambulance”. They could see Damien leaning against the wall to the left of the main entrance doors, he had a smouldering cigarette in his hand that had burned down to the filter. As they got out of the car Damien took a last hopeful drag, dropped it on the ground amongst the dozens of others and squashed it under the heel of his soft-soled shoe. He looked up at them through half-closed lids as they approached. He graced Lawrence with a smile, a “Hey, Larry” in greeting and a small nod before turning to Ben and glaring at him. Ben dropped his head as though ashamed, and muttered, “Sorry about the calls mate, I forgot you were doing nights. I was a bit hyped.”

“No shit.” Damien deadpanned. He sighed slightly, “You’re lucky I’m talking to you at all man. Now what to do you want? Did someone get a bit too wasted at your party and you’re looking for someone to lay the shit on, huh? Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not doing drugs anymore, okay? None, nada.”

Lawrence saw the look on Ben’s face as he reassured Damien that that was not the reason for the visit, thinking that Ben looked more frightened than he ought to for some reason. Lawrence suddenly realised that Ben thought Damien had done the girl in, despite what he had said in the car on the way over. He was frightened, Lawrence thought as he watched him talking, just about quaking in his boots, like he thinks Damien will do him in next.

 

Lawrence thought that he had to cut Ben off from talking, before he dug himself into a hole he couldn’t get out of. Lawrence held up a hand to Ben to get him to shut up, for god’s sake, just shut your mouth. Ben turned to him with wide eyes that were clearly asking Lawrence to help him out. Lawrence jumped in and started speaking,

 

“Ben. Mate. You know that girl Ariana that I was chatting up the other night at the party? Yeah?”

Damien looked vague for a minute and then said, “Ohh, you mean the brunette with the tits? Yeah, she was awesome. Did you get it on with her? Lucky asshole!”

“Nah, I wish!” Lawrence chuckled, settling into the banter and then called on all his social skills to get him through the next bit without sounding strained, “Well did you hear about the dead body they found at Redton station? Just near our place?”

Damien shook his head, and Lawrence ploughed on through, “Well, her name was Ariana Mathers, and it made me think, you know, maybe it was the same girl. I had a think about it, and the last I saw of her on Saturday night she was walking off down the road with a bunch of her mates form that lot that gatecrashed. The thing is I thought I saw you with them, and I thought that maybe you could tell us what happened after you all left the party. I mean, I didn’t see you again until yesterday afternoon, and then Ben here called me about the dead girl they found at Redton and I thought maybe we had better see, you know,” The rush of words faltered and stopped, and an awkward, somehow solid silence hung in the air between them as they waited for Damien’s answer.

Damien made a face and gave a nonchalant shrug, “Nah, nothing happened. There was me and few of the other guys, and that girl, what did you say her name was? She was all over a couple of the blokes, saying they were going to back to someone’s place and have a threesome. She had pills in a little plastic bag in her pocket. I don’t know what they were, but whatever it was she was enjoying it. E’s I guess.” Damien shrugged, “Anyway, I didn’t want a bar of it, I’m off the gear now. Anyway, they went one way and I jumped on the train to Redton and went home. I only spent maybe ten minutes with them. Sorry mate. Do you really think it was her?”

 

Ben looked suspicious, Lawrence just felt relieved, and it showed on his face. He shrugged in response to Damien’s question. Somehow it was seeming less and less likely that it was the same girl. He turned to Ben, “C’mon Ben. Let’s go back. I’m totally had it. You’ve been dragging me all over town and I’ve gotta work tomorrow.”

 

They were turning to leave when Damien suddenly piped up behind them, “Hey Ben!”

Ben whirled around quickly, and Lawrence caught a look at his face, stricken with terror. He stammered slightly but settled for gaping silently at Damien, waiting for him to speak.

“Ben, weren’t you with that group? I thought I saw you loitering around in the background when the girl was handing out her pills.”

Lawrence peered at Damien, trying to figure out if he was serious, or just winding them up.

“Nuh, not me mate.” Ben replied, recovering his speech, “Must have been someone else you saw.”

Damien looked doubtful for a second, then cracked a grin, “Gotcha there! See ya round.” He said, and turned on heel to head back into the hospital, still chuckling.

 

Ben and Lawrence moved to the car, but Ben wasn’t laughing. In fact, he looked furious, Lawrence thought.

Thursday – 4:56am to the City

Robert

 

Robert had been awake for a while. Since Monday he had started harbouring suspicions about what Elouise actually got up to in the early hours of the morning before work. Somehow, her excuse that she had been sitting in the park just didn’t sit well with him. Not only was she not a sitting in the park kind of person, but she had always said she needed to start early so that she could be prepared for her boss before he arrived for work. It simply didn’t stand to reason that, if she had to be at work early, that she would spend an hour or so sitting in the park. Even if she was working like she said she was, how did that help her prepare for her boss? It just didn’t make sense, and the more that Robert thought about it the more he started to realise where the deception lay. She was doing something else before work, and Robert had become suspicious enough that he was beginning to think that he knew what it was.

 

Thoughts started to coalesce in his mind as his wife slept on, random thoughts and memories – Elouise taking her wedding rings off because they gave her dermatitis; her insistence that she needed to start work at seven, but rarely finished before six; her infectious smile in the morning that turned into a frown when he joined her. And Robert started formulating a plan of sorts. Shortly, the five o’clock alarm sounded, morning radio deejays brutally intruding into the quiet morning. He watched his wife as she rolled over, started to wake, his heart filled with love but now, and in equal proportion, suspicion. Eventually, she opened her eyes, stretched, and got out of bed. She padded to the adjoining ensuite, closed the door behind her, and the muted sounds of her bathing began. Not a word had been spoken.

 

As soon as Elouise was out of the bathroom and in the walk-in robe dressing, he followed suit. By the time he emerged from the shower to get dressed she was downstairs, preparing breakfast and lunches and yelling to Kasey to come down and eat. The three of them performed their normal routine morning dance – partners who moved around each other in practised rhythm, but without touching, without passion. Eventually, Elouise gave Robert and Kasey a quick peck on the cheek each, and, appearing as distracted as ever, went downstairs to get in the car and drive to the station.

 

Robert acted quickly. He picked up the backpack that contained his laptop, and the car keys to the government Prius he drove, then gave Kasey another peck on the cheek and told her sorry, but he had to leave early too. He dashed out the door, hurtled down the stairs to where his car sat in the driveway, quickly got it into gear and was on his way to the station, hot on the heels of his wife, and with his heart thumping.

 

Zach

 

Zach lay in bed, looking around his tiny inner-city studio apartment. The walls were covered with art – his own unframed canvases hanging haphazardly from every spare space, without regard for form or pattern. More stood in stacks against the skirting boards, and the remaining floor space was littered with more canvas stretched across wooden frames, pristine and waiting only for inspiration to render them into works of art. Zach had never spent time at art school, and had never sold a painting, despite what he told those he wished to impress. Zach had made his money as the owner of a car yard, having sold it to one of the multi-national chains when they first started encroaching on his territory. He had been making a comfortable but not wealthy living off the business, but when it sold he made a number of wise decisions. He had sold the property he had been paying off in the suburbs and bought the apartment – tiny but very fashionable. He had been sure to take the convertible with his as a farewell gift to himself, and then invested the remainder of the money. He now lived modestly off the interest and, with no loan repayments on car or house, he felt he was doing alright. He had finally found the time to pursue his first love – women. In order to do so, he had created a persona that women simply couldn’t resist, that of the struggling artist. It had all the romantic charm of those horrid movies he took them all to see, but it gave him exactly what he wanted – sex. And as much of it with as many different women as possible.

 

Thinking of his conquests made him think of Elouise, and the reason why he was awake so early. She had stood him up the day before, no reason given, and in a fit of pique he had sent her a text message saying that maybe she didn’t value the relationship as much as he did. He had learnt long ago the language to use when speaking to women, and he thought that he had worded it quite well. He had been surprised when no expression of regret and apology had been forthcoming from her whatsoever, and he was angry enough about it that he still wanted his revenge. It was alright for him to stand a girl up if he wasn’t in the mood, but god pity the woman who tried it back on him.

 

He had been thinking a lot recently that the relationship with Elouise was getting tired and a glimmer of an idea started to germinate in his mind. He rolled the thought around in his mind for a while, and eventually decided that, if he could cause enough of an argument with her, he would be able to orchestrate a big, angry argument one day pretty soon. The argument would easily facilitate a show of emotion on his part, where he could fling some accusatory words at her and walk off into the sunset – never to be seen by her again. This way, he could easily avoid the part of the breakup where she would cry all over him, begging him to take her back, and his memories of her would be forever tainted by whatever cruel words she flung at him, thus resulting in a total reluctance on his part to ever regret the move and want her back. Perfect!

 

With this in mind, Zach rolled over in bed, pulled the blankets up to his ears, and closed his eyes, a small smile playing on his face, pleased with his cleverness.

Thursday – 6:14am to the City

Elouise

 

She had been giving herself a pep talk all the way from Redton station, and by the time the train pulled into Central, Elouise had successfully worked herself into a suitably steely mood to be able to break it off with Zach without tears. Or so she hoped. Elouise was on her feet before the train had even started to slow and she stood by the doors with her hand on the release button, waiting impatiently to get off the train and have the deed over and done with. Acid swirled in the pit of her stomach, reminding her of the gravity of the decision she had made, and she mentally pushed it back down again, clamping an iron lid over it. She could inspect those feelings later, right now she needed resolve and determination. The train slowed down forever, it seemed, and finally, finally stopped at the platform. She tapped her toe as she waited for the doors to release and fairly jumped off the train ahead of the other commuters. She walked briskly to the end of the platform, her heels clicking on the tiled floor of the underground station. She had the words in her head, ready to rapid-fire at Zach as soon as she saw him bounce into view, but she hadn’t spotted him yet. It wasn’t long before she was at the farthest end of the platform. The rest of the commuters had funnelled towards the exit, and she stood, alone, on the platform. Where the hell was he?

 

Realising that she had been stood up, the steely resolve that she had been fostering for close to half an hour now boiled up into something more like fury than determination. Feeling as though her head was about to explode with the high emotions she was experiencing, Elouise decided she was going to follow through with her plan, regardless of whether or not he could deign to even show up. She marched towards the exit off the platform, and through the main gates that led out into the city. She crossed the street, barely looking for oncoming traffic, and began the march to Zach’s studio. She would sit and wait on his doorstep if she had to, but she was going to break it off with him, she had decided, and she was going to do it today.

 

Robert

 

Robert had successfully caught the same train as Elouise. He had waited in the car while she had walked over the overpass, bought her ticket, and found a place to wait the few minutes. He followed her, bought a ticket for himself and waited on the opposite side of the station master’s booth. He was hidden enough that if she looked up casually she wouldn’t see him, but if she took a single step forward, he would be able to see her. When the train pulled into the station Robert had watched Elouise board, and then boarded himself two carriages further down. As soon as the train was in motion, he started to walk through the carriages separating them. He could see the back of her head through the small partition in the – they were less than ten meters apart. He feeling quite pleased with himself, and was thankful for the only moderately full train, but had not counted for the amount of people that would disembark at Central. He kicked himself, it should have been obvious, but it took only seconds for him to lose sight of Elouise when everyone stood up and started shuffling towards the exit. He imagined that he would be able to catch sight of her again on the platform but by the time he had elbowed his way through to the carriage that Elouise had been travelling on, and out of the door on to the platform, she was nowhere to be found. He stood, hopeful, as the crush of commuters eddied around him, thinning gradually, until he was alone. Disheartened, he followed the now-absent crowd to the stairs leading upwards into the station, thinking that he had better just give up, maybe try again tomorrow.

 

Zach

 

Zach was asleep, dreaming of young girls in cute lacy underwear, when a loud banging at the door woke him abruptly. He jumped out of bed, grabbed the nearest thing he could find to cover himself and yelled out, “Just a second! Keep your hair on!” as he wrapped the towel around his middle. He felt his building erection drooping as he did so. The banging continued, and Zach stepped over to open the door before it got totally destroyed. He flung it wide, only to see Elouise standing in the doorway, her face red with exertion and her eyes wild. She opened her mouth to start spraying him with invective but he reacted quickly and plastered a broad smile on his face, “Hey, Baby!” he said, holding his arms out, “What time is it? How did you get here? You look exhausted!”

The fight left her, which was exactly Zach’s intention. But then, to his surprise, she didn’t fold into his arms, instead her mood descended out of angry and down into steely cold. She peeled her lips back from bared teeth, “It’s over Zach.” she hissed at him, “Do you hear me? Over. It’s been a great three years, but I can’t do this anymore. The stress is going to kill me. I’ve chosen to go back to my family, Zach, do you hear? My family.”

She turned to storm away but Zach caught her in his arms, forced her to turn back to him. She struggled against him, flying her hands against his chest to push him away, but he tightened his clutch as he tried to come up with the right words to say. His immediate reaction had been relief that it was over, after all, that was what he had wanted anyway, but then anger started to wash over him. He had never been dumped, ever, and the fact that she had clearly walked all the way from Central to do so had injured his pride more than he would ever confess to. He pulled her in close to him, tighter and tighter until she no longer had the room to struggle, her hands still upon his bare chest, and he bent his head to whisper in her ear. His hot breath came strongly and he felt her recoil away from his voice, but he pressed on regardless, “You bitch,” he growled, “You foul filthy bitch. After everything I have done for you, everything I have sacrificed to be with you. Not once did you ever offer to give me anything, not one thing. No, not you, you precious cow, with your husband and your family and your oh so high and mighty fucking professional placement. Well, I’ve got news for you, you bitch, you’ve picked the wrong guy this time. I won’t be fucked over, Elouise, I won’t let you do it. And do you want to know something else, Elouise? Your daughter is a great fuck.”

 

He released her suddenly, pushing her away from him with brute force and Elouise, dumbstruck by the tone and anger in his voice as much as by the words he had spoken, fell to the ground. The towel that Zach had wrapped around himself came undone with the sudden motion and dropped to the ground also. In the split second before Zach could slam the door in her face, however, her eyes locked on Zach’s flaccid penis dangling in front of her eyes. She grabbed it suddenly, tugged brutally and then used her fist to jam it in her mouth before clamping her teeth down on it as hard as could. Blood filled her mouth almost instantly, and Zach fell, screaming and trying to push her face out of his genitals. She spat him out as he dropped, then pushed him fully into the studio apartment, following him inside herself and slamming the door behind her. He pushed himself onto his elbows and looked at her, pain still evident behind his eyes, and his lower body trying to curl in on itself. “You bitch,” he said, horror and pain straining his voice “What the fuck do you want from me?”

 

She looked back at him, that steely gaze had returned and her voice was cold as she said, “I want you to drive me back to Central. And put some fucking clothes on. On the way, you had better explain what you’ve been doing with my daughter.”

 

He nodded miserably, knowing better than to try and argue with her. He figured he’d drive her back to the station and kick her out of his car there, never to be seen from again. It was a small price to pay to get her out of his life. He struggled to his feet, pain blooming in red splotches in the middle distance. There was blood seeping from his penis still, and he could see the neat line of wounds where she had sunk her teeth into him. He was lucky she had let go when she had, or he could be in serious trouble right now. He found some boxers and a loose pair of shorts – he wasn’t going to be wearing jeans any time in the near future he though miserably. He grabbed a tee shirt and pulled it over his head, every movement causing his genitals to remind him of their predicament. He grabbed his keys from the table, opened the door and snarled at her, “Get out to the car. Go!”

 

The drive was silent, Zach certainly not going to explain what Kasey and he had been getting up to without a few very direct questions from Elouise. Elouise looked too tongue tied to be able to work out what those questions should be. The air hung between them, a solid thing forming a veritable wall, blocking any chance at questioning or explanation. When Zach pulled up at the station, Elouise didn’t open her door, she turned to him instead, and demanded that he walk her to the platform. He hesitated at first, ready to protest and tell her to get the hell out of his car, but Elouise turned in her seat and he saw her hand flash out towards his groin again. She hadn’t even made contact before he screamed. “Okay, Okay! I’m coming, alright! Leave my cock alone!”

“First time you’ve ever said that to me.” she mocked and waited until he started to get out of the car before following him from the passenger side. Without a word, they walked into the station, and Zach trailed her over to the very last platform. Together they descended the stairs and Zach started to protest as he realised that they were on the platform for the long distance trains, not the suburban lines. Elouise turned and glared at him, holding her hand up as a reminder of what she could do, and he shut up and walked down stairs. At the bottom she turned, grabbed his hand with a death grip that he couldn’t shake off, and they walked together on to the platform like lovers. Elouise glanced casually at the ceiling as they walked along the length of the platform, and he couldn’t work out what she was looking at at first. Fear started to creep into his heart though, as he realised that she was looking for security cameras. She leaned into him as though she wanted to tell him a secret, or kiss him, and he tried to pull away put she had wrapped her arm around his so tightly that he had no chance. She pushed him ever so slightly towards the edge of the platform, over the yellow line plastered with the words “Do not cross” and soon they were right at the very end of the platform, only four platforms away from where they had stood like this so many times, but with love in their hearts instead of this black hole of rage. Elouise positioned herself so she was facing Zach and the tracks, and leaned in to him again, her face looking up into his as though searching for a kiss. She started to whisper, as Zach had done to her only minutes ago at the studio apartment. “You know something, asshole,” she said, venom seeping from between her clenched teeth, her lips peeled back in what resembled nothing like the kisses she had offered him so many times, “I was going to give you a kiss and say good bye. You never would have heard from me again. I don’t know if you are just trying to piss me off by saying that you slept with my daughter. I don’t know what you thought you were going to achieve with it. But what I do know, is that I don’t cope very well with that kind of talk.”

 

Zach heard a train approaching, and his knees began to buckle in fear. Please let that train be on another line, he thought. Elouise continued her invective, “No,” she said, “I don’t cope with it well at all. In fact, I think that maybe you have worked that out already, Zach. Goodbye – and thanks for all the flowers and poems and things. It was good while it lasted. It’s just a shame you had to go and ruin it all.”

 

Zach felt her body move against his, and when he stepped back to catch his balance he learnt exactly how close to the edge of the platform she had pushed him. His foot landed on nothing except thin air, and he overbalanced and toppled onto the tracks. The train was approaching on this line, and as he felt it come in contact he heard Elouise let up a scream, “Zaaaach! Zaaaach! Oh my god! Zach!!!” The world went red, and then there was blackness, and there was just … nothing.

 

Robert

 

Robert sat in the cafe that was housed within the train station, drinking bitter yet ridiculously expensive coffee, and pondering the strange situation he had found himself in. At seven o’clock he had called in to the government office that he worked in and spoken to a colleague. He had told him that he had to stay home at the last minute, that he would use his flexi-time and take today off. His co-worker agreed to pass the message on and, almost as an afterthought, asked Robert if everything was alright. Robert assured him that it was, his daughter was just not too well, and he would be back in the office tomorrow. The excuse seemed to wash and Robert hung up, feeling relieved that at least that chore was out of the way.

 

Robert swigged the last of his coffee, grimacing slightly at the now cold bitter brew, but unwilling to waste any considering he had just paid close to five dollars for it. He stood, dropped the empty cup with its grimy wash of coffee grounds into the rubbish bin, and stepped out between the low barricades that formed the perimeter of the cafe. He looked up as he did so, wondering which platform he needed to be on to get back to Redton, and was nearly bowled over by a woman marching through the platform with a harried-looking man trailing her. As his gaze followed the odd pair, he realised almost immediately that the woman was none other than his wife. He noted that they were moving, and quickly, to Platform One, and then with shock noticed the sign beneath the platform number – “Long Distance &amp; Interstate Lines Only This Platform”. He had been intending to follow them down the stairs to the same platform and then thought better of it. There was unlikely to be a crowd to hide in on Platform One, and if the pair caught a train he would not be able to follow without a prepaid ticket. And then an idea struck him. The underground station was completely open at the platform level, and the goings-on on one platform could be quite easily seen from the few platforms on either side. Thoughts of heading back to Redton now completely abandoned, he bolted down the stairs leading to Platform Three. Once there, he peered across at Platform One. Elouise and the stranger were completely alone on the platform, as Robert had guessed they would be, and Elouise appeared to be marching the harried man along the full length of the platform. The man stopped before they got very far, and Robert watched, fascinated, as Elouise raised a clawed hand threateningly, and the stranger continued reluctantly until she had grabbed him and leaning against each other, they had made their way to the furthest part of the platform. Robert trailed them in parallel on his own platform, stopping only to retrieve a newspaper left behind by a commuter, and seated himself one the end of the last seat on Platform Three. He rose the newspaper as cover, and peered over it to see what story the actors on Platform One might act out for his viewing.

Thursday – 8:23am to the City

Elouise

 

She screamed and screamed, screamed with a genuine sense of fright, shock and horror. She had scared herself with her own rage, terrified herself with her actions, and then been shocked to the point of nausea when she saw the result of her wicked plan. The train had ploughed into Zach’s body before he had even hit the tracks below, pushing him aside as though he were piece of limp newspaper flying in the wind and his body, for he surely had not survived such a direct hit, had bounced from the sloped front of the interstate train and been flipped upwards before coming back to land with a sickening thud just over the end of the platform, past the barricade right next to where Elouise stood. His body lay broken metres from where she looked on in horror, the full impact of what she had just done hitting her hard. She didn’t know when she had opened her mouth and begun screaming, but she realised with total clarity that she had no hope of stopping, and so she let it go, allowed herself to fall to emotional pieces. All the feeling that she had kept bottled up for so long, month, years even, she let out with a primal scream that reached back down the ages, to millennia before where this kind of emotion was felt just as keenly as today.

 

The force of Elouise’s screaming drove her to her knees, as the full horror realisation hit her that she had murdered her lover – murdered! She tore at her hair, clawed at her breast, and was in such agony of terror and pain that she did not feel the hands around her, the calming voices, until they tried to replace her on her feet. She heard her own screams start to die in her throat, taken over by the rise of tears in the back of her mouth, and what had been a torrent of volume and noise, suddenly became a flood of tears. Her legs tried to collapse under her again, but the hands kept her upright. She had no idea who they belonged to, in fact she didn’t even try to work it out – it wasn’t important right now. Somehow she ended up in the lift and was taken to an office in the depths of the station somewhere. She had water and tissues offered to her but she pushed them all away. She didn’t have the mental capacity to even work out what to do with them at the moment. Someone pressed a handkerchief into her hand at one stage and she looked at it blankly, screwing it up and tearing at it with her fingers, rather than blowing her nose or wiping her face.

 

She had no sense of time passing, was only aware that it had and someone, a female, crouched in front her, looked into her eyes and encouraged her to look up. She was a police woman, and she gave Elouise a kind half-smile as Elouise rose her grief-stricken face ever so slightly.

“Heeyy, honey,” the police officer said gently, “I know you’re pretty upset right now, but I’m going to ask you a couple of really easy, quick questions, okay?”

Elouise nodded, tears still streaming down her face. She somehow realised even through all the emotion that was coursing through her, that she was going to have to tread carefully here.

“Well, my name is Diana Foster. I’m a constable with the police here in the city. Now, can you tell me your name?”

Elouise nodded again, her brain racing as she swallowed, tried to find her voice. Eventually, “Ellen Walker” she whispered.

Constable Foster nodded as she wrote this down, then looked up again “and your … boyfriend? Husband?”

“Boyfriend,” Elouise confirmed, relieved that she had taken her wedding rings off a few months ago. They had given her dermatitis she had said at the time, although in reality it was because the promise had begun to feel false. “Zuh-Zach,” She swallowed again, forcing the name out through her lips, “Zachary James”.

“Thanks, Ellen, you’re doing great.” She wrote the information again, checking the spelling with Elouise as she did so, and then asked her to explain what had happened.

Elouise swallowed again, then launched into a broken version of events, starting with how the two had gone down onto the platform hand in hand, had been so busy talking and kissing that they had not realised they were so close to the edge. That she had leaned against him in an embrace and he had stepped backwards, toppled over … Elouise burst into tears again, and Constable Foster wrapped an arm across her heaving shoulders, murmuring platitudes as she waited for the hysterical woman to calm down enough to continue.

 

Finally, Elouise gave a shuddering breath and the weeping subsided again, the images of Zach’s body bouncing from the front of the train pushed once more into the background. Constable Foster asked a few more questions, about what they were doing there, why they were on the interstate platform, and Elouise answered with more lies, that she didn’t realise it was the interstate platform, they must have been too involved in each other to realise they were in the wrong place, she was supposed to be taking a train to work a few stations north, and he was just seeing her off. Eventually, the police officer had gotten her fill, and she offered Elouise a ride home. Elouise declined, said she was going to sit in a coffee shop for a while, make some phone calls and try and come to grips with what had just happened before she went back to an empty house. Constable Foster helped her up and watched her walk down the street to a nearby cafe, where she took a seat and, with sunglasses over her eyes, ordered a very strong short black.

 

Robert

 

Robert had watched, pained, as Elouise and the stranger had leant in close to one another, apparently kissing, and he had gotten a bright idea. He pulled his phone out and, trying to be as surreptitious as possible and hiding as much as could behind the newspaper camouflage, snapped a quick photograph of the couple embracing. He looked at the photo on the pixelated screen of his mobile phone and thought it was pretty shocking – blurry and practically unrecognisable, certainly no one would be able to identify the stranger by the back of his head. He didn’t dare take another, though, and pocketed the phone before anyone could finger him as a terrorist. Caught up with taking the photo and trying to push down the emotion surrounding the fact that it was wife over on the other platform making out with some other man, he hadn’t immediately noticed how close they were to the edge of the platform. When the man with Elouise had stepped backwards, at first Robert hadn’t thought anything of it. So it was with growing horror that he noticed the man’s foot drop below the level of the platform and then watched, helpless, as his arms flung out, flapping as though he could suddenly discover the power of unassisted flight to save him. Robert had just enough time to think that surely the fall would be survivable, when he noticed the incoming train. He couldn’t immediately discern which of the two lines it was travelling on but, he thought, the way the man had fallen, it probably didn’t matter.

 

In perfect terror and with sick fascination he watched the stranger, arms flailing and feet now completely separated from the terra firma of the tiled floor, come into direct contact with the oncoming train. The impact created a sickening sound caused by the impact between falling human flesh and speeding metal. The man’s body was flung back from whence it came, and like a gruesome fullstop to the sorry story, landed with a terrible final thud just over the railing delimiting the edge of the platform. There was a heartbeat of total, pure silence, and although the train hid the full horror of the tableau from his eyes, Elouise’s screams reached his ears and his gut wrenched as his imagination provided the visuals.

 

Robert sat still, not daring to move. He wondered briefly if he had imagined the whole thing, and then realised that his imagination could never come up with such a bizarre chain of events. He replayed the whole sordid movie in his head, from the moment that Elouise had brushed past him with the man in tow behind her, to where they had almost struggled along the platform, Elouise looking about herself suspiciously and the man looking whipped, to the gruesome finale as the train pulled into the station.

 

With sudden clarity, Robert realised that Elouise had forced the stranger onto the platform, had forced him over the yellow safety line and then proceeded to give him a final strategic push into the path of the oncoming train. Robert, already dumbstruck by the fact that he had witnessed his own wife with a strange man, suddenly felt deathly sick as he realised she had just murdered that man in, it seemed, cold blood. Spurred into motion by fear and the sick feeling in the bottom of his stomach, he got up and stumbled to the overfull rubbish bin in the middle of the platform, then threw up his breakfast and the station coffee on to the mess of discarded burger wrappers and chip packets it contained.

 

Shannen

 

Shannen looked up from the screen of the laptop and rubbed her dry eyes. She had done nothing but read from the LCD display for the past twenty-four hours, foregoing sleep and food in order that she would not have to take her eyes away, and break the tenuous connection she had formed with Ariana through the words she had written so soon before her death. But now, the flow of words had abruptly ended, the story unfinished. And though she felt the connection was tenuous, a mere filament compared to what it had been, she felt as though it was somehow still there, that with effort she could solidify and strengthen the conduit. Shannen had been totally engrossed in the story, in the journey of the elf Laboeg Fairfox, in the goings on within Ariana’s imagined Kingdom of the Cerulean Tiger. She lifted her hands and placed them on the keyboard. For a little while, she stared at the blinking cursor on the screen. The little pixelated icon flashed at her, and in her mind she heard it taunting her, You can’t do it, you can’t tell the story the way Ariana would tell the story, you will never find out What Happened When They Got There. So, in defiance of the imagined mockery, she lifted her hands, and began to type.

Thursday – 3:21pm Outbound

Elouise

 

Elouise had sat in the coffee shop for a long time, nursing her tiny cup of espresso while the waiters gave her filthy looks. She felt somehow dead inside. She just couldn’t make her brain accept what had just happened, and she couldn’t seem to get past the roadblock idea that she had just murdered someone. It was on an endless loop in her mind – murdermurdermurdermurder – until the word no longer made any sense. Even then, the idea of it remained with her and whenever she tried to think about what she was going to do now, to plan anything beyond taking the next breath, having another sip of coffee, she was road blocked by the image of Zach’s broken body lying on the rough ground beyond the fenced off platform. She craved the days of her childhood, when decisions were made for her, when if she made a bad decision, it could be fixed by the grownups. But there was no grown up to turn to now – she was the grown up, and time had relentlessly shuffled on. Even deciding whether or not to go home was too difficult a decision to make, and it was well after lunch time that she finally found enough impetus to stand up and wander back to the train station.

 

She had caught the train more out of habit than by actually thinking about what had to be done. Her feet knew which platform to go to, and they took her there faithfully. The train had moved along its well-beaten path, the sound of the wheels running along the tracks singing their song just for her (murder-er, murder-er, murder-er). She had gotten off the train at Redton and walked in a daze to her car, where she had driven on autopilot to her home. She opened the garage door remotely and had started to manoeuvre the car inside when she recognised something out of place, and at first she couldn’t pin point the problem. Then she realised that it was Rob’s car … why was the Prius here at three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon?

 

Kasey

 

Kasey got off the train at Central, and walked quickly to the end of the platform to meet Zach. But when she got there, he was nowhere to be seen. She stood at their normal meeting spot, tapping her feet impatiently and watching the smattering of other people coming and going on the other platforms. She could see a small commotion happening on platform one, over where the interstate, long distance trains came in, but she couldn’t tell what, if anything, was going on. She watched with idle interest for a while, checked her watch, and looked up at the electronic timetable on a screen suspended from the ceiling. There was a train heading home from another platform in about ten minutes, and she decided to take it if her boyfriend didn’t show soon. She waited another five minutes, and when Zach still hadn’t appeared, she wandered over to the exit, up into the station and back down on to Platform Twelve. She couldn’t see the commotion on Platform One from here, it was too far in the distance, and before she had a chance to think any more about it, the train pulled in and the doors hissed open, inviting her to enter.

 

On the train ride back to Redton, she sent Zach a text message, saying that she had missed him at the station and would see him next week. She didn’t get a response. She felt let down and a bit miserable, but decided that she would go home and make herself a milkshake and spend some time listening to music and chatting to her friends online for the afternoon. She really should be studying, she had exams next week, but she needed some time to herself too, she couldn’t study for seven days straight! The fact that she had actually not studied at all this week seemed inconsequential to her at the moment, and she promised herself that she would do some over the weekend instead.

 

Eventually the train pulled into Redton station and she alighted and meandered back home. She let herself in with the door key she kept on a key ring hanging from her backpack, and went into her room to dump her school bag and turn her computer on. While she waited for the machine to boot up, she went into the kitchen and prepared herself a milkshake and a handful of biscuits to take up with her. It was only then that she noticed the neatly packed suitcase and the overflowing hold-all on the floor of the living room. She heard a motion from the stairwell and looked up to see her father dumping another bag, this one full of her mother’s shoes and handbags, next to the two already there, and instantly she knew what had happened. Her mother’s secret was out, and Dad wasn’t happy about it.

 

Robert

 

“Dad! DAD!” Kasey sung out from the kitchen.

“What?” Robert responded from upstairs. Instead of answering, he heard his daughter’s footsteps coming up the stairs, and he looked up from where he was packing bottles of makeup and hair product into a bag in the ensuite.

Kasey stuck her head around the corner, “Um. Mum’s here. She’s just pulled in to the garage.”

Robert nodded, then, noticing how nervous she looked, he gave her a quick hug, “It’s going to be alright, Kasey, we’ll sort this out OK? Do you want to try and make yourself scarce for a bit? How about you slip out the back door and run down to the corner shop for fifteen minutes or so?”

Kasey started to shake her head in protest and then, thinking better of it, agreed reluctantly. Robert gave her a wan smile – the best he could do right now, and she took off back down the stairs. He waited until he heard the back door slam, then finished putting the last of the bottles and tubes into the bag. He hoisted the bag, now heavy with cosmetics, and set off downstairs with it, stomach churning in anticipation of the confrontation he had orchestrated.

 

When Kasey had got home and saw the packed bags, Robert had decided to tell her that her mother had been having an affair with another man. She had surprised him when she said she knew about her mother’s affair, because Elouise had told her the whole sorry truth only last Tuesday evening. He had asked her why she hadn’t said anything to him, and was strangely relieved when she had shrugged and said that it was because Elouise had sworn her to secrecy. “Besides,” she had said to him, “She said she was breaking it off, so it didn’t seem important to get you all upset over it when it was ending anyway.” Robert had thought wryly, Oh, she finished it off all right – permanently, before he could stop himself, and he bit his tongue to keep from revealing the gruesome conclusion he had witnessed just that morning. He hadn’t called the police, he had no evidence other than his own eyes, and he didn’t know the man’s identity. But, he thought, he wouldn’t hesitate to call them should he feel the need.

 

He had heard the door that gave access to the house from the garage as he descended the stairs, and as took his foot from the last stair and placed it on to the carpet of the living room, he could se Elouise staring at the bags of clothes and other belongings as though she could not identify what they were. He walked over to the pile without acknowledging his wife, and dumped the bag he was holding alongside the others.

“Well, that’s about it I think.” he said, looking at the bags and placing his hands on his hips. Gradually he looked up into her stricken face, realisation starting to dawn slowly across her pretty but worn features, “I’ll give you a hand to take them down to the car shall I?”

Elouise didn’t reply, she didn’t act as though she had heard, just continued to shift her gaze from Robert’s face to the bags of belongings at their feet. “What?” she said eventually, in a tiny voice, “What’s this? What’s going on? Where are we going?”

Robert looked at her intently, a mean glint coming into his eye, “Not ‘we’ honey, ‘you’. You are leaving this house. Now. I want to ask you a lot of questions, but right now what I want even more than to ask questions is to get you out of this house.” Robert had not raised his voice, in fact it had dropped slightly in volume as he gave this little speech, becoming quieter and somehow much, much more frightening. To emphasise his point, he re-opened the door leading to the garage and picked up two of the bags, one in each arm. Staggering slightly with the weight, he took them out to the garage and packed them neatly in the back of the sedan. When he came back in for more, she was standing still gaping at him.

 

Brianna

 

When they had spoken on the phone the day before, Brianna had come to like Grace almost immediately. Now, Brianna was on her way around to Ariana’s house to meet her. It was a fair walk from the train station, but Brianna had been surprised at how close they had lived, albeit unwittingly. She was tired from walking when she arrived at the big Queenslander, up on its stilts, but the overriding emotion was nervousness. She hadn’t told her parents she was coming here. Normally on Thursday’s she had a dance class, but she had made an excuse that she wasn’t feeling well and decided to head out here instead.

 

Nervous, but excited, walking slowly yet wanting to run, Brianna got to the front door and hesitating only slightly, rapped loudly. There was a nervous pause where she thought that either no one was home, or she had the address wrong, but eventually footsteps could be heard and a thin voice sung out, “Who is it?”

“Uh … it’s Brianna Moore. I spoke to you on the phone yesterday?” she called in response.

There was no answer immediately but the door opened as a form of acceptance, and Brianna found herself looking at a woman who so closely resembled her father it was quite uncanny. She didn’t quite have his height, and she had not gained the amount of weight he had in the past ten years, but otherwise, her face and features were identical. Behind the red-rimmed eyes and the grey pallor to her skin, the visual cues of her grief, Grace Mathers had clear green eyes, high cheekbones and a graceful, pointed nose. Her mouth was a rosebud, softening and lined at the corners with age but with the naturally well defined line that had so charmed her many suitors. Grace’s hair, the same strawberry blonde as her father’s receding locks, was pinned back casually with a clip, and strands of it hung in her face. Grace gave a sad smile, and reached out for Brianna’s hand.

“Brianna, Love,” she said, “I am so glad to see you here. It means a terrible lot to me that you have reached out as you have.”

Brianna did not know how to react, and so she simply nodded, dropping her head slightly in embarrassment.

 

Together, they had walked into the kitchen, sat at the table, and they had begun talking. As she had done with Shannen, Grace got up and made tea, and eventually two stories – different stories yet inexorably intertwined – were unravelled onto the table that sat between them, like an unwinding ball of tangled twine. Grace discovered what her twin brother had been up to all these years, and finally got the contact, second hand as it was, that she had craved for so long; and Brianna discovered the cousin, also in a second hand way, that she had discovered so recently, and lost before she knew of her existence.

 

It was some time later when Brianna was startled by a sound from the next room. She wheeled around to work out what the noise was, and Grace flapped her hand in the direction of the dining room. “That’s Shannen,” she said casually, “Shannen is – was – Ariana’s best friend. Ariana did all her writing in that room and Shannen has been sorting out the paperwork.” Grace dropped her voice, and leaned across the table as though she were about to impart a grave secret, “I’m a bit worried, she hasn’t budged from the room for two days, but I don’t want to disturb her. I wonder if you would like to speak to her.” This last was spoken wistfully, and seemed to be Grace speaking to herself, more so than to Brianna. Nevertheless, Brianna was intrigued. She stood, walked over to the entrance to the dining room – there was no door here – and stuck her head around the corner. She saw a woman sitting hunched over at the wooden slab of a dining table, her fingers flying over the keyboard of a laptop, totally engrossed in her work. Unwilling to interrupt, but completely unable to resist the gnawing fingers of curiosity, Brianna cleared her throat.

 

Shannen, startled, looked up from her typing and, expecting to see Grace and seeing instead a teenage girl with a dark ponytail and round features, frowned at the newcomer. “What’s this? Who are you?”

Brianna smiled politely, explained her connection to Ariana, and hastened to add that she didn’t want to interrupt Shannen’s work.

Shannen smiled sheepishly, and lazily waved her hand at the computer, losing the abruptness of her movements once she got over the initial shock, “Ha. Not my work, for certain. Ariana had come so close to finishing the story and, when I had read the rest, well I wanted to see what happened. The crazy thing is, the characters are writing their own stories; they’re just using my fingers to get them down on paper.” She gave a slight chuckle at how crazy that sounded then added, “It’s quite amazing really. Here, sit down.” Shannen gestured to an empty seat next to her, then to a pile of papers on the table, “Here’s all Ariana’s notes – do you want to have a look?”

 

Brianna was stunned at Shannen’s easy friendship, especially after being so shocked at her presence initially. She sat down on the offered seat, and pulled the papers toward her, staring almost reverentially at them. Slowly, one by one, she started going through them, and became lost in the portrait of a world and a people that were completely new to her.

Thursday – 5:13pm Outbound

Kasey

 

When Kasey had told her father that she was going to slip out the back door and go to the shops, she had meant it. But when she had gone outside, the door slamming behind her, she had stopped just outside the door, standing on the coir mat. And before long she had heard her mother come in and her father, very politely Kasey thought, ask her to leave. She listened as her father went to and from the garage, packing the bags into the car, and marvelled at the lack of yelling. She had somehow expected them to yell at each other, call each other foul names and fling accusations at each other like weapons. Instead, she heard her mother weeping softly as her father packed the last of the bags into the car, and then her father’s soft voice saying, “I was there this morning, Elouise. I saw what you did. You’re lucky I’ve kept it to myself so far, but I can’t stay in this house with you now I’ve seen what you are capable of. There are just two questions I want answers to before you go. First, how long has this been going on and second, who is he?”

Kasey couldn’t see her mother, but she heard her sniff as she tried to bring her emotions under control, “It’s … we’ve. We’ve been seeing each other for about three years. I went this morning to break it off … things got. Things got. Well, it got heated I guess …” Elouise’s voice cracked on the last word, and it seemed as though Robert stood patiently by, waiting for the answer to his second question. Eventually, it came.

“His name is Zach, Zachary Wright. He lives in Frank Street in the City, in one of the studio apartments along there. He’s a painter – an artist.” Elouise’s voice faded into a series of hiccupping sobs, and Kasey stood, dumbstruck, for a heartbeat, while the information she had just heard sunk in. Robert had begun to speak, but Kasey’s ears heard only a rushing sound as rage and jealousy overtook her.

 

She wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but in the blink of an eye, Kasey was back through the door into the laundry, and through the house into the living room. She wasn’t aware of it, but she was yelling the whole way, her face red with passion and anger. “How DARE you?! How DARE you! Why didn’t you TELL me?! My own MOTHER!” she screamed, enraged, until she was face to face with her mother, her father stepping back a few paces in shock at the tempestuous fury that had appeared between them. Kasey put her face right into her mother’s and yelled as loud as she could, “HOW DARE YOU FUCK MY BOYFRIEND!!”

 

And with that, Kasey stormed back the way she had came, Robert flying after her, leaving Elouise rooted to the spot, amidst the ruins of her household.

 

Damien

 

While he had been doing his round, Damien had been thinking about the little problem that Walter Spinner was causing him, and what he was going to do about it. He had no clear ideas, just some vague assumptions and theories that all felt as though they were dead ends.

 

He was busy with a patient in the room very close to the nurses’ station when he heard the alarm bell sound there. He apologised to the patient and stuck his head out into the darkened hallway to see what was going on, and one of the senior nurses called over her shoulder to him, “Code Blue in 36! See you up there!” as she ran up the hallway. He lifted his hand in acknowledgment, and went back into the room to pack up quickly. Within seconds, he was following the nursing staff up the hallway to room 36.

 

Damien liked to be around for a Code Blue emergency. Code Blue specifically meant an adult patient was in immediate trouble, with death imminent, but it was used mostly for cardiac arrest. Damien was rarely needed at these, he didn’t have the medical qualifications to be able to help out, but often the professionals there would get him to grab equipment or run a message to someone in a hurry, and for that reason no one ever minded him being around. It was fascinating to be able to stand back in a corner and watch the commotion going on around him. To be able to witness someone in their death throes, and know that their future hung in the balance on the skills and reactions of those attending to them, was the ultimate gamble. Damien would call the game in his head as he watched the panic, trying to decide if the patient was going to live or die, right up until it was clear that the dice would roll one way or the other. Unfortunately, by the time Damien arrived at this one, the patient had been stabilised and sedated successfully and the nurses were busy patting each other on the back. The woman in the hospital bed still looked deathly white, but her chest rose and fell evenly and the monitors she was hooked up to had ceased complaining.

 

The nurse that he had seen at the nurses’ station when the alarm went off turned to him when she saw him enter, “Oh, Damien! Crisis over thank goodness. Doctor Dreiser was here for another patient and she got her stabilised really quickly.” she said with a smile. She turned to the mess laying on the bedside table next to the patient’s IV pump and started picking up the rubbish of discarded syringe packets and single-use sleeves.

Damien walked up beside her and touched her on the shoulder lightly, “Here, let me do that, Robyn, I’m sure you have patients to see to.”

The nurse looked up gratefully, “Oh, thanks Damien. That’s sweet of you.”

“No problem at all,” Damien replied with a smile, “I’ll see you later for the next round of obs, okay?”

Robyn nodded, thanked him again, and walked quickly out of the room, already concentrating on the next thing she had to do.

 

Damien looked back down at the mess of syringes and empty vials, sifting through it a little bit with his hands as he sorted the hazardous rubbish from the general refuse. The motion of his hands stopped suddenly as he noted a vial still half full with a clear liquid. He dropped what he had been holding and grabbed the vial, turning it until he could read the product name. As he did so he smiled – his luck was in. Immediately, he had a plan.

 

Kasey

 

When Kasey left the house her feet, lacking any conscious direction from her mind, took her down the path they usually trod and she shortly found herself at the train station, exhausted but still very angry. The sun was starting to leech out of the sky but, undeterred, she walked on to the outbound platform and up to the very end, then sat on the edge of the concrete beside the gap in the fence. Her feet dangled into the long grass where they had found the dead girl, and she stared at the spot still marked by broken grass and embedded footprints as she seethed at her mother. When Elouise had poured her heart out on Tuesday evening Kasey had actually felt sympathy for her and had even come some way to understanding why she had done the things she had done. Elouise had explained how the affair had just happened, and how once she had started how hard it was to stop, and Kasey had nodded along, understanding as her mother explained how one day can flow into the next and before you know it you were weeks or months, or in this case years, down the line and it was too late to turn back. Kasey had believed her when her mother had said she was going to break it off. She had even believed that no real harm could come of it, thought that if Dad didn’t know and Mum was ending it before he found out that there could be no real problem. But Elouise had never told Kasey his name, had never indicated where he lived, and had never implied that she knew about Kasey’s relationship with him. It didn’t occur to Kasey that maybe Elouise didn’t know. She didn’t think that Zach would be so selfish and self-centred so as to hide the knowledge. And she certainly didn’t understand why Elouise would have withheld the information from her own daughter.

 

While Kasey was sifting through her thoughts, she heard foot falls behind her, and she turned slowly to see her father approaching her. His face was red, his breath fast and when he sat down beside her she could smell the sweat drying on his body. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, in fact it was somehow comforting, and reminded her of when she was small and helped him out doing things in the yard. She leaned against him, drinking in the warmth and reassurance that he emitted, and let the tears flow. Robert cried along with her, the high emotion of the confrontation with Elouise catching up with him in a rush.

 

The two sat side by side for some time, just bathing in each other’s company, receiving solace from the other’s presence. Eventually, they spoke in hushed tones, and Kasey filled her father in on the bits of the story he hadn’t already worked out. Robert bit his tongue, deliberating, and eventually blurted out the truth about Zachary Wright’s death, and her mother’s role in it. Kasey cried again, harder than ever this time, and it was fully dark by the time she regained control over her emotions again. Robert drew her skinny, still child-like body into his own, and she crumbled against him. The automatic lights came on on the platform behind them, casting their shadows on to the grass in front, surrounded by sickly yellow light. The change in the environment was enough for them both to stir from their thoughts, and Robert gently suggested that they walk home.

 

The pair rose, the younger leaning against the elder, tears still making fresh tracks down her face, although the wracking, heaving sobs had departed for the moment. Slowly, carefully, father and daughter made the trek the few blocks back to the house, and Robert opened the door for his daughter to enter. The house was empty, Elouise’s car missing from the garage, and a note left on the kitchen bench. Robert lifted it to read, “My darling Husband and Daughter, I have done wrong. I am sorry. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. For I don’t know that I will ever forgive myself. With love, forever and always, Elouise.”

Friday – 4:56am to the City

Walter

 

Walter was starting to feel better. He had still been sleeping a lot, but for the brief periods that he was awake he was feeling more comfortable. He missed being in his own place, missed his own bed. Missed getting up early and trotting down to the train station for a relaxing few hours. But he also knew that he was being looked after here, and he guessed that was a good thing. The police hadn’t left like he had thought though. Every time he opened his eyes, there was someone standing by the window, waiting for him to be lucid enough to talk. He had talked to one guy, a young fellow by the name of Platt, some time ago – his sense of time was all out of order, and it could have been this morning or three days ago. Platt had asked him all sorts of questions about what time he had gotten to the station, what he had seen, whether anyone else was around. Walter had answered all the questions as well as he good, but his head was still fuzzy and the policeman hadn’t seemed very happy with the answers he had given. The visit from his previously unknown niece and her husband had cheered him though, and it had been good to give her the message to pass on to the dead girl’s family. He had told one of the nurses later on about the whole story, and she had smiled, happy that he had enjoyed the visit.

 

He looked over to the window now and was surprised to see no one there. The room appeared empty for only the second time since he had gotten here. This time he didn’t get his hopes up that they had left him alone, though. He figured that even police officers had to use the toilet from time to time. There was the promise of dim light starting to show through the grimy window and Walter realised that it must still be very early in the morning. The small portion of the hallway visible to him was plunged in semi darkness and Walter could hear no voices speaking, no trolleys filled with manufactured hospital food rolling between rooms. It was then that he heard soft footfalls and a squeaky wheel on the worn carpet, and out of the dimmed hallway came a uniformed orderly wheeling a blood pressure monitor.

 

“Good morning, Mister Spinner.” The orderly greeted him, too cheerfully for whatever early hour this was. “My name is Damien Everett, I’m going to take your obs. How are you feeling this morning?”

Walter nodded slightly and responded, his voice wavery and weak still, “Uhh, I’m feeling a bit better. I think I’d like a drink of water.”

Damien acknowledged the request with a nod, and turned to the table to pour a small glass from the opened bottle there. He helped Walter up into a sitting position and supported his back as he drank.

“What’s happened to your police escort, Mister Spinner? He seems to have left you alone for a bit.” he mentioned casually, making conversation.

Walter didn’t answer, he concentrated on drinking, and then lay back down with relief. Even that amount of pressure on his hip was painful. Damien helped him back down, and then withdrew a syringe from his pocket, already filled with a clear liquid. The orderly removed the orange cap from the point and moved quickly to the IV bag. He pierced the bag directly, watching as the liquid squirted into the saline sitting in the bottom of the near empty drip. He turned back to Walter as he recapped the syringe and put it back into his pocket. “That will help you with the pain, Mister Spinner. Now let’s get these obs underway, shall we?” he smiled broadly, and grabbed the blood pressure cuff to wrap around Walter’s arm.

 

As he watched the orderly pull the two ends of the cuff together around his bicep, Walter felt a strange sensation of paralysis wash over him. He went to say something, to get the orderly to help him, and felt his throat thicken. Panic started to wash over him as he felt his body stop responding to the commands his brain was issuing. He wanted to flap his arms, cry out, something to draw attention to the fact that something was seriously, terribly wrong. He could hear the orderly carry on with his easy banter as he turned away, arranging the thermometer to put into Walter’s mouth, and when he turned back he must have seen the panic in Walter’s eyes. Walter was relieved at first, the orderly would get help for him and it would be alright, but this temporary relief was swamped by a new wave of fear as he saw the smile appear on the orderly’s face. He couldn’t hear what the man said, but he saw that smile just before he turned away and casually pressed the emergency button by the bed head. Walter closed his eyes, trying to reassure himself that help was on its way, the emergency button had been pressed and they would be coming to save him, it was some dreadful mistake, surely. He was still thinking this as his brain started to shut down, all muscle functions ceasing. Damien started to yell for help, allowing a suitable level of panic to creep into his voice as he watched the old man pass away.

 

Elouise

 

Elouise’s eyes popped open, wondering why the radio wasn’t blaring bad morning radio in her ear. It was a second or two before she realised that she wasn’t at home, in bed, with Robert snoring beside her. And she wasn’t going to take the train early to spend time with Zach. She was in a cheap hotel room, the sheets rough on her skin and the smell and atmosphere unfamiliar and cloying in the pre-dawn air. She had decided when she arrived last night that she was going to call in to her office this morning and apply for leave for two weeks. The intention was to try and find herself a home and some internal solace. Both seemed unattainable. She was in constant dread that Robert would call the police about her actions on the station the day before, and the fear only served to remind her of the irrational act that she had committed. The vision of Zach’s broken body haunted her constantly, and sleep had been a fickle, restless beast all night – fraught with dreams, nightmares, irrational mental wanderings and terror beyond any she had ever known.

 

She sat up in the hard, concave bed, and rolled her upper body over her drawn-up knees, forming an almost perfect circle. Again, the tears began to flow. They were no longer tears for what had been lost – her family, her husband, her lover, her comfortable life – they were tears only of self pity.

Friday – 6:14am to the City

Megan

 

Dalton had gotten up early and left for the train as normal, and also as normal, Megan had woken long enough to receive a kiss in farewell and dropped back to sleep. She was lost in dreams when a noise cut in. She tried to incorporate the sound into her dreams at first, but it wasn’t long before she slowly came to the morning of her bedroom, the sun just starting to show through a chink in the curtains, and the phone beside the bed ringing incessantly. Struggling to sit upright she settled for a half rise, her abdominal muscles protesting, just long enough to snag the phone from its cradle. She sunk gratefully back into the covers as she brought it to her ear, “H’lo?” she murmured, her voice still thick with sleep.

“Oh, hello. Is that Mrs Richmond?” said an officious female voice on the other end.

Megan frowned, thinking that it was a solicitation, before checking the clock. The green led glowed 6:14 at her impassively, and she gave a start. Certainly not a sales person then – but who on earth could be ringing at this hour? The uncomfortable thought occurred to her that the only calls that came in the wee hours were harbingers of bad news. She pushed the thought aside, but not before instinctively wrapping an arm around her belly. She pushed herself up slightly in the bed and cleared her throat before answering, “Yes, that’s me.”

“Mrs Richmond, sorry for the early hour, but you’re marked down as the next of kin for Mister Walter Spinner?” The statement had the upward inflection of a question, as though the speaker was uncertain of the accuracy of her information, and Megan frowned. As far as she was aware, her great uncle wasn’t aware of her existence before yesterday and, if he was, he would not have known her by her married name.

“Umm,” she hesitated, “I guess I must be. May I ask who this is, please?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs Richmond. This is Leona Fardenson, I’m the duty nurse on the general ward at the hospital where your …” there was a pause and Megan heard a rustle of paper as the nurse flicked through records, “Where your great uncle was being looked after.”

Megan was still caught up in the fact that she had been named her great uncle’s next of kin, and missed the nurse’s use of the past tense. She couldn’t figure how the hospital had her details, she hadn’t given them, so Walter must have. In which case, he must have acted quickly, she thought wryly.

“Oh. Okay. I wasn’t aware that you had my details.” Megan said and then added, “and please call me Megan.”

“Thank you Megan. Mister Spinner apparently provided your information to us late yesterday afternoon.” The nurse paused slightly and gave a small cough, as though she were waiting for a response from Megan. Megan still slightly sleep-addled and having not immediately realised the purpose of the call, said cagily, “Was there something else?”

“Yes, Mrs Richmond,” the nurse said gravely, lapsing back to the formal name, and instantly Megan realised the purpose of the call. Her hand flew to her mouth as she heard the voice on the other end of the phone say, “I’m sorry to have to inform you that your great uncle passed away in the early hours of this morning.”

 

 

Dalton

 

Dalton was standing on top of a building, legs astride the peak of the roof, using a rivet gun to affix sheets of corrugated colorbond to the frame. The sun was starting to get warm on his back now and, while it was pleasurable for the moment, especially after the days of rain, he knew it would get unbearable before too long and it gave him an incentive to get this job done as soon as possible so he could get down into the shade. He was concentrating on getting the second last sheet down when he felt a tickling on his leg. He stamped his foot, thinking absently that it was a fly or other insect, and popped another rivet. The tickle came again, in the same spot and he switched the gun to the other hand to whack his leg and dislodge the bug. Instead of a bug however, the slap drove his mobile phone painfully into his thigh, and he realised what it was that was irritating him. His mouth set in a frustrated line at the interruption he fished the phone from his pocket and straightened up on the roof. He pressed the button to answer the call and snapped “Dalton Richmond”, his eyes taking in the view over the city distractedly as he heard his wife’s voice on the other end of the line. He listened impatiently as she told him about the phone call she had just received. He frowned a little, unsurprised that Walter was dead – he hadn’t looked on his death bed yesterday, exactly, but he certainly hadn’t been well, he thought.

“Listen, Meg, was that all? Can I call you back in ten?” he said abruptly.

There was a pause on the line and Dalton wondered if he’d upset her, before she said, “No, that’s ok. Sorry, I didn’t realise you were busy, honey. Call me back on the mobile ok?”

Dalton agreed to do so, and put the phone back into his pocket. He continued with the riveting, thinking over the phone call, and decided that he might have been a bit harsh. He would make a point to apologise to her when he called her back, he thought.

 

It was close to half an hour later that Dalton finally finished on the roof and climbed down into the shade he had created for himself. He stopped and discussed some plans with one of his work mates for a few minutes and suddenly remembered his promise to call Megan back in ten minutes. He pulled the phone from his pocket again and found a place to sit under the new roof, dialling the number of the house phone from memory. It rang and rang, eventually being picked up by his wife’s recorded voice on the answering machine. He frowned and hung up without leaving a message, and then remembered Megan’s peculiar instruction to call her on the mobile. He looked this number up in the memory of his phone and dialled, suddenly wondering what she was up to, leaving the house before seven in the morning. This number rang out too – there was no voicemail, just an abrupt click and the sound of a dead line in his ear – and he thought that she had either left the phone at home, or she couldn’t hear it in her handbag. Thinking to give her a second chance if the latter was the case, he hit redial and tried again, listening to the empty ringing at the other end. He was just about to give up when he heard Megan’s voice, low and breathless, “Tony!” she gasped, “Get to the hospital! The private one, I mean. We’re having a baby!”

Dalton had stood when Megan had answered, her frazzled voice sparking instant concern, and now a grin split his face as he realised the cause. He spared seconds to let the foreman know that he’d gone and sprinted to the station, heading home to get the car.

Friday – 8:23am to the City

Shannen

 

Shannen had been shocked and surprised by Brianna’s immense interest in Ariana’s novel. Somehow she had tagged her as a fickle teenager, and it had been pleasantly remarkable when it had turned out that Brianna held Ariana’s in such high regard. Shannen had discovered that Brianna had read some of Ariana’s books, not realising who she was or the connection to her own family, from the school library. She showed such enthusiasm and unrestrained passion for being so close to a novel-in-progress that Shannen found it easier to explain her own sudden interest in the project.

 

Brianna had called her mother on Thursday night, explained carefully that she was here with her Aunt Grace and that she had been invited to stay and, after Grace and Brianna’s mother had spoken at length, she had been given permission, provided she did not miss school the next day. And so, just like a teenage sleep over party, Brianna and Shannen had stayed up all night. Except instead of braiding each other’s hair and painting their toenails, they worked side by side on Ariana’s unfinished novel, Shannen typing away and Brianna giving advice on plot direction, what the characters might do next. By the time the early summer sun rose a combination of the amazing amount of content they had produced and extreme fatigue caused them both to fall asleep, heads resting on arms and hunched over the table.

 

They had lain like this for around two hours when the phone in the kitchen rung, and Shannen was startled awake. She got up and out of the chair, her stiff body protesting with the requests made of it. Brianna lifted her head, wincing as she turned to watch Shannen go to the other room and hunt for the ringing telephone.

 

Shannen found the phone lying on the kitchen table, surrounded by the paperwork of funerals, grave stones and estate settlements. She fished it out, hit the answer button, and said “Hello?” as she glanced at her watch. It was only just past six o’clock!

“Hello?” A polished Australian accent, almost English in its clipped tones, responded, “Who is this?”

Shannen sighed, already anticipating with dread the conversation that was to come, she had overheard Grace do it often enough to know that there was no easy way to get through it, “My name is Shannen. I’m – I was – Ariana’s friend.”

She waited for the puzzled silence, the torrent of questions, but was surprised when instead, the woman said, “Oh, right. That’s fine. I was expecting to speak to Grace. It’s Paige Bressler here, Ariana’s publisher. Miz Mathers said that there was a lot of paperwork and notes of Ariana’s there, and I was hoping I could organise to have someone pick it all up so that we can go through it and find out where her work was up to.”

Shannen felt an instant tightening in her chest as she sensed that someone was going to take Ariana’s notes away from her, and she reacted instantly, enforcing her inherited ownership of the work, “Well, you don’t need to. I’ve gone through it all already. Did you know that she had finished her next novel?”

“No, I thought she was far from finished it. Are you sure?” The voice was suspicious, but Shannen could hear the note of hope floating just below the surface.

“Yes she has. What’s the normal process for publishing her work? I think her fans deserve to read it.”

At that, the pair fell into a lengthy conversation about drafts and editing, proofing and publishing, and throughout it, Shannen chose not to reveal that she had in fact, written the final ten thousand words herself. She was fully convinced that Ariana had written it, her characters knew their destinies so well that all Shannen had to do was press the keys to form the words that fell into her head whole.

 

“Hello?”

“Hi. It’s me. Look, about Saturday night. I just wanted to check that, you know, everything was OK. You two were both pretty smashed when you got on the train. Did you get back to Hawkswater OK?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t far, I walked back. Sobered me up some.”

“OK. Cool. So, how was it?”

“Heh. OK. We were both pretty smashed, like you said.”

“I wasn’t sure she was going to go all the way, you know. She seemed a bit jumpy. Whatever the fuck she was taking was messing with her.”

“Yeah. Well. It was OK.”

“Heard from her since?”

“Ha! No, man. I wouldn’t expect to. I can’t even remember her damn name.”

“Oh, OK. Well, never mind. Just wanted to make sure you got back alright. Invited to the next one, though, I want a turn with her if she shows up.”

“Heh. Yeah, alright. You and everyone else that was here.”

“Yeah. See ya, man.”

“Bye.”

 

Brianna

 

Brianna had dropped back to sleep while Shannen spoke with the person on the phone, the soft tones of her voice as she discussed what needed to be done with the novel washing over her in an incomprehensible babble and soothing her back into her dreams effortlessly. When Shannen hung up and came back into the room, she opened one eye and watched her moving around, eventually murmuring, “Who were you talking to?”

Shannen looked up as though she had completely forgotten that Brianna was even there, pre-occupied as she was with her thoughts, “Hmm? Oh. On the phone? It was Paige Bressler, Ariana’s publisher.” Shannen broke into a grin, “She’s going to publish Ariana’s latest novel.”

Brianna frowned slightly and lifted her head, putting it on side as she took in the information, “But it’s not all Ariana’s work, you’ve written heaps. Did you tell her?”

Shannen bit her bottom lip, but somehow managed to smile through it. “Well.” She said finally, arching an eyebrow knowingly, “Do you think she would have published it if she knew that?”.

Brianna laughed and shook her head, then said “So you’re an author who started writing, what, twenty four hours ago? And already you’re getting published. That’s some feat!”

 

Shannen and Brianna locked eyes then, suddenly touched by how far they had come in what amounted to only a single evening, and Shannen suddenly laughed out loud, throwing her head back in the first feeling of mirth she had felt since she had discovered Ariana’s fate. She laughed at the bond she had formed with this stranger, at the absurdity of the writing she had completed throughout the sleepless night, and at the somehow fitting justice of the accomplishment. She felt as though, in some strange roundabout way, she had avenged her friend’s death. She had brought Ariana’s final act of creation fully to life, and set it free – flying across the ocean like a white dove.

Friday – 5:42pm Outbound

Lawrence

 

Lawrence swayed with the motion of the train, allowing the weight of his body to swing against the anchor point of both his hands on the overhead railing, knowing that the crush of people would stop him from swinging too far. He was thinking of everything, and nothing in particular, reflecting on Elouise’s recent oddness, and the strange confrontation that had occurred with Damien the night before. He thought about Ben and how convinced he was that Damien was covering something up, and how he just couldn’t see that it was true. Damien was clean these days, he wouldn’t have had anything to do with it if there were drugs involved. Lawrence knew he had been at home when he got there, but that hadn’t been until late on Sunday afternoon, and Damien had been leaving for work as Lawrence walked in. They hadn’t talked really at all, but Damien had seemed his normal self – tired and a bit hung over still maybe, but Lawrence could hardly talk. He thought about Damien’s joking remark to Ben, about him being there, and Ben’s reaction. He thought how strange it was that everyone around him had seemed to be acting so oddly recently, which made him think of Elouise. She hadn’t turned up for two days straight now, and no one had heard anything from her until late this morning, when she had called to apply for immediate leave. When she had last been in which had been on Wednesday, she had looked somehow shell-shocked, but Lawrence still felt way too intimidated by her to ask her if she was all right. Instead, he had offered her a coffee, which to his surprise she had accepted with a smile and a word of thanks. She had offered no explanation to him, but she owed him none, and the day had gone on as normal, except that she had been somehow less harsh, a bit more relaxed and forgiving than normal, yet far from happy, Lawrence thought. But since then, she seemed to have dropped into the ether somehow, which was weird.

 

As the train rolled on through the suburbs, trees and housing developments whizzing past the grimy windows, Lawrence wondered about the dead girl, Ariana. Ben had said she was a writer, although the pen name he told him she had used was not familiar to Lawrence. Lawrence wondered what kind of books she had written, what stories she had had to tell the world, what kind of artistic talent the world had lost. He wondered what had happened that night after the little group left the party. Damien’s story rung true to Lawrence, but he wondered what had happened after Damien left them at the station, whether they had taken the drugs, if it was a wilful murder, or a good time gone horribly wrong.

 

The train came to a stop at Redton and Lawrence let go of the hand railings above his head, grabbed his briefcase from where it stood between his ankles and elbowed his way to the doors, along with the rest of the crowd alighting at this station. He moved with the tidal flow of commuters towards the exit, not able to resist looking over his shoulder to the long grass at the opposite end of the station where they had found her body. The crowd thinned as he left the station and people dispersed to the car park, to the loading zone to wait for their lifts, or into the various roads leading away from the station to walk back to wherever they came from. Lawrence walked wearily up Station Road towards the flat that he shared with Damien, and was soon climbing the stairs to home. He opened the door, walked in and dropped his briefcase on the couch. Damien didn’t make an appearance, and Lawrence could hear the shower running in the bathroom as he walked into the kitchen to find a drink. He poured himself bourbon and was walking with it back into the lounge room to settle in front of the television for a bit, when he heard a knock on the door. He looked up, frowning, then put the drink down on the coffee table and walked over.

“Who is it?” he called as he unlocked the door, ready to pull it open.

“Police.” a deadpan voice answered.

Lawrence froze, a shiver of fear running through him and turning his knees to jelly. He fumbled, trying to get the door open with suddenly clumsy fingers, and eventually the door released and swung open to reveal two cops, one old and thick around the waist, the other young and tall. The older one held up a badge as Lawrence gaped at him. “Senior Constable John Mitchell.” he introduced himself, then indicating the young guy beside him with a jab of his thumb, “Constable Michael Platt.”

Lawrence’s voice had left him. He settled for nodding dumbly.

“We’re looking for Damien Everett,”

Lawrence nodded again, tried to work out what was required of him, and eventually stammered, “He’s … he’s in the shower. Uh. Yeah, in the shower.” he pointed with his left hand over his right shoulder, the right hand still holding on to the door as though it were the only thing keeping him upright.

 

Megan

 

Megan was exhausted, in pain and feeling somewhat like she had been run over by a fully loaded truck. She hardly noticed though, because there were other things competing for her attention. The main thing, of course, was the small infant screaming at her bedside, the other thing was trying to work out how to get said infant and swollen, leaking nipple attached to one another without causing excruciating pain, a feat she had not yet managed with any success. She swung her legs over the side of the high hospital bed, and, cooing and humming in an effort to soothe the hungry child, she slipped both hands underneath the tiny arched back. She waited a second, as the nurses had taught her, and using one hand to support her head and the other to lift her out of the plastic sided cot, she lifted her daughter and gently repositioned her in the crook of her right arm. She then used her free arm to lift her nightie, and unclipped the maternity bra. A bunch of damp tissue fell out and she ignored them – she was too new to this to even contemplate trying to pick them up. Following the nurses instructions to the letter Megan pointed her nipple at her daughter’s wide open mouth. Megan was struck yet again at the resemblance to a baby bird, and suppressed a chuckle, feeling that laughing at her offspring only hours after she was born was slightly taboo, somehow. The baby latched on and Megan breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that everything seemed to have worked this time – there was no pain. She smiled down at her new baby daughter, her heart swelling with pride at her own accomplishments and, for the first time, love for the newborn. She hadn’t realised that she wouldn’t fall in love with her daughter instantly, there was too much going on, and too much to learn so quickly that there hadn’t been the time so just sit and look at the tiny thing she had produced. But now she was able to just sit, and look. She used her free hand to very lightly brush the downy dark hair, and had a chance to watch the fontanelle pulsing with life. She tightened her hold slightly, in a half hug, and the baby threw her free arm out in protest, which made Megan smile. As she loosened her grip a bit the little hand came back down to rest on Megan’s exposed breast, and Megan thought her heart was going to burst with the joy of it all.

 

Dalton burst through the door then, followed closely by a nurse, and Megan looked up, shaken out of her dreamy reverie. Dalton’s face looked suddenly concerned and he went immediately to Megan’s side, “Is everything OK, honey? You’re upset.”

“Upset?” Megan said confused, and Dalton lifted a hand to her cheek. It was only when he showed her the wet drops on his forefinger that she realised she had been crying, and she smiled at the misunderstanding and shook her head. “I’m fine, Tony, honestly. I was just thinking how happy I am, and how much in love I am with this little creature we made.” She lifted her shoulder slightly in a shrug, to indicate the child happily feeding in the crook of her arm, and Dalton switched his focus to the baby also. Mimicking her earlier gesture brushing his big hands along the tiny head, he smiled also, seemingly lost for words.

 

The nurse abruptly moved from the chart where she had been filling in observations, and over to the bed where the new family sat.

“How are you Mrs. Richmond?” she said officiously.

“Well, thank you.” Megan answered, just as formally, before breaking into a grin, “I think I’m getting the knack of this finally!”

The nurse bent to inspect the baby’s attachment and nodded her head approvingly, “Well done, there’s no discomfort?”

“None at all.” Megan answered happily, and seemingly satisfied, the nurse made a few final marks in the chart and moved on to the next room in the ward.

 

Megan returned her attention to her husband, whose gaze was firmly fixed on the baby. The child was still sucking quite happily, but her eyelids were drooping, and Megan thought she would be asleep any minute. Looking back up into Dalton’s face she asked what he had been up to while she and the baby had been sleeping off the rigours of the birth. It turned out that he had made a mad dash over to the public hospital to collect Walter’s things and, in the process, had been given a note that he had written after their visit the night before.

“What did it say?” Megan said, curious.

“Well, that’s the interesting thing,” Dalton said, “You’re not going to believe this, but it was a will.”

Megan snapped her head up and looked him in the eye, “A will? He wrote a new will in the hospital?”

“Yes. Apparently he had a doctor and a nurse witness it. That was when he put us down officially as next of kin also.”

“So what does it say?” Megan pressed.

Dalton produced a single piece of paper from his breast pocket, unfolded it and smoothed it out on his knee. It was the same stationery that Megan had used to write Ariana Mather’s name on the night before, and, it seemed, he had used the same scratchy cheap pen to cover the page with spidery, cursive handwriting.

“I can’t read it, Tony, what does it say?” she said impatiently.

Dalton took a deep breath, choosing his words carefully, and then let it out in a rush, “He left us everything. Well, not us, the baby.” he pointed at the child in Megan’s arms, and watched as Megan’s eyebrows shot up, “What’s everything consist of I wonder?” she mused

“Well, that’s not exactly spelt out here, but as far as I can tell, it’s a house, a train set and an undisclosed amount in a bank account. All to go into trust for the daughter of Megan and Dalton Richmond, with a monthly stipend to be paid until the child reaches 18, at which time she may have full and unfettered access.”

“The daughter?” Megan said, “How did he …”

Dalton shook his head, “I have no idea.”

 

Megan looked down at the little girl that Walter had somehow pre-empted – she was asleep, pupils moving slowly beneath her translucent lids, fontanelle pulsing gently and a little dribble of milk running down her chin.

 

Damien

 

Senior Constable Mitchell was sitting across from Damien in the stark interview room, staring at him with an interrogator’s smile. Damien returned it with a steely glare.

“How did you kill her, Damien?” Mitchell asked calmly.

“Who?” Damien responded, archly.

“You know who I mean.”

“No. I don’t know who you mean. I didn’t kill anybody.”

The police officer didn’t respond, choosing to simply stare at him. Damien wasn’t fooled, and he waited out the silence. The two stared at each other across the table in a crazy contest where the first person to speak lost the game. Damien was determined, but eventually the game was declared no-contest, because the door opened and Detective Sergeant David Ward walked in. Ward looked from one to the other, sensing the challenge that lay in the air like fog. He pulled one of the plastic chairs away from the table, reversed it, and sat down in a single fluid motion. He rested his forearms along the top of the chair back and lowered his head to stare at Damien.

“Tell me what happened in the hospital, Damien. Start with how you got the drug.” It wasn’t a question, it was an order. Damien decided to try and play the silence-lets-see-who-speaks-first game with Ward, but he wasn’t going to fall for it. After only a few minutes, Ward stood suddenly, startling Damien with the squeak of the flimsy metal chair legs against the worn, bare floor.

“Okay.” he stated, starting to pace, “How about I tell you what happened instead. That way you only have to agree with me as we go along.” Ward stopped mere inches away from Damien’s right ear, and he leant down to put his face as Damien’s as possible. His hot breath tickled Damien’s cheek when he ejected the words, “Got it, buddy?”, and Damien nodded dumbly.

“Right.” Ward straightened, and begun pacing the length of the short wall. He appeared to gather his thoughts for a moment, although Damien suspected it was an act – Ward had clearly been living and breathing this case all week. “Well, the drug you used was Pancuronium – Pavulon.” Ward started. “Poor old Mister Spinner was practically swimming with it when the mortician checked him out. That drug was last used on your shift the day before for a Code Blue emergency involving a female patient at the opposite end of the hallway. You helped clean up after that incident, didn’t you Damien?”

Damien didn’t answer, and Ward stopped mid-step, wheeling to glare at him, “Didn’t you, Mister Everett?” he said with force. Damien nodded again and Mitchell spoke up, asking him to say it out loud for the benefit of the recording. Damien obliged weakly, and Ward continued pacing apparently satisfied.

“So, you manage to find yourself a nice little half empty vial of Pavulon. Now, you could have just gotten so excited by your little find that you decided to use it on the next available patient – just for kicks. But you know what, I don’t think you did that, did you Damien?” This time, he didn’t wait for a response, and Damien wasn’t intending to offer one. “No, you know why I think that, Damien? Because you showed just a little bit too much interest in Mister Spinner from the get-go. I think that Mister Spinner was a threat to you, Damien. I think he was a threat to you so you got rid of him. Finding the drug just gave you the means to do it. Didn’t it, Damien?”

This time he was after an answer, and Damien hesitated at first, then nodded again, knowing when he was defeated. Mitchell slapped the table to get his attention, and barked, “For the tape, Mister Everett,” and Damien croaked, “Uh. I guess.”

“Well, Mister Spinner is just an old man, what could he possibly have threatened you with?” Ward’s tone had become mocking now, playing up to his role as antagonist and seemingly enjoying it immensely. Damien just continued to feel miserable, knowing now that he was going down. He had no hope of recovery from this. “Well, it just so happens that we spoke to Mister Spinner only a few days ago, and I think that there may be a bit of a link here Damien. I think that Mister Spinner saw something down at Redton railway station.” Ward had stopped pacing again, and he moved back to the table where Damien sat, his head buried in his hands. Ward placed his hands flat on the edge of the table and put his head close to Damien’s, he dropped his voice and laced it with brutal accusation, “I think he saw you, Mister Everett. He saw you murder Ariana Mathers, and so you murdered him to shut him up.”

Damien looked up, deciding finally that if he was going to go down, he’d better do it in a blaze of glory, he opened his mouth to speak and, when the words wouldn’t come, he cleared his throat, then tried again. “I didn’t kill Ariana Mathers. I was with her and couple of other guys, but when I left to go home she was well and truly alive. Sir.” he added as an afterthought.

Ward sat back down on the reversed chair as though he was settling in for a nice bit of storytelling, and asked Damien to continue. Damien slowly warmed up to his story, and as the day wore on, more and more details came to light. By the time they had arrested Damien for the murder of Mister Walter Albert Spinner and returned him to his six by four holding cell, it was after ten in the evening and Damien was shaking and exhausted, knowing that he had just made either the biggest mistake or the greatest confession of his life. Possibly both, he thought miserably.

 

Ben

 

Ben had spent most of the day at home, indeed most of the week, surfing the internet for more information on Ariana and completely ignoring the load of study he had for his final exams for the year. He was in no doubt that he would fail the classes he had taken this year, but that was not particularly surprising and at least it meant he would get funding from his parents for another semester. He lived in dread of the day that he actually managed to graduate and his parents forced him to go and get a job. He was 23 now, and he saw no problem with living under parental funding for many years to come yet, provided he could work out a way to successfully do so.

 

He was busy ratting through the freezer looking for something he could reheat and consume in front of the computer, when he heard a knock on the door. He closed the freezer door and went through to the front of the house, calling out as he did so, “Coming!”

 

Ben got to the door and opened it but, instead of the friend he was expecting to see, he saw two uniformed police officers. His eyes narrowed as he looked at them, first one, then the other, “What the …?” he stammered, before the elder of the two interrupted him.

“Senior Constable Mitchell,” he stated, holding up a badge. He stabbed a thumb at the lanky officer beside him, “And Constable Platt.”

Ben opened his mouth, but had not yet worked out what words to speak, when Mitchell continued, his notebook open as he spoke, “We have reason to believe that you were involved with the murder of one Ariana Grace Mathers last Saturday evening at Redton railway station. You are not obliged to say or do anything unless you wish to do so, but whatever you say or do may be used in evidence. Do you understand?”

Ben closed his mouth, and nodded his assent. Mitchell asked him to verbally confirm his understanding and Ben, fighting a throat closing in terror, croaked, “I understand.”

With that, Constable Platt produced a set of handcuffs and moved towards Ben, who did not resist. Once he was suitably detained, Ben allowed himself to be led to the police vehicle parked in his driveway. He settled himself in the back seat of the vehicle, laid his head back on the bench seat and closed his eyes to block out the sight of the reinforced partition between the seats, the uniformed officers in the front, the handcuffs around his wrist. His mind instead showed him a stage – the stage where he had been dancing for so long. And then, without warning, the curtains started closing. He felt tears well up behind his closed lids. He let them come.

Epilogue

The house was still, the baby finally sound asleep in her cot after a long night awake. Megan fought the urge to sleep herself, and sat down at the table with a strong cup of tea instead. There was a pile of papers on the table – a collection of junk mail and this morning’s newspaper, as well the baby photos that Dalton had printed off last night. Megan smoothed the paper out as she sipped her tea, idly flicking through the articles, trying to find the crossword. Suddenly distracted, her eyes flicked towards the photographs – she had gone through them all already but she pulled them towards her again, flicking through and admiring the perfect eyes, the perfect hands, the perfect toes of her little girl. Almost unconsciously she started sorting them into groups, laying them out on the newsprint: in the hospital; with Dalton; with other relatives and friends; in the car for the first time; at home with all the new equipment; Dalton puzzling over various pieces of baby-related paraphernalia. She was creating scrapbook pages as she went, mentally picking colours, styles and embellishments. As she moved the photographs around on the newspaper, words suddenly jumped out at her: “Mathers Murderer Found Yet Mystery Remains”. She slowly cleared the photographs away from the article and, dreamlike, read the short piece:

 

“The murder of the young woman behind the award-winning A.M. Alston novels, Ariana Mathers, has officially been solved, but there remains questions over the gruesome death that may never be answered. Benjamin Eliot Morgan, 23, of Hawkswater, was taken into custody last Friday night after a tip-off from an un-named person helping the police with their enquiries. Morgan faces court early next week on a range of charges. In a situation that appears to be a one-night-stand turned nasty, Morgan allegedly had travelled with Mathers on the train from Hawkswater to Redton stations and, once there, raped and strangled her in the dark brush near the station grounds. Police refused to comment on whether others were involved, or if Morgan had used drugs prior to the murder.

 

Mathers’ mother, Grace, however, has revealed that she received an anonymous cheque over the weekend. They discovered the hand-delivered envelope in their letterbox on Sunday afternoon, containing a cheque made out to “The Estate of Ariana Mathers” for a sum of $1.6 Million. There was a typed note in the envelope, stating only “From an old man who wanted to say “sorry”. I don’t know what happened, but no young person deserves what Ariana suffered, and no parent deserves to have a child taken from them in that manner. I wish I could have done more”. The letter was unsigned, and Ms Mathers is appealing to the public for the sender to step forward, so that she can offer her thanks and gratitude.

 

In related news, City Rail have pledged to upgrade the surroundings of 14 suburban train stations, including Redton, within the next 18 months. Upgrades will include cutting back the brush surrounding the stations and installing 24 hour lighting. If you have any information on the Mathers case, please contact this newspaper, or Crime Stoppers.”

 

Megan smiled as she thought about how they had argued over the wording of the letter, and the amount of the cheque. But in the end, they had agreed to keep it as close to Walter’s own words as possible, and there was still plenty of funds left over so that their little girl would have a good education, and one hell of an eighteenth birthday party.

 

 

Shannen set the tall glass coffee cup down gently on the saucer, as though she were afraid it would break. She stared at the empty cup for a while, her latte finished now and remnants of milk froth clinging to her lip, and tried to gather her thoughts. Sitting across from her, Briana stared into her own cup of half finished coffee. The small coffee shop was buzzing with people who had finished work for the week and were winding up to the weekend. Briana and Shannen were sitting at a small table on the very perimeter of the street dining area, where they been observing not only the coffee shop full of people, but the cars going past and the pedestrians carefully sidestepping the chairs and tables pushed onto the footpath. Briana had just finished relating the story her mother had told her only days ago, about her father, Grace and Ariana and the relationship she was trying to establish with her unknown cousin. As the final words had dropped from her mouth, silence had descended, broken only by the background buzzing of people deep in their own conversations, and now Briana waited, hardly breathing, for Shannen’s response.

 

Shannen continued to look into her cup, but her head was not bowed with solemnity for Briana’s story, as the teenager thought. Instead, she was recalling her own teenaged years, and how serious everything was when you were sixteen. She trawled back through her own memories, and could recall the emotions more than she could recall the events that triggered them. She remembered how every love was the one, every break up was suicide-worthy, every friendship was till the end of the world, and every heartache warranted days in bed with ‘depression’. It occurred to her that it was this roller coaster of emotion that had turned her into the hard partyer that she had become … somehow the days of supposed depression, and the heartaches and breakups had been real enough that she had felt the need to escape them. Had the emotions really been that painful, or was she just finding that she dealt with things better these days? Somehow it seemed as though the emotions really had been painful – more painful than she thought she would be able to bear some days. And then she realised that, as a teenager, she had never had to deal with anything even remotely like what she had had to deal with in the past week – tripping over a dead body, only to discover later that it was your best friend, and then having to cope with the loss, the grief and the guilt all at once. Yet she had not at any point since learning of Ariana’s death, wanted a drink, she had not craved a drug and she had not had to lean on others for support. The thought stopped her in her tracks – when had this change come over her?

 

As she looked through the thick glass of her latte cup, she saw an image on the saucer beneath it, and moved the glass for a better view. Sitting on the saucer was a serviette, bearing the logo of the coffee shop they were in, and suddenly Shannen smiled. She picked up the folded napkin, stained by spilt coffee and with a distinctive ring where her cup had sat, and held it up for Brianna to see.

 

Brianna looked blankly at the serviette that Shannen was holding up, and shook her head frowning. Shannen spoke finally, pointing to the logo and searching Briana’s face for realisation, “It’s a phoenix!”

Briana shook her head again, saying only, “Um, yeah, that’s the name of the coffee shop,”

It was Shannen’s turn to shake her head. She put the serviette down on the table, and smoothed it out, almost caressing the image of the phoenix printed on it. She had thought that her phoenix days were in the past two years, but now she realised that, while those were stepping stones, and they were certainly necessary, the day she rose from the ashes was the day she finished Ariana’s story – the day she had discovered that she really didn’t need a crutch, she didn’t need external support. The day of her arising from the ashes was today, the day that she had discovered that she had the inner strength to cope with anything the world could throw at her, and that all it took to have that strength, was to know that she had it. She looked skyward and smiled, really smiled, for the first time in weeks, months, maybe even years. And although she still had a lot of grieving to do yet, she also knew that she could, and she would, be able to get through it. And silently, she thanked Ariana, for her best friend had given her the ultimate gift, she had given her the strength to carry on, and the strength that Shannen had been struggling to find in others, she had finally found, with Ariana’s help, within herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share