Author Archives: wendybough@yahoo.co.uk

Interview with Cam Terwilliger, winner of the Caledonia Novel Award 2017

Cam, firstly, many congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2017 with Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart. 

We were very drawn to the main characters, especially the syphilitic physician Andrew Whitlaw and the Mohawk girl Béatrice, and to your well-executed storyline. Was Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart character or plot driven? 

Great question! It’s hard to separate plot from character in my view, but if I had to choose I’d say that my writing process started with the plot, and then explored the characters I’d attached to that overarching storyline afterwards. This was my goal at the outset due to a prior experience writing a novel set in the Aleutian Islands during World War II – which also featured a doctor as its protagonist, in fact! I learned a lot through the missteps of that project. Specifically, it had an atmospheric setting that I loved, and a character with a fraught history that felt very round to me. But there was no forward-moving story, and the book soon devolved into a moody, static blob of character sketches.

So, when I started writing a new novel about 18th-Century New York and Québec, I knew I wanted to have a clear goal at the centre of the book, to give it a sense of structure and purpose. That goal turned out to be the hunt for William Bell, the elusive counterfeiter at large in the North American wilderness. I explicitly borrowed parts of this plot structure from Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. As in Conrad’s novel, we have a journey into the wilderness to capture some enigmatic figure. But then that figure turns out to be a charismatic yet pathetic charlatan (similar to Gatsby). In all cases, however, this central figure (Kurtz/Gatsby/Bell) is held at a distance for most of the book, which provides an intriguing mystery for the main characters to explore, creating a process of discovery from chapter to chapter. After so firmly establishing this plot, I felt far more at ease. I could relax into developing the protagonists because I always had a clear sense of where the story was going in the big picture. Within the bounds of that large canvas, I was free to paint the complex character-based motivations of Andrew and Béatrice for getting involved in this journey.

How long did your novel take to write? Were there many redrafts?

I started writing what would become the novel in 2007, but I had a period of re-conceiving the story several times as I did the initial research and drafting. The current version really began in 2010 during a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, when Andrew’s voice as the narrator came to me all at once. I’ve been working away at the novel ever since, with a few stints on other projects along the way. After working on the opening fifty pages for a good long while, I wrote the full initial draft pretty quickly while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Montréal in 2013-2014. Since then I’ve done two major redrafts that altered the structure and a number of smaller passes to tighten the language and clarify details.

Did you show your work to other writers before submitting it?

I had the great fortune to get feedback on the opening of the novel at some excellent writers’ conferences we have here in the US (Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts). This feedback gave me the ruling signs of the project, and I often returned to the critiques I received as I was writing. Later, after writing the entire draft, I got more holistic feedback on the manuscript from my friend, the writer Chip Cheek, and my partner, the writer Cara Blue Adams, both of whose opinions I value so much that showing my work to them is a little stressful – though always incredibly illuminating!

Several of our readers commented on the novel’s accurate historical context and your attention to detail. Research is clearly important to you – are you a stickler for facts?

I’m a writer who feels very nourished by researching the time and place I’m writing about, as well as people who have lived lives similar to my characters. The concrete, specific details of reality are such a gift, in my opinion, because they provide a trove of images and language that you can repurpose in a literary way (in my case the details of 18th-Century medicine, the stages of syphilis, Mohawk culture, Catholicism, North American geography, and the process of engraving and printing). The challenge, though, was to create a story where all of those details could coexist convincingly. By creating a set of purely fictional characters (rather than writing about real people from history) I gave myself a lot of latitude to weave the strands of my material together in a way that is basically plausible. The events of my novel would be quite exceptional in their time, but – to my mind – that makes them all the more interesting.

When you are writing a novel of this length and complexity, what motivates you to keep going?

I wish I knew! After a time, the novel just became a part of my life, like a family member or a close friend, someone you love unconditionally, even though he or she might be completely exasperating at times. It’s shaped my days and thoughts so regularly that I now can’t imagine my life without it. I actually find the prospect of stopping more alarming than continuing to work on it, which is its own kind of problem. To write a book, you must madly commit to the concept of never quitting. Yet, one day, against all instinct, you must find the way to finish.

Where and how do you work? Are you a disciplined writer?

Right after I graduated from my MFA program, I was a much more disciplined writer. I had an office day job and I got up each day to write for an hour before work. After I started teaching at universities, my daily schedule quickly became shifting ground, and so I’ve started to write in short bursts – as much as I can during breaks and at the beginning of the semester, before things get really busy.

Are you currently working on another novel? If so, are you sticking with historical fiction or are you trying another genre?

I do have another novel project in the works. And, yes, for better or worse, I think I’m going to be a historical novelist for life. A few years ago, I started a novel that follows a series of characters in New Orleans’s famous Storyville red-light district at the opening of World War I, the brothels and honky-tonks where jazz was born. It’s very different than Wilderness, rotating among seven different points of view, all orbiting the mystery of a young soldier’s death by poison in a high-end brothel.

Which novels and authors do you enjoy reading?

I’m a gigantic fan of contemporary authors working in the vein of literary historical fiction such as Andrea Barrett, Jim Shepard, Joseph Boyden, Hilary Mantel, and Laila Lalami. I’m also a longtime devotee of J.M. Coetzee, especially Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, both of which use a present-tense narration on which I modelled my own novel’s style. I love books from the past very, very deeply as well. A few of my favourite reading experiences of all time include Moby Dick, The Master and Margerita, and Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno.

Which novel – if any! – do you wish you’d written, and why?

Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. These are two monumental books that completely blew me away – Sacred Hunger creating a large cast of characters on the voyage of a slave ship, and Memoirs of Hadrian recounting the entire life of Hadrian. I don’t think I could ever write a book like these, which are so moral and wise, so vivid on the level of the sentence, and so magisterial in their massive scopes. Reading these books made me feel like I’d lived several additional lifetimes. And though they look like doorstoppers, I found them completely enrapturing.

You have been very successful in a number of other literary competitions – do you have any advice for other writers who are thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2018?

I’ve read submissions myself for a number of literary magazines, and I’ve learned a few things from the experience. In my opinion, it can’t be overstated how important it is to have a very strong opening when you are competing alongside hundreds of other submissions. The opening is the most challenging and precarious part for the reader. Those first pages are when the reader is most likely to give up on the story, because you have to spend so much mental energy figuring out how the world works, where your attention should be, and whether you should bother at all. So, if the writer can get the reader to commit for a few pages by offering a sharp, intriguing opening, the reader is far more likely to give the rest of the manuscript a careful read, since the reader now has an initial investment in the story. Obviously, it’s important that the whole manuscript be as strong as possible, but extra attention should be given to the opening.

And finally, what next for Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart?

I’m aiming to finalise the manuscript this summer, which I will be very lucky to spend in my beloved Montréal, as a fellow in the New York-Quebec Artist-in-Residence Exchange Program, hosted by the marvellous Quebec Writers Federation. After some revisions to the conclusion of the novel, and some further editing, I’m hoping to find an agent to work with in the fall, then pursue publication in late 2017 or early 2018. I have heard from a number of interested agents in recent years, so I intend to speak to a few and find someone to collaborate with on the culmination of this project and – hopefully – the novels ahead!

First Chapters: 2017 Shortlist

Here are the first chapters of the six books shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2017, starting with the winning novel.

 

 Yet Wilderness Grew in My Heart by Cam Terwilliger

I

September 1757

Our family estate encompasses one thousand acres of meadow and forest stretching from the west bank of the Hudson River into the foothills—and then the pine-covered peaks—of the Catskill Mountains. My father built the manor house in the time of Queen Anne, two stories of fieldstone with a white portico entrance and six narrow windows slitting its face. A lawn slopes down to the river, the grass mown to the height of an inch by the five listless sheep that serve no other purpose. At the reed-lined shore, a pier juts into the loamy brown of the Hudson, a structure large enough to accommodate the schooners and sloops that glide between Manhattan and Albany all summer long, their white sails fluttering in the wind that courses ceaselessly through our valley. From the back windows of the manor house, one sees the tidy rows of our apple orchard, then a wilderness of maple and beech rising into the mountains beyond—the home of the black bear, the raccoon, and the Indian.

The village of our tenant farmers huddles on the bank of the river a half mile to the north, a community of straw-thatched roofs, a modest church, cattle pastures, and countless fields of rippling rye. Every week a party of trackers appears on the road that passes through the tenants’ hamlet. The men ride through the village without stopping, around the bend in the river, then up the slope of our lawn to the door of the manor, where they descend from their winded mounts, their buckskin jerkins mottled with dirt. They are here to report to my brother, Lord Upton Whitlaw, the current master of Whitlaw Manor and the justice of the peace for our county. They come to speak of the one called William Bell—the man my brother has been hunting for a year.

Bell is a counterfeiter. And a good one. When Upton’s trackers return from the foothills of Kinderhook where they have searched the caves in which the man is supposed to turn out his miraculously accurate notes, they report the sites to be empty. Only once did they return with evidence: a worn-out printing plate used to produce the false notes—a clue left behind so carelessly it seemed intentional, as though to taunt my brother. The plate was copper and dried Frankfurt ink clung to its grooves, the ghostly impression of the worn-out engraving still visible: a note of credit displaying the royal seal of New York—except backward—the white man and the Indian transposing themselves to opposite sides of its windmill crest. There was even the warning below: It is Death to Counterfeit.

This plate—or one exactly like it—sent my brother into a sputtering rage last month when he discovered over one hundred pounds of forged currency had been used at the Whitlaw general store to purchase porcelain, silver, tea, sugar, bolts of silk, pocket watches, brass buttons, Venetian lace, spyglass lenses, and other expensive manufactures so difficult to procure in this part of the world. Upton only discovered the bills were valueless when we tried to redeem them at the colony bank and the head clerk—a man with pale skin, shrunken eyes, and a lisp—told my brother that the bills of those numbers had already been redeemed. How could this be? My brother demanded proof and the bills in question were retrieved from the lockbox so they could be compared, and—yes—the redeemed bills had the exact same numbers as Upton’s: the colony’s 1750 emission. In fact, no one could tell the difference between them—which were the original and which were the counterfeit—until a drop of acid was applied to each. The ink of Upton’s bills did not turn the right color. It faded to cinnamon brown. Not indigo. And so my brother was left with nothing but stacks of paper, each boasting the artful engraving of William Bell, the illusion of twenty pounds each.

William Bell endangers the family estate as palpably as a flood or a blight on the wheat. Yet he remains little more than an apparition to us, a figure of vapor. Village gossip about William Bell—if that is his real name—conflicts to an unsettling degree. One villager claims Bell is bookish, a spectacled man who worships in an Anglican church in Albany, a place that hides him so long as part of his product fills the offering baskets. Another says he is half-Abenaki, his face tattooed like a mask. Another says he lived as a courer de bois, trapping beaver until the business of that collapsed, at which point he turned counterfeiter. I begin to wonder if anyone has even met the man, or if the informers are nothing but a parade of liars planning to cheat Upton of the posted reward.

Or if it is possible that the notes derive from a number of different counterfeiters. Perhaps there is no William Bell at all. He may only be a chimera of my brother’s imagination, something invented to embody this counterfeiting problem, to have a face at which to direct his vitriol, to dream that one day he will put a man on trial and, afterward, everything will return to the way it was before. A handy illusion, I suppose. But no. I’ve seen too many of the bills—the assurance of the design, that signature style that seems slightly more vital, more graceful than the stolid lines of a legal note, the figures of the white man and the Indian rendered as if they might simply step out of their paper tableau. The bills are unmistakably the work of a single hand. And the plates used to print them are the work of a master.

The only thing that is certain about this mysterious engraver is that he provides a necessary distraction from the latest war with France. The war goes poorly in New England and Pennsylvania, their frontiers rolling back every month, every week, every day—a pair of frayed and blood-spattered scrolls. This summer, the war in the colony of New York finally turned for the worse as well, Montcalm’s army and his native allies setting fire to the bastions of Fort William Henry, leaving nothing but a half-ton of charred timber and stone at the foot of Lake George, a mere sixty miles north of Albany. Without the fort to protect us, our minds blossom with fear. Québec, the place that had once seemed so distant, now appears in the dark dreams of our children, in the alarmist headlines of The Mercury and The Herald, in our fretful speculation about what lay just over the horizon. We see our valley in flames. We see Abenaki painting their bodies vermillion and black, taking the hatchet, traveling the forest roads as easily as opening a door. We fear the Indians most because they are desperate. They must take captives to replenish the empty doorways and hearths of their villages, the families now riven by disease, by war, by the sharp taste of rum, their songs calling at times in fury, at times in lamentation.

The worse the war gets, the easier William Bell’s enterprise becomes. The colonial militias pay for everything with paper money, flooding the country with it, Bell’s false notes mixing undetectably with the true ones. More importantly: who has time to fret over fake currency when one’s home is razed? Who but Upton has the desire to enforce the law when the world has so clearly abandoned legality for violence? One day we see a boat of settlers from the north floating down the Hudson, possessions piled hastily on their flat-bottomed bateaux. In the prow, a woman wearing only her shift weeps over a pair of dead girls, their bodies laid side by side on the deck like nothing more than burlap sacks of grain. Above them, she flails at a tangle of flies.

The sight sends Upton’s three daughters into a fit of shrieks and wails. Upton’s wife Constance struggles to quiet them, gathering the girls in her arms to kiss the brunette crowns of their hair. “Tell them it will be all right, Uncle Andrew,” Constance says when I come to the drawing room. Constance eyes me pointedly and nods—and so I do as I’m told. My assurances work in a fashion, the younger girls, Emeline and Sarah, wiping their noses and eyes on their forearms, while the elder one, Jane, screws up the courage to apologize for her outburst, no doubt embarrassed to be seen this way by her Uncle, who she still regards as a kind of peculiar, distinguished guest—even though I’ve been living at Whitlaw Manor for almost two years.

When my brother arrives, we tell him what we saw, sparing no detail. And how does he react? He simply shakes his head and remarks: “A shame. A very great shame.” Then he retires to his office to inspect—once again—the printing plate left behind by William Bell.

When I join him in the office that evening, Upton has moved on to evaluating the plantation account book, the long history of credit that his eldest son—his agent in Manhattan—has accrued from the grain, timber, and iron produced by our tenants, shipped to the city, then sent all over the world. As Upton reads, his eyes narrow to a squint and his lips pucker sourly. His wig sits on a little stand at his right elbow, every hair combed, its stubby tail hanging down. It has been so long since I’ve seen Upton without his wig that he now appears somewhat strange: frail and attenuated, older than his forty-five years. In his close-cropped scalp, a brushing of silver stands against the color of chestnut. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes have gone from creases to ruts.

When Upton sees that I have come to study—my anatomy manuals tucked under my arm—he snorts.

“I have a novel idea, Andrew,” he says, still regarding the precisely etched numbers in his ledger. “If you ever re-open that medical school you spent all your money on, you could take Mr. Bell for a cadaver. Once we hang him that is. You could dissect the body. Put the spleen and the liver in separate jars for posterity—or whatever it is that you and those esteemed gentlemen do.”

“You know we dissect them for future diagnosis.”

“That’s right,” he says. “The advancement of quackery is rather painstaking.”

Five years older, Upton has always viewed me as a pointless, withered branch of our family tree. In recent years, it has become difficult to argue. In the west of Manhattan, the clapboard sign of the building that I planned to be my academy, the first of its kind in our colony, has been taken down. On the post near its door, a new sign advertises a boarding house for free Africans.

“Would you care to provide me with an anatomical opinion, Andrew?” Upton’s worn blue eyes are relaxed, propped open quizzically, like a cat as it toys with an injured sparrow. “Do you think a criminal like Bell has a heart at all?”

“It would be about the size of yours,” I say. “A bit bigger, perhaps.”


Take Flight by Hannah Foster

My whole world is incessantly moving up, and down. It reeks of vomit and that stale smell you get when everyone sleeps in your lounge room after a party. The men smell the worst, and the little kids. There are nearly two thousand of us on board. It seems like more.

Above me, the sky is blue and featureless. The waves change hourly, sometimes even more often. The water reflects the sky’s colour, but beneath the salty surface, there are just unimaginable depths of grey.

There is a song my mum listened to quite often, called something like Six Months on the Leaky Boat. I think I’ve forgotten its actual name. It scares me how easily I could forget something like that. None of us would last six months on this boat, though it is technically a ship, not a boat.

My name is Blythe. I get called Ithy. Like itchy, but with a lisp. I can say that, because my sister used to have one, a little one, before mum sent her to a speech therapist. Blythe literally means happy and without worries. No worries mate. It has been months since I heard that phrase. I don’t know if I will ever hear it again. What I do know is that here, in the vast blue, I am nobody; just a cork bobbing in the ocean. There is water in the engine room, so we are going nowhere. We are waiting.

I’m not good at waiting, but I will. I can. I knew someone on this ship that couldn’t wait. She cut her arms and jumped into the water. We have all been warned about sharks. I haven’t seen any, but I hope there are some; I mean I hope it was quick. I told my little sister, Lallie, that she’d died in the night and that they’d had to throw the body overboard since we couldn’t bury her. I think she believed me. I wanted to believe me.

CHAPTER 1

Karen was wearing a big orange T-shirt and beige trousers. She reminded me of a character in the show Orange is the New Black, an inmate, wearing that colour. Mum and I watched reruns of it last summer. It’s like fifteen years old, but it is still pretty good. I never admitted that to mum though, because then it was counted as her choice of show, and I was owed a selection.

Karen just stood in the doorway of our lounge room and waved at Lallie and me, using only her hand, not her arm. Lallie was half asleep on the couch and I was doing her hair. It looked pretty good, from up-side-down anyway. Mum poked her head around behind Karen and introduced us properly. Karen was one of mum’s work colleagues. Mum doesn’t really have friends, just colleagues.

She was staying with us while mum went to a conference. I refused to use the word babysitting, since I was seventeen.  I waved back at them. Lallie pretended to be properly asleep.  From the way she was dressed, and her hair, I would have guessed Karen had always been single and lived with elderly cats, but mum had told us she was in the process of getting a divorce from a guy called Ben. It didn’t matter. She was staying, for just over a week, including the last couple of days of my final ever school summer holidays. Next summer I was planning on going to Bali on schoolies with Alex and Sorrel. I hadn’t told mum about Bali yet; I was going to need some serious leverage and excellent marks at school to convince her.

Mum pointed Karen towards the kitchen. Parsnip was asleep, properly asleep, on the floor next to the couch. His big head was resting on one of my shoes. He’s a yellow Labrador and his real name is actually Bartholomew Christos. But that’s a stupid name for a dog and Lallie couldn’t say it when she was little, so somehow Bartholomew morphed into Parsnip. He is actually Lallie’s dog, but we all looked after him. He spent most of his time at home sleeping, probably dreaming of food.

‘Why’s Lal asleep?’ mum asked from the doorway.

I shrugged. I saw a tiny smile twitch across Lallie’s face.

‘She’s just tired,’ I offered, biting my bottom lip.

‘I hope she hasn’t got glandular.’

‘Mum!’

‘What? The boy down the street, number fifteen, their son Dylan has glandular and apparently he can hardly get out of bed…’

‘She can hear you.’

‘Ithy, she’s asleep.’

‘Lallie doesn’t have glandular.’

‘Did you wake her up last night when you got home?’

‘No.’

‘That was the last one, you know, school starts in three days.’

I’d been to a party the night before. A guy that Sorrel knows called Rio hosted it. His parents were cool enough to clear out of their house for the night. His place was in Kew and it was huge, with a pool, digital emersion room and five or six bedrooms, even though he’s an only child. I drank a bit more than I normally would at a party; it was a big night. Rio and some other guy ended up stepping on glass in the pool. Rio put up pictures this morning of his bandaged foot and their pool totally drained. His parents were annoyed because they were not going to be able to fill it again until winter, because of the water restrictions.

It seemed crazy, having water restrictions, when all it ever felt like was that we had too much water. Mum cried when Venice finally went under last year. I don’t know why that set her off, out of everything. Other places have already gone, like Kiribati and some other island in the Pacific. And whole big chunks of India, anywhere really low-lying, they’ve gone. The Dutch have some awesome system of walls and pumps to keep the water back in Holland, but there wasn’t the money to cover India that way.

We watched the report on Venice on the news together. We didn’t normally watch the news like that, but there was a special retrospective on Venice and mum wanted to watch it. It wasn’t even that bad. They’d moved all the art out a year before and the people a few months after that. It was St Mark’s Square awash, bits of crap bobbing all over it, that got mum. She just burst into tears when they showed that. I think it’s because she’d been there in 2005, when she was about twenty. She took a year off between first and second year University to travel and to learn French and Italian. Obviously it rubbed off on her, because she became an art historian. The conference she was going to was in San Francisco, on Impressionist styles from across the world, or something like that.

I can’t really imagine my mum aged twenty. I’ve seen footage and tonnes of photos, I know what she looked like, but I just can’t really imagine how she’d be to hang out with, what I’d think of her, if I met her then. She was actually really pretty, even though her clothes were ridiculous.

When mum started to cry during the Venice coverage, Lallie snuggled up to her, pushing herself under mum’s left arm, so that her head rested on mum’s chest. Lallie didn’t say anything, but mum stopped crying and just sniffed through the rest of the report. Lallie is not that far off being a teenager. Sometimes I feel like she’s still four years old. And then sometimes, she’s quiet and super wise, and I think she’s at least ninety.

Mum and Karen talked in the kitchen for a while and then Mum took Karen upstairs to the spare room, which was actually mum’s study. Lallie miraculously woke up.

‘Can you please tell mum I don’t have glandular?’ was the first thing she said.

Then she touched her hair.

‘What have you done?’

‘It’s cute, it’s like a top knot with braids feeding into it.’

‘Can you tell mum?’

‘I did. I tried. She just worries.’

‘I know.’

‘Because you never say much, it’s hard to know what you’re thinking.’

Mum made a really nice dinner to welcome Karen, or maybe to thank her for agreeing to watch Lallie and me for a week. She even made dessert, cherry clafoutis. Normally we get our meals delivered, but mum could cook pretty well, when she had the time. Karen had seconds of dessert and then went to bed almost straight afterwards. Mum and I stayed up together watching the POD. Lallie went to her room to play a VR game with my headset since hers had broken. Mum and I didn’t talk much; we just watched the show. She made us both a cup of tea. I wish now that we’d talked about something more memorable that night, before she flew out to San Fran.

Karen watched the news every night, like three different editions of it. But I just watched stuff on my T device in my room and Lallie listened to music and Karen seemed fine with that. She was an odd kind of person. She mostly ate toast and tubs of something called whey ice cream, which is supposed to be good for you, but didn’t look like it was, since Karen was pretty overweight. The only times I saw her leave the house were to go to work or to buy the whey ice cream. I offered to order it for her online but she said she wanted to go out because she didn’t want her ex-husband being able to track what she bought online. That didn’t make sense at all, but I didn’t argue. Mum gave us access to her payment chips before she left, so I could have bought it for her.

Karen wasn’t exactly pretty but she was smart and had a good job. She was boring, but then most people her age are like that. And apart from the ice cream and not understanding how to mask her internet activities, she was totally normal. Yet she ended up with some complete psycho, who stalked her spending online after they divorced.

Of my two best friends, Alex is way more into her running than guys, even though guys go crazy for her, but Sorrel is a Karen, only twenty-five years younger. She has the worst taste in guys – not even attractive morons, just morons. The latest one was called Avril, which I think is a girl’s name. Sorrel told me she’d started sleeping with him. She’d told me at the party at Rio’s the night before Karen arrived. She was pretty drunk though, so I didn’t know whether or not to believe her. Sorrel lost her virginity to a creepy guy at her dad’s work barbeque when she was fifteen. Alex and I are both still on our Vs. Sorrel kept going on about Avril at Rio’s party. He had a piercing on his lower lip that got infected all the time. I couldn’t even look at it.

The night before school started again Lallie knocked on my door when I was half way through a reality show where they make people who are afraid of particular animals live with that animal for a week. It’s quite stupid, I don’t know why I watched it.

‘Lallie, what?’ I asked, not wanting to take my eyes off the paused screen.

Lallie was standing in the doorway, tracing the bottom of the doorframe with her left toe. Mum says Lallie looks like a waif from the Les Miserables musical. I think she’s really beautiful. There was a thing called ‘heroin chic’ in the 1990s and she’s totally got that pale monochrome look going on. She has mum’s high cheekbones. I got my dad’s, apparently. Mum has no photos of him though, so I don’t know. Lallie is technically my half sister and mum is technically on the list with Karen and Sorrel for making bad decisions with guys.

‘What?’ I repeated, turning to look at her properly this time.

‘Karen’s crying, in the kitchen. I can hear her.’

‘Oh.’

Crying makes Lallie uncomfortable. She even hates it when actors fake-cry.

‘Do you know why?’

Lallie shrugged and shook her head.

‘Do you want to come in?’ I said, scrunching up my legs so there was a good clear space for her on the bed.

Lallie sidled over to the bed and sat down, legs crossed. She hugged Rufus, my bear, to her chest. I put Rufus away when friends came over, even Sorrel and Alex. He’s got a tatty red ribbon tied around his neck. Mum put the ribbon on him a couple of years ago and propped him up on a chair with a single red rose in his paws, for Valentine’s Day. It was nice, but also kind of sad, since she knew it was the only one I’d get and she didn’t get any at all.

‘What were you doing downstairs anyway?’

Lallie shrugged again and squeezed Rufus’ stomach.

‘Watching the news.’

‘Why didn’t you watch in your room?’

‘I wanted to watch on the big screen.’

I knew that was a lie.

‘Really?’

‘The sound’s better downstairs. I don’t know, don’t ask…’

‘Did Karen watch the news? Was it something on the news?’

‘No, she was just cleaning up the kitchen and I heard her crying in the ad break, when I muted the sound.’

‘Do you think I should go down there?’ I asked, hoping that Lallie would say no.

‘Maybe.’

‘Really?’

Lallie shrugged.

‘I miss mum,’ she said.

Mum had only been gone a couple of days. Lallie never said stuff like that.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t know, there’s just, so much bad stuff on the news.’

‘You shouldn’t watch it.’

‘But it’s true.’

‘Like what?’

‘There’s people drowning in Europe.’

‘Oh Lal.’

I reached out and gave her a hug, wrapping my arms around her and nestling my head into the crook of her shoulder for a moment. To be honest, the hug was really more for me than for her benefit.

‘Nothing bad is going to happen. Europe has flooded before.’

Lallie frowned and kept looking at me. I reached out and patted Rufus’ head as he sat in Lallie’s arms. I sighed.

‘I’ll go downstairs and ask Karen if she’d like help stacking the dishes.’

‘Thanks Ithy.’

I never did find out what Karen was crying about. I’m guessing it was Ben. Anyway, as mum would say in one of her lectures or papers, it was entirely inconsequential in the scheme of things. Lallie was right to be worried. Not about Karen, but about the other stuff, the weather and the politicians and the scary things on the news.

The next day was Monday, and I was back at school. We’d started prepping for our final year subjects with teachers at the end of last year, but I still felt a bit anxious about the first day back.

At 12:45pm, right in the middle of our lunch break, the bell rang. It was definitely not time to go back to class. I knew the teachers would still be mooching in the staff room and sucking on surreptitious cigarettes in their cars. Only the older ones smoked. You could smell it beneath the air freshener and deodorant they sprayed around afterwards.


Human Geography by Vicky Grut

1

Sofía came up from the kitchen just as the landline began to ring in the sitting room. She knew exactly what it was. She had been tracking the pattern all summer. Calls usually came over the weekend when her mother Lola was there to snatch up the phone. Sometimes Lola would talk for a while in Spanish. Sometimes she’d say: ‘I’ll call you later’. Once or twice Sofía had seen her simply lift the receiver and drop it back down. Today Lola was home but Sofía could hear that she was busy on another call, upstairs in her study.

On and on the landline rang. Sofía sprinted across the hall and into the big room. She lifted the receiver. ‘Hullo?’

There was a brief hesitation as if the caller was surprised – as if they had forgotten that an answer was part of the deal. The voice, when it came, was not at all what Sofía had been expecting. It was female, timid, whisperingly old.

‘¿Por qué non me llamas?’  Why do you never call me?

‘¿Perdon?’ Sofía switched languages automatically.

‘I have been waiting,’ the woman said, still in Spanish, ‘all week, I have been waiting.’

‘For what?’

‘For you,’ said the voice.

Then her mother was there, snatching the receiver away from Sofía, marching off towards the window, speaking coldly to the caller. ‘¿Qué quieres? I thought I told you not to use this number. You have my mobile if there’s an emergency – Si, claro … Look. I’m in the middle of work at the moment … Hmmm. I’ll call you tomorrow … Te prometo. I promise … Call Nuria if you’re feeling lonely right now. Yes, yes, tomorrow …  mañana.’

Lola replaced the handset in its cradle and turned back to the window. She stood looking out at the back garden, running one hand through her jaw-length black hair.

‘Who was that?’

Lola looked startled, as if she’d forgotten about Sofía. ‘Oh, nobody.’

Sofía laughed. ‘Come on Mum, that wasn’t nobody!

A short silence.

‘If you must know, she’s an elderly friend of the family.’

‘In Spain?’

Lola gave a small, terse nod. ‘She’s getting a bit senile. She has lots of other people she could call but suddenly now she only wants to talk to me. She’s been ringing all day. I had to turn off my mobile earlier. I have a deadline. I need to concentrate.’

‘So why does she want to talk to you? Doesn’t she have her own family?’

Lola cast a sharp glance at Sofía, bristling with unsaid things. ‘Shouldn’t you be doing some work, Sofía?’

‘It’s Saturday, Mum.’

Her mother raised an eyebrow and returned to her office without replying. Lola was always working.

Sofía went up to her bedroom, got out her laptop, opened her sister’s Facebook page and wrote: ‘Call me!’ This was something she wanted to share. In the dying weeks of the summer, Sofía had spent several evenings trying to draw Barbara into the mystery of these calls. Was Lola being black-mailed? Was she having an affair? Barbara had remained resolutely uninterested. But now, surely, she would admit that there was something going on.

Sofía scrolled down the page looking at Barbara’s pictures. Barbara was spending a year in California, doing postgraduate work. She’d barely landed and already her page was full of parties, beach walks, coffee stops and juice bar outings with confident-looking girls. Sometimes Sofía wondered whether she and Barbara really were sisters. She told herself that it was probably because by the time it came for her to be born, Lola’s eggs weren’t as good any more. It was a biological fact that men kept making more and more seed until they toppled into the grave, but a woman was born with just the one set and they had to last for the whole of her life. Lola had been twenty-two, barely out of university, when she had Barbara. She hadn’t begun to be stressed and successful yet. By the time Sofía came along four years later, Lola was working fulltime and her eggs would have been more bashed about. Seven years later when she had the twins they were probably in an even worse condition (because look at the results).

According to Barbara, when she and Lola had their talk about boys and condoms etcetera, Lola had admitted she hadn’t meant to get pregnant so young. (‘I was an accident,’ Barbara said. How could she stand to hear that?). Dad, on the other hand, had been massively keen to get married, and because Lola was brought up a Catholic, even though she no longer believed, she’d said yes; she didn’t want to end a life. ‘You were planned,’ Barbara told her. ‘They waited till Dad had passed all his exams. The twins were another slip-up.’ It made her think, Barbara said, that if Lola hadn’t fallen pregnant so young she might have been a bit more ambitious – though Dad was lovely, of course.

Sofía had been furious with Barbara for saying all this and also for not feeling more upset. It made her angry even thinking about it now. But her mother and her sister were a bit alike in that way: it took a lot to knock them sideways.

Snap. She closed the lid on Barbara’s world.

2

Wednesday morning. Sofía sat listening to Dennis, the documentary photography lecturer, as he talked them through his slides. The whole business of being at university still felt exciting, a universe away from the tidy girls’ school she’d come from. There were so many different kinds of people: some were confident, asking loud questions in the seminars, stating opinions, arguing, making sure they were noticed; others yawned and mumbled, took naps, checked their phones, sometimes didn’t bother coming back after the coffee break. Sofía wasn’t quite sure where to place herself yet. She had already fallen in and out of several groups. For the moment she tagged along with Liz, a serious girl with dyed blue hair, and a boy called Tim, both of whom travelled in by train every day from Kent.

Up at the front of the room, Dennis was talking about scope and scale, patience, planning. Two weeks ago, in the very first class, he had made them sit in silence while he plunged the room into darkness. It took a while for the shrieks and giggling to stop. Then the nothingness took over, black seeping into them, under their skin. It felt almost like falling though Sofía knew there was no movement. When he switched the lights on again Dennis said that now they must imagine that they were starting from scratch, that all their old ideas of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, useful, tasteful or not, had been left behind in that darkness. ‘In this class we are going to learn to open our eyes and our minds, and we are going to learn how to see,’ he said. ‘Not just look, but really SEE.’

Until that moment Sofía had been uncertain about the course. She had chosen to study photography in a blind rage against her parents who had tried to push for something more academic: How about Economics, Sofía? Statistics? Psychology? Industrial Design? Criminology? Geography, like Barbara?  No, no, NO! But when Dennis turned on the lights again and said what he’d said, Sofía felt a shiver of excitement and she knew that this was the right thing to be doing. This was what she was looking for.

‘And here we have a picture taken in Spain in 1936,’ Denis was saying. ‘It’s by one of the Magnum photographers, Robert Capa. It’s called Militiaman Falling.’

Up on the screen was a barren landscape in black and white. Three quarters of the image was open sky; in the left-hand quadrant, a man caught in the moment of his death, his body tilting backwards, rifle held high, head jerking away in the other direction. He seemed to be both leaping and crumpling, like a piece of cloth flung up and then almost, almost beginning to fold. At first glance the man’s body seemed to be untouched but if you studied the image more closely you could see what looked like a tuft of hair standing up from his head. Dennis pointed it out. This was where the bullet was beginning to erupt from his skull.

The picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine, Dennis said. It became iconic, standing in for the quarter of a million – maybe more  – who’d lost their lives in that war in Spain. After a while, though, some began to say that the picture was too good to be true. How was it possible that Capa just happened to be there to catch this split second of horror and grace in a time of light meters and cumbersome equipment? And wasn’t Robert Capa – or Endre Friedmann as he was born – a bit of a showman? Another photographer claimed that Capa had confessed to staging some of his images. Others sprang up to defend him. Someone tracked the setting to a village that Capa was known to have visited in 1936. They showed the picture to a local man who identified it as his brother, shot and killed on that day. Most compelling of all, said Dennis, a researcher had shown the picture to a forensic expert who said that if the picture had been faked, the man would instinctively have extended his free hand to break his fall.

‘See here,’ Dennis said. He pointed to the man’s right hand, fingers curling inwards towards the palm. ‘The hand is soft. It shows that in the moment when the image was taken, this man was already dead.’

Sofía stared up at the screen. Such a tiny thing and yet it was the difference between believing and not. She stowed the thought in her head for later.  Proof.

When she got home she went straight downstairs to the kitchen and slumped at the table where Alenka sat chopping vegetables. They didn’t really need an au pair now that the twins were at secondary school, but Alenka had been with them for almost four years. No one could imagine life without her any more. Sofía watched her ripping the hair from three sticks of celery, then beginning to slice. From overhead in the sitting room came the muffled sounds of the twins playing Mortal Combat. (‘You big fat cheat, Ollie!’ and ‘OW! You killed me!! What did you do that for?’)

‘What are we having for supper, Alenka?’

‘Chicken stir-fry.’

‘Want some help?’

‘You only make a mess.’

Sofía didn’t protest.

‘Did you know, Alenka, that there was a civil war in Spain? I’ve just been in the college library, reading about it.’

Alenka looked surprised and annoyed. She hated to admit not knowing anything. She went back to her chopping. ‘Just like in my country,’ she said.

‘Hmmm,’ said Sofía. ‘It happened before World War Two. It was really bad.’

‘All wars are really bad.’

Alenka was from Kosovo. She’d been a kid when the war in her country started and she’d seen and heard terrible things. When she was older there was peace but no work so she managed to get over the border and then walked and hitched and worked her way from one country to the next until she came to England on a fake Czech Republic passport. All this, she said, Sofía must never tell anyone else.  Some of it Sofía would rather not have known about in the first place, but talking was like that: if you shared things that made you weak and afraid then the other person shared back and you made a bond out of the weaknesses, and it became a bridge that you could walk back and forth on without falling. With Alenka, though, the bridge could go up and down. You never knew what kind of condition you’d find it in. You had to test it out.

‘At the end of this war, the fascists won. So then they had a dictatorship.’

Another sharp, surprised glance from Alenka.

‘Nearly forty years, Akenka. Right up until 1975. A fascist dictatorship and the death penalty and everything. In Spain. They’d make people sit against a post and then they’d put this thing called a garrotte around their necks and tighten it until the person was strangled. Or sometimes it shoved a spike into the spine and broke their necks. Or they just shot you.’

Alenka shook her head, though the knife in her hands never stopped: onions now, chop chop.  ‘People are terrible.’ She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, probably because of the onions.

Sofía fiddled with the rope of discarded celery hair. ‘I wonder why Mum never talks about all this. Do you think she even knows?’

‘This is the country where she was born, where her parents came from. Of course she knows.’

‘So why hasn’t she told us about it?’

Alenka shrugged. ‘Why should she? It’s long ago. Finished. In the past.’

Sofía tied the celery hair into a knot and dropped it; picked it up again, dropped it. ‘That’s not what you say when you talk about the war in your country, though, is it. You’re always saying that it’s important to keep on talking about the terrible things that were done so that it doesn’t happen again. That’s what people say about the Holocaust, isn’t it?’

Alenka didn’t answer. She just wiped her eyes again and shrugged.

‘I was thinking, though – maybe this means that Mum would understand why you had to leave Kosovo?’

Alenka’s head whipped up. ‘You must never, ever tell anyone about the things I have told you. Do you hear, me?’ She shook the little knife. ‘Never.’

‘But don’t you think…?’

‘People get somewhere safe and then they want to slam the door on everyone behind them. They say: oh we are different, but those other dirty pigs just want to come and take our jobs. No, no, no.’

‘But…’

‘You know what I’m saying,’ Alenka said firmly. ‘Now I must hurry up. No more talking. You are making me late.’


Sea Change by Sylvia Hehir

SATURDAY

ONE

Alex backed away from the spitting flames and watched Chuck wrench another rotten timber from the derelict cottage doorway, bringing with it an avalanche of plaster and brickwork.

‘Give us a hand,’ Chuck called.

Alex sprinted the short distance to the Keeper’s Cottage, his bare feet kicking up soft sand as he went, but Daniel stayed where he was, balancing on a floorboard they’d ripped from the cottage kitchen, its nails still poking through.

It had taken the three of them all afternoon. Positioning boulders in a circle on the sand for the fire pit, scouring the oak woodlands behind the cottage to amass a mound of wood, ransacking the innards of the cottage itself. They’d had no fear of being disturbed; the only visitors to this part of the peninsula were the deer—until Chuck had set up camp, that is.

With a breeze from the sea, the lads’ shorts flapped against their legs. Daniel wore his AC/DC t-shirt, but the other two were bare-chested. The evening was warm, even without the heat from the fire.

Chuck took a large beam in both hands and hurled it into the flames, causing an explosion of sparks to spume into the evening sky. Daniel stepped off the floorboard and circled the fire, flipping back any fragments of wood that had fallen off. The cracked windowpanes of the Keeper’s Cottage blinked back the fiery glare.

When Chuck considered the time was right he used a long stick to rake the embers, then signalled to Alex to help him position the floorboard, carefully placing each end on granite blocks so that it was suspended a few centimetres above the flattened bed of flickering coals.

Chuck tugged at the waist-cord of his tribal-patterned shorts and let them pool at his feet. Naked now, he gave a bow to Alex and a curtsy to Daniel.

Turning to the fire, he slid his left foot onto the floorboard then, taking his time, tiptoed along. As he approached the centre of the ring of fire he bounced lightly on his toes but the wood remained solid beneath him, despite the smoke pluming off its underside.

He pirouetted to face the two friends. Carefully placing one foot behind the other, he walked backwards, smiling widely as he went, then stopped a few centimetres short of the end of the plank. He executed a perfect back flip and landed on the mat of bracken they’d positioned earlier. He raised his arms in the air like the athlete he was, leg muscles taut, skin gleaming with sweat.

The performance over, he strutted around the fire towards Daniel and Alex, his hand held out, seeking the approbation he knew he deserved.

Chuck pulled his shorts on quickly, gave Alex a playful kick up the bum with his bare foot and said, ‘Your turn.’

TUESDAY

TWO

Poised near the cliff edge, Alex could see his wooden boat pitching about on the stormy waters below, straining at its painter.

‘I’ll only be a few minutes,’ he called to Daniel who was limping along the clifftop path behind him.

‘We’ll be late!’ Daniel yelled against the wind.

Alex glanced again at the crashing waves. Last night’s storm had made a fitting end to the holidays. He really needed to haul his boat back to the safety of the sheltered beach before she suffered any damage. Decision made, he grabbed a handful of heather and scrambled over the cliff edge. The worn soles of his trainers skidding on the rain-drenched rocky slope as he skewed his way down to the cove.

His cheap trainers were just as useless on the piles of seaweed dumped at the foot of the cliffs by the storm. With his eyes fixed on his boat, he’d only taken a few stumbling steps when he lurched over a stinking heap and fell face down. Swearing loudly, he pulled himself onto his knees and winced with pain as he wiped blood from a wound where his forehead had hit a rock. On his feet now, Alex swore again as he aimed a kick at the mound he’d tripped over. But he stopped mid-kick—seized by the sight of two pale fingers poking out from the seaweed.

There was no mistaking what lay amid the tangled bladderwrack and kelp.

Alex stared at the body, at the jean-clad legs, stiff in their unnatural position, only turning away when he heard Daniel’s voice tearing through the wind like the demanding call of a fledgling seagull: ‘Hurry up.’

Alex could see him peering over the cliff edge, his hands shielding his eyes from the morning sun. Daniel freaked at being late for anything. The first day back at school after the summer holiday was a big deal for him.

‘I’m coming,’ Alex yelled back. ‘You wait there.’

But Alex couldn’t leave. Living on a croft, Alex was no stranger to putrid finds. Yet this was no unfortunate beast. This was—had been—a person. A teenager, judging by the clothes. He bent forward and tugged at a frond of leathery kelp that lay across the head. The kelp slithered off and Alex had barely enough time to step away when he saw the mangled flesh where the face should have been. He retched out a stream of bitter-tasting liquid.

Now he’d seen enough.

Pebbles skittered down the cliff face. Daniel, beyond anxious, was navigating the slope.

‘Stay where you are,’ Alex yelled.

He patted his phone in his pocket. No signal down here. Phoning the police would have to wait until he got closer to the village.

‘What is it?’

‘Just stay there.’ There was no need for Daniel to witness this.

Alex gave a last scan up and down the body, and froze, his attention caught by a patch of white on the navy jumper the body was wearing. Blocking his nostrils with his hand, he squatted to get a better look. A small white anchor was embroidered on the cuff.

Alex knew there was only one jumper in the world like that—knew because Aunty Joan had knitted it for him last Christmas. It was the jumper Alex had joked he’d never be seen dead in. The one he’d lent to Chuck after a late night swim.

What the …? Alex’s gut clenched tight. He kicked out again at the pile of stinking seaweed. After all that had gone on—it couldn’t end like this.

Alex turned and staggered towards the cliff. ‘I said … stay there,’ he shouted to Daniel, unable to keep the panic out of his voice.

‘We’ll be late,’ Daniel called from his perch.

‘You go back.’ Alex began a double-quick ascent of the rocks, knowing through familiarity the best hand and footholds.

‘I think I’m stuck,’ Daniel said, shuffling his feet. The loosened soil hit Alex in the face. ‘It’s quarter to nine. And my leg…’

‘I know. I know. I’m behind you now.’ Alex pulled himself to within an arm’s length of Daniel. ‘Just go back.’

They climbed to the sound of Daniel’s grunts until they reached the grasses on the open clifftop, both of them red in the face.

Daniel stooped over, his hands gripping his thighs. ‘What is it? What did you find down there?’

‘It’s n…nothing.’

‘Cut the crap. You look dreadful. What happened to your face?’

Alex took a deep breath, placed the tips of his fingers against the lump that was growing on his forehead.

‘For God’s sake, Alex. What’s happened?’

Alex shrugged his shoulders. Shook his head. What words could he use? There were no words. But Daniel started to limp towards the cliff edge.

‘No. Don’t!’ Alex yelled.

‘What is it? Tell me.’

‘… In the seaweed …’

‘What? Another sick game arranged by Chuck?’ Daniel sneered and brushed his hair off his face.

‘You … You don’t know what you’re saying.’

Daniel’s face turned an angry red. ‘Well why don’t you just tell me then!’

All right … If Daniel reckoned he wanted to know: ‘It is Chuck. In the seaweed.’

‘What do you mean “In the seaweed”?’ A look of horror fixed on Daniel’s face as realisation struck him. ‘Chuck’s body, do you mean?’

Alex gave a brief nod.

‘You mean … Chuck’s dead?’

Yes, Chuck was dead. Chuck, who had more life in his little finger nail than all the kids in school put together.

The boys stared at each other as the wind howled around them.

Daniel shivered in his white school shirt. ‘What the …? How?’

Alex gave a shrug.

‘Was it a fire?’

Alex closed his eyes; saw again the body, the clothes, the ragged flesh. Whatever had happened, Chuck hadn’t got caught in any fire. ‘No. Not that,’ he said.

It was Daniel’s voice that shook with panic now. ‘Do you reckon he was found?’

Had Chuck been found? Had the blokes that Chuck had obviously been so scared of found his hiding place?

‘I don’t know, do I? All I know is that he’s down there. Or at least what’s left of him.’ Alex turned his back to the sea. ‘I’ve never seen … never seen anyone … you know?’

Daniel hunched his shoulders, wrapped his arms around his chest. ‘Chuck’s dead.’

Alex took a step closer to Daniel whose shivering had now turned into full-blown quaking. ‘It’s all right.’

‘Yeah.’ Daniel slipped his backpack off his shoulder. ‘I’ll call the police.’ He stuck a shaking hand into his bag.

‘No signal here,’ Alex said.

‘But emergency numbers—’

‘No. Really … Wait.’

Daniel had his phone in his hand. ‘What for?’

Alex grabbed both of Daniel’s arms. ‘Just let me think, will you? … Nobody’s seen us here,’ Alex said, as if talking to himself. ‘The tide’s almost at its lowest point. I’ll think of something.’ He puffed out his cheeks before releasing another deep breath. ‘We need to get to school.’

‘Fucksake, Alex. We can’t just leave him there. We’ve got to do—’

‘We’ve got to do what? What’re you saying?’

Daniel shook Alex’s hands off. His voice regained a degree of composure. ‘We have to tell—’

‘Look at it like this. He’s not going anywhere until the next high tide, at the earliest.’ Alex paused and fixed his eyes on Daniel’s. ‘It doesn’t have to be us.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘There’s no need for us to freak out … Draw attention to ourselves. Somebody else will find him soon enough … probably.’

‘It doesn’t have to be us?’ Daniel didn’t sound convinced.

‘It’ll be better all round if we keep out of it. Agreed?’

‘How can we?’

‘Look, we’ve done nothing wrong.’

Daniel lifted his eyebrows.

‘Well, you’ve done nothing wrong.’ Alex said. ‘Chuck’s not spoken to anybody else since he came here. No one knows anything about him.’

‘You’re not seriously suggesting we ignore the fact that you’ve just found …?’ Daniel jabbed his finger towards the cove, clearly exasperated now.

Alex stepped towards the clifftop. Above him, a pair of terns wheeled chaotically—white, black, white against the bleached blue sky. ‘You know I can’t let my mum find out anything. We’ve got to keep quiet. Can I trust you to do that?’

‘But we can’t—’

‘We can. Give me until the end of the day.’

‘That’s too long. What if—’

‘I’ll sort it. Really.’

Daniel glanced at his watch. ‘All right,’ he said, not bothering to hide his reluctance as he set off down the path, leaning into the wind.

‘And they probably won’t even give you your timetable, dressed like that,’ Daniel pointed out as they neared the school gates.

Alex shrugged. Unlike Daniel, who had new clothes bought for him at the start of every new school year, Alex owned none of the items of the dress code the Depute demanded they adhere to, even in their fifth year. School uniform was lower down the priority list than chicken feed at the croft.

‘See you in English then? And … you won’t do anything stupid?’

Alex shrugged again, preoccupied by his thoughts. ‘Aye. I’ll see you …’

They’d been friends since primary school but English was the only subject they’d be in together now that Daniel was starting his Highers. It was the one school subject Alex found easy. The rest of the time he’d be doing ‘Skills for Work’ subjects. Some joke! He regularly told anybody who would listen that being a fisherman was the only work he wanted to do. And he was already better skilled at that than any of the so-called tutors.

He hadn’t a clue when the English class was but Alex already knew he wouldn’t be in any of his classes that day, and it had nothing to do with his lack of uniform.

Alex waited until Daniel had merged with the other swotty fifth-years entering the science wing, then leaned against the redbrick wall near the smokers getting their last fix before morning break. He knew what he had to do.

At the first bell, the smokers strolled off towards the main entrance, a couple of them nodding to him as they passed by. Then when the late bell rang and there were no more stragglers to be seen, Alex skirted along the building to retrace his steps to the clifftop, already planning how to fix things. Trust Chuck to choose that spot to turn up dead. The very place where they’d first met. The few weeks since that day had turned in to a living nightmare. Alex would make sure that it all ended—here and now.

As he strode across the headland, he looked out to sea to check he wouldn’t be spotted from any nearby crafts. The fishing boats that had left the harbour at dawn were now just dots in the distance. He could make out the CalMac ferry edging along the horizon, heading to the Outer Isles. All safe enough. The cove was difficult to get to and the morning dog-walkers preferred the long beach. He could do it.

He knew what he needed: lengths of rope, pieces of netting, at least two large rocks. He almost gave up on the plan at the thought of tying the rope around the stinking body. He had to get a grip, prepare himself for what had to be done. He thought through how he would have to drag the body into the sea, tying it to the towrope then rowing out past the headland. And how he would need to tie the rocks, wrapped in the netting, to the body’s turgid limbs before tipping the rocks overboard. He vowed he would stay watching until the skull with its gaping eye sockets and ragged flesh sank beneath the waves. That would be the last he’d see of Chuck, his pale hand giving a final salute, taking with him the white anchor on the jumper. Well, Alex wouldn’t be waving back.

Alex stopped. The anchor on the cuff!  With the realisation that he didn’t have to dispose of the body, he very nearly laughed out loud. All he needed to do was cut the anchor off the jumper. It was just another navy jumper then. Nobody would be able to link it back to him. Nobody else knew what had gone on during the summer.

Alex balanced on the cliff edge. The tide, now at its lowest point, had exposed the sandy reaches that linked his cove to the long beach. Out at the tide line, a woman wearing black wellies stood watching the waves crash in. It was Mrs MacKinnon. And Scamp, her frisky spaniel, was chasing up the beach towards the piles of seaweed.


 Run-Off Season by Adrian Markle

Chapter One

Lamplight Cleaners

Cam Adler pulled for the third time on the still locked door of Lamplight Cleaners. He pressed against the glass and cupped his hands to either side of his face to keep the glare out, forming a parenthesis around himself. It was still dark inside the shop. He spun around and kicked the sidewalk with his new dress shoes, skittering pebbles out onto the street.

His phone buzzed. It wasn’t a number he recognized. An 805 area code, all the way down in California. He pressed the button to ignore the call and re-focused on being angry at the shop. No one ever called for anything good. Especially lately.

The phone buzzed again. He didn’t want to answer it, but he couldn’t turn his phone off, not today, and didn’t want to add the stress of dodging calls to what was already guaranteed to be an ugly morning, either.

‘Hello?’ he said.

‘Hello.’ The voice was a distant rockslide, rough and low. It was also wholly unfamiliar, so Cam waited. He was not often one to take the lead.

‘Is this Cameron?’ the voice asked.

‘It’s Cam.’

‘Cameron,’ the voice continued, not picking up on his cue, ‘I’m calling about your father.’

Of course he was. Cam guessed that much from the area code. But that was about the only thing that he could guess.

‘Thank you,’ Cam said. It was the polite thing to say. He’d been practicing it. But he suddenly felt very exposed. He leaned in toward the store window, hunched over, and cupped a hand over his free ear to keep the world out.

‘You’re welcome,’ the man said, a hesitation in his voice. ‘But that’s not exactly right,’ he continued. ‘I’m Seth Carter. I knew your father. We were friends.’

‘Oh,’ said Cam, his discomfort with the conversation growing. He ducked around to the side of the store, seeking not privacy as much as solitude.

‘And I’m not calling about him as much as I am calling on his behalf.’

Ok, well, uh . . . what’s up?’ Cam said. Too casual. He was an idiot. But this wasn’t a conversation he’d prepared for, and he was no good when he was unprepared.

‘Well, your father—’

‘Paul,’ Cam interrupted. It felt a bit strange to hear him called “his father.”

‘Yes. Your father asked me to call you, in the event of his death, to ask you to come down here and attend to something personally.’

Cam tried to think of what Paul might have thought he could do.

He came up with nothing. So, he said nothing.

‘Cameron, your father wanted me to ask you to come down to California to bury him.’ The man’s voice came through hard, to the point, almost impersonal.

A familiar tone.

Cam ran the last few steps round the corner to the back of the shop and pressed himself up against its cold red brick. He needed a minute to figure out how to answer. It wasn’t that he needed time to decide what he would do; he’d decided instantly. He needed the time to formulate how best to express the absolute certainty with which the answer was no.

He breathed out and turned his head to the side.

A kid was leaning against the wall near the open back door of Lamplight Cleaners, taking a drag from a crooked joint. He’d been here the whole time, Cam realized; the whole time he’d been pacing outside the front door; the whole time he’d been on the phone with this granite voice and its macabre requests. He looked at the kid, who just stood there and smoked, carefree as the breeze.

‘Fuck off,’ Cam said.

‘Excuse me?’ said the man on the phone, losing the coolness in his voice.

The kid looked over at Cam.

‘I’ve got to go,’ Cam said. He hung up, slid the phone back into his pocket, and marched over. He felt righteously angry, but tried to be calm. It was the mature thing to do. And besides, though he may have been a year or two older than this kid, and was much taller, he was gangly and narrow, all length and no substance, while this kid was short and broad. Square shaped.

The kid had blond dreadlocks that fell over his shoulders, a nose and chin that looked like they were trying to touch, and clothes that were too big and too old for him. He eyed Cam up and wordlessly extended the ass end of the finger-stained joint he’d been smoking, but Cam shook his head.

‘No thanks. Can’t today’ he said, caught off guard by the friendliness of the gesture. But he wished he could have said yes. It was the type of morning he’d have loved some help coping with, but the anxiety of being found out would cancel any calm it may have lent him. ‘Sorry,’ he added. Not because he was, but because saying so was hardwired into him.

The kid nodded, butted out against the wall of the shop, and dropped the remains in the pocket of his baggy Cowichan sweater. The beige wool of it was loose and hung off him, the ravens in the pattern drawn thin.

The kid stepped in through the door and looked back. ‘Well then, you need something, man?’

Cam’s fury returned. He stamped his foot. He didn’t understand it, but couldn’t restrain it either. ‘It’s almost . . .’ he started, and then realized that he didn’t even know what time it was anymore, that his indignation had lost its specificity. He thrust out his arm, displaying an old gold watch that spun round his wrist, its strap far too large for him. He stopped it from spinning long enough to check the time again, then continued. ‘It’s twenty after eight . . . It’s fucking . . . it’s twenty after eight. Your sign says eight, on the door.’ He gestured toward the front of the shop.

The kid simply looked at him, weed-numbed, and Cam realized he hadn’t actually answered the question.

‘Yes. I need something. That’s why I’m at a dry cleaner’s. I need to pick up a suit. It’s important. And it’s fucking . . . it’s twenty after eight,’ he said, repeating the only part of the morning he felt sure of.

‘Of course,’ the kid said. ‘All of our customers are important. Come on in and we’ll get you all sorted out.’ He seemed oblivious to Cam’s swearing, which Cam was thankful for. He didn’t usually swear. But he was feeling less and less in control the longer he was awake.

Cam stepped toward the back door, but the kid blocked him with an outstretched hand. ‘Whoa. Can’t come in this way. Wouldn’t be professional. You’ve got to come in through the front.’ The kid jerked his thumb toward the front of the store, then shut the door in Cam’s face.

Around the front, Cam pulled on the glass door yet again, and his wrist flared sharp when it stayed stuck, still locked. Despite having a shorter distance to cover, the kid was still shuffling slowly from the back of the store.

‘Good morning and welcome to Lamplight Cleaners,’ he said, when he finally let Cam in. ‘What can I help you with?’

‘I’m here to pick up a suit. It’s for Adler.’

‘For sure, man. Just hand me that ticket and I’ll get you all taken care of.’

Cam tensed. He walked to the counter. He stood there.

‘I don’t actually have a ticket,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t given one. I wasn’t charged. The woman who works here, the older one with the curly hair . . .’

‘Maria.’

‘Yeah, Maria. She told me no charge. She said to just come and get it.’

The kid wrinkled his brow and Cam searched for some way to prove his story. He pulled out his driving licence and placed it on the counter. In his licence photo, he’d been trying to grow his hair out to look like a dishevelled Cary Grant, but he couldn’t grow a moustache and his hair was too cow-licked, besides. ‘See, that’s me.’ It wasn’t exactly proof, but he figured if he were some kind of criminal he wouldn’t be going around showing everyone his ID.

The kid beat his fingers on the countertop, one two three four, one two three four. ‘I’m sorry man; I really can’t give you anything without a ticket. You’ll have to talk to Maria.’

‘I did talk to Maria.’

He’d brought the suit in last week and laid it carefully on the counter. She’d picked it up and looked at it and looked at him and didn’t say anything. And the quiet in which he normally thrived had felt different than he was used to, too wide open, too empty. ‘It’s for . . .’ he’d said, trying to fill the silence. ‘My . . . Paul Adler’s dead.’ Then he just stood there. And she’d looked at the suit again, and felt the material of it between her fingers. She hadn’t charged him. ‘For old time’s sake,’ she’d said.

‘I did talk to Maria,’ Cam repeated, ‘and she told me I didn’t need a ticket. She told me to just come in and ask for it.’ He placed his hands flat on the counter and leaned forward, trying to look more significant than he really was. ‘So here I am. I’ve come in. And I’m asking for it.’

The kid sucked his teeth and swayed his head side to side. Cam scowled at the lack of urgency and the lingering skunk smell of the weed.

‘Sorry man. I can’t give anything away without a ticket. You’ll have to wait for Maria to come in. Usually around noon.’

‘I don’t have until noon,’ Cam said, his volume rising unintentionally. ‘I need it now,’ he said, calmer. ‘Call her.’

The kid shook his head. ‘I can’t. I don’t wake her up unless something’s on fire.’

‘Listen.’ Cam closed his eyes and breathed through his nose. ‘I don’t have time to wait for Maria. This is important. My dad died in a car crash last week. It’s his memorial this morning. You’re supposed to wear a suit, a dark suit. This is the only thing I have. It’s his. I found it and it fits me now.’

He didn’t know which expression to use, which gesture, to really sell his point. He smiled first, then frowned. He shrugged and shook his head. He laughed a bit, and then he didn’t. He didn’t know what he was doing, not with any of this. He felt the slow sinking ache in his stomach that he felt when he lied, but didn’t know why. He wasn’t lying.

He looked over the rows of plastic-wrapped suits. Right at the front, separated by a few inches from everything else on the rack: the dark pinstripe, pressed and ready. Maria might have forgotten to mention it to this kid, but she hadn’t forgotten to clean it. There was hope.

But there was also, deep in the back of his mind, a small, niggling hope that the kid would keep saying no, that he wouldn’t get the suit, that he wouldn’t go to the memorial, and that it wouldn’t be his fault. He’d go home and watch films in his room, and he’d come out tomorrow morning when all this would be over. They’d go back to not thinking about Paul. That was what Cam wanted most, the easiest thing, even though he knew it was wrong, that his wants weren’t the only things that mattered.

‘That’s it right there.’ Cam pointed. The kid looked back and forth between the pinstripes and Cam, his face softening. The kid was wavering; Cam just had to give him one last push. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel if it was your dad?’

The kid’s face hardened instantly. Cam knew he’d said something wrong before he even got his reply.

‘No,’ the kid said, his voice hard. ‘Sorry. No. Nothing I can do. You’ll have to come back later. This is decent money and I’m not going to mess that up by giving away clothes without tickets. Not for nothing.’ Cam didn’t know what had changed, but he knew he wouldn’t get any further. The kid looked down at a pile of loose papers by the register, shuffled them around, sucked his teeth, and pretended Cam wasn’t there.

‘Just call her,’ he said, but the kid didn’t acknowledge him.

Cam stepped back from the counter and dropped on to one of the blue plastic chairs that were lined up against the wall. He was beaten. And he was perfectly fine being beaten. That was just life. But he wouldn’t be letting just himself down this time, but Kris and Ali, too. And he didn’t want to let that happen, but had no idea what to do about it.

He didn’t care what he wore. He didn’t even care if he went. But Ali, she somehow still cared, and that’s what this was about, after all: other people. The family organizes the event for the friends; the friends come to support the family. They expect things of one another. The dead don’t care.

Ali had told him she’d arrange this for him, but he’d insisted he do it himself. He was eighteen. He shouldn’t need his mother to sort out clothes for him.

But like so many other things, he’d somehow managed to fuck this up. And he felt a familiar panic settling in because of it, that constant cold pressure at the top of his lungs. He put his hand on his chest, placing pressure like he’d always seen done in movies with bad cuts and bullet holes.

He looked back at the kid who still pointedly shuffled papers. He might not be able to get what he came for, but he’d get something.

‘Hey,’ he started.

‘No,’ the kid said.

And he wanted to just take that no and leave, but he said, ‘You got any more of that weed? I’ve got money.’ He shoved his hand into his pocket and came out with a few wrinkled twenties.

The kid nodded, slowly, as if stalling to sniff out a trap. Cam got up and walked toward the counter, but was met again by the outstretched hand and a lazy jerk of the thumb. ‘Out back,’ the kid said. ‘Can’t do it here.’ He inclined his head. ‘That’s unprofessional.’

 

Cam was waiting impatiently at the back of the shop when the door swung wide and the kid stepped out, the old butt already crooked in his mouth. He lit it the second his foot crossed the threshold, and he inhaled and passed it over to Cam, who took a drag and tried not to cough. The kid pulled a sandwich bag of joints from his sweater. ‘Five each.’

Cam bought two and slipped them into his back pocket, and he and the kid passed the old half joint back and forth in silence in the cold morning wind that blew in off the sea. He looked across English Bay to where the snow cap still clung to the top of Cypress Mountain. The snow was melting, though slower this year than previous and not nearly quick enough for his tastes. The mountain dwarfed the skyscrapers in the downtown core, made them look trivial, temporary. One day they would all be gone, but that mountain would still be there. That comforted him for some reason.

He looked at the kid, whose jeans were rolled up three to four times at the cuff but still dragged across the ground, and he felt something not wholly unfamiliar, but wholly unexpected. He felt almost like he and this kid were friends now. They were hanging out, smoking a joint in near perfect silence, the same as real friends do. And what was the difference really, between acting like friends and actually being so?

He looked in through the open back door of the cleaner’s where the plastic that wrapped the suits flapped and fluttered in the breeze.

And he thought maybe this kid didn’t have many friends either. Maybe this small connection was enough to get the kid to reconsider. He pinched the last of the skin-and-smoke stained paper between his fingers, watched the way it flared during gusts of cold air. There was only enough left for one more drag. He extended the joint to the kid and said, ‘You kill it.’

He’d preface his request with an act of kindness. The kid reached out for it, but just before their fingers touched, it slipped from Cam’s grip and he watched it tumble end over end to the concrete. The kid regarded him with an expression that surprised him, as it too was not wholly unfamiliar, but wholly unexpected, one that said I’m just disappointed.

The kid bent down to pick up the still smouldering smoke. And Cam had a thought, one that any other day he would have dismissed. But between his natural tension and chemical calm, it felt possible, almost necessary. The kid’s dreads swung low and swayed shadows across the stone. And Cam, desperate now, placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and braced his feet against the coarse earth, and shoved.

The kid spun as he fell to the ground.

Cam never saw him land; he was already through the door, dashing madly through the rows of garments. He grabbed the suit off the rack as he ran past it. The hook caught the bar and the rack tipped and wobbled. He slammed his hip on the edge of the counter and it pinballed him into the wall, where his shoulder slid across ads for bake sales and car washes and little concerts. He burst from the front door and crossed the sidewalk in one step.

The traffic in Kitsilano moved slowly in the mornings under the burden of the university commute, so he picked his path and dodged between the crawling cars. He crossed West Broadway, and cut down through every alley and side street he could find. The suit whipped behind him as he ran, a sail come loose in a storm.

He tried not to imagine what would happen if he got caught, willed himself faster.

He was a criminal now, an outlaw. He was Robin Hood. But he didn’t feel much like Errol Flynn. He wasn’t cool or dashing. He was frantic and terrified and in over his head.


 Colour Me In by Sophie Wellstood

Chapter 1

Valentine’s day. A bitter, sunless day; the sort of London day when the sickly light does not change from dawn to dusk, a day when abandoned foil balloons float across sleet-sodden clouds, when collars are turned up and heads bent down, a day when even the pigeons shiver and shrug and retreat beneath railway arches and guttering.

I stood in our hallway.

Chris held onto the front door, bare feet tippy-toeing on the tiles. ‘So look after yourself, yeah?’ she said. ‘Take care. I’m -’

‘Sorry, I know.’ I leaned in for a final kiss. She offered me her cheek. ‘The keys. Come on, I need the keys.’ She put her hand out. ‘Look. If it all goes tits up you can always – well, there’s the sofa – .’

‘Gosh, thanks.’

She put the keys in her back pocket, folded her arms. ‘Babe. You’ll be fine. The world’s your oyster. The sky’s the limit.’

I heard a car horn, a couple of thuds of a bass line, a door slamming. I turned to see a young woman with blonde dreads and ridiculous spectacles opening the back of a jeep and lifting out a suitcase. Then a plant. Then a guitar. And a typewriter.

‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘Out with the old, in with the new.’

‘Shit. She didn’t – ’

‘Yeah, right. I’ll see you around. Babe.’

I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders, pulled out the handle on my wheelie and walked. Chin up, Wyn, chin up.  Speccie stood by the gate, studded and pierced and rabbit-eyed rigid – and holding a single red rose. I smile, smile, smiled.

‘Remind her to condition,’ I said, tapping my scalp. ‘Horribly flaky. And to floss. Dreadful gum disease.’ I looked back at Chris. She was shaking her head. I moved closer. ‘And she really loves it if you – ,’ I patted Speccie’s backside, ‘call her Kanye.’

 

I checked into my hotel room at noon and, just like a real adult, methodically ate all the mini-bar snacks and appropriated all the toiletries. I ordered room service: pizza and chips, then a chicken curry. I watched TV,  I cried, I stared out of the window at the airport car park, I stared at myself in the monstrously magnifying bathroom mirror and cried again. Sleep did not come. By two a.m. insomnia had moved in, pulled up a chair and presented to me, for the purposes of reviewing in high definition, every single cretinous decision I had ever made since I began to exist.

It was in a state of greasy, sugary dread that I finally boarded the 747. It was more a small city than an aeroplane. As it pulled from the tarmac and roared into the dawn, I turned to the window and watched London, the motorways and all the English lights growing smaller and smaller until we were briefly enveloped by clouds and then there was nothing, just space, and the thin line of a brilliant blue and purple sunrise. For a tiny, miniature moment, I looked over the earth at the tip of the sun pushing up into another day from another hemisphere. I had really done it. I was above the world.  My eyes began to close. The hum of the engines nudged me into that exhausted place where thoughts begin to slip and twist themselves into dreams, and I felt myself, at last, sliding into a sweet, dark oblivion.

And almost immediately, it seemed, I felt a hand shaking my shoulder.

‘Miss? You all right?’ The man bedside me looked anxious.  ‘You were shouting.’

I shut my eyes again. ‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘Sorry.’

‘You said a terrible word, so you did. You want to watch yourself. Something wrong?’

Jesus Christ. I did not need his analysis. ‘I’m fine. Sorry for swearing. It happens sometimes.’

He put his headphones on. ‘You want to watch yourself.’

 

People say that bad things come in threes, don’t they? It’s true. The first bad thing to come that year was the notification that my A level re-retakes were nowhere near what I needed for my plan to save the world. Then the loss of my job in the knicker department of the dullest shop in the universe was the second, and the loss of my girlfriend was the third.

But then those self same people – people just like my ex, Christine, turn around and say, Hey, Wyn, look on the bright side, babe, silver linings.  All’s well, time heals, count blessings, pull socks up, keep chins up. Always look on the bright side.  As one door closes.

The door that closed for me belonged to the over-priced cockroach sanctuary I shared with Chris and her various stoner mates. I was nineteen, going on ninety. My life was filtered monochrome. Hashtag orphan. Hashtag dumped. Hashtag running away.

 

February the sixteenth. From out of thousands of miles of spinning ocean and infinite sky, New Zealand appeared. We bumped onto the tarmac and I stared through the window at a shimmering blue afternoon. I had flown from the sleeting English winter into a dazzling Kiwi summer.

I drifted along with the crowds, following sign after sign until I was waved through customs and finally stepped out into my brave new world. I scanned the people waiting there, looking for the elderly woman with whom I had exchanged dozens of emails.

Almost immediately I saw an arm waving wildly above the crowds, and a presidential voice called, ‘Blodwyn! Blodwyn Parry-Jones! It is I!’

I had no memory of her, but she insisted we had met just the once, fifteen years ago, at my mum’s memorial; she was a friend of Alwyn and Kate, my mother’s long-dead adoptive parents.  She’d occasionally written, the handwriting inky and ornate, and then emailed as the years passed. Keeping a kindly eye, she’d said. Sometimes she’d remembered my birthday and sent cards with photographs of a sprawling farmhouse and vast, rolling hills baked in sunshine.  A couple of years ago the card contained a photo of a round-tummied puppy having a face-off with a chicken.

‘Just got this little bugger last week, called him Teddy,’ I’d read on the back. ‘Piddles everywhere. I’m heading the same way. Your pal, E.’

Edith called herself an ‘ageing smallholder, lazy, bossy.’ Every summer she invited itinerants and travellers to camp and work, plus anyone else who could pick apples, pull weeds and go with the flow.  I had endured numerous insufferable Ladies’ Lingerie team meetings by conjuring up a daydream of eating a table-sized apple pie and cuddling a milky puppy. When the idea came, it seemed the most preposterous yet simple response to my three bad things.

‘May I come and stay?’ I had emailed, hands shaking. ‘Chris has dumped me and my manager sacked me for arguing about how women’s underwear adverts demean normal body shapes and I haven’t got into Uni and I’m having an early mid-life crisis. But I’ll earn my keep.  I’ll pick apples. Anything.’

‘Come,’ said the reply, ‘and sod them all.’

 

‘It is I!’

I waved back, breathed again.

A silver-haired Amazon approached me. ‘Sorry if you’ve been waiting, had to use the facilities. Onions and artichokes.’ She put her hands on her hips and laughed.  ‘You could be your father’s twin. How bloody freaky.’ She pulled me into her.

My face was pressed against warm, soft skin and I smelled earth and peppermint.  And something else, something sharp and a little sour. Alcohol.

‘You must be knackered. Come on, I’m parked over there. Let’s get out of this shithole.’ She picked up my backpack from the trolley and strode off towards the car park.

I trotted behind her with my wheelie. Edith Flowers was of indeterminate age. I’d never asked. Her hair was messy and probably home-cut.  The orange skirt and pink crocs dazzled. The lines around her eyes curled like the rays of the sun.

She moved quickly through the airport crowds.

‘In you get,’ she said, pointing at the passenger door of a VW camper van.  ‘It’s a couple of hours or so. You can flop in the back if you need to.’ She pulled open the sliding door and threw my bags in. The van was beautifully kitted out, with a little stove, curtains, bright cushions. ‘I often kip in here if I’m away for the night. Just say if you want to lie down.’  She walked around and settled into the driver’s seat. ‘Would you like some coffee? I have coffee. Here.’  She dug out a thermos from a large canvas bag and poured a little into the cup. It was extremely strong and sweet. Perfect.

And then, unbidden and unexpected, tears slipped from my eyes.

Edith patted my knee, her voice gentle. ‘Look at you, little Wyn. Look how you grew up.’

She revved the engine hard, put the van into gear and we cruised out of the car park.  The air was full of hot summer grass, insects, birdsong. The road took us away from Auckland’s clean, wide streets, gradually twisting north past a sparkling bay and eventually into the Coromandel hills. The views down to the wild coast, the sunshine, the parrots and the endless, endless miles of green – God, this was not north London. I wound the window down, put my head out and breathed.

I thought of my ex-manager, Pamela Palmer. Precious, perfect Pamela, queen of Ladies’ Lingerie and Nightwear. She of the salon hair, ergonomic chair, supermarket salads and keyboard wet wipes.  Not really managerial material, are you, Blodwyn? she’d said, smiling, as she showed me her restructuring plans. I spun Pamela around in her ergonomic chair. It was such fun I spun her again and again until she fell out and threw up.

Edith accelerated past a group of cyclists. ‘The planet is made up of ninety-nine per cent shitheads and I can’t be doing with any of them.’ She changed down to second as we turned off the main road onto a high-banked gravel track flanked by huge ferns. ‘Up here it’s different. You’ll see.’

We bumped along for another mile or so, heading further up into the hills, branches scraping the sides of the van. I was beyond tiredness now and was running on adrenaline and the contents of the thermos.

‘Et voilà,’ Edith said as we passed through an iron gate and into the farmyard. A path fringed with wildflowers and ferns led directly ahead of us towards the farmhouse: a large, L-shaped wooden building with steps leading up to a veranda, over which climbed roses and clematis, and where a chunky brown Labrador lay fast asleep on a sofa. Edith pulled up next to a block of old sheds, got out of the van and called to the dog. He trotted down the veranda steps.

‘Is my fortune still safe then, fatso?’ Edith said, rubbing his head.  I got out, stretched and smiled.  Teddy sniffed me up and down, then rolled onto his back, tongue out, tail sweeping furiously across the gravel and offered me his substantial stomach.  My kind of dog. I got down and cuddled him.

‘Come,’ Edith said, unloading my bags. ‘It’s everso ’umble, guvnor, but I calls it ’ome.’

I kissed Teddy’s nose and followed Edith.  ‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, standing at the front door, pots of geraniums around me. Jet lag, time zones and the shift of seasons were beginning to rob me of the power of speech. ‘I don’t have the words.  Gorgeous.’

Two chickens had scampered up to us and were scuttling around Edith’s feet.

‘Thank you,’ she said, and gave the birds a gentle shove. ‘Although I can’t take credit for the view. But yes, I like it, too. Come on, ladies, tea time.’ She opened the door and the chickens ran ahead of her.  ‘Jail breakers, these two. Duane hates me letting me them in the house, but sod him, if they want a bit of fruit cake of an afternoon, why the hell not?’

‘Chicken Duane?’ I said, following all three of them into a large, airy kitchen.  His name had been mentioned in emails. The birds headed for a dresser and circled Edith whilst she opened one of its cupboards and pulled out a battered tin. She took a handful of cake and crumbled it onto the floor.

‘Himself,’ she said.  ‘You’ll meet him tomorrow. It’s nearly chop-chop time, isn’t it, dears? Enjoy it while you can. He does all that for me,’ she whispered, drawing a finger across her throat. ‘I don’t have the stomach for it any more.’ She opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine.  ‘Duane’s ok. He didn’t have the best start in life. Now then.  A small sharpener?’

Dim dioch. Just a coffee, thanks.’

She poured a glass of wine and pointed me to the kettle. ‘You must make yourself at home. And we must have food. Come.’

I lay on the soft, single bed in my tiny room at the back of the house. It was furnished with just a small dresser and a desk with a vase of wild flowers on it. I pulled the pillow up around my ears. It smelled of washing powder and lavender, clean and old-fashioned. Exhaustion flowed over me in great waves, but I fought against sleep and instead let my eyes rest on a watercolour hanging to the side of the window, drawing me into a wild, mountainous landscape, more water and sky than earth.  As the smells of supper drifted up from the kitchen, and Edith’s voice joined in with some tinkling classical music, I imagined the artist standing out in that wilderness, their hands and eyes immersed in the indifferent, brutal world around them, bracing themself against the wind, facing those fierce hills, feeling hopelessly small beneath that great grey sky, the space above, the emptiness.

Two tiny specks of russet were suspended above the darkest peak. I let go of the pillow and sat up, my heart kicking. It took two steps to be close to the painting and lift it off the wall. I knew it. I knew the view. It was Wales, my Wales. I was looking at a pair of buzzards soaring over the lake at Cwm Bychan, so clear and known to me I heard them mewing, tasted the wet, brackish air. A name was scratched into the lower right hand corner of the canvas. I traced my finger over the tiny, spiky letters. I breathed very, very slowly and said the words out loud. Then I returned the painting to the wall, sat back down on the bed and stared at my knees.

Edith called me from the kitchen.  ‘Are you still with us? Can you eat?’

We carried wine and casserole out to the veranda.  The air had cooled.  I pulled a blanket over my legs and slid into a limp exhaustion, Teddy’s head heavy and warm on my lap. Moths began to appear and batter themselves against the lights.

‘The painting,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’

Edith refilled my glass. ‘Ah.’

‘When –  how did you get it?’  I had no real memories of my artist mother, although occasionally the smell of paint would provoke a hot anxiety and a half-formed sensation of a face close to mine, pale skin, thick eyebrows.

Edith stared up at the moths. ‘I brought it back with me after the memorial. I liked it.’ She drained her glass, was silent for a few moments then looked back at me. ‘Do you remember any of it? The memorial?’

I shook my head.

‘You were tiny. Of course you don’t.’ She refilled her glass.  ‘And of course you must miss your father, too?’

I shrugged. ‘It’s been a while now. I’m used to it.’

 

Some hours later I woke suddenly to a silvery darkness, mouth dry, sensing I had been dreaming hard and loud. I breathed slowly, deeply. In through the nose, count to five, out through the mouth. Let it pass, it will pass. I waited for the sounds of north London, for Chris’s snoring, for the rest of the gang to come in from clubbing, for the laughter and scraping chairs in the kitchen. Nothing. I got out of bed and opened the window. The air in the bedroom chilled and then a lone sheep began to call again and again; a long, low throaty cry travelling over grass and stone and bramble.

There was no reply.

2015 WINNER AND LISTEES

The winner of The Caledonia Novel Award 2015 is Justine Taylor for The Chill Mark. Justine, a freelance editor and literary consultant from Eastbourne in East Sussex, receives £1,000 and our exclusive papercut trophy, designed by Edinburgh-based artist, Alice B Spicer .

Competition judge and literary agent Hellie Ogden said: The Chill Mark shows the most promise and there are moments of great suspense. There is something really intriguing about this book.”

Justine describes her novel as a portrayal of an awkward brother-sister relationship and the consequences of what crime does to the people left behind.

2015 WINNER’S INTERVIEW

Justine, many congratulations on winning the inaugural Caledonia Novel Award with The Chill Mark.

Thank you! And thanks for organising! I’ve really enjoyed the experience, and I’ve met lots of other writers through Twitter because of this competition, so that’s been a lovely unexpected benefit.

Can you tell us what it was like finding out that you had won?

It was a series of surprises, first being longlisted, and then shortlisted, and then the winner’s announcement. I tried very hard not to let myself get too excited as I didn’t want to disappoint myself! I’m so thrilled.

What was your inspiration for writing The Chill Mark?

While I enjoy a good crime novel, I was more interested in writing about the build up to a crime and what happens afterwards, the impact that such an event has on the people left behind, than writing a straightforward whodunit. I was thinking a lot about guilt and responsibility as I wrote The Chill Mark. Ellie, one of the survivors, is unable to talk about what happened to her family because she doesn’t want to confront her role in the events of that night. That inability to face up to her past contributes to the mistakes that she makes in her present-day life.

Did your novel go through many changes, and is the end product what you’d planned?

Yes, many changes, and originally I intended the ending to be much more action-packed, but as I wrote my way through the story, I realised that the ending I first thought of wasn’t appropriate. The character who became Ellie’s brother Adam was completely different at first, and not likeable at all. It took me a while to understand his motivations but once I did, the book changed course. I did have a plan when I started, but I found myself revisiting and changing it every couple of months as the characters developed. For me, it was helpful to work out what each character wanted, and why that was in conflict with other characters’ desires. So yes, I did find myself going off-plan quite a bit.

Saying that, there are a few images that have been there from the very start. The image Ellie has of the silhouette of a man standing in the doorway was the first one that came to my mind when I started thinking about the book. Also, I wanted to write about glass blowing – it’s such a physically demanding process and yet what is produced is so delicate. I like that contradiction between process and product.

When and where do you write?

I try to write first thing in the morning, or late afternoon once I’ve finished work. I get a lot of writing done at the weekend. If I’m writing a scene I find difficult – perhaps because it’s emotionally harrowing or because I haven’t got a handle on it yet – I like to use pen and paper first, and then type it up later, revising it a little as I go. Thinking time is important too – getting outside and walking helps me solve problems, though a long soak in a hot bath is also good.

Writing can be lonely, and I found going to meet-ups where a group of strangers sat together to write was helpful – as was the discussion in the pub afterwards! My local library is a nice place to write in, airy and light, and I like writing in cafes, but I tend not to do that very much. I’m most often found at home at my desk.

Are you a member of a writing group?

I took the Novel Studio course run by City University in 2012–13, and I got a lot out of that – the tutors were all brilliant. There were 15 of us on the course, and since it finished, about 10 of us meet fortnightly to discuss eachother’s work. They’re such a talented group of writers, and all of them are so generous with their time and thoughts. We all know eachother’s work and writing style really well now, which helps with the discussion. I feel very lucky to have met them all, and would definitely recommend joining a writing group. It’s helped me immeasurably and it’s so interesting to see other writers’ work develop over time.

Which writers do you enjoy reading?

So many! I love Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood. Tim Winton writes landscape beautifully and Breath and Dirt Music are favourites of mine. I loved Cara Hoffmann’s Be Safe I Love You and Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. Also, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Paul Murray, Anne Tyler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie… I thought The Valley by Richard Benson, which is non-fiction but reads like a novel, was fantastic.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately too, people like David Vann, Karen Russell, Alison Moore, Janet Frame, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant. Crime writers I love include Tana French and Denise Mina. The Boat by Clara Salaman is a gripping psychological thriller and plays with point of view in an interesting way.

What next for The Chill Mark?

I feel like I’m approaching the end of one part of the process – writing and revising – and am starting the next phase – getting it out there. While the ultimate goal is publication, I want to find the right agent for me and my book, and so I’m going to focus on that.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the 2016 Caledonia Novel Award?

It can be daunting to expose your writing to people you don’t know but entering a competition is a good way to start putting your work out there. Break it into small steps – I set up reminders on my phone so I knew how long I had left to enter. I made lots of lists – scenes to complete, chapters to revise, overused words or phrases to delete or change…

If you haven’t finished your novel yet, try and finish it as quickly as you can – it’s much easier to rewrite words that are already there than to confront a blank page. Then put it away for a while so that you can come to it with fresh eyes. Prepare yourself for a lot of rewriting (I find rewriting rewarding and enjoyable) and when you’re ready, show it to someone whose opinion you trust. Ask them not to be too picky – perhaps ask them to point out passages that they felt were dull or areas where they weren’t sure what was going on. There will probably be another set of revises after that.

Once you’ve polished your book, send it off and try to forget about it. Start something new, and when the day comes when the longlist is announced, try not to hover between your laptop and your phone as you wait for news…

THE CALEDONIA NOVEL AWARD 2015 SHORTLIST

After the Affair Jacquie Bloese
Running Out Dave Essinger
The Chill Mark Justine Taylor
The Murder House Vanessa Savage

THE CALEDONIA NOVEL AWARD 2015 LONGLIST

A Fine House in Trinity Lesley Kelly
After the Affair Jacquie Bloese
Fierce Animals Fran Slater
Hidden Roots Cary Reynolds
Run for Your Life Sarah Linley
Running Out Dave Essinger
The Chill Mark Justine Taylor
The Days Are Falling In Beverly Stark
The Joyce Girl Annabel Abbs
The Murder House Vanessa Savage
This Eden Called Warsaw Suzanne Reisman
Wimmera Mark Brandi

Interview: Andrea Crossley Spencer, Winner of The Caledonia Novel Award 2016

Andrea, congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2016 with ‘A Promise of Water’ – what was it like finding out that your manuscript had won?

I am five hours behind, so I feel fortunate that I was able to see the announcementfacetune early in the morning without having to wait half of the day! I refreshed the Caledonia web page and saw my
image there, refreshed it again to be sure it was me, and then I instantly ran to my husband and kids to show them the good news. What a thrilling way to start a week!

I have to say that I was overwhelmed with the celebrations and good wishes on social media, both from my circle of friends and family and from others in the creative-writing field — people I didn’t even know — who were Facebooking and Tweeting congratulations. Social media is so great for that. It’s wonderful to connect with people from all over the UK and the world, especially my fellow long- and shortlistees. Credit is due to the Caledonia Novel Award team for communicating so well on Twitter throughout the competition. I think all authors understand how much time, effort and patience goes into not just writing and revising a novel, but also earning recognition for it and getting published. In that way, authors are great cheerleaders for one another. We all know what a wonderful feeling it is to have readers connect with something that we put so much into and began as just a seed of inspiration.

We loved the setting – Lake Superior – which felt almost like another character in ‘The Promise of Water’. Why did you choose to set your novel here?

My husband introduced me to the North Shore of Lake Superior when we married. His parents have a sweet little cabin there, and we visit just about every year. The lake and its extremes are awe-inspiring to me. It’s not just a gorgeous body of water; its size, temperature and depth are formidable, especially for what many think of when it comes to lakes. Sailing on Lake Superior is like sailing on the North Sea: the depths, the currents, rapidly-changing weather conditions, rocky shores and shoals. Add to this the fact that conditions are right for bodies to be preserved — what an eerie thing! That image grabbed hold of me, and I knew I wanted to make Nora a sailor and have readers wonder whether she was out there somewhere in the depths.

In addition to that, I love to hike, and the hiking on the North Shore is fantastic, especially along the waterfalls. I relished the idea of spending time in Northern Minnesota — even if it was often just in my mind and through my research. Choosing this area as my setting helped me get to know a place that I already had a crush on and, consequently, caused me to fall madly in love with it.

The story is a really moving one about family, loss and secrets – what inspired you to write it? 

When I joined my MFA program and began writing my manuscript, it was my first serious attempt at a novel. I was hesitant to write a female protagonist simply because I thought I might be tempted to put too much of myself into her. That’s why I chose Nate. Learning how to write from a man’s perspective was an entirely different challenge, I found! But from there, the story came together, piece by piece, starting with this male character who, deep down, was trying to find his way back home. How would I get him home? His twin would go missing. What would he find when searching for her? Secrets. How would the fact that they were twins play into the story? And so on.

Another decision I made was to give the reader a chance to experience these twins as children because their past was so critical, so I opted for a few flashbacks. Also, I was interested in the notion that being successful in a certain profession does not necessarily mean we are spending 40+ hours a week doing something that speaks to our soul. I wanted Nate to be brave enough to face that realisation and create his own definition of success.

Ultimately, I just listened to my MFA professors. Author Katherine Towler mentored me in my first semester, when I was literally staring at a blank page. She told me not to assume anything from the outset and to just have faith that the story will unfold through the process of writing. I am a huge planner; this was hard for me. You have to be willing to discover your story, which likely means scrapping full chapters if need be. But suddenly, I found myself deep into my story, and my characters began to do a few things that surprised me. That’s when scenes and rough chapters began to gel and form a legitimate story arc.

Several of the judges commented that ‘The Promise of Water’ is a mature, well-conceived novel – how long did it take you to write, and did it go through many drafts?

You know, I’d long thought I would never learn the virtue of patience, but leave it to creative writing (and trying to publish creative writing!) – that soon gets sorted out! You’ve GOT to have a mix of fortitude and patience. And, yes, ‘The Promise of Water’ went through many drafts. I worked on it for two years while getting my MFA. Then, at author Jessica Anthony’s suggestion, I put it in a drawer for a while – 18 months. After that, I made more revisions, sought beta readers, finally began looking into agents, and then revised one more time with the guidance of my wonderful agent, Elizabeth Copps. I am certain she and I will revise once again when we get closer to working with an editor. They say a book is never done until you publish it and simply can’t revise it any more. I believe this wholeheartedly.

What does a typical writing day look like for Andrea Crossley Spencer? Are you very disciplined?

I can honestly say I write every day of the week, but much of my writing right now is for marketing and communication projects. Fortunately, many of my projects involve storytelling, just from a non-fiction standpoint. About two years ago, I joined five other colleagues in starting a creative collaborative called Tigermoth. We craft stories for our clients. As with any start-up, helping run Tigermoth is more than a full-time job, and fitting in my creative writing has not been easy. But I’m taking the advice of a fellow writer: she said to touch my book every day — even if just for 20 minutes here and there. Like most busy working moms, my best opportunity to write is late at night or early in the morning. Right now, I am working on a novel tentatively called “Cloudspotting” –  I am trying to touch those clouds a little bit every day. However, I do see a couple of writing-weekend getaways in my future, when I can do a deep dive into this next book and get closer to a full first draft.

Are you a member of a writing group? 

I am not currently part of a formal writing group, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I would say that I have writing soulmates, mostly from time spent in my MFA program. If I need feedback, inspiration, encouragement, that network is always there. A year or so ago, one of my soulmates and I made a commitment to conference call with each other every month or so. I end every call inspired to write the next chapter.

Have you thought about what you’ll be spending your prize money on?

I think the perfect thing would be a trip to Scotland for my family, so I’ll be putting the prize money in a savings account and making a plan to finally come and see your lovely country.

What can we expect next for you and for ‘The Promise of Water’?

My agent sent the manuscript to a great group of editors, and we are currently awaiting their feedback. We’ll soon see how that pans out and what the next steps will be.

What advice would you give to other writers who are thinking about entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2017?

Write your best possible draft. Have others read that draft — people who you feel would be typical readers and who will give you honest feedback. Trust that you know how to determine which revisions to make and which to ignore. Write a strong synopsis. Follow all of the contest rules. Hit submit and enjoy the ride. If you’re not listed this time around, enter more contests, revising as you go! Contests are a great way to remain inspired while you are biding your time querying agents and publishers.

(Interview by Wendy Bough)

First Chapters: 2016 Shortlist

Here are the first chapters of the six books shortlisted for The Caledonia Novel Award 2016, starting with the winning novel.

 

The Promise of Water by Andrea Crossley-Spencer 

 

CHAPTER ONE

I’ve made my share of promises, and they all seem to haunt me.

At twenty thousand feet, just as the view of the lake is in sight, this revelation is as hard to swallow as the quarter that scraped the fleshy insides of my throat when I was seven. Now I’ve made another promise, one I have to keep. One that I will.

“Something else to drink, sir?”

I bring the plastic cup to my mouth, but only a few drops hit my tongue. “Another Dewar’s, please.”

The flight attendant frowns at a passenger squeezing herself past his cart on the way to the lavatory. “I’m sorry. We’re out. Could I interest you in a vodka, or a rum, perhaps?”

“Water’s fine.”

The content, old woman sitting next to me awakens from her half-sleep and leans over into my space to peer out my window.

“There she is,” she says, tapping the glass, the sleeve of her worn sweater grazing the buttons of my oxford shirt. “Superior.”

The lake is too large to fit in my window, and the great Minnesota trees are mere blades of grass, but I look, nonetheless, for Nora. She is out there, somewhere.

“Have you ever been to Duluth?” the woman pries. I can smell age and peanuts on her breath.

Thankfully, the captain cuts in with an announcement, and I quickly shift my body to angle away from unwanted conversation, closing my eyes to make it difficult for the woman to reengage. I need this time to think and plan, but the second my eyes squeeze shut, I replay the moment again: the cell phone casting its light onto the wall by the bed, my mother’s voice quaking on the line as she whispered the unthinkable: Nora is missing.

 

It’s been three days since my twin left the shore. Nora is the best sailor I know, but her cell phone and radio went silent just as a storm reared up. The fact that my hard-to-rattle parents called means that it’s time to worry.

I’ll find her, Mom. I promise you. My last words before I hung up.

When the plane’s wheels strike the runway in Duluth, my words sink into me with the heat of a heavily poured drink. The necessary barriers of travel are behind me, and I am finally home. Three years. One month. Six days.

I pat my shirt pocket; my cigarettes are in a trashcan back in San Francisco. I could use one right now, but cold turkey is the only way I seem to end things. Better choices, I remember Vanessa telling me. For the baby. Might as well start now. Seems like a good “dad” thing to do, not that my own father ever quit.

Where is good, old Dodge? I expected him to be waiting on me, not the other way around. As I wait for him to arrive, a thought occurs to me: Had I kept another promise, maybe Nora wouldn’t be in this situation. I told her I’d be back someday. Not for a week or for the summer. For good. That was a decade ago. If I had taken a different path at any of those familiar forks in the road, if I had managed somehow to come back home like I’d promised, maybe it would be some other sailor who was missing right now.

I pull the strap of my bag over my head and let it fall across my chest. The entire first floor of the Duluth airport is visible from where I stand. I have that sensation when you return to a place you haven’t been in a long time: Everything seems smaller than you remember, but it’s you that’s changed. They call Duluth, Minnesota, the San Francisco of the Midwest for its hilly terrain and waterfront. But that’s where the similarities end. My apartment building is bigger than this airport. And forget comparing salaries. I couldn’t afford to come back if I wanted to, especially not to Lake Superior. In San Francisco, my friends point out my work on billboards and in magazines. But with my feet planted in Northern Minnesota, “marketing strategist” sounds like a title I invented, one created to flatter myself.

I could say I’ve stayed in California for Vanessa, but even she knows that’s not true. Last night, during one of our monthly bouts, we slept back to back. She says I’m angry about something, but she doesn’t know what. She doesn’t think I know either. You need to dig around in that head of yours. Those were her marching orders as I watched her shove fistfuls of clothing into her suitcase, threatening to leave the apartment for the third time since she moved in six months ago.

“We’ll fix this,” I told her in the black of morning. I looked her square in the eyes and took time with my words, but inside I was desperate to get on the plane. The phone had rung just thirty minutes before. Cars had not begun honking on the streets below and the sun had not yet reached our sixth-floor balcony. I knelt by the bed and reached under the covers where I could find her body in the warmth, and I placed my hand across her belly, still flat and taut despite impending motherhood.

“I promise,” I reiterated. “I’ll find my way.”

It will be a while before I’ll be able to make good on that one.

 

I retrieve my phone from my back pocket and dial the office. Richard picks up; I know not to expect a hello.

“What the hell, Nate?”

“Good to hear your voice, too.”

“You really left me hanging. Where were you? You better have discovered a tumor or something.” His fingers fire away at the keyboard. “I looked like a jerk trying to pretend it was the plan for you not to be at the biggest pitch we’ve had in years.”

Maybe I should suggest that he bone up on the creative side of the business – or how about pay me what I’m worth – but now’s not the time to rehash that conversation.

“I had to leave town. I’m back home.” Richard’s silence tells me that after all these years, he doesn’t even remember where I’m from. “Minnesota.”

“The hell you doing in Minnesota?” he says, catching up.

“It’s my sister. We haven’t heard from her. She’s…they think she could be missing.” The words sound awkward coming out of my mouth, as if I’m reading from a bad television script.

“Jesus. What happened?”

“We don’t know yet. She was on the lake, and there was a storm.”

“Shit, man.” He draws out his words to express his concern, but it has the opposite effect. He sounds like a half-interested teenager.

“Yeah. I’ll take the cancer diagnosis.”

“Nate. Man. I’m sorry. What can I say? I’m an asshole.” Richard is one of those men who thinks that calling himself an asshole somehow makes him less of one. “What do you need?”

“Just some time.”

“Yeah, yeah. But what else? Buddy of mine is a policeman in Chicago. I could call him.”

Completely wrong part of the Midwest. “No, that’s okay. We’ve got people on it.”

“I’ll take care of everything over here. Do what you need to do until you track down your sister.” The way he says it makes it sound like Nora is a lost dog or a runaway. My second thought is, if he “takes care” of too many things, I’ll come back to a much smaller client list.

“I’m sure it’s a false alarm. I’ll probably be back by the weekend.”

I hear Richard shut the door. “You know, Nate, you had me a little worried this morning.” He’s lowered his voice. He’s afraid I’m going to blow the whistle on his profit skimming. “I thought we had a good chat the other day. We still have an understanding, right?”

I let him think about that for a minute. I had called him out immediately when I made the discovery, invited him down to the pub on 14th street, and then dropped the bomb. I told him about the numbers not adding up, about the hotel rooms that he and our intern have been shacking up in. As much as I want to reiterate my intolerance for stealing and philandering with office girls, for once the ad agency is last on my list. Finding Nora is all that matters.

“I haven’t had a chance to call until now,” I say. “I’ve been in constant contact with my parents, the Coast Guard, the harbormaster.” I can practically hear his sweat drying. “So how did the pitch go?” An aluminum can cracks open on the other line – his energy drink.

“I’m not going to lie. I could have used you. You have a way of bringing people along.”

Across the parking lot, Dodge opens the door to his truck, and steps out.

“They approved the web site, but I couldn’t sell them on the TV spots,” Richard continues. I’m only half-listening. The sight of my father takes me aback. It is something to see him worn by the passing of time – hair a little grayer, belly slightly less restrained. The difference from sixty-two to sixty-five was more telling than I anticipated. A seed of pity sprouts in my gut. Or maybe it’s that feeling that is becoming all too familiar as I move further away from my youth: regret.

“You know, Nate,” Richard says before we hang up. “I would have paid your ticket – if you could’ve just waited an hour and made the presentation before leaving town.”

And he wonders why the staff calls him “Dick.”

 

I took off from the San Francisco Airport in a dense fog, but the sky in Duluth couldn’t be clearer. Dad walks toward me, wearing his standard uniform – Wranglers and a flannel shirt. Dodge Bishop is nothing if not predictable.

“You made it,” he says, nothing but business on his face.

“As soon as I could.”

He grabs me, pats me on the back a few times, and holds me at arm’s length to look me in the eye. I remember this look, as if he wants to say something profound and then second-guesses himself. Instead, he asks how my flight was.

“Bumpy, and they ran out of Dewar’s. But otherwise, fine,” I tell him.

“I could use a few fingers myself right now.” Finally, a smile. But it quickly disappears as he rubs his hand over his beard.

“At first I thought your mom was over-reacting,” he adds. “But now, I don’t know. Something’s just not right this time.”

In the truck, I pull out my phone and thumb a message to Vanessa as promised: In Duluth. Update you later. Our latest break up was twenty-four hours ago, which puts us in that confusing transition place between on and off. But friends like to know when you’ve made it safely to your destination, especially friends who are carrying your child. Thanks for dog sitting, I add, and hit send. Then I text another short message: Sorry about last night.

In the city, I rarely get the chance to drive, but I know my father’s need to take the wheel. I settle in for the hour-long trip to the cabin, running my thumb over a section of duct tape that covers a tear on the vinyl bench seat. The truck has seen better days. The front seat smells like the only cigarettes Mom lets Dad get away with. He can smoke while he’s in this very truck, nowhere else; that’s Mom’s deal. When the truck goes, so does the nasty habit. The man’s a mechanic and a hoarder of tools; it wasn’t her best negotiating.

“Has anyone tried Nora’s boyfriend?” I ask.

“Mom found his number and called today. Nothing.”

What do I know about Miller? He’s a teacher from somewhere in the Twin Cities. St. Paul, maybe. They met while he was on vacation. That’s about all she’s mentioned.

“I’m glad she’s not alone out there. But I’d feel better if I knew more about him.”

“I agree.” Dodge divides his attention between the road and the water.

I have a nagging thought. “Did the detective check him out?”

He looks sideways at me. “As a suspect, you mean.”

“No, I mean…just to eliminate any concern.” My concern.

“Not yet.”

Nora’s record of “picking them” was about as good as mine. Short-lived relationships with non-committal men followed by long stretches of being single. Miller had come and gone and come back again over the last year without my ever hearing too much about him. We have to consider his involvement.

“What about the Coast Guard?” I ask. “Any more updates since midday?” I grab his phone and program in my cell number, then Nora’s. I’ve walked him through it plenty of times, but they’ve never come around to technology.

“We notified the authorities last night. Coast Guard started out at sunrise. One boat went by the cove around lunchtime on its way to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.” He picks up his plastic travel mug, stained around the edges, moves to take a sip, and changes his mind. “Maybe air patrol will have news.”

I look toward the sky on the chance that I could spot a plane or a helicopter.

Dodge shifts in his seat and shakes his head. He mutters something under his breath, the says, “Her radio doesn’t cut it. VHF isn’t enough. I should have pushed her to get one of those satellite trackers. Hell, I should have bought it myself.”

He presses his foot down on the gas, taking away the buffer between the truck and the car in front of us. I keep looking out the window. Normally, I hate his erratic driving. Whatever gets us to the cabin.

On the left, we pass Karlsen’s Smoke House. The old man is pulling in his road signs to close up for the day. There are a number of smoked fish shops along Highway 61, but Drew Karlsen’s is the best. It’s the first time I can remember passing by instead of picking up a few filets wrapped in brown paper. Smoked Salmon for Mom and Dad. Lake Trout for Nora and me, smoked so long in maple and apple it’s like tasting the heart of a tree.

“Let’s run through this again,” I say. “She and Miller set sail Monday. They radioed that afternoon, and that’s the last anyone’s heard? No distress call?”

“No.” He pounds his palm against the steering wheel. “Dammit. I should have tracked her better. Followed her radio frequency more closely. I realize that.” My father has the best defensive apologies I’ve ever heard.

Channel seventeen has been quiet for more than two days. But when it comes to Nora, it’s difficult to tell when no news means good news. We are left with the task of deciphering if she’s in trouble or just out of touch, which has been the case more than once.

“She’s made a thousand crossings,” I offer. “We don’t track her every nautical mile.”

True, he nods. True.

 

“We’ll hear from her soon,” I reiterate, trying for eye contact, but Dodge keeps his focus on the road. “Even with backup VHF, a little radio silence isn’t out of the ordinary.”

“But the storm is…” He tightens his grip on the steering wheel. “She’s always been smart about avoiding weather.”

Sometimes you can’t, I think. Even newcomers quickly learn the risks of a lake like Superior. Storms gain strength quickly. The water temperature alone puts you at risk within minutes. As quickly as my jumbled mind can estimate boat speed, nautical miles and the general location of the storm, I determine that chances are decent she was in its path.

I check my phone in case she’s called. There’s no voicemail or text. And no response from Vanessa.

My father retrieves several maps from the back seat and hands the pile to me. I give them a look. Minnesota North Shore. Wisconsin. Michigan. And one of the upper region in Canada.

“She was headed to Bayfield,” he says. “But I’m not sure if she had plans beyond that. Try to think of possible destination points. Where would she and Miller be going?”

We leave the outskirts of Duluth behind and follow Route 61 straight up the shore. At the split, Dodge takes the scenic route so we can keep the lake within view. I survey the maps and try to imagine Nora’s mindset.

It’s been three days. She left Monday, our birthday. One more year, and we’ll be thirty. Nora always made a big deal about our birthday. Recently she began commemorating each one with a voyage across Superior. Each year, she chooses a different destination and clears her charter schedule to single-hand the Seachant across the lake. Two summers ago, I intended to join her, but I had to cancel because of work. She wasn’t happy with me. For a few months, I was the only one keeping us in touch.

Other than the birthday voyage, I couldn’t think of two straight weekends when Nora wasn’t working, either on the boat or teaching art classes in Grand Marais. My guess is, with a trip like this, she’d planned to be gone ten days at most.

I press the back of my hand against the cold shock of the passenger window and realize that in my haste I hadn’t packed warm-enough clothes. The lake is still frigid. With the last of the day’s sun lingering among a few clouds, the air surrounding the open water can’t be much more than forty degrees, and the water itself even colder.

I try not to think about what that could mean for Nora.

 


 

The Liar Bird by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein

Chapter One: Now

 

Rachel is trying to remember how lines work in America. She’s not even in line yet, but rather in an endless corridor, and she cannot recall if it is rude to walk briskly around the meanderers when their common destination is to wait in the very same queue.

In front of her, a young woman in a bright red business suit laughs into a cell phone while she steers her wheelchair with the other hand, weaving it through the crowd. An older couple in identical orthopedic shoes hold hands. They match each slow step, left right left right. A small child — all thighs and curls — stomps deliberately forward, leading the way for a tall woman stretched even longer by tall hair and tall shoes.

She walks faster. All around her, she hears the clipped syllables, the aspiration, the particularly American sounds that stampede from speakers’ lips and fill the airport. Thick-tongued consonant clusters, diphthongs parading around the mouths of passersby. She’s missed these jangling melodies, this music.

This is her country. These people all speak the same language as her.

The corridor gives way to a room with several cordoned-off lines. The slow parade of travelers filters in, slipping from their march into an ordered wait, which begins just after a sign that welcomes them to New York. Citizens over here, others elsewhere. Uniforms, pointing, cubicles at the end of the lines, stiff paper forms.

The line stops short. Rachel’s foot comes down on someone’s toe: the little boy. Oh god, she’s so sorry, she says, excuse her, she didn’t see you. First to him, and then to his mother.

You fucking people — the woman is level-voiced, almost bored — need to learn to speak English. Her eyes take in Rachel’s hair, mussed around the ears for lack of a trim, and the nubbled alpaca scarf wrapped twice around her neck. You have no right to come to our country and try to make us learn your goddamn language. She picks up her son, tucks a curl behind his ear. You’re ruining our fucking country.

Rachel hasn’t realized until just now that she’s spoken in Spanish. She could correct this little boy’s mother, point to the enormous sign directly overhead. U.S. Citizens Only, it says. But instead she smiles, delighted that she has translated herself so fully that even her reflexes have begun to take place in a foreign language.

 

#

 

Paul’s still learning the rhythm of his new office, its ebb and flow, who eats with whom and when meetings are most likely to be held. He wishes he still smoked — there’s an instant camaraderie that comes from huddling in doorways against the cold — but at least his immediate colleagues are all former teachers, so there’s always something to talk about.

Today, he leaves the office after six, which means he drives slowly, all the way up Lakeshore Drive. The city lights are blurry in the near-snow, and he believes he can actually see the wind in the darkness. Even the big car rocks when it’s blowing this strong off the lake. He hugs the edge of the lane.

The lights are off when Paul unlocks the door. There is nothing more — or less — in the refrigerator than there was in the morning, and none of the papers scattered on the desk have moved. The streak on the glass coffee table is still there, too, and the pajama pants are still on the bed, one leg unfolded and draping to the ground. The bedspread is still blue.

There is no mail besides bills, no messages on the answering machine, no trail of some new scent that entered the house after he left for the day.

He lays his new leather briefcase on the couch, just where he used to put his old blue backpack, and takes off his glasses. He sits down next to the bag, as he does every night, and pulls out a file folder of papers. Scratching his forehead, squinting, he sorts through them, shuffling them into piles on the coffee table.

Without packing them away, he gets up to pour himself a glass of water. When he returns, the papers have shifted, their neat piles gone slipshod. He straightens them with fingers suddenly trembling. A breeze races through his hair, though, and reminds him that there’s a window open.

 

#

 

Rodrigo has been to Yanquilandia once before, as a small child, but he’s far from sure what he’ll need.

      Yanquilandia! The name itself is thrilling, with its particularly Argentine mix of admiration and scorn. They think they’re the only americanos, those yanquis, but despite their presumption, he loves their movies and their clothes. He could do without their army, of course, but their music’s shaped his life, and everyone he knows wants to see their cities up close. Lucky him that he’s leaving in less than a week.

Autumn here means it’s spring there, and six months from March is September, so Rodrigo should pretend it’s September. Wet, most likely, and cool in the evenings; with some luck, it’ll be warm in the middle of the day.

“What’s the weather like at Isabel’s?” he calls to the other room, but his mother doesn’t remember.

Spring, he thinks, the start of the green months instead of their end. Everything curled up and ready for life, just beginning its leap into awakeness.

Rodrigo makes the bed and heaps clothes on top. Five button-down shirts, three crisp sweaters, two pairs of jeans, exercise shorts just in case. The shirts will be too warm for midday sun, won’t they? He hangs them up and replaces them with five solid-colored t-shirts. The leather jacket? He puts it on, then takes it off. Spring is wet in Buenos Aires, and surely in Miami as well. A small umbrella. Underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, a red plastic comb. A second pair of exercise shorts to sleep in. Leather shoes, one pair of sneakers, five pairs of thin, dark socks.

He lowers the leather suitcase from its perch in the closet and balances it carefully on the bed. First the shoes, then the socks balled inside each pair. Underwear in the crevices between the shoes, and the shorts folded next to them atop the umbrella. Toiletries in a ziploc, and the shirts and sweaters folded repeatedly until he’s satisfied with where the creases fall. He’s not normally a careful packer, but if he’s not elegant when he catches up to Rachel, what’s the point?

The guitar in its case, despite the proverb that appears unbidden in his mind: Quien toca la guitarra nunca baile con pareja. A guitarist never dances with a partner. But he’ll bring the guitar all the same, because she likes his music. And of course there’s another: Palabras sin obras, guitarra sin cuerdas. Words without action are like a guitar with no strings.

Yes, he’ll bring the guitar. Because what is this trip but the action behind his words, proving that his promises were anything but hollow?

 

#

 

Rachel considers the taxi stand: again, a line she’s unsure how to navigate. A cordon separates the line from the sidewalk, but people are clustered on both sides of it. She asks an older woman how much a taxi to Manhattan will cost, and the woman tells her. Upwards of forty dollars. She has the money, but she smiles and follows the signs leading to the train.

The train requires passing through yet another long corridor. She walks quickly, wheeling her suitcase behind her, with her purse tucked under her arm. It’s early, four or five, but she can tell from the heavy air that the day will be hot.

The shuttle train that leads to the subway is a short ride, and then she is standing on the platform, looking out for the next train to arrive. She likes the sound of Rockaway. She’s never been alone in New York.

When the train materializes, it strafes the platform with wind and wailing. The car closest to her is nearly empty. In one corner, a man slumps over, a trickle of saliva in the corner of his mouth. His jacket is the color of smog, the color of grime, the color of the train car itself.

A teenage couple sits as far from him as possible. The girl is strumming an acoustic guitar, and the boy is wound around her, arms tangled around her waist, head on her shoulder. Their hair is the exact same shade of red, so that Rachel can’t tell where his ends and hers begins. The boy’s free hand, the one Rachel can see, is dotted with freckles.

Rachel sits two-thirds of the way down, closer to the teenagers. She doesn’t recognize the song they’re playing, but the boy is singing. His voice is resonant, like a cello. If she closed her eyes, he could be a grey-haired Black man singing the blues.

She does close her eyes. The bored, staticky voice of the conductor cuts across the boy’s singing from time to time. Broad Channel. Four or five streets with beach in the name. Last stop, Far Rockaway.

The station smells like rust, soot, stale coffee, and the ocean. Rachel tugs her suitcase up and down stairs, to city streets where she can’t see the water. If the map’s right, she’s just off the ocean, but only the sand making the wheels of her suitcase gritty convinces her that this is so. Pulling her heavy bag, clutching her purse close, she asks a stranger where the beach is. It’s still dark, and she wants to see the sun rise over the Atlantic.

By the time she reaches the boardwalk, the wheels of the suitcase barely move. The first haze of morning has come over the horizon, and a voice is singing. The teenagers from the train are wading in and out of the tide line, like sandpipers, and their hair is pink as the word aubade in this light. Although she can’t make them out from here, the boy’s freckled hands remind her of night in the desert, where there are so many stars there is hardly any black sky at all.

Rachel carries the suitcase down to the sand and leans back against it. She wraps her arms around the black purse, watches the gulls — and the lovers — chase their own footprints, following the border the last tide has drawn.

She doesn’t feel the wind, although she sits there for hours, although it strafes her with sand.

Her heart’s scattered across continents and years: Craig, Paul, Rodrigo. And she’s betrayed them all. How can she ever go home?

 

#

 

Paul cooks on Sundays. Paul has always cooked on Sundays. Some weeks he keeps to a theme, and other weeks he makes whatever occurs to him, stacking the food in plastic containers in the refrigerator so that he can mix and match his meals for the week. Today, he’s slathering pink and golden beets with olive oil, salt, and pepper before wrapping them in foil to roast them. Meanwhile, water is boiling in two different pots, and ground turkey is browning with garlic and onions.

Once he washes the oil off his hands, he adds jalapeño peppers to his turkey and pours spaghetti and brown rice into the pots. Cumin, coriander, and three kinds of beans join the turkey next, along with both canned and diced tomatoes. While the pot of chili simmers, he takes a jar of peanut butter out of the refrigerator and softens it with hot water to begin making a sauce. He sings Beatles songs to himself while he cooks.

Each time he opens the refrigerator, the note is still on the door. I’ll come home when I’m ready, it reads, don’t wait for me. Live. The right half of the writing has faded, up to where the sun from the window has caressed it.

By five o’clock, he’ll have chili in both refrigerator and freezer; garlicky string beans; the beets, rice, and spaghetti; a roasted chicken; red lentils as well as a container of lentil soup; a batch of gingersnaps cooling on the table; the peanut sauce and new pesto; and a heap of fresh vegetables, distributed carefully between the refrigerator and a bowl on the counter.

He makes a phone call at five-thirty, to Joan, one of the history teachers from his school, the one where he used to work. “What’s for dinner, Mr. Chambers?” she asks, by way of greeting.

Mindful of the efforts of his afternoon, he suggests Tex-Mex, fake Asian, vegetarian options, but she says it’s his turn to decide.

Instead of any of these choices, he is seduced by the colors of the food. A leg of chicken for each, swirled delicately with pesto, and string beans arranged into nests where several chopped beets perch. A small mound of rice and lentils, their soft browns brightening the color of the vegetables and the golden skin of the chicken.

Paul studied math for love not of numbers but of patterns. When he was younger, fruits and vegetables belonged only to certain months, like jealous partners who limited the circles they moved in. Now they allow for new patterns, new intersections of flavors and colors. Everything is a pattern; he had approached cooking as a question of combinations and proportions until it was something his hands knew.

When Joan arrives, she greets him with a peck on the cheek. Before he even registers the shiver on his skin, she produces a bottle of white wine from her purse, where the foil is just barely peeking out. He has known her since she was twenty-seven, and she has always carried a bag of infinite proportions, a bag that might contain not only the things all women carry — a wallet, keys, a cell phone, some makeup, tampons, maybe reading glasses or a bottle of Advil — but also loose AA batteries, an Ace bandage, a box of Magic Markers, dozens of photographs, a miniature electric toothbrush, or a copy of The People’s History of the United States. If he can only imagine a thing, he believes, it might exist inside her purse.

After Joan opens the wine — with an opener extracted from her purse, rather than the one sitting on the counter — she replaces the objects she’s had to fish out to access the corkscrew. They eat at the kitchen table, where her feet dangle from a high stool.

“How’s the new job?” she asks. “Still good?”

“Of course.”

They are methodical eaters, but in different ways. She rotates around her plate, chicken rice vegetables, chicken rice vegetables. He places his fork and knife on the table between each bite, nearly always taking a sip of either water or wine before he picks them up again.

“Next week I want to cook something really ambitious,” Paul says. “Maybe I’ll make a paella.”

“You know I like your Spanish rice.” She leans towards him as she talks, and a clumsiness overtakes him, a clanking in all his nerves and muscles.

He takes a sip of his water. “But real paella is smoky,” he says, “and kind of crusty, all caramelized.”

“Anyway,” she says, “did I tell you already, both Ken and Michael got a ninety-something on my test?”

“Goddamn,” he says.

“They miss you, those two.”

“I miss them,” he says, and, “hey, do you want more?”

She shakes her head and stacks the yellow plates.

“Cookies?”

“Too full.”

“Same.”

“I’ll wash.”

“Then I’m sending you home with dessert.”

Taking out six of the gingersnaps, Paul spreads a thick, creamy, fermented cheese on them and makes three sandwiches. The small Tupperware fits into her purse more easily than the bottle of wine.

 

#

 

It took thirty minutes to reach the beach, but it takes sixty-seven minutes to get back to the train. On the way back, Rachel has to stop every few blocks to try to clean the sand from the wheels of her suitcase. In the middle of the day, at eleven, the station is even emptier than at five-thirty.

The train arrives with a teapot screech, just the same as in Chicago. She’d like to go home, if only she deserved to.

Once the train moves underground, Rachel has to imagine each station’s neighborhood. Eightieth Street will be a collection of narrow roads meeting at odd angles, all old buildings and bay windows, she decides. Everyone drives a flashy car near Grant Avenue. At Euclid Avenue, all the buildings must match: brick towers with narrow wrought-iron terraces and dry cleaners or convenience stories on the ground floor. Broadway Junction suggests a massive intersection with four-way traffic lights and crowds of wilting people at each corner, pushing their way into the Wal-Mart nestled between the storefront church and the produce store that sells only ugly tomatoes and bears the name of its owner’s mother.

She tries, too, to read the names of the stations where they don’t stop, through the pillars and sometimes through the windows of a train on the opposite track: Shepherd Avenue, Liberty Avenue, Ralph Avenue. Somewhere along the way, four lean, baby-faced men in basketball jerseys board the train and begin singing in harmony. She hands one of them a five-dollar bill, and he leans in close, makes like he’s singing to her. Got a lot of love between us, so hang on, hang on, hang on to what we’ve got.

 

#

 

Every so often Paul considers asking Joan to stay after dinner. In the evenings, he’s aware of the lurk of desire — he could spend the night contemplating the smallness of her winter boots next to his in the entryway, watching the droplets skate down, and her kiss on his cheek festoons his nerves with a jangly, gawky sensation, something a lot like joy — but his early-morning self belongs to Rachel.

On workdays, she would shower while he made the bed, and then dry her hair while he showered, talking always of places they would go together or books they were both reading. They took turns making breakfast: one would set the coffee maker, toast bread or pour out cereal, boil water for oatmeal or quickly scramble eggs, while the other would read the headlines aloud. She would assemble two lunches from the things he had cooked on Sunday, and he would pack the papers he’d graded the night before into his rumpled blue backpack. Then he’d swing the backpack jauntily over one shoulder, she’d kiss him on the forehead and pick up her briefcase, and they’d walk into the garage holding hands. He’d lock the door so she could leave first, in the little red Fiat, and then he’d get into his more practical car and leave.

Even without Rachel, he’s maintained the order of this ritual. Sometimes when he showers, he talks out loud about the book he’s in the middle of or a new restaurant he wants to try. Instead of reading the newspaper to her, he reads her note aloud to himself — she’ll come home when she’s ready, don’t wait for her, live — like a mantra, while he fixes breakfast for one.

The biggest change is on Sundays. On Sunday mornings, he wakes at the usual hour. Instead of showering, he walks outside in his pajamas to bring in the newspaper. Instead of bringing her breakfast in bed and climbing back in beside her, he pours his first cup of coffee while he fixes something to eat, and sits down with the second cup and his breakfast to read. Before, they would leave for the store together in his car around noon, and while he cooked all afternoon, she would keep him company or tend to other small errands around the house. Now, he is at the grocery store by 10, home by 11, with three or four pots on the stove by noon. He takes the red convertible instead of his own car, hoping that the weekly outing will keep the battery in good shape for when she does come home.

These rituals aren’t a buoy Paul clings to but a cherished part of himself, like his mother’s Sunday churchgoing. As soon as she’s ready, she will come home, and anyway it would be impossible to banish Rachel from a house where all of the things are theirs, hers as much as his.

 

#

 

Rachel leaves the train at a station whose name she likes, Hoyt-Schermerhorn. She’s lucky; there’s a hotel two blocks away, a pretty one, and she agrees to stay for two nights just so she can leave her bag. It’s across from the jail, with bail bondsmen in the storefronts on either side, but the front desk clerk tells her the Brooklyn Bridge is five minutes away.

In the midday heat she walks the neighborhood in spirals, looking for a cheaper room. There’s no room to be had, only brokers who will charge thousands of dollars and require a year’s contract. Instead, she finds vegan purses, Muslim Brotherhood books, baby clothes tie-dyed by hand, and a Colombian woman in a Coca-Cola t-shirt selling cut fruit from a cooler.

She orders in Spanish, sucking orange slices while she asks if the woman knows of any rooms. She doesn’t; she lives in Bay Ridge, but she’s so happy with Rachel’s Spanish that she promises to ask around. Mañana, she says, mañana I tell you.

Rachel follows a passing elementary-school class around the corner. They walk in two parallel lines, holding hands: boys paired with boys and girls paired with girls. The teacher is Craig’s age, or younger, but two older men bring up the rear. As the line curls into the Transit Museum, a taxi honks and honks.

She walks in behind them, pays her seven dollars, strolls between antique trains and maps and signs. When she was born, she learns, the fare was twenty cents, and it’s a thousand percent more expensive now. As stations are renovated, a docent notes, the signs are standardized, but mosaic tile signs are preserved where possible.

Rachel asks the docent about the map changes brought about by September 11th. Did she know, the older woman asks, making conversation, that ash floated over this entire neighborhood for weeks, like an early snowfall? That cars wore a thin layer of ash? That tiny scraps of paper would sometimes drift over, white-on-white confetti?

She didn’t. It’s hard to imagine these vibrant streets ceasing their motion long enough to be shrouded in ash, or to put on black and mourn. There will be evidence somewhere of the slowing down — a limp or a scar — and Rachel is suddenly hungry for it, to disprove the invincibility this city has about it.

She walks outside, westward, far enough to see the gaps where the towers should have been. And then she’s just as ravenous to see the city whole, the new skin whose only hint of the former wound is its very newness. Back toward the museum, and in yet another direction: only restaurants. Restaurants in former brownstones with no signs, artisanal cheese stores, marquee boards with mismatched letters and misspelled daily specials, juice bars with a dozen seats. It’s warm, and down every side street people sit on every stoop. A radio playing, somewhere:

 

Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.

                                    Are you aware of the shape I’m in?

 

New York has open doors. From here, Rachel can’t see the Statue of Liberty, who trills: give me your tired, your poor. Her copper-green arms embrace the lost.

Home is a place that existed long ago, but Brooklyn, at least, asks no questions.


Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

One

 

Another Being falls as we’re driving into Edinburgh. Not here – that would be lucky, and luck doesn’t run in the Mackenzie family.

‘Number eighty-five!’ Rani shouts. ‘Just landed two minutes ago!’

She leans between the front seats, waving her phone like a newsboy hawking the evening paper. On the screen, a slim, copper-coloured woman lies slumped over a pile of broken wood and burst watermelons. Golden blood trickles out from under the debris, tracing shimmering lines in the dust.

‘Where is that?’ I ask. Perry, our West Highland Terrier, raises her head off my lap for a look, then gives a disinterested ruff and goes back to bird-watching through the car window.

‘Malaysia again,’ Rani says. ‘Some market near Kuala Lumpur.’

At least the Falls have improved my sister’s geography; she was still calling it “Koala Lumper” last month. She taps the screen and a pixelated video stutters into action. The Being is only visible for a second before the crowd swoops. Tourists form a heaving scrum around the body; a woman emerges red-faced and grinning, her cupped hands dripping with gold. My stomach churns. I’ve seen dozens of clips like this – everybody has, by now – but they still make me want to throw up.

Dad’s head swings between the video and the rain-spattered windscreen. ‘Is it badly damaged? Masculine or feminine?’

I roll my eyes. ‘She’s a woman, if that’s what you mean.’

In the full rankings of Things Dad Has Done to Piss Me Off, the way he talks about the Beings definitely makes the top ten: always ‘it’, not he or she, and ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ to describe how they look – as if they were a style of jeans, or a German noun. The papers do the same. It’s their way of making them seem less human. It’s Dad’s way of rationalising his obsession with them.

‘Besides, she’s not just damaged, she’s dead,’ I add. ‘No one could survive a fall that far.’

‘We’ll see.’ Dad gives me one of those infuriatingly patronising smiles that he does so well, and I have to physically bite my tongue to stop myself from snapping at him. Behind us, Rani keeps tapping through photos on Wingpin or 247being or one of the other hundred or so apps she’s downloaded.

‘This one looks young.’ She nudges her glasses up her nose. ‘Like, seventeen or eighteen.’

‘You’re judging by human standards, though, pet,’ Dad says. ‘We don’t know how time affects their bodies yet. It’s possible that a Being who looks twenty in our terms could be a hundred, maybe even a thousand years old.’

He launches into yet another speech about yet another theory and yet again, I don’t give a crap. Ever since the first Being fell seven months ago, our house has been like the Michael Mackenzie Centre for Really Boring Theological Research. I can’t even remember the last time he asked if Rani had lunch money or if I’d done my homework: he’s too busy cutting articles out of newspapers, sticking pins and post-its onto maps, chatting with Wingdings in Germany and New Zealand and Japan… He claims he gave up his job to look after Rani and me, but I suspect he was sacked for spending all his time debating theories on CherubIM. He makes my friend Emma’s Chris Pratt obsession look totally balanced and rational, and she once built a shrine in the art room cupboard.

He witters on and on, getting so caught up in his tales that he misses the change of the traffic lights and a pissed-off lady in the 4×4 behind us beeps her horn at him. Rani nods and ‘mmms’ and ‘uh-huhs’ along. I’m pretty sure that even she, eleven-times winner of Daddy’s Girl of the Year, can’t actually be interested in the levels of linoleic acid in the Beings’ fingernails, but she puts on a good act.

I stick my earphones in and gaze out of the window, nodding along to imaginary music. (My iPod ran out of battery just before Berwick Upon Tweed, but I’ve learnt it’s easier to pretend I can’t hear Dad’s ramblings.) Outside, the drizzly city streets pass by in a blur. Seagulls swoop across the pale grey sky, on the hunt for chips. Perry whines and scratches at the door.

‘Almost there, Per,’ I murmur, stroking the white fur of her back. ‘Just ten more minutes.’

I know how she feels. Today’s the first day of the summer holidays: ten hours in Dad’s stuffy Renault Clio isn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend it, either. I was supposed to go to Tomasz Kowalik’s barbecue tonight. I should be eating burnt hamburgers and getting tipsy on Smirnoff Ices right about now. I should be watching Mehdi try to flirt with Jennie Zhang, and bickering with Sam over what’s on the playlist, and holding Emma’s hair back when she inevitably throws up in the bushes, and listening to Leah debate –

No. Not Leah. I haven’t spoken to Leah in almost three months. Funny how I keep forgetting, and yet it’s always on my mind.

Anyway. That was the sort of stuff I had planned for the summer. Nothing special – just me and my friends being our weird, stupid, awesome selves. And then came the number one item on the list of Things Dad Has Done to Piss Me Off: he went and ruined it all.

I should have known something was up when he made us blueberry pancakes last weekend. He hadn’t done that in years. Just as I’d finished drenching mine in maple syrup, he gave a nervous cough and said, ‘So, how would you two feel about spending the summer in Scotland this year?’

Rani and I almost inhaled our forks.

‘To Gran’s house?’ I spluttered. ‘For the whole summer?’ Gran’s great, but she lives in the middle of the Highlands, has only sheep for neighbours and seems to think WiFi is a type of Middle Eastern food. I can barely cope with six hours there, let alone six weeks.

‘No, no.’ He was trying to sound casual, but I could tell from his hesitation that I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. ‘To Edinburgh. I think… I think I could catch a Being there.’

My pancakes went cold as I listened, open-mouthed, to Dad’s plan. He’d done some “research” (i.e., chatting with other Wingdings on CherubIM) and, based on the fact that southeast Scotland has had the highest number of Falls in the world, had “come to the conclusion” (made a wild guess) that another one was due to land in Edinburgh “within the next few weeks” (at some point in the future, or possibly never – he’d figure out the details later).

‘Think about it, girls,’ he said. ‘We’d finally be able to find out where they’re coming from, and why they’re falling.’

I put up a fight, of course. Dad pretended to listen, but when I finally ran out of reasons why this was the worst idea since chocolate teapots, he just smiled and ruffled my hair. (I hate people touching my hair. It’s been seven months since I cut it, but I’m still working out how to avoid looking like Sid Vicious with bed head.)

‘I know it’s a long shot, Jaya,’ he said, ‘but I really need to do this.’

The car glides through a puddle, splashing the windows with murky rainwater. My phone buzzes: a WhatsApp from Emma. Look what sad sausages we are without you! Attached is a photo of her and Mehdi pretending to cry, their frowns hidden behind curved hotdogs. Above them, the London sky is a streak of brilliant blue. They’re only four hundred miles away, but it feels like four thousand.

I’m about to reply when Rani interrupts with another update. My sister is on constant Being-watch. She could tell you when and where each one fell, what he or she looked like, sometimes even how much their blood and feathers sold for. Personally I think there’s something kind of creepy about an eleven-year-old trawling the internet for news of dead bodies, but Dad seems to find it useful.

‘Listen to this,’ she says. ‘Today’s news means that seven Beings have now landed in Malaysia. The only other country to have hosted as many Falls is Scotland, also with seven; Russia has seen five, and Algeria four.’

I twist in my seat to face Dad. ‘What if you got it wrong? What if the next one falls in Malaysia? I mean, they’ve had just as many, so it’s just as likely, right?’ I kick my right foot onto the dashboard, jab a toe at the sealskin-coloured sky. ‘Maybe we should be on our way to Kuala Lumpur right now. At least it’d be sunny there.’

‘Malaysia’s a lot bigger than Scotland, Jaya,’ Dad says, swatting my trainers away. ‘Plus, the Falls over there have been scattered all around the country, whereas here they’ve had seven within thirty miles of the city. There’s no comparison. If I’m going to catch one anywhere, it’ll be in Edinburgh.’

Rani pokes my shoulder. ‘Anyway, would you really rather we went to Malaysia? I’m pretty sure they don’t have E4 there, Jay.’

Dad laughs. I grit my teeth, trying to still the anger bubbling up inside me. He’s so stupid. This whole “plan” is so stupid. You can’t catch a Being. You just can’t. They fall at insane speeds. They’ve smashed through buildings, turned highways into craters… one caused a mini tidal wave when she landed in the South Pacific, and another accidentally killed a woman when he fell in a town square in Armenia. It’s not a bloody Loony Tunescartoon: you can’t just stick a trampoline or a bouncy castle out and spring them back to safety.

There’s no way of telling when the next one will turn up, either. So far, eighty-four (eighty-five, now, with this latest one in Malaysia) have fallen around the world. Brazil, Malawi, Romania, Tonga… all over the place. Sometimes three will tumble down in one day, and sometimes weeks will go by before another appears. There are scientific and religious institutions pouring billions into working out a pattern, but nobody seems to have come close. It’s not like Dad, former Sales & Marketing Manager for Tomlinson Cigarettes, now stay-at-home layabout, is going to be the one to crack the code.

He makes a right turn onto a brightly lit street of shops and restaurants. Outside British Home Stores, a man in a kilt and tin foil wings is playing something that sounds vaguely like Angels by Robbie Williams on the bagpipes. Dad sings along, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

‘And when I’m lying in my bed, thoughts running through my head, and I feel that love is dead…’ He mimes playing the notes on a keyboard with his left hand. ‘I’m loving angels instead.’

Rani joins in for the chorus. They belt it out together, carefree and off-key. ‘And through it alllllllll, she offers me protection…’

I can feel the excitement crackling off them like static. A dash of pity simmers my anger. Dad really thinks he can do this. He actually thinks he’s going to catch an angel.

‘…a lot of love and affection, whether I’m right or wrong…’

Well, he’s wrong. Really bloody wrong.

If you ask me, there is no code to crack. The Falls are just random.

Meaningless.

 

Two

It was our 9/11, our Princess Diana, our JFK. You’d always remember where you were when you heard about Being No. 1.

He landed on a street corner in Shanghai. 10.46pm, 7 December. An Italian tourist caught the whole thing on camera. He’d only meant to take a photo of his wife standing outside a souvenir shop, but he pressed the wrong button and ended up creating the most-watched video on the internet. (Forty-six billion views, according to Rani’s latest update.) Though I’ve tried to avoid it, I’ve seen that clip so many times I can close my eyes and replay it in my mind, frame by terrible frame.

First, a spot of light appears in the smog orange sky. Just a pinprick at first, it grows bigger and brighter, plummeting earthwards faster than the eyes can follow. Voices start to shout in Mandarin, Italian, English: it’s a shooting star, a meteor, a tumbling sun come to crush us all! But then the light twists and elongates, and two streaks of silver spread across the night. Wings. Broken wings.

If you pause the video at 2 minutes, 31 seconds, you can see the man’s face. There’s none of the noble peace you might expect from an angel: he’s young, and he looks scared to death. He spins towards the skyscrapers, shedding feathers as his mangled wings beat hopelessly. Even when he’s only a heartbeat from the ground, you’re sure he’ll somehow take off, back towards the heavens and to safety – but then he closes his eyes, wraps his arms around his head, and smashes face-first into the pavement.

Tyres squeal, horns blast, a cloud of dust mushrooms into the air. The chaos begins.

For days, it was all anyone could talk about. We swapped stories like football stickers, each hoping to find the shiniest. Medhi was playing Fallout 4when one of his gamer buddies sent him a link. Rani saw it on the LCD screens at the train station on her way home from tap dancing. Dad was watching the 8 o’clock news, no doubt washed down with his fifth G&T of the evening. Mum didn’t see it. She’d been dead for ten days by then.

As for me, I was at Leah’s house. She was cutting all my hair off.

That’s what I remember most about that day. Not Leah’s brother hammering on the bathroom door, shouting about something we absolutely hadto see, or watching that first blurry clip on his phone – I was sure it was a hoax, anyway, so I wasn’t paying that much attention. What I remember best are Leah’s fingers bumping against my ears, and the sound of the scissors snipping at my fringe, and the quiver in her voice as she asked me for the hundredth time if I was sure I wanted to do this.

‘Oh my god, Leah, yes.’ I tugged on the hem of her t-shirt. ‘Come on! It’s just hair. It grows back, you know.’

‘I don’t know, Jaya…’ She kept pawing at her own long, blonde locks, as if they might fall out just by proximity to this madness. ‘I’ve never cut anyone’s hair before. Don’t think the Princess Jasmine doll I had when I was 7 counts.’

‘If you don’t do it, I will.’ I spun her mum’s kitchen scissors around my finger. ‘You’ll just end up having to shave my head to get rid of the mess I make, anyway – and I doubt I can pull that off, I’m hardly Jessie J.’

‘Alright, alright!’ Leah snatched the scissors back. ‘Fine, I’ll do it. Just don’t blame me if you’re handing over eighty quid in Toni + Guy tomorrow, okay?’

I remember the tightness in my throat as she made the first few cuts. I remember the tresses slipping past my knees, curving like strokes of ink on the bathroom tiles. It was my childhood, that hair. It was bedtimes and bath times, messy French plaits and too-tight cornrows that summer we went to Mallorca. It was Mum’s hands: washing and combing and tying, winding the tresses around her fingers or stroking it as she read me a bedtime story. It was the sleek black veil of her hair, too, and my grandmother’s when she was younger, and all the unknown Indian ancestors before them. That hair was my history, and now it was gone.

I didn’t regret it. But it didn’t feel as good as I’d hoped it would.

Leah was right, as it happened: it turned out years spent scalping your Barbies didn’t make you a good hairdresser. I walked home with a NYC cap on my head and an anxious gnawing in my belly. Mum would have found it hilarious (I could almost hear her cackle: ‘What have you done to yourself? You look like the neglected love child of Noel Fielding and Edward Scissorhands!’) but Dad was a different story. Dad would be Concerned.

He came running into the hallway as soon as I pushed open the door to our flat. My heart was pounding. I tugged the cap off quick, like a plaster, but he didn’t even blink.

‘Did you hear what happened?’ Dad asked. ‘In China? Did you see the news?’

His eyes were red, like they had been for most of the past ten days – a combination of gin and tears – but this time there was something different. They were bright. Hopeful.

‘It has to mean something.’ He paced up and down the hallway, hardly even blinking when he stumbled over Rani’s trainers. He kept staring at me, but I had the feeling he couldn’t see me at all. ‘This has to be a… a sign.’

It took him two hours and thirty-five minutes to notice the mess on my head – and by then, he was far too wrapped up in theories and hypotheses to care. Being Fever had already started to kick in.


 

One Act of Defiance by Rachel Malcolm

 

2105 NW Continent

Screams draw the people out of their cabins. The murmur of a hundred voices makes the air buzz with tension. They scan the crowd for loved ones and friends.

Who will die tonight?

Crack! A single rifle shot brings a hush. One man shouts above the crowd. “You are here to witness the execution of Kellina Malta for acts of dissidence and rebellion.”

For a moment there is perfect silence, and then dozens of voices ripple across the crowd like a growl. A woman is dragged in front of them, her arms tied behind her. She has trouble standing, but she rises without help. Blood trickles from her nose and is smeared across one cheek.

A ragged circle has opened up in the crowd, and in the midst of it—alone—stands a slender girl. Freckles cover her pale cheeks like wings. Her dark hair is pulled up into a high pony tail that sways with each breath. She clutches her hands over her heart and pants through her open mouth.

The woman’s eyes flicker over the crowd until they find the girl. Their chests rise and fall in unison. The people look from the woman to the girl. From blue eyes to blue eyes.

Crack! Without warning a second shot rips through the cool air. Both the woman and the girl crumple, but while the woman is still—aside from the crimson pool that spreads beneath her. The girl writhes, her open mouth pressed against the trampled grass. The only sound she makes is a gasp, repeated again and again.

1.

Leaves crunch beneath my bare feet as I slip through the hedge. It’s delicious to be away from the hustle and bustle. I need to breathe where people aren’t watching my every step and telling me what to do.

My fingers automatically touch my neck, and I press until I feel the hard grain beneath my skin. I push until it hurts and let bitterness rise into my throat where it burns. Even out here they can follow me with the tracer imbedded in my flesh.

Summer’s transition to fall came quickly, and a light breeze rustles what’s left of the dry foliage above me. I take a deep breath of night air.

I slow my pace as I reach the lake. The moonlight dances on the waves. My eyes rest on a small row boat that bobs up and down beside the dock.

Dozens of times, I’ve sat here and imagined myself pushing off from the dock, dipping the paddles into the water, the boat gliding through the waves—but I’ve never dared. Deos have been put to death for smaller offenses. I take chances every day, but “borrowing” the boat of an upper is more of a risk than I’m willing to take.

I am drawn to this place. It doesn’t hold the same spell over me in the daylight, but when washed in moonlight, I feel at home. This was the spot my mother and I would come after we attended a birth. It was the place she processed what had happened—good or bad. This is where I felt closest to her.

She was preparing me to be the midwife one day. Neither of us could have known it would be so soon.

Every time I am called to a birth, I think, I’m not ready for this. I’m too young. But I never say those words out loud. I’ve never turned away from a job.

I walk onto the dock and squat next to the boat. I gently push it forward and backward—as far as the rope will allow. The waves lift the dock up and down. I notice the rope is barely secured. Without stopping to think, I pull the rope end through the loose knot and give the boat a shove.

The boat is free. I watch it drift toward the center of the lake. The light of the moon reflects in its wake. Excitement flutters from my stomach into my throat.

That was stupid, Naya, I chide myself. But this energy coursing through my veins makes me feel that it was worth the risk.

 

I palpate Fenia’s belly and feel discouraged by the hard round mass—the baby’s head—under her ribcage. Her baby is still in breech position, and her due date is only 2 weeks away. I walk around the table, so I can place the pinnard over the baby’s back.

The smooth wood of the pinnard warms quickly to my hands. One end I place against Fenia’s abdomen, and the other end I press against my ear. I lean into Fenia and drop my hands to my sides. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. It’s when I relax that I can hear the subtle rhythm of the baby’s heartbeat.

I once asked my mother why we still use the pinnard and palpate by hand when the transducer gives us perfectly clear images. My mother had taken my face in her hands, her eyes penetrating me. “So we never forget. Don’t rely on their technology, Naya. It can be taken from us.”

I use the transducer, but only at births. For the pre-birth checkups, I always use my hands and my ears to feel and hear the baby. Just using the pinnard makes me feel a little rebellious. If there were ever an upper watching me, I’d use the transducer. I don’t want them to know I have knowledge they can’t control.

Fenia is quiet but appreciative. She is only three years older than I am, but we rarely talked growing up. She was quiet and so was I. I’m afraid for her, afraid her baby will get stuck because of the breech presentation—that I will lose them both. This responsibility of life and death is heavy. I never asked for it.

“All done,” I say as I help Fenia sit up.

She smoothes her shirt over her swollen belly. “Thank you.”

I smile and shrug, but guilt over what I have not told her makes my palms damp.

“Fenia,” I say casually, “why don’t you try spending some time every day rocking on your hands and knees. It can help prepare your body for birth.”

I’m lying. It might help the baby turn, though.

After Fenia leaves, I go through my midwifery bag again, making sure that everything is accounted for. I lay my coat on the table with my key, an orb light, and some oat cakes that I made. I head to bed early, because I have this niggling feeling that Fenia is going to go into labor tonight, and I want to get some sleep first. I’ve learned to trust this instinct. It’s seldom wrong.

I go to sleep soon after I hit my pillow, and I’m awakened by a solid rap on the door. I roll out of the bed and dress quickly. The semi-dome reads 100. I’m grateful I went to bed early and got a few hours of sleep, anyway.

Fenia’s husband is at the door. He’s distant and sometimes gruff, but he doesn’t frighten me the way some of the men in the town do. I follow him in the dark. His stride is long, and I have to run to catch up every once in a while.

This is Fenia’s first baby. I’m glad for the privacy. Sometimes it’s mayhem when it’s a seventh or eighth baby and all of the children are awake.

There is moaning in the bedroom, and I enter quietly. My eyes lock with Fenia’s as she sways back and forth. Her breathing is deep and deliberate while a contraction crests and washes away.

Fenia leans against the pillows, her eyes shut, head drooping to the side. She rests in the tiny reprieve.

I hold the transducer several inches above her abdomen and wait for the three-dimensional image of the fetus to light up the space in front of me. The baby’s heartbeat is strong, but he still sits in breech position. A knot of fear pulls in my stomach.

Fenia gasps as another contraction rolls over her.

“Up on your hands and knees,” I say as I help her. This is my very first breech delivery, and I feel totally unprepared. Yes, I’ve read the manuals, and I attended a breech once with my mother, but there are so many things that could go wrong.

I think back to my mother’s words. “Let gravity do the work, Naya,” she said. She believed in complete hands off for breech births unless the baby gets stuck.

Checking the baby again after the next contraction, I know I’m being anxious. It’s almost laughable that I have a state-of-the-art transducer. It is the only technology in my midwifery bag besides the hated tracer implanter. I don’t even carry painkillers besides the single dose of Levicane in case I must perform a caesarean section. Please, God—if you’re out there—please don’t make me use that. Not ever.

My jaw clenches as I think of the upper citizens. They don’t even know what labor feels like. Their babies are born via laser surgery. The incision is healed, and the scar laser-removed before they even leave the hospital. Not us.

I use a damp cloth to cool Fenia’s sweat-covered brow. I should tell her how good she’s doing. My mother would have. She knew how to love people, but my heart feels like ice. Everyone I loved is dead.

Fenia’s breath catches in her throat. It’s time. Her neck veins stand out as she strains. I sit back on my heels and hope this “hands off” thing actually works.

I hold my breath every time Fenia does. The baby’s bottom is born—a boy—and then his legs suddenly drop and hang from the birth canal. It goes against every instinct to just sit and wait, but the baby’s own weight hanging is supposed to help the head flex.

I watch the second meter on the semi-dome. Now that the baby’s umbilicus is born we are on a deadline. It’s taking too long.

My hand trembles as I slide it along the baby’s slippery skin. I feel for the arm that is blocking the decent, swiping clock-wise. A contraction seizes Fenia, and cries out in pain. I pull my hand out. My whole body trembles now as I stare helplessly at the limp baby.

As soon as the contraction is over, I slip my hand back inside. Where is it? Panic makes me forget everything until my finger finally hooks the arm, and I sweep it down over the baby’s face. With the next contraction, the baby slides into my hands.

Helping Fenia lie down on the bed, I place her little boy on her abdomen. If there’s any time I actually enjoy my work, it is now—in these moments of wonder when I feel like I did something good in this world.

Tears run down Fenia’s cheeks as she strokes her son’s damp hair. A sudden surge of loneliness overwhelms me, and I press my hand against my throat. I can’t cry, not here. I haven’t cried for over a year. I have to be strong.

Now for the worst part of my job. I pull the implanter out of its case and plug in a sterile tracer. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were only a tracer, but the tiny implant also has the ability to kill. One in 20 babies die within twelve hours of being implanted. We are told it’s population control, but I know it’s to make us feel powerless.

I key in the information when I feel Fenia’s hand on my arm. Her touch is cool, and I look up to meet her eyes. They plead with me. I know what she’s asking.

Bile burns my throat as I think back to the day my mother died. I hear the shot and the sound of her body hitting the ground. My mother was killed for not implanting a tracer.

I look down at the baby. I know he should have the chance to live free.

I place the implanter back in its case. I didn’t know Fenia was part of the resistance, but why would I? Now I’m part of it too. One act of defiance will lead to others. There’s no turning back.

I cut the umbilical cord and take the baby’s vitals. He’s healthy and strong.

As I tell her goodbye, Fenia presses some bills into my hand. I don’t know what to say and stare stupidly at them. “Hide them,” Fenia says as she closes my fingers over the bills. “You may need them someday.”

“Where did you get them?”

Fenia tucks the blanket around her baby before looking back at me. “It doesn’t matter. Thank you.”

Her eyes fill with tears. She reaches one arm around me and pulls me close. I return the squeeze, but I can feel my throat tighten again as I fight the tears. What’s wrong with me tonight? I tuck the bills into my medical bag, grab my things, and hurry toward the door.

It’s still night. I realize how briefly I’ve been gone. I was there longer after the birth than during it. It’s obvious to me that Fenia and her husband waited until the very end to call me. It was for my protection. If it’s discovered that their baby hasn’t been implanted, then we can all claim that they had the baby unassisted—that I was never here.

2.

 

I can’t get back to sleep, not with all this energy coursing through my veins. My alarm goes off at 600. I need to be at the hospital in an hour. Normally I can get a leave of absence when I’ve attended a birth the night before, but I can’t let anyone know where I was. I can’t even look tired today. My life depends on it.

I slip into my clothes and light the burner under the kettle. A faded yellow jug hangs from the water bucket beside the sink, and I use it to dip out some water. I cup my hands and toss the water against my hot skin. Patting my face dry, I examine my reflection in the mirror. Tendrils of wet hair stick to my cheeks. I’m even more pale than normal. A year ago, I was a child. Now I save lives and risk my own.

The kettle screams. I pour the boiling water over some dry mint leaves, unwrap the biscuits left over from last night, and dip them into my tea to soften them. The soothing, fresh scent of mint fills the air. I inhale deeply.

Mother used to keep chickens and make lovely breakfasts from the fresh eggs, but I can’t be bothered to go to that trouble just for myself.

The sky brightens as I walk to the hospital. The birds are singing. This is my favorite time of day.

The hospital is just a steel-sided box. I’ve heard of the massive hospitals that uppers have with medically-trained professionals and state-of-the-art technology. The deos get a little building staffed with kids trained by computer simulators. We wait months for needed supplies.

Stepping into the bright light of the hospital gives me an instant ache behind my eyes. It’ll be a long day. I scan my list of patients and begin to make my rounds.

I hoist the bucket of warm salt-water out of the sink and carry it to the bed. “Time to soak your ankle, Mava.” I try to sound pleasant, but I’m cringing inside.

The ulcer soaks until the scales are soft. I place my hands into the water and use some gauze to smooth away the scabs and putrid goo. The consistency and smell remind me of a rotten cucumber. We’ve been out of gloves for months, and I’m always aware when my skin touches the wound.

I empty the bucket, glad to be done with the worst of the job. Mava chatters happily while I pat the wound dry and wrap it in a fresh bandage.

This is still so new to me. Trey and I graduated from training only three weeks ago. Looking across the room, my gaze meets Trey’s. He smiles, and it reaches all the way to his eyes. He finally looks down, but he’s still smiling as he finishes taking a patient’s blood pressure.

I steal another glace. Trey is reaching into a cupboard. His muscles contract and bulge through his shirt. Warmth spreads upward from my stomach into my chest, but I press it back down. There’s no room in my life for love. Trey is my closest friend. I can’t do anything to jeopardize that.

The door bangs open, and a man on a gurney is wheeled onto the floor.

“Gunshot to the chest,” says a white-clad officer before turning and marching out of the room.

I run to the bed and look into the man’s eyes. I recognize him, but I don’t know his name. He pants, and blood bubbles in his throat and trickles from the corner of his mouth. Terror twists my intestines.

Trey is already pushing the bed toward the operating room. “Hurry!” His voice snaps me out of my stupor, and I grab the bars on the bed and strain against it. The rusty wheels scream as we break into a run. I feel like I’m dreaming as we flick past the bright ceiling lights.


 

Zoo by Kate Tregaskis

 

New Year’s Day

 

He’s cold.

Colder than he’s ever been.

He tries to draw himself into a ball for warmth, but his body’s not obeying instructions.

His eyes hurt. He tries to open them, but it makes no difference. They’re covered.

Is he blindfolded?

He can’t see a bloody thing.

His shoulder aches. He tries to move his arm, take whatever it is off his eyes. Brain to arm?

Nothing.

Footsteps squeak. Someone stands near. A cool hand is placed on his forehead.

–– Happy New Year, she says, smelling of hospitals.

He grunts.

––You’re awake then, pet. It’s gone midnight. All over for another year. Just the clearing up to do now.

Her voice smiles.

He’s going to be sick. He can’t help it. Can only turn his head.

It rushes through him.

He’s lying in it, stinking and cooling against his cheek.

        When he wakes again, daylight claws at his eyes. The blindfold is gone, but it feels like there’s ground glass under his lids.

The pain in his shoulder throbs.

He squints at brightness through the barbed wire of his eyelashes.

Blobs turn into shapes.

A hospital room?

So new and hi-tech perhaps he’s woken in the future.

A robot-like arm holds a TV screen in front of where his face would be if he sat up. It’s communicating to him.

The screen blinks.

Hello Desmond Cooper-Myhill.

It shows him firework displays. Sydney. Paris. New York. London.

The exploding skies illustrate the pain in his shoulder.

Cheers and streamers.

Waving hands and bright faces.

Text runs across the screen.

He squints, his eyelids dry and prickly.

A message just for you. Your personal bedside entertainment system. Watch TV, make phone calls and use the internet. Just insert your credit card details.

It must be the new PFI hospital.

How long has he been here?

Does anyone know he’s here?

Will anyone give him something for the pain?

There’s a jug of water next to the bed. He’s thirsty but can’t do anything about it.

There’s a book too.

A slim hardback. He can just about read the title.

Zoo: Poems by Anthony Page.

It doesn’t mean anything to him.

A Happy Birthday helium balloon bobs past the corner of his vision. It’s been placed in the scene like a clue. He’s seen it before.

Hasn’t he just had a birthday?

Didn’t he just turn fifty?

The balloon bobs like a reluctant charge behind a woman who is buttoning her coat. She approaches the nurse at the desk near the open door of the room.

––I’m off then.

––Tragic. The nurse nods at the balloon.

––Yeah.

The nurse looks over at Desmond, lowers her voice.

He strains to hear.

––You heard what happened didn’t you?

Besides the pain he has a kind of dark feeling. A yawning blackness. Has he killed someone?

He saw a programme once about a guy who, in his sleep, drove across town, let himself into the house belonging to his wife’s parents and murdered his mother-in-law. He drove home, still asleep, and got back into bed with his wife. Next morning, he didn’t know why he was covered in blood.

These things happen.

But he doesn’t sleepwalk.

He closes his eyes the better to concentrate on the women’s voices.

––When his mum saw him, you know, covered in blood, that was it.

He tries to sit.

Pain shoots through his shoulder.

––You wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

––All on her birthday. Your boy Ronnie’s OK? Wasn’t he there too?

––Yeah, he’s fine. Back home. I’m taking the balloon over there now.

––Makes you appreciate what you’ve got.

The TV screen brightens. It knows he’s awake. It wants his attention. It wants money.

The volume increases.

This is your personal bedside entertainment service.

It shows him a day-time chat show.

It shows him Orla Guerin.

It shows him shampoo that will eradicate all visible signs of dandruff.

It offers him access to sixteen terrestrial and satellite TV channels plus telephone and the internet.

A pay-per view sign flashes.

Now a news channel.

A shot of Edinburgh castle, then Princes Street at night.

A male newsreader ––Here in Edinburgh, people are already speculating as to whether the severe conditions, which last night led to the cancellation of the city’s world famous Hogmanay celebrations, are further evidence of Global Warming.

An estimated 100,000  people from around the world gathered in the Capital’s Princes Street to celebrate the New Year with an open air concert featuring Scottish band Franz Ferdinand and a midnight firework extravaganza. Both were cancelled just minutes before midnight.

Although rumour spread that there had been warnings of a terrorist attack on the Capital, organisers insist that freak weather conditions were to blame for the decision.

Returning to our main news story here in Edinburgh lets go back to Karen Mitchell at Edinburgh Zoo. What more can you tell us about the events of last night Karen?

            A woman stands outside the zoo damp and smiling. He knows her.

––Well Jon, information is still only trickling in. However, there are believed to have been at least five deaths and several injuries since the zoo was evacuated yesterday afternoon.

What?

––The human casualties are not being named until the families have been informed. And we are not clear as to how these casualties occurred. It has also been reported that there have been a number of animal deaths from amongst the Zoo’s collection of rare and endangered species.

This can’t be real.

The army are reassuring the public that they have the situation under control. Although it was initially thought that last night’s severe weather conditions might have damaged enclosures enabling the animals to escape, it is now believed that the animal rights organisation Liberate! deliberately released the animals.

Jesus Christ. Is it some kind of sick joke?

He’s shown exceptionally refreshing teabags, breakfast cereal and something for indigestion.

He’s invited along to a half-price furniture sale and asked to consider Ireland as a holiday destination.

The screen switches to a kind of home page.

To see more, his credit card details are required.

He has no idea where his wallet is.

He tries to call out, can’t speak.

He feels like the guy in the book his ex-wife got him one Christmas, almost totally paralysed, this guy’s only means of communicating was to blink Morse code at people.

Desmond doesn’t know Morse code.

The screen flips again.

Moisturiser.

Shampoo.

Everything-comes-to-he-who-waits.

Another news channel.

A handheld camera.

Two men in a scuffle.

He recognises the khaki clothes.

The other man is wearing a plastic rhino mask.

A dart gun is wrenched back and forth.

The dart embeds itself in one of the men’s shoulders.

The man is flung backwards.

The camera zooms in.

A face scrunched up with pain.

His face.

The camera pulls back.

He sees himself sinking to his knees.

Slumped on the ground, he’s tended to by a woman in a polar bear mask.

The woman pulls up her mask.

It’s Chloe.

Chloe?

Chloe is holding him across her lap.

A nurse approaches, the soles of her shoes squeak aggressively. She angles the television screen out of the way, flashes him a professional smile.

He peeks at her through the bars of his eyelashes.

––You’re awake, she says, as if her job is to introduce him to basic facts.

––Desmond Cooper-Myhill, she says reading his notes.

He needs to see the screen.

He needs to find out what’s going on.

––I’ll call one of the doctors. We’ve been waiting for you to come round.

He wants to tell her he NEEDS to see the television NOW.

Nothing comes out.

If he could watch a few minutes more, everything would become clear.

He tries to say: Where’s my wallet? I need to feed the TV.

She nods, smiles, leaves.

He can’t see the screen, can only hear what’s being said.

––The human casualties are not being named until the families have been informed.

He is invited to pay.

All major credit cards accepted.

His hour of free viewing is about to elapse.

Without immediate payment he will be unable to watch programmes currently being aired.

There have been a number of animal deaths from amongst the Zoo’s collection of rare and endangered species.

He’s heard this.

The TV is repeating itself.

He’s condemned to some kind of loop.

 

New Year’s Eve

  1. Jed

 

Drawing on his cigarette, Jed waits for the man on the other end of the phone to pick up.

––Happy New Year.

He breathes the words out with the smoke

Jed’s sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by books. Through the window it’s starting to get light, revealing the flats and the shopping mall on the shore. Since his dad bought him this place he’s watched the removal of the area’s industrial past and its replacement by the sunny smirk of global capitalism. He’s never actually been in the mall – it’d be like any other – but give it another couple of years and he’ll make a killing on the flat.

––Des…chill. Jed inhales again. –– I was merely asking after Penelope. She was looking so grown up yesterday.  In her white fur coat. What is it? Rabbit ? Goat? Or something more exotic? Polar bear perhaps?

Jed suppresses a laugh, controls himself by examining the man’s photograph in the Zoological Society Member’s Magazine. Chief Executive, Desmond Cooper-Myhill it says.

––Talking of polar bears, how is Portia?

Today is the day.

The books stacked on the Ikea table, are going to have to wait. A PhD in politics had seemed like a good idea at the time – and Jed will persist, he might as well finish it – but, these days, being head of ‘Liberate!’ is more pressing.

Jed smiles. ––Listen Des, much as I’d like to discuss this further, I shouldn’t keep you. To be continued don’t you agree? I do so enjoy our chats don’t you? Oh, and Desmond? Have a nice day!

Laughing, he puts the phone down.

Gareth presses his muzzle into Jed’s palm and wags his tail.

––OK mate, breakfast.

Gareth lurches after him, lurches because he only has three legs. As Jed puts the bowl of lentils in front of the dog, its tail droops. The dog licks the surface of the food reluctantly.

––Get on with it.

Gareth has lost weight, is taking a while to adapt to a vegan diet, but Jed is determined to persist.

Before he’d been given Gareth, he never thought of himself as a dog person but, apart from the not eating, Gareth seems to have made himself at home. Jed had been on Princes Street manning a stand for Liberate! He wouldn’t normally have been there, but Chloe was pretty and he was showing her the ropes. A guy with bad teeth came up, Gareth hopping after him. The man bummed a fag off Jed, said his name was Reekie, asked if Jed would look after the dog. Jed thought he meant temporarily. Sure, no problem.

He’d smiled at Chloe making sure she noticed his magnanimity, his ability to communicate with all types.

It turned out Reekie meant for keeps, his girlfriend was just about to have a baby, Reekie wasn’t going to be allowed anywhere near it with the dog in tow. Considering the literature on display, Reekie reckoned Jed would provide a good home. The dog was his, a gift to the cause, in return maybe for Jed’s tobacco.

––Ha, ha.

It’d been too late to un-accept.

With his nicotine stained fingers, his nails bitten back to the quick, Reekie pocketed Jed’s roll-ups and the lighter, ruffled the dogs ears and disappeared into the Saturday crowds.

As Jed walks, from sink to cupboard and back again, air gusts through his old towelling dressing gown, shooting the comforting smells of himself tainted with the less familiar ones of Chloe out through the neck of the garment. He draws the dressing gown more tightly around himself and waits for the kettle to boil.

He pours coffee the consistency of blood into two mugs and pushes open the bedroom door with his foot.


Hurts so Good by Lucy Van Smit 

 

I stole a baby.

The words rattle round my head, as I climb high above the fjord, and stand on Sermon Rock, my eyes watering up in the cold mountain air.

I stole a baby.

Does that make me a bad person?

Yeah. It does.

I listen to the cries coming from her baby carrier, and drag the contraption off my back, I jam it upright between my knees to flip out the stand. The stench of her dirty nappy makes my stomach heave. Once the carrier is stable on the flat rock, I straighten her baby cap, and her pink boot falls off again. I give up trying to get it back on, and grab the camera. Her muffled cries build to a crescendo, and my legs shake like they’re possessed, tiny stones twisting and screeching into the rock under my biker boots. Crawling to the overhang, I make myself look down, but the track, zigzagged by rock and birches, is deserted.

I wiggle back and check the camera still works, scanning the horizon. Norway still stuns me. Mountains drop into the sea like emerald icebergs.  The Vaerøyfjord is so clear, I can see all the way to the bottom. The sea burns the grass off the mountains, I use to love how their bones fuse into underwater cathedrals, but now she lies down there.

The wind throws tantrums at the wickedness of it all, howling, and hurling my matted red hair across my mouth. I spit it out, and sniff my armpit.  I’m minging, and I know it’s shallow, but I don’t want to die smelling like this. I want one more day.

One more day.  It’s not so much to ask. Is it? To walk through my life again.

But I binned my life like toilet paper and never noticed.  All that ordinary stuff.  Toothpaste. Hot showers. Catching a bus. My family. Shit. I never said goodbye.

When the wind drops, I film my last words. ‘Tell my sister, I’m sorry…’

The camera flies out of my fingers. It spins in an arc over the fjord, and then snaps back and forth on the strap, snagged on my bracelet. Fuck. I lose mum’s camera, and it’s game over. The night is full of pine-gum and birdsong, but I’m gasping, and only getting snippets of air.  What if I bottle it again? What if this doesn’t work? What if he finds her?

Pray louder than your thoughts, Ellie.

My dad’s voice is so clear in my head, I turn round to hug him. It’s a cruel trick of the wind. I’m alone on Sermon Rock. No one will save me.

No one will listen.

I hear a robin bragging to the other birds, and I stare across the fjord. The sun casts silvery shrouds over the water. The Midnight Sun. They call it the Black Sun here.

The Black Son.

That’s him all over. Can I really stop him? Yeah, definitely. Maybe. If I keep my head.

‘I’m Eleanor Lambe,’ I say on camera. ‘I’m sixteen. If you’re watching this, I guess I’m dead already. Don’t freak out on me. It’s way worse for me, and I need you to listen. I die, and she gets to live, but only if you listen.’

I stop filming, chewing down on my lip. It sounds horribly wrong. Like a stupid snuff-selfie. Who will believe me?

The purple shadows lengthen, and sneak up the trail, over moss covered rocks and arrow-straight birches. I tilt my head and listen.

The robin’s stopped singing.

He’s here.

I can’t see him at first. Then he strides over the mountain like he owns it. I concentrate on keeping the lens steady, but his image blurs in and out of focus. So he seems real and not real. The full-length sheepskin swings around his legs. His black hair is longer, and curls over the turquoise eyes. How can someone so beautiful be evil? I still don’t get that.

‘Recognise him?’ I say to the camera. ‘Stop him next time. Close your eyes to his beauty. Don’t listen to his voice. Every word he says is a sodding lie. He’s lost his soul. His heart. His mind.’

‘Eleanor?’ he calls. ‘You have to give her back. She’s not your plaything. You don’t know what you are doing. Give her up. We can start over. You and me. Be family.’

His deep voice is more hypnotic than ever. He could charm angels out of heaven. My body betrays me, and I can’t tear my eyes away from his face.

He was all I ever wanted.

‘No.’ I glance down at the rucksack, as her crying turn to hiccups, with misery and exhaustion. ‘It ends here. I promised to save her.’

And I hold the camera steadier, keeping it between me, and his lying eyes.

‘That’s your big plan?’ he laughs. ‘A home movie? They’ll never believe you over me. I know, let’s ask your God who’s in the right.’ He holds up the 20 kroner coin. ‘Tails, she’s yours. Heads, she’s mine.’

I film him as he flips the Norwegian coin high into the air. We both watch it spin, and blink, in the dim sunlight. The coin lands in his hand, and he opens his fingers, one by one, holds it up, and smiles his big dazzling smile.

‘Heads,’ he says, ‘I win. Hand her over.’

‘Tails. You cheated,’ I say.

He shrugs, leaps over the gapping fissure in Sermon, surefooted as a wolf and strides up to me. From habit, I step between him and the baby carrier. Her cries are weaker now, and I’m shaking so bad I lower the camera.

His breath warms my face, and his turquoise eyes stare into mine. For a moment, I think he sees me too.

Remembers us.

Then the hunting knife is in his hand. I stare right back at him, more furious than frightened by his stupid games, and call his bluff.

‘You won’t hurt me. Or her. Not with that. Blood’s not your thing.’

He raises one black eyebrow, and clips the knife back on his belt, smiling like it’s a big joke. ‘Yep. Blood phobia. You know me too well. Hell of a weakness. Never mind, hey?’

He switches. His wolf-eyes rage at me. One minute he’s laughing, the next, he’s a monster, lost in the cold. The change terrifies me.

He reaches down, snatches up her baby carrier by the metal frame, and swings it over the edge.

Fear punches into me, and I know I can’t stop him, can’t reach him. So I film the moment, when the baby blue eyes blink at him, but he doesn’t notice.

He is smiling at me. Her cries build to a howl, and her dear voice catches at my heart. She cries like she’s begging for my life, not hers.

‘Your camera is next,’ he says.

Then he stops, mid-throw, and sniffs at her clothes, he drags the baby carrier back and rips off her pink hat. Delving through the baby carrier, he pulls out my old doll padded out in her baby clothes. Then he finds my phone.

It’s still playing.

‘That’s how you did it?’ he says. ‘Her voice? Played on your phone? You wrapped her stinking nappy around one of your dolls? Gross. That’s all you got? You thought you could fool me. With a doll? Don’t you know who I am?’

‘Yeah, I know you. And I recorded her on a loop. To lure you away, far from her. You don’t get to hurt her again.’

‘You’re on the road to nowhere with this,’ he snarls.

His fist crushes my phone into the rock, and the recording of her crying stops. He gives the babycarrier a vicious kick over the edge. It flies into the air, and plummets down to the fjord. My heart flies with it, as if she’s dying for real. Her clothes spill out. Nappies tumble.

And her pink shoe.

It seems like forever before they hit the water. My china doll floats on the surface, and then slowly sinks. But her pink shoe bobs up and down on the water. I can’t move. The thought of her drowning burns into me.

We’ll never be safe. Not from him.

He stands on the edge of Sermon Rock, motionless, even his long sheepskin hangs dead still. I know he hates to admit he can’t work it out.

The robin starts up again. This time I hear each note in his birdsong. And each one reminds me of what I’ve lost, and I pray to God, and every saint going, that I can be brave.

‘Where is she?’ he says, at last.

‘Safe,’ I say. ‘We forgive you. You can’t help yourself.’

‘You forgive me?’ He glares at the camera. ‘For what?’

‘You stitched me up like a kipper.’

‘You think?’ He snaps his fingers. ‘Give me the camera! Don’t make me hurt you.’

I toss Mum’s Leica to him, he cradles it in his hand, and then lobs it into the fjord. And I know he is thinking of her, not me, and I try not to cry.

‘Without proof,’ he says. ‘No one believes a word you say. Not the police. Not my father, or your precious sister. You’re a liar.  You don’t get to betray me, I make the rules.’

The sheepskin snaps around him as he walks back to me.

‘No,’ I say. ‘I do. Game over.’

The memory card is wafer thin. It shakes in my fingers, as I place it on my tongue, and part of me dies in that moment. Before I swallow.

Then I remember. This is my legacy. This film, it’s him, and me, and her.

Our story.

2

 (Three months earlier)

Eleanor Mary Lambe’s British passport feels sticky in my hand. I know it off by heart. It has thirty-two stiff pages, and each one has a different image of home to haunt me. I rub the hologram on the photo for good luck, and the defiant tomboy grins back at me.

That ten-year-old girl could get me out of this mess, but she’s long gone, I’m a hologram of my former self.

And with that sorry thought, I drop my overnight bag out the bedroom window.

As a diversion, I hammer a chord on my keyboard. The middle C sticks, I vamp it again, louder. Dad yells at me to quit the racket.

And my Dora-The-Explorer bag lands, safely hidden, in the loganberry bush.

The views outside our cottage are gobsmacking, but who can write love songs about fjords? The colour green takes on a whole new meaning in Norway. Sounds stupid, but the grass is too green. Its brightness hurts my eyes, even the mountains look manicured, and frozen in time, like their beauty got botoxed.

It’s all too splendid, too perfect, and the mess of me stands out.  And I think I’m being watched, which puts me right up there with the crazies.

Over the bedroom window, a red spider finishes off his web. I feel bad about destroying his home, but I don’t get to keep mine.

‘Dad! I need you to sort this. Quick. Are spiders poisonous in Norway?’

He doesn’t answer.  Of course not. He’s with Harper.

The pencil shakes as I hook the spider, and catapult it out the window.  Then I scribble lyrics in the condensation, pretending to be the girl, who’d scare me witless, if we ever met up for real.

I won’t believe in true love.

That’s celebrity hype, and lies.

This girl’s got her eyes wide open.

 I’ll write my own life in the skies.

 

The words drip down the cold glass and vanish like the rest of my life. I pick up my phone again, stifling my anxiety at Dom’s last message.

Don’t chicken out

Get on that plane tonight.   

Don’t let Harper trump you with her sick card.

My best friend makes it sound so easy. But how can I fly home? When Dad moved us to Vaerøyfjord, our plane flew through the Northern Lights. The night turned neon green, and with all the jolts and bangs in the plane, I thought we’d drop out the sky.

I scream in my sleep now, Harper says she has to slap me awake, and I flap at her in the dark, still falling.

Dad says I’m too old for all this arty nonsense. I’m sixteen and I’m the one meant to be looking after my big sister.

I put on headphones, and listen to Dom’s remix of my song. The opening beat swells in my chest.  Dom’s genius at remixes. He takes the raw elements, and creates something way better than my original stuff.  But he’s added a climb before the chorus. It pisses me off.

I wanted a solo piano; haunting, plaintive notes fading to silence, like birdsong.

He’s speeded it up, and added an electronic pulse. It’s too obvious. Too pop. Usually Dom and I work brilliant together. We pull the best out of each other, and he finishes my thoughts, when I drift off random.  Not anymore. I need to be there.

And I can’t tell Dom the truth.

Why I really, really shouldn’t abandon my sister. Not even for a few days. Not even to audition for songwriting at the BIMM back home in Manchester, the top music school in the world, as far as Dom and me are concerned.

The sun crawls up Sermon Rock, I stretch my toes against the timber wall. At least I can’t fall out of bed here. My marshmallow of a mattress touches all four walls, but the pine ceiling is too low for me to kneel upright.  I have to crawl out of bed, through a hatch in the wall, to get to the loo, or the main bedroom.

Harper got that, of course, but I don’t mind, Dad’s covered her walls with pictures of Christ’s face, and slapped up so many photos of the Turin Shroud, it looks like a police incident room. And it’s bad enough living in Norway, without Jesus moving in too.

‘Ellie,’ Dad calls. ‘Help would be good, any time soon. And your sister’s bedding is over due for a change.  Quit messing around. It’s time for her session.’

‘Sorry, I had to deal with a monster sized spider by myself,’ I say. ‘I’m okay, in case you’re wondering.’

Harper’s face lights up when she sees me, and like forever, I feel a shit for wanting more. My sister sits bolt upright in bed, wearing her new wire-rimmed glasses, as she unwraps her new figurine of a Madonna and child. I twist my Medusa hair up in a black wool beanie, and give her a goofy smile. Then Harper drops me right in it.

‘Ellie thinks the Turin Shroud’s a complete fake, she says it’s been carbon dated, and everything. That’s not true, is it Dad?’

‘Pray for faith, Ellie,’ he says. ‘We need his protection. Evil walks the Earth.’

Here we go, the Catholic version of evolution, according to my dad.

‘There’s no such thing as evil,’ I say, unable to zip it. ‘We’re doing it in psych class. My teacher said sociopaths just lack empathy. Bad people don’t feel emotion. Or guilt. Not like we do.’

I’m not sure my Norwegian psych teacher got it right.  The way I see it, it’s the people doing good, who mess up my life.

‘Don’t preach your New Age psychology at me,’ Dad snaps, with his back to me. ‘Of course evil exists. The Devil’s in all of us, waiting for his chance to pull us down.’

And that’s my dad all over. He prays to God, but his money’s on the Devil.