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
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?”
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.
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?”
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
Footsteps squeak. Someone stands near. A cool hand is placed on his forehead.
–– Happy New Year, she says, smelling of hospitals.
––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.
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.
––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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.