“24” – The Complete Story List

in collaboration with Claire Jansen

5313696612_f064cd9bec_oThree days before Christmas Amber lands in Australia to celebrate the festive season with Ben. But he’s not expecting her or the news she brings. Her presence sends radial fractures into Ben’s life and those close to him, from his sister to his lover and beyond.

Told across a single day, through the eyes of five characters, ’24’, delves into the complexities of the relationships closest to our hearts.

“24” – 06:00

“24” – 08:00

“24” – 10:00

“24” – 12:00

“24” – 14:00

“24” – 16:00

“24” – 18:00

“24” – 20:00

“24” – 22:00

“24” – 00:00

“24” – 02:00

“24” – 04:00

Image: Walt Stoneburner Time – 12:35 via Flickr

“24” – 02:00

The deserted streets with their festive lights, the 80’s music marathon on the radio and the warm wind whistling through the windows gave the night a surreal edge on the way home. Amber slept on Ben’s shoulder in the back seat and I wondered again, the wisdom in taking her home and not to hospital given the state she was in. Tiredness furred the edges of my thoughts and I struggled to keep focused.

“Remember the vibrator Aunty Sue gave Mum for Christmas,” I said and turned Springsteen down.

“Mum said how funny she was for sending her a torch without a light,” Ben said. I laughed and the tension of the last twelve hours washed away. “I was certain there was a way to make it work.” His sounded present but he was lost to something out in the dark street. “I’m going to make this work, Leesie.” He looked into the rear vision mirror and our eyes met. “No more fuck ups. Amber needs me.”

I nodded and we drove with the radio filling the silence.

The closer we got to The Old’s the sharper the salty tang in the air became. Then the ocean was there, sprawled before us, flat and peaceful under the crescent-bowl moon.

“I was thinking,” I said, turning into The Old’s street. “We were going up to the beach house on Boxing Day. You and Amber should go up instead.”

Ben didn’t answer and we sat in the driveway with the car idling and the lights fading in and out of colour in the front window.

“You always preferred that mode,” Ben said eventually. He unclipped his seat belt and gently laid Amber’s head against the seat. “Lights to bore yourself by.”

“Better than your brain melt setting.” Our words were hollow. I cut the engine and said, “I’m going in to make a coffee. Then I’d better go home.”

“Hey.” He followed me up the driveway, alone. “Thank you. You didn’t have to stay.”

“Yes, I did.” I hugged him tight and even though he was half a foot taller, he felt insubstantial in my arms, like the small, gangly boy who begged me to take him swimming.

“I wish I could say everything was going to be all right.”

“She doesn’t want to go home. She said she wants to stay here. With me.”

“No one has to decide anything tonight.” I yawned and let him go. “I’ll go in and sort the bed.”

Inside, I stopped at the Christmas tree. Tomorrow, while Ben and Amber slept, I’d come back and pull it down, give them the opportunity to put it up together. Ben needed to make memories because too soon it would be all he had of Amber.

I was about to walk past when I saw the empty vodka bottle on its side near the coffee table; a ring of hot pink around the neck when I picked it up. Ben was at the front door with Amber in his arms and I hurried to his room.

“Put Amber in my old room,” I called from the end of the hallway and closed his bedroom door. “It smells of vomit in here.”

I needed to think quickly so he wouldn’t need to know there was a naked girl passed out in the middle of his bed.

The final part of 24 will be available here at 4am.

“24” – 22:00

Ben’s stomach churned double-time when he saw the flashing Christmas lights in the front window. The scratches on his cheek started throbbing again. Beer reflux burbled up his throat as he fumbled and dropped the key. The door opened as he tried to get it in the lock again.

“You’re a shit, Ben.”

“And hello to you too, Annalise.”

“I’ve been waiting since 2pm.”

“I forgot, okay. I got a last minute contract.”

He pushed past her ignoring the newly festive lounge room.

“She’s gone,” Annalise called down the hallway after him.

He stopped and put a hand on the wall, but didn’t turn around. “What the fuck do you mean, she’s gone?”

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“It’s not that late,” he said and Annalise followed him into the kitchen and watched him slump into a seat. “I’ve been walking around trying to get my head together, all right? It’s been a fucking awful day.”

“Awful for who, Ben?” Before he could reply Annalise pulled out her phone.

“You could have called her. Or me!”

“I assumed she would be sleeping off jetlag. I’m home now aren’t I? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“You never do.”

“Fuck you, Annalise.” He stood and the chair fell backward. “Forty-eight hours ago I had no idea this cluster fuck coming my way. Amber emailed from Changi airport with her flight details after three months of radio silence. Bet she didn’t tell you that, huh? She dropped off the face of the earth. No warning. No explanation.”

“What’s she supposed to do, apologise for getting cancer?”

“She could have told me. I was in love with her.” He sat on the edge of the table and dropped his head. His voice was quieter when he spoke. “I mean, still love her. She’s everything I ever wanted. And now she’s here and she’s dying.”

“So you left your dying girlfriend here and went to the pub.”

“I was at work. A few beers this arvo. I’ve been wandering around, trying to get my head straight. I didn’t ask for this.”

“You can’t do the ‘poor me’ act Ben. You’re a two-timing bastard. Look at your face.”

He put his hand to his cheek. “Helena was an accident, a one-night stand who just hung around. If I had known she was a psycho bitch—”

“You really are a piece of work.”

“And you are a sanctimonious, judgmental bitch who has no appreciation for the fact other people’s lives get fucked up sometimes.” The words slammed into the laminate doors and dropped like dead birds between them.

Annalise started to shake, hands clenched by her side. “Ben. You screw up and wail that it’s not your fault. You wail and you wait for Mum and Dad to pick up the pieces. Give you—”

“I was made redundant. Like that was my fault.” He snatched Annalise’s car keys off the bench. “And I didn’t give Amber cancer.”

Annalise blocked the door. “You can’t drive anywhere.”

He jammed the keys in her hand. “No, but you can.”

The next part of 24 will be available here at 12am.

“24” – 18:00

Mae-Lyn fucked like a ninja with a terminal case of hiccups. The first time we got horizontal all I could think was: do I sound like that? Do I sound like anything? And I couldn’t get off because I started cataloguing the various noises and sounds all the other girls I’d been with made and had to blame my lack of performance on beer. I got over it after that.

She lay on her side, sucking a durrie, tattooed body slick and aglow in the golden light. I wanted to spend what was left of the day lost in the artwork on her body, forgetting how I’d screwed up yet another exam.

Then my phone rang.

“That’s one persistent fucker, Will,” Mae-Lyn said and reached across to tap the ash into the bourbon can on the bedside table. “Answer it before I make it do the reverse transformer.”

I slid out and rummaged through my satchel. H flashed on the screen.

“It’s poor little Helena, isn’t it?”

I didn’t reply. I refused to talk about Helena in Mae-Lyn’s bedroom.

“Answer it? Can’t stand her ringing every five minutes for the rest of the fucking night.”

“Hello,” I said, trying to sound casual as I sat on the floor, back against the bed.

“Why the fuck doesn’t anyone ever answer their phone? I’ve been calling for two fucking hours.” A different kind of hysterical pulled at her words and I braced for what came next.

I didn’t expect loud, tearing sobs.

“Hey, hey… Helena?” I picked out ‘Ben’ and ‘cancer’ from the mess that was her simultaneously crying and talking. “Ben’s got cancer? Shit, Helena.”

“Skank… London… she’s got.”

Then it hit me. “Ben dumped you?”

From the howls on the other end of the phone I knew I was right. I wanted to say, told you so. But I didn’t.

Mae-Lyn slipped her arms around me, hands migrating south.

“Hang up,” she whispered into my other ear. “She’ll have found someone else and forgotten about it all before the weekend’s over.”

I wanted to deny the truth in Mae-Lyn’s words but her lips were on my neck, then back on my earlobe and I lost all ability to decipher Helena’s yammering sobs.

Eventually Helen said, “Ohmigod, I’m sorry, Will. Ben’s making me insane. I’ve been a shit. Can you come home? Please.”

And like draining bath water the crazy went out of Helena. She hiccupped half-sobbed breathes and waited for an answer. I squirmed out of Mae-Lyn’s hold.

“Okay, but I’m in the city. It’ll take me a bit to get home.”

“That’s okay,” she said brightening, “just as long as I know you’re coming.”

I dragged on my sleep pants and t-shirt and laced up my trainers as Mae-Lyn’s seething recriminations silently burnt into my back.

“Liar,” she said finally. “You haven’t told her about us, have you?”

I ignored the baiting.

“You wanna hear why you haven’t told her?”

“I’ll see you at band practice.”

I was almost out her door when she called out, “When are you gonna admit you’re in love with Helena?”

The next part of 24 willl be available here at 8pm.

“24” – 14:00

There were many smells I’d come to associate with Ben and housesitting, but vomit wasn’t one of them. I shut the front door glad I hadn’t picked the kids up early from vacation care to come with me.

“Ben?” I called and peered into the lounge room, half expecting my good-for-nothing brother to be sprawled on the couch in a drunken coma. “Hey lazy-arse.”

But it was empty and almost tidy—only a contained smattering of DVDs on the floor and the coffee table. Not the usual bombsite of an unemployed computer programmer turned couch potato who survived on random temp jobs and the Old’s generosity.

I dumped my handbag on the kitchen bench and opened the bin, looking for the source of the smell. The overflow went into a second plastic bag. I hauled both out to the wheelie bin and pushed it onto the nature strip. On the second trip I evacuated the empty bottles, deposited the recycling bin next to its sibling and turned on the sprinkler system so the grass had half a chance of greening up before The Olds got home on the weekend.

Back inside there was no sign of the oxygen-thief, just as I expected.

Sure Annalise, come on over, I’ll be home, he said a week ago. Get Jake to pick the kids up and I’ll get a bottle of wine and drag out the vinyl and we’ll put up the tree like we did when we were kids.

He knew all the right things to say and how to sweeten the deal with my penchant for Boney-M and sav blanc and Christmas nostalgia. And I fell, as I always did, hook-line-and-sinker. I justified each disappointment with the fact I wanted to believe there was a better side to my kid-brother than he ever showed me.

I dragged the box with the Christmas tree out of the linen press. There was no point ringing or texting to ask where he was and I wasn’t going to just sit and wait for him to come home. I’d put the tree up and at some point between now and the weekend he’d realise it didn’t magically materialise in the lounge room. The bags of ornaments were pushed beyond my reach on the highest shelf.

She appeared as I dragged a chair out of the kitchen: a waif, cut from alabaster in a crocheted hat and vintage dress.

“You must be Annalise,” she said, her English accent tired.

And the way she looked at me, expecting me to know who she was, meant I was going to throttle Ben when I saw him next. I was so going to kill him because this girl didn’t look like anything we’d come to expect from his pathetic parade of women. This young woman exuded respect and a quiet confidence that flickered like a candle throwing light into a dark room. She deserved better than the ignorance of her identity I was trying desperately to hide.

The next part of 24 will be available here at 4pm.

“24” – 10:00

My desk was a wasteland of used nicotine patches and mugs harboring varying depths of cold coffee. Somewhere between Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain Helena blathered at me. It was pointless to hope that if I stared at the mind-map of language processing areas I could circumvent her rant or bring down some kind of cone of silence to ignore her long enough so she’d just piss off. In reality hope was as pointless as study at this late stage. Some of it made sense at 3am but now it was just colours and nonsense words and too many arrows connecting theories I was meant to understand and didn’t.

“Helena, I know you think your existential crisis is more important than mine, but, I have an exam in 97 minutes.”

Why hasn’t he called me, Will?”

“He who?” I sighed.

“Ben.”

“The older guy who is in love with that pommy chick?”

“He is NOT in love with her.” She sat on the side of my desk. For such a germ freak, she wasn’t backward in planting her arse on surfaces arses should never kiss. “He’s just not over her yet. They’re two very different things you know.”

I shoved her off my desk. For a fleeting moment the mindmap made more sense than Helena’s logic. “Here’s a crazy idea,” I said. “You could just go out with someone who is available, rather than chase guys who don’t give a shit about you. You know, for something different to do.”

“He’s not in love with her. He can’t. She has bad hair.”

“For fucksake, hair is hardly a measure of worth, much less personality or how loveable they are, or aren’t.”

“You’re talking mumbo jumbo again.”

I gritted my teeth and thought about how much I used to enjoy tying her up and gagging her when we were kids playing cowboys and Indians.

“He should have left her at the fucking airport! What’s he been doing for the last fourteen hours? It would’ve taken him like half an hour to break up proper.”

Instead of battering my head against the brick wall that is Helena, I snatched up my lecture notes, sketchpad, and textbooks and stuffed them all into my satchel with my phone.

“There’s a public transport strike. Been watching it play out on Twitter. I’d better go if I’m gonna make uni.”

“I thought you were study—” The bedroom door closed before I heard the rest.

I thought I was free until a bunch of people stared at me when I got on the bus. It was only after I sat down did I realise the fuck up and texted Mae-Lyn.

– I am on a bus in my sleep pants

– on ur way home from where

– On my way to any place that’s not home.

– why?????

– Fucking Helena

– u know i’ve wanted to 4 yrs but u wont let me

– I need jeans. I have an exam.

– u could pretend 2b international man of mistery

– Or you could pretend to give a shit and lend me some jeans.

– why would I lend u mine

– I’m not groveling. I’ll go dressed like this instead of doing that.

– ur funeral

The next part of 24 will be available here at 12pm.

“24” – 06:00

Amber’s breathing moved with the same hypnotic motion of the sea. The sound push-pulled Ben as he teetered on the edge of consciousness. Oh, how he wanted to pitch face first into sleep and lose himself in oblivion for just a few hours. Free from thinking about what Amber had said and everything Helena expected to hear.

A golden fissure glowed in the crack between the curtains and he imagined the dawn stealing in. Seeking him out. Exposing him for what he was.

And he deserved it.

He’d told Helena, just one night to sort Amber out.

Now, oh Christ.

Amber slept against him, head on his shoulder. Sour breath grazed his neck. He extracted his numb arm, climbed out of the tangle of sheets and stood naked at the window watching morning creep across the city. The rising sun lit the curled wisps of clouds in such a way it looked like fire rolling across the bay.

A pending immolation of the guilty, he thought and pulled the curtains closed.

He could anticipate Helena’s response to his news: She’d tell you anything to keep you. In his head he argued back: You would lie to keep me but not Amber, adding after a moment, you can’t fake this.

In the dark he could pretend Amber’s skin wasn’t stretched grey over her cheekbones and the heavy shadows of her eye sockets were just jet lag. And her missing hair was the result of a charity shave-off. In the dark he could reimagine her as she was in the photos: radiant and perfect. Everything he’d wanted and believed he didn’t deserve.

It took several minutes to find his jeans—boxer shorts twisted into them—and dig his phone out of his pocket. In the bathroom, with the light off to avoid the police line up of Amber’s pill bottles on the vanity, he sat on the toilet and stared at his phone.

He could take a photo of the pills and send it to Helena as proof. See, not faking.

What was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking at all.

Sun spilled through the small window above him. The longer he sat, the heavier and sweatier the phone became. It wasn’t difficult. All he had to do was turn it back on and tell Helena it was over. He didn’t even have to call her. Just send a text and admit he’d used her while he waited for Amber to come back online. For her to finish whatever it was she had to do without him. But he couldn’t. Because he wasn’t sure that was the truth.

Last night he’d gone to the airport primed to rip it through Amber for the way she’d played him, and finally move on. But that was before she’d smiled and kissed him and told him she could explain everything. Before he’d held her, real and alive, skin against skin.

Before she’d told him she was dying.

The next part of 24 will be available here at 8am.