#FGC22: In Four Parts

“If it was you, what would you do?”

“If it was me? I’d do it.”

“What if it was Matt?”

“I wouldn’t stop him.”

“But you’re—”

“Married. Look… people don’t remember the wonderful things when they’re dying. They remember all the things they didn’t do. Matt used to sit with me while I cried, my uniform soaked in blood, telling him the last thing someone told me before they died on the side of the road. We understand how fragile life is. We promised each other we wouldn’t live a life of regret. I’d never stop him doing something he needed to do.”

“Need. Or want?”

“There’s only a delineation if you want to get moralistic.”

“Moralistic. C’mon Ava. Of course there’s a difference. I want another piece of your strawberry kirsch slice, with an extra helping of cream, but I don’t need it.”

“You’re skin and bones, so that’s debatable… Look, it’s not about selfishness or selflessness. It about what makes you happy. And those you love, happy. That’s all the matters at the end of the day.”

***

“He’s married.”

“So you keep telling me. Or are you reminding yourself.”

“I… It’s not… It’s just… not the way I thought it would be.”

“How did you think it would be? You’d marry him and live happily ever after.”

“Hell, no. Shit. We were just kids. Our friend Mandy used to keep a scrap book of bridal stuff. It freaked me out.”

“So you wanted to get laid.”

“It was complicated. My Mum. His family. I just didn’t want it to end. Him and I. He was my best friend, but I wanted more. And I thought he did too. Shit. And he told me he did. Well I think he did, in his letters. All that perving he admitted to. I wanted him so badly it hurt to be near him but I couldn’t stay away. It was messy and I stupidly left him behind… Going back is like dredging up all the unresolved stuff from twenty years ago, without the safety of time and paper and distance and all of that. I don’t think I can do it.”

****

“Has he ever sent you a photo?”

“I never asked. It’s not like I don’t know what he looks like.”

“Twenty years ago, you mean. He’s probably balding and overweight now and you’ll look back and—”

“His Dad still had all his hair.”

“His Dad had all his hair.”

“He did!”

“Dilemma sorted then. Go forth and bump uglies with Jude.”

“Ava!”

“You want it to happen. I see the expression on your face. The thinly veiled desire when you read his letters. The yearning when you write back.”

“He’s married.”

“Then don’t go.”

“I want to go.”

“You want to go. So go. Say hello, shake his hand, kiss him on the cheek. Give him a bit of a hug if you really want to walk on the wild side. Meet his wife, have a banal conversation about how they met, and how cute their tribe of kids are. Drink, mingle, come home and mark it off your bucket list.”

“He’s not on my bucket list.”

“Of course he isn’t. You don’t even have a bucket list.”

“Stop mocking me.”

“Stop driving me spare. Go. Go and get him out of your system. You need to move on. “

“I don’t want to move on.”

“Jesus Mary and Joseph. This is some kind of warped wish-fulfilment weighed down by your conscience, isn’t it? Don’t shake your head.”

“What if this is our second chance? The fact I’m alive to even have this conversation means there has to be more.”

“Maybe it is a second chance. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe second chances are a lie we tell ourselves to keep hope alive. Or justification—”

“I’m not justifying anything. I’m just saying—”

“Why did you come to me? To talk you out of it? Or talk you into it?… Look, it doesn’t matter what you want or don’t want. Or what you pledge to do or not do. Honour and loyalty and fidelity. Sometimes things just happen because two people are in the same space together. And that’s the way it is.”

“He won’t. I know he won’t.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about and you owe me five minutes of my life.”

“…I can’t say the same for me.”

“Ella-Louise, if you really want to be with him, just be with him. Be happy. That’s all I want for you: to be happy. But promise me no matter what does or doesn’t happen you won’t feel guilty. Guilt will hold you hostage worse than all these what-ifs you’re still carrying around.”

***

“He’s done one hell of a job on you.”

“He’s done nothing. Said nothing. Intimated nothing. Promised nothing. Suggested nothing.”

“Other than invite you up there.”

“Along with everyone else.”

“And tell you he’s beige and offered it up like some challenge. I know you Ella-Louise. My bet is he does too.”

“It’s not a contest.”

“Battle of wills perhaps.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Really? This is the fourth time this week you’ve bought it up.”

“I didn’t.”

“The look on your face did then.”

“…So? Did you bet against me?”

“You think Matt and I are that shallow.”

“I know you, Ava.”

“Perhaps I’ve hedged my bets each way.”

“I know you, Ava.”

“Ask me when you get back. Then it won’t really matter, will it? It will be done one way or the other.”

**YOU CAN VOTE FOR “IN FOUR PARTS” HERE AS PART OF THE READERS’ CHOICE AWARD FOR THIS WEEK.**

Author’s Note: I’ve done something a little naughty and taken two of the characters from Piper’s Reach and written them off the page. The opening conversation has been in my head for months and it became increasingly clear with current events, it would never find a home in one of Ella-Louise’s letters. Ironically it fits perfectly with Ella-Louise’s most current letter. Stranger things happen!

[FGC#7] Tanka

This week’s Form and Genre Challenge is to write a tanka (Traditional Japanese poem of five lines with a pivotal middle line connecting two separate images, embedded traditionally in love and nature).

Neck deep in pre-release publicity for Post Marked: Piper’s Point, this poem comes inspired by Ella-Louise and Jude. Just who is writing it… well, I shall leave that to your musings.

above blackened rocks
in eddies of brine
sea-born lovers appear
salty lips welcome
a future almost lost

[FGC#5] Bewitched

Of all the challenges, this one sparked the most discussion, fittingly, via Twitter. I have followed several twitter accounts specifically to read Twitter Fiction, notably @arjunbasu and @GayleBeveridge (who is this week’s guest judge with me) so I had an inkling of what I was getting myself—and everyone else—into this week.

It is harder than it looks to execute well, especially when you trawl Twitter for stories (use #vss as a starting point) and see how some sing and others bomb… then have a go yourself a telling a story in 140 characters. It must have a beginning and an ending, it must be a story, not merely a statement of something.

If a vignette is a snap shot of a scene, a twitter story is like a breath within that scene. An inhalation which draws you into the story and an exhalation which brings with it an emotional payoff, some kind of deeper reaction. And that’s what most challenged me this week… drawing an emotional response from such a short narrative. Adam Byatt’s collection of 140 character stories, Polaroid Moments is stirring and poignant (vintage Byatt!)

Of the six or so I penned (from trees of petrified thoughts like fairy floss to scarlet scarves and prickly first dates under the full moon) this is the story which appealed most to those who read my efforts.

So without further ado, my submission for the Twit-fic challenge…

She twirled in the hired dress remote in hand. Dance with me Mr Darcy. She pressed play and reached out. You have bewitched me, he said.

Like it… vote for it on the Readers’ Choice Poll.

[FGC#4] Birthed

This week’s installment of the Form and Genre Challenge
FGC#4: write in the action-adventure genre
Word limit: 3000 words.

A low guttural cry tore through the cavernous interior of the abandoned Tavern on the Green and the hairs on Sylvie’s bare arms rose. The fire surged in the broken fireplace and a gust of wind rose from nowhere, extinguishing all the candles. She shuddered and tried to ignore the insidious feeling something was trying to get in. Something a drawn bolt and a chair beneath the knob wouldn’t keep out.

“Back off,” Sylvie hissed, picking up the scalpel lying beside her and pointing it in the direction of the ebony-haired Priestess inching closer, trying to see how far the baby had emerged. “I mean it.”

The Priestess retreated to the shadows, leaving her two Sisters supporting the laboring girl between them under Sylvie’s baleful glare.

They think I’m young and inexperienced. They think they can intimidate me. They don’t know how much I want what’s on the other side this. What I’m willing to do to get it.

Sylvie looked back to the pale legs and bottom hanging in the space between the tattered rug and the birthing girl. Two more contractions and the girl would birth the first child and then the Priestesses would be upon them. She wouldn’t be able to protect herself, much less the baby and the girl.

Where are you, Marcus? I should have kept you close. Not sent you away for the rest of my gear. But how was I to know? If only I’d ignored the summons. Taken the car and driven away.

It didn’t matter now.

Hurry, Marcus, please.

“You are doing beautifully,” Sylvie said when the contraction ended, grateful the dark hid the track marks up the girl’s skinny arms and the lips blistered from the raw garlic the Priestesses forced her to eat before Sylvie arrived.

Too young to be fucked up on Oblivion and caught in some cult.

The girl shook her head and panted. “I’m scared. It’s coming. It feels wrong. I’m burning—”

“Shhhh. You’re fine,” Sylvie crooned, gently wiping her burning face with a cool cloth. “Birthing is hard work.” She leant in so only the girl could hear and said, “Just two more contractions.”

She felt the girl tense up and squeezed her arm in solidarity, caressing her face and arms, urging her to relax.

I promised I’d keep you and your babes safe. And I will. Somehow.

On the next contraction, the girl grunted and fought against it. Sylvie leaned in, whispering words of encouragement, coaching her to breathe. When the girl finally surrendered, the baby’s stomach, rib cage and shoulders slid down. Sylvie checked the cord for a prolapse and the girl’s racing pulse, then sat back to wait for the final contractions, pushing aside the deathly sixth sense crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.

Marcus. For Godsake. What’s keeping you? I can’t do this alone.

The contraction started and the girl screamed, losing herself to the terror she had barely contained throughout the labour. She lashed out and tried to stand. The ebony Priestess grabbed her arms and pinned them behind her, forcing her back onto the lap of the other Priestess. Sylvie reached beneath the girl and a moment later, the warm, wet skin of the baby hit her outstretched hands.

The baby opened its eyes and seconds later cried loudly, accompanied by its mother’s soft sobs. Sylvie worked quickly to tie off the cord and sever it, keeping herself between the baby and where she had last seen the ebony Priestess.

“Lie her back,” Sylvie said and the blonde and auburn priestesses threw the girl backward into the pile of cushions and blankets and stood, muttering curses and stretching stiff limbs.

Sylvie held the baby up. “He’s normal. Oh my God, he’s normal,” the girl cried, reaching her hand out. “My baby. My baby.”

Sylvie placed the baby on the girl’s stomach and the Priestesses closed in. Sylvie reached backward, her fingers searching for the scalpel.

Hell, where did I put it?

The Priestesses watched, transfixed by the baby’s slow crawl along the girl’s stomach, her fingers gently stroked his back. Loving words cooing from her lips. The baby reached her chest and she drew it into her arms, his tiny mouth finding her nipple and closing around it, sucking furiously.

The blonde Priestess, standing closest, moved to grab the baby, but as her hands closed in, the girl screamed, her body stiffening. The Priestess pulled back and fell over the feet of one of her Sisters.

“You can birth the second one here,” Sylvie said. Raising one of the girl’s emaciated legs to give the second baby room, she saw for the first time the tide of blood soaking into the old blankets and towels, inching its way across the bare boards towards her.

“Get my kit,” she yelled at the auburn priestess, closest to her battered kit. “She’s going to die. And the other baby.”

The Priestess didn’t move. “We have one live baby. The prophecy said—”

“Fuck the prophecy. I’ve never lost a mother and I’m not about to now.”

“Our work is done. We finished what Teleia started.”

The blonde priestess lunged and dragged the baby from its mother, passing it up to the hands of her ebony Sister, her arcane robe dripping with the girl’s blood when she stood.

The girl convulsed again and the Priestesses smiled, watching Sylvie caught between saving the mother and unborn twin, and reclaiming the baby held in the ebony Priestess’s arms.

“Marcus,” she yelled. “Marcus!”

Just break down the bloody door. Do what you did out there when those creatures were about to kill me!

“He won’t be back. Teleia took care of him,” the auburn one said, taking one last look at the blood and the convulsing girl. “And now, the Prophecy has been fulfilled. Vengeance is ours.”

Sylvie ignored them and let them leave. She couldn’t abandon the girl now. She knelt beside her head. “You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, lightly slapping her cheeks. “I promised I’d keep you safe.”

The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook before Sylvie got hold of her kit bag and the drugs she needed. When the girl’s eyes rolled back, the pupils were gone and the irises bleached of colour.

“Shit!”

She dropped the head and lurched back, watching in horror as the girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. With a primeval roar, the girl threw her legs apart and arched her back, her womb disgorging the second baby in one massive contraction.

The second baby opened its mouth and howled an angry salutation as an explosion loosened a thick layer of plaster-dust.

Ignoring the instinct to run and put as much distance between the girl-thing and the building disintegrating around them both, Sylvie instead inched toward the prone girl and howling baby, crawling through the pool of warm blood. Her hands moved frantically across the wet floor, searching for the scalpel and string. When she thought it hopeless, the room lit up, the filthy panes in the French doors filling with iridescent green light. She located her kit and found a new length of string before the light faded and a series of explosions rocked the old restaurant, sending fresh showers of choking plaster over her.

I’ve got to get us out before this whole place comes down.

In the dark, she tied the string and waited for the next flare of light to find her scalpel, assessing the baby as best she could from touch. Even though the girl lay still, Sylvie heard the pop and grind of bones moving, accompanied by shallow gasping breaths. Sylvie knew the girl was changing into one of the creatures that had hunted her when she’d first driven into the Dead Zone. Before Mutt appeared. Before Marcus.

That old crone couldn’t have killed Marcus. Not if those creatures out there couldn’t. Or wouldn’t? Where are you, Marcus? I can’t do this. I can’t. Can’t.

And her thinking stilled.

I’m just thinking like a woman in transition, screaming I can’t, begging for help. Thinking I’m going to die. It’s just transition. They don’t die. And I won’t either.

In the next wave of light, she forced herself to find the scalpel in the congealing slick and wiped it dry on her singlet. She cut the baby free with a shaking hand, and slipped her hands under its bottom and head, bringing it to her chest and running for the open door before the next round of explosions.

The ceiling collapsed with the next detonation and a beam clipped Sylvie’s shoulder, tearing the joint from the socket and knocking her onto her back, punching the air from her lungs. She clutched at the baby with her uninjured arm.

Before the dust settled, flares lit the room, revealing the girl-thing crouched several feet away, a single milky orb staring at Sylvie. A section of ceiling had smashed the other side of her face. The baby wailed and the girl cocked her head to the side, rising slowly. The girl had not only survived the massive haemorrhage, but stood several feet taller, her limbs elongated and the deathly pallor of her skin had been replaced with a mottled red and purple hue.

“My baby,” the girl-thing said, the words distorted but recognisable. She took a faltering step in Sylvie’s direction, unsure in her new body.

“I’m only… protecting your baby,” Sylvie panted, the pain spreading from her shoulder into her chest. “I promised… I would… keep you… and your babies… safe.”

“My ba-by?” The girl-thing took several more steps forward.

Sylvie slid across the floor on her back, away from the girl-thing, and pushed against the wall when she reached it, trying to use it as a brace to stand. She screamed and slid down, the pain unbearable.

The girl walked to where she lay and looked down. “M-y. B-a-b-y.”

Sylvie tried again to stand, this time leaving a smear of blood behind on the wall. The beam had torn more than the joint. The girl-thing sniffed and Sylvie flinched, remembering how she’d been invisible to the orb-eyed creatures until she’d cut her arm trying to climb out the smashed rear window of her car after the electric locks seized. Then, with fresh blood on the air, the creatures had converged.

“Please don’t hurt me,” Sylvie said, her voice barely audible. She clenched her teeth and reached up with her damaged arm. “Help me up. I can get us both out of here. I know you’re still in there. You’re not one of them.”

The girl-thing’s face contorted and her human-like fingers flexed and released. Flexed and released.

“Please. Marcus will take us both out of here. Somewhere safe.”

The girl-thing reached down, icy digits closing around Sylvie’s.

The door shattered inward and a torch beam swept the room. The girl turned and recoiled from the light. A single shot thundered and the girl stood headless for a moment, then collapsed, Sylvie’s hand still in hers.

“Stand up,” the man said, motioning with his rifle, the beam dancing madly.

Sylvie pulled her hand free and glared into the binding light. “You bastard. She wasn’t dangerous.”

“Sylvie Jorgenssen?”

“Who the hell wants to know?”

He dropped the torch from her eyes and turned his back, pulling a walkie-talkie from his pocket.

“Alpha-Capa to base.”

“Base to Alpha-Capa.”

Sylvie shuffled forward on her knees, using the light from the rifle to guide her. There. The scalpel. And a blanket.

“I’ve got the midwife and the baby. Can’t see the mother.”

She wrapped the baby as best she could, cradling it in her busted arm.

“There was one of those things in here. Lots of fucking blood—”

She clasped the scalpel between her teeth and got to her feet. It was only then she saw the black and grey pattern of the man’s combat pants and knew it was over.

Mulholland’s raised an army to get me.

“—think it must have killed the mother. Was going for the midwife.”

Sylvie moved backward toward the French doors—

“Bring her in. Alive,” the voice squawked.

—and reaching them, kicked as hard as she could. The solider spun around, bringing his rifle up. The decayed wood gave way, panes dropping to the floor, but the opening wasn’t big enough for Sylvie and the child to escape.

“Turn around! Don’t move or I’ll shoot.”

Sylvie turned, taking the scalpel from between her teeth. “Your commander told you not to shoot.”

She held the scalpel in front of her and kicked backward with her boot. More of the door gave way, but each jolt sent a new wave of pain through her shoulder and chest, and her grip on the baby weakened.

In one smooth move, the soldier shouldered his rifle and pulled a tazer from his pocket. Chunks of plaster crunched beneath his heavy boots with each footfall. Blue electric tongues licked at the air, tasting the ever decreasing distance to her.

“Please. No.” She dropped the scalpel, knowing the current was calibrated for an adult and would kill the baby. “Please. I have a baby. I’ll come peacefully.”

The fire leapt in the fireplace, as though the smouldering ruins momentarily fed on petrol, casting chaotic shadows on faded wallpaper. The soldier turned too late and Marcus’s forearm crushed his throat, and in a single fluid movement, he caught the soldier’s falling head and twisted it. The sound of vertebra snapping preceded the thump of the soldier’s body hitting the floorboards.

Marcus didn’t stop to check the soldier, or give the dead girl-thing more than a fleeting look. His focus remained on Sylvie and getting her out before the building collapsed. He picked up a discarded coat from the floor and kicked out the remainder of the French doors, hustling Sylvie out, leading her through the courtyard and into an area away from the building. She slumped against a rusted garbage hopper as the iconic building imploded behind.

Marcus pulled the cover off a manhole. “You’re going down. It’s the only safe place for you.” He took off his t-shirt and tore it into one long piece of material. “Tie the baby to you and then put on the coat.”

“Tie the baby on,” she laughed, a terrible cutting sound. “If you haven’t noticed my shoulder is shattered.”

“I can heal your shoulder.”

“It’s stuffed.”

“Put the baby down and I’ll sort it out.”

“You’re not listening—”

“No, Sylvie. You are not listening. Put the damn baby down and let me see to your shoulder. Unless you want to be target practise for Mulholland’s troops.”

Marcus put the coat on the ground and his torn t-shirt. Sylvie laid the baby on top.

“Look away,” he said, and Sylvie turned to stare at the fence, waiting for the pain of his probing fingers to assess the damage and the pronouncement nothing could be done. The area warmed at his touch and she felt dizzy. A vortex opened in her shoulder, pulling bone and flesh inward, knitting it together, while she sipped a cup of her mother’s grappa. Before Sylvie grasped the implausibility and constructed a logical explanation, the sensation ceased. She reached for the injured shoulder and ran her fingers over the smooth skin. Rotated the joint.

“It’ll get you down the ladders. Maybe further.” He stepped away, and caught the look of amazement. “You’ll still go through the natural healing process.”

“How did you—”

A volley of flares streaked overhead and he turned. Sylvie saw two vicious scars, raised and jagged, running the length of his shoulder blades.

“Where my wings were.” She traced the ridge of one with her finger, the topography of the shattered bones. “When I fell, the Government dropped the virus on the Occupiers. Central Park became the Dead Zone.”

“Wings? Marcus, I—”

“Listen to me, Sylvie.” He turned to her and seized her upper arms. “My presence draws mayhem and malevolence, magnifies it. This fighting, this is what fallen angels bring. There’s no Devil, just my kind walking among yours, drawing out evil. Feeding off it.”

“You’re… feeding off this?”

“Not any more.” He released her and stepped back. “Get dressed.”

“Come with me.”

“Not until the fighting is over.”

Sylvie took off her stained singlet, unwrapped the baby and placed it on her bare chest. Skin to skin. Marcus passed the length of material and waited for her to position it over the infant.

“Okay. Tie it.”

Sylvie felt the air crackling with static electricity and Marcus’s breath hot and shallow in her ear. “You’ve no idea how hard it is for me to be this close to a baby.”

“I trust you.”

The material stretched, tightened and automatic gunfire erupted close by. He completed the knot, and picked up the damp coat. “The manhole ladder leads directly into a series of service tunnels beneath the main ones. Keep turning right until you can go no further and wait.”

“Keep turning right. I’ll go around in circles.”

“No you won’t.”

Bullets tore through the fence surrounding the courtyard and Marcus dragged Sylvie down behind the hopper, stray bullets ricocheting off the metal.

“Hurry. Get dressed. They’re closer than I thought.”

Sylvie pulled the singlet over the wrapping and then the coat, testing the sleeves as makeshift gloves. Marcus helped her into the manhole.

“Before I go,” Sylvie said, reaching up to touch his hand. “Was there actually a prophecy?”

“No.” Marcus shook his head and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Go. I’ll see you soon.”

He lay on the frozen ground, watching the darkness swallow her, knowing he’d lied. He didn’t know if Teleia had succeeded in engineering the babies to carry a new form of rage virus. All he could do was hope the infant didn’t kill Sylvie before he got back to her. His salvation counted on it.

Final Word Count: 2999

- – -
Many thanks to my writing partner Laura Meyer for ensuring I wrote something this week (of quality), to Chris Chartrand who ensured it didn’t suck and Toni Rakestraw who ensured  a clean final copy.

[FGC #3] Demonio Coda

This week’s F&GC challenge: write an OULIPO styled poem

DEMONIO CODA*

demon string quartet plucking epilogues smothering benevolence
dread banjos playing haunting serenades broadcasting destruction

*Demonio Coda is constructed using the OULIPO “snowball principal” where each word in the line has an increasing number of letters. And as an aside (by pure coincidence) the title has 11 letters inclusive.

- – -

STALL TO HEDGEROW

There’s a laggard who’s sure all that glitters is gondolier
And she’s buying the stall to hedgerow.
When she gets there she knows, if the storms are all closed
With a workhouse she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying the stall to hedgerow.

There’s a signpost on the wallpaper but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes workhouses have two mechanics.
In a trend by the brother-in-law, there’s a sorcerer who sings,
Sometimes all of our thrills are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

There’s a felon I get when I look to the wharf,
And my spleen is crying for leaving.
In my thrills I have seen rioters of smother through the trends,
And the volleys of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the turd
Then the pistol will lead us to rebound.
And a new deadbeat will deaconess for those who stand long
And the forgeries will ecosystem with law.

If there’s a butter in your heirloom, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a sprinter cleavage for the May queue.
Yes, there are two patisseries you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still timpanist to change the roam you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.

Your headlamp is humming and it won’t go, in casino you don’t know,
The pistol’s calling you to join him,
Debauch laggard, can you hear the window-dresser blow, and did you know
Your stall lies on the whispering window-dresser.

And as we wind on down the roam
Our shallows taller than our south.
There walks a laggard we all know
Who shines white limb and wants to show
How everything still turns to gondolier.
And if you listen very hard
The turd will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rogue and not to roll.

And she’s buying the stall to hedgerow.

Stall to Hedgerow is constructed with the helpful assistance of Spoobill’s N+7 machine. Apologies to Page and Plant who never intended for their beautiful “Stairway to Heaven” to include the words ‘laggard”, ‘turd’ or ‘gondolier’.

Thirty-Eight Degrees South [FGC#2]


VOTING  OPEN UNTIL FRIDAY MORNING

This week’s challenge: write a contemporary romance, open form, maximum of 2500 words.

Heidi stopped at the caravan door, looked at the pile of showering paraphernalia in her arms and sighed. Why bother? Solace wouldn’t be found in a caravan park shower block, the first week in January, with a whinging five-year-old in tow. It had taken the first real sleep-in for six months to see the stupidity of forcing her home routine here. Besides, it was after 10.00am. If they hurried they might still beat JayDee and the girls to the beach.

“How about we skip a shower?” she said, heading back into the caravan and dumping everything on their unmade bed.

“No shower. Woo hoo!” Joel hooted, breaking into an impromptu victory dance.

“Yeah love, no shower. Reckon you could handle going straight to the beach?”

She laughed at his exaggerated air punch and “Yesssss!”

“How ‘bout you get our swimmers off the line and I’ll pack some lunch.”

“Sure Mum.” He whistled, bouncing down the stairs of the caravan, the semi-musical hiss stopping as he negotiated the plastic strips hanging in the door, moving from happy bard to stealth operative in a heartbeat.

Not for the first time, she wished she could be more like Joel, less like herself: go from one thing to another with little thought to what was left behind. Baggage made you look back and it came with responsibility, with being an adult. And now there was just her. She didn’t know how to balance responsibility with fun the way JayDee did it. But she was trying.

“Mu-um. JayDee’s here.”

“Crap!” She grabbed a robe and tied it over her pjs. “Hi,” she said, poking her head into the annex, affecting nonchalance she didn’t feel. He stood in the annex door, sunglasses pushed up above a faded cap, a smile on his tanned face. So at ease in the world—so different to Elliot.

“You left this last night,” JayDee said, holding up her cake plate. “The girls ate the rest before we got up. Best breakfast ever they said.”

“Wish I could eat mud cake for breakfast,” she said, her face relaxing into the smile she’d come to associate with JayDee.

“Hey JayDee, we’re going to the beach without a shower,” Joel said, his eyes full of excitement, and Heidi didn’t know if it was missing a shower or the unexpected appearance of JayDee.

“You have a shower before going to the beach?”

“Not anymore,” Heidi said, reaching down for the swimmers and towels in Joel’s arms. “Where are the girls?”

“My parents took them to Lorne for a picnic. I thought, perhaps I could take you and Joel out for brunch?”

“Brunch?” She couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked them out for a meal. Now two in the space of 24 hours.

“If you’re busy—”

“No. No we’re not busy. It’s just—”

“Why don’t I take Joel up to the bouncing cushion and let you have a shower in peace?”

Heidi laughed and ran a hand through her tangled hair. “You don’t know just how good? that sounds.”

“Maybe while you’re gone, you’ll think about coming with me to the surf club? They’ve got a live band tonight.”

“Out, I—”

“My folks offered to have Joel. The old man would love to have him over again. I’m a bit of a disappointment, you know, producing three daughters.”

“Can I Mum? Pah-lease. I wanna go.  Pah-lease? Granddad Keith rocks.”

“I don’t know if I can ask them to do that.”

“Mum can I?”

“You didn’t ask—they offered.”

“But—”

“MUM?”

“Joel, please, just give me a moment.”

“Hey Junior—what do you think? Would you like to hang with Granddad Keith while I take your Mum out?”

“Sure. You should go Mum. Just no… kissing.”

Heidi blushed and looked away.

“Only dancing,” JayDee said, “scouts honour, mate.”

Heidi caught a new spark in JayDee’s eye, and the guilt demons stirred. They could stir all they wanted. For one night she’d do what she wanted.

A mild breeze blew across the river, tangling the bits of hair Heidi had strategically left loose around her face. They walked past the surf shop, the general store, the Melaleuca Gallery and on to a strip of new holiday apartments.

“This used to be old Californian bungalows and vacant paddocks,” Heidi said. “You ever get the feeling of dislocation… when somewhere you used to know really well is all changed when you go back? And you feel lost.”

“It felt like that when Ruth died,” JayDee said. “That’s why I sold the house. Every time she didn’t walk out to meet me when I got home, I lost her all over again.”

Heidi nodded silently looking up the path to a strip of fancy shops and more holiday apartments. “That used to be The Three Kings milk-bar and takeaway. I remember being tiny and bouncing on the trampolines next to it. Twenty cents a go. Then it was a hardware store and now it’s more holiday apartments.” Heidi sighed. “I’m talking too much. I’m sorry. I’m so starved of uninterrupted adult conversation.”

“I know the feeling.” JayDee took her hand and squeezed it.

Heidi waited for him to let go. Instead his fingers snaked through hers, the sensation of being the smaller hand in the grasp foreign. But good. Right. He smiled at her and for the first time since leaving she gave herself permission to fall into the moment and forget everything else. She squeezed his hand back.

They walked on in silence until they came to the bend in the Great Ocean Road and the music from the Surf Club filtered down from the dunes.

“You know what. I don’t even care if the band’s shit and I don’t know the songs,” Heidi said. “For a few hours I can just pretend this is all there is. Not that I wish… oh shit. I mean, excuse my language. I—”

“It’s okay Heidi. I know what you mean. C’mon.”

* * *

The band worked its way through the usual 80’s hits: “I Ran”, “Karma Chameleon”, “Modern Love” and “You Spin me Round”. Heidi grinned as she drank her beer, dancing on the spot until the opening bars of “Footloose” spurred her into action.

“We’re dancing. Let’s go.”

She took the stubby from his hand and half-danced half-dragged him onto the dance-floor. Heidi lost herself, becoming one with the music and the bouncing, sweating mass surrounding her. JayDee danced closer with each inward press as more people jammed onto the dance-floor. Closer and closer, his body shadowing hers.

When the lead singer screamed, “Everybody cut loose,” JayDee grabbed her hand, spinning her around and around. At the end of the song he deftly dipped her backward, the two of them breathing hard. The band broke into their final song of the set and JayDee pulled her back to her feet, holding her close.

The band crooned a pared back “Hold Me Now” and Heidi put a hand on JayDee’s muscular shoulder, letting him take her other hand in his. They danced slowly, the strict dancing position collapsing until Heidi lay her head against his shoulder, eyes closed.

Her lips mimed the lyrics, “Hold me now. Warm my heart. Stay with me. Let loving start.” Her body moved in tune with his, until the speakers filled with music she didn’t recognise, the live set over.

JayDee relaxed his embrace and slid his arm around her waist. “Another beer?”

Heidi nodded. “I’ll meet you on the balcony.”

She looked into the pitted mirror over the basins in the washroom, splashing water on her face and scraping the damp hair back from her face. The guilt demons stirred in the pit of her stomach.

Not tonight. I give you 364 nights. This one is mine. All mine.

The guilt demons temporarily immobilised, she smiled at her reflection and went to find JayDee.

He sat at a table nearest the railing, two beers in the centre of the table frosted with condensation. Heidi took the chair sitting opposite and pulled it around, sitting close to him.

“I haven’t had this much fun in… I don’t know how long,” she said, taking a long drink from the stubby, drowning the last hisses of the guilt demons. “I knew you’d be good for me. I knew the first day I saw you on the beach, how you managed to be both parent and friend to your girls. You seemed to have it all together. Made me realise how fucked up I am. But…” she put her hand up to stop him interrupting her. “You gave me hope, when I thought it was all gone.”

“You’re not fucked up Heidi. You’re beautiful and brave and you’re doing an incredible job with Joel, just how he needs you to be.”

He caressed her cheek. “When I saw you on the beach that day, for the first time in years I felt… something. Something I thought died with Ruth.” He leaned closer. “And every time I see you, every day we spend together, when we say goodbye I fear you’ll walk away and I won’t see you again.”

Her heart thumped. “I see you and it’s like…” she paused, her heart thumping. “You’re so full of life. I just want to…”

She leaned in and kissed him before she lost her nerve. His lips yielded to hers, the feeling of his hand rested on the back of her neck, so natural. As they pulled apart, guilt tore free—a whiplash of competing emotions.

“I’m sorry,” she said, regret sucking the oxygen from the air.

“For what?”

Heidi pitched her seat backward and ran off the balcony, fighting her way through the crowd at the bar. Panic, the guilt’s hellhound, seized her. She stumbled through the crowd, looking for the exit. Lost. Decimated by panic and guilt, a freak show of hysterical laughter and leering faces pressing in on her, she sought the nearest corner and folded herself into it.

You’ll just ruin him like you did Elliot.

“Heidi?” His hand rested on her arm and she recoiled.

“No.” She fought against his touch

“What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing,” she sobbed. “It’s me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I lied to you.”

“About what? Hey, sweetheart.” He tried to push the hair out of her face. “Stop crying.”

Heidi caught sight of the exit through her tears and pushing past JayDee she ran, only stopping when she reached the footpath.

“Heidi, stop! Talk to me! HEIDI!” He caught her arm and stopped her from crossing the road. “I’m sorry if I came on too fast.”

“I thought I could do this. I wanted to so badly, but I can’t.” She couldn’t even look at him, staring instead at the initials drawn in the concrete. “I need to go get Joel.” She shook his hand free. “Alone.”

“But—”

“You need to forget me, JayDee. Don’t come to the van. Don’t come to us at the beach.”

“Heidi! ” He ran across the road after her. “Stop, please!”

She turned. “I lied to you JayDee. I’m still married.”

“But I thought—”

“I know. And I let you.”

She walked away, tears blurring the way ahead, wishing someone other than JayDee’s parents were caring for Joel.

* * *

Heidi dropped the bags beside the annex door and went back inside for her keys and the esky.

“Why do you need keys?”

“We’re going to a different beach today,” she said. “Point Roadknight. Awesome boats and rock pools. It’s Poppy’s favourite beach.”

“Will JayDee be there too?”

She passed him the keys. “How about you pop the boot and put the bags in?”

“Sure, Mum.” It felt like a stab, the way he said ‘sure’. So like JayDee.

Heidi heard voices at the car and went out.

“Look Mum, it’s JayDee and Granddad Keith,” Joel said, his face bright and excited.

“He’s not your Granddad,” Heidi said, walking between Joel and JayDee, keeping her back to Joel and lowering her voice. “I thought I made it pretty clear last night I didn’t want to see you again.”

Joel looked up at her, confused. “Mum?”

“C’mon sport. JayDee tells me you’re pretty good on the bouncing cushion,” said Keith.  “Wanna show me?”

Joel looked to her and she looked to Keith and nodded. She’d do anything to save Joel from a bitter scene.

JayDee waited until they walked out of earshot before he spoke. “Joel told the old man his Dad was sad and got sick and had to live in a hospital.” His eyes bored into hers. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Heidi swallowed hard, wanting to keep her composure. There was no recrimination in JayDee’s voice, but the idea of talking about Elliot undid her. She’d already cried an ocean of tears for Elliot, for Joel, for everything lost.

“Elliot’s been in a coma for six months. He couldn’t even get killing himself right.” The venom in the words surprised her. More chow for the guilt demons.

“I’m sorry Heidi. So sorry.”

“So am I.”

She walked back into the annex and sat in the doorway of the caravan.

“The Doctors have given me until the end of January. Then they’re turning off his life support. But they can’t do it without my signature. My parents suggested Joel and I come away, have a break before we had to go through… what’s next.” She put her head in her hands. “I just want to be released. But I don’t want to kill him.”

JayDee knelt on the ground in front of her and she looked up.

“I kissed him goodbye that morning, so relieved he looked focused and together for the first time in months. So bloody happy he’d finally got his act together.”

Heidi started crying. “A security guard found him unconscious in the carpark of the local shopping centre. He’d diverted the exhaust inside. I told him once, when I wasn’t coping, if he was going to kill himself, not to do it at home. Oh God…”

She cried until her chest seized and the air caught at the base her throat, and she thought asphyxiation would take her too.

“Breathe,” JayDee said, holding her tight, rubbing her back. “You’re not going to choke. Breathe.”

When Heidi calmed, JayDee boiled the jug and they sat at the tiny table staring at an open packet of Mint Slices and the floral mugs. He reached across and took her trembling hand.

“I don’t want anything from you Heidi, that you’re not willing to give. And I’ve got your back for however long you need me there.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been going nowhere since Ruth died,” he cleared his throat. “And if you decide, that you don’t want us to be friends, well, we’ll always have Anglesea. And I’ll always be grateful for that.” (2489 words)

THE READERS’ CHOICE VOTING OPENS MONDAY MORNING 10AM (AEST)

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Thanks go to my the writing partner who wields the sharpest editing blade in the South, Ms Laura Meyer. Tip of the hat to Adam Byatt who came along with his virtual pom poms and the one-handed, multi-tasking, proof reading-extraordinaire, Stacey Larner, who weeded out the last of the mistakes.