At the Movies with Anna & Stephanie

ImageMy big sister was born on a Wednesday; the kind of Wednesday that meant she’d be full of woe the rest of her life. We had that poem on a square biscuit tin and we’d always pay Anna out about it, ourselves being fair of face, workin’ hard for a livin’, bonny, blithe, good and gay and all that jazz. Anna responded the way she always did; that is to say, she didn’t really respond. She was a weird kid.

But I wanted to be exactly like her. When Anna decided she hated having her picture taken for anything, I suddenly hated having my picture taken (even though I capital L-, bold, underlined, italicised –o-v-e-d it, but Anna was my tastemaker, my barometer of acceptable and cool. So when we go to the movies, and I laugh at something I think is funny, I look around to see if she’s laughing too. Only, she never is. There might be a flick of a smile and then it’s gone, Anna’s face a silent, severe, respectful mask.

One time a large group of us went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and there was a crowd of rude teenagers being themselves: chatting, yelling out, throwing popcorn at each other. There were so many ‘tuts’ and ‘tsks’ it was like being surrounded by geckos, but no one said anything. No one but Anna. People don’t often ignore Anna when she speaks; she does so with such conviction it will make anyone think twice. She’ll turn it on her family too, when we’re at the movies together, laughing our assortment of laughs, and there will be Anna at the end of the row, serious and watchful, and she’ll lean towards us, a fierce ‘sh’ at her lips, and mum will dramatically act abashed and dad will smile and I’ll roll my eyes; Em will be too busy asking if the movie is a true story or not and Claire won’t even hear because she’s laughing her head off at the screen.

‘Well’, Anna says reasonably afterwards when we all give her shit for it, ‘people pay to see the movie. We need to respect that.’

Have I mentioned she’s an actress?

Once, just Anna and I went to see the last Lord of the Rings together, the last real trilogy, before someone in Hollywood decided that the 3rd film in any trilogy needed to be split into 2 films. Bye bye trilogy, hello quin…tilogy? tology? tuplet?

I remember crying when Frodo is hanging off the ledge in Mount Doom as the world explodes around them, and he gets that look in his eyes that says he’s just so tired, the ring is gone and won’t it all just be so much easier to let go? I was smooshed into my seat, hunched to protect myself, whispering ‘don’t you dare’.

I couldn’t look at Anna. I was too afraid she’d think I was ridiculous, that this moment would be taken from me, that my tears would be downgraded somehow by the lack of her own.

As the credits rolled and ‘On the Horizon’ began playing right after Sam closes his front door, Anna at that moment turned to me.

Her face was streaming wet, her eyes red, and more tears fell as she spoke.

‘That movie,’ she choked, ‘shat all over the other two.’

CALLING ALL EDITORS

Image

I have a short story I’m about to send in to a competition – 1000 words max.

Would anyone be able to help out with offering their thoughts on the story?

For those interested, the competition is for Yen Magazine, and must feature a suitcase. The details are here. Entries close August 15th – get writing!

Steph x

Week Twenty-Three Prompt: The weak force

                                                                    Off the Beaten Track

   

“Hiking?” Jason’s eyebrows raise as he takes in Hannah’s fretful expression. She is standing before them, laden with an enormous backpack and looking very, very sorry for herself. 
“He’s taking you hiking on a date? That’s no way to get into a chick’s pants.”
Hannah nods miserably, apparently unconcerned that she has barrelled uninvited into Jason and Tracey’s Sunday morning breakfast at Salt. She groans, sets her bag on the floor and sits down next to Tracey who is trying unsuccessfully to hide her laughter.
“I know, I know,” Hannah says, covering her face in her hands. “I don’t even know why I agreed to it.”
Tracey coughs.
“Yes, alright, shut up, I know why I agreed to it,” Hannah snaps. “Because I’m weak and he has this weird kind of force-field surrounding him that makes me forget myself, but it was stupid.” Hannah slumps over the table with a bang, hair falling over her face as she whimpers.
“It gets worse,” Tracey adds gleefully. 
“Worse? What could be worse?” Jason laughs down at Hannah, who now has her head pillowed in her arms on the table, bemoaning Bonds T-shirts and Those Who Wear Them.
“Bonds T-shirts?” Jason asks curiously.
“It’s the lycra.” Tracey explains, waving an airy hand. “It adds – What was it?”
There is an embarrassed silence from Hannah, then, in a small voice, “clingy zing.”
“That’s it,” Tracey winks at Jason. “I’d forgotten.”
“Don’t forget the slight puffing effect around the biceps due to the ribbed edge of the sleeve cuff,” Hannah says from the table, turning her head so she can speak. “Keep up, Trace.”
“Well, that goes without saying,” Tracey nods seriously. “Go on Hannah; tell Jas what else you did.”
Hannah emerges out from under her hair. “I told him I’d been before.”
"Oh," Jason says. "Well that's not that ba-"
“Not just that you’d been before,” Tracey snorts around another forkful of bacon and eggs and Hannah glares at her.
“I told Troy that I go every month with my family, that we love it and that I can’t get enough of nature and being outdoors and – it is not funny Jason!”
“Sorry Han, it’s just that you’re not the most outdoorsy person I’ve ever met."
“I’ll be alright though, won’t I?” Hannah stares at them both, worry etched across her features. “I mean, I’ve brought lots of books and things with me,” she trails off, leaning over to search through the backpack. Tracey coughs slightly. 
“Of course you will. Won’t she Trace? You’ll be fine, totally fine. I mean, granted, the one time we went hiking was a complete disaster because I got heatstroke and Trace had a fit over the state of the toilets along the trail-”, Jason breaks off and looks across to see Tracey frantically shaking her head at him.
Hannah is staring at him suspiciously. “Toilets?"
Jason pretends not to hear, looking vaguely around the cafe as though searching for someone.
"What is wrong with the toilets on a hiking trail Jason?” Hannah demands fiercely, brandishing the book (Born Survivor by Bear Grylls) she has taken out of her bag.
Jason closes his mouth and turns his head upwards, eyes searching the ceiling for divine inspiration. 
“Um, they’re sort of. Well, you know. It’s like.”
“Just tell her,” Tracey interrupts. “It will be better if she knows.”
"Knows?" Hannah's voice is very high. "Knows what, exactly?"
Jason takes a deep breath. “The toilets are…well, they’re called ‘long drops’.”
“Long drops?” Hannah whispers, eyes glued to Jason’s face, brows furrowed. “But what does that even-” She pauses, a look of appalled comprehension dawning on her face. “Is that,” she begins uncertainly.
“Exactly what it sounds like? I’m afraid so.” Tracey pats her arm sympathetically as Hannah whimpers.
“Never mind darling. Just pinch your nose. Can I have a look at what else you’re taking?”
Hannah nods vaguely, wordlessly mouthing something that looks like long drops while staring into space looking slightly green. Tracey begins rifling through the bag, humming to herself.
“Oh awesome hiking pants!” She pulls them out, inspecting them. “But,” her brows contract. “Didn’t you just buy these?”
Hannah starts and looks at her. “What? Oh. Yes. Why? Is there-” she breaks off suddenly and lunges for the pants, cheeks colouring. “Never mind that, it’s just-”
“Hannah,” Tracey squints, “is that…Did you rub dirt on them?”
Hannah is a furious shade of red now and Tracey is laughing, shaking her head. “I cannot believe you.”
“I had to make it look as though I’d been before, didn’t I? So I couldn’t very well turn up with a pair of pants that looked new,” Hannah reasoned. “And I’ll take those, thank you, I have to go get changed. He’ll be here in a minute.” 
Standing up and sniffing haughtily, Hannah turns to make her way to the toilets and Tracey mumbles under her breath that she had better make the trip count and Jason cracks up again while shovelling eggs into his face. Tracey talks about how weird it is that Hannah is going out with Troy Adams, heartthrob, personal trainer, and darling of the English department to boot, so perhaps it is not so very shocking that Hannah likes him after all. She pretended for months that she didn't, huffing that 'he might be good looking and all, but he's a complete idiot,' until she started speaking to him during her more and more frequent trips to the gym that had nothing to do with the way he looked in those bloody t-shirts, thank you very much, and found that he was as anally retentive as she was when it came to her coursework, and, well. That was that.
Jason has finished counting the freckles on Tracey’s nose when he realises Tracey has fallen silent. She is staring towards the front of the cafe with an expression on her face that Jason doesn’t like to see directed at anyone but him.
He turns and nearly swallows his fork, because Troy Adams is standing in the doorway. He is wearing a white Bonds T-shirt which seems to hug his torso in all the right places, contrasting perfectly with his tanned skin as he glances around the cafe with a thousand-yard stare. 
Jason dislodges his fork from his mouth and stares. He can't help but notice that Troy is, emphatically, a Very Good Looking Man, even though, and he wants to be absolutely clear about this, Jason is straight. However, this doesn’t seem to stop words like ‘rippling muscles’ running through his mind, and he finally understands exactly why Tracey giggles every time his name is mentioned and why Hannah, the most sensible person he knows, is reduced to the sort of incoherent babbling mess who ruins new pairs of trousers and agrees to go on hikes. Troy is, Jason thinks, the sort of man that makes you want to renew your gym membership.
Across the table, Tracey is suddenly very aware of her tongue and she jumps as she feels Hannah touch her on the shoulder. 
“I'm back! And, oh- bloody buggering hell, he’s here and oh. That’d be right,” Hannah mumbles savagely. “He’s wearing one of those bloody shirts.”
Troy’s face breaks into a smile as he sees Hannah and he strolls over. Hannah pastes on a bright grin and says, too cheerfully, “Well Hi! And how are you!” The exclamation marks are clearly audible and Hannah hates herself because she sounds like a pre-school teacher.
“I’m fine thanks. You look nice.” His deep voice practically caresses the air and Hannah blushes and tuts, playing idly with her hair. Beside her, Tracey swoons and Jason glares and Hannah hates them but is glad they are there because this way, she thinks, there will be someone around to witness her last words before she dies of embarrassment.
“Well! Enough lollygagging!” What? She thinks desperately, but there is no stopping herself now. “Let’s get a move on or we’ll miss the astronomical noon!” Whatwhat
Tracey is muttering ‘ohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod’ under her breath and Jason is staring at Hannah as though he has never seen her before.
Troy, on the other hand, is looking at Hannah as though he thinks she's adorable and says, “Of course, sure, we can’t miss that," as though it is completely normal to talk about astronomical noons somewhere other than a Conference for the Very Boring. 
"So let’s get going then,” Troy says, and he takes Hannah by the hand and leads her away and Jason and Tracey both let out a breath they don’t know they’ve been holding.
They sit there in shell-shocked silence for a minute, until Jason clears his throat. “I’ve been thinking.” 
Tracey looks at him curiously.
“I should get one of those t-shirts.”
Tracey agrees.
*
Without the t-shirts, she thinks, she would have been safe. She would have been sitting safe in her English Lit class, content with her un-tanned lot in life, not knowing or even caring that there were people out there who did this sort of thing for fun, the idiots, but now she is here, trudging through the scrub, sweat pouring down her face and arms and back, going through this hell and it is all because of stupid-face Troy Adams and his stupid, stupid t-shirts.
Well, if she is honest with herself, it is also because of his back. And his arms. And his bum. There had been a reason she had suggested that he walk ahead of her in the first place. There had been plenty of occasions where lunging over rocks had been rendered necessary and these moments almost (almost) made up for everything else.
Troy stops in front of her and Hannah, who hasn’t been paying attention, smacks into him. For a second it is okay because she is pressed against him and that could never be a bad thing but then she feels herself falling backwards, arms flailing uselessly in front and heavy pack pulling her into weightlessness for a moment, teetering until she gives; then she is tumbling over and over down the mountain when she falls against something, hard, and cries out as a sharp pain splits through her foot. She can hear Troy yelling her name and suddenly he is beside her and, oh my God, she is crying and she tries to hide her face in her arm but realises she can’t because her arm is stuck under her stupid, stupid backpack.
“Hannah, are you okay? Where does it hurt, what’s wrong?” Troy’s deep voice is filled with worry as he lifts the backpack gently from her shoulders and this only makes Hannah feel worse. She can’t stop crying and then she feels herself go weak and she has no control over her mouth, which is exactly how she found herself in this position in the first place and she really just needs to calm down, but-
“I don’t even like the outdoors,” Hannah wails pathetically. “It makes me itch and I’ve never even been on a hike before, I only said that because you’re so into this sort of stuff and all, ‘Mr Fit Man works-at-the-gym-gets-up-at-5am-to-do-yoga-before-making-your-own-chai-tea,’” but Troy has cut her off with his laughter and Hannah huffs angrily, “Will people just stop laughing at me today?
He calms down enough to squeeze out three, beautiful, exquisite words which make Hannah forget all about the pain in her ankle and the fact that she feels sticky and dirty and her nose is blotchy and her eyes are red and her face is shiny with sweat.
 “I hate hiking.”
Hannah blinks. “You what?”
“I hate it,” Troy shrugs. “I only suggested it because you’re always at the gym and then when I suggested it you seemed so excited that I thought, crap, well I’d better do it then, and I,” he hesitates for a moment, something that might be a blush creeping up on his cheeks but he ploughs resolutely on. “I went and bought myself a pair of hiking boots and frayed the laces with a pair of scissors so that you would think I did this sort of thing all the time."
Hannah starts laughing then, because they are both so stupid and she manages to gasp out, "You are such an idiot," followed by, "Can we please get out of here?" and Troy joins in, grinning at her, a bit sheepish. She grins back and thinks how stupid they must look, sitting there grinning at each other like a pair of idiots (which we are, she reminds herself) but she decides she doesn't care. The sun beats down and the smell of the grass is all around them while something new fizzles and shifts in the heat between them. Hannah’s not sure whether it’s the force field surrounding Troy that causes her breath to catch as he leans in with a serious look on his face, and she feels like a weak swooning heroine from one of the 'special' books her mum hid from her as a kid.
“Does this mean that you aren’t interested in seeing the astronomical noon?” He asks in a low voice, tucking a stray curl behind Hannah’s ear. She can feel her cheeks heating up as she places her arms around his neck.
“Troy,” she says solemnly, “I don’t even know what the astronomical noon is.”
“Thank God for that,” Troy laughs quietly as he covers her mouth with his, and Hannah thinks it is the best date she has ever been on.

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Week Twenty-Two Prompt: Bridge

Gremlins

We ride bikes over bridges. There are hundreds here, spread all over Osaka like some gigantic game of pick-up-sticks. We ride bikes because Alex isn’t allowed to drive or even get in a car for the next year. They ride bikes to work, riding straight on to the ferry then off again, then onto the train and off again, and I can't keep up. Alex and her friends laugh between themselves, calling out to one another, “The artist will not risk any harm, accidental or otherwise, to his or her body, while contracted to the company.” I don’t get the joke, the awkward younger sister playing catch-up tag-along with Alex and her friends. She explains over her shoulder. 

“We’re not allowed, but when we’re drunk we take taxis, and one night Chantelle wouldn’t stop repeating our contract, over and over, and I guess-” she sees my face falling. It’s not that funny.

“You had to be there,” Alex finishes lamely and I nod, uncertain. 

I’ve come here to help Alex, but she doesn’t want help. She wants to ignore it and I’m on ice around her, trying not to slip. So I nod and we ride, and there’s nothing between us but the wind in our hair and the whistling hum of bike wheels over bridges.

*

“Suit work is hard,” Alex tells me. 

“Suit work?” I’m distracted by the night parade spinning past, screaming at me that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Normally, for my family, it would be, but since that phone call, the one that changed everything, Alex has been ignoring us. So now I’m here, watching the night parade and Alex is beside me because she has the day off and wants to talk about suit work which she's never done but her friends have.  Suit work, when you have to dress up as Shrek or Bugs Bunny and spend hours standing around, every movement bigger than life, your face melting under the heat and the claustrophobic giant head over yours. Real important stuff.

Not as important as the answering machine telling you your sister needs to begin treatment for a cancer no one knew she had. Not as important as the scrambled panic to dial the buttons to call Alex to give her the news. She was only home for a week, and went to the doctor for a check up and then flew back to Japan to be an entertainer for another year, forgetting to wait around for the results, assuming she was fine. I hear the click that means she has hung up on me, and that click tells me she needs me. 

So I pack my bags, and while I’m packing I remember something from our childhood, something Alex was never seen without, something that lies forgotten in a closet somewhere. I pull him out, a bit dusty but still grinning. Gizmo, the Gremlin. We went on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld when we were little, screaming and clutching each other. Alex made me go on another seven times. Dad bought Alex the Gizmo toy and she dragged him with her everywhere she went; school, parties, bed. I hold him close now and breathe him in; he smells of childhood and is so tied up with Alex as a little girl that I start to cry. 

But now I’m here and I’m not crying but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to talk about how hard suit work is, because she can’t admit to herself that she’s very, very sick. 

*

I lie on the floor of her tiny studio apartment; the one they give the entertainers who work for the company. Free from rent and space, the bathroom is in the kitchen and I’m on a mattress three feet from the front door, next to the toilet closet. Alex is on her bed and I’m dozing off when I hear her gasp. She sits up and I swear I can hear her heart pounding, or maybe it’s mine but I’m up on the bed next to her. She is struggling to breathe and I take her pulse. Her heart is racing and she looks at me with something like fear in her eyes. I reach into my suitcase and rifle through. My hand catches on an ear and I pull Gizmo out. Her tears fall like hailstones and her gulps are loud in my ears as we cling to each other on her tiny bed. 

“We’ll get through this. We have to.”

She holds me tighter and I know what she’s saying; that she’s not ready yet, that she’s glad I’m here, that she doesn’t want to leave but she will come home soon. That she can’t believe her younger sister is taking care of her. That she wants to say thank you, but can’t find the words. 

I find them for her, and I whisper to her in the dark. Words of encouragement sink into the night around us, wrapping her up in my hope for her future. You will be okay, you will get better, you will fight this and you will survive. Slowly, her breaths come easier. 

*

We wake, wrapped around each other, necks stiff and knees creaking. My eyes are puffy and I blink them open. I must have cried at some point and I feel like a wet rag wrung out, left to dry in a heap on the bathroom floor. Alex is next to me, eyes still shut, hands curled around Gizmo, so much younger than her 26 years. The street noises far below drift up to us like smoke signals. Start your day, get moving. 

She stirs, then clears her throat.

“Wait here.”

*

Alex is gone for over an hour, and I stare out the window in her apartment. I see the smoke stacks, the buildings, the cars, the bridges, stretched out over the city, people like ants from up here, crawling aimlessly. I wonder how many other people out there are sick, how many are crying, sleeping, laughing, eating. At times like this, I imagine there is a plan for us all; that we can’t all be here for nothing, that all the suffering has a point. I imagine the world is better than it is. Then I stop, because if I don’t I’ll go crazy and I do know the world also has a lot of good in it, and there’s a knock at the door and Alex’s friends are looking for her and they see that something is wrong and they wait with me. 

They stream America’s Got Talent on Alex’s laptop; one of their friends back home is going to be in it and they want to cheer them on. I’m sitting in the corner of Alex’s room, waiting for her, hugging Gizmo to my chest. One of Alex’s friends teases me about Gizmo, and another one tells me one of the judges was the voice of Gizmo in the Gremlins movies. 

Their voices mingle around me and I lose track of the conversation. They cheer for their friend, but I can’t; I don’t know this person, I don’t even really know these people, but I am grateful they are here and that they seem to care about Alex. 

She comes in and stops short at the sight of us gathered in her room. They mute the computer, and I can’t look at Alex so I stare at America’s Got Talent; watch fire twirlers glinting in the stage lights and I think for a moment I’d give anything to be one of them instead, away from this tiny room. Alex crosses over to me and snaps the laptop shut. My neck cricks as I look up at her. 

“I’ve just been to talk to the director. I’m going home,” she says to the room at large, but she’s looking right at me and suddenly I am five and I am on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld.  I am lost and scared and screaming and wanting to run from the Gremlins which have taken over and then out of nowhere I feel a hand over mine; I open my eyes and see it is her hand, and I look at her, teary-eyed and she is shrieking too. She squeezes my hand. It is her way of telling me that she’s here with me, that it’s okay to be scared, that we don’t have to face the Gremlins alone.

This has been an intersection with the ever lovely . I wanted our team name to be whipgig, but she just looked at me funny

Week Twenty-One Prompt: The straw that stirs the drink.

Geoffrey looks a little like Karl Lagerfeld, minus the rings and the camp. I know his name is Geoffrey because I sneak a peek at his boarding pass as I stash my bag in the overhead bin. My friend plunks herself in the window seat, insists I take the middle, and she pulls down her eye mask, pops in her ear plugs and there is no hope for me. Geoffrey and I sit on the plane next to each other, perfect strangers confined in a petri dish for the next 16 hours. I tell him where we’re going. He nods as I list off the usual hot spots, but his eyes light up as I mention his home.  

           
            I’ve lived there for 20 years, he tells me.

            I spent three days there once. Does that count?

            It’s not enough.

            I know, I say. That’s why I’m going back.

As the plane touches down, he hands me a vomit bag. Across it he has scrawled bars, restaurants, hotels, sights, hand drawn maps. Two words etched across the top of the paper in messy ink hold my attention.

San Francisco.

*

            I could never live here, she says with a toss of her hair.

She sucks her juice through a straw as she looks across the bay. I hate the way she does it, lifting the straw above the level of the liquid, just enough that the noise disturbs the group of German boys at the next table. I want to snap at her. She knows what she is doing, she knows the best way to stir me after five months of travelling together, but it is getting old.

We have been to Victoria Falls, then Johannesburg, Tokyo, Osaka, Lausanne, Paris, London, New York, Vegas, now, finally, San Fran. Five months away. It feels like the whole world should be changed and my mind is half back home, in my sunlit bedroom, listening to music and cooking dinner, going to work, dropping by my parents house. Five months and the friend I’ve been travelling with isn’t my friend anymore. Conversation has run dry, there are no more words spilling from our mouths. We go some place loud, some place we don’t have to talk and just dance the night away. There have been people we’ve met along the way who have filled in the blanks, but now I’m sick of it.

So I take a breath.

I am silent, taking in the way the light slants off the bay, the faint noise of the Pier 39 seals below us, the beat of this city. I close my eyes, tuning her out. She is saying something about how it is too slow here, the people are too simple, the place is too pretty and it is all just a bit vapid. We pay and leave Eagle Café and I take another breath, watching my feet wind their way through the street, careful not to step on the cracks. There are so many here, spread out over the road like scars. I imagine they are from earthquakes that rumble underneath the city while cats hide behind refrigerators and people sleep on, undisturbed. People who live in an earthquake city aren’t slow or simple, I want to yell at her. So what if it’s pretty and the people are nice? Does that mean it can’t also be taken seriously?

*

We walk down to the water and take a ferry out to Alcatraz. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to. I stand in the tiny cell open to visitors, stare at the four walls and imagine how cold this place would be at night. My not-friend takes photos of herself putting her head through the bars, pulling faces and I look away, a bit ashamed, but she just shrugs and says the men who were in here deserved everything they got.

*

We rent bikes from Dylan’s Bike Store, and we follow the map he marks out for us in highlighter, right before he adjusts the seat heights for us and gives us a number to call if we puncture a tyre and I can’t stop saying thank you because people are so friggin’ nice here.

We ride through Marina and get looks from rich young things spending their money on Union Street underwear, and I stop and stare through the window at the French lace corsets, delicate as butterfly wings. The women who wear these are tall and tanned (and young and lovely) and I want to be them, or be friends with them or I would even settle for standing near them sometimes and smelling their perfume.

We wind through Russian Hill and take in the zig-zagging Lombard Street. I imagine the architects and town planners; and someone slapping their palm onto a table crying, “I’ve got it!” The houses are tiny leaning towers of Pisa and there are eight hairpin turns slashed into the hill and she thinks they were kind of crazy, but I think they were kind of amazing.

We turn onto Valencia and suddenly we are in the Mission. We fly past bars and restaurants and colours, so many colours they blur as we tear down the hill towards the water and then we are at the waterfront. The rest is a haze of shape and shadow until we reach the bridge. We climb off our bikes and look down at the waves crashing against the pillars holding it up. We see the tiny dots of the surfers in full winter body suits, and something comes over me and I speak. She almost listens.

*

I would rather live in New York, she says to me as we stroll through the Farmers Markets looking for cheese.

I shrug and don’t say what I’m thinking, because in total I’ve spent less than eight days of my life here and I know that it’s incredibly weird, but I’m protective of this place the way I am about my family, and I don’t want anybody insulting it.

New York is the younger sister skulking behind a tree; edgy and bright and boiling over with too much of everything. Lost souls are drawn to her bright lights and she burns them out while they don’t even notice.

Las Vegas is the older sister dressed in sequins tap-dancing around the kitchen table. She gets a boob job and a tattoo that says princess just above her butt and she makes no apologies for it.

San Francisco is the middle sister lazing on the couch reading a book, effortlessly stylish in a way that tells others she doesn’t give a shit. She has fights with her parents about global warming and the importance of standing up for gay marriage, and she brakes for animals. She is kind, kind in the way that doesn’t come along too often these days and she feeds the homeless regularly. She can peel an apple in one long strip.

*

We’re in Haight-Ashbury, having been directed there by the hotel, spending so much money there’s no point putting my credit card back in my wallet. Even she has to admit the shopping here is fantastic, and even though we had other plans today we let them slide with a ‘we’ll get to that tomorrow’ as we stare at rack after rack of clothes, shoes, bags, knick knacks.

It’s a shame that it’s winter and I’m wearing so many layers because much valuable shopping time is lost peeling leggings and stockings and thermals on and off again. I’m in a frenzy, ripping things I don’t need from shelves and saying, “I’ll take it,” and I feel sick at the amount I have spent, but this place is getting to me and I need to take a small part of it home as proof.

I will keep these things in my closet until someone I trust comes over for tea. I will wait for a lull in the conversation, then I will take the things out of my closet, shyly offering them one by one to the person I trust. I will show them the vomit bag Geoffrey gave me, carefully kept for all those months. I will show them photos of me on the cable cars. I will make them touch the fabric of the clothes and trust in the power of osmosis to explain for me the unsettling pit in my stomach; one which tells me that I feel at home here in a way that startles me out of my old skin. I could carve out a life here, here in this pretty earthquake city with the vapid slow simple people. I could hang out in the Castro and make gay friends and I could run down by the waterfront, only eating organic veggies I buy from the farmers market. I could be a kind stranger on a plane dispensing advice to young girls about my home and I could take my mum and dad out to Alcatraz when they visit, and they wouldn’t stick their heads through the bars. I could ride my bike over the bridge, pausing at the top to watch the fog roll through the bay, freezing my hair into slick tendrils that stick to my skin. I could leave my sunlit bedroom behind and settle into this city by the sea, and I could get a cat that would hide behind my refrigerator as I sleep undisturbed in my San Francisco bed.

I could.

This has been an intersection with the very lovely . Many thanks go to her for being so inspiring, and also to , for her insight on how to make this not suck. 

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Week Twenty Prompt: Open Topic

After-Haze

Rachael wanted to know. She couldn’t help herself. She needed to know if it had really happened. She needed to know how it had happened; not just in the vague ‘some sort of accident’ way. She was filled with a perverse desire to know exactly what had gone on in the seconds, minutes, hours before and what had happened immediately after. When exactly had his heart stopped pumping, his blood stopped running and his body stopped breathing? What he had said, how it had smelled – was he even really gone? Because it couldn’t – it just sounded stupid.

She had gone to Dan’s hospital room at some point during the night, or it might have been the day; who could tell anymore? Who even cared? She didn’t want to hold her mother in her arms or watch her dad’s resolve crumble. She didn’t want to see anyone else’s heart break. She was sick of being hugged, sick of being cried over and sick of being sick to her stomach at the thought of what might have happened to Rob. So she had left, her footsteps squeaking dimly on the shiny linoleum, the clamour of the emergency department fading slowly as she made her way up the long hallway. She thought she might have brushed up against a shoulder and mumbled an apology in the elevator but she wasn’t sure. Her ears were filled with a quiet beeping and buzzing; it might have been the machines or it might have been entirely in her head. She didn’t really know. She just knew she wanted to talk to Dan. Dan, who had been getting a lift home from the party with Rob, who wasn’t a part of their family (although he was, really); Dan, who was her sort-of boyfriend and who was alive. The door to Dan’s room had been left open and she slipped through, leaving the confusion and noise of the ward behind her. She stood for a moment, letting the quiet of the room settle like dust around her, falling silently to the carpet beneath her feet.

She had thought she needed to think, but up here in this stillness her thoughts made no sense. Up here, she felt like the only living person left in the world. Everything was hazy. The blues and whites of the room dimmed around her and she was vaguely aware of feeling cold but Rob might be gone forever and so it didn’t matter. That was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. That he could go from existing to just not all of a sudden. She squeezed her eyes shut and heard Rob’s laugh fade as a car swerved into oncoming traffic. There would have been the squealing of tyres and a panicked turning of the wheel and the sudden, sickening crunch of metal on metal and then…nothing. Rob had just…gone, as though on some kind of trip, but not the kind you could check his facebook for updates on. Her heart stopped as she realised Rob might never again update his facebook, and then she laughed, because her mum’s voice in her head was saying, “honestly Rachael, what a thing to think of at a time like this!”

She had to make sure, though, absolutely sure that there hadn’t been some terrible mistake; that she wouldn’t wake tomorrow to find that this had all been a dream. She knew it had happened, but, what if?

Her brothers were okay. Physically, they were okay, but she didn’t think she could ask them for the proof she needed. She couldn’t ask Justin, because he had made a stupid joke to lighten the mood, but it had left a bitter taste in her mouth and Rachael had turned away. She couldn’t ask Steve because he was Rob’s twin and how unfair was that and she wasn’t even sure he could hear her, anyway. She wasn’t even sure she could hear herself; and seventeen year old girls never have a problem hearing themselves.  

Dan had been asleep when she entered the room, curled on his side amongst the blur of white on white. For a moment she didn’t want to disturb him, but then he was stirring and stretching and sleepily blinking his eyes open. He tensed as he saw her there and shifted in the bed; a movement that seemed to say, “I’m here” and he sighed, once, and held out his arms as if to say, “I’m so sorry”.

Rachael nodded, finally, and (because Dan was alive and he owed her this at least) asked him if her brother was dead.

He was.

*

Justin’s girlfriend Lisa comes into the kitchen, arms full of books and face full of tired. She searches Dan out and finds him sitting on the counter next to the stove.

“I was up all night trying to find something that would help me to verbalise it. I went through poems and verses and articles.” She sets the books down on the table with a heavy thud. “I found some. They might help.”

Dan sees that she is trying, that she hates feeling impotent and can’t stand the idea of not being able to solve a problem. He sees that books and words have always been able to give her solace, but –

“But nothing seems to fit,” she says. “They’re not-”

“Enough,” says Dan.

“Yeah.”

They stand there in the kitchen together not saying anything, because they are both a part of this and outside of it and they don’t know what to do.

*

It’s the third night after the accident, and Rachael and Dan are sharing her single white bed. Normally this wouldn’t be allowed but normal is a place so very far away from right here that everyone just sort of turns a blind eye. A part of Rachael feels as though she is taking advantage of this situation, but she has locked that part up somewhere very small and out of the way (maybe behind her left knee), because right now she needs him.  

She is lying with her head pillowed on his chest. In the silence, she can hear his heart beating and without warning the tears come, slowly at first but then in earnest, until she is gasping and shaking in his arms. He holds her and she is curled against his chest, all arms and hands and awkward elbows pressed between their bodies. She taps the place where she can feel the beat and says, “It’s your heartbeat. You have one.”

Dan groans and pulls her closer and mumbles something into her hair; something that might be “I love you” but all that matters to Rachael is the solid press of him against her. She thinks that might be enough for her to get to sleep tonight.

*

Sometimes Rachael gets so angry she can't stop shaking. It happens at stupid things, like when people tell her to stay strong, or when the florist asks her if she minds waiting till she has finished serving someone else. An unreasonable surge of fury will course through her, scaring her a little bit because she has never been a really angry person before, but now she feels like yelling at everyone, at everything. Yelling things like, “Are you serious, you dickhead? Don't you know that my brother just died?” She doesn't think she should have to wait to talk about the flowers for the funeral; she in fact shouldn't be organising a funeral at all because Rob should be here with her instead, chatting the assistant up while winking at Rachael as she rolls her eyes at him and the whole thing is ugly; so ugly it hurts.  She can't believe she uses Rob's death as an excuse for being a bitch but she can't stop and the worst part is that she doesn't really want to.

*

Rachael has a lot of time to think, because no one is saying anything, except by accident. And so she thinks.

She thinks it's funny that she spent her entire year thinking about Dan because her world had become about him, but Dan is here and her brother isn't and isn't that ironic? She could have been spending every last second with Rob instead; maybe then she wouldn't be left with this horrible pit in her stomach that told her she wasn't a good enough sister; that she should have tried harder, been better, somehow.

She thinks that the funny thing about her brother dying is that she doesn’t die too; her body still needs to eat and pee. Rachael sees the looks on people’s faces; the understanding glances passing between friends and hates that they are thinking it is a good sign that she is showering.

Rachael wonders about these things that make up a person; these hearts, these veins, these lungs encased in skin. She has always known that skin can be touched and tasted, that it can shiver and grow and breathe, but she has learnt that it can tear and bruise and bleed; that it can be ripped from your body and that there is nothing you can do about it. She has learnt that really, it isn't that hard to die and she hates how fragile people are; hates that Rob wasn't (as it turns out) ten feet tall and bulletproof. 

Then there is Dan, Rachael thinks. Dan, who has never had a family (except for hers, when her mum insisted he stay with them rather than his dropkick parents), Dan, who knows loss better than almost anyone, but he doesn’t get it, not really. He doesn’t get the fact that there is one less person in her world; one less person who will nag her and call her names and stick up for her virtue and make her laugh and make her cry until she laughs again. One less person who she loved who loved her back.

*

It is a week before Rachael smiles. This happens on the same day that she has put on make up since it happened. It is also, incidentally, the day of the funeral and she is upstairs, leaning against her bedroom door, trying to breathe.

She hears Rob’s – no, Steve’s – voice say “Rach”, very softly. She opens the door and Steve is standing there, looking so much like his twin it hurts, the memory of Rob hanging between them like some kind of twisted double vision. Steve is smiling and holding a piece of paper. A ripple of fear runs through her and she thinks he might actually have gone mad, but then he flips the paper over to reveal a diagram scribbled in boyish scrawl. Steve is laughing, saying something about going through Rob’s things and finding a blueprint for a robot from when they were thirteen and stupid and Rachael smiles then, a real smile, and feels the bubble of something strange gurgle inside her. It’s laughter, and even though it’s not that funny, they sink to the floor together, stomachs aching from laughing so much. Gasping for air, Rachael feels like she can breathe again.

*

Dan is in the yard and he looks up as he hears the back door open. Rachael is standing on the veranda, leaning over the railing watching him. Dan pulls a face at her. The ghost of a smile flits across Rachael’s face and then is gone, like a child scurrying home just as dark begins to fall.  Dan wants to grab on to that moment, the moment where he feels powerful, like how you feel when you make a baby laugh. Only thing wrong with feeling that way is the baby will tire of silly faces eventually and will be more interested in sticking its feet into its mouth, and you wind up feeling worse because you know what you are missing out on.

*

Sometimes Rachael walks into a room and stands there for a while, then walks out again because she can't remember what she is doing. She is too busy wondering.

Wondering whether he knew, whether he could see his life as though on a timeline, the ones of your own life you had to draw at school during ‘Personal Development’ lessons. Could he see where the end was marked, hazy and indistinct until those moments; those final, fleeting, forever-moments just before it happened? Did his brain click and slot the last piece of his life into place like a jigsaw puzzle? Rachael hoped not, because Rob had hated jigsaw puzzles; hated the way they always made an entirely different picture from the one you imagined.

*

Rachael walks into the kitchen to find her family (minus one) sitting around the table. Her mum beckons her over and she does something she hasn’t done since she was a little girl and climbs, rather awkwardly, into her mum’s lap, jabbing her in the stomach. Her mum doesn’t mind and Rachael closes her eyes, letting the talk of the others wash over her as she leans into her mum’s chest. She hears her mum’s heart beating a steady thump against her own and she smiles, glad the beat is so strong.

Beside her, Justin is pissing himself over a story Steve is telling about Rob making a dick of himself to impress some girl and her dad keeps interrupting them, shit-stirring them by reminding Steve exactly who it was who had run screaming up the stairs after finding out where he came from and Justin is saying in an imitation baby voice, chin wobbling, “You mean, I wasn’t delivered by a stork?” Rachael isn’t sure whether they are laughing or crying; her mum’s shoulders are shaking so hard that Rachael’s head knocks painfully against them but she doesn’t care because she feels so close to normal and she doesn't want to let that go.

*

Later, she goes up to her room and Dan is there, having snuck in the way he always does these days.  The shadow light filters through the curtains and something stirs within her. She is suddenly right here, in this moment, in a way she hasn’t been in weeks, then she is beside him, under the covers with him and their faces are too close together and they are kissing like kisses are light and they are stuck in the dark, trying to get out.

Afterwards, they lie there cramped on the single mattress and Rachael feels compelled to talk, to say something to reassure Dan that she is getting there, wherever there is.

“I’m trying,” she says to the ceiling.

He rolls toward her, slipping an arm around her waist. An “I know” is mumbled into her back and they are kissing again, and Rachael feels as though each kiss is one stitch back together after being broken open for so long.

*

Justin leaves the next day, saying something about needing to get away and spend some time with Lisa. Rachael doesn't like how lonely he looks as he heads towards his car, shoulders slumped and hands in pockets, kicking idly at the grass pooling around his ankles. 

Steve is spending more and more time at his and Rob’s shop, though it’s really just his now. He is interviewing for a new Assistant Manager and each night when he comes by the house he looks at Rachael's hopeful expression and shakes his head. "Not yet. But there's a guy coming in tomorrow I've got a good feeling about."

Her parents visit the grave everyday before work, and her mum volunteers at the hospital whenever she can.

*

The world-heart beats on, on, on. Water runs through its river-veins, the earth-skin breathes in, out, in. Days spin by and some things (but not everything) are lost in the pain-haze of the then and the now.

Until.

Rachael looks up. Dan’s blue eyes meet her brown ones.

“Hi,” (I’m still here).

She will be okay.

Week Nineteen Prompt: Et tu, Brute?

The House that You (and Jack) Built

I stare up at your house; your beautiful, ridiculous house. I remember when you came to me, eyes shining and cheeks flushed -“We got the land!” and it had been my flippant idea to make a house out of cards. You had stared at me, and I had no idea what I had done until it was done. Cards, paper, strawbale, mudbrick, rammed earth – anything you could get your hands on, you did. You had me over to colour consult; there were taps and light fittings and trips to the tip for "inspiration". Jack would roll his eyes at me behind your head, a private joke, but you went ahead and you made it. You built a life there, a green, vegan, recycled life, you and Jack, Jack and you – it was the house that you and Jack built.

I had thought it would be raining. It’s the kind of thing you expect, for it to be raining when you tear the world apart, but it's Spring and there are birds and a light wind blows my dress against my knees. If I tilt my head to the side and squint, I think I can see your house swaying in the breeze. All it would take is a chip in the right place; a chip that, funnily enough, I'm here to provide. I know what I’m getting into, by doing this. I can hear the things you’ll say in my mind and I know the look you’ll give me. But I want you to hear me. I want you to hear why.

I want you to know that I would never hurt you, except that I did, worse than any friend could hurt any friend, worse than your worst enemy could. I wish I could say I didn’t mean for it to happen, like all those girls in movies do, but I don’t. I was sick of it, sick of your everything and my nothing when for all our lives it was the other way around. You had the problems, I had the answers. But then you went and got your own answers, and I got left behind, so I took yours. I took Jack, that night we went to dinner together but you went home early because you were sick, and there had been a look, and then it was a touch, and then it was me and Jack, Jack and me, and now I’m standing here at your front door working up the guts to ruin your life.

I didn’t mean for Jack to fall in love with me. I didn’t mean to fall in love with Jack. I didn’t mean for it to be anything more than a restoration of the balance of power between friends – between you and me, me and you. Sometimes we would lie in your bed, Jack and me, me and Jack, and suddenly it was my house, my husband, my bamboo cotton sheets we were lying on. Everything Jack and I were and are and can be is built on lies, but when I lie there with him, head on his chest, heartbeat to heartbeat, the world beats away.  The space between us, normally occupied by the memory of you, becomes space no one can touch.

I want you to know that I know you don’t want to hear this; that I know this will make you sick and that I know I’m the person you don’t want to know. I wish this hadn’t happened, except that I don't. I wish Jack didn’t love me, except that I don't. I wish I could tell Jack it’s over between us, maybe even slam a righteous door in his face, except that I don't.  I wish I was the sort of person who had the guts to say this to your face, instead of to your cardboard door. 

But I’m not. Instead, I’m going to knock on your door, and you are going to answer it. You will smile at me, and I will tell you I just dropped by for a visit. You will make us tea. I will pretend that I still have the right to call myself your friend; that there is no Jack and me, me and Jack. I will sit there with you and I will know that when you find out, when your house of cards clatters to the ground around you, you will remember this day, this warm Spring day with the birds and the breeze that blew my dress around my legs; you will remember the look in my eyes and my uncertain smile, and you will hate me more than I hate myself.

I raise my hand to knock on the door of the house that you and Jack built, and I can hear you moving around inside. There is a moment before you answer, a moment when the wind stirs my hair around my face, a moment when I speak to the air before me, words falling to the steps below me, words that tell you, before I see you, I’m sorry.

 would like to make it clear that this is a work of fiction inspired by this week's topic and by a play her sister was in recently, 'All's golden square in love and war'.

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