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 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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Week Seven Prompt: Bupkis

Security saw her as soon as she came in. How could he not? The store was nearly empty; it was just before closing time. She nearly waddled in the way heavily pregnant women do, sizing up the bedroom showcases as though looking at an enemy. Security watched her walk through the displays, running her hands over the bedspreads, opening bedside table drawers, turning lamps on then off. She tried first one bed, then the other. Staff came up to her, wanting to make a quick profit then get her out of there as soon as possible.
 
She wasn’t going anywhere.
 
*
 
It had gone on for two months now. She would toddle in around 10 minutes ‘til close, find a bed towards the back of the store, near to where Security sat in his office, and fall asleep on it until the time came for him to wake her up. He would watch her silently, trying to figure out why she kept coming here. Up close, he could see the shadowy moons under her eyes; he could feel a tiredness that seemed almost overwhelming. It didn’t stop him from noticing she was lovely, and that she wore no wedding ring. She seemed sad and he badly wanted to help her, to alleviate some of her sorrow, but he wasn’t the sort of man who cured the problems of lonely women. He wasn’t handsome, or all that smart. Security was his name – his mother had named him for the gift she said he had given her – and now it was his job. He wasn’t the sort of man who entered a woman’s life in a mysterious and winning way, the way some men seemed to. So he watched her, watched her as she prowled through the aisles, never choosing the same bed twice, largely left alone by the staff now as they’d all become used to the bizarre pregnant lady who fell asleep in their store. He watched her though, and he saw that she held everything close to her chest, as though she had some cards she didn’t want anybody to see.
 
On this day though, things would be different. She had found a bed, near the back of the store and she lay down on it. She felt the cushioning beneath her back, felt the rough threads under her fingers as she traced lazy circles on the duvet. She decided this would be the place where she would spend the next hour. One of the staff members caught Security’s attention from across the store – pointing at the person next to them – a woman in a suit, pointing at the pregnant lady, then miming her own throat being cut. Security recognised the woman in the suit as Comfort Maver, the ironically named area manager who smacked fear into the hearts of several employees with her surprise inspections. Comfort claimed it was to ensure the smooth running of her company, but they knew better. These visits more often than not served to cut staff by at least two in any given store, and no one wanted to lose their job today.
 
Security approached the sleeping woman, tentatively as always. He had been waking her up for two months now, just before he left the store for the night. He would touch her lightly on the shoulder, and she would sit up quickly, dazed and happy, for a brief moment. Then a cloud would come over her and her shoulders would wilt slightly, like a flower who has been in the sun for too long. He would gesture to her to advance toward the doors. She never said anything, just blinked a few times, nodded, and left the store a little before him. He had yet to say a word to her.
 
“Miss? Excuse me, Miss? You need to leave.” The light tap on the shoulder didn’t seem to be working today. She was in a deep sleep. This close he could see the faint purple tracings of the veins on her eyelids, the slightly parted mouth with each breath she took. He felt a quietness come over himself as he watched her, almost as though he was trespassing on some miracle about to happen.
 
Suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and without turning around, he knew. Comfort was there.
 
“What the hell is going on here?”
 
The sleeping lady sat up so quickly she might have been spring-loaded. Comfort’s voice did that to most people. She stretched and yawned, smiling at Comfort. Security nearly melted, and felt a trembling somewhere in his knee region. He had never seen her smile before.
 
Comfort wasn’t impressed.
 
Comfort turned to the staff member anxiously tagging along behind her.
 
“Why the hell was a customer asleep on one of our beds? Do you know how unhygienic that is? Do you realize that we are missing out on a sale right at this moment due to someone else not being allowed to test this mattress? You know the rule – ten seconds to a bed.  And you!” She turned now to face Security, finger pointed as though he was a naughty dog. “I don’t even know why you still work here. Slow and steady doesn’t quite win the race when you’re a security guard.”
 
The pregnant lady stirred, a pained expression coming over her face.
 
“It’s really not their fault, I’m so tired lately I can just sit down anywhere and fall asleep in a second. I’ve barely been here for a minute. I really think that-” Saying this, she had been struggling to stand up. Security hurried to help her, and she flashed him a brief smile. “-you’re being too hard on them”.
 
Comfort’s face turned the colour of the puce bedspread the pregnant lady had just vacated. She opened her mouth, and everyone braced for the onslaught. It never came.
 
“My water just broke,” the pregnant lady gasped.
 
There was an ambulance, there was Comfort screaming for someone to clean the floor, there was staff surrounding the pregnant lady, and there was Security, feeling awkwardly impotent, not knowing whether to fetch towels and pillows from the display racks or to run to his car and leave for home. The ambos were mentioning dilating and cervix and he wanted very much to not have the mental images he was coming up with in his mind right now.
 
Then, a hand. Outstretched towards him. Her hand.
 
“Come with me?” Her tone was hopeful, her eyes were watery, and in the harried frenzy going on around them, this moment was quiet. This moment was theirs. No one could touch it.
 
He didn’t even know her name, but he didn’t need to. In this moment, he was the sort of man who entered women’s lives in mysterious and winning ways. He loved her.
 
*
 
“Nothing? You have a baby girl. 10 fingers, 10 toes, doing beautifully.”
 
Nothing looked up, smiling as the little parcel was handed to her, squirming and pink and so tiny she couldn’t believe it. Security bent down next to her, staring in awe at the miniscule red face, screwed up and messy and so breathtaking he felt like the Grinch who realized the true meaning of Christmas – his heart felt too big for his body.
 
“She’s something isn’t she,” he spoke to Nothing in a voice only she could hear.
 
“She’s something,” Nothing agreed.
 
Security looked at Nothing, and for a moment he saw her as a baby, pictured little Nothing growing up alone, learning to tie her shoes with no one around to place their finger in the middle of the bow, and he saw her having this baby alone, always alone, for that is how he had known her. He vowed that from this day on, Nothing would never be alone again.
 
*
 
Nothing lived with Security for the rest of her life, and they named their daughter Something. They wanted her to know that wherever she was, whomever she might become, she would always remember that something could come from nothing. 

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Week Three Prompt: Coprolite

Palmistry 101

She had always liked her hands. Long, slender. “Artistic”, her mother had called them. She had been able to play the violin at 6 better than most people twice her age. She had never given a second thought to them before, but then again, no one had ever touched her like that before. No one had any reason to. She was pretty, she was smart, she was kind. No one had ever taken her hand and grimaced; shuddering as though she disgusted them; gripping her fingers so tightly that if they’d been her lungs, she’d be dead. Her smile faltered. She drew her hand back slightly, but Cecile clutched it tighter, long nails nearly digging into her soft skin.
 
-How old are you?
 
-Twenty-three.
 
-Too much. There’s too much here for someone so young.  You’re angry.
 
She stiffened, feeling her friends laugh nervously behind her. She smiled over her shoulder at them, flippant, not bothered. She was a duck, this was just water.
 
-So angry. This hand…you’ve been through hell and back.
 
She swallowed then, and this time it was harder to pretend.
 
-I guess. Maybe. Yeah.
 
She had only started this job a few weeks ago and this whole compulsory day of fun had been her bosses’ idea; his way of forging new relationships, or something. She had thought it would be funny, going into the tacky booth decorated with moons and stars. She didn’t believe people could tell her anything she didn’t already knew about herself, but now she was regretting ever setting foot in this too-hot tent. She could feel her friends’ eyes boring into her back; her skin started to heat up under their gaze. She liked the girls, but didn’t know them well enough to spill her life story to them. Hers had been a bit too sad at times and it had made her angry in a way that scared her; in a way that made her ball her hands into fists until her nails drew blood. Cecile looked up at her, satisfied.
 
– I thought so.
 
*
 
At home, she Googled palmistry, wondering whether it was true. If people could really stare into someone’s hand and tell the story of their existence. She read for hours; read the tips from online forums, read Wikipedia entries and translated pages from Chinese to English. She found out that your left hand showed your potential while your right hand depicted your current situation. She stared at her own palm, and after a while she began to see. She saw the islands signifying trauma, the ones Cecile had spoken about. She saw the breaks in the lines, she saw the chains. She looked from her computer to her hand, back and forth, back and forth like some perverted game of tennis; until her eyes become so tired she started seeing spots. She saw the squares that meant protection, and she smiled a little because she thought that maybe that meant her mum was still watching over her, just like she had promised all those years ago in an impersonal hospital room, the goodbyes disrupted by beeping and buzzing and people she didn’t know talking in low voices coming in and out of the room. She saw the stars which stood for crisis spread out over the pinky-white skin like so many constellations, and she started to remember.
 
 
*
 
She was eleven, and she was at the botanical museum. Her schoolmates milled around her while the exhausted teacher tried to take roll call. She wasn’t interested in roll call however, she wasn’t stupid enough to get lost.  She wandered over to the display case nearest her, fingers pressed up against the cool glass. She knew she would leave smudges but she didn’t care today. Today, it was her first day back at school since what everyone kept referring to as ‘the accident’, even though she wished they wouldn’t. She knew what had happened, knew that she wouldn’t see her mum again. She had begged her gran to let her go on the excursion, because she couldn’t ask her dad. Her mum had signed the permission form weeks ago, and she had kept it in her pocket ever since. She kept it next to the lunchbox note from her dad, the one with a smiley face on it, along with a scrawl that said not to trade the sandwich for a packet of chips. Later, when she was older, she would realize that she had kept it as proof; proof that she had been loved; proof that her mum had once been alive, and that her dad had once been whole. Later, she would understand that little girls need an ammo pack to survive and those notes had been hers.
 
She gazed at the cut tree trunk in front of her, staring for so long at its’ rings that the tree started to grow before her, breaking through the case, through the ceiling and into the sky beyond. She gawked up at the tree it would have been. Do you know, she thought, what you will become? She felt sad suddenly, sad that all things die; that they all end up, one way or another, locked in a box somewhere.  
 
Someone near her giggled and she looked up. A group was gathered around a case near her and she hurried to join them.
 
-Cop…ro…lite.
 
They sounded out the word together, cackling when they realized that the lump before them was actually frozen dinosaur poop. Her tiny nose wrinkled and she grinned at her friends as they wondered why anyone would keep something like that in a glass case. One of the boys said that one day their own poop would be in a glass case, and the girls shrieked and ran off, disgusted. She stayed near the case, though, near the boy. He looked at her, and she realized he was completely serious.

*
 
Her boyfriend clicked through the websites one by one, disbelieving, reading at the lightning pace she’s always been jealous of. He finished and smiled at her, shaking his head slightly.
 
-So you believe in this stuff now?
 
She shrugged, non-committal.
 
-Is it really so strange?
 
He sighed, and she knew that she wouldn’t convince him.
 
-It doesn’t matter.
 
She kissed him then as he tucked his arm around her, breathing him in. She played idly with his other hand, turning it over in her own, his palm facing hers. She traced his life line, his fate line, his heart line. She knew his story, but she didn’t need to read his palm to find it out. Her mind wandered to the boy from her primary school, his name might have been Kevin, the weird kid that no one really liked. She knew he had been kind of crazy, and hoped desperately that he wasn’t pooping in a backyard somewhere. Bizarrely, she also thought that he may have had a point. Not about the poop, she smiled to herself, but about how maybe we’re not so different from trees and dinosaurs after all. We breathe, we grow, we change, we live, we die. We all have a story, so why shouldn’t it show up in the lines on our hands? It’s a badge of honour, it’s your proof of life, it’s your dental records, it’s the smoking gun, it's the footprint on the moon, it's the tombstone epitaph, it’s the old bones dug up millions of years later. It’s all just notes from her parents in her ammo pack.
 

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Week One Prompt: When you pray, move your feet.

Stars

At night when I was little, my mum told me that if I wanted to pray, I had to get out of bed, bow my head, clasp my hands together, and kneel. “To show respect”, she would say when I protested. It wouldn’t be proper to just lie there making a lazy sign of the cross, doing it as quickly as possible so that your arms weren't out from under the covers for very long. She would take my hands and help me make the sign until I knew how to do it myself, tiny hands clumsy in their motions but, like wine, improving with age.
 
Dad would tuck me in sometimes, because he didn’t get to see me much otherwise, and he would sit on my bed and fold my hair behind my ears. “May flights of angels sing you to your rest,” he would say. I thought my dad was some kind of poet; I didn’t know he had borrowed the words from Shakespeare, just like I didn’t know that line was really about death. I just loved the images that sprung to mind, images of angels too bright and beautiful to look at, their voices so light you could barely hear them singing you to sleep.
 
When my grandma died and dad spoke at the funeral, he used the line, our line, asking the angels to sing his mum to her eternal rest, and I remember crying so hard I could barely see the rest of the day.
 
As I got older, I would still say my prayers, but to me, praying wasn’t about bending your head and clasping your hands together anymore. Instead, I would open my curtain and stare up at the stars, imagining that I could see it all (life, death, the universe, and everything). I believed that on quiet nights, with nothing above me but the black sky dotted with sacred silver fire, I had a direct line to heaven.
 
“Hello, God? This is me. I just wanted to say hello.”
 
I imagined I had an answer, that somehow the clouds formed words and I could have read them maybe, only I didn’t speak their language.
 
Years later, I spoke those same words at my best friends funeral. That night, something inside me stirred. I sat up, fumbling with the covers that were too heavy all of a sudden, pushing them off me til I felt the chill. I pulled back my curtains, looked up at the sky, and knelt down as a sign of respect. I began to pray. That night, there were no clouds. There was nothing but the sky above me and the soft earth outside my window, milky white in the moonlight. The stars were fuzzy pinpricks of light and I squinted up at them through my tears. Inexplicably, I smiled. There, laid out in the sky in diamonds (just like the bling she’d always loved), was her name.
 
That night, I didn’t need the clouds to give me an answer. I had mine.
 
She was home. 

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