I’m running late and the line at the coffee shop is long. I hang around for a couple of minutes hoping it will speed up but it doesn’t and I have to get out of there. I practically run the rest of the way to work, dodging dawdlers on the street and nearly slamming into a small child, and slide into my desk barely a minute before the boss passes by on her own morning walk from the coffee shop. I glance up and smile at her as though I’ve been sitting there working for an hour already but she doesn’t notice me anyway and the sight of her coffee just makes me jealous.
Once she passes I slouch down in my chair and turn on the computer. It takes forever, even though it seems to be constantly updating itself, so I slink into the kitchen and make myself a mug of inferior brown sludge from the loud machine. The taste makes me gag a little but it does the trick and while it doesn’t erase how late I was up last night it does mask it for now and make that future-me’s problem.
Back at the desk and there’s only about twenty new emails this morning, not too bad. Last time I went on a holiday I got back to nearly two hundred and I wanted to throw the stupid thing out of the window. But twenty I can do. I immediately delete the newsletters and roll my eyes at some requests for information the senders could have easily found out themselves and as I’m down to the last few one catches my attention. I don’t know who it’s from and the subject line is blank but there it is, in the first line. I’d never told anybody that.
Inside of the white house lay a white corridor. Down the white corridor, through several twists to the right and one to the left, there lay a white room. Inside of the white room was another, smaller white house. A doll sized white house. Inside the white dollhouse an exact replica of the corridor and the room itself lay in pristine silence.
Twice per week the white dollhouse was cleaned. Meticulously but with a specific rapidity, the old woman in the white dress polished each floor of the dollhouse until not a speck of dust remained on its shining surfaces. In the rooms not containing the even smaller dollhouse she polished tiny replica mahogany chairs and cherry wood tables and even a tiny replica of herself bent over in the white dress doing just the same to the smaller dollhouse that lay inside. Once, on a particularly dull polishing afternoon, she let her mind wander to the question of whether the tiny version of herself was inside the dollhouse every day or only on the days that she herself entered the larger white house in which the dollhouse lay. On this particular afternoon she polished a teak side table in the tiny replica bedroom to the left so vigorously that one of the tiny legs snapped clean off and she had to balance it very carefully back inside to make sure that no one noticed.
Whether there was anyone to notice she never knew. The house was always empty when she entered and exited and the only communication that someone aside from herself even knew the house existed was the weekly letter she received with her payment. Every so often the paper or penmanship would change, but always the same request: tell no one what you saw here; enter alone.
Three drinks in and Billie was growing louder. She could hear her voice struggling to rise above the music of the overcrowded bar but she didn’t care who else might hear. She certainly wasn’t listening to anyone else outside of her booth and assumed they were the same.
She felt such relief to be out with him and their friends. For so long a lot of things that seemed to come naturally to everyone else had felt like a struggle to her. To hear them all now, finally past their agonising early twenties, laughing about rental agreements and promotions and engagements; it was beginning to seem like she was on the right track.
Her laughs were coming easier and she could feel her whole body leaning into it, her top lip curling back in a way that she knew she found ugly when she saw herself in photographs but also meant she was having such a good time she lost such surface inhibitions. They ordered another round of vodka something-or-rathers and she sank further back into her seat, enjoying listening to her boyfriend talk and watching the others listening intently. There used to be a time when they all talked to hear themselves instead of really listening to each other but she felt the dynamic had shifted. Now, they were genuinely interested in each other’s lives and jobs. Well, not so much jobs anymore but careers. These weren’t the café and bar stories of old but commiserations and congratulations on managers and views and bonuses.
Billie felt settled. Not quite at the peak yet, the parent teacher meetings and weekends interstate of her older colleagues, but no longer a wisp of the person she wanted to be. The bricks of her life were falling into place and creating a home.
Standing at a distance Cal could just make out the thrum of the party through the living room window. He watched the fogged panes grow light and dark as dancing bodies moved past them, a couple stopping to kiss on the windowsill, and the flow of the party inside bursting to the thrum of the music.
He wanted so badly to approach, to be one of the kids inside having fun, trying new things, figuring out who they were, but he couldn’t. For one his older brother would beat the living shit out of him if he spotted him. High school had been easy for Trevor. The social aspects came easy to him in a way Cal struggled so much with, but how could they not when you were six foot with hair down to your shoulders and a licence? Cal was only three years younger but it felt more like a decade, or may as well be. From his first class Cal had felt the expectation his brother had left in the minds of teachers and students alike, and he could physically feel the disappointment they felt when he didn’t live up to his brother’s legacy.
Gawky and not yet quite so tall (he was still hoping for one last spurt) Cal drifted uncomfortably through rooms and interactions. His responses came just a second too late to put anyone at ease in the confident way that Trevor had, and being fifteen and yet to even hold hands with a girl while the rest of his class seemed to be light years ahead romantically, wasn’t exactly helping things.
Cal took a deep breath of the frosty night air and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. He turned to leave, disappointed in himself, but that’s when he heard it.
The mist parted and the ship sailed slowly forwards. Silent but for the creaks of the old wood and the clank of cutlery below deck, it swept through the islands closely. The captain rubbed his eyes, still filled with morning dust, and squinted into the bright gleam of the sunrise in the distance. The water was not so deep in their current location and in its sparkling clear blue waters he watched huge turtles and swarms of playful dolphins swim by. It was growing towards the warmest time of year and all sorts of creatures were headed back into the ocean for their yearly commutes. The captain envied them their steady routines, he had to sail even in the coldest and roughest time of year, no hibernating for him and his crew.
They had been at sea nearly three months and were rounding the isles that their destination lay amongst. The map was rough but well charted and their benefactor had marked clearly the route. They had brought amongst them the only translator they could find to liaise with the people of the seaside village and being a scholarly type the time at sea had not been easy on him. The captain had watched as he had grown queasy once again off the side of the ship yesterday and noted that he must have lost a substantial amount of bodyweight since they had left their first port. He could use it though, he chuckled to himself at the less than flattering thought. These men of letters always romanticised the life at sea and the hard days of burning sun and pulling ropes always shaped them up quickly. While he enjoyed watching them learn, he lamented seeing yet another man losing part of his softness to the harsh and beautiful sea.
Timothy was born on a leap year. On a leap day to be exact, and as such it appeared that from birth something, or someone, had marked him out as special.
The first mark appeared when Timothy was one year old. Staring into his green eyes his mother noticed a small but apparent dot. Being a young first time mother she rushed him to the nurse and made her shine a bright light into his eye to examine the mark further. Assuring her that there was nothing to worry about the nurse sent Timothy and his placated mother home to rest. But it wasn’t long before she noticed yet more marks appearing on her son, this time two in exact symmetry on each of his tiny developing shoulder blades. Not wanting to be an alarmist she let these marks multiple along with the years, but by his fifth birthday she could keep it in no longer. Carrying Timothy on her shoulder she marched him back to the nurse in despair to show her the dozens and dozens of different sized marks all over her son’s body. Like a pox of freckles that had blown out to resemble small dark asterisks marring his small frame.
The nurse examined Timothy and, while perturbed, assured his mother that the marks would do him no harm and once again sent them on their way. But as Timothy grew, so too did his marks.
Entering school the children stayed well away from Timothy. His body marked him as different, something no child wants to be. One day though, the daughter of a local astrologer approached Timothy on the playground and began to examine his marks. Having learned their names from her father, she began to list the names of the constellations that covered Timothy’s body.
I’m walking down the street and I pass an alleyway. I’ve passed many alleyways in this city but for some reason, at this exact moment, this one pulls me in. I retrace my steps to see what it is about this particular place that is calling to me. At first nothing seems out of place. It looks, smells, and sounds like any back alley, nondescript, graffitied but not in an artistic way, and yet I feel compelled to step into it. The concrete underneath my feet is warm from the steam rising out of side grates, and the ever so slightest sound of a bustling kitchen one wall must be backing onto, but here’s nothing unusual about that. Above rain threatens but never seems to appear, leaving the city grey and uncomfortably warm as we all wait for something to break that never seems to actually reach its tipping point.
Further into the alleyway, towards the darkness of a busted streetlight, its glass hanging in shards from above but no sign of wreckage below so it must have been broken some time ago and left long neglected. The words rising beside me in dripping red spray paint, almost murderous, are hard to make out but they say STALKER, or maybe STAIRER. Someone’s name? Or something else?
I nearly jump out of my skin as a rat runs past underfoot but it means no harm. It must have smelt the food from the kitchen before it reaches my dull nostrils and its nature has forced it to follow without thinking of the what or how or why. Like me down this alley I suppose. I didn’t question the force that drew me forward, but should I re-evaluate before I turn the corner? Am I nothing but a rat following its nose?
The first blossoms of spring were beginning to unfurl when Little Bear popped his head up from out of the melting snow. He breathed deeply and smelt the sweet waft of honey in the air spreading over the forest from the busy bee families hard at work deep within turning the flowers into golden food for their young.
This was only Little Bear’s second spring, but already he was eager to get to work. He had slept soundly as the new grass began to grow up from beneath the ice and the river took in all the fresh water from the melting mountains and began to run harder and faster, it’s crashing course thrumming its beat through their cosy cave. Little Bear knew that for his family, the river meant food. In his sweet winter dreams silver salmon had sparkled as they flipped in and out of the water, throwing themselves against the current and back to the places they were born. As he slept he had grown hungry, and that wasn’t the only part of him that had grown. Little bear was surprised to find that he was quite a big bigger than he had been when he had lain his head down several months earlier. Not quite as big as Father Bear yet, but well on his way.
Little Bear was growing impatient. Mother Bear and Father Bear and Sister Bear had yet to wake and he threw himself around the cave noisily to try and stir them, to no avail. Nudging in and out of the front door he collected nuts and small animals to tempt his family from their still deep slumber, but as they snored on, he was fast becoming tired of waiting for them.
After several days Little Bear heard a yawn. They awoke.
A chill wind whipped through the air and Arlie drew her cape closer around her shoulders. Her glasses frosted with every warm breath she took and when she looked behind her suspiciously as she stalked down the lane they fogged up entirely and she needed to drop them down her nose to regain any semblance of vision.
At last, she reached the entrance to the store. It wasn’t hidden so much as it was merely unobtrusive. The wood was patterned in such a way that it was hard to distinguish from the dirty surrounding brickwork except to an eye trained to see it. She knocked twice, looking behind her one last time to ensure that no one was following her, and as the door creaked heavily inwards she stepped inside quickly.
It was stiflingly hot inside the front room and once again the stark change in temperature obscured her vision and she cursed as she began to unwind and strip her outer clothing layers to adjust. As the glass cleared before her eyes she found herself still squinting into the darkness of the room. The crackle of a fire and its slight light wrapping around the wall from an inner room further towards the back of the building did not provide a comfortable light, and Arlie started as she finally noticed the small figure of the man who had let her in.
“Well, hello,” he croaked, unmoving, staring at her unnervingly. “So nice to see you here Miss Finch, we hadn’t expected you for some time, but of course when you rang, we were happy to have you back…”
“Spare me Starling.” She cut him off coldly. She held her cloak and scarf out and he took them obligingly with a slimy grin.
“This way then.” He beckoned her inside.
He pushed back the chair and it creaked into life, the footrest snapping up from underneath him quicker than he expected and throwing him flat on his back. He didn’t like needing to use the chair. It made him feel weak. If his body wasn’t even good enough to get from the lounge to the bed anymore he couldn’t see much use in it. He closed his eyes and let his head sink into the headrest. It was comfortable though, he couldn’t deny that.
Drifting into an uneasy drug-induced sleep he felt his mind wandering very far away. He liked this sensation, his consciousness drifting up and out of the body that was betraying him. In this state he finally felt that he might even be hungry, but he knew that as soon as he came back down to earth his rolling stomach would disagree. It was frustrating, but also kind of a relief. One less thing to worry about.
He heard a small pair of feet tiptoe into the room and a hushed voiced said “oh,” under its breath, very quietly. He was still in a state of disconnect and couldn’t quite open his eyes, but he felt a pressure as something small and soft and warm pressed up against his side. He felt a small hand gently, so gently, wrap itself through his own large, sweaty, one and he felt a tiny heartbeat flutter along with the heavy plod of his own. Her breathing, fast at first and then slowing to a sleepy pace to match his own, calmed him completely. He peeked open one eye and there she was, his daughter, fast asleep in the chair with him, her warm breath sighing into his arm. This was why he needed his body. He needed it for her.