Excerpt for Novascapes: A Speculative Fiction Anthology from the Hunter Region of Australia by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Novascapes

Speculative Fiction from the Hunter Region

Volume 1

Compiled by C. E. Page


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the authors’ imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publishers.

Novascapes: Speculative Fiction from the Hunter Region – Vol1

Compiled by C. E. Page

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2014 C. E. Page and the respective authors. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof, in any form.

First Edition: 2014

ISBN 978-0-9925548-1-1

Cover artwork © Tallulah Cunningham (www.melanippos.com)

eBook formatting by Maureen Cutajar (www.gopublished.com)

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Novascapes: speculative fiction from the Hunter region / compiled by Cassandra E Page.

ISBN: 9780992554804 (paperback)

ISBN: 9780992554811(ebook)

Speculative fiction, Australian.

Short stories, Australian--21st century.

A823.408


Acknowledgements

I want to extend a huge thank you to all the authors who submitted stories to this anthology. I am ever in awe of the talent that the writers of the Hunter possess.

Another big thank you to Jenny Blackford for answering my many questions, guiding me through the process of getting this book together, and offering up your shrewd eye for detail to get the stories through the copyedit stage. I have no doubt that without your help this book wouldn’t be what it is today.

Next I want to thank Morgan Bell for her efforts in creating a last minute social media storm that helped the Pozible campaign reach its goal. And to all the kind souls who offered up their support during the campaign. You were instrumental in making this anthology bigger than I first envisioned.

Tallulah Cunningham thank you for making the cover come to life. You took my – rather ambiguous – directions and made a cover that I couldn’t fathom. It is wonderful – you are wonderful! I look forward to working with you again in the future.

Thank you Evan and Seth for putting up with the rampant chaos of the last eight or so months.

And . . .

Blake and all the writers of the Newcastle Speculative Fiction Writers group. Thank you for the enthusiasm (and the cake). This book was first and foremost for you. You inspired me with your stories and I think they deserve to be read.


One last thank you to you . . . the one reading this book. Thank you for giving it a chance and I hope you enjoy the stories herein as much as I do.


Contents

Introduction

Siren | Catherine Moffat

Portal | Sheree Christoffersen

Paradise Design’d (reprint) | Janeen Webb

The First Stone | Andrew C. Jaxson

Dystrophic | K. M. Ross

Night Heron’s Curse (reprint) | Thoraiya Dyer

The Fold | Bethany Kable

The Switch | Morgan Bell

She Said (reprint) | Kirstyn McDermott

Devils | Blake Liddell

Never Love A Wild Thing | Megan Buxton

The Eternal Twilight of His Maze (reprint) | Jenny Blackford

Shulamite | Danuta Electra Raine

Illegal Aliens: A Space Oddity | Lee-Anne Wilson-Smith

Reunification (reprint) | Aidan Walsh

Heartsick | Samantha Fisher

Focussed | Rob Riel

Idol (reprint) | Russell Blackford

The Cat Detective | Willie Southgate

Arms Dealer | C. E. Page

Mouth to Mouth (reprint) | Margo Lanagan

Author Biographies


Introduction

I’ll admit it, I am the kind of person who skips past an anthology introduction and jumps straight into the stories. The stories are the meaty bit of the book, introductions are generally sinewy and hairy (excuse the very obscure reference to 80’s cartoon film The Flight of Dragons). So keeping in mind that I am a natural talker, and a novice at both writing and reading introductions, here is a little insight into how this collection, Novascapes, came to be.

This project started because a bunch of friends and I love writing stories but were yet to make the transition to submitting those stories to publishers. I wanted to give emerging speculative fiction writers in the Hunter Region, Australia an opportunity to be published, and help them (us) gain the confidence to being submitting manuscripts to professional markets, getting the collective imagination of Novocastrian nerds out into the ether.

The project gained popularity throughout our wider friend network and snowballed into a life-consuming task, or as I often referred to it ‘a labour of love’. As I had so many people relying on me and my Aladdin’s cave of a publishing opportunity promise, I decided to enlist Jenny Blackford and Russell Blackford for advice. This led to the expansion of the pool of talent to include some more established, and in many cases award-winning, speculative fiction writers. The Blackfords’ help was crucial in securing story submissions from Janeen Webb, Thoraiya Dyer and Margo Lanagan. I can tell you I just about died when I got an email from Kirstyn McDermott saying she would love to help out by offering a reprint story, and I may have passed out for a few moments when I saw the names of these six writers that I so admired together as contributors to Novascapes, my anthology, my book baby, and what that meant for the distribution of all of our stories.

I won’t deny that during the development of this anthology there was some wailing and gnashing of teeth, the odd feeling of needing to throw up, and a handful of bipolar moments similar to the scene where Rapunzel gets out of the tower for the first time in the film Tangled. But as submissions from more friends and local writers kept rolling in, I was blown away by the quality of the stories. I had to do them justice somehow. This could no longer be the small project I had first envisioned.

I knew I needed an awesome illustrated cover to go with the awesome content, so I went on a hunt for a local artist. After a bit of detective work, I found Tallulah Cunningham. I instantly knew Tallulah had to be the one to do the cover. I marvelled at her preliminary sketches when we first met over coffee at the The University of Newcastle, and I marvel now at how her enthusiasm for the project managed to match mine for the duration. I quickly snaffled her services and left her to her own devices to produce the wonderful cover you now see gracing this book. I could not recommend her work and professionalism highly enough, and I hope to work together on many more projects in the future.

Novascapes does not have a set theme other than stories that fall somewhere under the speculative fiction banner. My only proviso was that the authors of the stories were either from or originally born (or connected in some major way) to the Newcastle, Hunter and Central Coast regions of NSW, Australia. This meant the stories I received were as varied as the authors who penned them.

Each piece is a brief glimpse into a world both like and unlike anything we could ever imagine. The light and dark aspects of human nature are played out on the canvases of these worlds, though the players are not always human. Minotaurs, mermaids, vampires and dinosaurs compete for space alongside devils, angels, aliens and completely indescribable entities. Novascapes transports you from one side of the multi-verse to the other and leaves you breathless and wide eyed at the possibilities of simple existence.


Siren

Catherine Moffat

Every year the wet makes me restless. Something about the slow empting of tributaries into the ocean, the rush of new rivers and the rain’s whispered promises of spring rubs against my skin like sand.

I become jumpy and boastful like the frogs in the wetlands opening wide throats and calling in search of mates. The boy I’d had my eye on was ignoring me. He jabbed his headphones closer in his ears anytime I came near; so I was ripe for something new.

My cousin Pearl came back from the city for two weeks to visit as she does every year in the wet. We swam at the shore together while my sister Shelly and Pearl’s sister Storm played in the shallows chasing tiny fish in and out of warm rockpools.

Pearl sat on a rock, shook out her hair and began to comb it, pausing to watch her own reflection in the water between each stroke. Her hair gleamed like the seawrack littering the shoreline – black in the shadow of the cliff and red in the sunlight. “You should get out of here, Dulse. You’ll never find a soul mate. The place is dying. You should head to the harbour city like me. There’s plenty of fish in the ocean up there.”

It was true, the place was dying. The trawlers set out less frequently even in good weather, and fish were growing sparse. It was rare to see a young man in the boats anymore. Only the oldest and canniest fishermen remained and they, like my father, spent most of their days mending their nets in the sun and dreaming. Even the surfers had forsaken the headland, heading north like the whales in search of warmer waters and that eternal perfect wave.

When I told my family I wanted to leave they didn’t believe me. “Where would you go?” asked my Dad. “And how will you get there?”

“I’m going north,” I said, ignoring the second part of the question. “I’ll stay with Pearl.”

“She didn’t exactly invite you,” Shelly said.

“You’re too young.” Mum said. “And I don’t like the bargain that girl has made.”

“A bargain’s a bargain for all it’s hard won,” said Dad, staring at my mother. She pushed her hair back from her face and gazed out to sea.

“What bargain?” asked Shelly.

“Never you mind,” said Mum.

I didn’t know what bargain Pearl had made either, but I smirked as if I did, just to annoy Shelly. She stuck out her tongue and put her hands about her neck in a choking motion.

It was true that Pearl hadn’t suggested I stay with her or offered me a bed, but I was determined to get away. When the wet ended and the spring winds began to howl up the coast and the first boats made ready to set out again, I prepared to follow the currents north.

Before I left, I spent one last day hanging out in the caves at Mermaid’s Beach. I traced the colours in the sandstone on the cliff with a finger, committing it to memory. Shelly lay stretched out digging in the wet sand at the mouth of the caves and sulking. She pulled a pippi out of the sand and blew on it.

“You’ll miss the prawns spawning in the estuary.”

“I’ve seen the prawns,” I said. “I haven’t seen the city.”

Shelly threw the pippi into the ocean. “You’ll be back within a month.”

I sighed. I didn’t know what I’d be back for.

The Sunday before I’d been surfing the shore break at the southern end of the beach when I saw my boy coming out of Yawkyawk cave hand-in-hand with Jenny Dawson. Sand clung like icing sugar to his golden body. I was so surprised I lost concentration and the wave picked me up and dumped me almost at their feet.

Jenny screamed and jumped back from the sea-splash but he just looked me in the face for a moment, then turned away. As he walked off I noticed his headphones were still jammed in his ears.

I decided I had to head north.

It was dusk when I first came into the harbour; a red glow still tinged the sky. When the dark began to properly fall I couldn’t believe the carpet of light. It felt like it was shining a pathway just for me. I followed it right onto the wharf and lay there smelling that distinctive mix of fish and seagull and diesel as I trailed my arms down into the shadow-filled water.

But then a gritty wind blew up tossing rubbish down the street and into the water. I pulled an old chip packet from my hair and sat up. I needed to find Pearl before morning.

She’d moved from the address I had – way down in the docks where oily black water lapped the back steps of the houses. The man who answered the door looked me up and down and invited me in.

I shook my head. “I’m looking for Pearl.”

“Dunno where she is, love. But if you need a bed you can stay here.” He grinned. “I like my girls wet like you.”

I backed off and left in a hurry.

“Try the ocean pool. I think she’s sleeping with the fishes, now,” the man shouted after me. His drunken laughter echoed down the street and out across the water.

I found Pearl in the morning. According to the poster she was doing five shows a day at the ocean aquarium. She didn’t look pleased to see me.

“Bloody Barry,” she said when I told her about the man. “You can stay with me tonight, but there’s not much room. You’ll have to find somewhere else tomorrow. And heaven help us both if Damien finds out.”

“Damien finds out what?” Pearl and I were sitting together at the edge of the pool. A man wearing a wetsuit came up behind us trailing water across the cement. The suit was unzipped and hung loose around his waist jiggling as he walked like he had an extra pair of arms.

Pearl sighed. “Damien, meet my little cousin Dulsie. Dulse – Damien. She’s come to visit for a day or two.”

“Hi Babe,” said Damien, flashing a bleached white smile. He turned to Pearl and grasped a length of hair, twisting it between his fingers. “I thought you said there were no more like you.”

“Owwww.” Pearl batted his hand away. “Well, I didn’t know she was going to turn up, did I?”

“So where’s she going to stay?”

“She can stay with me tonight, and then we’ll fix something up.”

“If she’s with you, where am I going to be?” Damien asked. He stroked my hair and stared into my eyes. I’d never had a man that close to me before. I felt a shiver run down my back. “Although I’m sure we could come to some arrangement,” he went on.

Pearl put a hand on his arm. “Leave her alone. She’s too young. She doesn’t even know what you’re talking about.”

I didn’t like being told I was too young, so I looked up at Damien and smiled my widest smile; the way I’d seen my Mum smile at my Dad sometimes, when he came home on the boats with a big load of fish.

“Looks like a fast learner to me,” Damien said. “I’m sure she’ll catch on soon enough.”

In the end they decided I should stay at the aquarium while Damien took Pearl off to his place.

Pearl led me to a small room behind the kiosk. Fairy lights above the door were supposed to spell out ‘Neptune’s Grotto’, but the ‘O’ on the end was broken and wouldn’t light up. A mixture of cement and papier mache had been slapped on the walls to make the room look like a cave. Someone had tacked fake seaweed and old nets to the walls and a life-sized diver in an old fashioned bell helmet hung from the ceiling. The main feature of the room was a big, pink, shell-shaped bed surrounded by a moat of chemical green water. The air felt cold and dank.

Pearl swept up an armful of starfish shaped cushions and threw them into a corner. “Here, you’ll be right, won’t you?” she asked anxiously.

I nodded, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to settle down.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I’d never tried to sleep before without the sound of the ocean, feeling the crash of it resonating within me. The whir of the pool filter masked all noise of the sea. The cement smelled of chlorine and mould and the security lights cast too much light. But most disturbing of all was the noise of the dolphins swimming obsessive laps round and round their pool all through the night.

In the morning I watched as Pearl did her show. The place was packed with families. They filled the tiered seats and pushed to sit in the front row and dangle their feet in the water. Kids splashed one another and screamed and soon a slick of sunscreen and ice cream wrappers floated at the southern edge of the pool.

Damien came by when I was watching Pearl’s second performance. He walked up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. “You think you could do what she does, Kid?”

I shrugged. “I guess so.” It didn’t look too hard. A couple of laps swimming with the dolphins, feed them some fish, then perch on the side of the pool combing your hair, wiggling your tail and waving at the crowd. And at the end of the show be nice to the people lining up for photographs.

“You’re not scared of the porpoises? Pearl reckons they can be cranky buggers, sometimes.”

“They’re dolphins, not porpoises. Porpoises have smaller heads and their fins are different.”

Damien whistled. “Look at you, brains as well as beauty. Come here Love, and we’ll see how you look kitted out.”

He led me into the grotto and pulled one of Pearl’s scallop-shell bikini tops from a cupboard. He threw it across to me. “Try that on.”

When I hesitated, he said “Come on Dulse, don’t be shy – we’re practically family.”

I huddled in the corner and put the top on. It was too big and the scallops poked uncomfortably into my chest.

Damien ran his eye over me appraisingly. He reminded me of my Dad sizing up a blue-fin tuna working out how much it would sell for at market. “Hmmn.” He said. “There might have to be some adjustments, but you’ll do.”

Later that day I heard him arguing with Pearl. “Come on, Love. Give her a go. You could have a night off for a change.”

I got my chance the next afternoon. The late afternoon shows were the least well attended. By then the bus trip crowd had gone and the evening throng hadn’t yet arrived. Pearl coached me, telling me when to wave and reminding me to smile when I was underwater. “Otherwise you just look like some goldfish in a bowl.”

“Try to look like you’re enjoying it, Love,” Damien said.

By the end of the week, I had the routine down pat. I even knew how to cajole the dolphins into action when they didn’t want to do their tricks.

“Why don’t you take the night off?” Damien said to Pearl. “Go and visit that friend you’re always banging on about. Dulse can do the night session.”

“Yes, go on,” I said. I was keen to see if I could handle the rowdy Friday night crowd. If you got it right they could be big tippers. I’d watched the week before as half-pissed blokes threw one and two dollar coins into the water for Pearl to dive down and retrieve. The day-time crowd were more likely to throw silver than gold, and less of it. Damien had made no mention of paying me yet, and I needed the tip money.

“You did great, Love,” said Damien after the show. “Come and have a drink with me.” When I hesitated, he continued. “Come on, Pearl’s not here and your mother will never know.”

I don’t remember getting into bed that night. The only thing I can recall is a hand over my mouth and other hands lifting and carrying me as I squirmed to get away. I tried to bite the palm of the hand across my mouth and I heard someone swear and say “Jesus, Damo. She’s got teeth like a razor fish.”

Razor fish don’t have teeth, I thought hazily. They’re molluscs.

In the morning when I woke I found myself scratched and bruised and hurting in places I didn’t know could hurt. I looked about and discovered I was on the back of a truck with two dolphins in a tank. We were speeding up the highway, water splashing from side to side as we hit the bumps.

We spent the next eight weeks playing one or two nights in country towns. I was billed as “the littlest mermaid”. Damien had gone back to the city after the first night so that Pearl wouldn’t get suspicious when she found me gone. A man called Joe was our new handler and he didn’t have Damien’s need to charm as well as command. He preferred the grunt and shove method. “Come on fishy fishy fishies, do your stuff,” he shouted, poking the dolphins with sticks when they sulked in the tank.

“Give them some more sex,” he said to me, pulling at my bikini top. “And smile a bit. Stop being such a wet fish.”

As the weather got colder everyone’s tempers got shorter. Joe didn’t like paying for powered campsites so the water in the tank was always cold and I found it hard not to shiver when I was doing my routine. The dolphins lurked at the bottom of the tank and refused to do tricks. I couldn’t tell if they were sick or just being uncooperative.

Joe was drinking heavily. “If things don’t improve I’m getting out of here,” he said. “You lot can get stuffed.”

I didn’t know what I’d do, stuck on a truck in the middle of nowhere, far from the sea and by myself except for a couple of dolphins. So I smiled more when I was doing my act, and tried to cajole the dolphins into behaving. They just stared with their unblinking dark eyes as if they were disgusted with me for collaborating with the enemy.

The cold and the rain kept the punters at home. “Biggest rains in thirty years,” read the headlines. “Drought turns to flood.” Joe kept pointing the truck north in the hope it would get better, but the rain got heavier and the roads got worse.

One night we were crossing one of those long, slow, bridges that cover nothing in drought but now had water seeping over the edges. The dolphins suddenly started rocking rhythmically in the tank, pitching it from side to side. Their motion got stronger and stronger as the force of the water built, splashing over the sides of the tank. The road swung sharply to the right at the end of the bridge. The dolphins gave one almighty swing and the weight of the water made the truck overbalance off the bridge.

The water was dark, fast moving and full of debris. I went down for a long time, struggling to find my way. When I finally came up I floundered on the surface, flapping like a goldfish. It felt like my back was broken.

The current was swift. I couldn’t ride it or steer myself. It felt like the one thing I had always relied on had deserted me. I was gulping air and water by turns when I felt the dolphins. They came up beside me, one each side, jamming me gently between them. They pushed at me, rocking me slowly until I was in calmer waters at the edge of the river. Then they circled three times as if checking to see I was alright and headed off down river towards the ocean.

I never saw what happened to Joe.

It took me five months to be well enough to swim properly, but by then it was too late to follow the dolphins. The river had shrunk back to leaves and sand – just a chain of murky billabongs. But, even if the river was up again, I don’t know that I’d leave. I’ve changed. I live in the shallows now.

I know what men are, and I don’t want to go back.

I’ve found my place here in the middle of nowhere. Like the ghost in the billabong, I sit on my rock and comb my hair and sing, and the young men come to me. I’m the song in their head that they can’t get rid of; I’m the earworm that sticks in their soul, a lost sound from far away that sings of destruction.

Sometimes I sing in the voice of the road – flat and wide and empty, urging them to effortless speed. Sometimes I call like the big solitary gum trees, whispering songs of desolation and loneliness that end with a rope and the snap of a branch. Sometimes I’m the rush of the river, deep and inviting, ready to wash away all sins. Or sometimes it’s the voice of the night and the dark that grows and rises from me like a blackness.

I sing and the boys ride out to me; wild and fast and invincible on those dark wet nights. Their cars go fast and they know they will live forever. I’m the voice of their lost love, their one true lover. The last voice they hear.

I sit and I sing, and afterwards I wait for the sound of the sirens rising high and distant at first, then louder. I wait for the light pulsing in the sky like some all-encompassing blood-red eye.


Portal

Sheree Christoffersen

Alex, you’re ready to talk now?

Yeah. Just to you and the lady cop.

That isn’t a problem. I’m switching the camera on. OK, we’re recording now.

My dad stays though, right?

If you want him to.

I don’t suppose my clothes are dry? This track suit is pretty big on me.

Your wet clothes are being kept as possible evidence. You do realise the severity of the charges you’re facing?

I get it. I’m not stupid.

Good. Because this is not a game, Alex, so I suggest you tell us the truth. Do you understand?

Yeah. I said was going to tell you what happened.

So what changed your mind?

Well, I … I thought you weren’t going to believe me. You still won’t, probably. But Dad said he talked to Kristen, who’d talked to the doctor who saw Tom, who told her the ambulance driver told him that Tom was off his head, totally nuts, before he passed out. Reckoned he raved on about something coming to get him. And he said something Tom said that made me think you might eventually believe me.

And what was that?

“Portal.”

And why did that change your mind?

… Detective, it’s not going to make sense if I start in the middle. Dad, stop looking at me like that.

But I’m worried, Son. Are you sure you want to do this? You still don’t look too good.

No, I’m okay. I’d rather get it out of the way. Detective, can we just get on with it?

Sure. You’re thirteen, right?

Yeah.

And Tom? He’s two years older?

Closer to three. He’ll be sixteen next month.

So, Alex, why don’t you start at the beginning and tell us what happened.

Okay. You’ve got to know first off I never intended to hurt Tom. Well, I wanted to hurt him, but just like anybody does to their brother who picks on them. I never meant him to get killed or mutilated or anything.

I mean, he goes out of his way to be an effin’ asshole, and—

Language, Alex.

Sorry, Dad. Well, I reckon he’s got middle child syndrome. Loves being a pr— … I mean, being obnoxious. Mum thinks it stops there. It doesn’t. It never has.

We’ve got the picture. Tell us about today.

Okay. Mum doesn’t usually work on Saturdays, but the manager calls in sick this morning so she has to go run the shop, and Kristen has her normal shift at the vets. I wake up around nine to find a note from Mum, and I’m alone in the house with Tom. Not good.

She knows I hate being alone with him, but she doesn’t believe it’s that bad. She won’t even believe it when he’s been suspended for beating kids up at school. The school’s picking on him, because “my Tommy” wouldn’t do that. And she keeps thinking if we spend time together we’ll bond or something. That worked well, didn’t it?

Normally I’d get out of the house, grab a book and go to the park, or the library or a mate’s. But it was raining so hard none of that was going to work. I thought about calling Dad, but he can’t drop everything and drive two hours every time I’m stuck with Tom. So I figure I’ll just try and stay out of his way.

You saw our kitchen right? How it’s, like, open plan with the lounge room, and the breakfast bar in the middle?

We saw it, yes.

If it’s only the two of us he won’t let me in the kitchen, so before he gets up I grab sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and camp in Kristen’s room. I shut the door, reading on the floor behind her bed, hoping he’ll think I’m out too.

Why doesn’t he let you in the kitchen?

Because he a bloody moron! How do I know? He thinks it’s funny not letting me eat, I guess. Hilarious. And I have to share a room with the fu—

Alex!

Oh, god, Dad, you should hear what he calls me!

Mr Varonos, please. We’ll mention it if we have a problem with Alex’s language. Keep going Alex. You said you were in your sister’s room.

Yeah. Tom gets up around eleven and I hear him in the lounge room watching TV, then he’s playing Xbox and I relax a bit.

I get to this part in my book where the armies of the hero prince are confronting the demon horde of the evil necromancer. So the prince is thundering down the slope at the head of his armies—

We don’t need the details of your novel …

—but he doesn’t know that the necromancer has called forth the Beast of the Seventh Hell. The vanguard crashes into the front lines of the evil horde, the prince’s lance ploughing through the fiends like butter. Then the Beast rises up—

And the book’s ripped out of my hands.

“So you are home,” says Tom.

I let fly with a few choice words. I hadn’t heard him come in, with the rain so loud.

He stands over me with only his loose red boxers on. Not pretty.

“Whatcha hidin’ in here for?” he says.

I just shrug, ‘cause answering him just makes things worse. He pokes at my sandwiches with his toe.

“Even brought supplies. How cute,” he says. Then he stomps his grubby toes all over them. Pig.

I stand up and he holds the book up out of my reach. He’s more than a head taller than me and it seems like twice my weight. I feel like a piece of spaghetti next to a hunk of meat.

“You want it?” he says.

I just look at him. He shrugs and walks out. I know it’s useless, but I can’t help trying to get the book back.

He’s in the lounge room, sitting on the big corner lounge next to the back windows, flicking through channels with the TV remote. My book’s beside him, and I try to pick it up. He grabs it and stands up.

“Who said you could have that?” he says.

“You’re not going to read it,” I say.

So he stands up and slams me up against the wall.

What wall?

Next to the lounge, right beside the back door.

“You think you’re the only one who can read?” he says. “Think you’re so smart, don’t you, with your awards and skipping years, and special camps? You know what I think of all that shit?”

And he opens the back door and throws my book out on the grass and it lands open, pages up. I try to push past him to get to it but he twists my arm behind my back and it hurts so much I can’t move. We stand there, just watching it get rained on, getting wetter and wetter.

You must have been really mad at him.

Yeah.

Wanted to hurt him.

Yeah. But I couldn’t do anything. Like I said, I couldn’t move.

“Look at that,” he says, when it’s a big wet mess. “Go read your book, smart-ass.” He shoves me down the step and slams the door.

I sprawl on the grass next to it, then I sit up and wipe the mud off myself, and the rain’s so heavy I’m soaked in no time.

I pick up the big glob of paperback and go sit on the step. I’m cold and wet and I hate him.

I bet you wanted to kill him.

Yeah. But I’m stuck sitting on the back step with a sore arm and a wet book. After a while, the door opens.

“Hey moron. You look a bit wet,” he says.

I hate him so bad right then I do something stupid, something I haven’t done since I was little ‘cause I don’t want to get my head bashed in. I mouth off at him.

“You can’t handle me being smart because you’re such an effin’ dip-shit imbecile,” I say. Only I don’t say “effin”. “You’re a real hero, shoving your little brother around and wrecking his book. Big tough guy.” And I give him the finger.

Call it temporary insanity. It doesn’t go down well.

He drags me inside, dumps me on the floor and starts slapping me, mostly around the head, hard.

But he was only slapping you? Not punching?

Just slapping then. So he doesn’t leave bruises.

Why do you think that’s the reason?

Because he told me, ages ago. Years. Said I’m lucky he doesn’t want to leave bruises for Mum to see, or he’d punch my lights out.

So he’s slapping you. And then?

Then I’m screaming at him and so mad and scared at the same time, because I know he’s losing it, and he’s swearing at me like you wouldn’t believe, I don’t even remember half of it. And I start going nuts, punching and kicking, and my knee hits his balls.

He lets out this strangled sound and looks at me, and I think, “F—”. Well, you can guess the words, but they were bad. ‘Cause his eyes, you know? His eyes are hitting this place in me that he wants to destroy. And it’s hate, not like I’ve been hating him, wanting to punch his face, but hating like he wants to grab my guts and pull and stretch and twist them while I scream in agony, and do it while I take a long, long time to die.

Well, the knee to his balls wasn’t all that bad and hasn’t put him out of action, it’s only slowed him down. He punches me on the jaw, I guess to give him time till he recovers.

So I’m close to knocked out, with only little chinks of light and sound making it through to my brain. But panic and being mad at him is filling up the rest, and I’m fighting to keep conscious.

Then bubbling up inside me come these words, words I’d read a little while before, words that wrap themselves around my tongue. I start to whisper them.

“Nu-ston-gu-lac-thi-zefro-lo, Sa-belozac-gra-seb-hogo …”

It hurts to move my jaw, but I don’t care. I know it’s stupid, it’s an incantation straight out of a book, but it rolls off my tongue anyway. I don’t have any other weapons, so what does it matter?

As I talk things get clearer again. I lift up my hand and make the signs, the way it was described, the way I saw the necromancer do it in my head and the words just flow, getting louder.

All I can see is Tom, and this time he punches me in the head. I’m lucky my head’s harder than my jaw. Things go woozy, but I say the final words—

“…Alep-suk-zavel-gart-lozo!

—then his hands close around my throat, squeezing. And I can’t breathe.

There’s a whoosh of wind, as though a door has just blown open. This orange light explodes on one side and there’s a roar that splits your ears.

Tom falls back off me, face like a cartoon ghost with wide eyes, and pee runs out the side of his boxers.

I can breathe again, and there’s a stink like a sewer in a garbage pit. I look back where he’s staring, and a dirty big black ring hangs in the air in our lounge room, about a body-length from us.

I scramble back away from it as fast as I can go.

The ring almost hits the ceiling, the black fading to grey and disappearing at the outer edge. Orange light streams from inside it, but most of it is filled by the head and one shoulder of a beast covered in chestnut hair, with a long snout and teeth like a crocodile but with two sets of horns, and huge eyes of fire. The head looks massive, and the shoulder and arm are thick and bulged with muscle. I know, without seeing, it’s only one of four arms, and they end in thick stubby hands with talons. I know, too, that its legs are as wide as tree trunks and it can run as fast as a galloping horse.

I’m breathing fast and my heart is hammering and I’m shaking, but I don’t know how I feel about this thing appearing in my lounge room. I mean, no way did I think this incantation stuff would really work. It’s a story, for god’s sake. This thing appears out of the pages of a book, and it’s all pretty much just like I saw it in my mind when I read it. And you wouldn’t think, “Hey, why don’t I just conjure up the Beast of the Seventh Hell?” It’s mind-blowing, you know?

But I’m relieved, too, because it got Tom off me and I can breathe. The whole about-to-die then not-about-to-die thing messes with your head. So it’s freaking me out, but it’s awesome.

I look over at Tom then, and he’s huddling down next to the lounge, arms over his head. Then the Beast starts pushing its arm and head through the ring, struggling to get itself to our side of the portal.

I get kind of hypnotised watching it, because I’m not that scared of the Beast getting into our lounge room. First, because it’s way too big to fit through, and I know it’s going to take ages for it to make itself thin enough to get through a portal that size. It can change its shape, but only really slowly. Second, I know the rules, and it doesn’t attack the necromancer who summons it, not unless it realises you’re trying to send it back to the Seventh Hell.

It gets its arm through the portal and makes a grab towards Tom, but he jumps up on the lounge and cringes in the corner. I can’t say I give a stuff what happens to Tom right then. I mean, he’d just been beating into me, and was strangling me, the asshole. Well, I guess, I’m feeling like I don’t care if it eats him. But I know he’s not in any danger. He can run, and the Beast can’t reach him. But instead he stays in the corner whining like a baby.

And then the phone rings, and—

Huh. . . ? I’m sorry, what?

The phone rings. You know, that thing people use to talk to each other when they’re too far away to yell?

Very funny. I wasn’t expecting the real world to enter into this fairy tale.

Oh, I’m sorry, Detective. I thought you wanted me to tell you what happened. You didn’t ask me to edit it so morons could get their tiny minds around it.

Alex! Son, please. Detective, he’s been through a lot today, he’s tired and upset…

Let me get this straight. You’re saying you just happened to remember a long sequence of nonsense words from a book you were just reading this morning?

They’re not nonsense words. They’re in the language of the necromancer. And it’s the third book in a trilogy, so a lot of the words are familiar. Plus they rhyme, and are written in iambic tetrameter, so it was pretty easy to remember.

Necromancer language in iambic tetrameter? You said you’d tell us the truth, Alex.

I am.

Detective? Alex has a good memory and a flair for languages. He’s at conversational stage in French and Japanese, and when he was six a Korean family moved next door and he was fluent within a year.

Thank you, Mr Varonos -

And he speaks Tolkien Elvish.

Hangugeo reul hasimnikka?

I don’t care what language that is, Alex

Korean.

but you expect me to believe that a made-up string of nonsense led to a magic ring appearing in your lounge room with a monster inside it?

I don’t expect anything, Detective. You asked me to tell you what happened. Do you want me to keep going?

Oh, why not? Let’s hear the rest of the tale.

Fine. So Tom is in the corner, the Beast is trying to fit through the portal from the Seventh Hell, and the phone is ringing. I scoot off on hands and knees, preferring not to attract its attention just in case the necromancer rules don’t hold so well in our world, and I find the phone in Mum’s room. It’s Mum.

“How are you doing, darling?” she says.

“Okay.” The Beast is roaring in the lounge room.

“Sounds like you’re having a good time.” What can I can say? “I’ll let you get back to your movie, but Marianne said she’ll manage on her own this afternoon, so I’ll be home soon. I’ll bring lunch to make up for being out today. So, hamburgers or fish and chips?”

Tom’s now screaming and the roars are getting louder.

“Um, hamburgers. The works.” She should know I always vote for hamburgers.

“Okay, see you soon.”

I hang up and stare at the phone. I have to get rid of the Beast.

I creep back to the lounge room and stand watching. From the back I can’t see the black ring or orange light. Where the edge of the Beast passes into our world I can see a cross-section of guts and muscles and bones inside it, like the most advanced medical scanner you can imagine. Running through the Beast, like we have blood, it has fire in its veins. Just like in the book. If it’s cut, it’ll burn anything it bleeds on.

Tom’s screaming. The Beast is trying to reach him with its arm and he’s totally freaking out. The way he’s losing it, honestly, gives me a lot of satisfaction. It can’t get further past the ring, but its arm is gradually lengthening.

He’s backed into the corner now, and he can’t get out. If he tries, the Beast can reach him, and its claws are getting closer too fast, tearing up the carpet and the bits of the lounge it can reach.

I have to get rid of the Beast before Mum gets home, or it could go for her, too. If it gets out of the ring the destruction doesn’t bear thinking about. Trouble is, I don’t know how to get rid of it. I haven’t read that far.

And where’s the book? Outside the back door, where I dropped it. So I have to go out a window.

Wait. Why not go out the back door?

The ring is still hovering in the air, kind of on a diagonal to the corner, and it’s too close to the back door. I don’t think the Beast would attack me, but if it did, it could reach that far. What I’m sure of is that I don’t want to attract its attention.

That leaves the kitchen window.

Why the kitchen window?

It’s the only one that’s behind the side gate except the bathroom window, and nobody’s been able to open that for five years. I never know where my gate key is, and it’s impossible to climb unless you’re Special Forces and have ninja skills.

So I climb up on the kitchen sink, and of course Tom left dirty dishes on the sink, with soggy food that he hadn’t scraped into the garbage, which slows me down. I get the window open and push the fly screen away, jump out (it’s stopped raining by now), and run around the back. The fresh air is good, though.

The screams have become high-pitched whimpering. The roars of the Beast are now a rhythmic rumbling grunt as it puts its focus on lengthening its arm.

The book’s beside the back step, and it’s a mess. I take it and stand under the little awning at the back door and find where I was up to. I have to be careful ‘cause the pages rip if I turn them too fast. I block out the roars and screams as much as I can and concentrate on finding something that tells me how to send the Beast back.

I skim though pages of battle, unable to separate some pages, others falling to pieces. As long as I catch references to the Beast I know I haven’t missed it.

There! A confrontation between the prince and the necromancer. The prince is demanding the necromancer send it back to the Seventh Hell. The necromancer laughs and asks why he should do that.

Because otherwise I will send it back, and you won’t like my method,” says the prince.

And what method is that?” The necromancer smiles indulgently.

Kill you, of course.” The prince raises his bow, nocked with the gold-tipped arrow fletched with dove’s feathers. “I’m sure you know exactly what this arrow does.”

I turn the page and it crumples. No! I try to coax it over, turning from the bottom, but a previous stain has started a process the rain has finished. The curse of having to buy second-hand books. The page disintegrates.

Surely the Beast isn’t banished only by killing the one who calls it forth? There has to be another way.

An ear-splitting scream tells me something’s happened. I hurry up the steps and open the back door, just enough to see Tom in the corner.

The Beast’s claws have reached him. The side of one thigh runs red with parallel lines, dripping on to the lounge amid bits of ripped material and stuffing. It’s pulled its hand back and is licking the blood off its claws, but I know it’ll be lengthening its arm and going for a bigger bit soon enough. Once it’s got a taste of someone’s blood it doesn’t stop till it’s got all of them.

I sit on the step outside and go back to the book. After the confrontation the Beast is still there. The necromancer has agreed to send it back, and the prince is keeping him to his promise.

It’s so hard to concentrate with Tom screaming. I want to stop the Beast, but at the same time—and I know I’m horrible—there’s also this bit of me that’s enjoying Tom being terrified and getting clawed up. I know I shouldn’t feel like that, but he’s such an asshole, and I reckon he was close to killing me before. He’d do it if he thought he could get away with it. And he’s finally copping some payback.

It’s okay, Alex. I think it’s normal to feel like that.

Really, Constable Huang?

Sure. It’s normal to be angry when you’ve been bullied. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to let him get clawed, but I think I’d be feeling the same thing if I was you.

It’s just that Mum always just says to get over it, that Tom doesn’t mean it to be like that. But I know he does.

Maybe she doesn’t know what else to do. But I think most people would feel very angry.

Well, I was looking for a way to stop the Beast. But it wasn’t for Tom. It was for Mum and everybody else.

So I’m there, trying to turn these crumbling pages with the screaming going on, not knowing when Mum’s going to turn up.

Then there it is, the incantation, and the signs the necromancer does with his hands. But bits of the description of the signs have crumbled to bits, which is a big worry.

I read through the words a few times to make sure I know them. I mean, with the screaming and the pressure, you want to be sure. The signs are harder, because of the missing bits. I picture them in my head, going through them one by one, and then ping! the light goes on. They’re the same as the ones in the first incantation, only backwards. So it’s all good.

There’s another high-pitched scream as I drop the book and open the door, and the Beast has cut red lines in Tom’s arm. As I watch he grabs at Tom’s foot, and his claws slice away his toes. All his toes on one foot. Tom doesn’t scream, he makes this odd gurgling noise that’s worse, and clutches at the bloody end of his foot. The Beast flicks his toes on to the floor and rolls them along the carpet towards the ring, then pierces each toe with a claw, one by one, and pops them in its mouth.

I swallow, and my mouth is suddenly dry. It’s different reading about gross stuff to when it’s happening in front of you. I’m not prepared for toes being eaten like they’re peanuts.

But it’s time to get on with it.

I push the door open then move back on to the step. As soon as I start I’m going to be in danger. The Beast won’t kill me, because that would close the portal, but it could do some nasty stuff and still keep me alive.

The rain comes down again as I start the incantation.

“Erton-wol-zon-becven-grozo, tolec-belozac-grac-soyo I make the signs.

The Beast is lengthening its arm again when it realises what’s happening. Its great head swings towards me and it bellows till my ears hurt. Then its arm shoots out to grab me.

I must have miscalculated. Its claws cut down my forearm. I fall backwards, clutching my bleeding arm, my guts twisting in shock. I stumble back on to the grass, and stand gulping in air, heart hammering. But I have to keep going. In a moment I’m up the step, out of reach, and the incantation is flowing again.

I’m getting close to the end and the Beast is pushing hard to reach me, its arm straining, growing, lengthening. It’s roaring with the pain of shifting shape way too fast. It shoves its head out further through the ring, the edges of it cutting into its flesh as it struggles to burst its way out of the Hell it’s in. Its three other hands are pushing at the edge, fire dripping from the cuts on its fingers as it tries to widen the portal, to let it crawl into our world and rage and crunch and eat.

Then Tom tries to escape out of his corner. While the Beast’s attention is on me, he sidles along the lounge in the opposite direction, still curled up holding his mangled foot. As quick as thought, the Beast’s long arm shoots over to other side and grabs his right wrist. Tom squeals like a girl dunked in cold water.

I say the last few syllables. “Sedas-noctol-molan-zoqo!

The black ring shudders and grows smaller. The Beast is trapped, the portal pressing it on all sides, cramping it—but doesn’t disappear.

“Damn it, go!” I say, but I said worse than “damn”, really. I tried, “Be gone!” in necromancer language. I tried a lot of things.

If the Beast can smile, I swear it smiles then. It hoists Tom in the air, dangling by his wrist. Tom’s bleeding badly from his toe stumps, and writhing and screaming himself hoarse. I think he’s snapped.

The ring keeps shuddering, and getting tiny little bits smaller. I figure it’s to do with Tom. Maybe holding him stops the ring from closing down, like it’s anchoring the Beast in our world. So I have to change that.

I sprint off to the shed and grab a hammer and a shovel. Best I can do. I shove the handle of the hammer down the back of my jeans and run to the back door.

As I get to the door, the Beast roars and swings his arm over my way, dragging Tom with it and slowing it down, and I heft the shovel high. I stay back far enough that it can’t reach me, and bring the shovel down hard, side on, on the Beast’s arm.

The Beast howls, dragging its arm away. Fire spurts on to the floor from its wound, but it doesn’t let go of Tom. I throw the shovel into the back yard and dart in, behind the ring, and sneak over to the other side.

Time to try the hammer. It’s a mallet, really, a big metal one with an extra heavy head for hammering in tent pegs. While it’s still looking for me near the door, I duck out on the other side and smash it right between the eyes.

It bellows till my ears hurt, and Tom crashes to the floor, but it doesn’t let him go.

I hear a different scream from Tom. He’s trying to scrabble away, but the Beast is holding his wrist down on the carpet where a fire has started.

That’s really going too far.

But what do I do now? I back up, and go watch from the other side near the back door, out of reach. The Beast is looking woozy from the blow to its head, and it’s only holding Tom’s wrist with three fingers now, but they’re three very strong, thick fingers with sharp claws. Tom’s doing everything to try and get away and nothing’s working. If only I could—

And I race into the kitchen and grab Mum’s butcher’s cleaver from the knife block.

It’s got to be a surprise. If it sees me coming it’ll move too fast. I just have to chop through those three fingers. I’ve seen that cleaver chop through beef bone before. Or even if it doesn’t, it might make it let go of Tom.

As I sneak around the back of the ring, there’s a lull in the Beast’s bellowing and Tom’s screaming, as though they know that it’s the calm before the storm. In that lull I hear the back gate click. Mum’s home. I couldn’t hear the sound of her car in the driveway for all the noise. She’ll be at the back door any second.

A string of curses goes through my head, but I don’t dare say it in case it warns the Beast. I’ve got to do it now. Then a few things happen faster than you could believe.

I jump out in front of the ring near Tom. Mum pushes the back door wide open. Tom freaks and pulls away from me. The Beast bellows at me. I bring the cleaver down towards the base of the Beast’s fingers. Mum screams. Tom is distracted by Mum. The Beast yanks Tom towards itself. The cleaver slices through Tom’s wrist.

As soon as Tom’s hand is separated from the rest of him, this huge wind sucks towards the portal and the Beast is pulled inside it with a slurping sound. The ring collapses, and there’s just me standing there with a blood-stained cleaver, Tom on the floor, screaming, with a stump instead of a right hand, blood pumping out of it, and the carpet and lounge on fire around him.

I pull Tom away from the fires, but Mum just stands at the back door screaming. I grab a towel from the bathroom and shove it against Tom’s severed wrist, then push his other hand against it and yell at him to push hard, to stop the blood. I push Mum out of the way and yell at her to ring for an ambulance. I run and get a bit of rope from the shed, and tie it around Tom’s arm for a tourniquet to stop him bleeding to death, and shove the towel on his foot. She still hasn’t rung, so I get the phone and shove at her and yell at her to ring, then I bring in the hose from the back yard and hose Tom’s burns and put out the fires. We were lucky the Beast didn’t bleed more than it did. And I manage to get Mum to help put pressure on Tom’s wounds.

So the ambulance came and I guess they called you guys and I called Dad, and well, here we are.

So, Alex, you’re telling us that you chopped Tom’s hand off by mistake. That you were actually trying to chop off the fingers of some beast from another dimension which you had summoned here by means of an incantation you learned in a fantasy novel, to send it back to its own, ah, Hell?

That’s right.

And his wounds were caused by claws, his burns were caused by fire from its veins, and it ate his toes.

You got it.

How stupid do you think we are, Alex?

Is that a trick question, Detective?

Alex, you are facing very serious charges here. Your brother is minus a hand.

And where’s his hand?

God knows what you’ve done with it.

What, you think I just put it down the toilet? Or in the bin? I’m sure you’ve had people looking for it, but it’s gone. It went with the Beast. And I assume someone’s interviewed my mother. What does she say?

It’s irrelevant what your mother says. We’re asking you what happened.

She’s already told you, hasn’t she? She saw the Beast. You just don’t want to believe her. The thing is, I didn’t tell you at first because I knew you wouldn’t believe me. And I don’t trust Tom to tell the truth, when he’s finally conscious and well enough to be interviewed. But you can ask the ambulance man, can’t you? Just ask him what Tom was babbling about, before he lost consciousness. See what you think then. That will be an independent witness, won’t it?

Not really. He can only go on what Tom said. Maybe you influenced him. Maybe you influenced both of them, before the ambulance arrived. Maybe you threatened them, and told them if they didn’t back up this fantastical version of events, you’d do something worse.


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