May 2013 Short Story Competition Winner

Congratulations to Rachael Mead for her short story Night Skyline, which has won the May short story competition (theme: small town setting).

Night Skyline shows the story of a Country Fire Service worker who attends a road accident.

Thank you to the other shortlisted writers and to everyone who entered a story.

The May short story competition is one in a series of three monthly short story competitions running in April, May and June. So you still have a chance to enter for June.

PRIZE:
- a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
- feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Alison Booth

AuslanderOnce You Break a Knuckle: StoriesCanadaUnaccustomed EarthWaiting for SunriseUmbrellaTenth of DecemberSan Miguel

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The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

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The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Posted in auslit, short fiction, short stories, short story, short story comp, short story competition 2013, short story competitions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

May 2013 Short Story Competition Shortlist

Congratulations to authors of the following stories, which have been shortlisted for the May short story competition (theme: small town setting):

Night Skyline by Rachael Mead

This Must Be The Place by Kris Cerneka

The Old Jenson Place by Tarran Jones

The Man Of Black by Tyler Gates

Protocol Seventeen by Rachel Sanderson

The May short story competition is one in a series of three monthly short story competitions running in April, May and June. So anyone who missed out on being shortlisted for May still has a chance to enter for June.

PRIZE:
- a book pack (titles below) courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia
- feedback of 400-500 words on your story by Alison Booth

AuslanderOnce You Break a Knuckle: StoriesCanadaUnaccustomed EarthWaiting for SunriseUmbrellaTenth of DecemberSan Miguel

***

The fan fiction competitions for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and for Possessing Freedom are also open to entries of 2000-4000 word stories until August 31. Each has a first prize of $2000 and entry costs $10 if you pay your entry before the end of June.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

Posted in auslit, short fiction, short fiction competition, short stories, short story, short story comp, short story competition, short story competition 2013, short story competition shortlist, short story competitions | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Protocol Seventeen, by Rachel Sanderson (short story)

A settlement designated non-critical will be deleted where it prevents access to supply of a critical resource. A record will be made prior to deletion.

We travel in guise as tourists. We have three days to complete the job and document what we can, as required under protocol seventeen. I’m confident, though I’ve never done this before. We know the layout. Seventy three houses, a third appear to be habited which is high for this region so far as anybody knows, though nobody knows much - it’s a long way out. We spot a few commercials too, some still in use by the look. One main street and a web of smaller streets coming off it. Beyond the town was farmland once. Farmland! I laugh when they tell us that, imagining chickens and cows, things out of a story. It’s deadland now.
‘How does this town even still exist?’ I wonder aloud.
When we disembark, we find ourselves alone on an empty slab of grey concrete where it’s cold and almost dark. There’s a sign, unlit, white letters on black: Roseville.
‘Seriously, who’s going to care?’ Jenna says, looking around. ‘Who wants to remember this place?’
‘It doesn’t matter who cares, it’s protocol’, I say. ‘That’s why we’re here.’

***

<21390517>
The team is pleased to report successful drop off and initial recon completed. While only eleven individuals were tagged on the first pass, it is anticipated that we’ll locate more tomorrow. Conditions are poor, vis is low and the temperature is subopt for actuals. Note that while the primary layout is accurate, it seems the detailed sim graphics were out of date. There are a number of new houses that appear to have been fabricated post-conflict; we suspect unauthorised. Therefore population is higher than originally estimated. Request data be updated to reflect this finding. Will provide further input tomorrow as a matter of priority. Request permission to offline.
<Permission granted>

***

‘I want to look around.’
‘Are you kidding?’ Jenna leans back on the bed and crosses her arms over her chest. ‘It’s freaking cold out there. And it’s dark. You can’t see a thing.’
‘I just want to look. We’re meant to be tourists, that’s what tourists do, right?’ Jenna shakes her head. ‘I’m off pay till tomorrow.’
‘You’re not curious? Not even a little?’
For a second I think I’ve got her. I see her forehead crinkle as she considers it. We’ve worked together a few times and I know, how can I put this, I know she doesn’t limit herself to regs outside of paid hours. But she shakes her head again. Already she’s got her deck up and is adjusting the display.
‘The connection’s bad. You’ll spend your night swearing at that thing,’ I warn her, but she only shrugs.
I shut the door, zipping my jacket, checking that my headgear is airtight. We saw a few people out without it this afternoon, but I haven’t run the tests yet and I know better than to trust untested air. That shit can mess with you for weeks.
The woman at reception downstairs gave us a code when we checked in. I could see Jenna trying not to laugh. Now I key the code into the cold metal lock and I’m almost surprised when it works and the door hums open. I’m introduced to a blast of cold air. I feel it on my hands and neck, the only body parts I’ve left exposed.
It’s dark outside. It doesn’t get dark like this in Citadel. I can’t think of the last time I was in true darkness outside of the crib, and the crib is different, of course. It’s not like you’re going to run into anything unexpected. It’s not like you’ll even be aware. I hesitate a moment, almost think better of leaving. I almost head back upstairs to Jenna.
But the only way to see is to get out there. So I step over the threshold and the door whirrs shut behind me.

It’s a block to the main street, which I figure is where I should go. I adjust the headgear once more, and set off. Truth is, I haven’t travelled actual like this in a long time. We used to do it all the time, my brother and me, when we were kids. We’d pretend all sorts of crazy, run around the streets causing havoc. But Citadel streets are quiet now. You know how it is; the crib is essential. You have to be in the loop. You mean to get out more but you don’t. Before you know it, you’re virtual almost all the time and it’s been weeks, months since you’ve done anything the old way. So it’s no surprise that my senses are on high alert. I can’t see much, the streets aren’t lit, but there’s a yellow glow coming from the occasional window, faint sounds of voices, strains of music. And the cold! It’s so cold. I’m wearing heavy, layered clothes but it doesn’t seem to help.
I walk past abandoned houses with yards overgrown by weeds. There are reminders of the war, even here - the occasional pit of a bullet lodged in concrete, the dark residue of fire. The drought has done its bit too. I can’t imagine what it might have been like in better times. I don’t even know if there’s ever been such a thing as better times here.
Better times come from better ways of doing things sings itself in my head.

I turn onto the main street. A figure is approaching. The details are obscured by darkness. I see it is a man, but something is not right. As he gets closer it becomes apparent that the colour has faded from his hair so it’s almost white. His skin seems to have lost whatever holds skin firm; it sags and wrinkles unevenly around his eyes and his neck, hangs in drooping folds under his chin. He weaves slightly as he walks, can’t seem to hold a straight line. He limps. His right leg is non-functioning, doesn’t bend at the knee. I observe his approach. Of course, I think, of course. A place like this: no coin, no juice, everything subopt. But still, this is something I didn’t expect to see. He’s old, I think. Unmitigated age. This is what it looks like. Old without the stems. This is how we all used to end, once. I breath a quiet expletive. Jenna won’t believe this, I think.
At first it seems he’ll walk straight past me. He is muttering under his breath. He is looking at the ground. He won’t even see me, I think. In fact he doesn’t see me and I am frozen to the spot, unable to process, as he lurches closer, and before I know what’s happening he’s walked into me, and I feel the solid weight of his body, smell the rank odour of sweat and something else I’m not familiar with, some scent that is sour and bright. He grunts.
‘You,’ he says. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘My wife and I…’ I begin the line I’d practiced for a week.
He makes a noise. At first I think he’s angry. It’s a low, gravelly, roaring sound. His shoulders are shaking, his dilapidated face is turning red. Then I realise he is laughing.
‘Fuck me,’ he says. ‘My wife and I, how long since I heard anyone use words like that?’ Then his voices changes, becomes harder. ‘So what are you?’ He straightens up and holds my gaze. He’s a big man despite the degeneration. I am suddenly uneasy.
‘You an old-timer? Is that it? Why are you here?’
I start to stammer. I feel the firm ground of confidence rapidly dissolving beneath me.
‘I’m a tourist,’ I say. Stick to what you planned. Don’t deviate. ‘My wife and I are travelling together, from Citadel. We want to see the regions, learn more about our past…’ I trail off uselessly. The broken, grey houses around me make the words ridiculous.
‘Well, tourist,’ the old man says, considering me. ‘Welcome to Roseville.’

I follow him down an alleyway. I am surprised how quickly he walks, given his physical condition. There are smells in the air that I don’t recognize, discernible even through the filtering apparatus covering my mouth and nose. Rank, burnt, pungent. The man who is now my guide tells me his name is Jim. I don’t know why I’m following, something about him compels me. Suddenly he stops and I almost walk into him. We stand at the front door of a house with boarded up windows at ground level and broken windows above. A slither of light is just visible at Jim’s feet. He bangs a few times and the door opens. A warm, smoke-filled fug hits me. Voices rise in greeting and, uncertain, heart pumping, I am ushered inside.

People look up as we enter, but only for a moment. I’m surprised they don’t seem more curious about my presence. Guise is effective, I think. Maybe they do have tourists here from time to time. Maybe I’m not the first. There are a few others like Jim, old men, faded and withering, sitting around a table. They are sorting through small, brightly-coloured rectangles of paper, laying them down in columns and rows on the table, picking them up. One of them gives an impassioned cry and lays all his rectangles down at once, then there is discussion and disputation and someone collects them all and mixes them up and it all starts again. I am led past the table to the other side of the room where Jim calls a few words to a dark-haired woman across a high wooden barrier who hands me a bottle.
‘Roseville’s finest,’ Jim says.
I hold it. It is true glass, I think, a rare old thing, and tinted green. Jim is given one too and he raises his like he’s signalling to me, knocks it gently against mine.
‘May all your days be good ones,’ he says. I fumble for a response but it seems, if I follow his lead, the correct response is to drink. I quickly unsnap the headgear, tuck it back into the pouch that sits around my neck. I raise the bottle. The liquid is cold and bitter and gently buzzes on my tongue.

He begins to speak. It seems that he has been waiting for me, an interested stranger, to tell his story to.
‘I was born here in Roseville, you see. Lived here all my life,’ he punctuates his speaking with a dry laugh. ‘You and your woman will look round tomorrow morning, and be gone by the afternoon, sure enough.’
I’ve flicked my recorder to on, surreptitiously. This is what I’m here for.
‘My father moved here in the fifties, he saw trouble coming, and thought it was time to get away from the city. Started his own business here. Did alright too. Smart man my father, though he didn’t foresee how far the trouble would travel. But who would have, eh. Ah, you’re probably too young to remember all that.’
I nod, and say nothing. My earliest childhood memories are suffused by the war that tore the old city apart: the thumping bass of explosions, my mother’s face, pale in the darkness as she pulled my brother and I out of bed and into the shelter. The old man continues.
‘Born here, I was, and I’ll die here too, like my father did. He’s buried in the cemetery on the edge of town. I go there sometimes when I need to think. It’s a strange thing, I’m older now than he was when he went. Older than my own old Dad. That I didn’t expect. Won’t be long now and I’ll be joining him I guess.’
I order another round of drinks and he grunts his gratitude.
‘So have you ever been to Citadel?’ I ask.
‘Nope. Not one for travel. My children left, years back. My grandchildren are all Citadel-born, city kids through and through, but it’s too late for me now. My home is here. No, I couldn’t leave.’
I’m nodding, trying to contain my disbelief.
‘So you… you like it here?’
‘This crap-pile you mean?’ he snorts. ‘I know what it looks like to you, son, but you have to understand, all my memories are here. My whole life. I met my Nerida about a block from where we are today. We lived together on Drayton Street for gone forty years. She died there. I saw my kids grow here, and these old bastards,’ he gestures to the table behind us, ‘are what I have to make do with for friends.’ He waves to the woman behind the barrier. ‘Let’s have another, Etty, before I get too bloody sentimental.’

I’ve had too much to drink. My body’s not used to this sort of input. I stay a while longer then leave Jim there with his friends, say I have to check in on my wife, which is not entirely a lie. I let out a belch in the icy air and it echoes off the walls of the houses on either side of the street. I weave my way back through the quiet streets of Roseville. I don’t let myself wonder which house is Jim’s or what corner it was he met his love on.

Jenna is asleep. I hear her breathing. I’m swaying a little as I close the door behind me. I’m tired and drunk but I’m not yet ready to sleep. I should upload the night’s recording now, I think. That’s how we operate – transfer data as close to collection as possible, for safety’s sake. But something stops me. I’m not sure what.
‘Ben?’ Jenna’s voice is muffled and vague.
‘I’m here,’ I say.
The sensation is strange, a kind of aching in the center of my chest, a sharp compression in my throat. I wonder if it is from something in the air. I get ready for bed without turning the light on. I try not to disturb her. Somewhere between taking my jacket off and setting my deck to recharge, I stop. I’m shaking. I feel as though the air itself is quivering. Soon this will all be gone and all that will be left is what I capture. Words and images. Sound and light and the numbers they are made from. And maybe that’s all there is, under it all, I think. Maybe that’s all we are: a string of zeroes and ones. I suddenly feel so very tired.
‘Jenna,’ I say quietly, half hoping that she won’t hear.
She makes a small, sleepy sound.
‘Jenna, I think I’m getting too old for this.’
‘Old?’ she says. ‘That doesn’t even make sense.’

***

The Australian Literature Review
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The Man Of Black, by Tyler Gates (short story)

‘When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend - it’s to run.’ Those were the words old Andy Miller said to Reverend Adams the day the reverend came to town. The man had warned him that the only thing to find at the hill was dust and tumbleweed, and a whole lot of graves.
‘If you’re a lucky, son,’ he said, ‘you won’t have to help dig many.’
It was Henry Anderson who dug Andy’s grave. Reverend Adams had built the casket out of local pine wood.
Behind the hill, the townspeople congregated in a small cemetery under a purple sky. It was good to see so many had risen from their beds that early morning for the funeral service, though it didn’t surprise Reverend Adams. Andy Miller was a well-known man, being the owner of the only saloon in Hinter Hill - the Dust Bucket Saloon. The name had seemed to strike out at the reverend during his reciting of the eulogy.
‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God: Andy Miller. We commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Don’t be disappointed when all ya find here is dust and tumbleweed, he heard Mister Miller tell him again. ‘The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord maketh his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ the others joined.

Dawn light was beaming through the windows of the Dust Bucket by the time every man had flocked there after the service. Reverend Adams sat forward at the bar, staring down at his glass of water, listening to the commotion behind him. Mister Miller was dead, but his business hadn’t suffered any grief.
The minister noticed the young Will Miller, Andy Miller’s only son, was already breaking into his role as owner. The young man had thanked the reverend for his service, but that was all he had time to say before the crowd pushed through the doors demanding whiskey and beer. Since then there hadn’t been any quiet…
…until the boy Jimmy Ringo burst in red-faced and shouting, ‘HE’S COMIN’! HE’S COMIN’!’
There was silence; a quiet so still a man could hear his heartbeat in his chest. Every voice had stopped and every eye was on the boy as he struggled for breath. Reverend Adams kept his gaze on his water.
‘Who’s comin’, lad?’ asked Tall-John, hoping with all hope.
‘Him. The Man,’ Jimmy replied.
‘What man?’ insisted skinny Tucker Davies.
‘The Man in the Black Stetson!’ In that moment, the boy Jimmy Ringo brought a heavy shadow down over them all. Grown men dropped to their knees under its weight, and wept; others muttered words of prayer, and some ran. Reverend Adams took a drink of his water.
The minister remembered the tales he heard men tell in Hinter Hill over shots of Coffin Varnish and rum. Most of the time they were stories told by drunks, trying to give their friends a fright, but some told queer stories beyond the teller’s imagination.
Some spoke of a man, an outlaw who was once an undertaker before he butchered his entire hometown. Twisted-Carter heard he was no man at all, but a demon come to claim souls for the Devil. One-Tooth Sam claimed he was a savage who scalped his victims. But whichever story Reverend Adams heard, the man was always described dressed in black with a matching Stetson hat, with a face cast in shadow. And now the Man in the Black Stetson was coming to Hinter Hill.
After all the patrons had left the Dust Bucket to barricade their doors or run south for the next town, Reverend Adams remained at his stool, with the quiet. Outside he heard shouting, the distant banging of a hammer, and mayhem. Don’t be disappointed when all ya find here is dust and tumbleweed, and a whole lot o’ graves. Oh yes, plenty o’ graves, reverend. And if you’re a lucky son, you won’t have to help dig many.
‘Reverend Adams.’ Jimmy Ringo had returned. ‘The mayor would like to see ya, sir.’
‘Then I shall not keep him waiting.’ The reverend smiled at the boy, stood, and followed him back outside into the dusty streets.
Hinter Hill’s population was near on two-hundred - and not one was in sight. Planks boarded doors and windows left and right, with nothing but shrieking wind to keep them company on their way to the town hall.
They passed Poole’s Barber Shop, Brooke’s Goods and Wares, Bart’s Leather Repairs, The Burrows Blacksmiths, and the Ten Winks Inn, all closed. The stables were empty, except for one hardy chestnut horse that the minister didn’t recognise.
Ahead of them, at the north end of town, was the church with its small bell tower, resting atop a brown hill from which the settlement was named. Even the house of God showed no signs of life.
‘Why have you not left for safety with the others?’ Reverend Adams asked young Jimmy as they walked.
‘I don’t run,’ the boy said defiantly.
‘It is not a fault to look for protection, son.’
‘I don’t need no protection.’
‘What of your parents? You must have some family that would be concerned for your wellbeing.’
‘My Ma died when I was seven. Didn’t know my dad, and the only other family I had was an uncle who drank too much and hit me, ‘til I shot him in the leg, and… now this is home. These folk are my family, or at least they’re as close to one as I’ll get.’
‘We are all God’s children, Jimmy. We are all family.’
Passing the sheriff’s office, five notorious faces stared at them; five notorious faces Reverend Adams knew well. ‘Wanted dead or alive’ it read above their heads: John R West wanted for stagecoach robbery and bank robbing; Will ‘Crow’ Martin wanted for gun slinging and train robbing; Shirley ‘Wild’ Canton wanted for prostitution, loitering and murder; Mart ‘Big Bang’ Arthur wanted for cattle rustling, vagrancy, stagecoach robbery and murder. But the last face was the one Reverend Adams knew better than any man: Cornelius Black wanted for vagrancy, bank robbing, stagecoach robbery, gun slinging and murder. When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend - it’s to run.
When they both stepped into the mayor’s office, the minister eyed Sheriff Stilwell standing beside the mayor’s desk, chewing tobacco with his strong jowl.
Mayor Walters was seated, his round face beaded with sweat. ‘Thank you for coming Reverend Adams, truly.’ The mayor fidgeted in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. ‘I didn’t think you’d run with the rest, but a man can’t be too sure about people these days.’
‘Yes, of course. How may I be of service?’ asked the reverend.
‘Well, uh, it’s the townfolk. This “Man in the Black Hat” has caused up a mighty panic,’ he explained, as though the minister couldn’t have known.
Listening, the sheriff rummaged through his coat pocket to retrieve a handkerchief and spat brown into the cloth. ‘Black Stetson,’ he directed to the mayor.
‘Beg pardon, sheriff?’
‘He’s called “The Man in the Black Stetson”, not “The Man in the Black Hat”.’
‘Eh,’ the mayor shrugged, ‘makes no matter; they’re near the same thing.’ The mayor turned his attention back to the reverend. ‘Anyhow, what I wanted to say was that maybe you could help us. There’s still a good number of folk left in town, and they need… distraction, comfort; and I think you’re the man to give it to them.’
‘I’d be more than happy to do so,’ said Reverend Adams, ‘but are you sure I’m the right person?’
The mayor gave him a long look. ‘These people trust you. You’ve heard their confessions, buried their loved ones, and taught their children. You’re well respected; have been since you’ve been here. Old Andy Miller knew what kind of man you are, and he spoke of no one higher. I’m asking this of you not only as mayor but as a fellow townsman of Hinter Hill.’
‘I will do my utmost.’
‘Excellent!’
‘But how would you propose I get the townspeople to leave their homes?’
‘Most of ‘em have gone and barricaded their doors shut,’ Jimmy added.
Mayor Walters made some thinking sound and then sat quiet for a moment. ‘Call a sermon, and let the good sheriff deal with getting the people out of their homes.’
Before the minister could speak, Jimmy cut in. ‘What if the Man in the Black Stetson does come?’
In reply, the sheriff whipped his gun free from its holster, showing the initials K.S. engraved on the frame. ‘Then I’ll deal with that as well.’

Reverend Adams stood at the altar, listening to the church bell ring. When he closed his eyes the sound became drops of water falling against a pond surface, sending endless ripples out to touch the water’s edge. But then he remembered Andy Miller, the notorious faces, the Man in the Black Stetson, Cornelius Black, and then the sound became a knell.
Jimmy was the first to step inside and sit down that late afternoon, followed by Mayor Walters. Sheriff Stilwell remained outside, gathering restless children, puffy-eyed women, and men stinking of whiskey into the church.
As more townspeople ushered through the doors, Will Miller entered, gave the reverend a silent nod and took a seat upfront. Dust Bucket regulars Henry Anderson, Tucker Davies, One-Tooth Sam, and Maggie Barter all followed; but no Tall-John or Twisted-Carter – both likely halfway to the nearest town.
The sheriff stood outside the doors as the last lot of folk entered. Once they took their seats he gave a nod to Reverend Adams, closed the doors, and kept watch in the dusk.
The reverend looked over the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters; at their hollowed eyes, pale faces and their trembling hands. He noticed some still wore their morning funerary clothes, but what he noticed most of all was the quiet. He never knew the people of Hinter Hill to be so deathly quiet. After they buried Andy Miller they were so full of spirit, drinking and reminiscing of old times in the Dust Bucket. Now they seemed as dead as Mister Miller.
‘Good people of Hinter Hill,’ the minister began. ‘I stand here to tell you not to despair. You have all come from faraway places, I know. All of you have faced many and more trials and persecutions, as you have told me. You’ve all sought Hinter Hill for a simple life, and a peaceful life; to escape unfortunate ends. And I ask you do not give up hope, for the way to God is-’
A single gunshot hit their ears like thunder.
Men, women and children fell to the floor in panic. Jimmy leapt to his feet and ran outside in haste. Reverend Adams followed, leaving the others to hide beneath their seats.
Outside under the darkening sky, Sheriff Stilwell lay sprawled out on the dirt, dead, with Jimmy rushing to kneel over his body. But it wasn’t the sight of the sheriff that sent ice up the minister’s spine – it was the sight of a ghost. A man who stood still as stone, dressed in black with a matching hat that left his face hidden by shadow. As the Man in the Black Stetson started his approach, silver spurs caught the last of the day’s light and winked. Clink… clink… clink, was the sound they made.
‘Jimmy,’ the minister called to the boy. ‘Get back. Come, stand behind me.’
Clink… clink… clink.
‘I won’t hide behind no reverend like some coward!’ the boy proclaimed.
Clink… clink… clink.
‘Stand beside me then.’ The boy found that option less detrimental to his pride and hurried over.
By the time the spurs stopped their song, the Man in the Black Stetson was standing over the dead Sheriff Stilwell. ‘I’ve been looking for you,’ said a grave voice.
When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend - it’s to run.
‘I know,’ the reverend answered.
‘I wanted to settle things back in Nashville,’ said the Man in the Black Stetson.
‘I know.’
Jimmy looked at the reverend with searching eyes.
‘Safe to say, I didn’t expect the notorious Cornelius Black to turn pious and run. In fact, that was the last thing I expected.’
‘It was unexpected for me as well. I didn’t think I could live a better life, but I ran, and I tried. I thought my life was precious, that I could change it all; repent and be absolved…
When I heard you were coming here, I knew it was fate. Every man must pay for his wrongs.’ Both Jimmy and the Man in the Black Stetson watched silently as the minister raised his hands above his head. ‘I am carrying no weapon. I will not resist or flee. I only ask that, once you take your vengeance, you will leave Hinter Hill and its people unharmed.’
The man was unmoved. ‘I only came to Hinter Hill to settle things with you, not to shoot wailing women and yellow-bellied men. Told that sheriff such before he acted a fool. Nothing would please me more than to get out of this backwater hole.’
‘Then we have an agreement.’
‘That we do.’
The Man in the Black Stetson pulled back his coat and took hold of his gun, and the man that was once Cornelius Black closed his eyes and whispered a final prayer.
The gunshot rang loud over the small town of Hinter Hill…
…and when the reverend opened his eyes, the Dead Man in the Black Stetson fell backwards to the dirt with not so much as a grunt.
The reverend turned to see that smoke was still rising from the gun in Jimmy’s hands, with the initials K.S. familiarly engraved on the frame.
‘You saved me…’ he told Jimmy.
The townspeople emerged from the church, mouths open and eyes staring.
‘Not Cornelius Black,’ confirmed Jimmy Ringo with a sharp gaze. ‘I saved Reverend Adams.’

***

You can connect with Tyler Gates on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/WritingwithTyler

***

The Australian Literature Review
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The Old Jenson Place, by Tarran Jones (short story)

My bricks are tumbling down, while my mortar crumbles to dust. Red dirt fills my rooms while lush grasses carpet my floors. Animals make me their homes while the wind blows through my heart. Once, I was filled with lust, laughter, sadness and tears. Anger and love ran rampant through my halls while children played hide and seek within my grounds. People say these walls can talk and I know this to be true.

I have witnessed many things: floods, drought, love, arguments, bush fires, wars. Truly amazing things have happened here. I was there when the dream started. When loving hands gently caressed my stones and lovingly spread my mortar. Brick by brick the dream spread. Room by room I was created. My family started small: first only one, which turned into two, then into more.

Generations passed till hordes have passed through my rooms, which had slowly started decaying. My people soon forget the love that started me. They forget I was there for them from the beginning. More and more I fall apart. Harsh winds thunder against my walls, chipping at my bindings. Rains will torrent down on my roof, washing out my inner workings. Fire creeps closer to my heart as the brilliant heat of the sun dries out my lush grasses. Soon I start to crumble and my people, without a regretful glance, leave me to my fate.

The years pass slowly and I see what happens to the countryside while I lose a brick here and there, and other people come and take a piece of my heart for themselves. I survive while others don’t, till I am a ruin of a home, nearly completely broken. Forgotten, my story is waiting in these walls. Waiting for a time when these walls will talk.

Amelia put her pen and notebook away and sighed. She drove past the weathered house every day as she travelled out of the township on her way to work. Every day she wondered what the story was with that house. Who lived there? What was its story? The poem she had just written in her notebook came to her while she sat and stared at the house.
‘Toot, toot!’ Amelia jumped, her heart in her mouth and cracked her knee against the steering wheel. Pain went through her body and Amelia felt her eyes start to water.
‘Shite!’ she hissed as a green car pulled up next to her.
The other car’s window rolled down and a blonde head popped out. ‘Yo, Amelia. Are you staring at that house again? Come to the Feddy for a drink! It’s Friday night and we’re getting ready to party.’
Amelia shook her head, ‘I can’t tonight Lissa. I have to finish my assignment. I need to email it off tomorrow.’
Lissa scowled, her face scrunching up in displeasure. ‘Come on, Meals. You never hang with us anymore. We’re going to have something to eat at the Feddy and go to the water tower for a smoke afterward. Your assignment can wait.’
‘No, it can’t. If I want to get my vet qualifications and replace Peter the pet killer then I have to study. It’s like an hour and a half drive to Lockston to visit another vet. We need one here. Only two days ago, over at the Tyler farm, they nearly lost a cow that had a difficult labour. As it was, they lost the calf.’
Lissa nodded. ‘Fine. Be boring. You know where we will be if you want to join us later.’ Lissa started her car and the back wheel spun for a few seconds, clouds of dust gathered and then she was gone.

Amelia started wistfully after the departing car, wishing she could go out. There wasn’t that much to do in a small country town but she was serious about replacing Peter. It just wasn’t safe to take your pets to him. One time a dog went in for shots and came home in an urn. She glanced back to the house for a moment and started for the second time in an hour. There was a girl in a cream frock standing in the doorway. Amelia’s eyes were sore after staring at the old colonial house for an hour, so she thought she was imagining things. ‘What the…’ Amelia looked again and rubbed her eyes. The girl was gone. ‘Well, that’s my cue. Home it is.’
Amelia gently threw her notebook on the passenger seat and started her car. On the drive home she noticed another store had a for sale sign on the window. Two minutes later she was pulling into her driveway. Her house was a classic railway house with high ceilings and thick walls. She even had an old-school cast iron stove that didn’t work in the kitchen.
The pitter patter of tiny furry feet greeted Amelia as she opened the door. A black cat wound itself around her legs and mewed. She bent down, hooked him in her hands and gave him a kiss. ‘Hey there Mr Yin. What have you been up to today?’
Mr Yin batted her nose and tried to bite her knuckle.
‘Okay, okay. It’s dinner time.’ Amelia set him down and walked into the darkness of her kitchen, fumbling for the light switch. A shiver ran through her body, making her break out in goosebumps. She felt like she was being watched. She turned around but only Mr Yin was there, licking his whiskers.
After the two of them had their dinner, she settled in the lounge and started typing; Mr Yin curled up beside her, purring. Finally, at 1am, she was done. Her eyes tired and sore, Amelia sent off her assignment and closed her laptop with a yawn. Mr Yin was still sleeping beside her so she gave him a pat, feeling his black soft fur glide across her fingers. He shifted and gave her access to his belly which she rubbed for a few seconds then got up to go to bed.
The next morning Amelia felt more like herself. As she ate her pancakes she flipped through her notebook and came across the poem she had written the previous day. The words turned golden in her head and she knew what she was going to do with the day.

An hour later Amelia was in front of Kummara Town Hall. Kummara was a small town but it was rich in history. The town hall was filled with deeds and records, and it was here homes were listed. Amelia walked in and was greeted by Mrs Egan, a short elderly woman with grey-streaked hair.
Mrs Egan had steely blues eyes that belied her age and were piercing when she was annoyed. That day they were soft as she looked at Amelia. ‘My goodness. Amelia McKinnon. We never see you in here. How is your mother?’
Amelia smiled at the woman. ‘Hi Mrs Egan. My mum’s fine. She’s having a good time in Adelaide.’
Mrs Egan shuffled some papers and asked, ‘So, what can I do for you?’
‘I’m looking into who owns that derelict homestead about ten minutes drive out of town. I think it’s from the early nineteenth century.’
Mrs Egan closed her eyes for a moment, trying to place the property. A few moments later her eyes flew open and she clicked her fingers. ‘You’re talking about the old Jenson place. The family moved out of the area in 1953. We have been trying to get that place heritage listed for so long.’
Amelia was impressed by the old woman’s memory. ‘Why are you trying to get it heritage listed?’ she asked.
Mrs Egan raised her eyebrow in surprise.

‘I thought that you of all people would know that building’s history.’
Amelia shook her head and Mrs Egan continued. ‘Michael Jenson came over from Britain in 1870 and was commissioned to set up a veterinary practice. He was to service the Crown’s horses and the working animals of the settlers of this area. He made quite a name for himself and his family was quite well off. What is left of the homestead is only a quarter of what was originally there.’
Amelia felt her heart quicken at the thought of an old veterinary business.
‘Why did the family leave?’
Mrs Egan walked over to the computer and tapped a few keys. ‘Ah, here we go. Not bad for an old lady, hey? The computer records say they sold the property as it was extremely run down and the family wealth had dwindled in 1930 due to the market crash. They moved to Sydney to try their fortunes at another venture.’
Amelia leaned over to look at the computer too. ‘Who did they sell it to?’
Mrs Egan tapped more keys and then she frowned. ‘Hmm. It seems that the building was sold to Andrew O’Conner, who then died in an accident. Then the building was claimed by the Crown and left to rot.’
Amelia had a crazy idea running through her head. ‘Can someone put a bid on it to buy it?’
Mrs Egan stood back and stared at her. ‘Why would you want to do that? It is a complete ruin.’
Amelia shrugged, ‘I love that place. It calls to me.’
Mrs Egan turned back to the computer and scrolled down the page. ‘We had a team down there three years ago pricing the place and how much it would take to restore it. It was very pricey. The land and building itself isn’t expensive; 120,000 would cover it, but there are conditions to the sale. The new owner MUST restore it to its original state and turn it into a historical landmark.’
Amelia’s hopes went down the drain. She didn’t have that kind of money. It must have shown on her face.
Mrs Egan patted her arm and said, ‘Don’t worry about an old building, girl. Concentrate on your studies and get out of this town. Make a name for yourself, just like Michael Jenson did.’
Amelia left the Town Hall feeling sad. The sun hit her face and the heat warmed her skin. It felt good letting the sun’s beams soak into her being. It was coming to the end of summer. She would miss the warmth and glow that summer brought. She got into her car and drove back to the Jenson Homestead where she stared at the ruins of the house. Knowing what she now knew, Amelia could see what Mrs Egan was saying. It was obvious that the shell that was left had been part of a bigger whole.
She ducked under the fence and touched a weathered stone. It was rough and grainy. Tall yellow grass carpeted the floor and grew everywhere. She followed the layout of the building, trying to imagine a veterinary clinic. Goosebumps covered her body. That feeling of being watched was back and stronger. Amelia spun around, catching sight of that woman again. ‘Hey!’ she called out, but the woman ran off.
Amelia followed her, hoping to ask why the woman was watching her. The unknown woman led her on a merry chase through the tall grass. Finally the woman stopped and stood with her back turned. Amelia panted as she stopped and actually saw that the woman was wearing a long dark blue dress, the kind someone would have worn centuries ago. The woman’s hair was pinned to the top of her head and she worn an apron with a dog’s paw embroidered at the bottom.
‘Who are you? What are you doing?’ Amelia called out, very confused.
The mystery woman still didn’t answer but she pointed to a rock.
‘What…?’ Amelia had her hands on her hips and felt sweat trickle down her spine. The sun was in her eyes, so she looked away for a moment. When she looked back the mystery woman was gone. ‘I’m going crazy,’ she whispered to herself.
What was so special about that rock? Amelia carefully walked over and bent to examine it. The rock seemed ordinary enough to her. It was grey, rough and had moss growing on it. Something about the way it was shaped tugged at her. It was too uniform, like it had been carved. Amelia stepped back and looked at the area as a whole. What she saw shocked her. The homestead had been huge. She was standing in one of the rooms and, if she was not mistaken, the rock was part of the chimney. She walked back to the rock and examined it a bit more. Why would a ghost, for Amelia was honest with herself, why would a ghost point to a random rock in the countryside? There had to be more to it. Amelia ran her hands over the rock and, just as she was about to give up, her fingertip snagged on a dent. She poked a bit harder and jumped when a piece of the chimney came apart. A dark hole beckoned her but she didn’t want to put her hands in there.
Amelia picked up a thick stick and stuck it into the hole. A small metal box fell out with a clang and Amelia was excited. She held the box in her trembling hands and sat down in the grass, the rocks digging into her bum. The box was held together with a small antique lock that would not give, even after all these years. She picked a medium sized rock and brought it down on the lock. After two strikes the lock fell open and Amelia was able to open the box.

***

Three Years Later:

Lissa looked at her friend with pride. Today was the day all Amelia’s hard work had come to fruition.
Amelia adjusted her hat and double-checked her clothes were perfect. ‘Shall we go to the ceremony now?’
Lissa laughed and hooked her arm through Amelia’s. ‘I think it would be the perfect time. We’re all so proud of you, Amelia. I wanted to let you know. We gave you so much crap about always studying but look at you now!’
Amelia blushed and waved off her friend’s compliments. It had been hard work but now it was all over with and the town need not ever have to use the animal killer again.
They got into the car and started the journey to the ceremony. As they pulled up, Amelia sat there and stared at her new practice. It was beautiful. A light caught her eye and she nodded a thank you to the woman in the trees.
Lissa opened her door, got out and said, ‘There’s no backing out now, Mealy. We’re all waiting for you.’
Amelia laughed and got out of the car. The whole town was crowded around the ribbon that surrounded her new practice. The Mayor, a portly man named Sean, gave her a pair of scissors.
‘Welcome. Thank you all for coming today. I promise to be the best veterinarian I can be. Your pets and animals will always be safe in my care. I now pronounce the heritage Jenson McKinnon Veterinary Clinic open for business.’

***

Tarran Jones on Facebook: www.facebook.com/tarranjones13.com.au

***

The Australian Literature Review
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This Must Be The Place, by Kris Cerneka (short story)

Papa said, ‘This must be the place,’ and I knew from the last three announcements of, ‘This should be it,’ ‘Here we are,’ and, ‘We’ve finally made it,’ that this backwater railroad pigsty was not the end of the line but another in the succession of refuges for us wanderers. Somewhere around, ‘This; this is our home,’ I realised Papa’s reasoning that we were escaping the threat of the Japanese had lost its integrity or, at the very least, I reasoned that a stretch of desolate ghost towns several hundred kilometres from Adelaide did not hold high in the priorities of the Axis’s quest for domination.
Papa had led us to a clearing nearby the river and left us with our luggage while he went upstream to talk to the landowner’s for permission. I got to work unloading the tent – now more a Frankenstein shelter of materials than a uniform sheet of canvas – while Melanie decided in her aloof manner to walk Scampy down to the river. Melanie understandably treated this entire ordeal as if we were in a travelling circus, and both the garish tent and Pap’s joking talk did nothing but feed her fantasies. She’d now pulled out her copper wire hoop and she, the ringleader, was going to have her lion Scampy jump through the ring of fire to an audience of river toads. It had been a good three months since she met anyone even five years within her age. It had been since Adelaide since I’d met another in their twenties, let alone teens.
That night Papa made a campfire much to my surprise. He’d killed a few rabbits out across the railroad and said he’d spotted a good half dozen roos on his way back from the landowners. Big ones, ones that Scampy should stay clear of. This was fertile land, he said and assured us while wielding his rabbit haunch haphazardly that Melanie and I could expect to be staying well fed and warm for a long while yet. Melanie protested for a second, but only to point out Papa didn’t mention Scampy, whom he then immediately threw his haunch to and assured Melanie that the shaggy black mutt would be the fattest of us all.
They retired early and I was left to douse the flames. When the smoke cleared I could vividly see the stars in their cluttered thousands illuminating the flat land in front of me. Papa used to convince us that the stars were more numerous out in the country because they were there to keep us company. All I could think now is that they weren’t a resplendent family but garish gloating fools waltzing at a party that was behind closed doors. We four outsiders were down here alone, in a tent tucked between a muddy river and a ghost town.

***

With every announcement of a permanent home came Papa’s attempt at salesmanship: ‘This is the town of the big apple, girls!’, ‘Stuart’s expedition came through here… twice!’ and of course his ace in the hole: ‘You kids are going to love the colonial bridge.’ This town’s source of unending awe came quite early as we trekked down the dust trail and Papa’s eyes lit up as he pointed. ‘This place even has a candy shop!’ he yelped, and motioned a hand that was almost like granting us permission, as if we were suddenly sold ecstatically on the idea of confectionery and were struggling against the chains that denied us it. But as Melanie disappeared leaving a trail of dust and the front door swinging I realised I had only thought for one of us.
Inside was nothing like Adelaide’s sugar wonderlands. Like outside it stunk of dry manure. The air was heavy with flies. The candy man was in fact a burly woman, dressed not in stripes but a flannel shirt and denim pants that I thought positioned her as the matriarch of this empire of dust and shrubs.  Melanie had already adjusted though, and had now much to the amused chagrin of the shopkeeper adopted the role of magician in her imaginary troupe, trying to make the candy in the shop disappear. The woman eagle-eyed her, and Melanie must have felt her eyes as she whipped around suddenly to face her accuser. She screamed ‘Thief!’ and pointed at Scampy before chasing him out the store repeatedly framing him at the top of her lungs. All the woman could do was heave a coarse laugh. She turned to me.
‘You two are Arthur’s. Mm, mm.’
I realised then that Papa had disappeared before I had even entered the store.
‘You know my father?’
‘I knew Arthur Speck as a boy but I ain’t sure about the bearded man that walked into my house last night.’
‘He didn’t cause any trouble did he?’
She heaved her laughter again.
‘Not at all girl. Not that man. He’s still a hoot, still managed to send my husband tittering like a hyena. He’s just changed a little is all.’ She started to busy herself around the shop like bored jitters, though the place seemed spotless as it could be. ‘He’s still as mad as a mad dog.’
She seemed a blunt woman, though it didn’t make me uncomfortable. The kind of woman that offered an unseen aura of protection. She also seemed the kind to talk to herself when no one was around and considering the half a dozen empty shacks on the way I reasoned that would be often.
‘Your father is thinking of building a house here. Nothing big. He wants my husband to help him out. I didn’t think anyone would want to live in this bastard of a place, excuse my language. Especially you girls.’
This was the first I heard of it, and the look on my face betrayed my surprise to the shopkeeper who turned her head with a kind of pity.
‘I’ll fatten you two up, don’t you worry. It’ll be nice to have some kids around. Even my husband barely visits me down here these days. The rotten coot.’
She jostled herself around and heaved a laugh half-heartedly. I felt a strange sympathy in return.
‘Y’like candy, girl?’

***

I emerged outside hands full with humbugs I didn’t ask for, in pursuit of a sister I couldn’t be expected to take care of. Melanie wasn’t far though, having apprehended Scampy who fruitlessly tried to lick her face. She whispered something in the dog’s ears as if they shared a secret I wasn’t in on; she was absent in her own mind as usual, as content to stage her own production of the world around her as Papa was to embrace its true mundane existence. It left me to strike a balance and all it gave me was suction on my skin and a grind against my bones. Obliged to help but too tired to empathize. I was ground, boiled and stewed old before my time.
The heat licked our heels and melted the humbugs into something edible as I fed them to Melanie. We searched for Papa, though in these arid flats it was just a matter of separating the silhouettes of cactuses from those of people. The rest of the landscape a sordid assortment of burnt out houses and splintered signs, wattle trees and endless railway. The horizon did offer one oddity: a strangely guarded wall of dense trees.
Inside lay a clearing and at the background was my Papa kneeled over busying himself amongst the grove of crumbled stone and splinted wood crosses. It barely deserved the title of a graveyard. The heap of dirt mounds weren’t so much solemn as they were plain depressing; their ruins not made for remembrance but for fading away gracelessly into nothingness. Even Melanie seemed hesitant for a second, but as Scampy ran forward to quell the unseen demons with his urine she followed quickly. I approached Papa, and I now saw him with tools chipping away at the only two bits of stones that resembled monuments to the dead. He was inscribing names upon the first one. ‘Howard Jonathan Speck’ was now legible.
‘What are we running from Papa?’
‘Running?’ He kept his eyes on his work.
‘We have been moving for so long.’
‘We’re not running from anything. We’re going home, Grace.’
‘I’m not happy, Papa.’
He wheeled himself around and I could feel my eyes burning up as he looked at me. It felt like he hadn’t looked at me in years, and his hazel stare dug deep.
‘I’m not.’ I tried to avoid his eyes.
‘Okay, I understand.’ He turned his back to me yet again and resumed his scribing. All I could do was swallow hard and turn to Melanie, who now hung off the branches victoriously as a trapeze artist, presumably having conquered the graveyard’s assortment of zombies and living skeletons.
‘Your grandparents used to come out to that railroad every day with their sheep and try to flag down the trains and sell to the passengers. They’d be lucky sometimes, sometimes not. Y’know that sweater of yours, Grace? The pink one? That was your Nanna’s knitting. By golly, she was a fantastic knitter.’
The wind was striking up, catching his words and scurrying away with them into the distance.

***

The next day Papa had gone off to the candy lady’s estate, taking half the camp with him. Only the tent remained and a billy can. I wondered what he expected us to do in the meantime, though Melanie was already busying herself in her own realms. The confectionery shop enticed me, if only because I felt a need to talk to its owner some more. But, soon enough, I found myself heating some beans upon a small fire while Melanie shouted and pranced about with Scampy in happy tow.
‘Whereeeeee’s dad, Gracey?’
‘Gone into town I think.’
‘Down, down. Town, town.’ She walked off sing-songing to the riverside and I went away for a moment to inspect a curious hole near our campsite I’d found the day prior. Accustomed as I was to Adelaide, I treated everything to tenacious caution out here, but I felt that it served me well. I grabbed the heated billy can filled with boiling water and took it over. There could be snakes or spiders or who knows what creatures ready to spring on us in the night. Melanie was brave, but only against the phantoms in her head. I hesitated though, as I poured the water, fearing there might be something cuddlier in there and then a barking erupted in a distance. A combination of yelping and splashing followed that culminated in a blood curdling scream. I raced back and stared down at the river where Melanie stood hapless as a kangaroo, perhaps six foot tall, bent itself over in the river shallows holding something down.
‘Melanie stay away!’
I ran into the tent to grab Papa’s rifle but it wasn’t there and I emerged, panicking, my breath sticking and my heart pounding at what I should do. I snatched at rocks and pelted them at the roo who flinched but an inch and I was helpless. It stood for a few seconds more then bounded off into the distance completely unfazed. In its wake the body of Scampy floated to the surface.
I shouted and I cried long into the afternoon and evening. I blamed myself for leaving and then I blamed Papa before I let my anger onto Melanie, who had sat the whole time in an incredulous state sobbing. Her imagination was no defence and all she could do to be brave now was grip the dog’s body with all her might. I tried to reconcile myself and apologise to her but then my regret came back full circle and I pounced back upon her mercilessly with all the hatred of the past few months screaming out of my throat. Then was Melanie uttered not a word in response I fell backwards, and all of a sudden, for the first time, I felt trapped.
Papa came back to the campsite as the sun set. The look in his eyes as he stared at us two wiped a grin off his face. He saw Scampy, and rushed to Melanie. Something in his eyes and voice soothed her and at once, in his compassion, I saw my father again. It was a minute but felt like much more. Then he looked at me with an ugly concern. The flickering familiarity relented and retreated into the night.
Later he regaled Melanie some mourning tales around the fire as they ate the stew given by the candy lady.  He announced that this was indeed going to be the place, our home, and that we’d give Scampy a proper funeral in the morning and visit him every Sunday. Melanie stayed sullen, and I knew then that even Papa could not rouse her from this state, at least not permanently.  Later, they retired early, and as I doused the fire I thought of running to anywhere but here, this now tainted place. The smoke cleared and the stars were out again, gloating at us three alone, in a tent trapped between a muddy river and a ghost town.

***

The Australian Literature Review
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Night Skyline, by Rachael Mead (short story)

From the back of the fire truck it’s always a different valley. The higher perspective and the wind make me think of my kelpie on the tray of the ute, all legs and jitters. But unlike the dog, my jitters are flat out dread, balled heavy and hard in my gut like a fist.
When the pager went off, I was out in the shed, planing down another window frame that had swollen shut from all this rain. I thought that with the weather it was probably just a fallen tree over the road or something. A chance to pull out the chainsaw and maybe get a bit of extra firewood out of it. Then the captain said it was a smash and I instantly regretted putting down that plane. Like usual we had zero information. A call had come in from a passing driver too scared of coming face to face with some human pulp to stop to see if anyone needed help. Didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to have to pay a shrink. So they called 000 and said there’d been an accident, but of course they didn’t know any landmarks or probably even what road they were on. So out we go like bloody Search and Rescue, hoping to come across either the car or, more likely, the skid marks and broken branches where it’d gone over the edge.
When Greenie eventually pulls the truck up it’s a car vs tree. Lucky bugger has been saved from the plunge by a stringybark. The girlfriend seems ok. The driver’s not so good though, slumped over the wheel and not looking compos. Greenie backs the truck so that it protects the scene from any other dickheads hooning around the bend, turning the wreck into more of an accordion than it already is.
The two newbies hop down and from the look on their faces they seem pretty happy with being assigned traffic control. They march the tall STOP/SLOW lollipops along the road in both directions, ready to muster more authority than they actually possess. Getting people to stop when you tell them to and not run anyone over as they crawl rubbernecking past the crash is actually harder than you’d think.
This is when I regret telling Caroline, the brigade captain, over a beer about six months ago, that I’d just upgraded my first aid training. Now she tends to pick me as the one to assess the injuries and I have to do what I can until the ambos get on scene. Sure enough, she catches my eye and gestures me towards the car.
The road is dark with rain. Tempered glass from the smashed windscreen is scattered randomly, catching the light from the truck’s spotlights so that it looks like a clear night sky sparkling up from the bitumen. My boots crunch over it in slow, hesitant steps that I hope I’m disguising as professional caution. I pull off the leather work-gloves and snap on latex ones, using the time to silently run through the procedure in my head. I take one last deep breath and step to the driver’s side window.
“Hey, mate. I’m Pete from the CFS. Looks like you’ve come a bit of a cropper. Don’t worry. The ambos will be here in a sec so I’m just going to give you a bit of a hand until the cavalry arrives. Ok? What’s your name?”
I reach in the window and put my hand on his shoulder. He’s young but the totalled Skyline, P plates and fat Milo tin exhaust had already tipped me off to that. He’s wearing a shiny, red American basketball shirt in a weightlifter size over a computer gamer’s frame and I’d put good money on him wearing boxers with his jeans being a hair’s breadth away from slipping right off his arse. Sweet Jesus. He could be Jason.
“Son, can you hear me?”
I give his shoulder a light shake. His dark hair has flopped forward and with the position of his body I can’t see a damned thing. Cases like this it’s common for the engine to be shoved backwards, which isn’t all that good for keeping legs and ankles in the same number of pieces you started with. Added to this is that now I have to make the call about moving him. If I can’t tell whether or not he’s breathing then I have to lean him back to maintain his airway. Dr ABC and all that. Which means bugger the spinal cord. I guess the theory is it’s better to be alive and paralysed than able to move your limbs but dead. Not sure I agree but I’m more than happy to follow the rules. That’s not the sort of game-changing decision I want to be making on the fly. I draw a deep breath and silently curse that beer again.
“Son? I’m just going to tip you back so I can have a bit of a look at you.”
I reach in and gently grab his right shoulder, putting my other hand under his forehead so I can angle his body and head back against the car seat as one unit. Where the fuck are the bloody ambos?
He gives a soft moan as his head comes clear of the steering wheel. There’s blood all over his face, a lot of blood. It’s bubbling under his nose, so at least he’s breathing.
“He’s breathing.”
I turn to the others as I say this and you can hear the relief in my voice. It sounds higher than usual and I clear my throat, not wanting anyone to know the exact levels of fear and relief that are churning in my gut.
Now that the immediate pressure of having to CPR this kid is off, I turn to Caroline, who has wrapped the girlfriend in a space blanket and is talking to her softly, stroking her back like she would one of the injured roos she nurses in her other life.
“Hey Caro, can you ask her what her friend’s name is?”
“Jason.”
Now that’s just too weird. Similar car, similar clothes. Obviously not my Jason but hearing the name sends a shot of acid through me.
“Hey Jase, how’re you doing there mate? You’ve dinged your head a bit but not to worry, I reckon you’ve probably smacked your head into the wheel when the tree came at you, that’s all. Head’s bleed like stuck pigs but usually the wound’s not anything to write home about. Just looks impressive. So, you take it easy while I clean you up a bit.”
Serge had put the truck’s first aid kit next to my feet and was now helpfully angling a torch down so I could see what the story was in the foot well.
The pedals weren’t visible but luckily the kid seemed to have pulled his knees up just at the moment of collision so it didn’t look as though his feet were trapped. That’s a weird benefit to being a hoon, I guess. You’re usually not riding the brake on impact so if you live, you get to keep your feet.
Serge relayed the information back to the captain.
“Looks like his legs are clear boss, so the ambos will probably be able to lay the seat back, stick him on the board and pull him out the back windscreen. You’re a lucky bugger, Jase,” Serge added. “The ambos will slide you out the back smoother than a healthy turd out a dog’s arse.”
The girlfriend, still wrapped up like a TV dinner in her alfoil blanket, had her mobile phone in her hand and managed to keep it together long enough to say “Mum?… we’ve had an accident…” before breaking into sobs, each inhalation loud and quaking in her chest. That’s always the way it happens. Shock keeps you numb until the moment you hear a familiar voice and then bam, the floodgates open. Caro moves in and curls her arm around the girl, holding her against her side as the story sobs out into the handset.
Flicking open the kit, I grab fat wads of gauze. Snapping the top off a tube of saline solution, I wash the blood down off his face, trying to see where it was coming from.
Finally, I hear the wail of sirens. About bloody time. Still, nothing makes the clock slow down like being at the pointy end of a rescue.
“Here they come buddy.”
Serge swings around to look up the road, the torch beam skittering off to light up the crumpled bonnet.
“Hey, Serge. Focus.”
Jason’s forehead gleams reddish pink where the blood has rinsed off. His head had hit the steering wheel up near the hairline, probably with quite a bit of momentum seeing how far back the kid had tipped the driver’s seat. The split is about an inch long, a neat parting of ways of skin with a pale crescent moon of skull shining in the torchlight. His eyes are open now, droplets of saline hanging from dark lashes like tears. His pupils are huge despite the beam of light on his face, but both the same size, which is good news on the concussion front.
“Here’s the problem Jase, you’ve come to a stop with your forehead and you’ve got a bit of a spilt up there. A few stitches and you’ll be right. The ambos’ll clean you up and check you out for concussion. I’d say you’re pretty lucky, looking at the shape of your car.”
I shouldn’t have said that last bit. These young blokes generally get more worked up about the damage to their cars than the damage to themselves. Now that the ambos are nearly here I’m just marking time, putting pressure through the gauze to stop the bleeding until I see the strobe of red, white and blue bouncing off the trees at the uphill bend.
The ambos pull up behind the fire truck. They don’t rush but there’s no fluffing around either.
“Hey, I’m Lisa. What’s the story here… Pete?”
Her eyes flick down to my name badge as she offers me her hand. She’s slim and blonde with an efficient manner and her handshake is firm as our hands meet through latex. She bends in next to me to have a look, and behind us I can hear Serge practically start panting. If I didn’t still have one hand engaged in the car I’d have turned to give him the grow-the-hell-up look I usually only have to use on my kids. Instead, I don’t draw attention to him and start the handover.
“Yeah, hi. He was unconscious when we arrived and hasn’t really come to completely. Just a bit of moaning. He’s breathing fine and no shot pupils or anything. But still, you’re the experts. I’m happy to get out of your way and let you do your thing.”
“Thanks Pete. Nice job holding the fort. You’re making life easy. Could you ask your team to get rid of that back windscreen for us?”
She smiles at the request as she takes over the gauze. I straighten up, allowing the relief of relinquishing responsibility to wash through me. She murmurs questions to Jason as I walk over to Caro to tell her about the windshield. I hear Lisa finish her assessment and turn to her partner.
“Nick, grab the board out the back would you? He’s GCS 4 so I reckon let’s just load and go.”
Caro claps her gloved hand on my shoulder.
“Nice work, Pete. Take a breather.”
The other ambo, Nick stands ready with the yellow plastic spinal board, waiting for the rear windshield to be carefully broken and punched out from the inside. He seems completely at ease, despite having to spend his days in that aggressive shade of green, banded with reflective stripes like he’s just stepped out from a rave. They say the ladies like a man in uniform but I can’t see this one working for him, to be honest. But, I guess if sailors still manage to pull wearing those white bell-bottoms, anything’s possible. And who am I to talk, standing here in gear the colour of a giant cheezel? Back when I started with the brigade just the sight of the kids tucking into a bowl of cheezels would make me think of call-outs. It got to the point where even the smell of them on their fingers would give me flashbacks.
The tow-truck arrives with a squeal of axel and brakes, coming to a stop with an overdone sigh. His timing is pretty well spot-on. Nick has just skilfully manoeuvred Jason onto the spinal board and, with some extra hands from Serge and Greenie, the kid is gently pulled headfirst out the back and straight onto the stretcher. He lies there stiffly, neck enveloped in a brace, only his eyes betraying his growing sense of panic with their swift arcing from side to side. His girlfriend is now at his side, gripping his hand. She’s pulled herself together and is talking soothingly to him. It doesn’t look like she’s been told yet that she’ll have to ride up front in the ambulance to let Lisa do her thing in the back. That’s usually a messy conversation.
I grab a broom to keep my hands busy. It’s funny. You don’t realise how worked up and completely in your head you’ve been until the pressure’s off and you can sense your body again. Greenie is taking care of spreading sand over the oil and petrol on the road so I can just sweep, each methodical stroke brushing glass fragments flying off the road verge and down into the darkness like showers of stars.
Once the ambulance is off the scene it all goes pretty fast and I can practically taste that first beer. The tow-truck winches the Skyline off the tree and onto the bed without a hitch. Now that the car has gone you can see the deep wound on the trunk of the stringy. That kid is lucky my Ange wasn’t here or else he’d wake up in the hospital to find that he has a new set of options on the shitter.
That’s it. Done and dusted. The newbies tromp back from their positions, looking pleased with themselves and we load up the gear and hop on, the truck coughing out of its idle. Up on the back I sit to one side looking down into the steep gully. Within metres the hillside has dropped away so abruptly that beyond the branches of roadside gums the world is all thick, creamy darkness. For the first time tonight I notice the sting of cold on my cheeks.
Back on station, my hand is already in my pocket, feeling for number 2 on the speed dial.
“I’ll just be a sec. Save me a cold one.”
I hunch in the shelter of the roller door, stamping from cold, sensing an adrenaline hangover lurking in the near future.
“Jason?”
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
“What’s up? Not your bloody pants I’m guessing.”
The final residue of dread coating my gut dissolves. I straighten up, letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

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Rachael Mead on Facebook: www.facebook.com/rachael.mead.12

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The Australian Literature Review
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