This pandemic, epidemic, global apocalypse - whatever you want to call it - couldn't have come at a better time for me. From what I've seen on the crumpled front pages of the discarded newspapers hurriedly thrust into the trashcans around the train station and from what I've overheard from snippets of conversation on the streets, COVID-19 isn't picky when it comes to annihilating humans.
It appears it's easy to catch too. People certainly seem more apprehensive, more cautious, afraid of stuff that never used to worry them. The rush-hour crush of yesterday has gone as today's commuters keep a safe distance from one another, their fear of compromising their personal space radiating in hot waves around them, their concern for their own mortality alive and almost tangible in its physicality. There are fewer people lingering around the station exit for a post-commute smoke, fewer people stopping to buy a takeaway coffee from the refreshment stand, fewer people using the station altogether. The smell of perspiration, perfume, and hair oil that generally clogs the air of the station has given way to the nostril-tightening stench of hand sanitiser.
"They're talking about a city-wide lockdown," a blonde girl with sharp-heeled shoes and a swinging handbag says to her gaunt-faced companion as they hurry past without seeing me. "They're predicting thousands of deaths. It's horrible. I'm so worried about my parents."
The girls click-clack away down the street, past the newsagent next to the station as he closes up shop early. He stops for a moment with his hands in his pockets and squints worriedly up at the leaden sky from behind the flimsy screen of his facemask. I wander over to speak to him, making sure to keep my distance to avoid spooking him. "Busy day?"
He barely glances at me as he winds down the graffiti-ed, vandal-proof roller door in front of the shop. "Worst day ever. People are staying home or going straight to the supermarkets to stock up on whatever's left." He slides the lock across at the bottom of the door and hooks the padlock through the slot. "It's the end of the world as we know it. They say that if you catch it, there's very little hope of seeing your next birthday."
My heart gives an excited lurch, a pitter-patter of exhilaration against my ribcage. "And it's easy to become infected?"
He has already turned away, swift feet carrying him towards the anticipated safety of his own home. "Far too easy. A cough, a sneeze, a droplet of airborne saliva, the touch of a finger to a surface hosting the virus and that's it - you're a gonner." He turns the corner at the intersection and disappears from sight.
The last of the commuters have exited the station now and the woman at the refreshment stand is starting to pack her things away. Surreptitiously, I pull off my ragged knitted gloves and run my bare hand along the rail at the top of the stairs before raising my fingers to my mouth for a quick lick of my metallic tasting skin. I edge closer to the trashcan that sits beside the stand, the bin today only half-filled with used paper cups and crumpled crisp bags rather than overflowing with the dregs of consumerism. The refreshment stand worker frowns and swipes a hurried cloth across the counter, her mind on more important things. I take one of the empty cups from the trashcan and settle my own lips on the outline of the perfect lipstick pout that decorates the rim. I repeat this action several times with an array of paper cups before the woman looks up and glares at me. I give her a cheerful grin before selecting an empty salt and vinegar crisp bag from the tumble of rubbish, relishing the thought of running my tongue over the salty, tangy interior where infected fingers possibly scrabbled just an hour or so earlier.
I've always been a squeamish sort of person and I've upheld my fastidiousness ways as much as possible while living on the streets. Yes, it's a grotty way to live in general but a person can still keep themselves clean - or clean enough. This current state of affairs is far outside my comfort zone but death by virus seems an oddly peaceful way to go when compared to the more violent alternatives. I know I don't have the heart to throw myself in front of a train, or to walk in front of a bus, or to cut my wrists with a rusty blade. Those ways and means sound messy and painful and I'm not big on mess and pain. I'm too much of a coward to conjure up a dramatic death.
I walk slowly back to the cavernous mouth of the exit, making sure to touch every surface in reach before again licking and sucking my fingers. I make it into a game. Touch the elevator button: lick. Run my hand over the touchscreen on the ticket vending machine: lick. Grasp the handle of the payphone: lick-suck-lick. I've always enjoyed games, or at least I once did.
I'm back at the exit of the empty station. A light rain is falling now and the air feels fresh and cold. I lean my shoulder against the copper coloured bricks of the station wall and suckle at my fingers. I'm tired, exhausted right to my bones, and I've felt that way for a long time. Tired of battling to stay alive in a world that has no further need for me. I had a job once, and a family. Parents who loved me, a girlfriend. All of that is now a long lost dream, a set of circumstances belonging to someone else entirely. There is no hope of reclaiming what I once had and I've made my peace with that knowledge. As I say, this latest calamity couldn't have come at a better time for me. If this virus is as contagious as they say and with a high mortality rate to boot, I've been delivered an option for opting out of this world on a silver platter. Or on a silver splatter of contagious saliva, if I'm feeling poetic about it.
Satisfied that I've done all that's necessary to hasten my departure from this mortal coil, I give the bricks behind me one final, exuberant lick for luck. With an additional smug saunter in my step now, I take the crisp bag and retreat to my usual sleeping spot in the doorway of a nearby vacant shop to wait for the blessed end.
Viewing the top story on the evening news just seconds before you’re about to be a major part of it is a surreal and unbelievable experience, and one that I hope I never have to repeat.
Twenty years ago, on a night that still feels as if it were yesterday, this was my reality. On the evening of August 19, 1998 my siblings and I, minus my twin brother who lived in Australia at the time, had gathered at my younger brother’s house in Christchurch, New Zealand for dinner. As a quartet of twins (two sets) we were a close family in both age and affection but we rarely found the time together like this on a week night.
As I recall, the TV was on in the background but no one was taking any notice of it until my brother received a phone call from our mother. The color drained from his face and he held the phone against his chest, his aghast silence grabbing our attention with far greater impact than words ever could. We stared at him as he gestured at the television and uttered a phrase I had never expected to hear. “Dad’s plane has gone down in the sea.”
My father was an IQP (Independently Qualified Person) who's job entailed checking the safety of police buildings throughout New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. A thorough and meticulous man, he took his job seriously and he enjoyed the tripping around that was a key component of the role. We knew he’d left Christchurch the day prior to travel to the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand on business, with a quick journey by plane across to Stewart Island included in his itinerary.
Shushing our unaware children while we stared with morbid fascination at the solemn-faced news reporter on the TV screen, we discovered that a Cessna aircraft had ditched into the expanse of sea between Bluff and Stewart Island. Foveaux Strait, a notoriously freezing and inhospitable stretch of water and the last strait between New Zealand and Antarctica. Fleeting camera shots were shown, giving us glimpses of the white-skinned plane beneath the waves, of grim-faced rescue workers wearing knitted beanies and thick gloves, and most ominous of all, paramedics loading a body in a black bag into the back of an ambulance.
“There are survivors,” I said brightly, determined to remain positive for both my sake and my siblings’ sake. “They just said they’ve found survivors. Did you hear them say that? Dad will be one of the survivors. He’ll bore us with this story at family dinners for years to come.”
We drove across town to Mum’s house, three separate and fast moving cars in a solemn procession of disbelief. I think I knew the news was bad when we saw the police car parked outside but there was no way I was letting go of hope. Not yet. We crowded around the police officer while Mum sobbed in an armchair but the policeman could tell us nothing. His face was wretched with compassion. “I don’t know. I don't know anything. They’re still identifying the victims and the survivors.”
Victims. I have always detested that word. To me, it signifies that a person has no choice in a matter. I did not want my father to be a victim. I did not want to be a victim.
We waited, we watched the news, and we spoke to my twin in Australia as he raced to the airport to catch a flight home. My three young children, wide-eyed and watchful, ate their dinner in silence while they waited for the adults to tell them what they should do. The police officer hovered uncomfortably in the background as we stared at the TV for any mention of updates. I phoned a police officer friend and asked him to call in a favor from colleagues at Bluff, hoping he could circumvent the system and provide us with the information we needed but he had nothing tell us that we didn’t already know.
Finally, the officer took a phone call in the other room and returned with the news we didn’t want to hear.
“How do you know it’s him?” I shrieked, shoving my face mere inches away from his, close enough to see the sympathy in his eyes that I refused to acknowledge. “Someone must have it wrong. It’s misidentification.”
The police officer, looking as if he wished he were anywhere but here, struggled to keep his voice steady. “They found his phone and his wallet. I’m sorry.”
The next few hours are somewhat of a blur. As the oldest, I was charged with phoning family and friends to ruin their evening. Questions flew at me and around me but I stoically carried on, aware there were many more phone calls still to make.
My twin arrived from Australia and along with my younger brother, he caught another plane to Invercargill, the nearest airport to Bluff, to identify Dad’s body and bring him back. I felt detached, as if this was happening to someone else rather than me. A dream within a dream.
I didn’t sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was the image of a plane falling out of the sky. The why and how were still a major part of the whole scenario; Dad had made that same 20 minute journey a number of times without incident. Planes did not fall out of the sky when the trip was little more than a giant’s footstep between two somber bodies of land.
The press arrived at the front door the next morning, sending Mum into a fury. I guess people always need someone to blame and she turned her anger on the reporters who were seeking details of the man behind the name in the news. They were only doing their job. No, you can’t have a photo of my husband to share with your readers, get off my property!!
Mum repeated over and over that Dad had always called the small Cessna a ‘flying coffin’, as her living room filled with too-fragrant flowers and weeping mourners knocked constantly at her door. I went out to buy more coffee, sugar, milk, and toilet paper as a seemingly never-ending stream of friends and family appeared, all needing refreshments and all wanting to use the bathroom.
Disbelieving people needing a hug that I didn't want to give, the heady, nose-twitching scent of too many flowers, and the sound of weeping are my strongest memories of those first few days.
I refused to visit the funeral home to view Dad’s body, a refusal that I don’t think my mother has ever forgiven me for. However, I preferred to remember him as he was in life and I had no wish to see him in a coffin, dead and gone forever. I also put my foot down about the funeral service and strangely enough, no one disagreed with me. I asked that his coffin not be present during the service, arguing that everyone knew he was dead. Why did they need the coffin there as proof? Perhaps this was a sign that I was trying to avoid the inevitable, but the coffin did not make an appearance at the service.
People overflowed out the doors and into the parking lot during the service but I wasn’t aware of that until I was told afterwards. My family sat in the front row and I listened as people stood up and said nice things about Dad, while half of me expected him to run chuckling up the aisle crying, “Surprise! I fooled you all!”
The experts charged with investigating the accident gradually came up with a summary of facts. The pilot, for reasons unknown as he too died in the crash, had not refueled before flying back across Foveaux Strait. The plane had simply fallen from the sky because it ran out of fuel. All passengers had survived the crash into the sea, scrambling out of the exit doors to perch on the half-submerged aircraft. However, a lack of lifejackets meant that not all passengers were able to find one.
I can relate what we now know happened after the crash, but it is difficult for me to imagine my Dad in the middle of such horror. To put it bluntly, the passengers wearing lifejackets survived and the others died of hypothermia in the freezing waters. A small boy, despite wearing a lifejacket, slipped out of the adult-size floatation vest and his body was never recovered. A fatal mistake in relaying the coordinates of the downed aircraft sent rescue ships in the wrong direction, prolonging the time it took to reach the passengers. The delay came with a deadly cost and five people never made it back to shore alive.
A year later, I traveled with my mother down to the tiny coastal settlement of Riverton, located about an hour from Bluff. The coastguard from Riverton reached the aircraft and collected the survivors and bodies on that fateful day, bringing all passengers except the little boy home to their families. The family of the little boy lost had donated a new rescue boat and the commemoration service included an offer for relatives of the victims to visit the site of the crash. I’m very glad I went, although some friends told me they thought it was a morbid expedition and that I shouldn’t go.
I guess that up until that point, I was still mad at my father for not holding on for a just a short while longer, for not striking out to swim to shore and save himself. For not coming back. The coastguard’s boat chugged through the murky, greenish water and the icy wind froze our fingers and noses as he steered us toward the site recorded in the accident report coordinates. I gazed around and tried to recreate how frightened and alone the passengers must have felt out here in the waves. Stewart Island appeared distant from this point but the mainland was terrifyingly close. Close enough to swim to, if fear and frigid temperatures didn’t freeze a person’s ability to move, and if the sea didn’t meet the land in a long shoreline of sheer, impassable cliffs. I finally understood that swimming to safety was an impossibility.
The coastguard switched off the engine and we stayed where we were for some time, each lost in our own thoughts. It was peaceful, with the boat bobbing gently and the sun glancing off the cliffs. Seabird called their lonely cries in the sky above as Mum dropped a wreath of flowers onto the waves where her husband had once tread water and hoped for rescue. I didn’t feel sad – instead I felt I’d reached some kind of resolution. I had dealt with my father’s death and now I could move on.
I have the coroner’s report combined with the Civil Aviation Authority’s report tucked away somewhere. It’s a thick bundle of wordy material that seeks to collate technical facts rather than emotions and I’ve never quite found the courage to read it, probably because I doubt that I can detach myself enough from the situation to read it with unbiased interest.
It also took me many years before I visited the monument the officials placed on the top of the cliffs at Bluff, the same cliffs that I’d gazed at from the coastguard’s boat. When I did find the time for my solitary pilgrimage, I found the experience almost as surreal as when I first saw the footage of the accident on TV. Standing alone at that isolated point, with the cold wind tugging at my hair and Stewart Island looming far off in the distance, it was bizarre to look down at a plaque embedded in the rock and read my father’s name.
I stood there quietly for several minutes and was surprised when a woman with hiking boots and a backpack suddenly appeared beside me. She said hello, commented on the cold wind, and nodded at the plaque. “Terrible thing to have happened.”
“Yes. One of the victims was my father.” I'd finally admitted it. The woman hurriedly retreated as the wind carried my words away to imprint them forever on the cold Bluff cliffs.
It Was Left On Her Grave
The pale light of a quarter moon fades into nothingness, the glow momentarily hidden behind a thick cloak of gathering storm clouds. Rain is in the air, along with an odour neither fresh nor invigorating. The putrid scent of death and decay, of rotting flesh, burnt garlic, and overripe fruit grows stronger as a shadow falls across Mary Walton’s lichen-etched tombstone. The rasping noise of breath hard won accompanies the sound of something soft and plump, an object once flowing with a lifeblood of its own, landing wetly on the grave. Another ragged breath, the crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot, and the shadow moves on.
“What do you mean, it was left on her grave? Who by? An animal of some sort?” George Evans gazed with undisguised distaste at the rain-sodden lump of flesh, perhaps an eviscerated animal’s organ or muscle that Matthew Blake had just dropped onto his workbench. George prodded the lump with the end of his screwdriver, recoiling in revulsion as the pulpy mass rippled under the light pressure of the blade. “What the devil is it?”
Matthew, his lips pulled back over his teeth in an expression of extreme loathing, grabbed one of George’s welding gloves off the benchtop and used it to turn the tattered object over. He pointed at what might have been a small face in the otherwise indistinguishable mess. “Looks like a baby.”
“A baby?” George peered at it more closely, only to reel back as the disgusting odour assailed his nostrils and ripped at the back of his throat. “Jesus, it stinks.”
“Yeah, looks like a baby to me. An unborn one, not properly formed.” Matthew gnawed at his chapped lower lip, the skin permanently marred by too long spent outdoors in the harsh sun and unrelenting wind. His job as both assistant undertaker and junior groundskeeper for the Church of Mother Mary meant his lean, perpetually hunched figure was most often seen digging graves, clearing fallen branches, weeding around the gravestones, or maintaining the undulating lawns that surrounded the church buildings.
“And you found it on Mary Walton’s grave?” George picked up an oil-stained cloth and dropped it over the object, unable to bear looking at it any longer. “Why would anyone leave it there?”
Matthew scratched at the sparse hairs on his chin, his eyes remaining fixed on the small shape beneath the cloth. “Don’t know. She’s been dead 15 years now and no one ever visits her. Not anyone I’ve seen, anyway.” His words were slurred and indistinct but George understood him well enough. Matthew Blake’s mental abilities weren’t incapacitated in any way, despite what others might say when they heard him attempting to get his words out in the right order and with the right cadence.
“Do you think it was a prank? School kids?”
“Dunno. Where would they get a dead baby from?”
George shook his head, still revolted by the sight now seared upon his eyeballs. “Can you get rid of it? I can taste the stink of it in my mouth.”
Matthew tenderly wrapped the cloth around the foetus and carried it over to the door. He glanced back over his shoulder at George, awaiting his next instructions. “Should I bury it? Or call the police?”
George felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand on end at the mention of the police. George and the law did not have a history of amicable past relationships and he had no intention of staging a reconciliation any time soon. “Bury it,” he grunted. “No sense in getting the police involved.”
He watched as Matthew shuffled away, the man’s distinctive limp favouring his left leg as he lurched out the door. Matthew was one of those unfortunate people born with more burdens than most others should have to deal with in a lifetime; a shortened left leg, a speech impediment, and a face only a mother could love. Not that his mother had ever loved him – the only thing she’d ever loved were the drugs that eventually killed her. Matthew had dropped out of school at 14 and moped around for a few years doing short-term garbage collection and property-clearing work until George mentioned to Pastor Travers that the boy might be of use in the church grounds. After all, he was fit, strong, and not averse to performing tasks that other people might turn their noses up at. George Evans might have a loose respect for authority but he wasn’t heartless and he’d developed a bit of a soft spot for the lad.
George returned to his work dismantling the engine chassis of Pastor Travers’ ancient and decrepit old jalopy. Funds were slim this year, with a falling away of flock numbers as the regular churchgoers moved on to greener pastures and Pastor Travers had ordained that broken equipment was to be repaired rather than replaced. All of which suited George down to the ground as it meant more work for him. Humming to himself, he put Matthew and his disgusting find out of his head and carried on with his task.
“I found another one. Another baby.” Matthew’s eyes were wide and scared as he hovered in the doorway of George’s workshop. Thankfully, he hadn’t lugged the carcass inside this time although George could see the stain of fresh blood on his hands.
“What? Where?” The cold fingers of dread began to make their nasty, creeping way up George’s spine. One abandoned foetus could be passed off as a bad taste prank, but two were a different story entirely.
“On Joanne Simpson’s grave. Buried last year. Car accident.” Matthew’s nostrils briefly flared. “I liked her. She was kind to me. She always said hello.”
“I remember her. What have you done with the other… thing.” He couldn’t bring himself to say baby. That last gory lump of flesh had looked nothing like a baby in his eyes.
“Buried it by the oak tree at the back of the cemetery.”
“Good boy.” George gave him a tight smile. “Bury this one too, but keep it to yourself, okay? No need to get folks up in arms for no reason.”
Matthew nodded, apparently pleased to be given his instructions in such a calm and measured manner. “I promise I won’t tell anyone, George.”
He shuffled away, leaving George staring out through the cobwebbed window of the workshop. This was worrying, the discovery of the second foetus. It had only been a week since Matthew found the first – where were they coming from? Who had access to the bodies of unborn babies? Someone who worked at the hospital or perhaps the morgue? But why leave the foetuses on the graves of dead girls? George knew better than anyone just how fucked up the world could be but this was on a whole new level of depravity.
He flicked on the grimy switch of the electric kettle to boil water for a cuppa, shocked out of a working frame of mind for now. He’d thought all of life’s challenges were behind him and Lord knew he’d suffered his fair share. Some might argue that many of the challenges were George’s own fault but he was never one to back down from a good argument. Or a bad one, for that matter.
Aside from his past problems with wives, both his own and other men’s, George’s regular run-ins with the local police force were well documented. George didn’t consider all of the situations that had attracted the interest of the law to be that bad, although it seemed the coppers took a different view. As he’d tried to tell the judge on numerous occasions, some of his pursuits and activities were nothing more than simple curiosity and the authorities would’ve done well to keep their noses out of it. However, the judge did not agree and unfortunately, George had spent some of his earlier years languishing in the county prison. Nevertheless, that was all behind him now and he was able to put the skills he had learned in the prison machine shop to good use these days. Luckily, Pastor Travers was the forgiving type and once he knew of George’s mechanical abilities, he had given him the role of maintenance supervisor for the church and its surrounding properties.
He set his chipped and stained coffee cup down on the scarred wood of the workbench and reached for the electric kettle. Yes, George Evans had a colourful past but even so, he’d never come across anything quite like this latest incident. Dead babies were another thing entirely and no one with a speck of human decency would have a bar of such a grotesque caper.
He looked up, frowning, as the sound of a terrified shout came from outside. Matthew was suddenly back at the door, breathless and panting. He tried to speak, his slurred words running into each other as he gripped the doorframe and attempted to catch his breath. George held up his hand, already apprehensive over what Matthew was about to say. “Slow. Go slow. Hurrying won’t help you none.”
Matthew swallowed hard, struggling to breathe and talk at the same time. “More babies. Two. Twin babies on Sarah Jones’ grave.”
George felt faint and woozy. He reached for the workbench to steady himself. It was time to bring Pastor Travers in on the awful discoveries within the sanctity of his church grounds, and sooner rather than later.
“Babies?” Pastor Travers pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger, a gesture he fell back on during times of consternation or stress. “On the graves?”
George glanced at the cowering Matthew before going on to explain. “Matthew found the first one a week ago. I thought it might be a horrible prank played by some of the local kids but he came back this morning to tell me he’d found another one. He’s just told me about the twin bodies so I thought it was time to let you know.”
Matthew pressed in behind George, unsuccessfully attempting to hide himself. George knew he didn’t like coming in here, complaining that it smelled too strongly of mothballs and the heavily scented incense that the pastor used for his blessing ceremonies. George absentmindedly wondered how Matthew could bear the stench of the rotting baby he’d carried into the workshop yet couldn’t stand the smell of patchouli and lavender.
Pastor Travers raked one hand through his thinning hair and automatically reached for his Bible with the other. “Does he know which graves they were left on?”
George quelled his flicker of irritation. “He can hear, you know. He can talk too. You can ask him yourself.”
“I find it hard to understand him,” the pastor said stiffly. “I’m sure it’s no great hardship for you to translate for me.”
George stifled the urge to roll his eyes. “He found each foetus on a different female’s grave. They were all young women, with the dates of their deaths ranging from 15 years to one month ago.”
“And they were definitely foetuses rather than newborn infants?” Pastor Travers pressed the Bible against his chest, crossing his pale hands over the leather bound cover.
“I only saw one, and it certainly wasn’t a fully formed baby.” George shuddered at the memory.
“Where are they now?”
“He buried the first two, but I don’t know about the twins.” George spun around to address Matthew, who was now staring down at his boots with his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his head jutted forward. “What have you done with the last two babies?”
Matthew darted a fearful glance at Pastor Travers before replying, his eyes fixed on George’s face as he spoke. “On Sarah Jones’ grave. I didn’t touch them. They were…” He made a helpless clasping motion with his hands. “They were stuck together.”
George frowned. “What? Like Siamese twins? Sharing the same body or head or something?”
Matthew vigorously shook his head. “No. Stuck together with their…” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “Their tube. Their cord.”
George looked back at the pastor. “Sounds like the umbilical cord was still attached. What do you make of it?”
“It’s horrifying, I’ll agree with you there.” Parson Travers shook his head in disbelief. “I’d never expected such a thing to happen in my cemetery. It’s an out of the way plot with barely enough history or interest attached to it to attract the ghoulish or mischievous.” He dragged his brows together impatiently as Matthew mumbled something else. “What’s he saying now?”
“He said the dirt around Sarah’s grave was disturbed a few months ago. He tidied it up, thinking it might be wild animals.” George listened again as Matthew launched into an excitable spiel. “He said he remembers now that the other graves had also been interfered with before the babies appeared but he’s only just put it all together in his head.”
“Disturbed? Interfered with? What does that mean?”
George listened carefully as Matthew explained himself further, accompanying his speech with wild hand gestures and vigorous nods of his head. “He thinks someone might have tried to dig the women’s bodies up.”
The colour drained from Pastor Travers’ face. He gave Matthew a terse nod, although Matthew still refused to meet his gaze. “You did well, Matthew. You’re not in any trouble. Go and see Mrs. Johnson and she’ll give you some hot chocolate and a cookie. That’s a boy.” He watched him go before turning back to George. “You don’t think he has anything to do with it? I have to ask, and you know him better than anyone.”
“I’d swear on me own grandmother’s grave that he knows nothing. I thought he was going to keel over dead when he came and told me about finding the twins.”
Pastor Travers reached for the old-fashioned desk phone that he refused to trade in for a more modern version of communication. “I’ll call Jim Carson. He’s experienced in this kind of thing, performs exorcisms and whatnot across the county. He’s busy though, often booked out weeks in advance. You’d be surprised how often we find ourselves dealing with matters of the occult although I have to admit this is the first time that human foetuses have been involved.”
Later that evening, as the full moon rises over the church steeple and a hoot owl calls its scornful cry, the undeniable odour of death and decay seeps across the graveyard. A dark figure, too tall and too broad to be wholly human, makes its way between the neat rows of graves and places a wet, bloody object on Isabella Morgan’s memorial stone. It hesitates, as if deep in thought, before lumbering away. It weaves its way over to a freshly dug mound where only yesterday Louise Jordan’s family and friends wept over her passing. Soft murmurs of ‘taken too soon’ still hang in the air and flower bouquets cover the ground.
The creature stands beside the grave and mutters an indecipherable, hellish incantation, its evilly enchanted words pulling Louise’s corpse up from her final resting place. The demonic abomination copulates with the lifeless, dirt-covered body atop the grave before returning the deceased to her bed of soil, its actions almost tender in the treatment of its dead lover. The unspeakable act complete, the demon slowly moves away - but not before taking careful note of where it should return with Louise’s baby when the time is right.
Sherry & Nuts With V.C. Andrews
She’s smaller than I imagined and somehow faded. I’m reminded of a small grey sparrow perched in the encompassing space of the large brocade armchair. She has her hair tucked up under a hat and her feet sit neatly on the carpeted floor beneath her as she waits.
I introduce myself and tell her I’ve been a fan for years. She smiles then, and pulls off her hat, and I know that my idea of her as a small grey sparrow was wholly incorrect. Her smile is devilish, teasing, and I can see that her eyes know more about me than I have yet managed to tell her. Her hair is a surprise too; white blonde and curled, like the characters in her most famous series of books.
She invites me to sit down now, in this grand old hotel of her choosing, and I do so gladly. Tell me more my eyes murmur and she nods as if I’ve said the words aloud. “The books were a mistake, in a way.”
I’m eager for her to continue but the black suited waiter interrupts to talk about today’s offerings and invite us to place an order. She waves the menu away without checking with me first. “Sherry,” she says firmly. “A glass of your best sherry and a small bowl of salted nuts. I’ve never been one for an extravagant lunch.”
I pass my own menu back to the waiter without looking at it. “I’ll have the same,” I say, although my memories of sherry are of ghastly sips stolen from my parents’ cocktail cabinet around the same time as I discovered V.C. Andrews startling and blushworthy Flower’s in the Attic book series. Well, blushworthy to a young teenage girl who didn’t yet know that such books existed.
“You don’t need to have it just because I am,” she says softly. Her voice is young and girlish, as if she is a person who is very careful of the number of harsh words she utters.
“No, I’m happy with sherry and nuts.” I clasp my hands in my lap, for no other reason than that it feels right. “The books. Tell me about the books.”
“I wrote them and I fell in love with them.” She looks wistful now, caught up in memories that I have no knowledge of. “Then I sent them to my publisher and he asked me to add something more.”
I nod. I think I know what the ‘something more’ is. However, I have no idea how she came up with such an outlandish ‘something more’ and I hope she will tell me.
“I think the incest factor was a shock to him,” she muses, “But what more could I add to the story of four children left on their own for years in an attic? Aside from murder of course, and I was far too fond of each of them to kill any of them off at that stage.”
“It clearly wasn’t so much of a shock to him that he refused to publish it,” I point out. “And you’re right. What else could you have done? They’d already been starved of love and food, tortured in a way, and endlessly punished by deprivation.”
She nods and whispers a quiet thank you to the waiter as he returns with a silver tray bearing two small glasses of golden-hued sherry and a crystal bowl of mixed nuts. We wait until he reverently places them on the table and leaves us alone again. “But they had love,” she assures me. “They had the love of one another.”
“I know.” I sip my sherry and it’s as ghastly as I remember. The hotel restaurant is busy now and the noise level has risen. I hope she will raise the volume of her voice to compensate or I might not hear her words. “The books had a special meaning for me.”
“Oh?” She arches one finely drawn eyebrow. “And what was that?”
“They were stories about two sets of blonde twins.” I self-consciously touch my own blonde curls. “That was us. My siblings and I. We’re two sets of twins, a boy and girl each time.”
Her eyes gleam and she chuckles with obvious delight. “Well I never! I always knew you existed.”
“No, no,” I say hurriedly, anxious to prevent any misunderstandings. “Our life was nothing like that of the twins in your books.”
She nods and her eyes tell me that she thinks the similarities may be closer than I think.
“No incest,” I clarify.
“That was the publisher’s request,” she reminds me. “I was happy with the original story. Other people’s ideas changed those children’s lives, and mine too. More than I thought possible.”
We smile at each other, finally understanding one another completely, and we quietly sit and drink our sherry as the pure ridiculousness of the theory of coincidence and fate washes over us.
I never planned on it happening like this. The end, I mean. The end of my life on this sometimes good, often horrifying earthly plane. I guess we all want to die peacefully in our sleep but in reality, how often does that happen? Anyway, I digress. Let's start at the beginning of the end rather than at the end of the end.
Maggie was in one of her moods, one of her 'fix it now' moods. I'd begun to notice she moves in cycles: love me, love me not, fix it now, and then she'll be right back to love me again. I was fine with that, really I was. At least I knew where I stood.
So there I was, just a few minutes ago, standing at the top of the splintery old ladder that we'd taken from her Grandad's garage after he passed, along with his beaten-up saw with a few missing teeth and his wonky hand drill, both manufactured sometime around World War 2. Her Mom told us to go on in and 'get something to remember him by'. I don't think we thought too much about, we just grabbed the few things that were closest, but I do remember that I was happy to get my hands on that ladder. I needed a new ladder and the True Value aluminum jobbies with their splindly legs and wobbly steps just didn't do it for a man nudging 295.
Yeah, I'm a big guy. I could blame it on genetics or big bones but really, I just like to eat. Burgers and fries, waffles and chicken, donuts groaning beneath several inches of chocolate frosting and caramel sauce - oh yeah, bring them on. I won't say no to a meal, not ever. Maggie seems to like me that way and I can't say I've ever tried to hide my love of food from her. Most times, I think she enjoys the fact she's married to a family-pack magnitude of a man. I've seen her at cook-outs and picnics, giggling with her girlfriends about the size of my feet and I'll admit it, I never once felt bad about being the center of attention in that way.
So, I climbed up that ladder, enjoying the solid feel of the rounded rungs and the way the the wood bounced and flexed under my weight, intent on reaching the top and clearing out the spouting. We'd had a spring storm the day before, torrents of rain that flooded the gutters and got itself bunged up on old fall leaves and winter flotsam, and Maggie wasn't happy about the way the overflow streamed over the top and poured down the outside of the windows. She wanted me to fix it and of course I said yes. Truth be told, I quite liked doing those types of handyman jobs around the house. Made me feel as if I was taking care of the family. Protecting our cave and doing good, manly work.
It's hard to say what happened first - me over-reaching for a sticky clump of decaying leaves or Max, our ginger Tom, deciding he wanted to join in the fun. Maybe I'll find out if I ever get to sit down to watch a replay of my life and all of my glorious mistakes, or maybe I won't. Anyway, long story short, I overbalanced, the ladder slipped and slid, and next thing I know I'm plummeting toward the unforgiving concrete below.
It's a funny thing, the way time seems to slow down to nothing when you're about to die. From the time I grabbed for the falling ladder until now feels like about 20 minutes or more, although I'm positive it's closer to half a second. Falling is amazingly freeing, too. I can't remember feeling this lightweight since I was 9 or 10, splashing about down at Mooney's Pond with my mates and floating about on the water pretending I was an astronaut spiraling through space.
I know I'm about to hit the ground and I know I'm about to move on to whatever it is that awaits me next, but strangely enough I don't tense up. I'm ready, I know I'm ready.
This is it, this is me, and this is the definitive end of this wonderful, crazy, perplexing life that I've lived.
Endings & Beginnings (Non-Fiction)
In exactly nine hours from now, I’ll be on my way to Christchurch International Airport.
Well, we like to call it an International Airport but I’ve seen airports in other countries and this one doesn’t really cut it. It’s nice and all the rest of it, but international? No. Not even close. The domestic and international parts are located in the same building and before 15th March 2019, you didn’t even have to pass through security in order to board and fly on a domestic flight.
Christchurch, New Zealand. My hometown. A place that most of the world hadn’t heard of until a few weeks ago, when a deranged and cruel man with a gun took it upon himself to rob 50 people of their lives, rob untold people of their loved ones, and rob a country of its innocence.
I have to admit that I haven’t been back to town since the shooting. I was only a couple of blocks away from the mosque at the time, stuck in a traffic jam that shouldn’t have been there, when a guy in a car in the next lane started yelling. I wound down the window to see what he wanted ’cos that’s what you do in my hometown. “Hey, there’s been a shooting. Turn off here. The roads are blocked up ahead. Can you let me in?”
“A shooting? Are you sure?” We don’t have shootings in New Zealand. Guns are for hunting game. Even our police are unarmed. Or they were.
“Can you let me in? No point in trying to stay on this road now.” The man in the next car looked panicky, scared. I knew at once that even if all of this was in his head, I wanted to help him out.
“Sure. Go right ahead.” I held back as the traffice inched forward, engine idling, as he slipped into my lane and indicated to turn his car left at the next intersection. My son, back from teaching overseas and staying with me for a few weeks, leaned over from the passenger seat and turned up the car radio as we listened in horror and disbelief.
Someone with a gun has just run into a mosque and started shooting at innocent people. Loyal worshippers in the act of prayer.
"No. This is Christchurch. This is New Zealand. Someone has the wrong end of the stick. Stuff like this doesn't happen here." I wanted to change to another radio station and find something newsworthy, something to listen to other than this rubbishy rubbish.
"Sssshhh." My son batted my hand away from the knob and turned the radio volume up another notch. "Turn off here, Mum. Follow that guy. We need to get out of town."
It took a long to get home, back to my quiet little house by a peaceful, empty beach, located just twenty minutes from the CBD on a good day. We stopped for petrol and the woman behind the counter was pale and trembling, numb with shock, barely able to ring up the till when I passed her the money. We slow-crawled past two primary schools as crowds of anxious parents huddled outside, way past the time the 3 o'clock Friday bell tolled its song of freedom. Every school in the city was in lockdown and they would remain that way until 7pm.
My son was all over the internet by the time we arrived home. Footage of the shooting, the name of the gun man, and other details were available without anyone hardly needing to look for them. The television had rolling coverage, my phone was blowing up, and my Facebook feed kept on scrolling in differing variegated shades of anger, sorrow, outrage, and incredulity.
Stuff like this doesn't happen here. New Zealand is a safe, friendly country. People come here to escape the awfulness they've suffered in other countries.
How dare he.
Hours ticked by. The six degrees of separation kicked in (we've always called it three degrees of separation in New Zealand). Everyone knew someone who was affected; they had worked with the husband, had lunch with the wife, or had bought a present for the child. Or, they lived next to mosque and opened their doors for the injured, or heard the gunshots, or they worked at the hospital, or they had been one of the first responders.
This was personal.
Perhaps it was intended this way. That man was not 'one of us'. He wasn't a New Zealander. A New Zealander would never do such a thing.
The world awoke to the horror and the world immediately responded. The attention was loud, outraged, and constant. Sometimes it felt like too much. We're not big on blowing our own trumpets and saying 'hey, look at me' in Christchurch, New Zealand.
We've seen tragedy before. Our city is still recovering from the 2010-2011 earthquakes that leveled our town. Nerve endings are still exposed or at the very least thinly glossed over. This tragedy has opened old wounds and reminded us all that they're still raw. In reality, the healing had only just begun.
I’ll take the long way when I drive out to the airport tonight so I don’t have to drive anywhere near town. I'm hoping to avoid the sorrow that still clings like a misty, grey shroud over the city but I might be kidding myself.
So, yeah. I’m leaving my country in a few hours and I'm still not sure how I feel about that. I have to turn up super early at Christchurch International Airport due to the increased security measures and I’m bound for America, a place that is unfortunately reknown for such tragedies.
My writing, my true lifetime passion, won me a ticket on that plane. I should be jubilant but I’m in two minds as to whether I should be going, especially as I’m travelling alone.
However, I’m reminding myself now that I’m from Christchurch. I’m a true Cantabarian and we’ve got this. We don’t back down.
I’ll be back.
The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
People called them the Trashtown Gypsies, which Andrea knew was supposed to be derogatory but she couldn’t help but think it sounded poetic and romantic. It certainly sounded a lot better than the Jones-Smith-Corbin-and-Wilson families.
Andrea and her extended family of brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents, and people who’d just wandered in one day and decided to stay, lived on a patch of land just close enough to the centre of town to be classed as urban. Rural probably summed it up better, given the amount of dusty yellow grass stretching out in all directions around the mishmash of cobbled-together dwellings and old caravans jacked up on blocks, and Andrea was willing to bet that the members of the town council often wished for a reclassification. Redefining the area as rural would certainly let those council busybodies off the hook although if they didn’t have Trashtown to bother themselves with, what would they do with all their time?
She swung herself off the bus to follow her brother, ignoring the catcalls of the kids still sitting in the seats behind her. The bus would laboriously turn at the end of the road before taking its remaining passengers to the new housing estate a few kilometres away. Andrea had no idea why the kids thought they were better than the inhabitants of Trashtown, considering their swanky new subdivision didn’t boast a single shop and they too had to catch the bus to the nearest school.
Luke raised his middle finger to the back of the bus as it trundled away in a cloud of grey dust but Andrea didn’t care enough to turn around. She set off up the track, already looking forward to a cool drink of water and kicking her shoes off.
“Hey, Andrea! Wait up. I’ve got something to show you.”
Andrea carried on walking. She couldn’t imagine that Luke, with his passion for old Spiderman comics and cheap plastic spinning tops would have anything that she’d be interested in seeing. She’d fill a bucket with water when she got home, she decided, and she’d dunk her bare feet in it. Nana Ginty did that sometimes, sitting in the weathered lawn chair with the splintered seat and groaning in ecstasy as she dipped her swollen old ankles into the cool water. Andrea’s ankles were neither old nor swollen, but the cool water still seemed like a good idea.
“Andrea.” He grabbed roughly at her arm, his gleeful, freckled face held only inches from her own. “You’ve got to see this. Rashid let me have a $5 scratch lottery card as a swap for some of my comics.”
Andrea shook off his arm and stared at her brother, not impressed with this news. “He gave you a scratch card? That’s not allowed. You’re not old enough and he could get in lots of trouble.” Rashid was the spotty faced young man who worked behind the counter at the R&B Convenience Store down the road from the school, and Andrea had seen his envious expression whenever Luke showed him one of his Spiderman comics. The comics used to belong to their uncle and were Luke’s by default now. Uncle Brett left Trashtown ten months ago in search of something better. Word was it that he was now whiling away his hours in the county prison after a failed robbery attempt on a pharmacy, and Andrea sometimes wondered if he thought his life now was any better than what he’d left behind.
Luke shrugged. ”He wanted the comics real bad and I told him I’d only give them to him if he gave me a scratch card. He paid for it and slipped it across the counter. I had to promise not to tell anyone.” Luke gasped and stopped, the guilt at what he’d just said seeping across his face like a stain, and again he grabbed urgently for her arm. “You can’t tell anyone.”
A tiny seed of an idea nudged against Andrea’s brain and began to grow into something bigger. She allowed a sly smile to tug at the corner of her mouth. “I won’t tell anyone, but only if you promise to share your winnings with me.”
“What? Get off. If I win anything it’s mine.”
“Suit yourself. You won’t win anything anyway and even if you did, you couldn’t collect it. You have to be over 18. You’re not as smart as you think you are, Lucas Jones.” She whirled away from him, swinging her bag carelessly, to continue her march up the track. Uncle Don had said they might have a BBQ tonight, with sausages wrapped in white bread and a big squirt of that artificial green-coloured tomato sauce out of a carton he said fell off the back of a truck. Uncle Don seemed to find a lot of stuff that had fallen off the back of a truck.
Luke hurried to catch up, struggling to extend his shorter strides to match her step. “Don’t you want to see?” he wheedled. “Three of the same means you can win up to $250,000.”
“Yeah, right. No one ever wins on those things. You’ll be lucky to win $2, which isn’t even as much as the ticket cost.” Andrea considered herself an expert on gambling, mostly due to earwigging in on conversations between Auntie Jodie and her mother about what went on down at the club. The two women were enormous fans of the pokie machines and the chocolate wheel, although they never seemed to have much luck with either. However, after their monthly visit to the local casino they’d always arrive home pink-cheeked and flushed, boasting about their fried chicken supper and the half price glasses of wine, so Andrea supposed their lack of luck didn’t put too much of a downer on their night.
They’d nearly reached the bend in the track and Andrea could see the small, colourful settlement spread out in front of them. The land belonged to Grandpa Jack, the result of a debt owed by some long dead friend and as far as Andrea was concerned, it was the perfect place to live. Their oldest brother Ken had set up a generator to supply electricity before moving to Perth to work in the mines, and there was running cold water in each of the houses. If you needed hot water you had to boil it, but Andrea thought that was all part of the fun.
“I’m scratching it now,” Luke crowed. “I’ve already got two crowns. If I get one more I’m a winnnerrrrr.”
“You’ll always be a loser to me,” Andrea muttered. She idly scratched at a fresh mosquito bite on her elbow. If she had to list one thing that she didn’t like about Trashtown, it would have to be the bugs. Bugs and Andrea Jones just did not get along.
“Andrea!” Luke’s voice was a strange combination of a squeal and a gasp. “Oh Jesus Christ God Bollocks.”
“What? Have you won $2?” Despite herself, Andrea stopped walking and peered over her brother’s shoulder to look at the ticket in his hand. It looked like any other scratch lotto ticket to her, this one a rectangle of vomited-coloured green decorated with cartoon kings wearing too-large crowns on their flat heads. She squinted her eyes in the glare of the sun, unsure of what she was supposed to be looking at. “What is it? What are you squawking about?”
“Three crowns. Andrea, I’ve got three crowns.” She could feel his body shaking as she leaned over his shoulder and she saw now that the colour had drained from his face, leaving his freckles standing out in stark relief against his white skin.
“Let me see.” She snatched the ticket out of his hand and scanned her eyes across the just-revealed symbols. “Where does it say you need three crowns to win?”
He stabbed a trembling finger at the gold text on the top of the ticket. “There. $250,000 for three crowns. Andrea, we’ve won the big one.”
They still had their BBQ that night but no one was in the mood for eating. The Trashtown Gypsies, everyone except Brett who was in jail, Ken who was in Perth, and Grandpa Jack who was dead, huddled around the bonfire and debated what they should do with their good fortune. There was never any doubt that the money would be shared, despite Luke’s earlier comment about keeping the money all to himself. The Trashtown Gypsies lived by the motto All For One and One For All, except when jail, Perth, or death was involved.
“They call dollar bills greenbacks in the States. We could ask for the money in greenbacks and move to the US of A.” Uncle Don was still shaking his head in disbelief. He hadn’t stopped shaking it since Luke and Andrea ran screaming up to the camp to tell everyone and for some reason he was fixated on this America idea, although most of the others had stopped listening to him now.
“I can’t believe my little brother won a quarter of a mill. $250,000 smack-a-roonies.” Debbie, Andrea and Luke’s oldest sister, playfully attempted to kiss him but he scowled and ducked out of the way. “What are we going to do with it?”
“A Gold Coast apartment,” Cousin Julie said bossily, as if it was she who’d won the ticket and she had first dibs on what the money went on.
“Don’t be a dick, Julie. $250,000 is nowhere near enough to buy an apartment on the GC, even if there is a glut.” Uncle Dave rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “We could buy a couple of new cars, not new ones exactly, but second-hand ones that look new.”
“Computers,” said Andrea and Luke’s second sister Mandy-Ann. “Laptops. And a Wi-Fi connection. I’m getting through a shit ton of data since we moved out here to the boondocks.” Mandy-Ann spent a lot of her time on her phone, swiping right and waiting for her dates to come out to Trashtown to pick her up for a night on the town.
“We could do up some of the houses. Add hot water plumbing and an inside loo for the ones that don’t have it.” Aunt Jodie gazed across to her own ramshackle dwelling, which was half of shipping container tacked onto the end of a retired relocatable office building. “I’d feel like I’d died and gone to heaven.”
“No one forced you to move out here, Jodie,” Sarah said tartly. “You had a perfectly good council house in Greenfern before you came here.” Sarah wasn’t exactly related to anyone, she’d just arrived one day when the car she’d hitched a ride in dropped her at the end of the track. She’d wandered in, said hi to everyone as she passed some beers around, and set up her tent. By the time the next month rolled around, Uncle Gazza had dismantled the tent and moved her into his caravan and it’d stayed that way ever since.
“What would you know, Sarah?” Jodie threw dagger-eyes at Sarah, while Andrea quietly watched and wondered if they’d have another one of their girl fights. They’d had one once before, throwing ineffectual punches at one another and pulling each other’s hair while the men hooted and whistled and yelled out “Someone bring a wading pool filled with jelly!” Uncle Gazza and Uncle Dave tried to place bets on who would be the winner until Uncle Don hauled the two women apart and told the other men to grow up.
“Enough.” Uncle Gazza’s roar stopped everyone in their tracks. “Someone has to go and collect the money before anyone can do anything, and a ten-year-old kid certainly can’t be the one to hand a scratchie ticket across.”
“You should do it, Maureen,” Nana Ginty’s voice was firm and authorative, silencing her kin as she spoke. Andrea supposed that everyone shut up in surprise because Nana Ginty hardly ever said anything, not even when she found a brown snake curled in the bottom of the dunny. “You’re the boy’s mother. Tell them you bought it. The owner will be so happy to hear that a winning ticket was sold at his shop that he won’t even question you.”
Andrea and Luke’s mother looked doubtful, tugging self-consciously at her hair and biting her lip. “There might be TV cameras there. I don’t want to be on the TV.”
“There won’t be TV cameras,” Uncle Don scoffed, lighting up yet another of his foul-smelling durries. “They won’t even know you’re planning on going in.”
“I’ll do it.” Auntie Jodie reverently took the ticket from Luke, holding it in her hand as if it were a tiny baby bird just fallen from the nest. “Don can drive me into town tomorrow to hand it in.”
In the end, all the discussions and arguments meant nothing. It turned out that Rashid, in the hopes of getting the money for himself, confessed to his boss that he’d bought the scratchie for Luke shortly after Auntie Jodie presented herself at the counter with the winning ticket. CCTV footage was duly examined, Rashid got the boot, and the Lottery Commission quietly re-absorbed the prize money into its coffers with a minimum of fuss.
Uncle Don took it the hardest. He moped around for weeks, aware that all his hopes of traveling to America were now dust in the wind. In the end, Nana Ginty wrapped him on the knuckles with her walking stick and told him she was tired of his bleating and if he wanted to go the States, he should think about getting himself a job.
Uncle Gazza agreed with Nana Ginty and took Uncle Don aside for a ‘man-to-man talk’ about how ‘the grass isn’t always greener’.
Aunt Jodie, along with Andrea and Luke’s mother, started going to the casino twice a week, hoping to catch some of the luck while it was still in the air. However, they stopped that after a month as they said it was getting too expensive and the luck had probably moved on by now anyway.
Andrea was sorry they didn’t get the money, but mainly on Luke’s behalf as she knew how much it’d meant to him. As for her, she was just happy that life at the Trashtown Gypsy camp was back to normal.
Just Another Day at the Office
He felt a sudden burst of glee when he opened the door and saw that he was the first to arrive. This was seldom the case; the office was a network, a hub, a carefully controlled hive of activity that seldom let up. He allowed the door to fall shut behind him and made his way through the morning silence of the office to his desk at the pinnacle of the room. He dropped his briefcase to the floor and happily gazed around, enjoying the serene sight of a busy day before it began.
It was exciting to be in this room on his own. He knew the office like the back of his hand but it almost made him feel like an intruder to be alone in here. Much like an errant schoolboy who’d crept into the classroom while the other students played in the schoolyard and the teacher took the thankful weight off her feet in the staffroom. A sense of mischievousness that he hadn’t felt in years sneaked up and tapped him on the shoulder, the delicious shiver of devilment taking him by surprise. He snatched the small globe off his desk, unhooked the tiny blue and green world from its golden pedestal, and marched quickly back to the door. His wastepaper bin was barely in sight from here, the rimmed edge just peeking out from the side of his desk, and if his aim was strong and true he should be able to do this. He was an avid golfer and aiming for impossible goals was a major component of his daily repertoire.
His tongue poked out the side of his mouth as he concentrated, measuring the distance and the technique with a practiced eye. A long, high lob was required, a throw that had enough of an arch to avoid the corner of the desk but enough heft to carry it all the way to its target. He lifted his arm, wincing at the small pinch of rheumatism in his shoulder, and cast his shot. The globe landed in the trashcan with an audible thunk. He threw his arms in the air and performed his own victory dance, imagining the adoring masses shouting his name, clapping their hands, and stamping their feet to see him prove to them once again that he was worthy of their trust.
Trust. It was a big word and he knew he’d dallied around the edges of both the word and its meaning far too often for people to automatically link it to his name. He knew that many people equated trust with a person’s moral characteristics and likeability, which was a darn shame in his opinion, but he had to remember that universal likeability had never been one of his goals. Respect, yes. Loyalty and devotion, yes. He’d learned long ago that his natural abrasiveness and competiveness weren’t conducive to garnering love and affection but he was also smart enough to know that he couldn’t have everything in life. Money could buy a man most things but it couldn’t buy him unconditional love. Oh, there were those who loved him – in fact, there were those who loved him with a fervour and they weren’t shy in vocalizing their feelings – but he’d known since he was a small boy that unconditional love was never his to own.
He left his spot by the door and with his hands tucked behind his back in a pose that he’d not yet noticed was one of his most recognizable gestures, he began a slow circumnavigation of the room. The office was old, probably well overdue for an update and modernization, but there was something to be said for working in a space where other successful people had played out their dreams. He stopped in front of a large framed painting, gazing solemnly at the scene for a long, pensive moment before noticing a speckling of dust on the trim. He snorted in amusement as his brain, always his wittiest of companions, commented that the dust speckles were a metaphor of sorts for the modern world. The planet in its entirety was in need of a robust spring clean, a shakeup, and a jolly good tidy up.
He wandered back to his desk, idly listening to the sound of his footsteps echoing on the polished floorboard. Pacing himself. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that he needed to pace himself. It was all very well to ride the stress-filled, exhilarating rollercoaster of global business but it wasn’t an activity any mere human could keep up forever. It just wasn’t possible. He’d once thought anything was possible but sadly, he’d had to revise his opinion of late. He sighed as he sunk down into his comfortable, high-backed leather chair. He’d accepted this role gladly, stepped up into a promotion he’d dreamed of for years, but no one had warned him of the toll it would take on his psyche, on his outlook on life, and even on his outlook on himself as a man.
Some rosehip tea would go down well now, a soothing drink that he’d recently adopted as his go-to beverage. As soon as the other workers arrived, he’d send one of the lesser clerks out to get some. Perhaps a bagel too, although his doctor would frown and tut-tut if he knew. He absentmindedly patted his belly, aware that there was more flesh there above the cut and restriction of his belt than there used to be. He told himself he had to remember that he was older now, less physically active, and extra pounds were an indisputable fact of age. Heck, many of his friends were already grandparents! Time waited for no man – who was it that had first uttered that indisputable truth?
Someone flung the door open, startling him out of his reverie, although experience had taught him to keep his face impassive and never show fear. To allow emotion to creep into business dealings was unacceptable poppycock and anyone who did so deserved his disdain and contempt. He moved the waste paper bin back under his desk with the tip of one highly polished shoe and levelled his cold stare at the new arrival.
Johnson visibly quavered under the weight of his leader’s glare. “Sorry to disturb you, Mr. President. We have Russia waiting on Line 2.”
Beyond the cracked, dirty sidewalk and the telephone pole littered with dead layers of flyers in a faded rainbow of colors, and just past the patch of uncared-for grass, there stood a twelve-foot high concrete block wall. At the foot of the wall rested a small shrine complete with the expected candle stubs, dead flowers, and one lone, soggy teddy bear. A phrase in spray-painted graffiti covered the concrete blocks; enthusiastic, looping blue letters scrawled against the peeling paint – Rejoice in All Things!
Hannah could not take her eyes off the phrase, unable to reconcile the inappropriately cheerful command with what the shrine stood for. How was a person supposed to find the energy to rejoice at the site of devastating tragedy? She dropped her eyes at last and gazed at the remains of the shrine.
The pink teddy bear was unbefitting of the scene now that it was well past the first flush of newness, now that its fake fur was matted and sodden, now that it’s beady, glass eyes were cracked and razed from overexposure to the weather. The ruined stuffed animal, once destined to be a child’s dreamiest bedtime companion, was nothing more than a waterlogged, leering, mud-splattered she-devil crouched at an altar of decaying blooms and melted wax.
After sending up a hasty prayer for forgiveness over what she was about to do, Hannah made her decision. The plastic roses could stay, the candles with enough wax left to ensure a few minutes of hopeful burning could stay, but that teddy’s reign was over. Wrinkling her nose in distaste, Hannah picked up the dripping, clammy, deceased teddy bear, the dead flowers, and the blackened candle stumps and carried her pickings over to the trashcan. She stuffed the entire sorry, unwholesome mess down, cramming wet acrylic fur past fast food bags, discarded cans, and half-eaten, rotting leftovers, her face distorted with repugnance and her nostrils pinched to reduce the impact of stale odors rising up to meet her.
Hannah wiped her hands down her jeans and glanced quickly around to check that no one had seen her act of desecration. As with any site that drew forth outpourings of emotion, people had heightened opinions about the shrine and each believed their opinion to be right, especially when a young child was involved.
The last sighting of Cherry-Lynn Jennifer Morgan was on this corner seven days ago. Cherry-Lynn was a round-faced, happy eight-year-old with bangs and freckles; a scraped-kneed, snaggle-toothed schoolgirl with her socks bunched around the tops of her stained sneakers and a giggle that would make anyone smile.
Cherry-Lynn, wearing a sparkly pink unicorn sweat top, was last seen happily throwing a tennis ball up against this very wall with her neon orange and yellow backpack from the Dollar Store carelessly discarded by the high wire fence that bordered the basketball courts. Little Cherry-Lynn, with her whole life laid out in front of her, was last seen alive with her feet on the exact same patch of asphalt on which Hannah now stood.
The girl’s disappearance, for reasons vaguely hinted at but not uttered outright by the smart-suited reporter with the impenetrable, unmoving helmet of TV hair who stared importantly down the lens of the television camera, did not reach the ears of the 911 operator until around 10.30 pm on the day she went missing.
Hannah knew this important information because her mother, Terri Compton, was the dispatcher who took the breathless, panicked call from Cherry-Lynn’s mother. Terri, trained to remain soothing yet authorative in the face of uncontrolled panic, had done all the right things. She’d dispatched a police car, raised an amber alert, and spoken calmly and reassuringly to Cherry-Lynn’s mother until help arrived.
For the past 12 months, Cherry-Lynn and her mother had lived only two doors down from Hannah and Terri. Terri would wave cheerfully at Cherry-Lynn’s mother whenever the two women’s paths crossed but she never approached her, never passed the time of day, never asked the other woman inside the apartment for a coffee. Terri, her lips pursed into a tight cat’s bum of disapproval, told Hannah that Cherry-Lynn and her mother were not quite the right type to associate with and it was best if they kept to themselves.
Hannah said she was unsure what quite the right type meant but Terri refused to elaborate. As far as Hannah could see, Cherry-Lynn and her mother’s lives ran on a parallel line to Hannah and Terri’s lives. Both families lived on the same street, both mothers were Single By Choice, and Cherry-Lynn was only three years younger than Hannah.
Cherry-Lynn and Hannah had spoken on occasions over the past year. An eight year old and an eleven year old don’t generally have a whole lot in common but Hannah felt sisterly towards the young girl. She would tell Cherry-Lynn not to fool around with her friends too close to the curb, to look both ways before crossing the street, and to watch she didn’t trip over her shoelaces, but that was about as far as it went.
On the day of Cherry-Lynn’s disappearance, Hannah had uncharacteristically spoken to the child for several minutes. However, racked by guilt, Hannah had not disclosed this information to anyone. Frightening images, gleaned from movies, of solemn, mean-faced cops grilling subjects for information in poorly lit, poorly furnished interview rooms swirled around Hannah’s brain and she had kept her mouth firmly shut. As Terri often said, everything in life was a choice.
Cherry-Lynn, there one moment and gone the next, was now the word on every neighborhood child’s lips. Cherry-Lynn’s name was spoken reverently, in hushed, wide-eyed tones, as if she were already dead and buried. The bogeyman had visited West Street to confirm every parent’s oft-repeated warnings.
The popular consensus among Hannah’s friends was that the bad guys had chosen Cherry-Lynn due to her fondness for chatting to whomever she took a liking to. Everyone knew you shouldn’t talk to strangers and Cherry-Lynn’s awful fate was a sure confirmation of that. However, as everyone also knew, Cherry-Lynn did not know any better.
Cherry-Lynn, unlike Hannah, did not have a mother who worked as a 911 dispatcher, a mother who knew who the right type was, a mother who made sure that Cherry-Lynn had somewhere to go after school, a mother who cautioned against speaking to people you did not know. Cherry-Lynn’s mother hadn’t taught her what she should do.
But despite the damning whispers and unsavory rumors, Hannah thought Cherry-Lynn’s mother was a fascinating creature. Cherry-Lynn’s mother was curvy and voluptuous, thicc as Hannah’s friends would say, and she always had at least one slouching, sly-eyed boyfriend knocking on her door. Cherry-Lynn’s mother, with her long, flowing honey-blonde hair, full lips, and knowing eyes was exciting and intriguing. Cherry-Lynn’s mother did not care what people thought of her. Hannah thought life would be a whole lot easier if everyone adopted that attitude.
Rooster, the tall, skinny neighborhood boy with teenage acne-riven skin who spoke to the TV reporter, had mentioned Cherry-Lynn’s mother in his TV interview. He had shifted his basketball under his arm and waved vaguely in the direction of her apartment, saying that he saw Cherry-Lynn and her mother regularly on the street. Yes, he said, he regularly saw both of them going about their ordinary business and no, he had no clue as to what could have happened to Cherry-Lynn.
What the TV reporter had not noticed but Hannah had noticed at once was the way that Rooster’s eyes darted towards the house at No. 27. She had plainly seen his eyes as they flickered towards the dark, scowling frontage of the building and then just as quickly flickered away again.
No. 27 West Street was the kind of house that encouraged people to step off the sidewalk or hurry to the other side of the road when they passed. No. 27 West Street, with its shuttered windows and decaying boards, was a house perfectly suited for the bogeymen of this world. No. 27 was the kind of house that might suck a little eight-year-old girl in and never let her leave.
On the day of Cherry-Lynn’s disappearance, although no one knew this, Hannah had stopped to talk to the little girl as she crossed the street on this this exact corner. Spoken to the living, breathing Cherry-Lynn as she chanted 1,1,1, 2,2,2, Bogey Bogey Avenue in time with the thump of her tennis ball against the chipped paint of the wall. Hannah, smiling as she passed at the nonsense rhyme, laughingly told Cherry-Lynn not to go near No. 27 where the bogeyman lived and to be sure not to stay out too late. Then she had walked on without looking back.
And now look at what had happened. Cherry-Lynn was missing, presumed snatched, and her permanently grinning face would probably appear on a milk carton one day. Cherry-Lynn’s mother would sink into the ravages of despair before taking up with yet another unsuitable, sly-eyed boyfriend and moving on. Weeks and years would pass, people would forget, and it would be as if Cherry-Lynn had never existed at all.
Hannah, furious with herself for not doing more to save Cherry-Lynn from her dire fate and sad about the mess her shrine had become, made a solemn vow to return here each afternoon for the next few weeks. She would appoint herself as caretaker and guardian of the site, she would bring fresh flowers, and she would continue praying for Cherry-Lynn. It was the very least she could do, even if Cherry-Lynn and her mother were not the right type.
Three days later, an automobile pulled up and parked beside the concrete wall. The driver opened the door but she did not get out. Although her face was in shadow, there was something about how she rested the weight of her hands on the steering wheel, something about her silent composure, which caused Hannah to sigh.
Hannah hesitated, unsure whether she should approach the vehicle or pretend she hadn’t seen it. Terri’s voice rang stridently in her ears. Don’t talk to strangers. Come straight home. Call 911 if you see anything suspicious. Look what happened to Cherry-Lynn. You don’t want the same thing to happen to you, do you?
Hannah threw her conflicted thoughts to the wind and made an impromptu decision. A choice that might change everything. On trembling legs, she approached the car just as the woman took her arm back inside the vehicle and went to turn the key in the ignition.
“Hi. I knew Cherry-Lynn. She was one of my neighbors.” Hannah’s voice sounded forced, overtly cheerful to her ears. Out of place here at this altar of mourning for a little girl who never really had the chance to live.
The woman sighed, a long, sorrowful sound, and dropped her hand from the ring of keys dangling from the ignition. She stared straight ahead for a long moment and Hannah, now taking a doubtful, unsteady step backward, wondered if she had heard her at all. Hannah took the opportunity to assess the woman. She was older than Hannah had first thought, with deep lines around her eyes and a sour tilt to her mouth that scribbled out any lingering signs of beauty.
“I know Cherry-Lynn, too.” The woman sighed again before finally turning to face Hannah. Hannah was startled to see Cherry-Lynn’s mother’s knowing eyes boring into her own. “I’m her grandmother.”
“I’m sorry.” Hannah searched her memory for an any recollection of Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother in TV appearances, or of her photo in the slideshow of stills behind the TV reporter’s desk, but she was sure she had not seen her before. Not ever. As far as Hannah knew, the extent of Cherry-Lynn’s family was her mother and her mother’s endless stream of no-good boyfriends.
Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother was still talking about her granddaughter in the present tense, as if Cherry-Lynn was not already dead and buried. She spoke of Cherry-Lynn’s ready grin, her dancing feet, and her genial personality. Cherry-Lynn, according to her grandmother, did not take after her mother. Hannah nodded mutely, wondering if she should tell Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother that she’d removed the teddy bear and the dead flowers because they were no longer worthy offerings to Cherry-Lynn’s memory. However, Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother had something hard and bitter at the corners of her eyes that made Hannah decide to keep quiet.
“The girl’s mother. Do you have much to do with her?” Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother abruptly changed the subject, looping back onto a question that Hannah somehow knew was there from the beginning. Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother reminded Hannah a little of Terri, with her analytical mind and her need to make plans, and Hannah was glad she knew what to expect from the woman. Knowledge was power and knowledge meant she couldn’t be taken by surprise.
“She lives two doors down from us. My mother says hello sometimes.” Liar, Hannah. Hannah saw Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother glance at No. 27 and she hastily corrected her. “Not that house. We live on the other side of Cherry-Lynn and her mother.”
Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother pursed her lips, reminding Hannah again of Terri and her multitudes of disapprovals, as she drummed her long-nailed fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. “My granddaughter tells me the neighborhood children are afraid of that house. She said a bogeyman lives there.”
Hannah nodded eagerly, glad to talk about a subject that she thought herself an expert on. “An old man died there once. They didn’t find his body for years. My friend Cody said he saw his shadow walk past the window on Halloween night.”
This story did not seem to impress Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother. She stared right through Hannah and Hannah imagined she was able to read the graffiti phrase on the wall behind her. Hannah swore she could feel her hard gaze steering its determined, relentless way through Hannah’s skin, bones, muscles, and veins.
“Well,” said Hannah as she shuffled her sneakers against the gritty surface of the asphalt and rubbed her sweaty palm down the side seam of her jeans, “I guess I should be going. My mother will be wondering where I am. It was sure nice to meet you, ma’am.”
“Your mother looks out for you? That’s good to hear. These streets aren’t safe for young girls. More mothers need to be aware that safety begins at home. Some mothers need it spelled out to them.” Some of Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother’s words echoed Terri’s own oft-repeated phrases and Hannah was suddenly anxious to be gone. She never had been too fond of lectures.
With a curt nod of her head, Cherry Lynn’s grandmother returned her manicured hand to the ring of keys and the car engine burst into life. “Keep yourself safe and mind your mother.” The vehicle pulled away from the curb, turned right at the corner, and disappeared from sight.
Hannah remained where she was until the shouts of the boys from the basketball court and the steady bounce-thump of their basketball roused her. She bent to adjust the tiny bouquet of sunshine yellow dandelions she had picked on the way home from school to lay at the shrine before turning for home.
The next day was Saturday, Terri’s day off. Terri, in a rare burst of congeniality, told her excited daughter they might spend the day together at the mall. Hannah, borne along on a tidal wave of affection and greed at the chance to spend an entire day out shopping with her mother, forgot to go to tend Cherry-Lynn’s shrine.
Terri woke up with a cold on Sunday and moped around, acting like a cantankerous, grizzly bear with a sore head and a far distant cry from the jovial, giggling mother of yesterday. Hannah kept her distance, swept up in her mother’s dull mood, and did not visit Cherry-Lynn’s shrine.
On Monday evening, just before Hannah got up from her mellow resting place on the stoop, she imagined she heard Cherry-Lynn’s laugh drifting along on the lifting, lilting breeze. Guilt-ridden, she pulled a twig with two dangling acorns attached from the old oak tree beside the house and took her almost-floral gift across to lay it on Cherry-Lynn’s shrine.
On Tuesday, as Hannah crossed the street to walk past No. 27, she thought she caught the brief flutter of a corner of the filthy, yellowed net curtain that hung in the front window. She looked and looked again, before putting her head down and hurrying on. Everyone knew it never paid to let on to the bogeyman that he’d been seen.
On Wednesday, Hannah was almost certain she saw a small, round face pressed up to the grimy window of No. 27. A face with freckles and bangs. A face with a small, downturned mouth and wistful eyes. Hannah hastily looked the other way. She also made the important decision not to tend Cherry-Lynn’s shrine any longer. It was not as if anyone had noticed her careful caretaker-ly duties.
On Thursday, a solitary tennis ball caught Hannah’s eye as she hurried past No. 27. The ball, its yellow felt worn flat and stained with brown mud in a number of places, stared blankly back at her from the front step and Hannah, with a shiver, imagined it was the eye of a Cyclops. She quickened her pace, feeling the stare of the ball prickling at the tender skin between her shoulder blades.
On Friday, Terri informed Hannah that Cherry-Lynn had been found alive and well. Apparently, Cherry-Lynn’s grandmother had taken it upon herself to stage an intervention and remove the child from her unsuitable environment but would now be returning Cherry-Lynn to the custody of her mother. The matter was domestic and certainly not villainous or evil. Storm in a teacup. Waste of taxpayers’ money. I told you those type of people can’t be trusted.
Cherry-Lynn came back on Saturday with her cheerful grin subdued, her dancing feet dragging, and her neon orange and yellow Dollar Store backpack hanging limply from her shoulder as she followed her mother up the grimy, leaf-covered steps to their apartment. Hannah watched silently, peeping around the corner of the wall with Rejoice in All Things! scrawled upon it, feeling unbearably sad for the girl and her dimmed light.
However, when Hannah passed the corner on her way home from school on Monday afternoon, Cherry-Lynn was back on the corner. She grinned at Hannah without pausing in her chant of 1,1,1, 2,2,2, Bogey Bogey Avenue as her tennis ball thumped against the chipped concrete wall. Hannah grinned back and waited for Cherry-Lynn to stop throwing her ball. She leaned in close and told Cherry-Lynn that all the neighborhood children had thought she was dead and buried. Cherry-Lynn nodded, wise beyond her years, and said Yes, it was a very near miss. Then she turned back to her game and Hannah skipped on home.
The smell – what was that god-awful smell?
Jack had never counted his sense of smell as one of the most acute of his five senses. He had excellent eyesight, twenty-twenty vision if he were to believe all that his optometrist told him at his last eye exam, and he could still read the fine print on any illegal download site. He was proud of his sense of taste, his ability to discern the key ingredients in any gourmet dish despite having no clue as to what the chef may have used in his recipe. Jack’s hearing was also sublime, sure to rival that of the keenest-eared retriever. And his sense of touch? Oh, ho, ho, don’t get him started on touch. Just ask any of the women, or men for that matter, that he’d dallied with over the years and they’d be happy to confirm his abundantly finger-some talents. However, he’d never had the sharpest sense of smell. Not that it bothered him too much – in fact, it was often rather handy, especially when making use of the more dubious of public restrooms.
He sniffed again, tasting the damp air with his nostrils. He hadn’t opened his eyes yet, hadn’t pulled himself together enough to start his engine and roll back his eyelids. The smell that had awakened him seemed to have temporarily frozen him, glued him into a half-awake state where nothing else existed save for that odorous stench. He racked his brain, attempting to match the smell with a fragrance he’d come across previously during his life-long wanderings. Something rotten… fish? No, rotten fish always enveloped itself in the throat-gagging stench of ammonia. This was… meatier. Rancid and pungent, almost edible in its foulness. The closest he could find to it in his box of brain files was the horrific stink of the mouse that once crawled inside his computer and fried itself on a host of electronic what-nots. Death by cyber-attack. He’d had to throw the computer out, which had annoyed him no end at the time. He’d lost his folder of special photos along with it as he daren’t ask the man in the IT store to try and recover them. That would never do, just in case the man took it upon his nosey, impertinent self to steal a peek. It was a cruel blow, a low blow, a rodent of a blow, but Jack had managed to rebuild his collection over the years. The dark net had helped, that underworld and secret place where anything a man’s black heart desired was available at a price.
Satisfied that the potent whiff of incinerated mouse was the smell that surrounded him now, he cautiously reached out his hand for his water glass. He hadn’t opened his eyes yet, didn’t yet care too. Aside from the stench, and an odd pinched feeling in his lower back, he was certain that everything would be as it was when he went to sleep. The stark hospital room would look exactly as it had the evening before; the sad, wilting bouquet of service station flowers that Esme had brought him would still be eyeing him accusingly from the bedside cabinet, and the frumpy, broad-bosomed nurse assigned to his case would still be glowering at him from her chair in the corner. He was still miffed about that nurse. Upon hearing of his need for urgent admission, Jack had feasted on the thought of a young, nubile nurse with thrusting, perky breasts who bent sympathetically over him while he lay back against the pillows. He’d conjured up many a pleasant daydream of exactly what he would say when she asked if there was anything she could do for him. Oh, ho, ho, she could do plenty for him.
The water glass wasn’t there. Before his hand had completed the right amount of stretch necessary to reach the bedside cabinet, it came jarringly up against something rigid and unforgiving. A wall of some sort. Thinking that perhaps Nurse Morticia had moved his bed closer to the cabinet while he slept, he tried again. No, still no luck. He experimentally made his hand into a fist and rapped once, twice against the hard wall, listening with detached interest to the curiously wooden echo.
He really should open his eyes but his thoughts of the nubile, perky nurse who’d never eventuated had raised a perky response in himself. He waggled his hand down the familiar pathway of his belly and was surprised to find that there was no thin hospital sheet offering him even a modicum of privacy. His desire wilted immediately. Jack was no showman. He preferred the shadows to the light when indulging in his myriad of fantasies.
He licked his lips, tasting brine and … ugh. Something metallic and nasty. Something that the dentist might give a person after telling them this wouldn’t hurt a bit. He turned his head to the side and spat, hoping to rid his mouth of the yuck. As he did so, he heard a strange rustling noise that seemed to echo back at him, climbing into his ears and reverberating through his head. It wasn’t the sound of hospital issue pillows and in fact, he’d just noticed that his head was lying utterly flat. His soft pillows had gone, only to be replaced by an uncomfortably firm mattress. The silence was also unexpected, although he’d only just noticed that, too. An intense, heavy silence without the constant bleep, blip, and blonk of hospital machines or the carefully measured footsteps of hurrying nurses. The only visible sound was his own laboured, panting breath. On top of that, it was very hot.
Scared now, he blinked his eyes open then blinked them again, perplexed as to why no bright nor even dim light met his eager, searching gaze. Instead, he saw nothing but black. This was a darkness he could almost touch, a thick blanket of black that appeared to cover his head and body in its entirety. He lay very still, listening to that panicked breathing sound, as he scrabbled his fingers once more on the strangeness that surrounded him. He found through his desperate searching that the hard wall was also above him, and to the other side. His panic began to rise, refusing to stop and plateau as it rapidly surged and increased. He couldn’t sit himself up; it was impossible. Where the devil was he? What on earth could have happened to him in the time between eating his hospital dinner and awakening in this smelly, cramped, hot space?
No. The horrendous truth dawned agonizingly slowly as his brain simply refused to process it. No! The shouted word was breathy and heavy with spittle and the low roof above his head forced his refusal back into his face. A thousand undead nightmares rampaged across his consciousness on pointy, vicious hooves. He was trapped inside his own coffin! Some addle-brained wretch had made the ultimate error and Jack was the one now paying the ultimate price. As his bowels involuntarily released, serving only to increase the cloying rotten mouse stench that clung with the rapacity of an unwanted lover to his last resting place, he opened his mouth to scream a wholly unheard scream.
Jack's panicked shriek, a lunatic sound that would never reach any ears but his own, would eventually hoarsen his throat and die to a whimper as the sparse air that remained within his final earthly prison thinned, became scarcer, and finally vanished altogether.
But Jack didn’t know that yet. For as long as Jack screamed, Jack still had hope.