Tag Archives: fiction

WE NEVER SAW COMING

Short story by Nina Killham

(To think I wrote this short story over a year ago…)

I’ve always been very fond of you, my father says and instantly I know we have entered the final stage of good-bye. This is a new language between us now and I know I need to pay attention. But I’ve been at his bedside for two weeks and my boss, back in Australia, who had initially been supportive–‘Right place to be’–is getting a bit more clipped in his responses. ‘You coming back anytime soon?’ Your father’s heart is strong, the doctor says, this could take a while. Reluctantly, I kiss the translucent skin on my father’s forehead, smooth the bulging veins on his mottled hand and walk away.

On the airplane, I smile faintly at the man squeezing into the seat next to me and flick through the on-flight magazine, gazing at beaches I no longer have any desire to visit. I remember when an airplane ride was a big deal, a glamorous capsule that would take you to an adventure. Now the five-hour flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles feels like a bus ride: sandwiches and iPads carried in, bags jammed into over-head racks, coffees balanced precariously on seat arms while hands fish for seat belts.

The sleeping pill will have to come later–on the second leg of my trip–the Guantanamo Bay-like internment from Los Angeles to Melbourne where I moved seven years ago to be with someone I met backpacking along the crystal hills of the Annapurna Circuit. I only recently noticed that I’ve led my life like the owner of a bolshie dog who doesn’t know how to heel, following instead of leading, often scrambling to pick up the crap left in my wake. I settle into the twenty-four-hour trip with steely resolve and, a fitful snooze later, wake up with my father murmuring in my ear. I lean to the left, trying to hear the words, but his voice fades. I glance at my watch, amazed. We are not far from L.A. I peer over, past my two seat mates, towards the window to look out. I’ve always loved this moment of the flight—the descent through the deep purple night into the Inca gold city. 

I think of my father, bald and unmarked as a new-born pup, curled like a fetus in his nursing home cot. He is alone now, my mother ten-years gone. I try my best to be a good daughter but that is difficult, especially when I am so far away and my father cannot fathom the technology that was supposed to connect us.

It is one of the passengers who first points out the fire. Look! he cries and slaps his hand against the windowpane right next to the nose of his teenage son who doesn’t glance up from his phone. But I do and catch the flash of scarlet and yellow in the hills around Topanga Canyon. They look like a comic book gunfire against the blackening night.

By now everyone is peering over, twisting and straining against their seat belts which have been ordered fastened for the descent. Even the teenage boy looks up and then immediately shoves his head into my view.

When we touch down, people jump up, intent on the next thing. Bags in hand, iPads in the other, they shuffle past the tightly smiling flight attendant who urges everyone to have a nice evening. Soon, I think as I walk past, they will have robots to do that. They’ll have a smooth plastic-molded machine rolling back and forth along the aisle offering snacks and alcohol, a credit card imprint embedded in its chest.

On my way out of the domestic gate I recognize the shop where I bought my family-size bag of peanut M&Ms for the flight to D.C. two weeks ago. I enter again, defeated by the sugar pull–after all, I will need something to keep me entertained for the next fifteen-hour flight, not to mention something to sooth the fact that I moved a million miles away for someone I have lately realized I do not love. I also succumb to the allure of an O magazine which offers optimism in a quick five-minute read.

I make my well-worn way to the Tom Bradley International terminal and smile at the sight of a hijab-wearing security guard telling a passenger to lose his shoes. I wave my little baggie of make-up but no one is particularly interested in me or my regulation clear baggie. I stand on the painted feet signs and raise my arms like a good girl.

Past security the air is rarified–clean and filtered–catering to the new flying class. Images of icy blue water cascade from 90-foot high screens. Jungles of exotic flowers bloom from others. Gucci, Burberry and Bulgari beckon like children catchers. Inside the shops, customers twirl in their webs.

I stop for a cappuccino and sit next to a family slurping through a hundred-dollars worth of Frappuccinos and muffins. I observe the crowd. There is nothing else to do. I have not coughed up for the exorbitant international roaming charges and so am stuck watching men and women staring at their phones, their heads at a 45-degree angle like oil rigs.

What I really want to do is return to Washington and set up camp in a room next door to my father. I like the other oldies at the home—they make me feel so young—and I could sit quietly in the evenings with a good book, eat at the common dining room—I’m used to old people’s unappetizing skin lesions by now—and just be. Just be a successful daughter. Not the failed girlfriend, lover, partner, whatever you call it, that I am now. In another era I would probably have been the daughter who remained unmarried to stay home and care for the parents. There was always one. No one does that anymore. Children are now tossed from their home like old toys. Or they run from it. As if it were on fire.

I return to my walking, willing my body to expend its energy so that it will consider resting during the oncoming hours of captivity in the economy seat of a Qantas A380. I am rounding my fourth cycle of the entire concourse when I notice the jostling at the windows. Was there an accident, I wonder as I join the crowd and lift myself on tippy toes to see over the three layers of heads bobbing up and down in front of me.

I gasp. A fire burns ferociously just outside the window, lapping at the runway. At first, I think it is a car or one of those vehicles always zipping around overladen with baggage. But I can’t see a car and now notice a similar fire burning a hundred feet further down. And another. In fact, a whole line of them stretches in both directions. It seems to be the same fire as before, only bigger. Much bigger.

“Will you look at that,” the young woman next to me whispers, jiggling a fractious baby in her arms.

My first thought is to be grateful. Maybe I won’t have to go back. Maybe I will be able to stay in the airport hotel, order room service, read my book. I could email my girlfriend/lover/partner from the hotel server and finally tell her that… Suddenly the crowd shifts, its murmur rising in pitch, and heads for the far side of the building. I glance back at the gate but no staff is around and so I trail the swarm as they all run-walk through the hall, eyes glommed to the TV monitor hanging from the wall of the faux Irish pub. This time the gasp is in unison.

Shot from a circling helicopter, the view presents LAX surrounded by a circle of leaping fire.

People shush each other so loudly I can’t hear the anchor and can only watch the text that reads: Fire raging at LAX– Exits closed for containment.

I wonder if Jen will see this on TV. What is the time in Melbourne? I picture Jen curled up in the Egyptian cotton sheets we bought with so much fanfare and lust, snoring in that gentle yet relentless way she has. Between Melbourne and Washington there is a fourteen-hour difference. When I call my father from my apartment in Melbourne I love to joke that I can guarantee the sun is going to rise that day. Is Jen worried about me? Of course, Jen always worries about me. But for all the wrong reasons.

Just then the sprinklers go off. We all duck, some starting to flee–but there is nowhere to go. It is as if the ice water screens have sprung leaks and are now gushing with fury. Then, as suddenly as they started, the sprinklers stop. People look around, three teenagers in identical sports jerseys laughing nervously. A businessman with too many expensed-lunches around his girth swats at his soaked suit arm, cursing.

I look over to catch a flight attendant rushing by, pursued by a line of honking travelers, chanting I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…

In search of answers, the flow of passengers surges towards the west side of the building. Someone with a determined edge to his voice has declared there is an information booth that way. As we pass the vast picture window, we can see how the fire has made a bee line along the beach past the neighborhoods of Santa Monica and Venice before hopping over the water way at Playa del Ray. It now stealthily circles the LAX, waiting to pounce.

At the info booth where a frightened older woman, staining the under arms of her white regulation uniform yellow, tries to fend off chaos, we learn that the planes are grounded — though a few pilots seem to be making executive decisions and careen down the runway just inches ahead of the flames. Flames that now make assured jumps across the tarmac towards the airport, clutching like rock climbers onto trucks and catering vehicles for support.

Panicky announcements crackle from the PA systems–mumbled, incoherent, something about staying put, advise against…what? I can’t hear. Against what exactly? By now my crowd, I call it my crowd, are separating into clumps — families turning to each other and hunkering down around bottles of water and boxes from Dunkin’ Donuts which unlike the other shops is still open. Still manned.

The newsstands have clanged shut their metal gates and people gaze longingly and angrily at the candy.

“It’s just going to melt,” says one astute child.

I look around. No one is catching my eye. I am going to have to ride this one out alone. I’m used to that. It’s fine. I examine the long line at Dunkin’ Donuts. The staff is already making slashing marks of SOLD OUT against most of the menu. My half bottle of lemon-flavored vitamin water and family pack of peanut M&M’s is going to have to get me through.

A sudden screech and a wave of awe flows through the hall. A plane attached to Gate 148 has just burst into flames. Black smoke pours through the door into the departure lounge like a malevolent ghost.

A swarm of incredulous passengers shove their way past the slower, more infirm, who squeak piteously like cornered mice. I trip over a roll-on that some idiot insists on hanging on to and come down hard on my elbow. The pain shoots through my whole body and I cry out. But no one notices or doesn’t care–they are busy running to the other end of the building–past the shut Petrossian Champagne Bar, the Hugo Boss shop, the Porsche Design.

The travel boards are now black. The info woman has fled and no employees of any airline can be found. I stand in the middle of the panic, alone and feel strangely calm, as if I am watching the whole episode all on Netflix, curled in my duvet, a Boatrocker brew in my fist.

The water sprinklers suddenly switch on again. And this time people don’t flinch. Better than nothing we tell each other. This will clear the air. Heads nod up and down in agreement, eyes stuck in wide open mode. But then again the sprinklers suddenly cease and we now know to brace ourselves for the smoke lurking down the hall towards us.

I blink slowly, carefully as I look around. The lights click off. The TV dies. The cool blue water disappears. The building seems to slump as the pressure of climate acclimation collapses. Outside I can see the helicopters circling–blinding white lights peering into the darkened airport. The girl who lamented the melted chocolate is now struggling to breathe. Her mother rummages in her carry-on, screeching ‘Where is it? Paul, you packed it didn’t you? I told you to pack it!’ Paul sits on the floor holding his daughter’s hand and shaking his head rhythmically as if in beat to a song only he can hear.

The heat rises. People loosen shirt collars. Some women strip down to their bras–no longer giving a fuck. Men lie back rasping too much to give a fuck. One sad soul tries to break the glass of an emergency exit and is wrestled back and clobbered. The general consensus being that what is out there is a far worse.

Not everyone is panicky though. Some have managed to pry open the accordion steel shop gates and are looting the high-end stores. Well, not looting exactly. They are grabbing bags and shoes and carrying them out to the concourse only to waddle back still laden with their gains when they see the thickening air. Some resolutely take selfies.

I glance down at my own phone. With my lack of international plan, I can’t alert Jen in Melbourne and I don’t want to distress my father. I am unsure he is even thinking of me now, so intent he must be with his dying. I suppose I could ask to borrow someone’s phone, but they all seem to be on them, crying or texting rapidly. I assume those who aren’t have run out of juice.

Would a text work, I wonder. They’re different to phone calls, aren’t they? Maybe it will go through, pass through the ether and hit its target in Melbourne like a missile. And so I waggle my thumbs over the screen, spelling out ‘I love you.’ I stare at the screen, unconvinced, until I finally pump at the backward button to delete all trace of my affection. I put the phone in my pocket and sit there, watching. Though soon it’s too hard to see through the suffocating smoke. Even when the glass shatters and the burning embers dig into my flesh, I can’t believe what is happening. To the end, I still think someone will rescue us, that someone will do something and not let us die one by one, snuffed out by a rage we never saw coming.

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THE STRANGER by Nina Killham

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I have no idea how he got in but there he suddenly is, leaning on my kitchen counter, jelly belly sagging over his jeans, a tattoo chaining his neck, lips plump and greasy.

“You right, mate?” he asks.

How did he get in? I do a quick swing of my eyeballs around the room, past the kitchen table piled with school crap and abandoned in muted fury—like I know anything about cosines–the overflowing recycling bin, the empty hand sanitiser that for the life of me I cannot find a replacement for. Did the kids leave the back door open? How many times have I told them? How many times? I sigh. Well, however he got in, the main thing to do now is to get him out again, as quickly as possible. Maybe, if I pretend I don’t see him, he’ll go away. I open the fridge and lean in, looking for my next snack.

“Anything good?” he asks.

I open my mouth to respond but shut it tight–do not engage–and pull out the roast lamb we had last night for dinner. Slice or two of that with some mayo, two slices of rosemary sourdough, some lettuce, and my life will be complete.

I feel the tickle of his fingers on the back of my neck. “I said, Anything good?”

I put the lamb back. I’ve lost my appetite. I squeeze around him and sit down in the living room. I can hear the kids in their rooms, talking to their friends on Skype. Maybe Netflix will keep me company. The missus is in the garage jogging through the alps on the new exorbitant running machine she insisted we buy before she went mad from not being able to go to the gym. After one particularly expressive day on her part, I gave in. So here I am, alone, unloved, except for the goon who has plunked his nasty ass right down next to me.

“What are we watching?” he asks.

Don’t get me wrong, by this time I am desperate for company. A month of lock-down will do that to you. Oh, yeah, you can still go to the shops, but by this time I am terrified of catching anything. I approach stepping out for some milk like a soldier crawling along the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Everyone has become so jumpy, hands snatching back if they came within an inch of each other. People, now having to standing in line just to get into Coles, are getting pissy if you zone out in podcastland and get too close. The look they give you. That Stand back, motherfucker, I’ve got kids to feed!

So I hightail it back to home. Home. Never gave it much thought before. It fed me, kept me company in the evenings and on weekends. When I was there. But a lot of the times I wasn’t. I was busy, very important. Spent my lifetime in meetings, and strange hotels with shame-tingling TV cable channels. My second home was an airport, and a bar. Yeah, a lot of bars where the light was syrupy golden and the drinks were paid for by the company and the company was, if not dazzling, at least convivial. Knew the difference between a concessional and a non-concessional contribution and didn’t yawn like a cheetah when you told them what you did for a living. Superannuation. It’s going to keep you in chocolate biccies, baby, when your teeth are falling out is how I like to put it. Many a conversation has died a gritty death around the words pre-mix strategy and conditions of release. Well, they’ll know when it matters, believe me. If they’re lucky. My Mary, she still doesn’t know the what an allocated pension is. And is proud of it.

I’m the cheetah now, padding around the house, poking my nose into teenage bedrooms and getting an earful for my efforts. I force myself twice a day to walk around the block, dragging the pudgy spaniel who has already been walked by Mary and is in no mood to move. I’m addicted to endless doomsday podcasts, corona this corona fucking that. How many are dead, that is what I always want to know, first thing in the morning, like it’s fucking Christmas and the answer is underneath the tree.

Everybody going on about how it’s time to refuel, recalibrate like we’re fucking tires out of alignment. Read, they urge. Be creative. Ha. I pick through the stack of books that I have put by my bedside in a bout of self-deception and then just stare at the first page for about five minutes before my hand reaches of its own accord and taps that bloody blue bird on my phone. What the hell is going on out there? Help! Save me from myself. Talk to me, somebody. Please.

So yeah, I’m desperate. I flick through the TV choices: House of Cards, season three, what a fucker that lead actor turned out to be, but man he is good. That twitchy thing he does with his cheek when he gets angry, scares the shit out of me, I would have done anything he asked. Love The Americans who, just whenever you are getting too moist about what good guys the two are, murder some innocent bystander with a deadly neck-breaking snap. Mary and I flesh out our entrenched TV habit with a couple of Nordic Noirs with their sick rape/murder/dismemberments.

I glance over at the guy who by now has oozed himself onto the couch next to me and is nodding enthusiastically at one of the Nordic Noirs with its preview of the little blond number all sliced and diced.

“That one,” he says, raising his finger and grinning.

We settle back and watch in silence for bit, but I start feeling like something is missing. Like a beer: cold and soothing. Naturally, I offer him one—I’m not a dick–and he nods, not taking his eyes off the knife slicing through the pale virginal flesh. In the kitchen I rummage in the refrigerator. We have plenty of beer—I practically took a tow truck to Dan Murphy’s so that is no problem. I just had to find it behind all the other food we’ve also stashed up on: smoked salmon, for Christ’s sakes, coming out of our ears. And Mary upped our ice cream stash by several factors just in case the kids go without a sugar rush for two hours. “But they’re bored, darling, we need to do something.”

Mary has taken to starting every evening with a glass or three of champagne like she’s the mistress of some stone manor in the fox-run wilds of England. We keep telling ourselves that we are saving oodles by not going out to cafes and restaurants and movies and whatever else we seem to fill our endless time with. So we can indulge. And no, I haven’t lost my job yet. I’m keeping to myself the rumours. Which I heard last night at Jeff’s place.  I told Mary I was walking the dog but went straight round to his place. He lives alone, no control freaks in his household. And yeah, Matt and Blue were there too and their alibi dogs. And we had a beer. So shoot me. And that’s where I heard the rumours about the lay-offs. Jeff was freaking out, snot and tears everywhere, and so we took turns patting him on the back. We’re not complete assholes.

No need to worry Mary just yet. Let her keep swilling the champers. I might make the cut. You never know. So yeah, I can spare a beer for the mess taking up space on my couch, watching the Swedish murder scene with way too much attention. I hand him a cheeky microbrew I’ve discovered down the Peninsula and a bowl of peanuts too, just to keep him busy.

“You ready,” he asks, his hand like a limp rag as he dips it into the peanuts.

“For what?”

“For the end of the world…”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“…as you know it.”

Mr. Drama Prince. No. I say. All these people going on about how nice the world is, so quiet you can hear the birds and all the bunnies swimming in the canals, and everyone being matey and pole dancing on balconies, and chatting with friends you haven’t thought about for twenty years (there was a reason, mate). No, I prefer it like it was before. Give me smog you can chew on any day. Give me the sweet sweat of a stranger. The packed nonsensical lives of a teenager. The complete disinterest of your common man. Hand me over consumption and petty squabbles fixed up over a picnic in the park. Give me love with too many people for your own and their good. Tight Coles aisles and the eye rolling and the bad breath. God, what I would give for a bout of someone’s bad breath riling my day. Or fresh food markets with the barking vendors and the crushing crowd and the bright fleshy root vegetables piled high like tarts showing their tits. Give me heaving humanity in all its glory.

The stranger raises his eyebrows. “Too late now, mate. Should have made your predilections clearer.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

He thinks a moment. “Nah, not really.” He raises his empty beer bottle. “Another for the road?”

“Dad?” It’s Tim, finally coming up for air, his face pouched with boredom, his body slack from lounging all day at the computer. His eyes are slits, barely registering the moocher on the couch.

“Your kid?” The stranger says. Master of the obvious. I nod, unease creeping into my guts.

“Get some breakfast and go for a bike ride,” I bark at Tim. His eyes widen at the thought of so much activity. “Now,” I insist. I want him out of the stranger’s eyesight.

“Yeah, yeah, OK.” Tim pulls his face back from the open door and closes it.

“Nice kid,” the stranger murmurs. “Pity.”

I want him out. Now. No more beer. No more savage television. Time to go. I have been welcoming enough.

He nods his head in agreement. “Yes, yes, you have.” He heaves himself up from the couch, patting his pockets. “Got everything? Probably not. Oh well, onward and onward.”

He holds out his hand for a shake. “No hard feelings, mate.”

I ignore the hand and open the front door for him to leave just as Mary appears, the lead attached to the dog in one hand, her iPhone attached to earphones in the other. Who’s that?” she says, eyeing the grease ball disappearing down our path.

“No one,” I say.

She nods then puckers her forehead as she places a hand to my clammy cheek. “Oh, mate,” she says, “I can’t believe you let him in.”

 

 

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Almost 10,000 words

OK, how is everyone going?

I still have about 500 words to write today but I realize I’m going to pick up kids from school soon followed by a big driveathon as I get everybody to where they need to be. (My daughter is in a school musical tonight.)

So I thought I’d blog now.

It’s been tough getting those words down. But I have to tell you this public word count is actually making me do it. Last night I crawled into bed and had to finish my last 300 through eye watering yawns because I knew I had pledged myself to tell you.

So thank you.

And frankly this choice of 2000 words a day, double my usual word count when I’m writing a novel, is kicking my behind. This blog was actually inspired by a tweet Joanne Harris wrote a couple of months ago about having written 8000 words one day. And as I told her, if she wasn’t so funny I’d have unfollowed her in a fit of pique. But it got me thinking. Was I being a wee bit too soft on myself?

So I’ve pushed.

And it’s good. All good. Well not the words actually but the daily push. The words are pretty crap frankly but I’m finding, as I do with every book, that it is only in the writing that the book will get written. Which sounds so glaringly obvious. But even after three books I still harbor in me this idea that I can plan out my book and when I start writing it will just flow perfectly formed onto the page and voila, when I hit 80,000 I’ll have a novel.

Ha ha ha ha!

Never happens.

No, I’ve written what about 10,000 this week, sixty, seventy perhaps, percent of which will never see the light of day. Probably won’t even be transcribed into my computer (I’m writing long hand) .

Because as I go along and do my research at the same time I realize, Well actually my character wouldn’t have that object. And gosh this little alley I’ve just turned down is much more interesting. And really, her mother is this kind of character not the one I just spent a whole day fleshing out….

What about you? How are you coming along?

Meet you same time, next week. Happy writing.

photo by Andrew Pescod (flickr)

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Julie, how could you?

julieYes, the furor over Julie Myerson’s decision to write about her drug-addicted abusive son.

I’m for it.

Mainly because it gets me thinking. Will my son’s Nintendo addiction mutate into skunk addiction?

I’m completely serious, but the way.

I blog about my children but I avoid the less salutary. Like the little accidents someone in my house makes that has me tossing whole packs of underpants into the garbage. Oops, was that too private?

Of course, I don’t have real dirt yet. My kids haven’t hit puberty and its gateway into parent/teenager hell. And I don’t think I would divulge any real horror. That’s why I’m a fiction writer.

But I’m thankful somebody wrote about the dangers of dope. I, for one, will be keeping a very close eye on it all and will not be lenient about its use. So thanks for warning me, Julie.

So is there a greater good being performed by her airing all her family’s laundry? I think yes.

Is it at the kid’s expense? Definitely.

But writers are not nice. We might smile, we might even offer to clean up occasionally. But deep down we are predators. The reason we are so interested in you is that it fuels our need for stories. We are vampires. Every sorry pathological thought of yours, we take note.

Feeling depressed? Tell us all about it.

Not sure what to do about your husband? We’re all ears.

Just lost your sibling in a horrific accident? How awful, we’ll murmur, reaching for the notebook in our bag. Tell us, how exactly did it happen?

Of course, novelists have it easier. We change the names and genders and hair color. And keep on smiling.

photo by Mahyar (flickr)

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Horror

Every once in a while, well, actually often, a news story chills you to the bone. There are the daily stories of mayhem and brutality and chaos that you try not to think about. Because such wide scale sadness can drown your tiny bourgeois life. You are left with that But for the grace of God goes I feeling as you try to shut the door to the tsunami of misery.

Then suddenly there is one which stands from the pack because of its singularity.

I shouldn’t check out the newspaper online before writing because it can completely derail me. Like this one.

That one just stopped me in my tracks. Threw my daily quota out the window as I sat there and wondered:

What is going on in the world that makes a man do that?
What is going to happen to the two little boys.
What was that little girl thinking in her last moments.

And how on earth can fiction ever address that?

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