Tag Archives: flash fiction

Missing

In the end, she found herself. She’d been missing four days.

Her parents reported her absence after only eight hours when she failed to return from work. After 12 hours, the police released a media bulletin describing her uniform, her gaudy bicycle, her autism spectrum disorder and the possibility she may appear distressed when approached by strangers.

The officers at the police station didn’t appear unduly concerned; they don’t list you as missing unless you’ve been gone for 48 hours. Besides, her bicycle was located at the retirement village where she worked. That suggested she was on foot so she couldn’t have gone too far.

Her parents were not becalmed by this discovery. As parents, they were hard-coded to worry. She was a young woman, even if she dressed older. She had never done anything like this before, never even missed a home-cooked meal. Indeed, she disliked disruption to her established routine. She attended work, Greek Orthodox church and weekly luncheons at the local RSL. As a rule, her whereabouts could be charted to the minute and square metre. This absence made no sense. Foul play loomed large in their minds.

When she appeared, trembling and emaciated at their front door, police officers were summoned to examine her. Wrapped in her favourite blanket, with a steaming bowl of soup in front of her, it quickly became clear she was not fit for interview. Her hand shook so much the soup jittered off the spoon. When she collapsed forward onto the table before her father could catch her, the police community liaison officer suggested she be moved to hospital.

In many ways the hospital was a setback. She was distressed by the drip in her arm, the omnipresent white light, the current of strangers sweeping by her bed. The doctors had to sedate her while they did a forensic examination – and then keep her on the drip while she regained strength. A welfare worker suggested a psychiatric ward but her parents vigorously opposed this.

As she slowly emerged from the fog of medication the police took their chance to ask questions.

“Hello Anastasia, my name is Senior Constable Callaghan. I’m here to check you are OK. How are you feeling, Anastasia?”
Her voice was groggy. Monotone. “Yes, I am very well thank you. How are you? Are you very well, too?”
“Yes, thank you for asking. We need to know where you have been, Anastasia. Your parents have been very worried.”
“My parents are very well, too. Thank you for asking.”
“Anastasia?”
“Yes. My name is Anastasia. How do you do? Are you having a good day?”
“Anastasia, can you remember leaving work on Tuesday?”
No reply. The policewoman tried another approach. “Did you get in a car after work on Tuesday? Did someone take you to their house?”
Anastasia frowned. “I do not work in a house. I work at Brompton Village. It is a very lovely place. Do you know Brompton Village? I help with the dishes and the cleaning. Do you like dishes and cleaning?”

After an hour, the senior constable and community liaison officer gave up. There were no visible injuries, no current evidence of assault. Anastasia’s uniform was musty, dusty and crumpled but otherwise intact. Apart from starvation, the past four days had no tales to tell.

Ana’s co-workers at Brompton were interviewed but shed no more light on her absence than she could. Yes, one of the residents died five days ago but deaths were a reasonably regular event and Anastasia had not gone missing before. Surely old Mrs Latham’s death could not have triggered this unexpected absence.

They should have known Mrs Latham’s room was Anastasia’s favourite. The sideboard had a collection of porcelain figurines and a clock of whizzing golden gears contained within a tall, domed glass cylinder. Hanging on the wall were Mr Latham’s war medals, silver and brass and bedecked with ribbons coloured like tropical birds. On the walls were black and white photos, including a large one of Mrs Latham dressed as a young nurse with Mr Latham as a young soldier standing in front of a big gunship. Anastasia used to rush her dusting of other rooms so she could spend more time in Mrs Latham’s, touching and polishing.

Mr Latham died seven months ago. Anastasia understood people died and never came back and that afterwards Mrs Latham was moved to a smaller room. The furnishings were the same, only with less chairs and a smaller bed. Anastasia had helped put each figure in its correct place on the sideboard. Mrs Latham had summoned a smile and thanked her, saying that Mr Latham liked things to be in their right places. Anastasia liked that too.

Mrs Latham had been unwell recently. On Monday morning the charge nurse barred Anastasia from doing any more than emptying the bin in the room. On Monday afternoon she spied the vicar visiting and knew this was unlikely to be a good sign.

On Tuesday she’d knocked before entering the room, only to find it completely empty. The figurines, the photos, the medals and memorabilia were gone, along with Mrs Latham. Anastasia had been frantic. She’d pushed her cleaning trolley along the long grey corridors, knocking on every door and then scurrying away as soon as she’d glanced inside.

At the end of the corridor she’d passed through the fire door and shunted her trolley alongside the laundry. Beyond this was the incinerator but she couldn’t remember it being used lately and surely they couldn’t, they wouldn’t.

The last building before the gardeners’ hut had a padlock hanging askew on the door. Anastasia eased the deadbolt sideways and tiptoed inside, dragging her trolley with her. Blam! The wind caught the door and smashed it into the wall, terrifying Ana. Shoving the trolley into the depths of the shed, she leapt behind a pile of cardboard crates, acutely, no, hideously aware that the storage shed was Out Of Bounds to her. Soon she heard footsteps, the heavy tromp of a gardener’s boots, a muttering, a slamming of the door and the clunk of the latch.

There was no door handle on the inside of the aluminum storage shed. Anastasia weighed up banging on the door to alert the gardener or laundry staff that she was trapped. The truth was she feared the scolding she’d get for entering the shed more than she feared the room itself.

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom she noticed ‘Latham’ scrawled across the lids of several boxes. Clambering over to them, she eased the lid of one carton open, gasping as she sighted the contents.

The golden clock lay on its side, the cogs and counterweights silent and unmoving. The figurines were jumbled around it, the Curtseying Lady now missing her delicate outstretched arm. Anastasia was still searching for the missing limb when she heard footsteps again and a fragmented conversation outside, “… no descendants known … Latham. Reckon you can take that pile to the opp shop … Anything of value you could chuck on eBay…”

Anastasia couldn’t fully untangle the conversation but sensed a rescue was required. The question was what. And when. Reaching her decision, she began to rifle through the cartons. Once she was finished all she had to do was wait.

When dusk fell and the shadows crept around her, Anastasia found comfort by making order from chaos in the shed. She stacked the boxes along one wall until she had made a sideboard of sorts. The gold clock took pride of place and, once she got it level, the return of the familiar whirling and clunking eased her into a safe space.

In her trolley she found two sugar sachets and four biscuits in plastic wrapping. She nibbled a biscuit as she made a nest out of old clothes and linen.

By day four the biscuits and sugar were gone and her body was begging for water. Only the clock’s whirring let her steer her thoughts from her thirst.

On several occasions footsteps had clumped by the door but at no point did they stop outside to unfasten the latch. Until what she guessed to be mid-afternoon of day four.

Anastasia listened, wondering if she was awake or drifting away, as someone approached and grappled with the deadbolt. She thought she saw the door open a centimetre or two before a mobile phone pealed and the person at the door strode away. Taking a deep breath, Anastasia stood unsteadily, leaning against her cardboard mantel until dizziness stopped swirling like the gears in the clock.

Pushing her trolley in front of her, she wobbled into the sunlight. The other staff must have been serving afternoon tea. Parking the trolley beside the laundry, she scuttled to the staff car park. Her bike was still chained up, albeit with a strange blue and white ribbon looped around it. The dizziness dive-bombed her again and she decided the bike was a bad idea. In the front garden she crouched beside a garden tap and drank greedily before listing out onto the footpath, headed for home. The walk felt like it took days.

Anastasia hated hospital but calmed herself remembering the whirring of the golden clock. On her first weekend back home, when her parents asked if she was well enough to go out for lunch, she nodded her assent.

At the RSL club, while her father played cards with a mate and her mum put five dollars into the pokies, Anastasia took a package out of her handbag. After careful consideration she left it on a chair beside a fire extinguisher.

A cleaner found it that night, wrapped in brown paper, with an envelope addressed ‘RSL’ on top.

The club treasurer unwrapped the package the next day and found an immaculately polished set of Great War medals along with a framed photograph of a grinning soldier and beaming nurse. The card inside the envelope read, in clumsy handwriting, ‘Gift for RSL from Mr and Mrs Latham. Do not chuck in the bay.’

Three calls

Call 1
“There’s been an accident. Mum and Dad were on their way to our place when they got hit by another car near the Addison Creek bridge. Dad phoned us to let us know and he seemed OK. Shaken but OK. Mum is still in the car though. Ambulances have been called. Dad’s not sure exactly what happened. Brad is on the way to the scene now.”

Call 2
“It’s me again. Brad is there now. Mum and Dad’s car has been spun completely around. It’s in the middle of the road, facing back to the city. The traffic is banked up … way down the road.
“The police haven’t turned up yet. The ambulances are still on their way. Luckily there was a doctor – and three nurses – in the first few cars to stop. Talk about lucky. They’re looking after Mum.
“Umm, I don’t know how to say this … It looks like the other driver might have died. Brad says a black tarp has been put over the front of the car…
“I’ll call you when we find out more.”

Call 3
“Me again. The SES have got Mum out. She’s in a lot of pain. Blood everywhere, apparently. Brad couldn’t really look. He’s not good with that stuff.
“Mum and Dad are in ambulances heading back to the city. We’re not sure which hospital – or whether they’ll go to the same hospital. Brad’s going to come back here and I will go into town.
“Oh, and they’re saying the other driver is OK. He was wandering about in the paddock where his car ended up. Someone said he clipped another car first. They reckon he was airborne when he hit Mum and Dad. They’re lucky to be alive. Very.
“I’ll call you when I know which hospital they’re going to.”
.
.
.
This is a fictionalised version of events that occurred in my family a little over a week ago. Because I don’t always trust my memory, because details are still somewhat sketchy, because I didn’t attend the scene and because there may be criminal charges involved, I’ve chosen to change names, locations and omit details. It’s a short story now but not entirely removed from my understanding of the truth.

To those of you who have been asking after my parents, thank you. They are both home from hospital. Dad’s OK. Mum has a cracked sternum, five broken ribs, a punctured lung and stitches in her hand where she tried to fend off the approaching vehicle. She’s still very sore but glad to be home.

It’s not all that many years since a head-on accident at high speed would almost certainly have been fatal. This lucky escape is a reminder that you never know when your most recent conversation with someone will be your last. That you should listen to loved ones, enjoy shared moments and not leave things unsaid.

Because centimetres and seconds shape our lives.

Back to the blog

I fielded a complaint recently. “You never update your blog,” my provocateur wailed. “You’re just doing this flash fiction stuff … and I haven’t read that.”

OK, you know who you are now. Please rest assured that no offence was taken and your observations were accurate. Although you really should read the flash fiction stories. Each one is a pearl, I tell you.

Seriously, my intention this year is plunge into another novel – or at least the detailed outline for a graphic novel, following the ASA Masterclass in penning comics that I took late last year. But before I immerse myself in such a project, I need to get fit again. And by that, I mean writing fit.

If I hadn’t ridden a bike for 18 months or so, I’d need to start with small outings and build up my endurance. It’s the same with writing. I haven’t done much creative writing since Five Parts Dead so the mind muscles need to regain their stamina and flexibility. Flash fiction is perfect for this, like sprint training for the brain.

Basically, I snatch an idea and set myself the task of finishing a story in one sitting, ideally under two hours. Yes, it’s rough and ready writing. But you should still get some sense of the character(s) and, hopefully, enough of a plot to propel you through the yarn. Yes, you.

That’s the rationale for the flash fiction. It’s unlikely to be the best stuff I’ve ever written. But if I rediscover my writing mojo, it’s a win.

But what else has been going on? Here are some random observations on the year so far:

  • I led a PD session with librarians on the different types of interactive books and e-books available for iPad. I’m more than happy to be evangelical on this topic and could talk (and demonstrate) for hours. Great fun.
  • I was rapt to be invited to take part in a ghost stories session in the upcoming Emerging Writers’ Festival. Can’t wait. Will be brushing up on my creepy tales.
  • I met NY author and publisher David Levithan at the 21st birthday of the State Library’s Centre for Youth Literature. David, along with Rachel Cohn, wrote Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – one of the books that convinced me I should write for young adults. Apart from a great author, David was an inspiring speaker and thoroughly nice guy.
  • After various school visits this year some of my bugbears have raised their ugly heads again. One is computers. Believe me, as president of the Crap Handwriting Association, I understand why laptops and iPads make life easier for people. But for goodness sake, instant-messaging-Internet-apps-games-social-media seem all too tempting for some students. I’m going to sound like a dinosaur but kids won’t learn while these shiny distractions are beckoning to them. I can say I’ve seen students doing online shoe shopping and banking, updating their Facebook status, playing Temple Run and Pong, texting, sending emails and much more, when they’re supposed to be otherwise occupied. Perhaps it means I’ve failed as a speaker when this occurs but it’s a big ask to compete with those sorts of toys.
  • Weekend sport is consuming an ever larger slice of our weekends as the kids play two sports and I greet dawn on my bike. Last weekend I covered the Little Dragon’s first cricket final on Twitter as an exercise in instant storytelling. The writing was crude – particularly when things got exciting – but hopefully the drama shone through. Stay tuned for a semi-final tomorrow.

I’ll stop there as other tasks beckon. The writing year, although already well underway, is bubbling with possibility. Who knows, 2012 might be a year for big decisions.

Things she wants to say

Every morning on the train the same thing. The thin guy, all angled limbs like a praying mantis, doing his best to discretely ogle her chest. She thinks she really should tell him she’s a wake-up. Wonders how would he’d react if she raised her voice and labelled him a perv in front of the whole carriage.

On the station platform, where Joanna buys her 8am latte, the same woman always pushes to the front of the queue. Ferret-face, Jo calls her. In her mind. The routine is so familiar Jo has taken to stepping sideways as the woman burrows into her peripheral vision. It’s the only way to avoid the bruises dispensed by Ferret’s bolstered shoulder bag.

In the office, umpteen emails announce yet another procedural review or a new subcommittee to probe the nuances of a report commissioned by a sister panel. Departments with increasingly overlapping empires burgeon like mistletoe, sucking the life out of the host.

Jo rolls her eyes at yet another communique announcing that external consultants are surveying staff about job satisfaction, morale, workplace efficiency and employee retention. She’s tempted to speak her mind this time, to give it to them with both barrels. Tell them that good ideas and genuine initiative are suffocated beneath mountains of bureaucratic manure and drowned out by the snarls of territorial middle managers. She won’t say it though. Her rebellion goes no further than selecting the neutral button that signals neither approval or disapproval. She gives them nothing.

During her lunch break, Jo goes to the same cafeteria every day. Even though they know her by name and greet her with Mediterranean ebullience, they continue to load her salad roll with onion, despite her repeated requests to the contrary. Jo has stopped reminding them. Instead she sits at a corner table, forking out allium slivers and flicking the pages on a magazine nine months out of date. It passes the time.

At home, she tries and fails to make eye contact with her 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Nathan rarely lifts his gaze from his gaming and Bianca only communicates by texting. Jo despairs that her children are so conditioned to constant electronic and social media stimulation that they’re effectively suffering from ADHD. If she denies them their screens at mealtimes, they don’t know where to look. Hey, in their minds, converse is a trade name, not a verb. They’re bored in 30 seconds. They lack the imagination to generate their own fun. Flick the news on and they complain, apparently devoid of curiosity about the galaxies beyond their own immediate orbits.

Tonight though, trouble is brewing. She asks for the fourth time for help setting the table and mashing the potatoes. Nothing. Nathan responds by placing headphones over his ears. Bianca keeps messaging her mates. Jo doesn’t bother speaking again.

Leaning over the couch, Jo snatches Bianca’s phone and throws it into the pot of boiling spuds. Then she strides across the living room and unplugs the television. The invective hurled at her barely registers – apart from Bianca’s, “I hate you, Mum!”

As Jo grabs the dog’s lead and slams the flywire door behind her, a wondrous thought occurs. Perhaps Bianca is capable of speaking her mind after all.