Second place in the first heat of NYC Midnight's short story comp this year gives me some hope about my submission to the Best Australian Yarn next month. This was a massive rush job, the prompts were hard and it was not working for me at all. I'm publishing it here is as submitted. I might give it a spin for an edit at some later stage.
For background, NYC Midnight is a global competition in which writers receive a series of prompts, a word limit and a timeframe. You advance in heats, receiving new prompts every time. There were around 28 writers in my first heat. The tagline is mandatory.
Word Limit: 2500
Writing Timeframe: 8 days
Here she is:
During a summer of inexplicable child abductions in suburbia, a boy is lured into forbidden territory in search of his best friend.
Bing Bloomfield told us that aliens took Lulu. He held court while picking cherry tomatoes off the vines and chewing them as he talked. When he got to the part about dumping her body, a globule of seeds flew straight out his big wet mouth and almost into my eye. Bing’s dad was a homicide cop, so most kids felt like they had to shut up when he said anything, me included.
Our bikes were crashed over the rosemary hedge. It was sturdy and bouncy, you could never tell they’d been there. The community garden was where we stopped on the way home to dissect the day. To unravel our young brains and compare notes, forming wild juvenile theories and opinions before being shoved through the various routines of dinner, homework, bath and bed. Bing kept his audience captivated with violent detail, and most kids were spellbound, but Kyle threw me side glance. We slipped away.
I slowed as I pedaled past the Wycombe house, its interior glow the same bright, yolky centre as ever, its television flashing against the wall of the alcove. Inside, Mrs. Wycombe would be combing Brandon’s wet, blond hair, then peeling potatoes and flicking between two sensationalist current affairs programs to dodge the commercials. After Lulu vanished, I visited a few times, but it became too sad, the way they did everything with a big hole in it, where she used to be. I heard the screen door and Mr. Wycombe came outside to move the sprinkler. I pushed on, not wanting to have to say hello or face his new, permanently forlorn expression.
I tested the waters at tea.
“Bing said Lulu was abducted by aliens.” Dad looked past me, at the television. “He said they did all kinds of experiments on her then threw her in the cement works.”
“Lies,” Dad said. “No one can get in there, it’s shut up to the sky and patrolled around the clock. Bing is full of carrot cake, just like his father.” He waved his naked fork at the air. “That time he booked me in 15-minute zone on a Sunday! He’s not even a bloody traffic cop, he was just being a prick!”
“Colin. Mind your words,” Mum warned, hardly meaning it, murmuring in her own thoughts. “What’s happened to Lulu is far worse than aliens, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” She blinked at the television then became Mum again. “Finish at least half those vegetables, and fast. It’s bath time.”
I knelt at the window end of my bed and eased the curtain aside, pressing my nose to the small section of flywire left bare of glass. I inhaled air full of cricket chirps and lake salt and tried to look beyond what I could see. I squinted, imagining the constellations and planets we traced with our fingertips from a blanket on the lawn on school holidays. But there was just blackness and tree shapes, a siren on the highway.
I dreamt of hospital waiting chairs on a shiny green floor, a series of chiming alarms. Lulu drifted by on a boat of sick, purple light. My chest was heavy with the weight of a hundred stares, the air-conditioning thin and brittle. I clambered for my bike in a rosemary bush, the warm, pungent bed of it sprouting thorns. Another alarm, urgent this time. Pedaling, pedaling, away from Lulu’s house and into the garden again, turning the same circle, never veering home, or remembering the way.
Bing didn’t arrive at school the next day, or the next. The television exploded with his face. Bloomfield rolled into our special assembly on the third day with big strides. He pointed at maps and spoke about memory. Out of the ordinary. Every little detail. Doesn’t matter if you don’t think it’s important. You won’t get in trouble for telling the truth. Next to him were two men in suits, and a woman in uniform who looked like she was trying not to yawn. Kyle leaned across me and whispered.
“Is it ordinary to talk bullsmack about alien abductions?” I burst out with a snort and Mrs. H shouted at me with her eyebrows.
“Peter Bloomfield lecture you kids today?” Dad was watching the weather, slicing the fat off his chops.
“What kind of cop can’t find his own son? Those daft Wycombes, too. How do you lose your bloody kid?” His face was blank, he was talking for himself. He had no idea Lulu was my best friend. I felt brave, angry.
“Where was I after school?” My tone frightened me. Mum snapped to attention.
“What do you mean?” Dad said, a sliver of uncertainty tainting his façade. “You were here.”
“Was I?” I trembled with the effort of holding my words together. “What time?”
“How should I know? I was home at after five-thirty.” He went red, then. I lost my bravado. My attack softened.
“I was home after six.”
“I don’t appreciate being spoken to like an idiot, Caleb.”
I didn’t need to be told to get out of his sight. I took my plate to the sink and headed for the bathroom. The laundry door was ajar. I pushed it open and stood in the dark, cool room. No one could see or hear me there. I flicked the lock on the sliding door. It came down easy, silent. I stepped into the dusk, dragged the door shut behind me, then waited a few moments before moving again. I climbed the wall by the fishpond and jumped into the nature strip below. Then, without knowing why, I ran.
I was slow and vulnerable on foot. Dog barks sounded menacing, porch lights unnerved me. There was no glow from within the Wycombe’s that night. They’d abandoned Greenwater to Cape Nile since Bing’s disappearance, a feeble protest against the inflated attention and resources police were giving to find one of their own. I knew where Lulu’s bike was, just inside the gate. I tiptoed to unlatch it, and it swung in easily. Brandon’s was there, thrown on the path, a little red trip hazard. Lulu’s was put away neatly between the shed and the brick wall. I wondered why they hadn’t locked it inside. Now, thirty years later, it’s obvious. They were waiting for her to come home.
I gripped Lulu’s handlebars to steer the bike around. The yellow streamers shivered. A chilly liquid sensation filled my lungs and sternum, creeping up to my throat. I could see the backs of her calves in my mind, racing ahead of me, the flash of her tail reflector, the smell of oranges and chlorine trailing her. The sky seemed to pulse, warping and expanding. My ears rang. I swallowed the urge to puke. I bent my head and wheeled through the gate, back to the street.
I flew down Fort Road, but I don’t remember at what point I understood I was heading for the cement works, or if I realised at all before my arrival there twenty minutes later, panting in the now dark. A City of Greenwater car idled outside the perimeter gates, its lights low, the guard reading a novel and smoking out the window. He was a token patrol, the real deterrent to the cement works was a forcefield of fear that no one could surpass.
Versions varied, but the main thread was constant. Men brought children to the works after it was decommissioned. Bad things happened. Some escaped, some were dug up from the earth. After the investigation, the City boarded it up. Barbed wire, chains, big dogs with big teeth, flood lights. It was overkill, the place alone terrified everyone, and that made it completely secure. They retained the token drive past from the community car and left it for local politicians to argue about. Intact but abandoned, shut tight to the world. Kyle said it was like the chocolate factory. Nobody in, nobody out.
The guard saw me and hauled himself from his car. He ran his torch over my body, blinding me for a moment. I remembered I was on a girl’s bike and felt a spike of panic.
“What are you doing here, kid?”
“I lost – my friend is lost.”
“He’s out here?” The guard looked pained, like he might actually have to do some work.
“She. No, she’s gone,” I said.
“What do you mean gone? Is there a kid out here or not?” He torched around the scrub either side of the driveway, as if it might be that simple, Lulu crouching in the bushes.
The air throbbed again, liquid rushing to my chest, the back of my eyelids cold. When I looked at the guard to see if he’d felt it, he was right in front of me, I could feel his breath. Had I fainted? His car was at least ten metres away, he couldn’t have made it over in that short time. But I was on my feet, straddling Lulu’s bike, clenching the handlebars.
“Why are you here?” He asked. His posture was different, his voice vacant. “You can’t go in there.” His nostrils flared slightly, and the veins around them shone up to the surface of his skin, iridescent, the colour of electricity. I noticed then that his whole being was bathed in the faintest of lilac light. “Not unless I take you.”
I woke up at the hospital. Through a glass panel I could see Dad’s back, a police officer facing him. The constable next to me sat up in his chair.
“Hey, you’re awake. Not going to puke or anything? I’ll get a nurse.” He left and returned almost immediately with a man in scrubs, and my mum. She didn’t say anything, just cried and ran her hands over my head and face, absorbing my consciousness. The nurse took my vitals and left swiftly.
“What happened?” I said, once he was gone.
“You tell us.” She shoved in beside me and lay her head on the pillow. “Peter Bloomfield is here. There are lots of police. They found you on Fort Road, someone almost hit you. They said you stole Lulu’s bike.”
“I did. I feel sick.”
“From guilt? I can’t stop him from questioning you.”
“No. It’s cold, in my chest, it hurts.”
Bloomfield marched in, followed by my father.
“Hello Caleb,” said the cop.
“Hi Sir. Hi Dad.” Dad grunted in reply. His eyes were trained on Bloomfield. I felt stupid for thinking I could move him to acknowledge me just by almost dying.
“I need to ask you some important questions,” said Bloomfield.
“Should we start with why left your home last night without telling anyone?”
“To steal Lulu Wycombe’s bike?”
“No, I have my own bike.”
“But you did steal it.”
“Yeah, but – I don’t know why or why I left. What happened to the security guard? Did he bring me here?”
“The guy at the cement works. You have to look there, Bing said Lulu was in there. The guard was going to take me.”
“Do you know something about who took Bing?”
“I think that guard does, he knows something.”
“Two female security guards were on patrol last night. They assisted the family who almost ran you over on Fort Road.”
“No, there was a man.” I tried to sit up, frustrated, but everything ached.
“There was no male on shift, but we’ll look into it. Why were you at the cement works?”
“I think he was an alien.”
Dad’s mouth twitched. Bloomfield sighed and looked around for a chair. Two fathers, blind in different ways.
“Bing has a sophisticated sense of humour, Caleb. I think he was probably pulling your leg.”
“Maybe. But he was right anyway.”
“You think you saw an alien?” Bloomfield said this slowly, to ensure I heard the absurdity of it.
“He changed. He was right in front of me. Something happens in the air, the sky sort of moves.”
“Why don’t you just answer the bloody questions?” Dad said.
Hours later, my story hadn’t changed. We went in a final circle, then Bloomfield gave in and let me rest. Mum went home to make dinner for my father. A new constable sat outside my door. I wasn’t sure if they were protecting me or themselves. I dreamt of Lulu and Bing inside the cement works, running to find each other but pushed in opposite directions by walls that grew in front of their eyes, a moving maze.
They hounded me for weeks, wringing out every detail. I told them the same story, the one that ended when the guard said he could take me in to the cement works. Bloomfield wanted me to remember riding back out to the road. I was found with the bike, like I’d fallen off and hit my head. I said no a hundred times. I don’t remember that at all.
During my interrogation period Josie Broad disappeared. Two weeks later, Josh Nguyen. Parents were frantic. Kyle reported to me from the community garden. Kids weren’t allowed to stop there much anymore, but those who did spooked one another, and I was the main topic. They wanted to ask me straight what happened that night. I told Kyle I didn’t have the answer everyone wanted.
I couldn’t go to school. Trips to the fridge made me collapse. Doctors ran tests and diagnosed me with everything from glandular fever to worms and a few tropical diseases. I kept telling them I just felt tired. Not sleepy but exhausted inside my bones.
Police grew desperate. Bloomfield decided there was nothing to lose and sent a team to the cement works to investigate. As they cut the final locks to get in, six grown men were thrown in the air and into the fence behind them, smacking the ground like rain. They broke wrists, ankles and ribs. Bloomfield was concussed. He visited the next day.
“Tell me everything again, from the beginning.”
A little over a year later, the sky swam around me one final time, surging and pulsing with a colossal energy I’d never felt, chiming from within. I was sick for days, curled around a bucket and towel. As I recovered, the strength returned to my limbs. I returned to school. The vanishings stopped, though we all held our breath, waiting.
I home rode past the Wycombe’s on my final day of primary school. Mr. Wycombe was out the front collecting mail.
“Wait there, Caleb.” He wheeled Lulu’s bike to the lawn, put his hand on my back. I missed him, but if I told him that, I’d cry. I just smiled with my lips shut tight, the tears trickling down my throat. Mr. Wycombe squeezed my shoulder, his face a mirror of mine. I grabbed Lulu’s handlebar and rode home beside her.
Taya Reid is a writer and photographer.