6.20pm

The Religion

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.

Or is it Mothers Day?

I never know which way to spell it to be honest. And while I’m being honest, however it is supposed to be spelled, I don’t really care about Mothers Day.

Why not?

Because of the religion.

I used to be in the religion, for most of my life in fact. I was around the age of six when my mother began to study with the religion, and all the way up to somewhere in the year 2013 I called myself a member of the religion. Growing up we never had birthdays, we never had Christmas, we were never allowed to play sports for our school, we never recognised Mothers Day or Fathers Day, or any other kind of Day. The only thing we “celebrated’ during the years was the annual event that they commonly call The Memorial. For those unfamiliar with the religion and their beliefs, this is their version of Easter and they celebrate it after sundown, and when I say “celebrate” it is not a woohoo celebrate, but more of a solemn occasion where the death of Jesus is remembered and the symbolic bread and wine is handed around (but only those who claim to be an anointed brother of Jesus are allowed to imbibe – don’t get me started).

Anyway I digress.

As I said, yesterday was Mothers Day and my social media feeds were full of people posting pictures of them with their mothers, saying lovely words about the people that brought them into the world, the people who raised them in the functioning adults that they are today. “Good for them” I thought but honestly, and I am being at-the-risk-of-sounding-like-an-asshole honest here, I just don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my mum. I love my mum more than she will ever know. Like my friends mothers did for my friends, my mother also brought me into this world, and despite the fact that I left home at sixteen years of age, she of course played a key part in turning me into the functioning adult that I am today. As a single mum she raised three little kids under trying circumstances – my dad disappeared when I was three, we had very little money, and getting fish and chips was a luxury while having McDonalds was almost unheard of. I learned from my mother how to cook, how to clean, how to be thrifty with money, and how to fix things. All things that you need to know how to do to survive as a solo parent, and things that all children should learn how to do.

So why don’t I care about Mothers Day?

Because of the religion.

After many years as a member of the religion – not just any old member mind you, but one that was a shining example to the congregation, one that the older sisters used to called Young Timothy (after the bible character), one that became a Congregation Servant at a young age, one that then became an Elder at a young age (terms that probably won’t mean much to you, but carry weight with those in the religion), one that looked after a Study Group, one that looked after a Ministry Group, one that conducted the Weekly Congregation Study, one that gave sermons on stage in front of up to a hundred people, one that gave talks to assemblies of up to a thousand people, one that sat with people while they cried their hearts out, one that sat with people and held their hands through some personal tribulation, one that listened and gave counsel – something happened. I started to ask myself questions. Why this? Why that? How this? How that? That thing doesn’t make sense. That thing is a contradiction. That thing is a lie. That thing is a half truth. That thing is very misleading. That thing is ambiguous. That thing is borderline criminal.

The more I asked questions, the more I got no answers. The more I came to realise that this thing that I had been a part of all my life was something I was a part of all my life simply because it had been a part of all my life. I accepted everything that was taught and told to me, like a good little boy. As an adult though, I wanted to ask questions, and point out things that made no sense. What did I get in response? Not answers. I just got told to fit in and go with it because after all, it was “the truth”. I was given answers that could not be questioned and was expected to keep on in the way that I had my entire life.

Except, that is not who I am. We should be able to ask questions of those in authority over us, and God or Jesus or religious leaders should be tough enough to handle puny humans using their amazing brains to raise questions that are only natural. It is how we learn, how we grow, how we begin to crack the surface of this thing that we call life.

And so after many agonising months of research, prayer, soul searching, and deep deep thought I came to the conclusion that being a member of the religion was not for me. My values and priorities did not align with those of the religion, and there were certain things about the religion that disgusted me (Google “religion and child abuse”), so much so that I no longer wanted to be known as a member of the religion and no longer wanted to be a part of it.

And so I wrote a letter to my congregation Elders (I had stepped down as an Elder myself many months before) and told them that I no longer considered myself a member of the religion. I said that I hoped we could remain friends, but that I knew that the tenets of their faith meant that they would have to cut me off as someone who had “disassociated” himself. Because I loved my friends I also sent them each a message on social media that was the same as what I sent to the Elders. I pointed out the irony of the requirement to cut off association with someone saying that they want to leave with a statement in one of their own magazines. The quote says:

“No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.”

This statement was made in the context of someone wishing to become a member of the religion, who, by doing so may face opposition and ostracism from their families. However the religion fails to apply this to themselves. Anyone who wishes to leave the religion must choose between their beliefs and their family (and friends). They are forced to do so.

Proving that double standard beyond a doubt, in the hours and days following my message, the number of friend connections I had across social media slowly dwindled down and down and down as my “friends”, with the click of a button, deleted me from their lives. Only two people bothered to send me a message. One of them said “All the best and good on you for making a clear decision,” the other, bless her, said “You are my friend, and that is all that matters, nothing has changed between us.” Everyone else though? Gone. Not one of them tried to stop me, to “save” me. In their world I was committing spiritual suicide, and rather than climbing on to the edge of the bridge with me and trying to talk me back over to the safe side, they all just took a step back and said “Well, he has made his decision”.

Now when I see these people on the street or on the train, they turn their heads away and pretend they didn’t see me. They literally avoid me like I have some sort of disease. What is my disease? What is my crime? I came to the decision that my values and beliefs didn’t align with theirs. I was more than willing to remain friends (and still am – if one of them knocked on my door tomorrow I would welcome them with open arms). But they can’t do that. They are required by the religion to cut off people who disagree with them as if they are some form of cancer.

Sad to say this even extends to my dear mother. The woman who brought me into this world, who cradled me in her arms, who enjoys telling the story of how when I was born I just stared at her intently for a long long time. The woman who used to play cricket with me in the back yard because there were no boys my age in the congregation and hanging out with the guys from school was “bad association”. The woman who, when I decided to tell her about how I was feeling about my life in the religion completely agreed with everything I said and told me that she would support me and my decisions. The same woman who later said that she might not respond to all of my text messages or emails because of the rules of the religion. The woman who has had no contact with me now for months on end.

The woman who I think of every single day, not just on Mothers Day.

I don’t blame her. I hold no animosity to her whatsoever. I know that she is doing what she thinks is right. I know that she loves me. I know that she knows that I love her. I know that she wishes we could have a “normal” relationship.

Again, I don’t blame her. I hold no animosity whatsoever. I am just numb now. When I think about having a normal relationship with her it is like tapping on scar tissue. You can feel something is there, but its not quite the same feeling as when you touch fresh pink flesh.

I don’t care about Mothers Day because the religion took my mother from me. People in the religion will try and tell you that “it was my choice to leave” and that “I knew the consequences when I made the decision” but the fact of the matter is I am here, ready, willing, and wanting a relationship. The only thing stopping that, the only thing stopping that is because the religion tells its followers that they shouldn’t. Those who leave are not to be associated with. To treat them like they are dead because they are going to die at Armageddon anyway.

But you know what?

You what I have now?

I have friends.

I have friends, real friends.

Sure I had friends before, but all but one of them proved that they were not really friends by quietly deleting me out of their lives when I told them I believed something slightly different to them.

What I have now are people who love me for who I am. People who don’t give a crap about what I do or do not believe, but who love me because I am me. I can be me around these people and they don’t judge. They can be themselves around me and I don’t judge. None of us are going to be running off to the Elders to tattle. We can disagree and argue over something but hug and high five after and appreciate the robust depth that our friendship has.

It may not be a big circle of friends, but it is a bloody great one. Friendship, true friendship, is now more valuable to me than all the riches in the world. Friendship based on love and respect is a thousand times stronger that some feeble love based on the mutual worship of some old men in New York who claim to be God’s mouthpiece on earth.

I also have my big sister. Not the one that is in the religion and hasn’t spoken to me for around a year (I forget how long it has been), but the one who has also been put through the ringer by the religion, the one who also has a messed up relationship with her mother, the one who gave me the most amazing niece the world has ever known.

And the most important.

I have my wife. My love, my angel, the light of my life. My constant companion. My friend, my lover, my true north.

The religion may take some precious things from me, but there are some bonds that can never be broken.

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8.37pm

The Artist

The room was filled with the buzz of conversation and the clink of glasses. The women were in long dresses with low backlines, some with pearls around their necks, and others with silk gloves that went all the way up to their elbows. The men were all in suits looking dapper as they made conversation, laughed at each others jokes, and made mental notes of who was networking with who.

Terrence moved through the crowd, a handshake here, a shoulder slap there, a smile that put everyone at ease. From the outside, anyone observing him would have seen a mild mannered man in his mid to late thirties with round glasses and flecks of grey beginning to show in his temples. He was in good shape and had an air of easy casualness about him which often made people meeting him for the first time think that they had known him for years. He lived for these kinds of crowds and the adoration the people gave him.

Lining the walls of this grand hall and in the center on a number of easels were his latest works. People milled around, anxious to peek under the coverings over each painting. All would be revealed soon, and the people were keen, in the meantime they had champagne and jazz to keep them occupied.

Their attention was drawn to a man taking to the stage and stepping up to a microphone placed in the middle. The jazz band finished their song and a hush came over the hall, and people moved toward the stage. The house lights went down and the stage lights came up. Bathed in the glow, the man began to speak.

‘Friends, fans, buyers, and enthusiasts, welcome to this very special evening. Thank you all for coming and being with us here tonight as we unveil the latest works of Terrence MacFarlane, a man well known to you all, and a man whose art is loved by many.’

The crowd erupted into applause and the audience members beamed, feeling special that they had been included on the exclusive guest list for this evening. The speaker continued.

‘Terrence burst on to the scene three short years ago, and amazed everyone with his style, a style that many since have tried to replicate, but unsuccessfully. He remains unique in his ability to channel Pollock with his crazy backgrounds, and Picasso with his abstract foregrounds. He has mesmerised millions of people in this time, and tonight we are proud to host this first viewing of his latest works.’

The crowd applauded again. It was true, Terrence had seemed to come out of nowhere. His very first exhibition had been in a small gallery downtown, and soon thereafter word had begun to spread about his incredible paintings. What made them unique was the wild splattered backgrounds that somehow worked perfectly with foreground pictures of humans and objects in weird abstract shapes. Every inch of space was used on the canvas, and there was such detail that it seemed like viewers saw something new each time they looked over the work. Were the backgrounds actually random, or were they carefully crafted? On first inspection, it seemed like paint had just been splashed around, but looking closer one could see that the overlays and interactions seemed to have been done with a purpose. That apparent purpose added texture and made the foreground images leap out and grab your attention.

‘In a moment we will invite Terrence up on stage here for a few words, and then once we have unveiled the works there will be some time for you all to view and examine them. Later we will of course run the auction and you can try to join the club of lucky people to own a MacFarlane.’

A murmur ran through the crowd, like they had all collectively taken a deep breath and began to thrill at the anticipation of seeing the new artworks, but also to steel themselves for the rush to view them and decide on what kind of money they might offer to own one of these precious pieces. Some would be adding to their collection, others would be trying to get their first. Either way competition would be fierce.

The speaker invited Terrence to the stage and he made his way up the two small steps and squinted at the change in light as the audience applauded. He paused for a moment as his eyes adjusted. He wanted to see the crowd, to see their eyes looking at him, to feel their adoration for him and what he had accomplished. The clapping died down and Terrence felt a bead of sweat squeeze itself out somewhere around his shoulder blades and slowly glide its way down his back. He gave a little involuntary shiver as it hit the small of his back.

He leaned into the microphone. ‘Wow, so many people here, I’m amazed.’ Someone near the back of the group hooted. He chuckled and continued. ‘Thanks so much for coming down tonight, it still blows my mind that anyone is interested in the work that I do, I, I just, I don’t know what to say, but thank you.’

The crowd broke into applause again at his humble attitude. A lady in the front row seemed to have a tear in her eye while another placed her hand on her heart and shook her head in appreciative admiration. A gentleman to the left had put his wineglass down on the ground so that he could clap properly with both hands and not just pat one hand on his arm as some were doing.

Inside, Terrence got a rush of adrenaline. He didn’t mind having to play things down externally since it seemed to make the people like him even more. A small price to pay for the thrill he got from it all.

‘I want you all to have a wonderful evening, and hope that you like the latest additions on show here this evening.’ He stepped away from the microphone and went to leave the stage before pausing and leaning in once more.

‘Thank you.’

The crowd roared with cheering. The combination of being present, seeing him in person, and having the chance to own a MacFarlane was almost too much for them.

The host stepped up again. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, to echo the words of Terrence, thank you again for being here. Now, let us see what we all came here for.’

The stage lights went down and the room was plunged into darkness. Shuffling could be heard as staff removed the coverings from the paintings. A murmur went through the crowd and as their eyes became used to the dark the only light they could see was the dim glow of some tiny lamps on top of the music stands of the jazz band. The band started playing a piece that started with a light tempo but got faster and louder, and just as they reached a crescendo, the hall lights came up to reveal all the new works of Terrence MacFarlane.

Everyone in the crowd put their hands up to their eyes to shield them from the sudden glare. Then, almost in unison, their arms lowered slowly as their eyes refocused and took in the wonderful sight before them. The new works were incredible. The colours, the passion, the love, the joy, the happiness, the tension, the darkness, the sadness, the emptiness, the loneliness, all of it was plainly visible on the canvas. Broad strokes covered backgrounds of splattered beauty. Crazy lines seemed to leap out and make love to the eyes of the viewers. People began to chatter excitedly and move from one canvas to the next, some moving quickly, hoping to see as many as possible in a short space of time, others standing transfixed, drinking it all in and letting their eyes scan all of the component parts before moving on to the next display.

Terrence got another rush as the conversations sprang up around the room. It was hard to remain cool and humble on the outside while inwardly he was electric with glee. He relished surprising a group of people who were hypnotised by one piece, they were so deep in conversation that they did not see him approach. A man with a blue bow tie was just explaining that he thought the that yellow slash that ran through the head of a cubic human figure was MacFarlane saying that the person had been stuck by an idea, that they had got some sort of inspiration. Terrence leaned in and said ‘Actually, I just like the colour yellow.’

The group straightened in surprise and their faces changed as they realised that it was MacFarlane himself who was speaking with them. ‘Mr MacFarlane,’ said Mr blue bow tie. ‘This is an exceptional piece. In a very simple way it seems to be communicating a complex message.’

‘Well, yes, that is one way of looking at it,’ replied Terrence as he looked from person to person in the small group. ‘But sometimes it pays to not try and go too deep when looking for meaning. Sometimes our confirmation bias will just make us see what we want to see.’ Almost as one the group nodded in understanding, as if he had just said something very deep and profound, when in fact he had not really said anything of substance except for some pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo.

He left them hanging with that thought and quietly moved on. Mr blue bow tie had opened his mouth to say something, but Terrence had gone before he could say anything.

More handshakes, some shoulder slaps, a little bit of light conversation and pressing of the flesh, and then it was time for the auction. The attendees had had close to forty-five minutes to look over the works and make their decisions on what they liked and how much they would be willing to pay for it.

The mechanics of the auction never interested Terrence, the only part of it that he pricked his ears up for was the final price called as the gavel fell. He mentally added the numbers up in his head as the auction progressed and quietly nodded to himself as they reached seven figures.

He was in hot demand, and it felt good. Very, very good.

The other thing that felt good was the two beautiful ladies in the limousine with him. He told himself that they were there because they were genuinely interested in him, but somewhere deep down he knew that it had more to do with this celebrity, his draw, and his money. He could live with that, and would make the most of the night, knowing full well that by the time morning came they would have both left the hotel and he would be alone again.

Sure enough when he woke up, the giant bed was a mess, and as he felt around under the covers, he found no beautiful women in there, just a couple of used condoms and avery tiny g-string. He flicked the condoms on to the floor and held up the underwear. He took a long deep sniff and thought these are the spoils of war.

His agent met him in the lobby later for brunch, and even though his head hurt and every exposure of light felt like a dagger in his eyes, he managed to have a reasonably coherent conversation. His calculations of the figures for the night were close to spot on, and he knew that once the gallery exhibition had run its course the new owners would be very proud of their MacFarlanes.

Two hours later he was on a plane heading home and eased his business class chair back slightly. He ignored the stewardess’s offer of a whiskey and closed his eyes. He dreamed of colour and shapes and breasts and smiles, and was awoken by the ding of the seatbelt sign as the plane began its descent. He loved this life, and even the sight of his driver waiting to meeting him gave him another rush of excitement. Eased into the back of the car, the early evening lights of the city whipped by through tinted windows.

And just like that he was home.

The driver took Terrence’s bags up to the front door where they shook hands. Terrence slipped the driver some cash and they parted ways.

The front door creaked open and the quietness hit him like a wall. After being on the go for the last day or so, the solitude was a welcome relief. The hallway stretched out before him and the familiar smell of the varnished wood filled his nostrils. That’s the smell of home he said to himself. He wheeled his bags into the front room since he couldn’t be bothered with them right now. The sound of the door echoed as he closed it, the wooden floor and high ceilings acting as an amplifier.

He flicked on the hall light and walked down to the kitchen, enjoying the coolness of the house. He switched on his toasted sandwich maker, and from the fridge he grabbed some ham and cheese. The butter sizzled as he assembled everything on the little hot plates and closed up the appliance. While the sandwich cooked he opened a can of soft drink and leaned against the kitchen bench.

Soon enough a little green light lit up on the sandwich maker indicating that it was done and taking care to not burn his fingers he lifted the toasties onto a plate. Picking up the can of drink he walked back down the hallway and opened the door to the basement. As the door swung open he could see a dim light at the bottom of the long staircase and he carefully made his way down. At the bottom of the stairs he turned left and faced the large open space that formed the subterranean basement.

Stacked on one wall were a number of large canvasses and the room smelled of paint. He walked over to a large table in the centre of the room and put down the food and drink. There was a half finished canvas on the table, and Terrence’s brother sat slumped asleep in his wheelchair, his fingertips covered in paint, and flecks on his shirt.

Terrence sneered and shook his head. Typical he thought. You useless sack of crap, I told you I wanted this painting finished by the time I got back. He picked up the sandwich plate and put it down again, hard enough that the noise made his brother jerk awake. Terrence’s brother couldn’t string a sentence together due to his disabilities, but it was clear from his seemingly uncontrolled arm movements that he was pleased to see Terrence. His head, which seemed to be permanently tilted to one side, lolled and a line of drool ran down his chin. As always, Terrence was unmoved, but just stood there eyeing his brother with a look on his face like he had just bitten a lemon.

‘Didn’t I tell you I wanted this finished by the time I got back? Why haven’t you done it?’ he yelled. ‘God you’re useless. How did I get stuck with you?’ He let out a disappointed sigh. He picked up the plate again and dropped it in his brother’s lap. ‘Eat that and then you’d better get that painting finished or I’ll be very angry with you. You need to work faster!’

His brother wiggled in his chair as if in protest but Terrence just turned and started climbing the stairs. At the top he turned and looked down toward the dim light again. He closed the door.

Gotta keep him working, gotta keep him painting and making me money.

4.04pm

The Cyclist

Rick stood up on the pedals and pumped them for a couple of turns. Even though his muscles were screaming, it felt good to be on a bike again, and to have the wind in his face. It had literally been years since he had ridden a bike, and this, his first time out, was a joy. He had been swooped by a magpie, swallowed a bug, and had forgotten to bring any water with him, but it didn’t bother him, he was having too much fun and it just felt so good to be in the outdoors again.

Fifteen years ago Rick had been an avid mountain biker. He used to ride his bike, a GT Karakoram, to work each day and to the shops any time he needed anything, and each Saturday and Sunday was spent on a trail somewhere breathing in dust or getting caked in mud as he made his way round the local trails. He had even entered a few races. He never backed himself to win or anything, but enjoyed the challenge, the atmosphere, and the camaraderie that went with it.

Then he had met Sarah, the lady that would eventually become his wife, the love of his life. She wasn’t much of a sporty type and gradually over time he began to spend less and less time on his bike. It wasn’t a conscientious move on either of their parts, it just kind of happened as time went by. Instead of getting his kicks from burning his way down a mountain bike trail, he began to enjoy the softer things in life; heading into the city with Sarah for brunch on a Saturday, dining out with friends on a Saturday night, watching movies together, long lazy sleep-ins on a Sunday morning, sitting on the patio reading a book on a Sunday afternoon. Life became a blissful mix of love from Sarah, time with friends, and chilling out more. In addition to this, after years of spending only one or two years in a job at a time, Rick had found work that he really loved. It offered the right amount of challenge, allowed him to have a good work / life balance, and it didn’t hurt that the paycheck was pretty good too.

Of course, the downside to this was that his waistline began to expand. Nothing overtly noticeable at first, but rather a gradual tightening of the shirt, a need to ease the belt out a little halfway through the day, and the fact that when the time came to buy new pants for work he had needed to get a size larger than before.

As he rode along now, Rick remembered that feeling he had had in the changing room that day. He and Sarah had gone to the shop to buy some work trousers, and they had picked a couple of colours in his usual size. In the fitting room he stood in front of the mirror with his jeans down and took a look at himself. They didn’t have a full length mirror at home so it was the first time in a long time that he had seen himself in full. Not too bad he had thought, but then he had put on one of the pairs of trousers and had struggled to button them up. At first he couldn’t understand it, but then it dawned on him that the ones he had been wearing over the past few months had probably stretched a little. This new pair however, told the truth. He had put on weight, and it wasn’t until he had tried on a pair that were the next size up that he had finally come to admit it. He was disappointed in himself for letting it happen. There was no-one to blame but himself.

That had been the clincher, and while talking over dinner that night Rick mentioned that he was keen to buy another bike and get back into riding. Sarah loved the idea and was keen to get a bike too so they could go for rides and spend some quality time in the outdoors together. After dinner they had looked at some bikes on eBay and had no trouble finding one the right size for Rick, but they struggled to find one for Sarah who was of a below average height. They decided to buy the one for Rick and keep their eyes peeled for a smaller frame for Sarah.

Four days later the bike had arrived, and this morning Rick had put it together in the garage. As it slowly began to take shape and look like a bike, he could feel his anticipation building. After lunch he clipped on his helmet, gave Sarah a kiss goodbye and rode out of the garage. They lived near a river with some bike paths maintained by the local Council, and it was toward these that he rode. He wanted to ride on them because it was safer than riding on the road; the paths were purpose built for easy family riding and followed the river to the beach and beyond – perfect for someone wanting to gently get back into cycling.

It was along one of these paths that Rick now rode, pumping the pedals for a couple of turns up a small rise. His muscles were screaming, but it felt so good to be out riding again. He was actually a little surprised that he wasn’t hurting more. It wasn’t even really pain that he was feeling, it was more like that feeling that you get in your legs when you stand up after sitting down for a long time. Like when you get up and out of bed in the morning, a creaky, stretchy, achy kind of feeling. Whatever it was, it felt good.

As the path curved around to the left slightly, Rick could see a main road ahead. This part of the path cut through a large residential block and then carried on from the other side of the main road. He was thinking about how he was going to cross this busy road when he spotted some movement to his right. Sitting down by the river with their back against a tree was a person in a green hooded jacket. They had the hood over their head so he was unable to see their face, in fact from the angle he was on he couldn’t even tell if it was a man, woman, boy or girl. They were just sitting there with the river gently flowing by looking at the ducks and swans that were milling around on the water. Looks like a great spot to chill out he thought as he went by, might have to do that myself one day.

The path went up for a little rise again, and it was then that he could see that he didn’t have to cross the main road, but that once the path met up with the footpath alongside the road he could make a sharp right turn and follow a path that looped under the main road and then joined up with where the bike path continued on the other side. That’s well thought out Rick thought It means cyclist don’t have to cross the main road and that they don’t even have to dismount. It was a good design.

He popped out from under the bridge and again felt the sun on his face as he left the shadows behind and continued along. He rode for another hundred meters or so and then pulled up at a bench seat that was set in next to the path. He got off the bike, sat down on the bench and took out his phone. As he was only just getting into biking again, he was not at all familiar with where the paths went in this area. His map app soon found his location and as he scrolled around the bird’s eye view, he was able to make out where he was. Based on the map it looked like he could continue along this path for another two kilometers before coming to the next main road. He settled on that as his plan – he would ride on to the next main road and then double back and head for home. That would be a pretty good ride for his first time out. Not bad at all for an office monkey getting back in the saddle.

‘Hi there.’

The voice came so unexpected that Rick jumped with fright. It was the person in the green hoodie, someone who he could now see was a young woman that he guessed was in her early twenties. He had been so engrossed in his map that he hadn’t even heard her approach.

‘Hello!’ he replied back in a friendly tone. ‘Nice day for it isn’t it?’ She stood there in her green hoodie with it zipped all the way up to her chin. Auburn hair peeked from under the hood and fell as a fringe above her black rimmed glasses. She had her hands buried with an awkward shyness in the pockets of the jacket, and she hovered nervously in black skinny jeans over the top of boots.

‘It is nice out here today. Sorry if I gave you a fright.’ she said quietly, only making momentary eye contact as she spoke. She seemed to have a kind of introvertedness about her, like she wasn’t used to talking to people, but rather preferred to spend her time with her nose in a book or, as he had seen earlier, alone in her own company by a river watching the world go by. But that was contrasted with the fact that she had approached him when she could have easily walked on by and not said a word.

Rick didn’t think too much about it as he was by nature friendly, even with strangers, and enjoyed a good chat. ‘It’s no problem at all, I was just engrossed in trying to work out where I can ride to. I didn’t hear you coming that’s all. Looks like you had a nice spot back there.’

‘Oh,’ she said looking down. ‘You saw me there? Yeah it’s a nice quiet spot that I like to come to most weekends, just to chill out for a while. You know, get away from it all.’ She was standing far enough away that her quiet manner of speaking meant that Rick had to lean forward to make out what she was saying. From time to time she shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

‘Yeah I know what you mean,’ said Rick standing up. ‘It’s nice to get away from the rat race and to get outside for a while. It’s good for the soul. Hey look, it’s been nice talking to you, but I best be moving on, I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.’ He and Sarah were going over to their friends place for dinner so he didn’t want to be out for too long this afternoon, it was after all supposed to be just a test ride. He gave a friendly smile and swept the kickstand with his foot and swung his leg over the frame.

She was still standing there with her hands in the pockets of the jacket and looked like she wanted to say something. As Rick went to move off she suddenly blurted out ‘I’m Amy.’ Rick applied the brake after not even completing a full revolution of the pedals. They graunched in protest.

‘Oh, right, yeah, sorry, I’m Rick, nice to meet you.’ He held out his hand and she paused a moment before quickly taking a step toward him. Her hand flashed out of the pocket, gave his hand a quick squeeze and then shot back into the pocket, like it was some kind of safe haven. When their hands had touched, hers felt warm and dry, and it felt light in his hand. The squeeze had been soft and furtive, like it was something that she was not used to doing. Rick felt a little sorry for her; she was good looking in a cute way but it seemed that her awkwardness might the kind of thing that meant she didn’t get to meet a lot of new people. He got a feeling that most people would be put off by her introverted appearance but if you spent a bit of time to get to know her you could talk with her for hours about whatever subjects interested her.

‘Okay Amy I’m going to head off now, maybe I’ll see you around sometime here on the bike path.’ In reply Amy just looked down, nodded, and walked off back toward the way that she had come. Rick rode on toward the next main road and when he got there he turned around headed for home.

He descended under the bridge and looped around back up to the footpath by the main road before making the sharp left to continue on along the riverside path. As he rode along he again came up to the place where he had seen Amy earlier. She was back in the same spot, in the same position as before with her back up against the same tree, and was again just sitting and watching the river flow by. Rick gave the bell on his handlebars a ring and Amy’s head jerked around, not in fright, but as if she was annoyed by the interruption of her reverie. In the same instant though her face registered recognition that it was Rick and the softened into a brief smile before she quickly turned her head away.

Rick just chuckled to himself and rode on. She sure seemed nice, but she sure seemed weird too.

*

The following weekend Rick woke up around 9.00am and after reading for a while decided to get out of bed and have some breakfast. Sarah had had a big week at work so he was careful to be quiet and tip toed around the bedroom. He sat down at the kitchen table and opened his laptop and logged into Facebook but only scrolled for about a minute before closing the tab and switching to Reddit. God he hated Facebook and the way people overshared, these days it seemed to be thousands of baby photos, crappy motivational pictures – usually posted by people with no motivation – and people whinging about the mundane things of life. He felt like his soul was drained a little every time he logged on.

He looked up from the table and looked across the room and through the hall to the spare room. From where he was sitting he could see all the way through to where his bike was leaning up against the wall. He hadn’t wanted to leave it in the garage in case it got stolen, so the spare room was its new home. He wondered if he could pop out for a quick ride before Sarah got up. After his initial ride last Saturday, he hadn’t been able to get out on the Sunday due to some plans that they had, so he was itching to get out again. They didn’t have any concrete plans for today apart from some shopping in the afternoon, so it seemed like an ideal time to have a quick cruise.

He tip toed back into the bedroom and picked out a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and jumped in the shower. It wasn’t until he was in an under the water that he thought that should have just gone for a ride and had a shower when he got back since he would then be all sweaty. Duh he said to himself. He had a quick scrub, brushed his teeth and then, as quietly as possible, wheeled the bike out the front door and closed it behind him.

Outside, the morning was fresh. It was looking like it was going to be a nice day and Rick gave himself a pat on the back for making the choice to head out. There were a couple of crows on the overhead power lines and light breeze Yep he thought Good day for a ride.

He followed the same path as the weekend before and tootled along at a good pace. Last Sunday he had felt the effects of Saturday’s ride a little bit, so his plan was to just cruise today and not do too much, just ride along and enjoy the fresh morning air. As he went along and he came to the left hand curve that would lead up to the first main road, he recalled his meeting with that girl last week. It was just past this corner that he had seen her sitting by the tree next to the river. He hadn’t thought about her at all during the week, and it was only now that he was in the vicinity again that she came to mind. As he hit the curve he was surprised to see her there again, same spot, same clothes.

Rick gave his bell a ring to attract her attention, and as she turned to look, he gave her a wave. Just like last week, initially she frowned at the interruption but when she recognised that it was Rick, the frown turned into a smile and she lifted her hand in a small wave. ‘Morning!’ he said has he went past . She didn’t reply, and as Rick had carried on down the path he did not see that she kept looking at him as he rode on. Her face did not show any expression, just a slightly vacant look, but on the inside her mind was racing and she could feel her heart beating in her chest, like she had just been given a shot of adrenaline.

Because of the ride last weekend, this time Rick knew where he was going so when he came across the bench seat where he had stopped previously, this time he rode on toward the second main road. He had a bit of a light sweat on his brow, and he felt like his legs were handling it all pretty well. There weren’t any other people on the path, and it felt like he had the whole world to himself. When he reached the second main road he leaned up against a lamp post and took a few swigs of water. He had remembered to pack some this time, and it still had some of the chill on it from being in the fridge over night.

He waited there for a few more moments to catch his breath and watched the cars whiz by. Everyone has somewhere to go and something to do he thought to himself, glad that he had taken the chance to have a ride while Sarah was still asleep. He hoped that they could find a bike for her soon because he knew that she would love this just as much as he was at the moment. He wondered if she was awake yet and thought that maybe it was time to start heading back.

He pushed off from the lamp post and steered the bike down from the footpath down to the bike path and pumped the pedals a few times to get some speed up. He could hear a dog barking off in the distance, but it was nowhere near enough for him to worry about it chasing him. He was keeping a careful eye out for magpies too, but there seemed to be none around today which was a relief.

Once again he came up to the bench seat where he had stopped the previous weekend, and as he approached, ahead of him he could see a figure walking away from it. They were wearing a green hooded jacket, black skinny jeans, and boots. It could only be that girl from last week, the one he had seen again by the side of the river earlier. What was her name again? Annie? Amy? Amy, yes that was it. He rode on toward her and gave his bell a ring when he was a few meters back so that he wouldn’t surprise her. She stepped to the left to let him pass, but he pulled up to say hello.

‘Hello, it’s Amy isn’t it? How’s it going?’ He asked.

Her hands remained buried deep in her pockets, and because her hood was up she had to turn her torso to see him properly. ‘Hi,’ she said quietly and stopped walking. ‘I’m fine, how are you? Your name is Rick isn’t it?’

He replied in the affirmative and an awkward silence that passed between them, and Rick remembered that when they spoke last weekend she had seemed somewhat introverted. ‘You got much on today?’ he asked.

‘No, not really. Just walking around. I came to the bench there to see if you had stopped again, like you did last weekend.’ Her voice didn’t carry much tone, and her words came out in a matter of fact way. He was a little surprised that she had gone to the bench with the specific intention of seeing if he was there. It seemed like a really odd thing to do.

‘Oh right, yeah, I stopped there last week because I wanted to check where I was going. I have my route all sorted now so I rode past it today.’ He paused. ‘Were you, um…looking…uh specifically for me?’

‘Yes. I just wanted to say hello and wondered if you had stopped there again.’

Okay then, a little odd, but who knows. ‘Well, here I am ha ha!’ He laughed as he said, it but didn’t feel like he meant it. He was sure she is nice, but she did seem a little…different. ‘I have to keep going, but it was nice to see you again Amy, take care.’

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but he had already pushed off and pedalled away. She stood there with her hands in her pockets looking at his receding back and blinked a couple of times. That pounding in her chest was there again, and she blinked a few times as thoughts and ideas ran around her head.

*

A crazy week at work meant that time just flashed by, and before he had time to think about it the weekend had again rolled around. Rick enjoyed his work, but this week had been an extra challenge as they had a number of deadlines falling on the Friday. Across the team they had managed to meet all of them, and by the time he logged off he felt like his brain was made of mushy peas.

Sarah was up before he was on the Saturday morning and he awoke to the smell of coffee and, if he was not mistaken, bacon and eggs. Heck yeah, she’s a good woman, I married the right one there! He rolled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen rubbing gunk from his eyes. His blonde hair was pointing in all directions, and Sarah stifled a laugh when she took in the state of him.

They ate breakfast and talked over what they might do this weekend. Sarah had a book that she wanted to return to the library in the city, and a movie they had been waiting to see had been released during the week so they thought they might stay on in the city and watch it there. That wouldn’t be until later on in the day, so Rick thought he might go for another ride and make the most of the good weather. Sarah said that she was going to be doing laundry and cleaning the house during the morning so they agreed that it would be a good chance to hit the bike path. ‘Then you can be out of my way,’ joked Sarah. He was happy to help with the chores, but Sarah insisted that he go out and soak up some sunshine before they took a train into the city later.

With the dishes all packed in the sink, Rick changed into a t-shirt and shorts and laced on his shoes. He would have a shower when he got back, learning his lesson from the weekend before.

As he rode down the street, he put some thought into which way he would go today. For the last two weekends he had turned left and headed toward the path that ran through the neighbouring two blocks, but so far had not gone to the right which would take him through the neighbouring suburb and eventually to the beach. The beach certainly felt inviting, but given that they had plans later, he decided to head to the left, to follow the path that he was familiar with. He would investigate the beach path on another occasion when he could take some time to work it all out.

He pushed off from the intersection and was soon on the bike path heading along the now familiar track. The weather had turned out nice again, and all above him were clear blue skies. It had been a good decision to get the bike, and he made a mental note to have a look online again later today and check to see if he could find a bike for Sarah as he knew that she would enjoy this as much as he was.

He approached a left hand curve in the path and came across the spot where he had seen Amy the previous two weekends. He glanced over at the tree where she had been sitting the last couple of times, but she was not there, and he briefly wondered where she was, but at the same time figured she would not necessarily be in the same place at the same time every weekend. The thoughts flashed through his mind in an instant but blew right through as Amy, whoever she was, was far from high on his list of things to think about that day.

He came up to the first main road and took the sharp right turn and headed around the loop under the bridge. The path was bathed in sunlight, but under the bridge was in shadow, and as Rick went underneath, in the split second when his eyes began to adjust to the dark, he thought he saw something detach itself from the rest of the murk. His eyes hadn’t fully adjusted, so when the bike impacted on whatever it was that came out of the shadow, it was entirely unexpected. One second he was upright on the bike, and the next he was hitting the ground and skidding on his knees. He could feel his skin peel off and the minute roughness of the sand and detritus as he slid along the concrete. He thought he felt something in his ankle pop when hit the ground and he put both hands down to arrest his travel. He felt a crack in his elbow and he went down further, landing on his shoulder. His t-shirt was no protection, and he could feel his shoulder graze as small pieces of gravel ground their way in. After what felt like an eternity, he came to a stop.

There was a burning, stinging sensation in his hands and knees, his forearm and elbow both had an intense throbbing pain, and his ankle felt like it was on fire. His instinct was to try and stand up immediately, but when he put his hands on the ground to push up a burst of pain shot through his nerves and he winced from the pain. Was his arm broken? His wrist? His elbow maybe? His ankle throbbed when he tried to put weight on it, and in the end he just slumped down and took a breath. It took a minute or two, but soon he was able to move so that he was sitting on his rear and propped himself up against a low concrete wall that ran alongside the path under the bridge.

It was at that point that he noticed the shadow.

In the gloom and half light caused by being under the bridge, Rick could make out a shape, the form of a human. As things came into focus, he recognised the shape.

It was Amy.

She leaned over him with that same blank look in her eyes that she had the last couple of times that they had met. Rick wasn’t sure what to do or say. ‘Uh, Amy, are you okay? Did I run into you?’

She kept looking at him intently, still with her hands buried deep in the pockets of her green hoodie. ‘I’m okay,’ she said quietly.

‘I think I’ve busted my ankle and my arm, can you please help me up?’ Rick looked up at her, forming the question with his facial expression, but in return he got the same blank stare.

‘Do you love me Rick?’

What the hell? He thought to himself. What the hell is going on here?

“You have been so nice these last couple of weekends. So nice to me when so many others treat me like I don’t exist.’

Rick dry swallowed and his mind raced.

‘I feel like we have a connection,’ she continued, and then crouched down as she finished speaking.

She was just a couple of feet away from him now, but for some reason still seemed hesitant to come any closer. Rick squirmed as he tried to shuffle his way into a standing position, but the pain in his ankle forced him to let out a little yelp and he slid back to the ground. It was agony, and he wondered if it was broken. He was fairly certain that his arm or elbow was, and if his ankle was too, then he was going to be going nowhere without assistance. He looked to either side, out from under the bridge to see if there was anyone else around, anyone that might able to help and get Amy away from him. Had she deliberately knocked him off his bike? He couldn’t think why anyone would possibly do that.

‘I think you are really nice Rick. I’ve been thinking about you since we first met. Do you think we could…’ she paused and looked at the ground. ‘Do you think we could be together?’ She looked him straight in the eye as she said this.

I need to get out of here. I don’t know what is going on. This is crazy. ‘Amy,’ he began. ‘You seem like a really nice person, but I am in a lot of pain now, and I really need some help.’ Given the situation and his suspicion that she had knocked him off on purpose, he thought it untrue to say that she looked like a nice person, but he didn’t want to say anything to upset her. She continued to look at him blankly, and shuffled forward toward him while remaining crouched down. She reminded him of a lioness staring intently at her prey while silently stalking them.

He started again. “Amy I need to you to help me. I…’

She cut him off. ‘Do you like me Rick? Do you love me?’ A slight furrow had begun to form in her brow, and Rick felt like he was losing the tiny bit of control he had over the situation.

‘Amy, you seem like a lovely person, but I think we should talk about this later, I really need to get home to my wife and get my ankle and arm and scrapes looked at.’

Her face darkened at the mention of Sarah. ‘You’re married?’

Rick’s mind raced as he tried to think back to recall if he had mentioned Sarah at all in the two brief meetings they had over the last two weekends. He had no idea what he had said, it had all been so inconsequential at the time. He had no idea what information had passed between them.

‘Why did you flirt with me if you are married? Why would you make me feel like you loved me if you had a wife at home?’ The furrow increased, and there seemed to be a slight break in her voice.

‘I’m sorry, Amy, you seem to have misunderstood,’ he struggled to find the words. ‘You seem very nice, and I am sure that you are a wonderful person, but yes, I am married, I have a wife, and right now she is at home and might be wondering where I am.’

Amy’s face darkened even further. ‘I can change that,’ she said quietly.

Oh god, is she going to do something to Sarah? No, she can’t, she won’t have any idea where we live. But my address is on my license which is in my wallet. Did I bring my wallet? The thoughts flashed through his mind at a million miles an hour.

Amy rolled forward off her haunches and knelt on the ground. She shuffled forward and put her hand on Rick’s crotch. She seemed hesitant at first, as she had been with everything else. Rick tried to move to stop her touching him, but jolts of pain forced him to stay where he was. ‘This is how people do it isn’t it? They touch each other?’ she asked.

‘No Amy, this is not what people do. They respect other people, and don’t touch them.’ He tried again to move but the agony in his ankle and arm was intense. ‘You need to get away from me. This is not okay.’

He tried to stare her down, but the blank face had returned, and she looked him right in the eyes without flinching, while at the same time feeling through his pants for his penis. ‘I’ve never done it before, is this how you like it? Am I doing it right?’ The blank stare changed into an almost plaintive look and Rick realised that she was genuinely looking for approval, that she really believed that what she was doing was okay, that she was so inexperienced in life that this was how she thought these things happened. He wondered if all she had ever learned about sex and relationships came from TV shows, movies, and the internet.

‘Amy please, I’m sorry if you have misunderstood, but what you are doing is not okay, I don’t want you to touch me like this. Please, stop and let’s talk.’ With his one good hand he tried to grab the hand that she was using to rub his penis through his shorts. She swatted it away and continued rubbing. Rick’s brain was battling between remaining focused on getting her hands away from him and trying to stop his penis from getting hard. He was losing the battle though as he could feel his penis stiffening, and every time he reached for her arm, Amy just moved it away. Any little bit of movement was causing him a world of pain, and resisting was getting more and more difficult. One part of his brain was intent on resisting while the other was trying to stop him from doing anything that would cause more pain.

‘Amy, please, don’t do this,’ he pleaded with her and tried again to take a hold of her arm and get it away from his now semi erect penis. His shorts were starting to rise like a tent. It wasn’t getting hard because he wanted all of this, it was just a natural reaction to being stroked and try as he might, he could not reverse the process.

This time, instead of lightly slapping his hand away, she took hold of it and put it on the ground and pressed her weight down on it pinning him in place. She then took one of her shins and leaned on his good leg and this way had him in such a position that he could not move. His right leg was immobile due to his ankle being wrecked, and his right arm could not be moved without intense jabbing pain either. With his right hand pinned down with one of Amy’s hands, and her weight on his good leg, she had complete control of him.

With her free hand she unbuttoned the top of Rick’s shorts and pulled down his zipper. ‘Amy, don’t!’ Rick yelled. Through a clenched jaw he said it again. ‘Don’t do this Amy.’ She ignored him, and with the same blank look on her face she freed his now erect penis from his underwear and began stroking it up and down. She leaned even further forward like she was going to put it in her mouth, but when Rick yelled at her again she pulled back and after a quick look at him continued stroking and transfixed her gaze on his penis.

He continued to try and wriggle out of her control, but in his painful state and her dominant position over top of him, all he succeeded in doing was wracking himself with more pain. He could feel the heat rising in his groin, and knew that he would soon ejaculate whether he liked it or not. Sure enough, after a few more strokes, with Amy intently watching his penis the whole time, he felt a shudder rise through him and even though he tried to resist it happening, his penis spurted semen out in three or four surges. His body had tensed at the moment of ejaculation and as his body relaxed he could feel a small warm pool on his belly.

‘Fuck you Amy, what the fuck are you doing? Are you fucking crazy? What the fuck?’ he yelled, his anger intense. She was still looking down at his penis, which had begun to shrink, a dribble of semen attached to the end and fluttering in the gentle breeze that was blowing through the tunnel.

‘I’ve never seen that up close before,’ she seemed fascinated.

‘What the fuck are you talking about you crazy bitch! Get the fuck off me!’ Whereas before he had hoped talking calmly would stop her from her course of action, the time for that had well and truly passed. ‘Get the fuck off me!’ he yelled again with an intense rage. He wanted to punch her in the face and crush her skull to make her pay for what she had done. ‘You fucking psycho, get the fuck away from me!’

Amy blinked a couple of times, like she was snapping out of a trance, and took her eyes away from his penis and looked him right in the eyes. ‘Don’t call me that! I’m not crazy, I’m not a psycho!’ She took her weight off his leg and leaned in close to his face. ‘I thought you were different to everyone else, I thought you liked me, that you wanted this!’ She slapped him and stood up.

After all that had happened, he was still shocked to have been slapped and raised his now free hand to his face. Small bits of stone were still attached to it after being pressed into the concrete for the last few minutes. He looked up at Amy, a little worried about what she might do next. She was now standing over him, and with his penis still sitting outside of his pulled down underwear, he felt exposed and vulnerable.

‘I’m not a psycho,’ she said again quietly, her voice returning to the level it had been at when they had spoken previously. ‘Don’t say that, don’t say that to people.’

Rick no longer cared and his anger was building to such a point that if he had been able to stand he would have kicked the life out of her. He was usually a mild mannered type, but now, after what had happened, he felt such an intensely humiliated rage that he thought his heart was going to pound right out of his chest. In a calm and as controlled as possible voice he said to her ‘You need to get the fuck out of here. If I ever see you again, I will make you pay for this. I will fucking destroy you.’

‘This is your fault!’ she screeched. ‘You are the one that led me on. You’re an asshole, just like the rest of them!’ She turned away from him and ran off. He thought he heard a sob as she did so, but no longer cared, he just wanted to get home.

He reached down and pulled up his underwear then fumbled to zip up and rebutton his shorts. He rolled to the left, on to his good side, and after an effort that took around ten minutes managed to get himself up. He was sore all over but glad that it was all over. Everything that had transpired was so completely unexpected that he was reeling from the experience. He was utterly shocked and shook his head in disbelief.

At that moment he heard the bark of a dog and the voices of two people talking as they approached the tunnel.

*

Amy ran all the way home, tears in her eyes and the shame of being rejected by Rick burning in her mind. After leading me on like that the last two weekends, how could he treat me like that? How could he talk to me like that? How dare he call me crazy. She had been positive that he liked her, that he maybe even loved her too, and could not understand why he had reacted like he had. This was exactly why she usually stayed inside and avoided contact with people. She just didn’t understand them and how they could say one thing but mean another. She had always had trouble trusting people, and every time she tried to talk to people they called her weird or crazy. She had had enough. That was it, it was the last time she would ever try and talk to anyone. The whole world could go to hell. She was done with trying so hard and only being laughed at in return.

She came along the path and then stepped off it and climbed a short rise to where some fences ran along a similar line as the path. The dark green fence was the one at the back of the section of her house, and she climbed over it. She walked through the back yard and took a peek down the side of the house to see if her parents car was in the driveway. It wasn’t and she breathed a sigh of relief because right now she could not deal with them and their inevitable questions about why she was in the state she was.

She opened the back door and stepped into the house. She stood there for a moment and listened to see if anyone else was at home.

There was no noise, the house was silent.

She went into the kitchen, that was where she would find what she needed.

In the top drawer specifically.

9.16pm

The Little Girl

Sunday was a big day.

We spent it with friends working our way around a shopping centre. It was good fun, but by the time we got home, my wife and I were wrecked. We passed the evening by watching the cricket, it looked like it was going to be a good game, but near the end, the team we were cheering for made too many mistakes and threw it all away. With heavy eyelids we went to bed.

The next morning while putting on my tie I glanced out the window of our bathroom. The window was only open slightly, just enough to let the steam from the shower out. Our bathroom is on the second floor, and something down on the driveway caught my eye.

Standing across on the other side of the road  was a little girl.

She couldn’t have been more than four. She was dressed quite nicely, had a haircut that bobbed just below her ears, and red buckle-up shoes. I can’t honestly say that I knew her, but there was a faint familiarity about her. We know the neighbours on both sides of us so it wasn’t one of their kids. Beyond our immediate neighbours, we don’t know many people in the street. Did I see a removalist truck down the road the other week? Maybe she is new to the street. But why that ring of familiarity? Who knows, maybe I had seen her in passing at the supermarket or the library, or some other innocuous place like that, and she had planted deep down in my memory.

She seemed to be looking straight at me so I gave her a little wave. She stood still for a moment and then, when I waved a second time, she almost unconsciously raised her arm from the elbow and gave it a brief flutter in return. She then ran off.  As I returned to tightening the knot of my tie, I shrugged my shoulders. Kids are weird.

Later that week, I saw her again. As I was leaving work, I shut the trunk of our wagon and caught a glimpse of a reflection behind me. No doubt about it, there was this kid again, although this time, a long way from home as I work in the city. She had the same clothes on as the other day. The same bob haircut, the same red shoes. The same feeling of familiarity came to me. I turned around to talk to her, go ask her why she was so far from home. To see if she needed a ride back. As I turned around, I caught sight of the flick of her skirt she ran off and up the ramp out of the car park.

Two nights later at home, my wife and I finished watching a movie and began to clean up the lounge. I put the dishes in the sink, and as I did so, I looked out the kitchen window, which overlooks our back yard. Standing under the clothesline in the dim light thrown from the garage sidelight was the little girl. Dim as the light was, the bob haircut and clothes made it unmistakable. How did this lid get in our backyard? Why is she there? Why isn’t she at home at this hour?

In an instant, she disappeared. My wife had flicked off the garage light from the switch by the back door of our house.

‘Turn that back on!’ It came out far terser than I meant and my wife just looked at me with raised eyebrows.

‘Are you okay?’ She asked, ‘You look strange.’

‘Sorry love, I thought I saw someone outside, one of the neighbours kids or something.’

She stepped back and flipped the switch back on. The area in the glow of the garage light was now empty.

The following day my wife and I were on our way back from the city and we decided to stop and do some quick shopping. As we pulled into the car park, I saw her right there, only a couple of meters away. The little girl. I could tell by the look on my wife’s face that she had seen her too. My wife looked ashen, a look on her face like a bus had hit her. I realised that all this time I had been seeing the little girl, she had been getting closer each time, like she was slowly getting more comfortable with being nearer to me. As the car came to a stop, I said out the window ‘Maria, don’t be scared.’ I don’t know why I used that name. Maria was the name we had picked out for our little baby four years ago. A miscarriage had ended our dreams of having a child of our own.

Then it hit me. The familiarity. She looked like me.

Could it be Maria? How could it be Maria?

My wife and I climbed out of the car. As we did, the little girl – Maria? Not possible – backed away and scuttled off around the corner of the building that we had parked in front of. Had we scared her off? I looked over at my wife with tears in my eyes. She looked back at me with mascara begining to run, she silently mouthed the word. Maria. ‘I’m scared’ I said. My wife was in front of me now, hugging me, looking up at me. ‘What if we have scared her away forever?’

Very quietly my wife said ‘We have to go after her, I just want to hold her.’

I looked down at her ‘I’m scared’ I said again, ‘Scared that if I go around that corner she’ll be gone. She was trying to get close to us all this time.’

I steeled myself and slowly walked towards the corner of the building. My breathing rate increased. I could feel the tears drying on my face. My heart pounded in my chest like a freight train. A little bubble of sweat ran down my back. I stepped around the corner of the building.

The alley was empty.

I awoke with a jolt. Not sure why. Our room was dark. I could feel my wife breathing next to me. I looked toward the end of the bed. There was a small figure there. I could just make out the shape in the darkness.

‘Daddy, can I come sleep with you and Mummy?’

Yes my love.

Yes you can.