Short Fiction ~ Gillian Brown
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
A sense of possession swells Alice’s chest. Even the clusters of shivery grass that stand outside the fence belong to them now. Her thoughts jump to the future. Children skip about, playing hide and seek. A little boy sticks his head out from behind a mulga bush. ‘Here, Mum!’ he says, too young to understand the game. Her fists tighten. She must be patient.
She and Sam came out here together, following their dream. Land in the outback was free for the taking but making a home of it has meant two years’ hard work. Without Sam’s skill and endurance, they’d still be living in a makeshift shelter, under scraps of canvas. Or… perhaps not living at all.
Alice opens the wooden gate that Sam has made from strips of stringybark. She traces her fingers over the lettering carved on the front: Alice & Sam. And underneath: A Place Called Home. For their eyes only. Their nearest neighbours live several hundred kilometres away.
A smile crosses her face as Toby, their aging cob, neighs from the makeshift stable round the back, hungry for his supper. On the horizon, Sam’s silhouette grows bigger. His wide shoulders. His measured step. Two rabbits swing from his left hand. In the other is his rifle.
Alice’s stomach rumbles. Its immediacy gives temporary distraction. The doctor’s words, ‘Conception is possible, but unlikely,’ cling to her like a bad odour she can’t wash off. She won’t tell Sam. He too dreams of a family. Especially a son.
‘Light the fire, girl,’ Sam says, planting an affectionate peck on her cheek.
Alice turns away. ‘Righto.’
She manages a smile. ‘Nothing.’ She’ll tell him when the time is right. Not today.
The fire they share each night, outside the front porch, not only cooks their meal but eats up their solitude. Long after they’ve eaten, she gazes into its embers. In those moments, content. This is home now. It belongs to them. Together, they’ve made it so. Stage one of the plan is in place. Stage two has a setback. That’s all. One day soon, there will be the sound of little feet and laughter.
A flock of scarlet and emerald parakeets fly by. They shriek at each other in a language only they can understand. ‘One big, happy family,’ she says. A lump rises in her throat, before she can stop it. She glances at Sam and sees his mind is elsewhere. For him, practicalities come first. He just assumes babies will come – a natural consequence of their lovemaking.
They eat their rabbit in companionable silence, chewing the meat from the bones until only a skeleton is left. But tonight, the embers give Alice no peace. Each dying spark seems to sear her flesh and burn into her soul.
Next day, Sam announces he is off to buy provisions in the market town, three days’ ride away. She hides her fear of being left on her own. Until now they’ve survived on what they brought with them, along with food from Sam’s hunting and gathering, and a supply of home-grown cabbages and potatoes. Rain water is stored in the huge tanks Sam constructed. Enough for drinking, and for Alice’s vegetable plot, down by the creek. Often dry.
‘I’ve run out of ammunition,’ Sam says, ‘and much besides.’
Alice gives him a list of her own. ‘Okay,’ she says lightly, but her heart is heavy.
He saddles Toby, kisses Alice goodbye and trots off.
After he’s been gone a week, she starts to pace. She can’t concentrate, forgets to eat. Ten days seems like a decade. After two weeks, her insides feel as hollow as the trunk of a dead eucalyptus. What could have happened? She picks at her raggedy sleeve, picturing the new smock he promised to buy her.
Gripped by shame at her lethargy, she makes dough with the last remnants of flour. When she pulls the loaf from the mud oven, she tears at it with the hunger of a starving dingo. But it tastes of nothing.
The sky whitens with heat. A flock of parakeets fly in. Alice throws some crumbs on the ground towards them. The birds land, gingerly moving closer. After eating, they huddle up together with an air of intimate contentment. Alice wipes a tear from her cheek.
Next day, she sets off with the spare rifle Sam left her. ‘For emergencies,’ he said. Soon, a wallaby hops by. Her finger shakes on the trigger. The marsupial’s big, dopey eyes seem to plead with her. She lets it hop away. Hunger chews at her gut. When it comes back, she kills it.
Sam told her stories about Ned Kelly and other highwaymen. How they rob and kill for a living, getting rich off others’ hard-earned savings. Sam has taken most of theirs with him. She starts to lose count of the days he’s been gone, but it is as clear as the Southern Cross in the night sky that he isn’t coming back.
She roasts the meat on the fire, wondering what to do. Not only has she lost the man she loves, her dream of a family is history now. She lets out a long, shuddering sigh.
In the morning, she chisels a wooden cross for Sam’s grave. And one for Toby. When the wattle comes into bloom she’ll lay a bunch beside them.
Time passes. Between sunup and sundown, she gathers bush-tucker and kills game to eat. The parakeets creep up closer and closer to the house. They peck at the ground, demanding crumbs. ‘Sharing my breakfast with the birds!’ Alice laughs for the first time in weeks. ‘Part of my new family.’
She sinks back into the shivery grass and gazes up at the great expanse of sky, imagining Sam looking down. She lays a hand on her stomach as her son’s feet kick inside her; strong and determined. Just like his father.
Gillian Brown started out as a travel writer but now concentrates on fiction. Her inspiration often comes from her travels or real life experiences. Motivation comes from short story competitions, for which she has a mild – but enjoyable – addiction. She has had stories published in magazines, in anthologies and online and won and been shortlisted in various competitions.