by Emilie Collyer
All he did was stop for a coffee.
Tuesday morning, city square. Autumn sunlight bouncing off the little canal they built into the concrete pavers. The smell of promise in the air. Autumn in Melbourne always smells like promise.
His grey suit, nice cut, looking like he forked out a bit for it. Maybe he’s on his way to an interview. He’s nervous. Low self-esteem. The shoes are worn but polished and just a bit too much after-shave scent trailing in his wake. Soapy, with undertones of cigarette smoke. Hands shaking gently as he wraps them around the cardboard cup, flicks the lid off, blows on the coffee.
It’s one of those pretty coffees. The barista has taken care, drawn a delicate swirl in the crema, shaped like a love heart. If the guy had looked closely it might have been warning enough. But only if he’d recognised the symbol. And why would he? He was a regular guy, with ordinary hopes and petty fears, feeling a bit flat on a Tuesday morning, wanting the buzz of a caffeine lift.
He wasn’t one of us.
If he’d heard anything he would have put it down to city noise, the girls chattering like gulls on the other side of the street. Did he hear anything? Or just feel a twinge in his chest, put it down to the coffee and wonder why he couldn’t shake the growing sense of anger inside him for the rest of the day. Would he have been conscious of the change? When his girlfriend or boyfriend or kids or whoever later that night asked him what was wrong, why he was acting strange, would he have seen himself through their eyes and got a creeping terror inside? Or would it have been too late by then, he was all but gone, subsumed by the Return, catapulting towards some act of destruction beyond his control.
‘Don’t stop there!’ I should have yelled out to the guy. ‘Keep moving! You’re in the middle of a Fabric Hole and your body is about to be snatched!’
Every time I see one I think that. But what can I do? Follow every person around like a frigging guard dog? Not possible. There are too many people, too many holes and too many souls seeking the Return. We were never allowed to interfere. Now the Society’s all but dead I guess I could. Some have, still do. But how the hell would I choose who to save and who to let go?
Now I just watch, take notes, make reports, gather evidence and hope to god that one day some genius in our ranks will figure out what to do. How to seal up the Fabric Holes so those desperate dead on the other side stop coming back and snatching the bodies of ordinary, innocent men and women. My god, sometimes they even use children. We used to have sympathy. We used to be the ones who cared: The Whispering Society, attuned to the restlessness of the after life, trying to figure out a way to help them. Now we know what they’re after it’s hard to feel anything except this impotent, gut wrenching rage.
All they want is retribution. The chance to right whatever wrong they never got to address in their own lifetime, from petty jealousies to blistering betrayals. No matter what the scale every human whose body they snatch turns into this foul, raging monster, intent on destruction. And every human whose body they snatch is destroyed, disintegrating into black dust once the Returner has achieved their vengeful goal. The world’s always had its share of ugly. Now the scales are tipping. Indiscriminate murders, strange mass suicides, escalations in neighbourly disputes and family rifts. I’ve heard of more than one case of fork stabbings over kitchen tables. Family sitting silent, picking meat from their teeth, mother suddenly erupts: Why do I always get the goddamn burnt chop?! Put down to suburban neurosis. In reality, a Returner, some pissed off dead housewife coming back to wreak vengeance. One dead husband. One disintegrated wife. Two bewildered children covered in the black dust of rage.
Ordinary people are increasingly on edge, trusting nobody, scared of every stranger, jumping at shadows. Only a few of us know why, that it’s the Returners, more and more slipping back. It’s only a matter of time before they explode through in full force and destroy this whole miserable joint. Person by person. Body by body. Every last one of us.
‘I’m really looking forward to working with you.’
She’s young and smart and knows that she’s smart. Probably a university student or some kind of wannabe poet. I don’t want to know anything about her. If it wasn’t for the honour code I wouldn’t have given her the time of day.
But it still stands, one of the last remaining gestures of this once noble Society. If someone demonstrates the sign, correctly, we’re honour bound to invite them in. I always hated training recruits and it’s no different now I’m basically operating solo.
Don’t see the point. We have to test them, train them, watch them and what the hell for? Our numbers are dying. There’s no hope anyway so why bother with all the effort.
You think you’ve got the Whispering gift? Throw a fucking party, get drunk and forget about it, I say. But still they come. Faces hopeful and just a little bit smug. I drill that out of them quick smart. It’s a curse as much as a gift.
Anyway. Another one.
We’re on the cathedral steps, sitting, watching.
She’s got short hair, cut kind of box like, square black rimmed glasses. Some kind of skirt, dress, flowers on it. Tights, rips in them. I would have expected boots, big chunky things, but no, these little lace ups. Red. And sparkly. Ruby fucking slippers. At least her name isn’t Dorothy. Not that fucking cute. Her name is Ellen.
‘Do you know the signs?’ I ask.
She lists them off, ticking each one with her finger as she does.
‘Shapes or, like, indentations that are out of place. Shadows where there is no light. Incongruous objects. Faces appearing on non-reflective surfaces.’
I nod, reach into my pocket, find the tin of chewing tobacco, roll a piece out and slip it into my mouth. It nestles quickly, finding the sweet spot down where my right wisdom tooth used to be.
‘That’s where the holes are, but you only know one’s about to come through if you hear the whispering at the same time,’ she says. Like she’s written a text book. Goody two shoes girly swat.
‘And what does the whispering sound like?’ I ask.
She cocks her head to one side, purses her lips, looks at me kind with a quirky eyebrow like she’s summing me up.
‘Depends on the person,’ she says.
‘Which person?’ I ask.
‘Okay,’ she chews her lip, adjusts her answer, ‘the people. The triangle that’s formed, between the Returner, the Target and the Whisperer.’
Funny how we’re called Whisperers. We hear the whispers, not make them. It’s always bugged me, an early misnomer that somehow stuck.
‘So,’ she’s still talking. Why is she still talking? She got the answer right. ‘The Target you saw this morning, that guy. He was about your age and I’m not 100% sure about the Returner, but you heard girls chattering didn’t you. Like the girls who would have teased you at school.’
She pauses, I’m guessing to see if she’s hit her mark. She has. I chomp down on the tobacco and a spurt of thick nicotine floods my mouth. Sharp, powerful rush.
‘So yeah,’ she continues,’ the whispering sounds like whatever vulnerable point that’s opened up because of those three people. A bad memory or an unlived hope, deep regret. That kind of thing.’
I run my tongue into the corner of my mouth, seeking out the remnants of the tobacco, then gather it all into a saliva swirl and shoot it out in a neat spit.
‘I’m guessing you’re kept pretty busy,’ the girl says with a big smile. ‘That’s why you’re one of the best.’
She’s a real riot. But the smile doesn’t break. She’s not being sarcastic or even ironic. It’s a weird, unsettling feeling. She’s paying me a genuine compliment.
And again, she’s right. We discovered early on that the most talented Whisperers were people who’d lived the shittiest lives. No. The people with the worst attitudes. Misanthropes. Depressives. Narcissists. Those of us who could easily, on any day, at any time, tap into something dark and vulnerable, find the spots in the human psyche that the Returners were also seeking. They have a lot more trouble penetrating people who are generally positive and buoyant. It seemed for a while as if that might point to some kind of salvation – humanity saved by the shiny, happy people. But then the Returners cottoned on and those kinds of people became targets for their anger. Like the high achievers at school, sports guys, pretty girls, that everyone secretly wanted to kill. The Returners started to have a field day, knocking them off in the most horrendous and disfiguring ways imaginable.
This girl Ellen, is an anomaly. Not traditionally beautiful, but happy and smiley as all shit.
Where does she fit in?
I unscrew the lid of my water bottle and take a slow draught. My fingernails are filthy. Suddenly I’m conscious of them. Embarrassed even. I shove them, and the water bottle deep into the pockets of my overcoat.
Something’s not right. This chic is making me very uneasy, in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s the opposite of the Returners, the darkness. I’m used to that. Eat it, breathe it, live it. No. This is something much more disturbing. Like I want to say the right thing, get her approval. Who the hell is she?
I clamp my lips shut, pull my beanie down lower on my head and nod in the direction of an old woman who’s just heaved herself down onto the bench at the bottom of the cathedral steps.
Ellen follows my gaze. I sense her relax, settle in beside me, like we’re about to pray together. I can smell her whiff of eagerness. Then, she takes my hand.
Jesus. What? I flinch. She leans in, all chummy. I want to pull away.
But something slow and deep swirls inside me. A memory. I’m sitting on the grassy bank down the bottom of the school oval with my best friend. Our legs like stick, white and brown. Crumpled white socks. The scent of warm skin. We lie back and look up and the clouds and tell each other stories about the pictures we see. A rabbit. Smoking a cigarette. I laugh …
A searing pain across my eyes snaps me back to the here and now. I gasp. The world rights itself. I’m on the cathedral steps. Grey sky. Cold concrete. The old woman on the bench shudders. She’s about to be snatched. Fuck! I lost concentration. Ellen is still smiling, almost gleeful. Did she do that on purpose? Distract me with her touch, draw out that memory. Little bitch.
I’m up and running. I’ll show her. She can’t control my mind or what I do. I’ve got plenty left to give. The primal scream builds up in my gut as I sprint toward the old woman. Make sure my mouth is wide open so there’s somewhere for the Returner to go. It’s been a long time since I bothered with this. Used to do it all the time. Save people. Absorb the energy of the Returner and hurl it back to beyond.
Launch myself into the air, knock the old dear off the bench and onto the ground, brace for impact.
I’m expecting the usual sickening rush of wind, like a blow to the gut and the acrid smell of burning rubber. All I hear is a sharp crack and a heavy thud as the old woman topples to the ground. Around me is a dizzying display of rainbow lights and something that smells like cotton candy. What the hell? I shake myself out of the stupor and see that the woman, neat grey hair and buttoned up camel coat is lying on the ground. Blood is oozing dark and thick from gash over her eye. She’s making these little moaning sounds and spittle is frothing at the corner of her mouth.
I pull myself up, using the green metal bench as a lever. No-one has stopped. That’s how we are now. Old woman knocked onto the ground, seriously wounded, needing help. People just cross the street, put their head down, pretend they haven’t seen it. Too much risk. Don’t get involved.
Ellen kneels down. Props the woman’s head on her lap. Murmurs to her. The woman opens her eyes.
‘Stay away!’ I bark. If I didn’t absorb the Returner it must have got into the woman. I’ve had plenty of near death experiences with newly arrived Returners. They’re often disoriented for a few minutes, lash out, test their limits. But Ellen, she just takes the woman’s hand.
‘You all right Mam?’ she asks the old woman.
The woman looks up and I brace myself, ready for the dead, crazy look in her eyes. But they’re just blue and sweet and a little bit watery.
‘Yes dear, thank you. I just had such a vivid memory.’
Ellen nods, encouraging the old lady.
‘My best friend when I was a little girl. I haven’t thought about her for years.’
She keeps talking and it’s all I can do to keep standing. She recites, word for fucking word, the same memory I just had. I’m shaking all over, my legs starting to give way beneath me.
‘Your friend dear …’ I hear the old woman’s voice float behind me as I run, pitching and swaying, out across Swanston Street, toward the train station. I’ve got to get away.
We’re always at the fringes, us Whisperers. Usually I manage to keep myself inconspicuous. Right now, I’m losing it, don’t even have the energy to find a private place to recover.
I can see myself from above, how I must look. Person of indeterminate age and gender. Beanie shoved low. Black overcoat, old and worn. Curled up on the train station platform. Trembling. Probably coming down off some nasty shit. Waiting for the next hit. Skin clammy. Eyes red rimmed and watering. Stay the hell away. You never know what these junkies might do if you get too close.
Is that what they’re thinking? The neat people in their crisp suits waiting for the train, pretending not to see me. The clumps of school kids, teasing and flirting, casting an occasional glance in my direction.
No that I care. I know who I am.
I protected you people! I want to yell. Those of us whom you ignore, discard, want to push to the edges, we tried! For years, we absorbed the energy of the Returners, contained their rage, their sorrow. So none of you had to know about them! You should be thanking me!
The job just got too big. Too many of them and not enough of us. The inner circle of the Whispering Society so militant in keeping our work secret. It ended up strangling the life out of our work. Reducing it to a weird cult. The meetings stopped. Contact was severed. There was a spate of horrific suicides. Whisperers, overloaded and exhausted from hearing and feeling too much started to hurl themselves in the path of raging Returners, seeking destruction. Rumours had it that those who sought this violent end reported hallucinations, glitches in the energy sphere that they couldn’t control.
Now, it seemed, it was my turn.
‘So that’s it,’ I say out loud, not caring who hears me or how fucking crazy I sound. ‘The beginning of the end!’
That old woman had my memory, or I had hers, or the whole thing was an illusion. Whichever way I cut it the news is bad. I’m losing my marbles. All that’s left for me is to decide how long I want to hang around in this compromised state, slowly spinning down into madness, or how quickly I want out.
‘The next train to arrive on Platform 12 will be the 2.25 to Sandringham, stopping all stations. Train about to arrive. Please stand back.’
I lurch up from my slumped position against the wall of the kiosk. Steady myself. Still wobbly, I walk slowly to the platform’s edge. A woman with blonde hair, a red coat and a very new looking pram sees me coming and pushes her baby away, acting like she’s just suddenly seen someone she knows further down the platform.
Prop myself up in a corner seat, at the back of the carriage, try to look inconspicuous. See every person who gets on register me, recoil slightly and turn away. I think of that girl Ellen and her big, sweet smile. She’s wrapped up in this somehow. Should never have agreed to take her on. Still and all, sitting with my head against the thick, cold glass, throbbing with hunger and anxiety, I recall the steady calmness of her presence. Her hand, soft and strong, clasping mine and holding it so firm, it was the nicest goddamn thing I’d felt in years.
The beach is a good place to go if you’re seeking a lot of Returner activity. Especially in winter. That’s where people go when they’re feeling down, want to walk out the fight they just had with their wife, or sit and watch the waves roll in and ponder their deep and unshakeable depression. Easy Targets, there for the taking.
I crunch down the gravel path and breathe in deep. Salt air and sea spray brush my skin, enter my mouth. Love that taste. Slip off my boots and socks. Jesus. When was the last time I took my shoes off? Too disgusting to contemplate.
Curl my toes into the sand, damp and cold.
This is not a pretty beach. No picture postcard of jewel blue sea and bronzed bodies. More like rolling grey waves, stranded Coke cans and abandoned plastic bags. A few lumpen shapes, some kid’s attempt at a sand castle. A thick twig of dried seaweed pokes out the top of one. The water races over my toes. Fuck me sideways! It’s cold. Feet go numb straight away. I fling my arms out to the side, arch my head back and suck in the wind.
‘Ha!’ I shout, quite enjoying this descent into madness now I’ve decided to fully embrace it. I will be the crazy person who walked into the sea and never came back. Why the hell not?
‘Ha, ha!’ I shout again. I scoop water up and fling it about, turning in a circle as I paddle the shallows. A human sprinkler. I turn and turn. The world turns with me.
‘I’m ready!’ I call out. ‘Come and get me you rabid Returners!’
I turn and I turn, waiting for the dark centre to open up, for the whispering to scratch at the corner of my mind. Ready. Terrified. Exhilarated. A wave builds up about 100 metres out and I see it swell, rolling across through the water towards me. Maybe this will be it. My Returner will come in the form of a wave, crash through me and fill me with something deep and dark from the bottom of the ocean.
My mouth is closed. I didn’t say that.
I turn back towards the shore and see her. Ellen. Stripped down to a black singlet and undies, clothes abandoned in a pile next to my boots. She’s running, her arms outstretched, face giddy and giggling like a little girl.
What the hell is she doing? She must have followed me. Mother fucker. I should be furious, seizing up inside. I should be running away. She’s nothing but trouble. But I’m laughing, this stupid, aching laugh that bounces from my belly to my chest and back again, doubling me over. The harder I try to stop the more it comes. She looks so … beautifully stupid. Her square cut hair and chunky glasses and glaring chalk white skin and chubby arms and legs, skipping and whooping like there’s never been such a thing as Depression or Misanthropy or Narcissism. Like the world has not a thing to fear from any hordes of raging Returners.
‘It worked!’ she shouts and her voice fills the wind and carries across the ocean. Every person on earth must have just heard her victorious declaration.
‘What worked?’ I ask, trying to bring it down a notch. Sensible and cynical. But my voice is flying too. I sound like a happy soprano. Jesus, there’s a bloody joy fest going on here and I somehow got caught in the middle of it.
She’s in the water now, next to me and she grabs my hands, both of them this time.
‘The lady on the bench,’ her breath is coming hard and fast, tiny bits of spit escaping as she talks. ‘You saved her.’
‘I didn’t save her. I just about killed her,’ I say.
She shakes her head.
‘It was a bit violent. Clumsy. But a new method will always have teething problems. She’ll be okay.’
I don’t know what she’s talking about. All I know is that I messed up. I was supposed to be one of the good ones. Saving the world. I just attacked a defenceless woman. I was so desperate to prove myself to Ellen I nearly knocked the life out of an innocent person.
I start to sink. Here. Now. Let the ocean just suck me right down. Please.
Her grip on my hands is vice like.
‘Don’t you see?’ her voice, low and calm.
‘No,’ I croak, ‘I don’t.’
‘The memory,’ she says, slowing down now, her skin goosing up with bumps in the icy water.
‘My memory,’ I say, ‘that she stole. Or you somehow inserted. Infiltrated. Who are you?’
Ellen shakes her head.
‘No, she didn’t steal it. You shared it, right? Get it?’
I pull my hands away. I’m shaking again. The swirling feelings are coming back, thick and fast and frightening.
‘No. I don’t get it. Leave me alone. You’ve already sent me over the edge. I’m done with all this. I give up!’
‘Just … look up,’ she says and points to the sky.
‘I know which way up is, I …’
My sarcastic words dry in my mouth as I lift my head and look to the clouds. They’ve broken up from the relentless grey and are drifting across a sky of blue, all puffy and white like Simpsons clouds. And there, in a brief, beautiful moment, I see my friend’s face. The one from primary school. She smiles and my heart swells and I reach up towards her and then the image shifts again and she is gone.
‘What …’ the word hangs in the air.
Ellen is shivering but she has a stupid big grin on her face.
‘You change it,’ she says. ‘Instead of tapping into the dark centre, the vulnerable moment, you found another fragment.’
My legs are numb now. This water is so fucking cold.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It’s a new method,’ Ellen says. That word again. Method. ‘They wanted to trial it on a Whisperer with just the right traits.’
‘Melancholy. Yearning. States that are still open, that carry stories with them and hopes and possibility.’
The wind has died away and suddenly it is very, very still. Even the water seems to have stopped moving. We are paused. On the brink of something. A massive change.
‘So,’ I speak slowly, piecing the logic together, realising that I have known this all along. ‘The Returners, no matter who they are or how they died or how much pain they were in, we can help them.’
She’s nodding, her black hair sticking out from her head now, all stiff with salt and wind.
I continue talking, ‘and rather than them forcing their way into another person to try and resolve their pain, we … we help release them.’
‘No more human Targets.’
‘Exactly!’ she is giddy with excitement
‘It stops being Us versus Them and Here versus There,’ I say and I look out across the sea, now sparkling, and up to the sky. ‘They are still part of the world but they’re free. They’re in the clouds, or the ocean, or the sand …’
‘Or a tree or a flower or a drop of rain,’ Ellen joins in.
Okay. This is all great. But it’s a bit too Pollyanna for my liking.
‘What about those mad as hell mother fuckers?’ I ask. ‘I mean all this sunshine and lollypops might work fine for someone who just forgot to tell his daughter that he loved her. I can see him being happy to come back and be a blue bird in her fucking garden or something. But what about the real evil shits?’
She rubs her arms, I can see she is freezing, turning blue at the corners of her mouth.
‘The world needs destructive forces too,’ she says, ‘it’ll be hard work but you can do it.’
‘Like, channel them into thunder storms and volcanoes.’
‘Exactly!’ her teeth are chattering.
We have to get out of this water, onto the beach, dry her off, get clothes back on her. Then maybe go to the café up the hill, drink hot chocolates. Get back into the city. Try and find that woman’s family. For once, in such a long aching time, do the right thing. The kind and decent and human thing.
‘Come on,’ I say and I put my arm around her shoulders. She nestles in, her skin damp and cold.
‘Thank you,’ she whispers.
And it’s me who should be thanking her. Maybe one day I’ll tell her how much it meant to me, the moment she reached over to take my hand. How it breathed something real back into me. No need to get ahead of ourselves though. Spoil the moment. Might go to her head.
‘Race ya!’ I say and gripping her hand tightly, I start to run. Big, galumphing steps through the water. She squeezes my hand in return and then it goes limp. I turn and she is falling. I grab at her arms, hauling her up.
‘Come on!’ I shout, tears choking my voice. ‘Get up, damn you, get up!’
But she is drifting into the ocean, dissolving, her skin breaking away, like an image on a screen.
‘You’re one of them,’ I say, suddenly understanding, my own voice now falling to a whisper. The light on the water sparkles in response and I hear the echo of her throaty laughter.
‘Was,’ she whispers, correcting me. Or is it the sea.
‘You’d already taken human form,’ the sequence of events fall into place. ‘You were manipulating me, recruiting me to wreak havoc for you. Turning me into a … killing machine.’
A bitter taste has filled my mouth. How close I just came to surrendering, becoming one of them.
‘Why the old woman?’ I ask.
‘I was afraid of aging,’ her whisper replies. ‘Killed myself as a teenager so I’d never get old. The darkness in me wanted to destroy her.’
I’ve never talked like this to a Returner. There are so many things I want to ask.
‘Why Ellen? Wasn’t she one of the happy ones? How did you penetrate?’
‘Every happy person has a few stains of darkness, just like every dark person has moments of light. We’d reached the tipping point.’
No remaining barriers, nothing to stop them.
‘So the Returners, they’re about to take over everything. They can get into every person now.’ I gulp. This is it. Armageddon.
If it’s possible for an ocean to shake its head, that’s what happens. I am talking to a body of water. Jesus H Christ, what a day.
‘I needed you to help change the energy,’ whispers the water. ‘We only had a split second. And it worked.’
She is shifting around me and that wave is building again. I want to ask her how it worked, what changed. But I know.
‘You held my hand,’ I say.
‘And you didn’t let go,’ she whispers, ‘just for a moment and you know, for most of us that’s enough. That’s all we need. A moment of connection, to know we’re not always so terribly alone.’
‘And Ellen?’ my voice is shaking, can’t control it.
‘I’m sorry. She had to be sacrificed. The last human Target. You saved the old woman. You can save everyone.’
Jesus. That’s a big fucking call.
‘Hang on! I …’
But the voice drifts away. I think I hear the word ‘thank you’ in the wind. She has fallen apart in my hands and I realise I’m grasping at water, trying to hold onto something that cannot be held. There is no black dust though, just the shimmer of light on water.
A great and almighty crack of lightning splits the sky open and the sea rears up in response. I feel the clouds close in again, thick and heavy with rain. They’re coming, the Returners are pressing at the borders, yearning to be set free, now they’ve seen how it can be done.
I watch in wonder as nature prepares to embrace them all, find a place for every soul, each memory, all of the stories. It’s going to be epic. I’ll need help. Rack my brain. I know I’ve seen other Whisperers around the city. Young guy, tends to lurk around the town hall. And that girl, highly strung, but gifted, where have I seen her? Up at the library. Couple of others too. Time to go find them. Call a meeting of the Whisperers, re-group and work out our best strategy.
The wave is gathering strength and racing towards me. I pull off my beanie, the wind lifts my hair as I splash my way out of the water and stride up the beach.
She’s left her ruby slippers.
I pick them up and they’re warm. They fit, one each, neat and snug into the pockets of my coat. I turn back to look at the sea and the wave crashes, foaming and giddy, into the shore.
In my pockets, the ruby slippers click in my hands. Once. Twice. Three times.
I know it’s her way of telling me, she’s found her way home.
Photo of Dave Lamb by Dan Roberts www.threadslike.com