Tell Them I’m Sorry

foot prints in snow

[ a   s h o r t   s t o r y ]

The snow crunched under my boots. It was two days after the accident. The tire tracks disappeared into the distance in front of me; the dirty, hard-packed snow forming two swaying lines. My shoulder brushed the lower branches of a tall fir tree and snow slipped to the ground as I thought of my little brother. All my thoughts were about him lately. An eagle roamed overhead, soaring on the wind currents, and I fought the urge to shoot it down. My finger itched for the trigger. The rifle lay against my side.

~  ~  ~

I remembered the night that my brother died. I knelt beside him and tried to scream, but the cold air took my breath away. There was no blood. Just a slightly still-warm body rapidly turning to stiff ice beneath my hands. I couldn’t bring the warmth back, and the snow had continued to fall on my face, my eyelashes, while the party continued inside.

They had probably all been drinking. You know how kids are. The car sped off and I wondered if I would ever see the driver again. Heaven knows how badly I wanted to.

~  ~  ~

My dad approached the house from the opposite direction. The pain was all over him like a heavy blanket resting on his shoulders. His face had aged ten years in a couple of days. My dad is a little man. I’m not sure he can stand up properly underneath the blanket. And I worry. Like I have many times since it happened. No matter what anybody says, my dad’s a good man. He’d never say he liked my brother better. That he’d prefer if it had been me in the accident.

“You’re my real son in all the ways that count,” he would always say to me. He always treated Hunter and I the same. Fair’s fair; that’s what I like about my dad. He’s a good man, my dad.

My dad looked up, and stared straight through me. “Boy,” he said. He usually called me son. He flipped the shovel off his shoulder and laid it against the house.

Once inside the house, my mom chided me. “Baby, get those things off. You’re putting snow all over my carpet.”

“Okay, Mama.” I hung up my coat and snow hat by the door, gently sliding my finger along the coat next to mine. In so many ways, practically speaking, it was like he had never left.

I leaned down and wrapped an arm around my mom’s thin shoulders, worn down to the bone, as she stirred the venison stew. “Hey, Mama. You like that deer I got you?” Mama smelled like a combination of all the foods she had cooked for a myriad of strangers in the last eighteen hours. She still had her frilly work apron on. I wondered if she had to go back to work tonight, or had just been too tired when she’d come home to take the apron off.

I sat on the couch, waiting for dinner to be ready, but then glanced over to see my mom yawn while she stood over the pot. I got up to set the table for her. It’s funny the things you try to remember, and the unimportant details that just stick in your brain like someone’s crazy glued them there. While I struggled to remember which order Mama liked the cutlery in, my mind jumped back to one day at school right before winter break when my brother and I were being hassled. Chase McKindreck, a guy who made my skin crawl with hatred every time I saw him, was off on one of his beat downs. He always picked on me—because of my size, because of my race, because he could. It’s not that I was a small kid—on the contrary—but with my height came a certain chubbiness that my mom liked to call . . . solidness. Chase liked to call it straight up fat. He liked to call me elephant man. He liked to call me black panther, like panther alone wasn’t explanation enough. He liked to call me bulldozer. He asked me if I could see all the way down to Texas from up there. Mama used to say that he was just jealous of me and my height. And being on the same football team didn’t change things one bit. In my mind, I liked to call him straight up racist. Somehow, even though I was about a good three inches taller than him, he still managed to always make me feel all tongue tied. My coach always said I was a heavy duty piece of machinery with not much of an engine. Whatever that meant.

This particular day, Chase stopped mid-rant for a second, then looked back at me and Hunter and said, as if seeing us for the first time, “Why’s he white and you’re black, anyway? I thought you were brothers.”

Little, blonde Hunter, who had known Chase for less than an hour, was still able to come up with a response before I could. “He is my brother, he is my brother,” Hunter repeated, in a sing-song voice. He paused for a moment, as if thinking of another argument. “He’s just my brother.” He tugged on my hand, telling me that he was anxious to get to class. To him there was no distinction between us—biological or adopted. “Lucas, let’s go.” He looked off in another direction, already bored. To him, the issue had been settled. “First graders go this way,” he informed me, ignoring Chase completely now. “I don’t wanna be late on my first day of school.” I let him drag me away, smug at the thought of Chase being shut down by a first grader.

At the dinner table, the three remaining members of our family sat side by side, but we were so emotionally distant from each other that we might as well have been on different continents. We were all thinking about the same thing—or the same person. I was thinking about the time when my dad had taken Hunter and me to the driving range at the golf course two towns away. Hunter had actually been better than I was and both of them had laughed at me as I missed ball after ball, swinging like a mad man. We’d had lunch at the club afterward and Hunter had spilled orange juice all over his new beige pants.

I was also thinking about the driver of that car, and imagining ways to kill him. I pulled myself up when the plans in my head started to become too detailed. I’d had my anger issues in the past, like everyone has, but I’d never really had to go after anyone before because, at five years old, my brother hadn’t really made many enemies. My father, on the other hand, well . . . he was a good man. He was looking away, staring at nothing, as my mom tried yet again to draw him into conversation. I attempted to concentrate for her sake, but my thoughts kept wandering down a track that I couldn’t see the end of. What I’ve noticed is that when women feel bad, they can’t eat. But my father and I were feeling just as bad, and we had three helpings of stew each.

The next two days passed slowly. Each day at school I kept my ears open and asked around for information. A name, an address, a licence plate—anything. The weird thing is that even though I go to a big school—huge because it’s first graders right through to seniors for all the surrounding towns—I still wasn’t finding anything. People were acting really nonchalant around me, and I got the feeling they were trying to hide something from me. Well, if they weren’t telling me, the cops certainly didn’t know yet. I was keeping an eye on the news too. But I felt pretty confident that I’d get wind of it before they did. When I came home from school both nights, I was raking through Facebook with a fine toothcomb, but everything was strangely quiet on the social media front. I didn’t have a Twitter. My mind was consumed by him.

One night, after hours of staring at the only computer screen in the house, clicking away and stalking my hardest, I pushed back in the old, three-legged office chair and bumped into my bed. I let out a big, frustrated sigh. According to the crappy computer’s tool bar it was already 2:36 A.M. Still nothing. I cracked my knuckles, agitated, and pounded my pillow with my fist. Wandering out to the kitchen in my socks, I got a glass and filled it slowly, trying not to wake the house. I stood there sipping the water and looking out the window above the sink at the snow falling. Did it ever stop in Montana? The fire was dying. One day I would go somewhere warm, out of this Godforsaken, podunk little town. Unexpectedly, I heard noises coming from my parents’ bedroom. I hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, exactly, but our walls were thin and I didn’t exactly move away as I heard their voices rise.

“Alex, talk to your son. You can’t avoid him forever. I think you both need this.”

“I ain’t got nothing to say to him,” I heard my dad’s deeper voice reply. “He should’ve been watching the house. He should’ve been watching my son.”

My son. Like he’d only ever had one son. What was I—just a glorified babysitter? Come to think of it, I wasn’t even supposed to be babysitting that night. It was a big party. How was I to know? We heard the scream before anyone had even realised he was gone.

The next night, Mama asked us if we could go hunting again. “Baby, I’m clear out,” she said to me with a straight face. “The stuff you bring home tastes so good, and you know how hard up we are right now. It’s just a rough patch. Won’t be long ‘til we can buy all our meat again.”

On the way out of the house, I checked our industrial freezer that sat against the back wall of our double garage. To my surprise, it was almost full. Okay, so Mama was trying to get us to bond again, to ‘reconnect emotionally.’ Father-son quality time together. You know, all that stuff that moms like to talk about. We’ll see how that goes seeing as apparently the only son he had already got hit by a drunk driver. Was all that stuff he said to me growing up really just a big bunch of lies? I couldn’t believe it yet.

We drove to our favourite spot and headed out into the trees. We usually laughed and joked while we were hunting, but tonight I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He only said things like, “To your left there, a little deeper in the woods,” or “Good shot.” Never once did he call me son. Before the accident, I couldn’t remember the last time he’d called me Lucas.

After about an hour and a half, when we would usually only be half way through, he turned to me and looked past my shoulder, saying, “I’m about done for the night. You wanna call it quits or keeping on lookin’?”

“I don’t care, Alex,” I said.

“Now wait just a minute,” my dad began in a disgruntled voice, coming around to stand in front of me. I glanced up to see his knees as I knelt tying the feet of a young deer carcass together. “No matter how bad things might be right now, I’m still your father.” So he was trying to pull rank. Playing the dad card.

Well, hell. Two could play at that game.

“Still my father?” I snarled. “Is that why you haven’t looked at me all week? Ever since—” I swallowed hard, biting back a mix of vomit and saliva. “Ever since then, you’ve totally ignored me. It’s like I’m dead to you or something!”

“Lucas, it’s not like that.” My dad’s voice rose. “This is a hard time for everyone . . .”

“I heard you. I heard you last night,” I spat. “I should’ve been taking care of your son.”


“Don’t even call me that.” I cut him off. “I know what that really means. It’s code for substitute.”

“No, son,” he pushed the words out like there was a pocket knife lodged in his throat. “I don’t know what I’m saying right now. I can barely even function. I wish I hadn’t said that.”

“You mean you wish I hadn’t heard it. Just say it now. I know you’re thinking it. You wish it had been me.”

I know I was pushing him right now, hard. I was feeling kind of crazy myself, and I knew what it felt like to live without Hunter, but something in me just wanted to make my dad crack.

“No, no . . .” he mumbled, looking at the ground, his face bereft. It was like his mind was already somewhere else. He looked . . . vulnerable.

I hefted the baby deer up and over my shoulder with a grunt. He was still mumbling “No, no” when I started trekking back to the truck. Sitting in the cab, I imagined myself driving off and leaving him to walk home. But I waited in the driver’s seat for him to get his seatbelt on, like a good son. The drive back home was quiet.

The next night after dinner I was sitting at my computer again, Facebook open on three tabs. The door opened without warning and my mom strode in wearing her frilly apron.

“Lucas, I’ve got to go back to work, so the left overs are in the fridge if you or your dad get hungry again,” she said, and came to kiss the top of my head. She barely even had to lean down an inch or two, but as she did, her eyes lit on the computer screen before I could minimise it. “Honey,” she warned in her usually high-pitched voice, “think about what you’re doing. That’s a bad cycle you’ll get yourself into. It’ll ruin you more than anyone else. Leave it to the Lord, baby. He knows best. Maybe that boy’s feeling just as guilty as you are angry.” Whatever, Mom. But what else was she supposed to say?

I didn’t say anything, but clicked the red cross at the corner of the screen, trying to make her believe that I was taking her words to heart. “I love you, Mama,” I said, trying to avoid making any promise in regards to getting even. I probably wasn’t going to do it, but if I did, I didn’t want a broken promise also on my list. “Now you better get along now.” I repeated her own words to me on many occasions in a joking tone. “You don’t wanna be late.”

The next day I was walking to my biology lab after lunch when I saw a group of people talking quietly, their heads bent toward each other. Something about it sent off an alarm bell. A few of them glanced over their shoulders as one of the guys pointed at me. I realised the guy pointing was Angelo, and he was frowning. I changed course and walked over to them, trying not to make it look like I was marching. Despite my best efforts to not look aggressive, most of the group scattered as soon as they saw me approaching. Angelo was left talking to one guy, whose eyes widened as he stole another glance at me. Oops. I guess I forgot to my make my face non-aggressive. He scampered away before I got within fifteen feet of him.

“Hey, Lucas.” Angelo put on a small smile, polite enough to stay and talk to me even though I could tell he wanted to run away too.

“Hey, what were you guys talking about?” When Angelo hesitated, I said, “Because I got the feeling it was about me.” Non-aggressive. Non-aggressive. I tried to smile but had a feeling it came out wrong. Angelo cringed at how obvious he had been with the pointing.

“I’m sorry, man.” His black eyebrows drew together. “About your brother.” I remembered with regret how close we used to be. “It was a terrible accident.”

“Accident? You know something?” He stayed quiet. “Angelo, I know you do. Everybody knows. I can feel how they’ve been trying to keep it from me. I ain’t stupid, you know.”

“I know,” he rushed to say in a sincere voice. I tried hard to remember why we weren’t still good friends.

“Then give it up. Don’t I deserve to know my own business?”

“Fine.” He sighed. “They told me not to tell you but man, I’m with you—I get it. This whole thing’s pretty rough. And I agree you have a right to know, especially seeing as everybody else does.” He exhaled slowly, at the same time I did, and then spit it out. “His name’s Tyler Elliot.”

“Junior?” I interjected.

“Yeah, a junior.” The name sounded familiar. “He was out drinking.”

“With Chase and those guys?”

“Yeah.” A face was starting to form in my head. Tyler Elliot. I’d seen him around a few times. He was a little guy, I think. With a mop of brown hair. Or was it dark blonde? Angelo continued. “It wasn’t s’posed to happen. He panicked and then took off. They’re telling the cops tomorrow.”

“Where’s he live?” I asked, and tried to make my face less intense than I knew it was right now.

“Lucas . . .” Angelo said in a worried tone, and I remembered my mom.

“It’s not like that,” I said in a defensive voice, even though it was. “I just wanna talk to him.” Angelo looked doubtful. “No, really,” I said in a serious tone. “I just need some closure, you know. I can’t stop thinking about Hunter . . .” I trailed off, knowing this would crack him.

Angelo leaned in with a reluctant, pained face and spoke his address quietly to my shoulder. Returning to his normal volume, he said in explanation. “He lives over in my town. I’ve seen him get off the bus before. He’s not in the main house though. He lives in a bungalow in the backyard.” He studied me. “But maybe on second thoughts you should wait to go see him until they take him into custody. To be honest, you look a little . . . crazy.”

I didn’t feel offended. Partly because I knew Angelo had no bad intentions and partly because I knew it was true. “Nah, man. I’m fine. I promise. I ain’t gonna hurt him.”

“Okay . . .” Angelo said doubtfully, giving my shoulder a kind squeeze. “Stay safe, man. Make good choices.” I’d heard him say that before, but this time I knew he wasn’t just saying it for the sake of it.

I felt bad manipulating—and lying to—Angelo, because he really was a good guy, but I just couldn’t satisfy that beast inside of me, and no matter how much anyone, including a part of myself, warned me against it, this was what I had to do. And tonight. After all, they were going to the cops tomorrow. Did Angelo mean that Tyler was going himself? Or that other people were? Oh, well. That part at least wasn’t my concern.

After school, I sat in my truck until the parking lot emptied, wrestling with myself. The days are short in winter, and I watched the cold air drain the light out of the sky. When almost all of it had disappeared, I turned my key in the ignition. I had made my decision.

The air felt lighter and heavier at the same time. Tyler Elliot, hold on a bit longer. I’m coming for you. After making a quick stop in my garage, I was back in the truck. It was strange how now that I’d found out, the ache had been replaced with a numbness. I flexed my cold fingers at the wheel and closed the truck door, ready to leave my house again. I flicked on my headlights. My stomach felt like it had a little motor in it, whirring away, stirring up the butterflies, but leaving my emotions intact. It was like my brain and my body were disconnected. I forced myself to barely consider what I was doing as I took a turn out of my driveway onto the long road that led to Tyler Elliot’s house. The gun sat across my lap.

After driving through his neighbourhood for a few minutes, I pulled up a couple of houses away from number nine, on the other side of the Canter Road, and decided just to wait. Whether it was doubt or smarts, I couldn’t tell you. Just that rushing on in didn’t seem like a really bright idea. After cutting the engine, I turned the interior lights off too. I shuffled down in my seat and squinted at the street lamps, wishing that the windows of my old truck were more heavily tinted. I considered going back home.

The most important thing here was discretion. To get in and out without anyone seeing me. I frowned, thinking how hard it would be to look nonchalant with a rifle by my side. Then again, there was no one on the street. Once the gunshot sounded, I would have to book it out of there and drive as far as I could. Maybe I’d go south. Somewhere down to the likes of Arizona. Maybe Pheonix. A big city where it was easy to hide. Some warmer weather sure wouldn’t do me any harm. The houses around here were pretty small and rundown. I guess this was a poor area. Did Tyler’s mom have to work double shifts as a waitress too? They couldn’t be all that poor though, if Tyler got to live in a bungalow out back. At least he didn’t have to share a four room cabin. At least he could get a bit of space. This certainly suited my purposes.

The anger that flooded me every time I thought of Hunter—blonde, blue-eyed, smiling, cold, stiff, unmoving—grew as I sat there in the car and let it fester.

Thou shalt not kill. I’d heard it before many times. But he did, so I would. Mama didn’t understand. It was a man’s job to protect the house. It was my job to protect my little brother. Even if that meant avenging him. I know how dramatic that sounds. And I could hear all the voices of disapproval in my head, but I pushed them aside and let my emotions consume me.

The rage tore at my heart and I imagined myself doing all kinds of terrible things. Still balancing the gun carefully across my knees, I slowly cracked my knuckles one by one. It was now or never.

I stepped out of the cab and into a small drift of snow at the edge of the sidewalk. Shaking my boots, I hoped that Mama had put on a warm jacket as she was leaving for work tonight. Hunter hadn’t that night when he ran out of the house. I don’t even know what he was planning on doing. What had made him run across the road so suddenly? I only remember hearing the scream. Was Mama wondering where I was right now? I immediately felt guilty for making her anxious. Was my dad wondering?

Shaking these thoughts, I crossed the road. I slinked along the fence line toward number nine, holding the gun tight to my body. This was what I had been waiting for. The moment that all this anger and searching and festering had been leading up to. The chance to prove myself. The chance to make things right.

Thanks to trusting, too-kind Angelo, Tyler was finally getting what he deserved. What kind of sick person does a hit and run on a kid? Accident or no, how in the hell can you not feel guilty about something like that? Straight up murder, that’s what it was.

Number nine had no fence, so I stole around the side of the house and immediately spotted the bungalow.


A sensor light came on above my head. I froze, trying to make myself melt into the fence.

No reaction.

I waited twenty more seconds and the light flicked off. I still couldn’t hear any sounds from the rest of the family, so I starting walking louder. Let him hear that I was coming. Let him have time to get scared. Let him imagine how I was going to do it. Let him walk out the door to meet me.

I saw the lights on in the bungalow, even though the drapes were closed. I marched right up to the door and for some reason I knocked. I don’t know why, but my polite upbringing still somehow stopped me from just walking straight in—at first. He didn’t come to the door but I knew he was inside because I could hear muffled movement. I stood still and listened, and for a minute everything was silent. I don’t know what I was waiting for. Was he deaf, or what? I knocked again and still no answer. I could smell smoke from a wood fire and a pine scent from the trees behind the bungalow. I stood there shaking and then I heard a noise. It was the scraping of a chair or a stool across a wooden floor. I waited for a little longer, my chest in serious pain by now, and heard a grunt and a gurgle.

I pushed open the door and stepped inside all in one large movement, bringing the rifle to my shoulder. Before my eyes even registered what was happening, I was face to face with Tyler Elliot. Through the crosshairs of the gun I saw him, the rope around his neck. His body still swinging slightly.

My throat released a guttural sound like some kind of animal and the gun clattered to the floor. My ears were pulsing with blood. I imagined I could already smell him. A piece of paper lay on the bed next to a photo.

Tell them I’m sorry.

I stared at a picture of my family that I’d posted on my Facebook page a year ago.

A car pulled up in front of the house, its headlights racing down the side fence line, sweeping one corner of the backyard as it turned to park. One door opened and then closed with considerable force. Boots slapped the concrete driveway then crunched on the gravel leading to the back of the house. A sensor light turned on, illuminating the shadow of a very big man approaching, his shape moving along the fence.

My stomach felt like all those butterflies had turned into giant moths, and were throwing themselves up against the walls. I stood illuminated in the doorway of the bungalow. The light was on. The door was open. He would know. He would know what I came to do. What was I thinking? Killing someone because I hated them for killing my brother? How was that logical? How was it justice? I felt just as guilty as if I had done it. I wondered if he knew that his son was the one to kill my brother. Were they close? Maybe his dad took him out hunting too, while his mom was working double shifts. Maybe we weren’t that different. The footsteps got closer. Maybe I was worse. The idea of my own cold-bloodedness sent a chill through me, each footstep feeling like a blow to the temple. I thought I’d come here to finish this, but I would never leave here. I would carry Tyler Elliot around with me forever. His dad was seconds away.

        I still had the photo in my hand. I couldn’t move. Where would I go anyway? He was too close now.

I’m screwed.

The big man stepped around the corner, the light from two directions still only showing part of his face. “Son?”


Image:, sourced 5 November 2017.


What Holly Found There (creative)

[This is a story I wrote for a literature class during my final year at university where we were commissioned to write fan fiction blending two texts we’d studied. I picked Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Alice in Wonderland where Holly Golightly goes to Wonderland.]

30 September 2014

Matter Hatters Tea Party

It was nothing at all like Tiffany’s. I shuffled forward a few feet on my hands and knees, waiting for the world to clear. Clunk went my head. Oh, golly gee damn! Not again. I grabbed the painted leg of a wooden table.
“A butt! A butt!” exclaimed an excited voice.
Where? I stuck my head out from underneath the white table cloth and saw four people sitting up to tea.
“A head! A head!” squawked an odd-looking hare in a vest and bow-tie.
“Oh, Holly, it’s you,” said Fred, adjusting his hat. He definitely looked more at home in this world now.
“Holly? Holly, Molly, golly, folly, dolly . . .” said the hare, staring into the sky.
“Freddie!” I said and launched myself at him ecstatically. I knocked the hat askew with the tag saying 10/6 on it.
“There’s no Freddie here,” said a young girl indignantly who had stayed quiet all the while. “And who are you?” I knew I hadn’t liked the look of her.
I straightened my shoulders. “My name is Holly Golightly, travelling. Sister of Fred the Hatter and general favourite. The question is who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Alice. I’m just a harmless little girl.” She looked about herself nervously.
Sure you are, I thought. I turned to the March Hare who was jabbering away and said, “Don’t you remember me? I visited Freddie—the Hatter—here some time ago. When he had just arrived.”
“. . . Polly, trolley, lolly . . .”
“Oh, March Hare, do shut up!” snapped a little mouse with very large ears who barely reached the hare’s shoulder. He glanced my way somewhat darkly—“Hi, Holly”—and continued. “I want to finish my story!”
“No one cares about your story,” said Hatter Freddie with a careless wave of his hand. “Holly, deary, it’s lovely to see you, to be sure, but you are late.”
“What time is it, brother?” I inquired politely, wiggling my nose slightly.
“Six o’clock!” proclaimed the March Hare, as he looked up from poking the Dormouse, who was drifting off to sleep again.
“Then six o’clock is the time I told you.” I winced inwardly. “And so here I am.”
“Just so!” cried Freddie with a large-toothed grin, always pliable. His head was ever so large, in keeping with his teeth, but every now and again I looked at him and got to wondering how his head didn’t fall right off. But you see, that was the magic talking again.
“But it’s always six o’clock—” This so-called Alice began to protest.
“Be a dear and make yourself useful,” I talked over her. “Fix me a cup of tea, will you?” The others turned to look at her, so she had no opportunity to refuse, which was my intention. The Dormouse, wakening suddenly, invited me to please take a seat, so I did. Although I took care to sit on the other side of my brother.
Patting my gloved hand, he said, “How’s that world of yours?”
“Just fine, but not the same without you.” Glancing in Alice’s direction, I added, “And a cigarette, please.”
“A cigarette! Why, I’m just a little girl.”
Say that one more time. “Never mind then.”
Fred’s smile faded. “Now, you haven’t a new hatter, have you? A new Fred?”
I thought of my friend. My other Fred. Our late night conversations. The patched up injuries in the bath. Then I looked at Fred’s rosy-cheeked face. Gently crossing the fingers of my hand under the table I said, “Never.” And in a way it was true. Fred. Sally. Sid. Doc. Rusty. They were all the same. They were all ‘darling’. They were all Fred. A sip, a sniff, a puff, and I could escape to my true heart.
Wonderland. Utopia. Neverland. Different people called it different things. I’d come here today because of a particularly bad case of the mean reds. It was a Sunday afternoon and Tiffany’s was closed.
I focussed back in to the conversation, where Alice was trying (and failing) to guess a riddle the others had posed.
“I give it up,” said Alice. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Fred replied.
“Nor I,” agreed the March Hare and laughed deliriously to himself.
“I don’t like things that don’t make sense!” said Alice. “Nothing here does. I think you might do something better with your time than wasting it.” Ignorant girl. Time was a he. Everyone knew that.
“Such a long time since I’ve seen Time,” I said dreamily, because I knew it would irritate Alice. “I wonder what he’s up to?”
“This is all very infuriating,” said Alice, seeming proud to have used such a big word. Bravo.
“You,” I pinned her to her chair with a stare, “are very infuriating. Nonsense. Time standing still. These are just the facts of life. Sometimes he gets tired. A raven is like a writing desk is like a staircase is like a tea cup full of imagination and a hard kick up the backside. From Life.”
She gazed at me in terror, no doubt wondering if I really meant Life, or someone else altogether. I kept her guessing. The mean reds were making me mean today. Would Freddie be disappointed in me?
“Back to my story,” declared the Dormouse, and the others turned their attention away from me.
I touched the table cloth. This wasn’t on the table when I was here last time. The myriad stains reminded me of just how darn long I’d been away. A girl has to earn a living, after all. And magic wasn’t cheap. The trees had grown considerably, in both height and breadth, for of course a year in Wonderland is like a moment for the rest of us. More tea cups were dirty this time. And of course, the girl was a new addition. By the looks of it, she had only just arrived. Only someone who didn’t understand talked like that.
But the flowers, the way the breeze felt against my cheek, my dear brother’s hat. These were all the same, and so deliciously familiar. Such a comfort. Like running my hand along a freshly wiped glass counter at Tiffany’s and gazing at the diamonds through the reflection of my pearls. The shop was almost too dark to see sometimes with my glasses. They really ought to turn the lights up. The other four were all talking amiably at the table now. Freddie and the March Hare were busy entertaining Alice, and not really listening to the story of the Dormouse, who was nodding off to sleep again. I felt a pang as Freddie chuckled at something Alice said. Looking at her odd shaped blue dress and white apron, she seemed so strange to me. And that neck! I’d never seen one quite like it, on a human. Like someone had stretched it out with their hands. And maybe someone had.
I watched a green and red leaf as it fluttered down from a tree above, landing softly on my saucer, the stem touching the tablecloth, which was blurring at the edges. The others continued talking until a substantial piece of sky crashed down on to the middle of the table, breaking most of the china. Curiouser and curiouser, or so says the local slang. A tree fell to the ground with a mighty thud and my right hand disappeared. In a few moments everything was shaking.
Oh, dear. It appeared to be crumbling. The magic must be wearing off. “So soon?” I whispered. “Goodbye, my heart.”
“Holly, you’re leaving?” My brother’s distressed voice grew fainter and fainter. “It’s not long enough! Time said he would give us more.” Freddie began to cry, sobbing uproariously as the world continued to crumble. “Come back! He said you could stay longer this time. He promised . . .”
I heard the Dormouse’s low voice through Alice’s screams as he woke up again. “I say, is the world really falling down about our ears, or am I mad?”
The March Hare shrugged, taking a sip from his empty tea cup. “We’re all mad here.”


Image:, accessed 27 August 2017.



Your city 100 years from now

642 Things to Write About

Fiction Prompt from ‘642 Things To Write About’ by : Your city one hundred years from now

It is the year 2117. A very old woman named Mrs Lil Van Wyngaard walks the streets of Melbourne. I specify walks not because she is homeless, because she is not, but because walking these days is a rare event. Most people hover (if they are really poor they use a hovercraft instead of having the jets surgically implanted into their feet). Lil has always been old fashioned. She tells the kids on her block that she used to be suspicious of ebooks, but they tell her that they have no idea what an ebook is. Does she mean insta-info pads?

A lot of the time they look at her funny and she suspects that they think she has completely lost her marbles (of course marbles are a relic of the past too).

The kids, not meaning to be rude, ask Mrs Van Wyngaard if when she expires (the term ‘death’ is no longer used so as to avoid offending the people mourning or those who are close to their ‘expiry date’) she will be stuffed and put in a museum, like Phar Lap? They somehow know who he is. Go figure. Although horses are extinct now. Too much pollution, and they got phased out, just like cars. Teenagers laugh at their parents when they use the word driving to describe hovering, or ‘hovving’ as the cool kids say. “Mum,” they say, “that is so last century.” Literally.

The museums are getting too overcrowded all over the world so the earth government have made an executive decision to start deleting parts of history, like throwing out old files in an office. The obsolete bits of history—the boring, inconvenient and unusable parts, of course—are distributed to the poor to take strain off the social security system. The paperback history is divided up and used by them as stuffing for their coats in the winter. Feathers are also extinct, because of all the birds being eaten. Lil’s next door neighbour Peter claims that they were worth every delicious mouthful, but his grandson tells him that that’s politically incorrect and insensitive to those birds that have expired. Peter replies, “Stuff and nonsense!”

Lil is unfortunately a widow and expects to expire soon after a nice, long life. Asking for anything more than 123 years just seems greedy, she thinks.

On sunny days she walks along the neglected grey footpath, marvelling at the city around her. She keeps her tinted UV protector bubble activated at all times. Old fashioned she may be, but her pale skin and the sun weren’t the best of friends before the remainder of the ozone layer did its disappearing act, like a bored guest at a party… so she is not taking any chances now.

The skyline of Melbourne from a distance is much the same, but like a small crop of wheat that has grown upwards, being fenced in by suburban grass on all sides. Up close though, everything has changed.

There are no waiting lines to get in anywhere, because people pre-book for everything, by law. Cigarette smoke and smog has taken a back seat, because the sun (thanks to the non-existent ozone layer) is more than capable of powering everything—and cigarettes have of course been outlawed. Perhaps most noticeable of all is that there is no sense of chaos anymore. Cars have long since gone, and everyone punches in their destination to a little keypad at the start of their journey so that collisions are all but eliminated (except when the computers melt down of course, but that’s too shocking to tell you). There are no horns blaring, and the music is in everyone’s own ears, so they’re not forced to listen to anything they don’t like, ever.

But Mrs Van Wyngaard keeps walking because four blocks east of her house, and five blocks south there is a park. One of the few parks left in the city (it’s extra special because the trees are made of recycled wood and green pained linen, rather than plastic). There is talk going round that somewhere far, far outside the city there is a park with real live trees, protected by a bubble containing a high oxygen concentrate. Dreamers discuss it with naïve hope but the realists dismiss it as urban legend, like mobile phones with actual buttons on them.

This park is buzzing. Everyone is walking or sitting or running. Lil shuffles past the ‘no hovering’ sign that is scrawled over with the graffiti ‘hovving rulz’. The hand writing is barely legible because iPads replaced handwriting in schools about two generations ago.

Lil finds her regular table and sits down, breathes a sigh of relief. Her friends at the table greet her. Some are absent today—maybe they have expired. But for right now Lil is alive; she is happy.

Smiling, she picks up the paint brush and dips into the oils, pulls a picture from her mind of an old farmhouse on a hill beside a river. The word ‘Hillegersberg’ is written on the white gate and there is a beautiful river garden hiding all her childhood friends.

She continues to paint.




Image: Alamar AV Communications, ‘Urban Melbourne’, <;, sourced 31 May 2017.

What is success?


Do you consider yourself successful?

The question is asked and you start to squirm in your seat. Do you? You glance round at the others, to see if they are as unsure as you. The question goes round the circle, making its way toward you, and you go back and forth between yes and no about six times each. I mean, you’re not a total loser, but then again, you have that university degree that you’re not even using yet. You don’t own a house. Your car is worth half of what the mechanic says it will cost to fix it. And to top it all off, you’re single.

Better go with no. It seems safer. Plus, you have the added bonus of not looking arrogant to the group. Decision made.

You’re actually one of the first ones to give your answer (a lot of mind changing can happen in a few short minutes).

You say no. When asked what would you have to do or achieve to consider yourself a success, you say, “Become a professional writer.”

Not until this moment have you realised that maybe one of the reasons you want a job in this field so badly is so that you can stop feeling like a failure. Maybe even the main reason. That every time someone says, “What do you do?” it translates to you as, “How much are you worth?” and the answer you keep coming up with is, “Not much.” What I do is not impressive. I sell clothes. No one dies if I don’t get up and go to work. They just buy at Target.

Somehow your successes in the field of retail never mean quite enough to you because you don’t need a degree to do it, and so many people refer to it as their job before they get a “real” job.

This particular Tuesday night last year as I sat on the bean bag I felt tears build slowly in my eyes. Listening to the answers of the rest of the group I suddenly broke in. “Can I change my answer?” in a tone that barely concealed the panic I was feeling.

“No.” Why did that word make the tears spill over?

The other people in the group all said yes. When asked why, the most memorable answer was one of the women saying, “I would consider yourself a success if people actually like you, and want to be around you. Do you have any good, solid friendships? You’ve certainly succeeded in something!”

The way my answer contrasted with the rest of them made me feel ten times the failure I had felt before and I was suddenly undone and exposed.

What had happened in my heart that I constantly held myself to this high standard of perfection? That I had set an arbitrary bar for success and anything that was below or in another area was all stamped with the words “try harder”. Why was my standard for myself so much higher than anyone else’s for me, and so different to what my creator had in mind? Just a hint, Lil. God wasn’t looking at Adam and Eve’s careers when he said, “It is very good.”

They were good because God made them, and they belonged to Him.

Now how many people would be successful in the world’s eyes just because they were created in the image of God? No career, no great wondrous achievements. Nothing to do with what they had done and everything to do with who they belonged to.

When God says in his word not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2), we can often view it as him telling us off, but what if (crazy thought, I know) he put that in the bible for our freedom? Think like me, because I actually see clearly, he says. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).


What does God view as success?

Faith: without it it’s impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6).

Love: He wants us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, as well as loving our neighbour as ourselves, according to Matthew 22:37-40. In fact, the whole Hebrew law is summed up in that one sentence.

How do we show our love, according to John 14:15? Obedience.

Do you have these three things? If you do, then you’re already a raging success in His eyes.

It’s not always the most seen and heard, the rich and famous, the bosses, the stage performers, the TV stars and the hit singers who God considers close friends.

Who was Mary, when Gabriel met her where she was at in order to have a talk with her about the saviour of all mankind?

Who was Abraham? Who was this young guy Jacob, fighting with his brother, when God called him?

Jesus was born in a stable for a reason, and it wasn’t the celebrities of the day that the angels first appeared to.


What a relief then, to realise that just because we haven’t followed the world’s trail of stepping stones for us, that all is not lost. Actually, nothing is.

Just keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus, and the day he takes you home to heaven you can hear those wonderful words.

“Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and enter my rest.”





Image 1:
Image 2:

The Independent Variable (creative non-fiction)

Male college students needed for
       psychological  study of  prison
life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks
beginning Aug. 14. For further
information   &     applications,
come   to   Room   248,   Jordan
Hall, Stanford U.[i]
—Palo Alto Times, 1971


~ ~ ~
Monday 16 August 1971
A baton smashed along the metal bars as the shrill whistle died away.
“Back off! Back away from the doors. Now!” The blonde guard known as ‘John Wayne’ roared from behind his aviators, his athletic shoulders and arms flexing automatically as he clutched his baton tighter, furious at the prisoners’ insubordinance. The prisoners stood their ground behind their homemade bed barricade that pressed against the cell bars. They boldly faced the corridor, or ‘the yard’, as the prisoners called it.
“Where do you want us?” came a guard’s voice as more of them poured into the dimly lit corridor lined with vertical metal bars. One of the original guards grabbed a fire extinguisher off the blank white wall and charged toward the steel bars of the third cell door. Carbon dioxide shot between the bars, smashing men in the mouth, the eyes, the chest.
Coughing. Lungs gasping for air. Screams. “Let us out!” The men in the cells stumbled back, pawing at their noses and eyes, spitting wet, white powder forcefully.
It wasn’t until the first guard took three steps back to take a run up that one of the prisoners realised. “Look out!” he screamed. The guard came smashing through the cell door, as other guards caught on and started to do the same. The rebellious prisoners’ wet smocks were ripped off. They were left, shivering and vulnerable, hands rushing to cover their genitals.
“Is that all you’ve got?” one of the guards sneered, pointing down at an anonymous prisoner. Several of the naked men were crying.
“Try harder next time!” another began to yell, but was soon silenced.
“#5401, #819, #416.” Guard Vandy yelled out the numbers of the ringleaders. “Into the hole!”
The selected numbers were prodded one by one into the small cupboard on the other side of the windowless corridor and Guard Vandy leaned against the door until he heard it click, ignoring the sounds coming from within. On the wall was a sign saying Stanford County Prison. Vandy winced.
~ ~ ~
“We can assume that most people, most of the time, are moral creatures. But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets put into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged.”[ii]
– Dr Philip G. Zimbardo
~ ~  ~
Sunday 15 August 1971
Clay Ramsay answers a knock at the door, still in his pyjamas. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he pauses. A police badge flashes in the morning sunlight.
“Sir, you’re under arrest.”
Clay’s right hand goes slack, slapping against his thigh. “What have I done?”
“Sorry,” the policeman on the porch drones, “but you are suspected of Penal Code violation number 459, burglary[iii] and I have to take you downtown.”
The officer grabs the bewildered young man’s upper arm, pinching the blonde hairs, and marches him toward a waiting car. He is spread-eagled across the car, his head slammed a little too hard against the roof.
“You have the right to remain silent, you have . . .”
The officer pats the young man down from behind and then click, click. The cuffs are tightened to just beyond comfortable.
Surprised and curious neighbours look on.
~ ~ ~

“I was guilty of the sin of omission—the evil of inaction . . . the findings came at the expense of human suffering. I am sorry for that and to this day apologize for contributing to this inhumanity.”[iv]
– Dr Philip G. Zimbardo
~ ~ ~
Wednesday 18 August 1971
“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer.”
The other prisoners form an obedient line in front of the cell doors, hands hanging defunct at their sides. Guard Hellmann paces up and down before them, shoes squeaking on the industrial grey linoleum, while Vandy and Ceros stand impassive behind dark, reflective glasses. Guard Landry sits on a rectangular wooden table behind the other two, watching intently. His legs swing slightly as he fiddles with the whistle slung around his neck.
“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner . . .”
Some of them wear white lengths of cloth wrapped around their heads, tied like bandanas. Others just wear the mandatory stocking cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking. The psychologists aren’t allowed to shave their heads. On their feet are rubber clogs.[v]
“. . . Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess . . .”
The prisoner second to the end rattles the chain on his right ankle to the rhythm of the chanting. The number #4325 is sewn onto the chest and back of his smock.
“. . . Mr. Correctional Officer!”
He twists the side of his thin, white gown into a scrunched ball, the skin over his fist tightening. Twist. Untwist. Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. If it wasn’t for him, their cells wouldn’t be a mess. Mr. Correctional Officer is right. The prisoner’s chests heave as they shout out the chant with vacant eyes. Their unanimous voice doesn’t even have a malicious edge, beneath the monotony. They stand, facing the guards, but staring at the blank wall; hopeless, just like Prisoner #819.
Frantic footsteps are heard as the superintendent races toward the right end of the corridor. A cell door opens. Uncontrollable sobbing. Indistinct conversation.
Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner.
The doctor ripped open the door to the ‘holding room’ (really just a cleared out office in the psychology department’s basement) and threw himself into the room, pressing the door closed with his back. “#819! Are you okay?” He approached the bereft boy, perched on the edge of the bed. #819 sat slumped over his knees, his knuckles grazing the shiny floor that reeked of industrial strength bleach. He didn’t look at the superintendent. The only movement was the shaking of his shoulders as he sobbed hysterically.
“Let’s get out of here, alright?”
“No!” he whipped his head back to look at Zimbardo through matted brown hair with wild hazel eyes, the eyes of an animal poised under a 12-guage shotgun.
“Why not?” Zimbardo asked.
Between sobs he said, “I can’t. The others think I’m a bad prisoner.”
“Aren’t you feeling sick, though?” the doctor asked gently.
#819 nodded. “But I gotta go back and prove that I’m not a bad prisoner.” He still rasped even though his breathing was slowing.
The superintendent took a few slow steps toward him and squatted down so he could look into #819’s face. “Listen, you are not #819. You are Stewart, and my name is Dr Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go.”[vi]
~ ~ ~


On Sunday 15th of August, the randomly selected prisoners in Zimbardo’s experiment were rounded up by real policemen and driven in a real police car to the Palo Alto station where they had their fingers stained with dark ink as they were formally booked for their allocated crime. They hadn’t been told exactly when the experiment would begin, or what it would specifically entail. $15 in 1971 could buy you $88.09[vii] worth of beers or cigarettes or good times in today’s economy, and participating in a two week experiment over the summer would surely be the easiest $1,233.26 a young college guy could make. Blinded by an overly starched piece of cloth tied at the nape of their neck, each detainee sat in separate cells, confused and disorientated, while their soon-to-be guards donned khaki uniforms and got used to the cold feel of a billy club in their hand, preparing to maintain discipline.
~ ~ ~
Saturday 14 August 1971
Dave Burdan sat in a blank, white room trying to comprehend what he’d gotten himself into. Eleven other normal-looking guys surrounded him, each as silent as the next. No psychological problems, medical disabilities, or histories of crime or drug abuse here.[viii] No, sir. He knew that for a fact because of the rigorous psychological tests he himself had undergone to get to this room. Dr Zimbardo, the experiment’s leading psychologist/prison superintendent had just been explaining how the shifts would work. Zimbardo told them they wouldn’t be allowed to touch the prisoners.
“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can and they’ll have no privacy . . . We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”[ix] Dr Zimbardo abruptly left the room. Is that all the information they were getting? No, surely he’d be back to finish the briefing.
One thing he’d ask as soon as the doctor returned was whether they were allowed to quit the experiment.
Dave waited.
~ ~ ~


At the end of 2012, about 1.35 million people experienced life in a United States prison, 217,800 in federal prison and 744,500 in local jails.[x] One of the aims of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to discover ways to improve prison life by observing how being placed in a role can affect behaviour. Dr Zimbardo was possibly a case in point as he assumed his role of superintendent so well that he seems to have forgotten his aim, as well as to an extent, his identity. If experiments lose sight of their goals, physical and emotional strain on the participants also lose purpose, and discipline can easily become cruelty.
Torture is used in prisons all over the world and is categorised as either black (physical) or white (psychological). Mock execution, for example, like water boarding, is listed as the most prevalent form of torture in prisons and war situations.[xi] Dr Schien says that isolation and . . . psychological disorientation . . . have a significantly negative effect on the human psyche.[xii]
The US-run prison in Guantánamo Bay has a room they call ‘the disco’ where they employ music torture as a way to crack their inmates. Binyan Mohamed encountered ‘the disco’ as a prisoner and said that “he could anticipate physical pain . . . but the experience of slipping into madness as a result of torture by music was something quite different.”[xiii] Around the same time as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Irish Republican Army were using excruciating loud noises as a method of psychological torture, described by the prisoners as the worst part of their imprisonment.[xiv]
In the basement of the Stanford psychology department, similar psychology tactics are also being used, but as a method to control prisoners, rather than to extract information. One of the guards suggests using psychological tactics, seeing as one of the few things they’ve been instructed is that they cannot use physical force against the prisoners. ‘Good’ prisoners—the ones who have done their dishes and chores well[xv]—are placed in privilege cells. They are given back their clothes, taken away in the rebellion this morning, and put in front of the ‘bad’ prisoners to eat special meals. The guards, without being instructed, take it one step further. In an effort to disorientate and break camaraderie among the prisoners, they mix the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ prisoners around. In the same way that racism is used to create conflict in real prisons, this tactic succeeds in creating suspicion and distrust in the experiment’s prisoners.[xvi]
The prisoners will soon be made to clean toilets with their bare hands and be denied emptying their cell’s bucket in the mornings. The constructed prison will soon begin to smell like human waste and sweat. Woken up in the middle of the night, they will be forced to play out sexual scenarios with each other at the whim of the guards.[xvii]


~ ~ ~
The independent variable (n.)

“The independent variable, also known as the manipulated variable, lies at the heart of any quantitative experimental design.”
– Martin Shuttleworth[xviii]


One of the guards, John Mark, had already had a brush with the law before the experiment began, barely escaping incarceration. Only months before the experiment, he was returning to his exchange university in France from spending Thanksgiving in Amsterdam when he was held up at the French border for possession of marijuana. Eventually he was released from custody with no further charges, but the experience impacted him and led to his decision to volunteer for the experiment. Mark mentions that it was “very disappointing to be assigned to be a guard”[xix] but that he made the best of the situation.
Dr Zimbardo enlisted the help of several ex-convicts to make the constructed prison feel real, but various modifications had to be made, like the chain around the ankle (not used in real life prisons anymore) to serve as a constant reminder of how trapped and powerless they were.
Mark says that “Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension”[xx] among the participants and thinks that Zimbardo never intended for the experiment to run the full two weeks[xxi]; that he had just told the volunteers that to “create a dramatic crescendo”[xxii] that would increase the strain and feelings of claustrophobia and hopelessness in all the young men involved. Mark suspects Zimbardo of manipulating the experiment in order to produce the result that he wanted, and had already decided on. As a result, Mark is hesitant to agree with Zimbardo’s conclusion that “people from middle-class backgrounds—people will turn on each other just because they’re given a role and given power.”[xxiii]


~  ~ ~
Tuesday 17 August 1971

Philip Zimbardo sat with the back of his chair pressed tightly to the wall, looking from side to side. As his eyes raced across the stark walls of the disassembled prison, he listened for any sign of glass breaking, a door opening, a drill. Sweat was gathering underneath his snug collar even though he knew the warm August air wouldn’t reach all the way down to the basement. Suddenly he felt like the entire weight of Stanford was pressing down on his shoulders like the gnarled hands of a burly farmer. He thought of the students about twelve feet above his head who were probably still rambling across the grass quad at this late hour, at least one of them tipsy. The muffled bass throbbing reliably out of the frat houses in big, lazy sound waves, hitting just the wrong nerve. A guy cat-calling a group of girls from a third storey window as they pass under a tree. A pigeon landing on a street lamp. The doctor’s feet stayed firmly planted on the ground, despite the usual temptation of the wheelie chair.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs leading down to the basement. He shot up from his chair. It bounced against the wall and then hit the back of his knees, almost buckling them. The doctor trained his eyes on the door and waited. He slid his sweaty palms up and down his thighs, smoothing his black suit pants.
“Who’s there?” the superintendent whispered roughly. “Don’t come any closer; I’ve got a weapon!” he hissed, even though it wasn’t true. He flexed his empty hands. The doctor cleared his throat, unsure why he’d been whispering, and spoke at a normal volume. “Prisoner #8612? Identify yourself!” He waited.
“Phil?” The door to the stairs opened and a man stepped into view. His hands were up. Gordon Bower, Zimbardo’s college roommate, stood there, legs apart warily, waiting for the superintendent to move. “What’s going on? I just came to see how . . .”
“Gordon?”  The doctor must have been a sight, because Gordon’s hands were still up. Zimbardo shook himself and said, “It’s okay. Put your hands down.”
“I came to see how the experiment was going, but are you alright?”
“The experiment?”
Gordon nodded.
“The prison . . . it’s a mess. We had to call in extra guards.”
Gordon took a step forward, still wary, as he assessed the corridor. “Seems okay. Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?”
“The independent variable?” The superintendent’s face contorted with rage. “The security of my men and the stability of my prison are at stake and you want to know about the independent variable!?”
~ ~ ~
“I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison—because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me—was remote until finally I wasn’t that, I was 416. I was really my number.”[xxiv]

– Clay Ramsay
~ ~ ~
Monday 16 August 1971
A high-pitched whistle shatters each man’s dream. Only an hour or two after lights out, they scramble blearily to their feet, quick to obey. They’ve seen what happens when they don’t. Scurrying to form a line in front of the guards, #8612 stumbles slightly.
“Faster, dogs!” Their chains rattle. ‘John Wayne’ makes a guttural sound in his throat and shoots a stream of sour tasting spit that lands on a prisoner’s collarbone, dripping slowly down. They stand staring straight ahead, humiliated and buck naked beneath their white smocks. They are holding themselves differently than yesterday; the shoulders more tense, the back less straight. #7258 stands with his hip protruding in an oddly feminine way, Guard Ceros notes with relish.
“Head count! #8612?”
“Present, Mr. Correctional Officer!”
The count is soon complete.
“What are we going to do tonight, girls?” ‘John Wayne’ sneers.
“Seeing as they liked the push ups so much last night . . .” Vandy suggests with a smile. He orders #5486 out of the push up position and points at #8612. “Sit on his back. Yeah, I saw you stumble, #8612.”
~ ~ ~
“It was simply wrong. Boys were suffering. They were not prisoners, not experimental subjects, but boys, young men, who were being dehumanized and humiliated by other boys who had lost their moral compass in the situation.”[xxv]
– Christina Maslach, psychologist involved in experiment


~ ~ ~
On Tuesday, three days before the experiment was prematurely terminated, the scientists staged the biggest deception of all: visiting day. They cleaned the prisoners up, allowing them to shower and shave, and removed the smell of urine from the prison. An attractive young woman, Susie Phillips, posed as a receptionist and welcomed parents and friends. Zimbardo and his researchers, afraid of parents pulling their children out of the experiment, carefully manipulated the environment, encouraging visitors to view the whole ordeal as a novel, fun experience.[xxvi] Despite some concerns about the state their sons appeared to be in, most parents bought into the charade, surprising the researchers.
~ ~ ~
Dear Superintendent Zimbardo,

My husband and I visited our son at the “Stanford County Prison.” It seemed very real to me. I had not expected anything so severe nor had my son when he volunteered I am sure. It gave me a depressed feeling when I saw him. He looked very haggard, and his chief complaint seemed to be that he had not seen the sun for so long. I asked if he was sorry he volunteered and he answered that at first he had been. However, he had gone through several different moods and he was more resigned. This will be the hardest money he will ever earn in his life, I am sure.
Mother of 1037
PS: We hope this project is a big success.




Clark, J, Atteberry, J 1998-2014, ‘What are the 10 most prevalent forms of torture and why?’, How Stuff Works, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

This web page helped me establish a difference between types of torture and infuse an understanding into my piece of the prevalence of psychological torture in the prison system.


Croomer, J 2014, ‘Prisoners, prison guards and power perversion’, 21 March, Office Politics, Rolling Alpha, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

This web page gave me a photograph of the original advertisement calling volunteers for the experiment so that I was able to include it in my piece verbatim, adding a crucial element of explanation and non-fiction.
Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.

This documentary was an integral part of my research, invaluable in giving me a true feel for what it was like for the prisoners and guards, including the accents of the participants as well as what the prison looked like. The only way it was disappointing was the fact that it repeated a lot of the information in Stanford Prison Experiment website, created by Dr Zimbardo (and listed below).
Ratnesar, R 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

This online article gave me my angle, which is that scientists can often manipulate experiments to produce the result the want and have already decided on. This source also inspired my title ‘The Independent Variable’ so I could draw attention to my main focus, the fact that it was a controlled environment, despite how the prisoners and guards felt. This gave me the background of a particular guard, John Mark, who was also suspicious of Dr Zimbardo and his team of researchers.


Sherrer, H 1999, ‘Cheaper than lab rats, part II’, Prison Legal News, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 1-3, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

This source gave me a professional’s perspective on the effect of psychological torture on a victim’s mind, pointing out just how unethical Dr Zimbardo’s experiment was, and also raising awareness of the serious effects of using psychological methods to control and subdue people.


Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

This online article provided information on how prisoners are still being treated today by American soldiers. I used it to raise awareness with a reliable source of what still goes on, and the deep trauma inflicted on those who are forced to endure psychological, in particular music, torture.


United States Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012, ‘Total U.S. correctional population declined in 2012 for fourth year’, (NCJ 243936, Bureau of Justice Statistics, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

This web page helped me give the reader an idea of how large-scale the problem of treatment of prisoners is. I used American statistics because it seemed to fit the context of the piece, being set in California, and wanted to add an element of non-fiction that would shock my readers.


Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

This website was my primary (and first) avenue of information, and my most relied upon source, giving me an overview of how the whole experiment was set up and constructed. I used it as a point of reference the whole way through.


Zimbardo, P 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York.

Zimbarodo’s book helped me to work out which events happened on which day of the experiment (so that I could provide dates at the top of some of my sections and also maintain accuracy). It was also my source for the letter written from a mother to Dr Zimbardo, as well as various other details about the experiment and its participants. Other quotes from Zimbardo and his future wife, Dr Christina Maslach, were also sourced from here.



[i] Croomer, J 2014, ‘Prisoners, prison guards and power perversion’, 21 March, Office Politics, Rolling Alpha, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.


[ii] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 17.


[iii] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 37.


[iv] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, pp. 181, 235.

[v] Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.

[vi] Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.

[vii] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014, ‘Databases, tables and calculators by subject: CPI inflation calculator’, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

[viii] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

[ix] Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.


[x] United States Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012, ‘Total U.S. correctional population declined in 2012 for fourth year’, (NCJ 243936, Bureau of Justice Statistics, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.
[xi] Clark, J, Atteberry, J 1998-2014, ‘What are the 10 most prevalent forms of torture and why?’, How Stuff Works, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

[xii] Sherrer, H 1999, ‘Cheaper than lab rats, part II’, Prison Legal News, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 1-3, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

[xiii] Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

[xiv] Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.

[xv] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 73.

[xvi] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

[xvii] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

[xviii] M Shuttleworth, ‘Independent variable’,, retrieved 22 September 2014, <;.


[xix]  R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.


[xx] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

[xxi] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

[xxii] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

[xxiii] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <;.

[xxiv] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

[xxv] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 170.

[xxvi] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <;.

[xxvii] Zimbardo, P 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 97.



Short Story by Lil Williams
Jared ran until his vision blurred, until his ability to breathe at quarter capacity was about used up, until he thought he’d drown in his own sweat. The sun and the footpath had assaulted his skinny legs and joints, all the while his ‘below average’ in PE stood mocking him. He would never run again by choice. 

Why did all the streets look the same? He turned around and doubled back a block, sure that he’d just missed a landmark that he recognised. The dog had moved. Not quite a landmark he had to admit, but memorable just the same. Jared never did forget a good set of teeth, even on a canine. Which house, though?

“Here, boy,” he called and whistled as he looked around. Ah, sweet suburbia. He yanked his hand back over the fence as the dog tried to take a chunk out of his hand.


Jared kept his eyes down, watching the linoleum floor whizz past. People probably weren’t staring but it was embarrassing anyway. He’d like to meet the person who invented the wheel chair rule when you’re exiting the hospital (even for a mental health issue) and give them a piece of his mind. These insurance schemes were some kind of sick joke. How can a person be deemed wheelchair reliant one second and totally fine the second they hit the hospital carpark? You’re on your own, buddy. Flawless logic. 

As soon as the car door slammed, he ripped the name bracelet off and slipped it out the crack at the top of the window. If only he could get rid of all the evidence that easily. Jared imagined the response of the kids at school next week. His mum kept assuring him that everyone would understand and that they would all welcome him back with open arms. He nodded and smiled to make her feel better, honouring the unspoken agreement amongst teenagers. 


He was running out of time. A guy’s life was hanging in the balance and he couldn’t find the damn house. Jared stood staring at the dog, out of biting range, and chewing his own lip. He pressed his temple. His mind could still bring forth a vague picture of the house, an image from a long ago birthday party, tinged with the filter of childhood innocence. Had he ever looked at the letter box? Fifty-something? Or did it end in a five? Jared could remember the colours of the balloons hanging from the letter box—blue and green—but nothing that would actually help him now. He wound the drawstring of his jacket around his index finger until it began to cut off circulation. He set off running again. He was sure it was this street. He would check every house. Time to ditch the jacket.


 Alex sat on the edge of the bath tub, willing himself to walk out of the room. Talking himself into staying. Trying to convince himself that what he was about to do was his only choice. A slip of the knife, or a gulp of the pills. A tug of the noose, maybe, but that required more work. A millisecond of courage. That was all it took. He reread the note then folded it gently, neatly, on the bathroom bench. 

I couldn’t go on like this. I’m sorry Mum, Dad, Jessie. I love you all, and I’ll see you again one day.
- Alex

Short and sweet. So why the hesitation?


The one with the dog. Of course. Jared rubbed his hands together. Alrighty, then. He reached slowly into his pocket for the squashed, more than slightly melted, Kinder Surprise as the dog spat and growled at him. The stained teeth its curling lip revealed looked like they could still do the job. “Here you go.” Jared offered the kinder surprise. His phone buzzed in his pocket, diverting his attention for just long enough to remember the following phrase: Mom says chocolate isn’t good for dogs. . . . Jared snatched it back into his pocket. Damn.

Distraction was his only option left. He wasn’t exactly a dog whisperer. Jared threw the kinder surprise to the right side of the yard, hoping to land it outside the fence, just beyond Lassie’s reach, and prepared to make a run for it. He’d beg his legs for forgiveness later.

He reached the door without tripping more than once, and tugged at the fly screen as the dog raced back, teeth bared and aimed at his bum.

“It’s the postie!” he yelled, pulling at the door handle, as he saw a curtain flutter to the left. His social life was over. 

Alex looked the same as everyone else. Maybe Jared had read the signs wrong. I mean, Alex was basically top of the food chain at Westlake High School. The lion. And lions didn’t think suicidal thoughts, or do suicidal things, to Jared’s knowledge at least. Yet he had cleared out his locker completely. Everything, even the girly pictures tacked to the door. It was a lot of effort to go to, just for the weekend. If Alex wasn’t a lion, Jared would say that he was identical in some ways to himself, the runt zebra of the school yard. 

Jared thought back to a Friday afternoon last year when he had cleared out his own locker, carefully, considerately. He hadn’t received any concerned or even curious questions. Not one person had even asked what, or why. Their eyes had slid over him as if asking a question was too much effort, on to the next thing with vague hopes that he would be okay. The few people Jared had taken pains to hide this from had not seen him with his arms full. ‘

Jared would watch Alex sometimes in homeroom, or P.E., and wonder what his life was like. He thought being that popular must come with a certain amount of pressure, which he didn’t envy, but surely it had its perks too. Jared was pretty sure Alex didn’t think about him, at least not anymore. 

They had never been friends, as such. But there was a time when they had been friendly over a joint history assignment. It was the only time Jared had ever been to Alex’s house, apart from the primary school party. Alex’s mum had apparently made him invite the whole class so Jared didn’t consider his invitation too special. 

Jared now watched Alex laugh as one of his muscular friends punched him playfully in the shoulder, every bit the high school cliché. 

According to the rumour mill, Alex had been in some kind of accident while up on the Sunshine Coast over summer break. He’d apparently been water skiing or something with a bunch of his mates and gotten some kind of injury, presumably serious. Word gets around. But when he came back all seemed to be well, with the exception of sitting out in P.E. for the first four weeks. But Alex kept on smiling. What didn’t get around was what exactly the injury was.

“What are you looking at, Jareldine?” asked Alex’s friend, Ben, with a smirk that Jared wished he had the nerve to wipe off the guy’s face. How original, Jared thought, but averted his eyes quickly. 

There had to be another reason. And yet, empty lockers spoke for themselves.

Alex grabbed his phone off the edge of the basin and plugged in his headphones. Something to make the room feel less silent, and judging. He surveyed his options laid out on the vanity and slowly inched his hand towards the knife, stolen from the second kitchen drawer. His fingers trembled as he shuffled his palm up toward it like an awkward army crawl. It seemed like a quick option, and not at all girly. And tile didn’t stain. 

His dad would be home first. He wanted to spare his mum and Jessie. He quickly reached over for the pen and added, “This is not your fault” in messy letters to his note. There was a crash outside and Callie was barking. He listened for a moment, popping one of the earphones out. Was that someone outside the house? But Callie stopped barking, and he couldn’t hear anything else. Great, now he was paranoid. What time did his dad say he’d be home again? Pulling the knife into his lap, he refocused. This time he was not just messing around.

        Jared waited primly outside the sick bay, trying not to look like he was listening to the conversation through the door, but truth be told he’d always been an awful eavesdropper. And he couldn’t help himself if people were going to raise their voices. People walked by to and from the school office.

“This really is a worry, son. Legally I should report this, ‘specially since it looks self-inflicted. An accident? Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday. At least let me call your parents.” A pause. “They’re not home? Well, when are they home?” An indistinct murmur. “Ah . . . I see. Well, go back to class for now, but I expect to see you next week.”

Alex Grayson opened the door, looking both ways then locking eyes on Jared. Jared stared so hard to the left that he thought he’d give himself a crick, but before he’d looked away they’d both registered the mutual surprise. Alex readjusted his long left sleeve ever so slightly but the movement caught Jared’s eye. A fresh bandage winked at him before disappearing behind navy cotton blend. 

“What are you doing here?” The nurse had opened the door behind him. “Alex,” she jerked her head. “Class, if you don’t mind?” She eyed Jared. “And you?”

Jared held up his right index finger, a few drops of blood dripping half-heartedly down it. “It’s nothing. Miss Crandie didn’t want blood on my essay, that’s all.” He tried smiling to take away the awkwardness, but had always had a tendency to increase rather than lessen awkward situations.

The nurse leaned back into the room without taking her hand off the door frame—inhospitable body language if Jared ever saw some—and he heard her mutter, “And you think iPads in schools these days would at least reduce the papercut rates . . .” She shoved a band aid in Jared’s direction with a humph. 

“I know,” he said, jerking his head to the right. “Class.”

The 6 o’clock news ended while his dad grunted over the newspaper. At the table, Alex glared down at his half written English essay and tried to tune out the new program that was starting. One of those A Current Affair type shows, where they bring the ‘real issues’ to light for the world to gasp and marvel over.

A woman was being interviewed, some kind of doctor. “Is it true that your research has proven a strong link between the repression of male emotion in the western world and a higher rate of suicide?” Focus on Shakespeare. This Macbeth was a real bastard. A hot flush crept up Alex’s neck. “Men, especially teenagers, need to feel that they are allowed to be struggling. Allowed to ask for help.” Who were the three witches again? Thank goodness for Sparknotes. 

“Turn this rubbish off,” his dad said, gesturing an impatient hand toward the flat screen TV, even though he was closest to it. He turned the page of his newspaper.

Alex’s mum hesitated as she looked between the television and her husband. Her words “I think it’s interesting” were lost in the sound of him slapping the paper down on the coffee table with a sudden smile. Alex slouched lower in his chair, picking at the table’s reclaimed wood.

“What’s for dinner?” His dad approached the table and glanced over Alex’s shoulder at Macbeth. “What rot. Haven’t they found something better to read by now?” He mussed Alex’s hair as Alex laughed half-heartedly, but the words of the television doctor repeated in his head.

Three simple words. Are you okay? It shouldn’t have been that hard to say them, and yet it was. Jared imagined all the possible humiliating responses, especially if Alex’s friends had been around. But weren’t those three words the very thing that Alex needed? The words that, if spoken, could have averted disaster. But he couldn’t find the courage, and so stayed dangerously silent. He’d let Alex walk away with his stack of books, just like his fellow students had done the previous year to him. He felt haunted by his own hypocrisy as he fiddled with the fly screen door. Was it locked from the inside or just stuck? He jiggled it with more force, no longer caring if ‘property damager’ was part of the label beside his name. It could join the line behind words like ‘loser’, and ‘gay’.

“But it was just water skiing. A few stitches, laying off exercise for a while, sure, but I swear I’m fine.”

“Alex, I know it’s hard to accept.” The doctor clasped his hands and unclasped them on the desk, his words aggravatingly slow. Like that would somehow make this easier. “And while, yes, physically you will heal, this is something that I’m afraid is not going to bounce back.”

“You’re sure?” Alex gripped the sides of his shorts, wiping off the sweat. “I don’t believe you.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, son. Having kids is—would have been—a long way off though. Most guys your age haven’t really thought about this stuff yet.”

But Alex had. And telling Kelsey was something he couldn’t even bear the thought of. 

“Your mum says you’ve been battling with a bit a bit of depression and anxiety lately . . .” The sentence hung in the air; an invitation to bear his soul.

“Look I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m fine. Thanks though.”

Jared was in a real panic now. He shook the screen door furiously. Was he already too late? He hadn’t seen that curtain flutter again, and there was obviously no one else home. If there had been, they would have come out several minutes ago, demanding to know what the hell this skinny stranger was doing on their veranda. He’d found a broom leaning up against the front of the house to ward off the dog, but he was out of kinder surprises and Lassie had already gotten two decent nips in. 

“I’m trying to help,” he grunted to her as he gave the heave that finally unstuck the door—or broke its lock. Evidently the family relied heavily on the fly screen door, because the actual door was unlocked. He fell through the doorway, panting, and shut the door in the dog’s face, not caring for the moment if he squashed her nose. He wondered if this was what having a heart attack felt like, but it was no time for speculating. Jared opened one door, surprising an already frightened tabby cat, then another. “Alex?” Nothing. He strode through a vaguely familiar living room. What if his instincts were off? Would he get done for breaking and entering? No time. He followed the passage way. Past an empty bedroom that he presumed was Alex’s. The contents of his locker were spilled across the bed and water skis sat skewwhiff on a shelf above the desk. How was this going to go down? They weren’t even friends. He faced two closed doors at the end of the hallway.

“Alex?” He tried again. “It’s me, Jared. From school. I just thought . . .”

His hand trembled on the door handle for a second. He thrust open the door as the knife clattered to the tiled bathroom floor. 

“What the?” Alex Grayson looked up in about as much shock as a person could be in. “What are you doing here?” His face was unusually pale and his hair was sticking a bit to his clammy forehead. Jared looked at Alex’s muscular forearm, the scars making a trail right down to his wrist. 

Jared turned his own arm skinny arm around and offered it to Alex. “Um, I saw you clear out your locker yesterday and I just came to ask you something.”

The Headstone (creative)

Here is a short story I wrote in my third year at Deakin. It’s a bit quirky and longer than my usual blog posts but stick with it if it’s holding your interest. I’m really passionate about fiction so I hope you enjoy this.



The little decisions were always the hardest for Tom. The most important, heartbreaking things could be going on in his life and the thing that he was wrestling with was which flavour ice cream to get at the school canteen or which friend to sit next to at lunch. Was there a way to pick one without offending the other?
The shop was bustling, like death was somehow electrifying, and not quiet, like it should have been. “Glasgow’s Most Exciting Headstones” the sign outside boasted. If the sign was boastful, the inside of the shop was positively up itself. The hodgepodge of items crowded around shoppers, pressing in from every side like mourners at an open grave. It looked more like a Poundland tribute to Halloween, with black crepe paper and badly cut cardboard crosses strung limply around the room to strike a certain ‘mood’. Were those cobwebs real or manufactured? Tom wondered as he pulled back his hoodie to get a better look. Why had Sarah left him in here to make this choice by himself? She was the adult, after all, and from what he’d seen the last fifteen years, capable of making a decision. Tom always manipulated people’s view of his age, depending on what suited him, and right now he felt seven and about three feet tall.
The girl behind the counter beamed out at the room like she was about to give them all a prize. Maybe it was a smug smile because she felt like she was further away from death than the rest of the room—except for Tom. It was hard to tell. Tom would have guessed her to be about the same age as him, but why was she working here? Tom checked his watch. School wasn’t out yet. Over leggings she wore a fluffy purple skirt that reminded Tom of a tutu, and a festive looking cat winked at him from the girl’s t-shirt. Tom thought she belonged in a store selling tiaras or frosted dream cakes, not working here as some kind of fairy of death. He wondered what her name was.
“Ashley with three e’s?” whispered Tom to himself,  a grin wrapping its fingers around the corners of his lips, hanging on, before falling backwards, arms flailing, into a deep abyss.
“What was that?” the girl asked, leaning low over the counter to catch the words that had already vanished. The ends of her braided strawberry blonde hair brushed the newspaper at her fingertips. She pulled her lips further back to reveal more slightly crooked teeth. She wasn’t altogether unattractive and Tom might have felt flattered if this were a normal situation, but it wasn’t. Her smile reminded him of a happy meerkat baring its teeth.
“Uh, nothing,” he mumbled, and looked away.
“Can I help you, sir?” she persisted.
“No, thanks. Just browsing,” Tom replied as a reflex before realising how idiotic he sounded.
She gave him a knowing look and turned away.
A family of four came side-shuffling down the row of gravestones toward him, the two young children shrinking back into their parents, making it hard for the parents to walk. Tom tried to shift politely out of the way, but his bulky school backpack knocked an urn on a shelf behind him. His foot shot out as a reflex to break the urn’s fall and the girl behind the counter lunged forward. Most of the other people in the shop glanced up, but only as a reflex, and then carried on with their browsing.
Tom muttered a general apology as he replaced the lid on the unbroken urn and returned it to its shelf, gingerly. It had a black and white sticker that said ‘test urn’, whatever that meant.
“No bother, son,” the father of the family said brusquely, patting Tom on the shoulder with a clumsy hand.
That damn backpack. His mum had always said—
But which headstone to get? He wished Sarah would come back. About ten minutes after walking into the shop, she’d remembered how she’d forgotten her dry cleaning “just up the street”. She’d been gone half an hour and Tom was feeling more awkward by the minute, especially with the girl behind the counter staring him down. He would have gone out to find Sarah by now, but he’d only been to Glasgow a handful of times, and never to this section. The times he hadn’t come with school, he and his parents hadn’t strayed far from Sarah’s university. Tom had one awful, sudden thought that maybe she hadn’t really needed to go to the drycleaners. That maybe she wasn’t coming back. His tongue felt swollen, like it might choke him any second, and he forced himself to look around—really look—while he talked himself down.
The walls of the shop were a staid grey, the paint peeling off at the top corners, like it was tired of being there and wanted to crawl away. A few people around Tom were crying as they perused the headstones, noses wrinkling as they sniffed, and dragged crumpled, expired tissues of their pockets again and again, trying not to drop their umbrellas in the process. He felt a numbness filling him from head to toe, and the emotion of the other customers made him uncomfortable, rather than sympathetic. That’s what death was, above all things: uncomfortable. And there was nothing weirder than a group of strangers wandering around a graveyard-themed store, trying to find that one particularly exciting headstone that the wet sign outside promised in cursive letters and no uncertain terms. The blonde fifty-something lady to Tom’s left—a widow, most likely—stepped deep into his personal space to peer down at a white marble headstone. She smelled like his grandmother’s perfume and public transport.  Her hair was pinned back in sedate curls and her expression was appropriately demure, as if only missing a black fascinator. Tom wondered what his expression was like, and decided it had to be less impressive than hers. She sniffed almost violently and blew her nose into an already full hankie, tucking it back into her black sleeve. Tom glanced down at his blue jeans and maroon hoodie almost guiltily.
She turned to him, gesturing to the headstone. “What do you think?”
Tom panicked. “How should I know?” he said somewhat roughly, and immediately regretted it when the lady’s eyebrows pulled together and another tear slipped out. She didn’t wipe this one away and it hung off the edge of her downy chin, accusing him.
The girl sprang out from behind the counter and said, “I think this one’s just gorgeous, love. And for the low price of £900.99, well, you can’t really go wrong.” She snuck a glance at Tom in her peripherals and smiled brightly at the lady. “Tissue?”

When he was thirteen, Tom had come home from school with a black eye and a busted lip. His face was grubby with streaked dirt and dried, crusty tears; his fists were aching from clenching them for hours on end. His dad had come home early and found him at the kitchen table digging his HB pencil hard into the pages of his maths homework. There were no lights on, and through the window the light was fading out of the sky.
“Hey, Dad.” He had spoken first, trying to sound casual, but keeping his eyes down. The Trigonometry sum under his pencil swam out of focus and back in again.
His father greeted him while hanging up his coat and switching on a lamp suspended above the table. Picking up a pencil like usual, his dad took a seat opposite him and finally noticed the way Tom was clawing at his pages, head bowed.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
“It’s this maths problem. I just can’t—” As he said this, Tom finally looked up, the events of the day stamped on his face. He ground his teeth, mouth closed.
“Son, what happened to you?” His dad leaned forward. His eyes were wide, waiting in tense concern for Tom’s answer. Instead of speaking, Tom watched his dad absently bend the pencil he’d picked up, pressing the top end down with his thumb until Tom thought it would snap. Suddenly he dropped it and it clattered to the table in the silent room, rolling a little toward Tom.
“I just don’t get Pythagoras theorem,” Tom sniffed, stifling his dad’s suspense and driving his own pencil further into the paper until the lead finally snapped. “And sine, cos and tan sound like types of vegetables.” e He tried to laugh but it was squeakier than he intended; he cleared his throat lustily, shoving his shame down deep. “My teacher says I’ll pick it up in no time, but I find it hard to believe her. And I can never choose which one to use for which problem,” he huffed.
“Tom,” his father said firmly, his brown eyes kind. “Forget your maths. We need to talk about what’s really going on.”
What’s really going on.

Tom wandered around the shop for a while, looking for more signs of peeling paint, while the girl retreated behind the counter; one eye on him, one on the lady with the big flashing dollar sign over her head, and apparently one strange, third eye to look down at the newspaper. She was the kind of person he could imagine saying, “I’ve got my eye on you” to a customer and winking, without getting fired. He inched closer to the signs above head height behind the cash register—promoting ways to R.I.P eternally, memorably, fashionably—and didn’t look her way until he felt obligated to by her stabbing glances every couple of seconds. What was she so fascinated by?
“What’s the time, please?” he asked, self-consciously running his tongue over his top teeth to check for food, and then felt stupid. Ice cream didn’t stick.
She beamed. “Half four.”
His mum had always believed that telling you when you had something in your teeth was the hallmark of a true blue friend. She had quoted Dr Seuss in her gentle Northern Isle lilt: “Be yourself, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Never be ashamed of who you are.


At thirteen, when his dad had finally got it out of him, the most embarrassing thing for Tom was not that he’d been beaten up in the school yard. No. The most shameful thing was that his sister had come to stand in front of him and fight back. He appreciated her efforts, but even at thirteen he’d been sure that men had to fight their own battles. It didn’t escape him that the whole thing seemed kind of topsy-turvy.  Sarah had unintentionally made his situation worse because, of course, they wouldn’t hit a girl, and she couldn’t be around every time they came for Tom, which he learnt the following afternoon in the locker room. That night he’d struggled to find the right way to tell her not to interfere again. That that was the best way to help him. To not help him. Surprisingly, she had tried to prolong that conversation, drawing Tom gently from his masculine cave with words like “safe space” and “trust circle”, even though it had only been the two of them. She was the fix-it, stiff upper lip kind of person when it came to these things. It was the first time Tom had not given in, had kept it together, and it felt good. At least for a while.
The girl rested an elbow on the counter, reading the day’s obituaries and twirling the end of her braid around her fingers. Occasionally she paused to errantly chew her left thumbnail. Reading the daily death column could have been misconstrued as morbid, but Tom saw it as how passionate she was about her job—or even keeping abreast of the current industry trends. He didn’t take the time to wonder how a girl this young had ended up in a job selling headstones in the first place. He tensed as the name MacDonald caught his eye, yet couldn’t stop himself from leaning over to get another look at what his sister had drafted the night before.

Loving parents
Tom and Eilidh MacDonald
passed away in a road accident
5 miles outside of Ullapool
Sunday 22nd November 2008
Aged 49 and 46 years
leaving behind two children
Sarah and Tom Jr.
Funeral Friday 10am
St. Bridget’s Cathedral

Tom caught a glimpse of his face in the mounted wall mirror below the ridiculous signs. His brown hair hung limp on his neck and forehead, a mixture of grease and the afternoon’s rain. His dark brown-black eyes stood pronounced by the bags comfortably encircling them. His mouth was twisted into some kind of unintentional snarl, which was surprisingly hard to get rid of. He knew why the girl looked at him now with a renewed, but different, kind of interest. Tom didn’t like being observed in this way, like he couldn’t be trusted not to throw his backpack at one of the headstones or start juggling the urns. He turned away. Where was Sarah?
People always thought they could help when you were grieving. Two days after the accident, an old friend of the family had run into Tom in Ullapool, outside a shop along the bay. Under low clouds the storefronts followed the curve of the shoreline, huddling in close to each other like old gossips, most likely in conversation about him.
“Tom!” Tears had sprung into her eyes as soon as she spotted him and moved in for a bosomy hug. “Oh, you must be just devastated. The whole community is rocked. What a horrible way to die! All strewn across the wet road like that. I always say, these roads are so dangerous . . .”
Sarah had stepped out of the shop behind him a moment later and moved in front of him to take over the conversation with Mrs MacAvill, although Tom could still see over her head. At that moment she hadn’t seemed twenty.
Tom remembered going home and kneeling by the toilet, vomiting until his stomach was empty; the way his dry retching had bounced off the bathroom tiles after there was nothing left to throw up. He slumped back against the cold, hard wall, trying to catch his breath. People always thought they could help, but they couldn’t.

“You look a bit lost, dear,” the blonde lady wearing black observed with another sniff. “Do you have someone here to help you? Who are you finding a headstone for, anyway?”
The girl behind the counter looked over at him, waiting to see what he would say. The young family from his clumsy moment before turned their bodies to stare at him too, seeming relieved rather than irritated at the distraction.
Tom stared back at them, his vision blurring at the edges. His throat closed over, and he felt like he would choke. He swallowed convulsively, trying to arrange his face into a smile.
The motorbike crashed again and again and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The tires screeched. Tom willed the brakes to work. He screamed. He screamed. The blood flowed out on to the road, pooling, and then was absorbed by the frozen bitumen. The wind nipped at the edges of the strap holding a backpack to the back of the bike, and whipped his mother’s chin length hair against her face.
What was it the neighbours and relatives had all said? “Thank God the kids weren’t there to see it.”
The bell on the door jingled cheerily and Sarah’s voice came from behind Tom. “Sorry I took so . . . long.”
Tom turned and saw her assessing the situation, everyone’s gaze now encompassing both of them.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
        . . . Those who matter don’t mind.
“Are you . . . sure I can’t help you, sir?” the girl working there ventured tentatively, now that the room was finally quiet. “You’ve been here a long time.”

Sunday’s prompt: describe an electronic device in the future that you won’t know how to operate

I have made it a week with these prompts and feel somewhat accomplished.

Considering I already don’t know how to use a lot of today’s electronic devices (I may still be suspicious of e-books), it should be easy for me to describe something technology-related that I’ll be clueless about, but I’m struggling.

I’ve heard about a tracking device that fits on the head of a pin.

Here are some of the issues I’d have with that:

  1. Finding it after I’d put it down
  2. Programming it because I’d first have to invent an electronic hand with fingers small enough to handle it
  3. Convincing people (especially those with low vision) that I actually had one of these things because it probably couldn’t be seen with the naked eye

You’d be able to track anything or anyone, like your kid who you thought was up to no good. You might want to track your dog or cat if you’re that way inclined, although I don’t think a pet would require such a stealthy device. You could put it on your grandma if you had one like the great grandmother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who keeps trying to run away. You could put it on your phone, keys or wallet if you’re one of those people perpetually losing one of these items (we all know someone like this).

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t even know how to turn it on or off, or how to connect it to a device like a computer, in order to track someone. If I only learnt how to open my car bonnet last year, I think something this high-tech wouldn’t have trouble stumping me. I conclude that I’d just have to put the device on something I never wanted to find.

And thus ends the week of writing to respond to prompts from 642 Things to Write About.

Thanks for reading!


Image:, 1 May 2016.

Saturday’s prompt: write a recipe for disaster



Pre-heat the oven first (duh).


Pour two very tired parents into a medium sized bowl

Add 3 cups of 4 kids each hyped up on red cordial, red snakes…anything red, basically

Stir in a very drunk third cousin and a brother who can’t find his pants

Sift a teaspoon of an open gate right near your two week old retriever that hasn’t been trained or tagged yet (if wondering why please refer to step 2 of method)

Crack a bad egg of an uncle with few social skills besides telling corny jokes into the bowl

Stir well

Be sure to: forget about the guests you invited over, scheduled to arrive about…2 minutes ago, according to the ov–

Excuse me; gotta go!!

(Remove from the oven with the smoke alarms disconnected. Success not guaranteed)



Image:, sourced 30 April 2016.

Friday’s prompt: where you wish you were

I get so excited as I browse through this smorgasbord of prompts because ideas start buzzing and soon my mind resembles a beehive and the only problem is which story to write first. Are you ever afraid that you’ll have a really great idea and then forget it? And then you think, that could have been the story idea that got me onto the New York Times bestseller list and an interview with Ellen Degeneres. Or maybe that’s just me.

I make a point not to spend my time wishing to be elsewhere, but since the book asked, the place I dream of is Italy. About a month ago, the travel agent asked why I was going to Europe. In one of those moments where you say exactly what you think I replied, “Because I feel like I’m going to die if I don’t.” Europe has been my dream ever since I can remember. The year before last I got to a point where I couldn’t even listen to people talk about Europe, because I wanted it so much. I would walk out of group conversations and considered deleting a few of my friends from Facebook when it felt like my entire friends list was travelling Europe. In Year 12 I asked our coordinator to take down the posters for Au Pair (the overseas nannying gap year program) if he wanted me to get a university education. There has always be a reason why I can’t go and I constantly fear that I won’t be able to reach Europe before something or someone ties me down, and then I would end up resenting them or it (just the sad truth).

But this year there is finally no obstacle and my dream of Italy and Europe is becoming a reality – although it still seems way too good to be true. A reality of peanut butter sandwiches for dinner and avoiding spending money on most things as I scrounge together the cash in a relatively short amount of time (apparently these things are best booked a year in advance, note to self for next time).

I dream of Europe … of the Eiffel Tower and vineyards of France; the ravioli and Venetian long boats and painted ceilings of Italy; the white washed houses of Greece, the mountain peaks of Austria and Switzerland, brushed with snow and dotted with wildflowers; the myriad dead authors’ houses and red telephone booths of England; the history that haunts Berlin.

People have said to me, “But what if it’s not what you dream of?”and I say, “That’s for me to find out.” Even if Europe is a total washout for me, and I turn out not even liking one single thing, I can live with that. But I have to know. I’ll go crazy if I don’t, and the thing I can’t live with is not getting to experience it.

Most days I’m content where I am, but right now I’d also be content floating down a Venetian canal in a gondola,  squinting at the Italian sun through Armani sunglasses (likely) as I eat a slice of authentic pizza. For the afternoon I’ve planned a cooking class and a tour through old churches with art crafted centuries ago.

Yes, I can’t wait for September.


Image:×900/1305/Vernazza-Italy-city-sea-beach-boats-houses-people_1440x900.jpg, sourced 29 April 2016.