The target was just around the corner; its beacon flashed on the map. I broke into a run, my boots thudding on the asphalt. Pressure built through my knees and I began to lose my breath. The streets were dark and empty, I had to be the first one there.
My foot slipped on the kerb and I fell. Landing awkwardly my palm peeled open. A hot pain seared up my wrist. My phone vibrated, the map had updated. I had to keep moving.
I caught my breath on the corner of Shannon Place and Waymouth Street. Leaning heavily against the brick wall, I pressed scan, it would take 10 seconds. My hand started to swell; I scratched at it feebly with ragged chewed finger nails. Looking at my phone I saw that it was 19:15. The sun had just gone down and the sky was a flat sheet of hazy pink punctured by a blob of moon light.
A car screeched around the corner with its high beams on and blinded me. Its engine sounding like it was gutturally gurgling petrol and spewing out fumes. As it pulled up Brian stuck his thickly bearded head out of the window.
‘How d’ya keep beating me ya fat prick?’ He shouted.
Each data beacon awards fifteen points. Brian hadn’t been ahead of me once since I convinced him to get the Scanners App and play with me.
‘I guess I’m just a better agent than you Brian. You’ll have to step up your training if you wanna match me in cyber defence.’
Through Scanners we were agents of a secretive government organisation. We were defending Adelaide from invasion by intercepting pockets of strategic data from the Alien threat.
‘Well shit Ethan now I’m down thirty points. Hey you look pretty shagged, want a lift?’
‘Cheers but I’ll just catch the bus. Besides there’s another beacon near my place.’
The light from my phone stung my eyes in the dimness of the evening.
My eyes are used to screens. I am in front of them all day at work, and in the evenings I play online games with Meredith. She’d been excited about games ever since I introduced her to them. I was supposed to be helping her with her homework but ended up making her an account for Guild Wars. And then building her a gaming PC. Together we’d quest late into the night looking for sweet loot drops.
During the day though I had long hours troubleshooting the various network problems at the Adelaide Police Station, and frequently cleaning up viruses and adware off their antiquated PCs.
When Meredith didn’t feel like cooking we’d eat take away and I’d have a few beers. It was all catching up with me. Just running up Shannon Place had me feeling knackered. But as an elite agent in the Scanners unit at least I could nerd out and get some exercise.
‘Alright, try not to get raped and murdered, and say hi to Meredith for me will ya.’ Brian said and rolled up his window.
‘Such a shit stirrer,’ I muttered.
At the office Brian would come out with ridiculous jokes and inappropriate stories. I usually found them funny but would still feel awkward listening to him talking like that. He worked in the sexual crimes department of SAPOL. I suppose humour is his coping mechanism, some of the other cops joke around as well. I guess they’ve had to find a way to escape, to deflect, and to stop thinking about reality.
I’m an IT guy without any problem with reality; I just float from screen to screen.
Quin St was quiet. The row of garage doors across from my place stretched up the street making a long wall leaving no room for a sidewalk. The angled kerb at the foot of my driveway caused my foot to slip slightly.
‘Fucking kerbs,’ I muttered.
From the graze my hand was chubbier than usual and I awkwardly wriggled it into my pocket. The skinny jeans Meredith had persuaded me to get had the most annoying pockets. I swear they had shrunk when she washed them.
The cool metal of my keys soothed my hand and I used the key to scratch at my palm before opening the gate.
The lights were off. The house was dark.
‘Hmmph, and she’s always telling me not to sit in the dark,’ I said to myself.
Crossing the small backyard I see her bike on its side trampling some weeds.
‘What is she trying to crush them to death?’
I’m not an outdoor person. Sometimes Meredith says we should grow some vegetables or something. I just look at it and give up.
I’ve never had a green thumb, but my Engineer in Guild Wars is a high level alchemist, and has a huge herb collection.
Gnarled trunks and long grasses cover all of the soil in the yard, and there are little spiky fern things. Meredith would know what they are called. I’d just ask google.
Sliding open the door I glimpse my reflection. My cheeks look puffy red and my eyes are watering, I hadn’t even noticed. The cold air has made me numb, and the breeze winding through the tangled grasses has made my hair stand on end.
‘Meredith, you aren’t questing without me are you?’ I ask of the quiet house.
I move through the house turning all the lights on.
On the kitchen counter sits an opaque plastic cup, a drop or two of soda stubbornly clinging to the bottom.
I’m starting to get a bit worried. Meredith usually greets me when I get home. And she’s usually got the kettle boiling.
At the bottom of the stairs the rubber soles of my boots stick to the tiles. Looking down I see a small piece of soggy paper. I bend down to pick it up and a sickly sugary smell makes me slightly lightheaded. Stumbling back to lean against the wall I examine the paper. It sits limply in my hand and I recognise it as a receipt from the Arena on Rundle.
‘Meredith, what’s going on?’ I shout, and run up the stairs.
Her bedroom door is open, and her computer is on, its kitten-in-a-sweater wallpaper stares back at me with wide eyes. Her chair is overturned, her school bag is emptied on her bed, and the posters from her walls are strewn across the floor.
My grip tightens on the receipt and my pulse booms between my ears.
My phone vibrates and I automatically check it. It is a message from an unknown number.
I squint at the screen and try to read the message but it doubles and the letters jump around. My eyes swell with water and I try to rub them but can’t coordinate my hands.
… Mr Kline we’re taking Meredith … we’ll ttyl.
Uncomprehending I watch as the screen falls away from me, from between my fingers and towards the floor.
I move through space on autopilot, like a cloud of vapour, like an ambulatory smog—colours and shapes move past me, or I move past them—I’m watching as I perform actions but I’m not in control; there is an imperative within my head, pounding, but I linger, transfixed by the chemical impulses within me; my behaviour has become instinctual—or just habitual? Is it muscle memory, mental imbalance or an intentional mechanism holding me back, forcing me to look on; I’m deadened, stuck in space, crying internally yet still lingering. I feel my limbs begin to flail—respond to my input, and pull me along—but I dissipate out into the cold air.
And then I sleep.
The sky overhead was a softening purple colour. A few motley magpies had started their morning cawing, keeping an off-timed rhythm. Their eyes greedily absorbing the morning light as they forage. And annoy Ethan.
Ticking along in his head he tried to follow their rhythm with his mental metronome, but their cawing kept changing pace and skipping beats. He slowly moved toward consciousness. His thoughts started piecing together. He devoted a good five minutes to thinking about the magpies. Were they even magpies? Meredith would know. He thought they sounded stupid the way their caw ended with an extended exhale. Like an insincere laugh, trailing off only to start up again.
He sat up.
And he reached over to brace himself on the … pavers?
Turning his head he squashed his nose against a bin lid. He was lying in the aftermath of a toppled bin. Hot pocket packets, soda bottles, and beer cans. Had he fallen out of the window?
Looking up he saw a network of thin misty clouds that glowed and spread like tendrils through the sky. Their pattern entranced him and he sat still in the detritus of the week. Refocusing on the wall of the house he noticed there wasn’t even a window on this side.
Maybe he fell from the roof. His ass did hurt. And when he finally stood up he saw that a pile of tins had been digging into his lower back.
‘Canned corn? Is this even my house?’ He asked himself. He wasn’t sure if he had ever eaten canned corn before.
Ethan went to rub his face. His hand was sticky with the garbage soup he’d evidently been stewing in overnight.
Stumbling into the front yard he saw the garden and instantly knew it was his house.
‘Yep, those are my weeds. How did I get outside?’
He talked to himself. It was a habit he had developed, he knew he was already thinking the things he was saying. But it was as if saying things out loud made them more concrete. He often repeated things, and double checked things. Reciting what he was thinking to himself helped him focus. Yet he was paranoid that someone would hear him.
Leaning against the fence Ethan dug around in his pocket for his phone to check the time. And smeared his sticky finger across the screen.
‘Ergh, six o’clock, how did that happen?’
On the other side of the fence a husky throat cleared and answered.
‘What? Are you talking to me?’
Ethan froze for a second and then scurried inside embarrassed.
‘Damn it now my neighbour thinks I’m insane’ he softly said once safely inside.
As he perfunctorily washed up in the bathroom he relived what had just happened. What was his neighbour doing awake at 6 am anyway? Waiting by his fence, eavesdropping on Ethan?
He wondered if he should have replied, and pretended that yes he was talking to old Mr McLeod next-door who he had never spoken to before. Ethan seemed to recall Meredith talking about him once or twice in the past, he guessed that was how he even knew his name.
‘Oh shit Meredith. Get it together Ethan. Stop mucking around and go find her.’
Still feeling sticky and a bit malodorous he wasn’t even sure what to do. He thought of his ex-wife; she would know, she was good in stressful situations, that’s where their daughter gets it from. Meredith would know what to do.
Taking out his phone he called Brian.
‘Hey Brian, Meredith’s gone, can you come and meet me at Arena?’
‘What? Slow down, it’s fucking 6am.’
‘Yeah I know. Anyway listen, Meredith is missing.’
‘Are you sure she hasn’t just gone out?’
‘No, I mean, I don’t think so, I got this weird text, something about some people taking her.’
‘Yeah well, message them back, she might just be partying or something.’
‘No, look, can you just meet me at the Arena on Rundle Street? Something’s happening, her room was trashed last night and I passed out.’
‘You shouldn’t be so stressed out, teenagers always have messy rooms. I’m sure its fine. Did you get drunk last night and pass out from too much gaming?’
‘No. I’d just gotten home and was looking around, I woke up in my bins outside, but the last thing I remember is being in her room.’
‘You what? Okay, okay, fine, I’ll see you there in half an hour or so, is that good?’
‘Yeah … yeah, cheers man.’
Ethan hung up and headed through the kitchen to the stairs. Still holding his phone. The soda cup was still on the counter, but now it was joined by a couple of dirty plates. The kitchen bin was empty and bagless, it’s lid on the floor next to it.
He checked Meredith’s room again. It looked like it had been tidied a bit. There was only one poster on the floor and the contents of her school bag was in a neat pile.
‘Meredith!’ he shouted. Maybe she had been home?
He went to check her desk. Next to the keyboard was the receipt. There was a small forest of beer cans on her desk, and he couldn’t remember if they had been there the night before. As he stared at the tall cylinders he leant forward and rested heavily on the table.
Meredith’s PC woke up, Guild Wars was running, the log in screen glowing white with splashes of colour across it. Ethan’s account name was in the small blue box, and underneath it the text cursor pulsed in the password box. Had Ethan used her computer last night? It was all a blur. Nothing made sense. His stomach rumbled and a dull pain pulsed behind his temples.
‘I need a coffee.’ He muttered.
Mr McLeod crouched in the garden weeding. He’d been awake since 5 am; since he had retired he couldn’t make himself sleep in. He’d given up his residency at the University of Adelaide and just couldn’t stop moving.
His shorts were tied tightly around his waist with string. The fabric was all bunched up in dart-like folds making the hem wavy. His neck, and squarish head, poked up out of the neck-hole of a sweater which looked like someone had jumped through it. The skin exposed by the sagging neckline—and extending out from the baggy sleeves—was covered in freckles and liver spots.
As the sun rays began to dance across the top of his fence Mr McLeod stood up, his bones cracking underneath him.
Mm a cup of tea and some chia seed pancakes would be nice he thought to himself.
As he made his way inside he drew his lips tight. Thinking about the young man next door: Mr Kline and his little girl, not so little anymore. She’d come and help in the garden sometimes after school, and they’d spend hours talking about science and the nature of reality. She’s sixteen and living in a dream guided by her hermit of a father. But she is so passionate about life.
Not once in the six years he had lived next to Ethan had he met him. And Ethan’s shaky voice this morning as he talked to himself was the first time he’d even heard from him.
Taking his breakfast upstairs to a sitting room Mr McLeod sat on a tilted ergonomic chair. It’s squeaky black leather sticking to his hand as he braced himself. Placing his breakfast tray on a little table he looked out the window at the sky. The sun was visible on the horizon now, its white hot ball of plasma blobbing up from the horizon, and its photons scattering through the atmosphere adopting a fiery yellow tint.
On the side of the small table he had a yellow post-it note. It said:
Pick up Meredith from 150 Marlborough St Henley Beach at 11 am.
Rundle St, before the early morning rush. Lined with cafés and restaurants, trendy and overpriced. From a nearby kitchen the smell of frying fat wafts out and blends with the fading street lights. Last night’s drinkers and partygoers have finished puking in the streets, and now they are deserted.
As I approach the alcove entrance I see Brian by the door underneath the big Arena Internet Café sign, his long coat dipping into a pile of cigarette butts at his feet. He is squat and stubby. At under five foot he is dwarfed by almost everything; the safety bollards across from him looked about the same height.
‘Hey, cheers for coming,’ I said.
‘Jeez you look like crap man. They don’t even open until 10.’
‘Shit I didn’t think they’d be closed, pretty sure I’ve stumbled out of here this late before.’
‘You’re such a fat nerd,’ Brian said.
‘Yeah thanks for that detective inspector manlette.’
His face bunched up at that, probably a low blow.
‘I got a receipt from here, found it in Meredith’s room, but we haven’t been here for months.’
‘So?’ He said, still pouting a bit.
‘I don’t know, let’s try to get inside.’
‘We can’t just break in Ethan, what are you insane?’
‘Look, someone took Meredith, I don’t know what I’ll do without her. I have to find her.’
‘Alright calm down man, they open in a few hours, we’ll just go back to your place and wait a bit. What do you expect to find in there anyway?’ His features were pained. The blue bags under his eyes seemed to blend straight into the yellow-grey of his nicotine stained beard.
‘I … I dunno … I just need to know if she was in there yesterday, if someone followed her home and then took her …’
My throat closed up. The words seemed unwilling to slip out from behind my tongue. I slowly drifted off—dragging my head with me—and projected myself up over the streets and above the buildings, into the black screen-like sky. Droplets of water formed in wisps around me through the dense cloud. And in the next second I felt the tug of Brian’s attention, and I drifted back to the side of the street.
‘Yesterday morning she was getting ready as usual for school, packing her lunch … she’s my little girl you know … ’
Breathing heavily in the stale air Meredith stands in the corner wrapped in red and black silk. She then shimmies across the room, her eyes wide and her blood pumping warm. Around her the sweaty bodies of teenagers sway together to booming reverberations emanating from the next room.
Meredith’s face is layered in thick paint, a pallid covering with flame highlights that traps the sweat in her pores. From behind two broad licks of orange and yellow her fat irises shine black with a thin ring of blue.
A large hairy figure stands in front of her, blocking the doorway.
‘Who are you?’ it said with a voice that tumbled out from a thick furry snout.
‘I’m a fire spec Elementalist … um a mage.’ The shiny fabric of her long sleeves swooped through the air as she spoke. Her hand almost becoming entangled with a string of LED pumpkins.
‘Great party eh? So how long have you known the witch?’ He asked, shouting over the commotion. The Wolfman was now casually leaning against the doorframe, his oversized fur costume forming awkward folds around the neck, and its long nose scrunching to the side.
He was oblivious to the mummy behind him who was trying to squeeze past. Meredith zoned out for a moment watching the mummy’s struggle. And momentarily forgot who the witch was.
‘Oh you mean Jessica, yeah I’ve known her since like year 8.’ She said.
‘I’ve seen you at Arena. How come we don’t talk more often?’
‘Um, I dunno, I don’t want to be led astray by a wolf. Even one with a wrinkled snout.’
There was another long pause as the mummy finally pushed through the doorway causing The Wolfman’s flabby skin to twist around, his head now fully squished against the doorframe as he stumbled forward.
The face paint at the edges of Meredith’s mouth cracked as she laughed.
The Wolfman fidgeted with his flabby skin, the hard plastic claws on his hands making him clumsy. After watching him struggle she finally decided to help him.
She thought of the unknown face behind the costume. Of the faces behind all of the costumes that surrounded her. The crowd was undulating together, the room was hot and stifling. Among smell of paint, alcohol, and smoke they all melted into a writhing mass.
Meredith thought about the persona she was adopting. She had wanted to be herself even though it was Halloween. Tonight she was still assuming her Guild Wars character, but now an Elementalist in flesh and silk instead of pixels and code.
Jessica had convinced Meredith to come out. She’d insisted that Meredith had to get away, even if just for one night. This was Jessica’s party and she’d brought Meredith around early and had helped her with her costume.
Meredith was envious of Jessica. In French class they sat together, they talked about their dreams and their relationships. Meredith ended up listening more than talking. Jessica would call her ‘mum,’ and press her about all the housework and chores that she did, about how she was basically caring for a child. That always made Meredith mad, thinking of her father like that. He was naïve, lazy, maybe a bit closed off. He had always been a bit vague and preoccupied but he seemed worse after her mum left. Meredith knew his gaming addiction and detachment from reality was how he coped, but how was she supposed to cope?
‘I see you’ve found Julian,’ Jessica said, leaning right into Meredith’s ear.
‘Oh,’ she said quietly. And then loudly, ‘Hi Julian, I didn’t know it was you.’
He’d finally become untangled and was no longer blocking the doorway. From somewhere he had acquired a plastic cup with a long straw and was trying to drink from it. As he tried to feed the straw up the neck hole the wolf head wobbled back and forth.
‘What do you think of her costume Julian?’ Jessica asked, motioning toward Meredith’s hips.
‘Yeah, it’s really nice, she makes a good Elementalist.’
She did. Her body was small and lithe, which matched the way she moved: measured and without any wasted energy.
But Meredith didn’t want to talk about herself she wanted to get to know Julian. He seemed confident and charismatic, he worked at Arena, and she would catch herself staring at him whenever she went there after school. She’d pay for a few hours of game time and spent chunks of it daydreaming. Jessica had been the brave one and invited him.
‘Alright Mother Meredith, I’ll leave you two alone.’ Jessica said, and then blended back among the moving shapes of the crowd.
For a few minutes Ethan had paced between Brian and his desk. He’d rambled then sat in the chair of his study and massaged the keyboard instinctively. Brian had found a soft part of the couch and slipped off for a few micro naps, gently pawing off Ethan when he disturbed him.
They had returned to Ethan’s house, seen the overturned bins, inspected the mess, and Brian had not thought much of it. He’d initially agitated Ethan, probed at his understanding of the previous night’s events. And tried to reason with him. But had been ignored. Ethan was like a stuck record clinging to the same groove, wearing it thin and then continuing to wallow in it. ‘She’s been taken, we’ll question the clerk at Arena when they open.’ This was all he said, all he focussed on before he slipped into a daydream like state at his desk.
Now an alarm went off and he shot up from his chair. It was 9:45 am.
He quickly locked his computer. His fingers finding the right keyboard shortcut. ‘Windows key’ and ‘L’ and he was back in the real world. Logged back into reality. Yet the transition was fuzzy. He was uncertain how the time had passed, it was only moments earlier that they had arrived home, wasn’t it? Meredith would know.
‘C’mon Brian, wake up, Arena will be open in 15 minutes. I wanna go down there and talk to the clerk.’
Brian dragged himself upright and wiped the drool from his beard.
‘Look mate, I think you’re overreacting. Read that message to me. Are you sure you can’t remember anything?’
‘No I can’t remember, I’ve told you. Don’t believe me if you don’t want to but I just feel like something isn’t right.’
‘What did the message say exactly?’
‘I don’t fucking know alright, it was something about people taking her. They said they’d contact me but I haven’t heard a word.’
‘Lemme see your phone.’ Brian said outstretching his hand and letting out a sigh.
Ethan dug his hand into his pocket and winced. The graze on his hand tore open and slowly started to ooze blood. The screen of his phone was black and unresponsive as he mashed at it.
‘Fuck. It’s dead.’ Ethan said, and immediately set off searching among the mess on his desk to find the charger.
‘Ethan, you should just get some rest. I’ve gotta go, I’m not going to help you have a break down alright.’
‘Yeah whatever man. I’ll talk to you later.’
It took all of my strength to finally drag myself out. I’d been pacing my house, impatient and on edge. My phone hadn’t charged, was it really that holding me back? My reliance on screens, digital and artificial worlds to cope is threatening to take over. It’s a struggle to focus on reality.
Now I’m moving. On my way to Arena.
As I climb off the bus I notice the storm overhead. Accompanied by a dense haze blocking my vision. My foot slips and I stumble. Unsure of my own balance—doubting my own stability—and barely managing to catch myself.
I make it to the Arena where a sterile, light filled staircase leads to a room that is wide and squat. Everything is grey. Banks of screens stand dormant on long tables with the high backs of computer chairs opposite them—all lined up—forming the straight edges of small alcoves. Like viewing rooms, prisoner visiting booths, windows into another world.
‘Hi, how can I help you today?’ Her voice comes out like a gently cracking sheet of ice.
For a moment I am stuck again. And then I remember why I came here. Meredith had been here last night and was then abducted by someone. I just know it. But I don’t want to know it. It claws at me inside and my mind is like treacle trying to escape it.
‘Oh … um, my daughter was here last night … I found this receipt … did you see her? She is missing.’
She stood behind the small counter. Leaning against it casually. She was young, about the same age as Meredith. But her features where more weathered; her face was more pained from years of stern expression. And along her left side the skin was glassy, strangely taught yet sunken. The result of third degree burns.
It had taken me a while to notice it. A long fringe of blue hair hung low over her face, in an attempt to cover it. As she spoke her mouth pulled to the right, like the muscles of her face had adapted to avoid straining the damaged skin.
‘Yeah I had a shift yesterday, what does your daughter look like?’ She replied.
‘She is small and has blond hair … she would probably have come from school, Adelaide High … um and she would have probably played Guild Wars.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Oh Meredith. Yeah I go to school with her. She came in with Jessica after school yesterday. They said they were throwing a Halloween party.’
‘Really? She didn’t tell me. Was she alright, did anything seem wrong? Who is Jessica?’
‘No nothing, they just played some games, invited Julian along, and then went to Jessica’s place in Henley Beach. Are … are you alright?’
The words all melted together, I don’t understand. I felt myself swaying slightly and had the sense that my face was contorting oddly.
I couldn’t believe it, had I really been that oblivious to Meredith’s life? Something didn’t seem right though. It wasn’t like her. My life has always been dream-like, especially since my wife left me. But would I really discard so much of reality that I neglect my daughter? I rely on her so much, but I don’t know any other way, I am not good at the real world.
‘Mr Kline? Are you ok?’