Healing

I don’t feel very well today,

But if you asked me what’s wrong, I’m not sure I could say. 

My mind is dim, but my body’s on fire,

My thoughts are chaotic, strung out with barbed wire. 

My concentration is… ooh, what’s that?!

I feel like my insides have been all squashed flat, 

And when I try to spell it out, all the words come tumbling back in doubt. 

No, I don’t feel very well today, 

But as strange as it seems, I know come what may,

Tomorrow will be different, a bright fresh start.

To stop. Take a moment. Count the beats of my heart. 

Feel the rhythm of my living that pounds away,

That drives me through each brand new day, 

That takes my hand and whispers… hey, it’s okay

To not feel very well today. 

That rest is good and necessary, 

That self-care and self-love are equally very

Important to keep that heart-fire burning,

To keep the love inside you turning,

To dream and desire, to know you are yearning

For more, yet more. 

To heal, and to feel,

Well…

In Blood

New story? New story! It’s been a while.


Content warning: includes language that talks about sex and revenge / violence and teen pregnancy.


You are ten years old when the first one slithers down your leg while you’re taking a shower before bed. You don’t know what it is at first. You watch it curiously, eyes half-closed, as shampoo suds froth on your forehead. It slides past your kneecap like a scarlet slug and plops onto the white fibreglass base. Slowly… Slowly… It swirls in the water, then disappears down the drain. 

You put your fingers to your private place and explore inside; pull them out to find them stained sticky red. You watch the warm liquid trickle down your wrist, and you scream, and you scream and you…

You are eleven when the vomiting begins. You curl up in bed with a blue plastic bucket, unable to keep anything inside you. There’s no room, of course, for food, that is. For the space is already taken up by the monster writhing around in your belly. You can feel it clawing and scratching and scrabbling to get out from the wound between your legs. 

The school nurse is useless, unsympathetic, says there’s not much she can do.

Your mother is upset and refuses to talk about it, says she doesn’t have the words to explain. She gives you a book filled with strange images, and words you don’t understand. Your sister, Ella, tells you it’s normal, it’s part of who you are, and reassures you she feels it too. It’s part of growing older, she says, but you don’t want to grow old, yet.

In the evening, she brings you a giant bag of fake-Cheetos, the dime store brand that you like. You put each one to your lips to suck the flavoured dust, and your mouth is ringed with orange. Later, you’ll remember that orange ring, transferred to other places. A perfect sunset circle streaked on fresh white pillowcases. 

You are twelve when Ella sneaks you the pills; small and pink and sweet. You must take them at exactly the same time every day or else the world will surely end. She doesn’t say it quite like this, but you know it’s true. You must keep them hidden from everyone else, a secret only you and her share. Momma and Pappy, and the lord God Himself, will certainly not approve. 

You crunch them with your Weetabix and swill them down with your juice (no pulp; you hate the bits). You feel something clogging up your throat and you cough a brown globule into your hands. You squelch it in your fist and Momma dry- heaves in disgust. She tells you not to play with your food. 

You wipe your palm on the tablecloth and it leaves a smear like a hateful memory. A mark of shame, of sins you can’t cleanse. Things you did, and things you saw. Unwanted and forever repressed.  

You are thirteen when you find Ella slumped in the bath, half-naked and cold and weak. She is so much smaller than you thought she was. The three years between you both felt so much greater. There are things in the water that you don’t recognise, slender and sharp and red. And something else, something… No. You will not look. Her skin glistens with sweat, a rainbow sheen, but all you can see is the pain. 

You shake her and shout her name in her ear, and she mumbles a groggy reply. You slap her cheek hard with an open hand, just like you’ve seen in the movies, and she says a word that you know not to repeat. Slowly, gingerly, she pulls a towel from the rail, rolls it up and puts it to that dark place. Whatever this was, you know never to speak of it, there are some things that can’t be put into words. But you hear her sobbing every night through the wall you both share, and you wish you knew how to comfort her. Help her stop.

You are fourteen when… When… It happens. You’re just fooling around. You’re young and in love. At least, you think you are? He says you are, and he must be right. He is so much older than you, and he knows about things that you don’t. But you let your guard down. You let the monster in.

No. You don’t want to talk about that. 

Fourteen and the monster makes you swell. There is nausea, like before, but the pain seems to stop. Then comes a steady parade of dour doughy faces, of instruments and uncomfortable tests. Of magic wands drawn across your skin that beam images onto the TV. 

Ella comes with you, holding your hand in hers, keeping the worst of it at bay. She fields question after question while you can’t speak, rendered mute by confusion and shame. They say things like it is a miracle, a sign of God’s will and it’s a blessing and a gift. They say you are old enough to consent, but you don’t understand what that means.

All you do know is you forgot to take the pink pills and your favourite t-shirt doesn’t fit you anymore; the peach coloured one with Rainbow Dash and Apple Blossom. You put it on, and their features stretch and distort, and somehow this upsets you more than any question you’ve been asked or anything you’d been told to do. You don’t care about the insults strangers spit at you in the street, or the names you are called at school. No, they upset Ella more than you. She says she’s going to help you, somehow, that she should have helped you long before. 

You hear her arguing that night with Momma and Pappy, something fragile crashes to the floor. Momma says what the Hell can we do? She should have known better. Should have kept her legs closed! Ella screams and Pappy yells, and you want to run to them, to tell them to stop, but instead you curl up very small and rock… Rock… Squeeze your eyes closed… Go away to your secret place… 

It is dark when you come back, and the house is quiet. The next morning, Momma tells you Ella has gone. You check her room, and the wardrobe is empty, the bed is stripped and bare. But underneath the mattress, she has left you something. Not a miracle or a blessing or anything from God, no. This is a genuine gift. 

Fourteen… 

Fourteen feels like it lasts forever, and you have no say in what you can do. Choices have been made for you, decisions you can’t contest. Your whole life dictated by wizened old men with skin like uncooked bread, their judgement and distain croaked and crowed with features like melted wax. Momma and Pappy keep you home. They bring you everything you need, but never give you anything you want. 

You don’t know what is going to happen, only that the monster wants out. You question; is this why Ella left you a gift? To aid with the monster’s choice. Surely not.

You suck orange dust from the dime-store snacks and wonder why it suddenly feels like your middle is being squeezed in a vice, and why your legs feel warm and wet. 

Fifteen, you are fifteen. You put her to your breast, and she wriggles and squirms, and you are delighted by how it feels. You know you would do anything, anything, in the world to keep her safe from harm. You call her Hope, and you hold her on your hip, and you brush her hair with your fingers as she dreams. 

You lie together in the same bed, and you wonder… 

Wonder… 

Wonder what your life could have been like.  

You are sixteen when the monster comes calling again, full of apologies and regret. You lie there, eyes closed, in your secret place, remembering Ella’s gift. 

Sixteen, and you wait until the early hours when the sky is velvet black.

Sixteen, and you wrap Hope in a blanket and kiss her tenderly on the head. 

Pappy is snoring like a freight train when you steal the keys to his truck. You know you’re going to get into so much trouble, but it’s time to take your power back. You must do it for yourself. For Ella. For Hope. For everyone born with the capacity to carry life inside them. And for those, like you, who found that life thrust upon them, told they must weather the consequences, no matter what and how they occurred. Those who were spurned, scorned, shunned and enslaved. Innocent lives reduced to a statistic. Sex, a cautionary tale. While dough-faced men pat themselves on the back, celebrating a cruel job well done. 

You stand in silence on the manicured grass, scrape your nails down the painted lawn sign. You read his name emblazed underneath a headshot; a stuffed suit with a shit-eating smile. Ella’s gift is clutched tight in your fist. Is this how it feels… God’s will? 

In the darkness you stand like an angel of wrath, warm bodies unsuspecting while you watch them. You put a hand on his chest and lean down low, your rage contained in a whisper. 

“For Hope.”

His eyes snap open at the sound and—

Sixteen, and you slay the monster… The real monster… Not the one that you thought lived deep in your stomach or the imaginary one under your bed. And there is red, red, so much red… 

You watch the warm liquid trickle down your wrist, and you smile, 

and you smile,

you smile.

Marian

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

First published in SEEDS, T. Wood – Wild Wood Books, 2021


It wasn’t the clack of her designer heels drumming the hardwood floor that alerted Marian to her boss’ presence, but the unusual, slightly musky aroma that always heralded her arrival. She could never place exactly what it was; maybe the scent of the hand cream Phyllis was always rubbing into her palms, or perhaps the remnants of an expensive, favourite perfume bought so many years ago that it had degraded and expired. Whatever it was, it made her sinuses ache like a rotten tooth might throb with decay. 

The smell grew stronger as Phyllis entered the tiny office and paused in front of Marian’s desk.

“How are you getting on?” she asked. 

Marian gave a despondent wave at the cardboard files piled around her. “There’s still a heck of a lot to do.”

Phyllis tutted in commiseration. “These last-minute accounts always come flooding in before the new tax year begins. I don’t know why people never learn.” 

Marian grimaced. It wasn’t simply the clients who left things to the last minute; Phyllis did a lot of that herself. Fourteen years in this role and not much had improved from the very first year she had begun. Names and faces and roles had changed, as people had come and gone, but the systemic disorganisation stayed the same. Despite that, the job was decent, and the pay was satisfactory. 

Better the devil you know, Marian thought, than trying to find something new at my age. 

“Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Phyllis asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied. 

Phyllis cleared her throat and perched gingerly on the only available free space on the desk. Marian knew immediately what was coming. 

“Rupert is back in the country with his family—that’s my eldest son, you know—and Patricia, his eldest, is going to study Anthropology at the university here. Can you imagine? Anyway, I thought we might all go out for dinner…”

“Do you want me to stay later?” 

Phyllis let out a sigh of relief. “Would you, Marian? I’d appreciate that a great deal. If you can get the Avalon account in order, it would help us out a lot.” 

Marian checked her wristwatch and chewed the inside of her lip. There were three invoice-stuffed box files set aside for Avalon. It meant another couple of hours of work, at least. 

She looked up at Phyllis’s hopeful face. Her smell was almost overpowering.

“Sure, I can do that. But you owe me,” she said with a forced, jovial smile, trying to mask her frustration.

“Thank you, Marian,” Phyllis said, rising and straightening her blouse. “You’ll be paid overtime, of course!” 

Like that’ll ever happen, Marian thought, but she kept smiling until her cheeks began to hurt. 

Phyllis said goodbye and swept out of the office, leaving her scent to linger. Marian switched on her desktop fan and ushered the cloying odour out the door. She tapped a message on her phone to George, her husband, telling him she would be home late, then scrolled through her favourite playlist and turned up the volume full blast. The small speaker blared electro-industrial music around the beige, bland office, and she sang along as the lyrics began. What would Phyllis think?she wondered. A respectable accountant in a dress suit and blonde bob, rocking out to the goth bands of her youth. 

It was past nine o’clock when she rubbed the crick out of her neck and stretched the tension from her shoulders. If she locked up now, she could catch the 9:20 bus home. If she missed that, it would be a half-hour walk. 

She’d dealt with the Avalon account as best as she could, but it had raised questions only Phyllis could answer. She powered down her laptop and tidied her desk. The rest was a job for Future Marian to deal with on Monday morning. 

The sky was dark and the air thick with drizzle as she stepped out into the alley. The premises were a far cry from the image used on the firm’s website, one that depicted an impressive redbrick facade. With the bulk of their clients finding them online, a classy website and PO Box was all that was needed. The offices themselves were above a Chinese takeaway, and the delicious smell of fresh noodles and stir-fried meat made her stomach grumble in yearning. 

No time for that if she wanted to catch the bus. She locked the door and slipped the keys into her bag. 

The food smells faded, replaced by something putrid; an acrid mixture like stale urine mixed with rotten tomatoes. She turned to the dumpster at the back of the alley, expecting to see its lid left open, but it was firmly closed. Besides, the stench seemed to emanate from somewhere behind her. Somewhere near her right shoulder…

The leather straps cut into the top of her arm as her handbag was yanked from her grasp. She yelped and tried to stop it, catching a strap in one hand. The smell was so powerful it made her eyes water, and she could barely see her assailant through her tears. It was a man, she could determine that much; early twenties, slightly built, shaved head, and matching chin. Jeans, T-shirt, casual but plain. A regular, normal guy. 

“Give me the fucking bag!” he demanded. “Come on, you stupid bitch. I’ve got a knife!” 

She had no reason to doubt him, but despite her fear, she couldn’t bear to let go. The bag contained many irreplaceable items that she always carried around with her. Photos, notes, little trinkets and favours, even her powder compact had a story. She couldn’t let this foul-smelling thief get his hands all over them. Things he would tip into the filthy gutter as he searched for her cash and phone. Her shock and fear turned to anger. Indignation that he’d thought she was an easy mark. 

“No! Leave me alone!” she yelled back at him and wrenched the bag from his hands. The force made him stumble. She was far stronger than he expected, and he almost slipped on the damp concrete floor. He rallied and came back swinging, burying his fist into her stomach. She groaned and recoiled in agony, but the pain made her even angrier. 

She dropped the bag to the floor and grabbed his throat in her fist, forcing him back against the wall. He squirmed and scrabbled, desperate to get free, as she curled her fingers on either side of his trachea and squeezed as hard as she could. His face flushed purple and his eyeballs bulged as he fought for every breath.

“How dare you,” she hissed at him, her arm locked and outstretched, his toes barely grazing the floor. “How very fucking dare you!” 


The bus had long gone by the time she’d reached the stop. She’d had little choice but to take a sodden walk home. She heard raised voices as she put her key in the lock. Emma and Paul, her two teenaged children, were arguing at the other end of the house. George was fast asleep in front of the TV, mouth agape and snoring, oblivious to the aggravation. She hung her coat and handbag on a hook by the door, kicked off her shoes and called out a greeting. No one bothered to reply. 

There was a pile of used dishes dumped in the kitchen sink, the remnants of a frozen pizza abandoned on the hob. An open bottle of cola was going flat on the worktop, two dirty glasses by its side. She sighed and began loading plates into the dishwasher. George ambled into the kitchen, yawning and wiping drool from his chin. She leaned in towards him and he kissed her on the cheek.

“Hello, love,” he said sleepily. “You’re late back.”

“I texted you to let you know.”

“You did, even so, it’s…” he glanced at the kitchen clock, “almost half-past ten. Have you been working all this time?” 

She opened her mouth to reply, but Paul cut her off before she could answer.

“Mom! Emma has been using my X-Box without asking and she’s deleted all of my saved games!”

“It’s not just yours!” Emma shouted from the hallway. “It’s both of ours! Mum, tell him!” 

“Kids, please,” George intervened. “Your mum’s had a long day. Leave her alone.” 

 “Yes, I’ve had a very long day and you two need to get in here and clean up this mess. I want a shower and I want to go to bed.”

“What about dinner?” George asked and picked up the cold pizza tray. “You want to heat this in the microwave?” 

Marian baulked as her stomach lurched. “No. I’m okay. I’m not hungry.”

“You’ve already eaten?” 

“I… I’m just not hungry. Emma, get your butt in here and help your brother! Any more arguing and the X-Box goes on eBay.” 

She padded down the hall to the bathroom, closed the door and undressed. A livid, purple bruise blossomed beneath her ribcage, and she grimaced both in pain and at the memory. She stripped out of her blouse and saw a dark stain on the cuff, tutted and ran it under the cold tap. 


Sara pressed the button with a pink polished fingernail and the espresso machine gurgled into life. The smell of finely ground and over-priced organic coffee wafted through the impeccable kitchen. 

“So, how are you?” Sara asked, placing a full mug on the breakfast bar. “It feels like weeks since I’ve last seen you.”

Marian took a careful sip before replying. The coffee was strong and very hot. “I think it has been weeks. I’ve been so busy lately. Work, home, the kids, you know? Well, not the kids.” 

Sara was, as she had once put it, ‘deliciously child and husband-free, and absolutely zero regrets.’ Marian wondered if that was why, at fifty-two and almost ten years older than her, her friend still frequently looked ten years younger. Far fewer wrinkles for a start. Not a hint of any grey hairs. 

“Can I ask you a personal question?” 

Sara peered at her over the top of her mug. “Of course you can, darling. Ask away.” 

“How old were you when you started going through the change?”

“The change? You mean menopause?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not a dirty word you know, darling.”

“I know. Sorry. Silly of me.”

Sara put down her mug and knitted her fingers in her lap. “I was forty-six when I first noticed it. My God, I was so tired and slow all the time, I felt like a bloody slug.” She chuckled. “I must have gone through seven or eight cups of coffee a day and I was still utterly exhausted. Then the insomnia hit around the same time and I was lucky if I got four hours of good sleep a night. I think the hot flashes were a comfort, to be honest; I’d convinced myself there must be something terribly wrong with me, that maybe I was dying, but my doctor said it was all perfectly normal. 

“Why do you ask? You’re not there already, are you? You’re only, what? Forty-one?”

“Forty-three,” Marian corrected. “I’m not sure. I definitely feel different.”

“That seems rather early, but then I knew a girl at university who started in her twenties. Mother Nature can be so unkind to some of us. So, what is it? Irregular periods? Boobs hurting more? Oh no, you’re not leaking when you sneeze, are you? ‘Squat, not bend,’ is what I tell all my lady friends. You want to keep your pelvic floor in good shape.”

“No. This is more…” Marian paused, unsure how much to admit. “Well, hair changes, for one.”

“Going grey, you mean?”

“Hair in unusual places, mostly. And a lot of it.”

Sara sipped coffee and nodded sagely. “That’s normal. You should see the length of the ones I pluck out of my chin. It’s like a magician’s handkerchief trick. They just keep on coming!”

“Umm, I can smell things a lot more strongly than I used to. Perfume. Cutlery. People smell different.”

“Also, not unusual. That’s hormones for you.”

“I suppose. But I get so angry sometimes. I mean, irrationally so. Little things set me off and I can’t control myself. And then after, it’s like I can’t even remember what got me so worked up.”

Sara reached out and patted her arm. “Darling, you have to think of this as a second puberty. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but your body is going through some massive changes and not all of them are fun. But think of the freedom you’ll have afterwards.” She wriggled in her seat and grew suddenly animated. “Do you know the best thing about being a woman over forty, Marian?”

“Umm… Better life stability?”

“No! You have no more fucks left to give!” Marian laughed despite herself. It was hard to imagine Sara ever giving any fucks unless she chose to. 

“You can be yourself, Marian,” Sara continued. “Unapologetically. No more squeezing yourself into boxes that don’t fit that someone else has built for you. No more caring if you’re too fat or too thin or if you’re ‘pretty’ enough. You can stop doing all that pointless, time-consuming grooming that society says you should, just so you can be seen as ‘desirable’. Fuck it, I say! Let it all hang out and who cares what anyone else thinks!” Sara pointed at her excitedly. “Let me tell you, darling, women over forty are terrifying. In a good way! We are fierce and vibrant, and we don’t worry about taking up space. Embrace that! Believe me, it’s refreshing.

“Not to mention, sex is so much better when you don’t have to worry about pregnancy anymore.” She winked and Marian blushed. 

“I just have no frame of reference for this stuff.”

“What about your mother? When did she go through it?”

“I’ve no idea. My parents split up around that time and she took herself solo around the world on ‘a journey of self-discovery,’ as she called it.”

“Good for her,” Sara said, and raised her mug as if making a toast. “And what about Grandma?” 

“Similar sort of story. She left Grandpa on his own and went away to take care of her sick sister. I know it’s strange, but I don’t know what experiences they had.” 

“You’ve never talked about it?”

“No. We’re not that kind of family.”

Sara fiddled with her necklace absentmindedly. “Well, maybe it’s time you are. You never know, Mum might have some useful insights.” 


Marian stared at the words on her mobile, trying to make sense of what they said. She’d thought it best to try sending a text first. Her mother had a habit of manipulating telephone calls and steering the conversation how she wanted it. A text had seemed easier. More to the point. 

“Hi Mum. How are you? Sorry it’s been a while,” she’d typed. “I was wondering, can I talk to you about what you went through with the change? I think I might have started it myself.” 

She hadn’t expected such a speedy reply, and certainly not such an odd one. 

“Oh, dear. I’d hoped it would skip you.”

She’d replied straight away, “What do you mean?” 

Five minutes passed, but no response. With shaking hands, although she wasn’t sure why, she pulled up her mother’s number and pressed dial. The line rang and rang but remained unanswered. 

“Damn it! What are you playing at, Mum?”

“Call me, please,” she messaged back, before tucking the phone into a sports belt at her waist and pushing her headphones into her ears. It was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon. A run would help clear her mind.

She pulled on her sneakers, tied the laces tight and adjusted the hems of her leggings. The local park was only ten minutes away; she could take a brisk walk through suburbia and then run laps on the green. Five K to begin, maybe push it to ten if she still had something left in the tank. Her usual weekend exercise.

Lately, though, even ten K had felt easy. Her body felt stronger and more capable of being pushed to harder limits. She was curious just how long could she keep going. Before it felt even close to a challenge. 

She called out a goodbye to Emma and Paul and pulled the front door closed. All she had seen of George since she’d returned from Sara’s was his feet underneath the family SUV. He had grunted a half-hearted greeting and then sworn as he dropped his spanner. It had seemed best to leave him to it. 

Her walk had warmed her body up nicely by the time she reached the park gates. Surprisingly for such a lovely day, the green was almost empty. An older couple were walking together, and a young woman was doing timed sprints. She chose her favourite playlist on her phone, hit play, and began to run.

She was three laps down when she noticed him. A movement in the corner of her left eye.

He was running, not quite beside her, trying to match her pace. She was faster than he was with an easy rhythm, but him being so close made her wary. She sped up to increase the distance between them. He faltered for a second before doing the same, and she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. As she ran, she scanned the park for other people. The older couple were over on the other side now, and the woman appeared to have left. She glanced to her side to see his mouth move and realised he was trying to talk to her. She gestured to her headphones and shook her head, not even breaking her stride. Even this didn’t dissuade him. 

He was younger than her, mid-thirties, she supposed. Stocky and broad-shouldered, with long, blonde hair scraped back into a messy topknot. He wore a black singlet and baggy shorts, both of which showed off his impressive physique. 

A gym rat, she guessed, from his bulging muscles. Biceps and quadriceps gained from lifting weights, not from running laps. Nonetheless, he was clearly a capable runner, and eager to make her acquaintance. 

A few meters from the gate, she slowed and stopped, hoping he would carry on without her. Instead, he stopped too and carried on talking, standing far closer than she was comfortable. She yanked the headphones from her ears, felt her body tremble with adrenaline. 

“Step back!” she ordered him.

He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “—because your form is amazing and—” 

“I said, step back!” she repeated, holding out her arm. This time he reacted. 

“Woah, hold on. I was just…”

“I don’t care what you were doing. I was running and you got in my space. This park is massive, and you had no reason to do that. Now leave me alone and let me run in peace.”

“Jesus, lady. What’s wrong with you? I was complimenting you.”

“Yeah. I don’t need your compliments, thanks.”

She saw the change in his eyes, in his posture.

“Whatever. Fucking bitch.” He leaned forward and spat a glob of white foam. She watched as it arced, almost in slow motion, before coming to rest on her shoe. 

She couldn’t hear what it was he said after that over the shrill ringing that filled her ears. 

A red wave of rage rose and surged, filling her every muscle and sinew. Her heart boomed a heavy, hollow echo, deep inside her chest. She clenched her fists and tensed her jaw. All involuntary, uncontrollable reactions. Her skin felt taut, like a too-small jacket, restricting her every move. She longed to peel it off.

She could smell the stink of him filling the air, a heady mixture of musk and sweat. And something else, something rancid and overpowering. A scent that triggered startling emotions. Urges that she didn’t expect. 

“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” she growled, trying to keep her voice steady. There was no one else in the park now. Only him and her, alone. “I wish you’d just stepped back.” 


George and Paul had gone out to the hardware store by the time Marian returned home. Emma was engrossed in a teen drama on the TV and hardly bothered to acknowledge her presence. She hurried to the kitchen and flung open the fridge, ripping at the first packet she found. The cellophane tore and she bit into the contents; the juices dribbling down her chin. She sank to her knees and sprawled on the floor, chewing loudly, and groaning with pleasure. A noise from the doorway made her jump.

“Mum? Are you okay? Is that…?”

She realised, as if for the first time, what she was holding. Beefsteak. Bloody and completely raw, almost entirely devoured.

“Don’t worry, Emma,” she replied, her mouth crammed with chunks of unswallowed meat. “This happened when I was pregnant too. It’s just the change, you know? It’s just hormones.”


The alley by her office was cordoned off with yellow police tape when she arrived at work on Monday. Phyllis had texted to warn her, to tell her to use the back entrance through the takeaway. She held her breath as she walked; the stench of old oil made her feel sick. Phyllis greeted her at the door to the office. Her boss smelled even stronger than usual. 

“What happened out there?” Marian asked.

“Oh, it’s terrible. They found a body in the dumpster in the alley. The Sergeant said they’d probably been there all weekend. He wants us to make a statement in case we saw anything.” She paused, peering intently at Marian. “Did you see anything? When you left on Friday?”

“No. Nothing,” Marian lied, feeling the guilt rush to her cheeks. “So, what do they think? Drug addict? Homeless person? There’s a lot of both in this area.”

Phyllis’ face fell deadly serious. “They think it’s a murder.”

“A murder?” Marian put her handbag on the edge of her desk. “Gosh. What makes them think that?”

“Whoever it was, had been ripped to shreds. Deep cuts all over their face and neck. Their throat torn out as if by a wild animal. I saw fingers on the floor, bitten off at the knuckles. Black holes where their eyes should have been.” 

Marian squirmed uncomfortably. “How do you know all this?”

“I found the remains of them earlier this morning before I called it in. Anonymously, of course.”

“Oh, Phyllis! That must have been awful. Are you alright?”

“Of course I am. I’ve seen far worse.” 

“You’ve seen…” Marian trailed off as Phyllis took her hand in hers. 

“It’s okay, Marian. Whatever it was he did to you, I’m sure he deserved everything he got.”

“I don’t understand…” Marian began.

“Believe me, it took me by surprise too when it happened, but I can assure you, it gets better.”

“What gets better?” 

“The change, Marian! It happens to us all one way or another. Just for some of us, it’s a little more intense.” Phyllis stared at her. “Didn’t your mother talk to you about all this?”

Marian sighed. “No. She won’t even talk to me about it now.”

“Fourteen years you’ve been here, Marian, and I have loved every single moment of working with you. I suspected, of course, when I first met you. Your distinctive smell for a start.”

“My smell?” Marian parroted, incredulously. 

Phyllis smiled slowly and wafted a hand under her nose. “Breath in,” she said. Marian inhaled. There was that unmistakable musky aroma that she always noticed when Phyllis was around. Only now she recognised what it was. What it meant to her.

“Oh. You’re…” Marian began, and Phyllis nodded. 

“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s sit down together and have a nice cup of tea. It can be so difficult, going through this stage of life. Especially alone. I think it’s time someone told you the truth.” 

Bite-sized chunks of positivity

At the beginning of the year, much like a lot of other people I suspect, I made some resolutions. Small ones, that were attainable and non-stressful. More like mini-goals to be honest. The previous two years have been a bit of a challenge, to say the least. Last year I published a grand total of zero new stories, and this is the first year in five years I have nothing to put forward to be nominated for an award. That feels strange but also not completely unwelcome. As much as I would have preferred it to be via my own choice, I did need a break. So when it came to resolutions, I decided to keep things manageable and in bite-sized chunks. One of those little nibbles was to write a blog post at least once a month… I guess I’m just squeaking in there with that one! 

When I was trying to figure out what to write this blog post about, I found myself with lots of ideas but very little motivation. I wanted to write some essays again, maybe a short story or poem, but my brain is still a little unwell from everything that happened to it last year (TL/DR version: medical negligence via the dental profession, lots of pain, lots of trauma) and I am struggling to encourage it to “make the words good” right now. That will change, I am positive about it, but I do need to be kind to myself and be mindful of my limits. 

One thing I did find easy to do was get back into doing a Life Journal, which I actually started doing in 2020, and I credit it with keeping me grounded through the pandemic. In my Life Journal, I keep track of my moods, my sleep and my motivation levels. I set myself monthly goals and create bingo squares for certain skills. I permit myself to mess it up and be as rough and haphazard as I want to, so I don’t worry about keeping it neat and perfect. Perfection is the enemy of good, and in the past, I have been so anxious about “mucking it up” that I’ve ended up not writing anything. There are no rules for my Life Journal except one: check in every day. That check-in can be as simple as colouring a box to show how I am feeling and how much sleep I got the previous night, or it can be a long-form diary entry where I write and draw much more. Keeping it small and simple means I’m more likely to keep it up. And so far, for this month anyway, I have. 

It can be hard to get back into the swing of things that used to be so easy but have now become difficult. Hard to reclaim who we are after we have lost a part of ourselves. I spent a lot of time feeling sad and angry about what I’d lost, and the worst part of that was feeling like I couldn’t write anymore. I felt like something that really made me who I am had been taken away, and it terrified me. Especially as I was no longer sure about who I was. Giving myself that tiniest nudge to just scribble down a few thoughts and ideas, or make goals that mean I have to think beyond the immediate and believe in a future, has helped my brain feel so relieved. I know now a lot of the loss and despair was the trauma talking, and while that’s okay, being able to see what lay beyond that was important too. 

Although I haven’t written much, I have been keeping busy creatively in other ways. I discovered metal stamping last year and made a lot of cool bangles. I drew and painted (I even illustrated some book covers for other people), I decorated my writing room, I read a lot, walked even more, and took myself outside as much as I could. I’ve kept my body busy in the hope it would also exercise my mind, and I think that much is true. Something I did very recently, just this month, was to figure out how to make a pair of custom vampire dentures. It was a project I’d wanted to do for a while, and also helped me reclaim something from the trauma I went through. Also, they look fantastic!

My writing goals for 2024 are small and tentative. I really hope to finish Rabbit, and I have a few other shorts that have been buzzing around my brain for a while. I feel like it would be quite appropriate to put together a toothy horror collection, although I’m not sure how many people would actually be interested in that! (Although Little Teeth did get a very good reaction when it was released.) I’m not stressing about it though, in fact, I’m actually quite interested in seeing where things will lead me, even if that is not at all in the direction I was aiming for. If the past two years have taught me anything it’s to just keep going. I can stop, and I can (and should!) rest, but I won’t ever give up.

Here’s to the future, and hopefully a lot more “making the words good”!

A message to my future (present) self regarding the removal of all my adult teeth.

<Note: on the 9th November 2023 I had surgery to remove all my remaining adult teeth and replace them with dentures. This was due to the pain and trauma I had experienced over a period of 18 months at the hands of a dentist who removed a tooth in such a way that I experienced nerve damage, and carried out treatment on others that left me in so much pain they also had to be removed. The dentist then moved away from New Zealand, leaving me with some hefty dental bills, many other dental issues to resolve, and PTSD. I was subsequently let down by four other dentists before I eventually managed to find an amazing one who did his absolute best to fix all my issues. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the decision was made for a full plate clearance. I could write volumes about everything that has happened in 2022/2023, but I think it best not to dwell on that, and to round off the experience with this short, cathartic letter to myself.>

Dearest T,

You’re going to worry about this. A lot. Even when you don’t realise that you are, the thoughts will be buzzing around your brain almost constantly in the weeks running up to the surgery. You find out the date around six weeks before it is due to happen, which feels both far too long to wait and hardly any time at all. You’re in a lot of pain, especially in teeth that have had some recent (traumatic… failed…) work done. The only way to fix them is to take them out. The dentist asks you if you want to do it before the others, but you can’t face it then. Somehow it feels easier to just keep taking the painkillers like you have been for months, and know that the end is coming. 

You have a lot of email conversations with ACC who tell you they can’t pay for all of the surgery, the sedation and the dentures. You start a Givealittle page. You are completely blown away by the kindness of friends and strangers who raise over $2000 dollars so you can pay for your new teeth.

You cry a lot. But that’s not new. You’ve been crying a lot for a long time now. Just a few more weeks to go.

On the day of the surgery you feel worn out, mostly from lack of sleep and stress. The dentist, his assistant, and the anaesthetist are all truly lovely. They do everything they can to put you at ease. You explain you are more worried about the sedation than the procedure. They tell you that’s normal and to relax as much as possible. The anaesthetist puts the cannula in your arm and a pulse monitor on your finger. She adds the sedation medication and you can feel it flowing in your arm; cold and slightly painful, but it doesn’t last. She says, “you might be feeling some effects now,” and you can’t remember if you reply or not as suddenly the time has jumped and you’re aware of the dentist doing his job, but you don’t care in the slightest. You feel calm and relaxed and in no pain, and almost as soon as you realise you are in no pain it is time to get up as the procedure is over. 

The anaesthetist hands you two paracetamol and you dribble water all down yourself trying to take them, as you have no control over your jaw. You can feel the new dentures pressing on your gums. They feel huge and you’re not sure you can close your mouth properly. It doesn’t hurt much, but it does throb. You can feel your pulse in your non-existent teeth. Dave, your husband, drives you home. You lie on the sofa, too wired to rest, still in some sort of dazed state. You see yourself for the first time in the bathroom mirror, and you’re shocked at how swollen your face is. You don’t look like you. The teeth seem too big. You worry that you’ve made a mistake.

Week 1 you take so many painkillers you don’t remember most of what happens. You also take so many selfies, trying to get used to how you now look. You lie in the bath and smile at the camera and wonder who this person is on the screen. Your family say they can hardly see any difference, but to you, your reflection is alien. 

You see the dentist the day after the surgery so he can see how things are going. He asks you if you’re happy with how things look, and you tell him, to be honest, no. But everything is healing nicely and the dentures fit really well, so you have to trust that things will settle and improve. That you won’t feel this way forever. You feel cautiously optimistic, and relieved that the worst is over, but you’re also high a lot of the time, and thinking about anything is too hard. 

Week 2, the pain is different. It’s not like what you’ve been through in the last 18 months. It’s pain from a wound that is healing. It feels like it has an end. The dentures rub sore spots and ulcers, which drive you to distraction. It is normal, and you knew to expect it, but it’s difficult to endure. The dentist takes some of the plastic away, grinding it with a tool. It helps, but it’s still tiring. You feel sad, mostly. Exhausted. You question your choices and decisions. It’s hard to know what to eat, how to sleep. You can’t bear to look at your healing mouth, but you can feel hard lumps with your tongue. The dentist says it’s bone coming through. You choose to leave it as the gums might grow over it, the other option being to have it removed, and you can’t face that right now.

You have a call with your boss as you’ve decided to leave your job. She makes a comment on how you look and speak differently and you just laugh it off, but the words hit deep and it bothers you. Codeine is your friend still; it helps you sleep, helps you cope, helps you not lose your mind. The crying starts again.

Week 3 the bone is still coming through the gum. The dentist says it will be more comfortable to remove it, you agree, but you’re not quite prepared for the process. He uses bone cutters to remove the spurs. You get through the appointment and then fall apart. You can’t seem to control your moods. As always, the dentist is lovely and completely understands. But you’re tired of crying and feeling so weak. You wish you were stronger, more capable. 

A good friend reminds you of how much you’ve been through and the kindness you need to show yourself. Crying is not a weakness, they tell you, it is an honest expression of how you’re feeling. How you’re processing everything that has happened. You remind yourself of how you got through the worst of this last year, by reframing the situation. The events that led up to this decision are the result of someone else’s actions and mistakes. You have to think of it like a car accident, and the injuries are not your fault. You cannot control what has happened, but you can control how you go forwards now. 

You cut your hair and put on some makeup. You mess about with the clothes in your wardrobe. You take more selfies, and they seem better this time. The swelling has almost gone down. You look more like how you remember yourself, just with better teeth than you’ve ever had in your life. 

Week 4 and things are easing. You take less painkillers, and your gums are almost healed. You have a routine of washing and wearing the dentures, and you use denture paste to relieve the sore spots. You make a big bowl of pasta with grated cheese and you eat it while watching a comedy program. It is only after you’ve finished you realise you have eaten for the first time in the past few weeks without your whole focus being on eating. It still feels wrong sometimes, the dentures make some movements of your mouth unnatural and they often feel cumbersome and strange, but you’re getting more used to how they fit, and how you need to use the muscles of your jaw. 

You smile more and laugh easier. You make a joke in the pharmacy when she can’t understand you, and it feels okay, a little daft but not sad. You sneeze one morning and the top ones almost fly across the kitchen. Two weeks ago this would have made you miserable, now you just have to laugh. Bone spurs work their way out the gums and you don’t feel as shocked as you used to. It feels like someone has turned the difficulty down. You’re not playing on ‘hard mode’ anymore.  

One month exactly from the surgery date. It’s hard. Really hard. You still have off-days where you’re frustrated and unsure, and the dentures cause pain and you’re tired. But you’re coping. You’re adjusting. You’re winning. You don’t regret the decision you made, even if you wish you hadn’t had to make it. 

An online friend posts a quote from The Lord of the Rings, and it hits you right in the heart.

Frodo says, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

You know very deeply how Frodo feels, but also understand Gandalf‘s response. You’ve been given more time than you thought you had. Time that is pain and trauma free. You thought at one point this would have no end, that you would have to endure the aftermath forever. You thought you would hate the dentist who did this to you always… and you will! But you will also learn to let that hatred go and live a good life. He’s not important to your story anymore. 

There is still a lot to overcome and get used to. Gum heals quickly, in a matter of weeks, bone takes many months. Your mind may take much longer still. But that’s okay. Just keep going. You’re doing so, so well, and I’m really proud of you.  

“Little Teeth” (short story, body horror)

First published in Twisted Anatomy, Sci-Fi & Scary, 2021 
https://www.amazon.com.au/Twisted-Anatomy-Body-Horror-Anthology-ebook/dp/B08TGCND39

Republished in Reflections, Wild Wood Books, 2022

eBook free to download at:
BookFunnel: BookHip.com/HCZWBQW
Smashwords: bit.ly/TWreflections

Content warnings: depicts body horror, dental trauma and self-harm, profane language


Her tongue finds it first, by accident, as she runs it, absentminded, across her gums. It feels massive, a gigantic protrusion. An unexpected fresh addition in her mouth, nestled behind her front tooth. 

She turns to the mirror, wide and backlit by an array of high-strength bulbs. She opens her mouth and leans back, back. So far, it feels uncomfortable. But even at this angle, she can’t see. She rummages in her handbag for her powder compact, puts the second mirror to her mouth, and tilts it to forty-five degrees. She peers at her reflection; searching, intent. Then she spots it. A tiny, white pustule, no bigger than a pinhead, poking through the pink skin of her palate. She picks at it with a fingernail, curious but perturbed. It’s something new. Something wrong. Something… alien.

“Katy, what the hell are you doing in there?” A shout of frustration is echoed by a thump, an assault on the hardwood of the door. “Damn it, Katy. You’re already late. Come on!” 

Daniel, her long-time assistant and onetime bed-fellow. Much more than a lover, but not quite a true friend. Their relationship is complicated by work. He is diligent and useful but always so anxious. Such a slave to the clock and calendar. She suspects that he’s in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. She can’t bring herself to lower her boundaries. To give someone else her trust. 

She grimaces and presses her lips tight together, then closes her eyes and exhales. She will take exactly as long as she needs. She can’t be late, it’s simply impossible. The show cannot start without its star. 

She brushes an imaginary speck off her pantsuit and checks the line of her scarlet lipstick. She runs her fingers through her dyed blonde hair, and flicks her head so it cascades around her shoulders. These are meaningless gestures, of course. She looks totally fine, perfect even. The flawless, gorgeous face of ‘Petals and Pearls’ cosmetics. Well… ex-face. Now, the inimitable Katy du Campos; talk show host, actress, television producer and celebrity. 

“Katy! Get out, now!”

She unlocks the door and opens it and is greeted by a raised fist. Daniel yelps and pulls back mid-knock, thrusts his palms to his sides.

“Darling!” she says, with saccharine sweetness, laced with a deliberate smile. “Whatever are you so wound up about? I’m right here.”

Daniel groans and waves a piece of paper in her face.

“D’Nae is waiting onstage already. Tarah Johnson, the writer, is next, and then you’ve got a heart-to-heart interview with…”

“With Sir Robert Flanagan. Yes, darling. I know my schedule.” She sweeps past him in a wave of warm scent and soft fabric and pauses before she heads to the stage door. “Oh, Daniel, could you be a dear and book me in to see Frederick as soon as possible?” 

Daniel stalls, his expression blank. She sighs. 

“My dentist, Daniel. Thank you.” Then she turns and struts away down the hallway. 

The strange lump is not bothersome, at least, it doesn’t hurt in any way, but she finds herself frequently pressing on it with the flat part of her tongue. It feels so much bigger than she knows it is, an intrusion in her personal space.

Daniel does his job and arranges an appointment, but Frederick Wahls is enjoying fine weather further south on his favourite golf course. There is a wait; five days. She is enraged. 

“God damn it, Daniel! Five days? Five fucking days!”

“He’s in another State, Katy. What do you expect me to do? Demand he cuts his vacation short just for you?” 

“I expected you to express the urgency, Daniel. To do your damn job! Not blithely assume that five days is an acceptable delay. For God’s sake…” 

“I’m sorry…” he begins, but she raises her palm as well as her eyebrows and he falls into a guilty silence. 

“Enough. I suppose I shall simply have to wait, won’t I? No thanks to you.” She waves to the door, dismissing him. Doesn’t even watch him leave. 

She pours herself a glass of neat Scotch, sips it, and runs her tongue around her mouth. The lump has grown, almost pea-sized now, and appears to be echoed by a second. Tiny, yet solid. A faint swelling behind her incisor.  

At least it’s hidden inside, she thinks, as she drains the glass in one deep swallow. No one else can see that it’s there. Nobody knows but me.

Three days until her appointment and she knows she can’t wait any longer. Five lumps of various shapes and sizes crowd together on the roof of her mouth. It’s too much. She cannot bear it. 

Daniel calls the practice again for her. There is another dentist she can see as an emergency patient. To hell with the cost. She accepts the appointment, and in a few hours, she is lying backwards in a black, vinyl chair. 

The dentist, Erin, is young and pretty. Barely a few years older than Katy’s own daughter. Around the same age as her ex-husband’s new wife. Her teeth are so perfect and so blindingly white, they look almost unreal. Katy hears the snap of latex gloves, prepares herself for their touch. She’s always detested the feel of them. Clammy without being wet. When they catch her lips and brush her cheeks, it sets her teeth on edge. It’s a visceral feeling she can’t control. It makes her want to vomit. 

“Okay, Katy, if you can just relax and open up a little wider for me?” The dentist rubs her fingers across the nodules. Katy breathes deeply and tries not to recoil. Resists the urge to bite down. Next comes a succession of lights and mirrors, of tools and more exploratory touch. Finally, satisfied, Erin rights the chair and brings Katy up to her level. She removes the gloves and tosses them in the trash, then flashes her sparkling grin. 

“Well, Katy, the good news is I don’t think this is anything to worry about. It appears you are experiencing some kind of hyperdontia.” She sees Katy’s confusion and explains. “It’s when you grow some extra teeth. But these aren’t real teeth. These are more what we would call microdonts. They share some physical similarities with fully formed teeth, but they don’t have quite the same root structure. We’ll take an X-ray just to be sure, and I suspect the next step will be a simple extraction.”

Katy listens, but the words confuse her. Erin’s voice seems odd and unclear, like she’s speaking from the bottom of the ocean. New teeth. Growing new teeth. She fumbles for the words she needs. 

“How is this even possible?” she asks. “I’m forty-seven, for Heaven’s sake. I’m far too old to be growing teeth!” 

Erin chuckles. “Not at all. There are quite a few reasons why it might occur. Do you have any underlying conditions? Any genetic disorders or the like?”

Now it’s Katy’s turn to laugh as she says, “Good God, no. Absolutely not.” She’s in fine health. There’s nothing underlying in her.

The dentist’s expression turns suddenly strange, like she’s swallowed something distasteful. Katy wonders what she’s said that could have possibly offended her. But it passes swiftly, and the girl smiles again.

“Okay, well, let’s do an X-ray and we can get a better idea of what’s going on.” She holds out a small metal pan and gestures to the diamonds in Katy’s ears. “I’m going to need you to remove your jewellery, please.”

“Oh,” Katy says, and puts her hands to the studs. “I’ve never had to take them out before.”

“That’s probably because you only had bite-wing X-rays previously. I’d like to do a full, extra-oral one to check out your whole jaw. I’m afraid your earrings might affect the results. They could hide things we need to see.”

Katy plucks at the backs with nervous fingers. These adornments aren’t just any old studs, they are valued antiques. Her ex had gifted them to her on their third wedding anniversary. Two carat princess-cut diamonds set in fourteen carat white gold. Twelve thousand dollars’ worth of sophistication and style. He’d wanted them back in the messy divorce, but Judge Henson had overruled him. It was an amusing, joyous win for her, and a slap in the face for him. She is reticent to remove them, and she certainly won’t entrust them to a stranger. Sticky fingers might be tempted to touch what’s not theirs. Lessons learned from leaving items in old dressing rooms. 

“I’d rather keep them in.”

“I’m concerned we might not get a clear picture. You can hold on to them yourself if you prefer?”

“No. They stay in,” she says resolutely, and glares at Erin, daring the girl to counter her decision. It’s the principle of the thing that matters to her. The dentist nods, tight-lipped. 

“Okay. That’s your choice,” she says. “Now, if you’d follow me to the X-ray room?” 

They walk together down the corridor. Erin moves faster, a few paces ahead. The radiography machine is much larger than Katy is expecting. She is required to stand in front of it while its structure surrounds her head. It feels ridiculous and more than a little claustrophobic. 

“You said you were forty-seven?” Erin asks her.

“Yes.”

“So, no chance of pregnancy?” The question stings, although Katy isn’t sure if it’s meant to. You’re old, it says. Washed up and infertile. No room in that womb for new life. More than that, it’s a sharp reminder that she’s never had that experience, and now she never will. Too posh to push, but a mother nonetheless. Mellie was born via a surrogate. She’s often wondered if that’s why they’d struggled to connect. Why the girl always seemed to prefer her father. 

“No,” she replies through gritted teeth. “I’m not pregnant.” Erin nods and moves her gently closer to the machine.

“Stay still,” she says, and Katy hears the low hum of what she assumes is the machine powering up. Then Erin leaves the room and there’s a heavy clunk and more noise, but this time it’s like a haze of sound. She’s disoriented for a moment, feels pressure in her head, then Erin’s cupped hands on her shoulders.

“Katy? Miss du Campos? Are you okay?” 

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” The dentist’s face seems somewhat pale. Her tone is different. Concerned.

“Come on back to my room, Katy,” she says quietly. “We need to discuss your X-ray.”

Daniel arrives in a private car, not one sent by the studio. She called him, not knowing who else to trust. Hysteria makes her voice sound shrill. He’s never heard her unravel quite like this, and he comes as quickly as he can. He runs red lights and pushes the speed limit. Skids as he takes corners in the rain. 

She is waiting down the street from the dental clinic, sheltered from the weather beneath an awning, and smoking a menthol cigarette. She flicks the end with a nervous thumbnail, and a grey snake of ash falls to the ground. 

“I thought you’d quit?” Daniel comments.

“I thought I had too,” she replies, and puts herself in the passenger side of the car. He is surprised. She usually prefers the back seat. “Come on,” she urges, and he joins her, taking his place behind the wheel. 

They drive in silence but for the swish of the wipers sweeping away the drizzle off the glass. He finds the quiet disconcerting. She’s never normally lost for words. He clears his throat and attempts a conversation.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” he asks.

“About what?” she replies and averts her gaze. 

“Whatever it is, that’s got you so upset.”

“I’m not upset. Why would you say I’m upset?”

“Katy, please. I know you. Just… Know that I’m listening, okay?” 

She chews a hangnail absentmindedly. Yelps when she pulls it too close to the quick. He can see the tension in her shoulders. The muscles in her jaw pulse and twitch. 

“Katy…?”

“I’m fine, Daniel. Really.” 

The rainfall grows heavier, leaving patterns on the windows as the droplets race down the glass. She watches the rivulets run into one another, like the thin tears rolling down her cheeks. 

She remembers the image the dentist had shown her. The shock and surprise in her voice. The X-ray, which Katy could scarcely believe was real, let alone belonging to her. It was like something from a freak show in a carnival. From an Internet hoax, intended to disturb. From the very worst horror movie she’d ever seen. So grotesque, it couldn’t possibly be true. 

The image; her jaw in black and white, teeming with unusual white space. Rows upon rows of tiny tooth buds scattered inside her skull. Clusters layered within her jaw. Circling both nasal cavities. They were there, in her bones, waiting to erupt. Like parasites buried in her head. 

The house is quiet when she enters, made dark and still by the storm. Hestia and Artemis, her two Blue Pointed Siamese, are curled up asleep in their basket, oblivious to her return. She sent Daniel away as soon as she could. Not ready to talk. To remember.

Her smartwatch vibrates on her wrist and she flinches, but it’s just a reminder alarm. Time for her daily vitamins. An attempt to stay healthy and well. 

Mellie always said that they were useless. A waste of money. A con. 

“Eat less crap, and move your body more,” she’d said scornfully. “That’s the key to a good life, Mother. Not these stupid, expensive placebos.” But Mellie was still in her twenties, and for her, looking good was almost effortless. Such careless ease was just a memory to Katy. Good genes could only go so far. It took piles of money and lots of hard work to maintain her flawless appearance. 

 A well-meaning acquaintance at the studio had found her this particular brand. Only the purest organic ingredients. The best supplement money could buy. High in calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. All essential for women her age. But the real beauty, the woman had told her, was their secret, unique formula; an elixir that could regenerate old bone. And the proof certainly seemed to be in the pudding. The woman’s hair was thick, shiny and lustrous, and her skin was so clear and dewy it almost seemed to glow. She was lithe and supple, her movements graceful. She didn’t make any of those strange, strangled noises like Katy often did when she stood up after she’d been sitting for too long. 

Katy had been immediately envious. She knew the woman had eight years on her but could easily pass for ten younger. She’d bought the entire selection, taken double the recommended dose. She’d been far too gullible, too trusting. Impatient to reap the rewards. 

And now? Could they be the cause of her misery? She regards the two pink pills in her palm and tips them back into the bottle. She takes her phone from her handbag and scrolls through her contacts. Finds the one she needs. The line rings and rings but doesn’t connect. An automated voicemail springs to life, and she speaks as requested after the beep.

“Helen? Hi! This is Katy. Katy du Campos. We met at the studio. I’m just…” she trails off. Just what? 

Just calling to see if those pills we’re both taking have turned you into a medical anomaly? A freak of nature? A monster? 

No. 

Just wanted to know if you knew the risks? Or if maybe you lied to me and sold me down the river, you washed-up, jealous, old bitch? 

Definitely not. 

“Never mind. Call me.” She says. She puts the phone down on the breakfast bar and tries to will her heartbeat to slow down. Around and around her gums, her tongue goes, and she feels the irregularities in her skin. Counts them… One… Two… Five… Thirteen… Some tiny, some not so much. 

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Erin had said. Complex odontoma. Teratomas. A monstrous tumour. Then the C word no one ever wants to hear. Finally, talk of an operation. Of removal. Of some further study. And she had practically run from the clinic right then. The hideous image of the X-ray burned in her mind. 

She pours a drink and runs her fingers through her hair. Tries to smooth away some of her tension. Her left eye feels scratchy, as if irritated by an eyelash. She rubs it with a fingertip and freezes. In the corner, near the tear duct, she feels something solid. She screams like her life is in danger.

Daniel tries to call her multiple times through the evening and across the following two days. She doesn’t pick up. She can’t pick up. She spends the hours drowning in alcohol.

The dental clinic calls her too. They leave many messages that she won’t listen to. She deletes each one as they come in. She is terrified of what they might say. They’ll want to break her open, she knows. To cut into her face. 

She is startled in the morning by a buzz at the gate. She sees Daniel outside on the security camera feed, waving at the house.

“Go away,” she tells him over the intercom. “I want to be left alone.” But he refuses.

“If you won’t let me in, I’ll find a way to gain access, whether you like it or not,” he says. She doesn’t doubt it. He can be as stubborn as she is. 

He finds her in the dark with all the house blinds closed. A scarf has been thrown over the oversize mirror mounted in the open hallway. She has draped another over her head. She looks utterly ridiculous, he thinks. He notes the open and empty bottles, the cigarette butts crushed in a crystal bowl. He sees a metal toolbox on the floor by the fireplace. Open and spewing its contents. A hammer. Some pliers. A drill. There’s a pile of towels dumped on the floor too. Brown stains. Is that coffee? Or blood? 

“What the hell’s been going on, Katy? Why aren’t you answering your phone? I’ve had Stuart Valliant from the network breathing down my damn neck all of yesterday, and I had no idea what to tell him. I really hope you’ve got a good explanation!”

She makes her usual hand-raised gesture, demanding his silence and attention. He’s too angry, too confused, too tired to care. He’s had enough of her theatrics.

“And what the fuck is with the scarf on your face?” He goes to grab the material, to pluck it from her head, and she shies away from his touch. Her hip collides with the breakfast bar, and she grunts and stumbles before steadying herself. 

“Don’t,” she says, and her voice sounds strange. Muffled by the fabric, and something else. She sounds like his young nephew does when he sucks on a giant gobstopper. The candy too large for his mouth. 

“Are you sick?” He asks her, a little calmer. “Is that what’s wrong?” She nods and lets out a strangled cry.  

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” 

She shakes her head and wrings her hands. “It won’t help,” she garbles. “It’s too late.” 

She removes a Marlboro from the carton with shaking fingers and goes to put it to her lips. But she forgets about the scarf that’s in the way. A silken barrier that denies her her craving. She throws the cigarette to the floor, enraged. 

“Katy,” Daniel says slowly. “I’m worried about you. Take the scarf off, please. Let me see?” She replies with a furious shake of her head and backs away from him, arms outstretched. “Come on, Katy! How bad can it be?”

“I wanted to take them out myself,” she mumbles. “I couldn’t bear it, you know? Them being there. All of them under my skin. And the itching and the pressure… Oh!” She grows more agitated as she speaks, paces back and forth. “I tried, Daniel. I really tried. But I can’t… I got one. Just one. But there’s so many more!”

“What is? What are you talking about?”

She picks up a glass and upends it. Tips something into her hand. She passes it to him, something small and hard. A tiny round shape in his palm.  

“Will you help me, Daniel? To get them all out?” And then he realises what she’s given him.

“A tooth? You took out a tooth?” But this is too small for an adult tooth. Perhaps it’s one of Mellie’s baby teeth she’s kept. But why? Is this a prank?

“What is this?” He demands. “What the fuck’s going on?” And she sighs deeply and pulls at the corner of the scarf. The material ripples and flows like water, revealing the horrors beneath. 

From every orifice, and across both of her cheeks, pale pustules erupt and spread. Her eyes are swollen, her lips malformed. Her nostrils are wide and stretched. What skin remains is pinched and torn, freckled by tiny, white dots. 

‘Will you help me?” she asks him a second time. Her jaw is crammed with lumps of enamel. Her tongue encrusted with pearls. 

A wave of uncontrollable nausea hits him. He vomits on the floor. On his shoes. 

“How?” he begins, but he can’t go on.

“The dentist, that new girl, she X-rayed me. I thought she was lying. I wanted her to be lying. Oh God, Daniel! If the press gets hold of that picture… You know I can’t let anyone see me like this. These things, they’re in here,” she says, pointing to her skull. “They’re growing. And I don’t know why!” 

She scurries to the fireplace and picks up the drill, proffers it to him with a misshapen smile. One eye is closed, the eyeball obscured, both lids weighted down and distended. He sees buds of ivory peek through her hair, a broad line of sharp points at her scalp. There’s a ragged hole in the lower part of her cheek, plugged with blood that has dried almost black. It looks like a grotesque beauty mark. A dark chasm from which her sanity has fled.  

“Help me, Daniel,” she pleads. “There’s just so many. I can’t… Please?” And he takes the drill from her hands. 

Love Song for the Dead

(First published The Dead Inside, 2022)


I put your letters in the closet 

with my old school shoes,

eleven years and seven moons ago.

I vowed to keep them hidden, 

pushed as far back as they could go,

boxed up with the memories they held.

But memory finds me waiting, 

poised to act in haste and fear, and 

memory is a poison in my blood.

Like an infection in a wound 

that took too long to fully heal,

a kiss was all it took to make it spread.

A scorpion’s sting of devilry,

you found a chink and took the plunge,

pierced my armoured heart until I wept.

O, deliver me from evil. Scrub this stain,

sins of my past. Where am I now?

A million miles from where you left me. 

Abandoned at the roadside, 

tossed aside, dumped at the curb,

you ran alone and ran away. I couldn’t follow.

While you were hounded from your home

I held my tongue and closed my eyes, although…

the taste of you still lingered on my lips.

And shamed, I confessed all, 

to black ink pools, and shadowed graves.

I howled into the wind and cursed the night.

My pockets full of rocks, a weight that pressed, 

and I, undressed, prepared to walk, 

and send my bones beneath. But stalled.

Now, hush…

These secrets sewn in lips that lied, 

like I laid down beside you, 

I swiped the tears away and washed you clean.

Those faded scars upon my flesh –

a map that led me home again –

I built my dreams on stories that weren’t mine.

And he, with hands of stone and blood, 

became the wall around me, stood as a

protection and a curse; a hidden bruise.

I paid the toll with white lace hems, 

a hundred guests caught in pretence 

I held my breath and caged my wicked truth.

He hammered nails into my chest, 

my bed was made, and so I gave

my all as it was ever asked of me. 

He. Took. My. Very. Soul. From. Me.

Carved up, dug in, spooned out and hollowed,

Pumpkin, sweetie, honey pie…

“Bring me another beer. Bitch.”


And I, lost in my pain, looked up 

to find you come upon my step,

star-swaddled, haloed by a half-draped moon.

You took my hand and whispered,

“Run…” 

God knows I’ve made enough mistakes. But this?

Bar lights, Coors Lights, bright neon signs, 

flashing like a firework and a pulse inside my head, 

with a warmth upon my skin that spreads like oil.

A shark-toothed smile, a tilted head. 

But that’s not who I am now, did you forget?

You left me here to rot. 

And if he knows, if he finds out, 

it won’t be bruises, but hot copper in my mouth.

And fire burst between my legs, 

as he pummels all his hatred and

six drinks down, I know it’s time to 

Stop!

For all the words would ruin me,

and all the sins would burn me,

and God will never, ever take me back. 

Your dimples, crinkles, gold-flecked eyes,

Like hazel drowned in chocolate, I

yearn for that forbidden, shameful taste. 

You always brought such drama, and

I was drawn to the despair

The tragedy you craved a centre stage for.

You dressed everything in fantasy, 

I was just your Page,

but soft, you know full well how this must end.

“We won’t look back?” I ask you, 

and your answer strips me raw,

we leave that place united, star-crossed lovers evermore.

See now, a mouth filled with surprise 

and questions left unanswered. 

A blade is buried in the flesh, 

clear water blessed with blood.

In black ink pools, a shadowed grave, 

a body buried under.

Like letters hidden, tucked away, 

boxed up and bound with tape,

my old school shoes are long gone now

sunk deep beneath the lake.

Sir Julius Vogel Awards—finalist!

I was delighted to receive an email this afternoon to let me know that I am a Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist for the 4th year running!

This year I have been successful in two categories:

Best Collected Work: Reflections

Best Fan Writing: “No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary”

The finalists will be voted on by members of SFFANZ and the winners announced at a ceremony later this year.

This also means that all of my self-published collections are SJV finalists!

REFLECTIONS, a new ebook

It’s been a very strange year. I definitely did not think I would manage to get *anything* done, let alone actually put out another collection. Plans and goalposts have been moved around and cancelled, and I almost gave up completely after my laptop ate my WIP!

Despite all that, REFLECTIONS has been born, and I have decided to release it for free to whoever is interested. This is my present to you, my dear readers, for sticking with me even though I have been very much M.I.A. this year.

You can download an ePub, Mobi or PDF via BookFunnel at: https://BookHip.com/HCZWBQW

Or an ePub via Smashwords at: https://bit.ly/TWreflections where you can, if you wish to, Pay What You Want.

Happy holidays, and thank you for your support. ~ TLWood.

Short Story: “Long Drop”

To celebrate SEEDS receiving its (amazing!) third award nomination of the year, this time from the Ladies of Horror Fiction for Best Collection, I have decided to make one of the most talked about and much-loved stories in the collection free-to-read for a limited time.

Edit: this story was also selected at the very end of 2022 as a finalist for the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award for Disability in Speculative Fiction. https://file770.com/announcing-the-emeka-walter-dinjos-memorial-award-for-disability-in-speculative-fiction/

Described by author and editor Steve Dillon, who first published it in 2020 as “strange but beautiful,” “Long Drop” had been in my head for a while before I wrote it down, probably since I first visited New Zealand and experienced using these terrifying outside toilets myself. While it does indeed include some scary monsters, the story itself is about resilience, family and fresh starts—finding strength in dark times (literally and mentally) and overcoming your greatest fears. 

Content warnings:

  • Traumatic childhood experiences 
  • Divorce and parental guilt 

© Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2021
This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.

First published in Outback Horrors Down Under, Things in the Well Press, 2020
Reprinted in SEEDS, Wild Wood Books, 2021


Many hours have passed since we first set out, yet we have a long journey still ahead of us. The sun has shrunk and slipped down past our backs, letting twilight take over as our guide. We have travelled a labyrinth of unknown roads. Blue lines on the map like swollen veins as Aotearoa pulls us closer to its heart. I’ve been driving too long, overdue for a break. I pull over by the edge of the highway.

Away from the car, I breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of the earth. The air sings softly in a rolling sigh, high notes of the summer’s end. Here, Mother Nature swaddles the countryside in a blanket of her own making. Her patchwork pieces are bound and sewn, pulled tight with living threads. Every tree and leaf is a fevered stitch, embroidered on the tapestry of the land.

I am at peace here. I belong. I—

“Mummy! I need a wee!”

I am snatched from my moment of blissful calm and plunged back into reality. My stomach lurches and sinks to my groin. I feel tired, as I have for so long now. A tiredness that resides in the marrow of my bones and cannot be relieved by sleep. A painful, ever constant knot of anxiety grips my stomach with a million claws. It feels like a tiny demon, desperate to be freed.

I look back to the car. I can see her wriggling in frustration, enraged by the restraints of her seat. She grumbles and moans as she plucks at the straps. Her mouth is ringed with melted chocolate, a pink slash in a thick, brown smear. It was a mistake for me to leave her unattended.

She pushes the fingers of one chubby hand through the open gap in the window and starts tugging on the edge of the glass. She is small but determined, and her anger makes her stronger. I take a final drag on my cigarette before stamping it out in the dirt. I give the view one last wistful, loving glance, trying to hold it like a snapshot in my mind, and trudge back to the car.

Be grateful for the little things. Remember these moments. Don’t take anything for granted.

My grandmama’s words. A storyteller, just like I used to be. Always seeking out a fairy tale, hearing whispers on the wind.

I press the button on the key fob to unlock the car doors. I join her on the back seat and start cleaning her face with a wet wipe.

“Hi, sweetie,” I begin, trying to keep my tone soft, as mellow as I can. “You know, we’re out in the middle of nowhere here. You’ll have to go in the bushes, I’m afraid.”

She begins to whine, just as I feared she would. 

“No, Mummy! I can’t! You know I can’t do it outside!”

“I’m sorry, my love, but there’s not much choice. Not unless you can hold on and I can drive a bit further? Maybe we can find a toilet somewhere?”

She glares, swallows a giant gulp of air and holds it defiantly. Her cheeks puff out and her face turns bright red. I hate it when she does this. Her way of protesting when I do something she doesn’t like. Of holding me to ransom until I surrender to her demands. I need to intervene, and quickly. I bring up the maps app on my phone, use my thumb to scroll around the local area.

“Look, honey, there’s a look-out point a little further along this road. Overlooking a waterfall. There might be something you can use there. How does that sound?”

She flares her nostrils and her eyeballs bulge. I know she is only moments from a full meltdown.

Keep calm. Keep calm. Breathe…

“Come on, sweetie,” I plead. “You’re a big girl now. You can hold on a little while longer, can’t you?”

She locks eyes with me and narrows the lids. It is a competition now, to see who can be the most stubborn. She knows that if she digs her heels in, I will have little choice but to acquiesce. Alternatively, if she agrees to my suggestion, she will lose this battle, but will not have to suffer the gross indignity of urinating outside. I am grateful that she seems to have grown out of deliberately wetting herself to punish me. Even for her, that was a step too far.

I watch her. Thinking. Eventually, she exhales and breathes normally again. Her cheeks return to their usual colour.

“Okay, Mummy. Fine,” she huffs. “But you need to drive quick. Really, really quick!”

I nod and smile and strap myself in. I avoid looking at her in the rear-view mirror for fear my fake smile might betray me. That I might show the frustration and despair I feel. I don’t tell her the public convenience is most likely to be a long drop all the way out here. A pit toilet. Nothing more than a deep hole dug in the ground connected to a U-shaped seat. I know she won’t like it any more than doing her business amongst nature. I hope I can distract her. I pray I can keep her calm.

I start to drive. I can hear her humming to herself, the same tune over and over again. Some nonsensical ditty about a baby shark. I recognise it as a song from a TV show, watched on repeat until I felt like screaming. Felt like it, but never did. I would swear she knew, I would see it in her eyes, watching my reactions and the changes in my face. Jonah had always told me to ignore such behaviour. He made me feel like I should be grateful. At least those insipid videos kept her from flying into a rage. Her frequent, violent outbursts. Not that he ever experienced them as I did. No, for him she’d been a Golden Child. A perfect Daddy’s girl. She’d always been so very well behaved when he was around. It makes me sad he isn’t anymore.

I wonder if he’d believed me when I told him about the things she did.

“I fell in love with you for your imagination,” he said, not long before he left. “But you have to embellish everything. You can’t ever just let things be.”

It was easier for him to call me a liar. So much harder to face the truth.

My eyes mist over with emotion. This road is twisty and unfamiliar to me, and I blink and try to focus up ahead. I spy the brown sign as I guide the car around another corner:

Scenic lookout 400m on left.

I slow down and indicate. There’s nothing behind me. Not a single vehicle has passed us in over thirty minutes, but ten years of city driving has ensured the habit is ingrained.

“Not much longer now, baby. Are you okay?”

She ignores me completely and carries on humming, perhaps a little louder. I glance into the rear-view mirror; her eyes are closed, her head tilted back. She appears oblivious to everything around her, unaware even of me.

I take the slip road and head for the rough gravel carpark. It’s empty like the highway. The car skids a little on the loose stones as the tyres lose their grip. I see a wooden shack at the end of the path. A blue sign mounted on the side confirms it as a toilet, and I park as close to it as I can. She is surprisingly heavy for her small size. I won’t be able to carry her far.

I kill the engine, get out, and open the rear side door. She pulls at the seatbelt and jiggles impatiently as I unclip her and lean inside. I slip one arm underneath her legs, the other around her shoulders. I breathe heavily as I struggle to lift her to my chest. She could help me, make this farce a little easier, but she never does. Instead, she lets herself become dead weight, her face so blank it might as well be wooden.

There is nothing physically wrong with her. She could walk quite well if she chose to. She has simply chosen not to.

Every doctor Jonah and I approached declared her fit and healthy. No underlying cause or problems with her legs. She had merely decided one grey, wind-swept morning, at age three and a half, that she would no longer walk. Not just that, she would not crawl, roll, or otherwise move herself anywhere. Instead, she screamed and raged and thrashed around until someone picked her up and carried her to wherever she wanted to be. Someone being me.

That was almost three years ago. I’ve been carrying her ever since.

Jonah bought her a wheelchair, perhaps hoping it might spark some surge of independence, but she refused to use it unless he was there too, and it was not possible for him to be there all the time. 

Things changed. The myriad of life’s pressures ground our relationship to dust. He fell in and then out of love. We are not his only family now.

I grunt with exertion as I slide her across the seat and towards the open door. She is still humming, but at least her eyes are open now. She fixes me with a dead-eyed stare and does nothing to help me at all. Her arms flop, fishlike, against her sides and I have to pull them around my shoulders as if manhandling an oversize rag doll. I feel my muscles scream as my back is jarred and my neck is twisted to one side.

Give me strength, I mutter. Please, God. Give me strength.

At last, I get her out of the car, and she holds on to me, albeit half-heartedly. I dropped her once by accident, and it surprised us both. She was unhurt, although the fury she unleashed might have suggested otherwise. Ever since, she loops both arms around my neck and locks the fingers of both hands together, just like the long-limbed plush monkey she has, with Velcro patches on its paws. She tries to make it seem like she is indifferent, but I know that’s not true. She doesn’t trust me not to let her fall again. I understand. Sometimes I’m not so sure I trust myself.

I step backwards and push the door closed with my hip. The key fob is buried deep in my pocket and I struggle to lock the car. It’s illogical, I know. We are the only ones here. But we have all our luggage stuffed in the boot and spread across the back seats. Our whole life is crammed in this shiny blue Mazda, and I don’t want to take any chances. My therapist tells me I worry too much, but I don’t know how else to be.

Jonah is in Auckland, at the top of the North Island. He’s found us a brand-new house. It’s a mere three minutes away from where his new wife lives with their newborn twins. I don’t blame him for leaving us. We could never have been what he wanted, but I couldn’t let him just walk away. She’s his daughter too.

A new house is only part of the deal. He has promised me help, and regular respite. Something he never gave me before. It is a fresh start and a brand-new life. Of course, there were bound to be obstacles.

She refused to fly. There was absolutely no way I could get her on a plane without resorting to some level of sedation. As tempting as that initially seemed, I could not bring myself to do it. She would know what I’d done, and I feared the repercussions. I doubt I could have handled my guilt. Instead, we compromised; Jonah agreed to hire a car, and I agreed to drive. Six hundred and fifty kilometres. Over eight hours on the road. I could have broken it up, stayed a night in a motel, but that wouldn’t have gone smoothly either.

We set off at eight this morning. We still have a long way to go. It is already getting dark, thanks to the clocks going back. I have no choice, I’ll have to drive through the night.

Like an awkward, unsteady Madonna with child, I stumble slightly as my feet slip on the gravel. Her humming skips a beat. Perhaps she is fearful of another imminent tumble, but I remain upright and head slowly towards the shack. The air feels heavy, just like her. I wheeze with each step as I walk. I shouldn’t smoke so much, I know. Another mess Jonah got me into.

A skittering and rustling is coming from the bushes, an animal of some sort, I assume. A possum perhaps, or a large, native bird, back late to its nesting spot. The leaves part briefly and then snap closed. I can see nothing further in the half-light.

We reach the wooden building and I use my foot to push open the door. It creaks a little, and offers some resistance, as if it were being pushed back on from the inside. I kick it harder and it swings free. There is no light inside. It takes a moment for my eyes to get used to the gloom and confirm what I suspected. A long drop. Not a bad one, however, with a decent seat and a reasonable supply of toilet paper. It could be so much worse.

“Okay, sweetie. Here we are. I’m going to put you down now and we can get you sorted.” I bend slightly and set her feet on the floor in front of the toilet. I feel her weight shift as she lets go. She wobbles slightly but stands upright. Her legs are weak, but they are not useless. They can still bear her weight.

She would often sneak around our old apartment when she thought I was asleep. I would lie in bed and listen to the muted rustle of her slippered tread scuffing the laminate floor. I could have caught her out, but why bother? Far less stressful for me to let her believe she had the upper hand.

I take my phone out of my pocket, switch on its torch and balance it on the toilet paper holder. Immediately, the shack is smothered in shadows. The tiny light is far too weak to fill the space. She stands motionless, watching me for a moment, before twisting her head to look behind her. I try to catch her cheek with my fingers, to stop her before she sees the drop, but I’m too slow. She starts to whine.

“No, Mummy! No!” she begins. I make soft hushing noises and use my open palms to stroke down the length of her bare arms. A soothing technique her therapist showed me. My futile attempt to keep her calm.

“I know, honey. It’s not ideal. But it’ll be okay. There is a seat and paper, and I can hold on to you until you’re done so you won’t fall. Just do what you need to do and we can get back on the road, huh? We can carry on with our journey to Daddy. You do want to see Daddy, don’t you?”

Her whine intensifies in both volume and pitch. I know from experience how loud she can get. How long she can go on for. I sigh. I don’t have time for this today. I squat down in front of her and take her hands in mine.

“Sweetie, it’s okay. Really it is. Look, I’ll go first and I’ll show you, okay?”

I move her to the side so I have access to the toilet seat. The toilet door rattles impatiently. I freeze and my heart thumps a scattered rhythm in my chest.

“It’s occupied,” I call to the darkness. “We won’t be long.” There comes no answer, only the echoes of the wind. I listen closely but hear nothing more. Satisfied that we’re alone, I unbutton my jeans and fumble with the zipper. I pull the denim down across my thighs and hook my thumbs over the sides of my underwear. She doesn’t watch. Her eyes are closed, her body rigid. She wails. A sustained, high-pitched tone that makes me want to cry out too. To moan and howl like a lonely wolf, my fragile heart broken into a thousand shards.

Sometimes I wonder, how does she maintain this noise? How does she manage to breathe and scream, seemingly at the same time? I raise my voice, hoping she can hear me.

“Look, honey. Watch what I do. It’s all fine.”

I squat over the seat. My thighs groan at the movement. I used to run up mountains when I was younger. Now I feel exhausted merely walking upstairs. I relax. The urine leaves me as a dribble at first, then follows in a steaming rush.

I’m not quite finished when I feel the clammy hands reach up and grab a hold of me.

I yell and shriek and lunge myself forwards. I stumble and bang one knee on the floor, both legs entangled in my clothes. I yank my underwear back over my hips, not caring that they are soiled. I pull my jeans up after them. I don’t have time to re-fasten the zipper before I see them; green, skeletal, crêpe-skinned fingers curling like fat spiders’ legs over the edge of the seat.

She stops wailing. She stands transfixed. Her eyes are painted black by shadows, open as wide as they can go.

I hear grunting and shuffling from inside the pit. The fingers move forwards and reveal blue-veined hands. Long, scrawny arms follow, then bony shoulders, until finally, a head appears. I smell something putrid, an assault on my senses, like a mixture of methane and stale sweat. I retch in response to the stench.

I want to run, but I cannot move. Rooted and made solid by fear.

The creature hauls itself out of the hole and stands astride the seat. It is no bigger than a large house cat, but its proportions are all so wrong. Its head is smooth and perfectly round, like that of a bowling ball. Its ears are elfin, thin and pointed, adorned with strands of brown hair. Its eyes are enormous, like dinner plates. They are wet and shiny and amphibious. It has no nose that I can see, merely two nostrils covered by pale flaps of skin that rhythmically open and close. I don’t know if it is breathing or inhaling my scent. It fixes me with those huge, damp eyes and blinks once. Twice. Then tilts its head to the right-hand side. It sees her behind me, and it grins.

Its smile is utterly terrifying and devoid of any humour. A whole third of its face seems to crack open and twist itself into a wide grimace. Its mouth is filled with row upon row of thin and needle-sharp teeth. They are rotten, black and decaying. It flicks its tongue in the air like a whip, snake-like and scored with a deep groove.

I move in front of her. My body is a shield between her and it. She stays silent. She doesn’t even whimper. The creature shifts its weight and moves its head, trying desperately to see past me. It chitters and makes a noise like a tūī bird does before it sings; a sound like it is clearing its throat.

I hear the spattering noise of urine as it dribbles onto the floor. I smell the hot scent behind me. She has wet herself. I am not in the least bit surprised.

The creature chirrups once again, its nose flaps moving faster now. It tilts its head back and inhales. It breathes in the musk of her accident. It stares at me, poised, slightly crouched as it balances on the toilet seat, and it lets out a deep, guttural roar.

The sound is deafening in such a small space. I wince in pain as it hurts my ears, but it finally spurs me to act. Free from my paralysis, I grab her arm and haul her in my wake. I wrench open the wooden door, hear it slam against the side of the hut. I pull and push her almost simultaneously, catapulting her out into the carpark. She stumbles and her legs buckle, and she almost falls to the ground, but she catches herself at the last second. I hear the creature jump from the toilet behind me, and I run towards my exit. Sharp claws catch the back of my jacket, and I feel the fabric stretch and tear.

The beast is much stronger than it looks; it pulls me backwards, back into the hut. I grab the door frame, holding on to the edge as tight as I can. The creature scrabbles up the length of my legs. It clambers onto my shoulders and entwines its fingers in my hair. I slam my back against the wall, hear it shriek as it is pinned. My left ear explodes in a surge of hot pain.

It’s bitten me. The little bastard has bitten me! Two can play that game…

I reach behind me, grab one of its legs, and pull it as hard as I can. It loses its grip just slightly, but enough so that I can turn my head and sink my teeth into a scrawny limb. It screams again. I bite down harder. It tastes bitter and rotten, like sour milk, but I don’t let go. Not even when I pierce its skin and a rancid liquid seeps from the wound and makes me want to vomit. It stings my lips and makes my gums ache. I pray it isn’t toxic.

I feel it relax its grip again and I slam it hard into the sharp edge of the frame. Its fingers flex, in pain or shock, and it tumbles from my back. It lands, legs akimbo, sprawled out on the ground like an upturned slater bug.

I don’t hang around to see it get back up.

I dash out of the hut and slam the door. She is standing shakily, looking back to the car. She sees me but doesn’t say a word. I go to grab her arm again, to pull her along with me, but she flinches and stiffens before whispering, “Stop.” I follow her worried gaze.

The sun has almost disappeared over the edge of the horizon. The carpark is in darkness, a shroud of pale grey. I hear them before I see them. A chittering and chirruping and scraping of sharp claws. There is movement in the trees and bushes around us. The leaves writhe and shiver as the creatures move amongst them. I see quick flashes of light in the black, as the dying sun reflects in their huge eyes.

A story comes to me unexpectedly, one Grandmama used to tell. Her tales were inspired by legends but embellished with her own savage twists. It is ridiculous, I know this, but still…

She spoke of moon-pale goblins with gigantic eyes like pools of molten tar. They lived hidden in a land beneath deep water and returned to the shore at night. Child-stealing gremlins that shunned the touch of the sun, for fear it would scorch their skin. They would creep out under cover of darkness, she said, and snatch babies to take back to their lairs.

“What they did with them after was anyone’s guess,” she’d cackled gleefully, as I’d cowered in my bed. “Some stories said that they ate them whole after they’d peeled them from their skins. Others said they enchanted them, changed the infants into beings like them. Whatever they did, they took revenge against the humans who had driven them away.”

These are stories, nothing more. Tall tales to tell small children to encourage them to behave. There is no such thing as goblins. My grandmama simply knew how to spin a good yarn. Yet, I look at these creatures and I wonder: how many of her stories were pure fantasy, and how much did she know to be true?

The noises grow louder and closer. The distance between us and the car seems to stretch like an eternity. There is no way we can run to it before these creatures catch us. If she will even run with me. If she chooses not to and expects me to carry her, we are surely doomed.

I reach for her hand. She takes it and I pull her close to me. I hear more rustling in the undergrowth from all sides, surrounding us completely. I stroke her hair and murmur softly. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’ll be okay.” 

She nuzzles into me, wraps her arms around me and squeezes me in a tight embrace. I gasp in shocked surprise. She never hugs me of her own volition. Often stiffens if I try to touch her first. She holds me for a moment before releasing her grip and starts rummaging in my jacket pockets. I am confused. I don’t know what she is doing. And then she presses something cold and hard into my palm.

My lighter.

Jonah gave it to me the first Christmas after we got together. We weren’t married then, but we knew we would be one day. He’d had it engraved with a message. I run my thumbnail over the letters. I don’t need to see to read the words. I know well what they say.

Anna, you light up my life. Love always, Jonah.

How ironic then that this flame still burned, but he had left me cold. He had given all his love to another, but I couldn’t quite let go of mine. I can’t hate him, even if I wanted to. I understand why he left. He couldn’t cope. Would not adapt. He was so much weaker than I.

She pulls on my sleeve and looks up at me. It is too dark to make out her expression, but her features are imprinted in my memory. I know every millimetre of her face. Her green eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Her skin so pale it looks almost porcelain, sprinkled with a galaxy of freckles. Rosebud lips and a delicate nose. A twisted mess of ginger curls tumbling down past her cheeks. Hers is a face I’d watched fall asleep every night by my side for six years. A child who screams and shrieks and whines. Who hates to be held and deplores being kissed. An awkward, difficult, cantankerous being. As fickle and as unpredictable as a storm. I will love her fiercely every day of my life, without compromise or any exceptions. With never a second thought.

Old friends now long gone used to ask me, “How can you stand it? How do you cope?” I am her mother. She is my daughter. She is my blood and my kin. Why even ask me such stupid questions? I would never dignify them with a response. 

I lean over to kiss the top of her head. She pulls me close and whispers in my ear. 

“You can burn them, Mummy,” she hisses, her young voice soft yet furious. “You can kill them all.”

I feel the hint of a smile play on my lips. Yes, she is my daughter for sure.

I flick the lid. I press my thumb hard on the spark wheel. I strike the flint. A burst of flame erupts in my hands, and the air reeks with the tang of naphtha.

The creatures growl and snarl in fear. They shrink back from the fire and bare their sharp teeth. I scan the carpark, looking for something, anything I can use. I see a broken branch encrusted with dried leaves a few steps to my left. I sidle towards it and snatch it from the ground. As I touch the flame to the crackling leaves, they spit sparks as the heat engulfs them. They burn quickly, and then go out.

I hear the goblins moving closer, emboldened by the death of the fire. I need to think fast. I take the key fob out of my jacket pocket and press the silver button. There is a beep and a click as the car doors unlock. I thrust it back into my jeans then wriggle out of my torn jacket, wrapping it as tightly as I can around the charred end of the branch. I summon the fire from the lighter again and press it to the sleeve. It is a polyester-cotton mix. Cheap and cheerful from a discount store. It ignites swiftly and with gusto.

Her emerald eyes reflect in the light. Tiny flames flicker in her irises. I nod and smile, inviting her to take the lighter from me. She reaches out and takes it, enthralled by the bright colours and shapes. I pass my power on to her.

A surge of old images flare like the fire, reminders of my mother’s death. A mother who was equal parts absent and cruel. Who nursed bottles of cheap gin as if they were bairns. The glass felt more love than I.

Then Grandmama’s stories swimming in my head. And she, a white knight, come to my rescue. Yet her supposed kindness was often poisoned by spite. A victory in a war I was a pawn in. Apples and trees. Frying pans and fires. My whole life was a rollercoaster of emotions, like waves across a changeable sea.

Much later, lit cigarettes and freak accidents. Apologies and crocodile tears. Decisions made by old men wearing black robes. Fresh starts. New beginnings and a glorious birth. And finally, I remember who I am.

Take the fire, my child. Receive and rejoice. This weapon is yours now to wield.

The forest is filled with the deafening roar of a scourge of furious beasts. They scratch at the trees and the soil at their feet, venting their frustration on the land. The flaming torch is hot and unwieldy, but it keeps the terror at bay. I curl my arm underneath her shoulders and nudge her gently forwards. She wobbles and shakes on unsteady legs and thrusts the lighter straight out in front of her as if wielding a flaming sword. She holds on to me with her other hand, and we move as one to the car.

She walks with me. My God, she actually walks with me! It is as if the weight of everything has lifted. All the fear and doubt and indecision which ground me down and squashed my soul has gone. Spirited away. No longer a husk scraped dry and barren, a pale reflection of myself. I reclaim all that I was and welcome new strength. I am Mother. The Protector. A Warrior.

When we reach the car I close the lighter and push her inside up front in the passenger seat. I can see the creatures’ reflections in the glass of the car windows. Hundreds of them spitting and chittering behind me. I hear a low growl in the distance. The hut door opens and slams into the side wall. The one from the long drop is coming.

I shut her in and dash to the driver’s side. I go to open the door, then pause. What will they do when we try to leave? Will they let us go or try to stop us? Will they lay in wait for someone else? Someone too weak to fight them?

Jonah used to say to me, in our younger and wilder days, when we both hustled pool in backwoods bars: “You don’t have to go looking for trouble, babe. But if it finds you, don’t be frightened to finish it.”

The torch tip flickers like a wagging finger. There is something I know I must do.

~

I can see the flames from the highway as we drive away into the night. Great hands of yellow and orange and red, reaching up to touch the sky. It makes my heart ache, this destruction, but I know I can’t keep looking back. The land will survive, I am sure of it. It will grow back, out of the ashes. Something new. Out of the darkness, a phoenix will rise. I can feel it already rising in me.

She plays with the lighter but doesn’t ignite it, merely opens and closes the lid. Each rhythmic clink as the metal slides tallies with the beat of my heart. I am surprised to feel so calm.

I notice she is humming again, but much quieter this time. I don’t mind. It is strangely comforting.

“I love you, sweetie,” I tell her.

She doesn’t stop humming, but she smiles.