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THE WOMAN WITH EELS IN HER MOUTH by Aaron Dries

Updated: 4 days ago


The Woman With Eels in Her Mouth by Aaron Dries @aarondries

ONE

Katie thought she understood shame.

There was Ananya, the girl in high school she’d crushed on, who sought out Katie’s insecurities and announced them to the world. Commenting about her pockmarked skin. Her stretch marks. Wounds without a hope of healing. Ananya embarked on this mission once she learned who slipped the letter into her netball bag, that offending page ripped from a notebook, a letter Katie signed with a heart above the ‘I’ where the dot in her name should be.

All those Xs and Os. They might as well have been a target.

“Do you love me too? Tick yes or no.”

Two months of smears followed. “Lezzos go to Hell, you know. She’s into girls ’cause she’s too ugly for a deep dicking. Maybe she's a boy!” Two months waiting for that letter to be acknowledged, for the tick.

Just give me a fucking answer. Please. I’ll wait.

Even though you’re killing me.

Ananya died on Christmas Day, struck down by a drunk driver who assumed he had the right of way. Though the scars of her betrayal still stung, Katie wept at the funeral. There had been more to their relationship than anyone could know; the life they had shared in Katie’s imagination.

Those invisible kisses. Handholding nobody else saw.

(I’ll wait.)

Stinking heat in the church. Some of Ananya’s relatives flew in from India, explosions of colour among the dandruff-lined suits. Someone fainted, In Memorium booklets flying like startled birds. Girls snickered at Katie from behind their hands.

“That’s her,” said Charmaine Newberry. “That’s the dyke who liked her.”

Katie glanced up from the mahogany casket, her tears nothing to them. And saw her. She. The whisperer who wanted to be heard. Always.

Everyone knew Charmaine Newberry. The kind of girl who couldn’t flick through something as innocuous as a chemistry textbook without announcing her personality to the world in some spectacular way. Went everywhere with a little Pomeranian called Squeak. The reflections of stained-glass martyrs painted Charmaine’s face in a kaleidoscope as she sat on her pew at Ananya’s funeral, dog in her lap. Squeak never made a sound. Ever. Katie couldn’t help but wonder why. They locked eyes. The two young women across the aisle.

“Her.”

Charmaine Newberry would carry the torch for the dead friend Katie loved. “Watch your back,” she’d say at any given opportunity to anyone who would listen. “Whoever she crushes on, dies. Have you seen her skin? The stretch marks on her arms? She rides a skateboard, you know. Besides, lezzo cunts go to hell, everyone knows that. Ananya probably drove herself into that car because she couldn’t take being obsessed over.”

I’m not going to punch you.

I’m NOT going to punch you.

Even though I want to punch you, Charmaine Newberry.

And then there was Tyler at university. Tyler with the Holden Torana he’d resurrected from a junkyard. The craftiness of his hands was something Katie knew better than most. She’d experienced his callouses up close. Springs beneath the backseat singing along with that old ’Til Tuesday song on the radio, the song that insisted she shut up now. He tasted of Guinness, tobacco. The way his penis looked. Long and thin—useless. He called Katie a dumb shit, said it was her fault he couldn’t get it up.

“’Cause you’s ugly, that’s why. Ugly as fuuuuccckkk.”

I’m not going to punch you.

I’m not going to punch you.

I am NOT going to punch you, Tyler.


Katie didn’t finish her degree. Her thoughts were cracking ice cubes in lukewarm water, the chewed ends of pencils, tin between teeth. Her thoughts groaned, snapped, ground together. They were asphyxiations. And they rarely let in any light. She saw a tired doctor with certified qualifications in indifference framed in expensive plywood on his walls. He scribbled prescriptions for the ‘—ines’. Fluoxetine. Sertraline. Paroxetine. They mostly worked. Mostly. Ice cubes held their shape. Pencils hardened. Tin, swallowed. Katie could breathe, sometimes. But one thing remained constant throughout.

Shame.

Bear trap, vicious shame.

Katie could’ve sworn she knew its ins and outs; the way it tended to lie dormant, rusting, and then coming out to play when you least expected it. The way it stalked you, an old hurt.

Only she was wrong.

Katie didn’t understand shame because she didn’t have any of it left, a fact that revealed itself at Lula-Bell Lake in the winter of 2020.

It was the kind of cold day that ripped the moisture right out of your skin. The stubborn Australian sun shone on anyway. Katie was thankful. When it was overcast, this part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park was obsidian waves carved by wind, faces in trees, spiders and their traps. It made for some decent photography. Only decent wouldn’t cut it. Her project required beauty. Honesty. Nothing short of perfection would suffice. She didn’t need that degree to be happy so long as she did this, and did this better than anyone else.

Don’t give up, Katie. Do not give up.

You. Must. Win.

The competition deadline was three weeks away, and she still had to have the as-yet-captured images printed on canvas and sent to the judges. Katie would be cutting it fine, as she always seemed to do. If she cut it at all.

She’d been at the cabin for five days, longer than anticipated, waiting for the right combination of weather, light, and motivation. Like shame, she was patient. Not that the owner of the property, who lived in the neighbouring town of Long Swamp Bay appeared to care.

“Stay as long as you have a mind to,” he’d said through dentures too big for his mouth, giving her a once over, trying not to focus on her tattoos and piercings. “Business isn’t exactly boomin’, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Katie’s patience paid off and the camera in her hand was heavier as a result. It was, she thought, as though the amalgamation of metal and plastic and itty-bitty springs were imbued now with meaning that hadn’t been there before.

Because the day was the postcard to a place everyone had to visit.

Katie said it again. Her mantra. Her promise.

Nothing less than perfection will do.

The person judging the competition was someone from her school years, proving, again, that the universe was tiny and unfair. She’d been Charmaine Newberry back then. Now that she was married and had kids of her own, she went by Charmaine Richardson.

Such a neat, domesticated amendment, Katie thought. How flawlessly expected of you, Charmaine.

Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest revealed that Charmaine Whatever was still the Class-A knockout she’d been as a teenager. A knockout with three hundred likes per post who curated one of Sydney’s most well-regarded galleries.

Prove. Her. Wrong.

The glare off the lake was strong. Katie stared through the viewfinder of her SONY digital NEX-3 as opposed to using the display screen. The camera was compact, its ruby casing making the skin of her fingers pale by comparison. She used the 18-55 e-mount long lens, which gave wonderful depth of field on details when flicked to micro settings.

That wasn’t appropriate here. Some landscapes were designed to dominate. She should’ve brought a wide-angle lens, something that would assist in personifying how she felt — tiny and submissive in comparison to nature. A flick of charcoal on an otherwise untouched canvas.

On her left, an ancient shed, some corrugated relic. To her right, a swamp bird. It was starved; a mustering of ribs and feathers and tics.

Katie took a couple of snaps. The shutter sent her heart skipping. It might as well have been a thunderclap. Quiet followed, awkward as silence after a bad joke. And that was what the playback screen proved — images so bland they weren’t worthy of laughter, let alone the validations the Charmaine Richardsons of the world gifted.

The bird strode away.

A breeze whipped the collar of her jacket. Katie sighed. Lula-Bell’s waters around her ankles, jeans rolled up to the knees. No drama here. Not yet.

Patient. Remember? You can do this.

(You’ve got no fucking choice.)

Exhausted, she stepped out of the water, pebbles massaging the soles of her feet, and sat on a log by the shore. This lump of wood had its own majesty. It resembled a giant hand, perhaps the one that had carved this landscape into being only to be thrown away afterwards, made useless by the arthritis that had contorted it into its current, gnarled state. Everything rotted in the end. Ananya would be bones by now.

Katie grabbed a picture. Checked the playback.

Nope. Not right.

Even with the sexy depth-of-field, she struggled to link the camera with the images her mind saw so clearly.

“I’m a goddamned joke,” Katie said. “Fuckin’ Christ.”

She defaulted to an old familiar line, one that traced the shape of her scars — Charmaine was right. Charmaine was always right.

And then Katie heard it.

A light aircraft zoomed over the tree-topped peninsula that lent Lula-Bell her privacy. From this distance, the plane resembled someone’s toy thing.

Flying low there, buddy. Better pull up.

But the pilot did not pull up.

Katie watched, gasping, as gravity snatched the plane from where it wavered, dragging it down. Threads of smoke billowed from its undercarriage, a dirty streak against the blue. Katie ran into the water, waving her arms, though to what purpose she had no idea. It just struck her as the thing to do. The only thing, maybe.

“Watch out!”

Her shouts were of no use. The aircraft with the words, BETHIE’S NEW HEIGHTS, inscribed above the wing, swirled into a nose-dive. The wasp-whine of useless propellers, an almost cartoony sound.

“No. No! NO!”

The plane struck Lula-Bell twenty yards from shore. It didn’t slide beneath the surface as atie expected it to. It tumbled across the horizon like a discarded crucifix on a church floor, up and over, breaking apart. Flames. The lake swallowed debris in plodding gulps.

“—oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh—”

That breeze picked up again, an awful cold driving her to blink, and when she did, tears slipped from her lashes and froze on her cheeks.

Katie backed out of the water, glancing up and down the shoreline. To the nearby cabin. To her car in the crushed oyster shell driveway. Nobody around to help, not that help could be offered.

I’m alone out here.

Even the swamp bird had taken flight, dropping scat as it went.

Waves lapped at her heels, whhiisshhed over the bank like someone hissing for silence, someone who feared a secret was close to being revealed.

The pilot broke the water’s surface where the wreckage sunk. The woman may or may not have gone by, ‘Bethie’. Regardless, and no matter the heights she’d aimed for, one thing was certain — this person was busy dying. Katie watched her roll, screaming, exposing the remnants of her left arm. It had been mangled above the elbow, forearm and hand dangling on an elastic tendon. Blood fountained, pooled. Whitecaps rolled red.

Katie exhaled a quiver, menthol cool, and it left a pit at the middle of her. It caught her off guard, that emptiness. Katie didn’t dismiss it; denied the denial. She sensed the moment presenting itself and reached out to touch it, finding herself shocked by its texture, the shape of it, its contours and opportunities.

Now.

Now or you’ll miss it.

She brought the camera to her eye. The lens clattered, snapped, snatcher of sights. She zoomed in, framed by all that beautiful landscape, and saw the burnt, dismembered woman.

—Click—

A quiver in reverse. Katie recoiled. The woman thrashed, rolled…

—Click—

…and glared straight at her. Eyes white amid the blackened skin.

(Well, are you? Going to help her?)

How? What could I possibly do?

Screams from the lake. “Help! Help! Help me! God! God, no—”

—Click—

(Swim out to her! Bring her in. You can swim, damn it!)

But she’s beyond help!

—Click—

(Nobody’s beyond help, Katie. Nobody.)

The pilot’s fingers clutched air with no savior to be found. Not here. Not on that perfect day, with these photos to be taken. Bubbles amid the gore and oil, and then the woman went under for good.

Katie stole a breath of clean air. The camera dangled from her grip. Beneath this thing of itty-bitty cogs and microchips, beneath the plastic and metal casing, the pilot’s last moments were captured in detail. Like ice so cold its burn couldn’t be differentiated from heat, Katie couldn’t tell if it was beauty or horror she’d captured. But it didn’t matter in the end. It had been real. It had been genuine.

And now it belonged to her.


TWO


Katie watched them drag the woman from the water, all her clothes torn off, an eel slipping from her mouth. Tow-truck drivers fought over wings and hull fragments before leaving with equal shares of the loot.

They draped the body in a white sheet.

She documented everything with the NEX-3, stopping to answer questions, to sip from coffee someone handed her in a Styrofoam cup. A marbled cloud of oil over the liquid. She gulped it down. Bitter. Coppery. Tasting of the tap. Katie wondered whose job it was to bring hot drinks and those space blankets at emergency sites. What professional qualification did such a role require? She envied this person’s importance, their purpose in the machine. The empty feeling at her core lingered on.

Now that her statement was done, and the interview with a Sydney anchorman had wrapped, Katie was alone again, naturally, as went the song she remembered from her childhood. Her parents loved Gilbert O’Sullivan. A needle over the vinyl groove, melodies she’d never shake. Katie’s parents were long gone. The song, however, never died. It wasn’t fair.

News helicopters flew away, taking the last of the light with them. An ambulance carted away the carcass one of the scuba-diving rescue teams had fished from the lake. No. Not rescue. Retrieval teams.

She went back to the cabin, sick to her stomach.

A northwesterly made the walls groan. Wood against wood. The sound almost obscured the chittering of Katie’s conscience. Almost.

You disgust me.

(I had to do it).

You could’ve helped that woman.

(She didn’t stand a chance).

You’d exploit your own children, if you had any, to prove your worth.

(I didn’t mean to. It all happened so fast).

Katie stared at the camera. It sat on the coffee table in the living area, anchoring a pile of lifestyle magazines, which explained, over and over again, what it was to be a woman. See, this is how you smile. This is how you lie. This is how you don’t get tattoos when you’re drunk or sometimes drink beer in the shower when you’re sad or ride skateboards to forget about love and hate or let everything get to you, or succeed. Jesus, Katie thought. Shame is a trap made by men and women who have no shame. She huddled in a wicker chair, upset, a blanket across her knees. Nausea thrummed again.

Sighing, Katie drew herself upright. She reached for the camera to see, for the first time, what images were within, but stayed her hand.

The pilot’s expression, the realisation that she was about to die, was fresh in her mind. Katie saw it in the shadows of the room. Carved into the walls. Everywhere.

Not yet.

Katie turned off the lights and crawled into bed, curled up, muscles constricting. The cramps were the worst.

Moonlight carved the bedroom into light and dark with the precision of a blade. A ticking clock somewhere. Crickets. Katie tossed and turned.

CRACKING ICE CUBES. CHEWED PENCILS. TIN BETWEEN TEETH.

The night was long. It was like she could feel time pushing back on her. Trying to crush her. And there had been no dreams to wake from because there had been no sleep to begin with. Only aches and hurts, sweats despite the chill.

I give up.

Katie thumped the pillow. Was it full of rocks herded from the shore and not the duck feathers mentioned in the promotional material? Sure seemed that way.

Why should I be surprised? Nothing listed in the pamphlets reflects the experience I had today. ‘Enjoy nature and serenity,’ it said. ‘A respite from the modern world,’ it said. Ha.

What a crock of shit.

Katie buried her face in her hands. The camera called.

She swung out of bed, feet brushing uneven floorboards that creaked when she crossed the room. The dark in the adjoining kitchenette/living room had no depth, as she imagined Lula-Bell Lake to be. Her eyes adjusted to make out the cabin’s architecture by the time she reached the coffee table. Shadows danced in the periphery of her vision, something scuttling just out of sight.

Katie picked up the NEX-3. Before switching it on, she chanced a look out the bay windows. Lula-Bell was dead calm, fog blurring the line between horizon and sky. No stars. The lake didn’t so much fill the landscape as create an absence in it.

The camera’s ON/OFF dial under Katie’s thumb. She flicked it. It whizzed, screen flashing. Brightness made her squint, pain behind her temples. It was worth the discomfort, that terrible glare. There would be no sleep until she reviewed what had been captured. Because this was why she was here. This was why she’d come. To catch beauty by the wings and pin the moment for display like a butterfly on a board. Only this butterfly wasn’t dead. Katie swore she could still hear it screaming.

(Help! Help! Help me! God! God, no—)

She lifted the camera. Ready.

The first photo was the last one she’d taken — a police car heading in the direction of Long Swamp Bay. It wasn’t a spectacular shot, kind of sloppy. The shutter speed dragged those taillights into ruby squiggles that made Katie think of doctor’s signatures as they signed off prescriptions for the ‘ines’. Her heartbeat raced. CRACKING ICE CUBES. CHEWED PENCILS. TIN BETWEEN TEETH. CRACKING ICE CUBES. CHEWED PENCILS. TIN BETWEEN TEETH. She trembled and inched closer to the display. Looked closer.

Closer.

The naked, bloodied pilot stood in the corner of the frame against a chorus-line of trees. Alive. And she was staring straight into the lens.

Wind rustled inside Katie. It was laced with ice shards that speared her lungs and frosted her breath. Pain twisted in her guts again, harder this time.

“Oh, fuck…”

Water slid across the cabin floor and gushed between her toes. Lula-Bell had opened one of its veins and bled just for her. Katie smelled its stink and was repulsed. Deadfall. Old tea bags. Mould. Larvae. Ammonia. Earth. Armpits. Sewer rot and honey. Bandages. Cum. Spit. Dead mice in a cage. Wet hair.

Moonlight flushed the room.

The dead woman stood across from Katie. Her lifeless left arm dangled from the elbow on a tendon pulled so tight you could ping it and strike an off-key chord. Leaves plastered her burned and blistered skin, the remains of her clothes melted into flesh. What remained of her hair was slick against her scalp, swished across her collarbone, falling between breasts. No expression, head tilted ever so slightly.

Katie tried to speak and failed. Tried to run. Couldn’t.

She watched the woman raise that one remaining arm to her jaw, fingers curling around her lower set of teeth. Yanked it down. Bones dislodged with a pop. An eel greased out through her lips and slapped against the cabin floor, splashing electric figure eights in the water.


THREE


It had been two weeks since Katie last saw the pilot. The days were intolerable. Every moment was curdled with the expectancy of the dead woman’s return.

She always came without warning, or provocation.

Limbo left Katie anxious and sharp-tongued, traits that made her co-workers at the industrial building supply factory where she’d worked for the last two years uneasy. Their glances reminded her of those at Ananya’s funeral. The whispers. Cupped hands.

What’s going on with her?

Gosh, she’s lost weight.

Is she sick?

Food didn’t taste as it should. Katie wondered if she had a cancer. That was how her mother died. Memories of the slow rot, the shrieks that came at night. “Is it time? Is it now?” her mother would yell, terrified that the aches were going to end her right there and then. They didn’t though. The ending came later in hospital when she shat herself to death. That was the writing on the wall for her father too. He never recovered. No wonder the memories she had of her family were so fucked. Katie learned pretty quick that death and forgiveness are the same thing; that both are the hardest thing you will ever do. Nobody goes quietly. The end is loud. Maybe that was why she knew to take the photos of the pilot in the first place. The drama of it all. Katie knew she could live with herself without having to forgive herself.

You don’t have cancer.

(You’re not that lucky.)

The last visitation came when Katie was showering. She’d been washing her hair, which she did almost compulsively now, thinking about her plan for the exhibition, and glanced down to see the eye of the drain clogging up.

Dirt. Twigs. Leaves.

An eel threaded over her toes, twisted, beating itself in electric desperation. Scales against her skin like lapping tongues. The woman from the lake appeared beside her, staring as she always stared. Unblinking eyes dappled with dewdrops. Her expression was the same. Why are you afraid of me? Why do you run?

You wanted me.

Didn’t you?

The days in the lead up to the show were noted by Paroxetine capsules. CRACKING ICE CUBES. By rotting food in the refrigerator. CHEWED PENCILS. Mould spores on the ceiling of her Sydney apartment. TIN BETWEEN TEETH.

Having a plan helped. That, more than anything. And maybe that alone.

It was so weird that the days had been so slow, yet the night of the exhibition had come so fast.

Katie forced herself to get dressed and apply her makeup the way the magazines said she had to. Cake it on. A mask of lipstick and foundation. Her fingers wouldn’t stop shaking. She played the words over and over in her head.

Hi, Charmaine. Remember me?

She snatched up the keys and locked the door behind her. Vertigo. Excluding work and grocery detours, this was her first outing since getting back from the cabin. Katie hated being out in the open now. Sydney roared after dark. The loud cars and their impatient drivers. The construction sites. The parties in apartments. The drunk people running across the streets, laughing and howling. Buildings huddled in to block out the sky but clouds could still be seen, slowly passing over the moon. Flowers on the branches of trees like dusty earrings and pearls ornamenting skeletons. She rode her skateboard, soon finding her groove. Or maybe that was just the beta blockers kicking in.

Ice cubes melting. Teeth marks uncurling from the end of a pencil in reverse. Pulling out the tin from between her teeth.

A soft pattering of rain swished over the city and Katie lifted her face to meet it. The city’s edges blunted for a short while, and she managed to smirk. Well, half a smirk.

You’re almost there, Katie.

No going back now.

Do it.

Katie stepped off her skateboard, tucked it into her backpack, and entered the gallery, Doc Martins clopping up the steps. She paid her admission to the man at the door, handing over her backpack. “Welcome,” he said, apathetic, waspy, looking at the skateboard sticking out of the bag’s unzippered mouth. “Feel free to wander. There were some great submissions this year. The winner won’t be announced for another hour. You get one free drink at the bar.”

“Thank you,” Katie said, accepting her change and an old-school carnival stub. “Is … Charmaine here?”

“Of course. You’ll find her hobnobbing around the room. Catch her quick though. She’s fast. Like a ferret. Have a nice night.”

Katie grinned.

Have a nice night.

She planned on doing that very thing. Sure, Katie hadn’t been bold enough to submit the photographs she’d taken out on Lula-Bell Lake, but that didn’t mean Katie couldn’t go up to the girl who had handcrafted her Hell one insult at a time, and prove, beyond all doubt, that she was worthy of admiration.

See, Charmaine. My acne is gone. What a shame. I’ve lost all that weight too. Can’t call me ‘thunder-thighs’ anymore, can you? Whoops. I’ve severed all the ties that bound me to the person you said I was. I’m proud of that. I’m beautiful enough now. And I came here tonight to tell you that I hate you for convincing me and everyone else that I was ugly.

You’ve earned this fucking punch.

Maybe a punch was one step too far. A haunting was problem enough without the added complication of an assault charge. The one free drink that came with her admission would be the one free drink Katie threw in Charmaine’s face.

“I’ll have a Pinot Noir,” she told the bartender. Her breath was slippery and hard to catch. Dark red wine sloshed within the glass, stains guaranteed. “Thanks.”

She moved through the crowd, eavesdropping. An oil-on-water mix of professionals, friends of friends, bloggers. Perfume and pot smoke, a heady mixture that nudge-nudged the headache at the back of her skull, sending it around to the spot behind her eyes.

Katie stopped, swallowed. Her throat was straw.

There she was.

Charmaine Newberry. The knock-out she’d gone to school with. The woman who had grown into Charmaine Richardson. A matured, though just as stunning, version of her younger self. She was dressed in curve-hugging blacks, chopsticks holding her hair in a bun. Her laughter was perfection. Men and women swanned around her, salting the ground over which she walked with adorations and accolades. As they always had. As they always would. That was the existence of Charmaine Richardson.

The more things change, the more some stay the same.

Charmaine held a Pomeranian in her arms. It couldn’t be the same one from when they were in high school. Couldn’t be. That dog would be long dead, surely. Squeak. Yes, Squeak had been its name. This made Katie feel ill, on top of everything else. Behind Charmaine were a revolving door of dead dogs that she had maybe loved, and certainly replaced, like shoes, accessories to garner a crowd. Dogs that were never allowed to bark, bred to be seen and never heard.

Katie strode across the room, glancing at black-and-white and colour landscapes and portraits on the walls. Trees. Hills. Brick walls. Homeless men and women. Abandoned buildings. Newborn babies. Lips. Eyes. Breasts. Cocks. Flowers. The elderly. Hallways and corridors and vanishing points. Some of the photographs weren’t too bad. Others were like the shots Katie had taken before the plane went down—try-hard and weightless nothings. Her head was full of a dying woman’s screams. Katie’s focus shifted to her reflection in the glass. The rain had flattened her hair and made her makeup run.

The glitterati parted before her.

Stop, Katie. This isn’t you.

(It is).

What you’re about to do is grotesque. If you go through with this, you’ll become what those bitches always said you were.

(I can’t turn back now. Don’t you see that? Anger is all I’ve got.)

That’s not true, you’re—

“Hi, Charmaine,” Katie said. “Remember me?”

Eyes turned in her direction, including those of the woman she’d spent the worst years of her life with. Katie wished her father were alive to see this, all the medication he overdosed on pouring back into their bottles, his ashes reforming to make the shape of a man. Someone who must have smiled, once upon a time.

“Yes?”

“Looks like you’ve come far since the last time I saw you.” Katie tried not to weep. She could almost smell the flowers and incense from Ananya’s funeral, when they were young and assumed things would get better. “I have too. Don’t you think?”

Charmaine’s entourage gawked at her, expressions unmoving. Squeak panted, showing off his pink tongue and neat teeth. Downlights highlighted the crowns of everyone’s heads, throwing faces into shadow. Eyes into pits. Wine danced within the glass.

Do it now.

(Don’t.)

Throw it!

(Have you no shame—)

“I’m sorry,” Charmaine said. “Do I know you?”

A beat.

“It’s me. Katie.” Heat waves inched up her neck. “Your sister.”

Nobody said a word.

Katie gripped her glass tighter, knuckles turning white.

Charmaine issued a polite giggle, an eyebrow raised, and turned away, taking her ‘friends’ with her. Squeak looked back, barked, and Katie thought she saw Charmaine pinch the dog’s underbelly. They were parasites, all of them, feeding off a woman without talent who had succeeded, as evidenced in the art around them, by accumulating the skills of others. That was perhaps the only thing Katie and Charmaine, siblings to the end, had in common. Both of them were thieves. Profiteers. Survival was an ugly thing.

Ugly as fuuuuccckkk.

Katie downed her wine. It tasted cheap.

The room swam. Overlapping voices, music filtering through speakers, it all receded from her ears. Everything except her pulse.

Who are you, Katie?

(I wish I knew…)

Water splashed her shoes, bringing with it the putrid stink of the lake.

The burned pilot was on the other side of the gallery walking towards her. Each step pitched sagging breasts this way and that. The arm swung on its string, spinning. Leaves stuck to her thighs, black stars against a whitewashed sky. The woman whose name might have been Bethie drew near, unseen by everyone else in the room. Everyone except Katie. Feet slapped the cement, sending bloodstained water up in a spray. As before, her head was titled in confusion, eyes screeching, I’m here like you wanted. Why are you afraid of me? You wanted me, didn’t you?

That’s why you took me.

Katie thought she might faint.

The dead woman curled her fingers around her lower set of teeth and dislodged the jaw with a thock! An eel birthed in crackles of Saint Elmo’s fire.

Katie ran to the cloakroom, retrieved her backpack, and ran.

Outside, evening air scoured her face. She had her skateboard stuffed under one arm, gasping, tears peeling off her cheeks. Her wine glass was still gripped in one hand, a sad trophy. She stopped and hurled it into an alleyway, roaring out her hurt, people on the other side of the street yelling out, “You fucking loony bitch!”

Sydney carouselled about her, flashing lights and faces that couldn’t see what Katie could see — Lula-Bell’s tide as it swept after her.

And the dead woman in pursuit, close as a shadow.


Katie didn’t bother putting on the lights. She knew she wasn’t alone.

CRACKING ICE CUBES.

The dead woman was with her, in the corner beside the television set. The carpet was saturated. Water dripped down the walls, prominent as the veins in the dead pilot’s thighs. And again, the stink of filthy water in which things lived and fucked and died and turned cannibal.

CHEWED PENCILS.

Katie huddled on the couch with the camera, her back to the visitor.

TIN BETWEEN TEETH.

Weeping helped. Only the relief was fleeting, at best.

She almost flicked through the photographs taken at Lula-Bell Lake, which she hadn’t viewed since. But held off. She wasn’t brave enough for that. Katie thought she might vomit if she did.

Blood fell from the bone of the dead woman’s arm.

Plop. Plop. Plop.

She stood there. Watching, watching. Joyless eyes glimmering in the dark. Her fingers reached towards her mouth.

Katie sighed and studied the camera glaring up at her, its lens an unflinching iris. Within it was ugliness so strong it could un-write laws and logic. Katie placed the camera down. Had to. She didn’t need to see the photographs to recognise them for what they were. Though the tortured face drowning in Lula-Bell’s waters belonged to someone else, her art, beautiful in its honesty, was every bit a self-portrait.

Wet slitherings in the dark. Another eel.

Is it time? Katie Newberry wondered. Maybe she even said it aloud. Is it now?



THE END


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