2018 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Runner Up

 

 

Runner-Up 2018

'Golden'- by R. L. Jeffs

 

 

 
 
First, it was a whisper.

"No fucking way."

I glanced over my shoulder, but the teacher walked in and their hushed conversation died in a flurry of shh!-ing and elbows.

But the whisper didn't die. It grew through History, across interval, rose steadily in the background of Biology and Maths.

By lunchtime, I was almost starting to get curious.

"Yeesh," I greet Kian and Aroha as we flump into our usual spot behind the library. "What the hell is going on today?"
"I know!" K throws his hands up, almost losing his sandwiches. "It's starting to freak me out, right?"
I start nodding, but Aroha interrupts.
"You haven't heard?"

We don't bother wasting time answering this. She's buzzing, in a weirdly restrained way. Bees in a bottle.

"You know Matthew Linton?"

We nod, even though we don't. Well, we do – everyone knows Matthew – but we don't really.

"Someone heard – last night – he tried to kill himself."

Some of her bees have escaped. They're buzzing in my ears, white noise, someone's shaking the bottle and they can't get away –
Far away, Kian is emoting.

"No fucking way." Not a whisper this time, a cry. A ringing in my brain. "Matthew Linton?"

It doesn’t seem real. Possible. But all I know about Matthew Linton is that he's some sort of hard-core swimmer or something. Water polo, maybe. The underwater hockey team? Something that means he's always on the front of the newsletter in a Speedo. He won some epic medal at the World Champs last year. Everyone was going on about how he'd hafta go to the Olympics and all that. But he just laughed, and shrugged. Cos y'know. He's Matt. That's Matt.

Aroha keeps talking, someone's brother or cousin or aunt works in the hospital or ambulance or takes 111 calls, and Matthew Linton, from our school, the blond one, with the swimming, he did, he really did, they saw, or heard, they said...

"Hey," Kian says, poking me. "Hey, didn't you know him? Weren't you guys like best friends?"
"Dude, like, when we were ten." I try to make my voice sound normal. It doesn’t work. "I don't even remember being ten. I knew him as well as you do, man."

Know. Not knew, know.

Right?

 
***

We have Classics last period, which I usually love. But today... my head's full of bottled bees.

"...the teachers are having a special meeting."

Somewhere between the humming he-did-what-he-did-what-he-did-what and the drone of the teacher, I can hear Katie and Tui whispering behind me.

"I heard... drugs..."

There's a bunch of posters on the wall, myths and legends and The Mummy Returns, for some reason. I'm staring at Prometheus. He's giving the fire he stole from the gods to humanity.

"He was totally gonna go to the Olympics..."

Matthew Linton.

Matthew Linton makes me think of summer. I dunno, maybe it's just the swimming thing, memories from when we were ten and lived next door and swam in their pool all the time. Maybe it's the long sunshine hair, and his eyes. Blue-sky eyes.

"...and now Hailey's going out with Paul..."

Didn't go well for him, Prometheus. He's the one who ended up chained to the rock, with some giant bird of prey clawing through his guts, ripping out his insides, every day, for all eternity.

"...totally not a coincidence..."

Finally, finally, the bell rings.

The halls are a stampede, as ever – it's probably my imagination, that it's slower, louder, closer today. That everything seems to be ohmygosh and did you hear and Matthew, Matt, Lindy.

Down by the fire exit doors, Paul and Hailey are huddled. Understandably. They're Matt's best friends. This is reasonable. This is –

But all I can think is Monday night, just the other night, waiting on the steps for Kian to finish detention for turning the water molecules into Mickey Mouse. Hearing laughter and knowing I shouldn’t look, because it was that kind of laughter – not laughter for sharing. Different. Private. But I looked, I looked, and it was Paul and Matthew Linton, and they were standing in the carpark, which was fine, normal, totally un-noteworthy. With the sun going down, the slanted amber light that turns the world into a postcard from Tuscany, casting over cars and trees and chainlink fences and two boys, laughing. Standing close. Noses-touching close.

Mr Sandford told us once in chemistry about this stuff they thought existed, back when chemists had barely lost the 'al' in front. They thought there was some form of fire inside things, something that turned into smoke when it burned, like water turning to steam.

At that moment, sitting on those steps, I felt like maybe they'd been the ones to get it right – because I could feel it, inside me, in my chest, in my hands, rushing in my blood.

I can feel it now, again. Paul makes vacant, 'oh yes, a person,' eye contact, and I'm full of phlogiston, just under my skin, on the edge of combustion. I realise I'm staring and flee. To light, to air, to the scent of something other than too many teenagers in too little space: sweat and feet and cloying supermarket body spray.

 
***

Lying on Aroha's bed, Friday afternoon, I can almost, finally, breathe. There's been nothing new to add, at school, but there's no way anyone's talking about anything else. So it's just going over and over the same puzzle pieces, flipping them, turning them round. Trying to find the edges.

It's a relief to just lie here and breathe. Her room always smells like Glade, something exotic and unidentifiable. Ornamental Sage and White Raspberry, or something. Tiny sparkle lights spill down one wall, creating a curtain, a waterfall. I sometimes think you could slip through them and there'd be a doorway – a portal to somewhere else. Somewhere better. Narnia, perhaps. Or Finland.

Aroha charges in, swatting her door closed with the hand not holding snacks.

"Green Onion, or Peking Duck?"
"Quack."

A packet of chips hits me in the face. I lift a single finger in her direction, the bed dipping and rolling as she sprawls next to me.

"Why do you think he did it?"

She rolls her head on the pillow to look at me. I roll mine her way, to look back.

"I dunno."

I don't bother pretending to need to ask, who? I don't try to clarify, did what?

"Yeah." She rolls her head back, looking up at the glo-in-the-dark constellations. "Neither."

I wonder if, maybe, she's lying a little bit.

I wonder if, maybe, we both are.

 
***

We're on our phones, lulled into serenity by the scent of Etruscan pomegranate, when Kian explodes into the room.

"Did you hear? Did you see?"

Aroha groans, which kinda makes me laugh. Because, yes. That.

"What, K?"

"Matthew Linton didn't do it."

It sounds like a line from a murder mystery. Which is... too weird. I wrangle my focus back. "He what?"

"He's out of hospital, and back online, and ohmygoodness, it's so funny," K's bubbling, bursting, a shaken Coke cracked open. Too much trying to get out all at once. "He cut his wrist on the pool gate and the hospital got all dramatic and then everyone was all, ohmygod, Matt, and he's just laughing –"

We're laughing too, oxygen is helium and we're high, we're floating, gravity is but a mild inconvenience. Prometheus freed.

"Oh my god," Aroha laughs.

"I can't believe it," I marvel. With only a slight shiver. Refusing to acknowledge, just now, the truth in that statement.
"I know right." Kian sprawls between us, steals chips, crunches, "Xbox?"

It's a race for the controllers.

 
***

The air at school has the same helium-high quality, as though we all just discovered our boring classrooms were secretly hot air balloons the whole time. Everyone caught between delight and a deep-down tension. Don't burst the balloon, anyone! Open flame!

But there's only so long people can keep up eggshell-dancing – sooner or later you're going to catch yourself chatting excitedly about the latest episode of Something-or-Other on Netflix. I get told off for not having one of my shirt tails tucked in, while Aroha's somehow getting away with wearing her brother's leather jacket, and earrings that quite frankly make me question what Ms. Lyons has been teaching us about the laws of physics.

Business as usual.

Then on Wednesday, Matt comes back.

This time, it's not my imagination – everyone is more aware, more awake, Kian's fizzing soda can with Mentos added.

Matthew is the fizziest of them all. Even the teachers laugh with him, the sun shines brighter on him, he's glowing, laughing at all his almost-mourners, and we laugh along, unable to help ourselves. He draws us in, centre of attention and finding it all a great lark. I'm staring at him across the classroom. We all are. He looks like Helios, the sun god, set free after being trapped by... Maui? Shit, I should really start paying attention in Classics again.

You can't even see the bandage on his wrist. Wouldn't even know it was there, unless you saw him with his sleeves rolled up. Say, you happened to duck into the bathroom after final bell, to suddenly find yourself alone with him.

I see him before he sees me. I can tell, because he's not smiling. Not laughing. Not... anything. Just sort of gazing somewhere into the middle-distance. The bandage on his arm goes from wrist to elbow. It flits through my mind, how he did that on a gate.

Then he moves and I flinch as he slams his fist into the mirror.

He makes a noise, and grabs his hand – I make a noise, and half step forward – our eyes meet in the mirror – lock and freeze. Trapped in the instant between starting pistol and race, the adrenal tipping point. There's a giant fracture down the glass now, and he's split in two, the halves slightly out of kilter. Both managing to glare at me with equal shock and animosity.

I open my mouth to say... shit. I dunno.

He finds it less difficult to decide on an action, rounding on me, grabbing my shoulder and shoving me hard into the wall.

"Oof."
"What are you looking at?"

His eyes aren't so blue-sky right now. More like Yeats's dreams, if he left them out in the sun too long. Washed-out and faded and just done with being walked over.

"I said," he says, stamped-down eyes hard and flat, "What do you think you're looking at?"

All the words I can't say choke me, I can't breathe, my throat is thick with lost chances.

I shake my head. "Nothing, man."

He gives me one last shove for good measure, like, yeah, you got that right. Then it's just the echoing tiles and me and my unspeakable words, breathing too fast and fighting nausea.

Maybe it's motion sickness. Vertigo. Falling, falling. I flew too close and now the wax has melted.

I stumble back out into the sunshine, breathing deep, cut grass and car horns and the end of another school day. Over in the student carpark, the crowd tells me where Matthew went. They're still too loud, edged, brittle. Laughter newly aware of its fragility.

I wasn't lying, when I said I barely remember when we were friends. I remember it was summer, somehow, always, for about four years – and he had blue swimming trunks with purple flowers that I thought were awesome, so of course teased the crap out of him for wearing them.

And I remember the day he told me about the new swimming coach he would be working with. About how they were talking serious competitions, and proper training, and 'big things for his future'. That he shrugged, when I asked are you excited?

I laughed and said, "Golden boy."

And he just sort of laughed too.

The scene in the carpark wavers, shimmers, like a mirage. It's just the heat on the tarmac. That's what a mirage is, right? Seeing water when there is none.

I blink hard enough, and it's gone.

Matthew's laughter draws me in. Still. His crowd is dispersing, backslaps all round.

"You're good, right, Matt?"

Podium-ready camera-flash grin. He laughs, and shrugs.

"Golden," he says.

 

 

 

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  Ruth-Jeffs

 
Ruth L. Jeffs has been using words for quite a while now, and telling stories for maybe even longer. Naturally something of a hermit, she can occasionally be found at the Ara Institute of Canterbury in Christchurch, volunteering at the Next Step Centre for Women - and using a great deal of words, including some towards a qualification in teaching and education.

As for telling stories, this is an ongoing endeavour; and so far towards this end, she has upwards of a dozen novel manuscripts on the go, has drunk a lot of coffee, and spent a larger-than-average percentage of her life wearing pyjamas.
 
 
 
 

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