Stef watched as Dorian’s train came and went, and her own arrived a few minutes later. The carriage she stepped onto had half a dozen other occupants, a couple only interested in each other, three half-asleep men in team colours and a man with lank black hair staring out the window. She didn’t bother to sit – it wasn’t worth it for the three minutes she was going to be on board.
She stepped off the train at the next station, flashed the ticket to the tired guard and walked out onto the street. There was something comforting about the Valley at night, and it wasn’t a feeling that most people knew – those unfamiliar with it were too afraid, the violent stories of the days when it was less safe hung around like a bad smell. To the the people who worked in the lead-and-glass palaces, it was a place to be hastily travelled through, car doors locked and mobile phones at the ready.
She never bothered anyone, and the favour was returned.
The walk to her flat was usually a quick one – it was a well-travelled route through familiar streets. Tonight though, she kept pausing to look for the ghosts of zeppelins, and to require small objects, just to assure herself that everything that had been real. She was now part of a world where there really could be monsters in the shadows.
As she closed in on the apartment building with a pocketful of required treasures, she finally sighted another ghost in the sky – something that looked rather like a bi-plane, being courted that something resembled an extraordinarily tall woman in a long, flowing dress.
‘Goddesses of the skies,’ a voice said as the concrete beneath her feet rumbled. A hob, smaller than the one that had been used to test her, stepped up onto the cracked concrete. ‘A folly, but a beautiful one.’
‘A…what?’
‘You’ve still got that new-car smell,’ he said as he bit into a rotten tomato, ‘your suits will tell you. There’s not so many of them here now, but my gods, they’re a thing of beauty.’
The bi-plane flew in a lazy circle, and the woman flew neatly around him, coming to rest on the wing of the plane, her long dress flowing and flapping, caught by the breeze, giving the impression that she was of the wind itself.
‘They’re from the time that the sky was still something wonderful, when flying meant something to mortals…they pretty much die out when we reach this point technologically. No more epic dogfights, no more aerial acrobats, no more beauty in the machines. Higher, faster. Faster, higher. No more magic in the skies. No more goddesses. No more pilots pinning their hopes on…’ The hob shook his head. ‘Normal mortals…they always complain that magic has gone, but you’re the ones who kill it. Each and every time, technology wins. Each and every time, it drowns out wonder.’ He pointed a dirty hand at the sky. ‘Flying with the fairies, in their own special way, not leaving them behind. I like it when a world gets it right.’
They watched in silence for a few moments, before the ghosts abruptly faded.
‘Show’s over,’ he said. ‘For now, at least, it’ll all be over soon. These echoes only last so long, then they’re all burnt away.’
She turned to look at him. ‘I keep wondering how I never saw any of this.’
‘Who says you didn’t?’ He placed a thumb to his forehead and allowed the concrete to suck him under again.
She stared at the sky for a few more moments, hoping to the the pilot or his folly again, but there were only clouds, so she continued toward her flat. Reaching the main door, she patted her pockets for a key that wasn’t there.
The door opened anyway. It swung open into the darkness of the lobby beyond, seemingly without any human intervention.
Until her landlord poked his head from behind the door. ‘Forgive my theatrics,’ he said. ‘Forget your key again?’
‘I’m wearing the wrong pants,’ she said as she walked in.
‘I’ll lend you a master,’ Jenkins said as he held up a burnished gold key. ‘Just pop it back in the mailbox as always. Speaking of which…’ he said with a nod toward her overflowing mailbox. ‘And…’
The relisation that she’d been gone for more than a week hit her like a slap from a hob. ‘Oh right!’ she squeaked. ‘Sorry.’ She fumbled with her pockets, requiring more than enough money to cover two weeks. ‘I was…out…’ she stumbled, not wanting to explain the entirely convoluted story to her landlord, and unsure if she would have to kill him if she did so.
‘Out is good. Something we should all do more often. So long as you’re safe, I don’t like the idea of trying rent your apartment again.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Yeah, rent you charge, it’d be on the market for a whole eight seconds before someone snapped it up.’
He looked at the notes in his hand. ‘I could always put it up…’
‘I didn’t mean, I-’
He handed her the key. ‘Leave full sentences for someone who needs them to understand.’
‘Night,’ she said, and he retreated to his small, first-floor room. She emptied her mailbox, awkwardly stuffing the mail and junk mail into her laptop bag, before walking up the stairs toward her home. Toward what had been her definition of normal.
She pushed the master key into the lock, turned it and silently welcomed herself home.
The stink was the first thing to hit her when she opened the door. Smells of rotting garbage and moldy food. She dropped the bag to the floor and slammed the door with her floor. ‘Great…’
Require: all the garbage gone.
The smell remained.
You should have taken out the garbage before you left, and you needed to get the seal on the fridge fixed.
Oh shut up…Require: all the garbage gone.
‘Some magic power you are.’
She flicked on the light. Nothing happened. She flicked it off, required a new bulb into it and tried again. Suddenly, the smell wasn’t so important anymore.
The apartment was a mess, and not kind she was comfortable with.
There was graffiti on the walls, the couch had been ripped apart, its stuffing strewn around. There were broken jars of sauce and jam on the carpet, there were muddy boot prints all over the cream carpet and the rug. The curtains covering the glass door the balcony had been torn down. Someone had broken the screen of the television. There was still a small hatchet in the DVD player.
She took a few experimental steps toward the kitchen. Her fridge was open, its contents all over the floor. Cabinet doors were off their hinges. Spices and herbs coated the floor along with the rotting food.
Stepping over the broken remnants of her life, she made her way to the bedroom. The bed was upside down, her few boxes of possessions had been torn apart. Her clothes were piled onto the floor. Her computers were missing. The black curtain that hid the sunlight so well was gone. As was her secret stash of chocolate-covered coffee beans. The bathroom was flooded, the shampoo and soap covered the floor.
She slumped against the bedroom wall and slid down onto one of the only remaining patches of carpet, staring at the piles of clothing. Wow, I own that many clothes?
She knew the “who” – Solstice. She knew the “how” – the balcony door was open, and it was possible to get in from the outside, this she knew for sure. It was the “why” that escaped her.
She had very few things that meant anything to her. Photos counted for very little – and most of them could be replaced with a few phone calls and minor bribes. She had no…
‘Alexandria…’ the word tumbled from her mouth before the thought finished itself.
She pushed herself up and ran back into the lounge room. The bookcase where she usually sat, appraising the world with one ice-blue eye and faded red hair, lay on its side, its back broken. She pushed it aside, onto the corpse of the DVD player and found most of her CDs and DVDs missing – they were easily replaceable.
A small glass vase that she’s bought as a place to store marbles – as proof that she really hadn’t lost hers – was broken.
Alexandria lay face down, crushed into the carpet.
She crouched and gently picked the doll up and winced as she heard small pieces of the head drop back to the ground. One hand was nothing but ceramic dust, the other was almost complete. She swallowed and turned the doll over.
Alexandria’s head had been broken for years now, but the half face she’d had for a decade was better than the ruins of the one she had now. Only a small piece of the face remained, and as she lifted her, the last blue eye fell away, and rolled onto the floor.
Moisture slipped from her eyes, and she fell back against the wall, on top of broken disc cases and vase fragments.