The Spark

I drive with the windows down and we can hear the kids playing before we see them. I pass by the side of the school, the buildings flat and then tall, and the loose gravel crunches under the van’s tires. A whistle screams in the distance and I pull onto the sidewalk near the fields. Julie and I climb out.

She heads for the canteen at the front of the shed at the bottom of the slope. I slide the doors at the back of the van open and haul out the first of the boxes. The door slams shut and I carry my load down towards the fields. I pass by the canteen as Julie slips behind the counter. She sells soft drinks and hot food to the children too young to play.

The fields host two teams each. Forty-four children playing football to varying degrees of success. A ball goes wide past the net ahead of me and the goalkeeper dawdles out to fetch it. I nod at him as I pass by. Behind me, he collects the ball and throws it to number 14 to kick from the box. The ball goes straight out.

I rest the first of the boxes in the grass on the far left of the fields. The hill reaches up away behind me and I look up to the parking lot. A family passes the van and their youngest child wonders aloud if I can park there. I can’t hear him but I know the body language of children coming to understand the rules of belonging. His family tugs him along. A whistle from each field and the groan of a young captain.

 

I walk back up to the van, keeping an eye on the box near the fields, and begin to unload the smaller crates.

Julie stands by the side of the canteen as I walk past. “Someone was having a look over the big box,” she says, pointing. I look past her finger and see only the box surrounded by green. I notice the white lines of the pitch when a midfielder clears the ball from halfway. The linesman waves his yellow flag away from the box.

I look down between the two fields, to the two columns of various families lined up around an imaginary centre aisle. Children run up and down and around the aisle in the afternoon sun. I begin to feel the early summer sweat.  Julie turns back to the shed and slips through the side door. I hear her emerge into the canteen. “Can I help anyone?”

The fireworks business on the Southside is small and there are only a few of us. We work together quite often on the bigger events, on the stuff the State Government has to regulate, and last year’s New Year’s Eve took all of us. It’s been steady business since. I am told we ‘trended’ online. Thousands of clicks do not help me carry these boxes and Julie wants to keep the business in the family. “The two of us are enough,” she says. A boy runs past me as I rest the boxes for a moment. His Coke can shakes and his fizzes in his hand. The sharp blow of a whistle, then another. The match on the field closest to me ends and the goalkeepers at the tails of the teams shake hands.

I kneel and scoop the boxes up, balancing two on each arm against my chest, and carry them to the bigger box. A thin player from the losing team opens a can of Coke. It explodes down his jersey and his teammates laugh. Away amongst the family crowds, the young boy who passed me hides behind his mother.

I jog back to the unlocked van. The match on the right hand field plays on.

 

I hoist the bag for the detonators and wires over my shoulder and lock the van. The sun slips towards the horizon. Julie tells me I arrive too early but I professionally disagree. By the boxes, I zip the bag open, unspool the wires, and begin to slot detonators into rockets.

Tonight’s display is preprogrammed. I will find it familiar but to the families and friends of the South District Football Association it will be marvellous. Julie will scold me for being lazy. I will tell her the small rockets are never lazy and that I am always, always safe. She says the Durry brothers will find out.

I shift the empty boxes to the bottom of the hill, far away from the site of the fireworks. I spike the rockets into the ground in a simple pattern and catch myself entangled in wondering which teams I saw play. To what club did the tired goalkeeper and his aimless number eleven belong? I slide the last of the rockets into the earth and meander back to beside the boxes. A whistle from the right hand match. Two players shove another. The ball before the goal. I consider moving the van.

Julie pops out from the canteen and jogs down to the field. The linesman gives her the time and she hurries back to the shed. The canteen shutters slide closed but the side door stays open. A scrawny father carries the first tray of sausages. Not long after, a cheer. The ball in the back of the far net. A whistle. I smell sizzling. Julie hard at work.

I rest my switchbox on the grass beside the boxes, my work with the rockets complete, and I approach the canteen.

 

A whistle and a cheer. I turn and see eleven dancing players. Two substitutes and a coach rush onto the field as the other team slink off. Passionate mothers peek from the shed’s side door at their disappointed sons. An angry captain kicks the ball from midfield. It sails by the referee.

In the event of a firework emergency, the best choice is always to run. I heard the ball land but I did not see it. It must have hit the switchbox, flicking up a green toggle. I hear the whistle of the first rocket. The sizzling stops.

It shoots straight into the front goal of the left hand pitch and catches the net alight. Everyone meets in the carpark and the captain of the Rusthill Devils runs to me in tears and apologises. Most of the rockets crash into the fields, burning colourful spot fires. A big rocket slams into the side of the van and explodes cherry red. Everyone meets in the carpark and the captain of the Rusthill Devils runs to me in tears and apologises.

It happens in this business if you’re not careful, and the Durry brothers will call me to laugh.

 

Read Darkwater, Gift Horse or plan a perfect solo movie date. Send feedback here

Darkwater

I am clumsy, but I am not patchwork.

They do not call me by what I was named because what I was named is not a good version of what I am, so they call me Raggedy. They call me Raggedy because I am clumsy and because I have been sewed on and I have been fixed and repaired and healed. I am Raggedy because I am clumsy and because I do not mind being clumsy.

What I am and what I do are different.

I like to look out over the Darkwater, from on top of the hills, sitting in the branches, watching as the current drags the river down, away, away, away from us. The houses burrow into the trees, curling up and away through the trunks and around the branches. They climb as high as the leaves.

The fairy lights float atop the Darkwater, not leaving with the current, but moving, swaying, crossing whenever they like, however they feel. Left, some go. Others go right. More still move up and down. Some dance across the river. There are a few, just a few, that do not move at all. They are all wonderful, and they all reflect off the surface of the Darkwater.

I have heard the stories about the other side of the Darkwater, and I believe them but I am not sure I want to go. They tell me it is not scary, that it is just another place, like this, but not here. That there are people and homes and lives. And I believe them, but here I am, on the West of the Darkwater.

I prefer the stories, I think, to the actual crossing. I am young and I am cautious and I believe them when they tell me the truth, but I do not yet want to leave this place.

Here, there is comfort. I know what I have here and I do not know what I won’t have over there, and so I worry about leaving.

From here, from this particular here, in this branch of this tree, I can see the long path to the Darkwater. It ducks under many bridges, and it stretches a long, long way, but I can see it.

It meanders almost to the horizon, the Darkwater pressing against the sky. There is, I know, a tiny stretch of green on the other side of the river that I can see in the day time. Now, with the sun down, I could not show you where it is, but I can point it out to you now so you can see for yourself in the morning.

This is what ‘believing’ is.

As I sit and wonder about exploring the Darkwater, I can hear the jingling of bells. They sound like golden rain. The wind blows through the branches and I begin the short climb down.

I throw one of my legs over the other side of the branch, and then the other, and I am facing the other direction. Above me, another branch. I hold it, stand, and shimmy my way back towards the trunk. Someone emerges from inside the tree, out onto my branch.

I know this someone, their round shape, the way the soft white light of the moon splatters on their body.

‘Raggedy,’ they say, looking at me as I shimmy, on my tip-toes and my tip-fingers, the bottom branch growing thicker and down and the top branch growing thinner and up. I am stretched as much as I can stretch and I can feel stitches on the back of my left leg pulling.

‘Raggedy,’ they say again, ‘you can just walk.’

I know I can just walk, but I do not like to and I do not want to fall.

‘I know,’ I tell them, and I continue until I cannot continue anymore. I had to stretch some more to be perfectly safe, to reach the part of the branch where we can both stand beside one another and have enough space. I have etched a small line into the wood where I am happy to stand alone.

They are standing on the wrong of that edge and I do not want to step around them. They want, I am sure, to step around me. They step slightly to my left, and then slightly to my right, while all I do is sway in the breeze.

‘Can I get past?’ They ask.

‘Yes,’ I say, but I do not move.

Gently, as hard as they’ll allow, they push me over to the right side of the branch a little, and I move where they want me to. My foot presses against a fold in the bark of the tree. This is where I will hold myself.

They do not push me any further. Instead, they step around, moving towards the end of the branch, towards the leaves. I turn as they do, watching as they make their way.

‘I like the Darkwater,’ I said. ‘I come up here to watch it.

They sit, paying more attention to themselves than to me, and they look out over the hills too. They are kicking their legs against the kick, swinging them back and forth and back and forth. I do not ever do this.

Then, after a minute:

‘I’m sorry?’ they say.

So I repeat.

‘I like the Darkwater. This is where I come to watch it.’

They nod, their legs stopping for a moment.

‘I like the breeze,’ they say. They look left, away from the tree.

I should leave, I know, but all I do is step away from the fold in the bark. I stand in the middle of the gentle path that many, many rough feet have left rubbed into the branch, and I look towards them, sitting quietly and patiently and they look, for a minute, like me.

‘Good night,’ I tell them after a while, and I turn quickly away, down the path, nearly tripping to the left, and I bump into the hole that leads into the trunk.

I do not see if they look back, but I think I will think, for a long time, about whether or not they did.

This piece was supposed to be published in issue five of Grouch Magazine but they didn’t contact me again. For more of my fiction: Gift Horse. The Sleep BankerLet me know if I should serialise an old novella. 

Gift Horse

Below is an old story, The Gift Horse, which was submitted to Voiceworks earlier this year. I was unsure what to do with it so decided to share it here. All 3000 words of it. No edits have been made since its rejection. 

The horse had brilliant teeth. It pranced obnoxiously about the stables, knowing it would get away with it and its tail flowed side to side, fluid as a wave.

It was, it had been said, the most impeccable horse to grace the local circuit. Obviously, horses with bigger profiles, bigger stories, and more money had been shown off around the regional and state circuits but, at the conveyor belts of certain independent grocers, it was this horse the cashiers discussed with the customers.

The horse knew. It was lavished with attention and had worked out exactly how to arch its neck and flick its mane to make it blow in the breeze, to curve perfectly in the wind, to dazzle and stun the bystanders.

‘Hell,’ its owner said, ‘it barely even races anymore.’

It was true. It raced in smaller events against lesser horses but, officially, it was designed to be stimulus for the other horses.

‘Follow me,’ the horse would proclaim with every swish of its mane, ‘Follow me and you’ll succeed.’

The other horses, god bless, did try their absolute best to keep up, their legs pounding hard against the grass, beating desperately at the turf, trying to propel, propel, propel. Once, one of the other horses bent its own shoe in its fury. The nail came loose, bending in the middle, working its way out of the poor things foot. The animal finished the race.

Its owner – another local breeder who was also entranced by the horse – had grown up believing in fairytales about tortoises and hares. Horses are too clever, though, to be believing in such nonsense. No one has ever seen a tortoise defeat a hare in a running race. The horses knew there were no tortoises here.

 

It wasn’t until the second summer of the brilliant toothed horse’s reign that the local circuit chatter began to spread. It made the community newspaper, printed on the fourth page in one edition and on the third-from-last page in another. The first piece was general interest, a small block of paragraphs without a picture. The second was in the sports section, the first page anyone would see if they opened the newspaper from the back.

‘Good coverage,’ its owner said to a group of friends gathered around the newly framed cutouts in the decadent pool room in the shed behind the house. The owner poured everyone a drink from a needlessly large bottle suspended from the ceiling and admired the clippings for so long an entire game of billiards escaped him.

‘Worth every penny of grooming,’ the room agreed.

The first offer to buy the horse arrived from a man with whom the town was unfamiliar. He walked up to the property with a swagger and cigarette and he leaned on the fence as he looked out over the paddocks. The owner met him down at the fence cautiously and impolitely.

‘You’ve got yourself a mighty fine horse,’ the man said, eyeing it in the distance. It pranced because it knew it was being observed as part of a, so far, dollarless pitch. The man’s cigarette was lodged between his teeth as he spoke. ‘Mighty dangerous divots, too.’

‘The horses know where the divots are,’ the owner said. The truth was that the other horses had dug the divots to try and catch out the horse.

It had spent the post-season and the pre-season torturing the other horses with its obnoxious exuberance. They had come together in secret, as the horse danced about in the fields and collaborated on a plan to dig the divots. They would, they agreed, replace what had been a decidedly cold shoulder with physical injury. They knew the horse knew it was better than them, better loved, better fed, better held between races despite an observable and financially unsustainable lack of medallions.

They also knew the horse needed to be able to walk. All horses do. They are, by and large as a species, terrified of the inevitable stationery industry. Of course, the brilliant-toothed horse relished the attention. There was no such thing as bad press but, even when the news was negative, the clippings still made the pool room.

The owner shooed the hands-free smoker away quickly. The man walked with that same swagger back to a station wagon too large to fit into any conventional parking space and parked too far to have been anything but a statement.

‘Full of himself,’ the owner later said to a young journalist who was excited and intimidated to be covering the horse story. ‘Not what the horse needs.’

‘It needs a level head,’ the journalist suggested. ‘Someone that can understand it. Someone who can relate.’

‘Yes,’ the owner said, completely misunderstanding everything about character and horses.

 

The racing season began anew, the second season for the brilliant horse. Other owners, other trainers, other ranchers had started investing and breeding and training to compete specifically with that horse. They had started letting their own horses know to lose some races and to win others.

Spreadsheets were drawn in quiet meetings between trainers and investors. The local circuit began to swell with greed and frustration. The horse occupied front covers again, quickly, and everyone ate up the stories. The owner began to place bets against it.

The horses found the new, sustainable printing processes delicious. It reminded them of grass and they ate it freely and gladly. Some of the owners began buying many copies of the horse-featuring editions of the community newspaper and would bring them to shows, stuffed in the bottom of the trailers beneath the hay and the blankets.

The horses trampling on those newspapers felt less aggressive and more confident. They made fewer mistakes and forgave, in the spirit of competition, less mistakes.

This season, the horse competed less and showed off more.

It managed to find itself standing beside the podiums of the winners, catching the spray of wine bottles that the horses trampled. Its mane had only grown longer and now it hugged the bottom of its neck, perfectly slicing and tapering up to a point at the base of its skull.

It was infuriating to look it, that perfection of an animal. Watching it, so aware of its own attraction, was what drove the regional officers to the local circuit.

 

It was a time of growth for everybody. Talented, less attractive horses competed better, more valuably, in front of men with white, wide brimmed hats. Their pocketbooks were as thick as their bellies but they clearly knew their way around sports markets. It was the men above them that everyone wanted signing their cheques but the local circuit – and the town, generally – was not ready for those men.

That would take more time.

It was the horse that drew the attention of the regional board and they travelled down the mountains, away from the cities, and off the beaches towards the hinterland. The air here was cooler, fresher, cleaner than they were used to and money of them explained, in long car rides, that it was the air, surely, that gave life to this magnificent horse.

The small arenas of the local circuit became filled with people wanting to watch the horse. Its owner was given a marque and a special section of the spectator section all to himself. The barrier around it, wooden poles dug deep into the ground at stable but not sound angles, was painted as white as the horse’s perfect teeth.

It was the beginning of a long descent in debauchery from which previously regular people do not recover. This kind of descent takes a special kind of person, the right kind of level-headedness. Unfortunately, this is a rare possession.

Neither the horse nor the owner had this kind of level-headedness.

Horses, after all, are not famed for the level-headedness. They are famed, mostly, for the way that their heads arch enough to allow them to have eye sockets so they can see the racetracks. Humans, too, are known for having rounded heads and any good surveyor knows that anything circular cannot be level.

It was small town wisdom on the local circuit that it was impossible to predict a slope. ‘Level is best,’ they would always say, this town nestled against the mountains north of the city. At a precipice, it is hard to tell exactly how sloped it will become, exactly how far down it will go before coming back up. The town knew well that sometimes mountains look like they blend into each other.

 

The end of the second season of the horse was a catastrophe for almost everybody involved.

The horse was entered in one of the races, for the first time in months, and bookkeepers desperately scrambled to keep up with the demand. They had to keep making more and more books in which to record local bets – one of the gambling associations simply ran out of supply in the hinterland and almost single-handedly overworked the only local printing business. For the first time, money spent in the local circuit splashed outside of the local circuit.

It was, economically, a dream. The town’s treasurer oversaw the whole event and he had a fat, oily hand in every dollar spent on the day. If he could have found a way to charge the sun rates for the privilege of lighting the race, he would have.

Instead, he increased the excises on the businesses selling sunscreen and hats. The mayor, a quiet woman who presented an attractive front to a bizarre but not-yet-backwater town, stood beside him when required. The treasurer’s hands were most assuredly not in her back pocket and he would never be so stupid as to make that mistake.

She was a shrewd woman and knew how to best play the system of the men in white hats and grey suits. She sidled around about the owner of the horse for most of the day of the final race of the second season.

Local shops, meanwhile, were operating on skeleton crews of staff who did not care or teenagers who wanted to smoke on shift. The managers weren’t the type to enforce rules that no one would witness being broken. The town was not yet far enough ahead for security cameras but it was not far behind that work was, by default, lax. The footprints of corporations had been here, in the shape of familiar red logos and the whirr of endemic ice-cream freezers.

Everyone who cared was down at the racetrack, fighting off the beating sun in the most extravagant clothes they owned – or could find the day before. They were all trying to be just as beautiful as the horse. They should not have been. No one was.

 

Equally, no one was sure what to expect of the race. No one knew for sure what the conditions of victory were – how many laps, how long the race would go, how many horses had to be disqualified – but the owner had told the horse to take it slow.

‘Slow and steady,’ the owner said. ‘Please.’

The horse had whinnied and nodded and bared its teeth as wide as it could. The crowd was a sponge for its arrogance and the horse was a bigger, more absorbent sponge for the attention. More, it wanted. More and more and more.

It joined the other horses on the starting line. The animals were all checking themselves, blinkers removed, confidence in their training and their judgment uninhibited. Such were the tenets of the local circuit. Let the animals work, then believe.

The crowds were gathered as close to the boundary as possible when the woman in the jeans and flannel shirt stepped into the centre of the racetrack. The white lines, arbitrary lanes, curved around her in a long circle, looping endlessly. A local painter had been hired to mark the grass just for today. Normally, it was the work of the solitary groundsman the Treasurer had set aside for all the town’s groundwork.

But no one paid attention to the linework the moment the gun was fired.

The horses erupted from the gates. The first lap quickly became a test, each horse trying to see where they sat relative to their opponents. Mostly, they wanted to come second. But they are all speeding, as fast as they could to start the race. Fast enough to begin the frantic betting.

Bookkeepers circled the crowds. From above, the arena looked like a long wave that moved as fluidly as the horse did.

It sliced through the air like an Olympic swimmer through water, working hard, like the other horses. Harder, it thought. It was earning its place at the spearhead of the race, its hooves digging into the grass, shoes ripping at the dirt. Digging small holes.

Divots.

The other horses beat on and on too, keeping pace if not getting ahead. The gun had taken them by surprise. They had been trying to impress the crowd, trying to show that were also worth the attention. They had tried to compete with the impossible charm of the brilliant-toothed horse. They had failed, and they were losing.

 

It was on the second lap that the horse noticed how far ahead it was. It slowed a little, desiring but not needing the break. It needed to be seen. It needed the wind to carve and curl through its mane, for its tail to spring and bounce perfectly the way it had practiced in the divoted paddock. Then it noticed the new holes in the grass.

It stepped carefully, side to side, obviously showing off, even as the rest of the race began to catch up. The horse, its ego catching in the wind and holding it back like a parachute, was falling further and further from its lead. It had been raised to impress quickly and so it flourished in short races and short doses.

It also did not believe in the success of tortoises. By the third lap, the horse was barely ahead. The hooves beating against the grass had become increasingly desperate. The divots were growing, the white lines beaten into sod. The horse, like the others, fought harder and harder. But it was not accelerating.

The horse saw the encroaching divots and feared for its ankles despite its training. The crowd was silent, hands clutched around purses and phones and pocketbooks. It would not do to showlessly win a close race. So the horse changed its lane, breaking over the arbitrary white line into the space of another horse.

This the crowd interpreted as showing off and not desperation. They cheered. Enough to spur the horse on. Here, it would not need to swerve so much. Here, it could run straight, step longer over the damage. The horse behind it, the horse gritting its teeth and furious with an instinctual rage, flicked its own mane.

This horse caught the moment and felt the rush. The crowd watched as the competition came surprisingly alive, animals communicating wordlessly with speed, and this horse swapped into the empty, disfigured lane. But this horse had not been bullied by its peers. It had never confronted divots.

It collapsed instantly. Something invisibly but painfully wrong. It fell amongst ferocious hooves that struggled to stop in time and was, forever, still. The horse with the brilliant teeth and the glorious mane crossed the finish line first and in silence.

 

The crowd did nothing as trainers, owners, and vets rushed onto the track. A mass of horses, some fallen some standing, seethed and the crowd dissipated. Money was paid out quietly. The owner of the horse pocketed a large bundle of cash that he struggled to hide. The contract he signed had been one of many, this one written in the event of a disaster. He relinquished the brilliant horse and disappeared into the crowd, leaving the animal in the hands of the white-hat men.

The horse’s tail blew in the breeze.

 

The horse was never seen in the town again. Everyone assumed it was safe, was appreciated, was racing elsewhere somewhere far away from the hinterland. But the town flourished off the back of the owner’s poorly hidden money. He had nowhere to hide it. No one was unaware of its presence and it hung silently in the tense air.

Many of the other owners and trainers moved away and the local circuit fell in to disarray. The town’s groundskeeper refused to fix the track by himself and the Treasurer did not see fit to adjust the maintenance budget in line with the proceeds from the second race.

No one really wanted to. No one really wanted to profit off the disaster. But the money had been spent and the money continued to be circulated in the town. It was not a conscious benefit. The town grew, observably but not lavishly, even as the races moved forty minutes west. The Treasurer left the town with his wealth and moved into the city where he invested in non-renewable energy before quickly retiring on a dwindling trust.

The people thought of the two horses with reverence. They held onto fond memories of the brilliantly toothed horse on their bad days. A measure of beauty and self-belief that brought comfortable and enjoyable wealth. The other horse, the still horse, was memorialised as a statue in the centre of town, funded by the residents’ donations. Some larger than others.

They were all loathe to admit it, but their lives had been improved. They did not mean to profit off the tragedy but they were willing to accept the new lifestyle as a gift.

Thanks to Josh Nutting for reading it first, Grace McCarter for a strong edit, and Siobhan Daglish for letting me use her computer when I couldn’t sleep. Feel free to send corrections or feedback here.

The Sleep Banker

It took the man in the sandy-coloured suit no time at all to find the next name on his list.

Alvin Benchway, 32 years old. He lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building that had overlooked the River before the suburb was beaten down, then up, by overeager developers.

When the man in the sandy-coloured suit found him, Alvin was hunched over a computer screen in the dark, the white light illuminating his face and little else. Nothing on the screen was of substance. A thin connection to the web. Content for content’s sake.

The man in the sandy-coloured suit flicked on the light of the small home office. Alvin was slow to react, his eyes gaunt and his mouth agape even staring at a harsh nothing.

“Good evening,” the man in the sandy-coloured suit said. He looked about as Alvin turned, sluggish, as if having to use the weight of one shoulder to twist his body. The sandy-suit man lifted a stack of books off a chair at the back of the room so he could sit.

“Good evening,” Alvin replied.

“How are you, Alvin? Tired?”

“I guess.” Alvin faced the man, the light of the screen fading into the harsh yellow of the bulb in the ceiling.

“I’m here to tell you to get some sleep.”

“I’m fine.”

“It’s been days.”

Alvin’s tired eyes sank and his brow furrowed. “What’s it to you?”

“I lose sleep when you do.”

“How compassionate.”

The sandy-suit man knew better than to expect to catch the sleepless unaware. Their bloodshot eyes wide, bodies thin and weary, but their brains prepared. Inhibitions lowered. He just hoped this wouldn’t dissolve to violence again.

It’s easy to force the tired to sleep, true, but that rest is far less rejuvenating.

“My generosity is self-centred, I assure you,” the sandy-suit man replied, crossing his legs. “I hope you don’t mind me making myself welcome.”

“Only if you’re likely to leave soon.”

“What will you do once I’m gone?”

Alvin blinked. His eyelids seemed to catch for a moment, just too long, before springing back open. A small purple vein disappeared underneath his eyebrow.

“I will keep reading.”

“I always find it difficult to read when I can’t keep my eyes open.”

“You’d do well not to assume we’re the same kind of people.”

“You’d do well, Alvin, not to assume you’re the first I’ve talked off this kind of ledge.”

Alvin turned his head back to the laptop and shut the lid. The white extinguished. The yellow, harsh and burning. Alvin was certain he could hear the electricity humming through the copper. Like a tic. A relic of rest too long ago.

“Can I ask why you’re not sleeping?”

“I don’t feel particularly like wasting time.”

“Then I imagine this is frustrating.”

Alvin twisted his whole body, slowly, with a limbering shuffle of the feet, to face the sandy-suit man. As if he was afraid he would fall apart. As if his brain could keep him speaking at the expense of his fine motor skills. One or the other, not even at the same time.

“I would prefer you tell me why you’re here,” Alvin said, trying to spit it at the stranger in his office. Instead the words slipped out soft.

“I’m here to help you to sleep,” the sandy-suit man replied. “I can’t make you get some shut-eye but I am persistent enough that I have quite a high strike-rate.”

“Who sent you?”

“I sent myself. Consider this a public service, though I’ve never collected the tax I probably deserve.”

“I wouldn’t pay you for this.”

“I don’t tend to find people when they’re in a state to honour an invoice.”

Alvin shut one eye, then the other. The sandy-suit man considered this reluctance.

“If it helps,” the sandy-suit man said, “I’m from the bank.”

He had found this effective in the past. Vague and evocative at the same time, somehow. The weight of money. He wished sometimes he could join the world and absolve himself of responsibility by simply not shutting his eyes for too long. So simple an escape.

Instead, he was here, with Alvin. The latest in a list of names he was certain – truly certain – would never end.

“I’ve never known a banker to wear those colours,” Alvin replied. “Do I owe a debt I don’t know about?”

“You do. Weariness can make you do quite the silly thing. You might not even remember signing for it.”

Alvin’s eyes drooped and he snapped eye contact. His gaze fixed on the shadow of the still-open door. He looked, as if against his will, at the darkness of the hallway. He could walk, without light, straight to his bedroom. Collapse into the unmade mess. Done better than perfect. Asleep, maybe, better than awake when just for its own sake.

“I don’t remember signing for anything,” Alvin confessed. He winced. Reluctance, again, this time to concede information. Inhibitions down. Honesties up.

“Of course you don’t. You’ve put yourself in a quite a state. It’s my job to get you out of it.”

“For no money?”

“For, again, my own restfulness.”

“When was the last time you slept?”

“I don’t have to be good at the sport to be a good coach, Alvin.” The sandy-suit man smiled. “Besides, we’re playing different games. I would suggest a partner. You’ll sleep better together.”

“Not the first time.”

“Not the first time, sure, but afterwards. An investment, Alvin.”

“I’m in no rush to… to settle down,” Alvin said. His head sagged. His eyes unable to rise. His shoulders sliding forward.

“Careful, Alvin. You’ll wake in a most unpleasant place, with blood from the nose and light much harsher than this, if you fall over. This floor is heavy.”

“Your footsteps light.”

“Your mind slipping.”

“This does not make me more sane.”

“Not sanity, Alvin. Sleep.”

“When I’m… ready.” Alvin yawned, his mouth drawing wide, his shoulders pulling back, for a moment, before he sank again. Further down now. A slouch. His spine bearing his weight. An exhaustion unhealthy for the mind and the body.

“I’lll also need you to eat, Alvin. To sleep and to eat. For your own sake, and half for mine.” The sandy-suit man yawned too. The semblance of empathy. A reliable trick. A hallmark of study after study, proof after proof. Alvin rested a hand against his own chair, tested his own weight on his feet.

The sandy-suit man uncrossed his legs, sat forward.

“I can’t get you there, Alvin. You’ll have to do it yourself. But you’re not far away. Just down the corridor. On the left. In the back right corner, where you can’t be seen from the door.”

“How do you – ”

“I’m sure you glean intimate details through your work. I’d even suggest we’ve met before.”

“Before?”

Alvin’s hand slipped and he with it.

The sandman slipped from his own chair, in one moment present and in another gone, beneath Alvin, then about, then all around. Alvin awoke in his own bed with the midday sun crashing through.

Read The Rivertree Song here, and let me know if this piece has any spelling errors here