"When's Annie picking you up?"
"That's only three hours!"
"It's long enough."
"If we went straight to the dance we could be there for a couple of hours before we had to leave."
"You don't have to come!"
Linda strode ahead. James hesitated for a moment, then ran to catch up.
"I'm sorry, Linda. I know you have to do this, even if I don't understand why."
Linda was angry now. "It was all your idea in the first place, you know. We wouldn't have to come here if..."
"I know, Linda. I said I was sorry, and I want to be with you. Anyway," James smiled apologetically, "I wouldn't let any-one go to Morgan's place by themselves. Anything could happen."
As Linda's anger passed, James put his arm around her shoulders.
"There it is."
The street differed from other streets as much or as little as any other suburban street. The house that they approached had once looked very like those that it stood among. It no longer did. The other suburban front yards, in varying degrees of neatness, stopped abruptly at the fences which separated Morgan's house from the rest of the street.
The house itself could barely be seen. It peeped from behind a jungle of trees and shrubs, amongst which were woven creepers and flowers which had been allowed to sow themselves from the garden that must once have been tended in the now-wild yard. Strangely, there was not the host of weeds which would usually be at home in such an unkempt environment.
Linda and James walked through a tunnel in the vegetation towards the front door. As they drew closer they could hear voices chanting to the rhythm of a crude drum. James knocked carefully on the front door. The chanting stopped and they heard someone speaking inside, their irritation penetrating the walls.
"Morgan! Would you get your friends out of here! We don't want to be disturbed!"
Footsteps approached the door. It creaked open and Morgan peered out at them. Past him, Linda caught a glimpse of a room that was lit by candles and filled with a haze of smoke. A pungent incense wafted out the door and evaporated when it reached fresh air. Naked figures stirred the smoke, moving like sleepwalkers. Morgan stepped onto the verandah and closed the door behind him.
"What do you want?" he said as he tied the sash on a striking red kimono. Linda and James were lost for words. "Never mind. Let's go round the back." Then he lowered his voice. "Thanks for giving me an excuse to get out of the house. Sometimes I hate it when the relatives fly in."
As he led them round the side of the house, Linda nearly tripped over a stack of old brooms.
She shook her head. Surely not?
Morgan took them to a bungalow in the back corner of a yard that appeared to be better kept than the front yard. There were rows of plants, carefully tended, only none of them were familiar to Linda. James kept a firm grip on her hand.
The inside of the bungalow was a strange combination of a teenager's room, complete with posters and mess, and a display room of occult wares. Next to posters of Venom and AC/DC were astrological charts. The shelf space was occupied by sports trophies and statues of pagan deities.
James paused in front of a particularly graphic fertility statue.
"Your olds don't mind you having this stuff?" he asked as he ogled the disproportionate phallus. Morgan stopped clearing a space for them to sit.
"Oh that. That was my thirteenth birthday present."
"Look, I'm sorry about all this. This is why I didn't want you to come to my place last time. I know a lot of people think that it's all a bit weird."
"A bit?!" Linda gently elbowed James in the ribs. She found her surroundings somewhat unsettling, but had decided that she was in no danger.
"Yeah, well . . . My parents have always been . . . different, and I guess I sort of inherited it. When I was younger I tried being normal, but it just didn't work. So I just try to keep all this, you know, sort of low-profile."
"It can't be easy."
"No." Morgan turned to Linda. "It's not really the sort of place you feel great about bringing friends home to muck about. What's wrong?" Morgan suddenly took Linda's hand. "Stand here," he ordered. She stood where he indicated, on a symbol carved into the floorboards. He stood back and scrutinized her. "You've been near a manifestation. What happened?"
Linda sighed with relief. At least he would believe her. She sat weakly in a now-empty chair and spoke, barely able to tell the absurd tale. James sat on the arm of the chair, his arm round her shoulder, a little bewildered, but determined to protect her at all costs.
Linda described her visitor from the Twilight Zone, although she did not mention the name that the apparition had thundered from the doorway. While Morgan stood in the centre of the room, deep in contemplation, James roused himself and demanded, "You can't expect any-one to believe that, surely? I mean, this all started as a joke. It was all just a bit of fun." He looked from Linda to Morgan, and then back at Linda again.
"You were so upset I didn't know what to do. You wouldn't even tell me why. I didn't think you'd take me seriously when I said you should get Morgan to help you. I just wanted to cheer you up. It was a joke!"
Morgan listened but said nothing.
"What's happened, Linda? What's wrong? I don't understand . . . Why are you telling this ridiculous story?"
"Because it's true," said Morgan.
"Don't give me that bullshit! What is this? You reckon you can use this stupid . . fantasy, so you can crack onto her or something?"
"Don't James! Morgan's just trying to help."
"Surely you can see for yourself, James. There is something very wrong. There seem to be two problems, though. One is that I did something wrong and for some reason Linda copped what was meant for some-one else. The other is that Linda hasn't told us what's really going on. Maybe if you did we could both help," said Morgan, turning to James.
James grabbed Morgan's shoulder. "Leave her alone, you freak!"
Morgan didn't react. He was used to this sort of attitude. "I may be a 'freak', but I don't expect people to put up with me if they don't want to. You can leave whenever you want."
They both looked at Linda.
"Just stop it," she groaned, giving way to her need to weep.
James went to her and put his arms around her. Morgan paused, then began to rummage about in a trunk of books, papers and assorted unidentifiable objects. He finally drew out a well-worn volume and began to read.
Linda regained her poise and spoke.
"Look Morgan, I'm sorry about all this. You've been really good to try and help, you had no reason to. But, it's just not worth it. I just want all this to stop. I don't want to see any more ghosts."
Morgan finished the page he was scanning and replied, "You won't. This is the text that has the bit on vengeful apparitions - I used it when we had the seance. The tricky bit was that you won't tell me the full story. I didn't think it would matter - I sort of rigged things a bit, but, according to this, even if I mucked it up, the manifestation should have dissipated by now. It won't be bothering anybody. You say it appeared on Tuesday night?"
"Well, no sweat. It's all over."
"Oh. Thank goodness."
The silence in the room was disturbed only by the sound of frenzied chanting from the house. The voices reached a shrieking climax, then trailed away.
"That's obscene," commented James in disgust.
"You don't know what you're talking about," replied Morgan. "Although I am rather glad I didn't have to be there," he added drily.
"Is it always like this around here?" asked Linda.
"Sometimes it's worse," answered Morgan, with a smile.
"You know, you're pretty friendly for a big, mean wizard," accused James.
Morgan shrugged. "You work pretty hard at being Mr Popular. Maybe I reckon it's easier to let people think what they're going to think anyway. At least this way people leave me alone."
James snorted. "So your excuse for being a weirdo is that you're a weirdo."
Again Morgan shrugged. This time Linda spoke.
"You're being mean, James. All Morgan's done is try to help and there's been no harm done."
"No. Except that you've gone soft in the head and started having hallucinations."
Linda reached up and thumped James on the shoulder. He grabbed his arm and fell against the wall, groaning with feigned pain. Morgan smiled at the performance and decided he should be more hospitable.
"Would you like a drink or something."
"Do you have any of that stuff you see on T.V.? You know, with smoke coming from it - like on The Addams Family."
Linda hit him again.
"We're supposed to be meeting the others at the dance." A thought struck her. "Why don't you come too?"
Both James and Morgan were astonished by the idea. Morgan shook his head and was about to decline. Suddenly the brief quiet was pierced by a wailing from the house. Morgan wilted visibly.
"Oh no. It's my cousin, Harriet. Hells bells! O.K. Just give me a minute. I'd better tell the folks."
He left the bungalow before James could say a word. After he left, James found his tongue.
"What did you want to do that for?"
"Because I like him, and I really do owe him a favour. And besides, Nicole didn't have any-one to go to the dance with."
James broke into laughter. As he clutched at his stomach he managed to gasp, "Nicole is gonna kill you."
"What a mess!"
Fargoth and Zpud sat in the common room of the satellite port. Their craft had docked a short time ago. They were taking their ease, waiting for the summons to come. The other beings in the room kept a polite distance, but Skrunch strode over, buzzing with curiosity.
"Zpud! Fargoth! The whole planet is glowing. You must tell me. What happened?"
"You know that we can't talk to you until we've been examined by the Council." Fargoth was stern. Things were bad enough without complicating matters with gossip.
"But Fargoth, my dear, surely you realize that I am the best person to help you?"
"That isn't the point, Skrunch," responded Zpud. "More broken rules will not mend the ether."
"Don't quote proverbs at me! Why, you will always be younger than I. You can't be certain that you know what's at stake."
"And you were not with us when we surveyed the young planet we have just left. What is happening is too important to be settled by the grapevine." Fargoth was spared any need to continue by the crackling of the communicator.
"Attention! Will the crew of the Survey Craft Epsilon report to Council Interview immediately. Crew of Survey Craft Epsilon to Council Interview immediately!"
Fargoth and Zpud did not rush. As they left the common room, other members of the crew fell into step behind them. Skrunch, along with the other beings who were left in the relaxation area, glared after them, barely able to control their overwhelming curiosity. "I could be observing history being made," Skrunch muttered, annoyed at being denied an exclusive titbit.
They settled themselves comfortably for the interview. Fargoth and Zpud had been formally supported by the crew, and would speak for all, unless another crew member saw the need to add to what passed. As Speakers for the group, they were positioned towards the front of the room, directly in front of the Council.
Dagoth began, Speaking for the Council.
"Crew of Survey Craft Epsilon, we have seen the preliminary reports. The situation was deemed sufficiently grave for the Council to assemble and try to reach some decision. We are here; you are here."
The formal declaration jolted Zpud. He could feel the wave of tension pass through the crew behind them. This was not just an investigation. The Council were acting as judge, legislator and governing body of the planet: they were here to decide the law.
"As time may be short, we will not adhere to conventions. We have your reports on the situation, very thorough documents, but they lack anything that helps us to understand how this breach of rules occurred. There is a lot of information concerning the plight of this unfortunate world . . ."
"But that is the explanation. It's the whole reason . . ."
"Please forgive Zpud," interrupted Fargoth. "He is impetuous and inclined to lose his head at the slightest hint of informality. I fear youthful enthusiasm may have been a factor in this regrettable incident. But as much as I deplore the broken rules which have brought us before you, I do not believe that Kashi was wrong to act as he did. And no-one could regret his loss more deeply than I. May I address the Council?"
Dagoth nodded assent.
"Your information tells you about the planet and it's current plight, but it cannot tell you about the inhabitants of that planet. We observed them for some time before Kashi took such foolish action. What we saw was a few corrupt individuals with distorted morality who were behind the problems faced by the globe. Others tried to alleviate the problems, but as we all know, extreme problems often require extreme solutions. What I, what the entire crew fears, is that the young creatures who dominate this globe do not have the wisdom to deal with their troubles. The Council cannot be blind to the difficulties that many species have in predicting and planning for the future.
"I, speaking for all who were there, ask that this Council support a return expedition. We must see if we can save the planet, and people, that Kashi was prepared to die for."
"The Council appreciates your noble sentiments, Fargoth, but your solution will only make matters worse. What can possibly lead you to such a conclusion?"
"Zpud has prepared a report. It contains information which, as will become obvious to you, we could not trust to reports which many would see."
"Very well," said Dagoth. "Proceed."
"Well," began Zpud nervously, " when we approached the planet I was in the observation deck with Kashi. We looked at the blue-green world below us and, Your Honours, it was beautiful! We could see a globe that was a twin to the pictures of our world when she was younger. We felt as though we had been caught up in heaven, being allowed to experience such a moment of beauty.
"Then we began to monitor the information being relayed by the survey equipment. The initial information is rarely very useful, but as the computers began to correlate population, demographic and industrial centres, natural environments and the other factors that are necessary for a true picture, we were dismayed.
"The planet has evolved intelligent life, but the population pressures and industrial activity have severely altered the ecosystem. The atmosphere is changing in such a way that the remaining indigenous life-forms may soon experience difficulty surviving. Many species have already perished."
The Council chambers were hushed as those assembled absorbed the sorrowful knowledge.
"You would have to see the environment to appreciate the beauty of some of the myriad species that inhabit this world. Our own planet, beautiful as it was and will be, never evolved such a variety of life-forms. Your Honour, if you would allow me, I have brought a mind-linked image projector with me. Official reports cannot give you the information which I can with this."
Dagoth conferred briefly with the other Council Members, then signalled that Zpud should proceed with the demonstration.
The holographic image swirled cloudily in the centre of the room before steadying to a clear representation. The beings in the room watched.
The crew members sat, pleased at the chance to revisit this tempting world. The Council Members wore expressions of aloof interest. These expressions soon changed.
Zpud took those in the room on a journey. They swooped through clouds, approaching snow capped mountain tops which dazzled when struck by shafts of sunlight. Their view sped down rugged slopes and plunged into emerald forests. In the misty green amongst the tree trunks they searched out rare and beautiful plants, marvelling at the blossoms, in awe at the delicate fragrances.
Then they abruptly soared through the canopy to explore other terrain. Barren deserts, plains seething with wildflowers, the depths of sparkling oceans: as the vistas presented themselves Fargoth found a new admiration for Zpud. The many scents, pungent and inviting, of this planet, had been created with remarkable accuracy. There could be nothing more carefully designed to appeal to the Council. If this recording were to be viewed publicly, the Council would have no choice but to support what had happened.
The holograph now turned their attention to the animals that inhabited this world. The fish, silver flashes in the ocean, were a glittering background for the impossible air-breathers that moved so gracefully among them, despite their size. Insects, from the delicate beauty of the butterflies to the complex social organization of the ants and bees, were briefly surveyed. Small rodents peeped out at the Council from the safety of distant bushes. Birds, suddenly startled into flight, caused a stir of astonishment amongst the Council.
The faces of the Council Members now showed wonder. The parade of creatures that passed before them was almost incomprehensible. Small animals, covered with fur, lived in the same habitat as lumbering giants with skins of leather. Gazelles, leaping gracefully along, were suddenly chased and attacked by cats of such agility that the Council gasped with amazement rather than horror.
There were creatures that swam and creatures that crawled. Some creatures ran on four legs, while others hopped on two. Some ate the plants that grew and some ate each other. The birth and rearing of young were briefly shown. The Council saw species which lived below the ground and others which never left the tree-tops. And all the while, as a backdrop to this cavalcade, the Council saw the incredible natural beauty of this young, blue-green planet.
"But which of these is the intelligent species? You have shown us none of the population centres or industrial complexes, have you?"
Zpud stopped the projection, then moved it forward and restarted it. The buildings and factories, which the beings now saw, were a stark contrast to the scenes of natural beauty they had left. The aerial view remained long enough to show the extent of these areas. The clouds of noxious fumes and vile liquid wastes were depicted, complete with odours, which caused some discomfort among those present.
The view then descended and entered what appeared to be a residence. The human occupant of the house was centred in the holograph.
The Council erupted. Gasps of astonishment were drowned out by cries of disbelief. As the initial reaction began to subside, Gaernik sprang to his feet.
"It's a trick!"
The land was cloaked with night. Faint tinges of light in the East heralded the coming day. The expectant silence that enveloped the slumbering valley was disturbed only by the anxious scurrying of small night creatures, eager to return to their homes and pass the day in safe repose.
A breeze sighed through the trees and gently tugged at the smoke that curled sluggishly from the rough stone chimneys of the thatched cottages that nestled together for warmth. A horse, startled by its own dreams, stamped a powerful hoof and tossed its head. The village slept on.
By the time the birds broke into their joyous morning chorus, the smoke from several of the chimneys had become more purposeful. A passerby could have heard the sounds of morning in a country household. Eventually a person emerged and stood, yawning, in the doorway of the dwelling closest to the sloping sides of the valley.
Shawn looked towards the beauty that filled the eastern sky. His face reflected the delicate orange and bold pink that painted the morning clouds.
His face also showed the years of hardship that he had endured. The lines about the eyes were etched deeply into the weathered skin. The hair that was tied back was thinner than it had been. His mouth, once full and sensuous, had become more tight with age, but the creased corners told of a readiness to laugh. The eyes that dominated the face expressed the gentle wisdom that had made him the leader of this village.
He stretched his stalwart arms and felt the strength of a body used to hard labour. A voice from the gloomy interior drew him away from the wondrous dawn.
"Yes. I'll be going as soon as I've tended the beasts," he replied.
Shawn now set about the chores that must be dealt with at the beginning of every day. The animals were fed and watered, or set free to roam and find their fare. He cast an affectionate eye over the backs of the geese as they paraded aggressively through the centre of the village. They would soon be fat and good for the table.
When all other work was done, he turned his attention to the lone horse that stood, champing contentedly on a meagre ration of chaff. Shawn fetched a brush from the storeroom and began to groom the noble animal.
His neighbour, newly emerged from his abode, saw fit to improve the morning with a joke.
"Don't rub the hair off him, Shawn."
In response, Shawn merely waved a contemptuous hand in the direction of the adjacent cottage, and continued ministering to his favourite creature.
When the horse was groomed to his satisfaction, he went briefly inside his home. He emerged carrying a rough saddle which he put carefully onto the animal's back. He mounted and, after a brief conversation through the sole window that allowed the welcome sunlight to enter this side of the rough stone cottage, rode briskly off.
As he passed through the village he returned the hearty greetings of his friends and associates. He walked to the last house, a small dwelling set apart from the others, stopped and dismounted. Sitting on a chair, absorbing the morning sun, was an ancient being. The puckered face drooped below a crown of white hair. It was impossible to tell the gender of this wizened person.
"Give me your blessing, wise one," asked Shawn reverently.
The figure stirred and coughed.
"Of course, son. May God smile on your journey and guide you in your endeavour."
Shawn bowed in gratitude, and was about to leave when the old woman, with surprising dexterity, reached out and grasped him by the rough fabric of his shirt.
"Be wary, son. The world is a place of deceit. Men's hearts hold more greed than morality. Do not allow your own honest, gentle nature to blind you to the faults in others."
"Thank-you, wise one. Your words have ever been a guide to the people of this village."
Shawn bowed again, filled with respect for this woman who had outlived so many others. Her grandchildren now cared for her, her own beloved children having long passed from the pain of this world.
He mounted his trusty steed, looking back once to see the wise old hag who sat at her post, a sentry to warn or welcome any who came to this favoured place. He turned her words over in his mind. To a simple man like himself, the old woman was unfathomable. To be able to advise those around her with compassion and dignity, despite her terrible affliction, was a source of great wonder to Shawn.
In his earliest childhood memories, the old woman had hobbled painfully around the bountiful valley, gathering secret herbs to tend the ills that afflicted the people about her. Her willingness to deny her own pleasure so that the suffering of others could be eased was a model that Shawn had willingly tried to emulate.
With these uplifting thoughts passing through his mind, Shawn urged his gallant mount into a loping trot. The pair travelled the road to the forest's gloomy edge and disappeared from view.
The people of the amiable village now pursued their daily tasks in earnest. Children were sent into the healthy light in the care of one or two older girls who kept watch on this horde of energetic youngsters. As they cared for the sprawling youngsters they diligently tended the plants, both useful and decorative, that grew about the small community.
Freed of the small fry, the women cleaned up after the frugal morning meal and began the myriad tasks that fell to their lot in life. Snatches of cheerful song could be heard as floors were swept and rugs aired and beaten. Two forward-thinking women were preparing to preserve summer fruits that would wait in their larders and then appear on the table to delight their fortunate families.
The older boys began collecting the flocks of sheep and goats together. The ragtag collection of youths and animals were soon moving noisily towards pastures further from the village. Their progress was slow and inconsistent. The youngsters made great sport of chasing after a young sheep who, in the exuberance of youth and the early hour, thought it would be preferable to walk a different path to the rest of the flock.
The men of the village assembled outside one of the cottages with an assortment of simple tools. After discussing the weather and exchanging a few pleasantries, half of them picked up their tools and began the walk to the fields to till the soil and tend their crops. The remainder took stock of the sheaves of straw that were piled against the stone walls of the dwelling and began to organize themselves for the task of rethatching the roof.
Men were soon on the roof, carefully removing the tattered straw that had rotted away in places. They worked with an unself-conscious steadiness, a product of a life where hardship and work were no strangers. By the time the women had finished their morning chores and had sent food and drink to the field-workers, the thatching party had re-covered over a quarter of the roof.
They broke to eat their midday meal under the shade of a large tree that stood imposingly in the centre of their community. It was often used as a meeting place, and now the women had brought out chairs and tables for the men to take their ease while they ate.
As the children pursued their boisterous games in amongst the adults, the occasion became gently festive. A young couple who had been shyly courting for some time now, were discovered kissing behind a nearby shed by one of the omnipresent urchins. Their embarrassment caused much hilarity in the group under the tree.
Two of the older men engaged in a test of strength, arms locked in a battle that told more about their iron wills than it did about their comparative might. The people about them barracked lustily, first for one, then for the other.
Then it was time to return to work. The men returned to their task, refreshed. The women cleared away the debris of a satisfying meal and returned to their many duties.
The day wore on. The roof had almost been finished when the men returned from the fields. They lent their assistance and the thatching was complete.
The boys brought the beasts back from pasture, all of them more content for their day of freedom. The children, now reduced to sitting and playing games in the dust, were called inside by mothers who had simple chores that would occupy the tired youngsters and help ready them for bed.
While most of the village retired indoors, a young couple could be seen walking, arm in arm, down the road towards the forest. They were not hurried, but strolled peacefully, happy in each other's company.
The villagers secured their animals for the night and cast last looks about them, their practised eyes noting the lessons for tomorrow's weather that were written in the clouds and the wind. In their last words to one another for the day they speculated on what was keeping Shawn this long, then they shut their doors behind them for the night.
In Shawn's cottage a lonely vigil had begun. Outside, the evening breeze sprang up and toyed with the smoke that rose from the rough stone chimneys of the village that nestled in the charmed valley.
Darkness had long settled on the land when the pair of young lovers walked quietly back to town and slipped into their homes.
And still, Shawn had not returned. “
“The moon that rises
Casts shadows on my empty bed
The moths that try to beat their way
Through the window
By the light of the fiery moon
Cannot make up for your absence
My head embraces the pillow
Eager for the scent of you
Fragrance that has lingered from our good-bye
The night that Jack had disappeared was still so clear in Cassie's mind. She had come home late, seeking comfort in the bed she had so recently shared with him. Hungry for sleep, she had instead lain awake, missing the man whose essence wafted from the sheets.
She had been annoyed with herself. He would be back in a couple of days. This much grief over two nights of being alone was silly. But she missed him. Her heart seemed to already know the news that would reach her in the morning.
As she looked at the old poem, Cassie now found herself thinking of her bizarre night at Refuge Cove. She did not remember the fear; but she remembered the unlikely hero who had disappeared before she could even thank him. She wanted to see him again. His eyes haunted her.
She had marched through the bush in the early morning, revelling in her surroundings and herself. She had hoped that she would meet up with the hiker, but she didn't. When she reached Sealer's Cove and stood alone at the edge of the magnificent crescent of beach, she was glad of her isolation.
Drinking in the power of the sea, steadied by the wild forest at her back, Cassie knew that she could live without Jack.
She had eaten a rough meal of stale biscuits, squashed fruit and stream-water. Her meal complete, she stretched herself to her feet. She raised her battered canteen to the ocean in salute.
"Good-bye my friend," she whispered, the breeze snatching her wistful words and scattering them. Then Cassie had shouldered her pack and continued on her way. That had been two weeks ago - another lifetime.
There was little difference between her life now and her life as it had been for the last year, but it felt different. At last Cassie found herself able to feel a part of the world around her. She was no longer merely a spectator, buffeted by the activities of others. But rejoining the world had its price.
Linda's aloof behaviour was worrying Cassie far more than she would let either Linda or Annie know. Whatever was bothering Linda had driven a wedge between mother and daughter. Knowing that prying would deepen the rift, Cassie could only hover about, on hand in case she was needed, irritating Linda with her maternal affection.
Annie, always sympathetic to her friends, was driving Cassie crazy. For one whole week now, Annie had been so pleasant that Cassie was beginning to suspect foul play. The Annie she knew and loved had been kidnapped and replaced with one of those androids that kept appearing in science fiction films.
Annie had so far refused to explain why she had suddenly cleaned out her room, or why she had tidied the kitchen twice, and had actually been seen to smile when she first got up in the morning.
Cassie's curiosity and anxiety stayed with her as she plodded through the duties of pop music correspondent. And all the while a strangely insistent thought haunted her idle moments.
"It's good to be alive," she thought, as she placed the note-book back into the drawer of her desk.
She walked into the kitchen in search of a cup of tea and found Annie sorting the rubbish that had accumulated on the bench. The plastic and glass had been bundled and placed in a box. Annie was rinsing a tin can that had contained tomatoes used for the lasagna she had made that morning. She placed it with the other cans and looked pleased with herself.
"Well," she declared, "it's all dressed up and ready to go."
"I suppose I'd better take it to the tip then."
"No, I will. I don't mind being the bearer of garbage. After all these years of teaching, I'm at home amongst the trash."
Cassie shook her head in amazement.
"But Annie, you hate going to the tip. What's going on?"
"There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Cassandra," Annie called over her shoulder as she pushed her way through the back door.
"I need a cuppa," Cassie muttered to herself with conviction.
"Yeah, but Morgan!"
"I told you, he's really quite nice." Linda was becoming tired of this. Ever since the dance she had suffered constant stirring. As she walked through the school-yard, people would call out to her, asking if she'd been to any good sacrifices lately. Or they would start in shock and cross themselves, backing away from her. Her friends had been no better.
"Besides, James's too busy with that tramp Nicole."
"Yeah, . . . well. Will I have to do anything special for the party? You know, `eye of newt and toe of frog', that sort of thing."
"For a friend you're a real bitch." Linda had had enough. She started to get up, but Ang put out a hand to stop her.
"I'm sorry, Linda. Please, don't go. You've had a really rotten time lately. We both have. I should know better than to say something like that. You bring whoever you want to my party."
Linda sat down again. How could she explain to Ang that Morgan was the one person who had been able to make her feel as if she wasn't a character in a bizarre soap opera?
"You know," Ang cleared her throat nervously, "I saw what happened the night of the dance."
Linda looked at her.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't think you'd really want to know." She looked at Linda, then stared grimly out the window.
"Well," Ang paused for a moment, enjoying her chance to have this off her chest. "Nicole was being a real bitch. I was outside having a smoke with her when James came looking for her. He tried to tell her that you didn't mean to upset her. James could hardly get a word in. She was carrying on as though you'd got her a date with Freddy Kruger."
"Did she say anything before James came out?"
"Oh yeah. I tried to tell her that you were just being nice to Morgan. I said that he was the son of your mother's cousin, but you didn't want any-one to know."
"Well that's about the only thing she hasn't said to any-one who'll listen."
"Yeah. Anyway, when James came out she started carrying on about how if she had a guy like James, she wouldn't go two-timing him with a freak like Morgan."
"That's what she said. Then she pointed at you and Morgan standing over by the supper table. He was saying something to you, but you know how noisy it was. He was leaning over talking into your ear and then you laughed and put your hand on his shoulder so you could reach his ear when you said something. James looked at you and went sort of red. He was really jealous, you know."
"We were just talking!"
"I tried to tell James that, but that bitch Nicole sort of rubs herself up against him and goes, `You know, you shouldn't worry about her. You're too good for her. I've always wished you were interested in me, not her.' By this time she'd nearly wrapped herself around him. Before he could say anything, she led him around the back. It looked as though they were headed for that spot under the hall where someone's put some old mattresses."
"You don't think . . ."
"I do think! Let's face it, James's been at you for a while now to go all the way. And Nicole's been desperate for him. She's never forgiven you for getting him. I reckon she'd do anything to get back at you. And James's been running around after her with his tongue hanging out ever since."
The two girls sat for a moment in silence. Ang's younger brothers were fighting. Their mother's voice suddenly added to the noise. The two small boys were scolded and sent to their room, leaving the house peaceful again.
"He's not worth being upset about."
"There are heaps of boys who'd like to go around with you. Jason was talking to me this afternoon. He wanted to know about you and Morgan, so I told him you were just friends, then he asked me if you liked him." She paused for effect. "I said I thought you did. He likes you. He wanted to know if you had a date for the party."
"Even if I didn't, I wouldn't go with Jason. He's trouble. I'm starting to think that all guys are trouble. All they ever think about is sex, and they couldn't care less what you think, as long as you look all right and they can make it look to their mates as if they're screwing you."
"Are you going to be a lesbian like Miss Friend?"
The two friends laughed. Then Linda spoke.
"Annie isn't a lesbian! Why do you keep saying that?"
"You should hear her when she gets going in class. One of the guys'll say something about Sharon being a slut or something like that and she goes right off the deep end. She calls them sexists and tells us girls that we should avoid the boys like the plague. It's really funny."
Linda grunted. "Maybe she's right. The guys just use you. I thought James was okay, but it didn't take much for him to change, did it? Though I guess Nicole must have made it pretty tough for him to say no."
"So you're bringing Morgan to the party."
Linda shrugged. "I told you. He's nice. I was talking to him at the dance. Besides, you owe him a favour, you know. He tried to help us get that filthy bastard."
"He knows about that!" Ang grabbed Linda's arm and stared at her in horror.
"No. Or at least, I didn't really explain what had happened. Oh Ang, I'd never tell any-one about that, not unless I had to."
"So what did you tell him? And what did he do, put a hex on him?"
Linda sighed. James had known she'd gone to Morgan for help, and he hadn't believed her story. Ang would never believe her.
"I just told him that this guy had been hassling us and we were scared that things could get out of hand if he didn't stop. I said we wanted him scared off."
"That's putting it mildly."
"Anyway, he tried to . . put a spell on that bastard, only it didn't work."
"Oh. But, how do you know it didn't work, and if that's all he did why do you reckon we owe him a favour?"
"Dunno.” Linda did not want to risk the disbelief of her friend – she didn’t believe what had happened herself. ”Ang, don't think I'm silly or anything, but I like Morgan."
Ang raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
"I'll be the only one who won't think you've gone soft in the head."
"He's nice Ang. He's different to James and the other guys. I don't think he cares what other people think. He seems like he's happy with my company - he doesn't just want to get into my pants.
"I've had enough, Ang. Mum always says that if I want something I should make sure I get it. Well I was getting pretty sick of James always wanting things his way, and never letting me say what I thought because he didn't think it was `cool' for girls to be too smart. What's more, if Morgan thinks he's going to do that, he can go jump too."
"You're right, Linda." She thought for a moment, then continued. "You know, maybe if we'd had a bit of that attitude we wouldn't have ended up in trouble with that creep. It was pretty stupid of us to go to that damn club in the first place. But maybe we could have gotten away. Maybe if we hadn't been so damn scared by what that bloody pimp said, if we'd just told him to piss off . . . " Her voice trailed away sorrowfully.
"Yeah, only it's too late now. You know Ang, I realized that we're being stupid about this. Either we should go to the police or forget about it and just get on with things. I know I just want to forget it, and if we just ignore him he can't do anything. When he realizes we're not scared he'll stop bothering us."
Linda wasn't prepared for Ang's reaction. She drew her knees up to her chin and began to cry.
"What's wrong Ang?"
"It's not over. And we can't go to the police. Linda . . . I saw the other one - the pimp." Ang was unable to speak for the sobs that caught in her throat. Linda held her until she calmed down enough to speak again.
"Oh Linda, it's just so horrible. He's got photos."