Debris

by Ben Payne

2003

The wind sounded like a kettle boiling as it tore through the streets. For the umpteenth time Daniel cursed the paper-thin walls and lack of heating in his hotel room. He climbed out of bed and left the dirty cubicle for the warmer climes below in the bar. Maybe after a beer or two he’d be able to sleep.

There was a bunch of rough-looking guys sitting at a booth in the corner, and a few middle-aged women dressed like their daughters, propped up at the bar. Daniel ignored them all, and found a seat out of the way, looking out onto the streets of Canberra. The roads were largely empty at this hour, with only the odd car purring past toward the centre of town.

After two pots of VB he still felt just as cold and alone. The inane snatches of conversation he picked up from the other barflies, about sport, women, men, or work, just reinforced the feeling. Is this as good as it gets, for them? He wondered. Will they one day wake up, and realise their lives are small and their minds under-developed? Do they already know? Maybe they just don’t care.

Marisa would have called him a snob for thinking like that. She would have asked him what made him think he was so special. Daniel didn’t care. He didn’t have to please her anymore.

Marisa had never really understood because she hadn’t been there. He’d told her the story, but he didn’t think she’d ever really believed it.

There was only one person who’d ever really understood.

Daniel headed outside and hailed a cab.

1983

“What is it?”

Shelly-Anne’s face was right up close next to his. Ordinarily Daniel would have freaked out at having a girl so close, and tried to push her away, but this was more important than anything like that.

He pulled back the rest of the old blanket. A swirl of dust fluttered up and then descended on them, making Daniel almost sneeze, but he held it in.

The stones were a deep green, like the green of his turtle, but shinier, as though there was electricity inside them making them light up. There were two of them, each one about as big as an Easter egg.

“What are they?” she asked again.

“I dunno,” he admitted. “I reckon something left them here.”

“Yeah, they’re probably your mum’s,” Shelley-Anne teased.

“My Mum hasn’t come down here for years,” Daniel said.

There was a loud thump on the roof, and Daniel jumped. He looked at Shelley-Anne, who stared back at him. “What was that?” she asked.

“It was just a tree,” he sneered, partly to cover up his embarrassment at jumping. “You girls are so skittish.”

“I am not!” Shelly-Anne retorted. “What’s skittish?”

“It means you get scared by nothing” Daniel said, pleased to be able to show off.

“I am not! You’re skittish!” Shelley-Anne protested again, then stopped as there was another thump from above, this time louder than the first. It was followed by a noise that sent a shiver down Daniel’s back.

It sounded kind of like a possum, screechy and gurgly at the same time, but at the same time not like a possum at all. There was something he couldn’t put his finger on, something almost ghostly about it. Like it was coming from inside a big hollow drum. But that was impossible. There was nothing above the shed but the branches of an old pine tree.

There was another cry, louder this time. Daniel found himself suddenly hoping Shelley-Anne was right, that the stones were just some old trinkets belonging to his mum, and not anything some thing might want to stop him taking.

There was a rustling noise outside the door, so close that he almost jumped back in alarm. Something was just outside. He heard a soft low-pitched growling. Shelley-Anne was clinging onto his hand, and he gave her hand a squeeze, to say It’s all right, even though he didn’t know that, didn’t feel that at all.

There was a rustling sound again, then what sounded like a cat-fight, but louder, bodies tumbling to the ground and wrestling, then bang! There was an almighty thud against the door, and the screeching noise again, this time so loud he felt like it was inside his head.

Daniel kept his back to the door and hoped that it would stay shut. Shelley-Anne pressed herself up against him, and he put his arms around her without thinking. She was shivering, or maybe crying, but trying to keep quiet. It’ll be okay, he tried to send his thoughts to her. It’ll all be okay.

Then nothing. Everything was quiet again. Neither of them moved for another long moment, then Shelley-Anne awkwardly untangled herself from him and took a few steps away. She looked at him, expectantly.

Daniel didn’t want to go outside. He really didn’t. He could have stayed barricaded in here for the rest of the evening, just to be sure. But he knew that wasn’t possible. This might be their one chance to escape.

They waited another few seconds in silence, then he nodded at Shelley-Anne, and she nodded hesitantly back, and he slowly began to pull open the door.

Outside the last rays of sunlight were peeking through the leaves, creating a soft patchwork of light on the ground. He noticed for the first time the frogs and crickets, beginning their nightly song, somewhere nearby. Then his gaze hit something else and he nearly cried out loud.

It looked kind of like a lizard, but it was the size of a man, and Daniel could tell by the way it looked at him that it was smarter than a lizard. There was something human about its gaze that seemed out of place considering the fact that it was obviously…

Alien. That was the first word that popped into his head, and although every ounce of common sense he’d been taught tried immediately to chase it away, it kept coming back. It’s an alien.

For half a second he was afraid it was going to attack him, but then he saw the dark green liquid pooling slowly but steadily on the ground around it, and he knew it was hurt. Probably badly.

The thing raised its head and looked past them, between them, back at the shed door. Daniel followed its gaze, but there was nothing there, just the old wooden door hanging open.

It turned its head slightly, so that it was looking straight into his eyes. Daniel felt cold. Then suddenly a picture flashed in his mind. A vision of the eggs, not in the box where he was keeping them, but some place else. Daniel suddenly felt an irresistible need to take care of them, to make sure they were safe.

Just as suddenly the vision and the feeling were gone, and the real world was back. The thing had turned toward Shelley-Anne, and she was staring, open-mouthed.

The creature let out a shaky kind of sigh, and then its eyes went kind of starey and empty, and it went very quiet and still. Daniel took Shelley-Anne’s hand again and forced her to turn away.

“Come on,” he said. He led her back toward the shed.

2003

He still had Shelley-Anne’s number in his phone. He hadn’t spoken to her for over two years, now, and it felt kind of shitty to call her drunk in the middle of the night, after so long. But she’d said If you’re ever in town, and he didn’t have anywhere else to go, so he supposed he’d worry about the etiquette when he sobered up tomorrow.

He met her in a bar, a popular one, apparently, full of teen-to-thirty-five-year-olds dancing awkwardly to sleazy top forty soft porn music. The first thing he noticed was how good she looked. It made him self-conscious about the kilos he’d put on since she’d seen him last. She waved when she saw him, and her lips broke into the grin he’d known so well, loved so much. Despite what he’d thought was adequate mental preparation, his stomach dropped into his guts.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” he replied sheepishly. “Sorry to call you so late.”

“That’s fine,” she grinned, rolling her eyes. “Normally, I would have been out anyway. I’d stupidly decided to have a night off.”

He smiled back, lost for words, taking her in. “This is… weird,” he said. He tried to stifle all the old feelings that came rushing back at him, and threatened to overwhelm him. How did I survive without seeing you for so long? he thought. How did I let life get so ordinary?

Shelley-Anne just laughed and punched him in the arm. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get some more drinks.”

1993

Thunder rumbled off in the distance somewhere, and Daniel smiled. There was something exciting about the anticipation that came before a storm. The heaviness in the air, the warm breeze cooling softly on his cheek as twilight arrived. The world seemed alive with potential.

Marty and John were singing a Velvet Underground song just behind him, John strumming the chords on his acoustic guitar, which seemed to fill the suburban street like it was a café and not a wide open road.

Further back, Michelle and Peter were rehearsing Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch, Peter as usual screaming John Cleese’s lines for all the suburbs to hear, while Michelle’s Michael Palin remained politely inaudible.

“Where are we going?” Daniel shouted back at them as he walked backwards up the hill.

John didn’t stop strumming, just curled his lip and raised an eyebrow as though the question confused him. He turned to Marty who shrugged.

“Let’s go to the quarry,” Peter shouted from behind them, the decisive one as usual.

Daniel nodded and turned back, and quickened his step to catch up with Shelley-Anne, who was carrying the large carrot-shaped candle. “The quarry,” he said.

“Cool.” She gave him a mischievous grin. “I like it there. It’s got a kind of mystical feeling. Like somewhere they would have gone in Lost Boys.”

He rolled his eyes and she laughed. She knew how much he hated The Lost Boys.

They turned into a side-street and the darker lighting made the candle’s glow seem brighter. As much as he hated to admit it, it did lend the night a magical air. Behind them John and Marty had launched into a song by The Church, which added to the mood. Daniel felt a twinge of sadness at the thought that he’d soon be leaving them all behind.

“Will you miss us?” Shelley-Anne asked him, with that weird talent she had for guessing his thoughts.

“Nah,” he started to joke, but his heart wasn’t in it. He fell silent.

“What d’you want to go to Uni for anyway?” she asked. “I thought you wanted to be a writer…”

Daniel refused to take the bait. “Didn’t you get the memo? I’m doing it because it’s cool.”

“My mistake,” she bowed her head. “I thought it was just another place to get pissed.” She let out a yelp as a drop of wax hit her arm.

“See?” he said. “Don’t fuck with academia.”

#

There was another deep timpani-roll of thunder, but still no rain.

“I think it’s holding off as proof that our arcane rituals are acceptable to the otherworld,” Shelley-Anne said, planting the carrot in the dirt in front of them. Beyond it, the embankment sloped away upwards, thick with trees. Behind them, the quarry wall was mud, stretched into the heavens, broken only by the path they’d followed down.

“Arcane rituals,” Peter sniggered. “We’re rehearsing Monty Python sketches and playing music on a crappy stereo”. He flicked the speakers with his finger and they responded with the unmistakeable ping of cheap metal.

“The arcane ritual,” Shelley-Anne sighed, kicking at him with her Doc Martens, “isn’t the music, dickhead. It’s what I’ve got in my bag.”

“Have you got pot, Shelley-Anne?” Marty asked, suddenly interested. The others laughed.

She pulled something from her bag, and Daniel took a moment, in the candle-light, to make it out. Then his mouth fell open.

“Recognise these, Danny?” she grinned.

“Where did you…?”

“I found yours at the back of your garage, when we were looking for costumes,” she said smugly. Daniel suddenly felt uncomfortable. What was she doing?

“Are these…” Marty’s mouth was open and he reached out towards her.

“The eggs,” John gasped.

They all knew the story, of course, although both Daniel and Shelley-Anne now told it laughingly, as part of a shared childhood game of imagination. That was how Shelley-Anne had remembered it, when he’d asked her, back when they’d first become friends again in early high school. And it was how he’d come to think of it too, once he’d grown too old to take his youthful memories seriously. The egg, or rock, had been consigned to the back of his cupboard, and then he’d lost track of it altogether. He hadn’t thought about it for ages.

Despite that, Daniel was surprised to feel a pit of discomfort sneaking into his stomach as she showed them off to their friends. Bringing them here, as some kind of end-of-high-school prank, felt somehow like a betrayal. Like he was the butt of a joke. He smiled as best he could while she rubbed them together, then held them over the flame, reciting made-up magic words. His mind may have consigned the memory to the closet, as childhood fancy. But he suddenly realised, now, how much a part of him had still wanted it to be true.

He waited a while, joined in the jokes and the songs, until he was confident that Shelley-Anne’s ritual had slipped from everyone’s minds, then he crept over to where the eggs lay, together, like they’d sat that day, so long ago. Then he slipped them into his pocket and crept silently away into the trees.

#

He’d hoped no-one would follow, but he supposed he’d known she would. She always seemed to know when he was upset, always seemed to track him down.

“Boo,” she said, coming up behind him.

He laughed quietly. “I heard you coming from four hundred metres,” he said. “Your bush skills are like a wounded rhino’s.”

“What would you know about wounded rhinos?” she asked.

He waved a hand in the air casually. “I’ve wounded a few.”

She sat beside him on the tree stump and stared out across the quarry, toward the mud wall across from them, and the suburbs beyond. The noises of the others laughing and singing filtered up from below, but his friends were hidden by the tops of the trees below. Daniel thought he could see the glimmer of the candle flickering on the mud wall. It made him feel good about the friends he had.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” he said. His mind debated momentarily whether to tell her what was wrong. The bottle of Spumante he’d drunk helped to tip the scales. “I guess I just got a bit paranoid,” he said, as lightly as he could. “It felt a bit like you were taking the piss.”

“About…”

He nodded.

Shelley-Anne was silent for a moment, taking it in, breathing deep, staring out at the dark skies, illuminated occasionally by now-distant flashes of light.

“I mean, I know we were kids, and it was probably just our minds, making it all up…”

She looked back, into his eyes, but still didn’t speak.

He searched for the words. “I guess… when we were younger… when I was younger, it… they… they made me feel kind of special, you know. I know that’s stupid…”

“No,” she said, putting a hand on his. “No.” Her brow creased. “It’s not.”

He opened his mouth to stop her, to tell her he wasn’t looking for reassurance, but she cut him off.

“That’s…” Shelley-Anne looked away again. “That’s why I brought them.”

He didn’t understand. “What—”

“Just because I joke about it and make fun of it…” There was a rustling of leaves somewhere below them, and Daniel heard Peter calling his name. Shelley-Anne turned toward the noise, then back to him, her voice lower. “I brought them here because I want to believe… that we are special. Or that they are. Or something.” Her voice was uncertain. “That we, all of us… that it’s not all just going to go away now that school’s over. That we’re not all just gonna go off and get jobs and be boring and the same as everyone else. You know? I wanted to feel like it all… matters.”

She was silent then, searching his eyes for understanding. He nodded, slowly, gratefully. Then she shocked him by leaning across and kissing him, quickly, once on the lips.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go back.”

2003

“Have you heard from anyone?” she asked him.

“Not really.” They were crammed into one side of a booth, surrounded by smoke and flashing lights. Across the table from them a couple was kissing, pausing only for an occasional gulp of air. The doof-doof of techno music drowned out any noise beyond him and Shelley-Anne, and Daniel felt like he was shouting. “Peter and Michelle got married, but I guess you know that.”

She nodded. “They sent me and invite, but I couldn’t go.” “Me neither.” He felt a bit guilty about that. At least Shelley-Anne had the excuse of being interstate.

“And John and Marty?”

“They’re not married yet.”

She laughed and pushed his head with the palm of her hand. “Doofus,” she said.

He smiled. “John’s working at a bookstore in the city.”

“Cool,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore.”

“He hates it. He says it’s depressing having to watch people buying crap books all day while the good ones get sent straight back to the factory.”

She paused, then said; “Books are made in a factory?”

Daniel thought. “I may have changed that bit.”

“And Marty?”

“I dunno.” Daniel admitted. “He and John had a fight about something. I think maybe he moved away.”

They were silent, the obligatory catch-up work done.

“And how are you?” she asked, her eyes meeting his properly now for the first time.

He looked away. He hated that question. Who really wanted to know? That wasn’t fair, though. Shelley-Anne was one of the few people who asked people how they were, and did want an answer. But Daniel didn’t know if he could lie and meet her eye.

“I’m fine,” he said, across the table.

“Uh-huh,” she said. “So how are you?”

He chuckled. “I am fine,” he said. “Really. Just the usual late twenties malaise…”

“Oh, okay. I heard that was going around.”

“It’s all in Buffy season six.”

“I see. I’ll have to rewatch it.”

“Make sure you do.”

She grabbed hold of his chin and forced him to face her.
“You know I’ll always love you Danny.”

His mind lost its grip on whatever he’d been about to say and did a couple of abrupt acrobatic manoeuvres before righting itself again. He hadn’t known how much he’d wanted to hear that. “I’ll always love you, too,” he said, his voice cracking slightly. He cleared his throat and looked away again.

Why did I let you go? he thought. All the old feelings, that he thought he’d gotten over when he was with Marisa, suddenly came flooding back, bubbling to the surface like they’d never gone away, and although a part of him knew that it was probably just the alcohol and the emotion of seeing her again, and the loneliness of being in a city far from home surrounded by strangers at a conference, another part of him whispered that this was the only thing real he’d felt since the day he’d let her walk away.

He forced himself to look up into her eyes, and he opened his mouth to speak, then suddenly they were kissing and the rest of the nightclub, the rest of the universe was gone.

#

When he awoke the next morning he found her outside, on the veranda of her two storey flat, which looked out across the city. He kissed her on the forehead, once, then sat down beside her, on the round, metal chair that matched hers, and lit a cigarette. He offered her the pack and she shook her head.

“Sleep well?” she asked.

He smiled. “Best I’ve slept in a long time,” he said, and he meant it.

Shelley-Anne took a long breath and let it out across the balcony.

He suddenly felt uncomfortable. “You’re gonna tell me you’re seeing someone, aren’t you?” he said.

She looked at him, her expression serious. Oh fuck. I was right, he thought. Then she looked away again.

“Daniel,” she began, then stopped. “We shouldn’t have…” She leant back and stared at the ceiling. “What we had… we can’t go back to that.”

He’d expected this reaction, and had an answer prepared. “It’s not going back,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “We’re both different people now. We won’t make the same mistakes.” He willed her to see how right it was. “Maybe we needed to be without each other to realise how much we belong…”

“We don’t belong…” she said quietly.

“Shelley,” he said, taking her hand in his. She looked down into his face again. “I’ve been confused my whole life. Everyone out there”, he waved an arm across the city, “feels like an alien to me. I feel like I’m walking among machines. You’re the only place I’ve ever belonged, the only person who ever made sense to me…”

“Daniel…”

“Shelley.” He fixed her with his gaze, until her eyeballs stopped darting from side to side and met his own. “What…” he paused, choosing his word carefully. “I don’t know, anymore. What we went through. When we were kids. Whether it was real or not.”

She opened her mouth to protest but he cut her off.

“I’ve replayed things in my mind, and told myself it was just crap, and told myself it was all true, and gone around in circles until I couldn’t remember which I’d started out with. Whether what I picture when I look back is a memory or the visions I created by telling the story. And it wasn’t until you left that I realised that it doesn’t matter.”

She frowned, confused.

“What you said, that night at the quarry.” He paused and she nodded. “About us being special. It was true. Whether it happened or not… it made us feel special. So whenever we watched one of our friends sell out, throw in their dreams and become an accountant, or quit writing novels and start pushing out kids, we knew we were different. And it didn’t matter whether that knowing came from something that was real or something that wasn’t. Because if you feel something enough you make it real. We became special because we believed we were. That’s what kept us from becoming just like everybody else. And it’s why we need each other, Shelley. Because we’ll never be the same as anyone else.”

Shelley-Anne bit her lip and looked at him for a long moment. Then she shook her head. “You’re wrong,” she said.

He began to reply but it was her turn not to listen.

“What if it did happen?” she asked. “What if everything we believed when we were kids, and yeah, everything a part of us still believes was true did happen?”

He didn’t answer, unsure where she was going.

She spread her arms. “They didn’t come back,” she said simply. “You say that believing it happened made us feel special. But were we special? Whatever they needed us for, whatever we were supposed to do… it didn’t happen! The eggs never hatched, the grateful aliens never came back to thank us. For all we know they were all killed and we’ve spent the last twenty years believing we were something special because we were holding the fossilised relics of a dead race.” She shook her head. “How fucking arrogant is that?”

Daniel tried to take in what she was saying, but couldn’t.

“Have you noticed anything,” she continued, quieter now, “about all of the stupid people who aren’t as special as us? I’ll give you a small clue. Daniel, they’re happy. Look at you,” she indicated him and he suddenly became aware of his unshaven face, his paunch and his wine-breath, “and look at me,” she motioned to herself, and for the first time he saw the lines around her eyes, the sunken thinness that he’d mistaken for healthy loss of weight. “Remember all the big plans we had? What have we done with the last ten years of our lives?”

Daniel put out his cigarette and tried to come up with an argument against her. “I love you,” was all he could come up with.

“And I love you too,” she said, the saddest I-love-you he’d ever heard. “But if being with each other makes us feel special, then I don’t want to be with you.” She removed her hand from his and stood up. “We’re not special, Daniel. We’re what gets left behind. While the world moves on. We’re debris.”

Daniel didn’t say anything else, just stared down at his feet. He didn’t look up until she was gone.

#

He let himself out of her flat, and went back to his hotel. Then he left again, and walked down random streets for half an hour, not thinking, not taking in his surroundings, just waiting for the lump in his throat to ease itself away.

Eventually, he came to a river, wide and still, winding under a bridge and around a bend out of sight. On the bank, geese were waddling noisily towards couples tossing bread. Small kids were skimming stones, and pulling warm hats down on their heads as the wind whipped past.

Daniel reached into his pocket and felt the cool smoothness of the stone. How many years now had he carried it with him? How many memories, how much of himself, was encapsulated within?

Before he could change his mind, he drew back his arm and tossed it, as far as he could, into the water. Then, not giving himself any time to take in what it was he’d done, he turned around and started walking, back toward the hotel.

He didn’t know whether it was the right thing to do. Didn’t know if it made any difference.

Above him, a plane was writing advertising slogans in the clear sky. He lit a cigarette and took a deep breath. Behind him, he could hear the kids on the riverbank, shouting excitedly at one another.

He kept walking. He didn’t look back.

The End