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Under the Microscope



Katie Huggins 

In final year of double degree of Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing), and history. Is a member of the Yorkshire Writing Squad, UK, and was 2015 president of the University of Wollongong Literary Society (LitSoc). Published in PUSH magazine, the LitSoc Zine and the Writing Junction. Audience favourite and 3rd place Judge’s Choice for the Wildcard round of the Short and Sweet Play festival, Sydney, 2016. Writing influences include John Connolly, Earnest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou.

There were empty UDL cans on the lawn. Bottles of beer with the last mouthful, gathered on the back steps, left for the morning clean up. There was vomit and piss in the bushes and the smell of burning in the air. A banner was peeling from its glue in the hot January wind, starting to curl at one corner. In hand drawn letters it said:

Help Save Ellie!
            Inside the house, in Josh’s room the only wall decoration was a Kings of Leon poster, from when Your Sex is On Fire was popular and just before it wasn’t anymore. Louise focused on it a lot, after they finished. She would lay in her underwear, her skin sleek on the blue or brown sheets, trying to imitate the idea of a woman sedated and not the awkwardness she felt stiffening her limbs. Josh would be looking for clean sweatpants and changing tracks, always not looking at her but not excluding her. He lit a fresh rolled joint and passed it off when he had his pull.
            “I lost my virginity to a Katy Perry song,” Josh said. “I can’t listen to her music anymore.”
            Josh found a techno heavy song he was satisfied with and flopped down beside Louise. He upset the scrunched sheet at their feet that fell off into the dim abyss of the bedroom floor. Josh’s mum had shift work, and Josh’s music competed with his little sister’s across the other side of the house. The party was long over, rolled up and away and they were the only ones left. An empty house shared between the three of them. Louise wasn’t sure if Josh’s sister knew that Louise was there, lying next to her brother, smoking joints and listening to terrible music in the gloom of a laptop screen and a lamp light. Josh had both windows open and the ceiling fan circled the seedy heat of their home city, laced with the weed.
            “My dad has a gun collection,” Louise said. “In senior year I thought a lot about taking one to school.”
             Josh got up and poured her more vodka and hot orange juice. Louise almost said, “I’m joking”, but felt the point was moot.
              “Do you ever think about what you would do if you stayed here, full time?” Josh said.
              “Dust off that gun?”
              Josh’s phone went off beside them. While he answered Louise got up and put her shirt back on.

It stuck to her back.
              Josh talked low while Louise went to pee. She didn’t turn on the light, and could see herself in a filter of shadow and half-life, and saw how thin her face looked. The pot made her want to laugh but her tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth. Josh was off the phone when Louise got back.
              “Good news?” Louise said.
               Josh stubbed out the joint. “Just about the party.” Josh’s hand stilled for a fraction of a second too long, before he coughed and got up.
               Josh looked more or less like he had four years ago in high school. Back when they sat side-by-side in Religion class. While their teacher talked about hellfire Louise imagined Josh sliding his hand up her knee and past the hemline of her skirt.
           “She was here?” Louise said.
           Louise had to stop herself from looking out of Josh’s window and seeing the mess of his backyard. It was almost three in the morning. Louise had arrived when everyone else had left, she felt as if she was walking through a ghost town as she picked her away through the left behinds.
           “No, it was like a fundraiser,” Josh said. “We don’t have to talk about if you don’t want.”
           “Not like I can avoid knowing anything,” Louise said.
            Louise’s parents had driven her back from university into town last month. She had been dozing in and out of half lucid dreams in the back of the car when she felt the nausea hit. She could hardly crow for them to stop. As Louise was throwing up under the WELCOME sign, she looked up into the smiling billboard of Ellie McAdams’ face.
            In the grounded reality of being half naked in Josh’s bedroom, Louise could feel her skin tightening. “Can you drive me home?” She asked Josh.
            “Yeah, just lemme sober up a bit.”
            Josh chugged water while Louise dressed. When Josh deemed himself sober enough for the fifteen minute drive Louise followed him out of their safety net of his room. In the living room they crossed paths with Josh’s twin brother Rob, who was coming in with Greg and Mike. Louise froze behind Josh. His sister’s music was more audible, it was a Katy Perry song. The battlefields were breached.
            “Hey man,” Rob said. He looked past Josh at Louise, wasted and rumpled and hardly the image of dignity. Her stomach churned.
             “Hey, I’m coming back later,” Josh said. “You up?”
             “Just came back to play Halo,” Rob said. “No one’s out.”
             Mike was looking right at Louise, an almost sneer. He had expanded by almost half since High School, although he still had the same terrible haircut.
             “I’ve really got to go,” Louise said.
              “Later,” Josh said and Rob slapped his back as the others mumbled passing goodbyes.
              Outside in the suffocating heat Louise felt the bitter burn in the back of her throat, but the drugs and alcohol were pumping through her body, singing across the hairs on her skin. The word was on fire and Louise was shivering. She wanted to go home, to stay with Josh in his room with the poster and bad radio, but she hated every inch of the city and every person in it.
               Josh had an old Toyota he kept in shape with a job at the cinema. After Louise had started to hang out with him, Josh snuck her into a few of the summer hits, and they sat side-by-side again. When the movie was bad they kissed and groped like they had reverted back to primitive high schoolers.
                In the dark backrow Josh said, “I want to be an animation director.”
                Louise said, “I want to be a writer.”
               After that Josh pulled out his GoPro and switched it on when they were lolling in fields under the summer moon, drunk and talking shit. Josh filmed Louise trying to re-learn cartwheeling, the tiny robs digging into her soft hands. They filmed while they practiced the classic four-step from gym classes, or Josh spinning around while he tried to finish a beer.
                In the car Josh placed the GoPro on the dashboard and the light went red.
                “You ever turn it on while we fuck?” Louise said.
                “No,” Josh said. “I’d have to tell you first, right?”
                “Doesn’t stop a lot of people.”
                “You ever do nude photos?” Josh said.
                “Would it matter?” Louise said. “It’s a body. Not a particularly good one.”
                “You’re a lot skinner,” Josh said. “Than from school.”
               “I’m on a model diet. Vodka and weed. Lettuce, when I’m feeling faint.”
               Josh pulled out of the driveway, and at the corner realised he forgot to put the headlights on. The streets at almost four in the morning were serene, like driving through a pop-up book. It was the only time that Louise could tolerate the city. That and when in winter you could smell the wood smoke all night. Louise lent her forehead against the window and watched the houses come and go, looming in between the circle of street lights. Every old house looked accusing.
               “You ever like it here?” Louise said.
               “Mm. Maybe, when I was a kid? S’not so bad.”
              Josh swerved the car into the empty lane and straightened again. Louise looked into the barrel of the lens and wondered what was worse: dying here or dying at all. At the next stop light there was another Ellie McAdam’s poster. The sign implored for donations to the Miracle Mother, featured on talk shows and in Women’s Day. She looked the part of virginal Mother Mary in her white dress, holding the swell of her stomach. Ellie had a healthy glow to her cheeks.
               “If she’s dying,” Louise said, “shouldn’t she look, you know, dying?”
               “She doesn’t look like those posters. She looks like a legit cancer patient. Lots of skin and bone.”
                Louise pinched the flesh on her thighs. She looked guiltily at the camera and wondered

if it had seen that too.
               The GoPro was on when Josh took Louise to the skate park where they had first met up when

Louise had come back.
                Louise was working nine hour days and at night she opened tequila she hid in her drawer, and took large gulps. After two weeks Louise snuck out her window purely out of nostalgia. She only felt foolish, being twenty-one and climbing out of windows, for all of five seconds. Being in her old bedroom made her feel seventeen and hot headed again. She could feel the familiar crushing weight on her chest. Louise didn’t have a car, and walking the streets at night was a guarantee for trouble. She took the walk into town, but turned left to walk alongside the river. The sky was cloudless, and there was a promise of some rain relief in the coming days. Before Louise got to the bridge there was an electronic sign, asking for prayers for Ellie McAdams. Louise checked for cars, saw the empty stretch of abandoned buildings and a closed gas station.  Before Louise could talk herself out of it, she dropped her pants and squatted at the foot of the sign.
              With the GoPro Louise sat at the top of a run and filmed Josh practicing some basic tricks. He was rusty and the skateboard was splintering in the belly. Each time he landed off it made a sharp gasping sound.  Louise didn’t laugh, but she wished she was high or drunk, or just excited to be sitting in the dark watching Josh.
            “I gave a blowjob over there by the hill,” Louise said in between Josh’s runs.
            Josh looked towards the hill with interest.
           “There’s a lot of bindies and ants,” Louise said.
           Josh lent up to get the GoPro and Louise lent down to kiss him, thinking about his bedroom and potential pot. Cars pulled up alongside the street, in the no parking zones enforced during the day. Josh turned the camera back on and Louise got up, dusting her hands off on her sticky thighs. Out of the car was Greg with Roman and Stevie tailing him like bad ideas of 1950s cronies. Stevie was small and unsteady on skateboards, but tagged along when he could because he had the car. To Louise he remaindered her of a vulture, circling and waiting for when the big beasts had done their work. She pulled down the hem of her skirt, although it wouldn’t go any lower.
              Roman, and his perpetual look of wonder under shaggy hair, said, “hey,” and there was no malice. Louise raised a half-hand salute.
              Greg and Stevie’s eyes raked over Louise and she thought again of the ants on the hill.
              “Where’re you heading,” Josh said.
              “You hanging out?” Stevie said.
              Greg snorted and took Roman’s skateboard in hand and pushed off on his own, taunting the taller boy to chase him. Stevie circled Josh and followed the others, trying to blend into their lives.
            “They’re gonna call Jack,” Louise said.
            “Why’d they do that?” Josh said.
            “Are you fucking kidding me?”
            Louise knocked over the GoPro but didn’t stop to make sure it was OK. Josh caught up with her at his car and the GoPro was off and motionless on the backseat.
            “Do you still talk to Jack?” Louise said.
            “Sure, when I see him.”
            “I see him at the parties.” At the stop light Josh said, “What? He’s with Ellie now, not like I’m not going to see him there.” He went quiet then.

In the car Louise said, “Did you talk to Jack tonight?”
            Josh looked at the GoPro when he spoke. “For a bit.”
            Louise wanted to pick up the GoPro and use it as her eyes to look at him, to make him see and pay attention. “What’re they like together, fucking Mary and Joseph of the Cancer Patients.”
            “He’s keeping the baby,” Josh said. “Ellie’s probably going to die though.”
            “Is that supposed to make me feel guilty?”
            “I dunno, feel however you want.”
            “Why would you say this shit? What reaction were you looking for?”
            Josh tapped the wheel to some beat in his mind. “You dated for two years, she was your best friend. Now they’re having a fucking kid and she’s dying. You’re not like angry or sad or something.”
            “Fuck off, Dr Phil.”
            “Jesus, that’s gotta be one of your lamest comebacks.”
            “Why are you asking any of this now?”
            “I’m curious,” Josh said.
            “What about you?” Louise said. “You feel guilty about us hanging out?”
            “I didn’t ask if you felt anything about us,” Josh said. “I meant you and Jack and Ellie.”
            “So you don’t think I should feel bad about fucking my ex-boyfriend and best friend’s friend, just that I still hate them even though she’s dying?”
            “So you do hate them.”
            “She asked me,” Josh said. “Ellie asked me about you. I guess someone told her about us hanging out.”
            “Yeah, probably Greg.”
            Josh missed the turn and swore loudly, heaving his weight into making an illegal U-turn.
            “What’s Ellie want to even know?” Louise said. “Not like I have anything to do with this fucking place.”
             “What even happened?”
             Louise would have said “why would you even need to know?” She would have said, “I already know Jack said it was all my fault, anyway.”
            “Jack lies, a fuck ton,” Louise said.
            Josh is silent.
            “He cheated on me, OK?” Louise said. “And I’m assuming Ellie doesn’t know that. I guess don’t tell her. Can’t ruin their perfect Holy-sham.”
             “I don’t get what happened,” Josh said. “You and Ellie were fine before that, and then not.”
            Louise didn’t say anything. They were passing out of the suburbs and coming into the darkness of the town’s main centre, driving along streets of black window fronts. A cat skittered out onto the road and darted under a loan parked car. When they drew level Louise could see a man sleeping inside.

Josh asked if Louise had seen the new Nicolas Spark’s movie and Louise made a gagging face.
            “Ok,” Josh said, like Louise had passed some kind of test. “I can sneak you into the latest Hobbit.

Just wait a sec.”
            Louise stood in the air-con movie theatre lobby. It had heavy red carpet and dark coloured walls. A flat screen on the wall played a trailer for some terrible action film. The whole placed smelt like the inside of an unwashed popcorn machine. Josh came back from behind the velvet rope that separated the lobby from the theatre rooms. He motioned for Louise to follow and they both looked to see if the manager was still hauled up in the backroom of the confectionary bar.
            Louise sat by herself for the almost three hours. In the same movie theatre she had watched a latest superhero film with Jack, while back on a uni-break. They had held hands and Jack whispered in her ear, his lips close to the flesh, his voice too loud for the proximity. They couldn’t go back to Jack’s house because his mother was a bitch and hated Louise. They stayed through the credits and kissed, their lips cold from the air-con.
          Josh found Louise still sitting after the credits rolled. “You like it?”
          “It was pretty slow paced,” Louise said. “Nothing ever seems to happen until you accelerate at the end.”
            “If you weren’t happy,” Josh said. “I can get you into another tomorrow? My shift ends at one.”

Josh hit the acceleration when they were past the second roundabout and the skate park was out of sight. Louise thought of turning the GoPro off but her whole body felt heavy in her seat. Louise could have told Josh the whole story. The way that she had wrapped the pregnancy test in a plastic bag to give it to Ellie. Ellie’s face had been rounder then, her thighs bigger, no defined lines of her hips. She wore makeup that was a shade too dark.
            “Does it work?” Ellie whispered.
            “It better,” Louise said. “It cost me thirteen dollars.”
            That test had been negative, and the ones that Louise would buy for her later. The boyfriends between Ellie’s thighs who whispered she would ‘be ok’.
            Something hit against the back of Louise’s heel. She leant down to pick up a steel change box.
           “You collecting change for the Boy Scout’s?” Louise said.
           Josh looked over. “That’s for the fund for Ellie.”
           He didn’t apologise for saying her name again. Louise turned to throw the box onto the backseat with the basketball and splintering skateboard. There was a woman’s salmon pink coat folded up on the seat, as if its owner was saving their place.
           “You’re really stubborn,” Josh said.
           “I’m over pretending to give a fuck.”
           Josh was probably going to say something profound about death and forgiveness, but the car came out from under Josh’s grip and the car and the pole came together like the touch of lovers’ lips.

When Louise realised she was alive she started to cry. It was like coming full circle in life and hitting replay. The door came open. Louise struggled with her seatbelt and her hands felt out of her control. She wrestled with the clasp and fell to her knees in the dirt. The front of the car was smoking and Josh’s head was resting on the steering wheel.
            It took two tries for Louise to get to her feet. She followed the destruction of the car, from Josh’s dark head of hair, past the cracked windshield and the crumpled hood, up the pole, now marked with colourful slashes of Josh’s car; and up and up the pole into the smiling face of Ellie McAdams. The Miracle Mother held her swollen belly with its piece of Jack swallowed down into its depths. Her face was the image of a martyr. One who couldn’t even keep their mouth shut about other people’s secrets.
            “Oh fuck off,” Louise said, and realised then that she wasn’t crying anymore.
            Louise reached back into the car to get her bag and saw, on the backseat, the metal cashbox next to the folded coat. The Go Pro’s light blinked red, on and off, on and off.

Josh’s stitches got taken out early, he healed faster than the doctor expected. He had a Frankenstein scar on his head for a good week or two but it faded away with the last of the summer heat. Jack came by to see him after Ellie died. The baby was at her parents’ house and they were filing for full custody.
            “There was supposed to be that cashbox money, from Ellie’s party,” Jack said. “I was thinking I could use some of it for the lawyer.”
            Josh had taken down his King’s of Leon poster. It lay, half torn, by his small trashcan.
            “I don’t know what to tell you, man,” Josh said. “I guess Rob put it someplace without saying anything.”
            The GoPro was resting on the windowsill, trained on Josh’s bed and the desk chair that Jack sat on, watching them without blinking.


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