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Nineteen Seconds

By Russell Boey

Dominion Day Carnival, 25 September 1907, by Fred Brockett. Purchased 1957. Te Papa (B.027793)
© Dominion Day Carnival, 25 September 1907, by Fred Brockett. Purchased 1957. Te Papa (B.027793)


Clear.

Sometimes I have this nightmare that I can breathe underwater. I don’t realise immediately. I hold my breath as the cold gnaws and I kick down. Below me his ankle circles in languid orbit, brushing on tangleweed. Deeper. Breath disappears with the last beams of light, but I don’t stop; God knows I don’t stop.

When I am certain that I will die, when I am sure that his sallow ankle will drift out of sight, I inhale a great gulp of water. It tastes of roast potatoes and carnival hot dogs. And I am still breathing.

I go deeper. I swallow the nauseating water and I keep kicking, even though my legs ache under the pressure. When the sunlight is crushed, my eyes glow with the anglerfish phosphorescence my brother and I once saw on TV2, and I can see his ankle still spiralling, spiralling, sinking. In waters this deep there are monsters: the ghost fish, the grasping anemones, the lethargic arms of krakens and the slitted eyes of serpents. The monsters drift about his ankle; they brush it with filth and slime, but I swat them away, and God knows I don’t stop. By now the pressure has compressed my feet into flat paddles. If I look back, I can see where the bone has shattered, and if I don’t focus on his ankle, the agony of each kick will make me pass out.

I try to imagine that I am a merman, growing a flimsy, fleshy tail. My brother used to like this show about mermaids. Maybe he found them pretty. He’d watch anything about the sea, any documentaries we could catch on the bulky TV which hung above his bed – The Silent World or Attenborough and Animals so that if the day came when he metamorphosised out of his hated body, he would know all the dangers.

Once, beneath the dingy yellow light that flickered every nineteen seconds, we caught Creature from the Black Lagoon. Attenborough didn’t narrate it. Horror was out of his field, but not ours.

This nightmare does not end. As I go deeper the ocean eats more of me, flattening me until I am no longer a merman but a great long eel, thrashing about in the wide cosmos, and still I cannot grab his bony ankle.

I like to think that I might, if I could only sleep a moment longer, just another-


Clear.

Sometimes I have his dreams, like the one he came up with on the Waterfall Track thirty years ago. We’d driven up to Hanmer Springs on a family trip. We’d listened to Bon Jovi belt Living on a Prayer on the radio and he’d sung until he’d run out of breath.

He told me later, beneath the nineteen-second yellow light, that when we turned into those secret forests, he thought that he’d seen a dryad. He said he’d seen her flitting across the treetops, sometimes as a kingfisher, sometimes a fantail, sometimes a wrinkled face etched into a great bough. He said that when he’d gone off the trail into the leaves where things and people were lost and never found, he’d thought she was singing to him, in the birdcall and the distant trickle of water. At the steep stairs that preceded the waterfall, while I’d caught my breath on the railing, he’d looked up at the canopy dripping with sunlight and seen Middle-earth seventeen years before Peter Jackson had found it. A shame he’d never put his dreams to the screen.

When we reached the waterfall, with Mum still panting up behind us, he stared into the shimmering surface. I would grow used to his dreaming look in time, yellow light flooding the valleys of his eyes. But back then it was something new and special, and in that sacred place, the ghost of a dryad lingering in the thick stream of water, he seemed his own fantastical creature.

We knelt down by the place that the water fell, washed our hands in the pool. Together we scanned the surface, though I didn’t know what I was looking for. When he saw me staring with such focus, he chuckled to himself in his mystic way.

‘You’re the best,’ he said, and I did not reply, because there were no more words then than there ever were or would be.

When Mum caught up, we ate sandwiches by the rocks. After his third bite, I heard him cough.


Clear.

Sometimes I have this nightmare where the moon is falling. It started the day after my brother watched Cosmic Zoom. That night the walls were cold. I sat beside his creaky bed and gripped the tubes instead of his hand. When the screen panned out into the dark, the only light we could see was from the filthy bulb flickering every nineteen seconds.

In that nightmare I have sometimes we are at the carnival, the one which came in the autumn of ’86. Cold. The moon is pregnant with ghosts. Stalls spread like some great tumour across the grass, spreading colour and crappy clownish music and the faint sound of forgotten laughter. He wants to ride the Ferris Wheel at the end of the night, so that he can be closer to the stars. He coughs in his repressed familiar way while we try to throw rings around bottlenecks. It wrecks his throw and his lungs. He does not win any prizes nor any miracles.

I take his hand and lead him through the long grass. Beneath the apple tree there are barrels where we can buy the privilege of sharing saliva with throngs of septic children. I have to tell him no; I can’t risk him getting any sicker.

At that moment, while he is looking at me with his doe eyes, the moon starts to fall. It streaks through the atmosphere in about four seconds, and then its pockmarked face is bearing down over us, and the Ferris Wheel collapses beneath its craters. Then it is just us, no more apple trees or children, no more cancerous stalls, just us and a long field of grass. I take his hand and start running. By then the moon is near; its light bathes him in a halo. When he screams, it is with the rusty voice of the dead: ‘Wait!
He is slow; he has weak lungs. But God knows that I won’t drop him, even if the moon will crush us both. This time, when the world breaks, both of ours will break together; all those old oceans with their monsters, all the deep stars in their taunting wild free orbits; I will not let him go alone, I will-


Clear.

Sometimes I dream of the third of September in 1988, when I entered my brother’s room for the first time in two months. I fluff the pillows and beat the dust off the seashells on his duvet cover. I cover my mouth when I cough.

I peel the glow in the dark constellations off the walls. The glue leaves scars in the shape of Orion. They have no more light in them when they fall, not even a flicker of yellow.

I leave the stars in a burial mound. I take Dune from his shelf and stow it into one of the cardboard boxes Mum deposited inside before she left with one hand wiping her face. I do not read the card I wrote to go with it two Christmases ago. It would have made me cry. Nor do I remove the get-well-soon cards from the shelf, collected over the course of three years. I pluck the vinyl figures of Batman and Robin from the windowsill and stuff them into the boxes, as if hiding all reminders will make them disappear completely.

In that dream, when I stack his clothes into the boxes and shuffle them to the side, the wardrobe opens to a fantasy, like in that book with the witch and a wonderful lie about coming back from the dead. He picks up the toys that lie scattered in the closet – the dog with one worn-out watching eye, the astronaut painted over with bright neon colours, the squid with its stupid smiling face – and he is smiling, and he is whole, not a carcass with a needle in his arm, wasting beneath the heat of a yellow light. It is five years ago again. He is swinging a toy lightsabre in careless arcs around my face. God, that laugh; high pitched, pre-pubescent, whispers of a dryad or a distant bird, uninterrupted by fits of wracking coughs.

How did I used to find it so maddening?

In that dream, I play with him until nightfall. I listen to him talk about the useless facts he picked up from the TV in the living room. I do not tell him that I need to study maths. I do not lock the door to my room. I hum Darth Vader’s theme and make the firecracker sounds whenever the plastic blades clash. I cherish the sound of his breathless laughter as we dance around the room, luminous long after sunset.

In that dream, when the light is low and we are alone, lit by false skies, there is a stillness. I would wait there forever if I could, in that dark and fragile island.

‘What are you thinking?’ he asks.

I am thinking of wishes cast to the plastic constellations. I am thinking of a trip to Lake Tekapo, of the glow in his eyes as he peered into the misty water. I am thinking of a weak moment when, after Mum screamed at me for bringing him out to a carnival while he lay silent and paralysed beneath the yellow light, I hated him. But when I turn to confess, he is gone.

In that dream, I leave the closet behind. I close the door and let the cardboard spacesuit rot away in dust and the dryness. I step up onto his bed and pull the dusty duvet up over my head. I coil into a small and meaningless thing, the sort that he would have paid no attention to. Only then do I cry.


Clear.

Most often in my nightmares I’m being chased by a dog. It runs me out of the hospital at the corner of Riccarton Avenue. I was there last in 1988, at 10:45pm. I take off past the coffee shop towards the Avon, but the roads are empty, and their signposts only read the years. Streetlamps guide me towards the river. The dog behind me pants as it grows nearer, relentless sound of a running corpse, its eyes burning through the soft streetlights.

Every nineteen seconds the lights flicker, and in that moment of darkness there is a shift. The sign which should read Antigua Street reads 1992. I hide on a plane to escape, but the dog’s laboured pants still draw nearer. The runway lights flicker.

1994. The dog stalks at the back of the nightclubs; it watches me each time I stumble on my words or trip on my own feet.The beat pounds every noise from my head except for the dog’s growls. While I’m drinking my way through another conversation the dance lights flicker.

1996. Graduate.This timeit’s science, other times medicine, other times fine arts; it doesn’t matter. I hurl my mortarboard backwards like a frisbee, but it doesn’t distract the dog; nothing distracts the dog. Get a job. Sometimes its at an office, sometimes at a bank, sometimes at McDonalds. Outside, the golden arches flicker.

2005. Come back home, back to the cemetery on Avonhead.The dog’s fur is black so that it can blend in with the mourners. We layMum into the ground and I don’t cry. The grave dirt is hurled on, and some familiar choir of birds or children or cruel and thoughtless angels play the dirge. Once the faceless black forms depart, I turn to the two headstones in front of me. I have forgotten to bring flowers. There is an apple tree above, and it reminds me of a carnival from thirty years ago.

Only then does the dog leap at me, knocking me to the ground. Claws dig through my coat and draw blood, as his hands once did when he gripped my arm too hard during Nosferatu. It pins me to the ground beneath its weight, and I lie there between the graves of my brother and my mother. The dog is no longer in black fur, but a hospital gown, and its face is the thin gaunt face of a boy, flecked with spit and blood. He digs his nails into me, drags them over my skin, but I cannot scream. ‘Say something!’ he demands, pathetic voice choked by phlegm and bile and blood. ‘Say something!’

And I try, God knows I try, but there are no more words then than there ever were, and no more lights to flicker and save me, nothing but the dim glow of his fading dreaming eyes.


Clear.

This is what remains when I am not dreaming. White walls smudged with streaks of dirt. The head-in-hands position of mourning. The chair outside his room which has two loose screws and which groans when I rock, hands locked between my knees. Mum’s hand on mine, two pairs of eyes on the flimsy door ahead. The peals of the clock above his room. 10:38. Three more minutes.

Three more minutes. Perhaps that is all I have. Perhaps I am in the same room as he was thirty years ago, beneath the same yellow light, jolted by the same metal pads, dreams and memories returned and stolen by the same shock of lightning.

‘Come on,’ Mum says. Her voice aches.

When I stop dreaming, I see him as he was, not a merman or an astronaut or a dog. I see him in the flimsy bed. I see his gaunt face lit by the crackle of the nineteen-second lightbulb. I see his eyes on the boxy TV above his head, still dreaming of all the magic he used to see, trying to squeeze infinities into the three years the doctors offered him. When I see him that way, I cannot bring myself to look again. I shake my head.

Mum is too tired to glare at me. Her concern is spent elsewhere. ‘You’ll regret not saying goodbye.’

But there are no more words – no words sufficient in all the gaping skies and devouring seas. I shake my head again.

Stupid hopeless fool.

She goes in alone. She hides the view inside with her wracked frame. When she closes the door, I sit and rock on the squeaky chair and watch the clock toll towards 10:41. Outside I imagine the bottomless oceans that accept all that is, all those dead things trapped beneath, all those memories frozen in the dark.


Clear.

Then there is a room, and a clock at 10:40, and a squeaky chair, and nothing else. And maybe the ticking is not the clock but my own heart, high on lightning, now strong enough to step inside. The hospital peels away, the dirty white walls, the chair, and there is only me and this room, claustrophobic and dim and urgent.

The lightbulb keeps time. He lies in his gown with his dreaming eyes locked on the ceiling. The TV is off. Flicker. I sit down by his side and I do not look away from the ghostly face or lock my eyes on the TV’s fantasies. His hand is still warm. Flicker. What does that give me? Twenty seconds? I have thought of goodbyes for thirty years. They are my fantasies. They are the dreams that I painted on the sanitised roof with my eyes, stars on the cold ceiling.

He would have killed for twenty seconds. Ten. Somehow, it will be enough.

‘See you soon.’

Maybe those are all the words that ever were.

At the ending, when the doctor’s gloves come off, when the shocks can no longer restore my dying heart, when the brain has tired itself out in a final burst of neurons – then all peels away, like septic skin, like a last cough in a cold room, like the final flicker of yellow.


Clear.

About Russell Boey

Russell Boey wrote Nineteen Seconds for his English 344 paper at the University of Auckland; it went on to win the under 25 category for the 2020 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition. His favourite genres are weird fiction and cosmic horror, which is the main reason that he decided to study astronomy. He has been writing since he was twelve, and while his dream is to write a novel about incomprehensible beings from beyond the stars, he figures that learning about them is the best thing to do while he works on it.