Tuesday, November 1, 2022

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

        I hate you, I mentally transmit as I step across the threshold and through the great maw of House. 

Past the entrance is a reception area with softly playing muzak that agitates my senses.  This is House’s first attempt to lull me into security, but I won’t waver.  For as long as I must be here, I’ll remain observant, attentive and vigilant.  A small waiting area contains comfortable chairs and a large mural depicting a school of rainbow trout.  Their iridescent scales are striking, they are commonly eaten as food.  I approach a scowling receptionist and ask directions.  She hears me but does not look up from her work.

‘Ward Five.’ she says.

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

Drilling my hands into my pockets I proceed down a hallway festooned with directional signage punctuated by obligatory art.  More fish.  I breeze past the hard-working people who prop up House.  Each one is dressed in their appropriate costume, no doubt hard won by years of school.  Matching aqua shirts and pants made from harsh fabric and the occasional white coat.  I imagine what it must be like to casualise this place – to work here every day.  To exist inside this gently undulating organism which dispenses life and death in equal measure.

My thoughts bring me to the dead possum I’d found the other week.  The awful drama of death played out on my front lawn.  I recall with shame how I’d averted my eyes from his pristine corpse.  It was a truth I was still reluctant to accept.  Our bodies fail, and when they do, they end up here, populating the veins and arteries of this House.  Each day, the costumed workers perform their tasks.  Halfway between a butcher shop and a body shop, they punch a clock at the nexus of fate, time and magic.  I hate them and admire them at the same time.

I stare at my shoes as I walk.  They are too tight and they squeak in a manner that annoys me.  Sometimes I think about throwing them into a river, but ultimately, I don’t.  I’d only have to buy new ones, which is always a gamble.  I hate to gamble.   Proceeding as instructed, I walk through a pair of automatic doors that bolt open as I approach.  Discreetly, I steal glances at the rooms that branch off from the hallway and catch sight of sleeping people encased in rough-hewn blankets.  Some of them sit upright in their beds and eat sandwiches, the kind that come in triangular plastic containers.

I take note of words not used in daily vernacular, at least not in the circles I’d come to frequent.  Radiology.  Oncology.  These uncommon words frighten me and conjure vivid images of sickness and prolonged suffering.

Nice try, I tell House.  You can’t scare me with your ten-dollar words.

I am here to see my friend Petrov who’s undergone surgery to remove his gallbladder.  Poor Petrov.  His short stay inside House had punctured his uneventful life.  Now, he’d been moved to a different ward.  As his friend, I was here to visit with him during his convalescence because that’s what decent people do (or so I’m told).  I don’t enjoy my visits with Petrov here.  They’re stilted and different from the usual way we are together.  We talk for about half an hour each time.  Post operative, he sits there in his hospital gown and his underwear, graciously accepting my halting conversation and pretending to like the magazine I’ve brought him.  I don’t know what a gallbladder is exactly, but I find the very idea of it disgusting.  Sedated and alone, Petrov had been taken into a sterile room where he’d been opened with a blade, his innards exposed and adjusted like obscene watch repair.

At fifty-one years of age, the prospect of having to endure such a procedure is fearful inducement to remain healthy.  I do not smoke or drink, take regular exercise and avoid unnecessary sugars.  Such measures are by no means a guarantee of health, and no insurance against injury or accident, but I savour the illusion of superiority.  As though I can permit myself a certain modicum of aggrievement should genetics or fate suddenly serve up cancer or a surprise stomach ulcer.  Despite efforts to conserve my body (begun in earnest in my early twenties), I am tired in a way only a man of my age could be.  Day by day, I perceive my body gradually slowing down, succumbing to the twin bitches of gravity and time.

Further into House, more automatic doors reveal more fearful words against beige and pastel-coloured walls.  The liminal nature of this place stirs the slowly churning anxiety that’s brewing in my belly.  This is how old people exit the world, quickly replaced with newer, fresher versions that assume their place.  Admittedly, death is not always the outcome of an internment here – undisputed marvels of modernity had shrunk mortal injuries into routine outpatient procedures.  One could visit and leave many times during a lifetime – until one didn’t.   My own parents had endured the same process, one followed closely by the other.  No matter how beneficent it seems, the House always wins.  Sooner or later, it summons and digests us all.

I’ll die by the side of the road before I let you take me, I curse under my breath.

Still seeking Petrov, I pass beds containing small bodies, most of them ancient, looking so reduced, cocooned in blankets atop adjustable beds.  Men and women in their seventies, eighties and nineties, the scaffolding of themselves incrementally collapsing under the combined stresses of a life well lived, or at least, well played. 

It’s at this moment, in my periphery, that I see a face I thought impossible.  A face so familiar, I freeze.  Not caring that I am obstructing the doorway to an old man’s room, I gawk at him, slack jawed and disbelieving.  He is much older than I remember, but I do remember.  Vividly and with frequency, his countenance visits me in daydreams when I am low.  When I consider my early childhood a sad and solitary affair, his memory begs to differ.  Every line, every contour and imperfection still present, but distorted, his face affected by the decades like wind upon sand dunes.  It is the face of The Man who was my friend when I had none.  I never thought I would see his like again, let alone here, in the bowels of this creature, being digested himself.


I wait in the kitchen for The Man to arrive like he always does after Mum and Dad leave for work.  Work means they go away in the morning and come home when I am sleeping.  I sit on top of the kitchen table and swing my legs over the edge.  Mum always tells me off when she sees me, but she’s not here to see it.

Nana is in her bedroom, watching her stories.  She tells me not to bother her.  I know she doesn’t care about me, but I don’t mind.  I have my own games I play, and I have The Man.  He lives behind the fridge.  Only I can see him.  He says it’s better that way.  That adults only cause problems.  So I keep him secret. 

‘What do you do all day by yourself?’, Mum would ask sometimes. 

‘Nothing.’ I’d reply. 

I know it’s bad to keep secrets, but if I told them, Mum and Dad would only start yelling.  I hate it when they yell.

The Man is fully grown, and much taller than I am.  He steps out from behind the fridge wearing a black suit and a tie.  He looks very fancy, like he is dressed up special, but he is always that way.  His hair is black and shiny and he always has a cigar.  

‘Not till you’re fifteen.’ he tells me when I ask if I can try it. 

That’s ten years away.  Ten years is forever.  I wonder if I will wear a suit when I’m fifteen?  I don’t know his name, so I just call him The Man.

The Man and I spend our days playing in the house, running through the big corridor being aeroplanes and sometimes trains.  I sit high upon the The Man’s shoulders and pretend that I’m a crane.  I’m never scared when I’m with The Man – I know he’d never let me fall.  Sometimes we are noisy and Nana comes out to yell at me.  I like noises, and I wonder why they’re bad.  It scares me when she yells, but then she stops and I can go back to being an aeroplane.  Nana is very old and her hands are very wrinkly.  Dad says she’s just bitter.

I like The Man more than Dad.  Dad is always tired when I ask him to play.  He comes home late and sits by himself.  I only ever see Dad at night.  I never get a good look at his face, but I think it is sad.  The Man is different.  He is funny and clever and I like to ask him all kinds of questions.  Sometimes the questions are small, other times they are big ones that I think about at night. 

‘What is time?’ I ask The Man. 

‘Nobody really knows.’ he says, ‘But you only get so much of it.’

In the living room, The Man and I do drawings in crayon and colour pencil.  Once I ate six crayons and had to go to the doctor.  I ask The Man what work is.  He says that grown-ups have to go away sometimes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.  The Man goes away every day, back to behind the fridge.  He says goodbye and shakes my hand.  The Man treats me like I am a grown up.

When it’s raining and we can’t go outside The Man and I play board games.  The Man likes to play games with Nana’s cards.  One day, he tells me he’ll teach me a card game that grown-ups play.  I bet my set of coloured pencils, twenty cents and a train from my train set.  The Man warns me not to get greedy. 

‘The house always wins.’ he says.

The man has to go away – but he promises he will see me again, sometime in the future.

‘What is the future?’, I ask.

‘The future’s just like the past, only with the lights on.’

‘Will I be there?’

‘Sure you will, but you won’t recognise yourself.’


He was a physical impossibility, an absurd living artefact of a thing I’d since discarded in the wastebin of my mind.  A makeshift big brother, surrogate father, conjured by the nascent psyche of a lonely child.  No matter.  My feelings were real – still simmering warm and bright through the fog of the many decades that separated that moment and this.

As I stare at him, discreetly enquiring after my own sanity, I attempt to apply reason to the situation.  The Man would have been my age when I was a kid, but this poor soul looked a great deal older.  Even so, the resemblance was uncanny, the same slicked back hair (now white) unperturbed by the rumpled pillow.  I move towards his bed to view his chart.  Coronary artery atherosclerosis – loathsome words so jagged I cannot form them in my mouth.  I check for his name: John Doe.

The Man opens his eyes and sees me, so he extends his hand.  I sit with him, beside his bed, Petrov be damned (he could wait).  I speak to him, but I’m not sure he can hear me.  Nearby, a bouquet of devices makes their presence known with a symphony of rhythmic trilling and beeping.  A nurse appears in the doorway, words of admonishment already in her mouth, but she sees me, holding The Man’s hand and hesitates.  Her eyes soften, and her face marked by overwork is awash with understanding.  Quietly, she floats away and goes about her business.

The Man’s eyes are dull and milky and his hand is spotted and ugly with age and bony with protrusions.  My father looked this way just before he’d left us, his path cut short by drink and a deep, abiding sorrow.  Strange that I should conjure him now, in the presence of this stranger, his ample shadow casting ably from the grave.  As I hold the man, I can feel the embers of his flame growing dull.  I stay with him, determined not to let him to be digested all alone in this charnel house.

I ponder how from a certain perspective, the present time can always be regarded as “the future”.  It is a distant, unwritten shore as far away from us as adulthood is to a child.  I consider this notion as I recall The Man’s promise, now fulfilled, as I soak in the exquisite symmetry of the moment.  Here we both were, together, just like he’d prophesised.  I decide then and there the veracity of his identity is immaterial.  He, or at least the ghost of him, had been there for me when I needed him.  Returning the favour was the least I could do.




Friday, June 3, 2022


I can’t wait to go swimming again” was the first stray thought that popped into my mind as it recrystallised.  I had always possessed the facility to conjure sensory information at will.  In this case, it was the thick, acrid smell of chlorinated air – the signature scent of the suburban swimming pool.  Strange that I would be visited by such a random memory at a time like this.


I struggled to open my eyes, crusty as though from a long slumber and focused on the ugly chunks of vomit I’d expelled seconds earlier.  I’d been warned this was a common side effect.  Freshly expelled, the sight of my own sick soaking into nature strip grass created a kaleidoscope of green and viscous yellow. 

I hoisted my body into a standing position, my legs unstable like a newborn calf.  I winced as my eyes adjusted to the harsh daylight as the tide of random thoughts and memories subsided.  I smiled wanly to myself – reminded of a New Year’s Eve – a million years ago – supine on another nature strip gazing up at the stars after too much booze.  I’d thrown up then, too.

From not far away the distinctive hissing sound of water emanating from a garden hose called my attention.  The hose was attached to an old woman who stared at me in disbelief as she watered her front garden.  From her perspective, it must have been quite a sight – a grown man materialising out of thin air.  She stood statuesque, scrutinising me in her mauve quilted nightie (the kind often favoured by the elderly).

From the position of the sun, I guessed that I’d arrived at mid-morning, no later than eleven am.  The aural landscape contained the sounds of cyclists and passing cars propelled by loud petrol engines.  There was little point in using my phone to check the time – its battery had been drained by the transit (another side effect).  Now it was nothing more than an expensive paperweight that wouldn’t know a fresh charge for a couple of decades at the very least.

Finally arriving at alertness, I needed to verify the success of my journey.  I clumsily fished the device out of my pocket.  Comparable in size to my phone, the grey, matte appliance bore a more utilitarian aesthetic while still possessing a user-friendly interface.  Eriksen had gifted it to me somewhat clandestinely, at great pains to explain its numerous applications both anthropological and medical.  I thumbed through the touch screen menu as the old lady continued to watch.  Settings, software update, cycle mode, itinerary.  I selected the most recent entry.  Transfer complete: subjective date – June sixteenth, nineteen ninety-five.

Wary of my anachronistic technology, I discreetly re-pocketed the device and began casually ambling down the sidewalk of the suburban street I presently found myself. 

I was exactly where I wanted to be, the tangible three-dimensional reality of my destination emerging from nostalgia and distorted childhood memory.  This was the street upon which I had grown up. 

Which is not to say that the street itself didn’t exist in the present day – it did – it just looked radically different.  The meagre red brick houses had been cruelly supplanted by blocks of high-rise apartments that lay vacant and unaffordable. 


Like lightning, the name entered my mind.  It belonged to the old woman I’d seen earlier.  She’d been a mainstay of our neighbourhood, the archetypal toffee dispensing septuagenarian.  I cast a rueful glance back at the old dear – still watering.  She’d died after falling in her shower one night.  The black memory of that day played out in my mind’s eye.  My older brother and little sister were only children at the time.  I hoped she’d forgive me for the mess I’d left on her nature strip.

As I tried to shake the sting of her death, I reminded myself that this type of travel was not unlike walking through a cemetery.  People simultaneously alive and dead, purely dependant on the perspective of the observer. 

Suddenly revealed was not the thing I’d made the journey for, but something just as significant.  A banal structure if ever there was one, yet imbued with awe and terror.  My childhood home, resplendent in grey weatherboard accented with brown and orange awnings.  I could still conjure their high-pitched screeching each time we dragged them down over the windows – thick layers of striped canvas providing respite from Australian summers past.

Through translucent white lace curtains, I could see silhouetted figures moving about inside.  Given the time of day I could reasonably infer that one of them would be my late grandmother, enraptured by daytime TV.  For the briefest of moments, I considered appearing at the front door, just to get a look at her.  I could pose as a door-to-door salesman or someone selling Jesus.  Mum and Dad were most likely at work, my older brother at school and my little sister would be far too young to comprehend.  I dismissed the idea, reminding myself that the memory often cheats.  In her relative prime my grandmother would sooner strike a would-be salesman with her cane before engaging in convivial chatter.

No.  No more indulgences. 

I had to focus on my purpose.  I pressed on, determined to find the person I’d come to see.  I proceeded down the rest of the street – a piece of common suburbia at the outermost edge of the city.  Having admired the old houses, I spared a thought for the deciduous trees whose leaves gently undulated in the breeze.  I wondered how many times they’d each repeated their natural cycle, oblivious to the very passage of my lifetime.

The street came to an abrupt end, giving way to a wild, untamed field of long, dry grass.  Many of the outer suburbs of Melbourne looked this way during the nineties, soon to be overpowered by metropolitan creep.  Though adjacent to houses and schools, these large swathes of undeveloped land were the purview of possums, foxes and other native fauna who enjoyed a parochial existence not a million miles away from the Kmart.

As I stepped off the concrete sidewalk and into the dirt, I could feel the uneven surface through the soles of my shoes.  The melodic birdsong was interrupted by a dog.  A large dog, by the sound of his bark, which grew progressively louder.  I turned to face the source of the sound only to stumble serendipitously upon success.  Right in front of me – rapidly approaching – was the one and only thing I wanted to see.

A boy – riding a bicycle – flanked by a large brown hound who ran excitedly alongside.  No more than ten years old, he was much larger than I’d remembered, with brown wavy hair that fell joyously about his face.  In the midst of an early growth spurt, he rode with reckless abandon, his gangly calves pumping at the pedals as his dog bounded abreast.  Detecting my presence, the canine’s head snapped sharply in my direction and he quickly ran towards me, stick in mouth.

A sinewy hunting dog, his chocolate coat was flecked with small patches of white that caught the sunlight.  Lowering his snout to the ground, he placed the stick at my feet, licked his lips and gazed up at me expectantly.  As I stared into his wistful, yellow eyes my heart felt just as sick as the day he’d died.  I longed to forfeit my masculine composure and permit my face to contort into ugly tears at the very sight of him, so very much alive.

Bringing his bicycle to a halt a few feet from me, the boy clumsily disembarked, his ungainly limbs akimbo.  An urban urchin, his legs were punctuated by well-worn trainers and the knees of his tracksuit pants were dirty and threadbare.  This was a child accustomed to playing outside.  In spite of his suburban milieu, he seemed unperturbed by the presence of a stranger. 

He looked at me through floppy hair, his youthful eyes at once assertive and defiant.  We both stared at each other for what felt like forever, each of us scrutinising the other.  I remembered him, remembered being him. 

Though the idea was impossible, I sensed through our wordless communion that he seemed to recognise me, like a precognition or prophecy of things to come.  Eventually, the dog broke the ice, emitting a low “ruff” – evidently annoyed neither of us had acknowledged his stick.

“I like your dog,” I managed as I crouched to pet the gently panting animal.  The top of his head was warm from exertion and his fur felt silky to the touch.

“Thanks, his name is Toby”, the replied. 

The boy’s cadence was immediately familiar and uncomfortable to my ears, not unlike the sensation of hearing your own voice recorded then played back.

“Are you a friend of my brother’s?” the boy then asked unprompted, his tone curious and his face confused as he tried to place my features.

“Yeah.  Stopped by before, but he wasn’t home”.

It was a white lie, but one I could justify if it meant fostering trust.  Now face to face with my quarry I found myself unexpectedly speechless.  I searched my mind furiously for appropriate conversation to make with a ten-year-old.

“How come you’re not in school?” I enquired.

“What’s it to you?” he spat, defensively.

Of course.  I’d forgotten his spirit.  This was a kid perpetually aggrieved.  Resentful of adults and self-appointed authority figures.  In many ways, it was a tendency I had failed to outgrow.

“Nothing really.  Just making conversation.  You know I grew up round here too.  Used to spend most of my school holidays on my bike.  Had a dog just like this as well.  We’d hang out at Miller’s creek.  One time I even found a severed hand”.

“Cool”, the boy offered begrudgingly, his eyes widening with excitement, “Did you get to keep it?”

I smiled at his question and the idea that a severed limb would present itself as an exciting souvenir.

“Nah.  My Dad wouldn’t let me”.

Silence again.

“Where’s your bike now?”, the boy asked.  

I studied the red bicycle, its frame flimsy and covered with stickers and found myself unable to recall its ultimate fate.

“Gone”, I shook my head, “A long time ago” I replied sadly.

I was a man out of time, literally embedded in a memory, conversing with the past. 

And just like that, I suddenly realised the magnitude of what I’d done, the unmitigated hubris of the journey I had made and its enormous ramifications. The realisation was a knife, as though the human mind was ill designed to perceive reality outside normal linear flow.

“Okay.  See you round then”, the boy said as he clambered back onto his bike and slowly rode off, his faithful quadruped in tow.  Before I could reply, he was gone, the boy and bike and dog growing smaller as they disappeared into the distance.

My original intention had been to remain here and mentor him.  I could be a friend to him, disconnected from family, as he processed all the rage and shame that awaited him in the days and years to come.  But as the moment of our meeting evaporated, I was struck with a different idea.

Medical applications.

Erikson had beleaguered the point.  On certain occasions the device could be used to create a localised stasis field with a finite radius.  Within the perimeter, the decay of organic matter could be slowed by inducing a cyclical temporal state – a living hold.  Seconds.  Minutes.  Hours and even days.  Cycle mode.  Though not the intended use for this technology, this function had been used to save the lives of critically injured persons close to death, yet far away from medical attention.  The idea was that if the patient was alive within a repeating cycle of sixty seconds, for example, their condition wouldn’t deteriorate further.

I extracted the device from my pocket and made my way through the menu settings.  Cycle Mode: hours, designated period: two four zero zero.  I set the radius to five thousand meters.

The brown-haired boy would forever be trapped in a bubble, living out the same day, over and over again.  But I had to act fast, before he moved too far away from me and outside the device’s limited radius.

Now, almost outside my own body, I wondered what would happen to me.  From a subjective standpoint, this would most likely be the last thing I’d ever do.  I had no idea what to expect.  Would I too be trapped in an endless loop, experiencing only a few minutes of consciousness beginning outside Cherry’s house?  Would I simply vanish into oblivion having enabled a terrible paradox?  Would this, in fact, constitute an act of self-termination?

By way of my action, I was manufacturing a timeline in which this boy would never grow up, and his dog would be immortal.  He’d never cast off the mouldy inhibitions of his childhood home and run roaring through the streets with a cigarette searching for himself.

This dour youth, so full of boyish vinegar would never acquaint himself with his smile.  He’d never get a job, learn to drive, have sex, smoke a joint, wear a suit, pay taxes and repeatedly fall in and out of love.  He’d never be afforded the luxury of cultivating taste in music, partake in the share market or express opinions on politics and religion.  He’d never make the cascading series of mistakes that would lead him right back to where I stood, the moment I occupied, standing in a field holding this device looking at him.  A cycle broken and at once complete.  Would this be, in point of fact, a deliberate act of murder?

No.  It was an act of mercy.  He’d be spared his growth into adulthood and forever trapped in the happy amber of childhood.  I inhaled once as I activated the cycle mode, unsure of what to expect, but certain of what I saw before me.  One perfect day, in perpetuity.  A boy and his dog, moving with burning grace, young and alive forever.


SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins