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Myra King is an Australian writer and a member of the Deakin Literary Society and Ballarat Writers. She has written a number of
prize winning short stories. Most recently she was awarded first prize in the UK-based Global Short Story Competition and was
shortlisted for the EJ Brady Short Story Award. Her stories, articles and poetry have been published in print and online in the UK,
Australia, USA and New Zealand.
The Peace There is in Silence


There are dragons in the corner of my dreams at
the bottom of my childhood...


Nicola Whitaker steps off the train and looks across the station.  The platform is deserted except for rubbish of the
McDonald's kind and several sparrows, like tiny shadows, pecking amongst it.

She dumps her case on the concrete and whistles tunelessly.  An eddy lifts a paper serviette with stains like blood
onto her skirt, she whirls around and watches it float down between the tracks where the departing train burns it
to paper dust beneath its wheels.

The backdraught slews briefly, the walls' pock-marked faces exhale the sound, lifting it to the bright sky above.

Sitting on her suitcase, Nicola waits.

She hears them before she sees them, knows who they are, recognises their voices, although, until now, she has
only heard them over the phone or through echoing internet connections.

They come nearer, seeing her but not seeing her. Peony Peaches and Deirdre Honeybun.  Nicola knows these are
not their given names but virtual-reality ones, courtesy of the
World of Friends game.

"Nicola?  Nicola Lovely?"

"It is her, Peony.  Has to be. Oh my God, look at her case."

Nicola carries a square suitcase, faded brown leather; cattle hide left out in the desert sun.  In youthful hands it
looks poignant, in older ones it would look sad.  They let her carry it.

"We didn't think you were so young.  I mean I know our profiles don't state our ages but you seemed somehow
more mature, don't you think so, Deirdre?"  Peony's voice, deep as chocolate velvet, is in contrast to Deirdre's
high-threaded one.

"Certainly did, Peony.  Good trip, Nicola?"

Nicola hasn't spoken a word but her head bobs like one of those felt-flock dogs that sit in rear-windows of old cars.

She whistles softly, an indiscernible tune.

The two women don't seem to notice, they lead the way to a Volvo, circa 1958, no two panels the same colour,
only the roof is uniform, one slab of rust.  There is no dog in the window but there is a sunhat and a crocheted rug
of many colours.

Nicola climbs in the back and they take off before she has time to clip into her seatbelt.  She hurriedly positions
herself so she is not suspended over a gaping hole in the car's floor.  It flashes grey and white road beneath her
feet.

She wonders briefly about her safety, feels she never has to worry about it now, it is as incidental as these two
women.

She can see their scalps through their perms, see where the hairdresser had tried to make the curls tighter,
wonders if vanity dies with the grave.

"I suppose you're wondering how we got to be such intrepid surfers, Nicola.  That's computer jargon, Deirdre."

"I bloody well know that, Peony.  Jesus, you are getting as daft as that old dog of yours."

Nicola jumps inwardly and curls her arms closer around herself.  One foot slips into the void and she hastily
withdraws, fear for a moment bringing her voice back.

"It's a very old car."

"Oh yes, Nicola, it was Daddy's, wasn't it Peony?  Be careful of that."  Pale fingers stretch and point.  "A stump
went through there last year, should get it fixed but Peony here's such an old scrooge.  Slow down, Peony, we do
want to get her home in one piece."

The countryside extends and contracts, rugged, then clear but always clawing up, sheer cliffs to one side,
bush-scrub stability to the other.  Trees flank intermittently, tall and grey like wise men.  The car chugs acceleration
in gasps and leaps, a spring sticks into Nicola's back with each bound.  She is trembling, finding that she is still
capable of feeling after all.  The beauty of the landscape is unavoidable, expanding her consciousness in beat with
her fear.

"What are those trees?" Nicola can barely hear her own voice.

"Mountain Ash.  Magnificent aren't they?  Not so good in a bushfire though."

Deirdre laughs loudly.  "Then they really are mountain ash."

Peony tweaks a look over her shoulder at Nicola, squinting something she can't discern.

They slide to a stop at an overgrown patch of scrub, a half forty-four-gallon drum perches on a rotted stump;
around it a vine tangles its tendrils in wiry anchors.  Its variegated foliage contrasts with the darkness of the bark.  
There has been a fire through here before.

"We are away from everyone out here, aren't we, Deirdre?  Such a lovely quiet place."

Deirdre doesn't answer.  Peony gets out of the car and pulls open a gate, hidden amongst rusting bracken-fern.

Deirdre makes no move to help.  Peony drives through, then closes the gate and pulls the bracken back into
camouflage.

Nicola shivers.

"Cold, dear?" says Peony, resuming her position behind the wheel.  "Don't worry, I'll get the wood fire going when
we get home.  And then there's someone special I want you to meet."

Nicola knew lots of 'someone specials', her mother was always bringing them home.  Sometimes the specials were
something more than bargained for.

She can't remember her mother in anything else than a dressing gown, but she knows that is silly, she must have
gone out, did go out, at night.   They were the nights she locked Nicola in her room.

Many times she woke in a dark house dreading the loneliness but fearing the company more.  Her brother was the
guardian of the key.

As the car approaches the house, a cattle dog of blue and grey lifts his head and stiffly pulls himself to standing.  
When the car stops, and they all get out, he comes up to them, his tail wagging his back end as his nose sniffs
Nicola's outstretched hand.  He bumps up against Peony, snuffling and whining until she leans down and scratches
behind his ears.

"Hi Bluster old boy.  Did you miss me?"

Deirdre lashes out at the dog as he slinks past her.  "Take him to his yard, Peony.  We have a guest and she
doesn't want him slobbering all over her."

Without a word, Peony takes the dog by the collar and goes out of sight along the side of the house.

Nicola looks up at the house, the ivy covering its walls has been clipped recently and there are loose pieces
scattered on the window ledges and hanging amongst its foliage.  The front porch has been swept and two piles of
dried leaves and more of the ivy sit waiting to be removed.

The roof tiles hold a verdant glaze, and, from the chimney, a thin pall of smoke drifts outwards on the evening
breeze.

Deirdre opens the door but does not offer to take Nicola's suitcase.  She indicates a dark hallway to the stairs,
where the carpet-runner smells of dog and potpourri.

Nicola senses someone watching, catches a flicker of a door closing.  She turns to ask Deirdre who else is here, but
she has disappeared into the vastness of the house.

Her room is facing the back and through a screen-less window she can see over the hills and into a valley.  Below, a
stream flashes diamond lights through the darkness with the rhythmic parting of the trees.

Nicola's room at home was much darker than this, even the curtains were made of black velvet.  To keep out any
light, her mother had said, to help her sleep better.

That had never worked.  Her sleep was as broken as the old chamber-pot which she kept under her bed for
emergencies and for those times when she was locked in.

The last time was when the agony came, pulsating, growing, pushing until at last, it erupted in blood and flesh and
the screams, hers as well as the other's.

Nicola sleeps, dreamless; it is as if the tiredness of the journey, and the strangeness of her surroundings, are
enough to appease any subconscious needs.  When she wakes she feels calm.

She knows why she is here, why she picked this place, these women.  She guessed the nature of this location from
what they'd told her on the Game.  In a place like this it would be easy for her to go for a walk and never be found
again.  Bush scrub looks the same in all directions for those who are lost and for those who are searching.  And the
thickness of that same holds a silence that only the wind can change.  

She hears a light tapping and then almost simultaneously, Peony sticks her head round the door.

"Come down for a bite to eat, Nicola.  It's gone eight o'clock.  Deirdre has cooked her favourite, Aubergine Bake,
been working on it for hours.  Come quickly now, dear, she always gets cross if we keep her waiting."

Peony is gone before Nicola can ask who the we are.

The kitchen is lit by two candles with melted supports, stuck in silver holders.

There is a bunch of roses, faded, like they have been cut before today, but the table cloth is crisp with whiteness.

Nicola looks around for Peony and Deirdre but sees no one, she can hear clattering from the kitchen and starts to
get up.

A man enters the room, he is carrying a tray with two plates.  He doesn't look old, Nicola thinks, perhaps
mid-thirties.  He is smiling at her like he has known her for a long time.  Nicola has a curious sensation that this
might be true.

"Hi, Nicola, isn't it?"  He places down the tray and holds out a calloused hand.  She sees now who does the
gardening.  "I'm Calum, Deirdre's son."

She takes his hand briefly.  Calum sits down opposite and pushes the larger of the two plates of food towards her,
and then confirms her suspicions.  "I feel I know you already.  It was Aunt Peony's idea to buy a computer.  We
discovered that
World of Friends game and I helped them with it.  Set up their names and that.  Mother stopped
after the first week.  But Aunt Peony and I were hooked.  Then we found you.  Do you know how many millions of
people play that game?"

Nicola tries to whistle but dry lips prevent any sound.  She picks up her glass.

Calum quickly pours some wine and she takes a sip.  "No," she says, "but I think it would be lots."  Her voice is
barely audible.  They're the most words she has spoken since arriving, the most she has spoken in days.  "Are they
sisters then?  Your Aunt Peony and your mother?"

"Yes, they are, twins actually, fraternal, shared the same womb, not the same egg.  That's their real first names
you know."

"Not Honeybun and Peaches though?"  Nicola finds herself smiling.

Calum shakes his head, finishing a mouthful of wine before answering.  "No, of course not, just like your surname is
not Lovely.  Although you are, you know.  Lovely, that is."

Even in the dim of the candlelight Nicola can see him going red.

The other was red when she found it lying between her legs.  She was not sure if it were blood or complexion.  
Ugly.  Wrinkled.  Loud.  Oh, so loud that she had covered her ears.  Begged for it to be quiet, told it that it would
stop if her mother heard it.

Then she covered its mouth, the noise muffled until she took away her hand.  Placing it on and off, she mixed the
requiem, scream, pause, scream, pause, scream, on and on until her sobs were the only tune left to hear.

"How do you like it?"  Calum holds aloft a large forkful of eggplant.

Nicola puts down her knife and fork and wipes her mouth with the serviette.  "Really nice," she says.  Her stomach
was complaining before she had been half way through but it was so delicious that taste had overcome any urge to
stop.

"Where did you learn to cook?"

"In this house."  Calum picks up the bottle of wine.  "Aunt Peony taught me.  I was home schooled too.  Nearest
school over two hours away.  More wine?"

Nicola nods.  Her mother used to joke, used to say that if she had two glasses she was anyone's.  Was it even
funnier then, that Nicola was anyone's without the wine?

"Where's your father?"  The words escape before she can close her mouth to capture them.

Calum relaxes in his chair.  "Oh him? Gone years ago.  I never knew him.  That's when Aunty Peony came to live
with us for good.  It has been good too, really good, she's done everything for me."

"How long have you lived here?"

Calum grins. "All my life, we moved here after I was born, I'm not that much older than you, fifteen years to be
exact, I think Aunty Peony thought we were closer in age though.  You did seem older."

Nicola had put the other, wrapped in a towel, in the bottom drawer of her cupboard.  Every day she checked, but
every day it was still there.  She put mint leaves and sprinkled lavender water over it until even her mother had
questioned the stench.  Then, when she was not locked in, she had taken her mother's lighter and a small pile of
papers, the papers of her confession.  Papers never intended to be read.  And the flame, bright and fascinating
while it consumed her guilt, was ever so soft and ever so quiet.

"Tell me more about your childhood," Calum says.

The question stays in the air until the unspoken answer tells more than words.

Calum tells her about
his childhood, and she listens and compares and wonders how two lives could contrast so
much but then meet and feel so connected.  They talk through the night and into the morning.  She tells him some
things but not
others.  He holds her hand, and makes noises of understanding.

"You never told your mother what was happening to you?

Nicola shakes her head.  She twines her handkerchief around her fingers until they are numb.

She had
tried to tell her mother when it all started.

Began with -
he came into my room when you were out... continued with... blood and pain... cut off with... shut
up, disgrace, lies,
and ended with... You'll be the ruin of us all.

Bluster barks at the back door, Calum gets up and opens the door.

Nicola looks past him to pathless scrubland which extends further than vision. Tomorrow, she thinks, perhaps...

The dog snuffles his way to her and jumps up. She scratches his head and then watches as Bluster goes over to
Calum for a repeat performance.

"I had a pet mouse once," she says.  "I dug it up two days after it died.  Its white fur had come off and it was dark
underneath, I wondered if it was always dark and the white was just a cover."  Nicola can see Calum looking at her
oddly.  "I didn't kill the mouse.  It was so cute and quiet. Silent as a mouse."  She laughs softly and then her
shoulders start to shake and her body heaves.

"You should have got help, Nicola.  You know you're safe here though, don't you?"

"I burned the house down, Calum.  I stood outside and watched.  I didn't wait for my mother to come home.  
When I heard the sirens I just left."

"Where did you go?"

"I stayed with a girlfriend for a while and then I came here."

Calum encircles Nicola with his arms.

"I have a secret too," he says.

With a gush of door Deirdre storms in.  "You bloody fool!  Do you want to spoil everything?  What do you know
about anything, anyway?"

Nicola feels an urgent need to go to the bathroom.  She rushes past Deirdre and Calum, and climbs the stairs.  She
pushes open the door.  She can see Peony, her back towards her, and she is standing.  A stream of urine arcs into
the toilet.  Nicola stops and holds onto the frame.

She can hear Calum's voice, an echo from below.  "I know you're hiding something from me, mother.  Is it about
Aunt Peony?  Is
she my real mum?  She's been more of one to me anyway.  You've always hated me.  That's why
you were always going on about sharing the womb with her.  You didn't only mean when you were babies.  Having
me was just a chore wasn't it?"

Nicola hears Deirdre snort.  "I don't care a fuck what you think.  Like I thought, you don't know anything."

Nicola turns to go downstairs.  But the look on Peony's face stops her.

"I never meant for it to happen," Peony says quietly.  "It was our twenty-first birthday party.  We had never had a
drink before.  Daddy let us have champagne.  He died before Calum was born.  I helped Deirdre with the delivery.  
She wanted to kill the baby.  Called him an abomination.  But you can see that's not true."

Peony rubs her eyes with an open hand and continues, "Deirdre wouldn't hear of living with a man openly, even in
pretence, so we moved here and... "  Peony sweeps a hand over her clothes.  "It was the only way she'd let me be
a parent to him."

"Why Peony?" Nicola says.

"Name's Peter Anthony, I just shortened it a bit."

Nicola looks into Peony's smooth face and touches her arm.

They go downstairs.  The argument stops abruptly as the two enter the room.  Calum stands up.

Nicola realises they are not so different.  That their lives are meshed in ways he will never know and she will never
tell.  Now the wind has changed and if she goes for that walk she will not be alone.  She stares into Calum's eyes
and, for the moment, finds again the peace there is in silence.
Myra King
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