Category B: First Place (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Belle White
Title: The defusing
There are two ghosts on this train, and the man sitting across from you with the bomb in his jacket is one of them.
It isn’t obvious, not if you aren’t looking. An occupied mind could easily glaze over the slight bulge in his figure, chalk it up to overindulgence or that damned chill that seems to have settled in lately, and not give it a second thought.
You’re giving it a second thought. And a third and a fourth and a fifth. You sit there, every muscle tensed, every heartbeat suspended, every breath painstakingly drawn in and released. The dull hum of the train. The muffled music blasting out of someone’s cheap headphones. Your daughter’s idle hum as she swings her legs and fiddles with the straps of her schoolbag. All secondary to the incessant tick, tick, tick, ringing and reverberating like a peal in your head. And you cannot move.
It happens everyday, and yet your chest is so heavy you cannot move.
The man casts an expectant glance out the window, just like you knew he would. Waiting, as he always is. He’ll get out at the next stop and walk three blocks to the nearest petrol station and die, as he always does. Ready to haunt you the next day, as he always will.
And you notice, not for the first time, that his jacket has six pockets. And you’ll think, not for the last time, how fitting it is.
One for every person killed in the blast.
Three women. Two men. And Lauren.
Lauren Garcia, the Stolen Child. Lauren Garcia, Taken Too Soon. Lauren Garcia, the Smallest Victim. That name would grace every headline, pass the lips of every stern-faced reporter in that perfectly detached tone. The tagline changed but the picture never did. Sitting at the kitchen table. Smiling a little too much, the way only children do. And it was always slightly grainy. The colours were always a little too dull. It reminded you of those photos you’d see in true crime documentaries, plucked from domestic scenes, tragic in their normalcy. A relic of a life interrupted too young, too soon. Lauren Garcia, among six dead in petrol station bombing.
You instinctively reach for your daughter’s hand and find only the plastic of the seat. You feel its coolness against your palm, grounding you, anchoring you amidst the waves of panic crashing and churning in your head, because the man sitting across from you has a bomb in his jacket and you can’t do anything but look and let it happen.
The train is slowing. You feel the wheels crawl along the track, hear them groan under their own weight. You know it’s only a matter of time before you make the same mistake, as you always do.
Because you’d seen it, hadn’t you? That day. Back when trains didn’t have ghosts to give second thoughts to. You’d seen his jacket catch on his sleeve, you’d seen the flash of little red wires poking out from beneath the fabric. Thick military cotton, you remembered. You might not have known you knew but you knew, didn’t you? You knew and you let her go.
The train stops. The man rises and his jacket catches and the wires flash and your daughter goes to leave and suddenly you’re back in your kitchen, reading about it for the first time. When the clocks stopped and the birds silenced and everything faded into nothingness as you clutched your phone, unable to comprehend it. Unable to believe the coldly lit words filling up the screen. Unable to understand why the name Lauren Garcia seemed so familiar. Looking at your daughter’s Hello Kitty lunchbox sitting forgotten at the table and selfishly thanking God it wasn’t, couldn’t, have been her.
And you started to hear a tick, tick, tick, in your head. And you never stopped hearing it.
The cheery ding! sounds through the deadened train speakers. You feel your chest growing heavier, watch the doors slide back into the walls, hear the bustle of a world that has moved on. Your daughter will leave and walk three blocks to the nearest petrol station and die but you can’t let that happen so you shout. You shout, wait, try again, you shout, but you need words to shout, so you shout except you don’t because you can’t remember her name.
Oh god, what is her name?
You want to follow her, to take her in your arms and hold her before she is stolen from you yet again, but your bones weigh you down, your head weighs you down, your chest weighs you down, and why does everything feel so, so heavy?
And before your daughter steps onto the platform, she pauses. Looks at you.
And smiles. She smiles, despite the blood trickling down her forehead. She smiles, despite the sizeable chunk that’s been ripped out of her face. She smiles, despite the exposed bone in her cheek, stubbornly white against the crimson carnage. She smiles, a little too much. The way only children do.
The world remembered her as a picture. A face smiling at you from the kitchen table. You’d seen it a million times. But it was only now. Only like this. Only with violence carved into her every feature, that you know.
You know her name. The name that was stolen from her, to be ravaged and ravished by a hungry world.
There are two ghosts on this train, and the girl standing destroyed before you is one of them.
“Lauren,” you try to say, but you can no longer bear the weight of your chest. You can no longer bear this burden, every single day on every single train.
You look down at the slight bulge in your figure.
It could be overindulgence.
Or that damned chill that seems to have settled in lately.
Or maybe it’s the bomb you’ve got strapped across your torso.
Tick, tick, tick.