The Wait by Shelagh Grieveson

Richard leans over the desk to open the window. Above the rooftops, and towards the city, a neon sign oscillates like a giant fantail. A flicker of movement focuses his attention towards the apartment opposite as Keira comes into view. He remains still, but his heart quickens; it has been months.

His wife Maggie, wrapped in a white bath towel, admires and smooth’s her legs as she chats idly to her sister on the phone nestled in her lap.

‘Hey Lizzie, are champagne and goodies included in the two Daylesford packages?’

Lizzie, with her unmistakable throaty giggle can be heard on loudspeaker throughout the apartment and enunciates the names of the various bed and breakfast cottages. Maggie shrieks with delight at her sister’s emphasis on the level of pampering that is being offered at each accommodation.

Keira stands upright with her back to the window. A white, tight singlet hugs her angular frame, and beneath the shoestring straps, wide shoulder blades protrude like the vestiges of wings.

He sighs. Gone is her lustrous red hair, replaced by a boyish crop. The short haircut reveals a small, pink patch that tapers downwards from the nape of her neck, like the bones of a fish tail. He watches, she is strong and wired, like a racehorse. Some mornings she had passed him in the park, and the fleeting smell of her stayed with him. Once, he glimpsed her loping through the convoluted city laneways, her hair snatched up off her pale face and bound in a thick, rust plait rope snaking over her broad shoulders. She has never acknowledged him with her green translucent eyes, not a glance, a nod or a parting of lips.

Wads of cloud hang low in the sky, and the click of insects punctuates the thick air. Keira steps out onto the pavement.

Maggie winks at Richard with an impertinent look on her face and waves her empty glass for him to replenish. He straightens a pile of disheveled notes and rises, slow and languid, lingering at the window to observe Keira inserting her earphones and checking her phone. His laptop screen flicks off and he taps at it to return to the files. She limbers up, stretching and bending. He scrolls through the images. She appears leaner now than she did eight months ago. His nostrils flare as she sprints to the end of the road and disappears into a labyrinth of charcoal streets.

The flatlands are dry and crunch beneath her as she races past hollowed, lifeless trees like contorted, leering skeletons hiding in the shadows.

He fetches a cold beer, and Maggie offers him an oiled, bronzed leg to stroke while she promises Lizzie that she will ring her in the morning. He teases the arches of his wife’s feet, taking in the delicious fusion of bergamot and salt and freshly laundered cotton. She yields to him and kisses his fingers one by one, savouring and licking at the Band-Aid on his left index finger in mock devotion. Her towel falls away.

Traversing the deserted streets, her pace is steady and she takes the corner of Johnson Street, sprinting towards a familiar strip of shops. The home stretch is in sight and the milk bar is still open. Once past the Thai restaurant, she slows her speed. Behind the restaurant is an alleyway leading to a small, concreted area flanked on either side by two-trompe l’oeils. With a sense of achievement and relief, she leans against the brick wall to catch her breath. This has been her first run in almost eight months, she has managed a good time and without soreness; she feels enlivened. Above her a black mother cat with amber eyes, slinks surefooted along the wall. The smell of decaying garbage hangs in the warm air. Eight pairs of soft, full brown teats jiggle from the belly of the cat, and a perfect triangle is missing from her left ear. In an admirable display of measurement, the animal gauges her distance before leaping down onto the bulging contents of the bins. Keira steps towards the wall to examine the mural. It is a new amateur artwork depicting grief. A stone slab bears the lifeless body of a young girl. Her sobbing mother bathes her daughter. Keira touches the girl’s hollowed, ashen face. A freshly painted, tangerine, graffiti tag appears as a crude gash, obliterating the dead girl’s bloodless lips.

The light fades and her phone beeps, she loosens the band around her upper arm to view her phone screen.

Terror seeps into her bones, and all temporal reality of being and any promise of hope is eclipsed as she tries to suck air into her lungs. It takes a few moments for her to absorb and assimilate the horrific image that has been sent to her on her phone. Her attacker, who had sliced a cleft into the back of her neck, exposing raw, gelatinous flesh and pearly glistening vertebrae, has never been caught. A rictus of pain brings a surge of bile, flooding her mouth. She heaves. Her bare legs are streaked green as she convulses from her own stench. Darkness descends with the heft and weight of violent memories. The cat, nonchalant, takes her spoils and pads into the silence.

Maggie sprawls, luxuriously dissolved and spent, Richard remains motionless, a moist sweetness on his lips. He rolls over twice in slow deliberate movements, taking care not to disturb his wife, and slips from the room, nudging the door to a soft close.

Her apartment is ominous in its openness and illumination. He stands at the window in the dark, she paces about, primitively clinging to what looks like a soft toy.

Diffident, Richard opens his laptop and scrolls down until he locates the file titled, Maim. A smile spreads across his face at the sight of the tangerine stain on the plaster of his left index finger.

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