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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven HAPPY BIRTHDAY EBONY

by
CLAIRE FITZPATRICK
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E

bony pulls the blinds closed four hours after the party concludes. She slides down the wall and sits on the pale carpet, staring at her reflection in the blank television screen. The room is silent, save her quiet humming and the scratching of unclipped paws at the door. She crosses her ankles and looks down at her shoes. Red, like the blood between her thighs, dry and caked on like her made-up face.



‘Did you hear,’ Tom asks, ‘about the man down the road? Dad says he’s a drifter, and we shouldn’t leave our bikes on the lawn. But I he’s asked the man to help with repairs on the workshop roof.’



Ebony looks up at her brother, tall and imposing in the doorway. She crosses her legs and looks down at her hands.



‘No,’ she replied. ‘But I heard dogs barking last night. I suppose they belong to him.’



The dogs do not sleep. Instead, they whine in the night, as though tossing and turning in their dreams. She uncrosses her legs. She wears an old pair of Cameron’s overalls.



‘Did you have a nice party?’



Ebony grits her teeth, blinking slowly. ‘It was alright. Cameron and I listened to records for a few hours. He bought me a pair of earrings. See?’ She pushes back her hair to show Tom the silver hoops.



‘What are you doing for the rest of your birthday?’ Tom asks.



Ebony shrugs. ‘I don’t know. I was thinking about checking out the old station-master’s house on Quarry Lane. Cameron told me that the house seemed to be actually speak to him.’



Tom rolls his eyes. ‘Cameron will tell you anything you want to hear. You’re his favourite.’



‘Am not.’



Ebony thinks of her brother. Cameron will tell you anything you want to hear. You’re his favourite. Cameron has a very old soul, and often goes days without talking, and then when he does it will be something mean, or cruel to other people. But he is never cruel to her. She catches him staring at her while they read together on her bed.



‘It’s sad that such a place has been left to rot as the years go by, like an elderly person being left in a retirement home. Alone.’



‘You think too much, Ebbs. Go away. Cameron says he had another present for you, in his room.’



Ebony grins, excitement swelling in her stomach. She rushes into her room and finds her brother on her bed, dressed in nothing but a pair of ratty old overalls. He looks up at her from under his dark curls. While the rest of the family has blonde hair and blue eyes, Cameron is pale, his eyes the colour of chocolate cake. Some nights, when their parents are drunk, their father throws their mother against the wall, screaming “Is he mine? Is that child mine?



‘Ebony,’ Cameron says quietly, ‘would you ever kill a person?’



Cameron’s room is stuffy. The window doesn’t open, as their father boarded it up after Cameron said he wanted to move out



.

‘Would you ever kill anyone?’ he repeats, pulling a cigarette out of his crumpled pack. He lights it and passed it over to Ebony.



‘They’d have to do something really bad,’ Ebony replies, inhaling the cigarette. ‘Or evil.’



Cameron nods and pulls his legs up to his chest.



‘But what if you just felt like it?’



Ebony frowns, listening to sounds of their mother quietly sobbing in the next room. ‘There always has to be a reason. You can’t just wake up one morning and kill someone.’



Cameron flicks his cigarette ash on the floor and stubs it into the windowsill. ‘So, you’ve never just wanted to hurt someone just because you can?’



‘What? Like kill an animal?’



‘Kill a person, stupid. When’s the last time mum said a single word to you?’



‘She forgot my birthday.’



‘Huh.’ Cameron smirks and leans his chin on his knees. ‘Would you kill her for that?’



‘No.’



‘Would you hurt her?’



‘No. She’s our mum.



‘Would you...’



Ebony nudges him in the ribs. ‘Why do you want our mother dead?’



Cameron shrugs. ‘I just wanted to know if you would kill someone.’



‘Maybe if they did something evil, then I might imagine killing them.’



“I think about killing people sometimes,” he replies quietly. ‘I mean, I don’t have some scary notebook filled with drawings of decapitated people or their guts spilled all over the pages, but I think about it sometimes. But not you., Ebbs. Not you.’



‘Tom said you had another gift for me.’



Cameron smiles. He strokes the side of Ebony’s thumb, then gripped it tight, pressing his nails into her palm. Ebony frowns.



‘Now that you’re older, you won’t leave me, will you?’



‘I would never leave you.’



‘What will I do if you move away?’



‘You’ll take out your eyes and place them on my windowsill so you can watch me sleep.’



Cameron smiles. He reaches into the pocket of his overalls and pulls out a box of tampons. ‘I can always smell your scent.’ He pecks her on the cheek and springs up from the bed. ‘Put it in, and we’ll go and have some cake. I made the icing just the way you like it.’



They don’t go to the station master’s house. Instead, the day passes quietly. In the evening, they sit outside on the veranda, looking at the town. Their old house sits at the top of the hill, far away from prying eyes. Cameron wraps his arm around Ebony’s waist.



‘I thought you had vodka.’



‘I drank the rest of it yesterday morning,’ She lies. The cool air rustles her hair in the wind. ‘I’m surprised you don’t have other women snuggling into your arm. When was the last time you had a girlfriend?’



Cameron stiffens. ‘I have you.’



‘But when was your last girlfriend?’



‘What makes you think I’m not happy with you?’



Ebony and Cameron exchange a silent look. His dark eyes look like coals in the evening air.



They sit together in silence for almost half an hour, until Ebony spots their father walking up the hill. A young man strides confidently beside him. He has light brown hair tied at the back in a neat ponytail and carries a rucksack on his shoulder. Ebony recognises him as one of the neighbours from town. A portrait artist, Ebony thinks, or was it landscapes? Bill looks at her and raises his brow. They don’t have many visitors at the house.



‘Ebony,’ their father calls. ‘I have your gift.’ He gestures to the man as they reach the top of the hill. ‘It’s Alexander. He’s going to draw your portrait.’



Ebony doesn’t like him. She’s seen him around town and feels uncomfortable when he smiles at her. He’s wearing a blue denim vest over a long-sleeved shirt and black jeans. His shoes are too clean.



‘It’s too dark, dad,’ Ebony says. ‘He can’t paint my portrait in the dark.’



‘He won’t get her features right,’ Cameron says.



Their father’s face darkens. ‘Was I talking to you? Come along, Ebony.’ He clasps her elbow and the three of them make their way down towards the house. Ebony looks over her shoulder. Cameron crosses his arms, then turns and walks down the hill and into town.



After the portrait is done, their father invites Alexander for dinner.



Their house is cold and dark. Once, it had been a grand manor, but it had fallen into dilapidated disrepair. Their father has slaughtered a lamb for dinner. Alice comes out of her room dressed in a short black dress, wearing knee-high boots and stockings. Ebony wonders whether her mother is insane. She often sleeps through the day and rises at dusk, greeting the night like a rooster would greet the morning. Her long brown hair is tied up in a bun. She’s put on mascara.



Since it is her birthday, Ebony can allocate everyone their seats. She places her father at the end of the table near the door, her mother on his right, Tom on his left. Cameron sits next to her without asking. She tells Alexander to sit across from Cameron and leaves a spot for Jack directly opposite her father.



‘Tell me about this house,’ Alexander says, breaking the silence. ‘It’s grand.’



Ebony’s father nods. ‘My parents left it to me in their will. I lived here, so my children live here. When they grow up, their own children will live here.’



‘Oh, Alexander said, ‘you don’t hear about family dynasties anymore.’



‘We do a lot of work around the house,’ Tom says. ‘We have our own workshop. It’s an honest way to live.’



‘And what about your family?’ Ebony asks.



‘We moved around a lot when I was a child.’ he says. ‘I think that’s why I like to do portraits. It allows me to catch glimpses of people I meet.’



‘Have you caught a glimpse of Ebony?’ Cameron pipes. ‘Have you captured her perfectly with your pencil?’



Ebony grins. Their father juts out his lower lip in anger, hastily cutting into his pork. Cameron takes Ebony’s free hand under the table, wrapping his fingers around her wrist.



‘Do you ever feel like you’re cheating people?’ he asks. ‘Surely, you’re not that good, otherwise you wouldn’t be living in town. There’s nothing for you here. You should go.’



Their father moves to stand, yet Alexander clears his throat, nodding towards Cameron. ‘You’re right, lad. There’s nothing in town. Nothing but a great pub and fantastic people to draw.’



‘Maybe you should draw someone else other than my sister. I’m sure she doesn’t want you to capture her soul.’



Alexander moves uncomfortably in his seat. ‘It’s a photograph that captures souls, not the other way around.’



Ebony wonders if Jack will come home soon. He was the only child their mother wanted to talk to. She looks over at her mother chewing potato. Her movements are slow and precise, like a zombie.



‘She didn’t,’ Cameron says. Ebony pulls her arm away from her brother, yet his grip tightens on her wrist. She thinks of their earlier conversation. I just wanted to know if you would kill someone. ‘She’s my sister. She doesn’t know you. You don’t belong here.’



‘That’s enough!”



Jack pushes the door open, striding into the dining room. He is tall and foreboding like their father. Jack likes Cameron less than their father does. Ebony remembers an argument they had about her many years ago, when they were both teenagers, and Ebony and Cameron had shared a room. Ebony wanted her own room, but Cameron wouldn’t leave her side. While Ebony doesn’t like Alexander, she knows her brother is being childish and acting up to prove himself. She wonders if he is jealous.



Jack apologises for his lateness and takes his seat at the table. ‘Happy birthday, Ebony,’ he says. He tosses her a small brown package. Ebony thinks of the box of tampons as she tears it open. ‘I can always smell your scent.’



‘Wow!’ Inside is a small silver ring shaped like an ouroboros serpent. She slips it on her finger and waves her hand in the air. ‘Look, everyone.’



‘A pretty gift for a pretty girl,’ Alexander says.



Cameron digs his fingers into the bottom of her wrist. Ebony ignores it. When she doesn’t respond, Cameron presses harder. She looks over at Jack, who is staring at Cameron, his mouth a firm line. She knows he’s aware Cameron sleeps in her bed.



‘You know,’ says Tom, ‘dad said you were a drifter, yet I think you’re alright.’



Their father pales. ‘I didn’t mean…’



‘Oh, it’s quite alright,’ Alexander says. He leans forward, placing his elbows on the table. ‘I understand your suspicion, Greg. You don’t know me. I don’t know you, or your family.’



‘I know you drew a wonderful portrait of my daughter.’



‘She was the most delightful subject to draw.’



Cameron’s nails draw blood. She crosses her ankles, holding in her tears.



‘Say, shall we all look at the portrait?’ Cameron asks, his tone sarcastic. ‘I wish to see my beloved sister through your eyes.’



Ebony hates the portrait. She looks small and thin and pale. Today, she is twenty-six, however the portrait makes her look like a little girl. Her father beams, praising Alexander’s talent. Her mother smiles and suggests they hang the portrait in the hallway for everyone to see. Ebony wants to burn it and tell Alexander to go away.



‘Thank you,’ she replies quietly, not meeting Alexander’s eyes. ‘I must look very different through your eyes.’



Jack stares at her, then turns his gaze on Cameron. Ebony knows he is aware of Cameron’s possessiveness. He’s seen Cameron hurt her many times in the past. Yet he is silent.



After dinner and cake, Ebony excuses herself from the table. She thanks Alexander once again and kisses her mother and father goodnight. She hugs Jack tightly, and he promises to take her shopping in town in the morning. As soon as she puts on her pyjamas and gets into bed she rolls onto her stomach and cries.



Ebony’s stomach churns as she stares at the windowsill in her room. She stands there for what feels like hours, feeling the moons’ gaze upon her. It is cold and dark, and her blankets are thin. Finally, she gets into bed and pulls the blankets up to her chin, staring at the ceiling. When they were younger, Cameron had etched their names next to the lightbulb, and she looks at them now, faded and dull. Like her house. Like her birthday. Sometimes, she thinks about moving away, but she knows she cannot leave Cameron. Her father is a reputable man in the little town, and the owner of a small business. He is distinguished and regularly has lunch with the council mayor. Ebony rolls onto her side, thinking of the bruises Cameron has accumulated over the years. For a long time, she assumed he was clumsy, and insisted he hold her hand so he could steady himself as they walked down the street. Sighing, she reaches under her pillow and withdraws the half-empty bottle of vodka, gulping it so fast that the churning in her stomach turns to pain.



‘Ebony.’



Cameron opens the bedroom door and comes into her room. He pushes her over to the side of the bed and slips under the blankets. She runs her fingers through his hair. He feels sweaty. His face is sticky.



‘What have you been doing?’ she whispers.



His heart pounds against his chest. Ebony wonders if he’s been out for a run.



‘I did it for us,’ he says.



‘Did what for us?’



‘I have to show you. This is a better gift than anything else I have ever given you.’



Ebony shivers, though she is not cold. ‘But I appreciate your gifts. I know we didn’t do everything we planned, but it was great nonetheless.’



‘But it’s not enough.’ lips close around her earlobes, and he unclasps the back of the earrings with his teeth. They fall onto the pillow beside her.



‘Come and see.’



Cameron pulls Ebony out of bed, and they hurry down the dark hallway towards the front of the house. Ebony stares as her mother as she sits smoking on a wooden chair beside the kitchen window, tears spilling down her cheeks. She doesn’t move as Cameron unlocks the door and drags Ebony outside. Ebony shivers as Cameron tightens his clasp on her wrist.



‘Let go of me,’ she hisses. Cameron holds her tighter. ‘I said let go.’



‘Shut up. You’ll ruin your present.’ He pulls her over to their father’s workshop. Cameron wasn’t allowed inside, as their father thought him a nuisance with tools. Only Jack can use their father’s tools. Nevertheless, Cameron pushes the door open and releases Ebony’s wrist.



‘This is the man you’d dare leave me for?’ he shouts.



The dogs lap up the blood as it drips from above like raindrops. Cameron places his hand over Ebony’s mouth as she screams. Alexander’s naked body hangs from two hooks their father used to lift cars as he repaired them. The skin from his back is pulled up and over his head and eyes.



‘Now he cannot see you.’



His body is still pink. Ebony’s face is carved into Alexander’s stomach, so deep the wounds are more like chasms than slashes.



‘Very few artists can do this,’ Cameron says. ‘There’s a certain depth to carve the skin, and Alexander’s unskilled hand would most likely get it wrong. He’d injure someone’s nerves. Just thinking about his lack of talent makes me sick. Does he not see you the way I do?’ Cameron chuckles.



Ebony freezes, her body unable to respond to the horrendous sight before her eyes. She drops to her knees, screaming into her hands. Cameron pulls her hair and forces her to her feet, pressing his nose against hers. She vomits up dinner and her birthday cake.



‘You cannot leave me, Ebony,’ he says, kissing her full on the mouth. He licks the vomit from his lips and swallows it. ‘Jack will do it again. Jack will always do it. He holds me down and pushes himself so hard inside me, I bleed. And you dare think about leaving me? You belong with me.’



Ebony stares at the flailed artist, his skin opened like wings. His flesh is dark red and spongy, like the flesh of a grapefruit, dripping bloodied juice onto the floor below him.



Cameron presses his mouth to Ebony’s ear. ‘What will I do if you move away?’



Ebony gasps, her body shaking. ‘You’ll take out your eyes…’ she stutters ‘…and place them on my windowsill… so you can watch me sleep.’



Cameron wraps his arms around her, engulfing her with his body. He breathes in her hair, her scent, her, and sighs contently. Slowly, he sucks on her earlobe, humming against her skin.



‘Happy birthday, Ebony.’



   
   

 

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Claire Fitzpatrick is an award-winning author of speculative fiction and non-fiction. She won the 2017 Rocky Wood Award for Non-Fiction and Criticism. Called ‘Australia’s Queen Of Body Horror’ and ‘Australia’s Body Horror Specialist,’ she enjoys writing about anatomy and the darker side of humanity. Her debut collection ‘Metamorphosis,’ hailed as ‘simply heroic,’ is out now from IFWG Publishing. Visit her at www.clairefitzpatrick.net.



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