The harsh clamour of the alarm clock threw Jack Kinsey into yet another morning without his daughter. He was still amazed how many of those there were. It was like being trapped in a cinema long after the “Fin” screen faded.
Groaning, he rolled over and nudged his wife. “Drina…”
He could tell by her breathing she was awake, but her only response was a prolonged sigh. Like most days nowadays, it seemed Drina Kinsey couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed today.
Jack couldn’t blame her. Most mornings he wanted to just lie in bed beside Drina until the roof timbers rotted and collapsed on top of them. But, God willing, Allison would return to them someday, and there would be a house and a home waiting for her.
He went about his morning routine like his veins ran with molten led. Actions that he once performed without any conscious thought now required immense effort and willpower. It was like his body was a clumsy, reluctant robot he was shouting orders at from some distant place of grief. “Jack, Shower,” “Jack, Brush your teeth,” “Jack, for the love of God, shave.” It didn’t help that for some time, he’d only made breakfast on Mother’s Day.
He picked up the newspaper as he stepped out the door. He had scant interest in its contents, but reading it helped maintain some sense of normalcy in his life. And maybe, just maybe, there might be news of a mass reparation of the children held by the DDHA. Or at the very least, a headline announcing the release of Allison Kinsey—obvious natural child—and the flogging and dismissal of whoever was in charge1.
A quick flick through its pages revealed no such joy; just something about a circus convoy running off the road, and the Witch of Claremont stealing the private parts of a whole office building.
They think my Allison is one of these freaks.
Jack made it to the local Bank of New South Wales with no conscious memory of how he got there. His co-workers greeted him with the same muted pleasantries they always employed, even before his daughter was taken. By some unspoken agreement, the people of Harvey seemed to decide to deal with the Kinseys’ loss by not acknowledging it beyond the mildest tinge of sympathy in their voices.
That was the rub. If Allison had passed away, there would be condolences, people asking how he and Drina were coping. And, if nothing else, they would know their daughter could come to no more harm.
Among the office notices and inoculation flyers, the bank’s bulletin board also had a DDHA affiche pinned to it:
REPORT DEMI-HUMAN ACTIVITY
The message hovered between the silhouettes of the Flying Man and a child levitating a ball in the air, motion lines radiating from their hands. The hotline number for the Demi-Human Rapid Response Team was printed along the bottom. Jack tried not to look at it. He could swear they were putting up more of those posters every day. Maybe he just hadn’t noticed them before. Or maybe the powers that be did see more of a need. After all, they had found two demis in the same town on the same day. Might be something in the water…
His day passed in a haze of numbers. Much as he enjoyed it, Jack never would have called his work exciting, but it let him comfortably slip into functional oblivion for the better part of the day. He was maths, concerned only with the finances of farmers and cattlemen. Time felt both measureless and nonexistent.
Once or twice, his thoughts would drift uncomfortably close to the desolate present. On those occasions, he would inform the office secretary that he wouldn’t be taking any calls for fifteen minutes, put on a record of old bush ballads Allison liked to play till he thought his ears would bleed, and weep as quietly as possible. If anyone heard him, nobody made a fuss.
Jack could have stayed past closing time if he really wanted—and he did—but he feared what Drina might do if she was left alone too long. At the very least, he wanted to make sure she ate something.
It was that notion that brought him to Barnes Country Butchers. He stood outside the door for some time, trying to decide if it was even appropriate for him to step inside.
The door opened with a jangle of the bells above it. “Evening, Kinsey,” said the young man who stepped through, arms full of newspaper-wrapped meat.
“Oh, hello, Peters.”
Peters smiled uncomfortably. “You gonna let me pass?”
Jack stepped aside sharply. “Ah, sorry.”
“Not a problem.”
As Peters walked down the street, Jack thought he saw the man look back suspiciously.
He wasn’t surprised. People get it in their heads that you have a demi for a daughter, they start asking questions about the rest of the family.
The men from the DDHA had, when they came to tell the Kinseys their daughter wasn’t coming home. They’d asked a lot of rather searching questions of the two of them, as they sat in their lounge room, enjoying their tea. Would they say they were luckier than average? Did they ever know things without being told? Was there anything either of them could do that they thought was improbable?
As it happened, neither Mr nor Mrs Kinsey were in much of a state to answer.
Maybe their Christmas bonuses would have been bigger if they had smoked out a whole nest of demis, Jack thought, bitterly. He almost wished he and Drina had said yes to their questions. Maybe they could have been with Allison…
He stepped inside the butcher’s. Weary sunlight filled the store front, gradually retreating as shadow marched towards the windows. Its owner and proprietor, care-worn and tight lipped, was chopping beef behind the counter, bony fingers wrapped tight around her cleaver. Narrow featured, her dark hair was bound up in a net, steadily losing ground to the grey strand by strand.
Angela Barnes and Jack Kinsey were closer acquaintances than either of them would have liked. The breadwinner of her family after her husband’s partial return from Korea, much of Harvey considered her to be an utterly humourless creature. Whatever the truth was, she was most definitely a woman who doled out smiles sparingly. That would have been alienating enough without adding her intense religiosity on top of things. Most folks in Harvey were church-going Catholics, of course, but Angela Barnes actually listened to the sermons, and read the Bible in her own time enough to sometimes object to what was said in them. This among other Frederick Barnes shaped things had earned her some thinly veiled references from the pulpit, especially after the Great Parish School Debate2.
Her pork sausages were without compare, though. And they would have been the extent of the association between the Barnes and the Kinseys, if it weren’t for their children. First day of pre primary, for reasons she never bothered explaining, Allison had started following around the Barnes’ youngest and much delayed son, Arnold. To the deep disconcertment of Mrs Kinsey when pickup time rolled around, this had extended to the Barnes residence.
After that, there was little separating them. Jack wouldn’t have gone so far as to call Arnold a bad kid. He was sullen, definitely a sneak-thief, and Jack half believed he only played with Allison because they had more money, but nothing too objectionable… aside from his father. Jack would have preferred Allison not spend so much time with the bitter, raving veteran, especially after she’d complained of nightmares about communist takeover. And had come home one day knowing four new curse words3.
Jack had tried—not as subtly as he might’ve thought—to widen Allison’s circle of friends. A lot of playdates that went nowhere. His daughter just seemed to find Arnold Barnes comfortable, for whatever reason. And so, the Kinseys were forever doomed to pay for an extra child.
As it turned out, forever only lasted about three years.
“Were you here for anything specific, Mr. Kinsey? Or just browsing?” Mrs. Barnes asked, not looking up from her work.
Jack started. “Ah, just some smoked bacon, thanks.”
Her tone withering, Angela said, “I’m afraid ‘some’ is not a useful measurement, Mr. Kinsey.”
“Oh, sorry… half a pound?”
She wrapped his order for him in football results and election worries, setting it down on the counter while he fished the appropriate sum from his wallet. “It’s usually your wife in here. How is Drina doing?”
It was the first time in months anyone had asked Jack that question. He wanted to scream that he left home every morning not sure she’d be there when he came back. Instead, he answered, “She’s… coping.”
Angela looked the man over. He looked worse than she imagined he knew. Unkempt suit, the telltale rash of a clumsy shave. “Oh, Jack, are we really going to do this to each other?”
She stepped out from behind the counter, before walking over to the door and flipping the sign to “closed”. Jack froze when he saw her turn the lock.
She took his hand, leading Jack towards the back room, a dingy space mostly reserved for the uglier parts of meat preparation. He visibly cringed at the bloodstains.
“Look, Angela, if you’re gonna offer to pray with me—”
She removed two cans of Hannan’s Lager from a small fridge, handing one to Jack. “Prayer is always helpful, Mr. Kinsey. But right now, we need good drink.” She pulled up two milk crates to sit on.
Jack was surprised to say the least. “I didn’t know you drank.”
Angela was already opening hers. “My family’s Irish. We’re damned if we don’t drink.” She didn’t sound like she was joking.
They didn’t say much, at first. There wasn’t much need to. They were both explorers in a dry, empty land, and they knew the territory well.
“I’m almost thankful,” said Angela.
“They took your boy. How could you be thankful for that?”
“Because at least the DDHA isn’t a mob. Whatever they’re doing to our kids, it’s probably better than what our neighbours might’ve done. There was a lynching over in Kalgoorlie. Some boy who could tell dogs what to do. Or was it cats? Doesn’t matter. They just dragged him out of his house and—” She sucked her lips. “You don’t need to hear that part.”
“I don’t doubt it,” replied Jack. “Didn’t AU hit them a few months back?”
“I think they thought the boy was working for him.”
“People are better than that around here.”
Angela expected Jack would think that. When did people ever look at him with that sickly mixture of pity and revulsion? The strained smiles and the barely hidden bemusement. There but for the grace of God… “Maybe they are. But when a lot of people are angry, or scared, they can become very similar.” She took a long sip of her beer. “Fred’s not doing so well. Being a dad was the only thing that kept him from feeling completely useless. He’s been sending letters every day. I just hope they aren’t anything like the ones to the papers.”
Jack nodded sympathetically. “Drini’s been a mess. I don’t know if anything could make it worse, but Allison was the only flesh and blood she had left. It’s like the War all over again.” He stared down at his beer can. “Fucking Flying Man.”
He half-expected Angela to reprimand his language, but she just raised her beer and said, “I hear that.”
“What do you think he’s here for, anyway?”
The butcher looked perplexed by the question. “What do you mean?”
“Why he does what he does, I suppose,” Jack clarified.
This did not appear to clear anything up for Angela. “You mean why he flies around putting out bushfires and getting food to starving folk? He’s trying to help, clearly.”
“It can’t be that simple!” objected Jack. “He’s thrown everything off-kilter. He got our kids thrown in prison!”
“Because he’s a helpful idiot,” she replied mildly.
“An idiot can’t disarm thousands and thousands of a-bombs.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t smart. The most dangerous idiots always are. Dumb idiots, they don’t get up to much.”
“Angela, you’re not making sense.”
Angela leaned in, regarding Jack with the air of someone trying to figure out the best way of explaining the obvious. “I have two grown sons, Jack. Both of them went to university. And they both came home first break ready to burn down the world for all its crimes. And the Flying Man don’t look any older than them.”
It was then Jack realised how much longer the Barnes had been parents than he and Drina.
“So when did you realise?” asked Angela.
“That Allison was…well, you know—” For what may have been the first time, Jack thought Angela looked unsure of herself. “—a demi?” She looked away from him. “Awful thing to call a child.”
Jack immediately went on the defensive. “She’s not! I mean, she’s just smart! Since when do we jail children for being clever?”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Jack. Your daughter threw fire at armed soldiers. What else could she be?”
“Those kids were panicking, who knows what they saw?”
“There’s no shame in it. For either of you.”
“She’s exceptional, not abnormal!”
Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Then what’s my Arnold?”
Her words hung between them.
“I’m-I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“I get it,” said Angela. “Your child seems to know everything without even being taught it. She’s good at everything. If I were you, I’d like to think it was something that came from us or something we did, too. And maybe it’s not such an obvious gift. It’s a bit like being a simpleton, in a way. If you’re lucky, you don’t even know you’re lacking.” A low, sad chuckle. “It was harder for us to pretend, with Arnold.”
“…When did you find out?”
“Me? A few days after he was born. He kept—” She searched for a word. “—wishing his bottle into his hands. I had to keep him pretty close for a while. Make excuses when things went missing. Should’ve taken it as a warning; we never could completely belt the thief out of him.” She suddenly looked ashamed. “I prayed constantly for it to stop. It was a terrible thing to ask.”
“Because it was clearly a gift.” She did not miss the expression on his face, the probably subconscious arching of his eyebrow. “Oh, don’t give me that look. There’s nothing else it could be. Fred always said it was his fault, but that could mean anything.”
Jack Kinsey was not a superstitious man. He mostly only went to church because it was the Done Thing. But these were strange times… “A gift from who?”
Angela looked at him like he’d just suggested it came from Woolworths. “Only Protestants burnt witches, Jack. If the Devil could do what Arnold does, what hope would any of us have? He stopped when he started walking. I once read—” A hint of a smile appeared in the corner of her mouth. “—or it might have been your daughter that told me—that babies are born able to hold their breath under water. Then they have to pick it up again.”
“And you think that’s how it was with Arnold?”
She nodded. “Can’t be sure when it came back. Me and Fred were waiting for the right time to talk to him about it.” She fussed with the strings of her apron. “We waited too long, didn’t we? What must he think of us, now?”
“You really think Allison and Arnold are the same?”
“Did you teach her how to fix our car? I think that’s why they were so close. Like they knew what they were, in that place faith sits. And I want to thank you for letting them have that. I know a lot of people around wouldn’t have let their child spend so much time with ours.”
“I-it was nothing. He made Allison happy. I’d hardly deserve to live if I didn’t let her have that.”
Angela smiled mournfully at him. “They both deserved so much better. And so do we.”
In that moment, Jack Kinsey felt watched; whether by God, or by ghosts, or by something else altogether. What he knew for sure was that he did not deserve this woman’s gratitude. “I did it.”
The words slipped out almost of their own violation. Angela stood staring. “…Did what?”
“I saw Arnold doing what he does to some cans in the McKinleys’ paddock. I called the DDHA—”
If Jack had anything more to say, he was on the floor before he could get it out, bleeding out his nose. Before he could make any sound, Angela’s boot collided with his solar plexus.
“You bastard! You sat in my shop, acting like you cared one bit for my son, when you were the one who took him away from me!”
Jack fought to speak through the pain, but was rewarded with another hard kick to his chest.
“I knew what your daughter was for years, Kinsey. And did I ever do anything about it?”
Jack made no attempt to answer, too concerned with trying to shield anything vital.
“No! Because you can say whatever you want about me and my family, but we’re not cowardly enough to fear children!” She pulled the man up by the scruff of his neck, pushing him back out into the storefront towards the door, which she began unlocking.
“You got what you deserved, Kinsey. I’m just sorry my boy and your daughter have to pay for it.” She shoved Jack out onto the street, before throwing the bacon packet after him. “And don’t come back!”
Angela slammed the door shut, slumping down against it. For a minute, she allowed herself to bathe in her anger, finally able to put a face on her family’s suffering. Then the worry, which had dominated her life ever since her husband first shipped out, returned keener than ever before.
He could press charges, she thought. Not as if he broke any law. He was just doing his “duty”. What’ll Fred do if I’m locked away, too? What if they let Arnold out, and there’s nobody there for him?
Her thoughts turned to Jack Kinsey. God help that bastard. God help that girl.
She was startled from her grief by a thundercrack. That was unfamiliar to her, but the green flash wasn’t. There was a piece of stationery at her feet, a Galapagos finch in flight printed in the top left corner. She picked the letter up with trembling fingers. She’d helped her son enough with his homework to recognise his scrawl.
Hey Mum, sorry I didn’t send you this sooner. I thought you might be mad if I did. But I saw something that made me think you wouldn’t. This professor guy took me to live on his farm with a load of other new human (that’s what he likes us to call demis) kids. Near Northam, I think. Allison’s here too (she helped with the spelling!). If her letter doesn’t get to them, could you tell her mum and dad she’s okay?
Relieved, Angela Barnes clutched the letter to her chest, finally allowing herself the luxury of tears.
1. The identity of the head of the DDHA at the time was withheld from the public. According to the government, this was to protect him from the ire of supervillains who might oppose his department’s work. Perhaps one was meant to infer the braying mob of blood-hungry parents.↩
2. Which could be transcribed as the sound of breaking cartilage.↩
3. Fred Barnes did try to avoid swearing around children, but there is little one can do to forget swear words entirely whenever Allison is around.↩