*Winner of Rotorua Noir short story competition
She looked down, not daring to lift her eyes.
But it was only as the minutes passed that her mind surrendered to the temptation of believing them.
They were still there.
They had to be.
Because if she could see them, then there was a chance that she was still alive.
She smiled as she twisted her neck, and looked up at the ceiling. The childlike expression, almost joyful in appearance, was strangely out of place on her cracked and bloodied lips. But lying flat on her back, with her head at rest, offered a welcome reprieve from the pain that was stabbing through her body.
She looked back, to be sure, and counted them again.
She could feel it. For the first time, she could feel the warmth of flesh on her cold arm.
A connection to the living.
She closed her eyes and tried to visualise her surroundings. There were fewer gaps now, now that her periods of consciousness had grown longer and her field of vision had widened. There were four walls, all cream, with no discernable features. No pictures or windows, just the occasional patch of worn paint. Small cracks had formed in the ceiling where water had penetrated from above, seeking an exit. The biggest crack was on the same wall as her bed, an area of plaster that had fractured and dislodged, leaving a shallow crater in the shape of India. But it was the smell, almost acidic, which gave her the slightest clue as to her location.
Sulphur or egg?
And then, of course, there was the one part of the room that wasn’t ordinary at all.
She was attached to something.
Her right arm was wrapped in white tape and a small plastic tube, ending in a needle, had been inserted into her vein. She tried to get a better look, but the long strip of tubing rose up behind her head and out of her field of vision.
When she had first noticed the needle, maybe two or three days ago, she had tried to pull at it. But the pain of moving had been too much and she had passed out. On the second attempt, she had managed to wrap her fingers around the plastic tube. But, when she went to pull at it, a small hand had gripped hers. The gesture wasn’t forceful. If anything, it was the intimacy of it that made her stop.
A small boy.
Five or six years old.
She smiled at the child, blood staining the seams of her teeth, to confirm that she wouldn’t touch it. The boy shook his head, right to left. Then he stood there with his mouth ajar, a striking contrast of white teeth on dark skin. He only stayed for a few moments that first time, but the length of his visits had increased.
He hadn’t spoken since, hadn’t smiled.
Now, as she lay there, she could feel his small fingers clasped around her thumb, returning life to her body.
Her withered heart hung from her ribs like a pendulum. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Without warning, a loud blast tore through the room, followed by a violent jolt that rippled through the walls, stirring the furniture and shaking the bed.
A second wave came a moment later.
She did a visual sweep of the room to check for damage. Minimal. The explosion had been close, less than a hundred metres away, in a different building or out on the street perhaps. She listened to the sound of voices beyond the door, picturing the chaos as people hurried to locate the source of the blast. The child released her thumb, turned on his heels, and scampered from the room. It was the first time that she had noticed that the door wasn’t locked. And if it wasn’t for the pain in her limbs, she could have stood up and walked out.
Something banged against the outside of the door, a dull thud followed by raised voices and the shuffle of feet. The sound of the commotion was settling, it made the rest of the world seem closer, stretching her existence beyond the four cream walls. She used the moment to look at her battered body. Her arms were covered in bruises and there was a painful laceration across her shoulder. The pain, however, was strangely comforting; totally insistent upon her attention. And, in those brief moments when it subsided, the remembrance of pain resembled something close to pleasure, a souvenir of being alive.
The left of her mouth flickered in a smile and she lay back.
The disorder continued outside for the next couple of hours, but still, no one came to see her. After a while, the sirens that could be heard in the distance died down and for a few minutes, her room was reclaimed by silence.
Her room, somewhere in nowhere.
As she stared at the India-shaped crack on the wall, her thoughts turned, as they inevitably did, back to a single question.
The same question.
Over and over.
Who am I?
It was strange thought to occupy one’s mind, knowing that if she was to die in that room, which was entirely possible, she would die without a name.
A number on a clipboard perhaps.
She groaned as she pushed herself up, her throat omitting little more than a raspy cough. Her neck ached with every movement, but with no mirror to capture her reflection she had to rely on touch. Her skin felt tender, like it had been burned. She was contemplating the sensation, with her hand held around her neck, when the door inched open.
Hello there, little one.
The boy moved towards her, releasing the door slowly with his hand so as not to make a sound. He didn’t take actual steps but rather he slid his bare feet across the floor, preventing his heels from thumping on the hard tiles.
Naughty, naughty, she thought.
Someone’s not meant to be playing in here.
Smiling, she looked around the room, bare but for a few pieces of furniture, and settled her eyes on the small rucksack in the corner. It was propped up against the wall, discarded as an afterthought. The boy nodded in understanding as he moved towards it. He lifted the bag, the concave fabric suggesting that it was all but empty, and placed it on the side of her bed. Then he began to rummage through the contents, pulling out each item one at a time and holding them up for her to inspect.
A lightweight shawl. Sunglasses. A three-inch blade.
The knife was delicate, barely bigger than her thumb. She imagined that it was the type of knife that you would choose if you wanted to experience a killing, to feel the blood running between your fingers as it pierced warm flesh. It wasn’t the knife of a chef or a butcher. It was a knife of a hunter.
The remaining items were less interesting, undeserving of note.
Growing impatient, she nodded her head in the boy’s direction, urging him to go faster, not caring that an item might clatter onto the hard floor.
Sun cream. Car keys. An iPhone.
Too drained to think anymore, she lay back and waved the boy away with her hand. He gathered up the items, all but one, and returned them. Then he propped the bag back up against the wall and walked to the edge of the bed. There he waited with his arms by his side, a tiny soldier stood to attention.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
His voice was clearer than she would have expected. More grown-up.
“I don’t know,” she coughed. “Do you?”
He shook his head.
“Would you like to give me one?”
The boy took a moment to mull it over.
“Aroha,” he said.
Maori, she thought. For love.
Aroha stared at the boy’s face and grinned, savouring the warm metallic flavour in her mouth. Blood. She ran her tongue over her teeth, front then back, appreciating the salty iron taste.
“Aroha,” she said. “I like it.”
She gestured for him to come closer, letting out a sigh as she ran the tips of her fingers down his forearm. His skin was soft, youthful.
“Are you sore,” he asked.
Aroha followed the boy’s gaze and took in her own body. Physically, she knew that she wasn’t in a good way. The look on the child’s face was enough to tell her that. She had obviously lost a lot of blood and her limbs were bandaged and bruised.
But she was alive.
Very much alive.
Aroha’s smile widened and she drew her torso up, sitting with her back and shoulders against the wall. If she distributed her body weight evenly on both hips then the pain was almost bearable.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“And how old are you, Tui?”
Aroha searched the child’s face. He seemed too small to be seven.
“Is that your real age?”
“Yes.” He hesitated. “Why?”
“You’ve got a big job for someone who’s seven.”
The boy frowned, unsure how to respond.
“You are my doctor, are you not?”
He stared back at her in disbelief.
“Children can’t be doctors.”
“Oh,” she said, feigning confusion, “so if you’re not my doctor, then who are you?”
The boy glanced over his shoulder at the door.
“They told me not to talk to you.”
The boy shook his head. “I’m not…”
He pulled at the sleeves of his jumper, looking like he might burst into tears.
“We didn’t hurt you,” he said. “I promise.”
“I know, poppet.” She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Can you tell me who did?”
He was about to answer when the door opened behind them.
Without hesitation, the boy leapt to his feet and sprinted from the room, leaving Aroha alone on the bed with her fingers splayed out on the vacated sheet.
She looked up and grinned.
“You’re awake,” said the woman.
She walked forward, letting the door drift shut behind her.
Aroha smiled, almost flirtatious.
“It would appear so.”
The woman looked to be in her late thirties, a little younger perhaps. She had grey streaks through her dark hair and her eyes were diluted by a quiet tiredness. Her features were sharp, the wrinkles across her forehead and around her eyes the remnants of hard work and exertion rather than time. The woman walked over and sat on the edge of the mattress. Then she placed a hand on Aroha’s forehead and ran two fingers through her hair.
“You’re lucky,” she said. “To be alive.”
Aroha looked at her with wide eyes and a thin smile. The expression came naturally to her lips, revealing an emotional vulnerability that she wasn’t sure she felt. She filled her lungs, and breathed in her own smell, the bitter scent reminding her of vinegar and honey.
“Close your eyes,” said the woman.
Aroha obeyed. She tried to turn her mind, to think more clearly. But it wasn’t her mind that steered her, it was instinct. And so, she lay still, compliant, as the woman attended to her bandages. The way that the women looked at her, touched her, it felt strange. Kind. And Aroha was fairly certain that it was the only reason that she didn’t fight back, the only reason that the woman was still breathing.
Aroha opened her eyes, watching as the woman pulled out a pair of plastic blue gloves and slipped them onto her hands. Then she repositioned herself on the bed, so that she had a better hold of Aroha’s arm, and adjusted the roller clamp on the tubing. After stabilising the catheter, she pulled the tape towards the insertion site and removed the tubing from Aroha’s arm. The woman did it without faltering, a procedure that she must have done a hundred times over.
“Who are you?” asked Aroha.
“Pounamu. I’m a nurse.” The woman offered a smile. “It’s okay, you can relax, you’re safe here.”
“My brother’s surgery.”
Aroha looked around at the plain surroundings and frowned.
“The main hospital wasn’t an option.”
Pounamu lifted the blankets from Aroha’s torso and tucked them in around her knees.
“This building used to be the maternity ward,” explained the woman.
Without further explanation, she peeled up the edges of Aroha’s ripped t-shirt. It was the first time that Aroha had seen herself so plainly, her bare torso lacking the shield of clothing. She was strong, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on her, and she could make out the hollows of her abdominal muscles. But her body was covered in deep purple contusions, the evidence of recent bruising.
Aroha didn’t fuss, didn’t flinch. Little girls, with their hair tied in plaits, flinched when they got bruises in the playground.
What did interest her, however, was the large bloodied bandage that covered almost a third of her abdomen. She watched as Pounamu removed the dressing to reveal a long wound, the mangled tissue held together by staples.
The smile on Aroha’s face grew as amusement crept into her eyes.
“Stay still,” said the nurse.
With expert hands, Pounamu cleaned up the wound and applied a clean bandage.
“The knife went very deep,” she said. “And, the fact that you’re still alive … it’s incredible. A puncture like that, I mean, it really should have killed you. You’ll need to take it easy for a while, give it time to heal properly.”
Aroha waited for the nurse to clean up, lying in silent contemplation as Pounamu left to wash her hands and to dispose of the soiled bandages. But when the nurse returned, her patient was already sitting up.
“My understanding of solitary confinement,” said Aroha, “is that it’s solitary.”
“Not that I minded the visits,” she said. “The little boy… he’s funny.”
“That’s my nephew. He shouldn’t have been in here.”
“Should I be here?”
Aroha glanced over at the IV tube, her expression one of mild entertainment.
“Am I here for your pleasure?” she said.
Aroha smiled, lifting her wrists.
“But no handcuffs,” she said. “What if I’m naughty?”
“You’ve suffered a quite sizable trauma to the head,” she said. “From repeated punching most likely. All of this, it must be very strange and disturbing for you.”
“It’s not very nice to tell someone that they’re disturbed.” Aroha pouted. “It might upset them.”
“I didn’t mean…”
Aroha tilted her head, first to the right and then to the left.
“Why am I here?” she asked, her cheeks dimpled.
But she didn’t get a chance to answer.
The explosion knocked them both backward, and Pounamu fell to the floor.
Aroha’s ears were still ringing when the door flung wide open, flooding the room with light. The injection of natural light was blinding after days spent in the gloom, the bright shafts powdering the air with white specks of dust.
Aroha held her arm out in front of her and used her fingers to splinter the light as her pupils adjusted. Then, using the wall for support, she pushed herself up and took a deep breath. But as soon as the air hit the back of her throat she started spluttering, her windpipe infiltrated by hundreds of dust particles.
A second, less violent, shudder shot through the room and Aroha curled her lips in anticipation.
The world is ending cried the caterpillar. No smiled the butterfly, it’s just beginning.
Aroha smiled, and covered her mouth.
“It’s happening again,” said Pounamu.
She was crouched on the floor, using her arms to shield her head.
Aroha looked around, taking in her surroundings with the additional advantage of light. The bare bones, she thought, enough to facilitate basic medical treatment. She pressed her hand against the wall for stability. The single receptacle for medical supplies lay exposed on the floor and the IV pole, which she had been attached to only moments earlier, had fallen across her bed. She pushed it to the side, the stand clattering to the hard ground, and pulled back the blankets.
“Time to go,” she said sweetly.
Pounamu stood up, a hint of fear lingering in her voice. “You can’t… walking will be too painful.”
“More or less painful than being crushed to death?”
The nurse looked back at her.
“Here,” she said, “lean on my shoulder. We need to find my brother.”
The sound of hurried footsteps echoed through the room and a moment later a man appeared in the door.
“We need to go, right now,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
Pounamu stepped aside. Her hands were steady, but her eyes betrayed her as she looked up at her brother.
“What the hell’s going on, Will? And where’s Tui? I thought that …”
“Hello, Will,” smiled Aroha.
“Grab onto me,” the man ordered. “I’ll carry you.”
He wasn’t a muscular man, as a doctor and a father he had little time for exercise, but he lifted Aroha from the bed as if she weighed little more than a child. Aroha curled her arms around his neck, savouring the pain.
Very much alive.
“Wrap that round her,” he said, nodding at the thin blanket on the bed.
His sister’s hands worked quickly, pinching the light cotton fabric beneath Aroha’s chin and crossing the corners of the scarf around her neck, left to right, then right to left. Then she lifted the back corner of the material and tucked in the ends to veil her face.
“Keep your head bowed,” said Pounamu. “The scarf should do the rest.”
“Go,” said Will. “Tui is safe at home. I’ll take care of her.”
His sister touched his face and turned from the room.
Aroha felt the rush of air upon her skin, a warm sensation followed by the smell of sulphur.
They were outside.
She squinted, able to catch glimpses of the outside world through the gap in her veil. From her perch, she watched with a bemused indifference as people ran past. Her eyes flicked from side to side as she took it all in, absorbing it with the fervour of a greedy child. She tilted her head, eyebrows raised, and paused to admire the perfectly arranged flower beds. Rows of wooden boxes lined the pavements, filled with reds and whites.
Or they would have been pretty, she thought, if the old man hadn’t fallen on top of them. Aroha scoffed at the man’s carelessness. His arms and legs were splayed out at odd angles, crushing the plants. She frowned, a genuine concern filling her expression. The large chunks of debris that had flown through the air, causing the man to lose his balance, were now squashing the white Begonias.
Such a shame.
Aroha loved Begonias.
At least, she guessed she did.
The cause of the damage was located fifty metres behind the man, where pieces of rock and mud were shooting out of the earth. The geyser had died down a little, but there was still a thirty-metre radius around the spring that was being scorched by sprays of debris. The eruption had ripped a huge hole in the pavement and the column of water was blowing fifteen metres into the air.
Aroha looked up, stretching her gaze as far as the veil would allow. Little more than a hundred metres down the street, there was another one. She couldn’t pull her eyes away, the force of it was mesmerising. The noise was equally impressive, the constant thumps and sprays emitted a low frequency that matched the vibration of her pulse, sending a tremor through her body.
Her neck jerked as Will stopped. He paused and adjusted his grip, before taking a sharp left. From beneath the blanket, she could make out the glass doors of restaurants and shops, the main street perhaps. It was busier than the last one, more people, more shouting.
It didn’t take long to work out why.
Aroha gazed over at the skeleton of metal that had once been a large marquee, an outside eating area for customers. The eruption must have only happened a few minutes ago. There were no police or fire-fighters. It was just her and Will, and a handful of panicked civilians. The guts of the restaurant were exposed. Overturned chairs and tables had leaked out onto the street and flecks of broken glass were glinting in the sun. Aroha watched the internal debate play out on Will’s face as people rushed forward, using their bare hands to work through the rubble.
Them or me doctor?
There were three or four people stumbling through the debris, but she couldn’t tell if they were injured or not. Her attention was diverted by the screams of a single woman. The woman, a wife or sister, was leaning against a broken table with her body cocooned over a young man. His hair was matted with fresh blood, marking the spot where a large outdoor heater had fallen on his head and knocked him unconscious.
The woman’s screaming grated on her.
Aroha watched as another woman raced over and knelt down beside them, checking the man for a pulse. From the look on her face, she had found one. Both women started crying and embraced each other.
Aroha rolled her eyes.
“I have to get you out of here,” said Will. “We can’t stay.”
Will looked down, picturing her weak smile. He couldn’t see her face, but the calm in her voice was unnerving. She sounded almost bored. As a doctor, he knew that it wasn’t unusual for trauma victims to withdraw into themselves or to feel numb. But given the situation, he had expected a slightly different emotion from his patient.
Maybe, he thought, she was more damaged than they realised.
He would never forget the morning that they had found her, how she had crawled towards him, on all fours, her face a liquidated mess. It was an image that would stay with him forever. She had looked more like a corpse than a living woman. In truth, it was incredible that she was still alive.
Instinct told him to stop, to set her down, and to offer help in any way that he could. But he didn’t.
They had to keep moving.
She wasn’t safe out in the open.
Will navigated his way through the streets with ease. He paused only once when a woman reached out and caught hold of his elbow. She spoke to him in hurried sentences, too quick for Aroha to decipher. Aroha couldn’t see the woman’s face, but Will seemed to know her, a patient of his perhaps. He spoke to her in a calm voice, masking the exhaustion in his lungs, and promised to examine her son as soon as he could, saying that her son’s injury sounded mild. This seemed to settle the woman and she thanked him before releasing his arm.
Each face that Aroha caught a glimpse of was like that, all wearing the same expression of uncertainty. A quiet panic filtered through the air like perfume, secreted from their wide eyes and cavernous mouths. Aroha breathed it in as she was carried through the crowds, watching as people scurried like ants.
Every man but one.
One man stood quite still. He stood with his hands in his trouser pockets, watching, his eyes searching the scene in silence.
Looking for her.
Rotorua wasn’t a big town. It was only a matter of time.
Soon he would find her.
And then he would make her scream.
Hidden beneath the blanket, Aroha struggled to keep a hold of the noisy street, her mind slipping in and out of reality with the pain. The position of being held was crushing her ribs and it was hurting like hell. Still, she was conscious, existing somewhere between light and dark. It was a feeling of dissociation, as if her brain was trying to block out the pain. It didn’t shut her consciousness down completely, just detached it, stealing her from the present in dreamlike increments.
Prized with a moment of lucidity, she raised her head. She could hear sirens. They were getting louder, closer. Uncomfortably close…
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere safe,” said Will. “Keep your head down.”
A few moments later, he stopped. He was tired and shaking, his arms a tapestry of blue veins, but he held her tight. Aroha listened as he spoke, his whispered words followed by the creak of hinges as a door opened. He walked forward, and Aroha sensed a slow sinking in her skull as she was lowered. Then she felt the springs of the mattress take her weight.
Only then did Aroha look up.
Only then did she see the child.
The little girl, no more than three or four, was sitting on a pull-up massage table, holding a Moana doll. She was giggling, her eyes following Pounamu as the nurse pulled funny faces. If it wasn’t for the child’s Disney tutu, the two smiling princesses splattered with dry blood, the scene would have been of little interest of Aroha. The girl was small, scrawny, her two skinny arms no more than bones swathed in thin leaves of skin. The left one was fine, warm and pink, but there was a short piece of cylindrical piping sticking out of her right forearm, an inch of the hard steel still embedded in her flesh.
“She’ll be right.”
Aroha turned to the source of the voice and gave an empathetic smile; the fragile princess appeasing her prince. Her expression was warm, the corners of her lips pulled downwards, suggesting genuine concern. It was strange, that she couldn’t remember her own name, and yet she knew that there were nineteen different types of smile. Only six of which were used for happiness.
The man who had spoken was younger and slightly leaner than Will, but he had the same kind eyes.
“My bro’s pretty handy when it comes to stitching people up.”
“Poor poppet,” said Aroha. “What happened?”
“A bloody bore.” He shook his head. “One of the old abandoned ones. Shot that piece of piping straight into her fucking arm when it exploded.”
Aroha watched as Will washed the girl’s wound and covered it with a dressing. The discarded piece of piping, so small, lay lifeless on the floor.
Losing interest, Aroha looked around the room, at the pictures on the walls and the toys on the floor. Will’s living room, she guessed. She could visualise the activity of family life filling the house. Will entertaining his son as his wife prepared dinner. Music playing in the background.
It wasn’t until Will touched her arm, using no more than his fingertips, that she realised the room had emptied and that they were alone. His touch was soft, intended not to alarm her.
Aroha leaned forward and ran her hands over his face.
“You have a pretty face,” she said.
He pulled out a chair and sat next to the bed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fantastic.” She smiled. “Why?”
“After an injury like yours, it’s completely normal to feel a bit different, a little angry or unstable perhaps.” He paused, delicate in his delivery. “Would you say that you maybe feel a little like that? A bit agitated possibly?”
“Can I lie?”
She grinned, childlike.
“I would prefer that you didn’t.”
Aroha took a moment to think.
“I think that my period is due. That might make me agitated.”
She pursed her lips and frowned.
“Does your wife have tampons?”
Will pulled his chair in closer, a doctor’s instinct, and placed his hand on hers.
“You’ve been through a lot,” he said.
His voice was professional, supportive.
“You’ve suffered a significant trauma to your head and I think that it may be affecting your behaviour and the way that you react to things, emotionally. I understand that this must be very confusing for you, and quite overwhelming, but I would like to help.”
His expression softened.
“We can’t stay here too long but I think that before we go, it would help for you to ask some questions. Clear your head a little.”
“Are we going on a trip?”
“Not exactly,” he said. “It’s a little complicated.”
He ran a hand through his hair and down his face.
“Basically,” he said, “the council declared a state of emergency in Rotorua a couple of hours ago, because of all the thermal activity, and we have to leave.”
Aroha didn’t say anything. She didn’t look concerned or frightened.
She simply looked mildly amused.
“Do you remember anything from the past few weeks?” asked Will.
Aroha shook her head.
“Right,” he said. “Of course you don’t.”
He rubbed his temples, a soft exhaustion diluting his features, before he looked up.
“Long story short,” he said. “About a month ago, Te Puia started recording unusually high temperatures, well above the norm, and shortly after that, there were a number of small earthquakes in town. Nothing major. And to be honest, no one really thought much about it at first, we’re all used to the odd tremor. But then GNS started talking about magma movement and there were concerns about the earthquake line that runs from Te Puia to Ohinemutu, the one that goes all the way to the lake. Then, for about a week, one of the larger geysers at Te Puia kept roaring up to about a hundred metres and quieting down again.”
He shook his head, his lips betraying a weary smile.
“They even promoted it as a tourist attraction for a couple of days.”
The doctor let out a sigh, the tension evident in his back and shoulders as he shuffled in his seat.
“The first real explosion occurred about three days ago, in the middle of the lake, and huge chunks of rock and mud were sent fifteen, maybe twenty, metres into the air. Then there was another one, closer to Ohinemutu, but still contained in the water. It wasn’t until this morning that the old bores around town, and in people’s gardens, started exploding. That’s when the state of emergency was called. Now, it’s just a case listening to the radio and waiting to hear updates.”
Aroha frowned and stuck out her lower lip.
“I missed all of the fun.”
“I’m not sure that I would call it fun,” said Will. “A lot of people have been injured by the eruptions. The hospitals are inundated. And to make matters worse, the council doesn’t even know where all of the closed bores are located.”
“Is that why the little girl was here?” asked Aroha.
“Yes.” He sounded drained. “I’ve been trying to help out with some of the more minor issues here, just burns and grazes mainly, to relieve the pressure on the emergency department.”
“You’re a good man,” said Aroha.
A tired smile crossed his lips.
He took a long breath.
“Now,” he said, “back to you. Ask whatever you want, and I’ll try and answer as best as I can.”
Aroha glanced around the room, at the pretty family things, before turning back to look at him.
“London is the capital of England,” she said. “And, at the age of 13, Donald Trump’s parents sent him to New York Military Academy.”
She counted them off on her fingers.
“Iceland, on average, has a volcanic eruption every four years. A tiger, like its sabre-tooth ancestor, relies on its teeth for survival. If it loses its canines it can no longer kill and will likely starve to death. Did you know that?”
“I don’t suppose I’ve ever thought about it.”
“My head is full of these random facts; the names of politicians, countries, capitals. But, if you asked me to tell you my name or to tell you what cake I had for my sixteenth birthday … nothing. Maybe I didn’t even have a cake. Wouldn’t that be sad?”
She stuck out her bottom lip.
“You’re a doctor,” she said. “So tell me, what’s wrong?”
“I like complicated.”
“Okay.” He let out a sigh as he ran his hands down his thighs. “Essentially, we all have two types of memory. One part of our memory deals with facts and events, while the other part focuses on how to do certain things, like riding a bike or tying our shoelaces. Right now, you have no problem with remembering these learned skills, it is the other part of your memory that has been affected, the part that deals with events and facts.”
He paused to clear his throat.
“This is where it gets a little more confusing, so please stop me if I’m rambling.”
Aroha nodded for him to go on.
“You see, there are two types of facts. There are those pieces of information that we have learned about the world. For example, the capital of England or the answer to 100 divided by five. However, there are also facts that we have learned from the world, things that are linked to our personal experiences, like what we did for our fifth birthday or where we went on our summer holiday. And because all of these memory systems are separate, it meant that when you suffered a blow to the head, you only lost one of them.”
“So I’ve lost my personal memories?”
“Yes. And that is why you are able to remember random facts, without being able to tell me your name.”
“Will I regain my memory?”
“Improvements are possible. But the extent to which…”
Aroha held up her hand to stop him. He was beginning to bore her.
“And why am I here?”
“We found you,” said Will.
“In Kuira Park,” he said. “A few days ago… but you weren’t in a good way.”
“I think that someone was trying to kill you.”
“Well, that’s not very nice.”
Will looked over at her from his chair, the expression on his face caught somewhere between exhaustion and concern.
“I know it’s a long shot,” he said. “But do you have any idea who might want to hurt you?”
Aroha tapped the side of her head with her forefinger.
She looked back at him with vacant eyes, the look of indifference followed by one of childlike curiosity.
“How did they do it?”
“Did they have a gun crammed down my throat?”
She lifted her arm to massage the back of her neck.
“I have been very stiff today.” She frowned. “Or was it with bare hands?”
“You were badly beaten up,” said Will. “But the most serious damage, to your stomach, was done using a kitchen knife. At least, that’s my best guess.”
“We weren’t there when it happened,” he said. “In fact, it was by pure coincidence that we were in the park at all. I was down there doing a temperature check on one of the thermal springs when I heard someone screaming, but the steam was too thick to see anything.”
His expression changed.
“By the time Pounamu got to you, the man had disappeared.”
“So he’s still out there,” she said.
“Yes. Which is why we need to keep you hidden.”
“And the police?”
Will shifted in his seat, clearly uncomfortable.
“My sister,” he said. “She was worried that if we took you straight to the police, then they would admit you to the hospital where you would be too easy to trace.”
“Too easy?” asked Aroha.
“Yes.” Will paused. “For him.”
He dipped his eyes.
“Apparently when Pounamu found you, you kept repeating the same thing over and over, saying that he’d find you, and that he wouldn’t stop. She was quite shaken up by it all. Whatever you said, or did, it scared her. And she made me promise that we wouldn’t call the police, not until you were stronger.”
Aroha chewed on her bottom lip.
“I think,” she said, “that I would like to find him.”
Will stared back at her.
“You can’t do that.”
“Why not,” she smiled.
“You’re too weak.” Will’s mouth hung open. “And this area of town is going to be evacuated soon. We need to be ready to leave in the morning.”
Aroha pointed to a pair of trainers on the floor.
“Do you think they’re my size?”
“They look about an eight.”
Will went to say something, but Aroha held up her hand.
“I need to rest.”
She lay back on the mattress.
“No more talk.”
Then she turned on to her side, with her back to him.
“Go be with your family.”
Time ticked away and night passed to dawn, into the small hours when nothing breathed.
And as Aroha slept, the man outside watched.
He had the look of a man who knew what the morning would bring, and for good reason. The odds of finding her had been slim. He knew that he had screwed up, that he should have been more thorough the first time. And yet, just like that, she had appeared on the street. No more than twenty metres in front of him. He had followed her for five minutes, unable to wipe the grin from his face when she disappeared into the house.
Seeing her in the street had been a stroke of luck, a gift. But he had no intention of leaving anything else to chance.
This time, there would be no margin for error.
This time, she would die.
She would pay for what she had done.
Pleasant dreams my sweet.
Aroha slept like a baby.
Until five o’clock.
When the sound of approaching footsteps made her open her eyes.
“Well, aren’t you full of surprises,” she said.
“We don’t have long; my brother will be back at seven. Here, take these.”
Aroha smiled as she reached out to grab the jersey and the pair of trainers.
“And what would he say if he knew you were here?”
Pounamu looked at her with panicked eyes.
“Just one grimace, one burst staple, and I’m calling him.”
Aroha held up her arms.
Pounamu shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“And why are you, exactly?”
Pounamu looked at her, a soft anger lingering in her eyes.
“That bastard deserves to pay for what he did to you,” she said. “And if we can’t get a glimpse of his face, then we can’t pick the asshole out in a line-up.”
She paused, concern crossing her eyes.
“Do you think you’ll know it’s him, if we do find him?”
Aroha’s smile widened.
“I think he’ll find us.”
They reached the front door as the earth rumbled. Just a small shudder this time.
Without hesitating, Pounamu opened the door and the two women stepped out onto the street.
“Where to?” she asked.
“A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, right?”
“But,” Pounamu hesitated. “Kuira Park has been cordoned off.”
She grabbed Aroha by the arm.
“There have been two explosions there in the past week, one big one. No one’s allowed in.”
“Perfect,” said Aroha.
She turned her head so that their faces were only inches apart.
“I don’t like people.”
Then she smiled, sweet puppy eyes, and walked ahead.
He held his body rigid, waiting for them to pass.
They were less than thirty feet away from him. The taller woman looked back in his direction, stalling, but it was too dark for him to make out her expression
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…
He was about to step forward, his right arm tensed at his side, when he realised that she wasn’t actually looking at him. She was glancing back at the house. He pocketed his gun and watched as they moved away.
A few moments later, he emerged from the shadows.
Smiling as he walked after them.
Pounamu was right about the park.
Bubbles boiled up and burst on the surface of the pools, the mud simmering quietly as the pressure increased from below. Large patches of grass had been completely destroyed, left barren but for the covering of grey mud and rocks.
“Over there,” said Pounamu, pointing. “From last week.”
A crater had been left by the eruption, more than fifteen metres wide. And the surrounding area, within twenty centimetres of the crater, was covered in ash and mud, almost a metre thick.
“It’s incredible that no one was injured,” said Pounamu.
She turned to look at Aroha.
“It’s kind of pretty,” said Aroha.
Aroha walked to the edge of the nearest hot pool and stood there, fingering the yellow police tape, as wisps of steam wrapped around the lower half of her body. Pounamu stood next to her, and they looked out over the park. But they couldn’t see anything. The horizon was veiled by a thick white fog.
Aroha closed her eyes, grinning as the steam warmed her face, and imagined placing her hands on the small of Pounamu’s back, and pushing her in.
When Aroha opened her eyes, the nurse was staring at her.
“Apparently,” said Pounamu, “being boiled to death was a common punishment in the 1500s.”
“Like poaching a chicken.”
Aroha pushed out her bottom lip.
“I can’t even,” began Pounamu. “I mean, the pain…it…”
She stopped, her words evaporating with the mist.
“They say,” said Aroha, raising her eyebrows, “that human flesh has quite a unique smell when it’s boiled. Everyone is slightly different, either sweet or musky. Did you know that?”
“No,” said Pounamu.
“Funny,” said Aroha, “that it would be the last thing that you learned about yourself before you died.”
Pounamu didn’t reply.
“Come on,” said Aroha, linking arms, “let’s go for a walk.”
“I’m not sure that this is such a good idea,” said Pounamu, looking down at their arms. “I mean, what if we do find him, then what?”
“Come with me, please, just you and me.”
Aroha was about to pull her away when she noticed the shadow of movement behind her.
The gun came first.
Then the man appeared from the steam, his arm held out in front of him.
“Morning,” he said.
Aroha felt the back of her head thump against the ground.
It happened so quickly that she barely had time to register the fall and, as the pain shot through her battered her body, she found herself laughing in stunned disbelief. She looked up towards the sky, her brain thumping against the insides of her skull as her eyes rolled backwards, and let out a manic snigger.
“You?” she spluttered, the blood already filling her mouth.
The hand tightened around her throat, and she could feel the staples ripping from her wound.
“All of the surprises,” she spat, as the amusement filled her eyes.
“You have no idea.”
Pounamu pressed her knee harder into Aroha’s stomach, using her body to pin her to the ground, as she turned to stare at the man. Although her eyes were hidden in shadow, just her forehead and cheekbones caught in the light, her features evidenced an emotion that hadn’t been there before.
“Just one step,” said Pounamu. “And your girlfriend’s dead.”
Pounamu shook her head and let out a frustrated laugh. Then she scanned Aroha’s face, looking at her as if for the first time.
“For the past few days,” she said, “I’ve had to bathe you and change your dressings, caring for you like some sick child… when all I wanted, was to punch in that pretty face of yours.”
“Let her go,” said the man.
Pounamu glanced back in his direction.
“I knew it was you.” She grinned. “I saw you following me in the street, then outside my brother’s house.”
“Let her go.” He said it slower this time.
“It must have been quite a shock,” said Pounamu, “seeing me again.”
The man pointed the gun at her head.
“I’ve had better days.”
Pounamu held a hand to her chest and smiled.
“That hurts,” she said, pouting. “I thought that you’d be pleased, Caleb, to see your girlfriends spending some time together.”
She glanced down at Aroha.
“We’ve been getting along so nicely, haven’t we?”
“For fucks sake, Pou.” He was shouting now. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“What?” The corners of her mouth flickered. “It was just a little stab wound.”
“You almost fucking killed her.”
Pounamu’s expression darkened, and she tightened her hand around Aroha’s throat.
“You can’t seriously think that you have a future with this psychopath?”
“Get up, Pou.” His knuckles whitened as he gripped the gun. “Now.”
Pounamu stared into Aroha’s face.
“If my brother hadn’t interrupted us, you would have been dead days ago.”
Pounamu leaned forward, using the weight of her body to crush Aroha’s throat, and whispered in her ear.
“You stole him from me, bitch, you stole every fucking thing.” Her breath was warm against Aroha’s face. “Caleb was mine.”
The man took a step closer, only a few metres away now.
“I said, get up,” he shouted, more desperate this time. “Goddammit, Pou. Get the fuck up.”
Aroha coughed, trying to gasp a lungful of air as the pressure released from her windpipe. The sudden and uninterrupted flow of oxygen to her brain was intoxicating, leaving her momentarily drunk. Swaying, she dipped her chin forward, her field of vision limited to the upper half of her body and glanced down at her abdomen. There was blood soaking into her clothing from where Pounamu’s knee pressed into her wound.
Luckily the shirt, which belonged to the nurse, was a reddish-purple.
It would wash.
Aroha lifted her head an inch, still dizzy, and looked up at Pounamu. The nurse was sitting on top of her with legs straddling her hips, but her eyes were focused on the man, watching his every movement.
Aroha smiled as she took a deep breath, noting the hints of vanilla and mandarin that clung to the nurse’s clothing. It was nice; delicate and seductive at the same time.
Aroha twisted her neck and looked over at the man. Caleb. That’s what she’d called him. He had a pretty face, she couldn’t deny him that, and there was something arousing about the curve of his shoulders. But she felt no affection for him. His presence and the way that he looked at her, so pathetic, failed to evoke a single memory or emotion in her.
In truth, she held no feelings of fear or sympathy towards either of them. She was simply curious about how the whole thing was going to play out.
What’s behind door number one?
She waited, with her lips twisted in anticipation, as the man spoke. Like a child on opening night.
“You’ve got until five, Pou,” he said.
“One,” began Pounamu, “two…”
“I’m not joking around.”
“Three.” Pounamu smiled. “Four.”
There was a single pop.
And that was it.
One pop and the nurse fell to the side, hitting the ground with a thud.
Aroha felt her pelvis strain from the sudden burden, sixty kilograms of warm flesh, before it slipped to the left.
She stuck out her bottom lip, mourning the lost anticipation.
Aroha dipped her head to the side to get a better look at Pounamu’s face. Empty. Disappointed by the lack of expression, she curled her top lip and pouted, not thinking to look up as Caleb rushed over to her.
To us. Two corpses, eight limbs, together in a pod.
Caleb knelt by her side. His eyes darted over her stomach as he scanned her bloodied clothes.
“Yes,” she nodded. “But the shirt was free.”
Aroha pushed the dead weight from her legs, and looked down at her stomach, lifting her shirt to inspect the wound. The bleeding had subsided, and most of the staples were still intact.
She smiled as she got to her feet.
“We need to make it look like suicide,” he said.
“I shot her from three metres away.”
“It happens,” she said.
Caleb was still staring at her when Aroha bent down, resting her knees on the ground, and cupped her hands under the sides of Pounamu’s torso. Then, with gritted teeth, she slowly rolled the body into the boiling mud pool, three long dull thuds followed by a splash.
“Oops,” said Aroha sweetly. “She fell in.”
Caleb watched as she got to her feet.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked. “You seem…different.”
Aroha glanced down at the mud, observing in silence, as the bubbles burst and the seconds ticked by.
She looked back at Caleb with wide, childlike eyes.
“Who am I?” she asked.
“You don’t remember?”
Aroha bit into her lip, her expression both broken and empty.
She looked up through her eyelashes.
“I think that I like Begonias.”
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
Aroha walked up to him, so that their faces were almost touching, and placed her left hand on the side of his face. He hesitated at first, although only for a moment. Then he placed his hand on top of hers and pulled her lips to his mouth.
“Aroha,” she said.
She brushed her lips against his, teasing the surface of his skin with her teeth, as she closed her eyes.
“My name. It’s Aroha.”
It was only when he felt her tongue upon his own, warm and clammy, that he realised that something was wrong.
The pain was sharp.
Not unbearable at first.
More like a needle.
“Don’t worry,” whispered Aroha. “It will only kill you when I pull it out.”
Caleb looked down, shock taking hold of his senses, as his brain tried to process the altered reality.
“Again,” she smiled. “And again.”
She stabbed him in quick succession, inserting the short blade over and over, as the blood ran down her fingers.
The ground shuddered, a sharp jolt followed by a few shorter shakes that caused her to stir. Aroha turned her head, her left cheek creased by the pillow, and opened her eyes.
The she looked down at them.
Five little fingers.
“You’re awake,” said Tui.
Aroha rubbed her eyes and yawned, careful not to strain her torso as she sat up.
“We need to go,” said the child. “It’s almost seven.”
He shuffled his feet, noticeably restless, and looked down at his shoes.
“Daddy says that we’re going to stay with koro for a while, in Tauranga.”
“That sounds nice.”
Tui looked up at her, preparing his question, as his little arms swung by his sides.
“Are you coming with us?”
“Would you like that?” asked Aroha.
The child rewarded her with a smile, his first, as his head bobbed up and down.
Returning the expression, Aroha swung her legs over the edge of the bed and held out her hand.
“Well then,” she said, “we had better get going.”
Tui took her hand and with surprising strength, he led her towards the door.
Seven remember, not five.
But, with his hand resting on the doorknob, Tui paused.
“Have you seen my aunty, Pou?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not, sweetie.” Aroha smiled. “I’ve been sleeping.”
Tui shrugged, untroubled, his mind not yet burdened by the worries of age.
“Daddy will find her.”
Then he opened the door and pulled Aroha through it.
And together, they walked out.