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Care Versus The Pit

by Merri Andrew



It was after six, and the smoke was getting bad again. Desiree knew she should have left already but she could see the boy’s knees shake as he stood on her front step. He was pointing at her jacket. It was her favourite, yellow with a pattern of strawberries, and it was draped over her go-bag. 


“I saw your coat,” he said. “From the supermarket?” 


Her phone beeped and a notification appeared: "Prepare to evacuate.” 


The app highlighted her suburb in orange on the map. 


The new couple across the street had left early that morning. The car doors thudding shut had silenced their angry voices, and she’d been relieved to hear them drive off. Now, she realised they were probably the boy’s parents.


She should be leaving too. She lived alone in this rented duplex and everything precious was already in the go-bag. The smoke in the air was the smell of the fires ten years ago, when many people had waited too long to leave. She hadn’t made good choices then, herself; she’d just been lucky. But now there was this boy.


“Sit down here,” she said, pointing at the step, and pulled a box of crackers from the bag. As she held out the box towards him, she began to remember.


#


Parlin watched the two of them through the eyes of a honey ant. Normally, she had hundreds of worlds from which to gather kindness; she could flick through them so fast they were a shimmer. She could stop at any one of them and refuel. Now she was cornered in this single place. The long pursuit had weakened her, and the Pit was waiting to consume her, if it could draw her from her hiding place. 


She moved with the honey ant along the wooden railing, towards Desiree. Kindness was never fully depleted. It was, by nature, overflowing. Parlin was perfectly tuned to this generosity; she just needed to get close enough.


The trundling motion of the honey ant shook Parlin’s vision, but her other senses were steady as she pulled towards the possibility of Desiree’s kindness. Still, she was too far away. She hoped the honey ant would move further along. She tried to nudge it with her consciousness, but it was preoccupied with a dead spider caught under a flaking piece of paint. 


Parlin studied Desiree’s reactions. Would she keep her promise to the boy? Would she even remember it?


#


Passing the crackers, Desiree found that she did remember that winter day, and he was right: she had been wearing her yellow jacket. 


As she looked for cocoa in the supermarket, she saw the boy being dragged along roughly by a man whose face was twisted with irritation. The boy was not crying. Perhaps he had learned not to cry. An older woman watched too, ready to step in if it got worse, but other shoppers veered away. 


The boy glanced back at Desiree, desperation in his face. Desiree caught his gaze and smiled warmly at him. She willed the words in her mind to reach him: “It’s okay; you’ll be okay.”


With her smile and her thoughts, she tried to conjure for him a community of people who were gentle and strong, people who noticed when children were upset, and cared for them. She saw his face relax a little. 


The man found the crackers he was looking for and shoved the box down at the boy, who staggered back to avoid it crushing into his face. As he was pulled away, Desiree sent her thoughts to follow, a nurturing circle to move with him, she hoped. And then she turned back to her shopping.


#


It had saved Parlin, this first act of kindness from Desiree towards the boy. It was barely an act, really, hardly more than a thought. But it was enough.


Watching from a patch of mould on the supermarket’s ceiling, Parlin had felt the spiteful emptiness of the Pit approaching. She knew that the thin mould barely concealed her. She tried to burrow deeper, where the mould grew more thickly between the tiles, but it would be no good, she was sure. 


Desperately, she scanned the nearby aisles for the soft kindness that she needed, but there was nothing, just the buzzing and scratching of worries, responsibilities, lists. The Pit was near now, waiting for her to drop her guard. 


Her grip was failing when Parlin detected Desiree’s kindness towards the boy. The rich and gentle sensation reached Parlin and gave her the strength to lay out her conductive strands. She brought the nurturance into herself, incomplete as it was. 


Parlin amplified the little kindness; kneaded it, made it larger and stronger, turned it into energy. She rested there, growing in health, as long as she dared. Finally, she shaped a weak barb and beamed it at the Pit, which recoiled, twitching and angry. Parlin had time to flee again and hide.


Exhausted, she rested in a patch of lichen that was growing on fallen wood in a nearby park. She had changed her hiding place in this world so many times. Even hunted and weak as she was, she had found short moments of peace in the living things she occupied: in a wedge-tailed eagle nesting high in a grassy woodland, in a bright green waterweed anchored in a stream near old stone fish traps, in a red gum marked where people had taken bark to cradle a baby. 


As always when Parlin rested, she had time to regret her choices, her greedy curiosity. Why hadn’t she listened to her hatch-mates? She could have fed on all the kindnesses of the galaxy, but it was the Pit she had wanted to peer into, this creature made of despair. 


It was horrible, and awesome, and it would be a great tale, she had thought, but then — the hole looked back. The moment the Pit’s attention locked onto her she became its prey.


The Pit was a negative value so vast it would replenish its own emptiness forever. It was futility itself. And now it waited for her energy to fail so she would loosen her hold on this world, and it could eat her at last. 


#


“I think I need to call Child Protection.” 


Desiree stood at the far end of the porch and spoke quietly into her phone.


Desiree’s brother Francis was a social worker in the capital. He would know what to do. 


“Des, don’t you need to evacuate? I’ve been watching the fire reports.” 


“Not yet. Should I call Child Protection? How could his parents leave him like this?”


She looked over her shoulder at the boy, Sam, who was eating the salty crackers with a choking hunger. She’d have to get him some water soon. She watched him bang his thin knee in a quick rhythm, a bit too hard, against the railing beside the step.


“You could.” Francis said. “It probably meets the threshold for neglect.”


“Well, doesn’t that mean I have to report it?”


“You’re not a mandated reporter, so you wouldn’t be committing an offence if you don’t.”


“But doesn’t it mean I should?”


Why was Francis complicating everything?


“Des, if you call CPS, the boy could be removed. He might go into foster care. It’s…not always better.”


#


Parlin had been close to the Pit before, and she remembered this sound. It murmured in a slow, grinding way as it tried to drag her out of the honey ant hiding place. 


The sound was hypnotic; it spoke to her of inevitability, of the peace of giving up. It did not need words, because it spoke in the language of her exhaustion, intimate and familiar. The sound said, sleep. The sound said it knew her better than all her hatch-mates, now that she’d been gone so long. The sound said they wouldn’t remember her anyway. 


Parlin refused to listen. 


She turned back to Desiree’s world with a painful effort and looked at the boy. Like her, the boy needed so much. He needed people to make things alright and tell him it was not his fault, to organise his days, to bring him safely to sleep every night, to hold him in their plans and words. 


Would Desiree give him that? She had promised, with her face, with her kind thoughts that day in the supermarket, that he would be cared for. 


Parlin realised now that she had a chance, not only to run from the Pit, but to destroy it. If Desiree fulfilled her promise completely, if she took responsibility for the boy and saved him, the power of it would be immense, stronger than any kindness she’d ever gleaned. It was risky, but Parlin was tired of running and hiding. 


She allowed herself to be drawn into the outer rim of the Pit. The humming sound was overwhelming, but she kept reaching out her senses to Desiree and Sam, willing the kindness to come. Shooting the barb from right inside the Pit would be her best chance. 


#


“Do you know where they went?” Desiree asked, handing Sam a glass of water.


“He found Mum’s bag,” the boy blurted out in a rush. It sounded like something he’d been holding in so tightly that now he had to retch it out.


“Her go-bag, you mean? To evacuate if there’s a fire?” 


“No, the one she hid. With money, and her other phone. In case it got too bad… at home.” 


He sobbed harshly. “He made me show him!”


A car pulled up quickly across the street, stopping their conversation. No-one got out for a moment and Desiree checked her phone. The orange alert was still there for their suburb. The fires were closer.


The man got out and walked straight up to Desiree’s porch, confident and smiling, crossing in front of the woman and putting his foot on the bottom step.


“Thanks for watching him,” he said cheerily, as if it was something they had arranged. 


Desiree made her face friendly and nodded. Sam’s mum kept her eyes down. 


“Come on Sam,” the man said. 


His dad only had to tilt his chin, and Sam obeyed, rising to follow him. Desiree was immobilised by the same numb logic.  


She saw Sam’s bent head, the skin of his neck exposed below his hair. As he turned to hand her the empty water glass, his face was helpless, as it was that day in the supermarket. This time, though, she could not even produce an encouraging smile to send him away with. 


She’d been foolish to smile at him like that in the first place, she thought. It turned out to be a promise she could not keep.  


#


Parlin was inside the Pit now, watching Sam turn away from Desiree, who just stood there, blank. Parlin made herself blank too and tried to accept that Desiree was not going to save Sam, that there was no hope left. 


The grinding murmur of the Pit lulled her; she was pulled deeper and deeper inside. So, it was inevitable after all. The care that was promised would not be given.


The honey ant fell. Parlin fell. She prepared herself for death. Increment by tiny increment, she was being taken away from this world, from all worlds. The honey ant lay on its back, and only one point of contact remained, a sliver of space through which Parlin watched the blue sky smeared with smoke.


#


As they moved away, Desiree noticed a honey ant on the step, squirming on its back. She saw the man’s shoe stepping, coming down, almost squashing it. The creature’s narrow escape woke her up. The ant had almost died, and the man didn’t notice, would never care. 


She shook off the numbness that was holding her. Perhaps she couldn’t save Sam, but she didn’t have to just let it all happen.


“Maybe Sam could stay with me while you pack? I’ll be here anyway, until my cat comes home,” she lied. 


No-one answered. Her voice sounded fake to her own ears.


“You’ll be able to see him from your place. My name’s Desiree, by the way.”


Sam’s mother lifted her head slightly, out of view of Sam’s father, and glanced shrewdly at Desiree. Then she looked at Sam. Desiree could see that she longed to hold him, to comfort him, to take him away. Instead, she gave Desiree the slightest nod and turned.


After they left, Desiree checked her phone and saw that the fires were closer, too close. If only the wind would change direction. She swiped away the Child Protection tab and plugged the phone in to charge. At least there was still power, for now. 


Sam sat on the step, turning the little hand-wound radio Desiree kept for when the mobile towers burned and the internet failed. He tapped his knee against the wood, softer than before.


Desiree turned her car around so it faced the street. She would be here with Sam for as long as she could stay. She would keep him near his mother. His mother would be trying to work out a way to come back for him, wouldn’t she?


#


Parlin unfurled, registering a tiny hope. The Pit still gripped her, but she found that she could take a small breath. She managed to pull herself out of the Pit a little, keeping the aperture open to the bright world, desperately gathering the faint charge of Desiree’s meagre kindness. She might not be able to destroy the Pit, but she did not have to die yet. 


She compressed the little kindness and shaped it, drew warmth and sustenance from it, made strength from it — and then aimed it at the deepest emptiness of the Pit. She flung with all her strength and waited. 


Slowly, the Pit loosened its grip. The grinding murmur faded to silence and Parlin dragged herself out. 


She collapsed, and breathed, and gathered herself, crawling further from the Pit, just in case. And then, when she was ready, she fled.



 


Merri Andrew is a writer who lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country in Canberra, Australia. Her work is published in Strange Horizons, Luna Station Quarterly, Corporeal, Five on the Fifth, Daikaijuzine and Antipodean SF, among other places. Merri is on Instagram @merri_andrew_here and Mastodon @merri@wandering.shop, as well as at her website, www.merriandrew.com, where you can find links to her poems and stories.


(Photo courtesy Dylan Jones.)

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