This story is by Lorraine Hurley and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lilian had not felt this euphoric for a long time, she thought, as she threw her head back in laughter. The strangeness of that thought had not escaped her as at that moment she and her closest friends in the world were walking through the town graveyard. Mike had made a highly inappropriate joke about a poor soul that wasn’t even that funny except that Lilian was about three drinks in and was feeling like anything Mike would say was just about the best thing in this world at the time.
The group of six walked by the moon and occasional street lights through the graveyard with the park on the other side as their eventual destination. It was behind the giant Jacaranda tree that Mike had hidden a case of beer earlier that evening so that this group might enjoy a light- hearted night in spite of their parent’s watchful eyes.
There is a curious belief in Australia that if you had not started studying for your end of year school exams by the time the beautiful bright purple blooms of these magnificent trees started to fall upon the earth below that you may as well quit now. Not enough time was left to enable a pass in the exam. A drop- dead point as it was known to secondary school students county wide.
Lilian, Mike and two other couples headed towards the tree which was giving off a majestic hue under moonlight with the ground below well dusted with a lavender -esque blanket of blooms. “What am I doing” Lilian thought as she kicked up some of the colour below her feet whimsically. This summer was her final year of high school and as a very smart young lady should, she had kicked off her study for university entrance finals many months ago. The ‘Mike factor’ had proved a distraction that even she hadn’t counted on though despite her inner voice continually reprimanding her for her immaturity on the subject. There was something about Mike with his dark hair and cheeky smile that felt like a magnetic force to Lilian. The way he looked at her and the feel of his body when he touched her, even to hold her hand caused completely involuntarily tingles deep within her.
Mike was pretty proud of himself as he pulled apart the sixer of beer and threw a couple of bevvies over to his buddies. For Lilian though, he walked over and handed it to her with the kind of care that even Kaitlin, Lil’s best friend took notice of. Kaitlin glanced at Lilian, enjoying her own man’s affection but longing for Lilian to know it as well with Mike.
It was as Lilian rounded the dark side of the mighty Jacaranda that she first saw it.
Wrapped perfectly in a rectangular shape with a generous amount of gold shiny ribbon was a present leaning up against the moss side of the grand tree. “How peculiar” thought Lilian as she scooped it up and began looking for some kind of card or label to suggest an owner to the gift. Upon finding nothing she walked around the tree to Kaitlin, Mike and the others who had decided to sit down and relax on the buttressed roots of the near century old tree.
“Hey guys, look what I found” she proclaimed as the group looked up to meet her. “Aw that’s sweet Lil”, joked Kaitlin as she took in the absolute perfect wrapping effort, somewhat in admiration. “I know my birthday is coming up soon but you shouldn’t have” she laughed as Lilian sat to join the others.
“Should I open it?” asked Lilian not really willing to entertain an objection at this point, fingers poised under the main flap of the wrapping. “Yeah Lil, show us what you got” piped up Mike, oblivious to the gravity of the situation they were facing.
Glad to hear a positive response, Lilian ripped the edge of the paper and tore it open to reveal another perfectly wrapped layer of crisp paper beneath. Cleaning off the top layer she realised that within that layer was a piece of paper that appeared to fall out as she made small work out of unwrapping this mystery gift. As she turned it over, the white light revealed that it was a photo of a family. Lilian flipped it over expecting some writing or some explanation to who the gift was for to be revealed and as it were she was greeted with a few words.
“Who shall swim with the reeds?” was written in perfect cursive on the back of the photo.
‘That’s a bit strange’ thought Lilian, ‘probably just a present for a kid’s game left by accident from a birthday party in the park’. She turned the card to look upon the photo once more. A typical portrait of a family at the beach. A wife and husband with two small children sitting in front. The youngest is no more than 2 years old and the eldest maybe just about school age. Lilian felt drawn to look at them yet couldn’t explain why. As if to pull her out of her trance, Mike proclaimed that she should get in a photo with the others. Mike slid a hand around her back and pulled Lilian in closer as Kaitlin and the rest of the gang leaned in so as to be caught in the angle from Mikes camera. His long arm extended out to capture the selfie of the group of friends and in that moment, although a bit distracted from the random and slightly odd nature of the gift she found, Lilian felt warm and tingly.
The next morning Lilian awoke in her bed with Kaitlin on the fold out camper bed beside her blissfully smiling as if in a slightly perverse dream. Lilian surveyed the room and noticed the present sitting in the corner and tried to recall herself bringing it home but was suitably foggy given the copious amount of cheap bitter she had drowned. She thought of Mike and his smooth tanned arms and had a momentary flashback to the goodnight kiss he had given her. She vaguely remembered how she felt and it was perfect. She smiled before rising to go into the kitchen with the need to hydrate overcoming her senses. She grabbed the tv remote and turned it on as she swanned toward the kitchen, high on thoughts of Mike and his kissable lips. She turned on the kitchen tap for water and at that sound realised the news on the tv was playing really loudly. It may have been the acute hangover she was suffering from but as she reached out to adjust the volume, a word stood out to her.
“A young father of two has tragically died in a boating accident off the coastline trying to rescue his 2 year old son who fell off the boat while fishing where the river meets the ocean” read the reporter on channel 7 news. “The child has survived but tragically the young father, caught in reeds below the surface drowned unable to come back to the surface”.
A chill ran through Lilian’s body as she was met with a photo of the young Dad on the tv screen and immediately recognised the face of the young man. It was him… the Dad in the photo from last night.
“No, no, it can’t be” thought Lilian running to find the photo in the present wrapping. She fossicked for it and soon had her hands on it. His face stared back at hers, cheerful in demeanour as her face turned to horror. “what the actual F**K?” thought Lilian, her sounds waking Kaitlin from her sleep.
“I couldn’t help it” said Lilian aloud “I saw the picture and I thought of him when I read the riddle”.
Lilian was facing several emotions at once, her heart beating through her chest at the possibility, though she dare not think it, that she had caused this event.
For whatever reason she was drawn to the present, ripping off another layer, tearing at the paper with rage at the position she found herself in, despising her discovery at the park that prior night.
At that, a picture dropped out onto the bedroom floor. She grabbed at it and turned it over to see the selfie of the group taken the night before under that beautiful jacaranda tree. “It can’t be, its not possible” Lilian was breathless, her thoughts scattered.
In that moment, she turns to read the riddle and began consciously trying to not look at her own face in that picture in her mind.
“Who shall burn with the brambles?” it said simply and without apology.
Lilian made no sound. A single tear rolled down her face. She couldn’t help it, it was the first face she saw in her head in that moment.