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‘All that wildlife—all those poor little koalas wiped out. My heart just breaks.’

I nodded, sipping my coffee. I hadn’t given much thought to the animals.

‘Have you spoken to your family?’ Julia asked, looking up from her laptop. ‘Are they near all this?’

‘They’ve been put on alert. Our farm is, like, twenty ks from the worst of it. They said the sky’s been orange for days.’

A waitress arrived with Julia’s Danish. It was late afternoon and the café was crowded, mainly with Columbia students. Outside, it was snowing.

Julia leaned over her laptop and took a bite of the pastry. ‘Oh my God,’ she mumbled, holding it out for me. ‘You’ve gotta try this.’

I shook my head. ‘Is Ev meeting us here?’

‘Who knows,’ she said, brushing flakes from her keyboard. ‘He’s still sleeping off last night. What on earth happened to you guys?’

‘We ended up at the Phoenix.’

‘Again? That’s like the third time this week.’

I brought my mug to my lips. ‘I like it there.’

‘That boy is seriously leading you astray.’ She measured a teaspoon of sugar, carefully levelling it, and then dumped it in her coffee. ‘You’re coming tonight, though, right?’


‘To Alex’s. For Will’s birthday? Drinks at their place and then probably somewhere in the Village.’

‘I dunno,’ I said, gesturing at the stack of manuscripts on the table. ‘I really need to get a start on these.’

Julia lifted the top one off the pile. ‘The Land Between Us.’ She flipped through the first few pages, licking her teeth. ‘And they’re not even paying you for all this extra work?’

‘It’s not exactly extra work,’ I said, feeling a familiar heat in my cheeks. ‘It’s part of the role. This is what I signed up for.’

‘Have they at least been any nicer to you?’

I shrugged. ‘I’m not there to make friends. It’s about connections.’

Julia dropped the manuscript and returned to her pastry. ‘Well, all the same. I think you should come. We’ll most likely end up at a gay bar. There’s every chance you’ll get laid.’


Can you see me?’

‘Wait on. Now you’re coming through. There you are—how are you, darl?’

‘I’m good. What’s the latest?’

Mum’s face was pressed up against the screen. The connection was bad, her voice cutting in and out, as if she were in a tunnel. ‘Much the same, really. They’re saying a wind change is due early tomorrow, which could be good news…’

‘Where’s Dad?’

‘He’s up on the roof, clearing out the gutters again. He said to say g’day. For you not to worry.’

‘So, you’re staying?’ I said, hiding my yawn off camera. It was a little after 4am here.

‘You know your father.’

‘What about the Robinsons—what are they doing?’

‘They’re stayin’ put. They’ve been over here today, helping move the alpacas.’

‘What if…’ I said, the question dying on my lips. I looked outside. Snow lay clumped in branches, on top of cars lining the street below. I sat huddled in my usual spot on the windowsill in the kitchen. It was too cold in my room.

‘What is it, darl?’

‘I just want you to give yourself enough time, you know, if you need to get out. You gotta think of yourselves first.’

‘Don’t go worrying about us, all right? We’re not gonna take any silly chances. We’ve got the Landcruiser packed and ready to go.’

I thought about the residents in Kinglake who waited too long to escape. The charred remains of their vehicles on the side of the road. The death toll was climbing each day, so many other lives still unaccounted for. They were saying it was the worst fire season in Australia’s history.

‘Enough about us,’ came Mum’s echoey voice. ‘Tell me about New York.’


I’d been in the city nearly two months. I was interning at a small independent publisher. The offices were in a converted old warehouse in Chelsea, a street back from the Hudson. They published mostly highbrow literary fiction, with a skew towards debut authors. It was a tiny operation, only ten staff or so. Drew, the managing editor, was in his early thirties, though he looked younger. He always appeared slightly dishevelled, like he’d overslept—hair unruly, eyes dark and hooded. He had a high, excitable voice and gestured vehemently when he spoke. I wondered often how many drugs he was on.

I worked under an assistant, a small, round-faced girl named Bethany. She wore oversized black frames and picked at limp salads in the breakroom. Whenever I asked her a question, I felt like I was bothering her.

I read manuscripts and fetched coffee and answered phones. I kept having to remind myself to slow down my speech and enunciate properly. Even the baristas at Starbucks had trouble interpreting my order. Every night I’d spend hours in my tiny kitchen, sending off résumés to jobs I barely wanted, but which at least paid and could keep me in New York. I hadn’t gotten a response yet.

‘Maybe it’s the visa thing,’ Julia said one evening during dinner. ‘Why even mention it?’

‘Because it’s kind of a big deal.’

‘At least let them meet you first,’ added Evan, getting up to open another bottle of wine he’d pinched from work. ‘Let them fall in love with you. Then, when they’re desperate to have you and would do anything to keep you, you slip it in.’

‘Slip it in?’

‘Slip it in,’ he said, raising his glass to me.

I’d lived with Evan and Julia since my first week here. Theirs was the first apartment I looked at. It was a fifth-floor walk-up in Morningside Heights, a few blocks from Columbia. The room advertised was small and chilly (the radiator had been broken for months). They gave me a reduced price on rent, but it was still too much to pay for an unheated cubbyhole in the middle of winter.

I liked them both instantly. They were best friends from Pittsburgh. Julia was a graduate student, studying Political Science. Evan waited tables six days a week at a fancy restaurant downtown. He was trying to break into comedy. I’d been to a couple of his gigs in grimy Lower East Side bars. He played up the whole camp thing, called everybody darling. He wasn’t terrible, but I doubted whether he’d ever make it.

In my room after dinner I decided to take his advice. I opened up my cover letter and removed any reference to my alien status. A glance at my alma mater would surely raise suspicions, but I sent it off to a few places anyway.

‘We’re officially out of wine,’ called Evan from down the hall. ‘Where we headed tonight?’


Oh my God I love your accent.’

The club was so loud I could barely hear him. His lips moved again.


‘I said did you want to get out of here?’ His breath was a tiny furnace in my ear.

I looked around for Evan and the others, but I couldn’t see them through the mass of bodies.


We took a cab to his place. The streets were deserted, bathed in an amber glow. His apartment was located above a bodega. He led me up a dingy stairwell and pressed me firmly against his front door.

‘You’re a babe.’

‘So are you,’ I said, breathing hard, struggling with his belt buckle.

‘No,’ he chuckled, leading me inside. ‘I mean you’re just a baby.’

‘I’m twenty-three.’

‘Yes, but I mean at this. I can always spot a newbie.’

I paused in the hallway. ‘Are you not into it?’

He shut the door, kept the lights off. ‘No, I am! It’s not a bad thing, trust me. I mean look how hard you’ve got me.’


Have you been going out? Meeting any nice people?’

Mum’s face was blurry again, her voice distorted.

‘A few. It’s been too cold to be honest. And the snow makes it practically impossible to get around.’

‘It’s hard to believe it’s snowing somewhere right now.’

The fires, she’d told me when I logged on, remained at bay for now. She was keeping the radio close, her phone on charge. I rested my head on my knees.

‘You look tired.’

‘I’m all right,’ I mumbled. I was longing for a shower. I could still smell him on my clothes, could still taste him.

‘You’re being safe, aren’t you?’


She looked at something off-screen for a moment. Above her head a fan creaked softly. ‘Just remember to be responsible, that’s all.’

I swallowed whatever was bubbling up inside me. ‘I am.’

Her eyes crinkled. ‘My boy. In the Big Apple.’


Unknown caller.

‘Seth speaking.’

‘Hey there.’

‘Uh, hi.’ Then, after several seconds: ‘Who’s this?’

‘It’s Adrian.’


A faint chuckle. ‘From the other night?’

‘Oh. Yeah. Hi.’ I was hoping it may have been a recruiter.

‘This is awkward.’

‘No—sorry, I just, um. I’m at work.’

I looked up from my desk at Bethany, whose mouth had tightened. We weren’t allowed to take personal calls at the office.

‘Oh, of course. I won’t keep you. I was just wondering if you wanted to hang out later?’


I woke in an unfamiliar room, with cracked walls and a high ceiling. A wide angle of light beamed in from the lamppost outside. Beside me: Adrian, smiling.

‘Sorry. Did I nod off?’

‘Kinda. But at least it wasn’t during.’

I sat up and stretched on the end of his mattress. My head spun and my mouth was dry and sour.

‘You know you can stay over.’

‘Yeah, it’s just that I promised my mum I’d Skype. What time is it?’

He picked up his phone from the floor. ‘Quarter past four.’

‘Shit. Really?’

He stared at me, another smile breaking out. ‘Yeah. That okay?’

‘Ah, fuck.’ I scanned the floor for my underwear. ‘Fuck.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing. Um. Look this is weird, but do you have a laptop I could use real quick? I’m meant to be online right now.’

‘Sure.’ He hopped out of bed and began digging under a pile of clothes on his chair. I averted my eyes from his nakedness. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘I’ll take a shower. You can stay in here if you want.’

While I logged on, I ran my hand through my hair, tried to unglue my eyes.

‘We were getting ready to leave,’ came Mum’s voice.

‘Sorry. We’re having internet issues here.’

‘Ah, we thought you may’ve forgotten.’

‘Course not. Wait, so Dad’s there?’ A mild panic stirred in my gut.

‘Yep, he’s here. He wants to say a word.’

Mum said something off-camera. I glanced up at the open door, listening for the sound of the shower.

‘Number two son,’ said Dad, appearing half in shadow in the background. He’d always called me that. ‘Keepin’ warm over there?’

I smiled. ‘Yeah.’

‘How’s work?’

‘It’s going okay. Busy.’

‘Busy’s good. Any word yet on whether they’ll start payin’ ya?’

I tried not to let this sting. ‘Not yet. They’re not hiring at the moment. But they’re putting their feelers out for me. And having the reference will help me a lot.’

‘Well, that’s a positive. Keep your head down. Somethin’ll come of it.’

His voice was flatter than I remembered. I wondered when he’d last slept.

‘And your brother’s coming here tomorrow,’ Mum added to fill the silence.

‘Really? With the baby?’

‘No, no. Tommy will stay in Warrandyte with Elise. Aaron just wanted to give your dad a hand with some things. He said he hasn’t heard from you in a while.’

‘Um, nah. I’ll send him an email or something soon.’

‘He’d like that. Or you could Skype with him. See your nephew.’

‘How’d you go?’ Adrian interjected from the doorway, towelling his hair. I looked quickly back at the screen, giving him a thumbs up.

‘Is that your roommate?’ Mum asked.

Fear engulfed me—or was it shame? This had all been a mistake. ‘Yeah, look. I should go.’

‘Oh, all right then. I guess it’s late there isn’t it? Take care of yourself, darl.’

I signed out while Mum was still saying she loved me.


Sundays were the hardest. Dull, hollow days, the dread of the coming week pressing in. Evan always had work and Julia would visit her gran upstate. I had the apartment to myself on those days, yet I chose to spend them in the park reading, even though it was freezing.

In winter the park resembled a giant graveyard. Bare trees beneath a white sky, the ground brown and sodden. I watched people as they passed, joggers and dog walkers and young children clad in bright colours, jumping in the slush, their shrieks high and gleeful.

I felt like I was floating on those days, far away from everything, fleeting and insubstantial as smoke.


If I’m hard on you, it’s only because that’s what it was like for me. You need to have thick skin in this industry. When I started? I worked directly under Drew and he worked me hard, you’ve no idea.’

Bethany was drunk. This was the most relaxed and talkative I’d ever seen her. We were at a book launch in Bushwick. One of our authors—a 25-year-old from Hoboken—was signing copies of her debut story collection. In his introductory speech, Drew had described her as a wunderkind, the next Zadie Smith.

‘You’re talented,’ Bethany was saying to me now, slurring her words slightly. ‘Honestly? Interns don’t tend to hang around with us this long. Plus, I think Drew likes you—and that means everything.’

There was a ripple of laughter around us at something Drew had said. He was leaning over the author’s shoulder to pose for photos.

‘But if I can offer you a piece of advice?’ Bethany continued, scooping the olive from her glass. ‘You need to come out of your shell a little more. Like tonight, for instance. These events? This is where you build your contacts. I haven’t seen you talk to a single person. Do you even know who any of them are?’

I didn’t.

‘Come on,’ she said, taking me by the arm. ‘I’ll introduce you. And for God’s sake put a smile on your face.’


Unknown caller.

‘You sound sleepy.’

Weak afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window. I held the phone away from me so I could check the time. I couldn’t remember what day it was.

‘Are you free tonight?’ Adrian was asking. ‘We could catch a movie?’

I suppressed a yawn. ‘I’ve got something on, actually. Maybe another time.’

‘Oh. Sure. Well, just let me know.’

He stayed on the line for several seconds before hanging up. I rolled back over and closed my eyes.


Mum didn’t come online at our usual time. For half an hour I stared at her name in the Contacts list, waiting for the icon to turn green. Nothing happened. I tried calling, but I couldn’t get through. I logged onto the Age’s website. There was a map on the home page, showing the active fires in Victoria. Most of the state seemed to be ablaze. Numbers were scattered around the map. At first, I thought they referred to the individual fires but when I checked the legend I realised they were the lives that had been lost.

Ten in Steels Creek. 37 in Kinglake. Over 100 feared dead in Marysville.

I knew those towns well—lonely winding streets, houses swallowed up by open forest. Only one road in and out of town. One means of escape.

I scrolled up a bit, tried to zoom in but it wouldn’t let me. All it showed was red. There were no numbers up that way yet.

I called Mum again. It went straight to her voicemail. I started to cry in my kitchen. Did they have enough time? Were the roads clear? I pictured them, red-faced and frantic, the car refusing to start as the flames bore down on them from all sides. What had I been doing at that exact moment, far from harm, on the other side of the world?

I threw up in the sink. I could barely catch my breath. Julia emerged from her room, bleary-eyed, and came and held me. She woke Evan up, who found a bottle of bourbon in the cupboard and poured us each a mug. They stayed up with me all night, bringing their doonas out onto the kitchen floor. I kept trying Mum and Dad and Aaron and then anyone I knew in the area, sending Facebook messages to old school friends I hadn’t spoken to in years. Julia and Evan fell asleep resting up against each other. I sat in silence, clutching my phone, one end of it plugged into the wall.

As the sun was coming up, my phone pinged. It was an email from Aaron.

Mum and Dad had gotten out. They were in an evacuation centre a few towns over. Phone and internet services were down. They had the dogs with them. A cool change had just swept through, but they were waiting to see when it was safe to return. To see what was left. It could be days still. They just didn’t know.


‘Good night?’

I looked up, startled. A man in a bomber jacket was standing nearby, grinning at me. I was waiting to transfer to the 1 Train. We were alone on the platform.

‘Yeah, not bad,’ I lied. I’d left the bar early. ‘You?’

‘Can’t complain. Better now.’ His eyes slid over me. ‘Where’ve you come from?’

I told him the name of the bar, wondering too late whether he meant something else. He grinned again, knowing he was in. An automated announcement came on. The next train was approaching.

‘You don’t look tired,’ the man said, stepping closer. ‘Feel like a nightcap? Somewhere quieter?’

Out of habit, I looked at the time. It was only a little after two. It didn’t matter, I had nowhere to be.


‘I’m a sucker for an English boy.’

I didn’t say anything as he kissed my neck, his tongue probing my ear.

He was old. Like twice my age. I wondered for a brief, horrible moment if he was older than my dad.

‘Wait. Do you have, um…’

‘What?’ he said, without stopping.

‘You know.’

He broke away to look at me. Then he laughed.

‘You’re so cute. Like a lost little pup. What, you think I’m dirty?’

‘What? No. I just.’ My heart began to pound. I tried to swallow but my tongue felt too big. ‘Hang on, I think I’ve got one in my wallet.’

‘Oh, lighten up, I’m only kidding.’ But he sounded mad, all the same.

He was rough from then on. He gripped the back of my neck and pushed my face into the bed, so hard I could barely breathe.

‘Yeah, you like that.’

I hated that I was here. That I was hard.

‘You like that, don’t you. Tell me how much you like it, you little fag.’

I told him what he wanted to hear. I felt hot tears form. His sheets smelled of incense, or maybe it was his cologne. Sickly sweet.

He shifted his weight. ‘Are you—crying?’

I wiped my face and apologised.

‘Jesus.’ He got up and stood there in the dark, running a hand through his beard. ‘You know I didn’t force you to come back with me.’

‘No, I know.’ The tears kept coming, I couldn’t hold them in. I reached for my clothes and dressed in silence, my back to him.

‘Fuck, really? We’re only having a bit of fun, what the hell’s the matter with you?’

I apologised again and headed for the door. My fingers struggled with the dead bolt.

‘Turn it to the right,’ he sighed from the bedroom.


Unknown caller.

I let it ring out.


Birds had fallen from the sky. Flames a hundred metres high and the sound—louder than you could imagine, the roar of a dozen or more jet engines. The hot air had created its own weather system, of lightning and wind and heavy black rain. There were reports that some of the fires had been deliberately lit. I wondered how it was possible to know that.

I sat for hours poring over the news articles, refreshing my feed. I pulled up my address on Google Maps and loaded Street View. You couldn’t see our property from the main road, and it wouldn’t let me zoom in. I clicked along the road until I was in the town centre. The photos had obviously been taken in the spring, flowers in full bloom, green as far as you could see. I stopped out front of my old school, the local footy oval, the milk bar where I’d gotten my first job. I wondered how much of it had changed, whether any of it had been spared. They were saying entire towns didn’t exist anymore. Would Google keep these images, or would they need to be retaken to show what was left?


I had several voicemails.

One was from Adrian, the second a hang-up (perhaps from same—I never listened to the number) and the last from Bethany.

Hi Seth, I’m hoping you are well, obviously, but I’m a little concerned about your absences. This marks your third day off this week. I’m afraid we’ll have to see a medical certificate for when you next come in, else you may have to forfeit the internship. I hope you understand—it’s a highly competitive position. And I do hope you’re all right.

Around four o’clock, I slipped on some trainers and trackpants and headed out, towards Riverside Park. Moonlight glimmered in the surface of the Hudson. There was a surprising number of runners out at this hour, their breaths foggy in the dark. They all looked the same as they went past.

I got a stitch not long after starting and sat on a park bench to catch my breath. I considered calling Adrian, but it was too early, and besides, I doubted whether he wanted to hear from me.

When I got back, I saw I had a Facebook message from a girl I went to school with. She apologised for the delay in getting back to me. She now lived in Melbourne, with her fiancé, but she’d been in regular contact with her family. They were yet to receive the all clear to return home. That was all she knew for now, but she’d keep me posted with any more information. She ended by saying she’d heard that I was in New York, and that she always knew I’d go on to do big things.

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