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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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18 down

Why a thump?

The toilets are empty and glowing purple, but Jess takes a cubicle anyway and bolts the door.

"Besides," Chloe says, "blondes don't look Scottish," taking the next one down and sitting to pull off her uniform.

"You aren't blonde," Jess calls back through the wall.

"Am too." She squints at her wrist. "Golden Fields, a warm sunset blonde, it says on the packet. I should stop off at the chemist and get some more, actually, I need to fix my roots. Oh, you can see your veins in here."

"I haven't looked," Jess says.

"I can, anyway. I thought the UV fluoros were supposed to stop people shooting up. You could just draw a line over your veins with a biro before you went in, anyway, or one of those UV-sensitive textas. I suppose you could put sunscreen on your wrist, and then you'd be able to see it better, too."

"No you wouldn't."

"Maybe you'd be able to see it worse, then. You'd think it'd be one or the other, anyway."

"You do realise you can't actually see ultraviolet light," Jess says. "Ultra as in beyond the visible spectrum. If you can see it at all, it's just V."

"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with V." Chloe pulls on her jeans and turns around. "Hey, the paper's glowing, it's like a little phosphorescent jellyfish in the toilet bowl. Give us your phone."

She hears the door next to her unbolt. "Not if you're just going to take a picture of someone else's wet toilet paper."

"I'll flush it and put fresh paper in if you want." She does up her belt and opens the door. "Go on."

"I think," Jess says in white shirt, tartan skirt and green beret, "I'm doing enough for you today already."

"Nobody's looking," Chloe tells her reassuringly as they walk through the square. "It just looks like a uniform. And it suits you, honestly. I swear, there's no way I'd fit into anything from primary school these days. I was in Kookai the other day and I couldn't even get the skirts over my thighs. I ended up in Witchery pretending to believe the labels when they said I was a twelve, but I know it's lies really. Here," she adds, pulling an elastic band from her hair, "stand still and let me put your hair up. It'll get in the way. Squat down a bit. Maybe I should do plaits... no, okay, there we go."

They wait at the crossing and Chloe fluffs out her hair with fingers. "Maybe I should have plaits," she says. "Put on another five kilos, dump Matt, start going out with someone tall and gangly from the chess club. I could wear those socks with individual toe-partitions that they make for recovering goths."

"You'd have to give him his speakers back." Jess presses the crossing button again, and then again in time to the beeps until it changes.

"I bet we make enough today to buy our own. I wonder if they've brought them out in purple yet. I suppose you can't paint them, you'd just clog up all the holes. I painted my calculator when I was in year five and that worked, though, it looked great. It kept telling me that seven times eight was minus three, and I hadn't even done minus numbers, but we weren't allowed to use calculators for maths tests anyway so it wasn't like it was good for anything except upside-down spelling. Shell oil. Lilo. There was a girl in the class called Hollie, too, she was unbelievably smug about it."

They stop at the edge of the square, and Chloe pulls her lunchbox out to throw the leftover apple at a nearby bin. It bounces off. "Here," she says, digging in the bottom of her bag for change and dropping half of it into the lunchbox lid. A couple of passers-by have turned to look at them, but nothing more, not yet. "Seeding the pot."

Jess pulls the bagpipes out. The duct tape along the back has peeled off, and tissues are falling out; Chloe turns away from the footpath to shield them as she pushes the stuffing back in. She pokes her finger through the hole in the front and checks for the buttons. "Okay, that's all set."

Jess shifts the beret back on her head and takes the pipes, flipping the extra tubes up straight. They wilt, and she tries again.

"You look fantastic," Chloe says, backing away. "When you're ready."

Jess puffs her cheeks and pushes a finger through the hole in the bag, and then the sound of bagpipes is rolling out around them. She's brilliant, Chloe thinks; hands on the little flute, fingers moving in time to the music and everything. Everyone in the park's turned to watch. A girl under a tree in the other half of the square opens her eyes, pedestrians all down the block turn around, a dog starts barking and pulls at its leash.

She's not supposed to just watch, though. She walks down the block to the corner, then turns around and counts to thirty. Fwaah, fwah fwe-fwaaah, Jess plays in the background, getting louder as Chloe walks back towards her and leans over to drop twenty cents in the lunchbox. It doesn't look like anyone else has paid up yet, but by the time she's taken another half a dozen trips out of sight and back, there's at least five dollars, and when a tour group trails past they up it another twenty.

Jess's cheeks have puffed down a bit, but she's still in time, the extra tubes poking up and the bag unsplit, duct tape safely hidden away. Fwaaah, fwah fwe-fwaaah (thump) fwaaah (thump).

Why a thump? There isn't supposed to be a thump. People are still just walking by, maybe they haven't noticed, but there shouldn't be drums. Jess must have heard them as well, now; her eyes are open wide and for a moment she lets the blowpipe fall out of her mouth. Chloe looks around. Drums. There's the bin, but it's ten metres away and bolted down; a tree? A plastic bag? And ah, a building site. She runs across the road, past beeps and screeches, and ducks under orange bunting to grab a bucket, glancing at the scaffolding above her. "Hey," someone calls out, but she's already gone.

Back on the other side of the road she stands next to Jess and sits on the wet grass, hitting the bucket in time to the thumps.

"How did that happen?" Jess hisses down at her when the song finishes.

"Sorry," Chloe says. They'd downloaded half a dozen albums of bagpipe music, but she'd sorted through them all, and told the music player to pick the solos.

When the next one starts there's no drums. Instead, there's a flute. Jess stabs her finger through the hole into the bag, but nothing happens. "I can't stop it," she says, pulling her mouth from the blowpipe again and then putting it back. The passers-by are stepping wider around them now, and a few of them have stopped to watch. Chloe tears through her bag to find a biro, then pulls the ink tube out and holds the case to her mouth as she starts waggling her fingers. Thirty seconds later she remembers to purse her lips.

"It still won't stop," Jess hisses again when that song ends. They've got an audience of a dozen now, and more passers-by turning their heads.

The next song, the drums are back. Chloe thumps again, and when the flute starts up as well she stands so that she can stamp on the bucket with one heel while she holds the flute in her hands. It's only when another dozen bagpipes start up in the background that she lets the biro fall and pulls Jess behind a tree. They rip the duct tape off the back and pull out tissue after tissue until they're kneeling in snow, and then at last they can get to the speakers and the mp3 player.

There's an alert on the screen, and the off button doesn't work, but Jess pulls the speakers loose and suddenly the huge rich roar of bagpipes (and a choir, now) drops to a mosquito fwaaah. When Chloe pulls the batteries out as well, there's silence.

Jess's beret is gone and her ponytail's falling out. They're both out of breath. The tissues around them are disintegrating on the wet grass. There must be forty people watching.

Someone claps uncertainly, and then someone else joins in, and for a moment Chloe has visions of life as a clown—cartwheeling through the streets, white make-up and curly wigs, poking at passers-by with a styrofoam umbrella while coins shower to the ground around her; Jess is half set for it already, pale with her nose red, in a skirt that doesn't really fit her any more—but the applause falls away instead of building, and by the time she's on her feet for a sweeping bow there's nobody left to see it.