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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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30 down

What are you waiting for?

Mandy answers the phone quickly when his name flashes up, but whatever he says, it disappears in transmission.

"Speak up, I can't hear you."

"I'm ready!" he says, still whispering, louder.

She looks around. "Okay, just hold on ten minutes. I'll call you back."

"What are you waiting for? Look, I can't hold on any longer. I can't. You have to get back here and help me clear up."

"Albie," she says, but it's too late; he's hung up. Damn.

If Katrina had just turned up on time it would have been fine, but she's still not here, and she's not answering her phone. There's no way of knowing whether she's a minute away or an hour. There are crowds in the distance and passing strangers but she can't depend on them to remember her, not unless she tears her clothes off and starts turning cartwheels, and that wouldn't be unsuspicious behaviour. She could ask for directions, if only she didn't know the area so well.

Complain about Big Brother but when you actually want 24-hour surveillance you can rely on, there's nothing. She finds a CCTV camera and stands in front of it to smoke a cigarette while she thinks, but for all she knows it's a blank, slapped up to provide an illusion of security, nothing but moth eggs inside.

Okay, she thinks, deep breaths. One thing at a time. It's been an hour since she left work, and it only takes forty-five minutes to get home, so she needs something else to prove she's still in the city. Maybe there's someone left at work.

The stairwell echoes more than usual in the twilight, or she's treading heavier. Geoff and Hannah will be in, won't they? They were still working when she left, she's sure of that.

Once she's through the door the bright lights at the other end of the office give her hope, and she forces herself not to run, but it's just the the empty kitchen and the bathrooms. The meeting room's empty too, and she remembers sitting there months ago while they decided not to bother installing the sort of swipe-card entry system that would save her now. The bored doodles she'd spread over her notes from the previous meeting are probably still in her desk somewhere.

There's plenty of time. She can afford another ten minutes, easy. She puts her bag over her shoulder and runs down the stairs, out onto the street: not dark yet, but dimming, and still there's only people she doesn't know, someone walking a dog, a girl leaning back on a tree with her eyes shut. There's a woman with a camera, squatting down to take photographs of puddles or footpath or the streets, and Mandy tries to get in the way, walking into what must be the camera's field of vision, but the photographer looks up and meets her eyes, then thrusts her camera into a bag and turns around.

There's another CCTV camera perched high on a lamppost, and Mandy stands in its line of sight and reaches for another cigarette. Casual, she thinks, she needs to look casual, but her hands are pale with dappled red. Two cameras is a better bet than one, but it's still no guarantee. She walks down the block and ash drops behind her, floating on puddle-tops momentarily and then sinking to hide her passage. She should have planned this so much better.

There's a deli still open, and she stubs out her cigarette to go inside. No visible security camera; the nearest shop that has one that she's sure of is up on North Terrace, and maybe she could run there in five minutes but she doesn't know whether the footage is stored or not: it could just be a high-tech version of a curved mirror. She can't spend that much time on an off-chance. Maybe if she buys all the smarties in the deli it'll help the assistant remember her, but she doesn't have enough cash on her. God, she hates Eftpos.

She grits her teeth and gets on with it.

"That's a lot of smarties," the assistant says.

"Yes," she says, and stabs in her pin number. Maybe she could get herself thrown out of a pub for smoking. Maybe she could run to the hospital and try to get herself admitted on the grounds of a panic attack.

It's not till the shop assistant hands her card back that she realises the transaction's gone into a far-away computer, and that the time and date are on the receipt. She looks at it, tucks it into her purse. She smiles.

"Thanks," she says. "Thank-you." She's trembling, she realises; she hadn't noticed before.

Back outside Katrina rushes up to her, twenty-five minutes late. "Hey," she says. "Sorry I'm late. Too complicated to explain but honestly, a really good reason, I promise. What in the world are those? Amanda sweetheart, what do you need forty packets of smarties for?"

Mandy opens her mouth, still shaking, as Katrina pulls the bag away from her and looks inside. The smarties bounce off each other inside their packets, rattling, clicking. A cake, she thinks, maybe she's going to decorate a cake. A party. A dare. A joke. She was hungry.

"I don't know," she says, and starts to cry.