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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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32 down

Then what's that?

It's stopped raining. He's jubilant, floating with exhilaration, and as he follows the path he can see how it looks from above, cutting a grey pentacle through wet grass. He changes direction before completing the pattern, then stops to look at the message again, out in the open this time; under trees there's still the belated drip of water caught in leaves. "Hi Karl," it begins, and he grins uncontrollably, and then again at a suspicious glare from the man passing by with a wife and an armful of plastic bags. Karl. She thinks his name's Karl. No wonder she wasn't interested.

He slips the phone back into his pocket and passes the CD case from hand to hand. He left the pirated Photoshop at home, he realises, but she won't mind. She'll ask him to come round tomorrow, or maybe she'll want to visit him to fetch it. He'll make bread just before she arrives.

"Hey," she calls from behind him, "Karl," and this time he can hear the 'K', so clearly he wonders why he didn't notice it before. She's standing by her car, hair even more impossibly red than usual, shining out from the flooded green-grey of the square around them.

"Hello," he says.

"Hope you haven't been waiting too long." It's a bit perfunctory, but he doesn't mind; of course she doesn't really care about him yet.

"No," he says. "I like the rain, anyway."

"Great then." She smiles. "You've certainly caught a lot of it."

He smiles back, her tone of voice says he's supposed to, and tries to work out how to tell her. There's so much to say. "My name starts with a C," he says. "Carl with a C. You used a K in your message."

She pushes hair behind shoulders. "Oh, right," she says. "Sorry. I'm so bad with names."

"You'll know how much the difference means," he says, over-eager maybe but it's so wonderful to be sorting it out at last.

"I've never really thought about it." She shrugs and starts walking along one of the footpaths, towards her house. He can't have explained it right.

"You must know," he says, of course she does. "There's you. Cate with a C. And everyone's called Kate with a K, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's mundane, it's omnipresent. If you're a Kate with a K then you're probably going to work in the civil service or the local supermarket. You'll be nice and a bit plain. You'll have teatowels that match your apron. Maybe you'll volunteer at the local library. But you, you're Cate with a C, so you have this gorgeous hair, you sing, you live in the middle of the city, and you eat bites of other people's food to save money on your own, and you're always ten minutes late for anything but nobody ever minds. With a C."

She laughs, and she's a bit uncomfortable, he can tell. "I don't think my name's got anything to do with it," she says.

"It does," he says, slowly, carefully. This might be his last chance. They reach the crossroad that divides the square into quarters, and he points in front of him at the sculpture: THE FOREST OF DREAMS, in thick extruded letters, waist-high, one word on each corner. "Now imagine if that read FORREST, two 'r's." he says. "Okay, there was an explorer, John Forrest, he came through Adelaide from Perth, he was Minister of Defense after Federation, but he's not very interesting. We'd have a whole square filled with, I don't know, political statues. Historical plaques. But there's only one R, so we get grass and trees and it's beautiful," and he gestures up at them. "And you're Cate with a C, and it's the same thing, and I'm Carl with a C as well."

"They only put that sculpture up a few years ago," Cate says. "The trees were already here." He knew that, of course he knew that. She's taking him too literally.

"No, listen—"

"Look," she says. "Thanks for coming out in—"

"Listen." He'll get it right this time. "There's someone behind you taking photos. If I tell you they're Jean and that it's spelt with a J, you'll turn around expecting a woman. If I say it's Gene with a G, you'll be expecting a man." She turns around: it's a woman. He's still talking. "If you meet someone called Cyndi, Cyndi with an 'i', you're probably a bit wary. She might be nice, but maybe she teases her hair and wears tiny denim skirts and leans against brick walls to blow enormous pink bubble-gum bubbles. And if you meet a J-a-m-e-s you're going to expect him to be a solicitor with a nice tie who knows how to choose wine, but if he spells it J-h-a-y-m-e-s you'll wonder what his parents thought they were doing, or whether he changed it himself because he wanted to be an artist and it seemed easier than learning how to draw."

"I honestly wouldn't care. People aren't different just because they spell their names differently." She's stopped walking.

"They are," he says. "You do care. A kilometre might seem like the same distance if you end it t-e-r, but it's not, not really. When it's an e-r, you're on American roads instead of Australian roads, there'll be a different chance of getting run over while you measure them, there'll be different cars and different trees and birds. And then there's your favourite biscuit. If you're spelling 'favourite' without a 'u', then it's going to be Oreos instead of Delta Creams. There are things you can get sent to jail-with-a-j for, but if you're living in a country where it's gaol-with-a-g maybe the same things are completely legal." He looks around him and, for a moment, the square flashes bright with possibilities, the chance for everything to be different with the shift of just a few letters. The flower beds puff white, the scent of rain clatters to the ground in a shower of tiny coins, the flocks of birds searching through damp grass suddenly sprout magenta petals, the encroaching night darkens with armour and swords. And you, he thinks, looking at Cate as her legs thicken and her crossed arms transmute into branches with evergreen needles, her eyes into knots of wood.

"Look," she says again, and the needles fall away from her and dissolve, the phlox shakes its petals back into wings. "I think I should go. I just need to get this poster done by tomorrow." She looks at the CD case in his hand.

Poster. "Yeah," he says. "I'm sorry, I left the disk at home."

"Then what's that?" She points at the case.

"It's music," he says. "Some songs I thought you might like." He holds it out and she steps backwards.

"That's really nice of you, but I don't need music, Karl, I—"

"Carl," he says. "With a C." She can't have got it right, she can't have understood, he can still hear the K. "Like Cate." He holds the CD out, pressing it against her hand; when he lets go it falls onto the footpath between them, into a puddle. He squats down and picks it up, and holds it out again.

"Carl with a C," she says. "Carl. I've got a lot to get done by tomorrow. If you can't help I should leave now."

She waits for a moment, and then turns around.

"Listen," he says, and she walks away.

If he can find the right words she'll understand.

"Cate," he calls. She turns around to face him for a moment, walking backwards.

"Just leave me alone," she says. "I'm Kate with a K on my birth certificate. I only use C because there was already a singer in Adelaide with the same name as me. Okay?"

That can't be right. It can't be. "I don't believe you."

She doesn't say anything, just opens her front door. The drops of water run slowly to the edges of the CD case; he hears them fall. "Cate. Kate," he says. "I don't care. It doesn't matter." But she shuts the door behind her, and maybe it does.