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Read chapter 1 below.
Maggie lies in a pool of urine, listening to the twins scream. A phone rings incessantly behind the teller’s counter and Maggie wishes someone would pick it up. It’s driving her crazy. A film of dust covers the floor which smells of dirt and disinfectant. That’s something she hadn’t noticed when she walked into the bank.
The booted weight of the gunman is still heavy on her back, pinning her to the floor, but it makes no difference, her limbs are frozen by fear.
Will it hurt if he shoots her? He might shoot her in the head. Perhaps shock takes over, and she’ll feel nothing. It’ll be over before she realises. Just so long as the twins are all right. They won’t remember, and kids are resilient.
Her captor shouts, ‘kill that bastard phone,’ and a burst of automatic fire blows it, and the desk to shrapnel.
The noise frightens her babies’ and their cries become more demanding. Paul whimpers as Abigail’s scream rises in tempo. In response, milk gushes from both Maggie’s breasts. It soaks the remaining dry spots on the front of her clothing. After a moment’s lull the howls become louder.
The agony of listening to their screams is unbearable, and she blocks it out, focussing on practicalities. If she dies, Joe will be a good father to them. Will he find someone to replace her? The thought of evil step-mothers pops into her mind. Perhaps it’s better for them to go with her.
Guilt batters Maggie’s brain. It’s the first time in the twins’ short lives she has not responded to their cries, but she’s immobile under the man’s weight and her own terror. She can’t think of them now. If she remembers the details, she might yet find a way to survive. Focus Maggie, focus. If she can recall everything since the premonition, perhaps it will give her clues that will save her babies.
It was less than an hour ago she stepped out from the small semi she and Joe rented? She pushed last night’s forebodings aside as she felt the effects of spring. Perhaps that was her first mistake. Yes, she sees it now. The sun shining, a few clouds scuttling by, driven by a sea breeze and she convinced herself that Joe was right. She was imagining things. Best of all, the winter rain had gone.
She strolled towards the bank to withdraw money for their planned lunch date. It’s her twenty-first, and Joe promised to meet her in the park for fish and chips. It’s not much, but with the twins and Joe’s meagre salary as a tutor, it’s all they can manage. Still it was to be a treat away from the humdrum of motherhood
She sucked in the briny air to blow away any lingering dread and quickened her pace. Her thick wheat coloured ponytail bobbed with each stride. The ancient double seater pram clanked and rattled along the pavement. At each join in the concrete she did a little skip. Bad luck befalls those who tread on the cracks.
Along the street, roses and azaleas spilled over the fences of tiny front yards, or nestled against sun drenched walls. Blossoms perfumed the air as bustling bees packed saddlebags with pollen. Magnolias, bare of leaves, struggled to prop up branches heavy with waxy pink blooms, Maggie’s favourites. She stopped for a minute to gaze around her, wondering why she let last night’s gremlins ruin her birthday. With spring’s beauty in full display, it’s hard to remember the premonition clearly.
This morning she had awoken in a lather of terror, her dream fuzzy, but still clinging to the edges of her mind. She lay stiff under the blankets, listening to Joe breathing until the sun rose, telling herself nothing lurked under the bed. Ghosts and demons don’t exist.
Or, that’s what Joe said anyway although she’s not convinced. When he stirred, she rolled closer, hoping he would cuddle her. Usually, he stumbles to the shower, hardly speaking until after his first cup of coffee.
‘Hold me Joe, I’m scared.’
He cleared his throat. ‘Of what?’
But his arms went around her, and his erection pressed against her hip.
Afterwards he said, ‘happy birthday,’ and kissed her nose, noticing her worried frown. ‘It was just a nightmare, honey.’
‘It felt like a premonition, as if my grandmother was warning me of something.’
He laughed. ‘Premonitions only exist in fiction, babe. Sometimes when you wake up in the middle of a nightmare, it can leave an emotional imprint hanging over you, like the sword of Damocles.’
‘The sword of what?’ His dismissal hurt, but she tried to hide it. He hates it when she complains that he doesn’t understand her. It’s better to say nothing, but she wishes she was as clever as he is.
‘You know; the story about Damocles desperate to become king, but not wanting the responsibility.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Yes, perhaps it was a bad analogy. What I was trying to say is, when you wake up after a nightmare, it leaves an emotional imprint that might account for your fear.’ He pulled away.
‘Stay a minute, please Joe.’
‘Come on honey, I have to shower or I’ll be late for work.’
Abigail woke and wailed, setting off her brother, and after that Maggie had no time to think. She fed and changed the twins, got Joe’s breakfast, and waved him goodbye as he cycled off to work, but the feeling remained. It loomed over her like a dark shadow, its ill-defined edges oozing evil, and she knew it was more than a dream.
Once she stepped into the sunshine she convinced herself Joe was right. He usually is, banging on about how rational thinking is so important. That was her second mistake and then she had compounded it by stomping on the next crack with both feet, doing a little swivel and grind, as if to say, there! It hadn’t lasted because she immediately fell back into avoiding the cracks. She couldn’t help it, but the damage was already done.
She would never admit her secret. Joe would laugh, with that look of disbelief on his face as he searched her features to see if she was joking. He’s always saying there is only science. All else, religion, superstition – everything, disintegrates under scientific scrutiny. It’s hard to argue. She doesn’t have his education, but every day she sees evidence of the supernatural world. It’s enough to convince her, and now lying on the dirty black and white tiled floor of the bank, she has all the proof she needs.
All she ever wanted was to be a good wife and mother; to have Joe’s love and respect and raise well-adjusted children, but she’s failed. If she had listened to her grandmother’s warning, instead of her husband, they wouldn’t be here now. She doesn’t need a university degree to tell her that.
How she wishes she had been content to stay at home rather than hankering for more excitement, but instead she had to push onto the bank. How silly she was as she fussed over the lack of a ramp as she hauled the pushchair up the first step.
That was when the man strode across the pavement. He shifted his sports bag strap on his shoulder and took the lower bar of the pram. Maggie bit her lip, trying to quell nervousness about stranger danger near her babies. After all, he was being chivalrous.
He nodded, his brown eyes appraising, his hair greying at the temples. The grey made him look distinguished, and trustworthy. Joe might look like that when he’s in his thirties although Joe’s eyes are serious with light and dark splotches of grey, like a thunder head.
The man walked ahead of her, towards the bank entrance. He was her third mistake. Instead of paying attention to the clues her grandmother threw at her, she watched him, admiring the nice long curve from broad shoulders to narrow waist. He’d make a good dancer, lithe and alert, with muscled legs and a tight bum, thrusting against the confines of his jeans.
Instead of heeding the warning she had let nostalgia for the academy flood through her. She wouldn’t swap her family, not even for a career as a dancer. She told herself, the chances of her making it were negligible. There were so many talented people, all ready to cut the next person’s throat to get a chance in a chorus line, and she never had the singular ambition required.
The man held the door, scrutinising her as she passed. She had wondered if he was flirting. How stupid that seems now, but it was so nice to think she might be attractive, now that all her femininity seemed swamped under piles of soggy nappies, milk-drenched tee-shirts, and mushy baby-brained synapses. What an idiot. How could she have missed it?
‘Thanks,’ she crinkled her nose. The man should wear deodorant if he wants to be taken seriously. That’s another thing Joe thinks is weird. He calls her passion for tidiness and hygiene quirky. She knows he means obsessive, but if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t know what the gunman looked like, and in hindsight it was another clue she had ignored.
Her mind recalls the interior of the bank as she walked through the door. The teller’s queue was already eight deep. A young man, dressed in a leather jacket and blue jeans, stood at the counter. He turned his head and Maggie had been struck by his looks. Dark hair, square jaw with a trace of shadow, masculine shoulders and narrow hips. It made him look classically beautiful although he might have preferred handsome. He couldn’t be more than eighteen, a few years younger than her, but more confident as he withdrew the last of his savings, telling the teller it was for a plane ticket to Queensland.
She can’t see him now. Not that she can see much at all lying face down on the floor. The old woman, who she thought looked like her Gran except for the foot encased in plaster, is blocking her line of sight. Oh how stupid she is. That was another clue. The woman’s husband lies next to her, his eyes screwed shut, and she wonders why the men didn’t do something when the gunman grabbed her?
Maggie tries to recall who else was in the bank. In the queue behind the handsome man was a mother with her teenage daughter. They waited in silence as the daughter, dressed in mini kilt and Doc Marten’s picked the varnish off her fingernails, dropping each flake to the floor. Beneath her lashes, she had stolen glances at the handsome man, but either he didn’t notice or he ignored her.
It was ridiculous in light of her current predicament, but Maggie had hoped her twins would never be as self-absorbed as the girl. Now she just wants them to survive, and they can be as egocentric as they please. The couple behind the girl watched the varnish flakes drifting to the floor, and the woman had rolled her eyes at her husband, nodding in Ms Doc Marten’s direction. Her husband smiled, seeming more tolerant.
It was such a small thing, and so inconsequential, like Maggie fussing to position the pram in a shaft of sunlight falling through a high window so the babies would stay warm. She noticed a tradesman in blue overalls had glanced at her, but looked away when he saw the pram. It happened a lot lately, and she wondered if she was becoming invisible. If only she was. Could that also have been a clue, a reminder to make herself disappear?
Behind the Tradie, an older man in his fifties, wearing expensive jeans, had talked loudly into a mobile phone. He’s silent now. Why doesn’t he use his dumb phone to call for help? Maggie shifts her head and sees his boat shoes and ankles poking out his trousers. He has no socks. What a Bogan.
She hadn’t understood what was happening when the hand grabbed her pony tail, and wrenched her backwards into a hard body, choking off her scream as an arm clamped around her throat. Metal pressed against her temple, as the robber shouted, ‘nobody move or she gets it.’
She had scrabbled against his forearms as her vision narrowed. Darkness descended to leave only a tunnel of light. She couldn’t turn her head, but she could smell him. It was the man who helped her up the stairs.
‘On the floor, the lot o’you.’ He waved a pistol.
The customers fell to the ground, except the old woman who no longer looked anything like Maggie’s grandmother.
He had yelled, ‘you too old hag. Flat on your belly now, eyes down.’
The old woman struggled to her knees and onto her belly, letting her cane clatter to the floor. Her husband covered her hand with his. Outside, the sun slipped behind a cloud, switching off its shards of light, casting the room in gloom.
Maggie’s legs sagged beneath her, and the man relaxed the choke hold around her throat. Blood thumped back through her temples. From her peripheral vision she could see another man, shorter and stockier than her captor, his face covered by a black balaclava.
His voice, singsong with lack of concern, said ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is a robbery. Everyone stay calm, and no one will get hurt. You,’ he pointed his sawn-off shotgun at the nearest teller, ‘open the door.’
Another man, with the wiry build of a labourer, dressed in black tee-shirt, and tweed Balmoral cap, the kind English gentlemen wear for shooting parties, danced through the opened door. Under the cap, his face was covered by a black bandana, painted to look like a muzzle-full of canine teeth. The front of his black tee-shirt was painted with a howling Jackal, underneath which Maggie noticed the artist’s signature in large looping letters.
Despite his disguise, he looked older than the other two men, and Maggie saw grey hair poking out from the base of the cap. Over his shoulder, he carried an army camouflage printed bag, and in his right hand an AK 47, which he pointed at the teller. ‘You know the drill mate, fill ’er up.’
Paul whimpered. The man holding Maggie adjusted his grip to swivel his body to watch his comrades, and Maggie wrenched herself away to tend to her baby, but the gunman was there before her. The click of the safety catch was loud in the hushed silence as he pressed the barrel against Abigail’s tiny blonde head.
‘No!’ Maggie cried and fell to her knees
‘Shut the fuck up,’ the man with the shotgun shouted across the room.
Her captor said, ‘try that stunt again and your ankle biters are raspberry jam.’ His voice had a foreign lilt, but the over tones were Sydney, like he had lived there a long time.
Maggie knelt next to the pram, head bowed, ‘sorry—sorry. I won’t do anything.’ She glanced up at him. A balaclava covered his face, but in his brown eyes she saw her recognition of him reflected.
‘Don’t look at me bitch. Get down on the floor and don’t move.’ He leaned closer to speak in her ear. ‘Identify me, and you and your sprogs are dead. I’ll find you wherever you are, no matter how long it takes. I’ll hunt you down, and I’ll enjoy gutting them while you watch.’
‘Please, please, I’ll do whatever you want… Please.’ She slid onto her belly, lying in a pool of warm liquid. It seeped through her dress wetting her stomach, but she was shaking too much to notice. The gunman’s foot settled on her back, weighing her down as she listened to her babies’ cries.
Her captor shouts at the other two robbers. ‘Come on, hurry it up.’
Then the booted weight lifts from her back. The door opens, and they are gone. Maggie scrambles to her feet. ‘My babies,’ she sobs, ‘sorry, so sorry.’ She soothes Abigail with a dummy in her mouth, and strokes Paul’s cheek.
The handsome man in the leather jacket bolts out the door after the robbers. A burst of rapid fire splinters concrete around his feet, and he ducks back inside the doorway. He returns to the counter and writes something on a deposit slip.
The old woman pulls herself up and hobbles over to help Maggie. ‘Are you all right dear?’
Maggie rocks the babies with her hands on their little bodies. Abigail sucks; her small brow wrinkled in fury and then calms. Paul whimpers, but quietens as his sister settles.
‘They’ll be all right dear,’ says the old woman.
A high pitched voice from behind Maggie says, ‘oh gross. She’s peed herself.’
The handsome man looks at Maggie with compassion in his blue eyes. He takes off his leather jacket and drapes it around her shoulders. A police siren wails, and Maggie bursts into tears.