I was just putting the finishing touches to an essay on Australia’s relationship with its Asia Pacific neighbours the morning the city appeared.
“Jo Jo,” Caydie called, running all the way through the middle of the house, straight out to where I was in the back. “Come quick. There’s a city in the sea.”
“Little Sweets,” I laughed. “I know it’s boring down here, but you don’t need to make up wild fabrications. Go swim, play cricket, or all those other things that people do to spend a pleasant summer morning.”
But then Lou came in shouting at the top of her voice. “I can’t believe it, Jo Jo. I can’t believe my eyes. Come and see.”
So I went down to the water, just a short walk across dry, sandy soil and past windswept coastal plants, me along with all the other inhabitants of Mulroy, it seemed.
And there it was, not far out. It was a city all right. Only not the kind of city I was familiar with. It appeared to be made mostly of metal, and it shone so greatly in the sun that it hurt my eyes, and there were substances, too, and they spread rainbows everywhere like oil slicks, and buildings that disintegrated and rebuilt themselves as I watched.
I looked around. The sand was full of Mulroy. There must have been no one left in the town itself to run the shops or the cafes. The kids wanted to run straight for it, the older ones holding them by the shoulders. Me, I got such a thrill to see it. If this was real, who knew what else was. But I had a terrible fear too. If this was real, how many other things would I never know and never understand?
We watched for hours. We made picnics there on the edge of the water and played games. Enterprising Freya took food orders from everyone and brought back chips and drinks and burgers. Caydie and me and Lou sat down, making big bum shapes in the sand, pulling our knees up and staring at the marvel. It went almost as high as the sun, and it glistered and glistened, and bits of it sank and reformed every now and then in a most intriguing way. But I would not let Caydie go any nearer. “Gaw’n,” he begged. “I never got no one to play with. Even you. No one’s ever got time. In there, I could go all day and never get bored.”
“And never get found,” I added. “No way.”
“I know I should have made more time for him, but Mumma and Dad were always away all day, and I had my essays and the washing, and I loved him and all that but sometimes playing with Caydie got boring for me.
We could go in together,” Caydie whispered, his little round eyes sparkling. “I’d really like to go in with you. We could share it.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, never taking my eyes from those tall iridescent scrapers.
Could you fall in love with a city? I wondered.
After a bit, I got up all stiff legged and announced I was going home to get on with life. The city wasn’t doing much now as far as I could see. Besides, I could always come back and look at it later on. See how it behaved in night’s shadows.
Caydie and Lou stayed on. Fair enough, I thought. This is a big thing. It might even be educational. “Just don’t go any closer,” I told them. “Not yet anyway. Plenty of time to find our way to it.”
So I went back home to work on a paper comparing and contrasting five short stories from the nineteenth century.
I heard Caydie come home much later. I heard the fridge open, Caydie finding the sandwiches I’d left for him, lights going on and off, water running.
He was nowhere about the next morning. Off to see the city, I supposed. Only, I wished he’d taken his time to have a little breakfast beforehand. Freya’s chips could get expensive.
In the meantime, I busied myself with all the this and that I had to do, only looking up from it all somewhere mid-afternoon, when it occurred to me that I’d like to see the city again too. Why not? I thought. I don’t get many treats myself.
So I made my way down there, feeling a bit excited and pleased about it all. Why had the city chosen us? Were we special in Mulroy? Perhaps we were.
Only, when I got there, I couldn’t see it. Had it sunk low, I wondered, so that the water covered it now? Would it rise again? How could I know? It had only arrived yesterday. We did not yet know its patterns, its nature.
I sat on the sand for a while observing the waves, but nothing rose, nothing appeared. Well, I thought, maybe I’ll just take a few steps out to see if my feet can sense the tops of tall buildings. I lifted up my skirt and waded slowly through the water, further and further, but I could only feel the usual sand and shells and slimy sea things.
Behind me stood a few Mulroy inhabitants, staring into the blue, as puzzled as me.
I walked around for a bit, feeling for something below, and then made my way back to the sand. Freya stood there, her arms full of bags and buckets.
“I’ve got all the food here,” she said. “I’ve brought it for everyone. Where are they?”
They must have left,” I said. “The city’s gone.”
“It was here ten minutes ago,” Freya said. “And the beach was full.”
“Well, not full maybe. That’s just me exaggerating. But lots of us were here. Dipping feet into the sea, making little runs back and forward, daring each other. Oh, it seemed lots of fun. Something happening here for a change. Something for the kids to do.”
“Where are they?” Freya called. “I can’t eat all this myself.”
“Caydie,” I whispered.
“Caydie,” I yelled into the wide open sky.
“Caydie, I’m sorry. Come play with me. I’m here. I’m ready. I have plenty of time.”
I waited and waited but he did not come.
And at the end of that day of waiting and watching, I went home, climbed into the hollow Caydie had left in his bed that morning, and lay there for a long, long time.
—Jen White is an Australian writer of speculative fiction. Her greatest desire growing up was to become an astronaut, eventually owning her own spaceship. Somehow she became a writer instead. Jen lived for some time in the tropical Northern Territory of Australia, and now lives in the cool climes of Victoria. Jen finds inspiration in the vibrancy and mystery of the Australian environment. Jen’s stories have appeared in publications including Aurealis #94, Dimension6 #4, and the anthology Future Lovecraft.