Rebel Gods is coming soon!

Received some wonderful news tonight – in addition to its shortlisting for the Indie Book Awards, Monuments has been selected as a CBCA Notable Book.

In other news, its sequel Rebel Gods has an official release date (July 28), a blurb and a cover. Scroll down, but beware Monuments spoilers in the blurb.

With the Monuments gone, there’s nothing stopping the rebel gods from reducing the world to ruin.

Well, newbie gods Connor, Sally and Locky are supposed to stop them, only they don’t know how. While Sally searches for answers and Locky makes plans to change the world, Connor struggles to keep up appearances as an ordinary teenager. But soon he’ll have bigger problems than his mum finding the giant sword hidden under his bed.

Rebel Gods is the second book in the Monuments fantasy duology from YA superstar, Will Kostakis. It’s a heartfelt look at family, friendship and the parallel lives we lead.

Can’t wait to share it with you!

Sequels and The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve been thinking a lot about sequels this year. It’s a side effect of actually having to write one. While it isn’t all that evident in my work, Star Wars is one of my biggest inspirations. As YA author and ‘Deadline City’ podcast co-host Dhonielle Clayton says, the series “refills my creative well”. Sit me in front of the original, the sequels, the prequels, the new sequels, and by the time the credits roll, I’m energised to write. After seeing the 1997 rereleases as a kid, I imagined and plotted my own sequel trilogy, and brought them to life in low-poly glory thanks to Microsoft 3D Movie Maker. As a teenager, I would take the material George Lucas gave us with the prequels, and rework them as writing exercises. Not to say my versions were better, they often weren’t, but I developed my critical eye. So, I thought I’d cap off my year by discussing The Rise of Skywalker through the lens of what I’ve learned about sequels.

This will end well for my mentions.

Now, there’s no way I can discuss the film in this way without spoilers, so if you have yet to see The Rise of Skywalker, please don’t read further. But so that you don’t feel like you’re leaving empty-handed, here’s a spectacular video about editing Star Wars that illustrates how changing and rearranging a story can elevate it.

Now, how do we sequel? To borrow from Bassim El-Wakil and Lucias Malcolm of ‘The Story Toolkit’, good storytelling is all about set-ups and pay-offs. You set something up to then pay it off. When you sequel, you have to look at what the previous story set up, and figure out an exciting way to pay it off. In a great sequel, the plot emerges organically from that pay-off, as it inspires new set-ups that must, in turn, be paid off.

These set-ups aren’t always obvious. Take Toy Story 2 for instance. It has a happy ending. The toynapped Woody not only returns to Andy, but he welcomes abandoned toy Jessie into the fold. As children, we were all devastated by ‘When Somebody Loved Me’, and then elated by Jessie’s second chance at love. Set-up and pay-off. Film over. Audience satisfied. It wasn’t until we viewed Toy Story 3 as adults that we realised the happy ending of the previous film is actually a hollow one, because Andy and his sister are going to grow up, and Jessie is just delaying the inevitable ‘When Somebody Loved Me’ reprise. And we get that reprise in Toy Story 3. It’s for that very reason that sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. Toy Story 2‘s ending is no longer a happy one.

Pivoting to Star Wars, the sequel trilogy was launched by JJ Abrams, the king of set-ups. He loves himself a ‘mystery box’, a metaphorical box whose secret contents the audience yearns to discover. I am an Abrams fan. While I have never out-right loved one of his films, Alias is one of my favourite-ever TV shows. I was addicted to it during its initial run. Week after week, I was teased with mystery box after mystery box. The show’s answers always led to more questions, and I was excited to see how the series would eventually resolve its overarching mysteries. Shock-horror, it ended with a whimper. For a long time, I blamed the show’s creative decline on Abrams’ departure after the second season to explore other projects. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that Alias faltered because no mystery box’s actual contents is ever as satisfying as what we think might be in them. And the longer mysteries are teased, the better their resolutions need to be.

The Force Awakens is a film of two very different halves. The first half introduces the new cast, we learn a lot by observing their ordinary (and extraordinary) lives. The film cleverly sidelines Luke Skywalker, so that there’s time for the new cast to endear themselves to us. If Luke was wandering around with his lightsaber, we’d spend the run-time wondering why he wasn’t the one saving the universe, so he’s set up as the film’s MacGuffin (the plot’s necessary object) to be sought out. The film then abandons that particular search in its second half, focused instead on the Third Death Star Starkiller Base. The search for Luke is hastily resolved in the final minutes by a randomly awakening R2-D2, which is a weak pay-off considering the prominence of that search in the opening crawl.

Like an Abrams TV pilot, the film is packed with set-ups it doesn’t resolve. What is going to happen when Rey hands Luke the lightsaber? Come to think of it, why is Luke, famous for helping his pals, in hiding? Why did they say he held himself responsible for Ben Solo’s Dark-Side turn? What happened after Return of the Jedi that led to the First Order’s rise? In fact, what is the First Order? And who is Snoke anyway? Who are the Knights of Ren? They sound cool, when do we get to see more of them? Who is Rey? Why is she so powerful? Why does Kylo respond so intensely when “the girl” is mentioned? Does he know who she is? How long will Finn be in that coma?

Some of these, like the lightsaber cliffhanger, are genuinely laying the path for the sequel. Some of these are the fault of the final cut of the film, which doesn’t adequately set-up the dynamics of the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order before (literally) blowing them up. The Hosnian System, and the New Republic it is home to, is destroyed by Starkiller Base. It’s a pay-off without a proper set-up, so it lacks the emotional punch of say, establishing Alderaan as Leia’s home-world before destroying it. And some of these, like “Rey from nowhere’s” true identity, are mystery boxes, designed to tease and inspire fans to theorise.

Fans who grew up with the original trilogy, and the expanded universe that fleshed out its sometimes wafer-thin narrative and character work, expected the sequel trilogy to pay-off every set-up, satisfy every mystery and justify every mention, in a way the originals never did. Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, was more interested in exploring the characters Abrams’ created. Check out this incredible video essay about the film.

He swiftly dealt with The Force Awakens‘ lingering questions and crafted a story that tested its protagonists. It does this while also honouring all of the Star Wars films that came before it. The Last Jedi makes sense of Luke’s absence, actually gives Leia something to do, acknowledges the (let’s face it, unintentional) Jedi uselessness in the prequels, explains Rey’s power by redefining what “balancing” the Force means: the Force actually balancing, and not simply good overcoming evil. The potent nostalgia is purposeful this time around. This is a film not about letting the past die, but rather, about learning from its mistakes and growing. This was willfully misinterpreted as Rian Johnson disrespecting the history of Star Wars by fans who listened to the villains and not Yoda.

I felt odd after first viewing The Last Jedi. It challenged me. I knew I loved it, it features some of my all-time favourite Star Wars moments (R2-D2’s Leia hologram, Luke’s first lesson, the throne room, Yoda’s lesson, Holdo light-speed, that entire opening sequence that makes us cheer when the ship blows up, then shows us Leia devastated by the casualties, forcing us to confront the human cost of war and learn Poe’s lesson alongside him), but yeah, challenged.

First, it was not the film I expected it to be. I mean, where were the Knights of Ren? And it didn’t feel like a middle chapter. It felt like an ending, because the set-ups weren’t obvious. The Resistance was decimated, but that felt less like a cliffhanger and more like a sad state of affairs. And I’d been conditioned by The Empire Strikes Back to expect a cliffhanger that more obviously signposted a way forward. It didn’t help that on first viewing, I didn’t get the Broom Boy sequence. It felt like a jarring epilogue after the everyone-all-together tableau on the Millenium Falcon. It felt separate, when I really should have been looking at those two moments together. Leia tells Rey that they have everything they need, and then we see the legend of Luke Skywalker inspiring the galaxy’s most downtrodden.

The Last Jedi sets up the rise of the entire galaxy against the First Order, not just one special person. While it kills off Luke, it allows him to live on as an inspiration. Strike me down and … well, you know the rest. It also paves the way for the sequel trilogy’s Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, to be his own master and do what his grandfather never did. It positions Rey to look beyond her past, Poe to be Leia’s successor, and Finn to … Well, this trilogy has no idea what it’s doing with Finn. He is no longer devoted to Rey, and rather, he’s in the Resistance because he wants to be there, but that’s not much of a launch pad. More than anything else though, it sets up a true end to the saga: the balance of the force.

The Force Awakens‘ set-ups were obvious. They were questions. The Last Jedi‘s set-ups were situational. How did The Rise of Skywalker honour those set-ups?

Um … Not well. It undoes the characters’ progression. The film resurrects Emperor Palpatine as the Big Bad, and in doing so, denies Kylo Ren the mantle. Poe doesn’t assume the leadership until all of Carrie Fisher’s unused footage is awkwardly re-purposed, and even then, all he does is co-general with Finn, who has reverted back to his The Force Awakens state (running after Rey, screaming, “Rey!”). Rey learns her surname, then learns to be her own person, buries the Skywalker lightsabers and then … adopts their surname. Rose is somewhere else looking at Star Destroyer cross-sections or something. The result is a film that, as film critic Daniel Lammin puts it, “is so desperate to be liked”. It’s non-stop fun. The characters are a trio now! Banter! There are things to find! Quests! And answers! The film zooms from place to place, heavy with exposition, only to end up exactly where we expect it to: a confrontation with Emperor Palpatine.

The problem with this trajectory is, we’ve been here before. Return of the Jedi. The Emperor died and the Empire fell. Only it didn’t really. The First Order rose and Emperor Palpatine returned. So when The Rise of Skywalker resolves in almost the same way, it doesn’t feel permanent. Instead of reflecting our times (Nazis are trying to make it okay to be Nazis again!), and exploring how the First Order came from the Empire, and really grappling with what must be done to keep a Second Order from rising in its wake, we are given Emperor Palpatine, professional puppet master and his Final Order. The mystery boxes are opened. Snoke was a clone! Emperor Palpatine was always the villain, and now that we’ve melted his face off his skull, the Nazis are gone forever!

The film attempts to explain this convenience away by saying the confrontation with Emperor Palpatine inspires the galaxy to rise up against the First Order … So, Abrams spent the entire film re-establishing The Last Jedi‘s set-up, only to pay it off in a montage that lasts seconds. Luke Skywalker is reduced to a ghost mentoring one person, and chastising her for tossing his weapon disrespectfully. It is so preoccupied with answering fans’ supposed grievances that it shrinks itself. The Force is left imbalanced. But at least we have answers. And The Knights of Ren were there. That mystery box was sort of opened and just like the others, its answer underwhelmed.

Sequels are dangerous. They re-frame the stories that come before them. By revealing Snoke is simply an extension of Emperor Palpatine, the celebrated throne room sequence in The Last Jedi loses most of its power. Kylo Ren’s actions are retroactively made less significant. And I don’t believe Abrams is unaware of this danger. The Force Awakens was a risk. Luke, Leia and Han were denied their Return of the Jedi happily ever after to launch a sequel trilogy. Now that it’s over, we have to wonder, was the reward worth what they lost?

Crisis of Opinion

I don’t want to write my opinion, but I have to. I have a new book out, so I need to remind you I exist, nudge you a little closer to visiting your local bookstore and asking for it by name (it’s Monuments, by the way).

Sustaining a career in publishing isn’t newsworthy. A fifth book isn’t as shiny as a first. So, like everyone else with something to sell, I must share my opinion. Ideally in a publication that pays per word, but I’ll settle for a flat fee … or the inclusion of a link to purchase.

But what is my opinion? There are already so many opinions, and so many bad ones, that our media seems reliant on for conflict, content and clicks. Just last week, Ita Buttrose told ABC Breakfast that political correctness had gone too far and Kerri-Anne Kennerley suggested motorists use protesters “as a speed bump”. You know … regular, normal opinions. And before then? I get dizzy thinking about the column inches and cable news tirades, mostly by men like Andrew Bolt, devoted to teenagers – what’s appropriate for them to learn in schools, what’s appropriate for them to think, and what’s appropriate for them to say when cutting world leaders down to size at UN climate action summits.

We’ve been told that attention is difficult to capture, that news cycles must move quickly to compensate, but the protracted response to the youth-led climate strike seems to defy this logic. It seems, it’s always newsworthy and timely to dunk on teens who have the audacity to rise to the occasion and demand adults join them.

Many responses to the climate strike protests relied on anger and misogyny – how dare teenagers organise their protests in air-conditioned classrooms and how dare some of them be girls! Others were less obviously harmful. They were overwhelmingly reasonable. Their authors agreed with the message but not the means of communicating it. Joe Hildebrand made references to Damascene conversions because he’s an intellectual, and to Doogie Howser M.D. because his appetite to be condescending trumps any desire to be relevant.

Unlike most opinion writers, my job has me meeting tens of thousands of teenagers a year. I’ve spent the past seventy days touring schools across the country and I can see the impact our nation’s crisis of opinion is having on our teens.

On the whole, adults underestimate teenagers like the adults who underestimated them. Those who have opinions about teenagers are no different. What they underestimate most is teenagers’ capacity to listen to us. We teach them respect, but when they’re respectful of others’ difference, we call them snowflakes. We teach them expert knowledge, and when they apply that knowledge, we say they’ve been brainwashed.

But they are respectful, and they are smart. That scares some of us.

Over the past seventy days, I have asked teenagers what they would do if they had the power to change the world. The climate is a pressing concern, but not their only one. They want to better support the homeless. They want to end refugee detention. They want to stifle discrimination in all its forms.

Most teenagers reject the injustices we adults have come to accept as the way things are. That’s heartening. I leave schools elated, only to later scroll through Twitter and be consumed with rage. The gulf in maturity between our teens and our adults – the leaders, the talking heads on television, the angry op-ed army in print – is staggering.

Immature as they are, garbage opinions endure. We make room for them in the media and call it discourse, and when we disagree with them, we relish it. We share the garbage opinions with rolled eyes and pithy takedowns, not realising that we’re amplifying those opinions with digital megaphones. And teenagers are, I cannot stress this enough, listening.

Take the myth of political correctness for instance. Every few weeks, it emerges, and every hot take about it is staler than the last. No one really interrogates the actual idea, because like all Sky News After Dark talking points, the notion of political correctness crumbles under an ounce of scrutiny. When framed as treating people with respect, politically incorrect starts to sound a whole lot like civility.

The most popular joke of my teens was saying, “Gay,” when someone did something we didn’t like or understand. It was hilarious. Not allowed now. Some might call it political correctness. Others might wonder why it was ever funny in the first place.

Oh, it’s just stating that people are same-sex attracted. Oh, I can see how that might make them uncomfortable. Oh, I can see that it isn’t really a joke, we’ve just learned that it’s funny, and we laugh out of habit. Oh, we can construct a better joke from the context. Cool.

I say all this because I want you to buy my book, but what are these other opinion merchants selling? Fear. The times are changing, like they always do and always will. If that scares you, they will speak for you. Subscribe. Don’t change the channel.

When talking heads on TV moan about “political correctness gone mad”, teenagers listen. I hope that most dismiss it, but others listen. One teenager raised her hand at Brisbane Writers Festival and asked me if, because she intended to work in politics one day, she should shy away from writing about politically incorrect topics.

For a moment, I worried she wanted the freedom to write whatever she pleased without caring who she’d offend – oh, the Lionel Shriver of it all! – but in fact, she was simply asking permission to write about gay people, because she identified as gay. It was heartbreaking on two counts. Not only did she see her sexuality as a barrier to pursuing a career in politics, she had taken their “We can’t talk about gay people anymore!” to mean she couldn’t reflect on her identity in her writing.

The oppressive bogeyman that is political correctness isn’t the only divisive talking point that filters from our opinion writers down to teenagers. During creative writing workshops in Melbourne recently, I asked teenagers what they could say about our world through a fantasy story premise. One teenager wanted to explore how universities stifle the political expressions of one side of politics (a common right-wing complaint … as if scrutinising poorly thought-out ideas and challenging dangerous rhetoric doesn’t belong in an education institution). Another lamented that feminists were taking over the world (he was startled to learn that thinking his mum and dad were equal made him a feminist too). Another believed that criminals should be sent back to where they came from (he later said that reforming the ways we rehabilitate people might be better).

Now, why do I think thirteen-year-old boys sometimes sound like they’re reading Chris Kenny’s first drafts? Because teenagers listen. They internalise the garbage opinions that any editor or TV producer worth their salt should identify as hollow or dangerous and filter out. But unlike Chris Kenny and his ilk, they’re open to discussion, and often, quick to see the flaws in conservative rhetoric.

We all assume that wisdom comes with age, but what if that was just a lie to keep the young at bay? What if we learned something from our teenagers, so full of empathy, so willing to do away with garbage opinions. There is a standard of discourse we should expect, and there should be consequences for those who don’t meet them. Like, maybe somebody who (allegedly) jokes about motorists mowing down protestors shouldn’t enjoy the celebrity and salary being on television affords them.

But that’s just my opinion.

Making Monuments

Almost a month after releasing Monuments, it’s probably too late to write a post introducing the novel and explaining why I wrote it.

I’m going to anyway.

In the years since The Sidekicks (good book, not biased, buy it), I’ve been thinking a lot about the books that I write. Contemporary realistic fiction. ‘You write what?’ is the standard response. People usually know contemporary realistic fiction by another name. Issue books. When we talk about books for children and young adults, we tend to elevate issue books above all others – as if a text that delights, transports and entertains can’t be as worthy as a text that grapples with stuff. I’ve benefited from that elevation. I’ve also benefited from being a cis man who writes issue books. That’s me doubly elevated. If I’d set one of my books in the recent past when overt racism was more acceptable and my aspiring-author child protagonist observed it, I’d have won the elevation trifecta.

My fourth novel for young adults could have been another issue book, and it almost was. But issue books are hurting me.

It’s emotionally exhausting to draw from your own life. I lived one of my biggest fears writing The First Third, my maternal grandmother’s death, and I revisited one of the most soul-crushing experiences of my life, a close friend’s death, when crafting The Sidekicks. When you hurt yourself to write a book, the hurt doesn’t end when that book is released. I have to revisit that fear and that pain every single time I talk about my work. Death by a thousand cuts. It’s what’s expected of authors who draw inspiration from their life … and it’s torture. I endure it because I see people in my audiences who share the same fears and have felt the same hurt. We acknowledge it, and then we laugh. I make sure we do. Laughter releases the tension. We feel lighter afterwards, relieved.

After writing The Sidekicks, I needed to let myself laugh again. My fourth novel had to be a comedy.

Issue books are hurting me in other ways. The primary theme in my novels is identity. I know it’s one of those themes where, if you look hard enough, every text is about it. But I make extra sure that my novels are about it. The thing is though, when you’re writing an issue book, and you want its primary theme to be identity, then the issues stem from identity. In The First Third, Billy’s Greekness was something he had to wrestle with, and the intersection of Lucas’s sexuality and disability was what he dealt with. In The Sidekicks, Ryan came to terms with his sexuality and being known as the “gay” swimmer. While I’m incredibly proud of those books and their explorations – heck, writing Ryan’s arc gave me the confidence to come out to my close family and friends – looking at parts of myself, in the case of sexuality and ethnicity, and framing those parts as issues to overcome is taxing. It’s even worse when that becomes an expectation of my readership.

Why is there always a “Greek tragedy waiting to happen”? Why must the gay kid in fiction struggle to come to terms with himself? Why can’t the gay Greek kid just save the world?

My fourth novel wouldn’t be an issue book. It would be a comedy, and the gay Greek kid would go on an adventure.

Funny, flustered and fabulous, Connor swam around in my head for years. I would daydream about the moment he discovered a god hidden in the foundations of his school. I heard his snarky commentary as he embarked on a Capital-Q Quest.

He didn’t arrive in my head fully formed though. He was the culmination of every school visit, of every conversation I had with teens who felt powerless, teens who felt equipped to changed the world, but who didn’t have the opportunity to. Touring from Denver, Colorado to Moora, Western Australia, I am bowled over by today’s teens. They are kind and open-minded in ways we all aspire to be. I watch the ways they embrace their LGBTQIA peers, strike for climate change, strive for refugee justice, and when I leave after a long day, my heart is full. The future is so bright. Then I scroll through Twitter, and I wish the future would get here faster. Our teens put our leaders to shame.

My fourth novel would be about that.

Wait, no. It was supposed to be a comedy about the gay Greek kid who went on an adventure. It was meant to be an antidote to me writing texts that grappled with stuff. But here’s the plot twist: all books grapple with stuff. Genre fiction is just as capable at reflecting our world and its concerns as contemporary realistic fiction. Only, genre fiction can do it with dragons*.

*There are no dragons in Monuments. There is a quest to find ancient gods and a cute couple you’ll ship hard though.

Queerstories 2019: My Father Haunts Me

I’m known around the traps as the guy who got a book deal in high school, but I’m usually pretty guarded about one of my strongest motivations. This piece illuminates that and was originally performed at Mudgee Readers’ Festival (‘Queerstories’) on August 17, 2019, alongside original pieces by Cadance Bell, Faith Chaza, Benjamin Law, Maeve Marsden and Hajer. Enjoy. My new urban fantasy novel Monuments is out now, and Mum spent her lunchbreak yesterday in the display window of Dymocks Sydney conducting an impromptu photoshoot with the Monuments display. She’s earned it.

My Father Haunts Me

My father haunts me. It’s not that he’s dead. He’s not. I mean, he could be, but as far as I know, he’s not. I see him wherever I go. In the faces of passers-by. In cars. Ugh. He’s the tightening of my chest when a white truck that could be his drives past. He is everywhere and nowhere.

Even my writing career, which blossomed in his absence, is haunted by him. My mother’s father was the one who waited outside newsagencies before they opened to buy me fresh lined paper as a kid, but my father was the reason I was sending manuscripts to publishers before my thirteenth birthday. When my parents’ marriage ended, our house was a shell, half-renovated, the ceiling was a mess of wiring, and the kitchen was a leaky fridge, and a sink propped up by a plank of wood.

There used to be an aluminium bench and some chairs. To give you a measure of the man, when my parents divorced, my father collected his half of the furniture, as was his right. Then, he returned to halve it again, claiming that he hadn’t yet. He took our bikes, our boardgames, and the aluminium bench he fashioned in his factory with the accompanying chairs.

Mum worked hard, too hard, to keep us in school and to fill that house. One night, she collapsed walking up the stairs to her bedroom, and instead of working less, she sent us to live with our grandmother so that we wouldn’t see the toll it took on her. Slowly, she made that shell of a house a home. She installed a ceiling. She bought furniture to replace the pieces my father stole, and then some.

And I wrote. Every day. From Year Seven, I sent manuscripts to publishers, each time convinced that that manuscript would be the one to earn a JK Rowling-sized advance and mean Mum didn’t have to work as hard. That drive that saw me earn a book deal in Year Twelve … that was me trying to step into my father’s absence and provide, or at least, ease the burden he had placed on Mum’s shoulders.

His absence didn’t just inspire my drive, it inspired my output. My first novel began its life as a thinly veiled Parent Trap-style revenge fantasy. In an early draft of my second novel, The First Third, a character tracked down their absent father and said everything I wished I could have said to mine. I remember my then-editor Clair Hume, congratulating me for getting it off my chest before suggesting I cut the scene. When I asked why, she asked if I’d ever tracked down my father. I said no. I cut the scene.

I toured the book. Students who study The First Third try separating fact from fiction. Am I Billy? Is the mum in the book my mum? The grandmother? The brothers? Did this all really happen? One afternoon at a school in Sydney’s outer suburbs, a hand shot up in the middle of one of my talks. The student asked if I had ever tracked down my father. I said no. Another hand shot up. That student asked why. And I didn’t have an answer. I was a quote-unquote grown man now, mid-20s, I was perfectly capable of finding my father and expressing everything I wanted to. I didn’t need to do it in fiction.

So, I set out to find him.

I guessed his address. Suburb. Street name. House number. All of it. Unbelievable right? I mean, I could say I worked at a polling place one election, was entrusted with a tablet featuring the electoral roll, searched my surname, miraculously found his entry, and memorised his address, but that would have been a crime. And it didn’t happen like that. I can’t overstate how much it definitely didn’t happen like that.

I had his address, but I wasn’t going to show up on his doorstep. I typed the address into Google and Google returned a White Pages knock-off that featured his phone number. I sat on the edge of my bed and dialled. One ring. Two rings. My heart thumped. My chest was in a vice. My brain stung. I hung up, set my phone down and took a breath. And another.

I refused to believe a man I hadn’t seen in over ten years still had this much of a hold on me. I dialled his number again. One ring. Two rings.

“Hello?” I didn’t recognise the voice.

Heart thump. Ragged breath.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could speak to Stephen please.”


Heart thump. Heart thump. Heart thump.

“Hello Stephen, this is William …”

Heart thump.

“As in, my son?”

“That’s the one.”

Heart thump.

“What, um, why are you calling?”

“I just think it’s about time we had a chat. In person. Does Thursday night suit?”

It didn’t. We tried for the following Tuesday. He cancelled on the day, rescheduled for Friday. He called when I was walking to the train station to change the venue and push our meeting back an hour. He told me to meet him at Rockdale Station. He waited by the turnstiles. I walked right past him, but he caught the edge of my eye. I turned and stared down an older, semi-sundried version of myself. The same curly hair. The same stubbly beard. The same posture … Even though I had built myself in his absence, I had become him. He was inescapable.

I said hello. He said he thought I’d be taller. That’s what he led with. And now that I was closer, I could see he hadn’t even changed into a clean shirt after work. I hadn’t been worth a quick tidy.

He walked me to a nearby Thai restaurant. We took our seats. It was surreal, sitting opposite him as he browsed the menu. He was alive. Every day and every night he didn’t make contact, he lived. He visited Thai restaurants, browsed menus … He cleared his throat and said it was nice to have me back after my “bitch mother turned me against him”.

I was stunned. That was how he was going to start. I didn’t flinch. I told him I didn’t remember her picking up my brother and throwing him against a wall.

He denied that ever happened, then said he didn’t know why we were doing this, this was a mistake. He still ordered, mind you. My voice shook every time I spoke. We were on edge, combative. He set the tone, and I met it. Again, he said he didn’t know why we were doing this.

I knew. He wasn’t aware, but every time his mother was sick, my mum found out, and she snuck us into the hospital to visit her. Mum took me to the nursing home to see her just before she died. We resolved everything. I was here, at dinner with my father in case he got hit by a bus tomorrow. And I told him so.

He wore my words like a slap, and I teed up the rant that I’d been slow-cooking for years. I was ready for some poetic evisceration … I managed three sentences before I realised he wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want to itemise my grievances, list all the ways he’d hurt me, because he wasn’t worth the words. He didn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing he’s responsible for any part of me.

There is only one person in the world who deserves that satisfaction. As much as my father has haunted my life, he has never cast a shadow over it, because I have sat perched on one woman’s shoulders and she bore the brunt of it so I would never go a day without feeling the sun on my face.

My mother doesn’t haunt me. She never left.

This piece was originally performed at Mudgee Readers’ Festival (‘Queerstories’) on August 17, 2019, alongside original pieces by Cadance Bell, Faith Chaza, Benjamin Law, Maeve Marsden and Hajer. My new urban fantasy novel Monuments is out now.