Lights Out by Sally Breen

If I told you to turn out the light would you do it?’Sally-Breen

‘Probably not.’ Cheryl yanks a stray thread from the hem of her boho skirt, starts twisting it round her little finger tight. So tight the bottom of her finger stays white, the tip growing purple. She pushes the purple bit back and forth like she wants it to drop off. I look away. Cheryl’s not at a lights off stage in the game. I’ve been here for longer.

We sip our tea and look out to the night through the slats hinged onto the veranda.

‘It’s a weird kind of building this.’ Cheryl says. ‘Comforting.’

I know what she means. The first level is three times the height of your average man. Not one and bit like some. There’s no easy swing up like you get in a ground floor unit. Or the bare faced walk up you get in a low set house. It’s not two times the height of a man like you might get in a townhouse or a block of flats with outside stairs. Here there’s no access point from the outside to the inside. You can’t climb up onto the ledges because of the way they’re shaped. You’d have to have legs and arms like Inspector Gadget. The slats help too because they can be moved with controls from far away – you don’t have to be standing near the windows to do it, you can have them wide open or you can have them close. Most of the new guests keep them together real tight so not even a cat or even a gecko could squeeze through. No man’s ever breached the perimeter let alone the building but when you get to pushing your steel venetians back stage that’s when you know you’re winning. All these things matter.

‘So when do I get my D Dog? I’ve heard all about them D Dogs.’

‘Depends what your case is. How long you’ve gotta wait. What happens after.’

‘Yeah.’ Cheryl pulls her legs under her skirt. ‘I heard they ate one guys face off.’

‘You hear lots of things. PR mostly.’

Cheryl is right about the dogs though I just don’t want to scare her. They’ve done some damage. Mr Pink is my D dog. He’s washed out white with lolly pink rimmed eyes and fleshy bits, a rehabilitated bull. The trainers let the dogs choose you. They say in a group the dogs will gravitate to who they want. They get real edgy at the start like we do because they can smell our fear. My first day in the yard a group of us had gone in for meet and greet and the dogs ignored us, we were all walking around slow like we were told and nothing happened. I started feeling like I was a failure and some of the other women said they’d felt like that too – that right away most of us went straight to thinking the dogs wouldn’t want us. All that inside voiceover about being lower than a snakes belly. But the dogs were just testing us. We could see they were forming a kind of circle around this one girl, Leesa. Closing in on her slow. In an ever reducing arc. She started rolling her hands and crying but the trainers didn’t do anything at first. Acted like they hadn’t seen it before. Later I got told it was all part of assimilation. That the dogs get rewarded for sniffing out the weakest one of us in the pack. And the dogs didn’t touch her. I reckon if one of them had of just then she would have lost it, gone scramming away and asking for a pass. Looking for the exit. At some point the dogs stopped walking their slow circles and sat facing out and here was this skinny girl Leesa probably nineteen with fifteen dogs seated round her like a furry fortress – like a big teeth posse. And she must have liked that. When the trainers came in and gave them treats from their kit bags Leesa just kind of collapsed. And that’s when she got properly selected. By Diddy the big rotty – who licked her face while she howled and wagged his fat stubby tail. I heard Leesa’s man tried to strangle her nineteen times before she left. One time for every year of her life. Her necks a bit deformed because of it. And her wind pipes shot. They reckon sometimes you can die a long time after someone’s tried to strangle you.

They tell us in share it’s ok to think about our men. And talk about them. But we never say their names. They’re just our men. I know Sarah keeps a photo of her man on top of the standard issue tall boy that keeps all our personals in eight draws. Sometimes she cries at night. Most of the rest of us don’t. When I think about my man I squeeze my eyes. I know I do that. As a thing. I did it when I had pimples in high school and I’d only look at myself in the mirror with my eyes half shut. Because squinting makes your eyes water just enough for you to make your own filter. I think about lots of stuff like this from before. Sleeping on a camping mattress in our first apartment. What we did on it. Watching him tell a joke in a crowd. His hand squeezing mine when we first met and again when we met little Jimmy for the first time on the ultrasound. Every woman here has got a list like mine. And another one. First time he twisted my hand up behind my back. Second year in and smashing my head against the dash. Pulling me up off my feet by my ponytail, dragging me to the gas stove and setting my hair on fire. Spitting in my face and threatening to kill me and Jimmy. Our last car ride. Jimmy’s little legs dangling over the lip of the bridge. All the rest lost somewhere to what share managers call PTS and I call nothingness. They say they’re teaching teenage boys how to cry now. Which I guess is something. My Jimmy wouldn’t have had any trouble.   

© Sally Breen

Sally Breen is the author of The Casuals (2011) and Atomic City (2013). Her work has also appeared in Overland, The Griffith Review, Best Australian Stories and The Australian. She is Senior Lecturer in Writing and Publishing at Griffith university and fiction editor of The Griffith Review.