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The Distance Keeper

a short story
by Deborah Biancotti

Toby checked his watch. It was one minute to six in the morning. Too soon.

He rocked onto his toes, looking from his verandah to the empty space in front of him. Not exactly empty, not really. But empty in a way that defied the objects in it. That reduced the dead and living equally. He had to stop himself from thinking: dead and dying. Geoff wanted him to think positive.

It was hot already. Here and there eucalypt trees stood like the ghosts of soldiers. Caught out, upright and surprised. Dead in their boots, he couldn't help thinking. Pellets of sunlight shot through the branches to hit the dusty ground. Toby breathed in deeply and smelled -- nothing.

He checked his watch again and it was six o'clock. Exactly. He started down the stairs. Not leisurely, but not quickly either. Pacing it just so. Like he did every morning, leaving at the same time, walking the same way. He was very careful about it.

On the horizon, the trees looked like they curved around the earth, wide-angle-lens-wise. Made him feel like he was in a fishbowl full of dust. He looked down instead, checking for cracks or the telltale signs of fading in the elastic of the world. His worn-out boots scuffed the dust into the air around him so he moved in a haze.

The ground was so dry he could almost walk in the footprints left from yesterday, marked out in the dirt. Here and there he saw the tracks of animals. Tracks only. He hadn't seen an animal in months. Not that there were less animals. Just more space. Toby kept track of distances and he knew. But Geoff said no, that couldn't be right.

It was right. The world was stretching like a rubber band. It was pulled taut, ready to snap. Ready to fling them all into space.

He walked the distance between his property and his neighbour's. The road was empty. Even the birds were silent now, having sung their tunes to the wide morning and then waited, propped up in the trees, for the next event. The next day or night or what would come.

Geoff said there's a time for doing and a time for waiting. Toby was trying to work out which this was.

He resisted the urge to check his watch again.

When he reached Geoff's place, pacing himself along the worn path, he was sweating. He wanted to run up the stairs and into the shade, but forced himself to use the same stride he used every day. Not too fast and not too slow. He stared through the heat haze into the shadow of Geoff's verandah. The screen door was ajar and behind it, Geoff's front door was still shut. Must have been a bad night with Melissa again.

Toby stepped gratefully into the silhouette of the house, walked the three steps to the verandah and stopped to check his watch. Six forty-seven. A whole two minutes longer than yesterday. That was the biggest difference so far. Add that to the ten seconds from Tuesday, the thirty seconds from the day before. It had been building for weeks. And it was getting faster, the rush to explode overwhelming them.

The house was no cooler inside, but the darkness was a relief after the bright morning light. There was no one in the lounge room, so he went through to the kitchen. Last night's plates tipped precariously over the sink. No sign of breakfast yet. He took off his hat and rubbed his head hard, wiping the sweat away. He was thirsty, but there was a line between letting yourself in and opening kitchen cupboards to find a glass. He sat at the table and waited for Geoff.

It took a while, but Geoff finally appeared wearing a crumpled shirt and no shoes.

"Been here long?" he asked, nodding hello at Toby.

"Nope. Four minutes," Toby nodded back. "Shed today, Geoff?"

"No, not the shed today. Back fence. We'll take the truck."

Geoff pulled a glass from the edge of the sink and filled it with water. Seeing the thirst on Toby's face, he held the glass up, tipping it in Toby's direction. Not enough to spill anything, but enough that Toby nodded yes, please. Geoff got another glass from the cupboard.

The two men sat and drank silently until the glasses were empty.

"'Nother?" Geoff asked.


After the second one, Geoff stood up and began shifting plates and cutlery around.

"Have to make Mel some breakfast first, Toby. See you outside?"

Toby wanted to talk about the distance, but he bit his tongue. Geoff was engrossed in his task, his back to the other man. Reluctantly, Toby went through the kitchen door into the heavy sunlight. He sat in the truck, leaving the door open optimistically for a breeze. There wasn't any. He fanned himself with his hat and dangled his legs over the faded grass, waiting.

Another quarter hour and Geoff appeared, this time with boots on. He came round the back of the truck, checking on the fence-mending equipment.

"Keys in there, Toby?"

Toby leaned round the steering column. "Yep."

Geoff started the engine before he was even in his seat and they jolted forward with the doors slamming shut.

"Hot," Toby said.

"Yeah, sure is," Geoff replied. "Mel's having a hard time of it in the heat."

They rode on for a while staring at the day, both men with an arm out the window.

"Forty-seven minutes today, Geoff," Toby said.


"Two minutes more than yesterday," he said, in case his friend didn't understand. "It's speeding up."

"Accelerating, you reckon?"

"Yeah. Accelerating."

"Maybe you're just getting old. Slowing down." Geoff laughed, knowing Toby was only three years older than him.

"It's not that ... " Toby began, clenching his fist around the window frame as the car gurgled along the path. "It's the world, Geoff."

"Yeah, the world. Everything's getting further apart. Like you said," Geoff rubbed his face. "Like we need more space out here, hey?"

"Stretching," Toby murmured.

"Stretching?" Geoff sighed. "And then what, hey? Think it'll burst? Think the guts of the Earth will all come whooshing out!"

Toby was silent, wondering. In his head he saw it kind of like pulling a sticky bun apart with your thumbs. Some of it would tear and some of it would hold together, but you couldn't tell where.

"I dunno," he said at last.

"You don't know," Geoff replied, like he'd tasted something bitter. "Anyway, aren't you ever two minutes early?"

Toby looked out the window. Sure, some days the world pulled in again. But the net effect was an expansion. He didn't want to tell Geoff that. He wanted to be positive.

"Anyway, maybe you're just walking differently," Geoff continued.

"It's not me."

"But it could be, eh? A bit faster, a bit slower. I mean, you can't be exactly the same every day."

"Yes, I am."

"Toby--," Geoff began, then stopped. He let out a long sigh instead and in the heat, Toby could almost see the air swirl in front of them.

"How's Melissa?" Toby asked, to change the subject.

Geoff had to pause a while before answering that one. He chewed his lip and glared at the landscape. "She's having a bad week. Doctor says she should stay in bed now until the baby's born." The truck hit a pothole and lurched upwards, its front wheels off the road. Then it jolted back down with a screech of metal twisting. Geoff didn't seem to notice. "She doesn't want to go to the hospital yet."

His voice faded and they sat in silence again.

"How long?" Toby asked.


"How long? Until the baby."

"Oh. Three months at least," Geoff rubbed his chin, wrestling the steering wheel one-handed. "We're so cut off from everything here, hey, Toby? I mean, what if there's an emergency? Maybe I should take her to hospital anyway. Maybe they could find space for her there."


They reached the fence and Geoff switched off the engine, leaving the gear in drive. As they pulled the roll of wire from the back, he said, "Hey, Toby. I gotta go into town tonight. The bank's open late and I have to see them about the loan. Can you stay with Mel? She's on her own all the time. Might do her good, you know? See somebody else's face for a change." He grinned under the patina of dust.

Toby hesitated. "Uh. I dunno, Geoff. Don't know much about pregnant ladies."

Geoff laughed. "Don't have to know anything, Toby. Just ... you know, be there if anything goes wrong."

"I don't want to do that," Toby muttered, pulling at his collar.

"Look. Nothing's going wrong. Just stay with her. To make me feel better. Hey? I'll bring you some beers from town. I'll even drive you home. You won't have to walk for a change. What do you say?"

Toby didn't like the idea at all, but he nodded at last, watching the relief on Geoff's face.

They spent the day there at the back fence. Around midday they sat in the shade of the truck and shared water from Geoff's flask. Toby tried to pull out a stem of grass to chew on -- more to pass the time than from real hunger -- but the bottom was as dry as the top. Once he thought he felt the earth tremble under them. He waited, but it didn't happen again.

"Twenty-eight minutes to get to the fence today, Geoff," he murmured around the grass stem. Longer than last week, but he couldn't be certain with Geoff's driving.

"Sure, Toby."

"Think it's time to do something?"

"Do what, Toby?"

When they finally left the fence, it was evening. Close to seven pm, but the sun still bristled against the ground. Geoff was silent on the way back, his face drawn.

"What time's the bank?" Toby asked.

"Eight. I'll be late, I suppose."

Melissa was dozing when the two men entered, Geoff leading the way upstairs to the bedroom. Toby leaned in, not wanting to break the threshold. It was dry and dark in there, space enough for the bed and a cupboard with no doors. There was a little fan on a windowsill, but it wasn't moving.

"Power shortage?" Geoff asked, indicating the fan.

Melissa nodded, smiling sleepily. She lay diagonally across the bed, a thin white sheet ballooning around her belly.

"Hey," she said. "Hi, Toby."


"Still keeping time?" she asked, her smile widening.

Toby had to think about that one. Then he realised she was asking if he still measured the distance from door to door. Geoff must've told her.

"Yeah. Two minutes longer today."

"Yeah?" she laughed. "You need one of those kilometric things -- you know, you roll them along the ground and they click over every metre."

Toby hadn't heard of those, but he nodded again, hopeful. "Yeah," he said, moving around the doorway a bit more. "Where do you get those?"

"Don't know. Maybe next time you're in town, ask at the hardware store."

"Don't encourage him, love," Geoff laughed. "Hey, maybe Toby will make you some toast later."

He looked questioningly at Toby, who shrugged assent.

"I'll check with you later, Melissa," Toby said. He backed out awkwardly, leaving the couple alone.

Geoff came downstairs a few minutes later, flipping on a light as he entered the lounge room.

"Power's back on at least."

Distantly, Toby could hear the fan whirring in the bedroom.

"Check the phone, hey, Toby."

Toby picked up the phone by the lounge. It was dead.

Geoff let out his breath in a long sigh. "If it's not one thing, it's another. Anyway, I should be back by nine, nine-thirty," he picked up some manila folders from the sideboard. "Help yourself to whatever you can find in the fridge. Torch is in the kitchen drawer by the back door. And thanks, I appreciate this."

Toby nodded, fiddling with the cuff of his left sleeve.

"I'll give you a lift home when I get back, eh?"

"Nah, it's OK. I'll walk," Toby said, unsticking his watch from the sweat of his wrist.

He wanted Geoff to go, so he could finish his meeting and get back sooner. So Toby wasn't left with the pregnant woman lying dormant in that dark room upstairs. Geoff shrugged and left, the screen door slamming shut behind him.

Toby settled into the silence of the lounge room. He stared at the deepening night in the back window, fingered the worn knees of his trousers and waited. There was nothing else he could do.

When the window opaqued to black, he looked around the room instead. Most of Geoff's furniture was hand-me-downs from his parents. Toby had helped move it into the house, dragging the brown lounge up the stairs, angling it through the front door. Then the chipboard table, the aluminium edges snagging on the doorframe. Three chairs. No one knew what'd happened to the fourth.

By ten-thirty Geoff still wasn't home. Toby was examining the few old paperbacks on a shelf of the sideboard. He did this nervously, to pass the time. His reading wasn't good, so he flipped through them, occasionally lighting on a picture caption or chapter heading.

A shadow passed over the world. Toby swayed giddily, dropping the book. Another shadow, longer this time. Upstairs, the fan coughed and was silent. Then the lights went out and stayed out. Toby gripped the sideboard, swinging the other arm out to his side, searching for an invisible assailant.

He groped his way carefully towards the kitchen and trailed his hands along the bench towards the door. The moon bled weakly through the window, bubbling along the uneven benchtop.

Upstairs Melissa screamed.

Jolted, Toby shouted back, "Coming, Melissa. Hang on!" Perhaps the dark had frightened her.

She screamed again, and Toby struggled through shadow towards the drawer.

"Hang on!"

In his panic, he pulled the drawer right out of its slot. It smashed to the ground, spilling tools and string and rolls of gladwrap across the floor. Toby sank to his heels, hunting for the torch, pushing the wreckage out ahead of him until his fist closed on its rubber barrel. It rattled as he grabbed it, nearly falling apart in his hands. He had to twist the top back on as Melissa screamed a third time.

"I'm coming!"

The corner of the table punched his hip as he ran. He twisted the top of the torch until it glowed, racing up the stairs with the light dancing crazily. The corridor stunk of corrosion. In the bedroom, he swung the torch towards the bed and caught Melissa's face in its glare. Black shadows pulled at the side of her nose and filled her open mouth. She screamed again.

And the lights came on.

The bed loomed brightly, dwarfing the room and its two occupants. Blood soaked the sheets wound tight around Mel's legs. It pooled darkly in places, spreading itself along fissures in the old mattress. Mel held her palms out to Toby and they were stained with blood, too.

"Jesus," Toby hissed.

Melissa sobbed, her body convulsing at each guttural cry. She was wet with sweat and blood.

"Oh, Jesus," Toby said again.

He still gripped the torch, its beam pointed at the ground.

"Towels," he said, moving dizzily out of the bedroom. He went to the bathroom, then the cupboard in the hall. Pulling out all the towels he could find, he brought the armload back to her.

Mel's knees stuck up like wire coat hangers from the tangled mess of the bed. She was hugging her huge belly, tracing red smears through the sheets. Toby tried to clean her face but she slithered away with a jagged groan and began retching into the pillows.

He felt sick, leaning over her with the stench of blood choking him. He stumbled to the window and took a lungful of fresh air.

"Do I call somebody?" Toby asked, then swore, remembering the phone didn't work.

Behind him, Melissa cried. Great aching dry breaths half-muffled by pillows. In the dark outside, Toby could make out twin yellow lights in the distance. Headlights.

"Geoff," Melissa said very softly, still crying.

"He's coming," Toby said, focusing on the lights. "Geoff's coming."

He turned back to Melissa lying wasted in her drying blood.

"I'll go get him, Mel," Toby promised.

Toby had never prayed, but he prayed now, running from the room and down the stairs. The door slapped closed behind him as he leapt from the verandah into the dark. In the distance, Geoff's lights seemed to hold fast. The truck's familiar gurgling was almost too faint to hear.

Toby ran. He ran toward the lights, straining against the distance and coming up short. Sweat rolled down his back and the sound of his breath smothered everything else. But still the truck kept its distance.

Gasping for breath, his body turned to jelly, he slowed and stopped, nearly falling. Pain laced his ribs and his eyes were blurred. He bent over double, hands on his knees, sweat dripping from his face. When he craned around to look for the house, he found it shrunken between earth and sky far out on the horizon. From here, he wouldn't even hear Melissa scream. If she still could.

"I'll never--," he gasped. Never reach it.

He turned back to the truck, swinging his head like a wounded animal looking for an out. But he was trapped by the terrible space.

His gut ached and his feet wouldn't lift. Tiny yellow points like pin pricks marked the place where the headlights lay, remote in the dark. As he watched, they shrunk further into the wide night.

He knew what it meant. More than anyone, he understood what the world had come to. Melissa was lost somewhere behind him and Geoff in front, with the distance pressing them all apart.

"No," he sobbed, "Please, no, no, NO!"

There was a rumbling under his boots. He fell to his knees and leaned forward, pressing his face to the earth. In the moonlight, he tried to make out stretchmarks in the ground. Pushing at it, digging his fingers into the hard ground. Trying to hold on.

He waited.

© Deborah Biancotti 2003, 2005.
"The Distance Keeper" first appeared in Borderlands Issue 1, March 2003.

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