The Fortress

Two years in therapy had done nothing. In the end, Zac decided to keep his own counsel, withdrawing into himself. The nights were the worst—he gripped the sheets, drenched in sweat, his mind spinning in circles as he viewed the scene.

The steel pressed against his temple as he knelt, his grimace as he stared at the concrete, waiting for the end. The stench of shit in his pants. The low growl of the man—‘Stay down or I’ll shoot.’ Blackness and blinding pain as he was struck on the side of the head. Opening his eyes to patches of bright blood on his forearms, feeling it sticky and congealed on his face.

He sleepwalked through the days, vacantly managing the electrical shop, his eye on the door. The previous week, his lawyer informed him the offender had been released on bail, having served just two years. Zac fidgeted in his office at the rear of the shop, glancing through the window to the shop floor every few minutes. A part of him expected the thickset man to walk in, his gun concealed in the back pocket of his jeans.

Other than managing the shop, Zac stayed indoors. He closed the curtains and played computer games. Virtually shooting people calmed him—they were the offender, with his sour smell and huge hands, coarse black hairs on his arms. Zac had only glimpsed his face, enough to identify him in the lineup.

Veejay ambled into the office, holding a stack of paperwork.

‘Sony aren’t delivering until the fifteenth. These are the orders for the fifty-inch LCD’s I have so far. Some of the customers have been annoyed at the wait time.’ He aligned the edges of the papers and set them down on the desk.

Zac shrugged. ‘Not our problem. If they want them, they’ll wait. We offer the best price.’

Veejay flicked his glossy black ponytail over his shoulder and adjusted the cuffs on his striped shirt. Zac sat stiffly, itching to play Minecraft on his laptop.

‘Um, Mr Bradley, the other staff and I were wanting to organize a Christmas party, just out the back. We could rig up some tinsel, have a few sandwiches, some beer and wine. I’ve done the sums…’

‘I’ll think about it,’ said Zac in a monotone, opening the game window on his screen. ‘I’ll get back to you. How much?’

‘Five hundred dollars.’

‘Sounds steep. See how much money you can make me between now and the end of the month, then we’ll see.’

His thoughts turned to his girlfriend, Belinda. He was waiting for her to move on, leave him behind. He picked fights, accused her of things she hadn’t done, had rough sex with her. No matter what he did, she insisted on showing him compassion. He wondered if she was a serial rescuer. From time to time he fed her scraps of tenderness, morphing back to his previous self. As soon as she relaxed a little his armour would snap back into place.

‘There’s a big heart under there,’ she said, tapping him on the chest. ‘And it’s my job to bring it out. You’ve suffered a lot, but you’re safe now. I know a good counsellor…’

‘No!’ he snapped. ‘No counsellors, they just made me feel worse.’

‘Zac, you need to feel worse before you can feel better.’

‘Leave it.’ His voice was fierce.

Zac was building a fortress in the game. He stacked the red bricks one by one, four sides all around. No entry, no exit. If he panned upwards, he could see a pixellated sky. He dragged the cursor, making a seat in the corner for one.

A tentative knock on the door. It was Belinda, her blond hair wispy around her face.

‘Hey, I’ve brought you some sushi. We can sit out the back and eat.’

Zac sighed. ‘I don’t like the tuna. Did you get salmon?’

‘Yes. You almost gagged on the tuna last time.’

He saved his fortress and followed her to the courtyard out the back. Several dead pot plants lined the walls.

They sat on wooden chairs and ate with disposable chopsticks.

Belinda was hesitant. ‘Was it here? Where he hurt you?’

Zac nodded and placed the plastic container on the ground, his hunger vanished.

‘The barrel of the gun was here, against my head.’ He motioned with his finger on his forehead, unable to meet her eyes.

‘It’s okay now, Zac. He’s not coming back.’

‘How do you know?’ His voice cracked. ‘He’s out, Belinda. Out of prison.’

She edged closer to him, touching his shoulder. ‘Even if he was crazy enough to do something, he wouldn’t come back here.’

Zac stood and was overcome with vertigo. He rocked on the spot, his face flushed maroon.

‘He can do whatever he bloody wants! Don’t you get it?’ Tears spilled from his eyes. He heard a keening sound and realised it was him.

Belinda was gentle as she drew her to him, both arms around his shaking form. She stroked his back, murmuring in his ear.

Zac allowed her to hold him, his tears soaking the fabric of her blouse. They sat down and he looked at her, took her in, for the first time.

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