Hot Desk Extract: Going Under

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Jem Tyley-Miller worked on her crime fiction manuscript, Going Under.

This excerpt is the first chapter of the novel – which follows Sarah Urquhart, a ghost turned detective, spurred on by her obsession with discovering how and why she was killed.

Photograph of trees surrounded by fog

Image: Scott Limbrick (modified from a photo by kismihok, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Death is completely different to how I imagined it would be. Not that I’m sure I ever knew what to expect. When the people I loved died, I created a place for them that was soft and desaturated. I imagined them embraced by angels who tended their every need, reassuring myself they would never feel cold or hungry or sad anymore. That they wouldn’t need me or want for me either. But now I’m in this place, I’m terrified. The image I used to make my existence without them bearable is not at all what I see.

I’m cold. And alone, I think. A wet blanket of fog means I can’t see very much. There is movement; it’s constant. Everything churning and swirling and dragging even though there is no breeze. It’s like I’ve been slung in an ancient meat freezer, strung up on an icy hook and left to sway, while I wait for whatever the hell is coming for me next.

It’s like I’ve been slung in an ancient meat freezer, strung up on an icy hook and left to sway, while I wait for whatever the hell is coming for me next.

I’m both heavy and weightless. Empty, yet full to the brim with dread. Hours meld into days meld into weeks, and still no-one comes. Am I meant to be doing something? I remaining vigilant out of spite. Twisting on the hook, listening to each fractal as it cracks, with my eyes propped open as I peer into the fog patches that seem thinner, searching for some kind of way out.

I’ve got to get home. I need to. Only when I picture home, there’s nothing there. No sounds or voices calling me, no familiar smells to bring me comfort. No flowers in fucking flowerpots lighting the runway to my front door.

I drowned, I know that much. The water spilling out of my mouth is a bit of a giveaway. I am so over the constant dripping; the plink, plink, fuckety plink. But as to where or why this happened, everything has been erased. All I know is that I’m furious.

I can’t see my feet through this blasted fog, but I can feel them aching. Or maybe that’s just a memory of how they last felt? Not being able to see reminds me of being pregnant, only I have no enormous, itching belly covered in stretch marks blocking my view down. I pivot around, wrenching this way, that, trying to glimpse evidence of that belly having existed. Feeling like it’s been stolen. Something has been. I know I’ve been pregnant. But I don’t remember having children. Suddenly heavy, my sadness seeps with me into the molten, soupy haze.

I’ve been here for weeks. So bored I’ve sunk inward, going to the only other place I can find: a barren maze of corridors. Walking along each carpeted stretch, lined in the same trite striped wallpaper, everything stinks of bleach. No matter which way I turn, a bell tolls behind me. There is a corner I pass where my breath catches, making me come. An oily dip in the carpet where every part of me screams to flee. And everywhere, that darn bell.

There must be a way out of here because being dead is killing me.

Maybe I drowned here in my own stinking drool? It doesn’t really matter. Regardless of which way I run, stumbling along the spiritless corridors, I always end up back in the blustery silence, swaying on the hook, surrounded by never-ending fucking fog.

There must be a way out of here because being dead is killing me.

If I ever find out who has done this, I swear I’ll make them even deader than me.

I try prising myself from the hook, letting my feet slide to the smooth icy floor where I feel around. That’s when it grabs me.

I’m dragged into the swirling grey ether that is screaming. Spun around and around in the whorl of a vortex until whomever is in control warrants I’ve had enough, and decides to spit me out.

Portrait of Jem Tyley-Miller

Jem Tyley-Miller is a crime writer from Bacchus Marsh who sees life through a magical realist lens. You can read her fiction in Spike, the Meanjin blog, or in the upcoming Margaret River Press anthology, We’ll Stand in That Place and Other Stories. She has also written for Readings and the Digital Writers’ Festival Pen Pal Project. Her novel manuscript, Going Under is nearing completion. Jem works casually directing extras to fund her very serious writing habit and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time. 

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