Elizabeth Tan is a West Australian writer whose work has recently appeared in Best Australian Stories (2016), Seizure, Overland and Pencilled In. Her first novel, Rubik, was released by Brio in 2017.
Collages by Elizabeth Tan, from little punchclock
—I wish you would just tell me.
Ant gazes up at Tom, who is still sweaty from his morning run—tight jaw glistening, white earbuds hanging over the darkened neckline of his t-shirt. Tom tips water into his mouth from a crushed Mount Franklin bottle, and Ant watches Tom’s nervous swig slide down Tom’s throat. A hard lump of tension, tangible as an egg.
—There’s nothing to tell you, Ant.
—I won’t be mad. I promise. I wasn’t mad that time you ditched my phone into a storm drain.
Tom snorts, like can you believe this guy, but Ant continues:
—It wasn’t an accident. I know because you received a text on your phone and then you snatched my phone out of my hand and threw it down the storm drain. That’s a difficult thing to do not-on-purpose.
—You’re still mad about that?
—No, I’m not mad. This has been well-established. And now you’re trying to derail the conversation, but this conversation is about me asking you to tell me the truth about the matching Glock pistols in our respective underwear drawers and the identical emergency briefcases of cash in nine different currencies sequestered behind secret panels in our wardrobes.
—How did you even get in here, Ant?
—Again, you are trying to derail the conversation, but the answer to your question is that I know how to pick locks. Did you know that I know how to pick locks? I certainly didn’t know that I knew how to pick locks, just like I didn’t know that we had matching Glocks and briefcases, which is the topic of this conversation.
—I replaced your phone with an even better one and your new phone number ends in ‘268’ which spells ‘ANT’, which you admitted was convenient.
—Are you in the same conversation that I am in, Tom? I wish you would join me in this conversation that I am having about the Glocks and the briefcases and your unwillingness to be forthcoming.
Tom drops his Mount Franklin bottle in the kitchen bin.
—Ant, I can’t do this right now. I need a shower.
—And I need some fucking perspicuity, Tom.
Now Ant gets out of his chair. He walks towards Tom until they are almost chest-to-chest—close enough to smell Tom, damp and tight and pissed off. There is a soft tinny song spurting out of Tom’s hanging earbuds.
Tom swallows. Ant leans in.
—Stop trying to protect me, Tom. It’s getting old.
Tom groans. He takes a step back, but it’s too late; the moment has twisted like a screw. Ant’s expression hasn’t changed. Tom bravely affects a laugh.
—Well, Ant. I suppose this is the part of the conversation where you recall some telling moment from our adolescence where I protected you to the detriment of both of us. Which one will you choose? The one about how I beat up Tristan Lombard at the sports carnival when he called you a chink?
—Oh, not at all. That was far too satisfying. You decommissioned his pelvis. No, I was going to go for the time you tried to obscure the fact that Jessica Aubrey turned me down for the river cruise in favour of Richard Kronemeyer, that clod with the light-up shoes. There are only so many times you can suddenly yank my attention to some other point-of-focus, while we are on the river cruise, while Kronemeyer is lighting up the dance floor with his fucking light-up shoes.
—From our rich and complicated history, you would pick that incident?
—We do have a rich and complicated history, don’t we, Tom? Rich, chocolately, complicated history, with notes of deceit. Tell me about the Glocks.
Ant paces the perimeter of the kitchen. Tom itches his stubble.
—I need a shower, Ant.
—Strange choice, Glocks. Kind of dull. Generic. Discount bin firearm.
—Can’t get too attached to it. You wouldn’t miss it if you dropped it in, say, a storm drain. The briefcases, on the other hand—very handsome. The glossiest and most threatening of leathers. Confident handgrip. Snappy buckles. Smooth, impenetrable, Don’t-Fuck-With-Me briefcases. The combination is the date that we graduated from university.
Ant comes to rest in front of Tom again.
—Charming personal touch, Tom.
Tom rests the five fingers of his left hand on Ant’s chest, briefly.
—Shower. I need one. I can’t have this conversation now.
—Sure you can. Have a filthy conversation while you’re covered in filth.
Tom says nothing. There’s a different look in his eyes now. Soft and sad and hurt. A little crumple of the corneas. Fuck.
Tom shifts closer. He folds his hands around Ant’s shoulders.
A password can be a pilchard or a peephole or a pomegranate seed.
It can have several teeth.
Who invented the password?
The story goes that the Romans invented perimeter defence and the password.
In the insufficient light of the moon, while the military encampment slept in circle upon circle of tents, an approaching friend would be indistinguishable from an approaching foe.
The task of the sentry was to challenge anyone sighted. The call was, “Halt!” and then, “Who goes there?”
To utter the password was to authenticate oneself and issue a command: let me in.
A password can be a brooch or a perfume or an upturned letter on a public sign.
A password complements the shape of the lock.
I am going to set your password.
Ant beats on the bathroom door.
—Tom. There are two alternative points of egress in your bathroom and three if you oil up enough to squeeze through the vent, and before you came home I sabotaged all three of them.
The faucet squeaks off. The drain gurgles. Ant presses his ear against the bathroom door.
—Tom. You have been showering for seven minutes now. Quit stalling. Tom.
The door drops suddenly and Ant nearly topples into Tom. Tom, towel-wrapped from the waist-down, hair darkened and wet and bristled, face soured by the least relaxing shower ever. That tic in his jaw starts up again.
Tom doesn’t wait for Ant to move, but brushes past him, leaving a streak of moistness on Ant’s bare arm. Ant watches Tom’s glistening shoulder blades disappear into the master bedroom. He trails after him.
—Tell me about the Glocks. The Glocks. The Glocks. The Glocks.
—Do you think you could leave me alone for a few minutes so I can change?
—The Glocks. The Glocks. The Glocks. The Glocks.
—Get the fuck out, Ant!
It’s a too-sudden tonal shift, as if Tom is attempting, belatedly, to be angry. He even shoves Ant, just a flat ineffectual one-handed shove while his other hand grips the knot of towel around his waist. Tom wavers for a moment, and then decides to commit to this new tack completely. He snarls:
—For fuck’s sake. You think I could ever lie to you? Do you think I would ever do something to fuck you over? After all these years? I have always been there for you. Always. From the very first. Fuck you, Ant.
And yet Ant doesn’t move away. He matches Tom’s glare.
—Listen, you dick. You broke into my home and planted a Glock and a briefcase in some very private places and I know it was you. Now: are you done with your feeble little fugue of denial? Because let me tell you. You are not pulling it off.
And Tom grabs Ant. They smash together on the carpet. The shock of the fall rings in their ears; the room see-saws and settles. Tom’s chest heaves—he is tremoring, all shower-softened and sweet smelling—but Ant is completely still. Tom can see himself reflected in Ant’s two dark moons.
Ant gazes up at Tom. His breath is warm.
—What are you so scared of?
It is difficult to say who kisses whom first. Perhaps, in the way of best friends, the movement is synchronous, prefigured telepathically. Tom leans in and Ant cranes his neck and their mouths grapple in wet hot collision. Tom holds Ant’s cheeks as if Ant’s face is a bowl from which he wants to take and take water, so precious is each sip, and Ant clasps Tom’s slick warm biceps and kisses Tom in short desperate bursts like a child trying to peep over a high wall. Tom whines, scrabbles on top of Ant, bumps into Ant’s hard-on. The button of Ant’s shorts has already slithered loose, the zipper yielding, and Tom wriggles his hand past the waistband of Ant’s boxers. Ant bucks a little. Tom’s conscious of the towel sliding off his waist, his damp showered limbs, Ant’s hands on his ass. The keen tight weight of his own desire. Unpractised, unrehearsed, Ant slips Tom’s cock inside the cool grasp of his hand, hooks his thumb around the shaft, and Tom has to moan, has to steady himself with his hand spread on Ant’s chest, breath shuddering through bared teeth, while Ant moves his fingers gently, experimentally, like a beginner gripping a violin, testing the strings, sliding up and down the fingerboard. If Ant cared to he could count Tom’s ribs, straining so close against Tom’s skin; he reaches up his spare hand to trawl his fingers across the ridges like spines of a fence. Tom quakes, whines. He clenches Ant’s t-shirt.
And when he comes he marvels that such disparate emotions can produce the same thrill.
Shame, love, ecstasy.
Ant strokes Tom’s hair.
—It’s okay. Don’t cry.
A password can be a pearl or an oyster or a deep sea diver.
The best passwords have complex teeth.
The password of the Roman army was reset daily. The military tribune scribed the new password on wooden tablets, which were circulated throughout the camp and returned to the tribune’s tent.
The password was so important that if a tablet were to fail to make it back to the tribune’s tent, the soldier responsible was punished.
To forget the password was its own punishment.
But one could also say that a forgettable password is a failed password.
A password can be a griffin or an archer or a crenellated tower.
It should not have too many teeth.
A password is a key and a command.
Let me in.
Before long the day turns amber. Ant and Tom are supine for the moment, spread out on Tom’s bed, letting the breeze from the open window whisk the sweat from their skin. Tom breaks the silence by leaning over the edge of the bed to pluck another tissue from the crumpled box. Tom wipes a small pool of Ant’s come off of his stomach, scrunches up the tissue, and drops it on the carpet with the other scrunched-up tissues. The movement inspires Ant to lift his head a little to re-examine his crotch but his hasty post-come mop-up seems to have been sufficient. Ant and Tom aren’t really sure if it matters anyway. The etiquette of the situation escapes them.
Before the moment can become too awkward, Tom slides close to Ant and kisses him. Outside a dog barks. Once, twice.
—Are we assassins, Tom?
Tom curls his head underneath Ant’s chin. He kisses Ant’s collarbone and traces it with his finger as a novice reader might trace a difficult passage of text.
—Close. We are spies.
—What’s the difference?
—I should think that would be obvious. A matter of intent.
—How can I be a spy if I don’t know what I am spying on? Unless you are the spy, and I am the assassin.
—I suppose that, if we are to be precise, you are the spy and I am your handler.
—My handler. What a romantic and utilitarian term.
Tom lifts himself up on one elbow to kiss Ant again. They build a wet humid cave with their mouths.
—I’m serious, Tom. How can I be a spy? I haven’t been spying on anyone. What is my directive?
—I don’t know what your directive is.
—But you’re my handler.
Tom sighs tenderly. He traces Ant’s collarbone again and decides it’s one of his favourite corners of Ant’s body.
—Our mission is so sensitive that I don’t know the details. You are the only one out of you and me who has been briefed on the particulars.
—But I haven’t.
—You have. You just don’t remember it.
Ant’s fingers find Tom’s fingers. They intertwine.
—I’m ‘the only one out of you and me who has been briefed on the particulars’?
—That means there are others?
—Other spies who have been briefed on the particulars?
—Please stop using the expression ‘briefed on the particulars’. It sounds ridiculous.
—You used it first.
Their tongues meet again. Tom untangles his hand from Ant’s so he can cup Ant’s cheek.
—You’re right, Ant. We are not the only spy-and-handler teams assigned to this particular mission.
—The mission you know nothing about.
—The mission I know about but know nothing about knowing.
—Then explain to me your role of handler.
Despite the open window, the room is very warm. It smells like rucked sweaty bedsheets and dried come and eager breath. Tom nestles his face in Ant’s neck.
—Explain your role as handler to me. I am sure it encompasses more than throwing phones into storm drains.
Tom laughs. He flips himself onto his back, holding Ant’s hand again.
—I was responsible for setting your activation phrase.
—My activation phrase?
—Your trigger. Your password. Whatever you want to call it. My directives are as follows. One: protect Anton Chu. Two: protect Thomas Lark. Three: utter Anton Chu’s activation phrase when the time comes that Anton Chu requires activation. Four: follow Anton Chu’s orders after Anton Chu is activated.
—How will you know when I need to be activated?
—I’ll receive a signal.
—You’ll be given a signal which signals that you need to signal me. How ornate. Do you have an activation phrase too?
—No. Just you.
—And then what happens?
—You’ll remember your directive and you will carry out your directive. I’ll be at your disposal.
—And you have no notion whatsoever as to what my directive is.
—My directive could be to kill you.
—I doubt that. A handsome amount of time and money has been invested in you and me and others like you and me.
—When did this investment take place? When were we… recruited?
Tom caresses Ant’s knuckles. He lifts one to his mouth.
—What do you remember of Baker’s Horticulture and Botany class in year ten?
—The distinction between horticulture and botany still eludes me. Baker was never precise about it. Imprecision makes me suspicious, as you know.
—Well, at any rate, we were the best in Baker’s class at remembering taxonomy. And the Latin names of things. Binomial nomenclature. Apparently we were extraordinary at it. That’s why they chose us.
—Various esoteric high school classes across the country are used to find candidates. So ‘they’ must be some government agency or another. Someone shadowy and influential.
—You don’t even know? Why did you agree to this?
—Why on earth did we agree to this?
—We were good at it, I suppose. The various tests and tasks. It doesn’t matter anymore, Ant. Everyone likes to be the thing that fits best.
—And me being the amnesiac with my memories stuck behind a trigger? Was that the best fit?
Tom’s fingers probe the gaps between Ant’s knuckles. He searches the ceiling. The blood around Tom’s heart is suddenly cold. Ant’s small dark gaze is upon him, like the shadow of an owl, and Tom doesn’t know what to say.
—I’m not mad, Tom.
—You sound mad.
—I’m not going to keep on reassuring you that I’m not mad. You are not the party in this conversation that needs reassurance.
Tom finally risks a glance at Ant, but Ant’s face is as smooth and patient as a clock. Their intertwined hands have become sticky with perspiration. Tom says:
—It could have been me, you know. We were equally suited to either role. We settled it with a coin toss.
—It’s true, Ant. We knew it was an important decision. It would change everything. We wagged Human Bio and sat at the far end of the oval, near the decommissioned demountables. It was just turning into spring; the grass was damp. Each of us wanted to spare the other the confusion of being the one in the dark. We used a fifty-cent piece. You called heads. The next time we went on a Botany field trip, you started to attend different training sessions to me. You weren’t allowed to tell me what you learnt. I think…
Tom leans over and lightly touches Ant’s temple.
—I think they made it so that you couldn’t tell me what you’d learnt.
Tom spreads his fingers and Ant tips his face into Tom’s palm and closes his eyes. His exhaled breath prickles Tom’s fingers.
—It’s not right, you know. We were children.
—I know, Ant. But we’re here now. And I have my directive to protect you.
Tom draws Ant close. They fold their arms around each other. Tom remembers how tenderly Ant had told him not to cry.
—You said you were the one responsible for setting my activation phrase.
—Yes. That was the other selection criterion, you see. It wasn’t enough to be intelligent. To have exceptional memory recall. They were specifically looking for pairs. Friends. Because of the memory locking procedure.
—The temporary forgetting procedure.
—Yes. It’s a fussy business.
—Explain it to me.
Ant shuffles onto his side. Tom mirrors him so that their eyes are level. Tom has peculiar threads of gold in his irises that Ant is only just now noticing.
—It’s your least favourite thing. Imprecise. Trust is always imprecise. It took several sessions. It was almost like hypnosis. Lulling you into something like sleep. I had to write my own script. I had to speak to you in a soft slow voice. I needed you to be completely receptive to me. I needed you to feel safe.
—And did I?
Tom reaches out to stroke Ant’s dark feathery fringe.
—You know that I can’t speak for you.
They wriggle closer together until their noses are almost touching.
—Does anybody else know my activation phrase?
—No, Ant. Just me.
—What is it?
—I can’t tell you that.
—I can’t even speak it until the proper time.
—When you receive the signal.
—How long have we been waiting?
—Twelve years, now.
—And you still remember my activation phrase?
—Of course. I’ll always remember your activation phrase. I thought about it for a very long time.
A smile flickers on Ant’s lips. He catches himself.
—What a strange thing for me to feel delighted about.
—There were very stringent guidelines, you see. The activation phrase had to be carefully chosen. I considered and discarded several candidates. I practised them in the mirror. I imagined the day I would say it. I imagined a light snapping on behind your eyes. The memories returning like a rush of blood. I imagined being reunited with some other version of you. Not a better version, or a fuller version, just a different version. I imagined getting to know this other you. All the things we would talk about once our job was done.
—I’m flattered you put so much thought into a limp procession of words.
And Ant’s laugh fades when Tom says:
—But it isn’t. Of course it isn’t.
Tom touches Ant’s lips. He touches Ant’s lashes, his cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, the hollows underneath his eyes.
—I just knew that I wanted it to be beautiful.
A password can be a seed or a sailcloth or an explosion.
A password is a portal.
I am waiting on the edge of your perimeter. I am stepping into the insufficient light.
I am calling out to you, the watchman. I am laying my sword in the sand. I am opening my arms.
A password can be a whisper between a living person to a just-dead person. The fare paid to the ferryman of the Underworld. The coins laid on the eyes of a boy who has very far to go.
A password can be a tumour or a melody or a curled finger.
A password complements the shape of the lock.
A password is an intimate organ, a deep secret.
A password is a window to the soul.
Please let me in.
The password is
The bedroom turns to indigo. The same dog barks, once and again. Ant steps through the irregular garden of scrunched-up tissues. He bends down to dip his hand in the pool of clothes on the carpet.
—Are you mad, Ant?
—I told you, I’m not mad. Stop asking.
Tom sits on the edge of the bed. He watches Ant pull on his boxers, zip up his shorts, twist into his t-shirt. Tom’s towel is still crumpled on the floor, and it will stay that way until the next morning.
—Will we see each other tomorrow?
—You can stay the night, if you want. Please. Will you stay?
Being naked while Ant is clothed fills Tom with a strange vulnerable desirous feeling. Ant brushes a ball of lint off his t-shirt. It floats across the room like a dandelion seed. Ant sighs, and embraces Tom softly. They kiss in the dying daylight.
—Tomorrow. I promise, Tom. I’m not running away. You’ll just have to trust me.
—Scared of what?
—That you won’t come tomorrow.
—I will come.
Tom hides his face in Ant’s neck. He says:
—I’m scared that the you that comes tomorrow won’t be you. That you’ll be replaced in the night. That we’re both done for now.
Ant smooths Tom’s hair.
—Nobody has to know that I know. You haven’t disobeyed your directives. Maybe we should have a password too. So you know that the me that stands here stroking your hair is the same me that comes to see you tomorrow. I will knock on your door and say the password and you will know that I am Ant. Your Ant.
Tom holds Ant’s head close to his. He feels close to tears without quite knowing why. Ant prompts:
—Something from Baker’s class, perhaps. Whatever you like. Whatever you think sounds beautiful. Passiflora edulis. Actinidia deliciosa. Euphoria longan.
Tom moistens his lips. He tastes his inexplicable anxiety. He closes his eyes and tries as hard as he can to feel the warm weight of Ant’s hand on the back of his head.
The room is becoming bruised with darkness, and Tom and Ant cradle each other with their heads bent. They whisper softer and softer, like chanting spells.
Mangifera indica. Cucurbita moschata. Punica granatum. Ficus carica.