Shortlisted for the Allen & Unwin Prize 2022

Suzy Darlington


Grass spilled over the dunes and between them, stretching toward a fringe of Banksias and She-oaks beyond. I touched them like I would touch a dog—palm down, flat, fingers spread wide. The spring in the long strands, the softness, the sparsity, reminded me of my grandfather’s hair—all two strands of it, looking like they’d drained the health of all the other hairs and hoarded it, growing thick and crooked.

Elliott and I sat up in those dunes, silent and sweaty, absorbing the bittersweet dregs of summer—our last summer—with the appropriately desperate strain of waning adolescence.

Down on the beach, the waves curled and licked at the sand. The salt in the air stank under the heat of the sun, the same way the scent was pressed from the mangoes littering our front yard every January.

It was my favourite place, that beach. I’d been going there for ten years, for a week every summer with my family. With his family.

We camped at the local grounds, them in their three-room tent and us in our black[1]out counterpart. Dad said he hated being woken by the obscene dawns, but I don’t remember him ever rising after the sun. For the first few years I helped Dad make breakfast. Mrs. Marsh would say she’d been looking forward to his cooking all year. But at some point, I started choosing sleep over beating the eggs, and for those last misguided years I never felt the loss that I would come to feel over the choice.

Elliott Marsh was six months older than me. That’s how our parents met—in the brief exchanges at drop-off to kindergarten and then school. They became those weekend friends that visited all the time and invited each other to the park down the street “so the kids could play”. Elliott would construct our games, power-playing even then—the pirate and the mermaid, the policeman and the thief—and I would show him how to howl like a wolf, stalk prey, and raise pups.

I realised early that I would always be chasing Elliott. When he started school a whole year before me, when I began to remember everything and care about it. His mum was a barrister. She took a better job in the city not long after, and they moved to a better house in a better suburb. Elliott went to a better school. Our families concluded camping was the best way to stay in touch, and now it’s a tradition.

“I probably won’t come next year,” Elliott said to me on those dunes. He was on his back, hands behind his head, one leg bent and the other crossed over it.

Elliott was about to break the tradition I’d meticulously—passively—treasured for a decade, had hurt for, and pined for as early as the day we packed up the tent and the camp kitchen and all the handy gadgets Dad had collected over the years.

Of course, I’d known it was coming. I’d known for as long as I’d known Elliott that he himself would be the one to dismantle my fantasies. I’d known at the campground pool when I was fourteen and he was fifteen and the pretty lifeguard all but took her top off for him. I’d known since I was eight and he was nine and the shopkeeper across the road asked him how his year had been, ignoring me like I was a brand-new tagalong every summer.

“You got into NIDA,” I said. My parents had told me weeks before. He’d applied for Juilliard, too, but that was a longshot. There were probably more prestigious schools in America than NIDA—I didn’t know—but he said if he didn’t get into Juilliard, he wanted to stay here.

Here, another state, another country… It already didn’t matter. In spite of how close we were, the real distance between us had grown into a chasm that only I seemed to be aware of. At some point he’d stopped being just a boy. And my body had changed beyond recognition simultaneously. My subsequent dreams betrayed my pious benediction. There in the night, he belonged only to me. Some nights he stayed, and others he took me with him. Sometimes his tongue lapped over the bare skin of my shoulder, ran the length of the hollow beneath my collarbone, ran dry against me.

From those dreams I always woke full of restless want and misery and a darkness I could never quite articulate.

He looked across at me from the brow of his dune, grass springing up around his hips like a crown that sits beneath, not above. He stared with eyes that would take him far, that told truths and lies in the same breath. Eyes that would lure me in under daylight and drown me in my sleep.

When his hand found mine, somewhere between us in the sand, the chill wriggled up my spine and ebbed through the hairs on my neck. In that moment, I decided I would believe whatever lie he wanted to tell me. If a beautiful illusion was all he could offer, then I’d take it and happily asphyxiate on it.

His fingers threaded over each of my knuckles, sinking into the webbing between. He squeezed into the meat of my palm, and brought my hand to his chest, still hairless and hard with the raw-boned structure of youth. I could smell him, as though the ocean had swallowed him up and spat him back out. He was sticky with it. I savoured the salt tang on my lips with the prognostic cognisance that others would one day dream of this, that he’d be the staple of more sick and incurable fantasies than just mine alone.

Hot grains embedded themselves in the skin on my back. What if somebody comes? What if my dad finds us? Thoughts of other things filled the space alongside what we did in those dunes, parallel to the heat and the pressure and Elliott’s hair dusting my forehead in a cadence out of sync with the ocean smacking the sand.

When it was over, I sat up and so did he. He held me between bent knees, against that hard chest, cool and tacky with sweat. He moved my hair, shifted it over and over, lulling me back from my fears. Maybe for that moment, Elliott was mine.

“Are you okay?” he said.

Be quiet, I wanted to say. Be quiet. Don’t ask me that as though, at some point, I won’t be okay. I’m fine. And maybe I won’t be. Maybe I’ll come back next year and look at this place and wonder where in the shifting dunes exactly I’d learned something new about him. Something about me. Maybe I’ll come back and walk into the ocean and not come out. But right now, I’m fine.

Instead, I said nothing, just lay my cheek against him and listened to the waves echo from the depression in the lean flesh of his torso. He had spread his shorts on the sand and let me sit on them while my body drained him out into the fabric.

Have you ever fucked anyone on the beach? I wanted to ask, if only so I could hear him say No, you’re the first, you’re the only. But I didn’t because I didn’t want to hear him lie to me out loud, and I was sure he wasn’t callous enough to tell me the truth.

I don’t know how long we sat like that, stealing our time as I stretched the moment out for as long as I could bear. But when the stickiness of him began to feel like blood that wouldn’t dry between my thighs, I went down to the water and knelt in the shallows and let the last of him wash away with the tide

Suzy is the most half-arsed writer in the world and spends all the free minutes she doesn’t have reading manga, playing video games, and searching for high-angst, LGBTQ+ romantic tension in fiction. When she’s not having unexpected (but totally welcome) dreams about being Timothee Chalamet’s best friend, she’s at her desk trying to figure out which of her three bulldogs farted this time.