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by Jo Withers

The beach is quiet, the water calm. I walk parallel to the ocean, inches from the edge, so I’m not sure if the tide will overlap my feet.

There is a pebble on the shore shaped like a bear. You would find this funny. I want to put it in my pocket and lay it on your pillow when I get home.

There is a sign that says, “Removing Pebbles, Rocks and Driftwood is Forbidden”. “Thieves Will Be Prosecuted”. “Fines up to £1000 Apply”. Removing pebbles compromises the natural ocean barrier, the sign dictates, without them there will be increased erosion.

It is good that they care, good that there are measures to protect us. No-one would risk £1000 for a pebble.

I put the pebble down, then pick it up again.

Where were the protectors when you needed them? Where were the signs that said, “No Murders in the Mall”, “Shooters will be Shot”? Where were the warnings that children should not be removed from families, that relationships erode without them, that people break down?

Three people died that day. Twenty-nine were injured.

There were signs that said, “No Bikes or Scooters”, “No Smoking”, “No Running Up the Escalators”.

When the police came, we asked them inside. We listened, tried to take things in. Your friends were all unharmed, but you were at the front. You’d been a natural leader, I’d encouraged it.

We nodded as they explained the process. We said yes, it would be easier if we identified the body. Yes, we’d avoid contact with the press. Yes, we’d sign the necessary paperwork. Yes, we knew there’d have to be an autopsy. Yes, we would delay the funeral.

In court, the routine continued. Yes, we would remain calm and would not intimidate the defendant. Yes, we would contain our anger though he showed no remorse. Yes, we understood the sentence would be reduced.

Eighteen months later the government sent £75,000. Compensation. Compensation for your empty room, the dresses hanging unworn in your closet, the journal pages unfilled on your desk.

£75,000 for a child. Seventy-five pebbles.

I fill my purse and every pocket, pour handfuls into the hood of my coat, roll them up inside my T-shirt, carry small mountains in my hands.

I begin to walk home.

The pebbles bang against each other as I move. I feel the weight of every one.

Jo Withers writes short fiction from her home in South Australia. Recent work appears in Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, NFFD Anthology and Best Microfictions 2020.