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Fifty dollars stuck to the whiteboard.
She frowns at my frown as if I have no right to be mad. I hate her right now.
“Do we have a problem?”
“No Miss Brushtin.”
Heat rises up my neck. The sounds from my classmates are ricocheting around me. She has no idea what she’s done.
“Perhaps we better step into another room?” she points to the small space between our classroom and the next.
The talk. I don’t want it. I know her mind is made up, and the moment she sends that email to my dad I am dead meat. I crouch in the corner of the triangular room, burying myself in pillows.
“I’d appreciate you look at me when we talk.”
Why would I want to look at her?
She waits, her arms crossed. I know I’ll win the silent game; she can’t leave the class for long. Already I can hear Danny shouting across the room and I see Miss Brushtin’s mouth twitch in irritation.
“If you don’t tell me what’s going on then I’m going to have to form my own conclusions.”
“You don’t get it,”
“I can’t hear you when you speak into the pillow.”
“He’s going to ground me!” I shout.
“Well,” she says carefully, “if you’ve done something wrong then perhaps that’s a fair consequence.”
I gasp and start choking on my phlegm and tears. Okay, maybe I’m hamming it up a little but I’ll do anything to get that fifty back. It’s literally life or death but she wouldn’t understand. She holds out tissues and tells me to take some deep breaths. Screw her breathing! This is an emergency. I snatch the tissue box and start belting it across my forehead.
“Stop it, stop it!”
She wrenches it from me and I sink my head into my hands.
I don’t know if it’s the sobbing or head whacking that does it, but she finally agrees to let me be the one to tell my dad. She’ll be checking tomorrow to see that I did. I’ll have to think of something good. He said that if Bitsy got out one more time it was over. And I can trust him not to lie.
After school I grab the fifty and pedal as fast as my legs will allow. I need to get to the pound before close. I need to get Bitsy home before my dad arrives.
A gruff guy with mutton chops takes me out the back. The money shakes in my hand but he’s not ready to take it. There is yelping and barking all around. I peer urgently into each cage. It’s the last in the row and my beating heart feels like it could burst. There he is, my four-legged friend, throwing himself at the cage door.
“Bitsy!” I shout.
He licks my fingers in gratitude as I clutch the bars in one hand and thrust the fifty-dollar note at the ranger.
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Trembling hands peel back the foil encasing a special brownie. She will need to face them soon, but first, something to calm her nerves. She breaks a piece of the pungent cake and puts it to her lips. It’s chalky and dry but that really doesn’t matter. She waits for it to take effect.
The door opens and she shudders at the trash talk that immediately fills the classroom. Please be away, please be away. The mantra bounces around her head and she chases it down, shoving it to the back of her mind. She eats a little more brownie and then wraps it up. Her eyes fall on the larger foil package that she has also brought today. Just in case.
She spies Phillip across the room. He locks eyes, his expression mocking.
‘Miss me, Miss?’
He’d received a three day suspension for shoving her out of his way. The second temper tantrum in a month. The week before, he’d snapped his pencil and thrown it at her. He lounges in the back row with Sally on his lap. Highly inappropriate but she won’t ask him to move. Not again. Instead she calls on Sally.
‘Find your own chair please Sally,’
Sally rolls her eyes and slinks off his knee, not before kissing him square on the mouth to the hoots of the students around them. The teacher takes a moment to visualise the calming tonic flowing through her veins. She will get through this lesson.
‘Take out your answers to last week’s quiz please.’
She set this as homework and braces herself for the complaints and excuses that always ensue. A fork hurtles from the back row and hits a boy on his ear.
“Phillip!” Her voice is shrill. The brownie can’t protect her from everything. “This is your one and only warning!”
“Chill Miss.” He responds.
“Calm down,” Sally jeers.
Before she knows what is happening, the fork flies back and hits Sally in the forehead. All bets are off and Phillip lunges over his desk, slamming the perpetrator’s head into the table.
The teacher’s blood pressure spikes instantly. “Call the office!” and she’s running to intervene. But what can she do? She’s half Phillip’s size.
Thankfully the principal and police are on standby for this class. Five head slams later and reinforcements have arrived to separate the boys. The principal has Phillip restrained and there is blood seeping from the other boy’s face.
The teacher’s hands tremble once more as she picks up Phillip’s backpack. She extends it to the principal as the sounds of sirens grow louder.
“I think you should take a look at this.” She produces a weighty foil package from his bag.
A flash of confusion on Phillip’s face is noticed only by her. The package is unwrapped and thumb-sized green buds spill from the foil as a police officer enters the classroom.
Alice stares through her unwashed windows pressing her warm mug lightly against her cheek. The rain is pounding to get in and she winces at the cracked window that has been taped with Gaffer and black card. A derisive laugh escapes her. Eleven months. She could get that fixed.
Howling wind is pushing the trees. The thunder rolls and the skinny trunks of the river gums thunk together. Her cat Pixie purrs on her lap like a tractor, unaffected by the storm.
She watches the boughs dance and sway. Eleven months, the same memory on replay but she is sure the words change each time she recalls them.
An ominous crack. Alice stands to look further out into the forest. Which tree? Which limb? Pixie is not impressed at the disturbance and scuttles off to find a better resting place.
“I couldn’t wait to leave this place.”
Alice knew it wasn’t the happiest home but how can a mother know whether to stay or leave when there are children involved. A loud bang on the roof that makes Alice start. A heavy branch tumbles from the gutter and falls past the window.
She exhales. There is nothing she could do then and there is nothing she can do now.
“You were absent and I had no one to tell. You left me to fend for myself.”
Alice searches for the truth in this. She wasn’t absent. Yes, she had a career that she passionately pursued, but she was there, ready to listen.
The huge messmate closest to her house groans. Surely that tree is no risk with its wide girth and U shaped branches. But water is pooling around the base and the angle isn’t how Alice remembered it.
Eleven months. Alice hasn’t seen her since. Eleven months and Alice has been alone in this house.
“Too late,” she said. “You left him too late.”
But when is the right time, Alice wonders. And now there is no one. What was the point?
That tree is definitely swaying. Are they the roots Alice can see? The thunder is more potent and flashes of white light illuminate the sky with increasing regularity. Alice’s eyes are fixed on that tree now. The rain continues to pound horizontally against her thin windows.
“I won’t make the same mistakes you did.”
Still a knife to Alice’s heart as she remembers tyres ripping up her gravel driveway, rocks flying at her window. Eleven months. How much longer will she be punished?
Her mug needs a refill but she can’t take her eyes off that tree. Her own hands claw at her chest as she sees cracks in the trunk which is now leaning. A monster’s tentacles breaking through the earth and there, right before her eyes, that strong, reliable giant comes crashing to the earth with a deafening bellow.
Then everything is muted and Alice wonders why she never noticed the cracks before.
Rocks crunch underneath as Samuel and Isabelle thunder down the wet gravel road of Washington Court. And despite the inevitable, Samuel still clings to the hope of a lazy Sunday morning at his local café.
“Bunny, all I’m saying is that we’re tired. Can’t we give this house a miss?”
“I am tired…” her voice squeaks, “but this could be The One.” Isabelle is relentless in her quest.
They pull into number fifteen and see two cars leave. Isabelle grips Samuel’s hand, her manicured nails latching on like a cat.
“It’s popular! I knew this was the one.”
He extracts his hand and turns off the ignition. “Stay calm and remember our list.” From her dreamy look he knows that his words have sailed right over her.
Ignoring the rain, she strides inside. Samuel hurries behind, removing his shoes first.
“Welcome,” a suited woman extends her hand and Isabelle sniffs in disdain. “I’m Diana. Can I get you to fill in some details?”
“My fiancé will do that,” Isabelle waves her hand dismissively. Diana passes the pen and Samuel smiles, meeting her gaze. The blue of Diana’s eyes bore through him and Samuel’s cheeks heat as her return smile gently dissolves his integrity.
Doors and cupboards bang open and close. Isabelle is calling. Covert glances to Samuel suggest Diana understands, and she gestures for him to follow.
They reach the kitchen.
“I want to see if gran’s buffet will fit on that wall. Measure it Sammy.”
He extracts his tape measure and obliges. Diana describes the features of the house and her soft husky voice is a stark contrast to Isabelle’s cockatoo pitch.
Samuel throws questioning wide eyes at Isabelle when the price is revealed. Like a full balloon, their inflating budget is near bursting. Her lips purse in response. He keeps quiet.
Isabelle’s gasps of joy increase with every room they view while Samuel, trailing strategically behind, enjoys the view of Diana’s swinging hips.
“Sammy,” Isabelle’s eyebrows thread together and her mouth forms an O. “For da baby.” Her voice has taken on a childish impediment as she stands in the centre of a pale yellow room.
“Perfect.” Diana agrees.
“We’re not expecting,” Samuel clarifies. “Just planning.”
They’ve explored the inside but it is too wet to look in the yard.
“It’s filthy outside.” Isabelle scowls as she watches the rain.
Diana raises an eyebrow and Samuel looks for a solution. His eyes land on the umbrella hanging from the coat hooks. A little cheeky; it belongs to the house, but valiantly Samuel takes it and opens it up. Isabelle looks at Diana with a smug smile as he escorts her through the deluge.
Samuel returns and Diana stands back allowing him to step in close to her. After shaking off the water, he slowly replaces the umbrella. As he begins to thank her she reaches for his hand. Her fingers linger on his before she hands him her card.
“Call me.” Her blue eyes twinkle.
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The dank and musty air tickles Sally’s nostrils as she is marched like a prisoner down the basement stairs. The bright light reveals an unremarkable room with dusty boxes, a card table and some chairs scattered around. If Sally had known Hannah was coming, she’d never have accepted Karlee’s invitation. Karlee’s loyalty to Hannah is a blemish on her typically kind personality.
Sally tries to supress the impending sneeze, but tickling the roof of her mouth doesn’t work this time. Her triple ‘Ah-choo!’ has the other girls sniggering and Sally’s cheeks flush.
Hannah sets down a board with the inscribed letters A to Z. Next to it, she adds a packet of Tim Tams.
“Fire for warmth, food for sustenance and water for life,” She directs and clicks her fingers at Sally, while Karlee lights three candles. Fumbling, Sally produces the bottled water she’d been instructed to carry. The three girls take their seats.
The little flames dance and Hannah hits the lights. Shadows flicker around the empty walls. Sally doesn’t want to be there but doesn’t want to leave.
“I’ll just watch.” Her voice is a squeak.
“You can’t. We need three.” Hannah aims her familiar smirk at Sally.
Karlee shrugs sympathetically and takes a biscuit. Hannah slaps her hand.
“They’re for the spirits, stupid.”
She orders the girls to place a hand on the glass. Karlee goes first and Sally reluctantly follows. Hannah’s hand clamps down on the top.
“Our beloved spirits beyond this earth, we summon you here today.”
Sally doesn’t want them to feel her racing pulse but she can’t stop the tremble in her hand. The glass begins to move, gently scraping as it slides over the board. Sally thinks her heart might stop altogether.
“Are you moving that?” Hannah hisses, looking pointedly at Sally.
“No, of course not!”
The glass continues, spelling out a word and the three girls whisper the letters.
“H. E. L. L. O. Hello.”
“Who are you?” Hannah asks.
Again, their hands are pulled from letter to letter.
Sally tries to withdraw, but Hannah’s claws dig in, preventing Sally from leaving the circle.
Karlee looks intensely at the glass, chiming in with Hannah as they ask their gruesome questions. Sally has some questions of her own but doesn’t trust her voice.
“Who is your next victim?” Hannah asks.
The next three letters reveal S. A. L.
From nowhere, a flurry of wind blows out one of the candles. Sally gasps and in that instant a cockroach springs onto Hannah’s face, landing above her eyebrow. The girls scream, all three hands come off the glass; Karlee is close to sobbing now. Hannah continues to squeal, not moving to action. Surprised, Sally grabs the glass, brushes the insect from Hannah’s forehead and traps it in the vessel.
“Just a roach,” she says.
Flicking on the lights, she reveals the unremarkable room.
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He’s pouring a drink. He’s just learned he’ll be a father. The plane only touched down two hours ago. I wonder if this was the right time to tell him.
For a while the secret was just mine and hers. Even when her stomach lurched each morning, while I bounced around inside her, she was happy. And he was oblivious.
He’s the silent broody type, my dad. Finally he speaks.
“This wasn’t our plan. How?”
Later at dinner, they keep up appearances. The other couple unaware as they share the seafood platter and toast their combined 40ths. She puts her hand on his thigh and he pushes it off, annoyed. Their friends head to the bar for another round. My mother tries again.
“It’s my last chance, please be happy.”
“You never mentioned it before.” He says gruffly but allows her hand to stay this time. “We agreed no children.”
The tension is thick and the couple wave from the bar, concern on their faces as they observe the strained conversation.
“I don’t think I can be a part of this.”
Shock. I never imagined he’d opt out. She’s shocked too. She knew he would be upset at the secrecy but was sure she’d talk him around.
When the couple return, the charade continues. It’s awkward and I can feel my mother’s stomach churn. She barely touches her food and neither does he. Their friends have noticed.
Over the next few days, there are arguments and fights. Their holiday companions have left for the island early. They can’t bear the silences any longer. And this holiday is nothing like it was meant to be. We, my mother and I, were hoping that it would be a joyous occasion. Sure, there would be the initial shock but we were never prepared for this.
He says he’s going to leave.
My mother sobs and begs.
It’s not until the fourth day when there is a shift in his attitude. I’m not sure if it is the sight of a Vietnamese family clinging to each other atop a motorcycle. Or perhaps it’s in the gallery amongst the paintings and photos of young children at war.
That night he concedes. He will stay. Relief is visible not only in my mother’s face but also his. I can feel it too, coursing through my physical being. Everything will be alright. We will be a family.
They take the next plane to the island. After an emotional night filled with promises and forgiveness, they can’t wait to tell their friends. They hold hands as the plane takes off, smiling at each other with their revised life plan. The pilot too, sits back relaxed, as if he knows the news he is carrying.
And then a jolt. A bird is sucked into the plane’s engine; its life over in a flash. My parent’s hands now grip in terror.
The plane tumbles from the sky. Our family over in a flash.
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“What were you going to say?”
Those unsaid words haunt me. I want to throw my damned phone into the swelling ocean! Now my heart beats loud and strong. Thump, thump, thump - like a drum announcing me and my narcissism. But on that day, it was silent and still while yours quietly wept.
“Nothing.” You replied as you looked down at your lap.
We sat, surrounded by mundane small talk and the pervading lilt of Dido playing through obnoxious speakers. I was hot. Were you hot? I think your cheeks were pink, a little flushed. But you didn’t take off your green jacket. I love that jacket.
And you went to talk. We’d been coy and quiet while the waiter created a buffer with her questions and intrusions. You choose a sticky scroll and I envied you as you bit into the soft and doughy bun. But I was too proud to join you.
Another interruption when your cappuccino arrived with its heart shaped cocoa design. That waitress annoyed me. Yesterday. Now I wish… well I wish it were me delivering your coffee with a smile.
My cruel words cut your golden glow. I saw it dissipate like a storm cloud blocking the sun as I told you about my ‘someone else’. And you were going to say something. I saw my reflection in your welling eyes, your lips parted, your fingers trembling ever so slightly.
Then my god-forsaken phone rang. And it was her ring tone. I know my mouth turned up before I could stop myself. And you caught it. I saw how it pierced you, like an arrow hitting its target straight through the heart.
Her words were as thick as honey while your razor sharp stare bored into me. I averted my gaze. I didn’t want to face your accusation while I allowed the delicate perfume of her seduction to envelop me and take me away from you.
I didn’t hear the words you wanted me to know, instead a wistful, gentle sigh is all I remember. I didn’t know, as I watched you leave, your unsteady steps through the door I can no longer bear to be near, that it would be the last time I watched you go.
I want to throw this wretched phone into the icy sea! But your voice is locked into the small box and I know I never will part with it. It will be my cross. The message I keep are not the words that I missed. Those words were stolen.
And how was I to know, when you touched my fingertips and I withdrew my hand so thoughtlessly, that it would be the last time your skin would connect with mine?
Now my hopeless tears join the fierce waves that you loved. Too late.
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“Thank you boys.”
The teacher’s voice trembles. Robbo organised the gift. He’s got an awesome poker face. Kit, on the other hand, is struggling to keep it together.
“You have to open it now miss.”
Jason barely conceals his laugh. She doesn’t have the guts to say no. Kit imagines her clammy palms and feels a rush through his body. He grins at his mates. Everyone else is craning their necks to see but she is purposefully sitting down at her desk now, so they won’t be able to. Still, the boys gather around to catch her expression.
“I hope it’s something nice.”
She’s trying to get in on the joke, act like she doesn’t care.
“You’ll love it!”
That’s Robbo again. He hates her.
She slowly pulls off the ribbon and tears open the paper. There is a plain box inside and Kit can’t stop the squawk that bursts out of him. Nervously, she opens the box. Her face turns white. The boys start laughing and other kids rush over to get a look. She slams the box closed before they can. Kit and Jason slap Robbo on the back in congratulations, the rose was a nice touch. She still hasn’t spoken. She’s staring at the box. Match point to them. Kit is pumped. Tonight they will celebrate.
Finally, she stands. She goes to leave but then takes the box at the last minute. Damn, they wanted to show everyone. She walks out of the room without a word. Minutes later the coordinator is at the door. The box is under his arm. No surprise there, but the fun is definitely over. It was worth it though. They follow him out. As they pass the staff bathroom, Kit hears someone heaving from inside. She deserves it, the tight arse bitch.
They’re suspended for the last week of the year. Who gives a shit! Kit walks home with his phone in his hand, victorious. The lads have a lot to say. They’ll head into town later.
As he approaches his house he can hear the yelling. The bin on the curb is overflowing with beer cans and his dad’s roaring streams out of the window. Why don’t they close the windows? His mum is cowering inside the lounge room while his dad spits abuse.
She screams something back, trying to sound tough, like she doesn’t care, but Kit can hear the tremor in her voice. He tries to talk his father down, but he already knows that sticking up for his mum is a mistake. He cops a shove which sends him tumbling on top of her. She cries out in pain or anger, Kit can’t tell. He apologises and tries to pull her up. She won’t let him. She doesn’t want to get up. She doesn’t want to do anything. She’ll just let the insults punch into her, again and again. Like she always does.
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Hannah repeated the words, testing out the sound and rhythm.
“A special treat.” Aly said. “We can order whatever we like and they will deliver it to our door. We can even eat in bed!”
Relieved that Hannah could not see through her false excitement, Aly read her the kid’s options over and over. She enjoyed watching the sparkle of Hannah’s sapphire blue eyes each time she said the words ‘vanilla ice cream’.
Hanna couldn’t believe her luck. She sat on the bed watching cartoons while she waited for her margarita pizza and ice cream. Aly stood by the window staring out to the gloomy street below. She wasn’t going to let Hannah see her dark mood.
The food arrived quickly. Hannah would be having an early dinner. Aly had ordered nothing for herself. She knew she couldn’t stomach it. The young boy at the door seemed green and naïve. Aly guessed that he was a casual as she silently mocked the oversized collar and sleeves of his work shirt. He stood awkwardly in the entrance. Sudden guilt made her want to tip him. She opened her purse. The photo; John, Hannah and herself, glared from behind the plastic cover. She hurriedly passed over a ten dollar note as her stomach lurched.
The pizza was greasy and Aly regretted her promise that Hannah could eat in the bed. She lay out crisp white napkins over the sheets, creating a paper picnic blanket, and watched as Hannah used each finger on each hand to hold the cheese covered slices. Surprisingly, she had asked about her dad only once, and that had been when Aly sprung her from school earlier that day. Aly’s vague answer about a holiday had satisfied Hannah and he hadn’t been mentioned again. It was only a matter of time, Aly thought.
She was sure he would have notified the police by now but she wondered if they would actually do anything. Don’t they need to wait 48 hours before they consider someone missing? Or was that just the American shows she watched? She’d left her mobile in the car and this reassured and terrified her. She had no one’s number. John’s was the only one stored to memory.
They shared the king size bed. Aly tried to read while Hannah settled in. Finally, when Hannah’s breathing deepened, Aly turned off the light and snuggled in too. Was it possible she could sleep tonight? It was unlikely. Tears trickled down her cheeks and her body shook as she considered the decision she’d made. Hannah stirred in her sleep and began to rub Aly’s arm, but Aly was the master of silent tears. Lying next to John for so many years, she’d had plenty of practice. She breathed through her nose and let the deluge soak into her pillow as she considered how she would manage their new life.
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Photo by Herrmann Stamm on Unsplash
The golden orb looks more magnificent from this side of the border. Malcolm cannot see much from his cage. It should be dark at this hour but instead brilliant shadows dance across the empty cell. And the birds, they can’t understand that it is night. Their cheerful chirping is apt, as they man the gates to paradise.
He does not think his incarceration will last long. The dank smell of sweat, tears and piss waft on the warm air. Malcolm can ignore it. He channels his thoughts toward his destination of salty sand and water. When day breaks, he will have his chance to elaborate. They will see that he is not some selfish border jumper, yearning for greener grass. No. This is his home. This is where he belongs.
There is a cut on his shin. He places two fingers over the wound and frets about the ooze that still pulses from it. It will not do to present in front of the committee looking dishevelled and grotty. He searches through his canvas bag for an object. Something to help him tidy up. The metallic smell of blood seeps into his nostrils. He hears a cry, louder than the birds. Then murmuring from places beyond his sight. Someone with a baton walks the length, bouncing it between the bars. The walls around Malcolm vibrate as the clanking sound drowns out all other noises. He stops his search and looks up once more, meditating on the knowledge that this is but a little hiccup in his path to happiness. Moonlit clouds, thick and dense, begin to obscure the view. But still the strength of the light is too great to be snuffed out.
As the night settles back into natural quiet, and the birds resume their incessant celebrations, Malcolm too, resumes his search. He finds the meagre emergency kit. Rosalie would have made more sense of the packing, but she was not there to help. He laughs as he pulls out the pitiful Band-Aids, cream and matches, and then a tear escapes, because Rosalie is no longer with him.
The tender cut on his leg is throbbing. It is filled with dirt. The barbed wire, alive with germs and disease, now live within this wound and the thought is terrifying. He has nothing to clean it but hopes that the cream will be of some benefit. He slathers it on and around, creating a paste with the white lotion, blood and grit. The dressings are laughable and so instead, he uses the linen band from the kit, to wrap around his leg.
He hears footsteps approaching. He hastily throws the items back into his bag, hope inflating within him. This will be it. This is his chance. But the footsteps continue on, past his cage, and he hears the keys clank against someone else’s door. Malcolm sits back down, breathes in his salty air and sunshine, and then looks back up at the moon.