Authors: Rachel Ward
I was there, in the lake. I was there when my brother died.
I take a few deep breaths, sucking the cold, damp air deep into me, trying to calm down.
The tap’s still running, gushing full pelt into the sink, gurgling down the drainpipe. I don’t want it on my face, in my eyes, but I am thirsty. I turn the top around, cutting the flow to something a bit more than a trickle. I lean over again and hang my head under carefully, turning my face so I can catch the water in my mouth.
It’s cold and clean. I swish it around, squirting it between my teeth, slooshing it over my gums, inside my puffed-out cheeks, then I spit. I swallow the next mouthful and the next, feeling the cool freshness make its way down inside me. I’m ragingly thirsty — the more water I drink, the worse it seems to get. I
reach up and increase the flow as I gulp and swallow and gulp some more. Water spills out of my mouth, down my chin and my cheek.
Someone says my name — not like the shouting and splashing that I heard before — this is close, here, in this room. I stand up, turn the tap off, and look behind me. There’s no one. I shake my head, dig the corner of the towel into my ears to get the water out.
It sounded like … But it couldn’t be. I heard him last night, though, when I was drifting off. But that’s different, isn’t it? When you’re nearly asleep, the edges blur, you’re halfway into your dreams, aren’t you? But I’m awake now. The cold water’s seen to that.
Someone’s messing about, playing tricks on me.
I take two paces across the room and yank the plastic shower curtain all the way back. The bathtub is empty. This room is empty. But there was someone … I heard someone.
I go onto the landing, stop for a minute and listen. It’s quiet. Somewhere in the distance, a siren is howling, but even that fades and disappears. I head toward Mum’s room.
I walk softly inside. It’s not as dark as mine. The curtains are open and the streetlight outside is casting a yellow glow onto the patterned walls. The bed is empty. The floor still strewn with clothes and discarded plates.
I know she’s not here, but I still say, “Mum?” into the emptiness. There’s no reply.
I turn and walk back to my bedroom, mine and Rob’s, the room with the holes in the door. The thought of walking back in there makes me feel a bit sick. What if someone’s in there, waiting for me? But the light from the landing shows me that there’s nothing, just the two mattresses — two crumpled sleeping bags.
In the harsh light of the bare bulb overhead, the room looks smaller and sadder than ever. I look at my watch. Ten past three. Must be ten past three in the morning. I cross to the window and part the curtains. I’m on top of the shops, looking out across an empty streetlamp-lit parking lot and a stretch of grass beyond, fringed by terraces of houses. There’s no one about. I rest my elbows on the windowsill, prop my chin in my hands, and stare out. I don’t exactly remember this, but there’s something comforting about it, which makes me feel that I’ve done this before. Stood here. Stared.
After a while, I open the top panel of the window and push it out as far as it will go, fixing it open by slotting the metal peg on the frame into one of the holes in the handle. It’s a still night, but the opening brings some fresh air into the room, and a sort of background hush, nothing you can put your finger on, just the sound a small town makes in its sleep.
No chance of sleep for me. I’m a hundred percent awake.
I start sifting through some of the stuff on the floor. T-shirts, socks, pants. There doesn’t seem to be a dividing line anywhere, nothing to show what’s mine and what’s his. Was his, I should
say. And there’s nothing to say what’s clean and what isn’t, either. I’m guessing none of it is.
There are food cartons, empty cans of Coke, and candy wrappers all mixed in with the clothes. It’s like a sort of soup. I start to separate everything out. Socks in one pile, T-shirts in another. Cans lined up shoulder to shoulder. I don’t even know why I’m doing it, but it’s something to do. Patches of floor start to appear. There’s carpet under all this, don’t know what color it started off, but it’s a sort of gray now, with flecks of brown.
I put actual rubbish in an old plastic bag: tin foil, paper, bits of gum if I can get them off whatever they’re stuck on. Soon I’ve cleared about half the gap between our beds. I pick up another little bit of paper, something torn up. I’ve already found some of these, put them in my bag, but now I notice that it’s not just a bit of a magazine. It’s too thick for that, the surface too smooth, shiny. It’s a photo. One side’s white, but the other has part of a picture. I place it in the palm of my hand and turn it around. There’s half a mouth, a chin, shadow at the top of a neck.
I dig about in the rubbish bag and fish out a couple more pieces. I put the three I’ve got on the floor and slide them about, playing with them, trying to make them fit. And two of them do. Now an eye and half a nose sit above the mouth. It’s a girl.
I start scrabbling around for the other pieces. I empty the bag out all over again but there aren’t any more. I leave the rubbish
where it is and turn to sifting through the rest of the stuff on the floor. I’m not sorting it now, just working my way through, picking things from one heap and throwing them behind me into another. Each bit of picture is like a prize. Another piece of a puzzle I’ve got to solve. I find two more. There’s a silver chain around her neck, the top of a T-shirt. She’s got two little rings in her right ear, one above the other. I’m missing her left side, though. I keep searching.
The bits are scattered all over the room. I find all of them except two, but they’re both edge bits, so maybe they don’t really matter. After some trial and error I’ve put her face together. She’s a striking girl: long, straight dark hair, parted in the middle and tucked behind her ears, smooth skin — no zits and bumps like me — and beautiful eyes. Deep brown. Dancing with light. You can’t help looking at them. She’s pouting, pulling her cheeks in, looking up at the camera. I think it’s one of those pictures you take yourself, you know, with your arm stretched out in front.
There’s writing on it, too. She’s signed it across the bottom, although that’s one of the bits that’s missing, so all I can see is
“Kisses, N —”
The photo is in our room, mine and Rob’s. So who was she sending kisses to?
I look around the room, and I think of what I know about my life, my journey here yesterday, standing in the kitchen watching Mum pour lager down her neck, and then I go back
to the photo and I look into the girl’s eyes again, and I so, so want it to be me those kisses were meant for.
But it can’t be. Because the last time I saw her, she screamed at me.
She’s the girl in the ambulance.
he girl in the photograph. The girl in the ambulance. I need to find out who she is. I need to talk to her. Mum’ll know, but where is she, if she isn’t in her bed? I leave the pieced-together photo on the floor and start to head downstairs. I’ve got my foot on the second step when I hear the tap again.
Plip, plip, plip.
I could have sworn I’d turned it off. The washer must be busted or something.
I turn around and go back into the bathroom. Sure enough, it’s the cold tap at the sink again. I twist it firmly and tighten it up. Involuntarily, my shoulders hunch and a shiver runs from the top of my neck to the bottom of my spine. At the same time there’s a loud
from the hallway, a door slamming shut. My heart stops. I duck out onto the landing and it’s my room, my door.
My heart’s going again now, hard and fast. I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. I take a couple of breaths, trying to calm myself down before I tiptoe up to the door, take hold of the handle, and turn it slowly. I ease the door open, peering into the room, and finally edge in, checking carefully behind the door. It’s empty, of course. The only difference is that the photo isn’t on the carpet anymore, at least not all in one place. There
are bits on my sleeping bag and on Rob’s and all over the room. Just like someone picked them up and threw them toward the ceiling. Weird.
I put my hand out the open window. There isn’t a breath of wind. I knock the arm off the catch and close it, then I bend down to start picking up the pieces. I could stick them back together with some tape, if we’ve got any. I keep the pieces in my hand and go downstairs, looking for Mum or some tape, or both.
The lights are all on and Mum’s still on the sofa. The sound of the door slamming hasn’t woken her up. She’s crashed out, the hand with its damaged finger flopping toward the floor like it’s pointing at the can that she’s dropped. She’s well out of it.
Seeing her like that brings another memory.
“This is how Dad did it.” The blade of Rob’s knife is digging into my skin, into the crease that marks the last joint of my little finger. His eyes are cold, hard. The wrong word from me now and he’ll cut me.
“Okay, I believe you.”
“Except it was quick, real quick. He got her hand and then brought the knife down, just like this …”
I shudder at the thought of Rob pinning my hand down, shudder at what Mum must have gone through, all those years ago. The memories held within these walls are as poisonous as the air. No wonder Mum blots it out with lager. Maybe I’d be better off doing the same.
I hover in the doorway, wondering what the hell I’m going to do now. I don’t feel comfortable poking around looking for tape, don’t want to disturb her.
There are family photos on top of the TV. I tiptoe past Mum and examine them. Three portraits in cardboard frames, the same two boys in each one. They make a series, tell a story: my brother and me, growing up. Our life in three snapshots. Infant, kindergarten, high school. Tots, boys, teens.
If we were in a crowd of a thousand people, a million, you’d pick us out as brothers. Same scruffy hair, same narrow gray-blue eyes sloping down at the outside edges, same cheekbones. Brothers, but not twins. Rob’s clearly older — he’s bigger than me in every photo. And there’s a cockiness about him that’s missing in me. In one of the pictures, the most recent one, his head is tipped back a little and he’s looking down his nose at the camera. Only slightly, but it’s enough to say, loud and clear, “Yeah, I’m Rob. What about it?” But my eyes don’t make contact — I’m not looking straight at the camera, but a little bit to the side.
Now I think of the other photo, the one in pieces in my hand. If you added this girl to one of the photos of me and Rob, where would she go? Where does she fit in?
Behind me, Mum snorts in her sleep. I turn around. She shifts a little, moving onto her back, and then her mouth falls open again and she starts snoring loud enough to rattle the windows.
She’s so asleep and I’m so awake. I can’t stay here and listen to this, but I don’t want to go back upstairs and mess about with taps and doors all night, freaking myself out about people who aren’t there.
I stuff the bits of photo into one of the pockets of my jeans and head for the front door. I grab a jacket from the pegs in the hall. Mine or his? Whatever. I put it on. As an afterthought I take another coat, tiptoe back, and lay it over Mum. Then I tiptoe to the door, reach for the catch, and ease it open.
More flowers have appeared in our yard, leaning up against the door. They flop onto the doormat as I open it. I move them into the hall and leave them there, pulling the door closed behind me.
All these flowers. People must have loved him, mustn’t they? He must have been loved. Or are the flowers really for Mum … sympathy for a woman who’s lost a son? I can’t help thinking about the fist holes in our bedroom door, remembering the cold look in his eyes as he held the knife to me. Did he keep all that — his violence, his hatred — inside the house? Keep it for Mum and me?
I walk across the yard and onto the concrete walkway, stopping to look over the edge. Garages and more flats beyond, everything soft and quiet, a yellow-orange world. There’s a sweet edge to the air as I breathe in, a hint of chocolate. The night shift at the factory must be busy. I look up, trying to see beyond the streetlight halos to the sky beyond. I can’t see any stars.
At the top of the stairs I hesitate, then launch myself down, a flying leap taking four steps at a time — one, two, and then I lean to the side, my hands grab the concrete wall, I flick my legs up, and I’m over. It’s a six-foot drop on the other side. I come
crashing down, buckling at the knees. My palms slam into the pavement and I crouch there for a couple of seconds, working out if I’m okay or not. As I get to my feet, I register a pain in my left ankle and another in my left knee. My leg must have twisted as I fell.
I look around, hoping no one witnessed my landing. Looks like I got away with it. I dust my hands down on the top of my legs, wincing as scuffed-up points of flesh meet denim. Shit!
Glancing back at the stairs, I wonder how Rob made it look so easy, and I see him again in my mind’s eye.
He sails over the wall, lands as light as a cat, and dances around the girl.