The Quiet and the Loud
- Pages: 400 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780593354582
An Excerpt From
The Quiet and the Loud
When I was small, almost ten years old, I rowed out with my father to the middle of a lake. It was after midnight—owls prowled, lizards hid, and Mum lay sleeping in the tent beside the water.
We’d arrived at the lake in late afternoon, unpacked the car, and set up camp—a big tent for Mum and Dad, a small one of my very own, for me. Mum banged in pegs with a hammer. Dad fluffed around with the fly and guy ropes, swearing. The lake lap-lapped. I clambered over the shoreline, found flat rocks, and skipped them.
At dusk, we three stood at the water’s edge. I held Mum’s hand and we looked out at the lake, the mist, the quiet, fading light. Birds squabbled and settled. The dark dropped in.
Then Mum cooked sausages on the fire while Dad blew up our inflatable dinghy with a foot pump. After dinner, we turned marshmallows on our sticks, watching the skin bubble and blacken. The flames crackled and licked. I crawled into them, listening for stories.
Mum drank her tea. Dad pulled out a beer, hissed the can open. Took a long draw. Mum touched my leg, stirring me. “Time for bed,” she said.
I brushed my teeth with bottled water and spat paste onto the dirt. I kissed Mum and Dad good night, crept into my tent, snugged into my sleeping bag, and went to sleep.
Dad woke me with a shake.
“Georgia!” he whispered. “Let’s go have an adventure!”
I could see his glassy eyes, his toothy grin in the dark. I stared at him, confused. I’d been dreaming of apples, of underwater trees? I glanced left, at the canvas wall—just a few steps away was Mum.
“Don’t wake her,” Dad said. “Come on!”
There was something in his voice, something sparking.Say yes, the spark said. Dad’s eyes glittered.
I sat up, shivered out of my bag, and scooted out of the tent. Dad handed me a jacket. We tiptoed like burglars over to where the boat waited. We lifted the dinghy, laid it onto the water, and clambered in.
Then Dad pushed us out into the nothing.
The lake was inky. Gum trees ghosted the shore. The moon ticked across the sky, and the stars blazed.
I looked up. I felt wrapped in it, inside the immensity, the space and silence all around. But I didn’t have the word for that then—immensity—so I said, “It’s really pretty.”
Dad beamed. “Isn’t it just?” he said.
He rowed us until we were nowhere and everywhere. I dipped my hand into the water, scooped and trickled moonlit drops through my fingers. Dad did too. He rested the oars, leaned over the dinghy side, and looked into the lake. He looked into it so long, maybe the sky fell into the lake and the lake fell into the sky, because then Dad looked like he wanted the lake to eat him up.
He said, “Hey, buddy, you can row back, can’t you? Just head for those trees.” And with a plop and a splash, he hopped into the water and swam away.
Dad hadn’t surprised me like this in a while. It had been months of a sort-of calm, a sort-of easy, a sort-of happy. I’d seen Mum kissing Dad in the kitchen and smiling into his eyes, and it had been a long time since she’d done that.
But all of Dad was gone now.
I could hear him splish-sploshing through the water. I grabbed the oars and tried to follow the sound. The oars knocked my knees, and I lost one. Then I called and called over the solid lump of lake, but the lake didn’t answer and neither did Dad.
I tried to row back with one oar. I slipped in dizzy circles and all I could hear then was the oar clunking at the lake like a spoon on an empty bowl:scrape, scrape, scrape.
I slumped against the boat side. I would die out here, I knew it. Dad had already drowned. He must have. Lakes could swallow you whole, skies too.
I huddled, knees to chin, and cried with the mucky hopelessness of going in circles and waiting to drown, cried over the water and up. My tears clanged the branches of the sorrowful trees and hissed at the stars.
When I took a breath, I could hear I wasn’t alone.
Mum stood, shouting and screaming, from the shore.
Cool air. Slight breeze and sun, rising.
Sydney Harbour lies belly up—made of glisten, glass, and water—and I’m on it, in the kayak Mum and my stepmum Mel gave me for my eighteenth birthday. My body snugs the boat like a seed in its pod. My paddles cut and pull, leaving ripples. Above me, a sea hawk spirals; a gull glides, dipping down, and ahead of me, a duck, flipped over, waggles its feet and rummages the wet for breakfast.
The water is polished flat. If I wanted, I could lay my palm on the harbor’s skin and rest it there. No big boats go by this early: no ferries, no sailboats, no water taxis. Nothing on the surface but the sheen of early light, a distant clump of rowers, and here and there, a bird.
Below lies everything else:
bull-sharks roaming the muddy dark,
fish and cans and plastic bags,
fallen boats and rusty fishing rods
and all the other lost things.
Behind me, my house on the peninsula drifts out of sight. Flanked by mansions, the house is old, tin-roofed, and jittery. The windows stick, white paint flecks from the eaves, and the barnacled dock at the end of the yard is slowly sinking into the seabed. The house belongs to Mel—her family has owned it since houses were being built on the peninsula. It hasn’t been smashed or remade yet.
Mum, Mel, and my grandfather rattle around the worn house, clacking and pecking at each other. Gramps is eighty-four and always losing something—his teeth, his shirts, his shoes, his pills. He spindles the rooms, circling upstairs, downstairs, shouting. It drives Mel crazy. She’s always saying, “Sara, that man scrambles my mind.”
“Tell him, don’t tell me,” Mum always says back.
“He’s your dad,” Mel says.
“He’s his own person, Mel.”
And round and round they go.
Life in my house is like one of those black-and-white movies where people run fast through one door and out another. Music jangles; everyone’s limbs jerk and bolt. My best friend Tess said once, “Your house is like a carnival ride, George.”
But I confess: Sometimes I sit in my room, there on the top of the higgledy-piggledy house, stare out the window, and dream of quiet.
I paddle west and upriver. I sweep past sleepy coves and boat shacks, past rotting piers and rowing clubs, past apartment buildings and fancy gold-brick houses with their gold-brick swimming pools. I pass parks and yachts and slatted rocks.
In time, I turn into a bay and pause. I trail one paddle, carving a thin path of bubbles, coasting. A single cloud scooches over the sky, teasing rain. A crow calls from a tree. I rest the paddles across the boat. And breathe.
My phone buzzes in the front pocket of my life jacket.
It’s a message from my father in Seattle.
Georgia, it’s Dad. I have some news. Please call me back.
A pulse moves through my body—old, murmuring, like the thrum you feel when tectonic rocks turn over in their sleep. News from Dad could be anything—he’s surprised me before.
I don’t like surprises. When did we last speak? My birthday, I think. Dad and I don’t really talk.
I flick the message away with my thumb.
The sun eases upwards, gathering heat. Trees wave from the park, by the shoreline. The sound ishush-hush, a hellohellohello, a soft listing in the leaves. I have lain on the grass under those trees before. I’ve sketched their twisting branches, made patterns on the page.
I close my eyes. Listen to the slap of water against the side of the kayak, listen to the trees.
My phone buzzes again.
I check it. It’s Dad. Again.
Georgia. If you could please reply I would appreciate it.
It hasn’t even been three minutes.
My stomach squeezes. I should have eaten before I left. Or brought along one of Mum’s granola-bar experiments—Mel always brings them whenever we paddle together. “Always be prepared, George,” she says. “What if we get marooned?”
My thumb hesitates over the phone. What should I write back?
Sorry, Dad, can’t call. Am marooned. Need to use all battery power to Morse-code passing sailors for help.
A jellyfish glides under the boat.
Or: I’m busy, Dad. I’m paddling to Hawaii. Call you when I get there.
The crow rattles the air from his faraway tree.
Or: Dad, listen: I’m in my happy place right now. Do not disturb.
I put my phone away without replying.
The bay tilts and shivers.
It’s too late—I’m disturbed.
The night Dad left me in the middle of a lake, it took a while to get me back.
“George! George!” Mum cried from the shore.
“Mum! Mum!” I cried from the boat.
“Coooo-ee!” called Dad. He must have slithered out of the lake and slopped over to Mum.
“Come this way!” Mum waved with her flashlight. She was a reedy voice and a thin pinpoint of light. I wanted to fly over to her like a bird.
But I couldn’t come this way. I swiped at the lake surface. My oar skipped like a stone. The boat wobbled; I screamed and Mum screamed. We woke all the bugs and all the birds. We woke the sleepy moon. The lake heaved and shivered and I couldn’t breathe. I felt crinkly with fear, eaten up. I couldn’t stop crying.
I heard a sound then—a boat, coming. A spotlight lit me up. A shadow sat behind the light.
“Hey, darlin’, we’ve got you,” the shadow said. His voice was broad, like a pancake. I couldn’t see his face.
“Mum!” I cried.
Another shadow at the back said, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” but his voice sounded gravelly, and my best friend Tess said strangers took people and kept them in cages in their basements and maybe these shadow men were going to kidnap me and keep me in a cage?
The men’s boat bumped against the dinghy. It rocked. I yelped. I saw a hand, reaching—
so I jumped into the lake and swam away.
Water sucked at my legs. My arms flailed, and the monsters rose. The men’s boat followed, the spotlight chasing me.
They were coming! They were coming!
I thrashed away and all around me I felt the fingers of the water pulling at my skin. I could hear the screaming eels, coming to scissor off my flesh.
I gulped in a breath—and gulped in the lake instead.
I choked, coughed. Twisted.
Then came the feel of water, the weight of water. My arms rose up. My eyes were open. I could see nothing. I could seeeverything.
A shadow man dove after me like a seal. Before I could die, fingers grabbed my body; I felt awhoosh and we rose till our heads broke the surface. The man lifted my face out of the water. I could feel his hands on my skin—a stranger, astranger!—I cried and beat at his hands.
“Leave it alone, you wriggler,” the man shouted, and his eyes shone like stars into mine.
I was hauled onto the flat of the boat. I coughed out lake water under the empty moon, then lay on my back, blank. Too shocked to cry, too drowned to scream.
The crow calls again.
I look around—
No lake. No night. No strangers, no Dad. Just me and a bird and a bay and a boat. Wind plucks water and sprays me. The hair on my arms stands up.
I breathe in, shake my head to clear my father out. It’s time to move and keep moving; you can get stuck sitting still. I pick up the paddles, start turning, when I see a shift on the shore, someone coming from behind the trees and trotting down towards the water.
I squint—it’s a girl, I think, wearing a red sundress. She stops, pulls a camera and tripod out of her backpack, sets them up, and now she kicks off her sandals and jumps, fully dressed, into the bay.
Into this water? With the muck and the jellies and secrets and sharks?
Yes. But not too deep; she’s okay.
The girl does a handstand in the shallows. Now she flips back upright. Now she’s running through the water, kicking up a spray. Now she’s doingcartwheels.
I can’t stop watching. The girl whirls on the beach, drops flying, sundress riding up. She’s like a picture I might draw when I can’t sleep. Her dress flaps—it pins itself to her body as she spins.
I seem to have paddled closer. Now I can see the girl’s brown skin, her tangled hair and wide shoulders. She’s about my age. She’s upside down, right-side up. Bright drops flick from her body. She’s all movement and muscle, curves and motion. My breath catches, like in those books where they say, “Her breath caught. Her bosom heaved—”
The girl pauses, looks out over the water, spots me and laughs. Her sound shivers the river, tingles me. She lifts her hand and waves. Her face is wide open, her arm like a flag . . .
And I’m waving my hand right back at her.
Why am I waving?
Why am I staring?
I drop my hand, scrunch it in my lap.Très embarrassment, my friend Laz would say. I turn the kayak, start paddling away. But then, like in those movies where the spaceships are being drawn by some enormous gravitational pull, I slow, and turn back to see the girl.
And she’s disappeared.
I look around. How did she leave so fast? Did she duck behind the trees? I paddle forward, almost to the beach, but the girl is nowhere to be found.
I even look up, in case she’s in the air and flying.
But if she is, she’s going much too fast to see.
I’m out of the bay, heading west again, upriver. My paddles cut and pull. I fly over water,quickquick. It feels so good to move fast, to feel wind and spray, to think about a girl cartwheeling, to not think about Dad, to feel the sun on my back—
My phone buzzes again. This time, it’s ringing. Theburr vibrates up to my chest.
Is it Dad? Done with waiting already? What will he say? What willI say?
“You up?” she says.
“Yeah. I’m in the kayak—I just saw—”
“I’m so fucking tired!” she says. “Got my assignment in, with like five minutes to spare. And then the baby kicked all night.”
Tess is six months older than me. She’s almost finished her first year of uni, unlike me, who is not at uni—I am on a gap year, which Tess didn’t love because it meant we wouldn’t graduate at the same time. Also, Tess is pregnant. Resplendent with child, Laz likes to say.
In about a month, Tess will be a mum. I’ve known her since we were babies, and now she’s about to launch an actual baby out of her actual vagina.
I can’t even imagine.
“Hey, Tess, I’m in the middle—” I start.
“Want to get coffee?”
“Um. Sure. When?”
“Now. Well, like, soon?”
“Well, I need coffee. And I’m starving—there’s nothing good to eat here. Come to our café at eight?”
I look around. The water hums. The sun arcs upward. Birds flit, dip, duck under. I’d have to sprint back downriver, then run to the café to make it in time.
“There will be pastries, George,” says Tess. “When have you ever said no to a pastry?”
That would be never. Tess knows all my wants and weaknesses.
“I might be late,” I say, wavering.
“That’s okay. I’ll wait.”
I give in. “All right. I’m coming.”
“Great! See you in a sec.” Tess hangs up.
I pocket my phone. Turn the kayak.
The sun calls: Leaving so soon?
The water says: But we were just getting started.
I ignore them. I dig the paddles in and run the river path home.
Tess and our friend Laz are in the corner of the café when I get there, drinks already on the table.
“Perfect timing! Here you go,” Laz says, pushing a latte towards me.
“Hey, George.” Tess shoves over the sugar bowl.
“My heroes.” I bend and plant kisses on their cheeks.
Tess makes a face. “Yuck, you’re sweaty.”
“Well, duh,” I say.
“That’s what happens when you run, dear,” says Laz to Tess.
She sticks her tongue out at him.
I peel off my wind-jacket and sit. I’ve jogged from home. I didn’t have time to shower or change. I dragged the kayak onto the dock, ran up the side path out to the road—past the picket fences and the park and the Johnson’s dog, bark-barking—zigzagged right and down and left and up, and now I’m here. Sweaty and ready for coffee.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” I say to Laz. I take a spoon and start sugaring my drink.
“You didn’t?” Laz looks over at Tess. “You didn’t tell her I was coming?”
“I didn’t tell her because I didn’t know,” she says. “You woke up after I rang.”
“Oh, you slept over?” I say to Laz.
“Yeah. It was horror movie night.” Laz stares over at Tess. “As though I wouldn’t want to come.”
“Sometimes you sleep till the afternoon, Laz.” Tess flicks her red hair; it ripples like it’s on fire.
“I only did that one time.”
“Well. I was hungry. I needed to eat—”
I sip my coffee—it tastes of sugar, milk, and just a hint of coffee. “Perfect,” I say, interrupting the Laz-and-Tess show.
“You’re welcome!” Laz says, and grins at me. He’s ridiculously beautiful. Smooth, tanned skin, sleek Greek cheekbones, and gray-blue eyes. I’d probably swoon if I were into boys. And maybe he’d flirt with me if he were into girls.
Tess leans over the table, her hair swishing forward. She mock-whispers: “Also. The pastries are on their way.”
“Nice!” I say.
Tess grins. And it’s like she’s clicked her fingers and summoned them, because a plate arrives just then—six pastries, all chocolatey and shiny.
I lean towards Tess and lay my palms on her cheeks. “Marry me.”
“You’re too young,” Tess says. She grabs a pastry and rips it in half. “Anyway”—she points to herself—“not gay.”
“Close enough. Gay adjacent.” I point to myself and Laz.
“Adjacent. Ha,” Laz says to me. “Her overlap length is huge. Remember that girl last year?”
“Overlap length? Don’t start your engineer speak, Lazaros. It’s too early,” says Tess.
But Laz continues. “Imagine you’re a beam, Tess, crossed with significant length over another beam. That’s you and that girl at the pub last year.” Laz sits back. “Your gay overlap is strong, my friend.”
“Jesus,” Tess says, shaking her head.
She and Laz start talking over each other, as usual.
“It wasn’t like anything even—” says Tess.
“Dude, you basically—” says Laz.
“Let me talk, shithead,” says Tess.
“Same to you, lumpy,” says Laz.
Here we go.
Laz and I met in art class three years ago; I introduced him to Tess. Within seconds, she decided Laz was her emotional twin, or emotional punching bag, or something in between, and Laz decided the same. Watching them is like watching a TV series that never ends.
“Anyway,” says Laz, putting a hand in front of Tess’s face. “This is not important. I have news.”
“What?” Tess says. She has chocolate on her cheek from the pastry.
“Adesh told me he loved me last night.” Laz wipes the chocolate off with a thumb.
“He did?” I say.
Laz nods, grinning. Adesh, Laz’s boyfriend, has been in the picture for four months. They met through Laz’s climate group at uni. They’ve gone on marches, posted flyers, shouted in corporate atriums together. The two of them are pretty inseparable. It’s impressive Laz is even here with us now.
Tess says, “So what did you say?”
Laz smiles. “I said, ‘Same.’ ”
“Awwww,” Tess and I say together.
Laz looks soft and vulnerable for a second. Then he says, “So, when are you losers going to catch up?”
Tess chucks a chunk of pastry at him. “I don’t want to be with anyone right now.”
“Liar.” Laz picks the pastry off his lap and pops it into his mouth.
“I’m all good too,” I tell him.
“Liars, both of you,” says Laz.
“Well, I met someone at the shops yesterday,” says Tess. “We had a moment.”
Laz leans back in his chair. “Was that before or after he saw your elephant-sized arse?”
Tess frowns. She squints at her half-eaten pastry. “Okay, I know I’m enormous right now . . . but they said not to worry about the weight gain—” She stops, looks uncertain.
A darkwater feeling hums inside my body. I touch Tess’s hand. “You’re super pregnant, Tess. You look totally normal. And anyway, what’s wrong with having a big arse?” I stare at Laz.
Tess stares too.
Laz twitches under our laser beams. “Sorry. Shit. That was probably a dick thing to say?”
“Yeah,” says Tess.
Laz reaches over, squeezes Tess’s hand. “Sorry, T.”
“Really though, I am.”
Tess lifts her shoulders, drops them. “Don’t worry. It’s fine.”Fine comes out glittery, like Tess has just tried to polish it, make it shiny enough we can talk about something else.
So I talk about something else. “Hey, so I saw this gir—”
Laz’s phone rings. He glances down. “Oh! It’s Adesh!” He gets up, motioning to the phone. “He auditioned for this play and he’s been waiting to hear—” Laz presses answer. “Hey, lover,” he says, and walks outside to the café veranda.
Tess looks at me. “You saw a who?”
Oh good. She was listening. “A girl. By the river. While I was out in the kayak before.”
“Oh, yeah? What was she doing out at dawn? Burying a body?”
“Cartwheels,” I say.
Tess tilts her head. “Really?”
“In the water. It was cool,” I say, and I’m about to tell Tess about the way the girl’s sundress flapped and clung, and the way the water flicked from the girl’s skin, and the way time seemed to slow—but now Laz is bouncing back to our table, and he’s saying “We’ve got to go! It’s an emergency!”
“It is?” says Tess. Instinctively, she puts her hand on her belly.
“It’s Adesh. He just got into the play! He’s going to get naked. There’ll be a horse, I think? I can’t remember the rest. Anyway. He wants to celebrate.” Laz raises an eyebrow. “If you know what I mean.”
“Riiight,” says Tess, nodding.
“Now?” I say.
“Mmm-hm,” says Laz. “At his place. Before my uni lecture.”
“Okay. Well, have fun,” says Tess.
“Um. Yeah. The thing is . . . I need a ride.” He looks at Tess, stares into her soul.
“From me.” Tess stares back, unblinking.
“Always so smart.” Laz grins and taps Tess’s nose.
“Is it far?”
“It’s almost at your place. Just a little bit sideways from your place. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes out of your way. It’s nothing.”
Tess and I look at each other. Laz’s sense of direction isn’t prize-winning. There are stories we could tell.
Tess sighs. “All right,” she says. “You better not get us lost. I’m so baby-brained, I might crash into a tree.”
“You’re not going to crash into anything,” says Laz, pulling Tess out of her chair. “I trust you with my life.”
I get up and notice the two and a half leftover pastries. “Who wants these?” I point to the plate.
Laz shakes his head. “You take them. Too full. We ordered too much, Tess. We don’t even have money and we always order too much.”
“They were two for one!”
“They were?” says Laz.
“Yeah—they were a day old. Maybe two? Bargain.”
“Come on, you couldn’t tell the difference—”
“You could have told me!”
They’ve turned for the door; they’re walking away.
I wrap the pastries in napkins and ask at the counter for a bag. I’ll have them later when I’m drawing, or doing one of the random online uni courses I started because my gap year got boring, or after my next paddling session . . . or at some moment in the undefined future when eating a leftover, unknown-days-old pastry will feel like a great idea.
On the café veranda, Tess jiggles her keys, beeps open the car. Pokes my shoulder with a finger.
“Want a ride?”
“Um.” I hesitate. My house is only a fifteen-minute jog away. If I ride with Tess and Laz, I’ll have to listen to all their noise . . .
I look out at the road, the space above the road. The air beats with promise.
“George?” says Laz, already by the passenger door. “An answer today, please.”
“Oh! Uh. No, thanks. I really like—” I begin.
Tess laughs. “Fine, go on then, weirdo,” she says, and pecks me on the cheek.
I glance down at her belly. “You could come with me if you like,” I say. “I’ve heard it’s good for people in their millionth trimester to have a little run. Laz could drive the car. Shout out the window. Be your hype man.”
“I could do those things.” Laz nods.
“Very funny,” Tess says. She eases herself into the driver’s seat.
Laz grins. “No? Okay. See you tomorrow, Georgie.” He waves and climbs in.
I wave and watch them drive away. The radio is blaring already, music thumping out of the open windows. I can see Laz’s and Tess’s hands moving as they talk. Notes thrum and shimmer—I feel their colors in the air. Down the road they go. The car goes left; the colors turn, and follow the car out of sight.
I jog from the café, jacket tied around my waist, pastries bouncing in the bag in my hand.
I zigzag right and left, up and around the familiar paths, past parked BMWs and wrought-iron fences and gnarled jacaranda trees and cats slow-blinking from veranda chairs. Sunlight slinks along, dappled and broad, the path heating under my feet.
Tess and I have run this way, from our café to my place, for years. We’ve run everywhere since we were little, since our mums bonded in mothers’ group, then drank coffees while we crawled and walked and played, then sent us to the same local school. Tess and I have run all around our neighborhoods. Done athletics together. Run on beaches, kicking up froth like in all those 1970s inspirational horse posters. Now I’m heading home alone, and Tess is in a car with a whole human waiting to exit her womb.
Tess and I are like the poem I just read for my online literature class:Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . But Tess and I aren’t just diverging; Tess went and built a whole other road while I wasn’t looking.
Nine months ago, Tess decided she wanted to get pregnant. Then she went and got pregnant. Now she’s speeding towards motherhood without looking back, and I haven’t asked Tess specifically, but I think she is expecting me to hop from my road onto hers, like we’re still going the same way.
Tess is always saying, “When the baby comes we’ll—” like we’ve planned to do this together. One time she even said, “When we have the baby—” as though I had been involved in conception. I don’t know a whole lot of science, but I am pretty sure I’m sans sperm.
I have thought of telling her, “Whenyou have the baby, Tess. You.” But I think Tess sees us as one person, wearing the same skin.
I picture saying to her: I’m thinking about having my own skin, for a change, Tess. And: I don’t know about babies or raising them and maybe I’m not the baby-raising partner for you? And:I’m not sure, Tess, that I want to do this.
I picture myself saying it all. That is, I try to picture it—the shape and line of my words, the colors.
But I’ve seen Tess upset. I’ve watched her break into pieces I’ve helped put back together.
I picture being the one who upsets her. Picture her face, changing—
I run and run. My words lose their grip, drip, and disappear.
I keep running. And the heat gathers inside me, where all my silence sits.
The summer I was eight, I was over at Tess’s house for a sleepover. Tess was in the shower and I was in her bedroom. We only ever had sleepovers at Tess’s place, which was fine with me. I liked it there better than at home.
We’d slathered our milk-white skin in sunscreen and swum for hours at the local pool. We’d eaten pizza for dinner and played dolls like always. I’d had my shower and was in my pajamas, reading a book about an elephant family. Mum and Tess’s mum were drinking tea in the living room. That’s when Tess started screaming.
Like: Loud, bone-shredding, horror-movie screams.
Like: I jumped out of bed and ran in a panic straight into Tess’s door frame.
Like: I ran into the bathroom at the same time as Mum and Tess’s mum, my lip red and swelling, and all we needed then was someone coming out of the drain with knife-hands to really make the moment sing.
When Tess could finally talk—after she’d been wrapped in a towel and the shower turned off—she said only one thing:“I’m going to die.”
My mouth dropped open. My lip dripped a spot of blood on the floor.
“I’m going to die,” Tess said. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.” She couldn’t get a breath in. She was shaking all over.
No one knew what to do. What do you say to that? “No, you’re not”? I looked at Mum. I looked at Tess’s mum. They crooned over her, dried her off, helped dress her, then tucked her into bed with her dolls. They got ice for my lip; I sat next to Tess on the bed.
Mum said to Tess’s mum, “Lydia, I can take Georgia home if you need.”
Tess said from her bed: “No. I want her to stay.”
That night, we lay together. Nose to nose. The dolls watched us with their plastic eyes. We breathed as the dolls breathed, hearts beating together, all hands clasped.
• • •
Tess panicked about death almost every day for two weeks, and then Tess’s mum took her to a psychologist.
Next day I asked Tess how it went.
We were back at the local pool, drying out, our fingers touching. Lydia sat away in the shade, reading a book.
“Tess? Was it okay?”
Tess shrugged. She had her cheek pressed to her towel, and when she lifted her face, I could see the weave imprinted there. “Yeah,” she said. “Mum was with me. I kind of wanted her to leave, but I didn’t know how to tell her.”
I nodded. I had been to a psychologist the year before, after a bad time with Dad. Mum sat next to me and cried. The psychologist said, “Maybe I could talk to Georgia alone?” But after Mum left, I felt like someone had reached into my throat and plucked my voice out, so the psychologist and I just kind of looked at each other like two snow leopards meeting in the Himalayas. I’d watched a documentary about them once, and I knew snow leopards liked their alone time.
“Did you talk, or did you draw?” I asked Tess.
My psychologist had had me draw—she handed me some stubby colored pencils and I drew a bunch of wonky snow leopards, all looking away from each other.
Tess glanced at me. “No. I just told her I was okay. I think I am. I just don’t want to die, you know?”
“Yeah. I don’t want to die either.” I rubbed her pinkie finger with mine and thought about death. That is, I tried. It was too big for my brain to understand, but I thought if I said I was afraid too, maybe Tess would feel better.
“When I think about it, everything inside me starts wriggling.”
I nodded again. I could relate. My stomach squiggled whenever Dad drank.
“The lady gave me these worry doll things and said to tell the dolls my thoughts. And she told me how to breathe, like I didn’t know how.”
“Yeah. The dolls are really small. I don’t know if they’re big enough.”
I looked at Tess. I didn’t know what to say. I pictured her pouring her worries into tiny dolls. I pictured them being too small and the worries spilling out and oozing over Tess’s carpet.
Wind licked our skin. Someone ran past, flicking drops on our backs. Tess shivered. “Let’s go home. Want to go home?”
Back in her bedroom, Tess showed me the worry dolls: each one matchstick-sized and made of wool. They sat in a jar. Maybe the jar was the answer—if the worry dolls overflowed, the jar could catch the rest. We unscrewed the lid. Tess held a little doll to her lips. She whispered into its imaginary ear, then she dropped the doll into the jar and I slammed the lid shut.
That night, Tess yelled out once, in her sleep. She didn’t wake up this time, so maybe the worry doll worked? I reached over, just in case it hadn’t. I held her hand till morning.
I’m halfway home on my run when the sun flicks a switch andblats in.
The air cooks, sweat pools in my pits. Heat swims over my skin. The sun chases me down the road, swearing when I slalom into the shade of the trees. The sun thinks this is the best game.
I cross a small park. A dog lies by a bench in the shade, tongue out. Its owner checks her phone, maybe booking an Uber to get home. I think about Tess’s car. I would have had five minutes of noise. Would it really have been too much?
I am actually dripping. I think my shoes are squelching with sweat.
The sun laughs.
When I get home, sweat is coming from places I didn’t know sweated. I am basically a waterfall. I jog to the backyard, grab a towel off the line. Mum is on the deck, kneeling and scrubbing something from the wood.
“Hey there,” she says as I come up the stairs.
“You’re very sweaty,” she says.
“Observant,” I say. I look down at the deck. Beside Mum’s knee is a dark patch. “What’s that?”
“Blood,” says Mum.
“Oh?” And now I see feathers on the deck too.
“A bird hit the windows while you were out. Poor thing.”
I glance over at the sliding glass doors—there’s a pale smudge on one.
“Is it all right?”
“No. It died.” Mum sits back on her heels. Wipes away a strand of hair and blinks, hard. Is she crying? Mum is always so emotional. At least, that’s what Dad always used to say:So emotional, your mother.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Did you get bread?”
“We texted you.”
I pull my stuff out of my jacket pocket—house key, inhaler, phone—and see the messages I missed while I was with Tess and Laz.
Mum: We’re out of bread. Can you get some on your way home?
Gramps: George, have you seen my teeth?
Mel: Your mum says I’ve eaten all the bread. I have not. She lies!
Dad: Georgia. I can call you instead. Let me know what time suits you.
I look at Mum.
“I didn’t see these,” I say.
“Oh,” she says.
“But I have pastries?” I lift the packet up.
Mum’s face brightens.
I peer into the bag—inside is a mess of chocolate and mashed pastry. “Um. They might be a bit smooshed?”
Mum’s face falls.
“But I’m sure they’re still delicious.” I smile at her.
“Well, I’m willing to risk it—I’m starving.” She stands up.
“Good,” I say. I look around. “Where’s the bird?”
Mum frowns. “Ugh. It’s in the freezer. Can you believe it? Mel says she’s going to paint it.”
“Really? What kind of bird?”
“A gull. A young one, I think? It isn’t very big.”
A gull. Huh. I feel the tug of the bird, calling from the freezer. I want to see it.
“Have you had coffee yet?” I ask, stepping towards the doors.
“No. And somehow I’m the one out here, cleaning up. I am such a putz.”
I step back and hug Mum, planting sweat onto her shirt. “You’re not a putz. Just a pushover.”
“Great!” she laughs. She pulls away. “You’re really quite—”
Mum laughs. “Sure.”
“Fine. I’ll go have a shower.”
“You do that, sweetie,” Mum says, and hugs me again.
Inside, it smells like paint. Mum heads to the kitchen. Mel stands in the living room, working on a canvas. She’s a professional artist—her warehouse studio is getting its electricity fixed, so she’s taken over the house. Sculptures sit on shelves and tables. Sketches lie taped to the hallway walls.
The canvas in the living room is taller than she is. On it lie two enormous, pendulous testicles.
“Wow,” I say.
Mel looks up, raises an eyebrow. “It’s not like you haven’t seen a testicle before, George. What’s the internet for, if not to educate?”
“I haven’t seen a testicle the size of mybody.”
“Your loss, darling,” Mel says. She looks me over. “God. You’re sweaty.”
“That I am,” I say.
“You need a towel?” Mel gestures to the rag beside her, the one she’s been using to dry her brushes. It’s shiny with paint.
“No, I’m good.” I hold up the towel in my hands. “I’m going to have a shower.”
“Okay. Don’t leave your clothes on the floor!”
Mel turns back to the canvas. Peers at it, peers back at me. “Hey, did you hear about the bird?”
“Poor bugger. I took a photo. Want to see?”
“Of the bird?”
“Yes, after it crashed.” Mel pulls out her phone, swipes at it, holds it up. I step forward. See the broken body of the bird, its beak and wings akimbo, its neck a funny angle. I look at Mel.
“Should never have put in those doors,” she says. Two years ago, Mel sold a painting of a famous actor’s bum. The money got us sliding glass doors, one repaired deck, and a kiln for Mel’s studio.
She sighs, tucks away the phone. “Anyway, I’m going to paint it.” She touches my arm. “You should too, George. Then we can give it a proper burial. I have a spot picked out in the garden. We can name him. I’m thinking Earl.”
“Sure. Okay.” I shake my head. Mel and her ideas.
Gramps wanders in, sees me. “Hey. Hab you seem my teep?” he begins, and stops when he spots the testicles.“Oh,” he says.
“Come on, John,” says Mel, turning back to the painting. “You’vedefinitely seen a pair of these, so there’ll be none of that.”
I start to walk away. Mel says, “Wait. Did you get bread, George?”
Mel opens her mouth to say,Jesushowhardisittogetonething?
“Chocolate pastries,” I add. “In the kitchen.”
“Ah!” Mel drops her brush in a turps jar, wipes her hands on the rag. “Perfect child!” She squeezes my cheeks and wanders out of the room calling, “Don’t eat them all, Sara, you greedy bitch!”
Gramps tugs at my sleeve. “Teep?” he says.
“I think I saw them in the containers drawer, Gramps.”
“—anks.” Gramps nods and wanders off.
Now it’s just me, a pair of hairy balls, and the sound of my mums in the kitchen tussling over melted pastry and Gramps clattering open all the drawers.
I leave their noise and head to the bathroom. Shower off sweat and paint from Mel’s hands. Stand in cool water, run it over my head like a waterfall; like I’m in a rainforest; like I’m alone.
Upstairs, the cat meets me on the landing. Susan looks like she’s been sleeping—she’s got that rumpled, dozy look I love. Susan was Mel’s cat when we moved in, but now we all agree she is mine.
Where were you? she says, pushing herself against my leg.
“Paddling,” I say. “Running. Talking.”
Susan sniffs. She doesn’t think much of water. Or the other things, probably; way too much effort. She padpaws to my room.
I follow her. Pull on clothes, turn on the electric fan, flop on the bed, and prop my notebook on my knees. I have an assignment to do, but first I want to draw. Maybe I’ll sketch the girl I saw cartwheeling in the water earlier? Upside down or maybe flying . . . Or perhaps I’ll do the bird. Kinked neck, blood on the deck . . .
Susan jumps onto the bed. She steps into the crook of my armpit, shoves her face into mine. Sniffs me over. Approves. Kneads the sheets and starts to purr. I reach over and smooth the fur between her ears with the tip of my pen.
My phone vibrates on the bed—I glance down. Another message from Dad.
I really do need to talk to you, Georgia.
Now Gramps thuds up the stairs to his room. He’s yelling: “What do you mean you cancelled my eye appointment? I am a geriatric! I could be going blind right now! Oh,you’re sorry? I’ll tell you sorry—”
The phone vibrates again. It’s Tess.
Hey, I need to do my birth plan! Want to work on it tomorrow?
I breathe out, breathe in the cat’s purr.
Sure, I text Tess back.
I put the phone facedown on the bed. Lay my pen and notebook beside it. Stroke Susan’s back. “How has your day been, Susan? Any dramas? Any babies or testicles or dads in your day? Did you see the bird?”
Her left ear flicks. She adjusts her body, rolls onto her side, and exposes her chin for scratching.
The fan whirrs, cool air, left to right.
My grandmother’s clock tick-tocks on the shelf above us.
I scratch Susan’s chin. Pet her side. Lay an arm around her body. Susan releases her breath in a thick rumble. We breathe in and out till our breath is the same.
Together, we fall asleep.
(acrylic on canvas)
Berries and ice cubes and peas. Feathers stuck to sides when once flapped. Fish: no. Scraps: no. Only beak and eye and dead wings pinned.
Once, the bird flew over the chilled tips of waves. The sun rose and called out to him— he, a bird, a bird! Wind-filled wings, blood quick, eyes bright.
Once. He? Once— was
peas and cubes he
The sun beats at the bus window where my face leans against the glass. It’s the day after I saw the cartwheel girl. I am on my way to work at the Art House. Strangers squeeze together, scrolling their phones. The air feels claggy, pre-breathed.
I watch houses slip by: blue house, white house, green house. Corrugated tin roofs, tiny porches, brick fence, picket fence, brick fence. Narrow houses press against each other and whisper secrets. I’d listen, but the bus has already moved on.
A hundred years ago, this peninsula was filled with steel workers and gas fitters, crusty children running, rickety wagons and flagstones, women pinning clothes to lines. Now the houses are glossed and stocked with millionaires. Two hundred and fifty years ago, these paths were uncut. People walked on songlines, the eucalypts dense. The land rose and fell, telling stories.
I close my eyes, try to imagine it back then:
the feel of the earth, the songs, the trees, the rocks.
I lean in with my mind, try to see—
and the bus heaves around a corner. Beside me, a woman’s thigh presses into mine.
We whoosh off the peninsula towards the Anzac Bridge—all cement spires and gleaming wires, boats docked in bays below. Now we’re curving down the sloping freeway, turning right and left, lurching and trundling into the city.
On the second bus, I’m cramped in the back and thirsty. I am tempted to drink some of Tess’s smoothie—she messaged me this morning, after I’d gone for a paddle:George! Can you make me one of your smoothies and bring it to work? I’ll love you forever!
Today’s drink is spinach, strawberries, almond milk, and some vanilla-flavored protein for addedoomph. When I was making it, I reached in the freezer for ice and bumped my fingers on the plastic-wrapped body of the bird. It rocked, frozen, up against the peas.
“Sorry,” I said. It felt important, to stop and say that.
After my nap yesterday, I pulled the bag out of the freezer to get a better look at the bird. Mum had left for work at her old-people’s home. Mel was at her studio trying to get the electricians to work faster, and Gramps was upstairs in his room, listening to his old-people music. A moment of peace.
I stared down at the bird. Mottled-brown feathers, white, gray, and black feathers. Toes scrunched up against its chest. One dark eye gazed up at me through the clear plastic.I used to fly, the bird said. I could see everything.
“I am really sorry,” I said. “About you dying. And, about the window.”
Susan stood on the counter, wanting to see too. We looked down at the gull, held a moment’s silence for the dead. Then Susan hopped down. I suppose when they’re frozen, the dead don’t hold much appeal for a cat.
I thought about taking a picture and texting it to Tess. But I didn’t think she’d be into it. When Tess talks about death, she’s very particular. Tess is particular about a lot of things.
After I went out on the lake when I was nine and Dad left me there, Tess talked a lot about drowning—she slathered me in statistics and sad stories. In her dreams she said she saw me dead on the lakebed, bones picked clean by the fish. But when I tried to talk about Dad leaving me, her eyes welled up and she got the shakes. Another time, when we were thirteen and I went to visit Dad in Seattle, Tess told me about plane crashes. She told me which airplanes were best; she messaged me a dozen times to make sure I’d landed safely. But when I came back four days later, she didn’t ask what happened with Dad or why I’d come home so soon.
If I ever bring up my father, Tess will say, “Oh, George. Can we not? Please?” She’ll slide over to me on the couch and kiss my cheek, loop her arm with mine, and say, “Let’s do something fun. Let’s watch that stupid dating show again.”
If a hard memory about Dad ever comes, I don’t bring it to Tess. I tuck it under a rib, with the others. Dad is like an eel sliding around our lives—quick and slippery. We don’t talk about him. We don’t remember him. If you don’t look for him, maybe he’s not even here.
But Dad has sent more messages. They crept in while I napped yesterday, while I paddled this morning.
Please call me, Georgia.
It’s important, Georgia.
Let’s talk, Georgia.
I don’t want to talk to Dad. I never know what is coming with him. And the feeling of never knowing and being afraid slides around me, quick and slippery. My chest spikes. My fingers fuzz.
I am my own person, I think.I don’t have to call Dad. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to.
The bus revs and brakes. We swoop around corners, lurch through beat and haze. Strangers get on, get off, leaving holes where their stories were. And my story groans and stretches, coming back to life.