ALL THE ROADS in this part of town are bitumen, so Odette’s piece- of-shit Toyota does fine, even in the storm. She parks at the mouth of the cul-de-sac. It’s the only street in Elm Heads that’s on a hill, and the water is thick on the road, filling Odette’s shoes as soon as she climbs out of the car.
For years, Odette hated the rain. Hated being touched by any water, really; she wouldn’t shower for a week at a time. These days, she almost enjoys it again – getting drenched this way is freeing, like tearing something in half.
On Creel Street, there are five houses. The Newton house doesn’t appear to be the biggest from here, but the block goes back further than all the others, and what the house loses in width it makes up for in depth. The first time Odette cleaned it, when she was sixteen, it took her seven hours.
Joanne walked her through every room, then said, Questions? She didn’t like headshaking, Odette learnt. The answer was, No questions. When Odette finished late that afternoon, Joanne gave her a ham sandwich with organic mustard that stung the top of Odette’s mouth. It’s not so much the sting that Odette remembers now but the smell of it. That rich, tangy scent: a papercut on the front of her brain. She’d held the sandwich up to her mouth and breathed it in.
Odette walks quickly up the driveway, her steps heavy to avoid a slip. The house is mostly the same: an attempt at a Mediterranean villa, all white- painted stucco and beige arches. To Odette, the place always seemed to radiate something, as though built on a tuning fork that never stopped humming.
The hardy native plants that once populated the garden have been replaced. Odette imagines Joanne in her white pants, ripping them out, then soothing new flowers into new soil.
She presses the doorbell. If Joanne isn’t home, it’s a sign. The door opens.
WHEN THEY FIRST met, Odette thought that Joanne had the largest eye sockets of any woman she had ever seen. But also that Joanne was beautiful, maybe because of the strangeness of her face; she couldn’t be confused with anyone else. Odette still dreams about her sometimes and remembers those dreams when she wakes up.
The Joanne standing in front of her now is shorter and skinnier than the elegant, towering woman who used to slice through Odette’s periphery with the sharpness of a check mark, watching her scrub and polish and stack. This Joanne barely comes up to the bridge of Odette’s nose.
For a long moment, Joanne only stares at her. Then her decades as a politician’s wife take over – the work of remembering every little person who wants to be remembered – and Odette sees the second she clicks in Joanne’s head so clearly it’s as if the recognition makes a sound.
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ Joanne says. Her hands clasp together tightly and then spring apart like two birds startled by a thrown rock, taking off in different directions. ‘I didn’t think I’d see you again.’
‘Well, I’m allowed to come back now.’ Even if her lawyer hadn’t advised against it, Odette doubts she would’ve wanted to visit Elm Heads. Being here is unmooring. Since she arrived at the motel three days ago, she has driven to the dam twice and walked across the churned loam to the middle, where she and Tara once floated on their backs. Since losing the appeal, she had only thought of returning here and begging forgiveness from these young selves. But as she stood on the dirt of the former lake like a water strider, she could only imagine the two of them laughing, careless in the sun, and the hunger for apology changed direction.
‘You’re soaked,’ Joanne says, with poor thing as inflection. ‘The roads around here are just getting worse and worse. I tried calling the new rep, Mr McCauley, but he does a whole lot of nothing. Well, I know it always seems that way from the outside, even when you’re flat out. Still.’
Yes, Mr McCauley. Odette had seen his face on the bus stops.
MCCAULEY: Safety, Community, Recovery.
‘Can I come in?’
Joanne hesitates for the breadth of a second. ‘Of course, Odie. Just stay on the mat; I don’t want water everywhere. I’ll get you a towel.’
Odette pushes off her shoes gracelessly, her socks swollen with rain. It’s a no-shoes house, or it was. The only time she wore her sneakers past the front room was when she came over after school to clean up that smashed dining set and didn’t want to get ceramic shards in the soles of her feet. Joanne crouched next to her, and the two of them wore gardening gloves, picking up all the pieces. Joanne hadn’t seemed angry, but then, she could get angry quickly and cool down quicker. It made teenage Odette feel oddly protective rather than afraid.
She waits, dripping, starting to get cold, until Joanne comes back with a towel. Odette thinks she’s going to wrap it around her shoulders, and Joanne hesitates like she might, the towel stretched between her hands, but then she bundles it up and passes it over. They don’t touch.
‘Tea? Or coffee?’ Joanne suggests. ‘No, it’s after two, and if you have coffee, I’ll want coffee. And then I’ll be up all night.’
‘Tea is good.’
Joanne heads for the kitchen and Odette trails her slowly. Lining the hallway are photographs of the twins, Nicole and Marnie, at various ages, although none of them are recent. When Odette was in school, the twins were starkly adult: eighteen and beautiful. Odette used to picture one of them coming down to help her, grabbing a cloth and saying, you shouldn’t have to do all this yourself.
Your mother pays me, Odette would remind them.
And then Nicole or Marnie – Odette usually imagined Marnie – would say, I know. But I want to help you anyway.
After that: inseparable friends.
In hindsight, the old thrill of the fantasy is impermeable, crimped closed by the end of adolescence.
Last on the wall is a formal portrait of Mr Newton. Maybe the grey in his hair is real now, but she used to find dye in his bathroom cupboard. He must’ve thought the grey hair gave him a gravitas he lacked. So many of the others in Elm Heads had needed that too, for him to be a slick villain, cunning and articulate and remorseless. But Odette had known him as he really was: a little flabby and a little awkward, trailing after Joanne like cans dragged behind a car. He was the guy who approved the plans, who signed off on the tests, who said later, We simply could not have known. And there was no proof that Mr Newton was aware of the run-off from the AGMX factory or what it could do to them all. But they knew. He was the guy who made jokes that weren’t funny to see whether you’d laugh anyway. Odette was never sure what he thought it meant, that laughter.
In the photograph, Mr Newton is smiling, his eyes level with her neck. After they lost the first trial, Odette had sat at a bus stop reading an article about Fidel Castro and how the CIA tried to kill him: by poisoning his cigars, by planting bacteria in his scuba suit, by slinking a needle into his favourite ballpoint pen. None of that would have been good enough for Odette; she’d rather twist Mr Newton’s head off like a bottlecap. Or chain him up somewhere out in the countryside, then drive by days later to see what had happened.
‘Odie? Still take it with milk?’ Joanne calls.
She turns away from the picture, feeling his gaze still at her throat as though it’s a saliva stripe, lingering and drying there. ‘Yes,’ she calls back, and follows Joanne’s voice to the kitchen.
In here, the dimensions seem to have shifted. The cupboards are narrower, the ceiling feels lower, nothing is as sprawling as she remembers. ‘I can’t believe it used to take me seven hours to clean this place.’
‘Well, you were very thorough.’
Joanne usually left her alone to wander around the house with her rags and bottles. Odette could’ve set tacks on Mr Newton’s chair, or put chlorine in his air conditioner, or hidden spiders in his pockets. She’d done none of that. Instead, she regarded his space the same way she regarded him: with pity, without empathy, as only a teenager can. He thought he was a big man, with such power. She wondered how everyone else missed his sickly smallness. Later, she realised that they had not missed it. That the other adults in Elm Heads were all curled under a smallness of one kind or another: creatures in a rockpool.
‘I do places twice as big as this in half the time now.’
‘You’re still cleaning?’ Joanne fills the kettle and docks it, flashing Odette a brief smile.
‘It’s my true calling.’ The words shrink between them – Odette never could manage to be funny around Joanne. But she did make her laugh once, a proper laugh, with her head tilted back, the better part of a decade ago.
‘I just thought you had plans to go to teaching college. That was you, wasn’t it?’ Joanne says this somewhat carelessly, as though she might’ve mixed Odette up with one of Nicole or Marnie’s friends, but Odette is almost sure it’s faked. It pleases her that Joanne has kept track in some way.
‘That wasn’t me.’
‘Have you been cleaning this whole time? Where – in the city?’
‘In a few cities.’ Almost all of Odette’s graduating class has left Elm Heads, scattering like daffodil fluff. The girls, especially, are gone. Odette knows of some who changed their names and remade their pasts, marrying boys and letting them find out later that they’d never be able to have children, treating it like a revelation for them both. These girls wanted no part in the lawsuit – or maybe they did but felt that it was too late.
‘Don’t be vague,’ Joanne chides. ‘I want to hear about your life.’
‘Well, I lived in Brisbane. Perth. Hobart, for a while, but it was too cold.’ And in Hobart Tara had called, asking for help to round up the others.
So Odette had flown back to the mainland and, for two years, they’d been a part of something in the same way they’d been a part of something that day at the sports hall, every one of them who’d ever swum in the dam, lining up for blood tests after maths.
Then, the news had seemed freeing. They were all children of teen mothers – or the second or third or fourth children of mothers who had been teen mothers – and now they would escape such a fate. Who cared if their bodies had been changed, if it meant a release from that? Amid all the minute harms they tucked into themselves, they felt so far from those bodies anyway. And now, they would survive; they would be accountants and physios and doctors, none of them trapped in the web of Elm Heads and boys they’d grow tired of. The dark shape that had been rising out of the water beneath them ever since they became conscious of their girlhood disappeared again, and they were spared.
But the survival lasted, they grew older, and they no longer felt spared.
‘I used to like how small it was here. But I don’t know.’
‘Cities can be exciting,’ Joanne agrees. She’s travelled all over. Once, Joanne brought a box of treasures into the dining room and let Odette sift through every souvenir she had, offering descriptions of each place. Elm Heads shrank as she did so, and Odette was suddenly viewing her town through the wrong end of a telescope.
‘Not really. I always end up stuck in one part of them, so it’s basically just a town anyway.’
‘And did you meet anyone there? Are you married?’ Joanne plucks two coasters from a neat pile and lays them out, then leans against the counter, one arm draped loosely over the other. Odette remembers the lion statues in front of the courthouse and their casual watchfulness over the crowd. Joanne is too polite to point with a finger, but she points with her eyes, just like the lions. ‘No ring.’
‘No, I’m not married.’
Her last boyfriend was Ryan, a twenty-three-year-old virgin with long, dark hair who wore printed tees he bought off Redbubble so no one would ever have the same shirt as him. He was a lifeguard at a community pool, but he mostly just spent his time feeling around the bottom of the pool for lost goggles and picking up kids who tripped on the concrete. They’d met when her therapist recommended that she try swimming again. Ryan had never saved anyone, and the longer he went without having to, the more impossible it began to seem. For their entire relationship, he talked about quitting, but as far as she knew, he still worked there and nobody yet had drowned.
‘Boyfriend?’ ‘No boyfriend.’
Too many questions about her life, too much with his sexting. He wrote about taking her to the cinema and touching her, or eating her out on the swings at the park, or fucking her in his car on the emergency lane on the highway. Where someone might see them, only for a second. I’ll make you moan, he promised. All I ever think about is making you wet for me. The texts would come at random times. When she tried to kiss him hello in public, he would turn his head away.
‘Sorry. Partner, I mean,’ Joanne corrects herself. Behind her, the kettle rattles against the dock and she picks it up before it can shut itself off. ‘You don’t have to worry. I’ve got one of each – well, apparently they’re both bisexual, but Marnie’s with a girl and Nicole’s with a boy.’
‘No, I don’t have a girlfriend either.’
Not since Tara, whatever that was. Odette was the last girl in their class to learn that babies don’t grow in stomachs. She’d answered wrong in biology and, after school, Tara had dragged her to the bathrooms, nudged her into a cubicle and pressed her thumbs low between Odette’s hips. That’s where, she’d said. And after that, it had been easy to touch Tara all over, as if she’d told Odette a secret and not the truth.
‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with it being just you. Emma Watson is self-partnered.’
Odette feels as though they’re passing a knife back and forth, taking turns to lick it; the loser will be the first to bleed. ‘I know.’
‘So, that’s it? Cleaning?’ Joanne prompts. She gets out two angular mugs, each oddly shaped, designed to slot together; Odette is fairly sure they belonged to the twins.
‘I wasn’t just cleaning,’ Odette says. ‘I’ve done other things as well. Like, I was a receptionist at a podiatry clinic.’
Joanne pours as she nods, dropping the teabags in, letting the dark colour unfurl through the water. ‘What was that like?’
‘A bit weird, because it’s lots of talk about feet, but some of it was interesting.’ If she turns her head, she can see the door to Mr Newton’s office, and it cinches something tight around her, even though he isn’t home. ‘One time, this guy came in. I don’t know what was wrong with him, whether he had gangrene or diabetes or what. But he came out of the exam room crying, and he told me that he might have to get his big toe amputated.’
Joanne takes a sip of too-hot tea. At first, Odette thinks it’s to hide the disgust on her face, but then Joanne lowers the mug and Odette realises that it’s pity, after all, and not hidden. ‘That’s awful,’ Joanne says.
The man explained to Odette that big toes were essential for balance, and so he’d be off kilter for the rest of his life.
Not if you’re sitting down, she told him.
He left, still crying – the kind of man who didn’t mind crying on the street where other people could see him.
He must’ve felt she was being unkind, but it’s true, at least in her experience. Mostly, Odette has spent the better part of her adulthood forgetting about Elm Heads until odd moments, like twisting around to see something behind you and getting unexpectedly pinched in the eyes by the sun.
‘I think he got it amputated somewhere else, though, because he never came back. And if he’d come back, I would’ve known. I was on every day. It was a small clinic.’
‘But you quit.’ ‘Yes.’
No one has looked disappointed in Odette in years. No one has dared. In the courthouse, she’d been brave or a victim – usually both – and therefore excused from other forms of scrutiny. Anything she did, even waking up, was resilient then.
Joanne looks disappointed now. ‘You’re so smart, Odie. I thought you were going to go to uni.’
‘I was planning to go once we got the settlement.’
‘Ah.’ There had been some openness in Joanne’s face, only becoming apparent now as it closes. She fiddles with her coaster. ‘Don’t use that as a reason not to push yourself.’
Odette can feel water between her toes, sliding down the back of her neck, cold at the underwire of her bra. ‘That’s what you have to say?’
‘What would you like me to say?’ Joanne waits, then reminds her, ‘I wasn’t a defendant.’
‘You should’ve been.’ ‘Odie–’
‘Don’t you think it’s unfair that you weren’t?’
‘I haven’t gone unpunished. I’ve lost friends, dear friends, and do you imagine my daughters are calling weekly or coming back for visits?’
‘And I stay,’ Joanne says. ‘I stay. For you all to parade through here and yell and break my things. He spends half his time jetting around the country, making things happen or go away, and I’m the one who tidies up here and bears the brunt. So, no. I don’t think it’s unfair. I think we’ve all had enough fairness from each other.’
So that’s what’s different about the room. No more vases or statuettes or crystal bowls. There is nothing but a woven basket with nectarines, eight of them bruising each other with their ripeness. Even if there was something to break, Odette wouldn’t.
‘How sacrificial of you. It’s as good as the cheque.’
‘Don’t be bitter at me.’ Joanne’s fierceness. The fierceness that made Odette so sure it had never been an accident, that it was she who’d smashed the plates and never felt sorry for it, crests between them. ‘Ask for what you want. You used to be so good at that – remember when you were a kid? I’d call for you on short notice and it was all Double my rate or triple it. I always said yes because I wanted to encourage that in you. But you’ve forgotten.’
Odette stays silent.
‘So, what do you need? For me to castigate myself?’ In a whirl of cease- less, direct movement, as though skating down a zipline, Joanne moves to the cupboard and pulls out a packet of Tim Tams, tearing open the end and setting it down closer to Odette than herself. ‘I didn’t know, Odie.’
‘But Marnie and Nicole never swam there.’
For a second, Odette thinks Joanne’s going to say what the lawyers said: the twins didn’t like the water there, they went to the public pool. It’s not a crime, nor is it evidence, to avoid the outdoors when you’re a teenage girl.
But instead Joanne says, ‘No, they never did.’
Odette takes her mug in one hand and holds the towel around herself with the other. She drinks, and drinks, and heat thumbs at her chest.
Joanne tells her, ‘I had a boy come here with a knife on Thursday, right after the appeal fell through.’
‘What did you do?’
Joanne hums. ‘I sent him home,’ she replies. ‘I wasn’t in the mood to indulge any dramatics. I was disappointed too. I wanted the best for you all – I hoped you’d win.’
Odette watches her and says nothing, and without a reaction, Joanne turns away, gathering their half-full mugs and taking them to the sink. She empties and rinses them, leaving the teabags sitting on the drain, and then sets the mugs on the rack.
‘We bought an apartment in the city a few years back, in West End. Nothing flash, but it worked out with our taxes at the time. Negative gearing and investment properties, all that,’ Joanne tells her. Odette wonders what else she has done in the past few years. Pieces of her poke out like book- marks. ‘You could live there, while you studied. It isn’t two hundred thousand dollars, but it would get you on your feet. To take the pressure off and open some doors.’
Odette scoffs, and they are silent for a while.
‘Let me do this for you,’ Joanne says from across the counter. Her hands don’t broach the distance between them this time and instead stay resting on the handles of the drawers.
Odette feels that they are speaking to each other around a corner. Or perhaps that she is overhearing Joanne standing in another room speaking about Odette to someone else.
Joanne seems to shake, brighten, purposeful as ever. A new task ahead. ‘Stay for dinner and we’ll talk about it.’ She walks over to the fridge, pulling out something in a silicone baking mould. She tells Odette that she’s been cooking more, experimenting, and this eggplant parmigiana is one of her favourites.
As Joanne flicks the preheat light on, Odette sees the dark stains that splurge over the oven walls.
‘I can’t stand cleaning ovens,’ Joanne says, with her mind like eagle claws, catching each of Odette’s thoughts. ‘I do everything else around here now, but cleaning ovens hurts my back – hunching over like that – and so I just ignore it. Probably too late to do anything about it now, anyway.’
Odette pictures the boy with the knife. Joanne had never said he’d found her in the kitchen, but she imagines him here, standing in the oven light.
Joanne opens her mouth, and Odette is sure she’s going to say something awful, like Since you’re here, why don’t I pay you to do it for me now? And Odette would probably say yes, out of strangeness.
Joanne goes, ‘Do you remember that day I dropped the roast, and there was all that oil everywhere? I was such a mess. You were a lifesaver, then.’
The roast was on the floor like a beetle on its back, its crackling shell strewn around it. And Joanne: flush-faced, sitting in a chair, standing only when Odette walked in.
She recalls the pink rawness and bulbous dots on Joanne’s forearms, swelling bubbles, both grotesque and gentle in their smallness.
She remembers, too, her ponytail working itself loose as she scrubbed the still-warm oven and the bicarb paste that was thick and stinging on her hands. Then Joanne tugging her back, Joanne’s hands in her hair, untying it, dragging the strands free of one another.
I haven’t washed it in a few days, Odette said.
I haven’t washed mine either, Joanne replied in a tone Odette didn’t associate with her and never heard again. So, we’re even.
Joanne’s fingernails scratched over her scalp as she split Odette’s hair into three parts. And then there was the braiding and the tightening of each pull. But what stands still in Odette’s mind is Joanne smoothing down her hair after she’d separated it, over and over.
Did your mother ever do your hair? Joanne asked, knowing Odette would only talk about her mother at particular moments and sensing somehow that this was one of those moments.
I think so, Odette said, staring down at the sheen of oil on the floor. It threw light back at her. There are pictures of me with plaits when I was too young to have done them myself.
Joanne brushed the backs of her shoulders. It wasn’t a hold; there was no great pressure. But it was a touch regardless.
Well, she said, you should let her do it again at least one more time.
ODETTE’S HAIR, NOW, is wet from the rain. She watches Joanne move through the kitchen the way Odette herself used to, things appearing and disappearing around her as she navigates the space.
‘Do you have a comb I could borrow?’ she asks. ‘Yes, of course,’ Joanne replies. ‘I’ll get it for you.’
And though Odette had worked here for eight months after Joanne dropped the roast, it’s that day that sticks in her head as a kind of last day. Joanne warm and present and Odette feeling an odd, overbearing nearness to her, as though she could’ve stepped back and back until she was pressed against Joanne and then back even further until they were the same.
Perhaps Joanne really did know. But if she did, then Odette did too, months before the others, because it is impossible to recall that moment without feeling the way it all passed between them, everything. After that, Odette did not swim again, not all through that sweat-slicked Elm Heads summer, and not even when Ryan stood in the shallow end in front of her, holding out his hands.