Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
IN THE BEGINNING there is Eden. We all move into the same house. It is a new house. All the houses in this suburb are new. They look alike, too. Our neighbour's house is just the same as ours except the staircase is on the left – a mirror flip. Our house is big and white. It smells of paint and my new mother.
At night, I get out of the sleeping-bag they have set up for me on the floor. My new sister sleeps on the bed. She sleeps lying on her back with her eyes half open. It seems she has always slept like this – somewhere between death and a sentry guard. She reminds me of a snake. Cold-blooded, too. My walk to his room is all carpet and white doors. Soft white carpet under my bare feet. His room, though, is dark. There is a medicinal smell of acne cream. I can make out the dark blues and greens of his bedspread and him, lying on his side, feigning sleep. He has been waiting for me. But we both pretend not to know this.
I stand by his bed.
He rolls over onto his back, sloppy in his false sleep.
He pulls me on top of him.
In the nights that follow we do not talk about what is going on between us. To talk about such things would be to suggest we have a future. We have no future. Instead we play strip monopoly, smoke reefer and have sex. I have never had sex before and conclude it is painful but necessary. We climb out his bedroom window, sit on the roof and look out on the inky blackness of suburbia.
NONE OF THIS happens in the daytime. The harshness of the sun makes it implausible. I can't figure out if my nightly visits are dreams. Nobody says anything. But they must know or suspect.
Our family goes on road trips. We sell Bibles for the church and spread The Word. I sit in the back seat between my new sister and Eden. It is summer and I am wearing a short skirt. The car's upholstery sticks to the backs of my thighs. The heat makes me vaguely carsick.
"Praise the lord, it's time for a lunch break," my father says, smiling weakly at his feeble joke. We stop at a restaurant on the side of the highway called "Caesar's". The toilets are in an outside building separate from the restaurant.
"And praise be, it's time to pee!" my new mother chimes.
They all stomp off. Eden and I are left alone together. I lean on the side of the car. One foot tucked up behind me, knee bent: teen coquettishness. I put my hands palms down on the warm metal.
He comes closer to me. He jabs a finger on the exposed skin somewhere between my navel and my crutch.
"Damn, girl, you should put on some weight. You're bones."
He rubs his bone against me.
The family re-enters the scene. We go inside the restaurant.
I AM ACHINGLY aware of him, of the way he sits across the table from me and the amount of his knee touching my knee. I'm so mesmerised by my proximity to him that with an unwitting flick of my hand I overturn my glass of water. It is so appallingly dramatic. The whole family yells, "Whoah!" Water spills across the table and down into Eden's crotch. Red-faced, I meet his inscrutable gaze. He stands up. The dark circle on his jeans grows. It looks like he's wet himself. He walks off to the bathroom leaving the family laughing.
"If that were me, hon, he would have blew the roof," my new mother comments.
AGAIN AND AGAIN I offer myself up as a present to my new brother. He is tender as he puts a pillow behind my head.
"Are you OK?" he asks.
But despite this, it still hurts. I try not to flinch. Instead, I put on an expression of fixed ecstasy. The more it hurts the more attachment I feel. I have to stuff my face into the pillow to stop myself from pleading: "Do you love me?"
I learn my blood is cherry-coloured.
Later we roll onto our sides and hug. Now I feel a real sort of ecstasy – a small patch of paradise in my mind. I feel content. For once, I feel safe. I consider the bruises on my thighs glorious battle scars. Half asleep, I am happy.
He turns to me and says, "This is just fun, right?"
"AGAIN LORD, WE thank you for bringing Elfride and her father into our lives so that they might also share in your goodness. And for the glorious food we are about to receive may we be truly thankful."
It is my new mother's turn to say grace. She likes to ham it up with "glory glories" and "blessed bes". When it is his turn, my father prefers a simple grace. Nevertheless, he smiles at Sharlene now.
What we are eating is something my new mother calls Graveyard Stew – chunks of meat bob up and down in murky brown sauce. It's her specialty. The recipe is supposed to be a secret but I know the secret: cut-price meat from Lucky's Mega-Mart and Oxo cubes.
"How many Daisy the Cows were killed in the making of this?" Eden looks at me with a glint in his eye.
Somehow, Eden can get away with comments like this. Sharlene just smiles benignly.
"The Good Lord created beasts, Eden, so that we, humans, might eat them."
My new mother seems to regard her son with a mixture of fear and admiration – as if she can't quite figure out how someone like him could have been brought forth from her doughy loins.
We return to eating. My father eats silently, almost apologetically, and with reverence for the food. Sharlene is fast and noisy. She soaks up liquid with slices of bread and plunges them down her gullet. My new sister makes conscious slurping noises and fidgets like the 11-year-old she is. Eden sits low in his chair and smirks at me evilly through spoonfuls of the stuff.
"Mum, how long do I have to share my room with Elfride for?" My new sister scowls at me from under lowered eyelids.
Eden is quick.
"Don't be rude. Elfride's the one who's had to move into a new house with all of us and get used to everything and share with you, twerp. Learn some fucking manners."
"Mum he said 'fuck'."
"Eden, I will not have swearing at my table. Baby Girl was just upset, that's all. It's hard getting used to sharing your room with someone new. You weren't offended were you, Elfride?"
My new mother looks at me.
"No, not at all." I try to efface myself behind my water glass.
"There you go, no harm done," she says, but her eyes linger on me speculatively. She looks at Eden and then back at me, as if she only now realises the size of what has blossomed before her.
THERE IS NO one truth in the memories I have of my mother. My real one, that is, who existed in a time before Eden. I can't separate what I actually remember of her from what I've been told or what I have just imagined. I seem to recall a summer when I was very little before she went away and before my father found The Lord.
The day was impossibly hot and all the blinds and curtains in the house were drawn. The rooms glowed deep orange like the inside of a lung and the walls pulsated as if the house itself were breathing in and out. I had been crying. My mother was sitting in a chair by her bed. There was a blanket across her lap, which seemed strange to me given the heat of the day. I crawled into her lap and lay my sniffily wet face on her shoulder. She smelt of talcum powder, sweat and sweet jasmine, but there was something else – the ripe, unmistakable smell of an invalid.
AT CHURCH ON Sunday, Marcie, from across the street, tells me how she fucks boys up against the church carpark wall. Or, rather, they fuck her. "It doesn't count if you're not lying down," she tells me.
I make a face.
"Don't be such a prude, Elfride. It's not like I'm a slut or anything. Besides, I take it up the ass so I'm still a virgin."
I express mild incredulity.
"I'm a Christian for Christ's sake. I'm still saving myself for my wedding night. This is just fun. Everyone has fun, Elfride."
Sensing my lack of enthusiasm, Marcie changes tack.
"You know everyone's saying you're a godless communist because you won't go to youth group. Your brother goes. He's heaps cute, too. Anyway, every one thinks you're weird. Is it true you're a lesbian?"
No, Marcie, I think to myself, I'm not a lesbian. I'm just in love with my step-brother. I sleepwalk into his arms every night and it feels like heavenly drowning. What is happening between us is like dissected fruit. It tastes good but looks obscene. I ache for him like a cut-open pomegranate. In equal measures, I long to dwell in and escape from this imperfect paradise.
I'M STANDING IN the kitchen with my new mother. We peel apples over blue enamelled bowls. She is teaching me to make pies.
"You've never made a pie?" she asks, incredulous.
She has asked me to call her "Mum" but I resist and continue to call her Sharlene. It is a small act of defiance on my part. It goes along with my other pathetic gestures. My so-called "dark looks" and my aversion to the church.
"You need to socialise more. Go out with some of Eden's friends. I'm sure there's a nice quiet one that you would get on just a treat with."
I'm not openly hostile. I'm described as shy and sweet. But they sense, they know, that I have quietly refused to commit to this life. I see it as a temporary condition. The only thing permanent is Eden. I have a vision of him sitting at the bottom of a lake. Quietly waiting. I will rescue him and he will fall in love with me.
The front door opens and shuts. Eden's home. He comes into the kitchen and smirks.
"Women in the kitchen, that's what I like to see."
"I'm teaching Elfride to make a Graham Cracker base."
She pronounces it "gram". It annoys me to a surprising degree.
BY THE WINDOW I can see the whole street and enjoy the rounded darkness of evening. I can see Marcie naked, walking back and forth in front of her window. She's an exhibitionist but an insecure one. I'm like that. I can identify people's frailties. I pity them. I can see my own, too, but that doesn't stop me from carrying on.
Eden has told me it can't work out between us. I'm his sister, I can't be his girlfriend. It's sick. Besides, if he doesn't go out with other girls it will look weird. But that doesn't stop him coming to the door every night after my new sister has fallen asleep and taking me back to his room. We lie together in the sad brown light of the early morning until it gets so late it's dangerous.
Outside in the street a car pulls up in the driveway. Eden gets out and walks quickly and lightly around to the passenger side to let her out. The girl takes her time fixing her make-up and then slides out, yanking at her skirt. I get into my sleeping-bag and press my body against the wall. I hear them creeping up the stairs.
"Shut up, we'll get caught."
The girl giggles.
I hear them fall heavily, clumsily, onto the bed and break my heart. I hear her half-heartedly say, "Stop it, Eden". It begins with giggling and groans. I cling closer to the wall. My stomach turns to paste. My bowels are water. But I listen intently. I don't move for minutes as they slam against one another and the bed creaks something violent and unhappy. Again, I see Eden at the bottom of a lake waiting for me to rescue him.
It is over eventually. He says goodbye to her in our front yard. The girl is still giggling. He trips up the stairs and back to his room.
Later, he comes for me and I go to him.