THERE IS LIGHTNESS and darkness. Everyone knows that. There is a name for the shade that is neither light nor dark: grey. But there are multitudes of shades in between. No one has words for lightish grey or darkish light. Even the people who see more than black and white – the people who see the shades of grey – cannot comprehend the complexity of the colour spectrum. Remove one colour and a part of the world has been destroyed. You can add a little more light, maybe a dash of dark, but it will never replace the one colour that is no longer there.
It is missing.
LITHE AND FLUENT, Sandy runs like a pixie down the path between the ghost gums. Her hair streams out behind her bony shoulders like the piece of ribbon on a child’s kite.
I would describe the colour of her hair to you, but colours have never meant much to me. I’m colourblind, you see. I have a rare congenital disease called rod monochromatism. This means all colours have been removed from my view, except the spectrums of black, white and grey. I’m unique. It can be taken as a compliment, really.
When I say I’m colourblind, people usually gasp in pity, saying, ‘Oh, Elsie, how terrible, I never knew that!’ or ‘Bless you, Elsie, I would never want to wish that on anybody.’ These reactions imply that I should be sad. I suppose, at times, I’ve found it so – the thought that I’ll never see what I’ve heard others call the ‘vibrancy of velvet purple’ or the ‘brilliancy of bright yellow’ makes me feel I’m missing out on something. On brighter days, my poor vision is diminished even more, and it’s hard to make out any shape or person. The darker the day, the better my vision. It can be depressing.
But that’s when a sliver of light catches through a window, casting a prism of lightness and darkness. Then, and only then, I know I couldn’t possibly be missing out on something. How could I? Just look at that gorgeous shade of grey shimmering along my skin right now. Did anyone else notice that?
‘Hey, Elsie.’ Sandy waves at me as she jogs up the three steps to the open back door, dodging around me as I rest on the second. She’s familiar with this house, as she should be; she’s lived next door since she was a bub.
‘Hello, hello.’ I smile over my shoulder, catching her mischievous grin as she disappears inside the house.
Soon enough, a raised voice pierces the air.
‘Jesus, Sandy!’ Joey cries from somewhere within the house. ‘What’s your problem?’
His tone reaches into falsetto – his voice is still breaking.
Sandy is also in the midst of change. Now a scrappy fifteen-year-old, she’s torn between wanting to tease boys or impress them. Joey, my little cousin, seems to be the brunt of her teasing, but I can’t really blame Sandy. Joey sure did the same to her when he was younger, daring her to go into a ‘haunted’ house so his friends could jump out to scare her. Not to mention the times when he’d spike any piece of food she could get her hands on, putting everything from pepper to sand in her meals. Where in the world he got sand from, I still don’t know – we don’t live anywhere near a beach. It just shows Joey’s resourcefulness, I guess.
I shift to the side and watch as Sandy flies past again, giggling. Before Joey can even get outside, she’s gone. The shadows of the trees have enveloped her like an old friend.
‘She’s crazy, Elsie.’ Joey stops his chase on the porch and appeals to me instead, as though I can control Sandy. He gestures to his hair. It’s usually combed back to perfection, but now it’s mussed up, drips of mud sliding down onto his cheeks. ‘I need a restraining order on that kid.’
‘That kid is only a year younger than you, old man.’
‘She sure doesn’t act like it. Stupid witch.’
Stomping inside, Joey continues to grumble, and eventually I hear a door slam shut. A moment later, the sound of running water begins.
I don’t take his words seriously. By tomorrow morning, he’ll be complaining that Sandy is late coming over to watch TV with him. They’re just two kids, always whining about each other’s proximity, yet refusing to sit anywhere else but next to each other. And unbeknown to the both of them, there’s an undercurrent of flirting to their actions.
I gesture to the trees. ‘You can come back, my girl. He’s gone.’
A lighter darkness within the shadows moves and soon, Sandy emerges.
‘Is he really that mad?’ she asks, half in regret, but her lips twitch.
‘Wasn’t that what you were after?’ I raise one eyebrow.
She shrugs, coming closer. Her hands are crossed behind her back like a two-year-old who’s just done wrong. ‘Not really.’
‘What were you aiming for then?’
She shrugs again, settling down beside me. ‘Not sure.’
‘It couldn’t have anything to do with trying to ruin his date with Lucy Carter this afternoon, could it?’
Sandy whips around, her eyes so large I can see the grey speckles within the dark. They always sparkle with a special light. ‘Elsie! Don’t, I mean, hell, just – just shut it.’
‘Shut it about what?’ I can’t stop my smile.
She nudges me with her shoulder. ‘And people reckon I’m the stirrer!’
I nudge her back. ‘What people don’t know won’t hurt them.’
Sometimes, I wonder if words are thrown out into the world only for the world to throw them back in your face, mocking what you have believed your whole life.
‘JOEY GOT BESTED by Sandy again!’ I call from the kitchen, knowing full well that my Aunty Rachel and Joey will hear me.
‘It isn’t bested when it’s ambush!’ Joey yells from the shower.
‘That’s the exact definition of bested.’
‘Do you have to antagonise him?’ says a new voice.
I cannot see Rachel straight away. It’s bright in the kitchen, so it takes my eyes some time to distinguish the shadows from the white around me. Soon, though, I can see her moving towards me, hands grasped around a cup of tea, steam smelling of spiced apple and chamomile floating from the top.
She was probably there the whole time and I’d called out loudly for no reason.
Then again, Joey’s reaction makes it worthwhile.
‘Just some fun,’ I say to Rachel as we both sit at the table.
‘I don’t think he’s too impressed.’ But I can see the humour in her dark eyes.
Rachel is usually the easiest for me to decipher in the light. I cannot describe her skin as a shade of grey, but as a shade of black. People don’t realise there are so many different hues to what they think is a straightforward colour. Rachel is what I refer to as evening dark.
It makes sense to me.
‘What did she do this time?’ Rachel asks.
‘Chucked mud in his hair.’
Rachel nods, unsurprised. ‘Perfect timing again?’
‘Again,’ I nod back.
‘Oblivious?’ she asks.
‘Again,’ I confirm.
This is the way Rachel and I communicate: half-sentences and body language. She’s the only one who understands my names for colours. I can take her shopping without being asked, ‘Do you like the red or purple better?’ Instead, she asks, ‘Which shade do you prefer?’
I stretch my lanky frame out in the chair, perfectly at ease with the silence between my aunty and me.
When the water stops, Rachel jerks her head towards the exit. ‘Go on, off you go. You’ll only stir him.’
Grinning, I obey. I kiss her on the cheek and leave, but not before calling over my shoulder, ‘Let’s invite Sandy over tonight, hey, Aunty?’
I am rewarded with a string of insults from behind the bathroom door.
Rachel tries to scold, but she never can. It just isn’t in her nature. She’s a talker, a soother whose entire goal is to have a happy household, to be surrounded by family.
It seems to work. Joey grumbles at some of her rules, but he listens. I’ll push Joey, but never so far that it upsets Rachel. I simply say, ‘Sorry, Joey, just teasing you.’
‘So you damn well should be!’ Joey retorts.
It’s not the most gracious forgiving statement I’ve heard, but I’ll take it.
Rachel looks grateful. She’s an easy person to make happy. Sometimes that upsets me.
It’s in that moment I decide to make her a painting. She loves to hear I’ve been painting, so I’m sure she’d love it if I gifted her a piece. She would think it was a present for her wedding anniversary, but I’d know it was a thank you for just being her.
I LAUGH AS I see Joey come out of the bathroom. ‘Elsie tells me you’ve had another little run-in with Sandy, ay, son?’
He screws up his face, looking like the little child I miss. ‘Don’t say that name near me,’ he says, rubbing a towel through his hair.
Sipping my tea, I shake my head at what’s playing out in front of me. The actors seem to be the only ones not getting the storyline.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘I won’t.’
I haven’t counted to five before he explodes.
‘What’s that girl’s problem, Mum?’ He throws his hands in the air. The towel falls to the floor, but he doesn’t notice. ‘It’s like every time I turn around, she’s throwing something into my face, hair…clothes!’ He shakes his shirt.
Ah, yes: the time Sandy lined one of his button-up dress shirts with used car oil. We could hear her giggling from next door as Joey yelled at her through his window. Elsie and I were holding pillows to our faces so Joey couldn’t hear us laughing at him. Well, I held a pillow to my face. Elsie wasn’t that concerned about irking her younger cousin.
‘I’ve got no idea, son!’ I humour him. ‘Does it seem to happen at some times more than others?’
‘It always happens at the most inconvenient times!’ he cries, arms waving. He talks with his body, just like his dad. ‘Whenever I have a date, it’s like bam!’ He slams a fist into his left hand. ‘Sandy strikes! The stupid little witch!’
‘It’s almost like she’s timing it!’ I exclaim.
‘Exactly!’ He nods in appreciation. ‘But do you know what the funny thing is, Mum?’ Without waiting for a reply, he pushes on. ‘It’s only dates! When I go out for anything else, she doesn’t appear! It’s only when…when…’
He trails off, hand frozen in midair.
I stand up, put my mug in the sink and walk over to my son, give him a kiss on the cheek.
‘Have fun on your date with Lucy tonight.’
Disappearing into my bedroom, I start to get ready for dinner with my husband. There are only two old dresses in my cupboard, and they’re arguably in need of an upgrade, but I tell myself that can wait. I still like these two well enough.
Laying out the black one with white stripes and faint, old yellow stains, my thoughts return to Joey. My headstrong son.
Smiling, I get ready for my evening with more gusto. Lionel will enjoy the story of this afternoon’s episode, I’m sure of it. After twenty years, I’ve come to know my husband isn’t a talker, but any story with Joey in it makes him happy. It makes me happy, too. Perhaps tonight, we could both be happy together.
I HEAR THE voices in my head before I even start my beat-up black Ford. Hurriedly, I pull out of the bank parking lot, but I can’t out-drive them.
Instead, they grow louder. Talking, talking ’bout how I can’t rest tonight, have to go out with Rachel, can’t turn off my brain for an easy afternoon. Can’t, can’t, can’t. Strings of red tape everywhere I turn.
These aren’t the thoughts that worry me, though. It’s the loudest one, the one that drowns out everything else, always, the one that tells me nothing of worth happened today or ever will.
That I did nothing of worth, just vacuumed some floors and wiped down benches where people with sweaty elbows leaned to get their money.
More than I get; more than they deserve. But when is anything fair in this world?
They haven’t been fair for as long as I can remember, from my pa never giving me the opportunities I deserved to Rachel falling pregnant too early.
Yet I’m meant to go on and make it all work. Somehow, it’s my job to take in Rachel’s niece; my job to make Rachel happy; my job to do every stinkin’ thing.
I can’t take it anymore. I need help, help from the only thing as reliable as me.
My hands go into automatic mode. They turn on the indicator and pull the car off the road. As soon as wheels hit gravel, I fiddle with the glove compartment until it falls open and a few papers fall out. Another voice adds to the cacophony, reminding me I haven’t paid that parking fine.
I start to sweat. I feel like my pale skin is shimmering with it. Help. I need help bad.
I rip every item out of the glove box before grabbing the object my body is burning for.
My stress begins to fade even before I’ve lodged the thin, sharp steel of the needle into the vein of my arm, knowing I’m going to feel better soon.
That’s the stuff; that’s the help. I feel calm. Calm.
NO ONE CAN ever know what it’s like to be this. To be the one forever thought to hold the knife to your throat. It is another hand, truly, a foreign one, forcing it to pierce your skin and, ultimately, end your life.
You try to scream, ‘I’m not suicidal. I’m not. I didn’t do it.’
But they tell you that you are. ‘We have proof,’ they say. ‘It’s all written out here. Should we read it to you?’
The writing doesn’t make you feel better. It summons damnation. And helplessness you’ve known about for years, since you were all of eight. They’ve got it all written up there in glossy folders, in even and perfect lines. They also have it on the internet, in such a complicated language that you wonder if they can even understand it. Who is going to listen to the man who slips into pidgin English when they have their perfect, glossy folders?
I learnt to lose the pidgin. I learnt to speak proper, like this here, instead of this ’ere. It made no difference. Nothing makes any difference.
You want to push the world away and curl up in a safe hole. But the world keeps on pushing its head further in, suffocating you. Me. All the while, it will tell you that you are suffocating yourself.
I AM THE observer. I think that’s why painting appeals to me. As you sit and watch, a scene forms within you. And I’m not just talking about the visual stimuli. Of ominous clouds reflected in the surface of a pond, water lilies on the verge of closing as the dusk grows darker and darker, occasionally illuminated by a shy strike of lightning, scared to show its presence for too long.
To paint, to truly paint, you inhale the atmosphere of the scene. The rain on the decking roof, the drops of liquid splashing on your skin through holes in the corrugated iron; the grumble of the thunder like a grumpy old man; the warmth that still holds onto your body from the hot afternoon; the rain and breeze like a wisp of ghost hair; the smell of sweat, mingled with rain. You can taste it in the air long before you can hear it or even smell it. You feel, underneath the decking roof, a part of this wondrous world of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, but still not completely within it. You are on a verge of a chasm, ready to tumble into the swirl of wild nature.
You jump into the rain, the icy droplets merging with your sweat, your skin, until there is no difference. It gets louder and louder, filling you and filling you until you almost can’t take it anymore, but simultaneously, it is never enough. It has penetrated you, making you no longer just a human being, but an entity of nature. If someone looked out the window, they would not be able to tell the difference between the breeze, thunder, lightning, rain, foliage and you. Because there is no difference. You have swallowed the atmosphere of the scene and it has inhaled you.
My colours stream across the board, dancing, intertwining. Every one of them needs the others. The hues of whites, the extremes of blacks and the subtleties of greys encompass and overlap one another to tell the story that I breathe through my paintbrush. Without the sense of touch, the icy drops that fall upon your skin, would the sound of rain falling be enough to satisfy the soul? It is the duality of the two, the symbiotic nature of it all, that satiates the hunger, the pure longing, to connect with the rain, to connect with the atmosphere, to connect with the world.
‘Elsie, tell Mum I’m going out.’
Joey’s words pierce my bubble, the nacreous drops shattering onto my shoulders, revealing the world outside my painting.
I grit my teeth, sliding my paintbrush between my fingers. ‘Why can’t you tell her?’
‘Because she’s not here!’
‘Where are you going and when will you be back?’
The reaction is instantaneous. ‘I told you to tell Mum, not be her.’
‘Fine. But just take your mobile so she can go crook on you, instead of me.’
Some low grumbling follows until an ‘All right, all right,’ lets me know I’ve won this round.
‘Love you too, Joey,’ I call out before turning back to my canvas.
But this time, whenever my brush tries to stroke to create a shadow or reflection, my hand becomes clumsy, causing smudges that represent nothing.
When I look at them out of the corner of my eye, the darker spots appear to grow, but when I turn to face them, they shrink ominously back. It’s like as soon as my back is turned, they will envelop the painting, the world I have created.
‘STRESS, THAT’S RIGHT.’
Is it my voice talking? It has to be, it has to be.
‘Stress, stress. Nobody deals with stress well.’
Or is there somebody else here with me?
I spin around from the make-up table, looking around the dark room. The shapes make themselves known: coat rack in the corner, clothes hanging from hooks on the door, the now-unmade double bed. The cupboard doors are wide open. My other dress, the one Joey bought me for Mother’s Day, has been ripped from its hanger and lies sprawled on the floor.
Unsteadily turning back around, I almost scream at the image in the mirror. Hair everywhere, discoloured face, darkness beneath the eyes.
‘Got to fix myself up now.’ The voice keeps going. ‘Got to look presentable. Yes, yes. Presentable.’
Shaky hands grab the powder, pausing when the yelling from outside begins to pierce the little world around me.
‘You lay a hand on me, old man, and you won’t believe the stress you’ll be under then!’
‘Whose damn home are you in, filth?’
Inside the room, humming begins to sound. ‘Look how pretty you’ll be in a moment,’ the voice continues. ‘Just one moment, just one moment.’
‘Mine, you old coot! And Aunty Rachel’s and Joey’s and unfortunately yours!’
A bang makes the hands shake more, followed by a short scuffle.
‘I’ll tell them! Unlike Aunty, I will! And I’ll tell Joey too! So you have five seconds to back away from me!’
More deranged yells fill the house, eventually fading away, chased away by a voice that keeps shouting, ‘That’s it, get out of here! Get out of here until you’re off your high!’
Everything quietens after that, which makes it easier for the hands to apply the make-up. The discolouring disappears. Maybe it was never there.
The words keep going, now chanting something that I don’t understand. My thoughts go back to the flash of white I saw that made the dark discolouration appear on my face. ‘White makes black…white makes black…white makes black.’
Did it? I would have to tell Elsie.
I DO NOT like the city. Never gets dark. That blanketing, all-consuming, therapeutic dark of the country.
Here though, it’s unnatural. Always some sort of lamplight drearily doing its job in the streets. Makes me feel like I can never rest because the light never goes.
As a child, I was afraid of the dark. Now, I realise it was a misunderstood friend. It wasn’t hiding things that would hurt me. It was trying to hide me from the things that would hurt me.
I miss the dark. I miss my friend.
Creeping around on the edges of society, I try to find it. I’ve been looking for years. As the search goes on, I begin to fear the worst.
I begin to fear my friend has died.
THE HOUSE IS, like, really quiet. Usually, that’s how I like it. I’m always complaining about Mum and Elsie calling to each other from the different rooms. Or Sandy singing some dumb song at the top of her lungs.
Now though, I don’t like the silence. It’s weird.
‘Elsie?’ I call as I walk along the hallway, peering into the darkened lounge room. No shapes make themselves known as people, so I continue until the hallway opens into the kitchen, which is dimly lit by the one working fluorescent light. Elsie likes it darker. She says it makes her see better.
She stands at the stove, furiously stirring something in a pot.
‘Elsie?’ I ask again.
She doesn’t spin around or gasp. But she slows her stirring, and her glare lessens. Someone approaching her, even from behind, never catches her by surprise.
‘Hey, Joey,’ she says softly.
There’s something wrong with her voice. She hasn’t been crying; Elsie isn’t a crier. Even at her parents’ funeral, I don’t remember her crying.
‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’ I ask. ‘They’re gone already? Mum always sticks around to say goodbye, you know.’
I plop into one of the five chairs, eyes nervously darting around the room as though waiting for something to happen.
Elsie takes a deep breath. For a while, I think that’s going to be her only answer until she talks again in her strange, hoarse voice.
‘Lionel, Uncle Lionel…had to go out.’ The stirring grows to the point that the spoon hits the sides of the pot, causing an off-tune ringing. ‘One of his friends is broken down or something. I’m not sure.’
‘So Mum’s in bed?’
‘Yeah. Bit of a headache.’
I nod, feeling calmer. ‘Okay. I’ll get ready for sup, then, ay?’
She glances over her shoulder. Her oddly coloured grey eyes look at me intensely.
‘Sure, bub,’ she says after a few seconds. ‘It’ll be ready in a tic.’
Her old nickname for me makes me pause. Then, I flee the kitchen, refusing to look back.
Something’s off. I’ve felt this before. As though there’s a bad smell in the air that I can only make out now and again if I turn my head the right way.
My parents’ bedroom door is to my right. My footsteps falter; I suddenly want to look inside. I haven’t for years. When I was young, I did look.
I shiver, trying to forget.
To look would be to enter. Whenever I feel things being off, I hide from it. Ignore it. Whenever I attempt to become aware of it, even a little, breathing becomes hard. If I don’t see, I don’t feel the pain. Or more importantly, I don’t see the pain, which is the very thing that steals my breath away.
Something niggles in the back of my mind telling me that just because I don’t see the hurt doesn’t mean it’s not there, but I push it aside before it can take hold. I guess I use up all my mental strength doing that, because I have none left to stop myself from looking.
My fingertips push the door and it swings inwards.
I immediately make out the figure on the bed.
Her back is stiff, hair done up in a perfect bun. She moves back and forth, hand pressing just below her right eye.
‘White makes black. White makes black.’
The acrid scent fills my nostrils, choking me. I have to run, have to get away, to be able to breathe.
I race up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Close myself into my room and curl up in a corner. It’s only then the polluted cloud thins and my chest fills with purer air. When Elsie calls out that sup is ready, I tell her I’m not hungry.
SOMETIMES, THE HELP doesn’t just take away the stress. It takes away everything else that makes me good: my patience, my strength, my tenacity.
What I think I hate most being taken is my brain, my logic. It’s how I know I need the help in the first place to survive the thoughts whirling and whirling around my brain until I feel sick with dizziness.
The back door doesn’t swing open easy, catching on the floor. I make a mental note to fix it on the weekend. One more thing I’m expected to do – but the help in my veins means this fact doesn’t grate like it could.
Elsie sits in the kitchen, clutching a cup of tea. Only a candle on the table gives the light. Did the stinkin’ fluorescent break too?
‘Midnight drinkin’ again?’ I chuckle, but my voice is croaky. ‘We’ll have to lock you in rehab soon.’
Her reply is a brief raise of one eyebrow. The queer grey colour of Elsie’s eyes has grown stronger as she’s grown older, close to silver. It looks like she’s staring right through you at times.
It makes me nervous. When is she going to move out? She’s twenty-five, goddammit! Rachel ain’t concerned, so I guess that’s why I say nothing. Elsie keeps her busy, which I guess is one less job for me. I’ve got enough jobs. Now I’ve got to fix the stinkin’ fluorescent as well.
‘You might want to talk to your son.’
‘Why?’ I sneer. She wouldn’t have dared. Would she?
A small shrug of the shoulders, a sharp glance of those eyes. ‘You tell me. He wouldn’t leave his room all night. Just came home, saw me and went to bed.’
I can tell she ain’t lying. Even in the early days when she and her parents would visit, she was the most truthful eight-year-old anyone had ever seen. It was downright sickening.
That’s when the panic hits me. If she hasn’t said anything, then why wouldn’t Joey come down?
The steady feeling that comes after my high disappears. I run from the kitchen, up the stairs and into Joey’s room. I don’t even think to knock, just barge in.
The single’s bed empty, but before I can react, I hear a groan.
I notice a dark lump on the floor, wedged between the set of drawers and the wall. Legs stretch out underneath the open window. The black, silken curtains flutter in the wind, making shadows dance over Joey’s sleeping figure.
Breath comes more easily to me as I crouch down, running a hand through his mop of thick black hair. For once, it ain’t slicked back. Underneath the flickering light, I see his body relax, but he’s frowning in his sleep.
A part of me wants to pick him up and put him to bed. But another part of me, one I can’t quite understand, tells me I can’t. If I do, he’ll wake. If he wakes, I’ll have to ask why he’s sleeping there.
He can’t know I’ve been here.
Turning, I slump towards the door. Something makes me go back and shut the windows. He probably won’t remember them being open. At least now he won’t be cold.
Elsie is waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.
‘He’s fine,’ I say, trying to sound gruff, but instead I think I come off as unsure.
Her silent gaze does nothing to take away that feeling. She goes back to the kitchen. Gentle clinking tells me she’s making another cup of tea.
I know better than to go into my bedroom, our bedroom. So I sit on the stairs, wondering why no one understands how much I need help and why everyone keeps making me feel guilty for trying to get it.
THE FURTHER I get away from the house, the more my sanity returns. I’m away from the hurt, which allows my body to move freely as I sprint. My dress flies up around my knees, the cool wind caressing my skin.
I haven’t run for a long time. I forgot how beautiful it is. I always stay still at home, as though a quick movement will startle Lionel into loving me less than what he does.
I run harder. Hearing him talk to Elsie was too much. Knowing he was in the same house as me was too much. So when he nodded off on the stairs, exhausted from his rage, I snuck past him, out of the front door and into the embracing arms of the darkness.
I remember his expression when he strikes me. Blank. That’s what hurts most of all. His indifference.
On and on I go, down the nameless streets and past the faceless houses. I smile as the wind blows against my back, making my feet fly higher. My eyes close and for that moment, I know what peace is.
When my eyes open again, I know what I have to do. I usually refuse to think about it, but something in this escape tells me I have to this time. I won’t be able to hold onto my sanity if I keep returning to my cell. I shouldn’t have to escape to be free. My home should be my safety, my freedom.
Though it isn’t now, it’s going to be. I’m finally going to make it so.
The next second, lights glitter all around me. Is this the physical embodiment of an epiphany? That clichéd moment where everything falls into place and the hero knows exactly what to do?
I stop running. The lights enshrine me, beautiful, flickering back and forth over my dark skin. The names of the colours don’t occur to me. Elsie once said that to me when she was painting: she said that you don’t name the colours. You simply paint them. Maybe these lights are a part of painting my new life, so that’s why I can’t name them.
But the words come to me suddenly: red and blue.
‘What are you running for, ginny?’ The words are coarse, unlike the man who speaks them. He is tall, straight-backed. He wears a uniform.
RUNNING DOESN’T DO any good. It’s hiding. Hiding is your best chance.
If they find your hiding place though, God help you.
God. Help. You.
IT HURTS. THE cold steel in the back of the wagon numbed me for a while, but now the pain is back.
It hurts. That’s logical, isn’t it? It hurts a lot. I want to tell them. I try to tell them. They laugh.
‘What did she say?’
‘She said it ’urts!’
They laugh louder. One of the blank faces takes off a belt. It is…black. Yes, black.
Black makes black too.
I begin to cry. Everything makes black on me. Except for Joey. And Elsie. But Joey most of all.
It hurts more. Surely my tears will wash away the make-up so they can see the black eye on me. The black that hurts.
They don’t stop though. I beg. Really beg. On my knees, head bowed, to a god I refuse to believe in.
Don’t they understand what I’m asking them? Or don’t they want to understand?
‘Break,’ I gasp. I can’t remember another taste in my mouth other than blood.
I’m not even asking them to stop now. Just for a break. A compromise.
It doesn’t help. Nothing does. I cry, beg, try to run, strike out, scream, moan, bite. The pain grows.
I want to pass out. I want to die. Their laughter hurts my ears more than their hands hurt my body.
I try to make myself unconscious by banging my head against the concrete floor. Maybe then I won’t feel the pain anymore.
‘Masochistic, this one!’
More laughter. They think I don’t understand. I do, though. I know what masochistic means. I know what sadistic means.
They’re the ones who don’t understand. Their hate doesn’t just hurt my body. It hurts my soul. Embeds itself in my skin. Burns, tortures. Makes me want to shrink. To not hear, think, breathe. Just disappear. They can’t hate me anymore then.
Tightness curls around neck. The material is soft, but tight. Too tight. Damn hell. Hell damn. Hurts. I cry. I cry again and again. Beg one more time. Cry, cry, cry.
My fingers twitch.
They laugh more.
He comes to me. Smiling widely, exposing his missing front tooth, placing his little hand in mine. His lips kiss my cheek the way he always did when he found me crying.
‘Don’t worry, Mummy. It’s okay. It’s really okay.’
My lips part to say I love him.
I have no breath left.
It doesn’t upset me. He knows. He knows.
The Daily Parker
Aboriginal woman found dead in cell
By Maxine Drummond
ON 12 MAY 2015, Rachel Kendall, a 42-year-old Aboriginal woman, was arrested for public nuisance in the early morning hours. She was found in the Church Hills Estate area. According to police reports, she was extremely inebriated as well as injured, but no injuries were considered life-threatening.
Placed in a police cell at approximately 3 am while attempts were made to contact family members, Mrs Kendall was found dead just two hours later when checked by one of the arresting officers.
Police Commissioner Rob Cook has declined to comment on whether the death was the result of foul play.
‘This is a great tragedy and we are doing everything we can to assure Mrs Kendall’s family gets the answers they deserve,’ he said in a statement this morning. ‘An investigation is underway and we are doing everything we can to ensure justice is done here.’
Two officers are under internal investigation. They have been suspended with pay until that investigation is complete.
Mrs Kendall is survived by her husband, Lionel Kendall, and their sixteen-year-old son, Joey Kendall. Neither could be reached for comment.
I HAVEN’T SEEN properly for all my life. Until now.
I can hear Joey’s screams as Lionel tries to talk to him again. He won’t be comforted by his father. He won’t even allow Lionel to touch him. Yesterday, the boy caught Lionel across the cheek, causing quite a bruise. Anything Lionel says makes him irate.
I know why. But I don’t have the energy to help Lionel, to comfort Joey. I don’t have the will to even get out of my chair.
I don’t know how I could have been so ignorant. How I ever believed I could trust the police. I can’t feel angry. I can’t even feel sad. I’m just bitterly disappointed in myself.
I close my eyes. Maybe I can block out my hearing as well as my vision. Block out the truth.
‘I’ve got to go to the funeral home to – to make arrangements. I… Come with me?’
‘What about your son?’ My voice sounds wrong.
‘He needs to get away for a bit.’
I chuckle. ‘You still don’t get it, do you?’ My voice is bitter.
His whole frame shivers. ‘What?’
‘Joey’s in danger. So am I. So is Sandy. We all are.’ I swallow. ‘Except you. Except you.’
‘What the hell are you talkin’ ’bout?’ Lionel appears in front of me, hands tight on my shoulders. ‘Joey’s in danger? Tell me! Tell me, goddammit, what do ya mean?’
His screams and his touch don’t scare me. He isn’t the danger. The danger’s out there. Not for him, though.
His slap across my face reverberates around the room.
My mouth automatically opens to threaten him. Only for me to realise there’s no one to come and rescue me. Rescue the black woman from the white man? What a joke.
I remember something I read a long time ago in university. About how a politician once stated that genocide was a crime of which no Western nation could be found guilty. It made me ask how I measured up in this world – my importance, my safety, my rights?
I’d been given my answer when I got the call about Aunty Rachel.
I begin to black out as Lionel punches me from my chair. Falling to the ground, I don’t have the energy to get back up again. Let alone run.
ROUND AND ROUND and round my thoughts go. A sadistic merry-go-round I can’t escape. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Elsie refuses to help me find some way to deal with all the pain building up, up, up in my chest. I realise it’s Rachel I really need to help me, now more than ever.
But she isn’t here and Elsie won’t step up.
‘Help!’ I scream at her as I cry, kick her in the back and hit her across the face. ‘Help me, please!’
I RUN. I run hard.
I feel powerful, I feel powerful, I keep saying in my head.
Every corner, I can see her. Her face smiles up at me, saying something to tick me off or make me embarrassed.
I loved that. I loved her. She was my mum. My mum.
I can feel the shadows creeping up on me. If I don’t find her, Dad or Elsie will catch up and stop me.
I run even harder.
I become aware of someone running beside me.
‘I’m not stopping,’ I say.
Sandy keeps easy pace with me even though I feel like I’m going so fast, I’m basically flying.
‘I know that, Joey,’ she says, and stays with me. She doesn’t try to talk me down or tell me I’m going crazy, which makes me really want to go crazy.
I can’t breathe again. The acrid smell is poisonous. It’s set into my lungs, making it hard to breathe.
The concrete comes rushing up, bruising my knees.
Sandy is above me, whispering, ‘Breathe, Joey,’ like it’s easy.
My eyes close. In the blackness, her face comes to me.
‘Where have you been, my son?’ she asks.
My breath comes easier while my head grows heavier. My chest feels loose.
‘It’s okay, Sandy. I found her. We can rest now.’
I don’t hear a reply. I don’t hear anything.
SO CRY. CRY until your throat is raw. Cry until you can’t breathe. Cry until you pass out.
People say cry until you can’t cry anymore. That’s not true. You can always cry some more. You don’t stop crying because you can’t cry anymore, you stop crying because you realise it won’t change what’s happened. It may be cathartic. But it doesn’t change what’s been done to you. What continues to be done to you.
For a while, you think it will. They will believe you if they can see that pain. Feel that passion. Know the truth you speak.
It doesn’t though. I’ve tried.
Instead, they say you’re traumatised. Can’t think straight. Too close to the matter.
What if you didn’t cry? Would they say you were heartless? Call you abnormal? Accuse you of being part of the problem?
‘You’re the reason he took his life,’ they’ll say.
‘But my son didn’t take his life,’ you try tell them. ‘You did. You took his soul, his spirit. Locked him away in those dormitories, away from his home, his family. His heart crumbled away into dust.’
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you tell them with tears or without that your loved one didn’t take his life. They will believe what they will believe. What they need to believe.
‘I know who is heartless,’ you whisper.
Still though, they don’t hear you. You finally realise they never will.
That is the moment you – I – stop crying.
MY HEAD IS resting on the roots of the willow tree in the park, where I lie with Sandy sitting cross-legged next to me. We’ve been here for hours as I run through the same information over and over again in my head – the information the police gave us about Mum. But no matter which way I arrange it, it doesn’t make sense.
‘She’s gone.’ I look to Sandy. She runs her fingers through my hair, soothing my muddled brain.
‘They said she was drunk,’ I say. My voice is dull.
Sandy frowns. ‘Rachel doesn’t – she didn’t drink.’
‘They said she was drunk.’
‘But she doesn’t drink, Joey.’
‘So they told me a lie?’
Sandy doesn’t answer me. Her frown deepens.
‘She left me.’ Despite trying for so long to be treated like a grown-up, I’m a little kid again, crying for my mum. ‘How could she leave me?’
Sandy shakes her head. ‘Rachel would never leave you,’ she says. ‘She loves – she loves you, Jo.’
I want to argue because that’s what I do lately. Everything is a battle, from talking civilly to breathing. I want to stay angry.
‘Jo, she loves you,’ Sandy insists again before I can start up.
‘Promise you’re telling the truth?’
‘I’d never lie to you, Jo, not about that.’
We both stare at each other.
‘You wouldn’t lie to me,’ I whisper. ‘And neither would Mum.’
‘Course not,’ Sandy says.
‘She said she’d never leave me.’
Sandy’s quiet for a moment, thinking. ‘No,’ she says finally. ‘No, she wouldn’t.’
‘She didn’t.’ I’m breathless in a different way now. The facts rearrange in my brain in a way that finally makes sense. I know what isn’t right. And I know where the lies have come from – not from Sandy, and definitely not from Mum.
‘What’re you getting at, Joey?’
‘Mum loved me.’ I turn to her, heart beating faster. ‘She would never leave me.’
‘Of course not,’ she says again, her voice soft, unsure.
She doesn’t see the answer like I do. Maybe she’s too scared. But it makes so much sense that I can’t believe it’s taken this long to click.
‘Joey, wait up!’
This time, Sandy can’t keep up with me as I run, and I know exactly where I’m going.
They killed her. They killed her. The cops killed my mum.
IT DOESN’T MATTER how I ended up walking back through the front door of home. All that matters is what happened to Mum.
I run to the lounge room. I know Dad will be there. He’s lying back on the couch. His eyes are open, but they don’t look right.
I’ve seen that look before.
‘Dad!’ I cry, not caring how much I sound like a child again. Because I need my dad, but more importantly, Mum does. He can fix this. I know he can. ‘Dad, the cops, they did it, they hurt Mum! Mum wouldn’t just, just go, you know? She…she…’
Dad does nothing. He just lies there. Sometimes he focuses on me. Mostly though, he stares at the wall behind me.
‘Joey,’ he slurs. ‘Joey, you just have to accept. Don’t go blamin’ nobody. No. Not like, not like her.’
‘What?’ I say.
He keeps on mumbling. ‘She’s gone. All gone. Left.’
‘No.’ My teeth grit so hard that my head aches. She didn’t leave. She didn’t.
‘Yep.’ Dad nods like that makes what he says true. ‘No use thinkin’ on it, Joey. Don’t think on it.’ His eyes close and his chest shudders. ‘Don’t think.’
I shake my head, clutching at my hair. I can’t understand. I can’t breathe. ‘NO!’ I throw my fists into the wall.
I don’t feel the pain, so it doesn’t make me feel better. I try to cry, but I can’t feel the tears or the sobs in my throat.
The name comes to me, and I’m running up the stairs. She’ll know what to do.
Her door is sitting open, which makes me falter. Her door is never open when she’s in her room.
I feel like I’m back at Mum and Dad’s door, pushing it open. Upon the threshold and entering.
Elsie isn’t crying like Mum used to. She isn’t even talking crazy like Mum did last time. She’s just lying there. Blood’s caked on the side of her face and on her mouth, almost covering her busted lips. In the foetal position, she looks even skinnier than usual. Some of the skin on her right arm is broken, like someone ran their nails along it.
Dad’s words ring back to me.
For once, I don’t listen to him. I do think. And I scream.
Somehow I’m back on the street, in the middle of the road.
‘HELP! Somebody help me! My cousin, she, she’s been…and my dad, he’s…’
He’s high. He’s always high.
‘Help me.’ I collapse to my knees, head buried in my hands. I don’t care that I’m in the middle of the road. With any luck, I might get hit. ‘Someone help me.’
Is this what Mum felt like?
I cry. I cry until my throat hurts and my chest aches.
A hand brushes through my hair the way Mum’s used to. More hesitant, but the affection’s there.
‘Come on, Joey,’ Sandy says. ‘You’re going to come home with me. My mum’s called the ambulance, ’kay? Everything’s going to be okay.’
My eyes rise to meet hers. ‘Elsie…my mum…’ my voice hitches.
Sandy strokes my hair again. ‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘Now, come on.’
She slips her arms underneath mine, but I grasp at her forearm.
‘Sandy,’ I rasp. ‘Sandy, you have to help me.’
‘I am, Joey,’ she says.
I shake my head, growing more frantic. ‘No, no,’ I say. ‘You have to help me with, with…Mu…’
I can’t finish my sentence.
It doesn’t matter though. Because she wraps her arms around me and rests her head against mine. ‘I will,’ she whispers. ‘Promise.’
The Daily Parker
Investigation completed into another Aboriginal death in custody
By Maxine Drummond
IN THE EARLY hours of 12 May 2015, a 42-year-old Aboriginal woman by the name of Rachel Kendall was taken into custody for disturbing the peace in the Church Hills Estate. It was reported she was in an agitated condition, inebriated and had numerous injuries. The officers assessed that her condition was not urgent and took her into custody.
However, at approximately 5 am the same day, Sergeant Charles Dawson checked inside the cell to find Mrs Kendall hanging by a strip of blanket from a hot water pipe. The arresting officers Sergeant Dawson and Private David Williamson administered first aid and phoned emergency services. When paramedics arrived, Mrs Kendall was pronounced dead at the scene.
The coroner’s office has released the results and finds Mrs Kendall died from asphyxiation, not her other injuries, which included a broken jaw, five cracked ribs and a mild head injury.
Investigations into the two arresting officers have concluded the injuries were not a result of foul play, but instead, as the officers claimed, were already there when Mrs Kendall was brought to the station.
The Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) brought its own separate investigation into the incident and found that the original investigation was flawed. The CMC has recommended disciplinary action be brought against at least two officers who conducted the investigation, alleging proper procedures were not followed.
Allegations have emerged that Mrs Kendall’s husband, Lionel Kendall, was abusive. His niece, Elsie Bellman, was taken to hospital with similar injuries to those found on Mrs Kendall.
Police Commissioner Rob Cook has released a statement to the public:
‘The Kendall family have suffered a terrible loss. It is a tragedy that a woman’s life has come to such an abrupt and violent end. From the whole police department, we extend our sympathies. Speaking for the two officers involved, they are particularly sorrowful for not seeing the mindset Mrs Kendall was in and are terribly sorry for the family’s loss. They are currently in counselling for being involved in this traumatic incident. As for the investigating officers, rest assured everything was done to make sure Mrs Kendall’s case was investigated thoroughly and fairly.’
Aboriginal activist groups are planning a march for the end of November to try to win justice for Mrs Kendall’s family, believing her death was not suicide. This has drawn the attention of high-profile criminal lawyer Andrew Bevan, who commented on the incident.
‘This is the third Aboriginal death in custody these last two years, at the same police station,’ he says. ‘This is no coincidence. I am currently working with Mrs Kendall’s family to bring to light what truly happened that night in that police cell.’
Mr Cook commented on these remarks, stating: ‘The police officers are traumatised that this death occurred while the woman was under their care. They are admitting to their negligence, believing they should have gotten her immediate medical help, but her inebriation and behaviour did not reveal the extent of her injuries. However, they still feel guilty over something that any good officer could have easily overlooked. They should not be victimised over what is already a terrible event. Let us not exacerbate it any further and allow Mrs Kendall’s family to move on without further incident.’
Mr Bevan is currently seeking permission for a second, independent inquiry and Coroner’s report, moving to exhume Mrs Kendall’s remains. It is still unclear whether any charges will be brought against Sergeant Dawson and Private Williamson.
Sandy, three years later
I LOVED PLAYING make believe when I was little. I had the best imagination out of all the kids in the neighbourhood. The girls would pretend to be princesses, Catwoman or Wonder Woman. The boys would be cowboys, Superman or Batman. Joey would sometimes get inventive. He once stained his clothes with grass to be the Incredible Hulk. I could hear Lionel yelling at him from next door for that one.
But I could be anything. I always wanted to play the weird characters. A unicorn in a movie. A bear from a fairytale. An overactive terrier from a sitcom.
The others loved it. I immersed myself, my whole body becoming the character.
My friends believed in it. They believed in me. I believed in me. That’s why, when I performed a contemporary dance, I felt enthralled by the mood I was trying to convey, completely possessed and in communication with my body as it enveloped the music. Or why I could cry real tears when I was acting as Desdemona in the school play, feeling the pain like it wasn’t an act at all.
For me, it never was.
I loved the feeling of stepping under the lights, knowing all eyes were on me. I always loved attention as a kid but when I was a teenager it became a kind of obsession. I wanted the world to confirm that I was unique, special and beautiful. To see some guy, mouth hanging open as I swept across the stage, helped fulfil that need.
To be noticed and seen? I lived for it. At fifteen years old, my mission was for Joey to notice me. Good attention, bad attention, it made no difference.
His eyes. His movement. His voice.
My eyes close, momentarily blocking out the world as I relish the memory of Joey. Not my final one. All the ones before that. When we used to tease each other, run crying to our respective parents when one of us pulled a stunt that was deemed to be taking it too far. Or when we found a common interest and just talked.
Those moments are my favourite. When we both discovered that we had a love for retro cartoons was the best. I once even fell asleep on his shoulder and he didn’t push me off.
‘Joey,’ I murmur.
My last memory of him flashes across my mind. His broken smile. His broken eyes. His voice.
I take a gulp out of my bottle. Then another, and another. I lean back so my gaze rests on the tree branches of the Moreton Bay fig I sit at the
The drink does nothing to dim the vision entering my mind. If anything, it makes it harder to block out because I can’t think of anything to distract myself from it.
His broken smile. His voice. His blood.
He’d slipped from my grasp that day. Disappearing from my living room, complaining that he couldn’t breathe. Just after Rachel was killed, we became inseparable. We were each other’s shadows. But after the court case, my shadow kept disappearing.
I looked for him at Elsie’s new house. I looked for him all day. I didn’t stop until I found him.
I drink again. The liquid stings my throat. My eyes burn with the coming tears.
Fate wasn’t so kind as to let me find him before it was too late. Truth be told, it was probably too late as soon as the jury delivered their verdict: not guilty.
He was curled underneath the tree where I’d held him just before he realised Rachel had been killed by the police.
‘I won’t let them get me too, Sandy,’ he’d been saying to me all week. ‘I won’t.’
So he beat them to the punch, his wrists slick with his own blood.
His voice, his voice, his voice.
I try to remember the last thing he said to me that day. I want to believe it was I love you, but even I’m not that good at pretending.
And from then on, I didn’t believe in me anymore. Not the way I used to.
I begin to cry. The booze doesn’t sting my throat anymore.
I’d kissed his hands, run my fingers through his hair. He always said that reminded him of his mum. But he didn’t wake up. When the paramedics tried to lay a tarp over his face, I’d ripped it off, saying, ‘Are you crazy? He’s been finding it hard to breathe, that’ll make it worse!’
I couldn’t remember the rest of that day. Elsie stopped talking for a while. And I tried to disappear. I never want to be noticed again. Reporters came around. Police too. I hid. I pretended I was one with nature. Pretended I was a tree. Pretended I was dirt. Pretended I was dead. It isn’t so far from the truth.
My head begins to buzz as I empty the bottle and open another. I drink until I’m limp. I’m lying on top of the roots, but can’t feel them poking into me. I don’t feel anything anymore.
THAT GIRL’S OUT of it again. She cries and drinks, cries and drinks. Poor thing is still at the stage where she thinks crying will help. She’s crying less though. She’s learning, but slowly.
I watch her from within the shadows. She’s not learning all of it though. She hasn’t figured out that the dark is her friend. That it’s her only chance of surviving.
MY HEAD THROBS. No thought makes sense, and each time I try to work it through, my head hurts more. Nothing makes sense. You’re brought up with this illusion that right wins, that bad is punished, that you’re as important as everyone else in this world.
A dull poke stabs at my side, breaking through my delirium.
I moan and turn my head away.
‘Come on, darl,’ says an unfamiliar voice. ‘You can’t be out here. It’s not safe.’
‘Safe,’ I slur. Safe is a word that means nothing.
‘Yes, darl, safe.’ There’s pressure on my shoulder. I’m too disorientated to shove it off. ‘Being in the light isn’t doing you any favours. The dark is your friend. It’s your best chance of being safe.’
I snort, shaking my head, making it throb more. ‘Safe,’ I mutter again.
The pressure leaves my shoulder. But the person is still there.
I don’t care. I keep mumbling nonsensical words in my stupor, enjoying the way a terrible thought enters my head only to leave immediately. Nothing sticks. My brain can’t grasp it.
Unfortunately, like always, it begins to wear. The images come back, the sensations. I can feel Joey’s cold hands. Smell how his scent is all wrong.
The tears come again, but I don’t make a sound. I watch the branches of the tree, barely illuminated in the dying sun.
Movement draws my eyes to the right.
The man sitting next to me has skin so dark that the whites of his eyes stand out. His beard is littered with white hairs and a ratty trench coat curves around his hunched shoulders.
‘You’re playing with fire, darl. That’s your plan though. Isn’t it?’
I don’t say a word. The tears roll down my face. I stare into the branches again. The leaves quiver.
‘I lost my son,’ says the man. ‘He was taken from me, died in the dormitories. They killed him.’
My eyes move back to him. He’s looking at his calloused fingers. There are dents everywhere in the skin like he’s taken a knife to them, nicking the surface over and over again, trying to find the life lying dormant beneath.
He looks down at me. ‘Who’d you lose?’
The tears blur his face and I blink. More tears come. They’ll keep coming until I’ve drunk enough.
As though he reads my thoughts, he nods. ‘They’ll stop eventually. Won’t be for a while, but they’ll stop.’
The throbbing eases in my head. That doesn’t make me feel better, because it makes it easier to think.
Joey. Joey. Joey.
‘So?’ He cocks his head at me, beard moving in the wind.
How can I put into words what I’ve lost? What’s been taken from me? It isn’t only Joey. It’s the illusion. That illusion that makes you believe if you live your life right, you’ll be okay. You’ll be safe.
‘My world,’ I choke.
He nods again like he understands. I think he does.
I close my eyes and listen to the wind, waiting for the beauty of nature to bring a shred of comfort, of distraction. Nothing.
I must pass out again because then I’m coming around to someone shaking me.
‘Sandy,’ a familiar voice says. ‘Come on, Sandy, talk to me, please! You’ve got to be all right. That’s it, just open your eyes. You can do it. Can you hear me? Open them, my girl. Please.’ The next word is spoken real soft. ‘Please.’
I can’t see anything in the darkness, not even the branches.
‘Joey?’ I slur.
I feel someone stroke my cheek. By the touch, I know it isn’t Joey. I push it away and close my eyes again.
THERE IS A man sitting beside her. He disappears into the shadows as soon as I get close. At first, I think he’s killed her. Then I see the bottles.
Sandy is unrecognisable. Her darker grey hair with streaks of light grey is matted, nearly dreadlocks. Her eyes are glazed over, making the bright speckles in her irises dull. She shivers in the warm night air, convulsing.
She is no longer a pixie, mythological and untouchable. She is broken on the ground, fragile and human.
A lump forms in my throat when she asks for Joey, but I hold back. I’ve been doing enough crying lately.
‘I’m going to take you home, my girl,’ I whisper.
I think she’s unconscious, so I’m shocked when she murmurs, ‘Home? No such thing as home. Lies. All lies.’
To say I don’t know what she’s talking about would be a lie I’m not willing to tell. So I sit there, brushing her hair back from her clammy face, giving her support. I can never seem to give enough.
‘We’ll build one, my girl,’ I say. ‘You’ll see.’
My gaze is drawn to the shadows. I can make out the man’s darker outline.
I frown and call out, ‘Are you all right?’
His silhouette moves as he shakes his head. ‘No. But that doesn’t really matter.’
He moves further into the shadows until he finally disappears.
‘I’m going to do that one day.’
I turn to see Sandy watching where the man has gone.
‘Do what?’ I ask, brushing back her hair.
‘Disappear,’ she says simply.
I SIT IN Aunty Rachel’s rocker, listening as Sandy breathes on the couch beside me. She will go again in the morning, like she runs away from her parents’ house all the time. While she’s here, though, it’s a blessing.
In, one, two, three. Hold. Out, one, two, three. It’s Joey who made me listen to breathing.
I can’t breathe, Elsie, he’d said. How can you?
Like this, I had replied. In, one, two, three. Hold. Out, one, two, three.
He would copy me and calm down after a while. But after the verdict, nothing could help him. He would go flying out of the house, screaming about suffocating. Lionel tried to hug him once. Joey had punched his father.
‘How’s it feel, hurt like it did for Mum? Go get help like she did.’
I hold back the tears. People don’t realise that just because you don’t cry doesn’t mean it hurts less.
Losing Aunty Rachel hurt. I lost my best friend and had the colours of my world flattened. But to lose Joey, too?
Beside me, Sandy starts to cry in her sleep. My touch will only upset her more. I’m not who she wants.
This time, I join her. Rocking back and forth, I cry and cry and cry. Cry until I can’t stand it and I’m banging my head against my hands.
After scraping my nails along my cheek and drawing blood, I lean back in the chair.
In, one, two, three. Hold. Out, one, two, three.
I miss hearing people around me. Rachel shouting to me from the other side of the house. Joey running up and down the stairs, a tacit way of getting his mother’s attention. I even miss Lionel sometimes, when he wasn’t off his face. He used to sit at the head of the table, teaching Joey how to burp when Rachel was out of the room.
I’m mostly alone now. After the funeral, Lionel went away.
And Sandy’s never here, even when she is.
Because Lionel could never be found, the house went to me, but I couldn’t stand being there. I sold it and bought a new one, taking those pieces of furniture I couldn’t let go.
My days are spent in this rocking chair, sometimes at Centrelink appointments. In the evenings, I look for Sandy, running into her parents now and then. When one of us finds her, we ring the other to let them know she’s safe this time.
Until the next night.
My eyes are drawn to the canvas I never completed – the painting of that rainy evening. It remains splattered with my blood from when Lionel went ballistic. But I can’t let it go, because I made this for Aunty Rachel. It’s her present. Or it was going to be.
I run my hands across its surface. Black, white, shades of grey. It looks disgusting. A hodgepodge of colours that fight against each other rather than intertwine to form a full picture.
Absently, I pull at the skin on my hands. I would rip it off if I could.
Behind me, Sandy’s breathing changes. She’s awake.
‘Do you miss the lies?’
I can’t look at her as I say, ‘What lies?’
She doesn’t grace that with a comment. Instead, she sits up, bedraggled hair covering her expression. ‘Next time you’re going to come looking for me…don’t.’
With that, she stands and begins walking towards the bedroom. I know once that door is shut, she’ll be gone. Through the window and down the tree.
This time, I know she isn’t going to come back. I won’t be able to find her again.
Before she can shut the door, I call out. ‘Joey lied.’
She halts. Her fingers tighten on the doorknob.
I try to swallow the lump in my throat. ‘He said he wasn’t going to let them get him. He did.’ My voice is unsteady. ‘You are too.’
She spins around. But I won’t back down from this fight.
‘And you?’ she spits. ‘Are you living, Elsie? Because you’re doing a damn hell job of it.’
‘I’m not killing myself,’ I reply.
‘But you’re not living!’ Sandy shakes her head. ‘If I’m not going to live, I should just disappear and be done with it.’
She turns to slam the door. But I can’t let her. I can’t let her go, even if it’s selfish.
I jump to my feet and start to cry again, not able to control it any longer. ‘I want to live, Sandy,’ I choke. ‘But I can’t do it on my own.’
She pauses again. Her body shakes and I know by her breathing she is crying too.
Taking a chance, I cross the room and tentatively place a hand on her shoulder. She tenses, but doesn’t shake me off.
‘Come on, my girl,’ I say. ‘Let’s live again.’
She doesn’t reply. Instead, she walks out of my grasp. My hand falls to my side as the door creaks and closes.
I CROUCH AT the base of the tree outside the window. The wind is blowing hard now. Sprinkles of water touch me, freezing against my burning skin.
The world is all there, but I am adjacent to it. I can simulate the taste, touch, sound and texture, but never fully experience it.
I feel like I’m at the brink. I can step back into it again. But do I want to?
My hands wring together. It’s a nervous habit I picked up after Rachel was killed – it came from a mistaken sense that if I kept moving, I could somehow make things better.
How wrong I’d been. I’m so wrong that it hurts.
‘I miss the lies,’ I whisper.
I miss them so much. The lies I used to build my world on. The lies that told me I’m as important as everyone else, that being right means something.
What’s the point of stepping back into the world and rebuilding my life when it can be so easily destroyed again? What’s the point of anything? Why live?
I hate Elsie for saying those words. Worse still, I hate that I can’t push past them like I’ve done with everything else that’s ever been said to me since he left.
I stare unseeingly into the rain. Joey made his choice. It’s time I make mine.
I WAKE UP to my empty living room. The only sound is the creak of my rocking chair as I sway to and fro. I can’t hear anyone else breathing. I can’t see darker or lighter silhouettes flitting across the wall to let me know my family are up and about because all my family are gone.
The black-and-white colours of the world used to entice me. I would study the hues of each and every shade, excited if there was a tint I hadn’t seen before.
Now, as the rising sun sends prisms of light through the window, I don’t care for the spectrums the world is displaying for me.
The colours flit over my skin, turning me from a lighter shade of black to a darker hue of white. I want to tear the colour from my body and be nothing.
The tears aren’t here for me to cry today. Maybe they’ll come tomorrow. So instead, I sit here numbly, rocking back and forth. My canvas mocks me with its incompleteness, teasing me with a glimpse of a life that’s no longer mine.
I don’t look up. Sometimes my mind creates such strong visions that I believe they’re real. Is that the definition of a crazy person?
‘Elsie! You awake?’
This time, I tilt my head towards where I swear the sound is coming from.
‘Come on, Elsie! You’re not that much of a deep sleeper!’
I stand. I run to my front door. Ripping it open, I race down the stairs.
‘Come on, Elsie!’
I spin around at the call. And gasp, backing away to take it all in.
My house appears to glow with all the colours. Every shade of white and black works together to form larger-than-life pictures spread across the weatherboard. The dints in the boards create the illusion of creases in the faces smiling back at me while background figures are captured in dynamic poses, like beings bent to the will of soundless music.
And there, at the source of it all, is Sandy. Her right arm is submerged in an old paint tin that’s probably been hidden under the house for years. Pulling her arm – now covered in a bright shade of white – away, she slaps her palm against an empty spot on the house, sending splatters everywhere. Sweeping this way and that, her whole body rocks to the motion of her painting and she spreads it across her enormous canvas until she turns a ball of colour into a streaming sun.
Finally done, she turns to face me. Though her hair is still a wreck, it’s pulled back from her face. She’s shaking slightly, probably hungover. But her eyes are bright for once. They have that special glow again – the glow that made my whole family love her. Especially Joey.
‘Come on, Elsie,’ she calls, beckoning to me, the youthful enthusiasm back in her voice after three long years. ‘Help me put some colour back into our world.’
When I don’t move, but stand there and cry, she comes to me. Lithe and fluent, Sandy runs like a pixie as she eases down the path towards me. Her hair streams out behind her bony shoulders like the piece of ribbon on a child’s kite.