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happy people live here

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happy people live here “absolutely everyone is deranged” Copyright© Cian Sean McGee CSM Publishing Araraquara, Brazil 2014 First edition All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, scanning or digital information storage and retrieval without permission from the author. ISBN-13: 978-1500867348 ISBN-10: 1500867349 Cover Design: C.SeanMcGee Interior layout: C.SeanMcGee Editing: AnnaVanti Author Foto: CarlaRaiter

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“You’re doing it all wrong, you know that don’t you?” Balancing on his teetering toes, The Father stretched himself to the farthest corner of the open window and as he did, reaching his right hand up towards a bending hook, his eyes caught sight of a light smudge on the wall beside his left knee. It looked like it had seen the passing of a child’s hand. “We should just get someone to do it before we mess it up,” The Mother said. She said ‘we’. But she really meant ‘you’. She did things like that. It wasn’t that The Father had willingly adopted silence. It was just that, whenever she spoke, and whenever he was moved to respond, nothing ever came out. There was, he was sure, something that he wanted to say. But when he spoke, there was nothing but the sound of sweat being blown from his upper lip by his heavy, musky breath. His mouth, though, it would open like mouths normally did. And his tongue, it would recede with the swirl of air that he took as if some great quaking fracture in his belly were about to unleash a swell upon his wife’s placid, differing shore. And from his mossy and jagged stonewall of indifference, he would lurch in his belly and cast his shoulders forward, but it would be as if his line were caught on some great weight, some thick and mangled weed, something from which he could not see, reach or untangle himself, for in the end, not a word would pass his lips. Not a word. And barely a sound. Just the passing of a spent breath, carrying a single bead of sweat. 5


The Mother stood under the arch of the doorway, leaning as she always did with her left shoulder resting upon the frame and her feet so comfortably crossed; right over left. She watched The Father as the lines on his neck twisted and turned while his hands ripped and pulled the nylon netting over the unevenly placed hooks around the outside of the window. And as she stared, so hardened upon the afternoon light that drew upon her husband’s shoulders, her hands busied themselves, apparently on their own, tracing the outline of two brightly colored cotton wings and a soft button nose, one that flickered lightly under her picking fingernail, having already started to come apart from the fabric. And it wouldn’t be long now. It wouldn’t be long until that fine thread frayed. Until, neath her loitering stare, it all came undone. But still, she couldn’t help herself. It was just a thing. And things, well they could be tricky to get a handle on. “You’re supposed to put that other bit through and pull it tight. That’s what makes it tight and holds it to the window.” She was suggesting to a long piece of string that was curled by The Father’s feet. And he knew what she meant. He would have told her too, had he the use of his tongue. Instead, his mouth just opened and closed once more, like a dying fish, gasping, not for a breath of air, but for something to hook itself to, to drag it back under the waters, a hundred thousand leagues from where its attention was now being sported. “I don’t know why you’re even bothering,” she said. The Father turned and his eyes looked as heavy and as hollow as hers. His arms - just as heavy as his eyes - hanged still and departed by the sides of his body. Only in his left index finger was there the hint of a man being alive as it lightly twitched and tapped against the side of his leg as if his heart were executing its escape through his one good hand. They both stared at one another. At and through one another. “I spoke with her doctor,” said The Father. “He called this 6


morning while you were sleeping.” It was The Mother now, who drew long breaths, and in doing so, shifted her sight, aside of The Father’s stillness to the smudge that had also taken hostage of his attention as he affixed the nylon netting to the white window frame. The Mother stared as heavy into the light smudge as The Father did, into her avoidance. “Her doctor, he said we should think about some kind of a party like I said… It’s her…” The Mother’s eyes were sewn to the odd smudge on the wall below the window frame. She heard what The Father said and she knew, what, at the end of his stutter, he was meaning to say, but just couldn’t. There were a lot of things it seemed that could not be put into words. “I think it’s a good idea. I mean, I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. Her doctor thinks…” “So what, we celebrate? Put up streamers and balloons? You want me to dress like a clown? Is that it? Just act like nothing happened? I don’t care what her doctor thinks” said The Mother. “I’m not ready.” She closed her eyes and imagined everything dark and absent; everything except for the light smudge along the wall, beneath the white wooden window frame. “You know she has no idea what’s going on?” said The Father. “That doesn’t change anything.” “She’s only four.” The Mother picked at the button nose and did so in such torturous vigor, that the sound of her long nails flicking of the rounded edges swamped the virtue of her husband’s voice, echoing in her mind. “I know how old she is. She’s my daughter. And I know what’s right or wrong for and with my daughter. I just don’t care, ok” she shouted, digging her nail beneath the button nose, almost severing the loosely wound thread. “I don’t care. I know all of it. I just, I don’t care. And I don’t wanna see her. Not now. Not…” she said. 7


“When? Not now? When then? When she’s five? Sixteen? When she’s someone different? When she’s not our little girl anymore?” “She’s not our little girl anymore” shouted The Mother. “She’s still our little girl” shouted The Father. “She’s four years old for fuck’s sake. She’s four years old. Four fucking yea…” he mumbled, his words shattering in his trembling mouth and melting into the flood of tears that rained down from his overcast eyes. “She’s still…” The Father pushed passed The Mother. He didn’t push her or lay a hand upon her. They had never come to violence. Not once. Even though, from a distance, it may have sounded like it, they had never once tempted with it. They vented, but they would never hurt one another, not physically anyway. Little surprise was it then that they had found themselves so foreign and without expression, in trying to deconstruct it, now that violence had found them. “It was an accident” shouted The Father. “She doesn’t know what happened.” The Mother continued picking at the button nose but this time, without a fervor swelling at the tips of her long and curling fingers. She did so, not in childlike play, but as in how a drunk might turn, as they wait upon their roiled thirst, a freshly laid coaster up on its pointed end. Or how a young girl might pick and pull, as her attention absconds from her dull and shouting parents, at the dried skin upon her upper lip. The Mother ran her nail against the last thread. She pulled the button nose high so that the thread wound tight, of which she strummed with her whetted nail. But before it could cut loose, a gentle turn of her finger brought the thread back so that the button nose balanced between her finger and the soft butterfly held in her two hands. “You didn’t do it right,” she said. “It’s uneven.”

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“Linda,” said Roger, The Date, “that’s a very nice name. I had an aunty called Linda once.” “What was she called the other times?” replied Linda crassly. “I’m sorry? I don’t get you” mumbled Roger, The Date, his sweaty hands clasped around crackling pastry while his stubby tongue slipped through his crooked gnashing teeth to lick up the globs of crème, caught between the hairs on his chin. In a small café, crowded with afternoon gossipers, all weaving their literary tapestry over lines of steaming coffee and wafts of freshly poured caramel, Linda, the eccentric and sometimes snooty lady from apartment 9A, sat in a fidgety stillness, unable to keep her feet crossed for more than a second and tearing into fine strips, with the stress of her boredom, the napkin on her plate of which she curled beneath her nails and flicked with her skeletal fingers like little balls of dried snot. Before her sat a small man; nothing at all like his profile picture. His name was Roger and he was much balder than she had expected him to be. Not that she was in any way offended or put off by bald men, no, quite the contrary. It’s just that Roger’s kind was not at all attractive, not like an athlete or a learned academic. This was the kind of bald that one would find on poorly traveled tires; the kind of bald that hinted of negligence and inadequacy. “In Portuguese, Linda means pretty,” she said. “I bet you didn’t know that. I have a Portuguese teacher. And he’s written a book.” Roger, The Date smiled, his mouth stuffed with creamy dessert. “I speak Portuguese too. Actually I speak four languages, five if you include English. If you want...” he said, pausing to pick a clump of pastry stuck between his teeth with his tongue scratching back and forth like an excavator. “We can speak Portuguese. Could 10


be fun you know. Nobody knowing what we’re saying” he said, a sly smile hinting to the other patrons, all busy eating their small cakes, drinking their coffee and smiling genuinely at the people sitting across from them, probably pretending that they weren’t eavesdropping, but probably they were. “I don’t want to,” Linda said sternly. “Not even a word, por favor?” “No. I don’t want to speak. I don’t have to speak. Not to you. I don’t even know you. I speak excellent Portuguese. My teacher tells me. I understand everything he says.” “That’s great,” said Roger, The Date. “I’m really sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to. I don’t want to put you on the spot or anything. Let’s change the subject. So what do you do?” Linda closed her eyes and fidgeted in her seat. She didn’t at all look comfortable. It might have been the shape of the chairs. They were curved awkwardly and most people said that this was one of the restaurants best features, their ergonomic chairs. Linda hated them, though. She much preferred to sit on a normal seat, one that didn’t force her to sit a certain way if she didn’t want to. “I’m a dentist,” she said. “Ok. There’s something. Dentist huh? That’s great. So…” he said pausing, skating on nervous worry. “Tell me more,” he said, licking the curdling crème from the grooves of his reddened and swollen gums and fighting furtively, to cover the rest of his poorly shaped and brightly stained teeth with his cracked lips and stubby fingers. “What?” Linda said, sounding offended. “About being a dentist, what’s it like?” asked Roger, The Date. “I don’t understand what you asked me,” Linda said. “What do you want to know? What? I don’t understand.” “Like, day to day, in your job, what do you do?” “I’m a dentist,” she said, frustrated. “I know that,” said Roger, The Date, now nervously patting at the beard on the side of his face. “I mean, you deal with people 11


people every day. Your job, it’s very important. I imagine it’s very difficult. Is it?” he said, unsure of his own question. “Difficult I mean, is it?” “I don’t know,” said Linda. “So what made you want to be a dentist?” “I studied and I got a job. It’s not interesting for me to talk about this.” “I think it is,” said Roger, The Date, his tone lightening now, as if he were trying to lightly coax a rabid animal back inside its cage. “I don’t like this café,” she said. “But you chose it.” “Yes, I know, but I don’t like it now. The service is not very good. And the chairs” she said, squirming from side to side as if she were trying to relieve an itch on her bottom. “I don’t like them. The café near my apartment is much nicer. I prefer to eat there. They have nicer chairs and the waiters are more polite and the chocolate has more cocoa, it’s 80%.” “If you want,” said Roger, The Date, sounding apologetic. “We can go to the other café. It’s fine by me. I have my car out front. If it’s not far, we can even walk. I have an umbrella.” “I have my own car. I don’t walk. I’m not poor you know. My office gives me a car and I don’t pay any taxes or anything.” “What type of car?” said Roger, The Date relieved, finally finding something to talk about, something that didn’t make her shrivel in spiny defense; “I drive a sedan, six cylinders. Very comfortable. Very fast” he said, again with a sly wink. “I have a simple car,” Linda said. “And I don’t have to pay for it. Are you paying for this?” she asked, pointing to her half eaten chocolate cake with her fork. “The café isn’t even very nice. I don’t think I should have to pay. If you are a good man you would pay for my dessert.” “Of course,” said Roger, The Date, without contest, wondering why he had lent himself to the sly wink and the bit about cars. “A gentleman,” he said, “should always pay for dessert. Listen 12


don’t worry about money ok? This is my treat.” Linda smiled. “Do you have a lot of money? I love money. I have a lot of money and I want a man who is good with his money. My boyfriend is very rich. He was very important and he owned his own business, he still does. His name is Graham and he owns a boat too.” “You have a boyfriend? Ok, no, silly me. It’s ok, I thought that… Well, it’s ok” he said nervously tripping over his words and his wobbling red cheeks. “Friends... Or…” “He owns a boat,” said Linda. “Do you?” “Well I can’t say I have a boat,” said Roger, The Date, chuckling nervously. “But I do alright for myself. Money hasn’t really been too much of a worry you know. I thank my blessings for that.” “Do you have a wife? I don’t like people who lie. Do you? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you still have to pay alimony?” Roger, The Date spluttered some of dried pastry that had been caught in the back of his throat since the date began. It had been itching away whenever Linda spoke, making him grumble under his covering hand to try and clear it. He tried, though, the whole time, to pretend that it wasn’t there and that it wasn’t a nuisance, so as not to be rude or upsetting. The small flake of pastry flew from his mouth and landed on a gentleman’s shoulder sitting at the table beside them. “Married? Me? No. I. No” he said, tripping over his words. “I, well, no, I’ve never been married actually.” Roger, The Date turned his attention to his empty plate, scratching away at the tiny specks of crème that he hadn’t licked off, wishing to hell that there was something there, something to keep his shaking hands still and less obvious. “I…,” he said, pausing, lowering his stare to his clenched yet twitching fingers and gulping heavily. “Well, I haven’t had much luck, you know, with dating and well, meeting people, in general, well girls really. Well not girls, women, you know what I mean. This is the first time I’ve done this kind of thing, online dating.” 13


“You looked taller in your photo,” said Linda. “And your face, it was rounder. I thought maybe you were a different person when you came in. Now I think you just used a wrong photo to trick me into thinking you were handsome.” “You don’t think I’m handsome?” he asked. It must have been a reflex. He knew the second he closed his mouth that he shouldn’t have opened it in the first place. What a stupid thing to say. “You’re not ugly,” said Linda. “My boyfriend, he is very handsome. You should change your hair, that hair makes you look older than you are. And your teeth, they’re crooked. I don’t like crooked teeth.” Roger, The Date covered his mouth. He tried to smile, to be polite and to not offend, but he didn’t know how to, not without showing his crooked teeth. “So what do you do?” asked Linda, sounding bored. “I have my own business,” said Roger, The Date. “I have a friend who has his own business,” she said, almost sounding as if she were about to drift into blissful slumber. “And he has a lot of people working for him. And he travels all the time for his work.” “Wow,” said Roger, The Date, trying to shield himself from her deflections. “What does he do? His business, what do they do?” “He’s very important. I don’t want to talk about him anymore. What do you do? Are you important? Do you have lots of people working for you?” “Well,” said Roger, The Date, composing himself. “I import products from a supplier in China and sell here on the local market. I’ve been in business now, for well, going on fifteen years. I have five people who work in my warehouse; three in admin and two in packing.” “Five. That’s not many people. My friend has fifty. His business is probably much bigger than yours. But that’s ok too. What do you import?” Linda asked. “We import glasses cases.” 14


“What’s that?” Roger, The Date took from his jacket pocket a small black felt case and laid it proudly on the table, running his index fingers around its edges and lightly running his middle finger over the soft center. “Cases for glasses. This is one type. We also import hard cases and soft leather pouches. I prefer the felt covers personally. I like the feel. And it’s also handy to give the lenses a good wipe” he said, doing just that to his glasses. “My eyes are perfect. 20/20.” “I do travel sometimes for work as well. We have conventions around the country twice a year. I travel a lot for my customers too. I try to visit each store at least once a year. I have a lot of resellers though so it’s hard to get to see everyone.” “My boyfriend, he travels to France and Germany and New York, all the time. He takes his sons and his wife, but he doesn’t take me. I’d love to go to New York. But I got a scarf, from when he was in Nice. That’s in France. And it says Nice on one side and France on the other” she said, stroking an imaginary scarf around her now delicate and bashful neck. “Are you together? If you don’t mind my asking. I assumed that we were on a date, but if not, that’s ok, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea or for us to start on the wrong foot, you know… as friends” “Do you like The Matrix?” said, Linda. “Sorry?” said Roger, The Date. “The kung fu movie. I want to see it” she said bluntly. “I don’t really watch movies. Not so much anymore. I’m not really big on television. I much prefer radio. I love talk back. I listen in my car and I listen on my radio at home. There’s nothing better, at the end of a long day, winding down with a nice glass of whiskey. Sinking into the armchair and listening to the radio. Do you listen to the radio at all?” “I have an iPod. Your job sounds very boring” she said, having heard not one word of what he said. “Do you think my name 15


is pretty?” she asked. “I do,” said Roger, The Date, feeling awkward again. “I think it’s very pretty.” “You think or you know? I don’t say I think or I believe because I know it is pretty, so I just say, it’s pretty.” “It is,” he said. “It’s very pretty.” “But I don’t like your name,” she said. “It’s not very interesting. It’s an ugly name. A stupid name. A donkey name.” “I….” “I have to go home and feed my fish. His name is Bill Clinton” said Linda, excusing herself from the table and walking back to her car. Roger, The Date looked shocked, as if he had just dodged a bullet. It was hard to tell, though, on what side of the bullet he’d have rather been. “You can call me,” said Linda, shouting out from her half opened window. Roger, The Date smiled, from behind his burly knuckles. As Linda drove, the rain started to fall heavy and thumped upon her roof, cursing at her to let it inside. This made her a little on edge, more so than normal, so she turned down the radio and instantly it made her feel like she was in control. Normally she loved to listen to the radio, and as loud as possible too - usually on the fourth notch. Anything louder was dangerous for her ears and besides, if it was too loud, she wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of her voice as she sang along. Tonight, as she drove home from her date, her thoughts splotched, like the rain splashing upon her windscreen, with the thought of Roger’s crooked teeth and the way he filled his mouth greedily with dessert. He ate like a pig, dressed like a warthog and spoke like a donkey. And he lied about the way that he looked. That made her mad. As she turned to pull into her building, she had to stop for a car that was leaving, and taking its damn time at that. There was only one entry and exit to the building, not like her last building, 16


before she met Graham. There, there were two; one gate for cars arriving and one for cars leaving. They even a gate just for the garbage truck that pulled up the side of the building on Tuesday mornings. This building, though, it only had one gate. It didn’t really bother Linda too much, only when she was either coming or going. And then, it made her mad. “Hurry up” she shouted through her fogged up windows. The other car was stopped halfway through the gate and the driver had part of his ear out his partly opened window, partly listening to the joking banter of The Porter who was dangling from his high perch, his fat stomach pressed against the metal railings of the window while the soaking rain swished about his curly fringe. “Oh come on,” said Linda to herself, her patience, like a faint print in the sand, eroding with every second passing by. “There’s other people waiting, you rude donkey” she shouted, slapping her hand on the horn, cursing expletively and waving her hands maddeningly as if she had just spotted an old friend she hadn’t seen in some time, in the thick of a bustling crowd. The Porter looked in her direction. He squinted to see who it was and then waved genuinely and smiled as if nothing at all were amiss. Stupid donkey. Linda wanted to shout abrasively at the car as it passed by. She wanted to shake her fist like her father used to, whenever a stray dog wandered onto his well-manicured lawn. When she saw who it was, though, she waved nervously and offered an awkward looking smile, bowing her head royally. She didn’t know it was their car. If she did, probably she wouldn’t have honked.

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The Father couldn’t hear a word The Porter was saying. Even if the wind were descanting at just a mere whisper, still, with his tempestuous thoughts, he wouldn’t be able to hear a syllable of what the hefty man, leaning precariously out of the open window, had been shouting out to him in what looked like forced and nervous banter, as if his clapping mouth were vellicating the fibers of an itching nerve, long in his ear canal, near the back of his throat. The Porter was nodding fast as he spoke. So fast was it that he hardly looked like a learned man in concurrence with his own thoughts. It looked as if he was in the throes of a violent fit and rabid speech was just one of his instinctual lashes. The Father gripped the wheel, tapping his fingers impatiently with the rhythm of some song now running deafeningly through his mind. As the cold wind and rain spat through the gap in his window, The Father nodded back and smiled, as one does, in their own nervous fit, one of polite and congealing displeasure. A car waiting on the street honked once and then twice and then once or twice more. And the sound, it played as a distinct harmony to the chorus that was descanting in The Father’s mind. “That’s great, but we really have to go,” he said, hinting with his open palm at the lashing rain that was stinging his listening ear. “How’s your daughter” shouted The Porter. And this time, the word daughter cut through the howling wind and sounded just as clear as it did in his mind. “It’s a hell of a thing you know,” said The Porter. “What happened, real sad like, you know? I was just telling my wife that…” The Father put the car in gear and drove past the gate and around the car that had been inching forwards for the last minute or two. He looked to his right, as he always did, to shout his grievance with a weighty stare, and he saw his neighbor, Elaine or Lisa 18


or something, something plain that started with an ‘L’, it didn’t matter. He saw her in the crawling car, waving manically and dipping her head as if someone were about to bestow her with a sash or something. Crazy bitch. “I think we should move,” he said. The Mother said nothing. The evening rain beat down heavily on the roof of the car as it wove in and out of slow moving traffic, seemingly on its own dreamlike accord. The Father sat, barely touching the turning wheel, mesmerized, as the glowing reds of the brake lights before him, splashed across his windscreen like bloodied clouds, weeping from a wound in the sky above. The Mother sat in the back, behind the driver seat and tucked behind the headrest that was high enough so she wouldn’t have to see the back of his head or assume that he was even there. It wasn’t something she had always done. This wasn’t a behavior or a trait. It was just something that as of late, had felt like the right thing to do. It felt like the right place to be. It was easy to dream in weather like this. The falling sky seemed to invite one into abstraction, following the lines of the road as they sank beneath the swishing and swashing of flooding waters that swept up from the passing of speeding trucks. The Father focused on the sound of every drop as each one crashed upon the car and broke apart into a hundred thousand more, and with it, so too the face of a child of which haunted his thoughts. “Can you put something on?” The Mother asked. Her voice was dull and rumbling, much like the weak and distant thunder, rolling about between blankets of swirling grey cloud, somewhere in the direction of where they were heading. “There’s nothing,” said The Father. “Yes, there is. There’s always something” said the Mother. “The cd, play the cd. I like that. We like that.”

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The Father flicked a button and the blue lights of the radio glowed as the sound of a rattling drum, starting at first as a tiny teeter tatter before quickly building into a raucous chorus of horns and whistles and dinging bells. The Mother smiled. She closed her eyes and sank into her seat with her hands, tucked between her skittish knees. “I might just wait in the car while you... you know. You do your thing” he said. “No,” she said, shaking her head as if she were shaking water from her ears. “That’s just great. So what am I supposed to do? Just sit there by myself ? This is supposed to be for the both of us. It’s part of the healing.” The sound of children clapping bridged their malcontent verse. The Mother smiled once more. Her sunken stature sank a little more. And her hands, tucked between her skittish knees, grasped the small colored butterfly while her long curling nail, picked gently at the line of thread that was still drawn around the small button nose. The Father, listening to the children’s harmony, couldn’t escape thought of Korine, she, standing in front of the door of the clinic with a small umbrella in her hand, barely managing to keep it upright as a howling wind and lashing rain hurtled past her face, pulling apart her every particle and atom as if she were made of sand, until, at the end of the momentary gust, there was nothing but a small pink umbrella, rolling back and forth on a sun-drenched porch. “I’m not feeling alright,” said The Father. He touched his hand to his stomach, feigning a symptom of which he wished might be fooled enough into becoming real. “I told you, you need to eat something instead of just drinking coffee all day long. It’ll rot your stomach it will. It’s probably doing it now. That’s probably exactly why you’re stomach’s upset. Eating right is part of it, you know?” 20


you’re stomach’s upset. Eating right is part of it, you know?” “Part of what?” “The healing,” she said. “The food we put into our body and the food we put into our soul. It’s not just about affirmations. I mean, that’s kind of key and fundamental, but you can’t expect to, you know, drive that home, if you’re running on empty or worse… just caffeine. You’re doing the opposite. You’re doing it all wrong.” “Am I?” he said, wishing his foot was not on the brake but instead, driving the car into the back of whatever stationary object was strong enough to grind him into dust. “I was thinking, maybe, I might go to Argentina. Remember? I was telling you before, about the retreat there and it’s the best apparently” said The Mother. “What, now? We don’t have the money.” “We can figure something out. It’s only money. You can just pick up some more work.” “Are you fucking deaf ? We don’t have the money. Do you really think fucking off to Argentina is gonna to fix things? Really? And what about Korine?” “What about her?” “What about me?” “Alright. Not now, god! Just, you know; I was thinking; I deserve this; I deserve Argentina.” “You deserve it? You think any of this is about who deserves what? Fuck Argentina” shouted The Father.” “God, relax.” Stupefied, The Father slammed on the brakes and the car skidded on the wet road to an abrupt halt. Behind them, white lights flashed once and then twice and then a hundred times over as the traffic behind them skidded, almost to the point of disaster, to a complete stop. “What are you doing?” shouted The Mother. She looked over her shoulder. High beams were flashing. And in the distance, she could swear that sirens were sounding. 21


Horns were being laid upon with beating fists as, inside her thoughts and her educated and mannerly mind, she sank further and further into the invisible, embarrassed by all the kafuffle. The Father smiled. All of the shouting and the cursing and the beeping horns and the flickering high beams, they seemed to quieten the howling inside of his mind; the howling that came from the thoughts that he kept buried beneath a clear head. “Babe, what are you doing?” shouted The Mother, in a contained tone. In the play of light and sound that staged upon his rear view mirror, The Father could see the outline of a man coming from somewhere in the blur behind them, walking with stern approach. The Man’s arms swung like a judge’s hammer, his fists clenched and walking with such vigor that it was obvious that there would be no polite council in his intention. “Babe, go,” said The Mother. “Go” she pleaded. “Please, just drive.” The Father’s smile widened. The Man in the rain brushed against The Mother’s door, his clenched fist almost breaking the tinted glass. “Hey” The Man screamed, beating his fist against the driver’s window. The Father smiled. He felt a great pressure in his stomach and in the back of his head, but he smiled, imagining that soon that pressure might be beaten out of him and then he wouldn’t have to feel this way anymore. “Hey, asshole” shouted The Man, banging his fist once more. The Father turned the ignition and lowered the window just as The Man swung his fist and the clenched hand wrapped hard against the side of his face. There was blood almost immediately; a lot of blood. It was as if The Man had pulled a plug from The Father’s nose. And the blood, it ran so freely. 22


“Oh Christ,” said The Man. He stepped back from the car and held his open palms upwards in defensive banter. The Father undid his belt. The click sent The Mother in a furor. “Don’t you fucking go out there. Stay in the car, please. Don’t fight him” she shouted. Like an apology from a child’s tongue, her words had little effect on how he felt; a feeling that he could not explain. Much like The Mother, cradled in the back seat, it was a feeling that felt right and these were the kind of feelings that didn’t need explanation. They were the kind of feelings that could never be properly explained in the first place. The kind other people never understood. The zipping of the seatbelt, as it drew back across his chest and his turning shoulders, had The Mother reaching forwards with her hands to contain him, to pull him back and to keep his tied to his seat until time had aged enough for this moment to eventually pass, much like the thunderous clouds above their head. She couldn’t reach him, though. Her leisurely slouch had her clasping at nothing more than the air between her frightened glare and the headrest before them. “Babe, no, get in!” she shouted. The Father was already out. He was on his feet. And the rain, it was pelting down. It washed the blood from his nose. But it didn’t dissolve him, not like he had hoped. “Get back into your car buddy. I’m warning ya” shouted The Man. He was throwing about his words as if they were clenched fists, partly hoping they alone would suffice. The Father, though, he stood completely still, like a pillar or a mound of dirt, inanimate and almost solaced by his wounded nose, the lashing rain and the imminent threat before him. He wore neither a smile, nor a grimace, nor a penitent frown. He looked, with irenic wonder, at 23


The Man with the strong words in the pouring rain whose angered voice trembled, but only slightly less than the feverish shake in his now clenching fists. The Father didn’t respond. He stood completely still and unwavering as he stared at The Man, who was taking a further step back with every shake of his waspish fists, they, still held high in a fighter’s stance, but the stance of a fighter who was counting out the seconds of the final round and in silent prayer for the ringing of a bell or the throwing in of a towel, from behind the flashing of high beams, or from the backseat of The Father’s car. “Babe, get in the car, please.” She was more than pleading now. Her tears came down heavier than the rain above. “You’re fucking mad. You’re a loony,” shouted The Man with the strong words. The Man turned and walked back along the line of traffic and he quickly became invisible; just a faceless smudge amidst an impalpable blur on the soaking canvas of falling rain and flashing lights. “We don’t have any money,” The Father said. “Nothing. Not a cent. I lost all my clients. There’s nothing now. Nothing” he said. “Get in the car” The Mother screamed. The Father turned, not because The Mother pleaded, but because he did. There wasn’t any reason for it, not one that he could explain anyway. If it was to do with her, he might have just stayed under the rain all night long, just to rouse her supposed affection. But he did move, more so in coincidence with her request. He moved for no other reason than because it felt right, just as it did, getting out in the first place. “Don’t tell me to relax?” he said, turning the ignition and accelerating slowly. “I fucking hate that.” His nose ached. It felt as if someone had wedged the leg of a chair up his right nostril, sideways. The flow of blood down his face made his face feel full, like when he used to have a beard. He had only had one for a short time before he had to get rid of it. It 24


wasn’t so much his wife’s grievance, it was Korine. She didn’t like it. It was too prickly. It made her feel yucky. And it was gross when she hugged him. So he shaved it off. He liked the feeling, though, of having a beard. He felt less exposed. Other people looked at him differently and the ones that didn’t know him, they talked to him different as well. They asked him different things. And they asked in a different way. The Father liked that. And the blood, now gushing from his apparently broken nose, it spilled over his lips and onto his chin and it ran down his neck and dripped onto the seat in the space between his legs. His hair was matted and cold from the rain but his face and his neck, they felt warm and covered. Less exposed. “Oh,” The Mother said, in strange joviality, “there’s parking out front.” The Mother walked in first, covering her hair from the falling rain with a folded comic she found in the backseat. The Father followed. He stood, though, in the rain, watching the cars, as they zoomed past him on the street. He looked back inside through the doors, their heavy hinges slowly shutting him out. Inside the room, The Mother was parading herself from person to person and taking from each one, a moment in their seemingly tender embrace. This wasn’t the first meeting they had been to. It was no strange encounter. Not one from which The Father might have been truantly absconding. This might have been the third or the fourth or maybe the thirty first. The Father wasn’t sure. It all felt kind of the same. The meetings and the people that he saw there, and the chairs too, and how they were arranged to look like sundrenched petals, they always looked kind of the same. And the names of children, those who had died tragically in accident or injury or disease or at 25


birth, they were written in the sand and pictured, way up above as if god were the lens and they too, they looked kind of the same. And the grief, oh the grief! It, and unto it, the absurd amount of lavish attention, it was always in such abundance, more so, than the vat of coffee, that which sat tepid and carious in the back of the room. And the warm shower of grief and the weak tepid coffee. They too, were always, kind of the same. The faces. The mourning. The longing stares. The teary eyes. The suffocating embraces. The choking words that spluttered like an engine starved of air, from their arid crackling voices. The understanding. The sympathy. And the weak tepid coffee. They all kind of felt the same. Everything, not just the meetings and the healing and that coffee, but everything. Everything seemed to feel this way. There was a particular pattern to every day that The Father seemed to be unfolding and looking into even further with each passing of the sun into the setting of his thoughts. And as he tried to look further into his thoughts, into his feelings and into the things around him that were supposed to matter, he found more often, that everything was kind of the same. Once, years ago, The Father had gone a course of antibiotics. He had suffered from a depression. And one day, something triggered in him. A disliking thought. A stupid suggestion. It was something. What it was exactly is not important for you to know. It won’t change what you think of him. It was just a trigger. And a trigger is never quite as interesting as what it projects. So that day, something did happen. And The Father, he went head strong into a warm and abasing depression. Now, it wasn’t the 26


depth of his mind that had him fall ill, but in fact, where his mind had been kept; that being in the farthest most congested corner of the top floor of a clittered and clattered and cluttered, stuffy and stifling studio. Sitting there that day, as his deeply depressing lungs sagged and soured in a sink of sticky, humid air, an evil had born itself in his lungs and by the end of that day, he was laid upon a hospital stretcher, unable to breathe and covering, with his right hand, the scratches and scars on his left shoulder, those which he could not explain and hoped would not have the young child beside him, thinking he were strange or worse yet, dangerous. Aside from the depression and pneumonia, and the way he felt as the impressionable boy beside him thought of things he could say and ask while staring at the scratches on The Father’s arms, thinking of them with fewer objections than The Father did himself, aside from that, was the treatment. It was a course of antibiotics; little white pills; and he took them. He took them as prescribed. He took them without debate. He took them, hungered to be lesser than the ill that he was. He took them, wanting to be healed. He took them all. Not a pill more and not a pill less. Not a second outside of when they were supposed to be taken. And with his treatment came an illness on his tongue, one in which everything that passed his lips – everything, from the air that he breathed to the lightly peppered cheese that he ate – they all tasted the same. They tasted as if the food had been dusted with cigarette ash and gently kneaded and massaged inside cancerous lungs. Everything had that same sickly flavor. He couldn’t smoke. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t drink. And he wished that it was that he could not breathe. Everything tasted the same. And that was healing. It was what healing tasted like. 27


It was healing’s aroma. It was the dry retch that healing left, desiccating in his mouth. It was what healing made everything become. Fetid and polluted. Common and mundane. Just as it was now. The healing and the therapy and the people and the coffee. Weak and tepid. But different today was the trickle of blood that ran from a cut in his nose, over his swollen lips, down into the groove on his chin – from an accident he had had as a young boy wanting to be faster than he was skilled at being – and in a thin, almost artfully brushed line, down the center of his shirt. There wasn’t a lot of blood but to a common person, it might seem that there was, in fact, a great deal. It was in no way gushing. It was just a clear stream of red from the round in his right nostril, down onto his chest where it had slowed and dried, ending just above his belly button. It was the preciseness, and the fact that still, after having been some twenty minutes from the altercation, from having been punched in the nose, he hadn’t wiped his hand across his face. Not even a scratch at his pulsing nose. Not even a broad wipe of the sweat from his brow, that which paused below his eye like a modest tear, before catching the current of his sunken cheek into the deluge of his swollen lip and the river of red that surged from it. And so, as the black and fetid street rain splashed up the backs of his legs from passing cars, The Father watched through the steamed and blurry glass doors. He watched as The Mother moved from person to person and drank upon their sympathy like a drunkard would, the warm dregs from scores of squashed and discarded cans. “She’s so good at that,” he said. A passer-by turned to his attention. “So good at what?” The Passer-by thought as she passed him on by. 28


The Father didn’t notice. The Mother made them come at this hour, at this late hour. Either on purpose or not, she did. And he knew it was because of this affection, the way they devoured her grief like hundreds of thousands of white wriggling maggots, swarming upon a mound of warm feces. She made them come late; conscious of it or not. If she were first in the car, with her impatience sounding out the honking horn, they would arrive late. Even if she had taken to driving herself, obviously knowing the better way, they’d end up behind a slow moving truck and an argument would break out over why she wouldn’t overtake. But really, it would be about ‘what else, he wasn’t telling her’. That would upset him. Then there would be a passing comment, some snide remark while he stared out the passenger window, watching the exit they should have taken, passing into his side mirrors. Then something would be said in a mutter and it would be followed by shouting and cursing and hurtful truths and from that, there would be heavy traffic or a flat tire or a wrongly taken short cut or there’d be a fight with some guy in thunderstorm and it would have nothing to do with what that guy had said or done, it would just feel like the right thing to do when all other options had failed; when shouting and cursing and hurling abuse didn’t make either of them understand any better, what the other one had wanted all along. Something, other than her wanting to be there would always make them late. And she would walk through those doors, and she would be shushed of her apology and in the first spate of kindness, she would let go of her watery cannons, and upon the first sprinkle, the petals would all part as men and women and their brought along children, they would all rise to their feet and cradle The Mother and then give her all of their blessing. They would give her all of their forgiveness. They would give her all of their everything. And as the last one in, as the center of their attention, she 29


would have to give nothing away, of that, which she was given. “Please, make no excuses, not amongst friends,” The Leader said, gently caressing with her middle finger, the arch below The Mother’s shoulder blades, at the point where they instinctively curved whenever she felt inexperienced or aroused. From around the sacred circle came a flood of salted eyes, all swept up by the sediment of The Mother’s drab current, it, far more suppressing and convincing than the smile she wore like an ill-fitting blouse. The people and their nursing faces, some of them new but most of them, now seeming safe and familiar, they all washed upon her isle of depression and clung to her wrought iron expression like dogged barnacles. The Mother felt a shiver run through, inside and around her. She wasn’t sure where it started. It didn’t seem to matter whether it was at the tips of her toes, at the arch of her feet or in the folds of skin that tucked inside the round of her knees or whether it was by the dip in her waist or neath the curve in her breast or at the palm of her hand, just below the scar that itched, ever since she was a girl. It might have started in the back of her mind or it might have started on the back of her hand. It might even have been from the curling finger, lightly caressing the arch below her shoulder blades. Anything could have started this shiver and if she knew, if she had found the source, she would ask and she would beg and she’d pray and she’d plead and she’d do whatever they asked, to kindly feel that way again. The Mother hadn’t felt this way, not since she was eight when she fell off her bicycle and badly grazed her knee. Back then, when she was little, the people she depended on - the people that loved her – they never thought twice about smothering a young girl, so obviously hurt and distraught, in every inch of their affection; where in the coldness of her mounting fear, they would hesitate not, in warming her, in the blanket of their hearts. She missed that. She hadn’t felt that, not since that day. She didn’t feel it when 30


she was eleven, and she came home from school every day in tears and her mother said that everything would be ok, even though both of them knew that it wouldn’t and even though, when the tears dried and her sobbing stopped, even though it might have looked like she wasn’t actually hurt, beneath all of that, beneath her feigned calm, she was. She was hurt. And she was scared. And when her mum dried her tears that day, when she was eleven, when she rubbed her back and scrunched her head and when she held her tight and said, whilst flicking through the pages of a magazine, “It’ll all be ok, don’t you worry now,” she didn’t feel the way she felt when she was eight with her badly grazed knee. And that day, years later, when she rushed home from school and there was nobody there. When she knew there was something wrong. When she thought she was going to die. When there was all that blood down there. She had never felt that scared before and hardly since. And that day, when she locked herself in the bathroom, crying at the dreaded thought of having to go back to school, and when her mother shouted through the bathroom door that “There’s nothing to worry about, you’re just becoming a woman,” she had never felt as confused. And still to this day, she wondered every now and then, “How much must I bleed before I finally become a woman?” And that book that her mother snuck in her panty drawer, the one that was scribed by thick knuckled nurses and was more like a handbook for changing motor oil than it was, delicate and necessitous to how she felt at that moment. That book, her mother’s words and how she was just supposed to gingerly pass through such a metamorphosis, it too bared no comparison to what she had felt when she was eight and she grazed her knee. She didn’t feel the way she felt now, at the mercy of a stranger’s kindness. She didn’t feel that way. She hadn’t felt that way. 31


Not in such a long time. Not since she grazed her knee. And now. Now that she had fallen. Now that she had grazed her soul. And now that she was so apparently hurt. Bandaged in a brightly colored blouse and tidy smile. Now, she felt that way once more. Their embrace could have gone on forever. And she would have had it that way too, had she half a chance. It could have been all that they had to discuss and if it were, it would have been all that she would ever have wanted to hear. If she needn’t speak for herself to be so heard, for a stranger to see through her every layer and for them to hear the pitch of her unsung verse, if she needn’t say a word, not one syllable, then let her conduct their choir, let them sing of her muted note. “I don’t know what to say,” The Mother said, holding scores of warm curling hands whilst turning to paint her appreciation in each of their attentive eyes. The Leader brushed her palm over her back. “Your eyes speak of what your tongue has learned, of not what to do,” The Leader said. The Mother gazed into the glimmer of her eyes. She looked as if she could weather any storm. “It’s natural,” said The Leader, “for us to feel this great frustration like there is something wrong with us for the way we feel.” Everyone nodded. “The way we feel…” The Leader said in dramatic pause, her hands held over her heart as she lowered her chin to her chest and inhaled. “How are we supposed to know how we feel? How do you feel?” she said, posturing to a timid woman, shaking as her hands clung like her leaders, to her clammy chest. “I feel…..” “Of course you’re without word,” said The Leader, pulling the woman in close to her chest like any wounded dove would wish 32


that their mother had done. “You were told, since birth, you were learned, to say the opposite of what you felt. It was wrong, it was uncultured, it was rude, it was whatever it was, but it was never taught to you as being right to just say what you feel. You never learned those words. We” she shouted. “We never learned those words. When you’re frightened, when you feel scared, when you feel inappropriate, when you feel incapable, when you feel beset upon and insufficient in your own escape when you feel this way; like a woman besieged, how the hell are you supposed to put that into word? Not when our learning is founded on man’s metaphoric assumption of what the hell is going on. Speaking in bloody euphemisms so as not to disgust or unsettle anyone with your emotional discord. You couldn’t possibly explain what’s going on. You learned as a girl that whatever is wrong, when someone asks you, ‘what’s wrong?’ What do you say?” “Nothing,” said one woman. “Nothing” shouted everyone else. “That’s right. You say ‘Nothing’. And then someone offers you a sandwich and you say ‘no thank you’ and some boy pinches your bum and you turn and say ‘I’m sorry’ like somehow you’re to blame like you made him do that and now he feels bad and somehow that’s your fault. And then someone gives you something you that didn’t ask for and that you didn’t even want nor need it and they make you say ‘thank you’ even though you don’t feel an inch grateful. You feel something else entirely and you can’t say how you feel cause you don’t know what that is. So when someone asks you now, ‘how do you feel”, what do you say?” All of them, the women and the men and the children, they all looked at The Mother. And The Leader too, she was looking in her direction and she was holding her arms out, to welcome her to her loving bosom. “How do you feel?” asked The Leader again. The Mother’s face tightened. “Don’t think?” said The Leader. “Just say what you feel.” Her hand continued once again, to caress the arch below 33


The Mother’s shoulder blades. “How do you feel?” she asked once more. “Lonely,” said The Mother. The Mother lifted her solemn glare and through the splatter of droplets that blurred the outside world through the glass doors, she could just barely see The Father, looking right back at her. She didn’t smile and she didn’t nod and she didn’t hint at all for him to do anything other than what he was already doing. She stared at him, just as a pigeon might, at ‘Saturn devouring his son’ or its shadow, cast upon what it could not see. It was as if The Father were a word that she had not learned, one of which she could not spell, one of which she had no will to pronounce. He was like a conspicuous clause in a contract, written in fine print and easily overlooked. And like a lapse in her sight, he was hardly distinguishable from the watery smudges that blurred the glass doors where he stood, gazing back at her. He was hardly the man she had imagined him once being. As she stared from her seat, smiling genuinely at the warm expressions setting about her, she lowered her hands between her legs once more, hidden beneath the seat where she sat. And as if she were scratching some itch that shamed her to have and worsened her to attend to, she picked ever so gently at the fine thread of the small button nose with her long colored nail. “You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to. Not with your words, if you cannot muster the strength just yet. We understand. We all do. We have all been where you are now. I’m not saying your pain isn’t unique. That it’s not important. All of our pain is. It is ours to bear. It is ours to carry through every morning. While the rest of the world continues with their mundane and normal lives, our pain, our unique pain, it’s what we carry and learn to tuck away, somewhere out of sight so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable or worse yet, somewhere close to as sad as how we feel. But we have to carry on. And we have to do so, carrying our enormous debt. This weight that we cannot shed. We cannot because we can’t. 34


People ask us what’s wrong. But they have no intention of listening or feeling an inch of the hurt that we feel. The same hurt we all feel in our own unique way. We are all here to listen. In this group, we are survivors. We mourn every second of every day until we finally pass out on our beds from a cocktail or remorse and blame and a hundred thousand ways that we could have done things differently. And then we hurt again, in our dreams. You don’t have to speak. Not with your words. We’re all becoming experts in reading the other kind of talk. The one where you smile and you say that nothing’s wrong and everything’s ok” said The Leader. She walked around the circle, touching the backs of women and their accompanying men, and onto the crowns of their children, some of whom were looking at The Mother with warm meritorious smiles, offering their condolences and a sympathetic helping hand. The Mother cried. It wasn’t much at first. It sounded more like she was nursing a light cold. Then, when she saw the child in the seat opposite her, reaching out his hand with a single tear escaping the clutch of his eye, she could no longer hold back the pressure she had kept inside of her, that which had weighed so heavily in the dark shadowy corners of her thoughts, hissing and booing at any thought she had amassed of her ever believing it not to be true. That which had smothered her every inspiration for the entire of her life, that slurry of childlike frustration, it spilled from a crack in her mature restraint. And she cried. As if her knee had just been grazed.

35


Linda tucked her bag into the curve in her arm and inched her way out of the car, careful not to pull on the mats on the floor. This drove her crazy and it was dangerous too. If she was driving and the mat slipped up behind the brake pedal, and if she was coming to a corner, she wouldn’t be able to stop the car in time to save all those poor children. “That poor boy,” she thought as she locked the door. Linda loved her little car. It wasn’t hers so to speak, it belonged to the clinic she worked for, but it was hers to take her to and from work and she could keep it in her car space at the building and that way, every one of her neighbors would see that she had a car and that she was going places. From the elevator door, she stood in silent applause, watching as the light flickered above her car and though it was probably the smallest car in the parking lot, and though its color was probably the most common and drab, it was her car and that made her giddy; quietly giddy, but giddy nonetheless. “Miss,” said the person in the elevator for what might have been the fifteenth time. “Miss, are you getting in?” Linda turned, broken from her spell. As she stepped in, she stared into the tall mirror that hanged above the elevator. It was there for security, to see if any troublesome or suspect people were lurking about in the darkness, ready to rob her or kidnap her or kidnap her and then rob her and then rape her, or someone just like her. The elevator was so slow. It was slow to arrive and it was even slower to leave, even after you’d pressed the button a hundred times. She wondered every now and then, if there ever was someone in the mirror if she did see a bad man waiting by the door to catch her, what the jeepers could she do? 36


As the doors started to eventually close, Linda caught one last glimpse of her car under the flickering light and she clutched her hands over her breasts, plagued by the thought of being kidnapped and being set on fire, like what happened to that dentist the other week, the one who had a bottle of rubbing alcohol thrown all over her because she didn’t have any money to give to the thieves. And they set her on fire, those no good vagabonds. They did it because they were mad. Because everyone was mad now. Linda hated elevators. When she was alone she didn’t mind too much, as long as there wasn’t a big mirror on one side. She always felt uncomfortable seeing her reflection looking at her like it always did. She was always waiting for it to come to life and tell her that she should have called her mother and that the small cuts on her thigh, they weren’t accidental; things she didn’t at all want to hear. This elevator had such a mirror. But Linda couldn’t see her judging reflection because there were too many people crowded inside. Feeling scores of eyes parading about her, she flattened her dress over her knees with one hand whilst gripping her other hand to her shoulder so that her bags were safe, in case someone tried to rob her when the elevator opened at their floor. Everyone was gathered in a kind of circle with their backs against the walls and some with their backs against the mirror. Linda was glad for this, but she didn’t want to have to stand across from someone and have to stare at them or to have to stare at their feet. Linda hated feet, even her own. Linda stood in front of the door with her back to the other neighbors. She could feel their eyes all staring at her and probably saying things about her haircut, even though she really liked it. People were more often mean and stupid because they didn’t really know anything about what looked pretty or comfortable. And if it wasn’t her hair, they’d probably be looking at her calves and how they flickered like the light above her car whenever she had to stand still, especially in front 37


of other people and especially still, when she stood in queues to buy lottery tickets or when she took a shower in winter, but nobody ever saw that. It was just a thing. “It’s terrible isn’t it?” said a woman behind her, obviously talking about her neighbors, the family in 9B. “I don’t know what I’d do,” said another. “My brother in law saw it happen you know,” said a third, stepping into the hushed gossip. “Well, he didn’t see it happen, so to speak. But he saw, you know before everything was cleaned up. Terrible. So sad. I would be heartbroken. Absolutely.” “Inconsolable,” said another. “Yes. That’s the perfect word, inconsolable. It makes you wonder, though.” “About what?” “You know.” “What do you mean?” “It doesn’t matter. I tell you, though, it makes you stop, a tragedy like this, it makes you stop, and be grateful for what you have, you know?” “I know just what you mean. All of a sudden when mine has a tantrum, it’s not the end of the world you know? Though I have to say, since what happened, our boy really hasn’t been acting up. Not like his usual self ” said the woman laughing; “We had netting up all along. With kids, would you really want to take that kind of risk?” “Do you think she’s evil? I saw this report and a psychiatrist said that the daughter, you know; that she had a kind of evil gene, like Hitler or Damien Omen or something. What do you think?” “I would have done the same thing to her if it was my children.” “You know she’s coming home don’t you? Back here. Can you believe that?” “Really? She should be locked up forever. What the hell is wrong with the world? And the parents? Just taking her home, as if 38


nothing happened? Disgusting.” “I can’t help but think about the other children in the building you know? I don’t have kids myself but, what if she is evil, and she does it to another child? What if she does it to yours” said the woman looking at one of her neighbors. “Stop it” shouted Linda. She turned, her teeth bared, her hands still clamped to her breasts. “Stop. Just stop it. You nosy, stupid donkeys” she shouted. “It’s not nice. You shouldn’t be so…” she said pausing, her face like a ripe tomato. “You shouldn’t be so mean. You’re mean. And you’re stupid. “And,” she said, clenching her fists into tiny balls and shaking her body from side to side as if she were trying to squash an ant or as if she were dancing, out of pure spite. “You’re just mean and stupid is all. And I like my hair. It’s comfortable and it is pretty. It’s not what you think. You... You… You shouldn’t talk about other people. You just, you shouldn’t is all.” It was the type of outburst that deserved a slamming door or a middle finger and the squealing of tires. Linda turned back to the door, her heart beating a million times a second and her breath sounding like a bulldozer, coarse and heaving, as she exhaled heavily into the residue of ignorance that banked in the now awkward silence in the elevator. This all happened when the shiny green light was on the second floor. Linda though lived on the ninth. The others in the elevator, they were all from the eleventh, fourteenth and nineteenth floors and probably thinking they were so special too because of it. Linda hated elevators. When the third floor lit up green, Linda wished it would go faster. When the fourth floor lit up green, Linda took her keys in her left hand. When the fifth floor lit up green, Linda clenched the front door key and jingled the rest, breaking the silence and forgetting about her flickering thighs, her comfortable hair and how nobody 39


had said a single thing, not a sound, not even a cough, not since the second floor. When the sixth floor lit up green, Linda took a deep breath and exhaled. When the seventh floor lit up green, Linda wished she hadn’t gotten her keys out so early, so she jiggled them once more as if she were trying to unclog them. When the eighth floor lit up green, Linda closed her eyes. She was next, finally. When the ninth floor it green, her heart was beating so fast. And when the doors opened, she turned and smiled and said, “Goodnight, see you soon.” And so did everyone else. Linda shuffled out of the elevator still clutching her bags tight to her chest. It always took a second or two for the light to click on. There was a sensor on the wall, up high and hidden behind an ugly looking plant. As the doors closed behind her, Linda waited in the dark with all sorts of crazy thoughts spiraling in her head. She’d heard about people on the television who had been kidnapped right at their front doors and in each of the cases, it was always in a moment like this when the lights were not working properly and there was nobody else about. The light flicked on and then Linda looked to her left and to her right, almost as if she were crossing a street. As she rattled her keys on the door, no doubt scaring away any thieves or rapists that might have been hiding inside, she was startled, just a little, by sounds coming from the apartment beside her; 9C. She didn’t know the tenant who lived there. She had never met him before. She hadn’t even seen him around the building, but she knew his name, though. It was Evan. She knew this because he didn’t lock his Wi-Fi router and it meant she didn’t have to spend money on the internet herself. There was moaning coming from behind the door. Linda wanted to look away, to think of something else and on any other 40


day she might have. She might have bit her lip as she pressed her shoulders to her ears before quickly scuttling inside her apartment, scampering as fast as she could for a control of any sort, anything to drown out the sound of muffled perversion. She might have. But she didn’t. Instead, Linda leaned down quietly to rest her bags on the ground, quiet so that they didn’t ruffle and let anyone know what she was doing. She wasn’t spying. No, she was just reaching for the piece of paper that was on the ground near her neighbor’s door, that’s all. Linda pressed her ear against the door. It sounded like someone was having sex. And not just one or two people either, it sounded like maybe four or five or maybe even six. There were a lot of voices and though they were low and muffled, Linda could just make out some of the things they were shouting and screaming and begging for, at least it sounded like begging. Linda had no idea what they were saying. And there was a smell of gas from the cracks in the door. She looked around nervously, holding the piece of paper in her shaking hands low to the ground so that if anyone did come out, she could stand up quickly and pretend it had just happened. Her knees shook, as she listened. And it was not from the suspense. Her mouth dried and a shiver ran through her when she heard what sounded like men and women, purging in orgasmic shouting and squealing, and it shook her, right to her knees. She had no idea what they were doing. And the smell of gas, it was making her queasy. She felt that there were probably a hundred eyes on her, spying on her, spying on her neighbor; probably from a hidden camera. What would they think of her if she got caught? Immediately she tightened up and crunched the paper in her hands and gathered from the floor, her pile pf plastic bags, and headed into her apartment, peering back into the dark hallway as she slowly closed the door to make sure there was nobody hiding behind the ugly plants 41


who might have been following her and who would come out, once she was gone. When she entered her apartment she saw it, a letter addressed to her and it was lying on her mat as if someone had pushed it under the door. Normally letters were left in her mailbox in the basement but someone had delivered it, whoever they were. She took the letter and placed it on the table beside her notebook and just as she was about to carefully peel it open, the intercom rang. “Good evening,” she said, regally. “Good night Madame. You’ll be knowing that the swimming teacher is here. Do you want I should let him up?” asked The Porter. Linda cringed as he spoke. “Let him in. I’ll be down in a minute. Tell him to wait.” The Porter said something, trying to be polite but Linda had already taken the receiver away from her ear and didn’t hear him. It wouldn’t have been anything important anyway and would no doubt have been said quite poorly. It wasn’t his fault. It was just his kind, where he came from and because of it, how he spoke. It bothered Linda. But she wasn’t racist or anything. In her room, Linda slowly unpacked her plastic bags. She was so happy with the things she had bought and she couldn’t wait to unwrap them. She was always this way with new things. Her most favorite time when she was a girl was before opening her presents when they were laid out on her bed and she could line them up and count them all one by one and then try to pick them all up in her arms at once. She could never hold them all, though. One would always fall onto the bed or worse yet, onto the floor. She always loved, though, the moment before opening a present, imagining what it could be. It was always so much more fun than tearing off the package and having to put on that stupid smile and trying her hardest not to cry when she saw what it really was. When it was never anything like she had imagined. And worse than getting a stupid present was having to say 42


thank you like she meant it, even though, looking at the presents, she could tell how little anyone actually cared. Seeing presents side by side was definitely the best part. She rested the bags on the bed, one beside the other, just like she did when she was a girl. They looked neat and puffed out, filled with surprises. She imagined that in one, there was a new swim suit. It was a one-piece and it was made by that famous company that made all the swimsuits for the people who won gold medals at the Olympics. And it was the color green. Green was her favorite color. Just as she was about to imagine what was in the other plastic bags, the intercom rang again. She jumped in shock as if someone had tapped her shoulder in the scariest part of a movie. And she reacted how she always reacted when someone did something like that, in anger. She squeezed her fists into tight balls and stared at the other two plastic bags. She wanted so much to imagine what was inside them but that idiot porter was calling her nonstop and she couldn’t concentrate, not with that stupid buzzing. “Calm down” she screamed into the receiver, “I’m coming. Wait your turn” she shouted, slamming the receiver back onto its stand. She went back into her room and stared at the two remaining bags on the bed. She wanted so much to imagine. It was no use, though. Her mood had been ruined by that stupid idiot and her stupid swimming teacher. He probably told the porter to tell her to hurry up or something. Stupid donkey. She took the first bag and opened it slowly with her fingers, trying to creep it open and see if it was what she thought it was. “Please be a swimsuit,” she said out loud, closing her eyes tightly with an anxious smile, like the onset of tetanus, wrenching her face into some kind of a deranged grimace. She peeled back the bag and pulled something smooth out. It was a kind of fabric that slipped between her fingers, just like the good swimsuits did, the ones made by the best companies. She 43


hoped it was a swimsuit. She said so, out loud. “I hope it’s a swimsuit,” she said, now crossing her fingers on her right hand. It was lucky, to cross her fingers only on her right hand. If she did both hands, one would cancel the other out. Most people thought that it would make double luck. It didn’t though. It was the same rule for if she had them behind her back. Most people didn’t know that, though. That’s why most people had such horrible luck. They were always doing it the wrong way. Linda opened her eyes and she screamed. “Oh my god, it’s a swimsuit” she shrieked, just like a little girl. “It is, it is, it is. I can’t believe it is” she shouted, jumping up and down on the spot and clenching her brand new swimsuit in her hands, stretching it like a balloon, until it felt like it would explode in two pieces and then when it was about to, letting it snap back into place. And it was just like she hoped it would be. And it was really nice too, and probably really fast. And it had lines along the side that stuck out. And it had grooves on it that stuck out too and would make her swim really fast, just like a dolphin or a shark or even a boat. Linda imagined herself swimming alongside a boat, maybe the English Channel, wherever that was. And in her thoughts, the boat tailing alongside her had scores of photographers and fans and people who ran websites and news journalists and even her mum, but she was probably in the back of the boat, making a scene with the captain because she thought it was going to be catered and because of that, she didn’t eat. And her coach yelled out “Go Linda go!” And then everyone joined in. And they were all shouting, “Go, Linda, you can do it. You’re the best, you’re number one.” And she knew it; that she was the best that is. But it was nice to hear it. 44


On she powered, through the heady wake and freezing water. On she powered, stroke after stroke, her arms like Viking oars. On she powered, under a reign of stars and a glowing crescent moon. And with salt stinging her eyes, she powered on, with millions of people, all chanting her name. And they all started clapping really loud, to the rhythm of her every stroke. And her coach shouted, “I love you” and he was handsome, like George Clooney, in that movie he was in. And then someone yelled “Shark” but all Linda could hear was her mother, making the captain turn the boat around, so she could pick up some sandwiches. Linda stood in front of the mirror, holding her new swimsuit. She was so anxious to put it on. She quickly undressed, almost ravaging and tearing off every button. She wasn’t normally like this, not in the slightest. She always looked after everything that she had ever owned and she was always really careful not to put a scuff mark on the floor or a coffee ring on the table or to leave the lid off the toothpaste so that it dried and clogged up or even to be in such a stupid rush to take off her clothes that she ended up breaking a button or making a thread come loose. Today was different. Today was her birthday. Linda stood naked in front of the mirror and tilting her head from side to side, looking at the rolls of fat on her belly that hanged over her hips like the delicious frosting on her favorite cake. She’d lost a lot of weight since starting Pilates and running, in fact, probably a bit too much weight. That’s why she had to drink protein whenever she worked out because if she trained any harder, she would probably just disappear. Still, as thin as she made herself out to be, she couldn’t take her eyes of a tiny fold by her hips. It was probably from the chocolate she had today at the clinic. She brought in a cake so the other dentists, they could sing her happy birthday and celebrate with her. It was really busy today though at the clinic. Even though 45


everyone wanted to go, nobody had the time. It was always like that. So Linda blew out her candle and ate her cake by herself. And now she was looking at the faint but noticeable folds of skin on her hips and she knew straight away that it was definitely from the cake. It was delicious, though. 80% cocoa. The intercom rang again “Oh fuck you, donkey” she screamed, naked and admiring.

46


“Excuse me, sir.” “Sorry,” said The Father, still standing in the pouring rain. He did that a lot, apologizing for things that were not his fault. The couple squeezed past him to enter the meeting. The way they contorted their bodies and the awkward shapes they embellished, it was as if he had something on his shirt, something of which he was unaware, but something they did not want to pass onto their own. The door closed quickly, weighed by heavy hinges. It seemed fitting. Considering the theme. He saw though, as the couple snuck past him and shook off the hundreds of droplets of rain from their shoulders, the woman he had fallen out of favor with, lurching into the embrace of a young boy and beside her, on the ground by her seat, lay the small colored butterfly with its small button nose, swinging back and forth lightly, as if it had just been put there; as if it had just happened. The Father turned from the door and, convinced that the disruption of his thoughts was from a hunger, went in the direction of a gas station, somewhere up the road from where he was. Though he could see very little through the spitting rain, he knew the station was there. He could see its neon light, like a careless spilling of yellow paint, smeared across the dank evening sky. As he stood on the edge of the curb, his feet perching precariously past their ability to keep him from harm, scores of screaming cars rushed past him, their wipers screeching in vehement fury. The Father looked as if he were waiting for the right time to cross, though, rallying back and forth on the balls of his feet, with his arms weighted and deadened by his sides and his eyes 47


kept perfectly shut, his thoughts were of a wind, picking him away from where he stood and showering him down into a pit of endless abandon. Somewhere that he could fall for an eternity, without having to think of what came next. And in his thoughts, in his dangerously rocking imaginings, as he so nearly fell into the path of a passing bus, he wished for the wind to pull apart him apart, atom by atom, and cast him into the infinite black traverse. But that wind of which he wished for, to a god in whom he did not believe, that very same wind, instead of fragmenting his molecular self like a child’s breath upon a handful of sand, that very same wind, it brought with it, a hundred thousand trillion billion atoms. Tiny atoms. Of so many different colors. Of which warmed And then swarmed. Of which furled. And then swirled. Of which settled in the form of a sad little girl. And as he stood on the edge of the curb almost falling into the flow of heavy traffic, he stared at the sad little girl who was in the middle of the road with an unopened umbrella in her hands and her fringe, matted across her face. “What am I supposed to do?” he screamed, spitting like the heavens above. He shouted so loud that a passing car heard his plight and shouted back, but it was hardly as loud or as terrifying as the crack of thunder which struck above The Father’s head, sending him hurtling backwards, knocking over a passage of huddling pedestrians and then falling awkwardly onto his hands and his rear. He looked disheveled as if he had just woken from some opiated stupor, unsure of how he was ever going to get back on his feet. And should he somehow manage, how then would he stop himself from falling back down? “Hmpf,” declared an elderly woman standing beside him. 48


“Typical.” She turned in obnoxious objection and her much younger but still, very much elderly companion, moved to her championing, putting himself between her and the saliferous villain, dawdling on the filth ridden concrete by their feet. They both shook their heads with the lady pulling her scarf to silken her insulted expression. And one of them mentioned drugs, for that was what the world had come to these days. And then the other one mentioned pity, not of the kind that they would spare for this man, but for the world in which they had borne, that which had so unfortunately come to this. The Father started to weep and his tears were heavier than the rain. The old lady, she cringed, as if a vermin had scuttled past her shoe. The chivalrous man, elderly he was, yet a young man in the old lady’s thoughts, he said, “We should go” and the old lady agreed. And the elderly man put a knightly hand on her back and before they were gone, he turned to The Father, despondent on the ground, and he gritted his teeth and he shook his one free fist. And then they were gone, into the cloud of wispy rain. “I don’t know what to do,” said The Father, over and over again. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” He stayed on the ground, his knees pulled into his chest, rocking back and forth; not like a crazy man sitting in a thunderstorm, broken by the insanity of his fractured past and crumbling thoughts. No. He rocked back and forth lightly like a man, nearing insanity, on the verge of fracture. “Oh dear, your nose. Are you ok?” a voice asked. It was a woman’s voice. She wasn’t from the group. Those people, they spoke differently. As if their words were sculpted with cotton and taffy. “Yeah,” he said, without thinking. Things like that were automatic. Like saying thank you, I’m sorry or shaking after taking a piss. 49


He wasn’t alright, though. He was nowhere it. And the woman, still with her hand just barely touching his shoulder, she knew it too. It was the thing about talking in this world. Someone would say one thing, but everybody almost always understood the other. People were like salmon you see, swimming against the current of negation. And The Father, he had been pushed out of the stream and he was flapping about neath the clawed foot of the inevitable. And with his eyes shut, in a dream or wide awake, she was always there, waiting and watching with her broken umbrella and her look, as if someone had eaten the last cupcake. Korine. “Help him up,” said The Woman. Her husband quickly rushed over to where The Father was heaped and hunched, and he linked both of their arms, lifting The Father up and onto his feet. And The Father’s legs, they wobbled at first, like a child, escaping infancy with its first giddy steps. He looked like he was going to undoubtedly fall back down to the ground the second The Husband let go. He, The Husband, looked to his wife. He wanted some kind of assurance that he was doing the right thing. When The Father first held Korine, he gave the same expression, looking over to The Mother with the sleeping child in his arms, certain in his mind that at any second, he would flinch or stutter or give in to an itch and then the infant would fall from his arms and crash and tumble along the floor and ‘oh god just do something’ was the look that he wore on his face while his wife, lying bloodied and sutured and imprisoned by tubes and wires to her bed, looked at The Father consolingly as if to say, “Don’t look at me, I’m tied to a fucking bed.” The Woman wore the same look on her face, looking up from the note that was in her hands, that which had fallen from the pocket of The Father’s jacket. She looked perturbed as if she had discovered the ending to a book that in her life, she would never have imagined reading. “Just seat him down there, it doesn’t matter,” she said to The 50


Husband, hinting towards a small plastic seat that sat unseated by an inclining staircase to an office with no name upon it. A minute earlier, maybe even as little as a second or two, The Woman might have knelt down beside The Father, and she might have spoken to him as she would, an injured bird or a frightened child. She might have descended to his level, speaking at the pitch of his disparity and listened, with such delicate sedulity, to the subtle gestures between every sulking breath inhaled and every teary bridge, haloed out in frustrated chorale; those winks and nods and slight tremors of his lips or even the slight curl of his tongue, pushing against the back of his teeth. She might have waited until the storm of his indecision took a breath of its own; until the galling wind eased for just a trillionth of a second. And in that space, in that infinitesimal break in the vacuity of his rage and torment, she might have dived into the silence and whispered to his quieted penurious ear, something of which would be enough to console him, as whatever storm lashed and raged about in his mind and swept up the tides of his emotions, passed over his head quicker than if he had tried to fight it on his own and left him unweathered. The Father might have looked at her and though he might have known that she was not his lover, his wife, his maid or his mother, that she might have been all of that to the strange man looking on precariously beside her, he might have done something so unexpected yet something so real and so unquestionable as to throw his arms around The Woman, to nurse himself on her shoulder and to weep, without pause or reflection, into the flow of fine blonde hairs that swept like listing clouds across her neck. And strangers might have stopped, and in seeing this, they might have, in the rasping of cold wind upon their ittery and jittery arctic expressions, felt a rush of warmth spill from their hearts, down until their fingertips. And they might have, watching two strangers embrace, taken the hands of their lovers or their children or even taken the passing glare of an absolute stranger and turned it from being something ordinary and unmentionable, into 51


something as kind, heady and peculiar as a first kiss. None of this happened, though. Had it been a minute or a second earlier, maybe it might have, who knows? But as long as The Woman had in her mind and in her heart, the message she had read from that note, there was no way that she was going to descend unto where she needed, to look The Father in his eyes. There was no way she would extend herself. Not that far, not that low. “C’mon,” she said, hurrying The Husband along. She gave him a specific kind of look. She may not have ever given it before. In fact, this might have been the first she had ever felt like this in her life, having to express something so sternly and with such urgency, without word, and without obvious expression. The Husband stared at her. He looked lost. Out of synch. Without translation. The Woman smiled. It was a heavy smile. It opened and shut like the swing of a car door. And it didn’t at all seem like she was pleased or happy in any way and what a strange time and place if she were; having just picked a man up from the puddle of his own tearful disgrace. The Man realized, though, not by his wife’s expression, but by his daughter, who stepped closer to his side and cusped her tiny hand around his smallest finger. The little girl clung to his hand like an old man lying on his deathbed would, to his very last breath. He read his daughter, in the same way that she had read her mother. “I’m really sorry,” said The Husband. “I wish there was…” “Shhh” hushed The Woman, poking him in his side and then turning to The Father with a condescending smile. “What is it?” The Husband said as the family turned from The Father and walked down the street. “I just want to forget what I read,” said The Woman. “What did it say?” asked The Husband. 52


“No,” she said, clenching her teeth, wrinkling her face and clasping so desperately at her daughter’s hand. The couple continued discussing. The Husband, pestering to know more, was desperate in his childlike want, to taste a slither of what she was trying to protect him from. Their words, though, were lost in the pitter patter of water, slashing up from the shoes and boots of busied people that ran past The Father as he sat, despondent and with no grievance to how the family felt about him, for it was how he felt about himself. He watched, though, as the couple waited by the traffic lights. They stood on either side of the girl, both clasping her hands. And The Father wondered if she knew what they knew if she felt and if she thought the same as they did. He wondered if the little girl was as a scared of him as her mother was. He knew, by the way, she looked at her father, and the way that she curled her hand around his pinky, that she was frightened. She had inherited this from her mother. Children were so trained at reading their mother’s still expressions. But he wondered if she knew why she was scared, if, in her mother’s expressionless glare that she had pointed out the serpent sleeping amidst the bustle of dried crinkling leaves. Or, whether she was made to feel that danger was near and that danger, whether it could be anywhere and whether it could be anyone. The Father had his head tilted on its side but not so much that it was turned completely, just so that he could see the small girl between her mother and father’s hands, twisting her own head so that she was looking over her shoulder, and back at him. And her head was titled like his. And she didn’t look as afraid as her mother. And she didn’t look as forceful or as bold as her father. She looked confused like she had been made to feel this way and no-one had bothered to explain why. And if they asked her how she felt, if they did lend an ear, its debt would no doubt be without interest or attention. The little girl looked at The Father in the same way that he 53


had looked at The Woman and at The Husband. She had been made to feel a fear, but she did not attend his direction as a child who had just escaped the cunning invite of a monster’s charm. She looked at him with no learned derogation. Her eyes did not speak, “That is a monster, remember its outline, remember its scent and remember the clothes that it wears.” She didn’t look at him with studious intent, as she might have done, a circle or a square or a hippopotamus; being learned of a shape and what it looked like and then remembering its name and what it sounded like and then the noises that it made and the things that it ate and what whether it was food, a pet or a monkey in a zoo. And she didn’t look at him as if she were learning what he was. She just looked at him. And then she looked up at her father and she tugged on his hand and then he looked down at her and he smiled, taking her hand and then looking back, over her shoulder. He had some clemency in his eyes. He didn’t at all seem angered. He looked worried as if the monster he saw sitting slumped upon a chair were the monster he feared that one day or another, he might be unfortunate enough to become. She had told him. There was no doubt. The Husband leaned down to his daughter. She was stretching her arms upwards and making crablike gestures with her hands. He lifted her up and onto his shoulders and the girl squealed jovially, so much so that every passerby turned and their surprise changed into smiles as they watched the girl twisting about on her father’s shoulders, the frenetic beam of her eyes, lighting their way through the endless drizzle. The Father stared not at the girl, as everyone else did, he stared at The Husband’s hands and how they curled around his daughter’s ankles. He was wondering if The Husband felt as unsure as he used to and whether he thought that the girl might fall at any second, and if he could only rest from his worry when she was asleep and safe from herself. And then he thought of Korine, standing in the rain with her 54


broken, pink umbrella and her long fringe, matted across her rosy cheeks. And he wondered to himself, “Is this how other fathers feel? Am I the only one who feels this way?” Because inside, he didn’t feel like a father. He didn’t even know what one should feel like. He still felt like a boy, waiting to become a man.

55


Before she left for her swimming lesson, Linda stood at the balcony, holding onto the ledge and thinking that she should hire someone to put up a net. She never had any children come round her house and she didn’t have any pets, except for Bill Clinton of course, but he was a fish so there was no way he was going to climb out of the bowl and fall over the edge. But what if she left his bowl there overnight, so he could have some fresh air? And what if in the morning it was gone? What if the bowl fell, at a time that everyone was asleep and The Porter was doing crosswords and listening to his headphones? And what if Bill Clinton was flapping around on the ground and there was no one who could hear him and no one who could see him too? But worse still, what if someone stole him? Linda twisted her head to the side and peered upwards. It looked like all the apartments above had already had their nets put on. And the apartments below too, most of them had nets and the ones that didn’t have hooks sticking out of the borders of the window frames, so they’d probably have their nets put up before the weekend. Maybe she could ask one of her neighbors for a number or a card, and maybe she could find out how much they paid. She didn’t want to pay too much. Maybe she could get a discount on account of all the work the person was already doing, it wouldn’t be much work for them to do one more. She’d tell them that when they were already at her door. They’d probably be less inclined to say no after coming all that way and already having all their stuff and being ready to do the work. It was important that she put the net up. Everyone else was doing it. If she didn’t, from the street, it would look like she was the only one that wasn’t worried 56


about safety and probably everyone would talk bad about her and say things like “That’s the reason why she never has any visitors.” “I’ll get a net,” she said to herself. “But I’ll find a cheap one.” Her intercom rang again, but she ignored it, knowing that it was The Porter about to tell her something she already knew. The Teacher was downstairs and no doubt, so were all the other kids and they’d be waiting for her to come down before they started the lesson. The Teacher always did things like that. It was her lesson and her time and her money so she could take as long as she wanted, if that’s what she wanted to do. The elevator took forever in this building. Linda hated having to wait for things. She could be doing nothing at all if that’s what she wanted to do, and that would be ok because she liked, from time to time, sitting down on her sofa and watching the television, imagining what shows might be showing, if she had cable. She didn’t have cable, though. It was too expensive. And she didn’t know any criminals yet who could put in a wire or something and give it to her for free, like people said that all the poor people did. But Linda hated, more than anything, planning to do something and then having to wait a really long time, just so she could get it done; especially seeing as she didn’t do many things, outside of going to work, of course, and coming home from it too. So if she did have to do something, it was always pretty important, and she hated that she paid a lot of rent and condo fees and still had to have to wait as long as she did. Elevators were really boring because they were so slow. And traffic was really boring too because it was always bad, especially when she was in it, and it was just a slow as the elevator, sometimes slower. And there were heaps of other things too that were just as boring as elevators and traffic. Queues were boring and having to wait in them with other people, especially old people, that was boring too. Old people didn’t work, they didn’t have to be anywhere and they could do whatever they had to do at a different time if they wanted, when there was nobody around, when other people - younger and more important 57


important and far busier people - were at work or studying or in meetings or doing other important things. But old people just liked to slow things down and make queues. And it wasn’t just elevators or traffic or queues that were boring. Young people, they were boring too. They walked around in groups and when you were walking on the sidewalk, there would be five or six of them and they’d all be side by side. And sidewalks were made so that people could go both ways, like on the roads. And they shouldn’t be walking together like they always were. They should be walking with three in front and three behind. Or better yet, they should walk in groups of two, so everyone has a person to talk to. Young people were boring too, though, because they all wore black clothes and had they had rings in their noses and big plugs in their ears, not like the ear rings she wore, which were really pretty and expensive and a present from Graham – he is a millionaire, you know? And when they took out their plugs, those young people, their ears would look like elephant’s ears or an old lady’s breasts. They’d hang down all soggy and floppy like. That’s what young people thought was attractive. In Linda’s day, it was good posture. And she still had it. There was so much stuff that was boring. ATMs were boring because she could never remember her password. She would, if the stupid bank didn’t make her change it all the time, especially after that incident with the email when those bad people took her money. Linda hated her bank and more than that, she hated her account manager. He never rang her back when she wanted him to. He was always in a meeting or out to lunch and he always promised that he’d call back, but he never did. People making promises and not keeping them, that was boring too. And people were the most boring; because they were always thinking about themselves and ignoring everybody else. Especially 58


at the supermarket, when people left their trolleys behind someone else’s car. This was the most boring thing that anybody could do. Linda hated when people did this. If she saw it happen, she would march over to the trolley and she would stare straight at the driver who was reversing out and she’d have a mean and angry look on her face. Her eyebrows would be straight but bent, on an angle. And her lips would be closed real tight. And her eyes would be real beady like as if she were aiming a gun at someone very far away and she needed to squint, so she could see them better. And she’d look just like a jagged stone, ready to throw. And she wouldn’t say anything, she didn’t need to. She’d wait until the car pulled up beside her and then, when the driver was about to put the car in gear, she would rattle the trolley away and put it back where it belonged, setting a firm example. And she’d turn it round real quick and swing her face so that, if she had a long fringe, it would look like she was swishing it out of her eyes. And she would make a sound. It was the kind of sound that if you had to spell it out, it would look like this – humph. Linda would probably spell it ‘humff ’. That was another thing that was boring, having two ways of spelling the same sound and not knowing which one was right, and then always feeling that she had chosen the wrong one and that she’d spelt it the wrong way. And then even worse was spending the rest of the day thinking that that would be the first thing anyone would notice when they read what she wrote and they’d probably think she had no education or that she was poor, or worse still, that she wasn’t from around here. And the internet, that was the most boring of all. It was so boring mainly because everyone said it was so good and that you could do so many cool things on it. But whenever she used it, all she ever did was look at was the weather channel. And she could see that on the evening news for free. And she wouldn’t have to be worried about viruses or hackers breaking into her computer and stealing the photos that her niece put on there when her sister visited two years ago, that time she had to have surgery on her small toe. 59


“Hi.” Linda woke from her daydream. She did that a lot; daydreaming. And sometimes, when she did, her tongue hanged out of her mouth. Not all of the way, just a bit. The tip of it, it poked out. And if someone was really far away, they wouldn’t be able to see it. But if someone was close enough, like standing in an open elevator, they’d probably notice. “Good evening,” said Linda, her tongue dried and stuck to her lower teeth. The only thing worse than waiting for an elevator was being inside of one. It was probably the most boring thing in the world, more boring than the internet even. No definitely. It was definitely more boring than the internet. At least on the internet she could delete the stupid things she sometimes said. Linda always felt that she had to say something and she never knew what to say. She didn’t really like talking to people all that much. She didn’t like what they had to say and she wasn’t really interested in the things that they found fun or interesting or cool. And she shouldn’t have to talk to them. She had no reason at all. But for some reason, when she was in an elevator or when she was waiting for someone to finish pouring their coffee in the break room or when she was waiting in line to buy fresh bread, she always felt this itch, like a nervous tick, that made her jumpy and edgy. It made her feel like she had to speak, that she had to say something, the same way black beans made her feel like her stomach would explode if she didn’t pass wind, always when she was in the middle of an appointment. Linda stayed facing the metal doors. Even though she wasn’t facing the other person, she had a feeling that they were watching her and probably thinking she was rude or stupid or something because she hadn’t said a thing. Her heart was pounding in her chest. So loud, that probably the other person could hear. Theirs probably wasn’t beating that hard. Then why didn’t they speak? Why didn’t they say something? Why was it up to her? It wasn’t fair. 60


She was breathing too loud, way too loud. The other person would definitely think that she breathed too loud and then they’d probably think something bad about her because of it, like that she snored at night or that she picked her nose or that she had sucked her thumb for really long when she was a girl, longer than most other children, and that’s why her teeth were crooked. She held her breath. Everything was quiet now. She could still feel the other person staring at the back of her head, probably looking at some of the grey roots that were showing. She was going to go to the hairdressers on Saturday, but they didn’t know that. Maybe she should tell them. They were obviously looking and they would have noticed. She did when she looked in the mirror. It was the first thing she could see. She noticed it in other people too. It was always the first thing that popped out – the grey in people’s hair and what their teeth looked like, especially if their gums were receding and their teeth hanged low, like what happened when people got old, like what was happening to hers. She held her breath. And it was really quiet. And it was still only the fifth floor. She tapped her feet on the ground and she tried to think of a song to hum in her head, to tap out with her feet. She tried, but she couldn’t think of anything. She’d always have some stupid song bouncing around in her head when she was driving to work or brushing her teeth or even when she was on the toilet – it helped her be less nervous and being worried about whether she could do number two or not. She worried about that quite a lot. The elevator stopped on the fifth floor and some people got on. Linda smiled when the door opened, lifting her head for just a second before looking back at her feet. She didn’t move, though. Why should she? She was there first. They could squeeze past her, it wasn’t that hard. And anyway, if it really bothered them that much, they could just wait until she got off. The two women got on. They were young, not what Linda 61


would call a ‘young person’, but they were young, younger than her. Both of them looked really classy. They had the same haircut, both with their hair bouncing on their shoulders when they walked. And their fringes were cut short too and they were very straight. They probably got their hair done at a real fancy hairdresser; probably a hair stylist. That was where Linda wanted to get hers done, but only when she had more money. Linda immediately pressed her hand over the top of her head, hiding her roots. Thinking that the people in the elevator were waiting for her to say something and because she hadn’t said anything yet, Linda assumed they were laughing to themselves, secretly, but enough so that she could tell. And they were laughing because she was not smart enough or cultured enough to say anything and they were laughing because of her grey roots and the spider veins on her legs and her receding gums too. And if she wasn’t holding her breath, they’d probably be thinking that she breathed like a truck driver. The elevator was taking too long and Linda couldn’t hold her breath anymore. She exhaled loud and triumphant, like a breaching whale, and then gulped in long and deep. The women all stared at her as she heaved over herself, one hand pressed on her stomach and the other over the crest of her head, maybe stopping her brain from falling out. One of the women even reached forwards with her manicured hand, so that it was almost touching Linda’s back. ”Are you ok?” the woman asked, her hand moving back and forth, close to Linda’s shoulders as if she were playing her emotional chords like a Theremin. But she looked hesitant as if she expected some static shock the moment she touched Linda’s hunched and heaving body. So she didn’t. “Excuse me, miss?” she said. Linda had her eyes shut and her breathing was heavy, but it was starting to slow. How dare they assume she wasn’t married. Miss? Did they assume that she was some spinster, living alone in her apartment? That she never had a boyfriend? And that she only 62


ever ordered the smallest pizza because she didn’t want any to go to waste? Is that what they thought? That was it wasn’t it? That was exactly what they thought. That she was lonely and pathetic and that she’d probably never even had sex. And that she always wore sweatpants all the time because she had nowhere to go and no one to go with, even though underneath, they probably didn’t even know that she had a swimsuit on and that she was about to have a lesson. Stupid donkeys. “I’m fine,” said Linda sternly, as if she were turning away a beggar at a traffic light. And she held her breath again because her breathing was too loud. And she held her hand over her head because her grey roots were showing. And now she clenched her cheeks because her new swimsuit was writhing up her bum. Elevators were so boring. And so were people.

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To The Mother, people were everything. Their look alone was like a light scratch against dried itchy skin. She adored the attention. And who wouldn’t? It felt so serene to be singled out as she was, to be spoken to in such delicate address and to be waited upon, with such readied ears, even if she had absolutely nothing to say. They didn’t turn their heads and huff and howl and then dive back into whatever they were doing, pretending that nothing was wrong. They didn’t turn the attention to themselves and compare their hurt as if hers meant nothing at all. It was like being eight again, with her grazed knee. At that age, she knew it wasn’t all so bad, but being a child, as she was, she let out a cry to test how bad it could have been. And when she fell off her bike, she howled into the air, rocking back and forth and gripping her hands to her bloodied knee, desperate for her mother to wipe off the dust and gravel from her knee and coddle her as if it wasn’t just another cry for attention. Who knows what made that day so different from all of the others? She would never be able to explain why her mother acted as she did, why she didn’t just shout out from an open window like she had, each day before and she would, every day that followed. The Mother, when she was a girl, she had had few friends and lots of time to spend on her own mother who, as it seemed, had little care and even lesser attention for her only daughter. So in need was she, of a hug, or a kiss or even a firm hand across her frosted cheek, that she tried all of the avenues for garnering her mother’s attention. Once to paint her mother’s portrait. As she etched and she sketched, the little girl turned her head back and forth, scrupulously studying her mother’s choleric grace as she stewed over important and boring grown up things, things that should never be interrupted, for if they were, they 64


would sweep up a tempest of hushing and shushing and blown about orders, swinging fingers and slamming doors. The girl drew lines with the rule of her heart, rubbing and scratching them with the tips of her fingers to make the shapes of her mother’s head and then of her hands and her feet and finally her special ‘going out’ dress that she wore all of the time, even when she had nowhere to go. “And mother,” she said, “look at what I did, look at me.” And she said it a thousand times and she said it a thousand times more. And each time, her voice sharpened more and more, until, like the ending of a pricking pin, it sounded out like a smoke alarm, the only sound her mother could hear. And as her mother rose from her papers after the hundred thousandth pained and exalted request to see what she had done, her daughter, giggling with pride, presented her artwork, on the living room wall. “You moron you, you idiot, you monster, you fool, didn’t they teach you respect in that school?” The girl always felt bad about what she did. Her mother would scream and shout and abuse and insult and though she wouldn’t beat her like other mothers did, other less refined and less humanized mothers, she would pull on her ears and lead her like a disobedient pup into her room and she would scream and she would shout and she would threaten to never, ever let her out. And she would slam that bedroom door so hard that when she turned, it would open back up again, just lightly, enough for the little girl to peek through without having to move from the bed. And The Mother, as a young sulking girl, would see her own mother, the object of her affection, marching up the corridor, tightening her hands into fists and shaking her head like a dog, tearing meat off a bone. Still, it was something. Once, when she was older, not much older, but old enough to know better, The Mother, as a young girl, was playing in the backyard with one of her baby dolls, pretending that she had done 65


an oopsie and needed to change her nappy. She was so careful with her little baby, the way little girls always were, until her attention waned and she dragged that little doll across the dirt and bitumen by its swinging feet. That was always at the end of play, somewhere between a shrieking tantrum and passing out cold and angelic on the living room floor. That day, when she was eight, The Mother took her baby doll out of its little sling. She always used her little sling so as to keep her baby close to her heart and of course so that her hands were free to do important girl things like, making a pirouette or pulling on the ends of her mother’s ‘going out’ dress. When she rested her baby on the ground, placing of course, a fine cloth under the baby’s back so that she didn’t get any dirt or sand on her new clothes, The Mother caught, by pure chance, sight of the side gate, swinging lightly back and forth on its broken hinge, its hinge that had broken that very second. Funny that. Maybe she wasn’t being a good pretend mother because she kissed her baby doll on the cheek and said “Mummy will be back in a second. Don’t be silly and move around or I’ll put you in time out. Love you now. Bye” And she followed the lure of the creaking and turning gate and she stopped, just long enough to see that it was the right thing to do, to tell no one and to walk on through. And that she did. The squeaking and screeching brakes were nowhere near as loud as her scream. She didn’t even see the car coming. One second there was a butterfly just about to fly into her hand and then everything was around and around and upside down. And the scream, it wasn’t even hers. Someone else shouted “Oh my god” and it must have been really different to how little girls screamed to get their mums to look at their pictures or to read them a story or to help them to go to the toilet or to prepare their bath or to make them a juice or to make them feel special for a change, because, by the time she 66


opened her eyes and before she even felt the bruising and twisting of her bones in her arms and the cut above her lip, her mother was already there, nursing her across her legs and pulling her fringe from bothering her eyes. And she hadn’t felt pain like that ever. It hurt in every kind of way and it hurt in every place on her body. When she moved it hurt and when she didn’t, it hurt even more. And the only thing she could see was her grazed knee. It was bent and it was twisted, but she didn’t know that. It was just that, lying down, across her mother’s legs, she could see her knee and it looked red and razed and covered in dirt and little clumps of gravel. And she thought that that was what had happened. She didn’t see the car. Not when it hit her. And not after it had driven away. But she saw her knee and she saw all of the people orbiting around her like she was their sun and she was giving them something; love and warmth or maybe a sense of mortality, the love and warmth they could take home to their own children, those that the doldrums and monotony of life had them treat like something they could delay, something they could put off for another day, something that would always be there and something that would never grow old, expire or ever go away. They warmed themselves on her hurt, on her tragedy. And they thought about the people they loved. And it warmed them too. And some of that warmth, it spilled onto The Mother. And it felt wonderful. And she could never explain it. Even in therapy, she always came back to this, and she could never plainly understand why. Why was this time so different? Why couldn’t she feel this considered again? She tried, though, after that day, she tried the rest of her life, to feel as special and as warm as she had that day. It didn’t matter how badly she had to hurt herself, she just wanted for her mother, 67


or anyone for that matter, to look at her in the same benevolent solicitude as they had, that time when she was eight when she grazed her knee. She started by cutting herself, along her arms and on the side of her neck. Not obvious. Just so it was visible to a concerning eye. Those types of people, they weren’t everyone or everywhere, but they did exist and they could hone in on suffering and disparity even when, to the apparently trained eye, everything was normal, nothing was out of the ordinary and no sign of trouble ever seemed to be there. Other people were found all the time. The Mother, though, as a young woman, she wasn’t. She had her mother and her mother; well she had her ‘going out’ dress and a great deal of many other more important things to worry about. So then she found the wrong type of boys and she grew fascinated by the hurt that they could cause. And from them she found drugs and she tried them all and she found, finally, the hurt that was so much like a child. It was the kind of hurt that at one second, could warm your entire body and take away all of the needling thoughts that chipped away at your self-esteem or your will, to wake into another day. But just as it could make you feel so belonged and necessitous, it could also take from you, three times what had been given unto you. And it could make you wish that you could walk away whilst knowing full well, that you can’t and you never will. And through heroin she had found a kind of love that no man, and not even her aging and abandoning mother, could provide. It was a companion, whom entered her and spilled its sex inside her veins so that her lover coursed through every inkling of her body. And she felt him first, warming her thoughts and painting the back of her throat with his familiar scent. And she felt him then, running his generous hands through her veins and filling the pockets in her skin left sunken and deflated by her ever shrinking soul. And though visible was her hurt with her blotched and 68


scabbing skin and so obvious was her condition, as the company she kept was the teeny tiny bugs that crawled and crept beneath the black and purple bruises on her skin and like ants, swarming from their colony, they poured out in invisible droves from the open sores on the folds in her arms, where her lover came inside of her. And still, as she attended to the constant itch, her mother still could not look at her, not as she needed her to. Not as if she had just grazed her knee. For no great feat was it, apparently, for this little girl, to graze and grate her soul. And just like that, she stopped using heroin. As if she were learning another language and got bored one day, run down by all the grammar, knowing that the present perfect was anything but. She put aside her syringe and decided that she had had enough. Just like that. Tired of painting on walls, she looked for another way to graze her knee. And she found a man and he was a good man - or so it seemed. And they were in love. And he was young. And she was young, still. Even after all the hurt, after burying such a tremendous weight on her soul, she still remembered how to feel and how to dance and how to speak and how to love and how to laugh out loud, just like her age. And they were young. And they were stupid. And they thought they had everything so sure. And then they had Korine. And they couldn’t take that back. In therapy, The Mother sat in the middle of the circle. She was the yellowy bud to their stretching white petals. Their heads moved about in fanning attention as if a wind of care were constantly turning the people’s considerate eyes in her direction, even when she had nothing to say and even still when it was others who were telling their stories. Even when another’s sadness was being lamented and canted into the air of the room, eyes would turn and drift under the light gust of considerate air and they would fall upon The Mother for they were drawn to her hurt, that which had 69


not been spoken of. Maybe The Mother knew this. Maybe this was why she never spoke. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or a writer’s cynical point of view. They turned regardless, one after the other. And they took the hurt from one another and they melted in their hearts and they turned back to The Mother and looked upon her as if she had just grazed her knee. The Father would never understand. He wouldn’t know what it felt like. He wouldn’t even listen. He would pretend. But how could even know how she felt, how she had always felt? How could he possibly sympathize with this loss, as a mother? If he did, he would feel as she felt know, being surrounded by a stranger’s adoration. And in feeling this, finally, after all these years of causing so much hurt, after everything she had been through and beneath all the scars that she wore like the lines of age and wisdom, in feeling this, if he could, he would want nothing more and he would never have enough. He would be here every day if he could. He would go without food and without sleep. And if it wrinkled and scabbed and blotched and blistered his skin, if it took away all of his weight and left him gaunt and skeletal, if it sank his veins and turned his blood thin, it wouldn’t matter, he would always want more. This was what she had longed for the whole of her life. She felt surrounded and warm. She felt coveted and cared for. As if her knee, had just been slightly grazed.

70


The Father sat statue like, with the rain no longer making him feel uncomfortable. His clothes were drenched and his fringe matted his face, casting a conspicuous veil on his otherwise and apparent vagabond complexion. And his socks and his boots, they squeaked every time that he pulled his legs back in under the seat to let people by. The people who passed him, though, they didn’t offer him a wink or a fledging nod as one normally would in light of a favor or a good deed. They just passed him by, huddling into one another and themselves, their necks sinking into their rising shoulders so as to keep the nagging droplets of rain from running down the necks of their shirts. He looked at each person. He looked at them all, all of them in the corner of their escaping eyes. None of them returned him the favor. It was as if he were a foreign word, something they couldn’t relate to, painted on the side of an ordinary thing, like a lamppost, or a wall or an old rusted freight train, the kind that was overgrown with yellow weeds and could be found in the strangest of places, places you’d never expect. As he pulled his legs back under his chair, his jeans dug into his cold thighs, making marks that he would only see later on, under a hot shower. He was invisible now, seated in the cold and blurred by lashing rain while, in the glass doors beside him, The Mother did what it was that she so needed to do. And like the rusted old train, so common, yet out of place, he sat in the freezing cold and pouring rain, without a track beneath him and he waited, for her to finish.

71


“Hi Linda, how are you doin?” asked The Teacher. “I’m good, thank you. How are you?” was Linda’s response. “I’m fantastic,” said The Teacher. It almost looked like he was. It definitely sounded it. But he wasn’t though. You could tell. His eyes were a dead giveaway. It was like throwing a match in the air and calling it sunlight. And as quickly as he jumped into his exclamation, he coiled back into trepidity, watching Linda’s expression like an obeisant mongrel, picking the farthest corner of the yard to astutely and fearfully gauge the look in its master’s eye and whether or not there would be a lashing, for no good reason at all. “So,” he said, hesitant. “How are you?” “You already asked me that,” Linda said. The Teacher looked on edge like he wanted to say the right thing, knowing how delicate that was and knowing that saying the wrong thing, like asking her how she was, twice, could make the next hour fee like a week. It was the first minute of each class that The Teacher dreaded the most. It was in not knowing what kind of mood she was going to be in. It was in not knowing if he would be spending an hour laughing hysterically and being inspired and wowed by her childish posture, or whether, as she endlessly berated him, the hate he had for himself inside for letting her talk to him how she did, if it would eventually grow into cancer. “Are you ready to start?” he asked. “Of course. I’m here. It’s my class. Are the others here too?” asked Linda, a hint of venom in her tone, not enough to kill, just enough to cause an itch in one’s throat, one that a nudging cough couldn’t clear. “Yes,” said The Teacher. “They’re in the pool now doing laps.” 72


“Why aren’t you with them? They could drown. You should be in the pool. Are you crazy?” It was going to be a difficult hour. “Go away,” Linda said. “I have to get changed.” The Teacher held his breath. He clenched every muscle in his body. He felt the same way, when he was a boy, before having a root canal. It was (the fact that he was) eating too much sugar and not brushing properly. That’s what did it. It was always some thoughtless and indulgent action that led him to feel this way. So what didn’t he do right, to end up with Linda as his student? Linda exited the change rooms with her towel wrapped around her body. She shouted at everyone, including the children, to turn around and to not look before she slipped into the water. None of the kids liked her, but she was a grown up, so they had to do what she said. If they didn’t, she’d tell their mums and then they would get embarrassed and when they got embarrassed they got angry, and if their parents got angry, then the kids wouldn’t be able to stay up past ten. So they turned around. The Teacher turned around too. He patted his hands on the skin of the water, trying to fool himself into feeling light and whimsical. He heard a proverb once that said that one should be careful of their thoughts for they define one’s words and one should be wary of one’s words, for the become one’s actions and one should be wary of one’s actions because they become one’s behavior and one should be wary of one’s behavior because it becomes one’s fate. He tried to think happy thoughts, that everything was super and fantastic and if he thought this loud enough in his mind if he acted out the way super and fantastic looked, then maybe he could feel it too. And if he felt it, then maybe he could make Linda feel it and then it wouldn’t be so painful, having to be around her. When everyone had turned, Linda dropped her towel and with her hands bashfully covering her curves, she stepped slowly into the water on the baby steps, each foot hovering above the rippling water, just as the woman’s hand did, she hunched over 73


shoulders. “It’s cold,” she said. “Just dive in. It’s great when you’re under.” “It’s supposed to be heated. It’s cold.” “It is heated, trust me,” said The Teacher. As he spoke, his thoughts wondered aloud, “Should I be provoking her?” Linda closed her eyes and held her breath and then ducked her body down really fast so that water splashed up her body and wet her swimming cap and splashed drops onto her goggles. She was in the infant section where for an adult, or even an averaged sized teenager, the water lapped, somewhere above one’s knees, but nowhere near one’s waist. Still, ducking into the water, Linda had this overwhelming fear that she was about to drown. She had the same sensation whenever she put her head under the shower nozzle. Normally she let the water run down her back and her shoulders only. It was the only safe way to have a shower. She didn’t like the feeling of facing the nozzle and water rushing against her chest. It didn’t at all feel safe. What if she stepped under and the water went in her eyes and up her nose and she couldn’t see and she couldn’t breathe properly and then she panicked and then she slipped because the ground was all soapy and she landed on her back and she was knocked unconscious and then the water, it filled her mouth and her lungs and she drowned? What if that happened? It wasn’t worth the risk, putting her head under the water. And she couldn’t hold her breath that long anyway, not the time she needed to wash the conditioner and shampoo out of her hair. She used little cups instead. And she would tilt her head all the way back so she was looking at the spinning fan on the roof and she would shut her eyes real tight and hold her breath and then she would pour the little cup over her hair with one hand and wipe away the suds with the other. It took a while, but at least she never got hurt. 74


The other children were sniggering and sneering. They always did; the insolent little brats. If Linda was their mother then she would educate them better, so they weren’t like that. That was the problem with kids these days. Mothers and fathers didn’t know how to educate their children anymore. They just let them run wild and do whatever they wanted and give them whatever they wanted and they were never around to see, when they were doing things like sniggering at her and probably laughing because she had never been in the deep end. “Alright kids,” said The Teacher. “Ten laps, back and forth. Two freestyle, two breaststroke and six backstroke, ok?” The children dove into the water and swam as instructed, one following the other in neat procession. There were four children. All four were around seven or eight years old. That was usually when children developed their mean spirit. That’s how Linda felt anyway. They all swam like they had been doing it since birth. Everything was easy for children. They didn’t have to think or to even try. They just did whatever The Teacher said and then he’d say “Well done” because probably they were doing it well, just like in the instructions. But they didn’t have to work all day long. And they didn’t have to spend two hours in traffic just to get home from work. And they didn’t have to worry about paying bills and having to remember to pump air into the tires and whether or not their hair was going grey, and whether other people thought they were getting old and if it was true that the supplements she took would make her sick or not and if one day someone would come into her office and ask for money and whether they would throw alcohol on her, and set her on fire. And if she did die, what song would they play at her funeral? Because she hadn’t told anyone that. And what if they picked something she didn’t like? “You ready Linda?” asked The Teacher, wading towards her tentatively. Linda sat in the shallows, where the infants swam and 75


splashed about. Sitting on her knees, with the water almost past her waist, Linda swished her own hands back and forth, focusing on keeping her balance. She had heard many stories on television and from her friends at work too, about people that had died in swimming pools, in water much more shallow than this. Once, someone died in water that was just an inch deep. So this was like an ocean. “Ok, so today we’re gonna practice being under the water, ok? We’re gonna go slowly so if you want to stop at any point, you just tap my hand ok? But we’re gonna do it this time” he said, thinking he was assuring her, hoping he was assuring her, just praying to all hell that this wouldn’t be a repeat of last week. Linda looked fraught. She was tense and ready to lash out. Her hands were clenched and every muscle in her body was stretching out in long veiny strands. “Ok. Remember, the water is not going to hurt you. It’s a natural thing. You’re not going to die and you’re not going to drown. I’m with you, ok?” If sound had an appearance, his voice would look like Linda’s trembling body. He hoped she wouldn’t make a scene, not like last week. It was so hard to gain the children’s trust and respect and even harder still, after some of the things that she said. And every now and then, The Teacher wondered if the children only offered their respect out of pity for what she made him say and what she made him do, just so he could make some money. Last week, during the class, The Teacher thought to himself several times about taking Linda by the scruff of her neck and like a rabid dog or a cancered guinea pig, holding her head under the water until her waspy hands stopped pattering at the water’s surface. He didn’t like thinking that way, having those kinds of thoughts. It wasn’t nice. But he didn’t all feel guilty about thinking it. Perhaps, in his own musing, one day, someone else might do it, that god might intervene and put an end to her miserable demeanor. It was just a thought. “I’m not ready,” Linda said, anxious. 76


“It’s ok. You’re ready. We’re just going to duck your head under the water for two seconds. That’s all.” “But how do I know how long that is? I can’t hear you counting.” “Ok, I’m gonna tap on your hand like this,” he said, tapping on her hand two times. “Then you come up and you can take another breath. Do you want to practice first, outside of the water?” “Yes,” Linda said, desperate. “Ok,” said The Teacher, holding her hand. “Now close your eyes.” She closed them. “Now hold your breath.” She held it. “Now one elephant.” He tapped her one time. “And two elephants.” He tapped her two times. Linda opened her eyes and took a breath. There was nothing frightening about the experience. She didn’t die. It was only two seconds. She could hold her breath much longer than that if she wanted to, maybe even ten times longer, if she had a run up or a song to sing in her head. “Ok,” said The Teacher, lying down so his head was just above the water and his hands were holding onto the infant’s edge of the pool. Linda followed his direction and slowly pushed her legs out behind her and lowered her body down. Her heart was beating so fast. If it was a runner, it would have won the race by now. She imagined her foot slipping and her head hitting the floor and dying immediately and then, as a ghost, standing outside the pool while the ambulance carried her body away in a black bag and all the children were fidgety, as if they really had to do a pee or they really wanted to run home and tell everyone what they saw. “I can’t do it,” Linda said, worried. “It’s easy. Watch me” said The Teacher, ducking his head 77


under the water and counting out two seconds in his mind before calmly lifting his head back out and smiling at Linda, to show her that it wasn’t so difficult and that he wouldn’t be dying to take a breath, not like she thought he would. “Do you want to give it another try?” Linda took a deep breath but every time she did, she got overwhelmed by a nervous jitter and then exhaled quickly; getting scared into thinking that she wouldn’t be able to take another breath. And then she started to panic and she looked at the children and saw that they were all laughing and pointing at her and then she got mad and she wanted to take The Teacher and hold his head under the water and see how long he could last before the bubbles stopped popping up. She wished he’d just die and stop making her feel so dumb and stupid in front of everyone else, especially the stupid kids. It was easy for him, he could already swim. “Don’t worry about them. Hey,” he shouted out to the children, “ten more laps. Janey, you point and laugh again and you’ll be showing your butterfly skills to the rest of the class. Learning is fun, not funny” he said. Linda wished he’d drown Janey. The stupid bitch. The Teacher could feel her nerve. He was feeling it himself and he wondered why she was in this group. He wondered why he let her stay. He wondered why she even asked in the first place. She shouldn’t be around other people. She’s horrible. She’s evil. She’s mean spirited. Then she did it. She dived under the water. And her fingers clutched at the edge of the pool. And she was clutching so hard that her knuckles went completely white and the tips of her fingers went red and there were grooves in the blue rubber where her nails dug in. She had been under for maybe two or three seconds before The Teacher actually realized what she had done. He started counting, tapping on her arm, once and then twice. And Linda didn’t get 78


up. She stayed under the water. Then he tapped more times. Three, four, five, six and then seven. He tapped seven times. Linda popped her head out of the water and she gulped massively as if she had risen from the bottom of the ocean, desperate for her first breath. Her eyes were wide and white. Terrified and elated. She hugged him. She kissed his cheek. “I did it,” she said, astonished. “You did,” said The Teacher, proud. “You did it.” Immediately he forgot about all the bad things he thought when he was always around her. He forgot about hoping that god or gravity would hold her under the water and do something just. He didn’t think that her being hurt was fair anymore. He was more elated than she was. His eyes were just as wide and they were just as white. He hugged her back. And he shivered, when she kissed his cheek. “I met someone,” she said. “Really?” said The Teacher smiling. Normally she would talk about some man she had met online and she could talk for hours about what he was like and how he was different from her boyfriend and then about how her boyfriend said that he didn’t love her and how she didn’t love him, but how every day she would send him messages and he would send one back. And normally, all The Teacher would have to do would be to feign interest, to stare in her direction and to remember to blink every now and then. And she would talk, for the entire of the lesson. And he would get shivers in his spine as she rambled in circles and jumped from tangent to tangent in broken stride. But there were two minutes left in her lesson. “Hey, awesome. Maybe next week you can tell me how that went” he said; already out of the pool and dressing himself. The Teacher and the children all left, rushing out of the 79


building. Linda stayed in the shallow end, thinking about that time that she put her head under the water. And she wanted to do it again, but there was nobody around and it was dangerous to do it alone. How would she know it had been two seconds or not? And nobody noticed her new swimsuit. And nobody said happy birthday. Stupid donkeys. She didn’t expect any of the children to know, but they were too smart-alecky so the bad word was for them too; they and the idiot teacher who should have remembered it was her birthday. He was supposed to be her friend. “We’ll see,” she thought to herself, “When it’s your birthday, I’ll remember and then I’ll forget on purpose.” It was typical, though; typical of people. Everyone was a friend to everyone when it mattered and when it was convenient, but when you needed them, like when it was your birthday or when your favorite fish died, they were never there. They didn’t call, they didn’t pick up their phones and they didn’t listen to their messages. Linda scrunched her hands and her face real tight as she got out of the pool, with cold shivers dotting all over her skin. Her teeth made a scratching sound as she dried herself off in her new woolen towel, also that nobody noticed, and then she made a sound like an owl hooting when she wrapped herself in her new thick robe. She thought about the stupid kids laughing at her when she first entered the water, thinking they were so smart and so good and then she thought about her idiot teacher, driving through a red light on his way home and being hit by a truck. He would have deserved it, for not remembering her birthday. And then she thought about how she held her breath under the water, just like the Olympic swimmers did, and she didn’t feel so bitter. Still, those kids were mean. Linda shuffled back to her apartment, unable to lift her feet in case they should fall out of her new soft slippers. They were 80


white and woolen like her robe and they were really warm and cozy. They were a bit big though so she had to shuffle and try not to lift her feet so that she didn’t kick them off like she always did with her flip flops. As cozy as she was, though, she did feel a bit guilty and a bit wrong, warming herself this way. It was so soft, but she worried herself into a panic, thinking that maybe one or two sheep would have been killed so that she could have this fluffy robe and these fluffy slippers. It made her want to give them back or to do something good for someone, so that it was ok to wear them but promise, to never wear them again. In her apartment, Linda sat on the sofa, sitting in front of the television, with the control in her hand. She might have been there for a couple of minutes or she might have been there for an hour or so. She hadn’t flicked the switch, not yet. She was waiting, with her notebook open on the coffee table before her, for her mother or her sister to call her and wish her a happy birthday. It was getting late now, almost nine. There was still bustling traffic, buzzing and beeping outside her window and there was still the sound of sex coming from the apartment next door. There was no way her mother was going to be up past nine and it was almost nine now. Still she waited, expecting the computer to start ringing at any moment, imaging her mother there with her smiling and wrinkly face, just like it was the last time they spoke, blowing kisses and telling her, even though her sister would be standing right beside her, that she was her favorite daughter in the whole wide world, and she wasn’t mad at her anymore, for that thing that happened and that she could come home if she wanted to. And then she would talk to her sister and her sister would say happy birthday and it would be quick and meaningless but she’d be sure to smile and say thank you because their mother was right there watching. And then, she would get to talk to her nieces and she’d hear them shouting her name, before her mum got to even speak, and even though she’d be dying to speak to her mother and hear her calling her the best daughter in the world, what Linda was 81


really be pining for, was to see her nieces. They would dance around in front of the camera and they would sing songs for her and they would tell her how beautiful she was. And then they would ask her when she was coming to see them and if they could come and stay with her. They’d always cross their fingers and look at their mum and they’d say, “Can we? Please, please mummy?” And her sister would always dip her head condescendingly and say “We’ll see,” on account of her being such a stupid bitch and not wanting to travel to the city, or to let her see her nieces. There were so many things that Linda loved about her nieces, but the thing she loved the most was when they said her name. They would always say it wrong. It didn’t matter, though. Not in the slightest. She loved them so much, even if they said her name wrong and even if they didn’t come to visit. They were her family and her nieces when they said “Aunty Linda, we love you,” she stopped feeling sad. Linda switched the button on the remote by accident. Instantly, the living room lit up with bright flashing red and blue lights, and fiery oranges, and the sound was blasting so loud with reporters shouting to the studio over the sound of fire engines and police cars with their sirens squealing and helicopters, buzzing and flying about overhead. It was so loud. And so bright. It was hard to look away. It was the news. Then as she was about to turn down the volume, the host of the show came on and he had this urgent look on his face, as if someone really important had been in an accident and he looked like he was about to say something really sad or really tragic, you could just see it in his eyes. And Linda dropped the control on the sofa and she leaned forwards on her seat until her bum was right on the edge of the cushion and she waited, like a baited fish, to be reeled in and told what had happened. 82


And it was important to know the news. Intelligent people watched the news. Smart people watched the news. And rich people too, they watched the news. For Linda, it was important to know about the violence and about the corruption. She didn’t much like hearing it, but it was important to know. It was all anyone at work talked about, what happened on the news. That and what happened on the soap opera too. But Linda didn’t like soap operas. They were for monkeys and donkeys. Linda watched the notebook and she watched the television and she watched the reporter and she watched the host and she looked at the letter addressed to her on the table, the one with the red stamp, and she watched the notebook again, staring at a still image of her mother hugging her nieces and it was by chance, by freakish coincidence, that she noticed it; a tiny, almost invisible smudge, right there on the glass. And it would have been tiny to you. And it would have been invisible to me. But to Linda, it was so much more. And her blood started to boil. She clenched her fists and ground her teeth once more, thinking now about Patty; her poor cleaner. And she thought about Patty doing something stupid like pressing her thumb on the glass after she had cleaned it and then walking off and not noticing at all. And what else hadn’t she noticed? What else did she put her big stupid thumb on and not see? Did she break things and hide them? And what did she break? And where did she hide them? And she was probably stealing too, thinking Linda was rich and that she wouldn’t notice her things going missing. The smudge was hardly tiny and nowhere near invisible. It was stupid and ignorant and not intelligent and Linda stared at it, imaging really bad things as bright lights flashed on the television with the reporter interviewing the injured motorcyclist who was lying face down on the ground while police fired at the poor criminals in the slums behind them. And the firemen, they waited beside 83


their red trucks for the fire to burn a bit more before they tried to put it out. And the smudge was right there and there was no way in hell that she couldn’t have seen it and the host, well he was shouting out the names of people who were shot and the cameraman was showing pictures too and the still image of Linda’s mother was flashing and it was making a sound too, but it wasn’t as loud as the fire engines and the police sirens and the popping gun fire and the sex, coming from the apartment next door. “Stupid donkey,” Linda said, staring at the smudge

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“My husband, he’s useless” confided a woman in the group, Fiona, looking anything but spiteful or convicting. In fact, she merely looked uninvolved, as if she were reading a bus time table or stating a trivial fact. “I mean, I love him, I do, unconditionally you know, but he just doesn’t understand. He’s like all those nurses at the hospital. You know that whole, suck it up, and stop crying about it, you need to just get over it, that whole type of thing. I remember the nurse dropped this pamphlet on my lap when she came to take away the breakfast trays. And it was so casual like so, ‘who cares?’ And I sat there and I watched my husband just lean over, pick up the pamphlet and he sat back in his chair, eating the last of my crumpet and reading that thing like it was a brochure or something. I mean, I had just lost my baby and there he was, picking stale bread from his teeth and just casually listing things from this pamphlet on how I’m feeling and what I’m gonna go through like we’re in a hotel and he’s just browsing over our itinerary. I just...” The woman’s hands were curled and stretched out in front of her as if she had her them locked around the neck of someone she loved and her face, it was tensed in way that the lines etched upon them, read of the treachery and violation done to her, that of which she could not say in words. Her husband sat beside her. He had been clenching her hand throughout the entire meeting. They had walked in together. And they had sat down side by side. And the woman and her husband, they had sat, hand in hand and listening to the sadness that spoke from each tongue, as the other couples around the room openly grieved the sudden and tragic loss of their children. Some spoke of hanging up the phone and thinking, how quiet everything seemed. And they spoke of how deafening it was, having that silence now follow them, the rest of their lives. Some 85


of them spoke of how they had thought, their little girls had just been sleeping and how they had done so many needless things when maybe if they had just known… It was only when it was their time to speak, that the woman, Fiona, managed to slip her hand from her husband’s clammy grasp. Her hands pulling away from his were nowhere near as obvious as his, still reaching for her in shameful disbelief. He wore a look of error on his face, like that of a child, whose wrong was about to be exposed. And he looked to her with wide glassy eyes and he said nothing, he just looked long and fraught, like that very child, in the midst of an encounter, hoping a look was enough to make it all go away. He was uncomfortable as his wife talked about how he had forced her to have a baby and how he had forced her into having the Caesarian section and how he had chosen which hospital it would be and how had talked her into having a baby in the first place and how he could just get over it and how he, could just take the advice of doctors and nurses and his bitch of a mother and expect that she, should just get over it too. He fidgeted in his seat. And when she said words like ‘useless’ and ‘thoughtless’ and ‘stupid’, he looked around at all the faces in the circle and he nodded, as if he believed she was right, as if she were talking about someone other than him, someone not in the room, someone not sitting right beside her, someone not reaching for the flapping fold in her dress with the tip of their twitching index finger. And he smiled awkwardly too when she blamed him for everything. “I never wanted a son or a daughter. I know it sounds selfish, but I just never imagined myself being a mother, being like…” she said before a pause, “my mother.” The other couples pulled closer to one another. Wives wrapped their arms, like coiling snakes, around the limbs of their lovers, their partners, their confidants and their companions. It was hard to hear her story and to not grip onto something. “And I thought I would feel nothing. That was my fear you 86


know when I first got pregnant. What would happen if I didn’t love it? I mean... him. What would happen, if I didn’t love him? My mum, she was a mum. She cooked and she cleaned and she knew always what to say and when and how to say it if it would make me stop feeling scared or even to shut me up when I’d crossed that line. I didn’t know any of that. I still don’t. And that was my biggest thing. To me, a mum, a mother, whatever, but a mum is my mum. A mum has her shit together. She’s responsible. She sets an example. She doesn’t break rules. She doesn’t just go out and do whatever the hell she wants. She’s…” Fiona said, pausing once more, her mood lightening somewhat, or less heavy that it had been, and this, it was felt in the air as a querulous smile flickered on the faces of those around the room, as if her honesty had touched a loose wire in their hearts, one that they thought had been long since severed. “She’s mum, you know? And I remember the first time I felt him kicking; Connor. It was so weird. Up to that point, the pregnancy was more annoying than anything else. I didn’t really get morning sickness or the typical type of pains. But it was just really annoying. Having to get up and pee all the time. Having to sleep on my bloody side. I love sleeping on my back. It’s the only way I can get to sleep. You know how annoying it is, lying on your side and having to face the oaf who did this to you and seeing his on his back, snoring loudly. And just turning to the other side takes so much bloody effort that you just look at him all night and you think ‘you ass’.” Her husband, with his teeth gritted and bearing a contrary type of grin, stared around at all the faces in the circle. None could return his stare. Most felt when they were caught by his attention, the air of his embarrassment being upon their own breaths. And they could feel, in an instant, how he felt about himself and it made them turn away from him for pity only worsened his condition. Still, as his wife spoke, he supported her and wished that he had stayed in the car. “But when I felt that first kick,” she said,” everything was different. I didn’t have something inside of me. I had someone 87


inside of me. I mean, words, they really, they really don’t describe what it feels like to just become aware, that this thing inside you, it’s not a thing. It’s my son. And he’s inside me. And he’s growing inside of me. And then it’s all so real and everything just goes haywire and I knew that second, that I was a mother. I felt it, you know?” she said, looking at everyone, every man, and woman, nodding her head as they nodded back at in concurrence while her husband counted, the number of blue squares inside the patch of carpet below his feet. “And how dare he. How dare you” she shouted, turning her veining face to her husband who sat like a scared and reckless pup. “I didn’t want a child. I didn’t want anything to change. And you made me change. You wanted it. But you didn’t have to change anything did you? You still slept on your back. You still had your beers and your cigarettes. You didn’t have to curse and moan and struggle just to get up to pee a hundred times a night. You didn’t even know that that happened did you? You didn’t blink once. You didn’t offer to get up with me. You didn’t change. You didn’t have to. You didn’t have to feel your son kicking inside of you and then fall in love with him. You didn’t have to. You didn’t fucking feel him. So how dare you tell me I should just get over it and move on! How dare you think it’s so fucking easy, that I have to forget him. Fuck you!” she screamed. “Fuck you!” The husband covered his face with his hands. He could feel every eye, now that he couldn’t see, falling upon him with concern and judgment. And they were right. And she was right. They were all right. “But you know he is with us, right now,” said The Leader, coming between the two; the seething wife and her sullen husband. “Connor,” she said. “He is with us.” She stood staunchly in front of them, like an overhanging rock, blocking out the glare from those about the room, in case they too might be swept up by the current of the woman’s vindication. She rested her large hands on both of their heads and both the husband and the wife, they bowed, subservient to her compassion. 88


“He is with us right now. And he walks with you, throughout your sorrow. On the loneliest nights, even on those where in each other’s company, you feel so estranged, he is with you. He is watching you. He is sitting by the end of your bed. And he is blowing you kisses each and every night. And when you do fall asleep, like any child, he sneaks into your bed and he curls between you. He is your angel, looking down on you from heaven” said The Leader. The husband and wife kept their heads bowed and their hands joined. Once more, she took her husband’s reach and she clasped it tight, tighter than she had ever clasped before. And the husband he smiled. It wasn’t so much that it made him happy to have her near; it’s just that, it felt so much worse for her to be so far away. He still hurt. And he also felt ashamed. But the light of castigation had been dimmed. And the healing, complete. And like every week at this time, he wanted nothing more than to sleep. And they were not better. But they were improved. And maybe, though she wouldn’t say it and he wouldn’t hear about until next week, maybe, just maybe, she blamed him a little less. “All of our children,” said The Leader, “ and not just our children, but our brothers and our sisters and our mothers and our fathers, all of them who have so sadly passed, they have, in no way at all, left us behind. They are with us. Their strength and their spirit are in our hearts and as long as we think of them, as long as we mourn them and love them so passionately, just as we did the moment they were gone if we love this way each and every day, they never will be gone. They will live in our hearts and in our eyes. And in heaven, they will look down upon us and they will protect us from the sad cynicism from the world around us. I want you to think of the person you lost. I want you to close your eyes and see them now as if they are right in front of you. Because they are” she shouted, “right in front of you.” The Mother closed her eyes and in her hands, she held tight the colored butterfly. And her two index fingers, they lightly creased the small knots where its wings joined against its soft body. The 89


body of the butterfly was black with small colored circles. There was a green circle by the right wing, a blue one by the left and there was a yellow circle, just below where one of its eyed had been picked off. “I want you to hold out your arms and I want you to invite them into your arms. Look at them” she said, her own eyes shut, her arms abreast like some great winged angel, ready to close in around the spirit that had been lost, wandering outside of her heart. She was an enormous woman. Through a blinking eye or on a dark corner of a dimly lit street, she might have been mistaken for not just a man, but a great big hulking mass of a man. And so alarming and comforting was it then, to have someone of this statute, so genteel and compassionate in her address and so callous and unaffected, in how she confronted and endured so much depression. But then, to do this, day in and day out, to sift through the bitter sediment of the bereaved as the focus of her work, as the passion of her labor, she had to be both reasonable and unforgiving; gentle in opening an old wound and coarse in how she scraped it clean. “My son,” said The Leader, “come to my arms.” The Leader fell to her knees and a whopping great thud echoed throughout the room. Her hands were wide, unlike the others, whose arms were drawn across their chests; mothers holding their wandering children tight against their hearts and fathers, resting across their closed arms to ensure their lost little boy or girl would never again slip away. The Mother shivered as for a second, she saw her boy as she last remembered him. He was even wearing the same oversized flip flop, the one he had taken from beneath his father’s bed. And he only had the one; on his left foot. And he was wearing the same blue cuffed shorts and he had on the same sleeveless red t-shirt that her mother gave him, when he turned one. And a second later, he was gone. She opened her eyes and she saw first The Leader, on her 90


knees and weeping in the center of the room. Her arms were still drawn wide and her fingers were bending in faint invitation, calling something or someone near. And her eyes, though they were closed, the muscles around them were tightened in a penitent knot, the kind that The Mother tied herself from time to time, after having drawn upon, a living room wall. The Mother then turned to the rest of the group. They were embraced and curled around each other like scores of thin lathers of differently colored soap, rolled and squashed into a fleshy ball of emotion. And all of them, wept for forgiveness. They wept so loud and they yearned so passionately that their tears naturally bridged into an aching belly of laughter. And it wasn’t strange or wrong and it wasn’t a bad thing. It was just how they felt; having just woken from a dream to find that the person they cared about the most was still right where they left them. They were healing. Or so they thought. “Come to me,” said The Leader, at first, soft and congealing, like a mother to her frightened child. “Come to me,” she said again, this time, with more demand. Her waving fingers, at first were so inviting; like the watery dance of coral leaves. Then, with her every plea, she sounded like the stubborn and right owner or a disorderly child, disguising her worry in the rasp of her angering tongue. Her words were no different. “Come to me,” she said, over and over again. But each time, the words were heavier, until they could no longer be spoken solicitously; they had to be swung from her mouth like a gravel filled sack. The Mother and all the others in the room, all turned to the center and they all let go of their folded arms. They all let go of their imaginings. They let go of one another. And they all stared at The Leader as the veins in her neck rose, like pyroclastic flows and her inviting waving hands became two reckoning fists, swinging high into the hair and projecting her pointing finger, down, down, 91


down; down before her feet. “Get over here now” she screamed. “Don’t you walk away from me. Don’t you…” The Leader stopped. She said no more. Not a word. Her hands swiftly became less like fists and more like the leaves that danced upon the ends of a lightly swaying branch. Her face too was less severe. Her veins sank beneath her skin and her eyes were no longer molten. She walked around the room and touched the head of each man, woman, and child. And she did so so that her touch was no heavier than a light breeze. And the mothers felt warm and the fathers felt more at ease and the husband, who was once more so near to his wife, he felt as if one day, he might carry less of the blame. “I love you, my son,” said The Leader, looking up to the peeling roof. “I know you’re scared. But I will always be here, waiting. And I will wait as long it takes until you are ready to come home.” The couples looked at their leader. They had all found some healing. They had all seen their son or daughter that they had lost. They had all invited their child to their breast. And had all gotten closer to healing. “Healing,” said The Leader, “it is not forgetting. It is not moving on. It is not dealing with it. Healing is keeping that which you love close enough to your heart without the pain of feeling it so far away. We must never forget, never. And I know we have to cover up our pain. We have to wear those faces. We have to put them on every day and we have to see unimportant things as if we really care as if any of it really matters. And even if we explain what we’re going through, it’s not like anyone will ever understand us. We are the bereaved. Our children are gone. They have been taken from us. God took them from us. And it was their time and I know it’s unfair, it all seems unfair, but God has a plan and our little angels, they are part of that plan. They are miracles. And your children who are still alive” she said, staring at the innocent eyes 92


looking up at her sheepishly. “They are miracles. And they miss their brothers and sisters as much as we. And the comfort we have in our tragedy comes in knowing that our angels are free and at peace. And that no harm can ever come to them as they live with the angels in heaven. So know that the path to healing is long and it is tiring. And it’s not some pill that you can just take and feel better. Healing is every day of the rest of your life. It is…” she paused, her gargantuan hands, pressed upon her chest, “for as long as we still remember.” The group erupted in tearful applause. Some made for the door immediately while others stuck around, orbiting The Leader, wanting to say something, something personal, away from the topic, something to maybe make them friends. “How was it?” asked The Father. It was still raining. The Mother sat in the backseat, her fingernail stretching out the fine threat that held the small button nose in place. She looked to her right at the orange and black car seat. Its belt was unbuckled and hanging over the side. “Why are you wet?” she asked. There was not a hint of curiosity in her tone. She was like a bored cat, flicking about a half dead mouse. And The Father’s attention was the game that she had grown tired of. “We need to talk,” said The Father. “He’s leaving,” The Mother thought, still divorced from how she really felt about him. “So who’s picking up Korine?” The Father said. The small button nose, it fell to the floor.

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Waiting was never much fun, whether it was waiting in a queue to buy some bread or having to wait at work all day long for that special thing to arrive in the post, just to arrive home and have to wait even more. But waiting for doctors was worse; it was probably the most boring kind of waiting there was. It didn’t make much of a difference if it was waiting to have her itchy throat looked at by prickly nosed Dr. Evans, or if it was like today, waiting to have the funny thoughts that she had in her head fixed so that the strange feelings that made her sad all the time would go away, and she could go back to work and enjoy her favorite police show. It didn’t much matter. When she had an itchy throat, she could tell that everybody was looking at her, probably thinking that she had something much worse and always keeping a full row of seats away, not wanting to stay close to her, in case they caught whatever it was that she had. And she felt that way, with the stomach and the throat doctor, just as she felt now, sitting in the quiet waiting room surrounded by all sorts of crazy people, just like her, except they all looked kind of normal, like Eugene, the gardener in her building. Eugene had frizzy orange hair and a face that was spotted with freckles. And he always had on the biggest smile she had ever seen, especially when he leaned over the freshly mowed lawn, holding his hands behind his back and sniffing proudly and hungrily as if it were a steaming hot pie. “Linda,” said The Receptionist, “The Psychiatrist will see you now.” As she got up from her seat, she could feel every set of eyes peering at her from behind magazine covers, pretending to read, but really spying on her, to see if, in her walk, she would give a hint 95


as to what was wrong. “You can leave them here,” said The Receptionist, hinting to the magazines rolled into tight balls in Linda’s hands like two glistening batons. “You can go right on in,” she said, nodding her head towards the door behind her. She wanted to turn and catch the people spying on her and tell them to quit it. She could feel them pointing and sniggering and giving each other high fives, because of something smart that one of them might have said. She knew, though, no matter how fast she turned, she wouldn’t be able to catch them. They would all be reading their magazines or chewing off the ends of their nails all cool like as if they weren’t spying in the first place. She’d have to go really fast, so fast that they wouldn’t have time to put away their stupid gawking faces. But Linda couldn’t turn that fast. Not yet anyway. “Come in, please, take a seat,” said The Psychiatrist. Linda liked her. She was very pretty for someone who was as old as she was and she spoke softly, really kind like as if she were blowing kisses, and her words were just the sound that they made. She looked like the type of person that would be a wonderful friend and the type of mother who would probably forgive things that weren’t your fault to begin with. “I am so happy to see you. How are you today Linda?” asked The Psychiatrist. Linda smiled and blushed. It was nice to feel thought about. “I’m good, sad I guess,” she said, instantly wishing she could have said something less stupid. Linda always found it hard to concentrate. There were so many certificates all over the walls and she went from one to the other like certified lily pads, browsing the specifics but focusing mainly on her doctor’s name and thinking how smart she must be, to have all of those pieces of paper on the wall. There were other things as well, like her desk for one. It looked like an island or a peninsula or something, the way it jetted 96


out from the wall and bent and contorted in many ways around the room. She had a computer on one side and space for of her own to write in the middle and the end, the part that had no papers on it at all, it was made of glass and there wasn’t one finger print on it at all, and it didn’t look like it had a purpose, outside of looking fancy of course. On the floor, there were some toys and one that always caught her eye was that small blackboard that was leaning against the wall near the door. It had lots of colored chalk and the board was dirty as if someone had quickly wiped their hand over what was written. It looked like a cloudy day if the cold and the rain were the color green and red and yellow and brown. And underneath those clouds, which some mum or dad had probably quickly swept across the sky, was something that some boy or girl had been thinking and it didn’t much matter now that it was gone, except that Linda couldn’t help but wonder what it was. “How do we get sad? Did I catch it from someone else? Is it because I don’t eat my vegetables?” “Sadness is natural Linda. All emotion is natural.” “Are other people sad too?” “Of course. Just like other people are sometimes happy and bored and frustrated and excited and scared and disappointed too.” “Are you sad?” Linda asked, like a child. “Not now,” said The Psychiatrist. “But I get sad, of course.” “When were you sad?” “I was sad last month, because a friend of mine, she was sad too.” “Did you catch it from her?” “No,” said The Psychiatrist in a mild laugh, nothing mocking, though. “She is a friend of mine. And she was sad. I felt sad because she was sad. That’s empathy, Linda. It’s ok to get sad. You don’t have to feel silly for being sad if everyone else is happy, just as you don’t have to feel guilty feeling happy when someone else is blue. People aren’t always in harmony but in the end, we all dance to the same melody.” 97


Linda thought about what made her the saddest the most. She thought about Graham, and how he could be really nice one minute, but he was only nice when he wanted to do things that she didn’t want to do, stuff that she did anyway because that’s what being a girlfriend was all about. But when she was sad, when she really needed a boyfriend, he always said the meanest things as if she wasn’t nearly as important to him as he was to her. They were never in harmony either. “It’s important for us to feel sad Linda, to have a blue day every now and then. It helps us to build our empathy, to fill our reservoir, so then when we meet someone who is sad or hurt, we feel sympathy, and we stop whatever it is we’re doing, and we help them. If we didn’t have these blue days, we might not know what sadness feels like, so we might not be able to see it in others, and then we wouldn’t be able to help other people, like our family, our friends, the people we love and even strangers; people we’ve never met before in our lives. “I get sad all the time,” Linda said. “More than most people I guess. The thing is” she said, biting her lip, “I think I like feeling sad.” “And that’s why we’re here. Sadness Linda, it feels like a warm blanket on your heart and soul. For most people, sadness is pretty addictive. In moderation, sadness, like I said, it has a purpose. It’s excessive sadness that we want to get under control. The key to emotion is to think of your mind as your belly” said The Psychiatrist, rubbing the top of her head as if it were rumbling with hunger. “To be strong and healthy and to live a long life, we need to eat the right nutrients for our body and for our mind. Our subconscious is no different to our stomachs. The food that goes into our stomach is no different to the information that we take into our minds. If you want to be healthy, you have to eat healthy food – lots of vitamins and minerals and proteins and carbohydrates for energy. We know how to look after ourselves because we can see what we are eating and in most cases, we can see to the effect of 98


poorly. It goes straight to our hips” she said smiling. “The same can be said for your mind. If you read only bad news all the time, if you watch only tragedy and heartbreak, which is kind of like the greasy, salt laden hamburger of emotion, then your subconscious is getting only one type of food and it’s probably not doing it much good. Just as you need to feed your stomach the right balance of necessary foods along with guilty delights, with your mind, you need to eat positive information, happy information, stimulating information, insightful information and as well, the right amount of sad information. You need balance, a healthy diet.” “There are a lot of bad things in the world and a lot of bad people. But it’s not important for us to remember who they are or what they did. And it doesn’t honor any of their victims any more than the love of their mother and father would, by peering through the venetians of a television screen or a newspaper clipping, spying on their suffering and their tragedy, over and over and over and over again. It’s not your tragedy to mourn Linda. It’s not your war. It’s not your accident. It’s not your grief. It belongs to the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and the sons and daughters. It belongs to the friends of those people. It doesn’t belong to you. Peering through the newspaper is no less rude than slowing down traffic to gawk out your window at a car accident. It’s the same thing you now. For most people, it’s normal, it’s even good. When they see some child being shot in a school or dying in a crash, it makes them think of their own son or daughter, and for a second, they forget that their kids have been grieving them the last hour or so and they are reminded how fragile life is and how beautiful it is, in the contrast of death. Things go back to normal pretty quick though so for most families, you’ll find them watching five, six even ten news channels, just to see more footage or the accident so they can feel that empathy again and again and again. It’s addictive. No different to smoking marijuana. It feels good to care, especially about the people you love. And if the only way you can feel that is by watching the tragedy of others, then it’s almost as if the collective conscious, all the people together with their loving and 99


grieving hearts, they inspire more tragedy to happen, so they can love the things in their life that so quickly become frigid and content.” “Do you think I made it happen? You know? The baby? By being so sad and wanting sad things to happen, like you said?” “No,” said The Psychiatrist adamant. “What happened to that boy was horrible. It was what it was. And I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for the mother and father of that girl, what they must be thinking. But it’s not mine to imagine. It’s not yours either. It’s their tragedy, not ours. God forbid you should ever have a tragedy of your own but if you do, nothing will ever prepare you for it, not the kind that you’re grieving over, the kind that makes the news. But if you do, the one thing you’ll want is for everyone to get the hell away, to mind their own business, to give you some peace. You won’t want to hear people telling you that they care, that they’re thinking of you, which is not true anyway. They’re not thinking of you, they are thinking about you. And that’s a different thing altogether.” “I can’t stop thinking about them, about the girl, not the boy. Everybody is thinking about the boy and the poor boy this and the poor boy that. I don’t think she meant to do what she did. But everyone says she should be given the needle, that she’s satanic and evil, and that they would do the same to her if they were her mum or dad. But she’s just a girl. A baby can’t be mean like that, not like a person, can they?” “Don’t listen to them Linda. Opinion is the flatulence of communication. You need a healthy balance of news, both good and bad, just like you need a healthy balance of food for your stomach. The problem is that the food for our minds, for our souls, its intangible” The Psychiatrist said, taking control of the conversation. “We cannot see or touch it. We can’t unwrap it and see if it’s still good or if it’s spoiled. This makes it harder for us, I guess, to really see the danger in what we are watching, what were are listening to and most importantly, what we are reading.” “Like the news,” said, Linda. 100


“Sure. But not just the news. There’s movies too, music, the people at work and at your building and on the street. Most of the time, they can be more affecting than what you read in a book or in the newspaper or watch on the television. Trick is, to know when enough is enough and in your case, to know how to tune out or turn away.” “But I can’t stop watching the news,” said Linda drastically. “Why? Who is stopping you?” “You have to watch the news. You have to know what’s happening in the world.” “Why? What good does it serve you? How does knowing about shelling in Gaza make your job any better? How does it make the work you do any more proficient or consistent?” “It’s important to know.” “Why? One reason.” “It is, is all. You have to know, to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. You can’t just close your eyes to it and be ignorant. It’s important to know, it just is.” “What’s the first thing you do when you get up every morning?” “Now or before?” “Before,” said The Psychiatrist. “Have my coffee and watch the news.” She talked about the news as if she were talking about feeding Bill Clinton, something so ridiculously obvious that if she abandoned it, like The Psychiatrist was suggesting, she would be cruel and inhumane that, for whatever stupid reason it was that The Psychiatrist wanted to hear, it was important to watch the news, it was important to know about the shelling in Gaza and it was important to tell other people about it too. “How do you feel when you first wake up, before your coffee?” Linda rolled her eyes. “Tired,” she said as if The Psychiatrist had asked her to point which way she thought was up and then which way she thought 101


was the opposite of that. “Ok,” said The Psychiatrist. “Good. Well, when you have your first sip of coffee how do you feel?” “Better,” said Linda. “Less tired.” “Do you feel sad? “What do you mean?” “As sad as you do now. Do you feel that sad after your first sip of coffee?” “No. I told you. I feel good. I feel less tired. Stupid question” she said, getting short tempered and thinking that The Psychiatrist was pretty and smart and had a soft voice and all, but if she kept asking donkey questions like that then she wouldn’t want to be her friend, not all the time anyway. “How about after watching the news, how do you feel? Do you feel happy, excited? Do you feel like dancing?” “Don’t be stupid?” said Linda. “Well then, how do you feel?” “I feel sad,” she said. “For how long?” asked The Psychiatrist. “I don’t know,” said Linda. “Maybe for a bit, maybe all day.” “How does that help you work? How does that help you live?” “I don’t know ok? I didn’t make the news. It’s important is all.” “How can that be important, to feel like that all day long?” “I don’t know” Linda shouted. “Wouldn’t you prefer to feel good? To feel excited? To feel love? To feel happiness?” Linda began to fidget, scratching at her wrist as if there were a prize to claim underneath. “Did you do the activity?” asked The Psychiatrist. “Yes,” Linda said, reaching into her bag and pulling out the newspaper. “So how many good stories did you find in the end?” Linda laid the newspaper down on the table. The front page 102


was blacked out entirely. Then she turned page by page, licking her finger slowly, enough so that it gripped the paper, but not too much so that it left a disgusting finger mark. Page after page, there were no words, only thick black marker, drawn over the headlines and the text and the expressions of the people in all of the photos. “How many did you find? How many good stories?” Page after page, Linda looked for words that were not drawn over. Page after page she looked, but she could not find one. She looked to The Psychiatrist as if she had just caught herself frowning. “What does it mean?” she asked. “Nothing,” said The Psychiatrist. “How can it mean nothing? It has to mean something. You made me do it. There has to be a reason. There has to be.” “What do you feel looking at that paper now?” “Nothing,” she said, staring at the black lines. “What did you hope you would feel?” “I don’t know,” Linda said. “Happy?” “To nothing everything returns. The opposite of sadness is not happiness. If emotion is a number line, imagine that every emotion, be it happiness, sadness, frustration, confusion – they are singularities and the opposite of one is not the other. The opposite of each is nothing or the void. For if each point is one, regardless of how happy or how sad, just like a light bulb cannot be more on than on and can be no more off than off, the opposite of each point, each singularity is zero. The opposite then of feeling sad is feeling nothing, the opposite of up is not down, it too is nothing. And the opposite of life is not death, it is nothing. And the opposite of god is not the Devil, it is nothing. From nothing, comes everything. In a flash. In an instant. Then, when you feel nothing, you can inspire yourself to feel something new, to feel happy maybe, feel anxious, if that’s a feeling that you enjoy” said The Psychiatrist. Linda looked at the newspaper and for the first time, it felt no heavier than a mere bundle of papers. It felt no more important too than the folded cardboard from the backs of prescription pads 103


that she discarded without a worrying or clamant thought. And looking at the crumpled newspaper, with its words and pictures all blacked out, Linda felt no more spooked than she would, watching a scary movie with the sound turned off. “Think of something you love,” said The Psychiatrist. “I don’t know,” Linda said. “I can’t think of anything.” “Anything at all. It could be a particular flower, maybe your favorite smell; it could even be something you see, on your way to work. Whatever it is, it’s something that even after you explain it, no one, not even I will be able to understand it and to feel as you do. What is it?” “I don’t know. I don’t know what I like. Don’t ask me such a hard question.” “But why do you think it’s a hard question?” “I don’t know. It just is. I don’t know what I like. I can’t think right. I don’t like these types of questions. They’re stupid, donkey questions. I don’t like it when people ask me about what I like. I don’t know what I like. I just like it, ok?” “Relax Linda, it’s ok. There’s nothing wrong. I’m just trying to make a point. Most of us, if not all of us, we learned through opposites.” “What does that mean?” “Well, when you were a baby, your mum and dad didn’t celebrate all the good and sometimes inane things that you did and touched. They celebrated the successes yes, but they didn’t celebrate every good thing. It would require too much of their time. Instead, they educated you with every wrong thing that you did. So every time you got near a curb or a power point or pulled on the iron cable, your mum and dad shouted ‘No’, screaming and shouting with the emotional veracity of the last few seconds of a plane crash, and they defined a new limit for you, or what we call, setting limits. A great way to educate no doubt, but you, I, all of us, we learned only by hearing the word no. Pretty soon, we were cautious about everything, looking at our mums and dads and waiting for that ‘no’ to come and if it didn’t, we would move on to something 104


else, ignoring whatever it was that didn’t catch the attention of the only people in the universe that mattered to us. Pretty soon, we knew everything that got mum and dads attention and either we appreciated the smack on the bum and the tisking and shaking finger as some form of affection or we, by that stage, were so scared of being punished or being put in time out that we decided that we thought best to just sit quietly with our hands in our laps and wait out our scholarly sentence. Instead of showing us what we could do, our mothers and fathers pointed out only what we could not. Negative learning. Makes sense then that as we get older, we carry around this invisible bag of negativity and in it, we keep all of the things we hate and all of the places we never want to go to and all of the food we never want to try. And we remember all of the places in the world that have war and suffering, but we can’t think of one that might make us happy.” “Mickey,” Linda said. “Excuse me?” “And I like Goofy too. And Minnie, but she is always going the other way.” “What do you mean?” “I love Mickey Mouse. And I love Goofy. But I don’t like the cat because it wants to eat Mickey and then he doesn’t ever stay.” “I’ve never seen the cartoon,” said The Psychiatrist. “My daughter loves them, though, all of them. I’ll have to ask her what the cat’s name is. So you like Mickey Mouse?” Linda smiled. “What about Disney Land? Have you been?” “I like Disney Land,” said Linda. “There it’s safe and fun. But there are so many people and the lines are very long.” “It’s worth it, though. I went with my daughter. It’s like escaping into a dream.” Linda smiled once more. “So let’s get back to your homework. How long was the longest that you went without news? And I mean not just the television, but talking to patients at work and other tenants in your building.” 105


“I don’t much like the other people in the building. They’re all donkeys. And they only talk about celebrities and stupid soap operas and the poor family who live across from me.” “They must be curious because you live there. Do they ask you questions?” “No,” Linda said, disappointed. “There are other people who say they know what happened and everybody talks to them, but I know that the family is nice people and that the little girl, she isn’t like what everybody says she is.” “What do they say?” asked The Psychiatrist, intrigued. “That she’s like a devil or something. That she was possessed to do what she did.” “What do you think? Is she a devil?” Linda looked at The Psychiatrist like a child, being encouraged to push the very red button they’d been warned to steer clear of. But she trusted her. “Can we talk about something else?” Linda asked. “Go one. I think you’re making progress. This is just… We’re expulsing. It’s a technique. Go on” she said, looking as if she had an itch behind her right eye. “I don’t want to talk about that. Isn’t that why I’m here? Can we talk about Graham?” “Graham is the least of your problems. I think we should focus here, on the family.” “No, I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want to feel that kind of sad. You said I have to black out the newspaper.” “But the story is in you. The sadness is in you” she said, licking her lips. “We need to black you out like we did the newspaper. Draw out your sadness, like a snake’s venom. What was her name, the girl?” “You know her name. Everyone does.” “But I haven’t heard you say it,” she said. “Say it. Say her name.” “No,” said Linda. “Say her goddamn name” shouted The Psychiatrist. 106


“Korine,” said Linda, still and frightened. “Her name is Korine.” The Psychiatrist expelled a pent breath as if she had been holding onto it through a dire event and she breathed heavily as if she knew at any second, she would be thrust back into whatever wave of torrid emotion she had found herself washed up from. She gripped the pages in front of her, inhaling profoundly as if she were caught in the still wake of an exhaustive contraction. “What happened to the boy? What did she do? What did Korine do?” “No,” said Linda. “You said. No. It’s not your tragedy. It’s not my tragedy. No, it’s not fair. I don’t want to.” “Tell me, Linda. I want to hear it from you. You lived across from them. You know them. Nobody can tell this story like you can. What happened? How did he die?” The Psychiatrist’s face was now strained as if she were struggling to unscrew a stubborn lid. “I want to talk about Graham, please. Or Bill Clinton. I met a man too and I like him, his name is Roger, and I like him, even though he speaks kind of poor and he’s not rich, not like Graham and even though he eats like a pig, he’s nice, I think I like him, but I don’t know what to do next and….” “Korine,” said The Psychiatrist as if she were answering a question. “No,” Linda said. “Please, can we talk about something else?” “Sure” said The Psychiatrist, her face now halcyon like, looking at Linda clemently, a stark contrast to her nervous desire to know more as under the table, the long sharpened nail of her index finger continued, as it had the entire of the meeting, to scratch away at the little cuts on the inside of her leg, cuts that had never the proper time to heal. Her legs quivered as if the hands of her lover were tickling the back of her neck and his warm breath, gently blowing from the cusp of her skeletal ankles, up along her curved and shivering legs and between her naked thighs. “We can talk about anything you 107


want,” she said, her breath pressed now as if she had just paused from a sprint. “My time is up. I want to go. You can have the change, it’s ok. I want to go” Linda said. “Tell me,” said The Psychiatrist, digging her nail into the cut on her leg as if it were her lover, pressing hard between her legs. “Say something, anything. Did you hear it? When it happened?” she asked, her voice, careening out of control and into a trembling whimper. “Thank you for help but I won’t be coming back. I’m better now, thank you.” “Tell me you fat fucking retard” shouted The Psychiatrist, her face looking pained and obtuse as her long sharpened nail dug deeper into the cut on her leg and her heavy breathing and her trembling whimper turned to shrilled moaning, much like the sound from her neighbor’s apartment. “Tell me what you know” she screamed. “I won’t open this door until you do. Fucking tell me. Anything? What kind of car do they drive? How often do they order pizza? What’s their favorite television show? You know this. Don’t you fucking keep it to yourself you stupid fucking bitch.” “Please let me out” Linda shouted. “Let me out!” “Tell me something about the girl first, and I’ll let you go,” said The Psychiatrist, heaving, and moaning as she scratched and picked at the inside of her leg. “No,” Linda said. “I don’t want to have to feel sad anymore. I just want to get better. Please, let me go.” “You’ll never get better,” said The Psychiatrist, lowering her skirt. “None of us ever will.”

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“Which ones?” asked The Mother, holding up two sets of plastic knives. The Father turned towards her and he stared first at the two bags of plastic knives, one colored blue and the other colored pink. They both disinterested him. He turned then to The Mother, anchoring himself to the blue of her eyes and as she waited for a response, in his thoughts, The Father drifted back and forth, knocking against the edges of his imagination like an old rowboat, rocking to and fro, moored to some grievous obligation. “We’ll take them both; blue for the boys and pink for the girls. And what about cups?” she asked. “Red,” said The Father. “Red cups?” asked The Mother, already reaching for a packet of blue and pink. “Don’t be silly.” “Red everything,” said The Father flatly. The Mother ignored him, filling the trolley with plastic blues and plastic pinks, cups and spoons and knives and forks and little plates, with princesses for girls and racecars for boys. “I’m having a few girls over tonight for some drinks. I think they’ll be bringing their husbands so there’ll be someone for you to talk to. It’d be good for you to make some friends. You’ll like these people. Fiona, her husband is an Engineer I think. I think his name is Steven or Shane or Simon or something. It starts with an ‘S’, definitely, I’m sure of that.” “I’m fine” said The Father, his sight trailing down the length of the aisles, imagining that he was looking into a tunnel, and at the end of that tunnel, there was a finite point where nothing existed, none of the thoughts in his head and none of the pain at the tops of his shoulders, and none of the twisting and churning, in the depths of his belly. “You should put in an effort,” said The Mother. 109


“I don’t need any friends. Not now.” “Everyone needs friends babe.” “Not the kind you make,” he said, under his breath. As they walked through the supermarket, The Mother continued to take things from the shelves and ask The Father for his opinion without even looking in his direction or listening for his response, her eyes always fishing for the next thing on the next shelf or in the next aisle, casting away from The Father’s rocky demeanor, and her ears, swaying to the catchy melody, playing in the speakers overhead. “You know in the group,” said The Mother, pausing to inspect the minute details written on the back of a bottle of sauce. “A lot of people have been talking about that retreat. You know the one I mentioned?” The Father didn’t respond. In his head he knew the idea was stupid. And any other time other than recent, his itch to be right would have had him weighing in on this debate and how ridiculous it was, packing up everything and going to some idiotic retreat, to be cuddled and coiled, and being made to feel like a victim, so as to be bettered, by sugary proverbs, salted confessions and spicy affirmations. Instead, he found his attention wandering to a mother and her two children. And they, the children, would have been no older than his own. And he watched so attentively as if, from a distance, he was witnessing two ferine beasts in the jungle, expecting at any second, one to feast upon the other. As that was the violent nature of children. “I’m not saying we should do it now,” The Mother said, referring to the retreat. “There’s the money issue of course. But once you get some more clients and get the coaching going again, you know?” She was speaking. But to The Father, her voice was no more pertinent than the bothersome hum of whiny pop music coming from the speakers above. His focus was on the two children and how they walked side by side, the older child, maybe four years old, 110


getting excited every few steps, pulling on the hand of her little brother so his balance would tip and he’d almost fall. He watched them, wondering why their mother paid no notice, why she hadn’t stepped in. And he looked at her, how like his own wife; her dawdling attention was humming along to the music from the speakers above while her eyes searched for a saving of five cents or more. And then he looked back at the children and he could see that the young girl was getting tired of just holding hands. The way she jerked on the little boy’s arm, it looked as if at any second, she might just fling him into the corners of one of the aisles. “I think it’s about two weeks. But that’s fine I mean, you wouldn’t even really notice me gone. Not that we have the money of course. I just think, you know, something like this….” Why the hell wasn’t she doing anything? Couldn’t she see? One was about to hurt the other. What the hell was wrong with her? He should shout. He should just make a sound or something, anything that would break her from that absent spell. “I need it,” said The Mother. “I deserve it.” The lady stopped and bent over to scour through items on the bottom shelf. Her children followed, washed about behind her as The Father did, behind his wife, as if they were held to her by an invisible cord. And the lady, she couldn’t see how the young girl had now taken her brother by the waist and was lifting him high into the air, almost falling backwards over her wobbling legs. And as the boy shrieked desperately, his sister squeezed tighter around his belly, shaking him left and right so the air squashed out of his lungs, making his plight sound little more than a complaining wheeze. “Cut it,” said the children’s mother, her hand reaching blindly behind her to ring one of them by the ear. The little girl continued, picking her brother up in her arms and yanking him to and fro, almost severing his spine with the gust of her zealous swing. Beside her, other children walked past, holding small plastic dolls in their arms and swaying them to and fro 111


and dragging them along the ground by their curly locks. The little girl smiled as she squeezed more acutely, the pretend baby in her own arms. And the heady weight seemed almost too much as her brother slid out of her clutch and down her body so that her coiled embrace latched around the young boy’s neck. And though his arms and legs were free, he couldn’t shake himself of her grasp. He couldn’t free himself of her game. “Do something?” The Father thought, staring in the lady’s direction. “I wanna do it” The Mother said, turning decidedly, seeing The Father eyeballing a young slender woman, bending over not a foot or two away from where they stood, his eyes, so blatantly and rudely sketching out the curve of the woman’s buttocks, no doubt stripping her naked in his mind, if she wasn’t already, and fucking her like the cheap slut that she probably was. “What the fuck?” she said, kicking the trolley. “Ya get a good look?” “I’m not looking at…” shouted The Father, realizing the coincidence of his stare. “The kids,” he said “Oh sure. That’s why your tongue is hanging out of your mouth,” The Mother said. “Fuck it,” he said, shaking his head and pointing to the two children who were looking at him now, with the same strange caution as their mother who at first, felt no more disgust to his salivating stare than she would, the welcoming lick of a scruffy hound. But who then, when her eyes caught his, pulled her children close and shivered as her hands clutched onto theirs, remembering instantly who he was, having seen him on the nightly news. As The Mother and The Father walked past, the lady cupped her children to her breasts, her hands like two great wings, enshrouding them from harm, as if whatever spark of evil were in their daughter, might carry on their breaths like the flu and be passed to other mothers and fathers who would in turn pass it onto their own children. “I hate the fucking looks,” said The Father, looking straight ahead but feeling every head turning in his direction and spying on 112


his celebrity. “Why don’t they mind their own business?” “Babe, calm down,” said The Mother. “Just ignore them.” ”What do you mean calm down? No fuck ‘em. If I wanna be irate, I’ll be god damn irate, alright? Fuck ‘em. If I wanna be a prick for the sake of being a prick, then I’ll be a mother fucking prick. And if I wanna deal with my own shit!” he screamed, into the direction of staring faces, “then I’ll deal with my own shit, any way I please. Anyway I fucking can” he said, trampling upon The Mother’s public concern. “One birthday cake, please. Chocolate, with lots of strawberries” he said, half acknowledging the helpless expression on the young attendant’s face. For a second, it looked as if the girl had an itch of her own, to offer some kind of condolence or, as if she had come across a wounded mongrel, to ignore its pained grumblings and to reach past its gnashing teeth and scratch tenderly and lovingly behind its ear, until its back leg started kicking and it forgot about the thorn in its side. But that second passed. “We’re so sorry for your loss,” said a woman, pressing her two hands upon The father’s back and tapping lightly with one hand, as if the well of his pain and suffering could be chipped away like some pesky mollusk with a gentle rapping against his knuckles. “It must be…..well, you know,” she said, knowing very little. “I don’t know,” said The Father. “You don’t know what, my love?” The Woman asked. “I don’t know what the fuck you want,” he said, knocking The Woman’s hands free. “I don’t know. I don’t know what any of you want. Fucking leave us alone.” “We just want what’s best,” said The Woman, trying to reach for his hands again. The Mother stood in the distance, watching with a strange worry, as if she expected some bestial defense, something of which she would have to apologize for, profusely. Behind The Woman, The Father could see her husband, gripping his children tight as if they were the fine reeds in a river 113


bank, that which kept him from being swept away by the flurry of another man’s torment. Everywhere he looked, he saw heads turning in his direction. Some were with shock and awe drawn upon their faces while others were hidden behind their cell phones, filming his every step. He wanted to spit in their faces, to smash their cameras and phones into tiny pointed pieces and to take the jagged edges and push them into their faces and scream and piss and curse and spit and vomit and to shout, “Fuck you, you sick twisted fucks. I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want your fucking stares. You’re sick. You’re depraved. And I hope it happens to you.” And that’s what he had wanted to say the whole time since it happened, more than anything else. “I hope it fucking happens to you. And I hope your face is on the fucking television and in every fucking newspaper and everywhere you fucking go, some asshole and cunt will stick a fucking camera in your face and ask you how you fucking feel when all they want is to see you cry and to hear how much you fucking hurt. I hope it happens to you.” That’s just what he thought. “I hope it happens to you.” But he couldn’t scream and he couldn’t shout. And now, with his souls squeaking as his feet drudged along the floor as if he were slushing through brown, mephitic sleet, more than anything, he just wanted to go home. “What do you think?” asked The Mother, holding up a small colored bag with two muffins inside, the children’s favorite. “You should just get one,” said The Father.

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In her apartment, Linda paced back and forth, almost wearing out the polish on her floors, desperately close to the television and pretending her shifting reflection was her favorite television show. The control was beside her, on the arm of her sofa, pointing at the television and with the channel up button, almost as worn as the polish neath her nervously shuffling feet. On the coffee table was a stack of newspapers and magazines. There was local and national and even international news too. There were newspapers from Sudan and Tikrit that she had imported once every couple of months. Then there were the gossip magazines, the kind with large breasted celebrities and their well to do boyfriends, photographed bare bottomed, climbing up the rafters of yachts and in rank admission, of the most dangerous and titillating liaisons. And there were the other kind of gossip magazines too, the ones where suited intellectuals hammered on over global politics while weighing in, like a pair of cement shoes, on important issues like Middle Eastern religious, political and economic agendas, from an entirely Western perspective. And the pile of news, it reached almost entirely to the ceiling, with so many pages, and so many important things that Linda had to know, that the world had to know. And the celebrity gossip was always changing and it was so hard to keep up with who was sleeping with who and the wars and economic disparity, it too was forever exchanging rounds, and like the opinions of its foreign correspondents, forever changing sides, and it was becoming so difficult for Linda to keep up, to know who to favor and who to address as a villain. Her fingers twitched, but not with childish anticipation, they twitched because of some nerve beneath her skin, or at the back of her brain, something of which she could not attend to with a scratching finger alone. And she knew, the only way to quiet this 115


sensation, the only way to stop the creepy crawlies from creeping and crawling beneath her skin was to sit on her sofa with her fingers latched around her black remote, to turn on the evening news and to open a magazine or two or three or four, and to watch in horror and disbelief at a handful of heartbreaking tragedies and shattered innocence that, no matter how much she mourned and how destitute she became, she would never be able to mend, to stop from happening again or to understand how, in the world she lived, how this type of madness can even occur. And it would be that feeling, that final sense of disillusion with humanity, with society, with herself, that alone would be that feeling that she craved the most. It would be that moment, where she counted herself as whole and as nothing at the same moment. It would be where she blamed herself and others like her for the sadness and suffering in the world, crumpling up newspapers and hurling them at the screen. And when she felt it, she would crinkle and curl her lips and hurl insults, like the crumpled up newspaper, at her own reflection as she stared at her television screen, watching footage of charred smoke, rising from the war-torn ruins of an orphanage as below the footage, the future markets took a battering while commodities stayed firm, amidst rumors of impending trade embargos. And as the itch grew, commanded from somewhere in the middle of her back, somewhere that her stretching hands couldn’t attend, Linda stared at the stack of magazines and papers and then at the screen, like a vial of some scathing and loving drug. And then her eyes fell upon the black remote, her needle that fit like a tailored dress, into the palm of her hand, which took her away from her reality and whetted her senses in dire calamity. And the itch, it grew and it grew. Linda took the first magazine that she could reach. She fell onto her knees, grabbing manically at a black marker and swiping it across the title of the cover, erasing the name of the city being shelled and then erasing too, its face and the face of its martyrs and erasing too, the piles of rubble that buried tiny crooked hands. She 116


swiped and she erased until there was nothing but a black page. She stared at the page and, like a sun being torn apart by a black hole, or like number line being divided by zero; the itch within her seemed to settle. It didn’t vanish entirely, not as quickly as it would if she were hearing the shelling and sounds of sirens sounding as vanned ambulances weaved their way through wrecks of burning vehicles and torn apart avenues. It dimmed, though, so her desire no longer pulled on her nerves like a setting anchor but instead, played like the faint echo of two lovers quarrelling, outside on the street, a block or two away. She could notice that it was there, begging her to turn on the television or to read the first line of a text. But this sun had been reduced to dwarfish rubble, its rasping aria, no louder than a whisper and no more potent than parting kiss on the turning of one’s cheek. But as quiet as it became, the sensation returned just as quick, so Linda opened the first page of the magazine, staring over its contents and reading each chapter, each story was like staring at a hundred colored pills and imagining their fantasy to the point of salivation. She took her black marker and she swiped it across the names of the stories and then she swiped it back across the names of the correspondents and the editors and the copywriters and the photographers and the publishers and even the contributors. And she stopped for a second, feeling the itch in the back of her head almost topple over so as to careen down to the tips of her toes. And like a starving beast, ravaging a weak and ensnared calf, she wrenched her face into a contorted grimace and she screeched and squealed as her tensing hand scratched the black marker over every word and every picture on the page, snuffing the inferno of disease and depression that scolded her giving heart and had her desperate and pining for more. Page after page she dragged her black marker around like a weapon. She felt in control. She felt, out of control. She felt like the child who had woken to find their captor asleep. And each page 117


was like the cursing and devouring face of that captor and each swipe of her marker was like the swinging of some axing truncheon onto the chest and the belly, and the poking and tying hands, and then across the pleading and apologetic face of that son of a bitch. And she swiped and she scratched until every word was silenced, until there were no thoughts on the page, until the whole of what it was, returned to zero, unto which everything returned. And again, she paused and she felt calm. And she returned to every page of the magazine and then she threw the magazine to the oor and she grabbed a newspaper and she did the same, barely stopping to blink, to breath or to moisten her aridly cracking lips, blacking out every word and every image, laughing hysterically, unable to contain herself anymore. Page after page, paper after paper and magazine after magazine, everything was painted black. And the itch, it was buried under a new sensation, that of purging, of vomiting and shitting and pissing and crying and spitting – the ecstasy of expulsion. When all the magazines, when all the newspapers were like the black perceivable emptiness that was blanketed between the planets, Linda turned to the television and she drew her black marker over the screen until it was blacked out entirely. Then she looked around her apartment, feverish and famished for more. There on the dining table were pictures of her mother and her sisters and her nieces. And he dove through the air, her hand already outstretched, reaching for the frames with a crab-like pinch. And she ran the black marker over her mother’s face and her dress that she always wore and over the window in the background, of the room where she once slept. And she blacked out the mouth of her sister whose tongue could only fashion meddling and lies. And then she took her photograph of Mickey Mouse, and she blacked out his eyes.

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The first guests started to arrive around seven. The Father stayed on the computer, pretending to be too engaged in whatever he was doing to be able to attend to the pretentious air kissing and consolidating smiles. He wondered how long he could stay there; away from all that social kafuffle, before he would be forced to a least make a brief appearance. “Make yourselves comfortable,” said The Mother, taking her guests’ coats and pointing them in the direction of the bottle of red wine in the living room. “Your apartment is wonderful” Fiona said, almost floating into the room in heavenly intrigue, her eyes drifting like a lily in an open stream, swaying from the polished candle brass that aligned the walls, flickering dimly lit shadows across the polished hardwood floors, to the open balcony, where a light breeze swept about a scattering of colored petals. The Mother smiled at first until she herself caught sight of the white net unfurling from its tight bind beside a heap of silver hooks, in the corner beside the rocking chair. And in a second she felt exposed as if there were some bubbling sore on her lip or some pulling run in her tights that she was sure was plain and obvious and was bound to be the topic of quiet, pensive discourse. “Let me show you around,” she said, curling her arm like a bend in the stream, around Fiona’s back, and, as if illusion were her occupation, her sleight of hand fed the curiosity of her starving guests before that interest fed upon her soiled and secretive treasures. As she took her guests away from the balcony and towards her bedroom, she cast a galling stare towards her husband who, wearing a studious and soaking expression, ignored the passing curiosity of these unwelcomed intruders and continued to allude to the utmost importance of what it was that he was watching in 119


apparent assiduousness, that which meant that everything else could wait. And the guests, the intruders and the passers-by, they all nodded and smiled as they intrusively passed on by, taking The Father’s ire and learned visage as a reason not to disturb, oblivious, as to the air of fatigue and ill-feeling that was readily erupting from the pit of his stomach and blowing a gale in his uninhabitable mind. And as the procession of strangers tip toed past the door, apologizing and begging for excuse, The Father offered little more than a faint nod of his head, no more pressing than a worn driver, falling asleep at the wheel, as little children stuck out their cheeky tongues between their mothers legs who made hasty conclusions about his pale complexion and their husbands, hoping somewhat that they could debate over dinner, whatever it was that kept his attention so captive. And as they passed, conducted by his wide eyed wife, he continued to flick, detachedly, as he waited for the news and weather to load, through a thousand images of satiric and orgiastic sex, scouring the internet’s endless chasm of lascivious pornography, circling his mouse over the rolling eyes, the salivating orifices and stiffened members of young women and men, enthralled in consummate purge and helotry. And beside the images, in streaming windows, there played videos of improvised bombs, detonating near American tanks, groups of tattooed skateboarders kicking one another in the crotch, Russian trucks, merging tranquilly into the path of oncoming traffic on picturesque, country roads and finally, little black cats, tapping their little white paws on grand pianos, playing Grieg’s Morning Mood and reminding The Father that they hadn’t bought any toilet paper. And it seemed that no amount of sex or violence could bring him to thrill or to offense. It seemed that nothing could rattle him. And it was just that of which he felt, nothing; unsure if he was straight or gay, or if he was just bored and uninspired. And he wondered, the whole time, if the numbness that he 120


felt inside was permeant or if there was anything at all that could innerve his senses before the morning came. But as much as his distractions offered him respite from his thoughts, he couldn’t ignore his wife’s sour expression, not any longer, which urged him away from the computer and out onto the balcony. And he knew exactly what she was hinting at. So while the whispering adults hushed their snickering children, The Father snuck past and stepped quietly onto the balcony and retrieved the uncoiling, nylon net and the collection of shiny silver hooks, taking them to the only room with a lock on it. As he reached for his key which he kept on a string around his neck, a young boy pulled on the leg of his jeans and stared at him. The boy said nothing. He just looked at the net and then looked at The Father and then walked away, his attention captured by the shimmering shine of a pair of sharpened scissors, tucked between a folded newspaper and a box that said ‘Do Not Open’. The Father quickly tucked the netting into the room and locked the door once more, turning his attention to the young boy with a set of scissors in his hand, swinging them around his head like the locks of a plastic doll, his threat seemingly invisible to the guests who sat at the table, drinking wine and sharing their thoughts on trending polemics like the war and the famine and Aids and the flu, and celebrities, whose infants had not lived to full term. And each gave the other time enough to say what they had to say before they repeated the same thing themselves and they all, wearily and longingly, basted their attention in a dark and musky woeful depression. “Come and join us,” said The Mother, pulling a seat. The table looked at The Father for a second and then returned to their heated debate. “I’m just saying is all… If it were me, I would have had an ambulance on standby. You can believe what you want but at the end of the day, if your baby gets hurt, how could you live with yourself ?” The Father had no idea what they were talking about but at 121


guess, it was surely about death for it was all anyone ever spoke of anymore. Around the table, the women clutched photos of children whose faces had been littered all over the news after an accident with their bus. They all had one and they spoke of the pain and suffering and senseless tragedy as if their spoken breath were most certainly gently caressing in the afterlife, the spirits of lives that were cut so short. “Do you know how many dead there were?” asked one of the women. “I don’t know,” Fiona said as if she were the responding officer. “At the moment there are three dead,” she said to gasps of disbelief, “but there could be a lot more. That’s what we’re looking out for at the moment. Were you looking” she said, staring at The Father. “What? Sorry?” he said, pulled out of his delusion. “On the computer, were you looking at the updates? Did you see how many have died so far? On the news, on your computer? Were you looking?” The Father thought of vaginas and Kinder Surprises and that little cat. “I don’t. I don’t watch the news” he said. The table stared at him oddly as if he had broken wind or had rambled in a foreign tongue. Then they turned back to Fiona who was on her cell phone, flicking through catalogues of headlines. And the table, hardly satisfied with what they had heard, fanned her verse, hungry for more. “So,” said one of the women. “Three dead, as I said. And, oh god, there were forty children on board.” The women all gasped once more, their hands tied to their mouths. “And there were apparently five special needs children. Oh, that’s horrible. Those poor things. As if life hadn’t been cruel enough. I mean can you imagine…” she said, pausing and looking around the table, making sure every set of eyes was upon hers. 122


“Can you imagine if it was one of your children?” The women all stopped. With the pictures of the killed and critically injured children in their hands, they all seemed to drift for a moment, as if they were imagining the faces of their own children on the photos in their hands. “It says here that two children are fine. They were unscathed apparently. Not a scratch” Fiona said. “But what about the others, the injured?” a woman said, passing on a shot of relief and laying her hand upon another pint of disparity. “Well, they’re saying there are seventeen children who are critical and are in ICU at the moment. There’s another eighteen or so with serious injuries, but not life threatening.” “Will they make it?” a woman asked, in the same manner that The Father had heard his wife years before asking if he thought it would rain, on the day they planned to go to the beach. “The seventeen? Do you think more will die? God! that would be terrible.” “I’m not sure,” Fiona said. “But it doesn’t look good. The parents are all at the scene. None of them are giving interviews. You can imagine” she said. “Those poor mothers. It must be so horrible.” “Can you imagine if all seventeen died?” Fiona asked. The women all dropped their stares and imagined. Those who had their children nearby, they reached for them and pulled them close. They nursed them with their hands while their little angels fidgeted and squirmed and tried to break away to continue playing with some toys they had found in a box that had been marked ‘Do Not Open’. They ran their fingers through their children’s hair and curled the ends that could, twisting their fingers round and around, just like The Mother who, under the table, curled and platted a single thread on a small colored butterfly, her hands as invisible and as hard to read as her vacant stare. “You know, we forget, but they really are miracles, our children, they are all miracles,” Fiona said, rubbing the top of her son’s head. 123


The women all agreed. “They are miracles,” they all said in concurrent harmony. “My little miracle” Fiona said, nudging against her son’s cheek. “No they’re not,” said The Father, breaking his peace. The women looked at him oddly once more. “Sorry?” Fiona said, leading the rebuttal. “They’re not miracles. Your children, anyone else’s, they’re not miracles. You can’t just say that. Life is not miraculous. It happens all the bloody time. Plants, animals, humans, there’s a lot of it going on and it’s been going on for a quite a long fucking time if you ask me. You can’t just take a word and use it out of context. That’s how languages become irrelevant. It’s how shit becomes ambiguous and the truth becomes impossible to fucking say. You can’t just do that. You can’t do that. You can’t. You really think your son is a miracle?” shouted The Father. Fiona looked at The Mother and gave her a particular look as if her child were being loud and rambunctious in church and disrupting the pastor. But the Mother, though her eyes were open, her thoughts were a million miles away and she had heard nothing. And The Father, he stood up. He leaned over the table. And he continued. “To propose all life as a miracle is to assume that the concept of conception through to carrying, developing and birthing a child is inherently dangerous, more so perilous to the life of the infant and the life of its mother. If you think all children are miraculous then that means that every pregnancy is expected to fail and every birth is a rare undiagnosed condition, quite rightly worthy of more than brief light celebration. Each and every successful birth would be worthy of a national fucking holiday. Each baby born would be regarded as a medical fucking marvel. A fucking breakthrough. This type of event would be in print. It wouldn’t be whispered but yelled in awe, painted in the eardrums of anyone who would listen, for everyone needs to hear, ‘we defied nature once again, another child was born’.” 124


Fiona smiled much like The Mother had, her nerves entwined. “I’m not done,” said The Father. “Now, with this in mind; that all children are miracles as you said, if some poor lady was to lose her infant during carriage or during labor, like some of you have,” he said, staring across the table. “And according to what you believe, the death of that child, being expected, of course, would not be a tragedy, not at all. But instead, it would just be a repeated insignificant event, like an anniversary of some aunt you can’t remember. In fact, in many cases, the mother might even in fact feel relieved that the outcome she had planned came true, that the infant didn’t live full term or in the case of death during labor, that the thrill was kept until the final moment. To say that all children are miracles is to say that the death of your child is not a tragedy. That it’s normal. You really want that?” “Babe, please,” said The Mother, pulling on his arm. “Not now, for fuck’s sake.” “No, it’s ok,” Fiona said. “We’ve all been there before. He’s just grieving. Isn’t he hunny” she said, looking at her husband. “He’s just venting. It’s natural. He doesn’t mean it.” “And your killing another perfectly good language,” said The Father. “Babe” pressured The Mother. “Fuck it,” said The Father. “Whatever.” There was more awkward silence that was broken only by the sound of Fiona’s cell phone beeping. The women all looked to her, unhooking themselves from The Father’s virulent bait. “What is it?” one of the women asked, forgetting The Father’s rant and thinking about those poor seventeen children again and if their conditions had worsened. “There’s going to be a vigil tomorrow, in the afternoon,” Fiona said. “I think we should go and support the mothers. They need people like us at this time, mothers of sympathy, mothers who have lost their own children, mothers who know and mothers who care. We could write sympathy cards.” 125


“And talk about our own experience.” “Exactly,” Fiona said. “So they know they’re not alone. I know they say they want distance and to be left alone, but that’s just shock and grief talking. I know. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. What they want is to be around love and to not feel isolated and unfamiliar. We have to go.” The women all nodded their heads, squeezing their children tight against their stomachs, scared to let them go, no matter how hard they tried to wriggle themselves free. “We could car pool,” Fiona said. “What do you think?” They all nodded once more, their faces turning from sullen to zoetic, no longer looking like half filled balloons. “You could drive,” Fiona said, looking at The Mother. “Your car is big isn’t it? It would be great for fitting most of the mothers and…” “Korine comes home tomorrow,” said The Father, hammering a nail in her balloon. “Oh,” Fiona said, unsure really where to go next. “It’s her birthday. And we’re having a party” said The Father. “You’re all invited,” he said, knowing the answer would be no. Fiona looked at The Mother, who was smiling uncouthly as if her mouth had been stuffed with a mound of wet shit and tiny burning peppers, and under the table, her fingers pulled frenziedly on both colored wings, threatening to tear them apart. “Well I’d have to check my agenda,” Fiona said, and the other mothers all nodded, looking at The Father as if he were some cold and maniacal doctor whose maddened experiment meant more to him than the hurt that it caused. There was an awkward silence. The mothers all ducked their chins into their children’s scalps, burying their faces into their messy hair and wishing away this moment. The only one who spoke was Fiona’s husband, the only other father at the table. “Do you like football?” he asked in a manner that showed he knew nothing about football. He may as well have asked about the innersole of women’s pumps. But it wasn’t his fault; it was the 126


cavalier in him, gripping like a drowning man, at thin hair, something to stop the whole evening from going under. “I hate sport,” said The Father. “Me too. I hate the fanatics as well. I just… well…” he said nervously. “What do you like?” “I don’t know,” said The Father, his eyes locked on The Mother, and his words absolutely honest, for he didn’t know. “Neither do I, to tell you the truth,” Fiona’s husband said. And he was telling the truth also. He had no idea what he liked or what made him feel kind and appreciated. Nobody ever did. “I’m gonna go,” said The Father. “I gotta… uh… put something up in the... uh… yeah” he said, pointing blindly over his shoulder and walking away from the table before anyone could offer him their adieu. The Father turned and headed up the hall. His mind was adrift in a moment of calm. For the first time in days, he found himself absconded from the thought of his daughter standing, on the steps of a clinic in the pouring rain. He could breathe again, as if his lungs had been scraped clean of the black soot that had left him choking throughout his days, desperate to think about anything other than her and her sad little face and the fact that his dreams and his thoughts, they always had him standing on the other side of the road, ignoring her whimpering and unable to reach out to her or to coldly look away. Venting at those mothers had relieved him in a way that masturbation never could. Later that evening, as The Mother said goodbye to her guests, apologizing for her husband’s outburst and apologizing too, for not being able to attend the vigil, The Father sat in the children’s bedroom, the only room with a lock on the door. And as The Mother’s heels clicked and clacked up the hall towards the door, The Father felt a sickly shiver in his stomach and across his back, expecting some uncomfortable outbreak to occur. The Mother opened the door gently and watched as her 127


lover leaned precariously out of the window, leaning up towards the top of the window frame, screwing large silver hooks into the wood and showing the part of his stomach that she loved to sexualize, the path to happiness she called it. “Are you coming to bed?” she asked. “I wanna finish this,” he said. The Father was inside the room now, stretching the nylon net around each silver hook and trying to cover the whole frame. He’d never done it before but assumed that it couldn’t be that hard. He’d seen the guy going around the building at the moment, charging a fortune for putting them up. He didn’t look like a genius. It’s a net and fucking string. And they didn’t have the money, not right now. “You didn’t have to say what you said you know.” The Father huffed and puffed like a stormy dragon and he continued with the net. “You could talk to me.” “Whatta you want me to say?” “I don’t know. Anything. Look at me. Ask me how the fuck I’m doing. Anything.” “Well,” he said, turning with an ailing look. “How the fuck are you doing?” “You’re a cunt,” she said. “And I saw that shit you’ve been looking at. Fucking sluts and whores. It’s sick. It’s degrading and disgusting. Is that what you need to get off now?” “It’s what I need to forget,” he said to himself. “What?” “Nothing. Fucking nothing. It’s just porn alright? Fuck.” The Mother took a deep breath but she wouldn’t let it go and she tried to hold onto it for as long as she could. She tried to hold onto it forever. But it escaped and it left her gasping and abraded. “You’re doing it all wrong,” she said. “You know that don’t you?”

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129


It was still very much night, especially for those lying comfy in their beds. Linda lay in hers, curled into a tight ball with her thick blanket scrunched up towards the end of the mattress. She wore red woolen socks on her feet and red woolen mittens on her hands. And her hands, they were clasped together, as if she were wishing hard for something terrific in her sleep. She wore pajamas, a white top, and white bottoms. They were decorated with little colored houses, like the type she grew up in when she was a little girl. And her pajama legs were tucked into her socks so that they didn’t ride up and let a draft at her legs. A night gown wouldn’t do. With all her kicking and fussing while she dreamt, it would end up around her neck and catching on a post or something and would probably end up choking her; that was the conclusion her mother had come to, half a century ago. Linda had slept like this since she was a little girl and like many things in her life, she had never seen a reason to do it any other way. But it was night still for most people. It was two a.m. And the night, it was pitch black, with the stars hidden behind a veil of grey sweating clouds, thickened by the polluted perspiration of truck exhausts and crackling embers that had been smoldering for the good part of a month in someone’s back garden, upwind from Linda’s open bedroom window. Though the smell crept into her sheets and into the pores of her skin, it was less bothersome than sleeping with the windows closed and having to spend electricity on a fan the whole night through. The alarm buzzed loud and obnoxiously and Linda threw her arms about in a spasm, cursing at someone for leaving egg shells on the floor when the king would be arriving at any second. And while she cursed blindingly, she uncoiled herself and stretched out to the end of the bed to remove her cell phone from its 130


charger, turn off the alarm and then curl back up on the warm patch of the bed, pulling he covers back over her shoulders and then drifting back into the regal dream from which she had awoken. She was asleep for only a minute or two before she was dreaming once more and shifting and turning on the bed, making sour faces and pushing the blanket away with her disquieted feet. And then she was fetal again, curled into the tiniest little ball. The next alarm rang at three thirty and then the following at ten to four. And much like the first, Linda woke briefly from her dreaming to reach blindly for the phone and pull it close to her face so she could see the time, so she could see how early it was and how much more time she still had to sleep. And she cuddled up with the phone close to her chest as if it were her favorite pet as if its obnoxious ring were an affectionate lick from a kitten’s coarse tongue. The next eleven alarms rang out between the hours of four fifteen and five-O five, which was her ‘get up or else’ alarm, the one that sounded like the music of young people, up to no good. Normally Linda would get up at the five o’clock alarm. It was a song she rather liked by a band she couldn’t remember the name of, that had that bit in the middle, where they sang about being watched over by an angel and also they helped people in Africa too, and that was important. At five-O one Linda was still asleep. Her favorite song had played and she didn’t even hear it, she didn’t even budge. At five-O two, she muttered something about a blue pencil and then rolled onto her back, her dry tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth which hanged open like an excavator’s bucket, shoveling in the cold morning air. At five-O three a motorbike zipped down her street, backfiring as it turned the corner with the broken street lamp, narrowly missing the mischief of prostitutes and the car that was idling alongside. At five-O four, there was a scream. And it was loud enough 131


for Linda to almost jump out of her skin. She shrieked on the bed, overcome by fright and painted in a hundred billion shivers, thinking someone had broken into her apartment and was about to accost her. But where were they? And why didn’t she have a concave mirror?

132


At three eighteen, The Father pulled himself out of bed. He hadn’t been able to sleep all night, scared that if he allowed himself to dream, he might run into the things that scared him the most; innocuous little things, things like purple nail polish and pink umbrellas. They were little things, but they were things nonetheless. They were things that he had tried to repress, but what good was it, if after all that digging and burying, if every time he closed his eyes, like a shit that wouldn’t flush, they just kept coming back. The Mother had fallen asleep around three. He thought she never would. She just kept turning over the whole night, clinging onto that damn butterfly, clutching it close to her breast at first, and then tucking it under her chin for some time before finally allowing it to rest just by the tip of her hands, close enough so that when she dreamt, the tips of her fingers lightly twitched against the soft fabric of the outstretched wings. She took forever to fall asleep though and it was nearly dawn before she did. The Father, as he had done for so long, lay still on the mattress and heavied his breath, pretending to fall asleep while The Mother was still talking about Argentina. It took only a few heavy breaths for her to stop talking. And then she cursed, rolled over and then spent the next few hours grinding her teeth as she picked at the small colored butterfly. He had spent the whole time staring at the back of his eye lids, thinking of things that were common and uninteresting and being sure to make sounds and movements that people might do when they were asleep; tossing and turning systematically and grumbling, as if he were caught in some disquieted discourse in his dreams. At three eighteen, though, The Father was sure she was asleep. He edged himself slowly out of the bed, careful not to pull the blankets back too much. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had; it 133


was just something that was embedded in his behavior after years of sharing his bed. By three twenty he was already in the kitchen, peeling an apple and waiting on a pot of coffee. And at three twenty one, he was pacing the apartment. He arranged the furniture three times, deciding in the end that the sofa was probably best where it was to begin with. That and he also settled on the conclusion that it would look somewhat suspicious if all the furniture had moved when he was supposed to have been fast asleep in bed. At four a.m., he left the movie he was watching and went into the office where he read some emails, checked the weather and he masturbated several times. And then, when he had finished on the computer, he re-arranged the bookshelf according to the size of each book and the thickness of the printed pages. At around four fifty, he could hear alarms buzzing in one of the other apartments, he didn’t know which. Nobody ever really talked to each other anymore. Now, they just talked about each other. It was a shame, though, being so close to other people and knowing absolutely nothing about them. At four fifty seven, he was standing against the front door, peering through the small peep hole into the dark corridor, waiting for a light to come on in any of the four apartments. He was counting on it being the crazy lady, the one in 9A. He wanted to introduce himself, approach her casual like, as she waited for the elevator. Maybe he could ask her name and where she worked and whether her shower took as long as his did, to warm up. At five o’clock, there was a song playing that he didn’t like and now he didn’t know if he should keep peering through the door or whether he should go back to the office and masturbate, one more time before The Mother got up. He decided to make The Mother a coffee. The sun would be up shortly and there was only so much he could handle of his own company. There was already a full thermos sitting on the kitchen table so he poured her a cup and stirred gently, careful not to make 134


the clanking sound that irritated her so much, that of a clumsy spoon knocking against porcelain. The coffee wasn’t fresh, but it wasn’t tepid either. At five-O two he crept into the room and lay gently beside his wife, lightly stroking the back of his hand against her exposed leg. He tried to nudge her, to rouse her awake, but she wouldn’t budge. Her face crinkled up like it did when he didn’t notice she had plucked her eyebrows and he was asking her what’s wrong. She grumbled as if she were a shaved and disgruntled hound, being buggered by some pestering child. At five-O three he said, “Babe, it’s time to get up.” But she rolled over and pulled the covers over her face. She grumbled louder. “It’s time to get up babe. Come on” he said, still nudging her lightly. But she kicked her foot and the cup tipped, spilling coffee onto the mattress. “Fuck it” he screamed, throwing the cup against the wall. It was the small blue cup, the one with the cracked handle; the one The Mother loved drinking from the most. And at five-O four it burst into a billion particles, scattering about the room – on the mattress and beside her pillow, over the pile of dirty laundry and clean clothes on the floor, and on the stack of colored diapers that were piled just below where the cup hit, still smelling of sweet coconut soap and buttoned up; ready for use. Ignoring the shards of blue now digging into her knees and her scampering palms, The Mother clambered over the bed as if it were the mattress that were sinking hastily, and not her faith. “What have you done?” she shouted. “They’re ruined. Look at what you’ve done” she blubbered, grasping at the pile of colored diapers and clutching them to her chest, panic filling her eyes as one and then two and then three of them toppled from her hold and fell onto the floor, onto a dark tepid swill on the floor. “Get out” she screamed. “Get the fuck out.” “You did this,” said The Father. “You know that right? You 135


made me this way. You made us all this way. It was you that wanted kids. It wasn’t me. You said ‘let’s do it’. It was your fucking idea. I told you, I’m too fucked up for kids; we’re both too fucked up for kids. But you had to be right, didn’t you? None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you. None of it.” “You were supposed to be watching them,” said The Mother. The Father slammed the front door as he left.

136


Linda stood at her door, watching through the peep hole at her neighbor, the poor man, pacing back and forwards in front of the elevator. At first she thought it might have been an intruder or a sexual pervert, that’s why she had the bread knife in her hand and an extra pair of knickers on. And it was why her heart was beating so fast and so loud that she could hear it in her head and she thought that everyone else could too, and that it would give her away. When the elevator arrived, her neighbor got in and she lost her chance to talk to him. But she was in her pajamas anyway, so she would look silly. She had this urge, though, to say something. Everyone else was talking about them and making things up as if they knew what happened. They were all stupid, like the other dentists at the clinic, and the receptionist, and her sisters; always whispering about her behind her back and saying that there was something wrong with her, probably because they were jealous because she didn’t need a boyfriend or a fancy car and because she didn’t need to go out and spend money, to show that she was rich. Her shower was quick. Linda didn’t like to spend much time under the water. It was a waste of money and a stupid kind of luxury. There were better ways to spend money recklessly than getting saturated. She could stand in the rain and do that and not have to spend a penny. If she got sick, though, because of it, she would have to see a doctor and though she had a medical plan, she would have to spend fuel to go there and the doctor would probably give her a prescription and it would cost a lot too to get that filled. The cost of medicine nowadays was just ridiculous. So it was best that she didn’t dance in the rain. Truth is, Linda couldn’t think of a single thing she would like to spend money on, not in the way that other people spent 137


their money. She much preferred to keep it in the bank, where it was safe. She soaped and rinsed quickly and decided not to shampoo her hair, leaving it in a shower cap. They were stupid inventions, though. They never stopped the water entirely and that was always something that irritated Linda, having just part of her hair being wet while the rest was like it was supposed to be. And it was always a patch of hair that touched the back of her ear or on her neck. She didn’t like the feeling at all. When it came to dressing, Linda was fast. She would be faster only if she had a third and a fourth arm or if she didn’t have legs, and she didn’t have to tighten the Velcro straps on her shoes. There were apartment buildings all around hers, on every side. So if she was in her bedroom, outside of the window, not a stone’s throw away, there was another bedroom window, looking right at hers. And it was the same for her balcony and for the small window in her shower, and the one in her laundry too, where she kept her treadmill. Linda always had the feeling that somebody was watching her. She didn’t have the money to buy curtains, not the kind she wanted anyway, and it was always too hot at night to close the windows so they were always open and anybody could see in at any time, which they probably did because people were no good spies; the grass is greener types, always wanting to read from the backs of someone else’s shoulder or guess what kind of pizza they got, when they got it delivered. She could get dressed in the bathroom but it steamed up too much and it was difficult to breathe. She didn’t leave the window open, not while she was in the shower. That would be crazy. Not that other people could see, the window was too high. So high that Linda had to stretch up on her tippy toes, just to flick the handle with her index finger. It was crazy, though, mainly because the cold air would get in and then the shower would feel cold and she would have to turn it down more to make it hotter and that would use more electricity and then she’d just be spending money for no 138


good reason. It was hard enough for Linda as it was, on account of her not being as tall as other people. The drops would all get cold by the time they fell on her. It made her showers a little uncomfortable. She was planning, though, to buy a plastic seat, so she could be closer to the hotter drops. Linda dressed quickly. She didn’t bother to wipe any drops that were still on her. There wasn’t any time, especially not if anyone was looking. And they could too if they wanted to. People had all sort of contraptions and technology, just for spying on people; binoculars and glasses that could see through walls, so even if she had the curtains, they would still be able to spy on her. She saw it on television once, this family that put a camera inside a teddy bear. It was really small, so small that the nanny who was always shaking and hitting their children with her sandal didn’t even know it was there. It was inside the teddy’s eye. Cameras were so small now that they could be hidden anywhere, in anything. Instantly, and still clutching the towel to her body, she thought of Patty, her cleaner. She was always going through her things and moving stuff around, especially when she wasn’t asked to do so. She’d always say sorry when Linda shouted at her for it, but you could tell that she wasn’t sorry, not in the slightest. Linda always had to keep moving around her important thing so that Patty wouldn’t steal them. Poor people were like that. They were bad, not because they wanted to be, but because that’s just how they were. You wouldn’t leave a dog around an open fridge. The same goes for poor people. They were good at doing their jobs, most of the time, but it’s their job to go through stuff and if they see stuff, it’s in their nature to steal it and to take it home. They all have lots of children in their small houses and their husbands are probably in prison so, they don’t mean bad, it’s just the way they are. Patty was smart, though. She watched some of the same shows as Linda and always had an opinion, even when most of the time she was wrong. Linda paid her well, but not enough for cable. It was probably just another thing that she robbed, stealing culture 139


and knowledge and entertainment when honest people like Linda had to work hard to pay for it. And they didn’t even know what to do with it, the knowledge or culture. It was like giving a violin to a monkey or a book to a blind person. It’s just stupid. But if Patty had seen the same show - which she had because she had some stupid idea that it was the parents’ fault, because they were supposed to raise their children themselves and be a mother and father like God intended, not just be a mum and dad when it was convenient and when it suited them – well then, if she did, she would have seen how that rich family caught their nanny doing all that bad stuff and she would definitely have thought about doing it herself, hiding a camera somewhere in Linda’s apartment and spying on her, to see where she moved all of her important things. Linda thought about Patty spying on her and she was so mad that she wanted to clench her fists into tight balls. She couldn’t though, her towel would probably drop. Then she started thinking about all the perverts out there, the ones who rented apartments on the ninth floor because it was above the line of trees and because she lived on the ninth floor too and she lived alone. And perverts and stalkers and rapists, they knew things like that. They knew when a woman was living alone. They picked their specific windows on purpose, for that reason. That’s why Linda always wore an extra pair of knickers and why she sometimes acted like she was having an argument with someone else, someone who wasn’t ever standing in front of the window. So if the rapists were listening, they would think she wasn’t alone. Thinking she was definitely being spied upon, Linda dressed quick, counting to five before dropping the towel and grabbing maniacally at her two pairs of knickers and her white bra and then at her white pants and her white blouse and her white socks and white shoes, like a dog would, a slither of fat thrown from a kitchen window. Linda didn’t eat in the mornings. Not normally anyway. Normally she had a protein drink and sometimes she would take a 140


banana with her, so she could eat in on the way to work; sometimes, not all the time. Today though she poured herself a glass of water and she pinned her thumb and her index finger to her nose as she drank. It wasn’t because the water smelt bad or because it tasted bad either. It was just something she was used to doing when she drank her protein shake. It was just a thing. And things, well they could be hard to shake off. The elevator took forever, as it always did. It was quiet on the floor, as it should be. It was still early. Most people were getting in their cars around six or so but Linda had to travel far for her work so she had to leave earlier and it was always really dark and super quiet when she was getting ready and it was just as dark and quiet when she was getting in her car and pulling out of the building. The part that always made her the most nervous, more nervous than walking through the dark car park or having to drive past the street with the prostitutes and the drug addicts. More nerve racking than that, though, was standing on her own floor and waiting for the elevator to come. If there was someone spying on her, this is where they would get her. They would be behind the plant in the corner and because everyone was asleep, nobody would be able to hear what happened. And because she never talked to anyone in the building, and because she didn’t really have any friends, nobody would notice that she was gone. So if there was a creep or a pervert or rapist, and of they were creeping about behind the plant, and if they did want to go ahead and do something, there’d be no one to stop them, and they’d probably get away with it too. There was the sound of crying from one of the apartments. It wasn’t loud or anything. In fact, it sounded almost like somebody crying in a movie if the television had been left on. And Linda would have thought this, had she not heard the poor woman in 9B crying every night and every morning, around this time. After what happened, who could blame her? 141


Linda always wanted to do something, to knock one her door and say something. But what would she say? And what would she do? Give her a hug? She didn’t like hearing the poor woman cry. It made her want to cry too. On one hand, though, it meant that she hadn’t gone and done something stupid, on account of being so sad. And that was a good thing.

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The Mother had hardly the courage or the strength necessary to be here and yet, she could hardly bring herself to being anywhere else. It was as if she had made her home, inside of a twisted and burned out wreck, and though she knew there had been an accident and that there was no way that anyone could have possibly survived, still, she could never bring herself to looking in the mirrors, just to be sure. Holding onto the small colored butterfly, she, with her free hand, re-arranged the colored diapers into a neat stack in the laundry, placing them neat and ordered so that the little tags were all sticking out and she could read Callum’s name. She thought it was a bit mad at first, having so many. She had gone through a faze, just before Callum was born, where she bought scores of them, and then scores of scores, so much that it became a habit, something she had to nip in the bud, just because there was not enough space to keep them all, not in the tiny apartment. It didn’t seem so mad now though, sitting on her red stool and sipping a cup of coffee, letting herself drift as she stared aimless at the pile of diapers, watching the letters of her son’s name meld and merge into a black smear across the landscape of spotted cows and leopards prints, fluorescent greens and striped zebras and big white bones and pirate skulls, with her favorite on top, the black diaper, the one covered in big white moustaches, the curly kind, like of old fashioned adventurers and aristocrats. She didn’t much like those types of people, but the moustaches looked cute, printed on a baby’s bum. She even thought of making them herself. A lot of the women were like this, in the groups that she was a part of. They all thought the same way, and they inspired others to think the same way too, that they could do anything. And they could you know. 143


Not because they had no choice, but because it was their choice. And everything about Callum’s birth was about choice. It was about her having the courage to fight for what she wanted and to do what was right, not what was easier or cheaper or what some doctor told her to do just because what she wanted scared the pants off of them. It was about choice. It was about her choosing to say no. It was about her choosing to get up and walk out. It was about her shutting out her family and her old friends when all they could say was ‘you’re crazy’ and ‘don’t you know how dangerous that is’. The scar on The Mother’s belly still stuck out, much more than she would like and more than her doctor promised it would. Korine’s birth was about choice, it was about how little she had and how insignificant she was, as just a woman, and worse still, as just a worried mother, besieged by their climatic emotions, like a tempering child, shouting for more when they’ve gobbled the last one and the packet is empty and bare on their laps, or a victim of a violent robbery, unable to hold their bladder as hurled abuse and orders graze the inside of their ear while the muzzle of a gun scrapes against the back of their neck. She had wanted a natural birth, something that was becoming more and more uncommon where she lived. She wanted it in the same way and with the same amount of mutinous drive as she did, when she was a girl, to leave school, and to leave home and her mother, and to live by herself in the city so she didn’t have to be under anybody’s thumb and like she always wanted, one day to teach or sing in a band or just sit around all day, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. And pregnant with her first child, she thought it would be something romantic and epic, yet at the same time, something flowery, with lots of bunny rabbits and doctors, whose voices sounded like cotton candy. She was hoping for a pregnancy etched in the brightly spun virtue of Disney, but in the end, her script was the love child of Monty Python and Edgar Allen Poe, absurdity fashioned in a veil of horror. There were the countless doctors who looked just like 144


doctors and sounded just like doctors but, in fact, were merely idiots with coats and diplomas. And it was true that many times along the way, out of naïve assumption, The Mother, and The Father cut themselves time and time again, on Occam’s razor; hearing hooves and assuming horses, as opposed to an industry of asses. The Mother had had a thousand concerns, fed by the thousand books and articles she had read, scripted like the book of revelations, for her uterus. What were worse though were the condescending winks and nods from her doctors, as if every thought in her head was unfounded. And they knew this because all of those things, they were the flower of archaic medicine; one they had no intention of practicing. During an appointment, days before Korine was born, The Mother sat alone as her obstetrician got up from her table and arranged the bed and the stirrups for The Mother to do her then weekly evaluation. She struggled to get off her seat but with some straining and some awkward bending of her knees, she managed to get herself onto her feet and shuffle over to the table. “Just hop up here and put your feet in the stirrups,” said The Obstetrician. “I’ll be right back. I just have to get your records.” The Obstetrician left the room and The Mother climbed onto the bed and rested her feet in the two metal stirrups. On the roof, there was a picture of a child holding a balloon. The child was sitting on green grass and the sun was shining in the blue sky. The Mother rubbed her belly and hummed to her daughter. “So how do you feel? Looks like that baby might drop out at any second” asked The Obstetrician, walking back into the room with a file in her hands. “Tired,” said The Mother stretching out a worn and hospitable smile. “You’re almost there now. Let’s listen to the baby’s heart rate and just make sure there are no problems.” The Mother closed her eyes as The Obstetrician ran a host of instruments across her belly. The sound of her child’s heart beating echoed in The Mother’s ears. With her shut eyes, she 145


imagined that the child was in her arms and breathing as it was on the monitor, in nervous anticipation for the nipple it was reaching for with its tiny massaging hands. So it was excited breaths. And not the other kind. “I can’t wait,” said The Mother, “to have the home birth. No drugs. No nothing.” The Obstetrician’s eyes opened wide. Her face e whitened. And her hands froze. The probe slipped, just a little. And the sound of a beating heart stopped. “That’s great,” said The Obstetrician. “I’ve been planning so much for this. I want my baby to come into the world in the most natural and peaceful environment. Without intervention. Without the coldness of a hospital you know? I mean, a hospital is no place for giving birth. It’s a place to negotiate with death, not to welcome life. I want the tranquility of my own room. My family around me. My husband in the pool with me. However long it takes.” The Obstetrician smiled genuinely. “You are so brave you know. Good on you” she said, looking at her agenda worryingly. The woman opened her eyes. “What do you mean?” she said. “No don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great what you’re doing. It’s really brave. I admire that. You’re a real warrior you know?” The Mother’s breathing became racy and shallow. “I couldn’t do it you know? All the risks. I don’t think I could, you know, for the sake of tradition, put my life in so much danger. I just don’t have the same courage as you. And the baby too. God, you must be so damn brave. I do admire that. To be able to say, just, to hell with the risks, you know? That’s just fantastic. And at home too? Wow. I couldn’t do it. Just the thought of something going wrong and not being near a hospital. I couldn’t. But that’s great. 146


should be proud of yourself.” It was The Mother’s turn now, to turn white. “That’s odd?” said The Obstetrician. “What? What is it? Is there a problem?” The Obstetrician turned to the screen beside her and moved the probe around for an image of the fetus inside The Mother’s womb. It took her only a second or two of pushing and shoving the side of The Mother’s belly until the image on the screen, which of a tiny fetus, turned to face the screen. “Oh dear,” said The Obstetrician. “What is it? What’s wrong?” The Obstetrician let the silence hold. She prodded on all sides of The Mother’s belly, causing her to squint and grimace with the uncomfortable pain. “Oh dear,” said The Obstetrician again, this time her face fraught with worry. “Is there a problem? Is something wrong?” “It’s the cord,” said The Obstetrician. “It’s around the baby’s throat. If we don’t intervene now, the baby will die in utero.” “Oh my god,” said The Mother, her hands shaking. “What do we do?” “Cesarean section. It’s the only way I can guarantee the life of your child. If we wait, the child will choke.” The Obstetrician paused for a second. The Mother held her breath. Everything she had built appeared was so fragile and was now crumbling before her and she looked at the screen and she could see, the infant with something lopped around its neck. And she looked to the empty seat beside her, where The Father should have been right now. The Mother wore the look of a child who had lost its favorite toy. She wanted The Obstetrician to say that everything would be ok, that this was just a natural thing and that a quick poke and a shove could move the cord from around her child’s neck; that she could have the homebirth that she wanted. 147


But seeing that image. The cord around the child’s neck. How could she take that risk? “Ok,” she said, verging on hysterics. “When? Now?” she shouted desperate to save her daughter’s life, wanting to reach inside of herself and undo the strangling coil with her own hands. The Obstetrician laid the probe down on the table beside her. She took The Mother’s hands and squeezed tightly. “Don’t worry?” she said, “We’ll save your baby’s life. Thank god for modern medicine.” The Obstetrician looked The Mother longingly in the eyes, the same way her mother did whenever she was a sick and there was nothing her mother could do except to grip her hand and to shush her feverish panting, and to tell her that everything was going to be ok. The Mother looked once more at the screen, at the image of the infant breathing lighter than it should and with three turns of a cord, noosed around its throat. “When can we do the C-Section?” pleaded The Mother. The Obstetrician smiled secretively. She looked at her agenda once more. “Thursday afternoon at four thirty five pm,” she said. “Why not now? She’s going to die. We have to do something” pleaded The Mother as The Obstetrician wiped the jelly off of her stomach and helped her off the bed and back onto her swollen feet. “She’ll be fine. Her heartbeat is fast, but it’s stable. You just go home and put your feet up and try not to think about it too much. Get your nails done, spoil yourself.” “But I…” “Ok then mummy, so I’ll see you on Thursday. Don’t worry; everything is going to be ok. And here’s a coupon for fifteen percent of your parking.” The Mother left the office, wiping her tears and sobbing, but confident that medicine was going to save her baby’s life. As she 148


stood in the doorway, her hand pressed to her belly, behind her, The Obstetrician picked the probe off of the floor and put it back in its place by the ultrasound machine. The fetus was still swimming around on the screen, caught in an unfortunate bind. The Obstetrician then turned to the VCR that was hidden behind the ultrasound machine and ejected the video. The image of the strangling child vanished and The Obstetrician put the video back in her drawer marked ‘Do Not Open’. She then took the power cord for the ultrasound machine and plugged it back into the wall. The green light went green. The many colored lights all gleamed. The buzzers buzzed. The machine beeped. The Mother went to her car. And The Obstetrician, well she welcomed her next patient. Korine’s birth was about choice. It was about how little of it that she had. It was about how she lay on a hospital bed, staring at a green cover while her stomach was sliced and slashed. It was about how she had been lied to. It was about how scared she felt, thinking her daughter was about to die. And it was about how raped and violated she felt, having been lied to, having been forced against her will through absolute fear, to have her choice, not taken from her, but to have had her willingly give it away. And now, every time her hand brushed the scar just below her belly button, her stomach would sink and she would get the feeling that someone was behind her or stalking, just in the shadows beside her, ready to take from her, her will and her choice and her rights as a mother and a woman. And when she was stressed or without sleep like she was this morning, the scar would bump up more than usual and it would turn pink. She’d know this if she ever had the courage to lift her shirt and see it for herself. Callum’s birth was about choice. And it was about vindication too, though this never came up. He was born at home, in a 149


in a small swimming pool in their bedroom, where they now kept the yellow dresser, the one where the colored diapers were always so neatly stacked, so she could read her son’s name, like the spines on her favorite books, as she lay on the mattress rubbing her belly. Callum’s birth was about choice. It was beautiful. And it was without fear. And it was without violence. And how she felt about Callum was so different to how she felt about Korine. And how she felt about Korine was merely how she felt about herself, now that Callum was gone. And now that all she had was a pile of colored diapers, a small colored butterfly and a red and itchy scar, just below her belly button.

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On the freeway, Linda stayed in the fast lane, driving right on the speed limit with her two hands gripping the steering wheel like a toddler would, the inside of its mother’s legs. There were other lanes that she could choose, but they were more dangerous on account of everyone being such crazy drivers and not having any culture. Linda hated the slow lane because people always went so slow in it and there were always people rushing at the last second to exit or to run out of gas or break down so it wasn’t a good lane to drive in. The middle lanes were always full of trucks and coaches that either drove too slow or way too fast or were always trying to overtake each other, jumping in and out of the middle lanes as if they were little cars and not these humungous things that would probably fall over and crash and kill everyone. And worse than that were the trucks that carried all the new cars around the country. They always drove in the middle lanes too and though it hadn’t happened before, not that she knew of anyway, she knew it was just a matter of time before there was an accident with one of those trucks. Maybe someone would be tired and not thinking or talking about football or sex or something and they wouldn’t have strapped up the wheels on one of the cars tight enough, probably the one right on the end. That was so typical. People were always so lazy, right at the end of things. They would start with good intentions and put in the effort like they wanted to finish, but then, when they saw the end coming, they’d just give up. Like when people crossed the road. Linda hated the way people would run across when they shouldn’t and then when they were only halfway across, they’d just stop running and walk, as if they were already on the other side. And she’d have to brake 151


really hard so as not to hit them and that would damage her brakes and in the end, that would cost her money, just because some lazy person couldn’t do what they set out to do in the first place. So driving behind the big trucks, the ones with two or three levels of cars all piled on, it was probably the worst thing in the world that Linda could do. She knew that one day a car would fall off. It had to happen. If you can imagine it then it can happen, that’s what her daddy told her. Everything you think can come true, you just have to imagine it and it will happen. Pretty scary, if you think about it. She knew, though if something like that was ever going to happen, it was going to happen while she was there, because of what her daddy said, and just because it probably would. And even when she was in a different lane, she would panic as she came up to and alongside the trucks and her heart wouldn’t stop beating like crazy until she was ahead of it and there was no chance that a car could fall on top of her. The middle lanes were no good. They were dangerous because of all the trucks and cars that were about to fall from the sky and because they were fast one second and slow the next and you really had to pay attention or you could drive into the back of someone. Linda preferred the fast lane. It was far from the trucks and coaches and everyone drove really fast, even if she didn’t always go as fast as them, or as fast as they would like her to. And if she did have an emergency, she could pull over real easy and she wouldn’t have to change lanes. Linda didn’t like changing lanes. Behind her, a heckling tail of cursing and fist waving drivers all cursed and waved their fists, stopping only to grimace and spit whilst flicking their lights and honking their horns with the sound of their short temperament so loud that Linda couldn’t hear her favorite pop song. They all wanted to go fast, faster than Linda and faster than they were permitted to go. They all wanted to go fast because they were all late and that was because they were all stupid 152


and impatient and thoughtless, probably because they had slept in or they just weren’t organized, not like Linda was. People like that never paid attention to time or to the things that other people did. They didn’t pay attention to anything, not even the people around them or the bumps in the road or nothing. They only thought about what they wanted and not what they could actually have. Like big stupid children; big stupid children with big stupid jeans and big stupid sunglasses and big stupid cars that they probably didn’t even know how to park properly, they probably had to pay someone to do it for them. She thought about turning up the radio to drown out the incessant honking but if she did then she wouldn’t be able to hear herself singing along, like she was in the band, and she was on the stage too, and even though she wasn’t the main singer, everyone could see and hear her, and they knew that she was there. “Go around,” she said calmly, ignoring the high beams flashing in her mirror. Luckily for Linda, she wasn’t tall enough to sit properly in her car so the lights didn’t really affect her that much. They didn’t shine in her eyes, not like the driver would have wanted them to. Linda could see, though, the reflection bouncing off and it made her mad, knowing the other driver was being stupid and dangerous just because he wanted to go fast, faster than everyone else. “Go around” she shouted again, waving her right hand manically and panicking as she did, gripping the wheel tight with her left thinking, “This is just how accidents happen.” The car behind her accelerated and it got so close that its headlights became invisible against her bumper and even though the driver was still flashing his high beams, it wasn’t shining in the mirror anymore, that’s how close he was. The car didn’t touch or nudge hers or anything, but it could have, if it wanted to or if Linda wasn’t such a careful driver, it was that close. Still, Linda ignored the honking and the flicking lights and the driver driving so close that they could both probably crash and die. She ignored it, focusing on her favorite part of the song, the 153


bit where she kind of knew the lyrics and loved most to sing along. “La la la la” she sang, pendulating her head from side to side. “Get out of the lane you stupid fucking bitch” shouted The Rude Driver, now in the lane beside her, his window down, his right hand beating against the horn to garner Linda’s attention while his face was looking away from the road and away from the truck that was going a lot slower than the speed limit, a lot slower than Linda. “La la la la, yeah, oooh, la, na, na, nah, baby yeah” Linda continued, still singing away, unable to see the pile of cars behind her and thinking the beeping horns and flashing lights were still because she wouldn’t go faster than the law permitted her to do. This was just how she lived her life, at a reasonable pace, in the fast lane. When she arrived at the clinic, she drove around to the farthest parking spots and left her car under a shaded tree, the only one in the lot. It was a fair distance between her car and the building, but it was worth it, especially at lunch, when she liked to sit in her car and listen to pop songs and eat her cheese and baloney sandwiches. It never got too hot, not like it did at the table in front of the building, where some of the other people who worked on the other floors all had their lunch. Even if they asked her to sit with them, she probably wouldn’t. It would be good and fun probably, to talk about all the things that they talked about and maybe get invited to the places that they went to after work and on weekends, like to the roller rinks or to ice cream parlors or places like that. She always imagined that they went to roller rinks, mainly because they looked like the type of people who would have fun wearing skates, and they’d probably look good in them too. Not everyone looked good in skates. Linda didn’t. That’s what her sister said when they were young. So, if they did go to a roller rink – and if they invited her – she would probably just sit on the seats by the wall and watch, and it would be just as much fun, watching everyone skating around and passing each other and going forwards and backwards and there would always be one who 154


would fall over all the time. If Linda looked good in skates, it would definitely be her. But their seat was under the sun and though the owners of the building had promised for a long time to put a roof over the seats like they used to have when she was in school. If they did that then she would sit with the other people if they invited her. There was no roof though and that was just as dangerous as the middle and slow lanes on the freeway, if not more. People needed to get sunlight, they needed Vitamin D so they didn’t get rickets and scrunch up into a tiny ball and die, like what happens to old people that didn’t like to leave their favorite chair. They end up looking like a squashed bag of potato chips. And they sound like it too, when they have to scratch their sores. Linda got enough sunlight, though, walking to and from her car. Sometimes it felt like too much and she wished someone would invent something that she could carry so she could enjoy being outside without having to worry about the sun always being over her head. Someone invented umbrellas to be safe from the rain, why couldn’t someone invent something for the sun then? She knew though, if those people from the other floors - the ones who talked about the shows that she watched at night and had opinions, just like hers, about important things like Israel and corrupt politicians and what really happened to the boy in 9B, if it was really the parents and not the little girl - if they did invite her, and if she had enough sunscreen to sit under the sun, then she could tell them that the man and lady in 9B live across from her and that they’re really nice and the little girl too, she is really cute and she wears her hair in pig tails like a doll that she used to own when she was a girl and that the boy, he had just learned how to walk and talk. And he said lots of funny things and his first word was Korine and he looked so cute and wobbly stumbling around before he died. But if they didn’t say nice things about the man and the lady, like most people were saying, then she would tell them to shut up, just like she had been telling everyone else to do; the porter at the building, her neighbors on the eighteenth floor, the stupid 155


reporters that only wanted to interview her stupid neighbor, the one with the slutty clothes and the rich boyfriend. Stupid bitch. Linda didn’t want to sit under the sun for her lunch break and she didn’t want to get cancer because of it. Every day and all of them sat there not knowing that the sun was killing them, not making them smart or pretty. She didn’t much want to die from cancer and she didn’t want to have to tell them all to shut up, not if she didn’t have to, so she spent every lunch sitting in her car with the passenger seat reclined so she could rest a bit like the patients in the dentist’s chair did and she could eat her sandwiches and drink her milk and sing along to her favorite pop songs which were always playing on her favorite radio station. Linda loved radio. The people on the music shows always said the funniest things and they knew so much stuff about different celebrities and about important stuff, like the middle east and the problem with the ozone and the host, he always sounded so handsome and the girl host, she sounded so beautiful and they always played the best songs and they played them over and over and over and they played them all day long and at night too, when she got home from work, so she didn’t have to ever spend money on buying CDs. And when she got new favorite songs, they were always being played on the radio so she could always sing along to them for free. “Good morning Linda.” It was The Guard. He sat at the reception and acted like a receptionist saying thing like “Good morning” and “Have a good day” and “It’s on the third floor” and at night, he would say things like, “Good evening” and “Good night” and “You might want to put on a jacket, looks like it’s blowing a gale out there.” He did most things that a receptionist did in other buildings. He told people which office as on which floor and he answered the phone when it rang and he made sure he remembered the names of all the important people, like the Presidents of the companies. And he’d call them mam and sir and he’d make sure that he spoke 156


in a way that showed that they knew, that he knew, that they were important, more important than the people who worked for them and far more important than the people contracted by the building to wipe down the toilet seats and pick up the cigarette butts and tomato sauce packets that were squashed into the ground, just outside the automatic doors. He did all the things a receptionist did, only, unlike other receptionists, he wasn’t a girl and he had a torch on his belt. And he had a walkie talkie and a shiny black stick, for hitting people with. Linda smiled. It wasn’t a real smile. It was the kind she saved for relatives that she didn’t like and strangers she had to sit in front of on buses or stand next to in queues and whose attention she eventually crossed. It was a polite smile and it was important to be polite. And if you didn’t like a person, it was especially important. So Linda smiled, looking only for a second before looking back at her shoes as she shuffled through the main entrance, her legs pinned together as if she really had to go to the bathroom and was amidst an urgent yet restrained flight towards the closest restroom, which for her, had to be her own. Public bathrooms were disgraceful and it was always hard to go, especially when there was someone making noises in the stall beside her, or worse yet if they were completely silent. That was just the worst. Linda didn’t say hello back. She smiled like everyone did, being polite and not wanting The Guard to follow her on his cameras and put her up against a wall when she was alone and in a part of the building where people hardly visited. It wasn’t often, and she didn’t even know where that would be, but just because she didn’t know where it was, it didn’t mean that it didn’t exist and just because The Guard smiled and said good morning, it didn’t mean he didn’t think about bad things when she walked past and he could see the round of her buttocks through her white pants, which was why she shuffled the way she did, so that her buttocks didn’t swing and shout attention, like all the other loose ladies around the building. 157


Linda entered the elevator and quickly pressed the button for the ninth floor, the same that she lived on. She pressed it ten times, then twenty then so many that to the people about to get on, it looked like she was trying to make it go without them. “Come on, come on, come on, go, go, go, go, go” she cheered along in her head, wishing the stupid elevator would just close already so she could unclench her buttocks and let go of her belly and breath normally for once, without having to worry about all the other people thinking she breathed too loud or that her bum had an odd shape or that she wore grandma panties that, even though they were comfortable, they looked silly outlined in her white pants. The doors closed and she stepped back, relaxed and relieved, so much that when she let go, she passed wind – nothing loud or obnoxious, just a little toot, like a tiny trumpet, blowing somewhere very far away. Then the doors opened. The people all rushed in and most of them, the ones that had been running for the elevator when Linda was bashing at the buttons, they all gave her this satisfied look as if there was no way on earth that she was ever going to be invited to sit at the table. And it was about the second floor when somebody sniffed and made and angry ticking sound, the kind Linda’s mother would make, whenever she brought mud into the house or spilled her drink on the floor. There were people everywhere, getting off on all floors. And on every floor, there were people around and beside and behind her, all pushing and shoving and pretending to be polite, trying to get past her before the doors closed and why the hell did they have to go to the back of the elevator? If they were getting off first, why did they have to go to the back? Why couldn’t they just wait for other people to get on and then get on last, closer to the door? Then they wouldn’t have to bug anyone or be stupid and annoying trying to get past and have to say “I’m sorry” all the time. It was taking forever and it was worse when there were fewer people. 158


Linda held her breath. She stared directly at the buttons and she was almost pulling the elevator up with her desperate hope, but it was taking so god damn mother fucking long. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s just, it was taking a long time and Linda, she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, but she sure as heck couldn’t let go and breath normal, people would make fun of her and say that she breathed like an old man, with only one lung. So she held her breath. And she squeezed her tummy. And she tucked in her bum. On account of the camera, and The Guard watching her. By the time the elevator reached the ninth floor, Linda was about to explode inwards from holding her breath so long. She didn’t know how other people did it, the ones who worked or lived on the fifteenth or even the eighteenth floors. “I bet they’re great swimmers,” she thought, getting out of the elevator and exhaling triumphantly, sucking in air wheezily like a beaten up vacuum. “You’re late,” said The Receptionist. “Again.” She was a real bitch but she was super pretty and the way she acted, you just knew that she knew. She was the first person anyone saw when they came into the clinic and for most people, like for all the patients and the dentists, she would act real polite and she would smile really wide so you could see her bright white teeth and she would always be troubled by her fringe that she would have to tuck behind her ear. Everyone loved that. To Linda though, The Receptionist was a real bitch. She had bright white teeth sure, but when she showed them to Linda, they had jagged edges for ends and they could probably gnaw through her little arms if she ever got close enough. She never did, though. She always kept her distance and did her best to hold her ground so she didn’t look upset or scared or anything; like it didn’t bother her at all. “Graham wants to see you,” said The Receptionist. Linda froze. His name was like an anchor. And it was heavier 159


too when the bitch spoke it. She had the letter in her hand and she was trying not to squeeze her it, so she didn’t wrinkle the paper. “Is he in his office?” Linda asked, looking at the ground as she spoke. “No, he’s not in yet. I’m just warning you. So don’t go on one of your little walkabouts. He said it’s urgent ok?” “What’s it about, do you know? Am I in trouble?” “I don’t know and I don’t care to tell you the truth. Don’t know what the hell it is with you two” she muttered under her breath, straightening piles of papers on her desk by grouping them together and then smacking them against her table. Linda hated the sound. It made her flinch and want to be somewhere else. The Receptionist went back to staring at herself in her little hand mirror and lathering her already full and gleaming lips in a thick glossy red. Linda could see why people liked her so much. She was like a famous picture in a museum. From far away, she looked real pretty with her red lips and her wavy hair and her big eyes, always lashing away when she didn’t have an answer for someone. Up close, though, she was smeared and out of focus and you’d have to know her to be able to see her like that. “I have this,” Linda said, walking back to The Receptionist with her well-kept letter in her hand. “What is it?” sniped The Receptionist, snatching the letter from Linda’s hand, creasing it horribly and making a wrinkly mess, as she clumsily ripped the letter from the neatly folded envelope. The Receptionist looked over the letter briefly and then started to laugh, snorting loudly before quickly putting her left hand over her mouth, stopping herself from getting carried away. “Is this real?” she said, her words barely audible over her restrained laughter. Linda looked concerned, like that time, when one of the boys pulled her dress down in front of the whole school and none of the teachers did anything. They just looked at her, like she was something really cumbersome that none of them knew how to move. 160


“Oh, this is classic. Hold on a second” said The Receptionist, turning quickly to put the paper into her scanner, barely able to retrain herself as she snorted away, sounding like crackling pork. “That’s not really for anyone to see, just so you…” “Oh, this is going on the net. This is hilarious. Smile” she said, lifting her phone and quickly snapping a photo of Linda’s dolorous expression, not giving her a chance to look half as pretty as she did. “Do you know what it means?” Linda asked, wishing there was someone kinder. “You don’t understand it? The big red stamp? Evicted? Nothing, no? You really are retarded aren’t you? God, I have no idea why Graham hired you. You. Have. No. Home” she said, sounding out each word as if each syllable were a hammer’s strike upon one of the final nails in her coffin. “You’re evicted,” she said. “You have until Friday next week to pack your things by the looks of it.” “But I never had this problem before. I never received this letter.” “Well, now you did. You gotta pay your rent.” “But I don’t pay. It’s very expensive.” “Yeah, that might be the reason. You gotta start paying. You can’t just not pay.” “My boyfriend, he pays – for my apartment and for other stuff too.” “You have a boyfriend? Listen by the looks of this, he stopped paying a few months ago. This is a lot of money that you owe. You get that right? You’re in a lot of trouble.” “There must be a mistake. I’ll speak to Graham. It’s probably a mistake.” “Look, this has nothing to do with Graham. This is your landlord. He’s kicking you out. You have to solve this yourself. This is not like the name calling. Graham can’t fix this. This is your problem. And this is serious.” “What do I do?” “I don’t know. I’m sorry” she said, handing Linda the letter 161


and almost sounding like she kind of meant it, not really, not entirely, just kind of; almost kind of. Linda took the letter and ironed it out with the side of her hand against the thick of her thigh. She tried to get all the wrinkles out, but she couldn’t, and she wouldn’t be able to, not unless she had a real iron, but she didn’t have one of those. “Get room one prepared. There’s an extraction at nine am and a root canal in room two at nine fifteen. Just make sure everything is within hands reach. I’ll call you when Graham gets in.” She wasn’t being such a bitch anymore, not really anyway. And Linda could see now, even from up close, why other people liked to be around her and why they stared at her like she was some kind of picture because she was; you just had to look at her the right kind of way. Linda neatly folded the paper and slipped it back inside the envelope. She wished The Receptionist hadn’t crinkled it the way she had. She said it, in her head. “I wish The Receptionist didn’t go and mess up my letter.” And now, for the rest of the day, she’d feel that she had to straighten it out, even when it wasn’t in her hands and especially when she couldn’t see it, if it was in a drawer, or in her bag that she kept in her locker, along with her keys and her cheese sandwiches. Linda arranged the two rooms and when the morning patients arrived, she decided by a game of eeny meeny miny moe, which room she would prefer to have herself assist; and it was room three, where there was just a general checkup. Linda helped the patient into the chair. He looked like a nice man. He had a nice grey sweater on and he had nice looking jeans on. And his shoes, they were business kind of shoes. They looked fancy. But he wasn’t wearing clothes for business, not the typical business clothes anyway. He looked really fashionable. And when he sat in the chair, and when she pressed the button to make it go back, he looked like everyone looked, really small and awkward and kind of like a child looks when the world is shifting beneath them and they don’t know how big they are anymore. 162


Everyone looked the same when the chair moved. Their hands all gripped at the ends when they started to slip back as the chair dipped and though they all probably thought they looked normal as if nothing was happening, they all had the same expression, as if they were about to fall; like a dog being flipped onto its back. When The Dentist arrived, Linda stood close but not in the way. All his instruments were aligned perfect and at a comfortable distance. Linda knew this about every dentist. She knew how tall they were, so she knew how high to have the chair and how far back to have the patient leaning. And she knew how big each dentist was and how long their arms were so she was always able to put their instrument table in the best position so they didn’t have to strain or try hard, to pick up or put down their instruments. “When was your last visit?” asked The Dentist, like a scorned priest. The man made a sound. Linda didn’t understand what it was. The Dentist did, though. It must have been a time or something because The Dentist shook his head as if the man had just admitted to having been stupid. “You need to brush at least three times per day. And floss.” The man mumbled and gurgled something again. “Don’t lie to me?” said The Dentist. “I can tell.” The Dentist sounded really mad. He hated when people didn’t look after their teeth. He hated too that there wasn’t a law that made people have to do it and that there wasn’t police that could enforce it. Or maybe he was just mad about something else and he just expected the man to take better care for something that he had made his whole world out of. As The Dentist scraped at the man’s teeth and at the yellow plaque that grew like moss from his bleeding gums, Linda stood close, close but not in the way, watching and listening as The Dentist cleaned the man’s teeth and talked about things that bothered him. “Do you play golf ?” he asked. 163


The man mumbled. “I’m a member at Morumbi Country Club. It’s a beautiful club. Wonderful greens. A great back nine.” The man mumbled some more. “Yes, it’s very exclusive, well it was…” The man mumbled once more, like a questioning mumble. “Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist or anything but…” Linda’s attention was caught by the sound of scraping on the window outside. She turned, still leaning over near the instrument table, and saw, hanging on a strange contraption, a man with a bottle in one hand and a squeegee in the other. Linda waved, but the window cleaner didn’t wave back. Maybe he didn’t see her. He was so focused on getting rid of a yellow stain on the window that was in one of the corners. He was straining so hard and his face was all scrunched up so it looked like he was blowing angry kisses to his own reflection, probably practicing so he knew what it looked like, when he was in a bar, doing it to a pretty woman who was sitting alone and across from him. He didn’t know, though, that the stain was on the inside. Linda stood back for a moment and for a second; she could see both The Dentist and The Window Cleaner at the same time without having to look at either one. She was looking between them so she could see them both at the same time. And they both looked identical. They both had really important jobs; scraping and scratching and scrubbing and making things really clean and nice to look at. She wondered, though, if The Window Cleaner had someone too, to help him with his instruments and whether he played golf too and if he thought that it wasn’t right either, that that black family was allowed to join the club, even though they had all that money and the father had that important title, because the club wouldn’t be exclusive anymore, not if they opened their doors to just anyone. “I’m all for equality,” said The Dentist. “But there’s a line you know?” Linda thought he was so smart. All of the dentists were. 164


They knew so much and they did so many things and they were all really rich and drove fancy cars and they all had such nice families and they probably went on the best holidays. There was a polite knock on the door. “Come in,” said The Dentist. “I’m sorry Dr. Stevens,” said The Receptionist, smiling. “Linda,” she said, “Graham will see you in his office now.” “But I need to finish here,” said Linda. “You can go,” said The Dentist. “But I have to…” “Thank you Linda,” said The Dentist. He didn’t sound thankful, though. People normally smiled when they said thank you. Or they looked at you when they said it. Sometimes they even shook your hand. Not The Dentist. He kept scraping away and didn’t at all seem like it mattered that everything he needed was so close that he didn’t have to work hard to get at it, but not so close that it got in the way. He didn’t even notice. As she left, Linda dropped a pen off the table. It was a loud bang and The Dentist looked up. And so did The Window Cleaner. Then The Dentist and The Window Cleaner looked at each other. And they both had their cleaning instruments in their hands. And they both looked at each other, like two wolves, peering over an icy lake. But Linda didn’t see, though, she just walked towards Graham’s office, having stopped by her locker quickly to take the letter that was addressed to her.

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The Mother sat with the phone in one hand ringing loudly and the small colored butterfly, sitting before her on the table, leaning against the keyboard. The sound of her mother’s phone going unanswered frayed in the echo of her own thoughts, willing the small cloth toy to sing. But as much as she caressed the toy with her painted affection, it just wouldn’t sing. “Hi, you’ve called….. Well, you know who you’ve called. And if you don’t” her mother’s voice said jokingly, but with very real intentions “I’m sure as heck not going to tell you my name. So if I love you, leave a message.” The Mother hanged up the phone and left the receiver on silent by the side of the computer. She picked the mute butterfly up and clasped its wings between her two middle fingers so that its body hanged neath her trembling palm. The round of its back and the one or two loose threads that grew like coarse hairs from a split seam, they scratched the lines in her palm as she slowly lifted her hand up and down, pretending that the butterfly was real. There was a note on the screen from The Father. He had made fresh coffee and there was a cleanish cup, under a mess of papers, somewhere in the office. She just had to rinse it out. He was going to have breakfast out, probably at a café close to the clinic, the one with the delicious cheese bread and the vitamin smoothies. He didn’t say that in the note. He didn’t have to. The Mother remembered. And she got a little jealous too when she thought of their cappuccinos. “I’ll be back around 3,” the note said. “Should do something – for her party.” He did that a lot, assigning tasks and things that must get done or had to be done or would be better if they were done – modals and conditions. He assigned them without any subject knowing too well that The Mother couldn’t leave any sentence 166


unfinished. He didn’t write ‘you’ but that was exactly what he meant. And what did he mean by something? Put up streamers? Colored rainbows? Smiling suns? Fucking moonbeams? Son of a bitch was probably having a cappuccino now. He would; the prick. He never had them when they were together; said it was not his thing - just like that blonde slut waitress who gave him that look when she took his menu, thinking The Mother wouldn’t notice; probably telling him that she liked to be fucked in the ass. She wasn’t his thing either. She knew, though, he was just saying that to throw her off and he was having one now, now that he was alone, now that she wasn’t with him. And he was probably having cheese bread too. And what did she have? Cereal? Toast? “You - should do something,” she said, sounding out the ‘you’ in a snarling tone. “You should have to forget like I have to forget. Fucking cunt. You - should do something. You should fuck that bitch. You should fuck her in the ass. You’d like that. And you can get AIDS off that whore” she said, stretching out red balloons before filling each one so they were so big, they were just half a breath away from popping. The Mother sat at the computer with her coffee just an inch from her lips. She loved to let the aroma drift into her partly drawn lips and taste the bitter morning air, salivating her parched tongue. As the lines of steam dotted and streaked her spectacles, she smiled, imagining the fine cirrus clouds clotting an airplane window. And she felt a thousand miles from where she was, before she took her first sip, and before that heavy brew pulled her back from way up high and planted her back in the sediment of mourning. 167


The phone rang. It was silent, but the yellow light was flashing and though The Mother was staring listlessly at pictures of herself -years ago, when she didn’t look like a bruised banana, in her knee high boots and torn fish nets – she could see the flickering light and it had the same color as the amber lights that flashed on the traffic lights opposite the slum which, after 10 pm, warned people to drive with caution, but to not stop. “Hi, hunny.” It was her mother. “Saw your number. Thought I’d catch you before you headed out. Must have missed you. Hope you’re ok hunny. It’ll be ok you know. I know it’s tough. Time heals all wounds. The darkest hour, you know? If you need anything, though, I’m here. I’m here for you. And if you want, I can look after Korine for a bit, just until you’re ready until things settle down a bit. Ooh, I meant to ask, what time is the party tonight?” said The Grandmother. “Spoke to your hubby, he said you were planning something for Korine; transitioning. It’s a good idea you know. I just can’t for the life of me, think of what to get her. Are unicorns still popular? I remember you had a unicorn when you were her age. You loved it. What did you call it?” asked The Grandmother, pausing in her own expelled thought. “Sissy,” said The Mother, staring at the younger version of herself, her skirt riding up as she flirted with the camera. She was smoking in the photo, just toying with the trail of smoke, rolling it round her pierced tongue. Oh, how she missed smoking. And her breasts too. She missed them. They were smaller, before the two children. But they looked just as sexy out of a bra as they did, spilling from her loosely cut top. And she missed that; feeling that way she must’ve felt, inside of that photograph. “It was Missy or something. You loved that little doll” said The Grandmother. “I’ll get her one of those then. But where will I find one? Do you know any places that sell unicorns? Would I be able to find one in a toy store if I asked? I probably would. God 168


forbid I have to use the internet. Did I tell you I got an email from Aunty Mary? Your uncle has kidney stones apparently. In all sorts of bother. Can you buy unicorns on the internet now? What do I do? Do I just type unicorn into the search thingy? Wait; hold on, it’s doing it now. No, wait, no. Bollocks. It’s asking me for a password or something. Jesus” she said laughing to herself, “I can’t remember my password. Do you know what it is? I know it was something I wouldn’t forget and something nobody would guess… You know those hackers now, they’re using computers for all sorts of things like moving satellites and robbing banks digitally and they change your passwords so you can’t stop them. You don’t think…” she said in a conspiring pause. “I should call the police. Or the internet company. I will. I’ll do that now. Just in case. So I’ll see you at 6. Now if you need help putting….” The machine cut off. The Mother opened an old folder and flicked through hundreds of images of herself before she felt this way, before she looked this way, before everything, when she knew exactly who she was and in what direction she was heading. And in each image; the her that she was looking at had different hair in every photo. And in some photos it was short and tucked behind her ears and it was blue or red or orange or black or even green. And in other photos, her hair was long, tied in pigtails that hanged beside her breasts. And in only one did she wear a ponytail, pulled tight and hanging straight down the center of her back. And there wasn’t a photo where she didn’t have a cigarette in her hand. The phone rang again. “Hey dear, it’s me, Tracy. It’s been a bit. So how are you? Stupid question yeah? Couldn’t sleep all night. Thinking about you. Listen, I know you got the whole Korine thing today. I tried your cell but no answer. Don’t know if you’ve already gone to pick her up. I know this is tough” she said. “No, you don’t,” thought The Mother. “But listen, I know it sounds clichéd, but you’ll get through this. It’ll get better. It’ll be ok. And I’m here. I love you. Anything 169


Anything you need, any time. I’m here for you. I spoke to your mum. Mentioned something about a unicorn. She is well… Yeah like you said. Anyway, she mentioned there’s a party tonight, for Korine. 6pm. So, I guess I’ll see you there. I miss you. I miss hanging out. I miss our talks. I miss your laugh; I really do hope you’re ok. I’ll see you tonight, ok hun?” The Mother closed the folder and turned off the computer. She had no idea who that girl was anymore. She still felt like her, somewhere inside. It’s just that that feeling was smothered neath a mound of responsibility, in having to be someone for someone else; lots of someone elses. And though before she felt like she knew who she was, lost in a meaningless world, now it felt like she had let go of her own hand and she was lost within herself. And she could feel that girl, the ‘her’ that she was when everything nattered, the ‘her’ that she was when everything was right, she could feel that girl scratching away somewhere deep down inside of her. But she was so far that it barely felt like a tickle. The Mother picked up the phone and rang The Father’s cell, but it went straight to voice mail. He didn’t have a fancy message. He didn’t even speak. It was just a beep. He was probably having a cappuccino, or fucking that waitress in the ass.

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The Father sat on the edge of the bonnet sipping his coffee and watching as two birds fought with one another over some seeds he had picked off of his bun and thrown onto the ground. Both birds were pecking away on the ground but one of them, the larger one, the one that looked dull and ordinary, kept getting picked on, and for no good reason too. The smaller one, the one with a dainty body that was spotted beige and yellow on light brown feathers, it got riled whenever the bigger, duller bird came close. It would lift one of its wings into the air abruptly like some fascist salute, much the same way that The Father’s mother before she hanged herself, would show him the back of her hand whenever his budding nuisance drew too close to her wilting patience. The Father always imagined that birds were the kind of beings that always got along. There were the mean ones of course; the ones that swooped upon the heads of children as they played in parks, but those types of birds had faces that looked as mean as their intention. Birds like these, though; they were the type that fluttered about like a dried leaf, carried by a gusting wind; the kind of leaf that sweeps past your hand, but never into it. And The Father, in his life, had never imagined that something so colored and small and so charming could be, without any just reason, so aggressive. As he locked the driver’s door, he stood gazing at his reflection in the mirror. He wasn’t an old man and he in no way felt as young as others might have claimed him to be. His face though was weathering. It looked more dented and lined than the one he remembered once wearing. Inside, though, he felt the same. When he was a boy, his mother locked him in his bedroom. There were no windows so it was hard for him to know how long he had been locked away. It was long enough though for his hunger to make him so dizzy that when he did finally eat, just a little bit was 171


enough to fill him up. Every time his mother locked the door, he’d stand right before it sulking and sniffing lightly after his tantrum had dulled and his eyes would slowly settle to the darkness in the room until he could see perfectly, the outline of the handle of the door. And he would stare at the handle for as long as it took for the handle to turn. The feeling he had as a boy, watching the cracked porcelain handle in the pitch black room, waiting for the door to open was the same as he had now, standing in front of his own reflection, staring but not looking, and waiting for something to happen. He was waiting maybe, for himself to feel how he looked, for some change to happen in his body like the onset of a fever; something to let him know that he was no longer a boy and that he had become a man and from there, a husband and because of that, a father. He wanted to know, “what does a father feel like?” He stared and he stared, hoping to know. Time, though. This he could feel. He could feel time in the morning when he got out of bed, and his muscles and his bones; they creaked and cracked like the walls of an old house on a cold night. And it felt as if the pieces might all fall apart as they churned over one another and then, when he was on his feet, it would always feel as if a piece was out of place as if it were missing. Like when The Mother hinted that there was something wrong, that he wasn’t like he used to be. When she hinted that he was cheating on her and that he had fallen out of lust when in truth, time had taken from him, the lust that in his youth was so plenty. And he felt time, not in the cruel turning of her affection and from it, the resentment and anger it would spurn, but in the shame that warmed his blood and the back of his throat; the shame that watered his eyes and whitened his knuckles; the shame that metamorphosed into rage; the shame that he could not admit to her, of 172


being less than a man. He could hear time too. He could hear it in the way that he spoke. But more so, he could hear time in how he complained. Where once there was a cynical whimsy in his negated derision to waking up, now, his early morning moans, they sounded out like the dropping of an anchor, with the weight his of disappointment, splashing against the tide of his exhaustion. He could feel time; he could feel it in the cracking of his bones and he could feel it in the void in his masculinity. And he could hear time too; he could hear it in the excuses that he gave to his lover and in the aggravating silence that ensued. When he was a boy, he knew what it felt like to be older than what he was though he had no recollection of what that actually felt like, being a boy.; as if he had ever stopped being one to become another. He was always so accustomed to feeling how he felt that he couldn’t imagine every feeling any different. He could assume, though, that he was older; by the gaunt look on his face, the lines across his forehead, the stains on his crooked teeth and the furrow across his brow, that which framed a stern and unchanging look upon the shame which lay crumpled and tucked away somewhere beneath. But what did it feel like to be a grown-up? What did it feel like to be responsible? What did it feel like to love only one person, and what did it sound like, when you told them the truth? What the hell did it feel like, to be a father? He knew what it felt like to be sick. He knew what it felt like to have a fever. He even knew and remembered what healing felt and tasted like; that abasing avor like licking the spit from the bottom of an ashtray. He knew what summer felt like and with it, autumn, spring, and winter. Hot days, cold days, long days, short days, boring days, good days, shit days, right and wrong decisions, love, anger, regret, remorse, revile, more love, love fucking love; glad to have it, and 173


wishing it were gone. He knew what all of that felt like. He knew what it felt like to be punched and kicked and to be shouted at and cursed upon and he knew what it felt like to be spat at and pushed around. But for the life of him, he had no idea what it was supposed to feel like, being a father. He didn’t know if he was feeling it now. It might have been something so subtle, like the onset of a drug, slowly kicking in. Maybe the more he looked, the longer it would take. Maybe in his anticipation, he might have missed a signal, he might have been looking the wrong way this whole time. The Father stared and he stared until his eyes were seeing everything around his reection and not his reection at all. He had felt this way, his entire life as if he were waiting for a door to open and for someone to welcome him, into his own self. What was it supposed to feel like, to be a father?

174


Linda sat in the large chair with her hands folded onto her lap. It was a big square chair, the kind with big green arm rests, the kind that you could stick a hundred pins in if you wanted to and were so big that people like her, people as small as she was felt even smaller and weren’t able to do smart things like cupping the ends of the armrest with her hands, like educated people did. And its legs were so high that she couldn’t sit straight against the back rest, or else her feet wouldn’t be able to reach the floor they’d just hang stupidly off the edge like two decorated stumps. Sitting in the seat, Linda felt like a really small person. Sitting in the seat and staring straight at Graham, Linda felt as an ugly insect might feel before it’s squashed under a magazine and scraped out of an open window. “What are you doing with yourself, Linda?” Graham asked. He had a look on his face like she had just broken his favorite mug. “Am I in trouble?” she asked. Linda had been in trouble many times. And Graham was always really stern with her. He always forgave her, though, and he never wore such a rousing expression as this. His face was all wrinkled in little waves and looked like it might pop right off. And his lips were all wavy too. But they were as stern and as still as his silence and they were probably just a s tough as the look he was giving her with his eyes. She wouldn’t want to kiss those lips, not until they were soft, like a cloud, or a water bed. “You can’t be here anymore. I can’t see you. I don’t want to see your face. It’s over. I’m sorry. I wish there was a better way to put it forward but….” Graham said, pausing as he strained his eyes and clenched his two hands into wrecking ball like fists. He almost looked like he was about to punch her. And he probably could too, if he wanted to. His arms were really big; on 175


account of all the exercises he did every day. And his arms were really long too, on account of his good genes. So if he wanted to, not saying that he would or not, but if he did, he could just stick his arm out like he was reaching for a pen or something, and he could pop Linda in the mouth. And the way he was talking, or the way he wasn’t talking mind you, and the way he was squeezing his eyes – like he was squeezing a lemon – it looked like he might actually do it. Linda didn’t think so, though. She sat tiny in the chair waiting for Graham to finish his sentence, holding onto the last word with exhilaration spilling from her focus and attention. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, as of late, about you. That whole baby thing, it got me thinking. You know, you’re neighbor, what happened to their boy.” Linda nodded briskly as if to move him along. She knew who he meant. She didn’t want to imagine it, not in the way that other people just loved to talk about it. They were nice people. And the little girl, she was always really nice too. And it was a tragedy and it wasn’t nice to talk about other people’s misfortune, even if you think you’re doing good and helping in some kind of way. It was just prying. And that was rude. And rude people burned in hell. “Got me thinking about my boy,” he said, turning a picture of his family towards him instead of how it normally was when she visited her office, facing downwards against the oak table so that the metal stand poked up in the air, like his small erection. “I need you to leave Linda. I need you to go away. I don’t really care where you go, but I can’t have you near me anymore. I can’t look at my family, at my boys, and at my wife. I can’t look at them and have to think about you. And I can’t look at you and be reminded of them, of what I’ve done to them. You understand, yes? Tell me you do. Tell me you get it” he said, urging her to respond or to nod or to blink or to do something, anything, anything at all that would get her out of his life for good. Linda kicked her feet. They were starting to fall asleep and pretty soon she’d be feeling pins and needles and after that, if she 176


did have to get down, she’d need a hand, because the last time this happened and she tried to get off the seat herself, it was like she didn’t have any feet at all. And when she tried to get down, she collapsed under her own weight and made a terrific banging sound as she hit the floor. It was so loud that The Receptionist and The Dentist came running in thinking something had happened to Graham. Linda wished she had sat on the edge. “Family is the most important thing, Linda. I understand this now. It took me nearly destroying my own to figure that out. Shit, I might’ve even have kept going, had it not been for that dead boy. Jesus, what a fucking thing. You think they did it? The parents? They say it was the girl, but you know happy families and all that. There’s always something dark lurking. You know them. They’re on your floor right? Who’d have thought? So Whatta you reckon? The mother? The father? Or the jealous sister?” The sound of his gossiping was like nails scraping along on a blackboard. Linda clenched herself up, but not out of rage. It wasn’t as if she were dwarfing herself, getting herself charged to explode. No, the sound of his words, and the licking of his lips, just like everyone else did, it made her feel like someone had poured something warm and sticky down the back of her blouse. “They’re nice people,” she said, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out the envelope which had been neatly guarded, until that stupid bitch Receptionist tore it open with her painted claws. “What’s that?” asked Graham. “I got this last night. It was on the floor, near the intercom. It was by itself. But I don’t know what it means. Am I in trouble? Is something the matter?” Graham took the envelope and opened it with very little care as if it didn’t matter that it was addressed to Linda and that it was hers. He had the same look on his face as the boys in Linda’s school when the principal lined them against the wall side by side and made them confess to pulling down her dress in front of the whole school. 177


“This says that you are being evicted Linda. You have until the weekend to organize your things and vacate the apartment.” Graham folded the letter and handed it over the table to Linda. He didn’t have to stretch or anything. That’s how long his arms were. He just reached forwards and the letter was in her lap. So if he did want to punch her, or if he wanted to give her a hug, he could, really easily and without having to pull his chair closer to the table, if he wanted to that is. “Is it something I did? I am always good. I don’t listen to television after 10. I don’t make noise. I don’t have animals and I separate my trash. Bill Clinton?” she said in despair, her hands folding over her face like origami. “This is not about your fish, Linda.” “It wasn’t Bill Clinton? Because I change his water all the time, like they said in the pet shop. And I feed him properly too. And I put him next to a picture of the ocean, so he doesn’t feel lonely. If it’s not Bill Clinton, then what is it? Is it the neighbors? Did they complain? Is it because I breathe funny? I breathe loud don’t I? I know I do, it’s ok. Is that it? I tried to hold my breath and I try to do that thing you know, thinking I am somewhere else, so I don’t get scared or anxious with them all being there, beside me and behind me and pushing back, in front of me. I can be better. I’ll hold my breath longer, I will. I’m practicing in my swimming classes. I can hold my breath for ten seconds now, underwater too. I bet in no time I can hold it for as long as it takes.” “It’s not about that Linda. You’re being evicted because the rent hasn’t been paid.” “But that’s impossible. I don’t pay the rent. You do. And there was never a problem before. Is it your bank? Do you want me to talk to someone?” “Linda…” he said, pausing. “Listen. The apartment is mine. The note was from my realtor. But I can’t let you live there anymore. Fact is, since the thing with your neighbor and their son, well, property value has been going nuts. It’s going through the roof, especially the ninth floor. They’re quite the celebrities. And 178


well, my wife, she’s been asking about moving back into the apartment for a while now. The timing is perfect you see? My wife, she loves celebrities and she really wants to live across from that family you know? You can understand that. And like I said, since that little kid fucking carked it you know, it’s brought my own family together. A blessing really. It could have been my son you know. And what would I have to say, that I was here jacking off to your fat cunt instead of being with my son? Instead of being a father? Is that what you want? You want my son to be without his father? No. Linda. It’s over.” Linda looked as if her birthday party had been cancelled. “But I don’t have enough money. It’s a very expensive apartment. My pay isn’t enough; on top of my swimming classes and my Portuguese classes. What will I do?” she asked. “Do you want to do that again?” she asked, nervously unbuttoning her blouse. “Stop” Graham shouted. Linda’s hands were shaking. She didn’t budge her hands. She left her fingers clenching at the buttons not knowing if she should wait to see if he changed his mind or what he meant when he said “stop.” “This is what I mean,” he said as if it were her idea. “I see you, I think about that dead kid, then I think about my family and I feel like shit. I don’t wanna feel like shit anymore, do you understand? Stop being such a fucking whore” he shouted, banging his wrecking ball fist on the table. Linda didn’t flinch. She jumped right back in her seat, like a stretched out slinky, spring back into itself. And she pulled her knees right up to her chest and tucked them tight against her body and her hands, they were still, for some stupid reason, gripping the buttons half way down her blouse. And they were shaking so much that the button they were holding was stretching out farther than the others as the thread that sewed them onto the blouse started to come loose. “I’m sorry Linda. I’m sorry about everything. But this is my redemption. This is the only way to fix what I’ve done. I can’t go 179


back. I can’t undo anything. I’m sorry I did those things I did. I’m sorry I did them for so long. There is something wrong with me, there is. But I’m changed now. I’m going to church. And I’ve found Jesus now and I’ve asked him to forgive me, for everything I’ve done. And this, what I’m doing, keeping you here, this is no kind of forgiveness. I’m sorry Linda I am. You didn’t deserve to meet me. You didn’t deserve anything you got in your life. Giving you a home, a car, a job…” he said, pausing once more to wipe away a single tear from his right eye. “Please, Graham. I’m sorry. It’s ok. I know you’re not mean; not like other people. That thing you did… It’s different now, isn’t it?” she asked, returning once more to unbuttoning her blouse, as a barking dog or an opossum, playing dead, lulling into her only known defense. “Don’t talk about that thing. It’s over Linda. I gave you a house and a job and money for years. I helped alright? Don’t you forget that. If it weren’t for me, who knows what would’ve happened? I’m sorry. That thing. That was wrong. But I made up for it, I did good. I did more than anyone else would. I looked after you. I got you back on your feet. And you were a fucking kid when that happened. You can’t keep griping about that forever. You’re a bloody middle aged woman now Linda. It’s been a long time since that happened and it’s not good for you to start dragging through done deals you know? I fucking helped you. I fucking saved you alright? Don’t you fucking forget that.” “I’m sorry Graham. I just. I have nowhere to go. I have no friends. And my family, they haven’t spoken to me since…” Graham gave her a look, shifting his head as if he were tightening a bolt. “I’m sorry,” Linda said. “It’s just, I don’t get to see my niece and yesterday was my birthday and nobody ate any of the cake and…” Graham stared at her in a familiar salacious way. “Fuck it,” he said. “Once more, for old time’s sake yeah?” “What do you mean?” asked Linda. 180


“Do your thing?” he said, licking his lips and rubbing his crotch. “Do it?” he said. “Get your fucking clothes off.” “I don’t like it,” said Linda. “Can we just be like normal boyfriend and girlfriend? Like on the television.” “You’re not my fucking girlfriend Linda. You’re just a pussy and an asshole” he said, his fingers now busily undoing his zipper and yanking at his stubborn belt. “I don’t want to have to leave. I like where I live, I do. And I don’t want to do this anymore. But I will, for you, if you let me stay.” “We’ll see,” said Graham. “Now strip. I wanna see your pussy. I wanna see your beautiful asshole. Show me that fucking asshole” he said. Linda flinched. She hated the way he talked. She wished he would talk to her nicer, like the way Roger did, when they were on their date. He was really polite and he was really kind and gentle, even if his teeth were crooked and his belly was all plump and out of shape. Her teeth were old and dropping and her belly too, it was just and shapely, so what was the problem? Graham stared at Linda as she slowly undressed. The cracks on his parched lips started to deluge with saliva as his thick leathery tongue ran from one side to the other, escaping the bite of his gnashing and grinding teeth. “Dance for me, slut. Finger yourself,” he said, his pants being pulled to his ankles. “In the ass. In the fucking ass” he said. “And smile. I wanna see those filthy teeth of yours. Yeah” he said, stroking himself. “Lick those yellow teeth.” “You’ll fix the problem?” Linda asked. “Don’t talk. You’ll ruin it.” Linda stood up, as she always did while Graham sat behind his desk, as he always did, his belt unbuckled and his small but erect and blotchy penis already being yanked and shaken about like a stubborn Polaroid. And she took off her blouse, button by button, how he always wanted her to do it so that she didn’t finish before him. And she closed her eyes and imagining herself, like she tried 181


to do when she was in the elevator, waiting in line to meet Mickey Mouse. And in her imagination, as she slipped out of her dress and kicked it beside her chair, she was jumping up and down and waving her hands in the air to get Mickey’s attention. But Mickey and Minnie, and all the others too, they were too busy getting their photos taken with lots of kids and they were being made to go here and made to go there and the parents of all the boys and girls, they were being real bullies to Mickey, and to the little boys and girls, so they could take all their stupid photos. Linda just wanted to shake his hand. Maybe, if he didn’t mind, a hug. “Turn round,” grunted Graham, lurching over his naked, lower body. Linda turned and saw that Mickey wasn’t with the boys and girls and their bully parents. He was by himself near the drink stand, pretty far from where she was, but he was all alone and he was waving at her. It was really slow, from left to right, back and forth, like when big ships left a port and people waved, just for the heck of it. This wasn’t for the heck of it, though. Linda knew he could see her and he knew she didn’t want to look the other way. He knew she didn’t want to see Graham getting up from behind his desk, his pants like shackles around his ankles and his white coat, tucked behind his legs, so it didn’t get in his way while he leaned onto the table with one hand while violently jerking his shriveled erect penis with the other. “Hiya Linda” shouted Mickey. Linda smiled. He was real. Everyone said he was just made up, that he was just some man in a suit and that magic wasn’t real, that dreams didn’t come true. Of course, they came true. That’s the whole point in believing. She waved back at him. At least she tried to. It was pretty hard, though, to move her arms and to stay here, where dreams come true, and not end up back where nobody ever came to your rescue. “I love you Mickey” she shouted. “Who the fuck is Mickey?” grunted Graham, his tongue 182


sticking from his retching mouth like a sunburned dog. In her imagination, Mickey was still waving but there were hundreds of other kids around her now and they were all waving back. Linda looked at them all, and she tried to shoo them away. “He’s waving at me,” she said. “Wait your stupid turn.” But the children wouldn’t wait. Like in the elevator, they circled around her; beside, behind and in front. And pretty soon, it would be hard to tell for Mickey if she was caught somewhere in-between the kids, or whether she had gone home. And the children, they all started pushing and poking her. And then they started singing. “Linda’s bridges falling down, falling down, falling down. Linda’s bridges falling down, ugly lady.” When he was done, Graham pulled his pants up, wiped his hands on a white coat that was hanging beside his desk and he rebuckled his belt, clearing his throat as he did so. “Is it ok?” Linda asked, sobbing as she pulled her clothes from the floor, pressing them against her naked body. “It’s over Linda. I told you. I can’t see your face anymore. You make me sick. You see what you made me do right? You see that? Now I have to fucking beg to Jesus for forgiveness. That was you. I was ready to fucking cut you loose and you had to act like a fucking whore and make me this way. You fucking make me this way” he shouted, spitting as he did. Linda wept. “But you’ll pay the rent?” she asked, naive. “No Linda. No more. You’re a big girl. Sort out your own dilemmas. No more rent. And you don’t work here… as of now. And the car, I’ll be taking that back. No more Linda. Like I said, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about all the bad things I did. I am.” “What will I do?” she asked. “See reception. You can pick up a bus voucher. That should get you home. I don’t want to hear from you again. And don’t you fucking tell anyone what we did, or I’ll kill your fucking mother. You understand? Nothing happened between us. This shit here, it 183


didn’t happen. And if it did, it was consensual.” “I don’t care about this. But what about Bill Clinton?” “Fuck your fish.” “Where will I live?” “You’re not my problem anymore. I love my family. You’re only going to ruin that.” “I promise,” Linda said. “I promise I won’t. Please” she pleaded, bursting into blubbering tears, throwing her clothes onto the floor. “I don’t know what to do by myself. I don’t know how to do things. Please,” she said. “Please.” “I’m sorry Linda,” Graham said, tightening his belt. “I hope one day you can forgive me as Jesus has forgiven me. And I hope one day I can find that same forgiveness for myself.” “I’m not mad” she pleaded. “I’m not, I promise. You can do…. your thing, you can. Just don’t leave me alone. Don’t make me go away. I need somewhere to live. I need this job. I need you. I don’t know how to do the things you do, the things you do for me. I don’t know anything. You did everything for me” she said, her words washing away from her sulking mouth. “Get dressed and get out,” he said. “I don’t know…” she said. “You don’t know what?” “The bus,” she said. “What about it?” “I don’t know where it comes.” Linda shuffled slowly out of Graham’s office and up to reception where The Receptionist gave a look, the kind of look she had never seen before but she felt her pity and a great deal of her disgust as well. The Receptionist gave Linda a bus ticket and held the door for her as she stumbled out into the foyer and waited for the elevator to come. It took forever to arrive. And even longer to descend. Linda hated elevators.

184


The Mother sat her warm coffee easily within her reach with no reason at all as to why she hadn’t had a single sip. She had in her hands, a newspaper from last week and she was reading about an accident that had occurred the previous night, on a winding stretch of road, renowned for this kind of thing. Apparently, according to the article, which swore by the testimony of a late night jogger, one of the vehicles, a large truck carrying two trailers, swerved into the oncoming lane where the other vehicle, a small white sedan, was travelling with low lit lights and a young family, a husband, and wife and their three children, aged from six months through to four years. The jogger said he had never seen anything like it before in his life. There was no warning, no skid marks, no honking of horns. He said he was just jogging along, focusing on his breathing and trying to shift through his mp3 player to the next song because the one he was listening to, about half way through, the song started to slow right down and it was a really great effect for the song but not while you were running. It meant that his head and his heart and his legs, they all followed the half time and then the half time again and again until he almost looked like he was in ight on the lunar surface, throwing all of his stride into just a mere weightless bound. And it was near around the time it took him to unclip his player from his belt and focus his eyes on the colored screen that his attention was caught by swerving lights ahead. That was when he looked up and he swore to the journalists that his own gasp was just as loud as the bang from the truck hitting the front of the sedan and then driving on top of it and then the sound its wheels made, when they landed back on the road, unbroken and still driving. 185


The article said that the family died instantly, that they wouldn’t have felt a thing, especially the children. The jogger, he swore the same thing and it seemed more comforting coming from him because he was there and he would know. The Mother closed her eyes and imagined herself opening them again and looking to her side at the man she loved and he looking back at her, the man who loved her as much as she, him. And behind them, kicking his feet away against the back of The Father’s seat was Callum, speaking in his own strange dialect, his mother and father smiling amorously, he cursing them, for having chosen his least favorite suit. And beside Callum, strapped into the other seat, Korine, she sleeping with her head tilted to the side and her mouth drawn wide, catching more air than her little nostrils ever could; looking just like her father. In her imagination, The Mother pressed her hand onto The Father’s leg and squeezed tight, feeling a shiver of completion running through her body and a sudden unquenchable urge to earth it somehow, by caressing the man she loved or by nibbling on the kicking feet of the boy, now in a fit of laughter in the back seat. This family was hers. And they were undivided. And then, when she turned back to the road, she saw the lights of the truck and it didn’t seem like there was much time for anything. And for anyone watching there probably wouldn’t have been, maybe enough time to flick a song or to pull a muscle or to shout something fitting like, “Oh shit.” In the car, though, looking into the lights, everything seemed to go really slow. And it might have been because they were about to die or it might have been because it was The Mother’s imagination, and she wanted this part to go on forever, just because after what had happened, after the accident, she kind of felt like this every waking second and when she did manage to fall asleep, she dreamt about strange Japanese restaurants and having an affair, with the crippled owner. The Mother cut around the article. She was ever so careful 186


not to cut out of line or crooked in any way. And she kept a nice distance, between the edge of the paper and the column of words. When she was done, when she had that memory in her hands, of the young family, dying together and remaining undivided, not having to live another second, begging to a god they didn’t believe in, to give something back that he swore that in the first place, he never fucking took. The Mother looked around at all the windows in the apartment and out onto the balcony. They were all wired and meshed and they were made of such a strong material that even if someone were to try and cut it with a knife or with scissors, they wouldn’t be able to. So she wouldn’t be able to put herself with him. She wouldn’t be able to put herself under that warm gleaming light, no matter how hard she wished. She rested the article on the table, on the right side, next to the scissors and a stick of glue, the kind that schools give to children, that doesn’t make you sick and doesn’t make a giant mess. The Mother had liquid glue, but she didn’t like it. It was more for art projects, like sticking colored feathers onto butcher’s paper. If it was used on delicate things, though, like the article she cut out or a photo or something, it would get all gluggy and it would smear and wrinkly whatever was being glued and it would stick sure, but it would look like something a first grader had done, no matter how careful you were. The Mother stretched her arms out really far and she took carefully, like she would a crying baby, a diary that had been colored black with a big black marker and that had something scratched into the front cover, maybe her name, maybe not. It might have said “Private” or “Keep out.” It was hard to tell on account of the cover being all black and the fact that it wasn’t written with a pen at all. It had been scratched with someone’s nail. The Mother flicked through the pages slowly. Normally, when she was reading a newspaper or her favorite magazine, for example, she would lick her index finger and rub it against her thumb, so that it would grip the corners of the pages but not so 187


wet that it would make them soggy or dog-eared. But normally wasn’t all the time. Normally was just what people did without having to think too much or break their stride. It wasn’t always, or without fail. Because sometimes, people did things, different things, things that people wouldn’t expect them to do; things that people would never imagine that they did and they’d be shocked to hear about it if anyone ever found out. These were just things that people did, things to help them put up with the endlessness of the ‘normally’ and the ‘most of the times’. The Mother turned each page slow, listening to the crinkling sound of every page, sounding like her cracking bones as she stretched in bed every morning. She didn’t lick her finger. She didn’t want to. Instead, she rested the length of her index finger against the edge each page, in the middle, so the pages wouldn’t bend or crumple. She looked at each picture briefly, in the same adoring light that she had looked at pictures of her younger self. She stayed on each page only long enough to hear Callum’s laugh but not long enough for it to echo in her thoughts. And she turned each page slowly with article after article of sadness and tragedy and it was only now, now that she was living in her own that she could see how much tragedy there was in the world. And she wondered how people could overlook it so easily, how they just assume the best and badger one another over politics or sport or worse yet, like her husband, jerking off to disgusting pornography every night, as if she wouldn’t be able to find out. When she was pregnant with Korine, before the intervention and before the surgery, The Mother was always amazed by how she started to see pregnant women everywhere she went. And she swore at first that it was some universal conspiracy, only weeks before, she swore there were no pregnant women in her building and then, after finding out for sure, it was like wherever she looked, she saw a pregnant woman. And it was the same when Korine was born. She saw young families like she and The Father, dotting over their first borns and 188


promising to change everything, to be nothing like their own mothers and fathers and to be more human, to make up for what that fucking hospital had done. And then, she saw more women like her, women having been made victims by cold and calculable medicine, their bodies ripped and torn apart and their dignity, the worst to suffer, being shushed into woeful condescendence by nurses and mothers and fathers friends, who would become old and bitter just as soon because they had no fucking idea and they never would. And it seemed, at that time, that there was a great deal of violence in the world, aside from what was written about, that behind closed doors, under a veil of academia, there was a particular kind of cruelty that as still in fashion; a particular kind of violence against women and discord towards life. And it seemed that this violence – this violation, this rape - it was indeed quite ubiquitous and it was ne’er spoken of as much as it was shouted and rallied upon, deaf indifference. And then, when Callum was conceived, she too saw more women like herself and more families like own. And so different were not her ideals, but her thoughts and her feelings, that she would not have recognized the ‘herself ’ from the day before, were they to cross tangents. And when Callum was born, in a pool by the end of her bed, she found once more, so many women like herself, loved by supporting men like The Father, understanding love and birth and humanity in a way that her mother and her father and her siblings and cousins and her friends too, the many she had left by the wayside, that had become invisible along this conscious acid trip of life, in a way that none of them could ever feel, see, imagine or conceive, let alone accept as being anything less than reckless or demented. And then, when Callum died, it seemed too that tragedy, her kind of tragedy, it was everywhere and it too had its own unique following. And it too was not looked upon or spoken about and it was hushed and swept into submitting silence with blank condoling stares. But everywhere The Mother looked, she found women 189


like herself. She found their hurt. She found their sympathy. It was as if the universe were a lens that she wore and that her heart and soul were an ever changing filter that twisted and turned and showed her dimension after dimension that most, ‘happy people’, had no idea that in fact existed. Page after page in her black diary, The Mother turned and held a moment, remembering something about Callum each and every time. Always something that nobody else would have ever noticed - something that nobody else would ever assume to remember. These were the things that she remembered about her boy. The diary was filled with stories of accidents and drownings and kidnappings and vanishings and countless tales of the infinitely short bridge between life and death. And when she came to somewhere near the end of the book, The Mother took the clipping beside her and gently rolled the stick of glue along the back in long even and light strokes so as not to soil the article. Then she pressed it gently onto the next blank page and rested her palm over the words and the picture of the crumpled car, slowly bring her hand down the page as if she were closing her child’s dying eyes. And she took her coffee finally, and there were no more lines of steam rising in to the air. It was barely tepid, nearing on cold. And she cupped it with both hands as if it was anything but, blowing the imaginary steam from the lip of the cup – a normal thing that she did, even if it was a silly thing to do. And as The Mother sipped her tepid coffee, she stared at her diary.

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The Therapist was late. The Father sat in the waiting room, watching the second hand skate hastily past the strike of twelve. And following it, scores of seconds after, the minute hand, clicking once and twice and twenty times more until she was no longer early or on time, something The Father would have preferred, she was late. The Father didn’t count on having time to think. He didn’t count on anything. He and The Mother hadn’t discussed this at all. It had always been something they were meaning to bring up, but like a spiraling debt, there seemed no convenient time to say what was really going on and to make some kind of a plan. He had no idea what he was doing. “Hi,” a calm voice said to his right. The Father hated it when he had to turn to talk to people. It always made him feel off guard like the person could say or do anything and he wouldn’t have the balance to object. “You must be Korine’s father,” the woman said, speaking so soft and innocent that it was as if she were completely stupid to what was going on. “Forgive me,” she said, extending her hand, “I’m Korine’s therapist. My name is….” He saw her mouth move. He watched how her lips curled and curved when she spoke her name and he noticed too, how part of her top lip stuck to her teeth and how she brushed it with her tongue so as to set it free. For her, it would have been a reflex and it would have been in no more than an instant but for The Father, he felt time slowing down and he wasn’t bothered by the things she was saying or about her, the countless things that were going on. “I can’t imagine how you are feeling,” said The Therapist. “That’s exactly how I feel” thought The Father, unable to speak. The two walked down a long corridor. Everything was 191


colored and painted. There were rainbows on every wall and beneath them were two large gum trees and a giant sprawling oak with gigantic roots that stuck out like a fighter’s veins and were taller than a house and longer than a dried up river bed. And there were birds tweeting and flapping their wings, flying up high in the sky and some, soaring down low to the little flowers that were just opening their petals. And there were little bees that were buzzing about and they were waiting on those petals to open with the same want as the children whose eyes stared out of the windows that looked like glass boxes, hanging from the limbs of a tree. Their inquiring stares followed The Father as he walked down the corridor, having the courage to stare each one longingly, for none of them were Korine. “Are they all here for the same reason?” asked The Father. “As Korine?” She paused. “All of the children here are the same. They are the same as every child in the world. It’s just; these children are passing through some difficulty, yes, like Korine. And all of them just want what every child wants, to go home; to be happy and to play.” The Father moved his head to the left and right as if he were negating her address. The walls were decorated in the colors and the life of spring, yet on the ends of every branch were the glass boxes that housed the wintered expressions of children, who were not as others. These were the looks and expressions of old men, those of who, at the end of their lives, had not a thing in common with the smiling and wondrous youth, who passed them on by. “Are they better? Any of them?” he asked. “Better takes time,” she said, touching her soft hand on the back of his. Time felt different. “No tree flowers until it has seasoned,” she said smiling. At the end of the corridor, there was a door. It wasn’t painted. It wasn’t even guarded. A door like this, without a guard, assumed that for those without exception, this door was more often 192


a wall and a means for elaborate dreaming of escape, but never actually a way out. The Therapist entered a seven digit code and the large clunking sound of a heavy elaborate lock turning, sank The Father deeper into his dire reality until finally, it seemed like he was at the reigns of a mind and a body that had been on auto pilot for so long. And he had no idea what to do? “Are you nervous?” asked The Therapist. The Father was white. He looked lost and without an owner. “It’s ok,” she said, holding his clammy hand. “She’s not expecting anything more than her father. She wants more than anything, just to see you. And she is ready. She has seasoned. And I’m sure she is as nervous as you are. Excited and scared all packed up into a ball of giddy nerves.” The way she looked into his eyes, he had absolutely no defense. They entered a room with very little color, not like the rest of the clinic. Here, the walls seemed bigger than the ones outside. They looked dull and overcast. But unlike the larger bird being picked on by the bonnet of The Father’s car, here it was obvious that the smaller more colorful birds would be pinioned, should they ever raise their hands in protest. For here, the grey overcast walls cast a shadow so long that one was left astute and without imaginings. The Father sat beside The Therapist. The seat in front was empty. “So, how do you feel,” she said before pausing. She reached her hand to his knee. Her touch, it was so soft that had he not been looking, he would hardly have known it there. Her touch felt like a light breeze on sunburned skin. His skin shivered and the hurt that swelled the nerves beneath, somewhat subsided. “Really,” she said, leaning in as if almost to kiss him, “how do you feel?” The Father wet his lips. 193


“I’m scared,” he said. The Therapist smiled. She took his hands in her own and she held them in a gentle bind; firm enough for them to be captured and free enough to breathe. “Fear is normal, nothing to build a wall around. We’re all scared. If you weren’t, there would be a problem. Fear, it’s our gauge. It lets us know that we are living. It helps us to keep alive, ourselves and the people that we care about the most. It helps us measure the distance between having love and being without it. The greater the fear, the closer you are to something beautiful.” “My wife and I, we haven’t really talked about what happened. I try to bring it up every now and then, but she acts like there’s nothing wrong and then we fight.” “And the therapy? How is it?” “I went once. I didn’t go again after that. My wife, she’s there every night. I just kind of sit outside until she’s done and then we go home.” “You didn’t like the group?” “I didn’t like myself, in the group´.” The Therapist smiled. Her two hands were still cusped around The Father’s except now, one of her thumbs, from her right hand, gently brushed back and forth against the side of The Father’s hand, as if it were a broken wing. “Continue. It’s ok” she said. The last time the Father had felt this way was when he was in school. A group of other kids had been messing around and setting traps for other kids walking buy. The Father was a part of their group, but he was not a part of their circle. Then one day, a child got hurt. And it wasn’t a joke anymore. The Father was called to the headmaster’s office. He sat there in the headmaster’s office, before the police came in and the headmaster, she talked to him, kind of the same way that The Therapist was talking to him now. She asked him questions and she listened. More importantly, she didn’t accuse him of anything. 194


The Father was scared that day, not because he thought the other boys might hit him, but because he didn’t want them to kick him out of their group. He didn’t want to be left alone. And he told her everything. It was really hard to say the truth, just because it wasn’t something that people normally did. “I didn’t really see any of them getting better. The ones in the group. They were all so…” “So what?” “So fucking miserable,” said The Father. “Isn’t that to be expected? They’ve all gone through some kind of loss.” “Yeah but… Some of these guys, I mean, I listened to a few stories and they date back quite a while, you know what I mean? It’s years down the track and they’re still there crying away as if it had just happened like…..” “Like you?” she said calmly, squeezing his hand. “Yeah. Like me. Like us. If the therapy works then why the hell are they still there?” “I guess they feel they need it. It works for them. It helps them to manage with the loss. It helps them to move on.” “None of them have moved on. It’s like they’re addicted, you know? You see them, they all tell their stories and they’re so fucking sad that even a fucking psychopath will be looking up at the ceiling you know. And then, everyone goes and hugs them and tells them that everything’s gonna be ok. And they get fucking coffee and biscuits and… They fucking hangout together, outside of group, you know? That’s kind of fucked up. If the life you build for yourself, the companions you keep, if what keeps you together is suffering. That’s fucked up. And they’re trying to get my wife into all of this. You know this camping and retreat shit.” “You don’t think more time healing will help?” “This isn’t healing. This is steeping in fucking depression. They’re death merchants. That’s what they do. They deal in death. You wanna be in their club; someone you know has to die. They don’t wanna get better.” 195


“Why do you think that is?” “Because feeling like shit feels really fucking good.” “You can’t expect to just feel good straight away.” “It has to happen at some point, though.” “How do you think that can happen? Do you have a plan?” “I think, you know, the premise is right. It’s just… you see for yourself. They’re all addicted. Maybe not to feeling bad and thinking about their dead kids but you see them, the looks on their faces when they’re consoled. That’s the point you know. That’s what they’re addicted to. The hugging and the shushing and the, ‘It’ll get better soon’ and the, ‘We’re with you’ and the, ‘You’re not alone’ and the, ‘You’re so brave’. All of that. Brave? You got no fucking choice.” “You don’t think they have a choice? To go to therapy? To face their sadness? To deal with it? You don’t think they’ve made a choice?” “Maybe. I don’ know. Maybe the first day. They decided, you know what, fuck you and you’re good advice, I’ll go along to shut you up. That’s what got me along. But I tell ya, the second they felt that warm embrace, there was nothing to be afraid of anymore there was no reason to be brave. “ “That’s a bit dark. A bit pessimistic don’t you think? Do you really think someone would put themselves through that torture, to live that hell – and you know what I’m talking about more than anyone. Do you think someone would relive that, night after night if they didn’t think it would help?” “They’re not looking for a cure. They don’t wanna get better. They have what they need. It’s no different to those guys that climb mountains. They train for years and suffer horrendously so they can put their mind and body through absolute hell. But it’s worth it when they get to the top and they look out and see the world, so vast and significant. All of their problems that every morning and every night bury them like six feet of dirt. It was all so small, all so far away - all so insignificant. And I think they all feel that. They tell their stories. And each time, you know they get better at it. More 196


articulate, more emotional. They might even change some things. It’s pretty hard, you know, over time, to know the difference between what you went through, what you saw and at your brain is showing you, to fill in the gaps. Everything in nature. It repeats. The more it repeats, consistently, the better it gets. And when there’s some threat, it evolves, for its survival, to get, at the end of the day; it’s fruit so that it can see its problems small and insignificant.” “Are you the threat?” “We were. In a way. I think for most of them, definitely, a new couple is a threat. The people who listen, they are just as worse as those speaking. They sit with their fucking eyes wide watching as if their words were whiskey filling a glass. They get drunk on one another’s depression. They love it. Sadness, it makes people better. When people are sad, they are less like the pushy demanding assholes that they need to be at work or in traffic. Nobody likes a pushy asshole but to deal with one, you have to be a pushy asshole and worse than dealing with a pushy asshole is feeling like one. Depression, though, you see people, when there’s some kind of tragedy. A plane crash. A fucking earthquake. A landslide or even some wacko shooting up a fucking library or a fucking nursery or something. When that shit happens, those people who yesterday were arrogant pushy assholes pushing around other pushy assholes, they stop. They stop being complete pricks. They stop sneaking in and out of traffic like fucking dogs, poking their heads into one another’s bowls. They stop. They stop leaving their bloody trolleys behind other people’s cars. They stop honking their horns and they stop returning movies late and making up stupid excuses when they do. They stop being assholes. Kids stop picking on other kids. Their mums and dads stop pretending it’s not happening and they actually sit with them and ask them questions and they fucking listen, they actually fucking listen. They stop. They stop being assholes for one fucking day. Or two, or three or four. They stop, though. Because they’re sad. They feel sad for the people in the plane. They feel sad for the families of the people in the plane. They feel sad for their own family, imagining if their mothers or 197


fathers or their children or siblings were in that plane and they imagine what it would be like not having them at all. And husbands and wives kiss and parents hug and kiss their children and brothers ring sisters not because someone died, but because it would be shame, in case someone ever did. And people start acting decently. They start acting kind and wonderful and caring and their words sound soft and congealing like little fucking kisses. And they say I love you. And yeah, they said it a million times before. But they say it with the urgency of a last time, filling the words like a balloon with the thought of the person they are saying it too being dead or dying or gone or going away and knowing they’d never come back. And it feels good, the first time. Cause sadness, its fucking empathy. Sadness is love. Sadness is caring. It’s fucking consideration. You don’t think it feels good to be considerate?” “Well, of course. Kindness feels…” she said pausing and squeezing The Father’s hand tighter. “It feels, complete.” “Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” The Therapist blushed. “No,” she said, her hand trembling slightly as she cleared her throat. “The first time I told my wife I loved her, I remember clear as day. I think I’d felt it for a while you know. Emotion, it’s like a fucking charge. You dive into something, someone, some whatever and you charge. Your gut, your mind, your soul, whatever the hell you wanna call it, it fills like a tank and all that energy, it has to go somewhere. I think for a few months I felt this way with my wife. I tried to you know, to vent, to channel this energy somewhere. I couldn’t say those words, though. So I started being subtle you know? Lots of metaphors and euphemisms and shit. I think I found a thousand ways to say I love you in a thousand and one different tongues, but none of them were the right fit, none of them could unlock that energy. Then one day I said it. I love you. I said it, and it would have only been a fraction of a second before she said I love you too. To me, though, I lived a folly of suspense and torture inside that fraction of a second. I was more awake and self-aware 198


in that instant than most people are their whole fucking lives. I felt naked and exposed and weak and vulnerable and stupid. I felt like being in the ocean, just floating beside my boat and not being able to see land, only the slight difference between the sky and the sea. And you know, floating there and having no idea how deep the water is, and what’s swimming below and between my kicking legs. I felt that just as I said the words. And I felt cold, not freezing, just a chill. All that energy had left me, in a second. And it was with her. And I remember when she told me, that she love me too. It was only a second later but when she said it, my heart fucking exploded. The coldness I felt giving her my energy, it was gone, like that. My blood warmed, my heart felt like it was expanding. It felt like a balloon would feel if it stopped to think about it, the first time it is blown up. Like, maybe the balloon had been in its packet for months or even years, stored on some shelf or in a kid’s back pocket. Then one day, out of nowhere, it’s filled with a child’s exhilaration and it expands and it never knew it could ever do that and it never knew it could ever feel like this and it floats around on the ceiling looking down at the bag that it came from and everything it knew seemed so small and insignificant. My heart felt like that balloon. It was incredible.” The Therapist had never felt this, not from another woman. For this, she yearned, though. And she warmed her heart upon The Father’s hands. “After that day, though, it never felt that same, never. We said those words all the time. I’d say I love you. She’d say I love you more. I’d tell that’s impossible and she’d say I didn’t love her like I used to. Then I’d get mad and she’d laugh cause that’s what she wanted all along and she’d say I love you again and so would I and we’d say a hundred billion times and never, ever, would it ever sound like the first time. There was no energy. There was no reason to say, except to be polite or to affirm something that we assumed as true. Like saying, I am alive or I breathe oxygen. It doesn’t stop it from being true and it wouldn’t, if you stopped breathing, do anything about it. It’s like we assume, you know as people that we 199


can just say those words and then someone will feel the intention and the meaning. But without the energy, without the love, there is no intention, there is no meaning. It’s just a word. It’s the same for everyone. People just talk and live out of meaning, out of context. They say shit like it’s supposed to mean something. Like here” he said, flicking his hand as if he were shelling rusted pennies to the floor “take these words and feel better, feel loved, feel learned, feel important, feel influential, feel belonged. I love you, I’m sorry, I miss you, I didn’t mean it, it’ll never happen again. All this shit. When I said those words to my wife, the first time, she heard it. She felt it. Like a baby crying. It has something to fucking say before it opens its mouth and just fires that energy. And a baby never speaks unless it has something to say but my wife and I, we said I love you as if we were writing blank cheques. And the cheques, they never got banked. They just piled up with all the other shit we said and didn’t mean and planned to do but never did. We built a fucking economy out of empty words.” “You love her, though, yes” She spoke like a child, looking to a weary traveler and brushing aside his stories of icy death and frost bitten toes and regrettable and unexplainable cannibalism in the nether of North Pole to ask and be sure as only a child would that “Santa Claus is real, though, yes. You saw him? He’s there, isn’t he? And how could you say no? “No,” he said. “I loved her. Now I’m not sure. I don’t think so. If this is love, if this is what it feels like, then the universe has spun, the wrong feelings are attached to the wrong words. And if this is love that you speak of, then give me torture and humiliation and give me fucking ridicule. And please, make me your slave; give me just enough will to dream of my escape and then cripple with your consideration, so I never even try. If this is love, what I’m feeling; then heal me.” The Therapist let go of his hands as if she had been told, there was nothing but ice. “I felt it, though, one more time, love, the way I felt it before 200


when we first said it.” The Therapist’s eyes lit up. It could be real after all. “After what happened…” he paused. He lowered his head. She took his hand again. “After what happened, I remember holding her. And I’d never felt this way before, like everything, the world around me was peeling, like the skin of my world was coming apart and my nerves felt so exposed that the slightest breath or even compassion, it stung and it made me shiver and not in a good way. It made me want to curl into a dark place and it didn’t matter what the consequence might have been. Everything just felt wrong. And I know she felt the same. She told me a million times afterwards, that I could never feel the same way she did. But I remember she was crying, not wailing, not like at the funeral. This was when we are alone, just the two of us. She looked still like she was bored. She wasn’t though. And I said it. I said it because I felt it. I told her I loved her and I felt that feeling again, like my soul was a lake of ice and I was skidding away from my own body. And I remember seeing the warmth in her eyes and she said it too, not with her words, but with the way she squeezed me and scrunched the hair on back of my neck and the way she gritted her teeth and then after, the way she cried and how long she cried for, without letting go.” The Therapist sniffed. She wiped her nose and beneath her eye. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “That was the start. The start of something sick. Something that seemed so considerate but was really sick. You know, the only reason I felt that love, the only reason we felt that way again was because of what happened. If that hadn’t of happened, we would be as we were, like two planets drifting further from the orbit of our hearts and our passion, slowly becoming cold and placate, unable to sustain life. Then that happened. And I felt so guilty. I felt like killing myself right then and there. I still do, when I think of it 201


and when I look around my house and the room where it happened and when I think of Korine and being here today; I think of killing myself. And all of that, the guilt and hurt and suffering and blame, it filled me and I told her, I love you. And before, the first time, it was passion and want and need and desire and the fear of being without. That was the emotion, the energy that expanded my soul. But this, this was the contrary. It was considerate yeah, but it was dark brooding depression. It was a child not wanting to be alone. It was an injured puppy, shaking in the freezing cold. It was sadness. It was ‘Save me’. It was ‘Take me home’. It was impossible to ignore. And it appealed to the cavalier in my wife’s heart. She listened and she understood and she felt overwhelmed by the storm of my heart. And she felt loved. But it wasn’t love. It wasn’t love. And she says it now like we used to say it before when we used to secretly and subconsciously try to reenact whatever the hell it was that made us feel that way. Fighting would always do it, the threat or the fear of being apart. My fear now is what next? If the reason I love her is because of what happened, what happens next? That fucking scares me.” “You think she will do something bad?” “I think she’s already doing it. I don’t think she’ll hurt anyone. But I think she’s hurting herself so that she can feel loved again. She goes to those meetings and they’re all sending out the same signal. There’s no love there. There’s desperation and loneliness and guilt and blame. It’s disguised as recovery and bravery and strength, but its debilitating, it’s meant to keep them on their knees. She’s there because she wants to feel the same way she felt before, without having to hurt anyone. They’re all like that. They are addicted to the depression. They are addicted to trying to rationalize their hurt and call they call it healing. It’s fucked up.” The Therapist let go of his hands. They fell into her lap and like a dead spider, her once long and lively fingers, so slender and milky white, they curled into the palms of her hands, all crooked and twisted and colored red and pink and veiny. It was as if her last hope and all that she had worked 202


herself to believe, what everyone around her had educated her to know as true, was a deception, a cunning elaborate lie. Santa Claus was not real. He never was. And the world had lied to her. Her mother and her father, they had both lied to her. Her professor, she had lied to her. And her patients, who called this healing, they had also lied to her. And Santa Claus was not real. She sat back in her chair and her look was no longer considerate. “Good morning everyone,” said The Doctor, standing by the open door. “What a wonderful morning. How are we?” he said jovially, speaking through his big white beard and laughing at the tail of every word with his merry hands holding back the swirl of his back fat belly. “Who feels great today?” he said. The Therapist turned. Her eyes were blurred and her cheeks blotched with her running makeup. The Doctor smiled wider. The Therapist clutched her face and screamed and ran out. If there was a bed somewhere in a room that could be locked and that room was hers, she would be on that bed, in that room, hidden beneath the covers and safe behind a locked door. “Is she ok? What happened?” asked The Doctor. The Father felt his stomach sink. It sounded like an engine, crashing through an elevator shaft. And a terrible thud, echoed in his mind. “Dada,” said Korine, letting go of The Doctor’s hand and throwing hers around her father. He sat there while his daughter wept and laughed and giggled and clung to him. She clung to him as if she knew that if she ever let go, she would never be found again. The Father looked to The Doctor. 203


“What happens next?” he asked. “You go home,” said The Doctor. The girl was pinching him, digging her nails into the fat around his waist. “And then what?” “You go on living.”

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It was really funny weather, the kind that made it difficult to know what to wear. For most people, this was always kind of worrisome and for those that need not worry, it was always bothersome, even if they looked like they weren’t at al bothered. Most people you see didn’t carry around a ‘just-in-case’ bag with them, not like Linda did. For Linda, it was always better to be bothered or rattled by a little extra weight and annoying red marks on her shoulders, than to have to shiver your way through an overcast afternoon or pretend that you even enjoyed, the rain splashing against your face and messing up your hair. Most people didn’t want to look stupid carrying a big bag everywhere with all sorts of things for all sorts of occasions to protect against stuff that probably wouldn’t happen anyway. Most people preferred to carry nothing and keep their hands free for holding other people’s hands, and for smoking cigarettes and drinking espresso and for covering their mouths when they laughed out loud, so they didn’t look piggish. The sun had been shining when she arrived but now that it was grey and drizzling, it felt like even the sun had been taken away from her; even that she couldn’t have. And though, in her ‘just-in-case’ bag, she was prepared for all occasions, in her worrisome mind, and in her now broken heart, this was the last thing she expected. She had never thought about having a last day of anything. Change was usually always so unexpected but then again, she hadn’t changed much in so long that she’d forgotten that unexpected could come out of nowhere, just like it did. She always had a kind of plan for everything, if anything at all was supposed to change. Her favorite television shows for example. She watched her favorite shows every night on cable and 205


she watched them sitting on her favorite cushion on the sofa – right in the middle, so if she wanted to tuck her legs up and rest her head on the arm rest she could, and she could switch to the left and to the right if she wanted to, if either side of her face got tired or sore. One of her fears though was losing things that were important to her. And not just things, but people, people that were important to her, people that were always there throughout her life that were always sharing their stories with her and opening their doors into their lives, and inviting her in. People that were always kind and never did bad things to others, even when bad things were done to them. And people who, at the end of every episode, always managed to resolve every problem and were always better for having gone through it and of whose friendships were just so darn special that they had to share it with the rest of the world. This kind of people. They were the best. But like all people, eventually, they went away. And though they would come back in old episodes and you could relive stuff you already knew about them and remember laughs you’re already had, it was never the same. It was like they just up and closed their door and pretended like it was never opened in the first place, and you’re just supposed to forget about them, like some stupid punchline in some stupid joke, as if you can just forget like that and move on and find some other person to find interesting and be your friend, like it’s that fucking easy. They were gone and they weren’t coming back. Linda had lost her favorite show once, a long time ago, like in the fairy tales. It wasn’t just a thing either, like how some people sum up sad moments as if they happened all the time and they don’t want to cry about it. It was a hell of a thing. It was the kind of thing that makes you not want to buy a cat, even though everyone who knows you says that you’re definitely the type of person that would love a cat, but not necessarily that type of person that a cat would love. 206


No-one ever thought about what the cat might want. So anyway, Linda knew that all things ended. One day one day her gas would cut out, right in the middle of cooking lunch. And one day, her mother was going to die, eventually anyway, and if she was lucky, her sister would too – then she would be able to see her niece at the funeral. And she couldn’t do much about most stuff going away. She thought about her mum dying a lot. There was nothing she could do to stop that. People died all the time. Some died because they were really old and like a dusty old winding clock, all of their parts were just so worn out that they couldn’t tick and they couldn’t tock anymore, and they just stopped, between one and the other. Some people, though, they died either by accident or on purpose; either someone had an accident and hit their head really hard or maybe they got just what they deserved, on account of making somebody really sad or particularly annoyed. Though she couldn’t stop her mum dying one day and she couldn’t hold onto the last bit of gas any longer than her own breath, she could, and she did, take certain measures against losing things that were important so that when they did go away, there was something left from them, something unopened that she could unwrap and see for the first time, as if whoever that was, had never left in the first place. Some kids stuffed candy between the cushions of their sofa so that eventually when mum cleaned it, she would give it to them, and it would feel just as good as it did the first time. Some kids put the spare money they found or were given when their teeth fell out inside a piggy bank, or they’d give it to their dad to hold onto so in the future when they needed just a little, they would probably have lots. And mums and dads, they hid things too, for the future. They stuffed things away and forgot about them and then later when they least expected, they got a terrific surprise. Sometimes it was money and chocolates, just like kids did, other times it was dirty magazines and promises that wer a long time broken, and 207


things they wished they had said a long time ago, things that would probably only best be said then, right at the end, when it was already too late to do anything about it. Most people didn’t like change all that much. They liked to be different sure. That’s why they always bought so many new things like new clothes and new hair and new lovers and new cars and new jobs and new houses. Most people liked to be different in some way, but they didn’t like what they had to do to be different. They didn’t like that part of changing. Most people liked to be in a new house and a new city but they hated moving and they hated having to get their bearings and find out where everything was. And most people liked knowing lots of new things but they hated most of all, having to learn them. People liked to be changed, but they didn’t care much for change itself. They didn’t like the doing part. They much preferred it all to be done for them. And Linda was no different. She was a person after all, just like everyone else. Linda couldn’t stop her favorite television shows ending. She couldn’t stop them, no matter how many letters she wrote. But like the rapacious child, hiding sticks of candy under the cushions of the sofa or the child’s mother, hiding all of her compromises, under a waxing smile and drab apparel, Linda too, kept things that were important to her, hidden somewhere where even she would forget about them. She kept every card that her mother had sent her - for her birthday and other special days too. They were tucked away in a drawer in her bedroom. She kept the flower she got from Graham years ago when he tried to say that he was sorry. It was wilted and dried and little more than a crackly twig but she still kept it, under a pillow in her spare room. And her favorite television show, the bestest friends she had ever had in her whole life, she kept their last episode, their silly and stupid and sad and their ‘not at all fair’ farewell, on the mantle, next to a picture of her niece riding a horse. And most people, they wanted to be changed and they didn’t much want change to happen, but when it did happen, they would 208


always act like they weren’t prepared, like even though they’d invited it for so long, they never thought it would actually come. And so even though it was sunny this morning and even though they joked with their friends about how it would probably rain in the afternoon as if it was a fact that they absolutely knew, none of them had an overcoat, a warm jumper or an umbrella, like they knew that they knew all the answers to the test two but still left every line blank because they didn’t think to sharpen their pencils or bring a spare, in case the one they had was broken. And the weather was changing all the time. For a long time, that was about the only thing that Linda couldn’t control. She couldn’t control it and if it was nice, she couldn’t stop it from changing, from being grey and blowy and overcast and drizzly. She couldn’t control the weather, no, but she could carry round her ‘just-in-case’ bag, just in case. Linda stood in the foyer watching the rain spitting against the glass entrance. She was already digging into her bag and sifting through its contents for a nice warm jumper and her green umbrella. She hadn’t ever gone home at this time and especially, they had never gone home at this time. It all felt so strange, like watching her favorite television show in a different language. Linda waited in the cold and the rain on a rickety bench seat, waiting for the bus to come. She hadn’t taken a bus in so long. And she missed the sound of jingling keys, now that she only had one. As she waited on the seat, ignoring the splinters that were trying to poke and prod her goose bumped skin, she ran through in her head, over and over again, what The Receptionist had told her, just before she left. “One ticket to Morumbi please.” And as the bus arrived, Linda panicked. For only at that moment did she notice a rickety seat, like the one on which she had been sitting, on the opposite side of the street and approaching it, a different bus. And it occurred to her, the thought splashing across her stricken mind, “Is this the right bus?”

209


The Father always liked, when he was walking on loose gravel, to scrunch his feet in a kind of way that made all the rocks squash under his feet and spread out like an arid wake and more than the comet like footprint, he enjoyed the sound that his foot made, pressing into and pushing around, the little rocks with every step. On their way back to the car, it was Korine who was squashing her feet into the loose gravel and twisting as she lifted so that her footsteps looked like small boulders had smashed into the earth and disintegrated. She didn’t make any noise while she did it. It was enough to hear the sound of the rocks turning and splashing outwards. This was something The Father loved to do. Now, though, the sound irritated him. He didn’t speak to the girl at all, not since she threw herself at him. He wanted to. He knew that for sure. There was a torrent of emotion coursing through his veins. It was almost spoiling from his eyes. But it wasn’t one thing that he could explain. It wasn’t clear and definable. He had no idea at all, what he wanted to say. So he stared straight ahead and held his daughter’s hand, not by the wrist as he had watched other father’s doing, courting their children along the sidewalk like luggage. He didn’t do this. When he thought about this day, about picking her up, he imagined that it might have been something that he would have done, carrying her out to the car like a soiled garment or a live grenade. They stopped at the car. The lot was completely empty except for two birds, sitting on a telephone wire. The Father turned the car slowly. Part of him hoped maybe that the car was not his or that the key would snap and it would break and they wouldn’t be able to continue their journey. He hoped that something would happen. He just didn’t know what. 210


Korine climbed up into the car. She was so excited that she didn’t plant her foot properly and she slipped, hitting her knee on a plastic toy. It didn’t’ cut or anything, but it did graze her and the part of her knee that she hit, it was glowing white. “Ow,” she yelled. “I hurt my knee dada. Dada it hurts” she said, over and over, gripping onto her knee as The Father picked her from her crumpled state and placed her in her seat. The girl wept out loud. It was loud and screeching The Father closed his eyes. He imagined himself hearing nothing, sitting in a white room where even his self was invisible; where he couldn’t see his own hands, where he casted no shadow and where he was mute to, even the sound of his own breathing. “Dada,” the girl said. “Dada,” she said again. And “Dada” this and “Dada” that and “I don’t wanna wear a belt” and “No Dada” and “You’re annoying Dada” and “Please Dada” and “I wanna sit in the front seat” and “I hate you” and “I hate you” some more and….. The Father stared at the girl and he heard nothing. He watched her lips move. He tightened the belt. But he heard nothing. Not a word. The Father drove the car as if it were driving itself. He was hardly awake and hardly attentive to what was happening around him. The whole time since they left the clinic, he hadn’t once looked at her. It was as if she was some wound that he knew was severe but of which would only become so at first sight. And he dared not look. He dared not look in her eyes and see, how deep her injury ran. Maybe he could look away, for as long as it took. For her to get better on her own. “Where’s mummy?” said Korine. The Father looked in the rear view mirror. Korine was strapped in her seat which was tucked behind the passenger seat. 211


He couldn’t see her from where he was looking. And that was why he was looking there. He stared at his own reflection. Into his own eyes. His daughter was fidgety in her seat, squirming to free her arms of the tight bind. She did it so quietly that The Father had no inkling as he sat in the front seat, his hands working on their own accord; flicking the indicator and turning the wheel while his eyes and his thoughts and his conscious self, they stared at his reflection and they tried to imagine what others saw and whether this empty stare, whether they had seen this on the faces of other fathers other well-to-do fathers. “I want the window open,” the girl said. She was already leaning over to wind it down. The father turned and saw her free and leaning over, her face pressed against the handle. “Sit back now. Sit the fuck back up. Korine. Fucking sit up straight now” he screamed. Her attention was the chopping block of which he beat down upon with his words. “Sit back now. It’s dangerous. Put your seatbelt on. Korine!” he shouted in rising fashion as if he were raising the back of his hand or an old leather belt. “No,” she said defiantly. “I want the window open. I don’t want the seatbelt. It’s too tight. It hurts. I don’t want to go home. I want to go to the park. I want to go to the park. I wanna go to…” “Sit the fuck back in your seat. Now!” The girl sat back. She kicked her feet and crossed her arms. “We’re on a freeway. This is dangerous. You can’t take your seatbelt off ok? Ok?” he repeated, this time shouting. “Ok,” she said. The Father turned back to the road. “Annoying,” she said in protest. The Father turned to the stereo and flicked the switch. He 212


hadn’t heard this song in so long, even though he had been listening to it on the way here, it just felt different this time. He was looking at the sound differently. The music was turning his mind like a spiral toward the infinity of his sinking thoughts. And he went with the flute and the marching procession of drums and he imagined himself singing as the man on the record did. But he couldn’t sing like that. “I want the chicken song,” Korine said in the backseat. The Father tried to ignore her. Maybe if she just listened like he did, to the brooding piano, she could shut up. “I don’t like this song. Your music is annoying. You’re annoying. I want the chicken song. I want the chicken song. I want the chicken song. I want the chicken song. I want the…” “Fuck it. Fuck it. Whatever. Alright, you fucking win. Always whatever you want. Here, the fucking chicken song.” The Father changed the cd. It was a song about a chicken. The chicken had ten toes. The chicken didn’t like salami. And the chicken goes, wherever the chicken goes. And the chicken has a friend. And he’s a bright orange fox. And they were best of friends forever. The Father felt a hot wave of panic rush through his body. Listening to the words and his daughter sing them wrong and off key and out of time, his condition only worsened. He felt as if an oncologist were listing off all of his conditions and things that he should expect and before the end comes, which would be soon, he should have his house in order, he should settle, all of the end that until point, had been wound in and out of one another and picked at so much, that it was hard to tell, which problem belonged to which person. He felt that quiet urgency. As if there was nothing he could. Except what had to be done. “I’m hungry,” Korine said. “Ok,” said The Father. “Do you want ice-cream?” 213


Korine clapped her hands excitedly. “Yay, I want ice-cream,” she said, tucking her arms back into the slips of her seat belt and sitting herself upright. “I want strawberry. Red is my favorite color. Green is your favorite color dada. Is there green ice-cream?” The Father thought for a second. “Mint,” he said. “What is that?” “It’s ice-cream.” “But what is mint?” “Mint is… mint.” “What is mint?” she screamed. She was about to cry, he could feel it in his nerves. “It’s green,” he said, “Mint is green.” “Is mint your favorite ice-cream?” asked Korine. “Yes,” said The Father, even though it wasn’t. He didn’t have one. Though he didn’t care for chocolate. Or vanilla.

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The bus rocked a lot. It was really bouncy and squeaky and it kind of felt like the whole thing might just fall apart on any one of the little bumps in the road that was making it jump up and around and then all about. It was easy to see how some people could be irritated and find the bus so annoying. Linda loved it. It was terrific. She hadn’t ridden a bus in so long and had forgotten how much fun they could be. She was nervous at first, mainly on whether she had taken the right one or not. There was a bus stop on both sides of the avenue and they both went in opposite directions and if she did take the wrong one, she would probably end up a hundred thousand miles on the wrong side of where she wanted to be and it would take her forever just to get back to where she was supposed to be. Then again, if all buses were this much fun then maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, getting lost like that and having to spend the entire day, or maybe even two days, or an entire year even, bouncing around on her wobbly seat, sniggering at every squeak and clinging with one hand to the loose hand rest whilst staring at the red button on the window and the low hanging cable that ran from one side of the bus to the other and thinking to herself, “Which one will be more fun to press?” Buses were so much fun, more fun than cars. Cars were good an all. And they were important too because people who drove cars were going places, and in control of their destiny, kind of like free will. They could decide where they wanted to go at any time, and nobody could stop them. Except of course that most of the time, people couldn’t think of anywhere to go and even though they dreamt of escape to some special and safe place, they didn’t really know where that place was and they didn’t have a map to tell 215


them how to get there. Cars were important too because it showed that you had money and that you weren’t poor. Because only poor people or unfortunate people, like people who lived in other cities and traveled really far for work and who only had one car and had to leave that car at home, in case their babies had a fever, or if they had to travel really far and they fell asleep all the time, for no reason whatsoever and they didn’t want to cause an accident or get late for work, on account of that. Unfortunate people. And poor people. They were the kinds that used buses, either because they had to or because they had no choice. And they weren’t the kind of people that anybody ever admired. They weren’t the kind of people that made a lot of money and lived in rich apartment buildings and had maids and cleaners that didn’t leave smudges and knew how to cook more than one kind of meal. Those people, that kind, they were terrific. They were the kind of people that didn’t notice other people even though everybody noticed them. They were the kind of people that didn’t even care that everybody noticed them, even though they knew that they did and that that was what they wanted all along, for everyone to notice them and to act like it didn’t matter. Linda didn’t have the best car in the world, but she did have a car and that meant, although she was always busy watching other people passing by, eating their Caesar salads and getting little puppy paws painted on their beautiful nails, because she drove a car, there was definitely someone watching her. Graham drove a red car. It looked kind of like a tiger or a panther or something. Like a tiger or a panther crossed with an alien. Because the lights looked like alien’s eyes, not that Linda had ever seen an alien. But she believed they existed and she knew that if she ever saw one, she would know it, by the way, it looked at her. And it would probably have eyes like the lights on Graham’s car. And it might even have octopus’ arms too, in case it lived 216


underwater, which would probably be a good place for an alien to live, cause people here could be kind of pushy and sometimes kind of rude too. And if you were different, like if you were an alien or something, most people would probably be pretty rude to you and really boring as well and they’d make you feel stupid and not at all fun, for not being anything like them. Linda had never sat in Graham’s car. She wanted to, all the time. She always asked, though, hoping Graham would change his mind. He’d always tell her though that her shoes would only scuff the upholstery or that he car had just been perfumed and “You can’t have two perfumes, Linda, it’ll make the car smell like a beggar’s vomit.” Every important person that Linda knew drove a car. And all those important people were so very smart. They always said things that make people nod their heads and agree and when Graham spoke, nobody ever said the opposite of what he was saying, even if that’s what they were thinking. Rich people were so smart. True. But as smart as they were, Linda had never listened to any of them talking about how much fun a bus ride could be. She’d heard them many times, whilst cleaning a probe or picking at her sandwich, talking about how fast their cars could go or how big their pecs had gotten or what they’d do to The Receptionist if they got her by herself. But she’d never heard any of them talk about how fun a bus ride could be. Linda sat on the bus, one hand gripping the loose hand rest and the other, a plastic bag with her change of clothes and the tape she had with her favorite songs that Graham let her get from her car before he made her hand over the keys. The bus was rocking around so much the seat wasn’t squeaking anymore, it was squealing. And she could see the ground below going by really fast, through the little bits of rust in the seat in front of her. It looked just like on the cartoons when they drew lots of lines behind the car to show that it was going really fast. The 217


ground looked just like that. The road was rushing by and it looked like God or the bus driver or a policeman or something had drawn on the road, all these lines that were almost the same color as the road, but not really. Linda gripped the hand rest and with a wide and maddening grin on her face, she leaned upwards slightly to see if everyone else was having as much fun as she. The driver was bouncing up and down too. He had a big giant steering wheel, a lot bigger than the one she had, and so much bigger than Graham’s. His car had a tiny steering wheel. And it had tiny seats too. Rich people all had tiny things. The bus driver though had a wheel as big as a dinner table and his seat, it was just as big too and it was decorated in these wooden balls that didn’t at all look comfortable if you had to sit on them all day long. The other people, though, they didn’t look like they were having much fun. They were all scrunched up against each other, the ones who were standing in the aisles. And they all had their hands full, carrying big bags full of cheap things that they had bought downtown and were bringing home or maybe going to try and sell for a little bit more than what they had paid in the first place. Poor people never looked happy. They always had worried looks on their faces like if they had a smile or if they looked like they were having fun; their bank manager might come along and take that away from them too. Even on something as much fun as a bus ride, poor people couldn’t help but look poor and act poorly. Their faces looked as sad and wrinkled and as unimpressed as Linda’s old work shoes, the ones with the cracked leather that smelt really bad and she’d been meaning to throw away but that she hadn’t gotten round to doing just yet. Their faces all looked just like those shoes as if God had been using their faces to walk around in all the dirty and gravely parts of the world, in the places that it wasn’t a bother to scuff. And their faces were the kind of shoes that God would take off 218


without using his hands and the hunches in their backs and the wrinkles on their faces and on their arms and knees, that was from the cupboard where God kicked them under when he didn’t need them anymore. Rich people, though, their faces were more like god’s slippers that he wore when he was in his rocking chair, in front of a fire, and having his supper prepared by Mrs. God or by one of Santa’s elves. Linda giggled profusely as the bus rattled and she jumped up and down on her seat. And one of the bumps was so big and so jumpy that she almost flew straight out of the seat and onto the person in front of her. “Yay,” she shouted, the only word that came to her mind that came close to expressing how she felt. Linda had never ridden a rollercoaster or a bumper car or even been on the ghost train, never. So she didn’t know what other people said when they were being thrown around and having this much fun. A little boy waved at Linda. He was maybe about the little girl’s age, the one who lived in 9A. The boy didn’t look as cute as she looked, not because he was ugly or anything, just because his mum and dad were poor and they didn’t really dress him in any color or anything. He looked like a picture of a rainbow that someone had printed in greyscale. And he probably didn’t go to a good school either. Still, aside from looking and being poor, he looked like he was having almost as much fun as Linda, almost, not completely. He was bouncing around too on his seat, sitting between his mum and his dad, and he had a smile on his face. It wasn’t a big smile, not like Linda’s. Probably he didn’t smile all that much, so he wasn’t really all that good at it. “This is so fun” Linda shouted to the boy, gripping the hand rest with both hands now as the big plastic bag flew up and down, hitting against her knee, with each bump and each rise and fall of her bum from the seat. “What’s your name?” she said. 219


The boy’s mother moved the boy, so he was sitting between her and the window. He stopped smiling straight away and stared out of the window at all the shops zipping by. His mother slapped him across the back of his head twice and she said something into his ear and it mustn’t have been nice because he made a pouty face and he definitely wasn’t smiling anymore, his face was all scrunched up and it looked just like everyone else’s, just like the cracked leather on the shoe that Linda hadn’t gotten around to doing away with. The mother stared at Linda. She gave her the kind of look that said “How dare you tease him with something he can never have.” It was the kind of look that mothers gave to their children when they teased animals in the zoo with food that the animals would never be able to have. And that would make the animals really sad. And then that would make the mothers really mad. And she would give that kind of look. And then that would make the little kid really sad. And the mother would throw the ice-cream or the bubblegum in the bin. And then the little kid and the gorilla, they would both be really sad and they’d both want to go home. The boy’s father didn’t really seem to care all that much; by the smile on his son’s face or the fact that his wife had just wiped it clean, by the happy lady beside him being all weird and probably dangerous in public, or by the little bug that was crawling up the side of his neck, slowly making its way towards his ear. He just stared out through the front window as if nothing bothered him at all as if none of it mattered. The mother gave Linda another look, one that said, “You don’t belong here” and “I’m watching you.” She wrapped her arms around her son, kissing the top of his head, where she had slapped him, to get that stupid smile off his face. She whispered something into his ear again and it might have been something nice, it might have been her way of saying “I love you” and “I’m just trying to protect you” but the boy didn’t really change the way he looked. He still had the same broken leathered expression. It didn’t get any better and it didn’t get any worse. It kind of stayed the same, like his dad. 220


Linda turned back to the seat in front of her and though she felt the scolding and unwelcome stare of everyone around her, she still couldn’t pull herself away from how much fun she was having and even if she wasn’t allowed to speak to another kid or even if she couldn’t shout “Yay” out really loud, that wasn’t going to stop her from having fun. She ignored the stupid boring poor people and their stupid boring disappointed frowns and instead, she gripped onto the hand rest and she bounced around and every time her plastic bag banged against her knee, she clenched her teeth and widened her mouth maddeningly, so as not to let her happiness escape, and she shouted “Yippee, hurray!” in her mind, so all the boring people wouldn’t give her that kind of look, and make her feel just as sad and disappointed as they did. When she arrived at her apartment, The Porter gave her a funny look. Linda pressed the bell and it made a ding a ling sound and she got real mad when The Porter answered and he said, “Yeah, what do you want?” “Don’t you know who I am, donkey?” she shouted. The Porter didn’t know who she was. In truth, he hadn’t even pulled away from his pornographic magazine. It was just how he responded to anyone that rang the bell, anyone that wasn’t a teenage girl that is. Linda didn’t know that that was just how he spoke to everyone and The Porter; he didn’t know that that was Linda. “It’s me you stupid donkey. Linda. Apartment 9B. Let me in now” she yelled. As if caught pissing in a fountain, The Porter jumped in his seat and his pornographic magazine fell on the ground. This would make him really mad later on, on account of how dirty the floor was and how it would end up dirtying his favorite dirty picture. “I’m sorry Mrs. Linda. I didn’t know it was you. You no drive car today? But I see you in car, this morning? Yes? No?” “It’s none of your business,” shouted Linda into the intercom. Linda hated his kind of people. They were so rude and so intrusive. They always wanted to know things that weren’t any of 221


their business, so they could gossip about it in their lunch rooms and on their stupid busses, where nobody ever wanted to have any fun at all. Stupid donkeys. She hated his kind of people too because they were prejudice. And they were small minded and they were racist and they were all the same. They were stupid were stupid donkeys and they should all go back to where they’re from. She hated them so much, his kind. “Thank you,” she said smiling as the door clicked open. It was a really heavy door. Linda had never imagined that it was this heavy. She had driven past it every day, but she had never imagined what it was like to actually open and close it. Only servants and pizza delivery people ever opened or closed these kinds of doors. And they were probably used to it, on account of them being a lot like prison doors. Not that every poor person has been in prison but most probably have a relative or a father in prison and they probably visit them on their birthdays or at Christmas and the doors would be just as heavy for the visitors as they would for the prisoners themselves. The gate clanged as it closed and Linda flinched, feeling for the first time that her home was somewhere that she didn’t feel safe. As she walked along the stone path towards the front door, a path that she had never walked on before, not since it was laid three years ago and everyone from the building went down, just to step on it and see what it was like before they went back to using the service entrance. Beside her, sitting on the grass and crying kind of loud was a man in beige overalls. He was acting kind of strange, sticking his face into a jar of coffee and sniffing really long and loud, like someone with a blocked nose would, when they’re just trying to keep alive. Then, after he breathed in the coffee, he put his cupped hand up to his nose and he breathed in just as heavy. And he closed his eyes and he leaned his back as if that would make his breathe in deeper and heavier. And when he pulled his hand away, Linda could see that he was clenching his eyes real tight like she used to do when she 222


imagined herself in Disney Land and Graham touched his willy. It looked like he was really trying to imagine something but the way his nose scrunched up and the way his face looked, it looked like whatever he wanted to imagine, he couldn’t. And he looked just the way Linda used to look when her eyes were shut real tight and while she was trying to imagine Mickey Mouse, Graham would touch her leg or call her his whore. She guessed that whatever he was thinking of, it wasn’t Mickey Mouse. The Gardner opened his eyes and his lips started to tremble and his face crinkle dup, like a little boy who had just been told ‘no’. Then he buried his ace back into the jar of coffee and again into his cupped hand. And again, he closed his eyes real tight. And again he looked just as Linda had many times found herself looking. And again he opened them. And he did this over and over again. And each time he cried a little more and he didn’t even seem bothered by the fact that Linda was watching. He didn’t even notice that she was there and that she was cupping her own hand every time and holding it over her own nose and breathing deeply. And though she wasn’t crying and wiping away red teary eyes, but she did feel sad. Not for herself, but for him. Linda had never seen him before. He didn’t live in the apartment. She knew that because she had never seen him at any of the condominium meetings. She’d never really been home at this time of the day, though. She’d never been home at this time of the day ever. She’d never been fired from her job and had her car taken away so…. “What’s wrong?” she asked, approaching the young man. He mightn’t have been young. He might have been older or old even, but he looked young and he sounded young too, in the way that he cried. “It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s not nothing,” Linda said. “It’s no good being sad and being a liar, just because you don’t want to talk about it. You could just have said that you know. It’s none of your nosiness. You could have said that. Course it wouldn’t have been very nice. Did 223


something happen to make you sad?” The Gardener lifted his face from his hands. His eyes were all red and watery. It looked like he had been crying for a good time, time enough for most of the day to go by and for most of his job to still not be anywhere near done. “My day is pretty bad too. Normally I drive” she said. The Gardner looked at Linda, his tears desiccating in the desert of her honest address. “I can’t smell the grass anymore,” he said, opening his fingers and letting a handful of fresh trimmings fall to the floor. “And I got nothing now. There aint nothing to live for.” Linda heard every word and she knew the meaning of each one. But lined up, side by side, she had no idea what he was talking about. It was as if his words were a deck of cards and though she knew the look and color of each one, without her knowing someone had changed the game completely and with it, what each card meant. And now she didn’t know if she was winning or losing. All she could do was tilt her head, nod and smile politely, like the way people did when they said “Mmmm, delicious” and all they really wanted to do was spit out whatever disgusting sauce was in their mouth and say “Christ, what the fuck was that?” “Do you like to cut the grass?” Linda asked. “If I can’t smell it then what’s the point?” “You work just to smell the grass?” “Of course. What other reason is there?” “Money,” Linda said. “Money’s not a reason,” said The Gardener. “Money’s like herpes. You only really find out you have it the second you give it to someone else.” Linda smiled, as if she understood, or had gotten herpes. “The road to poverty is spoiled with riches.” Linda smiled again, thinking of a rocky road with trees that had diamonds for flowers and little colored butterflies that sprinkled gold dust on people’s shoulders when they stopped to count their money. 224


“If you don’t want money then why do you work?” “What was the best day of your life?” “The day before yesterday,” she said. “It was my birthday.” It wasn’t though, not the best day of her life. She only said that because she didn’t talk much to other people, she didn’t really get much of a chance. When she did though, she always felt pressured to say something fast, like when she went into a cake store and the counter was right at the entrance and that would catch her by surprise only slightly less than the attendant who was right there, standing over the cakes she didn’t’ like and wearing a look on her face as if Linda only had seconds to choose before she was being rude and wouldn’t be allowed to come back again. And at the cake shop, she always chose the first cake she could see which was always the cake right below the attendant’s pointy chin and it was always the cake the only grandmothers liked to eat, the one that tasted like licking the back of a battery. And this, talking to The Gardener, felt pretty much like that. The day before yesterday wasn’t so great. Ok, she swam good, true. And she did manage to keep her face under the water for longer than she ever had before. But it was her birthday, and nobody gave a shit. She just sat there eating that god awful cake by herself while trying to make sense of an eviction notice. That wasn’t the best day. Really, the best day was when she was nine. It was the first time she had ever been on a train, especially one of the new electric ones that took people to and from the city. Her aunty took her on a ride, just for the fun of it. She wasn’t her real aunty. It was just what they called the carers back then. If she thought of it now, she would definitely remember how fast the train was, watching from the edge of the track as it appeared out of nowhere, looking so small at first and then growing up so big and moving so fast as it neared the station. At the clinic, Linda heard people talk that way all the time about their children; that they grow up so fast. Watching the train arrive, though, that wasn’t the best part. The best part was pressing the white button and hearing the doors 225


swish as they opened, like in the movies, and then walking on, holding onto her auntie’s hand real tight so that she wouldn’t fall into the space between the train and the end of the platform. It was really scary but worth it, though when she was on and safe. Then came the best parts; the dinging sound as the driver warned that the doors were about to close, then the swishing sound as they did and then the people running really fast to try and get on board, even though the doors had already closed and the funny faces they made, when they cursed out loud and made themselves seem really mad and fierce like a bear or something, so people didn’t laugh at them, on account of how silly they looked, making such a big scene. The best part though was sitting in her chair and looking straight ahead, through the doors into the next carriage. She could see almost into every carriage, even the first one. And when they turned left or right - looking through the clear doors into every other carriage - it looked like the train was about to derail. It was so exciting. Nobody else seemed to notice, though. They were all staring out the window or at their shoes, trying their hardest not to have to look at the person who was sitting right in front of them, they too, hoping they didn’t have to look at anyone else. When they got back to the station, her aunty gave her an icecream and let her lick the whole thing while they waited for one of the nurses to come and collect them. And her aunty, she told her not to tell any of the other children, which was definitely the best part. But The Gardener, he kind of made Linda feel like the lady at the cake shop. She didn’t think anyone else would give her the time to think about all the things she had done in her life and then to pick just one to talk about. Most people, though, were so good at talking to other people, they had done it so much every day of their lives that they didn’t need much time to think about stuff. They always knew exactly what they wanted to say. Just like in cake shops, those people didn’t look nervous or antsy, like they really had to pee because, even though they just walked in the door, they were so 226


good at buying cakes for all the parties they had had and all the parties they had been invited to, that they always knew exactly what they wanted. And they probably never ended up picking the cake that tasted like licking the back of a battery. “The best day of my life was on my ninth birthday. Mum and dad were still together. Dad hadn’t gotten that promotion yet and he wasn’t cheating on mum, at least, not that we knew. It was the last day I saw my best friend before his parents moved them back to Lebanon. We played armies in the grass all day long and later after I blew out the candles on my cake, my folks gave me my present. It was a black puppy. I wanted to name him Ahmel, after my friend. They said it was a wonderful name but the next day, they made me change it to Rover. Dad had mowed the lawn that afternoon, just before the party. I didn’t really think too much about the smell back then, I was having too much fun with my best friend. But after he went away, and after mum and dad split, I didn’t really have much of anything. And it was pretty lonely, except every now and then, when mum would get someone in to do the lawn and trim up the hedges. It was nice you know, to be able to go back there, to that day. And now” he said, his silence hinting towards the few green flakes caught between his fingers and in the grooves on the palm of his right hand. “I got fired today,” said Linda, sitting beside The Gardener and staring straight ahead, at the vines that were all overgrown and still hadn’t been trimmed properly. “And I got told to move out. And I don’t know how to find somewhere else to live. I don’t know who to call. Graham did everything for me. But he stopped and now I don’t know what to do. So I have no job and I have nowhere to live. And I watched a television show last night, the one where they break down the door and shout ‘FBI, freeze.’” “Yeah I know the one. I watched it too.” “I think the bad man on that show, the one they had to shoot because was trying to hurt that girl, I think that’s Graham because he used to do some of those things to me. And I always thought it was because he liked me, like mums and dads, but now I’m not 227


sure. Some of the things he did, they really hurt and called me some not nice names too. He told me today that he doesn’t want to see me anymore. And he took his car that he gave me and he took back his apartment as well. And he made me have to quit my job too. And I don’t think he really liked me, not like he said he did. You know he never even bought me chocolate on my birthday?” “That’s fucked up,” said The Gardener. “I know,” Linda said. “He’s knows as well, that I really like 80% cocoa.” “What? He raped you? Yeah?” “What’s that?” “He made you do things yeah? Things you didn’t want to do?” The Gardener was manic. His face was all red and his eyes were bulging out of his head. They were only like that though because of the way he felt; which was a mix of consideration and vengeful rage. He voice, it whistled when he spoke, kind of like a bomb, dropping over its target. And his face got rounder as he shouted about how someone had to do something. He looked like an elephant that was about to charge a group of stupid tourists. His hands, though, were completely calm and they were anchored to Linda’s. Her aunty used to hold her the same way when she wanted to know where Linda had hidden the keys to the pantry. “What’s his name? Where does he live? Have you got his address?” The Gardener was asking so many questions, Linda coupled barely keep up with the first. She noticed, as she answered each question one by one, that The Gardener wasn’t crying anymore and he wasn’t holding onto those little bits of grass anymore, as if they weren’t half as important as knowing all about Graham and what time he normally left the clinic and whether he’d be alone or not and if he kept a gun in his glove box, which he didn’t. “Did you see there is a party tonight? Here in the games room. I bet lots of people are invited” Linda asked. The Gardner was looking at her and at the same time, he was 228


looking right through her. He didn’t even see her lips move because he was looking at a piece of brick on the wall that was showing, behind Linda’s head, from where the beige cement rendering had broken away. “I bet there’s cake too,” Linda said to herself, The Gardener having up and left ll of his tools and contraptions behind, taking only a set of sheers and some cable ties.

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Korine stood in front of her father. He was so tall. She rested her back against his knees. It was so good to do that. He would always fidget and squirm trying to move her about and that kind of tickled her back. There were heaps of things that she loved doing, things were just fun, no matter what anyone said, and this was definitely one of them. “What flavors do you want? You can choose three” The Father said. The ice-cream parlor was small. It had been somebody’s garage that they hollowed out to make a place that made kids happy. There was a line of freezers from the entrance along the right side of the wall all the way to the end. There were five freezer bins and in each one, there were about nine or ten different flavors of icecream. Most people didn’t know that so many different types of ice-cream existed. The Father took a bowl for Korine and picked her up in one arm, holding her over the glass lids so she could see inside at all of the different colors. For Korine, it was like staring at a hundred thousand bright colorful rainbows and being hurried into choosing only three. She wanted the blue one and the blue one with red dots and the white one and the other white one and the pink one and the red one because red is her favorite color and the rainbow one and the green one because green is daddy’s favorite color and she could give him some and he would be happy and… “Chocolate dada, I want chocolate,” she said, madly pointing at the glass. “Ok, chocolate,” said The Father, putting her on the floor so he could take one big scoop. Korine looked around at the other children who were sitting at their tables and eating their ice-cream. Their faces were all messy 230


and creamy and their mums and dads were always reaching for those paper napkins to wipe their mouths, but they’d just get all messy again every time they did. Korine was excited, though. There was a shiver of electricity running through her. It made her want to shout out or grab onto her daddy or run about or a bunch of other stuff The Therapist said was ‘the bad’ inside of her that was doing no good. She didn’t feel bad, though. She just wanted to run around and swing her arms in big giant circles and then maybe turn into a bird or an airplane or a spaceship or a dragon and fly around the room in-between the tables and then all the other kids would put down their spoons and they’d jump off the tables too and they would turn into bees and butterflies and there’d be other dragons too, but they’d be baby dragons, cause she was the mummy dragon and they would fly around and eat all the monsters. “Second scoop?” said The Father. He was grumpy. He was always grumpy. Korine didn’t mind, though. He grumbled a lot and he sometimes said his words really loud like she did, when she wanted something really badly. But she was never really mad. She just wanted that thing right now even if she knew it wasn’t there to begin with and there was no way she could get it. She’d want it and she’d shout and she’d say her words really loud just like daddy was about to do if she kept fooling around behind his legs. She didn’t hate mummy or daddy, though. She just liked to shout a lot. It felt good, that’s all. And she knew, watching daddy’s face go red and his voice make harder and louder words, that he was also having fun. “Korine” he shouted. The other families looked up from their tables. The mother’s judged harshly. Their eyes twisted and turned. And one of them, a lady seating with her daughter by the cash register, the one who put only a slight dollop of ice-cream on her spoon and who chewed the ice-cream in her mouth as if it were a piece of tough meat, that one, she was staring with such a pinned expression that her nose 231


scrunched up along with her top lip and her nostrils twitched and flared and she made the kind of face that people only make when they smell someone else’s fart. “Second scoop,” said The Father sternly. Korine was running in and out of his legs. She was laughing out loud and the other kids at the tables, they were looking at her now, itching to put down their spoons and join her. They would, were it not ice-cream on the tips of their tongues. If it was pasta or even pizza or stroganoff, even though kids loved stroganoff, they’d say ‘save it for later’ and they’d jump out of their seats and their parents would try but it’d be no use and they’d probably play chasey or something and they’d pick one kid, a younger one and they’d tease and taunt the child to chase them and the little kid would run around the tables and to the front and to the back of the shop but they’d never catch the other kids cause they were small and small was stupid and slow and probably, all of their ´parents would be watching and some would be thinking how cute it was that everyone followed their little prince or princess and others would be thinking, ‘I’d love to throttle that little fucker’. “Korine” shouted The Father. He lowered himself from all the way up there and his knees and legs were all scrunched up. Korine rested her hands on his legs. Korine smiled. She had such straight white teeth. All kids did. But hers were especially white. It was something The Father always looked at when she smiled and when other people did the same. He always looked at people’s teeth. Korine’s were really white and even on the backs, there was no yellow at all. He worried himself a lot, about brushing her teeth. He always did it, every night. He didn’t tell The Mother about his concern. She’d just think he was stupid and laugh at him and then apologize for laughing at him and then offer to give him a blow job or something and then he’d say no and she’d get offended and she’d walk off sobbing and then he’d follow her and try to hug her and she’d shrug him off and then he’d unzip his pants and then she’d say “what am I to you, a slut?” 232


So this was one of the things he didn’t tell her about. There were others too. Scary stuff like the kids getting hurt and them having no money and having to move in with her mother or move to some shitty neighborhood where they’d probably get broken into and killed or raped or something and he was sure, that every time his wife took the car, especially with the kids, that they would have a car crash, on a highway somewhere and it always felt so real that he’d panic and start to cry. By the time they got home, though, he would look like he didn’t even notice that they were gone and this was the only expression The Mother ever saw on his face. The Father always worried though that he wasn’t washing her teeth right. He didn’t really do his own the way it was supposed to be done. He just brushed vigorously left and right and up and down for less than a minute, about five times each side, before spitting. He used to see people at work after lunch washing their teeth in the bathrooms. They’d be at it for at least ten minutes. They be left and right and up and down and back and forth and then when he’d think they’d be done, they’d flip their brush and start hacking at the backs of their tongues and all the while, they’d have their mouths hanging over the sink and white spit and foam would be spilling out onto the porcelain and to The Father, it all looked like so much. And it looked kind of sexual too. Like violent sex. All that shoving and poking and gargling and choking and frozen glares, like they were on the verge of some filthy and sweaty climax. The Father didn’t brush like others did. And he knew it wasn’t the greatest care he could be giving his teeth but they were his teeth to ignore, so he didn’t care all that much. But Korine’s were different. The second he became a father, all the things that didn’t matter all that much to him were things that for Korine, couldn’t be taken so lightly and scared the absolute shit out of him. And when he was scared, he’d get mad. “Korine. I can’t…” “Dada, I want grape,” she said. “You sure? You want grape? And what else? You have one 233


one more scoop. Three scoops remember.” “Ummmmm. I want green” she said. The Father closed his eyes. He squeezed them shut. It stopped the anger from spilling out. “Green’s not a flavor. What about mint? You want a mint?” “Is mint green?” “Yes. Mint is green.” “Daddy?” she asked. Korine took one of her daddy’s hands and with her other, she tried to push his chin upwards so she could see him, so she could look in his eyes. It was so hard, though. He must have had a sore neck or something because she pushed and pushed and his chin stayed down by his shoulder and he was still looking down at her shoes. “Do you have a hurt daddy?” she asked. He wanted to look her in the eyes. He wanted to. But he couldn’t. He was so scared. The Father filled Korine’s bowl with a scoop of grape and mint and then asked her if she wanted gummy bears and jelly mouths, which she did. There was a lot more. There were sour worms and there were nuts and sprinkles and there were jelly worms and there was fruit as well like strawberries and kiwi fruit and mango and there were crushed cashews and all sorts of toppings. They even had the one that goes hard. The Father weighed her plastic bowl and took it with her over to the far end of the parlor. As they walked past the different tables, he held his daughter’s hand. He didn’t hold it tight and leading like some parents did, the type of parents that squinted when they didn’t approve of something. He could feel, though, the slight glares of a few of the mother’s watching the curves on his back as he passed them by. He always 234


flexed lightly, as if he were stretching or straining a muscle. It was enough though for his back, to bulge and push the rounds of his muscles out into the dressing of light. He always felt like someone was watching, even if nobody ever was. Usually, they did, though. He wasn’t at all unattractive. And he knew this. He had a beautiful daughter too. Her hair was golden. It was brown, but everyone called it blonde. And her eyes looked like two shallow ponds. She was dainty and girly, but she ran around like a little boy, climbing this and jumping about on that. She was scared of nothing. And when she smiled or when she did her pirouette, all the girls and ladies and women and mothers, they all caught in their hands, their melting hearts and they looked at her in such mystique as if she were the only one of her kind they had ever seen and they watched her as a dying man would, the going down of the sun. The Father could feel their eyes on his back and his buttocks and then at the feisty little girl in his hands and at how he held her hand so gently, even at the size that he was. He knew his daughter was beautiful. He knew they thought that. He knew too, that they all wanted a pretty little girl of their own. They were human. They were imprinted to feel this way. And he knew this made them want him more. To be strong and firm, with one gentle hand cupping his daughter’s and the other a fist, to keep monsters at bay. And he knew this. He could see how wives or girlfriends would quickly flick their eyes as they lifted from their bowls to focus on their lovers or their husbands. And though he wouldn’t act on it, it was nice to have beautiful women, ogling him with licking glares. “Sit down here,” he said. “I’m going to get mine.” Korine smiled. “Dada” she shouted as her father walked off. “What is it?” he said. She shook her hands while looking down at the space between her and the table. “Ok,” said The Father pushing her chair inwards so she could grip her bowl better. 235


Then it was his turn. The Father looked for the biggest bowl he could find. There were so many to choose from but when he put them side by side, they were all the same size. What he wanted they didn’t have. He didn’t know what that was exactly. If someone was to ask him “Can I help you?” he wouldn’t at all be able to describe what he wanted, just that, whatever it was the he did want, it wasn’t here and all he’d be inclined to say would be “Is there anything out back?” The Father settled on an edible bowl. It was like an ice-cream cone except that it was a bowl. They always got a bit soggy but not completely, so at the end, it was like chewing wet cardboard. The Father went from bin to bin and he looked at the different colors in the same magic as Korine. He didn’t bother reading the tags on each tub. It didn’t matter, they all had names that sounded nothing like what was inside them so he just stared hard at each color and if he really wanted it, he scooped a tiny bit into his cone. And he went from tub to tub and from bin to bin and he packed bits of this upon bits of that and there were so many colors and so many tastes that they would all come together and either be incredible or absolutely horrendous but that didn’t matter cause he scooped in every color except chocolate. And vanilla. And when it came to toppings, The Father went straight for the jelly worms and sour worms and the jelly teeth and anything jelly really. He piled them on and onto the sides and underneath different scoops and he pressed down with the plastic grabber so he had more room for more candy. And on top of the jelly candy, he sprinkled lightly, a fine serving of crushed cashews. And then he went back to the table. And he ate. And Korine, she ate too. And they both gulped down their ice-cream. And they weren’t really different, she and he. They both had messy faces and different colored ice-cream on their chins, but The Father’s was funnier because his was dripping into his beard. 236


“You look funny,” Korine said. The Father smiled, but he didn’t shift his stare. “Is that yummy?” she said as if she had none. The Father knew what that meant. He just didn’t want to give her any. He didn’t want to not have all that he wanted just for himself. He picked two jelly worms from his bowl. They were frozen solid from the cold and it kind of hurt trying to pick them out. He got them though and flicked them into Korine’s bowl. “Look, daddy, look,” she said, sticking sour worms to her upper lip and making roaring sounds while her little hands grasped at The Father’s shirt. And all he could think of was the tiny smudge on the wall by the window. “Look, daddy,” she said. “I’m a monster.” Yeah, but what kind of monster was she? One that lived in the murky depths of the sea, one that hid in icy caves or one that was too young to know any better? “I don’t want anymore,” she said, pushing her bowl aside. “I want some of yours,” she said. “Eat your own,” said The Father. “I don’t want to. Can I have some of yours?” “No,” he said, getting edgy. “Look, you still have a scoop.” “But daddy,” she said, “this is green and green is your favorite color. This is yours. I got this for you.” The Father lifted his head. He didn’t want to look at her. The thought of it made him shudder. The same way people got when they imagined, nails being dragged across a black board. The thought of having to see into her blue eyes. The thought of what he might find inside them. The thought of how he might feel. “We have to go.” “But daddy.” “We’re going.” “I don’t want to go.” “Don’t make a scene. We’re going alright. Now get in the car.” 237


“But daddy, you haven’t had your ice-cream,” she said, holding the bowl to him. “I don’t want the ice-cream. I don’t want it, ok? I didn’t ask you for it. I don’t want it and I’m not gonna eat it. Green’s not even my favorite color.” Korine slowly put the bowl back on the table. Daddy had never been like this before. He was always grumpy and annoying. And he was always shouting a lot, mainly at other people. But he was never like this. He was never mean. Korine hopped off the table and took her daddy’s hand. She didn’t really feel like running around anymore. She didn’t feel like lifting her arms and pretending they were wings, not like she did before. She didn’t really want to play at all. She wasn’t thinking about what she had done like a grownup might do, she was just not thinking about doing anything else. It was like all the other fun things that she wanted to do before were now stupid and boring and she just wanted to hold her daddy’s hand and let him put on her seatbelt, without getting upset. The Father felt kind of sick. It might have been the ice-cream. It might have been Korine. He had this urge, the whole time he was driving, to look in the rear mirror, to look into the backseat. It was like she was some kind of cyst in his mouth that he knew, should he give her attention, she would only grow on his nerves and enshroud him in pain. Still, he had this stupid persistent urge, to look and to touch the cyst. To make sure it was still there. To see if it was getting worse. The traffic was heavy again. The traffic was always heavy. He slowed the car to a halt. Then he undid his seatbelt and he opened the door. “Where are you going daddy? I want to go too.” He said nothing. 238


He walked around the car and over to her door. He flicked the alarm twice to open her door and he reached in and undid her seatbelt. “Are we going for a walk daddy?” He said nothing. He undid the straps from around her arms and lifted her out of the seat and put her down on the ground. She was bare foot so he reached down under the front seat and shifted his hands around blindly looking for her shoes. He found them quickly and turned to Korine, tapping each leg like a blind man, the ground before him. He put on her shoes. He closed her door. And when she said “Daddy,” he ignored her. He walked around to the driver’s door and he entered and he sat down behind the wheel. He put on his seatbelt and started the ignition. After a couple of seconds, the doors all locked automatically. He put the car in first gear and slowly moved back and forth like a runner, on the tips of their nerves, waiting to burst off the line. The car in front moved. The father lifted the clutch and his car moved too. He looked in the rear view. The car behind him also moved. It was slow traffic. But they were moving. He turned on the stereo. The chicken song. He ejected the cd and threw it on the dashboard. It slid off and fell into space between the gearstick and his right foot. The traffic moved again and The Father focused on the lights ahead of him. He ignored the spitting rain, blotching up his window. He ignored the honking horns, somewhere behind him. He ignored the pecking in the dirt beside him. And he ignored, the little girl tapping at his door. Korine stood there, the light rain drizzling upon her head and making her fringe stick to her face. She didn’t try to brush it away. Mummy and daddy always did that for her, because she never did it herself. She stood completely still in the middle of the road, 239


between two lanes, where her daddy left her. She stood still, holding her hand to her mouth and watching the red lights of her daddy’s car going dull every time that he drove away and bright again, every time that he stopped. She hoped every time that the lights went red, that he would jump out of the car and pick her up and bring her back to the car. She hoped he would scoop her up like the ice-cream and it didn’t matter if he was mad or even if he was mean, he could be any way he wanted. She just wanted him to get out. Why wouldn’t he get out? Why did the lights go dull again? Around him, he could hear more cars honking their horns. He tried to pretend it was for someone else, but he knew it was for him. He tried though to ignore it. People did this to puppies all the time, why couldn’t he just do it to her? “Daddy” Korine shouted. The Father turned on the stereo. The news was on. They were talking about the weather, and how it seemed that this rain would never let up. And then there was a special report. There had been an accident. On a highway. And lots of people were hurt. The fire brigade was having a hard time getting to the scene because of the rain and the bad traffic. “Daddy. Please, I want to come in. I’m sorry daddy. I’m sorry. I won’t be an airplane. I promise. I won’t be an airplane” she pleaded. She was below his window. She couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see her. Not through the window. He could see the outline of her head, though, in his side mirrors. He could also hear her pleas. They were so loud. Even through the sound of honking horns. The traffic lifted a bit. Korine tapped on the car door. “Daddy” she cried. “Let me in.” The red lights dimmed. The car moved forward. And so did Korine. 240


The Father kept his eyes on the car in front. Korine kept hers on his hands that she could see, holding the wheel. “I’m sorry daddy,” she said. The Father screamed. He eschewed a fetid black feeling that had been swamping his mind. He screamed so loud that Korine shut her eyes. She kept them shut until it passed. “Daddy,” she said, “I’m scared.” “Oh god,” said The Father. He opened the door and there she was, saturated, holding her hands to her mouth and shivering, from a mixture of cold wind and being left alone. “I’m sorry daddy. I’ll eat the ice-cream next time. I promise.” “Come here,” he said, taking her in his arms, sitting her on his lap and holding her tight. Korine grappled him. She wrapped her arms around him and if she could, she would sink her nails into his sink and get hold of his nerves, muscles or bones. And if she got hold of them, she’d never let him go. She held him and he held her. He squeezed her just as tight. Still, he couldn’t look at her face. Not even for a second. Not even to apologize. For being so mean.

241


Linda stood outside the games room, leaning against the doorframe and looking at all the balloons bouncing about the floor. There were lots of them, so many in fact that Linda couldn’t see the carpet underneath. She knew it was there, she just couldn’t see where it had gone. There were so many balloons. And even though they weren’t the type that flew up into the sky (unless you held onto them with a string or you sticky taped them to the back of a chair of course), they still looked like they would be so much fun to run through or to lie beneath, like the colored balls in the magic fun castle where could cover yourself until you disappeared completely and only when another kid jumped on you and you squirmed and squealed and maybe even shouted to your mum, did anyone know that you were actually there to begin with. These weren’t flying or runaway balloons, they were the normal kind. They were the kind that filled up the floor with lots of colors like red and blue and green and yellow and purple and white. Green was Linda’s favorite color so the green balloons were her favorite. She couldn’t see many, though. The room was filled with mainly pink ones. Linda couldn’t see any children. There was just a lot of party stuff kind of half done. Streamers that were stuck to one wall but not to another so they were just hanging from different walls and going down onto the floor where the other ends; they disappeared under the sea of balloons. They were supposed to look like fancy colored rainbow bridges. And they were supposed to go from one wall to the other on both sides of the party room and they should be wavy and look like big ‘w’s across the sky and they should be just high enough so the children would want to try and jump up and catch them with their hands and pull them down and tear them up like Christmas 242


wrapping. But they should be just high enough so the kids couldn’t and then that would make the kids want to try even more. And they would jump and jump and jump some more and there would be the sound of balloons popping and mums and dads laughing and one child shouting “I nearly did it, I was so close, did you see me? Mum, did you see me?” But they didn’t look like fancy colored bridges in the sky. They looked unfinished, like a kid with only one shoe on, as if someone had stopped to do something else for some reason and then forgotten about them altogether. “Excuse me,” Linda said quietly. So quiet was it that the woman talking on her cell phone didn’t even turn her head to see what all the fuss was about. She just kept shouting into her phone and pulling on one of the streamers. And though it sounded like she was trying to keep her shouting some kind of a secret and to not appear to be mad in a place where people might see, Linda could still hear that she was saying some bad words and that she didn’t much like the way the other person was speaking to her or what they were telling her she should do. “Excuse me,” Linda said again, this time louder. The woman was shouting now, into the phone. Linda wanted to run away, like she did when her mum and dad used to fight, and play with her dolls and imagine that they were all going to see Mickey Mouse with their friends from school and that Mickey would say “Heya” so loud that she wouldn’t be able to hear the sound of mum cursing and dad wishing that it had all been different; whatever that meant. Linda wanted to run. She wanted to think about her happy place. But she also wanted the woman on the phone to stop shouting. She wanted her to see that the room was only half done. She wanted her to stop being so mad and to stop using such bad words and she wanted her to find the other ends of the streamers and to stick them to the other ends of the walls and to fix the damn fancy colored bridges so they looked pretty and made the children smile; and not shouted on the stupid phone and make the party all about 243


them and their stupid fighting. “Excuse me,” she said again, even louder this time. The woman was still shouting. “Excuse me,” Linda said, now speaking as loud as a principal in a school. The woman was shouting even still and her nails were about to cut through a streamer. Linda could see, even from where she was standing, that the woman didn’t even know it was happening. She was so caught up in being so mad. “Excuse me,” said Linda, as loud as a policeman in a crowd of people. Still nothing. The streamer was about to tear. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me” she shouted, screaming the last so her voice twisted and turned like the stretching streamer, the last syllable sounding like the squelch of a pig having its throat cut. The woman turned, the phone still against her ear, but no longer shouting and no longer acting like her stupid fight was more important than the streamer that was about to rip. And she didn’t say anything, the woman that is; she just looked at Linda like a kid might look at a bully, right before they get punched in the nose. “You shouldn’t do that,” Linda said, almost in tears, her lip trembling and her hands shaking like two tiny leaves in a gale of adrenaline. “You’re gonna rip it. And you’re gonna ruin everything. It’s supposed to be a colored bridge” she said, her words becoming the sound of crying, the second they were spoken. “O…K,” the woman on the phone said. “It looks stupid. It’s not a colored bridge. And you shouldn’t fight. And you shouldn’t be so mean” Linda said. “Wait, I…,” said the woman on the phone. “I like the balloons, they’re really pretty” Linda shouted, turning and running from the doorway. Linda didn’t hear anything the woman said after that. She didn’t even see the woman rushing to the doorway and waving for 244


her to come back. And she didn’t see the bunch of boys that were sitting by the pool. And though she heard them laughing, she didn’t know what was so funny. She ran all the way into the lobby and tapped the button for the elevator a hundred times. They had gotten new sofas and two new paintings in the lobby. She didn’t know when but the paintings didn’t look like anything special. They didn’t look like a real artist had painted them. Not like the Mona Lisa. They looked like someone spilled something and then just let it dry. Art was stupid. And people were stupid, for thinking this was art. The sofa didn’t look very comfortable either. It looked like someone had just painted golden petals onto a stone tablet and called it a sofa. She didn’t know for sure, though. She’d have to sit on it first and see. She’d have to do it now, though before the elevator arrived. Because she wouldn’t get a chance after the weekend and then when she thought about it in the future and if she ever told anyone about it, she’d never know for sure whether it was as good as it made itself out to be. Not knowing would be like leaving a fancy colored bridge only half done. So, as the numbers of the elevator made its way past four, she quickly raced to the sofa to the left of the elevators and turned so she was facing the big mirror on the other side. She studied her own expression as a drunk might, the filling of an empty glass, lowering herself onto the sofa as if its rigid golden cushions were a searing pool of bathwater, about to sting her bottom. “Ugh,” she said, trying to bounce on the seat. “So boring.” She gripped her hand on the side of the sofa and tried to squeeze her buttocks as hard as she could into the cushions to try and make some kind of an impression, to try and make some kind of a dent but nothing happened. It really was as if she was sitting on a big old slab of concrete, as if someone had taken a bit of the sidewalk, the bit that people had to sit on when they were waiting for a bus, and paid someone to cut it and sand it and make it smooth so it looked just like a cushion; and then painted it yellow and gold and silver so that it looked shiny and expensive; and then 245


put it in next to an elevator in a posh building where nobody would ever really use it so it looked just like a sofa, but it wasn’t. Rich people were so boring sometimes. They liked things, without really knowing what they were, what they did, or what they were like when you used them; just as long as it cost a lot. That was the only important thing. The sofa was really uncomfortable. It made her have to keep her back straight and the cushions didn’t make her bum feel comfortable. The way she was sitting, she felt like she was probably dirtying it or breaking it in some way. Not that it would matter if she was or if she even cared for that matter. It’s just, the way she had to sit, it made her feel like she was taking up too much time and that she was making a mess and it even made her feel like that was a bad thing. How did it do that? It was just a sofa. A boring sofa. A boring uncomfortable sofa. Rich people were so stupid. It was good then that she wasn’t going to be one. It was good that she wasn’t going to have to live amongst them anymore. And it was good then not to not have to pretend to be just like they were and to pretend that the stuff that they liked was even good in the first place. The elevator dinged and the doors whooshed as opened and Linda quickly sprung up and ran before the doors closed. There was nobody else there which made her so happy that she forgot all about the camera in the top right hand corner and looked at herself in the mirror and danced, the second the doors closed. She turned her hands into clenched fists and pulled her arms tight against her hips and she swung those hips back and forth as if she were a swollen cork, trying to twist its way back into a stubborn bottle. She twisted and she turned and she went up and she went down, bending her knees so that she twisted and turned all the way to the ground and then as she was about to explode, jumping up into the air with her arms and legs sticking out like the points of a star. 246


Linda had never danced in an elevator before. She had never had the desire to do so and honestly, the thought of doing it had never even crossed her mind. She didn’t even dance at home where there was less chance of somebody seeing, even though there probably was, peeking from their apartment across the way; still, this was an elevator. And Linda hated elevators. She got nervous when other people were on there with her, and she got even more nervous still, when she was alone, thinking that at any second, those very same people were probably, no definitely, about to get on at any second and that the elevator would break down and she would be stuck between floors with the other people, and she’d have to hold her breath the whole time, because she breathed too loud. And yet, as she twisted and turned and scrunched her face, she felt none of the normal awkward shame and surmounting worry. She spun in circles and she curled herself into a tight ball and then she thrust her arms up and out like a spring flower, swaying back and forth with her two feet pinned together as if the back and forth rocking of the moving elevator were a light and felicitous breeze. And she danced and she danced, all the way to the ninth floor. And she didn’t want to get off, but the elevator was dinging and telling her that she had to and so she jumped out into the dark hallway as if she were jumping out of a rocket ship for the first time ever, onto the surface of the Moon. And she didn’t at all think that there was someone hiding behind the plant anymore or that there was someone hiding inside one of the other apartments, ready to jump out and steal her and keep her behind locked doors and do really scary things to her. She didn’t think that anymore because they weren’t there. Because there was nothing behind the stupid pot plant except for the stupid wall. And there was nobody inside the stupid apartment expect for a bunch of stupid empty rooms. And there was nobody spying on her from the camera and there was no one lurking or leering or lying in wait, about to snare her like a hungry spider in the darkest part of the dark, where the sinister made its occasion. 247


Linda just wanted to dance.

248


It wouldn’t be long now until they arrived, until The Mother finally had to look at her daughter and her daughter, right back. She wouldn’t be able to just change the subject; pretend she didn’t hear or let the phone ring out, not anymore. There would be no more rolling over onto her side and pretending she was asleep. Her little girl would be walking through that door any second and though she might be able to lose herself in the balloons and streamers and all the wonderful colors, it wouldn’t be long until her daughter found her, cringing and unable to cope. “On the way,” said a message on her phone. She sat on the edge of a stool, rocking back and forth on its wobbly legs, the sound of each little leg clunking helping to keep her in some kind of absent minded trance; not exactly miles away in her thoughts but more like a foot or two, scrunching behind a leafless shrub, pretending that she was not there. Staring at the message on the phone, she didn’t think about Korine and what she must be thinking or how she must be feeling whether her shoes still fit, she thought about her own mother, and how, when she finally saw the drawings she had done all over the wall with her favorite colored pencils, her mother shrieked and wailed, as if she had just woken to find the plane she was travelling, in a cyclonic death spin, hurtling towards a slab of unchartered ocean, somewhere in the Pacific. She remembered how loud and sirened her mother’s voice was, how it was louder than she had expected and how not a real word had been said as much as had been, the stringing together of vowels around the curling of a cursing tongue. She remembered how quick it was, the turn of her mother’s hands, leaping from behind her newspaper to wrench the colored pencils from her fickle clench, peeling back her little fingers with the thirsted and desperate awe of a young child, tearing blindly 249


at the neatly pressed and folded wrapping paper or a junky, in that same thirsted and desperate awe, with their same scratching nails, digging at the beige and blotchy wrapping on their bones, to get at the tiny little bugs that crawled about just beneath. She remembered how her mother tore out those colored pencils from her grasp and scolded her with an angry stare before she threw them down the end of the corridor and made it seem like they were gone for good and that they’d never come back. And she remembered too how gently her mother cradled her in her two hands, but not to pull her close to her breast and console her rebellion, no. She lifted her up and then laid her on her side, so that her buttocks were easier for her disciplining hand to whack at, over and over again. She remembered staring at first along the length of the corridor and seeing two of the pencils, the red and the grey one, rolling off the edge of the staircase and at that second, they looked like they were falling off the edge of the earth and she remembered, staring at the message on her phone, how she wished that she could too. She remembered staring then, at the colored circles and squiggles on the wall, as her mother’s hand beat against her buttocks as if her foul behavior were caused by a dent or a flicker that she could reset with a pounding stern vigor, like a wayward and fuzzy television set. She had used every color there was in the rainbow, every color except for blue, because blue was for boys and even though blue was the color of things that she loved, like the sky and the sea and bright blue butterflies, her mother said blue was only for boys to color with and it was only for boys to wear and unless she wanted to grow up to be a boy, she couldn’t draw with it, paint with it, wear it or even imagine with it, in case it made her stop being a little girl, like her mummy wanted her to never stop being. And she remembered how her mother spoke with every smacking of her hand and how every smack got harder and left a redder mark and a more stinging sting. She spoke only in syllables, 250


sounding out each one every time her palm slapped against the young girl’s clenching buttocks. And it didn’t at all make it easier to follow what she had to say. If anything, it just sounded like she was trying to distract herself from the sound her hand made, as it slapped against her daughter’s bum, kind of like how the cuts on The Mother’s arms and on the inside of her thighs when she was in high school, they helped to distract her from the feeling she got in her skin and in her bones that were spurred on by the thoughts that spun around in her head all the time; seeing all of the other kids with their friends and their groups and all running and smiling and playing and kissing boys and everyone looking like all the colors of the rainbow and she, feeling transparent, invisible and alone. And after her mother finally stopped slapping her buttocks and pulled her close to her chest and started to rock her back and forth, like she probably did when she was just a baby, she remembered that this was what it took, to pull her from her paper. Now, looking up from her phone for a second, The Mother could see hundreds of balloons in the room, all bouncing around the floor. And they were all sorts of colors and all sorts of sizes and shapes and though balloons were every child’s favorite thing in the whole world and how just the sight of them made every child’s eyes alight, when The Mother looked at them, she saw only her expelled breath and she wondered to herself, as she had no other company, whether the children would still be happy if they had seen the thoughts The Mother kept in her mind as she filled each and every one, the thoughts she had of her little boy, the quietest she had ever seen him, in an itsy bitsy coffin, neath a choir of muffled sobbing. She wondered, looking around the room and unable to see even an inch of the floor, whether there were enough balloons and whether she should rush out and buy more. She had barely the breath to keep herself living, but she wondered if one or two more balloons might help, like the scores of cuts on her inner thigh as a girl, to rid her body of this foul suffocating air in her lungs. Staring at the message, she wished there was someone here 251


to spank her now. The phone rang. “Hello,” The Mother said, still stupid, wiping an escaping tear and wearing a plastic smile. “Hey hun, it’s me.” It was Tracy. She was so god damned persistent. She didn’t get the hint, not like the others. She just kept ringing and ringing and she wouldn’t stop, not unless The Mother picked up or until she came over for herself, to make sure that everything was ok. But she didn’t get it. “Hey,” said The Mother flatly, the sound of her voice and her enthusiasm, like the flapping of a flat tire, echoing through a half open window. “Just checking if you got my messages or not. You’ve been pretty hard to get hold of you know. How are things? Are you ok?” “I’m fine,” said The Mother. She wasn’t at all. That was obvious to anyone. And she didn’t at all sound convincing. It was just one of the convenient things about being a person. Even though you thought or felt something so strongly that everyone else was thinking it or feeling it too, you were able to say the absolute opposite and because it was your word, people had to take it as being true, just because it would be rude and probably come across as being prying, not to. “So I was thinking maybe I could come a bit earlier, help you set up and all.” “To what?” said The Mother. “The party of course. Well, you know. The welcome home…. For Korine. Your mum called me last week. She’s really concerned you know.” “I’m fine,” said The Mother, adamantly. “No, about Korine,” said Tracy. “Uh, and you too, of course, I mean. She is.. I mean we all are… We’re concerned is all I’m saying” she uttered, absolutely back stepping and well, not at all sounding convincing. “And I haven’t heard from you in ages.” “I’ve been busy.” 252


“Your mum said, you know, you were doing therapy and group and that. Said you were making friends, other mums going through the same kind of thing. They nice people are they?” “Same kind of thing? A thing? My son is dead. You get that right? It’s not a fucking thing.” “Hun, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that…” she said pausing as if she had stopped her stride to tie a shoe. “I can’t get the fucking words” she spluttered. The Mother didn’t respond. She stared out at the balloons thinking how stupid she was, putting the heavy sediment of her soul inside such fragile little things that children loved to stretch and squeeze with their hands and to jump on with their feet ad that all of them were bound to pop before the even the cake had been brought out. And what would the atmosphere be like then? “I miss you,” Tracy said. “We all do, all the other mothers in the group.” There it was. The group. But she didn’t belong anymore. “There’s been a lot to do. The funeral and all that. And, look, I honestly haven’t had time. Everything is out of place. Everything is just… not right. I don’t expect you to understand. You wouldn’t get it.” “Well, I haven’t lost a child, no. But I can imagine.” “You can, really?” said The Mother aghast yet strangely welcoming, as if she had found a cause to spit and curse for no good reason, than to spit and curse. “You can imagine? Just like that. You can think it up in your head. You know what it’s like. You can just imagine. Why the fuck would you want to do that?” “No I didn’t mean that, I just… I lost my grandmother years ago and I know…” “You don’t know anything Tracy. You - don’t - know – anything” The Mother said, sounding out each word as if it were a spanking palm against Tracy’s petulant buttocks. As she screamed into the phone, she could see the shadow 253


of someone in the doorway and for a second she thought it was Korine, that in the time she had been gone, she had all grown up. “I know you’re angry and you’re saying things you don’t mean,” said Tracy, half believing herself. “But I think you need good friends around you, people who know you, who knew you before, you know?” “No, I don’t know. Tell me. Tell me what I don’t know. Tell me how I am supposed to feel. Tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do. C’mon, tell me. You know me so well, then go on, tell me. I’ve changed alright? Everything has fucking changed. It is changing” she shouted. “Excuse me,” said the person at the door. “Not now,” thought The Mother, paying neither an acknowledging look nor a stalling hand. “Listen, fuck the group, ok? Fuck every group. Fuck, everyone. I have nothing in common with any of those women anymore and none of them, nobody - you get that right? - Nobody, not even you, absolutely nobody knows what I’m going through. I don’t even fucking know.” “I just want to help.” “You can’t help. Nobody can.” The two women were silent. Even their breaths were without sound. For The Mother, most of hers was filled in colored balloons on the floor, threatening to burst and flood back into her lungs and fill her cells and her skin with dread. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me” shouted the person at the door. Whoever the hell they were, they would find a polite response. The Mother gripped at a streamer that was hanging from the wall beside her. She dug her nails in, clawing through the silence on the other end of the phone. “You shouldn’t do that” shouted the person at the door. “Your mum said you’re acting strangely. She thinks it might be the new group that they’re not helping. She said you’ve been obsessing yourself, you know, things that are out of your control. 254


She said you’ve been going to other funerals, of other babies. Is that right?” “You wouldn’t understand. I’m helping them, other mothers, to grieve. You wouldn’t understand.” “But who is helping you grieve? You need to surround yourself in people who are embracing life, not those who have made their camp in tragedy and death. You’re not grieving; you’re just bargaining the guilt that you feel.” “Fuck you. What would you know?” said The Mother, her hand pulling on the streamer, wishing it was attached to the sky and that she could just pull heaven down so that it flattened and suffocated the whole world. “You’re gonna rip it. And you’re gonna ruin everything. It’s supposed to be a colored bridge” shouted the person at the door. The Mother turned. It was the lady from 9A, the one everyone picked on. “Wait” shouted The Mother. The lady from 9A ran away and as she did, a group of young boys heckled her and called her insulting names. “I gotta go,” said The Mother. “Well, what time does the party start?” Tracy asked as if she had just rang and had only a second to speak and the words they had just exchanged, had not been so. The Mother shook her head delirious. “Six,” she said. “Six thirty. I don’t know.” “Ok hun, I’ll see you around seven then. I’ll bring Jeffrey and the kids. Oh, they haven’t seen Korine in….” The Mother left the phone on the stool and ran out of the party room and into the corridor outside. The lady from 9A was gone, but the boys were still there, pretending to talk with slurred speech and crippled demeanor, so as to sound like her though she sounded nothing like. “Hey” shouted The Mother. “Ya little shits. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you fucking stupid? You think it’s funny to make fun of people? Is that it? What, because she’s different 255


somehow, that gives you the right to berate her? I know you. I fucking know you” she said, pointing at one of the boys. “I know your mother. Brunette, right? 5/6? Face like an uneven grape? Husband a philandering ass?” she said, pushing her index finger into the boy’s chest like a small rounded button as if his fright and apology was an elevator that she was trying to call. “Don’t tell my mum” pleaded the boy, his veneer of cool, sweating from his nervous pores, his friends as skittish as he, yet sniggering behind his back. “Whatta you reckon she’s gonna say when I tell her that aside from her husband blowing the porter in the back of his Honda, her little fuck up of a son is also out stalking women with his perverted friends?” “What?” “Get the fuck out of here” she screamed, kicking the boy in his rear and sending them all running like grains of sand, scattered by a sudden gale. The boy hanged his head and ran between his friends who all laughed and mocked him, slapping his bottom and calling him queer. The Mother looked back towards the stairs, but the lady from 9B was gone or had been gone, the entire time. She felt like she had something to ask her though she didn’t know what that was. It didn’t matter, though. This thing she was feeling, it made her forget about Korine for a second. And if she could forget about Korine then she could forget about Callum. And if for a second she didn’t have to think about either one, then she could pretend to be bored or indifferent as if none of this had ever happened; as if today as just a day and not necessarily ‘the day’.

256


The Father’s mind was adrift at the wheel, listing vicariously and dangerously close to toppling over. He came to an intersection and braked lightly, so far removed from the inches that distanced him from some kind of a tragedy as the cars before him, sped along the busy avenue through a broken traffic light and constantly spotted rain. The car rolled back and forth on the line. The little girl spoke on behalf of the toy princess in her hands. The engine revved and roared. And so did his heart. Still the traffic poured past him like a slurry of light. He edged over the line, inch by inch; hoping someone would slow enough for him to cross but there was nothing giving. There was no-one giving. He honked his horn. He flicked his lights. And he edged over the line. “Let me pass” he shouted. “Fuck you,” said one driver. “Selfish pig,” said another. The Father was blocking one lane. Half of his car had pushed over the line and still, he was teetering on the accelerator, rolling the car back and forth, testing the concern of the other drives; their concern for others, their concern for themselves. Everywhere he looked, he could see red. The traffic lights were all out but the blur of passing tail lights moored him to the white line and through the spotted rain in his window, their red lights blurred and stretched into what looked like poking tongues, mocking him as they drove by, like some petulant child, giving one 257


last gutsy hoorah whilst being whisked off by the mother and father in the midst of their bravado. Their color smeared across his windscreen; stained red. And it was hard, at that moment, not to feel everything as more urgent and more conspiring than it actually was. It was hard not to think about things that were the color red and to think of words like ‘caution’ and to want to stop. Whatever the hell you were doing, to just stop and hit reset, and just put everything back to how it fucking was. The Father crept forwards, over the line, inch by minute inch. The cars zooming passed, swerving so as not to smash his bonnet. Their horns were honking and the backs of their cars which The Father followed cursing, they were red too. And Korine’s dress. And her favorite color. And the slab of concrete, below the children’s bedroom window. They were also red. Everything was red. “What the fuck is your problem buddy? Learn to drive.” The car had almost hit them. It skidded to a halt. The Father used the chance. He nudged his car further so that now it was blocking the lane completely. The woman in the other car punched her horn with her fists. Every time she hit, it honked. And every time it honked she screamed. And she stuck her head out so the rain was spitting in her eyes. And she couldn’t see very well but she was looking at The Father, at his silhouette, and she spat at it. And the wind and the rain, they were so strong that her words and her spit and her insult and her rage, they went no further than her trembling lips. They were picked up and taken in every direction except for the silhouette in the car, slowly creeping forward. “Look at that arsehole” shouted The Spitting Woman. Her boyfriend sat beside her. He was reading something. It didn’t look like he was too interested but he sure acted like it when he threw down the magazine acting like that was the last thing on earth that he wanted to do. “Are we in the middle of an intersection?” The Boyfriend asked, only realizing now that they were still. “What the fuck are you doing woman. Are you stupid?” he shouted. 258


“It’s not me. It’s that arsehole in front. Look at him. How can he be so fucking…” “Pig faced?” “Brazen?” she said. “What the fuck is wrong with people?” She honked the horn again. And again. And again. “Just drive into him,” said The Boyfriend. “Get the fuck out of the way” shouted The Spitting Woman, clutching the wheel. She nudged her car forward so that her bumper just lightly touched the passenger door of the car so rudely and ignorantly blocking her way. It was only a light bump, but it made and crumbling and crackling sound. She cringed instantly thinking about her premium. “Just drive,” said The Boyfriend. “Fuck him. Fuck his car.” The Boyfriend had lit a smoke. She hated that. “We’re gonna be late now. We’re gonna miss the start.” “I know the time,” said The Spitting Woman. “And we’re not going to be late. Just relax, ok? And open your window.” “We may as well just go back. It’s pointless now. It’s fucking ruined.” “Ruined? We’re gonna be five minutes late. Stop being so fucking dramatic. God, you’re like a woman today.” “What is that a crack about my hemorrhoids? That’s fucked up. So I bleed when I shit, so what?” “I didn’t want to know that.” “We’re gonna be late. We’ll miss the start.” “We’re going to make it. If this arsehole would just move his fucking car” she said, word by word, honking the horn with every deep breath. “Open your window.” “No. It’s raining.” “Then put it out.” “No. Get us there on time and I’ll put it out.” 259


“Fucking arsehole,” she said under her breath. “Whatever,” he said, under his. They sat silent for a second. The echo of honking horns billowed around them. The arsehole in front of them was still there, avoiding her angered stare and rolling back and forth completely ignorant to everyone else. The Boyfriend dragged on his cigarette. “Open the window please,” she said. “It’s cold and it’s raining outside. Don’t be such a bitch.” “Mum, can we open the window?” “Open the window,” The Spitting Woman said again. “No. I won’t. Fuck you and fuck your son. Nah. I told ya this would happen, didn’t I? I fuckin told ya. Now we’re gonna be late and we won’t be able to get any drinks or food. You never listen to me.” The Spitting Woman bit her lip. If only that arsehole would move. “I hope you fucking die,” she thought. “Mum, I wanna go home.” “Finally,” said The Boyfriend, “we agree on something.” “Shut up the both of you.” “Mum.” “Fuck it, just turn around. Take the next exit. This is shit. I told you we shouldn’t have…” “Shut up,” she said. “Shut up both of you. It’s my birthday. Every day we do what you wanna do. The both of you. It’s never about me. It’s always you, you, you. Well, not today. It’s my birthday. And I don’t give a flying fuck if we miss the whole fucking thing. We are not turning this car around. We’re gonna go out like a normal fucking family and we are going to be polite and we are going to enjoy ourselves and you’re going to sing happy birthday to me and you’re going to fucking mean it and nobody, I mean nobody, is gonna spoil my night. Especially not some rude cunt who can’t wait for his fucking turn at a red light. Move your fucking car” she screamed. 260


Her son laughed. The Boyfriend dragged on his cigarette. And the car filled with smoke. And The Spitting Woman, she opened her window and she put her head out in the rain and the rain, it blew into the car and The Boyfriend, his cigarette fizzled and he shouted “What the fuck?” and her son laughed and The Boyfriend said “Shut up” and her son said “No you shut up” and they carried on like this, back and forth, the exchanging of insult. And The Spitting Woman, she knew it was all his fault, that arsehole in the car. And she spat. And the wind was different. It carried her spit. And it hit the silhouette on the window. “This can’t be happening,” said The Father. “Look dada, that’s my favorite color.” Everything was red. Everything. “Fuck it” mumbled The Father, his fingernails digging into the steering wheel. “Why are you so mad?” Korine asked. “I’m not mad,” he said, trying to quell the heavy tide in his stomach. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow when you was a baby, your name was dada and you had a balloon because it was your birthday and it was green too.” “I’m not mad,” he said, “I’m just sad is all.” “Why are you so mad and sad daddy?” “I have a sickness.” “Daddy, what is a sickness?” “It’s like a hurt.” “I have a hurt in my belly.” “I have a hurt in my mind. It makes daddy sad.” “My hurt is a different hurt. I have a happy hurt in my mind.” Staring out through the blur of red and into the misty rain, 261


The Father could swear he saw Korine, standing in the pouring rain with her umbrella broken and twisted in her right hand and the rain, lasing against her head and her shoulders, making her fringe swish against her face like broken wipers. And he could swear that he tears she was crying were heavier than the drops of rain that were making her shiver as she was. And he could swear she was there, in the middle of the intersection, shivering and soaking wet, with hardly the strength and brevity to ask him to pick her up and to take her home. And he could swear he could see her lips moving as if she were mouthing the word ‘sorry’ and even though it was probably just her trembling from the cold, he could swear she was trying to speak. And he could see her, her face being washed away by the red that brushed across his windscreen. And he could see her, there in the middle of the road, barely flinching as cars zipped past her on all sides, oblivious to the fact that she was there. And he could see her, even though she was in the back seat, playing with her favorite princess toy. “Daddy look,” Korine said, pointing at the windscreen. “It’s your favorite color.” The Father accelerated hard and the car jerked forwards, its wheels spinning at first and making the bonnet move left and right before the car eventually lurched forwards and then sped down along the busy avenue. And then everything was quiet again, quiet, except for the sound of hissing in The Father’s thoughts, as if his brain were a punctured tire. He had no idea where he was going. He turned corners, just because he wanted something different to the straight road with a line of dim yellow lights spinning over his head as he zipped by. Every turn meant change. Change meant resetting his thoughts. Change meant looking, to his left and to his right. Change meant thinking. Change meant planning. Change meant concentration. Change meant focus. Change meant zoning out. Change meant not hearing his lover’s choking breath. Change meant not having to answer Korine. And change meant the possibility of something new. 262


So he kept turning and he kept turning. And he drove as fast as he could and he slammed on the brakes at every corner and he gripped the wheel and Korine, she flung from side to side but she was having fun. She was never allowed in the front seat. Not on big roads anyways. Only when they came back from the store. And that was just around the corner. She was a bit scared, though. The car was going really fast and she didn’t much like being thrown around, but it was fun. And daddy wouldn’t let anything bad happen. “I love you, daddy,” Korine said. The Father’ thoughts sank into his stomach. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Because I hurt my brother but I promise I won’t again, ok?” A tear ran down The Father’s face. He hadn’t cried the whole time, not when he first heard the scream and found his daughter alone by the open window, and not when he raced down the nine flights of stairs and held his limp and bloodied son in his arms. He didn’t even cry at the funeral when his first thought was of how small the coffin actually was. And he didn’t cry when he drove Korine to the clinic. And he didn’t cry when he left her with the nurses and watched as she kicked and screamed and bawled her eyes out, screaming his name and begging for him to stop them from taking her away. But now, his arid and deserted skin crackled as a single tear escaped his eyes and ran down his cheek, polling at the corner of his mouth. And he could taste all of his sorrow as the tear ran onto his tongue. And all he wanted was to hold Korine in his arms with the same desperation to keep her alive and keep her near, as he had his bloodied and broken son. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s ok daddy. Today is my birthday isn’t it?” “It is,” said The Father, tears flowing over his crackly smile. “I love you,” he said. “Ughh, I love you too daddy,” Korine said awkwardly. “I have an idea’ she said excitedly. “Maybe we can have a party and we 263


can have a cake and lots of presents. And you can come daddy. And so can mummy too. And so can Callum because he’s my brother and it’s his birthday too tomorrow isn’t it?” “She has no idea,” The Father thought, looking in the rear mirror and seeing her smiling and giddy, hugging herself and rocking back and forth as she talked about all of the presents that she wanted to get. “You’re crying daddy. Are you still very sad?” “No,” he said. “I think I’m ok now.” “I think I’m ok too daddy. And it’s my birthday today and tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, it will be your birthday and we will have a cake and I will make you a card with a fish on it, that’s in the ocean. A green fish. Because green is your favorite color, isn’t it?” The Father smiled, like his tear, for the first time in so very long. He stared at Korine in the mirror and marveled at how beautiful his daughter was. He wished that he could marvel at her forever. “Look,” Korine said. “Red, that’s my favorite color.”

264


The Mother paced back and forth in the party room, looking at her phone nervously and then back at the guests who were all arriving, one after the other with apprehension carved onto their maniacal looking smiles. None of them at all looked comfortable or glad to be where they were. They all looked as if they were expecting something to happen, as if a giant balloon were being blown up and they were sure it was about to pop at any second. Their smiles looked like they had been scratched on with a long stick, from very far away. “And where is the birthday girl?” Her mother had arrived with her arms almost splitting from the amount of gifts she had stuffed within them. There were big square boxes and long rectangular boxes and a bunch of tiny boxes of different shapes with special sparkling wrapping. The Mother couldn’t remember a single birthday where she had received anything close to that. She had never gotten anything outside of a plain dress or the occasional Barbie doll, things she never wanted and could never do anything with, outside of what their packaging said they could do. “They’re not here yet. They shouldn’t be long.” The Mother left the room, smiling as factitious as her guests as she tried to squeeze her way through the door and find somewhere quiet and somewhere dark to sit. There were more people at the front gate speaking to The Porter and holding presents in their hands. The Mother noticed how, of all the friends that had been invited, not one of them had brought their children. She wished she still smoked. A cigarette would be perfect right now. It always was, when she was younger and when she felt as disarrayed as this, to be able to think of nothing else except for what it sounded like when the end of the cigarette crackled in the crisp night air. A cigarette would be perfect. But she didn’t smoke. 265


She wished she did, but she didn’t. She looked at her phone again. They were taking forever. “C’mon, pick up,” she said to herself, the phone pressed against her ear as she rocked back and forth on her feet, partly to warm herself against the constant chill and secondly, to iron out her anxiety. His message bank. “Babe,” The Mother said, “Where are you? There are so many people here. Everyone’s arriving. But you’re not here” she said, pacing in circles, as if what she wanted to say were in the middle, a place she had not the courage to stand. “Mum’s here. Ughh. I love you, babe. I’m sorry. It’s been really fucked you know? You know. Of course, you fucking know. I didn’t want this. I wasn’t ready for it. I’m still not. And I thought I wasn’t ready to see her, to see Korine. And it’s not about what happened. That was an accident, I know that. At least, I know it now. It’s just” she said, taking a breath before pausing and biting her tongue. “I’m scared you know not because of what happened. I don’t blame Korine at all. I’m scared because I don’t know if she’s gonna blame me, for putting her in that place, you know? And I feel so fucking shitty. We shouldn’t have put her there. We shouldn’t. I just want her home. I want my family back. I love her and I miss her so much. And I just want to tell her that. I don’t ever want to let her go. Either of you. I don’t want to lose anyone again. So come home, please. Pick me up; we’ll go somewhere, away from all these people. Wherever, it doesn’t matter. Just come home. I love you, babe. I love you both. Drive safe. See you soon.”

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Also by C. Sean McGee: A RISING FALL (CITY b00k 001) UTOPIAN CIRCUS (CITY b00k011) HEAVEN IS FULL OF ASREHOLES COFFEE AND SUGAR CHRISTINE ROCK BOOK VOLUME I: THE BOY FRM THE COUNTY HELL ROCK BOOK VOLUME II: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON ALEX AND THE GRUFF (a tale of horror) THE TERROR{blist} THE ANARCHIST(or about how everything i own is covered in a ямБne red dust)

StalkerWindows: BedroomWindow: www.cseanmcgee.com LoungeWindow: www.issuu.com/c.seanmcgee BathroomWindow: www.facebook.com/c.sean.mcgee LibraryWindow: www.goodreads.com/c_sean_mcgee 268

Happy people live here  

On the ninth floor of an upscale apartment complex, a young couple will come to terms with the loss of their son and the impending release o...

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