I sat back down, the alcohol stench clinging to my father reason enough to obey.
I wondered if I should say something like ‘okay dad’, but dismissed the thought immediately. Ultimately it didn’t matter—whether I spoke or kept quiet, it would be wrong. I concentrated on my food, hoping against all odds he would clear his plate and go to bed.
For a second my eyes found mum’s, within the brown depths of her glance she pleaded with me—‘please keep quiet’. I didn’t want to keep quiet, I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout and scratch and kick…but I sat quietly, as always.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Fine, it was fine.” My mother’s voice was hesitant, her eyes glued to her plate.
“I wasn’t talking to you!” He turned to me and waited for an answer.
“My day was fine dad.”
“Look at me when you talk girl! You’re almost sixteen years old and you still haven’t learned basic manners!”
I glanced at him, forcing a smile while fiddling with my napkin.
He sighed and pushed his plate away, “It’s like this every damn night, I try to have a decent conversation but I might as well be talking to the walls!” He grabbed the tomato sauce bottle and flung it at mum. It happened so fast my ears didn’t have time to prepare for the sound of the glass smashing against the wall behind her.
For a moment the room was saturated in silence.
“Don’t worry, I’ll clean it,” Mum finally said before kneeling down, a bunch of serviettes clutched in her hand.
I braced myself, not sure if her actions would spell the end of an uncomfortable situation or the beginning of a painful one.
He stared at her and then at me before he pushed his chair back. I heard him scuffling past and soon after the sound of a slamming door echoed through the house. Mum paused briefly before her hands busied themselves with wiping the red goo splattered over the wall and carpet. I watched her trembling fingers butterfly from one side of the mess to the other.
Inside me darkness grew. It crawled through my being before settling in my heart and I suddenly thought how wonderful it would be if I didn’t have to wake up tomorrow. The thought didn’t scare me—on the contrary it was calming…nurturing. What is this life anyway? A sequence of unhappy events that eventually lead nowhere. The more I thought about it the fewer reasons I found to convince myself otherwise. It’s not like I wanted to die. I just didn’t want to live anymore.
The next day started like any other, my father sat quietly at the breakfast table while mum chatted about everything and nothing, the events of the night before neatly placed in the never-happened-box.
After breakfast I strolled past the communal swimming pool, over the railway lines and into the bus stop where I waited for the school bus. The white and blue heap of junk eventually spluttered into sight, coming to a stop in a cloud of dust.
The bus ride took longer than usual as there was a new student to pick up.
“Why do we have to go out of our way to pick him up?” someone whispered as the kid got on.
“It’s these rural areas, people should just stay in the suburbs” another replied.
“Can I sit here?”
I only half listened, not realising the question was aimed at me.
“Excuse me, can I sit here?”
I looked up and stared into his face. He plunged down next to me and I moved away, squashing myself against the window.
“My name is Jake,” he smiled.
Placing my earphones in my ear I leaned back in the seat. Next to me he took out a sketch pad and started writing. After a few seconds he shoved the pad into my hands. On the paper were the words ‘Hello, my name is Jake’ with a smiley face.
I pushed the book away and closed my eyes.
I glared at my father as he stumbled toward me.
“You think you’re so smart,” he slurred before pushing me against the wall. “You’re just a stupid little wench!”
His fingers closed around my neck, his grip firm as he squeezed.
“Just a stupid little wench,” he repeated before letting go.
I rubbed my throat and watched him stagger away.
“Clean up this damn mess!” He slammed the door behind him.
Around me broken CD cases and picture frames lay scattered.
I picked up my hand held mirror and stared at my own fractured reflection. What stared back wasn’t human, rather the image reflected a horrid creature bereft of any worth. I gawked at it for a long time before the realisation of what needed to be done flooded my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it, but it was the first time that nothing else made more sense.
Once the decision was made relief swept over me. Soon, very soon, all this will be no more—I will be no more, and things will be better for mum. I was the reason he was angry, the reason he didn’t smile anymore, the reason he drank. Mum said as much.
“He’s not cut out to have children,” she said, “doesn’t have the patience.”
With new vigour I tidied my bedroom, making sure to put everything exactly where it should be. I didn’t want mum to have to bother with the little things once I was gone. When I’d finished I dug into my school bag and pulled out a note pad and pen. On it I wrote the words ‘I love you mum’ before placing it in an envelope. That would be enough for her.
For the next week I planned every detail. Timing was everything. And it should be clean, dad would be angry if mum had to spend time tidying up after me.
At the hardware store I bought rope, the rough feel of the intertwined strands between my fingers made me nervous and happy at the same time. When I’d finished hiding it underneath my mattress a deep sense of calm entered me. Everything was in place. All I had to do was bide my time—wait for the right moment.
“You’re Jessie right?”
From my cosy spot in the sun I looked up at the new kid.
“I’m Jake. I sometimes sit next to you on the bus.”
“What do you want?” I snapped.
“Nothing, just new here and don’t know many people.”
“Look, I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I’m not interested in getting to know you.” I pointed to a group of students, “Why don’t you try them. They look friendly.”
He grinned, “I’m not all that interested in friendly.”
I studied his face. Tanned skin contrasted blonde hair and green eyes.
“I have to be somewhere,” I said, pushing myself up.
“I’ll walk you there.”
I gawked at him before marching away.
“So, where are we going?” he asked.
“I’m going to my next class.”
“Wait wait wait.” He positioned himself in front of me, blocking my way. “Do you want to have ice cream or a burger or something after school?”
“No. Now get out of my way!”
After briefly considering my words he threw his hands up in defeat. I instinctively flinched and took a step back. Frowning he stared at me before moving aside. I rushed past him and down the hall, my face red with embarrassment.
In the classroom I plonked myself down on a chair before opening my text book. Around me voices cackled and laughed. I blocked out the sounds, fixing my eyes on the page but seeing nothing. The time was drawing near. In another week my parents would be gone for much of the day—some couples counselling thing my father had been court ordered to attend—it was like a god-send.
“You dropped this.”
My head jerked up just in time to see Jake place the key ring on the table and walk away. I stared after him before clasping the heart shaped object between my fingers and pressing it to my lips. It was a gift from my grandmother. After I’d been so rude he could’ve left it on the floor, he could’ve thrown it away, but he didn’t.
I suddenly felt grateful. The feeling startled me. How long had it been since I felt anything but anger and shame and guilt? I couldn’t remember.
After hooking the key ring back onto my backpack my eyes searched for him. He sat at the back of the class, concentrating on the various messages carved into the old wooden school table. For a moment I considered walking over and thanking him, but I didn’t.
“Can you do nothing right?” My father’s scowl drilled into me. “You are the most useless person I know!” He ripped the spade from my hands and pushed me aside. I watched as he dug down into the ground, his face red and sweaty.
“How’s it going?” Mum shouted through the kitchen window.
“As well as can be expected with this one,” he nodded toward me.
“You’re supposed to be spending quality time together,” she said, popping her head out the back door.
“That’s a joke! She can’t even dig a hole.”
Mum scampered toward us. “Here Jessie, plant the seeds,” she said.
I took them from her and carefully placed the tiny round objects in the ground.
“Not like that!” He bent down and snatched the seeds out from the hole before throwing them in again.
That night I didn’t sleep. I lay on my bed staring up at the ceiling. There were five days left before my parent’s trip to the counselor. It was too long to wait. My eyes rested on the beams stretching across the ceiling of my room and I thought of reasons why I shouldn’t loop the rope around it right there and then. I knew why—too many chances of being found too early. I rolled onto my side and curled my body into a ball shape. Patience, patience. It will all be over soon. In my mind I played a video of my plan, over and over and over.
“Hi.” Jake slumped into the seat next to me.
“Hey,” I replied without removing my eyes from the window. Outside clouds hung low while sheets of rain lashed the trees. The scene reminded me of an old black and white monster movie. Next to me Jake shifted around in the seat while the sluggish bus pulled away.
“How have you been?” he asked.
I pretended not to hear him.
“That’s a nice key ring.” He pointed to the heart dangling from my backpack.
“Thanks for picking it up the other day,” I heard myself say.
“No worries. Looked like it was important.”
“It is.” My fingers caressed the bumps rippling the key ring’s surface.
“You should fix the clamp, otherwise it’s just gonna fall off again. You want me to have a look at it?”
I reluctantly handed him the backpack and watched him push and bend the metal until it was secured good and tight on the zipper.
“There,” he said before handing it back, “it should hold now.”
I nodded before placing the bag by my feet.
“You’re not much of a talker, are you?” he chuckled.
I shrugged and focused my gaze on the raindrops drizzling down the window.
“Me, I’m a talker. Can talk a hind leg off a donkey my mum used to say.” He leaned back in the seat.
“Of course, that was before she ran away with some guy travelling the world with only a change of clothes and a toothbrush to his name.”
I ogled him. “You serious?”
“Yea, she left with naught but her underwear riding into the sunset on a pink elephant,” he mimicked a pirate accent.
“You’re being ridiculous,” I said, surpressing the laughter trickling to the surface.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of ridiculousness,” he said. “The truth is, my mum did run away to travel the world with some guy, just not on a pink elephant.”
“I don’t believe you. I will never believe another word that comes out of your mouth.”
“Does that mean you’re actually going to talk to me again? No more awkward silences every morning on the bus?”
My smile faded and I refocused my attention back on the miserable scene outside.
“That was quick,” Jake said. “We went from silence to talking to laughing back to silence, all in a span of just over a minute.” He looked at his watch.
“Well they don’t call me ‘gloomy Gus’ for nothing,” I muttered.
“You know about that?” he chuckled.
“It’s hardly a secret. This bunch is not exactly discreet.” I nodded toward the others on the bus.
“Does it bother you?”
I thought about the question for a moment but didn’t reply.
“How old were you when your mum left?”
“It happened last year.”
“Do you hate her?”
He hesitated before answering, “The way I see it…you can’t control what others do. You just have to live with it best you can.”
“What if you can’t live with it?”
“For me it helps to talk about stuff. It’s like, once I said it, it doesn’t own me anymore. The things we go through are just temporary, you know. If today is bad, tomorrow is likely to be better—sometimes tomorrow might mean in a year or two or three. Anyway, it’s not like we have much choice but to live with…whatever it is that brings us down.”
“There’s always a choice,” I muttered.
The bus screeched to a halt and I pushed past the others, eager to remove myself from the conversation.
I sat in the dark, my fingers clasped around the rough intertwined strands of the rope. Three more days before I have the house to myself. Three more days of existing. I caught myself wondering about life after death. Is there such a thing? Is it a field of flowers where everyone is happy and pain is a thing of the past? Did I really care? Whatever it is must be better than this.
My thoughts wandered back to Jake’s words the day before. Is there any ‘tomorrow’ in my future that could be better than today? How can he be so sure the future will be better than the here and now? And why do I even care what he believes? He doesn’t know anything. His beliefs are wishful thinking—dreams and fairy tales. I am useless today, I will be useless tomorrow and in another year, I will still be useless.
A smile pulled the edges of my mouth. Wouldn’t it be nice though, if there could be a better future, if what I have today was just a spot of shade in an otherwise sun drenched meadow.
I stared at the rope before shoving it underneath the mattress. Its ugly coarseness a sudden irritation.
I woke up the next day to my father’s shouts roaring through the hallway.
“You’re a complete waste of space! Nothing but a tramp!”
In their room mum sat crying, the big bulky frame of my father towering over her. From the doorway I watched as he moved away and paced the floor, his face red and wrinkled with frustration.
“I don’t know why I put up with your crap! You can’t cook, you earn hardly any money. What use are you?”
I took a hesitant step into the room. “She’s more use than you.” My own voice startled me and for a moment I wondered if it actually came from me.
My father swung around, eyes glaring and fists clenched.
“Get back to your room! This is between me and your mother.”
“Jessie,” mum pleaded, “go to your room darling. Everything’s fine.”
“Fine?! Nothing’s fine!” my voice screeched.
“Why you—“ My father stormed toward me.
I took a step forward, pulling my shoulders back.
“You are the rope around my neck! You are darkness and cruelty and death!” I wasn’t sure where the words were coming from or why I allowed them to escape my mouth.
My father stopped cold, short bursts of breath snorting through his nostrils. He seemed unsure, taken aback, scared. On the bed mum fumbled with her nightdress, fingers twisting the fabric in frenzied panic.
Just as suddenly as it arrived my foolish courage deserted me and I ran. I ran out of the room, down the hallway, through the living room, out the front door and down the street. I ran until my chest burned and my legs ached.
When I finally stopped I was standing in the woods on the outskirts of town. I looked down and realised I was still in my pyjamas. In the distance I heard cars traveling on the M52 to Jonestown and for a second I considered hitching a ride. But something within me had changed. The words I shouted in that brief flash of idiotic bravery fueled a tiny flame of hope. In that moment, fleeting as it was, he heard me!
Ignoring the curious looks of passers-by I headed back home. With each step I was marching toward a new day.
“You weren’t at school yesterday.” Jake plonked himself down on the seat.
“I wasn’t feeling well.”
“I missed your lively chatter,” he joked.
“Don’t worry. My lively chatter will still be here for some time to come.” I smiled and leaned back in my seat.
“You’re certainly in a good mood. Something changed?”
I thought about the question.
“One small thing changed,” I said. “Me.”