Tag Archives: sisters

As We Go On, Mary Lou Raposa

‘… at ten-thirty.’

Her hands tighten around the phone. ‘I know.’

‘Don’t be late.’

Her vision melts into a multi-coloured blur as she considers how to best answer the command. ‘I’ll try.’ The sound of laughter forces her vision to refocus. Two teenage girls walk past her and she watches them as they cross to the next carriage. ‘I’m gonna go.’

‘Okay. Take care, Gwen, okay?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Remember: ten-thirty.’

Yes.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow—love you.’

‘Love you too, mum.’ Sighing, Gwen disconnects the call and drops the phone on the tray. She doesn’t rise; instead, she glances at the folded piece of paper beside the phone—she was in the middle of unfolding it when her mother called. She continues to stare, breathing deep, heart lurching as she exhales. Fingertips shaking, she takes the paper and resumes unfolding. The page opens within seconds, but she barely reads the first word when her heart jumps up her throat. She scrambles to refold the paper and stuffs it in her trouser pocket. Pain and guilt radiate in her chest as her heart continues to race.

Later she promises. Sleep—that’s all she needs; she hasn’t been sleeping well for the past few nights. She curls into herself, rests her head against the window, and closes her eyes.

*

‘I got lucky with my kids.’

‘Yeah?’

The words floated from the kitchen to the living room. Thirteen year old Gwen ate blue M&M’s and turned from the TV to look at the kitchen where her mother and Melanie’s nanny, Ella, stood.

‘Mhm. Seven years apart, but no big problems. It was hard at first, though, let me tell you. Hallie was a rascal and she had all the attention. She threw some massive tantrums when she found out about Gwen—even chucked toys at me when I began to show.’

‘Oh no!’

‘Yeah… she stopped when Gwen arrived, though—good thing too. Gwen’s shy—easily bullied… Hallie was all she had. Now they’re close and everything; I don’t worry about them.’

‘Aw. Siblings are good, aren’t they? Melanie’s an only child, you know—’

‘Mmm.’

‘And Mr Kingston’s always busy so she had to do things alone. Meeting Gwen was the best thing for her.’

‘Oh, Absolutely. Thick as thieves, those two!’

Laughter exploded out of the kitchen as Gwen heard footsteps behind her. She turned and saw Hallie approaching, expression expectant. ‘You’ve twenty bucks for a cab, Gwen?’

Gwen hesitated. ‘Uhm…’

‘Please? If I’m late again they’ll fire me.’

Hallie’s words stabbed guilt into Gwen and she couldn’t resist. She retrieved her wallet. ‘Maybe… you should stop being late?’

‘Shut up. I was up all night for an assignment.’

‘Sorry.’ Gwen held out the bill and Hallie snatched it. ‘I really need this back.’

‘I’ll try—but you know I’m saving up for a car, right?’ Hallie kissed Gwen on the head before striding towards the door. ‘Love you!’

Gwen felt Melanie’s eyes on her, but she ignored it as she resumed her seat after Hallie left.

‘Has she paid you back for last week?’

‘Not yet.’

‘You should tell your mum.’

‘Why? Hallie needed help, that’s all.’ Gwen grabbed a handful of her M&M’s and nicked a few of Melanie’s red ones. Gwen laughed and tried to escape when Melanie attempted to flick her ear. Soon Melanie relented, leaning back just as an M&M commercial came on.

‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have purple M&M’s?’ Gwen blurted.

‘That’d be awesome, actually.’

*

At fourteen, Gwen entered the airport for the first time. Melanie’s father was going to Singapore for a five months business trip and Melanie, with Ella, had to see him off. Gwen accompanied Melanie at her request.

Father and daughter exchanged farewells while Gwen observed from a short distance. She expected tears, but it was all perfunctory. The hug didn’t last five seconds and when they parted the words that came out of Mr Kingston were: ‘Stop causing trouble in school, okay? Every call I get from the principal is a waste of our time.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Concentrate on your studies.’

‘I will.’

Mr Kingston nodded and turned to Gwen. ‘Take care.’

‘Have a safe flight, sir.’

The girls and Ella watched Mr Kingston depart for the gates, only facing each other when he finally disappeared into the crowd. Gwen noticed Melanie’s eyes glistening and draped an arm around her shoulders. ‘Let’s eat?’ she said.

‘Okay.’

*

‘So pumped for this movie.’

‘Same—mum! We’re going!’

‘Take care!’

Gwen, fifteen, opened the door. Melanie nearly stepped out when footsteps echoed in the living room.

‘Gwen! Help me out with my assign—oh. Going out?’

Gwen tensed and faced Hallie. ‘Yeah, the movies… I told you yesterday.’

‘Really? I forgot. Was hoping you’d help me.’

Gwen winced, but before she could say anything Melanie took her shoulder. ‘You’re a big girl, Hal; you’ll be fine,’ she quipped.

‘No shit.’ Hallie snorted. ‘Back to work for just me then—you girls enjoy.’

Gwen couldn’t say goodbye as Melanie pushed her out of the flat. Inadequacy and guilt plagued her as she walked down the hallway. If she only knew earlier then she could’ve spared more time—

‘Stop.’

‘What?’ Gwen glanced at Melanie.

‘Stop feeling guilty.’ Melanie raised her brows. ‘You’re not Hallie; you’re not responsible for her uni work or her life.’

‘She just needed help—’

‘You always say that. She’s an adult; she needs to stop relying on you—it should be the other way around, actually.’

‘I don’t need help. Besides, she’s my sister.’

‘So?’

Their eyes met, each gaze challenging, but neither said another word as stifling silence fell between them.

*

Gwen, sixteen, waited at the back gate for Melanie—the teacher held her back to discuss detention. Gwen wanted to wait outside the classroom, but Melanie told her to go on first. Now, she glanced at the gates every few minutes and wondered every time if Melanie was okay.

Minutes trickled on and the crowd of students diminished as they boarded their respective buses. Often, Gwen glanced up the school. Finally, as the worry threatened to overwhelm her, Melanie emerged from one of the buildings. Her expression was impassive and flanking her were three girls. Gwen’s stomach dropped at the sight of them. Those girls belonged in their grade and she knew them… though, not for the right things.

She watched them approach; soon, they were near enough that she could hear their conversation:

‘You having a party?’

‘No… just dinner and stuff.’

‘Really? It’s your sweet sixteenth, but.’

‘Yeah, we was thinking you’d have a party.’

‘Uhm… that’s not really my thing.’

Melanie smiled at Gwen and she smiled back, though she wanted recoil when the other girls noticed her. They only gave her saccharine smiles as they said farewell to Melanie.

‘You seem close.’ Gwen said after they left.

‘Sort of.’

‘Since when do you guys talk?’

‘Oh… we had a group assignment in English.’

‘I see.’ Gwen widened her smile and decided not to push the matter for now. ‘Dinner? You did that last year.’

‘I lied.’ Melanie sighed. ‘It’s just me. Dad decided to stay longer in London.’

Gwen’s smile vanished. ‘What? Wait… didn’t he come home last night?’

‘He called yesterday and said something came up. I don’t know.’

Gwen remained silent. Soon, Melanie’s car arrived, driving off after the girls slid into the backseat. The journey was thick with silence, the tension so dense that it was suffocating. Gwen stole glances at Melanie and made her decision.

‘You’re sleeping over.’ Gwen said as the car stopped in front of her house.

‘What?’

‘Come on.’ Gwen grabbed her backpack and stepped out of the car.

‘Seriously?’

Yes! Let’s go!’ Gwen grinned when Melanie jumped out of the car. She pulled her backpack forward as the car drove away, fishing keys out of the front pocket. ‘This’ll be great,’ she said. ‘We can buy cake—if not, we’ll make one. It’s gonna be crap, but better than nothing, yeah?’

‘Gwen?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Thank you.’

Gwen looked at Melanie, saw the red cheeks and glistening eyes, and embraced her. ‘Don’t mention it. Come, we’ll order pizza—I think we still have M&M’s somewhere.’

*

‘Cigs’re gone. What’d he say?’

‘He grounded me… from everything.’

‘Well, you deserve that.’

‘It’s just a bit of fun.’

Gwen, seventeen, rolled her eyes and closed the bedroom door behind her with more force than necessary. ‘Defacing public property is not fun.’

Melanie sighed. ‘All right. Thanks for helping, by the way.’

Gwen sat on the edge of the bed. ‘You should stop.’

‘Stop what?’

‘Whatever you’re doing. Stop hanging out with those people. Stop ruining your life.’

‘They’re not bad—’

‘They’re not good for you!’ Gwen snapped. ‘This is beyond skipping school, Mel. This is far from—from shitty test scores and back-talking teachers. This is illegal—do you want to be a criminal?’

‘… No.’

‘I don’t either—wait.’ Gwen glanced at her phone when it buzzed and saw a text from Hallie: gwen im short on rent money cover for me pls i’ll pay u back love u! Dejection settled heavily in her stomach. ‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously what?’

Gwen brought the phone back to her ear. ‘Nothing.’

‘Hallie?’

‘No?’

Melanie scoffed. ‘Okay. You need to stop.’

‘Wait, don’t change the subj—’

‘Listen: giving Hallie everything you have is ruining your life. You have to stop enabling her.’

Gwen rubbed her face in irritation. ‘But she needs m—’

‘Stop saying that! She’s using you, Gwen! If you let her she’ll keep using you until you die! Is that what you want?’

Gwen’s lips trembled, but remained silent.

‘Stop enabling her… or I’ll tell your mum.’

Tears dampened the corners of Gwen’s eyes. She bit her lip. Neither girls said another word, but the line remained open and the silence between them stretched for a long time.

*

Gwen, eighteen, laid flat on the couch. The TV showed the news, but she wasn’t listening. On the floor a poster covered with signatures, sketches, and messaged leaned against the coffee table. The urge to cry hung at the back of her throat and she had to swallow hard repeatedly to keep the tears from escaping. Resentment danced in her mind—right now, she didn’t want to see Hallie’s face.

Somewhere in the city her classmates celebrated graduation. She mean to go—saved for it the week before, but two days ago Hallie was short on rent money again. What could Gwen do?

Minutes melted into hours. A game show replaced the news, but Gwen remained on the couch. Thoughts of the celebrations filled her mind—she could’ve been with them.

The sound of a lock releasing shattered the silence. Gwen didn’t move when her mother called her name until—

‘Melanie’s here.’

Gwen sat up and saw her mother approaching. Melanie stood by the door. Gwen’s shock at the sight of Melanie diminished under growing confusion when she caught the way Melanie avoided her eyes and the sombre expression on her mother’s face. ‘What’s… happening?’

‘Gwen…’ her mother hesitated. ‘We need to talk about Hallie.’

A cold feeling spread across Gwen’s back. She stared at her mother in horror before turning to Melanie. ‘You told her.’

‘I did.’ Melanie finally looked at Gwen.

Gwen stood and approached Melanie. ‘But… it’s none of your business! Why would you do that?’

‘I’m sorry—I can’t stand by anymore. You’re meant to be celebrating with us, Gwen… but look what Hallie did. I’m so sorry, but I’ve had enough. I had to do something.’

Gwen shook her head as her hands balled into fists. ‘Get out.’

‘Gwen—’

‘Get out!’ Gwen shoved Melanie out of the flat and slammed the door in her face.

*

Gwen stared at her phone. No messages in the past three months; not one phone call. This was the longest they went without talking. The fact that she didn’t notice until now…

Gwen’s anger at Melanie lasted for a while. Hallie avoided Gwen after their mum found out—it was expected, but it didn’t lessen the hurt. To distract herself from the absence of the two most constant people in her life, Gwen applied for jobs and volunteer work. Then university started, the new experience overwhelming her. Often she’d stare at her mobile lonely, dejected, and tempted to call Melanie, but her mind persistently returned to that night—after what she’d done, why would Melanie want to talk to her? That call never happened. Work, stress, and anxiety piled high above Gwen’s head and she struggled to resurface.

Then one night she received a call from the local hospital about Melanie Kingston.

Gwen’s head snapped up from the phone when she heard a groan. Her throat constricted at the sight of Melanie moving and scooted forward to take her hand. ‘Hi.’

‘Gwen?’ Melanie struggled to open her eyes, voice rough.

‘Yeah.’

‘W-what’re you—’

‘Apparently, I’m your emergency contact.’

‘Oh… yeah.’

Gwen stroked Melanie’s hand. ‘I had to call your dad, though. I hope that’s okay.’

‘Might as well.’

Gwen didn’t say anything and continued to stroke Melanie’s hand. She eyed Melanie’s arm, examined the scars and bruises marring the inside of it. Her stomach felt hollow. Melanie didn’t have these the last time they saw each other… they’ve only been apart three months. How was this possible?

‘Gwen?’

Gwen swallowed hard. ‘Yeah?’

‘You forgive me yet?’

The words were casual, rough. Tears sprang to Gwen’s eyes unbidden. She bowed her head, gripped Melanie’s hand, and rested her forehead on it. ‘I do. I forgive you.’

*

Eleven-fifteen.

Fists deep in her coat pockets, Gwen appraises the church from the bottom of the steps. A faint male voice echoes through the open doors and glues Gwen’s feet to the concrete. She swallows hard and inhales sharply before dragging one foot in front of the other. Like a machine, she repeats the action until she reaches the top of the stairs.

‘When I almost—almost lost her a year ago… it opened my eyes. Right then I promised her that we’ll be a proper—proper family.’

Gwen enters, presence muted, not making a sound. Half of the church is filled with guests, but she doesn’t know most of them. She sits on an empty pew, unable to join the sea of black. On the podium is Melanie’s father; he spots her and smiles gratefully. She returns the gesture reluctantly.

‘For the past year we were… uhm… happy. I learned… so much about her—’ he sobs and bows his head. ‘When s-she overdosed again and I-I finally lost her… it’s c-cruelty I never expected.’

Regret is pointless, Gwen thinks. It doesn’t revive the dead… it doesn’t forgive the living either. She tunes him out and stares at the casket separating him from the guests. The lid is closed, the lower half covered with white lilies. Knowing what’s inside sucks all the air out of Gwen’s lungs. Disbelief suspends her out of the bubble of grief. She doesn’t believe it, but the next second she wants to scream. Tears dampen the corners of her eyes as the desire to keel and pull her hair claws her body. She steels herself by gripping the folded paper in her trouser pocket.

‘We now invite Gwen Morgan, Melanie’s best friend, to speak.’

She shuts down the moment all the guests turn to stare at her. She doesn’t remember rising from the pew or the walk to the dais. The next time she becomes aware is when she stands behind the podium, her hand still gripping the paper. She stares at the casket and freezes—she’s glad the lid is closed. She doesn’t want to see what Melanie looked like in there. Instead, she thinks about the times when Melanie smiled, joked, and was alive. She steals courage from that and pulls the paper out. Her fingers remain steady as she unfolds it, but when she leans towards the mic and tries to speak, no words come out. Her tongue feels like glue in her mouth. She clears her throat and tries again. ‘Thick as thieves… that’s what my mum said about us. But… we’re more than that.’

 

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The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

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We all fall down, Catrin Shaw

‘He tried to eat his family.’

‘Did not.’

‘Did too. When the porters came to collect the bodies, his parents had bite marks on their arms and legs. His father even had a chunk of flesh missing from his thigh.’

‘You’re lying.’

‘Am not. It does that to you. Turns you mad.’ He leant forward over the counter, his lip curling upwards.

Maggie gripped her little sister’s hand and attempted to steer her towards the door, but Anabel was adamant.

‘No it doesn’t. I’ll bet you haven’t even seen an infected person.’ Anabel pouted, cocking her chin upwards.

‘Have too seen one,’ he called out after the sisters as they left the bakery.

Maggie tucked the loaf of bread under her arm. The baker’s son had dug it out of the waste barrel for them and the bread was heavy, the crust burnt and blackened, but it was the only food they had managed to find.

On Saturday mornings the town square was usually filled with market stalls, the air warm and woody with the smell of roasted chestnuts. The shop fronts would hum as people pushed past one another, silver coins clutched in outstretched fists as merchants bottled ounces of milk, counted out apples and weighed slabs of meat. But today, most of the shops had been boarded up and the stalls abandoned, the meat just left out on hooks to rot, swarms of maggots tunnelling their way through the browning flesh.

The rest of town wasn’t much different. Doors had been sealed shut and marked with crosses, the gloopy paint drying to the colour of blackened blood. On one door, someone had scrawled something above the cross. Maggie looked up at the writing as they walked past: ‘Lord have mercy upon us,’ the letters bleeding tears of red that had dripped and hardened on the wood.
Around the corner, Maggie and Anabel passed someone huddled in the shadows, their body encased in a pile of blankets, a single square of cloth tied over their mouth. Anabel stopped, staring down at the hunched over body.

‘Don’t look.’ Maggie wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders and led her down the adjoining laneway.

‘They don’t really eat people, do they?’ Anabel asked. Her earlier confidence had disappeared, reminding Maggie of just how young her sister really was.

‘He was just trying to scare you, making up silly stories like he always does.’

Anabel scrunched up her face, trying to hold back tears. ‘But what if I get sick and-’

Maggie stopped and knelt down in front of Anabel, her hands gripping onto her sister’s arms just above her elbows.

‘Stop this,’ Maggie said, her voice cracking. ‘You’re going to be fine, you hear me?’

Anabel nodded, a thin trail of snot bubbling from her nose.

Maggie sighed and grabbed the small knife that she always kept in her pinafore. At the next house they passed, Maggie hoisted herself over the front gate while Anabel watched wide-eyed from the laneway. Maggie ducked across the front garden, rummaging through the undergrowth until she spotted half a dozen carnations growing beneath the boxwood. Their stems had drooped but the flowers were still intact, the white petals threaded with pink. Maggie gathered the flowers in her fist, slicing them off just below the blossoms with her knife. She then pulled the ribbon from her hair and knotted the frayed satin around the flowers, holding them together in a bunch.

‘Maggie?’

Maggie emerged from behind the bushes and clambered back over the gate, her pinafore freckled with splotches of dirt.

‘Here.’ Maggie bent down and tucked the carnations into the front pocket of her sister’s dress.

Anabel frowned and reached into her pocket, her fingers closing around the bunch of flowers. ‘What are these for?’

‘Make sure you keep them with you,’ Maggie said as they continued walking. ‘I remember mother saying how the smell of flowers can help ward off the sickness. It’ll keep you safe.’

 

That evening, Maggie and Anabel split the bread between them on the floor of their bedroom. Beneath the burnt crust, the innards of the loaf were tough with grit, but Maggie didn’t care. She demolished her portion while Anabel picked and prodded at hers, pulling off tiny pillows of bread and letting them dissolve on her tongue.

A rat scurried across the windowsill, its whiskers twitching as its nose darted backwards and forwards, sniffing at the air. Anabel smiled and pulled off a chunk of her bread, crossing the room and holding it out in her hand. The rat sniffed at the bread timidly before grabbing it in its claws. Anabel giggled as she watched the rat eat, its front teeth gnawing away hungrily at the crust.

The sound of retching echoed through the house and Anabel froze, her breath hitching in her throat as the rat hurried outside through a gap in the windowpane. Maggie got up off the floor and walked out into the kitchen. She pressed her ear against the adjacent door and listened. Through the cracks in the wood, she could hear a rattling cough, the wheezes thick and tacky with phlegm.

‘Should we give her some?’

Maggie turned around to see Anabel standing behind her in the kitchen. Her hand was outstretched, the remainder of the bread sitting on her palm.

Maggie shook her head. ‘She’s fine. Come on.’

‘But she hasn’t eaten all day.’ Anabel moved closer to the door, her hand reaching out towards the doorknob.

‘I said she’s fine, ok.’ Maggie smacked Anabel’s hand away and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her sister back inside the bedroom. She slammed the door behind them and Anabel ran to her bed, her back to Maggie as she buried her face in her pillow.

Maggie sighed, leaning her head against the wall as she watched Anabel’s shoulders shake and tremble.

‘Anabel-’ Maggie began but she couldn’t think of anything to say. After a minute of silence, she opened her mouth to speak again, but decided there wasn’t anything she wanted to say anyway.

 

Anabel’s muffled crying eventually stopped, her sobs levelling out into deep even breaths as she fell asleep. Maggie lay awake on the other side of the room, her eyes fixated on the ceiling. Their mother was getting worse. Every so often, she would heave and splutter from her bedroom and Maggie would glance at Anabel, praying that the sound wouldn’t wake her.

Maggie lifted her head and peered down at the foot of her bed where a small leather suitcase lay half packed, an assortment of clothes spilling over the edges and out onto the floor. Maggie didn’t know how the sickness spread but she knew that it spread fast and once you got it, you didn’t have long left. Within the week, half of the town was sick while the other half were too scared to leave their homes, and not just because of the sickness. At night, Maggie had watched from her bedroom window as gangs of men moved through the streets of the town. Mainly peasants from outside the town walls, they rioted and plundered as they pleased, breaking open cells in the local gaols and setting fire to the homes of the town officials. Maggie knew the streets weren’t safe at night, but she could no longer be sure that they would be safe inside either.

Maggie got up and stripped the moth-eaten blanket off her bed, bundling it up and tossing it on top of the pile of clothes. She then grabbed a handful of candles from the table by her bed, along with a fire striker, and slipped them into the suitcase before clasping it shut. Maggie felt her chest tighten as she glanced over to Anabel’s bed. She was still fast asleep, a string of drool running from her mouth, glistening and bubbling down her chin.

‘Anabel.’ Maggie shook her sister to wake her.

Anabel rolled over and blinked, her eyes heavy with sleep. ‘What is it?’

‘Come on, get up.’ Maggie pulled back the covers and Anabel sat up, squinting as she looked out the window.

‘What are you doing? It’s still dark out.’

‘We have to leave.’ Maggie grabbed Anabel’s hand, helping her up off the bed. Maggie handed her sister a cardigan before bending down to slip her feet into her boots.

‘Why? What’s happening?’

Maggie steered Anabel outside of their bedroom, stopping briefly in the kitchen to check they had everything they would need.

‘Maggie? Where are we going?’

‘We should have left yesterday,’ Maggie said as she fumbled with her bag. ‘It was stupid of us to stay, we can’t risk staying in the same building as someone who’s infected when we don’t know how it’s spread.’

‘But Maggie, that’s Mama.’

‘She’s dying Anabel, how can you not see that? And if we stay, we might die too. And I’ll be damned if I let that happen.’

Anabel stared at Maggie blankly for a moment before shaking her head as she took a step back towards the bedroom. ‘We can’t leave Mama, Maggie.’

Maggie turned away from her sister, pushing her nails deep into the flesh of her palms. Without warning, she slammed her fist against the wall of the kitchen. Anabel flinched as one of the wood panels cracked, the pots and pans from above the grate knocking against one another from the force.

‘Fine,’ Maggie spat, flexing the fingers on her now aching hand as she took her coat off the hook by the door. ‘Stay with her if you want. I’m going.’

Maggie swung the front door open. As she stepped outside, she stopped herself and looked back into the kitchen to see Anabel still standing there by the grate.

‘You coming or not?’ Maggie sighed, her voice softening.

Anabel nodded tentatively and with a glance at her mother’s bedroom door she followed her sister outside. Just as Maggie began to pull the door shut, Anabel turned back around.

‘Hold on,’ Anabel said as she disappeared back inside the house.

‘Anabel, come back. We don’t have time.’ Maggie spun around to look down the street, her eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement.

Anabel re-emerged a few minutes later, her cheeks wet with tears.

‘What was that for?’

Anabel stared at her feet, her arms folded protectively across her chest.

Not wanting to loiter on the street any longer, Maggie decided not to press for an answer. She brushed her hand across Anabel’s cheeks, her thumb catching the last of her sister’s tears as she locked the front door and slipped the key into her pinafore. The sisters hurried down the street, ducking down the narrow laneway that bordered their house. As they walked, Anabel slid her hand into the now empty pocket of her dress, her fingers toying with a single flower petal that had fallen from the posy.

 

Maggie made sure to stick to the shadows as she and Anabel wound their way through the labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways. Once they reached the town square, they stayed away from the open centre, instead moving from stall to stall, careful to keep themselves hidden. As they passed the stonemasons tent, Maggie thought she heard the distinct sound of metal on metal, followed by the patter of footsteps. She glanced back over her shoulder, glimpsing what looked like a shadow disappearing behind the alehouse. Maggie grabbed her little sister’s hand and, linking their fingers together, they slipped away behind a nearby house, following the path that ran between the buildings. As they neared the end of the next street, Maggie heard the footsteps again, the sound closely followed by the echo of muffled voices.

‘In here.’ Maggie ducked across the street towards the church. The door at the back of the building hung limp on its hinges and she pulled it open easily, hurrying Anabel inside before securing the door with a table that she pushed across from the nave.

The church had been pillaged, just like the rest of the town. Everything of value had been taken, the altar stripped bare of its ornaments and the stained glass windows splintered with jagged edges where they had been smashed in.

Maggie rested her hand on Anabel’s shoulder as they walked down the aisle and towards the door by the altar. Upon reaching the door, Maggie removed the knife from her pinafore, carefully slotting the blade into the gap by the lock and prying the door open.

‘Come on.’ Maggie bent down, letting her sister climb up onto her back. With Anabel’s arms wrapped securely around her neck, Maggie climbed up the narrow staircase towards the loft.

Just like the nave, the loft had also been raided, the room bare but for two white clerical robes that hung limply from hooks behind the door. Letting Anabel down, Maggie flicked open the clasp on her suitcase, rummaging through the tangle of clothes before pulling out her blanket and handing it to her sister.

‘Try and get some more sleep. We’ll be safe here for the rest of the night.’

Anabel nodded as she took the blanket from her sister.

‘You understand now, don’t you,’ Maggie said as she bunched a selection of clothes into a makeshift pillow for herself. ‘You understand why we had to leave?’

Anabel’s brow furrowed as she nodded. ‘I think so.’

Maggie gave her sister a small smile. She couldn’t expect her to understand everything, she could barely comprehend it all herself. But as long as Anabel knew she was trying, that was all Maggie needed her sister to know.

While Anabel burrowed herself beneath the blanket, Maggie lit a candle, pooling the hot wax on the ground and standing the candle upright, the fabric of the clerical robes casting ghost-like shadows across the walls in the newfound pool of light. She sat down next to Anabel, brushing a strand of strawberry blonde hair off her sister’s face as she drew the blanket up to beneath Anabel’s chin.

As Maggie lay down, she rolled over onto her side, wrapping her arms around her legs and drawing them to her chest. She closed her eyes but instead of black she saw her mother, lying alone in her bed, her skin masked with puss-filled boils. Her eyes had sunk, the bloodshot whites barely visible beneath the swollen lids. As she blinked, a drop of blood oozed through the slit, dripping through her lashes before pooling in the hollow beneath her eye. Maggie could hear her voice as she called out for her daughters through the empty house, her voice growing weaker and weaker with each cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ Maggie murmured against her skin as she felt her arm grow wet with tears. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’

 

As their mother took her final breath, the smoke began to filter through the floorboards of the loft. The rioters had lit the fire in the nave, tossing scraps of alcohol-soaked cloth through the empty windows of the church. The pews caught alight as the flames travelled down the carpeted floor, adding fuel to the already growing fire. Within minutes the flames were licking at the walls, the rafters collapsing as the fire hollowed through the wood, engulfing the church in a single blaze. As the sun rose and the fire died to glowing embers, the girls’ bodies were barely visible, buried beneath a blanket of smouldering rubble. They were still lying next to one another, Anabel’s arm linked through Maggie’s, entwined even in death.

 

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Bad Blood, Nicola Moriarty

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I don’t have friends. But that’s okay, I’ll wear that, I know that’s my deal. Still though, a visit to the hospital? Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere – the lighting, the muted colours, the obnoxiously shiny floor.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s navigating. Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis, poking through the folded down seat from the boot. They’ve been in the car now for three months – he keeps meaning to take them into Rebel Sport to have the bindings fixed. He never will. Vicki is pinching me. Continuously. Viciously.

It’s because she’s mad with me. I kissed her boyfriend last night. That’s why I don’t have any friends by the way. I’ve kissed a lot of other people’s boyfriends over the years. It’s not intentional. Kidding. Of course it’s intentional. I do it for a laugh. I do it because it turns me on. I do it because I can. It’s all in the eyes you know. If a man sees that you have fuck-me eyes, you can make him hard with just one look. And I have fuck-me eyes.

But does she have to pinch me so fucking hard? I’m going to have bruises all up and down my left arm. And a few on my thigh. And every time she does it, I want to slap her.

We’re going to visit my other sister Nicki by the way. My name is Ricki. Short for Richelle. But no one ever calls me Richelle. I could have been Erica for all my parents cared. Just as long as I rhymed with my sisters. According to Urban Dictionary, Ricki is ‘an overweight white girl who wears too much eye liner, puts too much product in her hair and sleeps with black men.’

I’m pretty curvy in case you were wondering. But I never used to wear too much eyeliner. Or use too much hair product. Not until I read about myself on Urban Dictionary. I guess you could call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I looked myself up and there it was. My life laid out on the page. So then I started overusing eyeliner and hair spray. I had already slept with black men.

We’re visiting Nicki because she just had a baby girl. Mum asked her if she would continue the rhyming names tradition. Nicki just giggled.

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know. I slept with her husband two months ago. I’m wondering if I’ll whisper the truth to her while I’m nursing her new baby girl. Just for a laugh.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I have two best friends – but they’re both overseas just now. They did invite me, but they’re an item. A holiday as the third wheel? How fucking depressing! I’m like Harry Potter to their Hermione fucking Granger and Ron fucking Weasley. One day I might screw Ron Weasley, just to see what it does to Hermione. I’m twisted like that.

Still though, a visit to the hospital. Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere – the lighting, the garish colours, the grating squeak of sandshoes on linoleum.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s crying. Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three months. He put them in there when they were supposed to take that trip to Canada in February. The tickets were booked. The bags were packed. They were supposed to drive to the airport at five in the morning. But then the call came through.

Nicki is sick. Nicki needs treatment. Nicki will be in and out of hospital. Nicki might not get better. Nicki is going to need her family.

They couldn’t get a refund on their plane tickets. Dad keeps meaning to take the skis back into the house.

He never will.

Vicki is pinching me. Continuously. Viciously. I kissed her boyfriend last night. I did it because it turns me on. I did it because I hate myself.

I’m glad that she’s pinching me hard though. The bruises will ease the pain. I sort of want to hug her. Bullshit. I don’t.

We’re going to visit Nicki. She’s taken a turn for the worst. I know that I should care – but guess what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that no one’s even realised that today is my birthday. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. My sister is dying but all I care about is that no one sang happy birthday to me or gave me some new eyeliner and hairspray. I seem awful to you, don’t I? At least I own it. At least I know who I am.

I did have love once you know. For Harry, my pet rabbit. I used to sit for hours in the backyard with Harry on my lap, stroking his white fur. But then one day Harry squeezed under the fence into the neighbour’s backyard. The neighbour had a dog. I cried for two days straight.

Vicki, Nicki and Ricki. Hilarious. Ricki is short for Erica by the way. Boring. Last night Mum asked us if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. She was all teary, so Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I laughed in her face and said she’s got to be fucking kidding. Then I went out to meet up with Vicki’s boyfriend.

Vicki knew because her boyfriend confessed straight after. Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I slept with her fiancé two months ago. I’m wondering if I’ll whisper the truth to her while she sleeps. Just for a laugh.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. I have a great group of friends. And I know they would have wanted to organise something. Maybe a big party. Maybe dinner at the Italian place on Carrington Road. Maybe drinks at the pub. I’ve never really been sure why I have so many friends. Deep down, I’m not the nicest person. But I guess they don’t know that. They don’t know that I often fantasise about sleeping with their boyfriends or their dads. They don’t know how close I’ve come to acting on those fantasies.

Once, when I was fifteen, I almost screwed my best friend’s dad at a sleepover. I crept into his bedroom while he slept. I stood by the bed and I stared at him until he opened his eyes and stared back at me. He knew what I wanted. And he wanted it too. I started to touch myself in front of him and I saw him get hard under the sheets.

Something made me stop though. And I turned around and crept back down the hallway and climbed into my sleeping bag. Sometimes I feel like there is a different person inside of me. A different person that’s screaming to get out.

I’ve always hated hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It’s the atmosphere. Bullshit. It’s none of that. It’s what happens to me when I go there. It’s where we’re going now.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s dead. Vicki is sitting in the front. She’s in charge of navigating. Today it’s a new hospital. A new treatment. A new hope. Isn’t that the name of some fucked up movie as part of some fucked up movie franchise? Star Wars? Or Twilight?

Next to me are Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three months. You would think he would want to get rid of them. Who would want that? A constant reminder every time you hop in the car to drive somewhere. A constant reminder of how your wife died.

They went to Canada in the summer. Our summer. Canada’s winter. Mum died in a skiing accident. How glamorous of her. The holiday was supposed to be a break. A break from me. Nicki called one of those commercial radio stations and fed them our sob story. My sister’s sick. My sister’s dying. My parents have been carting her to and from appointments for years and it’s only delaying the inevitable. We can’t afford a holiday because of the medical bills. The radio announcers gushed over my family. Nicki was a hero for calling. Mum and Dad were heroes because they’d taken care of me for so long.

Fuck off. What about me? I’m the one who’s sick. They’re my parents; they’re supposed to look after me, that’s their job. I would never say that out loud.

Anyway, it backfired. Mum skied into a tree. Came home in a box. The radio station distanced themselves from us after that. Took down the smiling photographs of Mum and Dad standing at the airport with their skis. Big cheesy smiles. Holding a sign that said ‘Thank you Chance FM!’

Dad keeps meaning to take the skis back into the house.

He never will.

Vicki is ignoring me. I told her I didn’t like her boyfriend last night. I did it because I can’t handle having him round the house anymore. I did it because if he keeps coming round I’ll end up kissing him and I know he’ll kiss me back.

Sometimes I hate myself. I hate the person I think I could be. I hate the person I think I would be, if it weren’t for this disease. This disease that holds me back.

Nicki’s going to meet us at the hospital. She’s bringing cake. I know that I should appreciate that – but do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that I’m spending my birthday in hospital. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. I’m dying but all I care about is that they’ll be singing happy birthday to me in a hospital room. That I’ll unwrap my new eyeliner and hairspray while I’m sitting cross-legged on a trundle bed.

Do you want to know what I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a vet. I like the idea of wearing the white coat. Of looking into an animal’s eyes as I care for it. I don’t care that it means sticking my fingers up an animal’s bum or getting scratched to pieces by a cat. But I guess I’m never going to grow up, am I?

Ricki is short for Frederique by the way. Fancy. Last night Nicki called to ask if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. A way to honour Mum. Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I was shitty though. It’s not like I’ll ever get the chance to have children, will I?

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I’ve been toying with the idea of sleeping with her boyfriend for two months now. I’m wondering if I’ll tell her this while the medication is being pumped into my veins. Just for a laugh. Just because I can. Just because I need to do something.

 

19th May 2007

This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing for my 21st birthday. But then I guess there were no plans to fuck up anyway. My friends are all dead. No. Not really. They may as well be though – they all hate me. But that’s okay, I’ll wear that, I know that’s my deal. I slept with half the people in our group. Broke up couples. Made girls cry. Made things messy.

Still though, a visit to the hospital. Fuck. I’ve never liked hospitals. It’s a combination of things I suppose. It’s the smell. It makes bile creep up my throat. It’s the atmosphere – the soft colours, the sticky floor. It’s the fact that we’ve been in and out of hospitals since I was little. Since Mum was diagnosed.

Dad’s driving. Mum’s sleeping. At least I think she’s asleep. Could be she’s dead and no one’s noticed. I lean forward and pinch her arm, just to check. Her shoulders jump and Vicki slaps me. ‘What? I was just checking.’ Vicki is sitting next to me – right next to me, because the other seat is taken up by Dad’s skis. They’ve been in the car now for three years. He put them in there when they were supposed to take that trip to Canada. Mum was supposedly ‘in remission.’ The tickets were booked. The bags were packed. And then the doctor called.

Dad refuses to take the skis back into the house. He says they’ll still take that trip one day. One day when mum is better again.

They never will.

If Vicki knew what I’d done last night with her boyfriend, she would have slapped me harder. I’ll probably tell her later. That I sucked him off. Why would I tell her? Because that’s what I do. I always tell. I always kiss and tell. Or suck and tell.

I do it because I hate myself. I’ve always hated myself. Always. But I’ve never been able to change. And I doubt I ever will.

We’re taking Mum into the hospital for a long-term stay. Nicki switched wards so that she can be one of the nurses looking after Mum. Such a sweet, perfect daughter. It’s not likely that Mum will ever come back home. And I know that I should care – but do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about the fact that today is my birthday. And it’s an important one isn’t it? My 21st – that’s fucking special. My Mum is dying but all I care about is the fact that when they sang happy birthday to me this morning, Mum was so out of breath that she had to sit down half way through and then Vicki’s voice faltered and Dad rushed to Mum’s side. Not very upbeat. At least Vicki gave me some new eyeliner and hairspray.

Lately I’ve been thinking about something. It’s this memory I have, from when I was really little. I think I’d forgotten about it, and to be honest I don’t know what it is that’s brought it back… but I guess something triggered it and now I keep getting flashes. Flashes of my uncle and me, in a bedroom together. Pictures of him… doing things. But there’s another memory there too. It’s the memory of me telling Mum about it. Of her not believing me. Of her face reflected in the mirror behind me, her mouth twisted as she chewed on her bottom lip, her hands moving quickly as she wound the scrunchie around my pony-tail.

My mother never did trust me.

Ricki is short for America by the way. Ridiculous. Last night Mum asked us if we would continue the rhyming names tradition when we had kids. She was all gaunt and weepy, so Vicki told her yes, of course we would. I laughed in her face and said she’s got to be fucking kidding. It’s not that I don’t love her. It’s just who I am. I’m rotten inside.

And then I went out to meet up with Vicki’s boyfriend.

Here’s what Nicki doesn’t know though. I slept with her ex-boyfriend two months ago. She doesn’t know that’s why they split. I’m wondering if I’ll tell her the truth while she tucks Mum into her new bed. Just for a laugh.

Sometimes I think about what could have been. This disease is passed down through the women in our family. Passed on through our bloodlines. Grandma had it before Mum. And our Great-Grandmother before her. But it’s completely hit and miss. You never know who’s going to get it. It could have leap-frogged over Mum and hit one of us. It could have hit all three of us. Vicki, Nicki and Ricki, all lined up in hospital beds. Three headstones in a row. And if any of us have daughters, they’d be at risk too. Or we could have all been okay. Mum, me, my sisters. We could have all been fine. Healthy.

And I wonder if things had been different, would it have changed me?

 

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Pieces Apart, Shannon Baker

The photograph sat in a wooden frame on the foyer table. It showed my family, standing in a park by the beach. Even then Alice appeared fragile, like she could blow away in the wind. Mum smiles, content and relaxed in loose white linen pants and a kaftan. I’m wearing a short white dress, squinting at the camera, wrapped under dad’s arm. Dad’s white shirt is pressed against his chest by the wind. His smile is friendly and his eyes reflect the sea. His other arm is wrapped around Mum; he towers over her small figure. My sister Alice is standing separate from us, hunching her shoulders away from the camera. She gives the camera a small smile. We look like sisters; we’re both tall and blue eyed. We almost look like twins in that photo, except her hair is strawberry blonde while mine is stubbornly mouse brown. It was taken a few months before she was admitted to hospital. Mum’s free arm is reaching out as if to pull Alice closer to her, but there is a clear gap between the three of us and her.

I turned from the photo and I took a deep breath, looking at my reflection in the foyer mirror. I walked down the hallway and into our kitchen, where my Mum was bobbing a tea bag in a mug. I quickly said goodbye to her and grabbed my school bag.

‘Ellie, why don’t you invite a friend around on the weekend?’

I shrugged in a non-committal way. I didn’t want to explain to my friends why my sister wasn’t at home, or why I didn’t feel like going to parties or outings.

‘Remember tomorrow we have to be up early to get Alice from the airport.’

‘Yep I know,’ I said over my shoulder as I headed for the door.

At school, the courtyard was packed with my old friends. I smiled at a girl in my Maths class. She raised an eyebrow at me and turned back to her group of friends. They burst into giggles. I retreated into the shade of the gym and sat down, leaning back onto the cold brick wall. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun and tried to pretend I was somewhere else. My old friends were giggling again; I kept my eyes firmly closed, in case they were looking my way. Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. Will sat down next to me.

‘Hey. How are things?’ He smiled his casual smile. Will was tall, slim and strong. He had brown hair flecked with blonde. I caught his eye and he winked. His eyes were a startling green. After four years of friendship, I was still struck by those eyes. His shoulder brushed mine and I felt a warm shiver down my back.

‘Fine. Yeah okay. Alice is coming back from Melbourne soon.’ I replied.

‘I hope she’s doing well.’ He said, looking down at the concrete.

Two years ago when Alice spent weeks in hospital, attached to metal poles by drips and feeding tubes, Will was the only one I would talk to. I remember the late nights; Mum and Dad taking shifts trudging to and from the hospital, carrying overnight bags with clean clothes and memories from home. I would stay awake watching the television flicker in the dark. When it was turned up all the way, so that the noise echoed throughout our big house, I could relax. When I was alone the house seemed eerie and I would toss and turn, unable to sleep. I would call Will, and we would talk for hours and watch the same shows. The rumble of his deep voice over the phone was always comforting.

The shrill ring of the bell interrupted my thoughts. Will jumped up and grabbed my hand, helping me up. The rest of the school day was a blur. Will was the only person who spoke to me. I was almost grateful to be left alone with my thoughts.

The next day I set my alarm for six; I was anxious to see my sister after months apart.  Mum chatted all the way to the airport, more nervous and excited than I was. The airport was crowded with families, couples and friends. Air hostesses’ heels clicked on the tiled floor. A few people dashed past us towards a gate, their suitcases rolling behind them. A pleasant voice made an announcement over the PA system. We walked towards the gate where Alice would be arriving. Mum kept looking at her watch.

A few minutes later I saw Alice’s strawberry blonde hair amongst the arrivals. As she got closer a coldness washed over me. She was wearing a long dark trench coat that flapped around her knees. The collar was pulled up against her neck as though to ward off the wind, though it was a warm October day. Her clothes swamped her; under the mass of fabric her tiny frame was still painfully apparent. Her fringe was swept low over her eyebrows. Her skin was the colour of skimmed milk. Shadows gathered under her eyes. Her cheeks sunk steeply into thin lips. She looked like she did the last time. She stood awkwardly a few feet away from us, fumbling with the sleeves of her coat.

I could almost feel my mother’s heart break. Her whole face seemed to fall, sagging into itself. She slumped under the crook of my dad’s arm.

Dad’s smile was faltering. ‘Let’s get your bags then.’

These were the only words spoken between us while we left the airport. During the car ride home, I sat in the back seat gripping the door handle. Alice stared resolutely out the window, as cool and still as china. Mum hummed a little too loudly, trying to fill the awkward silence. Dad busied himself with the GPS system, though there was only one road home.

That night I watched Alice stare at her lap while her dinner turned cold and congealed. I looked at my mother closely and noticed for the first time the tiny creases etched into the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were glassy, threatening to spill over with tears at any moment. Dad’s cheeks turned red with the effort of remaining calm. Alice tossed a few peas around her plate.

When Dad spoke his voice was low. ‘We know you haven’t been eating. You’ve probably eaten the bare minimum all the time you were in Melbourne. We’re not stupid Alice. That was our one condition. You go to Melbourne only if you maintain your weight.’

Mum put her hand on Dad’s arm.

‘I’m fine,’ Alice’s said adamantly.

‘You are not fine,’ he said, clattering his knife and fork down on the table. I studied the wall tiles on the other side of the kitchen. Mum gave a small choking sound, almost like a sob. She shot Dad a desperate look, imploring him to stay quiet.

‘She is fine. Just very stressed. With the internship, staying somewhere unfamiliar and having to make new friends,’ Mum said.

‘Yes that’s right. I really had no time to prepare meals when I was over there,’ Alice replied carefully. ‘But now I’m back home it will be much easier. I’ll be back in my own place with my old routine. Don’t worry Dad, it’s not like before.’

That night, hours after I heard Alice’s car drive away, I could still hear the murmurs of my parent’s conversation downstairs. Mum was speaking in a hushed, earnest tone, overcoming Dad’s intermitted injections. I heard him say, ‘I know, I know,’ and ‘yes’, before going quiet. I didn’t understand how either of them could have believed her. I felt like she was slipping away again.

Two weeks later, I caught the bus to Alice’s apartment. She had been avoiding our calls, leaving short text messages saying she was really busy at work. I wanted to surprise her, and to see that she was doing well like she said she was. It was a small block, four apartments all with narrow balconies bordered with glass walls.  Alice’s door was closed but unlocked. I walked in and called her name. I walked down the hallway, passing her bedroom, and a pokey laundry room. I remember hearing a strange humming noise that grew louder as I continued down the hall. It was a soft mechanical whirr. A withering pot plant sat scrunched in the corner. It was then that I found the source of the noise. Squeezed in between the couch and the television was a treadmill. The treadmill belt was racing and rolling, and whirring to itself. Alice was crumpled between the treadmill and the wall, her legs squashed awkwardly beneath her. One white limb was caught on the treadmill belt, flopping uselessly. Her arm was blazing red and grazed. I couldn’t see her face; her cheekbone was pressed into the carpet. I quickly turned the machine off. I bent over her and moved her arm away from the belt.

‘Alice?’

A towel had fallen from the treadmill, and was slightly tangled around her.

‘Alice wake up,’ I shook her a little.

Her eyelids fluttered for a moment and she shifted her weight. It was then that the towel came off her.

Her bones were stretching and straining against her skin. I could see every ridge in her body, every dip and rivet. She tried to move again and I could see bone scrape against bone. Her skin was like paper, red raw in places from the treadmill belt and so pale. Her fingers were tinted blue. Through her sports bra, her shoulder blades protruded from her back, as though straining against the confines of her skin.

I don’t remember leaving the apartment, but I remember crying to a woman on the street, ‘please help my sister’, wondering how anyone could help someone so intent on hurting themselves.

She was taken straight to hospital; the nurses told my mother she would have to stay there for some time. I took four days off school, ignoring Will’s calls. I spent the days wrapped up in a blanket, watching mindless television shows. On Friday I decided I couldn’t avoid school any longer. I had walked half-way through the car park before I saw him; he was leaning casually against the wall of the gym. He rushed towards me looking relieved.

‘Alice is back in hospital.’ I said.

We started walking slowly towards our first class.

‘I’m sorry.’ His voice was low and his eyes stayed locked on mine.

‘I feel a bit guilty…that she has to be there while I’m-’ I searched for the word ‘healthy.’

He nodded.

‘I’m visiting her this afternoon,’ I continued.

He grabbed my hand and I felt safe, like I was anchored to something steady.

That afternoon I drove to the hospital with my parents. Mum gave me a reassuring smile as I left them in the waiting room and walked down the linoleum hall to Alice’s room.  I hesitated by the door before knocking lightly, as though I was visiting a stranger.

‘Alice?’

I walked slowly into the room. Alice had a private room. The walls were painted a relentless oatmeal colour. A small window looked out onto a park that bordered the hospital. Alice was curled up under a white cotton blanket. I tried to not look at the tubes that connected her to the IV pole that sat like a permanent resident in the corner.

She was facing away from me, looking out the window. Her hair was limp and lank. I reached out and tentatively brushed a strand from her face. She recoiled from my touch like she had been burned. She looked up at me with fierce hollow eyes, before turning and facing the window again. I backed out of the room, dashed down the hallway. There were people congregated around the elevator so I headed for the stairs, racing down two at a time. A few minutes later I walked quickly from the stairs to the main exit, dodging wheelchairs and visitors. Outside the automatic doors I took a deep breath of fresh air. I pushed down a familiar sense of rising panic. I wasn’t going to let myself fall to pieces.  A few minutes had passed before I saw him. Will was leaning against a tree near the entrance to the car park. People weaved in and out around him.  I walked to him and he wrapped me in his arms.

‘You don’t have to stay here,’ he said. I felt his voice vibrate against his chest. His hand stroked my head, and my tears started flowing. I pulled back and looked up at him.

‘Yeah. We can go now.’ I gave him a wobbly smile.

He laced his fingers through mine and we walked up through the car park.

Later I opened the front door and stepped through the threshold, with him following close behind. I walked into the kitchen and saw Mum standing in the kitchen. She turned when she heard our footsteps. Her smile reached her eyes.

‘Alice told me you’d left. I’ve been talking with your father. I’m going to be home more for you this time’. She said.

I walked towards her and engulfed her in a hug.

‘We’ll be fine,’ she whispered into my hair.

I pulled back and nodded. I walked over and sank into the couch. Will wrapped his arm around me.

‘You can come and stay with me for a while, if you want.’ His voice was soft. I looked into his eyes and was tempted.

‘I think I’ll stay. I want to go back to the hospital again, maybe not tomorrow but soon. I’ll just sit with her. Even if she hates me, I’ll just sit for a while.’

I knew I would still visit her, even if she flinched when I touched her. Alice was caught up in the circle of her own hateful thoughts about herself. My thoughts were clear. I couldn’t stop her from hurting herself, but I could be there if she needed. I knew that I would be fine, that despite the damage done, I would be strong enough to piece together the gaps.

 

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Outburst, Charlotte Marsh

As I sit in Doctor Malone’s office I start to laugh. She doesn’t really appreciate my jokes but silence always has a way of making me really tense. It’s all textbook to her; I make jokes in order to avoid confrontation. To be fair I’m only half kidding. I do genuinely feel bad for Malone, she could have been kicking it back at the beach and instead she’s sitting here with me. She looks even more tired than usual and I’m hardly surprised. Our meeting was definitely not on her itinerary.

‘Bree, are you listening?’ Malone’s voice bounces off the coat tails of my nervous laughter and springs me back to the room.

‘Y-yes,’ my words fumble out before I can catch myself.

Malone frowns. ‘I asked you about your medication, how is it going?’

‘As medicated as ever,’ I say, and she inhales forty-five years worth of air and sighs.

‘I know you haven’t been taking them Bree.’

Gee, nothing gets past her does it? ‘Have you been spying on me again Doctor?’

‘It’s been six months since I gave you a script and it was only for three months of medication.’

To be fair it’s really her fault for not keeping track of my scripts and it’s not as if I’m going to remind her. ‘Urghhh, that stuff makes me sick and it takes forever to kick in.’

‘You’re supposed to take it with food, please tell me you’ve been-’

‘Yes, I’ve been eating. Come on, Doc, at least try to earn your fee.’ I start pinching my nose; I just hate all of this.

Any other person would have probably smacked me by now, but Malone is pretty cool – instead, she just turns away into her papers.

‘Always the comedian…so last night.’

‘Whoa there Doc, let’s not spoil the ending before we’ve even finished the opening credits.’ I figured I might as well try to stall. Malone removes her glasses and gives me the ‘I’m disappointed’ face.

‘Bree.’ It’s all she needs to say.

**

‘Bree, did you do an entry today?’

I was barely seated at the dinner table before Mum began her questioning. I could always count on my parents to step in whenever Malone wasn’t around. I had to credit them for that at least; an A+ for badgering their daughter constantly.

‘Yes.’ But I hadn’t and she knew that perfectly well.

‘You know I’m going to check after dinner, right?’ She didn’t though, she always forgot.

I rolled my eyes so far back into my head that I my veins threatened to break apart from my sockets.

‘Mum, I did the entry, I did the absolute hell out of it; it’s just positively oozing with my most deep and dark thoughts.’

Mum just frowned at me. Geez, tough crowd…

**

‘Good to know I’m not the only one you lie to,’ Malone cuts in.

I’m kinda expected to do these ‘mood logs’ as part of my agreement with Malone; I could stop weekly visits and in return I write down whatever I’m feeling, if anything, every day for the next few weeks. Who seriously writes in a diary anymore? That’s something an old lady who doesn’t have the internet would do. It kinda sucks because I have to do them and I’m slightly unnerved about the idea of jotting everything down. If there was something the Doc couldn’t get out of me, what makes them think I’ll put it in writing? Of course that’s all gone to shit now. I’ll be lucky if they ever trust me again.

**

Mum continued back to her steak. Her knife ground against the surface making tiny brown grains crumble on the top. It baffled me that she hadn’t yet realised that she’d grabbed a butter knife by mistake. But she continued to grind away hoping for the cooked, rippling surface to break through. I sat there with my parents in total silence for a while.  That’s how most of our dinners played out, Mum asked about my entry and then nothing. Before I came back from observation all their dinner discussions were most likely about me. I mean, what else could they talk about? Now that the topic was staring at them right in the face it suddenly wasn’t so interesting. I was only there for a freaking week and somehow I’d completely killed all conversation between my parents.

‘Something interesting happened to me today.’ Dad’s voice broke out. Mum lifted her brow but her eyes were firmly planted on the steak. Man she really is something.

‘On the bus today a young boy tried to get on without any money,’ he went on.

‘Sounds riveting Dad, truly, I am honored that you chose to tell us this tale.’ I stopped as Dad began to eye me.

‘Well, did he get on in the end?’ I asked.

**

‘Not that this isn’t interesting, Bree, but let’s not go into every detail ok?’

I hate it when people cut you off – even if the story doesn’t interest you it’s polite to humor them. I notice my back is aching from my hunch so I straighten up and try to shrug off Malone’s intrusion.

‘Right. Well…it didn’t matter anyway. Dad didn’t even remember if the kid got on or not, can you believe that?’ Malone gives a small grunt; she just wants me to get to the point. ‘So then Dad asks what I’m doing after dinner-’

‘Why do you think he would ask that?’

I hate it when therapists ask those stupid ‘how does that make you feel’ type questions. It makes me miss observation; or rather I miss the solitude. Like, people were watching me but they didn’t really speak to me or anything. I guess they were waiting for me to say something but I never did. I don’t even really remember what I did during that week but I certainly didn’t talk to anyone. They wouldn’t have let me come home if I had done anything strange, unlike the other kids there. Lucky for my parents I’m not the outburst kind.

**

‘Fortunately for you guys I’ll be staying in.’ I say after Mum asked what I was doing after dinner.

‘You don’t want to see anyone?’ to which I wondered what invisible people she had envisioned for me to see. But I guess all mothers are under the delusion that their children are socially apt enough for friends, despite how obvious the reality is.

‘Nope, I am a child of considerable predictability.’ I started to squish my peas onto the plate with my knife. ‘It’s one of the joys of being the second off the chopping block.’

‘I don’t follow,’ Mum said and I rolled my eyes again.

‘When the first kid drops parents are all set to get their mistakes out of way. If it doesn’t die they’re all good for a second.’

**

‘Where was your sister at the time?’ Malone asks.

I don’t say anything for a while, partially because I genuinely don’t remember, but also because I’m a little scared to remember.

‘She came to dinner a bit late, but she wasn’t there yet.’ Even though my eyes are in my lap I can tell Malone is checking me, weighing up what words to say.

‘How about we skip to when she arrives, ok?’ She speaks with a certain care, as if I were stupid enough to not know what she wants, but the longer I can put it off the better.

**

‘Get out of my seat.’ Olivia barely looked at me when she came in; she had it stuck in her head that we had a special seating arrangement in the house. Dad at the head, Mum to his left with her to the right. I was put next to Olivia but personally I was not fond of such rules. She jabbed her finger in my side, it was like getting a sharp stab with a blunt knife. It was enough to get me hunched over so that she could lightly push me from the chair and take her rightful place at Dad’s side. No one said anything as I stumbled to the next chair. Of course no one said anything. Olivia placed her hands carefully across the table; her fingers looked just like Mum’s, really long and slender, it’s the only thing about her I like.  Dad’s fingers are tough and fat like overcooked sausages, which makes him look like the kind of Dad who fixes stuff around the house. Everyone in my family has hands that tell lies.

‘Bree, how about you answer my question huh?’ Olivia’s voice completely ripped me out of focus. ‘I asked if you were glad to be home, not that you look it.’

I could always count on my dear sister to leave every sugary statement with a twist of lemon in my mouth. I dignified her question with a one shouldered shrug; not worth the involvement of both. She just rolled her eyes to our parents and gave a ‘can you believe this girl?’ look.

**

I look up at Malone and her eyes are glued to me. She says nothing but her gaze has an intensity to it that begs me continue. Even when it’s about me, it’s always about her, naturally.

**

‘Wow must be so hard to sit around all day with no school or parents. Maybe I should become crazy too,’ she laughed to Mum and Dad. They said nothing again. She went on about some friend of hers who she hates and it was like I wasn’t even there anymore.

‘What would you know about hard?’ I mostly said it to myself but I figured it was equally relevant for Olivia.

‘Excuse me?’ I hated how she always talked to me like I was stupid kid and she was this super mature adult. She tossed her knife and fork down and turned toward me. ‘Please go on about how super difficult your life is.’

My cheeks began to give me away and I wasn’t so cool anymore; all of a sudden I had nothing. No cool quips to throw back, nothing, and so I just sat there looking at my dinner like it was the most interesting thing ever.

**

‘Having an older sibling can be tough.’ Malone speaks like I’m only hearing this stuff for the first time. What a stupid cliché.

**

I really wanted to say something to shut her up, but I just kept staring down at my plate, rolling my fork between my fingers. Olivia snapped her head back to her plate and resumed her dinner, ‘It’s not the ‘Bree Show’ you know, we all have our issues and you don’t see me going off for a holiday.’ My grip tightened a little.

‘Stop it, you two,’ Dad says, but what he really meant was stop it Olivia and it always had to go unsaid, because that would just be too mean. No matter how much I scrunched my face; it wasn’t enough to send a signal to Olivia’s brain to tell her to shut up.

**

‘So that’s when you-’

‘No!’

Malone jumps and I realise I need to breathe, ‘No…that happened…later.’ I really want to stop; surely it’s been an hour by now.

**

‘Whatever, it’s not my problem that Bree wants to act like everything’s about her.’

Every word she spoke made my jaw really hurt and I could feel my nails pressing against my palm as I gripped my fork.

‘You let her get away with so much; this is why she’s so wound up in herself. I would have never been allowed when I was her age.’

Mum and Dad pretended to not hear and I pretended like I didn’t exist. My hand began sweating a little; the fork was so warm from holding it.

‘I don’t know why you even bothered sending her there.’

Despite not having eaten I felt the constant need to swallow, hard and smooth like a marble that kept getting bigger and just wouldn’t go down.

‘She’s not even saying anything, because she knows I’m right. See? She’s not even-‘

**

Malone’s pen stops, there’s no real need to continue. She knows the rest.

**

It’s kind of a haze or at least that was my excuse. There was screen of silence the second I slammed my fork into the back of Olivia’s hand. Before I even had time to think, it completely shattered and I was drowning in her shrieking and the groaning of our wooden chairs as they ground against the floor. It’s me who stood up first, Olivia sobbed over her hand like a needy mother clutching her baby. I can still see the mark I left; four little red squares on the back of her perfect hand. Branded forever with four perfect squares as if there’s one for each of us; Dad, Mum, Olivia and me. Olivia shook as she turned her way up to me. I was almost scared she was gonna hit me or something until I saw her face.

Complete fear. Not only for herself, but for me, fear for the hatred I held for her and what it had turned me into.

Either Dad pulled her away to the next room or I looked away, I don’t remember. It doesn’t really matter; her eyes are still with me. I can’t stop seeing them.

I grabbed my face, pulled on it like I wanted to tear it off.  My jaw screamed for me to open so that I could let out some kind of sound but I just couldn’t. Not in front of Mum.

I was wrong, so wrong; turns out I was the outburst kind after all.

Mum choked out something but I don’t really remember. It wasn’t until she tried to pull my hands away from my face that I started.

‘You let her say that to me,’ I mumbled like a stupid kid. ‘You never say anything…not a goddamn thing,’

‘Bree…’

‘No every time! Every fucking time you don’t do a goddamn thing about it.’ At that point I couldn’t even tell where I was facing anymore; I couldn’t see anything. Olivia cried while Dad consoled, I cried while Mum made the call.

**

‘It’s so weird when you hear your parents trying not to cry.’ Malone doesn’t respond. ‘I can’t stop hating her.’

**

They left me alone in the dining room. Olivia had stopped crying and it was quiet again. I looked around the broken room of unfinished dinner, scattered chairs and the small beads of Olivia’s blood. I hate her, but I hate myself more for hating her.

**

Malone just gets up and says something but I don’t retain it. I realise that I’m tracing my fingers over the back of my hand when she tries to hand me another script. She asks me to come back next week and suddenly I’m no longer in her office. I meet Mum in the car, she tries to say something but it’s all muffled and I’m just really tired.

 

Download a pdf of Outburst, C. Marsh

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