Will and Leah sit in the corner, together but alone. The lights are artificial and steady. Beds squeak and drumming feet follow. White gowns and blue scrubs flow through the hallways, chatting and answering the calls of their pagers. Staff and visitors wash their hands in the basin on the wall opposite the reception desk. The smell of antiseptic is sharp. Magazines litter the coffee table and a family is arguing in a language that is unfamiliar. Will has his head in his hands and his elbows on his knees. He perches on a blotchy blue chair, bouncing his leg, constantly checking the wall clock. The ticking is consistent and rhythmic, but frustrating. 12:00 am. It’s been four hours since Lucy went under.
* * *
Leah closes the door with her foot, locking the cold air in the foyer. Laden with plastic shopping bags, she waddles inside and dumps them on the kitchen floor. She wheezes; six stories of stairs never used to take a toll on her. The dust on the tiles is clearly visible from a standing position. She sighs- Will was meant to mop. It’s getting dark and no-one’s home. All Leah can hear is a basketball bouncing outside and thumping from her neighbours above. She knocks a broom end on the roof to rebuke them.
‘Honestly,’ she puffs.
Leah puts the broom back in the closet near the front door, and throws her keys on the vanity. She hangs her jacket on faux deer antlers and walks into the lounge room, pausing to look at the photos on the wall. The Yin and Yang appearance of one photo makes her smile: Will, with his dark features and messy hair, next to her fair skin and long curls. A year ago they got a photographer around to take family portraits of the three of them. Leah had pulled Lucy’s cardigan on, propping her up on a stool.
‘Let’s get some without the scars, huh?’
Despite Leah’s efforts, the best ones are of Lucy in a tutu, with a wide smile like a partially burnt corn cob. A shrill voice pierces the quiet.
Leah gasps, ‘Lucy!’
She jumps up and runs, following the noise to the kitchen. Leaping over the shopping bags, she kicks one by accident, and hops and clambers to peek out the tiny window. Her body deflates with relief. Lucy is laughing as she jogs to the edge of the driveway. Despite the mist coming from her mouth, Lucy is barefoot, in her tutu with black bike shorts on underneath. She doubles over, hands on her knees, to catch her breath. Will is standing outside the communal garage under the basketball hoop, holding a ball. The window obscures the rest of the courtyard, so Leah marches through the lounge room. She unlatches the window and pushes it upwards, the wood squeals and splinters, but it opens. Cold, smoggy air rushes to greet her. She climbs through, landing on the fire escape. From the sixth floor she can see the outline of the city: purple silhouettes and blinking headlights racing home. The road outside the apartment is barely used, but the occasional car would wander through.
Leaning over the metal railing of the balcony, Leah calls out, ‘don’t push her too hard, Will.’
Lucy straightens up. Looking at her mother, she plasters on a smile. Will glances up, rolls his eyes and grins.
‘Screw Doctor Singh. She’s getting really good. Watch.’
He holds the ball out in front of him. He looks back at his daughter.
Leah clenches the railing.
‘Princess, come up and finish your drawings. They’re looking great!’
Lucy eyes the ball and leans forward, readying herself.
‘Lucy, I got you the cookies that you like. The ones with the peanut butter in them!’
Giving one final glance to her mother, Lucy bursts forward, her tutu bouncing like a dainty butterfly. She runs towards the hoop, receives the pass from Will, takes two steps and chucks it into the air. The ball curves in an arch and goes straight through without touching the ring. The steel net catches, clapping, and dumps the ball. Will whoops and high-fives Lucy. Leah puts a finger to her lips.
‘Shush! 304 will get upset, you know he’s got an early shift tomorrow!’
Will pokes his tongue out at Leah. The ball bounces on the ground and hits a stone, ricocheting and rocketing off. Lucy turns and chases it, her feet pattering on the concrete. Will sees the alarm on Leah’s face and whips around. Headlights flash- a car turning into the driveway. The ball rolls across the road in front of the car as Lucy trots off the gutter to retrieve it. Leah bangs her hands on the railing.
The car screeches to a halt and Lucy freezes, eyes wide. Will rushes over to his daughter. She leaks tears, but doesn’t cry. Placing her hand over the scar on her chest, she collapses backwards, fainting. Her tutu crumples as she is collected in her father’s arms. The car door opens and a woman, Mrs Aldacour from 101, is babbling.
‘Is she okay? Oh my god, is she alright?’
Leah rushes from the balcony back inside, collecting her bag, and doesn’t even close the door behind her. The basketball sits in the gutter on the other side of the road. Waiting.
* * *
The shape of a young man under a white sheet, hooked and wired to machines. His hair meets with the beard at his neck and his nails are beginning to curl. His mother stands over his lifeless form and sobs, smoothing the wrinkles out of the sheet. She tucks him in. His brother waits in a chair beside the bed, arms crossed and eyebrows furrowed. His father signs the last of the papers and hands them back to the doctor, who pauses and nods at each of them, then promptly exits the room.
* * *
An orderly places a file on the reception desk. The nurse behind it puts up her thumb, holding a corded phone between her cheek and her shoulder. Will sighs and rubs at his face. When they got the call, he had no time or thoughts for grabbing clothes. Lucy was in her bed. He cradled her, even though she was getting so big, and carried her down the stairs; he didn’t trust the apartment’s elevator. All he could manage to slip on before leaving were his sandals, which were a terrible idea for winter and the inside of a hospital. At least Leah had the sense to wear slippers, track pants and a t-shirt. She attempts a crossword in the back of a puzzle book. Her nails are chewed and chipped and her hair is swept back into a messy bun. Scribbling at an error for the fifth time, she pierces the page with her pencil. She throws the book down with an ‘Ugh’ and it thumps onto the coffee table. Will looks at her as she bolts up.
‘Why don’t they tell us anything?’ she spits, and starts pacing in front of the coffee table.
Will watches for a while, helpless. He glances at the wall clock. 12:05 am. It’s going to be a long night.
The air conditioner in the apartment complex died weeks ago. The kids in 205 are bashing on pots and pans, screaming. Mrs Aldacour in 101 is cooking trout and the stench drifts down the narrow, cream hallway to where Peter and Dave are waiting for the elevator. Peter puts his phone into his backpack, adjusts it to his shoulders, and remains fixated on cracking his knuckles. Dave is tapping his foot and scanning the wallpaper. Up close, he can see two tiny birds that are huddling on eggs in their nests. Another couple of nursed hatchlings. He snickers. Peter cracks his thumb.
‘Wait till you see upstairs. You’ll see.’
‘Yeah, great,’ Dave grumbles.
The elevator dings and beckons them inside. Dave shakes his head and steps in. Peter folds his arms and crosses the threshold after his father. Inside it’s dark with one ceiling light, and it’s even hotter than in the hallway. The mirrors are scratched with gang tags, love hearts and phalli. Dave and Peter both wait a moment before looking at each other. Dave shrugs. Peter rolls his eyes, uncrosses his arms and clicks the level 6 button. The doors close with a slunk. Peter continues to crunch his knuckles.
‘You’ll get arthritis,’ Dave growls, watching the red digital numbers on the panel above the door count up from ground floor. The elevator clunks along. Peter cracks his neck and looks at his father, testing him. Floor 1. It works; Dave inhales, puffing his chest like a territorial owl.
‘Seriously mate, fucking stop.’
Peter huffs. Floor 2. Dave mops the sweat accumulating on his brow and looks at it in his palm.
‘Why this place?’
Dave wipes his hand on his jeans.
‘It’s a shit hole. Stay home, stop being so selfish.’
Peter shoots him a look. Floor 3.
‘Selfish?’ he scoffs, ‘Dave, listen up. I’m twenty years old. Let go.’
‘Dave?’ he laughs, ‘Yeah, righto, son. Good luck affording this place without me.’
Peter inhales. Floor 4.
‘I’ve been working for three years. Or maybe you didn’t notice because you were busy forgetting you had two sons.’
Dave turns towards him. Floor 5.
‘Don’t you fucking dare.’
The elevator shudders. The numbers glitch and the panel becomes a pixelated mess. The ceiling light flickers and conks out completely. Dave blinks and stares into the darkness. He reaches forward, finding the control buttons, hammering everything with no response. Peter groans and sits down. The floor is sticky and hard. Dave pulls out his phone and the blue-white light blinds him for a moment. He blinks it off. As expected, he has no reception. He smashes one fist into the wall and calls out. Sliding off his backpack, Peter removes his bottle and takes a swig of water. He stretches out and shakes the bottle. The contents gulp and swish.
Dave slaps the bottle out of his hands. Water spurts over Peter’s legs and the bottle thuds on the floor, rolling and sloshing back and forth. Dave runs his fingers through his hair, and it’s so slick with sweat that it stays. Kicking the bottle out of the way, he sits down next to his son. Peter shuffles as close to the wall as possible and turns his head away.
* * *
Peter stands in the kitchen doorway. The counter is covered in pizza boxes and dirty dishes. All the blinds are drawn and the fern on the windowsill is wilting.
‘Did you want anything while I’m out?’
Dave opens a white booklet as thick as a rope. Leaning forward in his chair, he places the booklet on the table among other pages fanned out on the glass.
‘Ah, no thanks, Peter.’
He rubs his eyes and stares at the pages. Peter shivers, zipping up his leather jacket.
‘Mum. Seeing Isaac?’
‘You guessed it.’
Dave picks up a pen and begins circling and underlining. The ink bleeds in splodges and Dave scratches at the pages. Peter turns and grabs the doorframe. Hesitating, he looks over his shoulder.
‘When is it?’ he mumbles.
The pen gives up. Dave hurls it across the kitchen and it cracks against the wall, splintering into tiny shards of plastic. He pulls another out from the pocket of his stiff collared shirt.
‘As soon as we get all this sorted,’ he gestures with a wide sweep of his arm. Peter looks at the broken mess on the floor and back at his father, before turning and closing the door behind him.
* * *
The elevator is a sauna. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the back of Dave’s knees stick to his thighs. He sighs, unpeeling his legs so they lie straight.
‘I know you need to go to Uni and whatever else. I just don’t want you to . . . disappear.’
‘I’m moving, not dying.’
The words escape like a fume, clouding around them. Dave scratches his head. Peter clears his throat.
‘I mean, I’m not really going anywhere, Dad. Sorry,’ he adds.
Dave crawls forward and collects the bottle, taking a sip. Muffled voices float from the floor above. They both pause, listening, before they disappear. The lights flicker and come back on. The panel is confused between 5 and 6.
‘Come on, one more year?’
Peter shakes his head. Metal screams. The elevator jerks upwards a foot or so and the doors screech open. Peter jumps up and rushes out, gulping in the fresh air.
‘You right, mate?’
A man pokes his head through the door, holding a cardboard box in his arms.
‘Yeah, it happens sometimes, I would just take the stairs next time, aye.’
Dave stands and dusts his rump.
The man laughs, but Dave recognises the look in his eyes. He sees through the same dark pools himself. Peter removes his backpack and searches. The cream wallpaper greets Dave as he steps out of the elevator, only now he notices another tiny bird couple watching as their fledgling leaps from the nest. Dave side steps the man and peers into the box. A basketball sits on top of a scrunched tutu.
‘My daughter’s,’ the man says, noting Dave’s squinting eyes.
‘Yeah, I had a son who loved basketball too. Wasn’t into ballet, though.’
Dave tries a smile.
‘Hmm.’ The man nods.
Peter jingles the keys and approaches the door. Dave shakes the man’s hand and backs away, entering the apartment behind his son. He closes the door behind them. The man waits for a moment and sighs. Readjusting the box in his arms, he walks down the hallway to where his wife is waiting. They take the stairs and exit the building, together but alone.