Remi ran away to find the King of the tip-kids and bring him home. She stands on top of an Everest of waste, shading her eyes with one hand and cradling a brown paper bag against her chest with the other. Garbage bags, in various stages of decay, cluster together to form large hills: a narrow path weaving between them. Remi tried hard to see right to the outskirts of the tip – but failed. She shuts her nostrils against the smell, a grotesque mingling of healthy soil and rotting fruit, trying to inhale through her mouth instead. Before she can decide where to begin, the pile of rubbish beneath her foot gives way, and she falls to the bottom of the hill, dropping the precious paper bag on the way down.
A stooped figure, concealed in the shadow of an old fridge, watches the girl dust herself off. Her white stockings are ripped, and a cut on her knee gapes like a macabre Halloween smile while she scrabbles to the top of the trash heap and begins to look around for something. There’s something old-fashioned about the girl’s clothes. She wears a loose grey pinafore and scuffed mary-jane shoes, and the foal-like awkwardness of her limbs marks her as being close to thirteen. As she searches, she throws uneasy glances over her shoulder.
Remi uses the toe of her shoe to lift a black t-shirt off a mound of mouldering food teaming with maggots. Gagging at the sight, she jumps backwards only to land on a jar filled with disturbingly life-like doll eyes. The hairs on her arms sizzle. The bag is important, a gift, but she feels exposed here, her cleanness marking her as an intruder. Flipping a mangled number plate that reads RUNNNN is the final straw, and she imagines she can feel the word breathing at her back as she races down the hill onto the path. She had come here to find her brother, who had become a tip-kid. She hopes.
The watcher had seen exactly where the bag had landed. When the girl’s swishing ponytail becomes a blur, they hurry forward and pick it up. Inside, lie three gold-foiled Easter eggs.
Lion tried not to laugh at five-year-old Remi’s attempt at looking stern. Her brow puckered in an approximation of their father’s scolding expression, but on her pudgy face, it only looked adorable.
‘I promise, Rem. If you plant this Easter egg, a chocolate tree will grow,’ he said gravely. At ten years old (that was all her fingers), Lion was the authority on everything. One week later, Remi made him close his eyes as she led him into the garden. In the spot where they had planted the egg was a single, scrappy dandelion. Lion made a show of inspecting the petals and measuring its height with his hand.
‘Ah, yes. This is definitely a cocoa tree,’ he’d declared to her delighted smile.
When their father mowed the lawn the next day, Remi was inconsolable.
‘Don’t cry, Rem.’ Lion patted her on the back, ‘Look what I managed to pick last night.’ He pried open her palm and dropped two Easter eggs onto it. When she tried to offer him one, he shook his head, saying he’d never much liked the taste. She’d hidden them under her pillow to avoid being scolded by her parents for the insult to Christ’s sacrifice. Of course, Lion would inevitably argue, so she was saving him from their father’s belt too.
Plastic bottles and disposable gloves pepper the ground everywhere she looks; rotting food waste deforms old appliances; everything is in ruin. The Children of the Son are as frugal as they are faithful, so she has always been raised to use and reuse everything. They grow their own vegetables and always compost; her mother had made her three dresses identical to this one from an old curtain. Desperate as she is to find Lion, she hates it here.
She stops to rest in a shaded gully carved out by fridges and washing machines that stick out from the ground like a giant’s ribcage. Hunkering down next to an enormous chest freezer, she lays her burning cheek against its side. She’s tempted to climb inside just for the cool relief of darkness. Her father says that Lion has always been the reckless one, but she knows it’s the other way around. He’s thoughtful, a planner who wouldn’t be silly enough to suffocate inside a freezer at the tip. He’s probably sitting on a throne of glass bottles, wearing a crown of bleached chicken bones.
Lion had made up the story about the tip-kids when they were little. When they got in trouble at home, they would whisper to each other about joining the gang of runaways and castaways out here. Lion joked that he would be their leader, the King. But they’d grown out of that fantasy years ago; she’d barely remembered it until last week.
‘We had a job lined up for you — with Jacob Opperman,’ said her father at dinner.
‘I don’t want the job you choose; with the people you choose. I’m happy at the café,’ said Lion, jaw pulsing.
‘Ah yes, mixing with heathens. Think of the example you set for your sister, Lion. You’re reckless.’ Father always knew how to wound him.
‘I’m reckless?! Well, maybe I am. But you’re liars. You hide us from the world in the name of love, but you only want to control us.’
‘Enough.’ Her father stood but didn’t have to shout; his tone had them bowing their heads. ‘If you want to go and live like the garbage you are, then go,’ he flicked his fingers to punctuate the last word, before storming off.
Lion had laughed bitterly, ‘Christ, I’ve always thought I’d be happier at the tip anyway.’
Remi’s only response had been to scold him for taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Now, she wanted to snatch those words back and stuff them down her throat like a sword. Truthfully, she’d been scared, scared that he would be free – without her.
She wonders if that was the sound of the sun finally cooking her, like an egg.
‘Pshh. Girl. Over here!’
A nondescript pile of rubbish and rags was trying to get her attention. Squinting, she makes out a pair of tanned, weather-beaten hands. They beckon her over.
‘What are you doin’ out here, girl? And with no hat on!’ the voice chides as soon as Remi is close enough. She instantly dislikes this dirty lady, with her deeply lined face and shopping trolley filled to the brim with more rubbish. Unclean, her mother would say.
‘What’s it to you?’ Remi snaps. Realising that this stranger might be able to help, she adds hastily, ‘I’m just looking for my brother.’
The watcher ignores this, ‘And look at you bleedin’ all over the place.’ The old lady doesn’t want any trouble, but she’s sorry to see the girl starting to blend in – with her sagging ponytail and crumpled pinafore. Decided, she sets off down the path, only thumbing her chest and saying, ‘Lettie’ by way of invitation. When Remi doesn’t follow, she turns and holds out the lost paper bag, the gift for Lion.
‘I know how to find anything out here,’ Lettie winks.
Well, Remi reasons, this might be her only chance.
Lettie leads her to a precarious-looking litter shelter. Just as she had, it blends so well into the surrounding junk that you had to come at it sideways, like a magic eye puzzle. Pieces of tin form the walls, eaten through by rust. Inside, a vomit-coloured couch sits in one corner. They duck to avoid the sag in the middle of the ‘roof’, which is just a tarp smeared with an ominous brown stain.
‘I’ve got a few of these cubbies here and there just in case, but they never found one,’ Lettie smiles proudly over the top of the large box she’s holding. Two of her front teeth are missing.
‘Who are they?’ Remi asks hopefully.
‘Pshh, the trucks, o’course. Those ones that squash the rubbish together and tip more out on top. We’ll reach the sky one day,’ she smiles again; Remi cringes at the view of the dark void of her mouth and the tender, pink gums.
‘Remember, I said I was looking for my brother? He looks like me, only a lot taller. I think he came here. To live,’ Remi adds meaningfully.
Lettie waves off the inquiry, ‘We’ll get to all that, but first, we gotta fix up that knee and then tend the darlin’s.’ She gets to her feet.
Remi is suddenly conscious of being alone with this strange woman. Am I the ‘darlin’? she wonders. Maybe Lettie lured kids here so she could knock them out and steal their teeth. Lips tucked together protectively, Remi stays still. Lettie rummages through a bag and locates a box of band-aids and a squished tube of betadine before tossing them to Remi.
‘Thanks,’ she says, and Lettie clucks at her surprise.
‘Almost anythin’ you could think of in the world has been chucked out here. A lot of it’s still good too.’
After her knee is sufficiently cleaned and taped, Lettie shows her inside the box. Two puppies with swollen, raisin eyes and sleek black fur lay inside. Their round tummies lift with their staccato breaths.
‘Now we tend the darlin’s,’ she repeats.
The one she passes to Remi is called Atlas; his sister is Laura. Both are glossy and tender. They feed them baby formula from mismatched bottles. Remi is so hypnotised by the marshmallow fragility of their little bodies that she barely notices herself speaking, telling Lettie the story of how she came to be here.
‘So, please tell me, Lettie. Where is he?’ she concludes.
‘As I said before, I might know somethin’, but you can’t go off chasin’ him with an empty belly.’
While the sun sets, they share a box of muesli bars and an apple in remarkably good shape. Lettie notices the girl happily accepts these offerings. The tight set of her mouth has softened with fatigue or even warmth. The girl thinks she needs her brother to remind her how big the world is, but she’s already learning it on her own. She looks almost content as she tucks Atlas under her chin, inhaling his mossy smell.
‘They can’t stay here,’ Lettie says.
‘Who?’ Remi asks, thrown.
‘Atlas and Laura.’
‘Why not?’ her eyes feel hot, ‘someone threw them away like rubbish! You rescued them,’ she says.
Lettie only puffs up her cheeks and raises her brow, ‘Hush now. Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll tell you what I know once you’re rested.’
She sleeps deeply, with the puppies curled into her stomach, until Lettie wakes her with a question, ‘Did he say he was coming here, then?’
Remi is groggy but has held the strands of their conversation in her dreams all night; she answers, ‘He said he wished he could be free, like the tip-kids. Then he left. It can’t be a coincidence.’
‘And not even a goodbye?’ Lettie sounds disappointed.
‘Well, I don’t think he was allowed,’ she whispers. Yesterday morning, she had caught fragments of a conversation between her parents. Lion will be back, said her father. Her mother’s voice was cold as she replied, he’s been shunned. Don’t speak his name in this house. I have no son.
‘Lion turned eighteen last week,’ Remi lets the statement hang. ‘Please, tell me how to find him.’
While Lettie stares at the brown constellation on the tarp, Remi has the sudden urge to stop her from saying whatever she is about to say, but it’s too late.
‘He’s not here.’
She can tell Lettie feels sorry to say it.
‘It was always just a story. There isn’t a body livin’ out here ‘cept me.’
Remi doesn’t need to ask if she’s sure. She doesn’t cry or get mad. Atlas is chewing on a fluffy, pink slipper while Laura goads him to play, darting forward to bite his face and hopping backward just out of reach.
‘I can take them,’ Remi says instead, ‘The puppies, I mean.’
Lettie puts a finger to her chin, ‘Your parents?’
‘If I’m not allowed to keep them, I’ll find nice families for them, I promise,’ she says and then adds hurriedly, ‘Not that you’re not nice.’
Lettie chuckles, ‘It’s alright, girl. I need to let them go. Let them be happy.’
Before Remi leaves, she tells Lettie that she’s sorry.
‘What do you have to be sorry for, child?’ Lettie asks.
‘I thought you wanted to steal my teeth.’ She worries that she has been thoughtless and hurt her feelings, but Lettie laughs so hard she begins to cough. Shuffling over to the couch, she collects a beaten-up Roses tin and hands it to Remi. Inside are dozens of old dentures; some are chipped or crooked, others are marred with ochre stains, and a few look pristine.
‘I don’t need your teeth, girly. I told you – people throw everything out.’
Kyla Hetherington lives in Ballarat, Victoria, on the land of the Waddawurring people. She is an Emergency Services dispatcher and second-year undergraduate student who spends her free time travelling or chaperoning Larry the Labradoodle on hikes. Her poetry has been published in The Quarry issue # 18.