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2018 Short Stories

Highly Commended

Highly Commended

What I Want You to Know
Kristin Murdock

Warooka, SA

I watch you fetch a box from the cupboard, grasping it in chubby, clumsy fingers. The wooden door hangs open like a question mark dangling desperately in the air. The box lid comes slightly ajar as it slaps on the table; a cardboard antidote to a familiar situation. Spilling from it, a tiny silver dog and a race car have a miniature car accident, then roll beneath the neat fold of the electricity bill.

Above us, a ceiling fan spins in monotony, slicing through the still, oppressive heat. The last days of summer are dying with a vengeance and keeping us captive inside. Only we are not captive anymore.

Ironic.

Do you really not hear the roar of the ute outside, rocks machine gunning against the driveway fence, as wheels propel it violently backwards? Bent low on the table and straightening the tiny wheelbarrow, you’re not witness to the angry mask of your father’s face and the wooden way he stares straight through the bug spattered windscreen. Dust drifts through the slightly ajar kitchen window and lands on my lips like a bitter goodbye.

You carefully unfold the board, fumbling with the last flap before revealing an inner frame like a cheerful square rainbow. Can rainbows be square? I’ve long learned anything is possible.

Coloured paper notes are sorted roughly into two messy piles, denominations ignored.

“Mum, Monopoly.”

Your words aren’t clear of course, but I hear what you want me to know. This game, with it’s not to scale top hat and ship appears in the wake of every argument, like a life preserver on a choppy sea. Truthfully, I also welcome its inanimate presence as an anchor to our precarious existence.

Through the window, dust lingers in the congested air. Behind the haze flowers dip their pink heads in reverence to the January heat. I lower myself into the cane chair, shifting on the cushion, covering the stress induced pounding of my heart. I add a thrown on smile to complete the disguise, turn the race car back on its wheels and steady my hands enough to slide the allotted pile of money toward me.

Jack never understood how unimportant it is to have the money dealt out correctly. A ten dollar note flutters to the floor. I am already thinking of my husband in the past tense.

Jack. The sinewy tanned builder who had climbed skeletal scaffolding with the agility of a rangy alley cat.

Jack. The one who tossed compliments off his building site like a pet shop owner sprinkling food into a fishpond, hoping his favourite would take what was on offer. I eventually did. There was a time I never dreamed it was possible to love anyone else with such frightening intensity. Until you.

Jack. Your father. The one who had deleted the incredible memory that you even made it home from the hospital.

“Perhaps she shouldn’t have.”

My brown hair is crunched in my hand, lifted from my neck to seek some relief from the ceiling fan but I feel a chill as Jack’s earlier words rattle through me. Not just a throwaway line in the peak of anger but rather the result of years of dripping thoughts creating a festering, impenetrable stalagmite in his mind, finally impossible to ignore. It’s poisoned presence still lingering in the kitchen like the trail of a sparkler; burnt into your mind long after the light has gone.

Bitterness rises in my throat, forced back down with a smile. I straighten the real estate cards into a neat deck, tapping them against the table and clearing the sour bile from my throat with a cough.

“Okay Mum?”

I hear what you want me to know; reassurance, normality. Monopoly isn’t the only game we are playing here. I nod and smile. How treacherous upturned lips can be.

Though there are only ever two of us in this contest, you arrange all the playing pieces on the bright red ‘Go’ symbol; the thimble (me) and dog (you) stand slightly in front of the assembled line. The other pieces act as audience as we prepare to travel around the board through the repetition of squares. In straightening them, the pieces tumble over many times, catching each other as they fall, until your studied patience eventually finds all grey figures upright at the same time. The cannon looks ready to signal commencement.

Dice are collected from their hiding place beneath the money tray and jiggled together in your clasped hands, clinking noisily. Once so tiny those chubby, warm hands lay enclosed in mine at the hospital. I remember I stared at you as you slept, mesmerised by the very wonder of your existence. Over nine years, you have grown without me watching, buffeted along by a life of challenge and wonder. Those wisps of reddish hair have thickened and lengthened, pulled back today in a yellow elastic. Missed tendrils hang to your shoulders, free to find their way across your face where they are brushed away impatiently. 

A stubby finger pokes at the two dice, once for every dot.  “One, two, three.”  You move to the other cube, take a deep breath. “One, two.”

“Five,” I say. “Well done.”

The tiny terrier slides along its familiar track, taking in the sites of Whitechapel Road and landing within a train whistle of King’s Cross Station. In the early days I would reach out, pretend to straighten the piece and surreptitiously move it onto the correct square. In a time when I expected life to be perfect.

“She’s perfect.”

Back then Jack’s words floated into my consciousness, resting on me like a warm blanket in the hospital ward. An arc of pain burned across my abdomen when I struggled to sit up, tangling the drip tube and causing the silver stand to rattle noisily.

He held you, so tiny in those capable hands. You were a soft, fresh vessel adrift in a cruel new world.  Far more cruel than we ever imagined.

You look at me now, never good at hiding emotions. Your mouth dips down, a small crease forms between your eyes as you squint, deciding on your chosen destination. Chubby hands release the terrier.

“What’s wrong with her?”

I remember Jack’s demand, the slightly hysterical rise in tone at the end of his sentence, as though the hospital was somehow at fault, not a random, quirky act of nature.

The doctor drifted into the room and quietly shut the door, words relayed via a calming autopilot he’d clearly used in countless situations before. Until that moment, your slanting eyes reminded us of Jack’s sister. Turns out those cute little ears and the searching tongue that bobbed like a slippery fish, did not come from family resemblance. So obvious once we had a name for it.

Platitudes peppered the hospital walls like gunshot. For the first time the artificial light hurt my eyes. I grasped Jack’s arm; tense beneath the blue sleeve.

A chance in a hundred. A genetic lottery.  Those words still ricochet endlessly around my consciousness. 

An imperfect lottery, maybe, but I am the winner.

I try to see myself from your side, taking in the lips that purse too quickly at imagined pending disaster and the clouded eyes that watch you when you play. You notice things, often more than I realise, but you didn’t hear the words I said to your father as you played in your room, not even an hour ago.

“Get out of our lives.”

And now we sit at the table as normal, traversing the streets of London, every dice roll a move into the unknown. Outside, a random bird warbles cheerfully, in spite of the heat. Sweet notes act as a jarring contrast to this predestined reality.

“Dads gone.”

Question or statement? I hear what you want me to know; soothe me, comfort me. But I cannot bring myself to lie. So I collect the dice and pass them over the table.

“Your turn.”

“You in jail Mum.”

I smile, jaw tight and teeth clenched. The thimble hovers at the edge of the square. Just visiting. Free to leave.

Again the dice clatter on the table. The dog heads unsteadily to a random square and I already know where it will stop. For you the excitement of Monopoly is not about collecting the properties or the financial gains of hotels and houses. You see things from a different angle. Other cards offer greater possibilities.

My head snaps up as a car revs noisily outside before speeding down the road, momentarily disturbing our artificial scenario of coloured streets and red motels. Suddenly I see the attraction of such an imaginary, ordered world. In spite of everything, you are so wise.

“Card,” you say firmly, eyes wide with expectation.

“Which one?”

In an exaggerated act to form the letter blend you draw your lips back, revealing gappy teeth.  We have practiced ‘ch’ sounds, but the entire word still doesn’t come out quite right. “Charts,” you say instead.

I slip a card from the pile, one finger obscuring the curling red question mark. My eyes flick over the words.

“What Mum?” you demand. The dog shivers in excitement between your fingers.

I feel my lips quirk into a smile as I meet your eyes, strengthened by their intensity. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to guide your destiny, no matter what others believe.

“Holly,” I say. “It says you won first prize in a beauty contest.”

Your open mouthed smile says it all. For a moment our eyes lock in understanding.

You hear what I want you to know.

 

 

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