Two girls with swollen bellies are comparing stretch marks in the girl’s bathroom mirror. It looks as if kittens have clawed out of their insides.
‘Almond oil is fucken useless, man,’ one girl complains.
‘I’ve got three more today,’ her friend replies, scratching at her skin distastefully.
‘Yeah, but you’re tan so can’t see them. I look like a white tiger.’
Their tiny bodies are recovering from the mammoth effort required to grow breasts and kickstart the ovulation process. There is barely enough skin to go around. My best friend Candice and I grimace.
‘Fuck me,’ Candice whispers.
‘No thanks,’ Jason trills. He’s come in to use the girl’s bathroom. He’s allowed because he is gay. ‘It’s disgusting in there,’ he complains about the boy’s toilet. ‘They’re animals.’
Twenty-three girls from Form Five are pregnant this year, not eighteen as the Canterbury Herald reported. It makes for irritatingly long waits to use the toilet, especially as Mrs Ross is on duty this week, and she patrols the grounds as if there is a war on and she must protect the borders. The girls bathroom is filled with smoking refugees, locked behind toilet doors, puffing frantically before the bell goes.
‘Hurry up, bitches,’ shouts Candice, banging on the toilet doors. ‘I need to piss!’
Most of the pregnant girls are fourteen or fifteen and hang out together. They’re a prenatal gang. One old maid is seventeen, but she keeps to herself. They bring written notes from their doctors to wear non-uniform clothing (usually stretchy black pants) and they enjoy a certain prestige, a minor celebrity, especially when they are allowed to use the bathroom during class, or bring their fresh babies back to visit.
‘In my old school, if a girl got pregnant she got called to Mrs Terrill-Baxter’s room and asked to leave,’ I whisper to Jason.
Pregnant girls were pariahs at my old school: like Icarus, whom we are studying in Classics, they soared too close to the sun on their wax and feather wings and paid the price. But here, at Thornford High, the school that holds the national title for highest pregnancy rate, and the most violent assaults on a teacher in a year – here, they are pop-stars. While the rest of the students were nudging at the basement of adulthood, they had avoided all the floors on the way down, and plummeted down the elevator shaft. They get $350 a week, free housing and childcare. Comparatively, those of us with after-school jobs earn $3.80 an hour. It’s barely enough to keep us in cigarettes.
‘They kicked them out? That’s horrible. It’s not like its catching or nothing,’ Jason says.
‘Not at all,’ says Candice, rolling her eyes. ‘It’s just a weird coincidence.’ She bangs on a cubicle door again. ‘Mrs Ross is coming!’ The toilets flush simultaneously and the stench of spray deodorant rises, like panic, into the air. Candice sniggers.
This is how I first see Renae: my new boyfriend Mark nods at a group of girls standing behind the swimming sheds. They are misted with rising smoke.
‘The one with the big belly,’ he points. I follow his finger, but there are several pregnant girls enjoying a post-sandwich rollie.
He squints. ‘The one with the red bag.’
‘How is she your sister? She looks whiter than me.’
I can get burnt in winter so that’s saying something. Mark looks like a burly rugby player, which he is. He shrugs. ‘She’s a throwback.’
His sister lights a cigarette, inhales twice and passes it along. Mark runs his hand up my inner thigh under my school skirt. ‘You want me to get one for you?’
‘Nah. Me and Candice are bored of smoking now.’
His lean fingers snake under the elastic of my knickers and I part my thighs. They feel shaky as if I’ve been running up a hill. Last night Mark did things with his fingers that made me dizzy. My face is getting hot. I snap my legs closed, like a heavy book.
The first night I stay over at their house on the weekend, Renae tells me that Shane was only thirteen when he got her pregnant.
‘You’re only a little boy,’ she mocked him. ‘I bet ya can’t get me pregnant.’
‘Can so,’ he’d retorted, his skateboard hooked under his arm.
They broke up after the positive test, and she was with Scotty in Form Six until her belly began to swell. ‘He was too shamed ’cos everyone thought it was his baby,’ she explained. ‘And I felt too sick to suck him off.’
I’m fascinated with her stories, with her brazen adherence to telling the truth, her fearlessness, with watching her belly undulate and twitch, as if puppies are fighting under her tight singlet.
The baby, born a few weeks early, is a girl, Shanae. ‘Cos she’s half me and half Shane,’ Renae explains.
When she brings Shanae to the school for the obligatory parade of honour, as her brother’s girlfriend, I am her handmaiden. I march beside the pram. Renae’s new Dirty Dog sunglasses are admired in equal parts to the baby, a fat bump of polyester blankets. ‘Meh,’ says Candice, peering at the baby like a doctor peers at an angry rash. ‘But the glasses are okay.’
Candice has had two abortions and does not feel bad about it. She doesn’t like babies. Candice is especially angry with babies at the moment, and me too. ‘You’ve become one of those girls,’ she moans as I spend another night at Renae and Mark’s house. I am, I know it. But I’m drunk on lust for Mark and love for baby Shanae, who, when I walk in the room, lifts her arms to me and bounces on her bottom. ‘She loves her auntie,’ says Renae. When she says this, and she says it a lot, my chest tingles.
At night, Mark and I smoke joints, eat avocado toast and have sex. He tells me dirty stories. ‘You’re sitting on the stool playing piano, and I slowly slide your knickers down,’ whispers Mark, his fingers jammed inside of me. For a jock, he has a way with words.
Shane spends the weekends at Renae and Mark’s too. They got back together after he brought a cheap, plush Garfield toy to the birth suite. ‘He knows I love cats,’ smiles Renae, cuddling it. ‘Like, I really like cats. Just not real ones. I’m allergic to real ones.’
Shanae looks exactly like her dad, with round, blue eyes, Nordic blonde hair and clear, pink skin. Shane looks eighteen, not thirteen. ‘He’s hot, ay?’ Renae asks. I nod, to be polite, but truthfully he makes me nervous. His baby face superimposed onto a hulking, muscular body makes him seem unreal, like a cartoon. I cannot figure out how to treat him. My little brother, Albie, is thirteen and an irritating dork; he doesn’t even have acne or stubble yet. I know how to treat him. Like a thirteen-year-old dork. But Shane? He is a father.
(I ring Candice. ‘I honestly had no idea boys made sperm at that age. I didn’t know they could even get an erection.’ She huffs. She is still angry with me.)
‘But his parents are dogs,’ Renae says. ‘Real dogs.’
Her face twists in disgust.
‘In what way?’
‘I think their mum used to be hot, too. But she started shooting up. That’s how she got hep. Good riddance. They left the boys alone for days without food. Shane said once they ate cat biscuits.’
‘How come no one called Child Services?’
‘No one that noticed gave a shit,’ she says. ‘Fucken dogs.’
On Saturday afternoon, Renae needs to pick up baby formula from Shane’s house. ‘Come with me?’ she pleads. Shane’s house is dirty green with a broken letterbox, and has shutters that slump from the windows on a sickening angle, as if someone heavy has tried to climb up them. We pull into the driveway, beep the horn and wait for someone to come out. The engine is still running. I have the sudden urge to piss. ‘Hold it,’ advises Renae. ‘It’s a shit-hole in there.’
No one comes out. The sound of our breathing fills the car. Renae leans over me, her soft chest pushing against my arm, and beeps the horn. I can smell her hairspray. We watch the door. Nobody comes. ‘Shit,’ groans Renae and undoes her seatbelt.
Inside, the air smacks of stale cigarettes and dog. Two of them, big mongrels with bullish faces, are sleeping on the couch. Their hair coats the carpet like fungus. They don’t bother to bark, they just half-open one eye and watch us suspiciously. On the coffee table, an ashtray overflows with grey powder and yellow butts. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘They might be on the nod,’ Renae replies. And they are: Shane’s parents are slumped in the kitchen, facing the wall as if it were a movie, slightly rocking forward. They look like zombies. On the table is a needle, a spoon, a piece of Glad Wrap, a package of tobacco and a lighter. ‘Thank you,’ says Renae, pocketing the tobacco. She looks at me. ‘They won’t remember.’
Shane’s mum doesn’t move, not a muscle. She has a shabby pink face, burrowed with dark crevices and scratched with short red scars. Her elbows and knees are too big for her spindly limbs. Her crinkled skin hangs loosely from her bones. Her eyes are sunken. ‘She’s not even that old,’ Renae says. ‘Not even forty.’
‘She’ll hear you,’ I panic.
Renae snorts. ‘They can’t hear nothing. Look.’ She pushes her face close to Shane’s mother’s. ‘Hello Shona! You’re a fucken dog, Shona!’
Shona shakes her head then slumps forward again. Renae turns back to me. ‘See?’
Shane’s dad is small and ugly, with a ginger moustache. His tattoos are black and indecipherable on his shriveled arms. A thin line of spittle forms a cobweb from his lip to his shirt. ‘He broke her jaw once,’ Renae says. ‘But now he’s scared shitless of her.’
We can’t find the formula in the kitchen, or in Shane’s room, which is bare, apart from a set of bunks with faded Spiderman duvet covers and a chest of drawers. It looks the bedroom of a child, which it is.
Renae slaps herself on the forehead. ‘It’s in the garden! I was sunbathing!’ We tiptoe through the hall, back past the kitchen, where Shane’s parents are still slack-jawed. ‘Are you sure they’re okay?’
Renae nods dismissively, then looks out the back door.
She groans. ‘I hope the pig-dogs are locked up.’ She looks at me and frowns. ‘Maybe stay here.’
I don’t argue.
She walks cautiously up to the rusty cages and the pig-hunting dogs start snarling and barking. Their ribs are wide and visible underneath their brown and black mottled coats, like raw-pine foundations of a house. The corrugated iron floor is covered in piles of their shit. Renae looks back at me. ‘Phew! They’re locked!
She comes back with a plastic shopping bag. She points at the truck in the driveway. ‘There’s guns in there, you know,’ she says, watching me slyly. Her hands dive into the plastic bag.
‘For pig hunting,’ she explains, losing interest. She holds up a Kit Kat. ‘Want one?’
I’m suddenly starving. The chocolate is warm from the sun. It makes our teeth brown. Renae crinkles her nose. ‘It stinks like shit here,’ she says. ‘Let’s go home.’
That night, I’m woken suddenly by a bump. Mark sleeps on beside me. The reverberations vibrate in my memory. I stare at the ceiling. What was that? Another bump, and then I can hear soft, muffled crying. A heavy bang against the wall and Shanae starts wailing.
‘Stop it, Shane,’ pleads Renae, sobbing. ‘Stop it, you’ve woken the baby.’
His reply is too muffled to hear. I shake Mark awake. He sits up, panicked, his eyes bleary. ‘What’s wrong?’
I’m relieved that he is awake, that I can hand this problem – his sister, his problem – onto him. He will stop Shane. ‘I think Shane is hurting Renae!’
Mark’s face relaxes. ‘That’s it?’ He shrugs. ‘It’s her life.’
He rolls over, turning his back to me and pulls the blanket around his neck. I stare at a mole on his back as he sleeps, filled with shock and disgust, at him, and at myself for not storming in there.
In the morning, I am tight with anger. Mark drops Renae and I at the beach on his way to footy practice. The sky is limp and grey, blanketing the day with cloud and dull light. There are only a few crumbs of warmth left in autumn before the long winter. The waves eat the grass bank in small wet bites. I hold Shanae as she chews thoughtfully on my hair. Renae strips to her bikini and stands, knee-deep, shivering in the shallows.
‘I wish I hadn’t had the baby,’ she says, rubbing at the angry purple stretch marks on her hips and tummy. She looks up. ‘I don’t mean that.’
Shanae wriggles to get down. I lower her, like a fleshy anchor, onto the sand. ‘I know.’
Shanae fists handfuls of sand towards her mouth.
‘Yuck,’ I warn her. ‘Don’t eat it!’
But she stuffs it in her mouth and grimaces as the grains crunch noisily under her tooth-nubs. She looks accusingly at me. How could you let me do this? ‘I told you,’ I shrug. ‘Spit.’
I hold my hand under her chin and she drools sandy mush into it. I wipe her lips and flick the sticky goo onto the sand.
Renae shivers violently in the cold wind. Her skin is blue. I close my eyes and can see her outline still, black against the orange of my eyelids, the curve of her heavy breasts round against her bony body. ‘What was the birth like?’ I ask, opening my eyes. ‘Did it hurt?’
‘The gas makes you out of it,’ Renae laughs. ‘I was seeing rainbows and unicorns and shit!’
She sits down beside me and, still half-naked, deftly rolls a cigarette. I’m trying to build up the courage to bring up last night. ‘Hey,’ I sit down next to her nervously.
‘Does Shane do that a lot?’
‘What? Oh, that.’ She sighs, then shrugs. ‘Whatever. He’s just a dick, sometimes.’ She exhales a smoke ring. ‘Look!’ She splutters in her excitement. ‘Wow, shit man, I’ve been trying to do that for ages.’
The ring drifts away towards the sea. The day is clear enough to see Mako Mako Island. Kids flock there for New Year’s and get hammered on the beach. A boy drowned there once after drinking a bottle of rocket fuel and going swimming. Someone found him washed up on the sand, like an old can.
I try again. ‘It’s pretty hardcore, what he does, ay? Some people – not me, but some people – would say you should break up with him. You know. Because of Shanae.’
She stubs out her rollie on the sand. A miserable wisp of smoke makes a launch for the sky. ‘Yeah, I know.’
We walk barefooted along the road, avoiding the broken glass. My shoulders are pink, despite the chill. Apparently, our ozone layer has disappeared, due to oil burning in Asia, or something. I’m hungry, too.
‘You want an ice-cream?’
Renae nods. ‘Yeah, but I gotta go home and change Shanae.’
‘I’ll get ’em.’
I’m happy to be alone for a minute. I can’t process all of this weekend: the parents on the nod, the casual violence in the night. At the shop, I flick though the women’s magazines. There is a picture of a woman’s casket. On top of the casket is a little card that reads: Mummy.
‘Terrible, isn’t it?’ says the shop lady, wiping her hands on her substantial bosom. She has been eating Cheezels, her fingers are yellow from the flavouring. ‘Poor little boys.’ She lowers her voice, and looks around. ‘They reckon he did it,’ she whispers.
Her eyes widen. ‘You know! Him. The one with the ears.’
I pay for the ice-creams and on a whim, buy the magazine.
Back at the house, I call through the screen doors. ‘Quick! They’re melting!’ I sit on the back step and rip open my ice-cream, and bite through the thick chocolate. The sun is so bright I have to close my eyes. I hear a bang inside. Renae’s ice-cream is looking suspiciously blobby under the wrapper.
Where is she? I stand up and push through the screen door. It swings back and catches me on the back of my heel, cutting into the flesh. Blood spurts onto the lino. Hobbled and wincing, I limp into the lounge. Renae is sitting on the couch, her neck bowed. ‘I cut my foot,’ I whine.
‘You should go,’ she whispers.
She must be angry with me for what I said at the beach. My stomach clenches. But then a bang from behind makes me turn around. It’s Shane and he is holding an old metal tent pole as if it were a cricket bat.
‘You bitch.’ His eyes are pink and swollen. ‘You had to stick your fucken nose in, didn’t ya?’
‘Leave her alone, Shane,’ says Renae, lifting her head. Her lip is bleeding, and her eye is swelling shut. ‘She’s got nothin’ to do with it.’
Ice-cream starts to drip down onto the floor, adding to my blood puddle. I watch it merge into pink swirls. The room feels small and muffled, and too warm. I’m still confused. ‘With what?’
Shane glares at me, his lips twisted. ‘Are you a fucking lezzie or something? Want her for yourself, is that it?’ He bursts out crying then, and holding the pole, smashes it against the table with a crack. We all jump. ‘Now sit down there with her, lezzie’, he sobs. ‘You’re not going nowhere. If you do,’ he adds, ‘I’m gonna get my dad’s guns and shoot youse both in the fucken head!’
‘What do you even want, Shane?’ I say. You’re supposed to want something if you keep people against their will.’ I hear the patronising tone in my voice and hope he doesn’t.
Shane holds the pole up near my head. ‘You told her to break up with me. Fucken lezzie.’
‘Don’t touch her, Shane,’ Renae warns. ‘Mark will smash you if you touch her!’
‘He’s not here, dick!’
‘He’ll be back later and he’s gunna smash you!’
‘I’m not even gunna touch her, Renae, so shut up!’ He meets my eyes for several seconds, then looks down at his bare feet. His toenails are painfully short and ragged, as if mice have nibbled them. ‘You think you’re so smart,’ he says, quietly. ‘But you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’.’
No-one will come home for hours. Mark won’t be back till late and his dad, a butcher, doesn’t return until 9pm. ‘Where’s your mum?’ I asked Renae once. She shrugged. ‘She took off after I was born,’ she said. ‘She’s a piss-head.’
‘Who looked after you then?’
She frowned, puzzled. ‘We did.’
It’s awkward sitting here like this. Shane fidgets with his fingers, and then switches on the telly. Our eyes are all drawn to it. A cartoon is on. Shanae claps her hands. We all stare at the television screen for a few minutes, the too-bright images of a dog and a cat chasing each other. It feels like a normal Saturday. Outside, somewhere, a lawnmower rips into life. Shanae starts to whinge. ‘She’s hungry,’ Renae decides, and stands up from the couch. ‘She needs her bottle.’
‘She’ll live,’ Shane shouts. ‘Sit down!’
‘Stop being such a dick, Shane! Your daughter needs to be fed.’
‘You’re the dick, Renae,’ he shrieks. He swings out with the pole, as if stopping a ball in front of the wickets in cricket. The metal bar slams the side of her thigh. She grimaces with pain. My legs are restless from sitting still and my bladder aches from holding it. Shane rolls a cigarette.
‘Give me one,’ demands Renae, tears still wet on her face. He throws it at her and she puts it between her lips. He rolls another. Tobacco sticks out the end in thin caramel stalks. He pats his pockets, frowns, stands up and leaves the room. I hear him lighting the stovetop. Renae hears it too. She spits out the cigarette and nods her head violently at the door.
‘Go!’ she hisses. ‘Take Shanae and run next door to Lenny’s.’
‘I can’t leave you here,’ I say, unconvincingly. But I want to.
‘Quick,’ she says. ‘Ring the pigs!’
I pick up Shanae and she puts her cold hands on my face. ‘Nose,’ she says.
‘Go!’ Renae hisses.
And I do. I run for it. Push open the back door and I’m out, down the stairs, running as fast as I can across the gravel driveway. I expect Shane to shoot me in the back, like a wild pig. A rock flicked up by my foot hits me on the back of my thigh and I’m sure that it is a bullet. I’ve been shot! The air outside is freezing, my feet are bare. The gravel cuts my soles. Shanae giggles as she is bounced up and down. Puffing, I climb up the neighbor’s steps and knock furiously on the door. A dog barks hysterically.
‘Shut up, Gary!’ A man yells from within the house. ‘Bed! Get in your bed!’ Footsteps, and then the door is opened by an old man with nicotine-fingers. ‘Hello?’ He squints at me. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m a friend of Renae’s,’ I explain. ‘Murray’s daughter?’
Recognition floods his face. ‘Yes, I know Murray,’ he says. ‘Come in, come in.’ Lenny makes me a cup of weak tea in a dirty cup and sits Shanae at the table with a bag of salt and vinegar chips. ‘I’m not sure if she can have those yet,’ I say, holding my hand over the phone receiver. The police dispatcher is sending a car. Shanae shoves a handful in her mouth. ‘She seems to be doing alright,’ Lenny says, drily.
‘Chips,’ says Shanae.
Crumbs fall on the ground, onto her legs. Gary stands on his hind legs with his paws on Shanae’s lap, tilts his head to the side and licks the salty crumbs off her chubby legs.
‘Gary,’ Lenny warns, sharply. Gary darts him a nervous look and pretends not to hear. His long pink tongue snakes up closer to the chip bag. Lenny stands up and pushes back his chair. The metal legs squeak loudly on the lino. Gary quickly jogs back to his bed. His nails make sharp clipping noises. He settles in, leans his chin on the edge of his bed and watches us resentfully. Lenny gives him a long, reproachful stare then shakes his head.
‘Poor Murray,’ he says. ‘Those kids have always been a handful. If they were my kids, I woulda taken my belt to ’em.’
‘Do you have kids?’ I ask politely.
The tea has left a bitter taste in my mouth. He snorts. ‘Kids! Do I look like an idiot? I’ve got Gary.’
Red and blue lights flicker on the walls and he nods at me.
‘Must be a slow day at the station,’ he says, and tipping back his head, drains his cup. ‘Come on then,’ he says to Gary. The dog leaps ecstatically, from his bed and runs so fast that, for a few seconds, he runs on the spot, his paws unable to get traction on the tiled floor.
The two policemen are already in the house. Renae catches my eye and waves, as if there was a crowd between us, instead of just two metres of kitchen.
‘Don’t worry,’ she shouts, cheerily. ‘He took off.’
One of the policemen is tall, and although much older than us, young for a police officer. His chin and cheeks are soft and pink. He crouches down and writes on a form pressed against his muscular knee. Renae smiles at him, nods and agrees with all his suggestions. Press charges? Yes. Restraining order? Of course! She slides a pink tube out of her pocket and rubs it back and forth across her lips until they are slick with moisture. ‘That’s better,’ she says and slowly rubs her lips together. ‘They were so dry.’
He asks her to come by the station tomorrow to take photos. ‘The bruises will show up better,’ he explains, enthusiastically. The older policeman breathes noisily through his nose and writes in a battered notebook. His hands shake, and his cheeks are bright red. He doesn’t say a word.
‘We’re gunna go pick him up now,’ says the young cop. ‘Can’t have got far.’
We sit backwards on the couch and watch the police leave through the mesh curtains. Shanae stands on my lap. ‘Your feet are frozen,’ I tell her, and finding a pile of odd socks on the couch, I pull them onto her feet.
My gut is still shaky, but Renae and Shanae seem unperturbed. The two officers climb into their car and shut the doors, but don’t drive away. The older one speaks into a radio. The younger one tips back his head and drinks from a plastic bottle. We watch his throat roll as if he is swallowing marbles. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘I wonder if they’ve got guns in there,’ Renae whispers, her chin pressed against the back of the couch. Shanae pulls at the socks until they hang off the end of her toes like elf slippers. ‘I can’t wait to tell Shane that they brought guns.’
‘You are going to really break up with him, aren’t you?’ I ask apprehensively. She keeps staring through the window as though she hasn’t heard me. ‘I mean – think of Shanae.’ My voice sounds squeaky, like a rat.
‘You know cops in America have guns on their belts,’ Renae says, facing me, her eyes wide with excitement.
Her name separates into billions of dust-sized particles that float around the room, then dissipate, like breath on glass. All the pregnant girls are here in the room, their stomachs pushing against the neon yellow school shirts, their fetuses floating in the air on their umbilical cords like fleshy piñatas. Shane’s parents, on the nod, are slumped at the table. Mark is here too. Or is he? It was Mark at first, his dirty words and fingers, his brown skin, but now he has faded away, and it’s just her and Shanae. Maybe it was always just them.
‘I think that cop wants to root me,’ Renae says.
On her thighs, large bruises are appearing in swirls of mottled blue and grey, like jellyfish rising towards the surface of her skin. Her face is swollen. She looks much older than fourteen.
The room feels too small. I can’t bear to be in here another minute. I should call someone. But who? Child protection services? Her dad? Mark?
You think you’re so smart, but you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’.
Renae stands, and her denim shorts slip down her bony hips. She yanks them up with one hand, as if they were a sodden nappy, and looks wearily at me and Shanae. ‘He is kind of cute, right?’