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Short Story Prize

First place, Neilma Sidney Prize: The trip

I’d wished I’d brushed my teeth. They were always telling me that. Brush your teeth, they’d say and I’d say I have, I have, even when I hadn’t. Then they’d get smart and would want to smell my breath, which is totally gross. I’d say, no way, gross. And they’d say, go brush your teeth and so I would because there’s only so much luck you can push with your grandparents.

But on this day, I hadn’t brushed my teeth.

Joey and me had been living with Pop and Grandma for ages. It was fun at first but it changed. It changed because it became forever. How long will we be here? I asked that a lot because I liked to know things. Not too long, they’d say and Pop would give me one of his toffees that stuck to the roof of my mouth. Then, one time when I asked Grandma how long will we be here, she said, forever, okay, for-­fucking-ever. Joey laughed. I cried. That’s the way it was.

Until that day she turned up.

I knew it was her before I even saw her. That’s intuition or sixth sense or something. Whatever it is, it’s special and I have it. Grandma came into our bedroom and said, just stay here a sec, even though I had to get ready for school and then she shut the door. Joey started pissing me off and I told him to shut up. I said, I need to think but he didn’t care. He kicked the wall with his feet and I thought hang on, hang on, why did Grandma close the door?

It didn’t take me much thinking time to work it out. Mum. It was Mum. She was here and Grandma didn’t want us to see her. For some reason. Maybe because I’d get my hopes up, which is something Grandma would always say about me. Stop getting your hopes up, she would say and I’d wonder what was wrong with having hopes up. Where else should they be?

I told Joey, stay where you are and got the hell out of there so I could see Mum with my own two eyes.

And I did.

I found Mum in the lounge room with Grandma. They were standing on either side of the coffee table like it was some kind of fence between them. When Mum saw me she said something like, here’s my baby even though I am way too old to be called a baby. She held out her arms like she wanted me to run into them for a cuddle so I did. She smelt like flowers and smoke. Grandma said, go back to your room but Mum said no, no, let her stay and we sat on the sofa. Together.

Grandma clicked her tongue the way she did when she couldn’t get the vacuum cleaner to work.

Mum said guess what? and I couldn’t guess so I smiled at her instead and then she finally said we’re going on a trip. You and me. And I said Disneyland because that’s what I’d always wish for when I blew out the candles on my birthday cake and she said don’t be fucking stupid and Grandma made that clicking noise again. Mum brushed the hair from my forehead and smiled like she was sorry so I smiled back.

Me and Mum were going on a trip, even though it was a school day (but I didn’t tell her that part because I didn’t want her to change her mind). Grandma took a deep breath like she was about to tell Mum I had to go to school and I tried to send her a message with my brain that said Don’t-­Mention-School. And she didn’t. Instead, Grandma said what about Joey? and I wanted to slap her wrinkled face and pull her clicking tongue right out of her mouth. Mum hadn’t even mentioned Joey. She only said you and me which meant just us. Me and Mum. Not Joey. Couldn’t I do something on my own for once? But Mum got all excited and clapped her hands and said yeah, yeah, yeah, of course Joey … go and get him, won’t ya?

So I did. Even though I didn’t want to.

Our trip, our special trip, turned out to be a drive down to the shops. She said it would be fun. Heaps fun. We were going to get hot chips and maybe a milkshake. Even though it was the morning. A school day morning. I didn’t tell her it wasn’t that special, that we go to the shops all the time, because she looked so excited about it. It was her treat, to make up for being gone so long. Too long. Only, she wasn’t back for good, not yet, not that day. No. She was only here for the day but soon, soon she’d be back forever. Grandma did the click, click, click that I hate, hate, hate and said don’t get their hopes up Michelle because that’s my mum’s name. Michelle, my Mum, said ignore her kids, she’s a bitch and that made Joey laugh. I shoved him hard to get him to shut up. He always laughs when the air goes fuzzy and my body starts to tingle. I hate that he does that.

Mum took Joey’s baby seat out of Grandma’s car and started strapping it into her own. Her bum hung out of the open car door and waved back and forth. I could see the top of her knickers. They were bright pink and cut into her skin. It made me feel sad. I tried not to look.

I sat in the front with Mum and Joey sat in his seat in the back. I would have waved goodbye but Grandma had gone inside and closed the front door before we’d even left the driveway.

We drove right past the school and I wanted to ask Mum to beep the horn and let me wind down the window and shout sucked in suckers to all the sad kids who didn’t have a Mum like mine. But I didn’t. I was still scared she might change her mind and send me to school. I hoped she wouldn’t notice all the backpacks and stupid hats. She didn’t. She turned the radio up loud and sang to a song I didn’t know. She said, don’t you know this one? And I don’t know why but I said, yeah, yeah. And she said, sing with me and I said, I wanna hear you, you’ve got a nice voice because she did. She sang good. She took her hand off the steering wheel and squeezed my hand which made me nervous because you’re always meant to have two hands on the steering wheel. I knew that. At ten and two. Like a clock. Pop would say that. That was safety. And part of me wanted to say, two hands on the wheel but part of me felt so good that she was holding my hand that I ignored safety and let her do it. Joey must have noticed that I was getting something he wasn’t because he started whingeing a bit. That stupid errrrr noise he makes.

Mum turned around to look at him and moved her hand from mine so she could tickle his feet. That made him laugh. I said safety first, Mum, two hands on the wheel. And she said, don’t be such an uptight pain in the arse and that made Joey laugh again.

I didn’t know what uptight meant but I knew what a pain in the arse was and I didn’t want to be one. The words made my face and my eyes turn hot. I looked out of my window. She tickled the back of my neck and said sorry love. I turned to face her and quickly kissed her hand before she could pull it away because something just made me do it and she said that’s weird and I said I love you, Mum, and she said you too, kiddo. And then she smiled and I smiled and it was okay.

We missed the turn off for the shops. I said, Mum that’s the turn off for the shops and she said, whoops like it was some big joke and I said, you can go the other way, near the swimming pool because I was good at remembering that because I’d done swimming lessons there. I wanted to tell her about swimming lessons and how I could float but not dive, not yet, but she was singing another song that I didn’t know.

She drove right past the swimming pool. I said, here, here, you’ve gotta turn here and she said, Jesus Christ would you let it go and I wished I knew the words to the songs she was singing.

I used my brainpower to send Joey a message to ask her where we were going. I squeezed my eyes really tight and waited and waited. But he was a dumb baby and couldn’t get my messages. I would have sent the message straight to Mum but I didn’t want her to think I was being uptight and not letting it go.

I let myself imagine we were going to the airport to get on a plane to Disneyland. That is was some kind of surprise that Grandma and Pop and Mum and everyone was in on. Sometimes I let myself think things that can’t be true just to feel those butterflies in my stomach. They jump around as if that great thing that can’t be true could, actually, be true and will, actually, happen. Like at school assemblies when they give out the merit certificates. I always think that they’ll say my name right at the end, after everyone has already got their certificate and is about to leave the stage. I imagine that Mrs Chan goes back to the microphone and says quiet, quiet everyone and they all shut up and then she says, there is one, very special, award left for one, very special girl and then she announces my name and the butterflies fly from the top of my head, through the strands of my hair and everyone cheers. It never happens but it feels good to imagine it sometimes.

Mum said how fucking depressing is this shithole, right kids? And I said right and Joey said shit and that made Mum laugh. She turned the radio down and said okay, let’s get out of here then, as if it were our idea. Mine and Joey’s. I said aren’t we going to the shops and she said there are other shops, I’ll take you to other shops, better shops.

We drove past the petrol station that wasn’t a petrol station anymore and the deli and the fish and chip shop. We drove past the trolleys that stood at the bus stop as if they were going to get on the bus and ask the driver for one ticket please. Where would they go? Those broken down trolleys. We drove over the bridge and I held my breath because that’s what you do when you drive over the bridge. I couldn’t get the whole way. On the other side of the bridge, there was the oval where Pop used to play football until Grandma said enough of this madness, you’re an old man. We drove further than I’d ever gone before. I didn’t recognise anything. I couldn’t say to Mum, that’s Charlie’s house where I had a sleepover party or that’s the path where we got swooped by an angry magpie. I had so many stories to tell her, she had missed so much.

There wasn’t much to look at, only cars and trucks and more cars. There were giant billboards of pretty ladies in dresses and McDonald’s burgers and smiling families. There were green signs with arrows and numbers and names of places I sounded out and whispered to myself. The roads were wider than I’d ever seen and there heaps of us all going the same way. I asked Mum where all these people were going and she said, somewhere beautiful. My tummy sounded like a sad dog and I punched it a bit to make it shut up.

We pulled over because Joey had pooed himself and the smell was getting too much for Mum. Even after we wound down the windows and she had a smoke. It was a bad one. That’s it, she said but her voice wasn’t angry and she pulled off the big road onto a smaller one and that’s when I saw it. The biggest petrol station I’d ever seen. Inside, it sold everything you could think of, everything you could ever need. Lollies and chocolate bars and magazines and toys. I stopped to look at these cute little monkeys with Velcro on their hands, so you could wrap them right around your neck. I concentrated real hard to get a message to Mum’s brain to buy me one. The pink one with green eyes. The pink one with the green eyes. I already had a name chosen for her and everything. But Mum didn’t get my message, she said move it and I did.

The Ladies smelt like the swimming pool. There was water all over the floor and a sign telling us not to slip, as if a sign can control that kind of thing. There was a lady staring in the mirror. When she noticed us she said sorry and Mum said no, no. The lady said, cute kids and Mum looked like she full of colour and light.

I sat on the toilet and tried to go because Mum told me to. I could hear her in the toilet next to me telling Joey he was a good boy, good boy.

Back in the car, we had donuts and chocolate milk which wasn’t quite the same as hot chips and a milkshake. But Joey had wanted donuts. He would have the biggest meltdowns over donuts. One time, he lay on the floor and punched and kicked and screamed blue murder, as Pop would say, over donuts.  Mum must have had a sixth-­sense about that because she didn’t even risk it. As soon as he pointed at the donuts she said, great idea, Jo-­Jo. She called him that. Jo-­Jo. She had made him a new name from his real name. Jo-­Jo. I wanted a new name from my real name and the pink monkey. I didn’t get either.

We kept driving. The billboards became hills of green and brown, the cars and trucks turned into sheep and cows. I told Mum about the petting zoo that visited my school and the chooks in Charlie’s yard and how I can do really good animal impressions. The cow and the lion were my favourites. She clapped her hands and said how cool is your sister, Joey? No one had ever called me cool before.

My head dropped forward and my eyes flicked back open. I’d be awake and then, bam, like that, I’d be falling asleep again. Joey snored in the back. He did that. He was noisy even when he was asleep. Mum said have a nap and her words were like magic. Bam. I fell asleep.

It was the bumpiness that woke me. I was lifted out the seat and then smacked back down. Up and down, up and down I went. I thought my head would crash right through the top of the car. I said, slow down, Mum, slow down. We were on a road that wasn’t a road. Not a real road anyway. It was a road of rocks and bumps. There were trees flashing past me, the sunlight breaking through the spaces and making me feel sick, sick, sick. I told her. I’m gonna throw up, Mum and she said go back to sleep. But I couldn’t. Her words had lost their magic. I turned around to check on Joey but somehow he was still asleep. He was bouncing around and around in his seat. I said, Mum, his seatbelt isn’t right and she said, I know what I’m fucking doing and I wished Joey had heard her because swear words made him laugh.

And that’s when I threw up.

As I turned back to look straight ahead, the way I was meant to when I felt sick in the car, it just came up. My lips buzzed, my face went cold and then out it came.

All over Mum’s arm. She shouted, for fuck’s sake and that made Joey wake up and start laughing and laughing. I cried. Mum wound down her window and screamed to the wind.

We stopped at a place Mum called the Lookout. She grabbed Wet Ones and tissues and gave me her water bottle. I was meant to rinse out my mouth, to spit out all the vomit that was stuck in between my teeth and in the back of my throat. I wished I’d brushed my teeth. I wanted my toothbrush. I wanted to go home. But Mum said, I’m showing you something beautiful, stop whingeing.

There was a low fence to stop us driving right off the top of the Lookout. I sloshed the water around in my mouth and spat it over the edge. I thought about us driving through the fence and sailing through the sky, over the treetops and mountains and deserts and oceans before landing, bam, in the middle of Disneyland. The butterflies returned to my tummy. I’d keep them there for a while.

We sat across the fence. Me and Mum and Joey. She said breathe it in kids, breathe it in.

And so we did.

 

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Katy is a Melbourne-based writer of plays and stories. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Prize and the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Prize. Her debut novel will be published by Black Inc in 2018.

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