Dad’s fluoro workshirt hung on the back of the chair for what seemed like all summer. Some bright swipe where he’d dropped jam stuck, smeared, to the breast pocket. All through the house, it seemed the only slash of colour. It was abrupt: a nearly violent red, a power surge in the gloom. Every morning it caught me, as I ran for the door. Every night.
It was the way silence held a new grip around each of our throats, like a force, a sentient hand in a science-fiction film. The newspapers arrived, even though we no longer paid for them. Piling up outside the door, bulging with text, more words constricted. All that plastic wrap and so little rain. Rex had taken to kicking them each morning, further each time, more violently with each kick, until our lawn was strewn with them. A graveyard of unwanted opinions.
Being the youngest, being the girl, I pieced together what I could from sidemouth gossip, snide words picked up off the bitumen. From teachers barely muzzled by duty. From the holes Dad left in the wall. From Mum’s fingers, burned bronze with caustic soda.
Each morning, the smell of fresh paint seeped up through my window somehow, like a living thing. I’d find Mum out there scrubbing at the front wall, peering up at me, eyes red and unfocused. Whatever had been written on our door would be now a weak and bleeding shape. I’d get up, and Rex would be there, in his room, wearing yesterday’s clothes. White knuckles. Fucken Stop, he’d say. Fucken Go. How hard is that? I wanted my brother to stop saying it, but I knew he wouldn’t.
Finally, I unrolled a paper and switched on the news. Those Poor Kids. This is what they’d become. Fresh faces unnaturally caught in school-photo freeze-frames. Nothing like they were, I’m sure. The forehead of the driver – a blonde broken-nosed type, a footy player and a swimmer – had an acne streak nearly purple meeting at the ridge of his cheek. I pictured him fighting to the top, in that stark desperation so often brought out by high school, pounding his feet, his fists, for the glory of adolescent anonymity. And now he was glorious, immortal even, in death.
His one passenger: she was the real story, the real reason they sold papers. She was why newscasters caked on the early evening makeup. Her name, already tailor-made for smooth repetition. Her chocolate-almond eyes. Her wide white smile that no matter of pixelating, of dot-matrixing, could ever diminish. She was the real reason anyone cared. Of this I was sure.
Dad’s shirt, still on the chair. The jam stain and the pocket and his name printed above it. I focused hard on the council logo, a black squiggle stitched on in acrylic. His boots, tanned with churned up dust. Fingers pushed deep to his prickly hair.