The trees hummed with the sound of summer, insects clicking and magpies warbling overhead. It was too hot for so late in the year, and as they walked their boots crunched the dead leaves at their feet, their soles imprinted behind them.
‘Gonna storm,’ Jeb said.
She looked up at the sky, the sun burning white against the deep blue. ‘Not yet it’s not.’
Closer to the river the leaves turned to stones, then tiny pebbles, rubbed smooth by water. When they were children and their grandpa used to bring them out this way the river was so deep that she was always a bit scared. Jeb would help her sometimes, hold her hand until she felt brave enough. Other times he would laugh at her, holding her hand just long enough then letting go, making her shriek in fear, then jumping on her, trying to push her under.
A fly buzzed around her face. She swiped at it, but it kept darting back as soon as her hand was still. Trying to reach the saltiness of her eye.
‘It’ll lay eggs if it gets to ya,’ he said.
She smiled a half-smile.
They reached a clearing and he turned a circle. Found a log, not yet rotted through. Sat down, expelling air from his lungs with the effort of it.
He was dirty, his dank hair plastered on his scalp, his fingernails blackened. She wondered where he had been living. He looked like he hadn’t slept for a long time. His eyes were bloodshot and uneasy, constantly looking around, like he was expecting to have to run at any second. She tried to think how long it had been since he left, three years maybe? She was almost an adult now. And he, he had the air of a much older man even though he was only four years older than she.
A dragonfly darted in front of them, dipping into the water; out again. Leaving silent ripples.
There was a time before Jeb left that the house was full of her mother’s shouting and bottles smashing against the walls. Telling Jeb he was no good and why didn’t he just leave them the fuck alone he brought nothing but trouble to the family. Anything they had he would steal, sell it to someone down the town. Use the money for God-knows-what. She would crawl into the space beneath her bed to get away from them and lie there, hidden.
She went into his room once, looking for a football or Frisbee or something of the sort. Pulled clothes out from the bottom of the closet until her hand made contact with something solid. She tugged harder, pulling the package out; before she knew what she was doing she had picked at the sticky tape around the black plastic until a corner came loose. Her fingers found the neatly stacked notes, elastic bands holding them in place. Bundles of them. She knew she shouldn’t have been in there. Snooping. She tried to forget the feeling of her stomach dropping and her vision going black, the feeling of not being sure if there was still solid earth beneath her feet, when she turned and saw him standing there. He stared at her for a long time, his hand twitching by his side, as if he was fighting the urge to strike at her.
She would wish from her bed fortress that he would leave them. She would wish that he would go far away, feeling sick when she came home to find him screaming at their ma again, for money, for food, for anything. Feeling like he stared at her with empty eyes, never knowing how he was going to react. Then, finally, when he had left, she came home from school to find her mother slumped at the kitchen table, empty bottles beside her. He’s gone. Your brother’s gone, she slurred again and again. The silence in the days after was almost worse than the fighting.
She heard people round town say that they’d seen him. That rough looking Jeb Mitchell boy, they’d say. Saw him down by the river again. Bad sort that family. Always said it. No father around, drunkard for a mother. No wonder that one turned out bad, it’s only a matter of time for the girl, you watch. They’d stop dead when they noticed her. Her eyes challenging, daring them to say more. They would avert their gaze and walk away, heads down.
Weeks later they would find something, a dead bird on their porch or their favourite plant uprooted; blaming cats or wild dogs because, what else could it be?
Every so often she would catch glimpses of Jeb. As if he was lurking on the outskirts of town, as if he was sticking around, waiting for something to happen. Coming into town if he needed something. Once she thought she saw his face reflected back at her in a shop window but when she turned around it was another man. Older, weather-beaten. The crook of his nose different. His mouth all wrong.
She spent her days watching, keeping an eye out for him. Walking from school down the road until the bitumen turned into a track through the prickles of the shrubs that lined the path, not worrying that they were scratching, scraping at her. Feeling relief at the pain when they broke the skin, tiny droplets of blood dropping onto the dirt. She would pick at the scabs, letting them heal just enough then pulling them off, always pleased when it left a faint scar.
She would swim in the river, taking off her uniform and hanging it on a tree carefully, even though it was threadbare and the shirt had holes in the arms. She didn’t want Ma to have to buy a replacement. She had her bathers in her bag, and sometimes to save time she wore them all day but it made her itch. Once she had forgotten them, and had to wear her undies instead. The water made the cotton of her knickers sag. She thought she saw a man in the bushes, watching her, but when she looked again there was nothing. She called out, calling him a filthy perv, just in case there was someone there.
She didn’t swim without bathers after that.
She would bring things with her if she could, small offerings that she could steal without Ma noticing. Flour sometimes, sugar, or tiny piles of salt. Using a broken pen lid to indent the words: FLUR. SUGA. SALT. Making foil presents that she would hide in her book bag until her next visit to the river. She left them in the same spot, on a smooth flat rock polished by strokes of water from before the drought came. The river used to be a kilometre across; now she could swim it in six strokes.
The packages would pile up. Silver turning yellow, then brown. The ants making easy work to get the sugar until there was nothing. She hoped Jeb found them and knew that it was her leaving food for him. She wondered if he would be pleased. She sat on the rock for a long time after that, holding back the tears that were welling in her eyes, trying not to think about how much she missed him.
It surprised her.
Her ma asked her once, Where ya go afta school? Ma was outside, waiting for her, standing by the letter box that had been crooked ever since some local boys had driven past, hitting all the boxes on the street with a bat, hooting with frenzied joy. Ma had run braless out of the house that day, breasts heavily pointing towards the ground and slapping together as she ran. Screaming at them to come back and try again if they were real men. They laughed at her. Ugly, empty sounds.
She lied and said that she went to a friend’s to do her homework. Her ma never questioned that. Never asked what friend. She had a name prepared, just in case. A real name, of a girl in her class who was pretty and popular and had only once pulled her hair and called her names.
And only once had this girl found a lorikeet on her porch, its chest stained red and its eyes staring.
Everything sounded tired of the heat, suffocating. She pulled at her shirt, wanting it off her neck. She wanted to strip down; to dive into the cool water. Have it wash over her and get clean again. She could feel sweat starting to trickle down her back. The dust streaking sweat, leaving maps on her body.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small package; tiny pieces of blackened silver fluttered to the ground as he unwrapped it. He pulled off a piece of damper and passed it to her. She ate it, nodding her thanks, feeling the dryness on her tongue. The bread caught in her throat and made her eyes water. She hoped he wouldn’t see her tears as something else.
She thought of him making the bread, just like Grandpa taught them, years ago. Smoothing out pieces of foil and making as much of a bowl out of them as he could. Mixing a couple of handfuls of flour with water. Using tiny pinches of salt and sugar. Patting down the fire so he could lodge the foil parcel into the coals. Pushing the burning embers over the top with a stick to make sure it cooked all the way through. The thought made her glad. Glad to be able to help him.
They ate in silence. Him sitting, her standing a few feet away. She picked up the foil that had fallen, and handed it back to him. He put it in his pocket without looking at her.
‘It’s gonna break soon,’ he said.
She didn’t know what he meant so she didn’t reply.
He picked up a stone and lobbed it hard into the water. The sound made a crow take flight, its wings beating the air beneath it. ‘Be a good one, that one,’ he said, baring his teeth in a non-smile. ‘A good one. Remember how I taught you? To get it right ’tween the eyes. Makes ’em bleed from the eyeballs.’
He paused. Then, his face hard, ‘Ya gotta leave this place; this town’ll rot you from the inside out.’ Reaching into the bag lying at his feet, he pulled out a bundle of something wrapped loosely in black plastic and threw it to her. ‘Here. That’ll get you set up, Cass.’ She let it fall, and it landed in the red dirt with a thud. He stared at her, unblinking.
She shook her head once, a tiny movement. Not leaving Ma. The words stuck in her throat.
She watched the crow as it turned into a speck of nothing in the sky.
First published by Westerley New Creative, which is available for free download here: https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/new-creative/