TW: Mentions of suicide, abusive parents, swearing
|This is draft 2 of my novel. It's so much better than draft 1, but I know it still needs work. If you could help me figure out exactly what it needs, that would be amazing!!
My biggest concerns are that it:
-Jumps back and forth too fast
-Is too fast-paced
-Is too matter-of-fact, not enough emotion and reflection
-Doesn't provide enough time to take in what is happening or to relate to and understand Eryl as a character and narrator
Also I need something to neatly finish and round off the ending. Just a couple of sentences. Anyway, thank you and enjoy!!
It was the fragments of glass glittering in the sunlight that first warned me that something was wrong. They lay scattered across the front lawn, far more lovely than they had any right to be. The shell of my telescope was sprawled across the grass.
The second warning was my little brother sitting on the front steps, curled over himself like a question mark with his hands over his ears.
He didn’t move.
‘Jamie, what’s happened?’ I knelt in front of him to see his cheeks flooded with red and his eyes squinted shut. I carefully pulled his sweaty hands away from his ears. ‘Jamie?’
His eyes opened and met mine and he burst into a fresh flood of tears.
Jesus. My heart squeezed in my chest. Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong.
‘I’ll be right back, Jamie, okay? I’ll be just two seconds. I just need to see if everyone’s okay. I’m so sorry. I’ll be right back.’
I pushed open the front door and stumbled inside. Something was hanging in the air, something heavy and cold. ‘Mum? Dad?’
There was only silence.
My mother’s words ran together like liquid.
I turned into the kitchen to see her sitting at the table, pouring a glass of wine from a bottle that was more than half-empty.
‘What, to the shops?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that he’s given up on you, on me, on your brother, and he’s left.’
‘When will he be back?’
Mum drained the wine in two gulps and clumsily wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘When his sons aren’t the biggest disappointments he could ever imagine.’
At night on the street outside our house, the only lights came from passing cars. Houses were too far away to cast any light onto the street, and the local council was too underfunded to give us streetlights. So when you stand on the side of the road when it’s dark, all the cars rush past in whips of wind, but not before that mortal terror that you’re about to die wraps itself around your stomach and grips you tight. I tried to loosen that same grip as I turned away from my mum to go back to Jamie.
I sat on the step beside Jamie and pulled him to my chest. I rocked him back and forth gently, my heart pounding. ‘It’s okay, Jame-o, I’m here. I’m here. You’re okay. We’re okay.’
‘I got home from school,’ he choked, ‘and they were yelling, and it scared me, and I wanted to leave, but I’m not allowed past the steps on my own, so I stayed here, and I could hear Dad saying they’re embarrassing! And Mum was saying please don’t go, and Dad said….Dad said I can’t stand to stay here. Not with sons that make me flinch when they call me Dad because they’re not anything I could be proud of. It was meant to be so much better than this! So Mum said so you’re just going to leave? Because it’s not what you wanted? And Dad said pass me my glasses, and Mum just started screaming and crying and saying I don’t know what to do without you, I don’t know how to be without you. And Dad said figure it out and then he left. He didn’t even look at me. He broke the telescope.’
Jamie rubbed at his eyes, breathing shakily.
I rubbed his shoulder uselessly, trying to keep from trembling. Or throwing up.
‘Dad really swore?’ I choked out. ‘He never does that.’
Jamie nodded. He was only seven, too young to be repeating those words, but it wasn’t the time to address it. ‘Mum’s really upset...let’s go see if we can help.’
He nodded into my chest. The two of us stood and went inside to our mother, who was pouring the last of the wine into her glass.
‘Mum? Mum, are you okay? Is there anything we can do?’ I asked, reaching for her hand.
The second our fingers touched, she snatched her hand away. She snarled at us like some vicious animal, her teeth and lips stained red with wine. Jamie flinched.
‘Don’t you touch me,’ Mum hissed, her tongue dripping with venom. She stared Jamie straight in the eyes. ‘He’s gone because of you, you know. He couldn’t stand you anymore. Because there’s something wrong with you.’
I winced. She turned to me. ‘You know, don’t you? You’ve known as long as we have. That he’s years behind everyone else his age. That he’s goddamn slow. A retard.’
Jamie whimpered but Mum still wasn’t done.
‘When you were born-’ she hissed at him, ‘-there was a crow outside, watching. That’s an omen of death. And I was in so much pain, and I cried out for your father, and he left. And ever since then he’s been leaving a little bit more every fucking day and now he’s gone, because of you! If it wasn’t for you, I’d still have a husband!’
In slow motion, I watched her hands rise, I watched them push on Jamie’s chest, I watched Jamie fall back, impossibly slowly. I watched him hit the ground.
A volcano woke up inside me. It erupted without warning, its lava oozing into my ears, my fingers, my toes. Hands wrapped around my throat and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed.
I blinked and then somehow my mother was on the kitchen floor, holding her head and looking at me like...well, like I’d just shoved her.
I was twelve years old and had hurt my mother.
I grabbed Jamie’s hand, pulled him up off the floor, asked if he was okay, barely listened to his hushed yes. The two of us left together. We knew where we were going. Chris Tulloch’s uncle started making a treehouse for the neighbourhood kids about half a block away. He got most of it done before he fell and twisted his ankle and swore he’d never climb a tree again. It was still there, half-finished and hollow. It was Jamie’s favourite place.
The two of us sat in it side by side, shoulder to shoulder. There was no roof in the treehouse, so I could stare at the sky, longing for the stars. My chest ached. I wanted to scream. But I couldn’t scare Jamie. He was sobbing hard enough as it was. I pulled my tiny notebook and a pen out of my back pocket. I’d scream on paper, I decided. I scribbled something barely legible, then let my notebook fall from my hands. I fixed my eyes on the wall opposite. So this is what it feels like to fall apart.
‘What do we do now, Erry?’ My heart shuddered. He hadn’t called me that since he was about four, when the letters of my name were too many to fit in his tiny mouth.
I sighed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Do we...do we try to find Dad? Try to get him to come home?’
‘Jame-o, I don’t know where to start looking. And even if we find him…’ I trailed off. I didn’t know how I could finish the sentence.
‘He probably won’t come back,’ Jamie whispered. He sniffed. ‘What about Mum?’
‘What about her?’
Jamie wriggled where he sat. ‘How...how do I make it better?’
My god, I thought. He believes her. ‘Jamie, she’s…she’s just really sad that Dad left. Really really sad. And she couldn't bear to be the one at fault. So she blamed you, but I don’t think she blames you really. It’s about their marriage, not about you.’
For the first time ever, he could tell that I was lying.
‘I think we just have to live for us, now. Just for ourselves and each other.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Well, uh, before, we went to school to get good grades and make Mum and Dad proud, right?’
‘Well, now we’ll work hard to make ourselves proud. And to learn lots and grow as people.’
Jamie laughed, somehow. My heart lightened. ‘You sound like one of those weird booklets from church.’
‘I’m serious, though,’ I told him. ‘Like, before, you were going to be a soccer player, right? Both of us were. But that was just to make Dad happy. Right?’
‘But you have to think about what makes you happy. Not Dad, not Mother, not me. And work towards that.’
‘What makes me happy?’
‘Exactly. So what makes you happiest in all the world?’
He blinked at me. Then he smiled. ‘Stars. Planets.’
‘Perfect. So maybe be an astronomer. Study the skies. Design spacecraft. Or be an astronaut, and go to the moon, or to Mars.’
‘No...where was it you took me that time? The place with the really big telescopes?’
‘Yeah! Yeah I want to have one of those. Is that okay?’
‘No, Jamie, that’s perfect. So long as it makes you happy, and it’s for you and no one else, it’s perfect.’
He nodded. ‘Okay. I’ll run an observatory.’
‘Yes!’ I held my hand up for him to high-five. He did so, but timidly. Not with anywhere near his usual energy.
‘So what will you do then? I know you don’t want to be a soccer player either.’
I thought for a moment. ‘I’ve never thought about it, really.’
Jamie nodded seriously, then wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
I shrugged. ‘I could be a writer. Or I could run the observatory with you.’
My little brother grinned. ‘Perfect.’ He lay his head on my shoulder. ‘One day we’ll leave, and we’ll find our observatory.’
We sat in silence for a little while. It was cold that day, colder than usual. I remembered that Jamie used to try and count his goosebumps when he was little.
‘It was so scary hearing them shout,’ he whispered.
‘I’m sorry, Jamie. I am, I really am.’
‘It’s not your fault. How do we fix it with Mum?’ He asked hesitantly. ‘Should we buy her flowers? Are roses still her favourite?’
‘Jamie...look, Jamie. This...I don’t think….’
‘I can’t fix it, can I?’
‘It’s not yours to fix. It’s not your fault, hear me?’
‘But it is. She said so. And she’s right. About me.’
I still didn’t cry. I couldn’t. I just held Jamie to my chest and swore, promised, guaranteed in any way I could think of, that Mother was wrong, that he was whole.
Even then I knew he didn’t believe me.
He picked up the notebook to read what I’d written, but I snatched it away before he could:
Glass women are so easily fractured.
You splintered and exploded, and you sliced us to ribbons.
We bled to death on your kitchen floor
And you didn’t bat an eye.
You were set alight and tried to burn us
You should have scorched us to ash
But you left us smouldering and sparking
We have time, and energy enough
To grow into brothers ablaze,
And burn you to the fucking ground.
We stayed there for hours, watching the stars appear one by one, until finally the sky was full of them. Jamie stared at them intently, like he was putting them in alphabetical order. I nudged him gently. ‘Tell me about the stars,’ I whispered. ‘Tell me some facts.’ Jamie smiled a little.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘the light from the stars takes ages to get here. It takes ages and ages to travel through space. So when they die, we won’t know, because the light will still be coming.’
A sudden sound in the dark made us both stiffen. Every horror story we’d ever heard was flashing through our minds. Then the wind blew again and a leaf whispered across the treehouse floor. I felt Jamie’s shoulders slump with relief beside me as we both realized that it was the source of the sound. He turned his eyes to the sky again.
‘So all the stars could be dead. All of them,’ he whispered.
My chest tightened at the look on his face and I rushed to fix it. ‘Wait - say there’s a planet twice as far from a star as we are. The light would take twice as long to reach it, right?’
‘So the light just keeps going and going through the universe, lighting up planet after planet, forever and forever, even after it’s died?’
Jamie blinked at me, his eyes wide. A lock of hair fell into his eyes. ‘...Yeah! Like - like infinity light!’
He was so excited, he stood up and bounced on the spot, clapping his hands together. The treehouse wobbled unnervingly beneath me and I held out a hand. ‘Shit man, sit down.’
Jamie’s grin widened and he collapsed dramatically beside me, making the rickety treehouse wobble again. ‘You said a swear word!’
‘Yeah, sorry, little man.’
He rested his head on my shoulder. ‘I’m not little.’
‘You’re right, I keep forgetting.’
I turned my gaze to the sky, and began sketching faces from the stars, like an enormous dot-to-dot.
First I drew Jamie. Jamie was always first. One of his many superhero shirts, his too-long hair, the boots I’ve outgrown that he adores (even though they’re still slightly too big for him). The Jamie I drew in the sky looked down at the real Jamie like he wanted to swap places with him. Trust me, you don’t, I told him silently. The sky is safer.
But I didn’t want to leave even Sky-Jamie alone, so I traced a Sky-Me. And then a Sky-Dog to keep him company. A Sky-Treehouse, just to be sure - made of glass, so he could see the stars from all angles.
‘So we need a plan,’ Jamie said eventually. Some of his hair was tickling my nose, but I didn’t move.
‘So we can get an observatory.’
‘Right. Okay. Well, as soon as I’m old enough, I’ll get a job after school. Maybe at the supermarket or a cafe. Then when I leave school, I’ll get a full-time job. That’ll work. I can save while you finish school. Then-’
‘We’ll get an observatory! Can we live there, too?’
‘Sure! It’ll be ours, so we can do whatever we want. We’ll live there, and hold tours, and presentations.’
‘And we can sleep under a glass ceiling so we can see the stars before we go to sleep. And we can kick out anyone who says anything mean, like retard or spastic.’
‘You’re neither of those things, Jamie.’
‘Kids at school say I am. Mum said I am. And I know that even the people who don’t say it still think it.’
‘That doesn’t make it true. You know, I think you’re pretty badass.’
‘No, no, seriously,’ I continued. ‘School sucks, but you go anyway. Everyday. And you keep trying. You keep trying to please your teachers, to do your schoolwork well, to make friends. Even though it’s so hard. And that’s why you’re a badass. ‘Cause you keep trying.’
His chin was quivering slightly. ‘You do it too. That makes you a badass too. We’re the badass brothers!’
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. ‘That’s right, Jame-o. We’re the badass brothers.’ I pulled him into a hug and hoped he didn’t notice the tears falling onto his head.
That day, that event, made all of us angrier, sadder, colder. It taught me to be angry - the kind of angry that never goes away. The kind of angry that became pounding fists on cheekbones and nails embedded in palms.
Mother started wearing her own ghost around her shoulders. It weighed her down, pushed her head into her hands. It turned her pies sour, her chicken soup salty. She left a trail of haunted houses in her wake.
And Jamie? Oh, Jamie. Poor Jamie. He was blamed for all of it.
Lawrence ‘Boots’ Carlson had that nickname for a reason. We could tell he was going to go far when he beat all the older kids in a soccer ball juggling competition, then when he scored the first goal of the season with immense ease, when he won the game for his team at age 7. Dad saw it too, which is why Boots came to the field where we practiced 45 minutes before everyone else, doing one-on-one drills with my dad. Jamie and I, and then the other boys as it neared ten o’clock watched in awe. We all dreamed of one day being as good as the coach, or at least his star player. Not all of us had the talent, though. Not me. And certainly not Jamie.
Just before ten, Dad would place a hand on Boots’ shoulder and they’d saunter over, grinning. ‘My boy’s getting better everyday,’ Dad would declare proudly, and I knew he was never talking about me.
‘Go in between and around the cones,’ my father said, pointing to them laid in a row along the halfway line. ‘It’s a basic exercise. Zig zag in between. Jamie, you’re up first.’
I winced. Jamie did better when he saw other people do it first, but the more he screwed up, the more Father wanted to embarrass him. And the more embarrassed Jamie was, the more he screwed up.
‘Can I go first, Dad?’ I asked. Jamie shot me a grateful look.
Father, meanwhile, gave me a dirty one. ‘I said Jamie will go first.’
He kicked a ball to my five year old brother, who trapped it under his foot and took a deep breath before beginning.
‘Zig zag in between them, Jamie!’ Father called.
Jamie was going alongside the cones, his lack of control of the ball preventing him from zig zagging.
‘In between, Jamie!’
I heard a snort behind me. I turned to see Boots’ lips were stretched into a cruel smirk, his head at an arrogant tilt. I shot him a dirty look.
‘Everyone learns at their own pace,’ I reminded him indignantly.
‘And for some, that pace is like a freaking snail. Or maybe-’ Boots tilted his head at my brother. ‘Maybe more like a praying mantis.’
The others in the five to ten year old boys soccer training session fell about laughing. Jamie’s arms were out to the side to maintain his balance, and sometimes a leg jutted out to control the ball before it could roll away too quickly. His limbs looked oddly long and spindly, and the oversized uniform made him look remarkably thin. ‘Praying mantis’ was a horribly accurate description.
It wasn’t that that made my blood run cold, though. It was my father’s laugh.
Jamie looked up at our father, the pain of betrayal all over his face - and promptly fell over the ball.
The other boys erupted in laughter as Jamie, red-faced, pushed himself up to his feet and tried to keep going as though nothing had happened. But everyone had seen, everyone had laughed - except for Father. His scowl was etched so deeply in his face it seemed it would stay that way permanently.
Jamie finally reached the end of the row of cones and went to my father, staring at the grass so determinedly I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had burst into flames.
‘I’d like to go home, please, Dad,’ he whispered, but he’d never been good at whispering. We all heard.
Father didn’t bother whispering back. ‘Suck it up, James. You’re going to see this through.’
Jamie just nodded and came to stand by my side. I stepped aside a little so that our shoulders were touching as Father straightened back up. ‘Who’s next?’ He asked. Almost everyone’s hands shot into the air, including mine. Only Jamie’s stayed down.
‘Boots! You’re up.’
Boots did the exercise flawlessly. When he reached the end of the cones, he stopped, took a step back, and slammed his foot into the ball. We watched as it soared from the halfway line and slammed dramatically into the back of the soccer goal.
‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ Father grinned, clapping his hands together.
Boots smirked. The kid didn’t seem capable of an ordinary smile.
‘Why are you always nice to him, Jamie?’ I whispered as the other boys lined up to zig zag. ‘He’s always so cruel to you.’
‘He doesn’t have any friends,’ he whispered back.
I sighed. ‘Why does it have to be you to be his friend?’
‘Well-’ he kicked the ground. ‘Someone should. And no one else is doing it. They’re all too busy trying not to be the one being picked on.’
‘James! Eryl!’ Father yelled. We both jumped.
‘Get in the line!’
When it was my turn, I checked to see if Dad was watching. He wasn’t. I fumbled with the ball a little, and made sure he hadn’t seen. A part of me was disappointed - I’d gotten control of the ball again quickly and easily. I wanted him to notice.
The next exercise was a relay. We’d be split up into four teams, our father explained, and were to dribble the ball to the cone a few metres away, go around it, and come back, passing the ball to the next team member. When everyone had had a turn, the team sat down. The first group of boys sitting down won.
Father pointed at the first boy. ‘You’re in group one.’
‘You’re in two,’ he said to a second. ‘Three. Four. One. Two. Three. Four.’
He pointed at me. ‘Eryl, you’re one. Jamie, you’re two.’
The other twos groaned. ‘Come on, Coach!’
‘I don’t want to hear it, boys.’ Dad tried to smile. ‘Make the best of it.’
The boys quieted instantly. They were all desperate to impress him, to be the reason for a proud smile, to feel a fatherly hair-ruffle or pat on the back. Even me. Especially me.
When Dad finished counting us off, we lined up behind the white goal line and waited for his whistle. As soon as its shrill shriek pierced the air, we were chanting.
‘Go, Chris, go!’
‘Come on, J.D.!’
‘Quick quick quick!’
When I returned to my team after my turn, I heard a two mutter ‘we’ve gotta go extra fast to make up for Spaz here.’
I whirled around as my hands curled into fists. ‘Watch it.’
The other boys just smirked at me. Jamie stared at the ground.
‘What if one of you goes twice? Instead of me.’
Before they had a chance to answer, Nick came back and passed the ball to Jamie, at the front of the line.
‘Come on, Jamie!’ Our father yelled.
‘Too late,’ one of the boys sighed.
‘Go, Jamie! Do you want a handwritten invitation?’ God, I hated that Jamie was in a team with these awful nine and ten year olds. The other five year olds on the team weren’t nearly this cruel. At least, they didn’t go out of their way to be mean. They just looked at the ground and shuffled their feet awkwardly. It was the older ones who deliberately ignored Boots, or even worse, laughed along with him.
Jamie set off determinedly, his jaw set and his fists clenched. He did okay, until he got to the end. A kick was too forceful, and the ball went flying off.
The boys in his team groaned.
‘For God’s sake.’
My fingers twitched.
Father was just shaking his head. His jaw was stiff from gritting his teeth.
As Jamie returned with the ball, all of the other teams were done and sitting down, waiting. So everyone was watching as he made his way back, red-faced and teary eyed.
Practice dragged on and on, until finally parents began trickling in. As the other boys left, Jamie and I collected stray soccer balls and dumped them in the mesh bags Father had in the boot of the car.
Father picked up the cones and stray water bottles. No one said a word.
The car loaded, we scanned the oval one last time to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, then climbed inside ourselves. We clicked our seatbelts into place and waited for Father to start the car. He didn’t.
‘Dad?’ Jamie whispered.
‘What.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Me too. Me too.’ He glared at the oval through the windscreen. ‘They’re simple exercises, even for you and the other five year olds. I expect more of an effort from you.’
‘Dad, that’s not fair-’
‘Don’t even try, Eryl.’ I sunk back into my seat and stared at my fingers, twisting together in my lap.
He shook his head and started the car. ‘Don’t even try.’
Jamie and I glanced at each other.
The drive home was absolutely silent.
Dozens of boys pouted into their dinners the night that Dad left. Their hero was gone, for no one knew how long. They’d all loved our father since he sauntered into town with a soccer ball bouncing on his foot, a shit-eating grin plastered to his face, and a sign advertising soccer lessons tucked under his arm. He’d been on the path to playing professionally, but had injured his back. He couldn’t give up on his passion, though, and chose to inspire and lead the younger generations.
That’s what everyone said anyway.
Your dad is so cool, the other boys had said to me, out of their minds with jealousy. My chest swelled as I nodded, pleased as punch to be known as my father’s son.
But then Jamie joined the team. We all knew it was because of him that Dad’s jaw hardened, that his grip on the bag of soccer balls tightened, that his eyes rolled skyward when Jamie stumbled over the ball yet again, dropped a stack of cones, crashed into the goalpost.
While five year olds often struggle to grasp basic concepts, my little brother didn’t even appear to be trying. I knew he was, but my Dad and the other kids on the team didn’t think so. Even so, Dad didn’t want to give up on Jamie yet. After all, he’d be damned if James and Eryl Collins weren’t names on the trading cards of excited, sweaty-handed kids by the time he was forty.
He did give up eventually, though. And he gave up on the rest of the kids, too. So they wanted someone to blame.
They blamed Jamie.
When I came home from school the day after Dad’s leaving, Jamie wasn’t there. I don’t know if Mother even noticed, but when the stars began to flicker into view and he still wasn’t home, or in his treehouse, the worry in my gut was so huge it threatened to consume me. His name was in my throat and I tried to keep myself from screaming it as I set off at a jog. My breathing became ragged and coarse as a fractured bone.
We went to the ocean once. To visit Mother’s sister. While we were swimming, I looked away for a moment. It took me far too long to realise I couldn’t hear his giddy giggles. I whirled around but he was gone.
All the atoms in my body were set alight. I burned into ashes in the few seconds it took to dive down, find him, and grab his wrist. It’s absurd, but to me he already felt cold. It wasn’t until his breathing had returned to normal that I became aware of the pain in my chest. It reminded me of graveyards, broken bridges, cars through brick walls, shattered mirrors. I was turning to mist.
That’s how it felt when I rounded the corner and saw Jamie’s hat, blue as that damned ocean, by the park gate. I’d given up on God the day before, but I hadn’t yet broken my habit of praying, particularly when it came to Jamie. Protect him protect him protect him.
‘Stop saying sorry,’ I heard someone yell. I turned my head.
The bruises forming on my younger brother’s skin looked almost beautiful, like watercolour paints - purple and green and grey and blue. Blood trickled down his face gently, oh so gently.
Suddenly I wanted my knuckles to smash bone until they ached, until something snapped, until they stopped a heart beating. I wanted to feel blood splatter across my clothes. I wanted to inflict the pain that had been inflicted upon my brother. A monster in me sat up and roared, and so did I.
Boots and his older brother looked up at the sound of my scream. Boots smirked at my expression and I could feel every possible natural disaster occurring inside of me.
‘No wonder Coach left,’ Boots sneered. ‘Who’d want to be responsible for a retard and a psycho?’
I don’t remember what happened. I just know that when my mind came back to my body, there was blood on my hands. The brothers were gone - dead or dismantled I didn’t know.
‘Jamie.’ I sank to my knees, ignorant of the damp grass as I grasped his hand in mine. I couldn’t tell whose blood was whose. Jamie could only grunt. He was crying. ‘Oh, Jamie.’
Carefully, oh so carefully, I pulled him to me. I held my sobbing brother to my chest and rocked him back and forth, back and forth. ‘It’s okay, Jamie. It’s okay, I’m here. It’s not your fault.’
Our shadows dissolved into the dark. We sat there, flesh and bone and blood and muscle and dreams and hopes and insecurities and empty hands.
‘Hey Jamie,’ I whispered. I couldn’t stop saying his name. ‘Mm?’
‘The stars are coming out. Look.’
He pulled his face from my shirt and turned his eyes to the sky.
‘If we die,’ he said, ‘if we die, do we become stars?’
‘Jamie, you’re already a star.’
‘I’m not made of gas!’
Somehow, I found the strength to smile. ‘But your light goes on and on forever.’
We sat there together, in the cold, all night. I was so very sorry for everything. Because in that moment, I decided that anyone who hurt Jamie would have to deal with me next. In that moment, I became a black hole.
I’ve considered taking my own life a lot.
Once, I almost did it.
I did all the research. I decided on a method. I decided on a day. I took the day off school and spent it tidying my half of the room, writing a list of things for Mother to do when I was dead, and writing instructions for Jamie – how to pay the gas bill, how to do well in his exams.
I drafted my suicide note.
I couldn’t be fucked to finish it.
I put the lists and letters on my pillow. I taped a note for Jamie - telling him not to come in - to the bathroom door. I sat on the floor and prepared.
I heard Jamie’s footsteps. ‘Eryl, I’ve decided! I want a chocolate cake like you made for me last year.’
Shit. It was Jamie’s birthday next week! I couldn’t kill myself a week before his birthday! Jesus Christ. In a few weeks, I decided. I’d do it in a few weeks. Before my little brother could find the note on the door, I yanked it off, crumpled it up and flushed it.
‘Sure thing, Jame-o,’ I said, opening the bathroom door and following him into the bedroom. He was already chattering about his day. He didn’t even notice me as I casually collected the things from my pillow like I was just tidying up.
‘Did you miss me?’ He asked.
‘Nah,’ I told him. My heart thumped an apology.
Since then there’s always been a reason, however small, for me to hang on to.
I need to help him prepare for the science fair.
I can’t leave him alone on the anniversary of Dad leaving.
I haven’t taught him how to make an omelette yet.
I haven’t dealt with those kids who pushed Jamie into a bush of poison ivy yet.
He got a D in his science fair project. He comes home crying every anniversary. He burns the eggs every single time. No matter how many kids I threaten, punish, punch, there are more ready to strike.
I don’t know if I actually help him. I don’t know if there’s any point in sticking around. But now he’s here, graduating his tenth year of school, and ‘getting the hell outta here’, and I’m glad I’m alive to see it.
I can’t believe it. He’s a smart kid, honestly. Especially emotionally. He knows my heart, and his own, better than it seems possible to know hearts. But where people measure and count, with tests and instructions, he just falls short. A few years short, really. So he had to repeat this last year, and the year before and his grades are still awful, even with me tutoring him every evening after work. He barely made it to graduation. But he did, he made it!
So when they call his name, when he shakes his principal’s hand and takes the graduation certificate with his name on it, while wearing that beautiful grin, that beautiful Jamie grin, I’ve never been so damn proud in my life. It’s only ten seconds, ten seconds that no one else notices. But I know, and Jamie knows, that they’re ten seconds that took ten years to earn.
I realise how I look to his classmates. To them I’m a battered leather jacket, scuffed boots. I’m almost as big of a freak as my little brother. And twice as scary, with my bruised knuckles and violent reputation.
But to Jamie, I am a hero. And that’s all that matters.
Today, though - today he’s my hero.
At the end of the ceremony, he runs over, radiant with joy. His graduation certificate is clutched in his fist but he doesn’t notice that he’s wrinkling it - I’m the only thing he’s looking at. ‘Eryl!’
He throws his arms around my neck and buries his nose in my shoulder. ‘I did it,’ he says, his voice muffled.
‘Damn right you did, Jamie. Damn right you did. Just like I always said you would.’
He pulls back and grabs my wrist. ‘So let’s go!’
‘Woah woah woah, Jame-o.’ I grab his jacket as he plunges towards the door. ‘Go where?’
‘On our roadtrip, of course!’
‘We’ve got a few things to do first.’
His shoulders slump in disappointment. ‘Like what?’
‘Well,’ I sling an arm over his shoulder and we meander casually towards the exit. ‘I’m not getting paid til the end of the week, and we could always use the extra cash. We’ve got to get your comic books and the telescope and figure out where exactly we’re going.’
‘Everywhere, of course!’
‘Right, of course.’
I’ve been making a mental list for months now. Water bottles, clothes, socks. Tissues, in case Jamie gets hay fever. Is it worth it to take Mother’s camera? We can take all of our astronomy books and set up a library in our observatory. We’ll need food, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
I tell Jamie all of this in the car on the way home. I bought it - the car - a few months ago from a guy I work with at the supermarket. It’s small and smells of mothballs and crappy pizza, but it’s got a big boot and low mileage. And it’s ours. Jamie, meanwhile, just likes the fact that it’s blue.
He’s frantically scribbling notes as I talk. I note that his scrawls on his notebook are just as messy as they always have been, and I’m grateful that school hasn’t destroyed all of who he is.
‘We gotta take our favourite books. And we’re going out to the desert, right? Because the sky’s so clear out there. We’ll need sunscreen for that.’ I know we’ll both hate the sand, the heat, the arid landscape, but it’ll all be worth it for the stars.
‘Good thinking, Jame-o.’
His pen is desperately trying to keep up with his thoughts. ‘We gotta send postcards to Mum as we go.’
A speed bump I didn’t see jolts the car and both of us are lifted out of our seats.
‘Sorry,’ I mutter, but Jamie was always that kid on the bus on the school excursion who leaned into you as you went around corners, or jumped up and down in the seat for a boost as the bus went over a bump. He doesn’t mind.
As soon as I pull into the driveway, Jamie’s opened his door and is pelting up the front stairs. Mum’s car is here; she’s home. She works at the bottle shop. She only got the job because she knows so much about booze and because her aunt owns the place. She makes a billion excuses for her, even when she comes in late, or drunk, or hungover, or some combination of the three. Unfortunately she gets employee discounts.
‘Mum!’ Jamie yells, pushing the door open. I can see his desperation, his desire to make her smile. Maybe even hear a ‘well done’.
‘Mum, I graduated!’ She’s sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of black coffee between her hands. I don’t say anything as Jamie slaps his wrinkled certificate onto the table in front of her.
The air in my lungs has frozen but I can hear Jamie’s breath heaving like he’s just run all the way home from school.
Mother’s eyes slide to the piece of paper. My fingernails are making dents in my palms.
Mother lifts her gaze to the wall and sips her coffee.
She says nothing.
I hadn’t expected much, but my heart still aches with disappointment. I have to break this terrible silence.
‘I’m proud of you, Jamie.’
My little brother turns around and gives me a sad smile. He holds up the list he wrote in the car. ‘I’ll start packing.’
I wait until he shuts the door behind him before I yank the certificate furiously from the table.
‘You might be proud of your damn son for completing thirteen years of education despite being bullied every damn day,’ I hiss. Years ago, I would have trembled at the mere thought of swearing at my mother but now I don’t care. The worst part is, neither does she. ‘And despite the fact that good grades - or even half-decent ones - never came easy for him. You might be proud of the fact that he made it all the way through and shook his principal’s hand today.’
Mother turns her head, ever so slowly, until she’s looking straight at me. ‘There’s nothing to be proud of,’ she says calmly.
I slam my palm on the table. ‘He’s your son,’ I spit.
She turns away again. ‘I have no sons.’
I blink. My hand curls into a fist on the table.
Every possible natural disaster swirls inside me. Quakes, winds and waves squeeze the air from my lungs. I am choking on what could have been.
Somehow I stumble from the room, my legs shaking and my hands quivering.
‘Jamie,’ I rasp.
‘Yeah?’ He emerges from our room, and I can see his face is red from the effort of trying not to cry. I don’t know if he heard Mother and I talking. I hope to god he didn’t.
‘Fuck that,’ I mutter, gesturing to the list in his hand. ‘We’re leaving.’
‘Now. C’mon. Just get what’s important to you and then we’re out of here, forever.’ I haul a suitcase out from under my bed, and sprawl it open on the floor to reveal it’s already full of clothes and books. ‘Get your comics, I haven’t put those in yet.’
I try to smile. ‘All those months of planning and looking forward to this, you think I wasn’t already preparing? Oh and get your toothbrush.’
Jamie’s still scared, but he does as I ask. I grab a few more things - I barely notice what. Then I zip the suitcase so that Jamie can haul it down the hallway.
If Mother notices the thud of the suitcase as Jamie accidentally smashes it into the wall on the way out, she doesn’t show it. The suitcase leaves a huge dent in the plaster. I grin wickedly, knowing my mother won’t be fucked to fix it, so every time she walks past, she’ll think of Jamie and I and the day we left and the chance she threw away to be a good mother for once.
The suitcase is shoved into the backseat, then the backpack. ‘Just gotta get the telescope.’
Jamie nods and together we run back into the house. Mother still hasn’t moved.
In the bedroom, I fold the telescope up as much as I can.
But Jamie is staring at the picture still tacked onto the wall. I don’t know why we still have it. It’s of Mother, cradling a tiny, newborn Jamie like he’s the most precious thing. She’s sitting next to Dad, and I’m sitting on his lap. My five-year old smile is too big, and shows all my teeth, but I am genuinely happy. It’s a shame that happiness didn’t last. I know Jamie’s trying to figure out whether or not to take it. ‘Leave it, Jamie. C’mon.’
He looks at me, then back at the photo - then yanks it off the wall and tucks it into his pocket.
Then we slam the bedroom door behind us, march to the front door, telescope and photograph in tow, and don’t look at our mother as we leave her far behind.
Jamie, even while loaded up with our stuff, jumps over the steps and lands neatly on the gravel path. We shove everything into the boot. I’ve never been so relieved to hear a car’s engine start up.
I lay on hand on the steering wheel and the other on Jamie’s arm. ‘Ready?’
He nods. There are tears welling up in his eyes but he smiles shakily. ‘Let’s go.’
Neither of us says anything. For a long time. I can’t look at Jamie. All I can do is stare at the road ahead and try to regulate my breathing.
Shit. This is not how I imagined this.
How could she? How could she? She carried us, she fed us, walked us to school, taught me to ride a bike. Isn’t that what mothers do? How can she not consider us to be her sons? How could she say that to me?
Life isn’t easy for Jamie. It never has been, even before Dad left. How dare she turn her back?
Jamie’s voice snaps me out of my trance. I look at him for the first time in fifty kilometres. His freckled nose is pink and his eyelashes are damp. He nods at the steering wheel. ‘Your hands.’
I glance at the wheel - I’m clutching it so hard my knuckles are white. I push the air from my lungs and force my fingers to relax.
‘Hey,’ Jamie’s voice is shaky, hollow. He takes a deep breath. ‘We’re going. We’re finally going.’
I turn and grin at him. ‘We’re going!’ The truth of it pulses through me. We’re going. We’re leaving this town, leaving Mother, leaving all the bullies and all the ugly looks behind. ‘HA!’
‘You know what we need?’ Jamie leans forward and shoves a tape into the player.
We’re going, we’re going, I think again and again, until I hear the music. He’s right. It’s exactly what we need. It’s the middle of the song, but that’s fine. We know our parts.
‘Mamaaaaa,’ Jamie sings, because that’s his part. ‘Ooo-ooo-ooh.’
‘Any way the wind blows,’ I sing, because that’s my part.
Jamie - ‘I don’t wanna die!’
Both of us - ‘Sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all!’
My little brother knows nothing about guitars but you can’t tell, as he air-guitars so passionately you can almost see an instrument in his hands.
I drum on the steering wheel. Turn the music up. Then comes the fun bit.
Jamie grabs an empty water bottle from the floor and begins to sing into it like it’s a microphone.
‘I see a little silhouetto of a man-’
‘ScaraMOUCH, scaraMOUCH will you do the fan-dang-go,’ I yell, with the facial expressions that always make Jamie giggle.
Then, at the top of our lungs, so loudly the guy in the red pick-up in the next lane gives us a weird look -
‘THUNDERBOLTS AND LIGHTNING, VERY VERY FRIGHTENING, ME!’
Jamie does the high-pitched ‘Galileo’s and I do the lower ones.
It continues like this, me drumming, Jamie guitaring and both of us headbanging so hard we almost get whiplash.
‘So you think you can love me and spit in my eye? So you think you can love me and leave me to dii-iii-iie?’ This whole bit is both of us. All the way to the end of the song.
Our long ‘oooooooo-oooh’ at the end is, as always, hilariously overpitched. ‘Nothing really matters. Anyone can see. Nothing really matters. Nothing really matters...to meeee…’
We see how long we can hold the final note for before our lungs run out of air, as always, then smash imaginary cymbals together before we collapse in our seats, heaving for oxygen.
I grin at Jamie, both of us wheezing like dying men.
‘We’re going!’ He yells.
Jamie and I see it at the same time. Neither of us say anything. Neither of us need to. We just grin at each other and then pull into the parking lot of Kate Emily Oval. We know, without needing to say it, that we’ve been looking for something like this enormous, open oval since we left home. Earlier, we passed the park Dad taught soccer in. We drove straight past.
But here, we park, open up the doors, breathe in the night air, step out into the dark. There’s no rush. We have all night. We want to savour this freedom.
We pull the telescope from the boot carefully, of course. This is one of the most precious things we own.
The park is, unsurprisingly, deserted. We have the place to ourselves. The sky belongs to us, and the stars are ours.
‘Do you think we’ll see the aliens tonight, Eryl?’ Jamie asks, skipping ahead slightly as we wander into the middle of the oval so that none of the trees around the perimeter will block our view. Jamie’s loved all things alien ever since he was a kid. He’s sure that one day, when he’s peering into his telescope, he’ll see an alien spaceship.
‘What would happen then?’ I asked him once. He wrinkled up his nose for a second.
‘Well, Jamie,’ I adjust the telescope under my arm, ‘I reckon if they’re out there, tonight’s as likely a night as any to see them.’ Jamie dances a strange little jig, pumping his arms up and down. When he’s done, he surveys the sky. ‘Okay, no trees. You can put it down now.’
I do as I’m told. ‘Where should we look tonight?’ We stand back and regard the beautiful instrument, as we always do, hands on hips. Jamie looks up at me.
So, together, we identify all the constellations we learned together and taught each other. We race to point out all of the stars and planets we know. They are all so familiar, like old friends.