This is the short story I wrote for a unit this trimester. As you read it, I want you to know that a) it is not an accurate depiction of my relationships with my family or their feelings at the time, and b) reading it back now, there are definitely things I would change. (The last line is too direct, for instance.) But part of this blog is posting something not refined or polished, because if I waited until I was completely happy with my writing I would never post anything.
The world is as wide as the road, the sky a grey that closes off anything other than the kids kicking up dirt as they walk to the bus shelter. The wind is strong today, like God is blowing on a cup of tea to cool it down. We are the only ones in existence, God and us.
The others are far ahead of me, fuelled by their need for the best seat on the bus. (I mean the backseat, of course; the one that fits six people instead of two.) Matthew’s bag, larger than his spindly twelve-year-old frame, bounces off his back, keen to anchor him to the sea of gravel and potholes.
My own bag falls from my shoulders, collecting a thin coat of dust on the bottom when it hits the ground. Maybe I’ve let it drop too close to the pink stains on the dirt, but it’s too late now.
The only reason I know it’s a rabbit is because mum’s hit them before, driving at night on the way home. They run into the high beams, all leg and no sense. This one’s barely a body though; just matted fur and bone pounded into the dirt from wheels that haven’t bothered to drive around it.
If Mum had let me stay home, I wouldn’t be standing by this mangled body, this creature who had breath one moment, taken away the next.
I turn and look at our mailbox, an old paint tin tied to a rotting post with a belt. Our mailbox doesn’t stand out here, not like it would in a suburb. Out here every second mailbox has a personality, a name of its own.
Our mailbox, barely standing, is where I said goodbye to Mum ten minutes ago.
Do you remember leaning into your mother the way I did, breathing in the home you couldn’t stand to leave?
“Don’t make me go,” you had said. “I’m sick.”
Did your thumb and index finger settle on the sleeve of her dressing gown, pressing the fabric between them, a soft haven? That dressing gown, the one tugged on in the middle of night before protecting you from monsters under the bed.
“Sick of school, you mean.” That’s what my mum had said, knowingly but not unkind.
When she said that I wanted to ask her if she knew this dread as I did, needed to know if we were bonded by experience as well as blood. But then she had pushed my shoulders back and I met her eye and God blew my questions in the wind, wanting them for Himself.
Mum tightened her dressing gown as one does when they’re trying to figure out a polite way of saying hurry up. She didn’t end up saying anything though; I was simply handed a kiss to the cheek, a reassuring squeeze to the shoulder, and no option of staying home.
She never did believe my fake sickness. She would just look at me in that way; you know, where she’s wary and loving and not at all fooled by my pretences.
Out of everyone, I’m the only one. No one else in my family tries to get out of school with a pitiful cough and dark crescent moons under the eyes.
No one else stops for rabbits, either.
I kick a rock and watch it fly off the side of the road, where it lands in a dry patch of grass, the kind that crumbles between your fingers, thinner than paper. The kind that’s dead.
My bag slung over my shoulder, I leave the rabbit behind and walk on.
Despite being made from the same grit as my siblings, I don’t have their awareness as to why sitting on the backseat is an ambition, nor why school should be the best days of my life. People like telling me that, along with how much I’ll miss it when I’m gone. What they don’t understand is the best days of my life are Friday afternoons, when I’m jumping off the bus and running without thinking. The road doesn’t feel so lonely with the weekend welcoming me with the gentle sigh of home. Home, and how it smells like the pine forest and summer rain. Clean and new and endless, with arms stretched wide to gather you up in warmth, a healing balm to all the wrongs in the world.
Matthew whirls around then, running backwards in a way I would call unwise.
“Come on!” He yells, his voice catching in the wind. “Don’t wanna miss it!”
There’s something to be said for the difference between brothers and sisters, though I’m not sure what that something is. All I know is the feeling, the way vines grow in my lungs and grow some more until they sprout in my mouth, entwined around my tongue, preventing me from asking him what it’s like to enjoy school. Any opening of conversation between us turns to butterflies in my mouth and I swallow them and they flap around my stomach, relentless.
Where we live is what brings us together.
Where we live, with cows grazing on the side of the road because the grass isn’t growing on their own land. With sheep running their noses along the frost before the sun has said hello, as though they know water is in short supply.
“Except I do,” I say, though I say it to myself and the sky and the street.
The trees are in permanent surrender as I walk; bowed down in the wind, flexible, stretching their boughs to the ground. Every branch of every trunk lies the same way, a crowd kneeling before God, their Creator.
Wattle dances in the breeze, yellow lanterns flying despite the cold. If only I could be at ease like the Australian flora around me, bursting from the dry earth. The plants thirst, yet they don’t stop themselves from declaring their presence amidst the smoky air.
The street is a consistent haze this time of year, fires lit during the early morning frost and burning until lights out. We don’t use electric heaters at home, relying on blankets and tea and fire to keep us warm. Chopping up wood before winter storms in is as much tradition as church on Sunday.
You know what else is tradition?
Nearly missing the school bus.
It pulls up in front of the bus stop and my sisters simultaneously look back at me as they line up in front of the door.
I can’t help but tilt my head back in frustration, a pause to ready myself before hurling my body into a sprint. I grip the bag straps under my armpits and hold them down to minimise the heavy bounce of my backpack.
Each step reverberates in my ears as I land heavily on the dirt. The wind pushes against me; if I was brave enough, I’d let it carry me home and back to bed.
And not for the first time, I wonder how something so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things can have such an effect on everyone’s mood.
“Sorry,” I say to the driver, holding up my pass. He gives me a nod, the kind that is only offered because he wants to keep his job. The kind that you learn in primary school when the teacher asks you if you can spell the words I am very annoyed at you right now.
The bus stalls as I settle on a red plastic seat and I rest my arm against my bag.
My forehead is sticky with sweat, sweat that clings to my hairline. My body temperature is high after running against the wind and stepping into this travelling sauna. There’s a thickness of body odour lingering in the air, heavy with perfumed deodorants that don’t quite do the job.
I breathe it all in and pull my eyes to the front windscreen.
Every piece of land the bus passes, acre slotted against acre with wooden posts and blackberry thorns, looks the same from here; dry, sad. Lonely.
My eyes, typically trained on the road that leads me home, are landing on spiderwebs, glinting with frost between blades of grass. On rosellas hovering from branch to branch, unphased by magpies that squawk their unwelcome presence with every exhale.
The pine trees along the side of the road are naked waist up, the highest point of their trunks stripped bare of branches to avoid hitting the powerlines. It’s wrong, to see nature subdued to the advancement of man. I close my eyes and see them set loose in a forest, stretched as high and as wide as they’d like.
No one deserves their branches to be cut off.
“That’s the difference between God and man.” I want to turn around and say this to the girl behind me, a shrivelled fourth-grader with two thin braids hanging past her ears, but I don’t. “God doesn’t require any of us to be pulled apart to be in His family.”
Her eyes, dark and small like sultanas, would widen at my words. Her mouth would widen too, enough to swallow an emu. She might even give her life to Jesus.
I keep my eyes on the front windscreen and dig my shoulders into the tough plastic seat.
The gravel road smooths into bitumen and the trees grow further apart as the bus drives into town, close to school grounds. It hums atop the levelled road, one that’s never seen a kangaroo split open from a bull bar. One that’s never thirsted for the rain. One that’s never felt the pull of my feet as I drag myself to the bus stop.
This road doesn’t belong where I live, doesn’t deserve the potholes and dust and wildlife.
This road doesn’t belong to me, but maybe school will one day.