I’m the surviving child.
That’s what Mum and Dad say.
This is Melanie, our surviving child.
They’re downstairs now, Mum and Dad. Arguing again. They do it every year at this time. It’s worse this year, though, worse because this year I’m the age Holly was when she died.
Holly’s my sister. Once each year a cop from up Wellington phones Mum and Dad to reassure them that the Wellington Police Station still holds the missing person file.
Last seen leaving Lawson’s Crossing Central School... date... time. Height: 160cm. Hair: blonde, long. Eyes: brown. Figure: slight. Wearing the Lawson’s Crossing Central School uniform, jumper hitched around her hips the way the bigger girls did in those days; gold earring studs, regulation size; silver necklace, pendant, half a heart with a mock broken side. Carrying a school back-pack, empty lunch box and a couple of books inside.
Kids run off all the time, the cops told Mum and Dad back then. Two weeks later they found the lunch box, past Wellington, alongside the highway.
No-one in Lawson’s Crossing trusts cops, not since the government shut Lawson’s Crossing Police Station, back before I was born. In this town people say, Ten minutes drive from Wellington and you’re better off with your own shot gun and a good solid knife. No-one believes my sister ran off, either. In this town people saw the banged up white ute that afternoon, people heard the engine roar late that night, people went down the river bank, walked in the tyre marks and pondered the scuffed out fire. In this town someone knew someone who heard someone who said someone heard a scream that night. In this town people say, Holly Thomas died.
Lawson’s Crossing Central School got closed down not long after that. Toby and I caught the bus to Wellington South Primary for a few years, fifty minutes each way. Now we’re older so we go two blocks further, to Wellington High.
That’s Toby, resting his back against the orange bomb Torana he’s parked across the road under the old black butt. Not a bad park, considering he hasn’t got a licence. He’s scuffing red dust onto his bare feet, pretending he knows how to whittle shapes out of branches with that pocket knife.
As I call out, I swing myself through the window. Then I skim down the verandah post, jump across the dead dalias and catch up with him in a couple of strides. He’s looking at the house now, through the walls, the living room, the dining room, into the kitchen. Slap. He flinches at the sound. Mum howls. Dad slams the back door and I know he’s stormed outside. He’ll spend the rest of the day in the shed, trying to fix the useless Datsun Brett King’s father sold him.
This time it’s Toby speaking. Almost a question but not quite. He folds the knife, puts it in his pocket and tosses the whittled branch to one side. Then he reaches for my hand.
We used to hold hands every day when we first met, but that was kindergarten and you had to hold hands with the kid next to you in the row. Miss Price sat us together and sighed and muttered, Five years old, and their only siblings are already on the high school side.
Everyone else in kinder left at two, but Toby and I had to wait until three. Miss Price would sit at her desk with pursed lips, knitting Rugs for the World. Toby and I would sit at ours playing snap, side by side. At three, Holly and Jackson would finish their class and come to walk us home. Holly and Jackson were in year nine back then. They were in year ten when Holly died.
Now we’re in year ten and I like Brett King. He’s in year eleven and he’s got dark brown hair, tossed long and careless over one green eye. He’s smart enough to stay near the top of the class, and street-smart enough to leave the very top spots for the skinny, pale loser-types. And he plays sport. In the summer it’s cricket and I watch sometimes. It’s a boring game, but I can sit in the sun and study his back as he runs forward and swings his arm up to bowl. Sometimes I take my sketch pad and try to draw the shape of his back as he lifts his arm. I don’t show the picture to Brett. He likes sport and fast cars, not art. Even if he’d known who I was he wouldn’t be interested in a drawing.
Brett’s mum wears lipstick and gold hoop earrings and white slacks. She even wears them to Wellington Oval on a Saturday morning. She brings tea in a thermos and buttered pikelets in a plastic container. She opens the container with one long, bronze painted fingernail. Brett’s dad strides. Sometimes he watches the sport, but mostly he just tries to persuade the other dads they need new cars. My dad drove the Lawson’s Crossing kids to Wellington Oval once. Mum stopped him doing that again; she called Brett’s dad a crook, for selling us a second hand car that’s never worked properly.
Toby’s hand’s gotten bigger lately. My eyes move from his hand, up his arm, to his face. I realise I’m looking up at him now, even though I used to always be the tallest. I look away. And I don’t take his hand, not this time.
Toby says, Forget it, Mellie.
Then he says, He doesn’t even like you. He likes Lucy Driver.
Lucy Driver’s got blonde hair, like Holly had. And long, thin legs. She poses sometimes, dresses up for photos for those paper ads that show aftershave and towels and well-brought-up young girls dressed in modest nighties. I think that’s what upsets Mum and Dad the most; they lost the pretty one. The surviving child’s got lanky dark hair and a big nose and chubby thighs that no-one wants to photograph. The surviving child looks like Mr Tanner, the butcher in Wellington. Mum and Dad never say it; but you can’t hide stuff like that in Lawson’s Crossing.
The creek’s low this year because of the drought. The banks are wide and high up the tree trunks are the marks of the last big flood. The water lapped the road the year Holly died. I strip down to my cossie, jumping up and down because the sand’s hot on my bare feet. My cossie’s a navy-blue one-piece. Sometimes you see tourists camping at the river curve: women sun-baking in flowery bikinis, as if those stupid bits of material would stay on in the water; and men fishing, or going through the motions mostly. No tourists today, though. Toby thinks nothing of the hot sand. Toby thinks nothing of stripping off completely, dropping t-shirt, shorts and undies on top of his old school bag.
We’re too old for that.
I mean the nakedness, but the way it came out, I could’ve meant the school bag. Too old for school. I finger the pendant at my neck. I run my fingers down the jagged, mock-broken edge of half a heart.
Toby shrugs my comment aside. His forehead creases a bit though, and just for a moment he looks exactly like his brother did, that time after Holly died. Even though I was only six, I remember the cops and the neighbours’ cakes and Dad hitting Mum the first time; I remember the way Jackson looked when he spotted me curled up amongst the dalias, crying. Jackson went off to Sydney a couple of years after that. They gave him bonus marks when he finished school, more marks than he got on the tests; special circumstances because the government closed Lawson’s Crossing Central School down, and because of Holly. Bonuses enough to go to university and study law. Jackson’s got a job in a big law firm these days, Toby says.
We swim and it’s almost like old times. Toby splashes me and I try to push his head under water. He’s too big now for me to win that one. He’s too big for me to push him off when he rests himself on top of me, on a towel, on the river bank. I laugh but Toby scowls and stands up.
What’s he got, Mellie? Toby asks.
I roll over, close my eyes, and try to imagine that the towel under my face is Brett King’s lips against mine. It doesn’t work, because the towel is scratchy and because I can feel the sun burning my back already, and because Toby’s making rustling plastic noises in his bag nearby. It doesn’t work because my imagination’s just not that good, and I’ve never been closer to Brett King than three rows away in the Wellington High School assembly hall. I fall asleep, and in my dream Brett King pushes Lucy Driver against the brick wall outside the hall, presses his tongue into her mouth, and runs his hand up her skinny thigh, lifting her Wellington High School uniform, just like he did in real life. It doesn’t matter so much though, because in the same dream Holly gives me half a heart on a chain, just like she did in real life. She wraps the chain around my neck and locks the links together.
Too old for school, Holly says. Too old for Lawson’s Crossing. Never too old for you though, Mellie. When I’m rich I’ll come back for you, I promise.
In the dream she left then, but in real life she walked me to school the next morning. I’d figured out my own way home by those days, and I never saw her again.
I sit up and I scratch the fresh sunburn on the back of one shoulder. Then I tell Toby something I’ve never told anyone. Holly ran off to Sydney. She didn’t die.
Jackson liked her, you know. Toby tugs something from his backpack.
It wasn’t like that, I say. They were friends. Like you and me.
He even bought a car for her, from Brett King’s father. Toby fingers his knife. A Holden ute. White... Something wrong with it anyway. He traded it up at Dubbo... got the orange Torana.
I’m on my back now, and Toby’s sliding the open blade up over my cossie. He reaches my neck. When I swallow I can feel the tip scratching my skin, just where my half of Holly’s pendant settles against my throat.
That’s not funny, I say, and this time I’m not sure if I mean the ute or the knife.
Toby opens his other fist and I watch silver drop past my eyes, half a heart on a silver chain.
It was her fault, Mellie, Toby says, and he rests Holly’s half pendant up against mine. She should’ve given Jackson what he wanted. He presses the knife harder against my throat. They were friends. Like you and me.
Like You and Me
Anneke Ryan |