If you don’t make this shot, Mum will die.
I look at the basketball ring from my place on the grass. I’ve never made it from this far before. When the stakes are this high, I usually position myself right at the front of the hoop, the tips of my big toes touching the divide of blue concrete slabs. I know I can make it from there but this time I can’t move. I have to shoot from the grass. I hear a car pulling into the street.
And if a car pulls up before you’ve made the shot, then she’ll die before you get your first period.
With only a dozen or so houses in our cul-de-sac, there’s a fair chance the car’s coming for my house. It could penetrate the centre of the driveway’s basketball court before the ball even leaves my hands, and it’ll all be over. Just the two of us. Brody and me. Home court shot.
“Stop looking down the street and just shoooot. You’ve never made it from there so just miss already and let me get a hat-trick from the curb before Mum gets home.”
I know the time is now. I’ve already made the shot for Brody to stay alive till at least 27 and for Dad to stop drinking. I even skipped to the neighbour’s house, touched the top of their letterbox, and returned to the court without explanation so that Fallon would make up with Emily by the end of the week. I can make this shot.
I curl the toes of my bare feet into the dead patch of grass, feeling the earth push its way underneath each nail. My fingers are placed strategically over the black lines of the ball, my left palm covering the L and S of the embossed Wilson logo. I bend my knees and launch from the position I was once rooted in, freeing the ball with a flick of my right wrist. Just as I do, Mum approaches the driveway with a boot full of shopping. Brody and I don’t take our eyes off the ball as its weight slams into the backboard—causing another chip of rotting wood to fall into the garden behind—kisses the metal hoop on either side and ricochets through the net.
“I fucking did it!! YES! I am the almighty queen of basketball’s glory. No hat-trick for you coz I get another shot—suck it!”
“Okay, okay, you made it. Big deal. I used to make that shot way before I was your age.” He swaggers over to collect the winning ball before Mum drives through the court and into the garage.
“Good one, Cara, but come in now, the streetlights came on before I left so you’re meant to be inside already.” Brody throws the ball over his shoulder and follows Mum to the door.
Now, you have to make the shot from the crack at the very left of the pavement. And follow the cracks all the way around the world and make each shot three times before you can go inside.
When I finally made it inside that night, Dad was as usual in his grey corduroy chair staring blankly at the TV. I watched his leg, one crossed over the other, making an agitated jig while Mum unpacked the shopping. As she scrunched the empty plastic bags into a knot for storage under the sink, I looked around her blonde bob to see how many green VB cans were stacked on top of each other in the same location—Dad’s nightly inventory. I had taken to this sneaky peek over the deliberate open-the-door-and-count technique after the time I sat on the cold tiles and counted the cans out loud. “One, two, three … twelve, thirteen.” I started to sing the numbers when I got above the first six-pack. Once Dad realised that my tune had to do with his nightly stash of beer cans, I got the kind of yelling where the spit hits your eyeballs and you keep your mouth shut so none goes inside. “I don’t need me feckin’ kid to tell me how much I’ve feckin’ had TO DRINK, ya hear me!”
After I got a fair idea of how many cans had been opened and drained, the next sign was if he’d eaten dinner or not. After that, it was if he’d smoke inside or go outside. The combination of these things became my tools in deciphering what kind of house I was part of that night. Some nights it was only six cans, dinner with a ton of HP sauce and a bit of craic, and smokes together with Mum. Other nights it was a tower of cans, no dinner, and smoke lining the ceiling as Mum closed the adjoining doors to keep the other rooms breathable.
As I peeled open a Wagon Wheel from a shopping bag on the counter, I made a mental note of four cans so far. It was still early but that was promising.
“Mum said you made the shot from the grass there,” Dad said without looking at me, his leg still on its pursuit for some kind of Irish jig record.
“Yep, and so naturally I had to keep the roll going and shoot around the world again.”
“Naturally,” said Mum, kissing me on the head on her way to the fridge with an arm full of packaged meats.
“What’s for dins?” I asked Mum, balancing the ball on the palm of my free hand. The room tightened around my words.
If he eats tonight, you’ll get no homework for the weekend.
“Just help yourself, there’s shepherd’s pie in the microwave,” said Mum, biting into her own Wagon Wheel. Dad’s stare gripped the TV as the ball fell from my palm and rolled towards his chair. And just as my weekend started to fill with layers of maths and spelling, he reached to the wall side of his chair and brought an ashtray up to his lap, stroking his stumpy beard to ready his mouth.
If you make it to Brody’s room before he lights the first ciggy, you’ll get your first period at home and not at school.
I almost ran for that one and jumped with two feet across the threshold of my brother’s room. From cold white tiles to warm blue carpet.
It had only been a year or so since we got tiles throughout the house; before that, the floor was a slightly smoother concrete than the one that paved our driveway. Thanks to the cement style our house was sporting, we were allowed to wear our rollerblades in the house. We would hook our fingers around the walls and spin into the next room with such speed that I thought the wheels of my Christmas blades would spin off and smash a window. But then the tiles came, and it was all “don’t chip the tiles”, “take your shoes off before you stand on the tiles”. Luckily, our bedrooms were still cushioned with the stained carpets of freedom. Brody often let his pet rat piss and shit on his bedroom carpet and just cleaned it up with the toilet roll he kept by his bed.
“Dad’s not eating again but Mum got Wagon Wheels,” I said, throwing one in his lap.
“Cheers,” he said, putting it on his pillow and getting up to lift the glass lid of his rat’s cage. The sides of the cage were decorated in Australian flag stickers and NOFX logos, an aesthetic that continued across the walls of his room.
“Are you ever gonna name him?” I asked, making my move toward the abandoned biscuit.
“Yeah, I dunno. I was thinking Missy.”
“Isn’t that the name of your giiirrrrlllllfriend?” As I teased the words from my mouth, I sat down on the bed and heard a muffled crack under my arse.
“Shit,” I said quietly, pursing my lips together and looking up at the ceiling.
“CARA! Get up! You’ve just cracked the lid.” Blood started to trickle down my bare thigh. Brody inspected the damage I left on his bed while I took a square of toilet paper and watched the blood move through the tiny white fibers as if it were a cleaning commercial. “Watch how this tiny fragment of our product can take away even the most stubborn stain, blooooood.” My TVSN performance ended there as I became silently mesmerised by the changing colour of the toilet paper. The blood’s movement through the whiteness was so artistic, it begged for an audience. I dragged the thin white sheet up the trickle of red, twisting my spine for a clearer view, until I felt the sharpness of glass under my finger.
If you press it in some more, you won’t marry someone like Dad.
I pushed my finger down on the glass and the pain felt like triumph.
“Let’s have a look,” Brody finally said after putting Missy on the floor and away from the dangerous shard-land I created.
“No, it’s fine. I like it there,” I said, squatting down so that my calf and thigh met, pushing the glass in deeper still.
“You’re getting blood on my carpet. Get up!”
“What’s going on?” Mum stood at the doorway, holding Missy up by the tail. I stood up to the sound of her voice, clearly exposing the smudge of blood to the room.
“I put the lid on the bed and Cara sat on it!”
“Okay, okay, let’s have a look then.” Her voice was so calm and gentle that I immediately turned the back of my leg towards her and lifted the edge of my denim shorts to expose the glass.
“Oh, I think you’ll survive it,” she said, kissing the back of my calf, probably getting blood on her lips. “I’ll get the tweezers.” I followed her toward the bathroom, still enjoying each new line of blood that tickled my skin as I walked. As we passed through the lounge room, a billow of smoke smacked me hard on the forehead. Dad didn’t look at us pass but I noticed two empty cans next to his chair and a fresh one at his lips. He wasn’t even bothered to hide the empties in the cupboard that night; ‘not hiding cans’ became a new category added to my checklist.
After the glass extraction, Mum and I sat on the lounge with a bowl of re-heated shepherd’s pie. We watched whatever Dad had on and didn’t ask for a channel change; the growing tower next to his chair told us it wasn’t the night. So, we sat and ate and commented along to the garbage that was spilling out from UKTV’s greatest hits. While Father Ted danced around the room with a lamp shade on his head and pulled his eyes at either side, I noticed that Dad’s stare had moved from the TV to the backyard. His face stayed fixed on the darkness as he put out his cigarette on the padded arm of his chair, leg still bouncing up and down with fierce momentum. Once the ash and embers had been ground into the fabric enough times to expose the synthetic fluff beneath, he stood up, held the handle of the glass door and ripped it across its bearings. His skinny body made its way past the beer fridge outside and out of our vision. When the fence into the garage shook open, Mum quickly uncurled her legs and roughly pulled her arm out from behind my back.
“Stay here and don’t let your brother come outside either,” she almost yelled the instructions on her pursuit of Dad.
If you find more glass in your leg, then Dad won’t try to drive.
If you find more glass in your leg, push it in deeper until the skin sucks it in, then Dad won’t die.
If you find more glass in your leg before he starts the ignition, then he won’t run over Mum while she tries to stop him.
If you find more glass in your leg before Brody notices and comes out of his rat cage, then it’ll go back to the way it was before we got tiles.
I picked at the Band-Aid on the back of my thigh, trying to get underneath and find more glass. But just as I peeled off the adhesive grasp, the car started, and Brody came running into the lounge room.
“Who’s starting the car? Where’s Mum? Where’s DAD?”
“Mum said to stay inside.” He went toward the back door like everyone else had.
“BRODY, stay with me. I’m scared. I don’t want you to go outside. Please. Mum said to stay inside with me. PLEASE!”
He came back and took my hand, bringing me to the front of the house. We looked through the window, waiting to see lights descend the driveway. The car revved its engine and Brody started slamming his palm on the window. “You’re scaring Cara. Stop it. STOP IT.” But the revs got louder and faster. Black smoke started to come out from the side of the garage. Brody went to the front door, leaving me with my hands pressed between my face and the window, trying to get a glimpse of my mum. “Stay there,” he said as the new set of revvs threatened to drown out his command. But just as I watched my brother approach the front door, the red brake lights spilling out from the garage turned to white and our silver car flung down the driveway.
Mum was left standing at the mouth of the open roller door with her arms long and limp beside her like two deflated balloons. I watched her stand for a second more and then shake herself back to life before coming back inside, alone.
Each day thereafter, Mum picked me up from school and I asked if he was home yet. Then, we’d drive to Brody’s high school and he asked again. “Not yet,” said Mum, “but please don’t worry, guys. He just needs some more time to get better.” I didn’t know what kind of better he needed to reach after that night, or how long it would take to get there, but I knew Brody wasn’t buying it.
“Can the girls still come for a sleepover tomorrow night?” I asked, thinking it was the perfect time for it, fate even. I wouldn’t have to check the cupboard for green cans or fear more smoke burns appearing on the furniture while my friends watched on.
“I think it’d be best if we moved it to Fallon’s house, sweetheart. I’ve already spoken to her mum and you can go there straight after school tomorrow. Is that okay?” I nodded but kept watch of my mum while she drove us home. I couldn’t tell if she was worried or sad, relieved or motivated. Without knowing where she stood on the matter, I just followed Brody’s reaction—anger.
“Mum told me he’s in a hotel,” Brody whispered loudly while I lay in bed that night. “He’s just there getting shitfaced and watching TV. Don’t know why Mum thinks he’s gonna get better doing exactly what he does at home.”
“Yeah. Let him burn holes in their couches!” I spat out the words so that Brody knew I was on his side. But I was sort of excited to have this Better Dad home. Maybe Better Dad played Around the World or put TimTams in our lunch boxes. Or maybe Better Dad ate dinner every night and got fat. Better Dad would walk in a straight line to bed without holding the walls, and Better Dad would care that I sat on a glass rat cage lid. Better Dad would let me change the channel.
“Just go to sleep,” Brody said after a few moments of silence. “And you can come into my bed again if you wake up.” I rolled over and started to pick the paint off my wall.
If you go to sleep before you look at the clock, Better Dad will be a real thing. If you look at the clock now, you’ll get a better than Better Dad, one that will be home in the morning making potato bread.
I spun quickly to look at the time. 9:18 p.m. threw a red light onto my ceiling almost as bright as the revving brake lights from three nights ago.
Friday night was sleepover night and even though Dad still hadn’t come home and my back was aching, I was excited to spend the night at Fallon’s. Her mum always let us have Coco Pops with our dinner and as many lollies as we wanted while watching Scream. Her Dad was an Irish Mist man and her mum liked white wine and a plate of steamed broccoli with rock salt. They didn’t have to wait eight years to get tiles.
“Fallon’s decided to stop eating since level three of gym got her. So that’s it, no more gym,” her mum took a gulp of her wine before getting up to pour us all a glass of milk to go with our side of cereal.
“Mum. I did not! I’m just training more.”
“You are not, Fallon.” Her Irish accent got thicker this late in the afternoon, just like Dad’s. “I can see your ribs. You’ve stopped eating and you’re only 11. Christ all mighty, what’s your teenage years to be like? Look at your sister, she eats everything in sight and now she’s taller than Cara. Stand up, girls, and we’ll measure you both.” Briana sculled her milk before she stood up, as if the white liquid would give her the final edge she needed to beat me. We took our places, back to back, both tilting out chins to the sky hoping to gain an extra millimetre or two.
“Sure, it’s a close one this time, girls. But I think Bri’s got it in the bag. Sorry Cara, keep drinking your milk there.” Briana kept her chin tall as we sat back down. I chased a handful of dry Coco Pops with a loud slurp of full cream milk just so their mum could see that I was serious about getting my edge back over her freakishly tall nine-year-old.
If Fallon drinks all her milk, they won’t bitch about you when you go to the loo.
She got up and poured her milk down the sink as soon as her mum left the room. “I hate fucking milk. Let’s go put a movie on; Mum said we can sleep in the lounge room with sleeping bags!” I didn’t care that they would gossip about me, but I still held my pee in for as long as possible.
We were deep in conversation about our upcoming performance of Lean on Me in the school church while Grease played in the background. “Wait. Shut up. Watch this part,” interrupted Briana.
“Oh yeah, Cara, get the remote ready,” said Fallon frantically, jumping into position on the lounge, hairbrush microphone in hand. I pointed the remote at the TV just as Rizzo, Frenchy, Jan, and Marty flung themselves on the bed. ‘I don’t drink / ohhh / or swear / ohhh / I don’t rat my hair / eww / I get ill from one cigarette.’ We all coughed three times on lyrical queue. Then, right before the chorus, Frenchie lay on her back with spread legs. “PAUSE IT!” They yelled together. I hit the button at the exact right second.
“There,” said Fallon running up to the TV and pointing to the sides of Frenchie’s knickers on the screen, “that’s definitely pubes!”
Briana and I skipped to join her at the TV, laughing.
“You’re gross, it’s just a shadow,” said Briana. We moved even closer to the screen, our foreheads almost resting on Frenchie’s stomach as we inspected her crotch.
“Yep, decision made,” I said, clicking play, “definitely a fire crutch!”
Even though it was the middle of February and you could’ve parted the evening heat outside like a curtain, Fallon had turned up the aircon to give our sleeping bags purpose. We were all lying with the thick bags zipped up to our chins, eating snakes and racing cars when I couldn’t hold in my pee any longer. I sat on the toilet, picking at the scab that had quietly formed around the site of my earlier glass extraction, and noticed a huge red stain that looked like a birthmark had grown on my favourite pair of tan bloomers. I quickly checked my silk boxer shorts, FUCK I screamed inside my head, biting my lip hard with the F. It was all over the arse. I was fucked. I ran back to the lounge room only to find Briana and Fallon’s mum standing over my stained sleeping bag and the girls gone.
“Right, Cara, have you had your period before?”
“No,” I said, trying to use my thighs to rearrange the fists full of toilet paper I had shoved into my bloody knickers.
“It’s okay, love, Fallon’s not got hers yet, so it’s good practice for me. Here,” she said, handing me a pair of Briana’s pajama bottoms and a fresh pair of black bloomers with a long pad already stuck inside. She was like a doomsday prepper for periods, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. I must have been carrying the face of a pre-teen about to bleed. She began to spray my sleeping bag stain with some sort of Mr. Muscle (the real brand, not the Bi-Low stuff). “Go on and get changed. I’ll get this in the wash and get you a mattress to sleep on in Fallon’s room. Okay, love?”
“Thank you,” I said, adding, “I’m sorry,” as I walked back to the toilet.
“No need to be sorry, love. It’s all part of growing up.”
“I guess I just didn’t plan on ‘growing up’ in your sleeping bag.”
Mum was there to pick me up before breakfast was over. I assumed she had heard about the worst story in human history and decided to come early. I was kind of glad she did. Fallon asked me too many questions and Briana just looked at me as if she didn’t want to be taller than me anymore.
“Is Dad home yet?” I asked before she had the chance to discuss my sleeping bag horror.
“Yes,” she said. I turned the radio volume to 22. At least now the two numbers added up to four. 21 and 23 were odd numbers and 24 added up to six which was never okay so that counted out 26. And 28 was too loud. 22 it was.
“He’s in the bedroom and not very well. He was in a hotel and drinking a lot over the last few days, so I’m going to take him to a doctor on Monday.” I stayed silent. “Please don’t go in, Cara. He’s going to get some help now. This is a good thing, it will all get better from here.”
“So do I just act normal, like I don’t know he’s home?”
“He didn’t want me to tell you kids, so we’ll just do our normal thing and it’ll all be fine.”
“Will he come to the year six performance next week? Fallon’s dad’s coming and so is Emily’s, plus their grandparents who are still alive.”
“That’s not until March, sweetheart, and I can’t think that far ahead just yet, okay?”
“Can I sit in his chair?” I asked, twisting the handles of the plastic bag filled with my bloodied clothes around my finger. I watched the skin turn pink, then red, then purple, and then the knuckles went white.
“Yes, but stop playing with the hole there—it’s getting bigger.”
“You mean the burn.”
If the radio stays on 22 all the way home, you’ll get a new lounge before any of your friends come over.
I stood at the front of a packed church on March 6th dressed in my old communion dress. Even though my petition to change our class’s performance date hadn’t worked, I knew the song choice had the goods to catapult Better Dad into rapid existence—out of the hospital and maybe even out of his corduroy chair.
Thanks to my height, I was the only girl positioned in the back row, my puffy white sleeves brushing Western Briggs to my right and Taylor Stevens to my left. I spun a folded lyric sheet between my fingers, counting each corner as it passed my thumb.
If you get through the whole song in your head before the priest comes out, Dad will come and Western will tell you he likes you.
Before I could get to the actual words that came after the infuriating string of hmmms, Mum and Dad walked into the back of the church and stood behind the packed pews, not looking for a place to sit. Mum gave me a wave, keeping her other arm wrapped around Dad’s back.
When the piano started striking its keys, my fingers pulled at the skin of my stomach. I watched Dad’s eyes scan the backs of the heads in front of him and occasionally flick to the lyrics on the projector. I sang Lean on Me as if my future depended on it. I didn’t miss a beat, even when Mum and Dad left before the end, skirting around the thin crowd that had formed behind them. I counted how many times Dad looked back into Mass as they walked across the lawn.
One, two … three. If he looks back one more time, your kids won’t have to wear their old communion dresses when they’re in year six.
Clare Reid lives in Western Australia and is a writer fascinated by the commonalities of this human experience. Long-listed for the 2019 Fish Anthology short story prize and recently published in the December 2019 issue of The Nasiona, Clare began her writing journey as a copywriter. In an editorial capacity, Clare has written for the likes of Capture Magazine, Campaign Brief, Your Zen Mama, and The Perth Collective. She holds a MA in Transnational Creative Writing from Stockholm University. clarereidwriter.com