I have a mattress on the floor next to my bed. I keep it for times like this when I wake at night, hips hurting with growing pains. I worked out that if I just keep moving I don’t feel my bones growing.
I use my floor mattress to practise flying. I jump off my bed, knowing if I land on my knees in mid-air then I can take off and fly – through my half open window, above square gardens, pointed roofs, toward the power-lines so thread-thin and high as if drawn by God with a Sharpie. I’d sit up there with dark birds that come out only at night, and we’d watch the cats fight until morning.
But I never land in mid-air. I hit the mattress hard every time. This is why my knees are always bruised.
I turn on my nightlight, the light catches the plastic lunchbox I kicked beneath my bed, then reported lost to Mum.
The walls move in and out like a breathing person and I wish I hadn’t learned the world is always rolling over – that I could be on the upside-down part of the planet and not know it.
I will trick my parents into giving me a new room.
I step off my floor mattress, and my animal ornaments watch me walk by.
I open my door. My brother Scott’s door is shut and his light is off. He is not old enough for his bones to wake him like mine do. Mum says boy bones grow slower than girls until all at once they are large, and it is like all the careful growing you did as a girl has gone to waste.
I walk down the corridor. My toes curl from fear when I see the painting, hung up high, with gold words that say, “Be still and know that I am God.” I pass the bathroom that smells of chickenpox shampoo and enter the laundry where our dog sleeps when it’s raining and too cold to put him in the garage. His name is Barney, like the dinosaur, and he is a Chow Chow. He looks like a dog-sized Grizzly bear and has a purple tongue. He hides his face in his paws when I rub his stomach.
Mum and Dad are sitting on the couch near the fireplace in the lounge.
“What are you doing up?”
“Go back to bed, sweetie.”
“I want to go tenting. Nine is old enough, okay?” I tell them.
Dad goes to pick me up, but I dodge him. Dad loses hair from his head every time he moves, though we know not to mention it. To make up for it he has a brown beard so thick anything could be beneath it – anything at all.
Dad looks at me carefully, and I hold my breath. Finally he nods. “Okay, you can go tenting – tomorrow.”
They fell for it. I am going tenting and from today onwards I will not live in my rectangle room anymore.
Mum says to pack only the most important things, so I pack my spikey dinosaur and my remote-control car into a plastic bag I find near the front door. The bag is torn but it still works.
Mum finds me looking at my animal ornaments. She leans against the door and says, “You can’t take those. They’re fragile. You can’t play with them like you do with Spiderman.”
“He’s the Mysteriously Dark Spiderman – you don’t even know!” I shut the door on her. I wasn’t thinking of packing the ornaments anyway, I was keeping an eye on them. And they aren’t fragile. They are thick with stones in their bellies and throats. I don’t love them; I live with them.
I have dreams that I am small, and my ornaments are large and they don’t love me either. They want to hold me, and I hate being held. They want to squeeze me until I fall asleep and wake up bigger than them again, still choking.
After dinner, Scott and I go straight to our new tent home in the backyard. This is where we play our made-up game “Heaven And Hell”. We walk over the concrete near the garage, which we call Hell, into the grass, which is Heaven.
The tent is a nice shape with a triangle roof and its walls shift like wings. It’s okay that this new room needs to be pegged down; it makes sense for wing walls to try to fly away.
The air is still and heavy as though the weather will turn.
“Air mattresses are gross,” I say, squashing the lungs out of mine. Scott has his face turned away and he shivers.
“I miss Mum and Dad.”
“Yes, they are very far away.” A whole Heaven and Hell away. A whole afterlife from where we are.
Scott sits up and holds his sleeping bag in bunches. I lie back and watch the roof. Rain starts falling and it’s like sleeping under an umbrella. In the baggy bits of the roof, water pools.
“Do you like your new room?” I ask, “Not the tent, I mean.”
“It’s okay. At Christmas I watched next door. I saw Santa.”
“I did! He was on the roof. I think that makes my room quite good.”
I hold my words in and change them, “Do you like the shape of your room?”
Scott stares at me, “What?”
“You know. Is the shape a good one?”
“It’s square. What’s the best shape for a room?”
“Probably a circle shape would be good.”
“I guess. But not a triangle.”
“No, because the corner would be pointy and you couldn’t get small things out of it.”
“Do you miss our last house?” Scott asks. He means in Australia.
“No, there were huntsmen everywhere.” Spiders the size of babies. “And cockroaches in the toilet.”
“Yes, this one is lots better. I think I like New Zealand more than Australia.”
“I don’t. No one likes the way I say dance or six.”
“But the magpies aren’t as mean.”
I look at the walls. At least you can see the skeleton of a tent. It’s made of string and bendy tubes. A tent doesn’t hide things.
“Even though there were spiders and it was always too hot and the kookaburra in the garden was loud in the morning I was happier there,” I say definitely.
“I think you’re remembering wrong,” Scott says.
I think about this. “Maybe I’m just too old for a house now. Maybe I’ve outgrown houses.”
“That’s silly. You’re not bigger than a house!” Scott says this like it is the final point to be made.
We are quiet for a long while now. There is the sound of the TV too loud inside and Mum laughing.
“I think I’ll go inside,” Scott whispers. “Is that okay?”
I sit up, “I’ve never been alone in a house before.”
“But this isn’t a house, it’s a tent.” His eyes look wet. He needs Mum and doesn’t want to disappoint me.
“I’ll be fine,” I lie back down. “I’m too old to be in a house, anyway …”
Scott peels his sleeping bag off like thick rolls of skin. He stands in a crater in his air mattress and stares at the floor, making up his mind. Then he picks up his pillow and disappears into the wet air, zipping up the wall as he goes.
Soon I will outgrow this tent and I will live somewhere else and then I will never move. Never no matter what. Not even if my garden becomes the ocean. Not even if wild animals move onto my porch. I will never move. My house will always be the same and I will know how far the walls are from my bed. I will wake in the morning without wondering where I am or how I got there. And I will live in the same place forever.
I try to fall asleep with my arms crossed to keep warm.
The rain has stopped. I give up sleeping and unzip the wall. Water is seeping on to my floor. Lucky for me the uneven ground means it won’t reach my mattress.
Outside in the veggie garden I spot a hedgehog. It shrinks down when it notices me. I breathe out slow. Then it stands on frighteningly long spindle legs and sprints across the concrete toward the metal gate.
“Hey! Wait!” I run after it, the grass sloshing under my bare feet. The hedgehog darts across the concrete and smacks into the gate. It is scrambling, stuck between the diamond spaces of the linked wires. It misunderstood its own shape.
I stop at the edge of the concrete. In our Heaven and Hell game when you stand on concrete you become a demon. You cannot go back to Heaven unless you are Barney, because he is part dog, part bear. Once on the concrete you can only retreat into the house where the walls move. Those are the rules.
In the night the rules must be much more serious.
The hedgehog makes a terrible hissing sound. I need a way to reach it where I won’t touch the ground.
I return to the edge of the grass with my sleeping bag, flopping it onto the concrete. It’s just like a flying carpet, only difference is it lies still and does nothing. I inch to the very edge of the bag and try to reach the hedgehog, but even then I am a whole Hell city away.
I pace up and down the sleeping bag. It squelches and feels glossy, so I take it between my toes and squeeze it. I snap my fingers, back up onto the lawn and get ready to take a running jump.
When I jump off the sleeping bag the concrete rises fast to meet me.
My legs shoot with pain. Like the time I rode my bike too fast and crash-landed over the handlebars, removing sheets of skin off my knees, and a whole thumbnail as I skidded to a stop on the road.
I open my eyes and I am floating several inches high above the concrete. The pain must be the price for flying.
I see Hellscapes far beneath me. Every window in the buildings below holds a room on fire, bodies squirming in smoke. Red demons, with thick skin and bat wings, flap above a blood lake. They can’t fly high like me, though.
The hedgehog thrashes.
I move slowly forward, so slowly anyone watching me would think I was not moving at all.
Inch by inch I defy gravity and float forward, dragging my knees through space. So long as I concentrate I won’t end up in Hell. They teach you that in church.
Light shines through cracks in the neighbour’s wooden fence. A bunch of bones are tossed over into our yard.
“You’re not allowed to do that,” I say without thinking.
The neighbour rests his chin on the top of the fence. For a moment I wonder if his neck is extra-long, because he’s up high and is only two years older than me. But I realise he’s likely just stepped up and jammed his feet between the fence’s slatted wood.
“It’s for your dog,” he says.
“I know. But dogs can only have frozen bones – cooked ones get stuck in their throat.”
He twists his mouth. “They’re big bones for a big bear-dog like yours.” His words are sharp. He hasn’t said anything about me floating.
The rain starts again, soaking my flannel pyjamas. The neighbour nods at the gate, “You going to get that hedgehog free or should I jump over and help?”
There are lots of reasons he can’t come into our yard.
“I’m almost there.”
“You’re bleeding. A lot.” His words are flat and still.
I brush my fingers along my knees surprised to feel the sticky blood, “Obviously.”
“The hedgehog will die if you don’t do something.” He snorts, “Let me guess – the floor is lava.”
“I don’t play that game anymore.”
My focus wobbles. The hedgehog is trying to curl up on itself with the gate at its centre like a new bone. Blood runs off its paws, and I am less and less sure I’ll stay afloat. I can feel Hell beneath me, but now it feels more like being too still on sharp stones, than a white-hot fire. I feel my stupidness form a ball in my throat that can’t be swallowed.
I shove a hand out to our neighbour, my fist tight. “If I give you something, will you take care of it?”
If I don’t look at him then maybe he isn’t there. Maybe I made him up like a house that has lungs that breathe, or concrete that is a shell for the afterlife.
“Throw it to me! I’ll catch it.”
I feel how painfully small I am. But his hand is out and open, so I toss him something. I haven’t decided what it is yet – maybe it is something as large as my heart with just as many knobs and fleshy bits, or maybe it is something as small as a coin that I can slip behind my ear to hide.
He catches it, holds the same hand up to his mouth, and eats it up.
I feel the world fall apart just like a sandcastle when waves lick the beach. Stones pinch my skin and suddenly I’m on my knees. The concrete catches me and the gate rushes forward. I hear the world’s thin feet breaking off and turning into asteroids.
I stand up, hurting and bleeding. I look at the boy who made everything different.
“Well, hurry up!” he says.
I undo the hedgehog from the gate’s wire. I get so many cuts on my fingers from its quills and the loose metal. The rain washes my red knees. After I put the hedgehog down he tries to duck through the same place in the gate like a baby chipping away at a puzzle piece until it fits the wrong spot.
“No!” I tell it. I go to pull it back, but it hisses again and tries to nip my hand. Startled, I trip, grabbing the gate to keep from falling. The neighbour laughs.
I open the gate quickly and the animal, still stuck, is dragged along. Finally it finds a way to free itself and runs on its oddly long legs, up our driveway to the park, and away forever.
The neighbour and I catch each other’s eye. He climbs the fence, and just like I don’t want him to, he takes my hand and walks me over the concrete to my parent’s back door.
Mum uses cotton wool and Dettol to clean my wounds. The neighbour is talking to Dad in the kitchen as Mum puts me to bed.
I lie in my rectangle room and watch the walls, but they won’t move. The walls won’t dare move. I stare at the walls until my eyes are too dry to close.
The neighbour has everything that made my life interesting burning up in his stomach. I know because I asked Mum once what happens in a stomach and she said it is full of acid. The acid takes everything apart – that’s why it hurts when you throw up, and it’s why you’re not allowed to open your stomach and see in.
I know how many steps it is from my bed to the ornaments. Three large ones and one half one. I decide to test it. As I get up I slip a hand beneath my bed, something I wouldn’t normally dare do in the dark. I find the lunchbox I pretended I’d lost. When I open it I smell stale Dunkaroos.
I walk to the other side of the room, and the other side of the room doesn’t retreat from me. The wall is very still and the stone bodies are still too. I fit every last ornament in the box. I close the lid and slide my lunchbox back into the hidden recess beneath my bed.
I wait to feel afraid, or better, or finished. I wait in the dust at the foot of my bed.
Next week’s short story is by Emma Neale.