This short story was longlisted for the 2017 Bath International Short Story Award
I’m not a liar. I want you to know that about me before I go. I wouldn’t lie to my own son, just to make him feel better. I don’t do that kind of thing. Not me.
At least, I didn’t mean to lie to him.
I wasn’t the one who put the damn idea in Hayden’s head anyway. It was that aboriginal man that did it.
But if I didn't think it was true I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, would I?
I wouldn’t be sitting here on the back porch fending off a million flies, sweating everywhere a woman can sweat, clutching your photo and trying not to think about what’s coming for us. But the smoke’s mixing with the golden wattle and getting up my nose like that sick air freshener they use in the bathrooms at work so it’s hard not to think about it.
And if I didn't think it was true I wouldn’t be looking out everywhere for you, calling you, hoping you’ll come by and see me even though it’s day. And I wouldn’t be talking to you in my head like I’ve gone mental!
No, I’d be packing up what I could of the house in the car, leaving those piles of Dave’s damn greasy car magazines for kindling, trying to remember all the places I’ve stashed my tip money, and getting ready to get the hell out of here.
But I can’t seem to make myself move. Even though that hot wind’s getting grit in my eyes and I can hardly think over the cicadas ringing like an alarm and I’m not even sure that piece of shit car I made Dave leave us is gonna start.
Cause I’m scared.
I’m scared that maybe I am lying after all. To myself.
You think I’d know, wouldn’t you? That it would be easy for a person to know if they really believe something, or if they just want to believe it. But when you’re a mother it’s not clear at all. This water’s brown and murky and it’s swirling like a creek in flood and there’s no one telling you if you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing or if you’re a bad mother or one that’s just trying to do her best against this relentless current and that that’s okay.
I guess it got confusing for me around that storm ten days back, rain driving down sounding like thunder in the rafters. Maybe it beat the sense out of me. It was a bad one. And Hayden was so afraid for you.
He sat on the carpet by the window for three hours that afternoon. Just sat there, still as a startled rabbit, gipping his knees to his chest, staring out at the gums and watching their branches bend almost horizontal like they’d turned to rubber. He was all white all over except for his knuckles, bright pink from gripping his favourite toy car so hard, and every time there was a big gust and that hanging branch lashed against the glass he flinched like an abused dog.
I sat right next to him, rubbing his back, and he kept asking me if you’d be okay. He asked if you knew the storm was coming before it started and if you had a safe place to go and I just told him ‘yes, yes of course angel’ because I didn’t know what else to say. And that’s what I mean when I said I didn't mean to lie to him. Cause I didn't know if you were really out there or not. But that was no time to have a rational conversation about it, was it? Tear you away from him again in the middle of that raging storm. So I just let him keep on believing it.
Maybe I would have said something but as I was sitting there trying to think what to do that clothesline was driving me crazy, screeching like bad brakes, whipping around in the wind. I bought some lubricant this week. That’s right, cause since Dave left I’m the mother and handyman and the sole bloody income earner as well as the one who has to damn well figure out what’s true and what’s a lie and I’m suppose to do all that on my own. So I got some WD-40 but I didn’t get round to fixing it yet and now there’s no point, is there?
After the storm Hayden was desperate to go outside and find you but I told him to have some dinner first. I just wanted some time to figure out what I should be telling him. So we waited and ate baked beans and he didn't even complain that they were cold which they were cause the power was out. But I couldn’t say a thing. Cause I had to tell him you were dead once already and it nearly goddamn ripped my heart out and I couldn’t face doing it again so soon.
And as I was sitting there, mouth slicked shut with that sugary syrup the beans swim in, I thought that maybe this time I didn't have to say anything. Cause maybe the only thing that makes some things like this true, or not true, is if you say them out aloud, as if my words would harden in the air like clay baked in fire and become permanent and unbreakable.
And then it was dark and he stood up and pulled on his gumboots before I could open my mouth so I decided just to take him.
It was a bad time for a search party. The storm had ripped the bark off the stringy gums in strips and it littered the ground like a bunch of snakes that slithered in the shifting shadows and made it easy to trip. We looked for 20 minutes in the dripping bush, sweeping our torches like search lights, shining the bright beams in all the places we thought you might be but you weren’t.
And if you want to feel like the worst mother in the world, take your kid out into the wet bush and let him stumble around in the dark and the cold, upset and scared and hopeful, looking for something that might not be there until his teeth start to chatter.
And when I heard him clenching his jaw shut, trying to stop his jaw shaking so I wouldn’t take him inside, all the pain of the last month turned to hot guilty bile in my stomach and I swear I almost threw up in the mud just from grief. And I really was gonna pick him up, turn around and take him inside. But then he began calling your name.
Your name that’s so… perfect in his tiny voice that I just wanted to keep hearing him say it over and over in that way that sounds like he expects you to reply.
And then I knew why I’d really taken him out there: I wanted to find you as much as he did. Cause if you’re alive in his mind, then at least you’re alive somewhere.
So I kept breathing those deep shaky breaths you do when you’re trying not to cry and shining the torch all around us, just desperate, until he said, ‘Look! Mum!’ I followed his light to the hollow of a tree and there you were. There you were!
And that relief was so enormous, so real, like someone lifted a stone off my chest, that there couldn’t have been anything more true in the world than you right then, and I’ve never been more sure of anything, and I sobbed and sobbed while he rubbed my back with his tiny icy hand just like I’d rubbed his.
Then this week it’s been so hot. Too hot. The air above the asphalt’s a wavy mirage and the gums are creaking and cracking like a tin roof, brittle leaves whipping around the backyard in the dry wind. I’ve been keeping the radio on and checking the sky and thinking please no. Please no. Not this year.
Cause the day after that storm, that’s when we started talking to you. Talking to you like you understand us. Sitting on the back deck with him at night, talking to you about anything that comes to us. He likes telling you about his day at kinder and showing you the drawings of the bush he’s done. We’ve even been leaving food out for you and little gifts he makes out of gum leaves and twigs.
And I don’t know what I thought. I thought it might turn out okay. That maybe we would just grow out of it eventually. Then an hour ago I got the phone call.
But it wasn’t me that put this idea in his head. Just after it happened, just after I told him you died, they had a local aboriginal man visit them at kinder and Hayden just flat out asked him the question: what happens after? I guess I didn’t give him a good enough answer. The teacher rang up and told me cause that’s what you do when a four-year-old kid asks that kind of thing. She thought that maybe it had something to do with Dave but I said no, no, he isn't dead. He left us eight weeks ago.
Now if you want to know about lies, about telling someone outright lies just to make them feel better, well, he’s your man. Now nothing I ever said or did comes close to a lie when you compare them to Dave’s lies and there’s another lesson for you: not all lies are the same.
When I got Hayden home that day he didn't even take his backpack off. He just ran straight to the fridge and pulled your photo out from underneath the little thermometer magnet. I’d put it at his height so he could look at it whenever he wanted. And he did. All the time.
Then he took it out into the bush and I followed him and sat in this same rusting chair on the back porch and watched as he wandered in and out of the line of trees. I guessed he was looking for a place to bury it. Then he stopped. He stared up towards the canopy and he called out to me. He said he’d found you.
But I know that Aboriginal man wasn’t lying, was he? Or was it just a another story adults are suppose to tell kids like shove your tooth under your pillow, be good for Santa, a giant bunny will bring you bloody chocolate – the spirits of the dead live in nature.
But no one ever told me this story when I was a kid. And now I feel like the kid again. Wanting something to be true so badly you believe it.
And now the sky’s a blanket of orange smoke that’s threatening to smother us both. They said they won’t be able to save our house and I don’t have the strength to stay and fight. And Hayden’s already at the shelter waiting for me and he’ll be so worried about you and I’ll have to tell him the real truth. But what the hell is the real truth?
Right now I’m sitting here on the deck, looking out for you, hoping you’ll come by even though it’s day, wondering how I’ll survive losing you all over again. Cause that’s how it feels. Like either way, if it’s true or it’s not true, this fire’s coming to take you from me. It’s the same pain as on the day it happened, like something ripping through my insides, except this time there’ll be no pools of blood. Only tears.
And I’m holding your photo. That grainy little photo of you, like the whitest snow, like static, a floating angel in black space. You really do look like that little white owl in the shadowy hollow of its tree. The one we’ve been talking to and feeding this past week. Your tiny limbs are just dainty bird’s claws, Ashley.
Is it really you?
“Are you out there little girl?”
You probably didn't recognise my voice all strangled and thick like that. I’m breathing in the heat and the smoke and I can barely see a thing.
“If you’re there… just please… tell me.”
And you’re not coming. Because you’re not there. And I’m just talking to myself.
I’m leaving now and I’m leaving it here, your photo. I can’t take you with us. I hope you understand that. I need to bury you for good.
Cause I’m a liar. I am a liar. I’m lying to myself, Ashley. You’re mother’s a damn liar cause… cause…
“YOU’RE NOT REAL!”
And that came out like razors on my throat and I’m so sorry.
And the words are hardening like baked clay now, like mud in a bush fire. And they’re molding you into a lie, making it permanent. Cause I’ve said it now. And I can’t take it back.