Thick red dust billows around the car as I pull up in the parking lot. Another day, another job. Working hard in the city of squalor. The heat is oppressive, and not even the air conditioning unit in my car can keep it at bay. My hair sticks to my forehead and drips down my pink, shiny face. Breathe in, breathe out. It is just another day. I gather my thoughts, put them in a basket and shove them to the back f my head, safely out of the away, to avoid collision, as I climb out of the car.
The lot is mostly empty aside from employee cars – it usually is. My bones ache as I wander across the lot and into the diner. Pure late seventies deco, red and white tiles, too much vinyl. A saggy ceiling, a leaky air conditioner. Creaky stools and a jukebox that hasn’t worked for at least a decade. Records pinned to the walls, gathering dust, spawning mould and all sorts of heinous, poisonous molecules. The hum of the radio drowns out the hiss and sizzle of the deep fryer. Why do I do this to myself? I ask, pushing through the entrance door. Empty. Always empty. For the past four years, always empty. Before that? Who knows, who cares? I didn’t work here then. A diner on the side of the highway to the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere. Really, what did they expect? Bustling crowds of soccer mums and school kids? This place is lucky to pull in a sweaty, tired truck driver with a bad attitude on a good day. Trust me, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t need a goddamn job.
Nine hours creep past slowly. So slowly that I am convinced time has stopped and is winding backwards. That I will be suddenly catapulted into the past and a pterodactyl will swoop past the window. There are four of us at the diner for the night shift. There are only really ever the four of us. It’s not as though any of us really had any other place to be. No-one to care who we were, what we were doing, how we were doing. It was as though we were invisible people in an invisible place doing an invisible job. Ghosts, wandering the earth in a sort of twisted purgatory.
Ronnie, the assistant manager. Ronnie is a chubby blonde boy with too many pimples and no authority about him whatsoever, not much older than me, slogging out the shitty hours to pay for his parents to smoke too much dope. Sascha, the cook. Sascha is German or Russian or something European. No-one asked, and she never told us. Sascha lives behind the diner and dyes her hair bright, trashy red over the decaying gray that creeps through. She doesn’t talk, but she makes the best burgers in a thousand mile radius. Not that it would be hard, really. There isn’t all that much in a thousand mile radius. And Trevor. Of course. Trevor is thirty-five and lives with his mother in a decrepit old farm house somewhere down another dusty road. He’s tall and wiry and kind of nerdy, but Trevor is funny, and Trevor makes us all laugh. I imagine if we didn’t have humor here, we would all be forced to make a suicide pact and complete it in the cold room. Our dead blue bodies would probably be frozen stiff for months before we were found by some unfortunate asshole.
I drove home from work sometime after midnight. Not sure what time, exactly. The clock in my shit box of a car has never worked since being in my possession. The roads were quiet, almost eerily so. There are no streetlights out here, no friendly yellow glow. Even the moon seems different, a small white ball suspended in the blackness, not friendly or inviting, just a reminder that it is night and soon it will be day and life will go on. I blast the radio, staticky but there. There are never any commentators at this time of night, no advertisements for erectile dysfunction and diet pills. Just music, and I like music. I let the crappy pop songs and 90’s rap beats carry me home, let them drill into my skull and fill the empty void with something other than loneliness and eucalyptus.
I pull into the driveway, forty-five kilometers up the highway, into a motel on the outskirts of a town whose name no-one knows, no-one important, because it is not important and it’s inhabitants know that. I live in a motel room with my sister, my older sister Saz. There is no vacancy sign here, even though there is many vacancies. The sign fell off sometime in the last year during a storm, but no-one bothered to hang it back up because no one really cared. Some windows glow a dull yellow, but the window of Saz’s room is black and silent. I clamber out of the car, weary from a day of nothing, and the smell of chlorine from the kiddy pool slams me in the face. I feel dust coated and old. I don’t want to go home, to go inside to a silence that steals the awful heat and replaces it with the kind of cold that eats away at you until you’re forced to leave the room and cry.
Saz is watching television in the dark. She doesn’t say anything to me as I enter quietly, stepping out of my uniform and leaving it on the floor, and I don’t say anything to her. I do not know if Saz sleeps. I don’t think so. She sits there for hours on end, wide-eyed and blank-faced watching colourful cartoons dance around on screen, a warm glass of apple juice in her hand, beneath a pile of faded blankets. Saz has insomnia, said the doctor. The town has one doctor, and Saz hates him. He tried to give her handfuls of coloured pills to rewire her brain and paint a smile on her face. If I want to sleep I will, she told me, and changed the TV channel. That was a year ago. We haven’t talked about it since.
We share a bedroom that Saz never uses and I use to hibernate in. A ceiling fan swings lazily above the double bed with the lumpy moth-eaten mattress. Clothes are strewn all over the floor, there is a pile of unopened cardboard boxes in the corner, duct-taped so tight none of the memories will ever be able to float out and crawl into my ears and into my brain to drive me insane. I sit down on the bed and hear the familiar sigh of the wood settling, accepting me. Saz might be able to sleep when she wants to, but I can’t. If I sleep I might remember, and if I remember I don’t know exactly what will happen. Nights are the worst because sometimes I just can’t help it. I remember.
I did grow up here, in this small town with no name. But it was different back then. Once upon a time, I had a mother and a father and two lovely grandparents and a sister and a bouncing baby brother with sticky fingers and an adorable laugh. We lived in a white house made from besa-block with a blue wooden door and stained glass front windows. There was a front porch with vines winding majestically around the trellis. Pink and orange flowers would take turns blooming all year round, all the colours of the rainbow would take turns on the dining room table in a crystal vase that glinted in the soft sunshine. Green grass and tall, leafy trees surrounded the house. There was a stream, a pretty little stream that ran all through the winter and dried up into a bike track in the hot summer. My mother loved her garden and my father loved that she loved the garden. He would drive off to work every morning and we would all wave good bye together. In the evenings, we would all sit around the dinner table and share roast chicken and pumpkins and potatoes, laughing and smiling and talking about our days. Our little problems now seem so insignificant, so nothing, so ridiculous and small. Once upon a time I was happy, we were happy. I lived in a pretty house with a pretty family.
Fuck that as a joke.
I felt the silence descend on the house. My eyes opened blearily and I rolled over. The red digits on the clock had barely counted twenty minutes since I’d laid down. Saz had turned off the television. Saz never turns off the television. Even when she leaves for work in the mornings, the television remains on, a quiet flickering in the background. The tiles are cool under my feet as I open the bedroom door a crack. Saz is standing in the kitchen, pulling off her top layers of clothing to reveal shorts and a singlet. I watch as she ties up her long brown hair into a ponytail and slips on her sandals. What is she doing? Where is she going? Saz doesn’t pause to look back at the door to see if I am watching. She doesn’t pause at all, in fact. In one swift moment she grabs my car keys off of the kitchenette bench and steps out of the front door into the dark, humid morning. I didn’t follow her. I listened to the shitty car rattle off down the dusty highway. It was kind of nice with the television off. Kind of nice. But also weird.
Not all of the memories are bad. Some of them are beautiful. They lap at my feet, waves of nostalgia that want to carry me into the depths of the deep blue ocean. Seventeen years old, six teenagers packed into a small four wheel drive. The air is hot and thick with dust and humidity. Sugar cane is six foot tall along both sides of the highway, red dust billowing behind the car. Music blasting from the radio, so old that it still contains a cassette player. We’re all laughing, we’re shouting, we are smiling. Arms outstretched towards the blue sky. And then the rain cascades down, dulling the dust, bringing with it the sweet smell of greenery and sugar. No-one rushes to pull the sun-roof over us, in fact, we laugh louder. Water streams down into the car as we splash along, shouting and singing and smiling. The clouds clear, and the sun is back. A bright yellow ball of fire, drying out the winding roads. It is a beautiful day and a beautiful place, burnt into my brain like a brand. I want to keep this memory forever, I hold it with me at night, as I lie twisted in sweaty sheets, blinking away the early hours of the morning, waiting for the sun to rise. Hoping that it doesn’t. But it always doesn’t and it always will.
Published by Samantha Anderson