The Old House

The Old House

Chapter four:

There is something spirit-crushingly funny about a three year old boy in an orange jump-suit, rattling at the bars that keep him locked away. His sticky little grin, mischievous yet filled with the innocence that only a toddler can have. I have to admit – not once have I driven the four hundred kilometers to visit little Daniel at the juvenile detention centre. Saz has never been either. It’s not that we didn’t want to go, or that we couldn’t go. It’s just… I can imagine it’s hard enough to see anyone behind bars, let alone a three year old boy. A three year old boy who supposedly killed his mother and grandparents in cold blood. Some sort of hulk-like, supernatural creature  he must be, they laughed on talk shows. As though it was funny. Like it was some kind of joke, an April Fool’s prank. But it wasn’t April. And this wasn’t some stupid prank.

And why did Daniel not appeal? Because he was three. Three years old. A three year old cannot surely know the ins and outs of the justice system. His lawyers couldn’t appeal for him. My father, on the other hand, being his legal guardian, could open an appeal on Daniel’s behalf. I remember listening to Saz scream at our father for hours on end. “Appeal, appeal! You’re an asshole. Why won’t you open an appeal? Get his lawyers to appeal!” Vases smashed into ceramic fragments. Family pictures shattered and crashed to the floor. Doors slammed, so hard that they shuddered in their frames for minutes after the initial impact. But he wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t, can’t, won’t. They’re all negative words, right? No money, dad would say, shaking his head. The lawyers took everything. Blood sucking parasites, he’d mutter. We have no family, we have no house, no belongings. Mosquitoes with briefcases. And then he would laugh and Saz would cry and we would sit in teeth-gritting silence for hours on end.

Not  even the music in the car can drown out the memories. I smell eucalyptus wafting into the air conditioning system, twirling through the air, it’s invisible tendrils wrapping themselves around my neck, constricting my airways. I know this feeling – I had it the day that the bodies were found. It came back at Daniel’s trial. It was there the morning I woke up to discover my father’s empty bed. Generally I can keep it at bay, stave it off with the crackling radio, shove it to the bottom of my intestines with nostalgia. But the odd envelope and Saz’s strange midnight escapades have caused my guard to come crashing down, like a big brick wall collapsing into dusty rubble. That’s how I imagine myself. A small girl, picking her way through a mountain of rubble, tossing bricks aside with scratched knuckles and bleeding fingers, sifting through the wreckage, searching for something… anything… that can perhaps give her some insight, something friendly or familiar or helpful to cling onto. Something or someone to make her feel less alone.

I drive home accompanied by an impending sense of doom. As soon as I pull up at the motel I realise that I forgot to buy any apple juice. I mentally kick myself, but it seems so irrelevant. I carry the envelope into our motel room. It seems to be growing heavier by the second, a ten tonne ball and chain dragging me to the bottom of the ocean. When I open the door, surprise, Saz sits still as a statue on her chair.

“Oh,” I say blandly. “You’re here.”
“I told you that I’m not working today,” she replied. There was no hint of emotion in her voice. She avoided eye contact with me and continued staring at the television disinterestedly.
“Well I just assumed you’d stolen somebody else’s car and run off to god knows where again,” I snapped. I tossed the envelope onto the counter. I saw Saz roll her eyes. She ignored my blatant jab and stood up.
“What’s that?” she asked me, pointing at the envelope.
“None of your business,” I picked it up again, tossed it from hand to hand.
“Oh for God’s sake,” Saz yelled. If I’d had any energy, I would have jumped back from her. Saz holding a conversation was a rare event, let alone showing emotion. “You’re not mum, okay? You’re not my mother. You can’t replace her. No-one can. Nothing can make this better, okay?”

There are several different types of silences. There are bored silences, awkward silences. There are peaceful silences, sad silences and lonely silences. Some silences are happy to just be, some grab at you and scratch your face. This silence though, was the silence of coldness, of desperation, of hopelessness. This was a silence that had been born out of misery and suffering. It was the silence that didn’t need tears to feel validated; it didn’t need anger to prove its point. It was just there, it sat on your chest like a rock, it crushed your ribs in a painful aching way, and it would never let you forget that it was around. It didn’t want to leave, to be broken, to be forgotten. But sometimes silence has to break. Sometimes people have to break, too.

“Sorry,” Saz muttered, when I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know if I looked sad or angry or anything. I watched her flop back onto the armchair. I watched her bony body deflate. I bit my lip. The letter was addressed to both of us. It would be a distraction from the coldness that emanated from the motel room. It would break the tension we had had created.
“We got a letter.” I said slowly, and walked towards the armchair. I dropped it on her lap. The tension did not snap like a rubber band. It softened. I could breathe again. I watched as Saz re-inflated her chest and sat up.
“A bill?” she asked, but I saw her squint at the envelope, the logo-less white paper. She turned it over in her hands. “There’s no return address though.”
“Yeah, I know. And it’s for both of us.”
Saz looked directly at me for the first time in eight years. Not vaguely like I was a weird apparition, but a person.
“That’s weird,” she said. “All of the letters from the courts and lawyers have return addresses.”
“That’s what I thought!” My voice seemed too loud.
“You didn’t open it.”
“It seemed weird. I didn’t want to open it by myself.”
I could tell that it made my sister uncomfortable. I wanted to laugh. This was ridiculous. How could a piece of paper be so foreboding and ominous? Saz sucked in a breath and began to peel back the seal. Time stopped. Nervous laughter bubbled in my belly.
“We can’t be scared of a letter,” I said. I smiled – sort of.
“Ha,” Saz said. “We can be scared of anything.” I raised my eyebrows.

A piece of paper fell out of the envelope and onto Saz’s lap. The letter was handwritten in black biro and sloppy handwriting. The words looked as though they were splattered on the page, jumbled like confetti. I felt my heart stop. It jumped. Banged against my chest. Was I breathing? Was it possible to go into cardiac arrest? I was being stupid, overreacting. It was just a letter. Scribbled letters on a piece of paper. We could just burn it instead. We didn’t have to read it. Why didn’t Barbara the Post Office Lady take it away from me? Jesus, I hated Barbara. Giving me the stupid, anonymous letter that seemed so creepy and mysterious.

“You read it.”
“No, you do it.”
“It’s for both of us. I opened it, you read it.”
“But you’re the oldest.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one who acts like the mother.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
You don’t be stupid. Can you even read?”
“No, I can’t. So you read it.”
“I really don’t think I can.”
“It’s just a letter.”
“It’s not just a letter. It’s weird.”
“Fine! I’ll read the stupid thing. But out loud.”
“Just do it.”

Saz coughed and unfolded the letter. “Dear Sarah and Ellie, I know that it has been a  long time since I’ve seen you…”
“Oh shit,” I interrupted. “It’s from him, isn’t it?”
Saz’s eyes scanned the piece of paper. Her face was grey.
“Keep reading.” I nudged her with my knee. She rolled her eyes, attempted sarcasm, and failed. She sucked in a deep breath of recycled air. She closed her eyes briefly, probably o gather racing thoughts. I know the look. I do it myself, all the time.

“Dear Sarah and Ellie, I know that it has been a long time since I’ve seen you. I don’t even remember what you look like.  We are not allowed photos or anything where they keep me. Everyone here calls me baby hulk. Because when I was three I killed your mum and grandparents. I guess she was my mum too, but I do not remember her at all. I am just writing to say hello, really. I like to read stories and write because there is nothing to do here but all the others tease me and call me lame. Anyway, it is almost time for dinner. So I have to go now. Goodbye. From Daniel. 

Published by Samantha Anderson

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