Burning. The first thing I noticed was the heat, rippling over my body in waves. And the tickling, dry grasses under my arms. The back of my mouth, itchy. I opened my eyes to blinding light and quickly shut them again, until all I could see was pulsing red.
Where was I? Sitting up, I hugged my knees, reassuring myself I was still flesh and blood. I squinted down the hill, and the wind teased hot fingers around my neck. Beyond the valley was the city, tiny and perfect, as if I held the wrong end of a pair of binoculars to my eyes.
The estuary stretched its grey fingers towards the hills, with tiny clumps of brown grasses and flaxes sprouting from its knuckles. Gondola cars were buzzing their stilted path up the hill. As I looked, the wind built up and buffeted its way across the plains and up the valley towards me in a hot breath that flattened the tussock and turned my eyeballs gritty. It was one of those dry, Nor’wester days that brought headaches and a terrible dryness in the throat that can’t be quenched.
I was wearing my new dress. I smoothed the soft fabric, the blue now threaded through with little bits of grass. Had I been drinking last night? But I thought the nausea in my stomach was fear of the unknown, not the surging waves of too much alcohol.
In a flash, my mind went back to my birthday morning and breakfast at my favourite cafe. How long ago was that? I remembered the hot, sweet pancakes with crispy edges, the strong coffee, the people that all talked too much. Aaron. Mum. Tara, my friend from work. My brother Hamish. Talking over me, about me. Then I’d ended up here.
Cars zipped silently along the streets like Matchbox toys. If I focused, I could probably see the office, and there, to the left, my flat. Mum’s house that was far too big for her alone.
At least I was wearing shoes. I made my way over to the track and followed it along the ridge, avoiding clumps of sheep droppings, until I got to the Summit Road. Walking on a paved surface felt better, like I was heading for a destination, less like a wandering farmer’s daughter wading through the fields. Less like the backstory of a body in a news article.
But still, it was hot. The heat rose off the road surface in waves and I cursed those Canterbury days that start off cool and culminate in sweltering, cloudless afternoons.
I heard the rev of an engine and a car pulled over beside me, idling. Just ignore them, I told myself. Just look straight ahead.
“Hey,” a voice said, and I was surprised to hear she was female and young. “Do you need a ride?”
It’s a trap, I thought. This is what they do. They send in the least threatening ones, then once they’ve got you, that’s it. I kept walking, and soon heard the car pull off, crunching on the gravel road.
I walked all afternoon. And when the sun was sinking low behind the distant mountains, I made it to Dyers Pass.
I went into the first house I saw, a huge white monstrosity, and asked the man at the door to borrow a phone. He looked at me strangely, all the questions I had reflected in his eyes.
The taxi driver asked where I was, and said he’d be there in fifteen minutes.
I ate a bowl of ready pasta by myself in front of the television, and finished off with a glass of wine. I stripped off that horrid blue dress and tied it in a plastic bag to drop off at the dry cleaners, and cast around for my cell phone.
I nursed my poor feet back to health with long baths and soothing cream, and wore no shoes for the whole weekend. Stretched out on the couch, I scrolled past my friends’ posts without seeing them.
On Monday, our office was hosting the national conference. I sat behind Aaron, watching the back of his head, and listened to the puffed up words blowing around the room. At lunchtime, I slipped out to pick up the food. It meant I didn’t have to make small talk, those flat questions with heavy, slamming answers.
Aaron popped his head over the divider. “Are you finished with that file?”
“Yeah.” I passed it over, noticing that the dots on his tie were actually little pictures of Superman.
“Thanks, Pip,” he said, and it felt to me that he lingered over the vowel, not spitting out my name like everyone else did. “What did you get us for afternoon tea?”
He asked every time. “Mixed savouries and muffins.”
“It’ll be a fun afternoon, eh. Make sure you wake me up if I start to snore.”
“Are you going to come to the quiz?”
“You should,” Tara put in, as she walked past. “You’re so good at the history questions.”
“What are you doing in the weekend?”
Probably visiting my Nan, I wanted to say. Answering the same two questions over and over.
“Nothing much,” I said.
Mum called after work, when I was on the bus. I watched the green phone move in time with my pulse, felt the vibrating in my bones. Left it to ring. I knew how the conversation would go, but I didn’t have the answers for myself, let alone the right answers for her. I leaned my head against the window and watched the boxy buildings and signs of Moorhouse Avenue pass by in a blur.
I kept my eyes squeezed shut, though the dry grass prickled through my clothes and the faint smell of sheep shit hit my nose.
I was back on that hill, this time in a perfectly fitted suit jacket that was cool on the inside. The wind was Northeasterly, blowing straight off the sea. My skirt flapped in the wind and the breeze curled its freezing fingers around my leg. The ground seemed to vibrate. I shivered, acutely aware of the violent force that thrust the hills up from the plains.
The sky was blotted with a few wispy clouds racing across the blue. A rabbit ran across the grass nearby, stopped and looked at me, then ran faster.
I could breathe up here. I didn’t move, but focused on the tiny buildings, the little square houses and round stadium with light towers like a clawed hand cradling tiny people, about to crunch shut and snap their tiny bones.
My gaze fell to the grey-blue sea, with each white tilde the only sign of the crushing waves. What was I doing here?
The taxi driver asked where I was, and said he’d be there in fifteen minutes.
Scrabbling around the cushions in the couch, I found crumbs and dust. But no cellphone.
The dishes were piled up on the kitchen bench in two untidy stacks. I reached over. The grey dinner plate felt smooth and greasy. I lifted up the plate as if to inspect it, but let it fall from my fingers to the tiles. As the crash died away, I slowly opened one eye. Nothing.
I pulled down a packet of biscuits from the top shelf and took one out. Its flavour was sweet and chocolatey on the first, then the second. Just crunch and dry crumbs on the last. I crumpled up the wrapper and stuffed it in the overflowing bin. Still nothing. No sirens. No claws reaching from the sky to pluck me out of my house.
I curled up on the couch in the sun.
The ringing of my phone woke me, with an absurd tune I’d liked ten years ago. The shadows cast long fingers over the floor. I scrabbled under the chair and stared at the display. Two missed calls.
“I’m coming over.” She rang off. I half heartedly picked up some clothes from the floor, then sat down to calm my fluttering heart. She would ask whether I had a good birthday. She would ask whether I’d got that new job. She might ask if I had a partner yet.
A knock came at the door and I opened it, ready with excuses. It was Aaron. “I just came over to see why you weren’t at work today.”
“I…” But the lies died on my lips. I smoothed my hair, smoothed my clothes, glanced behind me.
“Are you not well?”
“I’m just having a … day.”
His look was a mixture of sympathy and frustration. I know that feeling well, I wanted to say, but my mouth stayed shut.
“Can I come in?” he asked, and then my mother was there too, opening the door, and everyone rushed inside.
I sank into a chair. My clothes prickled my back. Familiar waves of nausea and the dryness in my throat returned. I tried to swallow.
Now they would start comparing notes. I couldn’t get enough air. A rushing began in my ears and my sweaty grip began to slide as I slipped away.
Aaron fiddled with the cuff of his shirt. “We need your help at the quiz tomorrow. You really should come.”
Up near the ceiling, it was cooler. Their voices reached me, high and tinny, from far below.
“You work with Pip?” Mum looked at the dishes, the empty wine bottle, the stain on the carpet.
“Yeah, for about two years now. Don’t know what we’d do without her.”
“Pip has always been a bit awkward,” Mum said, tidying the bench. “But she’s a wonderful help.” She turned to me. “What about your grandmother? Have you been to see her?”
I shook my head.
Mum looked at Aaron. “She hasn’t been answering her phone much, have you?” But the spaces between words held full stops, like tiny bullets.
“She’s always on it, though.” They both smiled at me. A pulse flickered in my temple. I grabbed the arm of the chair, its fuzzy softness contrasting with the bumpy seam. The threads of the carpet were all different shades of greyish brown. A tiny hole in my jeans showed white cotton. A sparrow fluttered outside.
“Sorry about the mess,” I murmured, and each word needled deep into my skin for all to see. It hurt.
“I missed you,” said Mum, her face a mess of lines. I heard my breathing. Behind the reproach, I heard the worry. She tucked a pillow in behind me, an absurd gesture that made me want to laugh.
But it wasn’t enough.
The taxi driver told me he’d be there in three minutes. I stood in a different house, looking out on a city that sprawled, reaching, hungry. I searched for the green, the quiet.
The taxi wound its way down the hill and into my street. The houses felt crammed in, the cars newer, as if people and money had poured into this part of town, filling the gaps.
The driver pulled on the brake and twisted around. “Twenty-one dollars eighty.”
I put my hand in my pocket, but my wallet wasn’t there.
“Just wait,” I said. “I’ll be back out in a sec.”
The lawns were trimmed to within an inch of their lives, and I silently thanked Mum, who must have come over while I was…what? Drunk? Drugged? Sleepwalking up the hills?
Bending over, I lifted the pot plant up to find the spare key. Nothing was there but a little dirt which clung to the sweat on my fingertips.
“Here, take this,” I said, handing my bracelet through the open window.
“It’s too much.”
But I waved him off, already looking at the green front door of my neighbour’s house.
“Hi, I’m sorry to disturb you,” I said, when Mrs Forster opened the door.
She looked at my sweatpants and down at my bare feet, then up at my face. Her eyes widened.
“Sorry, I’m just wondering if you’ve got the spare key?”
I nodded patiently, although I itched to get inside in the cool and the quiet, away from curious eyes, and wash off the grass and dust of the hills.
“Well, no,” she said. “I don’t have the key anymore.”
“Oh,” I said, swearing silently. “Can I use your phone please?”
She pulled out a mobile that was far newer than I’d expected, and I took it and dialled Mum’s number. Flat beeps poked into my skin, and my pulse fluttered. Engaged. I thanked Mrs Forster, and turned my back on her stare.
I walked around the corner to Mum’s house that had often felt so far away. It was quite close, really, I thought. Quite easy to go up the steps and knock on the door. It would be easy to cross the threshold.
But the person who opened the door was not Mum. She crossed her arms.
“Hi, where’s Mum?” The woman frowned. “Carla?”
Her expression cleared and she smiled a little, sad smile. “Carla is in bed. You’re her daughter?”
“Yeah.” I rolled my eyes. Of course I was her daughter.
I stepped inside and walked past the woman.
“But she’s asleep,” she said, behind me.
I ignored her and barged into the bedroom. It took my eyes a while to adjust. She was not asleep, but her eyes were half closed. A tube, bright red with blood ran from her arm in a loop through a machine beside the bed.
“Mum?” I dropped to my knees beside the bed.
She opened her eyes up then, although she didn’t move.
“Pip,” she said, and smiled. “I knew you’d come, eventually. Did you get my messages?” Her voice was soft and croaky, her skin paper-thin.
“Yes,” I lied, “I got all your messages.”
“But it’s been so long.” Her hand shook as she reached out for me.
“It has,” I said. “Too long. Far too long.” A tear slid from my eye. After a long pause, I asked quietly, “How long?”
She moved her head to glance at the calendar on the bedside table. “Eight years and one month. Thirteen days.”
And then I remembered. My heart beat fast and all the moisture went from my mouth. I’d done this, not by drinking, or by escaping into my phone, although they didn’t help. Every time things got hard, I’d done it. When Dad died. When Grandma got dementia and stopped remembering me. When Aaron started going out with Tara, their giggles smothered every time I walked past their desks. When Mum was diagnosed.
Every time pain spiked into my heart, I’d wished myself away. I’d wished myself up that hill, where none of it could reach me, and it became harder and harder to leave.
I remembered sitting up there as days passed, traffic looped, tiny people lived and died. I’d watched the wheeling dark eat the light over and over, shooting stars and satellites.
“I’m here now,” I said, gripping her hand like an anchor and stroking it. I could never go back, never erase the past. But I was here now. If we had a week, I’d be here for every single second of it. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“What I missed. What we did together. Tell me everything.”
Kim Jackways is a freelance writer, dreamer and mother, based in Canterbury, New Zealand. She writes about weird and witchy things. She was a finalist in Micro Madness 2020 and her short fiction has been published in places like takahē and The Best Small Fictions.