Authors: Brooke Davis
ometimes, when Millie takes her gumboots for a walk through the park near her house, around the shops and down by the beach, she makes Walking Poems. She hears two words from the muscly couple running side by side (
) and three words from the mum talking to her baby in the pram (
Want your dummy?
) and a word from the elderly couple holding hands like they’re holding each other up (
) and then the silence from the girl not wearing much at all (. . .) but her sunglasses are the biggest thing on her body and she has music shoved in her ears and she’s concentrating on moving the fat on her thighs to her boobs and the expression on her face, that concentration, is part of the poem too.
Want your dummy?
. . .
So now, as she walks through the bus, up and down the aisle, running her fingers along the seats, sliding her feet along the floor, she makes a poem.
married in a church?
oh my God!
She likes how the words hit against each other sometimes, and other times slide in next to each other, so easily. The surprise of that. And she likes that it’s a secret poem, even to her, because she won’t remember it. And it will only exist for this moment.
The bus is flying, trees and scrub and houses hurtling past them. The road ahead is long and straight, and the end of it looks as if you might fly off a cliff, into the sky, into space, into the universe, into nothing, or something, or both.
The sun flashes on the grass, making a color across the sky like fire, and suddenly her stomach hurts, everything hurts, because she thinks of The Night Before The First Day Of Waiting, so she sits down next to Agatha and tries to send her mum messages with her head. If she can detach her head to go into the past, why can’t she detach her head so it will go to other places, too? She says,
in her head.
The mum in the seat across from them breastfeeds her baby. The dad fusses over them. Millie’s stomach pulls.
She looks at Agatha.
Have you got a family, Agatha Pantha?
Well, that’s certainly none of your business!
Who is in charge of families?
The government, I guess!
Can you start one if you lose yours?
Just. In. Case.
You can’t just start a family! You’re four years old!
You have to get pregnant first! And four-year-olds—
Same thing. You can’t get pregnant!
You have to get your! Your!
Your monthly womanly visitor!
Are they from the government?
Good God, no!
Where from, then?
They’re not from anywhere!
Why are they called visitors, then?
That’s just what we say!
Agatha sighs loudly.
Okay, I give up! Someone from the government comes to your house and makes you a woman!
Millie eyes the breastfeeding mum and leans in close to
Will they bring me my boobs, too?
Because I’m not going to take them.
That’s what you say now! You don’t want them, then you’ll want them, and when you get to my age, when they’re much longer than they are wide, you’ll just wish you were dead!
The dad opposite them leans over his wife.
Would you keep it down, please?
he says, pointing to the baby and putting a finger to his lips.
the bus driver says from the front of the bus.
Pipe down back there!
Agatha sits back in her seat and crosses her arms. Millie drums her fingers on the armrest.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Millie whispers to Agatha.
It doesn’t matter!
Agatha whispers back, loudly.
Can I know?
Okay! I wanted to be taller! I wanted to be happier! I wanted to be a nurse! I wanted to have my own set of very good sherry glasses! Not the kind the queen would use, but something very good! That’s it! It wasn’t much to wish for! But none of it happened! Life decides what happens, not you!
Did you want to get married?
Marriage is never something you want! It’s something you do!
Millie fidgets in her seat. The bus driver keeps looking back at them in the mirror.
Did you and your husband love each other very much?
What is this, a talk show?
Will you be my Dot Four?
says the dad.
, Agatha says.
She’s the crazy one
, she adds, pointing to Millie.
Just for the record.
ven though there were all these words that existed, it didn’t mean you could use them. But there wasn’t a book on it, you were just supposed to know this somehow. Everyone else seemed to know but her. You could say some words, and you couldn’t say other words, and that’s the way life was.
Examples of things you weren’t allowed to say, to anyone, at any time:
How fat are you?
Do you have a vagina or a penis?
What kind of funeral do you want when you die?
One night, while her mum was on her hands and knees
scrubbing the bathroom tiles, Millie said,
What kind of funeral would you like, Mum? When you die.
Her mum sat up like someone had yanked the back of her neck.
Millie took a step back.
A balloon popped today at school and George cried, and Claire laughed, but everyone was surprised and I want there to be a surprise like that at my funeral, one that makes everyone’s heart go fast, so they remember their heart is still going, so I want you to have a balloon, and Dad to have a balloon, and I want you to pop them at different times.
Millie said when her mum didn’t answer.
Go to your room
, her mum said eventually.
Millie did as she was told, and sat on the carpet next to her bed. She made patterns in the carpet with her fingers, and watched the world upside down through her window by lying on her back with her head hanging off the side of the bed. The ground was the sky, the sky was the ground, and the trees grew downward. Everything seemed a little freer in that upside-down world.
When her dad came into her room, Millie was looking down at the patterns she’d made in the carpet with her fingertips, tiny roads for tiny people.
Her dad picked her up and sat her on his waist, like he used to do when she was the littlest she remembered being.
It’s just a rule
, he said.
You can’t talk about it.
Yes, but who said?
But God kills people all the time. That’s what Mum said.
So maybe it was someone else. The same guy who made the rule that you can’t point at people and laugh, or walk into the post office without any pants on. There’s some guy making rules that we all need to stick to. Got it?
I don’t like that guy.
Her dad laughed.
We all don’t like that guy.
A few weeks later, Millie sat on a green plastic chair in her neighbors’ shed. She remembered it was green because she tried thinking only green thoughts while she was on it. Grass. Trees. Frogs. Their garbage bin. Their couch. The stuff between her dad’s teeth sometimes. The stone on that lady’s ring. That beer can. Her pencil case.
Her dad was there, and all the man neighbors were there, and her mum was there, and all the woman neighbors were there. The man neighbors and her dad had scarves on and beers in their hands, and her dad had a beer cozy that had a map of Australia on one side and a lady in a bikini on the other side, and they all said very loud things about goals and tags and half-forwards, and wings and umps and squares, and they surrounded these words with other words you weren’t usually allowed to say, but today, for some reason, you could say. Like
Who’s that arsehole?
Fuck, are you fucking kidding me, you bastard?
The woman neighbors and her mum floated in with plates of food, weaving in and out like slow dancing, and said,
See how he talks to me?
want sauce, love?
Get yer hand off it!
Her dad was loud and her mum smiled a lot, and both of these ways of being were not usual. While the kids outside yelled,
You’re not my best friend anymore
, Millie sat in her green chair and thought,
Celery. Cucumber. Avocado dip.
And again, Millie felt like there were rules in her neighbors’ shed, rules she didn’t know but that everyone else knew, rules that were about how men, women, and children acted around one another; rules that gave men a spot in the shed in front of the telly, that gave women the spaces between them, that gave children the space outside.
Big men dressed in the same clothes as one another stood side by side on the screen, mouthing,
Australians all let us rejoice
. The camera swirled around the ground. It was so big it didn’t seem real.
I’d die a happy man if I was there right now
, her dad said, above everyone else. Her dad and the man neighbors laughed together, but Millie could hear only his voice, those forbidden words, like skipping stones, skipping across the surface of everything else.
Can you die happy?
she whispered to her gumboots.
vie worked some afternoon shifts at the department store before she became ill. One night, over dinner, she said,
Did you ever dream of being locked in a department store?
, Karl said.
We should do it one night
, she said.
We could hide in the men’s change rooms while everyone locks up. No one ever checks them.
She grinned at him mischievously.
Men don’t try things on in this town.
They took turns to say what they would do once the event had been orchestrated.
Jump on the beds
, she said.
Eat all the chocolate
, he said.
Try on all the lipsticks.
You don’t need to wear lipstick, love.
Type on all the fancy computers.
You don’t know how to work a computer.
It doesn’t have to be on.
I’d take off all the keyboard letters and make a love letter for you.
, she said, holding his hand across the table.
But we’re not vandals
Maybe we are?
Maybe when we’re locked in a department store together, we will be?
There seemed a promise of an alternative version of themselves in that department-store fantasy.
But they never did any of these things, because they said a lot but didn’t do a lot, and they were both okay with that.
So when Karl the Touch Typist escaped from the nursing home, he walked straight to the department store and waited for it to open. He sat in the café and held his coffee with both hands. It steadied him, having something to hold like that. He watched people, with lives and futures and loves, and he felt like he was floating above it all, like all these feelings that people had were beyond any experience he could ever know. And then, at 4:30
, he wandered into the men’s change rooms, and waited.
It worked, just like Evie had said it would, so he stayed there every night, sneaking out of the change rooms after the lights went out and climbing into one of the display beds for as many hours as he dared. Every morning he walked the mile along the coast to the local campground, snuck into the
showers, washed himself, then walked the mile back to the department store. In the afternoons, he sat in the department-store café, looking into his coffee cup and thinking,
Eat chocolate, jump on the beds, make a love letter for you
. And then, as the clock struck 4:30
, Karl would begin the process all over again.
He was there almost three weeks, and had managed to carve out an existence for himself that was tolerable. No one had recognized him. No one seemed to be looking for him. There was the slight hiccup of Stan, a short, ferocious-looking man who didn’t say a lot, and the security guard with whom Karl was familiar from Evie’s time in the store. But it turned out Stan was the security guard for the entire town, that he only worked at the department store once or twice a week, and when he did, he mostly sat in the office in the back watching reruns of ’80s television programs. Karl began to think he could live out the rest of his days here. That it would be a nice way to do that. He had everything he needed. He couldn’t think of a single reason to leave.
And then Just Millie arrived, and things became more interesting, more complicated, more hopeful. On her first night, he stooped behind the racks of maternity wear and watched her look out the window to the deserted parking lot. He watched her wander back to the women’s underwear section and it was then that he decided he needed to look after her.
On the second night Karl watched her from behind
Manny—he was working out how to say something without scaring her—when Stan came clattering toward them. Karl panicked and shoved Manny into Stan’s path. He had only meant to distract Stan, to give Millie time to get away, but he ended up knocking Stan out for a few minutes. As Millie scampered off and Karl surveyed the scene—Stan face-first on the ground, Manny sprawled across his head—Karl thought,
Well, Stan is a bit of an idiot
Sneaking around the department store this time is a little trickier. People are after him. People who know what he looks like. There are posters of his face, for crying out loud. And he has Manny to consider.
What would Branson Spike do?
So he walks Manny to the bus station and hides him there, outside, behind the big Dumpster. He covers him with his purple jacket.
I’ll be right back
, he says to Manny, patting him comfortingly on the shoulder. He visits the Two Dollar Shop and buys glasses and a new hat. And he walks into the department store, brazenly. His back straight, his eye contact challenging.
But no one seems to notice him, and this is annoying. He goes to all this trouble and no one notices. That he walks straight past the security guard, that Helen sits at the table next to him in the café, that the receptionist from the police station browses through magazines only meters from him. And not one of them spots him. They’re not looking for him at all. If they see him, they don’t care.
He doesn’t matter.
So when he is locked in for the night, after he makes sure Stan isn’t around, and after he has triple-checked that Millie is not hiding in the women’s underwear section or behind the potted plant, Karl takes his screwdriver and hacks the dashes off every computer keyboard he can find.
I am a vandal.
He lines all the dashes up against one another to spell out
I AM HERE
on the café counter. He finds some chalk in the kids’ section and writes on the café menu board,
I AM HERE
. He pushes the tables together and arranges the salt and pepper shakers.
I AM HERE
He discovers the door to the department-store office unlocked so he wanders in and goes through all the drawers, searching for something, anything, that might reveal Millie’s whereabouts. Nothing. Where could she be? Had they found her? What had they done to her? He sits on the desk and rubs his face with his hands. He considers the perfectly white wall. He uncaps his marker and writes,
Karl The Touch Typist Wuz ’Ere
in large, careful, rounded writing.
In the morning, he walks the half mile to the bus station to check on Manny.
You all right?
he says, lifting up the jacket.
Won’t be forever
, he promises
. Just till we find Millie.
Manny is okay, if a little dewy in the morning air.
We just need a plan
Karl pokes his head around the corner of the bus station building. There are five bays with long parking spots for buses. One bus closes its door and rumbles to life. The faces of
passengers line the windows. Some press their noses against the glass, others look straight ahead. The bus reverses and Karl stares at the faces in the windows, like head shots. He thinks,
But then, on the back window of the bus, a sign, taped to the inside but facing out:
IN HERE MUM
he chokes. And then, with more urgency, as the bus takes off, chugging up the hill,
He pulls the jacket off Manny and shakes him by the shoulders.
, he says.
Millie’s on that bus.
He throws Manny under his arm and rushes into the station.
, he says, approaching the counter, out of breath.
Where’s that bus going?
The lady behind the counter doesn’t look at him.
, she says, staring at her computer screen.
Right. Is there another bus to Kal?
, the lady answers.
Oh, great! One tick—
Leaves here same time tomorrow.
Karl sighs. He lays his forehead on the counter.
Excuse me, sir
, the lady says.
He looks up at her. She is finally looking at him.
Don’t do that, sir
, she says, gently pushing him off the counter. She produces a cloth from underneath the counter and wipes the spot where his head was.
Karl stands on the footpath across from the bus station, the mannequin under one arm, trying to figure out what to do, when a car pulls up beside him. A very blond teenage boy leans out of the passenger window.
Did you miss the bus, sir?
he says. The boy’s eyebrows lift so easily into concern on his face. Karl likes him immediately.
, he says
The boy nods in the direction of the mannequin.
You guys need a lift?
In the distance, Karl spies a police car coming down over the hill.
, he says quickly, turning his back and hunching his shoulders as if no one could possibly see through this careful disguise. He kneels down beside the window and looks through to the driver’s side. Another blondie blinks back at him, a girl this time. The same easy face.
We’re heading east
, she says with a smile that would revive a dead person.
, he says.
I need to go to Kalgoorlie.
Her perfect teenage legs glint and shine at him from under the steering wheel.
, says the blond boy.
Your, um. Your thing, sir.
Karl realizes Manny is head-butting the boy in the face.
Sorry about that. It’s aliiive!
He jiggles the mannequin and makes a goofy face, but they don’t appear to get the reference.
Meanwhile, the police car is only a couple hundred meters away, and Karl ducks
Are you all right, sir?
The boy leans out the car window, trying to get a look at Karl crouching in the gutter. Karl loves how this boy calls him
, like he’s in a suit shop.
Yes, thank you
, he says, still crouching, peering around the car, watching the police drive by.
Just lost my footing.
Karl suddenly loves being old, that no one would ever expect him to lie. It’s ageism, he supposes, assuming that the elderly are as innocent as children, but he doesn’t mind. It seems a fair and just thing, a reward for managing to stay alive for so long. When the police have disappeared down the street, he stands again, dusts himself off, winks at the girl and smiles at the boy.
We’re in love
, the boy says.
And we need a licensed driver.
Karl spots the learner tags on the windshield.
, he says.
, he says.
You know, I’m cool with that.
He watches their faces to see if
is a word they use. They don’t give much away.
The girl leans over the boy’s lap.
We’re happy to go up to Kal first
, she says.
Karl nods. He points in the direction of the backseat.
Karl sits in the middle of the backseat and tries not to think of the girl’s shiny legs. Manny is strapped in on one side of him.
A box with a blender and a toaster on the other. He leans forward and rests his hands on the top corners of the front seats. The front windows are down, and the boy and the girl have their arms out the window, hands caterpillaring in the wind. These two have no idea What’s Coming. There is so much for them to know, to find out. Does Karl remember finding out that he knew nothing? No. It was a gradual process, a kind of melting down that took place over years. He thinks of
The Wizard of Oz. I’m melting!