Authors: Brooke Davis
tella’s house makes a lot of sounds. The floor talks when Millie walks on it and it’s like there are people wandering about in the ceiling and the walls, maybe trying to get in or out or maybe tap-dancing. Millie isn’t to know. The whole house looks like the thrift store back home, so many things that don’t match all piled together and forced to get along. Millie keeps finding new things she hasn’t seen before, and she wonders if this is why Stella does it, to keep forgetting and discovering.
Millie has a bath and makes entire cities out of bubbles: houses and skyscrapers and driveways and trees and a cemetery and a supermarket and a school and a police station and a post office. She’s in there for so long that the water goes cold, and Stella lifts her out of the bath, wraps her in a towel, and plonks her in front of a heater with red glowing bars across it.
And later Millie sits at the kitchen table with Karl and Agatha while Stella makes spaghetti for all of them. Manny is
allowed in the kitchen too, but there aren’t enough chairs for him so Karl props him up against the wall, close to the microwave. Millie smiles at Manny while she’s slurping up spaghetti. When they’ve all finished their dinner, Stella makes cups of tea for everyone except Millie, who gets a big bowl of ice cream. Agatha and Karl sit in the lounge room—
We’re ringing your mum in the morning
, Agatha says on her way out of the kitchen—and Millie stays in the kitchen with Stella and Manny.
Just be kind
, her dad had said, and as far as Millie can tell, Stella knows what that means.
Millie watches Stella blow on her cup of tea, the steam rising up and making shapes, like the coffees did in the department store. What if everything breathed like this? Animals and people and grass and trees. Everyone and everything always always had curling lines of steam making patterns around them, and some people would have short, quick breaths from running or heart attacks, and others would have long, slow breaths from sleeping or watching telly. It’d be like watching music, if music looked like anything, and the world would always be filled with the music of breath.
Maybe when you let out your last breath, you let out everything, your memories and thoughts and things you wished you’d said and things you wished you didn’t say and the pictures in your head of hot coffee steam and the last look on your dad’s face and the feeling of mud between your fingers and the wind when you run down a hill and the color of everything, ever.
I never been in
, Stella says.
The cemetery’s just down the road. I drive past it every night but I never been in
Know where he is. Straight down the path as you walk in. Turn right. On the first corner.
Stella sips her tea.
Errol. My little brother.
, Millie repeats.
, Stella replies.
That’s my brother. You know, I got home tonight and sat on me couch and thought of him. I know he would’ve looked after ya without even thinkin’ about it. So I got back in me berloody bus. And now here we are.
Millie spoons ice cream into her mouth.
Did you see him when he was a Dead Thing?
Stella blows on her tea.
, she says.
What did he look like?
You know when someone wears glasses all the time?
And then they take them off to clean them?
And their eyes look bigger, or smaller, or something.
That’s what it was like.
Were you sure it was him?
Well, I didn’t do a berloody DNA test.
Do you know where he is now?
Other than in Kal Cemetery, you mean? Depends how you think about things. Some might reckon he’s up there.
Stella points up at the ceiling.
With Jimi Hendrix?
The guitar bloke?
Dad knew him.
I reckon he’s just in the ground. And he’s not coming back as a beetle or whatever. Or floating around watching me sit on the loo. He’s just dead. Done. You’re alive and then you’re dead, and that’s it, that’s the point.
Stella studies Millie.
What do you think happens?
I don’t know.
There’s your answer.
That’s not an answer.
All I know for sure is that no one knows what’s goin’ on at the bottom of the sea, or in our brains, or when we die. That’s okay, I reckon. Gives us something to think about. When we’re driving buses or whatever.
Millie looks up at Stella, then to Manny, then back to Stella. She lowers her voice
. I think Dead Things turn into plastic and sometimes they get put in the shops.
She stares at Millie. Like she’s an X-ray.
Where’s your mum, love?
she says, finally.
No funny buggers, now.
That sounds to me like funny buggers.
She nods again.
Just up the road. We don’t speak.
One of those things, I reckon.
Millie looks at her, and Stella sighs.
There’s not much else to it, really. A lot of hot air
. She stands and starts placing the plates into the sink.
None of my family speak, you know. Like we can’t. I’m sure you’re supposed to be better than that.
Millie clears her throat.
She’s gone. Mum.
Stella turns around and rests her back against the sink. Her hands drip soapy water all down her shorts.
One of those things, I reckon.
Millie takes the piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolds it carefully. She smooths it out on the table.
It’s my mum’s itinerary
, she says, hoping she has the word right.
Stella pulls out her glasses from her pocket and holds the paper up to the light. She folds it back up and hands it to Millie. She takes off her glasses. Rubs her eyes. The hum of the fridge seems loud suddenly.
Stella stands at the sink and looks out the window. Her hands grip the sink so hard that her knuckles whiten.
, she says, not looking at Millie.
Has it ever occurred to you that your mum doesn’t want you to find her?
Millie holds her stomach.
Stella turns and crosses her arms.
They’re not yer grandparents, are they?
Millie looks away.
They’re helping me find Mum.
Stella sits down in her chair and leans in close to Millie.
I’ll take you home tomorrow, love
, she says.
It’ll be fine. You’ll see.
Millie wakes in the middle of the night. She pulls a piece of paper out of her backpack, walks out of the bedroom and down the hallway, opens the front door, and sticks it to the door with Blu-Tack.
In Here Mum.
She still can’t sleep, so she wanders around the house, picking up ornaments, touching faces on photos, sitting on couches, trying on hats. She makes shapes in the dust on the coffee table. She opens the back door and sits on the step.
The moon is big and it lights up a small, fenced-in backyard filled with old bunches of flowers wrapped in plastic and ribbon. The clothesline rises up out of it all and squeaks around in a slow circle in the breeze. The pile is higher than Millie’s head. There’s plastic wrapping and colored ribbons in pinks and greens and reds and other bright colors, but all the flowers are brown and dead. She walks down the stairs and runs both hands up and down the pile, the backs of her hands on the way up, then her palms on the way down. It’s like the pictures Millie has seen of the sideways view of Earth in books. A chunk cut out of the Earth.
Later, she would write in her Book Of Dead Things:
Number 30. Stella’s pile of flowers
Her head detaches itself, and she’s visiting her dad in the hospital. Millie had never seen so many flowers for one person. She lay on her back under his bed and watched all the visiting feet. Tiny feet, big feet, in-between feet. Sneakers, high heels, sandals. Red shoes, black shoes, green shoes.
When all the visiting feet had left, her dad said,
I wonder where Millie is.
He was breathing hard, like old people, and fat people, but he wasn’t old, and he wasn’t fat.
I don’t know
, her mum said. Her feet crossed and recrossed as she sat in the big armchair.
Probably out robbing a bank. Or preaching for world peace.
Their words were huge and rounded, like they were winking at each other.
Her dad’s hand dangled down by the side of the bed. She crawled toward his hand. She had never known it so white. The machines bleeped and blurped and binged. She slipped her hand into his and held it.
And now she clambers to the top of the pile of flowers, her legs sinking into the plastic and the dead flowers like it’s quicksand. She thinks of the lakes made of salt and the trees made of fish and how people can hide from their own selves and how the world is a place like nothing Millie could ever have imagined.
She thinks of how Stella said that no one knows what happens at the bottom of the sea, and she wonders if Sea People live quiet lives down there, watching Sea Television and laughing at one another’s Sea Jokes. Would they call the sky the ocean and the ocean the sky? Would their music travel through the air in bubbles? Millie wishes that all words and music and sound traveled in bubbles. That you had to pop each one to let the sound out. How silent and surprising the world would be. You would always get a fright when someone popped a bubble and a sound jumped out of it, ta-da! Except maybe more people would be hit by cars, and it would be harder to get your mum’s attention from across the street. And what if a
bubble went sailing off into the sky, was popped by a jet plane, and no one could hear it over the roar of the engine?
The clothesline spins and spins and spins overhead, creaking like an old bed. She picks up the new flowers at the top of the pile.
, the card reads.
Be Right Back Mum
in small letters on the bottom of the sign and walks out of the front yard and down the street holding Errol’s bunch of flowers. When she finds the cemetery, it’s lit up by the streetlights, and it’s not like the one back home. It’s flat, and there’s no grass on the ground. Just red dirt as far as Millie can see. Large painted buckets filled with red and purple flowers. Giant gum trees lining the pathway and
looming over the graves. She cranes her neck back to see the very tops of them. Her dad was always so high in the sky. She touches the bark of a tree as she walks past and thinks,
Don’t trees need shade too?
The bark is still so hot from the daytime. The red dirt has stained the gravestones a light-pink color. The graves are separated by signs into different religions, so that, Millie assumes, the heavens don’t get mixed-up.