Authors: Honey Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
Honey Brown lives in country Victoria with her husband and two children. She is the author of four previous novels:
The Good Daughter, After the Darkness
was published to critical acclaim in 2009 and won an Aurealis Award, and
The Good Daughter
was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2011.
After the Darkness
was selected for the
Great Read and for Get Reading 2012’s
50 Books You Can’t Put Down
The Good Daughter
After the Darkness
ithin the space of one week Adam grew strong enough to stop him. Somewhere in those seven days a tipping point was reached. All his life he had been smaller, shorter, weighed less. Now he was taller, older, he weighed more. He stood eye to eye with his father. Adam held up his hand, elbow bent, fingers ready to shield his face.
‘Don’t touch me.’
‘What did you say to me?’
Adam straightened his elbow and shoved his father in the chest.
The push, the hits that followed it, the kicks, how strange it must have felt to his father, how strange it must have looked from his father’s perspective, as though the years were turning around, facing him, all the moves the same, copied. Adam’s knuckles stung with each connection, his shins were on fire from the bony impacts. He shouted as fiercely as he fought. His voice rose above the fighting. He saw in his father’s eyes how his screams were hurting him more than the kicks and punches – his father was cowering from the sound, curled up on the carpet, arms covering his head.
Adam got on top of his father, no longer hitting, no need.
,’ he bawled into his father’s ear, ‘
He jammed his father’s face into the carpet, climbed off and walked out through the open door. He was dressed in underpants. His hair hung in his eyes and stuck in long light-brown strands to the back of his neck and cheeks. His mouth was open, pulling in each breath. He closed the door. Slid the bolt.
Adam had locked his father in the backroom.
The fit of rage had made him sweat. The floor pitched beneath him. Salty tears and mucus rested on his top lip. He walked down the long hallway. Overhead the trail of globes was bright. The house had more unused rooms than used ones. Doors to the empty rooms were shut. Adam made his way into the front part of the house. The tiled floor was cool on his feet. He walked through the games room, past the billiards table with the tasselled lightshade above it. Four pool cues were scattered about, on armchairs and leaning on different things, not put away. The coloured balls were bulging in the table’s pockets. Behind the thick green curtains was the decking, leading out to the swimming pool. Adam could hear the pool filter running. He could hear night sounds. A breeze blew in through the open gap in the sliding door; it made the curtains swell.
Monty and Jerry scurried in, bursting from behind the curtain, barking at the sight of Adam, the little dogs running around his feet. Adam walked past the bar, its dusty shelf bare except for a stack of plastic tumblers. A bottle of spirits was on the bench, still in its brown paper bag. Adam checked down his arms and chest and legs. There was no blood on him. It hadn’t been that kind of fight. Bruises and grazes were all he had. He went through the archway into the lived-in section of the house. The dogs ran ahead.
Rooms looked different without his father in them. The lounge room seemed more cramped. The couch sagged lower. The TV looked smaller, and the cabinet it sat on wasn’t anything so special – glass doors, glass shelves, glass ornaments. Monty and Jerry jumped on the couch and ran along it; they hopped down again and darted for their beds underneath the coffee table. They sat quivering on their cushions. Dogs didn’t need to see things to know they had happened. Wet dark worry shone in their eyes.
The dirty plates from dinner were on the kitchen bench. In the sink were the greasy frying pan and a vegetable pot. An open packet of Savoy biscuits lay on the table. Tied around one table leg was a short length of rope. Adam went to the fridge. In the time it had taken him to walk from the backroom to the front rooms, he’d caught his breath. He was shaking less. He wiped his top lip dry. Adam drank from the carton of milk. He stopped and listened, drank again.
Armed with a carving knife from the cutlery drawer, Adam sank down against the kitchen cupboards. He held the blade, pointing out, between his legs. When he felt up to it, less like crying, he’d go in search of his father’s handgun.
The gun wasn’t in the bedside table. It wasn’t under the cushions on the couch, not in any of the clothes drawers, or under the bed, pillows or mattress, or in the bathroom cabinet. It wasn’t stashed anywhere in the hall cupboard.
Adam went back to his father’s bedroom. He took pants and a shirt from the bottom drawer, squashed and crinkled items that smelled unused and forgotten. Although too big around Adam’s waist and baggy on his body, the clothes were at least long enough. They fitted him better than anything in his own bedroom did. He found some old socks. Adam sniffed everything before he put it on, smelling carefully – not one sniff but many, the way Monty and Jerry sniffed at things. The dogs watched him do this, their ears pricked and their heads tipped. Adam didn’t care if he was acting like a dog. He’d rather that than be covered in his father’s smell.
He turned on all the lights and switched on all the lamps. He’d put on brown trousers, white socks and a short-sleeved brown checked shirt. He pushed his hair back from his face. The thought of his father breaking open the backroom door troubled him. It would come down to whether or not his father chose to do that. It would come down to the sort of fear his father felt. If he felt any fear at all.
Holding the carving knife, Adam crouched in the hallway, between the bedrooms and the lounge room. He cleared his mind, was without thoughts for a moment. There were times when it got too hard to think. He stared at the wall and through it, past it. As he focused again it was as though the wall was closer, right in front of his nose; the flower pattern on the wallpaper had merged and became one oatmeal colour, not different shades of it. He blinked and the wall went back to normal, back to where it should be. The pattern was clear again. Adam spoke beneath his breath, words he sometimes said.
‘Sky, the sun, a river.’
, in particular, was a good thing to say, it took him away, like a river would. He returned to the kitchen and ate a Savoy biscuit. The knife felt too big in his hand. He put it back and sorted through the drawer, found a bottle opener. One end had a corkscrew and the other end a small blade; they folded away into the handle. He slipped the bottle opener into his pocket.
Monty and Jerry were standing over by the doorway, their bodies stiff and their ears erect. Adam listened too. He heard nothing. He could guess. The dogs were listening to his father’s calls and shouts, the thuds as he banged on the backroom door. It had been about that long. Time enough for new feelings to take over. Adam watched the dogs. Monty whined and turned in a circle, before freezing and listening again.
‘Go to bed.’
They scurried off into the lounge room.
Adam went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth.
Hey Hey It’s Saturday
was on TV that night. Ossie Ostrich was wearing a wig and pretending to be a woman. Adam sat on the footstool and watched. Monty and Jerry were curled on their beds. They’d jump up and warn Adam if his father was coming. Adam, anyway, kept glancing behind him at the doorway. When the show was over, he turned the TV off and put the footstool on its side and checked that the gun wasn’t hidden underneath in the loose hessian lining. He pushed down on the top cushioned part, in case the gun was somehow stored inside the foam.
Room to room – lounge room first, kitchen second – Adam searched. It was a bigger job than he’d imagined. It’d be quicker if he weren’t so hung-up on putting everything back the way he found it. His hands were aching, his knuckles were swollen and his fingers hard to use. He had shooting pains in his head. It felt as though the shouting had shredded his throat. Crying had made his eyes puffy and his nose was clogged and thick. His joints were sore. His muscles were weak. He wondered if the fighting had somehow given him a cold.
Cross-legged on the kitchen floor, plastic containers in a stack beside him, Adam shut his eyes. One of the dogs was yelping in its sleep. Adam lay back on the lino and looked up at the kitchen light. Uncomfortable, under the glare of the globe, he thought he’d sleep lightly and would wake quickly. The dogs would bark if his father was coming. Adam could rest a moment.
hen he woke it was morning. The rooster was crowing. Sun was coming in through the lace on the kitchen window, dappled on Adam’s chest. He struggled up, his lower back sore, his body stiff from the strange sleeping position. His legs were difficult to straighten. The stack of plastic containers was untouched. Lights remained on.
Monty and Jerry weren’t in the lounge room. Adam felt his pocket for the bottle opener. He switched off the lights and lamps. The kitchen window was the only one without an outside awning. All the other rooms were dim no matter what time of day it was.
The dogs had let themselves out through the open door in the billiards room. Adam pulled the sliding door curtain back and turned to see the room flooded with real light. The ceiling was yellowed and smoke stained. Tassels on the lamp were grey. There was a single cigarette lying on the tiles under the billiard table. He slid the glass door open and walked out onto the decking. Glare made the pool surface painful to look at. Jerry was over by the fence, sniffing and marking his spots. Monty was digging under the tin down by the woodshed, wagging her tail, as though she’d found something. The rumble of the freeway was low and distant. No sounds of cars in the street. From the decking, it was possible to see over the high boundary fence. Up on tiptoe, Adam could see some of the yards further down the street. This grassy, overgrown piece of land was twice, three times the size of those yards. Other people’s lawns were mowed short. They had trimmed and tidy gardens. Their gutters weren’t weed-filled. His father’s house wasn’t like the houses on TV either, inside or out. TV houses didn’t seem to have so many rooms and such long sections to their homes. Adam’s father’s fence was made of tall sheets of tin, running right the way around the block, enclosing the property, only stopping for the gates, which were high, made of timber, and padlocked.
Adam squeezed each knuckle on his right hand. Some knuckles were tender. The middle one was especially painful. It hurt to flex his wrist. Jerry trotted through a path in the long grass on his way back to the deck. Adam went down the steps and peed on a dry patch of dirt. Jerry hung around, and then peed where Adam had.
Adam’s father bred chickens. They were large with tawny-coloured feathers. A friendly breed, compared to some of the other breeds Adam had helped him look after. One of Adam’s jobs was to clean the cages. The bank of cages was long and high, down the back of the yard. Adam went along, opening up the cages. When Monty followed he told her to go away. He pointed to where Jerry was sitting on the decking. She tucked her tail under and left.
Inside their cages the chickens could barely stretch their wings, and when they did their wing tips poked through the mesh. They never got to roam or scratch and peck. They were undercover, dry, clean, well fed, watered, but locked in. They got an hour of morning sun, if it shone, when it angled in through the cage doors, but then the sheds blocked any chance of further light. The chickens never felt the rain, never got to eat insects or worms. Their feet never touched the ground. With all the cages open, Adam stepped back. The rooster had always been a calm, trusting bird. He stuck his head out first. The hens were clucking nervously at the back of their individual pens. Adam opened the feed bin and sprinkled some grain on the ground. The birds didn’t understand. The rooster clung sideways within his open door. Flapped his wings. He was bigger than the hens. It was probably the first time his wings had opened full span. He flew down to the ground, gracefully and easily, as though it was something he did every day, but no sooner had he landed than he flapped back up, not as graceful on the return, crashing into his cage door, almost falling, panicking, feathers flying, scratching and scrambling onto his perch, and frightening the hens.
The birds settled but continued to sit in their cages. The rooster, spooked now, looked as though he wouldn’t try flying down again for a while. It took all Adam’s willpower not to take each bird and place it on the ground, close the cages so they couldn’t go back in. That would be for Adam, though, not for the birds. He sat down in the grass to wait.
Stupid birds. They didn’t know to go, too dumb to know the things they were meant to do and what they were meant to be. But Adam also understood the chickens’ fear of leaving. He just wished they’d take quickly and easily to their freedom. How long
it take them to realise they could spend all day in the sun? Compared to the cages, the yard would feel like the whole world to them. The block had trees and bushes, it had things to get under, go around, climb over, flap down from, nest in, perch on.
Shade fell over their cages but the chickens stayed inside. Monty and Jerry were on the decking. They’d turned to sit facing the long back section of the house. They were listening again. There was nothing loud enough for human ears to detect. Unlike the rest of the weatherboard house, the backroom was double brick. It was windowless. Ivy was growing over it. Plant cover helped keep the sounds in.
Monty and Jerry raced ahead down the hallway. Their barks rang out once they arrived at the backroom door. Adam was carrying a plate of toast.
‘Are you there?’ his father was calling.
His voice was strained. He sounded old. Monty and Jerry yipped and scratched at the gap along the bottom of the door. They’d never behaved like that when it had been Adam on the other side. Or if they had, Adam hadn’t noticed.
‘Adam? Are you there?’
To Adam’s right was an old verandah. It had been built in, turned into a storage room. There was nothing stored in there. It was a dusty, spidery, empty space. It had slatted glass windows. Ivy had begun to creep over the windows and the roots had wriggled between the gaps and cracked some of the glass. Adam went into the verandah and called the dogs. They were disobedient with Adam’s father so close. Adam had to growl and demand that they come. Monty came first. Jerry followed. Hanging on a hook on the wall was a metre-long length of garden hose. The hose had been packed with sand and the ends sealed over with gaffer tape. A piece of thin cord had been threaded through the rubber, for a handle, to loop over your wrist. Adam took the hose and shut the dogs in the verandah.
‘Where do you keep the gun?’ Adam called to his father through the backroom door.
‘It’s going to be different now,’ his father replied. ‘Let me out. I have to come out. I need to go to the toilet.’
‘You have to stay in there until I find the gun.’
‘I haven’t got it anymore.’ His father’s voice was catching. He sounded out of breath. ‘Adam, it’s not going to be like it was. Everything will be different. I promise. Unlock the door.’
In Adam’s mind’s eye he saw a younger version of his father. He was more intimidating in his dreams, or when he came at Adam from out of the shadows. Sometimes Adam wondered if so much happened at night in the dark so that Adam couldn’t see how old his father was.
‘I’m sick. I have to come out.’
‘What do you mean you’re sick?’
‘Open the door.’
Adam was holding the plate of toast and the length of hose. He looked at those two things: care in one hand, hurt in the other. He looked at the door bolt. Adam visualised the backroom. The bed had a steel base. His father could have found something to unscrew the bed legs. He could be holding a short length of steel right now, pretending to be unwell. The taps in the shower could be unscrewed, the showerhead too, the timber chair could be dismantled, the chest of drawers taken apart and the long boards of timber tied together with torn sheets to make one strong, heavy board. At different times, on different days, Adam had noted these things, he’d imagined himself a different type of boy, a boy who would act. He’d also thought about what would happen if his father never returned to unlock the door, if he didn’t come home one day from shopping, or if the house caught on fire and his father didn’t let him out. Adam had feared being found escaping, losing the bed base, the chair, the drawers, the taps, he’d feared losing a way out. And he’d feared the punishment that would come with trying to escape.
‘Go to the shower, stand in it then call to me. Stay there while I come in. I’ve got you some toast. If you look sick, I’ll . . .’ Adam stopped. All he knew was that he didn’t want his father walking around, sick or not. ‘Go and stand in the shower or I can’t bring you anything to eat.’
‘I need my tablets.’ His father thumped the door. He slapped his hand against it. ‘Just open the door.’
‘I’m not well.’
There was a waver. Adam didn’t think his father would pretend to sound that weak. His voice was coming from lower down. One of his father’s hands, or his shoulder, pushed against the door, as though to prop him up.
‘Unlock the door.’
‘What are they for?’
‘Unlock the door.’
‘If I see them I’ll believe you.’
His father swore, breathless, holding out. Then he gasped, ‘Inside the radio beside my bed. Quickly.’
Adam sat the plate of toast on the floor and laid the hose beside it. He turned and jogged down the hallway. One morning, very early, while they were outside cleaning cages and topping up bird feeders, his father had collapsed. He’d clutched his chest and staggered to the side, hit the shed wall and slid onto a pile of rope, his face completely white. He’d been unable to speak, and had stared wildly across the yard, mouth open, barely breathing. Monty and Jerry had run under the lemon tree and lain together, watching him, ears flat, heads down on their paws. Adam had felt a cold sweep of white-faced breathlessness too. His feet had rooted to the spot. His head had spun. The thoughts he’d had weren’t right: he’d looked away, not wanting to see or think about his father on the ground, not wanting to help him. Adam had thought instead about how the sun was coming up, he’d looked at the light seeping into the sky. He’d wanted to finish cleaning the cages so he could have his breakfast. He’d hoped this didn’t mean they wouldn’t get takeaway chips for dinner. He’d wondered if he’d be able to spend the whole day watching TV if his father never got up. Gradually the colour had come back into his father’s face and his chest began to rise and fall. His eyes had started focusing. He’d straightened himself on the ropes. Without a word he’d held out his hand. Adam had helped him to his feet. His father had walked unsteadily inside, leaning on Adam. No talk of it. Not ever. It was like every other strange, bad and painful thing – it wasn’t talked about; it lived inside Adam, in his chest, in his head.
The radio had a large battery compartment. There were no batteries in it. Instead there was a brown glass bottle of tablets and a long white box of tablets. There was also a fat brass key with chunky square teeth and a cloverleaf design on the end. Adam left the key there. He ran with the bottle and the box, down through the house.
‘Go over into the shower,’ Adam said when he arrived at the backroom door.
‘I have the hose.’ Adam picked it up. He slid the latch and stepped back, wary that his father would push the door into him. ‘I have the hose,’ he repeated.
Adam opened the door. His father was lying on the floor. He wasn’t about to hurt Adam. It looked as though he was about to die. Adam shook his wrist to free the loop, and he let the hose drop. Behind the bruises, his father’s white face was back, the same face from that day in the yard. His mouth was puffed up and purple and one eye was swollen, half-closed. The crepe-like skin on his arms was battered, dark-red in places. Adam wasn’t sure when his father had got so thin, or when his shoulders had stopped being broad, and his fingers had stopped being thick and strong. The change had been slow. If it had happened overnight, or as quickly as Adam had gone from being a boy to a teen, Adam would have noticed and cottoned on quicker.
‘Give me a tablet, from the box.’
Why was Adam’s vision blurry? Stupid tears. Why was he shaking? He brushed the hot tears away. His father put the tablet under his tongue and closed his eyes, slumped, held his forehead. Spit glistened in the corners of his mouth. Adam crouched. His father hadn’t washed. His shorts and shirt were creased from having been slept in. He had his sandals on. Beneath the grey hair his scalp was pink and shiny. If there was a family likeness it was lost under his father’s wrinkles and folding skin. Adam couldn’t say if their hair was the same colour. His father had been grey all Adam’s life. His father had blue eyes. Adam had blue eyes. A while ago, a man in a green cap had come to buy some chickens. He’d seen Adam and said,
Joe, is that your grandson? He’s a handsome lad
. After that Adam had looked closely at the boys on TV. He liked to think he looked most like the boy from
. Adam would stare at the boy’s face on the screen, try to memorise it, and then later, in his bedroom, he would look in the mirror. He’d say some lines from the show and strike a pose. Recalling the details of the boy’s face was hard, though. He’d weighed up the idea of asking his father if he looked like the boy on screen. But if his father knew how much Adam wanted to look like other boys, and how much he liked watching
, he’d use it. Adam’s face had changed since then anyway, along with his body. His nose had got longer, his eyebrows thicker. His jaw was wider. There were lumps under his skin across his forehead. His mouth had stretched.
Colour was returning to his father’s face. He was breathing easier.
‘Pass me those.’
He was motioning for the bottle. Adam misunderstood; he unscrewed the lid to pass him one.
‘No, give it here. Give me the box as well.’
The sound of the rattle of the tablets in the glass, the smell of the tin lid, and the powdery coating sticking to it, those things seemed familiar to Adam, but he’d never seen the bottle of tablets before. Had he? He smelled the lid. A chill swept over him. He knew that smell. He knew the rattling sound.
‘What are these?’
‘Just give them here.’
Adam stood up. ‘You gave me these when I was little.’