I was picking up the last of my bags from the back seat of my car. They were bloated and bursting with clothes. My hands full, I closed the car door with my hip and glanced to the neighbour’s house where a girl around the same age as me stood on the grass, observing.
Her hair was long, to her waist like my own, only blonde. She had large eyes and she was pretty. Prettier than me; which was saying something. But her face was still, tired, matching the monotone and lack of enthusiasm that she spoke in. She appeared bored, and her boredom has somehow resulted in sarcastically pointing out the obvious so I took her as somewhat snobby and not someone I wanted to associate with.
I gestured to my bags and didn’t reply. The girl nodded while eying me.
My mother was in the kitchen, already beginning to unpack some of the boxes and place everything disorderly on the bench tops. I passed her with my bags and headed down the short hallway to my bedroom. The house was small but my new room was slightly bigger than my last so I didn’t complain.
I placed the bags in my hands with the boxes and other bags I had already brought in. I considered popping back outside and introducing myself to the neighbors’ properly and to procrastinate from unpacking. But I was in a shitty mood and had been for the past three hours.
Leaving my friends in the city was fine. Leaving the city itself was fine.
I didn’t mind small towns. Sucks we weren’t close to the beach anymore but sacrifices have to be made. I get that. Besides, it was nice driving down the road and having forest on either side of you and large trees growing freely in the backyard as opposed to just garden plants.
And I hated him. I did. He ruined this family. He left my mother and I like we were nothing. And even if he did come to say goodbye I would have only nodded, but he was still supposed to try.
I could get used to it here. I really could. A fresh start was exactly what my mother and I needed. Where no one knew what went on with our family. No one would give us sympathizing looks and where status didn’t mean everything to everyone.
My mother was beautiful. Slim, tall, with flaws like everyone but she always told me it was often the flaws in people that encouraged their beauty all the more. After all, it is with the flaws that make people different, she would say, especially when I would point out something about my appearance I didn’t approve of. And then my mother would point out something in her own that I barely noticed and it would put my insecurities at ease; because even my perfect mother wasn’t perfect.
“No honey”, she replied, opening the box and removing ornaments and framed photographs, placing them on the 70’s styled brown carpet beside her. Then she stopped, shot her head up at me and smiled. “You can put some jazz on for me though”.
I smiled. Jazz was a special occasion kind of music for my mother. She only played it when she was in a good mood, like one time on her birthday and she was on her fourth glass of red wine and the three of us sat in the lounge room and watched her drunkenly dance. Or on a Sunday morning after a night out with my father before everything turned to shit.
“Okay”, I nodded.
“The stereo is in there”. My mother pointed to a box sitting on the floor beside the lounge. I headed for it, opened it and pulled out the stereo, resting it on the bench top for the time being before plugging the cord into the nearby socket. The iPod was conveniently in the same box.
It had taken some convincing on my behalf to get my mum to use it when my father and I had got it for her one Christmas, several years ago.
My mother wasn’t excited or interested in the new gadgets and technology and was more a woman with simple and what many people would consider an ‘old fashioned’ taste. For instance, we were not allowed televisions in our bedroom. We watched shows and movies together as a family. And Wednesday nights were game nights, where we would play board games or my mother would invite her sister and my cousins over and we would play charades.
But I had convinced my mother that grabbing an iPod from a fire was far easier than trying to cart a hundred CD’s and records, so she allowed me to transfer all the music over to it and she has used it just about every day since.
I then left her, creeping off back into my room and pulling out a packet of cigarettes that I had hidden in one of my backpacks.
But the light coming through the backdoor allowed me to see the backyard faintly at least, but nothing from the where the line of the forest started and beyond. Only black abyss.
There was pavement where I stood for a couple meters and after that was nothing but grass. Above me was an old wooden patio, with vines wrapping up the pillars and intertwining, creating an enclosed plant ceiling that I knew would only provide shelter to the sun and not the rain. Nevertheless, I knew this place had potential as I pulled out a cigarette and lit it up, taking a deep draw, before sighing contently.
I began to imagine wrapping the trees with fairy lights. We could get an outdoor setting for beneath the vine patio. Maybe place some sun chairs on the grass and in the summer we could get a plastic above-ground pool and drink cocktails like we would at home.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. There goes my hobby of sun tanning naked in the summer. Hell no was I going to risk someone taking a stroll through the trees seeing me. But at the same time, it must be a nice community for people to be so carefree and open with their homes. I liked that.
“You shouldn’t litter”, a voice stated.
I jumped, turning around and finding the next door neighbor leaning on a tree trunk, watching me curiously.
“Jesus Christ”, I yelped, grabbing my chest with my hand and taking a deep breath. “You scared the shit out of me”, I said unimpressed.
“Sometimes. Depends what mood I’m in”, she replied, turning her gaze to my house.
“Well, next time you feel like spying on me, I’d rather you didn’t”.
“Aren’t you a bit young to be smoking? Does your mum know?” she asked, returning her gaze to me.
The girl nodded. “I’m nineteen too”, she said with a slight smile. “Can I have one?”
I hesitantly reached for the packet in my back pocket before handing it to her. She pulled one out, as well as her own lighter that she had hidden on her body and lit the cigarette up, casting a bright orange glow across her face.
“I’m Fern by the way”, the girl outstretched her cigarette-less hand. I shook it, her fingers feeling cold against my own and said, “Cameron. You live next door?”
She took another draw and nodded.
I tried to peer around the fence to get a look at her house. Their backyard was the same as ours, big and empty and there didn’t seem to be any lights on inside.
“It’s more of a holiday house”, Fern said. “It’s my grandmothers. We just come here when we want to be alone”.
I nod and remember the holiday house we had down south on the beach that my mother gave up in the divorce. “That’s pretty cool. Anyone else with you?”
“Nah”, Fern replied. “Kind of defeats the purpose of being alone”.
Her directness is almost a relief and a good change from the passive-aggressive girls I had grown accustomed to in the city.
She holds them both in her hand and says with a smile, “shouldn’t litter”.
“Noted”, I say.
Fern continues to stand still by the tree and I wait for several moments for a goodbye or something, but she only continues to stare back.
I turn away and walk back along the grass of my backyard when she calls out, “I’ll see you around?”
I stop and turn around to face her direction. “Yeah”, I smile with a nod, before heading back inside. Strangely I think that I’ll look forward to it.
She places a photograph down of me sitting on Santa’s lap from my 7th Christmas and then a photograph of me and her both on a swing at the park.
She turns around, sees me and beams. “Cam!” she says smiling while outstretching her hand to me.
“What?” I asked.
“Dance with me”, she smiled, waving her hand around.
“Mum, no”, I groaned, despite that the sight of my mother being so happy filled me with a similar sensation.
She grabbed my hand anyway, lifting it up and forcing me to twirl around. I laughed and mimicked her, twirling her around and watching her spin gracefully.
Everyone had been so much happier then. Especially my mother.
There’s a bag of Salt and Vinegar chips lying beside us that we had bought for the drive but never got around to eating until now. I’m staring at the ceiling that is an off-white colour from age and wear. I wonder how long until I will get used to staring up at a low ceiling with paint peeling in the corners, after being accustomed to high ceilings and chandeliers.
But there is something comforting about this place. Maybe it’s the isolation. Or the smallness of the house that makes me feel safe and connected. It’s hard to deceive people in such small spaces, I guess.
I hear the sound of a chip crunching between her teeth and she replies, “this is home now, and not at all”.
I am not surprised with her response. It would be hard to miss a place that held so much pain. I only wish I was as strong. And despite it all, I find myself still sad that my father never said goodbye. But I am almost sadder that he never said goodbye to my mother.
I sit up, turning my neck so that I faced her with a smile and said, “mum, it’s okay. I actually kind of like it here. The house needs a bit of work”, I said, looking around at the old brown cabinets in the kitchen and the old carpet we lied on. “But I like it. And fixing it up could be fun. I always wanted to be on The Block”, I teased.
My mother smiled back at me. I noticed her eyes had begun to glisten and I only hoped they were happy tears, or tears of relief. And not actually the tears that belonged to someone who thinks that they have made a huge mistake.
“I love you too, mum”.
Further down the street at the front of other stores are Halloween decorations. What appears to be a surprisingly high end boutique, with a simple but metallic sign reading, ‘JENNY’S’ holds different Halloween costumes on display at the glass window. The store beside it supplies candles, hundreds, from all colors and sizes with a sign that reads, ‘Halloween Sale. 50% Off’.
“It’s a small town. People get bored”, my mother whispers before stepping inside and grabbing a basket.
I look at his name tag and reply, “good morning, Jeff”.
“Morning”, my mother says sweetly, unpacking the basket.
Jeff begins scanning the groceries and placing them into a paper bag. “You two here for a holiday or something?” he asks.
“We just moved in actually”, my mother replies.
“Oh”, Jeff says, looking up and eying both me and my mother. “Welcome to town then”.
“Thank you”, my mother replies.
“I almost forgot. Aren’t you going to get yourselves a pumpkin?” Jeff called out to us. “Halloween is just a week away and you’d be surprised how fast they all go”.
My mother turned around to face him. “Oh, we aren’t that big on Halloween”, she said, which despite my many protests was unfortunately true.
“Take one”, Jeff smiled. “It’s on the house”.
“That’s very kind of you”, my mother smiled sweetly before walking over to the enormous pile of pumpkins and picking the closest one to her up.
“And we have a jacko-lantern making class on Saturday morning at the town square”, Jeff added.
“Sometimes I wonder how I created such a rude young person like you”, my mother said lightheartedly.
“You got lucky”, I teased, opening the back door of the car and placing the groceries on the backseat.
“Shall we keep looking?” I asked my mother, gesturing to the dozen shops lining the small street.
“Yeah sure”, my mother answered. “And because I am in a good mood, I’ll give you some funding money for your work on the house”.
I think it was due to the guilt she felt for never allowing me do it in our old house. Even for my own bedroom my father had arranged for an interior designer to handle and purchase everything from the furniture to the frames that would hold the photographs hanging from my walls. He would never appreciate it when he walked in to find I had rearranged my furniture or made some sort of life-size cubby house.
We had gone to a furniture store first where I spent majority of my funding. Apparently this town only knew old classic designs as opposed to minimal modern pieces but that was okay.
My mother arranged for the store to deliver it to us due to the lack of space in our BMW Sedan. We had just gotten home when we received the boxes for the two white wooden sun chairs, a day bed and an outdoor coffee table. I placed the sun chairs on the grass looking out to the forest, the day bed and table under the vine patio.
From another store I purchased pink and orange cushions that were made to be placed inside but I scattered them on the day bed instead with matching candles, to mimic the colour scheme of the sunset over the ocean which would now be difficult to see.
At our old house it wasn’t uncommon for people to constantly be over, whether they were for my dad or for me. And I liked the company of my friends, I really did. But the frequent discussions of other people, who was doing what since school ended and where we would take pills the coming weekend was boring and tiring. I felt as if sometimes I wasn’t allowed to be sad or to just be.
It was frowned upon to be unhappy if the entire neighborhood envied your house and paying bills was never an issue. I understood that. I was appreciative of what we had, and perhaps I am a pessimist to be disappointed of what I didn’t.
But I imagine that our lives would have been much better if we had lived here and not in the upper class suburban area that we did. There wasn’t exactly much temptation here, after all.
“Thanks”, I reply. “It’s quite cozy”.
Fern nods. “Mind if I sit with you?”
I shake my head.
I am wearing tight black jeans, a red jumper with black ankle boots. I am amused by the contrast in our appearances.
Back home it wasn’t uncommon to dress almost identically to your friends, whether intended or not.
She stares at the forest and the glowing trees. We sit in silence for some time. I feel uncomfortable and the obligation from back home to entertain our guests has kicked in, but I do not know what to say.
Fern giggles that tells me she is well aware. “Superstitious is a common trait amongst small town folks”, Fern agrees.
“Are you?” I ask, turning my head to look at her.
“You could say that”, she answers, going quiet.
I nod, not knowing what more to say.
She takes it with a smile, following suit.
I look at her, her large brown eyes and wavy blonde hair and think that she looks far too innocent to be smoking. The picture doesn’t look right.
But I have always liked people who don’t meet initial expectations. Everyone I used to know was nothing more than what I had first thought, and there is something about Fern that I find so mysterious and intriguing.
“What are you trying to get away-“I begin, but she speaks at the same time and asks, “why did you move here?”
I adjust my seating position and look back out to the forest.
“My mother and father are getting a divorce”, I answer in the most natural tone that I can manage.
“Oh”, Fern says, though I don’t look at her.
“You must hate your life”, my friends would say. But I would never reply. I didn’t hate my life. Sure, I hated this awful but brief period of time where the pain is still fresh and painful, but I didn’t hate my life.
They would stare at me, waiting to hear how sad and broken I was as if they got something out of it. And the sad thing was that I am quite broken and hurt, but I never felt as if I was able to tell them that. Or anyone.
For once I have not been interrogated as to why my parents are getting a divorce or how much money my mother had gotten from it.
Fern doesn’t seem to care in the slightest and for some reason that bothers me.
Fern smiles, sits up and hands me the cigarette. I take it and watch her, waiting for her to say something while I take a draw.
“Divorces happen”, Fern shrugged.
I resist the urge to let my mouth drop in mild shock to her inconsiderate response.
Instead I take another draw and rest my head back on the chair; allowing my automatic standoffish mode to take pilot.
I let the cigarette go and fall onto the ground. I step on it with my boot until the glowing ash dims out.
“Nothing”, I reply, staring out to the trees.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, my eyes narrowing at her.
She shrugs coolly. “You present yourself like a puddle”.
Was she reading from an invisible book? I didn’t quite understand and the confusion makes me feel vulnerable, adding to the frustration that had already begun to build up over the last few minutes. I stare at her and her gaze doesn’t falter. I consider telling her to leave but she smirks.
“I thought so”, Fern says as if answering her own question.
“You know, if you want to tell me something you just should”, she said as if seeing straight through me.
“I don’t”, I say I almost too quickly and she raises her eye brows in response.
“You just took me off guard. It’s not quite what I’m used to”, I argue.
Truth is I do want to talk about it. I just never felt that I could. Or more like, whether or not I should.
I didn’t exactly trust Fern. I barely knew her. But it wasn’t the lack of trust that made me feel uneasy about sharing my life story with her. It was just that I was scared or didn’t know how. I wasn’t sure. After all these years of keeping things only to myself it had perhaps become a bit of both. But either way, not sharing was something I had become good at.
She opened her eyes and peered at me. “I will. But not now”.
“Why not?” I asked, sounding almost demanding.
“Same reason as you”.
“But how would-” I began but she interrupted me with a “shh”.
I didn’t notice the full moon hovering brightly just above the tree line. It was beautiful. Fern and I continued to sit there in silence just staring out and for once I didn’t feel the need to interrupt it.
I was one who felt the need to listen to music during almost every moment of my day, as if to drain my thoughts out or something. But this quiet was nice. And maybe I listened to music far too often that it left a stain because it almost sounded as if there was music coming from deep within the forest.