SLIGHTS, by Kaaron Warren
I envy Stalin. I wish I had the power to re-write history and my part in it. I would change so much. I would die only once, and I would not kill my mother. And my father would leave me a message; he would speak a meaningful sentence before going to work to be shot.
That would be my story, if I could change history.
What should have happened was this:
We got a taxi home.
This is what did happen:
We went out for lunch to spend Mum’s lottery win – she won just enough for a slap up meal. Food rich and creamy, chicken breast with camembert, salad with blue cheese dressing, a bottle of sweet wine, champagne, port.
We laughed and joked; talked loudly. Mum was in a good mood, not a nagging one. The waiter pretended we were sisters, and that made her giggle.
We just babbled on. We had no idea this was our last meal together.
“What do you think of my haircut?” I asked her.
“I wouldn’t go back to that hairdresser, if I were you, Stephanie,” Mum said. She had a fleck of parsley on her lip and when she talked it wobbled.
“I know. Stupid bitch. I said I wanted a change and she does this to me.”
I had splurged and asked the hairdresser to give me a new style. She wanted to cut inches off, saying, “Once you pass eighteen, you have to be more careful.”
I said, “Fine.” How old did she think I was?
She snip snipped. Dark, wet entrails of my hair fell onto her thighs, criss-crossed the diamonds of her fishnet stockings. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The hairdresser said, “You know, you’ve got the sort of face which would suit a good red colour. You need a bit of a lift at the moment. Everything looks a bit flat. And maybe we should have a go at your eyebrows.”
She was a very slim girl. Her hair was black, cut like a metal helmet. She wore a tight silver T-shirt, a thick corduroy skirt, the fishnet stockings. She sat in a rolling chair, travelling around my body like I was an island, snip snip. She spoke incessantly, complained of slight after slight.
She sighed. “Anyway, I’m sure you’re not interested.” I looked up from her thigh and she wasn’t happy with me. She dried my hair without speaking, then held the mirror up for me to see.
I said nothing.
“Are you happy with that?” she said.
“You are kidding me,” I said.
It shocked her. I suppose you’re meant to lie. I paid her even though she made me look like a fucking bimbo. All this from a woman who told me, confidentially, that she thought reading novels wasn’t smart because it’s all just made up.
“What do you read?” I asked her.
“Oh, I love my magazines,” she said. “I can read them over and over, there’s always something different.”
Mum laughed and called me a fibber.
“Oh, Stephanie. You’re just trying to take attention away from your hair,” she said.
“This is how the girl talks. I swear.” I took a sip of wine and grimaced. Mum always chose sweet stuff. “We might as well drink lemonade,” I said.
“Well, your hair is fine, really. You’re just not used to looking pretty.”
“Thanks a lot. I’ll book you in, if you like.”
That’s what we talked about.
I joshed Mum about, paying her attention, making jokes about the waiter, who had terrible acne, and telling stories about other diners in the restaurant.
She said, “You sound just like your Dad. He used to whisper into my ear, telling the most outrageous tales. Should have heard what he told me about my father.”
“What?” I didn’t like to talk about my maternal grandfather Joshua. He died when I was five, and I have a feeling he used to touch me; sometimes I get a glimpse of his face in my memory. It’s shiny, a sucked lollipop, and very close to me. He was a grouch most of the time, generous and soft when you were alone with him.
“Come on, Mum, what did Dad say?” I passed her the plate of chocolates the waiter had laid on our table. They were dark, rich, and we planned to eat every one.
“He said that your granddad Joshua had affairs with everyone willing in town. Everyone.” She covered her mouth. We didn’t often talk about things like that.
“What, the men too?” I said, and she coughed in horror.
“You’re a storyteller, just like your Dad was,” she said. I knew that was true; Dad was a detective long before he joined the police force. I wondered if Dad’s stories were ridiculous, or if they were true.
I dropped the keys on the way to the car. I’ve never been good with alcohol; a couple of glasses, still under the limit, and I’m screaming. Mum was giggling and muttering away, feeling no pain.
Feeling no pain.
I suddenly grew tired of it; being with her, pretending to be friends, enjoying her company. I drove quickly, wanting to drop her at home and go somewhere alone, somewhere I didn’t feel like a fake. I should have called her a taxi and sent her home; that way, she would have been resentful, but alive.
“The car smells nice,” she said.
“New leather in a can,” I said. One of the best smells. I drove quickly. I thought I saw a child in the road and I swerved, my wheels span and I lost it. I remember very clearly, though I said I didn’t. I said I had no recollection; my head ached trying to remember.
But I remember my mother’s arm coming across to protect me, hold me in my seat as if I were a child. My arms went over my face and head but I still cracked my skull.
I remember looking at her; she looked at me. She was terrified of death; more terrified of my death.
“Careful,” she said, then we hit the wall.
This wall was only there to keep the sound of the highway from reaching the wealthy residents in the suburbs behind it. If the wall wasn’t there, my mother may not have died. The papers loved it. “Wall of Death – the quiet life versus the long life,” all that.
I told people, especially Peter, that she died straight away, without a word. I told no one about where I’d been, that I’d smashed my skull and found myself in a cold, dark room full of people, faces familiar but beyond my tongue; I couldn’t voice their names. The board I lay on was ridged with razors, sharp lines of pain down my back.
The faces came into focus. Some I knew; people I knew were there. Their eyes watered. They weren’t blinking; that was it. They stared like zombies. I could smell them. They were so close now I could see the blood bang bang in their veins.
I touched my wrist to feel my pulse. Bang bang. Bang bang.
“Peter?” I said.
He was there. He stepped forward when I saw him. His hands rested by his side; he carried a potato peeler. I laughed. They all shrunk back. These were weak creatures, scared of the light and the sound of my voice.
“Where’s Mum?” I said, to keep them away. They shuffled forward and I recognised some of them. The lady from the lolly shop at the end of the road, her fat arms spilling out of her tight, flowery sleeves.
“I’ll have a red traffic light,” I said. She grabbed my tongue but I slipped it out. Her fingers tasted of piss and dirt.
A middle-aged man with spiky blonde hair, his eyes bulging and red, began to pile books onto my chest. One, another, then another. A handsome boy with dark brown eyes and one tiny scar on his chin held me down by the shoulders. Another book and another, I couldn’t breathe, the weight crushed my chest.
A little girl with greasy hair breathed into my mouth.
“You need to get off the anchovies,” I said. She bared her teeth at me.
And all these strangers surrounded me; people with car keys, shopping bags, bus tickets. All surrounding, leaning in to sniff me.
Kids I remembered from school clung to Peter like he was their father. I knew their names, could remember their weaknesses: Darren, Cry Bobby, Belinda Green, Neil. I tried to say milk fight but milk was in my mouth, sour milk, and I couldn’t turn to spit it out. I dribbled some out of the corner of my mouth but the rest sat there, waiting for my epiglottis to give in and allow the swallow to continue.
I felt a nibble at my ear; now I could turn my head. My neighbour, Gary, a gross sleazebag who thought he ran the street, thought he could manipulate me. I spat milk into his face; he grinned, let it drip to the floor.
I sat up, causing a ripple through the room. There was the waiter from the restaurant Mum and I had eaten in, his face full of acne. The food he served me was still in my belly.
“Acker Face,” I said. Miaow. He wrinkled his nose, lifted his arms, pushed the sharpened tines of a fork into the meat of my thigh. I could feel the idea of pain but not pain itself. A thin clear liquid ran from the holes, like the cooked blood of a well done chicken. Behind him were more strangers; from the restaurant? Had they been there, seen my mother’s last meal?
I wanted to ask them about her face. Was she happy? Was this the best time of her life? Could things only get worse?
It was lucky then that she died.
Someone tied knots in my hair, tugged at it. The skinny hairdresser. “I paid you,” I said. She pulled harder, ripping out clumps of my hair out by the roots and tossing them to the floor. She wasn’t listening.
None of them listened.
Another kid from school, a shitty little bore, Ian, Ian Pope, was there and some young kid in cricket whites, “You’re out,” I said, and he swung his bat flat onto my nose.
I heard a crunch and felt blood cover my chin.
This was no sun-dappled heaven. These people did not love me. The driver of the other car – was he dead too? Did we all die? But there was no other car. A wall. A box which looked like a child. Another car. Opposite direction. Stopped to help. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I shouldn’t be here. I should be at home.
I shouldn’t be here. This is not where I belong, stinking weakness waiting for something, pain. I moved my limbs, opened my mouth to scream, leave me, leave me. They seemed to exist for me.
Somebody saved my life. Rescued me from the dark room.
From the Paperback edition.