Napalm

Published in Sydney University Anthology ‘Margins’ 

John Marsden short story competition Highly Commended 

She bruised gum leaves between two fingers absentmindedly as she walked home – staring at the ground, at the cracks in the pavement and the tiny struggling fronds of life. Tiny green warriors, surviving under the relentless pounding of hard heeled boots. Pockets of life in craterous, war torn no-man’s land.

Sally hoped for that resilience.

**

Sally slid the key into the lock as gently as possible. Pressing her ear against the door as she slowly turned the handle, she strained to hear any stirrings within. Even if they were home, if she could just steal in quietly, if she could pad down the hallway unnoticed, then she would be able to slide her schoolbag off her shoulders and lie on her bed for a few blissful minutes of complete and utter solitude.

Not today.

“Sally!” came echoing down the hallway. The long white hallway was dotted with tasteful paintings of the seaside and gumtrees. Her mother fancied that they oozed minimalist sophistication. Sally rather thought they served as an expensive sort of wallpaper – bland but not offensive to the eye.

“Sally! Are you home?”

Sally shook her head. What a silly question. Of course she was home, and like always her mother knew exactly where she was. Her mother was seeking acknowledgment, not confirmation.

Sally dropped her bag with a satisfying thud and kicked off her shoes before heading down the Persian runway to her mother. She could repeat the same sequence blindfolded everyday and still end up in the same spot – next to her mother usually sitting at the kitchen table with a coffee in hand. She’d offer her a smooth cheek to kiss. Like the Pope, almost.

“What did you do at school today?”  Sally watched in fascination as her mother smiled with blank disinterest and her fingers strangled the mug handle.

“Nothing” she mumbled, as usual.

“You can’t have spent a day doing nothing!” Sally’s mother continued, the smile tightening, and her face flushing gently from the collarbone up.

Sally sighed. She didn’t understand the point of this charade. In fact she didn’t understand the point of alot of things.

Whydid she have to kiss her mother’s porcelain cheek every morning and night, when it was only to be rubbed clean by her mother’s manicured fingers an absentminded minute later?

Whydid her mother wear matching pant suits and double breasted jackets only to be trapped in the heat and discomfort of an office all day?

Why did she get changed every evening when she returned from work, into yet another beautiful outfit; when her husband would walk past oblivious each and every time?

And why, why did she have to recount the same monologue to her mother every day when she returned from school?

Sally pondered these somewhat trivial matters for some time.

Tedius. That’s what they were. Annoying was probably a bit too harsh and didn’t capture the relentlessness of the charade. Aggravating was certainly too strong a term.

As Sally contemplated, her mother lost interest in her wayward daughter. Sally walked to her room and gently shut the door with a small sigh of relief. The game was over, she could breathe.

Sally lay on her bed motionless for some time. She liked the solid stillness of air trapped in a soundproof room. She liked the regular rise and fall of her hands resting on her stomach as she breathed in and out. She liked the way her limbs felt heavy as they sank into the supportive folds of her doona.

She hated that her mind saw through doors of wood and walls of concrete and if her eyelids dropped she would see her mother dancing before her pupils, wielding a knife and laughing in derision as she stabbed, stabbed, stabbed.

Sally opened her eyes. Quickly. She inched her hand up towards her chest and felt her heart beat in her fingers, in her chest and pound within her head. Sometimes it wasn’t the images themselves that scared her, so much as their vitality. Implausible as the snapshots were, all played on the skirting board of possibility and ludicrousness. How would you sponge blood out of a linen suit, Sally wondered… she could hardly get it dry cleaned.

Sally savoured solitude. She knew that most people were scared to be alone, and deep down she thought perhaps she was too, but even the inky blackness of the cavity beneath her bed was a welcome respite from the thick, suffocating air that permeated the rest of her house. You could almost slice it, like you would thick wedges of cheese.

The dinner bell rang and Sally opened her eyes as she was showered with grated parmesan. She brushed herself off and slapped her cheeks to ensure she was in fact awake before assuming her place at the table. Sometimes she confused her nightmares with reality.

Her life was a ritual. She took her place at the table, between her parents at either end. Her mother with her amber teardrops and frosted hands could easily be regal, and her father in his black and white suit and austere expression heralded a religious air. Sally felt dwarfed by their presences, as though they were sucking the air out of the room and dragging the dregs from her lungs so she slowly deflated until she would be just a pile of clothes at the table.

Sally’s mother nodded across the table and the pair clenched their forks simultaneously – the ceremony had begun. Sally leant back in her chair as she watched the metamorphosis – her mother’s rings became crusted additions to her gnarled fingers as she clawed at the cutlery. Her head sprouted feathers as she pecked at corn with a sharp, curved beak and squawked occasionally with frustration or pleasure, it was hard to tell. The only thing that didn’t change were her hard black eyes that seared the steak if she eyed it too long – and filled the kitchen with that only too familiar acrid smell of burning.

Sally turned to the other end of the table to see her father crouching on the table. Holding the corn cob with two paws he gnawed it determinedly, all the while his eyes darted left and right wary of predators or perhaps scanning for prey.

A loud crunching prompted Sally to divert her attention back to her mother who was grinding the T-bone with the corner of her beak, having wiped the rest of her plate clean. The fact that this winged creature was her mother was undeniable. Those eyes, that hard mouth that so easily formed a beak…

Sally stared at her parents with that familiar feeling of unease and slowly moved food around her mouth. It was like her tongue was a big lump of rubber. It just pushed the food from side to side until it was a tasteless, soggy ball and she could close her eyes and force it down her throat.

Maybe that’s what baby birds feel like when their mothers spit pre-digested worms into their mouths and force it down their narrow necks.

Sally coughed slightly and felt the lump of food stuck in her chest.

As she raised her glass to try and dislodge the obstruction, she saw a moment too late the gleam of malice flick across her mother’s hard ember eyes.

Seconds later she felt the talons sink into her arm as a flurry of feathers flashed infront of her eyes and a piercing pain ripped through her earlobe.

That beak, those eyes; so close to her own.

Sally had no time to react as she watched in horror as her mother proceeded to beck and tear at her flesh. Sally flashed a desperate glance across to her father whose weasel eyes flicked back and forth before he resumed his devouring of the cob.

Sally barely had time to register the sudden ache of betrayal that hit her chest.

Spying the fleshy red protrusions from Sally’s face, her mother pierced Sally’s lower lip with a satisfied squark. Tasting the rush of blood and the hot flood of pain Sally blindly thrashed and kicked until she threw off her attacker in a cloud of feathers, and ran into her room.

She pressed her back against the door and felt it creak and curve to hold her upright in a show of sympathy. Her bed inched closer and the doona peeled back and her lamp dimmed softly. If wood could cry, Sally had no doubt the whorls in grain would be leaking tears.

She sat on the edge of her bed infront of her mirror. The sight of herself was almost enough to prompt her eyes to overflow. Her lip was pierced right through and stained purple, as if she had been sucking bloody mulberries. Her arms were torn and fingers shredded from where she tried to shield her face. The mirror bent and curved away, as if shielding her from herself.

Sally gave up and sunk into the warm recesses of her bed.

**

Sometimes she thought she could hear it crackling, or see tiny wisps of curling smoke. The caustic stench of burnt toast seemed to linger in the fabric of the couch and the curtains’ heavy folds. It was most pungent, though, at the door to her parents’ room. Sally wondered how her mother could sleep in a burning bed… maybe that’s why her eyes were so frequently red and watery when she said goodbye to Sally on her way to school.

This morning, like any other, Sally was preparing lunch for school. Sally took great pains to pack her lunch – she liked the idea of packaging and controlling every portion. She spread a vita wheat evenly with a thin layer of butter, and then a thinner still coat of vegemite. She then wrapped them in gladwrap and placed them snugly between her carrot sticks and cold hardboiled egg – prepared the night before.

As Sally arranged her books in accordance with her timetable (English went in last because it was first period, then French, Maths and double Latin) her mother strode into the bathroom.

Sally was slightly disturbed by her mother’s daily ritual of transformation. It was nothing like the slight sheen of lip gloss and black outlined eyes her teachers wore at school (according to Ms Mattick, she swore by just a little mascara, to make her eyes “pop!”)

Her mother’s was nothing like that. It was a thick, goopey coat of paint. It certainly didn’t make her eyes “pop!”. It was like she didn’t like what she started with, so she painted over the top… again and again, layer upon layer, until she was someone different.

Sally leant in the doorway and watched the morning routine. Bleary, red eyes were outlined in black and trimmed with stick-on lashes. Her face was doused in dark foundation to cover the odd blemish, and fill every line and crevice with an even fill of plaster.  Her earlobes were tugged and stretched by chandeliers and her mouth smeared red. That was what Sally hated most – that angry, red hole that opened and closed to spit out violent and distorted truth.

“Bye mum” Sally muttered.

The red slashed mouth opened and closed in response but Sally already had her headphones in, and was blocking out the world.

Sometimes Sally felt powerful striding along with her headphones in her ears and a cigarette in her mouth. Sometimes, she felt like she was encased in an invisible, bullet proof bubble. People would charge at her, hit the invisible barrier, and be thrown back onto the dust. In the safety of her bubble she was almost brave enough to laugh. She didn’t though, she knew that if someone struck at just the right angle her bubble would burst.

It’s a horrible thing, to know your vulnerabilities. And to know them so acutely.

Sally pulled out a cigarette as she slammed the gate shut behind her, wrinkling her nose at the unpleasant smell.  She stopped behind the station to light up, flicking and flicking and flicking until a tiny flame caught flight and she breathed in deeply. The smoke coursed through her oesophagus and into her lungs. She closed her eyes and watched the embers glow on the fringes of her alveoli. Tiny fronds of flame spreading, like spot fires in her lungs; eating away the flesh and leaving charred remnants. Sally put out the cigarette on her arm, burning away the peck marks and leaving tiny, perfect black circles in their place.

**

Sally rolled her invisible sphere to school. She skirted on the edges of crowds and rolled into class just seconds late so she could lurk in the invisibility of the back row. Then softly in the sanctity in the classroom she unzipped her bubble and folded into her bag.

She was safe.

School was her refuge.

She loved the idea of school, of people gathering to learn – like cavemen sitting around a fire warming their hands and listening to ancient stories of hidden dangers and of truth. She loved to rule up red margins and write in black ink on white – deciphering texts and decoding maths problems.

She loved the safety of school routine.

The teacher walked in and chairs scraped back as the students stood to attention and Sally silently rejoiced in the knowledge that no metamorphosis would take place – that her teacher would remain in his jeans and white shirt, and her peers would stay in their pressed uniforms and ribbons all day. She was not invisible at school but it was the one place that she did not mind being seen, she knew she would not be seared by her teacher’s concerned gaze and she knew that a flicked note would contain no more than the weekend’s news or a piece of delightful gossip. Sally wasn’t scared here. There was enough air for everyone to breathe easily and to laugh and talk.

Mr Brunsten sat down and on cue soft banter erupted as the class sat and settled into the day. They were studying King Lear in English. Sally placed her play on her desk with almost religious awe, as she smoothed the cover and opened it to page 27, where they had left off. Another world was trapped in the pages and Mr Brunsten was the key to releasing the voices in the ink, Sally worshipped him for that.

“Sally, would you like to start?”

Sally smiled with quiet exaltation as she began to read the words of the broken hero. She felt herself transcend her schoolyard existence as she spoke the words of a man torn apart with insecurity and desperation for love. She felt her heart ache in unison with his as she begged her daughters to spare her dignity and her power, and she felt her eyes well with tears as she watched Lear fall to his knees in a last, anguished gesture of desperation. She felt herself wince with the same bitter hurt as Lear’s and her pain translated into rage. She unknowingly rose as she cursed Gonerill, her daughter, and called on Nature to condemn her to a life of barren solitude. Sally felt the power of his words, his wrath, tear at her soul as she rejected her own blood and flesh that had so painfully wronged her.

“Very good Sally” Mr Brunsten’s voice gently penetrated Sally’s consciousness and she allowed herself to sink back to reality and blush with schoolgirl satisfaction. Elise squeezed her still trembling arm “you’re so good at this!” Sally smiled back, and felt the bruises on her arm begin to heal under the friendly hand.

Sally looked up at Mr Brunsten with frank adoration and he looked down at her with such warm respect that she thought she would melt. It was not so much a crush as gratitude that dissolved Sally in his classes. He so quietly and simply validated her very being and she knew she could never thank him for it.

For his part, Mr Brunsten was taken aback by the strength of Sally’s passion. He had never seen Shakespeare resonate so profoundly with someone of her age. Most 16 year olds were hindered by the convoluted language and struggled with the abstract themes of love and betrayal, but Sally seemed to dredge emotion from somewhere deep within her and pour it out in his classes. He was sometimes almost embarrassed watching her speak. It was like she was bleeding on the desk in front of him and he could only watch. He felt that she was sharing something deeply personal, even though she never moved past the four hundred year old script.

Mr Brunsten cleared his throat and reshuffled his notes. English always caught him slightly off guard; he was never prepared for its intensity. “Okay, girls, settle down. If you turn to Act III Scene IV we are going to deconstruct Lear’s monologue…”

Sally allowed herself to relax into a quiet state of peace. Language was the most incredible, beautiful thing. As she circled similes and highlighted metaphors she felt as though she was running her fingers over the intricacies of a finely woven tapestry – admiring each perfect stitch before stepping back in awe and gazing at the mirage in front of her.

Language, Sally marvelled, was timeless. We write books and poetry not to be read just by our contemporaries but so that in years to come someone can blow the dust from its thumbed cover and rediscover the power of the thoughts and feelings trapped in yellowing pages.  Language allowed us to reach out to those around us, and speak of the invisible forces that unleashed havoc in our innards; but it also allowed us to seek solace in the understanding that someone has felt what we feel before, that no emotion is new and no challenge unconquered. In language Sally found hope. Hope that she too could survive and achieve greatness like the heroines on paper did time and time again. That’s why words were so precious to her, they were her lifeline.

“Great work Sally.”

Sally blinked and brought her eyes back into focus as she looked up to Mr Brunsten bending over her work and ticking the bottom of the page. She realised as a flush of red hit her neck that her eyes were swimming. She quickly wiped her face on her jumper sleave as discretely as she could.

“Come and see me after class Sally”

Mr Brunsten had leant down so he could speak softly and not add to her ill ease, but she could feel his breath stir every hair on her neck and she shuddered involuntarily. He looked at her swiftly and added “You’re not in trouble”.

Sally wanted to talk to him desperately. She wanted to cut out her heart and give it to him for safekeeping. Some of the kids gave him their medicine at the beginning of term, and each day he’d give them the tablets for that morning and then put the jar of pills away. She wished he could keep her heart in his cabinet and give it to her each day so she could feel her pulse alongside Lear’s; and then take it back before she left so only her thick, outer shell would bear the signs of wear and tear.

But she was too scared. What if she cut open her chest and there was nothing there? What if her mother was right and instead of a child with a beating heart of youth and compassion, she had a greying cavity, a burnt out canyon where maggots nested.

Sally spent the rest of the lesson trying to breathe.

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