It was nearly home time. Alexis was one of a handful of parents gathered silently behind the one-way mirror. On the other side of the glass, her daughter Beth was sat at a small table in a corner of the classroom. Beth’s lips were moving, her head tilted in dreamy concentration. Alexis realised with giddy love that her daughter was singing. On the classroom floor, groups of children sat playing with the latest toys, casting frequent glances at themselves in the mirror-wall. Other children posed more explicitly before the mirror, stood drinking in the vision of themselves and their toys, hands poised as if mid-activity, smiles broad and frozen. Alexis avoided locking her gaze on the young eyes, which stared at her without seeing her.
• • •
The walk home from school was a long one. It led from zone three outwards, close to the edge. As they walked, Alexis and Beth swung their connected arms loosely and played games with their eyes and mouths and hands. Laughter, delirious and fragile, escaped through cracks in the claylike weight that Alexis moved under daily, and joined with her daughter’s, airborne.
As they approached home, the perimeter wall rose up and became the horizon. Vehicles and construction workers moved along it, extending its familiar white-grey face upwards.
“Is it being made bigger for the hurricane?” asked Beth.
“No,” said Alexis. “It’s nothing serious. It’s just to do with how people want things to look. They like things tidy. The hurricane isn’t going to come through here. Just a big wind.”
Alexis touched her daughter’s head and bent to blow into it, finding comfort in her sweet-smelling hair.
“If it does come through here what will happen? Will we go underground? Will the house be OK?”
“If something bad happens, we can go to a shelter in the middle of town. We’ll take lots of food and we can sing songs.”
Alexis had seen numerous disasters in her twenties. She had been drenched in the swollen rot of aftermaths, she had fished bodies out of the water and buildings, she had heard people still living and crying out but too far to reach, she had been filled up with it. Now she was somewhere safe and dry for what could be a long time, and she willed her daughter to believe it.
She looked at Beth, who was gazing at the blank unpredictable sky. Things were going to have to change at home to really keep her safe. That afternoon, Beth’s young teacher had blushed when explaining that there had been another inappropriate incident in class. Alexis had tried to reassure Carlanne, but it was serious. It was going to be tough to get Beth’s graduation approved even though Carlanne would do everything she could. Alexis remembered the young teacher’s strained face, her hair slipping loose from its band, dishevelled and soft. Voice lowered and careful. Alexis genuinely grateful, scared, smiling stupidly. Promising that she and Piet would be stricter with Beth.
• • •
That evening, for the first time in years, Alexis walked into Beth’s room without knocking. Beth was bent over on the carpet.
“Beth! What the hell are you doing!” Alexis shouted, startling herself. Fear clenched her. She drew a slow breath, tried again. “Put it down and come over here.”
Beth looked up at her mum, her mouth hung open in surprise. She put down the magnifying glass next to the other scratched and battered objects.
Alexis held her tone, even and crisp. “You know you shouldn’t have those things. Show me under your bed.”
Hidden under the bed were many more things, divided amongst various boxes. One box with a lid on had the oldest, dirtiest and most unrecognisable objects laid out in a row inside, on a soft bed of tissue. Mr Pigeon, a wingless eyeless stiff wool body, musty-sweet with dust. A translucent butterfly dress that had belonged to a doll, both the straps snapped.
The ex-owner of the dress, doll Mariana, now nude and still active, was living in an open-top ramshackle box with a racing car and a comic and another doll. Versions of things Alexis could hardly bear to remember. Stories from her own childhood. Toys Alexis thought she had thrown out years ago, and ones she’d never seen. Alexis took Beth’s arm and told her to stand up. She led Beth to her own bedroom and sat her on the bed.
“You are going to promise me you won’t play with things like that ever again. Or hide things from me.”
“Why do we have to change things so often? I like my old things.”
“It’s not safe to have these things in the house. We could get in a lot of trouble for keeping them. You must never, ever play with things like this again, and you must never, ever talk like that outside of this house. People could get very angry. People don’t like to be made to feel ashamed about things like that. This is where we live and those are the rules. We are very lucky to be able to have new things and it makes people feel good.”
Beth nodded a small nod, eyes locked on her mum, waiting for something more.
“I want you to understand all of this before I throw them away. I want you to understand why we have to do it. You do understand. We want you to be safe.”
Alexis went to Beth’s room, put all the things in a waste sack, and tipped the contents into the kitchen garbage compactor. Then she called Beth downstairs, and they unwrapped a board game from its cellophane and played it quietly until it was Beth’s bed time.
Piet came home late in the evening, his face heavy with stress. He had switched jobs three times in four weeks. It wasn’t unusual, but he couldn’t keep up. He’d walked two hours to get home. His thinning hair which Alexis had cut for the latest job looked harshly sheared under the kitchen light, his skull a pale globe. Alexis told him about Beth’s worsening “failure to engage appropriately with toys” at school, what she’d found in Beth’s room, and what she’d done. Piet listened with a tight mouth.
“It’s not enough”, said Piet.
Alexis asked him to sit with her, eat something, and give it some time.
“There is no time. We’ve been lucky. We scored two points over the pass rate and we live a few roads from nowhere and we think we can just keep acting like hippies and letting Beth do whatever the fuck she wants. We’ve had seven years now.”
“This crazy fucking horrible fucking shithole place.” Alexis hissed the words.
“Yes, this crazy shithole place. Where we have to live.” Piet marched up the stairs, mechanical with adrenaline. He shouted at Beth about growing up. Alexis sat below, stiff and nervous and pissed off. He was going to make Beth afraid of them and it wasn’t going to help. He was going to bring attention to the house.
Later, Alexis and Piet sat together at their dining room table with the door shut. Their heads were bowed, their low voices weaving towards a consensus, the words hidden beneath the cover of construction noises that bled through the sealed window. They used words like limitations and protection, self-consciously spoken like children trying out new vocabulary. Their hands crept towards each other across the table and formed a dry union.
• • •
The next day, Beth asked to go out to play on her new scooter. She promised Alexis she would stay safe and be careful. Alexis agreed with a weary kiss. “Be home by six. I love you.”
Beth wheeled the flimsy scooter to a place without mirrors or windows or doors, a broken house that was just next to an older part of the boundary wall. Beth found a phone, a ball, and a doll. The phone belonged to the doll and meant that Beth could talk to the doll. The doll was a strange, funny person who could speak without a mouth. Beth put her to bed.
In the warm evening, Beth played with the ball with the beautiful pictures, some faded so much you couldn’t see what they were. As she played she made up songs that came from the ball because it was a musical ball that granted wishes. She was thinking of her first wish and then she would have another and then she would save one for her parents to share so they’d feel sorry for being mean to her.
First the boys laughed when they appeared, then they came up to her very close to look at what she was doing. They were about the same size as her. They examined the phone and the ball and the doll, whispering and tense.
“What are you doing?” The bigger of the two boys said. “Are you being dirty?” His voice sounded high and excited. “You’re touching old things.”
The ball rolled towards him. He hesitated, then bent to pick it up, his pristine sleeves pulled over his hands. His friend giggled nervously and made gagging noises. The bigger boy began to waggle the ball, and then raised it, pretending to throw it at his friend, who backed away, shrieking, “Don’t put it on me don’t put it on me!” The boy dropped the ball, watching it bounce towards Beth.
He paused a moment, staring at Beth, then he looked at his friend and picked up the phone. He waggled the phone at his shrieking friend, then held it near his ear. “Hello, I’m old,” he said. Then looking at Beth he said, “Hello, I’m a hobo.”
Beth felt unfamiliar shock, hearing one of the few words she had always been banned from speaking at home. The boy and his friend also looked uneasy. The boy who had said it broke free from the shock by throwing the phone as far as he could and hissing at Beth, “There’s something wrong with you. They’ll throw you out there with the … hobos.” He expelled the last terrible word with force, then he ran away, his friend following.
Beth sat very still for a while after the boys left, under the mysterious weight of their wanting to hurt her. She had seen them do bad things too, touch old things too, come somewhere they shouldn’t. But there were two of them, and she could tell from their confidence they had come from the centre of the compound. If she tried to think about it, it was too big and confusing and frightening. The broken house felt exposed and her skin was pricked with cold. Her parent’s faces, so tired and worried, grew in her mind, and she knew she had to keep this all to herself and hope it was OK.
• • •
The post arrived by courier on Friday. A yellow matte certificate with gloss grey lettering pressed into the surface. Alexis held it carefully, double-checking.
“She’s through to sixth grade. Oh I could kiss that Carlanne.”
“Ah thank fucking fuck! Ice-cream! Let’s go out!” Wet-eyed and grinning, Piet bounced up the stairs to tell Beth to get her coat and shoes on.
As Beth got ready, the heat of her parent’s excitement slowly moved through her, soothing her fears of the broken house.
• • •
On Sunday morning, Piet and Alexis sat in the living room, Piet leaning against Alexis. Alexis murmuring in his ear, kissing it, pressing him to her.
A gargled sigh falling out of Piet, and then a fart.
“A fart of relief!” said Alexis, laughing. Beth galloped across the room, drawn to the laughter, and pressed herself between them, curious and warm and demanding their arms. They held her.
The morning was long and peaceful. The building works had finally finished. From the windows the family watched the sky turn a weighty purple thick with moisture. After lunch, Beth went to her room to play, and her parents held each other. They listened to favourite records softly enough to still hear the rain.
Alexis found her cigarettes, and lit one, moving back towards Piet with a smile.
The front door was there, then it wasn’t. Black noise exploded into the house and flooded up the stairs, smashed the doors: one, two, three. A single scream, then the black flood streamed back down the stairs and out of the house, carrying Beth with it. Alexis tried to chase after them, but Piet grabbed her arms, pulled her back through the gaping doorway, wrapped himself around her, and pinned her to the floor. “They’ll shoot you they’ll shoot you,” he whispered, afraid to speak any louder.
He held her down until the adrenaline had passed and she began sobbing into the carpet. Then he smoothed her hair, and groaned as feeling came back into his own body.
That night when they lay on the couch, camped out in their own living room, they murmured an agreement. They had to wait. Not cause any further trouble, be patient.
When Piet finally fell into a sedative-induced asleep, Alexis sat up. She laughed a strange laugh. Then, walking very upright into the dark kitchen, she picked up her cigarette lighter and cigarettes from the cool table.
• • •
Later that same week, Hurricane Patty arrived. She ripped through the compound, breaking everything that she touched, spreading it outwards and mixing it with the things in the land beyond the walls.