This story is by Katrina Tite and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The kitchen is empty, but it pulses with the memory of action just gone. The lingering smell of burnt toast. Coffee gone cold. A wisp of perfume, or maybe deodorant. Feminine, but not luxurious. Only a few moments before the room had been full of the chaos of getting kids ready and out the door. Have you got your jumper? What about your library books? Here’s your bag. Don’t pinch your brother. Clean your teeth. Get out the door. For god’s sake, HU-RRY UP!
The fridge starts humming. It is covered in the usual assortment of paraphernalia. A phone bill, overdue. A school excursion form, also overdue. Coloured plastic alphabet and number magnets, more of them on the floor than on the fridge door. A photo, corners curled, of two young boys. The baby propped up next to his brother on the couch, arm slung around him protectively. A second picture, a more recent selfie of the two boys with their mum. Complete with Santa hats and big cheesy grins. The boy’s faces are pressed up either side of their mum’s, cheek to cheek.
There are other echoes in this room. Darker memories. A chip in the door frame from a shattered mug, thrown at a head but missing its mark. Cigarette burns on the countertop. The wobbly chair whose leg was about to come off, a couple of screws missing after someone fell over it, backing away from a clenched fist.
Tension seeps out of the crevices, gurgles up from the drain.
The newest addition to the fridge gallery is a hand-drawn picture of the family, complete with oversized heads, long arms and legs and not much in between. A big yellow sun in the sky and bright green grass on the ground. Impressively there is a noticeable scale difference in the size of mum and dad compared to the boys. This evolution in drawing skills seemed to happen overnight. There was no gradual improvement – one day the youngest boy was drawing abstract circles and swirls, the next day he came home with a fully-fledged family portrait. The development of the human brain was both fascinating and perplexing. What else would he suddenly start doing, understanding? How much of what was going on did he absorb?
A film of dirt coats the kitchen window. The glare of the sun filtering through the dirt makes eyes smart. There are spiderwebs building up in the window frame corners. Menacing funnels hiding menacing critters. Every so often the webs would get drenched in a foam of insect spray, the writhing of the ugly black bodies bringing temporary delight. In a week the webs would be back.
The cat jumps up onto the kitchen table. Slinking its way around the breakfast dishes it pauses to nibble on some leftover toast. Vegemite not being its favourite spread, it quickly moves on. A stretch takes it down onto a chair, and then back to the floor. One of the kitchen drawers is open, providing a convenient platform to jump onto the countertop. A few sniffs are enough for the cat to realise there are no better pickings up there. Pity. It slinks back down to the floor and off to the living room.
Trrrilll! Trrrill! The silence is pierced by the shrill sound of the phone ringing. A female voice recites a pretty standard family voicemail message. A pause and then some static crackle.
“April, hunny? Mum here. I’m calling to check in and see if you and the boys will be round this weekend. You haven’t replied to my message, so…I just…I wasn’t sure what the plan was. I mean, we talked about you maybe coming here. If you needed…Anyway, give me a buzz when you can. Bye.”
The kitchen falls silent again. A denser, thicker silence after the jarring shock of the phone. A sense of anticipation grows, the room waiting for something. Someone. Minutes pass by, marked by the gentle ticking of the clock on the wall and the hum of the fridge.
The door opens with a whoosh of crisp, fresh air. An oversized faux leather tote makes a heavy clunk on the kitchen table. It sags and spreads with the weight of notebooks, drink bottles, a dozen lidless pens, crumpled tissues and forgotten toys. April stands still for a moment, surveying the kitchen. With a heavy sigh, she moves around the table and picks up the two plates covered in toast crumbs and glasses half full of milk. Turning toward the counter, the blink of the answering machine catches her eye. Dumping the dishes, she reaches her arm to press play, halting at the sink as she listens to her mother’s message.
April pauses for a long moment after the message plays out. She looks out the dirty window, her thoughts drifting far away from this room, this house. Once again, the kitchen falls silent, imbued with a contemplative, occupied quiet. The recurrent debate reels through April’s mind. Pros and cons tallied and retallied. Plans made, delayed, remade. Secret conversations. Her mum’s urging. April’s repudiations.
Startled out of her cogitation by the cat winding around her legs, April stretches her arm again to hit the delete button before bending down to stroke her feline companion. Its hair is velvety soft, its purring is a soothing balm for her anxious thoughts. A buzzing interrupts the petting session. Stepping delicately over the cat she digs into her bag to grab her vibrating phone. A quick glance at the caller id and her thumb hovers over the touchscreen. Swipe right or swipe left? Accept or reject? Her thumb swipes right.
“Where are you?” Joe’s voice barks.
“I’m at home. I just dropped the kids off.” April consciously lightens her tone.
“Yeah, whatever. I’m going to watch the fight tonight.”
Perfect, April grimaces. Beer, betting and boxing.
“Ok. Do you want me to make you some dinner? To have when you get home?”
“No, I don’t want any f***ing dinner. I’m not going to be home until bloody midnight. Why would I want to eat then? Jesus Christ, don’t you think before you speak? Don’t cook me dinner, don’t wait up for me.”
He hangs up.
Dropping the phone back in her bag, April goes to the open drawer. Reaching toward the back, she extracts a plain white envelope. April glances inside, then folds it in half and slides it into the back pocket of her jeans. At the time she hadn’t known exactly why she took the money. A crime of opportunity perhaps. No, that wasn’t true. She knew why she had taken it. Insurance.
Time to cash in.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, April stands still for a moment, surveying the kitchen again. Sweeping her eyes over the countertop and table, along the pantry doors. She pauses at the fridge, and steps toward it. She grabs the two photos, tucking them into her bag. Her fingers touch the hand-drawn family portrait, lingering. With a defiant shake of her head she turns, bends down to scoop up the cat and opens the kitchen door.
There will be other hand-drawn portraits. That one isn’t real anymore.