By: Breanna Wignall
The black water slapped the hull of the boat then sucked itself away. The boat bobbed as the waves drew into the dock, the old wooden planks moistened with damp night air. I shivered and pulled my windbreaker tighter.
Dylan grabbed onto the edge, stepping into the dingy streetlamp’s ring of light. It lit up his shaggy hair; he had never grown out of the last decade’s style.
A car drove past us, one of a few that night. Its beams shone onto the other boats, making them look sharp and skeletal.
The same stores still populated our little town’s streets. People who had been our neighbours milled about, living lives a hairsbreadth away from how they’d been six years ago. An old man owned the boat we were hijacking, and a summer house. He only visited town for a few weeks a year.
‘Hurry up,’ I said. ‘It’s freezing out here.’
‘Then climb aboard.’ He stepped to the side, the mooring rope grasped in his hands and a giant duffel bag over his shoulder.
I stepped forward and swung my foot onto the edge, heaving myself up. The interior was exactly as it had been a decade ago: rough, scratchy carpet laid down, like fake grass. The memories were etched in my mind.
My father had also owned a boat. In fact, he probably still did. I hadn’t seen him for fifteen years, but he shrouded over me like a cluster of storm clouds threatening rain.
Boom. The boat rocked, the slap of flip-flops magnified in the still night.
‘You could be a little quiet.’ I turned around to look at Dylan.
The corners of his mouth curled up, a challenge more than anything; the more grown-up way of saying, ‘Make me.’
As I waited for him to get the boat ready, images of my mother crept into my mind. Red lipstick on, hair styled – immaculate at six in the morning, like she’d stepped out of a magazine cover. My father spun her about the kitchen.
‘My oh my, what a delight we have before us today.’ He’d drop me a wink, and I’d giggle.
When we went to church, he would proudly hold her hand. When he came home from work, he’d bring flowers, chocolates, jewellery. Then he’d sweep out of the house.
I’d sleep beside her in his place, and awake to find myself still there. Before I left for school, he’d bluster through the door, dishevelled, stains on the same clothes he’d worn the night before.
‘Where have you been, darling?’ Mum would ask, trying to place her hand on his arm.
He shook her off, like her touch burned. ‘Does it matter?’
A whirlwind of motion as he scrambled to get ready. He ruffled my hair on his way out, and then he was gone again.
I didn’t understand the sadness in her eyes, but it lingered in the pit of my stomach. I’d kiss her cheeks again and again and again, desperate to elicit a laugh, a smile, any kind of emotion.
‘C’mon.’ I blinked, trying to pull myself out of my thoughts. ‘Let’s go. It’s no fun just sitting here.’
He undid the mooring rope and we started to drift from the dock. My heart quickened in anticipation.
In hindsight, my mother was struggling. And it was more than my ten-year-old self could comprehend. The house was always spotless, her own appearance carefully groomed, to the tiniest detail. She had only one friend, Barbara, and no hobbies that I knew of. She washed her hands with bleach, because she said she liked the smell.
In the mornings, she’d sleep curled into a ball and barely any bigger than I. Yellow bruises extended into her hairline. They made the breath catch in my throat. But at ten, how was I to know the severity of the situation? Since, I’ve often asked that question.
It happened on an ordinary day as I came home from fourth grade. An eeriness settled in the house, like it had seen and held its breath in respect.
‘Mum?’ I called. I dropped my bag by the door, and walked into the kitchen.
My body froze. She slumped over the kitchen table, a letter obscured by her hand.
Blood roared in my ears. Just look up at me. Please, look up at me.
I ran forward, and gripped her arm. It was sickeningly cold.
‘Mum!’ I tried to turn her face towards me. Her eyes were closed, mouth hanging open.
I reeled backwards, panic seizing me. I ran to the phone and dialled the emergency number with trembling fingers. I had to clear the call and try twice.
I clutched her hand, my knuckles white. I didn’t dare to let go until they came, and then they had to pry me away, screaming and clawing at them.
I stored the letter in a blank envelope, tucked away in my bedroom drawers. Wherever I went, it would too. It skimmed over my father’s abuse, but the majority detailed her love for me. Her pain of not being with me every step of my life. On the anniversary of her death every year, I try to confront my feelings and read it with only love for her, but I haven’t yet succeeded.
Dylan turned on the engine and I jumped. It spluttered and bubbled water up behind us, and I focused on drawing smooth, even breaths. He inched the boat out toward the ocean.
I sat next to him, a thrill shivering through the pit of my stomach. Despite the memories of my father, I couldn’t deny the joy of being at sea.
‘You ready?’ He looked over at me.
I nodded. ‘You know it.’
He gunned the engine, the noise ripping through the still night air. The boat jolted backwards and I grabbed the metal handle in front of me.
After my mother’s death, we had sat on his bed in silence. We stared at the wall for an immeasurable time. No words entered my mind, and we didn’t need them. His mother, Barbara, sobbed. It came through the wall, each one like a punch. She lost her best friend that day. My mind shuddered and begged that it was some horrible dream.
This became my new home. The boy I’d only spent time with at school melded into my brother, without my realisation. Barbara made my sandwiches for school and John, Dylan’s father, helped me with homework. And I loved them, even while it felt like sacrilege to my own mother.
I dreamt often of shaking her, hands grasped around her shoulders, head flopping back and forth like a sick puppet. Desperate. Without thought or reason. I’d wake up, tears caught in my throat. As I got older, she grew smaller and smaller in my imagination, whilst my guilt grew into an overbearing monster, urging me to drink, to starve, to tear into my own skin to numb the pain.
Punish yourself, my mind whispered. Punish yourself. You are to blame. You should have known. You could have done something.
But what I knew then, I didn’t at ten years old. The guilt didn’t know reason, and it persisted, gnawing at my insides. A ravenous dog that yearned to grow the pit inside my stomach. Sometimes I thought it’d swallow me whole.
Dylan drove too fast around the winding inlet. My heart leaped and thrilled as we wended towards the bar. Now the roar of the engine was lost metres behind us on the wind.
My eyes burned, forced open by the pressure. Jolts rippled through me as we bumped over the choppy waves. The stars were visible in town, but as we drew away from civilisation they became brighter still, like little pinpricks of heaven.
When we could see the bar, Dylan slowed the boat until we stopped on the flat water. The rocks looked jagged, teeth poking out of a broken mouth. Through them, the ocean stretched to the horizon; the moon reflected on each peak of the uneven surface.
My face was sticky and clammy now the salty air had stilled. I longed to continue, to see the sun rise and bathe everything in gold. Maybe out there everything would make sense.
I didn’t know when I’d be back. It could be months or years. It could be longer. But I would come back. A part of me would always be magnetised to revisit where everything changed. The fragments of who I could have been were scattered here, in memories and cloudy emotions half-buried.
Dylan watched me, like he could read the thoughts on my face. I wondered if maybe he could. He’d suffered with me every step of the way, my pain mirrored in his heart. ‘This a good spot?’
I tore my eyes away from the elusive beyond and he stood, the boat dipping with his every movement. In the corner, the anchor lay on its side. His arm muscles strained to the surface of his skin as he heaved it over the edge.
I watched as it plummeted through the darkness, a frothy trail of bubbles behind it. What creatures would it encounter?
Dylan unzipped the bag and I got up and stretched. My joints popped, and I tried to release the tension collected in my body.
He pulled out a thick blanket and threw one side of it at me. I grabbed it mid-air, and we laid it on the floor: the same familiar rhythm we were accustomed to after years under the same roof. Then followed blanket, so we had a makeshift mattress to sit on rather than the hard floor.
He dumped two of the couch cushions onto it, and then plonked down. I sat on the other. The jagged rocks of the bar protruded over the boat, dim, hulking shapes against the sky.
‘Only a few weeks left,’ Dylan said. He looked out to where sea spray flew up with every violent wave.
I was leaving to study abroad in eighteen days. I’d moved to a bigger city to attend university, and my little family had followed me away from this town shortly after. My flights were booked and my apartment arranged in Philadelphia. Thousands of kilometres of ocean would separate me from my roots. Would they be yanked up immediately, or would they ache as they shrivelled and died?
I pulled my jacket sleeves further over my hands, so only the tips of my fingers were exposed. Around Dylan I was hyper-consciously aware of the raised scars striped upon my wrists.
He scratched at a mosquito bite on his arm with stubby, bitten nails: his insecurities manifested.
‘You hungry?’ A question he’d programmed himself to ask after my constant refusals.
My makeshift family forced me into recovery, but the sick pleasure hunched in the back of my mind.
His gaze lifted to my face, desperate to understand everything written there.
I forced a smile. ‘Sure. What do you got?’
He remained fixated a moment too long before he pulled out a tea-towel from the bag, which he unwrapped to reveal four plump scones, a butter knife, and two little containers of jam and cream.
‘Courtesy of Barbs.’
‘I’m going to miss her.’ I focused on the scones rather than him.
‘What about me?’ Always uncertain, always needing reassurance.
He sawed one open and slathered it in jam and cream. My brain calculated the calories out of habit. One scone, 450 calories. 2 teaspoons of jam on each half. 48 calories. 110 calories of cream. 608 calories. 2 hours of walking.
He offered it to me. I took it and the cream overflowed onto my fingertips.
‘Of course I’ll miss you.’
One side of his mouth curled up, but disbelief hunched behind his eyes. I took a bite, because he was waiting. Soft, crumbly, and sweet.
‘But how have things been with you?’
I met his gaze as he stuffed half a scone into his mouth. Bits of cream and crumbs were stuck in his moustache. I picked at mine, tearing off a small amount and eating it.
He shrugged and swiped the back of his hand over his mouth. ‘Same old,’ he said and picked up his other half. ‘I saw an article about Travis yesterday, y’know how he created that iPhone app?’
‘Oh yeah.’ Some crumbs fell into my lap. 603 calories now.
‘It was actually me who came up with that idea, and he didn’t even bother to talk to me about it. We could have collaborated or something.’ He scoffed. ‘But here I am, ordering tubs of lettuce and meat patties. What a life.’
Dylan had worked in a fast food restaurant since he was sixteen years old and now he managed one.
I pursed my lips to avoid upsetting him. If Dylan had any input into the app, it would have been a minute amount.
He wiped his hands on his jeans. ‘You’ll be careful over there, won’t you?’
‘I’ll do my best.’
I leaned back onto my palms, feeling the rough texture of the floor through the blankets.
He chewed on his thumbnail, eyebrows brought together, and the chubby little boy desperate for approval glared out.
He’d been poked and prodded by his classmates, and when I sat with him at lunch he gave me the brownie Barbs packed him. It tasted divine, and I bared chocolate-coated teeth at my new friend.
He stretched out by high school, and everyone else forgot they’d ever made fun of him, but the way they’d viewed him warped his perception forever.
‘I think I’ll miss you more than you’ll miss me,’ he said.
I couldn’t help the tug at my heart. ‘You know that’s not true.’
‘It’s never as bad being the one who leaves, as the one who’s left.’
‘That doesn’t mean I won’t miss you.’
He leaned away, lying on his elbows. I traced the shape of his body with my gaze. He obsessed over macros and ratios, always on a cut or a bulk. He despised fast food even more after working with it for so long and spent his evenings in the gym. He was lean and muscular, so different to the boy he saw in the mirror.
He looked away and bit his lip. Despite my efforts to forget, I was still reminded of kissing him. Eight years ago. Two drunk teenagers, the house echoing with our laughter. Barb and John away at a concert.
I suppose it was bound to happen. Two best friends, alcohol, teenage hormones and curiosity. We didn’t know the power of memories, how they stick for years.
He met my stare, and I didn’t look away. In secret thoughts I’d never admit, I imagined Dylan and I might have been together if things hadn’t happened how they did.
I cleared my throat, trying to sound casual. ‘Do you believe in fate?’
He wrinkled his nose. ‘Depends on the day. Somedays it seems like life makes sense – and then something comes along and hits you, and you wonder how the hell you’re supposed to believe there was a purpose to it.’
I nodded. It seemed like my life had a glitch in the beginning that splintered and cracked everything.
I tilted my head back, skull pressed against my top vertebrae. I could have stared into space forever. How far did that blackness go? I sucked in fresh air until my lungs felt like they would burst. My nose stung with the cold, oxygen rushing to my brain.
I’m alive, it whispered.
Where were the futures hidden in the stars? Did they elude me, or was I blind?
My chest ached with the thought of my mother. Her face was projected onto the black backdrop and she looked sad even in my imagination. It was the only way I’d known her.
‘You’ll be looking at a different set of stars in Philly.’
‘Yep, no more Southern Cross.’
Dylan pulled out two plastic cups and filled them with soft drink. We never drank alcohol together anymore. He hated the time I’d wasted too intoxicated to remember anything. The nights peering at myself in a cracked club mirror, eyes red and bloodshot. Then stepping into the daylight of a new morning, head splintering with pain.
And the other mornings: attending a midterm, mouth dry as nausea roiled in my stomach. Blacking out on the couch on a Wednesday night, running to the bathroom at two in the morning. Acid reflux scorching up my throat, Dylan silent with his ‘I told you so’s.’
I took the offered drink, the cup crinkling under my fingers. It was cold through the plastic.
My father had been religious and he saw God in everything: the four burning suns, arranged to represent his faith; fists leaving bruises on my mother’s skin, a vessel for God’s punishment; the rush and pull of the ocean that gave voice to His roars and whispers.
Most importantly, anything could be justified and anything could be forgiven.
Dylan squinted up at the stars, slurping his drink. ‘I prefer the constellation Vega.’
He traced his finger over the stars that outlined the skeleton of a ship’s sail.
‘What if it floated down here, and we took a trip through the galaxies?’ His teeth almost glowed in the dark.
‘I’d like that.’
‘Just promise me something,’ he said as I plucked at my raggedy tights to avoid looking at him. ‘You’ll try and find some good friends – ones you can rely on, that won’t get you into trouble.’
‘I mean, of course you can always call me,’ he continued, ‘or Mum and Dad or whoever. We’ll always be here for you.’
I scratched a fleck of dirt on my shoe.
I looked up. His eyebrows were raised, lines scored through his forehead – a piece of paper folded and never restored.
I took a long breath through my nose. ‘No one’s to blame for my actions other than myself.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘You know damn well you wouldn’t have been out drinking every night and stealing shit if it wasn’t for Jessica.’
I splayed my fingers on my thighs, determined not to yell at him. I didn’t want it to haunt me later when I couldn’t see the forgiveness in his eyes.
‘I’m twenty-five. I know you want to protect me, but I’ve done things to hurt myself, and my life. Me.’ I dug a finger into my chest. ‘No one else. I’m old enough to take that responsibility. And I don’t need you to watch over my every action. I’ll be fine.’
Pain stirred in his eyes. He’d grown into the mould of protector and suppressor and now he was a sentry without a watch.
He sucked in his cheeks, chewing on one side. ‘Okay.’
‘Hey.’ I reached out and lifted his chin, his face cold and guarded. ‘You’ve done great. You’ve been great.’
He nodded and shifted out from my touch. ‘You too.’
‘I want to get better, just as much as you want me to.’ I ducked down, so he couldn’t avoid looking at me. ‘But I don’t know how to be. Maybe I never will be. And yeah, that scares me too. But that’s life.’
My nose prickled with the threat of tears. His guard dropped, and he shuffled closer, wrapping one arm around my back. I stiffened for a moment before sinking into him.
His hand rubbed against the slick material of my jacket and made an almost metallic sound. It sounded like him dragging his fingers along guitar strings.
‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ he murmured, his voice close to my ear. ‘I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.’
My throat ached with suppressed sobs. All the suppressed emotions, memories and feelings clawed up from me at once. A sob burst out, like a cough more than anything.
My heart ached for the memories I hadn’t allowed myself to have. My mother watching Pocahontas with me on our couch, her body curled around mine. Her singing the musicals, and me smiling as her warm breath tickled my ear. Laughing at the funny parts, and her joining in too. Allowing herself to forget for just a moment.
‘You’ve been so brave,’ Dylan said.
My teeth pressed into my lip so hard the skin was bound to tear. Tears flowed down my face in sticky rivulets, and I squeezed them shut, hoping it would stop soon.
‘Hey,’ he said, tilting my face towards his. He pulled the cuff of his sleeve over his thumb, and wiped under my eyes.
I laughed, new tears replacing the old ones. His image was blurred, but it was still one of my most familiar sights. More familiar than my own parents. The thought of being on the other side of the world made me shudder.
‘You’re doing amazing,’ he said, crushing me to his chest. I breathed in the smell of his deodorant and hair gel, mixed with the fabric softener Barb used. It was home, wrapped around one person.
The wind teased loose strands of my hair. Was my mother there?
‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world, and I can’t believe you’re all mine,’ she had said, holding my hands, miniature versions of her own. I’d beam at her – my sun, and I the moon.
I opened my mouth numerous times, trying to put into words for Dylan the need to stay, and the knowledge I couldn’t be there with the reminders of my pain.
There wasn’t a way to sum it up, though. It was vast as the night sky over my head. It was the push and pull of the tides.
I squeezed tighter to him – the blessing I’d kept when all else crumbled to ashes. At home in his arms, as I’d been with my mother.
Finally I straightened up, an ache spreading in my lower back from leaning into him.
I wiped my eyes. My face was inflamed from crying, and I needed a tissue. Dylan laughed and stood up, going into the cabin.
He returned a moment later with a toilet roll, and I smiled, taking it from him. He sat down further away this time, arms wrapped around his knees. My nose-blowing shattered the stillness. When I breathed again, the air was even colder than before. A hint of wood-smoke slithered on the breeze.
‘I love the smell of smoke,’ I whispered, closing my eyes.
‘Me too.’ When I opened them, Dylan was looking at me. His gaze made my stomach flip.
The world seemed to breathe around me. Its pulse reverberated in my veins. It trembled with adventure, with days not yet lived.
I picked up my cup and the soft drink popped and fizzed. The sky had lightened, and soon yellow and pink tendrils would seep into its surface. I sighed.
‘When do you think we should go back?’ I said.
‘How about never?’ Dylan’s smile was tiny, hinting at a joke, yet wistful.
A wispy cloud inched over to cover the Southern Cross. I knew what he meant. Out here, time could have stopped, our obligations melted and dissolved into sea spray.
‘Sounds like a plan.’ I returned his smile.
He offered me his hand, palm up. I took it and the wind continued to toy with my hair, and my heart thudded, despite all the times I’d wished it would stop.
We sat like that for a long time, inhaling and exhaling with the sea’s rhythm, praying all the world could condense into one moment. The unknown stretched further than the horizon, and whispered to me of things not yet seen or experienced, hints of my future that was written up in the stars.