Naked branches twisted and clawed at the faded weather worn window. Violent winds pushed against the old house, filling every crack and every imperceptible opening. The voice of autumn whispered through the walls. Small stones, shattered leaves and dust lifted from the earth and pelted the house like a dry hale storm.
Despite having the whole bed to herself, Gabrielle was curled up in one corner, finding little comfort in the thin sheet that rested upon her naked body. The passage of time was marked by the scratching, tapping and rapping upon her window. Her eyes were open, sleepless and inattentive. Eventually, the sound of autumn’s breath outside persistently shaking her fragile two-story home finally drew her out of bed.
Her feet landed upon the carpet and a pulse of normalcy undulated beneath her skin. Her head was heavy and she made her way over to the dusty window. The morning sun was veiled by a thick layer of clouds that drained the cooler from the environment outside, making it appear lifeless and dull. Her forehead rested against the cold glass window as she surveyed the overgrown backyard. Patches of mud appeared like holes amongst the uncut grass, the wooden fence had broken and missing planks with rusty nails sticking out every which way and the garden bed was a table of weeds.
In the centre of the yard was a thick tree stump. Tall grass shot up unevenly around its base. Its thick, dead roots were like fingers clinging to the earth with ceaseless might. These grasping wooden fingers were scared by slices from a rusty lawnmower. This lawnmower lay dormant in the small, tilted garden shed that was almost always locked and, because of the state of the yard, inaccessible.
Every time Gabrielle asked her husband, Edward Adams, to clean up the yard, he would tense up. In fact, every time she asked Edward, “How can I ask you without making you upset?” he became even worse.
Gabrielle shook her head. The grass wasn’t going to be cut. The remaining stump from the forgotten tree wasn’t going to be removed. The back shed was always going to be out of reach and, perhaps, so was her husband.
“Where are you?” Gabrielle whispered, her breath leaving fog upon the glass window.
It was April the 28th and a void grew and darkened in Gabrielle’s heart.
She grabbed her dressing gown from the side of her bedpost, wrapped it around her body and opened her bedroom door. She stepped into the small carpeted hallway with a yawn and with three firm thumps from the bottom of her fist she knocked upon her son’s bedroom door.
“It’s time to get up!” She shouted in disguised exhaustion.
There was no response.
Without hesitation, she opened the door.
“Get out!” A teenage voice responded in sudden adolescent rage.
Gabrielle was stunned. She stood frozen against the half-open bedroom door. Her son jumped out of his bed, his feet quaking against the wooden floorboards. He threw himself forward and slammed the door shut, the impact pushing Gabrielle onto her back foot and against the wall. She remained pressed against the drywall as her son, Jordan, stormed back into his bed.
Gabrielle let out a deep exhale and tiptoed down the hall towards her daughter’s room. She opened the door, spilling light inside. With a few light taps from her fingernail upon the doorframe, Gabrielle said in a soft tone, “Darling, it’s time to get up, now.”
Gabrielle hid the break in her voice as best she could, but Elizabeth noticed.
“Don’t use the pink soap, ok? You’ll have a reaction. I just got it out for me.”
“I know, thanks, mum.”
Gabrielle closed the door softly and went downstairs.
Elizabeth was thirteen-years-old and a light sleeper. She prepared for school to the rhythm of her family’s morning clock. A tap on her door, the flick of the kettle, Gabrielle’s yawn, the boiling water, the hissing steam from the iron, the scrapping sound of coat hangers, the ting of a spoon against a mug and the fridge door swinging shut after a milk carton had been placed on the counter.
She would lay awake until she could hear the ting of a spoon stirring an instant coffee. That’s when she knew it was time to head downstairs. But, Jordan’s outburst snapped open her eyes and paused the beating of her heart. Her pet hermit crab, Snippy, hid within its shell as Elizabeth held her breath.
Crippling pains shot through her lower abdomen as she lay in the fetal position under a pink blanket. Elizabeth stared blankly at her bedroom door where Gabrielle had stood moments before. As she pulled her focus away, she caught her reflection in a dirty mirror.
Her eyes were a deep blue, partially hidden by waves of orange hair. Her soft jawline and the curves of her cheeks outlined an innocent face with a small button nose, yet, this would all tighten in moments of determination when her eyes became as tigers, peering through tall grass. At this moment beneath her blanket, staring blankly at the mirror, she was just a little red-headed girl with the remnants of poorly applied makeup on her face.
The darkness faded from Elizabeth’s bedroom. The grey morning light soon overpowered the yellow lamp left on the night before that spilled light over her scattered homework papers. She reached over and opened a drawer. The bedside table had been in her room her entire life and fashioned an old sticker of a cartoon bunny with one ear torn off on the inside of the draw. She pulled out a fresh pad.
The plastic packaging threw her mind back to shopping with her mother.
Last month, Gabrielle drove Elizabeth two towns over so that she wouldn’t bump into anyone from school. They went for a hair treatment, a cupcake and a book that Elizabeth’s friend, Sarah Goldman, had been rambling about for months. Gabrielle only released Elizabeth’s hand from her own only when it was impractical to exist linked together. At one moment, while Elizabeth sat in the passenger seat, she watched her mother journey across the front of the car, her hair catching in the wind. Elizabeth felt her own curly red hair with her fingertips and felt a strange sense of gratitude.
Elizabeth shook off the memory, lifted her heavy head, bent down and yanked her phone off its charger.
Downstairs, Gabrielle was in the kitchen. She grabbed a cup from the dish rack and held it under a steady stream of cold water. The water’s slightly metallic taste never bothered her before, but for some reason, she couldn’t stand it today. She spat it out. The taste of copper and salt remained in her mouth.
Jordan entered the kitchen to the sound of death metal playing from the phone that was permanently attached to his hand. He was a skinny fifteen-year-old whose shoulders were growing wider by the day. His unnaturally black hair hung down over his face and touched the tip of his shoulders. His face, which was almost always hidden, had green wide set eyes that rested under ginger eyebrows that frowned far too much, even for a teenager. His jaw was sharp and angular and thin hairs grew above his upper lip.
He didn’t apologise for his morning outburst. It was becoming a common theme in the house; The family members would pretend nothing happened after certain events transpired. Gabrielle continued the tradition.
“I printed some more posters for you.” She said.
Jordan remained silent. His husky, Whisper, had been missing for three days. Jordan was convinced it was theft. After a long silence, Gabrielle tried again.
“Someone will pick you up at four after your appointment today, ok?”
Jordan looked up at Gabrielle for an unenthusiastic second and continued to eat cereal from his bowl. That was good enough for Gabrielle until she was cut off mid-sentence.
“I won’t be driving you this morn-“
“I’m going to see Mr Williams.”
Jordan got up and dumped his bowl in the sink, splashing milk and cereal into the air like a volcano burst. He left the kitchen like he was the centre of the universe because as an angry teen, he was.
Gabrielle was left staring at the sink, unable to muster the amount of energy required to drag Jordan back downstairs and force him to clean his mess. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and Gabrielle already felt defeated.
Eventually, she was able to sit herself down on the living room couch with an instant coffee in hand. A morning news show filled the silence and Gabrielle stared blankly out the living room window. Guilt began to gain weight within her.
As the disrupted morning ritual came to a close, Jordan opened the front door and rushed out. Elizabeth ran down the stairs and grabbed one of her books from the living room floor, hiding her face.
“Have a good day, darling.”
“I will,” replied Elizabeth. She pulled her hair behind her ear, accidentally revealing her terribly applied makeup.
Elizabeth’s eyes shot towards her mother. She felt a mix between embarrassment, shame and anger as her hyper-perception noticed one thing: criticism. She dropped her bag where she was standing and ran back upstairs.
“Elizabeth!”, Gabrielle called, “Darling? You look beautiful!”
Elizabeth ran back downstairs with a handful of makeup remover. She pushed past her mother.
“Stop, I didn’t mean-“
She grabbed her bag and barged past Gabrielle for the second time.
Gabrielle was left standing in the open doorway. The cold winds of Tuesday morning filled the house where life had been moments before.
Abundant Heart was a women’s safe house centre, privately run by the funding of a small number of generous donors. They had six safe houses and multiple community programs. Gabrielle worked predominantly in the main office, but spent a lot of time working with women at The Yellow House, creatively named on account of its shabby yellow front door.
The Yellow House had eight women in two different dormitories. The two dormitories were occupied by residents who were in medium or long-term Abundant Heart programs. There was an additional bedroom for emergencies or new residents who were yet to commit to a program. There was also a small room to the left of the entrance where the group leader lived.
The double-story house stood between two empty lots on a quiet street. The lots on either side were overgrown with grass and weeds that ran up the metal fences flanking the house. This made The Yellow House look like a deteriorating townhouse in the middle of a jungle. The leader of The Yellow House was Bron Brown.
“You aren’t taking the day off?”
Bron’s voice was a deep baritone, but fluctuated between the smoothness of black coffee and the discipline of a guard dog’s bark, depending on her purpose. She was short and stocky with a tightly pulled ponytail and a permanent concentration embedded in her eyes.
A young woman tried to pass through the gap between Bron’s broad stature and the doorframe to get outside, but Bron stopped her with the back of her hand while keeping her full attention on Gabrielle.
“It’s good to keep a routine,” Bron said directly.
“Yeah, no, I’m just stopping by to check everything’s running smoothly. I won’t be here long.”
Gabrielle looked down for a split second, but tried her best to meet Bron’s gaze. After reading her demeanour, Bron turned her attention to the woman beside her, dressed in an oversized, male t-shirt.
“Where are you going, Zoe?”
“I’m just getting the letters.”
“That’s not your job.”
“Alex prepared the table,” Zoe explained.
With the grace of a conductor, Bron turned the woman’s body and directed her back inside.
“Go upstairs, get changed and bring me back the shirt you’re wearing, now.”
Bron noticed white paint on Gabrielle’s hands.
“Were you doing some renovations?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle answered casually, looking down at her hands, “I just sanded most of the wall this morning. I’m just taking a break, really.”
Gabrielle’s phone rang from her jean pocket.
“Hey…” Gabrielle, turned slightly and took a few paces away from Bron, but tried to remain inside the circumference where it didn’t seem like she needed privacy.
“Oh no, everything is fine… Hey… Are you available to watch the kids this afternoon? No… Not yet, he’s not home… No… I know… No, It’s all good, anyway, Sam, I have to go, I’m at work… Ok, bye.”
Bron was looking at her, open for any comment.
“I know. My kids are getting too old to have someone watching them all the time.”
Bron smiled warmly at Gabrielle.
“So are these ones, but here we are. Come, lunch is almost ready.”
Another woman tried to get past Bron with an urgent skip in her step.
“Did Zoe get the mail? Hi, Gab!”
“Hi, Alex,” Gabrielle replied with a soft smile.
“She didn’t. Go on.”
She ducked under Bron’s arm and jogged towards the letterbox. Gabrielle stared after her, contemplating her escape from the perceptive eyes of her coworker. She didn’t understand why she wanted to be at The Yellow House today just to run away.
At the sound of a smashing plate, Bron snapped her attention away and marched into the house. Gabrielle felt her breath deepen in her body with Bron distracted. She stared blankly up at the house, the sounds of hurried conversations and shuffling feet emanating from within its walls.
“They all have it worse than me.” Gabrielle thought, and she pushed her emptiness deep within herself. Her moment of reflection was cut short by an aggressive rip of a hand break being pulled into place. She looked back towards the road.
A man dressed in sweatpants and a faded t-shirt jumped out of his car. He took long, belligerent strides towards Alex, almost tripping over the gutter as he did. Alex took two steps backward in slow motion and covered her mouth with the letters she was holding, stupefied.
“Where is she?” he yelled with a fit of anger he was far too familiar with.
Alex was frozen stiff. Like a homing missile, the man’s face aimed at Gabrielle.
The strides of the self-proclaimed downtrodden closed the gap between them.
“Where is she!”
Gabrielle didn’t move. She looked straight into the man’s anger-stricken eyes; Sunken eyes surrounded by the dark circles of insomnia. Men in this state of mind were usually easy for Gabrielle to diffuse, but not today.
She bent her knees imperceptibly, lowered her shoulders and squared her body against the man.
“Good morning, let me try and help you.” Her words were firm, but her voice failed her. In the corner of her eye, she noticed the worry flash across Alex’s face from where she was standing timid by the letterbox.
“Bring her out, now!” His arms waved about like a rabid chimpanzee.
Bron returned with Zoe’s shirt in her hand. She marched up to the man.
“Good morning, my name is Bron Brown and I run this facility. I believe this belongs to you.”
She put the shirt in the man’s hands.
The man assessed Bron with a quick glance. His eyes returned to Gabrielle, ignoring Bron’s existence.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone.” Bron interrupted. “We had to move her to another shelter because of you.” Bron’s voice was even and strong.
The yellow door shut and bolted.
“Would you like a cup of tea? I understand this must be difficult.”
The man’s face was less than an inch from Gabrielle’s. He had the stink of an unwashed alcoholic. With Bron by her side, Gabrielle felt the nerves take a step back. Control returned to her face, albeit a surface level of control. Her eyes didn’t falter.
With a sudden movement, the man jumped back and yelled at different windows of the house.
“Zoe! Get your arse out here, now!”
Bron expected this behaviour and simply ushered Alex into the house.
After a few minutes of yelling, the man retreated to his car. He looked like a frustrated animal. He leant on his car, he circled back and forth, he smoked a cigarette, he pretended to be on the phone, he paced up and down the street — always watching and talking to himself.
Eventually, he left.
“Well, it’s going to be a fun week,” Bron said in half-jest. The moment between a confrontation and dealing with the repercussions of that confrontation always made Bron laugh. Gabrielle was comforted by this trait. It was something she lacked deeply and was trying to learn throughout her professional life. Bron had a certain easiness in her mood when dealing with terrible situations. Despite Gabrielle being very good at her job, she was never able to be seemingly unaffected by the trauma she dealt with the same way Bron appeared to be. Gabrielle hid her thoughts and emotions well and dealt with them in silence. On some days, however, she could hide nothing from herself.
“I better get to the office. I’ll see you later.”
Before Gabrielle made her escape, Bron grabbed her arm with a gentle, yet firm, grip.
“Do you need someone to talk to?”
The tears glazed over Gabrielle’s eyes just enough to make Bron’s figure distort. Bron appeared like she was above the surface of the water as Gabrielle was drowning beneath. She waited until she could utter a sentence without bursting into tears and finally responded, “Tomorrow.”
Bron let go of her arm, but not before giving it a small squeeze of comfort.
The rest of Gabrielle’s day was spent at the office, consumed by paperwork, emails and stinging thoughts. At the end of the day, Gabrielle called Edward. When he didn’t pick up, she dropped her phone onto her desk. She shook her head and took a deep breath.
Her phone vibrated and a message popped up on the screen.
“I’ll meet you on the beach.”
It wasn’t a message from Edward.
Gabrielle drove toward Black Stone Beach with an unrealistic prayer silently repeating on her lips. When she arrived, the car park was empty. There wasn’t a soul in sight.
The sun dipped below the horizon and the next thing she knew, she was standing on the coastline with her eyes closed.
Gabrielle’s feet were pulled further beneath the sand by the weight on her heart. Freezing thoughts emanated after every beat, stinging her mind like harsh sand-filled winds upon bare skin. With each wave that rolled out she was pulled deeper. The water washed through her ankles, two pillars removed from the flow of time.
A thought was making its way through the maze in her mind. A maze of ever-changing pathways where whispers echoed around every corner. Her feelings pushed this thought to the surface as it grabbed other thoughts and feelings and memories on its way up. It dressed up in doubt and denial and pain and fear until it eventually formed into a coherent sentence she could articulate, yet not truly believe.
“It will be all right.”
She opened her eyes to the empty night that surrounded her, not recognising where it was she stood. The once-sunset beach was now covered in darkness. Gabrielle didn’t witness the sunset nor the moon rise. It was as if she blinked the light out of existence.
She looked at her phone. No missed calls and no messages.
She watched a cargo ship drift over the horizon, approaching the midpoint between the two cliffs that stood on either side of the beach like a broken picture frame. Yet, Gabrielle’s mind was far from the beach. She was in counselling sessions, she was in mother’s meetings, she was helping women find rest, she was calculating the family’s expenses; she was everywhere but in the present. She sank deeper.
Her marriage meant more to her than she allowed anyone to see, especially her husband. When eagerness is met with apathy, apathy wins. Early on, Gabrielle would tell herself, “I’m in pain, but I’m eager.” Now, after sixteen years of marriage, her mantra no longer included the latter.
Her phone slipped from her hand. It hit the water with a sound indistinguishable from the ocean’s breath of crashing waters and howling winds. The volume of the beach and the density of the night air blended everything into one shade of black, but for one feature; Gabrielle’s red hair dancing with the wind, a gentle flame burning in the emptiness.
Tears rolled down Gabrielle’s cheeks as if her blue eyes were melting. They glittered across her freckles and took refuge in the corner of her mouth where her lips met.
She pulled her feet against the suction of the sand that tried to keep her in place. She walked back to the dry land as the wind blew in from the ocean, gently stroking Gabrielle’s hair on its way past. She threw up her towel, like so many bed sheets before, and it caught the wind perfectly as she lay it down. She dropped her keys on the towel and turned back towards the sea.
“How did it get to this?” Gabrielle thought, as her mind searched hidden passages of memories. She remembered her early years, the times when she felt alone. Her eyes closed as they recalled the first time Edward looked into them. That moment was the first time she truly felt her existence in the world.
The beach was empty and though Gabrielle was only walking, she felt all the muscles in her face twitching. She could feel her cheeks pull and ache as they tried desperately to contain the pain beneath. She rubbed the sides of her legs, feeling the curve between her hamstrings and her quads. They weren’t as lean as they once were, but she was comforted by the fact that underneath her motherhood was still a powerful warrior, even if but a shadow of what she once was.
Memories and feelings from her first day with Edward entered her mind as a light mist that inevitably left her drenched in bittersweet sadness.
Her gait began to betray her now, partnering with the muscles in her face to destroy the composer that Gabrielle held so highly. Her steps became smaller as she hunched over her tightening abdomen. Yet, further into the sea, she went.
Ice-cold waters shocked her body. She pushed forward, or rather, was drawn further into the water. She gasped as the water passed over her abdomen, waking up all five senses. She reached the point where her feet could hardly touch the bottom. Her whole body lifted from the foundations of the earth. Her body levitated, she felt like part of the water, drifting with the ebb and flow of the ocean. But soon the undercurrents began thrashing her body with a violence she didn’t expect.
It only took one second. One second for her to realise the current was too strong. Worry grasped her body. Panic beat through her mind. Just as a child looks to her parents a moment before bursting into tears, Gabrielle screamed out in desperation “Help!”
The beach became hidden in the night as the moon pulled the clouds over its eyes. Gabrielle kicked and paddled frantically against the current, but she had no idea which way to go. She kept straightening her body to see if she could touch the ground, but it was too deep.
After choking and coughing up the saltwater, Gabrielle calmed herself down. She stopped fighting the current and used her energy to stay afloat. Her eyes darted every which way, searching for an escape or a saviour.
But all was darkness.
Gabrielle floated inside the eye of her inner storm. The tornado of all her worries and fears. Inside this temporary calm was one desire. A desire for her broken soul to be wrapped around her family. When Gabrielle’s body fell beneath the waves, she couldn’t feel the cold. All she felt was the warmth of her first child, fast asleep against her chest taking a soft, shallow breath.
On the beach, her name was called by one of the men she had called that night. He screamed out for her, but was offered no reply. In a panic, he picked up her phone, called emergency, wiped his fingerprints and dropped the phone on the towel. He darted back to his car and disappeared into the night.
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