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 that persistently shook 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 colour from the environment outside, making it appear lifeless and dull. Her forehead rested against the cold glass window and she surveyed the overgrown backyard. Patches of mud appeared like holes amongst the uncut grass, the wooden fence had broken and missing planks and the garden bed was just a slab 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. The grasping wooden fingers were scared by slices from a rusty lawnmower. The lawnmower lay dormant in the small, slanted 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, and with a few light taps from her fingernail upon the doorframe she 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 pulled it out for me to use later.”
“I know. Thanks, mum.”
Gabrielle closed the door softly and went downstairs.
Elizabeth was a thirteen-year-old and a light sleeper. She prepared for school to the rhythm of her family’s routine. A tap on her door, the boiling kettle, her mother’s yawn, the iron hissing steam 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 had snapped open her eyes and paused the beating of her heart. Her pet hermit crab, Snippy, hid within its shell and Elizabeth held her breath.
The family was off rhythm slightly earlier than usual.
Crippling pains shot through Elizabeth’s lower abdomen. She stayed in bed curled up under her pink blanket counting down from ten to ease the discomfort. She stared blankly at her bedroom door where Gabrielle had stood moments before. When she finally pulled her focus away she caught a reflection of herself in the dirty mirror that leant against her bedroom wall.
Elizabeth’s eyes were a deep blue, partially hidden by waves of orange hair. Beneath her eyes were the remnants of poorly applied makeup that had been trialed the night before. Her soft jawline and the curves of her cheeks outlined an innocent face complimented by a small button nose. In moments of determination, the features of this baby face would tighten and her eyes would sharpen like a tiger peering through tall grass. But, those moments were rare to see, especially because they mostly happened when her face was buried in a test.
The darkness faded from Elizabeth’s bedroom. The grey morning light soon overpowered her yellow desk lamp that spilled light over her scattered homework papers. She reached over and opened a drawer from the bedside table that had been in her room her entire life. On the inside of the drawer was an old sticker of a cartoon bunny with one ear torn off that almost winked at Elizabeth. 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, ate a slightly stale cupcake from the local bakery and bought a book that Elizabeth’s friend, Sarah Goldman, had been rambling on about for months.
Elizabeth remembered Gabrielle holding her hand the entire day and only releasing it when it was impractical to exist linked together. At one moment, while sitting in the passenger seat, she watched her mother approaching from a fair distance across the carpark, her hair catching in the wind. Elizabeth softly pulled at 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 already busy 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, but the taste of copper 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. Eyebrows that frowned far too much, even for a teenager. His jaw was sharp and angular with thin hairs above his upper lip.
He didn’t apologise for his morning outburst, because it was becoming a common theme in the house. The family members would pretend nothing happened after certain events transpired. Gabrielle and Jordan had no intention of breaking that theme.
“I printed some more posters for you.” Gabrielle said.
Jordan’s husky, Whisper, had been missing for three days. He 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 a silent moment before continuing to eat cereal from his bowl. That was good enough for Gabrielle.
“I won’t be driving you this morn-“
“I’m going to see Mr Williams.” Jordan snapped, slicing up any conversation Gabrielle had wished to have.
Jordan stood up and dumped his unfinished breakfast in the sink, splashing milk and cereal into the air like a volcano burst, and left the kitchen.
Gabrielle stood staring at the kitchen floor, 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 she already felt defeated.
Eventually, she sat herself down on the living room couch with an instant coffee in her grasp. A morning news show filled the silence that she feared. She stared blankly out the living room window as the emotions she ignored undressed 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.
“Oh…” Gabrielle uttered involuntarily.
Elizabeth’s hyper vigilant eyes shot towards her mother. She felt the mixture of embarrassment, shame and anger. She dropped her bag where she was standing and ran back upstairs.
“Elizabeth!”, Gabrielle called, “Darling? You look beautiful!”
Soon Elizabeth reappeared 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.
“Move!” She screamed.
Gabrielle was left alone in the open doorway. The cold wind of autumn filled the house where life had been moments before.
Gabrielle worked at Abundant Heart, a women’s safe house that was 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. Weeds ran up the metal fences that flanked the house. and 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 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.
“Yeah, no, I’m just stopping by to check everything’s running smoothly” Gabrielle said, trying her best to meet Bron’s gaze. “I won’t be here long.”
“It’s good to keep a routine,” Bron replied matter of factly.
After reading her demeanour, Bron turned her attention to the woman beside her who was 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.”
Bron turned back to Gabrielle.
“Are you doing some painting?” Bron asked, indicating the paint on Gabrielle’s hands.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle answered casually, rubbing the dry paint on her palms, “I just sanded most of the wall this morning and did a bit here and there. I’m just taking a break, really.”
Gabrielle’s phone rang from her 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,” Gabrielle said with a sigh, “My kids are getting too old to have someone watching them all the time.”
Bron smiled warmly.
“So are these ones, but here we are. Come, lunch is almost ready.”
Another resident, Alex, tried to get past Bron with an urgent skip in her step.
“Did Zoe get the mail? Hi, Gab!”
Gabrielle replied to Alex with a soft smile.
“Go get it,” instructed Bron.
Alex ducked under Bron’s arm and jogged towards the letterbox. Gabrielle stared after her, contemplating her escape from the perceptive eyes of her coworker.
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 the sudden break fron coversation. 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.
She decided to push her emptiness deep within herself, but the moment of reflection was cut short.
An aggressive rip of a hand break pulled her focus toward 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 with the man’s.
“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. “We have strick rules and policies that we have to abide by.”
The yellow door slammed shut.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Bron added, “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 a half-jest.
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 brush off the trauma she dealt with the same way Bron appeared to. On most days, Gabrielle could hide her thoughts and emotions, but she could never brush them off. On days like this one, however, she could hide nothing from herself.
“I better get to the office. I’ll see you later.” Gabrielle said.
Before she made her escape, Bron grabbed her arm with a gentle, yet firm, grip.
“Do you need someone to talk to?” Bron asked sincerely.
The tears glazed over Gabrielle’s eyes just enough to make Bron’s figure distort. 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, shook her head and took a deep breath.
Her phone vibrated.
A message popped up on the screen.
It wasn’t her husband.
“I’ll meet you on the beach.”
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 like they were 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 uncontrolled feelings pulled this thought to the surface as it grabbed other emotions 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. Gabrielle didn’t witness the sunset. It was as if she blinked the light out of existence. The once-sunset beach was now covered in darkness.
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 that made it look 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 her 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 paced back to the dry sand as the wind blew in from the ocean, gently stroking her 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 it was just a shadow of what she once was.
Memories and feelings from her first years of motherhood entered her mind as a light mist that inevitably left her drenched in bittersweet sadness.
Her gait began to betray her, 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 distance where her feet could hardly touch the sand beneath the water. 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 clouds over its face. 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. It was too late.
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, searching for 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.
Back on the beach, her name was called by the man who texted her 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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