‘What’s wrong, mum?’ I asked, returning from school to find my mother sitting in the kitchen crying over a cup of cold coffee.
Startled, she quickly wiped her eyes and said, ‘Nothing’, as she stood up and went to the refrigerator.
‘Would you like a glass of milk and a cookie?’
I said, ‘Yep’, and sat down.
Whenever I caught mum crying she never said why and although I had a feeling she was unhappy, I never gave it much thought. The only laughter in our house was from us kids or from the television which was never switched off. Dad might have laughed but he was always away on business. Watching her go to the cupboard, take out a bottle of white pills, and wash two down with a glass of water, it occurred to me that her unhappiness may have been related to Dad never being around.
I was fifteen years old and had lived in Secret Corner Road all my life, before I learned how aptly named was this tiny part of the world. There were only ten houses in our dead end street, one vacant lot and a general store on the corner of the main road. We lived in number eight, opposite the vacant block which we used as a sports field.
My younger brother Jason entered the kitchen and trailing him, our little sister Megan.
‘Mum,’ said Jason, ‘Kevin didn’t wait for us like he was supposed to.’
‘Why didn’t you wait for them, Kevin?’ asked mum as she set down a plate of cookies and the milk on the table.
‘I got out early and it was too long to wait.’
‘Did not,’ said Jason. ‘I saw you leave your classroom just before we did and I called out to you and you ran off.’
‘Shut up, Jas,’ I said.
‘You shut up.’
‘Both of you shut up! I’ve got a headache.’
I took a mouthful of milk and wiped the creamy white mustache off my lips with the back of my hand.
‘You get a lot of headaches, mum.’
‘Mind your own business, Kevin.’
Megan sat down quietly, picked up a cookie and nodded when mum asked if she also wanted some milk.
Jason said, ‘What about me?’
‘What about you?’ said mum, prompting Jason to snatch a cookie from the plate and storm off to the living room to watch television.
That night after we had gone to bed, I heard Dad come home but I didn’t go out to see him. He had been away for two weeks, overseas somewhere and I was hoping he would come in to me and give me something special but he often disappointed me.
As I lay there wishing this time might be different, I heard the familiar sound of arguing. I never figured out why mum and dad weren’t happy to see each other, but perhaps mum’s headache had something to do with it. Somehow I fell asleep with my hands pressed tightly against my ears and tears rolling down my face.
In the morning Dad was still there.
‘Hi dad,’ I said taking a seat next to him at the kitchen table.
Dad said, ‘Hi pal, how’re you doing?’
Appreciating the affection of him ruffling my hair, I decided not to tell him I heard him come home last night, and not to ask if he got me anything. When Jason and Megan joined us for breakfast we were for a moment like a normal happy family except for the fact that mum and dad weren’t talking to each other. Mum was mechanically going about the business of getting us ready for school. After she finished the dishes, I saw her swallow another couple of pills and so did Dad.
‘How many of those damn things do you take every day?’
‘What do you care?’
With that dad left the table and breakfast was over. Another week passed before we saw him again.
Slinky Sinclair from number ten next door joined us for the walk to school. Slinky was a skinny, untidy kid who lived with his mum whom none of us ever saw.
He said, ‘Your girlfriend’s moving out, Kev.’
‘Shut up Slinky, she’s not my girlfriend.’
‘Anyway, they’re selling the house and leaving Secret Corner Road. Nobody’s ever done that before have they?’
‘Not since I’ve been here but I suppose they might have before that.’
‘Wait up guys! Wait up!’
It was the kid from number nine. His real name was Bert but because of his problem with bodily gases, we called him Burp. Bert was such an old fashioned name anyway.
He said, ‘Hey Kev, your girlfriend’s moving.’
I couldn’t be bothered answering him and was thoroughly sick and tired of having to tell people that I was not interested in Kelly Phillips, especially when I did actually like her. She was infatuated with me and always hanging around us boys and trying to be a boy and impress us, especially me. Initially I just thought of her as a friend but somewhere along the way I guess I fell in love with her. There was no way I would admit that to my friends though. No way.
We reached the front gate of number five and waited for Serge to come out. Serge was the only guy any of us knew who couldn’t speak English properly. He moved into Secret Corner Road two years ago when his parents emigrated from Yugoslavia. Number five had been always been an empty, unwanted house until they arrived. We all reckoned it was haunted but nothing bad ever happened to Serge and his family.
‘What’s taking him so long?’ I said.
Slinky said, ‘He’s always on time.’
‘Maybe he forgot how to read the clock,’ suggested Burp.
I said, ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and lightly clipped him over the back of his head.
‘Serge. Serge,’ called Slinky.
Then we all joined in. Glancing at my watch I decided we would be late if we didn’t get going.
I said, ‘Let’s go!’
‘He must be sick,’ said Burp. ‘We’ll come see him after school.’
‘Why didn’t his mum come out and tell us? She must have heard us,’ said Slinky.
Burp said, ‘Maybe they’re all sick.’
‘Maybe it’s the curse,’ said Slinky as we walked on.
I said, ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and pushed him off the side walk into the hedge out front of number three.
An old couple, Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge lived there, and all the children in Secret Corner Road liked them because they never complained about the noise we made when we played in the street and they always gave us sweets.
Across the road at number six, Mike climbed into his twenty year old v-eight Chevy and fired the engine, gunning it continually to warm it up as it blew clouds of black smoke into the air. Mike and his brother, Eddy were much older than the rest of us so we had nothing to do with them. They were always having loud parties on the weekends with their friends who all drove noisy, rusty pick ups.
We stood and admired the scene for a moment and when Mike saw us, he gave the accelerator a couple more hard shoves.
Suitably impressed, I said, ‘I’m going to get one of those pick ups one day.’
The others nodded.
Then Slinky said, ‘There’s your girlfriend, Kev,’ as he pointed over at number four where Kelly was walking out to the Phillips’s family car. She saw us and waved quickly before getting into the back seat with her brother and closing the door. A stern faced Mr. Phillips was behind the wheel, but he ignored us.
‘Why doesn’t she walk with us anymore?’ asked Burp.
I said, ‘She’s not allowed after what happened to her sister.’
‘Maybe that’s why they’re moving out.’
‘They say it was her own fault anyway,’ said Slinky. ‘Said she was asking for trouble and she got it.’
I said, ‘Nobody deserves to be treated like that no matter what.’
Tommy Carmichael ran across the road from number two just after Kelly had left and joined us at the corner. He carried a bible in his left hand as he always did. Sometimes he read to us and although I enjoyed the stories, especially those about the wars, I never believed any of it. We weren’t religious at all, in fact I remembered dad saying when he was around more often, how religion was the cause of all wars. I had no cause to doubt him, but Tommy sure was different. You couldn’t make him mad, nor would he ever do anything wrong. Believing that rules were made to be broken we always played up, but Tommy was as straight as an arrow. I liked him and trusted him more than any of my other friends.
‘Got any stories for us today, Tommy?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ said Tommy, ‘Bible’s full of them.’
At school everybody was talking about Kelly Phillips’s older sister except the Secret Corner Road gang. I told the others it wasn’t right and Tommy backed me up, so we speculated about Serge’s non appearance that morning instead.
Kelly joined us for lunch.
‘You boys know we’re moving?’
‘Yeah,’ we chorused.
‘There’s people coming to look at our house this afternoon. I don’t want to go but mum and dad have made up their minds.’ Kelly looked down and began to fiddle with her sandwich wrapper, keeping her eyes down as she continued. ‘I’ve lived all my life in Secret Corner Road. I don’t want to go.’
I said, ‘We can visit, or you can visit us sometimes…at vacation break.’
Kelly shook her head. ‘We’re moving to the east coast. I’ll never see you again.’
Although she was speaking to all of us, the comment was especially for me so I moved closer and put my arm around her shoulder as she started to cry. Burp gave me a look which made me want to punch him. No one knew what to say next so it was a great relief when the bell rang and we returned to class.
‘Come on,’ said Tommy. ‘Time to do some more learning.’
I spent the afternoon class thinking about mum and dad and the pills and the fights. The more I thought about it the unhappier I felt but I had no idea what to do about it. Whenever I asked mum if she was all right, she told me she was and I should mind my own business.
Jason and Megan were too young to understand that our family was falling apart, and I felt ashamed and for the first time in my life, worried. Who could I talk to?
When we reached the corner store on the way home from school, Tommy was the first to see them.
‘Police!’ he said.
I said, ‘What?’ and followed his gaze down the street.
‘Two police cars down there…are they at Serge’s place? Can you see?’
Slinky said, ‘Yeah it looks like Serge’s place. Come on.’
They left me behind, frozen to the spot. I could hear them calling but only softly as I continued to stare at the flashing red and blue lights, mesmerized. Whispering to myself that they must be really sick, I suddenly realised how stupid that was. There were police cars in Secret Corner Road. It was my fifteenth year and my world was unraveling.
‘Sorry kid,’ said someone as they bumped into me and continued down the street. I noticed he was carrying a video camera and was accompanied by two other men. Taking time to regain my senses, I breathed deeply and surveyed the scene more carefully.
I had never seen Secret Corner Road more full of cars and people. Mr. And Mrs. Eldridge were standing on the sidewalk at the front of their home, as was Mrs. Phillips and Mike’s mum and dad. There was mum standing on the front porch of our place with her arms folded across her chest. Burp’s mum was beside her, and even never-seen Mrs. Sinclair was out on her balcony. Another police car screeched to a halt at the corner, then carefully parked across the entrance to Secret Corner Road.
When I arrived home mum was crying but this time I knew why.
‘Mum, what happened?’
She hugged me and said, ‘Go inside. I’m waiting for Jason and Megan.’
Mum could not bring herself to tell me but I watched it on the news that night. Serge and his mum and dad were all dead. Police said there were no signs of forced entry to the house or of violence and they had also ruled out the use of a weapon.
Soon after the news, dad arrived home in a rush and although I later wondered how he made it back from overseas so quickly, I was glad to see him and I cried as he hugged me for the first time since I was little boy. My tears wet his shirt but he held on tightly and stroked my hair.
Mum happened upon dad and I embracing and asked dad what he was doing here.
‘I heard what happened…they only said the name of the street, not what number, so I…’
‘Are you staying?’
She sounded so cold and indifferent. Why was she never pleased when he came home? Weren’t they supposed to love each other? Didn’t she miss him?
Dad said yes, and mum left the room. From somewhere I raised the courage to ask my father the questions which were eating at my soul.
‘Kevin,’ he began, ‘I guess you’re old enough to hear the truth now. I mean if you’re old enough to ask the question, then I suppose…’
‘Your mum and I are separated. We are still legally married but we are not together anymore if you know what I mean. We’re going to get divorced.’
He was choking on the words which I was struggling to understand.
‘Don’t you love her anymore?’
‘It’s not that simple.’
“It is that simple dad. It’s a very simple question.’
Having overheard the conversation mum came in just as I broke down in tears again.
‘Didn’t we decide not to tell him yet? Not tell him. I thought we agreed.’
‘He asked me what was going on.’
‘I was going to tell him when I thought the time was right. We agree-’
‘I told you he asked me. Should I have lied to his face?’
I put my fingers in my ears and ran to my bedroom as they stood toe to toe and yelled at each other. Face down on my bed I cried myself to sleep, my head exploding with thoughts of Serge, and of mum and dad, and Kelly moving and her sister being raped. I might have thought of killing myself that night had mum not interrupted Dad’s revelation. As it turned out, I had a couple of weeks to recover my strength before I learned the final painful truth, and this time it came from mum who no longer pretended she and dad were still a happy couple and ironically stopped crying and taking pills as a result.
Kelly and her family had only been gone for nine days when I received a letter from her which Mum left on the kitchen table and casually mentioned as she served me milk and cookies after school. I really missed Kelly more than I thought I would and I regretted not standing up to my friends and admitting to them and to Kelly that I liked her.
‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ said mum, interrupting my thoughts.
I said, ‘Yeah,’ but I didn’t open it straight away. I just looked at it as I slowly munched on a cookie. There was something else on my mind.
She said, ‘Yes,’ but did not stop washing the dishes.
‘Why didn’t you tell me before about you and dad? ‘Specially when you were sad and crying all the time.’
It was weird how she suddenly stopped and turned around to look at me like she was seeing me for the first time, or like she suddenly remembered she had a son. When she walked over, pulled out a chair and sat down still looking at me in a strange, not herself kind of way, I began to feel uncomfortable.
‘At the start,’ she began, ‘I didn’t want to accept it.’
‘I knew your dad was seeing someone else. You know, he had a girlfriend and that’s why he spent so much time away from home.’ She shuffled forward in her seat before continuing. ‘Then I tried to pretend that I could share him and pretend for the sake of playing happy families that I could let him have his other life so long as he came home sometimes, and so long as your guys didn’t know about it.’
‘Don’t you love him anymore?’
Mum rose from the table and walked back to the sink. It seemed she wasn’t going to answer the question but when she finally did, I didn’t like the answer.
‘It’s not that simple, Kevin.’
‘That’s what dad said but I say it is that simple.’
Mum sighed and said, ‘I still love him but he doesn’t love me, and he doesn’t want to be here with us.’
I watched as she reached for the cupboard where she kept her headache tablets but surprisingly she pulled away and returned to the table. She looked at me with that weird look again, then said, ‘There’s something else you should know about dad.’
There was an awful churning in my stomach as I sat rigidly and listened.
She said, ‘I never thought there would be a good time to tell you this and I guess I have put it off because I was afraid of how you would react, but it needs to be said, and now seems as good a time as any.’
‘Just say it mum.’
‘I was six months pregnant with you when I married this man you know as your father but he’s not your father… he’s your stepfather. I was carrying another man’s child when we married. Do you understand what I’m saying Kevin?’
All I could do was nod because I understood it but I could not believe it. I listened in stunned silence as she went on to tell me that my real father was a violent, abusive man who tried to kill her one night whilst in a drunken rage. He was a criminal who conned her into believing he was a changed man but when he lost his job, he returned to his old trade; armed robbery. He was still in jail and she had no intention of ever seeing him again.
Mum decided we needed a fresh start so at the end of the school year, we left Secret Corner Road and moved to the east coast. Kelly and I had been writing to each other regularly since that first letter which I eventually read and replied to. Contrary to what I expected, she had not met any other boys and still proclaimed her love for me. Somewhere along the line, I told her that I loved her to, and as much as I knew what love was, it was true.
Not knowing where to go and start our new life together without our father, mum accepted my advice and took us off to Pemberton. We lived in a small house on the highway, and although it took a long time for us to get to know our new neighbors and settle in, Kelly Phillips lived just two blocks away and I had the strongest feeling that my sixteenth year would be much better than the previous one.
D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives in Dapto, Australia , where he works as an English language teacher, writes stories, and blogs at http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au . He has had more than 20 short stories published, and his second novel, Loathe Your Neighbor, was recently released from Artema Press.