Under her bed, Grace covers her ears. Her hands press hard, forcing the cartilage to mould to the shape of her scalp. It stings, but not as much as the argument between her parents. If she presses her ears enough, the sounds of the ocean start to wash over the yelling, rushing around the angry words like waves filling holes dug into sand on the beach.
For a moment the argument seems over.
She imagines her father running his hands through his hair, or blowing air through the gap where one of his teeth is missing.
As usual, her mother will collect the empty beer cans with her mouth firmly set to keep inside the words she would otherwise spill all over the silence. She will tuck each can into the crook of her arm until there is a line of them running across her body. Grace hears her mother's wedding ring chink against them.
‘What do you think I’m supposed to do?’ Rob pleads. He can see Mary. See the look on his wife’s face. He hates the way he sounds. All he wants is a beer. He forces his way past her. Reaches to pull open the fridge, knowing there’s nothing in there. No beer anyway. He picks up a carton of eggs and throws them against the wall where they crack and slide to the floor leaving yellow abstract shapes on the paintwork.
Mary won’t even look at him, so he turns to stare out the window, forcing himself to breathe. Just breathe.
Through the tear in the flyscreen he sees the rain drifting across the valley. It’s the fourth day in a row that storms have brewed. Mary is talking to him. Yelling even, but he can’t make out what she’s saying. When he turns around her mouth is moving but it seems like a movie with the sound turned down.
He wonders what it would be like to crash into the wall again and again until his head is a pulp dripping blood onto the lino with the eggs.
On the flatlands stands the town, a rebuke to both the bush and the ocean flanking its municipal boundaries. There is a moment each day when even the cicadas relent as the town turns its collective eye to the sky. Mid-afternoon. Before the ocean heats the atmosphere enough to draw moisture into clouds and fling it towards the ground. Before the gutters overflow. Before malingerers dive for cover under shop awnings to avoid the rain.
As the storm flexes its muscles and imposes on the afternoon, Rob, wrapped in sweat, comes into the grog shop. His thongs flick against the tiles as he makes his way to the coolroom at the back. Mary trails after him, sighing as she steps through the plastic flaps. In the middle of the floor, stacked as high as Rob’s head, are the beers.
Her knees dip slightly with the weight as he passes a carton to her. She suppresses another sigh as he tucks two more cartons under his arms.
The lights dim for a fraction of a second, then a crack of thunder pummels the shop. Grace jumps and moves further inside. She wishes now that she had stayed under her bed.
It had taken all her courage to crawl out after her father had thrown the eggs. She had wanted to keep the peace, focusing only on the next thing, then the next; a series of actions that would cajole her father out of the house and towards this uneasy salvation.
Her parents’ outlines are blue and indistinct through the thick plastic sheeting of the coolroom doors. Not for the first time she wonders whether she should push the piles of stacked beer over on top of them. On top of them both. A huge, dirty, twisted pile of metal.
The world is upside down and Rob’s survival urge kicks in. Getout!Getout!Getout! He tries to wind down the window, but it’s stuck. He feels his hair, his ear, the lobe spongey and sticky. He punches the window. Goddamnit! Nothing moves. Fighting the fear swirling inside, he punches again. A whirr and the window opens.
Grace feels a trickle. An itchy, slow dribble that runs from her left eye across her forehead to her hairline. She tracks its progress, amazed that the smell of iron and eucalyptus permeates her consciousness. It seems as if the bush has broken free. Like its growing inside the car. Grace realises that she is hanging, suspended in her seatbelt, her face against a branch that has her pinned. Its ends are fractured and twisted, bunched and split. She wonders whether it can be healed.
Turning her head, she sees her father. His eyes are on high alert. Wild and wide. His mouth is moving but whatever he’s saying seems buffered and fuzzy. Grace shakes her head. She must be screaming because he swivels towards her, reaching out. His fingers come up short, and instead he caresses the branch.
In the front seat, her mother doesn’t move as a spider hefts itself along her eyebrow, placing its feet precisely.