For the next three weeks, Wilom fed chickens.
He hated chickens.
But it meant he was up earlier than his aunt and uncle, and it stopped them giving him too many jobs around the house. He didn’t need to wash dishes, or weed the garden with Jali. He’d already fed the chickens.
Jali wanted him to “talk about it”. He kept trying to tell her he didn’t want to, but she never listened. Even Tanim couldn’t keep quiet, constantly reminding him that she was ‘just trying to help’. Wilom understood that. What he didn’t understand was why she didn’t realise it wasn’t helping and stop.
It was also Jali who had suggested he write home. He didn’t want to, but it let him shut himself in his room for a while. He tapped his pen on the inkwell.
First, I’d like to thank my sister for teaching me to write. Who knew this was how it would come in useful?
It took all of his self-control not to write that on the page. He told himself he didn’t have the paper to waste on being petty.
Aunt Jali asked me to write you, he began. I would like to tell you that, despite a recent accident, I am doing well. My house has collapsed, but I was unharmed.
That was all. There was nothing more to say than that. Nothing that wasn’t an accusation, nothing that wasn’t a petty, childish complaint for being sent away. Nothing that didn’t come from the temptation to make them feel so guilty that they demanded he return immediately. It was a nice fantasy, somehow knowing exactly the right words to put on paper to put everything back the way it was.
But he didn’t know the right words. Imalie might have taught him his letters, but he could never write like her.
He tapped the pen on the inkwell again. There probably weren’t any right words.
I am now living with Jali and Tanim again. They are being very hospitable. Jali said to pass her love and remind you that you are welcome to visit whenever you get the time. She looks forward to your letters.
I hope everyone is well. Tell Imalie good luck, if she isn’t reading this with you.
Good enough. But he didn’t put it in the envelope. Not yet. The ink had to dry, and besides, he wasn’t planning on going outside for a while yet. This evening, maybe. He’d walk to the post office then.
The floors were starting to get dusty, and nobody was around. He pulled out the broom and lost himself in sweeping for a while.
“There you are, Wilom!”
“Morning, Aunt J.”
“Inside still? It’s such a beautiful day.”
“The floors were dirty, and I wanted to write a letter.”
“A letter home?” Jali asked, trying to lean casually on the bench, like she wasn’t intensely interested every time he hinted that he might contact his parents.
Wilom nodded. “Yeah.”
“You should …”
“It’s not finished yet,” he interrupted her.
“Oh,” she said.
He finished with the broom and went to put it away in the closet.
“This afternoon, you should go for a walk and post it.”
“I will,” Wilom said. It was the quickest way to end the conversation. “I’ll just go finish it now.”
Jali was silent for a moment. He was so close to escaping the room before she said, “You will go out, won’t you? You’ve spent so long inside – it’s not good for you. You should get some fresh air.”
“I get fresh air. Every morning.”
“Talk to people,” Jali ploughed on like she hadn’t heard.
“You sho …” she stopped. “Well, go finish your letter anyway.”
Wilom chuckled. “You weren’t about to tell me I should make some friends my age, were you, Aunt J?”
Wilom cursed silently. Why was his mouth always faster than his mind? She’d be compelled to reply and he honestly didn’t want to pick this fight with her again.
“Oh, Wilom,” Aunt J sighed. “People wouldn’t be so upset about it if you were a little nicer to everyone. You have to stop treating everybody like an enemy, or they’ll never stop treating you the same. What happened … that was when you first arrived here. You were homesick. It was a difficult time.”
“It’s either my fault or it’s not, Aunt J. Make up your mind.”
“It’s not just about Mica and you know it. We stole some shit –”
“We stole some shit,” Wilom spoke louder, over her interruption, “but that’s not really the point either. I haven’t said a word to her since, and you know if that was all they wanted, things would be a lot different. But no – I had the gall to drink alcohol on Festival night, too. You know, like every single other person who was there and over the age of fifteen. And then I had the gall to leave you and Tanim alone and go live in a little abandoned house and fix it up and make a little money gutting fish. They talked about that, too, don’t think I don’t know.”
“That job would still be there if you asked for it, I’m sure,” Jali said, coming over to rub Wilom’s arm placatingly. “You’re so much more of an adult now. Our house has never been cleaner, and it’s a great help while Tanim and I are out working.”
How did she always miss the point? “What are they saying about me, Aunt J?” he asked.
She looked away. “They’re not really …”
“I’m the biggest source of town talk since the last theatre troupe came through. I know they’re saying something. What is it?”
Jali pressed her lips together, and said, “They’re not saying anything you need to concern yourself with. I’m sure you’ve already invented for yourself everything they’ll say and worse. Now go write your letter and go post it.”
This time, he had the sense to keep his tongue. “Yes, Aunt J.”
There was a knock at the door. Jali opened it. “Oh! You’re early!”
“Are we too early?”
“Not at all! More time for a few drinks before dinner.”
There was laughter. Wilom tried to slip out the back door, but Tanim caught him.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve skipped two of your aunt’s dinners already. You’re not six years old; people do expect a little courtesy.”
“Fine! I’ll stay.”
Wilom shoved his hands in his pockets, and went and sat in the lounge room. The conversation stopped suddenly, as soon as he entered. Not that it mattered. He’d heard enough from the hallway.
Dinner took far too long to cook, as Jali’s friends tried to make conversation about the weather, the next season’s trading prospects … the damn chickens, even.
Jali put a plate down in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said, shooting a glance at Tanim, to double-check that his uncle was noticing him being courteous.
She smiled at him. “You’re very welcome. Enjoy!”
Wilom stabbed a chunk of potato out of his soup.
“This is lovely,” Jali’s friend said. “Oregano?”
“Thyme, mostly,” Jali said. “And a little mint.”
“Mint! That’s it.”
The conversation skirted around anything that might have been the least bit important or interesting, but it seemed that nobody expected him to join in, so it could have been much worse. Then there was pudding. Wilom volunteered to wash up while everyone else talked.
“You were awfully quiet tonight,” Jali said.
Wilom headed upstairs, muttering something about needing to feed chickens in the morning.
He lay back on his bed, hands behind his head. So it wasn’t just his imagination. There actually was a rumour spreading that he’d collapsed the house himself.
“How can you be sure? You must remember why he was sent here …” they’d said.
It’d be just like him. He’d do it for the attention.
Horseshit. Just because he didn’t exactly fit the mould of ‘responsible adult’, he was liable to collapse buildings on himself? With the number of things he was blamed for, he was starting to feel like the town’s bogeyman.
“He wouldn’t do it,” Jali had said, but he could tell the rest of them were about a finger’s breadth of social grace away from saying, Yes, dear, but you’re his aunt. Of course you’re going to think the best of him.
Downstairs, he could hear Jali and Tanim talking.
“He’ll be fine,” Tanim said.
“I’m just trying to make him feel wanted,” Jali said. “It’s been difficult for him. Boys his age need to know there are adults who are there for them, and reliable. But you’re right. I’m sure that, with a little time and effort, he’ll grow up.”
One more morning of feeding chickens was about all he could take. He left the house and went to see his old house. The pile of rubble was exactly where he’d left it. He crouched to poke through the pile of wood. No wonder it fell in – everything was rotted nearly the whole way through. It was probably the same all through the house. Shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
He stood up and kicked another plank, sending it spinning over the pile until it caught on a broken table, and he cursed the ocean with every shred of anger in him, until he could feel himself starting to shake. It was the bloody salt. The salt ruined everything. The uncharitable part of his mind told him that everyone in town must have known this house was doomed since before he bought it, but he tried not to listen. He couldn’t think like that. Not now. Not anymore.
He looked up. Someone had stopped to watch him. Mica.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” Wilom responded, in his most neutral voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He shrugged. “The wood’s too rotten for anyone to bother cleaning this mess up. Must have been like that for a long time.”
No. He pushed that thought down and didn’t let it show on his face. He wouldn’t get angry while Mica was there. Not while he was being watched.
She nodded, and looked away.
“Your father builds boats,” Wilom said. “I could rebuild if he’d give me some scrap wood. It can be warped, I don’t care – I can do something with it. I can even work for it, if he’ll let me.”
“I’m sorry,” Mica said again. “He hasn’t got anything to spare.”
It sounded rehearsed. He nodded.
“I understand,” he said, and he knew Mica knew what he really understood. “Can I at least ask you to help dig my things out?”
She bit her lip. He found himself silently pleading for her to agree. One last chance to be a normal person in this town. If she said yes, he wouldn’t ever set a toe out of line again. Just let one person … one damn person …
She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. “You know what my father was like after …”
Wilom chuckled. “Yeah,” he said, trying to pretend the memory had lost its sting to nostalgia. “I remember. You just enjoy your day, then.”
Mica nodded. “Good luck,” she said, and he honestly couldn’t tell if she meant it.
In the end, he found the important things – the big cooking-pot Jali had given him because at the very least, she should have it back, his second pair of shoes and a few clothes that would need mending, but were still wearable. He hadn’t had much else – he’d left most of his things with his parents out of spite, so they’d have to look at them every day while he was gone.
He put the letter away in the bottom of his drawer, and went to bed early. Better get some sleep – tomorrow was a whole new day, bright and shiny and full of people who didn’t want him anywhere near their families.