Even under the moonlight, the bush somehow felt alive. The green had burnt away, so only bare limbs shuffled in the breeze. With her phone as her only light source, Angie moved forward. She could hear remnants of Margo’s voice in her head daring Angie to turn around. Her footsteps were vanquished by the crowing galahs; they hid in the trees, singing a lullaby.
She wiped sweat from her neck. Heat cloaked her body in the summertime darkness.
Google Maps said she was almost there, but maybe there was nothing for her to find. Perhaps no one showed up. Perhaps she didn’t need to show up. Angie looked to the sky. The trees curled against each other, constructing a canopy of brown. When she squinted her eyes, she saw the glint of a single star. A cluster of light burning against the blankest night. Alone in the bush, she wondered what the point was. She didn’t have anything to prove.
Margo wouldn’t care. Angie shouldn’t care.
Angie’s dad once had said all artists were cowards. ‘Keep complaining, but God forbid that any of them do something about it.’
They were sitting at their new dining table. Clean edges and tight lines. They watched the television on mute. It flickered from reporter to courthouse to reporter to protestor as silence devoured the room.
One face kept appearing. They wore a tailored blazer. It was the same one Angie had seen last month in Vogue. The same one she desperately wanted. The material was too tight on their body, but it covered every inch of skin, hiding painted scars. Angie watched as their fingers tugged at the suit sleeve. The face’s hair was twisted into a knot, but escaped tendrils fell against the back of its neck and stuck to layers of Australian sweat and redundant passivity. It was named Wanda Franklin.
‘At least they’re getting what they deserve in the end,’ Angie’s father said. He shovelled peas into his mouth. A glob of gravy fell against the napkin on his lap. He didn’t notice. ‘What do you think, love?’
Angie’s mother looked up from her meal, frozen. A piece of potato was stuck on her fork. It hung in mid-air. Her mother nodded only slightly. Lips parted. She didn’t look at the TV screen.
Her voice was quiet, croaky. ‘Of course.’
A strand of light peered behind branches. Prickling against trees, Angie could hear the murmur of music. It expanded violently, forming a tune. It was thin and cacophonous and slipped inside her body. The gentle thumping vibrated along her veins.
Without any notice, the trees gave away and a clearing of people appeared. The space wasn’t large, but hundreds of voices swept past, all vehement and vibrant. Laughter pulsed through the ground. Angie slipped her phone into her pocket. She moved forward and was absorbed by the crowd. They moved as one, working against each other in whirls of movement like a choreographed dance. Angie wasn’t very good at dancing.
Artworks were displayed sporadically against the ground; paintings, vases, sculptures, photographs, all resting against dead stumps, as if they had been formed by the bush itself. A ring of natives surrounded the artworks, meticulously woven together with fragile fingertips.
They reminded Angie of the flowers her mother used to grow. Their old house was small, but the property was big. Her mother always liked gardening. She hid patches of natives from wandering eyes behind a shed, but she decorated the house with the small sprigs of acacias. Angie would sit at the kitchen bench, scribbling away at her homework as her mother would sing. Her voice was electrifying even when she was humming to herself.
But when they moved into their new apartment, she stopped singing.
‘The city is just completely different compared to where we used to live. It’s like we understand the world better,’ Angie’s mother would say instead. Angie’s parents liked to pretend that the city was a different world when compared to the western suburbs. ‘It’s just the change we needed. A fresh start.’
Their new friends, wearing the grey blazers and tight hairstyles, all nodded. They were drinking tea. Six of them. Sipping subtly at the dining table. A glass vase rested in the middle. Empty. One of the blazers wrinkled her nose at it.
‘I bought it from Chanel,’ Angie’s mother said. ‘I thought it was perfect. Not like those ones that you see on the television these days.’
One of the husbands took a gulp from his teacup. He held it with manicured fingertips. ‘Don’t you think the architecture could be a little… too much?’ He glanced upwards. The soaring ceilings, the towering columns, the exaggerating white.
Angie’s parents’ faces burnt red.
‘Of course not.’
‘Why would you think that?’
‘It’s more classical, don’t you think? There’s nothing wrong with the classics.’ Her mother twisted the thick chain along her neck. It was improbably tight, like a scar of gold choking all her words out.
Her father’s eyes slipped over to his wife, but only for an instant. Back at his guests, he smiled.
‘Who wants another biscuit? I made them myself.’ Her mother’s voice cracked.
‘What about an apartment tour?’
Angie was sitting on the sofa. She was reading a novel for school and pretending that she wasn’t listening to the ruins of a conversation. Her chair was dyed a dark blue that reminded her of the night sky. Once when she was little, her mother took her to the planetarium, and they named every star they could see. Ever since, white blotches of light slept with her, burning against her eyelids at night.
When her parents’ guests left, they ordered a new lounge. It was grey. Clean edges and tight lines.
‘It suits the apartment more, don’t you think?’ her mother said, with her legs folded tightly. Her smile was tired, bouncing against too many blank walls.
Her daughter nodded.
Angie could see the single star behind the trees. It burned with such asperity, even brighter than that night in the planetarium.
She felt stares pulling at her jumpsuit. The style was popular at her new school. Clean edges and tight lines. Angie teased out her ponytail and undid the top two buttons and kept her head down as she moved.
A middle-aged man was singing in the middle of one of the wreaths. His voice was bleak. Fragile notes hung in the air like it was the first time he had sung in years. Tattoos were sprawled across his skin. Intricate patterns that followed the curves of his body towards his bare neck. A white line danced across the pale skin of his throat. Thick and deep. In the darkness, it seemed to burgeon.
His dissonant melody undercut another voice from the other side of the clearing; a young man’s words stabbed at the night. His eyes lingered on the notebook he held for too long, and the words sat in his mouth delayed. An old lady sat next to him. With her eyes closed, she was a pile of wilting flowers. She mouthed along to the words.
The white line stained across her neck was thick, like an oil spill of snow.
Angie put her head down again, avoiding the gallery of strangers. She was here for a reason.
The gloss of her shoes was gone; dirt coated her like an extra layer of cloth, strangling her skin. She wanted to wash it off, but she only walked further into the crowd. The grass below her feet had disintegrated. Only footprints remained, layered over each other like an intertwining collage.
Angie once did a collage in preschool. She had stuck a yellow patty-cake liner in the corner of the page and glued leaves that her best friend, Margo, had given her. When she showed her mother that afternoon, it was thrown in the bin. Angie’s mother screamed at her teacher.
‘Did I give permission for my daughter to participate in this?’
‘We just assumed that you were –’
‘Well, you assumed wrong.’
On the drive home, she told her daughter how the sun shouldn’t be portrayed as a circle, but more as a blur of white and yellow on shades of sky. Angie liked to watch her mother speak. She didn’t wear her the golden necklace back then, but her hand still moved to her neck. A faint smile hid somewhere.
‘But don’t tell your father – he doesn’t like talking about such trivial things,’ she said.
Years later, the same best friend laid on the grass of a school oval. Angie stood. She wore a straight shift dress from Vogue her parents her given her as a birthday present. They wore the cotton shirts of a public-school uniform. Rolled up sleeves and shortened skirts lingered on the grass. The boys rested against the side of the art building. They tensed their muscles so Margo would look at them, but she just giggled, twirling her fingers around her ponytail. She flipped her head backwards and forwards so everyone would look at her ribbon.
‘My parents bought it for me when they on holiday. I think it’s just so cool.’ She grinned at Angie. ‘What do you think, babe?’
She knew she shouldn’t say it, but recently, words liked to escape from Angie. ‘You’re going to get in trouble.’
‘Whatever. It’s just a ribbon.’ But the ribbon was blinding. The yellow burnt against her dark hair. She was ablaze in her uniform with a smile set to destroy.
‘I don’t want you to get in trouble,’ Angie said.
‘Jesus, Ang. I forgot how uptight you were.’ Margo fiddled with the buttons of her shirt. She liked to play a game: how many? How many undone buttons until someone would call herself a slut? How many insults could she whisper until people would leave? How many colours were too bright? Regardless of how hard she tried, Margo never found the answers. ‘You say that you’re not like your parents but look at you: always thinking you’re better than literally anyone else here.’
‘That’s not what I–’
‘Why are you even here? You don’t go to our school anymore. Remember?’
‘Because we’re best friends.’
‘Are we though, babe?’ Margo got up to leave. She had always been the tallest in their grade and she knew it. She had always been that girl and she knew it. She was all tan lines and fervent stares. She was a bush fire consuming everyone around her. And she knew it.
‘I’m not like my parents,’ Angie said.
‘Really? You’re saying you’re not a pantsuit-wearing, art-hating bitch with a stick shoved so far –’
‘I’m not like my parents.’
‘Prove it, then. Do something – seriously, do anything. Or don’t. I don’t give a shit anymore, babe. Just stop coming here and lying to yourself. Go take your lying ass and go back to the city where you belong. You’re not one of us. You were never one of us.’
Angie watched Margo walk away, leaving burning footsteps on the grass.
The surrounding bodies around Angie suddenly stopped. She looked up and her eyes found it and Angie knew why. Her heart was slowing; the crowd was beating as one. She didn’t feel the beads of sweat trickling down the back of her legs or the sound of the singer’s hallowing hums or the imploding world around her.
The painting was so large that it rested against the remains of a tree trunk. Colours danced, moving gently with the wind, into the abyss of the bush behind. The strokes attacked the canvas with such voracity and sensitivity that Angie felt her lungs falter. It assaulted her and persuaded her and enthralled her and her heart was striking against her throat.
The naked bodies hid in plain sight, masqueraded against flourishing colours. But the anger on their faces was clear, exactly like they were behind their podiums in Canberra. A red line sparked across their throats.
Angie reached for her phone, opening up the camera. She would know. Margo would finally know.
Margo’s voice floated into her head.
You’re not one of us.
Angie angled the phone against her chest, hiding it from the crowd’s glare, as a lady stepped forward. Angie dropped her hand.
Since her face had overflowed the television screen, she had shaved her head. Dark skin accentuated bright lipstick and the flowers perched upon her head. She looked stiffer than she did on the news. Lines creased against her forehead. Ones that weren’t there a month ago.
Wanda Franklin didn’t open her mouth. It wouldn’t matter if she did. The scar was disturbingly red against her throat. It would turn white soon though. But the scratches and the bruises danced along her whole body. Incisions trailing down her arms like contorted ribbons, falling in the breeze. They stopped only at her wrists as if the scars were adorning them. Perhaps they were compensating for the ten missing fingers.
Angie backed away from the painting. She couldn’t help it. Away from Wanda.
She slipped out of the crowd, pushing back against empty faces and visible necks covered in lines as angry voices cut against the silence. She reached the outer edges of the crowd and stumbled into the darkness. Her breath staggered. Collapsing on the ground, she let her head rest against a thick eucalyptus tree. Tears crawled down her face. Her throat felt thick as she longed for a breath. Hands against her neck she counted, one, two, three, breathe breathe breathe.
The haunting voice of the singer drifted into the bush, but she could see Wanda’s face in her mind and could hear Margo’s voice in her ears, burning her from the inside.
You’re not one of us.
You were never one of us.
A week had gone by since they moved into their new apartment. The lights were still on when Angie dumped her heels in the hallway and slid the front door close. Her clothes smelled of dead grass and burning teenagers. She watched her mother’s shadow sip a glass of chardonnay in front of the electric fireplace. Orange flames illuminated tears.
When Angie stepped into the living room, her mother didn’t turn around. She held her necklace in her fingers. The chain pooled like dripping lava.
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. I truly am.’ Her mother’s voice was croaky. The white line on her throat was almost invisible these days. Angie thought about what to say to her. I know, mother. It’s okay. But she went to her room instead.
Gabbi Cramond is a Brisbane-born, Brisbane-raised, third-year creative writing student. She tells stories that intertwine Australian settings and speculative tropes in her personal vendetta against cultural cringe. She is a copyeditor for Scratchthat Magazine.
(Please) Follow her on Instagram at gabbicramond.