It’s not clear if it’s real at first.
The realest feeling I ever felt was when I was nine years old and Marie Coleman’s house burned down. She lived three streets away from where we did. I heard the sirens in my sleep.
My mother walked me to school for the next two days in her dressing gown, letting me go a block from the gates. When a truck hit our German shepherd the day after she stopped, I stared at his face, his mouth half open, eager to earn a treat, his guts a lake on the tarmac. The driver asked where my mum was.
“It comes in threes” she said.
There was a space inside my body where the bits used to be.
I wondered if Marie could see.
My mother and father would never answer the door. It interfered with their programmes. “They always knock when my favourite show starts”. They had a lot of favourite shows, but when they were watching, it seemed to me like they hated them all.
I was the youngest. When you’re the youngest, you always will be until you don’t know about it anymore.
One day I answered the door and two men, one tall, dark, one short, dark, asked if my father was home. The theme tune of a game show faded into audience applause. I looked over my shoulder and back to the men, focusing on the tall man because he seemed friendlier. I told them he was working away. “Okay son, tell your father we have another job for him away and we really want to talk to him about it”. When I went back into the living room with the envelope in my hand, my father wasn’t there anymore. My mother shouted an answer at the screen.
Nobody arrives unannounced anymore, nobody who you want to see anyway. No more surprises. Everyone knows everything now. There are answers, but it’s not apparent if they’re from inside or out. The rats’ teeth are getting sharper, their minds sharper. It’s more obvious that they’re in charge now, of this situation, of the universe probably. It’s been this way since the the first crack broke in, a piano wire on a pyramid. It’s bigger now, brighter now, the light let through, refracted against the inside, piercing through the night, beauty through the black. But it’s easier to hide in the dark.
It’s how the doctor said, “you’re safe here”. “If you listen to us you’re safe here”. I lie back in my bed and try to look neutral, compliant. Some days the capsules melt against the inside out of my tongue, the dye turning red or blue like I’d been sucking an ice pop. Some days I manage it, the flesh staying dry enough, the capsules intact. That’s when the whispers creep, the rats facing down for attention, fangs and fingernails clawing at my walls. They’re real. The realest thing I ever felt since then. But if this is reality, then, well.
You could see the smoke until Whitsunday. I rode my bike up around the block over and over, not wanting to turn the tyres down her street. The sky was blue for the first time that spring, candy floss clouds where the burning used to be. You could smell cinnamon across the whole neighbourhood, nuts roasting in the church yard. It was this tradition they had in our town. Marie’s mum told me to ask mine if I could go, but I knew what she would say.
That smell is the last thing I remember, that and the metal in my mouth, the warm stream trickling down my temple.