Axe to Grind 2020, 1st place winner: "Keeping Watch"
Your brother’s been bouncing that tennis ball against the wall for about twenty minutes. His head is low, lost in shadows. Now the screen door slides open and the porch shocks into fluorescence, lighting the side of his soft cheek: pink and shiny with sweat.
“Come inside. That’s enough,” your mother says.
“Did you find her? Is she at Cassie’s?” He twists the ball in his hands.
“No. No. I’ve rung everyone I can think of.” She sighs and then pauses a moment. “Actually, get your shoes on Josh, let’s check the bus stop one more time.”
Late dusk. Cicadas drone and the humid heaviness of evening is looming in. The few figures moving up and down Rawson Street are muted silhouettes. Your brother is one of those shadows creeping up and down the street. He calls your name into the darkening. The old woman in number 45 keeps flicking her curtains angrily to see what the commotion is all about. A car glides to a stop at the side of the street and a man in shirt-sleeves and tie leans out to speak to the boy. He parks the car and walks over towards your house to join your mother and next-door neighbour on the pavement.
“Some mix up or another, sweetheart.” The neighbour places her hand on your mother’s arm. “It will all be ok. You’ll see.”
Your mother’s face is dimly lit under the streetlight. Lines around her mouth and temple are heavier in this dark and shade.
“Is John on his way? Do you want me to call or do anything?” asks the man.
“No, nothing. John’s on his way.” She’s still staring into the street.
“It will be ok.”
Your mother is still. Tall and straight, she is marble.
There’s nobody in the street now. It’s one of those nights where the air seems to have been sucked into the dark and is being hissed back in sticky, skin-prickling breath. A faint rumbling from the opaque skies. You can just make out the police car parked outside your house: the overhead siren profiled in the shadows. Another car is parked in the drive. Your dad’s home now and the kitchen and lounge room lights are on. Somebody, a few doors down the street, has left their bins out and a crow is pecking at the few scraps on the ground. Its glossy feathers meld into black but the gleam of its eye can be seen bobbing up and down. A motion light in the patio of the house next door triggers as the neighbour walks out in her dressing gown. She looks towards your house expectantly and remains there a few minutes, holding her elbows. Then she walks back inside.
This used to be a working-class suburb. Years ago when being closer to the docks and industries meant cheaper rent, smaller houses and backyards. In the noise and grime these little houses crammed together: dunny runs in the back lanes, smell of the bay in summer air, were homes to dock and factory workers. Maybe your neighbour’s family had grown up that way. Now the house facades are all painted in neat neutral colours and the front bushes are trimmed.
It’s still hot at 10:15. The police car remains on the street. Your mother can be seen through the still open shutters of the lounge room window, head in her hands. Your father pacing back and forth while a policewoman takes notes. The bin, a few doors down, has been taken in and the crow’s flown off. There’s most likely a rat or two but it’s too dark to see. More rumbling and the first flash of lightning pierces the sky. At least a storm might cool things down. Wash the sweat and stains from this neat fronted street
And now the heavens open. Sheets of rain pounding the roofs and pavement, gushing into gutters and pelting cars. Heat sizzles up from the ground and steams off into night. Another police car arrives. Two men rush to your porch to escape the rain. Shaking off their hats and coats like wet dogs. The one in uniform is holding a school bag. Your father opens the door and they all disappear inside. Rain continues hammering, loud and strong. Suddenly the door opens again and your mother rushes out into the street. She’s screaming something into the night, arms flying. Wet hair plastered to her cheeks, and dress stuck around her like plastic wrap. The young police woman is getting soaked too now, grabbing your mum’s shoulders and struggling to lead her back inside. There’s your father in the lounge room hugging your brother close.
It’s done. The storm has hit and is washing everything clean. Streaming down the eaves, flooding the narrow road and gasping breath back into the night. But not for all. Finally somebody has remembered the shutters and your little house now closes its eyes. Small, crushed and wet, it crouches behind the hedge as tears fall.
Kate Maxwell is a primary school teacher based in Sydney. Writing poetry and short stories has always been her therapeutic and creative outlet. Kate’s work has been published in Australian literary magazines over the years such as Hecate, Linq, Social Alternatives, The New England Review, Verandah, and Swyntax.