The tiny man that lives in my chest is breathing louder.
His lungs swell and ribcage expands and with each breath instead of retreating his body continues to grow. He sits curled, his spine arched and face unseen and with every inhale I feel my bones creak. You stand above me, watching me from the ceiling. Glaring and spinning as the room spins with you, one eye is fire, the other a ticking clock.
The clock strikes one.
You scream at me with a mouth invisible. From screens taped to my hands, pasted on every desk and available wall space you scream at me. Miles away, you remain in my view and in my head. Frightened by your screams the man in my chest breathes heavier and heavier.
I watch my skin stretch and distort. Like bubble gum on the pavement, like cling film torn on a serrated edge, my skin is changing. The colour becomes pale in the spots that are thinnest and scars once thick and healed become pink and splitting. I am breaking.
The clock strikes two.
You are everybody that isn’t me. Everybody that hates me. You are the news in my feed, the looks on the train, the scorned lover that believes me dirt. You are strong and I am weak. The man in my chest cannot withstand your war and my flesh and blood cannot contain him.
In my body the second room that is the housing that holds my heart and lungs aches. Walls are cracking and foundations below are receding. I want to open the door. I need space so the man can expand without hindrance but the key I have been given does not fit the lock. The man does not heed the cries of my insides as they are crushed.
The clock strikes three.
My stomach bursts as the man breathes in once more. I want to stop him. I need to stop him. With every message and hint of you the man breathes in and I am terrified he will not stop. Please stop screaming at me. I can be better. I can be good. But I need you to stop. I want this to stop and you want this and maybe you want him.
When he emerges maybe I will be replaced. As he stands in my stomach, my body twisted and broken underneath him like the shell of an egg, maybe he will step forward and become me. Be the me you always wanted and maybe finally I will be better.
Music plays out of the car speakers, crackly and sweet. I like this song. Dad ripped this to a CD for me when I asked him to. Mum opens the driver’s door and sits back down in the car, switching off the radio. She hands me a Cornetto and I curl my lip.
“This is mint.”
“It’s all they had.”
“I hate mint.”
She sighs then leans back in her chair, placing her own ice-cream against her cheek. There’s a bruise there the same colour as my favourite jacket. I’m bored.
“I want to go outside.”
“I want to go for a swim.”
“I said no.”
I sigh as loud as I can then lean forward, resting my elbows on the dash. I can see in front of us where the car park ends and the sand continues before giving way to sea. It’s so dark out there. The sea and the sky are the same colour and all I can see is black. I yawn.
“Can we go home?”
“Not right now.”
“Not for a while. We’re going to stay at Aunty Grace’s.”
“That’s ages away.”
“I need you to be good for me okay?”
“I want to go home.”
Mum turns the radio back on.
“Try to get some sleep.”
She shuts her eyes and pulls her jacket around her shoulders. The radio is quiet and behind it I can hear waves crashing. A wind blows and makes the car shake. Suddenly I want to turn the radio up a little louder.
A woman is singing a song I recognise. One of the old songs my parents would listen to before they stopped listening to songs. I sing to it under my breath and unwrap my ice-cream.
Mint is sticky on my fingers and mum is snoring when her phone rings. It’s dad so I answer it.
“Where’s your mum?”
Mum stirs. I watch her eyes open.
“Tell me where you are sweetheart.”
“We’re at the bea-”
I’m pushed back as mum leaps across the car. Her shoulder knocks my head against the side window and I yelp as she rips the phone from my grip. She throws it to the backseat then turns to me with eyes red.
“What did you do? What did you say?”
I’m holding the back of my head. It hurts and the pain is pushing against the front of my face. I’m not listening. I’m crying. Quiet at first and now louder. I screw my eyes shut and hope for everything to stop.
I recoil as arms curl around my middle but relax when they pull me in tight. Hands go up my neck and cradle the back of my head. I let my face fall into mum’s chest.
“I’m sorry baby.”
“I want to go home.”
Hands stroke my hair. The radio is playing a song I don’t know and behind it I can hear waves rising and falling.
There’s a hole in my head and everyone is looking at it. Looking through it from one side of my mind to the other.
The hole is growing. Stretching. Across my forehead meeting tear duct
Everyone is looking at me.
The hole in my head spreads down my body to the floor. I consume the room.
I consume my friends
the music we listen to
the roof above our eyes
the night sky
Next to a broken set of drawers is a couch with the seat pillows missing and on top of the couch is a mattress and between the mattress and the couch is a dead body. I’m pretty sure it’s dead. The arm dangling down the side of the couch is bloodied and one of the feet are missing from the legs sticking out the other end. I squint and take another bite of my Crunchy Nut. Yep. It’s dead alright.
I think about calling the cops. I’ve never called the cops before. I Google to see if I can just book them online or something but they said in a case like this I should call. They need an app for these sort of things, like an Uber for the police. I decide one of the neighbours would probably call instead.
That night my alarm goes off reminding me to put the bins out. My roommates are away so I can’t ignore it. The dead body is still there but the mattress is gone which means now I can see his face. He’s lying face up, his head tilted to one side so he’s looking straight at me. The blood from his arm stops at his elbow and his mouth and eyes are open. Mosquitoes fly lazily between what’s left of his teeth.
The next morning I rush out the front, half asleep and already late for work. My car starts on the second try and I look over my shoulder to check for oncoming traffic. One of the ladies from down at the retirement village is out walking her dog and I watch her stroll by the dead body. She lets her dog leap up onto the guy’s lap and lick his crotch. I get a funny feeling in my stomach that I pretend doesn’t happen then take off with a squeal.
When I get home the couch is gone but the body is still there. He has been rolled off the couch so now he has his face in the dirt and arse in the air. I feel a sense of loss and sadness come over me. I liked that couch. I ignore the bins so I don’t have to take them back inside.
I get woken up in the middle of the night by my roommates who are home and without keys. I glare when I open the door but manage a bleary hello. Reluctantly I follow them to the kitchen and ask them about their trip. After they’re done I ask,
“Did you see the body?”
We all wander outside. The gravel of the driveway hurts my feet and they walk ahead of me. When I catch up I point across the street but the body is gone.
“That’s a set of drawers.”
I shrug, “Someone must have taken it.”
“Should we grab the drawers?”
“Nah they’re broken.”
A wind whips down the street and I shudder. We argue over who should take the bins inside.
I check the cable ties again and frown. He’s sweating and keeps moving about so much I’m worried he’ll get loose. I’ve always trusted rope more than these stupid bits of plastic but the company won’t fork out for anything these days. ‘Superfluous and unreliable’. Idiots. I use a second tie around both his wrists and ankles. How’s that for superfluous.
He woke up about twenty minutes ago and he hasn’t stopped screaming. I can tell because spit and blood keeps dripping out from underneath the duct tape across his mouth. I’m listening to an old ‘Pavement’ record and can’t hear anything he’s trying to say.
I double check the chair he’s strapped to, kneeling down and running my fingers over the bolts connecting it to the floor. No bends or movement. Good. He’s thrashing pretty badly but the second lot of cable ties are doing the trick despite my misgivings. His head is flopping around something chronic so I loop a final length of plastic around his neck and pull it tight against the back of the chair. His chest is heaving but he’s not moving any more.
I pull a checklist up on my phone and make sure I haven’t missed anything. In my head I tick things off. Towels in the corner are fresh. Three separate drains are clear. I walk around the small five by five metre space we are in and run my fingers along the padded foam walls. No cracks. No gaps. Perfect.
I take a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and place one unlit in my mouth. I stand in front of the chair and for a moment, take him in. His eyes are wild and red-stained and snot is hanging out both nostrils. He hasn’t stopped crying since he woke up. Pathetic. I’ve left him in only his underwear and he’s shiny with sweat.
I think about letting him have a cigarette and think of the irony of giving him a final gift. Instead I step forward and punch him across the jaw. What a piece of shit.
I open the roller door and step outside. It shuts again behind me.
I light the cigarette in my mouth and take a long drag before closing my eyes, letting my body lean against the wall of the storage container. It’s cool out here. It’s hitting the low twenties now that the sun is down and the wind against my face is a dream.
The screaming behind me is dull which means the soundproofing is working. I make another tick.
It’s a beautiful night.
Headlights enter the storage yard and I watch them cut in and out of gaps in containers before turning down the lane where I’m standing. I wave them in and put out my cigarette as the van pulls up in front of me. I can see pink cursive lettering written across the side but can’t make out what it says in the dark.
I replace the cigarette with gum as a woman in a red jumpsuit steps out of the driver’s side. We nod to each other and I open the side of the van. Already out of her seat, Clara steps towards me. She puts a hand on each of my shoulders and I grab her waist, helping her down onto the bitumen.
Tall for her age, but thinner than she should be, Clara takes a moment to breathe in before looking to me. Her head has been shaved since I last saw her and there’s a clear tube running from her nose and across her cheeks, underlining her eyes. Sunken into her skull they are two pits of fire, a contradiction to the fragile frame around them.
I smile at her when I see she’s wearing the yellow dress that she got for her thirteenth birthday. Clara doesn’t smile back.
“You’ve been smoking.” Her voice is faint and she’s breathing rapidly.
“Is he here?”
My heart thumps uncharacteristically and I nod before stepping aside. Clara walks towards the storage container and stops. Her thin fingers are fists and they’re shaking.
Gently I take one of her fists in my hand. It melts and loosens in my grip. I pull out a hammer from my back pocket and place it in her now open hand. There’s hesitation before the fist closes shut again.
I hold my hand under hers for a moment.
“Are you ready?”
I can see trepidation run across her face, closely followed by steely determination. She adjusts her grip around the hammer and nods. I nod back and let her go.
I hit a button besides the door and watch light grow up from the bottom of the roller door. It travels up Clara’s legs, chest and finally her face. There’s a moment of quiet. A muffled recognition. And then screaming that fades as I drop the shutter back down with Clara on the other side.
I sit on the ground, back against the corrugated steel of the container and the woman in red sits down beside me. I light another cigarette and pass it to her. The orange glow as she inhales lights the embroidered pink logo on her breast.
‘The Make-A-Wish Foundation: Dreams come true.’
this place is not mine
this place where my mind
it pushes me through the walls and windows of other places
where minds are kept
over and over
I do the same thing again
over and over
I do the same thing again
I open doors and run inside
houses that aren’t mine
I break plates
kick holes in walls
and run out again
this neighbourhood is full of holes
face up against bitumen
and a car is heading my way
I see feet against gravel
a crowd watching me
I can hear them chanting
if I want to be saved
I only have to say
if I want to be okay
I only have to say
nothing ties me to the floor
the sun is hot
I am not stuck
I just need to see
see if maybe
this place is destroyed
this place that isn’t mine
where my mind
I can find something else that is
and maybe I can stop
doing the same thing
over and over
over and over
you crouch down next to me
stroke a hair back across my ear and say
that’s not how this works