I nudge the tip of my shoe underneath a stone near the footpath and launch it into the air, watching as it goes up, and up, and up, and then comes hurtling back towards the ground, landing with a rattle near an enormous gum tree, its branches stretching far up into the sky.
I like taking the bush path home from school. It’s less crowded, quieter…deserted, you could say. It takes me an extra thirty minutes to get home. If you could even call it a home. It’s more of a house. A dark house. A cold house. An empty, unloved house. It takes me an extra thirty minutes, but I don’t want to get home any earlier than I have to.
Every day at exactly three o’clock when the last bell rings, I make sure I am first out of homeroom and outside before the clock hits ten past. The fence to the left of the flagpole is easy enough to jump over, and the bush path is barely visible – secretive enough for it to keep its deserted reputation. If I walk at a quick pace, about two steps a second, I can make it to the house by twenty minutes to four, exactly the right time to meet Miss Naomi on the porch. Miss Naomi is my mother, but I’m not supposed to call her that. She prefers Miss Naomi. She says it sounds more respectful, but I think it’s just an excuse for her to not have to admit to people that she gave birth to me – an embarrassment of a child was what Dad called me before he left. I don’t know where he’s gone, but he is, and it’s better this way. Miss Naomi never says hello. Actually, Miss Naomi doesn’t even look at me. All she does is hand me a list and point to the mat outside the front door, apparently a clear indication that means ‘take off your shoes’. Now comes the worst part.
Every day, the list is the same.
Step 1. You know where to go
Step 2. You know who to see
Step 3. You know what to do
And it’s true. I do know where to go, and it scares me. I do know who to see, and I dread every second until I’m there. I do know what to do, and every day I pray that something will happen and I’ll never have to do it again. But nothing ever does.
So, I slip off my shoes and walk inside, struggling to breath in the stench of the house as I walk across the tiled floor towards the back door, barely able to see. The tiles used to be white, but now they’re sort of a stained grey colour. That’s why I take my shoes off, but keep my socks on. There has to be at least one layer between me and the toxic tiles – that’s what Anna used to call them, before she left.
When I get to the back door, I’m always a little bit thankful that I get to open it and let the sunlight and fresh air into the dead house. I think it’s the only bit of life it gets. The gumboots are always waiting. They’re green – faded green – and rubbery. I’ll put one foot in at a time, making sure my socks are pulled up as far as they can go, so as not to risk any part of skin touching the rubber. Toxic tiles, ghastly gumboots. When my feet are secure, I’ll trudge down the back steps and down towards the bottom of the garden. That’s where it is. Right at the bottom.
Step 1 is complete. Three knocks on the door to let them know I’m here, and then I go in. A long corridor, dimly lit, lies ahead of me, both walls lined with glassed-in counters. The glass is frosted, so all you can see is the shadow of the person sitting behind.
My heart beats out of my chest as I walk down the corridor. The only noise I hear is the sound of my gumboots squeaking against the floor. The shadows turn to look at me as I pass each window. It makes me want to walk faster, but I can’t. I’m here. Counter number 15. Step 2 is complete.
I turn to stand in front of the window and watch the shadow behind move his hand to pick up something to his right. I’ve been here often enough to know that it’s a scanning machine, checking to see if I’ve brought in anything I’m not supposed to. A green light flashes when the machine reaches my feet, and a small beep lets the shadow behind know that I’m clear. I watch as he moves his hand again, this time to his left. He picks up a box.
They say the people behind never open their windows. They didn’t for Dad, and they didn’t for Anna. But they do for me. Miss Naomi says it’s because I’m special, but I don’t feel special. Not when the window opens.
I watch as the shadow of the box comes closer, and the window slides open. I hear the familiar sound of the box sliding across the table towards me, and when it stops, I nod at the person behind without looking at him and take the box. When the window slides closed, I’m free to go.
I’ve made the mistake of looking into the eyes of the person behind window number 15 before. I’ll never do it again. All I remember is the immense pain I felt looking up into his glowing green eyes.
I can now hurry down the corridor towards the doorway at the end. It goes through into a narrower corridor. It’s there that I usually open the box. I’ll find a pair of long white trousers and a crisp white jacket, which I quickly slip on before walking through the last door. The one where Step 3 takes place.
This corridor is lined with numbered doors, 1 to 20. I find door number 15, the same as my window, and open it. No-one is inside. This room is my room. A white desk runs along three sides of the small room, lined with scientific supplies. The ones that have blue stickers on them are the only ones I’m allowed to use. I walk to a corner of the room and pick up a pair of white gloves, which are also labelled with blue stickers. They’re not the same as normal gloves. The tip of each finger is chopped off, leaving a space for my fingers to poke through. Slipping them onto my hands, I make sure my jacket is buttoned before putting on the breathing mask and safety glasses. My hands start to shake as I wait for the red light in the corner of the ceiling to flash.
It flashes. I begin. I line ten glass slides in front of me and pick up the blade with the blue sticker on it. The light flashes again, and I bite my lip hard as I push the blade into the thumb of my left hand, letting a drop of blood ooze out onto my skin. Quick as a flash, I place my thumb on the first slide and place it into a small plastic container in the corner of the desk. As soon as I’ve dropped the slide, the container shoots out of sight. I don’t know where it goes and I don’t have time to think about it. The red light has flashed again. Once more biting my lip, I dig the tip of the blade into the index finger on my left hand and wipe the blood on the slide, letting this slide disappear too. I do this eight more times with the rest of my fingers, and by the time the red light flashes for the last time, indicating that I’m done, my lip is bleeding more than each of my ten fingers.
This is what I do.
Today, however, things seem different. When I arrive at the house, Miss Naomi isn’t there. I start to worry. Of the fourteen years that I’ve lived at the house, there hasn’t been a day that Miss Naomi hasn’t been here. I take a deep breath, telling myself that everything’s fine. I’m probably early. Looking down at my watch, my heart starts to race. It’s three forty-one. Something isn’t right. Trying to stay calm, I take my shoes off and leave my socks on, as usual. I walk into the house, barely noticing the stench because of my worries. I hurry across the floor and to the back door, opening it and slipping into my gumboots, forgetting to pull up my socks. Usually, I take as much time as possible to walk down to the bottom of the garden, but today, I run.
I knock quickly on the door and walk inside. As I speed-walk down the passage, I notice something odd. No movement. No people behind the windows. All except for window number 15. The window is already open, and I’m looking straight into the eyes of the person behind…
…but nothing is happening. In fact, they’re blue, and they’re not glowing. They’re normal. With pupils and eyelashes and everything. We stare at each other for a few seconds, and then, a sudden smile appears on the old man’s face, making him look…nice.
“Good afternoon, Timothy Green. I accept dollars, euros, sterling silver, broken hearts, and secrets.”