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Are You Ready?



When she'd first arrived, the Valley was beautiful. It was Summer and everywhere glowed and baked and sung. The leaves on the trees blanced to white and yellow, the grapevines sagged to the soil, heavy with juice. Surfers rolled in from the coast with the tastes of salt and hot chips and Coca-Cola, and couples flowed through for wine tastings and kangaroo dinners, the shops closed at four, children rode their bikes through the main road and nobody cared. The sun glowered gold and left its heat brooding over them until early morning. Everything baked a bright brown. When they were conscious enough to reflect on it, they would find that the Summers were as still as a vacuum, as if the entire Valley was trapped in stiffened, gummed resin and they were suspended in stasis all throughout. Time passed in stealth. The Summers slowed to a point that they almost stopped, as if that one place in the world was secluded in its own drowned, gelatine bubble and almost nothing could disturb their happiness.

It was her first Winter here since she'd moved, and the first day shocked her like being thrown into a body of cold water. That first morning she felt chilled in her bones, her chest. The sky was white, and yet, the place was darker – the air was darker. She was startled from her lazed routine that morning, when, at 6am, a strange gushing and hissing infected her dreams and drew her out of bed. It sounded like someone turning the gas on and off.

Harvey was standing on the pale wooden balcony in his stripey robe, a mug of black coffee in his hand. Steam spouting from his mouth and his hot beverage. She looked up and saw the balloons, dangling baskets the size of cars, mere metres from the red-brick roof. An array of carnival colours and nearly two dozen spectators watching them in their pyjamas.

He waved spitefully, then turned it around and flipped them the bird. “This better not be a regular occurrence,” he said, spitting his coffee back into his cup. “Bloody tourist establishment.”

She walked back inside and sat on the floor with her head in her hands, and before she knew it, he was carrying her back to bed, under the warm crocheted blankets, and she stayed there all day as if it were Summer. When she woke up, Harvey was making lamb casserole.

“Are you ready, Annelise?” He called to her. Sitting at the wine-stained table.

She sunk into the plastic chair he'd prepared for her. Sleep slowly killing her.

“Annie, are you ready?”

She said nothing/ And she nuzzled her head into her shoulder and shook it, slowly, picking up her fork and coaxing her throat to close around the piece of hardened meat.

“The Weakest Link is on tonight,” he said, and that was his last attempt at conversation.

*

The balloons did come back the next day, shaking her out of her skin. And then, every day, for a three days, they woke them at six sharp. Harvey phoned the council in a rage and received no reply. He grumbled about it loudly when they were in town, once even stopping by the Tanunda tourism office and slinging cuss words like salutations. He left when they threatened to call the police.

“It's not as if I don't support the local industry,” he said to her detachedly, cradling a hot pie in his hands and blowing the steam into long white ribbons on the breeze. “But we do need a rest.”

He walked away with the pie meat dribbling into his hands, swearing hotly. She stayed there, dangling, heavy in her feet, and for ten minutes, considered walking in exactly the opposite direction.

*

On the third day, Harvey drove to Coles and bought barbecued chicken and cans of soup and insect repellant. Annelise watched him crunch the leaves down the driveway, watched him nearly back into the fence and go off like drill sargent on a bad day. The balloons had passed over, and they were heading towards Adelaide. In their ink silouette she imagined children swinging their arms out of the baskets, parents dragging them back to safety, then going to side to do the same thing themselves, hanging out their heads like excited pups on a car ride. What it would feel like, to cut through the air as if it were water. Annelise found herself spinning (or was the world spinning?) and she sunk into a chair and felt tears falling for an hour. Watched the grey huntsman spider occasionally twitching in the corner of the ceiling.

Harvey came home at sunset and sprayed the spider with half a can of Mortein. He yelped as it began to do its death-dance along the ceiling, across the floor. It looked agonised. When it had finished, it was crunched into a ball, still twitching, but each twitch getting slower, softer. Harvey kicked the shell of the thing out the front door and slammed it shut with relish.

“Bloody things – let's move, eh?” He panted.

Annelise said nothing.

“It's probably time we moved,” he said to nobody in particular and wet to cut up the barbecued chicken with the kitchen scissors. They sat down to a poor man's Caesar salad twenty minutes later, and that's when he asked her again:

“Annie, are you ready?”

It was her turn now, to divert. “Do you think the balloons will come again tomorrow?”

“They bloody well not,” growling Harvey, spearing a piece of chicken for emphasis. “I've written a letter to the council. People respond to letters – they're more official.”

*

The fourth day she sat and watched the balloons pass, bobbing over the horizon like water buoys, while Harvey threw his jammy toast around the kitchen and barked that he would sue. They were heading east on a current of air, so seemingly without direction. The shadows of tourists and thrillseekers coasting into the white nowhere. Vagrants, like birds, scraping the soft underbelly of heaven. It seemed nice. On the fifth day, she woke up before Harvey and ate breakfast in the dark. Then she stepped into a pair of brazenly yellow plastic gumboots. When the balloons came, she followed them out.

It had rained the night before and the ground was flaccid and greased with wet eucalyptus leaves. The air smelling of absolute nothing. As she walked she began notice other things about Winter she had previously ignored - the vineyards surrounding their home shrouded by milky morning fog, the crunch of the grass somehow dipped in diamond frost. Down the road into Tununda, the streetlamps still lit and staining the clouded air surrounding the redolent colour of the Sun.

A low-lying balloon lingered over Annelise's head. It was bottle-green and yellow striped. A voice sailed down from it, down from the sky.

“How are ya, love?” The deep syllables blunted and boorish. She swung her head up to look at the heavy basket bouncing over her, and suddenly felt overcome with giddiness. A fracturing grin broke out across her face before she could help it. Confounded, she let her head drop and followed the shadows of the balloons across the grass until she reached the fence.

That was it. She couldn't go any further. Anywhere past the fence was private property. She propped her elbows on the planking and hoped that the fog, still rolling in dense, churning coils, would mask her from Harvey's sight, even to the garish colour of her gumboots. He would be looking for her now, and as she turned around, she saw the house partially concealed by the white air, and was filled with hope.

“Are you alone?” A voice asked, and she slipped from the wet fence, looking around in a fluster. It was a man's voice, but not Harvey's – it was deep, gravelly, softened.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Who's there?” She asked, whipping from side to side.

“I'm sorry I startled you,” he said again. She turned, and squinting against the fog, saw an old man leaning against the fence. He was tall, despite being terribly hunched, and his skin was brown, sun-damaged, and masked in scabs and fissures. The very sight of him startled her further, and she felt her stomach lurch back towards the house.

“You did not answer my question,” he said, though not turning to looking at her completely.

Annelise rested her hand against the fence and put the other against her hip. “Am I alone?”

He did not respond.

“No.”

The old man nodded with the wind, his joints creaking. “I am. I have nobody, not since I was young. I am very alone.”

“Where are you from?” She asked. What she really wanted to ask was: why are you on my property?

“You sound pretty,” he said. “Is it true?”

She stared at him curiously. “Can't you see for yourself?”

“I am blind,” he said peacefully.

“Oh.” Her words stuck up in her throat. “Gosh, I'm sorry.”

“It is fine. I have never seen, only listened... and spoken. All my life. Now, answer my question.”

Heat crept up her neck. “I don't know.”

“You've never looked in a mirror? And, what, you've never been told?”

She laughed silently, and leaned against the fence. “I am.”

“You're pretty, then?”

She took a breath. “No, alone.”

“Ah,” he sighed. “Well, don't worry about it. Trust me, there are other things to worry over.”

She nodded, then found herself faltering, the pieces falling away. “No, I think it's the worst thing in the entire world.”

Tears had started to trace down her cheeks, and she let herself fall from the oiled fence, onto the slick carpet of leaves and sponge-grass. Her hair immediately soaked up the frost, and the water running out of the corners of her eyes, down past her ears. She was completely overwhelmed. She was depressed, and now insane. The sky clenched down on her heart like a fist.

If she could, she would have stayed in the grass forever, but it was only a matter of time before Harvey saw her through the window, dropped his coffee, ran and asked if she was okay. There was not enough left in her to answer his questions, not that question – it was almost as bad as the other. And, besides, there were things to be done. Appearances to be kept. Lies to be cultivated.

She got up and brushed the condensation off her knees, tucked her now wet hair behind her ears. Her yellow gumboots startling her as she caught sight of them again. Said goodbye to the gnarly old hunched-over tree that reminded her of her dad, eyes curtained by diabetes. Summoned all her strength, and by some will of God, put on leg in front of the other and began a leadened walk back.

Harvey was leaning against the kitchen counter, in a black suit and tie. His leather shoes glistening like tar on a hot day. He passed Annelise a cup of coffee as she walked in, slick eucalyptus leaves sticking to her like leeches.

“Did you hear that rain last night?” He asked, whistling in awe. “Didn't it sound like fireworks on the tin roof?”

She nodded.

“It's changed too much since we moved here in the Summer,” he said. “Do you think we should start looking for another house? Maybe move back to Sydney?”

“If that's what you think.” She sat down and inhaled the bitterness streaming from the coffee.

“Come on, Annie.” He tugged the arm of her jacket. “It's time to get ready.”

“I will,” she said.

“It's time to get ready,” he barked, and pulled her up by the hood of her jacket. She stumbled from the chair and landed into his chest, breathing sharply. He looked down at her, softening. “The weather's bad,” he said, changing the subject. “At least if we move there will be no more bloody balloons.”

“I'll get my stuff on,” said Annelise, and she rolled away from him. She spent longer than needed to pull up her pantyhose, scrape on her mascara. When she emerged an hour later, every part of her was different except the core.

Harvey took her arm. “We're going to be late.”

“They won't start without me,” she said. “So I can take as long as I fucking want.”

For a moment, Harvey looked stunned, and so was she. The sudden shot of selfishness coughing out of her like that.

Harvey was first to regain his composure. “Come on,” he murmured. “If you don't go to the funeral, you'll never forgive yourself. He was your dad.”

“He IS my dad,” said Annelise, the words glugging in her throat like glue.

“Right, sorry,” said Harvey, and he took her by the arm again. Kissed her on the cheek right as a tear rolled down to meet his lips. He withdrew and steeled her with his eyes. “Now, come on. Are you ready?”

She said nothing.

“Annie, are you ready? Just tell me you're ready and we can go.”

“Yes, yes,” the words barked out of her lungs. “I am, am. Let's go.”

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright Rachel O'Regan.

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