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The bird was wedged sideways in Possum’s mouth. The cat’s fur was fluffy at the back like a tulle skirt. His green eyes blinked at Rachel through the French doors.
At first, she didn’t realise the bird was still alive. She shook her head. ‘No, Possum. Bad.’
He seemed to drop his shoulders, as if disappointed, and slunk out of sight.
Rachel checked her phone. Another missed call from Mum, after months of not hearing anything. Not since that lunch.
Her husband kept on at her, saying she needed to get in touch. She’d regret it. But she’d just go back to marking, having to stop and rub her clicking knuckles. When her mother was Rachel’s age, Rachel had been eleven. Rachel was her mother’s age now.
Sitting on the couch, Rachel toed the phone under one cushion.
Possum popped back up, eyes Disney-wide and earnest.
‘No. Naughty.’ She pointed a finger, winced at the bird, and went back to marking. Nan would’ve done something about the bird. She’d have known what to do.
Rachel gazed at the fence-line.
Nan may as well have been dead. She was on the sofabed in the front room. Sprawled, but rigid. Her hands were claw-like, yellowed and scaly. The room was cloudy with a scent that reminded Rachel of bins. Of things that Nan’s dog used to roll in. The scent clung to her face and hair. It tacked to the sides of her nostrils. She tasted it in the back of her throat. Smelled it inside her jumpers and jeans and socks. Even when mum gave her the laundry back.
‘Sorry.’ Nan’s voice was coarse. She sounded like a man. ‘Another one.’
‘Don’t be daft, you can’t help it. How you feeling today?’
Rachel chattered on politely. She smacked Nan’s pillows as best she could, given Nan could barely move. Nan tried to sit up and grimaced. Rachel stared, fearing the movement would split Nan’s plaster-thin skin.
Rachel busied herself by opening cartons the nurses brought. The ones that looked like milkshake. There was already one open.
‘Strawberry today, Nan.’
The smell crept into her mouth as she talked. Carbonating on her tongue, like tonic water. She went to change Nan’s water jug, washed her hands while she was at it. She sniffed her fingertips. Squirted the blue antibacterial gel, squelched it into her palms. Rinsed.
Rachel had never needed to be polite with Nan before. She hated the bright pitch of her voice as she talked like the nurses did. Nan had always been loud and rude and fun. She’d given Rachel chewing gum when Mum didn’t allow sugar. She’d let her stay up late on school nights, watching black and white films on the old portable.
She was like Christmas.
And she burped like the robot from Buck Rogers. Rachel would giggle. Mum would pretend not to hear.
‘Here you are.’
Nan’s eyes were glazed.
Could she sneak away?
‘Your water’s here. I’ll come back and talk to you later, okay? Should get some of my homework done before Mum gets home.’
Rachel escaped. She sprayed her room with Impulse, sprawled out onto the bed. It was wrong to wish Nan to hurry up. But each day she looked more like a dry, overcooked chicken. She found it harder and harder to remember the woman who burped like the robot out of Buck Rogers.
She opened her latest fantasy book, legs waggling.
Possum was back. Rachel focussed on the equations in front of her. She shook her head, put a cross and scribbled: Show your workings out!
Only thirty-one more to go. She picked up the next paper, stared at the cushion. Her phone peeked out, black and angular, from underneath velvet.
‘I’m sick, Rachel.’
‘Oh right. Oh. Right. It’s not bad though, is it?’
Her mother had closed her mouth. Opened it again, leaning forward just discernibly. Rachel could feel her mother’s gaze, the heat of her need. She’d kicked her feet under the restaurant’s fancy cloth. Stroked her spoon through gritty tomato soup.
Her mother had settled back. Hands pooled in her lap.
‘Necklace is nice.’
Her mother had touched her chest, bones clicking. Her brown skin was dry, like scales. As if hexagons of it might just up and flake away, like snake skin. ‘Well, if I can’t treat myself now, eh?
Rachel remembered doing handstands with her mother, the blue of her trouser legs flinging up against red brick.
Was that the beak moving? Was it still alive?
Rachel went to the French windows.
She knocked on the door.
He whined, mouth around the still, small fist of feathers.
She could see herself in the orb of the bird’s black eyes, watching.
Rachel missed it, only finding out in the morning. Feet sticking to the kitchen lino, she’d overheard the nurse tell Mum it would be good for Rachel to see. But what if people just saw her relief that the smell was finally going?
She’d sat in the garden, her back to the house. Her hands holding the squeaking swing chains, damp grass tickling her toes as they’d drifted back and forth.
Possum dropped the bird. A sputtering cartwheel of wings flickered, before Possum stopped it.
Rachel cracked the door and grabbed Possum by the scruff. Another bird cheeped nearby, probably its mother. Now she’d have to do something.
‘Drop it! Drop!’
A growl prickled through Possum’s body.
She was so close to the bird that she could see its short, fine feathers. They looked ribbon-soft, like the ones her mother used to weave into her plaits. The feathers were intricately embroidered with white dots and detail. Its long, yellow beak pulsed open and closed. Little sequins of blood were strung around its beak, like Christmas lights.
Was it dying, as she watched?
She smacked Possum.
His growl unfurled.
She smacked him again. His head this time. His ears flattened.
Rachel’s lip crawled with sweat.
She was going to have to dispose of it. If it was in pain, could she kill it? Or just leave it somewhere she couldn’t see?
Her fingers nudged the bird’s tummy as she fit her thumb and fingers inside Possum’s jaw and craned them outward, bracing herself.
The bird slipped clean away.
She raised her eyebrows, staring over the fence. Possum twitched. She clutched him, a little too tightly, flattened his ears with firm strokes. ‘Do you forgive me?’
Possum’s purr bleated through her chest.
Would the bird now sail away and live a little longer? Or was it lying dead in the backstreet, a soft little knot of brown feathers?
Inside, her phone was ringing.