This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
Scrubbing the speck of leftover food from the plate, I squeezed the sponge in the water and placed the dish on the rack.
I picked up the next plate and shifted carefully on the stepping stool, daring a glance out the window where the neighbours played in the street.
Ava tapped the bat against the tarmac, urging her brother to pitch the ball.
Even from afar, I can see the sibling resemblance. Ghostly skin, flaming red hair that curls tightly around their face and neutral summer clothes that lack anything outstanding about them. She swung and missed, the momentum caused her to be spun around in a circle with the bat. The other kids laughed, egged on by her brother's impression of her failed swing.
Ava ignored him and got ready for another attempt to hit the ball.
"When you've finished the dishes I need you to help your brother clean his room." Mum's voice drew me back into the kitchen and I blinked multiple times, focusing on the dishes again.
I inhaled, the overwhelming smell of apples being brought in as mum moves around behind me and blocking out the gross stench coming from the gunk in the sink. Finishing off another plate, I kept my hands slack over the sink to avoid dripping suds and water onto the floor, which I really don't want to clean up.
"I thought I could go play with the others once I was done."
I reminded mum of the promise she made when she was putting dinner on the table for myself and Henry.
"I've almost done the dishes so I can go, right?"
I feel a twist in my stomach at the same time my heart accelerates. Mum stopped shuffling behind me and I squeezed my eyes shut, knowing what's about to come when she sighed.
"I'm sorry sweetie, but I need to get to work and your nanna won't be here until six."
Mum's voice softened and I hesitantly looked over my shoulder. The circles under her eyes stood out more than normal and the blue looks dull, like mine do when I get sick.
"I'm sorry, baby."
I avoided looking at her directly in the eye and nodded, feeling a heavy weight settle on my shoulders. Turning back to the dishes I slouched over the sink, taking my time to finish the last of them. I scrunched up my nose when something floating in the water grazes my hand and coil back.
I hate the floating pieces of food.
"Hey," Mum's hands squeezed my shoulder and she presses her face against my arm.
"How about after school tomorrow we get Maccas? You can get a McFlurry."
Her fingers rubbed my shoulders until I relax and eventually tilt my head to rest it against hers. "I'm okay."
"I promise it won't always be like this," Mum mumbled, the words vibrating against my cheek. "We're going to get through this struggle, it'll just take some adjusting. I swear."
It started with the crack in the glass door then started to get bigger as mum broke into more than one piece.
"We're going to be okay." I mumbled back, having mum pull away from me.
The words are the same ones she told me when I saw her crying in the middle of the night on her bedroom floor. I woke up during their yelling and snuck into Henry's room - even though he sleeps through anything - just to make sure he was okay.
He didn't wake up through the fighting or when dad slammed the front door shut so hard the glass cracked.
"We are," Mum gave me a thin smile and hauled her backpack on her shoulder. "Remember the rules - don't answer the phone or open the doors, no fires, bedtime is seven thirty for Henry and you need to be asleep an hour later. Okay?"
"I know, mum." I spoke quietly, finishing up the last of the dishes and pulling the plug as the sink drains.
"Give me a hug," she demanded, extending her arms. I shook my hands off over the sink and gave her a hug, scrunching up my nose when she kissed my cheek.
"I'll see you in the morning. Love you."
"Love you too." I squeezed her back, watching as she disappeared and heard the front door shut seconds later.
The drain made a loud sucking noise and the murky water disappeared, leaving behind suds. I turn the tap on, rinsing away the suds before cleaning my hands.
A loud smack came from outside and I jerked up to see the ball flying towards me until it collides with the glass window.
I inhaled sharply, heart racing at the impact as cracks splintered across the glass. Oh no. None of the kids made a move to collect the ball - probably because mum yelled at them over the ball that hit the window.
They made a run for it, screaming while she threw her hands up and chased them the length of the overgrown lawn. When they disappear from sight she pivoted back to face the damage on the glass and brought her hands behind her head. Her face changed again to one that looked similar to that night. The one she gave me as she tucked me back into bed and told me that dad wasn't coming back. That it was just us now.
That we're all we need.
It started with the crack in the glass door then started to get bigger as mum broke into more than one piece. Right now, I can see every crack she was hiding from us.