Mayhem Literary Journal is generously sponsored for 2019 by Te Whare Wananga o Waikato, The University of Waikato

The Walnut Tree - Jo Buer

The bus pulls up outside the entrance to Four Square. An abandoned trolley has been left with its nose resting against the window of the building. It is a small town. Trolleys are scarce. It is a rule that customers must return them to the trolley bay inside. You wait a moment for the swollen aisle of teens with canvas bags, shoving and pushing, to exit the bus before you stand and follow suit. You wonder which one will take the bait. It’s a third former, the brother of a friend of yours. He swipes at the fringe that drapes his eyes, throws his bag into the carrier of the trolley and jeers at his friend to get in. It’s all a ploy towards impressing the older boys. You feel your mouth twist into a sneer and mutter Idiot under your breath, before turning the other way.

You wait for Sharon at the door to the supermarket, ignoring the hoots of laughter as the trolley’s wheels rumble down the footpath in the other direction. Sharon’s mother is a cashier there. She has short brown hair and a permanent scowl. Sharon’s on a tight leash. She has to check in with her before walking home. Her mother is super protective. They argue a lot.

Eventually, Sharon joins you. She is a head shorter than you and you can see by her tight jawline and balled up fists things did not go well. Bitch, she whispers as if reading your mind. You’ve been friends since third form, you’re now in fifth. Two years covers a lot of ground so you mostly walk in silence. You pass the fence where honeysuckle grows. Sometimes you stop to suck nectar from their necks, but not today, Sharon’s too pissed.

The town centre is well out of view. Sharon unzips the front pocket of her fairy down jacket and pulls out a crumpled box of cigarettes and a yellow lighter graffitied with an anarchy sign. She shakes out a smoke and presses it between her lips, slipping the packet back into her jacket. It is too hot to be wearing a fairy down, but it is her trademark. Its pockets can hide a lot. She shields the flame with one hand and lights her cigarette, drawing a deep breath before passing it to you. The smoke curls around your insides and you count to two before handing the cigarette back, blowing blue smoke into the air. When the ciggy’s down to its butt Sharon drops it in the gutter and gives it a cursory stomp with her shoe. She then reaches into her bag and pulls out body spray. It’s a ritual. You take turns dousing yourselves in Vanilla Kisses Impulse then pop a few pink smoker lollies into your mouth to disguise your breath.

Your uniform is stifling. The blue and white checkered dress hangs on your frame like a sack. Its stiff white tag carves warnings into your skin at the base of your neck. It has been a long day. You wear the weight of classes and teachers, bitch fights and detention. It is after 4 but the sun still burns. Your thighs have licked each other raw as you’ve walked. Right now, you want nothing more than to disappear into the cool haven of your bedroom, where you can lose yourself in Champagne Supernova on your Discman.

The willow greets you as you turn into your driveway, its tumbling locks sweep against the ground. You wave a last See ya to your friend and make your way towards the front porch where jasmine weaves around the pillars of the portico. Only metres away refuge awaits you. Your escape. Your room.

But… something nags at you. Something snarls and snaps and nips at your insides making you pause at the base of the porch steps. The safety of your room must wait. Instead, you take a moment just to listen, then follow an invisible draw down the side of the house towards the back of the yard where the walnut tree stands. It is sheltered by pine trees whose spires pierce the sky and throw shadows across the earth. Walnut husks decompose on the ground.

Static fizzes at the edge of your sight until you’re close enough that two ghosts slip into focus. Breaking away from the shadows, your parents appear, lost in their own world and oblivious to you. They are mechanical and ill-fitted to their movements. Your dad stands awkwardly and holds open a plastic grocery bag for your mother to fill with walnuts. She picks, without consideration, black fleshy corpses from the ground. Some of them are beginning to split open, exposing a hard-wooden shell. They're seductive, these walnuts: you've been fooled before. You've peeled back their fleshy husk and cracked their ribs. You've tasted their meat and been disappointed by the bitterness that still clings to your tongue.

Chester, the family dog, nuzzles the walnuts with his nose pretending they are tennis balls. They paint his muzzle black. His tail slaps against his body but your parents see nothing but the walnuts and the grocery bag. They haven’t noticed you standing there, watching them. For a moment, you are a ghost stuck in time.

Your dad is the first to pause. He turns. His gaze settles on your face. A cigarette hangs from his lips. His eyes and mouth have fallen a fraction on his face since the last time you saw him. Since that very morning. Something inside has broken. Your mother has her back to you. She crouches, head fallen forward as she picks at the nuts on the ground. Somewhere in the distance a siren of red and blue cuts through the air before fading into silence. It is not of your world and yet you see your mother stiffen. Something is wrong. She stands up, refusing to look your way, and instead lets the walnuts slip from her hands. Chester dives for them with his nose thinking it a game, while your mother fades deeper into the shadows and through the back door. You realise now, the smoker lollies and Impulse had been pointless. Your parents have bigger secrets.

Your dad remains unmoving. His eyes still locked on your face. Something in your chest pinches at the strange telepathy that has your dad pleading for something you're not sure you have to give. Gentleness, maybe? Forgiveness? The day is drained of its warmth. Just like that, the spell is broken and your dad turns his back to you, pausing for just a moment. A neighbouring lawn mower growls into life and you hear the kids down the street laugh a high-pitched chorus.

Your mother has led the funeral march and the dog has followed. Your dad, a smaller man than you had known, drops his cigarette and blindly stamps at the ground. Then, he too is drawn into her wake. Your first reaction is to panic. Whatever waits for you inside is bigger than you, and not good. You watch your dads back disappear through the door. His ciggy still glows on the ground. You pick it up; an inch of tobacco before butt. You gently press it against the earth until its light dims. Hiding it in your palm you feel its warmth and the slight moistness where your dad's lips have been. You slide it into the side pocket of your school bag, kick a rotting walnut towards the stoic pine trees, and follow him inside.

Contributor's Note

Jo Buer is a writer, teacher, choc-oholic, dreamer. This is her fourth story published in Mayhem.

 

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