It’s a long drive
to Mum’s. When I woke up we were rolling towards a dry patch of grass illuminated by the headlights. The sound of the engine softened as Edie, my oldest sister, said, “I think we should stop here for a moment. I need to rest.”
She turned off the ignition and her body seemed to collapse. Then she reached across me for a cigarette lighter on the dashboard. I didn’t say anything, just closed my eyes. Dawn, my youngest sister, must have been asleep in the back because she didn’t stir.
Mum had called a week before we left. Her ‘new man’ was coming down, she said, this American man named Blake she met off the Internet. She wished we would visit, she said, me and my two sisters, and what with Mother’s Day coming up and everything. Mum still lives in the house we grew up in, but there are ten years between each of me and my sisters’ birthdays so although we all came from the same place we didn’t quite grow up together. We each moved out when we could, when we were old enough and had someplace else to go. The house is fronted with a revolving door, as it were, for sisters and husbands and lovers to walk through.
The drive to Mum’s feels even longer in Edie’s car. She has this little green Datsun from the 70s that she refuses to give up for sentimental reasons and probably moral ones too. Edie likes to drive up there, despite the noise and the bumps, because she rarely drives in the city. I don’t mind much either. It’s relaxing to be driven a long way to somewhere by somebody.
Dawn woke up when Edie wound down her window. “Is it okay if we rest here tonight?” said Edie.
“What about a motel?” said Dawn. “This car is so cramped and stuffy.”
“I’ve slept in this car before,” said Edie, “a lot of times, actually. It isn’t so bad. It’s small but it can work. You push the seats back and open a window. There’s room in the back if you move some things. There might not be a motel for a while anyway. And it’s nice here. Look outside.”
Dawn didn’t respond.
“I slept in this car once with four other people,” said Edie. “We were going to a protest and the car conked out on the freeway. That was years ago, not that it makes a difference.”
“What’s on the radio?” I said.
“Nothing but gospel music out here,” said Edie. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a small town thing to do.” She looked outside.
“Do you know where we are?” I said.
“Not really,” said Edie.
We all share the same father but he left soon after Dawn was born. Went out for milk one day and never came back. Dawn is twenty-one now and looks a lot like I did at that age. She’s got this long, blonde, almost careless hair that seems to give her a vulnerable quality. We’ve always looked a little younger than we are; we get that from Mum. Edie has hardly any grey hairs and, despite the cigarettes, her wrinkles are soft. An Uncle once told me that as teenagers, me and my sisters all looked like the type of girl who goes missing. “Last seen riding bicycles,” he’d said.
“Isn’t Mum expecting us tonight?” said Dawn.
“She’ll live.” I said. Edie nodded and flicked her cigarette butt out the window. Two trucks drove by so fast they shook the car.
I went outside to stretch my legs. The air dashed up my nose and bit me by surprise. It was so open and complete out there. When I turned my back to the road I was in the middle of nowhere. Nothing ahead of me looked like anything, just endless dark forms that spread into even more darkness. My only point of reference was my breath that swirled out from me and vanished in a haunting, silent rhythm.
Suddenly everything broke up when another truck passed us. I got back into the car and shivered.
“Cold, huh?” said Edie.
“Yeah.” I said.
I turned around and saw that Dawn had fashioned her coat into a blanket. She lay on her back with her knees folded up, staring at the roof of the car. I folded my arms and sighed, waiting for it to echo.
“What do you think he sees in her?” said Dawn.
Edie smirked. “Dawn, she’s our mum,” she said, “You can’t say that.”
“But I just did. I feel like I should know this and I don’t.”
Edie paused and looked at her hands. “Well. Think of why you love Mum. Now stick him in the picture.”
The words hung in the air. I looked out the window then traced a figure eight over the condensation with my finger, over and over. Edie adjusted her seat back a little and shut her eyes. Occasionally a car washed by.
“You know what this reminds me of?” I said and turned around to see my sisters. Dawn rolled her head my way and stared at me vacantly and asked what.
“Do you remember the first time you ever shared a tent with some friends, or had a slumber party?” I said. “But more so a tent. And it was so exciting. You ate lollies, and shared urban legends around a torch. But then eventually everyone had to go to sleep, and suddenly there was this strangeness. Do you know what I mean?”
Edie frowned at the steering wheel.
“Not really,” said Dawn.
“It was like some mystical revelation. Do you know what I mean? Suddenly you saw your friends in a new light, the way they exist at nighttime when they go to sleep in their rooms. It’s hard to explain. You were just right there - with all of them. In this confined space.”
Dawn let out a long breath. “I miss slumber parties.” she said.
“Me too,” said Edie, “I’m forty-one. No one I know has slumber parties. I think that if I ever have kids, especially girls, I’ll let them have slumber parties. Whenever they want.”
She seemed please with this.
“Is there anything to eat?” said Dawn.
I groped around my feet and dropped a packet of chips over my shoulder. Dawn opened them and the noise tore the car apart. Edie lit another cigarette and opened the door and the light came on.
“Y’know,” said Edie, “I’m not really tired anymore. But I don’t want to start driving again. You girls still want to stay here?”
Dawn nodded with a mouthful of chips.
“Sure.” I said.
“It’s nice,” said Edie and she blew some smoke into the rearview mirror. “I have a bottle of wine somewhere in the back.”
Dawn shuffled and rummaged about.
“There’s a bottle opener in the glove box.” said Edie.
Dawn held the bottle out while I opened it. Edie finished her cigarette, shut the door and, rubbing her hands together said, “I was going to give it to Mum, but oh well. Isn’t that awful?”
“It will keep us warm.” I said.
We passed the bottle around and got talking, and as we talked the windows fogged up until we couldn’t see outside. Space seemed to fold into itself; we inched closer to each other to make talking and passing the bottle easier. I could only just make out the forms of my sisters in the dark. The windows were wet with breath.
“This was a great idea.” said Dawn.
“It was.” I said.
“Feel the windows.” said Edie.
“Stop breathing.” I said.
“Stop talking.” said Edie.
Dawn took another swig.
“Why do you think Mum and Dad waited so long between us anyway?”
Dawn handed the bottle to me and I swallowed.
“I was thinking about that recently, Dawn,” I said, and passed the bottle to Edie. “When Mum called to tell me, I was in a shopping centre looking at a pet store. As she talked I was transfixed on this litter of kittens. They were asleep and all bunched up together. I wondered if this is the way it should be.”
Edie swallowed and passed the bottle to Dawn.
“I thought maybe they wanted us to think for ourselves.” said Dawn.
“Maybe to reduce parental responsibilities.” said Edie.
“I hardly lived with either of you.” said Dawn.
“Responsibility is like a hot potato in any family.” I said. “Think about it. Who left the dishes out? Who left the TV on? It’s bound to happen.”
“Yes, I mean, look at Mum now,” said Edie, “we’re responsible for whether or not she smiles tomorrow! It’s like some contagious disease.”
“She’ll be smiling.” said Dawn. “The new man’s in town.”
When the bottle was empty Edie stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. Her feet crunched around the car and Dawn got stuck back into the chips. Conversation and wine had drowned the oxygen inside and I felt drowsy, relaxed. Edie opened the boot then returned with another bottle. She opened it and then, cupping my face with her hand, poured the wine into my mouth. Then she did the same to Dawn.
“Blood of Christ?” Edie said.
Dawn took the bottle and nudged me on the shoulder with it.
“Y’know,” she said, the ring on her finger chiming against the bottle as she spoke, “after you moved to Melbourne, I converted the bottom bunk into a place to keep all my clothes.”
Dawn swallowed some more, then handed me the bottle and continued.
“And I used to lie on the top bunk at night and imagine that there was nothing around me. No ceiling, no walls, no house, no garden, no fence, no neighbours, no streetlights, no cars, no shops, no rivers, nothing… just nothing stretching out as far as I could imagine it to go. Just me, and where I lay, like I was hovering somewhere in space.”
She paused a moment. Edie took the bottle I forgot I was holding.
“It was a strange place to be.” said Dawn.
After we finished the wine, and had wiped the wetness from the windows, I turned in my seat, so reclined that my hair lay sprawled across Dawn’s thighs
, and surveyed the stars as they began to fade from the sky.
I sat up and took one of Edie’s cigarettes. Then I opened the door and watched the smoke form shapes and float under the light, across the bodies of my sleeping sisters.
When the sun came up Edie opened her eyes. She wiped her mouth and stretched her arms. She looked around her, then at me, rolled her neck, closed her eyes, opened them again, looked in the mirror, groped for a cigarette then opened the door and lit it.
“Dawn asleep?” she whispered.
The sky was turning a light grey. Edie and I stood outside and woke up. Then we heard Dawn step outside and we all moved to the front of the car, tucking our hands into ourselves, rubbing our eyes, leaning against the bonnet.
Sheep grazed in the paddocks. A car approached, slowed down as it passed us, and then sped up again.
A small house was barely visible on a hill far away.
“I didn’t think I would sleep.” said Edie.
“Even after the wine?” I said.
“I doubt there was any oxygen in there last night.” said Dawn.
“When shall we take off?” I said.
“How far away are we?” said Dawn.
“Not sure,” said Edie, “It can’t be too far now. You look so tired. We can rest some more if you like. I’m tired too. I need some coffee. Do we have any chocolate?” she said.
It was a gentle, still morning. I looked out at the paddocks, then at Dawn as she shuffled back to sit inside the car. The sun caught her hair in the light, and the smoke, and the wetness of our lips and eyes. A small herd of sheep migrated to a new patch of grass.
Dawn called out from inside the car.
“What?” said Edie.
I turned and saw Dawn wrapped up in her coat and pointing outside. I traced the invisible line she had drawn and looked out towards the paddocks, then up as she said, “over there,” up above the sheep and the hills and the horizon to where, amongst the clouds, three hot air balloons hovered, soothingly, effortlessly, together.