In such a small town, everyone knows everything about everyone else. Their address, their birthday, their mother’s maiden name. You have grown used to living in a town where your skin is peeled away, layer by layer, your soul dissected and presented for inspection to people with nothing to do but exchange secrets behind cattle sheds. Sometimes when walking the streets, you catch sight of someone with shadowy, anxious eyes, and pity blossoms in your chest. No matter how hard they try, the mystery they hold so close to their heart will be exposed. You wish you could tell them to run.
Except for Pepper. That woman has more darkness in her eyes than anyone you have ever seen, and yet no-one knows a damn thing about her. She appeared overnight, propelled into the town by the desert wind, and spends her days trailing from door to door with a rusty shopping cart full of ancient artefacts. Threadbare scarves, dull jewellery, and broken dolls with eyes that remind you of the way the dingoes howl at night. You have never bought anything from her. Each of her objects vibrates with a dangerous history, and it scares you. When she has gone to every house, she simply disappears, as if the blazing sun has reduced her to a pile of charcoal. No one knows where she goes. But she is always back the next day, at exactly 8:03am.
Here she is now, knocking at your door. Your hands pause in the middle of scrubbing dried chunks of food away from the dishes piling up in the sink. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wipe your wet hands on your shorts. You go to answer her. The heat rattles your bones as soon as you open your front door. It is a tangible weight holding you down, pressing you into the orange earth. Pepper’s mouth stretches into a smile and you can almost hear the joints in her jaw creaking. The burning sun illuminates the stray hairs on her head, on her coat, on her chin. She stands hunched over, as though the passing years are eating her from the inside out. Her mouth is set in a permanent sideways scowl indicative of a stroke, and her jaw works furiously up and down as she chews a piece of peppermint gum. With each exhale you can smell the mint on her breath. Long after she is gone, that scent lingers in the humid air, thus earning her the moniker of Pepper, short for Peppermint. No one knows her real name. The feeling of her warm breath on your face disgusts you. She keeps her eyes fixed on you as her gnarled hands, which bear no ring and bulge with veins, curl around an aquamarine scarf draped across the handle of her trolley. Enthusiastically, she brandishes it in front of your face.
“Pretty scarf, eh? Pretty! Pretty! Only five coppers. Bargain, five coppers. Pretty! Bring out the blue in your eyes.”
Your eyes are brown. You smile politely. “No thank you, Pepper.”
Her grin does not falter. Hurriedly, she drops the scarf back into her trolley, as if it was rotting, and immediately seizes a thin gold chain that glimmers in the sunlight.
“More your style? Hm? Hm? This one ten coppers.” She rummages in the depths of her trolley for a bit and pulls out a charm in the shape of a bird. “Tell you what, special deal for my friend. I will give this to you to put on the chain. Make it real nice. Good luck charm! Only three coppers more. Special, just for you.”
“That is very kind of you, but I am not really looking for a necklace.” Pepper drops the necklace and charm back in the trolley and starts searching for something else to try and sell you. Hurriedly, you say “Sorry Pepper, I am really quite busy at the moment. I do not think I will buy anything from you today.” Pepper turns to look at you, still grinning. You can see some spinach wedged between her two front teeth. For a moment, you think she knows you are lying.
“That is okay! Next time, hm? Maybe next time.”
You smile at her wearily. “Maybe next time.” She nods enthusiastically and sets off to the next house without another word. You close the door firmly and press your forehead against it with a sigh, closing your eyes. You tell yourself that next time she knocks on your door you will not answer. You tell yourself this every time.
“Was that Pepper?” says a voice behind you. You turn and see your son standing in the kitchen, dressed in navy shorts and a white shirt. A blue backpack rests on his shoulders, stuffed so full with books that it seems to pull him backwards. His brown eyes look so much like yours, but his tousled black hair reminds you of his father. Scraps of skin fall from his sunburnt nose as he wipes his face on his sleeve.
You remind yourself to keep your tone light. “Yeah, it was.”
“I do not like her. She is scary.”
“She cannot hurt you.” You swear to yourself that you will never let your son anywhere near that woman. “Come on, put your shoes on. It is time to go.”
Your son shoves his grimy feet into a pair of strappy sandals as you sling a leather handbag over your shoulder, and together you step outside. Everything smells like the coal that once made the town rich. The sky is painfully blue and dotted with frail cloud wisps. The blazing yellow-orange-red of the desert is dotted with sparse vegetation, scattered like the last hairs upon the head of a balding man. Underneath every tree are the bones of an animal who thought the shade would save them. The sun smiles as it sears your skin and you cannot help but wonder if you will be the next victim. Even the houses seem to be silently weeping for water. You do not remember the last time it rained. The dusty roads are barren and cracked like chapped lips. A singular car drives past, the driver angrily fiddling with the radio that spews nothing but static. The sound grates at you and you bite your tongue until it bleeds. You swear that the walk to school takes longer every day.
As you get closer to the centre of town, you pass a nameless café. The metal tables and chairs outside seem to bend and warp under the heat of the sun. There is only one customer: a man composed entirely of rolls of fat topped with a satisfied smile. A waitress with mysterious stains on her blouse passes him a beer. Condensation drips down the glass bottle the same way sweat drips down the back of your legs. As you and your son get closer, the man lifts the beer in your direction. “It is a right scorcher!” he exclaims. You smile in his direction, and feel your skin stretch uncomfortably across your skull. You hurry on, pulling your son alongside you, and give thanks when the school comes into view. You know he will be safe there.
The school consists of a single red-brick building with a roof that seems to be caving in. The children huddle in small groups, talking in hushed voices. You swear there are nowhere near as many children as there is supposed to be. They all look up at the sound of your footsteps, wild eyes shining through matted greasy hair. One of the members of a group standing to the far left raises his hand in greeting, and your son responds with a smile. You squat down to give him a hug, holding his fragile body close to yours.
“You have a good day, okay?” you tell him as you pull away. He nods enthusiastically and wriggles from your grasp, running to join his friends. “I love you!” you call after him. He does nothing but raise a hand in acknowledgement of your words.
On the way back home, you stop at the local farmer’s market. Most of it has already gone, nabbed by those who woke alongside the sun. What is left rolls around the bottom of wicker baskets, bruised and half-rotten. You trail your greedy fingers across them, hoping to find something salvageable.
Eventually, you buy a bag of apples from a man with too many teeth. As you continue walking, you take an apple and bite into it. It tastes like the blood and sweat that farmers water their fields with when the drought has set in. You pretend not to notice.
When you pass the café again, the man is still there. He lifts his beer in your direction, and you can see that it hasn’t even been opened yet. “It is a right scorcher!” His voice is vacant, and his eyes are hungry. You fix your gaze to the road in front of you, keeping it there until you reach your house. When you step inside, the dust and dirt on your shoes leaves brownish streaks on the floor, and you sigh heavily. You decide to ignore the stains and continue with the dishes in the sink. You place the apples on the counter and turn the cold tap on, but the water comes out uncomfortably warm. When you finally finish and pull your hands away, your skin is red and irritated. You dry your hands on your shorts and open the mini fridge, taking a cider.
You walk to your desk, which is pressed up against the window in the living room. The splintered chair creaks under your weight when you sit down and open your sketchbook, peeling apart the pages hesitantly. Your art feels stale and stagnant, like humid summer air. The lines are scratchy and erratic, a reminder of how you cannot get your hands to stop shaking. You prop your chin on your cupped palm and begin sketching the bottlebrush tree growing outside your window. The bristling crimson blossoms remind you of a lit match.
As you work, flies begin buzzing around you, settling on your arms and legs, seeking sustenance. You twitch each time you feel them on you, and they hurriedly leave, only to settle on a different patch of skin seconds later. As you become more focused on your work, you barely notice. Instead, you pull out some watercolours and start applying them to your sketch. You cannot get the colours right. You sigh and sip your cider. It is lukewarm.
When the time comes, not a second too soon, you walk back to your son’s school. You pass the café again, and the man is still there. He raises his unopened beer in your direction. He opens his mouth and screams static. You frown and glance at him. You can see sunburn blossoming on his sweaty skin. You can see the birds gathering around him, waiting for the opportunity to strip his bones of flesh. You look away.
Your son is waiting for you at the school gates. He is bouncing on the balls of his feet, tiny hands gripping his backpack straps. As soon as he sees you, he runs at you, face and eyes wild. You hug him tightly. He smells of sweat and crayons and shampoo. Then he pulls away and points across the courtyard, at another young boy and his mother standing hand-in-hand.
“Can I go stay with them tonight? He got a new video game and I want to play,” he says. The words trip eagerly out of his mouth. You look at the boy and his mother again. The mother smiles at you and waves. She looks like a pin-up model from the sixties. You like her. You know her. You walk over to them, keeping a crafted smile on your lips. Your sons begin talking in hushed voices and you address the mother.
“Are you sure you can handle both of them?” you say. Some people would say this as a joke. But you are serious. You need to know.
She laughs lightly, tosses a hazelnut curl over her shoulder. “Of course! I will call you if anything goes wrong.”
A million tragedies flash through your mind, and you blink to clear your thoughts. You look at your son again. He seems happy, and that is all you want for him. So you smile wider and nod. The mother’s eyes grow bright, and she reaches down to clasp the hands of both boys.
“See you tomorrow!” your son calls as he is dragged away, his sandaled feet skittering to keep up with the mother’s long stride. You raise your hand in farewell and turn back home. It feels strange going back without him, as though you left your right arm at the school gates. You fidget and scratch your skin, and do not at first notice that you’ve drawn blood. You walk past the café. The man is gone. The unopened beer is still there.
When you get home, you sit on the porch and smoke, watching as the sun sets and the sky mimics the colours of a bad bruise. As the first stars appear, you start to see eyes glowing like embers, peering at you from between tree branches. You do not know what they are, but one of them opens its hungry mouth and screams at you. You scurry inside and double lock the door. The darkness presses against the windows, and you cannot help but imagine the glass shattering and blackness pouring in like water until you drown. You turn on the television for some background noise to distract yourself, but all you get is static and garbled voices in languages you do not understand. The one working channel is the news, so you leave it on as you cook spaghetti bolognaise. You eat while reading a book of poetry, the television still on in the background. You find something comforting in the routine, emotionless, mechanic voices of the newsreaders. You finish eating, wash your dish, and get changed into pyjamas. As soon as the garments touch your skin, they become sticky and sweat-soaked. You switch the television off and retreat to your bedroom, switching on the fan that is pointed at your bed. You lie under a sheet, using your arm as a pillow, and eventually fall asleep to the rhythmic whirring of the fan. A waxing crescent moon hangs high in the sky, curved like the edge of a scythe, and watches you until daybreak.
You are startled awake by a flock of cockatoos screaming as they fly past your house. They sound so human. The noise echoes in your ears as you mix a strong coffee and sip it while staring out the window, watching the rest of the town wake up. They are slow to come out of their houses, preferring to stay inside and hide from the oppressive heat. The bravest walk with bare feet, seemingly unconcerned by the calluses that form when their skin comes in contact with the dead, scorched earth. You realise that you still have not cleaned up the brown stains on the floor from yesterday. You wet a cloth and scrub at the floor, but the dirt is stubborn and does not want to budge. By the time the floor is clean, your hands are filthy and there is rust beneath your nails, as though the earth is determined to engulf you. You wash your hands in the bathroom sink with a soap that looks ugly but smells pretty. The bathroom mirror is cracked, and you can see a million reflections of yourself stretched out across eternity. They are all judging you.
As you leave the bathroom, you hear a knock at the door. You check the time on the clock that hangs in the kitchen. It is 8:03am. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and go to the door. Your hands are still slippery with soap, and it takes a moment for you to unlock it. When you do open the door, you have your rejection speech bristling behind your teeth. I’m sorry, I’m busy you will say. Maybe next time you will say. It is very kind of you, but I am not interested you will say. All of that dies when you see what Pepper is carrying in her arms.
His arms and legs are splayed out at unusual angles, bent and crooked with his fingers curled, as though he his grasping for something. His pale skin sags from his body, revealing his ribs and hip bones. His eyes are still open, and you can see the desert reflected in them. His jaw hangs open, revealing toothless gums crusted with dried blood. And on the side of his head is a singular, perfect bullet hole.
Pepper smiles at you and holds your son up higher. “Twelve coppers, hm? You want for twelve coppers! Good price for small boy in the woods! He is pretty, hm? Pretty boy!”
The earth heaves under you, and you fall to your knees.
All you can hear is static.