Helen stared at the old woman in her bathroom mirror and said, “How’d you get into my house?” Then they both said, “Oh, you’re me,” at the very same time. Her ritual had stretched her face and compressed her spine. But it would end today. She hoped her baby wouldn’t feel any pain — that it would be like falling asleep.
In her walk-in wardrobe, Helen stepped into a pair of parachute panties. Then she put on jeans and a hand-knitted sweater. She unfolded a plastic step stool and stepped onto it. Reaching one hand onto the highest shelf, she painted her fingertips through the dust until she felt the crocodile. She took the plush toy and got down. Hugging it against her chest, she sat on the side of her bed facing the window, where she started stroking its head. Grains of white sand sprung out of the crocodile with each stroke. She stuttered out a breath. Then she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, eyelids like wet tissue paper.
Helen stood, shook her head until there was nothing left inside of it, then called out, “Tommy! Are you ready for the park?”
She received no answer, but that wasn’t unusual. Most years, she really had to scream to get her son to come out from where he was hiding. Wherever that was.
Looking out the window, she took a conscious breath. The plane trees over the road spread their naked, woody branches like capillaries through the graphite sky, trunks slickened by the rain which had come and passed. A dark rain cloud bulged on the horizon. A pair of magpies battled the wind like kites.
After failing to summon Tommy once again, Hellen went downstairs and waited by the jarrah buffet near the front door. On the buffet, a younger version of herself looked up at her out of a photo frame, arms wrapped around Will, who was grinning in his graduation gown. She could still remember his face when, just after the photo had been taken, she put his hand on her belly and told him the good news. The smell of the cheap champagne he drank that night was still fresh in her mind. In another, older photo, young Helen wore a fluoro-orange outfit at the skating rink. Old Helen could see the concavity where young Helen’s rib cage met her abdomen, which was small and beautifully defined. The memory tasted like cola and hot chips.
Helen rotated the plush crocodile in front of her face and sighed. Grains of sand fell into the Tibetan singing bowl between the photos on the buffet. She had never seen Tibet, and she hardly counted her week-long visit to New Zealand as having been overseas. She glanced down the hallway and said, “Come on, Tommy! Before it rains again!”
She walked to the front door, gripped the handle, and sang out, “After a while, crocodile!”
She sang the words once more, but louder, and when she looked back down the hall, Tommy was standing there in a block-patterned windcheater and yellow gumboots. She tensed her back muscles, but a shiver still managed to wriggle out of their grip, leaving the tiny hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. Holding it by the tail, Tommy dragged a plush crocodile — not quite as tattered as the plush crocodile Helen was holding — over the brown tiles as he ran to her.
“Mummy!” he said, hugging her knees. He looked up into her eyes, cheeks pink and plump, hair imbued with the scent of baby shampoo. “I’m ready, I’m ready! Let’s go, let’s go!”
Helen held her son’s hand for most of the walk to the park, her crocodile tucked under her armpit, his swinging from his other hand. Tommy leaped from gap to gap on the cement pathway, tugging Helen’s arm a little out of her shoulder joint each time. The suburbs reeked of wet soil and bricks. A few cars rolled by, tires splitting the thin film of rain that clung to the road. The red-bricked corner church looked like a quarter-scale model in the grass which had grown unkempt against it. The pub on the corner across from the church displayed a fat old man and a pint of black beer in its rain-speckled window. A tram rattled its way towards the city under a tunnel of fig trees.
Helen let go of Tommy’s hand to put a scrunchy in her hair, which was flailing about like a banshee’s. Through the grey chaos, she saw that Tommy had advanced a few houses ahead, watching the tips of his gumboots as he hopscotched farther away from her. A man and his whippet — more of a bat than a dog — were coming the other way on the path. The whippet bolted ahead of its owner, coughing out a sequence of high-pitched barks as it choked on its collar.
“Tommy, wait!” cried Helen, waving awkwardly at the man.
The man tugged the whippet’s leash and the dog winced. Tommy continued right past it, fixed on his gumboots. The dog lurched at Tommy at every angle of a crescent, leash pulled taut between its neck and its owner’s hand. Tommy didn’t flinch. The man yanked the whippet then snatched it up against his chest. He shook his head and continued towards Helen, bowling the dog onto the path.
As Helen jogged past the man to catch up with Tommy, she blushed and said, “So sorry!”
Instead of apologizing, the man screwed up his face and continued shaking his head.
Helen considered grabbing Tommy and chasing the man down, but she didn’t want to be one of those grumpy old bags who had nothing better to do than kick up dust.
She caught up to her son and took his hand. “Stay with Mummy, okay?”
He glanced up at her, presenting the black L where three of his front teeth had been. “Sorry, Mummy.”
The swings screeched like angry cats as two little girls rode them almost horizontal. They were trying to win the attention of their parents, who were avoiding a light shower under a tin-roofed picnic shelter. The father squeezed the mother. She lifted her chin and kissed him. There was no one else in the park, except Helen. She sat on a picnic bench out in the open, feeling like her groin had been hollowed out with an ice cream scoop. Her instincts told her to warn the affectionate young couple about the swings, about playgrounds in general, but she had received one too many dismissive or sympathetic looks in the past and thought better of it. Tommy called to her from the flying fox as he rode it between two steel platforms, and Helen stopped spying on the family to watch him.
He landed with a thud on the far platform, where he had put down his crocodile, and the flying fox handle bounced halfway back to the other side of the rail. The father of the two little girls stared at the handle. Then he studied the elm trees encircling the bleached-white sandpit and the playground inside of it. The wind flattened the treetops, and the man returned his attention to his wife.
“Did you see, Mummy?” screamed Tommy. “Did you see how fast I was?”
The sky grumbled. Helen rubbed her shoulders and wished she hadn’t left her beanie at home. “Well done, Tommy! What about the rock wall?”
Tommy threw his crocodile up upon the platform at the top of the rock wall and tried to climb it using only his arms, but couldn’t. “It’s too hard!”
Helen made a megaphone with her hands. “Use your legs, Tommy!”
The swings started to slow down. By the time Tommy had clambered to the top of the rock wall, the two little girls were on their feet and being tugged along by their parents, who put them into an SUV and drove them out of the brown bitumen car park.
While Tommy busied himself with a yellow telescope fixed to the playground’s safety railing, Helen’s backside started vibrating. She pulled out her phone, held it at the reach of her arm, and stabbed the screen with her index finger. The drizzle stopped. She put the phone to her ear and blocked her other ear with her palm.
“Will,” she said, and then she listened. “I’m okay.” She nodded. “Yes. Yes. I am, yeah. But this is the last time. It is. It is.” She sighed. “How’s Pamela? And the boys? Sorry, I’ve always called them that. No, I’m not trying to change the subject. Alright. I said alright. I gotta go.” She took the phone from her ear and hovered her finger over the red hang-up button, then put the phone back against her ear. “Will? Please don’t call me next year. You don’t have to call me next year. Yeah, I’m going through with it. Yeah, out of the city. No, Jim from next door said he’s happy to help. Okay. Okay. Thanks. Bye. Bye. Yep. Bye.”
When Helen looked up, Tommy had ascended a rope ladder to the playground’s tallest tower, where he had climbed onto the safety railing. His gumboot heels hung over the back edge of the railing, and he was holding the plastic roof above him with only one hand, crocodile swinging from the other.
Helen tried to stand, but her heart fell into her stomach, anchoring her to the picnic bench. She toiled against the weight and stumbled forwards. She stepped over a low limestone wall into the sandpit. “Tommy, come down,” she said, trying to moderate her voice. Someone had used the same technique on her when she had climbed over the railing on the freeway overpass.
Tommy shimmied along the railing to one of the tower’s corner posts, next to a dark-blue tube slide. “Mummy, look how high I am!” The trees shook violently. Tommy’s windcheater whipped against his tiny body. Everything smelt of bleach and hospital pillows.
“Tommy, come down, and Mummy will give you a chocolate.” She scratched at her ring finger as she shuffled closer. “Climb down slowly, Tommy. It’s wet.”
Tommy hesitated. Then he dropped his crocodile off the back of the tower. It landed on the sand with a sickening snap, and she pinched her throat to stifle a scream. Tommy gripped the corner post, then removed his other hand from the roof and climbed down to the platform. She could see his face through the gaps in a noughts and crosses panel. He leaned over the top of the panel and said, “Do I get the chocolate now?”
Helen exhaled. “When we get home, Tommy. When we get home.”
“Okay. I want a go on the slide!”
Helen let the anchor in her belly weigh her down upon her knees. “Yes, Tommy.” She felt her face trying to remould itself into a heartbroken grimace. Her cheek muscles tremored as she vied for control. Holding herself together, she swept at the sand with one hand. Then she put her crocodile to one side and started digging properly.
“Mummy, you have to watch!” Tommy was crouched in the mouth of the slide. “Mummy!”
Helen dug until there was blood under her fingernails. Then she said, “After a while, crocodile,” and pressed the plush toy into its grave. A heavy raindrop burst on her nose. Two more exploded on her forehead. Magpies beat their wings in the trees, losing feathers to the wind. A flash, followed by a hungry moan.
“You’re not watching, Mummy!”
Helen dragged a pile of sand into the hole with both arms. She looked up and gasped. Tommy was gone.
The swings started screeching again. Helen got to her feet and tripped over two times on her way to the slide.
A sharp pain shot from her ankle to hip as she crouched to look inside the slide. It was empty. She glanced around the back of the playground to find that the crocodile Tommy had dropped was gone, too. A lightning bolt unzipped a cloud. The rain struck the slide like a million golf balls as Helen crawled inside and wept.
When the rain passed, Helen sat up from something close to sleep. Her joints pinched and tugged at her nerves, and everything was still a little blurry. When she shuffled to the edge of the slide, her stomach, at least, felt lighter. She put her shoes on the sand and stood up. She walked away from the slide and looked back at the playground, expecting a column of sunlight to have broken through and lighted the whole thing up. But it was as dark as ever, and a fresh set of black clouds were tumbling her way.
She looked over the slide to where she had buried the crocodile. The rain had washed away some of the sand covering it, exposing the very tip of its tail. Her diaphragm spasmed. She took a few steps forward before her knees shook her to the ground. Her phone started vibrating. She took it out and read JIM (NEXT DOOR) before dropping it in the sand. She lay on her side, too stiff to curl up and hug her shins. She heard soft footfalls in the sand behind her. A shiver travelled from her tailbone to the base of her skull. She sniffed, smelling baby shampoo. Her scalp snapped to her skull like a swimming cap.
“Can we come back next year, Mummy?”
“Of course, baby. Mummy’s not going anywhere.”
Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Orchid Press, an anthology by Quill & Crow, two anthologies by Black Hare Press, and AntipodeanSF. You can find out everything there is to know about him (and more) at nspetrou.com.