by Lisa Williams
Runner up, 2020.
The crunch of an apple. Yup. That’s the sound.
Melody let the Nissan Tiida’s footbrake out and mashed it in again with her bare foot. She was small for a seven-and-a-half-year-old, and it was a stretch to reach the car’s pedal, even dripping over the seat as she was like a cooked spaghetti noodle. (It didn’t help that Michael was tall and had pushed the seat as far back as it would go.) Because it was January and hadn’t rained once all week, it was hot work pressing the pedal.
Crunch. Release. Crunch. Release. Crruuuuuuunch. Release.
Michael was her cousin. He lived with them. He was 17 and had blue eyes and was skinny as. He bought the Tiida because it was shiny gold and had leather seats. The man who sold it to him had a gold tooth the same colour as the car and a silver earring, and he was sweating a lot although it was winter and cold.
Michael loved the Tiida more than anything in the world. On Saturday mornings, he took it to Washworld at St Luke’s. Melody loved more than anything to go with him because he let her help him operate the foaming scrub brush. Pink suds oozed from the brush like the toothpaste Melody let dribble down her chin when she brushed her teeth (although the toothpaste was white, except when Mum bought the green one because it was on special and then the suds looked like monster sick, which pleased Melody but also made her queasy).
Michael didn’t know that Melody mashed the Tiida’s footbrake. She was not allowed in the Tiida without him. She was not allowed to sit on its bonnet or jump off its bumper or kick its tyres. If they had been to the beach, Michael made her stand three giant steps away until he wiped the sunscreen off her hands with a cloth because he read on the internet that sunscreen can stain the paint on a car.
If they had been to the beach, Michael drove straight to Washworld to vacuum the sand out of the car. Even if it wasn’t a Saturday morning.
No, Michael didn’t know that when Melody was being a detective a few months ago she found the Tiida’s spare key in his underwear drawer, and that whenever he stayed out late on a Saturday night with his best friend Jason, she took it and sneaked into the Tiida to mash the footbrake early on Sunday morning because Michael wouldn’t be awake for hours. For hours and hours and hours. Unless Melody ‘accidentally’ played super-soakers with Kevin from next door outside Michael’s window and woke him up.
Crunch. Release. Crunch. Release. Crunchreleasecrunchreleasecruuuuunchrelease.
Melody remembered exactly when Michael came to live with them. It was her very first day of school two years ago when she was five. She came home and there he was in the lounge sitting with Mum and Nana drinking a cup of tea. Nana had fetched him from the Waikato that morning. Melody wasn’t sure where the Waikato was, but Nana looked so tired she imagined it must be far away, like Waiheke Island where they went one time on the ferry. Nana also brought homemade shortbread biscuits, and there was only one left on the plate and Melody feared Michael might get to eat it instead of her.
Your cousin Michael is shifting in with us, Mum said. Won’t that be nice?
Michael had been staring at his feet but glanced up at her now through his fringe that was the same colour as Mum’s and Nana’s – blonde because of their Dutch heritage, Nana said – but not the same colour as Melody’s. Hers was dark brown like her dad’s, and it made her wonder how anyone would know they were cousins. Michael smiled at her. It was not a very good smile, the corners of his lips barely turned up at all. She did not believe his smile or that he was happy to be there with them.
Why are you so sad? she blurted out. Which Mum and Nana didn’t like her saying one bit. They both hissed, shush! and then Mum took her into the kitchen and gave her a glass of milk and a biscuit from a packet that was nowhere near as nice as Nana’s shortbread.
Mum and Nana spent the rest of that afternoon turning the sleep-out into Michael’s room. The sleep-out’s real name was the Sew and Sew. Dad had built it for Mum so she could go wild with her sewing. That was exactly what he said to her, Go wild, Gemma. And she would. Mum was happiest when Nana came to visit on the weekend and they spent the whole time in the Sew and Sew. They didn’t even stop to make tea. Instead, Dad went for takeaways, bringing home squid rings as a special treat for Nana. This was when Nana still lived with Uncle Jason and Aunt Molly on the farm, before she shifted to Auckland.
Melody liked to hang out with them in the Sew and Sew because Nana told stories about when Mum and Uncle Jason were children. She called them her Getting Up to No Good on the Farm stories, and she and Mum laughed until they held their bellies with both hands.
I’m gutted you have to give up the Sew and Sew, Nana had whispered to Mum when they were both on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor clean.
Can’t be helped, she whispered back, Jason’s a fucking wanker for kicking the boy out. Who cares he’s. . . But she didn’t finish the sentence because Nana brushed her ear with her fingertips which was their signal to warn each other that “little ears are listening”.
After her bath that night, Melody went outside in her dinosaur PJs to say goodnight to the moon. While she stood there with her face turned up to the sky, the sliding glass door to the Sew and Sew slid open, and Michael slipped outside to join her. Melody went stiff in her body because she had decided to hate Michael for taking away Mum’s Sew and Sew.
He didn’t speak, only turned his face up to the sky too. After a minute, he sighed and gazed down at the ground. Before he went back into the Sew and Sew, he gave her what he held in his hand. It was the last piece of Nana’s shortbread wrapped in a paper napkin.
Crunchcrunch. . .crunnnnch. Release.
Because she was mashing the pedal early on a Sunday morning, and she expected him to sleep for hours and hours and hours, Melody didn’t notice the sound of Michael’s jandals flapping on the footpath or the clink of the fence gate latch opening and closing. Only when he dropped his keys and said, Shit! did she realise he was close by.
A drop of pee squirted into her pants, and she scrambled into the back seat and then over the back seat into the boot where she hid under the towel Michael used to dry the Tiida’s windows at Washworld. Her breath came in yips from high in her chest. She clamped her hand over her mouth to silence them, but Michael wasn’t listening anyway. He was busy plugging in his phone so it would play music through the Tiida’s speakers. He blasted Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’, the song they sang at the top of their lungs when they drove to Washworld.
My life is a movie
Bull ridin’ and boobies
Cowboy hat from Gucci
Wrangler on my booty. . .
Melody almost couldn’t stop herself from singing along. She covered her ears, but even so, her head bobbed to the beat and her lips formed every word.
The next song Michael played was not one Melody liked very much, and so she didn’t worry about stopping herself from singing along. Instead, she worried that they were going to be gone for hours and hours and hours and Mum would tell Dad to ring the police when she couldn’t find her, and she would be in more trouble than she had ever been in her life.
But Michael only drove to Nana’s house, which was just ten minutes away. Nana met him on the doorstep and threw her arms around him. Since she was extra tall, Michael didn’t have to bend over so far like he did when he hugged most everybody else.
As soon as they went inside, Melody let herself out of the Tiida and ran around to the back of the house. It pleased her that she had experience being a detective and could crouch and run at the same time, keeping low to the ground so they wouldn’t see her when she passed underneath the windows.
She heard their voices coming from the sunroom where Nana kept her sewing machine, and she hid underneath the hibiscus bush opposite to watch them. Michael’s silhouette was wiggling around behind the Japanese screen with the cherry blossoms on it. She reckoned he must be trying on an outfit Nana made him because that’s where Nana always told them to change their clothes “for modesty’s sake”.
If that hem’s not right, Nana called out, it’ll take just a tick to fix it.
It’s perfect, Michael answered, and then he stepped from behind the screen, and Nana’s face lit up like when Sonny Bill Williams scored a try.
Oh Michael, that turquoise colour suits you. It suits you right down to the ground. Nana clapped her hands. Have a look in the mirror. Go on, you’ll see.
Michael was almost too shy to do so. His eyes wandered to the ceiling and the floor before settling on his reflection. But when they did, he crossed his arms over his waist and gave himself a big squeeze. I love it, he said. I absolutely love it.
Melody pulled a hibiscus blossom off the bush. Her stomach felt funny, and she feared she might cry. Nana had made Michael a dress. A sleeveless linen dress like the one Nana wore in the photo she kept on the china cabinet. The one where she was 20 years old and about to get on a ship sailing away to England. Michael looked just like Nana did then and the smile on his face was just like hers – stretching nearly ear to ear.
Melody flicked the blossom away and pulled another one off the bush. She understood that she was not supposed to know that Michael wore dresses, and that it was a secret only he and Nana were meant to share. But it was the most beautiful dress Melody had ever seen, and she wanted one exactly like it.
Melody pulled a third hibiscus blossom off the bush. Maybe if she promised never, ever to tell, Nana would make her one too, and she and Michael could come visit and wear them together. She twirled the blossom between her thumb and forefinger. Michael would be furious with her for hiding in the Tiida. But maybe he would soften a little if she gave him this flower to put in his hair.
She crawled out from under the bush and brushed the dirt off her knees. Michael and Nana saw her at exactly the same time. The smile fell right off Michael’s face, but Nana burst out laughing. Look, it’s your little shadow, she said.
And then, as if she’d read Melody’s mind, Nana said something else, something that let her know everything would be all right: Turquoise would be a lovely colour on Melody too, don’t you think, Michael? How about I make her a dress just like yours?