'Slut Trouble' a new story by Beejay Silcox

Beejay Silcox
Published in ABR Fiction
Beejay Silcox

Beejay Silcox

Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and literary critic. She is currently completing her MFA in the United States, and working on her

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By this contributor

The first girl is taken on the second weekend of the school holidays. Her name is Julie-Anne Marks; she is nineteen, she is beautiful, and she is gone. Everywhere we look Julie-Anne Marks is looking back at us. Just the one photo at first – the one her parents gave the police the night she didn’t come home. Julie-Anne Marks is stuffed into our letterboxes, pinned to every bulletin board, taped to every telephone pole. She takes up the whole front page of The Messenger – a full page in colour, block-capital headline. WHERE IS OUR JULIE-ANNE?

‘Don’t you just love her hair?’ Megan asks me. And I do, I do. People are always mistaking Megan and me for sisters because of our hair. We wear it the same way now, and from the back you can’t tell us apart. Every morning before school I call Megan on the kitchen phone and she tells me what I need to do to match her – French braid, fishtail, high pony. If I listen closely, I can hear the phone ringing in her house next door, the drum-roll clatter of her running down the stairs to answer.

We are cursed with boring hair, straight and house-mouse brown. It won’t hold a curl or a crimp for longer than an hour, and neither of us has been allowed to dye it: my mum says I’m too young; Megan’s dad – Mr Henderson – says it looks cheap and nasty. The only thing it does is grow, so Megan and I are having a competition to see whose will be the longest by the end of the year. Six months ago we had it cut the same length. Megan made the hairdresser measure it exactly, and neither of us has touched it since. Megan is winning, which is how she likes it.

Julie-Anne’s hair is wild and thick; near-black with a wink of red where the sun hits it. It’s the colour of blackberry jam or red wine. Mr Henderson lets each of us have a half tumbler of red wine when I sleep over, so long as we promise not to tell anyone. He joined a wine club last year after Mrs Henderson left and has been trying to teach us how to taste all of the different flavours – wet leather, smoke, dried leaves. We never can, but we don’t want to hurt his feelings, so we just sip and nod, until he gives up and waves us away. Later, after he falls asleep on the couch, we slink out of Megan’s bedroom and finish whatever we can find that’s left open – he can never keep track. We pour it into the good glasses her Mum forgot to take, and make up our own language for the bitterness.

‘Can you taste the ... halitosis in this, Laura?’

‘I can, Megan, I can. And is that an undertone of armpit?’

‘I don’t know if it’s armpit, but close, perhaps a touch of gangrene?’

‘Of course, it’s gangrene! Silly me. And with an aftershock of fingernail clippings.’

‘You are so right, Laura – that’s the flavour that catches in the back of your throat.’

Julie-Anne’s parents and not-a-suspect boyfriend hold a press conference where they cling to each other and weep and beg for her safe return. The people they interview on the news – her university lecturers, the boss of the café where she works – say the most wonderful things about her: so kind, so caring, so gentle. Such a good girl; an honest-to-god angel. We have no trouble believing them. Just look at that wide-open face. Beautiful. There’s no better word for it. Julie-Anne Marks is beautiful, and everyone is looking for her.

Megan unpins a poster from the jacaranda that stands watch between her house and mine. Do you know something? Another appears. The flier is printed on expensive paper with a colour photo of Julie-Anne sitting cross-legged on a picnic blanket. She’s wearing cut-off denim shorts and an oversized flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Did you see something? The blanket is mustard yellow with a print of blue flowers. Her shirt is checked grey and black, with a wide rust-orange diagonal stripe. You can tell it’s a man’s shirt, because the buttons are on the wrong side. Can you help? Her feet are bare; toenails unpainted. She’s pointing at something off to the right, but you can’t see what it is. What you can see is that Julie-Anne wasn’t expecting the camera: her eyes are too wide, her mouth too open. You can’t fake that look; no matter how hard you try.

We iron the poster flat and slip Julie-Anne Marks inside the stiff cover of Megan’s old copy of Possum Magic. We get into trouble for hacking the legs from last winter’s jeans to make shorts. We wear them every day.

The Mackenzies across the road are the only family on our block who get the thick city paper delivered every morning, but they don’t pick it up until they get home from work. Megan dares me to steal it.

‘Can’t we just ask if we can have it after they’re finished?’

‘When did you get so fucking boring?’ Megan drags the F word out. She’s only just started to say it, and is still enjoying the new taste of it. I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, but at night I mouth it in the dark before I go to sleep. Fuck. Fucking. Fuck you. Fuck off.

Megan keeps watch while I run across the road and on to the Mackenzies’ lawn. I can feel her watching me.

‘You run like a spaz,’ she says as I hand her the paper.

I hold it still while Megan slides the Julie-Anne pages out slowly so they don’t rip. We stuff the rest of the paper in Dr Barker’s bin next door while Titus the terrible terrier scolds us through the fence. There’s a whole section devoted to Julie-Anne, even a page of photos set out like a yearbook spread. Here is Julie-Anne holding her sister’s baby; at the beach in her surf lifesaving uniform; high-school graduation with her cap and gown. Here is Julie-Anne kissing the cheek of her adorable boyfriend, and don’t they look so happy?

‘I would absolutely fuck him,’ Megan says, though neither of us has had a boyfriend yet, or any idea what it would be like to have one. Mum hasn’t had one since Dad died, so I couldn’t ask her, even if I wanted to. Mrs Henderson does have one, but Megan’s never met him – though she did see him once, a year ago, lifting her mum’s cheetah-print suitcase into the back of his car. Mrs Henderson has only visited twice since, and always on her own. Last time she told me to call her Lisa, but I couldn’t. Megan does.

Megan is bored. Her room is boring. Her house is boring. TV is boring. I am boring. We build a tent in the far corner of my yard out of an old wool blanket and an ocky strap strung between the lemon tree and the back fence. We drag the guest bedroom mattress out across the grass and fill the tent with Megan’s mum’s fancy throw pillows – all velvet and tassel. Mr Henderson says he’s glad to see them gone, that they made him feel like he was living in a house of ill repute.

We spend the day out in the tent sucking on ice-cubes of frozen cordial, reading about Julie-Anne and listening to the Grease soundtrack on my Walkman. When school starts up next year, they’ll be casting for the musical. Megan is going to try out for Sandra Dee, or maybe Rizzo. She can’t decide. We have to be careful to keep the cassette out of the sun, if it gets too hot, the tape inside will warp and snap. In the afternoon heat we slip into a thick syrupy sleep. Filtered through our blanket roof, the sun fills the tent with an underwater blue. I wake before Megan and watch her in the glow, her hair mermaid-loose across the pillows, lips green from the Cottee’s. She looks so cold.

Megan dreams of Julie-Anne Marks. In these dreams Julie-Anne is sitting on the picnic blanket, and Megan is taking her picture. Julie-Anne points off to the right, but when Megan tries to look, she wakes up.

‘She’s trying to tell me something, Laura.’

‘Do you think she’s pointing at him?’

‘I don’t know, but she’s definitely still alive, I can feel it. He’s keeping her prisoner somewhere because he’s fallen in love with her.’

‘Like in Beauty and the Beast?’ ‘Exactly!’

I know she’s lying, and she knows I know. When Megan is lying she straightens her back and tilts her chin up like she’s the queen. She dictates these dreams to me, and it is my job to write them down in case she is secretly psychic and some tiny detail is a clue that will lead the police to Julie-Anne. We take turns practising what we would say to the TV people if we found her.

‘I’m so glad she’s alive,’ I say.

‘Is that the best you can do? Glad? That’s a nothing word. You wouldn’t be glad.’

‘Happy?’

‘Honestly, Laura, try harder.’ Megan puts her hand over her heart like she’s about to sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’. ‘Me? A hero? You’re so kind to say, but I’m just so grateful that I was able to play even a small part in bringing Julie-Anne home safe.’

Megan and I go shopping. I have birthday money from Grandma Bailey and Megan has ‘Lisa’s Lousy Guilt Cash’. Her mum has sent her a card with five dollars in it every month since she left. We buy flannel shirts from Men’s World – not the same as Julie-Anne’s, but as close as we can find. We change into them in the shopping centre bathroom and stare into the mirror too long, hoping to catch just the smallest hint of Julie-Anne in our own faces. We compare the length of our hair.

‘I’ve caught up!’ I say, and it is true, mine is longest. I realise too late how stupid I have been to say it.

‘Who cares?’

‘There’s still time left, you could still ...’

‘I don’t give a shit, Laura.’

‘It was your idea.’

‘Did you really think I was serious? Are you really that fucking dumb?’

‘I guess not.’

‘That shirt doesn’t even suit you.’

‘But what about you?’ I ask, ‘We look the same. We look like sisters.’

‘But we’re not.’ Megan yells over her shoulder as she walks out.

Megan doesn’t speak to me again until lunch. We are sitting at a table in the food court, silently eating our chips, when I see a woman who looks like a Julie-Anne impersonator. She isn’t quite as beautiful, but she has the same red darkness in her hair, the same generous smile. I point her out and Megan and I are friends again.

‘I bet this is how he found her,’ she turns to me and whispers, ‘I bet he just saw her one day and couldn’t help but follow her. I bet it was love at first sight.’

We follow her. We follow her from the bathroom to Books-Books-Books where she wanders through the aisles, running her fingertips across the spines like they’re harp strings. We peek at her from behind open magazines like we are movie spies. We follow her into the fancy perfume section of the chemist, where all the jeweled bottles have one-word names: Escape, Seduction, Heat, Romance, Obsessed. We follow her into Woolies and watch as she chooses fancy cheeses and a bag of red apples, glossy as lipstick. We follow her out and down into the underground car park until we have her alone. Our sneakers squeak; our stifled laughter spills. She never notices us.

‘See how easy it would be?’ Megan asks, as we watch her drive away.

The second girl is taken on the day that would have been my parents’ seventeenth wedding anniversary. Her name is Kimberly Watson. Mum is driving us back from the video store when the news comes on the radio. We learn that Kimberly Watson was twenty-two – an aspiring actress who was last seen at outside a bar called Club Exotique, hopping into a taxi.

‘Bloody stupid girl,’ Mum says. She changes the station as we wait at the lights.

Now it is Kimberly Watson’s face all over the telly. Her first photo is a close-up in black and white. She’s staring into the camera with a smile that’s pulled tight as a mousetrap; eyelids dark and smudged like she is sliding out of focus.

‘I don’t like that photo,’ I say. ‘She’s trying too hard.’

‘It’s not a photo, it’s a headshot dumb-ass,’ Megan says. She knows about these kinds of things.

Mr Henderson says that only sluts get into the kind of trouble Kimberly Watson has clearly gotten herself into.

‘What kind of trouble is that?’ I ask him.

‘Slut trouble, Laura, slut trouble.’

I ask my Mum about slut trouble, and she suggests that movie nights should be at our place from now on.

After Kimberly Watson, the summer becomes claustrophobic. Megan and I aren’t allowed to go anywhere on our own, not even down to the park, or the deli at the corner – definitely not to the beach. Mr Henderson spends a whole weekend building a gate into the fence between our houses so that we don’t have to walk out onto the street to see each other. Megan and I beg our parents to be allowed to sleep in the tent at night. It’s sticky and hot under our blanket’s blue roof, but late in the evening the smothering air starts to stir as the sea breeze comes in, and the tent sucks the air in and out like it is breathing. We sleep deeply and wake with the sun, our hair snarled with bottlebrush spikes and the thin sharp leaves from the peppermint tree.

Kimberly Watson’s family doesn’t cry. Her father clenches his jaw so tight you can almost hear his teeth squeak. Her mother stares off to the side of the room, but her eyes don’t catch on anything. She reminds me of one of those fish you can buy propped up on the slush behind the meat counter. Kimberly’s twin brother reads a statement. You can see the echo of Kimberly in his face, but in him it’s more handsome.

‘I’d fuck him,’ I say, but Megan pretends not to notice.

‘She deserves whatever she gets,’ Megan says.

I’m not sure exactly how the game starts, but Megan is in charge. We play it in the tent, at night once my Mum turns the house lights off. Megan is Julie-Anne and I am him. To get into character, Megan coils her limp rope of hair under a black wig from an old witch costume and wears her flannel shirt. I wear a brown suit jacket that smells of Mr Henderson – wet leather, dried leaves, smoke.

We stand together in the tent and I say: ‘You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, Julie-Anne Marks. I love you, and I must have you,’ and press a chloroformed handkerchief to her mouth (it’s a tea towel sprayed with some of my Mum’s drugstore perfume). Megan swoons to the mattress.

The rules are simple: he can do whatever he likes to her. If she moves, she loses. If Megan laughs or squirms or opens her eyes, the game is over and we start again, but this time she is him and I am Kimberly Watson. I am not allowed to be Julie-Anne. There is no point in arguing.

When I am Kimberly, I wear one of one of the dresses that Megan’s mum left behind – an itchy black thing with massive shoulder pads and two rows of gold buttons down the front the size of honkey nuts. When I am Kimberly all he says is: ‘Slut.’ I do not swoon. I am pushed.

At first it is easy to win. We tickle, stick tongues in ears and fingers up noses, whisper the grossest words we know (booger, fanny, sperm, tampon, fallopian) and that’s all it takes before we are both lost – curled up together on the mattress, our laughter loud and loose. Titus complains from behind the fence. Our stomachs ache from holding the laughter in. But on the third night the words aren’t funny anymore. We are no longer ticklish.

I am him, and Megan can’t, won’t be stirred. She is lying on her back with her arms up above her head. In the moon-dark the wig looks like her real hair. Her head is tilted back, her eyes are closed and in that moment, I can see her – I can see Julie-Anne. Perfect, beautiful Julie-Anne in Megan’s mean little face. I hate her. I fucking hate her. I stand over her and stomp one foot down onto her belly fast and hard. Catch the sharp, lurking edge of her hip against the heel of my foot. She makes a strange, animal noise and curls onto her side away from me.

‘I beat you,’ I say ‘you lose.’ She refuses to speak, but stands, pulls off the wig and shakes out her hair. I unbutton the jacket. It is my turn.

I am ready for her to hurt me.

‘Slut.’

She pushes me to the mattress and sits on my stomach. She moves heavily – drives the air out of me. The dress buttons press against my ribs. I feel her weight shift and she slaps me hard. I keep my eyes closed. Say nothing. I can feel her body tightening and I know she is going to slap me again. It hurts less the second time.

She slides herself down so she is pinning my knees and leans over me. Her hair falls across my eyelids. I can almost taste her strawberry shampoo. I can feel her undoing the giant buttons of Lisa’s dress and opening it up, and then the smaller buttons of my nightie, too. The tent fills with the new sour-milk smell of my sweat. There is only dark against my skin – the dark and her heavy eyes. It’s not cold, but my skin bucks and prickles as she runs her fingertips in slow loops down over my face and throat and nipples and ribs, and then up again and deep into my hair. Again, again, but this time she drags her bitten nails down my belly and hooks her fingers into the waistband of my knickers. I wait. She snaps the elastic. Once. Twice.

‘You reek,’ she spits at me, as she pushes herself up and leaves the tent.

I know this is a test. And so I wait. I hear the gate in the fence thump open, and the back door of the Henderson house. I wait. There is ocean in the air now – the night is chilling and I’m pressing myself tight into the mattress to hold the shiver. I am waiting. I listen to the cicadas and the crickets, the garden’s insect heartbeat. Everything seems louder, the smell of the chloroformed rag, the sheep-stink of the wool, the crushed leaves of the peppermint tree. I am waiting for him. And I know now with a cold and magnificent certainty that even after this game is over a part of me will always be waiting.

‘Slut Trouble’ was commended in the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.

Published in ABR Fiction

Comments (1)

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    Epic. Funny, frightening and as she describes the sounds and smells I'm back in small Australian suburbia. Just amazing.

    Saturday, 07 January 2017 04:10 posted by Sam M

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