‘THIS burger is scrumptious Dad.’
At the time I didn’t really know what the words meant or what the repercussions were. But Dad did. He bolted upright, dragged me to the sink, scrubbed my mouth with soap and water and then picked up the phone.
Dad slammed the receiver and turned to face me.
‘Shut it,’ he said.
The next day we walked in silence along the path leading down from our caravan, which rests on an embankment of trash at the outskirts of the trailer park. As we weaved around tossed TVs, abandoned washing machines, discarded plastic bags and empty beer bottles, I caught a glimpse of the factory where Dad worked, just over the brown hills in the distance. Sunlight pinged off the glass shards and aluminium foil scraps buried in the hills of rubbish surrounding the factory, casting the building in a dazzling glow.
At the bottom of the embankment was the doctor’s caravan, a white SSV20 from the Petroleum Period, same as ours. Only difference was a big red cross painted across the door. The doctor had arranged rows of upturned milk crates out the front of the caravan, creating a makeshift waiting room. Dad sat down on one of the crates. Guess he was too scared of germs to venture inside. I was nervous myself, and nearly jumped when I entered the caravan and the doctor stepped out of the dimness. He was a bald man with bulging eyes and a beer belly even bigger than Dad’s.
I took a seat, and the next thing I knew the doctor was shoving a rusty knife in my face. He leaned over me, hot breath rasping in my ear. I could hear his heart hammering away beneath his lab coat. I had no idea what to do. If I yelled, Dad would’ve come in and socked me one. So I just let the doctor cut into my cheeks. The blood trickled over my lips, and the doctor collected it in a jam jar held beneath my chin then drew a funny skull shape on the jar’s side. The doctor and I then walked out of the caravan together. He handed the jar to Dad.
‘Words,’ said the doctor.
We started visiting the doctor regularly after that. Each time we came home, Dad would bury a new blood-filled jar in our backyard. The jars were buried at least three feet apart, to stop the words contained in them combining to create even bigger words. Doc’s orders. Dad had to shovel rubbish from the backyard to make room for all the holes. News of my illness soon spread around the park, and I was pulled from Factory School. My classmates’ parents were worried their children might become infected too. I was only six months away from graduating when it happened. As you can imagine, Dad was devastated.
Things between Dad and I went from bad to worse. We never ate together anymore. Before I got sick, we used to head down to the diner at least once a week. We’d buy burgers with the lot and huge buckets of fries, and we’d finish our meals on the walk back home, spitting out the gherkins as we went. He used to play the funniest game. He’d wait till I had raised my burger to my mouth, and then he’d suddenly hip ’n’ shoulder me, so I’d drop my burger to the ground. That got me every time. I tried to do the same back to him, but he was so big and heavy that I couldn’t knock the burger from his hands. But after my illness, we didn’t go out to the diner together, not once. He stopped hip ’n’ shouldering me, too. He even took to wearing oven mittens around the house, so his hands wouldn’t come in contact with anything I’d touched. Like I said, things weren’t so good between me and him.
One day, I opened the door to see him with his face shielded by a Factory welding mask and his hands swaddled in Factory gloves. He pounced on me, pushing me to the ground and pinning my arms to my sides with his knees. He stuffed a rolled-up sock in my mouth and then wrapped a Factory first-aid bandage around my face from my temple to my chin, leaving a thin slit for my eyes to peep through. I tried to tell him that I’d stopped using the words, hadn’t used them for ages, but the rolled-up sock muffled my protests.
Dad never looked me square in the face again. He’d come home late and plonk down to watch TV as if I didn’t even exist. If he brushed past me on the way to the fridge for a beer, he’d recoil like he’d just touched a heated frying pan. When his favourite shows were over he’d go outside and stare at our pock-marked backyard. He’d stand there, smoking a cigarette, TV static fizzing through his head.
Some nights he’d come home drunk. I’d sit curled up under the table, listening to the caravan door rattle as he tried to work the handle. It always took him a few goes to get the thing open. Then he’d spill through the doorway, propelled by booze and the cold night wind, jabbing and swinging wildly with his empty scotch bottle. He’d hurl the bottle at me and then stomp my ribs with his steel-toed boots. He was careful not to step on the droplets of blood I coughed up. I tried to keep quiet, but sometimes I whimpered, and then I’d get it doubly bad.
One night, don’t remember exactly when, Dad didn’t come home at all. Wasn’t there the next day, either. After a few more days of being left alone, I was getting pretty hungry, so I headed into the backyard to look for leftovers. All the burger wrappers and chip packets I could find had already been licked clean, so I decided to walk down to the diner on my own, even though I wasn’t supposed to. Stuff Dad, I thought.
About halfway down the embankment below our caravan, I saw something that made me stop. I felt woozy, like I really needed to sit on the couch and chill out with some TV. Letters had been scratched into the dirt. ‘SOIL’, they spelt. I backpedalled in shock, and then stepped on something, almost twisting my ankle. I looked at the ground. There it was, a big stone with letters on it. ‘ROCK’ they spelt. I spun on my heels. ‘WASHING MACHINE.’ ‘CUP.’ ‘T-SHIRT.’ Everything was labelled. I ripped off my bandages and scrambled about, crying, trying to cover the all the words but there were just too many of them – on discarded plastic bags, on broken beer bottles, on polystyrene cups.
Even worse than the words were the bodies scattered about the ground, all these adults with ashen faces and sunken eye sockets and strange symbols torn into their tracksuits. They clutched sharp instruments in their hands – keys, pens, sticks, whatever. Some of the people were still alive. Their necks were black, bloated cysts, the result of the big words that had become lodged in their throats. I saw that some of the people’s temples were swelled up, must have been with all the words stuck there. Sometimes a man’s skull would pop, sending bloody goop flying everywhere. Moments before his head exploded, the man would start blabbering, trying to spit out those poisonous sounds trapped in his brain.
And there was Dad, lying among the bodies. I stood very still, not breathing. He was sprawled out in a pool of his own vomit, barely alive. He had carved letters into his singlet, probably using his bottle opener. He was frothing at the mouth, and his forehead was purple with the strain of trying to understand too many big words. He looked up at me, temples swelling as the words combined to create even bigger words. Our eyes met, and I started crying. ‘That’s what ‘appens when ya don’t keep ya big mouth shut,’ he said. Then his head exploded.
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