“What number do you want to pick?”
I’m eight years old, at baseball semi-finals with my family. It’s round robin but I don’t really know what that means. Aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, siblings, Mum. It’s not Dad’s weekend with us.
My Auntie is entering a fundraiser game. You have to pick a number from a list and one is drawn out of a hat.
I pick the first choice I see with “six” in it. It’s my lucky number. I once won a book and a library bag with it. Grandma told me it’s the devil’s number and seven is better — it rhymes with heaven. But I stick with six.
We win the fundraiser but not the semi-final. I really wanted to win the semi-finals, but I’m holding a $50 note in my hand. It’s a lot of money. My Auntie paid the gold coin entry fee so I hand the yellow note to her, but she shakes her head.
“You picked the number, so you win the prize.”
In the car on the way home I proudly show my sisters the yellow note. My brother stretches around from the front seat to look. It’s a lot of money. They ask to hold it but I don’t want to let go. Once you let go of money it doesn’t come back.
I see mum’s eyes looking at me in the rear-view mirror. She asks if she could borrow it, we could get McDonald’s for dinner.
I’m very hungry. I want to say no. I just want to hold the yellow note, feel the plastic in my hands. It feels like safety. But I see my younger siblings’ faces. Eyes shining eagerly. They are hungry too.
I want to pay but mum takes the money from me. The plastic slides from my hands. My siblings run to play in the playground but I’m the oldest so she tells me to pick a table and get extra napkins.
My heart drops. I know what extra means.
I choose a table big enough for the five of us and drag over a plastic high chair. I unfold the napkins and lay them out in front of each seat.
When Mum comes back she has a box of nuggets, a large fries, and two $20 notes. The orangey-red notes aren’t as good as a yellow one, but I still eye them eagerly. Mum slips them in her purse.
Mum splits the nuggets and chips onto three of the napkins and the high chair and calls my siblings in to eat. I eye the empty napkin in front of Mum, but she says she isn’t hungry. I don’t feel hungry anymore either, my stomach feels heavy and sick. Mum makes me eat my dinner.
At least it’s better than baked beans and spaghetti again.
On the way home, Mum stops at the petrol station. She pulls one of the orangey-red notes from her purse and hands it to me. It feels smooth in my hand. I’m eight now, so I’m allowed to go pay after mum has put petrol in the car.
I wait for my change at the cash register. The man hands me a shiny blue note and a paper receipt. I don’t bother hoping this time. I hand the money and the receipt to Mum when I get in the car.
My baby sister is asleep in the backseat, a nugget still clutched in her chubby fist like a prize.
I know I’m not going to see the blue note or the orange note or the yellow note again. I feel guilty for thinking they were mine.
My brother is at rugby practice and I’m not sure why I have to come watch when he doesn’t have to come to my baseball practice. My brother is my best friend and I love him, but Rugby is boring.
I forgot to bring a book, and I can’t play on Mum’s phone because my little sister is playing snake while my baby sister sleeps in the pram. I’m bored, I want to go home, and I’m so cold my teeth are chattering and my fingers are numb.
Mum is talking to some other parents, absently pushing the pram back and forth. I stand patiently next to her, attempting to stretch my jumper so it covers my wrists. The chilly evening wind has nothing to stop it as it picks up speed across the open rugby field and bites my bare ankles with glee.
I received this purple jumper and pants set nearly two years ago from my parents for my 6th birthday. It’s my favourite thing to wear. It’s a light lavender colour, soft — not itchy at all, and it was given to me brand new with tags on.
Back then all my clothes were brand new with tags on, not pulled from old garbage bags smelling like other people’s houses.
Since my parents got divorced things have been different. All anyone ever talks about is money.
Before the divorce money was just long lines at the bank and gold coins from the tooth fairy.
After the divorce, I learned that money is school books and uniforms, cans of baked beans and petrol to drive the car. Money is dog food and baseball fees and electricity bills with red stamps on them.
Money is everything.
I don’t tell Mum I’m cold. Instead I try in vain to stretch my jumper to cover my wrists. Warmth is a bigger tracksuit in my size and that’s money.
There’s no point in asking for something we don’t have.
My sister and I come home from school one day and find Mum crying in the lounge room. She tells us that Bronson, our dog, is dead.
I think for a moment that maybe the monster under the deck crawled out and ate him, but that monster left the same time as Dad did.
I’m scared that with Bronson gone we will get robbed now, like my cousins. When they had their TV and jewellery taken in the middle of the night years ago I had been inconsolable, thinking it would happen to us.
It wasn’t until Dad tucked me in that night that I calmed down. Dad had explained that Bronson was our protector, and told the story of how our gentle giant had ripped the pants off a robber when I was a baby and the robber had run away, scared and pants-less.
I fell asleep that night with a smile on my face. I imagined a scary man running off down the street holding onto his bare bum while our rottweiler sat there, paws crossed and looking very pleased with himself.
We all draw pictures for Bronson. I don’t want to draw him like he has been the last few months - slow and tired, ribs showing through his dark fur.
I draw him how I think he would want to be remembered, fat and happy and chasing us around the backyard with his tail wagging at our delighted giggles. I draw a picture of a bowl of dog food next to him.
I hope God gives him breakfast and dinner in heaven.
My baby sister’s cries turn to screams and I feel like my eardrums will explode.
I’m on a step stool leaning over the stove, attempting to scoop out some baked beans from the pot into four plastic bowls.
My little brother wanted canned spaghetti instead of baked beans and had run off in a huff when I told him there was none left. He is moping quietly on the couch, running his Hot Wheels car along the arms.
My little sister got frustrated with baby sister’s crying and brother’s sulking and stormed off to our bedroom to read.
I abandon the baked beans temporarily to try and calm down my crying baby sister. Her nappy is soaked through and she smells strongly of wee.
I scrunch up my nose as I change her nappy as best as I can. Baby sister’s screams get louder as I wipe her red skin clean. Her nappy is crooked and I can’t put her pants back on, but at least she is dry.
I hand a plate of baked beans to baby sister and tell little sister and brother to come get dinner from the kitchen. I put a video on the TV to distract them while they eat.
I leave my plate on the bench. My tummy is too full of worry to eat.
Mum has been feeling sick a lot lately and always needs to have a lie-down. As the oldest I am in charge of looking after my siblings. Usually she will come out to change baby sister’s nappy and to heat up a can of baked beans or spaghetti.
Tonight has been different. Tonight Mum has been in her bedroom for hours and she hasn’t heard baby sister’s cries or come out to cook dinner.
Something is wrong.
I sneak down the hallway to Mum’s room and knock gently on the door. When there is no answer, I slowly open the door and peak inside the room.
It smells funny.
I call out to her, scared to get too close to the funny smell. I see Mum huddled under the covers, eyes shut. She doesn’t answer me.
I tiptoe closer and reluctantly touch her forehead. It’s sweaty and warm. I grab her shoulder and shake her, begging her to wake up.
Mum’s eyes flick open and she looks at me.
“Call your Dad.”
I run out to the home phone and bring it back to Mum. Dad lives in a different house to us now and I don’t know the phone number.
Mum dials for me and I take the phone back eagerly.
Dad will know what to do.
Christmas that year felt like an ending and a beginning.
It’s an ending because it was the last Christmas in that house. The house was too big and our money was too small.
It’s a beginning because that was the first Christmas since the divorce.
The first Christmas since I became a big girl who was allowed to pay for petrol and who was in charge of looking after her younger siblings and who was told to call Dad when Mum’s kidney died and the doctors needed to take it out.
Mum tells us we won’t get presents at home this year, not even from Santa. She said Santa will go to Nanna’s house instead and leave us chocolate coins.
When Mum wakes us up early Christmas morning I don’t feel the usual excitement and eagerness that I usually do. My younger siblings are still holding out hope, but all my hope is gone.
Presents and Santa are money and our money is too small and our house is too big.
As we walk out to the lounge room, packed boxes lining the walls of the hallway, we hear a noise. It sounds like early mornings camping in the bush or playing in the park as the sun goes down.
My siblings and I reach the lounge room before Mum. Inside is a domed cage sitting on a metal stand. Inside the cage is a tiny blue budgie, his song echoing around the almost empty house.
A tiny piece of hope fills my chest as I see the tag hanging from the wire cage.
While my siblings giggle and chirp back to the budgie, I look back at Mum with her one kidney and see her smiling at me.
“Things will be better in the new house, a fresh start.” She says.
I hope so.
I hope she won’t be sick all the time. I hope we will have money for jumpers that fit and petrol and maybe even sometimes McDonald’s.
I hope I never have to eat another can of baked beans again.
Originally posted by me on Medium