Short story ‘Almost Christmas’ by Hannah-May Lee

Almost Christmas

by Hannah May Lee

Sally could hear the whine of the chainsaw in the distance and relaxed a little. It meant he was busy, which was good. She’d run up into the hills after another one of their fights. After windrowing trees with him all morning he’d asked her to set the table for lunch and she’d dared ask him why he couldn’t do it himself – so he’d thrown the cutlery at her. Seemed like a good time to run and hunker down for a bit. There were heavier things than knives and forks at home.

Her cool, damp sand surrounds were like the comfort of the womb. She’d crafted this bunker herself. Being close to the ocean, this farm was built on sand. Easy to break open, easy to mould into something private and perfect and yours. On the other farms she’d built huts above ground; impermanent structures from bits of four-by-two that toppled in strong winds, bivouacs built with specially selected branches and leaves, teepees encircling spindly trees. Once she’d sewn the old grain sacks together with baling twine to form a roof. Waterproof so she could keep some stuff there. Just in case.

But this hut was underground. Dug into the soft sand, firmer and more stable deeper down. Dug deep, so deep that standing on tiptoes she could just peer over the top. It was large enough she could lie flat on the floor at any angle without touching the walls. She’d built in some steps for easier access, reinforced with pine bark found in the neighbouring forestry. She’d pilfered bits of wool from the shed after the shearers went home – it made for excellent flooring. Over time her footsteps had felted it into a warm, dry, grubby carpet. And the smell of lanolin held memories of an easier time – Sally playing Mummy to Rosie the lamb. This always made her smile.

She’d used grain sacks as roofing again but this time had the foresight to stitch them into the undersides of surrounding ferns and bracken. She kept a blanket, her pocket knife, a hexi cooker, matches, some scroggin, a pen, a notebook and a battered copy of Wild Pork and Watercress stashed under a small tarp. She also had about forty dollars she’d made from various farm jobs stashed inside one of the beanies Mum had knitted her. She made sure she still had enough to buy a bag of lollies when they headed into town so he didn’t get suspicious. Sally had been a really good Brownie – the Camping and Adventure badges were just two of dozens that cluttered her old sash. She was always prepared.

It wasn’t always like this. Sometimes he was actually a pretty good Dad. Sometimes he explained what was happening in politics and taught her the ins and outs of 500 and let her have more than just a sip of his beer. During a really good patch he’d even taught Sally how to use his .22. And she turned out to be pretty good at it, so he wasn’t a bad teacher. Occasionally he even managed to make her mother smile. But coming up Christmas, this all disappeared. She didn’t know why. Maybe something bad had happened when he was a kid. Or maybe it was the prospect of Christmas – thinking of his estranged family and trying to scrape together money that they seemed to never have. She wasn’t sure. But she knew that every December from start to finish would be tough. But this year would be better. Because she had built somewhere to weather the storm.

She folded the blanket, sat down cross-legged and reached out for her notebook to start writing. She often hatched her best story ideas out here. Then she paused. Something had changed.

The roar of the chainsaw was gone. All she could hear was the orchestra of cicadas and crickets and the crashing of waves in the distance. Usually when the chainsaw started it meant he would be at it for at least an hour – chopping wood was like Dad’s version of therapy. It hadn’t even been 20 minutes yet. Something must have happened.

Sally wasn’t sure if she should stay put or sneak back to the house. When he was in this sort of mood anyone could cop it. Mum could cop it. And he was always worse with her. Maybe he considered her a more worthy adversary than a 12-year-old girl. Which was total bull. She stood up for herself way more than Mum ever had. Mum’s skills lay in taking a good smack in silence and lying low afterwards. Even when he hit her hard enough to burst her eardrum. Even when he pushed her down the stairs on their 10th wedding anniversary and her collarbone audibly snapped. She’d barely even whimpered.

Sally pitied Mum. She loathed her weakness in the face of the tornado that was her father. She swore she’d never be like her – she didn’t think she could be, Sally could never manage to keep her mouth shut. But Mum was all she had really. She was the only person Sally knew that understood this life. So many times she’d tried to push the words from her mouth to tell someone – anyone – what it was like to be in her family. So many times she’d failed. Nothing spoken could ever be enough to make anyone truly understand.

And Mum was not a bad person. Sure, she was weak but she was also kind. She did her best to bring a little sunshine into their lives. A fresh batch of extra cheesy scones, a new embroidery stitch for Sally to master, fairy-tales of growing up in the suburbs and that time Grandma saw the Queen and fainted. Sally just wished Mum could see that they could live that fairy tale if they wanted. All Mum had to do was call Aunty Steph to come get them one day when dad was out hunting with his mates. A phone call could be their fairy godmother. One phone call.

But Sally knew she would never make that call. Mum was so beaten down she probably couldn’t imagine a life outside, much less organise her own break to freedom. She was trapped. And right now, the prison guard was probably pacing the cells looking for some action. And even though she struggled to relate to her mother, Sally didn’t like to see her get hurt. Especially on account of her own defiance. She took a deep breath and climbed the steps to the world above.

She could smell petrol fumes and smoke on the air. This meant it hadn’t been long since Dad had turned off the chainsaw which was good. It meant she probably had time to get back to the house before anything really bad could happen. She moved quickly through the bracken on the hills, keeping low. It was possible she’d got things wrong – it might be her he was after. And he was much more practiced at stalking than she was. He could be closer than she thought.

With this in mind she took the less predictable path home, avoiding the outcrop overlooking the homestead. If he were waiting for her, that’s the place he’d most likely be. Instead, she took the path down through the gully, approaching the heifers slowly so they didn’t startle and give her away. Sally was glad she’d worn her gummies. Even at this time of year the gully was always boggy. The cows carved divots into the earth moving over the same pathways every day, which made for spots on the farm like this one.

It wasn’t long before, mud speckled, Sally emerged from the small stand of pines to the north-west of the house. From here, she could easily get to the barn. Other than the ute, there was no sign of Dad here. She was secretly a bit disappointed. She knew it was a long shot but she had hoped he might have driven up to the Godfreys’ place for a couple of beers. Sometimes that’s what he did when he got in this sort of a mood. Not this time though. Maybe he was still out tracking her and Mum was in the kitchen. Maybe.

It was the most likely explanation for the peace in what was usually a busy back yard, so not a bad bet. Still it made sense to move carefully. Sally figured the safest way to get into the house to check on Mum was in the back way, through the barn. It was also the quietest way. Because Dad liked being able to sneak up on them both the hinges and lock mechanism were regularly doused in WD-40. After a few tries he’d worked out this didn’t work as well on the ranchslider at the front. Quickly and quietly, Sally moved through the barn.

She pressed her ear up against the back door hoping to hear something. But there was no clanging of dishes being washed, no radio on, no obvious hint as to what had gone on in her absence. Sally had a feeling that Mum was there though – she just didn’t know where exactly, or what state she might be in. She slipped off her gummies and left them beside the back door. It was a clear sign to Dad that she was home, but it was much easier to sneak through houses barefoot than in gummies and by the time he’d realised she was back it wouldn’t matter. She took a deep breath and slowly turned the handle.

Adeptly avoiding the edge of the floor mat, Sally stepped soundlessly into the hallway. Everything in the house seemed eerily as she’d left it. Her bedroom door was still ajar at the same angle she always left it at. Her parents’ bedroom door was still closed. The toilet door, wide open. Cautiously, she made her way down the hall toward the living room.

This was also empty, and after several steps forward she could see that the kitchen was too. Sally was puzzled. She wasn’t really sure what to do besides checking the house room by room. But then a flash of movement outside caught her eye. She ran toward the ranchslider and peered through the glass. A hand. She was sure she could see a hand flailing in the grass behind the quad. A small and pale hand. Mum’s hand.

Sally yanked the ranchslider open. The sound wouldn’t matter now, if he was there he’d catch up with her soon anyway. Besides which, it didn’t matter. Things had changed. She was used to coming home and finding things weren’t right, but this was different. This felt different. Time had stopped. She raced toward the quad bike yelling “Mum! Mum?” as she went. But heard no reply. “MUM!” She yelled.  When she got to the quad bike she stopped in her tracks.

Dad was straddling Mum with his hands around her throat. Her face was a mottled purplish colour. Her blue eyes bulged out of their sockets. Her mouth stretched open. “Dad! DAD!” She thought her voice might snap him out of it, but her presence seemed, if anything, to egg him on. His thumbs pressed into the soft flesh of Mum’s throat. He was going to kill her. But her flapping hands indicated she was still somehow there. Sally sped toward them and tried to pull him off.

He did not budge. She tried again. Solid as a rock, he pushed his left hand into her face, strong enough to rock her off. She bit him on the ear, thinking surely this would move him. This time he slapped her so hard she saw stars and fell away.

Looking awkwardly up from the ground, she spotted it. Dad’s .308 was leaned up against the back of the trailer behind the quad. Instinctively, Sally grabbed it. She’d never held Dad’s rifle before. It was heavier than the .22 but cool and somehow soothing in her hands. It was solid – something to ground her in this break in time. “Dad,” she said with authority. “You need to let Mum go or I’ll shoot.” He grinned, hardly distracted from his task. “I mean it Dad, I will pull this trigger. You need to get off her now”.

Nothing. Mum’s hand was hanging limply.

Adrenaline aided her in hefting the rifle up into the snug of her shoulder. “Dad. This is your last warning. You need to let go of Mum and walk away or I’ll shoot.” Through tears, she slid back the safety. She pulled back the bolt and checked it – unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, it was loaded. She closed the bolt. She wished she had more time to talk him down, but it was too heavy to hold steady for much longer. Sally thought back to Dad’s lessons with the .22 down the back of the farm. She remembered what he’d taught her. Sally took a deep breath in then slowly released it out and focused her shot. She thought maybe Mum could live that fairy tale after all. Sally pulled the trigger.


Hannah-May Lee hails from West Auckland and juggles many roles and interests. Although a long-time lover of the genre, she is new to writing short fiction. Her poetry has previously appeared in publications including Potroast, Live Lines and Blackmail Press.

‘I view writing as a gateway to other experiences, granting readers access to places, people and situations they may otherwise never encounter’

This story first appeared in takahē 93, August 2018

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