“I can’t leave her now, she’s already gone.”
Dad gets up and fiddles with the kettle. He fills it with more water, even though our cups are full, water still steaming.
I’ve been away from home for too long. The wallpaper in the kitchen is still the same, but I couldn’t remember the rosebud pattern being that off-red colour. The only upgrades I noticed was the lemon tree’s branches had been stripped back.
“She’s going to ask for a divorce,” I say.
Dad flicks the kettle back on. It bubbles up, hot waves shooting through the water. It smacks around the edges of the kettle. “She wouldn’t do that. She’s just…cranky.”
He changes the subject to my studies and forgets, again, that I’m doing my Honours year. I don’t tell him I’m probably going to fail, that I’m one foot out the door. I’m the only kid that left.
Jay comes in, carrying his dirty plate and looking rumpled. “Hey-o.”
I see the fat that’s clung to his hips, the way it’s settled there like Susan had once been settled in the kitchen with Dad.
“What d’you think about all this?” I ask Jay.
Dad blows air out of his nose as the kettle flicks off again.
Dad gets up and makes Jay a tea.
“Dunno. Thought Dad was going to leave her.”
Dad gives him the floral mug. “Wasn’t.”
Two years ago I’d come back home temporarily over the summer. My ex-boyfriend had gotten stoned again and let my cat out. I came back to find my place filled by Susan — all forty years of blonde hair dye and plans of redecorating my mum’s kitchen. Dad had looked modestly happy. Susan had a soft bosom and a cheeky smile. I could have liked her if I wasn’t concentrating on hating everyone.
Susan made me spritzers and tried to relate. A vet’s nurse, she kept asking if I’d like her to bring me home a stray cat.
“They need a lot of love,” she said, looking over at Dad.
"No. Thanks,”I said, wanting to gag.
I stayed until my ex called to say he’d found the cat. It was dazed but alive — our relationship wasn’t.
I missed the quiet ceremony with an RSL Club reception that was Dad and Susan’s wedding. Pathetic excuses of study and a new house were made to avoid it.
“I wish you’d come,” Dad said over the phone. “Mean a lot to Susan — I thought you girls were bonding?”
“If it weren’t for this essay,” I said. “Send me a picture.”
I go into Jay’s room and he’s watching some Zombie show. I see a flesh-eating monster stagger and flail across the screen.
“Bit like Susan,” I say. “Life-munchers.”
I close Jay’s door behind me. His room smells seedy. I stand because his desk chair is piled high with unwashed clothes.
“What happened, Jay? Did she have an affair?”
I imagine her cracking onto Dad’s friends when they come over for a beer. She’d flit around in a tight shirt, keep offering beers. Linger.
“Did you ever hear them fighting?”
“I guess,” Jay says. “I’m at work a lot. I dunno, Dad seemed happy.”
Dad was happy at the hardware store, eating a square meal of meat and three veg. He drinks beers with his friends, sends me money if I ask. Last summer I hadn’t come home but instead to Vietnam with some girlfriends. I bought Dad, and by extension Susan, a dumb, kitschy present — because I never knew what to get Dad.
“She come back since?” I ask.
Jay shrugs and turns the volume up.
Dad and Susan came to my graduation. I hadn’t wanted to do the ceremony but I dragged my hungover, aching body out of bed. I had been sleeping with a friend-of-a-friend but couldn’t ask him to come.
The day was sticky and slow. I had almost nodded off when they called my name.
Afterwards, Dad gave me some flowers that were wilting in the heat. “From Susie and I.” Susan nodded stiffly beside him.
“Oh, thanks. You want to stay for a beer?”
We went to the student haunt in town. Most graduates were peeling off their red robes, fanning themselves with degrees and thin programs. We sat at a table near the boy I was sleeping with and his friends. He hadn’t graduated and gave me a one-armed half-hug.
Dad bought us beers and Susan kept looking at me while I talked to Dad about my Honours year.
“Oh, Susie read your entry-thing,” Dad said. “Thought it was good.”
“Proposal,” I said. I looked over Susan’s shoulder and waved at a classmate.
The third day I’m home, Susan comes by. She’s chunkier then I remembered. She wears her blue uniform with the white puppy paw-print pattern.
“Oh, hi, didn’t realise you were home.” My eyes narrow in on her putting her keys back in her handbag.
“Mm, someone’s gotta take care of Dad. Won’t be Jay.”
Susan trills a little laugh. “How’s study?”
“Your dad showed me your speech. Great stuff.”
“I almost finished uni,” Susan says. “Got pretty close, before I decided to get married. Really wished I’d stuck with I — you’re a lot braver. Could have been a different life.”
I look at Susan in my parents’ living room. My Dad hasn’t changed much. There’s still a photo of Jay, me and Mum. Susan has grey in her hair, carries an old, huge purse over her arm.
“But you never know, huh? Are you sticking with it? The Honours?” Susan looks at me, like she’s actually hopeful.
“Stick with your guts first.”
She excuses herself for their bedroom. Hers and Dad’s.
Katie Huggins is a recent graduate of Creative writing and History from the University of Wollongong. She is a member of the Yorkshire Writing Squad, UK and former president of the UOW Literary Society. She has an Honourable Mention from the New York Short Story Comp 2016, and audience favourite for her play in the Sydney Writer’s Festival. Huggins’ work has been published in Jotters United, the Writing Junction, PUSH and Ugly Pineapple. Besides travelling extensively, she collects editions of Alice in Wonderland, loves Russian history and works for a documentary film company. You can find more of her original work online at girlreviewsit.wordpress.com
Susan’s Gone is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @sebamolinafotografia