It was always like this. If her brothers did something wrong, Maddy got the blame. If her father did something wrong "like whatever he'd done to the dishwasher that always made it clunk now- she got the blame. If some stupid Space Probe, after a three year trip to Mars, landed badly and so failed to work then no doubt Nasa would phone her mother and ask her mother to tell her off because somehow she would be to blame. All that she had been sent here to do was to take the blame.
"It's a cat," Maddy said.
Her real name was Madison but no one called her that, in fact sometimes she felt that if she didn't have to write it on her school work then she'd probably forget it was her real name too.
She liked her real name.
"It's more than a cat," her dad replied as he moved around the freshly completed sculpture, scrutinising every blemish in the damp clay.
"It's the 'First Cat'," he said. "If cats didn't exist and you wanted to create them then you could use this cat as the model."
Her dad always got excited after he'd just finished a sculpture, and seeing how the walls of his studio, which used to be their garage, were full of shelves and those shelves cluttered with sculptures, he got excited a lot.
He hadn't always been a sculptor. He used to be an IT Consultant earning over two hundred thousand dollars a year, but four years ago he'd suffered a major heart attack and after undergoing a quadruple bypass he'd decided that he could never go back to pointless work. From now on, he'd told them, he was going to sculpt and one day the money he made from selling his sculptures would be enough to support them all.
Unfortunately they were still waiting for that day to arrive, or at least for their father to accept that it didn't look like it was going to. In the meantime they were still learning to survive on just their mother's income.
Maddy was the second child: eleven years old, she was shorter than she should be, chubbier than she wanted to be and her skin colour was the same as her hair colour, which was the same as the colour of her eyes and they were brown. Once, she wrote in her diary that she wondered if on the day they were making her whether the only colour they had on hand was brown. To make matters worse, her older brother Phoenix had blue eyes and black hair, which was full of natural curls, while her younger brother, Trent, (who wanted to live in a satellite. I'll tell you about that later) was already taller than her and had blond hair and incredible green eyes.
"We have to go Dad," she said, "Mum will kill us if we're late."
"Oh no," he went and wiped his clay-wet hands on his clay- dusty cargo pants. 'We mustn't be late.'
Because her dad had taken over the garage they now had to park their car in the street. When both her parents had been working they had owned two BMWs, but nowadays what with school fees to pay, groceries to be purchased and then of course there were the power bills and the phone bills, and the council rates, and what about clothes? I mean it's not like they could walk around naked, or even worse, in op-shop clothes, and then of course there was their medical insurance, ambulance insurance, and everything else that had to be paid, and oh lets not forget the mortgage . . . What was I talking about again? Oh yes, the BMWs. Well sadly their mother's income just wasn't enough to cover everything and their leases as well and so one after the other they had to be sold. Now they owned a second hand, white commodore, whose driver side door was beige thanks to all the dust from her father's hands.
Maddy hated their car. In the street they lived on -the street she'd always lived on- every other family was constantly updating their cars. Once her family had been the same, now though they seemed to be the only ones going the other way.
It was Six forty five in the afternoon and Maddy and her father were off to pick up her mother. Her mother managed a local nursing home. Her official title was D.O.N: Director of Nursing. It sounded important but as Maddy's mother so often complained:
'Great title, lousy pay.'
Maddy hated the nursing home. To her it always smelt of dried urine and air freshener. Some of the nurses carried cans of air freshener with them and were always spraying the old peoples' rooms with it, but instead of the deodorizer masking the smell, it sort of just blended in with it so as soon as you walked in all you smelt was lavender scented wee.
Most of the old people who lived in the nursing home were suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. The disease ate their memories, starting with their short-term memories, like where they'd put their keys and ending up with them forgetting everything: even their families. Most of the time the wrinkled old residents wrinkled would just walk up and down the hallways trying to figure out where they were, or, if they could walk, then they sit in a large room, called the day room, and stare off into space.
Initially Maddy had felt sorry for them all, especially the ones who would smile at her as if they were under the impression that she was here to see them. Now though, after years of coming in to get her mother, they were just another part of the view.
Oh, hold on, I haven't explained why Maddy was the one who had to come in yet. You see, as I already told you, if her father was late her mother would go psycho, but even when her father was on time her mother was never ready. Weirder still, her father, who, for some reason, refused to go into the nursing home, never got angry about being made to wait. Instead he'd just wait in the car sculpting bits of wire that he kept in his pockets into all manner of things. It was like her parents were playing some sort of strange waiting game and in the end the only way to get them both home, so that the whole family could have dinner, was for Maddy to go into her mother's office, and nag and whine until her mother said:
'Alright, alright, I'm coming.'
This nagging ritual was an art in itself. Sometimes it would only take five minutes but as a rule it would take over half an hour of Maddy spinning around and around on the office's spare chair while repeating:
"Muummm!' every few minutes or so.
Today though things were different.
Her Mother's office door was closed, and outside it a fierce looking old lady, who Maddy didn't recognise, was leaning on a walking stick and glaring at Maddy as Maddy walked through the security doors..
Not wanting to show the old lady how intimidated she actually felt, Maddy
held up her plump little face and walked into her mother's office without knocking.
Immediately she knew she knew she'd done the wrong thing.
Her mother was in a meeting with another woman who looked like a slightly younger, but just as fierce, clone of the old lady outside.
'Maddy,' her mother said, 'What have I told you about knocking first?'
'I dunno,' Maddy replied and grabbed a pen from the desk and as the two women glared at her she began flicking its flicker.
'Who is this?' the other woman asked and sounded unimpressed.
'This is my daughter Mrs Tisk. You see at Grandview Gardens we're committed to fostering a warm and friendly family atmosphere. Isn't that right Maddy?'
'Whatever,' Maddy replied, then looked up to Mrs Tisk because Mrs Tisk was actually tisking.
Maddy's mother was out of the chair and had hold of Maddy's arm before she'd even said:
'Excuse me Mrs Tisk, I'll be right back.'
Pen in hand Maddy was marched out of the room.
Outside, with the old lady looking on, Maddy's mother bent to her and said:
'What are you doing? Not only is Mrs Tisk related to my boss, but that old lady there is Mrs Krangle, her mother.'
'So?' Maddy asked, and wished she had some gum to chew.
'So? So her mother's sick. So sick that today she's going to be leaving her here today. Do you have any idea how hard that would be for Mrs Tisk? Naturally she's very upset, so the last thing she needs is for you to come waltzing into my office full of your snotty little attitude.'
'Snotty,' Maddy went. 'Mum, I don't even think that's a word.'
'Just watch it. Okay? Just watch it,' and with that her mother rushed back to the office and the last thing that Maddy heard, just as the door closed, was her mother saying:
'I don't know what's wrong with her today, she's usually such a joy . . .'
'Watch it,' Maddy mumbled to herself. 'Watch yourself more like,' and with Mrs Krangle scrutinising her every move, Maddy made her way to the small aquarium that sat in the entrance.
The three gold fish inside it were her favourite things in the whole nursing Home. Lazily they swam around in their illuminated, and slight murky water, as trapped within the glass as the old people were inside the home. For a while she'd seriously been considering stealing them, and then, under the cover of darkness, releasing them into a large pond that was situated in a park near her school. Trent had talked her out of it though. Told her there was no point really seeing how a gold fish's memory was only three seconds long. Chances were, he'd said, they already think they're in a pond, especially seeing how there was a picture of water plants stuck to the back of their aquarium. Chances were, he'd said, they were already happy.
Then Maddy was hit by something hard
"Ouch!" Maddy yelled and grabbing her smarting thigh spun around to find Mrs Krangle, raising her walking stick and preparing to hit her again.
'What have you done with Charles?' Mrs Krangle demanded to know.
'Charles? Who the hell is Charles?' Maddy said while just managing to leap back, out of reach of the stick.
Mrs Krangle followed her, and for an old lady she was she fast.
'Don't you act smart with me!' Mrs Krangle said. 'I know your type. Now tell me where he is.'
'You're mad!' Maddy said, and tried to escape the situation by running towards her mother's office.
But Mrs Krangle was too quick and not only did she block Maddy's path but she went to hit Maddy again.
This time though Maddy managed to grab hold of the end of the stick.
'Let go of my stick!' Mrs Krangle yelled and tried to yank it back.
'No!' Maddy yelled, 'Not until you stop hitting me!'
'Madison!' Maddy's mother roared, and it was the first time in years she had called Maddy by her full name. "What in god's name do you think you are doing? "
Maddy, looked up and found her own Mother standing in the office's doorway, and the best way to describe her face was to compare it to a volcano which was moments away from erupting.
Automatically Maddy let go of the walking stick.
'Come over here,' Maddy's mother said and led her away to a quiet corner.
"But Mum," Maddy wailed, "She hi . .. "
"No But Mums," her Mother said as behind them all Maddy could here was Mrs Tisk, Tisking as she fussing over her mother.
'Are you determined to get me sacked?' Maddy's mother, in a horse whisper asked. 'Because if you are then you are definitely going about it the right way!'
'But mum . . .'
'I SAID NO BUT MUM'S. In my office I was just telling Mrs Tisk how good you are with old people and all the while you were out here attacking her mother.'
'Maddy! This is serious. If Mrs Tisk rings my boss and tells him about what you just did I could get in a lot of trouble, perhaps even fired, and the last thing we needs is for me to lose my job. Do you understand,"
"But. . ."
"Do you understand?"
After a resigned pause, Maddy nodded.
"Good," her Mother replied. "Now sit down next to the fish tank and leave Mrs Krangle alone.'
Grumbling under her breath, Maddy did what she was told and as the Mrs Tisk and her Mother went back into the office she ignored Mrs Krangle and sat down nest to the aquarium and glared at the fish.
It was always like this. If her brothers did something wrong, she got the blame. If her father did something wrong "like whatever he did to the dishwasher that always made it clunk now- she got the blame. If some stupid probe, after a three year trip to Mars, landed badly and so failed to work then no doubt Nasa would phone her mother and ask her mother to tell her off because somehow she would be to blame. All that she had been sent here to do was to take the blame.
Down the hallway carers were pushing old people in wheelchairs off to their rooms and cleaners, following them, were moping the floor, but before them Mrs Krangle, standing, was staring out of the locked front doors. From behind the safety of the fish tank Maddy studied her.
Not only was Mrs Krangle old, but she was ugly. To Maddy, it looked like the glue that had once stuck her face to her skull had dissolved so now her whole face just hung off her head. Every square centimetre of it was wrinkled, and the wrinkles were so deep that if you had been a flea then you could have mistaken her cheeks for the Grand Canyon. It was hard, no, it was impossible to believe that this old woman had ever been young.
Then, as if she had a feeling she was being watched, Mrs Krangle turned this way and found Maddy.
Maddy was glad. After first checking the office door she glared at the old woman and her glare was full of hate. At school today someone had poured apple juice (or at least Maddy was still hoping it was apple juice) into her bag, then, during English, her teacher, Mr Ng had told her, in front of the whole class, that she cannot use text shortened words in her homework (she'd written 2nite instead of tonight), and all these bad things had happened before she'd even had lunch, now, while hanging out for dinner, she was being assaulted by an insane Granny, so yeah, believe me, Maddy was giving this one a damn good glare.
'What's wrong with this door?' Mrs Krangle asked.
'It's locked,' Maddy condescendingly replied.
'That's ridiculous,' Mrs Krangle replied and stared at the mystery of the door. 'Why would anyone lock it?'
'To stop people like you getting out,' Maddy replied.
'Don't talk rot!' Mrs Krangle fired back and grabbing the door gave it a good shake. 'You have no idea what you're talking about.'
The old woman was good. Despite Maddy being right about the door -you needed to key a secret number onto a security pad in order to unlock it- the old woman had succeeded, through a complete belief in her own superiority, to make Maddy feel small.
Today though Maddy did not want to feel small. Up, out of her seat, she strode to the security pad.
'Look, see!' she said, and pointed to the keypad, then as Mrs Krangle watched on, Maddy pressed in the secret number. As the door slid open, Maddy turned around with a broad grin on her face.
'Well it's about time!' Mrs Krangle said and strode out of the home.
'No, wait,' Maddy went: 'You can't just leave.'
But it was too late, as the door closed, Mrs Krangle, at full speed was already heading for the road.
At the open door, Maddy, after getting over her initial shock, scoured the nursing home's corridors for a staff member who could come to help.
There was no one.
Swinging back to the entrance Maddy found Mrs Krangle had already reached the footpath and, like a goldfish dropped into a pond, she was gone.
'Uh oh,' Maddy whispered.
'Hi,' her father replied, as Maddy opened the car door and climbed in.
Then, after finally looking up from the wire sculpture of a rat he was crafting, he searched the car park before asking:
'Where's your mother?'
'Oh, she's err, coming,' Maddy replied, while chewing her already badly chewed nails. 'She's just err . . . taking her time.'
'Oh, okay,' her dad replied then went back to his rat
'Mum!' Mrs Tisk burst out of the nursing home yelling: 'Mum, where are you? MMUUUMMM!!!!'
'Who's that?' her father asked as Mrs Tisk ran screaming past the front of their car.
'How should I know?' Maddy replied as a cold wind of trouble blow through her: a wind that blew twice as hard when, upon turning back to the nursing home, she found her mother standing in the entrance. Arms crossed her mother was glaring at her.
Biting her lip, Maddy slid further down into her seat.
As her father drove them around the streets Maddy, her head like a panicked periscope, searched desperately every driveway and shadow. It was no good. The old woman was nowhere. It was as though the street-lit dark had swallowed her up.
'What did you say she looked like again?' her father asked.
'She's old with grey hair and she's wearing a pink cardigan. Or at least I think it was pink.'
'You think it was pink?' her father replied. 'Before you knew it was pink. Next you'll be telling me, at least I think it was an old lady.'
An hour passed and in that time her brothers had rung their mobile phone twice wanting to know where their dinner was, and her mum had been on the mobile four times. Each time her Mother had sounded worse: apparently Mrs Tisk was already talking about suing the home: about suing them.
'Find her,' her Mother had said and said again. 'Just find her.'
They passed a police car coming the other way. It too was moving slowly, its bright searchlight combing the footpath and the front of the houses. To the sight of the patrol car Maddy's anxiousness soared. In her head she had visions of Mrs Krangle being found dead in a ditch and because of this she could see her mother being sacked. With both her parents unemployed they'd have to sell their home. This home was the only home Maddy had ever known and in the whole of their street, no, in the whole of the world, her room was the only bit of space that was completely and utterly hers. Nowadays, apart from her father, who every couple of days brought up her washing, no one entered it. To stay sane in this crazy world, she needed her own room.
'Come on she stupid old woman,' she whispered. 'Where are you?'
Suddenly her father pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car.
'Wicked!' Maddy said, and swinging around asked: 'Where is she?'
But straight away Maddy was confused. Instead of looking at the street her father was staring at the point where his hands held the top of the steering wheel.
'Well?' she went.
'You didn't like my cat . . . did you?' he asked.
'It's okay, you can be honest,' he said and turned to her with fear in his eyes. 'I can handle it.'
He always did this. Whenever he finished a new piece there would be an hour or so where he was feeling great, then following this he would quickly sink into self doubt and then this would become brooding. -Actually it was more like sulking-.
Maddy said nothing. She knew that this 'I can handle it' statement' was the signal that his mood was getting ready to go down.
'Dad,' she replied. 'Can't we just keep looking? . . . Please?'
'Yeah, yeah of course,' he replied, and starting the car he nodded to himself, as if ashamed, but then, while just about to move on, he stopped again and asked:
'It was the tail, wasn't it? I don't know what it is about the end but I always find myself struggling with it.'
'Dad, just Go!'
And then, as if the night had decided to be kind, Maddy saw her.
This was an old suburb. Down the back of the houses cobble stone alleyways ran. There was one such alleyway across from where they were now. It stretched off into the distance and gave Maddy only a fleeting glimpse of a slightly bent figure moving across it, way down the other end. Still, Maddy was sure it was her.
Down they went, the car bouncing over the cobble stones as their headlights lit the backs of garages and the wheelie bins.
'Faster!" Maddy yelled. 'Go faster!'
'How could you have seen her all the way down here?' her father asked.
'Oh why don't they have any lights down here?' Maddy replied.
The alleyway finished at a street that bordered a park. Maddy and her father knew this park. Together they gravely looked at each other and in unison said:
Pulled over, they got out of the car and ran down to the fence behind the cycle path. Over the chest high fence the Yarra ebbed along.
In her mind Maddy could see Mrs Krangle woman falling in. Could feel her splashing about as she tried to figure out what was going on. Could see her floating under the murky water like a confused fish.
Maddy's heart dropped. Once again Mrs Krangle had made her feel small. Less than small. She felt like running all the way back to her room, ripping out everything out of her built in robe, then crawling into it and closing the door. There was no escaping it. Her mother would now be sacked. They would have to sell their home and with nowhere else to go chances were they may even have to live on a caravan park . . . And what of Mrs Krangle. What cold, terrible way to die.
'Are you sure you saw her?' her father asked.
'Who knows,' Maddy replied.
'Hmm,' went her father. 'Well give me the mobile and I'll call the police and they can come down here and have a look.'
Dejected, Maddy searched her pockets but finding them empty said:
'It's in the car.'
'Okay, stay her,' her father said. 'I'll just go get it,'
What a mess, and all for what? Some stupid old woman who wanted to know where some dag called Charles was.
Grabbing the fence's top rail Maddy, out of pure frustration, began trying to shake it down, but it wouldn't move: she was nowhere near strong enough. Giving up, she hung onto the rail and slumped like a sad chimpanzee holding onto a branch.
Through the wire the river looked beautiful, especially with how the moon was dancing on its . . . its . . .
What was that hairy thing walking across her fingers?
Looking up she found, despite the lack of proper lighting, an huntsman spider.
Maddy screamed so loud she made no sound at all.
But it was like her voice just wouldn't work. Suddenly she was running away without any idea as to where she was running: the hand the spider had been on, held up in front of her like the Olympic torch. Like this she ran right over a small rise, totally out of sight of her father.
By the time she'd stopped running, she was trembling and panting. In fact she so not use to running she felt like she was having a heart attack.
'Argh!!' she screamed, and this time her voice worked, 'I am so sick of this night!'
Scream finished, she checked her hand for the spider, which was long gone, and noticed instead a figure sitting alone on one of the park's benches.
Even though a part of her knew it was Mrs Krangle, because she couldn't see anything other than a black silhouette, fear lifted its cold hand, and as if her skin was covered in billions of windows (all of them open) with one wave fear slammed them all shut.
'Dad,' she whispered as she kept her eyes fixed on the figure.
'Dad!' she repeated, slightly louder this time.
The figure had not moved, and now, after studying it, she couldn't see a walking stick.
The figure wasn't Mrs Krangle, it was a stranger.
Just then a cyclist flew over the rise. Maddy gasped as the rider swerved then swore at her before tearing off. Three other cyclists followed him, each swishing past her, and in the last one's bicycle light the figure was illuminated.
It was Mrs Krangle, and as if the old woman had been awoken by the cyclists, she was up again.
'Wait!' Maddy yelled and turning back to the rise wondered about trying to reach it and signal her dad before the old woman was gone again.
'Wait!' she yelled again as turning back she found that Mrs Kranglewas once more tearing off.
'Great!' Maddy said, and raced after her.
It took her only a few minutes to catch the old woman but by then Maddy was exhausted. Maddy hated exercise.
Mrs Krangle seemed confused by this plump girl beside her who was bent over at the middle and gasping for breath.
'Please, ' Maddy gasped . . .'Please just err. . . ' and then Maddy crossed to a park bench and panting, slumped into it. 'Just don't run away anymore.'
'Run away?' Mrs Krangle replied. 'Run away from whom?'
Maddy was just about to say the nursing home, but on second thoughts said: 'Me.'
Mrs Krangle studied Maddy as if she was trying to figure out if she knew who Maddy was, then she gave up and looked around. On all sides there was darkness and distant streetlights. The view clearly confused her. Using her stick to brace her way down, she finally sat next to Maddy and stared off into space.
Maddy didn't care if they didn't talked at all, she was just glad she had found her. She was relieved too that she was getting her breath back. As the moments passed she began wondering how to get this stubborn old woman back to her father's car.
On that matter, where was her father? Hadn't he noticed she was missing?
'Why don't boys like me?' Mrs Krangle asked.
'Excuse me?" asked Maddy.
'Is it my looks?' Mrs Krangle went on. 'I know I'm not the prettiest girl, but I didn't think I'm that bad.'
Maddy sat up. The old woman was looking at her as if waiting for an answer.
'You're still worried if boys like you or not?' Maddy screwed up her face and asked.
The old woman smiled: her wrinkles all creasing up as she did.
'I know. Silly isn't it,' Mrs Krangle said. 'But then if I'd been prettier perhaps Charles wouldn't have stopped coming around,' then she leaned over to Maddy and said. 'He's been seeing that O'Hara girl. He thinks I don't know, but I know. The little hussy,' and after saying this she turned back to the view and added, 'He has beautiful eyebrows you know. Perfect . . . boys are so lucky like that.'
'How old do you think you are?' Maddy asked.
'Think," Mrs Krangle replied. "That's a silly question. I don't need to think, I know how old I am. I'm fourteen,' the old woman replied.
'Fourteen,' Maddy said. 'Wow, and you still remember Charles?'
'Of course I remember him. I'll probably always remember him. What choice do I have? I'm in love with him.'
Maddy had no idea what to say and so she said nothing. but as she sat there studying the side of Mrs Krangle's proud head, she found herself wondering what she'd looked like when she being young. There was no way to tell, unless of course Mrs Krangle went and had about eighteen facelifts.
'I'm sorry,' Maddy said.
A little taken aback Mrs Krangle turned back to Maddy and smiling asked:
'I really am '
'What for?' Mrs Krangle asked then, even as the old woman was looking at her, Maddy could see that Mrs Krangle wasn't just being nice, thanks to Alzheimer's disease mrs Krangle truly had no idea about what Maddy was apologising for.
'There you are!' Maddy's father called as he came running down the cycle path. 'Oh my god I was so worried! I've been looking everywhere for, oh . . .' he stopped, then pointing at Mrs Krangle whispered to Maddy: 'Is this her?'
Maddy nodded and relieved he introduced himself to Mrs Krangle before turning back to Maddy and asking:
'What's wrong love? . . . Are you upset?'
Back at the nursing home Maddy was congratulated by all the staff and especially by Mrs Tisk. Mrs Tisk even apologised for the walking stick incident: telling Maddy that lately her mother, from time to time, had been very aggressive.
Maddy was dying to ask Mrs Tisk about Charles but what with all the fuss, like the police turning up to make sure everything was fine, there just wasn't the time.
The last Maddy saw of Mrs Krangle that day was her daughter leading her down the corridor as she took her to her new room.
After dinner, Maddy climbed down into their empty underground pool -empty because they'd been unable to afford the maintenance- and joined her brother Trent on the deckchairs they both kept down there.
From the deep end, when they looked directly up, they could see nothing above them but the rim of the pools and the stars.
'Do you think you'll ever fall in love?' Maddy asked her brother.
'No,' he replied, and sounded disgusted by the question.
Maddy nodded and returned to wondering about Mrs Krangle's Charles. What had he looked like? Where was he now? And if he was alive: an old man farting and smelling like the old men in the nursing home, did he know that there was still an old woman who remembered him? An old woman who after a life-time of memory could only remember him. But then perhaps the fact that Mrs Krangle was forgetting the present was a good thing. If the goldfish, with their three-second memories, could be happy in an aquarium because they thought the glass tank was a pond, then what was wrong with Mrs Krangle, who would never leave the nursing home, believing she was young?
Thinking these things over again, she finally got up on one elbow and asked Trent, who was furiously searching the stars, the one question that had, because of tonight, really begun to frighten her.
'Trent?' she suddenly asked and she waited for him to look at her before finishing the question because she needed to see his eyes:
'Do you think I'm pretty enough for someone to love me?'
Trent's twisted up as though he'd just sucked on a lemon: 'Maddy, what's wrong with you tonight?'
'Tel me,' she said and sat up properly. 'I can handle it.'
Trent's face went from 'lemon twist' to 'awkward worry'. He wasn't used to been asked serious questions. He preferred questions that dealt with supernovas or meteorites. Objects in space rarely hurt anyone down here.
'I'm not am I?' Maddy replied after he took too long to reply. 'I knew it.' Getting up she walked out of the pool and then stopped on the top step.
From there she could see the garage's light was on, (no doubt her dad was back working on that stupid cat,) while in the living room, which she could see through the back-glass doors, Phoenix was watching Law and Order and on the couch next to him her Mother was asleep.
'I'll tell you what,' she heard Trent say and when she turned she found he was standing next to her. 'If no one does fall in love with you, you can always come live with me.'
After a moment she hugged him for this. Hugged him good and hard.
Dug her chin into his shoulder, and squeezed closed her eyes.