***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Brooke Davis
Millie’s dog, Rambo, was her Very First Dead Thing. She found him by the sideof the road on a morning when the sky seemed to be falling, fog circling hisbroken shape like a ghost. His jaw and eyes were wide open, as if mid-bark. Hisleft hind leg pointed in a direction it normally didn’t. The fog lifted aroundthem, the clouds gathered in the sky, and she wondered if he was turning intorain.
It was only when she dragged Rambo up to the house in herschoolbag that her mother thought to tell her how the world worked.
He’s gone to a better place, her mother shouted at herwhile vacuuming the lounge room.
A better place?
What? Yes, heaven, love,haven’t you heard of it? Don’t they teach you anything in that bloody school?Lift your legs! It’s doggy heaven, where there’s eternal dog biscuits and theycan poop wherever they please. Okay, legs down. I said, legs down! And theypoop, I don’t know, dog biscuits, so all they do is poop and eat dog biscuits,and run around and eat the other dogs’ poop. Which are actually dog biscuits.
Millie took a moment.Why would they waste time here, then?
What? Well, they, um, have toearn it. They have to stay here until they get voted over to a better place.Like doggySurvivor.
So, is Rambo on anotherplanet?
Well, yes. Sort of. Imean—you really haven’t heard of heaven? How God sits up in the clouds andSatan’s all underground and everything?
Can I get to Rambo’s newplanet?
Her mother switched off the vacuum cleaner and lookedsquarely at Millie. Only if you have aspaceship. Do you have a spaceship?
Millie looked at her feet. No.
Well, you can’t get toRambo’s new planet then.
Days later, Millie discovered that Rambo was most definitelynot on a new planet and was, in fact, in their backyard, buried halfheartedlyunder the Sunday Times. Milliecarefully lifted the newspaper and saw Rambo but not-Rambo; a Rambo shrunkenand eaten and wasting away. She snuck out every night from then on, to be withhim while his body went from something into nothing.
The old man crossing the road had been her Second DeadThing. After the car hit him, she watched him fly through the air and thoughtshe saw him smile. His hat landed on top of the yield sign and his walkingstick danced around the lamppost. And then it had been his body, crackingagainst the curb. She pushed her way through all the legs and exclamation marksto kneel beside his face. She looked deeply into his eyes. He looked back ather like he was only a drawing. She ran her fingers over his wrinkles andwondered what he’d used each one for.
She was then lifted away from him and told to cover hereyes, because she was just a child.And as she wandered home the long way, she thought it might be time to ask herdad about people heaven.
You see, Squirt, there’sheaven, and then there’s hell. Hell is where they send all the bad people, likecriminals and con artists and parking inspectors. And heaven is where they sendall the good people, like you and me and that nice blonde from MasterChef.
What happens when you get there?
In heaven, you hang out withGod and Jimi Hendrix, and you get to eat doughnuts whenever you want. In hell,you have to, uh . . . do the Macarena. Forever. To that “Grease Megamix.”
Where do you go if you’regood and bad?
What? I don’t know. IKEA?
Will you help me make aspaceship?
Hang on, Squirt. Can wefinish this next ad break?
She soon noticed that everything was dying around her. Bugsand oranges and Christmas trees and houses and mailboxes and train rides andmarkers and candles and old people and young people and people in between. Shewasn’t to know that after she had recorded twenty-seven assorted creatures inher Book Of Dead Things—Spider, The Bird, Grandma, next door’s cat Gertrude,among others—her dad would be a Dead Thing too. That she’d write it next to thenumber twenty-eight in letters so big they took up two pages: MY DAD. That, fora while, it was hard to know what to do other than stare at the letters untilshe couldn’t remember what they meant. That she would do this, by flashlight,sitting in the hallway outside her parents’ bedroom, listening to her mumpretending she was asleep.
thefirst day of waiting
When playing connect the dots, Millie was always Dot One, her mum Dot Two, andher dad Dot Three. The line came from deep inside Dot One’s belly, wrappeditself around Dot Two and Dot Three—usually watching the telly— and back again,to make a triangle. Millie would run around the house, her red hair bouncingabout her head, the triangle between them spiraling around the furniture. Whenher mum said, Would you stop that,Millicent?, the triangle roared into an enormous dinosaur. When her dadsaid, Come sit beside me, Squirt, thetriangle curled into a big, beating heart. Ba-boom.Ba-boom, she whispered, skipping awkwardly to its rhythm. She nestled inbetween Dots Two and Three on the couch. Dot Three grabbed Dot One’s hand andwinked. The flashing pictures from the telly lit up his face in the dark. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom.
On The First Day Of Waiting, Millie stands exactly where her mum points to.Right near the Ginormous Women’s Underwear and across from the mannequinwearing the Hawaiian shirt. I’ll be rightback, her mum says, and Millie believes her. Dot Two wears her gold shoes,the ones that make her footsteps like explosions. She walks toward theperfumes—Kaboom!—past the menswear—Kablammo!—and out of sight: Kapow! The line between Dot One and DotTwo tugs and pulls, and Millie watches it getting thinner and thinner, until itis just a tiny scratch on the air.
Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom.
Millie will carry this around with her from now on, thispicture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappearbehind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life. Whenmovie characters say, I’ll be right back.When, in her forties, she looks at her hands and doesn’t recognize them as herown. When she has a stupid question and can’t think of anyone in the world toask. When she cries. When she laughs. When she hopes for something. Every timeshe watches the sun disappear into the water she will feel a little panickedand not know why. The automatic doors of shopping centers will always make heranxious. When a boy touches her properly for the first time, she will imaginehim shrinking into the horizon, far, far, far out of her reach.
But she doesn’t know any of this yet.
What she does know, right now, is that her legs ache fromstanding. She takes off her backpack and crawls underneath the GinormousWomen’s Underwear clothing rack. Her mum said there are women who can’t seetheir privates because they eat entire buckets of chicken. Maybe these undiesare for them. Millie has never seen chicken come in a bucket. But I hope to, she says out loud,touching the undies softly. One day.
It’s nice in there, under the giant undies. They hang lowaround her head, so close to her face that she breathes on them.
She unzips her backpack and pulls out one of the frozenjuice boxes her mum has packed for her. She sucks at it through the straw. Inthe cracks between the undies, she watches feet going for walks. Some goingsomewhere, others going nowhere, some dancing, others skipping, shuffling,squeaking. Tiny feet, big feet, in-between feet. Sneakers, high heels, sandals.Red shoes, black shoes, green shoes. But no gold shoes. No explosion footsteps.
A pair of bright-blue gumboots plods past. She looks down athers. I know you’re jealous, she saysto them. But we need to stay here. Mum said. She cranes her neck to watchthe gumboots jump down the aisle and off into the toy section. Well, she says. She pulls out her BookOf Dead Things from her backpack, rips out a sheet of paper, writes on it To Mum, I’ll Be Right Back, folds it inhalf, and props it up on the ground exactly where her mum had pointed to.
She takes her gumboots for a walk. Up and down theescalators, walking at first, then jumping, hopping, and waving like the queen.She sits at the top and watches the steps swallow themselves. What happens if the stairs don’t flattenthemselves in time? she asks her gumboots. She imagines the stairs spillingout over the escalator and into the aisles. She tries to connect eyes withevery single person who walks past her, and each time she does, the air jumpsin front of her like the old movies her mum watches. She plays hide-and-seekwith a boy who doesn’t know he’s playing. When Millie informs him that he is found, he responds by asking her why herhair is like that, and makes spiralswith his index finger.
They’re ballerinas, she says. They jump off my head at night and do showsfor me.
Pff, he says, and smashes a Barbieheadlong into a Transformer, making a spitty blowing-up sound with his mouth atthe same time. They do not.
Millie sits on the floor of the women’s change room. I know where you can get some undies,she says to one woman who’s turning around and around in front of a mirror likeshe’s trying to drill herself into the ground. Sorry, who are you? the woman says. Millie shrugs. Two ladies talkbehind the door of one of the cubicles. Millie can see their feet in the gapbetween the door and the floor. Bare feet and sparkly UGG boots. Don’t take this the wrong way, the UGGboots seem to say. But do you reallythink coral is your color? The toes on the bare feet curl under themselves. I thought this was pink, they seem tosay back.
Millie waits with the waiting men, who wait in chairsoutside the change rooms, waiting for women, peering from behind purses andshopping bags like frightened animals. The walls nearby are covered with hugepictures of girls laughing and hugging each other in their underwear. Thewaiting men sneak glances at them. It occurs to Millie that the giant undiescould be for these giant girls.
She sits on a chair next to a bald man biting hisfingernails.
Have you ever seen chicken comein a bucket?she asks.
He rests his hand on his knee and looks at her out of thecorner of his eye. I’m just waiting formy wife, kid, he says.
She stands under the hand dryers in the restroom, becauseshe likes the feeling of the wind whooshing through her hair, as though she’sleaning her head out of a car window on the highway, or like she’s Superman,circling the Earth. How does the hand dryer know to start as soon as you stickyour hands out? It is amazing, this, but the women in the restroom don’t notice,and just stare, panicked, into the mirror, trying to work out what’s wrong withthem before anyone else does.
Sitting behind the plants on the edge of the departmentstore café, she watches steam rising from coffee mugs. The man who looks likeSanta and the lady with the very, very red cheeks lean over their coffeestoward each other. They don’t say anything but the steam from their coffeekisses and dances around their faces and above their heads. Another man eatswhile not looking at his wife and has coffee steam that makes the mostbeautiful shapes in the air. Millie has never seen shapes like this. Are thereany more shapes left to make up? The woman with the shouty kids has a coffeethat breathes in and out, letting out long, tired sighs.
There’s a man in the corner with a tree-bark face. He’swearing red suspenders and a purple suit, holding on to his coffee cup withboth hands, as if he’s stopping it from flying away. A fly lands on the plantin front of her. What if everything couldfly? she whispers to her gumboots, watching the fly bounce from leaf toleaf. Your dinner could fly into your mouth and the sky could be covered withtrees and the streets might switch places, though some people would get seasickand planes wouldn’t be that special anymore.
The tree-bark-face man blows on his coffee so hard that theliquid spills over the edge and the steam splits in half. Some shoots forwardand some upward. He stares deep into the cup for a few minutes, then blows onit again.
He stands up. He has to plant both of his hands on the tableand push himself up with everything he has. He walks straight past her, andMillie tries to connect eyes with him but he doesn’t look up. The fly followshim, buzzing around his body. He reaches out a hand and slaps it against histhigh. The fly falls to the ground.
Millie crawls on her hands and knees toward the fly andscoops it into her palm. She holds it up to her face, squeezes her palm shut,and stands to watch the back of the tree-bark-face man as he shuffles away fromthe café and out the main entrance.
Millie finds her backpack underneath the Ginormous Women’sUnderwear. She takes out her Just In Case glass jar, puts it between her knees,unscrews the lid, and lowers the fly into the jar. She screws the lid back onand pulls out her Book Of Dead Things, as well as her markers. Number 29, she writes. Fly in department store. She can see DADbackward in big letters through the paper. She taps the marker on her gumboots.Picks up the jar and holds it to her face. In the crack between the undies themannequin looks down at her from across the aisle. His shirt is bright blue andhas yellow palm trees on it. His eyes seem huge through the glass, like they’recentimeters from her face. She moves a pair of underwear so she can see onlyhis knees.
Millie grips the jar while she watches for gold shoes allafternoon. And when afternoon becomes night, and the last door is clicked shut,and everything goes black—the air, the sound, the earth—it feels like the wholeworld is closing. She presses her face against the window, cups her handsaround her eyes, and watches people walk back to their cars with other people,with husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and children andgrandmothers and daughters and fathers and mothers. And they all drive off,every single one of them, until the parking lot is so empty it makes her eyeshurt.
She crawls back under the Ginormous Women’s Underwear andtakes a sandwich out of her backpack. As she eats it, she watches the mannequinthrough the gap in the undies. He watches back. Hello, she whispers. The only other sound, a humming from thelights in the display cabinets.
the second day of waiting
Millie once thought that no matter where you fell asleep, you would always wakeup in your own bed. She fell
asleep at the table, on the neighbor’s floor, on a ride at the show, and whenshe woke she was under her own covers, looking up at the ceiling of her ownbedroom. But one night she woke when she was being carried from the car intothe house. She looked at her dad through half-closed eyes. It’s been you allthis
time, she whispered into his shoulder.
On The Second Day Of Waiting, Millie wakes to the sound of high heels clackingtoward her. She has spread herself out during the night, and her feet poke fromunderneath the clothing rack. She pulls her knees into her chest, hugs them,holds her breath, and watches the high heels clack past. Click- clack, click-clack, click-clack. They’re black and shiny,and red-painted toes stick out at the ends like ladybugs trying to crawl in.
Why would her mum leave her under the undies all night?Millie holds on to her stomach and peers through the gap in the undies. Sheknows why her mum might leave her there but she doesn’t want to think about it,so she doesn’t. The mannequin is still looking at her. She waves at him. It’s acareful wave, her fingers folding down one after the other until she holds themall in a fist. She’s not sure if she wants to be his friend yet. She pulls onher gumboots, crawls out from under the undies, and looks up at the sign shestuck on the rack last night.
In Here Mum.
She tears it down, folds it up, and slides it into her back-pack. The man with the tree-bark face walks toward her. He shuffles down theaisle, straight past, and toward the café. Millie follows, and watches him frombehind the potted plants. He sits down like it hurts, and stares at his coffee.Millie walks over to him and puts her hand on his.
Have you seen chicken come ina bucket?she asks.
The man looks at her hand and then up at her. Yes, he replies, pulling his hand awayfrom hers and tapping his fingers on the table.
Well? Millie says, sittingdown in the chair opposite him. What’s it like?
Exactly how it sounds, he says.
Millie bites her bottom lip. Do you know many people who are dead? she asks.
Everyone, he says, looking into hiscoffee.
Yes. Do you? he asks, still tapping hisfingers on the table.
Yes. Twenty-nine Dead Things, she says.
That’s a lot.
He leans forward in his chair. How old are you? he asks.
Millie crosses her arms. Howold are you?
I asked first.
Let’s say it at the sametime.
He sits back in his chair. Seven?
Millie nods. And ahalf. Almost eight, really.
The dimples on his cheeks are waking up. Your boots match my suspenders, he says,tapping his fingers on his suspenders.
Your suspenders match myboots.Millie looks at his hands. Why do you tapyour fingers when you talk?
I’m not tapping, he says, tapping. I’m typing.
Everything I say.
Everything you say?
Everything I say.
What about what I say?
I don’t do that.
Are you gonna eat that? she says, pointing to amuffin. He pushes the plate toward her.
Millie shoves the muffin into her mouth. Why won’t you drink your coffee? shesays, mouth full, pushing his coffee toward him.
I don’t want it. He pushes it back.
Millie wraps her hands around it and leans over it, feelingthe steam rising beneath her chin. Whydid you get it?
It’s nice to have somewhereto put my hands.
Millie smiles. Oh.She pulls her feet up onto the chair and rests her chin on her knees. Spreadout on the table is a long line of small plastic squares, each one about thesize of her fingertip. What are those?
You don’t know?
He shrugs again.
Millie leans over the table. They’re computer keys, she says. Like the ones on the keyboards from school. She folds her arms. But they’re not on a keyboard.
Yes, he says.
So you do know, she says.
They’re all dashes. Fromdifferent keyboards.He leans forward in his chair. Do youknow what a dash is?
You put them between twowords to make one word.
Like . . . He thinks for amoment.
Happy-sad? Millie says.
No, he says. Like, action-packed. Or blue-eyed.
But not happy-sad.
Why have you got so many? There’s lots of them linedup against each other in a long, straight line.
I collect them.
Got to collect something.
Millie thinks about her Book Of Dead Things. I collect Dead Things, she says.
She holds his gaze as she nudges an index finger forward,moving one of the keys out of line. It hangs above the rest of them on an anglelike it’s mid-backflip. Tree-Bark-Face doesn’t move. They go between numbers, too, she says. Not just words. She flicks another key and it skids along thetable, stopping at the edge. He sucks in a breath and watches as it teeters andthen falls into his lap.
Don’t do that, he says, picking it up andputting it back in line.
Where did you get them allfrom?
From who? Millie spots a screwdriversticking out of his jacket pocket.
He puts a hand over the screwdriver, shielding it from Millie’s gaze. No one ever suspects an old person, hesays, smiling a half smile. We’re kind ofinvisible.
What’s your name?
Karl the Touch Typist. What’syours?
Where’s your mum, JustMillie?
She’s coming. She has gold shoes. It is when she says gold shoes that Millie feels Dot Two pulling and she holds herstomach. She shifts in her seat and puts the fly’s glass jar on the table. You made a Dead Thing yesterday.
Karl picks up the glass jar and studies it. I did? he says, tapping the glass.
Millie nods. I’mgiving her a funeral.
The first funeral Millie ever held was for a spider her dad squished with hisshoe. Her mum had jumped from one foot to the other and said, If you don’t squash that spider, Harry,I’ll squash you. Her dad stood up from his chair, wrenched off his shoe,and slammed it against the wall.
The spider slid down the wall and landed on the floor. Herdad picked it up by a leg, threw it out the front door, sat down, and continuedwatching television. He winked at Millie from across the room. Millie couldn’tbring herself to wink back.
She watched her dad watch three whole shows before she saidanything.
Can we give the spider afuneral? shesaid as the credits rolled. Like we didfor Nan.
Funerals are for people,Mills, hesaid, flicking through the channels. Andmaybe dogs.
What about horses?
Horses, too, he said as a cricketertried to sell him some vitamins.
Because. On the screen a car woundits way along a beautiful mountainside. The whole family smiled at each other.They all had shiny teeth.
Centipedes? Planets? Fridges?
Millie! he said. People. Maybe big animals. That’s it.
You’ d be having funerals allday, every day. And we can’t do that.
There’s other stuff to do, he said as a man on thescreen looked her in the eye and yelled at her about mobile phones.
That night, she packed a backpack with everything sheneeded, grabbed her flashlight from under the bed, and snuck out the frontdoor. She found the spider on the grass near the driveway and picked it up withboth hands. It looked different now, smaller and lighter and dried up by thesun. The night breeze circled around her hands and made the spider tickle herpalms.
A huge whoosh ofwind lifted the spider right out of her hands. Millie ran after it, watching ithigh above her head. It flew through the air against the stars, over her frontyard, out into the street, across the road, down the street, and into an emptylot. The moonlight illuminated its edges. The whole night seemed to be coveredwith moonlit spiders far, far away, pinned to the black sky.
Then, just as quickly as it began, the wind stopped, and thespider dropped to the ground like a falling star.
A tree rose out of the center of the empty lot. It was thebiggest tree she had ever seen, much bigger than even her dad. She put thespider into her backpack and climbed to the very top. The moon felt so closeshe could almost spin it around in circles. She straddled the branch, leanedher back into the trunk and, from her backpack, pulled out the spider, an oldVegemite jar, a ball of string, a tealight candle, matches, and a piece ofcardboard.
Millie gave the spider one last look before placing him inthe Vegemite jar on top of some tissues. She lit the tealight candle and put itin there with him, then wrapped a piece of string around the top of the jar,tied a knot at one end, and threaded the other end through the hole in thecardboard sign. She tied the string around the branch of the tree. The jar hungfrom the branch like a lantern, swinging a little as the tree moved. The smallcardboard sign said Spider ?–2011 inher best writing.
Millie ran her fingers over the line in between the questionmark and Spider’s death-year. Back and forth, back and forth. It was strange,she thought, that this line—this long, straight line—was all there was to showof his whole life.
karl the touch typist
here’swhat karl knows about funerals
Karl had never talked to Evie about her funeral. Why would he? It was too hardto get the words out. They were like a weight in his mouth. He just wanted herto live while he was living and that’s all he knew.
So his son organized it for him, while Karl was busyremembering how to get up, brush his teeth, part his hair, chew. The funeralitself had been long, slow, repetitive. Before the service began, he washugged, endlessly, by people he barely knew. He made sure their cheeks didn’ttouch. It didn’t feel right to rest his palms on the back of someone who wasn’this wife.
Karl sat in the front pew, eyeing the coffin, scarcelybreathing. It felt strange to breathe when she couldn’t. Flowers exploded fromthe coffin lid. He willed the coffin to open, Evie to jump out: Surprise! She would have to high-jumpthe flowers.
If this is a practical joke, he whispered, I won’t be mad.
He remembers standing during one of the eulogies. It was bythe only friend from Evie’s old work still alive. They kept dying, all theirfriends, as though they were on a battlefield: dropping dead in supermarkets,on bowling greens; fading out in nursing homes and hospitals. But this womanwas still alive, standing at the lectern like God’s gift, and Karl thought, I wish you were dead.
He walked toward the coffin. Evie, he whispered, circling it and running his fingers along theedges. People were murmuring around him, but they sounded miles away. He pushedhis face into the pine lid. Closed his eyes. Breathed in. Evie, he whispered again, his lips against the pine. He had toknow. He grabbed at the lid. And flung the coffin open.
She was dead in there, that was for sure, stone-faced in away he had never seen, but he couldn’t take his hands away from the edge of hercoffin. Not when the priest tugged at his elbow; not when a gust of wind blewin through the doorway; not when the coffin lid slammed shut with such dramaand force that it squashed his fingers. He didn’t feel the pain because therewas pain everywhere already.
And he wanted to type it but they wouldn’t let him becausethey were holding his hands to stop the blood so he just yelled it, he yelledit as loud as he could.
I AM HERE, EVIE. I WILL ALWAYS BE HERE.
The tops of some of your fingers aremissing, Millie says, grabbing Karl’s hand as they walk out of the café.
Yes, he replies, tapping on herhand. They are.
His mouth makes that line that adults make when they aremost absolutely not going to talk about this one thing right now, and maybe notever. So she keeps her questions inside herself and puts them in the part thatremembers things for later. She rubs the stubs of his fingers as she holds hishand. Did he bite his nails so much that he bit his fingers right off? Did afamily of mice eat them in his sleep? Or did someone chop them off because hedidn’t do what he was told? Millie’s mum threatened her with that once, Millieremembers, when she was tapping her fingers on her dinner plate during Dancing with the Stars. I’ll rip thosethings right off, her mum said, without turning around to face her. Don’t try me. And Millie didn’t tryher—she hadn’t meant to try her—and sat on her fingers so they wouldn’t tryanyone without her knowing.
Millie leads Karl to the Ginormous Women’s Underwear, shakesoff his hand, and crawls underneath. She slides the undies down the rack soKarl can see in.
What are you up to down there,Just Millie?he says.
I told you, she says, unscrewing thelid of the glass jar. Millie unzips her backpack and pulls out her FuneralPencil Case. She removes a tealight candle and some matches and places them onthe floor. She stares at them. After a moment, she holds them up to Karl. Could you? Please?
He glances around him. Shouldwe be lighting fires?
Yes, she says.
Karl seems to consider this answer, then nods. Milliewatches the wick catch fire and holds her stomach. She clenches her teeth andtries not to remember The Night Before The First Day Of Waiting. She tries toput it in the part of her head that never remembers anything. She hands Karlthe jar. In there, please, she says.
Karl carefully lowers the candle into the jar and hands itback to Millie. She ties the jar to the rack, and the fly dangles behind a rowof flesh-colored undies.
You need to say something, she saysto Karl.
Me? Karl says, pointing tohimself.
Yes, you, Millie says, pointing athim pointing to himself. You did it. Youmade a Dead Thing. Aren’t you sorry? Her head detaches itself and she’swatching her dad squish the spider with his shoe. Was he sorry?
Of course, Karl says, putting hishands on his hips. Of course, herepeats. But, he says, taking a bigbreath, it’s a fly.
Yes. Millie nods. You’re right. It is a fly.
Karl looks down at Millie. Millie looks up at Karl.
Karl sighs. Whatshould I say?
What would you like someoneto say at your funeral?
Karl stares at his feet. Idoubt anyone will say anything.
Well, Millie says, crossing herarms, you need to say something.
Why do you know so much aboutthese things?
Why don’t you? she says.
afact about the world millie knows for sure
Everyone knows everything about being born, and no one knows anything aboutbeing dead.
This has always surprised Millie. There are books at schoolwith pictures of mums with see-through stomachs, and she has always wanted tolift up the shirt of a pregnant lady, just to see if it really is true thatyour stomach goes see-through when you are pregnant. This makes sense, shethinks, to give the baby a chance to get used to the world before it is in it,like a glass-bottomed boat; otherwise, what a shock! How scary the world wouldbe if you didn’t know it was coming. Millie has also seen the books with thecartoon people who love each other so much that the man gives the lady a fishand the fish gets inside the lady and lays eggs, and those eggs turn into ahuman baby. She knows the baby comes out from the place you pee, but she hasnot seen pictures of this. After Millie goes swimming in the ocean, she alwayswatches her pee carefully for babies. Just. In. Case.
Adults want her to know these things, otherwise theywouldn’t have given her these books. But no one has ever, ever
given her a book about Dead Things. What is the big secret?
Okay, Karl says. The Fly, loved by many, forgotten by none. Heclears his throat. God save our graciousqueen, he sings, so softly that Millie can barely hear him.
Louder, Millie says, and he does: Long live our noble queen, God save thequeen. Millie watches the feet walk past through the gap in the undies ashe sings. Some of them speed up as they get closer, some of them slow down. Onepair of shoes stops completely. Send hervictorious—he’s really belting it out now, and his dimples are waking upagain—happy and glorious, long to reignover us. Karl raises his arms with a flourish, his fingers typing in theair. God save the queen. He takes abow. The shoes—wide, black, clumpy—are still there in the aisle, and one footis tapping. Millie brings her knees to her chest.
Are you quite done, sir? a woman’s voice says.
Karl looks in the general direction of the shoes. His eyeswiden. Yes, thank you, sir. I mean,ma’am.
Arms grab at Karl, push him down the aisle, and the womansays, Let’s go, and Karl says, I’m terribly sorry, I really didn’t mean tosay that. I’m not intimating that you in any way resemble a man!
Millie leans her body into the pole in the center of therack. Karl says, You’re very ladylike,honestly. And then, Excuse me,over and over again until she can’t hear him anymore.
A lady nearby says, What’sall the hoopla about? Millie mouths, Hoopla,as she packs up her Funeral Equipment. She pulls her backpack in close andmakes her body as small as it can be, like the babies do when they’re stuck intheir mums’ tummies. She presses her face against the metal pole. It’s cold onher cheek. The fly’s jar swings in some imaginary breeze, the candlelightmaking trails that disappear and reappear. She runs her fingers through theair, and it feels like nothing, but it’s keeping everyone alive.
How can that feel like nothing?
Through the gap in the undies, the mannequin’s still lookingat her, and she looks back. She likes the way he is always looking at her. Itmakes her feel like he won’t let the clumpy shoes take Millie away too.
Millie sits in this position until it’s night in thedepartment store again. Her feet sweat in her gumboots. Her knees sticktogether. The light in the jar is still burning, but only just, and theflickering shadows make the undies look like they’re joining together at theedges, becoming one super-enormous-ginormous- pair-of-women’s-undies, and TheSuper Pair Of Undies circles around her head, getting closer and closer, andMillie is sure it is going to wrap itself around her and suffocate her, andthen the light in the jar goes out, and Millie is breathing in too much air,and her cheeks are wet with tears. She buries her face in her knees andsqueezes her eyes shut.
She hears footsteps and thinks, Gold shoes, gold shoes, gold shoes, and her breath is so quivery,like the old people who breathe loudly just to let you know they still can, butit isn’t her mum at all, because the footsteps are sliding along the floor, andMum doesn’t walk like that. The footsteps move toward her, and there’s aflashlight shining everywhere, and now the flashlight is on the fly’s jar, andthe footsteps are so close to her, and the flashlight is still on the jar, andthe footsteps have stopped altogether, and the flashlight is like a spotlighton the fly, like an alien spaceship trying to pull it up with a space beam, andMillie has to hold her quivery breath so that the alien beam doesn’t get her aswell.
But then there’s something in the corner of her eye, asparkle of something beyond the undies, and the mannequin looks at her, and hiseyes seem wider for some reason, and there’s something in her stomach,something pulling, and it feels like Dot Three, but that can’t be right, andthen the mannequin falls forward somehow, and the sliding feet yell, Ow!, and the flashlight clatters to theground, and the mannequin is on the ground too, and he is still looking at her,and the flashlight lights him up, like he’s onstage, and Millie feels a smileon her face just appear there, and she touches it with her fingers. She wantsto touch the mannequin’s face too, because he’s smiling at her in theflashlight.
another factabout the world millie knows for sure
It’simportant to have your mum.
Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanketbefore you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. Andthey sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on theirfingers while Deal or No Deal is on.
Millie’s mum is a wind through the house. She is alwayswashing overalls or ironing undies or wiping lamps or talking on the phone orsweeping the driveway or putting sheets on things. Her hair is always sweatyand kind of crooked, her voice is like a violin, like she is trying to lift somethingreally heavy all the time. Millie is always getting in her way no matter howmuch she tries not to, so she has learned to sit against the walls and incorners, to stay outside, hide in bushes and up trees.
Sometimes, before she Goes Out, Millie’s mum disappears intothe bathroom for not very long at all. Millie listens at the door, and itsounds like a factory in there with all the clanging and spraying andsquirting. Her mum always reappears with colored-in skin and magazine hair. Asweet smell follows her like a smell-shadow.
One day when her mum went next door to talk to theneighbors, Millie kneeled on the bathroom floor and opened the cupboard underthe sink. There were things that squeezed and things that poured. They were allso patient in there. She lined them up in a row on the cold tiles, fromsmallest to biggest. She looked at this audience of cosmetics for a long time. Ahem, she said to them.
She picked up a lipstick and painted her earlobes andsprayed perfume into the air over and over again, just to watch the mist of it,and brushed mascara on her cheeks, and rubbed blush on her fingernails. Her mumsuddenly appeared in the doorway, and Millie tried to sit against the wall, outof her mum’s way, but she grabbed Millie under the armpits, plonked her on thebench, and wiped her face clean with a cloth. She brushed her hair straight,put lipstick on her lips, something on her eyelashes and something on hercheeks. Her mum was so close to her, and her voice was smiling when sheswiveled Millie around to look at herself in the mirror. See? And Millie did see, she saw that she could be a differentperson if she wanted. New and Improved.
Now,on her Second Night Of Waiting, Millie decides to make herself New andImproved. She wants her mum to walk up to her and say, Excuse me, madam, but I’m looking for a small child. Have you seen her?And Millie will take off her hat and wipe her lipstick on the back of her handand say, Mum! It’s me! Millie Bird!And her mum will laugh and scoop her up and carry her out to the car, andMillie will wave good-bye to the department store. Bye, café; bye, giant undies; bye, potted plants; bye, Karl; bye,mannequin, and her mum will drive her back home and Millie will get to siton the kitchen counter while they cut up vegetables for dinner.
So she finds the nicest dress she can—it’s yellow and feelslike a cloud should—and puts it on over the top of her clothes. She goes to thewall of makeup, where small, black plastic cases hang from metal hooks likethey’re bait. She picks the ones that are within reach, and carefully applieslipstick, eye shadow, and blush the way her mum showed her. She has to stand ona pile of books to see in the mirror, but she does it without once fallingover. See? she says to the mannequin.She finds a floppy red hat. Puts on green nail polish. Looks at the shoes, andknows her gumboots will probably give her identity away, but she’s not takingthem off, not ever. She duct-tapes four Matchbox cars to the bottom of eachgumboot and skates around the shop.
She skates past the racks of bras, so many of them hangingthere. Lined up like soldiers waiting to be called into action. Millie’s headdetaches itself and sees her mum after the shower, her hair dripping and limparound her head, steam rising off her skin. Her boobs hang off her body likewater balloons, and they try to hit each other when she walks from the showerto the wardrobe. She catches Millie watching her as she slides the bra loopsover her shoulders. You’ll have them oneday, her mum says.
Millie does not want them. Not ever. She found somemagazines once in her dad’s bedside table. The boobs jutted out of the women’sbodies as if you could unscrew the back like a brooch. They lookedunpredictable. Demanding. And then there was The Naked Woman Who Wasn’t Her Mumwho hid in their bathroom one afternoon. Youdidn’t see me, kid, she said. Millie’s eyes were drawn to her nipples likethey were magnets. And Millie thought, Yes,I did.
She skates to the games section and, one by one, pulls boardgames off the shelf and lines them up in front of the mannequin. There’sTwister and Monopoly and Guess Who? and Mouse Trap and checkers and backgammonand Battleship and Operation and Scrabble and Hungry Hungry Hippos and ConnectFour. She doesn’t really know how to play any of them, so she just rolls thedice once for the mannequin and once for her, and moves all the pieces around,and the battleships are trying to sink Park Lane, the Guess Who? people are anaudience for Mouse Trap, and the hippos are eating the checkers.
After you hit the man with theflashlight on the head, I followed him, she says to the mannequin, putting a bra cup over hermouth and tying the loops behind her head. For hygiene, she explains, a bitmuffled now, thinking of the hospital shows her mum watches. He went in there, she says, pointing toan office toward the back of the store. She puts Scrabble letters into theOperation man. He got a pack of peas forhis head. She delicately removes the letter M from the Operation man’s stomach. And he fell asleep. He left the key in the door. She holds up thekey and grins. I locked it. Pats the mannequin on the head. I owe you, she whispers into his ear.
For dinner, Millie invites the Guess Who? people, the mannequin,a hobby horse—the Guess Who? people might be less self-conscious if there issomeone else there with just a face— and a toy dog who looks exactly likeRambo. She seats them at the biggest dining table in the furniture section. Itis at least double the size of their dining table at home and doesn’t have anycoffee-mug rings or candle wax or Millie’s name written on one of the legs. Thenapkins and place mats and plates and bowls are all white and the same as eachother.
She hoists the mannequin onto the chair at the head of thetable and sits Rambo on a placemat. The Guess Who? people and the hobby horsestare at her from across the table. She likes how they look at her as if theyexpect her to do something. Okay, shesays, and skates away, returning with an armful of streamers. She throws themacross the table and wraps them around the chairs and ties bows around theforks.
She sets a place for her mum next to the mannequin.
She pulls up a chair for herself between the mannequin andRambo, pats down her dress, and adjusts her hat. She feels the mannequin’s eyeson her. What? she says. She’s just caught up. She clears herthroat. Dear God, she says, her handsin prayer, squinting at the mannequin through half-closed eyes. Tonight we will be serving Fanta soup forentrée, snakes and dinosaurs for main, a side salad of mint leaves, and bananasundae for dessert. I hope this is okay with you. She fills her glass withgrape juice. But first, some toast.She stands and clinks glasses with all her guests. She does it again, becausethere’s music to it, she does it faster and faster, and skates around thetable, clink-clink-clink-clink-clink,and then skates around the other way, clink-clink-clink-clink-clink.
She sits on top of the table instead of in her chair,because she’s The Boss, and they all eat, and talk about how the dog from nextdoor keeps making big poops on their lawn and how Mrs. Pucker always gets fancymakeup in the mail but it doesn’t help her and how Ablett must be very sorrythat he switched clubs because his new team plays like a bunch of girls. Andthe whole time, the mannequin watches her, without blinking, without saying athing.
another factabout the world
millie knowsfor sure
Shedoesn’t know where her dad’s body is.
When they visited her dad in the cemetery he was in a tinybox in the wall. Dad’s too big for that, shesaid.
It’s a magic box, Millie’s mum replied.
What kind of magic?
Just magic. Okay?
Can I see inside it?
The magic won’t work if youdo that.
Yes. Exactly like Santa.
She gave a box of raisins to Perry Lake, one of the big kidsat school who knew everything about everything. What happens to dead bodies after they die?
He shoved a fistful of raisins into his mouth and chewed.
Depends, he said.
On how many boxes of theseyou got.
The next day, Millie upended her schoolbag at his feet. Apile of raisin boxes poured out. He opened one and emptied the contents intohis mouth. They go hard.
Yeah. And cold.
He shrugged. Maybe.
Do they shrink?
He threw a raisin up in the air and caught it in his mouth. Dead bodies do not shrink.
Millie’ssmothering a heaped bowl of banana lollies with chocolate topping when thethought occurs to her. She puts a hand on the mannequin’s. Don’t take this the wrong way, she says, his hand cold and hardunderneath hers. But. She leans intohis face. His eyes look back at her like he is only a drawing. Are you a Dead Thing?
thethird day of waiting
Milliesits in the office in the back of the department store. It looks different inthe daylight. There is a desk with pens and paper and paper clips positionedneatly side by side, and an in tray and an out tray that don’t have anything inor out of them. Millie picks up a paper clip and a pen, and puts one in the intray and one in the out tray. The yellow dress she wore last night is folded inthe center of the desk. There’s a big television screen attached to the sidewall. She flicks at the Matchbox-car wheels on the bottom of her gumboots.
She opens her Book Of Dead Things, laying it flat on thetable and smoothing down the pages. She stares at the picture she drew of herdad’s magic box. The dash pulses at her. Like it has a heartbeat. She knowsabout dashes now. That you can carry lots of them around in your pocket. Harry Bird, the picture says.1968–2012. Loved. She says the wordout loud. Loved.
By who? Millie had said to her mum.They were standing hand in hand, looking at her dad’s magic box like it was apainting.
You, her mum replied.
Her mum cleared her throat. Of course. Millie watched her twist her wedding ring around andaround her finger. She had started wearing it again that week.
And everyone else?
Why doesn’t the sign say thatthen?
Millie! She shook Millie’s handloose, kneeled on the ground, and put her head in her hands.
Millie didn’t move. Mum?
Because nothing’s free,Millie, hermum said. Not even this shit. Her mumdidn’t look at her as she stood and walked off toward the car. Come on, she said. Millie took one lastlook at her dad’s magic box before following.
When The Ladies From Tennis dropped by their house thatnight, one of them hugged Millie and said, Hisbody is gone, but his soul is still with us.
Is that what’s in the magicbox? Millieasked.
It’s in you, the lady said, placing aflat palm on Millie’s chest.
Millie looked down at the lady’s hand. How did it get there?
It’s always been there.
Proper girls don’t say,“What.”
Proper girls say, “Pardon me.”
The Lady From Tennis stood to hug Millie’s mother.
Pardon me? Millie said again, but thewomen didn’t hear her.
The next day Millie went to the milk bar. While the girl whoworked there giggled with a boy who didn’t work there, she filled up herschoolbag with raisins and walked out.
What’s a soul? she said to Perry Lake,after showing him the raisins.
It’s like a heart, but it’sin your stomach,he replied.
What’s it look like?
Like a really big raisin. He eyed her schoolbag.
She zipped up her bag and held it behind her back. What happens to it when you die?
It falls out?
Yeah, like a placebo. What’sa placebo?
They fall out of women. Afterthey have a baby or whatever.
What do they do with it?
They put it in the freezerand eat it.
No, the placebo. They keepyour soul.
Some other freezer.
The school bell rang in the distance. Kids ran past them,yelling and laughing in packs. Somewhere,Perry said, rolling his eyes. I don’tknow. I don’t know EVERYTHING.
Could I have it withoutknowing?
Perry put out a hand. It was long and thin and bony. Just gimme the raisins, he said.
Thedoor to the office bursts open. Millie feels the draft from the movement of thedoor, and it sucks at her clothes like a vacuum. Millie sits up straight in thechair, snaps her book shut and slides it behind her back. A lady stands in thedoorway, mid-conversation with someone out of sight.
What about dinner at minetonight? thelady says quietly.
No, Helen. It’s a man’s voice.
No? I’m making Mexican?
You’ll just get back to me,then.
Helen, I’m busy for the restof my life.
Okay then, Stan, she says brightly, loudernow. I’ll bring over thatbruise-dispersing cream for you. We can rub that thing right out.
Millie sees the back of the man as he walks off. You’re not touching my face, Helen, hesays.
Righto, then, she says to his retreatingback. You just let me know, won’t you,Stan? She turns to face Millie.
Helen’s small for a grown-up, but wide, as if all her heighthas gone outward. The buttons cling to her blouse, like people hanging from acliff. Millie looks down at the lady’s shoes. Small, black, clumpy.
Well! the lady says, as if shecan’t believe how exciting the word is to say. She plonks herself into thechair on the other side of the desk. Her cheeks are pink and round. Haven’t you got yourself into a pickle?She picks up a remote from the desk and points it at the wall. The televisioncomes alive.
Millie appears on the screen. It’s hard to make out and it’sin black and white with no sound, but it’s definitely Millie. TV Millie isoutside of this office. She walks up to the window, peers through it. Pokes hertongue out. Grabs the keys out of the door handle, and walks away.
Helen presses Pause on the remote. Real-Life Millie looks atTV Millie. It’s so strange to look at herself doing something she’s alreadydone, and that she can’t undo.
Real-Life Millie looks defiantly at Helen. Helen raises botheyebrows. Real-Life Millie raises both eyebrows back.
what millie did last night
Millieknew the way home but believed her mum was making sure Millie knew how to DoWhat She Was Told, that she knew how to be Good. So, after a talk with themannequin at dinner, Millie decided to make things easier for her mum to findher. Using paints from the hardware section, she painted IN HERE MUM as tall asshe could on the glass of the automatic doors. Backward, of course, so her mumcould read it from the outside. She arranged the Connect Four pieces so theyformed a right-turning arrow and placed the stand near the entrance. All themannequins lining the aisles had their arms positioned so they were pointing inthe direction Millie’s mum should follow. Some of them held signs. Hi Mum! one said. Keep going! said another. Stophere for a snack! said the next mannequin, and Millie placed one of herRoll-Ups in its upturned hand. The Guess Who? people were arranged in an arrow,the houses from Monopoly indicated a left turn, the Twister spinner gesturedforward. The nine mannequins closest to the undies each held a letter on apiece of paper to spell IN HERE MUM. The mannequin with the Hawaiian shirt heldthe final M. She hooked some bras together and strung them from the mannequin’shand across the aisle, tying them to the top of the Ginormous Women’s Underwearrack like a finish line. Millie decorated the trail with Christmas lights shefound in a bargain bin, and then—letting her red boots poke out just a littlebit—lay under the giant undies to wait.
But when the shoes came they weren’t gold.
Are you with that man? Helen is saying. The singing one? She opens the deskdrawer and begins lining up its contents in a neat row on the desk. A Tobleronewrapper. He seemed lovely. An emptyjuice box. But is he a little bit.Fly’s glass jar. A little bit. Twohands full of lolly wrappers. She sprinkles them all over the desk, droppingthem from high above her head as if she’s showing Millie how rain works. Soft? In the head? No? Of course not. I’m sorry.A Roll-Up. But is he. Slow? A bit?She leans across the desk and whispers, Retarded?She clasps a hand over her mouth. Oh. Ofcourse not. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just said that. I didn’t want toremove him from the shop, it’s just that. Stan has very high standards for thisplace.
Helen runs her fingers thoughtfully over the Roll-Up. Sheleans toward the doorway. He’s veryparticular, she says loudly. She sits back in her chair. Does that man, the singing one. Does he.Have a dungeon or anything? She disappears under the desk, emerges with apile of board games and places them on the desk in a teetering pile. ConnectFour, Battleship, Twister, Monopoly. She rests an elbow on the top of the pile.Whips and things? Chains? He doesn’tchain anyone up, does he?
We’re friends sinceyesterday,Millie says.
He’s just an old man, she continues. You can be an old, lonely man, hangingaround girl-children, and be completely normal. Right? She ducks under thedesk again and comes to stand, holding Millie’s backpack in one hand and anopen bucket of paint in the other. Ta-da!The paint slops over the side and drips onto the floor. It’s society, you know? Helen pauses, puts the backpack and painton the table, moves the pile of board games aside, and sits on the desk. Is all this, she wiggles her indexfinger at Millie’s face, for him? The makeup?
Millie wipes a hand across her lips. There’s a smudge ofbright red on the top of her hand, like war paint. I’m hungry, she says.
Oh, darling, I’m sorry. I hadcookies. But Stan,she says loudly out the doorway again, Stanate them. He’ll eat my cookies. When it suits him. She waits, her earcocked toward the door.
tan appears in the doorway and Helen jumps. Millie sucks ina breath. It’s the security guard from last night. He has a black eye. He’s onhis mobile phone but he stares at Millie, unblinking, pushing the pads of hisfingers into the swelling on his cheekbone. Well,I’ d finished The Cosby Show on DVD and wanted to get something else, didn’t I,he says to the phone. Didn’t know Iwas gonna get attacked. He’s still staring at Millie. Helen let me out this morning. Millie’s whole body feels like it’sclenching. Listen, Ma, can you hang on atick? He puts his hand over the mouthpiece. You better get her something to eat, Helen, Stan says. Before they come.
Helen jumps off the desk. Of course, she says, and opens another drawer. She’s flushed red inthe face. Mentos? They’re surprisinglysatiating.
Before who comes? Millie says.
I’m on a diet, Helen says. The Atkins one? Is it Atkins? Or Paleo? Youget to smell all the food you want. It’s fantastic. She looks sideways atStan. Not that I need to. She ripsthe packet of Mentos, pops two in her mouth and two on the desk for Millie.Millie picks them up and chews them greedily. Go on a diet, I mean. I’m not one of those women who worries aboutthose sorts of things. It’s more about treating myself like I deserve. It’svery empowering.
Stan rolls his eyes. Helen,he says. Just get her something proper,okay? They’ll be here soon. They got a ways to travel so she needs to be fed.He gives Millie a last look, turns, and leaves. Huh? Millie hears him say into the phone as he walks away. No, it was a little kid. I’m not suing her,Ma. Mum! I’m not. Well, they left her here, didn’t they? They can’t have much.
He’s lovely, isn’t he? Stan? She looks out the door andspits the Mentos into a tissue.
Who’s coming? Millie says. She is sick inthe stomach. Mum will be here, sheadds. She’s just. Lost.
Oh, darling, Helen says, throwing thetissue into the rubbish bin by her feet and wiping her hands on her pants. I’m sure she is.
My dad died. But my mum willbe here.
Oh, darling. She walks around toMillie’s side of the desk and kneels on the ground in front of her. She grabsone of Millie’s hands and holds it with both of hers. How did he pass? Oh, don’t answer that. Helen talks like she issurprised by the words that come out of her own mouth, as if someone else issaying them. Don’t. If you don’t want.But if you want. How? Was it? That he passed? Was he into. Gambling? A littlebit? Did he get mixed up in something?
Drugs? Helen whispers.
They gave him drugs at thehospital.
Was it. A mental hospital?
Forget I said anything.
He had cancer.
Oh, sweetheart. I had canceronce. Well, I thought I did. Terrible time. Terrible. Turns out it was just avery big boil.
My mum will be here.
Right on my neck. Right here.Terrible time. What? Of course. Sweetheart. Of course she will.
A phone rings in Helen’s pocket. Helen jumps to her feet andanswers it. Yes. Yes. She’s right here.Of course, yes. She hangs up. Oh, darling.They’re coming for you.
Child Services. They’re sofantastic with abandoned children.
They’ll give you another mumand dad for a little while. Until they find yours. Through the doorway, Helen watches Stan laugh with a young female staffmember.
But Mum said to wait here.
I know, darling. I know. But. She sighs and walks to thedoor, putting her hand on the doorframe and watching Stan. Some people don’t always say what they mean.
Millie grips her Book Of Dead Things tightly behind herback. Helen whips around to face Millie. Her body wobbles under her shirt. Thebutton people claw desperately at the cliff edge. Oh, don’t worry, darling. They’ll love you. You’re adorable. Now,darling, just wait right here. Yes? Promise? Yes? She pauses and they stareat each other. I’ll bring back juice. Andcookies. Yes? Without waiting for an answer, she walks out the door.
Millie watches Helen walk away and out of sight. She wantsto throw up. A kid walks by the open office door with his mum and screams, But I wanted the blue one! Millie wantsto scream in his face, But I want my mum!
Millie rips off the Matchbox cars from the bottom of hergumboots and climbs down from the chair. She grabs her bag and puts the toycars inside. She takes a quick look out the door. No Helen. No Stan. She takesa deep breath and runs as fast as she can in the direction of the café. Her bagslides up and down her back. Down the aisle with the brooms and cloths and mopsin bright colors. Past the photo lab, people flicking through photos on brightscreens. Past the CDs and phones and electrical gadgets. Millie hides behind acardboard cutout of a famous singer when she sees Stan coming. He flicksthrough the DVDs and mumbles to himself. Gotit, got it, don’t want it, got it, he says. His phone rings. Yeah? Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there. Hewalks right past her and doesn’t see her.
At the café, Karl is in his usual spot. Millie hides behindher usual potted plant. She spies Helen at the counter.
Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom.
Just a small bit of cake,please,Helen’s saying to the girl behind the counter. The carrot cake, please. Yes, just two pieces, please. Yes, please,that one. Great, thank you, just the three pieces, that’ll be fine.
Karl, Millie whispers.
Karl sits up and turns toward the potted plant. Um, he says. Yes?
It’s Millie. She pokes her head aroundthe fern leaves.
Just Millie? Where have youbeen?
From the cover of the potted plant, Millie gives him arundown of events since she last saw him. Firstthe mannequin saved my life. Then I stole a key. Then the security guard waslocked in. Then we had dinner. Rambo was there. And the hobby horse. And theGuess Who? people. And the mannequin. I’ll introduce you later. And then I askedthe mannequin if he was a Dead Thing. And then I tried to help Mum. And thenHelen offered me juice and cookies, but I didn’t get either. And then my newmum and dad were coming. And then I escaped. And then I found you. Are yougoing to eat that?
Karl hands her his muffin. That’s all?
That’s all, she says, her mouth full.
Escaped from who?
Her. Millie points and ducks asHelen, no more than twenty meters away from them, talks to a customer.
They’re not for me, Helen says. I’m on a diet. The North Beach one? Kate Moss uses it. Youcan hold all the food you like.
Karl looks the other way as Helen walks past them and backtoward the office. An escape, you say?He stands. Okay.
Okay? Millie says.
We’re getting you out ofhere. Right now,he says loudly. The girl looks up at him from behind the coffee machine. Shh, Millie whispers.
Karl sits. Yes. Sorryabout that. He waves at the girl.
But we should go.
Yes, he says, and stands again.
They make their way to the giant undies, sticking to theaisles in between the main ones. The mannequin in the Hawaiian shirt looks downat her. Millie can’t look away. Grab him,Millie says.
Proper men say, “Pardon me.”
We’re taking him.
He saved my life.
Karl looks at Millie, then at the mannequin, then back atMillie. I will do that, he says, tooloudly again. Any friend of yours is afriend of mine.
Shh, Millie says.
Oh, yes. Right. Karl picks up the mannequinand holds him so they’re dancing cheek to cheek.
Ready? Millie says.
Ready, Karl answers.
They snake their way past the appliances, the cookware, thecoloring books, the towels. A woman tries to spray perfume on Karl as he walksby. He giggles. The entrance is meters in front of them—it shines blindingly inthe middle of everything. They’re running and causing a scene but no one seemsto notice and they’re going to make it.
We’re invisible, says Millie.
Yes, says Karl.
They look at each other and smile. They’re actually going tomake it.
But then Millie sees the Guess Who? people looking up atthem, and it’s too late to say anything, and Karl’s foot catches on theirfaces, and he falls headfirst into the bargain bin full of Christmas lights inthe middle of the aisle. Millie falls at the same time, hitting her head on theside of the bin. Karl drops the mannequin on top of her, and a leg comes looseand skids across the floor.
Then the three words she doesn’t want to hear. There she is. Helen and Stan and a manand a woman wearing fancy uncomfortable clothes coming toward them. Her NewMum. Her New Dad.
C’mon, Karl, Millie says, standing,rubbing her head and pulling at his arm. But he’s managed to get himself alltwisted up in the Christmas lights, and his thrashing about is only makingmatters worse.
Grab him, Stan, says Helen, runningtoward them behind the security guard. Ithink he’s. I mean. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. But. Everybody.Based on what I’ve seen. He’s probably. Most definitely. I think.
Karl’s arms and legs are still flailing all over the placewhen Stan catches up with them. He helps Karl out of the bin and holds on tohis arm. Okay, you dirty old bastard.Stan says. Show’s over.
Oh, Stan, Helen says, running up tothem, breathless. You did it. Sheputs a hand on his upper arm and her eyes widen. You’re so strong.
Karl doesn’t look at Millie but says, Go, Millie, go. I’ll find you, out the side of his mouth, and theGuess Who? people look at her like they expect her to do something, so Milliegrabs the mannequin’s leg and she does something; she weaves through the forestof people, around and under and through. GoMilliego,she sings as she runs as fast as she can out the door and through the parkinglot. As she’s running, she looks back, and it’s still there, painted in bigletters that slide over each other as the doors open and close: IN HERE MUM.
Milliewalks up the pathway to her house, places the mannequin’s leg on the step, andtries to open the door. It’s locked. She grabs the spare key from under themat, unlocks the door, checks the street for the police car that’s been lookingfor her, and then walks in. It’s cold and dark. She’s tired from running allthe way from the department store. From the doorway, she says, Mum?
Millie walks into the kitchen. Mum? The word echoes off the walls. Dishes are piled high in thesink and there’s something in the rubbish that stinks. She walks into thelounge room. Mum? The couch is hugein its emptiness, and the television is a big black hole in the center of theirlounge room. Why has she never noticed how big and black it is, how it lookslike you could press a button and it would suck up your whole house?
Her dad’s beer cozy is on the coffee table. Millie holds itup to the light streaming through the window. Dust particles dance around it inthe sunlight. She rubs the material with her fingertips. It’s black, with ayellow map of Australia on one side and a very big-boobed woman in a bikini onthe other. Millie slides it onto her forearm and rubs it against her cheek.
She walks into her mum and dad’s room. Her mum’s side of thebed is all rumpled up. She lies under the covers for a bit, pulling them overher head. It’s cold and dark in there, too. She reaches her hand across to herdad’s side, then peels back the covers, stands, and presses the palm of herhand on the wardrobe door, like she’s trying to make a handprint on it. Shecloses her eyes and slides the door across. When she opens her eyes, there isnothing there but wire coat hangers. Like the shoulders of skeletons.
She sits on the bed and drags her fingers through the airand it feels like nothing and she wants to say, Sorry, Mum, I am so sorry, Mum, I am sorry for doing the things I did.
a fact aboutthe world millie knows for sure
Sorry is sometimes the only thingleft to say.
What should you say whensomeone dies?she whispered to her dad as her mum watched Dealor No Deal. The sister of a girl at school had died and her teacher hadtold Millie to make a card.
Mills, baby, her dad whispered back. Hehoisted her up onto his lap. No one’sgoing to die.
She furrowed her brow. Everyone’sgoing to die.
Well, he said, and stopped. Heput his hands under her armpits and twisted her around to face him. Well. Yes. But no one you know.
Everyone I know.
But not anytime soon.
How do you know?
I just know.
What on Earth are you twotalking about?her mum said as the ads blared out of the television.
Mum, Millie said, looking at theback of her mum’s head. What do you sayto your friends when people they love die?
Her mum turned around and flashed her dad A Look. Shegrabbed Millie by both hands and leaned into her face. You don’t need to know any of this stuff, Millie, she said. You’re just a child. A little girl. Youshould be, I don’t know, playing dollies. Offices. Shops.
Her mum sat back in her chair and eyed her. Who was it? Bec’s sister. From school.
Deal or No Deal came back on the telly. Send them a card, her mum said, turningback toward the television. Say somethingnice on it.
Like . . . deal! Are youkidding me? Take the money!
Millie’s dad put his hand on Millie’s head. It felt sogigantic on there. Say, I’m sorry foryour loss.
It’s not my fault.
Of course not. He put his arms around herand pushed her head into his chest. Justbe kind, he said. That’s all.
Later, when Millie’s dad was dead, her mum sat in front ofthe telly, all day every day, and Millie put her hand on her mum’s arm andsaid, I’m sorry for your loss. Andher mum hugged her, so tight Millie could hardly breathe, and said, I’m
sorry for your loss too, Millie.
Andnow, as she looks out the window from her mum and dad’s bedroom, scanning thestreet for the police car, she locks eyes with the old lady across the road.She, too, is looking out the window from her house. She, too, Millie can tell,has lost someone. Millie doesn’t know how she can tell, but she just can. I’m sorry for your loss, Millie mouthsat her, slowly and deliberately, her forehead on the glass of the window. Theold lady stares at her. And then pulls the curtains shut.