The Pink House rose from the waxy palm leaf. Bud was loose in the garden.
I hooked my fingers through the links of the fence and pressed my face up close. The sweat on my hands made the fence smell like a warm coin. He was there somewhere, in the thick green—wielding his tail like a machete, stamping on flowers, pushing their crooked necks to the ground. Squatting his pelvis low. Bristling as the wind ran across his shoulders and mine.
The leaves felt close. They smelled like something I was allergic to. I think I heard a knife and fork clink together, or a cutlery drawer that was a little sticky. It was dinnertime in the Pink House. Our dog was a beggar, but Bud would find his own dinner. Something warm, blood-filled and clotted. He was black and white and his eyes stretched over his forehead like a tight mask. He looked like a bad dog from a cartoon.
Other dogs obeyed the territories of our cul-de-sac. Over Hemma’s back fence lived Jared, with his BB gun and his willie that was shaped like a hooked little finger. He had a German Shepherd—a police dog. She could tear off your whole arm in one snap, but her hips were withered. She stalked the fence line but never crossed it. Hemma told me her name was Angelica. Because Angelica was a woman, we felt as though we knew what kind of violence to expect from her.
Bud would not listen to reason. He couldn’t fit under my fence—it was a proper wooden one, unlike Hemma’s. But sometimes our gate didn’t close all the way. The bolt was rusty. It would let out an eerie swing that pricked our ears, and we knew Bud had come.
In the window of the Pink House, a hand curtsied beneath the net curtain. A bottle of Sunlight Soap on the windowsill winked in the low daylight. They might have been eating Spam in there. I didn’t know what Spam exactly was, or how it got in the can, but I knew I didn’t like it. I could smell Bud’s steaming mouth on the wind.
Today, again, he had crept into Hemma’s garden. It was a Friday, so our mothers were drinking wine together upstairs. Our job, on Friday nights, was to stop existing until one of them called us back in.
I was wearing a heavy cream petticoat from the dress up chest, and Hemma’s head was plated with colourful plastic butterflies. We were playing with her stepdad’s old radio, tuning it halfway to see if a ghost wanted to talk to us. From the playhouse window, we watched Bud crawl on his belly to fit under the fence. He pawed each of the toys we’d dropped in the garden. He trotted over the grass looking for somewhere to shit. He caught my dog, George, and had sex with him. Then, looking over his shoulder to make sure we could see him, he sniffed the grey hutch in the corner of the garden. I promised Hemma I would kill Bud before he went near our rabbit again.
Anastasia wasn’t really our rabbit. She wasn’t mine anymore. Mum made me give her away because I didn’t look after her. I didn’t like to open her hutch and look down on her damp nest; she was always mute and seething and cornered by her little black poos. Anastasia was named after the Princess of Imperial Russia, and also a pop star who wore red-tinted sunglasses indoors. If we tried to take her out of the hutch, she raked her claws down our wrists. Her jellied red eyes made her look extra furious.
Our world was territorial. The whole street was stapled through with garden fences and hemmed in by the great black bush. Even though we were next-door neighbours, we had to meet for discussions across the driveway of Number Eleven. I would stirrup my feet in the fence and Hemma leaned over the top of her hedge as though it were a breakfast table. We couldn’t go over to play unless we interrupted one of our mothers’ endless phone conversations. They were usually talking to each other. No one crossed these boundaries without permission except for Bud.
I squinted up at the windows, at the net curtains spilling out. They were the twitching eyelashes of the house. Sometimes I dreamed about net curtains, swirling around my face, worming their way down my throat. I couldn’t see the lady or her kids from down here. The lady in the Pink House hit her kids with a stick.
Hemma knew all about it. She told me stories about them that she heard from her mum. They ate dog-roll on white bread for lunch at school. (It was a different school to ours. A Catholic school.) The lady walked heel-toe, heel-toe, up and down the hallways of her house. Her footfall made a sound as neat as a compact mirror clicking closed. If we were careful to walk heel-toe, heel-toe around the perimeter of the garden, we would be safe from her. I don’t know how Hemma knew the things she knew.
I thought of a chunk of Spam sizzling in a pan, and my mouth felt greasy. I marched back across the lawn to the little red playhouse, trying to make my heels click click click.
Hemma was folded up on the porch with her arms around her knees. She wasn’t afraid of the regular things. She was six months older than me and she threw all her nightmares out the minute she turned eight. She kept a roller-ball perfume in a purse made of rippling metal links, and she taught me how to pull down my eyelid and smear her mama’s kohl all along my waterline. Her new clothes were official What Now? merchandise. When I was afraid, she would say, “Stella, there is nothing to be afraid of,” and laugh in a way that reassured me. But Hemma was afraid of Bud. I lay my hands on her shoulders and asked her the best way to kill a dog.
Hemma said the best way to kill a dog was to put sharp things in its food. Last year, her Bichon Frise ate a Kelly doll in one piece. Kelly dragged her raised pinky finger right through Shadow’s guts, and he vomited blood until he died. Sometimes we played a game where we performed all the things Shadow did when he had his final seizure. Hemma was better at it because I didn’t actually see.
There was still a line of rusting Champ cans on a shelf on top of Hemma’s dryer. They vibrated as the dryer tumbled its cargo, tucking us into the smell of warm sheets. Our mothers’ voices melted through the wall.
We surveyed our flavour options—Filet Mignon, Rotisserie Chicken and Beef Casserole. We chose Beef Casserole because it had the least cobwebs. The can was as big as Hemma’s head, so we laced our fingers and lugged it together. When we had bolted the playhouse door, I showed Hemma how you can open a can with a spoon. She had never wanted to come to Girl Guides with me before but she looked very interested now. Inside was a pinkish mush, protected by a clear cap that wobbled when you tilted the can.
The smell of the dog food filled the playhouse and made us gag. We had to take it outside, onto the patch of lawn that was lit by Jared’s sensor light. With pliers that Hemma had stolen from her stepfather’s leather tool belt, we carved pieces of the tin-lid into Shadow’s old bowl. It was almost night and the whole world was turning blue. The scent of Beef Casserole carried on the wind. Anastasia would sleep outside, alone, in her bed of piss-soaked hay. If we didn’t hurry, Bud might smell the food sweating on our hands. He might tear up our hands and a doctor would have to piece them back together with chunky stitches. Our eyes flicked to the Pink House in turn. The house knew what we were doing, but there was nothing it could do to stop us.
We focused on our work until Hemma noticed eyes glinting in the hedge. Through the branches underneath, we counted four bare feet.
No one had lived at Number Eleven for ages—not since the tinnie house was raided on Christmas Eve—but yesterday we had watched a big white van backing down the driveway. We never expected there would be kids living there. Especially not two spying girls. They watched us as if they didn’t know we were looking right back at them. The eldest had white patches on her face like the skin that hides underneath a scab. Her hair looked like she had cut it herself.
“We can see you,” I called. The little one hunched down, but her sister stood and peered at us over the top of the leaves. She didn’t reply, and it made me nervous. I turned back to our potion and shouted, “We’re busy.”
“Who are you?” said Hemma.
The big one said, “Tia.” The little one moved her mouth without making any noise. “Aye?” said Hemma.
“Taupiri!” she screamed. After she screamed, she panted. Her chest was thumping up and down. Hemma bent down to wipe Champ off her fingers in the grass.
“Chill out, girl.”
In the dark dirt behind them, a stout dog stood and rattled its collar. I climbed onto my knees at Hemma’s side.
“What’s your dog called?” she asked.
“That’s Mokomoko,” said Tia.
Hemma shrugged and turned her body so the girls couldn’t see what we were doing. We mixed our potion and the two girls watched us from their darkening driveway. On the other side of Jared’s fence, his baby brother had wandered out the back door. He sat under the monkey-apple tree with no nappy on, babbling to himself.
The dog food wasn’t hiding the metal pieces. They needed to be much smaller. We glared into the breathing darkness.
“Hey!” Tia shouted, and made Hemma jump.
“Hey what?” I wrinkled my nose in her direction. Hemma was staring down at her hands.
Tia shifted from one foot to the other. She laced her fingers and stretched them inside out to crack her knuckles. “We have a Nintendo.”
I rolled my eyes. It was obvious they only wanted our attention, and this was a very difficult time. When I turned back to Hemma, she was holding her pointing finger up close to her narrowed eyes. Blood was pooling in the web of her hand.
I wiped the end of her finger clean on the ruffie of my petticoat. It was sliced neat as a sandwich, and hot pink meat was bulging out. “You eggs!” I screamed. I wanted to go and get help. I imagined myself hovering on the threshold, ears pricked up with listening, and I thought about the kitchen light twinkling off a glossy box of Band-Aids. We would choose our favourite shape. Hemma liked the strip and I liked the spot. If we took the long walk across the garden, up the red chip steps that bit at our bare feet, under the window where no one was watching for us, we could have gone inside and interrupted our mothers’ conversation. But there were certain times of night when it was best not to need them. I pulled the plaster off my knee, surprising the sticky, fibre-knitted wound, and squished the hemispheres of her finger back together.
A motorbike growled up on the road, and Jono Wilson rolled past with his Jack Russell on his chest like a baby. He lived down the back, on the other side of our house. Jono had a long blue scar on his neck from trying to die in his garage. He was a pedo.
I saw a street lamp come on which meant good luck, then a second, which meant bad luck. Hemma saw it too. Her mouth twisted and she chewed on her bottom lip. Then she turned around and barked at the girls.
“Get away from our hedge.”
“Not even yours,” said Tia.
“Ours first.” Hemma smirked, revealing her double tooth. She dragged one finger across her white throat. Tia was quiet for a long time. I could hear her breathing through her nose. She raised her chin, and her jaw cut a sharp line across the shadow of her neck.
“My dad has a gun, and our dog’s gonna kill you,” she said.
We looked at Moko up the driveway. The teats on her belly scraped in the gravel. Her ears were tiny, as though someone had cut them smaller. She paced up and down the driveway like the enemy in a video game.
The Pink House watched us. It sent rats and wētā into the cul-de-sac upon its breath. It seeped with the expectation of rats. It started to rain, then. We climbed into the playhouse. The other girls crouched next to the hedge and got wet.
I looked at Hemma and she looked back at me. If we pulled aside the patchwork curtain, we could see the terrible girls through the window, waiting by the hedge in the twilight. They would always be haunting us if we didn’t do anything. There were so many dangers in the garden. Nothing we did made any difference.
I took Hemma’s hand in mine, the right one with the split finger. Her face had turned milk-white, and her eyes gleamed silver like two Cola-rollers. The dog food was humming in the corner. Hemma squeezed my fingers. She was staring out the window and she didn’t blink once.
“We have to poison them.”
I looked at the little one through the window. Her hair was beginning to drip. Bud would be sheltering under the Pink House where the boards were loose. I thought of my baby sister.
“If we mix the potion with mud, we can tell them it’s Milo.”
We crept out into the wet night and scooped mud from the puddle under the playhouse foundations. We did our best mixing. Hemma found a Mickey Mouse cup and I held it still. It was a cup we got for free from B.P. Mickey’s eyes turned black as she poured. When it was ready, we pulled the finger at the girls from behind the curtain and wriggled out onto the deck.
“Do you want some of our Milo?”
Tia glared at us, but the little one nodded her head. It was cold out there, with only the petticoat and the butterfly hair clips to protect us. Hemma passed the cup slowly over the hedge.
In both hands, Taupiri lifted the cup. She positioned her mouth on the edge. We wanted her to drink it, but we knew she wouldn’t. Nobody would drink that unless they had never had Milo before. But then—she swallowed. It was there on her mouth and dribbling down her chin. She lost her balance and the mixture spilled down her hand. When she looked back at us, she had a halo around her mouth. She started to cough, like a dog in a fit. Her wail echoed off each of our houses.
Tia held Taupiri close, around her shoulders, and they staggered together over the stony driveway.
Taupiri’s body was shuddering and her arms swayed limply. The porch light flicked on at Number Eleven before the sisters made it to the door.
A woman leaned out from the doorstep, frowning and squinting into the dark. She had a sheet of dark hair spilling over her shoulder. You could tell she was the girls’ mother. Taupiri reached for her unconsciously as she climbed the steps.
Hemma and I watched. I felt as if I was melting into the grass. The mother studied us for a moment, and I groped for Hemma’s hand. Then she swept her girls inside and closed the door. We were left alone in the lamplight, with the wet grass sucking on our legs.
We might have hurt the little one, and the older one was probably in trouble. Looking after a little sister was thankless. We knew she wouldn’t drink any, and that was why we did it. But now she had. We couldn’t feel scared of them anymore; it was impossible. But we were going to get in trouble, so we had to hate them instead. We made ourselves laugh until we didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
We hauled our bodies up the back steps and stayed until it got dark, listening for the woman at the Pink House until the strain of our listening stung our ears. We smelled like dog food, and the rough concrete poked into our skin and made us itch. The only sound was the crickets, and sometimes a car going too fast down Spinella Drive.
We stitched ourselves together at the elbows and chanted: heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe. Hemma reached into the pocket of her jeans. On her palm lay a morsel of cake. It was almost black in the low light, and greaseproof paper was squished around it.
Hemma peeled a piece from the side of the cake and held it in the air in front of my nose. I opened my mouth and she placed it on the end of my tongue. It was ginger cake leftover from her lunchbox. Very soft. The spices made me dizzy. Our mothers would surely call us in soon.