from The Embrace


It was an hour before dawn. Skye was naked and dripping, padding up the stairs to her room. She’d deliberated over whether to dress after the shower, but she liked to let the water dry on her skin. And this was her home, after all. She refused to allow a stranger to make her feel small in her own home. That was like something her father often said to her: one of his idioms. ‘Skye, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ 

She’d tried to call her parents, frantically, about two hours before Naomi was due to arrive. But there was the ridiculous time difference between New Zealand and the U.S. She heard her mother’s crackly pre-recorded message, then a beep, then her own shallow breathing echoing down the line. 

‘Why did you tell me it was a good idea?’ she said. ‘She’s a stranger. I don’t want her in my house.’ 

She’d wanted her parents to email the girl and tell her not to come. That she would have to find somewhere else to live. She even had a secret hope that her parents might say it was okay if Skye wanted to lock the doors until the girl went away. But she had called them three times and it had clicked onto the message every time. There had been no way out. 

Skye’s wet hand slipped twice on the doorknob. Her parents’ bedroom door opened behind her and Naomi came out into the narrow hall. She was in yellow flannel pyjamas, patterned with jumping bunnies. Her mouth was open, and the start of a word was inside it. Her eyes jittered to Skye’s breasts and she fell silent.

‘It’s all right,’ said Skye, making sure to speak slowly, as she had learned to do with Naomi. ‘I don’t care if you look. They’re not real anyway.’ She waited to see what the other girl would do. 

After a delay, Naomi seemed to understand what Skye had said. She looked up and stared at Skye’s chest again.

‘Not real?’ she said. 

‘I got implants.’ Skye mimed a knife slicing each breast open, slipping in a silicone lump. She lifted her arm to show her fresh-shaven armpit. 

‘See the scar?’ She traced it with her fingertip. Naomi peered and nodded. She looked almost frightened. 

‘Why did you?’ 

‘My breasts were small, and I gained some weight. It went to my thighs. I didn’t feel in proportion. So my parents bought me these for Christmas.’ 

It was funny how she changed the way she talked around Naomi sometimes, adopting her stilted English. Naomi was staring openly now. It was the same as the expression she’d had when Skye had reassured her she didn’t need to use cutlery for takeaways, and Naomi had thrust both her hands deep into the pile of yellow chips. 

‘Are you happy with them?’ Naomi asked. 

‘Yes. Very.’

Sometimes Skye could feel the implants inside her, in the same way she could feel a splinter under her fingernail. She liked to cup and stroke them, push them up and let them fall. Naomi faded back into her room. Skye thought of her small form, shrouded in her parents’ blankets. She thought about coming home in the rising dawn – after eight hours of patrolling the silent mall, driving herself stupid with cartoons and TV shows. She would find Naomi in the kitchen, maybe: barefoot, buttering toast. 

And maybe one day Naomi would start to confide in her. She would call Skye up, crying, and say something like, ‘I hardly see him any more. I thought he was crazy about me.’ And Skye would reassure her. She would tell her that she didn’t need that asshole, because Skye was there for her. And Skye would call Naomi up one day, crying herself. And Naomi would say, ‘You are being too hard on yourself. You are a beautiful person.’ 

Skye preferred to look at life as if through a zoomed-in camera lens. Counting the seeds on a head of wheat rather than looking out at the vast and waving field, the dark horizon beyond. But sometimes, when she wasn’t careful enough, she stumbled backwards. Then, she saw her nights of lapping up and down over the glitter-specked mall floors, past the silent, shuttered shops, merge together into weeks and months and years, and become a chain. She knew the chain was useful to her in some ways. Having a routine kept her from slipping down too far. But it also stopped her from moving up, kept her pinned.

When Skye surveyed her life, she could see how her friends had always stood just slightly beyond her reach. Whenever she reached forward to grip at them, to pull them closer, they stepped back. And she saw the hard hands on her waist and clumsy lips at her neck materialise into an ever-shifting line of boys. Some faces blurred together, and others popped forward, in high definition. The gentle, pot-smoking chef. The intense-eyed med student. The unemployed, wild romantic, who had started, after a while, showing up in her neighbourhood uninvited. 

Her most recent ex, Clem, had been a personal trainer. For their first date he had persuaded her to come rock-climbing on Castle Hill. ‘It’s not scary, babe. Kids do it.’ When she was nearly at the top, he grabbed her without warning and yanked her up, and she scraped her knee on the rock. It had still been pounding with pain when he kissed her, and afterwards she’d looked down and seen the skin all ripped, blood trickling down.

Lying in bed beside Clem that night, watching him sleep, she had argued with her heartbroken past self. But Clem is different in all these ways: … And she felt herself take that familiar, trembling step closer to him. But two months later, Clem had stopped replying to her texts. ‘I’m just not ready for commitment,’ he told her, when she finally got hold of him. It made Skye feel like she’d been in a soap, falling for the character the audience knew was an asshole.

Her parents told her she was pessimistic and over-anxious. They told her to imagine that good things would happen to her, and they would be more likely to happen. If she was in the right mood, she could do it. She would imagine a new boy walking around the corner, his eyes settling on her, and not moving away. Or she imagined her living room on a Sunday morning, filled with friends who were rolling cigarettes and frying bread with cinnamon and sleeping between one another’s legs. 

Most often, she imagined the strong, solid presence of someone else in an upstairs room, and herself lying on the couch watching a small child, with the same curled, pale hair she had seen in baby pictures of herself. The child’s palms smacked as she dragged her knees over the smooth kitchen tiles. 

The dream she held lately was simple. It was just Skye and Naomi moving closer and closer together, until some kind of stasis was achieved, and it was understood that neither of them was going to leave.



This year, Nicole Phillipson completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. For her folio, she wrote a collection of stories about people trying to understand what it means to be happy and good and how to get there. She recently wrote a children’s picture book about the Christchurch earthquakes called Let’s Take a Walk