More like this

She doesn’t normally care for salad, but given it’s the third straight day of forty-degree heat and she’s alone in the house, it suddenly becomes very important for her to make one. Hannah opens the fridge, lingering for a moment in its incandescent chill, and then from the crisper drawer plucks a pegged bag of spinach, one lemon, one cucumber and the smaller of two tomatoes, gathering them close to her so that the lemon, cucumber and tomato press their cool skins against her forearms. She jostles the crisper back into its slot and elbows the fridge door closed.

The lemon, cucumber and tomato are so firm and cold and perfect—when she releases them on the kitchen counter, the sound of them knocking and wobbling reminds her of wooden toy vegetables, those jolly painted ones connected by a little Velcro dot so that children can cut them in half with a stubby-bladed knife. She washes and slices the cucumber and tomato; whisks a dressing of squeezed lemon, olive oil, salt and cracked pepper; sweeps the cucumber and tomato into a bowl; tumbles in the spinach leaves; and spirals the dressing with a spoon.

The front of the house will have a little shade now, surely, since it faces east; the bowl of salad is cool in the crook of her arm as she opens the front door. But the heat is immediately upon her. Hannah sits down carefully in the unbalanced chair, the wooden slats still baked from the morning, and spears a forkful of salad. The stillness and quietness of the Sunday is only just now striking her as unusual: even in this heat, shouldn’t there be cars bearing down the road, visitors struggling up driveways with ceramic dishes of coleslaw, the neighbours calling their cat inside? She crunches the first forkful; dressing slicks her tongue. The smoke of a distant bushfire seems static in the sky, a lilac parody of clouds.

She sees the first ones after her fourth mouthful. A teenager pushing a shopping trolley, the wayward wheels rattling on the uneven path. There is a child riding inside. The teenager and the child don’t seem to be siblings—something about the way they hold themselves: the square posture of the one in the trolley, the sloping shoulders of the one pushing it. They don’t speak to one another, but not, Hannah senses, out of animosity: the noise and vibrations of the trolley would make conversation difficult.

As they draw level with her porch, Hannah expects them to pass by in a hypnotised fashion, their gazes fixed on the horizon, but instead the older one meets her eye and smiles, as a traveller might smile at an old friend who has come to greet you at the airport after a long flight.

There are more children approaching from the south side of the street. They don’t all come in pairs—in fact, most of them are lone figures, walking purposefully. Some of them clutch toys or blankets, but just as many are empty-handed. The heat shimmers on the road, a ribbony haze. Not all the children are dressed for this weather, their faces exposed to the sun; some of them are travelling on the road itself instead of keeping to the path—all of this rouses an itchy concern in Hannah. She sits up straighter in her chair. The street she lives on is a long, arterial one, winding the length of the whole suburb. And yet, there is still no one else on the street except for herself and this procession of children.

A child lopes past her porch just then, their gait hobbled by a broken flip-flop. The little plug that holds the straps in place has come loose, so the child must squeeze their toes and drag their heel to prevent the sole flapping with each footfall. The child has been walking with one wrist flexed so that their hand points backwards, reminding Hannah of a duck’s wing.

Perhaps it is the endearing birdiness of the child’s walk that compels Hannah to say: ‘Excuse me. Hey.’

The child halts and squints at her, the fingers of their duck-wing hand curling slightly. Hannah guesses they’re about nine years old, but she can’t discern their gender. They’re wearing board shorts and a rashie printed with a team of cartoon characters that sparks no recognition in Hannah, the graphic’s jaunty outline flaking away.

‘I know a trick for that,’ she says, gesturing to the flip-flop. ‘Wait here.’

Hannah hugs the bowl and walks back inside the house, welcoming the cool swoop in temperature as she crosses the threshold. In the kitchen, she lifts the lid of the breadbox and rummages for a loose plastic bread tab.

As she wriggles her feet into sandals and returns to the porch, she half-expects the child to have moved on. But they are still waiting at the bottom of the steps, picking at a mosquito bite or scab.

‘Here we go,’ Hannah says.

She kneels beside them, placing her salad bowl on the pavement. This close, especially as she wraps a gentle hand around their ankle to prompt them to lift their foot, Hannah can’t help noticing the child’s skin speckled with soil, as if they have been uprooted from a garden bed. She slides the flip-flop away, feeds the strap through the hole, secures it with the bread tab, and then eases it back onto the child’s foot. Some of the dirt rubs off onto her thumb and wrist: the soil has a trampled fruit smell, deep and damp and bruised, a richly discordant note between the dry paperiness of the bushfire smoke and the skinned-knee scent of the hot asphalt.

The child presses the ball of their foot into the ground to test the bread tab’s strength. ‘That’s better,’ they say. ‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

It’s embarrassing, the warmth of her voice, the familial tenderness. Hannah scoops up her bowl and stands quickly, but the child seems unbothered. A girl who smells powerfully of bleach walks around them, continuing north.

The child is still standing next to Hannah, duck-wing hand perked.

‘Hey,’ Hannah says. ‘Do you know what’s going on here? Why are you all… Just what is this about?’

‘Haven’t you heard?’ the child says. ‘If the temperature is more than forty degrees for three days in a row, kids get to come home. It’s the rule.’

Hannah adjusts her grip on the salad bowl. ‘No… I don’t think it’s true—isn’t it an urban legend? Also, it’s Sunday?’

The child shrugs. ‘Kids get to come home. It’s the rule.’

‘But where have you been? What are you coming home from?’

The child lowers their gaze—perhaps not evasively, but because their neck is getting sore from looking up at her. Hannah clocks, again, the cartoon characters on the rash vest: a group of multiracial teens with fists raised, presided over by a flying muscular man whose skin is toothpaste blue. They feel to her like characters that came into vogue in her own adolescence, or before her time entirely: either way, something of an anachronism.

‘I guess I was buried,’ the child says.


‘I’m not mad about it. The people who found me—they knew they’d get into trouble if they told the police. That the police wouldn’t believe that they weren’t the ones who took me. It was safer for them to bury me. So I’m not mad.’

Hannah doesn’t know what to say to that. The handle of the fork slides into her thumb again. The salad is no longer as bright and cool as it was a few minutes ago, the spinach leaves having rolled themselves up like limp umbrellas.

‘They tried to be proper about it, you know,’ the child continues, mistaking Hannah’s perplexed silence for an appalled one. ‘I remember now. They washed my face. They made sure I was comfortable lying in the hole—like, I wasn’t going to be on a weird slant or anything—and they put flowers on top of me. I wish my mum could have seen it. Or maybe it wouldn’t have helped. I don’t know. Do you mind if we keep walking, actually?’

The child shuffles, and Hannah worries what might happen if the bread tab doesn’t hold. She asks, ‘Is it okay if I walk with you?’


‘It’s not against the rules?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Hannah almost reaches to take the child’s hand but stops herself in time, curling her arm instead around the salad bowl. The child resumes their strange little duck walk. The sun slashes Hannah whenever they move through the gap between the shadows of houses. She keeps noticing children she hadn’t noticed before, hidden by the slight bends in the road—a toddler pulled along in a cart, an older child carrying a younger one in a piggyback. They soon catch up with the girl who smells like bleach, and she slows and drifts over to the nature strip so that they can overtake her.

When they pass out of earshot, and the tang of the bleach fades, Hannah asks: ‘Were all of these kids…taken, like you were?’

‘Oh no, it’s not like that,’ the child says. ‘I mean, yes, some of us were taken. And not always by a person, you know. Like, those kids over there, it was the government who took them away. That one over there—went missing in a flood. That one got too close to a rockpool and fell in. That one—they left a hiking trail to look for a walking stick, and then their parents couldn’t find them again. That one took the wrong bus. That one ran away.’

‘I see. I think I understand.’

‘There’s tons of things that can happen to a kid.’

Hannah glances over her shoulder to see how far they have walked—her house is already out of view. Some paces behind them, on the opposite side of the road, a girl drags one of those toys with a long blue handle attached to a clear dome filled with plastic balls that bounce and pop with the motion of the wheels. Several paces ahead, a lanky boy taps his curved fingers on his thigh as if practising the piano.

‘Do you have a lost kid?’ the child asks. ‘What do they look like? Maybe I’ve seen them.’

The thought has indeed occurred to Hannah—her heart flared when she saw the younger ones helped along by the older ones—but: ‘No. No, I don’t think mine will be here.’

‘Why not?’

‘My kid…my kid wasn’t old enough like these ones. I didn’t get to meet them properly.’ And then, feeling that euphemism is wasted on a child whose intimacy with death surpasses her own: ‘They died before they were born.’

The child frowns but doesn’t look away from her. Hannah knuckles a strand of hair from her eyes. She wanted to ask the child how long they’ve been gone, and how certain they are that their mother still lives in this area. But it now seems like a cruel line of enquiry—and an irrelevant one, because instead of culminating in the familiar traffic-light junction, the street has deviated from the cartography of her memory, stretching out as if pinioned and dragged by a cursor, the curves pulled straight, veins of sideroads pinched closed. The houses have multiplied and shuffled places. There again is the house with the hummingbird-shaped letterbox, its propeller-wing rusted in place; there again is the duplex with the painted white line dividing the carports. They have twice passed a house with the bronze numbers 249 drilled to the wall on a descending diagonal. What has not changed is the heat rising off the road, the mean glitter of the sun on any refractive surface.

The sound of the flip-flop’s bread tab scuffing the pavement is like a seashell rubbing a seashell. Hannah can still hear the joggling of plastic balls somewhere behind her, closer.

‘I still think you should look out for your kid,’ the child says. ‘They might be here.’

‘I will,’ she says, even though she’s already decided that it might be better not to. She cradles the salad bowl. ‘What are you going to do, when you get home?’

The child flicks a look at Hannah to let her know they recognise her deflection. Their duck-wing hand twitches. ‘I’m going to give my mum a hug. Well, I won’t do it right away. I’ll take a shower first, and put on some clean clothes.’

‘That’s very considerate. I don’t think your mum would mind very much if you gave her a hug first, though, don’t you think?’

‘Maybe. And I’ll tell her I’m sorry for wandering off when I did, and I’m sorry I broke my shoe, and I’ll tell her about how the people who found me buried me nicely, and I’ll ask her if she still kept my yellow hoodie because it’s my favourite even though it has holes in it.’

‘It sounds like you’ve had a lot of time to think about this.’

‘I have.’

Their shadows grow lean in the afternoon light, more sharply angled. The sun burnishes the child’s curly hair, the fine bristles of their lashes; Hannah feels that her own body is alight too, the crook of her arm sealed by sweat to the salad bowl. For a brief moment she has the sensation of her head floating blurrily above her body—it could be the smoke on the air, or the blistery asphalt—but then she’s fine again. The overhead powerlines buzz and crackle.

A little ahead, the boy with the pianist’s fingers abruptly turns a right angle down a driveway buckled with weeds. He knocks on the front door. As Hannah and the child pass the house, the door opens an inch, then a hand span, and then as far as the hinges will allow.

‘Oh,’ gasps the woman standing there. She drops to one knee.

Then the house is behind them, and they don’t stay to watch.

How long a life must seem, Hannah thinks, when you’re forced to carry on without someone in it. Every day tediously unspooling like this road she walks on with the child.

This too shall pass, Hannah’s mother had said when the baby was lost, the universe having sized up Hannah’s indecision and made the choice for her. And the worst thing is, the pain—it did pass. It was entirely possible to walk through it every day, through heatwave and smoky sky. So why this chance, why today, that her child might return?

The duck-wing child stops at a driveway with a brick letterbox attached to a planter in which wrinkled succulents struggle to hold up their heads.

‘This is my house.’ But the child doesn’t shift from their spot, casting their eyes down to yellowed weeds. The brittle plastic lid of a takeaway drink cup has nested here, a cardboard straw still bent through the toothed hole.

‘Are you going to go in?’ Hannah asks.

‘In a little bit.’

Behind them, the joggling of plastic balls ceases, and another front door is thrown open. A man chokes out ‘Krissy!’ and begins to sob.

Hannah turns to the child and says, ‘Earlier, when you were talking about the other children. How each of them went missing…’


‘How did you know all of that?’

‘It’s like a dream,’ the child says. ‘You don’t really know how you know things. You just do.’

‘It must be a little worrying. Knowing the things that you know.’

‘It’s more peaceful than that. Like you’re a sock filled with rice. That’s what my mum used to do for me: fill a sock with dry rice, tie a knot at the top, microwave it for half a minute. Maybe not now during summer. But in winter, it’s good, it’s nice to hold. Anyway, that’s what it’s like, knowing these things—being a sock of warm rice.’ The child looks up at her. ‘You didn’t actually want your kid, did you?’

It’s not an accusation, but it pangs her like a stone flung from a slingshot. Hannah shifts the salad bowl from one arm to the other, the fork rasping against the rim. That sensation of her head blurring above her body threatens to return, but she wills herself to be solid, for her outline not to flake away.

‘I did, and I didn’t,’ she replies. ‘I think both of those things can be true, don’t you? It’s like you said—there’s a ton of things that can happen to a child. I wanted my child, but I was scared for it, too.’

It is tempting to keep talking—to re-open the wound and stare at it—but it just won’t do, Hannah thinks, to hash out the old guilts.

‘But listen,’ she says to the child, whose duck-wing hand has grown rigid. ‘Your mum will be glad to see you. She won’t be mad at all. I promise you. She’s not waiting for you to say sorry or anything like that. You have nothing at all to be sorry about. And I bet she did keep your yellow hoodie.’

The child twists their foot; the bread tab grinds the pavement. ‘If your kid was here, where would you want to meet them? Not that I’m saying that they’re here, that they’ve come home, but you know, just in case?’

‘That’s a good thought,’ Hannah says. ‘How about we both agree to go back home, then? You go inside to see your mum, and I’ll go home and wait, just in case?’

‘Okay. Just in case.’

The child turns on the balls of their feet—Hannah hears the bread tab squeak for the last time—and walks up the curving front path. This homecoming is quiet: the door opens, the child slips inside, the door closes. Disappearing as silently as any child could disappear, succumbing to the quicksand of the universe.

Hannah walks back up the road, to her home, hugging the salad bowl, which is well and truly warm now. The whole street has broken out into a celebration because all the children have come home, because that was the rule. She imagines a parent soaking a washcloth under the tap and then holding their child by the chin and wiping the dirt from their face, and if it were her, Hannah doesn’t know how she would be able to stop cleaning and admiring that face, passing the cloth over the soft skin of eyelids and cheeks, revealing that gleaming precious face again and again, the delirious vertigo of it—my child has come home.

She keeps walking, and a row of neighbours have all agreed to turn on their front lawn sprinklers, so children kick off their shoes and run screaming through the jets of water, and some of the grown-ups join in. People are coming out of their houses offering whatever they can find that can be repurposed for celebration: whirring egg-beaters, pot-lid cymbals; capes styled from tea towels and cushion cases and shower curtains; rolls of toilet paper that can be flung like streamers; empty fizzy drink cans tied with butcher’s twine; bubbles blown from coathanger wands; extravagant hats fashioned from lampshades; ice-cubes that can be slid down revellers’ backs or held in the cup of one’s hands before flicking them to the next person and then the next person until it is nothing more than a slippery wafer.

All these festivities Hannah walks past until she arrives at her house, mounting the steps, tucking the bowl under her arm so she can open her front door, pass over the threshold, lean her spine into the knob until the latch strikes home. The door is an imperfect seal to the goings-on outside, but she doesn’t mind; though she has no reason to ascribe kindredness to them, she knows the duck-wing child is also listening to the celebrations behind a closed door, that they too prefer the quiet. A sock of rice.

She retreats deeper into the cool of the house, depositing her bowl in the sink. Her skin is vibrating. What should she do while she waits? Her thumb and wrist are still marked by the mud of the child; Hannah lifts this hand, now, to touch her new collar of sunburn.

The future will bring its unsolvable calamities, but for this particular wound, at least, she knows a trick: take the last tomato from the crisper drawer, slice it in half, hold the cold flesh to the burn.