“Do you like butter?” The yellow petals flutter under my chin. “You do – you love it. You want to marry it,” Alice shrieks. She drops the buttercup at the side of the road, hoists her backpack higher and runs ahead.
She’s disappeared inside the house by the time I walk up the drive. Granddad’s on his knees on the lawn. He works the trowel side to side, unpeels root from soil, crushes yellow flowers. I grab an apple out of my bag and climb up the willow tree at the far end of the garden. Granddad’s hair looks thinner from up here – a patchwork of shiny pink skin where the doctors have cut old bits out and sewn new bits on. He takes a handful of white granules from a small yellow bucket, sprinkles it onto the exposed soil.
“How does it look, Steph?” he calls up to me. I hunker down in the leaves, make a hooting sound like an owl.
“Keep off the lawn,” he yells, side-steps his way through the grassy minefield and walks down the path to the garden shed. I throw my apple core in a solid arc and watch granules explode.
In the kitchen, steam sticks to the windows. Nana leans over the bench, opens one just enough so the hot air can get out but the flies can’t get in. She empties the pressure cooker into a colander, slips skin from long red beetroot, slices it into a jar and pours over vinegar. Her eyes water just a little at the corners.
“Set the table for me love,” she says, and I lay it out the way she likes it: placemats, cutlery, butter, jug of water. When we sit down to eat, butter melts onto the hot potatoes, pools at their base. I dip a finger and lick it, rub my greasy lips together. At home we have the stuff in a tub. Better for your heart, Mum says. Her father died of a heart attack. One minute he was washing the car, and the next lying on the driveway, an imprint of gravel still on his face at the open casket days later. When I die, if they cut out my heart, wring it in two hands, it will be thick with fatty lumps of butter. It will be delicious.
They take Alice for a walk to see the cows after dinner. The grandmother clock ticks softly as I walk down the hall. Granddad keeps his best stuff in his bedside table. I unfold the pocket knife, test the blade on a strand of carpet. Ten smooth bullets roll around behind his hankies. I line them up across my palm, look across to the .22 that’s hidden behind the curtain. He has a locked cupboard for it in the shed outside but likes to keep it handy so he can take a shot at the rabbits from his bedroom, leaning out the open window that faces the lawn. The bunnies know better. They stick to the other side of the house at night and leave small brown pebbles outside his window during the day.
I listen carefully, then take the gun out, slide the bullets into place and hold the scope to my eye. Mum told me that guns aren’t for girls, but Granddad thinks that’s rubbish, that girls are the ones who need to know how to use them. When we stay for the weekend, after Alice is asleep, he takes me down the farm to shoot rabbits. It’s always quiet and dark out there, black as a Maori, Granddad says. He’s got it wrong though. Giles and his mates, they’re chocolate and caramel.
Out the window, down past the hedge, I can see them. I centre the scope on each in turn, three ducks in a row, Alice last. I release the safety and place my finger on the trigger, close my eyes and imagine her head exploding like a melon. If they wrung out her heart there would be a slow trickle of blue glitter. It would get everywhere; we would still be finding it stuck to our faces a year later. I lower the gun, empty the casing, and put the bullets back where I found them. All except one that I fold in a piece of tissue paper and put in my pocket.
Dad picks us up just before it gets dark. He’s wearing a suit, his good one, a tie lying like a blue diamond-backed snake across the seat. Mum’s still out – at her meditation retreat, Dad tells us as he drives – so it’s straight home and into bed.
Alice mucks around in the bathroom but I’m done in minutes. I leave the curtains open so I can see the night sky, dark with a sliver of moon, and pull my jewellery box onto the bed. It still plays music but the ballerina is only legs. I empty it out and put the bullet inside, close the catch on the lid.
That weekend we sleep over. Mum and Dad are out at some work dinner. Dad’s work because Mum’s can’t stretch to paying for partners. She doesn’t do it for the money though, it’s to know that she is part of something bigger, she says on the phone to her friend Gillian. That, and she just needs her own thing.
We share a room at their place. Alice has the bed by the wall so she can line her soft toys up in a long row. Their oversized eyes flicker in the light from the hallway. When she falls asleep I turn them face down.
I’m still awake when my grandparents go to bed. I hear Granddad coughing in the bathroom, his slow feet down the hall. I wait a few minutes, then slip out of bed. Nana’s left her phone on the bench. I check to see if she has any good games, read a few of her texts but they are boring as. Except one from Dad, something about a missing out on the job in Auckland. It doesn’t make any sense so I delete it.
Alice is having picnic morning tea out on the grass. She’s spread out a blanket, set up her tea set with sugar water, lined up her toys. I look at the piece of paper in my hand, her wonky letters inviting me for tea and treats at 10am. It’s 10.30.
From up here in the willow I could probably spit on her head if it was a good one. I’ve been working on distance. It’s all about the consistency so it stays in one glob. Giles has been teaching me. At break time we see who can make it highest up the wall of the dental clinic. His are a slick yellow green, sliding slug-like to the ground. He’s told me about his slingshot, how he can hit a sparrow easy. I told him what a rabbit’s brain looks like, made out it was me who got the shot.
I hock and spit but it’s too light, and misses by a mile. Alice flicks her head up at the sound. “Steph? Come down. Your tea’s ready.” I hoot but she jumps up, spies me in the branches and waits with hands on hips until I clamber down.
My fingers get stuck in the tiny handles of the tea cups. The tea is sweet and crunchy. “It’s how it tastes best,” says Alice, scraping sugar from the bottom of the cup with a dirty fingernail. The fairy bread is soggy but I eat it anyway.
Giles brings his older brothers gun to school on Monday. It’s heavy for something so small, fits snug into the front pocket of his backpack. He shows me how to hold it, where the safety is.
“Not much use without bullets though is it,” I say.
“I can get them – next week eh. We’ll give it a go.”
He tells me about the paddock he and his brother go to, not far from school so we could walk there at lunch time, take shots at old cans. He reckons he’s a great shot but I reckon he’s all talk. I think about that gun though.
Wednesday feels wrong. We don’t go to our grandparents. Instead, Mum’s waiting at the gate, asks me question after question as we walk home, as if she’s saved up a year’s worth of heart-to-hearts. Alice says her day was great and skips ahead, while I am left with the tricky ones – do I feel like I connect well with others, is this school fulfilling my needs? I just shrug and let her hold my hand for a minute – what do I know?
It’s not until the next week that Giles brings the gun to school again. “Lunch time, back hedge,” he says, and shows me a handful of bullets.
I’m there first, sweaty as because it’s the first time I’ve ever snuck out of school. We just walk out a gap in the hedge, casual like, down the road and through an empty section to a couple of paddocks. It’s quiet out here too, just the crackle of exploding broom seeds and the sweet scent of gorse.
“Here – like this,” Giles says, and shows me how to keep it steady. His hands are cool and damp. “Then you just aim and fire. Watch the kick back.”
I remember Granddad’s words – relax into it...breathe, breathe, breathe. I pull the trigger. The shot fires into the dirt beside the can. I grin, turn to Giles. And he kisses me.
In a school our size it’s easy to go unnoticed. I’d never known that before. We slip away at the start of lunch time. Sometimes Giles brings the gun, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does we take a few shots, then find ourselves on the ground. Turns out there are many things I didn’t know – that drops of blood on dusty ground look just like water, that fingers taste of cold metal.
Mum and Dad go away for the weekend so Alice and I walk to our grandparents on Friday after school. They need some time together to reconnect, Mum tells Gillian, to see where the path ahead might lead for them both. I tell Giles where I’ll be, that if I can I’ll text him.
Granddad’s waiting for us by the back door, wraps his old arms tight around me. “Want to put a few shots out tonight?”
I shrug. “Sure.”
We head out at dusk. It’s one of those weird nights where the moon rises up out of the earth all fresh and buttery. Granddad makes a big show of how to load the gun, where the safety is and everything. He’s surprised when I get a rabbit first shot. I let the barrel drop on the next few.
“Dammit,” I say.
Granddad chuckles. “Don’t let your nana hear you talk like that.”
He gets a couple more and the dogs come back grinning with pink-tinged mouths. We walk back and Granddad tells me a few of his stories – about when he lost his job he’d go shooting with my dad and rabbits was about all they had to eat for a year. That when Dad left school it was a bit easier, although Nana has never forgiven herself for what might be different if he’d stayed.
“You just want the very best for them. And that’s a heartbreaker.” Granddad rounds off as we take off our gumboots. Nana’s in the kitchen, waves out into the darkness at us. “You’ll do well though, love, won’t you – you know what’s important.”
I smile, thinking of Giles’s arms wrapped around me, his fingers snaking down the front of my school uniform. His heart, it will smell like him – gentle puffs of sweet warm air.
The hidey hole in the tree is too small. I stretch and arch until I can cram my body into the space. Alice comes out a few minutes later, sets up her tea set. She leaves her toys to guard the tea and wanders off. I can hear her calling my name, telling me that I’d better not be late this time or all the fairy bread will be gone. I slip down the tree, duck back into the house through the open window of our bedroom, find my jewellery box at the bottom of my bag. Nana’s popped out to see a friend, left her phone beside her bed. I text Giles. He answers straight away.
I grab Granddad’s old bike from the shed, and pedal hard. If I’m fast enough they won’t even notice I’m gone. Hair sticks to my sweaty face when I pull off the helmet. Giles is waiting by the gate.
“I got a rabbit last night,” I say.
I take his hand, open it and slip the bullet into his palm.
“It won’t work in my one,” he says.
“I know.” I fold down his fingers, kiss them quickly. “It’s for good luck...or something.”
No one’s around when I get back. I lean the bike exactly as it was, hear Granddad banging around in the shed, and head up to the house.
Alice is stretched out underneath the tree, her head pillowed by toys. She’s left a mess in the kitchen – butter and an open bread bag on the bench, crumbs everywhere. I bet she ate it all too. I pack everything away, wipe the bench and even shine the sink and taps with a tea towel like Nana does.
I wander out to the tree. “You save me any?” Alice says nothing.
I give her a prod with my toe, but she doesn’t move. It’s only then I notice the small yellow bucket, the white granules crusting around her mouth, and the little stain of sick on the front of her dress. I drop down, shake her shoulders, but they’re all loose and wobbly and her head flops to one side. Her eyes are still open, staring out at me.
I stand up, grab a handful plush pink and white. In Granddad’s room I get the gun and the bullets. I walk down the track towards the back paddocks, past Granddad who looks up out of his shed, asks me what I’m up to and where Alice is.
I line up the toys like cans, walk back twenty paces, and load the gun. Breathe, breathe, breathe.