Popcorn

Popcorn

It didn’t start with popcorn. Ironically, they say the virus started in the gyms – implements of torture coated in a fine patina of human sweat. Some people fetishised the fumes, breathing contagion deep before showering, walking clean and dry into the cold city air to spread their viral load. Things escalated pretty quickly after that. Gluttony was the first sign; orgiastic feasting at fast food restaurants followed by uncontrollable groups of people swarming on the deep fryers and soft-serve machines. Fingers melted when the patrons got too hungry to even wait for the baskets to be lifted from the hot oil. Spotty teens abandoned the counters and either joined in or fled.

Contrarian to the last, I didn’t want greasy fast food. Popcorn was my thing; a dry empty hunger that couldn’t be filled. I started in the cinemas on George Street, sitting on the floor of the candy bar with powdered chemical butter coating my tongue. Soon I was up at Oxford Street, a classier venue, shovelling stale kernels popped in olive oil and gulps of icy Prosecco to wash it all down.

Next it was raw corn kernels bought from Coles. I dodged a violent mob raiding the muffin display and used a self-service checkout to get out quick. Kilograms of the stuff heaved in my bag as I walked home, avoiding large groups and trying not to make eye contact. Soon I was popping my own corn, bowl after bowl, dashing for satiety in an unwinnable race. I sat down in front of the TV news while the fry-pan heated up again for a fresh batch. It was the best movie I’ve ever seen.

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Burning Imprint

Burning Imprint

I could still feel the burning imprint of his hand across my eleven-year-old cheek. ‘What did you do wrong?’ my sister asked after I ran up the stairs and into her room, where she had her nose stuck in a book as always.

Down in the garage I heard Dad’s motorbike roar into life, the creaking of the garage door-springs as he pulled it down and pushed it shut, and a fading buzz of relief as he rode away without me sitting behind him, riding pillion but holding him tightly with my hands inside his warm leather jacket pockets, my head snug inside my helmet.

‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said.

‘Get out of my room then – I’m reading!’

I wrinkled my nose at the musky candles she was burning, poked my tongue out at her and ran to the bathroom. I shut the door, stretched out over the sink and brought my cheek close to the mirror, inspecting it for damage, before sitting down cross-legged on the bathroom mat and closing my eyes. I could feel the tears hiding somewhere inside, and I willed them to come, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes again, thinking that might help, but my eyes remained stubbornly dry. On the white-tiled floor beside me sat a stray curly hair, completely unmatched from mine and my sister’s light brown or Dad’s spiky blonde. The phrase ‘short and curlies’ came to my mind like a revelation, something I’d heard at school and didn’t understand. The hair danced gently across the room as a breeze blew in underneath the bathroom door.

‘Anthony?’ my sister called from just outside the door.

‘Go away!’

‘What did you do?’

‘Go away!’

I watched the hair swirling along the floor as my sister paced outside, then put my cheek to the cold tiles, trying to peer through the small gap to see if she would leave. The tiles were like a balm to my face, simultaneously reinforcing and curing the slap’s burn. I laid there very still next to the dirty bathtub and remembered us bathing together when we were young, before the distance between us became real. Before we had a choice.

‘I told him why Mum left us,’ I said, watching my sister’s feet stop dead as my words reached her ears. ‘I told him he’s mean.’

This story was originally published at Seizure Online, 30th September 2014.

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