The children reached for the unlit Catherine Wheels. Constellations of stars streaked the sky above them. Freya’s wheel was green and blue with a wooden handle. She dashed across the lawn with it, her skirt flying.
A sizzling sound erupted from behind. She turned and saw her mother light the fireworks with a long match. The spinning colours illuminated the childrens’ faces and they ran in all directions, hypnotized. Freya’s wheel was the last to be lit. Her mother still wore her apron from cooking the seafood dinner, her lipstick bled into the creases around her mouth.
‘Be careful, Freya, hold it away from your body.’
The firework whined and sparked. It rained droplets of bright cobalt and emerald. Freya glanced at her mother for approval before skipping away. The others stood on the edge of the lawn, staring into the gloom. The branches of gumtrees like the arms of old women, spindly and grey in the darkness. The only sources of light were a lone spotlight on the edge of the roof and the dark yellow glow from indoors. Freya’s brother nudged her in the ribs and she jabbed him with her elbow.
The spitting droplets slowed then stopped. A hiss and one last whine. They were enveloped in inky dark. The girls squealed and the boys chased them towards the house.
Inside, Freya’s father stood amongst the group of adults. He waved his beer bottle, a paper hat perched on the side of his head in what was meant to be a jaunty angle. He beckoned Freya with his free hand.
‘Come and tell everyone about your stories. Top marks in English, we’ve got a prodigy on our hands.’ He beamed and the group parted to allow her in.
Freya flushed, her mouth opened and shut. ‘No, thanks, it’s okay.’
She hastened to the kitchen, poured herself some lemonade and glugged it down. Her brother’s friend dragged a chair over and started fossicking in the pantry.
‘What are you looking for, Henry?’
‘Anything. Bloody starving.’ A few of them sniggered.
‘Get down. This isn’t your house.’ She clenched her fists.
Henry seized a packet of chips and tossed them to her brother, Chris.
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘I’m finding Mum.’
Chris smirked. ‘The book nerd tattletale.’ He tore open the packet and stuffed a handful in his mouth before passing them around. There was a volley of loud crunching and muffled laughter. The girls stood inert.
Freya checked the bedrooms first—all were empty and dark. The bed in her parents’ room held a shambolic mountain of coats and handbags. Swallowing, she approached the bathroom, opening the door a crack. A light from the adjacent laundry cast a shaft of orange over the scene.
Her mother sat on the bench, her skirt hiked up, revealing a slither of mauve underpants. Uncle Ted was poised between her legs, his mouth pressed so hard against hers it appeared as if he were eating her alive. His large hand was enmeshed in her hair. The muscles in his back rippled as he moved and her mother’s red nails dug into his spine. A polo shirt hung around his neck like a giant necklace. Freya held in a gasp. To her relief, Uncle Ted was still wearing trousers.
Freya edged backwards, careful not to make a sound. As she entered the kitchen, she stared at the boys, their open mouths full of chip mush. She felt nauseous and ducked out the side door.
At the edge of the lawn she gazed down the steep incline, dotted with ferns. She sat and hugged her knees, shaking. The gumtrees beckoned her, their leaves rustling. In the distance, the clearing gave way to the black smudge of bush, thick and impenetrable. It was almost midnight. She hoped her father would start the countdown and not search for her mother.