All my childhood I could hear through walls. Mum and Dad slept a room over. Voices carried through the air vents, which were on all the time. I lived with ears to plaster, ghosts coursing through our veins. I could hear the walls talk. — say: we can wait until the kids have settled in. — say: children are resilient, this is important. — say: life has to go on. — say: cancer doesn't wait.
Dad cooked rice smothered in tomato sauce for dinner. I let the water run over Mum's back. She spoke the same language as me. We hadn't lived all together for so long. When Dad spoke I listened to the walls. — say: you're grown now, you should be grateful, you're not little girls anymore.
When my sister spoke she hushed, just in case the walls made sound. Mum's skin was see-through. Her hair was shedding. She spent most days with wires in her veins. Dad worked late. My sister slept in the same bed as me, squashing me, tucking her nails into my back. — say: is Mum going to die.
The statue over Mum and Dad's bed was supposed to bring good fortune. Dad brought me a bike so I could ride to school. I spent hours circling the house at night before sidling up to the front door. — say: you can't do anything right. — say: it was one thing. — say: I'll do it myself, what would happen if I wasn't around.
Mum puked in the kitchen sink. My sister ate grapes while we studied. I signed my own permission slips, learning to live life under a constant, droning scream. — say: you think it was my dream to serve you my whole life.
My sister put my hand on her chest. — say: there's a lump here, I think it's cancer, I think I'm going to die. — say: that's your boob, you're fine.
Dad let us cut his hair to match Mum's. They held hands more often, took us out for ice-cream, let us stay awake long after the stars came out. — say: I love you more than you could know. — say: I love you, I love you, I love you. — say: will you promise to look after the girls, have my mother move in with you, she'll help you. — say: you always ruin everything. — say: you think I'm not scared. — say: we were having such a nice day, all you ever talk about is death. The sheets were cleaned before she went. The wool wash always smelled like her. My sister said she knew where Mum had gone, she lived in the walls. She could hear her too. So we listened, piled on each other in the silence of night. Mum, watching us from her perch. — say: the walls are closing in on you.
-- Helena Pantsis (she/they) is a writer, student, and artist from Naarm, Australia. A full-time student of creative writing, they have a fond appreciation for the gritty, the dark, and the experimental. Her works have been published in Overland, Island, Going Down Swinging, and Meanjin.