Don’t tell Eli. But I keep one of her bottles in my backpack. One of these days, a big announcement is going to go out on the radio saying it’s all over and things can go back to how they used to be. We won’t have to walk every day and sleep in a tent, praying another wave won’t come past the cliffs. That day I’ll crack open the bottle and we’ll share it. That day the air won’t smell like damp.
“Is this the right street, Lu?” Eli asks. As he walks over to the street sign, Farrow Lane, his backpack rattles.
I open up the map. Today we’re back to where we started about five years ago, but it looks a lot different. For starters, there’s mud everywhere and the few cars left parked outside the empty terrace houses are broken and look about as tired as I feel.
There’s one sight that hits the hardest. Right on the corner of Farrow Lane and Valley Road. All the windows are shattered. Cardboard boxes are stacked outside the red front door and from what I see the place, like everywhere else in England, has been emptied out. But the walls are the same.
“Look, that’s the corner shop,” I say and point. “Your work is still there.”
Eli walks up and spreads his hands over one of his first tags. He says his art has gotten a lot better, but it all looks loud to me. Like he’s yelling. But this graffiti has faded around the edges, leaving big black lines and splashes of red.
“I never asked why they decided not to get rid of it back then,” I say.
He lets go.
“‘Cause they felt sorry for us. You were there doing the food shop every week when it should have been mum.”
I tell him mum had a lot on her plate.
“Yeah and we basically didn’t have anything,” he says.
His ears burn red again.
I sigh. “Come on, let’s not do this today, ok? It’s right around here. Third house on the right, remember?”
He shrugs and we keep walking. When we walk around the corner, we’re side by side and I bump into his shoulder. Eli is taller than me now. He gets that from mum too. Guess I’m cursed to be the older, shorter brother with no artistic sense.
The house looks awful. I mean, it never looked good. It’s hard to push the bins when they’re taller than you. Me and Eli never got the hang of cutting the grass. Seemed like too much hassle at the time.
Eli puts his backpack on the floor and takes out his spray cans.
“I’ll wait here,” he says.
“You don’t wanna come in?”
I push the door open. The seaweed on the stairs looks like rotten cheese on cheap takeout pizza.
I ran home after my first day of high school. I came home to mum passed out on the sofa. Eli was sitting on the floor next to her, holding his phone and stomach. I ordered pizza and waited for the ambulance to pick her up after the overdose. The pizza arrived first.
“Should check the cupboards,” I mumble.
I dust off the countertop and root through my backpack. The radio still works, but we’ll need new batteries soon. The announcer says there’s no sign of a wave incoming today and that makes breathing a little easier, so I start going through our kitchen.
Mum was actually a great cook. She’d sit me up in the trolley and she’d speed walk over to the reduced aisle. She’d make the best bean chili and stir fry and veg stew and she’d bake an apple pie for dad’s birthday too. She said you could even make paints from spices.
There’s one can of coconut milk left and I don’t think it’s any good anymore, but I put it in the backpack anyway. All of her booze is gone. I bet that got snapped up pretty quick.
Upstairs is worse. The smell of seawater hangs over the air like a canopy. I pick up one of the photo frames that wasn’t swept away. It’s from Eli. Eli’s last day of primary school. Just me and him.
“Are you coming yet?” I shout down to him.
“In a minute!”
If I listen closely, I can hear him painting. I leave him to it and go into our old room. It’s funny how sleeping in a little tent together will make you miss childish bunk beds. The radio says there’s going to be an announcement soon, so I spin up the volume.
We’d play spin the bottle with mum’s leftovers. It’s not a lot of fun with a kid and teen who already know everything about each other, so we’d get stupid. He dared me to climb up to my bunk and jump and being the idiot I was I actually did it.
“You came running didn’t you, mum?” I say. She cared, she cared.
There’s a layer of mud and sand on my bed. We’ve been lucky. No floods for six weeks. I put my foot on the ladder and it creaks. One more step and it feels like the wood is going to give outright beneath me and I’m not desperate enough to jump anymore.
Eli’s standing in mum’s room. The bed frame is caved in and rotten. A pile of books in the corner are all strung out and mixing pages across the floor, but didn’t dad like to read thrillers? Eli steps over them and looks out the window.
The radio says they’re gathering for a meeting. The government or scientists I don’t know. Everything is loud. Mum would sit on the edge of the bed and paint her toenails red. She said she’d paint mine too if dad didn’t hate it. I should’ve asked her after dad left. Might’ve made her smile.
“I can see some people camping in the park,” Eli says. “We should join them after.”
“We got a couple of things to trade. It’ll be nice to see some new faces. I’m getting tired of your ugly ar-”
He kicks me, and I don’t regret the bruise I’m going to get tomorrow.
“Did you find anything?”
I shake my head and ask him what he made. He goes tense and looks back out the window.
“Nothing, really. I’ll work on it more later.”
“Since when are you humble?” I say. Now I’ve got to see.
I race him down the stairs, and he’s shouting my name, to leave it be before it’s done. There’s radio static in my head. And he might have lanky legs, but I jump the last of the stairs. I’m outside the front door again, and I’m looking at mum.
Her eye, anyway. It’s bloodshot and tired and as blue as I remember the sea being. Her lashes are painted black and long. She always wore waterproof mascara.
“It’s not done,” Eli says.
“I never thought you’d paint her.”
“It felt right. Today, anyway. Does it look right?”
“Yeah. Yeah. It looks good. She looks good.”
We sit on the front yard wall. The radio says it’s six o’clock and the announcement is starting in just one moment.
“Back in my day, the weather announcements were the least important part of the news,” I say, trying to grin.
Eli’s legs touch the ground, and he asks me about what it was like before. You ever had a kid ask you that? It’s like what before do you mean (before dad left, before mum drank, before the sea washed away the little we had left), I don’t know anymore.
“Things were good,” I say. “Why don’t you do a bit more, then we’ll head over to camp?”
He frowns but picks up the can.
“Wanna play spin the bottle?” he asks.
“Why? What are you gonna dare me to do this time?”
“I’d dare you to tell me everything for a change.”
Even if he did, I wouldn’t know where to start or how to do it. I lick my lips and try to think of a beginning, but the words aren’t there.
The radio starts talking instead. We look up at our bedroom window as they tell us what we’ve wanted to hear for five years and, it fills my silence so quickly we’re overflowing, and I have to grab his shoulder to stop him from falling.
I open up my backpack and take out the bottle. My hands are shaking so much that Eli takes the bottle and opens it and everything starts flowing out.
“Mum was an art teacher…”