Web of Light
The computer arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. I was off sick from school that day. I pretended to have a sore stomach so I could stay home and keep an eye on Mum.
When I went to check on her, she was perched on the edge of the couch, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked like Princess Diana giving an interview. I asked her what she was doing, and she said she didn’t want to start something else when she knew the computer was on its way.
‘What time is it coming?’ I asked.
‘Two o’clock,’ she said, but she sounded as if she had already forgotten my question. She walked over to the venetian blinds and pulled them apart with her finger and thumb. I asked her ‘What time is it now?’ and she said, ‘Mara, if you’re really sick, you need to stay in your room.’
I closed my door and climbed into bed. Stella’s mattress was pressing through the rungs of the top bunk, and the fairies on its underside were whispering to each other. They told me to write fuck on the doorframe again. We chatted until the delivery man knocked on the door.
The computer arrived in a large cardboard box. The box was as big as our washing machine, but the computer was made of two separate pieces. One piece was the screen and one was the computer’s brain. They reminded me of Pinky and the Brain, the rats from the cartoon that Stella watched on Saturday mornings. I wondered if the computer would try and take over the world tonight.
Mum had been sad for such a long time, but she was happy when the computer came. She took all the pieces out of the box, and I had to stand right out of the way while she figured out how it connected. She glared at the instruction papers like she was trying to kill a bug.
By the time Stella got home from Intermediate, the computer was all set up. We sat in the corner of the spare bedroom and watched Mum play with it. She had connected it to the World Wide Web, and now she was talking to people on the other side of the world. The keyboard was tacking and ticking. She didn’t get up to turn the lights on when it got dark, and it was almost time for Dad to get home when she finally let us have a look. She showed us all the games we could play. Some were built into the computer, and some came separately on CDs. Stella’s favourite was Barbie Jewelry Designer, a pink disc with lime-green letters. Mum showed us how to load sheets of shrinking paper into the printer, then cut out our designs and bake them into hard little nuggets of plastic. We watched their edges curling in the oven. When they were finished, Stella extracted them from the roasting dish with tweezers. She wouldn’t let me look at them because I had very recently broken her Tamagotchi.
Mum was still on the computer when the Shrinky Dinks were finished. She pulled me onto her lap. I felt very high up in the new extendable computer chair. Mum had downloaded a game for me from the internet. It was called KISS Dolls. When she click-clicked on the icon, a picture of a girl in her underwear appeared on the screen. Her hair was thick and curly and deep brown. She had knock knees, and she looked like she went to boarding school in a horse-drawn carriage. You could drag clothes on top of her body to dress her. It was exactly like my paper dolls, except you didn’t have to worry about cutting one of the tabs off by accident.
Stella took longer to get home from school than me because Intermediate was further away. I was alone with Mum after school for such a long time. I had to come up with games that I could play just by myself. I organised and reorganised the video tapes, making them talk to each other like dolls. Snow White was dead and all the other tapes were coming to her funeral. The red haired woman and her friend were taking it very badly. I knew the letters T I T A N I C on the case, but I didn’t know what movie it was. When Stella arrived, we put on our tracksuits and walked to meet Dad when he came down the shortcut on his bike.
Dad made us two-minute noodles and carrot sticks for dinner. He dropped an ice cube in the noodle juice for me so it wouldn’t burn my mouth. Mum came upstairs from the computer room just as he was serving up. Her arms were full of papers. She had made cards for all of us on the computer. She said you could choose any type of card—birthday, Christmas, anniversary—and print it right out of the computer. I counted twenty-five cards lying on the table.
I knew I was truly sick that day, but Mum said I had pulled a Hollywood enough already this term. I shat myself at lunchtime. Every time the office lady called our house, it was engaged. I waited on a little foam bed in the sick-bay wearing pink underwear that didn’t belong to me. The lace trim cut into my legs.
I had never been to the sick bay before. The office was dark with a low ceiling. There were hessian panels stretched along the hallway, covered in curling posters with toothy cartoon smiles. I thought I had been there for hours when Connie arrived. Connie was our neighbour. She was my mum’s best friend, and Stella’s best friend’s mum.
We could see Mum’s car at the bottom of the driveway, but Connie said she didn’t want to stir any pots. She told me to watch TV until we could get Mum on the phone. I knew our phone number off by heart. Four-four-four five-seven-eight-oh.
I sat cross-legged on the carpet with a plastic cup of water from Connie’s kitchen.
She said, ‘Just sip on that. Little sips.’ It was the purple Tupperware cup that Hemma always chose, made of soft, pebbled plastic that you could squish between your teeth—but I tried not to do that because I was in someone else’s house. I went hunting in Hemma’s room for her best toy, a plastic washing machine for doll’s clothes with blue liquid that spun around in the door. The Foodtown bag with my dirty knickers in it was wound through my fingers. Connie tried to call my mother again.
In the TV, if you looked very close up, Sailor Moon was made of tiny glowing colours. The bulbous screen had a grey-gold aura and I put my face right inside. The colours moved together in lines, and the pictures were made of squares, animated squares that followed each other like families. I blurred my eyes until Sailor Moon became a whirling, crime-fighting soup. The villain had transformed from a woman into a monstrous flower. Her tendrils were writhing and sucking with no mercy. The Sailor Scouts had no way out. Sailor Moon started to cry dramatic, arching tears.
Sailor Moon cried a lot. If Sailor Moon shat her pants at school, she would cry and someone would be there to pick her up in the blink of an eye.
The Sailor Scouts’ hairstyles were extreme and powerful. Sailor Pluto: one metre long, green. Sailor Moon: swinging pigtails topped with perfect yellow orbs. Sailor Uranus looked like Princess Diana.
I imagined my hair being parted down the middle with a rat-tail comb and slicked brutally into high pigtails. My mother jerked my head left and right, but I sat in silence.
The scene ended and the screen went black for a long time. I watched the reflection of my face. I had been blinking too much again. It started because I was copying Stella, but now I couldn’t stop.
Mrs. Millet had asked me if everything was alright at home. Mum said, ‘It’s because you keep blinking like that.’
I looked into the black screen and tried to keep my eyes open for the normal length of time. The urge to blink pushed its finger into my stomach. My eyes started to water. I reached behind the TV and felt the warm air trapped in the cabinet.
The next show was Judge Judy. A cast of hopeless people walked in and told Judge Judy about their problems, then Judge Judy made sure they knew they were all very stupid.
Something twitched in my head, on the right side there, distracting me from the programme. It was the thought that Judge Judy had almost had enough of everyone, but Mum still hadn’t answered the phone. I remembered a feeling from a dream, right before all of my teeth fell out. They were mixed into chunks of my peanut butter sandwich.
Mum was probably on the computer. The computer was her private house now. Only she could see inside it, inside its many rooms. The room where you played with paper-dolls, the encyclopaedia room, the room where you could ask a butler any question at all, and the room for chatting to people you didn’t know. It didn’t matter if you were an ordinary person in a house like ours, you could tell the chat room anything you liked.
I stood up and leaned my sweaty forehead against the window, rolling side to side from one node to the other. The top of my head was so flat it almost had corners. I would be able to balance Sailor Moon’s hairstyle perfectly.
Our down-the-back neighbours were playing in their driveway. Taupiri and Tia were fighting over knucklebones. I liked Tia the best, because Stella hated her, but I hated Taupiri because I knew she could read my thoughts. A couple of months ago, I had a dream that Taupiri stood at our gate with a dark ring around her mouth. I watched as she popped one eye out of her own head, and rolled it down the driveway like a Jaffa.
I had tried to tell Mum about the dream but she just said, ‘Taupiri can’t come over. She never goes home.’
Taupiri and Tia’s mum was called Janice. Janice didn’t talk to me, but she mouthed Hello if she saw me on the driveway. Our driveways were sisters.
Connie came and stood next to me at the window. She stared across at our house next door. I squinted, trying to see Mum’s shadow on the other side of the blinds. Then Connie gave me a sideways kind of look. Judge Judy was finished. It was time to pick up Hemma and I had to go home.
Connie carried my school bag in one hand. We both scuffed our heels as we walked down the path. Connie didn’t reach for the bell, so I had to untangle the plastic bag from my fingers and press it myself. It was a long way from the spare bedroom to the front door. When Mum answered, her eyes were pink and squinting. She brushed her hair back behind her ears with both hands. Connie said, ‘Monica Meyer, we’ve been trying to get you for two hours,’ and Mum clapped her hand to her forehead and said she’d forgotten to put the phone back on the hook. I could hear the sound of the internet screeching in my ears.
Mum said I was burning up. She lay me down in bed and placed a flannel, folded into thirds and soaked in cool water, across my forehead. She took the lost property clothes to the laundry because you were required to give them back clean the next day. Then she asked me if I wanted half of her BK Chicken. I did want it, obviously, but I only made it through the first few bites before my mouth started filling with seawater. I ran to the kitchen to find the mixing bowl, the one with the curdled, melted side.
‘Good girl.’ Mum walked with me back to my room just in time for me to yak into the bowl. I always forgot what vomiting felt like until it happened. Automatic. I got it all in the bowl. She stroked my sweaty hair back from my forehead. Good girl, good girl.
I got up to pour my puke into the toilet, but my hands were slick and the bowl slipped out of my grasp. It bounced across the carpet and settled upside down in the doorway. There was vomit on everything, on all the toys and clothes and books I had forgotten on the floor. Weetbix-coloured clumps clung to the rug. Mum was vibrating with rage.
‘For fuck’s sake!’
She stood on tiptoes, as if she could levitate out of the mess. I looked down at the sick on my hands and they started to move by themselves, scooping up handfuls of vomit and trying to drop it back into the bowl. It just stuck to my palms. Mum grabbed me tight by one wrist and snapped it palm-up. She dragged me across the hall and thrust my arm under the bathroom tap. Then she slammed the door so hard the house moved. I could hear her yelling through the walls about the wreck-of-the-Hesperus.
The bathroom lino was a green mosaic, pebbled with dark flecks as though it were dirty. You could trace your fingers down the brown tracks in between, like a car cruising a sleepy town. I rinsed my mouth out under the tap and rubbed a blob of toothpaste across my teeth with my finger. The breeze from the window had turned cold. It carried voices from Taupiri and Tia’s house down the back. There was no sound in our house now.
I listened for a footstep rippling the carpet. My throat was burning and my own foot had fallen asleep. I didn’t know how long it would be until Mum or Stella would tell me I could come out. The door wasn’t locked; it didn’t even have a lock. I could turn the handle if I wanted to. I touched the handle, and turned it. The hallway took a quiet breath.
The house was silent except for the marching sound in my own ears. My bedroom door was open across the hall. Streetlight puddled on the floor. Everything had been tidied up, but I couldn’t sense Mum anywhere.
I padded down the hallway to the top of the staircase. It was dark down there, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the light switch. I slid down the stairs on my bottom. It felt like I was slithering into a hole.
When I reached the landing, I could hear the whine of electricity. A glow, the colour of an eggshell, was spilling out of the spare bedroom. There she was, in her new chair in the dark. I leaned against the doorframe like I was clinging to a leg, and I watched the side of my mother’s face. She was the prettiest mother, definitely. All the girls wanted to come over after school because she called them Hem and Mads. It seemed she really liked talking to them. She bought good things for lunchboxes, sickly things that came in packets that I was able to trade.
Her head hovered in the dim blue room, fused to a web of white light. She didn’t notice that I had come in. Her fingers drummed against the keyboard. It smelled like hot wires in there, like the back of the TV, and I could hear a rotating sound like a ceiling fan. The wall was cold and smooth. I still felt very hot. I curled up on the floor with my thumb in my mouth, blinking in time to Mum’s twitching fingers, and kept watch over her until Stella came home.