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Subdivision

By Gina Holden

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
© Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Subdivision 

 

 

Nicola heard Quinn’s car rattle into the driveway, and jolted to her feet to let him in. Her nephew, dressed entirely in black, dropped a large Look Sharp bag into her arms and shot past her into the kitchen. She stood in the threshold. Not a single trick-or-treater had knocked on her door this evening. Over the dark tiled roofs across the street, the tangerine sunset was sinking beneath broiling storm clouds. Rock music pounded from the house behind hers. 

In the kitchen Quinn hunched over the sink, pressing his long nose up against the window. His dark hair was shaggy, spilling over his shoulders. Quinn was tall like his father. Nicola hoped that was all he’d gotten from Neil. 

‘See anything good?’ she asked, moving into the lounge. 

‘There’s people all over the deck, and inside too,’ he said, straightening up. ‘I can’t believe we’re going back there; it’s been years. Do you want anything from the fridge, Aunty Nic?’ 

‘Bring the ciders out. I need something to settle me down.’ 

Nicola rifled through the bag’s contents. She ripped two black capes from their packaging, wrinkling her nose at the accosting reek of cheap plastic. Quinn sat at the opposite end of the couch. His lanky legs disappeared underneath the coffee table. He opened two ciders and slid one over to her.  

‘How’s the study for your exams going?’ she asked. 

‘I’ve got plenty of time; if I watch seven lectures a day starting on Sunday, I’ll be sorted.’ 

She pulled out a pair of blood-splattered knives and wobbled them at him. ‘You should start earlier, you know.’ 

‘It’ll be fine. Accounting papers aren’t that hard.’ 

She opened the masks next. ‘Ghostface masks? This movie came out before you were born, Quinn. I thought we were trying to blend in.’ 

‘We can wear the Scream masks ironically,’ he said. ‘Besides, you have to wear a mask because, well, you’re old.’ 

‘Excuse me?’ 

‘I meant because we’re definitely not invited. Rob hates you.’ 

Her neighbour, Rob, reminded her of an ostrich: tall, with gaunt knees and black hair that flopped like oily feathers when he jogged. He’d moved in last summer, but they’d never been introduced in person: Nicola had opened a small envelope one morning while rushing through cold instant coffee and toast. Half-asleep, she’d managed to glaze over its entire inscription: ‘Happy 26th Birthday Rob! Love from Mum and Dad’ before noticing that something wasn’t right. For one, her birthday was weeks away. She’d flipped the envelope over: Robert Wagener was written in immaculate cursive. 24 Bloomhurst Drive, Albany. Julie’s old house. Flushing, she’d taped the envelope shut and slotted it into her neighbour’s white metallic letterbox, exactly as he was leaving for work. She’d found fifty dollars under her table a few days later. Some things you couldn’t redeem yourself from. Not even with a fancy lavender-scented card and a box of Roses. 

 

Rob and his endless streams of visitors played many instruments loudly, poorly, and frequently. Tonight, the stereo had replaced them. Nicola and Quinn held vigil, listening to the music flooding out of the large neighbouring house. Julie’s house. Her sister’s house.  

They tipped back mouthful after mouthful of Raspberry-Lime cider in silence. Their costumes were laid out on the armchair, masks gaping at the ceiling. The distorted black eye-sockets seemed to stare back at Nicola. Quinn spread his fingers out into the armrest and pulled them back again, over and over, like an awkward couch-masseuse. ‘Do you think we’ll get into trouble?’ 

‘We’re not going to cause any trouble, so I don’t see how we can get into any.’  

‘What if Rob recognizes you?’ 

Nicola picked up one of the knives and slashed at the air. ‘I’m kidding!’ she said to Quinn’s scandalized reaction. ‘Rob thinks I’m a kleptomaniac old bat when I’m barely twice his age. He’s not going to suspect me of doing anything like this.’ 

The masks’ mouths yawned in existential dread like Munch’s Scream painting. Nicola looked away. On the bookcase, a shelf of photos was dedicated to Julie: a laminated Target Road School photo of Room Fourteen, Julie’s last class of Year Sixes. She and her sister hugging in an ornate bronze frame: Julie beamed in her magnificent wedding dress, her auburn hair a halo in the sunlight. Nicola held the bouquet, her face a downturned grimace. She snorted, remembering the roses in the bouquet— these were ancestors to the roses that would eventually wreath Julie’s deck like jewels in a crown— whose thorns had jabbed into the soft flesh of her armpit. Julie had given her the photograph as a birthday present. Last was the funeral program. The Hospice counsellor had told her to deal with her grief in any of the ways it manifested. Tonight they were taking charge.  

She took another sip but found the bottle empty. ‘Right. Let’s go. Are you ready?’ She pulled the cheap mask down over her face. 

Quinn nodded. Julie’s eyes stared out from the mask: pale blue and determined.  

 

Outside, a chill wind rattled at the powerlines and whipped at their plastic capes. Rob’s letterbox was smothered in orange and black streamers; a hulking plastic rat with glowing red eyes was adhered to the top with an obese wad of Blu-Tac. The music grew louder. Quinn was silent as they approached the house. Strobing light pulsed out of the windows, jittering between red, orange, white, and darkness. The lights cut sharp silhouettes of costumed adults crowding the lawn and deck. The front door was open. Carved pumpkins stood sentinel on either side, next to a nearly-empty mixing bowl of rejected Favourites. Picnics and Cherry Ripes languished at its bottom. Nicola stuffed all of the Cherry Ripes into her jacket pocket.  

‘You didn’t even say trick-or-treat,’ Quinn said, his voice muffled by the mask. ‘You’re a terrible role-model.’ 

‘Shut up, Quinn.’ 

 ‘Hey, what happened to our code names?’ 

‘Don’t even think of calling me Aunt Petunia.’  

Her nephew looked solemnly at the bowl’s remainders. ‘Picnics are a peanut-allergen risk, so I’m doing the right thing here.’ He took the rest, funneling them into a pocket on his jeans.  

They slipped into the house as black-caped spectres. 

 

Nicola judged the dust on the skirting boards as they crept along the hallway. Conversation buzzed from the kitchen ahead of them. Dusty cobwebs drooped like pendulums from the ceiling. The walls were blank, skeletal. When the house had been Julie’s it had been a hygge haven. Warm. Rustic. Pictures of Quinn and Neil had plastered the walls. It had always smelled amazing: some unfathomable combination of ginger, nutmeg, and dark wood. Now it smelt of hops and flavoured e-cigarette smoke.  

Uneven footsteps creaked across the deck, reminding Nicola of a Halloween night over a decade ago. Quinn was barely half her height then: his small feet thundered across the deck, singing the Batman theme loudly and out of time. In the kitchen, she sat at the bar with Julie. Strands of auburn hair had drifted loose from her braid. With studious spectacles, she leaned forward, planting liquorice legs into spider cupcakes. 

Quinn had run in, flapping his velvet cape behind him. He wrinkled his nose. ‘Ew. Liquorice is gross. No one will buy those.’  

Julie plugged two legs into the cupcake she was working on. ‘Then I guess we’ll have to bring them home from the bake sale. And you’ll have to eat all of them!’ 

She brandished the cupcake at him and he ran away, shrieking with glee.  

Julie’s cellphone sat on top of a box of children’s exercise books; it was a Nokia brick. Nicola watched her check it anxiously as the evening drew later and later. Nothing from Neil.   

 

She and Quinn entered the kitchen, Nicola’s face and neck flushed with warmth. Her cape and mask held the heat in a constricting bubble around her. A man in a Donald Trump mask was playing Beer Pong on the dining table. He grunted, making an aggressive serve across the net. The barstools were filled with spectating couples. Chilly bins of beer were spread along the far wall. Nicola stopped, and Quinn trod on the back of her shoe.  

‘Are you alright?’ he asked. 

‘I’m absolutely sweltering. Do you see any geishas about? Maybe someone’s left a fan lying around.’ 

‘I don’t think people dress as other cultures anymore,’ Quinn said.  

She snorted. ‘Whatever. Not even a sexy geisha? I would kill for a fan right now.’ 

Quinn picked his way through the room and returned with a cup brimming with ice. 

She wrapped her hands around it. The plastic cup was already gathering condensation. Nicola ran her cold hand over the sweat beading at the back of her neck. They leaned back on an unoccupied slot of wall to observe the house. She caught a glimpse of themselves in a large mirror: two solitary Ghostfaces, watching like shadows. The pantry cupboards had new handles. 

Donald Trump missed a shot, and the ball escaped down the hallway. ‘I lost? Fake news!’ he hollered. ‘Oy, which way’s the bathroom?’ 

‘Second door on the left up the hallway,’ Quinn said. 

‘Thanks, my spooky dude.’ 

 

Three years ago, Julia and Nicola watched Sohil struggle to drive the For Sale sign into the grassy berm. They watched from Nicola’s kitchen. Julie and Quinn were staying with her for the time being, until she found a suitable Albany flat on her teacher’s salary. Sohil was Neil’s Barfoot and Thompson colleague. He returned to his car, and came back with a mallet. The open home sign greeted Nicola every day she came home from work. She quickly grew to despise it. 

 Sohil advised them to not attend the auction — ‘Bad atmosphere, a divorced couple. It spooks the buyers.’ Julie and Nicola went to the last open home instead. They creaked on the floorboards, opened and closed cupboards, perched on the uncomfortable prop couch. Down off the deck, they watched Julie’s roses — gargantuan bushes that had crept taller than either of the sisters over the years. Pink and white blossoms bloomed down the length of the house. 

‘Do you think this helped?’ Nicola asked. 

‘The whole place just feels different,’ Julie said. ‘When Neil and I bought this section and subdivided it with you, I really thought we’d retire here. I can’t believe we’re selling it all to the highest bidder.’ 

The kowhai and cherry trees carpeted the grass with yellow flowers and pink leaves. They looked down at Nicola’s brick and tile bungalow. Through the corner window, they could see Quinn sulking at the small circular dining table: teenaged, acned, and moody.  

‘Will you look after the roses, if you can?’ Julie asked.  

‘Of course. I’ll talk to the new owner about it.’ 

‘At least Neil’s a greedy bastard, so I know that we’ll get a good deal out of this absolute shitshow.’ 

On auction day, they watched from the dining table, drinking Julie’s favourite Raspberry-Lime cider. When Neil used his cut to buy a flat in Eden Terrace for him and his shiny new receptionist girlfriend, Nicola wished Leaky Building Syndrome on the entire complex, and every place that he fled to for the rest of his life. 

 

She followed Quinn into the lounge. The room was muted, unlit. Through the window, Nicola recognized Rob’s ostrich hair flopping about outside, in what she could only assume was dancing. The outside deck had been extended recently, building over exactly where Julie’s roses had thrived. She sat on the hard leather couch. This had once been a lounge almost overflowing with furs and cushions. Now it was clinical. Nicola crushed an ice cube in her mouth. She could feel her blood pulsing through her body. Iron hot. Quinn circled back to the  doorway, where his old height lines had been painted over. He twisted open a beer that Donald Trump had offered him. Cars passing in the street sent light rushing along the back wall, tracing the familiar shadows of the window. 

‘It still smells the same here,’ Quinn said, sitting down. 

Nicola sniffed. The familiar swirl of butternut, citrus, wood, and baking greeted her. ‘You’re right. It’s like it’s baked into the walls.’  

You could almost believe that Julie was about to come bursting in with mugs of hot chocolate and a plate of warm biscuits. Her gaze settled on a wall outlet she’d never seen before: Julie’s couch— a plush sprawling thing that Nicola had inherited— had taken up the better part of that wall. Nicola looked over to the power socket. A white plug-in sat there. She walked over to inspect it. The familiar smell grew stronger. Glade. A scented oil plug-in. It was an imitation, a shadow of what it had been. But the scent was painfully close. ‘Trick or treat,’ Nicola muttered. She crouched down and wiggled it out of the socket. Rob had this coming. She’d just shifted it into her pocket when a voice sounded behind them. 

‘Hey, Scream dudes. Want to play Beer Pong?’ 

Four months ago, a buzzing chainsaw slapped her awake from her dream. The clock blinked 7:32 am. Her guts writhed with wrongness. Nicola rushed to the kitchen window in time to see a figure decapitate one of Julie’s rose bushes. She sprinted for the backdoor. 

‘Hey, stop that!’ she shouted, struggling to thread her arms into the jacket. ‘You can’t do that! Stop!’ She hefted herself over the wire fence separating their properties. Her slippers slipped as she staggered up the frosty incline. ‘You have to stop!’ 

She stormed right up to the chainsaw man, her white nightie blowing against her knees. He was young, with sunglasses, earmuffs, and brown arms bare to the cold. He gaped at the sudden appearance of a panting, shrieking, banshee woman. Hot wood flecked the air. He turned the chainsaw off.  

Two of the six bushes had been reduced to stumps. 

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she asked, tears streaking down her face.  

He took his ear muffs off. ‘What?’ 

‘Don’t you dare touch those roses.’ She put herself between the roses and the chainsaw. 

‘Look, lady,’ the guy said, raising his hands. ‘I’m just doing my job. We’re building a deck extension here.’ 

‘Like hell you are. It’s a violation to start power tools in a residential area before nine o’clock. I’ll call noise control on you. I will call the police!’ She took a measured breath. ‘I want to speak to your boss. Right now.’ 

‘They’re too much effort,’ Greg, the landlord, said when she punched his mobile number into her phone. It sounded as though he’d been woken abruptly. Good. ‘Much too finicky, roses.’ 

‘But I’ve been looking after them since the auction.’ 

‘The tenant wants a bigger deck and he’s willing to foot half the bill. You told me about the roses when I bought the place. That’s why I emailed you about the changes.’ 

‘Obviously, I didn’t get it,’ Nicola said, trying to keep her voice from wavering. ‘They were my sister’s. Please, I’ll move them.’ 

‘The builders are scheduled for nine.’  

‘That’s bullshit, Greg. I need time to move them.’ 

Nicola called into work. ‘Family emergency,’ she said. She googled what needed to be done. Quinn hadn’t visited her for months, but she conscripted him and the members of his Business Studies group project with the promise of beers. 

Greg called her back. ‘The builders are running late. They’re coming at three now.’ 

She almost burst into tears all over again when Quinn pulled into the driveway with a car packed with helpers. They unpiled from the car in a combination of jeans, business shirts, and jandals.  

Banishing the chainsaw man to his van, they pruned each magnificent bush back until they were just two feet high. The pile discarded branches grew larger and larger. 

When Rob left the house in his pretentious business suit, Nicola stared nails into him. ‘Thanks for the heads up,’ she snarled. Rob had the audacity to look confused. 

Quinn started digging down, deep among the roots. The five of them rotated turns with the two shovels. The dirt was muddy, sodden from recent storms. It clung to all of them, sinking into the cuffs of their pants. Dew soaked into their shoes as the hours passed. They swaddled the bushes in tarpaulin and carried them down to Nicola’s house, leaning them against the side of the house, their roots exposed, but safe. Another builder’s van drove up the driveway as they started on a trench along the wire fence. 

She hugged her nephew close at the end of the day. ‘Thanks, Quinn. It was good to see you again.’ 

Two days later, it was rubbish day. Nicola skipped pilates and waited for Rob to bring his blue and red bins to the curb. She waited fifteen minutes, and then dragged his bins all the way back up his driveway. They were filled to the brim, and blistered her hands. 

Quinn carried their duo at Beer Pong, keeping pace with the aggressive Trump. From the window, she could make out the surviving roses — buds of white in the moonlight. Nicola made the last shot, to a triumphant cheer. 

‘So how do you know Rob?’ Trump asked. 

Nicola froze. 

‘We don’t,’ Quinn quipped. ‘We’re ghosts of the house, reporting in to haunt the living.’ 

 

When Nicola got home, the hot flash had receded. She changed out of her tight black clothes, and layered on her dressing gown. She made Quinn up a bed on the couch.  

‘That was weird,’ Quinn said, clearing up the cider bottles from earlier in the evening. ‘Brilliant and weird. I thought it would be different.’ 

‘I know. You should come to visit more often, you know. I’m sure we can think up plenty of brilliant, weird things to do.’  

He didn’t reply. 

‘What is it, hun?’ 

‘I love you, Aunty Nic. And I loved my mum so much,’ he said. ‘But coming here means seeing her house, seeing her roses, seeing all the things that just— aren’t anymore. It’s depressing. Have you considered selling to Greg?’ 

She shook her head. ‘You know I can’t do that, Quinn.’ 

‘Your house is haunted by my mum,’ he said. ‘She’s everywhere.’ 

‘And how can I leave that? How can you possibly expect me to leave her here and move on?’ 

He shrugged. ‘Sorry.’ 

 

Nicola lay awake in her bed. Heat. It was back, and it radiated out of every pore in her body, spilling out onto the sheets. She mopped up the sweat clinging to the inner-creases of her arms with her top sheet. Through the open windows, e-cigarette smoke drifted in on the wind, carrying wisps of candy floss and blueberry. She swapped her damp nightie for a fresh one. The Halloween party had moved inside. Muted ukulele drifted down the hill. On her bedside table, the clock blinked 01:04 in bomb-countdown red.  

She moved into the kitchen. It smelled of nutmeg and hardwoods. Nicola opened the freezer and squinted into its harsh glow. The ice tray was practically empty. She extracted what remained with quiet precision, filling a bowl. Before refilling the tray, she opened the curtains above the sink. From Julie’s house, a figure puffed ghostly white smoke out of an open window. 

Nicola paused at a magnet on the fridge: a souvenir from the Log Flume at Rainbow's End. The three of them sat in the ride — Nicola, Quinn, about twelve, and Julie  — with beaming smiles and their arms thrown up into the air. She’d have to tell Julie about their exploits tonight — about the Cherry Ripes now resting among the apples in her fruit bowl, the childish theft of the air freshener, the exuberant beer pong match, the delight of not being caught. Julie would probably laugh among fits of telling them off. Then they’d — it came back like a window shattering. The six months Julie had spent living with her after the diagnosis. The last days that seemed to stretch on for eternity at Harbour Hospice. Tears made burning tracks down her cheeks. Everything was Julie. She was in that house, blooming in the roses, in Quinn’s sense of humour. The couch springs groaned from the lounge, and Quinn began to snore. Nicola took a steadying breath and cradled the ice bowl to her chest, focussing its coolness. Then she slipped back to bed, padding on the balls of her feet. 

About Gina Holden

Gina Holden is an Auckland-born writer whose work has previously been published in Signals. She is a current student at the University of Auckland, and won the Prose Prize of the Chris Cole Catley Awards in 2018 and 2019. Her bedside table features a structurally unsound tower of novels and notebooks.