Lillian was in her bedroom when the hurricane struck their town. Fast, strong and unforgiving, the wind hit her windows with such force that the walls shook and the drinking glass on her bedside table tipped over the edge and bounced twice on the carpet below.
Out of nowhere, those newsreaders would say the next morning on the television. It came out of nowhere.
She stared outside, mesmerised at the leaves, twigs and even whole branches that blew past their house. Flecks of water would coat the outside of her window for the slightest moment, but then be whipped off by the wind.
Lillian watched her neighbours down below rush into their cars, children in tow, and drive away in a hurry. Some looked up and with furrowed brows and concerned expressions, they waved at her, mouthing at her to get out of the house. But she shook her head at them — slowly at first, and then in a quicker motion so they knew to look away. So they knew to leave her there and save themselves.
Houses were shaking and tree roots were being ripped out of the ground Little Billy from number 28 was being carried into the car by his father, whose face was flushed and whose trousers were ripped at his right knee. She had been watching number 24 for five minutes now, but she saw no one leave. Perhaps they weren’t even home. Their house was being destroyed, and they weren’t even around to see it go down. Imagine that.
Her father was downstairs; she could hear him running up and down the corridor.
‘Lil,’ he called out. ‘Lil, we gotta go. Where are you?’
She knew they had to leave, but she couldn’t quite look away. Their street felt like a sinkhole.
‘Lil,’ her father said, standing at her door. Two buttons on his shirt had popped off. His hair was in disarray and he was wiping his hands on his pants to clear off the sweat. ‘I’ve been calling you.’
Zipped up inside Lillian’s jacket was the only possession she wanted to protect from all of this: an old, torn photograph that she had found a few weeks earlier. As she followed her father down the steps and towards the car, she kept a tight hold onto that photograph.
Lillian had been praying for an opportunity like this — not a hurricane, exactly, but something that would get her out of the town. It was swallowing her whole, like the storm had swallowed most of their street. She did think to run away, to pack a bag and disappear one morning. But then she pictured the look on her father’s face and it always stopped her.
She had prayed for this ever since she’d found that photograph hidden away at the bottom of her mother’s jewellery box. Her father had left it atop her mother’s dresser, where it had always lived. After all, her mother had only been dead a couple of months. And then Lillian went looking for something nice to wear on Christmas Day, and she’d found it.
It was a photo of her mother standing next to some other man, bearded with white hair and a content expression. To others, the photo would just look like friends smiling for a snap. But to Lillian, it is was a revelation. The date printed on the back of the photograph was one year before she was born. The man had piercing blue eyes and his nose had a slight kink in it.
When Lillian found the photo, she had reached up and traced her own nose. She had always thought hers looked broken. That’s what the kids at school would always say. Broken nose, from when you were born and it broke on the way out.
Their house was the only one that survived. It was untouched. Unspoiled. Not a single scratch was etched on the exterior of the house, and the inside was still exactly how it was before. Lillian would laugh, if she wasn’t so disappointed.
‘Well how about that,’ her father said, hands on hips, squinting up as he looked at the house from where they were standing on the driveway. ‘It’s a miracle. Your mum must be looking down on us.’
‘How is town?’ Lil asked.
Her father squeezed her shoulder. ‘The restaurant survived,’ he said, all giddy and pleased.
‘And everything else?’
‘Oh, you know. Some things are gone. Some aren’t. But Lil, these folks don’t have food or kitchens. We do. Think of the business we’ll get.’
‘Maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe this is reason enough to—‘
‘Lil, we can’t leave now,’ he said, gesturing at the house. ‘We’ve been granted a miracle. You’ll help, won’t you? At the restaurant?’
Lillian paused for a moment and then nodded. ‘…of course.’
‘Thanks Lil, I owe you.’
Her smile was forced. It’s not like she could really blame him — she doubted that he knew. Her mother was a secretive person. Lillian was sure that a long line of secrets followed her into that grave.
Her father strode away into the house just as Little Billy hobbled across the street. He was still uneasy on the crutches and struggling to move up the incline of the driveway.
‘Broken leg,’ he said, puffing a little.
Lillian glanced down. ‘Dad told me. Bookcase?’
Billy nodded. ‘Broken rib too,’ he said, looking up at Lillian’s house. ‘My mum can’t believe it’s still standing and everything.’
His short little arms were struggling to hold onto the crutches. ‘She said your dad has invited us over. He’s invited a lot of us over. ‘Cause you got all your bedrooms still, and we all got none.’
‘You’re not getting my bedroom,’ Lillian said. ‘You can sleep on the floor or that couch, but that broken leg doesn’t get you a free pass into the biggest room in the house.’
Billy shrugged. ‘Mum says the houses should be rebuilt by the time summer ends. We won’t miss any school.’
‘I was hoping not to go back at all,’ Lillian said.
Billy turned to her with a quizzical expression and his head tilted. ‘You’ve got one year left.’
Lillian turned towards him to answer, but stopped herself. She leaned in, staring at him with intensity.
‘What?’ Billy said.
“I’ve never noticed your eyes before. They’re…bright.”
Billy let out a breath and relaxed. ‘Oh, yeah. That. Got them from my dad. They’re really blue — I get told that a lot. Especially from the other kids at school.’
Lillian frowned. ‘Your dad doesn’t have blue eyes.’
There was a pause before Billy chuckled. ‘Oh. That’s not my real dad. Mum’s been with him for a few years, but before that she was married to someone else.’
Billy winced a little and adjusted his footing. ‘I better go. It’s getting sore.’
‘Where’s your dad now?’ Lillian said, stopping him briefly. After weeks of searching through her mother’s things and coming up empty, she felt hopeful.
‘No idea. Somewhere down south, I think.’
The house was constantly full, like a civilised house party that never ended. It felt like everyone on the street was crashing at the house, sleeping on mattresses and couches and anything else carpeted.
There was Roger from 14, and Kitty and Lacey from 18. There was also Timothy and Leanne from number 7, and their son Little Billy, who got a mattress to himself so he could stretch out his broken leg.
Thomas was a little kid who lived at the end of the street in number 2 — Lillian swore that his house looked the same after the hurricane as it had looked before. There were just fewer beer bottles around and the broken swing set out the front was now on its side. Some of the neighbours suspected Thomas’ father Trevor of looting after the hurricane, but when he moved in, all he had was a dirty bag and not much in it.
Some of the other neighbours never did come back to the street, of course. The couple in number 24 never returned, setting up somewhere far away from here. And there was that elderly lady a few streets over who couldn’t get out of the house in time and was found under a pile of rubble.
After everyone moved in, Lillian pulled Billy away from his parents and led him down to the basement. Thomas followed, of course, but Lillian just put on a smile and ignored him. He was quite boring, and uneventful, and it’s not like he’d have any information worth divulging.
‘Have you got any games?’ Thomas said, craning his neck and peering around.
‘No,’ Lillian said, smoothening out the back of her dress and sitting down on the ground.
‘She’s too cool for us,’ Billy said, laughing. ‘We’re just kids. She doesn’t want to play games with us.’
Lillian narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Actually, I want to play Truth. That’s a game.’
‘That sounds boring,’ Thomas said, but the two of them sat down anyway. ‘How do you play?’
‘We all go around in a circle and tell each other the juiciest secrets we have. Something that no one else knows. Billy, you’re first.’
‘I don’t have anything,’ Billy said.
‘Come on,’ Lillian said. ‘You must have something. Something you’ve overheard when you weren’t supposed to be listening. Or something you’ve done that no one else knows about.’
Billy’s eyes darted to Thomas and there was a brief silence. Lillian’s eye gleamed.
‘Go on,’ she said to Billy.
He lowered his chin, as if to keep his voice quiet. ‘I once ran away.’
Lillian rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t be such a sissy. That’s not a secret.’
‘Yes it is. No one knows about it.’
‘I heard you whimpering under our back porch,’ she said, putting her head in her hands and imitating him. ‘Boo hoo boo hoo I want to go home.’
Billy put his hands on his hips. ‘That’s not what happened.’
‘It is. I heard you there all afternoon, and then you just stopped. Like you got bored. And then you tiptoed back down the side of our house and ran home like a scared, lost child.’
Thomas roared with laughter, not that Lillian was paying much attention to him.
‘What about your real dad?’ she asked.
‘What about him?’ Billy said, frowning. ‘I don’t really remember that much—’
Thomas interrupted before Billy had a chance to finish. ‘I have a secret,’ he said.
‘I don’t care,’ Lillian snapped.
‘It’s a good secret,’ Thomas said.
Billy sat up straighter. ‘Tell us.’
Thomas spoke in a hushed whisper. ‘We’re leaving. All of us. We’re not rebuilding.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Lillian said.
Thomas whispered even quieter, and he had to say it twice before they both heard. ‘You’ll be the only one left here, Lil.’
‘That’s nonsense, Thomas,’ she said. ‘You’re telling lies.’
‘You wouldn’t all leave.’
‘My dad told me so. This morning, before breakfast. He said we were all heading elsewhere and that it’s not worth building the houses back up again. A hurricane could come back again.’
‘Well,’ Lillian said. ‘Your house certainly wasn’t worth it, but Billy’s was.’
Thomas shrugged. ‘Just what I was told.’
Lillian ran up the stairs immediately, of course, demanding that her father tell her what’s going on and if what Thomas was saying was true.
When Lillian barged in, the grown ups had been sitting around together in the living room deep in conversation. Her father stood up slowly, hands on hips and a frown on his face. And it was in that moment that Lillian knew it to be true. They were all leaving the street — all of them.
‘Lil,’ he said, concern etched on his face. He stepped forward. ‘We’ll discuss this later.’
‘Never mind. It’s fine.’
She stormed back down to the basement and sat back down with Thomas and Billy.
‘So?’ Billy said, eager to find out.
‘Just forget about it,’ she said.
There was silence for a few moments, and then Billy shifted his leg a little.
‘Does it hurt?’ Thomas asked.
He nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘Well I imagine it’ll be some time before you all leave anyway,’ Lillian said, glancing over at Billy.
‘We have time.’
There was a collective silence, but it was only Lillian who was hopeful. The other two, despite being a lot younger than her, knew better. They would be gone a lot sooner than Lillian would be, and Little Billy would be gone a lot sooner than Lillian needed him to be.
Jessica Seaborn lives in Sydney and works as a book publicist. She’s the co-creator of The Regal Fox and has had her writing published in Daily Life and Milk Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @Jessica_Seaborn