There were many smells I’d come to associate with Ben and housesitting, but vomit wasn’t one of them. I shut the front door glad I hadn’t picked the kids up early from vacation care to come with me.
“Ben?” I called and peered into the lounge room, half expecting my good-for-nothing brother to be sprawled on the couch in a drunken coma. “Hey lazy-arse.”
But it was empty and almost tidy—only a contained smattering of DVDs on the floor and the coffee table. Not the usual bombsite of an unemployed computer programmer turned couch potato who survived on random temp jobs and the Old’s generosity.
I dumped my handbag on the kitchen bench and opened the bin, looking for the source of the smell. The overflow went into a second plastic bag. I hauled both out to the wheelie bin and pushed it onto the nature strip. On the second trip I evacuated the empty bottles, deposited the recycling bin next to its sibling and turned on the sprinkler system so the grass had half a chance of greening up before The Olds got home on the weekend.
Back inside there was no sign of the oxygen-thief, just as I expected.
Sure Annalise, come on over, I’ll be home, he said a week ago. Get Jake to pick the kids up and I’ll get a bottle of wine and drag out the vinyl and we’ll put up the tree like we did when we were kids.
He knew all the right things to say and how to sweeten the deal with my penchant for Boney-M and sav blanc and Christmas nostalgia. And I fell, as I always did, hook-line-and-sinker. I justified each disappointment with the fact I wanted to believe there was a better side to my kid-brother than he ever showed me.
I dragged the box with the Christmas tree out of the linen press. There was no point ringing or texting to ask where he was and I wasn’t going to just sit and wait for him to come home. I’d put the tree up and at some point between now and the weekend he’d realise it didn’t magically materialise in the lounge room. The bags of ornaments were pushed beyond my reach on the highest shelf.
She appeared as I dragged a chair out of the kitchen: a waif, cut from alabaster in a crocheted hat and vintage dress.
“You must be Annalise,” she said, her English accent tired.
And the way she looked at me, expecting me to know who she was, meant I was going to throttle Ben when I saw him next. I was so going to kill him because this girl didn’t look like anything we’d come to expect from his pathetic parade of women. This young woman exuded respect and a quiet confidence that flickered like a candle throwing light into a dark room. She deserved better than the ignorance of her identity I was trying desperately to hide.
The next part of 24 will be available here at 4pm.