The deserted streets with their festive lights, the 80’s music marathon on the radio and the warm wind whistling through the windows gave the night a surreal edge on the way home. Amber slept on Ben’s shoulder in the back seat and I wondered again, the wisdom in taking her home and not to hospital given the state she was in. Tiredness furred the edges of my thoughts and I struggled to keep focused.
“Remember the vibrator Aunty Sue gave Mum for Christmas,” I said and turned Springsteen down.
“Mum said how funny she was for sending her a torch without a light,” Ben said. I laughed and the tension of the last twelve hours washed away. “I was certain there was a way to make it work.” His sounded present but he was lost to something out in the dark street. “I’m going to make this work, Leesie.” He looked into the rear vision mirror and our eyes met. “No more fuck ups. Amber needs me.”
I nodded and we drove with the radio filling the silence.
The closer we got to The Old’s the sharper the salty tang in the air became. Then the ocean was there, sprawled before us, flat and peaceful under the crescent-bowl moon.
“I was thinking,” I said, turning into The Old’s street. “We were going up to the beach house on Boxing Day. You and Amber should go up instead.”
Ben didn’t answer and we sat in the driveway with the car idling and the lights fading in and out of colour in the front window.
“You always preferred that mode,” Ben said eventually. He unclipped his seat belt and gently laid Amber’s head against the seat. “Lights to bore yourself by.”
“Better than your brain melt setting.” Our words were hollow. I cut the engine and said, “I’m going in to make a coffee. Then I’d better go home.”
“Hey.” He followed me up the driveway, alone. “Thank you. You didn’t have to stay.”
“Yes, I did.” I hugged him tight and even though he was half a foot taller, he felt insubstantial in my arms, like the small, gangly boy who begged me to take him swimming.
“I wish I could say everything was going to be all right.”
“She doesn’t want to go home. She said she wants to stay here. With me.”
“No one has to decide anything tonight.” I yawned and let him go. “I’ll go in and sort the bed.”
Inside, I stopped at the Christmas tree. Tomorrow, while Ben and Amber slept, I’d come back and pull it down, give them the opportunity to put it up together. Ben needed to make memories because too soon it would be all he had of Amber.
I was about to walk past when I saw the empty vodka bottle on its side near the coffee table; a ring of hot pink around the neck when I picked it up. Ben was at the front door with Amber in his arms and I hurried to his room.
“Put Amber in my old room,” I called from the end of the hallway and closed his bedroom door. “It smells of vomit in here.”
I needed to think quickly so he wouldn’t need to know there was a naked girl passed out in the middle of his bed.
The final part of 24 will be available here at 4am.