I could still feel the burning imprint of his hand across my eleven-year-old cheek. ‘What did you do wrong?’ my sister asked after I ran up the stairs and into her room, where she had her nose stuck in a book as always.
Down in the garage I heard Dad’s motorbike roar into life, the creaking of the garage door-springs as he pulled it down and pushed it shut, and a fading buzz of relief as he rode away without me sitting behind him, riding pillion but holding him tightly with my hands inside his warm leatherjacket pockets, my head snug inside my helmet.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said.
‘Get out of my room then – I’m reading!’
I wrinkled my nose at the musky candles she was burning, poked my tongue out at her and ran to the bathroom. I shut the door, stretched out over the sink and brought my cheek close to the mirror, inspecting it for damage, before sitting down cross-legged on the bathroom mat and closing my eyes. I could feel the tears hiding somewhere inside, and I willed them to come, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes again, thinking that might help, but my eyes remained stubbornly dry. On the white-tiled floor beside me sat a stray curly hair, completely unmatched from mine and my sister’s light brown or Dad’s spiky blonde. The phrase ‘short and curlies’ came to my mind like a revelation, something I’d heard at school and didn’t understand. The hair danced gently across the room as a breeze blew in underneath the bathroom door.
‘Anthony?’ my sister called from just outside the door.
‘What did you do?’
I watched the hair swirling along the floor as my sister paced outside, then put my cheek to the cold tiles, trying to peer through the small gap to see if she would leave. The tiles were like a balm to my face, simultaneously reinforcing and curing the slap’s burn. I laid there very still next to the dirty bathtub and remembered us bathing together when we were young, before the distance between us became real. Before we had a choice.
‘I told him why Mum left us,’ I said, watching my sister’s feet stop dead as my words reached her ears. ‘I told him he’s mean.’