by Nod Ghosh

I knew we were in trouble when my father tripped while carrying his bride over the threshold. I knew then, that things would never be the same.

Dad was strong, but he struggled under Odèle’s bulk. She flicked a lock of ashy hair over her eyes and grinned at her husband. Our father stumbled into the corridor.

Marama scuttled behind them. I pushed past my kid sister.

Later when no one was looking, I snuck out of the house, while my aunties fussed over their new sister-in-law.

The rain had cleared when I reached the beach, and the autumn sky looked like lemonade.

Dad had a new wife.

I remembered my mother, her eyes, her hair, the way her bones had pushed through her skin like tent-poles in the last few months. The wind soughed and sighed. I thought I heard mum singing.

The beach had been thick with people earlier. Odèle had laughed like an engine when the rain started. I dipped my feet into the wet sand at the water’s edge. The only other person I saw was a man walking a rangy dog towards the dunes.

Dad had a weak heart. What if he’d had a funny turn when he’d hoisted that woman into our home? I recoiled at the thought of him touching her wet-leather skin.

There hadn’t been many guests at ceremony. Pete the barman of the Rogue and Ruffian had officiated. Odèle had made promises, my father gazing at her with wet eyes. She kept a sea-green blanket over her legs throughout the process. Dad’s suit had emitted a faint whiff of oysters.

Marama was flower girl. Her floaty dress had suggested seaweed and cobwebs. The surf outside the Rogue and Ruffian had roared like a train as the fiercest storm in half a century brewed up. There was no priest or celebrant at the wedding. But after my father slipped Mum’s gold ring on Odèle’s red finger, no one doubted the thing was official.

I wanted to shout, this isn’t right. But I was scrawny for seventeen, so I kept my mouth shut for fear of getting Dad’s fist in it.

That night, I poked my head out of my room to see Dad carrying Odèle from the shower. Her damp hair sloped toward the carpet, reminding me of Mum’s knitting: unravelling and grey.

I checked in on Marama. ‘Tell them to shut up if they’re noisy.’

As if on cue, Dad’s chortle and a papery giggle trickled through to us.

‘Dad’s changing.’ I slumped onto my sister’s bed.

‘He is,’ she said. ‘Have you noticed he’s laughing again, Hemi?’

‘He’s blind.’ I scrunched a corner of her quilt. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘His wife. We don’t know who or what she is.’

‘He loves her.’

I shook my head and left my sister.

High-pitched sounds oozed from Dad’s bedroom. I shut my door against them and tried to remember my mother’s laugh.

Mum had only been dead a year when Dad found Odèle on the beach. The tide was turning, he’d said, and waves were lapping against the woman’s chair. She’d asked for help; said she was stuck in the sand. He’d brought her home.

I hadn’t liked the look of the mould-green blanket draped over her hindquarters. It was filthy, like the dirt of her eyes, but she never took the thing off her legs. Shivering like a leaf, she’d pulled her grey coat over her enormous bosom.

My father had made a hot cup of cocoa, but she’d shivered and asked if he had soup. He’d said we didn’t, and had improvised using a stock cube. It was a fish stock cube.

Guys often don’t like their stepmothers, but Odèle was off the scale.

After the wedding, I tolerated her oddities. She took her tea with a pinch of salt in it. No sugar. Pictures of Mum vanished from the mantelpiece. Dad built a system of hoists and pulleys between bathroom and bedroom, so Odèle could shift her strange anatomy about with ease. Even so, she’d knock things over as she manoeuvred her bulk around. She had pronged devices like fly swatters to move things with, but still left a trail of crap in her wake.

‘I’ll put up with her,’ I told Dad, ‘but I refuse to tidy her mess. And I’m not lifting her anywhere. After all, it’s not like she’s a real cripple.’

Dad gave me a warning look. ‘Don’t talk about your stepmother that way.’

‘She’s not any sort of mother to me.’

My father drew a breath and paused as if he was counting inside his head.

‘We’ve never asked you to do that,’ he said through clenched teeth. His rotund belly heaved in and out as he slowed his breathing. ‘Odèle values her independence.’

I skulked away. Dad hadn’t hit me for ages, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

Despite what my father said, I did have to help Odèle. My job was to fold the laundry. I hated touching her shapeless skirts, all in colours of the sea; blue, green, grey. She never wore trousers. I folded, while she stabbed at her cross-stitch. Scenes of seahorses and mermaids, shells that looked like human ears.

Marama had taken to sitting with Odèle to watch television after school. They’d crunch these unholy seaweed rice crackers. Odèle would part my sister’s hair, pulling her wide-toothed comb through the blue-black locks. Marama’s hair was very much like Mum’s.

My sister would push Odèle’s chair to the beach. They’d come back laughing, soaked in sea spray. Marama would towel them both dry, careful not to let the caterpillar-green blanket slip off her stepmother’s legs, lest she revealed what lay underneath. It was late spring by then, and unseasonably warm.

Sometimes Marama would crawl across the floor, shuffling like a mollusc as Odèle did. I mentioned it to Dad.

‘She’s only twelve,’ he sighed. ‘Where’s the harm in it? Heaven forbid she turns out like you were at her age, Hemi.’

I came home one day to find Odéle looking through our old photos. Was she about to throw pictures of our mother out?

‘Whatever you’re up to, you won’t get away with it.’ I stood over her, trying not to focus on the vomit-green blanket. ‘I’m going to tell everyone.’

‘Go ahead,’ she challenged, eyes like unripe tomatoes.

I couldn’t articulate my anger, so I walked into the kitchen to find something for tea. There were no fish fingers left in the freezer.

‘Do you think about Mum?’ I asked Marama as she practiced piano one Saturday. Dad had taken Odèle to the beach.

‘Of course.’ Sunlight streamed through the window and lit up her face. She was so like our mother.

‘When?’

‘Lots of times. Like when I play something she taught me.’ She clipped a sheet of music onto the stand. ‘You?’

‘I can’t stop,’ I said. ‘I can’t stop thinking about all the ‘what ifs’.’

‘What ifs?’ Marama tensed and relaxed her fingers.

‘What if the chemo had worked? What if they’d found it earlier?’ My chest ached.

‘But they didn’t. Bad things happen.’ The sun disappeared behind a cloud. The light took on a sick greenish quality.

‘And Dad.’ I forced the words out. ‘How could Dad forget her?’

Marama looked up. ‘I don’t think he has.’

‘What’s he doing with someone like her then?’

‘Odèle?’

‘Who else?’ I never spoke the woman’s name unless I had to, as if saying the word would make her permanent.

‘You don’t like her, do you?’

‘How can you like her? She’s not normal.’

‘Because she takes salt in her tea?’

‘You don’t understand,’ I countered. ‘You’re too young.’

‘Would you like anyone Dad was with?’

‘That’s not it,’ I said. ‘It’s her. She’s not human.’

‘What’s she ever done that’s inhuman?’

‘You don’t get it. I’m not speaking in metaphors. She’s − ’ The front door opened, and Dad pushed his wife in.

Less than a year after my father re-married, I moved out, leaving my sister to her fate. She was only thirteen.

I found a job in the fisheries. Weekdays were filled with work. Weekends were for drinking, parties and women.

I never rang home. When I was no longer near her, Odéle morphed into something unthreatening, stupid, almost comical. She would never replace my mother. Why had I ever thought she could?

My sister didn’t call me often. She had when I first left home, but it slowed down as months went by. Maybe it was because I never rang her.

I recognised the number and took the call, hoping it would be brief.

‘Hemi?’ Marama’s voice was shaky.

‘Yeah?’

‘It’s Dad.’

‘What about Dad? Is he all right?’

But Marama wasn’t on the line anymore.

‘Hemi?’ Odèle’s voice was unsteady.

‘What?’ My lips were steel-tight.

‘Your father collapsed.’

‘Where?’ Cold sweat pierced my back. ‘Have you called an ambulance? Why are you wasting time talking to me? Can’t you even − ’

‘Hemi, listen.’ Her voice cracked like dry salt.

‘I am listening. Where is he?’

‘He died, Hemi. He’s gone.’ Her feverish words reignited the rage within me.

‘No. You’re wrong,’ I yelled. ‘Let me speak to Marama.’

My sister’s words were wet with tears. ‘He’s gone.’

Odèle spoke again. ‘He never regained consciousness,’ she cleared her throat. ‘They said it was his heart.’

‘I—I can’t—’ I didn’t know what to say. I was angry. All I could think of was my father’s fist flying towards my face. I hated him. I loved him.

‘He loved you very much,’ Odèle said.

‘You have no idea,’ I said. ‘You never knew him properly. The real him.’ I wanted my mother. I wanted her to tell me everything was going to be all right. I wanted her to save me. ‘You’re not my mother. I wish you’d never come into our lives.’

‘I understand,’ she said. ‘ But I’m here for Marama. I’m here for you too, if you want.’

I wanted to lash out at her. Break her. But when you’re blind, you don’t know what you’re doing. This strange woman, with her wasted legs and odd habits had loved us. She’d given Dad and Marama what my mother couldn’t.

She’d been there.

There aren’t many people at the Rogue and Ruffian where the tangi takes place. Pete the barman officiates.

Odèle’s eyes fill as the eulogies are read. She has an emerald-green blanket over her legs. She’s chosen winter jasmine to lay on the coffin.

My sister wears a filmy dress that suggests meadow weeds and dandelion clocks. The surf outside the Rogue and Ruffian roars like a truck. A storm’s coming in. It’s going to be a big one.

The cry of the sea beckons.

Things will be different from now.

My stepmother takes my sister’s hand, and I place my own on her shoulder.

We move together as one, and place flowers on Dad’s casket.

I know now, that things can never be the same.

I’m ready.

Originally from the U.K., Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Truth Serum Press has published two books: ‘The Crazed Wind’ (a novella-in-flash 2018), and ‘Filthy Sucre’ (three novellas 2020). For further details on other publications visit http://www.nodghosh.com/about/.