It’s twilight merging into night as we join the lines of cars curving through the cutting on the high pass out of town. Dad runs his palm over the remnants of his silvery hair. Can you drive faster, Jen? I don’t wanna be late for work tonight.
How come, Dad?
Just because. His green-flecked spittle hits the dash. He turns the radio knob: Triple T, Mike and Sandy driving you home from work.
Why’d you ask me to drive you tonight, Dad?
He coughs again and turns the radio up loud. What about me? He’s singing along, a second too late with each word, when the tang of pepper, the scent of Shiraz, reflects off the grubby windscreen from the depths of his throat.
Fuck, Dad. I swerve around a flattened carcass, some small, dead animal, in the middle of the lane. So. How long have they taken it for this time?
His swallow echoes in his mouth as we head up the off-ramp. Two years, he says.
I clamp my lips tight. No licence for two years. There’s no way I’ll be able to fit Uni around driving Dad to and from his night shift at the factory. I’ve got a year left ‘til I finish but they only permit us to defer a year at most. I suppose there’s no way he could have known that.
The cars beside us turn one by one into suburban avenues, until it’s only our dented ’84 Falcon on the backstreets of the industrial estate.
We drive through the factory gates, thick grey steel, like a forest of ringbarked trees. I park beside the Holdens and Nissans in silence, then pull the spearmint gum from the glovebox and hand him two pieces. One for now, one for smoko, all right? Keep your eyes down, your hands in your pockets. I’ll see you at seven am. Okay?
Dad slams the car door.
As he walks across the tarmac, he shakes Roy’s hand, high fives his foreman then turns back to grin at me from beside the front door. Dad’ll be fired any day. We’ll have a fortnight until the landlord realises the rent’s still overdue. After that, we’re dead meat.
I slouch down behind the steering wheel so the foreman, his eyes thinned to slits and his hands thick on his hips, can’t see me. I’m not ready to talk to him yet. You’ll be back soon enough, he’d said when I told him I was leaving to go to Uni, his sneer wide enough to reveal the silver amalgam in his back molars.
The glossy grey spine of my textbook glimmers at me from under the dash. I heave it into my lap. Abnormal Psychology. It falls open at a well-thumbed chapter: Post-traumatic stress. And, underlined: nightmares.
I snap the textbook shut and fling it onto the floor. Fucking waste of time, anyway. Don’t know what I was thinking, going to Uni. Don’t know how I thought I could help.
The evening air, full of the scent of raw meat, presses in on me through the car’s air vents as darkness settles across the car park.
In the years before the accident, Dad would bring home bacon scraps he’d saved. The dogs would gulp down the rind straps whole while Mum would fry the remnants of collar until they were crunchy, then line them up on hot-buttered toast. My favourite.
One morning, on his drive home from work, a kid ran onto the road in front of Dad. There wasn’t time to stop, he told the cops.
His nightmares began soon after. I used to shake him from deep sleep, cupping my palm over his mouth to drown the screams.
Mum waited ‘til I finished Year 12 before she left. He’s started wetting the bed, she said as she glanced back, her hand on the rim of the front door. From the grog. He’s your responsibility now.
After Mum left, I started working the bacon lines. I’d pull on my overalls and thick woolen jumper in the factory changing room, stuff my hair into a net and scrub under my nails until they were shiny white. If I was running late, the foreman would glare at me, as if it were my fault, but he knew I was too good at my job to be let go. Good at unclogging the slicer when the bacon got jammed, good at getting just the right weights in the bags, good at controlling the speed of the line.
When I finally ease myself out of the car, the autumn air is cool. Leaves crunch under my feet. Wind whips the pants from my ankles as I stride across the concrete.
I enter through the front door. Welcome, the doormat says in cursive white letters streaked brown from the workers’ boots.
The foreman’s already in the foyer, his overalls stained with the pinky-white of bacon fat, waiting for me.
Dad’s straight when he slides into the car the next morning. Crooked grin, shaky fingers as he clacks the seatbelt into place.
Surely you didn’t sleep in the car, Jen. Might give you bad dreams.
I don’t say that I don’t remember my dreams when I wake these days. As for Dad, he still screams in his sleep but I doubt he sees images of the kid in his headlights anymore behind his closed lids. Most likely he dreams of nothing at all.
I pull out of the gates and head towards the horizon, where the creep of the morning sun spreads out like butter on the hills before us.
Two years, right? That’s it, Dad. That’s all I’m giving you.
Two years, he says. Yep, you got it kiddo. He presses the radio on. It crackles static.
This breaking of light on land will be my twilight for the next two years. Days of slumber. Afternoons of instant coffee. Nights of packing bacon on an ice-cold factory floor.
I start back on Monday, I say, as I hit the on-ramp, merging into the stream of cars limping along the asphalt. With you.
He turns the radio up. You know, Jen, I’m not surprised. Not surprised at all. I kinda knew you would.
Making bacon received 2nd place in the 5th Annual Odyssey Short Story Competition, 2015.