The green first-aid kit is open, with rolls of bandages, eye drops, butterfly stitches spilling out over the vanity like entrails. In my hand are the tiny pointed scissors. Before my eyes, they open and close and open and close. I can hear him coming up the hall. The door creaks.
‘Jesus,’ he says. He palms his forehead. I stop breathing.
‘Put those down, Kate.’
I toss them beside the sink and sit back on the stool with my arms folded.
His eyes roam over the floor tiles, the clumps of dark hair. ‘It’s a real mess.’ He stands for a moment, before reaching in under the sink and pulling out the hair clippers. He plugs them in at the wall, and they purr to life in his hand. ‘Be still.’
Blood throbs in my chest. The clippers sing closer. When the steel thrums against my forehead, I scramble up from the stool. My feet slip on the hair, and I steady myself against the door.
‘Kate,’ he says. The clippers die in his hand.
I turn and run. The bathroom door whips closed behind me. I sprint up the hall and through the kitchen, sidestepping the bench.
It’s only when he shouts that I realise how close he is. ‘Stop right now!’ Never run, but it’s too late.
I lunge for the front door, opening it inwards. I twist through the gap and try to pull it closed but his fingers grip the edge, whitening. I haven’t thought this through. I haven’t thought at all.
Goosebumps rise all over my body. The towel slips from around my torso and pools on the concrete. Pulling with all my strength, I turn my head back and look about me. I could scream. Would anyone hear? The door is opening. If I ran would I make the road? What then?
‘Let go of this door,’ he says, a sort of stillness on the surface of his voice. ‘You are only making it worse.’
Squeezing every cell in my body I wrench, imagining his fingers crushed against the frame, clipping off at the tips.
‘Please,’ I say. My voice sounds so pathetic and high I hardly recognise it. ‘Just let me go.’
The handle slips from between my fingers. My body thumps against the concrete.
‘Shit, watch your head,’ he says, rushing forwards, cradling my skull in his hands. ‘What the fuck were you thinking? Look at you.’ His face hovers over mine. The concrete saps the heat from my skin. ‘Come on. Inside now.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I want to go home.’
He looks up towards the road, then back at me. The big wire- framed glasses have slipped down his nose and his cheeks glow red. His teeth are yellow; his voice is low and mean. ‘If you want to act like a child, I’ll treat you like one.’ He snatches my head back by the remaining hair. The sound is cotton ripping in my skull. An electric shock shoots down my spine, poking between every vertebra to my hips and down the bones of each leg. I scrabble for purchase as he drags me with one hand knotted in my hair, the other under my shoulder. The concrete turns the skin over on one knee. Even though I know I shouldn’t, I let out a scream.
I hear the sound first. A gunshot suddenness and my cheek is hot and numb. I look up and he’s staring at his hand.
‘I . . .’ he begins. His face is still red but the anger is draining.
He exhales. ‘Just stop.’
Size is important; the smaller I become, the less he can hurt me. ‘I’m sorry.’ My voice is a wind chime. ‘I was scared.’
A tear of blood rolls down my shin, carving a path among the goosebumps. He crouches. Hauling me up, he folds me over his shoulder. Like that he carries my weak and trembling body back inside to the bathroom.
‘That was a stupid thing to do, alright? Where were you planning on running off to like that in the middle of the day? They could be anywhere. They could be watching us right now.’
I’m back on the stool and now when the clippers start, he posi- tions his lean muscled body between the door and me. I can feel the naked patch in my hair like a burn. The clippers are whirring again; he brings them up my neck. Vrrthonk. The steel teeth gnaw, catching a thatch of hair and jerking my head. Hair brushes my neck. It falls over my scarred thighs to the floor. He thumps the clippers against his palm, blows on them.
‘It’s too thick,’ he says.
I stare at the towel veiling the mirror. If I could reach it, pull it away, I would see that it’s not real. I would know it’s not happening. He runs the clippers through again, this time peeling the hair away from my scalp. A ribbon of it falls apart and strands stick to the dampness of my cheek. He flicks his wrist to whip the cord away. The molars at the back of my mouth are numb. I try to relax my jaw but I can’t.
Arms first, then legs, then stomach, but my chest will not become still. It rattles, and within it my heart is the quivering pulse of a bird held in the hand. Can a heart give up? Slow down, seize its valves, and close like a fist?
‘It’s almost finished, darling. Please.’
Vrrrthonk. The clippers tangle, clutch my hair like curled fingers, and pull. The skin of my thighs goes white beneath the grip of my fingers. This bathroom is smaller than the one at home. It’s tacky and dated. This entire house is claustrophobic. Where the fuck are we? I could scream it and yet the headache looms, sharpening its teeth. And one thought rises through it all: He hit me.
Stepping back with one hand on his hip, he examines me. ‘It will be fine.’ My voice is desperate.
‘No, it’s patchy, it’s a mess. You look like a starved dog.’
I squeeze my eyes closed and see a teenage girl. She’s sitting on the edge of a bed. Then she slips to the floor, where she comes to rest. Her legs are tucked beneath her. Over her nose is a saddle of freckles. She rises with the boneless grace of a dandelion, tilts her head, smiles. It’s the video of me. I’m reminded of why I ended up here.
I try to stand but his hand is heavy on my shoulder. It squeezes.
I sit back down, tip my head forwards and close my eyes.
He takes most of what’s left of my hair in his fist and picks up the scissors. ‘Almost finished. Just don’t move for one more minute.’ As my hair falls around me, I imagine the scissors puncturing his trachea, lodging between a pair of vertebrae in his neck. These thoughts come and go as quickly as a sneeze. I remind myself of a time when I loved this man and feel sick with it.
‘Oh,’ he says, letting the word uncoil like smoke from his mouth. ‘What have we done?’
In the shower, I’m still trembling with adrenaline as I watch the water chase the blood and nicks of hair down the drain. Up in the corners long-legged spiders dance webs across the avocado-green panels. The water pressure is weak and sprays with a panicked hum. Soon the water is cool, and when I shut it off I can hear the pipes shudder in the walls. I dry myself and pull the towel away from the mirror, standing before it. An invisible fist thumps my chest as, for the first time, I see myself.
You can never know the shape of your skull, not until you have peeled the hair away. Even then the skin, the shadows and light, marks and spots, can obscure the bone that lies beneath. Seeing it isn’t enough because, as with anything, what you see is not necessarily all there is. I almost don’t trust my eyes. It’s possible the cord stretching to my brain is knotted, or my brain may have a short-circuited connection or snapped synapse. I see only my skull. Closing my eyes, I squeeze a single tear out. I try to forget but the skin remembers, the fingertips remember. When I touch my shorn head I gasp. The thin layer of skin wrapping the bone cage of my brain is so soft and smooth, like the pink foot of a newborn. I can feel the shape, the planes and the curvature. But of course it’s what lies within that is most important of all.
I think: What I know about the human skull, I learnt because of him.
WINNER OF THE 2019 NGAIO MARSH AWARD FOR BEST FIRST NOVEL
'I read it in one go' Harriet Tyce, author of BLOOD ORANGE
'A smart, propulsive thriller' Kate Hamer, THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT
'One of the most striking debuts I've read in years' A. J. Finn, author of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
Don't trust him. It wasn't me. It couldn't have been me.
Meet Evie, a young woman who has fled with her uncle to the isolated New Zealand beach town of Maketu. Jim says he's hiding her to protect her, that she did something terrible back home in Melbourne. Something Evie can't remember.
But Evie isn't her real name. And Jim isn't really her uncle.
In a house that creaks against the wind, Evie pieces together the events that led her here. And as her memories return, she starts to wonder if Jim is really her saviour . . . or her captor.
A compulsive, twist-filled debut that explores the fragility of memory, perfect for fans of Sharp Objects, Room and Top of the Lake