For as long as she could remember, Cassie Lane yearned to be somebody else. Not only was she socially awkward, she was odd-looking and her dysfunctional family were the type of people who bonded over stealing their Christmas tree every year.
Miraculously, at sixteen, Cassie’s prayers were answered and she got boobs – big ones! Suddenly the centre of attention, she went from gawky bogan to international model, strutting catwalks from Milan to LA. But beneath the gloss she discovered a world of exploitation, where living off your looks can attract as much scorn as admiration. Her search for a version of herself she could actually like took her from Hollywood parties, to an island ashram, and reluctantly back into the spotlight as an AFL ‘WAG’, a position where one wrong step can get you labelled a ‘slut’, ‘skank’ and ‘stripper’.
In time the gawky bogan came full circle, and Cassie grew to understand that beauty is not about high cheekbones or a 24-inch waist. True beauty is found in the imperfect and vulnerable.
How to Dress a Dummy casts an unwavering eye at the myriad ways in which women are taught that they’re not enough. Smart, frank and very, very funny, Cassie’s is a bold new feminist voice.
‘Cassie Lane is a bold new voice. This darkly comic take on life in the fashion industry will leave you howling with both laughter and tears.’ - CLEMENTINE FORD
To purchase move your curser mid-bottom page and click through on the 'Buy' button. Published by Affirm Press.
Luca zipped through the Milan traffic, sounding his horn. Fiats and scooters zoomed past, missing us by millimetres. He gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white, stress radiating from his body and seeping into mine via a sort of car-cabin osmosis. We were late. It was my fault. But that wasn’t even the start of it. Luca caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and glared at me. Many Italians believed the evil eye, malocchio, cursed their victims with ill fate. I scowled back at him. He flinched and averted his gaze.
We zoomed past Piazza del Duomo, past the Gothic cathedral, which lent the scene a theatrical urgency. Apt, I thought, considering this was possibly the most momentous day of my life. Luca, my driver, and I were on our way to a test shoot. Three girls had been chosen out of a thousand models from around the world to compete for the Wonderbra campaign. The campaign that made Eva Herzigová a supermodel. The campaign that helped put Sarah Murdoch on the map. If I were chosen, I would be paid hundreds of thousands of euros per year for the four-year campaign. I would be paid to attend events all over the world and sign autographs.
But I couldn’t think of any of that. All I could think about was my queasy stomach, the pounding in my head, the saliva flooding my mouth. The car came to a sudden halt. Horns and shouting erupted around us. I sat up to see what all the commotion was about. Something flashed before my eyes, and with it came a moment of clarity.
Dear God, I thought. What have I done?
‘Pull over,’ I whispered.
Luca kept driving.
‘Pull over!’ I shouted.
Luca swerved, but it was too late.
I was born with magical healing powers. Which is lucky, because the thing I excelled at as a kid was almost killing myself.
The first time I broke both my wrists, I was six. There was a two-storey house under construction next door to our place in Wheelers Hill, a suburb in south-east Melbourne. My older brother, Alex, was climbing it, so, naturally, I followed him. ‘Beat ya, shithead!’ I shouted when I reached the peak, raising my fists triumphantly. I lost my balance, slipped through the slats and landed palms first on the concrete foundation. My wrist bones crumpled like a one-way accordion, but I survived. The second time I broke both my wrists, I fell off a stage in drama class, breaking completely different wrist bones and acquiring the nickname ‘Arsewipe’, due to the frequency with which I was elbow deep in plaster and in need of assistance when I went to the bathroom.
I was four the first time I cracked my head open. Once again, I was copying my brother, who was sprinting down a steep hill in front of our house. Too young to comprehend the science of momentum, I catapulted down the hill. Finally, I was going to beat my brother at something! Alas, panic replaced elation when I realised I no longer had control of my body. My head struck the sharp edge of a brick pillar and I fell to the ground. I blinked up at Alex, who gawped back at me as blood coated my face, dripping onto the concrete in fat red puddles.
He raced into the house.
‘What is it, Al?’ Mum asked, putting the iron down.
‘Cassie’s dead!’ Alex screamed before dashing into his room and slamming the door.
Mum rushed off to console my brother, while my older sister, Veronica, held my wound together and carried me to the car. I received twelve stitches at the emergency room that day and a gobstopper the size of my fist, which I personally felt made the entire debacle worthwhile.
I was six when Veronica smashed my head open with a cricket bat. Granted, she didn’t realise I was there. I’d crept up behind her when she was up to bat, determined to impress the family with my awesome wicket-keeper skills. Our kindly neighbour carried me into the house (my white shirt now stained red), handed me to Mum and promptly fainted on our lounge-room floor.
Alex chopped the top of my ring finger off with an axe when I was three, and we were well impressed when it grew back again. At four, I yanked a saucepan of boiling water off the stove and over eighty per cent of my body. The nurse warned Mum there would be permanent scarring. When the bandages were removed, revealing pristine skin, my family applauded.
‘Let’s cut her thumb off and see if it grows back!’ suggested Veronica, excited to have a potential superhero for a sibling.
‘Not today,’ Mum said, removing the secateurs from her hand.
My magical powers couldn’t heal all ailments, so I was thankful that my dad was a doctor. Being a GP meant that he worked a lot. Sometimes, though, for reasons never explained to me, he didn’t come home for days. As such, some of my best moments with Dad were spent chewing the fat while he sewed me back up again.
My earliest memories of Dad are like disembodied fragments of a hazy dream. The aromas of bourbon, Jazz aftershave and Benson & Hedges; the tinkle of ice against glass; creeping down the stairs in my nighty to catch him when he was home; the thrill when he’d let me stay up and watch TV past my bedtime and Mum’s fury when he was caught out doing it; lying in bed, occasionally hearing Mum’s shrill attacks punctuated by Dad’s rumbling interjections; the shattering of glass against a wall; the house’s thunderous rattle in response to a slammed door and, loudest of all, the silence that followed.
When I was five, Mum herded us kids into the lounge room and announced that Dad had left; for good this time. Veronica and Alex started sobbing. Amateurs, I thought, as I wrapped my arms across my chest, rolled my eyes and uttered the occasional ‘pfft’.
‘I don’t think you understand, Cassie,’ Mum explained. ‘Perhaps you’re too young.’
‘No, I get it.’ I glowered up at her with the expression of a self-righteous adult. ‘I just don’t care.’ Like a nimble boxer, I’d already learned slippery moves of evasion. Keep moving, never let your opponent into your space, and if they find a way in, administer a swift sucker punch to the jaw.
In hindsight, I wonder if my series of accidents wasn’t a plea for Dad’s attention using the most apposite method my young mind could devise – this was to be the beginning of a lasting ritual where I would heedlessly relinquish my body in exchange for some form of love.
Soon after, Dad moved in with Mum’s friend Kaye. She had, it seemed, become Dad’s even better friend, the mutual love of a tipple sealing their bond.
Mum and we three kids moved to a house in Mulgrave, a nearby suburb a few socioeconomic rungs lower. Eucalyptus trees flanked the streets, and sprawling parks abounded, littered with bongs, shopping trolleys and the occasional nudie mag, the perfect hub for us kids to get up to no good. Small brick units huddled in rows, differentiated by their half-complete, blue-tarped DIY renovations, letterboxes shaped like iconic Australian animals, or sundry lawn ornaments that ranged from your average gnome to more conspicuous style signifiers: fairies, unicorns, white lions, a large David or a flamingo. All of which I stole and re-purposed as Christmas gifts.
My brother and I were transplanted from a private school to a public school, while it was decided that Veronica should stay at her private school, as she had already been there a few years. Plus, I’m pretty sure my parents were punting on her to be the insurance child (the kid you can rely on to succeed if all the other siblings end up overdosing on heroin or, perish the thought, become the kind of adults who say ‘somethink’ and ‘arksed’).
Veronica is almost six years older than me. I don’t have many childhood memories of her, nor does Alex. We always figured she was a Soviet spy, implanted into our family as a teenager, off stealing secrets from the government while Al and I were busy beating each other’s heads in. It was only later I learned that, while I dealt with the divorce by performing death-defying stunts and collecting evidence, like a sleuth, to support my sense of inadequacy, Veronica’s coping mechanism was overachieving. She was never around because she was out being the best at everything.
It’s strange how two people can be scooped from the same gene pool and end up on such divergent trajectories. Maybe she had a head start because she got a healthy dose of family functionality during her formative years; or perhaps it’s an older-child thing, or a brain-wiring thing. Whatever the reason, Veronica was from a different planet than my brother and I. While she was the school captain, I was the school pariah. In Grade One Veronica was known as the gregarious kid. In Grade One I was known as the kid who always forgot to wear her undies to school. In Year Twelve, Veronica was voted most popular girl in her year. In Year Twelve, Alex got expelled for putting a textbook in the microwave and nearly incinerating the common room.
Mum wasn’t around much after the divorce either. She was out working at whatever job she could find: selling popcorn at the local cinema, demonstrating Maggi-noodle-vegetable omelettes at Coles, driving Pat Cash to Rod Laver Arena. This was a few years after Gough Whitlam had introduced no-fault divorce, which, on paper, seemed like a win for women but actually ensnared child support in the age-old capitalism catch 22: you could get the money you were entitled to, but usually only if you had enough money to afford a lawyer in the first place. Mum didn’t have enough money, but we did get some child support, which was more than Mum’s other divorced friends back then could say. As such, Mum felt she couldn’t really complain. Her mission, if she chose to accept it (no doubt, unlike Ethan Hunt, she hesitated), was to stop three rapidly growing kids from starving to death.
It was survival of the fittest in our household. We relied on strength or strategy to survive. We usually watched whatever TV show Alex chose, because he had a mean kick on him. The dynamic would shift, however, when I got my hands on his prized possessions. ‘Alex,’ I’d say, with the steady smile and dead eyes of a psychopath, ‘change the channel or I’ll smash your Transformer into tiny pieces.’ And he and I would sit together, watching She-Ra: Princess of Power, while I nursed Optimus Prime, occasionally stroking him like Blofeld’s cat.
After school each afternoon, Alex and I would dust off a tattered cookbook that I’m pretty sure was written during the Great Depression, in which recipes basically only required flour, water and sugar. It was sort of like that 4 Ingredients book everyone went bananas for recently, but this was before it was trendy to lack the resources to stay alive. Most days we lived on pancakes with lemon and sugar, damper with butter or, my secret recipe, microwaved tomato-sauce sandwiches with a dash of salt and pepper.
Grocery-shopping day at our house was like the Battle of Fromelles, but bloodier. The audible crinkle of a plastic bag ignited a cloud of commotion that circled Mum until one of us seized the Tim Tams. Being the youngest and runtiest, I scampered in the periphery, emitting grunts while searching for escaped morsels and swiftly devouring them.
I’ve heard communication is the key to a healthy family life, and I reckon my family were just about the greatest communicators in the whole of Mulgrave. Our method of choice was screaming; profanities mostly, with the occasional pronoun to clarify our argument. If you were anywhere in Melbourne back then, on a quiet, windless day you might’ve, if you remained still and listened closely, heard a member of the Lane family calling another member a cunt.
The first time I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner, I gaped as they sat quietly, enquiring about each other’s day, no wrestling or hair pulling over the last piece of dessert and no one getting stabbed with a spork. I felt like a wild beast clumsily mimicking my hosts’ behaviour, in the hope that they’d mistake me for one of them; a ‘human being’, I believe they called it. This was the first time I had the nudging sense that there was something wrong with me.
I was certain it was all Mum’s fault. During a particularly rowdy tiff in the backyard, which escalated when Mum threw a concrete duck at my head, I dashed behind the trampoline to take cover and let her know about it. ‘I fucking hate you!’ I yelled. When that didn’t break her, I followed it up with a verbal upper cut: ‘I wish you were dead!’
Having heard this proclamation from all her kids at various times, Mum was still unshaken. ‘Oh yeah?’ She chuckled. ‘And if I die, who’ll feed you every day? Who’ll do your bloody washing?’
My eyes welled, bottom lip quivering. ‘Dad would,’ I whimpered.
‘Right,’ Mum scoffed.
I wiped the tears and snot off my face with my forearm. ‘I love him more than I will ever love you.’
Mum froze; there was a subtle shift in her outline, the edges wilting. She dropped the Buddha statue she’d recently grabbed, turned and walked away. A reaction that I only then understood was way, way worse than having a duck thrown at your head.
But I meant it. At Dad’s we ate chocolate self-saucing pudding and tacos every night. We watched scary movies. We shimmied on his waterbed, knees wobbling, playing air guitar to ‘Money for Nothing’ with Knopfler-like finesse. He read his favourite books to us at night, and concocted elaborate stories about a dragon named Drufus, who, whenever he was quoted in the story, bellowed in a deep rumbling voice that sent us into giggling fits.
Dad took us on impromptu weekend adventures in his Fuego, where we’d cram ourselves in the back, singing along to Paul Simon, driving for hours past rolling hills and lazy cows, counting roadkill (ten points for a kangaroo, five for a wombat, double points if you saw brains). He would sing ‘Graceland’ in his gravelly baritone voice. I’d watch him chain-smoking cigarettes like he’d been doing it since birth, with his Magnum, P.I. moustache, aviators and acid-wash leather jacket, certain he was the coolest dad in the whole wide world.
Dad never yelled at us or punished us. Mum, on the other hand, did it so regularly, you’d think it was her favourite pastime. Mum was so proximate she became a thing to caress and throttle at once. Her faults were palpable, while Dad’s were too evasive to grasp. You expected Mum’s affection; Dad’s, you had to work for.
Dad and Kaye enjoyed a lifestyle where boozy nights prevailed. Dad was very strict about not drinking the night before work. But then, we only saw him every other weekend, which just happened to be the only time he would allow himself to indulge. As the years passed, Dad seemed to get quieter and more distant. At one point, my memories of him fade, as if smudged away with a blackboard duster. Although physically present, Dad had managed to disappear himself for a while. A magic trick I, too, would attempt one day.
When it came to Dad’s absence, I directed the allegations inward. Every time he stamped out any flickers of emotion with a drink, I believed, deep within my tiny, fluttering heart, that I wasn’t enough of a reason for him to stop. And I carried that truth as a yardstick against which I measured the world.
Most days at home, Mum’s Scottish blood rose to her freckled face while she brandished the wooden spoon and chased us around the house, our hands clinging to our arses. ‘You shits of kids!’ she’d scream. We were shits of kids. We never helped around the house or tried to make her life easier.
I didn’t consider Mum’s plight until I was older. I was barely six months old the first time Dad left. Mum had rung a helpline and howled at the person on the other end, begging them to explain how she would feed three children under five and keep a roof over our heads; terrified we’d end up on the streets. Mum never asked for much. She was taught by her parents that aspiration was a man’s game. She was taught by her schoolteachers which jobs were suitable for a woman. She was taught by society that motherhood was her purpose. Any potential ambition quelled, she capitulated to social expectations. She did exactly what everyone told her to do, and then, when things went tits up, they all abandoned her.
As far as I knew, Mum never dated after Dad left. She seemed old to me back then, but she was only in her early forties. You could tell Kaye thought looks were very important by the way she dressed, the buckets of money she spent on maintaining her image, her lifelong obsession with Days of our Lives. I remember wishing that Mum would put just a little bit more effort into her appearance. She didn’t look bad but she never prioritised her image the way Kaye did. While Dad drank, Mum relied on food as the buttress to get her through the divorce. She gained some weight and didn’t seem to give it much thought. In hindsight, she was a little preoccupied with the whole keeping-three-kids-alive stuff.
Despite my grievances, I was rooting for Mum and I felt like she was letting the team down. This produced a sadness, with some resentment, that wrenched at my guts. I guess I thought, with my silly little brain, that if Mum had put more effort into the way she looked, maybe Dad wouldn’t have left us.
My family may have been dysfunctional, but when we put in the effort, we worked pretty well as a team. We even had our very own rituals, which we observed with unwavering commitment. Every year on Christmas Eve, Mum, Veronica, Alex and I dressed completely in black and, at midnight, slunk out the back door and piled into the car, Veronica lugging a rusty old saw. The four of us sat mutely, observing the sleepy, streetlight-speckled suburbs where not a creature stirred, the air so still we could hear the crunching of leather gloves whenever Mum changed gears. We drove through the backstreets until we got to a main road, divided by a wide, tree-lined median strip.
‘There’s one!’ we shouted.
Mum slammed on the brakes. She turned to us. ‘Alex, did you remember the whistle?’
Alex nodded and raised his whistle. He had black shoe polish streaked across his cheeks, which I felt was going too far, and, if anything, would make him look more guilty if he got busted. I pinched him on the arm.
‘Fuck off!’ Alex shouted. He punched me in the leg and I elbowed him in the guts.
‘Stop!’ Mum shouted. ‘If we’re going to do this, we need to work together.
I held my arm out, letting Alex give me a retaliatory dead arm.
‘Now, Al,’ Mum continued. ‘Go across the street and stand guard. Cass, you stay near the car. Keep the driver’s seat window open and toot the horn if you see anyone coming. Ron, grab the saw and meet me around the side.’ Mum yanked a black beanie over her head. ‘And,’ she raised a leather-clad index finger, ‘if anyone gets busted, what do we say?’
‘I am alone,’ we chorused.
‘Good.’ Mum nodded. ‘Remember, they don’t send kids to prison … usually.’
Thirty minutes later, covered in cuts and bruises, the four of us crammed into the car again. When we got home, Mum made us hot milk and we huddled in the lounge room, beaming and patting each other on the back as we admired our booty.
All of those other ‘functional’ families may have had peaceful dinners, parental nurturing and caring conversations about life, but the Lane family had, without a doubt, the best fucking Christmas tree in the whole of Mulgrave.
I was a weird kid. As I was destined to be almost six-foot, my limbs were long and knobbly. I hunched my shoulders, as if perpetually under attack from swooping magpies, to make my body appear smaller.
‘If Quasimodo fell in love with a stick insect and they had a baby,’ my brother kindly informed me, ‘it would be you.’
My white hair was so thin that the bowl cut Mum declared ‘the height of fashion’ formed a dandelion halo over an expansive forehead, with no brows to break up the interminable flesh between eyelids and hairline. I was also an imaginative kid. Despite looking like Frankenstein’s monster, I coveted a fairytale romance. I fervently believed in magic and the power of wishes.
When Aiden Sanders, the boy in my class with a Jason Donovan haircut, complimented me on my science project, I channelled all my unquenched desire into him. Every night I lay on my stomach, ogling the school photo of Aiden and swaying to Paul Lekakis, fantasising that Aiden wanted to take me to his room for some boom boom. I assumed this was a type of dance and made a mental note to learn the moves before that fateful day. I eventually cut Aiden’s face out of the class photo and put it in a love-heart locket, which I wore as I danced around the house, singing romantic songs, certain I was brewing a spell that would force Aiden to love me.
I thought that my spell had taken effect when Hilde Taylor, my best friend at school, told Aiden’s friends about my locket and they wrestled him to the steps where I was sitting. The instigator of this impromptu congress, a big, blond boy with a pig-like snout, demanded to know if the rumour was true. I looked at Aiden’s flushed face, at the group of boys smiling in relish, and then at Hilde, who refused to meet my gaze. This, my young brain intuited, was one of those significant moments that could send my fate hurtling in a different direction. Now or never, Cassie. I took a deep breath, puffed my chest and raised my chin. ‘Yes!’ I said.
The boys chuckled. Hilde gasped.
‘Aiden, will you go out with Cassie?’ the blond boy asked.
Aiden looked at me. He then looked at the boys with an expression that reminded me of something I couldn’t quite place. ‘Yuck!’ he cried. ‘No friggin’ way!’ He thrashed to loosen the boys’ grip so he could bolt. The boys laughed until they were holding their stomachs. Now late for class, they shuffled away, still tittering, leaving me alone on the steps, digging my nails into my palm to stop the tears.
The cat, I suddenly remembered as the last few kids rushed to class. That’s what Aiden’s expression had reminded me of. The cat from the Pepé Le Pew cartoons.
Nubia Bassili was an Egyptian girl who took the same route home from school that I did and would occasionally invite me over. She had diabetes, and stole mail from her neighbour because of a battle her parents had had with them over paying to fix a shared broken fence. Nubia would take me to her bedroom and reveal a box from under her bed, filled with terrifying grown-up paperwork, ‘OVERDUE’ and ‘FINAL NOTICE’ aggressively stamped across her neighbour’s stolen mail. Having diabetes and being rich enough to wear brand-name clothing gave Nubia enough street cred for the cool kids to come to her birthday party, to which I was, miraculously, invited. I’m pretty sure social anxiety hadn’t been invented back then (nor child psychologists, for that matter), so I was diagnosed by my fellow classmates as being fucking creepy. ‘This is it, Cassie,’ I whispered, as I walked towards Nubia’s balloon-wreathed front door. ‘This is your big break. Now, just play it cool.’
As the other kids lost themselves in casual conversation, I became bewildered by social nuances and behaved not unlike a short-circuiting robot. It didn’t take long for my company to establish that the Kmart-clad, dandelion-headed, stammering weirdo belonged in a different social sphere from theirs. Standing in the corner of the room, hoping my gangly figure would be mistaken for a floor lamp, I observed the popular girls with increasing envy: the authentic Fido Dido T-shirts and fluorescent scrunchies they wore; the way their hems ended where they were supposed to; the way they wore shoes made for actual girls; the way they laughed and touched each other as if human intimacy weren’t utterly terrifying.
Jacinta Clarke, a redhead with straw-like hair hacked into a spiked-fringe mullet, was just as unpopular as me but was attempting a different social-integration strategy. She became sycophantic, laughing loudly and repeating the punchline to jokes as if she were complicit in their making.
‘Would you rather kiss Mrs Gay or a dog?’ Tanya, the coolest girl at school, asked Tate, one of the cutest boys, during a scandalous game of ‘Would You Rather’.
‘A dog!’ cried Tate.
‘Okay. Would you rather have sex with a dog or …’ Tanya paused and smirked, a mischievous glint in her eyes, ‘Cassie Lane?’
Tate looked at me. I hunched, in an attempt to somehow make my gigantic body collapse in on itself and disappear. ‘A dog!’ Tate screamed. He grimaced, adding, ‘Obviously!’ The room erupted in laughter.
Only one person wasn’t laughing: Tanya’s best friend. She smiled kindly at me and shrugged as if we were just two girls, helplessly playing out the roles that destiny had chosen for us. To this day, in my mind’s eye, she is a distinct, gentle face among a blurry crowd.
I ran into the bathroom but could still hear the laughter, Jacinta’s raucous cackle drowning out the others. ‘Who even invited Cassie Lane?’ she hollered. ‘She is such a loser!’
To be scorned by the elite is one thing. To be used as a stepladder by someone as low in the social hierarchy as yourself is a different, more acute, pain altogether. Being eight, I couldn’t exactly hightail it outta there, so I sat on the toilet and sobbed until Mum came to pick me up.
Like many little girls, I loved fairytales. However, my fixation stayed with me to a disturbingly late age. When you live in a world over which you have little control, a vivid imagination can harness the chaos. I chose to believe that my situation hinged on a huge misunderstanding. One day it would be revealed that I was destined for nobility, a handsome prince and a sparkling taffeta dress. All of the mean kids at my school would turn into goblins and I would transform into someone beautiful and loved. Those goblin children would grovel at my crystal-slippered feet. And I could finally tell them all to go fuck themselves.
When I was nine, I befriended Amanda, a girl with an equal fancy for fairytales who had moved in down the road. We spent every free hour together. We rode through the backstreets on our bikes, singing ballads at the top of our lungs, and then racing away from heroin addicts when we got distracted and accidentally ended up in the druggier suburbs. We would crawl on our elbows through the knee-high grass in my backyard, hunting the guinea pig we’d just let loose, worrying he’d end up in the neighbouring German shepherd’s mouth, like the last one. We burrowed under the mountains of washing in the dining room, waiting for an unsuspecting fool to walk in so we could jump up and scare them. An hour later, bored and hungry, we’d head to the kitchen, where we’d pretend we were TV chefs in a post-apocalyptic world. Our mission: to create a meal from the ingredients in the pantry.
One weekend when I was staying at Dad’s, Amanda joined me for a sleepover. My stepmum Kaye and her friend Janice had greased their bronzed skin in zero-protection Reef tanning oil. They were sunbaking with aluminium foil reflectors, while sucking down Alpines and chardonnay like they were in a race to prove cancer was definitely real. When the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the peroxide blondes with matching Princess-Diana haircuts and blue eye shadow took the party inside. Their chatter grew louder, and a heady blend of burnt skin, buttery chardonnay, coconut oil and cigarette smoke drifted into the house. (If I were to bottle that all-too-familiar fragrance, I would call it Malignant – Poison was already taken.)
When Kaye spotted me, a wave of disappointment rippled across her tipsy face. I don’t think she wished us kids harm per se; she just knew her life would improve if we evaporated into thin air.
Janice sighed when she saw me. ‘Can’t you go upstairs?’ she spat.
I looked at the TV, then back at Janice. ‘There’s no TV upstairs.’
She rolled her eyes at Kaye. ‘Read a book!’ she scoffed.
Kaye watched Janice wide-eyed, but said nothing. So long as she remained tight-lipped, nobody could accuse her of being a terrible stepmother. The next day, she would no doubt chuckle, as she often did, about what an ‘outrageous woman’ that Janice was; as if it was all a bit of a laugh.
‘It’s my favourite show!’ I cried. ‘I’ve been waiting to watch it all week!’
In truth, I was itching for my Kirk Cameron fix but I hadn’t admitted this to myself, let alone anyone outside of my sexually confused brain.
Dad came into the kitchen to get ice from the freezer.
‘Dad? Can I please watch TV?’ I whined.
‘Sure, Casper,’ Dad said before he shuffled off to his and Kaye’s bedroom.
Once his bedroom door was closed, Janice pursed her lips. ‘Go upstairs,’ she snapped.
I glared at Janice and stormed back to the TV room. Amanda and I continued to watch television, the enjoyment of which was tainted by the growing row of empty bottles in my periphery. The hollow echo of a bottle hitting the floor elicited a Pavlovian angst, knowing, by then, that their number was directly correlated to how epically shit would go down. When Growing Pains was over, I turned the TV off and we walked towards the stairs.
‘Cassie, come here,’ Janice slurred.
I edged towards her.
Her bloodshot eyes squinted through me. ‘You should respect your stepmother,’ she snapped. ‘After everything she has sacrificed for you little shits.’
I could hear Amanda whimpering behind me. Suddenly I was overcome with rage. Say what you like about me, but do not upset my best friend.
‘She’s never done a thing for us!’ I shouted.
Janice’s eyes grew wide. ‘You ungrateful little bitch.’
There’s no way Dad wouldn’t have heard the commotion; we were right near the bedroom. I could feel him standing behind me, could sense the fury he would unleash on this harpy abusing his child. I stood, red-faced, fists clenched, waiting. Eventually, I turned around to behold an empty hallway. I looked back at Janice, who suddenly seemed enormous.
‘You are a very ugly child!’ she shouted as we bolted up the stairs.
In my bedroom, I tried to console Amanda. We made a pact: we would never forget what it was like to be a kid and we would never drink alcohol. We spat on our palms and shook hands. ‘Best friends forever,’ we announced simultaneously, followed by, ‘Jinx!’