Always the birdhouse. Any place we went, any new town, any new house, whether it had a garden or not, the only thing he would bring without fail was the birdhouse.
I started new every time. With everything. Even memories. When she came home with that look, that wandering look, her mind already in some other place, I just sat by the front door and waited until she started the car.
But Andy, he couldn’t let go of that birdhouse.
One time he also brought Jack, a stuffed bear with one eye that he rescued from the gutter, while mum flirted with the car salesman to get a measly discount on the red bomb that broke down three days later. “Girls have to use their skills,” she had said to me, as if it was the greatest lesson she ever bestowed.
Jack was left in the car, which we left on the side of the road. But Andy brought his birdhouse.
Next time Andy brought the small clock from the kitchen. And his birdhouse.
“What did you bring that for?” she screeched. “It’s not ours!” She was talking about the clock. But it was too late. We were already on the bus and she’d never turn back once we were on our way. “Never look back,” she’d say.
And so he kept the stolen clock with the bent minute hand, so you never could tell precisely what the time was. And the birdhouse.
He gave the clock to a boy over the fence as we walked away from the next place. Andy with his birdhouse under his arm. Me with nothing but the clothes I wore.
Her with the faraway stare.
“Why do you bring that every time?” I asked him. A home with no birds, and us with no home. “We never even have a garden to put it in.”
“Because of Dad.” She would have told him that I guessed, trying to be compassionate but ultimately screwing him up more, as usual. I wasn’t going to be the one who told him that she didn’t even know who his dad was. “Which one of the men do you think is your dad?” was what she had said to me.
Next time he brought a rotting tennis ball from a bush at school. He went three days out of the five that week. A record. He even made a friend, but when he asked to have him over, she rolled her head towards him and stared at him with glazed eyes, mumbling with bourbon soaked breath.
“Not today, Andy. Mum’s not feeling well.” I stepped in between them and shuffled him out of the room. We sat at the kitchen table and he rolled the tennis ball, back and forth, back and forth across the cracked laminate.
We left the next day. Andy with the ball in his pocket, making his too small pants twist and bunch. They showed his ankles. He had no socks on inside his sneakers, and as I walked behind him I saw the skin of his sole where the rubber had worn through.
I wanted to grab him them and run away. To never look back.
But I knew she wouldn’t survive on her own.
I just followed. I followed Andy, who followed her. I stared at the back of his tangled hair, and the stupid, wooden birdhouse he was balancing on his head. He hummed some tune as he went.
We moved three more times, before Andy got sick.
I mean he was sick all the time. I set my breath at night by the rhythm of his congested snores.
But this was different. I knew from the moment I found him, red, blotchy face, sweaty forehead. He just stared past me, stared at his birdhouse on the shelf beyond.
I shouted to her, but she didn’t respond.
I left Andy in bed, and I went to her and I shook her.
I slapped her.
She mumbled and turned away.
By the time I ran to the neighbour and used their phone, it was already too late. By the time the ambulance arrived, it was far too late.
They took mum too.
I should have lied when they asked my age. Because I was 18, they forgot about me. If I had been younger, maybe someone would have taken me too. Maybe someone would have tried to rescue me too. Maybe they would have failed, like they failed Andy. But at least they would have tried.
I’m looking at the birdhouse now. I haven’t left this place since Andy died. After two weeks I knew for sure. She wasn’t coming back for me.
The birdhouse is still sitting on the same shelf. I’m lying in the same bed as Andy did. I get up to eat, to wee, to turn the TV on flick through all the channels and turn it off again. But I always end up back here. Staring at this birdhouse.
Because of Dad, he’d said.
There’s a glint inside it, I never noticed before. I crawl out of the bed and over to the birdhouse. I pull out photographs.
One of a man holding baby boy and a large teddy bear.
One of the same man crouching, with an easy smile, and helping a baby girl hold a tennis racquet.
One of the same man in a shed with woodworking debris all around. A girl and a baby boy clinging to his legs. Behind him several half-finished projects. A chair, a small side table. A clock. A wooden birdhouse.
Lost memories pierce me. Isolated moments of happiness puncturing a childhood of loss, of countless leavings and returnings.
On the back of one, in her scrawl, was ‘Adelaide, 2002′. And in another’s hand, ‘Love, Dad’.
Because of Dad.
I am leaving again. But this time I know where I’m going next.
And I am taking the birdhouse.