Pause by Carly Nugent
Carly Nugent is an Australian short story author and novelist. Carly’s short fiction has featured in numerous print and online publications, including The Bellevue Literary Review and the sixth edition of Award Winning Australian Writing (Melbourne Books). Carly currently lives in Phnom Penh, where she coordinates a bi-weekly writing workshop.
She had told Aunt Susan she had a summer book report to finish. But the truth was the assignment was already typed and sitting in her school bag. Mae had been at the table for half an hour, holding the novel in front of her like a shield, like a last line of defence between her and what lay in the kitchen.
She was fifteen, and could count the things she had killed on one hand. A cockroach in fourth grade because she wanted to prove to Tom Kelly that she wasn’t scared; a snail one morning on the footpath after a night of heavy rain; and a bee, though it had really killed itself when it stung her by the rosebush at Nana’s house last spring. And now here she was, a week before her sixteenth birthday, about to slit a chicken’s throat.
‘If you’re going to be here all summer you’re going to learn,’ Aunt Susan had said, pulling a knife from the block. It was the largest knife Mae had ever seen. It glinted up at her like a wicked white-toothed smile.
‘Finish your homework. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re done.’
Mae had sat in the dining room with the book open, reading nothing, listening to the sounds her aunt made. First the backdoor slammed, and Mae pictured Aunt Susan walking out onto the farm. Her boots would be sinking a little in the mud. Mae imagined her entering the chicken coop, the birds scattering at first, then coming back expecting food. Aunt Susan would pluck one from the bunch – the brown and white one; the one Mae thought looked like marble chocolate. She heard the back door open and close again. A cluck. Mae pictured it in the kitchen, in a basket on the bench. For almost half an hour Mae imagined it sitting there – silently – staring out the window at the early dark. She imagined her aunt peeling potatoes, letting the still-dirty skins drop onto the floor like worms. They fell in slow motion.
Mae wished she could freeze time right here. Even if it meant she would never turn eighteen, never drive a car, never sleep with someone. Even if it meant she would spend the rest of her life at this table, with this book. The moment in the kitchen stood before her like a roadblock, like a hurdle she would have to jump over if she wanted to keep running this race. It seemed easier just to stop running.
When Mae finally walked into the kitchen things didn’t look at all the way she had imagined. Her aunt was rolling pastry on the counter, her entire body moving. There was no mud on her boots. Light was still filtering through the back window; it played across her face and she was beautiful. And the chicken – orange and black – was fluttering in the basket. It was pecking at things, clucking like it knew. Mae was surprised, staring at the chicken’s bobbing head, to see things moving at such a normal speed.
‘Alright,’ Aunt Susan said. The knife was in Mae’s hand. ‘You’ve seen me do this a dozen times. Off you go.’
There was a blue bucket on the floor. Aunt Susan lifted the chicken by its legs and held it upside down. Then finally, like she was hitting the play button on a remote control, Mae leaned forward to cut the bird’s throat.