They’ve been in the car for seven hours. Seven hours. Danny’s close to cracking, but it’s nothing compared to what’s about to happen…
‘Are we there yet?’
‘Danny, does it look like we’re there yet?’
‘It looks boring.’
‘I know it does, sweetie, but it won’t once we’re there.’
Mum’s been saying that for the last three hours. I don’t believe her. We’ve been driving through mist and rain for the last two of them and there’s nothing out there but grass and hills and boring stuff. Apparently, this is real living. That’s what Dad said when we left.
‘We’re going up north, to the lakes. No wifi, no TV. Real living.’
He didn’t mention the seven hour car journey. Seven hours with nothing to do. Seven hours next to Mandy. At least she brought her phone with her. She’s still finding time to scowl at me now and then, although, it would be weird if she wasn’t. How can a sister be so mean? I thought big sisters were supposed to look after you. All mine does is swear at me and poke me when she thinks mum isn’t looking.
The rain is like this mist that can’t make up its mind whether to fall or not. So instead it just sits in the air. I crack the window and stick my hand out. It’s like putting it in the fridge, so I yank it back again.
‘Danny, don’t be a dick, close the window.’
‘Mandy, mind your language. Daniel, she’s right, please close the window.’
Mum’s a teacher. It’s not all bad, she gets to pinch stuff from the art department so I never run out of paint. But at times like this, when she’s all rational and calm, it makes me want to break things.
I close the window. Just then a sign floats past the car. It’s probably attached to the ground somehow, but all I see is a massive white square with red around the outside.
‘What was that, Dad?’
‘What was what?’
‘Sorry, love, I didn’t see any signs.’ He mutters the next bit to mum, like we can’t hear all the way in the back. ‘It’s enough to keep the bloody thing on the road. Will it be this bad once we reach the coast?’
Dad’s been talking this up for weeks, but it was mum’s idea. I experience a brief moment of clarity as I realise that maybe Dad isn’t looking forward to it all that much, either.
We pass another sign. This one’s more red than white, but I still don’t catch what’s written there. Mandy’s got her headphones in, but she makes time to stick her middle finger up at me. Apparently, the gesture comes from when archers used to be captured and have their fingers chopped off so they couldn’t draw their bows anymore. I bet Mandy doesn’t know that.
A gap appears in the fog and I groan. The trees are gone and all that remains on either side of us is patchy grass as far as the eye can see. It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve been learning maths for five years so I’ve got plenty to compare it to.
We drive. I yawn.
‘Are we there ye—’
The klaxon sounds so loud I think someone’s replaced my hair with an air raid siren and I can’t help screaming. I’m not the only one. Mum claps her hands over her ears. Dad does the same. Luckily, he puts his foot on the brake at the same time and the car slews across the road. With the mist so thick either side of us, I imagine cliffs have suddenly appeared and we’re now skidding towards one.
I grab the back of mum’s seat and hold my breath.
The car stops sideways across both carriageways, inches from the drop. The mist fades for a moment and I see the grass. There is no drop, only boredom.
The klaxon cuts off and a voice replaces it.
‘Nuclear testing will take place in 30 seconds. Should any staff still be on site, please take shelter in bunker 7B.’
‘What?’ Dad shouts.
‘I don’t know. What was that? Are they joking? God, Terry, what’s happening?’
‘I don’t bloody know. Where are we?’
Mum frantically stabs at her phone. ‘I don’t know, I’ve got no signal.’
‘Fine bloody time to have no signal, I told you we should have got a sat nav.’
‘Where’s the map, I though you brought a map.’
‘I did, but I haven’t looked at it in hours, I’ve not a clue where we are.’
I sit and listen with my toes curling in my shoes. Mandy’s finally emerged from the haze of whatever she was listening to. Her eyes are super wide when she looks at me and when she grabs my hand, I don’t yank mine away. ‘What’s going on?’ she mouths at me.
‘Dunno. Nuclear testing.’
‘The voice said nuclear testing.’
‘OMG. Oh god.’ Her voice gets louder. ‘Dad, what does it mean?’
‘It’s okay now kids, don’t worry, I’m sure this is all just a mistake, there’s nothing to worry about.’ Mum says.
‘I didn’t ask you, I asked dad. What’s going on?’
‘Listen to your mother, I’m sure everything’s fine, w—’
‘Nuclear testing will begin in 20 seconds. Countdown beginning now.
‘Look, kids, Mum, there’s something I need to tell you.’ Dad turns round in his seat so he can see us and mum at the same time. He rubs his face and looks about ten years older. ‘I’ve been sleeping with Sandra next door. It doesn’t mean I love you any less but—’
He’s cut off by mum hitting him across the face. He slams back in his seat and clasps his hand to his cheek. For some reason, the news of his cheating scares me less than seeing mum hit him.
‘How could you? How could you?’ Mum’s going to cry. I pull my knees up to my chest and hug them. Mandy’s still got my hand and, although I want to hold onto my knees, I keep hold as she squeezes harder. Mum’s just staring at dad, like she wants to kill him. Silence.
‘17, 16, 15.’
She takes a deep breath. ‘Fine. I didn’t really start teaching. I’ve spent the last five years in coffee shops. I’m writing a novel.’
‘I’m writing a novel.’
‘For five years?’
‘It’s a tough one.’
‘But where’s the money coming from?’
‘And the art supplies?’ My voice sounds shaky and not like me and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. Like art supplies matter when she’s been lying to us. And she’s not answering Dad’s question. She’s just looking at her feet.
‘12, 11, 10.’
‘I let Andy Weatherall touch my boobs.’ Mandy blurts out.
‘WHAT?’ Mum and Dad ask at the same time. I try to sink into my seat. I don’t like Andy. He’s big and mean and looks at my sister like the men in those movies I saw on dad’s computer.
‘And I cheated on the maths test. Me and Celia found the answer book in Miss Wheeler’s draw.’
‘You let him touch you?’ This is mum again. ‘Mandy, you are 14 years old, what did you think you were doing?’
‘I wanted to.’
‘So what? You’ve been lying about your job and everything so why are you so mad at me?’
‘You’re only 1—’
‘ENOUGH!’ I’ve never heard dad shout. I’m sure he has, but I don’t remember it. ‘It doesn’t matter now.’
‘7, 6, 5.’
I feel like I should say something. I haven’t said my big secret. I wince. ‘Um, I peed in the shower.’ They all turn to look at me and I can feel the heat of their stares. They hate me. They think I’m disgusting. They should.
Mandy bursts out laughing and is joined seconds later by mum and dad. Dad leans through to the back and pats my knee. ‘I love you all.’ He says.
‘But you love Sandra more, right?’ Mum snaps.
‘3, 2, 1.’
We wait, breaths caught in our throat. The mist creeps in from outside, silent and foreboding. The klaxon goes again, making me jump. If I hadn’t had a wee at the last services, I’d have wet myself.
‘Testing aborted due to failed launch. Testing will occur at a later date.’
I’m still holding my breath. I want to laugh, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I want to laugh so badly. I stare at a point above Dad’s head and blink. There’s something above his sun shield. I tap Mandy on the shoulder and point at it.
‘Is that a camera?’