Please don’t be dead.
Yet June knows the words in her head are hollow. Insubstantial. He has either done it right this time, or he hasn’t, and she can’t do shit about it if it’s the former. She hates it in here. She and Johnny always joked that the hospital’s waiting room was like depression cramped into airless chemical space. It makes her want to retch. As if she is looking into a glass of curdled milk and knows she has no choice but to gulp the lumps down.
The male triage nurse beckons her to the Perspex window. “Yes?”
June’s voice is calm. Has to be. Besides, this isn’t her first time in the white purgatory.
“I’m here to see John Devereaux. He was brought in about twenty minutes ago.”
The triage nurse types. Looks into the white-blue glow of a screen. She doesn’t miss the reflex; the wince of his eyes.
“Okay. I’ll get someone to take you through,” he says.
June hangs back. Waits. Doesn’t sit. No point—they will come for her soon. Again.
Christ, how did I get back here?
She beats back the urge to sway from side to side. To pretend she is there for some other reason.
What possible other reason could you have, fool?
The minutes pass as the statue of June holds.
Junebug closed her eyes. Sucked in a breath. Exhaled.
A quick nod then Johnny was away, leaping off the king-size bed with the frilly lemon-chiffon valance. A cape sailed behind him—the black-faux-fur throw from the sofa with silver sequins that Junebug had stuck on earlier when their mom was out weeding the garden.
“You’re him, aren’t you? You’re the Goblin King… I want my brother back, please, if it’s all the same,” Junebug said, the nascent actress quaver to her voice on point.
“Yes, it is I, Jareth, the Goblin King,” Johnny announced with emphasis. “Now give me the baby.”
“Johnny! That’s not how the line in the movie goes!”
Junebug sighed with a melodramatic eye roll. Johnny never stayed on script. It was such a boy thing to do.
“So? I’m the King. I can say whatever I want. So give me Koby.”
Junebug put her hands on her hips. “No, you can’t. And the baby’s name in The Labyrinth is TOBY. If you won’t play properly, don’t play at all.”
“Fine. This play sucks anyway.”
Johnny threw off the cape and aimed it so that the throw crumpled just shy of Junebug’s size thirteen silver ballet flats.
But he ignored her and strode out of the bedroom, his feet thumping down the hallway stairs, echoing, and eventually fading out.
Rage burned at the backs of Junebug’s eyes. She hated him at that moment. The whole hour she’d spent pressing the sequins on with Superglue had been for nothing.
“MOM!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “Johnny won’t play with me!”
The white room. That’s where the second nurse takes June.
That’s it then.
She knows for sure now.
“The doctor will be in shortly to speak to you,” the nurse says.
June doesn’t need the rest of this timeline to follow. She already has the postcard stuck on with a magnet to her memory. The one with the sepia image of her mom, Gloria, lying on a metal slab with her eyes closed. The doctor that day broke the news to June, John, and Holden in this very room. June inwardly chuckles at the thought that the box of tissues sitting in the middle of the pine coffee table is the same one.
But today, June is alone in the alabaster-white box. Holden’s off caravanning around Australia with his second wife, Donna. Their last check-in was at Alice Springs.
June’s head fills with red dust. An image flickers—the old man gunning it across the plains as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” blares through Bluetooth. June has always wanted to do that. Cross the Nullabor. Like the actors did in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. She was twelve when she first saw that movie on the TV. She’d had the biggest crush on Guy Pierce and didn’t care that he was playing a drag queen—he was hot.
Junebug plunged into the blue. Seconds of weightlessness. Her small hands skimmed across the flaking paint. It had been a whole summer since she had done this; she’d almost forgotten what it felt like. When she resurfaced, Johnny was standing at the edge of the pool, his palm-tree-board shorts dry as a bone.
“You comin’ in or what?” she shouted, blinking the water out of her eyes.
But he wasn’t looking at her; he was looking at the water beyond her, away from the shallows.
“Johnny, what are you lookin’ at?”
When he didn’t answer, she curled a splash at him.
He flinched. “Don’t, Junebug!”
“Well, are ya comin’ in?”
His gaze darted back to the deep end, to the black lines stripped along both walls.
Junebug groaned and dived back under. She kicked her way along the pool until she saw the wavy dark outlines, then blew bubbles out of her mouth so she could sink enough to sit on the bottom. She felt the pressure in her ears and opened her eyes wider. It was all still blurry, at first, but then her vision cleared. She peered up. Johnny was there, standing at the threshold between water and air. He looked funny. Like he was dancing or something.
Junebug counted. Ten seconds… fifteen seconds… twenty seconds.
Her lungs finally gave out, and she sprung up, forcing her legs back to the surface. Warm sunlight bathed her face as she drank in a gargantuan gulp of air.
Johnny was shouting. “Get out of the water!”
Junebug wiped the chlorine from her eyelashes and looked up at him. “What?”
“Get out of the water!” Johnny shouted again. “Sharks!”
Junebug screamed, thrashing her body towards the ladder. She didn’t stop screaming until their dad, Holden, came tearing out of the house. He flung open the gate to the pool.
“John! June! What the hell is goin’ on out ‘ere?”
Junebug ran to him, cinching her arms around his waist.
“Johnny says there are sharks in the pool. They were gonna eat me, Daddy,” she sobbed.
Holden glared at Johnny. “What’s the matter with you, boy? You know your sister has a phobia of the damn things.”
“They were there, Dad, honest,” Johnny insisted.
But Holden wouldn’t hear a bar of it and scooped up Junebug.
As he carried her inside, Junebug peered back at the pool. The indigo water was motionless, empty, yet Johnny’s eyes were on it again, like he could still see those sharks circling. Getting closer.
The doctor looks around the same age as June. Early to mid-thirties. He is handsome for a ranga with staggering blue eyes. They remind June of Michael Fassbender’s. He starts talking. Irish accent, too. She checks for a wedding ring. None.
That’s messed up—wondering about the marital status of the man who’s about to tell her that her brother is dead.
It finally comes.
Johnny couldn’t be revived... Too much blood loss… They did everything they could.
June nods like she’s listening to a speaker at a seminar. It is just the first wave. False acceptance. Her rational mind fighting to stay, well, rational by tampering the emotion trying to knead its way out.
“Would you like to see him?” Doctor Fassbender asks.
June shakes her head. She won’t stay another goddamn minute.
She blinks into the glare as her heels tap the pavement. Back up the ramp. Towards the intersection. The river of sky beyond the brick buildings and metal towers is cloudless, infinite, azure.
At least one thing has gone right today.
June smiles at her sarcasm and wonders if it is another precursor to losing her shit. She’s not sure what to do. Everything is all scrambled. The same thing happened the day the breast cancer stole Gloria’s last breath. June did everything and nothing.
An epiphany comes. She hasn’t eaten—she was too nervous before the interview this morning at the museum. The Assistant Head of Collections position that she was shortlisted for feels trivial now. Selfish.
He would have climbed into the bathtub while you were answering questions about artifact restoration and field hours, and whether you wanted to focus on Native or White Historical culture.
June inwardly cringes as the abortive onus eats into her guts, insidious in agenda.
Why didn’t you just call me, Johnny?
She heads to a café across the street and waits at the cash register. The atmosphere inhales and exhales, indifferent in a steady humdrum. Two men talking at a nearby table drift into her eyeline.
“Yeah, sure, we endure,” one of them is saying. “We construct our lives, try to accomplish our dreams, stay relevant, build a legacy, be as memorable as we can. Strive for that ‘greatness’ that every damn one of us craves. We look to a ‘brighter’ future. But that’s where the flaw lies in our thinking. Because we’re all gonna die. Our kids will die, their kids will die, and their kids will die, etcetera. One day, there will be one big tectonic shift. The oceans will rise, the mountains will fall, and humanity will collapse. Then, the ten percent of our species left has the death of the sun to look forward to. And with that combustion comes the final ‘lights out’ for Earth. So, you gotta ask yourself, man…” He gestures to the greater café. “Is there a point to any of this?”
June turns back to the counter. She focuses on the cakes in the display fridge as the men keep on with their philosophical rant. There is a full pecan pie sitting on one shelf. She hasn’t had pecan pie since…
Shit. College—when she and her ex would go to the corner store and buy one when they were procrastinating instead of studying.
“Hi there,” the barista chirps.
It is a chirp all right. High-pitched in execution. Like a little robin singing out its mirth to the glorious day.
June wants to smack the smile right off the girl’s face.
“I’ll have the pecan pie. Takeaway,” June says.
The girl goes to cut a slice.
June’s voice has a cleft: “No, the whole thing.”
Junebug coughed. Half-choked. She had always hated both the taste and smell. She passed the joint to Johnny, but he shook his head.
She frowned. “Since when?”
Their friends laughed on the other deck chairs; Johnny’s turning down of Mary Jane was a fucking anomaly.
For the rest of the night, the double-story log cabin on the island was a glowing bauble poised in wallowing darkness.
“Mom and Dad should buy one,” Junebug called out to Johnny.
He was on the window seat across the way, looking out into the pitch-black.
His head snapped around. “What?”
“A cabin. I said Mom and Dad should get one. We could have our 21st party there. It’d be so cool.”
But Johnny just shrugged like the idea was pointless.
Junebug took a swig of her vodka. “What’s crawled up your arse tonight?”
“That damn dog,” Johnny muttered.
“The one out there between the rocks. Can’t you hear it barking?”
Junebug walked over to the window. Listened.
“I don’t hear anything,” she said.
Johnny’s leg started to shake like he needed to take a leak or something.
“It’s there,” he told her. “It’s always fucking there.”
June goes home to her quiet little brick house. She throws the car keys on the hallstand.
Walks into the kitchen. Plonks the patisserie box on the marble countertop.
Death. The concept of it fluctuates in and out of her. She recalls her experiences with the scythe:
The neighbor who died of a heart attack in his car when he pulled into the gas station across the road.
Annie Rogers, her grade twelve school peer who died of leukemia;
Ladybird, her eight-year-old-Siamese-tortoiseshell cat that she lifted out of the gutter on the highway;
Her pop’s death rattles on his bed in the retirement home;
Her Aunt Celine who set herself on fire in a mental institution;
Her miscarriage at the gym when she hadn’t even known the condom broke; and
Oh, and now Johnny. A new addition to the list.
That’s right, Johnny. You’re on the fucking list.
June flips up the lid of the cake box and palms the plastic fork wrapped in the bleach-white napkin sitting on top. She digs into the pecan pie using the fork as a shovel. She has a mouthful. Another. Then another. In less than twenty seconds, a quarter of the pie is gone. She wants to retch again. A graceful brush of her hand propels the pie away. She looks over at the dining room table where her silver MacBook Pro sits, waiting.
She logs onto Facebook. Why? She doesn’t know. It is a bad idea because the green Active Now light is next to his name. He’s there, on the other side of the world—“Mr. Ph.D. in Classics” at Edinburgh University. June knew he was always going to leave their small town. He was too intelligent not to. They had parted ways like teenagers—him being a dick because, again, she wouldn’t give him a chance to move beyond the “friend zone,” and her ignoring his missed calls even though she knew the consequences of not saying goodbye.
You should have picked up.
The itch to message him is there.
Active 2 mins ago.
The temptation screams in her face. He is a proud guy, or man now, rather. He wouldn’t have kept her on Facebook if some part of him didn’t still care. That’s the danger of keeping old almost-lovers in your online world. The wound never gets a chance to heal fully; it just keeps reopening every time you see that damn green light.
Gatsby believed in the green light…
Is this her “Gatsby moment”? Is she Daisy? But an alternative version. A bolder doppelganger.
Yes, wouldn’t that be something...
If she didn’t choose Tom. If she chose to stay lost in the past. Stay wrapped in those shirts of silk, flannel, Indian cotton and linen that Gatsby kept throwing down at her, as the octave scale of Lana Del Rey provided their soundtrack.
“When you and I were forever wild…”
“Jay, stop it!” she would shriek and laugh before she faltered and wept and fell against him.
And he whispered, “If it wasn’t for the mist, we could see the green light.”
No, Fitzgerald would hate that. Hate them being rewritten. Hate a happy ending.
It would ruin everything; the bittersweet tragedy of it all that makes the book the book.
June types: ‘I know it’s been years… but Johnny died today.’
She hits send.
A pregnant pause hovers in the virtual air as her mind backtracks.
His Facebook profile pops up in the middle of the screen.
Incoming video chat from Hugh Conway.
She lets it ring out. She can’t do this. She can’t open that door again.
Hugh tries again, but this time, June declines on the first ring.
Junebug’s knuckles came down too hard on the splintered wooden front door, and she felt the skin get nicked. Johnny wasn’t home again. Fortunately, she had her Swiss Army knife with her. Had banked on him being a no-show. All it took was two shimmies, and the bolt clicked.
She almost tripped on the slab of Coke cans and packets of Salt and Vinegar potato chips that sat just off to the left of the doorway.
Typical Johnny—the place was a pigsty.
She almost didn’t notice them at first—she was too hell-bent on finding the Blu-ray he’d borrowed, 2001: A Space Odyssey—but then they all came firing into view. She took a step back. The wall in front of her was plastered with pastel-blue dots.
She peeled some off. Studied the holes underneath that went straight through to the sideboard. More hunting through the apartment turned up sheets of white paper with barely legible scribblings:
I saw them across the street… A car was beeping… The neighbors are in on it… Can’t trust Dad and Donna… The cameras are in the walls.
Jesus Christ, Johnny.
June flinches as the kitchen countertop buzzes behind her. Her phone. Holden.
“Junebug. It’s Dad. I just spoke to the hospital. My phone wasn’t in bloody range. Are you still there? Have you seen him?”
June swallows an imaginary lump in her throat. Junebug—he hasn’t called her that in years. He sounds like her daddy again. The one who used to play guitar all day and night and sing with their mom in the small cabin he built next to their house.
“We got married in a fever…”
When they were teenagers, John and June had been embarrassed by their namesakes; their parents’ obsession with Johnny Cash and June Carter. Originally, Gloria carried triplets. Another boy. Johnny used to tease June about her eating their little brother in the womb because when they pulled her out, she was double the size of Johnny. A five-kilo tub of baby lard.
“Piss off. If anyone ate him, it was you,” June always threw back at him.
They would make light of it for a little while, harmless banter of dark matter, but then the wit would die out.
“What do ya reckon Mom and Dad would’ve called him?” Johnny would ask.
And June would smile.
“Jackson,” they’d say and giggle.
“No, Dad. I’m at home now,” June tells Holden.
A long pause comes. Ebbs.
They talk about the funeral. In her head, June knows it is wrong—too soon, too morbid. Johnny’s body is still warm on a slab back at the hospital. But it’s like there is nothing else to say. So she tells her dad no church song bullshit—Johnny would hate that. She tries to remember what music he likes—No, liked—but all she can remember is him once saying that he liked the song “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground. It is hardly appropriate, but she mentions it to Holden anyway.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, and although it is what she expected from him, she takes it like a sucker punch.
“Like how ridiculous you were about Mom’s funeral? You didn’t choose one song by Johnny Cash.” June can’t help the spite laced in her voice because they both know he deserves it.
Holden goes silent, and June knows it is the guilt talking. After Gloria died, he became a different person. Another fucking cliché. Reinvented into a stranger.
“I gotta go, Dad.”
She hangs up.
It was dark inside Junebug. Until the hammering stole away the sleep. She almost fell twice getting up the stairs. It was like her limbs were on drunk autopilot. Beyond the stained glass was a shadow etched in half moonlight.
Junebug barely recognized her voice when she called out, “Who is it?”
“J-junebug,” came the reply, the timbre of it strained. “Oh, Junebug, I didn’t know what else to do.”
Junebug found her legs and made it to the door. On the other side, Johnny was pale, like a ghost. She half-believed he wasn’t really there.
“I’m s-sorry.” He was weeping.
“Quick, come inside. It’s freezing out.”
It was only when they were in the kitchen that Junebug saw the trail of crimson dots Johnny left behind.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said, and Junebug’s eyes shot straight to his wrists.
The next few minutes blurred. As the towel struggled to bind the gashes on both arms. And feet slipped on slick linoleum. And the phone kept sliding away from Junebug’s ear as she spoke to the emergency dispatcher on the other end of the line. And Johnny groaned because the adrenaline was wearing off. He had gone and done it textbook style—near-straight vertical incisions that were cavernous.
Christ. Junebug had never seen so much blood.
“Why on earth did you do this to yourself?”
Johnny stared at her. “I told you; I didn’t know what else to do.”
Junebug thought of the sharks in the pool, the black dog beyond the rocks, and the Blu Tack on the walls. The pieces of a jigsaw fitted together; a tangram she had been trying to decipher her whole life.
June drives and doesn’t stop until she gets to the old dirt road. Around her, a canvased landscape has been rolled out. Nothing but open paddocks peppered with regimented pines and long yellowing grass. The coast is the crux of the moving watercolor. Etched like a map with the sash of a Hooker’s green island on a cobalt ocean. Distant pale lilac hills merge with sky as the waning sun washes them in a shade of red wine.
June jumps a wire fence. Treks up a gully. Over two ridges to the old settlers’ weather station that she and Johnny used to trespass on every other weekend. The ruins of brick and mortar are weathered. Unchanged.
She sits down and imagines Johnny beside her. They talk about everything and nothing.
Then, he is gone, and June swats away a tear before it seeps into her skin.
Her gaze wanders down to the red ingots. To the thumbprints stamped into the sides. Peeking out from the corner of one is a white tip. She touches it and pulls. It’s a piece of paper.
“What’s said is said,” someone has written.
The laugh escapes before she can stop it. The Goblin King’s line. For once, Johnny stuck to the script.
You bastard, Johnny.
The tears finally come like the tide.
And another reprieve—a buzzing from the pocket of her pantsuit. Hugh’s calling via video chat again.
She hesitates. Goes to hit decline. Backpedals. Thumb hovering.
His worried, nerdy, beautiful face is like the dawn as a light wind cuffs her cheeks.
June takes a breath.
“Hey you,” she says.
That night, June dreams. She and John are in the labyrinth. Only he’s not Jareth, and she’s not Sarah. They are just Johnny and Junebug. The Goblin King is now a black dog with Adult Johnny’s body. He has taken their baby brother Jackson to the Goblin City.
Together, Johnny and Junebug are quite firm when they tell Monique the worm that he is mischievous for trying to get them to “come in and meet the Mrs. and have a cup of tea.” Then they boldly stride through the enchanted brick wall and solve the riddles of the labyrinth, navigating its countless dead-ends, until they finally make it to the chamber where the Goblin King has Jackson.
The maze is now in fragments. Broken off sections float in ethereal cloud. Below, on a ledge suspended in air, the black dog man grins with Jackson in his arms. Johnny and Junebug don’t hesitate; they hold hands and jump. The siblings free-fall, undaunted as they cut the air. When they reach the bottom, their feet touch down feather-light on a smooth gray surface. Ear-tingling applause sounds. Around them, a royal court stands and claps and cheers. Junebug has never seen such a spectacle.
“Well done, kids,” Holden says.
He is sitting high up on a red throne. Gloria is on a matching one beside him with Baby Jackson on her lap.
“You solved the labyrinth. Welcome home,” she says.
Junebug smiles as a blanket of warmth veils over her.
“Everything is going to be all right, Junebug,” Johnny says and pulls her to him, squeezing her tight.
Too soon, she feels his grip weaken. The golden light dims. The warmth subsides.
“I don’t want to go, Johnny.” There is a cleft in Junebug’s voice again.
“I know, but...”
They break apart. He keeps his eyes on hers. Their palms join, fingers linked.
“… It’s time.”
Junebug closes her eyes, the applause resounding until it, too, like Johnny’s hands, lets go.