Becca didn’t drop Malcolm back at his place until four a.m. She yelled a hearty, “Good night,” so all seemed well.

But apparently it wasn’t. For the next week he kept thinking they might run into each other, but no. He went over everything he said or did, but couldn’t figure out what went wrong. It wasn’t like they had done anything big; he hadn’t even put his hand up her shirt, although he’d wanted to.

The loneliness was worse than before he’d met her. He did setworks, took trips to the library – which was only a doublewide trailer – and played the piano in The Hall. But it was as if he was in a spooky movie. All the kids he’d met at the river had turned into trees; no-one around. They couldn’t all be working on those farmer’s ranches, could they? Maybe the town had eaten its young, and only he remained.

It was clear that the town’s elders were making an effort to draw him in close. The other day he’d popped into The Hall to find a group of old ladies in vibrantly coloured leotards doing weird manoeuvres on mats. He’d hastily backed out, despite their protests to, “Come on in!”

Today he stayed at home with a book. A terrible idea, since being at the house was the worst. Althea had tried to make the attic comfortable, complete with a brand new duvet. It was clean and neat, without any signs of the frills and crystals that permeated the rest of the house. But the attic was eerie. He glanced at the rafters. How would he get out of here alive if there was ever a fire? He got goose bumps at the thought. The wooden house replied, creaking and cracking as if begging to be put out of its misery.

He set the book aside and crept down the attic ladder for a glass of water. But Althea met him at the foot, her arms full of books. “The power to be happy resides in ourselves, Malcolm.”

He paused with his foot hovering over the bottom rung. His mother made him swear he wouldn’t be rude to their host. No polite response came to mind. He blinked.

Althea gave him a serious look. “Kid, think about it.”

He clung to the ladder, watching as she drifted out of the house, her colourful clothing billowing around her plump frame. Half a minute passed, before his foot touched the floor. He realised he’d been holding his breath.

She wasn’t scary, exactly. More like a force, that blasted innocent bystanders. She was a constant mass of motion – her hair, streaked with grey, seemed to be chasing after her, while her mouth never stopped, mumbling about yoga, potlucks or some crazy advice. Yet, the house was always spotless. Not for the first time, Malcolm wondered if she slept.

He filled his water glass, then wandered over to his mother’s door. He knocked softly. No answer. Gently he tried the knob, locked. He gave up and took himself back upstairs. The house moaned.

This had become the norm whenever his mother was home. She only emerged from her locked room for cups of green tea or the toilet. He swore she was shrinking; and there had never been much of her to begin with. The only brightness about her were the colourful scarves she wore like an Alice band, holding back her chin-length sandy blond waves.

A few days ago he’d caught her staring at the crystal hanging in the kitchen window. Her green eyes had been captivated by the little rainbows scattered across the pale green curtains and the wooden countertop.


“Oh, hi.”

In the moment, something shifted between them, leaving him feeling protective and responsible for her. The dazed look in her too-bright eyes, the scarf askew, her tiny shoulders all seemed to be crying out to him: ‘Fix me!’ Anger had built up in his gut. His father had just let them go. Why didn’t he come here? Why wasn’t he trying? Could he not stop working for five minutes and come check on his wife?

She had reached out and traced his cheek. “You’re so tall,” she had murmured in an awed tone that frightened him.

The wooden house should be able to tell him. The sighs the timber breathed out, the grumbling, the woe it released during the night, should be able to whisper whatever it was that was going on in his mother’s room. Back on his bed, eyes locked on the rafters, he ran through the possibilities.

Maybe she was on some weird prescription drugs? Plenty of his friends’ mothers back home were on pills. But she never seemed the type. It was eerie, her looking like she was not-quite-here. But what could he do? She refused to open the door. She’d never explained. He kept waiting. He was there. But it wasn’t like he was an adult and could make her listen, make her see that something wasn’t right.

He opened his book. The black ink blurred into the pale yellow brown pages. He wondered if his mother was reading too.

She kept a stack of books on her bedside table, which boasted lame titles like The Power of Positive Thinking and Finding the Inner You. He often paged through them while using her computer (It took ages to load a site because they were in no-where-ville). So he flipped through her books, and they were moronic. He had wanted to ask, “Do you really believe this rubbish?” But there had never been a good time. Never a moment with the door unlocked and when Althea wasn’t lurking near by. Althea would defend the books. Althea probably recommended them.

Maybe he should have peeked into that journal of hers. He hadn’t. It hadn’t seemed right. Nor was he sure he wanted to read whatever he found in there. But it could have given him a clue to what was going on.

Malcolm grabbed his pillow, slammed it over his face and screamed. A tree branch brushed the house.


Tell us what you think: Are self-help books ‘moronic’ as Malcolm says, or helpful to troubled people?