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Concrete Boots by Dimity Powell
First Prize - Charlotte Duncan Award 2016

If I hear the words 'Don't do that!' one more time, I am going to explode, just like the gigantic blister on my left toe just did. I can feel the sticky juice oozing between my toes. I try not to wriggle them because when the raw parts rub, the pain burns. But I suck it up, the pain, not the blister juice because I'm determined to win.

Mum and I have been scrapping for days now but this is one fight she is not going to win. We seem to be disagreeing on everything since Josie left. I don't eat fast enough, I don't brush my hair the right way, I don't walk in straight lines and I don't ever seem to have the right shoes on. Well, she's wrong about that last one because I hardly even wear shoes. It sends her nuts when I sprint around all day bare footed but I love going au naturel. How else could I grip the steel of a lamppost as I shimmy up it or feel the rugged bark of a fallen log as I dash across it with shoes on. Shoes drag me down. They make life too slow and careful. I can't feel the heartbeat of the earth with shoes on. Which is why it's a pain going to school every day because I have no choice. I wish we lived somewhere warmer, like India, so I wouldn't have to wear shoes to school at all.

When I was a little girl, Mum said I would get worms if I didn't' wear shoes. Or splinters or severed by glass or bitten by ants. Luckily, I didn't spend much time in bull ant infested forests or around pubs where there might be broken bottles as a toddler, although I did get a large safety pin stuck in my heel once as I walked home from school. (I'd taken my sandals off, naturally). What sort of a person leaves a big nappy-sized safety pin lying in the middle of the footpath anyway? At the time, Mum just gave me one of her I-told-you-this-would-happen looks before yanking it out. I didn't even cry.

And I'm not going to now, no matter how many blisters I get or how many pop and leave pus all over the place because I'm proving-a-point. My point proving started about a week ago. Mum said if I didn't wear appropriate footwear, it would be disrespectful and I wouldn't be allowed to go to the funeral. I told her I didn't care, but I really did. We squabbled about it until we both got tired of arguing. Then I found the perfect pair of shoes to wear, only Mum didn't think so and started getting all crazy again. Apparently, fluorescent pink jelly sandals with cross over diamante straps, self-illuminating heels, bubble eyes and ladybug antennas would be just as disrespectful to wear as wearing no shoes at all. They do look a bit silly and squeak as if I'm crushing mice whenever I walk, but I kind of like them and wearing them does prove my point about not wearing shoes.

She hated them and demanded I take them off. So, naturally, I didn't and I still won't. I wear them everywhere: in the shower; to bed; even to school, which earned me two uniform infringements, but I don't care because I'm going to win. Trouble is, being plastic and stiff and a size too small, they're causing a lot of skin shear, which is causing a lot of blisters. You'd think my feet would be tough as cement from being shoeless all these years but they have met their match with these sandals. The pain is excruciating.

By the morning of the funeral, I have fourteen swollen sacks of pus on both feet. Five have burst and formed new blisters. Three more popped in the car on the way to the cemetery. The skin between my toes and on the back of my heels is so red and raw it looks like my feet have been dipped in blood. I struggle out of the car and limp painfully after Mum until we reach the muddy gravesite. People cluster around it under dripping umbrellas. Someone holds one above Mum as she hides her face in a hanky. I can't tell if her cheeks are wet from crying or from the cold rain. She hasn't spoken a word to me in days. I wonder if this means I've won.

Josie's coffin looks ridiculously small, no bigger than a shoebox as it is lowered into the huge gaping wet hole in the ground. I shiver and realise that I can't feel the pain in my feet anymore. They are covered in cold wet mud.

Mum urges me to come closer and say goodbye to my baby sister. I try to but it feels like I'm wearing concrete boots. I'm stuck in the mud. She glares at me. I heave harder and when my foot finally flies free with a loud suck, the sandals scrape my blistered skin sending shock waves of agony up my legs, through my stomach, around my brain and right down to my fingertips. I shriek, stumble, and collapse into the mud.

I stay like that for a moment in the rain. No one says a word or makes a move. Then, I rip off the jelly sandals and hurl them towards the grave. They disappear into the gaping dark hole with a soft thud. Mum swings around to face me with eyes as round as jelly-sandal bubble-eyes. I shrink deeper into the mud and feel fat warm tears roll down my cheeks as she takes a step towards me. This is it. I've taken 'don't' too far this time and am probably going to end up in there next to my sister any minute now.

She stops in front of me, leans down, and ...

... laughs, a deep hearty motherly laugh not a scary Wicked Witch of the West laugh. 'Why on earth did you do that?' she asks in between chuckles.

I blink away the tears and the rain and confusion. 'They were too small for me,' is the best I can do.

'I see. Well, perhaps Josie can use them to get to wherever she's going to now,' she smiles and reaches out a hand. 'You know, a nice warm Dettol bath will sort those blisters out.'

I take Mum's hand. It's warm and dry. Together we walk back to the car leaving our concrete boots behind in the rain.

Copyright © 2016 Dimity Powell.