By Vikki WakefieldYoung Adult Text Publishing
This Is How We Change the Ending
I have questions I’ve never asked. Worries I’ve never shared. Thoughts that circle and collide and die screaming because they never make it outside my head. Stuff like that, if you let it go – it’s a survival risk.
Sixteen-year-old Nate McKee is doing his best to be invisible. He’s worried about a lot of things – how his dad treats Nance and his twin half-brothers; the hydro crop in his bedroom; his reckless friend, Merrick.
Nate hangs out at the local youth centre and fills his notebooks with things he can’t say. But when some of his pages are stolen, and his words are graffitied at the centre, Nate realises he has allies. He might be able to make a difference, change his life, and claim his future. Or can he?
This is How We Change the Ending is raw and real, funny and heartbreaking – a story about what it takes to fight back when you’re not a hero.
Nate McKee is a survivor. His strongest weapons are his mind, and his love for his stepmum, Nance, and young twin brothers. He lives in the shadow of his alcoholic father, Dec, a menacing figure who exerts an iron-clad control over his family, and revels in a version of masculinity that Nate struggles to accept or emulate. Nate draws deeper into himself to slip under his father’s radar and stay on the fringes of a world that does not have a place for him, drawing comfort from writing in his notebooks, and escaping to the local youth centre.
This is How We Change the Ending portrays characters whose lives exist on the margins, whose reality is defined by poverty, lack of opportunity and class divide. With a strong, intelligent voice that does not shy away from uncomfortable truths about class, society and domestic abuse, it is a skilfully wrought story of systemic inequality and the reality of living within societal structures that offer little in the way of hope. Nate and his friends and family struggle with a nihilism that is oppressive, but not without resistance.
The writing is beautiful and deceptively unvarnished, with a wonderfully-rendered teen protagonist who feels wholly real and layered, and full of heart, grit and humour. This is How We Change the Ending is a powerful book; authentic and at times grim, it follows Nate’s quiet rise out of despair and into a hopeful future.
Dec and Nance are fighting again. I lie awake, listening. It doesn’t upset me as much as it used to – not like when it was Mum and Dec, when I was younger and on my own. Nance can look after herself. With the pillow over my head, their fighting sounds like beatboxing: all hiss and spit.
I toss the pillow aside and lean over the edge of the top bunk. The clock on the table reads nine thirty-six.
Otis and Jake are hard asleep on the bottom bunk, head to toe, curled around each other. My half-brothers, three years and two months old. With the door and window closed, our bedroom reeks of piss and stale breath. Fresh piss or old, I can’t tell. O always stinks like urine or vomit or milk gone sour.
Jake rolls over, talking in his sleep, and Otis moves to fill the space as if they’re two strange sea creatures inside the same shell. Twins. Jake has a bump on his chest and Otis has a dent on his; Nance says they were joined once, but Jake broke away and took a piece of Otis with him.
For fifteen minutes I ignore my aching bladder. They’ll stop fighting if I show my face, but I don’t really want them to stop. Maybe tonight Nance will win.
I throw back my sheet and slide off the bunk. The twins only hear each other – not the fighting, the sirens, the crickets, or the Elvis music coming from Clancy’s next door. Not my feet when they hit the floor.
I push the window up halfway and start peeing through the gap.
There’s a cloud of smoke rising above Nance’s dying hydrangea bush.
‘Jesus, Merrick. Let me finish.’
Obligingly, he looks the other way and takes another drag on his cigarette.
If I had to give a reason for Connor Merrick and me being friends for the last six years, I’d have to say it’s more about proximity than personality. McKee and Merrick, straight after each other on the roll call, except for the times there was another McSomebody. The last picks for team – united by shame – me because I’m lethargic to the point of being comatose, and Merrick because he’s smoked since he was twelve and it’s probably stunted his growth. He lives in the upstairs unit across from ours, but he spends every second week with his mum a couple of suburbs over. He’s a FIFO kid – he flits in and out. FIFO kids have two sets of stuff. I have a FIFO mum. Kids of FIFO mums have less of everything according to the law of diminishing returns.
Merrick always enters and leaves through our window. In the entire six years I’ve known him he has never come to our front door.
‘Can I hang here for a bit?’ he says when I’m finished. ‘Senior’s tossing my room again.’
His old man’s a mean drunk. He throws things around, including Merrick. He usually passes out before midnight, but he’d be hitting his peak about now.
I shrug. ‘Dec and Nance are at it.’
‘You mean…’ He smacks his palms together.
‘Nah. Like, brawling.’
I check the twins: still twitching and dreaming. And I’m not getting to sleep anytime soon.
‘We could kill some time at Youth? Might be some fresh
YouthWorks is the local youth centre, open every night until twelve. Merrick likes going there since he discovered that having a supreme mathematical mind pays massive dividends at the pool table. He looks hopeless with his tiny head and big ears, and sometimes you get meatheads who’ll bet they can take him by slapping a whole pack of smokes on the table. Nobody can beat Merrick. I swear I can see glowing equations swirling above his head when he’s plotting how to pot three colours off the white. Shame he can’t apply the same genius when he’s studying Trig.
Merrick nods. ‘Good call.’
I grab my notebook, slip on my shoes and climb out, leaving the window open just enough for re-entry.
‘Imagine how big your brain might get if you stopped depriving it of oxygen.’
I tuck the notebook inside the waistband of my jeans, at the back.
Make sure my T-shirt covers it. He brushes me off. ‘I gotta slow it down until my head catches up. Or else my skull will crack.’
Plenty of people have tried to crack his skull. Merrick’s brain-smart but street-stupid—he’ll get us both killed someday.
We squeeze between our row of sixteen letterboxes and thirty-two bins, push through the side gate, and head down Whittlesea Road. Three of five street lights are out; the two that work are swarming with bugs. Summer ended a while back, but Bairstal must get the memo late. A few weeks ago, we had six days straight over thirty-five degrees and we all looked like a new species with purple faces and bulging eyes; all we could do was talk less, pant like dogs and sleep under wet sheets.
‘I got sixty-four per cent on my Chem test,’ Merrick says. ‘I’m officially an over-achiever.’
I shake my head. ‘What’d I tell you? What’s the first rule of high school?’
‘Don’t try too hard.’
‘And what’s the second?’
‘Make fun of people who do.’
‘Spoken like a true prodigy,’ I say.
He screws up his nose. ‘Who said that anyway?’
‘Not that. High school rules.’
‘Channing Tatum. 21 Jump Street.’
We’ve been working our way through the second-hand DVD collection at Youth for over four years; we can carry on whole conversations just using movie dialogue. Merrick and I know each other so well, we hardly have anything original left to say.
We stop at the main road between Bairstal and Rowley Park. Two Subarus are nudging each other at the lights. We’ve got time to cross, but if one of them jumps the green we’ll be skids. I throw out my arm to hold Merrick back.
He makes an L sign on his forehead. ‘Give me an Evo any day.’
‘Like you could ever afford an Evo.’
‘I’d tune up a Ralliart. Same motor, only detuned,’ he says.
‘Nah, it’s a whole lot different. Chassis, I reckon. Brakes, too.’
‘Point is it’ll look like a shitbox until they’re eating dust. Now that would be ironic.’
‘No. It really wouldn’t.’ I’ve tried to demonstrate irony about a hundred times and he still doesn’t get it. ‘Anyway, face it. I’ll never get my licence.’
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist