I had imagined, age five, that an adult was something you suddenly became, probably around the same time you grew that monumental millimetre that made you taller than your parents. After that, you’d no longer be childlike, and you would know exactly what it was you were going to do with your life.

By twelve, I figured adulthood mostly seemed to revolve around the concept of “bills”. I thought, at the time, that it would be a sad day when an envelope sticking out of the letterbox would be something other than a birthday card or a parcel delivery notice.

Now, I was nearly seventeen. It was pretty clear that I was not going to be as tall as Dad, and my mother had died when I was a baby, so I had no idea if I’d reached adulthood by her vertical measurements. I’d complain while paying my mobile phone bill, feeling less like an adult and more like a disgruntled teenager stuck in a limbo of self-doubt and responsibility. I was starting to doubt that adulthood was even a thing. Perhaps adults were just children who no longer believed in magic.

Water ran through my dyed-black hair, slicking the strands down to my shoulders, swirling around my feet and gurgling down the drain. I grimaced at the epic purple bruise on my thigh from Friday’s Phys Ed class – soccer was not my thing, unless stopping my own team’s goals counted as a talent – and tipped my head back, rinsing away the last vestiges of sleep. Someone banged on the bathroom door.

‘Gabby. You’ll be late.’ My uncle Alex. He and Dad worked in national security, which might be really cool – I wouldn’t know, since it was all top secret. I’d spent my childhood shuttling between them as they each went on their undisclosed missions. I was the only reason they talked to each other. Except for similar career choices, they were a study in opposites. Dad was tall and thin and had been bald for as long as I could remember, which he claimed was by choice because he couldn’t stand his untidy hair. Alex was short and muscular and kept his brown-with-grey locks neatly trimmed. Being short and somewhat stocky, I had more of my uncle’s physique, although I definitely wasn’t muscular, or even very fit. I loved Alex, but he was a pedant about punctuality and obsessed with health food, and I was supposed to get a hearty breakfast in before school.

I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the tap. It was hard enough on any day in winter, or any Monday at all, but it was the beginning of July, and we were getting our TISC handbooks for university applications. It was time to make some decisions. Next year I would be eighteen, and apparently well on my way along the path of the rest of my life. I still had no idea which university or course to apply to. None. Well, not sports science.

The warm water flowed around me, unbothered that I didn’t have an answer for The Question: what was I going to do? Or the even harder variant – what did I want to be? God knew. Except I was starting to doubt that God was a thing either.


I grumbled and got out of the shower, goosebumps prickling my skin. I didn’t mind the cold. After all, it was Perth, Australia, which no one would admit was a desert masquerading as a temperate Mediterranean coastline. Perth was lovely for about two weeks in September. Then, for the next six months, it was like living on Mercury.

I dressed quickly, then reached for my makeup case and applied foundation, evening my skin tone with satisfaction. Cecelia, my best friend, said I should be happy in my own skin without cosmetics. I just told her right back that I wore makeup because I liked it. I did. I also liked that I didn’t have to worry about a breakout at that time of the month, or the red blotchy patches on my cheeks when I got angry at someone. I liked having less-visible freckles on my nose and shading my cheeks to look slimmer. And I liked the idea that no one in the world except Dad, Alex and my two best friends had any idea what I looked like without sharp black eyeliner and dark red lipstick. I blotted my lips with a tissue and capped the tube.

‘I’m leaving now!’ Alex called from somewhere near the front door. I tucked a matching lip gloss into my jeans pocket, grabbed my not-quite-school-dress-code jacket, zipped on my favourite heeled, black ankle boots and ran out.


Cecelia’s light blue eyes narrowed as I hurried into first-period English – two minutes after the bell – but she greeted me with a smile. She had her pale blonde hair pulled back in its usual tidy ponytail and a piece of apple skin wedged in her slightly askew front teeth. Obviously she hadn’t skipped a wholesome breakfast in favour of makeup, which she never wore. I’d never seen so much as a single pimple on her. Cecelia Wilson, already taller than both her parents and definitely over the cusp of adult maturity, had been my best friend since pre-primary. On the first day of school, our untidy class of five-year-olds had sat in a circle on the mat for a sing-along, all holding hands – reluctantly, in my case, because on one side was the bossy, tone-deaf teacher aide who kept squeezing my fingers encouraging me to join in, and on the other some snotty boy who’d sneezed on me at recess. Directly opposite me was a long-limbed girl with her flyaway blonde hair in pigtail plaits and her face lit up with exuberant song. She beamed when our gazes met, and I decided then that we would be best friends. Probably the best decision I’d ever made. No doubt about her TISC applications: she intended to become the third Doctor Wilson in the family, like her dad and her older brother, Bryce.

I sank into the chair next to her just as Mrs Johnsen waddled in. I’d read some stupid fashion blog once that said you’re either pear-shaped or apple-shaped, depending on your fat distribution. I had pear hips, for sure. Cecelia was a celery stick. Mrs Johnsen was not tall, but wide and round. She kept her thick hair in a tight bun and wore paisley patterns in varying shades from beige to brown, occasionally venturing into a brownish pink. She had missed the memo about bras being a thing again now that the sixties were over, and her unrestrained bosom swung from side to side with more enthusiasm than her shuffling gait warranted. Dark eyes, framed by heavy glasses, glittered ominously. Mrs Johnsen could almost physically poke you with nothing more than her gaze. I sat up straighter. Slightly.

She cleared her throat. ‘Your mid-year assignments were abysmal. Whatever your plans are for next year, you will need the skills required to write a formal essay. Your next assignment will be an analysis of three poems of your choice, from one of the set texts.’ She squeezed between desks, handing out the papers. Apparently she had tortured anguished souls at university during her postgraduate days, and she never lost an opportunity to tell us how unbelievably hard first-year uni was and how unprepared we all were.

‘There will be a ten per cent per day late penalty. You will reference your answers. I don’t want to read a single opinion unless it’s from the mouth of the poet laureate.’

‘But Miss, I’m not even taking English at uni!’ Todd, a dick from way back, called out. Todd was uber-athletic and the object of most high school crushes. Not mine or Cecelia’s – I’d never actually had a crush on anyone, to Dad’s dismay, and Cecelia wouldn’t look up from her textbooks for long enough to notice a boy or a girl.

Martin, an oily-haired slimeball who’d gained popularity by association, elbowed Todd. ‘Hell, I’m not taking any humanities, let alone this girly subject. Unless there’s a “partying one-oh-one”!’ Another original knobhead.

Mrs Johnsen didn’t reply, except to collect two battered copies of Gwen Harwood’s Selected Poems from her desk and advance down the rows. She placed one in front of each boy and leaned her considerable bulk down towards them. Two wide-eyed faces pulled as far back from the unbridled breast display as they could.

‘Then aren’t you lucky you won’t miss out. You’ – she pointed a finger at Todd – ‘read aloud. “Suburban Sonnet”.’

Martin let a snigger out, a wild sound that threatened to escape and dance around on the tense atmosphere. Mrs Johnsen fixed her glare. She could catch an errant outburst with the bat of an eyelid.

‘And you,’ she said with malicious delight as she turned to Martin, ’will present a speech at the end of the week, enlightening us with your understanding of how a feminist might have felt living in a society of 1950s repression. Make sure you emphasise how girly it was.′

She straightened, looking around the room. Any other stray giggles were quickly leashed. Todd completed his reading in a speedy monotone and the class settled into soft whispers as Mrs Johnsen, barking an order to work on our essay plans, plonked down into her desk chair and stuffed her nose in a hefty book.

I doodled an intricate, pointless pattern of swirls and loops on my notebook and wondered if I would feel better about the world if I had an obvious talent, like sports, singing or drawing. Something resembling a pair of eyes emerged from my scribbles, and I spent the rest of the class attempting to turn it into a cat. I didn’t even like cats. I’d always wanted a dog.

‘Time to go,’ Mrs Johnsen declared from her desk without lifting her eyes from her novel. Cecelia packed up her pens and glanced over at my work, a confused frown crossing her face.

‘What is that?’

I sighed, flipping my notebook shut. Clearly, I had zero talent with a pencil. I shoved my stuff in my bag and followed Cecelia out.


I mused all the way to Human Biology, thinking about how to solve my dilemma and nearly walking into a bunch of Year 8 kids gathered around a tablet in the hallway. My old method for choosing classes – picking a subject at random, changing my mind twenty times before the form was due, then rocking up in deputy principal Mr Cantwell’s office in Week One to change it again – now seemed inappropriate. I took my seat next to Cecelia and realised I’d left my textbook in my locker. Oh well.

‘Did you know,’ began Mr Flancinbaum, a gangly, bearded man who insisted we all call him Sam, ‘that lightning only kills ten per cent of the people it strikes? Ten per cent!’

He beamed around the room, hair sticking up above his ears in enthusiastic tufts. Most of the school called him Flamebeard, thanks to an unfortunate lab experiment involving a Bunsen burner – an incident that had become a cherished and well-embellished story among the students. Flamebeard turned on the projector to show a person with spiderwebs of red tracing over half their body.

‘But you still don’t want to take your chances. A bolt of lightning can be five times hotter than the surface of the sun, and – yes, Michaela?’

Michaela, another aspiring doctor and Cecelia’s main competition for Dux of the school, had raised her hand. Next to the four different coloured highlighters, open textbook and red, blue and black pens laid before her was the course summary. ‘Mr Flancinbaum, is any of this going to be in the exam?’

Flamebeard paused, crestfallen. ‘Well, not specifically, but it is fascinating!’

In almost perfect unison, the class packed away their notebooks and pens. Not deterred, Flamebeard pressed on with his lecture on the effects of lightning strikes while my mind drifted. I couldn’t concentrate on Australian poetry or bio-electrical systems with this career-defining, life-altering decision in my head. I was good at a lot of things, but none of them jumped out. I stared out the window, contemplating what fundamental human purpose I was missing, until the class ended.


‘Where’s Zenna?’ Cecelia asked as we settled onto our usual patch of grass for lunch. Zenna was our other best friend. My other best friend, if I was honest; she and Cecelia were an unlikely match who were only connected through me, but we worked as a trio. The doctor, the artist, and whatever I was supposed to be.

‘I think she has some film project due,’ I replied. Cecelia complained about the English essay as we fished our lunches out of our bags. I commiserated, but I knew that once I dove into the project I wouldn’t mind it. Cecelia was more of a science wizard, which was to say that while everywhere else she got near-perfect marks, in English she managed low-to-mid 90s.

‘So,’ she said, between carrot sticks, ‘which uni are you going for?’

I sighed and bit into a muesli bar, the kind coated with yoghurt and full of chocolate bits. ‘I don’t know, Ceel. I have no idea what I want to do after school, and it’s like if I don’t make that choice now I’m doomed. I’m going to go home with this stupid thing’ – I stabbed a finger at the TISC handbook poking out of my bag – ‘and consume chocolate until I die and the whole problem goes away.’

Cecelia reached into her bag, her fingertips brushing the handbook I could see wedged between her subject files.

‘Please don’t,’ I protested. ‘I don’t want to think about it now.’

She gave me a sly smile and withdrew two blocks of roasted almond milk chocolate. ‘I thought you could come back to my house this afternoon and we could die of chocolate overdose together,’ she offered.

I grinned. ‘Sounds good. But don’t expect me to have any great epiphanies.’

‘You can always just go with UWA. Then we’ll be on the same campus at least. I’m sure you could apply for a transfer if you changed your mind.’

The problem, I thought, was that I never made my mind up in the first place.