From the author: He understood then, understood everything, and he crouched and waited for the first to come through; these people from his past, the dead and the living...
He drove from Melbourne almost on autopilot, winding through the familiar country roads between Gordon and Mt Egerton and arriving at the old house before even realising he’d been heading there.
The tiny shack still stood halfway up the slope of the mountain. Abandoned long ago, its yellowing weatherboards looked sickly against the surrounding grass, the few windows broken and gaping. He left his car by the road and slowly walked towards his old home, staring up at the unfinished wooden veranda looming above. His stepfather Graeme had once thrown his mother over the railing, punching her hard enough in the mouth to send her tumbling into the dirt, and he had crept out later to find her folded-up in the darkness, the side of her head caked with mud and blood that he tried futilely wiping away with his pyjama top as he helped her inside.
The back door hung only by one hinge and as he hefted it aside a warm rotting smell hit him. Inside he could see mildew up the plasterboard walls, great darkened rents in the floorboards, spreading stains across the roof. He remembered sitting in here at the cramped eating-table watching television with his brother Stephen as Graeme and his mother argued about something over dinner, remembered the big man leaning forward and casually swatting her across the face, breaking her jaw. Remembered blood speckling his plate.
Through the doorway he saw into the bedrooms, once bisected with a curtain but now open and empty. So many nights he and Stephen had burrowed beneath their blankets on their side of the room trying to escape the sounds from the kitchen of his stepfather’s drunken ranting and clomping feet, the fearful, hitched-breath justifications of his mother, the heart-stopping gunshot-smash of a bottle thrown against the wall, the otherworldly smack of flesh on flesh. So many nights they listened to the alien sounds of sex from behind the curtain, his mother not able to meet their eyes the next morning but at least avoiding getting hit.
He remembered pleading with her again and again to leave. But Graeme threatened to kill them if she did.
Toward the end, when he had grown bigger, he started standing up to his stepfather and had his nose broken twice, but it tore through his mother’s inertia and forced her to take them away. Since then he had dreamed again and again of revenge, of hunting down his stepfather and... doing what? Killing him? Beating him up? He never really knew, and when the bastard died of cancer it was if some part of him also died.
He stared around at the crumbling monument to his past, and then stepped forward and opened the jerry-can from the service station in Gordon and started emptying it of petrol. He soaked the walls, the floors, the gaping windowframes, until the wood was stained blood-dark. Then he walked outside on stiff legs and lit the bottom of the door.
The heat scorched out at him and he stumbled back as the door whumped into life. The growing licks of flame blazed in the dying late-afternoon light and soon the weatherboards alongside the entry took hold and the wall of fire arched up towards the roof with a sudden roar.
But as he stood watching the house burn he felt empty inside. It didn’t give him release, didn’t change what happened, didn’t exorcise anything.
When he saw an old guy in a flannelette shirt running over from the next property he headed back to his car. Sat inside clenching the steering wheel with white knuckles, still feeling the heat on his face, the emptiness inside, then realised the guy was taking his numberplate and drove away.
Panicking at being seen he turned onto Sharrock’s Road and quickly wound around the mountain and down again, disappearing into the back roads, nearly losing it on the gravel. The setting sun burned in his rear-view and he glanced up and saw tears in his eyes.
It had all been for nothing. He couldn’t escape the past. Couldn’t get rid of the deadness inside.
And now the police would be after him.
What the hell had he done?
He looked back to the dirt track as he came over a dip to see a bizarre flash of white in front of him, something in the middle of the road: a figure, a boy walking along the trail. He yelled and braked and the car fishtailed, sliding instead towards the boy, the tyres howling on the uneven ground, and he slammed the wheel hard to one side even as the boy finally turned with a little o-mouth of surprise, and then a scraping crump sounded from somewhere, everywhere, as the grille folded around the sudden body. A scream of metal and spinning air and strange whorls of gravity like a blender a washing machine a dryer and trees spanned past the window with a disembodied frightened roar sounding through the crumpling cabin strangely like his own voice; and then an otherworldly slowing, a graceful transition to epiphany in which he could see the web of cracks in the windshield hanging timelessly, sculpture coupled with dried insect guts and scratches from rocks, the dashboard a comforting black nothingness wrapping around him, soothing in its manufactured plastic, primacy over the elements, over the earth; and for an age he transcended it all frozen in that eternal moment — and then the steering wheel sank into his chest as if he was molten and flowing and yielding. Blackness like a sly wink of a loved one, of his mother, his brother perhaps, his runaway father, the boy on the road, capturing eyelid washing away all pain and fear.
He woke suddenly in a haze of agony, chest resting on the remains of the steering column. Pain lanced through his arm but all he could think was he’d killed a child.
Oh God, he’d killed a child.
The car was on its side down the embankment and he looked out through the shattered gape of the windshield at the ridgeline. No movement on the road. Tried to unhook the fused seatbelt clasp and nearly screamed.
His hand was flayed open, the bones broken and spiking out as if claws, threaded muscles hanging in ropes against his forearm. He swallowed vomit and clutched the useless hand to his chest. Tried the clasp with the other hand.
And groaned with despair. He would have to wait for help, for someone to find them. He couldn’t help the child now.
He closed his eyes, realising how stupid he had been.
No-one knew he was here. He didn’t speak to his mother anymore. After she lost her hard-fought house in Ballarat she became unstable, forever railing against the injustices she suffered, all the shit she went through with no help from anyone, not the government, her parents, his father, no-one, as if he and his brother hadn’t been there for any of it. He wasn’t able to take any more of her victim-complex or her vitriol. He stopped seeing his brother too after Stephen became increasingly angry and violent, externalising all his hatred at the world and his past. They had come to blows over some stupid thing last Christmas and that was the last time he saw his family. He had pulled away from everyone: mother, brother, friends; sabotaged every job he ever had; fought against anyone and anything he could. Ever since he left this shithole of a town his life had been in entropy and just when he finally tried to do something to abate it, to regain control again, to purge himself of the past, something even worse had happened.
From the distance came a soft mewling. His eyes snapped open. It sounded again, small and shattered: like an injured cat.
K-kid? he cried hoarsely, coughing with the effort of speaking. The boy must be alive. Injured, perhaps badly, but alive and in need of help.
He could still do some good. I’m coming, he called, tearing with awkward fingers at the clasp until it finally popped and he fell against the door. He sucked in air for a moment massaging his bruised and constricted chest, then cradled his arm and scrambled through the windshield out onto the dirt away from the wreckage. The Centura was almost unrecognisable — its roof caved in, bonnet dented and steaming — and smelt of leaking petrol. In the last of the light through the trees he could see angry scars arching down from the road and using rocks as leverage he scrabbled back up to the angry churn of the crash site, despite the wrenched feeling in his hip. Caught movement ahead down the long stretch of red dirt: a flash of white on the road. The boy was dragging himself along on his stomach like a wounded dog seeking somewhere to die, heading towards a mass of gumtrees up the side of the mountain.
Wait... I’m coming, he croaked, his voice like dead leaves. He started to follow but his hip had seized, right leg stiffening up, and he could only lurch slowly in pursuit. No, stop! he called to the boy. You need help… We need to wait here. He looked to the crash site. But the road was empty, no signs of rescue, no signs of chasing police. When he looked back the child had dragged himself off the road.
Pain-sweat dotted his forehead as he jerked his wooden leg behind him, clutched his arm to his chest. But he pushed through the agony. He couldn’t let the kid down. Then he saw where the boy was heading and stopped.
A house stood off the side of the road amongst the tangle of trees. A big two-storey brick veneer, new, a flat imposing facade pocked with large elegant windows, well-kept driveway, even a garden. A house he had only ever dreamed of. A room for everyone. Space.
The kid was trying to get home.
He gave a strangled gasp and tried not to think of the scene to unfold: the family’s dying child turning up on the doorstep, his killer staggering just behind seeking help. He almost turned and ran. But the lights were off. There mightn’t be anyone home. The kid may still need him to call an ambulance, and he clumsily staggered on, following the speckled trail of blood.
In the distance the front door opened with a creak. As he watched, the kid tried to rise on unsteady feet and walk through. But the boy’s legs buckled, splintering unnaturally. A high lilting screech of pain scared some birds.
No! Wait! he shouted feebly, but the tiny figure disappeared across the threshold pulling broken legs, the distant cry of relief heart-wrenching, and it took him an eternity to catch up.
The boy’s blood glistened faintly on the polished floorboards beyond the entrance and he knew he had to get to the injured child as soon as possible. But the light from outside didn’t travel far and he had to stumble along the wall for a light switch. Hello? He searched a small table for a phone and knocked over a vase. Hey, is there anyone else here? We need help. Kid? Where are you?
The house was silent and he was forced to follow the faint specks down the darkened hall past empty rooms. He was near the end of the corridor peering up a staircase to the second level when he heard the child’s soft mewling coming from the last room. He focused on the massive doors and forced himself on.
The arched doorway led into a big sitting room at the back of the house. The boy huddled in the furthest corner in faint light arcing around the heavy curtains, a puddle of blood dotting the carpet next to him.
It’s okay, he said to the boy as he came into the room. I’m going to help you. He searched for a light switch but couldn’t find one, instead having to edge into the gloom. Banged his leg into a coffee table a few steps in. The boy shuddered at the collision and tried to burrow even deeper into the corner, crying out horribly as the bones of his shattered legs grated together.
Don’t move, he warned the boy desperately. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to make sure you’re okay. Look, I’ll stay where I am. He stopped in the middle of the room and put his hands up to reassure the child but the kid wouldn’t look at him, kept trying to edge away despite the grinding pain.
He hesitated, unsure whether to continue into the room or backtrack for help. Looked to the doorway as if that would answer.
He was turning back to the boy when he sensed something behind, a shadow running at him from the hall, and he turned already raising his hands in protested innocence expecting one of the child’s parents. I didn’t– he started to say and then the figure filled his vision and his tongue jammed to the roof of his mouth at the impossible shock, the recognition, and then a whoosh of air sliced towards him, a sudden wallop impacting his temple and sending him sprawling back towards the window, throbbing disembodied pain seeping through him as if vicarious, delayed, and as he stumbled against the window-ledge trying to yell: Wait! he clumsily pushed with his free hand, palm butting a chest. But it only allowed the other to find him again in the near-dark and the next punch slammed into his nose and snapped his head back against the curtain-muffled window, sparkling his vision and sinking cold up past his eyes. He fell then, toppling to the side with one flailing arm, sight gone, and he somehow grabbed hold of the curtain on the way down and it held for a moment then noisily ripped and came down on top of him. He swatted at the sudden caul, terrified, waiting for the blows to rain down, kicking out like a child; feeling a thump as he connected with something that nearly twisted his ankle, but it felt good, substantial, and he kicked again, sensing his foot crunch something this time: a leg, giving him time to struggle out from the curtain and see the room in sudden relief with the last of the outside light coming through the naked window.
To see his attacker — his brother Stephen — hunched before him, cradling his smashed knee and glaring, face twisted.
St-Stephen? He managed but his brother just stared at him. Stephen? What are you–
And then his brother snarled and came again and all he could do was scrabble backwards, feet skittering on the floor, arm still tucked uselessly into his shirt, and then his brother collapsed as his leg gave out but kept coming at him on his stomach now like the boy.
He backed across the floor, knowing that this was impossible, that it couldn’t be his brother attacking him, that he must be delusional, still in the crashed car perhaps, dreaming deliriously because of his injuries or something. And then his brother reared up with one arm and brought it down on his shin, piledriving the shear of bone with a crack, and he screamed at the explosive reality of the pain and kicked out instinctively with his other leg, catching Stephen beneath the eye and whipping his head. His brother just grinned, teeth white in the near-dark, a faint rip opening across his cheekbone. Blood welled like tears.
He banged up against something cold and harsh, his hand scraping fireplace-stone, and as he frantically searched for something, anything, to defend himself, he tried to yell: Stop! What are you doing? his voice raspy with fear, but it only seemed to spur his brother on, unstoppable now, coming at him across the floor in a nightmare whirl of limbs.
His hand finally closed around something heavy and metallic and he swung it in a wild arc that ended with jarring impact.
His brother abruptly stopped, expression frozen, crazed eyes unfocusing and glazing over.
He let go of the black length of fire-poker. It remained suspended from Stephen’s head, its thorn dug deep into the side of the skull as the familiar blue eyes rolled up and blood ran in a thin line down and around his neck. Then Stephen keeled over and the poker clattered to the floor.
He stared down at the crumpled body of his younger brother, shaking, face crawling with horror. No, no, no... he kept saying. But Stephen didn’t move. He had killed someone now. His own brother. He’d killed his own brother. He slumped backwards. Kept mumbling to himself: No, no... spacing out, eyes blurring and filling with tears. It was too much to take. What was his brother doing here?
And then he remembered the boy. Tore his eyes away from his brother’s body and in a daze looked back into the corner.
The child was gone.
He looked to the open doorway, distantly wondering if the child ran out while they were fighting, but his mind no longer worked. Couldn’t answer the questions. He got to his feet, gasping at the pain in his tortured leg, and edged around Stephen’s body to the corridor.
The lights he had turned on were now off. He stared down the length of darkness to the still-open front door at the end.
A shadow crossed the doorway.
Then: footsteps, crunching gravel, more shadows arcing down the hallway. He stood awestruck staring at the gap of light as the sounds increased like hailstones, a steady rain of impacts.
And then the first figure appeared. A silhouette only but its shoulders were hunched in anger, the body squat and arrowlike, searching and then focusing on him. Another figure behind it and another and then darkness eclipsed the hall as figures filled the doorway and spilled into the house towards him, the noise on the floorboards now coiled thunder.
He instinctively twisted and fled up the staircase, knowing only that he had to run, the sound of countless feet scrabbling down the corridor pushing him on in terror. He rounded the top of the stairs and flailed in the darkness — a dim skylight the only illumination on the landing — and banged into the first door he could find.
He jammed his body against the door and stood panting. A bedside lamp softly lit the room and his eyes took it in as if it was some rationality, some comfort against the insanity on the other side of the door. Then he saw the glow off the sweating pale bodies on the bed: at first only a congealed mass of rippled, sheening flesh dotted with hair and freckles; then the woman moved beneath, opening her legs wider and groaning, and the mound coalesced into distinction. The guy kept pummelling away in fury on top — love-handles sagging down over shapeless white buttocks, shoulders straining with the missionary position. And then suddenly swung his head around, grinning through thick beard at him.
He almost tore open the door to escape back into the hallway.
The guy kept thrusting, staring at him with wild eyes and that rictus-grin, and then the woman beneath — greying hair spread over the pillow like roadkill — looked at him standing there. Her glazed eyes washed over him then refocused and she smiled, the white slug of her tongue darting out to wet her lips:
Her voice was soft, seductive, and he tried to push backwards through the wood of the door as his mother raised her hand to him, beckoning to join them. Outside, silence fell on the landing.
His mother frowned. I said come here.
Graeme stopped thrusting and stared at him, grin disappearing. The old anger surfaced beneath pig-eyes as the fat bastard withdrew with a clench of his puckered ass and a sound like a knife sliding out of a wound. Rolled off the bed and stood, bloated hairy stomach taut with a lifetime of beer, slickened alien-head penis a fresh jutting limb.
Then his stepfather was across the space between them in a flash, grabbing him by the throat and staring up, hands slick with salty sweat. Behind, his mother ran a hand down her body and snarled at him.
He couldn’t do anything, could only stare down.
And then he realized he was now taller than his dead, impossible stepfather. And as Graeme was bringing his face down to his and reaching for his groin with the other hand an anger rose from somewhere deep inside, hidden all these years but finally given full expression and he roared and punched back at the older man, feeling the jellied softness of nose beneath his fist; punching again, harder this time to the jaw with a satisfying crack of crumbling bone, and Graeme was stumbling backwards now, hands raised blindly against the assault, and he limped after him and slammed down onto the fucker’s chin and his stepfather crumpled, erection wilting and mollusc-drawing up into itself. He jumped on the older man and was barely able to keep his broken hand into himself, to stop using that too to beat and beat, and he kept punching until there was only blood, until the red mist hung in the air and covered his face.
A screech and a whump as something smacked into him, hot skin pressed against his, and then slices of pain near his eyes as his mother clawed from behind, legs wrapped around his waist, and he could feel her against his lower back, and he cried out and rolled onto her, slamming his head back with crunching force against her face and swinging around to hit and hit and hit.
When it was over he vomited until his stomach spasmed with nothingness. He tried to close his eyes to the scene around but kept seeing himself punching again and again, kept seeing their slackened faces dissolving beneath him, and he wearily opened his eyes and looked to the door, waiting for it to burst inwards.
A muffled giggle came from the corner of the room. He looked up at the dresser to the boy sitting on its top swinging broken, multi-jointed legs and staring with fascination at the bodies sprawled on the floor. A soft awful clicking of bone like chittering teeth. When he realized he was being watched the boy looked at him and fell quiet, but the smile lingered. He seemed to be waiting.
He was about to ask something useless of the boy, something redundant and irrelevant about what was happening. But it didn’t matter anymore.
The boy nodded at his acceptance, and then the glittering eyes swivelled towards the doorway and the smile widened.
He understood then, understood everything, and he crouched and waited for the first to come through; these people from his past, the dead and the living: aunties, uncles, friends from primary school, old girlfriends, grandparents, work colleagues, perhaps people he’d only passed in the street, brushed past in pubs, sat next to on the train. He could hear them now pressing at the door, lining the stairs, crowding the hallway with clenched hands, filling the driveway in anticipation, could imagine them stretching away down the road, an eternity of faces and fists and blood. He flexed his hands like a prize-fighter and hunched closer to the floor, grinning with the insanity of it all.
He hoped his father was next. He was looking forward to seeing him again.
This story originally appeared in Dreaming Again, HarperCollins.