Horror

Passing the Bone

By Sean Williams
7,539 words · 28-minute reading time
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With my right hand I absently finger the thumb-bone of my great-great-great-grandfather, Maxwell Owen. The ancient phalanx has a hole for a leather thong or chain drilled through its mid-point, and has been hollowed lengthwise to act as a crude whistle. My Dad left it to me when he died, and I've kept it handy ever since—usually around my neck, although occasionally, like now, I prefer to hold it in my hand. The official story, for friends, is that old Max carved it himself after his thumb was blown off during a war somewhere, but the truth is that he did it on his death-bed while waiting for the rot to finish off the rest of him.

Sometimes if I blow through it hard enough it makes a noise that might be called musical. Other times it seems to whisper directly into my mind: the ghost of the great-great-great-grandad I never met in life, ossified for eternity yet giving me advice when I most need it.

If I concentrate, I can hear him saying: Hurry, Billy...Hurry...

Or so I'd like to believe. Being undead doesn't mean you can't be sentimental as well as practical. Within two days I won't be able to move very well—maybe not at all, if what happened to Dad is anything to go by. And to reach Sydney in time I do need to hurry, no matter who tells me.

I clench my fist around the thumb-bone in my pocket and push my foot down hard on the accelerator.

I have been dead for seven hours and Coober Pedy is hundreds of kilometres behind me. When I stopped to refill the tank at Port Augusta not long ago, the young attendant looked at me a little strangely. Maybe I've started to smell. I don't know; it's hard to tell. Probably. For the first couple of hours, rigor was insidious. I had to keep stopping to stretch my limbs; otherwise my fingers locked around the wheel and my head pointed stubbornly forward, refusing to turn either left or right. That was the worst of it: not knowing if I would be able to react in an emergency.

I feel a little more limber now, although perhaps that isn't entirely a good thing. I don't know much about what happens after rigor mortis, except that it certainly isn't pretty. Remembering how hot the Commodore became during the day on the way over, I wind the windows up, tug both sun-visors down and switch the air-conditioner on full. But I leave my coat on with the hood up, as I wore it into the petrol station, just in case a car overtakes with a load of curious kids in the back. No need to invite unwelcome attention, or to frighten the innocent. Not just yet.

The rising sun, to my left, transforms the clear sky from a map of infinity into a blue sheet pressing down on the world. The highway is a black line through blurred fields of brown: not desert any more, but arid farms desperate for overdue winter rains. If there wasn't so much further still to go I might enjoy the scenery for a while. Instead, I keep my eyes fixed on the tarmac, and my attention on what happened and what I have to do about it.

Focus...

Graeme Parkinson is five years my senior, and my exact opposite in almost every respect. A tall, solid man with sun-blonde hair and weathered, callused skin, he reminds me of the many shearers that descended on my father's property once every year during my childhood. He wears jeans, scuffed leather work boots and flannelette shirts on every occasion, regardless of temperature or company. Once, on our first trip to Coober Pedy, we side-swiped a roo in his already battered van. Not content to leave the carcass behind, he stopped to investigate. In the revealing light of the van's high beam, I saw him reach into the animal's pouch, remove the kicking body of a young joey and snap its neck with a perfunctory twist.

I first met him through Kerry while I was taking night school. I can't say we liked each other much, but the mutual respect was real. He admired the way I strove to better myself in the face of a difficult life, and I felt the same about his obstinate practicality. He was one tough son of a bitch—I had to give him that—and his plan to conduct aerial surveys of the old opal mines at Coober Pedy, looking for any gaps or likely outcrops that might have been missed, had an audacious ring. When he offered to form a partnership—the money I'd saved plus his pilot's license—I was tempted. After discussing the pros and cons with Kerry for a month or two, we decided to go ahead.

That was five years ago. When Graeme rang last weekend and told me I had to come see the find he'd made, I went without hesitation. I arrived at Coober Pedy three days later and immediately noticed his edginess in the way he hurried me through a couple of drinks in the local underground pub then took me straight back to my wagon before I had time to change—but I didn't suspect that anything was wrong. Why would I? He was my business partner. If something had gone astray, he would have told me. And if he seemed nervous, I told myself, then it was only because of the magnitude of the find, and the fear that someone else might steal it from us before we had time to declare it. That's all.

He led me out to the old mines, calling out directions while I drove. The route took us a half-hour out from the centre of Coober Pedy and into ragged, dusty hills. Night had fallen some time back and the air was bitter; the only light came from the headlights of the Commodore. Old fences with warning signs marking shafts that had been abandoned for years flashed in and out of view as I followed dirt roads through back-lots, heading God only knew where. It had been too long since I last came to visit the mines, content to let him handle that side of things; during the last six months spent blasting and digging he never once asked for my help. The times we actually met in person were during his infrequent trips back to Sydney.

He finally called a halt in a shallow valley between two slump-backed, stony ridges. The stars were bright as we stepped out of the Commodore, he in his shirt and I in a thick coat to keep the desert chill at bay. For the first time I realized how far from town we were; the night was still, and very quiet.

"Through here," he said, guiding me along a narrow track to where tools waited at the lip of a shaft. The rear reflectors of another car reflected the beams of our torches back at us; one of them was broken, which led me to assume that they probably belonged to Graeme's old hulk. "Be careful you don't slip," he added, his voice as rough and unassuming as unvarnished timber. "You didn't come all this way to be winched out of a hole on your bloody arse."

I recall his words vividly, although their meaning is clear to me only now. The bastard was having fun at my expense.

Then, however, I suspected nothing. The beer I'd consumed after the long, exhausting trip had given me a light buzz. At that moment I was friends with the entire world.

"How rich is the seam?" I asked, negotiating my way slowly across sand strewn with shards of shattered rock.

"Rich enough," he grunted. "You'll earn back your investment, and more. Much more. Trust me."

"I have so far, haven't I?" I asked, turning back to face him.

"Yeah, you have." Graeme's eyes glinted at me as he swung his torch toward the lip of the nearby shaft. I followed the circle of light automatically.

"How far down?" I asked, feeling rather than hearing him shift closer behind me. To look as well, I assumed.

"Not far," he said, bending to lift something heavy from the ground. "But far enough..."

With those words, and a sickening crunch, something hard smashed into the back of my head. The night exploded into a billion points of brilliant pain and I doubled over, hands clutching at my head and feeling only hot wetness where my skull had once been.

I may have screamed; I can't remember. I know I staggered forward a step—trying in vain to escape the pain—and lost my footing.

As I toppled downward into gaping blackness, my last thought was for my father. I remembered him sitting in the homestead cellar with a tarpaulin over his knees, grinning at me through lips half-rotted away. His eyes had sunk back into his skull and hair lay plastered to his scalp like damp seaweed. The bullet wound to his left shoulder, where he'd accidentally shot himself while clearing goats, gaped like a petulant mouth. Clotted blood stained his overalls and shirt, and the stench made me want to gag.

I was six years old, and Dad had been dead for forty-eight hours.

"One day you'll understand," he said, his voice sounding like something that had bubbled up from a swampy grave. "I don't want to leave you, but that's the way it has to be."

I nodded dumbly through tears and accepted his word. With that sort of evidence before me, how could I doubt him? Then and now?

If I was conscious when I hit the bottom of the shaft, that moment is gone forever from my memory.

I leave Highway One at Two Wells to cut east across to Gawler, just north of Adelaide, where I refill again. This time the station attendant doesn't look twice at me although, with my coat done up and the hood over my head to cover the wound that killed me, I must make a strange sight. She's seen odder people than me in her time, I guess. If that's possible.

Back in the Commodore, heading along the Sturt Highway toward Nuriootpa, I resume my patient routine: hands on the wheel, eyes forward, mind turning constantly. The scenery greens as the highway turns to follow the Murray River, but I hardly notice. Roughly seven hundred kilometres lie between me and Coober Pedy: a third of my journey. I have been driving without rest for eight hours, but am not hungry, thirsty or tired. I never imagined death to be like this. I thought it would hurt more, despite what my father told me.

In the cool shadows of the homestead cellar, Dad talked until his jaw muscles softened and his mouth began to gape. Rot got him in the end, as it gets everything. When he could no longer talk, Mum and I carried him out of the cellar on the tarp and propped him against a tree on a far corner of the property, where he indicated he wanted to stay.

My last glimpse of him is graven forever in my mind. He looked like a rag doll abandoned by a child—by the world—with his legs splayed and his arms hanging limply at his sides. Only his eyes, sunken though they were, showed any sign of life. In them I saw a sadness that I hoped never to feel.

Mum and I returned to the homestead in the ute without him—a widow and her only son. As she drove, she told me that we were going to have to leave. Years later, when I analyzed her reaction to Dad's death in hindsight, I realized that she hadn't known either. Dad's talking corpse had unsettled her terribly, and I could understand her wanting to cut free from everything that reminded her of him. At the time, though, it hurt to leave my home, and my father's remains.

Two weeks after he died we sold up and packed everything into crates. Whoever bought the land got it at a small fraction of its true value. Mum didn't care about money, as long as we had enough to survive. She just wanted to get away.

From everything. To Sydney: the largest city in Australia, home to three and a half million living, breathing people of a hundred different cultures and national origins. Japanese punks, English stoics, German artists, New Zealand body-builders, South African Catholics, Vietnamese toy-boys, American drug-dealers, Dutch prostitutes...The list is endless. There is nothing, it seems sometimes, that Sydney will not hide, or at least drown into insignificance.

But that still wasn't enough. Mum worked until I was sixteen and old enough to fend for myself, then she left me to live in Melbourne. I guess I was just something else that reminded her of Dad. Except for cards, and a cheque every Christmas, I've never heard from her since. Understanding her misgivings, I've left her in peace.

And although I've been tempted to many times, I've never gone back to look for Dad's bones. His explanation of the family 'curse', brief and simple though it was, was haunting enough.

Owen males die young, and generally through violence. Old Max got in the way of a cattle stampede; my grandfather was run over by a tractor; Dad bled to death after shooting himself in the shoulder; I have smashed my skull on a rock. The curse—if curse it is, not freak of nature—usually takes effect before we turn thirty, robbing us of our middle years and old age that perhaps we have every right to expect.

But it doesn't end there. Old Max was the grandson of Gerald, the first Owen to flee England and live in Australia, one hundred and fifty years ago. He moved outback to avoid the rumours that followed him, met a young native girl and settled down, hoping that a little dilution might end the family troubles.

Sadly, indigenous blood did nothing to water down his legacy. All it gave us was a predilection for dark hair and round features. Subsequent generations—isolated on the family property in the vast outback of Australia—have continued the tradition.

And now, just as Dad said it would be—twenty-three years ago, through the mouth of his own rotting corpse—it's my turn. I may not understand it, but that's not my problem.

My problem is simple, if I don't think about it too much: I have to reach Sydney in time to warn Kerry. That's not the most important thing, but it's enough to keep me focused. Hatred burns much more brightly at the moment than grief, although I feel that too. It isn't easy being dead and knowing that time is running out.

At least I, unlike so many 'normal' people, have the chance to avenge an unjust death.

Whether the blow to my head failed to kill me and the fall finished me off, or I was already dead before I hit the bottom of the shaft, it doesn't matter. The next thing I remember is opening my eyes and seeing stars.

Real stars, shining down the throat of the shaft.

I wondered if I was dreaming.

You're not, said a voice. Get up, Billy.

I looked around for the source of the voice, but could find no one. I was alone.

Around your neck, boy.

I looked down. The only thing around my neck, beneath my clothes, was Old Max.

That's right, said the voice in a silent whisper. Your guardian angel, if you like. The fall killed you, and I'm here to make sure you finish the job.

What job?

Stephen, of course. You never told him, did you?

I hesitated, momentarily thrown off balance. Was it really Old Max talking or just that part of me had come off the rails after the fall? The latter seemed more likely, yet Dad's warning was fresh in my mind. I couldn't afford to ignore the possibility that my time had come.

Despite the patent absurdity of this conversation with my ancestor's thumb, I found myself feeling guilty.

Of course I didn't tell him. How could I?

That's beside the point. You have to now. Old Max's voice was warm in my head, not crotchety at all. I suddenly realized that he must have been about my age when he died. Time's ticking away, Billy. Best you get moving.

My watch had broken in the fall, but I guessed that only an hour or two had passed. My body felt numb as I staggered to my feet, as though I had the flu. The back of my head was a mass of splintered bone and brains. Dirt had got into the wound, but that didn't bother me: infection was the least of my concerns. More worrying was the stiffness already spreading through my muscles. I had to get out of the hole before rigor turned my limbs to stone.

A rope ladder eventually took me to the surface, where I rolled onto my back to rest. I wasn't out of breath—I no longer needed to breathe except out of habit—but I still had some catching up to do. Despite having had most of my life to think about it, my death still came as a shock.

The truth of it only really hit home when I saw that Graeme's van was gone, and that the blood had been carefully scuffed from the lip of the shaft. Whatever had struck me—a crow-bar, probably—was also gone. No evidence remained, in other words, to indicate that foul play had occurred. If anyone found my body, the obvious assumption would be that I had fallen to my death unassisted.

I suppressed a bitter smile at that thought, wondering how many other business partners had met fates like mine in the opal fields. Coober Pedy is the perfect place for such treachery. Not only do the opals provide a motive, and the countless old shafts a convenient means of disposing of a body, but the town itself—where people live underground in order to hide from the heat of the day—has all the charm of a graveyard. I'd always hated it, and couldn't imagine what had led me to try to get rich there.

I'd been murdered. The thought sent a shiver of anger through my stiffening flesh. I trusted him...

Graeme may have taken his van, but the Commodore was still there, with the keys in the ignition. Convenient, but only to be expected. He'd want it to look like I'd arrived late, had a couple of drinks at the bar, then come out to the claim to see what we'd found. Slightly pissed, I'd lost my footing, fallen in and cracked my skull open. All too plausible.

Only I knew better. And the last thing he'd expect would be my undead body to climb out of the pit, like some zombie from an open grave. Which is what, in almost every sense, I truly was.

And what I am.

A corpse by another name still smells, Billy, says Old Max, as he did then.

Remembering the gore-flicks I'd watched as a teenager, always with a tinge of uncertainty—dread of what I knew even then was going to happen to me—I asked Old Max: I thought being undead was all about getting revenge?

It's not. Not for you, anyway.

So Graeme's going to get away scot-free?

Why not? What business is it of yours now? You're dead, remember?

Exactly! It doesn't seem fair...

You do what you want then, whispered Old Max into my head. Just don't take too long.

The first place I went after stumbling from the pit was Graeme's hotel. He had checked out that morning and chartered a light plane. Or so he'd told the clerk to give himself an alibi. When I drove out to the airfield, I did indeed find his rust-bucket parked near the tiny terminal, awaiting his return. I guessed that he'd flown to Alice Springs or another outpost—anywhere but here, where my body lay.

Had lain. Being mobile in death gave me an edge, if I wanted to take advantage of it: I had plenty of time to report his actions to the police. But I could imagine how it would look when the victim presented himself at the local station to report his own murder. I would be detained for days, maybe refrigerated or frozen, possibly even autopsied. Not pretty—and not truly necessary either, as Old Max said.

I absently pat my thigh for reassurance. The thumb-bone is still in my pocket, but I can't feel it any longer. My legs have gone numb. Gas is building up in my stomach cavity, and I fight the need to burp. God knows, the interior of the wagon must stink enough as it is. To give me something to clench, I take the bone whistle and put it between my lips. Despite my lack of respiration, its whispering voice seems oddly louder as a result, and more personable.

Back in my day, this sort of thing would have been impossible, Old Max says. You'd need a week or two just to get from Coober Pedy to Adelaide. Then another month to reach Sydney...You don't realize how lucky you are, Billy.

Yeah, right. I'm dead.

But you still have time to put things right. Remember that.

I do. For once, I understand him completely. The hatred is fading with time, as accepting my fate becomes less of an effort and more habitual. Only gradually does the inevitable alternative come to take its place.

On the great, endless freeways of this empty continent my Commodore is just a toy. Road trains roar past with a whoosh of air and dust, shaking me from my meditations for an instant then disappearing around a bend. I wonder sometimes if the drivers of these massive, metal dinosaurs are dead, too. That might explain a lot.

I wonder if they are lonely.

I refuel in Renmark, just shy of the Victorian border, keeping my jacket on as always and ignoring the curious stare of another young attendant as I pay. Back in the Commodore, I feel blood squelch in my buttocks where it has settled. My face in the rear vision mirror is pasty and beginning to puff. Gross.

I leave South Australia. An hour or so later I cross the Murray River at Mildura and enter New South Wales. The minutes and kilometres are passing quickly now: over half-way. Choosing the northern approach through Hay, I stop to refuel again, and for a quick walk to shift some of the gunk congealing in my lower extremities. I look like someone's filled my calves and thighs with jelly.

Still, there is no pain. There's only a sense of urgency, mounting steadily as my long, lonely drive continues. I have to warn Kerry. And Stephen...

At that moment, the sorrow hits—so deep that I am unable to do anything but pound the steering wheel in frustration. I stop the Commodore again as my vision clouds. I am crying, which surprises me even through the grief. I didn't know that corpses could cry.

When I raise my dead fingers to touch my cheeks, they come away dark and sticky. The burp I've been fighting for hours finally comes out. That hurts. I try to get a grip on myself, but fail; the despair is too strong.

Don't fall apart now, I hear old Max whisper, and the joke—intended or not—almost makes me smile. For an imaginary old soul, his sense of humour is awful.

Well, what do you expect? he shoots back. I'm a bone, for Christ's sake. The only brains I have are yours, grand-son of my grand-son's son. At least I'm trying to do something—not sitting in a car sobbing about how unfair life is.

And it isn't?

Maybe, but that doesn't mean you have to take it lying down. They'll find you out here in a couple of days, and what good will that have done anyone? You'll just be another mystery body in the middle of nowhere. Make your death mean something, boy, like I have. Leave something behind. Make it easier for those who follow. Do your bit for future generations—and all that crap.

It's not crap...

Then get off your fat arse and get on with it!

I shrug my failing body into action and start the wagon. The sun is setting behind me as I do so, and the sky is grey ahead. The world is losing its colour drop by drop, sucked out by the vampire moon. It's already hard to tell where the Western Highway stops and the countryside starts.

I flick on the lights and accelerate.

Good man, says Old Max. Not far now...

Sure. Only six hundred kilometres.

Whatever you say, it's still not far. Not for you.

I grip the wheel and plunge onward, Old Max's thumb clenched tight between my teeth. Dad gave me the whistle when Mum and I laid him to rest. I could see how much it meant to him then, as his eyes followed us back to the ute. He was alone at the end, which is enough to make even a very brave man sad. And I feel for him more than ever now.

Oh, Stephen. I'm missing you already...

The sun is completely gone as I breeze past West Wyalong. An image of Kerry suddenly fills my windscreen, painted across the road. She has blonde, curly hair cut just above her shoulders. Her eyes are green and lined at the corners. She doesn't smile often, but when she does it lights up her whole face. Her shoulders and back are taut from years of dancing, and her buttocks and thighs are as solid as rock, yet flexible. She can put both ankles behind her head, and do the splits in a variety of positions; both make her spectacular in bed. She has a small mole just above her pubic hair which we nick-named Cape Barren Island the first time we had sex.

The first time we made love, I asked her to marry me, and she said no. But we've lived together for six years since, and I guess that counts for something. Maybe we weren't happy some of the time—we certainly argued a lot, and we'd grown apart in a thousand subtle ways without really noticing—but we could still fuck up a storm when we wanted to. Which wasn't as often as either of us would have liked, after Stephen; not that we would admit it to each other any more. But it wasn't too late. We still could have—

I catch myself with a start when I realize that I am thinking about her in the past tense.

Keep it up, says Old Max. Makes it easier in the long run.

Cowra looms ahead: a light-blistered boil bursting out of the night. I pull into the first service station I come across and park next to a bowser. Before I get out, I check the rear vision mirror. I am turning blue, and my eyes look more than a little strange. Sunglasses only accentuate the sickly tone of my skin, so I don't bother to put them on. The attendant is watching me idly from the desk. Feigning tiredness, I climb out of the Commodore and fill the tank for the last time.

The attendant's face crumples into a grimace of distaste as I step into the showroom to pay. Christ, how badly do I smell now? I've only been in the room a second and he's already disgusted.

Handing him a fifty, I mutter, "Keep the change," and leave without looking back. At least I can still talk.

On the road again, I refuse to think about anyone at all: not Graeme, not Kerry, and especially not Stephen. But of course it doesn't work. If I can't look forward to the end of my journey, my thoughts inevitably return to the beginning, to Coober Pedy...

Although Graeme wasn't to be the main focus of my undeath, just as he hadn't been in life, he had killed me. I still needed to warn Kerry. Maybe she would be next.

I actually called the number out of my mobile phone's memory and pressed Send before thinking twice. "Honey, I'm dead." Was that what I was going to say to her, in the middle of the night? She would laugh in my ear, accuse me of being pissed and hang up. And if I managed to tell her that Graeme, her old friend, had done it, then her response would only be more sceptical. I needed to hammer the truth down her throat, and I couldn't do that over a telephone line from Coober Pedy.

And then there was Stephen. Images of his childhood suddenly filled my mind; not painful, as they are now, but with a clarity that could not be denied: nappies, dummies, bottles, toys; gurgling, babbling, crawling walking. All of it came back to me in a vivid rush, and the desert night around me seemed to vanish. It was as though he was calling for me across the thousands of kilometres lying between us, as though he somehow knew what had happened to me and sent part of himself to be with me when I needed him most.

How could I fight something like that?

So I hung up before she could answer, switched off the phone and started driving. The trip had taken me three days on the way over, but I hadn't been really trying. I figured I could do it in a single day, and figure I can still do it, if only I—

Hurry, says Old Max, beginning to sound like a stuck CD. Turn up looking like something from a ghost story and he's not even going to know who you are...

Then, as now, I had no other option.

Bathurst breezes by.

Then Lithgow.

Blackheath.

Katoomba.

Lawson.

Springwood.

Penrith...

The suburbs of Sydney swallow the Commodore wagon like the waters of a bottomless lake. I feel like a stone that has skipped across the surface before finally sinking. Normality is everywhere I look, as long as I avoid the mirror. Even at such a late hour the streets are busy and I have to fight the impulse to speed. The last thing I want is to be pulled over by the police.

Red lights make me itch and the radio, when I turn it on, emits an irritating noise. Old Max is silent, sensing my impatience, the proximity of my journey's climax. Or perhaps he has already said enough.

Familiar streets roll by; corners I have turned for years tick past one by one; landmarks I could draw from memory appear in their proper places and fall behind. This is my place, yet I feel like an outsider. And the sadness wells again, as inevitably as the tide.

Home...

I pull into Argent Lane with my heart in my mouth. The street is dark and empty. Two houses from the end, near the letter box and behind the hedge we always meant to trim before winter came: there it is.

My house. After eighteen hundred kilometres and twenty-three hours of slow decay, I'm finally here.

I swing the Commodore as close to the left as I can in preparation for entering the driveway, then—

Wait!

Old Max's warning comes barely in time. There is another car in the driveway.

I slam on the brakes. "Shit." Confused, I stare at it for a moment, wondering whether I've got the wrong house. But no: behind the unfamiliar car is Kerry's 121, tucked safely under the carport where she likes it, where the birds can't crap on it. And the house itself is right. There's no mistaking the white-plastered brick walls, the shallow verandah, the lawn in perpetual need of a mow and the bicycle, now a size too small, abandoned for the night by the red front door.

The lights are out. Whoever owns the car is here to stay.

The first spark of anger blossoms somewhere deep in my gut. I turn off the headlights and park the wagon further along the curb. Kerry's sister doesn't have a license. A friend, then? Maybe. How good a friend, though, is the question.

Can a corpse be jealous? It seems so. I feel abandoned, left out.

How do you think I've felt? puts in Old Max. All these years a bone, with no one to talk to but my descendants when they die. It gives you a new perspective, believe me. I've seen this situation a dozen times and I'm beginning to wonder why people get so upset. In the long run Kerry means nothing. Hold onto that thought and you'll feel better.

Doubting it, but saying nothing, I leave the confines of the Commodore and inch my way up the driveway as quietly as I can. My balance is shot to hell and I keep one hand ready to catch me should I stumble. The car is an Avis rental, a Ford Falcon about five years out of date. The bonnet is cold. Its driver has left something on the seat, and I peer through the passenger window for a better look.

An airline ticket. Squinting, forcing my stubborn eyes to focus, I make out the carrier: Ansett. Destination: Sydney. Passenger's name...

Mr. G J Parkinson.

I freeze. Graeme . . ?

Old Max is silent as I reel back a step, stunned by the revelation. My murderer has beaten me home, after all I've been through to get here first! He must have flown to Alice Springs in the light aircraft he chartered, then caught a plane to Sydney. He could have been here for hours. God only know what he could have done in that time, who he might have hurt now...

Then another thought occurs to me. I turn to face the dark, silent house. My hands are shaking. I remember the times I've been out while Graeme's been in town, the times I've come home to find him hanging around with Kerry. His Sydney residence is not far from ours, and she likes strong, tall men. They knew each other before I met either of them; maybe they were lovers in the past.

They both love money...and I know for a fact that one of them will murder for it. Maybe two.

Graeme hasn't just beaten me home. He's been here—to put it metaphorically—all along.

A red fury turns the night inside out. The hatred is back, twice as strong. I want to smash my way through the bedroom window and rip their treacherous hearts out—Kerry's first, then Graeme's. I want to see the fear in their eyes as I enact my vengeance. I want them to suffer; I want them to see their plans come to nothing; I want them to die...

I take one unsteady step towards the house, then stop.

Why? asks Old Max, and I have to admit, even through the pain, that he is right.

Revenge, bitter-sweet though it might well be, is meaningless; it ultimately hurts the one person who really matters.

I turn to my right and make my way around the side of the house, up the carport, counting windows as I go: lounge, bathroom, toilet, kitchen...

The last window faces the small backyard, with its swing and toy-strewn sandpit. The curtains are patterned with the characters from Thomas the Tank Engine but I can't make out their faces in the darkness. The screen is old and comes off easily. My reflection leans close as I raise one soft-knuckled fist to tap three times on the glass.

I wait for a minute, then try again. "Stephen?"

The curtains stir, and another face appears within my reflection: another me, from years ago.

"Dad?" he mouths, and I nod with relief.

He tugs at the latch as I take the whistle out of my mouth. My four-year-old son moves with all the innocent confidence and grace of an animal, with my eyes, my nose, my olive skin and my dark hair in tow. The only things he's inherited from his mother are her small ears and lips. Otherwise he's me, and everything that entails.

Finally the window is open. I reach in to hug him, and he returns the clasp.

"I've missed you, Stephen," I say. My tongue is thick and heavy, but the words are clear.

His sweet voice in my ear whispers back: "You smell, Dad."

I pull away. Shit, I'd forgotten about that. "I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry. I got here as fast as I could but—"

"Where've you been?" His eyes are wide and curious.

"I—" What do I say? I was dying, son, dying to get home. "I was up at Coober Pedy with Graeme to check out the mine. Remember?"

"Uncle Gray came to dinner," he said, not realizing how much his words hurt me. Self-absorption rules the day at this age. "We had chips and sausages."

"That's nice," I respond, trying to keep the grief bottled in my chest. "Stephen, I brought you a present."

His eyes light up. "Did you? Where is it?"

"It's in my hand, but first you have to promise to keep it a secret. Don't tell Mum...or Uncle Gray. I want you to keep it safe from everyone."

He nods seriously. "Okay, Dad."

"And I want you to listen to me carefully. Something's happened to me." I'm dead. "I won't be able to come home. I won't be able to live with you any more." I'm rotting in front of your eyes. "You and Mum will have to manage without me from now on."

"Why, Dad?" His face loses its happy glow, and for a moment I am unable to speak.

"Dad?"

"I love you, Stephen." I reach out with one hand and put Old Max on the window sill. "And here's your present."

He picks it up and turns it over, studying it. His tiny fingers are dwarfed by the size of the thumb-bone, and I marvel that one day his hands will be that big.

"What is it?"

"It's a whistle. You blow in one end and—" I shrug. "—sometimes it makes a noise."

He raises it to his lips and blows experimentally through it.

Goodbye, Billy, says Old Max, softly but distinctly. I'll tell him when it's time.

"I didn't hear anything," Stephen says.

"You will when you're older." When you're dead, I add to myself. There's no way I can even begin to explain; four is too young to comprehend natural death, let alone the unnatural one awaiting him. We die young but take our time passing on; it's hereditary. I'm sorry, son. "Keep trying, and one day you'll hear it. It's name is 'Old Max'."

"Is it magic?" he asks, programmed by TV to believe in such things.

I smile, glad that he has unintentionally given me an explanation that he will understand. "Yes."

He smiles back and we stand there, sharing our secret in silence for a full minute.

Then he shivers. His pyjamas are thin and the air must be like a refrigerator's breath this time of year, piercing with its chill although I am oblivious to it.

I feel for him. Leaning out of the window talking to his decomposing father, with the bone of his great-great-great-great-grandfather in his hand: this is no place for a little kid. He should be in bed, dreaming about Thomas while he still can.

"I can't stay," I say, frightened that I'm going to cry in front of him, frightened that that will frighten him.

He nods once, keeping his sad eyes on the whistle.

"Be a good boy for Mummy, won't you?"

"Yes, Dad."

"And..." Don't forget me. "Remember that I love you."

"I love you too, Dad," he says, and his eyes finally meet mine. Even in the darkness I can tell that he too is trying not to cry.

We hug once more, and I don't want to let him go. But I have to. I gently lean him back through the window, back to reality, and tousle his hair.

As we close the window I see him raise the whistle to his lips in one last salute—blood of my blood, possessing the terrible secret of my family with all the innocence of a four year old—but this time I hear nothing. Then the curtains close, and he is gone.

I replace the screen and stagger away from the window, letting the tears flow freely. The night dissolves into a blur and for a moment I can't think...

When I regain my senses I am standing on the front lawn like a grotesque monument to mortality, tainting the suburban air with my stench—

Alone.

So, now what?

I resist the temptation to leave Kerry a note. Telling her...what? That I love her too? That she deserves to rot in hell? That I hope she and Graeme are happy?

Fuck that. The more I think about it, the more I want to kill them again. I bite down on the impulse, knowing it won't do anyone any good, especially Stephen. Someone has to look after him now that I'm gone. I can only hope that it won't be Graeme. If there was only some way I could hurt him without hurting Kerry at the same time...

For want of an alternative, I return to the Commodore and assume my familiar position on the stained driver's seat. The tank is less than a quarter-full, but that may be enough, depending on where I intend to go. But where is that?

Sydney hides a lot, but it can't possibly hide an obviously dead person, gradually rotting.

I am dead, impotent. I am also a cuckold killed by his business partner, and the anger refuses to fade. But there's no way I can report my murder in person, and to phone anonymously would be pointless. Even if the police believe me and pass on the report to Coober Pedy, what would they find? An empty pit with some blood and hair at the bottom. Nothing to link Graeme with his terrible crime.

Unless I drive back to Coober Pedy again.

Or...

I smile in the darkness, then. Maybe death isn't the complete disadvantage I thought it was. I can use my very handicap as a weapon.

I don't need somewhere to hide; I need a grave.

The engine is still warm and the wagon starts easily despite the long drive. I glance back once as I pull out from the curb. The house is still dark; Stephen must have gone back to sleep. That's good.

Then the house—home no longer—is gone.

Graeme's city-side apartment—which he lets for half the year, but is empty at the moment—is in Silverwater, less than ten minutes' drive from Argent Lane. The small, single-bedroom maisonette is tucked at the end of a cul-de-sac filled with blocks of flats and strata-share units. I park the Commodore two blocks away and walk the rest of the way. Luckily, the hour is late enough to make it extremely unlikely that anyone will see me: the walking dead in their midst.

I climb the iron gate, fish the spare key from its hiding place under a small gnome by the back door, and let myself in. Taking a chair from the kitchen, I position it in the hallway under the trapdoor leading into the ceiling.

A sudden fear that my sagging flesh might fail me at the last minute proves groundless. I have just enough strength to haul myself into the dusty crawl-space. The chair will have to stay where it is. After carefully wiping the edges of the hole clean of my fingerprints, I put the trapdoor back in its place and inch on hands and knees across the wooden beams.

It is dark and quiet in the ceiling, if a little dirty. I find a space in one corner by the air-vent leading to the bathroom in the adjoining maisonette and settle down to wait. I have my wallet and my mobile phone. There'll be no mistaking me, no matter how long I have to wait. And I'll be here when they come. If the smell hasn't alerted the neighbours by tomorrow morning, then I'll use the phone to tell the police myself. I'm a concerned resident in the area who's heard an argument, I'll say; and perhaps I should do that anyway, to help pin the blame on Graeme. I don't want my appearance to be written off as a coincidence. I don't want him to escape me now...

The only thing I haven't got is company. But that's all right; my time has come and gone and I don't need Old Max any more. My own bones will have to do instead. My bones and my thoughts, lost in the dusty crawl-space between life and death.

 

for Sebastian

 

This story originally appeared in Eidolon.


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