Shortlisted Wet Ink Short Story Prize 2011. Published Wet Ink Shortlist edition, June 2012.
I do not hear my brother arrive, as always he simply appears from silence. There is no warning of car engine or door, just as there are never footsteps. Only, when I glance out of the window, the silent shock of the old Holden in the driveway, a bestial lump more menacing for its stillness, which means it is already too late. He is here.
I turn to my father on the couch, try not to see his smirk. ‘Is Troy here?’
Dad takes a long swig from his can and belches. There is never any rush on the nights that Troy visits, it’s always drawn out.
‘Car’s ere ain’t it?’ he says to the far wall.
I begin to twitch then, almost to spasm, because suddenly, without hearing him approach, I am aware that Troy is standing behind me. Just to the left of me, close. I know he is close although I can’t feel his breath, only the teeth it passes through. I know without looking that he is grinning.
‘Hey little brother,’ he croons.
I concentrate; it’s vital to conceal the scent of fear. ‘Hey Troy,’ I say, calm, calm. ‘Come far?’
He stays behind me, a malevolent shadow.
‘Same as always.’
‘Here long?’ I cannot see him but I can feel the stab of his glee.
‘Depends on how much fun I’m having.’ And he glides around me to share his delight at the idea of how much fun we will have together.
My father chuckles. I move my eyes to him and Troy recedes, appearing near Dad behind the couch. Stretching his hands along its back he leans forward, slowly, languidly, claiming the space.
‘No pets little brother?’ he whispers as he lowers forward till his head is almost level with the back of the couch, his smile crocodile-like. I’m breathing deeply, but my fear is throbbing into the space between us and he swoons, like a cat with a mouse that still has some life in it.
‘Not since Beggar. You know that.’ My voice dies on me.
Dad lets out another belch. ‘Can’t have pets,’ he guffaws, ‘keep dyin on im all the time. Don’t they boy?’
Oh yes. I have a line of sad little graves along the back fence. Remnants.
Troy’s eyes widen. ‘You don’t look after them properly. You can’t leave them alone. If you leave them alone the things you love get hurt. Haven’t you learnt that yet?’
‘Neglect they call it,’ says Dad into his beer.
‘That’s it,’ whispers Troy, ‘that’s exactly what they call it.’ One hand slides along the couch and he is upright again. ‘I still have Beggar.’ It’s as if he’s thinking aloud. ‘You wouldn’t recognise him now though.’
My stomach is churning. I’d found Beggar by the side of the highway, a Labrador crossed with collie crossed with generations of mutt. I’d brought him home and fed him toast and honey, and he responded with ecstatic affection, trotting round at my heels and sleeping with me on my bed. At night we would curl up together and I would talk to him about escaping and he would smile and lick my ear. We would get out together.
I’d stood up to Troy. ‘This one is mine,’ I told him. ‘You leave him alone.’
And Troy had smiled his lazy, who-gives-a-rat’s-arse smile and drawled one word.
‘Oi!’ barks Dad. ‘Your brother’s hungry. Get some food.’
A chance. I turn to the door, nonchalant as a rusty spring. ‘I’ll get some fish ‘n chips.’
But Troy is already there, leaning on the door as if for no apparent reason. It always amazes me how swift he can be in an enclosed space, when his leg has been bung since he was fifteen and came off Dale Saunder’s motorbike, shattering his hip. He could never run after that, and he always walked with a roll, turning the limp into a cowboy swagger.
But mostly he drove everywhere. Everyone in town knew, when you saw the old Holden Special cruising, it was best to be elsewhere.
Dad crushes his beer can with a thump and it sails past my head. ‘Get in the kitchen an cook something, ya lazy little runt.’
‘He wants to go to the shops,’ Troy whispers. ‘He wants to see his girlfriend.’ He starts to circle round me, rolling on his bad leg. ‘Kiddo thinks he’s in with a chance.’ And the stale smell of sex wafts around me, turning my stomach. He is getting too close again.
‘I’ll do some stew.’ I break for the kitchen, stumbling now. But I can’t get away, I don’t know why I always think I can. He’s already leaning on the cupboard as I reach for the tin of stew, fumble in the drawer for the can opener.
‘And how is my Penny?’ he croons.
I keep my head down, my hands shaking on the opener. ‘Dunno. Haven’t seen her for ages.’
It’s true. She left town after what happened, her family moved away. They had to get her away. She looked gaunt and skeletal the last time I saw her, all her sweetness, her rosy teenage flush, lost beneath eyes that howled.
Troy had always had a thing about her. Whether it was her natural gaity, that innate joy at life, or whether it was her way with me, I don’t know. She would always smile when I went in the shop, and paid me more mind than the older boys, even though she was sixteen herself. I think she felt a bit sorry for me, thought maybe I needed a big sister to look after me. There’s twelve years between me and Troy, and my Mum shot through not long after I came along. There were plenty of rumours about it. Troy and me are nothing alike.
Penny would call me Tommo and tease me with the jars of lollies ranged on the counter in front of her. I was shy – she knew I had a crush and she’d giggle as she made me blush.
The only thing that wiped the smile off her face was Troy. Her eyes were like frost with him. Once I saw her visibly shudder as she turned away from him.
He never stopped smiling though. She was like a red rag to a bull, she never stood a chance. He was always out on Thursday nights, the night she worked late at the shop. He got her one night when he knew her folks would be at the school council meeting and wouldn’t be around to walk her home.
I didn’t know what was happening, it all went on around me. All I knew was that me and Beggar were left alone. He came home late that Thursday all puffed up, with scratch marks across his face that he treated like a sports trophy. Beggar and I were in bed when Sergeant Balfour came to the door and there was some shouting and then Troy was yelling, ‘I didn’t do nothin wrong man. She was roarin for it – shit, I could barely keep up. You fuckin prove otherwise.’
And Balfour started yelling – it sounded like threats – and the door slammed, and I finally drifted off to sleep, and still I had no idea what was going on till I went into the shop after school the next day and Penny wasn’t at the counter. I loitered a bit, waiting for her to appear, but instead Mr Farucci came barreling down the aisle at me like a runaway engine, all heat and steam.
‘You get out!’ he shouted. ‘Out my shop! Now, now, out!’ He shoved me by the shoulders and when he slammed the door behind me I could see tears watering his fury and only then did I know.
There was never a trial. Penny never went back to the shop, and I only ever saw her once more, shuffling between her mother and her aunt. It was as though someone had put a vacuum to her mouth and sucked her soul out, she was nothing more than a husk. Not even her hair had any life left. I knew exactly how she felt.
Bringing up Penny always make Troy purr, this being who lives simply and only for the power of pain. It is what motivates him. It won’t be much longer now. ‘Let me help,’ he hisses behind me, and suddenly he’s beside the stove, switching on the electric hotplate for me. To full.
The worst thing I can do is cry. I know it, but still the tears start to flood down my cheeks and the tiny, useless voice in me which has caused the tears is chanting, ‘not again not again not again’, like hushed and ineffectual wailing.
Troy is behind me again, he can sniff my tears; to him they are euphoria. I turn as quickly as possible with the saucepan of stew in an attempt to evade, but it is impossible. One instant he’s beside the stove, his eyes burning the same colour as the glowing hotplate, always smiling, then he’s behind me again, his hands reaching round me to take hold of my wrists. Slowly. Always slowly. His fingers close to a vice grip and I start to whimper. Dad appears in the doorway; leans for a minute with his eyes hooded.
‘You fuckin little coward,’ he spits and turns his back.
There is a throbbing through my sleep, coming and going but incessant. And then it cleaves itself, becomes separate. I begin to recognise. It is knocking. There is someone at the door.
I must have dragged myself into the loungeroom; I have slept pressed into the corner by the window. Light glows from the edges of the dusty drapes. It must be morning. There is no sign of Troy or Dad. I try to move the curtains a touch so I can see outside, but my hands are clawed from the burns and I am clumsy. The woman standing at the front door catches the movement, and although my face is only at the window for an instant, she sees me.
She moves across the porch.
‘Hello?’ she calls through the pane. ‘Hello? Can you hear me? My name’s Karen Walker, I’m from Social Welfare and I just want to have a quick chat. Can you open the door?’
I am holding my breath, in case she hears me.
‘Tom?’ she calls gently. ‘Are you there?’
I start. It’s strange to be called Tom again. It’s confusing, it whirls with the pain in my hands. I hear footsteps and risk another peep, pulling the curtain aside with my elbow. The woman is going away.
She is gone.
I breathe carefully, so as to keep my hands as motionless as possible, and look across the long grass of the frontyard. The driveway is empty. Troy’s car is gone.
But the woman isn’t. She is back at the gate, talking to the couple from next door. They are all looking at the house. After a moment, she pulls out a mobile.
The police car arrives soon after. Two uniformed officers approach, a tall balding man and a young, fit looking woman. Leaving the neighbours at the gate, they approach the house with the woman from Social Welfare. I drop the curtain and try not to breathe.
At the front door they knock briefly, and then the male officer stands back. ‘Tom?’ he calls, ‘Tom Delany? Can you hear me?’ He pauses briefly. ‘Tom, your neighbours have reported a disturbance here last night and we need to make sure everything is all right. We need to make sure you’re all right, do you understand?’ They wait for a short while, barely a heartbeat, then he calls, ‘Tom, we’re coming in, okay?’
They separate and circle the house; it is not long until they’ve found the back door and removed the slats from the louvre window beside it. And then they are in the room with me and the women are kneeling beside me trying to see my hands, and the older man breathes the smell of burning flesh that fills the house around us and says, ‘I’ll radio for an ambulance.’
‘Bring the first aid kit,’ calls the younger officer, and then she turns my arms and her and the social welfare woman gaze at the labyrinths of scars from Troy’s previous visits.
The social welfare woman’s brow is deeply lined, her eyelids droop as though they have a huge weight behind them. ‘It’s okay,’ she says to me. ‘You’re going to be all right now,’ and to my embarrassment I begin to cry, great heaving sobs.
‘Tom, I’m Constable Newman,’ says the policewoman, her nose wrinkling as she examines my hands. ‘Tom, do you know who attacked you?’
The policeman comes back into the room. He hands them a first aid kit and takes a notebook from his breast pocket. ‘Ambulance won’t be too long,’ he says.
‘Tom,’ Constable Newman encourages. ‘Can you tell us who did this?’
And I do it. I breathe through the great waves of fear and pain, a lifetime of drowning and gasping for air, and I give them his name. Troy Delany. My brother. And a feeling of lightness, although I don’t recognise it as release, comes over me as finally the silence surrounding Troy’s visits is broken.
The older policeman is frowning, his pen unmoving over his notebook. He motions to the others and they move away from me and begin muttering together. When they come back they are gentle. The woman from social welfare looks very tired, and her hair has started to straggle from its clips. She speaks very slowly. ‘Tom, Troy Delany – your brother – that’s correct isn’t it?’ I gaze at her and suddenly I can’t move because I know what she’s about to say. ‘Tom, do you remember when your brother died?’
And like a curtain coming down, or a coffin lid closing, the memories of that day are so clear that they obliterate everything else. All at once I am moving in slow motion through it, under water again.
The rain. The unseasonal downpour that had me soaked as I, always unwilling to get home, dawdled through it. I was already wet through when I got to the gate. Troy’s car was gone.
Dad was on the couch when I slammed the door. He kicked some newspapers onto the floor and crossed his feet on the coffee table, before glancing at my sodden clothes. ‘Don’t you have a friggin brain?’ he muttered.
I headed for my bedroom, but already, as soon as the door had shut behind me, alarm bells were vibrating at the edges of my mind, bringing with them the nausea of motion sickness. I opened my bedroom door. Everything was quiet.
Dad hadn’t moved, but there was an eerie smirk on his face. I don’t think I’ve ever hated him as much as I did then.
‘What?’ he said, feigning deaf.
‘Where’s my dog?’ I was yelling.
‘Oh, the mutt.’ His smile broadened teeth. ‘Your brother’s taken him for a little drive.’
I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid. In the fortnight since Penny, Troy had been almost lethargic in his contentment, as if, snakelike, he’d gorged himself and could now only lie back and digest. He hadn’t seemed to notice us. I’d let myself feel safe. I’d let him lull me. It was my fault.
‘Where did he take him?’
Dad folded his arms behind his head. ‘Let me see …’ The sound of the storm bounced off the walls around us. ‘That’s right,’ Dad nodded, as if it had just come to him. ‘They were going to the canal.’
I’ve never run so fast in my life, but every breath that tore my chest confirmed what I already knew: I would be too late. Sure enough, the Holden was parked at the top of the rise, as close an approach as possible to the south side of the stormwater drain. It was unlocked. I opened the driver’s door, just in case there was the slightest chance that Troy was only playing games with me, and he had Beggar hidden in there. The car reeked of dog piss, it was choked with the echoes of terrified animal. The keys were still in the ignition – Troy must have been in a hurry, he would have been furious about his soiled upholstery. I put the keys in my pocket and ran along the slope of the short embankment to the opening of the stormwater.
Troy was waiting for me. As I approached he stood up and stretched elaborately in the driving rain. There was no sign of Beggar.
‘Well,’ he called out. ‘That was fun.’ Between us the canal torrented into the stormwater drain, its sides slippery with green weed.
Troy burst into delighted laughter. ‘You bastard!’ he mimicked. ‘Hey man, I had no choice. Your bloody mongrel pissed in my car. I had to give it a wash.’
His words were like a wall, my head beating against them, over and over until I was utterly dazed, drained. Troy stretched again, and starting pelting me with details from poor Beggar’s last minutes. I felt myself weakening, disintegrating under the weight of the cruelty, the burden of it – his gift to me – and then I saw the movement further down the canal bank.
Troy was facing me, so intent on shouting his awful narrative against the rain that he did not hear the blue Ford turn slowly down from the road to park under the Murphy Street bridge. Phil Mathers, Penny’s brother, and his twin, Darren, got out of the front seat, and their cousin Ricky McDowell and two other men appeared from the back.
Troy was on a roll, howling in imitation of a terrified dog, and I kept my eyes on his face but watched the men behind him start moving in our direction. Phil and Darren were about halfway to us when one of the men who’d just climbed from the backseat shut the car door behind him. The sound was just audible over the rain.
Troy spun. They were still a couple of hundred metres away, there was just time to scramble up the embankment to the car. Except that between it and him was me, standing by the gaping mouth of the stormwater with his car keys in my hand.
Troy’s face was a smorgasboard of emotion, several courses: bewilderment, confusion, disbelief, realization. And, finally, dessert.
‘It’s locked,’ I said, and threw the keys into the swirling drain. Then I turned and ran, leaving him and his cowboy roll to fend for themselves.
They couldn’t begin searching until the water subsided, and then it took them almost two days to find his body, which had snagged in some debris at a pipe junction. The inquest was short; the verdict accidental death. I was called as a witness – the last person, supposedly, to see Troy alive. Yes, I insisted, I’m up to it. When I was asked, point blank, whether Troy had been alone when I left him at the canal, I looked straight ahead, all those years of training, of keeping calm and not letting fear or doubt show, proving their worth. ‘Yes,’ I answered, truthfully, and did not raise my eyes to the Mathers family in the public gallery until I was dismissed from the witness box.
It was outside the court that I saw Penny that last time. Flanked by her mother and her aunt, she paused briefly as she shuffled past, and gave me the smallest and saddest of smiles.
At home my father threw me across the room. ‘You little turd, you left im didn’ ya? You took off an let them ave im. I saw her!’ He was foaming now. ‘You’re a fuckin coward, you useless sack of shit. Don’t think you’re gonna get away with this.’
I am being shaken. ‘Tom?’ the welfare woman is crooning. I’m blinking; she looks concerned. ‘Troy’s dead,’ I tell her.
‘Tom, we’re taking you to hospital, your hands are very badly burned and you’re obviously malnourished. She glances round the putrid room. ‘And you’ll probably need some blood tests. You’ll be kept in for evaluation too, for psychiatric assessment, okay, before we decide what’s best for you. Do you understand that?’
I can hear the siren approaching. On the couch Dad belches and chuckles. ‘See, you’re a fuckin nut. Doin all that to yourself n tryin ta blame Troy. You should be locked up.’
‘Dad,’ I gasp. The woman gives me a strange look. ‘Your Dad? Tom, can you tell us how old you are?’ She waits for me, but I’m confused, I’m not quite sure anymore. ‘Are you aware of your age Tom? Your father passed away many, many years ago. Surely you remember that, Tom.’
My arms are extended in front of me still, lengths of bone draped with withered skin. An old man’s arms. On the couch Dad chuckles again. ‘Be seein ya son,’ he calls as they manuoevre me out of the foul hovel that is my existence, my ruined hands wrapped carefully. They’re full of gentle bonhomie in the face of my confusion, promising me good food and care, a comfy bed. Some clean clothes and a cup of tea. They assure me I’ll be looked after, and I’ll be safe. It’ll be a change, to be looked after. But safe?
I know, as sure as the bones that still hold me together, that Dad and Troy will find me, wherever I am taken. I am not a boy anymore, long past, but I still know the laws of nature. They will always find me, no matter how secure the doors. I will always have to pay. I close my eyes as I’m wheeled out into the sunshine.