On the morning that it happens he leaves early, slipping out after breakfast and mounting his bike to ride the block and a half to Nick’s house, the sound of the wheels loud in the quiet of the winter morning as he accelerates away down the gentle slope to the corner.
Outside Nick’s he dumps his bike and hurries in. Despite having agreed to the expedition in a roundabout way two days before Nick is still in bed, reading; as he enters Nick does not greet him, only grunts and turns back to his book.
Although he does not like it he knows this routine, knows that if all goes well Nick will soon grow bored with it, deign to speak to him, and so he is not surprised when a few moments later Nick puts down the book and swings his feet to the floor.
When they spoke on Friday the plan was to go alone, and early, but now he is here Nick seems intent on delaying their departure for as long as possible, eating and showering with exaggerated slowness. Although he knows Nick’s behaviour is deliberate, that it is designed to unsettle him, he is afraid to hurry him for fear Nick will simply change his mind, refuse to accompany him at all, meaning it is almost midday before they are finally on their way.
Away from Nick’s house things are different, the barriers between them falling away to be replaced by the ease of the friendship they once shared. Carelessly they wind their bikes in looping paths between parked cars and along gutters, each taking turns to chase the other as they pedal north towards the Flats.
Perhaps it is this very carelessness that means he does not realise they are passing Liam’s street until Nick turns aside, angling his bike away towards the bluestone villa behind the scrappy nectarine trees, the shock of it bringing him skidding to a halt, his stomach clenching as he watches Nick guide his bike through the open gate and disappear.
Uncertain what to do he wheels his bike towards the gate. Although he has visited Liam once or twice with Nick he is confident following him in today would not help his cause. And so he stands outside and waits. Five minutes pass, then ten, fifteen, then without warning first Liam and then Nick appear at the end of the drive; seeing him Liam raises one hand in mock salute, the gesture interrupted by a word from Nick, quick, stifled laughter.
Back on the road he rides ahead of the two of them, his cheeks and ears hot with anger. He does not know whether Nick planned this meeting or not, but either way it is not what he wanted, and he is sure Nick knows that.
Yet as the last of the buildings fall away, and he pedals out into the open space, he is surprised to find he no longer cares. What matters is what lies ahead, the possibilities of the Flats themselves, and so as he drops his bike behind the first of the low bushes and moves off across the vacant land beyond he has to fight the urge to whoop and shout. Looking back he sees Nick and Liam setting down their bikes as well, their figures already small against the empty space, and for a moment feels the strength of his certainty that they do not know this place as well as he, do not understand its point.
From the road the land looks flat, a barren stretch of ground broken only by the occasional clump of bushes or stunted tree. Yet at its centre flows a creek, a deep channel surmounted by crumbling walls of eroded earth, and as he runs his path describes an arc towards it, chasing first along its lip and then, as the others catch him, down the bank towards the pungent water at its bottom.
Down here the air is cold, the low winter sun obscured by the ground above, but they do not care, moving by unspoken assent along the course of the creek, hopping from stone to stone and branch to branch with easy grace, the attempt not to slip into the dark water that pools beneath them quickly becoming an entertainment in itself, the roles of pursuer and pursued shifting from one to another as they go. Although he is smaller than the other two he runs harder, and so it is he who is the first to round the bend into the basin where the stream gathers at the entrance to the concrete drain that bears it away into the estuary beyond. Pausing he glances around, sees Liam grin, and knows his role has changed, that he is quarry now, the knowledge sending him powering on and up the side of the creek towards the dirt road that runs over the drain, the broken earth slipping beneath him as he goes, so he emerges stumbling and only half upright, his stance and momentum giving him time to observe the car in front of him and drop behind a bush.
The car is parked ten or fifteen metres from where he lies, angled away from him along the line of the dirt track so the rear and driver’s sides are visible.
It should not be here, he knows that at once. Cars never come here. But it is not the car’s presence that stills him so much as the figure of the man who sits motionless at its wheel.
It is clear the man has not seen him, for which he is glad, because there is something in the way he sits staring at the road ahead that unnerves him, something unnatural.
Behind him he hears the others lower themselves to the ground, and glancing around sees they feel the wrongness in the moment as well. It is not, he realises now, simply the man’s motionlessness that so unsettles him. Rather it is the sense they are seeing something people are not usually allowed to see, as if this cold, uncanny stillness is a secret, something only glimpsed because the man at the wheel thinks that he is unobserved.
And then they see the girl.
It was his father who first brought him here. A winter afternoon a few weeks after his ninth birthday. Exactly what prompted the visit wasn’t clear to him. Perhaps his mother had asked his father to get him and his brothers out of the house for a few hours while she studied; perhaps his father took them of his own volition, some expedition of his own in mind.
They drove that day, he and his two brothers in a row across the back seat of his parents’ station wagon. At first he had thought they were going to the sandhills at West Beach, but just past the sewage works his father turned inland, following the road up past Sturt Creek and turning off onto a track leading to a padlocked gate and a patch of scrub.
He knew this land, of course. It was visible as you drove along Tapleys Hill Road past the airport or along Military Road past Marineland, a lonely space of low scrub and former wetland now dotted with saltbush and marram grass that stretched for a kilometre or so in both directions. Yet it was only as their father lifted one of his brothers over the gate in defiance of the sign forbidding unauthorised entry that it occurred to him it must be one of those places associated with his father’s childhood, with the wilder landscape of fields and sandhills that often seems to linger somewhere close to the surface of his memory.
That first day the place seemed a wonderland, and so the next weekend he came again, this time with Nick, the two of them pedalling their bikes the three or four kilometres from their homes in Glenelg. It was cold that day, but bright, the shadows of the clouds moving fast across the broken ground as they ran and kicked and dug. Late in the afternoon, as they returned to the place where they had concealed their bikes, they were startled by a fox that sat watching them beside a bush, its head following them as they moved into the clearing, the sight bringing them to a halt. For a long second none of them moved, the fox sitting, watching them, so close they could smell its sharp scent, see the texture of its fur, the sharp teeth in its small snout. Then with an unhurried motion it turned its head and loped away, disappearing silently into the gathering night.
Since then they have come many times, riding out past the waters of the Patawalonga to fight and play and explore. That they are not meant to be here is obvious from the fences and the signs, yet they do not care. It has always been a special place for them, a secret place, even their name for it – and it is their name for it, for he has never heard it used by anybody else – ‘the Flats’, not so much a description of a physical location as of some other, more private landscape, distinguished not by its geography, but by its isolation, its remove. Yet despite the secrecy, most of their time here has been spent in relatively innocent activities: performances of hunting and warfare against invisible foes played out over long hours and culminating in attacks on imaginary foxholes in the scrub and charges down the faces of the sandhills to the west, or expeditions to capture lizards and frogs and the huge black beetles that make the place their home, the ammoniac secretions of which stain their hands and clothes and linger for hours or days.
But there have been other games as well. For a time they took to lighting fires, spilling methylated spirits on the ground and watching the blue flames flicker into life, or holding lighters beneath spray cans to create great licks of flame with which they would sear bushes and grass or pin down the fleeing beetles so they kicked and cooked, their spidery limbs curling and melting in the flames.
Nor were the beetles all of it. One day, a year or so ago, the two of them stopped at the pet shop on Jetty Road on their way over and bought two mice. The man in the shop knew them both, trusted them, and so when they told him they had bought a cage he did not argue, did not ask to see their parents for permission. Instead he packed the mice into a box, waved goodbye to the two of them as they left.
That day they played with the mice, letting them run here and there in little traps they built, but as the afternoon bled away their games grew rougher and more elaborate, until at last they began launching them up into the air to see how far they could fall without dying. The week after, they bought two more mice, and again the week after that, each time devising new games, new experiments, hurling them across the landscape in cardboard containers as if they were test animals in jet fighters or burying them alive in jars to see how long they lived.
Looking back he cannot recall the motivation for these experiments, nor which of the two of them was the driving force behind them. In his mind they seem to have been conceived and carried out without discussion or negotiation. Nor does he really understand why they stopped, for they were never caught. Instead the game just petered out and ended as it had begun, without words or argument.
It was wrong, of course, he knows that. Yet he feels no regret, and neither, he suspects, does Nick. Even the thought of the mice themselves, their small bodies loose and warm in his hand, arouses neither shame nor remorse, simply the same dull surprise they could be so easily broken that he felt at the time.
Although he has not asked him, he is reasonably certain Nick has not told Liam about the mice. In a way this is not surprising: the thought of anybody else knowing about those games is almost physically disturbing, an invasion of some deep and essential privacy. Yet it is also heartening, because it is a reminder that for all that has changed between the two of them they still share this place, still share the memory of their hours here.
Exactly how they know something is about to happen is not clear to him. Yet as the man opens the door and steps out, all three shrink away into the cover of the bushes. He is tall, they realise now, taller certainly than they had imagined, and there is something chillingly measured about the way he moves.
For a few seconds he stands, scanning the horizon, one hand raised to shield his eyes, which are obscured behind dark-brown glasses. Then, his survey complete, he turns back to the car, and with an unhurried motion extends a hand to open the back door. From within they hear a whimper, see the shape of the girl as she shrinks away from him.
She is younger than the three of them but not by much; ten, maybe twelve, a child’s long limbs protruding from her oversized jumper. As he pulls her free of the car she tries to twist away from him, and as she does he yanks her arm, hard, so she cries out and stumbles, her free hand breaking her fall as she slumps to her knees.
For a long moment the man stands, looking down at her huddled against the side of the car, his expression distant, as if he is studying her. Then, almost casually, he turns, dragging her after him towards the rear of the car. At first she does not resist, or only feebly, but then, as he releases one hand and reaches into his pocket for his keys, she seems to understand what he intends, and begins to writhe and fight, screaming and pulling and pleading as he fumbles with the lock. As the boot pops open he reaches in with his free hand and withdraws a piece of cloth. Then with a savage, chilling swiftness he grabs the girl’s hair and pulls her close, balling the cloth and shoving it into her mouth.
The girl’s body thrashes away from him with a new wildness as his fingers press the cloth in, her feet scrabbling and fighting until she loses her balance and hangs suspended by her hair. But he does not let go or loosen his grip, just takes a step forward to balance the weight and then drops her to the ground beneath one knee, his hands moving quickly, certainly, as he binds her limbs and finally, fumbling a little under the awkward weight of her, lifts her struggling form and rolls it into the boot.
At the sound of the boot slamming one of them sobs, and with a jerk the man’s head turns, seeking the source of the sound. Instinctively they shrink back, pressing their faces down into the cold earth. For a long moment nothing happens, then they hear him take a step forward, pause, then another and another. Too frightened to move they lie still, the ground pressed against their faces, listening to the sound of him approaching. And then, when it seems he must be almost on top of them, he stops. Unable to move they can only imagine him standing there, only imagine his eyes seeking out their bodies sprawled behind the bush. Only imagine the attack when it comes. But then, just when they are certain he must have seen them he moves again, away this time, towards the road and the waiting car.
A few months ago it would only have been the two of them here to see what they have seen. Back then, in the years before they began high school, he and Nick had been friends for as long as either could remember, their weekends and holidays spent roaming the streets together or idling at each other’s house.
Their closeness was not entirely accidental: although their parents are no longer close, there had been a time when the four of them were friends, when the fact of two boys of similar age had been a blessing in disguise, a way of sharing the burden of entertaining small children. But however it had begun, the bond the two boys had formed as children had been real, and longstanding.
Yet for all their closeness the friendship was never an equal one. Perhaps because of the nine months between them, perhaps simply through a quirk of temperament, Nick had always been dominant; harder, more sophisticated, more prone to chafe at the limitations of the relationship.
Whether he had understood this before they started high school was not clear to him now. Looking back he can see the way Nick began to attempt to put distance between the two of them even before the school year began; the way he avoided him in those last weeks of the holidays, refusing his invitations to visit, ignoring him when he was in the room.
At the time he assumed it was simply part of the push and pull of their relationship, which had always been shaped by Nick’s mercurial nature. But now he sees that Nick had already decided to be somebody new at high school, and that the single biggest drag on that process was him and his friendship.
It took time, of course, for him to understand this. Certainly that first morning, when he arrived late, and unsettled, having waited for Nick until he could wait no longer, he did not see it. All he saw was Nick already sitting in the playground when he arrived, chatting with a knot of kids he did not know, the dismissive way Nick greeted him as he approached, smiling mockingly and turning aside to speak to his new friends.
By recess, though, it was clear. Assigned to different classes, he passed the first period alone, emerging to find Nick and Liam deep in conversation. But it was not Nick who turned as he approached, but Liam, who gazed at him with amused contempt as he drew close, his face registering the way Nick would not look at him, the way he shook his head almost imperceptibly each time he spoke.
Perhaps it would have been different had he left Nick there, walked away, but he did not. Instead he has clung on, seeking to intrude himself into their friendship, to preserve some semblance of his former closeness with Nick. And in so doing he has acquired a role he does not even begin to know how to escape, treated not as an equal but as a sort of joke, excluded from invitations, left standing on corners, taunted and belittled in the company of girls.
Sometimes, of course, it is too much. Only a month ago Nick mocked him once too often in the street outside the school, and in a rage he threw himself at him, punching and kicking him, words coming from his mouth that he did not recognise, until at last Liam and another kid pulled him off, his limbs still flailing, eyes blind with tears. But more often he is left brooding on his own, remembering their barbs and insults, making plans he knows he will not keep to leave the two of them to their own devices, to make new friends, to leave the school, his parents’ home, to run away.
Nor is it just at school that he feels this sense of powerlessness. Once or twice his mother has tried to talk to him, to understand what is happening, but he cannot speak to her, cannot begin to explain his shame and confusion. Because even if he did, what could she do? How could he trust her not to scream at him as she did the time he smashed the model plane his parents gave him for his birthday into pieces? The same model plane Nick had told him to bring to school to show his classmates, then made them laugh about as he stood with it in his hand, his pride curdling into shame and anger.
How long they lie there after the car has gone he could not say. Five minutes, maybe more. All he knows is that it is long enough for him to close his eyes, to lose himself in the sulphurous stink of the soil, to think how easy it would be not to move again, to vanish down into the earth and disappear.
When at last one of them moves it startles him. Lifting his head he sees Nick has rolled to his feet and is standing a little off to one side.
His legs shaking beneath him, he stands as well, brushing ineffectually at the sticks and dirt that cling to him. Nick does not look at him.
‘Nick?’ he says again, moving closer. When Nick does not answer he lifts a hand, touches his sleeve; but Nick jerks back and away, his shoulder leaping violently at the contact.
‘What?’ Nick demands, staring at him, and as he speaks he understands Nick is afraid.
‘Nothing,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘nothing.’
Looking around he sees Liam staring at the two of them. He has been crying, and his face is pale.
‘What should we do?’ he asks, aware of the way his voice cracks as he speaks, but Nick does not answer. Around them the quiet seems to have grown.
For a space of seconds none of them speaks. Somewhere in the distance a bird cries, a high-pitched sound that repeats over and over.
‘Who do you think he was?’ he asks, turning to Liam, but Liam doesn’t answer. ‘Do you think the police are looking for him?’
Behind him Nick bends down to pick up a stick, raising it easily and weighing it in his hand, something in the looseness and ease of the motion communicating an edge to Nick he has not seen before now, something wild, almost frightening. Catching his eye Nick raises his eyebrows, goggling his eyes in mock terror.
‘I don’t know,’ he smirks, darting his head from side to side. ‘Do you?’
Glancing back he sees Liam shift uneasily from foot to foot.
‘This isn’t funny.’
‘No?’ Nick asks. ‘Who says? I think it’s funny.’ As he speaks he lunges forward, wobbling his arms and body in a parody of dismay. Behind him Liam gives a sudden snort.
He hesitates, confused. ‘I don’t understand. We have to tell somebody.’ But as he speaks Nick turns away, as if already bored with the argument, and lifting his stick brings it down across the top of a bush, severing the top of it with a single stroke.
He turns to look at Liam. But Liam will not look at him, will not meet his eye.
As they move away from him he tries again, his voice already weak.
‘Nick,’ he says, ‘please. We have to tell someone.’
But Nick does not slow down, just keeps walking, his arm rising and falling as he strikes at the low clumps of saltbush scattered around him.
‘Jesus, Nick, didn’t you see?’ he demands, his voice cracking. All of a sudden Nick stops.
‘See what?’ he asks.
‘You heard me. See what?’
For a long moment there is silence, the only sound that of the motion of the stick in Nick’s hand, the swish of the air around it.
Liam is looking at him now as well.
‘The girl,’ he says weakly. ‘And the man. And the car.’ Nick smiles.
‘Did you see a car?’ he asks Liam.
For a long moment Liam does not reply. He still looks frightened, but the fear is passing, replaced by something else. Finally he swallows, licks his lips.
‘No,’ he says.
And as Liam speaks he understands: it is like the mice last year, this game – not personal, or cruel, simply something they can do, without care or regret, a thing that will not weigh on them, but lighten them, let them move with purpose amongst others who do not share it, who are not enjoined in the knowledge of what has happened here. And as he does he sees the nature of the choice he is being offered, of the decision he will make.
It is almost dark by the time he reaches home, the late winter afternoon already giving way to evening, the icy air thick with the scent of the gathering dew and woodsmoke. In the driveway as he drops his bike he can hear the sound of his family in the kitchen at the house’s rear, hear the blare of the television, but as he enters the darkened hallway he does not go to the warmth of that room or the sound of their voices. Instead he turns aside into the room he shares with his younger brother and, clambering up the ladder to his bunk, turns himself on his side on the rumpled quilt, his muddy shoes still on his feet, his jacket tight across his back.
In the dark he feels the grip of the cold against his back, his neck, but he does not reach for the blanket, just draws his legs in closer to his chest. Ordinarily he hates the cold, but tonight he is thankful for it, thankful for the way it holds him, isolates him, the way it lets him feel somehow separate from himself, as if he were moving outside his body, and onwards, into the silent space of the night.
In a few minutes he will hear the television news beginning, hear the newsreaders’ voices talking, the way the room goes still for a heartbeat or two; in a few minutes more the sound of his parents in the hall outside, their voices low but the words audible in the stillness: another child taken, a girl this time, from the football oval.
And as they speak he will realise that they do not know he is here, that they have not heard him come in. He will hear his mother wonder whether they should call Nick’s parents, ask where he is, and as she speaks he will whimper, and his mother will appear in the doorway and say his name, his father at her shoulder, then cross to him, her hand touching the icy flesh of his face before she backs away, tells his father to turn on the light.
He will resist, of course, pulling away from her and huddling in on himself as they ply him with questions, asking if he is sick, or hurt in some way, until, quite suddenly, he feels himself begin to weep, the tears coming from him in great, juddering gasps that go on and on.
Yet even as he weeps he will know he is not crying for the girl but for himself, for the knowledge he has lost something, for the emptiness that will come. For he knows already he cannot undo this thing, cannot make it different, that all the things that will happen will happen, and he will do nothing to prevent them. And he is right, of course. At school in the morning Nick and Liam will act as if nothing occurred, listening to the kids in the yard discuss the story as if they were not a part of it, as if they did not know what went on. In another week or two the police will appeal again for information; a fortnight later they will wind back the search, the body still not located. In three months his father will move away, first to a rented flat a few streets away and, later, as his parents’ assurances the arrangement will not be permanent are replaced by the certainty that it will, to a rented house in the city’s south-western corner, and later to another in the hills, large enough to house his new wife and family, the man he once knew as his father gradually becoming somebody else, somebody friendly but somehow distant, like a former teacher or old neighbour encountered by mistake.
And all the while he will continue on, going to school, growing older, going through the motions of the life he finds around him, the memory of that day growing more distant yet never fading, until it sometimes seems it will never leave, that his life will be defined by it. And yet he never speaks of it, never mentions it to anyone – except once, at sixteen, when he asks Nick if he ever thinks about that day, ever wonders what happened to her, and Nick tells him to stop fucking around, that the events he is describing never happened, that he has imagined them, or dreamed them, Nick’s sincerity so genuine he wonders for a time whether Nick is right and he did dream it, whether this whole thing might be imaginary, a figment of his mind, before deciding it is not, and that it is Nick who has somehow put it behind himself or misremembered.
In time he finishes school, goes to university, fails a year, transfers to a different degree, meets new friends, then a girl, finds a job, then another; each new step, each new stage loosening the bonds of the past a little more, until at last he decides to leave altogether and moves to Sydney, cutting his ties to his old life, his old friends in the belief it might be possible to start again as somebody new. Meanwhile Nick becomes a banker, moving first to Tokyo, then to New York, and finally to London, the two of them still meeting sometimes if they are in the same city, the distance between them something they seem to be able to ignore for a night now and then. For a time in their early twenties, when Liam is in his final years of medical school, the two of them become close almost by accident, a sudden friendship springing up for reasons neither quite understands, but both know are somehow connected to the events of that day, and more distantly to Nick’s departure. But it does not last, the two of them falling out of contact in the weeks and months after Liam’s graduation, the separation between them somehow more final, more deliberate than that between he and Nick, so it is many years before a mutual friend tells him of Liam’s decision to specialise in psychiatry, his appointment to a university in California.
And as his twenties fade he finds himself thinking less of that day, the memory of the boy he was falling away somehow, supplanted by a different, easier version of himself, until at last, at thirty, whole weeks will pass without him thinking about the man, the girl, the car, so that sometimes he wonders whether indeed it ever happened, whether Nick mightn’t have been right all those years before, that the entire event was something he concocted in his mind, all that anxiety and self-loathing self-inflicted.
But then he has children himself, daughters, and somehow it returns, flooding back, filling his mind, until he no longer knows how to contain it, and he decides he has to tell someone, share it somehow. And so, unable to sleep, he speaks the story into the darkness of the room, listening as he speaks to the sound of his wife’s breath in the quiet beside him, thinking as he does not just of the story but of her, of the warmth of her legs, her breasts, the curve of her belly and back, the way the intimacy of their life together and their children is written into both of them, these things filling his mind even as he hears her breath catch, hears the way his words have disturbed something in her, as he feels her body stiffen against his, draw away.
And in that moment he will know – I will know – that I have sundered something, that some trust between us is gone, that what was has not passed, not yet, not ever.
Originally published in 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011.