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EWB Second Winner

 

Run

 

When Patrick yelled, ‘Lachlan, run!’, I left the chooks to their fate - the roof of their coop flapping wildly - and hared towards the house, lurching over glass that lay in drifts across the decking, and made it inside just as the electricity died. The four of us took refuge in the hallway, thinking we’d be safer there in that dark narrow space than near those windows that hadn’t shattered yet. After huddling for hours hearing unseen things skitter and bang in the unholy wind, it grew quiet and Dad barked at us to ‘stay there’, but we stumbled out after him anyway and stood blinking in the sallow light of dawn at the reconfigured landscape that lay before us.

After the cyclone, we sold our house and pulverized banana plantation for what Dad described as ‘a song’ and bought a house in town, a bilious-green fibro house set above stilts. Dad got a job at the local food co-op, Mum as a hairdresser’s assistant. Patrick and I rode our bikes to school, cutting across the grounds of the defunct cannery, mindful of the broken bottles discarded by teenagers who congregated there at night, and the bindi-eyes that could pierce our tyres. With his good looks and wry humour, Patrick thrived at school. I endured it.

On muck-up day, two weeks before Patrick’s final exams, Patrick told me I was on the hit-list of younger boys to be beaten up, in my case by Joel Withers who’d caught me mimicking the way he walked like a bikie on steroids. He advised me to stay home. So I wasn’t there when the school’s rock band set up on the roof of the hall and played Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’, the other kids cheering from the parking lot below, the principal, a megaphone pressed to his mouth, ordering the band members to ‘get down, get down here right now!’ I didn’t witness Patrick’s slow slide down the corrugated iron, his grappling to catch hold of something to halt his fall, the bass guitar still slung over his shoulder, the amp tumbling after him. With my headphones on I didn’t even hear the bleat of the ambulance.

He was hospitalised for weeks, in rehab even longer. When he came home, his legs were like those of a newborn foal. Stairs being out of the question, Mum and Dad attempted to make the space under the house seem homely, laying second-hand carpet over the dirt floor, fixing plasterboard to the walls. Despite their efforts, it looked draughty, makeshift.

Doctors kept telling Patrick it could have been worse, but he couldn’t see how. He couldn’t piss or shit normally, couldn’t walk without a halo vest nor, he told me in a rare moment of intimacy, could he ‘get it up’. But the doctors were confident that in time he would make a full recovery.

For his eighteenth, Dad bought him a TV, which he hooked up so Patrick could watch it in bed. Mum bought him a fish tank and a pair of goldfish. I got my mate Andre’s brother to buy a slab of Four X and gave him that. When Patrick’s friends turned up, Dad went all out and ordered the takeaway banquet from Dumpling Heaven across the road. Patrick acted like he was pleased.

I envisaged that once Patrick could stand up straight, could walk without holding on to anything, he’d become his old insouciant self again. That he’d move back upstairs, eat with us, whistle his infuriating whistle, tease me like he used to. But he stayed downstairs in the semi-dark, smoking dope and chowing down painkillers. His girlfriend stopped coming over, new ones appeared, women rather than girls. When he went out, he didn’t say where he was going. When he did say, it was mostly lies. Strangers began to drop by. People you’d normally cross the road to avoid.

It was sultry the afternoon the police arrived with a warrant to search what Dad had taken to calling ‘Patrick’s lair’. If they hoped to find drugs, they were disappointed. But they found firearms and recently stolen goods. As he was being manhandled into the back of a divvy van, he glanced up at the balcony, ‘Lachlan,’ he yelled, ‘look after my fish’.

That night, after Mum had dosed up on Valium and gone to bed, Dad and I sat watching TV on mute because we couldn’t find the remote. (Could Patrick have appropriated that too, like he had the clock Dad’s ancestors had carted back from Belgium and the emerald ring Mum’s grandmother had bequeathed her?)

It was dead-still, sweltering. Dad had made himself a cup of tea, I was clutching a Coke zero. The frogs outside were going berserk.

‘Well,’ said Dad, exhaling, ‘there’ll be no avoiding jail for him this time.’

‘Guess not.’And I was glad of it.

‘You never know, it could just be the making of him. He might just get the help he needs in there,’ Dad mused, as if prison was full of well-meaning guards and rehab programs and not awash with drugs. As if a pretty boy like Patrick wouldn’t be considered fair game.

We heard Bernadette next door empty her recycling bin and Hao rattling the keys to the Chinese restaurant as he pulled the door shut. Wasn’t until I glanced across at Dad that I realised he was crying and all I could think of doing was to sip my drink and pretend I hadn’t noticed.

Before the news of the arrest spread, Patrick’s associates dropped by as usual – debt collectors, junkie friends, dealers, people who needed somewhere to crash for the night.

‘When’s it going to stop?’ Mum wailed when, after finding Patrick’s lair empty, some of them climbed the stairs and knocked on our door. ‘What have we done to deserve this!’

Even after the media reports, there was a trickle of uninvited visitors looking for Patrick, enough for Mum and Dad to put our house on the market and search for somewhere to rent on the other side of town, where they hoped if they kept a low profile, they could live quietly, anonymously.

‘I’m not coming,’ I announced. I was quarterway through Year 12 and Jacinta Harlow had finally started letting me hang out with her. Jacinta, with her long honey-coloured hair and long honey-coloured body and her deadpan humour. ‘I’m going to stay at Andre’s.’ (Andre’s mum thought I was ‘a lovely boy’, which wasn’t saying much since her four sons treated her like shit.) I didn’t think Mum would stand for it, but to my surprise, she acquiesced, saying ‘I’d rather you didn’t, Lachlan, but I really haven’t got the energy right now to fight with you about it’, which made me feel a little sad and a little guilty, although not enough for me to change my mind. So, I shifted into Andre’s room, sleeping on a mattress and dreaming about Jacinta, and having lukewarm showers after the brothers had used up the hot water.

Most weekends, I went to stay at Mum and Dad’s new abode, an exposed brick house with a small Gilligan’s Island-themed backyard. Dad had found work at a wholesale palm nursery, Mum dished out breakfast at the aged care home down the road. I fed Patrick’s fish and worked out with Patrick’s old weights. Sometimes when I got there, Mum wasn’t around, she was off playing the pokies at the RSL a bus stop away.

‘Really, Dad?’ I said when I first heard. ‘The pokies?’

Dad shrugged. ‘Whatever helps you get through.’

Each month Dad made the long trek to visit Patrick in prison. Mum visited once, but

affronted by the fingerprinting and paperwork, the sniffer dogs and body scan, she wouldn’t go again. She sent him a letter and a $140 postal order once a month. I refused to go no matter how hard Dad tried to persuade me. Why would I after what he’d done to us?

‘He’s changed, Lachlan,’ Dad told me. ‘Honestly. He’s turned over a new leaf.’

I’d have loved a dollar for every time Dad had said that – after Patrick hooked up with Phoebe the physio, whose toddler took to calling him ‘Dada’, only to have the kid’s real ‘Dada’ turn up and split Patrick’s lip; after he emerged, full of plans and promises (all of them subsequently broken) from a three-week stint at the private rehab clinic Mum and Dad sold their car to pay for; after he declared he’d enrolled in engineering at James Cook uni (total bullshit) and just needed an ‘advance’ on the fee.

‘But this time he really has,’ Dad insisted.

Patrick’s fish had names, Dad told me eight months into Patrick’s sentence – Hermes and Apollo. They seemed listless. Did fish feel the heat? The weekend stretched ahead, a bland, humid space. Dad, leaning against the bedroom doorway, said, ‘What’s say we go to the pool?’ He’d been avoiding public places, afraid of bumping into people he knew, afraid of their pity and curiosity, their pretending they hadn’t seen him.

‘Yeah, okay. Why not.’

After he’d left me to change into my boardies, I peered down into the fish tank and, seeing me above them, the fish sashayed up, their big eyes bulging. When I went to give them a pinch of flakes, my fingers struck something hard. I tipped the flakes to one side.

Underneath lay a circle of glass. Beneath that, a plastic bag full of white powder.

‘Oh my god!’

‘What’s that, Lachlan?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You ready?’

‘Nearly.’

‘Oi, Lucky!’

I was dinking Jacinta home from school when I heard the shout. There was only one person who called me Lucky, Blake Calderwell. By the time he stepped out in front of us it was too late to switch direction. Too late to do anything but pretend to be unafraid.

Tall, jittery, inked up to his chin, Blake took hold of the handlebars. ‘Lucky, mate. How ya doin’?’

Jacinta dismounted and went to stand behind me.

‘Good, Blake. Great. You?’

‘I bin lookin’ for your bro. Went to the house. New people, you know?’

‘He’s doing time. Thought you would’ve heard. I’ll tell him you were asking about him.’

When Blake grinned he looked like the old Blake who used to help me fix my tyre when Patrick said he was too busy. The old Blake who let me sip his beer when no one was looking. That was before his dad’s quad bike accident. Before he dropped out of school and worked at the service station. Before he was caught taking the five-finger discount.

‘Thing is, Lucky, he owes me bigtime. I bin patient, you know, like really super fucken patient, but I got some troubles, if you know what I mean. I got things I gotta sort out pronto or I might not look quite so pretty next week. I need that money back now,’ he said, scuffing at the ground with his boot.

‘Okay, I get it. I’ll see what I can do.’

‘I know ya will.’Another of his old grins. ‘The cannery. Tomorrow night. At nine. Two grand’ll do it.’

‘Two grand?’ I said, my bowel spasming.

‘Two grand, and that’s mates’ rates.’

‘Like I said,’ I told him, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Thing is, Lucky, your folks won’t have gone far and I wouldn’t want to be bothering them.’ He shifted his gaze to what he could see of Jacinta cowering behind me. ‘Or your friends.’

It didn’t occur to me to tell Mum and Dad or to alert the police, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was seeing the concern on Jacinta’s face, having her plead with me not to go, and hold on to me as if I were a soldier heading to war. It made me feel noble, emboldened. That is, until late the following day.

‘Maybe he won’t show,’ said Andre, trying to dispel the sense of doom that had descended on me.

‘He’ll show,’ I said, grimly.

‘Here,’ he said, handing me one of his prize possessions, a hip flask. ‘Whisky.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Maybe whoever’s after him has already de-prettified him.’

‘Doubt it.’

‘Maybe he’ll be struck by lightning.’

‘Andre, enough.’

‘But they forecast a storm.’

By the time I set off from Andre’s, my bravado had drained away and even swigs of whisky didn’t calm my nerves.

It was dark at the cannery. No moon. No stars. No teenagers on account of the rain. Never had I felt so alone. The hip flask was almost empty. The slightest noise had me spin around. I checked my phone every few minutes. It was after nine. I felt a drop of rain, then another. I counted down from a hundred twice, started again and got to a hundred and fifty- five when Blake snuck up behind me and got me in a headlock.

‘You got it?’

‘Not cash, but -’

His grip on my windpipe tightened.

‘You’re shittin’ me, right?’

When I held up the bag of white powder, flapped it close enough to his face for him to see it, he eased off a little, snatched it with his spare hand.

‘If I find this is anything else than what I think it is -’

‘You won’t.’ My voice sounded like it hadn’t broken yet, like I just might ask him to fix my bike tyre again.

My knees almost buckled when he let go of me. Air had never tasted so pure. ‘We’re all good then, Lucky. Peace be with ya, bro.’

I moved back in with Mum and Dad when I finished school, into the single room that looked out onto the backyard with its bamboo bar and S S Minnow life buoy. Dad got me a job propagating at the nursery. It was hot, dirty, mindless work, but I had no intention of staying there long; Jacinta and I planned to backpack around South America, eating empanadas, and drinking Coronas, soon as we had enough money.

The day of Patrick’s release, I went to the cinema without knowing what was showing (Dune: Part 2, as it happened), threw back handfuls of salted popcorn and tried to lose myself in the film. Then I went to the hotel opposite, where I sat in the corner, drinking beer and watching a dart championship on the screen above the bar. I was the only customer left when the woman who’d been serving all night came over, saying ‘You alright there, honey?’ She looked younger away from the bar’s fluoro light, almost pretty. I might have considered starting a conversation with her had I not been feeling raw a month after Jacinta had dumped me for some guy she’d met at the gym. ‘Just so you know,’ she added, ‘we’re closing in ten.’ Draining my drink, I thought back to the cyclone, to the four of us clutching each other in the dark and I wondered whether it wasn’t the best night of my life.

It was almost midnight when I got back. The lights were still on. Patrick and Dad were sitting at the kitchen table, a teapot between them. Patrick stood up, his arms out. I submitted to his embrace. He felt thin, even the hair on his head seemed thin, pared back to a no-colour stubble.

‘Where you been, man? I missed you heaps,’ he said, his eyes looked unnaturally large.

It was embarrassing, him holding me, staring at me like he was searching for something.

‘Did Dad tell you?’ he asked, finally releasing me.

‘What?’

‘That I got to know someone special?’

The last time Patrick had got to know ‘someone special’ it was Kylie, the copper-haired nurse-turned-stripper who, if she wasn’t able to help him with his sexual hydraulics, was able to supply him with the opioids he couldn’t get enough of when there wasn’t a doctor in the region who’d write him another script for Endone or a pharmacist who’d fill it. Kylie, who we blamed for Patrick’s mood swings and insomnia, his hypervigilance and apathy, his downfall. ‘No.’

‘Well, aren’t you gonna ask me who it is?’

‘Okay, who is it?’

‘Jesus.’

I glanced at Dad to see if he was in on the joke.

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously. He’s turned my life around. Thanks to His love, I’m a new man.’

‘Yeah, right.’

Patrick talked about God the way he used to talk about girls when he was a teenager or about pain after the accident. Incessantly. He’d say things like, ‘Remember the cyclone, Lachlan? Remember how you were near the chicken coop, and I told you to run? That was God speaking through me. You could’ve been sliced in half by that roofing iron. Hear what I’m saying? He loves you.’ Or ‘Ever wonder how I survived that fall, Lachlan? He was shielding me.’ Or ‘Don’t hate me, Lachlan. It goes against His teaching.’

But hate was the only thing I was sure of. I stayed out later and later just to avoid him.

‘I found it,’ I informed him one morning when I saw him gazing at the fish tank, ‘what you hid in the fish food container.’ ‘Oh right, that.’

‘I got rid of it.’

I waited for him to react - to curse, to grab the front of my shirt, to ask me what the hell I’d done with it. I wanted him to know how terrified I was that night at the cannery, how I thought I might die. I wanted the real Patrick to show himself.

But Patrick said, ‘I’d forgotten all about it, but, hey, thanks.’

The Salvos found Patrick accommodation near Mum and Dad’s, a room in a share house with two recovering alcoholics and a heavily sedated schizophrenic. The room was four by four metres with scuffed walls, a louvre window, a wardrobe – its door attached by an ockie strap - and a mattress. Patrick was grateful, said it was all he needed. On Saturday nights Mum forewent the pokies and Dad fired up the barbecue because that was the night Patrick came over for dinner. He told us about the girl he’d met through church – a fellow volunteer at the soup kitchen where Patrick worked – and how he was thinking of studying theology. And Mum and Dad lapped it up like he hadn’t ruined their lives.

One night Dad talked me into going to the local League match with him and Patrick. It was the final and I guess Dad wanted people to see that Patrick had turned his life around. Patrick’s hair had begun to grow back, there was more meat on his bones. In his white t-shirt and clean jeans, he looked respectable. It was foggy, people loomed out of the gloam like zombies, all of them heading to the match. As I trailed behind them, I noticed Patrick’s limp and how Dad, as he talked, leaned in towards Patrick, sometimes laying a hand on his back.

I didn’t see Blake until he was beside me, his arm around my neck like we were buddies, the edge of his knife against my skin. ‘Oi! Lucky, you dog, you.’

I froze, saw Dad and Patrick trudging on oblivious. ‘What?’

‘That stuff you gave me was rubbish and your brother knew it.’

‘He didn’t, honestly.’ Dad and Patrick were so far ahead Blake couldn’t see them. ‘We’ll make it up to you.’

‘Oh, you will, mate, you both will.’

‘Lachlan? You coming?’

At the sound of Patrick’s voice, Blake smirked, released me, walked backwards a few steps, eyeballing me, before pivoting and charging towards the stadium. People swerved and scattered at the sound of his footsteps, the look on his face, the sight of the knife.

‘Patrick,’ I yelled. ‘Run!’

 

 

Updated 9th July 2024