THE FIRST THING that happened was a woman came into the ranger station while I was on the phone to two brothers, telling them they couldn’t bring their dog into the park. They had me on speaker and were both talking at the same time, and in such similar voices, that I was finding it difficult to follow. I pictured them sitting across from each other at a table, the phone lying flat between them. The woman had white-blonde hair clouding out from her head and I smiled at her, to let her know I wouldn’t be much longer.
‘He won’t bite anyone,’ one of the boys said.
‘He bit mum once,’ the other boy said, ‘but he didn’t draw any blood.’
‘It wasn’t his fault,’ the first boy said, more to his brother than to me. ‘She cornered him and he got scared is what happened.’
‘The dog biting someone isn’t my worry,’ I said. ‘He’s not allowed and you probably know he’s not allowed, otherwise you wouldn’t have called me.’
‘Our dad made us, to prove a point,’ one of them said.
‘It’s true, I did,’ their father said, projecting his voice in the background, from what I imagined was another room. ‘I’m sorry about this but I thought they needed to hear it from someone else.’
It was then that the blonde woman placed a rock on the information desk in front of me. I looked at the rock and tried not to react, because I didn’t know what would happen next. I said into the phone that I had to go and after I hung up both the woman and I looked down at the rock some more. Eventually I said, ‘What exactly seems to be the trouble?’
‘It hit my husband,’ the woman said. ‘I came here to report it.’
‘Where?’ I said.
‘Report it to you.’
‘I mean where did this happen?’
‘Driving down the main road, in our ute.’
The rock was grey and smooth with some white specks on it, a bit like a large bird egg. I said, not very helpfully, ‘This looks like a river stone.’
‘Do I need to fill out some forms?’ the woman asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘If someone threw it at you then you should go to the police station.’
‘You can call them and report a crime.’
‘Are you going to see my husband or not?’ the woman said. ‘He’s in the car park, waiting for someone to tell him what his options are.’
I looked down at my computer screen, then at the desk around me to make it look like I had been busy, but winter had gone on longer than expected this year and I’d hardly seen anybody or done anything all day. Before the phone call I had been trying to get two fifty-cent pieces to balance on top of each other on my desk. It reminded me of the warning my mother had given me, about how now was probably not the most optimal time in my life to be sitting alone in a station at the bottom of a mountain. She actually used that term, ‘most optimal’, and I was annoyed now that she’d been right, when I’d disagreed with her so much at the time.
I found my hat and put it on, then followed the woman out of the station.
OUTSIDE, THE AIR was freezing and the couple’s ute was parked haphazardly across two parking spaces. The engine was still running and, as expected, the car’s windshield was busted up, with a hole on the passenger’s side and the glass around it like broken ice. There were no other cars in the car park. I walked over and leant down to talk through the ute’s open window. The man in the passenger’s seat gave me a slight nod, but not much else. You could tell he was making an effort to keep his whole body motionless.
‘I heard you got hit by a rock,’ I said.
‘In the chest,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it came from, the road was empty.’
‘Sometimes they get loose and fall on their own,’ I said.
‘That doesn’t make sense,’ the woman said, from behind me. ‘Not where we were.’
‘I’d unbutton my shirt to show you,’ the man said, ‘but I’m afraid my guts will spill out everywhere.’
‘Do you want me to call in a doctor?’ I said.
He looked around himself and raised his arms slightly, testing them, then very carefully adjusted the rear-view mirror so he could look at his own face. Whatever he saw surprised him.
‘No, I’m going to live,’ he said.
‘How far is your house from here?’ I said.
‘We were heading there but then we got the idea that we should visit you to report it, since it was a natural phenomena with that rock.’
‘It happened in a national park, surely the government has some kind of network set up for this kind of thing?’ the woman said.
‘I can make a note about it in my logbook,’ I said. ‘But other than that you’ll need to get the police involved. I don’t solve crimes. I don’t carry a gun.’
‘Perhaps it was something to do with magnetics,’ the man said, then he looked straight at me as if for the first time. He blushed and went back to looking straight ahead, through the broken hole in the windscreen.
‘What’s the matter?’ I said.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘But I mean, aren’t you Tom Henrick’s brother?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Yeah that’s me.’
I could say that I was taken off-guard, but I wasn’t. I’d become accustomed to it and I waited for the next part, for the man to say something about how Tom had died, since almost everyone knew Tom that way – indeed he was now famous in town for being dead, after he’d fallen off of that water tower and plummeted down onto the service road below. But instead the man said nothing, and we all stayed quiet for a while until he thanked me for my time and then said to his wife that they should probably go.
I RETURNED TO the station feeling sad and exhausted, like I always did whenever Tom was mentioned. I took my hat off and tried to tear it in half, like strongmen sometimes did with phone books, but it stayed bonded. I tried to bunch it up into a ball but that wouldn’t work either. I wasn’t thinking straight.
When I sat back down at my computer I had an email notification for the station’s Facebook page, and when I opened it up I saw that someone called Shane Poison had written ‘car broke down at top near lake come get us’.
I clicked through to Shane’s profile, to see if he was a real person, and then started trawling through his photos until I came to one of Shane with his father Dan, whose surname was actually Prentegast and who I knew was the owner of the second-hand car dealership in town. Sometimes I drove past the big billboard of Dan, which was on the highway towards town, with a speech bubble coming from his mouth saying ‘Give it to me! I will spin it to gold!’ – or I saw the commercials he had on community television where he said the same sort of thing, but singing and playing a banjo too.
In the Facebook photo they were shaking hands on a tennis court, over the net, like they’d had a good game. I started looking through as much of Dan’s profile as I could, whatever he hadn’t set to private, but it wasn’t much.
I wondered how many people had seen Shane Poison’s post, and then worried that I was now responsible for helping him out and I’d been slack in replying. He could be dead already. I went back to the station’s page and typed out ‘help is on its way!’ then, picturing people opening their computers and reading it and then laughing, deleted the message because it seemed too dramatic. I tried wording it differently again and again until I had it whittled down to ‘will come up stay safe’.
I considered adding in a smiley face but didn’t.
THE DRIVE UP to the top of the mountain was slow. The road was dirt and rocks and there were dramatic turns as you climbed upwards. The gullies here were clotted with tall ferns and trees that always looked damp. Before leaving, I’d hesitated over whether or not to boil the station’s jug and fill a thermos with tea, but instead had brought along three Snickers bars that I found in a desk drawer, along with an orange. I was taking too long.
Closer to the top of the mountain the road flattened out and there were only small shrubs instead of trees and wide expanses of rocks. I came to the gravel car park beside the lake and parked a few spaces over from the only car around, a red Volvo. I turned the engine off and sat, watching the other car for a few moments before climbing out.
The air outside was much colder than I’d expected, and all of a sudden a nervousness overcame me. There was a fog eliminating the distance and the Volvo’s windows had steamed over. I’d once read about people luring police officers into alleyways so they could shoot them, and it had stuck in my mind. I approached the car, hearing only my boots on the gravel and nothing else but silence.
‘Hello?’ I said.
The car was empty. I looked around, then headed down the short path towards the lake. When I came to the shoreline there were Shane Poison and a girl sitting together on a rock. It wasn’t a very large lake, but sometimes it froze over, and sometimes it was completely still – like it was now – and reflected the sunsets beautifully, like a mirror. There was a track walk that went around the lake, which could take up half an hour if you walked slow.
I raised my hand up in greeting and the two teenagers did the same. They looked like they were about sixteen.
‘I saw your message,’ Shane said. ‘It was Maddie’s idea to use Facebook; I was just assuming we’d stay up here until someone found us or we died.’
‘I thought you’d be in your car to keep warm,’ I said. ‘To be honest I got a little worried when I didn’t see you.’
They walked over. Above us the sky was getting darker, and the clouds were grey and thick.
‘Yeah we sat in the car for a little while,’ Shane said when he was closer. ‘But then I saw this big bird coming in to land and wanted to check it out.’
‘It was just a bird,’ Maddie said. ‘I threw a stick at it and it flew off.’
The three of us were silent for a while, until eventually I said, ‘That’s all right,’ and nodded, because I felt like I had to say something.
‘It wasn’t as big as I thought it was,’ Shane said. ‘It must have been how I was looking at it, like the angle.’
I didn’t know what he meant, but I didn’t ask. I let the two of them lead the way back to the car park. At one point Shane leant over and said something to Maddie and then they both laughed. Maddie turned to me and said, ‘We thought it would be scary up here but it’s just boring.’
‘Are you any good at fixing cars?’ Shane said. ‘I am, and I can’t even fix that heap of shit, so maybe you need to be a genius.’
‘Are you a genius?’ said Maddie.
‘I’m not good at fixing cars,’ I said.
‘I’ll get my dad to come up here for it,’ Shane said. ‘He’s a wizard, he owns a car shop.’
‘It’ll freeze up here tonight,’ I said.
‘I work there too,’ Shane said. ‘With my dad. He’s been letting me mess around with the engines for years.’
When we got to my car the two teenagers both sat in the back. It felt like I was driving a police car and this prompted me to say that they weren’t in any trouble, as a joke, but neither of them seemed to hear me. I thought about taking out the Snickers bars and offering them around, but then Maddie started to cry and it was so sudden and unexpected that I had to cough once in a fake way to cover my surprise.
‘It’s okay,’ Shane said. ‘We’re not going to get in trouble, it was just a shitty joke he was making.’
Maddie pulled a tissue from her jeans and blew her nose. I started the car and began the descent, and this seemed to calm the both of them down, though when I checked on Shane in the mirror he was looking out the window and crying too, silently.
‘What were you guys doing up here?’ I said.
‘Nothing,’ Shane said. ‘Running away I guess, but we hadn’t really planned much.’
‘I left a note,’ Maddie said.
‘Maddie left a note but I didn’t.’
‘I can drive you back to town if you want,’ I said. ‘I don’t know about driving you off anywhere else though. Where did you figure you’d go from here?’
‘Town is fine,’ Shane said. ‘You may as well take us home now, we didn’t have a great plan anyway.’
‘It was an okay idea,’ Maddie said.
‘It was flawed,’ Shane said.
I didn’t like to play the radio on the road because I felt it led to distraction, and this made time with the two quiet teenagers feel much longer. I thought to myself that once we were clear of the ranger station, back on the highway and safe, I’d offer the two of them the chocolate bars.
Finally Maddie said something and I had to ask her to repeat it because it was hard to hear her with the sounds of rocks hitting the underside of the car.
‘I said it’s stupid,’ Maddie said, loudly, ‘but have you ever seen some weird stuff out here on the mountain?’
‘I once saw a fish eat a bird,’ I said. ‘I’d never seen anything like that before.’
Outside the trees were darker now. I’d imagined the conversation going better, when I’d been driving up to rescue them.
‘She means the ghost stuff,’ Shane said. ‘Some guys I know say that if you come up here and sacrifice something you treasure, you get something back in return. The more valuable the thing, the greater the reward. Like you throw it into the lake.’
‘I hadn’t heard that,’ I said, ‘but it doesn’t seem responsible to spread that kind of idea around.’
The teenagers said nothing. I was lying, of course: I had heard about it, from my mother when I was a child, when my grandfather had gone up there for three nights after my grandma died, with the idea that he could get her back, or send her a message. This was after their house had burned down; his wife and belongings had all turned to ash. The stories had always scared me, and so had the top of the mountain. Sometimes people in town called it Lake Misery.
‘It doesn’t have to be a living sacrifice or anything,’ Maddie said. ‘I threw my old camera in there. Plus these pencils I really liked. Shane threw in however much was in his wallet, like maybe fifty dollars.’
‘Yeah it was fifty dollars that I’d saved up.’
‘What did you ask for?’ I said. ‘Unless it ruins it by saying out loud.’
‘My dog to come back,’ Shane said. ‘He ran away a few days ago.’
‘World peace,’ Maddie said.
I had seen other things too that I didn’t want to talk about. A strange noise, or something moving between the trees, or even the time recently when I’d been in a 7-Eleven, staring into the slushie machine, and for a moment I’d seen Tom’s face appear in the wet blue ice. I’d turned around to see if anyone else was there too, but there wasn’t, and when I turned back my brother had gone.
I didn’t want to encourage the teenagers with this kind of talk, so instead I said, ‘What you guys are talking about is nonsense.’
‘We know,’ Maddie said.
‘Can we stop somewhere with a bathroom?’ Shane said. ‘I’m feeling sick.’
It was a while until the first service station but eventually we came to it and I pulled in. It was dark now, and moths were in insane orbit around the station’s lights. Shane hopped out, and Maddie and I both watched him walk into the service station and say something to the guy behind the counter. The two of them laughed.
‘I didn’t really ask for world peace,’ Maddie said. ‘I only said that to make Shane feel bad for his dumb choice. What I really wanted was to live forever. Or die when I’m really old.’
‘They have a turtle that’s around a hundred and eighty,’ I said, turning around in my seat. ‘That’s the oldest thing I know about.’
‘Apart from trees,’ Maddie said.
I nodded and turned back around, but really I didn’t know the age of any trees, or had even thought about it until then, that age was something trees had. Sometimes I heard bird noises at night in the park, and I wished that I knew what the bird’s names were. The problem was that I stumbled around inside my life. I always did the bare minimum. Before the national park I’d only worked at the supermarket, restocking shelves in the dead of night.
Shane hadn’t come back yet and Maddie was staring out of the window, breathing funnily, until I realised she was using her breath to make little white clouds on the glass.
‘I know who you are,’ Maddie said. ‘Or who your brother is – I guess people say it to you a lot though.’
I kept looking out at the illuminated service station. ‘It happens a quite a bit,’ I said. ‘That’s accurate.’
‘Do you think you’ll kill the guy that pushed him?’ Maddie said. ‘My dad said you probably would. I heard he’s usually at the open mic they have on Thursday nights – you could get him then.’
‘I hadn’t planned to,’ I said.
‘My dad said if it were him the other guy would just vanish, like no one would see him ever again.’
‘Your dad who you’ve run away from?’ I said. ‘The one you left a note for and then wished you could live forever just to hold it over him? That’s who you’re talking about?’
Maddie went quiet for a while, and in the silence that spread between us the idea developed that I was being needlessly cruel. Maddie wasn’t the first person to ask if I was going to make things even with Tom’s friend, Patrick Mogg, who had been with Tom up on the water tower at the time of his death, and who Tom also happened to owe almost fifteen thousand dollars. He’d been interviewed, but there’d been no witnesses and they’d both been high, so no charges had been laid against him. Tom’s death had been ruled an accident. Every time it was mentioned or I thought about it my insides would twist up at new and alarming angles.
I could feel myself gripping the steering wheel. ‘No one knows he pushed him for sure,’ I said eventually. ‘Though everyone seems to have made up their minds about it.’
‘You’re a local celebrity,’ Maddie said.
‘To be honest I’ve been trying not to dwell on any of it,’ I said. ‘I’ve been clearing my mind. There’s some good videos about how to do that on the internet.’
‘I’ve seen those,’ Maddie said.
‘I doubt you’ve seen these ones specifically. There’s so many of them.’
‘All I meant was I know what you mean.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Maybe you have seen it, the one where you hold up your hand and look at it? You focus on every line on the back of your hand. That one works pretty well because you always have your hands with you, you don’t need a special book or wand or anything like that.’
‘I haven’t seen it,’ Maddie said.
If I was being honest, Patrick had always intimidated me. The few times that we’d hung out he’d always end up praising some kind of song or movie but humming in a satisfied way and saying, ‘That’s the good stuff.’ His taste seemed so eclectic I couldn’t get a handle on it. He had an annoying habit of quoting famous figures from history whenever he was presented with a problem. He was also much larger than me, and I’d once seen him punch his hand straight through a watermelon at a birthday party.
When Shane came back to the car he seemed to sense that the mood had shifted, but neither Maddie nor I said anything when he asked what was going on. As we drove back into town I felt low and glum, and a bit like a prison guard, bringing them back to their cells after an excursion – if prisons actually did that. Except then I reasoned that I was in the prison too, and then it didn’t seem like a very accurate thought to be having. But I did entertain the idea of driving off with them, and not in any kind of clear or sensible way. I thought of driving the car off of a cliff, of us driving into the sky and ploughing into the moon, of the earth opening up and swallowing us whole.
AFTER DROPPING THE teenagers off I had the sensation of being unanchored and weightless. I drove around the town for a while, but our town isn’t very big, and eventually I drove past my own front door, didn’t stop, and ended up driving to my mother’s. I found the smallness of the town pretty frustrating almost always, but especially at times like these.
The front door was locked, and when I knocked no one answered. I went down the side of the house, pushed the bedroom window open and climbed in. I made my way through the house and found my mother in the kitchen, smoking and listening to the radio.
She didn’t seem surprised to see me. Instead she just said, ‘Well it’s nice of you to drop by,’ like I was leaving.
‘I had to break in through a window,’ I said. ‘I knocked at the door and everything.’
‘I usually hear people at the door.’
‘How would you know?’
She paused, but then didn’t say anything long enough for it to become clear she wasn’t actually thinking the question over. I noticed this happening to me a lot since Tom’s death: constantly feeling tense silences between the two of us, like the air was charged with a special kind of electricity.
‘How was work?’ she asked eventually.
‘It was fine, some people had a rock go through their windshield but no one was seriously hurt.’
‘That’s good,’ my mother said. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know where the rock came from though, that’s been a real puzzle. He could have been hurt – it was a guy that got hit. I don’t really know what happened after they left.’
‘Probably it bounced up from the ground.’
‘That’s what I said but they weren’t having it.’
‘It can be dangerous out there,’ my mother said, stubbing the cigarette into her ashtray by the sink.
I hadn’t mentioned the teenagers who had gotten themselves stuck up by the lake because I didn’t want her to worry more, or to talk about the mountain again or that people could become lost forever out in the wilderness and it was my responsibility, sometimes, to find them.
‘Kath and I went out to see the meteor shower two nights ago, or it was the morning really, since the best time to see anything was at around five in the morning, but Kath insisted on us camping the night before.’
‘It’s nice to make an event out of it.’
‘I think she just wanted me out of the house,’ my mother said.
I felt guilty sometimes for not coming over enough, especially now Tom was gone and she only had half of her sons to visit her, but also there was the time she saw the Mogg kid at the supermarket and it filled her with such anger that she had to sit down where she was, in the middle of the aisle, her back resting up against the huge stacks of toilet paper while a manager ran off to get her a glass water. This was the kind of thing I pictured a lot: my mother in various states of despair.
AFTER DINNER WE sat in front of the TV. My mother knitted and I looked at my phone. Every now and then she would look up from what she was doing to say how tired the newsreaders looked. How sick everyone must be.
‘It’s just the setting on our television,’ I said. ‘They’re fine.’
‘It’s too taxing. Imagine if it was your job to tell everyone this kind of stuff day after day.’
I put down my phone and started changing the channels with the remote. I flicked around for a while and eventually left it on a cooking show.
‘Nothing’s better than anything else,’ she said.
‘You probably need new glasses,’ I said.
‘I have new glasses, you didn’t notice?’
‘I mean proper new glasses,’ I said. ‘Real ones that you didn’t buy from a rack at the newsagent.’
My mother took her glasses off and looked at them, held them up and angled them in different ways so they caught the light, like she was inspecting a precious stone.
‘You might have a point,’ she said.
I didn’t really speak to my father, not since he and my mother had split up a few years ago, and my mother never spoke of him much, apart from how he’d gone up north to the mainland to teach people how to use surfboards and how it was beyond her that anyone could consider that a life’s calling. She still had a portrait of him, a pencil drawing, hanging on the wall like it was he who was dead. Still, I found it hard to imagine him taking to the water very well, especially since not once did I see him swim in the ocean and could probably count on one hand how many times I’d ever seen him in a swimming pool.
‘Anyway,’ my mother said. ‘I’m incredibly tired, maybe I’m just projecting.’
‘Maybe you’re in a dream,’ I said. ‘Where everyone is supposed to actually be you, or at least a version of you.’
‘I’ve never heard that,’ his mother said.
‘I read about it in a magazine,’ I said, though then recalled correctly that it had been on a brochure I’d been reading, while waiting to see a doctor. My father had come down for the funeral, of course, even though technically Tom hadn’t been his kid, but they had had a particularly strong bond – one that I would even get jealous of, at my weakest times.
A few weeks before, at my mother’s urging, I’d gone to visit a woman called Nan who lived out by herself and had business cards stuck up on the pin board at the community centre in town, advertising herself as a shaman and healer. Her house had been full of salt lamps and smelled strongly of a spice that I found out later was fenugreek.
She’d had me drink a tea that tasted like liquorice and told me to always be on the look out for signs. Since then I’d been on guard, had saved the teenagers, had helped the couple with the rock, had seen my brother’s face form in the slushie ice, and the only message I’d been able to decipher was that it would be better to keep everything to myself.
I now wondered if my mother had visited the same woman and been told the same advice.
‘Did you see any meteors in the end?’ I asked her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Kath made us sleep in the car because it was too cold to camp. She called it camping but it wasn’t. We sat around a fire and then slept in the back of her station wagon. She was drinking this Amarula stuff, which is some kind of South African cream spirit, and didn’t get to sleep until two in the morning. We both slept through it.’
‘That’s no good.’
‘It wasn’t so bad. Kath got pretty loaded and started reciting these sonnets from a paperback she kept in her glove compartment. A lot of it was lost on me but I guess I appreciated the sentiment.’
‘The only ones I know are Shakespeare,’ I said.
‘It wasn’t him, I know that much. Anyway I think I saw something in the sky before I went to sleep, like a flash, one long white line. I’m not saying it made the trip worthwhile, but it was nice to see.’
‘I’ve seen shooting stars and satellites before,’ I said. ‘I don’t know about meteors.’
‘Kath was dead to the world by then,’ my mother said. ‘Apparently an amarula is this fruit that falls off a tree and ferments and then all the elephants eat it off the ground and get drunk. It knocks them out.’
She went back to her knitting for a moment. On television there was a commercial for shampoo, an attractive man and a woman were standing face-to-face in the shower and lathering up each other’s heads.
‘Awful, awful stuff,’ my mother said.
We stayed like this for a while until I said that I should probably get going. I was still wearing my uniform and wanted to shower, to crawl into my own bed. Thinking that my clothes had been worn all day made my body itch.
My mother walked me to the door and hugged me. ‘Sometimes, but not always, it really is terrible to see you,’ she said.
IN THE MORNING, Dan Prentegast was waiting at the entrance to the ranger station. He was eating a banana, lost in thought, and looked much smaller in person than he did on the billboard I mentioned earlier or the TV spots or even in the Facebook photos I’d looked through the day before. It was a cold morning and Dan’s face was red and shining. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a sauna. When he came to the end of the banana he folded the skin up like a handkerchief and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket, which I thought was both considerate and strange.
‘Did you come for your son’s car?’ I said as a greeting.
‘Are you the guy I have to thank for driving him back?’
‘It wasn’t any trouble,’ I said.
‘My wife dropped me off. I was hoping you could get me to the top, then I’ll drive Shane’s car back down.’
‘It seemed pretty dead yesterday,’ I said.
‘I like the added pressure,’ Dan said. ‘It’s what got me into mechanics in the first place. Plus my wife refused to drive up there, she gets vertigo from even stepping on her tippy toes.’
He paused and looked around, taking the place in, the flatland around the station and then also the mountain peak above. He had a toolbox with him at his feet, which was bright red. I looked at it and thought, Fire engine.
He inhaled deeply. ‘Great spot you’ve got here,’ he said. ‘I imagine being down here all day would be something quite spiritual.’
I nodded and mumbled, ‘Yeah, of course,’ because I didn’t know how to agree with him, or even what Dan Prentegast was saying, other than it was quite early in the morning and up close Dan’s eyes were wet from the cold, which gave him an other-worldly quality.
INSTEAD OF FIRST unlocking the ranger station or anything, I decided we’d drive straight up to the lake. Dan seemed enthralled with everything we passed: the trees and ferns and rocks on the side of the road. He was like a child suddenly allowed to see the ocean.
‘Incredible to think this place is here and I hardly visit,’ he said. ‘I always think I’m too busy, but when I’m on my deathbed I’m sure I’ll regret it.’
‘It’s hard to find time,’ I said.
‘Do they fit you out in the uniform?’
‘They distribute them to us, yeah,’ I said. ‘Even the hat.’
He nodded. ‘Do you have different ones or are they the same? Like do you have dress browns instead of these regular browns you’re wearing now?’
‘Like if you have to go to a ceremony or something?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘They gave me four of versions of the same outfit, one jacket, one hat. There don’t tend to be many ceremonies.’
‘Incredible,’ Dan said. ‘When I was a sand ranger we used to go camping, and even then I had a special sash for playing the trumpet in the morning or if an emergency happened, like when you were supposed to look out for bush fires.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. ‘I used to be in the soccer team.’
‘Hey,’ Dan said. ‘That’s great.’
Now and then I could see the similarity between Dan and his son, especially since I’d been with them both up close now, both travelling in the same car, on the same dirt road. I had always thought Dan Prentegast’s amazement in his commercials had been a put-on, his wide eyes brimming while he played the banjo and sang straight and earnestly into the camera, but now I saw that’s who he was.
‘You know those kids were doing something strange up here,’ I said. ‘It seemed like they were trying to run away.’
‘Who doesn’t want to try that here?’ Dan said.
‘That’s true, I suppose.’
‘I do know Shane’s been obsessing over the black arts, if that’s what you call it, but my wife and I just think it’s a phase he’s going through. It seems like a good way for him to vent – before this we couldn’t convince him to even touch a book.’
‘My brother went through the same phase,’ I said. ‘It lasted for a while.’
‘Yeah, I read about that in the paper,’ Dan said. ‘If you want to know what I think, which I’m sure you don’t, I think your brother got a pretty bum deal.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, trying to sound like I didn’t want to talk about it. I had spent a lot of time considering my brother’s luck, going through what he or I could have done differently. I’d read that this kind of thinking could melt your brain, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. It was like pressing down on a sore tooth. Instead I’d been trying to appreciate the very new and current: we were in a car, the sky outside was pale and nice, the trees were beautiful – that sort of thing. It was when I started to think that I ran into trouble. Dan didn’t seem to take the hint though.
‘I suppose you run into that kid a lot too? The Mogg boy, I mean.’
I said that I did. ‘Mum does too. I saw him once in a play and then around town. He has this YouTube channel where he uploads videos of himself driving around and talking to the camera.’
‘He does that?’ Dan said.
I nodded. ‘They’re mostly him telling a story, or reciting one of his poems. They don’t last very long.’
‘He’s a real Renaissance man,’ Dan said. ‘It’s a shame the police around here are pretty useless.’
‘They tried,’ I said. ‘I know that much.’
Before working at the national park I’d actually tried to become a police officer, but I tanked the entrance exam and also the interview. I didn’t much like tests and whenever I sat them it was like my memory had been wiped. It was like that in high school too: there was a question in one of the finals about how to get petrol out of a tin can that had been left open to the rain, and it shook me so much because I’d always thought I’d been paying attention in every class, and it turned out I hadn’t. I’d written, ‘How am I supposed to know this?’ on the paper, but they hadn’t found it charming enough to give me a pass.
‘I wouldn’t know what I’d do, if I was in a situation like yours,’ Dan said, in an almost too-meaningful way.
‘About a month ago,’ I said. ‘I was driving in town and a woman ran a red light in front of me, and I had to hit the breaks pretty hard. She ended up stopping in the middle of the intersection and I was there too and we just looked at each other. She was at fault, but looked frightened just the same, and maybe flustered. Just this old woman who almost killed us both. I felt so sorry for her then, I can’t even explain it.’
‘Yeah I know what you mean,’ said Dan, but in a way that you could tell he wasn’t really listening.
WHEN WE CAME to the car park and Dan saw the car he clapped once in happiness. I parked nearby and we both climbed out of the car. We were completely alone and I felt a certain pull of familiarity: the sounds of our shoes on the gravel, the nearby fog – it was all the same as yesterday.
‘You don’t have to hang around for this,’ Dan said. ‘It might take me a while.’
He put his toolbox down and opened it up and it spread open and upwards, like a small staircase, then he lifted the Volvo’s hood and began peering inside.
‘Do you want me to get behind the wheel?’ I said.
‘Maybe? Shane said it was dead in the water though.’
‘He said it’d take a wizard to fix it, a real magician.’
‘That sounds like him,’ Dan said.
While he messed with the engine I sat in the front seat, feeling useless. I wish I’d brought something with me to read. I looked at my phone for a while, then got tired of that. Now and then Dan would tell me to give the engine a go, and I’d turn the key and nothing would happen. I was starting to get cold.
Dan Prentegast stood up from his work, took a few steps across the car park and stretched his back out. I got out of his son’s car, went to my own, took the Snickers bars out of the glove box and handed him one.
‘I forgot I had these,’ I said.
‘They’re good,’ Dan said.
We stood there and ate silently. I wanted to help Dan but didn’t know how, and now I felt slightly responsible for him. I tried to guess at how long he’d survive up here, but he looked small and weak and was wearing an open jacket, his shirt exposed like the white underside of a turtle.
‘I’m almost there, I can feel it,’ Dan said.
‘I don’t want to rush you,’ I said.
‘I know I know, you’ve got places to be.’
I nodded and ate. When I was finished I folded the wrapper up and put it in the pocket of my jacket. I told Dan I was going to take a walk for a bit, to stretch my legs out. I headed across the car park and down the short path to the lake, where I’d found the teenagers the day before. Again there was only stillness. When I came to the shoreline I looked out at the lake, which was so still and clear it hurt to look at. It was dizzying. When I was a teenager I’d once had the same feeling, when I’d been awake before anyone else and there’d been a weird pop in the air, and the sound of something igniting, and for a few moments I felt so solitary and nauseous that I thought I was dead.
I checked my pockets for something to throw into the water, but all I had was my phone and the Snickers wrapper. I looked around for a stone or a piece of a tree that I might form a special connection with, but in the end I took off my watch and threw it into the water. It landed and made an incredibly satisfying sound. I wished for my brother to return, and possibly ruined the wish almost instantly by wondering how cold the water would be if I waded in there to get my watch back.
DAN PRENTEGAST HAD the car idling in the car park and was in the driver’s seat, frowning. He stepped on the accelerator a few times while looking cautious, like someone trying to find a step in the dark.
‘It’s the strangest thing,’ he said. ‘I didn’t do anything different and all of a sudden it just worked.’
‘You should go buy a lottery ticket,’ I said.
‘Really peculiar,’ he said. He looked around himself and then right at me, I was worried that he was going to scream, but then I saw that he was happy. ‘It’s a real miracle,’ he said.
I would have said something to him, but I didn’t know much about cars. The sun was now high above us, but it was a weak sun, the kind we’re supposed to get in a million years when we’re all dead. I hit the top of the car once, affectionately, like it was a good dog.
‘I’ll follow you down,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about that.’
THE REST OF the day passed uneventfully, and it wasn’t until I was driving home that night that I saw my brother’s face appear again, this time when I sprayed windscreen cleaner onto my windshield and his face appeared for a moment in the suds before being erased by the wipers.
I thought it was a coincidence until I did it again, and sure enough there was Tom’s face, looking at me without expression, before again it was cleared away. I started slowing the car and looking for a place to pull over, when a rock bounced once on the road and then shot up through the windscreen. Little bits of glass pebbled around me and I pulled over onto the side of the road too quickly and ended up hitting the dirt side of a ditch.
‘Fuck,’ I said out loud, but softly – just to myself. I was unharmed.
I left the lights on and jumped out of my car, then looked around me. There were only trees in the darkness, and no sounds. I waited for as long as I could, trying to hear someone either moving or laughing. After I was met by silence for a minute I called out, ‘Hello?’
The road was empty. My windscreen was shattered but mostly intact. ‘Hey?’ I called again, and waited. Dust from the road was still moving in my headlights. I started to get spooked by the emptiness and so I got back in my car, reversed onto the road and took off. To drive properly I had to lean my head at an angle so I could see and cold air shot through the hole in my windshield and went in my mouth and made me cough. It was incredibly unpleasant and I felt miserable.
BY THE TIME I made it into town my nose was running. My eyes were wet. I drove to my mother’s place and parked in the street. When I got out I locked the car instinctively, before noticing the hole in the windshield. I emptied the car of anything worth stealing, which wasn’t much. I left all my CDs in there but took my phone charger and sunglasses with me.
This time my mother’s front door was unlocked, but when I walked in my father was there, sitting on the couch right underneath his portrait, looking much more real, obviously, but older.
‘Hello James,’ he said, which was my name.
‘We didn’t expect you until later,’ my mother said, coming into the living room with two drinks. They were brown and in high glasses.
‘What are you drinking?’ I said.
‘This must be a shock,’ my father said. ‘But I happened to be in the area and thought I’d stop by.’
‘They’re Long Island iced-teas,’ said my mother. ‘Do you want one?’
My eyes were still wet from the drive, and I wiped at them and said ‘Sorry about how my face looks. A rock smashed through my windshield.’
‘Did it hit you in the head?’ asked my father.
‘There’d be blood if that happened,’ my mother said.
‘Not if he’s concussed,’ he said to my mother. Then to me, ‘Are you concussed at all?’
I explained that I was fine, and nothing had hit me at all. My mother and father drank their cocktails and there was the rattling of their ice in the glasses and each of them seemed to find great satisfaction in their drinks. They kept drinking them and sighing, and although it was a hard process to watch, it did make me wonder why they’d ever broken up in the first place.
‘Do you want some food? There’s casserole left over,’ my mother said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I might head home.’
‘Hang on, let me walk you out,’ my father said.
Every time I saw him I would study his face, which I found so unfamiliar, and would wonder if that’s what I was slowly morphing into. My father had a ponytail and a beard though, and these two features took up a large percentage of his appearance. He was shorter than me too, but there was something familiar about the shape of our mouths that always made me look at him and think, This is the disaster I’m heading towards.
When my father saw the state of my car he gave a low whistle, like he was impressed.
‘They got you good huh?’ he said.
‘I have no idea who did this,’ I said.
‘The road was empty.’
‘The road was empty,’ I said, agreeing. ‘What are you doing here anyway?’ I said.
My father looked surprised. ‘Your mum didn’t mention it? We’ve got a gig at the hospital, we’re playing for the opening of a new wing.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘She didn’t mention it at all? I’ve been here for days. We’ve been practicing.’
By ‘we’ my father was referring to the barbershop quartet he was in that were mildly famous and sometimes booked boat shows or corporate gigs. I had seen them perform only a few times and I was always filled with a mix of boredom and surprise that my nondescript father had the bravery to get up there and sing in front of so many people, especially without the safety of having an instrument to play. It was something close to pride.
‘I can’t believe your mother hasn’t mentioned anything,’ my father said, looking hurt. ‘I’ve been planning this for weeks.’
I put my arm up and tapped him on the shoulder, in what I hoped was a comforting way. I’d forgotten that sometimes he took things pretty hard. I’d once seen him almost come to tears when he’d found out his favourite restaurant had closed down.
‘Try not to take it too personally,’ I said. ‘Mum’s got a lot on her mind at the moment.’
DAN PRENTEGAST’S DEALERSHIP had a large inflatable statue of himself out the front, tied down with ropes so it wouldn’t roll away in the wind. It was an exaggerated likeness, of course, but it was also a pretty accurate depiction of him and when he was standing next to it, drinking a coke out of a large cup with a straw, he looked like he was being shepherded by his gigantic cartoon brother.
‘Nice balloon,’ I said, out of my wound-down window, when I rolled up onto the lot.
‘What on earth happened to you?’ Dan said.
‘Rock came through it last night. I was hoping you’d be able to fix it.’
Dan took a sip from his drink. I could see it moving up through his straw. Above us small triangle flags, running this way and that in a tangled and loose canopy above the cars, flapped wildly in the wind. There were several people in the lot, looking at cars.
‘You’ve got that balloon man tied down pretty strong huh?’ I said. ‘Don’t people ever try to steal it or burst it or anything?’
‘We deflate it every night,’ Dan said. ‘Then it gets locked in the office.’
‘It must be pretty arduous having to set it up every morning.’
‘I guess I’ve come to appreciate it,’ Dan said. ‘I come here before anyone else, the place is empty. I attach it to a pump and watch it slowly build itself up. You should come by and see it one day.’
‘Can I get you to look at my car?’ I said.
‘It’s become part of my morning routine, is what I was trying to say,’ said Dan.
WHILE I WAITED for my car to be fixed I went and sat in a doughnut shop and drank a coffee. It was my day off but I was still wearing my uniform and people sometimes stopped to say hello to me or nod. For the most part I looked at the internet on my phone, and sometimes I looked out at the street but not much was happening. I saw a woman, her whole body inside a giant blue coat, walking a yellow dog. I saw kids in school uniforms waiting for the bus.
What a town. Where had all my friends gone? My best friend Bill Winston had moved away for a better job. My other friend Robert Lax had fallen from a ladder trying to fix his TV reception and broken his neck. Olivia Reese had gone to study how to make ice cream in Italy. Stephen Carney had killed himself by filling a glass of water with enough aspirin to make it look like wall plaster.
Some others had drifted away: the ones I saw now and then at the same house parties, the ones who I knew by their first name or their surname, but never both.
DAN WASN’T AT work when I went to pick up my car, but he’d told the mechanic and two of the other salespeople that he’d said good luck to me, and all three of them found me at some point to relay the message. I shook each of their hands because it felt like the right thing to do. On the ride home I kept trying to figure out if the windshield was clearer now, if it was like looking through nothing at all.
I noticed the box in my boot after I had parked and was walking behind the car. Inside the box, laid out on tissue paper, was a small silver pistol. I looked around immediately to see if anyone was observing me, and then lifted it into my hand. It felt weighty and dangerous and made a tense feeling arrive in my stomach. I didn’t know how to use a gun, but it fit in my hand so well it was almost instinctual.
Under the gun was a note that was in, I guessed, Dan Prentegast’s handwriting. ‘It is time for us to restore balance to the universe,’ is what the note said, which was maybe reaching a little too hard to be poetic.
I’d really like to say here that I took the gun and threw it into a storm drain, or that I pulled it apart in my shed and then scattered the pieces all through town, or that I took it up the mountain and lobbed it into the lake, so it could keep company with my watch and whatever creatures were down there – but the truth was that I didn’t. Instead I put the pistol into my jacket pocket and closed the boot of my car.
THE DAY OF the grand opening a stage been erected in the hospital car park along with a PA system and two rows of white plastic chairs. There was a large arrangement of balloons and someone making tacos in a truck parked not too far from the hospital entrance. I stood towards the back of the crowd, wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt and a jacket and jeans. I was wearing what liked to think of as my civilian clothes. I couldn’t see where the person had set up but a lot of kids were running around with their faces painted like animals.
One of the hospital’s board members was on the stage talking. Now and then there would be a jolt of feedback, and whatever he was saying would become unintelligible. He talked endlessly about the hard work of his staff and the commitment from the mayor and the community – and it was indeed boring, but this was how I found out that Patrick Mogg was there, and would be reading us all a short essay that he had composed about the hospital and its history.
When the board member left the stage there were a few claps and a small cloud of smoke billowed out of the taco truck and through the crowd for a moment, until the wind changed its direction. My mother found me in the crowd just as my father’s quartet walked onto the stage. All of them were wearing straw hats and sky-blue linen suits.
‘I get so nervous before he does this, I don’t know why,’ my mother said. ‘You’d think I wouldn’t care about the guy anymore, but I do.’
She put her arm through mine and I flinched, because I was worried she’d feel the gun I was carrying around in my jacket pocket. It was a warm day, or at least warmer than it had been in months. I could feel myself sweating. My father walked up to the microphone and cleared his throat dramatically. I waited to hear the sound of his heavenly voice.