The police cordoned off our house as a crime scene. We booked into a motel near the airport, not that we could afford it. Dad stood outside smoking and staring at traffic. Mum sat inside, looking at TV, but not particularly taking anything in. I was restless. I never did get to school today. Mum wrote me an absentee letter to give to the deputy headmaster tomorrow morning, explaining that there’d been a sudden “bereavement” in the family. It was all a terrible shock. It was near enough to the truth.
I did what I’ve always done when things get too much. I wrote. I wrote all evening. There was nothing else for it. Nothing on TV held my interest. Everything seemed garish and stupid and loud. In my mind all I could see was the dead man’s face, the texture of his skin, his part-closed eyes, the angle of his slump against my door. Again, I wondered how it could all have happened without my noticing a thing? Why, of all the houses on our street, in our suburb, in our area, did this man choose our house? Was the killer following him, and so knew where to find him? Was it somehow random? Could it have been any house, so why not ours? Or had we been selected? I didn’t know which was worse.
What had the killer been searching for? That was another weird thing. That was something that made me think the choice of our house, and my room, was deliberate. The killer seemed to believe I had something stashed away in my room. Maybe that’s why the victim was in there, too. Maybe that’s what they were both doing there. Could they have been a team, only it went sour somehow, and one turned on the other?
I can’t remember anything the dead man was wearing–but I remember the exact texture of his skin. I remember that smell. I can still smell it on me, and in my nose. Since we’ve been here at the motel I’ve had two very thorough scrubbing-type showers, and I can still smell it on me. Mum says I reek of it. She says we all do, but me especially.
She’s wondering what we’re going to do about tea tonight. Dad unhelpfully says he’s not hungry. He’s thinking of heading out to see a couple of mates. “Fine,” Mum says. “Whatever you say, Phil.”
It’s just about lights out for the night. No sign of Dad’s return. It’s after midnight. Weird. It’s not the first time he’s done this, staying out all night. I just hope he’s all right. He and Mum have their problems, and their shortcomings (I can only imagine what they’d say if invited to list my shortcomings!), but they’re the only parents I have. I need them. I need both of them. Even if they were no longer together–I’ve been getting used to thinking about that possibility for a couple of years now–I still need my mum and dad. I just hope, if it came to that, they wouldn’t marry new people. That would be mental. Step-parents! God!
Lights out! Last time I turned the lights out, my whole world exploded. I hope things are quieter tonight.
Dad was “home”, with us, at the motel, when I woke this morning. I had hardly slept. I had known the motel was near the airport, but during the endless night that fact was repeatedly emphasised. We were not simply near the airport: we were directly under one of the main flight-paths coming to or leaving the airport. It was unbearable. And I was a kid who had always loved visiting the airport. I loved seeing the planes coming and going. I remember the time the first-ever Boeing 747 came to Perth, and just about all of Perth flocked out to see the extraordinary beast. One of my earliest memories is sitting in the airport terminal one night, working my way through a Dr Suess book, which might have been Green Eggs and Ham, and feeling pleased because this was a book I was reading on my own. I loved standing out on the open-air observation deck, in the wind and the freezing night, inhaling the kerosene waft of jet fuel, staring at gleaming planes. I loved it. I wanted to fly. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get out of Perth. Perth was everything I hated.
But last night I hated the airport, and I hated my dad. Things were bad. I needed my folks to hold things together, to provide a stable floor beneath me, to stop this awful sense of plummeting doomward freefall. Ever since I woke yesterday morning, when my sense of routine reality had blown up in my face, I’d been in this long fall away from stability, tumbling end over end, screaming. When I closed my eyes, even for a moment, I saw the dead man. I saw the blood on my copy of Robert Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL. And the smell was still all over me. I think I showered for at least twenty minutes this morning, so long that Mum banged on the door a few times to get me to come out because I was going to be late for school, but all I could think about was scrubbing, scouring, scraping at my skin. If I could have flayed my skin right off and grown new skin, free of the clinging horror of that stink, I would have. I already felt flayed and vulnerable, a crab without a shell. My room was gone, so gone I may never get it back in a form I would recognise or accept. I might at some point receive an acceptable form of the physical space itself, the room, but everything about it that made it mine, my shelter from everything beyond its door, was gone. It would take me a long time to understand what that meant.
Dad gave me a lift to school. It was a long drive. We didn’t say much, or at least not at first. He fiddled with the radio, but couldn’t find anything he wanted to listen to. The static and chatter of AM radio made me flinch and jerk, as if attacked. I was tense, hunched over, watching everything. Dad’s every restless move was annoying. I tried to just sit there and look at the world of traffic and rain outside. It was cold. All the windows rolled up, but I still felt as if a cold draft blasted through me. I could feel goose-flesh on my arms and chest.
Then, during the final few kilometers, he came out with this, a blurt, the sort of thing he never did, but was doing now. He said, “I met a bloke last night. When I went out, why I was out so late. We were having a drink. This bloke was at the pub. I’m not a talker, you probably already know that, eh?” Here he flashed a nervous, self-conscious grin, but I was too astonished at this outburst to say anything. I just listened in silence, taking in every hesitant, not-sure word, as if navigating a mine-field, or defusing a bomb. He said, “He spilled his beer on me as he brushed past. I was just coming back from the dunny, and there he was. It’s a narrow passageway just there. Anyway, boom, we bump into each other, and suddenly I’m wearing half his beer. He apologises, he’s real decent about it, it was a genuine accident, I could see that, and the bloke was extremely apologetic. And get this. You won’t believe this. You’ve people talk about someone being so generous they’d give you the shirt of their back? This bloke offered to swap shirts with me. He was already unbuttoning his shirt, he was doing it. I didn’t know what to do. I had the shits with the whole world last night. Bloody everything, just everything. I would have burned the whole bloody planet last night, to be completely honest with you, mate. But this guy offering me his shirt. That got to me. It was shockingly decent. It was a generosity of spirit you don’t see anymore. I had to put my hands on him, to stop him. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it, no drama, seriously, please, it’s just a bit of beer,” I said. But the guy, he insists, you wouldn’t believe it if you’d seen it with your own eyes. He bloody insisted. So we bloody well did it. The shirt I came home in? Not my own shirt. It was his shirt. Incredible.”
“Dad?” I felt worried. This was the most Dad had ever said to me ever. He was animated. He was relating to me a life-changing moment, something he probably would have loved to tell Mum about, if they had been in okay shape. He had to tell someone, he felt as if he was going to burst. So he was telling me, and feeling self-conscious, his hands wringing the steering wheel as he talked, his face working hard, and stealing glances at me.
He went on. “So we got talking, this bloke and me. He bought me another beer. He was the nicest bloke I’ve met in years. I felt as if I’d always known him. I felt like I could tell him anything, everything. I told him about the dead man. Told him about me and Jennie, about you, even, my pride and joy, my beautiful boy.” He flashed a nervous smile, and laughed a bit.
“You okay, Dad? Seriously. Is everything all right?”
We were nearly there. I could see my high school at the end of this long road. I wondered what my dad would do with the rest of his day. He did not seem well. It was the strangest thing to see. I felt disoriented. One of the axes of my personal reality was out of kilter. It was confusing.
Then we were there. Dad had not said anything else. He looked embarrassed, as if regretting that he’d said so much to me. I didn’t regret. It was the most meaningful thing I’d ever experienced with my father. I don’t know what that meaning was or is, or quite what he was trying to tell me, but I treasured that conversation regardless.
I opened the door to get out. Dad said, “Mate?”
“Look. Would you do your old man a favour today?”
“Watch out for strangers. Watch out for weird shit.”
“Weird shit? Like?”
“The bloke last night. Something he said. If you had a time machine, what’s the best thing you could do with it? What would you do? Who could you help? What would you do?”
I did not know what the hell to make of this. I understood about time machines. Of course I knew about them, student of science fiction that I was. Time machines were my favourite thing. I’d sometimes thought of what I’d do with one, but mainly I dreamt of seeing the future. I’d grown up during the so-called “Space Age”. I wanted to see if anything came of that, if humanity did indeed have a destiny among the stars.
“Time machines and strangers?” I looked at him. Dad always looked like he was walking a tightrope across a deep canyon. He always looked sweaty and tense, as if worried about falling, uncertain of his grip. Always wiping his sweaty hands. Looking around everywhere, and always sitting with his back to the wall, so he could keep an eye on the doors. But right now, sincerity was coming off him like radiation. He hadn’t had a wink of sleep since yesterday or the night before, but right this moment, he was concerned about me to a degree that was highly unusual. He looked like he was reluctant to let me go out there on my own.
“It’s just a favour for your old man. Be careful today. Watch out.”
“It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be careful.”
“It’s just, you’re–” And he couldn’t say the rest. He face seemed to fracture and collapse, and he rubbed at it with his hand. “Now get bloody going before I kick your fat arse out of me car, now git!” He made “shoo!” gestures.
“I’m going, I’m going.” And I went. Dad gave me five dollars in change so I could get some lunch. He also said, just before driving off, “Don’t worry so much. It’ll be okay. Your mum and me. We’ll be okay, all of us.”
“Coulda fooled me, Dad,” I said as he drove off.
I gave my absentee letter to the deputy headmaster. He and I had a long history, none of it good. I got to stand in front of his desk, often soaked through with rain, while he went through my various letters and medical certificates, and sundry other reasons to explain where I had been and why I had not been at school. What I needed was someone who would write me an authoritative letter which said, “Robbie did not attend school yesterday because he had a reasonable and well-founded fear of psychological, interpersonal abuse, and physical threats to his life.” Failing that, I had letters like the one Mum wrote. The deputy head wrote in his ledgers with his expensive purple fountain pen, did some aggressive and noisy stamping that made me flinch, and in due course sent me on my way.
Then I went to my locker to get the books and stuff I would need for my first class, the looming horror of Maths 1. Other kids bustled, larked, yelled, boiled, and tussled around me, yelling and laughing, making chaos. I ignored them as much as I could. Some wanted to know where I was yesterday. A few remarked that I smelled worse than usual, and I was surprised at how little that bothered me. The day before yesterday, a comment like that would have killed me. Now? Now I hardly even noticed. I was hardly even there, occupying that space. I felt as if the important parts of myself were somewhere else, doing something else. Maybe trying to find out who the dead man had been, and what he had been doing in my room. I felt as if I no longer had any interest in all this, so to speak, “kid stuff”, bullying and schoolyard bullshit and hostile teachers. Not when a man had been murdered in my bedroom.
Even so, much as all this school stuff felt like a remote abstraction, I did have to get through it. It was my job. The police would do what they could to figure out who the dead man was and how he came to die in my bedroom. Mum and Dad would do their things, too. Life would grind on. So I got my locker key out. I needed to get my books for Maths class.
Locker key in locker padlock. Zik, click, snap, pop. Lock opened. I pulled open the door.
“What the hell?” I whispered.
There was something in my locker that I had not put there.
As well as the usual jumble of worn and scribbled-over textbooks and file-folders and pencil-cases, there was also a big vibrantly yellow plastic bag with heavy black markings. There was something in the bag.
This was one of those moments, I knew this right away, when the vast bulk of your life swings around a single point of balance, where everything can change. This was something big. Things would come from this. I also suspected this yellow bag was somehow connected to the dead man in my bedroom. It had to be. Should I contact the police? Should I tell Detective Lockley? It seemed like I should. To do that I would have to go to Reception in the Admin Block and ask to use their phone.
I grabbed the bag, heart banging in my mouth. I felt sick with tension. I could see the dead man’s half-closed eyes.
The bag was marked, in heavy black writing,
Which, I gathered, was a retailer for electronics, computers, and much else. Computers? They sold mainframes? Or did they sell machines like the TRS-80, and the Sinclair things, glorified calculators? In any case, I’d never heard of them. They must be an eastern states firm, like Harvey Norman, who you only ever heard about on late night chat shows, like Don Lane, when they were doing their Wheel of Fortune segment. JB HiFi must have come up as a sponsor on that and I just missed it.
I looked inside the bag.
There was a white box, and the writing on the box said,
Apple iPhone 7.