9: Strange Day (Complete, 2400 words)
The rest of today washed around me without touching me. I sat in classes, and never touched my books, never touched my pens. I heard nothing anyone said. I could not have told you about any points raised or discussed. I just sat there and stared unseeing out the window. I thought about the dead man. I thought about his letter. I thought his and my fingerprints. My dad’s job. I thought about poor Zonkers.
The final class for the day was Phys Ed with Mr Ballast (not his real name) and his gut. Mr Ballast’s gut occupied its own postcode. It arrived places three seconds before the rest of him. He also smoked, and stank of it.
Mr Ballast and I had never gotten along. I had always believed he was a sad and bitter old fraud who took out his frustrations over his failed athletics career on helpless kids (much like Mr Shit in that respect). He believed I was a shiftless, lifeless, lazy tosser and coward. I didn’t care enough to argue the finer points. He wasn’t worth it.
It was the middle of a particularly bleak winter in Perth, and that meant winter sports, and that meant football and rugby. I’d been thinking about this and dreading it all day. Just as my bulk always guaranteed that I’d be the “anchor” position in a tug-of-war match, it also meant I’d be the “lock” in a rugby “scrum”. The only difficulty with this was that nobody ever wanted to pick me for their teams. I was quite okay with this. It hurt, but it also meant I didn’t have to play most of the time. The experience, though, of being the last kid left after all the other kids had been picked, of being the bitter dregs at the bottom of the cup, was one I will always remember.
But today, this whole week so far, was different. I was so out of it I was barely there. When we went into the change room at the beginning of the class, I just sat there and didn’t change into my sports gear. I sat there and looked at the floor. It was very quiet. Usually there was a lot of noise and horse-play, kids laughing and yelling and joking, messing about, at least among the popular kids. For kids like me it was always a torment of jeers and snapping towels and other kids playing Keep Away with your underwear. But today they all changed into their gear quickly, in whispered silence, and filed out, as if uncomfortable. I noticed the difference, but didn’t care. I assumed this was something to do with me being a murderer now.
Soon everyone had left and I was still sitting there. Fatgut Ballast was outside–I could hear his booming, gravelly voice–and then the door opened and he boomed inside and found me. “Bradford, come on, lad. What the hell are you doing? Get changed, come on! Things to do, you don’t want to miss out, come on! We’re all waiting for you!”
I sat there, thinking distantly about how long it might be before I could go home.
Ballast was still pacing up and down in front of me, cajoling me, jollying me along, but also with an edge of nerves in his voice, as if he wished he had a witness with him, or at least someone on his side for moral support. At length I said I’d be out in a minute. He smiled, clapped his hands, grabbed my shoulder in a jolly sort of way, said, “That’s the spirit, boy!” and he left. I waited for the outside door to close, then got up, grabbed my schoolbag with its apparent weight of heavy rocks, and went the other way, threading through the passageway into the gym, then crossed the gym floor, my shoes squeaking on the pale varnished wood, to one of the side-entrances, pushed through the door, and made my way to the library where I read until it was time to go home. Nobody bothered me. Nobody came looking for me. Nobody told me off. I didn’t even see anybody spying on me. It was the strangest day I’d ever had at school. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because I felt so numb the whole time, like a post stuck in a flowing river, standing there while the water moves around it, having nothing to do with it. It had felt as if only my physical body had been at school. What Future Bastard might have called one of his “unthinking drones”. My “primary self” had been elsewhere. Exactly where I could not say. It wasn’t that I was caught up in that side of things, either. It was that I felt blank, that I was not of this world, and that the world had told me it was not part of me.
Then it was home-time. I went to my locker, and put all my books and crap inside. My school bag was empty for the first time in years. I’m sure I was expected to do hours of homework that night, but I didn’t care. I was numb. I was blank. I wasn’t there.
Stuart Cross was there. He was right there, next to me, close. He wore his shirt collar up, and his hair all teased up like he was a rock star. He leaned against the lockers next to mine. “So you’re a killer now, Pig, is that right? You’re a stone cold killer, yeah? Is that you, killer Pig?” His breath reeked like he’d been sucking ink out of biros.
I said nothing. I was still emptying my bag. There was a lot of crap in it. Some of it I hadn’t seen in months.
“You wouldn’t kill me, though, wouldja, Pig? Or Squint, eh? Cos we’re mates, right, you, me and Squints. We’re all mates together, yeah?”
My bag was empty. Everything to do with my entire scholastic life was now in my locker. I was not really sure quite what I was doing. I knew I was awake for the first time all day. I felt as if I was there, that I was casting a shadow. I looked at Stuart Cross, and saw his weak smile, and smelled his bad biro breath. I saw the fear in his eyes. It was plain as day. “Do you think I killed that man, Stuey?” This, what I had just said, was new. I had never spoken to Stuart Cross or anyone like Stuart Cross, anyone of his caste, like that in my life. Something had shifted, given way. Maybe it was putting all the rocks from my school bag back in my locker.
“I don’t know. Did you?”
“The cops are all over my house today. They took away a body from my room.” What was I doing? Who was I now? I felt myself playing with him. I was reckless. I was, and this is nearly impossible to communicate, enjoying myself.
“Shit,” Cross said, his eyes open all the way, staring at me as I loomed over him. I could smell him. It was not a good smell.
“What if I did kill him? What if I did?”
“That’d be the coolest thing ever,” Cross said.
I looked down at him, breathing hard, and I had the strangest, most unfamiliar feeling run through me. He was hunched over, protecting himself. I shoved him as hard as I could against the brickwork, winding him, and he collapsed. I kicked him in the nuts. “Leave me alone, all right, or I’ll kill you, too.” It was whispered in his ear, close enough I could have kissed him, so intimate, so deadly, so sick. Who was I? What had Jane Reid done to me?
Mum picked me up that afternoon. She told me Dad had found some casual labouring work on a building site. It would keep him busy for a week or so, she said, with evident relief. Mum was still in her white nurse uniform. She looked exhausted, pale and drawn. As we drove the long way back to the motel, she asked me about my meeting with Detective Lockley yesterday. I told her he told me the dead man and I had the same fingerprints.
“How is that possible?” Mum said, surprised, glancing across at me.
“It’s not,” I said.
“It must be a mistake, they must have made a mistake. Unless…”
Mum had never understood what I liked about science fiction. She didn’t understand what it was about, the speculative aspect of it, the spirit of inquiry, the whole, “what if a grown man and a teenage boy were found to have the same fingerprints–what might that suggest?” thing. Because there was one obvious thing, but it was also impossible. Obvious but impossible. Mum had never seen all the way through a single episode of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Lost in Space, or any similar show. She’d never seen any sf movie, either. When she went into my bedroom, and saw what I had done with the wallpapering of all those book cover posters, all pinned up with drawing pins, all she thought about was what a nuisance it was going to be in the future spackling over all those drawing pin holes prior to repainting the room. That was her idea of “the future”. My idea of the future was going to Mars.
But Mum was clearly troubled by the “two people with the same fingerprints” scenario. I could see it chewing at her as she drove. She was frowning and working her mouth, working through other possibilities. She was most likely thinking there might be a problem with the fingerprinting system itself. Maybe fingerprints weren’t unique, after all, she might think.
“Any news about Zonk?”
She blinked, glanced at me, then turned very sad indeed. “Oh, love,” she said, and reached a free hand across to caress my face briefly.
I had feared as much. I was suddenly very hot, couldn’t breathe or speak. My eyes stung. I wiped at them.
“It’s very touch and go, Sweetie,”‘she said, barely able to speak herself. “It’s incredible she’s hung in this long, they say. She got a big dose of strychnine. You might have to be very brave. Can you do that?”
I knew enough to know that strychnine was like the atom bomb of poisons. Someone had set out very deliberately to remove Zonk from the game board that night. If Future Bastard was in fact me, just grown up, I couldn’t imagine he would poison his own dog. I couldn’t imagine I would change so much across forty years of time that I would accept the expedience of murdering a beloved family pet. And if it hadn’t been Future Bastard, that left Fiona.
The thought came unbidden, out of nowhere, with no preamble or preparation. I didn’t work up to it. I could not have shown my working out. But nonetheless, as soon as I realised it was Fiona who must have poisoned Zonk in order to get access to our house that night, I knew also that if Zonk died, I would kill Fiona.
Because I was a murderer now. It was my thing. I sat there in silence for a while as we drove. I brooded about poor innocent Zonk, caught up in this stupid cross-time nightmare. I thought back to my meeting with Stuart Cross, who used to be such a tormentor, such a bully to me. But he turned out to be all public relations, special effects and noise. He was the Wizard of Oz, only I looked behind the curtain, and saw the pathetic little man. He was nothing, was Stuart Cross. Impressed at the idea that I might be a murderer. It would be the coolest thing ever, he told me, a huge suckhole, practically crowning me head bully of the school, and appointing himself as my right-hand minion, my Grand Vizier. What a creep! What a bag of laundry! I remembered crushing him against the brickwork–crunch! I hope it hurt as much as it sounded like it hurt. As much as it hurt when he’d done the same thing to me.
“Jane Reid’s telling everyone I’m a murderer now,” I told Mum.
Mum had been miles away. “Sorry, love, what?”
I told her again. I expected her to laugh. Instead she stared straight ahead, and her face crumbled and broke up, and suddenly she was crying, and she pulled the car over, and I said, “Oh Mum,” and she said, “don’t be silly, you’re not a murderer” and I said, “Mum are you all–” and she said, “you know Mrs Sheffield, I told you about her, the broken hip in room twelve, well she passed away today it was sudden she had a blood clot it was sudden we–” and I said “Mum I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m so useless, I’m sorry I’m such a bad son.” Crying myself now, and we were both crying. The car noticeably wobbling on its suspension from our heaving sobbing.
And now it’s after midnight and Mum and Dad are in bed fast asleep again, and it’s just me in a pool of light at this crappy desk again, listening to the traffic outside on Great Eastern Highway, the planes coming and going from the airport, wondering if I’ll ever be on one. Today was a weird day. Right up until that bit with Stuart Cross I felt like nothing at all. You could have swapped me with a collection of old newspapers and belly-button lint and it would have made no difference. I was dead to the world and to myself. I’m going to be in a world of trouble for missing all that schoolwork, but I still don’t care. Right this minute I’m wondering if it’s not too late to drop out and go to technical college and learn something like technical drawing.
I do feel like something either has changed or is changing. Something has happened. Obviously, a man was killed in my bedroom. Kind of obvious. Hard to miss. But maybe something bigger, or deeper than that. I’m not sure. It feels kind of like when autumn turns to winter, or winter turns to spring. The whole planet shifting in its alignment with the sun. Something big happening or about to happen. I don’t want to miss it. It might explain a few things. It might explain what to do about my poor old dad and me.