The Long Spaces Between
Years after I had proven my independence by moving out of my parent’s house, they decided to test theirs by selling it and moving away from me. They cashed in their savings, and a rather large portion of my inheritance, and took to the great unknown by buying an old house on the river; just like everyone else does. “A fixer-upper”, that’s what Pops called it when I pointed out the rotting wooden support under the balcony next to the black mould and the wasp’s nest. It didn’t matter what I told him; he wouldn’t hear a word against it.
‘Look,’ he had said, raising a liver-spotted hand, ‘either appreciate your mother-and-I’s new home, or I’ll clout ya and you’ll be driving all the way back.’
I’d had enough experience with my father’s clouting that I didn’t say anything more; not even when I noticed the upstairs floorboards sinking beneath a leak in the roof.
I stayed with them that first long-weekend, helping arrange the house, moving the furniture into the lounge, moving mum’s treadmill into the spare bedroom, and helping Pops set up what he called “The Man-Cave”; which consisted of a billiard table tucked between two load-bearing columns in the basement. I left that Monday afternoon with a bag of snacks my mother had made for me, bursting at the seams with jerky and sour worms which she called “Belly-achy-stay-awakey food”, assuring them that I’d be back every couple of weeks to visit and bring news of the real world. I meant to, really, and I did; at first.
It’s getting dark, I’m struggling to stay awake, and I’m still an hour away. My butt hurts, I’ve been up since six, and I’m neglecting the stack of essays needing to be marked for this. The river flows beside the road as I drive; as much a traveling companion as any. I point out roadkill to it, complain to it about the state of modern radio, and ask what was so great about it that my parents moved so far away to live beside it.
I pass a road sign and my phone rings. Marvelling at the advances of the modern age, I press a small icon on my car’s touchscreen and answer the call.
‘Hey, Honey.’ I say, lovingly, to my wife, Jessica.
She tells me that I forgot my coffee, which I had noticed two or three hours ago when I reached down for a warming, stimulating, drink and found only disappointment. She tells me that she loves me, I tell her I love her too, and she makes a quiet sound of contentment, then reminds me to call before the girls go to bed. The conversation is short-lived, conversations over the phone often are between us.
‘She just talks so slowly on the phone,’ I jape to my traveling companion, ‘drives me mad.’
The touchscreen illuminates again and my eyes roll. My mother, who possesses the exact opposite problem as Jessica, is calling.
‘Hello, Dear. Just checking in to see how far off you are and to remind you to be careful coming in. Joe from down-the-road had quite a nasty accident last week and you know how tired you get driving around late at night.’ She says, garrulously, before I can even say hi.
I tell her I’ll be careful; I remind her that Joe from down-the-road is in his nineties, and I assert that it is only seven-thirty which is far from late at night.
‘Did you remember the disinfectant? I only ask because I know you would have been busy all day and thought you might have forgotten. I’d of course understand if you were too busy to remember, but do you have it?’
I grunt in the affirmative; her squeaky voice is pitchy through car speakers and I find it grating. Nothing but unconditional love keeps me on the line when she rambles like this. Pops has recently sustained an injury to his foot, hence the disinfectant, and obstinately refuses to “bother the Doc about it.”
Nearby the Galwera river, my companion, and because of it, there is a small town by the same name. This, for reasons known only to them, is where my parents live. It was pretty unassuming, as river towns tend to be. I’ve long held the opinion that when someone tells you that you “have to go see this little town, it’s so majestic” it will not be so. Between travel time and fuel expenses, the chances of the experience exceeding the price are very slim. Of course, whenever I had voiced these opinions in the past I was always met with a clip behind the ears from pops, or worse, forced to listen to my mum regale me with the most, and only, interesting piece of town history. In fairness, few towns could boast that a meteorite had crash-landed into their nearest body of water.
Aside from the meteorite, there’s only one other noteworthy aspect of the town. The centre of the town was built about five kilometres inland from the river because floods were common for most of the year. For reasons known only to them, the Town planner decided that the best way to prevent damage to vital town operations, was to use a twin-lane, spiralling, main road which started at the river bed and wound inland to the town hall at its centre. The only other road is the one I’m currently driving along. It splinters off from the main highway and cuts straight to the heart of the town, with an infuriating number of give-way signs. My parents live right at the end of the outermost part of the spiral, the river mere steps away, so in order to get to them, I have to jerkily inch towards the centre of town, then drive at an almost exact 18 degree curve for 15 minutes to reach my dear parent’s retirement destination. It’s like traveling through the coelom of an enormous invertebrate and deceptively dangerous, because people would often lose concentration, sometimes causing considerable property damage. That alone would be enough to deter me from settling down here, but the residents of Galwera take unnatural pride in the irritating quirks of their beloved town; my parents are no different.
Approaching the first of the give-way signs has always felt like standing in a room with two facing mirrors, the way the same scene seems repeated out of sight. So much so that I check the rear-view mirror, expecting to see the same thing behind me, but I only see the highway. That changes halfway along the stuttering road, when the innumerable give-way signs extend just as far before me as behind. A few signs away from freedom of those devilish, upside-down, triangles, and from imprisonment by the coelom, the thought occurs to me to check the time. It’s almost eight, the girls will be in bed in just a few minutes. I press the “Return Call” icon on the screen to call Jessica, but the caller ID says “Mother”, so I hastily reject the call and scroll to the next to last call. As my finger extends towards the button again, flashing lights and the sound of a whooping siren fill my ears and mirrors.
When I’ve pulled over, the dark silhouette of a pudgy man steps towards my car. His face is hidden by the glaring lights at his back, but I know who it is. There’re only two cops in town and since this was not the exquisitely proportioned silhouette, or neatly clipping footsteps, of Officer Memmler, it had to be Officer Brogden. “Oh, its Bobby’s boy.” He says, tilting his hat in greeting. “Good evening, Peter.” I say, in return, “Sorry, I dropped something and took my eyes off the road for a second.” Peter, a veteran of the Galwera Police Department of 40 years from recruit to captain, staunchly built and walrus-moustached, saw himself always as a peacekeeper more than a law-enforcer. “Not to worry, Champ. No harm done, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t drunk or having a fit or something.” He says, jovially, “How long are you thinking of coming down then? Any chance you make it my Shultzenfest on Sunday? Bottomless beers and an all-day marathon of Hogan’s H-”
Peter’s walkie-talkie crackles and he turns away, interrupted. In between thankful breaths, I manage to catch one word over the static. Escaped. For a moment, an infinite number of possibilities attach themselves to the word, but then Peter turns back, quelling them with a flustered expression to his plump face. “Well, I need to be off. Duty calls,” he says with a small, awkward, chortle, “Hopefully I’ll see you on Sunday.” As he pulls away towards the highway, lights flashing but without sirens, I check the clock. Its five past eight and I’ve missed bedtime.
I call home before I pull out and, apologising, ask Jessica to give the girls an extra kiss and to give them my love. Jessica tells me, in her clear and deliberate phone voice, that she’s already done just that, and asks why I didn’t call until now. I tell her that I had been detained, talking to an old friend of my Pop’s; which was true… in essence. I drive and stop, and drive and stop, for a few minutes as the limestone, turn-of-the-century, Town Hall looms into view. The lights inside are out, but the ones on the lawn, illuminating the building like a beacon, reveal a fluttering banner which reads, “Our Rock Returns” with dates identifying an event to take place tomorrow and the day after that. I turn left at the roundabout and set my wheel to about 18 degrees, and my speedometer to 40, and drive. In the distance, as I spiral, I can see the flashing red and blue lights.
The first thing I see as I lazily list towards my destination is not the house. It’s my mother, waving me down, quite unnecessarily, from the front lawn; as if I'd be confused about which house was the last one on the street. She throws her arms left and right, as though commanded by some unseen Rockstar; she smiles in welcome. "Oh, you meant THIS house at the end of the road." I say, sarcastically. She laughs, not entirely understanding me, and embraces me in a hug. "How are you dear? You're looking a bit thin; have you been eating well enough? You’re not smoking again, are you?" she says, failing to recognise the seven kilos I've gained since last her eyes had looked upon me and actually sniffing my clothes, searching for the sickly scent of cigarettes. I set to retrieving my bag from the back of the car while my mother peers nosily through the window. Through the open front door, I can see the tufts of cotton-white hair clutching for dear life to the top of Pop’s head as he reclines in his armchair. I call salutations to him and receive only a taciturn grunt in return. I exchange significant looks with my mother, and she shrugs unperturbed. "Of course, I'M the bad guy." she says, so only I would hear. I breath in the sweet scent of the river, just across the road, and accompany my mother inside.
The television is on in the lounge room as I cross the threshold. As usual, the volume seems set to the maximum, making the subtitles redundant. I can’t tell if it’s because he accidentally put them on at some point and now can’t figure out how to get rid of them, or if his hearing has just deteriorated that far; possibly he just wanted a reason to complain. “And again! She handed him something and I couldn’t see it through the damn letters.” Pops shouts, sending me momentarily back to my childhood. I slump into the couch and Pops and I catch up for a few minutes while my mother puts dinner on. At one point, he leans in, conspiratorially, then tells me, in a carrying voice which he means for her to hear, that she’s lost the remote for the television. “Just like your passport…” I hear my mother murmur at the sink. “Just like my passport” Pops shouts, using ancient history to justify a new accusation. You might be a vascular, liver-spotted, old man on the outside, I think, but your still the same on the inside; the one that used to chase us around the house with the coat-hanger, and the fly-swat, and the belt, and the chair.
As I continue listing the many and varied household items which my brother and I had been accosted with in our childhood, I notice the pillow, placed to raise one of his legs above the horizontal, and, as my eyes slowly creep up to the bloodily wrapped thing sitting upon the pillow, I remember why my mother had begged me to come down. I gasp, shifting back in the couch, repulsed. “What the hell happened?” I ask, taking in the sodden, crimson, rags wrapped, haphazardly, about his foot. With my eyes fixed upon it, I fail to notice, by sight or by whistling sound, the hand flying towards the back of my head. With an all-too-familiar smack, I’m knocked forward. Vaguely, Pops growls, through the throbbing in my ears, “-ch yer mouth”. Pops takes his time remonstrating me for my “filthy language”, using far worse language to do so. I say nothing of the fact that I am now older than he was the first time I ever heard him swear. “Dad! The foot! What happened to it?” I ask. Pops waves the subject off, dismissively, telling me, “It’s nothing. Just a cut. I’ve washed it out in the river, its clean.” By my merest glance, he seems to recognise my desire to protest, and cuts me off, lecturing me on the healing qualities of the river. The word “tannins” was used several times, in the same vain as the word “anti-oxidants” is used in dietary supplement commercials.
My mother took the disinfectant from the table, dinner simmering on the stove, crouched down by the foot, and removed the wrapping. The degree of disgust in our faces is matched only by the waspishness in his as, little by little, she unwinds the make-shift bandage, which I now recognise as the tea-towel that usually hangs over the rail of the oven; now drenched in what must be a whole quart of rust-scented A-. My mother lets out a small squeal, to which Pops reacts as though she’d just shouted in his ear. He kicks at her with the supported foot, knocking the disinfectant out of her hand, and fixes her with a furious glare. “Quit making such a fuss. It’s nothing major, it just needs to heal up. I can barely feel it,” Pops yells, his glare never shifting. As I crawl off the couch, slowly bringing the foot into view, I too am shocked. There’s a chunk, it seems, that’s been taken out of his foot, and, though the hole itself is no larger than a 5c coin, the whole foot looks infected. It looks like the inverse of some topographical map, with yellowish, blood-flecked, skin on the outside, and layers damaged flesh becoming more and more green, then more and more red, as my eyes move towards the centre of the wound. As I stare at the hole, which only seems to deepen as I do so, I consider that his inability to feel the pain of this wound is probably not a good thing. The glare turns to me when I ask him why he hasn’t been to the doctor’s yet and he answers with a belligerent “What? so I can throw my hard-earned at him just to have him tell me to keep off it for a while? I washed it. It will be fine.”
“It’s still bleeding.” My mother argues, dabbing at the wound with a cotton ball, soaked in what of the disinfectant hadn’t spilled out from the bottle onto the floor “It’s been a week already. Don’t you-”
Pops roared with pain, convulsing as the disinfectant began doing its job. “See. Its infected, that’s what that burning means. No. No. You’re going straight to the doctors.” My mother says. Pops draws himself up in his chair, commanding and intimidating, and shouts her down, all the while maintaining that the pain was due to the sensitivity of the repairing skin and the poor quality of the “budget-branded” disinfectant. I take one more look into the strange depths of the foot and say, regretting it before so much as a syllable passes over my lips, “I really do think you should go-” again I was interrupted by an outburst from Pops, who told me that if my only reason for coming was to gang up on him, I could “Bugger off.”
Dinner that night was a subdued affair with Pops first refusing to eat anything at all, then, having decided that he wanted to eat after all, demanding to be fed in his chair, while my mother and I ate slowly at the table. Pops always had this way of eating when he was mad. A combination of stabbing too hard at his food, letting a little too much of each bite fall back down to the plate, and groaning after each swallow, as though it took genuine effort to keep the food down. It made it difficult to enjoy your own food, if ever you had to eat in the same room. My mother and I make quiet conversation as Pops’ makes disgruntled huffing sounds and the television fills the room with noise that will keep ringing in my ears long after the television is turned off, I am sure. Eventually, Pops struggles out of his recliner, groaning and muttering under his breath about “-cking subtitles”, and hobbles into the toilet; giving me the opportunity to finally ask, “Did Marc say if he was coming?”
“Well he said he would try, but I don’t expect he will. You know what its like when he and your dad are stuck together for any more than a few hours. Your dad’s always pushing his buttons, always knows which ones to push, and Marcus, poor dear, never seems to be able to not react.” She tells me in a low, rapid, whisper.
I wake up with a chill inching up my body. The room had become stuffy through the night and to avoid waking up in a pool of sweat I seemed to have thrown the blankets off the bed. I roll, wearily, over to grab the quilt from frayed carpet floor and hear the unmistakable sounds of an argument drifting in through the door. Apparently, my mother had opened it to check on me, or to wake me up with the smells of breakfast wafting up the stairs from the kitchen; had it worked? Is that what woke me? I check my phone and find three unread messages. The first from Jessica, telling me to call to say good morning, the second from Marc saying he’s sorry he won’t make it, the third from one of the girls using Jessica’s phone, which they probably stole, telling me to bring them back a present. I smile, until I check the time and read the number 11 on the wrong side of the colon, and roll straight off the bed, onto the floor. I brush several strands of petrified carpet fibres from my bare back and chest, like cobwebs, as I climb to my feet. Where are my pants? I cross to the light switch by the door and trip over some inconsiderate object upon the floor. As I stumble, I reach out to the wall for support. “You’re going down” the wall seems to say. My outstretched palm collides with the light switch, flicking it on, achieving my goal; albeit rather less gracefully than I’d intended.
No doubt an electricity saving bulb, it seems too shy to produce more light, than what already existed in the room. I cross the room again, this time passed the bed, to the window and pull down on the drawn blind. Instead of rolling back up, the blind simply lowers further, and stays lowered. I have to manually roll it, standing on tiptoe, grunting softly as the blind inched up an up the pane. As if wanting to prove to me that not everything in this room is incapable of performing its desired purpose, the blind went into a vigorous death roll of sorts, casting late-morning light into the room. Where are my pants? I think again. Now, apparently feeling out-shone, the lightbulb starts emitting something closer to the wattage it had promised. I find my pants uncomfortably near where I tripped and looking disappointingly tripped-over.
The argumentative sounds are much clearer as I stand on the landing beyond the spare-bedroom door; so too are the, now slightly stale, smells of breakfast. The carpet here is lush and spongy, lacking the petrified quality of the inner room to which only those permitted into the inner sanctum may ever bare witness. The landing connects to the downward-leading stairs on my right, and the upstairs corridor on my left. The lights are off so that the hall is illuminated only by the light beaming in through the window at the end, by my parent’s bedroom. I walk past the other spare room and my mother’s exercise room as I move to examine it.
As the river possess an elbow-like bend in its long, snaking, trench between the great expansive lake and the greater, more expansive sea, from which and to which it flowed, the window upstairs had a clear view of the winding river beyond. It radiates light from the sun, almost directly above, and I’m drawn to it by the softly rolling waves along the river’s surface that I’m unsure if I can hear or if I’m just imagining. The shimmering light off the river is like a constantly shifting landscape painting, beautiful and majestic, as it wraps around the two small islands in the distance, both named after animals of which kind I’m unsure, but which I’m sure never lived there without human influence. Momentarily I’m caught in the same thralls that I imagine dragged my parents here, and it makes me uncomfortable.
“That’s enough, Sal.” I hear Pops say, as my foot falls onto the first step on my way downstairs. His tone is cold, but without aggression. His anger has abated, as usual, into gloom. The day would not be a gleeful one, true, but if nothing else should go wrong, it might, at least, pass in due course, and without open hostilities. “But it’s getting a funk to it now, Robert. It stinks. If that smell came attached to a dog, I wouldn’t let it in the house,” is my mother’s chittering reply, as my second footfall is masked by the sounds of a dishwasher being emptied. A feint humming lays over the room as I reach the bottom of the staircase, revealing a scene largely the same as the night before. Pops was still reclined in his chair, pillow under his heel, the white bandage I’d seen my mother wrap around his foot was now sporting large splotches of dark blood; my mother, still hustling around the kitchen, tidying with a keen attention to detail which she reserves only for cleaning and her family’s attire when going out.
I give her a small hug in morning greetings, and she responds by telling me that I’ve missed breakfast which, as I should have known, ends at half-past-ten. “I was about to run up and drag you out of bed myself, wasn’t I Robert, I kept wondering what could possibly be keeping you.” She tells me. I ask her if she’s heard of the latest trend, sleep. She puts on an old oven mitt, designed to look like a parakeet, and tells me to get dressed for the museum as soon as I’ve eaten. I’m paused in the act of asking “what is there for breakfast?” by my mother pulling a heavily laden plate of bacon, eggs, and two small pancakes from the oven. She turns the oven off and the feint humming ceases. “There’s coffee in the pot, Dear” she says, placing the plate on the table, having insisted that it would burn my hands when I attempted to take it from her. I call “morning” to Pops who, I notice, is watching the television with the sound much less loud, though still very loud, and the subtitles turned off. He grunts, not to imply that the greeting is unwanted, but to imply that the television, our almighty master, must be given the respect of a quiet audience. “How’s the leg?” I ask with half a glance at the swollen, bandage covered, foot. His answer is predictable. “It’s fine. Bit hard to walk on. But otherwise dandy,” he says, breaking up his speech to avoid interrupting the weekend news presenters. “Found the remote then?” I offer, and a dourer grunt was offered back. As I work my way through the over-full, but delicious, plate, my mother sidles by and whispers with a tone which suggests eye-rolling, “He was sitting on it the whole time.”
The museum, as my mother had called it, was, in fact, little more than a modestly proportioned chamber inside the town hall. Since the hall itself was bigger than the town’s operations could fill, and the town possessed little history worth promotion or display, it made sense to combine the two, rather than to build a whole new landmark to co-exist with the unique, and pre-existing, style of the town. This decision was advertised as “A joining of our rich past, to our ongoing, expanding, future.” And the residents were thrilled.
The whole town is here, I swear. A hundred people, all elderly, all wearing variations of the same six articles of clothing, all bought from the same boutique; the only one in town. All except for myself which, thankfully, draws little enough attention. There’s a banner, like the one hanging across the hall itself, but in miniature. Below it, though I cannot see it clearly, is the meteorite. Pops grumbles about the crowd, as we slowly move closer, as those in front of us move away; I don’t pay him any mind. Officer Brogden, looking browbeaten and exhausted, is leaving the deputy-mayor’s office. He taps his policeman’s hat against the palm of his other hand, shaking his head. I receive a poke in the back of my ribs from Pops for failing to notice a space in front of me that someone in the crowd had just vacated, but I continue watching the Captain’s face, moving forward when the poke is followed up with a sharp jab.
The milling crowd eventually allows us to pass into full view of the meteorite, now encased in glass. Upon approach, I notice a gleaming brass plaque with the words “Galwera Meteorite. Landed: 14,12,1998” engraved. Wherever it had been taken, the rock was now split in two, like a giant brain separated into its hemispheres. The inside is porous and reminds me of the ant farm I had kept in my youth; which I had lost at age nine. When I found it, at age fifteen, the ants had long since died, but their chitinous remains did just that. To my surprise, a feeling of professional curiosity wells up inside of me as I move around the artefact. The compacted particulates from which it is formed seem hard- and must be, for it survived its impact upon the river without obliteration- and yet it was porous. Peering deeply into the glass, I see the holes on the outside of the meteorite and Pops’ face through the glass. There’s a curiously fixed expression upon it, like his poor mood was fighting against his genuine interest in order to keep the day unpleasant. Officer Brogden catches my eye on his way out and turns, heading my way. He stops again, with a twisted expression as though suffering toothache, and recognises Pops, leaning over the exhibit. “Oh, Bobby, could I have a word.” He says, tapping Pops on the shoulder. “Who’s broken into my house?” Pops replies. Officer Brogden laughs and indicates a private corner in which to speak.
Under the guise of observing the meteorite, I shuffle around the casing, placing my back towards their whispered conversation. From what I can make out, the “Escape” I’d overheard last night was of two men and a woman from the rehabilitation centre across the river; I could see its lights from the street on a clear night. Apparently, the men and woman were permanent residents of the centre. I close my eyes in concentration, but I’m interrupted by my mother’s approach, “Not bad for a backwater meteorite, eh? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Bit like a brain isn’t it? dear?”. I give an assenting grunt. Through her continued rambling about the strangest things she’d seen in her life, the point being that this meteorite ranked highly on that list, I try to catch the ending of Pops and Brogden’s whispered conversation, catching only Pops’ assurance that he’d be at the “Shultzenfest” as the two part ways, laughing cheerfully.
Officer Brogden leaves us, nodding, and exits as Pops turns back to us, his stony face wiped clean of cheer. “What was that, Robert?” my mother asks tentatively, “What did Peter want to talk about?” Pops, in answer, strikes me in the chest and tells her about my run-in with the officer yesterday evening, but mentions nothing of the “Escapees.”
“Hmm.” She says, looking discerningly at him, unsurprised by the news, for I had told her last night, before I retired. Changing the subject, she says, “We should have come tomorrow. The place was packed with everyone from the Maxwells to the Lees, I’d be quite mistaken if there’s anyone coming to see it tomorrow.” I tell her there will be. When she asks why, I explain that seeing a meteorite for the second time must be more interesting than playing tennis, or backgammon in the park, for the thousandth.
Three police cars are parked on the riverside of the road as we pull into the driveway, my mother wonders aloud what they could be doing here, but Pops says nothing of his conversation with the Captain. That night, having gone to bed early, feigning a migraine but actually just tired of Pops’ sullen, scathing, mood, I hear him explaining the conversation to my mother, through the open door. Indelicately, he tells her of the escaped patients of the centre, and the “Idiot Woman” whose bloated body, bereft of life, had washed ashore that morning, with no sign of her counterparts. I can smell the foot from here.
The final day of my trip begins as the last had ended, with a stench and a discussion of missing persons. As I come down the stairs, I see Officer Memmler in the doorway, her rigidly all business police uniform doing nothing to hide the Botticelli inspired form beneath it. If Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships, it was Officer Memmler’s which sent them, distractedly, into the depths of the Aegean Sea. I avoid staring directly at her as she reports the progress of their search. There has been no progression, no sign of the lost patients. She notices me and nods with a smirk, and I wish instantaneous and excruciating death upon myself and my ridiculous, flannelette, pyjamas. She backs away from the doorway and leaves with a professional “Thank you for your time” and “Have a nice day.” Pops turns and fixes me with a furious look as he yells at me to “Get some damned clothes on.”
Dressed, breakfasted, and not without apprehension, I leave the house and help Pops into the car, as my mother locks the doors. Pops tells her to triple check the windows because of the “Crazies” galivanting about the place. My mother and I are the last ones standing in the front yard and she gives me a pensive, apologetic, glance as we both duck into the car. Pops has already infected the interior air and filled it with the sounds of his favourite band’s best hits. Doing my best to tune them out, I listen to the river rolling in the background as the engine starts and we pull away.
with the wheel set to 18° to the right, we soon separate from the river, only to see it again through gaps between houses, some minutes later. I ask what time we were expected to be there, and Pops responds with a theatrical “I KNOW NOTHINK”; my mother stares guiltily out of the window as we drive. The river becomes more and more obscured with every lap we perform. I’ve never known Pops to attend a party which carried a dress-code beyond wearing a collared shirt, yet here he was, sitting in the passenger seat of my own car, wearing a replica German infantry uniform and has even affixed a prop-toothbrush moustache to his upper-lip. In the middle of a rant about how he was going to win best-dressed this year, on account of the fact that “Peter’s never had the balls to wear the moustache, too”, the exuberance dies in his face, like a Shogun falling to their knees, back to his enemy. My mother, sitting behind him, chews at the nail of her thumb as we pull in.
“Why the hell are we here?” he asks in cold fury. He leers at me and I blink slowly, not taking my eyes off the Carpark road, even vigilantly maintaining the 10km/h speed limit. Whipping around in his seat, he winces as his injured foot knocks against the centre console, which only adds to the intensity of his rage has he roars, “Why have you brought me HERE!” I can see resigned tears welling in my mother’s eyes; she knew that this was coming, but knew she had no choice. She takes a shaking, steadying breath and tells him, “I had to. I let you go at first because I know how stubborn you are, how stubborn you’ve always been. But this is ridiculous. You’ve barely slept in days, the stench is unbelievable, and after all this time it’s still bleeding, but you still haven’t gone to see the doctor. If it was because you were scared, I’d be supportive- we’d still be here, but I’d be supporting you all the way to the door- but you’re not even being stubborn anymore, I think you just genuinely don’t want to be told you were wrong. Or you don’t want to be told I’m right.”
Pops looked like all his strength was being used to keep himself from lashing out. He breathed in and out like an animal, a rampant gorilla, and glared at us both with deepest loathing. “Well I’m not going in” he says, seething, each syllable galvanised with contempt. The air in the car doesn’t stink anymore, it feels like it’s all been sucked out. We sit in that vacuum, suffocating until my mother speaks again, “I expected as much, which is why I told them that it was an emergency and that it was critical that you be made to go inside. They’re sending someone out.”
At this, Pops throws open the door and I have to grab his arm to keep him from storming out. I was keeping him restrained, even as he thrashed and flailed trying to escape, even as curses were spat at both of us. As imposing he may, once, have been, and however much weight I’ve recently gained, he’s a man long past his prime, and I have not yet left mine behind. “If you were a real man, you wouldn’t be hiding behind your mother like this, you shit.” He thunders, but I say nothing in return, I don’t give out. After another minute’s barrage of irrational yelling, I’m pushed to shout, “We’re trying to hel-” but it seems to be what he was waiting for. In the second that I allow myself to be distracted by speaking, he lurches back, pushing off his injured foot, and catching me in the ribs with his elbow, and the nose with the back of his head. Ejecting himself, a man possessed, from the car, he hobbles straight into the path of a very large man; a security guard, dispatched to bring him into the hospital.
I haven’t the heart to be in there, so I sit in the waiting room while the doctor examines Pops’ foot. I’ve seldom seen a glare like the one he gave me when they took him inside and hope never to have to again. I hear an occasional cry of pain from Pops and, on occasion, the doctor raises his voice, though I can hear little of their conversation through the closed door, but I hear nothing from my mother. After thirty minutes, they exit the doctor’s office. The waiting patients nearby me do not hide their reactions of impatient relief as my parents, each as dishevelled and defeated as the other, walk to the receptionist desk and the doctor takes in a new patient. Pops is sporting a new bandage, expertly applied and, before we return to the car, they stop at the pharmacy attached to the medical centre and buy several different boxes of pills, each with a signed prescription.
In the car, I nervously ask “Where to?” to no immediate answer. Pops tears the false moustache from his face and flings it into the back seat, becoming entangled in my mother’s hair. “Probably best if we just go home.” She says, emptily. We pass officer Brogden’s house, his party in full swing inside, three times before the sounds no longer penetrate the car as we spiral towards the house. I lose concentration at a point and almost sideswipe an oncoming car, but no one says anything, we just drive on in silence.
Pops slams their bedroom door, when we arrive, and locks himself inside. My mother and I are left to make awkward conversation in the tense silence of the kitchen. That’s when she tells me what the doctor had said in the examination room. Dropping her voice even lower than we had already been speaking, she tells me that the doctor is afraid Pops’ foot will have to be amputated. “He said your father had left it so long that parts of the foot have already started dying.” She says. What’s more, it seems that his bad circulation had allowed the wound to fester, increasing the rate of infection. When the doctor had unwrapped it, apparently, it was far worse than it had been when I saw it. My face drains of colour at this, for I had been well and truly disgusted by it when I had seen it then, let alone the thought of it being worse. “The doctor took one look at it and immediately started writing prescriptions for the strongest antibiotics the pharmacy carried, but he says there’s still a fifty-fifty chance they’ll need to remove it. He says if it doesn’t stop bleeding by Tuesday, it won’t be a question of if but of how much.”
When the time comes for my departure, Pops is still, obstinately, hiding behind the locked door of their bedroom and refuses to come out to see me off. I thank him, somewhat ironically, for his hospitality, and tell him I’ll tell the girls he sends his love. My mother walks me out and asks me to call when I arrive home safe and asks if I can talk to Marc about visiting. “Perhaps you could both come up together. I suspect your dad will need some company; he might be in for some bad news come Tuesday.” She says. I agree to call her and to talk to Marc, promising nothing on his behalf, and for a moment I think of asking her to come too; surely, she shouldn’t have to stay with him in such a temper. As if reading my mind, she tells me “You don’t have to worry about me, dear. Its sweet of you, but I a big girl, and there’s nothing he can throw at me that I can’t handle.”
I traverse the coelom again, my thoughts on my parents, wondering whether my mother will be okay, and sparing a thought to wonder the same for Pops. Then I stop, hearing merriment emanating from Officer Brogden’s house, and drop in to give him my wishes and an explanation of my parents’ absence, though not the explanation. Officer Memmler gives me another nod and smirk, as I leave. As if out of recompense, I call Jessica to tell her that I’m heading back home now and briefly fill her in on the situation, promising details upon my arrival. After an infuriating number of give-way signs, I take to the highway towards home, eventually splitting from my travelling companion. “Until the next time” I say as I lazily list towards home, to my loved ones, and away from the river.
In the brightly illuminated dead of night I pull into my street in my riverless suburban neighbourhood and, as I do so, I call my mother from the car. I tell her that I’m home, she tells me she’s glad, I ask if she’s alright, she lies and tells me she is, I tell her I should go inside and that I’ll talk to Marc, she thanks me and says goodbye. I pull into the driveway, swerving to avoid push-bikes and toy guns like land-mine’s in a deserted war zone and note, as I always do, how quickly we’re outgrowing our neat, red-brick, home; and how soon we will have outgrown it completely.
Jessica is already by the door when I enter, in a fluffy dressing gown and with a steaming cup in each hand. She hands one to me and says, without the lumbering pace of her phone voice, sweet as honey, to “tell her everything.” We discuss my weekend away for some time, then we share in each other’s warmth and flesh, enjoying silence as only the parents of twin eight-year-old girls can. In the grips of premature sleep, on the soft couch in the warm lounge, I’m torn from both by the realisation that I’ve forgotten to call Marc and leave Jessica there in her corpse’s sleep. Amazingly, he is still awake; Charlie, his son, is ill. I tell him about Pops, about the foot, and the pending prognosis, unsure of the reaction it will elicit. “I’m surprised he didn’t lose it years ago,” he says with slightly less empathy than I’d been expecting, “All the times he buried it in our arses, you’d have thought it would’ve broken off somewhere down the line.” I tell him that he should, all joking aside, probably make a point to head down there; describing the withering state I’d found him in, how much older Pops had seemed. We chat until I hear the distant, guttural, sounds of emesis come through the speaker. Remembering that I have work in seven hours, I tell Marc that I have to go, and ask him to consider what I said about visiting Pops. He gives me a non-committal “Sure thing” and I hear him rushing off to Charlie before the call officially ends.
I’m so tired when I arrive home the next day, that I prepare dinner for the girls early, leaving a plate for Jessica to eat when she gets home from work, and go to bed, waking only to brief snippets of joyous screams and scaping plates, the usual sounds of the house, before the alarm tears me from my slumber once and for all. The next evening, after I’ve gotten home from work, I call my mother to check in, knowing that Pops will have had his appointment today. She tells me its “Touch-and-go at the moment” because, whilst it had not stopped, the bleeding had slowed drastically, which was a step in the right direction. “Of course, he still blames me. Now it’s my fault because I didn’t force him to go to the medical centre early enough.” My mother tells me, at which I scoff. At least, I tell her, he’s taking it seriously now and actually following the doctor’s orders.
I call my brother late in the evening, after I’ve put the girls to bed, read to them, and read to them some more. It’s Charlie who answers the call at the other end, however. This isn’t surprising as Charlie is a few years older than the girls and, to be fair, Marc has never placed much emphasis on “Stupid Bedtimes.” I ask him if his father is up, to which he hesitates before saying “N-No, he’s gone to bed.” I can tell that he’s lying, most likely at the behest of my brother. I know that it’s not that Marc doesn’t want to talk to me, he just doesn’t want to talk about the things he knows I’m going to say. I ask Charlie about his day, how school is going, if there are any girls or boys he likes, then I ask him to tell his dad that “Pops is taking it about as well as you’d expect” and that I still don’t know if they’ll have to “perform a separation.”
Over the next week my mother calls twice, firstly to tell me that the doctor is still not sure if amputation is necessary, the second to vent her frustration at the doctor’s inadequate assistance. “It’s like he doesn’t know what he’s doing” she says. I call Marc every second day, only once managing to have him answer it himself, and receive no definite confirmation that he’s planning to visit.
On Thursday, one week and two days after the fate of Pops’ foot was meant to be decided, my phone rings while I’m in the middle of a class on nutrient consumption in ecosystems. I decline the call without removing the phone from my pocket and continue, not unimpeded, with the lesson. It’s not for another two hours, when the final bell has rung and I’m sitting in my office grading the essays which should have been marked a week and a half ago, that I remember the call. It’s from my mother. At first, anxiety starts to set in, but surely, if something were wrong, she would have called more than once, she might have perhaps, knowing my mother, not stopped calling until I answered; but it is with a cool trickle of nervous sweat running down my spine that I press redial.
She answers the call and, by her voice as she does this, I know something is wrong. “Oh, Dear, thank goodness you’ve called. I didn’t want to bother you at work, but I didn’t know who else to call.” My mother proceeds to describe the events of the past twenty-four hours as I begin to hastily pack away my belongings into my satchel and race out of the school to my car; leaving the essays, ungraded, upon my desk. I tell her to try not to panic, to remain calm, and to try and put Pops on the line, but he will not take the call. “I know you’re busy, Dear, but do you think that there’s any way you could come back down? I’m so sorry to burden you.” She says, her voice growing stronger as she draws the phone back to her ear. I promise her I will and that, come hell or high water, I will be bringing Marc with me.
That night I make two phone calls. The first to Marc to tell him the situation with Pops. He tells me he already knows because he “was the one who copped the incessant calling” when I failed to answer my phone. “So, they’re taking the leg, and Pops has gone into lockout mode.” He says, sounding concerned for neither Pops’ health nor our mother’s wellbeing, but resigned, as if knew how all of this would, and will, play out. I tell him that I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon, when I get off from work, to pick him up and take him down with me. I can feel his resistance through the phone, he stammers about Charlie still being “a bit under the weather”, but I refuse to take “no” for an answer. In the end, he grudgingly decides to come with me. The second call is to Pops’ phone, which I hope would be with him in the room. It rings and rings until, just as I’m about to give in, he answers with a direct “Whose side are you on?” Not off to the start I was hoping for, I stammer before telling him that I know he’s scared but locking himself inside his bedroom and refusing to let anyone in, not even to feed him, is not going to do any good. When I’m done, I notice that the line is dead, and I don’t know when he hung up, or how much he’d heard before he did.
Its dark, I've drunk six poisonous-tasting energy drinks, and I'm only an hour away. My head is pounding, I've barely slept in a week, and my brother has left me hanging, again. Marc rang me on my way to his house to tell me he couldn’t come because “Charlie's gone to hospital for observation”. Whether this is true or not, I can’t say. Honestly, if it’s a choice between Marc using his own son as a scapegoat to weasel out of going, or Charlie having to spend the night in hospital, I don’t know whether I want it to be true or not. He hasn’t answered his phone in over an hour, which is fine if he’s at the hospital (It might have gone flat), but if he isn’t its anything but fine. In the latest of a long line of voicemails, I tell him that I hope Charlie feels better soon and that, so help me, if he’s faking this to get out of going…
To top it all off, I’ve quit quitting smoking; mangled cigarette butts hang from the overfull ashtray. The touch-screen flashes, telling me that my mother is calling, and I end my voicemail on a trailing, though ominous, pause. I answer, telling her that I should be there before ten, and she tells me to be careful. “It took a while, but I found the spare bedroom key. So much for me losing it in the move.” She says, adding that she plans to get in that room even if he ends up hating her for it. I tell her to be careful and that we can do it together, when I get there, if she’d rather. She reminds me that she’s “a big girl” again.
A Police stop-point has been set up only half a kilometre from the Galwera turn off and I can see, obscured by the red and blue flashing lights, the pillowy silhouette of Officer Brogden, waving me down. “Bobby’s boy is back again.” He says jovially, though his face is worn, the five o’clock shadow looking closer to five hundred o’clock as it creeps up towards his walrus moustache. I ask if I can help him and he tells me there’s nothing I can do unless I’m carrying “a couple of absconded loons” in my backseat. I give no sign that this is not the first I’m hearing of the situation, contenting him by saying that all I have back there is my satchel and half a dozen sour worms that have been kicking around since God-knows when. He allows me to continue, through the straight staccato street, passed the beacon-like town hall, and around and around the swirling main road, to the dimly lit driveway of my parents’ house.
I step through the doorway into the silent house, wondering how it could be so. Where is the blaring television, the shouting? I hear nothing, wondering if, perhaps, my mother has somehow forgotten I was coming and simply gone to bed; but that’s impossible, I tell myself. Nevertheless, it is with a soft step that I proceed slowly up the carpeted stairs. There’s an odour on the air like rubbing alcohol, like gasoline, like someone left the lid off a disinfectant bottle. The moonlight shines through the window at the end of the hall; tinged green by the sickly green shade from the lamp on my parents’ bedside table. I hear feint whispering and, for reasons I cannot describe, my body halts at the cracked door, waiting. I stare into the sliver of green-tinged space between door and frame, straining my ears, but it is not Pops’ voice, or my mothers. It is a stranger’s voice, hoarse and feverish.
I can hear them, whispering a refrain I do not understand. Some of what I hear is English, but much of it is indecipherable to me. Whether it be gibberish or some pre-ancient tongue, I can’t be certain. My knees weaken; I do not know why. I reach out to the door, seeing my hand shaking, spasmodically. Fear wells within me, threatening to drain me of all resolve. A second, even more exhilarated, voice joins the first and their jubilation pins me to the spot. As they mutter, I hear the word “sacrifice” and a chill, trickles down my spine. What sacrifice? Where are my parents? I can wait no longer. My fear, still licking, with an icy tongue, at my neck, fills me to the brink of madness, but I must act. I move closer to the door, easing it open, but one of the voices shrieks loudly, and I stop. The shriek was joyous, not painful or alarmed, and as the whispers return, they are loud enough to hear. “It is to you, sweet, terrible, Master, who came to us as we bathed in the waters of your Earthen prison, that we pledge our hearts’ allegiance, to you that we submit our unworthy minds, and for your satiation that we offer our bodies and souls. Oh, Master, hear us and be reborn!” the last words coming as an insane cry. I swing wide the door, bursting into the room. Time ceases to function in the wake of the nightmare that fills my vision.
Tendons, like the tentacles of some bewitched and mutated octopus, like muscle fibres shredded from the whole, hang from every square inch of the room; lining the walls, clinging to the ceiling, and creeping along the floor. A pungent waft of gasoline lingers in the air filling my head with a swirling, noxious, buzz. Two figures in ragged white clothes, their backs to me, kneel before the bed and from them hiss the voices I could hear from the hall. Horrified, I take a numb step into the room, feeling one of the tendrils squelch beneath my boot. The figures, both apparently male, are prostrated before the bed, worshiping in hoarse whispers something I can’t quite make out. I step closer and closer, believing each to be my last, and the something comes into focus; for I could only come to grips with the nature of the thing once I had accepted the unnaturalness of it.
Pops’ body, shrivelled, dark, and distorted, is splayed upside-down in the middle of the wall over the bed. One of his legs is missing from the lower-calf and from it, pulsating and stretching ever outwards, are the worm-like tendrils spreading around the room. Though he must be dead, for no man- even so stubborn as my father- could survive in such an altered state, his eyes seem fixed upon me with a withered smile; I know will never be fortunate enough to forget that face. The decrepit shell of my father turns its head, infinitesimally, towards the wall to my right, and my eyes, unwillingly follow. Pinned to the wall, with the otherworldly, pulsating, filaments running over, around, and, to my dread, through her, is my mother. The terror finally overcomes me, and I cry out in panic.
The worshipers at the foot of the bed turn, at once, towards me. In the sickly green light of the room I can see that their faces are distorted, by forces unknowable, and their eyes have been scratched out, apparently by their own hands. Involuntarily, every muscle in my body clenches simultaneously, and my eyes bulge in their sockets. In the inevitability of my imminent destruction I feel like my body has entered a kind of stasis, as though determined to suck as much life out of its final moment as possible. The whisperers stand, their sightless eyes fixed upon me, and I can feel myself backing into the wall. The tendrils attempt to welcome me, as they have my mother, but, of their own accord, my arms thrash and tear at them to keep me free from their grasp. The worshipers cry in a tongue as alien to me as anything in this room, this pocket of hell, and oblivion seems but a heartbeat away, but they turn from me, running headlong at the wall on the opposite side of the room. In their strange tongues they cry again, exultantly, and are swallowed by the tendrils covering the solid wall; out of sight, gone forever, never to be seen or heard again.
I stare, open mouthed, at the wall through which the men have just, inexplicably, escaped and in my confusion, by some childhood habit, turn to my father for guidance. His face is still split in that awful grin, his eyes clouded. From behind me I hear a shudder of pain; my mother is stirring weakly within her bonds. In desperation, I fling myself upon the fleshy bindings which hold her to the wall, tearing at them with my bare hands, but every appendage I damage multiplies, to say nothing of the tendrils creeping through her body. Through the writhing mass, I see an old family portrait and smash it, slivers of glass penetrating my hand. I take the largest of the broken pieces and begin cutting into every creeper I can reach. My mother begins to scream with an agony I could never imagine coming from her, pain and fear in their most potent manifestations. A cold, mirthless, eons-old cackle slithers into my ears. I keep hacking away at the tendrils as my mother’s screams become weaker, as though coming from across a great empty expanse, and I can see the life draining from her, becoming more and more like the thing that was once my father.
I turn to him, lost, and see his mouth wide open, the petrified flesh of his lips and cheeks cracking and splitting with the strain, and a long creeper extends from his mouth. It constricts suddenly and I am swept off my feet, the tendril wrapped around my ankle. The laugh, in which I hear the death of a thousand stars, echoes around the room as the creeper pulls at me and the pulsating appendages on the floor flex, bringing me closer to the bed. I stab and slice at the tentacle dragging me along, but this one is different, impervious to my glass-knife. I fumble in my pockets, desperately, and my fingers close upon a small metal object. I pull the lighter from my pocket and ignite it, burning my own hand as my tremulous grip remains too long near the flame. I hold it to the creeper, screaming, as it begins working its way under my own skin and a squeal issues from the thing upon the wall, reminding me simultaneously of a pig’s slaughterhouse cry and a foghorn calling danger to harbor-bound ships. Before I know it, the arm-like tentacle has released me, on fire and thrashing like a fireman’s hose in every direction, spreading the burning fire onto every surface; the squealing intensifying with every passing second.
As the room fills with hungry flames, I try once more to extract my mother from the walls, but the damage, it seems, has been done. Her last breathes have been drawn and her withering body is dissolved into the wall, even as I take hold of her wrist, hanging on for dear life. I stumble from the room, down the darkened staircase, through the front door, and out into the freezing night air. My traveling companion stares at me from across the road as the sounds of glass shattering on the upper level pierces the silent night. Crawling to my car, my phone begins to ring in my pocket. “Marc. Please help. Something has happened” is all I manage to say before my nerve fails and I lose consciousness upon the dewy grass.
I awake to sirens in the distance and hover between sleep and waking with Officer Memmler’s breathy voice in my ear. She tells me that I have had them worried, that I’m going to be okay; her words are comforting if not completely empty. I will not be okay; I couldn’t imagine that anyone in my position could be okay. Her words are mixed with those of the paramedics in the ambulance as we drive to the medical centre, swirling in my mind through partial images of the night which my brain is trying, with no opposition, to rid from my memories. I can feel myself being pulled outwards towards the river as the ambulance spirals towards the centre of town.
When next I remember waking, Officer Brogden is at my bedside in a state of stunned horror. “Are you alright, Boy?” he asks, crinkling his captain’s hat like a failed origami swan. Over an extensive interview which, for my sake, he conducts in several short stints, giving me time to rest when I need it, I reveal what I dare about the previous night’s events. The sun blazes through the window, reflecting on the surgically clean tiled floor. For the cause of the fire, I give an explanation, though not the explanation. I tell him that I came across the blaze before it had taken hold of the house. I explain, with a rigidness which passes, convincingly, as grief, and not pure terror, that I came upon them, lying on the floor, already dead from the smoke. I tell him that I tried my best to get them out of there, but the whole place was starting to come down, and he responds saying that I don’t need to explain that to him, “I saw your clothes. It was obvious you had been battling with something fierce.” I nod, eyes unfixed, and he taps me on the leg, saying that he’d “better be off, work to do” and that I should rest up.
After what feels like only minutes, and must be, for the blazing sun seems no further in the sky than it had when Officer Brogden was in the room, Marc steps close to my bedside, his eye’s full of regretful tears. “I’m so sorry” he says, squeezing my leg, causing me considerable pain. He had unwittingly managed to squeeze the place where the creeper had forced its way inside of me, “I’m just so, damned, sorry.” I tell him, truthfully, that I’m glad he wasn’t there, that he didn’t have to see it, and that there was nothing he could’ve done, but he cannot bring himself to believe me; he thinks himself a failure for being absent when his parents most needed him. Marc can never know just how lucky he is that Charlie was sick. In that moment, I realise, that I don’t care if Charlie was sick or not; either way, it probably saved Marc’s life.
The medical centre discharges me into his care, with some prescription pain medication and a course of antibiotics for my leg. He drives me home. We make little conversation. Again, and again, he tells me that I can’t imagine how sorry he is, and again and again I tell him he needn’t be, for all the good this does. “I’ll make all the arrangements for the funeral, don’t worry. It’s the least I can do” he says as we pull up to the house, so close to outgrown. He waves away my offer of coffee, saying that I need to rest and that he’ll be by tomorrow to check on me. As I move to walk away from the car, he calls to me through the window. For a moment he hesitates, on the verge of apologising once more, but tells me instead that “We’re going to get through this. We’re survivors.”
Jessica has no steaming mugs in her hands as she answers the door but does pull me into a fluffy embrace. “You don’t have to say anything” she says, leading me to the bedroom. I stare, numbly, into space as she removes my clothes and dresses me in sleeping wear. I wince as she pulls a pair of flannelette trousers over my leg. “That looks painful, should it be bleeding like that?” she says. “It’s nothing,” I reply, automatically, “I’ve cleaned it out. It’s fine.”