The jail looms up in front of me, not as sinister as all the TV shows make out but not exactly welcoming either. It’s just a bunch of plain, square buildings connected by a tall, wire fence.
I rub the back of my neck. Feel the sweat of the summer afternoon building. Try to shake off the nerves. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. This is a bad idea.
I roll my eyes. Don’t be a baby. Determined not to back out I square my shoulders and stomp up toward the entrance building.
The door buzzes open and I step through into air-conditioning and stale air. My hands are clenched into fists, and I stuff them into my pockets to try and hide the shaking.
Behind the visitors bench, a man looks up and it takes a moment for me to place him. His face fills with startled recognition and worry.
‘Freddie,’ he says. ‘What’re you doing here?’
I shuffle my weight from foot to foot and want to ask him the same thing. I feel the words on the tip of my tongue. No, not quite at the tip. At the back. Wedged in my throat. I don’t even bother to open my mouth.
Instead I feel for the stiff, folded piece of paper jammed into the pockets of my shorts, take two steps and deposit the crumpled forms onto the counter.
The officer—Bradley—stares at it. Tension coils around my shoulders as he picks it up and slowly unfolds it. He frowns down at the visitors form with my messy, scrawling information, his brows drawing more and more together as he reads.
He glances up at me, his face guarded. ‘You need parental permission for this, Freddie.’
I roll my eyes, yank my wallet out of my other pocket and slid my ID across the table.
Parental permission. How old did he think I was? Twelve?
Well, maybe. That’s how old I was the last time I saw him. I could see the memory written all over his face. The last time I had been here. Parol. I shudder. Glad that meeting hadn’t gone according to plan.
‘Oh…’ he says, staring at my licence and the dates confirming that I was, at least in this regard, adult enough to enter unaccompanied.
He glances up again and his eyes shift behind me, as if searching for someone else. ‘Your sister isn’t here?’
I frown and shake my head, indicating the form again where it says—in my hastened post-work bus-scrawl—only my name.
Bradley nods, a flicker of relief entering his eyes. For a second I think he’s going to say no anyway. I see the consideration on his face, in the tap of his fingers on the table.
Sweat beads on the back of my neck. Trickles down my shirt. Damn this heat.
‘Okay,’ he says at last, and I know, I know, that the only reason he does is because she’s not here. ‘Give me twenty minutes to call the guards and set up the meeting. But…look, I’m not comfortable with this. I know you’re old enough, but there’s a lot of history here, and I know you’re…well, never mind. Just, no contact, alright? None at all. I don’t want to have to drag you out of there.’
I nod, but the doubt doesn’t leave his face.
Can I blame him? After all, when it came to the term “hothead”, I was the very definition.
Twenty minutes crawls by. I sit in one of the four waiting room chairs and try not to let my impatience show. My leg jigs relentlessly. My hands sweat. I try not to think but, of course, my mind is in overload. Overcompensating for the deficiency in my throat.
Instead, I focus on feeling. Feeling nothing, and everything.
The chair is plastic and someone has burnt the edge with a lighter so that little bits of melted chair poke into my thigh. It reminds me of the chairs in high school, and I tilt back on the legs, stretching my back over the top of the chair.
My spine makes several, small pops as the stretch cracks all the tension out of place. I tilt my neck from side to side.
My new sneakers are too tight. They squish in my toes, jamming them too close together that they feel claustrophobic. Is it possible for feet to feel claustrophobic?
No, stop thinking. Just…feel.
The noise in my head begins to quiet and the door to the waiting room slams open.
I jump, glance up from my study of the linoleum floor, and see Bradley. He gestures with his head. As inconspicuously as I can manage, I wipe my hands on my shorts and get up to follow him.
Why the hell am I so sweaty? I’m fine. I have no reason to be nervous. I’m not the one who did anything wrong.
I’m not the one in prison.
When I step into the room everything seems to still. The sweating, the convulsive clenching, the rapid beating of my heart as it rams against my rib cage in protest, the endless stream of questions and thoughts catapulting around my brain—aching and unable to get out.
It all stops.
He blinks, eyeing me off with our mother’s eyes, a small smile playing at his lips.
‘Freddie,’ he says.
I want to say it. I feel it. Wedged there at the back of my throat, dying to come out, dying to prove that he can’t get to me. That I’m stronger. Stronger than him.
Bradley waves me through.
As I pass, he whispers, ‘I’ll wait here. Remember, no touching.’
His eyes are nervous, and his gaze flicks back and forth between me, and the man dressed in orange.
There are no other visitors today. It’s just us. Just Bradley, the guard outside, half a dozen empty tables, me and James.
My fists clench.
I sit down.
‘To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?’
His voice sends memories scattering through my brain. The past is a barren landscape of dried and shrivelled up summer leaves and his calm question is the spark that ignites the wildfire.
Red and blue flashing and so many voices asking so many questions and her face is whiter than anything I’ve ever seen and still there’s red everywhere.
I blink. Try to refocus. Try to push away the gnawing horror of the realisation that someone could do something so horrible to someone they love.
How can he be so calm after the way he’d hurt us. The way he’d hurt her.
My fists uncurl from around the edge of my seat. I take a slow, steadying breath as subtly as I can manage and give my big brother a small nod.
His smile widens and I want to throw up.
What was I doing here?
As if reading my thoughts, James says, ‘you want to know why I did it.’
My mouth goes dry. The memories and questions explode in my mind. A cataclysm of noise that cascades into silence.
There’s a pad of paper and a lead pencil sitting to the side of the table. No doubt left by Bradley as a means for me to get this interview over with.
It doesn’t matter. Even if my mind wasn’t in such a mess, even if I could unclench my hands, I doubt I could keep them from shaking enough to write down any of my questions.
Besides. That’s not what I’ve come for. To write out my questions like some pleading child.
No, what I came for was answers.
So I nod. I do want to know why.
James leans forward, hazel eyes—so much like the memory of our mother’s—bright and alight with amusement. ‘Why should I do that?’
Because I’m your brother you stupid fucktard. Because it’s the decent thing to do. Because you owe us a god damn explanation!
Of course…I don’t say that.
‘She’s not like us, you know.’
Us? Us? A scowl twists at my face and I glare at him.
Red and pale and the screaming sirens and it couldn’t have been him it just couldn’t have, he’d never hurt her like that. None of us would ever hurt her like that!
No. No I’m not like James. I’d never carve up my own sister like a fucking Christmas ham. I’m not psycho. I’m not cruel.
The words are there at the back of my throat, crawling up to the tip of my tongue, clawing to get out. I open my mouth, ready to let them. Wanting, dying to ask him how.
‘How could you hurt someone who loved you so much?’
The words echo but I’m the only one who can hear them—reverberating around the confines of my mind. A silent scream. Nothing. Nothing.
My fists clench, my jaw clenches around the instinct to yell and rant and rave that doesn’t help me a single bit because even if I let myself, the god damn fucking words won’t come.
People always say how expressive my face is and I wonder if he can see the battle on my face. The rage. The defeat. The frustration.
He leans forward again, pitching his voice low and smooth, imparting a secret for only me. ‘Shall I tell you a secret?’ he asks, and cocks his head to one side, like a curious cockatoo peering in through a stormy window. ‘Shall I tell you why?’
My heart hammers. Everything within me stills.
He leans forward even more, a smile curving his lips. ‘Do you remember the Ouija board?’
My mind goes numb. A prickle of cold shivers along the back of my neck. James’ smile widens.
‘I did what I did, because you told me to.’
James chuckles and leans back, his eyes dancing. His gaze flickers over to the door where Bradley is anxiously watching. His gaze is shifting back and forth between us, no doubt wondering. No doubt worried. There’s something on my face. I know there is because I can feel it go blank.
People always tell me how expressive I am.
But right now all I feel is cold. My hands flex and clench. My mind tumbles over itself, trying to go back, trying to remember.
Me? He’s blaming this on me? He’s blaming what he did to her, the way he hurt her on me? That I somehow told him to…to…God.
A scream of rage catches in my throat. Tears of anguish well in my eyes. My fingernails dig into the calloused skin of my palm.
I stand. The chair clatters backwards away from me, ringing through the room.
I can’t focus. My vision is blurry and split. Two things at once. James’ casual, relaxed posture. The confident smile. The cocky delight. And a game. Played years ago on the lounge-room floor. Scary movies we were far too young for, spooky games and horror stories mingling into a night of raucous laughter and delighted screams of fright.
A Ouija board.
Because I told him? Because I told him?
Bradley’s voice snaps me out of the eerie place I’ve stumbled into to. The haze breaks and reality whiplashes back in. I feel sick.
James is messing with me. I know that. It’s what he does. But knowing doesn’t stop it from working.
I realise I’m shaking. I tear my gaze away from James and over at Bradley, who has stepped into the room with a wide eyed gaze of concern.
My shoes squick along the floor as I turn abruptly. Bradley’s talking when I pass him, but I’m not listening. I push passed.
This was a bad idea.
What had I been thinking? Did I really expect him to be honest? Did I really expect…what…that he was sorry? It’s so stupid I want to laugh, but instead all I can manage is a strange sort of hiccuping half-sob that catches in my throat.
It’s my fault?
Is that what I came for? Is that the answer I wanted when I decided to come on this stupid, moronic quest? My sister’s life almost over, her skin marred for the rest of her life because of me? Because of a stupid game?
And what does that leave me with?
The keys slip out of my hand, tumbling down onto the gutter. I lean against the car, the warm metal hot against my forehead as I stare down at my keys. I can’t seem to muster the energy to get them.
It’s my fault?
Is that what I wanted to hear?
I turn away from the car and before I can even process the thought my feet have picked up a steady rhythm along the rough bitumen. The old highway is wide and sparse. I wear a path through the overgrown, browning weeds. Sweat builds up over my back and shoulders. The sun beats down on my shoulders like some oppressive overlord, the heat pounding down in time to each running step long after the sun has sunk low on the horizon.
I keep running and the words keep chasing me.
‘Because you told me to.’
It’s well after dark when I stop, and only because my legs refuse to cooperate. I sink down on the side of the road, panting and breathless, my throat dry and my mind numb.
My calf muscles begin to burn. My feet ache. Faint scratch marks wind their way up my legs where I had to track through some overgrown patch of bush on the side of the road.
After a long moment in which I give up trying to catch my breath, I pull out my phone. If I had the energy, I’d be surprised at the time. In truth I’m relieved. At least I won’t have to face her when I get home.
Seventeen years old and here I am, sitting slumped in the gutter in the middle of no where, glaring the contacts list in my phone through the unshed tears I’m fruitlessly trying to blink into submission.