Despite the rain from the night before and the grey sky above, dust still rose up behind us as we headed into civilisation. Like a stubborn cloud reminding us of our origins: you belong to the country, the dirt, the earth.
As if we needed the reminder.
Freddie shifted, pulling out a bundle of papers wedged down the side of his seat.
‘Shit,’ said Tim, reaching over to yank them away. ‘Sorry. Don’t worry about those.’
He started stuffing them into the pocket of the drivers door, but Freddie snatched one of the loose papers back. I leaned forward to see what it was that Tim wanted to hide from us.
A newspaper clipping.
I glanced over at Tim and caught the flash of guilt in his face. Olive skin flushed red, and his coal-dark eyes turned to the road with unerring focus.
Freddie lowered the paper. He didn’t look at Tim, and he didn’t look at me. Instead, he leaned his elbow on the jammed window and stared out at the countryside.
‘What?’ I asked, and reached around to take it.
Girl attacked by older brother saved by neighbour.
I swallowed, my mouth going dry.
‘Sorry,’ Tim blurted. ‘Was Mum. She found them last night. I dunno why she thought I’d want them. I dunno why she even saved them in the first place. It’s not exactly a fond memory. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve had it in the car. It was stupid, I—’
‘Tim,’ I said, cutting him off. ‘It’s okay.’
His eyes flashed my way again. ‘Is it? Because you seem like you’re in a shit mood.’
‘What makes you say that?’ I said, leaning back and crossing my arms.
‘What makes me say that?’ he scoffed, mimicking me. ‘A bunch of things, and anyway BK said you needed cheering up.’
I shook my head, hunching down in my seat.
‘BK’s not right about everything.’
‘Sure she is,’ said Tim brusquely. ‘Especially about you two.’
With a sigh, I confessed. At least a little.
‘I’m just feeling a bit down I guess,’ I said. ‘It’s just…today, you know? Lots of…anniversaries.’ I rubbed at the scar through the stiff fabric of my school shirt.
‘Great,’ Tim muttered. ‘I’m a dick.’
Freddie nodded, his head tilting sideways to cast Tim an irritated glare before returning to the window. I shoved half-heartedly at his shoulder.
‘No, you’re not,’ I said to Tim, and looked down at the news clipping. ‘How can you be? You saved my life.’
Silence reigned. Tim’s knuckles went white. His face was set in hard lines, glaring out at the road as memories flashed across his face. Memories of me.
I looked down at the news clipping to see a picture of the two of us. There I was, small, frail and white as a sheet, wrapped in a blanket and Tim’s arms. We were only a year apart in age but he was so much bigger than I was. He sat next to me, looking up into the face of the fireman who was walking over to us. He had that fierce expression on his face, even then, at eleven years old. He had one arm around my shoulders and the other arm pressing a towel to my bloody chest. Yet even with his arms preoccupied, he looked ready to take on the fireman if he made the wrong move.
The picture was Tim all over. Soft and caring, and yet fierce and full of fire. Daring anyone to take me away from him. I ran a hand over the image, gaze trailing over to the article detailing how, seven years ago today, my older brother had gone crazy and attacked me and how Tim had found me and called for help.
I’m not sure who took the photo. Tim’s call had brought two ambulances, three cop cars and a firetruck. News that a little girl had been carved up in a town as small as ours had brought everyone running.
‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’
I swallowed and squashed the memory.
‘I had a dream last night,’ I said, attempting to lighten the mood and get their thoughts off my past. Our past. ‘About Einstein.’
So far as distractions went, it seemed to work. The two of them lost those dark, faraway expressions and glanced back at me.
‘Your alien?’ Tim asked. ‘He coming back or what?’
‘One day,’ I said. ‘I hope.’
Seven years ago today, my older brother attacked me, slicing open my chest with a kitchen knife in a fit of rage I would never understand. A year later to the day, I was visited by an alien. He was strange and beautiful and impossible.
My shrink said it was some sort of coping mechanism. That I’d hallucinated the whole event in order to somehow deal with what my brother had done to me. Sometimes, I almost believed him. But Freddie and Tim, even BK, never let me doubt myself. They believed my story as if they’d seen Einstein with their own eyes.
‘Well then what was this dream—shit.’
Tim braked hard, swerving onto the side of the road as three fire trucks shot past in the overtaking lane, appearing out of no where around a bend.
The car rattled, sending us all jolting along the shoulder of the road. At the speed Tim was driving, the sudden change from road to dirt sent vibrations along my spine, rattling every bone and organ in my body.
‘Jesus,’ Tim said, pulling back onto the road in a swirl of dust and fading sirens. ‘What the bloody hell was that about?’
‘Fire in town?’
‘Hopefully at school. I’d love to have a day off.’
‘We just had two days off.’
‘What’s your point?’
I shook my head, giving up on trying to make Tim’s attendance any better than it was. He’d already been held back a year due to too many absences. I sighed. It was a battle for another day. One with less memories.
Tim accelerated, eager to discover whether or not we’d end up with another day off. Freddie went back to staring out the window, unusually still and broody. I stared at the article.
There was no mention of Freddie. He wasn’t there in the photo because he hadn’t been there at all. Grandma had taken him out to one of his endless afternoon activities while I was being babysat by our elder brother.
I shuddered. Freddie shifted in the front seat, glancing back at me over his shoulder. I smiled, trying to keep the ghost of memory off my face. He frowned, not buying it, and went back to staring out the window again.
He was so quiet this morning.
Everything was quiet this morning. The clouds were grey, the traffic was light, and though school wasn’t on fire, it was empty. There were maybe ten other cars in the carpark when we pulled in as opposed to the usual fifty.
The air was still, as if someone had thrown a blanket over the world, making all sounds muted and indistinct. There was no chatter of milling teenagers, no revving of boys showing off in their cars. Just…silence.
‘This is weird,’ said Tim, leaning against the door of his car with his arms crossed.
‘Where is everyone?’ I asked, staring around the empty carpark.
Freddie’s only response was to frown up at the school.
‘We’re not that early, are we?’
‘Actually,’ I said, glancing at my silent brother. ‘I think we’re late. Though I don’t know how.’
‘Maybe there’s some sort of mass wagging ploy,’ Tim suggested with a shrug.
‘If there was, you’d be the one to organise it.’
Freddie signed something in short, stiff movements, his brow creased and his shoulders tense. ‘Flu?’
‘You think everyone’s sick?’
Two days ago the UN had shut down the borders to three countries, declaring a national crises due to an unknown flu pandemic. The news was terrifying and yet, until that moment, I hadn’t considered the fact the pandemic might reach us. That it might jump the endless ocean that marooned us on our island in the middle of the Pacific.
A chill crept up my arms, and half a second later I saw Freddie shudder, as if reading my thoughts. It had always seemed to me that Australia was disconnected from the rest of the world. Now, with the gooseflesh spreading over my skin, I thought maybe we weren’t so far away from everyone else as I’d imagined.
‘Maybe we should just go back home,’ Tim suggested.
‘If you miss anymore class, you’ll get another suspension.’
‘Who cares. This is too bloody creepy.’
Freddie’s shoulders tensed and he raised his eyebrows, tilting his head toward Tim and shrugging in agreement. I took a step closer to Tim, and snagged the keys.
They jangled as I shoved them into the inner pocket of my skirt. Tim might make a try for them, if he was up for getting punched by Freddie. He took a step toward me, dark eyes flickering to my somewhat overprotective brother. Freddie wasn’t watching, but his shoulders were still taut, hunched in on his crossed arms. He was refusing to look our way.
Thankfully, Tim thought better of wrangling back the keys and took a step back.
‘Come on,’ I said, trying to channel BK and perk my voice up. ‘Let’s go.’
As we headed further in, the eeriness only got worse. Teenagers standing in their usual hang outs despondently, not quite sure what to do with themselves without the rest of their friends. It was different from just one or two friends being coincidentally sick. This was…weird. Unnatural.
For years I had watched all those girls in their packs wander around the school yard and felt envious. I wanted to be part of that, to be among them, whispering and giggling and accepted. Now I was glad it was just me and the boys. If I’d been stuck here alone, in this quiet emptiness…I shuddered again.
Freddie glanced my way, his grey eyes dark and his jaw clenched. I could see in his face that he didn’t like this.
‘We should go home,’ I imagined him saying, agreeing with Tim. ‘This is too weird.’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘It won’t be that bad.’