by Sam Johnston
The beat of the mallet echoed between the cracked lime trees. The sign still crooked, the edges chipped away, but the message still clear.
The house sulked behind me, withering away from malnourishment. Soft sprouts of moss lined the roof of the veranda as the sunlight reflected its green highlights. The wooden boards, all slightly ajar, leaving a hole you could fall right into. A two-metre dirty abyss was under the stairs. The last owner moved out a couple months ago. He fell through the boards after the stairs, trapped in the darkness for three hours before someone finally came to his rescue. Not that he thanked them. They wheeled him off to hospital and left the corpse he lived in to me.
I took one last drag of my cigarette and flicked it into the puddle beside me. I slid around the hole and made my way to the rusty door frame. It smelled putrid. Did something die down there? The flywire bounced in the breeze, clinging to the wall by a couple of nails. The broken edges of the doorknob dug into my skin as the door jittered open, the hinges were on their last legs. I remember my brother used to run to the door to greet people, his stubby little legs bouncing from board to board as he flew Mr. Heely, the bear, down the hallway. A delightful surprise to our guests while I stayed in the back, father looking over me as I finished my homework. Billy was always the star child of the household, which was fine. There was only the need for one favourite kid, not two. He was called to the hospital. I was not.
The breeze followed me inside. A loud creak with each step as I wandered into the living room. To the side of the glass coffee table sat the remains of the leather couch, covered in gashes. The dull rug was stained with the recent odour of burnt coffee. Ants marched single file across the coffee pond to the crumbs on the other side. How did he live like this? I lifted the mug by the tip of the handle and tossed it into the sink where it shattered on impact. I winced. I hoped he didn’t hear it.
His hand firmly grasped my shoulder, holding me in place. My father’s eyes stared through me as if I had done it again. He leant in close, the smoky breath steaming out of his nostrils, a bull ready to charge. His grip got tighter. He tilted his head, waiting for my response. The words wouldn’t come out. That wasn’t good enough. His eyes remained fixated on my quivering lips. The grip tightened. The nails dug into my shoulder. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. I closed my eyes. I could feel that familiar stinging feeling on my cheek. Breathe, Charlie. You need to breathe. Three sharp breaths. I counted to three and opened my eyes. He was gone. I was back to reality.
I didn’t think I would see him like that again. But that’s all that damn house ever was…something most would pray to forget. I stood up and readjusted to the world. I was alright…I think. I glanced at the wall covered in picture frames. The day we went to the beach back in 95′ where I’d carried a kilo of sand in my shorts so I could be the Sandman to Billy’s Spider-man. I played a really good villain; Billy always said my sand attacks were incredible. Our parents, who cleaned up the car, did not agree. The next time we went, I was nearly left there since I ‘enjoyed the sand so much.’ I wiped the dust off the frame. All smiles and bright eyes. I missed that part about us. Next to the picture was Billy’s college degree. It looked untouched, unlike the rest of the house. He worked really hard to make that happen, studied so hard to become the best in the class and dive right into his job. I don’t know how he managed to do it. There was a naked nail sticking out of the wall beside it, the dust outlines suggested there should be another frame there.
At my feet, another frame, this one broken. The contents—my degree—had been shredded with force. My pocket vibrated. Billy was checking up on me.
‘How’s he doing?’ I asked before he could get a word in.
‘Fine, I guess. The doctor is looking at him now. He had a really bad fall,’ he said.
‘A bad fall? There’s a giant hole in the veranda. I’m surprised he isn’t dead.’ Those final words felt harsher than I wanted.
‘Well, please don’t fall down there too. We don’t need another person in our family needing rescue from their own home.’
‘Billy have you seen this place? It’s a dump. Who the hell would want to buy it?’ As if in response, the rotting ceiling groaned like it was ready to give up, but it had the courtesy of waiting for me to leave first.
‘It’s what he wants, isn’t that enough?’ Billy’s voice cracked.
‘You know very well what I have to say to that.’ I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be there. I could feel the ghost of our father as he stood behind me, the sharp crack of the belt unbuckling. He wasn’t dead. The presence lingered in the air. I tried to pay no mind to the memories of hands prodding me, fingernails clawing at my skin, and the bruises left behind. Billy was speechless. The phone hung dead next to my ear. I was tempted to hang up after the silence passed one minute, but Billy beat me to it and hung up himself. He didn’t want to bring it up, which was fine. It’s something we never talked about.
I climbed the broken stairs to the bedrooms. Leaves littered the floor, dancing around the pools of dirt. Our childhood beds laid lifeless. The pigments were bleached beyond repair, but I could still make out the spaceship patterns on mine. I took a seat on the edge of the bed.
The walls were painted with our drawings, a story about two brothers building a rocket and flying into space. The brothers were always looking out for each other, taking it in turns to gather parts or to build. Always making sure the other had had a proper sleep and was ready to kick alien butt. I leaned over to brush the dust away. My fingers slid across the silky wall. Unlike the rest of the house, there was something pleasant here. The next part of the story was revealed as the dust fell away. The two brothers fought off the aliens, but the aliens still overran the base. In a desperate attempt to escape, the brothers blew up their home to destroy the aliens. They watched it burn while the ship went into the night sky. The dream we shared: going to the stars. As I got up my hip bumped the desk, sending everything to the floor with a crash. I launched backward. As the rumble of the desk echoed in the room. Every shake got louder, I could see it all again. My eyes fixated to the shadows under the bed. The shadows that Billy watched Father and I from all those years ago. His hands held his mouth tight as I laid motionless on the ground, too tired to even stand. The sharp crack of the belt against my back. The demon’s voice consumed the room. A lesson. Two lessons. Five lessons. It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t stop. No pleas, nor talks could convince him otherwise. The hands returned, they wrapped around my neck. I screamed.
The desk was toppled, it splintered as it hit the ground, trophies smashed to the floor, picture frames flew everywhere. I grabbed the broken desk leg and beat the bed. Caving in its body with every swing. This house. This god damn house. Only a few minutes had passed, but it felt like hours. Hours I spent wasting away as I destroyed everything in the room. I glanced down. Under my foot lay a photo of me and Father at my first footy game. His hand clutched my side with an animalistic grip. His fake happiness radiated across the photo. But my fear was always on display. His head made a good place for my foot as I stomped it into the floorboard. The glass shattered after two times. The frame remained intact even when I threw it out the window. Good riddance.
I made my way back to the door. I was ready to scream the moment I stood in the doorway, but the smell from the hole was even worse than before. What was our father keeping down there? I flicked on the torch setting on my phone and knelt beside the hole. The darkness swirled beneath me. A calm rotating abyss. The light bounced off of it. Liquid? Was there a swimming pool’s amount of water beneath the veranda? Whatever it was, it smelled disgusting. I took a seat beside the cave-in and dialled Billy. The dial tone kept going. Three rings. Four rings. Nothing. Great. I strolled around the side of the house to see if there was any source of water. The boards were cracked across the whole house. Termites had a three-course meal it seemed, there were pieces snapping off all over. The back of the house looked no different from the rest, aside from the small crack oozing a brown, almost black liquid onto the grass. The stench was unbearable now that I was next to it. But it dawned on me, it was oil. Our father kept some barrels under the house in case the power went out. I didn’t realise the stuff was still there. If it was out the back…the entire house was sitting on an oil lake. I backed slowly away from the hole and ran to the front of the house. I dialled Billy again. He picked up.
‘What, Charlie?’ His voice struck before I had a chance to think of my response.
‘When they found Dad, was he covered in anything?’ I glanced down to the cigarette under my foot, glad that I tossed it there instead of the veranda.
‘Yeah he hit an oil barrel or something that he kept locked under the house to keep us away from it. Why?’
The words stalled in my mouth. It was everywhere. I had to tell him what I saw, but I couldn’t. A moment passed before I figured out my reply.
‘I just saw one of the barrels down there and hoped he didn’t break a bone or two on them. They’re pretty dangerous.’ I hoped he hadn’t noticed the caution in my voice. I was dancing around the issue. I needed to tell him. It was a death trap.
‘Don’t go near the hole Charlie. That thing is a death trap waiting to happen. When I’m done here, I’ll call…someone? I don’t know who. But someone who can clean it up.’ Billy was always thinking ahead, more than me at least. ‘If anything happens, just get away from the house and call me, okay?’ I agreed and hung up. I lit another smoke and took a couple of steps back, just to be safe.
Time passed. The birds argued on a rock nearby. And I just stood there. The smoke burnt away in my hand. One small flick of my wrist and the abyss lit up like a flare. With a violent whoosh the fire erupted on the veranda, an impenetrable wall. As I watched my father’s home crumble before me, a small smile creaked across my face. In a matter of minutes, there was only a sea of red. The fire brigade showed up not long after, but long enough that they couldn’t save the house. Billy rushed to me as soon as he got there, embracing me with full force. But one look into my hollow eyes told him everything.
‘I had to stop the aliens before we left, Billy,’ I said as my eyes welled.
A solemn smile. A single tear. A brother comforting a brother. We stood together as our memories continued to drift away in ashes.