NINE DAYS BEFORE THE MURDER

JON WESINSTUD

The morning sun churned out rays of yellow light over the quiet suburb of Brighton. A fast-food restaurant lay in the middle of this quiet suburb, and just outside in the car park, a painter sloshed white paint over the McDonald's golden arch on the wall, replacing it with the words ULTRAMODERN BURGERS: 100% AUSTRALIAN.

The restaurant's only customers so far were two sixteen-year-old schoolkids. One was black; the other was white. After the two boys ordered their meals, the white boy was first to talk.

"French chicks are the worst," said Jon, holding a burger to his mouth. "The best chicks would have to be Aussie chicks. Second place would be American chicks—but I just can't stand French chicks."

Sherwin, the black boy, smiled and took another sip of his coke. "Yeah, I think I heard you say that before."

"Oh, okay." Jon tried to think of something else to say. This time he tried to think of something he knew Sherwin would like—but what? He looked closer at Sherwin and noted the rolling muscles around his shoulder and neck, which was strange since most boys his age were skinny. Sherwin's eyes darted back and forth between his burger and his watch.

"We've got to be at the bus stop in ten minutes," said Sherwin. "I don't want to be late for school."

"Take it easy, big boy. Who cares if we're late? It's only high school."

Jon's eyes wandered around the restaurant's interior, finally resting on a mirror. He couldn't resist the temptation to check himself out. His hair was messy, but the messy hairdo seemed quite popular nowadays. The rest of his body, however, was ugly. His face was too pale, his nose was too long, and his belly was too big. He tried so hard this morning to disguise his bulging tummy by wearing tight jeans, but now that he saw himself in the reflection he realized just how much the tight jeans accentuated his fatness. He thought about asking Sherwin if he thought his bum looked too big in jeans. Then he remembered that only women say that sort of thing.

"What do you think of this new fast-food restaurant?" said Sherwin.

"Pretty good." Jon scanned the restaurant interior once again. The tiles, walls, and tables were as clean as a hospital's. One sign stood prominently near the entrance. Jon smiled proudly when he read it:

BUY YOUR CHILDREN A JOB. BUY AUSTRALIAN.

"I don't think the burgers here are as good as the ones in McDonald's," said Sherwin.

"Yeah, I agree with you, but McDonald's is an American company. This restaurant here is owned and operated by Australians. As a united people we Aussies really should work on keeping the profits within the nation."

Sherwin nodded slowly.

Jon continued. "It's our patriotic duty as Australians to buy Australian-made goods."

"What if they're bad quality? Like this disgusting burger here."

"Hey! These burgers ain't that bad."

"Are you kidding?" said Sherwin. "These cheeseburgers are off!"

"Firstly, they're not cheeseburgers. That's what you call 'em at McDonald's. Over here we call 'em caseusburgers."

"Weird name. With a name like that, I don't know how this company's gonna compete with McDonald's and KFC."

"I have faith in my fellow Australians," said Jon. "When it comes to a fight against the Americans, it's not in the Australian spirit to give up. If an Australian company like Ultramodern wants to be competitive in the fast-food industry, then I think it deserves the support of the people. I don't think you, as an Australian, have the right to criticize the food. It's just not right. How can you go against your own people?"

Sherwin rolled his eyes, stood up, and swung his schoolbag over one shoulder. "We'd better get to the bus stop now. I don't want to be late for school."

The two boys walked out of Ultramodern Burgers and stood near the bus stop. A few Mercedes zipped by silently, but that wasn't unusual in this upper-middle-class suburb. The birds finally stopped their loud morning chirping, the clouds started to disappear, and the sunlight started to shine with greater confidence.

Ultramodern Burgers sat on the intersection between Bird Street and Maggot Street. Both Sherwin and Jon lived on Bird Street. Sherwin lived in the house opposite Jon's. Both only had one parent. Jon lost his mother. Sherwin lost his father.

Sherwin looked at his watch again, probably wondering why the bus wasn't coming.

"What are you, afraid we're gonna miss school?" Jon laughed. "Just relax! Enjoy your life while you're young and forget about school."

"Our first class today is mathematics."

"Oooh, mathematics." Jon turned on the sarcasm. "That subject is so, like, important! I mean, when we grow up, we're really gonna need to know how to bloody calculate angles on triangles or calculate what x times three y times z squared is."

"If mathematics is useless, why are they teaching it to us?"

Jon shrugged his shoulders. "'Cos they're stupid."

Sherwin looked at his watch again. "God, I hope Richard comes in time for the bus."

"What are you talking about? Who is Richard?"

"Some new kid. Today's his first day. The school counsellor told me to take care of him because he waits at the same bus stop we do."

"Well then he ought to be here. The bloody bus'll come any second now."

"That's what I'm worried about."

"What's this new kid's full name? Richard…"

"Richard Huygens."

"Huygens? What kind of name is that?"

"I think it's Dutch…although he told me he came from Saudi Arabia."

"Oh, so he's an Arab." Jon stroked his chin. "This should be interesting."

"There he is over there!"

A tall young boy appeared. The boy's black hair was lightly gelled with spikes at the front. He had thin-framed glasses over his dark eyes. His lips were thin, the top lip rested slightly over the bottom lip. The base of his neck held large muscles fibres that ran all the way to his broad shoulders. He wore a conservative black and dark green jumper that complemented well with his dark blue jeans. The shoes on his feet were black and polished. He was overdressed. Where was his turban? Where was his long beard?

Jon extended a hand to the new kid. "Wel—come to Aus—tra—lia. You like this coun—try?"

Richard furrowed his brow and looked at the fat boy's hands extended out in his direction. He shook it briefly and said, "To whom am I speaking?"

"Oh…uh…my name's Jon Wesinstud. I'm an Australian." He pointed to his friend behind him. "And this is Sherwin Brown…uh…he is Black…or Negro. Is that the term you people like, Sherwin?"

Richard didn't give Sherwin a chance to respond. "What are you two doing here?" he said. "Didn't you hear about the bus strike today?"

"What!"

"Bus drivers around Melbourne say their buses aren't safe enough. They're not working till they get new buses."

"Oh, that sucks!" cried Jon.

"Didn't you hear it on the news last night?"

"Me and Sherwin were at a party last night." Jon had a large smile on his face. "We were too busy getting pissed to watch the bloody news."

"We'd better start walking to school then," said Sherwin, taking the first steps. The two other boys followed.

"My balls are killing me," said Jon, putting a hand down his pants while he walked. "Me dad bought me new undies this morning. They're bloody tight."

"Tight underwear pushes your reproductive organs inward," said Richard, "causing the temperature around the scrotum to increase. Since this is where your sperm is stored, wearing tight underwear can decrease the quality of your sperm and make you impotent."

"Shit! Is that right?"

"Doctors recommend you wear boxer shorts instead, but since my mother doesn't ever buy me boxer shorts, I simply wear my underwear backwards."

Jon's sniggering burst out into full-scale laughter. After he looked at Richard's face and realised he was dead serious, Jon tried to tame his laughter.

"The back of the underwear," said Richard, "is designed to cover your buttocks. It is larger than the front. If you wear your underwear backwards, you give your reproductive organs more space, and your chance of growing impotent decreases significantly."

Jon stopped laughing. He was mildly shocked by what Richard said. "No offence, Richard—but you're weird."

Richard smiled. "I'm trying my hardest to be normal. I've been observing the aggregate behaviour of a random sample of people from this neighbourhood, and once I determine how the average person behaves, I'll do everything I can to imitate it."

"You know, for an Arab guy, you sure don't act like one. I mean, aren't youse people all, like, religious and everything?"

"I'm not religious, and I don't speak Arabic. I was born in Saudi Arabia but my mum was born in Algeria and my dad was born in the Netherlands."

"Aha. I thought your dad was Dutch because Sherwin told me that 'Huygens' is a Dutch name."

"Well, actually…"

Jon interrupted. "So what do you think of the chicks in this country? You reckon they're better than the ones back in your country?"

"Chicks?"

"Yeah, you know, chicks? Girls? You don't go out much, don't you?"

"I knew what you meant. I just object to the derogatory terms."

"I told Sherwin this before," said Jon, "but I reckon that the best chicks in the world would have to be Aussie chicks—and the worst would have to be French chicks! What do you think, Richie?"

"What don't you like about French women?"

"Well, you know, they all shave their pits."

"I shave my pits as well."

"Are you serious?"

"Yes, are you referring to armpits? By shaving your armpits you decrease the surface area on which bacteria can grow."

Jon leaned towards Sherwin and rolled his eyes. "This guy's a psycho," he whispered. "He doesn't act like normal people."

"Why are we walking so slow?" said Sherwin. "I don't want to be late for our maths class."

"Did you know," said Richard, "that the average speed a group of people walk decreases exponentially as more people join the group?"

"Oh my God!" cried Jon. "Can we talk about something else? Do you think I care about this stuff?"

"We're gonna be late for school," said Sherwin. "Let's take the shortcut through the football field."

The three boys walked past an old church and into a football field. Sherwin seemed nervous. The colourful butterflies fluttering around in the warm sunlight this quiet Wednesday morning did nothing to ease his tension. Jon squinted his eyes when he saw, in the distance, at the other end of the football field, a little girl lying on the grass by herself.

"Holy shit!" said Jon. "That's my sister! What's she doin' here? Shouldn't she be at school?"

Jon stopped strolling and started marching towards his sister Abigail. Together with Richard and Sherwin, the two boys flanking him, the group probably looked intimidating. When Jon got closer it became apparent that Abigail was writing something in her blue notebook. She wrote something, a sentence or two, stared at the sky, and then wrote one or two sentences more. Unlike the three boys, she was only twelve. She was shorter than her brother Jon, although she was rather tall for her age. She had long blonde hair, big light-green eyes, full lips, and pale skin. Her paleness wasn't anemic pale, but rather the paleness of purity and cleanliness.

"What are you doin' Abby!" cried Jon.

The little girl closed her notebook quickly and stood up, looking at the three boys towering over her.

"What are you writing there?" Jon ripped the notebook from her fingers.

"Give it back!" she cried.

Jon held the blue notebook high in the air, away from Abigail's reach. Sherwin smiled, then laughed as Abigail jumped up and down. Richard, the new guy in the group, stood back and watched.

"Just let me read some of it," said Jon.

"No, you can't! It's mine." Realizing she couldn't reach the notebook when Jon held it up high, Abigail kicked her brother's testicles.

"Oh, you bitch!" Jon fell to the ground and landed on a rock. The notebook flew out of his hands and fell on the grass.

After a moment of hesitation, both brother and sister lunged at the blue notebook simultaneously. The two wrestled on the ground. Jon was now vicious. He was only playing around earlier, but now that his sister had damaged the one thing that made him a man, he felt like a raging animal. At the climax of this testosterone-fuelled rage, Jon punched Abigail in the stomach. She flew in the air for a while before landing on the hard ground. With bits of blood squirting from her eyelids, she gave up and stayed still. She didn't get up, but instead started to cry.

Sherwin now had a worried look on his face.

Richard narrowed his eyes on Jon.

"Stop crying, you baby!" said Jon, flicking through the notebook.

Richard walked up to Jon and grabbed the notebook from his hands. "This book doesn't belong to you," he said. "You have no right to read it."

"Neither do you. Give it back. Now!"

"No. I ought to punish you for your act of physical assault."

"Why do you care? I didn't attack you."

"I take pleasure in delivering justice."

Jon stood silently and looked at Richard. "You're a freak. You have no idea how people in this country act. You can't be friends with us no more. You're gonna have to learn about Australian culture by yourself. Or better yet, why don't you go back to your own country?" Jon swung his backpack over a shoulder and walked towards the school. "Come on, Sherwin! We're late for maths."

Sherwin shrugged his shoulder at Richard and followed Jon, leaving Richard and Abigail by themselves in the middle of the football field.