。Chαsιηg Τιmε 。
3rd December 16:43
My lips remained permanently pursed as I hunched forward in the car, driving down the long strip of road. It was red desert flatlands out here, a Martian landscape. A few metres above ground were clouds of dust, receding into spindly flora receding into bushland. This homecoming was premature. I'd spent my first year out of town, away from home, at college. Now it was Summer break and the end of the year, but coming home hadn't been the plan. Me, my room-mates and friends were supposed to go to Bali, fly out to Indonesia for what would have been a remarkable holiday experience. Palm trees and yellow beaches and green-blue water. Now I needed to refund my ticket cause instead of a six-hour airplane trip (watching movies on the back of someone's chair, eating complementary peanuts) I was driving myself four-hours back to my home-town Hooverdale (pissy, irritated).
I should've been worried about the kid, I know I should be, but I was just pissed. I'd flown the coop only to be tugged back by my worried parents: Dad sombre and Mum in hysterics. My kid brother had run away from home, left a note and everything, which was weird. It doesn't seem like him! It's not like Cody to do this! No, I had to agree with our worried Mum. It didn't sound like Cody to run away. Maybe I'd not been paying close enough attention, so maybe I was partly to blame. But our home-life wasn't bad. There was no reason for Cody to pack up and leave in the middle of the night. Mum and Dad could be overbearing, rigid and smothering at times. But they weren't bad parents. So, Cody, why? Why didn't you do what I did? Just keep your head down for another two years and then run away to college. Guess there was more going on with him than I'd thought.
He'd been missing for three days. Seventy-two hours without a word, a call, nothing. Mum had rung the police in less than twenty-four hours and they got a couple of bored cops dispatched to them. Young county workers from the blocky defunct Hooverdale police station who'd seen no sign of kidnapping and a note written in my younger brother's handwriting. The last people to see him had been my parents, that night, and Mum had gone on and on about the fact that there hadn't even been an argument between them, that night. Well, has Cody seemed distant lately? Yes he had. What did you guys usually argue about? Well, his grades mostly. Sometimes chores.
I was going to get to the bottom of this as soon as I was home. I had a whole bunch of questions for Mum and Dad, and then I was going to talk to some of my old school friends who had siblings that knew my brother. My well-meaning parents had called the school, met with some of Cody's teachers, and called the parents of kids who hadn't been friends with Cody since primary school. Well-meaning, but still just parents. So it was up to me to look around, talk to people Cody might've been talking to, and just figure out what the heck was going on. What'd happened this last year of Cody's life while I'd been away?
The long road started to wind into heavy bushland, so I shifted the stick to a lower gear. My car was a blue forgettable 1995 Ford Hatchback. A used car, a generous gift from Dad but I'd refused to let him pay for all of it. The gears grinded and crunched, lurching slightly from the stick-change. It was due for a service check-up, but I'd been putting it off. Glowering up at the rear-view mirror I saw a clear-blue eye reflected at me, a fringe of dark tousled hair. A little bobbing crystal spun a web of rainbows across the inside of the car. A gift from my girlfriend of a month, the longest of my string of college relations. I kept the car thingie, but not her.
When I finally reached Hooverdale it was an unclimactic entry. Dry, finger-webbed trees parting to reveal a generic house, then another and finally a tunnel beneath the old railroad tracks. I felt a burst of nostalgia as I went under, remembering all the times I'd walked that railroad, looping across town, tripping over it drunk and in the dark or just sitting by the bordered up mini-stop in the evening while the red dust floated into the air and back of your throat. I crept down the road and over a steep hill into the basin that situated our town. It was a middle to poor class suburb, and on the little sign which said 'Hooverdale 5km' someone had crossed it out with spray-paint and wrote 'Pitsdale'. It'd never been corrected and a lot of townspeople really called it that. Even the junkies and bogans didn't have any misplaced loyalty for Pitsdale.
I wrestled with the gear stick some more as my car rolled down the steep road, curving around and past hilltop houses before finally levelling out into the sprawling suburbia below. I hadn't expected it to be different, and it wasn't. On either side were brick walls painted and spray-painted, overhanging trees. Powerlines and conductors behind a chain-link fence. Traffic lights at the intersection that were easy-green without any other cars on the road. I studied the shifty coated figures that trudged about and felt another wave of nostalgia, another feeling of home. You couldn't walk the outer roads without getting at least one of these coated men trying to bum a cigarette off you. Even as a twelvie you'd get a pram-pushing withered woman: got a ciggy on ya hun? God this place is a hole. But it was my hellhole. I drove along casually and studied the old warehouse buildings.
Now that my holiday was ruined I was going to be stuck here for the Summer. At worst the whole Summer. When Cody comes home I was going to give him hell. Maybe I'd apologize as well. Maybe I owed him that, because I had no idea what was going on with him. But being six years apart I don't think I could really be blamed for that. I was a twenty-two college kid and he was a sixteen high-schooler. I guess, looking back, Cody had been rather secretive, and I'd never been one to pry. We didn't bicker or fight but we weren't close either. Was that my fault as well? Whatever. I didn't want to go straight home where my parents were freaking out. If I was stuck here I might as well check up on an old friend first. Weaving my way through the town I was finally greeted by other cars, mostly parked along the side of the road by the shops. Home depot, dollar stores, newsagencies and second-hand clothes. Some vehicles were creeping along ahead of me and I managed to find a stop beside Film Junkie, a retro DVD hire store that Maddison had worked at since she was fifteen.
The movie posters stuck inside the glass-front were way old: The Matrix, Jurassic Park 3, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Jumanji. Guess that was the point. It was all black paint and retro neon-lights on the inside, one small shelf dedicated to music CDs. The name, Film Junkie, was ironic when you considered the inhabitants of Pitsdale. I eyed the posters while pushing open the glass door. I saw the back of someone's head a few shelves over but apart from that no other customers. The guy at the desk piqued at the sight of me, some pimply guy of about nineteen. I walked over.
"Welcome to Film Junkie!" He said with rehearsed enthusiasm. "How may I help you?"
"I'm looking for Maddison Hurst. Does she still work here?" I kept my hands in my pockets, casual.
"Ah, yeah… are you a friend of hers?" His pierced eyebrows lowered in a show of curiosity.
"Yeah, old friend. Just stopping by. Say…" I paused. "Is she the manager now?"
"No, Lyle still runs it. Maddie comes in Tuesdays and Fridays, I think she's doing an apprenticeship. Hair stylist or something."
"Hm." I nodded in interest.
"What was your name?" He asked with that slow curiosity. His nametag read 'Colby'.
"Travis Nelson. I went to school with her, here."
"Cool. You would've been, like, three years ahead of me then."
"Yeah." I did the math in my head. "You must have left Hoover High, what, last year?"
"So," I paused again doubtfully. "You probably don't know my younger brother, Cody Nelson?" I watched him staring out in thought. "He's just finished Year 10 now-"
"Nope. I didn't hang out with ninth graders."
"You gonna be in town for a while? I could set you up with an account, we've got some great new releases."
Good old leachy Lyle, Maddison's old boss. That guy was an ass. It took Pitsdale longer than most towns but DVD stores were going bust. Everyone downloads films off the internet for free nowadays. That guy would have ordered his kid workers to jump through hoops to get people to come in, sign up for a membership. Probably had them calling numbers like telemarketers. I was glad Lyle's business was suffering. Served him right.
"No thanks." I gave a hard smile, aimed myself for the door. "You tell Maddison that Travis Nelson came by though. I'd really like to see her."
"Sure thing." He answered with that slow, unsure tone of his.
I opened the door and let it do its slow-close thing behind me, hopping down the slanting walkway and into my car. It would've been great to see my ex-girlfriend, to just walk in again and see her stacking movies onto shelves with a single earbud in, My Chemical Romance blaring out of the one dangling free. You could hear the music from three feet away and still needed to tap her shoulder if you wanted her to help you find something. But I wouldn't be seeing her today, oh well. Time to head home.
I drove my crappy blue car down the familiar roads to my childhood home. Across from the enormous drainage ditch that had rivers of storm-water gushing down only in early Spring-time. Most of the year they were bone-dry with odd branches and dead leaves crunching underfoot. One time I saw a dead possum there, slumped, obviously fallen from the gum trees hanging fifty feet above. Teenagers loved to walk the pipeline at night. Slide and skid carefully down the concrete edge to the bottom, accidentally rolling meant certain broken bones. No one had ever skated down one successfully, but every now and again you heard stories about kids who tried.
Our house was a one-story white box with a flat roof that slanted into a garage. We had tall trees in the yard that attracted fruit bats and dropped tiny orange balls everywhere. They popped loudly and mushed beneath your shoes. I pulled up beside Dad's old trailer then shut off the engine and radio, which was just people talking. I got out and started walking, reached around to lock my car with the beeper; the grass of the front lawn was half-way up my calves, tickling. I was up the porch steps and heading around to the front door but my parents beat me out. Mum looking anxious but pleased to see me, eyes crinkling and spreading her arms on approach. The shawl slipped off a shoulder and she smelt like cigarettes and home.
"Hi darling! Welcome home!"
"Hi Mum. Dad."
My bald father went in for a hug as well but his greeting was inaudibly gruff, he was awkward with emotions. I wasn't exactly displaying exuberance either. I tried to keep the oil stains on his jeans away from my brown Oxford pants. I liked dressing nice now. Away for just a year and Canbery College already had me dressing like some preppy frat-boy, trying to escape my roots I guess.
"Come inside." Mum waved overhead and we followed her in. Through the front room and into the kitchen where I saw hot suds in the sink and stacks of dishes. They'd both been cleaning up for me, probably as a distraction. "Your room is just as you left it." Mum turned around to say and Dad lingered beside me, companion-like.
"So…" I just wanted to say it. "I'm gonna look around for Cody in the morning. Talk to some school friends." As soon as I started Mum turned away and walked to the sink, Dad looked down at the floorboards in sadness. A heavy silence. "It's getting a bit late now, just after six, so I'll unpack and ask around in the morning."
"Thanks." Mum dipped a plate into the water. Let it sit there. "We really appreciate you coming back for him. Looking out for your little brother… And I'm so sorry you had to cancel Bali." She sounded distressed.
"We really, honestly do appreciate it, Travis." Dad brushed my shoulder with his elbow, looking sincere.
"Don't worry about it. And I'm sure he's fine." I looked over to Mum who was facing away and slouching. "We'll figure it out. I'm sure he'll come home soon." I watched Dad nodding at the floorboards and Mum took a breath, shivered.
"Where's the note?"
"On the dining table."
I stepped away then, walking into the other room. Across the rug to our long dinner table beneath the cheap chandelier Mum had thought was so lovely. It got bolted in ten years ago, I still remember the glass pieces jangling as Dad hammered it in place. The table and chairs were dark wood; there beside the fruit bowl was a sheet of lined paper neatly ripped from one of Cody's schoolbooks. I peered over and saw the handwriting was neat and squished together. That looks like his writing – I suppose.
𐌃еαr 𐌑υm αпd 𐌃αd,
𐌆'm rυппιпو αωαγ. 𐌃οп'τ τrγ το fιпd mе. 𐌆'll Ье οkаγ. 𐌆'vе sαvеd υp епουのh mοпеγ το sυρροrτ mγsеlf υпtιl 𐌆 ριcκ υp sοmе ωοrk. 𐌃οп'τ ωοrrγ αbουτ mе, 𐌆'll Ье fιпе. Lοvе, Cοdγ.
I blinked at the note, jarred. I hadn't known what to expect but it hadn't been this. Glazing out for a moment I could see, in my mind's eye, Cody tramping into the room and picking out a Pink Lady apple from the glass bowl, biting into it before turning away and heading back toward his room. There was no anger in this letter, if you could call it that. It really was just a simple, straight-forward note. I'm leaving, don't come looking for me. It wasn't very heartfelt. It was concise, which didn't feel like Cody. All the frustration in this household must have been evident to go unwritten. How often did he really fight with our parents? How distant had he been, really?
I don't think it would be like Cody to rail on Mum and Dad. True. Maybe he'd include a bitter sentence, but he hadn't. It was the conciseness that alarmed me. Cody was quiet but sensitive and well-mannered. He didn't talk a whole lot, but he cared, and if he were going to run away I think he would've explained why. He would've said what was going on. That's what I thought. I pictured my little brother sitting on the lounge while Dad watched sports, him zoning out and picking at a toenail. I was stony-faced as I walked back into the kitchen. Only now was the reality and seriousness settling in for me.
"So you called the police?" Monotone.
"Yes." Mum revealed the side of her face but her gaze was downcast. Dad was silent.
"They're not looking for him?"
"They said it wasn't a missing persons case cause of the note! They want us to wait a week or something. They've talked to maybe three of his teachers, after we did. Called classmates, after we did. I'm just… not impressed! Not at all!" She gripped the edge of the sink.
I glanced at my Dad who was grim, like me. I looked back at Mum.
"Did you manage to find anything out? From his teachers?"
"No. Not really. I was thinking… what if it's drugs? What if he got mixed up in the wrong crowd? We went through his room and didn't find anything. No weed, nothing… else. But his TV, stereo, all that nice stuff he bought is all gone."
I paused, thought for a moment "He probably sold them for money."
"Exactly!" She whipped around to face me "Probably for drugs! Or to pay off some drug shark!"
"Let's calm down." I raised my hands.
I knew maybe three hardcore sellers in this town. I'd dabbled in school. Nothing crazy. Nothing involving needles, no heroin or crystal meth. But I'd met the people (from friends of school-friends and siblings of friends) and they were not kidnappers. Not killers. But maybe Cody was in trouble and couldn't talk to the police or our parents so he'd run off. But… I couldn't make it work in my mind. Cody had never been a partier, not like me. He was quiet and bookish. He'd never once asked me to buy him alcohol. I remembered two years ago when he'd turned his nose up and grimaced at the idea of taking party drugs. Cody had been a goody-goody. Had that changed in a year?
"Or maybe… maybe." Mum put the back of her hand against her mouth to stifle a sob. "Maybe he got a girl pregnant! No one else from the school has been reported missing, but maybe it was a girl from out of town?"
To me that sounded slightly more plausible. But I'd never seen Cody with a girlfriend either. I'd never heard him talk about girls at all. If he'd ever had crushes on girls in his grade year he'd never spoken up about them.
"Did you hear anything specific from his teachers? Do you know who his friends are now?" I urged.
"Yes." Dad spoke up. Mum was facing away with her hand still pressed against her mouth. Dad cleared his throat, blue eyes hard. "He'd spent a lot of time around a girl in his year. A Muslim girl called Safiya. The other kids made fun of her, whattayacallit, her hijab. Cody used to stick up for her and they ate lunch together. The school tried to call her parents to get a hold of her but there were language difficulties. Her Dad doesn't want her to talk to anyone. They're pretty strict in their, um, culture."
"So this Safiya girl… she was probably Cody's best friend?"
"It looks like it. He was never the type to have a big group of friends."
I knew Dad was thinking of me, my party-hardy crowd. The nights out drinking when I should've been home studying for the HSC exams.
"Do you know her last name?"
"Habib or Hajeel or something. I don't know, it was hard to hear over the phone."
I sighed "Okay… okay." I thought quietly for a moment. School was out for Summer break. If Cody was planning on running away, if he'd been saving up for however long and secretly selling all his stuff, then he'd probably told his best friend. Outcast Muslim girl, Safiya. She probably knew something. At the very least she probably knew who he'd sold his stuff to. Tomorrow I'd have to go to the school, maybe talk to old teachers (I still had old print-out resumes with teacher numbers as referees). I'd find out where little Safiya lived and go talk to her in person.
Shed some light on this missing brother of mine.