4th December 13:35
Driving home in a daze, I pulled over suddenly and blocked someone's driveway. Paperbark trees swayed at the tops, their spindly tops caressing the sun. Gruesome trees – their trunks shed bark sheets and to me it looked gory. Like an omen. Ahead were shirtless teens, riding in lazy curves with their bikes, hot and irritated. Bored on Summer break.
This was one of the many streets you couldn't walk down late-Winter and early-Spring, because of the magpies. Fucking territorial birds that wouldn't let you come out to get your mail. Angry-horny come mating season. I remember ducking between trees and throwing fistfuls of gravel at them. The black-and-white birds would watch you from a telegraph line, side-eyed. They wouldn't swoop you again until you turned your back. After that I could never walk that street again, those birds have long memories. I'd heard one gauged out some toddler's eye in one of the local parks a couple years back. We ought to shoot them all down.
So between the shedding trees and thoughts of those territorial birds, I thought of my brother with a growing sense of worry. Blinking up the road while the crystal on my rear-view mirror swayed.
Irwin… Irwin McCartney. I remembered him now. His older brother Geoffrey was in my year. He'd been a dealer, sold MDMA and pot. A guy who wore flannel jackets, quiet and shifty-eyed but with a shotgun laugh. Safiya said my brother had sold Irwin appliances. It could've been a coincidence. Cody could've been telling everyone he was selling his stuff and Irwin happened to be the one interested in buying. But that didn't feel right to me. Irwin would be a dealer like his bro, it'd seemed like a family thing. Perhaps drugs were in the mix after all.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. It felt like grasping at straws. Now I needed to track down the McCartneys and see if Irwin knew anything, or anyone involved with Cody. I didn't want to go home empty-handed. Empty… except for the knowledge that Cody just might be a homosexual.
I thought about it now. Really tried to consider it.
Cody was a bit girlish. He'd had long hair for most of his life, he didn't like sport (mind, I wasn't a big fan either). He never talked about girls… or guys. It was plausible that he was attracted to men, though I'd never entertained the possibility before. Guess that showed just how attentive I was.
Mum and Dad have never said anything homophobic. In fact, I remember now being twelve and actually saying 'what would you do if I was gay?'. Not even really knowing what 'gay' meant. Mum had said I'd love you no matter what. And Cody had been there, sitting at the breakfast counter slurping cereal. We'd never had talks about it, but there was absolutely no vibe of homophobia from my family. I took a moment to consider and I was sure of it. There was no reason for Cody to feel unsafe, coming out about his sexuality. There was no danger or judgement in our household, of that sort of thing.
So… that couldn't be the answer to why he'd run away. There had to be more to it.
This last year he spent most of his time at the library and working at the cinema, apparently. Dad was getting verification of that now. So we'd know for sure, soon, whether that was the case. This Irwin McCartney angle, this affiliation with a drug dealer, worried me. For some reason. My little brother sold his stuff to run away, it wouldn't have been wasted on drugs. But… I can't say for sure.
Tugging at the gearstick I hit the road again. The car lurched before rolling down the pot-hole riddled street. I wasn't going home. And I wasn't going to tell my parents what Safiya said, the gay thing anyways. Cause I could see it so clearly in my mind: Dad would go into a pale-faced shock and Mum would immediately burst into tears. And only because they would worry that Cody was depressed about it. Misunderstood something, didn't trust them enough to love him unconditionally.
Geoffrey McCartney hadn't moved out of home. I was sure he hadn't. And neither would his brother Irwin. Their whole family was a touch autistic, so Mummy and her two sons were either between odd handyman jobs or on Centrelink payments. They couldn't read or write, but of course, they sold a good portion of the town drugs. Their house was unmowed, weedy grass spilling onto the cracks of their cement porch. The screen-door partially open. The same rusted car skeleton on blocks visible from their backyard, and I could see the same rusted bonfire bin we'd sat around at nights drinking and toking out smoke rings under the stars. On a school night. Post-life fondness. I wonder what Geoff would think of me now, him showing up at the door shirtless and smelly while I was dressed in my oxfords, a college kid. Done well, up and escaped. Would he recognize me?
I could hear the dog barking from inside as soon as I passed the little chain-link fence and mailbox. Trudging up to the white-slatted house. This Irwin would have to know something about Cody, seeing as Safiya didn't. I could hear movement inside and I thought it was strange no one was yelling at the dog to shut up. They were always yelling at that dumb dog to shut up. But this dilapidated house seemed more depressed and rundown than I remembered.
There was squabbling inside. Geoff had often let himself be the butt of group jokes, even with his helpful connections. He got quiet and twitchy when someone poked fun of him. At home though, he talked to his Mum rather atrociously. Always snipping at her like he was the boss. Weird family dynamic.
Before my knuckles could rap on the screen door I saw my old acquaintance appearing in a ratty T-shirt with holes around the hem. His gut stretching beneath it, not as round as when I'd last seen him two, three years ago? His dark eyes had a reserved quality behind glasses that magnified them.
"Hey Geoff… it's me, Travis. Long time no see."
"Trav? Travis Nelson, bloody hell" he opened the door "it's good to see you man. Thanks for coming around."
We shook hands. He seemed friendly enough, if not curiously soft-spoken. Then he asked me to come in and turned immediately, and I thought it was strange that he'd just assume I'd come to drop by after all these years. We'd never exactly been friends enough to just see each other one-on-one like this. But I followed him in anyway.
The house was messy, clothes strewn about down the hallway and into rooms. The kitchen was grimy and I got a better view of that familiar backyard from beyond it and the other door. His dog, which I remembered was called Casey, barked at me incessantly from a safe distance. A loud, black-spotted, greasy dog. I eyed her before looking back at Geoff as he reappeared proffering a can of VB.
"Want a drink, man?"
"Ah, I better not. Got a lot of things to do today, and I can't stay long. I actually came about your brother. There's an issue with my brother…"
Geoff was nodding sombrely at the floor with his shoulders drooped and I caught a bad wind. I stopped talking.
"Some of his mates have come to stop by to share their condolences. It's been real hard on us man. Mum isn't doing anything useful, she hardly gets out of bed anymore. The toilet inside's been busted for a week and no one's even called a plumber to fix it!" he raised his voice at the last part, directing it down the hall to where I presumed his Mum was, and all I could hear was a whirring fan. "But nah man, people have been good… even if the fuckin' cops haven't."
He looked up at me then and caught my blank stare. His head went back with recognition.
"Shit man, haven't you heard? Isn't that why you came?"
"I… what? Something happened to your brother?"
"He's dead man. Irwin got done in by the Valkyries." He watched me be unable to connect, then I swayed a little and stretched out my arm, palm to the wall.
"Wh-what?" Like I'd misheard.
"Come on, let's sit." We took a few steps into his living room, he led me to the ratty couch. There were camper chairs in here as well, clearly this room had been used for some extended-family meeting. Geoff cracked his beer, pushed his glasses up his nose with a stubby finger, sat and slid the other can across the table to me but I made no move to grab it. My brain was still circling, not able to put it together. "Yeah nah man, Irwin got wasted aye." He said after a sip, pained voice and watery eyes.
"Your brother? Holy shit man, your brother?"
"Gang bash. Those fucking bikie cowards jumped him right outside the house, four of em guys beat him to death."
"The Valkyries man? I didn't know they had a chapel in Hooverdale?"
"Nah they built up in Pitsdale the last year or so," he took another swig from his can.
"Shit man, I am so sorry."
"Don't worry man." He glared at the linoleum floor of the kitchen and I remained stunned. A few moments of processing silence. I tried to remember what I could of Irwin, never having a proper conversation with him. A scrawny kid compared to his chubby brother, with a sandy goat-like beard and he wore snapbacks. Quiet, I think.
"…so this was business?"
"Yeah. What we managed to find out from street gossip? Forty grand worth of cocaine went missing. And those Valk guys, well, they have a history of violence. They shot up a chapel leader in Dunburgh as he came outta a gym. In broad daylight."
I imagined those leather-clad men, mostly in their forties-fifties with the studded jackets. Riding the roaring black motorcycles down the homely suburban roads. Lounging belligerently out the front of a member's porch and throwing beer bottles toward the street. Loud noise and music into the night; men with their own code. Even the police left well enough alone, mostly.
Not all bikie gangs were bad. But the Valkyries, they were bad. They were the 'one percenters'. Drugs and violence.
I watched Geoff as he was trapped in bitter thoughts. Cleared my throat.
"Geoff… how long ago…?"
"Two weeks man. Still doesn't feel fuckin' real."
And then I froze. My brain still trying to jump through hoops to catch up, and I suddenly felt so intrusive here, asking about a missing runaway brother while his family had turned to shit… but then I felt sick. Because a week before my brother went missing, Geoff's brother was murdered by a gang of dangerous bikers. My brother who sold his things to the beaten-to-death Irwin who sold drugs. And then suddenly I was wondering if my brother was on the run from this criminal gang, couldn't go to the cops or us because he was involved in selling illegal stuff and he didn't want to fry. So he ran. To not be caught. Unless he has been caught, and is also dead in some gutter somewhere.
And no one put two and two together until now.
I shot up and started pacing around the room and from the corner of my eye I could see Geoff watching me, but I was too wired to stop and explain myself. I was freaking out.
"…Trav? Man? You said you came here about your bro?"
I didn't stop my pacing. What the fuck had happened in a year? Cody shaved his head? Cody came out to his friend as gay? Cody sold his stuff to a drug dealer? I bit my thumb. I had to be overreacting right? This was a wild leap. I don't know that Irwin's murder has to do with Cody up and vanishing a week later. He was probably just sad cause he knew the guy, right? Or maybe he feels responsible somehow and can't stomach his own guilt? It doesn't mean Cody's in danger, right?
"Yeah… man. My brother Cody, he" I cleared my throat and stopped circling "he sold electronics to your brother. And he ran away from home four days ago and left a note. So… I've been looking for him."
"Well I hope you find him."
I stared down at the carpet and swallowed.
Geoff spoke up again "How old is he?"
"Well I hope you find him, man."
"I don't suppose you knew him at all? I've been out of town, at college. Cody Nelson?" It was a desperate grab, seeing as my only real lead was dead.
"Nah man, I can't help you with that."
Safiya didn't know who Cody hung out with outside of school. Geoff was my only hope, since that trail ended here.
"Can you think about if he ever came over here? A kid with blue eyes like mine?" I waited with baited breath as Geoff's eyes went left and he scanned his memories. He leaned back in his chair and grimaced. Then his eyebrows raised.
"Irwin had a clientele, of sorts. From school. Or old guys I knew of. I didn't realise he was dealing hard shit like cocaine. I wish I knew everyone he'd been talking with. I think maybe one of those cunts betrayed him, stole from him, you know? I wonder if they caused all this. But yeah… I do remember one young kid, mighta been your brother, mighta not. Maybe a month ago. Some young kid was here with Irwin, and there was a darkie in my bro's year at school. And there was Amanda."
"Amanda Riggall. A girl in Irwin's year at school. She's like, a tarot card reader. Or supposed to be. She can talk to spirits. She does what, 'readings' for my cousin Lana. Apparently she's scary accurate. Wicca, wiccan or something."
"And she was with my brother?"
"Maybe man, I don't know."
"Do you know where she lives? Got a number or something?"
"I don't. She's like, a fat lesbian I think."
"Can I have your cousin's number?"
Geoff looked at me for a moment before setting his beer on the floor and getting up. He told me he'd be right back and went to his room to get Lana's contact details. I didn't stay long after that. I felt too tense, I couldn't stay still. I gave Geoff my condolences and wished him luck with the legal, justice side of things. When I headed out, Casey sat up and continued her barking until I left. I hopped down the driveway and eyed the street by my car, trying to envision the violence that'd occurred out here a fortnight ago. No wonder this area seemed tainted, there was a silence to it.
When I checked my phone for the time I noticed three missing calls from my Dad. I cleared my throat again and hit redial.
"Cody! Did you find Safiya?"
"Yeah, I did Dad. She doesn't know anything."
"You sure? Cause I went to the movies and Cody's old boss said he quit, almost five months ago! Why didn't he tell us about that? Where did he get the money for all his stuff?"
My stomach went cold. I hated all this investigation on my secretive sibling: Why did… How could… What does it mean?
"It's not like Cody to lie." I replied quietly.
"No, it's not." Came the immediate reply.
"But if he did lie to you about work… it's safe to say he's been lying about going to the library every day too."
"But Travis, why would he lie about work? We weren't forcing him to have a job. We wanted him to focus on his marks. Are you coming home soon?"
"No." My voice wavered. It was well past lunch time. I was hungry again (not much of an appetite but my stomach was grumbling) and I didn't want to go back home.
I couldn't tell my overreacting, clueless parents about everything I'd uncovered. The coming-out secret, the possible affiliation with a dead drug dealer. I needed somewhere quiet, away from hysterical reactions from overbearing adults. Get some context. Somewhere I could process and really think. Ponder each new piece of information. And then, investigate whatever leads I could find. If Amanda Riggall turned out to be nothing I'd have to talk to other dealers, see what they knew. Talk to popular people, party people, people Cody's age. It was something only I could do, not my parents or the cops.
"Shouldn't we regroup Trav? Fill each other in? See what we know?"
"I've got a lot of people in mind that I can talk to, Dad. I want to cover as much ground as possible. You and Mum keep doing whatever you can on your end. I want to keep going and we can regroup at say, dinner time, alright?"
"Alright. Thanks, Trav. We love you."
"I love you too." I hung up and paused before unlocking my car and getting in. I paused before starting it too. It felt like we were playing a nice new family game of detectives, a catch-up after I'd been four-hours away this past year. An unbreachable distance. Jesus, Cody had a lot to answer for once we found him. So much trouble. I needed to find a place to eat and it had to be quiet.
Time for more nostalgia: there was a corner fish-and-chip shop by the petrol station. Back in school, and even after school, I used to buy battered fish, potato scallops and chips, wrapped up in grey paper, then I'd cross the road for a coke slushie. I'd sit on the curb of the road and eat with friends, and we'd always leave a scattering of chips in the gutter, the mushie thick fries ashed with soot, or half-smeared by someone's shoe. I'd get tomato sauce on my pants, back before I always wore nice pants.
When I was by myself, I sat in one of the countless parks of Pitsdale. The parks weren't really parks, even the most elaborate ones had a single slide and swing-set. Most of them were simply grassy lots with a couple of trees, twigs and bark everywhere, bottles and condoms under the dead leaves. Maybe a park-bench.
I bought from the same bald owner who didn't recognize me. I forgoed the slushie for a can of coke, easier purchase, then after ten minutes of hunching forward on a plastic chair against the wall, watching the ticking clock and a pimply aproned kid fry my chips in oil, I carried my bagged meal across the street. There was a bus-stop facing away, seating a lady with a pram. Continuing on to my old spot and sitting at the left side, away from the crusted smear of bird shit.
I picked at my chips delicately, swirling them into grains of chicken salt, seeing as I hadn't thought to ask for sauce. Birds were chirping in the swaying trees and cars drove lazily by. It was hot but comfortable here in the shade.
I thought of Cody.
Out of character stuff… The lies. The note. The shaving of his hair.
The note really bothered me, for a reason other than its contents, even though I wasn't yet sure why. But also, I thought of the Cody from the latest school photo I saw. Who only vaguely resembled the brother I knew. With his head shaved he looked tougher, or like he was trying to be. The skinny kid couldn't quite pull that off. Don't bikers shave their heads, some of them anyway?
Cody never wanted to have short hair. So, if he shaved it off… he didn't do it for himself, did he? Unless he went through some drastic change… but what kind of drastic change makes you decide you want to have short hair when you always, always liked keeping it long? When you wailed as a kid and ducked down, crawled under the dinner table and clung to a furniture leg when your Mum or Dad finally announced: that's it! I'm taking you to the barbers this instant!
It was a childishly dramatic display from a child, who also really didn't want his hair cut.
So… Cody didn't get his hair cut because he wanted it short. He shaved his hair because someone else wanted his hair short.
My teeth crunched into the batter of a potato scallop and I chewed. My guess: Cody was involving himself in a group. A hardier group than his primary/middle school friends who liked cartoons, playing with transformers in the dirt and running around enjoying endless imaginary games. He had an endless imagination.
But I think Cody wanted to fit in somewhere. So that's why he shaved his head. Who knows, at this point? Who knows anything at this point?