Authors: Brooke Davis
, Millie says, pushing into Manny’s side and leaning her head on him.
Good job, Manny.
Yes, yes, yes
, Agatha says. She sits in the driver’s seat and riffles through her handbag.
The plastic man did a very good job
Are we stealing this bus
? Millie says.
We’re getting you to your mum, Millie
, Karl says.
Are we going on the train?
I don’t have any money.
Karl feels the wad of cash pulsing in his pocket.
Just leave that part up to me.
Millie looks out the window at Stella’s house.
So we’re stealing this bus?
Like you borrowed those computer keys?
So we’re stealing it.
But it’s Stella’s bus.
Yes. It’s not ours.
Stella’s brother died.
I didn’t know that.
I don’t think we should steal the bus.
Sometimes grown-ups know best
, Karl says.
Sometimes grown-ups don’t know anything
, Millie says. But before they can discuss just who does know best, Blue Hat appears in their headlights.
, he says, banging on the front window.
Close the door, Agatha
, Karl says quietly.
, Blue Hat says again, kicking the tire.
Told ya we’d be back.
Karl stands and sees Breast Police on one side of the bus, and another man he doesn’t recognize on the other side. Breast Police has a cricket bat and grins menacingly at Karl through the glass. The men slap the sides of the bus with the palms of their hands.
Close the door, Agatha
, Karl says again, louder this time.
How do you—
! Blue Hat stands at the bottom of the steps to the bus, in the doorway, brandishing a broken bottle, his eyes fierce, his nostrils flared.
Close the door, Agatha!
Karl shouts as Blue Hat puts his foot on the bottom step at the same time as Agatha finds the button and slams it down with her hand.
Blue Hat is half in and half out of the bus, and he squeezes one arm through the gap while using his shoulder to push against the closing door. He waves the broken bottle around, almost slashing Karl’s hand as Karl tries to shove him out of the
Stay back, Millie
, Karl says. Millie finds objects to throw at the man, a first-aid kit and some specs and a T-shirt and an apple core, and Blue Hat fends them off with his bottle like an amateur fencer. Karl tries to kick at him without getting too close. A window smashes at the back of the bus. Karl says,
Drive, just drive, Agatha!
I haven’t driven for seven years!
Work it out!
Okay, I don’t—do I—is this—
You can do it, Agatha
, Millie says.
The bus chokes and splutters and finally starts.
I did it! I did it!
Now what do I do?
And the bus starts moving, slowly, jerkily, and Blue Hat hops along next to them with one foot inside the bus and one hand clutching the edge of the door. Karl unbuckles Manny, holds him up high above his head, says,
This won’t hurt a bit, Manny
, but he’s lying, and goes to throw Manny in the direction of Blue Hat. Manny will save them again, Karl knows, knock the bottle out of Blue Hat’s hand, dislodge his foot, crush his fingertips.
Say good-bye, Blue Hat
, Karl says, but just as he does, time seems to slow, the thumps on the side of the bus become like distant drumbeats on a faraway island, and it is in this moment that Karl realizes that this man is just a drunk and angry boy, he’s not a man at all. Pimples line his face and his
eyes are filled with the kind of anger that doesn’t know any other way. He is angry for a reason and the reason is not Karl. Karl recognizes the struggle to Be A Man, and wants to say,
It’s okay, I’m on your side
, and for a moment he thinks he might be able to negotiate with this drunk man, this drunk boy, so he begins to lower Manny, but then there’s a flash and the drunk manboy has lunged and cut a gash in Karl’s palm.
, Millie says from behind him.
Agatha says and the bus swerves to miss a gutter.
, Karl says, though he doesn’t know yet if it is okay and he feels weak at the knees at the thought of the blood gushing from his palm so he doesn’t look. He is not going to try to understand the drunk manboy anymore.
You know, Drunk Manboy
, he thinks,
I have a lot to be angry about too
, and he summons all of his anger into his arms and feels like Superman, or the Incredible Hulk, or that sixteen-year-old boy from this morning, and holds Manny triumphantly over his head and throws him as hard as he can at the door.
But the bus rolls over a speed bump at the same time and Karl loses his footing. Manny is thrown straight up into the air. Karl falls backward onto his behind and Manny topples next to him. The bus is still moving slowly, but Blue Hat has to hop fast to keep up. Millie pushes on Blue Hat’s foot with her foot and bites his shin and Blue Hat swears and takes a swipe at her and Karl says,
Get away from him, Millie
, and Agatha mounts the gutter and says,
when she almost hits a tree on the median.
Agatha finds the road again and Blue Hat falls and his foot comes loose.
Karl and Millie run to the side windows to watch him roll along the road behind them.
I think so
, Millie says, climbing onto the seat behind Agatha.
Karl picks up Manny from the floor and inspects him for injuries.
Oh, I’m fine!
Just fine! Just suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but other than that! Is he gone?
The bus trundles down the street, passing small and dark brick houses. There are children in school uniforms, a man in a dressing gown picking up a paper, a lady walking her dog.
, Karl says. He sits in the seat opposite Millie, holding Manny on his lap.
, Agatha says.
Because it’s 6:06
She points to her watch.
Karl says, examining his cut hand and feeling a bit lightheaded.
You! Captain Funeral!
Agatha turns around to face Millie.
Take the wheel!
Exactly! When I was seven, I was driving semi-trailers across country!
You were not.
Just take the wheel!
Agatha climbs out of the seat.
, Karl says.
What are you doing?
He jumps up and manages to grab the steering wheel before they veer off the road.
Agatha thumps her body down next to Millie and opens her handbag. She places an exercise book and a small mirror on her lap, and holds a ruler up to her face.
Karl watches her in the rearview mirror.
Listen, Old Tricky Fingers!
I’m busy! I’m not taking calls at the moment!
She notes something in her exercise book.
fter some wrong turns and U-turns and arguments, they finally arrive at the Kalgoorlie train station. The air outside is sticky and difficult to breathe in as they wander onto the platform. The train is already there, gradually being loaded up with people and luggage. Tourists take photos of each other in front of the Indian Pacific logo on the side of the train. Men and women in uniform check tickets and direct passengers onto different parts of the train. Families hug and cry and laugh together.
Karl buys their tickets and they’re directed to their cabin. It’s small, with a couch seat that turns into a bed, a washbasin in the corner, and a big window with a curtain pulled across it.
This is it?
Agatha says, and begins to unfold the bed. There’s a commotion on the train platform near their window. A man’s voice says,
I can’t let you on without a ticket, miss. The train’s about to leave.
Oh fer Chrissakes, Derek
, a woman’s voice says.
I went to school with ya. I went out with yer berloody brother in seventh form for a bit. I used to come over to yer place for a roast on Sundays.
We’re on a strict time schedule, Stella
, the man’s voice says.
Can’t help you. You know that. Train time and all.
Millie yanks back the curtain.
she says. Millie knocks on the window and jimmies it open.
, she calls.
, Karl says, and ducks.
, the man in uniform on the platform calls as he hops on the train.
Stella waves a hand at the man and runs up to their window.
I can see you, Karl
, she says.
The train starts to move just as Karl stands. He wobbles on his feet.
Where are me keys?
Stella says, walking alongside the train.
In the bus
, Karl says sheepishly.
You better find her mum
, Stella says.
He looks at Millie.
We’re going to try
, he says.
You okay, love?
. Stella stops walking and puts her hands in her pockets. The train starts to gather speed and Millie watches Stella
get smaller and smaller on the platform. Millie looks at her beer cozy and says,
But I want you to come with us
. She can feel the tears coming and she can’t help them, because Stella is kind and her dad is dead and her mum may as well be. Millie watches Stella until she can’t see her anymore and it hurts, deep in her guts. All the grown-ups she knows keep taking bits of her guts away with them and never giving them back.
hen the train starts to move, Karl leaves the girls and Manny to settle into the cabin while he heads to the gents. He cleans his cut, pats his hand dry, and wraps toilet paper around the wound. He catches sight of himself in the mirror. It has always been strange, looking at himself in the mirror, and the exercise has only increased in strangeness the older he has become. He knows his face, and this is not it. How can you be inside a face for eighty-seven years and be surprised by the look of it every time? It suddenly occurs to him that everyone else knows his face better than he does. He doesn’t even know his own facial expressions. He tries angry. Sad. Happy. Worried. Contemplative. Missing. Wanted. But he can only see tired. So tired.
I am never going to have sex again
, he says.
Not with this face
. He closes his eyes, puckers his lips, and moves toward the mirror. He opens one eye, sees something like Death trying to kiss him, and recoils.
, he says.
But Evie had loved him, and loved this face. He runs his good hand through his hair. He can barely feel the dying strands.
He was so jealous of that boy yesterday, the one with the chest like Charlton Heston in
. He wanted everything he had, that body, that girl, that car, that freedom, that way of thinking. That hair, that bloody hair. What he would give to have hair that moved so freely in the wind. But shouldn’t that boy be jealous of Karl? Shouldn’t he wonder what Karl had seen and done?
Shouldn’t he look at Karl and think,
If only I get to lead a life like yours?
When Karl returns to the cabin, Millie has made a new
IN HERE MUM
sign for the door, and Agatha lies spread-eagle on the bed, eyes closed, mouth wide open.
Millie puts a finger up to her lips:
. Karl nods. Millie motions for him to come closer. She’s wearing her backpack.
Can I go explore?
, Karl whispers back.
Just don’t talk to strange men.
You’re a strange man.
Karl thinks about this.
Millie closes the door behind her and Karl puts a pillow under Agatha’s head. He sits upright next to her, his back against the wall, his hands in his lap. He stares out the window.
Red, green, blue. The earth, the scrub, the sky. Over and over and over again. The low-lying bush and the little trees that look like hunchbacks groping for the ground. And then the occasional big tree, reaching for the sun, rising out of the red earth.
Manny leans against the washbasin in the corner of the room.
, Karl whispers to him, nodding his head in the direction of Agatha.
She’s had a big night
Agatha snorts and then shifts, turning over. He can feel her warmth next to him. He remembers Evie like this, lying next to him in bed. He closes the curtains.
She had been like a dandelion, as if a single breath of his would cause her to fly off into the sky and never be seen again. She was so quiet, too, not just in the way she spoke, but in the way she conducted herself, as though she were always around sleeping people, tiptoeing everywhere, barely making footprints on the beach they walked along together in the early hours of most mornings.
Was she too quiet? Maybe. We’re all too-something, he supposes.
And yet she was the most stable person he has ever known.
Every word felt measured out, like she’d poured her words into measuring cups and flattened out the tops of them before she upended them into the world. And there was so much room in her, for him, and for everybody else. She was always putting down her guns and raising her arms in the air, inviting a vulnerability that most couldn’t.
Karl always felt as if he were thudding everywhere next to her, crunching leaves underfoot with such violence, sneezing as though he were trying to put a tear in the air. He did not like that his body had to make such an impact on things. But when he touched her, and she touched him back, she made him feel gentle, and those lines around her eyes, the ones that became deeper and longer and more plentiful, there was something in them that gave him clues that he was understood.
I am here, Evie
, he whispers, as the tears fall down his face. When he opens his eyes, Agatha’s sitting up with her face near his. Karl jumps.
Ron? What’s the matter, Ron?
she says. She’s wearing her glasses and it’s dark and they can’t really see each other.
She puts her hand over his mouth.
, she says. She has both hands on his cheeks. She uses one thumb to brush away his tears.
, she says.
Karl doesn’t know what to say.
, he says.
Are you crying because of me?
, he says. Their noses almost touching.
I’m sorry, Ron
, she says, and leans in to kiss Karl.
Karl wants her to be Evie more than any other feeling he’s ever had. He takes a big breath and closes his eyes, and he waits for her lips, but before anything can happen, Agatha’s head falls into his chest, and she starts to snore.
He sighs and helps her back to her former sleeping position. Agatha lies there, her sensible shoes still strapped to her ankles, her head flopping back on the pillow, her mouth wide open, huge, erratic snores vibrating her nose and bouncing off the walls. There’s a music to her snores, surely, in their rise and fall, an indication of how life works, in its ups and downs. He wants to graph the sound, and imagines mountains on a page, wide, curvy ones, rippled lines.
He opens the curtains a little and stares at Agatha lying next to him. It hits him that he never stares at anyone. He remembers staring as a child, though at the time he didn’t realize that people could see what his eyes were doing. Why does it matter that people know he is looking at them? Why is everyone so afraid of being looked at? When did he stop looking people in the eye? There had to be a moment when he realized what it meant. What did it mean?
You seem to have no problems doing it
, he whispers to Manny, who stares unblinkingly back at him from the corner of the cabin.
He remembers staring at Evie. Somehow, love made staring okay again. They lay in bed in those young days, rubbing noses and curling their feet around each other, and staring. He knew every bit of her, but he never stopped staring. There always seemed an angle to know, or a type of light reflected on her body, a crinkle, a fold.
That’s for sure. He imagines Agatha standing in uniform at the head of a table, leaning over it, her fists digging into the table, pointing at maps, declaring which countries she’s going to invade, men at her command. He likes this new version of woman-ness he sees in her, one that allows him not to actually be a man.
Karl is a man, he knows, insofar as he has the organ that identifies him as one, but he has never known how to walk or talk or look like one. Even now, at eighty-seven years old, he feels like a small boy taking a sneaky puff on his father’s cigar, trying on his father’s work shirt.
Agatha’s nose wiggles and she smacks her lips. Her hands are folded across her stomach. He studies her fingers. They’re big and thick, and he pictures them dumping loosely and
heavily onto typewriter keys, like dropping a bag of clothes from seven stories high.
He lies down next to Agatha on the small bed, folding his arms across his body, listening to Agatha snore. Her back against his arm. Out the window, there are farmhouses in the distance, rusted-out cars and unidentifiable machines scattered around them as though they’ve fallen from the sky. Grass poking out of windows and through tires and out of boots like one of those men whose hair spills over their collar. Karl peeks under his shirt. Flexes his chest. Sighs. He rubs his neck. Rain dribbles down the windows. He can see where it is and isn’t raining out on the horizon, patches of dark hovering over the desert like bruises, so heavy in the sky.
Agatha’s exercise book rests on the bed next to her. He looks at the book, looks at her. Looks at the book again.
, the cover says in spidery handwriting. In small, almost indecipherable letters,
Agatha Pantha’s (HANDS OFF)
has been scrawled across the bottom. Keeping one eye on her, he picks it up, then flicks the pages over with his thumb. The handwriting inside is so angry, like it’s trying to squash the paper. It’s not a nice feeling, looking at this.
He puts the book back. He feels the rhythm of the train underneath his back, the movement of it, like rocking, like nostalgia.