Authors: Honey Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
t was a long couch. Adam had a seat cushion to himself. Billy was fast asleep, lying on his side, with his knees bent. His feet were right by Adam’s leg. Billy had kicked off his shoes. The bottoms of his feet were pale but dirty. The window was open a crack. Warm sea wind gusted in. Adam drank the tap water from a mug.
He got up, dried the mug, put it back in the cupboard where he’d found it. Billy continued to sleep. The sun got lower. Every so often the door handle would turn and the door would open. Vern would peer in, look at Billy sleeping, and close the door again. As tired as Adam was, it was the wrong time to rest. The situation didn’t feel safe. There was no easy way out of this upstairs room. A shout for help could be lost to all the noise in the street below.
In the fridge, Adam found a packet of chocolate biscuits. He eased three biscuits out, at pains not to make the packet crackle. He stood by the window and ate them. Billy’s face in sleep was round and boyish. He lay there like a child, a very big one. The shorts he was wearing rode higher up his thighs. The tops of his legs were covered in round scars, shiny and slightly risen, not burns, but healed puncture wounds. His fingers sometimes curled in and then gradually reopened. His palms were pale, like the soles of his feet. From the window Adam could see over the rooftops to the ocean. Ocean water changed colour. It was now dark blue. Adam thought for a moment about the house, the safe and the hidden key; he thought about his father. Billy had said with new clothes and a haircut Adam wouldn’t know himself, and it felt like that could happen. Adam rubbed his tongue along his teeth, fretted that they were furry.
The day darkened. The ache in Adam’s lower back wasn’t letting up. Chocolate-flavoured bile rose in his throat. He stepped nearer to the wall, slid down against it, crouched and pulled in small. Was he feverish because he was thinking too hard and too much? If he let himself, he could cry. If he let himself, he could vomit.
Billy stirred. Adam rose as silently as he’d lowered himself. He stood by the window. A pale glow from the alleyway lights shone through. The rest of the room had grown dark. Billy woke and cleared his throat, continued lying on his side, dozing, then he struggled up, reached for his smokes.
‘I don’t sleep like that round any old social outcast, let me tell you.’
The burning tip of Billy’s cigarette glowed and crackled as he inhaled. His fingers rasped against the paper sides and his lips stuck to the filter.
‘No school, hey?’
Adam shook his head.
‘You read and write?’
‘Don’t worry, even when you learn, all you’re really learning is that you’re no good at it. You know what people will say to you?
I came from dirt and I succeeded
.’ Billy snorted. ‘Really? Is that fucking so? And you reckon dirt is a bad start, do you, dickhead? What did they want? To float down from the clouds, God’s gift to the fucking planet?’ He scoffed and smoked. ‘It’s when you come from someplace lower . . . Look, I’m not saying I came from the same place you did. All I’m saying is I know it ain’t no level playing field.’ He stood, took a deep and final drag of his cigarette and went across to put it out in the sink. He washed the butt away. ‘Hang tight for a bit. I’ll be back in five.’
He left the kitchen before Adam could say he needed to go to the toilet. The urge had come on suddenly. Adam squeezed his legs together. He cupped his groin. The pain in his back speared lower. He waited.
Until he couldn’t wait any longer.
There were no hallways at Vern’s place. The kitchen door opened into the studio. Fans were spinning. The smell of fresh paint and a sharper chemical smell filled the air. A light was on over by the easel. It bounced off the darkened windows. Adam didn’t see Billy at first, because he was standing in the shadows. Then Adam spotted him and began to move towards him. He stopped. Vern was kneeling in front of Billy. Adam waited out the rush of fear and dizziness. The air exited his lungs. The man’s head and shoulders blocked most of the act. It was no mystery to Adam what they were doing. He stepped backwards, returning to the kitchen. Billy had a clear view across to him. His expression was hard to read in the dim light. Judging by the way he inclined his head he wasn’t upset or afraid. He calmly indicated for Adam to go back into the kitchen.
Adam closed the door. He was gripped by the need to run. It increased his need to pee. Adam fumbled in the dark for the sink. He put one knee up on the edge. He pulled down the elastic waistband of his trackpants and urinated where he believed the plughole to be. It sounded like he aimed right. His hands were shaking. The urine burned as it left him. Adam pulled up his pants and went to the window. From memory it was a long drop, but not so long that he wouldn’t attempt it. The bottle opener was still in his pocket. He’d swapped it over when he’d changed clothes.
Billy came in. He turned on the light. His gaze was both dull and glistening. He took a folded note of money from his pocket and showed it to Adam before slipping it away again.
he money paid for their food downstairs in the café. It paid for a better fitting T-shirt, a packet of smokes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a bag of jellybeans. Adam saw it was the same kind of note as the bundle of cash in the safe, one of them, a single one.
Billy had shaken off his quietness at the bottom of the steps, wriggled his shoulders, jumped up and down on the spot, thrown a couple of punches in the dark, swiped his hand over the top of Adam’s head.
‘What do you feel like? Pizza? Want a steak and chips? I reckon you need some decent stuff – a burger with the lot. If you tell me you’ve never eaten a burger before, I’ll know you’ve been on another planet.’
Adam had eaten a burger before. Hamburgers, like fish and chips, had been a treat, and a thing to use.
Sulk and you’ll get nothing.
The night came in waves of movement and noise. There were times Billy’s arm was draped around Adam’s shoulders and his chatter spoken directly into Adam’s ear. Adam dulled his hearing and he backed up, inside himself. He stopped looking through his eyes and looked
from them instead. It wasn’t the same way he’d retreated when being beaten or hurt. He was withdrawing for the opposite reason. He needed to see and feel everything, but without distance it was too much. Standing back, inside himself, he was able to get a better view of things. Money mattered. It was in everyone’s pockets and being passed over every counter. Meanness didn’t only take place indoors and behind high fences. People swore and threatened one another out in the open, in the street. Fights broke out. One man threw a punch and Billy had to step back to avoid it, laughing as he did.
‘Dopey white cunt, have another go.’
The man tried but stumbled and tripped over a woman sitting in the gutter. The man then had to shield himself from her blows. She hit him with her handbag. Billy giggled for a long time after that.
Everyone drank. Billy didn’t.
‘Grog is toxic. If you’re smart you won’t touch it.’
People smoked, almost as much as Billy did.
At an all-night barber the air was so thick and hazy with cigarette, pipe and cigar smoke that it made Adam’s heart race and his eyes sting. Billy lounged on the counter with his back to the mirrors. Not all the men were getting haircuts. They’d come in just to talk, to smoke. Adam chose not to look at his own reflection. For the most part his head was angled down anyway. Damp lengths of Adam’s hair dropped to the floor. No sawing, no dry cutting, not like when Adam’s father had brought out the scissors. These were fast little snips and clean slices. Only when it was done did Adam look. His hair was short, except for his fringe, which was heavy over one eye. Billy spent longer looking at the new style. He pouted, clucked his tongue, made Adam turn in a circle. He smacked his lips and winked.
‘Now if you could stop hobbling like an old man, we might just be getting somewhere.’
Pubs and clubs were full of people. Music thudded from deep inside the buildings. Adam and Billy walked past queues and stood around near crowds. Women smiled and were friendly when they were drunk. Not so friendly when they were sober.
People kissed and touched out in the open.
Adam’s feet sank in the soft sand as they walked down near the water. A man and woman were lying together in the darkness. Cold sea air blew. Waves rolled in and out and glistened in the moonlight.
Up from the beach, Billy had a shower. There was a showerhead outside the toilet block. Adam watched for anyone coming. He stood beneath an orange streetlamp, at the edge of the empty parking lot. Billy bundled and balanced his clothes on top of a post. Naked, under the shower, he gasped and swore. He leaned down and scooped up small piles of wet sand and rubbed them over his body, under his arms, down his legs, up his neck, on his face, before rinsing it all off again. To dry himself he used his tank top, and then left it off, tucking it into the waistband of his shorts to flap about beside his leg.
‘No. Can I brush my teeth?’
Billy showed Adam to a tap above a grate. The cool air felt strange against the nape of Adam’s neck. All the hair there had been shaved off. He splashed his face.
Finished brushing, feeling better for it, Adam put the toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste in his trackpant pocket and walked back to Billy. He was leaning against a post, staring towards the beach, bare-chested, the tank top flapping against his leg. He smiled as Adam approached. Right then, Billy looked like something out of a TV show. He seemed bigger than his surroundings, bigger than the picture he was in.
As they climbed the steps up to the street Billy put his tank top on. He combed his fingers through his hair. Up on the street he lit a smoke, cupping his hand around the flame, puffing fast in the gusting wind to keep it lit. A car on the road slowed and pulled over to the kerb. Billy watched it. There were no other cars about, only a few people on the sidewalk. Drifting up was the sound of waves softly tumbling in and flowing out. Flags flapped on the tops of tall poles. The driver of the car wound down his window.
He called across, ‘Hey boys, need a lift?’
‘Maybe not,’ Billy murmured.
He turned and they headed back down the steps again.
‘Not tonight, hey,’ Billy said.
Drunks were passed out in the playground along from the steps. Some were huddled in groups talking. They smelled of alcohol and unwashed clothes. Billy was asked for smokes. He gave out a few.
They wandered off to where the streets were quieter, sheltered from the sea breeze.
‘What’s your last name?’
‘Man, you got to drop that shit. You’re like a broken record. Do you know your
‘How old are you?’
Adam shook his head.
‘You don’t know? You don’t know how old you are? You’re kidding me? What’s the story with your mum?’
‘How did that happen?’
‘She died when I was a baby.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘My fath— Joe,’ Adam said.
‘That’s likely to be a load of shit then. How old do you reckon I am?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, give it a go. Have a try.’ Billy skipped out in front and held his arms out. He danced along, facing Adam. ‘You’ll never guess.’
He stopped skipping. ‘Why would you say that?’
‘That’s how old you seem.’
? What sort of stupid thing is that to say? I don’t look eighteen – I look fucking older. Everyone says I look older. What would you know anyway? . . . Fool.’
After crossing an empty parking lot they went down wooden steps to a new part of the beach. No sand. The swell splashed against a bank of jagged rocks. They walked out onto a jetty and sat with their legs over the side, listened to the waves slap against the boats.
Adam watched the black water move beneath them. Billy talked about the different fish to catch – flathead, mullet, bream and whiting. He talked about what baits to use. Adam rested his forehead on the rail and dozed in bouts.
His hearing fuzzed in and out. His awareness faded.
Wind died away and mozzies swarmed.
Billy nudged him. They got up and climbed the steps, headed back the way they’d come.
Whenever they saw the police, Billy spun on his heel and Adam followed. They’d disappear, let the crowd hide them.
At first light they were out front of a bakery. The shop had not long opened. Adam was scratching his itchy bites. The lumps and welts were on his hands, up and down his arms, some were on his nape and scalp.
‘That isn’t any old haircut, by the way,’ Billy was saying, ‘that’s a
. You look fucking cool. Like David Bowie’s love child.’
He slid two sausage rolls from the paper bag and passed one to Adam.
‘That’s us skint.’
They climbed the stairs to Vern’s place. Adam was weak with fatigue. He stopped halfway up to muster the last bit of effort left inside him.
‘Want a jellybean?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Don’t like them?’
‘They’re too sweet.’
‘Too sweet? Jeez, kid, you crack me up.’
Vern’s door was locked. They sat down with their backs against it. From the mesh platform they were able to see the sun lift higher and the coloured clouds turn white. Adam’s eyes kept closing. The bites nagged and niggled. Adam clawed at them. Billy chewed his jellybeans. Vern arrived in a brown van and parked in the alleyway. His hair and beard were damp. He had on a baggy singlet top and shorts. He came up the steps. Adam felt Billy’s body grow tense. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Billy’s forced smile flicker and tremble.
‘Bet you didn’t think you’d see me again this soon.’
‘Oh, I thought I might,’ Vern said.
un streamed in through the window. No blinds to block it. Below, from the café, were clatters and the occasional smash of a plate or cup being dropped; trucks came and went from the alleyway; seagulls squabbled. Adam could hear the bird’s claws scratching and scrambling on the roof. Cars tooted. A woman came to visit Vern and she talked in a loud, demanding voice, walked around in noisy shoes. It was hard to sleep.
Billy was on the couch. He was only wearing shorts, sleeping on his back, one leg propped on the cushions, the other leg hanging over the side, his arms draped above his head. His chest rose and fell. Sometimes his limbs twitched. Sweat beaded on Adam’s top lip. His lashes were wet with it. Sweat trickled down his neck. He didn’t dare take his trackpants off, or his T-shirt. Not even his sneakers. He sweltered. The mosquito bites had swelled into tight hot lumps. Thoughts of the night turned in his mind, unsettling images, combinations of faces and events, jumbled up and switched about – the barber at the playground, nightclub people queuing in the waves, Scotty and the faceless husky-voiced woman down on the sand. Adam thought about Billy and Vern, what he’d seen them do. At least that slowed the wheeling images – increased Adam’s heartbeats, though, made his blood cold and his sweat turn icy. He shivered.
‘He’ll want to paint you.’
Adam didn’t react. For a moment he wondered if he’d imagined Billy’s voice. He hadn’t realised Billy had woken. He was in the same position but with his head turned Adam’s way, eyes open, watching him.
‘You don’t have to. I’m just saying, he’ll ask you. Pay you. He’ll keep offering till you say yes. It’ll be a lot of money for a small thing, just you sitting there. First time it’s a small thing, for a lot of money. Then the things you have to do get bigger and the money gets less.’
‘I don’t want to.’
Billy sniffed and sat up. ‘Fair enough.’ He reached for his smokes. ‘Fuck it’s hot in here.’ After lighting his smoke he got up, took a bottle of Coke from the fridge and sat down with it, swigging between puffs. ‘Want some?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘It’s just that . . . well, because it’s the first time, we could get it so you could stay dressed, sitting and doing nothing. And for that we could get maybe as much as two hundred bucks.’ Billy squinted and looked towards the window. ‘If you don’t come back again that’s it and that’s as bad as it’s going to get. I’m here so it ain’t gonna go no further.’ Billy wet his lips and dried them with the back of his hand. He sucked hard on the smoke. ‘There are easy ways of getting two hundred bucks and hard ways. I’m saying this would be an easy way. We’d go after that. We don’t have to come back.’
Adam wiped his face on the shoulder of his T-shirt. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘I’m not going to get two hundred bucks for sitting down fully dressed in front of him, I’ll tell you that much. Might be all we need to sort out what it is with you. What your real name is and where you come from.’
‘Can’t we just leave?’
‘And get that kind of money where? I’m here, he can’t hurt you.’
‘Can you take me back to my father’s house?’
Billy sighed. He capped the Coke and put it back in the fridge. For a while he stood with the door open, smoking and staring across the room. He closed the fridge. ‘Sit tight. Don’t jump out the window or anything. I’ll be five, ten minutes.’
‘You’ll take me back after that?’
Billy stopped at the door. His gaze grew stony. ‘You reckon anyone else would do what I’m about to do and then go shout you a salad roll and a milkshake? You go get some money, be nice enough to share it with me, and then I’m all fucking ears about what you wanna do.’
‘I want to go back.’
‘Of course you do, kid. You don’t know no different. You’re acting just the way they like. But hey, you reckon crawling back and sitting around a dead man’s house is gonna work for you . . . off you go. See where that gets you.’
‘There’s money there.’
Billy had opened the door. He stopped, closed it again. ‘Hey?’
‘There’s money at the house.’
‘It’s under the floor.’
‘What’re you talking about?’
‘It’s in a safe under the floor.’
‘I hid the key.’
‘Money, or just a few notes?’
‘A bundle of money.’
Billy scratched his cheek. ‘A bundle? A fair bit?’
‘You’ve got the key to this safe?’
‘I hid it, yes.’
Billy said nothing for a moment. His gaze wandered as he thought. ‘And it opens the safe and you’ve seen the money and you reckon it’s a lot?’
‘You’re not bullshitting me?’
Billy pulled up straighter, lobbed his lit cigarette towards the bin. It fell down in amongst the greasy takeaway wrappers and containers.
‘Well, why the fuck didn’t you say something earlier?’