After LaShawn talked me through the plan to overthrow New Zealand’s communist regime, he went back out to the shed to check on the brisket. In the games room, I played some pool by myself, and then had a look through Budgie’s record collection. Budgie reckoned you couldn’t truly appreciate a song unless you listened to it on vinyl. Not that the sound was any better; rather he thought there was something intimate and transcendent about sliding a record from its sleeve, laying it gently on the turntable and then dropping the needle. He would close his eyes and describe the tiny, rhythmic rise and fall of the record as it rotated, the anticipation of hovering the needle just above the waiting groove, and then that first sweet crackle whispering through the speakers. To hear him talk about it, you would think records and record players almost aroused him sexually. Knowing Budgie though, for as long as I had, there was nothing else about him to suggest he was a pervert, and so I attributed no freakiness to his music listening preferences.
Over twelve hundred mint condition records filled the glass case on the games room wall, in a sophisticated (read: impossible for anyone but Budgie to comprehend) filing system involving genre, chronology, number of band members, album sales, nationality and lead singer’s hair length. Pride of place though, the very top of the case, was reserved for Cheap Trick. Budgie had all their albums. He had four copies of In Color. I don’t know why.
I wandered upstairs and opened the linen closet. I stood there a good five minutes, replaying childhood memories in my mind: waiting for the grownups to wake up on Christmas morning, 1987; hiding under the bed on the world’s softest carpet; Mum singing to distract me from a frightening thunderstorm; and Aunty Fey shrieking while Grandad sat at the kitchen table, his hand wrapped in a bloody tea towel, after he cut the top of his finger off with a jigsaw. Sorry, it was the mothballs; I should have mentioned that first. Budgie used mothballs in that closet. My nan used to use mothballs, and so now, whenever I smell them, I am reminded of nan’s house.
Reminiscing complete, I went to the guest room. For a few seconds I pretended I was there for some other reason, before grabbing Nils’s diary and opening it to where I left off earlier. This is what it said:
Idols of wood and stone served a purpose—gods in our own image, content with our offerings, silent in the face of our sins. But they were houses of straw, too cheap, too flimsy. Fearful neither to worshipers, nor to invading armies. So we evolved. Replace the statues with a philosophy. Far more effective.
Eliminate God and there is no sin. An amateur diagnosis and a poisonous cure. Houses of sticks, rotten within. Equality for all, but who administers the equality? You cannot take away God and then demand faith with a hammer and sickle. A few get fat while they can, while the world starves. And everyone waits for the house to fall.
Houses of bricks, the strongest so far. Make God a puppet and elevate man. A hero to inspire, and an enemy to hate. Millions obey. But it is limited. The thousand-year reign becomes a six-year siege. Pigs in a house of bricks, unable to leave, too weak for the wolf.
What then? Become the wolf.
Those words disturbed me, but I liked reading them. And not just because they looked like the work of a professional calligrapher. The next page continued:
What of freedom? What is freedom? I do what I want? I get what I want? That can be arranged. And people will follow to their deaths.
We want peace—a quiet conscience. We want power—to judge, to control. We want happiness—or better yet, an easy substitute. That can be arranged. And people will trade their souls for it.
We want what Adam and Eve wanted but never got. It drove them to madness, consumed them and blinded them. It was denied them, but I will give it. I will give permission. How easily the serpent won their affection. Tell a man he can eat the fruit, the forbidden fruit, and you will be his god. Tell a man his sins are forgiven, and he will leave everything, even rise up from his sick bed, and follow you.
I will give the forbidden fruit, and they will renounce all gods but me. I will forgive sins, and so I will command obedience. Then they will be free.
Clattering from the shed startled me. I returned the book to Nils’s bag and went outside.
“LaShawn! Are you in there?” I called from the shed door.
There was a loud clang, followed by some swearing.
“LaShawn, are you all right?”
“Ah, yeah,” he said.
“Is it safe to be in there?”
“Oh yeah, it’s all good. You won’t turn blue, if that’s what you mean.”
“Okay,” I said, and peeked through the door.
The meat smoker whirred in tune with the chug of the generator; a thin ribbon of pale blue smoke twirled from an exhaust vent on the smoker’s far side. I stepped in and walked around the giant contraption, to where LaShawn was busy comparing the readings on a blinking gauge to some scrawled notes on the back of a beer coaster he was holding.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah,” he said squinting at the coaster, “it’s getting there. It would help if Nils could write legibly. A third grader could do better than this.”
“Hey, about Nils…” I said.
“Have you ever noticed something… I don’t know… odd about him?”
LaShawn chuckled. “Damn right I have. I’ve noticed plenty odd about you too. Odd is what makes people interesting.”
“No, I mean…”
LaShawn put down the coaster and looked at me. “What?”
“Look,” said Lashawn, “I told you before, Nils has his own way of doing things. Just let him do it. You and Nils will get along great.”
“Of course. He told me himself he was looking forward to seeing you. You know—meeting you.”
“I tell ya what,” said LaShawn, retrieving his keys from his pocket. “Nils and Rory probably aren’t gonna be here for another—” he checked the gauge on the smoker “—two hours or so. Why don’t you go see Ezra?” He tossed me the car keys.
“Hmm. Yeah, it has been a while since I’ve seen him. Is he coming to the party?”
“I don’t know. He’s invited, of course, but you know Ezra.”
“Yeah. Are you sure you don’t need any help here?”
LaShawn shook his head. “All good.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours then. Don’t worry, I’ll look after the beast for you”
“I’m not worried,” said LaShawn, with a grin. “You drive like an old granny.”
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