The old, varnished floorboards in Budgie’s upstairs hallway cooled the soles of my bare feet, a refreshing counterbalance to mild pain squeezing my head. (I was not hungover, but I could have done without those last two beers.) My eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness for sight alone to guide me back to the guest room, where a fat, squishy pillow beckoned. But I stopped at the window. One time, at the state art gallery, I saw a painting of some fish. It was a small painting with a lot of dark colours. It looked simple at first, but a closer inspection revealed astounding intricacy. Such tiny brushstrokes. It was beautiful. I stood in front of it for half an hour. People behind me got annoyed that I was blocking their view, but I just stood there. Standing now at the guest room window, I felt the same way I did that day at the art gallery. The whole world could have been standing behind me, arms crossed, audibly sighing, threatening to call security, and I would have ignored it. The night outside was stunning. Beyond the open window, three hundred stars (at a rough estimate) stood in glorious order in a vast, cloudless sky. Before such a sight, only the most stunted heart would not turn to thoughts of God and space travel. The hills at the back of Budgie’s property, wild and cruel, and scorched by a hot, dry summer, now lay sleeping like babes beneath the gentle golden aura of a low-hanging sliver of moon. The silence was enchanting.
After watching there in a near-meditative state for several minutes, a shy breeze passed by the window, and upon it rode the cackle of a faraway plover. I looked to the high, rugged hill on the south-west of Budgie’s property, the direction from which the bird had called, and a small, glowing spot stood out amid the trees. I rubbed my eyes then peered again at the amber light.
“Looks like a fire,” I muttered to myself.
Nils mumbled and his bed’s springs squeaked. His phone screen lit up as he held it above his face. On the screen was a picture of (I assumed) his wife and kids, and the time: 2:47am. He set the phone down and squinted up at me.
“You all right?” he said.
“Yeah.” I nodded out the window. “There’s someone out there.”
Nils sprang up and sat on the edge of his bed. “Who?” he whispered.
I shrugged. “I dunno. But way out on the hill there, there’s a campfire. I’m sure it is.”
Nils’s hand shot down into his bag beside the bed and rummaged around. It returned a moment later grasping a thin metal cylinder about a foot long. He got up and stood next to me at the window. “Where?” he said.
I pointed out the light. Nils raised the end of the cylinder—a rifle scope—to his eye and aimed the other end toward the light.
“Hmm… uh-huh. Yep, it’s just a campfire.”
He tossed the scope on top of his bag and sat on the edge of his bed. He sighed and rubbed his temples.
“How’s your head feeling?” I said.
“A little sore. You?”
“Same.” I looked out at the distant campfire. “Should we let Budgie know?”
“About the campfire.”
“Oh. Nah, I wouldn’t worry about it. People camp out on those hills all the time.”
“Yeah,” said Nils. “So long as they keep their distance and clear out in the morning, Budgie doesn’t mind.”
“Huh. I never noticed.”
Nils went to use the toilet, and I stayed there at the window. His open gym bag on the floor drew my eyes from the wondrous night outside. Inside that bag was his diary; the evening’s semi-drunken frivolity had shrouded that sinister book from my memory. Now, recalling the entries I had read, I felt a lot less comfortable with the idea of sleeping in the same room as that diary’s author. I looked again out the window; the campfire on the hill was extinguished.
An inexorable (that’s four) thirst gripped my throat, and I went downstairs to get a drink. As I descended the stairs, I heard hushed voices talking—LaShawn and Nils in the kitchen. LaShawn seemed surprised to see me.
“Can’t sleep either, Miles?”
“I just need a drink,” I said.
I took a glass from the cupboard and filled it from the tap.
“Here you go,” said LaShawn, sliding an open packet of aspirin across the bench to me.
I took two tablets, drank my water, refilled the glass and drank again.
“You’ll be right for the party?” said LaShawn.
I set my glass on the sink and watched out the kitchen window.
“Miles,” said LaShawn, “you gonna be right for tomorrow?”
Nils laughed. “He’s still drunk.”
“Earth to Miles—can you hear me?”
“Is Budgie in the shed?” I said.
“What?” said LaShawn.
“Someone’s in the shed,” I said, nodding toward it.
LaShawn joined me at the sink and looked out the window. A dim blue light illuminated the small window on the shed wall; a silhouette moved back and forward across it.
“Hmm. That’s just… probably the machinery… on the smoker,” he said. “I’ll go check it out.”
He opened the third drawer down next to the sink, scanned its random contents for a second, then selected a cigarette lighter and a six-inch flat head screwdriver. He tested the lighter.
“That’ll do,” he said, and headed for the front door.
“You want a hand?” asked Nils.
“Nah, I’m good,” said LaShawn. He pointed to the lounge room. “You stay and keep an eye on him.”
The door closed behind LaShawn. I looked to the lounge room; sitting on the edge of the couch, hunched over with his head nodded forward and his hands pressed against the sides of his face was Rory. He was so still and quiet I hadn’t noticed him when I first came down.
“Is he all right?” I whispered to Nils.
Nils gave Rory a curious look and shrugged. “Hard to tell.”
“Jeez Louise, man,” I said, “he’s just spent two months half-starved in the gulag—”
“Not quite two months,” said Nils.
“The point is,” I said, “he was no condition to drink as much as we did—I should have told him to slow down. He probably feels like crap.”
I went into the lounge room.
“Just let him be,” said Nils.
I ignored him.
“Hey Rory,” I said, kneeling beside him and putting my arm on his shoulder, “are you all right?”
He groaned and lifted his face. It was pale and hollow-looking, and seemed thinner.
“Hey man,” I said, “you don’t look so good.”
He wheezed a long breath. “I don’t… feel good.”
“Let’s get you up to bed. You need to sleep.”
He half shook his head and massaged the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He pressed so hard he left an indentation in his skin that took a few seconds to recover.
“Come on, man,” I said, “sleep will do you good.”
“Sleep?” he drawled. “I don’t… I don’t know how.”
Bastards. Those prison guards, hyped up on authority and impunity, had crushed Rory to the point he’d forgotten what peaceful sleep was. And he was one of the lucky ones. If that’s what you call liberation for the working class, Karl Marx, we’ll thank you to keep your manifestos to yourself next time.
I helped Rory upstairs to his room, where he flopped onto the bed and was snoring loudly within seconds.
I felt unbearably sleepy myself. I walked back up the hall to the guest room, took one more look at the night outside, and then laid down on the kind of giant marshmallow mattress they don’t make anymore and closed my eyes.
For some time—twenty minutes maybe—my mind floated in between waking and dreaming. I heard the front door open, and later close. Voices. Footsteps up the staircase. Bedsprings squeaked, and a bright glow came and went—Nils’s phone. After a long silence, there came a kind of tapping, or scratching, like that of a small animal. I felt—or dreamed—a presence at the doorway, but I was barely conscious enough to sense it, let alone give it any thought. It spoke with a small, familiar voice. “F**king pathetic,” it said.
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