When they reached the empty lot of The Holly Jack burst from the car and ran to the surrounding fields. His body was hot, yet cold to the touch, and all his colour had drained. He fell to his knees and lurched forward, retching violently with both shock and disgust. From behind his brother called after, but Jack was too sick to respond just yet, and too horrified at that. The journey from Tudor Park had not taken that long, but it had been long enough for reality to sink in.
‘Jack? You okay buddy?’ Ben was walking slowly up behind. For a moment he too was a little unsteady on his feet. Using the roof of the car he balanced and regained his composure; it wouldn’t do to lose control now.
‘I’m…fine,’ Jack answered feebly, ‘just gimme a second.’
The night was cold and overcast. There was nothing in the sky save for light rain that came in spurts and a cold wind that gushed every so often, sending a chill right to the boys’ chests. The lot was dimly lit by small spotlights in each corner, not all of which were working properly. The Holly itself was vacant, had been for nearly two years, and was starting to look run down. It was the only structure for miles around, used to be quite a popular one with the travellers, promising warm beds and hot food and all other kinds of amenities, but now it was dead and as dark as the surrounding land.
The fields and the road were lost to a thick and unyielding obscurity that added an air of loneliness to the place. In fact, anything that was not illuminated by the dull spotlights took on a mythical quality, as though The Holly were free floating in some bare expanse of space. It was clear that there was nobody here. Despite their naivety the boys were far from stupid; they would see anyone approaching in time enough, but they knew this stop would have to be brief.
Jack was perched on all fours and taking deep breaths. His eyes were closed and he was shivering quite violently.
It had all seemed dreamlike before. Or maybe that was wrong. At the very least there had been a sense of disconnection. Jack had seen everything that was going on, but it hadn’t struck him as real; after all, things like that didn’t actually happen? They were invented dramas meant for televisions or movie screens, stories fabricated to give the otherwise austere world a little depth, a little excitement.
But all of a sudden Jack realised that everything he witnessed had happened, and now he was left with so much alien emotion erupting inside of him. The truth overwhelmed him and broke the trance he had found himself in while Ben tore up the highway. As the trance broke so did his nerve. He thought it lucky that he managed to get out of the car in enough time; otherwise he may have vomited all over his seat, and that would not have done them any favours. As he struggled to his feet, still drawing deep breaths, he felt Ben at his side and a need to recover came over him.
Ben was six years older than Jack, and for the past fifteen years he had been the most important figure in the younger boy’s life. To Jack, Ben was a font of amazing (yet completely useless) information, a music guru and practically invincible. Ben was not the smartest guy on the planet but he sure had ideas, and it was that very facet that had gotten them into this mess. But Jack didn’t see it; he trusted his older brothers wisdom (or near-fatal lack thereof) implicitly, and even though he was scared out of his wits, there was an unmistakable faith amid the tumult of emotions that Jack was clinging to for dear life.
‘You okay?’ Ben asked again, placing an around his brother’s shoulder.
‘Yeah, just a little shaken,’ Jack answered. He looked at his brother and smiled briefly. He hoped that Ben knew what he was doing. There was no tell on the older boys face, he just looked tired.
‘Me too little brother. You know we can’t stay here for very long.’
‘He’s coming isn’t he?’
Ben looked away into the darkness. The wind blew his longish hair out of his face. A frown settled on his brow momentarily, it was one of deep concentration, as though he were willing himself to see something that could not be seen out there.
‘He’s coming,’ Ben answered, ‘and can you blame him?’
‘You didn’t hit him right,’ Jack’s voice wavered as he said it. Ben detected a little confidence lost in that statement; but he could sense the hope too.
‘I shot quickly; I just wanted to get us out of there.’
‘What about mom?’
The question was met with a silence that told more than any spoken answer could. Jack saw tears welling in his brother’s eyes and could feel them in his own as well. He leaned in closer to his brother and felt Ben’s arm tighten across his shoulders. They needed to get moving.
‘We didn’t get a good enough head start,’ Ben said and turned for the car. Jack followed him slowly, not quite feeling strong enough to rush on. He watched his brother run a coaxing hand over the roof; as though he were a cowboy on the run instead of a young postman, and the battered Toyota that rattled under the strain of general use were his tired and trusted steed. Ben looked as though he was trying to get the buy-in from the hatchback to move on.
Both boys settled back in and pulled the doors closed against the weather. They were preparing to enter the darkness.
Ben picked the .32 out of the side compartment and checked the magazine. With the speed of experience he pulled back the shaft and let it slide into place. Ben was good with guns; he had been in the military for a while.
‘How much time do we have Ben?’ Jack asked
‘Put your belt on,’ his brother answered and he turned the key in the ignition.
Instead of roaring to life, the engine stalled. It coughed hopelessly with each try, defying Ben at what had to be the worst possible moment. A sudden rush of both fear and frustration went to the older boys head and he let out a growl. Jack turned sharply, his face a picture of anxiety.
‘Come on Ben,’ he said
He turned the key again. The Toyota had been dying a slow and cruel death from as far back as Ben could remember. It had never been the best of cars, but for all the noise and backfiring, it had still been strangely reliable. This was the first time the car had refused to start after so much persuasion and Ben wouldn’t believe that now of all times, it had decided to retire.
The boys exchanged a quick glance. Ben lowered his head onto the steering wheel, silently praying. Without realising, one hand dropped to the .32 and ran a finger faithfully along the black nozzle, down the shaft to the hilt. Jack started to gnaw on his fingernails and looked out into solid black distance. The wind howled around them and the stringent plan was coming apart; and neither boy saw the dim headlights of an old pick-up racing along the highway behind them, heading straight for The Holly, where it knew they would be.
The boys had fled their home in fear of their lives. The elder had led, and his brother had dutifully followed, placing every fibre of trust in his sibling. They could hear deep rumbling groans behind them and were filled with dread. The resounding din of gun fire rung faintly in Jack’s ears and the smell of hot metal filled his nostrils; he was slipping into a daze. Behind them their mother lay on the kitchen floor, perfectly still and bleeding; bleeding from the head.
Before the car managed to screech out of the drive and leave Tudor Park in the dust on its way to the highway, Lincoln Smith – their great and ever loving father – rose with agonizing pain in his shoulder. He growled with each throb and clenched his teeth together to stop himself from passing out. When he opened his eyes a hazy somnolence settled on him and he was vaguely aware of a garish patch of red spreading over his shirt. The patch was warm and sticky and it smelled faintly burnt.
He got to his feet and looked down to his wife. She was lying in the gap between the two counters; her head had struck the tiles where she landed. All around where she lay were shards of broken glass and food preserves. Lincoln felt a pang of guilt come over him, but it did nothing to calm him. Tears welled in his eyes but he sent them back from whence they came. He was not sorry – never sorry – for what he had done. All he wished was that the interfering bitch had chosen her attitude more carefully. She deserved every beating she got.
Lincoln moaned with the pain and turned away from his wife. He could hear the boys clambering into Ben’s old Toyota and he tried to call after: ‘b-b-boys!’ A hot cry of pain came from the wound in his shoulder and almost dropped him where he stood. He breathed deeply and his face contorted against the strain. He reached out a hand to steady himself and almost missed. The room swayed and started to go black for a moment. Lincoln was in shock.
It took him some time to realise what had actually happened. He could hear the Toyota clinging to life and a few seconds later tail-spinning out of the driveway. He could hear Ben shouting, but it was distant; he couldn’t hear what was being said. Lincoln looked at the wound in his shoulder as he stumbled forward and was a little afraid. In fact he felt a little sick. The wave of nausea stopped him and he spoke to the room that was growing silent in a consuming way, the kind of silence that deafens you in its totality.
‘He shot me,’ Lincoln said quietly. ‘Son of a bitch, shot me!’
The fact that Ben had had the courage to stand up to his father was the thing that enraged Lincoln most. He was a dominant man, a man to be listened to and obeyed. Few people ever defied Lincoln Smith and the ones who did had always paid for it. He wasn’t proud of Ben for his courage, but livid for his insolence.
Speaking aloud seemed to disperse the fogginess around him. Lincoln tore open one of the kitchen cupboards and seized a bottle of painkillers. He ripped the lid open and poured a small bundle into his palm. He took them all, washing them down with the final mouthfuls of beer he had been drinking before Sarah had started nagging him. From there he charged, clutching his shoulder, out of the house and into the garage.
There were old towels sitting on the workbench along the garage wall. Lincoln grabbed one and wrapped it around his upper arm. From the shelf above he grabbed some electrical tape and used it to secure the towel. The pain was warm and heavy, making the rest of his arm numb.
Behind the workbench stood an old cabinet made of wood. It was stained and splintery and probably infested with termites. There was a smell of dust and gun polish coming from it and the doors were secured with a small padlock. Using both hands – and a lot of brute strength – Lincoln tore the padlock clean off the doors. The strain sent unbearable lighting bolts right through his body. A sharp headache had developed in his right temple and he felt as though he were going to pass out again.
The garage was large enough for two cars. Ben usually parked his Toyota in front and Lincoln’s old pick-up sat behind. The cars could have sat side by side were it not for the space taken up with the workbench and all the cabinets. Lincoln considered himself to be a bit of a handy man. He leaned forward against the cabinet smelling burnt rubber and oil, trying to catch some breath. His was a vast and hulking figure, his arms and legs like the trunks of small trees. Lincoln had long grey hair that was now stained with spatters of his own blood, and a tanned and weathered face. He had worked in construction and maintenance his whole life. He worked in harsh conditions, and the effects had robbed him of his youth. They had also robbed him of his soul it had seemed, because Lincoln had been getting worse. He was an angry man by nature, but something had been lost along the way. Some important fuse that stopped him from going too far had blown, and now the only aspect of his personality anyone could see, was his rage.
Inside the cabinet was a shot gun and a box of cartridges. He grabbed both and climbed into the cab of the old pick-up truck. The keys fell into his lap from the sun visor and Lincoln gunned the engine. The haziness starting to settle back in but he tried to shake it away. His arm no longer hurt as badly; had it just gone completely numb or were the painkillers working? Lincoln didn’t know or care. He slipped the bulky truck into drive and tore away in pursuit of his sons.
As difficult as things had become in recent years, not knowing how to act or how to feel, or where to look when their father was beating on their mother for no reason other than to serve his growing appetite for violence, life had not always been so tenebrous. In fact, there were many happy memories that were now running through Ben’s mind. They were snapshots mostly, robbed of their fullness by the way things were turning out, but they existed.
As he prayed to God for some sort of miracle to bring his beat-up car back to life, he thought of all the road trips they had taken to his uncles across state. They would leave as the sun was rising and drive to the one place they stopped every time, for breakfast and coffee, before hitting the road again. Usually they pulled over for snacks made by their mother, but that first stop was always the best. Nobody made breakfast like that old greasy cook the boys called ‘Blubber’, and nowhere quite felt the same as The Holly. It closed around the same time that everything took a turn for the worse. That was significant to Ben, as if the sudden degeneration of all the happier parts of his life happened simultaneously. Ben interpreted things differently to everybody else he knew, and as he raised his head from the wheel he looked at the old restaurant with a queer fondness and understood that he had made a huge mistake in stopping here.
Jack was staring again.
In his own way he too was saying a prayer. Jack hoped that Ben was right about God. If not, then what the hell were they supposed to do next? The car was broken and Jack was afraid. There’s no turning back, he thought and finally surrendered to his emotions. He began to shake a little as he cried and he sensed Ben looking at him. He didn’t care now though; he was passed worrying about whether or not he looked strong in his older brother’s eyes. Everything had changed, and the one aspect that frightened him the most, was that they no longer had a home to go back to. Their mother may be dead and their father would kill them if he caught them.
‘Jack…’Ben started and reached out his hand
‘Don’t touch me!’ Jack screamed and he stormed out of the car.
Jack let out a scream and with his hands on his head walked away from the car towards the road. He stopped when he got there and stood perfectly still, looking back the way they had come.
The night was getting colder, Ben was sure of it. He went after Jack once more fighting the urge to cry out like his younger brother had done. You have to stay in control, he thought. As he got up the .32 fell from his lap onto the cabin floor. Ben didn’t notice. He ran around the car and went to his brother. He was reaching out to seize Jack’s arm, to turn him around and snap him out of this mood he was in. They needed to stay focussed, both of them. As Ben closed in on his brother he looked where Jack was looking and stopped.
‘RUN!’ Ben cried.
As the old pick up bounded off the highway onto the dusty parking lot, Ben dragged Jack back towards the Toyota with all his strength.