The Stairwell - Short Story - Published by Flatchat Press 2005.
'…But this is not your average day,' Lachlan says, his slightly crooked grin appearing and fading with his speech. He pretends not to notice that the other two are staring at him. Lachlan is roughly six inches taller than Ann and Damien. His tangled, copper-wire hair rests on his broad shoulders; his eyes are blue and there is a cleft in his chin. He looks like he could be an athlete, a star football player. Although this year he dropped out of all the school sports teams, and took up extra units in maths and science.
The three of them stand on the nature strip across the street from their high school. At their feet, deteriorating cigarette butts and fading bus tickets are wedged in amongst the tufts of grass. Behind them the block of flats stand tall and brown—brown bricks, brown spouting, brown window frames. The Browns. A rolled up local paper sticks out of each brown letterbox. It's a Wednesday.
'Well?' Lachlan nods impatiently towards the laneway that opens beside the rows of The Browns clotheslines, and which travels around The Browns, to the main road. From there it is only one block of sprinting to reach the train station. Once they board the train, they will be safe.
Damien tucks his long dark fringe behind his ears and looks around as if he's just woken up. He is small, but wiry and quick—he used to play 'centre' for the school basketball team. His eyes are close-set and dark, almost black; his nose is narrow and long; and severe acne during the past three years has left craters in his cheeks. Damien is on medication now and his acne has cleared up considerably, although his mood swings are at an all time high. When not sullen and apathetic, he is madly cheerful and energetic. He bounces off the walls, mimics fictional character voices and generally behaves like the Mad Hatter. Or perhaps Damien is more like the March Hare. Lachlan is the Mad Hatter. Ann is the mouse.
Ann checks her watch. It's a quarter to eight. Her breathing quickens. Teachers will be arriving soon. Decisions must be hasty, and final.
Ann is slightly taller than Damien. Ann only likes to eat mashed potatoes, two-minute noodles, and vanilla ice-cream. When it comes to food, she sticks to mostly whites and yellows—too many colours infuriate her. This year, Ann has become prone to fainting spells. They usually last a minute or so at a time, and occur every few weeks. Her skin is pasty and her eyes are grey, but sometimes they look pale green. Her hair is ash blonde and always plaited into about forty thin plaits that end at her shoulder-blades. The plaits are bound at the ends with tiny, beige-coloured elastic-bands. When she is nervous, she chews on the tail-end of a plait until it is matted and spiked. At the moment, three of them are spiked at the ends.
'Let's just go, Damien.' Ann glances back at Lachlan.
'You two did bring clothes, didn't you?' Lachlan says.
Ann nods. Damien drawls 'Yes,' and crosses his arms.
Lachlan steps forward and grabs the loose shoulder strap of Damien's school bag. 'C'mon, you'll just be bored shitless at school!' he says, towing Damien to the laneway entrance. He lets go and stands in front of Damien, arms folded.
'Lach, what about Miss Burnes?' Damien says, looking down. His giant feet look tacked on to his small frame, as if he was meant to be six foot tall.
Lachlan sighs and rolls his eyes at Ann. She shrugs and winds a plait around her finger.
'Well, she's only teaching for the rest of this term,' Damien digs his hands into his pockets and kicks a discarded cigarette lighter. 'I don't wanna miss any classes, Okay?'
Despite appearances, Damien is a hopeless romantic on the inside. He would serenade Miss Burnes from outside her window with a song that he wrote, played on a lute. He doesn't know how to play the lute, but he would take lessons, for her.
A maroon sedan drives past them and turns into the school driveway.
'Shit!' Lachlan scrambles for the rubbish skip at the laneway entrance. The others follow, cursing and shaking with adrenalin. They crouch behind the skip, amongst piles of soiled clothes and several torn and fraying couch cushions.
'Okay.' Lachlan's eyes look almost as dark as Damien's. 'We're all goin' to the train station. You're just using Miss Burnes as an excuse! Admit it, you're a fuckin' softcock.'
Damien stands up. His pupils dilate and the veins in the back of his hands bulge as he clenches his fists. His voice is deep and scratchy.
'If we get caught, it'll be me that cops all the shit – you know that! I'm the bad influence! I'm already treadin` thin ice with my old man. If I get into any more trouble, he's gonna string my nuts to the clothesline!'
Ann and Lachlan are silent for a moment. Their eyes are twinkling. They look at each other and start laughing. Lachlan says, 'nuts to the clothesline!' He and Ann burst into a fresh wave of laughter, faces red and eyes watering.
Damien smirks and, crouching down again, leans with his back against the skip. His efforts to stifle a chuckle fuel Ann and Lachlan's amusement. A moment later, they are all roaring with laughter.
When they compose themselves, Lachlan leans towards Damien.
'Mate, forget about your old man. I swear—this is important.'
Damien looks at him for a moment. He tucks his fringe behind his ears and peeks around the corner of the skip.
'What are you doing?' Lachlan says.
Ann is weaving three of her plaits together. She glares at him and continues to weave. She feels light-headed. She doesn't like travelling backwards on the train.
A woman sits in the booth behind Lachlan. She is wearing a yellow bandana, tied over brunette curls. Across the aisle from her sit a group of younger kids: three boys and two girls. They keep switching seats. One of the girls is wearing ear-phones. The other kids are crowding around a video phone. They are laughing.
Damien is in the booth across from Ann and Lachlan. His school bag is on the seat facing him, his feet perched on the bag—one of his tactics. If an inspector walks through the carriage, Damien can say in his defence: 'but my feet aren't on the seat, they're on my bag.'
Next to Damien, jammed between two seat cushions, is a Burger Rings packet. He snatched it off Lachlan, who was throwing Burger Rings at him. Lachlan throws things at people he's annoyed with. Damien tries his best to ignore people he's annoyed with. Ann, in these situations, is the observer.
'Can someone talk, I'm bored,' Lachlan says, sitting forward.
Ann pushes aside her hair and shrugs. 'About what?'
Lachlan leans back and rests his head on the top of the seat. He looks up at the ceiling.
'I dunno. Stuff.' He looks at her.
'Well, I don't know,' Ann says. She traces her finger over clumsy etchings in the wall beside her: SAM + TYRONE + J.M RULZ.
Lachlan follows her finger tracing over each scratched letter. He crosses his arms.
'Things would be a bit more interesting if someone was talking to me, instead of being a shit-head.'
Damien continues to stare out of the window beside him, his brooding frown growing a few shades darker. Ann continues to collect her plaits in groups of three and transform them into one. Lachlan digs his fists into the seat. Ann sighs and tilts her head. Her eyes widen and the colour of her skin changes from white to greenish-white.
'Hey!' Lachlan jolts upright.
Ann begins to sway back and forth. Lachlan moves to her side and holds her shoulders. Damien scrambles onto his feet and sits across from her.
'Ann!' Damien places his hand on her forehead.
'Fuck, why isn't she talking?' Lachlan's face is red and there are sweat beads on his temples.
Damien stares into her eyes. 'She's fainted again.'
'People can't faint with their eyes open!'
'Why not?' Damien holds the palm of his hand under her nose. 'She's still breathing.' He grabs Ann's wrist and checks for a pulse.
'Okay, okay...' Lachlan glances out the window. 'Milford's coming up. C'mon, let's get her off this train.'
'But this is your stop, what if your olds are around?'
'Who gives a shit—c'mon, let's go!'
The boys stand either side of Ann and slowly try to hoist her up. She is a dead weight. Lachlan gestures to Damien to stand back and scoops her up into his arms. 'You open the door.'
Damien grabs their school bags and slings them over his shoulders.
The woman with the bandana is staring at them. The voice-over says, 'Now approaching Milford Station.'
Damien slides the doors open a second after they beep. He jumps out and then waits, shifting from foot to foot, as Lachlan steps gingerly onto the platform.
The air is cold and damp. The train tracks glisten. It is drizzling, like water from a garden spray bottle.
Lachlan carries Ann to a nearby bench. Damien places her schoolbag beneath her head. She is staring straight up at the ceiling.
The boys crouch beside her. Ann's eyebrows twitch.
'Shh!' Ann says, barely opening her mouth. Her eyes remain fixed on the ceiling.
'Ann!' Lachlan leans forward, his face inches from hers.
Damien nudges him in the arm. 'Shut up, you'll put her into shock!'
Lachlan carefully lifts her up into sitting position. He sits next to her on the bench and cradles her in his arms.
'She never faints for this long.' Damien stands and begins to pace. 'We should call someone.'
'That's great, Damien. Where are we supposed to be?'
Damien stops pacing. 'Oh shit. Look, let's just go back to school. We won't be that late—we can say it happened a few blocks away.'
'And our uniforms? We'll still get busted!'
'Why? We can change back, and—'
'Have a look at your shirt now, mate. Go on, take it out of your bag.' Lachlan watches Damien as he unzips his backpack and pulls out his school shirt. The shirt is badly creased, with blue ink smeared on the collar.
Damien looks up at Lachlan. He hesitates.
'Anyway,' Lachlan says, 'we'd have to change her clothes.'
Lachlan smirks as Damien's eyes grow wide. Blushing, Damien stands and walks to the edge of the bench. He picks at a sticker on the wall, tears off a strip, rolls it into a ball and throws it onto the train tracks.
'Shh!' Ann says. The boys freeze.
'Mike!' Ann screams and sits up. Her breathing is loud and fast-paced. She takes a deep breath and swings her legs down off the bench, and looks at Lachlan.
'Hey,' she says. She smiles wearily. The green tinge is disappearing from her skin as she peers at her surroundings, then at Damien. 'Why are we at Lachlan's stop?'
'Damien almost chickened out,' Lachlan says, staring straight ahead.
Damien opens his mouth to protest, then closes it again.
They sit in a row and stare at the train tracks. Rain begins to pelt at the metal, the wood and the rocks. Bells sound rhythmically and commuters on the far end of the platform approach the edge.
'We better catch this one,' Lachlan says, eyes fixed on the tracks as the train glides into view.
The smell of bitter coffee weights the air, softened by the aroma of freshly baked muffins, clouded with the reek of cigarette smoke.
They are walking down one of the Central Station platforms. They weave through huddles of black and grey suits—the men with briefcases, umbrellas and polished black shoes; the women with white K-mart runners and clothing boutique bags transporting stilettos.
Lachlan marches down the stairs to the underground passageway like he is late for a meeting. Ann and Damien quicken their pace to keep up. The concrete is covered with a layer of moist grime. It smells like garbage. Old event flyers line the walls, peeling like dead skin.
'Where are we going?' Ann says, breathing in short gasps.
Damien trails them. 'It's his big secret, Ann, remember?'
Lachlan glances back at Damien and scowls. Damien leers at him.
They ascend a set of stairs. The cold wind slaps their faces and picks up strands of their hair. They walk through puddles. The ground is dark grey. There are more suits and umbrellas, but they seem to be moving the opposite way.
At every side street they cross, Ann and Damien glance at each other. Ann is chewing her hair. Damien is frowning. Lachlan just keeps walking, his eyes focused straight ahead.
The skyscrapers are behind them. The suit-wearing commuters are thinning out. High density apartment buildings and shop-fronts take over. A fish and chip shop, an adult book store, a laundrette, an empty shop-front, another empty shop front. And another. Windows pasted with old newspaper pages line their way. All of Ann's plaits are spiked at the ends. Damien rubs his face every so often. Lachlan presses on.
Damien yelps like a puppy whose tail has been trodden on. The other two turn on their heels. Across the street is Miss Burnes.
Miss Burnes, their substitute Social Studies teacher, is holding hands with a man who looks twice her age. He is short and stocky. His hair is dark and slicked back, like an old school Dracula. He has dark, close-set eyes and a long, narrow nose.
Damien's mouth is opening and closing like a fish's. Lachlan curses under his breath. Ann taps Damien on the arm and whispers, 'Let's stand behind that bus shelter.'
The three of them sidle behind the shelter. Damien peeks around the corner. The couple are kissing and embracing.
'Oh, fucking hell!' Damien crouches and leans with his back against the shelter. He places his hands on his forehead, pressing them down with force, as if to stop his brain from bursting out.
Ann crouches beside Damien and rests her hand on his shoulder. She glances up at Lachlan. He shrugs and then looks out from behind the shelter. 'They've gone. They drove off.'
Damien gazes at him with red-rimmed eyes.
Lachlan starts to run his hands through his tangled hair. 'I don't know what to say, mate.' His hands get stuck half-way. He takes them out of his hair and folds his arms. 'I thought she was meant to take Social Studies this morning. I guess you didn't miss out anyway, hey?'
Damien hangs his head. 'Of all the shit and fucking stupid ideas you could have had, Lach…'
Lachlan's face is like stone. Ann stares at the ground.
Damien goes on: 'Forget about Miss Burnes, he says. What a fucking twist of the blade that is!'
'So she's got a boyfriend, big shit,' Lachlan says.
Damien stands up.
'You dragged us all the way here to fucking humiliate me!'
Lachlan's jaw drops. He shakes his head mutely.
'I kinda knew I didn't have a chance anyway. But thanks for rubbing it in my face.' Fists clenched, he steps towards Lachlan. 'You fucking tool!'
'No! Mate, listen to me…'
Ann scrambles to her feet. Damien swings at Lachlan. Lachlan dodges.
Damien takes another swing. His fist connects with Lachlan's jaw. They both flinch. Lachlan hooks his hands on Damien's arms and pushes him against the back of the bus shelter with a thud. Damien jumps up and head butts him.
Ann gasps. 'No, Damien! Stop!'
Lachlan stumbles backwards, holding his nose. It aches like a stab wound. He doesn't want to fight. He scrambles around the blur of Damien, the way he used to avoid a tackle in footy, and traps him in a headlock. Damien's fists flail. He squirms as Lachlan shouts at him: 'Listen to me, you dickhead! I didn't know about them!'
'Yeah? Then why the fuck did you bring us here?' Damien yells, still squirming.
A man's stern voice interrupts: 'Alright, you two. Break it up.'
The boys look up. A police officer. He looks young, maybe late twenties.
Lachlan lets go of Damien's head and they stand up straight, as if lining up at assembly in primary school. Lachlan can feel stinging warmth on his face. He is breathing through his mouth. He touches his nose—it feels hot and sensitive to the touch. It is also wet. There is blood on his hand.
Damien is still breathing heavily. His fists are clenched and ready to strike. The cop stares him straight in the eyes. Damien is suddenly aware that he is frowning back. He makes an effort to un-clench his fists and un-furrow his brow. He takes a deep breath and tries to calm down. He straightens out his fingers and feels them beginning to tremble.
'You two boys know each other, do you?'
'Yes,' Lachlan says. 'We were just mucking around.'
The cop glares at him. 'Awful bloody nose you got there, mate, for just mucking around. That looks broken.'
'It was an accident,' Lachlan says.
'Curriculum day today then, is it?'
The boys are silent. The cop looks at Ann.
'Is it? Do you kids have permission to be absent from school?'
Ann looks like she has been called on in class to answer a question that she doesn't know. She looks at the boys for guidance.
The police officer nods and takes a notepad and pen from his shirt pocket.
'Right, I'm Constable Hayes. I'm going to have to get all of your details,' he says as he flicks through pages and clicks his pen. 'Then you'll have to come with me to the station.'
They sit on olive-green vinyl chairs with wooden frames. Lachlan sits with his head tilted back. With his right hand he is holding a wad of tissues to his nose, while his left hand supports an ice pack on the back of his neck. Damien is cradling his left hand, wrapped in an icepack. Ann is sitting, hunched over. There is a water cooler beside them, and a glossy poster about crime stoppers on the wall, alongside a rack of pamphlets. They can see Officer Hayes at his desk, through the window. He hangs up the phone and enters the room.
'Right, I've contacted your school.'
Ann lets out a squeak like a mouse and covers her mouth with her hand. Damien clenches his fists and then, grimacing, unclenches his left fist in its icepack. Lachlan swallows.
Officer Hayes goes on: 'You'll be escorted back as soon as possible.'
'In a cop car?' Lachlan says, still holding the wad of tissues to his nose. He sits the icepack on his lap.
'No, in an unmarked vehicle.'
'We'll leave in five minutes, okay? Help yourselves to some water.' Officer Hayes winks and walks into the next room.
'Can this day get any worse?' Damien mutters.
Lachlan cups his hand over his mouth. 'We can't let on that we saw her.'
'What the fuck is that supposed to mean?' Damien says, not bothering to lower his voice.
'I mean, don't say anything,' Lachlan says.
Damien throws the icepack on the empty chair beside him and crosses his arms, his swollen hand jutting out like a mannequin's.
'What was today about, Lach?' he says.
Ann stirs, and stares at Lachlan.
Lachlan shakes his head. 'There's no use. Not now.'
'Just tell us!'
'Why not?' Damien groans and holds his forehead with his good hand. 'Just… just give me something else to think about, please!'
'It affects Ann more,' Lachlan says, and for the second time that day he tries to ignore the other two's startled stares.
'Lach, if you don't fucking tell us now, I'm gonna have to make my other hand swollen.'
'That's great, mate—with a dry, cool wit like that you could be an action hero.' Lachlan attempts a chuckle. Then he sighs and lowers his voice. 'Okay. But you gotta understand, this whole thing… maybe it is nothing. I'm probably wrong. That's why I wanted to bring you two there, to see for yourselves.'
He hesitates. The other two wait.
'I was in the city yesterday, up this way, buying some vinyl at Pepper Records. On the way back to the station, I tried a short-cut through some side streets. I thought I knew the way. But I ended up in a dead end lane behind the old post office. And then I saw this guy…'
'That dickhead, with Miss Burnes!' Damien leans forward, clenching his teeth.
'No! Listen to me!'
Damien sits back. Ann sits forward.
'He was a junkie.' Lachlan swallows. 'But I… I thought he looked familiar. I thought I know this guy, I know him, but I also didn't wanna know…'
Damien furrows his brow. Ann turns even paler. Lachlan looks her in the eyes.
'I think it's him.'
Officer Hayes enters the room. They stand and follow him down the corridor and into the foyer of the police station. They avoid eye contact.
'I'm parked just over here.' Officer Hayes holds out his keys and presses the button on the alarm keychain. The black Club-Sport lights flash as they walk towards the car. Lachlan walks ahead of the other two, directly behind Officer Hayes. His heartbeat quickens. He feels like he is on the wrong train. The silence is frustrating. He looks the car up and down as they approach it.
'Nice car, Officer.'
'Thanks, Lachlan. Are you into cars?' Officer Hayes walks around to the driver's side door.
'Sort of. Don't usually like Holden's, but these Club-Sports are pretty cool.'
Officer Hayes smiles and gets in.
Damien appears next to Lachlan. 'You better call shotgun,' he mutters.
Lachlan nods, opens the front door and turns towards Ann. She is no longer behind them. He ducks down to check inside the car. Damien is already seated behind the passenger seat. Ann is not there.
'Ann's gone!' Lachlan says. He shuts the door and steps back into the middle of the footpath, looking up and down the street.
Damien hops out. 'What? Where is she?'
'You tell me!'
Officer Hayes strides around the front of the car. His voice is stern. 'C'mon you two…'
'Ann's gone!' Lachlan is panicking.
Officer Hayes's narrowed eyes widen for a second. In this moment, Lachlan sees him not as a police officer, but a guy that finished high school not too long ago.
'Okay,' Officer Hayes says, glancing at the police station, 'I'll have to take you both back to the station for now. Which way did she go?'
'I don't know… she…' Lachlan stops cold. He looks sideways at Damien. 'Cheese it,' he quickly says, through his teeth.
'What?' Damien frowns.
'Run—now!' Lachlan takes off down the street at top speed, with Damien a close second. Lachlan can feel his chest tightening; he feels like he is going to collapse. They can hear Officer Hayes tearing after them. Then his footfalls fade as they hinge into a side street and lean against a billboard, catching their breath. Lachlan bends and grabs his knees.
'Fuck!' Damien says between huge gasps of air. 'You haven't raced… in ages… and you still beat me—you prick!'
Lachlan straightens up and starts down the street. 'This way.'
'What? You think she's gone to find him—if it is him?' Damien says, jogging to keep up.
'Where else would she go?'
'Fuck!' Damien quickens his pace. 'Well then… it better be him, hey? Better she run into Mike than some psycho stranger.'
Lachlan's nose is stinging, from the cold air.
'What if it is him?' Damien says.
Lachlan presses on and says nothing.
They turn into a laneway. Milk crates are stacked to the left, rubbish bins to the right. The crunch of rain-soaked dirt and shattered glass beneath their feet echoes between the buildings.
Lachlan stops. 'This is where…'
Ann is crouched under a stairwell, which leads to an abandoned loft above the old post office. She is crouched beside another figure. The young guy's hair is the exact shade of Ann's ash blonde, but twisted and matted like Lachlan's. He was once as fit and built as Lachlan, from their countless evenings of footy training.
Now he sits under the stairwell, his face grey, eyes vacant, leaning back against the wall, looking up.
Ann raises her head. Her eyes are red and full of tears. Her mouth is distorted.
It is him: Ann's big brother, Damien's friend, Lachlan's best mate.
'He said…' Ann hiccups with sobs. 'He said he was sorry for being away so long...'
Damien feels a surge of stomach acid in his throat. He quickly crouches and places a hand flat and spits on the ground. Lachlan takes a step forward.
Mike hasn't moved. He is staring straight up.
- Michelle Napolitano 2004