I wake at 1.27am to the sour taste of smoke in the darkness. Dad's up at this time? I open my ears further. There's voices knocking along the hallway but by the time they reach me all their arms and legs have broken off so I can hardly tell what's what. Mum's voice slithers angrily, and Dad's kind of limps along.
I slide out of bed and tiptoe through the carnage of Bionicle parts on my carpet. I ease open the door and drop to the ground and crawl along the floorboards past Chrissy's old room to where the weak light spills into the dimness. The kitchen door's gaping like a mouth that forgot to shut. I can't see that great cos I've forgotten to put on my glasses. I squint hard with one eye through the crack above the hinges, and all the edges harden into focus.
I see a sliver of Dad at our old wooden kitchen table. His head is sunk low, staring strangely at the empty beer bottle cupped in his loose rough hand. His smoky breath comes out in a slow trembling rush through his lips. He's not in his pyjamas. He hasn't been to bed yet.
"You went to their house?" That's Mum. She's standing close to the door so I can't see her.
Dad gives a heavy nod. He drops his cigarette to smoulder in the ash tray. He puts his elbows on the table and rubs around his eyes in sweeping circles, so that his eyebrows stick up like spiky caterpillars.
"Why? Why did you go there now? And then you come home and you're drinking."
Dad mumbles through his rubbing hands. He stops and stares up at her and his eyes look hollow to me. "I think he's dead," he says.
I don't hear nothing from Mum except her shifting in her slippers. After that shifting noise it's too quiet and I don't want to breathe. Who's dead?
"What?" says Mum, choking a bit.
He starts talking fast and quiet and jumbled like a clumsy leopard, so I almost miss it. "I- I think he's dead. I didn't mean to. I just... he was just- I just wanted to get him back... and he just appeared and I-I didn't want him to recognise me. I panicked...."
Dad? It was Dad who killed them?
"Oh, no, no, no, you didn't. No, you didn't, did you? You wouldn't do that."
Dad doesn't answer, just stares into that bottle like he's gone numb.
"Did you hit him?" Mum whispers.
"With the crowbar," Dad says. My Dad?
"But- but it was Pete!"
"I know, " says Dad. My Dad's a murderer?
Pete is Dad's friend. I remember that one time when he helped me build that impossible Pewku Bionicle. Holding up a grey connector block he said, "Think of this: how useless is this when it's by itself? It needs all the other parts if it's gonna be useful. If one little part's not doing its job, the claws won't move, the legs won't work. It's the same with everything in life. I depend on your Dad, he depends on me, and together we get the job done." And he gave me a wink that I wanted to fold up and put right back in his eye.
Dad and Pete used to run a house painting business together until it got liquidated a little while ago. Mum says liquidation isn't being put in a blender like I thought it was. I didn't really get why it happened to Dad. Only Dad started calling Pete a 'big fat hypocrite' and a 'backstabbing traitor' - then Pete stopped coming over for beers and Dad stopped working. I still never see Dad at home anyway.
"Why did you have to do it?" says Mum, her words shaky around the edges. I picture Dad hitting Pete with a bar. He swings it with those powerful forearms resting right there on the table. It connects with Pete's bald head in slow motion like in the movies and he sprawls sideways onto the ground. It's scary. The Dad in my head has a shadowed, indistinct face. It's a different Dad to the focused sliver in the kitchen.
BANG! I start back from the crack. I think Mum's slammed something onto the table in front of Dad. "Tony," she begins, dropping the sounds down like precise pebbles, "you've got to pull yourself together. Do you want to go to jail for this?" Mum pulls away. "I'm going to drive you out to your Mum's place right now, and then you're going bush."
This makes Dad sit up. "I am not-"
But Mum wheels on him. "Don't you dare argue with me," she hisses. "Go get in the car, right now. I'll ring your Mum. Don't pack anything." The phone receiver clicks and the synthetic dial tones bleep."I'm driving," she adds. Dad slowly begins to push his chair back. He looks like the stiff, frail Pop I remember from when I was little, who'd sat me on his lap and polished my leather shoes until a hazy reflection shone back at me.
I've suddenly got this urge to run out and wrap myself around Dad's solid torso like a plastic bag blown against a tree trunk. But I can't remember the last time I was close enough to touch him.
I inch backwards along the wall towards my dark room. Wait - Mum and Dad are running away. What if they don't come back for me? I don't want to be here alone, I'm going with. I don't care if I get in trouble. They might need help.
So I crawl to my room, grab my runners and then pad swiftly with them in my hand to the end of the passage and into the inky garage that's filled with the stinging smells of paint and petrol. The concrete's grimy under my bare feet. I feel for the car door handle and climb into the back seat, easing the door gently before shutting it with a quiet thud. I've just settled down into a ball on top of the old magazines when the garage light comes on and Mum and Dad are here and they're getting into the car without speaking.
I can see Mum from where I am and she's still wearing her yellow dressing gown that makes her look like an angel that's been through the wash too many times. Her hand's shaking and she can't get the key in the ignition. She's venomously saying words I've never heard her say before under her breath - hang on, is Mum crying? before finally the engine jolts awake and Mum drives us violently out and onto the ghostly streets. I brace myself against the door to fight the forces threatening to throw and bruise me. The soft orange street lights flash through the window, and in the dark spaces between them, the stars are sleeping above the cloud.
The pitch of the engine rises and falls as Mum wrenches the gearstick and spins the wheel. I imagine the hundreds of intricate metal parts working to pump pistons and turn axles.
Dad's close on the other side of the seat, close enough to touch.
Where am I? My neck's hunched and sore. Darkness, crunching gravel under wheels. We're on the long dirt road up to Nan's house and there aren't any street lamps out here.
"I haven't told Eva why we're coming."
"Don't," comes Dad's voice, flatly, after a while.
I try to picture where we are. Mum stops the car sooner than I expect and they get out. The chilly air swirls around me. The doors slam. I wait a bit before I untangle my legs and push myself up.
They're all three of them filing inside like it’s someone’s funeral. I sneak out of the car and shut the door carefully. I'm right next to the woodpile along the side of the shed. Ahead is the weatherboard farmhouse with a high wide verandah encircling it. The air smells heavy like it might rain.
Suddenly, Mum is coming out of the front door again. She's leaving already? But Dad's going bush. He might need help. Mum's getting closer from across the yard, her gown flapping. I'm gonna stay with Dad. He might need me. I scurry around the back of the shed, keeping low. I crouch there in the sliding shadows as the car's bright headlights push them back and forth, before the shadows win and seem to chase the bleeding tail lights away.
I'm alone again. I don't like it. On this side of the shed there's no protection from the wind flying across the fields so I feel my way back around the shed, recoiling from the clammy touch of cobwebs. There's a purposeful rustle from the long grass near the water trough. Fear electrifies my body. I sprint to the edge of the light flooding from the lounge room window. I crouch there next to the stairs and wait with blood thumping in my ears.
The minutes pass so slowly that I begin to think Dad's going to sleep on Nan's couch and go bush in the morning. But the lounge light never goes off, and if I listen closely enough I think I can hear faint voices through the thin walls. So I wait. I can wait till morning if I have to. I huddle into the pocket of warmth between my knees and chest.
But eventually the flyscreen door bangs open and Dad's coming down the steps. I hold my breath and he doesn't notice me. He's got Pop's oiled overcoat, and one of those old hiking backpacks with a rifle slung on his shoulder. He stops at the bottom of the stairs to fiddle with the torch, before setting off around to the left where the trail into the bush starts. He's walking, fast, energetically. I wait until he's a good distance across the yard before following that torchbeam, treading quick but careful so I don't trip over.
Dad slows as he enters the trees. The light is chopped up by the trunks and branches. There's sticks and strips of bark and roots all over the track, but I'm ok for a little while. Then the trail begins to wind and climb into the hills, and I panick as Dad starts to get away from me and I catch a tree root and fall and cry out!
I'm on all fours. I look up. The light is searching for me through the trees. He's gonna find me. I try to crawl behind the nearest gum tree but he's already on me and I put up my arm to block the blinding light.
"It's you," I hear, and the light drops to the ground. I realise he was holding the barrel of the rifle with the same hand as the torch, the butt raised to his shoulder. He flicks the safety catch back on.
"My God, you scared me," Dad says, and our shock begins to subside. He hooks the rifle over his arm. "What - what the hell are you doing here?" He grips my upper arm and lifts me to my feet but doesn't let go. He shakes me hard. "You idiot, what the hell are you doing here?! You hid in the car? You idiot! Do you know what you're doing?"
I just blink at his shadowed face. "I j-just want to help you...."
"You're going back to Nan's," he says. He slides off his pack and rummages in it, pulling out another torch. "Take this, and go back."
"I'm staying with you," I say.
"No. I can't afford to look after you. You'll drag me down. It's too dangerous out here! You don't understand, you've never been out in the bush. I don't have time for this, just go back!" He thrusts the torch at me and pushes me towards Nan's. "Bloody hell, as if I don't have enough to deal with." He continues up the path without looking back.
My throat swells with disappointment but I swallow and turn on the torch and follow him at a distance. The path is rising up more steeply. A rabbit dashes across the path ahead. The sky flashes up purple and subdued thunder echoes in the distance.
Dad's voice drifts down. "If you don't bloody well turn around right now Luke, you're going to get caught out here in a storm."
I don't answer.
"AHH! ...Ah FUCK!" Dad's torch light has stopped. I hurry up the path towards him just as the first plump raindrops spatter into the dust. He's sitting on the ground, his torch a couple of metres away. "Put my foot in a fucking rabbit hole." He tries to stand.
I offer my hand. He ignores it, clinging to a sapling to drag himself up. I give him his torch.
"Are you ok, Dad?"
He gingerly takes a step but immediately has to shift his weight off his left foot. "FUCKing hell." The rain begins to fall harder. "Pass me that stick."
I pass it to him and he snaps off the forks to turn it into a walking stick. He sets off once more, and I trail behind. He's not chasing me away now. He limps laboriously upwards as the trail morphs to rough-cut stairs and the thunder booms and growls closer and closer.
"I can carry your pack," I say. The path levels out along the brow of the hill.
"No," says Dad.
But when the steps begin to descend he pauses and considers them. He chucks away the stick and says, "Come here. No, round here."
He leans both hands on my shoulders and we wobble down the stairs like some bizarre three-legged creature. Lit up by my torch the rain falls in beaded curtains so that the trees and the rabbits and the hidden animals can drink.
Me and Dad sit under our little grey tarpaulin up at the very top of the creek's steep bank, surrounded by dripping bushes and young wattles. I've just helped Dad splint his ankle. The dawn light gently fingers the faint mist sitting above the surface of the water and the storm clouds are drift away white across the tree canopies. Without my glasses, the definition that separates the plants and the river are gone, as though the rain's smeared them together like one of Mum's old watercolour paintings.
"Dad," I say hesitantly. "Why did you hit Pete?"
He looks at me sideways with his round brown eyes and begins to rub his worn face. "It's complicated, Luke. I don't want to talk about it."
"But... but he must have done something."
Dad pauses. "You know me and Pete always used to get along. I've always depended on him to manage the business. He used to tell me what we had to do and that worked fine." He scratches his neck. "But then the economy hit a rough patch and Pete pretended it was all ok. But he was actually doing other dodgy stuff with my money that he didn't tell me about. That's why we had to close."
The sun's beginning to probe the bushes around us.
"I dunno," says Dad, looking like he hasn't slept for centuries. "I just reckon I wanted to take things into my own hands for once. I can't explain it. It's like there was all this frustration blocked up inside and I just wanted to... to wreck something with my own hands."
"I know what you mean," I say, thinking of the broken Bionicles scattered on my carpet.
"Look," says Dad, pointing. Ripples spread from where a kookaburra has just attempted to scoop up a fish. "Your Pop taught me heaps about the bush," Dad says, half-smiling as he remembers. "It's all interconnected. The kookaburra eats the fish, the fish eats the algae. The algae needs light and water and nutrients. And when the kookaburra dies it becomes food for other critters and fertiliser for the plants. Everything depends on everything else. If you take one part away, the whole machine stops working."
"I know," I say.
He's close enough to touch. I lean my head gently against his shoulder and his strong powerful arm reaches around to pull me into his side. He's trembling a bit. I look up and see he's got the sun on his face and water filling up his eyes. We watch the kookaburra dive again and I know those tears have smudged the shapes and colours in his world too.