The first thing Brian did after dragging himself out of bed was turn his phone to silent. He expected his brother to call at least five times before noon. It would be the same conversation each time. So instead of indulging his family, Brian indulged himself with a thick dose of syrup on his morning pancakes.
The phone hummed. Brian ignored it.
The first Saturday of every month was reserved for the family gathering. This would be Brian’s first absence since moving two hours’ drive away, racing off over the speed limit to escape the roar of protest from his mother. He thought about that again as he briefly opened the blinds in his room, then shut them again to cut back the glare on his computer monitor. He heard his housemate Peter making breakfast, and silently shut his cracked-open door. They had nothing new to talk about. He was sick of having the same conversations with the same people.
The phone hummed a second time. Brian rejected the call quickly in case Peter could hear the buzz of the phone vibrating on the desk – it was still early enough for Brian to be able to pretend he was still asleep. Not that it mattered, as Peter shortly left the house and Brian watched him leave through the blinds, thankful that he had the small poorly-lit house to himself.
He spent the morning navigating useless information on Wikipedia before venturing out of his room to switch on the TV and clean the kitchen. It took twice as long as usual to clean, while his neck stiffened from stretching over to keep a good view of the TV screen. He knew he had clothes to wash, but decided it didn’t have to happen right away – it was only the start of the weekend, after all.
Brian heard the phone hum a third time. He stared at it, jumping around on his bedside table, and he felt heavy in his gut from the thought of answering. He stormed into his room and picked up the phone. ‘Eric.’
‘Hey,’ said Eric in his usual high-pitched voice, ‘I was thinking you didn’t have reception all the way down there. I’ll put Mum on –’
‘No,’ said Brian sharply. ‘You keep calling. Is something wrong?’
A pause on the other end of the line. ‘No. No, we’re all cool. Uncle Phil’s already stolen one of the desserts, that’s the big crisis so far. You sure you don’t want me to put Mum on?’
‘Just as long as everything’s okay,’ said Brian before hanging up. He held the phone at arm’s length until it buzzed again, and he threw it onto the bed as if the incoming call made it red-hot. He picked it up again and turned it off.
He didn’t leave the house all day. He barely left the couch, in fact, and he forgot to put his clothes through the wash. They could be done another day. He was on his own time in his own life. Peter came home at about dusk, and leaned on the top of the couch watching the TV from above Brian’s head. ‘I thought you were only up to season two. This is nearly the end of season three.’
Brian shook his head. ‘Dunno. Maybe I skipped forward.’
‘Maybe,’ Peter replied airily. ‘Your turn for dinner tonight. What’re we having?’
‘We don’t have anything in the fridge. Maybe I’ll just order pizza.’
‘You didn’t have time to do a shop?’
‘Could have at least gotten a chook.’
Brian didn’t reply.
‘Okay, no chook then,’ said Peter in a low tone, ‘but you’re shouting for the pizza pies and I’m getting plenty of chook on mine. Oh,’ he continued, stumbling as he came back into the living room, ‘how’re your folks? Did the fires get near them?’
Brian barely looked up. ‘What fires?’
Peter stared at him. ‘The fires. You been off the wire all day?’
Grabbing the warm remote from under his leg, Brian turned off the DVD and switched over to free-to-air. ‘I’ll get an aussie, large with spice,’ he said blankly as a news alert ran on the screen about bushfires sweeping the state. They’d been blazing for hours, and several towns had been evacuated.
‘That’s near your homestead, right?’ asked Peter.
‘Good thing it didn’t get down here. God forbid you’d have to leave the house.’
Brian ignored his housemate, retrieving his phone from his bedroom and switching it on, waiting for far too long for the damn thing to boot up. One more attempted call from Eric, barely an hour after Brian had switched the phone off. Then nothing. Brian rang, and the call went straight to voicemail. He left no message. He stood there with the phone in his hand, feeling wholly useless and wondering why he was stressing so much about a situation he couldn’t control. In the other room, Peter exchanged pleasantries with a phone operator who clearly knew Peter by voice and pizza preference.
The phone buzzed in Brian’s hand. He answered the call immediately. ‘Eric?’
‘One and only. Finally heard about the fires, huh?’
‘Sounds like they’re right on the doorstep,’ Brian said quietly.
‘Close enough. We decided to evacuate while we still could.’
‘So where are you guys then?’
‘Crowded in a couple of motel rooms a few towns over. We must have beaten the rush because there’s traffic everywhere now. If worse comes to worse Mum says we should invite some of them in but there’s barely room for us as it is, so I don’t know.’
‘Can you put me onto Mum?’ asked Brian. He felt heavy again. The weight of having to deal with something outside his own realm of existence. The weight of responsibilities he thought he could say ‘not my problem’ to once he left the family nest and forged his life, and separated himself entirely from their lives.
‘Why?’ was Eric’s response. ‘It’s not like you wanted to talk to us before. Why now? Because there was a fire that you didn’t even know about? I’ll tell her that you’re sorry you were too lazy to make the trip.’
‘At least tell me where you –’ said Brian before he heard the phone hang up.
Peter stuck his head into the room, either to reinforce the admonition or offer some insincere support, Brian didn’t care which. Brian knew he would go after them. He even had an idea on how to find them, after five minutes of tearing his hair out trying to predict which town they settled in away from the fire fronts. Honestly, he didn’t need to go find them. He knew they were safe, and having fun among themselves. But he needed to make the gesture. He needed to play nice, and inquire after them, to soothe them on the supposition that he was concerned for them. Eric wouldn’t answer again, so he left just as the pizzas were showing up. Peter chased him at first, demanding he pay as promised, but Brian drove off revving the car enough to drown out the curses.
It took two hours to reach the motel, and if there was congestion from refugees of fire-struck communities it had mostly moved on, seeking emptier motels or other towns altogether. The motel’s carpark was still full, and some families were gathered in their cars with the lights on, reading or listening to the radio. Brian ignored them, asking after his family at reception and knocking at one of the two rooms they occupied. As chance would have it, Eric answered the door. The surprised look became sullen. ‘How’d you find us?’
Brian shrugged, and the rest of the room erupted in a hurrah at the prodigal son’s return. Brian pointed out Uncle Phil at the far end of the room, half into the fruit and nut chocolate from the motel room’s bar fridge. ‘You know Uncle Phil has to check in on Facebook wherever he goes,’ Brian explained to Eric, ‘all I had to do was check his page.’
Eric snorted. ‘Mum hates that he does that.’
‘Well, it brought me here, you can imagine why.’
One of the grand-uncles – he only joined the gatherings occasionally and Brian could never remember his name – approached first and clapped Brian on the back. ‘I thought you’d opted out, you ratbag!’
Brian had wanted to opt out. It was the driving force that had taken him away – families were too pressuring, too complicated and too heavy with accumulated mass. And even while he thought about how easy it had been to race back, even as he felt the weight all over again, he nodded and accepted the hug from his mother, knowing that in the same breath he would be scolded for taking so long to show up.