Beyone the Line
  Seven Stories by Jane Turner Goldsmith
  1  North of Goyder’s
2  RU OK?
3  Silk Reams
4  Boy, Falling
5  Graduating
6  Dear John
7  The Skies Will Be Clear
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  September 2016 Fiction Issue
 
 

Boy, Falling

She saw the boy fall at the bus-stop shelter as she drove past, possibly hitting his head on the seat; it was hard to see in the rain and the dark.

There were plenty of reasons for driving on. Choir practice that had run late so she hadn’t eaten; Luke’s homework that would need checking; a meeting tomorrow still to prepare. And it was desolate here on the outskirts of the city on a rainy Tuesday night. It had to be some homeless tramp or a drunken delinquent. They were all out doing it now, all the young ones — out at those terrible nightclubs drinking spirits and assaulting people, she’d heard all the horror stories. Vomiting in gutters and spilling into taxis, not even coherent enough to give an address home. Where were their homes, where were their parents? Who was responsible for this epidemic?

Something about the shape of the boy falling made her think of Luke. God she hoped her boy didn’t turn out like that. Thirteen and still relatively controllable, with his hair still its natural brown colour and above the collar, his jeans hole-less, his T-shirts a tame grey or positively cheerful navy. No evil black overcoats, no piercings, no bruised eyeshadowing, no (heaven forbid) eyeliner. An indeterminate shape; why had she thought it was a boy? The size perhaps. The hoodie, skate shoes. No grey shabby overcoat — no tartan bag, no brown bottle — that was it. Nothing in his hands, just a boy, falling, and maybe hitting his head. What if it was just a kid — a kid like Luke — what if it were her kid — who’d been at a party, had his drink spiked, got separated from his mates? Or, trying to get home, attacked by a gang?

Perhaps she should turn back.

She glanced at the time on the dashboard. 9.45 p.m. What was a young kid doing out in the rain, on a week night, having to catch a bus home? Where were his parents (did he have parents) what had he been doing? Drinking — on a week night, or taking drugs? Maybe he’d injected himself — maybe he’d passed out, maybe… she should turn back.

9.45. At home Graham would have a fire on, her dinner would be keeping warm in the oven. Luke might be squishing up next to his father on the sofa to watch Foreign Correspondent. Not that Luke was much interested in foreign affairs; the North Korean spoofs he laughed at on youtube didn’t count. But he sometimes shuffled in like that, homework done, and the couch was a comfortable substitute for talking. Or physical affection, which had slipped away with childhood — no more maternal hugs and tucking him into bed. Only when he forgot himself, by moments; only when his little sister wasn’t around. His voice was breaking now, too, in that awkward stage between falsetto and rich bass. At least it explained the sudden muteness. Darling boy — no longer a boy of course, but her boy.

She should turn back. What if he was thirteen, raised in a haze of booze and drugs, broken furniture and rental transience, been abused, kicked out of home? She couldn’t quite summon the details. Surely there were services? Why hadn’t this been prevented already?

The rain was driving down in thick cords — big lakes forming over the gutters. The lines on the road had disappeared; here and there disorienting orange splotches loomed. She accelerated to pull into the right lane, not seeing the car behind, her vision obscured by the ocean of water sloshing about on the back windscreen. Further up there was a spot where she could turn around.

The car behind beeped. Maybe she should just call the police and give the location; the boy might have recovered and caught a bus home by now. Peering through her blurred windscreen she located the stop and slowed past it.

There he was — a shapeless slump on the ground just inside the shelter. She braked and wrenched the handbrake, ignoring the double yellow lines, flinging the door open into the oncoming traffic. Quick, the hazard lights. She clutched her phone in her jacket pocket.

The slump was lying face down on the concrete. There were the skate shoes she’d somehow recognised, the hoodie just like Luke’s. Should she touch him? What if he had spinal injuries, what if…?

In the moment before she moved to him, everything slowed. There was a stale smell; not discernibly alcohol or vomit. The rain battered on the shelter roof; it offered no protection. The water had swollen over the gutters, almost lapping at a dangled skate shoe. The horror of what she might uncover froze her to inaction for a second. Then her phone rang. She could hardly move to take it from her pocket. It would only be Graham trying to find out why she was late.

The boy, first, then answer the call.

He was all buckled and sprawled; she breathed in and knelt beside him, grasping his thin shoulder and rolling him as gently as she could onto his side, trying to remember her first aid. The water had washed away any blood there may have been from the gash on his head. Clipped by the seat — or a fight? His face was pale, faintly freckled and obscured by his stringy wet hair. She felt for a pulse — faint, but there — just, and listened for shallow breathing. Thank God. Other small details: pocky skin, dirty track pants, too baggy. Burn marks, scarring. A feral kid — but something un-nameably sweet about him, or his vulnerability. Something tender and insubstantial.

The phone rang again in her pocket, but the boy started coughing and she let the call go. She remembered something about clearing the mouth. The rain pelted down, tides of water drenching her shoes.

Ambulance. Call an ambulance.

When she pulled out her phone, the battery light was flashing at her and an aggressive screen told her she needed to re-charge. Two missed calls and a text that had begun scrolling across: urgent call home Luke has

The phone would be dead in 30 seconds if she didn’t call 000 right now.

You have dialled emergency triple zero. Your call is being connected.”

Ambulance, Police, Fire?” came a human voice, finally.

“Quick — quick,” she interrupted. “Ambulance — out of battery…” Just as she gasped the last phrase the phone beeped at her and the screen went blank.

She almost threw it to the ground. What now? The car charger was in a pile of stuff beside the front door at home. Luke had cleared everything out on Mother’s day when he’d washed her car. She nearly choked, recalling.

The boy groaned next to her and his eyelids flickered.

Urgent… Luke has… She had to get home. She would just have to flag down a car, or something, for this boy.

A car slushed past as if in flood waters. But it was as if she were a madwoman, or some homeless tramp, or some drunken delinquent. She was wearing all the wrong, dark-coloured clothes. Another five minutes and someone might stop, but she couldn’t wait five minutes. She had to get home.

In the next second she ran to her car and jerked it into drive. Accelerating off she hardly dared look in her rear vision mirror; he might move, or convulse, or vomit. She drove like a maniac all the way home.

The porch lights were on when she arrived but Graham’s car was gone. She hesitated before turning the key in the lock. A burglary perhaps? No — Luke has… The dogs whined at her and jumped up, clawing her and barking in a way that told her something was awry. There’d be a note on the kitchen bench, surely.

There it was: “Hospital — Luke collapsed” scrawled on a scrap of paper. God! Which hospital — no time to tell her, obviously, or they hadn’t known when they left.

It would take at least two minutes to charge her mobile. She punched in Graham’s number on the landline.

“Graham, what’s…” she shrieked, to the stupid recorded message. “Where are you?”

 Luke collapsed — was he in intensive care? No phones allowed? Which bloody hospital?

The charger was in the bedroom. Fumbling, she connected the cord.

After a long minute the phone beeped, signalling revival. The text message — there it was: urgent ring home Luke collapsed waiting for ambulance. A desperate voicemail: Penny, where are you? He’s not good, we’ll be following the ambulance, just call me.

She could call the Royal Eastside, but she could also waste valuable time when she could be driving to the most likely hospital. Right now.

In the next second she had fended off the dogs and was back in her car, back into the deluge. Then stopped again. Back inside, remembering the car charger.

To get to the Royal Eastside, speeding now, she would have to drive the way she had just come. Her stomach churning, she half contemplated taking a different route.

No.

She turned down Sturt Street, decelerating abruptly as she drove past, to glimpse the shelter on the other side of the road, oblivious to the car blaring its horn behind. The driver swept past, almost clipping her rear fender.

The shelter was deserted.

No boy, no body.

Her phone rang feebly. Without indicating, she swerved into the left lane and pulled up.

“Penny — darling, where ARE you?”

“Graham — is he okay? What’s happened? Where are you?”

“Royal Eastside — he’s okay now — but he collapsed. We thought a seizure — but looks more like an anaphylactic reaction, a redback or a nasty bull-ant. He’d been in the woodshed, getting firewood. They are running some tests. Where ARE you?”

“I’m… coming. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

 

She crosses lanes and does a U-turn. She parks by the shelter on the double yellow lines.

The phone rings again. What now?

“Hello, Police Communications. We received an emergency call from this phone at 9.53 pm tonight.”

“Oh… oh…” her heart flips. “Yes — that was…”

“Am I speaking with the owner of the phone, who made the call, was that you, Madam?”

“Umm… yes, I…”

“Can I have your name and address please?”

“Yes, um, it’s Pen — um — look, I’m sorry I had to go, I had…”

“Your full name and address, please.”

She straightens. “Penny Cullen. I — I…”

“Penny, an ambulance was dispatched, as a result of the call.”

“Oh,” she breathes. “I’m glad… is he all right?”

“I can’t answer that question, Madam. We are needing a statement, as a casualty was found at the location from where the emergency call was made.”

“A casualty?”

“Are you able to come into the station, Penny? Or we can send some officers to your house.”

“I — I have to go to the hospital, now, you see, there was an emergency at home and…”

“I think you had better come in.”

Penny presses the stop button, cutting him off, and leaves the phone dangling on the car charger.

She gets out — surveys the deserted space. Inspects the ground. Could there be a strand of hair, an earring, a rubber wrist band — anything that might piece together the story of a life? A story to tell her who he was.

But the water has washed away the outline of his body, where he lay. As if he had never been there.

She sits on the shelter bench and leans back. It is quiet; the cars seem to have stopped for the night. Even the rain eases.

She sits a little longer; waiting, absurdly, for the cops to come and arrest her. Or, ridiculously, for someone else to appear, someone who might have reasons, or explanations. Waiting for the stars to distinguish from the soupy sky; to see if, in their pattern, some kind of understanding might emerge. Some way of apologising — for all the blurry universe.

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  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2016

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