‘In a corner booth of one of the few pubs down the main street Corroboree–its name is not important, for all the pubs in rural New South Wales are much the same. Tradies coming in for a quick hot meal and a cold drink; punters walking in straight from the TAB to watch the footie or the cricket, a portion of their paypacket riding on their predicted outcome; locals having a day out wanting to get out of the hot sun and rest their legs for a spell. The lunch specials are typically menus revolving around burgers, fish, and cheap steak with chips and a salad on the side. The taps and mini fridges are stocked with a variety of small-time brews, but mainly the big names that can be found anywhere like VB, Carlton, and Tooheys.
‘What is important, however, is the man sitting alone with a pint of beer half-gone at his fingertips. Three have preceded it. His eyes wander from the patrons of the joint to the television screens displaying various sport. Sour thoughts fermenting in his mind occasionally dribble out of his mouth. Every so often, usually after the clattering of plates and glasses or the raised laughter of the indigenous men at a table across the room, one hand comes up to the bridge of his nose and kneads it gently. He grimaces like he has a thumper of a headache and curses under his breath.
‘This man’s name is Mark Childers; forty-two years old; not fit as he once was in his teens and early twenties playing rugby; no longer a standout or centre of attention to his peers. He is a whinger by trade and a drunkard by hobby. The joys he received from being idolised in his community now come from putting down others that he believes are somehow below his current station in life.
‘Put down for reasons quite beyond their control.
‘And tonight, Mr Childers will realise that turnabout is fair play.’
‘What the hell was that, Yuki?’
‘Do I need to grab you a three piece suit?’
‘Maybe a cigarette to go along with it?’
‘…Just be quiet and watch.’
Some Things Never Change
Hour number two in the pub and Mark Childers had just finished off his fourth pint. The headache that started shortly after taking a seat and only got worse when he got to his feet. He resolved to wait it out and enjoy his cold beer in the warm night. For the most part, everything was all right, with the exception of the goddamned abos on the far side of the room. The area was spacious and somehow the lot of them managed to overtake the sound of all the TVs and everyone else in the pub. That annoying laughter. He shouldn’t have been able to clearly hear the conversation about their team’s practise session earlier in the afternoon–but he had all the details from last weekend’s loss to ‘that dodgy white girl’ trying to stir up shit after the game.
Mark had a look at his watch. Time to leave. It was getting dark outside.
And a little too dark inside, he thought with a wry grin. A joke for only himself.
With a grunt, he stood to leave his booth and bumped into another patron finding their way by. Mark’s shoe slipped and he came down hard on right ass cheek. A jolt of pain shot down his leg and up his back.
‘Ah! Fuckin’ hell!’ he hissed.
‘Oh shit, sorry bro!’ said the passerby. A large hand latched on to his upper arm, trying in vain to catch him.
‘Yeah, yeah. S’alright,’ Mark started and looked up at the other man–it was one of the bigger guys from the loud table. ‘Fuckin’ course it is,’ he muttered.
‘I said a’fuckin’ course it is!’ Mark spat. He pulled his arm free from the stranger’s grip and pushed himself up to his feet, brushing past. ‘Been in my ear for half a fuckin’ hour now from all the way over there, why wouldn’t you just bounce offa me over here!’
The conversations from around the pub quieted down, some came to a halt altogether as several pairs of eyes focused on the little booth in the corner. The abo held his hands up, but didn’t back away. His body and voice were firm from where he stood. ‘Chill. Shit happens.’
Simple as that. He turned to head off to the toilets around the bend behind the booth. The bloody abo was just gonna get away with that. Not a chance.
Mark staggered back and stretched out his arms wide. ‘Sure bro, just walk on by. Go on as you please. You people do anyway.’
‘Yeah. You fuckin’ people wanderin’ around, doin’ whatever you want. Loud, drunk, intimidatin’ people. I seen you fuckers yellin’ at people minding their own business. Breaking into houses and cars.’
All the conversation had stopped around them, Mark noticed. They stood there in silence for those brief couple of seconds before the big man moved back into the room to confront him.
‘I think you better get outta here quick, before you regret it.’
Before Mark could offer a retort, one of the bartenders spoke up.
‘You ought to leave now, sir. No one’s been any trouble here today but you.’
‘The hell’re you talkin’ about?’
‘You’ve been there for the past couple hours cursing and saying all kinds of stuff about all kinds of people. Quietly. But loud enough that customers have noticed. So I think it’s time, sir, that you leave.’
Mark stared down the younger, slimmer man. He looked around the whole of the pub, at the customers and waitstaff, his eye catching on the those whose skin were a few shades darker than the rest. ‘Of course,’ he replied to the bartender, ‘gotta make sure to make money from the rest of them too.’ Mark limped toward the exit, his leg still smarting like a bitch. ‘‘Cept I don’t know which is worse, you abos, dune-coons, or slopes–’
The pub was a racket with commotion again. People were shouting at him, obscenities mainly, telling him to get out. All the big guys from the loud table were up and making a beeline for him.
Mark took the hint and stepped outside without looking back. All the things he wanted to say, he screamed loud in his own head. His fingers fumbled for his car keys and found them as he reached his Commodore. A few seconds later, fuming still, he tore off down the street.
Five kilometres down the road and Mark Childers was out in the bush with a fading sunset partially obscured by the scrubland in front of him. He was hovering around 120kph and his rattled and angry brain refused to let him go any slower
A light caught his attention in the rearview mirror. A cop car pulled out from one of the sideroads behind him; it was kicking up dust as it swerved in his direction. The red and blue lights flashing and getting closer.
Mark swore and smacked the steering wheel and pulled off to the side of the road. He put the car into park and sat still, fuming and staring into the mirror, waiting for the cops to get out and question him. The first officer came out on his side and approached. The second came out on the passenger side, but kept a fair distance.
The cop to his immediate right rapped lightly on the window with his knuckle. Mark rolled it down.
‘Goin’ a bit fast down there.’
‘Got a license?’
‘Yup.’ Mark lifted himself from his seat and went for his wallet.
The cop to his right jerked with a start. ‘Woah, woah, woah!’ Slowly, fella.’
Mark gave the cop a look and pulled the black leather wallet from his back pocket and produced the license and passed it over the top of the glass. The cop looked it over. Mark glanced at the passenger side mirror: the other cop had jumped too and remained in an alerted stance with his hand on his pistol, still in the holster.
What the hell?
‘This real, fella?’ The cop said, waving the plastic card in front of him.
‘Yeah, ‘course it is. Go ahead and check it.’
‘And the car–yours too?’
Mark sighed. ‘Last time I checked.’
‘Don’t fucking sass me, boy,’ the cop said sternly. ‘Is this your car?’
‘Yes. Yes, it’s my car.’
The cop considered this, looked back down at the ID and back at him. ‘You were coming outta town awfully fast; anything we need to know about?’ The cop craned his head and checked the rear passenger seats.
‘Betcha he stole this too. No way he could afford this,’ said the cop from the passenger side.
Mark’s head snapped to the left. ‘The fuck you mean I can’t afford–’
‘Calm down and–’
‘I’m a motherfucking manager at the Coulston warehouse down on East Keilor. Call them and see!’
‘Cheeky bugger. A goddamn manager he says,’ the passenger side cop heaved a laugh and smacked the roof of the Commodore.
‘Pop the boot,’ the driver’s side cop ordered. ‘You mob always got something to hide.’
The nearest cop dropped his arm down to his side and pulled the gun from the holster. ‘Outta the car.’
Mark didn’t budge.
‘Outta the fucking car, goddammit!’ The cop wrenched the door open, grabbed Mark by the collar and tore him from his seat. ‘You lot never fucking learn.’
The cop pulled him to his feet and slammed his body on the side of the car, so hard it knocked the wind out of him. ‘That’s what happens when you pieces of shit don’t comply.
As he struggled for breath the cop tried to drag him to their cruiser. The other cop approached. Mark snapped his head back and caught the pig straight in the nose. The hands released him and Mark tackled the second cop to the ground, it staggered him long enough to make a break for it out in the scrub.
The light was fading quickly and Mark ran full speed into the brush. He held his hands in front of his face, though it really did him no good. Branches and twigs scraped and prodded at his skin and bloodied up his face and his arms. He ran and ran until he thought his legs would blow out–he wasn’t even sure his lungs could cope. His flesh burned as his sweat washed over his open wounds. His throat was on fire with ever gasp that managed to escape.
How much time had passed? He hadn’t a clue. Twilight settled over him and every step Mark took, he half expected to drop off some ledge or cliff. But that never happened. Just endless trees and shrubs. Until, there, in the distance, a building. A house, maybe? Whatever it was it was worth checking out.
It was a shack. Splintering boards and rusting tin roof. Didn’t look to have an occupant. Nevertheless, Mark slammed his palm on the door. His voice too hoarse to call out properly. He reached for a handle, found it, and thrust himself into the home. Shutting the door behind him, he collapsed against it and fell to the floor. His eyelids were heavy and soon the world went dark.
The ground rocked underneath him. The floorboards that were dry and dusty as second ago were now damp and slick with…salt water? Mark pushed himself up from the ground.
What the hell?
People were huddled around him in little groups, shivering and crying. They talked amongst themselves, whispering in languages he didn’t understand. The were some adults he presumed to be parents kept children close by and wrapped in dingy blankets that were half-soaked. Some people were laying down, curled up…either sleeping or dead, Mark hadn’t a clue. Frankly, he was surprised they could, considering how tightly everyone was packed inside. A look out the window behind him confirmed he was no longer out in the bush, but out at sea.
How long had he been out? And how the fuck did he get out here? Was it the cops or–
One of the Asian women worked her way through the crowd, speaking to him.
He stopped her and shook his head. ‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’
She held up a small bag and cup.
Mark carefully took the cup and took a sip–water. He dipped his hand into the bag and pulled out two biscuits. The lady nodded and encouraged him. He shoved the stale cookies and washed them down with a bit of the water, not realising how hungry he actually was. A couple more sips from the water and he tried handing it back over. The woman held up her hand, shook her head, and smiled.
Over the next few hours, Mark alternated from standing to sitting, nursing his cup of water. He was on a people smuggling ship and who knew when he would have another fresh cup. It was fucking miserable. At times there was lots of activity and talking and then for awhile it would quiet down. But somewhere in the background there was always–always–some crying going on. Of course they were leaving their shithole of a country–wherever that was. They were gonna leech off the system for the rest of their lives and coast through the next several years while he and the rest of the taxpayers foot the fucking bill. He worked himself up in his silence and kept to himself as much as possible.
Once he finished his water, the hours and hours of cramped and rocky depression got the better of Mark and he slumped in a corner and fell into a light, uneasy sleep.
He woke with a start. There was no sound coming from within the boat, but someone was speaking…and he could understand it. English! Someone out there was speaking his language! The voice was being broadcast by a megaphone. It had to be the Australian Border Force, which meant they had to be close to the shores. Right?
Mark got to his feet and found his way to the deck with all the others. There was a growing commotion outside and the person with the megaphone was clearly yelling at others around him with a hot mike. The Asians were trying to board the Australian vessel, only to be shoved back by the sailors. Those not trying to board directly held their children up in hope that at least one of them would be taken to safety. But they, too, were swatted down like flies.
‘Oi! Hey! I’m Australian!’ Mark shouted, pushing his way through the crowd. ‘Please take me back! I don’t know how I got here. Help me, please!’ Mark latched on to one of the sailors and tried to hop aboard the Australian vessel only to be pushed back into the boat people.
‘The fuck offa me ya fucking gook!’
All of Mark’s weight fell onto the group behind him. While they were able to support him, the slick deck made for disaster and they toppled over. The back of Mark’s head cracked against the ground and everything went fuzzy. He hadn’t a clue what happened next, but the rest of the Asians cried out, the sounds of dozens of feet clunking on the soaked deck. Were they making a break for the other boat?
Blam! Blam! Blam!
Terrified screams rang out. Children sobbed. Then all went quiet.
What the fuck just happened?
Mark tried to lift himself, but the dead weight of bodies pinned him to the ground. Were they dead? Or was it from the fall?
‘Help! Someone help me! I’m stuck! I can’t move!’
He was having a difficult time breathing and the world faded to darkness.
When Mark came to again, there were people surrounding him and still speaking a language he didn’t understand. It was different though. And they sounded panicky.
They weren’t rocking anymore and no one was speaking English. Had he been out long? Did they get sent back?
Mark shook the cobwebs loose and felt the weight lift from his legs and abdomen. People had him by the arms and pulled him free. His arms were placed over shoulders and he was carried away quickly.
Darkness was replaced with blinding while light and the world came back to him. They were no longer out at sea; they were standing in the middle of a crowded street. He looked over his shoulder. The building he’d just been removed from was in shambles: the roof was caved in and the upper half was blackened and on fire.
Mark tapped the guys on their respective shoulders and made out that he could stand on his own. He was dry as a bone and covered with dust and ash. Crowds of people were running off in a single direction. He followed along, not sure what the hell was happening this time around.
His answer came seconds later when a light whistling sound started up and got louder and louder. He didn’t see the mortar strike, but he saw the buildings that splintered and crumbled.
More screaming. More explosions.
Above it all, though, Mark heard the hysterical cries coming from one person. He swiveled his head around until he found the source: one woman doubled over in front of one of the buildings set alight. The words meant nothing to him, but he knew someone was inside, knew that she was calling out for them or for some help.
No one stopped to help. Everyone kept running. The woman tried to run back inside, but some man rushed up to her from behind and wrapped his arms around her waist and held her back. She yelled something back, kicking at the air, clearly trying to free herself.
Mark stopped in his tracks and headed toward the woman and the building. He pushed against the crowds and fought his way to the entrance. Standing a few metres back from the doorway, he assessed the damage with a once-over glance–The building didn’t look like it was ready to tumble and the flames were not catastrophic.
He charged across the threshold, arms up and shielding his face and hands hovering close over the top of his head. No one was in any of the cramped ground-level rooms, so he cleared the stairs two at a time to the first floor. A kid, probably fourteen or fifteen sprawled on the ground halfway through one of the rooms. There was a patch of blood above his left ear, black hair matted with a red tinge to it. A small amount of blood streaked across his face, but not a significant quantity. The kid was groaning and his head was moving slightly.
Not dead. Knocked silly by some debris, maybe, but definitely not dead.
‘Hang on! Comin’ to get ya.’
Mark crossed the creaky floor, half-thinking they were going to collapse beneath his weight. They never did, even when he picked up the boy and made for the exit one floor below.
‘It’s okay, kid. I know you probably can’t understand me, but it’s okay. We’re getting you out of here.’
Another explosion rattled everything around him. No biggie. A second and third staggered him at the base of the stairs, but still he managed to keep his balance.
The kid started to freak out and struggle against him.
‘Almost there, almost there. C’mon!’
And they were outside.
The woman, still sobbing and shouting, saw them and stretched out her arms. When the man holding her back noticed, he loosened his grip and she shook free.
‘Here we go,’ Mark said lightly, ‘I think that’s your mum. We’ll get you to her.’
He and the woman closed the gap. Mark extended his arms, offering the boy to her—
—and Mark was down on the ground. Someone–something?–pulled him down to the dirt. Instinctively, he twisted his body to protect the kid. He fell painfully on his shoulder blade and lower back, arms tight around the scrawny body.
The woman shrieked again. So hard he thought her vocal cords would snap. The side of his face and his left side were warm…and it was spreading. He looked down at the kid.
Nothing was staring back at him. The top half of the boy’s head was gone. His body was now shuddering involuntarily like he was having a seizure. Blood poured like someone had upended a pitcher. Whatever was left of the boy was panically trying to breathe, but also choking on the red-black torrent also finding its way through his mouth and nose.
‘JESUS CHRIST! OH FUCK!’
The woman threw herself on the body and scooped the lifeless form into her arms.
Distant cheering and faint scattered applause found their way to Mark’s ears. Distinct English words: ‘Popped that cunt!’
Mark shuffled away from the mess, trying very hard not to vomit
Sniper. The kid had been hit by a sniper. He looked over at the high ground to his right. A large block of taller buildings left unscathed by the shelling.
He crawled away and tried to find the nearest cover, a car parked across the street. That last fall had really fucked his leg and he was barely able to turn over onto his front. His breath was ragged and shallow. The car was so close now. Honestly, he had no idea how much it would keep him hidden, but it was better than staying out in the open.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck fuck–’ Mark gasped and came to a sudden stop. A white-hot claw pinched his lower back, deep below his skin, through the nerves and muscle. Though it faded within seconds, Mark knew something was terribly wrong. He was able to move his arms and torso, but not his legs. A familiar warmth grew along his back and sides.
I’ve been shot! Oh god, oh fuck! They shot me!
Mark resisted the urge to feel around with his hand. He didn’t want to feel the dampness; he didn’t want to see his blood. Too much, the day had been far too much for him. All he wanted to do was lay down and rest a little. His breathing slowed. He let his cheek rest on the ground. Tired, so tired. Just a little nap and he’d be fine. There was pressue on his back now. He could barely take in air now or expell it. Now it was difficult to talk; his throat was closing up. The pressure was rising, right behind his skull now.
Mark Childers was back in the scrub. At least, he was looking at it. He was face down on cold tarmac. The warm sensation still spreading around his spine. The two cops were talking to each other, what about, he did not know.
‘Can’t breathe,’ he wheezed.
‘The fuck you say?’ the driver’s side cop said through gritted teeth, putting more pressure on him.
‘You’re talking; you can breathe just fine. Now shut the fuck up.’
‘In the last few moments of Mr Childers life on this planet, he contemplated the choices he had made through the years that ultimately led to this moment. He thought about the paths that he’d crossed and the people that he affected with his actions and words. He realised, far too late, he had the luxury of those choices–good or bad–while far too many people in this world had none.
‘And as the last breath left–’
‘Will we be back for a preview of next week’s story, Mr Serling?’
‘That monologue you did just now. You okay?’
‘I’m fine. I mean…I may have been going through some of my old VHS tapes in storage and found some classic Twilight Zone episodes.’
‘Yeah; got that. Didn’t at all bleed through tonight’s viewing.’