“I heard a ghost last night,” Lee said at breakfast, taking a piece of wholemeal toast, which his mum had just buttered with vegan margarine.
“What did it say?” their mother asked, while he smeared jam on top. It was just the regular stuff. His mum couldn’t afford the organic stuff. She promised to get it again when she returned to full-time work. Lee hoped the day wouldn’t come. He loved the jam – but he never told her.
“I couldn’t make him out. It was just kind of whispering. Maybe, it was calling someone’s name. That’s the kind of thing ghosts do, isn’t it?” Lee said.
Lee knew that ghosts didn’t exist. That knowledge was lodged along with other things he knew – that taking his brother’s things or eating meat was wrong. For today, he wanted to place it with uncertainties, the things he doubted but never mentioned – the evils of TV or being able to talk to animals. For today, now that they have their mother home, he wanted to believe. Kim was building his cardboard pyramids. Lee would have a ghost.
“Yeah, that sounds like something a ghost would do, Grub. But how do you know it’s a he?” their mother said.
“Ghosts?” Kim said, sounding like a teacher to a classroom of students. “There can’t be a ghost here. We have to live near a nexus point…” He came to stand beside their mother.
“I can believe in a ghost if I want,” Lee answered.
“It’s only a bit of harmless fun,” their mother said. “What else did the ghost do?”
“I don’t think you should be encouraging this,” Kim said biting a piece of toast and letting it drop to his plate. “Yuck, it’s cold.”
“You should’ve come earlier,” she said.
“I love cold toast,” Lee said and picked a squelchy lurid strawberry from the toast. That was the problem with the natural stuff. Real fruit didn’t look so alien.
Kim studied the cold toast as though the warmth may be hiding somewhere deep within then dropped it for a second time, not having found it.
“Tell me more about the ghost, Grub,” she said.
Lee was about to start when the phone rang. Their mother got up, not nearly annoyed enough as Lee thought she should be. Kim went into the kitchen to make some more toast. Lee waited for their mother to tell him they shouldn’t waste food. That was another one of those deeply lodged principles. They wasted nothing in this house. But she hadn’t noticed. She was to focussed on the phone.
“I think you’re being a little paranoid,” their mother said. “Okay, that does sound strange but, no, I haven’t noticed anything. Maybe it’s like he said. He was just using the computer for uni work…No I can’t be sure.” She stopped for a moment and smiled at Lee. “Yes, I can come in…No, of course this doesn’t change anything… You’re kidding, aren’t you? When has that made a difference?… Listen, just listen…I respect where you’re coming from…yes, it is a valid concern…Look, would you just listen?”
Her voice rose so much as to sweep all other sounds in the house away. Strangley enough, even itself. No one said anything for a moment. When their mother spoke again, she kept to a whisper, muttering yes and always trying to lever some point in that the other person was not making room for. In the end, she put the phone down harder than Lee had heard or could ever imagine her doing.
“Possum! Grub!” she called and the two brothers went over to see her. Lee knew what she was about to say. He’d much rather that she just went and pretended that nothing had been promised.
“I’ve got to go in. We’re having a meeting.”
“You’re always having meetings,” Kim said.
“This one’s important.”
“They’re all important.”
She was not going to argue. She shook her head as though coming out rain and started looking around asking where her bag was. The two boys just stood there, watching her.
“I need sticky tape. I need you to take me to the shop to get sticky tape so I can finish my pyramids,” Kim said.
“I’ll get it Monday.”
Monday was not soon enough for Kim, but she was not going to argue. She found her bag half-buried between the cushions of their couch. Yanking it free, she slung it on her shoulder kissed them both and said she’d try to be home as soon as possible.
“Right,” Kim said and marched to his room.
Lee decided he would keep the ghost.
This was so typical of her. The pyramids were almost complete, each identical to the plans in his Junior World of Unexplained Mysteries. All they needed now was to be stuck together and then he could test their power to preserve, so of course she had to stop him. That was all she could do. Stop things.
Kim looked at the book cover. They should’ve used the word ‘phenomena’. ‘Phenomena’ was much more grown up, much more suitable for what Kim was investigating – or at least trying to. Mysteries were – well – like Lee’s ghosts. Stories, that was all. Only if someone went about it the right way would they find a ghost. Lee just had no idea.
He even stole the idea from Kim’s book. He came in last night because he couldn’t mind his own business even for a few hours. Kim couldn’t understand why his mother couldn’t control Lee more. That was her job after all. She was supposed to be the parent. But she was too busy with her trees and her nuclear reactors and carbon to bother. She couldn’t see the real problems right in their house. And if she wasn’t going to do that why didn’t she get a TV? Then Kim would be left alone.
Kim let the unfinished pyramid drop to back to the table. She’d be gone a while. He could get the tape and be home. And if she went on Monday and bought more tape, which he doubted, it would only serve her right. That extra carbon would be her fault because she didn’t get it yesterday like he asked.
“Grub, I’m going to the shops. It won’t be long. You’ll be okay. Just don’t touch anything. If you can stay like this I’ll…I’ll do your chores next week.”
“Don’t call me that. Only Mum calls me that.”
Kim found it hard to believe that he and Lee shared the same absent father. His brother was slumped on the couch with a bowl of cereal balanced on his belly, spooning each dribbling mouthful in like he’d evolved only for that purpose, he would find it easier to believe they were form two separate mistakes rather than from one longer dragged out error.
“Okay. Look, I’m going to go. If you say anything, I’ll tell Mum you’ve been stuffing your face on cereal.”
“I’ll tell her you abandoned me.”
That word would do it. Their mum would be so proud if Lee used it. Just as she was proud that he used words like that when he was Lee’s age and their father left. He’d asked her why his father was abandoning them, but that word from a six year old convinced her that they would be okay. Their mum would get that warm triumphant glow and Kim would have no chance. Not even the small stack of bowls could be marshalled in defence.
Kim dropped his head and shook it and Lee jumped up and told him he needed cellophane to find the ghost.
“Ghosts show up under infra-red. I reckon red will do. I mean they’re both red.”
Concentrating on the path was hard because Lee kept asking questions. Or rather every time Kim turned when his name was called he found it was the same question and that question was what their mum was doing today. Kim kept telling him he didn’t know. Eventually he told him it was just another stupid meeting.
This answer made his brother ride slow. Real slow. So slow he was having trouble controlling his bike until he couldn’t control his bike and slid from the seat and stood over the bar.
“What’s wrong now?” Kim asked.
“Do we have to go that way?”
“If we want to get to the shops.”
“But fight bridge is that way.”
“You know. fight bridge. If you cross it, whoever is there can pick a fight with you.”
Kim wasn’t going to argue and continued across the bridge. The passivity which brought his brother this far would also drag him across the bridge. Ghosts. Now fight bridge. Maybe he should speak to his mum. Maybe, she could get Lee some help.
Lee rode slowly passed the barriers then came to a complete stop when he saw the three kids there. In the middle stood three kids, possibly year nines, smoking. Two were on one side and the third looked across at them. Occasionally, one of them would spit over the edge and the others would laugh. Lee was standing with his bike wedged up between his legs.
“C’mon, Lee,” Kim called.
Kim had gone to the very same school and never heard of fight bridge. It was probably one of Lee’s concoctions. Yet a small part of him feared it was true and somehow his seven year old brother was more in the loop than he was.
The three guys stared and said nothing. Lee continued to stand there frozen.
‘C’mon,” Kim said. Starting to worry that these guy would live up to Lee’s fears just because Lee was being such a dipstick.
Lee started to waddle with the bike still wedged beneath him. Kim pushed on a pedal, so he lifted up and then dropped into the seat. He didn’t get to the end when he heard Lee wailing from the opposite end of the bridge.
“I hibbed the bawwia,” Lee cried.
“I think he was going too fast,” said one of the guys, coming over.
“Yeah, he just went straight into that thing,” said another.
“They’b pushed meeb,” said Lee.
Kim knew it wasn’t true. He didn’t need the scowls and the insults of the three to establish what their mere distance to Lee could. Not would those guys care. They were nothing to them, only now if Lee kept up the accusations they would be something.
“You little shit. We never touched you.” the first one said.
Kim didn’t even know how to explain this. My brother has an over-active imagination. Today, he was planning to hunt for ghosts. They wouldn’t understand, and Kim couldn’t blame them.
He lifted his brother and up by one arm, not minding it clearly stung. With the other hand he picked up the other. The chain had come off. They’d have to turn around and walk the bike home. Neither of them were strong enough to pull the chain back on. They’d need their mum.
Where were they? Kim knew that they shouldn’t leave without telling her where, which was impossible in the current circumstance. All the more reason for them to stay at home.
Not that she was being a tyrant. It was normal concern. Not necessarily maternal. Simply normal. If it were a thing they’d give it a way with the Sunday paper. Good thing it wasn’t because then she’s miss out.
It came from being a decent caring individual. Their welfare was as important as the welfare of anyone – anything else.
Trent would go ballistic when he heard. It was exactly the ammunition he would unleash on her. And when he found at where and why – it would be all that unfit mother shit, his family behind stoking with the promise of cash for lawyers.
His speed use, reckless driving, temper. In an ideal world that car of his would be reason alone. Deep down, he didn’t care. It was just part of his game. It was one way of yanking her along. Yet she had to bite. She wouldn’t be judged by him.
God, she hoped he didn’t hear about today. It would be even worse because the meeting was so pointless. She so wanted to stay at home with the boys. She would have played along with Lee’s ghost. She would have even gone to get Kim’s bloody sticky tape.
Shit, she could have a brought some back from the office. At least something would’ve come from the meeting.
Instead she had to listen to the type of conspiracy theories that would make a first year uni student blush. Dan, a newbie, was found early yesterday morning in the office. He said he was there using the computer to finish an assignment for uni because his laptop had crashed. It sounded feasible. The Forest Action Alliance shared everything else. It wasn’t hard to believe that a newcomer would assume the generosity extended to their beat-up PC. Besides, no one was interested in FAA. Not the press, not the public and least of all the cops.
FAA’s facilitator, Phil, didn’t see it that way. He was sure Dan was a narc and forced a vote. Only she and Shelly voted against kicking the forgetful adolescent from the group. Now, quite possibly, he would become what Phil feared.
Cops could be assholes. No question. She’d seen enough truncheons working down on people with mechanical regularity and constancy. Which is exactly why she didn’t think Dan was one of them. Or working for them. Spying required subtlety. The officers she’d heard at rallies were there to be switched on and pointed.
Dan working undercover for the cops was about as likely as Kim doing it. And she didn’t mean that lightly. Again it was not a mother’s thing, just a sense for people. Dan had Kim’s softness and aversion to violence. He also had Kim’s ineptitude. Neither of them could plan. Neither of them could remember simple tasks. Dan with the last poster run. Kim with..well today for example.
She heard the clung and scrape of their bikes being thrown and slipping over each other. The boys were muttering amongst themselves. The words weren’t quite an argument. She knew them too well for it to be conspiring.
“What have you been up to?” she asked as they spilled passed each other into the door.
The only word she could make out was bridge. She asked again and this time was even more confused than before. She wanted to ask Kim to show him she trusted him. But there was blood on Lee’s lip and it looked swollen. Unless he was faking it. Was she wrong about Kim? If so, she could be wrong about Dan.
Lee sobbed as he told her about being attacked by the guys on the bridge. Kim tried to speak, but Lee kept cutting him off saying it was true. She pulled them both tight – just glad Kim wasn’t responsible. From the look in her eldest son’s eyes, a desperate yearning for right, she knew, she could tell Lee was lying.
Today, she thought she could afford this. If she could be there for him with the ghosts, she would console him from his conjured bullies. Phil had not deserved his monster, but Lee needed his.