Susanna Freymark

Middle Brother



Mum turned and glared at all three of us even though Skids was the one doing all the whinging. I said nothing. Skids stuck out his bottom lip. It was him who filled the rusty bath with water every day and locked the bird in its cage at night so pythons, eagles and dogs couldn’t get to it. Despite all this, Duck was dead. I kept my mouth shut.

Mum did a quick scan of us boys in the back of the car. Four grey hairs zigzagged from the top of her head as if they had a mind of their own and were running away from the brown ones. Mum could sense fear. If I looked straight at her, she’d see it in my eyes for sure.

You know something about that bloody duck, don’t you? She was likely to say. I sat on my hands. Was the whi of dead duck on my skin? Could Mum smell it?

How far to Sydney? I wanted to say.

Or Look at them houses, Mum, wouldn’t you like to live in a house like that? But there weren’t any houses out here.

I stared at the runaway hairs on top of her head as she gave us another black look. She turned to the front and talked to Dad about how when we stopped for lunch, us kids, if we were good, could share some hot chips. She’d brought along a loaf of bread and a bottle of tomato sauce to save some money. Dad nodded and turned on the radio.

My hands were sweaty. I was in the middle—between Skids and Davo—and desperately wanted one of them to open the window.
Air, let in some air.

I turned around and looked at Bluey in the tray of our twincab ute, hanging his face in the wind as we rolled along the Pacific Highway. Back with Bluey there was no Dad or Mum or pesky older brother, and no Skids moaning about a dead duck. Maybe I could blame Bluey, he could’ve killed Duck. But there were no dog marks on the bird—just a white, limp body with its neck twisted the wrong way, its thin windpipe crushed without a sound.

Shit, it’s hot in here. Open the bloody window, Davo.

I shot a glance at Mum but I’d only sworn in my head.

Mum muttered to Dad above the hum of the radio. Davo pulled a brown thread from the edge of his jean pocket while Skids sat with
his arms folded and his chin on his chest. He was still sulking about Duck.

My hands were dripping now. If I didn’t do something Davo might notice and then I’d be in for it. No-one was watching. Bit by bit I slid my fingers out from under my thighs and rested my hands at the sides of my legs.

‘Get off,’ said Davo.

‘Leave your brother alone.’ Mum didn’t even turn around.

Was she talking to me or Davo? I tried to turn up the corners of my mouth just a little, not too much, just to look sort of innocent.

‘I told you, Pete, any trouble from you and you’re walking to Sydney.’

I said nothing.

‘We’ve got enough on our plate with your dad’s interview. You hear me?’

‘Yep.’

I slid my hands onto my thighs.

Davo turned to me. ‘What are ya doin’?’

‘Nothin’.’

He poked his elbow into my ribs and then went back to pulling the thread. It was getting long. I could dob on him, then no-one would notice my sweaty palms or my duck guilt.

Open the window, one of ya, please.

‘Anyone cold in here?’ I said in a high voice.

‘Cold? Ya spazzo.’ Davo flicked the button and the window slid down. ‘Cold?’ He looked at me like I was crazy.

I wore my best poker face. If he knew I wanted the window open he’d shut it for sure.

What could I offer Skids for the window seat after the next stop? I didn’t have any money; there were some paperclips and rubber bands in my pocket but I was saving those for an emergency. Tell him how much I liked his duck? Tell him what really happened to Duck? Nah, I’d keep the middle seat for now until I came up with a better plan. Maybe I could tell Mum I was feeling woozy, then she’d make one of them move over. If it was Davo he’d make my life hell for the rest of the trip. Keep my mouth shut, that was the best thing. think about something else besides Duck and keep my bloody mouth shut.

Now I had a plan, I felt better.

I let out a small fart.

‘Pig.’ Davo pushed against me.

I would’ve put money on that fart being silent and pong-free. No such luck with Davo around.

‘Armadillo,’ I said back.

He frowned. ‘You’re such a dickhead.’

‘Better than being a dead duck,’ I muttered under my breath.

*

Coolongoolook. Ten kilometres. Petrol stop only, Dad had said. Yep, Coo-long-go-look. The word rolled silently around my tongue like chocolate bullets. We pulled up at the service station and Dad climbed out and !lled the car with stinky petrol.

‘Coo-long-go-look,’ I said, getting out behind Davo.

‘Dad can we get some bullets?’

No answer. I followed him towards the servo. His big steps in big shoes made me skip a little just to keep up.

‘Dad, can we get some bullets? Please . . .’

I chased his trouser leg and his posh black shoes across the oilsmeared concrete. Tags of dust clung to the edges of his trouser hem, a bit of bush chasing Dad to the city.

‘Dad?’

He took two giant steps through the automatic doors. Magic doors I used to say until Davo burst my bubble when I was four. He pointed to the line that triggered the door: open,shut, open, shut. It wasn’t me and my special powers, after all.

Dad marched to the counter without saying a word about the bullets. He dug into his trouser pocket for his wallet. It used to be Granddad’s, he’d told me. The black leather was worn thin through years of reaching for another five-dollar note.

‘Dad, you get two for five cents.’

He flicked a fifty-dollar bill from the old wallet and handed it to the lady at the counter. It was a new note, as if it was clean from the mint. I’d done a class project on the Australian Mint and ever since then I’d thought about what I’d do with all that money. That was when I wasn’t thinking about Duck.

Skids would like some bullets, I’d give him an extra one of mine.

‘Dad?’

The lady gave him the change and he slid a pink note back into the wallet. He looked down at me.

‘Dad?’

He flipped a gold coin into the air, it twisted and turned and fell towards the lino floor. I reached out for Dad’s spinning dollar. The coin was coming down, past the dusty stand of Chupa Chups and the smears of finger streaks where people rested their hands while they waited for their change. One dollar. One shiny gold coin that could buy me out of trouble for an hour—maybe two. I stretched my arm across the counter as the shiny coin slipped between the Chupa Chups stand and the till. Dad just shook his head and went back to the ute. My chance of a window seat disappeared with that dollar. Middle brother, middle seat.

When I climbed back into the car, no one gave me a second thought. If I dropped dead they wouldn’t even notice, except Skids. He looked at me with that longing, dead-duck look. He’d heard me ask Dad for bullets. I shook my head.

‘No bullets, little brother.’

Davo put his hands on his waist so his elbows stuck out and took up as much of my car space as possible.

Back on the road in the middle seat with no chocolate bullets. I don’t know what made me blurt it out. Maybe I was tired of the duck
face on Skids. Besides I knew the truth.

‘I killed Duck,’ I said.

No-one said a word.

‘I did it, I didn’t mean to . . .’

Dad didn’t brake suddenly. Mum didn’t scream. Davo didn’t punch me. And Skids, well, Skids kept his arms folded across his chest.

‘I knew,’ he said. ‘I knew it was you.’

‘I don’t know what happened. One minute I was stroking Duck and then we were wrestling—’

‘What?’ It was Skid’s turn for a black look.

‘You know, like I do with Davo, but he always wins. I was just muckin’ about.’

Skids punched my arm. Hard.

‘I’d give you some chocolate bullets if I had ‘’em,’ I said.

He punched me again but this time it was softer, much softer.

The wind rolled through the window and as Davo went to wind it up, I leaned towards him.

‘Keep it down.’

Davo folded his arms. The wind blew across our faces, flicked our hair and filled the car with a coolness I hadn’t felt in a long time. I stared out the window. There were more houses now, and not so many trees to climb. The road and the car took us further from that one lousy dollar at the petrol station. I could have done a lot with that dollar.

*

© Susanna Freymark

First published in The UTS Anthology – The Life You Chose and That Chose You, Figment Publishing, 2011.

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