“What I wanna know is why anyone would steal a two hundred-year-old corpse.”
Kane heaved and grunted as he helped his father carry the sideboard from the front door to the dining room. They sure used a lot of wood in the good old days, he was thinking; the thing felt like it was filled with lead. They staggered into the dining room, lowered it to the carpet, lifted it again, pushed it against the wall.
“Hey wait, shift it down a bit … No, no, too far; has to be in line with the picture … No, wait, back again.”
“Dad!” cried Kane, stretching his back. “It’s fine where it is!”
“A job done well is a job done good.”
As usual, his dad was making no sense. “Well, old man, the job is good and done.”
“Do as you’re told, slacker.”
Kane placed his fists on his hips. This was Kane Gates as Superman, his signature pose after putting out a fire or helping a cat down from a tree … or refusing to do what he was told.
“Fine, then,” Mike conceded. “Your mother will probably want it moved anyway. Thanks, Kane. Your assistance was much appreciated.” He went to the door to the living room. “Thanks, Dylan!”
The TV remote control rose above the back of the sofa. The volume grew louder.
“What I wanna know,” a man’s voice was saying, “is why anyone would steal a two hundred-year-old corpse.”
Intrigued, Kane went to see what his brother was watching.
“This follows an earlier incident last month,” came the voice of a woman, “when the body of a recent car crash victim, whose name police have refused to disclose, also disappeared.”
On the screen, a black-haired woman in a pale blue suit was standing near an open grave in a wild, weed-strewn part of a cemetery. The camera zoomed in on her face. “The police are asking anyone who knows anything about this highly unusual crime to ring Crimestoppers immediately. This is Janice Zhao, First News.”
“If that thing turns up in my locker,” said Kane, smiling down at his brother, “those deadbeats at the station are gonna fry!” Dylan looked corpse-like himself: eyes closed, face white, body thin as a rake, dressed all in black. “Wouldn’t put it past those jokers,” he explained. “They’ve done worse to other trainees, I hear.”
When Dylan failed to respond, he shrugged and went back to his father. “Come on, old timer,” he said, clapping him on the back, “let’s go get some refreshments.”
They went to the kitchen, where Kane grabbed two Cokes from the fridge.
“Here … catch!” he called out, tossing a can to his father.
“Wha–?” Mike was leaning over a design brief he’d left on the table, and turned a second too late. The can hit his arm and fell with a dull bang to the floor.
He picked it up, shook it furiously, tossed it back to Kane. “You can have that one.”
Catching it like a football, Kane lobbed it back. “No, you have it.”
Mike fumbled with the can. “Kane, old man, I insist,” he countered, returning the throw.
“Dad!” cried Kane, frustrated by his father’s annoying habit of turning everything into a competition. “Just put it back in the fridge if you don’t want it!” He threw it back.
“No, son, it’s yours. I insist.” Shaking the can again, Mike stepped closer, held it out and pulled the tab. Frothy Coke spurted out, soaking Kane’s shirt.
“Goddamnit!” he bellowed, leaping back. “You’re a juvenile delinquent!” Pulling the cold shirt away from his chest, he pointed at the floor. “Look at the mess you made!”
“Your mother will clean it up.”
“It’s her special day, jerk!”
Mike grabbed a tea towel and dropped it on the floor. He used his foot to mop up the mess.
“There. All clean. Another job well done.” He kicked the wet tea towel towards the laundry room. “Which reminds me: you found your brother a job yet?”
Kane dropped his chin to his chest. He’d been waiting for this. His father thought if you said something enough times, the universe would somehow make it happen.
“There’s not much call for couch potatoes in the fire department,” he said, going to the laundry room for a towel.
“They must need cleaners or something.”
“Now you mention it, you should see the state of the crappers. All those guys.”
“Come on, Dad, lighten up.”
“You need to look after him.”
Kane groaned. He stood at the door, dabbing a towel at his wet shirt front, thinking: No way I want that loser bumming me out at work; he can go clean toilets somewhere else.
“It’s what brothers do.”
He glanced up. “Are you sure we’re brothers? Dylan looks a lot like the butcher. Mr Seligman, not the one with googly eyes.”
“I’m just saying …”
“Dylan needs a damn job!”
“Then you give him a damn job!”
Mike picked up one of his designs and waved it at him. “My work is highly technical.”
“He’s an artist; how hard can it be to do what you do?”
“This requires precision. An eye for detail. He doesn’t have the discipline for it.”
“How does that make it my problem?”
Dylan’s voice flew in from the living room: “You know, I may be a couch potato who’s only fit for cleaning bogs, but I’m not deaf!”
Lauren stared at herself in the dresser mirror. Mike was downstairs, taking his time getting ready as usual. Sometimes she thought she must be the only woman in the world who got ready faster than her husband. Fortunately, she liked having time to herself. It helped her marshal the tiny reserves of energy she had left inside her body and mind, so she could go on fooling the world into believing she was still a part of it. And Mike’s clowning and exuberance could be so draining.
She picked up a frame from the dressing table. The photo in it came from better times, when she and Mike were in their thirties and had three young sons. The five of them were standing on the beach at Harristown, their smiles wide and white, the jetty stretching to infinity behind them. Whoever had taken the picture had gotten the framing wrong: their legs were missing and half the picture was sky. But this was Lauren’s favourite photo. In it, they looked as happy as any family possibly could.
It was hard to believe five years had passed since that day. Time flew by like leaves in a stream and each day it became that tiny bit harder to remember what it felt like to have so much happiness and so few cares; how it felt to hold Oliver in her arms and watch him as he grew into the amazing person she knew he was destined to be.
A shadow appeared in the mirror. She turned. Dylan was standing in the doorway, holding one hand behind his back.
Lauren smiled at him, thinking how much he looked like his father: black hair, blue eyes, narrow chin, straight nose and full lips – the French genes in the family. Kane had a predominance of Celtic genes and looked more like her: brown hair, brown eyes, square face, broad nose and strong mouth. Yet personality-wise it was the opposite: Dylan was quiet and thoughtful like her, whereas Mike and Kane were peas in a pod: outgoing, funny and popular.
“I think he’s in his office.”
As Dylan stood awkwardly in the doorway, she had a sudden flash of him as a twelve-year-old, when he’d stood in the same spot the morning they packed him off to Briarwood to live with his grandparents. It was the day after Oliver’s respirator had been turned off, and the house was as cold and hushed as a mausoleum. Dylan had stared at her, worried and alone, a frightened boy who probably wanted more than anything to have a hug from his mother. But all she could remember thinking was: I wish he’d go away; his need is suffocating me; and worst of all: he was there; he might have done something to stop this from happening. It was an unpleasant memory, the thoughts wrong and unfair, but now she was able to face and own her mistakes – now she was taking the right kind of pills.
He stepped into the room. “I got you a present.”
She glanced down at his hand, hardly believing her ears. Dylan was holding out a small box.
Her face went hot. “Dylan …”
Returning the photo to the dresser, she allowed her son to place the box in her palm. She opened it. Inside was a silver pendant and chain – an antique by the look of it. At first she thought the pendant was an angel, but on closer inspection it looked more like a dragon. Or perhaps a wasp.
She studied the curious design. The artist had not fashioned it to look like anything specific. From different angles it took on different forms – whatever your imagination wanted it to be. “It’s … lovely.”
“Old man at the store said to give it to you.”
“Dylan,” she laughed, “you could at least try and pretend you chose it yourself!”
“He said it was your twenty-fifth anniversary and you had to wear silver tonight or else it’s bad luck.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
Placing the chain around her neck, she checked herself in the mirror. Now it was on, it definitely looked like an angel.
“Dylan, you are the most honest person I know.” She turned in her seat. “That’s why I don’t worry about you the way your father does.” She reached out and took his hand, which was soft and warm. “You know he says the things he does because he cares about you, don’t you?”
He shifted his weight to his other leg.
“Good things happen to good people. Don’t ever forget that.” She repeated it, slowly this time. “Good things happen to good people.”
“That’s what Gramps used to say,” he reminded her.
“Ah, of course,” she smiled. “I thought I’d heard it somewhere.” She squeezed his hand. “You miss him, don’t you?”
“He’s not the same.”
“He is the same … it’s just, his health and age are getting in the way of his mind.”
“But he won’t get any better … will he?” He looked down. “I already know the answer.”
“Good things happen to people who work hard and help their parents.” The correction came from Mike, who was standing in the doorway fiddling with his tie.
Dylan slipped his hand away.
“What’s that lump of metal around your neck, Loz?”
“It’s from Dylan,” answered Lauren. “Lovely, isn’t it? It’s for good luck.”
“Nice,” said Mike, nodding at Dylan with eyebrows raised. “Did you make it yourself?”
Dylan brushed past him.
“Hope it’s not hot,” he added under his breath.
“Michael!” scolded Lauren. “Why do you always have to say things like that?”
“What? He’s an artist, isn’t he? Be good if he made something he could sell. Maybe make a living. Is that too much to ask?”
She turned back to the mirror, clasping the pendant. Dylan may not have made it – or even bought it – but that didn’t make it any less special. It showed he was rejoining the world of the normal. After all these years of grieving and healing, he was beginning to forgive her. Now all she had to do was forgive herself.
“Are we ready yet?” asked Mike, grabbing his jacket from the closet. He spun around. “Come on, Loz, chop, chop! If you don’t hurry up, they’ll give away the booking.”
Kane paused at the door to his brother’s bedroom. His heart was thumping and an animal urge was pushing him to spin around and race downstairs and jump on his bike and sprint to the quarry and back. He really needed to let off steam before calling January. Just the thought of the call was making his head spin. But he felt guilty over what he’d said about Dylan – what Dylan had heard – and his father’s words were ringing in his ears. Down inside he knew an apology was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t within his natural disposition to apologise. Apologies were for the weak, and Kane despised weakness.
Sighing with resignation, he raised his hand, held it in the air, listened against the door for a second, then knocked – two raps, followed by three, repeated.
Without waiting for a reply, he pushed in.
Dylan was sitting on the bed, his back against the wall. A laptop was propped on his legs. He didn’t look up, but Kane saw a crease appear between his eyebrows.
“Hey, Dylan,” he called out, sounding more cheerful than he felt.
At first Dylan ignored him. Then he opened his mouth and said, “You haven’t come in here in years.”
“Haven’t had any reason to. Not since we were kids.”
“We’re not kids anymore.”
“Yeah, I know that.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Yep,” Kane continued, “we’re all growed up and stuff.”
“So what’s the special occasion?”
Kane folded his arms. He was feeling strangely nervous. There was something weird about Dylan lately, a darkness of mood that was different from the shy churlishness he’d shown in the days following his return from Briarwood.
Dylan glanced up. “You better not be here to lecture me.”
“Downstairs,” began Kane, deciding it was best to get straight to the point. “The crack about cleaning toilets. I didn’t mean it to sound … y’know …”
Dylan began typing. “Is that it?”
His brother went back to ignoring him.
“Dad’s worried about you,” added Kane, approaching the bed. “It may not seem so, but he is.”
Dylan squinted at the laptop.
“What are you up to?”
He closed the cover.
“That story on the news … grave robbers. Weird, hey?”
His brother stared at him.
“Some real freaks out there, I tell ya.”
“Is that it?”
Kane shrugged. “Yeah. Suppose. Just wanted to say I’m sorry, set things straight.”
It was Dylan’s turn to shrug.
“So, what you doing?”
“Artsy stuff? Dad said you’re pretty good at it.”
“Artsy stuff? Do you even know what that means?”
“Show me. Dad said it was like comics … I’m into comics.”
“It’s not like comics.”
“Well, show me.”
“Look, Kane, don’t pretend you’re interested in my life. You’ve done your brotherly duty. Now go back and report to Dad I’m as lazy and bad tempered as ever.”
“I just wanna –”
“Show me –”
“Don’t be –”
“Get outta my damn room!”
The outburst made Kane’s face throb. “Why do you always have to be such a dick?”
“Get – the hell – out!”
He spun around and tramped away. “I knew this was a waste of time. Why do I listen to the old man?”
The door slammed. Dylan was alone.
Reopening the screen, he stared at an old woodcut of a dozen men in loincloths worshiping a statue of Kragn. This Kragn was the size of a house, its eight arms open, its fat face turned to the sky. Its mouth was like a cave, the black eyes almost bursting out of their sockets. It looked even grosser and fatter and lumpier than the statue in the antiques store. Rather than a primal god, it made Dylan think of a disgusting, disease-carrying grub.
Staring intently at the picture, he began to feel queasy. The screen went in and out of focus; the lights flickered and dimmed. Squeezing his eyes shut, he muttered, “His flesh is your flesh is His flesh is your flesh –”
His head jerked up. He thought he’d heard laughter coming from the other side of the door.
“Who’s there?” he called out. There was no answer. “Kane, is that you?” Silence. “Kane?”
The lights turned yellow. He felt another wave of nausea, this one starting in his head before ballooning in his stomach. Suddenly his mind flew back to earlier that afternoon, to the strange dim shop where weird old Wilfred Waite was standing amongst the antiques and trash like a goblin priest of the underworld. What was it he’d said about Kragn?
As if on cue, Wilfred opened his mouth and began the chant.
“Flesh that is yours shall Z’garh Khrl’ur bestow,” Dylan repeated, his eyes staring at the screen. “Inside you Kragn dwells, and to Kragn shall you return.”