“Do you like beans and tomatoes?”
Kane woke with a start. It was still dark, but those damn rats were at it again. He listened as they scampered across the ceiling. Then he waited for that other noise to start. There it was: the infernal scratching and gnawing. Pulling the pillow over his head, he pressed it against his ears. When that made no difference, he flung open the bedside drawer, grabbed a balled-up pair of socks, and threw it at the ceiling.
The socks dropped to his bureau, landing on his BMX trophies. One fell to the floor with a clatter and the rats went quiet. For a few moments there was blissful silence. Then, just as Kane was nodding off, the scratching started up again.
He lifted his head. The clock radio showed six-thirteen. Five hours sleep – nowhere near enough for a trainee with physicals to pass. Fortunately, he wasn’t due at the station till four and he had nothing to do before then but relax, fuel up his body, push some weights and go for a ride.
He rolled onto his back and lay staring at the ceiling, at the spot where the rats were hard at work doing whatever it was they felt compelled to do every morning. He put his hands behind his head. The breakup with January hadn’t gone well last night; hadn’t gone well at all. She claimed she wasn’t getting too serious, but she was. It was the same thing time and time again: psycho girls throwing themselves at him, pretending they’d forgotten him saying (loud and clear!) that he’d be leaving town as soon as his training was over; each one conveniently blind to the absurdity of him getting tied down when there was so much uncertainty in his future. He scratched his ear. It was a smart move telling January by text message. Cleaner that way: no drawn-out emotions to deal with – and he wouldn’t be tempted to spend the night with her, the way he’d done the last time he told her he wanted to break up.
He leaned over and switched on his phone. Eleven missed phone calls, five voicemails and twenty-three text messages. And yep, they were all from January. Flattering, he thought, though he was determined not to start the day on a downer by reading or listening to them.
“Girls!” he complained to the rats in the ceiling.
Throwing off the blankets, he bounced out of bed and stumbled to the window.
The day was a grey square against the black wall. Kane gazed out at the charcoal sky and the drizzling rain. The clouds had settled on the ground and the houses across the road were barely visible. As he watched, a dog crept out of the bushes and splashed through a puddle to the McLeod’s letterbox, where it cocked its leg. It was Gary, the friendliest Jack Russell on the block, if not the planet. Kane smiled and gave a little wave. These were the days when it was great to be a fireman.
He stumbled to the door, yawning and scratching between his legs. Not so great to be single, he thought as he glanced back at his empty bed.
Pulling on his bathrobe, he crossed the hallway. The door to his parents’ room was open. He went over, saw the bed hadn’t been slept in.
“You little devils!” he said to the empty room, smiling and shaking his head. “That’s a turnip for the books,” he added to himself as he walked off.
He carried his smile into the shower. As the hot water ran down his body, swirling around his feet and steaming up the glass, he broke into song:
“Do you like beans and tomatoes?
“Carrots raw, sugar cane – Kane, Kane.
“Is it fried eggs and bacon?
“No, it’s cornflakes again!”
He wondered if Mike and Lauren were up yet, what they would be ordering for breakfast. Something hot and full of fat and sugar, he hoped. His parents had been through some tough years and they deserved some pampering. In fact, he was surprised their marriage had survived past their honeymoon, considering how different they were to begin with. It was good to see them being irresponsible and staying out all night. It reminded him of himself.
After dressing, on his way to the stairs, he stopped outside his brother’s room and placed his ear against the door. He still felt bad about what he’d said last night, but consoled himself by remembering that Dylan had behaved badly too. Even worse, he told himself, seeing as how he’d only been joking around. He’d gone to apologise and Dylan completely over-reacted. Went psycho, in fact. It was clear to Kane, standing there at the dawn of a new day, that it was probably for the best if they stayed away from each other from now on. This family reunion had been a failed experiment. Too much time had passed; they had entirely different personalities; there was no such thing as common ground between them, despite what his father wanted to believe.
Pushing the unpleasant memory of last night from his mind, he went downstairs. In the kitchen he filled his bowl with cornflakes and added three spoonsful of sugar. When Kane was a boy, when Mike was struggling to get his new business off the ground, the family had subsisted on staples like cornflakes and McDonalds, with cooked dinners generally comprising mashed potatoes, cabbage, peas and cheap cuts of meat like skirt steak and lamb chops. Since getting into the fire service, he’d given up the McDonalds and carb-heavy meals in favour of a caveman diet, but he was still addicted to the sweet, syrupy crunchiness of cornflakes in the morning.
In the living room, he sat on the edge of the sofa, balanced the bowl on his knee and went back to his game of solitaire from last night. It was a distraction from the January thing, a way to resist the urge to read her text messages and listen to her voicemails. Plenty of time for reading and listening and responding once January had cooled down, when there was more of a chance for a mature conversation, rather than having to deal with her usual demanding, crying and emotional manipulation.
His phone buzzed. Without thinking, he reached for it, and the bowl slipped from his knee and fell to the carpet, splashing milk and cornflakes everywhere.
“Damn it!” Kane grabbed the phone. No, it wasn’t another message from January, just a reminder of thirty percent off from the health food store he once bought protein powder from.
Tossing the phone on the sofa, he knelt on the carpet and used his hands to scoop cornflakes back into the bowl. He was almost finished when he heard a car slowing down outside the window.
He glanced up. Lights appeared as the car turned into the driveway. It crunched up the gravel and stopped close to the house. The engine shut off. Kane heard two car doors shut.
“Great timing,” he said to the mess on the carpet, wiping his hands clean over the bowl. Scurrying to the laundry, he found a towel, ran back and dropped it on the wet patch.
Then he sat back on the sofa, folded his arms and listened to footsteps mounting the steps and approaching the front door.
He smiled to himself, trying to come up with something smart-aleck to say to his dad. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn the tables and get Mike back for all those mornings he’d given Kane a hard time for staying out all night. But everything he came up with sounded obscene or incestuous, or otherwise inappropriate for his mother’s sensitive ears. The best he could manage was: “What time do you call this?” – which was pretty lame when he thought about it.
When the knock came at the door, his heart leapt into his mouth. He sat forward. Why were they knocking? Oh no, he thought: Mike must have lost his keys. He could be such an airhead sometimes.
His knees began shaking. Then how did they drive home? And why didn’t Mike use the spare key under the pot plant?
Kane glanced at his watch. It was too early for door-to-door sellers or Mormons. It was too early for anyone.
His phone buzzed again and he snatched it up, thinking it might provide an explanation. But it was only the first of today’s pleading/abusive messages from January. U BASTARD!! I HAVENT SELPT ALL NITE! this one read.
The knock sounded again, louder this time. Laying down the phone, Kane crept to the window and peered through the curtains.
Standing on the porch were two strangers: a man and a woman. They were both dressed in black suits.
Kane stared at them. The man was burly, youngish and blond; the woman tall and skinny with grey-streaked hair tied in a tight bun. They were looking straight ahead, as if they were robots with X-ray vision and could see through the door.
Kane glanced at the ceiling, at the place where his parents’ empty bed stood. In that moment, time froze and a sense of unreality fell on him like a blanket. He felt like an actor in a stage play, an actor who’d forgotten his lines and was waiting for someone to prompt him from the wings.
An instant later, the lines came.
He felt like throwing up. Surely this couldn’t be –? There’s no way they … He shook the ridiculous notion out of his head. It was their anniversary last night. Their twenty-fifth. They drank too much and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stay at a hotel instead of driving all the way home. They were sensible, like parents are supposed to be. He imagined them sitting up in a king-sized bed in matching fluffy white robes, enjoying bacon and eggs with orange juice and fresh-brewed coffee. Mike was a cheapskate; he’d be putting off their departure till right on check-out time. These people were here about Tuesday’s barn fire, he told himself, nodding at their sensible decision to interview him. It was clearly a case of arson. Kane’s truck was the first on the scene, and it was only natural they would come to get a statement on what he saw when he arrived at the blaze.
All this passed through his mind in a flash. He glanced around the room: at the bowl of cornflakes on the coffee table; at the TV screen; at his mother’s awful lava vase; at the unfinished game of solitaire. Please, he thought, staring at the towel on the floor; please let it be about the fire.
A voice called out, “Is anyone home?”
Leaving the window, Kane went to the door and took hold of the knob. He squeezed it until his knuckles turned white, then, with an effort, turned it and pulled open the door.
The strangers exchanged glances, as if they hadn’t expected anyone to be home. Then the woman fixed him with a cold stare. He could see the rims of her contact lenses. He turned to the man who was staring past him into the house. Why wasn’t anyone saying anything?
“Good morning, sir,” the woman said at last. “I’m Detective Young; this is Detective Weisenbach. Is this the home of Michael and Lauren Gates?”
Kane’s mouth felt like he’d swallowed a bowlful of cardboard. “Uh … yes, that’s right. Is this about the fire?”
The woman frowned at him.
“The fire on Tuesday,” he urged. “The barn.”
The man swallowed. From the corner of his eye, Kane saw his Adam’s apple bounce. He glared at him, thinking: Damnit, will someone say something? – and then a noise sounded behind him.
He spun around. Dylan was standing at the top of the stairs, wearing Batman boxer shorts and a white singlet. His face was as pale as the moon, his black hair dangling in his eyes. He was squinting against the light, his arms folded against the cold. The voices must have woken him.
“Who is it?” he asked in a croaky voice.
Kane opened his mouth. Behind him, the woman began to speak.