Every painstaking day, it gets a little harder to smother the abhorrent truths in my life.
The dining room endures the scraping of plates, night after night, as I prod at the silent void between my parents. Pathetic attempts at small talk end in my father abruptly rising to announce he’ll be out back chopping firewood.
Between ragged pulls from a cigarette, I watch on as Clark, my father, draws back and brings down an axe. A thick haze of Marlboro smoke draws a glaze over his eyes. I often hover at the door to the backyard, watching him replace the wood, swing the axe and take a drag. Is it his weakness or mine that compels us not to speak?
Some nights he just doesn’t come home.
Not that I blame him. Ever since that night in the marigolds, the two of us have become filled with questions that we haven’t the courage to ask.
My father’s absence, and what he does on those nights away, is the first truth that I fight to suppress. I can’t decide if I can forgive him for his actions, no matter his justification.
So, time after time, I leave. There is nothing for me here.
It’s on an evening like this that I wander through the neighbourhood, drawn to different spots of isolation that have been my refuge in recent weeks. Traversing the streets of my childhood, I feel like I’m running from my second and most worrying truth: I believe myself to be evil.
From a very young age, I understood the difference between good and bad.
When I was eight, our dog was struck by a cyclist in a nearby park. Yelping from its injuries, I stayed with the mutt while the cyclist ran to get my father. And yet, I could only smile, seeing that thing in pain. Overwhelmed by a sudden bloodthirsty impulse, it took all my strength just to remain composed in public – to stop myself from wrapping my hands around the dog’s frail neck and watching the panic radiate from its darting eyes. My father came running with the cyclist in tow, just as I had reached into its wound, blood gurgling as it stained my fingers red. Thrust back onto the grass by my father, he assessed the dog before wiping the blood from my hand. He had nothing but concern for me in his eyes. But then, his expression hardened. He turned to the dog, blocking my view. My father raised his arm and, revealing a rock in his hand, brought it down on that dog’s head like an axe to wood.
It’s because of moments like that, when my father took control whilst I was paralysed by fear, that made me strive to be the perfect son. Compelled by the actions of my parents, I have always resigned myself to doing the right thing, no matter how tempting the darker path seems. But, it’s now nine years since that dog died. The fierce passion inside my father has long since dimmed. He can spare no pride for me as he drags himself around the house. A hollow man, the cracks in his exterior began to show long before my mother lost interest and strayed elsewhere. With no one left to impress, and despite my best efforts, I cannot stop imagining wandering that darker path.
The day I witnessed a murder from the marigolds was the day I decided to succumb to my urges.
I had been walking through the neighbourhood when I came upon a package at the doorstep of a local rookie policeman, Officer Reynolds. Naive and rotund, he’s the man people go to when a cat gets stuck up a tree, or a neighbour needs a noise complaint taken seriously. I looked around. There was no one in sight, so I waltzed through the gate and took the package, just like that. With adrenalin coursing through my veins, I embraced this first act of freedom and ran down the back streets in search of the freeway.
It wasn’t far to the wild marigolds. Blanketing the hill that looks up at the overpass and down at the freeway below, the marigolds burned like embers in the setting sun. Traipsing through the blooms, I found my way to my regular spot. After a few weeks, the flattened cluster of flowers swallowed me into the hillside, contouring my torso and outstretched legs. That night, I settled myself in and tore open Reynolds’ parcel to find some kind of video camera inside. The only other information on the package indicated that the return address was for a security company specialising in equipment to fortify your home. Maybe Reynolds should have invested in a more secure gate instead. With my new toy in hand, I got comfortable and used it to follow the path of cars on the freeway below. Car after car, hour after hour, I sat, pointing the camera, pressing record and following it until it drove out of sight. Numbed by the tedium, it wasn’t long before I dropped the camera, lay back into the patch and fell asleep.
It was the muffled screams that woke me. At that time of night, the stream of cars had thinned. The street lamps had cast a hazy glow over my surroundings, and I could see the marigolds around me swaying in the breeze. I heard them before I saw them, one man dragging another above me on the overpass. The men kept mostly to the shadows until, in a whir of sound, I heard a thump and a grunt as one made a break for it. He ran to the edge of the bridge and, in a flash of clarity, I caught a look at his face. A weathered man in his early forties, his greying blond hair was plastered with sweat and dried blood. He looked badly beaten: he was gagged, clutching his side and his nose was broken. Yanking the cloth from his mouth, he cried out from the centre of the overpass. But I was the only one to hear him. I reached for my phone to call for help, but was stopped in my tracks as the other man came into the light. Feeling a sudden chill, I grabbed the video camera and crept higher up the hill so I could get a better look. I turned the camera on, pointing it at the overpass, as I sensed what came next.
The assailant gripped the shoulder of the injured man who was hopelessly scanning the freeway.
“Any last words?” he called from behind.
“Please, have mercy, it was an accident!” he stuttered, “I was exonerated!”
“Oh, I haven’t heard that one before. But we can’t be forgetting this,” concluded the assailant, as he placed a piece of paper in the man’s jacket.
I stood in anticipation and hit record, before following the arc of the man’s descent as he was pushed over the railing. I’d never actually seen someone die until then. I let the camera linger on the body for a few seconds before panning up to see that the assailant was looking at me. And then he was running towards me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there and watched him, my eyes darting between the body on the freeway and the man coming towards me. As he waded through the sea of marigolds, the street lamps behind him cast a familiar silhouette. He reached me, and tested the void between us by edging closer, but found that there was none. He looked at me like he had the day our dog died, years ago, with a face full of paternal love mingled with sadness. I embraced him and let the smell of Marlboro cigarette smoke swirl through my brain.
“You did the right thing by calling us, lad,” Reynolds had said. “Are you sure that’s everything?”
Naturally Officer Reynolds was the first on the scene. I smiled to myself, thinking about the stolen camera hidden in my marigold patch just a few metres away. But I composed myself – I had a story to sell.
“All I saw was that man, Officer Reynolds, the man that jumped. He hesitated on the railing for a little while, and I tried to call to him, but then he just let go. It was so scary.”
Upon Reynolds’ insistence, the paramedics checked me over, thinking I’d gone into shock. I think awe would be a better description. I was within earshot to hear the details of the case a few times over, as it was relayed by Reynolds to every sap who made the mistake of listening to him. With a photo ID in his wallet and a suicide note in his jacket, the man who ‘jumped’ was identified as Alexander McKenzie, a man driven to suicide by the guilt of having murdered his wife three years prior. But try as I might to pity McKenzie, to mourn his death, to feel anything other than the satisfaction I felt, all I could see was the body. The fall. The impact. The blood.
I could barely contain my excitement as I stared out the window at the white sheet over McKenzie’s body, and the blood pooled below, from the back of the squad car.
Reynolds volunteered to drive me home. He went through the motions when my father opened the door. He feigned a sense of authority as he sat himself down in the living room and put on his big-boy voice. He talked about counselling and how my father should keep an eye on me. In a way, he does.
Since that night, weeks ago, McKenzie’s apparent suicide has run through news cycles and turned up nothing of significance. I thought I knew who McKenzie was when I saw him with my father on the bridge. After all, who else could my father want to murder in cold blood, if not the man who was having an affair with his wife?
Articles, news stories, the suicide note and the police report all indicate that McKenzie took his own life. Overcome with guilt, he was exonerated by the State for manslaughter after being convicted of killing his wife three years prior.
My father says I’m not allowed to leave the house at night anymore. We’re the only ones who know of McKenzie’s murder, and he says he has to protect me. He still doesn’t come home some nights, so I wait in the backyard, dragging from a Marlboro. As the smoke swirls around my head it draws a glaze over my eyes.