Adrian’s name is typed across the front of the white envelope, but there’s no address and no stamp. This was hand delivered.
He stands by his mailbox, raises a hand to shield his eyes from the sinking sun, peers up the road, turns and looks back down toward the corner. No one else is about. A couple of parrots chatter away as they fly overhead.
He lives in a neat suburban cul-de-sac. Quiet. New brick houses, middle class. Young trees not big enough to provide much shade. Tidy yards, except for number six. Adrian’s not much of a gardener, but Candice refuses to be talked about like the owners of that house, so he gets out most weekends, mows, rakes, sprays for weeds. She takes care of the plants.
He looks back at the white envelope in his grease-stained hand. There’s a small lump inside.
The sun is warm, bordering on hot, even though it’s late in the day. He regrets his choice of tracksuit pants. His legs are sticky, moist beneath the material. A bead of sweat escapes his armpit, runs down his side. He blows hot air up across his nose and brow. It doesn’t help.
He tears open the end of the envelope, upends the contents into his hand. A white USB. Unlabelled. Maybe a scam? he thinks. A virus? Malware?
But then why go to the trouble of finding out his name and where he lives? That seems very specific for a phishing scam. Why not just address the letter to the homeowner?
It’s too hot, he thinks, wiping his brow. He trudges back to the house, the screen door screeching as he opens it.
It’s five degrees cooler inside. The feel of the tiled floor beneath his bare feet is a pleasant relief. He moves down the hall, into the living/dining/kitchen space. It’s modern, open, airy.
By the kitchen bench, he opens the bin, then hesitates with the USB in hand.
What did Candice say just the other night? Something about missing the old Adrian. The wild Adrian. He was hurt at the time. As if she’d expressed a desire to be with someone else. Someone he can’t compete with. And the old Adrian is someone he can’t compete with. The old Adrian exhausts him.
He closes the bin, tosses the USB next to his laptop on the bench. He’ll decide later, he thinks.
Adrian was high and drunk when he met Candice.
It was late in the evening when his mates convinced him to try a new night club. It wasn’t exactly his sort of place, but he relented, lined up, and forked out an exorbitant cover charge.
Inside was a dizzying assault of bass, lights, sweaty bodies, and the noise of people yelling at each other to be heard over the music. He soon gave up trying to talk to his friends, and they left him at the bar as they hit the dance floor.
Candice was dancing. He doesn’t recall what she was wearing exactly, but he remembers her hair. Long, auburn, waves of movement that crashed around her. A halo of silk. He watched her move with abandon as he sipped his rum.
When she ceased whirling, when she turned and approached, he thought it was to him that she came. That’s why he spoke. “Adrian.”
Like his own name was a password that needed to be stated. Like it unlocked something special. And it did, kind of.
She smirked, veered at the last moment, sidled up next to him at the bar and signalled for the bartender. Then with her best Sylvester Stallone impression: “Adrian. Adrian. Addriannnnnn!”
He didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t let him. She ordered a couple of gin and tonics.
“Is one of them for me, Rocky?” he eventually asked.
She snorted a laugh, turned, looked him up and down. “No.”
“Huh.” He sipped again, swilled the liquid around his mouth. “You dance like a typhoon.”
She regarded him quizzically. “Is that a good thing?”
“Absolutely. Ferocious. Unencumbered. Nature’s force and power.”
The bartender slid the drinks to Candice, took her cash, disappeared.
“Good answer,” she said, smiling lopsidedly, genuinely. He remembered that through his booze haze. That lopsided smile. He used to get it a lot back then. “And how do you dance?” she asked. The bartender dropped her change on the alcohol sticky counter.
“I’m more like a sinking ship.”
“So I’d engulf you?”
“If I’m lucky.”
“You’re not,” she stated, picked up her drinks, and left without her change.
He watched her until she disappeared amongst the crowd, then he glanced at the coins on the bar. They glinted under the flashing lights. He felt like he’d missed something. Something that the alcohol wasn’t quite letting him see, or feel. Something important, lost without him ever realising it was there in the first place.
But what was he going to do?
Later, as he stumbled from the bar, and along the wet street—had it rained? He couldn’t remember—a taxi slowed next to him and the back window rolled down with an electric buzz.
“Yo, Adrian,” came the mock deep voice, and there she was again, leaning out the window.
“You giving me a lift?” he asked, hopeful.
“Uh uh,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re off your tits, and I’m not that sort of girl.”
“Oh.” The scent of exhaust was acrid, like burnt plastic. It mixed with the smell of wet bitumen, forming a distinctive aroma that stayed with him long after. Two girlfriends were in the back with this lovely stranger. Two girlfriends giggling, urging her to leave him and close the window.
“I’ll be back here next Saturday. Maybe if you bring me some of whatever you’re on—”
“I’m not on anything,” he lied, and received a disbelieving expression. He relented, shrugged, smiled. She smiled back.
“What then, Rocky?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe we dance. Let’s see how it plays out.”
“Next Saturday,” he repeated.
She nodded, smiled, slapped the taxi door once on the side and it began to move. As it sped up, she leaned further out, and yelled, “Candice,” then she was gone again, pulled back inside the cab by her two friends.
He’s tinkering at his work bench in the garage when Candice returns home. He jumps a little as the automatic garage door starts to rise. It emits a mix of clunks and whirs, drowning out the hum of Candice’s Corolla as it pulls into the drive, stops. It’s dusk out, he sees, the streetlights just starting to warm up.
She steps out of the car, and his eyes are drawn to her legs, still shapely after all these years. She wears a pencil skirt, a white silk blouse. She looks unaffected by the heat. She looks stunning.
“Hi,” he says, a grunt as much as a greeting. He refocusses on the dirty parts of the lawnmower carburettor lined up on his bench.
It’s a familiar game they play. Distance, coolness. It’s better than fighting. At least for him. Candice, she can get mad as hell, yell, and scream, then be over it an hour later. But Adrian holds onto things. Weighs each hurt, collects them until they overwhelm him.
“You didn’t work today?” she says. Her tone is flat, neutral. No accusation there. Adrian senses one anyway.
“Rostered day off.”
“Didn’t you have one last week?”
He picks up the bowl nut, scrubs it with the wire brush. “They cut my shifts back,” he says. He feels her watching him, but he refuses to look. She’s very still. The street is quiet. If there weren’t the whisking sound of the steel brush on the nut, he wonders if he’d hear anything.
He knows what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, ‘I told you so.’ When Action buses offered him an incentive to move to casual rates, he took it. More money, fewer shifts. But Candice was irate. Another bad career choice. Like when he dropped out of university and never went back. He sees that in her eyes as they dress for work each morning. Her in her suit, him in his blue uniform.
Finally, Candice moves. Her heels click as she glides across the concrete toward the door separating garage from house.
“I’m going out tonight,” she tosses toward him casually, daring him to object. Once she would have asked him to join her, but not anymore. She’s given up. Her work colleagues and friends just aren’t his people. He’s made that clear.
He says nothing. Just keeps cleaning. Candice disappears inside.
After he reassembles the lawnmower, he goes inside to the laundry and washes his hands in the tub. As he scrubs, he hears the automatic garage door closing. He knows he’s missed Candice. Suspects she waited till he was cleaning up to leave.
It’s been like this for a while. Since her mother died, yes, but probably even before that. Sometimes, Candice surprises Adrian with an offer of peace. Like taking him out to dinner a few weeks back where everything seemed easy, and for one evening it was relaxed between them, just like when they first met. But it was only one evening. Things reverted to normal as soon as he told her about moving to casual rates. She yelled, and he took it, and resented her once again for demanding such a huge say in his life while she excluded him from her decisions. Like when she unilaterally chose to abandon their efforts at a family.
Her car turns over, whines as it reverses out onto the street, then gurgles as she drives away. He listens until the sound fades. He sighs, dries his hands.
Back in the kitchen, on his way to the fridge, he spies his computer and the USB lying next to it. He stops, wonders. Maybe if he’s careful he can take a quick peek. He’ll disconnect the wifi, avoid execute files. Maybe if he does that there will be no risk of infection. Not that he really knows, but he’s curious, and he’s working hard to justify opening it up.
“Fuck it,” he says. He pulls out one of the kitchen stools, sits at the bench. He starts up the computer, sticks the USB in the drive.
There’s one file. A video file. Can a video file contain malware? He doesn’t know. Probably. He runs his antivirus software, it comes up clean. He opens the file.
A widescreen shot of a drover’s hut. It’s made of old, grey wood, solidly built. The sort of cabin he’d expect to find in the middle of a national park, but this one is set on a large block of cleared land, a modern road in the foreground, paddocks surrounding it filled with yellow flowers that he suspects are canola. In the distance, movement. Maybe sheep grazing? He can’t quite tell. He watches for a while. Nothing changes. He thinks the hut is enclosed by fencing, but the camera shot is not close and it’s difficult to tell.
It takes him a while to realise the video is not silent. There’s a low drone, like traffic, but a long way away. He increases the volume, and it comes a little stronger, but he can’t place exactly what it is. Occasionally, the drone is usurped by a short song from a bird offscreen. But never for long. Soon enough, that hum is back. And all the while the shot of the hut remains the same. Nothing changes. Nothing happens.
Impatient, he scrolls further forward in the video, moving halfway in. Still no change. Just the hut, the paddocks, the empty black road, the drone. He skips to the end. One hour and thirteen minutes and it’s the same scene. Although perhaps the day is a little brighter, a result of the sun rising slowly.
He closes the video, stares at his computer screen, unsure what to make of it. He can’t imagine why someone would leave this for him, or what he’s supposed to do with it.
He runs the antivirus program again. Nothing. He sighs, closes the laptop, then orders takeout without checking the fridge.
He doesn’t hear Candice come in. His laptop is connected to the flat screen television in the lounge room. Adrian sits close, on the soft carpet, peering up. He’s about halfway through the video, the fifth time he’s watched it. He’s staring intently at the small window on the left side of the hut. It’s covered by a lace curtain, but soon a shadow will pass behind it. Yes, there.
“What are you watching?” Candice asks. Her words sound dull, diluted, like he’s sitting at the bottom of a pool looking up at people talking on the deck.
“Huh,” he says, turning to find her standing at the edge of the room in a black dress, her hair tied back, a little eyeshadow, lipstick, no wedding band. He glances back at the screen, and the cabin. The shadow is gone.
He feels like he was on the verge of understanding something. That he could nearly see over the crest, but now it’s gone. He blinks. His eyes are sore.
“Someone sent me this video in the mail,” he says, as if that explains things.
“Who?” Candice asks. She moves into the room, tosses her handbag onto the coffee table. The thud of it makes Adrian jump. He closes his eyes, enjoys the momentary relief it provides. Opens them, glances at the screen, then Candice.
“Don’t know. It was anonymous. But the envelope had my name on it, and this USB inside.” He gestures to the laptop, his eyes finding the small white protrusion from its side. He realises how silly it sounds. He expects admonishment, but he should know by now that Candice doesn’t do predictable.
“Ooh, I read about something like this on Facebook,” she says. She sits next to him, folds her legs to the side, props on an outstretched arm. It’s the closest they’ve been for a while. He can’t help but smell her—lavender soap, a dash of musky perfume, something else. Aftershave? Sweat? He frowns.
“Facebook?” he says. There’s more he wants to say, to ask, but words escape him.
“Yeah, it’s a game. Friends nominate you, and this company sends out these videos. You’re supposed to work it out.”
“Work what out?” he asks, glancing at the screen. This close it looks pixelated, grainy. The drone from the video is prevalent, setting his teeth on edge.
“I don’t know exactly. If I did, it wouldn’t be as fun, would it? Maybe where this cabin is, what’s important about it? It might be like geocaching. You know, follow the coordinates, find the treasure, take something to prove you found it, leave something for the next person.”
“Oh.” The shot has definitely gotten brighter and the shadows shorter. Like the sun is directly overhead. Here comes the bird again, wait, yes there. A warble. A measure of music, then silence. “Who’d sign me up for this?”
Candice laughs. “I would have done it if I’d thought of it. This could be good for you. Get you out of the house. You’re always stuck in that garage.”
He swallows, looks at her watching the TV screen.
“Okay, I need a shower, then I’m going to bed. I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow,” she says.
She places a hand on his shoulder, pushes as she rises to her feet. She kisses him on the top of his head, then disappears from the room and heads toward the back of the house.
She didn’t say anything about her night, he realises. She has a knack of asking questions, and yet she gives away very little nowadays. Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe he doesn’t know much about her at all. Only what she wants him to know.
He stops the video, stares at the blank TV screen. Candice encouraging him to keep going has suddenly put a damper on the exercise. And yet he doesn’t want to go to bed. Not yet. He’d prefer to slip into the sheets when Candice is asleep. Like he has most nights since her mother died.
It’s part guilt, part anger that she never talked to him after, that she sank into herself for so long before reappearing as if nothing had changed. Even though she did change. She decided to stop trying for a family. She didn’t even ask him if that was okay.
He’s afraid if he says anything about how much that hurt, it’ll lead to them both telling each other what they really feel. That he’ll say the words he’ll never be able to take back. He doesn’t want that. Doesn’t want to risk it all ending. So, he avoids her instead.
He finds himself replaying the video, starting from the beginning again.
They’d been going out for a couple of weeks when they ended up parked down by the main beach late one night (or was it early one morning?) smoking weed in his ancient Ford Escort. Windows down, sea breeze rustling their hair. He was captivated by hers, which undulated like the dark waves he couldn’t see, but could hear, and that he imagined were pounding the sand relentlessly somewhere in that darkness beyond his front windshield.
He was too stoned to drive. He might have said something to that effect, because she offered. Demanded it, even. Like it was a dare.
“Nuh, you’ll wreck my pride and joy,” he’d said, grinning around the blunt. He suddenly wondered what he’d do if a cop rolled by and shone a torch on the rust bucket with the windows down, smoke wafting out.
“Come on, don’t be a wuss.” She liked to needle him. He liked to let her. A vaccination from boredom.
He passed her the last of the joint, and she sucked it down to the nib, the flame glowing orange in the dark, lighting just enough of her lips for him to imagine kissing her again.
She tossed the butt, held the smoke in her lungs, motioned for the keys. He relented. Searched his pockets for them, couldn’t find them. Looked on the floor. She exhaled with a rush, coughed, regained composure.
“They’re in the ignition, you half-baked fuckwit,” she said, laughing. His eyes fell to the steering column, saw the glint of metal. He laughed too.
“Come on. Scooch.”
“You’ll be careful?” he asked.
“Hell no,” she said. The look in her eyes both excited and terrified him. He opened the door, got out and circled around the back as she slid across the console into the driver’s seat.
He’d barely got his seatbelt on when she jammed the car into reverse and gunned it backward, braking late.
“Jesus,” he yelped.
“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” She put it in drive, hit the accelerator.
The car wasn’t powerful, but she extracted all of what it had, careering up and down hilly streets, the wind rushing inside, her manic laughter surrounding him. He held onto the dash, white fingertips boring marks into the vinyl.
He must have told her to slow down twenty times, moving from requests to pleading. She didn’t listen.
At some point, the car rocketed past the city limits, down a road he didn’t know, trees close and leaning in. The weak lights on his car did little to illuminate the dark countryside.
“Candice, stop. Stop now,” he ordered. She didn’t listen. Just kept going. “Now, or I stop us. This is crazy,” he implored. She never even glanced at him, just kept grinning, driving into the dark tunnel of trees.
He later blamed the pot for the rash decision. She did too. But there was something else there too. He didn’t like losing control.
He wrenched hard on the parking brake.
The car screamed; Candice might have as well. The back tyres locked and sent smoke into the air, as the car fishtailed across the bitumen. It must have put Candice off her game because at the last moment she jerked the wheel, and the car spun, slid off the road, and ended up facing back the way they’d come. They’d been lucky. It had pulled up a few feet shy of a large gum tree, angled up on an embankment. Adrian could smell sap, eucalyptus, burnt rubber.
In the aftermath, the world was silent outside, harsh breathing inside. Candice still gripped the wheel tightly, hunched, staring out the windscreen into the sickly yellow beams of the headlights.
She turned slowly, looked at him. He felt his face grow hot. He shrugged, his effort at an apology.
“You crazy son of a bitch,” she said, so quietly he almost didn’t hear her. To his surprise she grabbed his shirt and pulled him hard into a kiss. Then her hands were on his chest, his stomach, undoing the zip of his pants.
He knew that, whatever this was, it was dangerous. He let it happen anyway.
He tells himself he no longer needs Candice’s approval, but he’s not sure that’s true. Would he have really volunteered to take the new number thirty-three bus route if she hadn’t judged him the other day? Passively of course, nothing said directly. But he had a toe in the water, felt the temperature change, and now he’s reacted.
No one else wanted the route because it meanders through the new estates on the outskirts of the city. Which are a long way from his home, and the depot. A long way from everything, really. Nevertheless, he finds the drive pleasant.
This far out, most people use cars, so passengers are few, and mostly polite elderly people making trips to the shops. The bus is new. It has that new-car smell, laced with a hint of diesel. It’s cool, the air conditioner cranked high.
The bus groans as he slows for a roundabout (they’re everywhere in these new suburbs). He leans in his seat as he swings out onto it. The bus roars as he exits, as he accelerates again, moves up through the gears.
His only passenger hits the stop button, which dings, and he drifts to a stop beside the next bus shelter. The old man steps off. No one boards. He drives the empty bus away.
He turns onto Peterman Drive, which runs along the edge of the new estates. A long, double lane road with half-built houses on the left, and paddocks marked for future subdivision on the right. He speeds up to 80, the limit out here, enjoys the feel of the heavy machine powering over the bitumen.
That’s when he sees it: the hut from the USB, alone amongst a field of yellow canola.
A cool sweat emerges upon his forehead. He feels weak, and anxious. He can’t help but stop.
He doesn’t screech on the brakes or swing the steering wheel wildly; he’s an experienced bus driver. He checks his mirrors, signals, pulls to the left, gently riding the brakes until he rolls to a smooth stop. The doors open with a hiss, hot air spilling into the cab momentarily neutralising the effects of the air conditioner. He sits in his seat for a beat, thinking, then he puts the hazard lights on, jumps out.
He walks around the back of the bus. A burst of hot air rushes over him as a car races by. Then it’s just him, the bus still idling, gurgling away, and the hut in the middle of the paddock.
It’s a couple of hundred metres back from the road, surrounded by a high, chain-link fence. Weeds have grown up around it, a few stray canola plants mixed in. There’re no power lines, no telephone lines. The hut doesn’t look like it belongs in its current location. It must have been moved. He wonders if it has heritage status. That might explain the fencing.
He removes his phone, takes a couple of photos, then, on a whim, he records a short video. About thirty seconds. When he’s done, he plays it back. It’s the sound that strikes him. The sound of his bus. It comes through his phone speakers tinny, small, but so familiar it sets the hairs on his arms on end. The gurgle of his bus through his phone sounds like the low drone that soundtracks the video on the USB.
He swallows, appraises the hut again. He glances at the bus, at his phone, sees the time. He’s been here ten minutes. He’ll be in the shit if he doesn’t get back on his route soon.
He takes one last look, puts his phone away and climbs back on board. He’s suddenly certain he’s not alone, that a passenger, way up back, has been watching him. He glances in the mirror hurriedly, but there’s no one there. He shudders, checks his side mirrors, eases the bus back out onto the road. As he drives, he can’t shake the feeling that he’s being watched.
Adrian sits at the kitchen bench, hunched over his computer. He doesn’t realise Candice is close until he feels her hand caress his shoulder. He jerks upright, feels her breath against his cheek.
“This again. It’s really got you in, hasn’t it? Any luck?”
He half turns, and she’s right there. He can smell her, feel her warmth. If she notices his discomfort, she doesn’t let on. She’s focussed on the video.
“This isn’t from the USB. I took it this afternoon with my phone,” he says.
“Your phone?” She turns toward him. They’re close. Their lips barely a couple of inches apart. An instinct directs him to close the distance, kiss her. Another makes him turn away. He looks at the screen again without really seeing it. His other senses are focussed on her, where his eyes want to be. Her heat, the feel of her hand resting on his shoulder, the scent of lavender soap, the soft sound of her breathing. He doesn’t know why she makes him nervous these days. He’s a school kid with a first crush. A girl he likes, but says he doesn’t.
“I’m driving a new route—”
“Really,” she interrupts. “Good for you.” She doesn’t seem afflicted with his hesitancy. She kisses him on the cheek, casually throws an arm around him. He tries not to recoil—they’ve barely touched in God knows how long. His fault, mostly. Because he’s worried he’s not good enough. Because he didn’t live up to her expectations. Because he stopped her seeing her dying mother and how do you forgive something like that? He’s punishing himself, he knows. But if he doesn’t, wouldn’t she?
“It’s out on the other side of the city where Sunder Estates is going up. Right toward the backend of the route, I find this hut. I had to stop and take a couple of shots.”
“And a video.”
She releases him, sits on the stool next to him, leans into his space to get a closer look. The video is paused, but she hits play. He watches with her. The hut. His eyes focus on the left window. He wonders if she sees it. The subtle movement in the curtain. Not brushed aside, but pressed, like someone has leaned on it, pushed it up against the window. And all the while there’s the gurgling drone of his idling bus, transformed somehow into something that burrows into his teeth.
“It looks so similar to what you were watching the other night.”
And sounds the same, he thinks, but doesn’t say.
“Did you go in? What’s inside?” she asks.
“I was working. I couldn’t.” He glances at her and is pleased when she doesn’t shoot him a disapproving glare.
“Okay. Well, when are we going to check it out?” she asks, regarding him with a cocked eyebrow and a smirk.
“Why not? Can’t let you have all the fun.”
He suddenly feels young again. An adventure. They used to go everywhere together and say it was an adventure. Even when it wasn’t. Shopping. The beach. A day trip to nowhere. A weekend away. She made it adventurous. She’d make something up, do something stupid, bring along some dope or grog, and he enjoyed it, mostly. And the little part of him that didn’t, the times she made him nervous or fearful, well, he felt alive, at least. Unlike this novocaine existence he’s leading now.
“Okay. Yes,” he says, like he’s just made up his mind. “Let’s do it together. Find out what the hell this thing is all about. How about tomorrow?”
She makes a clicking sound with her tongue and teeth. An ‘I’d like to but can’t’, sound, and instantly he feels the adrenaline leak from his system, his shoulders slump.
“Tomorrow is packed with client meetings,” she says.
“I understand,” he jumps in quickly. “They’re more important.” Always are, he thinks. “Maybe some other time.”
The short video has ended. He reaches out and closes the laptop, rises from the stool.
“Where are you going?”
“Garage,” he says. He sees that she knows that he’s getting up to leave her. To be by himself, where he can keep his hands and mind busy over nothing important.
“Fuck it,” she says stopping him. He looks back. “No, I’m in. I’ll blow off my four o’clock appointment. But be ready to go as soon as I get home, okay? I want to check it out before it gets dark.”
He finds himself grinning like a kid who’s been told it’s Christmas tomorrow. He nods. “Four it is.”
They went to Thailand after Candice graduated. A last hurrah before she started work as an accountant.
Ostensibly, he was still studying, but he couldn’t settle. He moved through a variety of unrelated subjects hoping something would stick. He quite enjoyed astrophysics, but Candice convinced him there was no future in it. So, he enrolled in marketing. A future she could see herself in when they got back to Australia.
For the first week in Thailand, they holed up in a backpacker dive on Khao San Road, Bangkok. Each day seemed hotter than the last. Smog and sweat, the stench of baked bitumen, exhaust, and ripe, tropical fruit. Head in a constant haze, hungover from the night before, the smell of alcohol sweating from his pores. Of a night they’d walk the strip, drink and eat at little plastic tables that appeared on the street at dusk. Drink some more.
They’d find somewhere to dance, make chit chat with fellow backpackers, drink. Finish the night with a feed of cheap street food, a bottle of water from the 24 hour Seven Eleven, fuck, pass out.
On the second to last day in Bangkok, they spent the day on the roof of the hostel. There was a pool up there, umbrellas, an outdoor bar. It was no tropical oasis. Mostly baking cement, thick smog that obscured the view of the city. The pool water was more soup warm than refreshing.
They were both laying on deck chairs, two large bottles of Singha beer on the table between them. Candice might have been reading something, but he wasn’t. He was staring up into that half gloom that obscured the sun. A shadow passed over him, and when he looked, he found a pale, red headed girl looking at them both.
“Hi,” she said, an Australian accent. “This seat taken?” she asked, gesturing to the empty chair beside Candice.
“Nope, all yours,” Candice answered, looking up from her book.
“Thanks so much,” she said. She spread a towel over the hot plastic surface, then lay down. She removed a cotton top to expose green swimmers and freckled, white skin. “My boyfriend and I just got in, and I’m excited. You guys been here long?” she asked. She began to lather sunscreen on her arms and neck. Adrian didn’t really want to chat. He felt like shit from the night before, hence the beer. His thinking was that if he could get drunk again, his body would be tricked into forgetting his hangover.
“Nearly a week,” Candice said. She placed her book face down. “We’re heading to Ko Tao tomorrow evening. We’re going to do some diving.”
“That sounds amazing,” the girl said, genuine excitement in her voice. “I haven’t heard of Ko Tao. Is it nice?”
“Hope so,” Candice responded. She hesitated, then rose a little and extended a hand. “I’m Candice, and this is my partner, Adrian.”
Adrian took the signal, half rose, waved. “Hey,” he mumbled, before slumping back onto his chair.
“Nice to meet you both. I’m Taylor.”
Taylor and Candice quickly eased into a conversation as if they’d known each other for years. Adrian was glad they didn’t try to involve him. He followed for a little while, but then allowed their words to dissolve into meaningless sounds. They washed over him like waves until he dozed in the chair.
When he woke it was dusk, and there was a big guy perched on the end of Taylor’s deck chair. Tall, well built, crewcut, like an army brat.
“Rise and shine,” Candice said. “This is Mike.”
Adrian reached for his beer, took a sip, found it hot. Mike leaned across Candice, extended a meaty hand. Adrian took it, uncomfortable with the way he veered into Candice’s space, skin touching skin.
“Hey,” Adrian said, pumping his hand once, releasing him. He was glad to watch Mike pull away from Candice again.
“Mike and Taylor were going to check out Soi Cowboy. Want to go?”
Adrian snorted a laugh. “The stripper district?”
“Yeah, it’ll be fun,” Candice said.
Adrian didn’t think it sounded much fun. It sounded odd. But he wasn’t going to argue in front of Candice’s new friends. “I guess,” he said.
When they went later that evening, he was surprised to find it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. Mike ended up being pretty decent. The bar they chose was topless, but it was too early in the evening for any of the crazy shit that Adrian was worried would make everyone feel uncomfortable. And most importantly, the place was air conditioned, which was a huge relief after six days of suffocating heat.
Out on the streets he’d seen and fed a baby elephant. With traditional music blaring from speakers around him, he’d bought bananas from the handler. He couldn’t help but wonder if the elephant was maltreated. Probably. And he felt guilty. Yet he enjoyed giving them to the calf, hoping they provided some joy for it, at least in that moment.
Candice sidled up to him, drawing his attention from Mike, who’d been talking about football.
“You having fun?”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning. “I am, actually. They’re nice people. Sorry about earlier, I—”
“Was hungover, I understand. We’re all good now, right?”
“You know I love you,” she whispered, and while it wasn’t the first time she’d said it, it made him tingle in his belly, his chest, his balls.
“I love you too,” he said, leaning in. She kissed him on the cheek, then the mouth, pulled back, leaned into his ear again.
“Taylor suggested we swap partners tonight. What do you think?”
Adrian jerked back like he’d been slapped. He felt a smirk on his lips, but then it fell as he saw the serious look on Candice’s face. He glanced at Mike, his arm around Taylor, watching him and Candice. They were waiting for him, he saw.
“What? I…” His head was spinning. He licked his lips, but couldn’t seem to wet them. He felt trapped, lost. He suddenly wanted to go home.
Candice draped two arms around his neck, pulled him close. “We don’t have to,” she whispered into his ear. “Of course we don’t. But… I’ve never done anything like that. I don’t think you have either. We’re young. We have our whole lives together…” she left the thought hanging.
He regarded Taylor again. It was like he was seeing her through fresh eyes. She was attractive, in her way. Lithe, athletic. Yet did that matter? He didn’t know. He looked at Mike. He didn’t like the thought of that huge body held up over Candice.
“You can say no,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I won’t mind.”
But was that true?
Before he could answer, the bargirl arrived with the tequila shots Mike had ordered. He grabbed one quickly and threw it back, grimacing as it burned his throat.
“And after?” he said.
“After, we go back to normal. This is an overseas thing. A Thailand thing.”
“What stays in Thailand,” he muttered, and she chuckled, nodded. He sighed. “I’ll need a few more of these,” he said, holding up the empty shot glass, waggling it.
She kissed him again. Long, passionate. But he felt something leak from him. Something he wasn’t sure he’d get back.
He sits in the passenger seat staring out the window as the city falls away behind them. He knows where to go, but Candice insists on following the GPS.
He wonders who all of these people are that have decided to pitch houses on flat ground miles from the city. He realises his house was probably like this once. Until suburbs grew around it, leaving him feeling entitled to judge others who had to settle further out.
The car slows, and he shakes himself from his stupor. Candice has turned onto Peterman Drive, houses on the left, paddocks on the right. She accelerates, and soon he sees the cabin nestled amongst the canola crop, the chain link fence around it.
He looked up cabins like this on his computer and found a number of images of huts in the snowy mountains. Alpine cabins used by drovers, or people who’d become lost. A shared, public resource. Temporary protection against cold winter nights, death.
Perhaps this cabin was the same, once. Its odd location only because the forest that once surrounded it has long been cleared, the surrounding country terraformed into arable land. Now, even that has been encroached upon by suburban sprawl.
Gravel crunches under the wheels of the car as Candice eases onto the verge. Adrian feels the seatbelt grip his chest as Candice brakes more harshly than she intended. She cuts the engine, silencing the tick, tick, tick of the indicator and the buzz of the engine. It’s abruptly silent. Invasively quiet. Not another car to be seen or heard on this stretch of new road that looks designed for back-to-back traffic. Future planning at work, Adrian thinks.
“Well,” Candice says, the edge of her lips turned up in an excited smile. “What now?”
If he’s honest, he hasn’t thought that through. That chain link fence looks larger than he remembers. “I guess we go check it out.”
They exit the car, check the road for non-existent traffic, cross together. Adrian notices a chorus of buzzing that he presumes is locusts in the canola plants.
The first hurdle is easy enough. A wire fence set a few metres back from the road. Star pickets and three strands of wire. He pulls the top wire up taut so that Candice can duck, and slide through the gap he’s made. Then he pushes the same wire down hard, so he can step over it and onto the uneven ground of the paddock. There are depressions in the ground like livestock trod through here recently. Depressions hidden amongst the vibrant green plants, the golden canola flowers.
“Watch your step,” he says, as he leads the way, pushing a path through the flora, trying not to crush too much of the crop.
It doesn’t take long to reach the chain link fence. He places a hand on it, clawing his fingers through the hexagonal holes. He glances back the way he’s come, sees Candice with eyes downcast on the path ahead, sees the thin trail they’ve cut through the canola. It’s obvious that they are the first people to come out to this cabin in a while, at least since the crop matured. It makes him wonder if the maker of the video wanted him to come out here after all.
Candice catches up, places a hand on his shoulder. “How do we get in?”
He doesn’t know, so he doesn’t reply. He should have brought some pliers to cut the fence. Although would he have done that? That’s surely a crime. He spies a gate along the east side, points. “Maybe we try that.”
“Good work, Sherlock,” Candice says. She goes past him toward the gate.
Adrian hesitates, surveys the rest of the boundary. He wonders again about the fence. If this were a heritage site, shouldn’t it have a sign? Something advising of the significance of this construction, why it is being protected, how it is being restored? But he sees nothing like that. He shakes the thought, follows Candice.
The gate is chained, padlocked. But when he rattles it, he sees that there is plenty of flex. He pushes until the gate strains against the chain, and Candice gives a little joyous yelp as she drops to hands and knees and, awkwardly, squeezes through the gap at the bottom. Once through, she holds the gate for him. It’s a tighter fit for him. A stray piece of wire tears his shirt and draws blood from his arm, but he gets through.
Candice moves toward the front door. Adrian glances back at the road, checks they are alone. They are. No cars in sight, no people. Yet he feels watched. He surveys the hut, no cameras. He’s just on edge about trespassing, he thinks. He follows Candice up onto the porch where she waits by the door.
“Shall I do the honours?” she asks. “Or you?”
“You do it,” he says. He expects it to be locked, but the old, rusted, metal handle turns smoothly, and the wooden door swings open silently. A waft of stale air hits him. A smell of wood, and dust.
It’s darker inside, cooler. It takes a few seconds for Adrian’s eyes to adjust. He steps over the threshold.
It’s small, one room, and oddly furnished. Adrian’s eyes are drawn to the faded pink recliner sitting on a modern, floral rug. An old, portable television, rabbit ears akimbo, is set on a high table in front of the chair. There’s something odd about the TV. There’s a weird silver box attached to the left side, which looks homemade.
Next to the recliner is a side table, a book set on top at an odd angle, as if someone tossed it there casually after reading.
The rest of the room is more predictable. On the far side is a wood stove made of thick, black metal, and a small woodpile. There’s a kitchen bench and metal sink nearby, and a table made from an old, thick stump. On the right, pressed up against the wall, a single bed frame, no mattress, springs rusted.
“Wow,” Candice says quietly as she eases past Adrian and moves to the kitchenette. She squats down and opens the stove, which squeaks.
Adrian’s eyes are drawn to the recliner, to the television. He moves closer, appraises the book on the table: Infinite Possibilities: Navigating the Multiverse. A glance toward Candice shows her still investigating the kitchen. He slumps into the recliner, picks up the book.
There’s a clicking sound. He looks up to see the television warming up. The screen clarifies into an image of a person’s head and neck. A very familiar head and neck. His head and neck.
Adrian’s heart beats harder, and he feels a sensation in his bowels like someone squeezing. He feels like he’s falling.
The man on the screen is not exactly like him, he realises. This version wears glasses, is a little thicker around the neck, a little greyer at the temples. And yet the resemblance is uncanny. It’s like staring long and hard at your own reflection in the mirror until you begin to really take in the details of your skin, until familiar images begin to appear strange.
Other Adrian, he thinks.
Other Adrian opens his mouth to speak, but then Candice drops an old frypan, which clangs loudly. Other Adrian’s eyes behind the thick glasses dart somewhere to Adrian’s left as if he can, impossibly, see into this room. As if he has just heard that clang, and has noticed Candice.
Other Adrian looks back at Adrian, scowls, shakes his head ever so slightly, then the image is gone, the screen black again.
Adrian can’t move. He stares at the blank screen, can just make out a distorted reflection of himself. He tries to rationalise what he just saw, but can’t. It’s like when he was a kid and took apart his watch to understand how it worked, but couldn’t put it back together again.
He jumps when Candice touches his shoulder. “Are you just chilling out or something?” she says, snorting a laugh. “Find any clues?”
Clues? He’s not sure. He found something. “Did you…” he points at the television.
“You didn’t…” he tries again, still staring at the blank screen. “I saw… I found…”
“What?” she says, confused. He understands that she missed it.
He recalls Other Adrian scowling, the shake of the head, and intuits that the image wasn’t meant for her. He did something wrong bringing her here. Perhaps he did something wrong in coming here himself. He tears his eyes from the screen, glances at the book he’s holding. It feels heavy in his hands.
Candice takes it from him, looks at it. A smile slowly materialises on her face. “This is neat,” she says. “Your next clue, I’d say.”
“You didn’t notice?”
She holds the book out toward him. He reads the title again. He doesn’t understand. His face bunches, and he sees that Candice sees he isn’t following.
“You’re focusing on the wrong thing,” she says, pointing toward the bottom of the book cover. “Apparently, this book was written by you.”