Road Trip

The white Holden slowly crawled north on State Highway one.
“When are they going to do something about this road?” said Catherine.
“It’s almost lunchtime. Shall we stop soon?” John took his eyes briefly from the road to look towards the back of the car.
It was littered with crumbs. The two children dozed quietly in their car seats. The back seat resembled a toy box.
A sign on the side of the road informed drivers they were approaching a road stop and picnic area.
John flicked his indicator on and pulled to the left. When the motion stopped, the two children sleepily rubbed their eyes.
“Are we there yet?” Emma asked. John smiled at the age-old question.
“No.” said Catherine. “We told you it was a long way.”
John looked at his wife as she spoke, frowning as he noted the brittle edge to her voice and the wrinkled brow that was now her constant companion.
John unbuckled his son from the seat. He rumpled his hand through Ethan’s soft blonde curls before setting the child on the ground. Ethan looked over at the playground and came to life. Being cooped up in a car didn’t suit him.
“Lunch first.” ordered John in a loud voice. Anticipating a bolt for freedom he grabbed his son’s hand.
Catherine pulled the picnic basket from the car boot and they wordlessly headed towards the nearest table.
The park was a good one for children. A large grassy area led onto a hill from which a long slide was resting. A flying fox linked to it from a tower, and numerous swings surrounded them. There was a treed path leading towards a duck pond, winding out of sight behind it. The murmer of happy children filled the air. It was a beautiful day and John enjoyed the feel of the warm sun and the happy chattering of his children as they ate.
“Can we have a muffin afterwards Mum?” asked Emma in a loud voice.
“If you eat all your sandwiches.”
The food was soon finished and the picnic basket returned to the car.
“Want to play?” said Ethan. He ran off before waiting for a reply and his parents and sister followed close behind.
A few minutes later John was pushing Emma and Ethan on their swings. He watched Catherine walk to a nearby bench and dropped her bag beside it.
“Higher! Higher!” Emma called giggling as the swings were pushed in unison. He tried to remember the last time Catherine had joined them in play. Since going back to work, she always seemed distracted. John felt he had doubled his parenting efforts so the children didn’t notice.
Angrily he looked at her, trying to get some reaction. Ignoring her own children, she was focussed in the opposite direction. He looked towards the small group of children she was watching. The children appeared to range from around four to early teens. They wore tattered, dirty clothes contrasting with the other children playing in the park. One child in particular caught his eye. Overgrown dark hair flew behind the boy. John guessed him to be around eight. His shorts looked too tight and his tee shirt was ripped and grubby. The boy shrieked with laughter and ran off as a small girl lunged towards him. John’s eyes searched to see if the children had parents with them. There didn’t seem to be anyone.
The boy was still running, coming closer to the swings. John flicked a concerned glance to Catherine. She was still in her own world. He looked back towards the boy. He didn’t trust those children.
“Catherine.” He tried to get her attention. The boy noticed him and swerved, making a direct line towards Catherine’s seat. John finally caught her attention. The boy came closer, his breath now in audible gasps. John took a step towards him. The boy slowed for a second as he bent low, jerking their bag from the ground and carrying it off with him. John moved within a few metres of the boy, reaching out a hand to grab him. The boy ducked below John’s grasp, sprinting off before he had a chance to react.
“Hey!” yelled John.
Putting his head down, John motored after the boy.
“Get the kids back to the car, Catherine” he called over his shoulder. No child was going to outrun him.
The boy sprinted towards the path by the pond. As he reached the fork, he slackened off the pace. John was close enough to see the shock on the boys face when he looked back and finally noticed him.
“Just give up the bag boy.” Heavy breaths punctuated John’s voice. The boy raced down the path, still holding the bag securely in his grasp.
John looked ahead to see if there was anyone he could call to for help. It was just the boy and himself. The child probably knew this park like his own backyard. He wouldn’t let him get away.
As he rounded a bend he caught a glimpse of the boy darting up a side path. John ignored the squeeze of his chest. He was gaining quickly. The boy was losing energy and John was now within reach. Diving, he grabbed the boy around the ankles in a perfect tackle. The boy’s body crashed down and his head flung sideways, hitting a tree with a loud crack.
John grabbed the bag and looked back to the boy. He wasn’t moving. Blood oozed down the side of his head. John put the bag down and shook the boy. No response. He felt the wrist for a pulse. Was there anything? The boy felt like a rag doll in his arms. He could feel his own heart pulsating strongly, pumping adrenaline through his veins. He needed help. John pulled out his mobile phone. He pressed his hand to the number one. The picture of Emma and Ethan saved on the front of his phone caught his eye. He looked around – was anyone watching? His legs moved as if separate beings, back towards his wife, his children and the sanctuary of the car.
A few metres up the track he jolted to a stop. He’d left the bag behind! Acid threatened to come up from his stomach and he swallowed it back. Returning to the boy he picked the bag up, and again looked around. Nothing.
He was out of breath when he arrived at the car. The children were already strapped in and Catherine was in the front passenger seat.
“You got it!” she said, her face showing relief.
“Yeah.” John made a quick decision. “The boy threw it back.”
John started the car, and pulled quickly out of the car park.
“We won’t be stopping here again.” John blinked quickly, trying to erase the memory.
The next day dawned bright and clear. It was a Sunday. John was up before the rest of the family seated at the computer. He checked the news headlines. Easily he found what he was looking for.
“Boy Found Dead in Park” read the headline. John felt the acid rising again as his fears were confirmed. The police were seeking anyone who had been in the area. Had anyone seen anything? He couldn’t think. The whole afternoon was a blur, except for that limp body.
That night he struggled to tuck his children into bed. After reading their story his sat outside on the deck. Catherine had gone into work again. On a Sunday.
“John, are you smoking again?” Catherine must have just come home.
He looked at her. She had no idea and he was going to keep it that way. She backed inside with a final glare. He piled the empty beer cans into a corner, and made his way inside. Stopping on his way to bed he looked at his two children in turn, sleeping peacefully, unaware of the turmoil their father was in.
Lying in bed, he could hear Catherine snoring softly beside him. John closed his eyes and tried to shut his mind too. Again and again, all he could see was the boy. Finally the contents in his stomach came all in a rush. Jumping out of bed, he made it to the bathroom just in time.
Catherine was sitting up in bed now.
“What’s wrong?”
“I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
She looked at him, and lay back down. This time he could hear her awake beside him.
The next morning his eyes were bleary from lack of sleep. Switching the dial of the shower to cold he embraced the icy spray.
When he emerged his wife was waiting in the kitchen.
“You’re not at work yet?” he said.
“I want to talk.”
He grunted in response. He had tried to pin her down for conversation many times over the last few months. He wasn’t in the mood now.
“Sure. Can we make it tonight?” He opened the door and rushed out before she could say anything more. He felt her eyes boring into him, and resisted the urge to look back to see if she really was glaring. He excelled a breath of air. There wasn’t anything to tie him to the incident.
That night, he walked in the door with a lighter step.
“Hi. How was your day?” His daughter was drawing quietly in the lounge. He admired her red and purple handiwork for a moment.
“Are you happy Daddy?” she asked.
“Of course Daddy’s happy darling.” Where had that question come from?
He avoided Catherine all evening. He wasn’t in the mood to talk. After the children were in bed there was no avoiding her. She stood in the doorway to the kitchen with her arms folded across her chest. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her make-up was immaculate and her expression indiscernible.
“John, I want you to move out.”
“Sorry?” He knew exactly what she had said. He just hadn’t managed to process the information.
“I don’t love you anymore.”
He looked at her. They hadn’t spent any time together for months. Did he still love her?
“Who is he?”
“It’s not like that. But if you must know there is someone else.”
He looked at her cold perfect face. It took an effort to hide his fears from his face. He would not give her that satisfaction.
“I know what happened in the park. I saw it in the paper. It wasn’t hard to work it out. Don’t try to stop me. I want the house and the kids. Give me what I want and I won’t tell the police you killed that boy.” The speech sounded rehearsed. It probably was he realised.
“Kevin is a lawyer.” Catherine had a smug expression on her face as she continued. John finally began to feel the anger.
“Why are you doing this?”
She looked at him for a long moment.
“It’s not personal John.”
“What about the children?”
“By tomorrow John. You have to go.”
John broke eye contact first, slamming the door behind him as he left the kitchen. The bile was back in his stomach. His children. His home. His life. He turned the ignition of the car. There was only one place he could think of to go. It couldn’t make things any worse.
There was a carpark right outside the small building. He drove the white Holden directly into it, turning the key off. He sat motionless for a few moments. Was he doing the right thing? He didn’t suppose he had been left with an option.
Sighing he got out of the car and walked briskly into the Police Station. The reception area was grey and plain. A few chairs were there and one man sat waiting. There was a uniformed officer sitting behind a counter, separated from the main foyer by a solid grid. He looked up expectantly as John walked in.
“Can I talk to someone please? About the incident that happened near Levin. The boy who was found dead. I need to make a statement.”
The policeman looked at him without expression.
Certainly Sir. Just wait here please.”
A few minutes passed. John leaned against the counter. He felt very calm.
“Please take a seat. Someone will be with you soon.” John had barely noticed the Police Officer arrive back.
John went to where the other person was waiting. He chose the furthermost chair. No reason to encourage conversation. He needed to get word perfect for his statement. It was almost half an hour before anyone come to see him. John was led into a small room. A Formica table and hard chairs adorned this room.
“You have a statement to make?”
John couldn’t stop talking. The whole story flowed out, all the while the tape recorder hissed in the background.
The moment the boy tripped was the only time he deviated from the truth.
“The boy looked, he looked over his shoulders at me. He tripped on something. He dropped the bag. Before he had time to get up I grabbed the bag and ran back to the car.”
Question after question assaulted John. Every little point was dissected. He didn’t have to lie. Everything was as it happened. Almost. John knew there was no reason to disbelieve him. A few CSI episodes had been showing in his mind. But he had shoved them back where they belonged. That was television.
The next morning he woke up with a heavy pit in his stomach. When he walked out to the kitchen Catherine was there. A tall man in a suit was with her. His blonde hair was brushed to the side. He was relaxed in John’s kitchen with a cup in front of him. His wife and her companion looked at him as if he was an unwelcome guest in his own home.
“Kevin will be moving in this weekend.”
“Where are the children?” John asked.
“They’re at the neighbours. I didn’t want them to see you leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” He said, “You want to live with Kevin you go shack up with him. I’m staying here. And so are my children.”
Catherine made as if to pick up the phone.
“Are you sure you want me to ring the police?” Her voice dripped with malice. This woman had never cared about him.
“Go for it.” John said coolly. As she dialled the number he continued. “I’ve already talked to them. The police that is.”
She paused dialling and looked at him.
“I told them everything.”
“I’ll tell them you killed the boy deliberately.” Catherine’s voice was high pitched. Finally, some emotion.
“You weren’t even there. Why would they believe you anyway? You’re nothing but a lying unfaithful bitch.” John glanced condescendingly at Kevin before glaring back at Catherine.
Kevin stood up and tried to bluster forward. John took a step towards him without listening.
“If you don’t mind Kevin, get out of my home.” He gestured at his wife without looking at her. “Have your lawyer contact mine. I don’t want to see you again.”
John stalked out of the room. He couldn’t resist a small smile. It wouldn’t be easy alone with the kids. But at least he loved them. He banished the thought of the dead boy from his mind. Not his problem.