The music coming through Charlie’s earphones just about managed to drown out the more cacophonous music coming from the stereo, but there was no avoiding the physical thump of the bass. It felt too similar to the hard, fast beat of a panicked heart for him to disentangle it from his own anxiety.
Pairs of legs walked past the table Charlie sat under in the kitchen, some bare as far up as he could see, some clad in wrinkled jeans. Nobody bothered him. Nobody knew he was there. Charlie had mastered the art of disappearing.
Charlie was six songs into his Best of the Nineties tape when a familiar pair of legs approached the table. His dad hadn’t seen him hide himself away in here, but he knew Charlie well enough to find him. Charlie hit pause on his walkman as his dad crouched down.
Pinprick pupils met Charlie’s gaze as his dad tossed three fifty dollar notes into his lap. “Keep that safe, okay? Don’t lose it.”
Charlie nodded as he gathered the notes, carefully folded them, and shoved them deep into his pocket. For simple things, he was reliable.
Charlie’s dad was just starting to get up again when someone laughed and dropped to the floor next to him. A young man, maybe university aged, with spiked up hair and a can of beer in his hand. “What are you doing on the floor, mate?”
The guy grinned broadly when his eyes landed on Charlie, but Charlie’s dad’s face was flat and annoyed. Even high he looked tired, old. He hadn’t shaved in days and he’d started looking like he needed a haircut a few weeks ago.
“Why are you under a table, kid?” the guy asked, then grabbed Charlie’s walkman without waiting for an answer. “Hey, you have one of these! One of these, uh, things.”
Normally Charlie was passive, quietly nonresistant, but his walkman was the one thing that mattered to him. He lunged forward and tried to grab it back, but he set himself off balance and it took barely more than a nudge from the guy to tip him backwards. His head thunked hard against something solid, sending pain strumming through his skull and scattering his thoughts. It took Charlie a moment to realise he’d hit his head against the table leg.
“Oh shit,” the guy said, but he was laughing. Charlie’s dad chewed at a hangnail and glanced around like there were places he’d rather be.
“Ryan, what the hell?” a female voice cut in. A woman, tiny and asian and around the same age as the guy, crouched down in front of the table. “Jesus, Ryan. What’s a kid even doing here, anyway?”
“He’s sixteen,” Charlie’s dad interjected.
“He’s your…” She looked between Charlie and his dad. “He’s your kid? You can’t bring a kid here. Holy shit, dude, he’s clearly not having a good time.”
“He’s sixteen,” Charlie’s dad repeated. Charlie didn’t like the edge to his voice, the growing agitation in his movements. The press of the building emotion in the small space under the table melted into the throbbing pain coming from the back of Charlie’s skull and created a confusing mix that disconnected the parts of Charlie’s brain capable of complex thought.
“And that’s too fucking young!” She twisted around and scanned the room. “Azza, he can’t have a sixteen year old kid here, right?”
There was a beat of silence before whoever she’d called out to responded. “Uh… nah, mate, maybe not. If the cops get called, y’know?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “How about because it’s shit parenting, y'know?”
Azza laughed. “Oh, fuck off. Yeah, sure, that too.”
Charlie’s dad didn’t respond, just grabbed Charlie’s wrist in a firm grip and hauled him up. Charlie managed to grab his walkman and narrowly avoided hitting his head on the edge of the table, and then he was being marched through the crowded house and out through the front door. As soon as they were outside, Charlie’s dad snatched the walkman from Charlie’s hand and threw it hard against the side of the house.
Something lurched deep in Charlie’s gut at the sound of plastic cracking and he twisted out of his dad’s grip. The second his fingers closed around his walkman, his dad pulled him up and dragged him towards the car. He opened the car door on the passenger side, shoved Charlie in, and then slammed the door and stomped around to the other side to get in.
“You’re so fucking useless,” Charlie’s dad grumbled as he jammed the key into the ignition. “Why do I even keep feeding you? You’re like a retarded puppy that keeps peeing on the carpet. If I had half a brain I’d just fucking get rid of you, right?”
Charlie ran his fingers along the new crack running down the front of his walkman. Was it just the plastic casing that was damaged, or was it finally broken for real? It hadn’t been new when he’d got it and after a few years of love the purple paint was worn away around the corners and buttons. It was hard to imagine it being anything but indestructible, though. He’d dropped it into a pool once and it had worked as well as ever after it had dried out.
Charlie’s dad strummed an agitated rhythm on the steering wheel as he turned onto the highway. There wasn’t much traffic this time of night.
Charlie’s gaze cut to the speedometer. “You’re going too fast.”
“Who gives a shit,” Charlie’s dad mumbled. The speed crept up.
“The police,” Charlie pointed out. “And I do. And you should. You’re not even wearing your seatbelt.”
For a second Charlie thought he’d gotten through to his dad as he took his eyes off the road and shifted around, but then his dad pressed the button to release Charlie’s own seatbelt.
“Don’t!” Charlie shouted and quickly buckled himself back in. “You shouldn’t be driving. You’re too high.”
“Oh, you don’t want to be in this car with me right now?” The pointer on the speedometer crept lower as the car began to slow, to the proper speed limit and then below it. “I think we can arrange that, huh?”
“I’m sick of your shit.” The car slowed to a stop on the side of the highway and Charlie’s dad pressed the release on Charlie’s seatbelt again. “Get out. You can walk home.”
Charlie looked around helplessly. He had no idea where there were in relation to home, but he knew it was too far to walk. His dad would have known it too if he was sober.
Charlie’s dad leant over him and opened the passenger side door. “Get out.” When Charlie didn’t move, his dad gave him a firm shove.
Charlie fell into darkness on the side of the road, hitting the ground shoulder first. Before he could get to his feet, the door slammed shut behind him and the car sped away.
It was a long moment before Charlie got to his feet, then only a few seconds before he had to sit again. He felt disconnected from the aches of his body, drowned so deep in his own mind that even fear didn’t truly reach him. Part of him wanted to walk into the bush that surrounded the highway, to keep walking until he no longer could, to simply disappear. The thought of slowly dying alone in the bush didn’t scare him like it should have.
Instead, he started walking along the highway in the direction his dad had driven. Maybe he’d turn around and come back. Maybe if Charlie walked long enough he’d find his way home on his own. He’d passed eleven electricity poles before he realised he still had his walkman clutched in his hand.
It was almost on reflex that Charlie put his earbuds in and pressed play. Deep in his chest, something relaxed as the sound of a familiar song enveloped him. It still worked just as well as ever. Indestructible. Charlie only wished he were that durable, that the many cracks in him didn’t affect how well he functioned.
Following the highway was the safest bet for finding his way home and the only way his dad would find him if he did come back, but it wasn’t a good route for pedestrians. Especially not in the dark. After a truck drove past him so close that the breeze from it made him stumble and then nearly falling down into a dry creek bed, Charlie took the next exit.
Nothing looked at all familiar. There was a row of shops, closed this time of night, and houses on the other side of the street. Just a regular suburban area. A bus pulled up ahead of him and somebody got off. If Charlie had money, he could…
But Charlie did have money. He had a hundred and fifty dollars. His dad would be mad if he spent it, but bus fare wasn’t much. There wasn’t time to think it through. Charlie pulled out his earbuds and hurried up the bus steps.
It wasn’t until Charlie had pulled out a fifty dollar note and held it out to the driver that he realised he didn’t know what to say, didn’t even know if he could make words come out of his mouth even if he could think of the right ones.
The bus driver, a slightly overweight middle aged woman, stared at the note for a second before shaking her head. “I can’t make change for that, love. You got anything smaller?”
Charlie slowly withdrew his hand. No, he didn’t have anything smaller. Belatedly he realised he needed to communicate that and shook his head.
“All right, don’t worry about it. Just get on.”
Charlie hesitated for a long moment, then turned and went to find a seat near the back. She had let him on even though he couldn’t pay. That had been a nice thing to do. He should have said thank you, but he couldn’t do words just then. He said it in his head instead. Thank you. Thank you.
He hadn’t really thought this bus thing through, though. There was only one right direction to go in and many wrong ones, and going the wrong way faster wouldn’t help him at all. But maybe, if the bus went to enough places, eventually he would recognise something. He could find somewhere he could start from to work his way home.
Three songs later, Charlie was almost certain they were heading in the exact opposite of the right direction. He stuck his earphone cord in his mouth and sucked on it. He should probably get off so that he didn’t get any further from home, but then what? This had been his one idea, his one chance at a solution. It wasn’t allowed to not work.
The bus weaved through suburban streets, letting people off and occasionally collecting new passengers. It was a weekday night and most people were heading home from work. They came and went calmly, locked into the comforting tedium of routine, each one knowing where they needed to go and how to get there.
Eventually the bus pulled back onto a main road where the lighting was better and Charlie could at least try to find some familiarity in his surroundings. Had he seen the train station they just passed before, or did all train stations just look the same? And that pub across the street, was that… had he…
Something squeezed in Charlie’s chest and churned his gut, panic or excitement. He’d been there. Many times, sitting alone at a table with a glass of orange juice in front of him while his dad sat at the counter and talked with his friends. He remembered the ice cubes they had, the ones with the holes through the middle you could poke the black straws through. It had been years ago, back when the only time he’d spent with his dad was occasional weekend visits, but he remembered. Charlie slammed his hand on the bell.
The bus didn’t stop immediately, but that was okay because things only go more familiar from there. The bus headed up the hill, past rows of small shops and towards the shopping centre he’d gone to every weekend with his mum to get groceries. The bus stopped in front of it and Charlie got out.
Charlie smiled and felt like he might cry. He knew where he was, and where he was felt like home like nowhere he’d lived with his dad ever had. They moved around too much and his dad couldn’t be counted on to be the same person from one day to the next. Charlie was a block away from the shopping centre before he even really registered that he’d started walking, but he knew where he was going. He was going home.
It wasn’t that close — far enough that he’d always taken the bus with his mum instead of walking — but Charlie knew the way. He felt distant from the aches of his body and the turmoil of his mind, but the simple act of walking without thinking soothed out the jitters in him. This whole event felt like a dream, like he could be swallowed whole by it any second and like whatever happened nothing could truly harm him. Halfway through the journey, the song Charlie was listening to slowed to a deep warble and then stopped as the batteries in his walkman finally died.