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FICTION / Redwood / Joseph Thwaites

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He lay on the hard sand, face pink and cold, dappled with some combination of sea spray and tears. In his hand he held a knife. It was night and the ocean was grey and plaintive. He remembered that most of the cold one feels is psychological and not physical, but the information was of no help. The tide was coming in. Robert felt they would prolong this moment as long as they possibly could. He coughed up seawater. Was this the end to which he was working, to which he had been led? He searched for the right word, but quickly gave up and began a wordless prayer for lightning. His left shoe was missing. Culmination. It would simplify things so much were he to be struck right here on the spot. Was it sand that turned to glass when struck by lightning? Climax. Was what he witnessed classified as martyrdom? Dénouement. Perhaps he wasn’t as special as he had thought. Two high water marks. He looked at the wet knife and decided the scene was lacking in moonlight.

Layers. Layers upon layers upon layers. How had he not seen it before? There was no way the landscape before him could be real. The way the sun hit each niveous coastal house was far too bright and artificial, as if under interrogation light. Each home seemed to be positioned perfectly in assiduous order across the headland, dipping and rising along with Robert as he ran. He wanted to sprint at it, to catch the people conducting the ruse off-guard, find them red-faced holding cardboard cut outs and operating industrial projectors. But he knew them too well. They would be faster; the land would materialise long before he got to it. He had only seen them slip up once before. 

            

Robert ran straight to Tim’s house. He opened the side door of the garage to find Tim on the couch watching M.A.S.H.

“Tim, I’ve got it. I did it.” Robert said through heavy panting. 

Tim’s eyes did not leave the TV. “What are you talking about?” 

“I did what you said. I took control. I made my own scene. Then on my way here the headland wasn’t rendering properly. Tim, I think you’re right.”

The room was redolent microwaved pizza.

“Well of course I’m right.” Tim turned off the television and with some effort rose from the couch to look at Robert gravely, “What exactly did you do? Quickly now because they are already planning on how to smooth this out.” 

“Should we go somewhe—”

“No. No time for that now.”

Robert took a deep breath. 

“Okay, so you know those dinners Lucien hosts—”

Tim nodded and mhhmm’ed impatiently. 

“—Well I was there and was watching everyone talk and interact and the girls fixing their hair in the reflections of their spoons and the guys spout these perfected anecdotes and it all just came upon me—Tim’s right. It’s all bullshit, all performance. So I stood up halfway through the meal and basically told them all to go fuck themselves then ran out. Honestly, man, I had my doubts, but it was the look on their faces that really confirmed it. They all had that confused look of actors when their interlocutor goes off—”

“Interlocutor?”

“—when the person they’re talking to goes off book. They kind of all looked at each other like is this really happening what should we do. I’ve seen that exact fucking look before, when I was a kid. And so I just ran from the room. I came right here. But get this, on the way down Cauvery I was watching the headland and the sunset and I swear to God the lighting was all wrong. It was a rendering problem or something. There was this weird bright white light on everything. They didn’t think I would be leaving Lucien’s house so they hadn’t prepared a sunset.” 

Robert had Tim’s full attention. 

“Okay,” Tim paused, his tone serious, “our next move is very important. We need to act now if we want to catch them out. Even while we talk they are taking all the possible precautions. Once we separate I guarantee you they won’t let us see each other again. First, are you certain you want to do this, cause to get out of this we need to really—"

The smoke alarm went off. Tim’s head snapped round to look. His eyes were wide and pupils large.

“We have to leave now.”

He grabbed his keys and coat before running to the far side of the garage and getting a package, which he furtively tucked under his right arm. 

“That’s weird.” Robert broke the silence that had filled the car.

“What is?” Tim replied, fiddling with the windscreen wipers. 

“I could’ve sworn the Doppler effect only occurs when the source of the sound is moving, but listen, the smoke alarm’s beeps are growing further and further apart.”

“What smoke alarm?”

He was only a boy when it happened, sitting dejectedly on the faded floral couch-chair in the living room of his grandparents’ home. The room was large, but fragile. A thin wood of indistinguishable origin panelled the walls. The floors were lined with pale olive carpet, hard and flat, spotted with tea-coloured stains, and one of red wine. It fit the group well, allowing for easy movement and conversation. The house’s exterior was an unseemly rubbed-brick. It’s most prodigious—and only redeeming—feature was its view of the ocean, which it boasted unreservedly by way of excessive sash-windows, apparently inserted wherever wall space allowed. From almost any room one could look out the windows to the splendour of the sight below, able to forget entirely the ugliness of the building from which they viewed it. Viridescent wiry grass and children playing. An archaic and sturdy cement bridge. The endless blue of the ocean. The idle, markedly content movement of beachgoers. But this view, to those familiar with it, to Robert, had become commonplace. One had to really focus on its beauty and their own fortune to appreciate it in any real sense of the word. 

As he stared out the window absent-mindedly taking in the scene, a single red balloon rose and ascended out of view. Then, a few seconds later, several more passed, this time of yellow, blue, and green. Robert stood, but his movement was interpreted as an effort to leave, and as he rose, so too did several of his family members, ready to amicably prolong his departure. He made a move for the window, but his mother was quick to obstruct the path. 

“Rob, where are you going? We haven’t even had cake yet.” 

Hundreds of balloons were now pouring past the window. Robert’s sister appeared next to his mother, obscuring further the great ascension. “Come help me in the kitchen, Bobby, you can go play later.” 

Robert looked around the room helplessly, no one seemed to be looking out any of the windows, their eyes were all on him, expectant, they waited for his response. 

The sun could no longer be seen on the horizon, though it’s light reflected on the sky, casting a grey wash over everything. One of the streetlights in the beach carpark worked, the other flickered intermittently. There was one other car. Tim squinted, making a show of his search for anyone still on the beach. Robert’s stomach felt empty. He got out of the car before Tim and watched as his friend stared out at the ocean and took exactly six long breaths before getting up.

“Tim, what are we doing here? What’s your plan?”

“I’ll tell you, but we need to go somewhere they can’t hear or see us, somewhere without cameras or microphones.”

He had still not looked at Robert.

“Not the usual spot?” 

“Not the usual spot.” 

Robert sensed trepidation in Tim’s voice, and came to realise his staring out into the ocean was not an affectation intended to give the appearance of deep thought or intelligence, as he had first suspected, but was instead an appraisal of the inevitable. His stare was that of dread and necessity.

“Okay.” Robert said, trying to instil a finality in his tone.

A silence ensued. The waves rolled quietly into shore. 

“Okay.” Tim echoed.

More silence followed.

“I guess we’d better do it now, they can’t be far off.”

“They’re probably losing their minds over this, you know. There’s some sort of perverse irony to be found in all this when you think about it, the fact that this whole town, whole little world, was built for us, and now we’re doing everything we can do to escape it.”

“We didn’t ask for this.”

“No, I suppose you’re right, we didn’t.” 

“But then who did?” 

Tim didn’t reply, he didn’t need to.

Robert wore his dress shoes but could tell the sand was cold through them. He was debating internally whether to disrobe or not but knew within that the decision was Tim’s to make. Tim was more experienced in matters such as these, Robert wasn’t sure how or why, but was certain of that much. He waited for his friend to say something as they approached the water, but his mind seemed elsewhere. Even though they were in it together, Robert knew this was a very personal journey. He paused at the water’s edge. Tim did not. 

Robert had first met Tim just under a year earlier. He was two years Robert’s senior, and, although aware of each other, the pair did not officially meet until after Tim had finished school. There is no university in Redwood, so all students progressing to tertiary study move out of home and onto campus in Burmingham or Altone or somewhere distant enough to make the transition from school to university a significant event for the town’s inhabitants. When he finished school, despite being an exceptional student, Tim did not go onto study, but started working at the dry-cleaners on Rosell Avenue. As a subject, he had always intrigued Robert. He had a large, round face, with dark eyes that seemed to be in a perpetual state of darting to and from. Unlike most people Robert saw, he found that Tim could not be pinned down as a person, could not be categorised, or reduced to a sentence, idea, or appearance. 

One evening Robert was asked to get his father’s dry-cleaning. He watched Tim work and the motorized garment carousel spin and felt somehow as though he was where he belonged. This trip to the dry-cleaners quickly became a weekly ritual, and within a couple of months Robert had developed something of a rapport with Tim, becoming more intrigued by him the more time they spent together.

After discussing school one week, Tim offered to help Robert with his history work. For three months, they met weekly in Tim’s parents’ garage and studied. Tim seemed very discerning, he watched Robert with an unabashed intensity as if he were trying to scare him off or communicate something. Robert found, once he overcame the unease, he quite liked this about Tim. One afternoon, five or so weeks before the friends would ease fully clothed into 8-degree ocean water, Tim urged Robert to dictate in order the battles of Napoleon, and to watch over his shoulder as he wrote them down. Beneath the Battle of Mount Tabor—though Robert had said the Siege of Jaffa—Tim wrote, ‘when I put the pen down, I am going to run. I need you to follow me.’ Robert was relieved, he had no idea what battle came next. 

They ran from the garage in darkness onto and up Cauvery, through several backyards and over fences, through knee-high grass and sparse trees, to the edge of West Head, which they walked along for some time until Tim seemed satisfied, and sat down on the rocky dirt at the base of a tree which leant backwards, holding years of ocean wind in its stance.

“Robert.”

“What’s going on?”

“Robert, there is something I need to tell you. I think it might be something you already know but I need you to hear it from me.”

“Tim, what the fuck is this? what are you talking about?”

“Sit down, please, and listen.”

Robert obeyed, watching Tim’s face in the moonlight, his eyes were closed.

“You must’ve noticed,” Tim paused, “there’s something weird about Redwood, about these people.”

He opened his eyes and looked at Robert.

“I have come to realise that this town is constructed. It’s some great elaborate experiment or piece of entertainment or something. There are cameras and microphones hidden everywhere. I haven’t been able to figure it out yet but I think it has been created with a very select group of people as its focus. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed strange things about this place, the people, the houses, the landscape.”

Robert thought of the balloons, but said nothing.

“Robert, I’m telling you this because for a very long time I thought I was alone in the experiment. I thought it was solely made for the purposes of watching and manipulating me. I felt this pressure, from all angles, to do things, you know, to succeed and excel and be social and normal. At around fifteen I realised this isn’t me, this isn’t what I want. I was being led down a path set out for me. My life, up until that point, had been exactly as they had planned it. And when I say ‘they’ I mean they. Authority figures. Teachers, parents, dominant friends. Those who don’t accept suggestions but make demands, whose presence puts you at immediate ill-ease, who you watch and can see the little gears turning behind their eyes as they plot how put you back on track, who live and act according to arcane codes. Robert, I realised the truth, and did everything I could to rebel against it.”

Robert picked up a dead leaf and began poking holes in it with a little twig.

“I tried everything. Not eating, eating too much, dressing weird, talking to myself, addressing them directly, focusing entirely on my studies, flunking out. I wanted to confuse them, but realised the more peculiar I acted, the more entertaining and interesting I became. This past year has been an exercise in restraint. I have led the most monotonous life I could dream up, omitting uni and writing and sports and socialising and carrying out my days watching television and working at the dry cleaners. When you first started coming in, I dismissed you as one of them, as someone tasked with drawing me from the banal. I expected you to invite me to one of those dinner parties or to re-join the football team. But week after week you came in and asked nothing of me. You just sat down and watched the electric clothesline blankly. I saw who I used to be in you. This confused kid who is busy and social and intelligent, but has deep within him an emptiness. Who doesn’t understand why he is sad. Doesn’t feel he is allowed to be.”  

Robert closed his eyes very tight, hoping to wake up, but saw only black and purple.

Tim’s back was large and hunched, his coat stretched over his curved shoulders. He looked like a sea creature from Robert’s position behind him, dark and misshapen and soggy and slow. The waves did not seem to affect him like they did Robert. He walked into the water as if he would never have to stop walking, as if his feet would remain planted and his pace steady as he travelled further and further along the ocean floor. For a moment Robert thought maybe Tim had filled his pockets with stones or coins and neglected to tell him, but as the water reached Tim’s chest, his movements changed. He began a slow breaststroke. Robert followed suit. 

They were well beyond the wave break before Tim stopped. Robert clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. He felt heavy in the wet eveningwear. They looked back to the beach, treaded water, and watched as the streetlight flickered. 

From his coat Tim pulled the package, he did not seem to be struggling to stay afloat nearly so much as Robert. 

“Rob,” Tim’s voice vibrated on the cold water, “I have tried everything. This is the only way out. We have to call their bluff. Have to show how damaging this experiment is, how unstabilising.”

Robert didn’t respond. His mind had ventured below the surface, from which Tim’s words seemed airy and unimportant. He remembered a joke he had heard about two young fish swimming along, who pass by an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. The older fish smiles at them in passing and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two fish swim on for a bit, before one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the fuck is water?” 

Robert imagined the scene happening below their suspended legs and smiled. He had found a rhythm to staying afloat, and the movement was beginning to warm him up.

“When I do this, they will come for us both. I don’t mind if I make it or not,”

They were almost a meter apart. There was a knife in Tim’s right hand. 

“But Rob, you have to get out of it, you’ve got to tell people why I did this. Don’t let them bury this Rob. Please, tell everyone.”

It struck Robert that Tim had never called him Rob before, had never abbreviated his name in any way at all. A black car settled under the broken streetlight. A nylon sheath floated past his shoulder. He looked up at the sky and was almost glad it was overcast.

“Something’s got to give,” Tim said, using two hands to plunge the knife into his stomach. 


Joseph Thwaites is a communications graduate living in Sydney, Australia. When he isn't reading or writing stories, he enjoys travelling, photography, and trying to cook. He is currently working on a novella documenting his travels around the Balkans and North India.