Category C: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Kayla Saddington
‘What’d you score?’ asks Nathan,
‘A drill, hoodie, and a 10 pack of Pepsi,’
‘Nice. I told you it’d be worth going down that street. It’s quiet and the houses are dumps, but they’ve all got money still. Tomorrow we’ll hit up Jackson, in the next suburb.’
‘Righto.’ Matthew leans back on the couch, drawing in on his now-finished cigarette, putting his feet up on the cardboard Pepsi box. He slips on the hoodie, covering his arms.
Nathan turns on the radio, playing trance tunes then lies down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
‘Night,’ he says but Matthew’s already asleep. The music is just loud enough that they don’t hear the birds chirping outside, saying ‘good morning’ to the sun as it starts to rise.
Matthew wakes up first, and opens the bar bridge. Nothing. He looks over at the box of Pepsi and wishes he’d thought of putting one in the fridge last night. Warm it is. He cracks it open and pulls out his phone. He lists the drill for sale. Soon he should have enough cash to get his own place.
‘Oi, share’, Nathan sits up and Matthew tosses him one. It bubbles out as he cracks it.
‘So what’s the plan for tonight?’
‘Well Jackson Street and Mazure Avenue run off each other, so you start down at this end of Jackson,’ pointing to a location on the map on his phone. ‘And I’ll meet you here, on the corner where it meets the avenue. Then we’ll split again and take one side of the street each.’
‘Yeah, should be easy. Are you gonna go home after?’
‘It’s just that Mum’s going to be home tomorrow and if she sees you’re still here, she’ll worry and call your dad.’
‘Yeah, alright then.’
‘You can come back here for a little bit, but you just can’t stay over mate.’
‘Yeah no worries, I’ll go home tonight.’
‘Cool.’ Nathan puts his hands in his pockets and nods as he looks around. ‘Wanna play the PlayStation for a bit?’
‘Sure.’ They play Mario for hours, until it’s dark.
‘Ready to go?’
‘Yep, let’s go.’ Matthew and Nathan get on their bikes and ride down the roads of back streets, no helmets, speeding along. Matthew’s blonde hair waves in the wind. I’m free. They get to the end of Jackson Street and Matthew parks his bike out the front of a house, while Nathan rides on, starting at the next street over.
Matthew rests his bike on the wooden fence and tries the handles on a car parked nearby. No good. He turns to the house, unlatches the front gate, and lets himself into the front yard. A small trike and a few pots. Nothing. He repeats the process at the house next door, checking the car and then walking into the front yard. He spots a basketball, and then tries the handles on the next car, which has been left unlocked. He goes through the dirty interior and flicks through the CD collection. He takes a couple and slips them into his backpack.
A side gate is left ajar in the next front yard. He saunters down the side of the house, and is met by a large, black dog, growling and lying in wait. A noise from inside shakes Matthew from his still stance, and he steps back slowly, being careful not to make a sound. As the back light comes on, he slinks into the shadows as he watches a man in worn out tracksuit pants and a holey t-shirt comes through the sliding doors, carrying a broom. Matthew pushes himself right up against the wall. Shit.
‘Shut up you stupid mutt,’ he growls. He stomps towards the dog and smacks it across the shoulders with the broom. The dog yelps and cowers, suddenly not looking so large. The heavy chain around its neck drags him back to the ground. The dog tries to get away from the man but the chain is short, holding him in place while the man smacks him twice more.
Matthew closes his eyes and holds his breath, gripping the brick wall with his fingers, waiting for it to stop. He hears the man walking back inside, and then it goes dark again. He stands there a few seconds more, unable to move, and risks a peek at the victim. The dog is lying on the ground, whimpering slightly, and no longer cares about the intruder. Matthew takes a step forward. I can’t. He runs and rides away, tears streaming down his face until he gets back to Nathan’s house, to the den in the backyard.
‘There you are!’ Nathan barges in through the door. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You were supposed to meet me at the corner of Mazure. Where’ve you been?’
‘I almost got caught.’
‘You could’ve let me know. I’ve been calling you.’
Matthew glances at his phone. ‘Sorry, it must’ve been off.’
‘Well did you get anything good?’
‘Yeah I got a basketball and some CDs.’
‘What CDs did you get?’
‘In the backpack, over there.’ Matthew points but it isn’t on the couch or by the door. No, no, no! ‘I must’ve left it behind.’
‘You’re a bloody idiot mate. Someone will find it in the morning and the neighbours will talk.’
Matthew sits up, leans over and buries his head in his hands.
‘You need to go and get it.’
‘I know,’ says Matthew, shuffling past Nathan without so much as a goodbye. Picking up his bike from the gravel, he swings his leg over and heads off, pedalling slowly, but not back to Jackson – home.
He carefully opens the door and hears the TV blaring in the living room. He sneaks down the corridor towards the kitchen, the floorboards creaking underneath. The TV goes silent.
Cringing, Matthew pipes up.
‘It’s me, Dad.’
‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’
‘At a mates’ place.’
‘Is home not good enough for you boy?’ Matthew hears the old man get up from his chair in the next room, heavy-footed towards the kitchen. Matthew swings open the fridge door, looking for some food, anything really – he grabs a piece of meat, leftovers, and stuffs it into his pockets.
‘Get outta there you little shit. Get out of my beer.’
‘I’m not taking your beer, just looking for something to eat.’
‘If you don’t live here, you don’t get the food.’ His dad draws closer, empty beer can in hand and swings. Matthew doesn’t get out of the way in time, landing another punch on his arm. Run.
The streetlights illuminate the road as he rides. The backpack soon comes into sight, right where he left it. Time to go. Wrestling with his conscience he goes back into the house where the dog is. At least give him the meat. The dog is curled into a ball, licking its paw and wounds. Matthew creeps towards the dog slowly, and soon its nose twitches, picking up his scent before turning to stare at him. Holding the dog’s gaze, Matthew treads forward just lightly, and the dog starts to retreat.
‘Easy boy,’ Matthew whispers, crouching down.
The dog growls in response and backs up against the fence, into the garden.
‘It’s okay, I brought you something.’ The dog creeps forward and sniffs the meat in Matthew’s hand. The dog’s eyes avert left as if he hears a sound inside, but the light doesn’t turn on. The dog shuffles forward a little and growls lowly, almost a grumble. He finally nibbles at the edge of the meat, slowly dragging it from Matthew’s fingers. It drops on the ground and the dog plays with it, before eating it bit by bit. Up close, Matthew notices his ribs sticking out from his chest, the sections of hair balding for favour of the scars and scabs, and the smell, probably never having been bathed except when lying in the rain.
Matthew reaches out to pat behind the dogs ears. As soon as his fingers touch, the dog leaps back and yelps, waking the man inside the house. The backyard brightens and the sound of the sliding doors forces Matthew to back up.
‘You stupid dog, shut up.’ He picks up the shovel against the barbeque and goes towards the dog. He curls up, ready to take a hit. Matthew’s freezes. I can’t.
‘What the fuck?’ The man turns around and sees Matthew standing, shaking.
‘Don’t hit him,’ he pleads.
‘This is my dog - I’ll do what I want. And you’re trespassing. I’m calling the cops.’
‘Do it and I’ll tell them how you’re treating this dog.’
The man growls and swings the shovel at Matthew, he ducks down but only just in time. You’d think I’d have this worked out by now. The dog perks up and pulls on its chain, barking. He takes another swing at Matthew and this time it hits him on the shoulder. Putting his hand to where it hurts, Matthew drops to the ground and sees blood. The man is about to swing again but the dog strangles itself pulling the chain from the fence, suddenly free, and jumps out at its owner.
The man drops the shovel and yells, the dog on top of him, tearing at his shirt. Dangerously close to the face, the man screams. Grab the end of the chain.
‘C’mon buddy, that’ll do. You did good. That’s enough now.’ Matthew pulls the chain and he and the dog run down the side of the house and out onto the street leaving the man behind.
Matthew picks up his backpack, the bike and holds onto the chain, gripping the handlebars with the other hand.
Back home, Matthew once again sneaks inside.
‘Bruiser,’ he says. ‘That’s what I’ll name ya.’ He pulls the chain from Bruiser’s neck and rubs the bare skin underneath.
‘C’mon, let’s grab our stuff.’
Bruiser follows Matthew to his room and sits down watching Matthew while he fills his backpack with his belongings - jumpers, jeans, a phone charger, shoes, wallet and a photo of him and his mum. He pulls on some more clothes and a cap, grabs a blanket and an old rope. It’s still better than a chain. Downstairs, he raids the fridge again, and fills up a bowl of water for Bruiser. Once Bruiser’s licked the bowl dry, they head down the corridor and out the door. Dad is sitting out on the porch, in the dark, drinking his beer.
‘What’s with the dog?’
‘This is Bruiser.’
‘Whatever. Go away, and don’t come back.’
‘Ah you’re a little good-for-nothing kid. Your mother was good-for-nothing too, she left me with you.’
Matthew boils up inside and spits.
‘She didn’t leave, she died. And now I’m the one that’s left with you.’
His father drops his beer and stands. ‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that you little shit.’
He reaches for Matthew’s arm, but Matthew pulls away and puts up his fists, getting in first. Bruiser growls warningly, and Dad backs off, hands up.
‘Don’t you ever touch me again.’ Matthew ties Bruiser’s rope to the handlebars and they make off down the street, leaving Dad behind.
‘I’m not sure where we’re going tonight Bruiser but anywhere is better than where we’ve been.’
His phone goes off, showing a ‘sold’ notification on the drill he listed, $800.
‘Yes!’ he whoops. ‘Tomorrow buddy, we’re going to find somewhere to live, where nobody’s gonna touch us.’
You see he really is a good boy you know? I should know, I’m his mother