"It always begins in blackness, until the first light illuminates a hidden fragment of memory...."- Mark Raphael Baker; The Fiftieth Gate
Memories of the accident always kept Scott awake at night. He was afraid to tell Mum; it would make her cry. What good would it do bringing up reminders of Dad? So he tried to expel it, like a bad dream. Sometimes he would sleep, but it wasn’t peaceful refreshing sleep; more a harsh imitation, serving only as a momentary break from reality.
He didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. He liked staring into his room’s deep corners, light desperately trying to force itself in, held black by his cold blinders. He could hide, be a child again and forget everything else, for a time. Eventually, the pressure to get up exerted by his red digital alarm clock showed dreams to be just that.
He observed his desk, as he did daily, shaking his head. His schoolwork was a strewn mess of crinkled papers, his computer caked in dust from the many nights of him trying to restart work, but instead getting distracted by porn and YouTube videos, and the walls covered with lists of assessments he should have finished a month ago. Schoolwork seemed so pointless by comparison to Dad.
Scott dressed himself in the same orange T-shirt and ripped tracksuit pants that he wore yesterday and left on the floor. He knew Mum was waiting for him downstairs. She sat patiently by the old coffee machine, her sagged eyes desperate for another coffee kick to start the morning.
Scott acknowledged her cumbersomely. She made small talk with him about how the blasted coffee machine was playing up and how Dad could fix it if he was here, while he made vegemite toast, and grabbing sparkling apple juice from the fridge.
“Carlson’s sisters party is today, honey. At Bilgola Beach. Carlson asked if you were keen”
Mum stopped him leaving.
“I don’t wanna go out” Scott mumbled. “Wanna stay in bed. It’s that kind of day”
He saw in her eyes a sense of desperation.
“I think it’d be good for you to have a day with your friends. Carlson, Dean; they’re asking after you. Some time with them might allow to you think about things. You know? See the bigger picture with Dad. We can soldier on—
“No Mum. I don’t want to go” He left.
Galloping up the stairs, the sound of the door closing behind him a relief. He preferred silence. It gave him control—
“Baby, could you please open the door?” Mum anxiously knocked.
Scott stayed silent. Please go away! Please!
“At least consider it. Your friends miss you. Love you” Scott heard a small sob as she went creaking down the stairs.
He wished he could cry that easily. Ever since the accident he hadn’t cried. Not once. He had tried to cry by walking home in the rain, because apparently that works. He got wet and cold, but never wept.
There was a pain, sitting in deep in his gut, but he could never force it up as a sob.
This crap isn’t happening, he concluded. It’s happening to some other guy who looked and talked like him, loved the same music, played on the same footy team… but it wasn’t him.
He shut his eyes, letting his mind wander.
Sitting at her table was the school counsellor; Mrs. Ryan. Scott recognised her blonde, frizzy hair. It was an exact replica of her office; posters of puppies surrounded by bible quotes, and well-touched psychiatrist books behind her immaculate desk. He felt scruffy just dreaming it. Of all shit things to dream of, why her?!
“Tell me what happened again” she said, her spectacles directing him to a red chair opposite her desk.
“Tell you what?” he queried, sitting down.
“The day… It was a Saturday afternoon wasn’t it? You’d just finished a game of footy against Manly Selective Campus…” she said, the sound of the beach twinkling through the blinds outside.
“Again?! Why must I freaking tell you—?!” Scott snapped.
“We’re going through this again and again until you acknowledge it happened. In your own mind” Mrs. Ryan replied sternly.
Scott wanted to protest, but he was far too tired to think of a response. Eyes to floor, he began:
“About three weeks ago we played Manly. Was a nice sunny day, a good day for surfing. It was so hot. We got hammered hard. Dad still came anyways. He always came to my footy games.
“I was pissed we’d been beaten again. It had been a terrible season. Dad cheered me up with beer-battered chips from his favourite place along the main drag at Manly Beach.”
“Then?” she edged him on.
“We went home, back to Mona Vale. I remember he drove, I was exhausted. He promised me he’d take me to Bilgola Beach and we’d have a swim. So I hopped in the shower; he went to throw my footy gear in the wash and get the surfboards.
“The first thing I remember was the shaking. Like an earthquake. Then the explosion, it shook the whole shower cubicle. After throwing some clothes on, I rushed to see what happened. The smell hit me next. At first the hot, smokey burning smell, but kinda like someone was cooking. When I got to Dad in the laundry… that’s when I heard the screams.
“The doctors and police said it was just bad fucking luck. Wiring short-circuited in the washing machine, caught fire and exploded in his face. When he hit the brick wall from the force, it fractured his fifth vertebrae in his spine. Mum and I waited all night while they did emergency surgery. I thought he was gonna die.
“We saw him in ICU next morning. He couldn’t see us, his face was completely bandaged. He couldn’t feel anything below his chest. I knew underneath the bandages and scars he was crying. The Dad who’d taken me to Manly yesterday was gone. ‘You’re gonna have to grow up quickly boy. Look after Mum’ he muttered with all his energy.
“The more I visited, the more I saw that he wished he had died that day. I couldn’t see him like that. That wasn’t my Dad. I felt it was my fault. So I stopped seeing him two weeks ago”
“No…. It’s not your fault. You cannot blame yourself for a freak accident, Scott” said Mrs. Ryan. “What about now? Do you want to see him?”
Scott opened his eyes.
Same, dark room. He was glad he woke up, he wouldn’t have answered. Freaking Mrs. Ryan! He knew she’d been speaking to Mum about him. How he used to be bright, always involved in class, always tidy. It’s none of her business. Let me be alone!
He sat up, head in his hands. His gut ached. He knew Mum worried about him. He saw everyday how she struggled to keep life normal. She tried to have breakfast ready when he woke up before school, she helped with assessments, and asked how his day was, like Dad used to. He asked her why she did it. “The world won’t stop for us. We have to keep together while Dad recovers.”
Yeah, Mum wasn’t perfect. He saw her as perfect when he was young. Now she looked flawed, emotionally stretched, drained. But she still tried? For him? It made him love her more.
Something in his head told him he must go to Carlson’s sisters party; not for himself, but for Mum. He knew every parent there was going to ask after Dad. He hated that. Answering the same hard questions over and over. But she needed him to.
When he told Mum he would go she embraced him, immediately ringing up Carlson’s mother. Following Scott dressing in smarter clothes, Carlson’s mother arrived, with Carlson in tow, to pick him up.
Within the first minute, Carlson’s mother popped the inevitable question. “How’s your Dad?”
“He’s making good progress. The spinal surgery went well” Scott replied.
“And his burns? Will he get skin grafts?” asked Carlson.
“Yeah, soon. He’s mostly bandaged up right now” Scott responded.
There was silence before Carlson’s Mum spoke again.
“He’s in good spirits?” she asked.
“Yes” Scott said quietly.
Eventually, Carlson talked about how he’d got a girlfriend, and he was hoping to get his red Ps soon, so he could drive himself around. For Scott, talking about someone other than Dad was heaven.
The party had already begun when Scott arrived. Most families and friends were congregating between Bilgola Beach’s large picnic area and the beach itself, via a well-worn walkway through the dunes. Most people were playing beach cricket, or strolling to the headland to watch the bright sunset and clear pink skies over the mountains.
Scott circulated begrudgingly through the picnic crowd, small talking with many parents asking after Dad. He made staple responses about good progress, and how the family was positive. He wished they’d let up. (Do it for Mum, he told himself).
“Scotty! Over here mate”, Carlson ushered him towards an undercover picnic deck.
Dean sat on the old wooden bench, a stuffed plastic bag beside him.
“Missed you mate”, he smiled at Scott. “How’s your Dad?”
(Even he’s asking?!) “Good, making progress.” replied Scott. “Would prefer we didn’t talk about it. Everyone is bloody asking”
“Fair point” Dean nodded. “We’re making a sparkler bomb. Over six hundred sparklers packed in this beauty”
He pulled from the bag over a dozen sparkler boxes, rolls of coloured electrical tape and scissors. Box by box, Carlson removed the sparklers, bundling them together into a large, tight clump. Dean then began to bind tape tightly around the clump, every roll used bound them tighter and tighter.
“Hang on! Don’t forget the fuse Deano!” laughed Carlson.
He pulled up one sparkler out so it was higher than the rest. “It’ll give us time to get away before it blows. Don’t want it going up in our faces.”
“You sure this is safe mate? To make this thing—” began Scott.
“Come off it! It’ll be fine!” chuckled Dean.
He picked up the scissors to cut the last of the electrical tape off, then yelped loudly.
“What you done now?” Carlson rolled his eyes.
“Got myself with the scissors” winced Dean, sucking on the deep cut, his middle finger oozing blood furiously. “Fuck, that’s gonna scar” he grimaced through clenched teeth.
“Relax” dismissed Carlson. “I got loads of scars.” He lifted up his shirt, showing a scratch up his torso.
“Got this falling off my bike a few weeks back. You should come up with a badass story for yours; like you fought a python in Africa and it skimmed you with its fang or some shit. And it could have killed you in a heartbeat”
“Seriously?! Not much of a story with a scar like this. And like that’s gonna freaking convince people Carlo!” Dean shook his head.
Carlson turned to Scott, he’d been silent for a while. “Bet you even Scotty here’s got a scar, somewhere on him” he winked.
Scott had been daydreaming about how Dad used to bring him here to go surfing together. It was a rude awakening.
“Me? Scars? No mate, not got a single one on me” he said.
“Bullshit!” laughed Carlson. “All of us get scarred some way or another”
“Well we know you certainly are Carlo” sniggered Dean.
In his mind, even though they were mates, Scott ferociously envied their happiness. He hadn’t been that happy since the day Dad got him chips on Manly Beach. Why are they so lucky? They don’t know what it’s like to see your parent nearly die. How would they like if it happened to them?!
The sun soon set behind the mountains, and Dean and Carlson thought it was a great time to test their sparkler bomb. Much to Scott’s annoyance, they announced it to the entire party as a present for Carlson’s little sister.
As people began to make their way slowly down to the beach, curious to see what this firework was, Scott considered disappearing when everyone was gone and catch a bus home. Mum would be happy he went, his friends would be happy he came, and he would be happy it was over. But something was telling him to go down to the beach. He followed the crowd, cursing his gut reaction.
Everyone was standing a good few metres back when he arrived. Dean acted as a windshield, struggling to light the fuse with his Mum’s cigarette lighter. Nervous patience hung in the air. An angry cloud watched from the horizon, melding with the black, sparkling sea.
“Okay! Here it comes guys!” roared Dean, running back from the fuse, now a small spark in the darkness.
Scott seemed ignorant of the building excitement from the birthday crowd. The single sparkler fizzled violently down towards the bomb, disappearing out of sight. All that could be heard was the sound of rolling waves.
Then a furious roar flew across the beach as the sparks shot up into the sky for dozens of metres, lighting up every contour on the beach, flying higher and higher. Then in a flash it was gone, a few small sparkles fell through the smoke to the ground.
The crowd roared ferociously in appreciation, moving forward to see the bomb’s remains. All the sparklers were just crumpled ash, the electrical tape melted all along the sand. At the heart of the mess was a small, smoking fire, as the last of the magnesium burned away.
Scott smiled. Dad would have loved to have seen that. It was a shame he wasn’t there. But in that small illumination, he recognised why he wasn’t.
Just like that? That little sparkler bomb? It seemed silly, but in that instance, he realised all the dreams, the meetings with Mrs Ryan, all thoughts of Mum since his accident: they were his memories, staring back, telling him this was his life now. He accepted it. It happened, and he had no control over it.
He took back his negative thoughts earlier, he would not wish Dad’s accident upon anyone. Anyone at all. If anything, he realised how stupid he was for not appreciating people caring. It was hard to describe the feeling, but it was something like a release.
He didn’t know what to do now. All he knew was that he didn’t feel like hiding from it anymore. That feeling felt good. The best feeling he had felt in a long time.
As the first droplets of rain began to fall and everyone began to head to the picnic area to find cover, Carlson pulled the sparkler bomb’s remains from the sand, blowing out the small fire.
“Holy crap! That was huge!” he laughed, almost semi-admiring his handiwork.
He looked over at Scott and hesitated. “Scotty….. Are you crying mate?”