Between Before and After
(c) Amanda Dick
The single gunshot sounded like a firecracker.
Short, sharp, loud.
What followed was a buzzing echo, a kind of post-event hum that seemed to fill the air for several seconds, before it too dwindled away to nothing.
The sound was completely out of place in the suburban Auckland street. Two young boys playing in the back yard of the house across the road stopped in their tracks, their smiles frozen.
“Double happys,” one said to the other, his grin widening. “Lucky. It’s not Guy Fawkes for ages yet.”
“Do you think that was Caleb’s house? We should go and see – he might have more!”
The twinkle in his eye told of the hunt for mischief, but the other boy – more sensible – shook his head.
“Mum said we weren’t allowed to go over there today.”
Deflated, his friend backed down. They resumed their play, chasing each other through the sprinkler that fanned cool water out in a wide arc across the lawn.
Inside, the boy’s mother stopped loading up the dishwasher and peered out the kitchen window. Seeing nothing out of place, she quickly dismissed it.
The birdsong resumed and the sun continued to shine. Summer afternoons had a habit of marginalising things. Nothing could be wrong on a day like this, surely?
Two doors down from the white Victorian villa with the overgrown garden and rickety white picket fence, more children played on the grass verge. They chased each other on their bikes, up and down the footpath, dodging the mature trees planted along the berm. A young couple walked down the opposite side of the street, hand in hand, enjoying the sunshine. A car crawled slowly past before stopping at the intersection on the corner. It waited for a break in the traffic, indicator blinking lazily.
At number forty-two, time had stopped. The large, rented villa with the veranda that wrapped itself around the front and one side of the house, looked just the same as always. Except inside, Danny Morris lay on the floor in the living room. His eyes were wide open but devoid of life, and a pool of dark, sticky blood seeped through the worn carpet beneath his head. A gun lay on the floor beside him, his open hand reaching for it, even in death, as if it would solve all his problems.
The decision to end his own life hadn’t been made lightly. The preceding months had seen him spiral down into a depression that he was ill-equipped to handle. A dark fog had descended over him, swallowing him up. Every breath felt as if he was inhaling sand. He was suffocating. He had withdrawn from his friends and family, both afraid they could see it, and convinced they were unable to help him fight it. No one could help him. The darkness that crawled over his soul and dug its hooks into his heart would not release him. He could feel it gaining power. He craved an end to the hopelessness.
The gun had only been in his possession for a couple of days, hidden from sight but ever-present in his mind. He had mulled over his options carefully. Pills were too slow – it was too risky, someone might find him. Slicing his wrists was out for the same reason, as was hanging himself or gassing himself in his car. He didn’t want to have to explain this to anyone – he didn’t think he was capable of it. Explaining required a basic understanding, and he didn’t have that. What he did have was an overwhelming desire for the pain to end.
He had chosen a gun as his weapon of choice for the simple reason that once he pulled that trigger, it was done. There was no changing his mind, no last-minute rescue, no way of stopping the train once it had left the station. No way back.
Quick, painless, final. The perfect solution.
And yet, for all his meticulous planning, he could not have foreseen the one thing that had been completely out of his control. As his finger was poised on the trigger, sweaty and trembling, a face appeared at the window. In that split second between the trigger being fully depressed and the bullet entering his body, their eyes met.
And then it was over.
The three hour ferry ride across the Cook Strait from Wellington had been fairly smooth, as far as sailings go. Max Lonergan had certainly experienced worse in the almost ten years he had been making this journey. He had spent the time sitting as far away from the many cafes and eateries as possible, trying to distract himself by watching the horizon and reading the newspaper.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had read the paper. The big wide world didn’t interest him anymore. Over the past three years he had withdrawn from it, slowly and surely. It had been a conscious decision. The withdrawal was so complete, he didn’t even miss it now. Not the rush-hour traffic or the deadlines, not the planning for upcoming holidays or the latest cellphone, not even the Friday night drinks or the messy weekends that inevitably followed. No more kissing up to his boss, no more schmoozing the secretaries. Now he was on his own schedule. Gone were the suit and tie with matching expensive leather loafers. His corporate attire these days consisted of jeans, work boots, bush-shirts and hi-visibility jackets. Instead of drinks in the boardroom or a swanky cocktail bar, he had drinks in the shearing shed or leaning on the back of the supervisor’s truck. Over the past three years, his whole life had changed. He had changed. His priorities had shifted, his outlook on life had skewed, tilted sideways. The death of someone close to you had a habit of making you reassess how you spent your remaining days on this earth. Life was so incredibly fragile – and short.
Just as he remembered, the paper was full of bad news. Disgusted, he folded it up and set it aside. He ran a hand through his brown hair, roughing it up so that it stood on end just a little bit more. He was overdue for a haircut. Like a lot of other things over the past few months, it had slipped through the cracks. His usual short-back-and-sides had somehow morphed into a shaggy, wavy mass. Any kind of length just seemed to add volume. He didn’t care enough to make a trip to the barbers a priority. He’d deal with it, eventually. The list of things he would deal with, eventually, seemed to get longer by the day.
The smell of food turned his stomach, and he concentrated on his black coffee instead. Luckily for him, breakfast had never been a necessity. He was used to being up this early, having done a variety of short-term jobs that had altered his body-clock. Sheep shearing, forestry work, fruit picking, kiwifruit pack-houses – they all ran on a different schedule to the office-bound nine-to-fivers. That was one of the reasons he had chosen to take the early run, the first ferry bound for Picton. It suited him. A shaft of guilt stung him momentarily. Maybe he should have contacted Kate to find out what ferry she had booked on. But then again, if she was flying down from Auckland to catch the afternoon sailing she usually favoured, he didn’t want to be in the position of having to kill time in Wellington while he waited for her. Better to just do his own thing. Cities were most definitely not within his comfort-zone – not anymore. It was true what they said about feeling lonelier in a crowd.
He had meant to call her and touch base. Hell, he had meant to call all of them, but somehow it always kept falling to the bottom of the never-ending ‘To Do’ list. Honestly, he wasn’t even sure until the day before yesterday that he was going to come this year. Each anniversary seemed to get harder, not easier. With the way he was feeling lately, he had purposefully kept away from everyone, telling himself he wouldn’t be good company. He didn’t want to worry them. Yet here he was, bobbing up and down in the Cook Strait, in limbo between islands like some kind of metaphor. The comparisons were far too vivid.
His regular life – the one he lived daily – was mostly solitary, and he liked it that way. His old life, the one he had left behind along with the suits and swanky bars, also held his friends. They were the people he loved most in this world and for them, for three days, in exchange for that sense of belonging, he could pretend to be whole.
God, he could do with a drink. He pushed the thought aside. He had a couple of boxes of beer in the car. He would wait till he got there.
A mother, young child in tow, pushed past him to search the rows of armchair-style seats with a frown. The little boy, who couldn’t have been more than three or four, stared at him and Max forced a smile. The boy frowned at him, digging deep beneath the surface with startling blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Max felt uncomfortable under the open scrutiny. After several long moments, the mother excused herself, urging the child forward. She glanced down at Max as they passed and he offered her the same tight smile. If he couldn’t convince a stranger – a child, no less – that he was fine, how the hell was he going to convince his friends?
He watched the pair for a few moments as they made their way down the aisle towards the cafe, then turned his attention back to the view. The captain announced a pod of dolphins off the stern and a spate of people excitedly left their comfortable armchairs, searching in their bags for cameras as they made their way to the other end of the ferry. He stayed where he was. He had seen dolphins before, and he liked the comfortable armchairs. He also liked to keep his eyes on the horizon while they were out in the Strait, where the sea could be at its choppiest and most unpredictable.
He sipped on his coffee as the lush green hills of the South Island loomed closer. The ferry rounded into the Tory Channel just as his stomach decided it had had quite enough of the ‘turbulence’. It took several more minutes before the sea eventually calmed, and even longer before his stomach recognised the change. As they crawled up the Channel, he heard the excitement level of the children in the vicinity grow. They crowded in front of him, eager to see Picton come into view. Irritated by the commotion, he reluctantly surrendered his armchair, grabbed his coffee and made his way outside, onto the deck.
The brisk sea air hit him as soon as he opened the outer door, and he hunched his shoulders against the chill, making his way along to a quiet spot. Downing the last of his coffee, he tossed the empty paper cup into the nearest rubbish bin and leant against the railing. Even in the summertime, at this hour of the morning and with a sea breeze, it could be chilly. As always though, the view more than made up for it.
As the ferry cruised up the Channel, the scenery became more spectacular. He could taste the freedom in the salty air. This was the reason he preferred the three hour ferry journey to Picton over the twenty five minute flight to Blenheim. The ribbon of blue that cut its way through the undulating green hills acted like a salve, soothing his troubled soul, helped along by the fresh, clean air. He looked around furtively, before taking a long, deep breath, inhaling the cleanliness of it, drawing it inside him. By the time the port of Picton came into view shortly after, nestled into the base of the hills that rose up behind it, he was feeling much calmer.
Half an hour later he was sitting in his car, waiting his turn to disembark. Rows of cars lined up before and after him, and he drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. Eventually, the line began to move and he followed the other sheep out of the bowels of the ferry and over the ramp. After the motion of the ferry and now the car, he craved solid ground under his feet.
He followed the traffic into Picton, then turned right onto Queen Charlotte Drive. Bracing himself for the journey ahead, he took a steadying breath and kept his eyes straight ahead. The narrow, winding road hugged the hillside, several vertical metres from the shore in many places, almost touching the beach in others. It was now after ten and the knowledge that he had a couple of boxes of beer getting warm in the back seat made him want one all the more.
Slowing down, he approached a hairpin bend cautiously. He risked a brief glance out the window, not willing to take his eyes off the road for more than a second. The Marlborough Sounds stretched along the hillside, sparkling in the mid-morning sun, the water a luscious blue-green under the cloudless blue of the sky. The road twisted and turned for twenty minutes after he left Picton, until eventually he recognised the turning bay ahead. A small, hand-painted sign beside the road pointed down the driveway, marking it as Kennetts Bay. There was no letterbox, no number painted on a fence, nothing to denote there was actually a house there at all. To the casual observer, it looked like a decrepit old concrete and gravel driveway, probably leading down to nothing more than a small, weather-beaten old shed. The stretch of road was littered with many more just like it.
He pulled into the gravel turning bay slowly, checking the road in both directions before he turned in a sharp one-eighty, pointing the car down the steep drive. The canopy of trees above dappled the light and he squinted at the sudden change. Crawling slowly until the trees opened up to blinding sunshine once again, he saw the carport was empty. He wasn’t surprised, in fact it suited him. He liked arriving before the others, it afforded him the opportunity to ease back into the routine and get re-acquainted with the house. Additionally, he needed to have his mask in place. It was going to be a long three days and he could do without the prodding and poking he knew would come. This way, he had time to ingest some Dutch courage and get his game face on.
Unlike the impression it gave from the road, there was more than just an old shed at the bottom of the hill. The house was a 1970s extravaganza – purpose-built to take maximum advantage of the view, architecturally designed and left virtually untouched since. Danny had loved it, as did Max, but for different reasons. Max loved the solitude, the feeling of being in hiding from the world. No cellphone coverage, no internet – it reminded him of camping holidays with his family when he was a kid, only with the comfort of proper beds, running water and a flushing toilet.
He pulled into the carport and turned the engine off. A chorus of thousands of chirping cicadas greeted him as he opened the door. He flinched involuntarily. The sound grated on him, but he knew from experience that within hours, the noise would fade into the background as he became accustomed to it again.
He got out and stretched, yawning. After the air-conditioned comfort of the ferry, and then the car, the outside air was stiflingly hot. He rolled his shoulders, grabbed his bag from the back seat and made his way through the carport. As he reached above the doorframe for the key, the uncomfortable tightness that had nagged him since the ferry left Wellington harbour lodged in this throat.
Pushing the door open, he stood there, waiting for the sensation to subside. Everything looked exactly the same. The house belonged to Danny’s family and he knew it well. He had been coming here for almost ten years – every summer, sometimes in the winter, too. It was the firm opinion of most who knew him that Danny had been born too late. He would have been in his element in the sixties and seventies, with his love of vinyl records, old cars and vintage clothing. Danny had loved the privacy and the laid-back lifestyle of this place. He had also loved the sensation of being miles from anywhere, even if it was only a twenty minute drive from Picton, the gateway port to the South Island. What it lacked in the way of modern technology, it made up for in a homely, comforting vibe that could never really be explained, but must be felt. Danny once joked that if his father ever sold it, the price he got for the land itself would make him a millionaire. The house wasn’t anything special, but it was obvious that it had been a beauty in its day. Now, it was all faded white weatherboards and a veranda that gave direct access to that beautiful view. Alone in the bay, tucked into the hillside, the water’s edge at her doorstep, she looked like a grand old dame, surveying her kingdom.
He walked through the entryway and into the open-plan living room, kitchen and dining room. Dropping his bag on the floor at his feet, he admired the view through the wall of windows that dominated the room. Mountains on the opposite side of the bay reached up towards the startling blue sky. Twin wooden jetties, one at each end of the bay, protruded into the water, offering perfect fishing spots. The lawn sloped gently down off the wooden deck that stretched along the front of the house, and ended in the sliver of sandy beach that disappeared into the water. In the middle of the perfect, private bay, a small floating wooden pontoon was anchored.
Max felt the tension in his body ease slightly, his shoulders relaxing as the view of the bay unwrapped itself before him like a gift. In a way, it was, especially after the past few months. He took a moment to allow himself the luxury of remembering happier times. Summers spent lazing on the pontoon in the sun; fishing off the jetty; kayak races across the bay; jumping off the jetty into the cool water; late summer evenings eating outdoors on the deck; toasting marshmallows on bonfires on the beach; watching the sunset from the old boat shed down on the water’s edge.
As always, the memories were bittersweet, and he dragged himself back to the present with a bone-weary sigh that seemed to echo through the empty house. A boat came into view out on the bay and he watched for several minutes as it crawled slowly past, heading further into the Sounds. He momentarily wondered what it might be like, to jump on a boat and take off like that. God knew, he had been doing a variation of that for the past couple of years so imagining it wasn’t too difficult. He shrugged off the fantasy. He wanted to be here. After his somewhat transient lifestyle, it felt good to have somewhere to be – somewhere to belong. Apart from Gavin and Lacey’s place, this was the closest thing he had to a bricks-and-mortar home. He supposed, at twenty-eight years old, he should be worried about that, but he wasn’t. He liked his lifestyle, it suited his needs. He had gotten used to sleeping in guest rooms, on sofas and in hostels.
He took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. The slightly dusty smell that greeted him told of long, hot days with no ventilation. He walked over to unlock the French doors and threw them open, stepping out onto the wooden deck and anchoring them to the outside wall of the house with metal stays. Standing on the deck, he let his gaze wander over the bay once more. Instantly, memories began to crowd in on him again and he shook them off, turning and heading back through the house to the back door.
Switching on the power in the fuse box, he turned on the fridge and the oven and walked back out to the car. He grabbed his sleeping bag and a bag of groceries, setting the latter on the kitchen bench and picking up his duffel bag with his free hand. Depositing both sleeping bag and duffel bag in the bedroom he always called his, he made his way through the house, opening the French doors in all four bedrooms, letting the stale air out and the fresh-yet-warm air in.
After unpacking the groceries, he stocked the outside fridge full of beer from the boxes he had stashed in the car, and grabbed one for himself. He ambled along the deck, settling into a wooden deckchair and pulling his sunglasses down over his eyes. It would be three years in a couple of days. What happened to ‘time heals all wounds’? Cracking open the lukewarm can, he took a long, deep swallow.
Danny was everywhere. If he closed his eyes, he could see him standing on the edge of the jetty, Kate in his arms, squealing and fighting him as he jumped into the water with her. He saw him crossing the lawn towards where he sat right now, wearing a lazy grin and the caramel brown leather jacket he found at an op-shop, the one Finn always referred to as his ‘pimp jacket’. He could see him polishing his cherry red 1972 Holden HQ Monaro GTS, detailing it with the precision only found in those truly in love.
He took another shaky swig of beer and tried to push the memories aside again. It was a self-preservation mechanism. As much as it hurt to be here, he knew deep down that he really didn’t have any choice. If he wasn’t here, with everyone else, he didn’t know if he could make it through the next few days. Conversely, being here also made it so much harder, so much more real.
Almost three years ago to the day, on that hot afternoon, in that peaceful, suburban street, Danny had blown a hole in his head with a gun that no one even knew he had.
"Amanda has outdone herself with this gripping and emotional story about surviving tragedy, finding acceptance, and learning to live again." ~ Patricia Lee from A Literary Perusal (30 July 2014)
"This was a wonderfully written read about a sensitive subject. The characters were wonderfully flawed, heart breaking and real, everyone’s reactions were authentic, the pacing was spot on and the world building and scene setting was outstanding."
~ Jennie from Coull Critiques, via Amazon.com (25 June 2014)
"The story peels back the layers of grief and friendship as we watch five people gather on the third anniversary of their friend’s suicide. The characters are on different journeys through grief--each struggling in his or her own way. It sounds grim, but it’s a hopeful read about surviving emotional trauma, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship." ~ Barbara Claypole White, author of "The Unfinished Garden" and "The In-Between Hour" , via Amazon.com (2 June 2014)