by Annette Edwards-Hill
I was in the middle of a restless dream. I rode my motorcycle through a mountain pass, on one side snowy banks rose above me, on the other the road dropped away to a vast canyon, an open space. I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I felt like I was floating through the thin air. The engine made a knocking noise. Tap tap tap. I slowed down and listened. It got louder. Tap tap tap. I unglued my eyelids and shook myself from sleep as I realised there was someone at the door. I had to lift my wife’s arm off my chest. Her breath was sour, her body heavy with sleep. I considered staying in bed.
The knock came again, louder this time, tap tap tap. ‘Piss off,’ I muttered as I looked at the bright digital display of the clock. 6.10am. I pulled myself out of bed, only just remembering to check I had pants on.
The morning light was insipid, struggling to lift the dark shadows from the house. There were two figures behind the frosted glass, colours and shapes distorted. Who is it? I wondered, then I said it out loud, ‘who is it?’
I fiddled with the chain for a moment, the brass sliding in my fingers, then the door was open. It was the police, a woman, taller, a man shorter. They held their hats in their hands. Oh shit, Dad, I thought. I should have gone and seen him yesterday.
‘Nicholas Davidson?’ asked the man. I nodded,
‘I’m officer Smail, this is Officer Paku,’ said the woman police officer gesturing at the male police officer. ‘It’s about your brother,’ she said. ‘Can we come inside?’
I had seen my brother two weekends ago. ‘Can I borrow your maps?’ he’d asked.
‘I don’t know, Tom,’ I said, ‘what happened to the last set of maps I loaned ya?’
‘I didn’t realise they were in the glove box when we started the fire,’ said Tom.
I wasn’t there to see it but I often thought about the old Kingswood going up in flames, just a spark at first, then the orange flickering flames hijacking the night sky.
‘Did you take any photos?’ I’d asked.
‘Nah,’ said Tom. ‘Just the ones in the paper.’
‘Ok, take the maps. Bring them back, no food, beer, coffee stains, no other stains OK!’
I lead the police into our kitchen, dinner plates with smears of lasagna still on the kitchen table, an open red wine bottle, half full. The woman police officer looked around and pulled out a chair from the table. Feel free I thought, then I realised she was gesturing at the chair. She wanted me to sit in it.
I felt a shadow develop in the hallway, Brianna. She came into the kitchen, her hair pulled back in a pony tail, her fluffy dressing gown wrapped around her. She held Jonathan on her hip. She opened her mouth, like a question mark.
‘Your?’ asked Officer Paku.
‘Wife,’ I said. ‘Brianna, and Jonathan, our son.’
She lingered in the shadow of the hallway, hesitant to approach the table.
‘Tom was climbing,’ said Office Smail.
‘Yeah I know,’ I said, ‘he said he was going. He’s always up there, president of that tramping club.’ I thought of my brother, his long sturdy legs like tree trunks, face permanently sunburnt, hair soft and fluffy in the breeze.
‘He’s missing,’ said Office Smail. ‘They radioed in when they reached the hut.’
‘What hut?’ I wanted to know.
‘Moeller Pass,’ she continued. ‘But nobody has heard from them since. They should have been back in the village yesterday.’
‘Just missing, eh?’ I said, ‘he’s probably met some Euro girls, taken an easier track, spent a night in a hut with them.’
I thought about the Swedish girl in my seventh form year, she’d lived with the Bourke family down the road. I was keen on her but she liked Tom. His latest girlfriend was from Finland.
‘The weather conditions have been challenging,’ said Officer Smail. ‘Iron blew off the roof of the hotel in the valley three nights ago, windows smashed. We have grave concerns for him,’ she finished.
When Tom and I were young my mother took us to church. While she sat through hymns and sermons in the heated chapel, we would be taken to a room the size and temperature of an ice box that was accessed from behind the altar. There we were told the world was made in seven days. I’d used my frozen fingers to count how long it would take me to construct the Starship Enterprise in Lego. Not that long I thought. Five maybe six days.
My brother wasn’t found for another eight days after the police visited.
On the first day I drove around to my Dad’s house, I found him sitting in his lazy-boy. Feet up listening to the bird call on National Radio. ‘It’s a Tui,’ he said.
‘Nah, a Bellbird,’ I countered. We were silent for the news report. A group of five climbers missing, those words again, ‘the police have grave concerns.’ Out the window over my father’s washing line and back fence I could see clear blue skies.
On the second day the sky was dark when I got out of bed. My mind foggy with sleep I hadn’t had. I threw my toast on the lawn and watched mynas dive at sparrows that got to it first. Later I watched my wife hang out the washing in the rain.
On the third day I went into the office because I had left my running shoes under my desk on Friday and I felt like a walk. Anne at reception told me she’d heard one of the presenters on National Radio saying no father should ever lose his son. ‘It’s the wrong order of things, it goes against nature,’ she said.
‘He’s just missing,’ I said.
On the fourth day I rang my father and said I was thinking about getting the ferry, driving south, staying in Twizel, joining the search.
He said, ‘what was the point, what could I do to help?’
I said I was an extra pair of eyes then thought about lying awake in an empty motel room, the stiff jacquard cover, cinderblock walls, the weight of the mountains on top of me.
On the fifth day there was an earthquake in Indonesia, a tsunami warning. A wave of relief washed over me when they couldn’t find space for Tom in the news report among the three thousand dead.
On the sixth day the police told me the search would end in twenty-four hours.
‘Was that enough time?’ I asked. ‘The mountains are vast,’ I spread my arms, ‘he could be anywhere.’
‘Another twenty-four hours,’ they repeated.
On the seventh day I stayed in bed. Brianna stood in the doorway and watched me before she left for work.
‘They’ll find him Nick,’ she said.
On the eighth day there was another knock on the door, the same pattern of shadows behind the frosted glass.
The police told me my brother had been found. In the valley. The debris of the hut that was going to keep him safe, on top of him. It blew off the ridge in the dark they said. The wind had got underneath and the cables had snapped. Tom and his tramping buddies, now all dead, were fully clothed.
I didn’t think about my maps, whether Tom had them in his pocket or left them in the glove box of another car, or the hut. I only thought about my brother in the hut, lying in the dark, listening to the whistling then the howl of the wind. Getting up and dressing and waiting. Eventually the noise would have been a loud bang, like a drum. The hut would have shaken and lifted beneath his feet. He was waiting to go or stay, he was dressed because either were a possibility.
Last night Jonathan asked me if he could go tramping with a school group this month, just an overnight trip into the Ruahines.
‘There’s a hut where you can watch the sunrise,’ he said. ‘And often there’s waist deep snow on the track.’
I know that track well. It goes straight up the side of the mountain, zig zagging with only the view of the bush that closes in around you, until you get to the top and the landscape opens up.
I think of my brother that didn’t get to see the sunrise. I think of my maps and I know Jonathan can’t get lost up there because the track is built like a major highway but I show him the map anyway. I point to the wavy lines growing tighter and tighter on the steeper parts of the mountain and I let him go.
Annette Edwards-Hill lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She has been published in Flash Frontier, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, Gravel, Headland, Fictive Dream, Spelk, Reflex Fiction and the 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Anthology. She was nominated for the Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize and the winner of the Flash Frontier Winter Writing Award in 2017. She was recommended in the London Independent Short Story competition twice in 2019.