I was only moving the garbage bags so Mum could get the Ford around the corner of the lane and didn’t even notice I was bleeding til I was watching her drive off down the street to work and waving my hand. And there was a lot of blood already! At first I was like – eh, what’s this, whose blood is this? Something sharp had sliced my palm right open and it was already dripping down to my elbow. I sat down on the curb outside the house and remembered how Mum hid the spare key after Dad’s last visit so there was no way inside and the blood was really running now. I was even wondering if I was going to die but that’s stupid because 12-year old boys don’t usually bleed to death from hand injuries in their own driveways, even if some people say this neighbourhood is rough. So I got up, feeling a bit white, a bit spinny, and headed next door to the house where the lights are always on and Mum says the guy who lives there is demented. But I could see him watching through the window as usual, so I knocked on the door.
And I gotta admit I was actually kinda stoked to cut my hand open because I legit could not go to school right now and I had proof and everything. And today was going to be stink anyway because I was smashing Xbox until 3am and didn’t do the geography homework about China, which is a very boring country, and the boys were keen for squads. Also, low key, but I’m still sort of hiding from Hannah, who told Talia what I did at that party in Tawa last weekend and they’re gonna catch me up for sure because Talia loves the drama and wants to shame me out with the boys around so she can hit up Mike for the D next, he reckons. I’m not down with that.
The old guy didn’t answer at first but I kept knocking and then rested my head on the wall because I was really feeling like I was going to pass out. I could see him behind the glass, not opening the door, just watching. I said something but my voice came out like a squeak so I knocked again. And finally he opened up, just a crack, and I could see his nose poking out from the dark. But he wasn’t really looking at me; he was looking past me to the garden, which was full of nice orange pots with dead plants in them. I said something again…help or something. He opened the door a little more and I saw he was already holding a rag, and I grabbed it off him. And I knew I had to put pressure on the wound because that’s obvious from TV etc so I squeezed the rag in my fist but that just made more blood gush out. I think that’s when I passed out.
Well, sort of. I wasn’t fully out cold like Youtube KO compilations buzz but I wasn’t really like, running me, it was like someone else was in charge. I was lying down on the couch when I woke up – well, sort of woke up – and the old guy was sitting at a desk in the corner of the room on his computer, some ancient-looking laptop the size of the old physics textbook that Mr Mawer threatens to make us copy out from cover to cover when we fuck around in class. There was a glass of some white fizzy stuff on the coffee table in front of me next to a stack of books and a few stained mugs with teabags at the bottom. The living room had that smell like when you’re a kid and you grab your mate’s arm and fireburn it for ages with your hands and then you lick the skin… like dog shit on fire, old sweaty bin ham, gases. And the combination of the smell, the dark wooden furniture, the horror-style wallpaper pattern and the glass cases full of stuff, just shit, whatever… well, they made the place look like a museum, but one of those small-town ones that are about like, local coal mining or blacksmithing or old horses or whatever, and no one goes there and you gotta wonder how they stay open these days, eh.
Old stuff, old people stuff, that’s what I saw, and you know, that’s not a very good description but it’s what I saw. Old people all have copies of National Geographic stacked on their shelves and happy china dogs with fishing rods, biscuit tins, clocks, books about war, and this guy’s on that buzz, but a bit different. Like he had the biographies of Churchill and Hitler and the funny statues – horses or ponies or something – and he even had the biscuit tin, right there on the table, but no old framed photos on the walls, ok, well maybe a couple but not like super in-your-face and proud. But it’s like you could tell he’s proud of other stuff, just not his family, and even though there’s probably no biscuits in the tin any more, there’s something super useful in there instead. He was totally silent but clicking away on his mouse, not looking at me. “Is it still bleeding?” he said after a while.
I peeled the rag back and looked at my hand but couldn’t really deal with it yet – I could see the meat inside the cut, I thought – and yep, still bleeding. Still dizzy. It’s weird that it freaked me out so much – I remember when Manu cracked his head trying to 5-0 the handrail in Maccas carpark and we could kinda see his skull through the cut, and that was the worst thing I ever saw, but I wasn’t shook, it was actually kinda funny. But I guess when you’re on the internet you’ve seen everything so nothing can be that bad except when it’s happening to you.
“A bit. Thanks for helping me, sir. My Mum’s at work. I got no credit on my phone.”
“Have no credit on my phone.”
“Have no credit.”
“Not me, you. You have no credit on your phone.”
“That’s true, that’s what I said. Why, you got some? I could call Mum to come pick me up.”
I could tell he was looking at me now, even though the pile of books on his coffee table was blocking his eyes from me. I was looking at the books and thinking of them like a wall from Fortnite, like I had put it up to block his shot. Sometimes it happens like this when I play too many games overnight and don’t sleep enough; I see stuff like ramps and walls and sniper spots all day at school. But all of the boys do too. And then I could see his face poking around the side of the stack of books like he was peeking an angle on me and lining up a fresh shot. His face looked like an old guy’s face, just general old guy steez, but not that wrinkly, not like Nana with her scales. But the rest of it – the white hair, thick glasses, sad eyes – if he committed a crime and I was the only witness, it would be difficult for me to describe him to the cops. And I would never nark anyway.
“There’s no telephone in this house. Wait until the bleeding stops and you’ll be fine to go home.”
“The door’s locked. Mum’s gone to work and I can’t get in. But it’s ok. I can go to school.”
“Well, yes. That’s important. Drink the antacid.”
I sat up and looked at the other books on the shelf by his front window. How many biographies of Hitler does one guy need? I’ve read plenty of stuff online about him and can see he was a bad dude. I don’t get why you need a whole book, or five of them. “Were you in World War Two?” I asked him.
But he didn’t hear me I guess, because he was in the kitchen finding a biscuit, which he brought back to me on a little brown plate that had a hair on it, next to the biscuit, which was a gingernut, I think, but I don’t know, I didn’t eat it.
“Why do you like Hitler so much?”
And then I could see for sure that he didn’t want me there and I thought about how funny it would be to bleed to death while I sat on my neighbour’s couch taking the piss out of him. But fuck that, I thought, and then I felt really serious, I had that rush of hot energy from my lungs to my guts like when Mum told me about Dad’s ‘issues’ the first time. But this was different… it’s really buzzy when you think about your own death, for real, even if it’s not that likely.
“I don’t like Hitler,” said the old guy. “But you have to respect him.”
“I read a lot of things, I read about Churchill too. I don’t need to explain that to anyone.”
“For sure,” I said. “Were you in World War Two?”
“We all were, by definition. I wasn’t a soldier, if that’s what you mean.”
“Because I was five years old when it began, and they certainly didn’t want their soldiers in nappies now, did they?”
“You were still wearing nappies when you were five?”
“No – ”
“What I don’t get is how we even got involved in the first place. Like, New Zealand, come on, we’re not exactly a military powerhouse, are we, down here in the middle of the ocean? And it’s weird that something so far away that didn’t really involve us meant all these dudes had to go off and get shot. But then maybe people just aren’t as into the Queen as they used to be, do you reckon? I dunno.”
He stood up and walked back into the kitchen, real slow steps, careful movement. He called out: “Has it stopped bleeding yet?” His furniture and the colours of his house – dark orange, red going purple, heavy brown and wooden everything – all felt like a prison trap, like the wallpaper was going to wrap itself around you, suck you into the wall and keep you inside it forever.
“Do you know my Mum?” I asked him, trying not to shout.
“I take it she’s the woman next door? I have met her, yes.”
“Her name’s Lydia. Who are you?”
“You can call me sir, if you like. I noticed you did that on your way in.”
“Ok, sir. Where’s your wife? Or… sorry. Do you live with your family or anyone?”
“No, my wife died a long time ago.”
“Sorry to hear that, sir. Do you go out and see people much?”
“I’m fine,” he said, and then he looked like he was ill of a sudden… hard to explain. Like, he was fine and dandy and then he looked really white and had to steady himself on the wall in the kitchen, and he walked so slowly to the lounge and sat down on his armchair, so I did too.
“Sorry to get in your business,” I said. “I should be fine in a sec… but you got another rag? This one’s pretty soaked.” I looked over at him in the armchair and his eyes were closed. He was quite pale, even for an old white guy, nearly transparent.
“The cupboard under the sink,” he said. His voice sounded tired. “You can find it.”
And I gotta admit, the kitchen made me feel proper sad for him, because it was really messy and it didn’t look like he bothered to clean it any more – dishes piled up, floor sticky, sink clogged with potato peels. It almost made me feel like crying, which was unexpected since this guy was probably kind of evil, but I didn’t. I thought maybe I should ask Mum if we can cook something for him one day though because his sitch seems pretty awful. I went back into the lounge with the new rag after leaving the bloody one on top of a pile of teabags where the bin used to be.
“You know,” I said. “I keep up with my mates from playing videogames online. Maybe you could play on your computer too. Have you ever tried before? You could fight in World War Two, or just plan the military strategies. There’s games for everyone these days, and you can play with heaps of people.”
He didn’t look impressed, but then he didn’t really look anything at all, if that makes sense. “I play Hearts,” he said. “And you do that alone.”
“I’m serious, sir. You can squad up with people and go into battle with amazing graphics and guns and stuff. You can get a Kar-98 sniper rifle in some games!”
And then he laughed for the first time, and I liked it. His laugh sounded like old gravel falling into a pit, but in a good way, softly, like in Minecraft. “A German weapon. But a fine one,” he said.
“Oh hell yeah,” I said. “I get so stoked when I find one. And it’s like – BANG! – 800 meters, headshot, guy calling me a hacker. Love that gun.”
“Eight hundred meters?” he looked at me, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t be so accurate in a real war.”
“Probably not,” I said. “And you probably couldn’t run PUBG on that old laptop anyway.”
I looked at the clock and realised assembly was almost over and I was going to be in some kind of trouble soon, so I got up and walked to the front door. I was feeling a little better but knew I was going to need stitches and then there was going to be a shitstorm with Mum, who always says this old guy is Bad News. When I looked back into the living room, he was on his feet and searching in a drawer. He turned around with a pistol in his hands, pointed to the carpet, and he was almost smiling. “Perhaps you’d like to hold this? It’s a 22 Berreta.”
And I probably should have been scared but I wasn’t, so I took the gun and pointed it at the curtains then gave it back to him. “It’s nice,” I said. “But Jacinda’s gonna take your guns, that’s what Mum says.”
“I’ll knock her teeth out if she tries, the ugly old horse,” he said.
I walked back to the front door and stepped out onto the porch with the plan of heading home and trying to get wi-fi from outside my bedroom to call an Uber to school. I looked back and waved the bloody rag at him, said thanks again, all that stuff. Down the far end of the street, I could hear the garbage truck starting on our street. They’re always blasting hip-hop on their rounds, and it was Wu Tang Clan this time, pretty sick. And they’ve decked out the truck, I reckon, because the bass is thick and hearty when they roll past.
On the corner outside our place, where I moved the bags, the sunlight was angling in just right so I could see the shiny little bits of metal – maybe pallet knife blades or razors or something – attached to the handles of the garbage bags, tucked in and hidden there inside the loops of plastic. I looked back at the old guy’s place. He was still standing in the window, and the garbage truck was getting closer.
Next week’s short story is by Marino-Moana Begman, from the new collection of stories in Huia Short Stories 13 (Huia Publishers, $25)