Sunshine streamed in through the bookstore windows, the late afternoon light falling through the slatted blinds and onto the short gray carpet. Barely a sound could be heard in the small bookstore but the padding of footsteps several aisles towards the back.
A tall man with striking gold-blond hair strode back and forth in the row, his gray-green eyes scanning the shelves and roaming across each and every spine of each book. Inhaling a deep breath, Lachlan blinked several times to clear his finally blurring vision and shook his head.
“Eh, you need any helpie there, mate?” called Nigel from the desk pushed over in the corner of the dusty old store. “I got this here place memorized like the back of my hand.”
And there was no way that Lachlan doubted it. He jerked one eyebrow up as one of his hands stole up behind his head and slid down to the back of his neck, subconsciously rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. Nigel, the owner of Breckinsway’s only bookstore, was full of random facts that only a man who had read every single book of his store could know. From information on the dingoes that frequented the ranches on the edge of town to his extensive knowledge on thermodynamics, the man was a living, breathing encyclopedia.
“You’ve been here every day this week,” Nigel continued. “’Course, I wouldn’t know usually, but that there Tripp has sure chucked a bloody sickie this week. The boy always comes a gutser anyways, but what can you expect from those crow eaters anyways? I was as cross as a frog in a sock that morning when he didn’t show here at the ‘store.”
As much as he felt the desire to burst out in laughter at the owner’s nonsense he persisted on rambling at all hours of the day. Maybe it was because he was lonely without the said Tripp’s help in the store or was just his usual habit, but Lachlan couldn’t remember or sort it out. Absently, he reached for a thick volume on the human nervous system, but he didn’t know why and was almost certain it wouldn’t help him.
“Why is this here?” he asked slowly as his eyes roved the cover.
Nigel had stood up from his cluttered desk and strolled over to the tall man in the aisle staring down at the book as if it were an alien object, his large eyes squinting down in confusion at the title. “Fair dinkum question, mate,” remarked Nigel with a nod, raising his dark eyebrows at the medical volume. “Don’t see as how this got ‘ere, but prob’ly some kook or other trying to look like he knows what he’s doing. Here—I’ll take it.”
Almost reluctantly, Lachlan released his grip on the book and looked up at Nigel. "I might need this." “Why so unsure?” Nigel inquired curiously, peering closer at the man whom he had never seen around the small town that was the last before the vast outreaches of the barren Outback. “Ya don’t seem like you’re from ‘round here…don’t see to know much. Now, I’m not calling you a galah…no, never would call ya one of those kooks, but I’m just a mite curious.”
Lachlan merely stared blankly at the dark-haired young bookstore owner and gradually moved his head back and forth in the negative.
“I—I don’t exactly know why you’re asking me this,” he answered with a frown. “Nigel, all I need is a little help, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Help…from a bookie store,” stated Nigel flatly, tilting his head with an annoyed roll of his eyes. “Sounds fair dinkum to be sure.”
“Not many other places down here to find help,” Lachlan shrugged as he tried to let Nigel’s cynicism get under his skin. He ran his fingers through his fair hair and closed his eyes for a moment. “Nigel, I appreciate your—concern—but this is something I need to figure out myself. I won’t be around for long, so you don’t have to worry yourself about me. I’ll be fine.”
If he wasn’t before, Nigel appeared more skeptical than ever as he lifted his shoulders helplessly and raised his eyes upwards as he seemed to be getting his patience in hand. Agitatedly, he forked his hair up into strange spikes and chewed on a corner of his lip.
“Ya can ask me for help,” he snorted.
Lachlan smiled, a hint of subconscious condescension glistening in his gray-green eyes.
“I’m in the self-help section for a reason,” he responded.
“I can read,” Nigel snapped, apparently becoming more cantankerous with each passing moment. “Just trying to be of some helpie to you, mate. Now, if ya don’t need it, I will put this bloody bookie away.” “So nosy,” grunted Lachlan helplessly as Nigel walked away, most likely to go bother some other unsuspecting customer. Yet something more from the encounter had disturbed him. Something more had ruffled the placid state of mind he had finally fallen into after being released from the hospital just a little more than two weeks earlier. Struggling, trying so hard to remember, Lachlan closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temples as if it would help his struggling brain to bring back the memories. The problem was, he didn’t remember…anything.
Vaguely, in the fog of mind that came whenever he had exhausted his mental strength, Lachlan wandered back out of the aisle and out the door of the small bookstore, possibly hearing something muttered from one of the rows about some “kooky Brit.”
A wave of heat met him as soon as he stepped out onto the sidewalk and wearily stared out at the small street with the eccentric building and businesses all so closely clumped together. Why were they like that? he wondered to himself, but instantly began inwardly berating himself. So many questions, too many—he couldn’t keep on doing this to himself. When he had left the hospital, they had told him to “take it easy there, mate” and to not stress himself too much. Wondering why yet left with a haunting sense that there would possibly be something that would happen if he didn’t follow their advice, he had left the hospital and stood out in the hot afternoon for nearly two hours. He had sat in the shade, aimlessly batting at the pesky flies that buzzed obnoxiously in the stolid heat. Question upon question had come to him, one coming on the tail of the other as his mind strove uselessly to answer each one. A killing headache set in, driving him to rest his forehead on his knees and bite the insides of his cheeks against the stabbing pain. Finally, he decided that there would be no questions, that he would try to figure this thing out with no questions.
Now, Lachlan’s eyes wandered to the edge of town where the land stretched out endlessly. The reddish dirt and scrubby vegetation continued on as far as the eye could see under the broad blue sky. There were no clouds, nothing to keep the sun from drenching the land with its broiling heat. “I’m useless,” he decided as his brows drew together in concern and unwanted tears stung at the corners of his eyes. “There’s no point.”
Slowly, he turned around and faced the bookstore again, inhaling deeply as he shook his head. “May I use your telephone?” Lachlan asked as soon as he had stepped into the store and faced Nigel who barely glanced up from the mounds of books and papers littering his desk. “There’s a call I need to make, and I don’t know where else to go.”
Shrugging, Nigel gestured wordlessly to the phone resting on his desk and poked the end of a pen into the side of his cheek. “Is this the only one?” “Only bloody one in the whole store.”
“Do you know the number for the hospital?”
“Don’t reckon I do. I’m only a store owner, not a doc.”
Upset, Lachlan turned away to hide the frustrated tears jerked to his eyes once more. Fine. Who cared anyway? He didn’t know why he was here with these strange people with no manners and who pried into others’ business like it was their own; he didn’t know why he had been held in the hospital for who knew how long; and he sure as Bob was Nigel’s uncle that he had no idea why all he could remember was the past two weeks.
He half-smiled at the phrase he had heard thrown around every once in awhile among the locals.
“Alright, thank you for trying to help.”
“Eh, ya can watch the box back in the office if you’d like. It’s a mite hot out there—right in the middle of the arvo.” “The box?” echoed Lachlan, shaking his head in confusion. “The box.”
“Um, the box,” repeated Nigel frustratedly as he blinked several times. “There might be a rugby game on or some other thing to watch.”
“Oh.” Lachlan rubbed the back of his neck as his eyes strayed out the window and to the street outside. “I have things to be doing—I-I’m sorry, but thank you. I should be going.”
“Why are you in Breckinsway?” “I don’t know.” “What are you doing here?” “I told you, I don’t know,” Lachlan repeated.
“If you don’t tell me, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Who is he?” The question seemed to echo through the halls of each of the hospital corridors and rooms as the staff slowly grew to realize that the tall young British man physically could not leave and was slowly becoming more and more ill with each passing day. Had it been heatstroke? The doctor shook his head at that possibility, noting the strange marks on the brain MRI they had performed on him.
“Would you like chicken or fish for dinner?” one of the nurses questioned as she passed by the patient lying quietly in his bed.
“I’m not hungry,” said Lachlan calmly.
“You need to eat,” stated the nurse a little impatiently, then added a little sarcastically, “can you ‘remember’ what either tastes like?”
“Surprise me,” murmured Lachlan, his large, gray-green eyes fixated on the ceiling above. The nurse turned on her heel and strode away, muttering things under her breath that Lachlan didn’t understand and didn’t care to. The television droned on in the background—one of the nurses had turned it on after they had left, but it didn’t interest him. His mind couldn’t focus on anything, and it was only sleep that had any draw for him. It was the only thing that gave him brief respite from the weariness and despair draining his consciousness and also from the intensifying pain in his head. “Can you turn that off?” he queried as an RN was walking by the half-open door.
“Sure, mate,” answered the RN with a nod, stepping into the room and reaching for the remote. The nurse’s hand almost instantly froze, though, as the local news suddenly came across the screen. “This is a local newsflash, mates,” the newscaster grinned dazzlingly. “G’day to all of yous watching. We just received the news that a devastating plane crash occurred just off our western coast, originally boarded with twenty-three passengers coming from Jehud-Abad, Israel. We bloody don’t know how it all happened, but there seems to have been a sort of malfunction in the engine, and all twenty-three passengers aboard were killed, including the British billionaire Rand Charleston’s son.”
“Where did the plane go down?” the RN asked aloud, shaking his head.
As if the newscaster had heard him, the man on the television continued, skimming his notes as he spoke. “The plane crashed just over the western edge of the Outback, in the exact middle of bloody nowhere. No one knows why the plane took that route, but that’s what it is, cobbers. Once again, this has been a local newsflash from your favorite station—”
And, once again, the television whined along in the background as Lachlan lay in the white-sheeted bed with his aching head resting on the pillow. “I’m a journo,” a voice said suddenly, startling Lachlan into a sitting position as Nigel appeared at the door. “A—what?” faltered Lachlan.
“Journo,” said Nigel again, his face paling as he collapsed into the chair alongside the bed. “What you Brits would call a journalist. I-I don’t know why I didn’t tell you before, but I can’t help acting the galah every now and then.”
“How did you find me?” “Bloody easy to find a Brit in a small town full of true-blue Aussies,” grinned Nigel sheepishly.
“Why are you here?” demanded Lachlan with a spark of irritation flaring into his eyes. He had taken more to watching the “box,” and was caught up on all the latest news—it being the only thing he cared to watch. “To ask me more questions?”
“It’s my job, mate,” returned Nigel frankly. “I’ll quit beating ‘round the bush, though, and just ask you—are you Rand Charleston’s son?”
“I don’t remember anything,” stated Lachlan deliberately. “Nothing.”
A disturbed expression came over Nigel’s face, and he shifted his position in his chair and stared at Lachlan as if he were the biggest liar down under.
“But…but that’s not possible,” he stammered with a denying shake of his head.
All of a sudden, the door was thrown open, and the gray-haired doctor strode in with a stack of papers under his arm. He glanced about the room until his eyes finally locked on Lachlan whose face was more drained of color than usual.
“Young man,” he said in his thick South Wales accent, yet from previous interactions had learned that this doctor had much more class than the common folks around town. “What is the last thing you remember?” He had grown accustomed to the question, but there was something that began to dawn at the back of his mind for the first time.
“I-I remember a pond,” he frowned deeply. “A—a pond where I woke up. The water was dirty—murky and tasted brackish.” A smile broke over the elderly doctor’s face as he glanced down at the papers and then back up at Lachlan. “It matches. Your answer matches with this report that came in from this man Nigel Turner.” “What do you mean?” Lachlan inquired dubiously. “I don’t understand.”
“For weeks, Nigel has been trying to locate the man who was said to have been found in the center of the Outback with no food, water, or supplies with him. He was at a pond with his head in the water—drowned the two natives who found him thought. When they brought him to a rural outpost, the police identified him as the British traveler and extreme adventurer Lachlan Sinclair who set out to cross the entire Outback with only the clothes on his back to prove it could be done. He must have passed out when he finally found a water source to drink from…”
“The natives and the police dropped you off two miles from here, and a rancher discovered you on his land and brought you to the hospital.”
Both the doctor and Nigel had their eyes on him, as if expecting him to coincide with their story. For a moment, Lachlan said nothing, closing his eyes.
He still remembered nothing but the pond.
“I’m sorry—I don’t know if…”
“We have ways to try to help your memory,” the doctor smiled encouragingly. “If he ends up being who you really are, then you will have crossed three-fourths of the entire Australian Outback by yourself and with no supplies—equivalent of the win.”
“What win?” Lachlan asked, blinking in surprise.
“The winner of nearly a million Australian dollars and a chance to compete in next year’s survival cruise down the Amazon River.”