“Why don’t you have a cup of tea?” Gina sounded weary, even over the phone. “You know, take a moment to relax.” Her voice leeched its warmth. “There’s no one after you, Matt.”
“I’m driving.” Matt adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. “To your house.”
Gina sighed. “Well, I’ll make one, then. Are you just leaving the farm? I’ll have it ready when you get here.”
Matt glanced in the rearview mirror. Nothing. Just fingers of inky darkness stretching behind him.
“Your doors locked?”
“Don’t let anyone in.”
“Stay away from the windows.”
“Let’s talk when you get here.” Gina paused. “I’m worried about you. Have you enrolled in that support group yet?”
His gaze crept to the rearview mirror again. Nothing. But the hairs on his neck rose, feeling unseen eyes watching him.
The darkness moved.
“Matt. Matt, are you listening? Mum said she drove past your place yesterday and the goats were out on the road. She had to stop and put them back in the paddock.”
A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead and splashed onto his cheek. They’d been in his house. In his car?
“I know everyone grieves differently. But you’ve lost your job, been arrested. I'm your sister. I care about you. What’s going on?”
Something was going on.
An oncoming car approached, its headlights casting a circle of light in the darkness. Matt swallowed.
“I’m nearly there. I’m coming to get you,” he said and hung up.
The headlights swept over the bonnet, washing over the front seat, and spilling towards the back. Matt fixed his gaze on the mirror. Ready. Waiting.
Behind him, something sighed.
The light hit the backseat, and for a moment two yellow eyes stared at him. The car passed, and they were gone.
Matt froze, his ears ringing, adrenaline electrifying every nerve ending in his body.
They were in the car.
He stumbled through his options, his mind screaming, his skin crawling, anticipating something lurching out of the void to grab him.
There were no good options.
He kept one hand on the steering wheel, and turned, facing the guest in the backseat.
The yellow eyes met his and moved forward, a face appearing out of the gloom.
A face that looked like a goat.
Matt blinked, feeling the pull of his mind sluggishly comprehending what it saw.
It wasn’t them.
There was a bloody goat in his car. A big pointy toed frolicky bastard.
The goat let out an enormous bleat, and Matt jumped, jerking the steering wheel. The car hit the gravel shoulder and slid towards the bank.
As the car careered down the bank, foliage slapping and splattering across the windscreen, Matt closed his eyes. And relaxed.
Death by goat.
It seemed fitting.
“Sir. Are you okay? Sir?”
A dull thudding tore through Matt’s head. He tried to open his eyes, but they weren't responding.
“Sir. Can you hear me?”
Squeaking, some creaking, and then fresh cool air on his cheeks. Hands grabbed his shoulders and squeezed.
Matt's eyes cracked open.
“Sir, you’ve been in an accident.” A man leant over him, frowning. His grey moustache wiggled as he spoke. “I’m a police officer. Are you hurt?”
Matt licked his lips, his mouth dry and tasting of copper and dirt. “What?”
“Are you hurt?”
He ran a slow mental checklist over his body. Mostly intact.
The cop looked over Matt’s shoulder and stumbled backwards. “What the bloody hell is that?” he said, collapsing into the bushes.
The cop’s fear jolted Matt fully awake, and he spun around. No. Please no.
He let out his breath. The bloody goat survived the crash, too. It blinked. And chewed the cud, its clacking teeth filling the silence.
“It’s a goat,” Matt said, resting his head on the seat and closing his eyes. “He scared me, too.” He gestured to the foliage surrounding his car. “Hence, this.”
The cop staggered to his feet, brushing the wet grass off his pants. “Why the hell is there a goat in your backseat?”
Matt shrugged. “I farm them. It must’ve climbed into my car.”
“Yes, well.” The cop cleared his throat, regaining his composure. “Are you hurt, sir? I can see blood on your head.”
Matt looked in the rearview mirror. Pulpy pink flesh and wet blood clumped in his hair. A trail of blood oozed past his eye and down his cheek. He paused.
The front seat.
A black duffel bag was on the seat beside him. The zip open. His breath caught in his throat, and he coughed.
“I think I’m okay,” he said, his voice sounding far away, like it belonged to someone else.
“Sir, I’ll help you out.” The cop leant across and reached for Matt’s arm.
Matt squashed the bag shut, his breath catching.
“Is that your bag?” the cop asked.
No, it was not his bag.
“Yeah, that’s mine. I’ll get it.” Matt grabbed it and shuffled out of the car. Had the cop seen inside?
“I’ve called it in.”
He wondered if he might be sick. “Called what in?”
The cop frowned. “The accident. The ambo will be here any minute.” He took Matt’s arm, his grip firm and cool. “Anything you need to say?”
What sort of question was that? Matt shook his head. “No.”
The cop paused, the pressure from his gaze intense. “Let’s get you up onto the road, then.”
Matt nodded. Piles and piles of money, squashed into the bag. And a smatter of blood across the notes.
“Here, I’ll carry your bag.” The cop reached out his hand, his sleeve riding up, revealing a small tattoo on his wrist. A box with a ribbon tied in a bow. A present.
“I’ve got it,” Matt said, clutching it to his chest.
He didn’t plan on letting it out of his sight.
“Oh my God, Matt. Are you okay?” Gina ran across the room and pulled him into a hug. Even at three in the morning, she smelt of cinnamons and flowers. “What happened?”
Matt touched the dressing on his head. “The doc says I need stitches and an x-ray. He’ll be back soon.”
He looked over his shoulder. The other beds were empty.
“They found me,” he whispered.
Gina stiffened. A flash of anger escaped and flickered over her features. She took a slow breath.
“Gina, listen to me. After the crash, I woke up and there was a bag sitting on the front seat.” He pointed to the bag beside his bed.
She looked at it and frowned. “That’s your bag,” she said, her fingers tracing the scar on the back of her hand. She’d been in the car, too, when Miriam died.
So had he. He'd been driving.
Matt shook his head. “It’s not. The front seat was empty. When I woke up, that was there.”
Her sneakers squeaked on the polished floor as she walked towards the bag. Matt grabbed her hand.
“Wait. Don’t touch it.”
“It’s filled with money.” He swallowed. “There’s blood on the notes.”
Gina spun, her blue eyes tinged with panic. “What have you done?”
“Nothing. I told you. That’s not my bag.”
“What have you done? Matt? How exactly did you get the money?” Her words stung. She didn’t believe him.
She didn’t believe in him.
He pushed himself up, leaning on his elbow. “Three months ago, I lost the love of my life. And yes, the guilt is eating me alive. And no, I’m not coping, but I’m telling you, this is real.” Matt shook his head. “That should be enough for you.”
Gina perched on the bed and picked at a bit of fluff on the blanket. “It’s not real,” she whispered and reached for the bag.
Matt screwed his eyes shut. The noise of the zipper harsh in the quiet room. He'd hear when she saw it.
He cracked open his eyes. Through the thin slits of his eyelashes, he saw her rifling through the bag.
“Stop. What are you doing? Gina!”
She held up a black water bottle and clean white folded gym towel. “This is the gym bag I gave you last Christmas.”
No. It couldn’t be.
His mind scrambled for an explanation. “It was out of my sight when the ambo was dressing my wound. The cop could’ve switched it.”
“How would he do that? Where would he get your gym bag?”
“From the house. They were in it. It’s why I was on my way to get you.”
“Who’s they?” Gina rested her hand on his arm, her voice soft. “There was no cop. It was an elderly couple that found you and rang you in.”
Matt stared at the ceiling. No.
No. No. No.
“I’m going to get a cuppa,” Gina said.
Matt closed his eyes. “Thanks. I’ll have one, too.”
The door creaked open. Matt couldn’t muster the motivation to sit. Gina could add that to the list of his shortcomings.
“Did they have tea?” he asked.
“I’m just here for a chat.”
Matt jerked up, his heart pounding. A nurse holding a tray stood in the doorway. Christ. He really needed to keep it together.
“Sorry, thought you were someone else.” He said, focusing on his breathing. It was important to make a good impression. Convince them he wasn’t crazy.
She lifted his chart and flicked through the pages. Her grey hair was tied in a severe bun, and an air of disapproving judgement wafted off her in waves. Matt shifted on the bed.
“Hello, Matt,” she said, pulling up a chair.
Her ID swung forward as she rested the tray on the bedside table. The lady in the photo had black hair. And glasses. And was barely out of high school.
And was not the lady sitting next to him.
He looked at the door. There had to be a reasonable explanation.
She smoothed her hair, her sleeve riding up, revealing a small tattoo on her wrist. A box with a ribbon tied in a bow. A present.
Matt threw back the covers and scrambled out of bed. Then froze. The cop was leaning against the doorway, his arms folded, a gun resting in the crook of his elbow.
“Get back in bed, Matt,” the cop said, his grey moustache punctuating his words.
How long did it take to make a cup of tea? Matt climbed into the bed.
The nurse gave a curt nod. “Good choice. Let’s chat, shall we?” The chair creaked as she sat.
“What the hell is going on?” Matt wiped his palms on the bedspread. The doctor said he'd be back soon.
“There was an old lady in front of you at the ATM last week," the nurse said, leaning back in her chair.
Matt's heart pounded. The cop moved to the other side of the door, adjusting his grip on his gun.
“She left four hundred and fifty dollars in the machine and walked away,” the nurse said, her judgement palpable.
His face grew warm. He hadn’t worked for three months. The money seemed like a gift from above.
The nurse nodded. “Yes. We remember too. We remember you pocketing it without even trying to return that little old lady’s money.”
“Who are you? How could you know that?” Gina wouldn't be able to see the cop before she walked in.
“We’re here to help you, Matt. You wanted to let go of your past. Your guilt. We agreed to help you live in the enduring present.” She paused.
Matt stared at her in horror. This had to be a mistake. “The Enduring Present? As in the grief support group?”
"What the hell? That was a scam. They cost a small fortune and then I never heard from them." Matt looked at the door. "There has to be a misunderstanding."
The nurse gave him a sympathetic look and pocketed something from her tray. “You have heard from us, Matt. We've been very busy."
Footsteps echoed down the corridor. Please don't be Gina.
"We believe that to let go of guilt, you need to connect with the good you can do in the present. So we set up a situation for you to do a simple good deed." Her lips thinned, and she raised an eyebrow. “Well, we all know how that went for you, Matt. But no matter, we organised another opportunity.”
The nurse held up a syringe. “But you didn’t tell the cop about the money in the bag, Matt.”
Matt scrambled off the bed and backed towards the window. The nurse walked towards him.
“The Enduring Present is very committed to your recovery.” Her heels clicked on the floor. “We mean it. You will let go of your guilt.” She flicked the syringe. “One way or another.”
The door swung open and Gina walked in, carrying two steaming cups.
"Run," Matt screamed. "Run, Gina."
The cop sprang forward and tackled Gina, the tea spilling over the floor. The nurse slid the syringe into her arm. She slumped motionless into the puddle of tea.
Matt screamed and ran to her side, but the cop grabbed him and pinned his arms behind his back. His wrists burnt as he struggled. He couldn’t move.
The nurse stood in front of him. “Matt, we can see you're having a harder time than most letting go, so we're going to jump forward in the program a little."
Gina lay sprawled on the floor. Was she even breathing?
The nurse pulled a small silver device out of her tray. “We'll clear the slate. Make it easier for you.”
Clear the slate. What the hell did that mean? Matt twisted and struggled, but the cop held firm.
She walked behind him, and a searing pain exploded through his wrist. “Whilst you've paid for our services, we have gone over and above to help you, so we will require something more in return.” He felt the pinprick of a needle. His legs disappeared, and he sprawled onto the floor.
As the darkness swallowed him, he saw a small tattoo. A box with a ribbon tied in a bow. A present. On his own wrist.
The ATM beeped as Matt’s colleague punched the buttons. Matt stood two behind her in the line, watching her. They rarely worked in pairs, but when they did, they never used names.
He couldn’t shake the feeling she was somehow familiar, like the nagging itch of a memory wanting to erupt.
“Lovely weather,” he said to the man in front of him.
“Better than yesterday,” he replied.
“The greatest gifts are in the present,” Matt said. The man gave a confused nod in reply.
The machine beeped, and his colleague grabbed her card and turned, leaving behind the money. The sun caught the scar on the back of her hand as she walked.
His memory itched. The scar. A tingle of emotion nudged on the edge of his mind.
Matt watched with mild professional curiosity as the man stepped up to the ATM. He could guess how this would play out.
His colleague walked down the road, then stopped, pretending to tie her shoelace. The itching intensified. So familiar.
The man glanced over his shoulder and plucked money out of the machine. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead as he walked past. Matt nodded at him.
“See you around,” the man said, turning in the opposite direction to his colleague.
Yes, Matt would be seeing him around. He smiled. He had a present to give him.
The itch subsided. The emotion retreated. He was doing important work.
He was spreading the peace of the enduring present.