Six weeks after his father left, the first postcard came from him.
“A postcard,” his mother said. “Where’s the return address? Where’s the goddamn cheque?”
The postcard read Greetings from Perth in a swirling printed cursive. That was all the address they got.
Three months after that they moved out of their house and went to live by the graveyard. At night he kept watch through the gaps in the metal slats of his blinds. He could see the high steel gate black and gleaming in the glow from the streetlight, a shadow falling all the way to his window.
“Cemetery, Cody,” his mother said. “Don’t make it sound like a horror movie. At least there won’t be any noise.”
“That’s right, you won’t hear a ghost coming,” Joe said. And he grabbed Cody from behind.
“Joe, don't," their mother said. But that was all.
The two of them talked in low voices at night after Cody went to bed. Joe was sixteen, and now he was the one who mowed the lawns and got rid of the dead birds the cat brought in.
Some nights Cody would walk silently back up the hallway and stand outside the lounge room where Joe and his mother still watched TV.
“He pissed it all away, into those slots,” he heard his mother say to Joe once, and even though he didn’t understand what she had said, something in her cold tone made him shrink down inside.
Another time she said; “They cut the card up, right there in shop. I wanted to die.”
Cody waited for Joe to say something, to tell her she could never die, but he stayed silent. He crept close enough to look around the doorway and saw him sat there. The light of the TV flickered across his face and he looked ten years older than he looked during the day. As if he was looking at some ghost of his brother.
Their dad wasn’t back by winter. The new house was cold all the time. At night he sat awake staring toward the window which was all that separated him from the graveyard. That endless expanse of the grey and silent stones . At night he watched the shadow, moving across the graves. It was the shape of many things, a woman in robes and a man tall and thin and a baby crawling across the ground.
If he called out Joe would come, he knew. He would come because he was the man of the house now, and a second later he would sneer, because he was still Cody’s brother after all.
Cody was four years younger than Joe and he wished there was some way to fast forward to the place where he was, to be beyond hurt or fear.
The afternoon was cold and sunny, the wind blowing in gusts as Cody walked home from school. It carried on it the scent of the cigarette Joe and Mike were smoking as they walked behind him. He tried not to breath any of it. At school he had seen photos of the black and rotted lungs of smokers. Those must have been the classes Joe wagged.
As they turned into their street, he was sure to speed up, because he had to make sure he got to the letterbox before his brother. Joe got to a postcard first once and he’d given it a glance before ripping it into a dozen tiny pieces and dropping them into the gutter.
“What did he say?” Cody had begged.
“He’s getting a job soon, he’s going to send money,” Joe said. And gave a short laugh, so that Cody was never sure if he’d been joking or not.
Behind him the boys coughed, laughed. They were passing a coke bottle full of clear liquid between them.
“What’s that?” Cody asked.
“Water,” Joe said, and Mike laughed again.
His sleeves were too short and he jammed his hands in his pockets. He didn’t want to tell his mother his jacket was too small for him. Anything to do with money – and he was starting to realize everything was to do with money – made her pull her mouth in a clown mask of a smile. Sometimes Cody could imagine her smiling so wide her cheeks split open and her smile became a scream.
Cody was ahead so he was the first to see the police car turn down the street.
“Joe!” he yelped, a warning. Because he knew Joe never drank water. He stood in front of the open fridge and drank milk straight from the carton, or he bought cans of coke from the dairy. That was all.
The police car slowed as it approached them. He watched the policeman behind the wheel, his head turned toward them, and wondered for a moment if he knew how to find a person.
Joe stepped up onto the low brick wall which bordered the grass outside the graveyard. He raised the bottle to take a long swallow, smoke trailing from the cigarette in his other hand.
Cody watched his brother standing against the sky. He imagined him pressed to the side of a police car, hands behind his back like a TV show. The thought of seeing him subdued was agonizing and enticing at once.
But the police car carried on past them. Joe stepped back down and watched the disappearing tail lights. Cody wondered what he had wanted to happen.
He looked after the car too, and then he saw it. The white corner of something sticking from the slot in their mail box. He ran, not caring what Joe thought.
Something beating inside him as he pulled it out. As if one of the big moths which flew around their porch light in summer was inside his chest, fluttering wings against his heart in a soft and insistent beat.
The white corner belonged to an envelope, addressed to his parents. Confidential in red across it. The moth died inside him, it lived again. For lying in the bottom of the mail box was a postcard, the redirection stamp over their old address.
He tucked it down into the waistband of his shorts before Joe could see. Took the letter with unease now sliding over him. He knew these were the letters which made his mother press her lips together in that sad smile. Maybe he would hide the letter too.
But when they got into the kitchen, cold and clean with its bare surfaces and the humming fridge and their mother out at work, Joe turned to him.
“Give it here,” he said, putting his hand out. And Cody had no choice but to hand him the letter, feeling the sharp edges of the postcard pressing against his stomach as he did. He watched his brother open it.
Joe leaned back against the bench and read it in silence. He wasn’t like their mother who chewed her lip and frowned and smiled. Cody never knew what he was thinking.
“What’s that?” Mike asked, and Joe swung his head up, as if he’d forgotten he was there.
“Nothing,” he said.
He passed the letter to their mother as they ate dinner, holding it out to her across the table. Cody and Joe were eating chicken and rice, their mother was only prodding hers with a fork and swallowing down wine.
“This came today,” Joe said. He sat watching her and waiting. Cody didn’t understand why he would rip up the postcard but not the letter. She looked it at a minute then she laughed, a strange sound. She put down her fork and picked up the wine. Cody kept shoving down mouthfuls of chicken and rice. Inside him something like hunger ached.
“I’m going to leave school,” Joe said. “I’ll get a job.”
Their mother sat up straight, put her drink down hard.
“You are not leaving school, Joe.” It was the most certain of anything Cody had heard her sound in months, and despite the tension snapping between them he felt momentarily better.
“I can help out. He sure won’t.”
She stood, her chair scraping back. If Joe had stood too, she’d have had to lean her head back to look up at him.
“No,” she said. “I won’t have that.”
Joe slammed a fist against the table and got up and walked out. He wasn’t scared of the teachers or police, but still their mother could compel him.
When Cody laid the four postcards out on his bed in order from first to last, but for the missing one which should have been third, he could see the winding path his father was taking across Australia. He wondered when he would start coming back to them.
Last of all he laid down the postcard which had come that day. He was in Darwin. Staying in a boarding house until he got his own place. A kangaroo on the front had a speech bubble coming from its mouth. “I’m having a hopping good time!”
Cody puzzled over that. Was his dad really having a good time? The door to his room swung open. He startled, pressing the postcard down on his lap. Joe stood there in the doorway, giving him that appraising stare which seemed to find him lacking every time. It was too late to gather up the postcards and hide his shameful hope, his hopeless love. Joe looked at the postcards then back at him.
“Want to come get a coke?” he asked.
The night outside was glittering, the gates of the graveyard reflecting the street light, dew coating the grass.
Cody stopped when he realized Joe was veering toward the gate, freezing at the very thought of walking amongst the dead and buried at night. Joe pushed it open and walked through then turned and looked back at Cody. The iron bars cut across his face. The streetlamp threw a puddle of light around him, beyond was a sea of darkness.
“Walk the long way around if you want then,” Joe said. A goad in his tone. The same way he’d sneered at the thought of his father getting a job and sending money.
Cody didn’t want to be someone Joe thought would always let him down. He looked up to see the iron arch as he passed underneath and felt dizzy. Joe was already walking ahead of him and he ran to catch him, his footsteps loud and heavy in the silent night.
“Hey, don’t you ever come here at night without me,” Joe said. He cuffed Cody’s shoulder, abruptly serious.
“I don’t even want to come here with you,” Cody replied, and was rewarded with a grin from his brother, so that for a moment all the fear he’d swallowed down to enter here was worth it.
The light was gone behind them and he could see only the path ahead. He couldn’t see the rows of engraved stones but he could feel them there. His every sense strained toward them.
On the other side was the Mobil station with fluorescent lights beaming out into the night, the floodlit forecourt and the rows of fridges inside. They only had to make it there.
Ahead on the path something moved. His breath froze in his chest. He stared into the darkness until it wavered. Two tall shapes outlined against the dark. He grabbed Joe’s arm.
“There’s something there,” he whispered.
“Just keep walking,” Joe said. He would have rather had the teasing. It’s not real, you pussy, he wanted to hear. The figures solidified as they got closer. He could see the bulky shape of clothes. One of them laughed, a hard and human sound. But the tight thumping in his chest didn’t ease.
“If I tell you to run, you go straight home,” Joe said, his voice low.
The figures moved to stand in their path. Not ghosts but boys, or maybe men. Some age between Joe and their father which was indeterminate to him.
“You got a cigarette?” one asked, looking at Joe.
Joe’s arms hung loose down by his side; his hands curled. He looked at once bored and like he was prepared to slay a lion if he had to.
“I don’t smoke,” Joe said.
“Got a spare dollar?” the other one asked. Joe slapped his pockets then held his hands out toward them.
“I’m broke, see. I should ask you for money.”
They stared in silence through the dark at each other. Cody felt his own hands ball up at his side. He wouldn’t run and leave his brother, no matter what.
He felt Joe’s hand on his shoulder, propelling him forward.
“Let’s go,” Joe said to him. And they walked on. Straight through the middle of the two, who only stood still and let them pass.
They kept walking, their own footsteps the only sound. Joe didn’t look back and Cody forced himself not to either.
“I thought you were gonna have to fight them,” he said.
His heart beat in time with his steps, but he felt strangely excited. Fear of the dead had faded away. They had faced the living.
“Nah, they were pussies,” Joe said.
But he hadn’t missed the tense way Joe had stood as they measured each other up. Some test of manhood he too would have to pass someday.
They were coming to the end of the dark path. Cody could see the halo of light glowing from the service station in the distance.
“Dad said he’ll pay for you to have driving lessons when he starts his new job,” Cody said.
Joe let out a huff of breath. Something like a laugh, or a sigh. It hung like mist in the cold air.
“Unless we pay six hundred dollars in seven days, the only car we’ve got to drive is getting re-possessed. Did the old man send six hundred dollars with his postcard?”
It wasn’t a real question, and there was no good answer to it anyway, so Cody said nothing. Only watched his brother stride away ahead of him. Then Joe turned, walking backwards to face him.
“I already know how to drive anyway,” he said.
His tone was placating, as if he were trying to sooth Cody somehow. But the words sent a shudder of horror into him. Joe could already drive and their dad didn’t know. He didn’t know they’d have no car soon. He just kept on sending postcards, knowing only they could never reply.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” Cody asked.
Their dad didn’t even know where they lived. How could he be coming back? The knowledge welled up so fast in him he couldn’t push it back down.
Joe stopped and waited until Cody caught up to him and they both stood still for a moment, the darkness pressing around them.
“No, he’s not coming back.” His tone was steady but gentle. Like his mother when she sat him down not so many years ago and told him Santa wasn’t real.
“Do you miss him?” He never would have dared ask the question which burned in him if they hadn’t stood side by side against the other boys. He felt as if in that moment some of his brother’s courage had seeped into him and settled inside like a tiny shining rock, sending its glow radiating out into the fear which filled him up.
Joe moved his head a little. Not enough Cody could have said for sure if it was yes or no.
“I hate him sometimes,” Cody said. He felt it when he sat there with the postcards some nights, rising up in him.
“Don’t waste your time hating him,” Joe said. “He’s just a coward, that’s all. Running from the mess he made, left us to deal with it. But we’ll be okay, you know.”
His face was in shadow, eyes glowing in the moonlight. He looked like the guy at the end of the movie, the one who was left after war, walking through rubble. Joe thought they were the strong ones, himself and Cody and their mother. The ones who kept on going.
He lifted his chin to look up at Joe. His jacket was too tight over his shoulders and he unzipped it. The cool air slid around his neck but it didn’t bother him. His dad wasn’t coming home but it was okay, they would carry on and never run. For a moment he could almost reach it, that numb place where his brother was.