It was hard to imagine anything bad could happen in this place, this place of serene gum trees and leaves swirling in eddies on the water. Ten years ago the creek hadn’t looked so different, except back then they weren’t in a drought. There was still enough water to drown in, and the thought sent an icy slash into Zoe’s belly.
When she stepped under the railway bridge nothing could keep the black memories away. Zoe’s thongs toed against beer bottles and rum cans by the pylon where the local kids came to drink. It had always been so; one generation after another, until they were old enough to get into the pub or get the hell out of Acacia.
Graffiti was scrawled on the rough concrete.
GOODBYE BENNO. We’ll miss ya mate.
Zoe’s message had long been obscured by weeds:
I LOVE YOU. I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU.
Over the years the graffiti had mushroomed with a timeline of popular and not-so-popular bands, lots of swear words, “I Love Pete” and “Sheree is hot”. Zoe lay the bunch of flowers by the pylon, their beauty diminished by the stark concrete and dirt.
When Benno died she had no idea how he’d haunt her. Stalking her into adulthood, watching her take the steps he never would.
No, he’d never left her.
‘It’s strange how I feel closest to Ben in the place where he died,’ Zoe admitted later to her brother Jake. The evening sun soaked into her, blending with the beer she was drinking. Here on Jake’s porch their time was kept by the crickets and the panting cattle dog at Jake’s feet. Like a happy family.
‘Is it really that strange? It’s the last place you saw him.’
‘Do you feel that way? I mean, it’s the last place you saw him too,’ she replied.
Jake picked at the label on his beer. ‘Well I don’t swim there anymore, if that’s what you mean. You should be glad you’d gone home before it happened.’
‘Maybe if I’d stayed it wouldn’t have happened at all.’
‘Maybe it was just his time.’
Zoe felt guilty to see how bitter Jake had become. ‘Are his parents coming back? It is the tenth anniversary.’ No, not an anniversary, a tribute, she corrected herself. An anniversary was something you celebrated, like a wedding. Not for something tragic.
‘I don’t know. I heard his Dad died a while ago. I doubt his Mother would ever set foot in town again.’ Jake shrugged.
Zoe recalled Mrs Murray sobbing as she wildly shook Jake by the shoulders.
Why did he have to survive while her beautiful son died?
They’d all watched in dumb shock except Zoe’s mother. Mrs Steele was a gentle woman until someone was screaming at her son. She’d taken Jo Murray’s wrists in a grip of iron and firmly removed her from Jake. Not only had his best friend just died, now this hysterical woman was blaming him for it.
It wasn’t something an eighteen year old should have to deal with.
Jake’s voice snapped Zoe to reality. ‘I’m surprised you came back, actually,’
Zoe knew she shouldn’t be surprised but she was. What Jake really meant was you came back for him but you never come back for me. The worst thing was that he was right. ‘I’m hoping coming back might finally set me free of him.’
‘Ben Murray has been with me every day of my life since he died, Jake. It’s like he’s looking over my shoulder to remind me that he was robbed of everything I have.’ The alcohol was opening up her Pandora’s Box. ‘And what do I have? A job I hate, I can’t have any kind of decent relationship, I can’t move on from things that happened when we were kids. This town is in me like a splinter. Moving away never made things better.’
He slammed his drink down to reach for a cigarette. ‘You’re not the only one cursed with it, you know. Benno has been a part of my life for so long I don’t think anything will make him go away. No-one knows me as Jake. I’m just ‘the boy who was with Ben Murray when he died’. Everyone makes out that he was such an angel and he bloody well wasn’t!’
‘You could always leave.’ Zoe wasn’t sure how to read him anymore, not now he was an adult. She didn’t think he’d been an angry kid.
He laughed. ‘They need me here Zo. Benno can’t be an angel without the devil.’
She thought better of telling him that maybe it was a matter of him needing Benno. That connection was worth more to him than going somewhere where he’d be a nobody. Not that it seemed to have helped her. ‘People forget.’
‘You don’t.’ Smoke blasted out of his mouth.
‘Surely it would have been far worse if I’d stayed.’
Jake had gotten up to turn on the bug zapper. ‘Maybe you’ll know for sure after the service tomorrow.’
‘Maybe.’ Zoe agreed, but she dwelt on it all night.
By the time Ben’s memorial service was finished Zoe had no doubts she’d done the best thing by leaving Acacia. She’d suffered several brief conversations with familiar faces now old and tired. One particular conversation with someone called Heather had been enlightening to say the least. Zoe didn’t know how to process what she’d been told. Was it a sign that she was intoxicated with relief when she finally fled the church? If it was then bring it on! Zoe realised she desperately wanted Benno’s dead fingers to let go of her.
Jake’s glazed and bloodshot eyes greeted Zoe when she charged through the door. Marijuana smoke hung in a dead haze near the ceiling.
‘It’s over then?’ He smirked. ‘Like Chinese water torture was it?’
‘Did you know he was sleeping with her?’ This new information altered the unswerving loyalty to Benno that had been a part of her for so long.
‘Who told you?’ Jake looked away, removing any doubts.
‘Some bloody bimbo called Heather Potter. She didn’t even know seem to know Ben was with me at the same time as her!’
‘If he didn’t tell you, why would he have told her?’
‘The week before he died Ben told me he wanted to propose to me but didn’t have enough money for a ring. Jesus!’ Zoe paced the floorboards. ‘I’ve spent the last ten years of my life shying away from men because I felt like I was betraying him.’ ‘Was the witch there?’
‘His mother? I sat and listened to her for an hour telling us how her life’s been destroyed. Every time she saw me I got a filthy look,’ Zoe said, ‘When did you find out about Heather?’
‘About two weeks after it started. Maybe three weeks before he died.’ Jake sounded apologetic.
‘And you never thought to tell me?’ Zoe was losing her cool.
‘He asked me not to, said he wanted to do it himself. I knew how crushed you’d be and I was terrified that if you didn’t have Ben you’d leave Acacia.’
‘And the stupid bastard died so I left anyway.’
‘You weren’t supposed to leave. I thought afterwards we’d be closer and maybe I’d have the chance to protect you properly. But no-one else could’ve fit Ben’s perfect bloody shoes.’ Jake reached for his cigarettes.
Zoe craved one even though she didn’t smoke. Instead she stormed up and down the lounge room. ‘You were jealous of him, weren’t you? Aren’t you even grateful that you were the one who survived?’
‘Do you think you’re the only one who suffered? Do you reckon I don’t think every day how I survived the crash that killed Dad or that it could’ve been Benno standing on the bank watching me drown?’ Jake’s tone was unsettling.
‘You were in the water with him when he died,’ Zoe shouted at Ben, at Jake, at herself.
‘Maybe he wasn’t the only one who lied.’
For a moment Zoe couldn’t speak. ‘Did you kill Ben?’ She’d never asked him, not once, always certain of his integrity. Now she wondered what he would’ve said if she asked a year ago… five years… ten…
‘No. But letting him die was so easy. It seemed like the perfect solution.’
‘Oh God…’ She leant against the table for support.
‘Don’t worry, he haunts me every day. Reminds me. Torments me. My life is pretty crappy but it’s better than no life at all,’ Jake said.
Jake the joker. Her big brother; the drunk, stoner, slacker, town playboy. Jake who let his best friend die.
‘We have to tell the police,’ Zoe said.
‘Like this? I’m as high as a kite and I can smell the alcohol on you from here. It’s waited ten years, Zo, it can wait another night.’
She sank into a chair. There had been so many people at the church, faces she knew from growing up. It had been plain on those faces that wasted dreams and bad feelings abounded, particularly in those who’d never left town. Had she really escaped that?
Jake got up to turn off the air-conditioner. ‘There’s a change coming through, see the clouds?’ She followed his stare out the window, to the greying sky. ‘We’ll go to the creek tomorrow, yeah?’ It was the same way he’d always asked her when they were kids.
He grinned, a glimmer of the brother in her memories. ‘In the meantime, let’s get our asses down to the pub for dinner. It’s time to stop hiding from this town.’
Again the smell of the river brought back memories, good and bad, to Zoe. Jake thrashed ahead through the long grass. They’d always been taught snakes would flee from noise. The creek was such a forgotten wasteland Zoe thought even snakes wouldn’t want to be there.
‘It was different then, wasn’t it? Less seedy?’ Jake asked.
Zoe nodded. Was it? Or was that just how they both chose to remember it?
‘I was standing here when it happened,’ he told her. The thin trickle of water was a good four metres away but before the drought the water would’ve reached the bank, where they stood now. ‘Benno must’ve hit something when he dived in. He came up and he was kind of dazed. It was like he forgot he was in the water. He just went under and gave up. It happened quickly. He wouldn’t have suffered.’
They both stared into the murky stream.
‘I often wonder if he hates me for it, you know. Then I think how he would’ve done the same thing for his sister, if he’d had one.’
‘You didn’t do it for me Jake, you did it for you,’ Zoe corrected.
A smile flickered across his face. ‘I was scared of what you’d do if you found out; that you’d hate me. It’s almost like you knew anyway.’
‘I always believed everything you asked me to Jake, even when you weren’t being honest. I just…I just couldn’t stay here anymore.’
‘It’s time, Zo.’ She wasn’t sure if the relief was in his voice or in her heart.
There was no hurry as they walked back to the village.
The Australian Literature Review