‘G’day Jess,’ Tom grinned, almost as if nothing had happened, and despite the dull ache in his skull.
‘I can’t believe you went out there again. And alone!’ she replied.
‘It’s alright, babe,’ he reassured, dropping his board. ‘I’m still in one piece, as you can see.’ He patted himself down for effect. Suddenly she threw herself at and her arms around him, knocking them both into the water. ‘Woah!’ Tom said, surprised and coughing while trying to keep his head above water. ‘Are you trying to drown me so soon after I came back to the land of the living?’
‘Oh, oh, I’m sorry Tommie,’ she said, raising to her feet and hauling him up at the same time. ‘It’s just, I missed you, y’know.’
‘I didn’t go anywhere, except the hospital.’
‘Yeah, but you weren’t really there, though, right? And God knows I spent enough nights there asleep by your side having nightmares that you’d never wake up.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, in turn embracing her. She started sobbing. ‘Hey, it’s ok, I’m here now.’ Tom rubbed her back and said: ‘Maybe we should get out of the water now, hey? You’re not really dressed for it.’
‘Yeah, sure,’ she laughed, and so did he until they collapsed on to the dry sand. ‘So – what are you going to do now?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you can go back to work as a chippie with your dad easily enough. I’ve got you again, finally. And you’re back to full health.’
‘Well my head still hurts a little.’
‘Yeah but besides that, everything’s almost back to normal.’
‘Except John, Tom. Don’t you know where he might have gone?’
He recalled the talk of Tasmania. Contrasted against the abandoned and torched car. It’s possible he had wanted to get there quickly, and flew.
‘Possibly,’ he finally said, staring at the horizon’s clouds which were changing from fluffy white pillows into the grey steel wool of two days ago. ‘But I wanted to ask: why did you leave flowers in his Mustang?’
She sighed. ‘Well, I was lonely while you were in the coma. Not in that way, you understand. Only you could have eased the absence I felt in that regard. And so many others. But I missed John as well. You’ve been told he disappeared right after you were taken to hospital? Well, it’s true. He literally hasn’t been seen since you were admitted to emergency. Since he rode in the ambulance with you. So, and I don’t care if it sounds selfish, I felt like I’d lost both of you at once.’
‘I think he might be in Tasmania,’ Tom said, suddenly.
‘It’s just something he used to talk about sometimes. Running to family down there. If life got too much.’ He kissed her quickly, stood up and said: ‘I’ve got to go see his mum’, then started walking to the road. But then stopped, and turned back around. ‘Did you say John rode in the ambulance with me?’
‘That’s funny: Pete said he did.’
Peter had lied. There was no doubt in Tom’s mind about it since Jessica’s candid addition to the events that day and the mystery surrounding John. Less clear was why, and what the lie concealed. Which left a choice: immediately confront him or try from potentially unreliable distance to confirm his missing friend’s whereabouts; or disappearance. He chose the latter course of action. As he approached John’s home he remembered his mother got along less well with her sister living in Tasmania even than with her abusive husband.
‘Hi Mrs Reynolds,’ Tom said when she answered the door to him and the deepening dusk.
‘Tom,’ she said, startled. ‘I didn’t realise . . . I mean, it’s good to see you’re ok. But John’s not here.’
‘I know. I came here to find out where he is. I think he might be in Tassie.’
‘Tassie? What, with his aunt? But I haven’t spoken to her in more than a decade.’
‘I know Mrs Reynolds, but he often spoke of maybe moving down here. Y’know, if he had to.’
‘Yes, I guess I do know, Tom,’ she said, mindful of the fact her husband was at the pub, and not eagerly anticipating his return. ‘But what do you want?’
‘I want to find out for sure.’
‘But I just told you I haven’t spoken to her in years, and don’t plan on starting again now.’
‘That’s fine: I’ll call her. Just please give me her number.’
Gambling accurately that John’s mother would still at least have kept the means of contacting her estranged sister, Tom sat inside the house with a steaming cup of instant coffee in front of him, and the phone dialling in his ear.
‘Hello?’ a female voice not unlike the one which had greeted him moments previously answered, from so impossibly far away.
His heart thundered in his ears and his head felt as if it might at any moment split in half, as Tom at a sprint reached Peter’s house. It was surrounded by police tape. He kept running. A single police car outside his own house stopped him like a brick wall as he rounded the corner into his street. Then he all but crept up the pathway and into his house. Inside an officer sat nursing a cup of tea and talking in incoherent low whispers with Tom’s parents. All three became silent and looked up as he entered the lounge room.
‘Have a seat, Thomas,’ the officer said. His parents remained silent. ‘I’m Constable Rick Jeffries,’ he continued, when Tom had settled uncomfortably into an unoccupied bean-bag.
‘Why are you here?’ Tom asked.
Apparently ignoring the question, Constable Jeffries continued: ‘We’ve found your friend John.’
Tom said nothing.
‘He’s dead. A pair of fishermen found him wedged at the end of a stormwater drain leading to the river, when they noticed an unusual smell in the area.’
Tom maintained his silence.
‘We’ve also arrested your other friend, Peter.’ The officer sipped his coffee and shared a glance with Tom’s parents. ‘During the past two hours not only has he admitted to the murder of John Anthony Reynolds, he has admitted to the assault more than three months ago that left you in a coma. He has been charged with separate counts of murder and attempted murder. Also, both because I’ve discussed it with your parents and you will undoubtedly have to hear about it in court or through the local media, or both, anyway, I should also tell you he has explained his actions.’
‘What did he say?’ Tom quickly asked.
‘Firstly, I’m going to assure you that young Jessica may be lucky to be alive.’
‘I’ll start with the offences,’ Constable Jeffries again evaded the question. ‘I’m aware the accused gave you what has now been revealed to have been both a false and vague account of the events that led to your coma.’
‘Yes, I guess he did.’
‘Well, most importantly, you did not hit your head on your board, or a rock. You were punched. Punched repeatedly, in fact, by the accused, of his own admission. He also told you his deceased victim was performing CPR on you that day, then phoned an ambulance?’
‘He was talking about himself, except he was not attempting to resuscitate you but continuing to assault you. Then when the deceased approached he ran away, not to phone emergency services, but to escape.’
‘John made a decision which saved your life, Tom,’ interjected his father. ‘And ultimately ended his: to keep you alive until the paramedics arrived, whom he alerted with the help of a passer-by.’ Constable Jeffries put down his coffee and crossed his arms and legs. Tom’s father continued: ‘Of course it wasn’t Peter who rode in the ambulance with you, but John. And when he had thank God delivered you alive to hospital he started walking home, exhausted, but not before he phoned Jessica to tell her where you are. It was during this walk that Peter found him.’
‘I can’t believe it,’ Tom said, sincerely, but addled by denial.
‘The accused was jealous of you, Thomas,’ the constable said. ‘We might have eventually figured that out without his detailed confession and explanation. Perhaps, also, he was jealous of your friend the late young Mr Reynolds. Regardless, he murdered him because the victim had seen the crime committed against you. We found DNA evidence in the burned vehicle formerly owned by the victim. Evidence directly linked to his murder. Arson is a third charge we’re bringing against Peter William Fitzpatrick, though it’s one he hasn’t confessed to.’
‘But,’ Tom started, and the three others in the room focused exclusively on him, ‘why was Pete jealous?’
And by way of allowing him to answer the question himself, all three hesitated.
The next morning’s sky was completely unblemished by cloud, let alone the threat of rain, as Tom walked to the beach whose particular waves he would and could never again ride. Windless, also, was the day. And swell more typically the size of that seen within a river lapped feebly at the shore. So clear was the weather the distant ocean horizon seemed indecisive about just where the sea ended, and the sky began. Carried forward more by a numb desire for movement of his body to drown out his brain than by any real present enthusiasm for life in the wake of the previous day’s revelations, he sat down beside the young woman sitting and gazing silently at the sand below the break-wall. They remained silent for many minutes, as too did almost seemingly the world immediately around them.
‘Jess,’ Tom eventually said.
‘I know,’ she interrupted.
‘No. But enough.’ She grasped his hand. ‘I’m just glad you’re alive.’