Tuesday morning was warm and dry. From an unsealed road, a minibus waited for a semi-trailer to pass and then pulled out onto the dusty highway that led into town. Neil Taylor, or ‘Baked Bean’ as he was known in town due to his bonfire of red, tussled hair, did that same thing every day at eight in the morning, listening to the same radio station and whistling the same melody, which wasn’t really a melody at all, but a series of twitters – his anthem for the road.
The highway was smooth and flat like most of the country and stretched out towards the horizon like a strip of iron. Neil squinted behind his dark sunglasses, whistling to the pitch of the screaming bus. As he approached the Styles property, with its lone gum tree looming over the road, he slowed down and indicated. He turned around under the shade of the giant gumtree pulled up in front of the plastic drum letter box in front of the iron gate. Adele was not there.
Neil made four trips a day in his blue minibus: two out of town and two back in. Sometimes Adele was Neil’s only inbound commuter on Tuesday mornings and for a woman of eighty-eight, she was the sharpest and most devilish person Neil had ever encountered (and he’d been to the city more than a few times). Adele would recount tales of her voyages abroad, eating exotic foods with even more exotic people, choreographing each event with dancing hands and wild eyes. On Tuesdays she would do her grocery shopping and, despite living on the property alone with her grandson, she bought food and drink in quantities that would have nourished a larger family; on some occasions her purchases would fill the back two rows of the bus.
Neil waited for ten minutes, but could see no sign of Adele so he set off back down the highway. He had other pickups in town to make.
The bus scuttled through the dust into town and pulled up in front of the post office, which also served as the bank, the newsagent and the petrol station for the town’s population of 600. Leslie opened the door, her eyes squinting in the white light. With a half-smile she held offered Neil a can of lemonade.
“Del didn’t come in today – didn’t even ring to let me know like usual.”
“Haven’t you heard, Bean?”
“Heard what, Les?”
“Del passed on yesterday about two o’clock in the afternoon, in her sleep.”
“Yeah, bit of a shock.”
“I haven’t seen him, but you know Kevin, quiet as a mouse. But he must be shaken up, the poor thing.”
“Here, drink this.”
“Thanks, Les. Did they say what-“
“Old age I suppose. Although you’d never know it. “
“So, did Kevin just find her … like that?”
“Well, she lived a good life. Been around for ever.” Neil took a long gulp of the lemonade then breathed out hard. “How’d you find out?”
“From George – Kevin brought her in to the clinic last night. George said he wanted to bury her straight away,” Leslie said.
“In the cemetery of course. George said Kevin was a bit pushy – can’t see why. Said it had to be yesterday.”
“I dunno, but George said ‘no’ and told Kevin to come back sometime today.”
“Yeah well, probably for the best; let him calm down a bit. See ya, Les.”
The next morning Neil didn’t whistle and drove in silence. He was thinking of ‘ol’ Del’. Del was one of those people who could talk about anything – she would understand you in a second and then talk it right back at you. Sometimes she’d tattle on about events in the world, days before they happened (Neil thought she got most of her news from her many overseas friends) and other times she’d just talk about the weather forecast, which pretty much remained the same all year and was fairly predictable even for Neil: warm and dry. But she also had her ‘Del-centricities’ as Leslie liked to call them. No-one ever knew who ate all the food she bought from town each week, but there were plenty of speculations – Tom, the publican, believed she and Kevin were harbouring illegal immigrants there, although he could never explain how they came 1500kms inland on leaky boats; Meg, who, as the ranger, had been closer to the Styles property than most, said that once she saw a great aluminium shed, higher than any silo and bigger than any aerodrome hanger she ever seen, with a tiny door. Perhaps there were people living in there? Neil thought it was not anything overly bizarre, but was it was enough to get other people talking and their malnourished imaginations salivating.
It was hard to have lost a member of the community, even a moderate recluse like Del. She hardly left her property except for once a week and rarely participated in town social events. But out in the tiny desert town, whether she liked it or not, her fate was tied to the 600 odd souls around her and although she had died, she would still linger in their minds like a bump in that brown, flat land.
In the distance Neil saw the curling arch of the gumtree, holding its branches high and dignified. He accelerated and meant to resist the temptation to stare down the gravel road, behind the trees and towards the Styles property where, until yesterday, no compulsion to stare had ever teased his mind. And he was doing well until he saw, coming in the opposite direction, a row of metallic black shimmering against the hot tar; long dark cars with black tinted windows moving slowly, one by one under the gumtree and past the iron gate. Neil abandoned his resolve and pulled the bus over to the side of the highway, just down from the gate and stared at the grim procession.
He counted ten cars in total but he guessed that many more had entered before. They were moving slowly over the crunching gravel, precisely, as if to avoid puncturing a tyre or damaging the paintwork. They were apparently not aware that a blue minibus with an overweight bus driver were parked just down the road, spying on them: that, or they didn’t care.
Neil then saw a white four-wheel drive flash towards them, dust clouds boiling behind its wheels. It was Kevin. Kevin turned into the drive way, tooted the horn and slid to a halt. He jumped out leaving the door open, and commenced waving his arms and shouting at the cars, some of which continued to ooze through the gate. Neil couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Kevin danced between each car, his arms stretched out above his head. A car at the rear sped up past the others and stopped just behind him. From the rear door, a tall man dressed in a blue suit stepped out. He was wearing silver glasses and holding something that reflected the sun into Neil’s eyes. The man didn’t speak but raised the bright light to Kevin’s forehead with an outstretched hand. Kevin stumbled back and covered his face.
Neil had seen enough. He smacked his foot down on the accelerator. The front wheels screeched and the bus’s engine roared forward pressing him into his seat. Both Kevin and the man in blue were running behind Kevin’s four wheel drive well before Neil reached the driveway, but Neil, bracing himself for the impact, kept his course and rammed into the side of the black sedan with a crash, sending it sliding across the gravel and crunching into the colossal trunk of the gum tree.
Neil shook his head. He could see white bark and the mirror-black roof of the car, now wedged between the minibus and a the giant tree trunk. He felt a pain where the steering wheel had struck his stomach, but nothing was broken. Regaining the sense of urgency, he leapt out of his seat and off the bus. The party of black cars had stopped and more rear doors were opening from which more tall men in blue suits were coming. He thought for a moment about the black car which now embraced the trunk, its engine gently humming, and wondered if there were anybody was injured. But the scene of execution flashed in his mind and he scrambled over to Kevin who was cowering behind the real wheel of his truck
“Kevin! Are you alright, Kevin? I though that lunatic was going to shoot you!”
Kevin’s arms were wrapped around the tyre and his shoulders were trembling. His normally brown, weathered face was white as chalk, the hairs on his arms were upright and through his wet lips he was speaking in whispers.
“Kevin! It’s me, Neil! What’s going on?”
“Don’t let them take Grandma again… don’t let them do it!”
“Kevin, I’m sorry, mate. I just heard yesterday about Del.”
“Don’t let them take her!”
“I thought she was with George,” Neil said, but Kevin had turned his head to the ground and began shaking. “Kevin! Are you alright?”
“’Kevin is just fine, aren’t you, Kevin?” The man in blue strode out from behind the car and looked down at Kevin with no expression. He removed his glasses and put them in the top pocket of his jacket. Neil rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes and bent down to look at Kevin, who was rocking and shaking his head. There was no mistake: there were less wrinkles of course, and his hair was shorter, but the distinctive jaw and level nose were clearly identifiable: the man in blue looked exactly like Kevin, so much so that they could have been the same person. In his hand, Kevin’s twin held the metallic instrument like a weapon, which Neil thought looked rather like a shot gun but thinner, however there was no hole in the end. He seemed to be waiting for Kevin to do something.
“What the hell is going on here? Are you one of Kevin’s relatives?” Neil asked.
“My friend, we all are.”
Neil followed the man’s gaze towards the gate where more than a dozen other men stood, stolid and silent. Each one was wearing the same blue suit and behind the silver lens’s of their glasses were the same eyes, the same faces, as the terrified man at Neil’s feet.
“You see,” the man said. “We are Kevin and Kevin is us. We are the same.”
“Why were you going to shoot him then?”
“You think this is a gun?”
“It looks like one.”
“It can kill yes, but it has other uses.”
“Where are you all from? And why do you all look the same?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Kevin,” Neil said. “What’s going on?”
Kevin remained silent, his knees were trembling.
“Tell him, Kevin,” the man in blue said. “Tell him how you deserted us. Tell him how, even in the deep, in the desert, in the night, you can never escape yourself.” The man smiled and nodded at one of the other blue suits. Some of them were inspecting the crashed car, checking its tyres and windows; another two were pulling a limp body from the rear seat. They laid it on the ground. It was a woman.
“Oh my God, I’ve killed her. Oh my God.” Neil felt sick in his stomach. “I thought you were… I thought… Kevin-”
“Neil,” Kevin said, still on the ground, his voice barely audible. “Neil… it’s not your fault. Neil. Don’t look at her.. don’t look at her.”
But Neil, tamed by his unbearable guilt, shuffled over to examine the corpse. She wore a long skirt of blue with a high collar that went up to her pale ears. The men were pointing their shiny instruments at her grey skin, prodding her abdomen and chest. There was no blood on the car or on her dress and Neil felt relieved when she saw her chest suddenly rise and fall and her hands move to her sides and then to her temples.
The men in blue stood in a circle and resisted Neil’s attempts to assist as the woman crawled to her feet.
“I’m alright,” she said and then over the wall of blue suits, she looked to Neil, her head bent back upon her thin neck. “Who’s this one?”
“Adele!” Neil cried and fell to his knees.