Backstreets
Robert Hood

Chapter 1

According to a sci-fi magazine Kel read once, a star sparks into existence every minute or two, somewhere in the universe. Others are extinguished.

His friend, Bryce Kosser, died at 8.05 pm on the 19th of December 1997, at least according to the coroner's report. 'Gross bodily trauma', it said, but laserprinted words on A4 copypaper weren't convincing, even when the logo of the NSW Court appeared on the letterhead. They meant nothing, the words.

BACKSTREETS

Robert Hood's Backstreets was published in May by Hodder & Stoughton.

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Perhaps if he'd seen the body, if he'd watched the paramedics zip his friend into a bag, he might've felt differently.

But after the impact and the chaos and the initial flash of searing pain, he'd drifted into a grey fogbank, wondering whether he'd been the one driving the car. He couldn't remember too well. Had he been in the front seat before the crash? Behind the wheel? Was he going too fast?

And who was screaming?

At some point in his confusion, the world drew a dark grey cloak around his shoulders, and disappeared with him into the night. In the darkness, stars were born and died.

*

A cold, blue light catches his eye. Kel squints. Near him-within arm-reach if he could move his arm-Bryce sits slumped against the shattered window. His head moves languidly, one hand rising to wipe blood from the corner of his mouth.

'You okay, Kel?' he says.

Kel tries to speak but his lips are sewn together. He can feel thin, sharp threads pulling at his flesh as he struggles to release the words.

Then a shadow disturbs the darkness.

Kel cries out.

Figures are silhouetted against the blue light. Two, three of them. Kel sees them through the window behind Bryce's head, as they approach the car. Even when they bend to peer into the wreck, their features remain obscured. Perhaps they have none.

Their hands grip the door. They reach through, tugging at Bryce's bloodied coat.

'Come with us!' they whisper. 'Come!'

*

When Kel Blakely woke from a nightmare to find himself in hospital-bandaged, strapped-up and intravenously fed-there was no feeling of relief or satisfaction in him. No sense that he had defied death. He just felt tired and afraid. He was seventeen years old but at that moment felt closer to seventy.

He wanted to scratch himself.

'Quit squirming!' a voice said. 'You'll pull out the drip.'

Though he couldn't move his head, his eyes swivelled left and found a pale face with high cheekbones, hazel eyes and a mass of curly, brown hair. The face was smiling.

'What're you doing here, Lauren?' Kel mumbled through a gag of constricting bandages.

'Visiting Leonardo DiCaprio in the next bed, what d'ya reckon?'

His eyes turned right. The next bed appeared to be empty-and unused. Pain squeezed down his backbone suddenly, so he stared back at the ceiling. It felt better when he was staring at the ceiling.

'You all right, Kel?'

He didn't answer. Visions of breaking glass and someone moaning relief-etched themselves into the white plaster above him. A hollow ache made him gasp. Tears squeezed from his eyes.

'Your mother's here,' Lauren said. 'She went for a coffee. I'll see if I can find her. Okay?'

She took his sob of grief for agreement and ducked out the door. Kel could hear her hurried footsteps and pleas of inquiry fading along the corridor, but her departure felt as though it were his-as though he were the one retreating.

He thought he saw a face in the ceiling grin crookedly at him. Bryce's face. I'm not gone, it insisted. There's been a mistake.

*

'Oh, thank goodness, thank goodness.'

Naomi Blakely, red-eyed and drawn, leaned over him awkwardly, trying to hug him, but afraid she might hurt him. 'Are you in pain?'

'I'm all right,' Kel said, slightly mystified by his mother's concern.

Her entrance, sudden and unexpected, had broken the funereal quiet of Kel's ward. The room was filled with urgency and distress. Kel's mother was closely followed by two nurses and a young bloke in a white coat, who looked more like an actor than the doctor he was supposed to be. The latter gently eased Mrs Blakely away from the bed and flashed a penlight into Kel's left eye, then his right. For a moment the room was spotty with dancing shadows that threatened to become something solid but never did.

The doctor rolled up the smock Kel was wearing and placed a cold stethoscope on Kel's chest. He listened intently.

Kel glanced around the room. Lots of flowers. Machines and monitors that seemed to be attached to him. A framed picture on the wall ÿ a small painting of a seabird. He checked out the people: the doctor, two nurses, his mother, Lauren nervous in the background.

A shadow gestured to him and then retreated into the far corner.

'You've been unconscious for nearly a week,' Kel's mother said, easing herself back into position at her son's side.

The doctor held up his hand as though to ward off her intrusion. 'We can discuss your son's injuries later-'

'In a coma,' Kel's mother continued, as if the doctor hadn't spoken. 'You have lacerations to the head, and a broken leg.' She touched Kel's cheek gently with a trembling hand. 'We were so worried.'

'Please, Mrs Blakely,' the doctor said sternly. 'Your son has only just woken up. He must have time to adjust.'

If Kel's mother hadn't been intent on trying to read Kel's condition, she'd have given the doctor one of her withering 'stop wasting space' looks. Instead, she ignored him, looked at Kel and smiled reassuringly.

Kel began to sob.

'You're all right now,' the voices whisper to him. 'You made it through. Rest.'

He wanted to ask about Bryce, but he couldn't. The fear of loss knotted in his throat and ached in his chest so hard he thought it would fracture him.

Take the accident back! he moaned silently. Please take it back.

*

He left the hospital a few days later, pushed in a wheelchair towards a blue-green van. Lauren helped him into the back seat; her hair smelt like fresh roses as she leaned across him to fasten his seatbelt. It was an added pleasure to him after days of smelling nothing but the hospital.

Even the van smelt good. 'Is this new?' he asked. Nobody answered.

As they drove, he noticed his mother's furtive glances towards him, her eyes framed in the rearview mirror.

'I'm okay,' he said. His mother smiled, nodded, and concentrated on driving.

Kel stared out the window as the suburbs crawled past. The world bustled on as it always had-people shopping, working, exercising. Somebody waved to him. He didn't know who it was.

'I consider us to be really good friends, Kel,' Lauren whispered. She'd said a lot more than this, Kel thought, but he hadn't been listening. Just before she spoke these words, she'd touched his arm, drawing his attention.

He nodded and smiled wanly.

'I know we split up and everything,' she went on, 'but you're really important to me. I don't know what I would've done if you'd died like-'

She stopped, suddenly unsure whether she should talk to Kel about Bryce. Everyone had avoided the subject in Kel's presence, except when a policeman came to take a statement.

'What do you remember?" he'd asked. Very little, as it turned out, as Kel's memory of the accident was vague. But he'd expressed concern regarding his own responsibility.

'Don't you go blaming yourself,' the policeman had reassured him. 'The truck driver was at fault.'

The local paper, which Kel had found down the corridor in the TV common room the day before, had reported a fatality, but hadn't named the victim. ONE DEAD IN HORROR CRASH, the headline said.

*

'You were extremely lucky,' his mother remarks when she sees the paper by his bed.

'Was I?' Kel doesn't feel lucky. He feels cursed.

'Of course.' She takes a deep breath as though controlling some strong emotion. 'That truck driver should be thrown in gaol.'

'Maybe it wasn't his fault.'

'Of course it was his fault. Who else's could it be?'

Mine, Kel wants to blurt out, I was driving too fast. I didn't stop when I should have. I killed Bryce.

But he isn't able to say the words. He doesn't even know if they're true.

*

Kel noticed the sorrow and fear in Lauren's dark hazel eyes.

'It's okay, Lauren,' Kel said quietly, his self-control brittle. 'I care for you, too. We're cool.'

She smiled, squeezed his hand, then sat apart from him, still uneasy.

After that, little was said. Kel sat staring out the window, trying not to think.

When he realised they were approaching the Carter Street intersection-where flowers and various crude mementos had been tied onto a telegraph pole-he quickly turned his eyes to the seat in front of him. He didn't want to see. Tears began leaking from his eyes. He fought them.

His mother was looking at him in the rear-view mirror. 'I'm sorry, Kel,' she said. 'I should have driven home a different way.'

'I'm fine,' he snapped aggressively. 'There's no problem.'

'You should let yourself cry,' Lauren commented. 'It's not healthy to hold it in.'

'I don't want to cry,' he growled.

*

He stayed home for the rest of the holidays and didn't go back to school until three weeks into the new term. During that time his life tried to revert to its normal patterns. He wouldn't let it. It all seemed wrong. He surprised his mother by vacuuming the house one afternoon, from top to bottom-a good sign, she said. But vacuuming had been a mechanical thing, mindless and inane, and it wasn't normal. He'd just done it to try and work out what he could do to start living again. But living felt like a betrayal.

Sometimes friends would drop around; they'd hang about on the verandah or in his room. They'd ask about Kel-how he was, when the plaster was coming off his leg, what it'd been like in hospital. Sometimes they'd tell him the latest gossip or ask him when he wanted to play Warhammer again. Or they'd sit at his computer, which he hadn't booted up himself, and fill the room with the percussive violence of Doom.

But the rest of life was silence. A dark, empty void lay grimly behind every word, every thin attempt at comfort. Sometimes, when visitors knocked on the door, Kel wouldn't answer. Later he'd tell whoever it was that he must've been asleep.

He didn't play any of his CDs at all and left the radio off. Usually his room would reverberate to the chatter, indie raunch and techno tub-thumping of Triple J, or he'd play Metallica, Tumbleweed or The Living End. Since the accident, he hadn't wanted to listen to any of it.

If Bryce can't hear it, why should I?

Maybe it was just that his nerves were still too fragile. Loud noise made him edgy.

'There's an all-age Regurgitator gig at EarCandy on Friday,' Lauren said one day. 'Your Mum reckons you could go, if you want. You can get about pretty good on crutches now. She'll drive us. Pick us up after.'

Bryce had talked about that concert a day or two before the accident. He was going to ask Angela Neves to go with him. Might be in there with a chance, eh? he'd grinned. What d'you think?

Kel thought Angela was stuck up and wouldn't have trusted her as far as he could throw her. But he hadn't said so. She certainly looked hot and wore a string bikini down to the beach on weekends. She might as well have left it in the cupboard for all it hid. He wondered whether Bryce had ever broached the subject of going to see Regurgitator with her. Probably not. Angela had no need of Bryce for company.

'Not up to it,' Kel replied to Lauren. 'I'd just get pissed off. Could hardly jump in the mosh pit like this, could I?'

'You don't have to mosh.'

'What's the point then?'

Later that night, he asked his mother, 'When's Bryce's funeral?'

She glanced up from the stack of papers she was reading. 'Funeral? Oh, honey,' her head lolled sideways in a sympathetic gesture that didn't quite work. 'It happened weeks ago, before Christmas. You were still in a coma. I'm sorry I didn't tell you.'

'Was it one of those open casket things?' he pressed on. 'Did you see him?'

She shook her head, her hair fluttering around her ears like a swarm of flies. 'They said he was-you know-very badly injured. It would have distressed everyone. Particularly his parents. As it was, his poor father had to identify the body at the morgue. He said it was the worst thing he's ever had to do.'

'And did he?'

'Identify him? I guess so.'

His mother was surprised and perplexed at the turn their conversation had taken as Kel had barely said a word about Bryce since coming out of the coma.

'So where's he buried?'

'He wasn't buried. He was cremated. There'll be a plaque in the Memorial Garden, I'm told.'

'I want to see it.'

'Oh, honey-' She reached out for him, but he stepped away. 'I'm really glad you've come out of your shell about this-'

'I haven't been in a shell.'

'I think you were denying it. You weren't letting yourself process the emotions.'

'I'm not a computer. I don't process.'

Kel's mother paused for a seond and continued. 'Anyway, as soon as the crematorium people put up the plaque-'

'It's not there yet?'

'Eight weeks, they said. That was a week ago.'

Kel nodded resignedly, then turned to leave.

'Kel, honey, do you want to talk about it? About Bryce?'

He looked back at her. His eyes wouldn't focus properly. 'There's nothing to talk about,' he said.

*

Going back to school was like entering a world that had changed completely. Kel felt raw and exposed in his new role as survivor. It was impossible for him to adjust.

Part of him felt special for having this aching grief deep in his chest-this sad, tragic memory-but another part simply felt dismal. He moved through the day in a fog of alienation: hobbling from the bus and squeezing through their gap in the fence-the one Bryce had created; seeing the places where he and Bryce used to sit and talk and eye the girls; being forced to greet people who, just a month ago, barely knew he existed. Now his best friend's death marked him as special. It all made him sad and angry. He wanted Bryce to be there, to laugh about last night's Home and Away, to mock Greg Dougherty with the opinion that 'Silverchair sucks like a toothless vampire', to tease some of the Year 7 kids, to comment on the length of Kylie Wilson's skirt-

But there was nothing except stupid, idle chatter and long, even stupider silences from the people around him. So Kel moped around by himself when he wasn't in class, trying not to acknowledge how bad he felt. During English, which had been his best subject, he sat down the back and stared out the window. He couldn't concentrate on anything. The teacher was sympathetic, though he knew that wouldn't last. What he couldn't see was an end to his own indifference and emptiness. He was smart enough to know where that would lead. Trouble was, he didn't care.

'How're you doing, Kel?' asked Lauren, looking pressed and tidy in her new, Year 11 uniform.

'Okay,' he said. There was no conviction in it. He looked past her into the distance.

'No, you're not. Don't shit me.'

He frowned at her. 'What do you want me to say?'

'I want you to tell me what's wrong.'

He sighed. 'Okay, then. If you must know, I just can't see the point.'

'What do you mean?'

'Senior school. The HSC. What's it for? So we can read Shakespeare while we're waiting in line to collect our dole forms?'

'It's not like that-'

'There's no work out there for us, Lauren. You know it. It's a con. All the papers say it's just going to get worse.'

She brushed an undisciplined strand of hair back into place. 'You said you wanted to go to uni and do information technology. You were going to make a million from developing new software-something like that.'

He turned away. 'It's bullshit. I don't even like computers. I don't like anything.'

'You're still in shock, Kel. It'll come back.'

Look, he wanted to say, if Bryce is dead, killed by a semi that came out of nowhere and flattened the car-if he really died like that, it wouldn't make sense. One minute he's there, next-what is he? Nothing. I can't see any reason in it, I can't see any reason why he was alive in the first place if he's got to die in a stupid accident when he's seventeen. And what if it was my fault, Lauren? I was driving. How can anything come back from that? How can I just go on living?

But he didn't say any of it. Instead he shrugged. 'Leave me alone, will you?'

Lauren grabbed at his arm. 'Don't block me out, Kel. This isn't like you.'

As he pulled away, he growled, 'Then maybe I'm not me. Maybe it was me that died.' He limped off, not waiting for her to protest. He knew it was a stupid thing to say, but he'd enjoyed saying it, and he'd say it again, and again, if he had to. Because there was something right in it too, something that made perfect sense.

Maybe I died in that crash. Maybe I died, and Bryce is alive.


Chapter 1 of Backstreets
originally published by Hodder and Stoughton Publishers,
May 1999. Appears with the kind
permission of the author.

©1999 Robert Hood