The images in Conlan’s mind were vivid as he left the cinema. A poor woman clutching a decaying heap inside a bundle of rags, weeping, gazing at the camera with a hopeless look. Rows of beds in a dingy hospital room piled high with deformed and mutilated bodies, with here and there a bright glint in a patient’s eyes like a lasting reflection of the nuclear blasts. A sallow young man with a bubbling face reaching with his right hand for his left hand and pulling it clean off. A great light blooming beyond a row of hills, heralding the spread of radiation across miles of caves and ponds and inlets and atolls and shores. Finally, the grinning visage of the actor-turned-president of the world’s greatest power as he mounted a stage to announce a decision to grant independence to the little island nation in the South Pacific, now that its populace was ready for self-governance. This speech had drawn prolonged boos from the audience.
It was dark outside. Here he was in a little town in New South Wales, and people had just sat through a harrowing film about what the U.S. had done to one of Australia’s tinier neighbors. The words that Conlan heard now as he moved up the street came from clusters of three or four young Australians, barely visible save for when they passed under one of the widely spaced lamps.
“If I see a Yank, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Cut his fuckin’ throat.”
“Bastards. I’d like to kill them with my bare hands.”
“Think they have the greatest nation in the world, do they?”
On either side of the street, the clusters of young men mingled with others and formed new groups. A number of the guys held brown bags with the tips of bottles poking out. A cacophony of oaths, curses, and bits of anti-American rage came to Conlan’s ears as he moved up the street in the direction of a diner, one of the few businesses open at this hour in the little downtown. He didn’t draw many glances. To the guys out on the street, he was just a bloke walking home from the cinema. They couldn’t know from his looks alone that he was a Yankee. But as he looked around, as inconspicuously as possible, he couldn’t help thinking a riot would break out. He wouldn’t want to be a driver passing through the town tonight.
Conlan was afraid to speak. These young men must know he did not approve of conducting nuclear tests on populated islands. But if they heard his accent, or if they somehow learned that he was a Chicago native on a research fellowship studying at the university twenty kilometers to the north of this small town, they might well show him what they thought of Yanks. He thought he could be quiet until the 10:05 bus came to take him back to the university.
He approached the diner, three blocks up from the cinema. A diner ought to be a safe, familiar space, but when he entered the lights were so bright Conlan felt as if he was on a stage, out in the open for all to question and probe. About twenty patrons sat at the booths, and a half-dozen at the counter. Conlan found a spot at one of the booths at the back, diagonally opposite the entrance. A booth two rows over, near the glass façade, contained three young guys who talked animatedly.
Conlan sat in his booth for a few minutes before a blonde in her early twenties came over, smiling. He picked up the menu with his left hand, pointed to the drip coffee, and returned her smile.
“Milk and sugar?”
He put the edges of his thumbs together, then pulled his hands straight apart. She nodded and moved off. Now more young men came into the diner and found booths. Their manner was loose and jokey to the point that Conlan began to think his own behavior was maybe a bit silly. How normal it is to say things you don’t mean during an emotional experience or its immediate aftermath. How normal, even, to express desires far removed from your actual intent after an experience as wrenching as viewing that film. It was 1985 and certain alliances were firmly in place. The idea that the people of this town, citizens of America’s number one ally in the region, would assault a guy who sounded American, had to be one of the weirder notions he’d entertained in his life. He longed to talk to them, to flash his virtue by saying how much he agreed with the filmmakers’ viewpoint, how much he abhorred his country’s behavior toward the tiny nation in the South Pacific. Surely they’d warm to him. Maybe they’d invite him to come have a beer. He hoped so. There was little point in coming all the way from Chicago to a remote part of New South Wales if you didn’t engage with the locals.
But now an image from the film recurred in his mind. He saw the whiteness behind the hills, saw it grow and eclipse the hills as it moved toward the viewer and assume incomparable vastness despite the fixed dimensions of the screen. Nothing could be as jarring and devastating as what the little island’s people had gone through, nothing could be as cruel as the American president’s pretended largesse in granting independence to the island now that its natives had radiation sickness. Their bodies fell apart in front of the viewer. It was grotesque even to imagine that they might stand upright and extend a hand to a stranger without self-consciousness, without a sense of how ghastly they looked, of how hideous their existence was at this point. The misshapen suppurating bodies, many of them appearing to have frozen in mid-melt, inspired a perpetual internal scream on the part of viewers, and Conlan felt naïve for imagining for one moment that people here could welcome him as a brother.
A pair of serious-looking young men came in and took the booth directly in front of Conlan’s. He now had these two directly before him and the intense trio two rows over to his right. So far none of them appeared to take any interest in the shy young man sitting by himself in the corner. The diner was almost full now, and yet more people were straggling in. Conlan was acutely aware of the inversion of normal circumstances. Usually, the more people around, the safer you are. Here the opposite was true. He wondered where all the energy in the place would turn, what channels it would find, if one word made itself heard without the accent he’d grown to like but never managed to imitate. He thought of calling the police, but he was not under attack and was unsure what kind of preemptive protection the police could offer.
Near the front of the place, the only other sole occupant of a booth, a blond guy in a leather jacket resembling a slightly more punk version of Steve Bisley in Mad Max, turned and looked at Conlan. The look seemed both to ask and to assert. He could not have called it neutral, but he didn’t know toward what emotional extreme it verged. He just had no idea how to read it. Conlan looked down, but in his peripheral vision he detected that stranger’s continuing stare. Conlan thought maybe he should go over there and tell the stranger that Steve Bisley was a terrific actor.
A young man in a white tank top came into the diner, holding a cardboard effigy of the man Conlan’s country had elected president. He said a few words, and that was all it took for a dozen guys to follow him out onto the street. A wave of anger and revulsion was sweeping over much of the world, Conlan saw now, turning sedate suburbs into places rather like the bazaars of the most anti-American cities in the Middle East. How silly he’d been to imagine that what was happening around him now was about a movie. The film had been a factor, of course, but might not have been quite as provocative if released at a different juncture. The plain fact was that it had come into cinemas after months of fury. Protests had been going on in cities and towns Down Under over the deployment of U.S. fleets and nukes to strategic points all over the hemisphere, purportedly in the name of containing communism. The protests had displeased U.S. envoys, to say the least, and had fostered a tense atmosphere in the diplomatic realm with many provocations in both directions. Conlan had pursued his studies at the university north of here with such focus that he’d largely forgotten all these issues. Then an acquaintance had mentioned the little town to the south without much to recommend it save for a cinema that occasionally showed edgy independent films.
How easily the young men around him could cut his throat. He felt how little his life mattered at the moment. To put matters into perspective, he thought, it was useful to think of the Second World War. The Allies had bombed Germany’s dams to mess up the enemy’s industrial output. It mattered little that the flooding resulting from the bombing led to the deaths of thousands of farmers and Allied prisoners of war. The cost was worth it. Now, the deployment of U.S. fleets and missiles throughout the hemisphere was necessary to contain communism, and the life of one kid who’d been dumb enough to visit the hinterland of a country wracked by anti-American hostility wasn’t much of a concern at all.
Gazing through the front windows of the diner, he saw bright flames swell and engulf the effigy, which hung from a lamp post. Kids in the street let out drunken hoots and cheers as the grin of the actor-turned-president, and all the rest of his features, curled and turned black. Conlan dared a quick look around the diner. At least the Steve Bisley lookalike had something else to stare at for the moment.
Maybe this wasn’t a bad time to leave. He looked around for the waitress. She was talking with someone at a different booth, her back to him. He half-rose and began to call out, then fell back into his seat in utter disbelief. When you need a server’s attention, you call out.
From force of habit, he’d begun to do something that could have brought about his death. The half-syllable that had come out, just the very opening of “Excuse me, miss,” died sounding like a grunt or groan.
The young woman went right on talking. Maybe he should just throw some money on the table and walk out. But that could lead to her calling out or trying to stop him leaving, pretty much requiring him to talk. He sat at the booth fearing he might begin to pant or sweat. In the nearby booths people kept saying “damn Yanks” and variants of the phrase, and at times they looked in his direction, but the words and looks were never a direct match so he didn’t know what to think. Conlan recalled moments earlier this evening, when he’d spoken openly in his unmistakable accent as he bought a soda or a movie ticket.
People watched the scene outside with interest until a young unshaven man stood up on the table of his booth and hoisted a glass of beer toward the ceiling.
“Fuck the Yanks!” he called out to the patrons in a dull, rough voice that had doubtless pronounced fuck innumerable times.
This brought cheers, hoots, and catcalls from all over the diner, except for one booth. Young men shouted and pounded on tables with their bottles. Outside, a second effigy, on another lamppost, went ablaze.
What happened now did not seem possible. It struck Conlan as the product of a kind of negative cognitive dissonance, where the mind transfigures what is real into what must not be. People were looking in puzzlement toward the one booth where no one had joined in the cheers, the rancor. Amid the bewildered looks, one patron’s face expressed utter certainty. The guy who looked like Steve Bisley in Mad Max stood upright and pointed his finger directly at the American on the other side of the diner. The gesture was a catalyst to everyone who might have had suspicions about Conlan. Dozens of heads rotated in his direction. The faces of the blokes and mates were expectant, curious, and angry. Conlan wondered on what line, at which business, the man over there had stood behind him hours before and heard him talk. But that hardly mattered now. Everyone was gazing at Conlan, who quite obviously must have meant to insult all those present with his refusal to join in their cheers. He looked at the raw young faces. He primed himself for a moment.
“Free speech is as uh-murrican as apple pie!” he said loudly in the most stereotypically redneck voice he could summon.
Everyone burst out laughing at this mate’s gross parody of a provincial American. Of course he was one of them and he was a good bloke.
Or almost everyone. Steve Bisley was not pointing anymore, but he stared.
People kept laughing for a good half-minute as the blonde came around with more drinks. Conlan dropped a few bills on the table, enough to cover twice what he’d ordered, and slipped through the young bodies until he reached the entrance.
He expected a hand to close around a limb or a soft part of his body as he pushed the door open. Its weight appeared to have tripled since he sauntered into the diner. Then he was out on the street, where most of the young people were watching the effigies curdle and fold within their outlines of flame, drinking beer, and sending cries and catcalls forth into the night. If he bolted, they would surely be curious. If he walked at a normal pace, Steve Bisley or others from the diner could easily catch up.
He turned his gaze to the effigies, clapped vigorously, and then briskly walked up the street in the direction he’d been going before he reached the diner. More dark blocks, with few or no businesses open, lay ahead. Maybe the thing was to find a dark remote spot near the bus stop and wait there. But first he had to get to the dirt lot abutting a fettered warehouse. He had an awful distance ahead of him. The empty blocks appeared to dare him to try to cross them. Even as he assured himself that the drunk young people who were out tonight didn’t seriously mean any harm, he realized that he was sweating. The skin under the fringes of his fine brown hair glistened and he was glad he wasn’t still under the burning effigies where his fear would be naked for all to see. How easily that could change. How quickly a stranger could deduce that Conlan wasn’t one of the mates and blokes of this neat insular place. This town had once been an outpost on a dangerous frontier, and as generations grew up they grew together and shed all illusions about the need to welcome strangers even from countries that purported to be friendly. There was one great nation, one place of insuperable moral authority, one terra australis, and it did not need visitors from the rival across the Pacific that kept sending its missiles and fleets and nauseating pop culture to remote corners of the planet.
The dark blocks up ahead beckoned menacingly. He walked quickly, jogged, finally ran. The drunk people back there under the burning effigies might have seen him, but he doubted they could catch up at this point.
Now as he ran between the rows of dark two-story buildings, he heard a voice, dull and caustic like that of the young man who’d jumped onto a table in the diner.
“Where you goin’, Yank? There’s no way out of this town. All the bus drivers are on strike!”
There came laughter, not just from one throat but from three or four. Conlan did not dare to stop and probe the barren street, the dingy storefronts, the dark windows in which he could not imagine a face appearing at this hour. He guessed there were a few drunk idiots in one of the upper floors. Then again, maybe the buses really weren’t running.
The next intersection was just yards away, and then there would be another, and then the one where he had to turn left and run toward the northern outskirts of town. He bounded across the street and charged up the new block thinking maybe he was smarter and more resourceful than he’d acknowledged. No voices or sounds came now from the dark buildings on either side. He did not want to take his eyes off the next intersection, fearing that it might somehow elude him.
Now to his horror a babble of voices came to his ears from the street a bit to the south of the intersection he was nearing. He stood still.
Yes, the voices came from a point on the street a bit to the east and south of where he stood. A party of a dozen youths moved up into his line of vision from the south. They clutched bottles, some in brown bags and some fully exposed, and three of them carried Australian flags on little sticks, and Conlan couldn’t be totally sure in the dark but it looked as if one of the young men held aloft an upside-down U.S. flag on a long metal pole. They cursed, cried, and sang bits of an anthem in drunken tones. It was an odd song about mates and brothers and the need to offer compassion to the underdogs of the world. This wasn’t the time to try to make sense of the lyrics. Before the party got to the northern side of the street, Conlan turned and ran frantically in the direction from which he’d come, hoping they were too drunk and distracted to notice the back of a fleeing man off in the darkness.
When he reached the intersection he’d crossed just seconds before, he whirled and ran north between new rows of darkened two-story buildings. He expected to hear that caustic voice again, mocking his terror. As soon as he reached the next east-west street, he saw another party of drunken youths, with bottles and flags, coming up the sidewalk toward him from the east. From the streets to the north, the ones he needed to cross to get to the bus stop, there came what sounded practically like the noises of a carnival. There were dozens of these little parties up that way, he realized.
The party approaching from the east spotted him.
“Hey, come have a beer with us!”
“Where you goin’, mate?”
“Just bought a condom and got to get home before she changes her mind, eh mate?”
Laughter and catcalls pursued him down the street, but he found encouragement in the apparent lack of real hostility. In fact their vulgarity seemed the most merciful thing in the universe.
He realized that he was passing the area where the diner stood and looping right back to the neighborhood whose sole attraction, in his foreigner’s eyes, was the cinema. Maybe he could buy another ticket, hide himself in the dark theater, and sneak out just in time to catch the bus. The plan had many variables. He couldn’t know whether the throngs of protestors would have dissipated by then or whether they’d even sell him a ticket for a film already in progress. Or indeed whether the bus would come at all.
As he ran westward, he noticed that the blocks he passed were no longer strictly commercial. Here were white clapboard houses with ugly little gardens offset by metal fences with padlocked gates. The air here lacked the sweetness he’d detected in other parts of the town and the sky above had a dull indifferent quality, as if it cared neither to encourage nor to prevent the stars from twinkling over the desolate scene.
It sounded as if the party behind him had caught on to him and now meant to catch up. Running further, he saw that not all the gates were shut. Far up ahead on this block, a social event of some kind was going on.
From the party coming down the street several blocks behind him, he heard: “Catch that Yank!” “Get him!” “Cut his fuckin’ throat!”
The yard ahead became more distinct. It was full of young people with a relaxed air. In spite of his terror, he slowed down. He took breaths carefully, deliberately, trying with patience to master a process that was making his body buckle and shake. If what he envisioned now was going to work, it was crucial that the young people in the yard not glimpse him in his current state. He must be calm.
Breathing more easily, he walked at a leisurely pace until he reached the front gate of the garden where twenty or so youths milled around, drinking and talking. Even before he was in the yard, he saw that a few of these youths were eager to gain entrance to the white house with flashes of merriment visible in the rectangles of light beneath the window shades. Without saying a word, without a glance at the people hanging out in the garden, Conlan opened the gate, walked into the garden, and slid up directly behind the last kid on the line, an unshaven boy in a maroon t-shirt and jeans.
The hostile party moved nearer. Its drunken voices were unmistakable. Now a young woman in a frilly dress the color of rich zinfandel came down off the porch and counted the people in line. She turned and went back inside. The pursuing party could not have been more than thirty yards away now. But at last the door of the house opened and a muscular guy in a black tank top beckoned those on the line to come inside.
He followed the kids up the steps and into the house. From where he stood in the lobby, he could see revelry going on in the room to the right of the staircase. Plastic cups full or half full of beer littered a tiny table and the mantel of a fireplace with long pokers propped beside it. Young people danced or lounged in pairs on couches, smiling faces edging closer. In the middle of the floor stood a muscular, strapping man with thick brown hair, a Mel Gibson to the Steve Bisley in the diner, gyrating and waving his arms madly. A few of the partiers had added an element of bizarrerie to the antics. One of them wore a stormtrooper’s helmet from Star Wars. Another wore a devil’s mask. A Midnight Oil song blared from the speakers.
As the kids who had just gained admission to the house broke up and moved down the hall or into the loud room, Conlan turned in desperation to the girl in the wine-colored dress. He moved his eyes sideways twice quickly as if to say, Can we please confer over here, out of people’s hearing? She gave a look conveying that she did not understand but would humor him. They moved a dozen feet down the hall to the foot of the stairs. He spoke in a low voice.
“Can you help me?”
She did not show any surprise at hearing an American accent. All he could read in her nod and her placid look was a general willingness to help him, whatever the nature of his troubles might be.
“I’m an American.”
She nodded again. It still didn’t seem clear why he should be afraid.
“There are guys going around who want to kill me. This really controversial movie played tonight—”
“That’s right. A documentary with an anti-American message. But that’s not all. People have been upset for months over the deployment of ships and missiles. The movie pushed them over. If they hear my accent, they’ll rip me apart.”
Out of all possible reactions, the girl smiled. In her smile there was warmth, indulgence, and a touch of disbelief at a child’s fear of a boogeyman.
“Silly boy. Come with me.”
She took his hand, turned, and proceeded up the stairs. When they reached the upper floor, she led him down a corridor and then into a room at the back of the house. It was a dingy chamber with a bare wood floor. A long couch, raked repeatedly by a cat, spanned the rear wall. Across from the couch stood a chipped and worn dresser and a desk and chair, all with a light coating of dust. The girl led Conlan to the couch and gently pressed his shoulder and forearm until he was sitting down, his knees touching, in the middle. She sat on his right. From downstairs, the lyrics of Midnight Oil came clearly: “Short memory, must have a shooooort memory!”
Her hand moved gently from his knee to his thigh and back, changing direction abruptly and with a hint of provocation. He could never quite know where it would end up. In the subdued air of this room his breathing at last evened out and he thought about whether his hair looked right and whether his shirt was fully tucked in. Gazing at the woman’s calm smiling face, he felt an urge to kiss her, to force the refreshing domesticity to its zenith. But of course to do that would mean more than kissing her. The attraction appeared mutual.
“I don’t know where you ever got such ideas about Australians. To think that we could seriously want to hurt you because of where you come from.”
Her eyes defied the plainness of the setting. Their depth and light suggested a nearly infinite emotional sensitivity. He thought that here was the face of a real person, full but not fat, lovely without being plastic. She had grown up in this town, or one like it, and had flowered into the most likable unpretentious young woman he could hope to meet. Then again, maybe she hadn’t grown up in a town at all. Maybe she was a child of the farms east or south of here, and the goodness of the land was in her, and it was in her nature to welcome strangers openly without regard for anything so artificial and arbitrary as a national boundary.
“I want to know all about you. I should just ask you all the questions on my mind. But, you see, it’s almost like I have to relearn how to talk right now.”
He took her smile to mean that she understood all, forgave all, even though his terror had been baseless, the emotion of a kitten brought into a strange home.
“You can’t have seriously thought people wanted to hurt you.”
Rather than reply, and implicate himself further as a paranoiac who knew nothing of local ways, he let his body grow slack, allowing his knees to part and his back to ease into the thick cushion. He wondered about the desk across the room. Maybe it was a writer’s desk. This was a stray thought, apropos of nothing. The girl’s face edged closer to his. Her eyes were alive with a playful intelligence, and he knew she was being coy about his sensitivities and desires.
Their lips met. At once the reactions began throughout his body. The embarrassment he felt was so benign, comparatively speaking, that he relished it, he almost did not wish to discourage his growing erection, he felt it must bloom, this was the healthiest most natural thing of all and the girl would understand. He saw the mercy in her eyes as their lips worked and felt how unimaginably lucky he had been tonight, how base and stupid and childish his reactions from the moment he stepped out of the cinema until almost right now.
Then, without explanation, the girl rose and walked out of the room.
He thought he should have expected this. There were things she needed to do, steps she needed to take, in private before they did any more. The thing now was to wait on the couch, he thought, and to be as silent as he’d been upon leaving the cinema.
From the room on the ground floor, noises drifted upstairs and down the hall, not quite so loud at this remove but strong enough to keep him from hearing what went on right outside this room.
Conlan lolled on the couch, not knowing what his erection should do right at this moment. He wanted to avoid humiliation if a stranger came in just now. He wanted to be ready when the girl returned.
It was really comfortable here. But where was she?
He waited, crossing and recrossing his legs, not wanting his arousal to fade. Gazing across the room, he wondered who might have occupied the desk and what that presumably creative person might have written and sent out into the world. Conlan always appreciated sedate, quiet places where writers and scholars could focus their energies.
But where was she?
He reached up and arranged his hair as best he could without a mirror. He breathed carefully, deliberately, craving still more peace, equilibrium. Once again he rearranged his legs. When she returned, he felt he would be ready.
But she did not return.
Perhaps she wanted to take the time to be ready in every pore, as he felt himself ready now, for the moment they re-engaged. But more minutes went by, Men at Work replaced AD/DC on the speakers and then Midnight Oil came back on, and still she did not show. He hummed faintly with the music, so faintly that no one could possibly make out an accent. Then he fell silent again. Conlan thought he heard brief indistinct sounds in the hall.
No, he couldn’t have. He would have heard someone coming up the stairs, he felt certain. He tried to recapture the feeling of pleasant expectation, tinged with carnal thrill, that he had relished since her departure.
Now he remembered the bus. The crowds of young men might have broken up by now, he thought, and there had been no reason to fear them in the first place. But the prospects for getting to the bus stop in time were uncertain at best. Well, maybe he’d pass the night here. It was far from the worst thing Conlan could imagine.
Conlan sat still, not humming, hoping for a still greater level of inner peace.
He waited and waited. Maybe he should get up and go look for her.
A red distorted face peered around the edge of the doorway at him. The face of the devil. No sound came from the slit in the plastic under the flaring nostrils. The wearer of the mask was evidently curious about Conlan. Or maybe the wearer was making a joke: the devil has come to see a kindred being. Or maybe an ironic point, to the effect that Conlan, a citizen of the blundering imperialist power across the ocean, practically made the devil look like a nice chap, and the devil was in awe.
The masked face peered at him.
Looking at the mask, Conlan sensed no physical danger. He felt like calling out. He badly wanted to believe that not only the girl, but others in the house liked and empathized with him, and what had happened now was a harmless jest. The masked stranger went on staring.
Yes, he thought, a joke was all it was. A joke is a joke in no matter what circumstances, and the thing now was to laugh.
Conlan laughed. The face regarded him a few more seconds, then vanished. Conlan did not even hear footsteps going back up the hall. Maybe there were a dozen of them right outside the door, sleeves pressed to mouths. Or maybe the hall was as bare and lonely as ever.
More minutes passed. He tried to imagine a writer hard at work at the humble desk, and began to conceive of topics, themes, narratives.
The girl walked into the room, smiling radiantly. Her look was immensely flattering. She lifted the edge of her dress up above her knees, dropped it, laughed lightly, and resumed her place beside him on the couch.
“Close your eyes,” the girl said.
He obeyed. The motions of her hands encouraged him to remove his shirt. In seconds it was gone. Her hands began moving over the clefts and bulges of his torso, neither too slowly nor too fast. She kissed his lips and cheeks, licked his face, nibbled at his right ear. His pants were in the way of the reaction his body wanted to present, and they both knew it. His shoes and socks slid off, then the trousers, then his underwear. Her hands move still more aggressively and with vastly greater range, conveying her ability to anticipate every whim that came into his mind, as he lay there with his eyes shut, and to fulfill it instantly. The kissing, licking, and nibbling grew fiercer still.
Now the tip of an object moved across his abdomen, describing not quite a circle, but an oval. It wasn’t a finger. What, then?
He opened his eyes. The girl held a tube of bright red lipstick in her right hand, and she had drawn what looked like a mouth across her guest’s abdomen. Once again he had no idea how to react. Her smile now was so broad and warm a man could pass out.
“That’s where they’ll make the cut. Then when they string you up by your ankles, your insides will fall right out!”
Once again he thought a kind of reverse cognitive dissonance must be at work. The girl’s grin was broad and obviously sincere. She relished what she saw, and, in particular, what had become of Conlan’s erection.
He got up and reached for his pants on the floor before him. Mel Gibson rushed into the room, little spasms creasing his face, and raised one of the pokers from the fireplace downstairs. Behind him came an unshaven blond boy. With his free hand, he grabbed Conlan by the neck and flung him at the musty old desk. Conlan hit the desk and spilled forward so fast his forehead slammed into the surface. Amid the bright pain, he remembered a story about a boy in the fifth grade who’d ended up paralyzed after his head hit a desk too hard. Now he felt the hard hot tip of the poker enter him from behind. He screamed and spun around so abruptly that Mel Gibson dropped the poker, and then punched the attacker in the jaw so hard that splinters of pain went through his fingers at points just above the knuckles and he knew there were several breaks.
As soon as Conlan picked up the poker, he wanted to drop it, but he ignored the shrill signals reaching his brain and charged at the blond boy. He impaled the boy through the stomach, ran into the hall, and bounded down the stairs and out of the house.
The street was dark and no one was around, even in the garden where people had basked just a short time before.
His cock bounced and jangled as he leapt off the porch and ran out of the garden and down the street. For a moment he hoped that someone would call the police on seeing him, but then all his recent memories asserted themselves like the tips of knives and he thought no one, but no one, must find out that an American was here in this town. He ran frantically, as if trying to outrun the pain between his buttocks, to leave it far behind.
With no idea of what time it was and no hope of catching the bus out of here, he decided to double back to the area around the cinema and try to find the police station. He turned left at the end of the block and ran south. Lights were visible down there at the southwest corner of the intersection, not burning effigies but the lights of a building. He was nearing the cinema, the very one he’d blithely strolled out of earlier this evening. To his astonishment, a number of youths stood in front of the place without any banners or bottles. They stood in line, totally calm, waiting to enter. Upon further scrutiny, Conlan spotted a pair of young aboriginal men. They stood at the doors of the cinema, facing in his direction, with serious looks. Conlan guessed that they were filmmakers, and the white locals on line had a kind of guarded curiosity about what they’d made. Conlan wondered about the message of the film.
Crouching, panting, he watched as the line moved into the cinema, followed by the filmmakers. Conlan guessed they were there for a Q&A when the film was over. He wondered who they were and what they stood for.
With a look around the intersection, he guessed that no one would see him. He ran across the street with jangly moves and stood at the cinema’s entrance. No cries came to his ears. He moved into the lobby, expecting shouts and screams, but even now no one saw him.
A corridor with deep scarlet walls led from the lobby to the theater. Loud noises came through the door. The film had begun. Here was his moment. He went inside and crouched low in the space between the door and the uppermost row of seats.
On the screen there came a stream of images. First there came a long tracking shot of native men and women of the Northern Territory walking toward a drab metal rectangle in the desert. They wore rags, and chains bound their wrists in front of them. On all the faces was a sullen, resigned look as if they thought they were walking toward a charnel house, and maybe they were. Until now, Conlan had never really grasped the meaning of the phrase “stolen generation.” Next there came footage of the interior of a place with rusting blue-gray walls. Six naked aboriginal women stood on a platform, their wrists and ankles bound by metal bracelets from which chains extended to points in the floor and ceiling. The chains pulled. As the women’s limbs moved apart, as their bodies unfurled, the camera tilted toward the orifices that their captors had primed for penetration. Now there came more scenes in the desert. White men in orange hard hats walked among bulldozers and trucks beneath a row of jagged mountains. At a foreman’s signal, five workmen depressed plungers on detonators. The mountains exploded, dust and rock flying to points all over the cracked and parched earth. Conlan thought that the rock he saw explode had a sentient quality, that it incorporated the spirit of a people. But the white Australians had only just gotten to work. A long curving gulf wound through the desert where the mountains had been, and deep within it lived a people, a race, in an igneous guise which through the alchemy of the dreamtime had offered secrecy and safety to aboriginals since the first of them lived and breathed on this continent.
“Hey! Wanker! Wanker in the theater!”
A man in the uppermost row had spotted the crouching naked intruder.
“Please don’t hurt me!” he screamed in his unmistakable American voice.
Before he even got to the street, they were out of their chairs and following him. He ran north, passing the block where the house he’d fled stood, and then two more blocks. As he reached the next street, he knew he’d been wrong to imagine that the parties of aggressive youths had broken up. A group of six men saw him reach the street and immediately took after the naked freak. The people from the cinema fell in behind this pack. He ran, crying and panting, his anus burning. Three more blocks went by and then there came a field, extending for miles to the north, and Conlan thought there must be spaces out there where they’d never find him.
A sharp pain surged through the back of his head. He cried out and fell. A rock had hit him. Thinking of the Book of John, and one of Jesus’s most famous utterances, he turned face up and looked at the moon, serene and beautiful, until they stood over him.
“Please. I appeal to your humanity. America is your number one ally in the world. I ask you as an ally—please—”
The kicking and stomping began. He felt a flap of skin come loose from his right cheek, and then he could no longer see out of his left eye. A boot crushed his right hand, and another split his forehead wide open. Then a belt buckle came down on his bare flesh repeatedly. He gave up trying to speak and looked at the moon.
On the following morning, three men in uniforms came out to the field. The youngest of them took a step back in horror as the naked figure with a mutilated face clambered slowly to its feet and extended a ragged bloody hand.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. His fiction has appeared recently in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rosebud, Adelaide, the New Orphic Review, the Weird Fiction Review, Meat for Tea, and other publications.