Alden couldn’t walk past the picture of his great-grandparents without looking hard into their old, lined faces. He stood in the hall, waiting for the sun to come up, waiting for the light to come into the house, waiting to see their faces again. He could see the frame and then their silhouettes as it got brighter. He could see their wrinkles and their familiar smiles as the light spread through the window, their skin like the joint of a gum tree. He had never seen a person that old except in those pictures hanging on the wall.
He wanted to touch their skin, but he had tried before and remembered the cold of the glass on his fingers. He imagined it would feel tough, like deep creased leather, but his mother told him that she remembered their skin as soft and fragile, covered in fine white fuzz.
Let’s go Ollie.
Alden and his Father worked in silence. The words, when spoken, seemed to evaporate in the heat of the sun. Alden preferred not to speak and listened instead to the protracted creaking of the windmill above them.
By late morning, their feet burned on the red rocks and dust. Flies bombed anything that moved, fighting for their sweat or the moisture in the corners of their mouths and eyes. They stepped into the shade of a dead Ironbark. The leafless branches loomed over their heads. Alden looked at his Father and picked at the blackened skin of the trunk. His Father squinted into the distance.
I suppose you’ll want to go to town before it gets too hot?
Alden was quiet. Golden grass wagged in clumps on the hills. The greenhouse door whinged on its hinges.
Alden kept his Mother’s things in a grey plastic crate in his closet. Stories of the fires were the first stories he’d ever heard. He used the crate so he could leave quickly with everything that mattered. When he wanted to forget missing her, he would overturn it on his bed. The papers and photographs, brooches and hair clips, rings and elastics, would all tumble out with a dull jingle. He put them back one at a time, feeling each object, seeing it for its shape or colour. At night, when his Father was sleeping, he could do it in the dark and see them just the same.
He knew the contents of the crate did not belong to him. They were left behind, they belonged to no one. And although he realized he had no possessions, Alden had one thing he could not imagine in the hands of anyone else. When the barn collapsed, he found a bicycle amongst the broken boards.
It was your Grandfather’s. I never saw him ride it.
For a month after they found the bike, Alden and his Father worked every night. They un-seized each thread and stripped it to the frame. They scavenged grease from an abandoned truck to re-pack the bearings. They gave the tyres a delicate re-tread by melting shaved bits of an old car tyre. It had racks on the front and rear that were rusted solid and would not come off. For his birthday that year, Alden’s Father had refitted an old tyre pump and engraved his name in the wooden handle.
Alden would fill the tyres before every ride. He would clean the chain, cog and chain-rings and carefully dab a drop of dirty engine oil at every joint each time he returned. The rubber on the brakes was so soft Alden only used them in emergencies. He knew he was not the first to ride it and that he might not be the last, but the first time he rode that bicycle was the only time Alden felt he had owned anything. The ride to town was on a broken secondary road into the prevailing wind.
The fires had come through before Alden could remember. Where the yellow grass didn’t grow, the ground still looked scorched and dark. His Father said they wouldn’t have to worry about another big fire because there was simply nothing left to burn. Those who stayed, rebuilt from the blackened ruins of the original town. A handful of houses lined either side of the highway. Scattered piles of broken bricks lay next to the reconstructed walls. Sheet metal fencing, warped and melted from the intense heat, was slung along rooftops and used for awnings. Ashen trees dotted the landscape and the scrub sagged with brown leaves.
With his head bent into the wind, his bike dragged a plume of dust down the road. The end of town was marked by the remains of the hotel, a charred wood and metal roof erected over the brick walls of the first floor. It was used now as the only shop in town. A section of the wooden verandah was collapsing, but still intact. The inflamed cement, cracked in huge veins, burned his feet through his shoes. He hopped to the shade of the verandah and pulled the hot frame of his bike up against the railing.
Ollie. How you goin today mate?
Alden nodded. Daz had been running the shop since before he was born. His coveralls were unzipped to his waist. The hair on his stomach spread the blue cloth apart like curtains. They both wiped the sweat from their dirty, dripping faces. Sitting behind the counter, he was pale and thin and Alden knew why. Daz smiled, but fear rested deep in his eyes. Alden smiled back, but sadness rested deep in his.
What brings you to town?
Alden removed his broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses and rolled up his long sleeves. He avoided Daz’s gaze.
Aw, Ollie, it’s not here yet mate. I told you the truck might not make it today. They had some troubles on the roads yesterday, washed out I think. You might have to wait till next delivery.
A silence fell on the room that made Daz look awkwardly at his feet. Alden sulked, stood in the doorway with his arms crossed and looked down through the town. He squinted into the corridor of heat, houses and derelict buildings on either side. His eyes rested on the edge of the town, down the only passable road in the area. The burned remnants blurred with the horizon, a mess of swelling colours in the searing air. He moved only to shift his weight from one foot to the other as they got tired.
When the stranger reached the town limits, the form was hard to distinguish in the black wake of heat. Slowly, Alden could see the shape and movement becoming clearer. Someone was pedalling toward him, looking like they had been poured over the bicycle. Swollen canvas bags draped the front and rear wheels.
Alden stepped out onto the verandah, offering the stranger an obvious place to stop in the otherwise empty street. The bike arrived with the teased whine of the brakes. The stranger dismounted stiffly and walked slowly up the steps of the verandah, unwinding a scarf to reveal her smooth, dark skin.
When Alden found the camera he instinctively knew what it was. The lens cap was cracked and fell to the floor. He shut one eye and looked into the center of the lens. He could see layers of glass, crosshairs and through to the unfocused walls of the room. Turning it around, he found the viewfinder and peered through. He held the camera with his right hand and steadied it with his left. He felt the lens slide and adjusted it until things became clear.
At dinner, Alden placed the camera on the table. His Father stroked his beard and looked at it thoughtfully.
Your Mother found that in your Grandmother’s things. It still had film in it. She took some pictures, but put it away when we found out what we had to do to get the pictures developed.
He removed his hat and pushed the sweat from his forehead back into his thinning hair.
There should still be some pictures on it.
His Father looked at the camera. Alden wondered what he meant, but didn’t ask.
The ticker here says it’s at twenty. I imagine you’ve still got a few pictures in there, but that thing’s so old I don’t even know if it works anymore.
After he had eaten, Alden searched the bag that contained the camera. He found an instruction manual and a folded piece of paper with faded handwriting. He recognized the loops on the ‘r’s, the ones she had taught him to make, like little ears on the rabbits she drew for him as a child. She had written down how to develop the pictures and what one would need to do it. The manual said that the camera was battery-operated and trying the camera revealed the battery was dead. Alden walked around for days with the camera around his neck anyway, focusing on objects and pretending to take pictures.
Through the lens he could see his Mother in the kitchen cutting vegetables. zap. He could see her reclined in the chair, small beads of sweat sleeping with her on her forehead. zap. He could see her making a funny face behind his Father’s back. zap. He imagined the sound of the shutter opening and closing each time he tried to depress the button. He imagined he could hear her laughter when she beat him at cards. He imagined he could hear her breathing her last breaths again.
At night he dreamed through the focus of the lens. He dreamed of the people and places that were still waiting for him inside the camera.