Audrey Henriss - not Hepburn, not Hepburn, still technically a boy’s name, he reminded himself constantly - was late. And so he stumbled into some clothes, hastily did up a few buttons, drew a fly to its resting place atop the zipper, then stumbled out the door, stumbled half-way down the stairs, kicked his foot right into the sideboard of the bannister and squealed like a pig.
Splinter, right under the nail. Stuck him good. He spent a few fruitless seconds picking at it. The thing smarted like a PhD, but it wasn’t graduating anytime soon. He was late, so the splinter would stay until he had a few spare minutes to pry it out. He clattered down the last few stairs and ran out the door while opening it, a maneuver practised from his countless other mornings of lateness. He had run through the front door, his front yard and, heck, the whole neighbourhood so many times he could do it with his eyes closed. He did. The sun was bright. He was a bright lad himself, his teachers told him, but his parents knew he was more like one of those fluorescent lamps that sputtered and cracked for a couple of seconds before turning on and always made a lot of noise once it finally got going. His eyes tested the air, snapped shut, creaked open a little, and were starting to make some fairly good progress towards staying open by the time he reached the corner of Twelfth and Third.
There was something about Twelfth. So many picket fences, all white, all trite, standing their with their accusing erectness, pointing into the sky. What went on behind those fences? What was so personal? What made people want to wall their houses off with a weak little line of toothpicks that basically said “we’re not going to stop you, but we really just don’t want you here”. He’d almost yelled when he’d seen Dad putting them up outside his own place -- why do we need a picket fence, we don’t even have a dog or anything! The grass, son, it’s so we don’t get those darn kids runnin’ their bikes on it. But then no one can SEE the grass. Dad hadn’t had an answer to that one besides a blank stare, a chuckle and a shrug. Dad got out of a lot of things that way, ‘cause Little Drey’d been brought up knowing that back-talk was a sting from his leather belt. Dad had repented of that sort of thing by the time Alice was a back-talker -- old man probably couldn’t hit a girl -- but those stings stayed in the back of his mind, reminding him that a boy who didn’t ask uncomfortable questions was the sort of boy that Mum and Dad wanted him to be.
Still, those fences. White. Sharp. Perfect. Like teeth -- Have you ever seen teeth on a dog like that, ‘Drey? No sir, and it was a good thing that those picket fences were around, otherwise his early childhood career as a paperboy would have ended with his tender young flesh mangled in the saw-grip jaw of Invictus, the neighbourhood kid-scarer. Thing was like a black-eyed demon pacing in his picket fence cage, waiting for some poor kid to walk past. I’ll be completely quiet until you’re riiiiight outside and then I’LL TEAR YOUR THROAT OUT! Then there was the time he actually tried to get to the letterbox behind the fence...
Corner of Twelfth and a skip and a jump from Right. Splinter still asserting its presence. Each step was punctuated with his brain singing ow, forming a sort of rhythmic hip-hop monotone, half-time to the awkward pace of his running. It’s okay, Aud, - ow - you’re almost -ow - there, - ow - you can get the damn thing out once you’re - ow - on the bus. Besides, there’s the bus stop just ten meters up ahead, and--
That was the bus. Missed it by three seconds. His pace slowed to a halt and his arms fell to his side. An woman dressed in a suit and absorbed in a book, Steps to Success, seemed completely oblivious to the fact that she, too, had missed it. She swatted noncommittally at a fly that darted out of the way and landed on the point-end of a straight white picket. Only picket fence on Right, as he could see, and the man of No. 84 was out on the lawn, still putting the damn things in the ground. White. Trite. Right. Sickening.
Audrey shook his head and looked at the rust-bordered bus schedule. 185 rolled by every ten minutes, on the zero. Work started in twenty-five, the trip took twenty. His fingers fell onto those familiar oh-eight-oh-oh-seven-seven-one-oh-one-two and he explained between pretended coughs that, yes, sorry, I’m not gonna be able to make it in today. Yes, I know it’s the second time this week. Yes, I know this happens a lot. It’s my immune system, see, mother raised me in a bubble. Medical certificate? If you’re lucky. Sure. Bye. Then the click. Fuck them. He’d never provided a medical certificate before and he wasn’t going to provide one today. Besides, you only went to a doctor if you didn’t expect to recover from a sickness, right? Right. His mind agreed and all the stress of missing the bus died down into a brain-dead acceptance that today was an off-day. It was a happy sort of death, one that could be enjoyed with beer and chips, if he could be bothered to prepare them.
He dragged himself all the way back to Third Street, No. 18 and began fumbling with the sliding lock on his -- FUCK. A splinter wedged itself in his thumb. An angry-looking bit of frayed wood almost seemed to mock him -- why’d you put your thumb near me if you didn’t want to get bitten? Audrey kicked the thing for its imagined insolence and it broke open, lock and a tired old bolt clanging to the concrete. He’d fix it later, once the rage had subsided. If the universe was going to pin him down and fill him up with splinters, couldn’t she have at least taken him to dinner first? Sliding himself through his front doorway he picked up the day’s newspaper. A lonely pizza coupon dangled from the front. Good enough. Bills, bills, stuff for Dad, a postcard from Mum, we just made it to Texas and would you look at the sunshine? Audrey laughed. Who takes a vacation to the South anyway? Wasn’t it a stinkhouse there in the Summer? Didn’t Cali have the sunshine and the beaches? There was other stuff, too, so much stuff that Mum had been kind enough to attach a whole extra bit of paper to it. Something about their neighbour Jeff emailing them, saying he needed their letter of support for a neighbourhood petition, which was sitting on top of the fridge because she was so airheaded! Silly her.
Audrey rolled his eyes. The letter was already neatly in an envelope, but it wasn’t sealed. He deftly avoided a paper cut -- the universe couldn’t fuck with him if he was paying attention -- and slid the paper out.
!!DOGS, A NEIGHBOURHOOD MENACE!!
DOBERMEN, STAFFIE, GERMEN SHEPHARDS. Proven KILLERS!! how long will we let them threaten our poor suburb of Guthrie??
Petition to be considered by the Honourable Councillor HIGGINS: establish a law requiring picket fences a minimum of ONE (1) METRE high to prevent SENSELESS CHILD INJURY and DEATH!!
And then followed the simplistic scrawl of Mrs Vanessa Henriss-Brown’s and Mr John Henriss’s signatures. Audrey’s brain-fog lifted and for a second he could swear he felt a tinge of something very real. His splinters began pinching at him like a reminder: hadn’t he just been thinking about picket fences for some reason? Something about rightness and triteness... but then it passed. His eyes glossed over and he sighed, stuffing the stupid thing back into its envelope and into his pocket. Poorly formatted piece of unresearched lunatic crap. Of course his parents signed off on something like this. Sometimes he thought they just liked to get on board with politics and complaining about things other people did or didn’t do because it made them feel like they had something on top of everyone else. They had a picket fence, others did not. Now they had a moral high ground for it and a petition to sign. Bring out the artillery, let’s go to war on this thing.
The man responsible for the lunacy was just across the road in No. 19, a house just like theirs, guarded by a similarly white, similarly trite, set of pickets. Passing through the gate gave him a jolt of deja vu. Was he back at his front door? Did he pass his own fence at all? Applying his senses, he would see that the picket fences lined up (like teeth), but were they always really that high? And why did he feel like he was committing some sort of terrible crime by approaching the gateway of No. 19? Because, Audrey, because you got done over the first time you did something like that, you’ve never liked picket fences because the first time you opened one you got mauled by a dog. It’s not always going to be like that, so why not just walk in and give the nice man his letter? A click and a prick later, he swore he was going to petition against picket fences, against anything that had splinters, and was walking along a crooked concrete path to a door just like his own. Rap rap rap and ow ow ow he went with a hand now stinging in two separate places. He put his ear on the door. Nothing. Actually, maybe a slight whirr. Something loud and droning, like a fan, or a -- you know what, maybe no one was home. Maybe he should leave, put the letter in the letterbox (why didn’t he do that in the first place?) and go start that beer he’d been considering. But then the whirring stopped and the footsteps started and oh god oh god he’s going to open the door.
“How are you, Audrey, my boy?”
Too friendly. Far too friendly. He’d seen this guy like, maybe once. “I’m okay, Jeff. Letter. From my parents. For you. Uhhh.” He stammered off into awkward sounds.
“From your parents, yes.” The man smiled excitedly. “Isn’t it wonderful? Every house on the street has signed off. Every one. We’re going to be the safest neighbourhood in the state. Aren’t you delighted?”
“Yeah,” Audrey snorted, “it’s a real good way to help everyone mind their own business a little better. Gonna do wonders for the sense of uh, family. We’re gonna get on real great with each other when there’s a bunch of fences between us.”
“Oh, I know,” he sighed. “It’s wonderful.”
The man’s smile seemed to get wider, and if the washed-out intensity of his eyes had made him look like a crackhead before, they now looked like he was a crackhead seconds away from staining his pants. He didn’t wanna be there anymore. “I was actually kidding,” Audrey said. “You’re fucking messed up. Bye now.”
And then he walked to the gate. And then he opened it quickly. And then he walked across the road, speeding up a little. And then he got to his own gate and dismayed to find it locked, desperate to get it open, jiggling at the damn thing like it was a joystick and -- hadn’t it fallen off before? -- and finally a click and a swing and his heart lurched through the open gate before he did. He spun around to slam it shut caught his eyes on Jeff, still standing at his doorway, across the road, with that stupid grin, looking right towards his house with that smile on his face and Audrey didn’t want to know why. He sprinted to the door and closed it, back to the thing panting like he’d just closed it seconds before Invictus got in. Now, why was that so terrifying? Personal interaction isn’t that hard, now, Audrey. Settle yourself down and remind yourself what’s up. Heart-rate falling? Good. Brain-fog returning? Good. It’s a day off. Don’t wanna ruin it with needless stressing. Now. Beer. Chips. The alcoholic sizzle in his brain started by about the time the oil got hot and started making that delicious pop pop sound. A handful of chips and beers and movies later, and the floor was dancing on the roof. Then came sleep.
The petition worked. Not that it needed to. The picket fences were up all along Third and Twelfth and Right, and every other street in the area, all White and Trite before the cocky journalists on TV could say the eye-watering pun “picketing for pickets”. First the neighbours had put them up, saying they just wanted to keep up with the Joneses. Then their neighbours had done it, because the neighbours further up were doing it and it just wouldn’t do to have a street that wasn’t aesthetically tip-top, dahling. Then the rest just started doing it for the hey, because really, who could be expected to give a reason for putting up a picket fence? A fence is a fence. Sometimes people put them up. Audrey tried not to think anything of it as he walked towards the bus station with all the evidence of sleep deprivation in his eyes. His parents being home from their ten-gallon holiday meant that he could be expected to receive a glass of water to the face if he wasn’t out the door with more than enough time to not require a medical certificate. Not that he really minded. If the old man had been tough to live around before, try living with him after he lost his job and pissed off his mates enough to not get invited to the pub every Saturday. A blank stare and a chuckle and a shrug and a fucking get out of my sight before I put you on the street, do you KNOW how much electricity costs these days? Alice made the right decision getting outof the neighbourhood as soon as she hit 18, and Audrey was happy to work towards being able to do the same.
The bus was a nice enough experience, too. The old man that ran the morning route was a joy to say g’day to; he never really knew why Audrey did it, but it did make the guy smile. The bus was always empty, these days, and something about being perfectly alone outside of his bedroom made him enjoy things he didn’t usually, like reading. Steps to Success. He’d found it without its owner at the bus stop and decided he could use the helping hand. Step one, realise your strengths and cover your weaknesses. Step two, rise above what’s expected of you. He’d do just that. For one, he was sick of falling back on the easy life, and anyway, who wants to be 23, friendless and without a penny? Beer only got you so far. Money, though. Money would get him a house, nice clothes, a car, a girl--
“This where you usually stop, sah?”
The man’s voice jolted him out of what seemed like a minute of shock. His eyes had stuck on “Step three, tear down the fences in your life”.
Tear down the fences in your life.
Audrey didn’t get up. He could see The Vegetable Zone outside the window with a big old “CLOSED” sign dangling on its front.
“Isn’t that the little vegetable market where you work?” the old man seemed to sing in his graceful, tired tone. And yeah. Yeah, it was the vegetable market he worked at. The one he was working at today, or assumed he was, since it was written on the roster email the place sent out every week. They even gave him four shifts this week for all the good work he’d been doing. That was going to be four-hundred in the bank, four-hundred that--
Four-hundred that he was still getting. Clearly a mistake had been made.
“Here, let me take you back. It isn’t far, and there aren’t many travellers on this route anymore.”
“No, it’s fine… I’m sure...” Audrey trailed off. Had there always been that many picket fences on this street?
“They’re closed, sonny.”
Closed. “Yeah. Okay. Take me back. Thanks, dude.”
The trip home was… blurry. Much of the enthusiasm he’d been instilled with was slipping down that old drain. There was beer at home, right? Chips, too. And the sequel to that movie about the haunted house had popped up in his news feed that morning. Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray. Maybe he could just take this as a well-earned day off, after all, he hadn’t had one in a while. And so on the Seventh day, Audrey rested from the work which he had done, yea, and Audrey saw that it was good. He kicked his feet up on the seat in front of him and let himself have a nice, deep sigh. Then the front of the bus exploded and he flew over the aisle. A moment’s recognition that something was very wrong, and then his head was knocked into blackness by a large, plastic, friendly reminder not to eat or drink, thank you.
The funny thing about football games is that not one of those sweaty men out there achieves a single thing to help another human being, and yet they’re paid better than doctors. And you know what REALLY sucks? The fact you’re sitting there, Dad, rich as a king, not doing anything for anyone because you’d rather sit and watch these sweaty men accomplish shit when you won’t pay for your damn SON to get into medical school.
But he was a fucking idiot who did nothing but play on the damn internet, wasting his life playing video games and who knows what else. Fucking kid. Who was he to tell his damn FATHER how to live his damn life. The way he screamed it hurt more than the punch. The bruise had covered most of his face. He’d deserved it, he’d deserved it all, and he’d cried all night cursing himself.
When he woke up the fire was out. It had clearly come near him because his arm was slightly singed, but for the most part he seemed okay. Broken legs healed, and his head had stopped bleeding -- though, there was a lot of blood. How much blood was too much to lose? You only had like, five litres of the stuff, and he reckoned he could fill a small milk bottle with what was caked on the ground. Standing up on his good leg felt okay, though, so, he guessed it wasn’t as much as it looked like.
Then he remembered that broken legs hurt like bitches and did his best not to scream or bite his lip. Don’t wanna lose any more blood there, Audrey. Don’t wanna pass out now, and you definitely don’t wanna cry. Boys don’t do that, but Alice gets chocolate cake when she does. Compose yourself and see what’s going on. What on Earth happened? The bus was still upright. Still intact, for the most part, save the front of it which was a mangled wreck. The rubber on the floor ended at about the third row, where it became a melty mess that had dripped backwards along the slight incline of the bus’s floor. He was sitting in the fourth row. Fire missed him by a whole row, but his phone wasn’t so lucky. He was the boy who lived, and he had the scar to show it, but the Facebook status would have to wait until he got home. The doors were automatic and the engine was long gone, so he’d have to climb out the front window, now missing all its glass, past the driver’s booth where he figured the old man was lying, dead, burned, torched. Don’t worry about that, yet. You’ve never seen a dead man before, but you’ve never had glass splinters stuck in your forearm either, and you’re handling those pretty well. Keep it together, Audrey. Pull yourself together and make your way to the front.
He hopped. And then he grasped the next row. And then he hopped. Each hop was punctuated with a Gods--fuck it--ugh as the thrills of pain shot from his broken leg to remind him that it probably needed medical attention and that it wanted no more hopping. Audrey did his best to ignore it. One more row, now. Then the ticket dispenser. Hop from that to the driver’s change tray, there you go. Now out the window and try not to look at the dead man to your right.
Audrey threw up. The old man’s head had hit the steering wheel and mostly gone through it. Everything from the nose-bridge down was charred and skeletal, and everything above it was all over the booth. The guy’s brains decorated the metal plate behind him where the fire hadn’t quite reached. The mix of smell and viscera made made him forget for a moment that his leg was broken and he vaulted out the window like a frightened cat, cutting his hand on the shards of glass, rolled down the nose of the bus, coming to rest on the street.
The sky was getting dark, and Audrey admitted to himself, after about an hour of lying on the street in perfect misery, that he should probably find some kind of help. He picked himself up onto his foot and looked at the wreck and his heart made a weak attempt at a prison break. A picket fence, some three meters high was built right across the street, and the bus had crashed into it and exploded. The bus had crashed partway through the fence, leaving no gaps, leaving no way around it. All the other picket fences on… whatever street this was… were all a similar height. The street looked like a maze, dotted with little holes to put your hand through, like a little game of “guess what’s behind the fence”. Maybe you’re still conked out and this is all a trippy dream. Or, maybe you’re a little boy again, trapped in a world of pickets too high to peer over, wondering if the next one you open is gonna have a demon jump at you and give you a scar to match the one on your neck. A world of white, trite pickets. Guess what’s behind the fence, Audrey! Maybe it’s Invictus.
He started hopping down the street, resting in a crouching position when his leg became tired. Forget what’s behind the fence. It can stay there. Audrey was looking for a sign -- something that said Twelfth, or Third, or Right. Something to let him know where the fuck he was, if he wasn’t going to be told what the fuck had happened. Sometimes, the sounds of protective dogs would jump out from behind the fences and make him scream, and fall over. Once it made him land on his bad leg and he did cry, he rolled into a sobbing heap and he cried for his mother, who would sometimes take a break from her reading to rub his head and tell him it was okay. No one rubbed his head, but the thought was enough to start him hopping again, and he did find what he was looking for: a sign that said Twelfth. And a little further on, one that said Third. The old man had nearly made it to the bus stop, bless his heart, and may he rest in peace.
Third Street was the same. Picket fences like spires, way up into the sky. Hadn’t he been able to see their tips before? No matter, it was getting dark after all. He didn’t need the light, thank God. He didn’t need anything but to find their distinct nature strip, with the lone street light and the letterbox beneath it that read 18 - Henriss House. Alice’s touch. Besides, 18 was near Twelfth. He just had to pass No. 2 with a couple of hops, then rest. Then past No. 4 with a couple of hops, then rest. Then past No. 6, with a couple of hops, then rest. While resting on the grass out the front of No. 6’s towering gate, a low growl, a dog’s, rustled past him. The odd bark had ceased to frighten him at this point(desensitisation of phobia by repetition, he had read), but there was something faintly… familiar... about that growl… and the marks on the fence opposite him... No. 7, where the gate hung open and swung lazily in the wind, where two glinting eyes like horrible moons stared at him, asking him: what’s behind the fence, Audrey?
“YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD,” Audrey screamed. “THEY FUCKING KILLED YOU AFTER WHAT YOU DID TO ME!”
Invictus disagreed. It was very alive.
Audrey began to hop, no resting now, no resting at all, despite both his legs shooting screams of mercy to his brain, despite the fact that dogs can run faster than your pathetic hopping you know, and Invictus is the biggest, fastest, meanest dog in Guthrie, and once he gets a scent of you, well. You’re done. The beast was already at his heels and Audrey hadn’t even made it to No. 10. The dog’s footfalls were like drums, though. It was already at No. 8 and closing fast. Soon those picket-fence teeth would close around his ankles and he’d be gone. So the broken leg hit the pavement and Audrey was running full sprint in blinding pain drowned nearly by blinding fear, and within seconds he passed the streetlight and the letterbox and his hands were fumbling, but with all the practice he’d had, the gate was open, and he was running through it, and the jaws clamped around his ankles and started dragging him back out.
Tears, and Daddy, help, but this wasn’t the same as back then. The nice lady of No. 7 wasn’t here to say DOWN, INVICTUS, and there was no first aid kit that could patch together a man torn apart by the devil himself. His grip was faltering -- too many splinters -- and the mouth of Invictus was pulling him in. His eyes looked back and there was no dog. Invictus was a gaping mouth lined with a spiral of jagged teeth, teeth like pickets, and his leg was caught in the middle, about to be sucked in--
He kicked at the abomination and -- somehow -- got free, and -- somehow -- made it into the gate, and across to the door, and then inside, finally slamming it shut with his back to the thing because the spirit of Invictus really was out there, wasn’t it? How much of that had he just imagined? He figured it didn’t matter. He didn’t figure much at all, because after barely a second of getting inside, he passed out.
Beer. Beer was necessary. That was a fucked up dream. It had felt so real, yeah, and he had woken up in the place he’d passed out, but the burns were gone. His arm wasn’t bleeding. Best part was, he could walk again. Maybe the crash really had happened and everything after it was delirium. Some really bad delirium. Beer, now. He needed to forget all of it.
His neck, though. What a crick. And that headache -- how long had he been asleep? He opened the fridge and pulled a beer from the shelf. Boag’s. Audrey wasn’t sure that anyone in the house drank Boag’s, but maybe Dad was trying something new, or, more likely, maybe Boag’s was cheap this week. It tasted okay. The second and third did, too. He slumped down in front of the sink and sighed. Tipsy. The whole thing seemed sort of funny now. Invictus is back from the dead, everyone, and he’s a picket fence demon now. He laughed, and laughed, and the footsteps descending from the stairs went unheard.
“How are you, Audrey, my boy?”
Audrey looked up and screamed. Jeff’s face was contorted beyond recognition. His teeth had grown out at all angles, all straight and white and trite, with little dog-eared tips, all clattering as his entire body shook in convulsions of horrible bliss.
The tipsiness seemed to go immediately. Fuck. He’d been on the wrong side of the street. And how long had he been asleep? Long enough for his leg to heal. His jeans were still torn and he smelled like death and, gods, no one in their right mind drank Boag’s! He ran out the door, leaving Jeff quivering in freakish delight, and emerged to a fog-laced tangle of pickets, all pointing in every direction, some to the sky, some curling down to the ground, and who knows how large such a forest could be? Especially when you’re such a small child, with so many papers to deliver, with no one to look out for you once the dogs come out--
A low growl came from everywhere.
What’s behind the fence, Audrey?