Carter poured himself another glass of water, and raised it high in a toast.
Gwen tapped his glass with her own, and they lapsed into silence again, the only sound in the Wanderer the hum of its fridges and the music coming from Gwen’s phone.
They sat there for a long time, listening to music, sitting in silence. The glow of the Wanderer’s lights felt warm and safe, a protective bubble in the sea of night; the pub’s windows acting as portholes, offering a small glimpse of the darkness outside. Carter closed his eyes and listened not only to the music, but to the Wanderer itself – the hum of the fridges behind the bar, the faint buzz of electricity crackling along wires, lighting the room. Occasionally, the old building would creak and groan as it settled. It put Carter in mind of some great, sleeping thing, shifting restlessly in the night.
Finally, Gwen broke the silence.
“Who are you?”
Carter blinked. The light from the fixtures overhead, which had mere moments ago seemed warm and comforting, now felt hot and itchy on his skin.
“What do you mean?”
Gwen tapped a fingernail on the table.
“You just appeared one day, out of nowhere. You came here, of all places. And even though every day something bad has happened – you got in a fight, and some kids disappeared, and you got accused of taking them – it seems like you really like it here. You keep trying to help out.”
Gwen added a second fingernail to the first, tapping out a beatless rhythm.
“Who does that?”
Carter stared at her. For the first time, he really looked at her face. Her eyes were a dull grey-blue, her cheeks red with a mild sunburn, and it looked like she chewed her lips.
“I do that.”
Gwen stood up suddenly, almost knocking over her chair, and glared at him.
“For fuck’s sake.”
She took a few steps away from the table, then turned on her heel.
“I want to be your friend, Carter, but it’s kind of hard when you know one of my deepest traumas and I don’t even know your last name.”
She stormed off, heading for the Wanderer’s front door, and she had just placed her hand on the door handle when she heard his reply.
She looked at him over her shoulder. He had stood up, and was moving over to the bar. As she watched, he stepped behind it, and carefully selected a bottle of wine from the rack. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fifty-dollar bill, and put it in the cash register. He looked over at her.
“My last name is Murphy. Dad’s family was Irish.”
He retrieved two wine glasses and walked back over to their table, taking a seat. He poured two glasses of wine. She hadn’t moved from her spot by the door, her hand still resting on the door handle. He looked over at her, green eyes meeting her own. She was sure they looked more vibrant now than they had a few minutes ago. He took a sip from his wine glass, and pulled a face.
“Damn it. I was trying to be confident and cool, but I forgot I hate wine.”
She shook her head at that, and removed her hand from the door. She joined him at the table, and he raised an eyebrow at her.
“What do you want to know?”
In his hospital bed, Tobias tossed and turned in his sleep.
He dreamed of an endless river, its waters coloured a deep black, the colour of ink. It was impossibly wide, and impossibly long, and its waters raged. He knew, without being able to see, that it was endlessly deep.
He stood on one bank of the river, black waters lapping at his feet. Across from him, on the opposite bank, stood a figure, silhouetted. He could not see its face. It was as black as the water. He called out to it, but it did not respond. He searched desperately for a way to cross the river. Downstream, he saw nothing, just black water snaking away into the distance, endlessly. He could barely hear himself think over the roar of the water. He looked upstream, and saw a great pile of stone bricks, green with moss and slime. He walked up to them, then glanced back. The figure on the bank had not moved.
Tobias picked up a brick. It was heavy, and the weight of it almost bent him double. Instinctually, he brought it to the river, and threw it in. Instead of dropping, the brick hung in the air. Tobias returned to the pile and picked up another brick. He went back to the river, threw his brick. This one connected with the first. Over and over he did this, and each brick connected with the last, until finally he had built a great stone bridge, which stretched over the river. Tentatively, he took his first step on the bridge. It held his weight. He walked the bridge one step at a time. He watched his feet as he did so, looking for any sign of instability in the bridge. When he surmised he had travelled halfway, he risked a glance at the opposite bank.
The black figure stood at the foot of his bridge. As he watched, the figure reached out a hand, and tapped the stone bricks. They began to tumble into the water. Before Tobias could react, the bricks fell away beneath him, and he was sent plunging into the river.
The water was warm, and surprisingly calm. He opened his eyes. The riverbanks were nowhere to be seen. He looked down, and saw only darkness. He looked up, and couldn’t see the surface. He floated in the centre of an endless expanse of warm water. With dull surprise, he realized that he could breathe normally.
Tobias was suddenly aware of an immense presence behind him, the enormous weight of it pressing on the back of his skull. He paddled, and spun slowly in the water, and came face-to-face with the Fisher.
He awoke screaming.
Gwen sipped at her wine, and frowned.
“I don’t think it’s you. I think this wine is just awful.”
Carter tried his own again.
“Do you know much about wine?”
Gwen picked up the bottle, and stared at the label.
“I know I don’t taste any of this stuff it says. Pretty sure it’s all bullshit.”
She replaced the bottle, and focused on Carter.
“Firstly, where did you learn to fight?”
Carter shifted in his seat, trying and failing to get comfortable.
“My older sister was in the Army. She taught me a few things. At first because I was bullied a bit as a kid, so she wanted me to be able to defend myself. But then it just sort of became our thing, and whenever she was home she’d teach me more self-defense stuff. She tried teaching me how to shoot, too, but I never really liked that. Got pretty good at fighting though, and eventually I took up kickboxing. So it was mostly my sister, and then partly my kickboxing instructor.”
Gwen drank her wine thoughtfully.
“Why didn’t you want to tell us that?”
Carter looked away.
“How I learned isn’t the problem. What I did once I knew how to fight, though…”
Gwen said nothing, and after a few moments, he continued.
“I grew tall, and big, so I got pretty good at fighting. Turned out that’s pretty much all I’m good at. I graduated school, but only barely. Didn’t do well enough to actually go to uni or anything like that. So I started picking up odd jobs here and there. They never lasted long, and as I got older, they got harder to find.”
Carter stared at the wine in his glass.
“So eventually my sister moved away and stopped talking to my parents – turns out they’re really homophobic – and I had to start taking jobs that weren’t so good. Jobs where I had to hurt people. Usually bad people, but sometimes…”
Carter twirled the wine glass in his hand, barely seeing it. He was watching a movie play in his head. After a few seconds, he went on.
“I did enough jobs, and did them well enough, that eventually I got a more permanent job, working at a club in the city. Throwing out drunks, defusing fights, things like that. Even then I was sick of fighting. I got pretty good at just talking to people. I think you can solve most problems by just talking to people. Not always though. I still sometimes had to throw punches.”
He drained the last of the wine from the glass in one go.
“And then one night I threw a punch and the guy didn’t get back up after. Found out later that he had died ‘on the scene’, as soon as his head hit the floor. Quick as that, I was a killer. Soon as I found that out, I walked out of that club and I kept on walking and I haven’t stopped since.”
Gwen took a long drink of her own wine. When she finished, she placed the glass on the table, and topped it up from the bottle.
“Well, that’s not what I was expecting. I thought for sure you were a traumatized veteran or something. Ex-mob muscle was not even in my top five.”
“I never said it was an interesting mystery. Just that I didn’t like talking about it.”
Gwen leaned on the table.
“It’s pretty interesting. So what, now you’re a hobo?”
Carter stifled a laugh.
“Pretty much. I might eventually stop somewhere, get a full time job. For now, though, I’m pretty content to just wander around. I’ve seen a lot of stuff.”
He furrowed his brow in thought.
“I hung around in Sydney for a while. That was interesting. Worked as a shearer for a bit. While I was there, we caught a sheep that had been wandering around lost for five years, it had wool so thick it could hardly move. All sorts of stuff.”
Gwen clenched a hand into a fist.
“And now you wander around breaking up fights and looking for missing children?”
Carter helped himself to some more wine.
“Not on purpose. And I think that last part would be more impressive if we had found them.”
His words hit his ears, and he slumped in his chair.
“Shit. They’ve been missing for two days now, haven’t they?”
Gwen retrieved her phone from the table and turned off her music.
“They still might be okay. Most kids from around her spend their time playing in the bush. I’m sure Tobias’ kid knows at least a little bit about how to look after himself.”
Carter rubbed his eyes.
“I hope so. It makes me sick to think about.”
Gwen stood up.
“Then don’t think about it.”
She walked over to the store room, and came back carrying a laptop.
“I almost forgot I had brought this in to work today. You remember I said if we’re going to be friends then you have to like the same TV shows as me?”
She placed the laptop on the table, and turned it on. It went straight to the desktop. The screen was filled with folders marked with the names of what Carter assumed were different television programs.
“Well, this is where your education starts. Let’s go for something lighthearted. How do you feel about British comedy?”
They sat, huddled together, and they watched television, safe in the warm light of the Wanderer, and for a few blessed hours forgot there was anything wrong in the world.