Of All the Places to Die (extract)

Joe came out onto the porch. It was cold, the sky still poised with low grey clouds after a night of rain. He looked to the floor. His father hadn’t been fooling around. There were bees. He hunched down and counted them. Five. His father said they’d frozen to death. Joe knelt, tucked his hands under his arms and looked closer. The bees didn’t look dead to him. They weren’t twisted belly up like other dead bugs he’d seen. He was sure most beetles died of stomach ache the way they curled in on themselves, writhing in bug death. These bees weren’t like that. There was no death on them. Their fuzzy coats were still electric, their abdomens honed, their pairs of wings unshaken by his breath. These bees were drones, he’d learnt in school, like soldiers. In winter they didn’t get home. They died lonely deaths, brave soldiery deaths, he thought. His mother came out then.

‘Joe, leave them bees alone now. You’re not to be playing with them, remember?’

‘I’m just looking. And they’re dead besides.’

‘No matter, come in. You’ll catch your death out.’

His mother went back indoors. Joe didn’t go in straight away. Instead, he hunched over the bees like before, wondering about those five and of all the places to die.

When he came into the house it was quiet, the only sound that of the ticking clock hung in the hall. His mother had gone back to bed, now that she’d seen to his father. She had left the milk out again.

His father had woken him before going to work. He had come into the bedroom without turning on the light as he always did. Lately he’d stay a while, and just sit in the dark. Sometimes Joe would see him come in, the light straying in from the hall giving his father the figure of a lonesome giant. Other times he’d wake up to find his father already there, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring over at the window. Joe wouldn’t say anything when he saw him like that. He’d pretend not to be awake, before making just the right noises, turning over in his bed, letting him know that he was there. His father would then turn to him and ruffle his hair. ‘Morning champ,’ that’s what he’d say. Joe would look at his father then. He liked looking at his round face, his dark eyes, and his thick black hair. He knew they looked alike. Everybody said so, too. His father would then get up from the bed, go over to the window and open it, no matter how cold it might be outside.

‘Be a good boy. Help your mother.’ Then he’d be gone till dinner time.

Joe brought some milk in a pan to the stove. Milk was quick to heat, time enough to fetch the radio in the next room. He brought it into the kitchen and switched it on. He kept the volume low so as not disturb his mother. He turned the dial as far as it would go and back again without finding a single song. There was a lot of talk, interrupted by a constant buzz. He liked radio. It made good company. And he learnt new things from it, although there were times when it got stuck on the same topic. Last summer all they spoke about was the heat and how it was the hottest ever. People were even calling in to say they agreed it was hot. Joe didn’t see the point in them doing that.

Lately all the talk was about the end of the world. The same people were calling to say they’d seen it coming, said the summer had been that hot ‘cause it meant the end. Experts had predicted it. They’d studied the Mayan civilizations – people who were dead already. The planets were lined up like marbles. They even got a professor on the show one time. The host seemed to like saying the word professor whenever she could. ‘Professor,’ she said, ‘our listeners would like to know more.’ But that professor didn’t seem to care for radio much. He cleared his throat a lot and used words Jonah had never heard before. He put a lot of sound into some of these words like it were a syllable game he was playing.

‘Ex-ter-min-a-tion,’ he said many times. Joe knew what that meant. He just didn’t see it: Everybody dying at the same time like that. It was as believable as the radio serials he listened to, like The War of the Worlds or, his other favourite, Captain Mayhem. Joe knew all about dying. He knew. He just didn’t understand this death they were talking about. He switched the radio off only to find that the milk had frothed up over the pan, flooding the stove.

 

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