Reece scoops his forelock to the left, then scoops it to the right, hands held like claws. He lets it drop back to the centre, the tip of the dark and stiffly gelled triangle of hair reaching down to the bridge of his nose. He must know by practiced instinct that it’s perfect, but he checks it anyway in the long mirror that interrupts the bare wall like a kind of passageway. One that only leads back to where you came from, taking you nowhere except to greet yourself. Reece sways on his feet and stares at his reflection, adjusting a strand of imaginary hair, slicking it back into line, or pretending to.
“Geometric as hell,” he says, and rubs his hands down the close-cropped hair covering his scalp.
“Where is it we’re going?” I say.
“To the edge.”
“We’ll go right to the edge, and maybe over.”
“Sounds dangerous.” I suck on my cigarette then twist my neck and blow smoke towards the open window beside the bed. A Kola can rests between my thighs, its metal skin sticking slightly to the pleather, and I tap ash into its mouth. “So what’s the actual plan?”
He crouches and peers under the dresser. “We’re going to the edge, like I said, then I’m taking you home, then I’m going to Matt’s where I’ll crash for the night, and then, tomorrow, he’ll take me to the airport.”
“Right,” I say, giving up. “How’s Mutt keeping?”
“Charming as ever,” he says, standing up, casting around.
I have been friends with Reece longer, by several years, than Mutt has. We attempted mutual arrangements, but quickly learned from our mistakes. Reece now keeps us partitioned. He dislikes it when I call him Mutt, but the label fits. He once stole eighty dollars from Reece, then blamed his (Mutt’s) sister’s boyfriend. Broke them up. But Mutt was grinning around smoothly rolled joints of finest quality grass for a month. At least he shared some with Reece, and his sister, like a good mate, a good sibling. I learned about all this when I later dated Mutt’s sister, a disastrous stint that lasted about a week. She’s as bad as her brother.
“Brisbane,” I say. “Wow.”
“I know. Ugh. It’s like the Hamilton of Australia.”
“Could it get any worse,” I say, and regret my words. “Sorry.”
A shrug. “Things are undoubtedly messy.”
I hadn’t caught up with all the details and didn’t know how to ask. But the short story was that Reece’s mum’s new husband had fallen off the roof and paralysed himself. This was back in Brisbane, where he’d lived before moving to New Zealand. Now he was wrecked, and she had slipped into one of her depressions. Bleak forces had regularly filled his mother’s mind when Reece was growing up, when we all lived up the line a bit. I’d seen glimpses of what it was like for them, right from early on, but I had been too uncomprehending. When I was young, I only thought she wore her favourite dressing gown unusually often.
When we were fifteen, Reece admitted that he had for years been making—while maintaining his mum had made them—the best devilled sausages, scalloped potatoes, shepherd’s pies, and other one-dish meals that anyone could hope to taste. Each meal would last the two of them nearly a week—unless I’d stayed over, scoffing down more than my fair share. After Reece’s confession, Mum made me cart around casseroles, crumbles, cakes, all sorts, endless smoked-glass dishes brimming with guilt.
“She can’t help it,” was about all Reece ever said, when pestered or teased about his mother.
Now he’s quit his job, hocked-off his scooter and his belongings, broken his lease, bought a one-way ticket, and who knows when I’ll see the bastard again.
Reece looks around his barren room as if it’s impossible to find anything. All there is in here is just him, the mirror, the dresser, the bed, and me on the bed with the Kola can. And of course, his bag.
“Seen my banjo?” he says.
“When did you get a banjo?”
“Couple of weeks ago. Maybe a month? From Matt. He got me going, but I’ve mostly been learning songs online. You know ‘Wicked Game’, the Chris Isaak song?”
“How does it go?”
“It’s the one about how the world is on fire and nobody can save the singer but you. Come on, everyone knows that song, Adam.”
“Right, I’m with you. Christ almighty it’s a terrible song, though. Why not go for something gutsier, like ‘Enter Sandman’?”
“Weak selection. But I did start learning it. Sort of mandatory, right?”
“‘Wicked Game’ is…” My mouth hangs open while I struggle to find the correct term. “It’s an atrocity, an abomination.”
“Objectively not true. Deep down, no human is capable of disliking that song. It works upon us like a law of the universe.”
“Evidently I am not human, or not of this universe,” I say, tapping ash into the Kola can. “Why did Matt give you a banjo?”
“Sold it to me. He decided he didn’t want it, and I decided I wanted it.” Reece flashes me the black crack of his pale skinny arse, creeping out from his black skinny jeans, as he searches under the bed. “Banjo, check.” He drags the banjo out, sits on his knees and rests it on the ground in front of him. Its white body is scratched up, but it has a nice pearly inlay. Fancy for Mutt. Reece nervously fixes his forelock, then takes up the banjo and picks at the strings, producing a tinny melody.
He begins to sing.
I groan, and clamp my hands over my ears, careful not, with the cigarette dangled between my fingers, to singe my hair.
“Such wicked things you do,” Reece says, pretending offence. He stands and leans the banjo against the wall, by his bag. Then he turns and throws his hands out. “So, when are you going to explore beyond the borders of this fine city?”
“Thought I’d finally try out Dunedin,” I say, playing along, but truthfully. “Make a move next year, after summer’s blown itself out of town.”
Reece blinks, absorbing this news.
“I was going to tell you once it was a bit more of an actual plan, you know?”
“Nice,” he says. “Get yourself some proper underground culture.”
“Get myself some affordable rent.”
“Get yourself a flashy medical degree and become a world-class surgeon.”
“Well. I talked with Graham. He’ll recommend me to some sparkies he knows down there.”
“Get yourself some of the same old crap.”
I suck on my cigarette. “I could find us a flat,” I say, the words sounding limp, because they’re essentially a lie – because they betray expected reality. I’ve never been good at translating my intentions into words, into action. There is a murkiness inside me that will, with no notice, override whatever I think I’m really doing. I should just wish Reece luck and promise to stay in touch, the kind of soft promise grown men make so they don’t get caught lying, or not by much. I’m almost twenty-one, Reece is already there. We are adults and radical promises can no longer form the basis of an honest friendship.
“Don’t make commitments you can’t keep,” Reece says, reading my mind. Then with great sympathy, he adds, “Just as long as you’ve got the bars with the good music figured out for when we regroup.”
“Will do,” I say, a swirl of anxious nausea forming in my stomach.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed, chains rattling around my waist. “Tell me really, where’s this edge you keep talking about?”
“Any direction you please,” Reece says, grinning. I cram the cigarette butt into the mouth of the Kola can and give it a shake, making a dull rattle. “If you keep going far enough,” he says.
“What about the question of transport?”
“No sweat. I borrowed Matt’s car.”
My boots skid a little on the pebbles of the beach, and I shudder at the memory of the two idiots, from the same school Reece and I went to, who scrambled up the quarried cliffside not far from here. They got pretty high before they slipped, leaving a trail of scoured skin on the stones. One died a few days later, the other was left with a bad limp and some nasty scarring that a dozen new hoodies could never completely hide.
Reece stands near a craggy outcrop of rocks, gripping the banjo by the neck. He sweeps his other hand through the air to indicate the scene before us, the ground beneath us, our arrival at the edge.
We sit and Reece lays the banjo beside him. We’d haunted the city’s beaches in our last years of high school. Mostly the grey stretch of the Petone esplanade, but also, when we needed a drive, we’d come this far, to the south coast. Wherever it was, clad in black, we’d smoke weed and watch as dusk descended.
“I’ve been coming here a bit lately,” Reece says. “I like seeing how the land slips away beneath the water. It’s just this quiet and uncertain, but inevitable, end.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Then you look out to that other line, a bit fuzzy but always there.”
“During the day it’s this ordinary, steady line in the distance. It changes but never moves, because there’s always somewhere else to go. But when the sun sets, it becomes something different. There isn’t a name for it.”
I nod, but I don’t catch on. I want, suddenly very desperately, to catch on to what Reece is saying.
“Everything seems more strange and lovely when it’s been set ablaze,” Reece says.
The hills around us, the open water, the cloudy sky—they are great planes of messy colour, bleeding into each other. The air is unnaturally still, though it soon carries the rumble of a boy racer, approaching at speed.
“Go drown yourselves, homos!” someone screams above the engine’s roar. I twist and see a stupidly tricked-out Honda Civic streaking away. A head disappears back inside, and a hand emerges, middle finger raised.
“It’s the twenty-first century, numb-nuts!” Reece shouts.
The Civic carries on, around a bend.
“Looked like Craig Button’s ride,” I say.
“Golly. Craig ‘cute as a button’ Button,” Reece says. “It’s a shame someone so handsome has remained such a prick.” He sighs and rakes his fingers across the strings of the banjo. “Do you know how those real estate psychos described Petone when we were selling Mum’s house? They called it ‘a dream in the making.’ This whole self-important city, at its heart, is as bland and ambitionless as a Briscoes store.”
“Maybe, in the end, that’s all most people want,” I say.
Reece turns to look at me. His expression is full of something concealed, and frightening, like an eclipsed sun. He opens and closes his mouth wordlessly, then shakes his head and the expression fades, but the atmosphere around us has changed. With nowhere else to look, we stare out to sea, bright colours blooming as if from under the water, from another fire beneath. Behind us, by the houses, a dog yaps then whimpers, falls silent.
“This whole thing is like being chucked backwards in time,” Reece says.
Neither of us says anything else. Something crawls along the base of my spine and I slap at it but strike nothing.
“Thought you’d be around here,” someone says.
It’s a familiar growl. I look and see Mutt coming down from the footpath.
“Heya, Adam,” he says, passing behind me.
I say zip.
Reece moves the banjo to make room for Mutt, who plonks himself down next to Reece and – swiftly, smoothly – wraps an arm around him. Reece stiffens, then relaxes as Mutt gives him a slow squeeze. Reece turns to face Mutt, then turns back to the sea. He lays his forearm along Mutt’s thigh, tucks his hand behind Mutt’s knee.
Mechanically, I also turn to look at the sea.
“I didn’t know you guys were together,” I say, thinking, Did I know Mutt was queer?
“Better late than never,” Mutt says, and I can’t tell whether he means for them, or for telling me.
“Not all long-distance relationships are inherently doomed,” Reece says. “But to play it safe, Matt’s moving to Brisbane as well. In a couple of months.”
“Thinking about it,” Mutt says. “Need to save some cash.”
My face is hot. I’ve always said I’d do anything to make Reece happy. But I have done less and less in the last year or two towards that end. Much less, evidently, than Mutt. I have been – what? – working loads, falling in with new crowds – sure – but actually, haven’t I also been ghosting Reece? I must have been. How else could I have missed this momentous turning point.
“I can loan you some,” I say, startling myself, and I badly need a cigarette, but they’re in the car. In Mutt’s car.
“I might take you up on that,” Mutt says. “Look. I’m sorry my sister gave you the flick. Bron’s brutal with the boys. I know it was ages ago, but it’s always felt like a stone between us. Between you and me, I mean. I just wanted to say that. No hard feelings?”
Reece smacks me on the hip.
“No hard feelings,” I say. “Sorry if I exacerbated anything,” I add, unsure what I mean exactly, intending whatever it is for Reece, but Mutt swoops in, taking up my words, my confused intentions, for himself.
“Thanks, Adam,” he says. “Reece was really unsure how to handle this.”
Reece abruptly picks up the banjo. “Enough confessions,” he says. “I’d like to have a pleasant final evening in this godforsaken country. Listen to this.”
He strums the strings and declares the instrument out of tune, but proceeds anyway, warbling excessively, Chris Isaak gone berserk.
“That’s not right,” Mutt interrupts.
“Yes, it is,” Reece says.
“The words are right, but your fingers are wrong.” Mutt leans his body forwards to inspect. He nudges Reece’s index finger along the fret board, then lifts and repositions his middle finger. To confirm the new arrangement, he lightly strokes the back of Reece’s hand.
“Pluck,” he instructs.
Reece picks the strings and it sounds somehow right where it didn’t before. I seethe with happiness for Reece.
“Funny. You barely touched the tuning pegs,” Reece says. “Let’s try this one, then.”
Reece clears his throat. He repositions his fingers, unassisted, then attacks the banjo. A familiar riff erupts, made strangely gutsier by Reece’s aggressive approach to such a lo-fi instrument. Reece starts thrashing his head, forelock flapping, as the riff goes on, mistakes growing in number but completely ignored.
A ping and a whistle, and Reece shrieks. He flings the banjo away. There is a drop of blood on his cheek.
“Snapped a string,” Matt says.
“I know what happened,” Reece says, an anger in his voice that I haven’t heard since the day he quit high school. “Take your stupid banjo back.” He shoves it through the pebbly sand towards Matt.
“It’s not the banjo’s fault,” Matt says, touching the banjo as tenderly as he had touched Reece a moment before. “You haven’t lost an eye or anything.”
“It’s been known to happen,” Matt says.
“Lucky me,” Reece says.
Matt stands, the banjo tucked under his arm. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ll meet you back at my place. Mum’s done a roast.” Matt looks at me, shrugs. “You can come too, if you want. Bron’s not home.”
“No, thanks,” I say. “You guys might want a quiet night?”
“Whatever. I’ll let you say your goodbyes,” Matt says, and heads back up the beach.
After a long while, Reece says, “Matt never sold me the banjo. He loaned it to me. It was something to do together.”
I flinch, and tell myself, Don’t overthink the lie. But what I know is, while I might have been careless to lose the thread of his story – our story – Reece has been letting it go, as much as he needs to, willingly.
“I’ll apologise to him later,” Reece says. Then, “I’m going to miss you.”
“Likewise,” I say, the swirling nausea in my stomach turning into a storm. My eyes start to sting a moment before the tears come.
Reece shuffles close, puts a hand on my upper arm.
“I’m going to hug you. Just fair warning,” he says, already wrapping his arms around my body. “Try not to reflexively punch me in the windpipe, but I’m going to kiss you, okay?”
“Lay it on me,” I murmur, and he kisses me by the ear, his forelock scraping my temple.
“You can wipe your face now,” he says, moving back.
I wipe my eyes but leave the kiss. I sniff and a glob of snot hits the back of my throat. I swallow. The end is creeping up, quietly and uncertainly, but inevitably, and I feel nakedly unprepared.
“You’ll stay in touch?” I say.
“I’ll be lurking on Chat.”
“Choice,” I say, and wipe my nose. “Give your mum a hug from me.”
“I will. We should get back to the car.”
“I could really do with a smoke,” I say.
Crunching our way across the pebbles, Reece stops up ahead. He takes a deep, noisy breath, releases it. “This is all we’ve got,” he says, waving a hand around vaguely. “Apart from this, not a thing. You’d feel better, and smell nicer, you know, if you quit the cigs.”
I want to ask whether he means apart from all we’ve got, or apart from the knowledge of all we’ve got, we have nothing. But it’s a hopeless question.
Reece steps onto the footpath, and I stand still, the stony ground shifting under me, the air around us already turning grey and cool.
Anthony holds a Master of Arts from the International Institute of Modern Letters. His fiction has featured in literary publications in New Zealand and internationally, as well as on Radio NZ. ‘Journey to the Edge’ is taken from his debut collection of stories, Home Theatre, which is forthcoming from Victoria University Press. Anthony lives in Wellington and can be found on Twitter and Instagram.