There aren’t that many uncracked buildings left. Lucien had been on the road on and off for the last ten or so years and in that time he’d come across no more than three of them. Explorers who were much older than him (and probably dead) had come through most of the standing ones and cracked open the doors to see what treasures were held inside. Honestly, the buildings he had come across were nothing special; old farmhouses with no farm left attached left exactly as it was the last time the family had lived there. Uncovered plates that held long rotted away food, televisions with burned in screens and cars still filled with petrol.
It had been nice to spend the night not worried about being found out by bandits and killed in his sleep, but it wasn’t interesting. Perhaps it would be the death of him one day, but he liked for things to be interesting. He knew that in these times, he should be trying to get back to the life he had with Mei Lin. Boring, and safe. But Mei Lin was gone now, so really it hadn’t helped either way. That was his philosophy about life. Nothing ever stays the same for very long.
Well. Most things. Some things stayed the same but changed. Case in point: Charlie Davis, his traveling companion.
As far as traveling companions went, Lucien had a few of them over the years. The one who lasted the longest was Matthew Lawson, but he eventually decided that his talents were better used for helping people when he retired from the life of a wanderer and became a member of the Victorian Provisional Government Enforcement Agency. Or, the VPGE. But there had been others in between. Mostly people looking to get away from their settlement and find a better life who came to realize that actually the life they’d been living was much more comfortable than being out on the roads all day every day. He expected that Charlie would be much the same. But, he hadn’t. Every time Lucien stopped somewhere, he’d leave with Charlie in tow, his quiet presence soothing over most people who felt compelled to fill any quiet with talking, singing, and other attention-drawing racket. Charlie wasn’t much of a talker, so when he did have something he wanted to say Lucien made sure to listen because he damn well wasn’t going to say it twice.
And his diet was much better than before Charlie came along, because Charlie could hunt, knew what plants were edible and had a personal vendetta against tinned food, but especially beans. Of any sort. Even fresh ones. Lucien thought that was funny, but he wouldn’t say it to his face. Where Charlie had learned a lot of these skills was a mystery. Some were pretty obvious. He was a mutt, born in a mutt encampment. Even if his father was VPG, it was likely he’d still taken the time to show him how to kill, skin and cook the various creatures of the bush.
In the time he’d known Charlie, about three years now, he’d done a lot of growing up. Lucien tried not to think of him as a pup anymore because he wasn’t and he never really had been during the time Lucien had known him. But gone was the whimpering, feverish pup and in his place was a handsome, strong young man. He’d traded in the leather pants for a more comfortable army printed jumpsuit that he wore, usually, with the arms tied around the waist in a sort of belt, revealing his collection of plain cream undershirts. Most of them were probably white once, but the dusty red landscape had a way of making everything white seem cream or brown.
Lucien turned his attention back to the lock he was currently picking. Charlie watched on behind him, and he didn’t have to look to know that Charlie was trying to pick the lock with his mind based on his hand movements. He’d been looking at maps of this area for the past six months because based on a book his mother had when he was a child there should be an old art gallery here. He wanted to see an art gallery, and he also wanted to see Charlie seeing an art gallery.
They’d been looking at old maps they’d come across and after a lot of cross-referencing and Charlie drawing them up a map, it seemed like he’d guessed right about the location after all. Hidden away behind plywood lined windows it seemed that there was an art gallery and it was, hopefully, uncracked so the art would still be there. Or, he hoped the art would still be there; it was impossible to say without actually getting inside the building.
He’d been thinking about his upbringing a bit lately, especially he’d been thinking about his mother and her artwork. There wasn’t a great deal of art in the settlements he and Charlie frequented. Art was a luxury, and there wasn’t much space for luxury in a life where all you did was work and die. But he missed art, he missed having things that existed just to be beautiful.
In his hands, the lock clicked. It didn’t open right away, but with a bit of elbow grease, he managed to pop it open. He smiled and unthreaded it from the chain that had been across the door for the last however long. He threw it aside, the lock landed with a thump and a smattering of rust particles falling around it. He glanced at Charlie, who raised both of his eyebrows.
“Out of practice.” He said. Lucien scoffed and then leaned his weight on the door so he could push the bloated wooden door open. Curse the elements. With some effort and a massive creak from the rusted hinges, it inched open until it was just wide enough for him to slip inside. Charlie followed after, pushing his pack in first, and turning on his side so he could slide through the gap. The cracked, loose lacker came away from the wood onto his shirt in small shards. Lucien turned his eyes over the room.
It was dark, and it was dusty. A few streaks of light came in through the boarded-up windows and doors but otherwise, it was dark. The air was musty and gritty in his nose as he breathed, and fragments of dust he’d knocked loose from the door danced in the available light. The floor was tiled, but it was dull with grime. Maybe it was polished once, but not any time in the last decade. Or longer. Probably longer.
He looked around for the art. While he knew what an art gallery was in theory, he had never seen one in practice and had no idea what exactly he should be looking for; not that he could let Charlie know that. He spotted two empty frames hanging above the first landing on a staircase, about an arms-length apart. That didn’t bode well for the remaining artworks.
“What do you think?” He asked, turning to look at Charlie, who was examining an almost entirely faded slip of paper with a map on it. He cut a particularly striking figure as he tried to make sense of the paper in the streaks of light coming in through the boarded-up windows. He made a show of looking up, then around the foyer with a small sneer.
“Not a fan of the decor.” Lucien rolled his eyes good-naturedly; he always liked it when Charlie made a joke. He had hoped that as they got to know each other he’d stop being so serious and relax a bit; at least around him. But so far: no dice. He left Charlie to his devices and walked up the marble steps; careful not to slip on the grime and puddle of disgusting water that had gathered between the second and third steps.
The pictures had not been removed from the frames with any grace or care, it looked as though they’d simply been removed by cutting the canvas away. Stuck to the wall was a small note card. It read ‘Removed by Taylor Morten on and to be returned on ‘ with blank spaces where dates should be. Taylor Morten didn’t care to return the paintings from wherever they were being stored now. He had to wonder if they were stashed somewhere safe, or if they’d been destroyed. He doubted anyone not from an Estate would bother to save them when they could be used as kindling.
Behind him, he heard a sharp exhale of air followed by a heavy thump and Charlie groaning. Turning sharply, Lucien realized Charlie hadn’t been as careful with the steps as he had; probably from not knowing that marble gets slippery when wet. He had landed on his ass, legs splayed out in front of them, neither looking broken thank goodness. This whole expedition would be rendered fruitless if they had to leave to seek medical attention.
“Did you hurt yourself?” He asked, offering his arm to Charlie so he could stand. Charlie leaned against the nearby pillar and shook out one of his legs. His face was scrunched up, and he reached back with one hand to feel along his spine. Lucien felt a small spike of worry he quickly squashed. If there was something wrong with Charlie’s back he probably wouldn’t have been able to stand.
“No.” Lucien fixed him with what he hoped was a stern look. Charlie always seemed a little hesitant to let him know of anything that may be bothering him. Lucien had his theories of why that might be but no solid proof for any of them. He hoped Charlie might grow out of it but so far no such luck. Perhaps it was a relic of his growing up in the Out City with limited access to any kind of medical intervention that forced him to develop an ‘if I'm not literally dying then I'm fine’ attitude. But his staring worked. Charlie broke eye contact and spoke again. “The bottom spine bone.”
“It’s a vertebra, and it’s called the coccyx.”
“It might be bruised.”
“At least it’s not broken.” He said in consolation. Charlie grunted in reply and ran his fingers down his spine again to check. Upon being satisfied he showed Lucien the slip of paper he was still holding. “Look.”
“What am I looking at it?”
“It’s blueprints.” Lucien followed Charlie’s finger and found he seemed to be right, it was a map of the building, along with names for each area that were worn away with age and water damage.
“Good find.” He said, before tucking it away into his pocket to use later. Charlie looked at the empty frames disdainfully, before giving an even more disdainful look to the second set of stairs. But he headed up anyway, this time keeping a firm grip on the handrail. Lucien followed after and into the first main gallery room. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with art in frames, and sculptures in dusty glass boxes. Feeling like a giddy child, he rushed over to begin examining the artwork.
A woman in a pink t-shirt sat in a white chair, her long hair obscuring her face while she looked longingly at a glass. The artist was listed as ‘Anne Wallace’. Hm. A feeling of familiarity washed over him in a wave. How many nights had he spent in the same state of affairs? Too many to count. He didn’t feel like looking at this painting anymore. Thankfully, he didn’t have to.
“She’s not wearing pants,” Charlie said, coming to stop next to him, holding a bust.
“Neither are you, technically,” Lucien said, in defense of the work.
“It’s a jumpsuit.” He grumbled.
“What do you have there?” Lucien asked, nodding at Charlie’s bust.
“I don’t know. Its box was broken.” The white clay bust he was holding depicted a young woman, with her hair braided into an updo and a greek style of nose. It looked very old, much older than Charlie should be handling.
“You’re not meant to touch the art.” He said though it was too late. Charlie rolled his eyes and lifted the woman so he could look at her again.
“You think I can get it dirtier than it is?”
“I didn’t say that,” Lucien said, as Charlie set it down on a bench with peeling, disintegrating leather so the white clay head could enjoy Anne Wallace’s work. “Good thinking, let her enjoy a change of scenery.” He received a blank look in reply, informing him that his joke had not hit. Oh well. Charlie was a bit like that sometimes. Jokes tended to go over his head. Lucien left Charlie to study the painting ‘Strange Ways’ and moved on to look at the next one entitled ‘Biltmore Hotel Flower’.
He was fairly sure that the flower in the painting was a Dahlia, and it was black coloured, in front of a staircase. It was a beautiful painting, but he was sure that the context of such specific imagery was lost on him. He glanced at the little nametag and found that it was painted by the same woman as the previous one. Perhaps she was having some kind of exhibition? He didn’t know. He wondered if his mother ever did things like that with her art, or if she just finished them then put them away somewhere to never be seen again. He was tempted to touch the painting, to feel the creases of the brush and the paint on his skin but he restrained himself from doing that because he knew these works of art were so fragile now and he didn’t want to be the one to break them after they already survived so long.
He left Charlie, who was sitting on the chair with the bust in his lap to the next room, where a giant painting caught his attention. The huge red canvas started at him; the figures stark white. Beneath the Arena, he knew this one. He’d seen it before, in books. The woman figure lay still, her cross having fallen from her hands, blood smeared on the front of her white gown. The Roman priest is tall and silent, his robe falling in waves as he gazes upon her. It’s all he can do to state at the painting, his thoughts curling around on themselves, before settling into a pleasant silence.
Just him, and the work.
He sat on a leather bench and looked up at it, taking in the folds of the red fabric the young woman lay on, and the other figures in the background of the painting. Her death, while tragic, was so beautiful. In real life, there was no such thing as a beautiful death; and if there was then he’d never seen one. Perhaps he is the priest, wandering the bush, looking for the lost and the sick, and taking a moment to think of those whose lives were wasted by incompetence or by simply not having the correct tools for the job.
He thought about execution, and how Charlie had told him that thievery was punishable by death where he grew up. He thought about that little mutt baby that would have been left to die if he hadn’t chosen to leave the Estate and go tend to it. He imagined she was a beautiful, healthy child with huge brown eyes and wildflowers braided into her brown hair. He’d seen Charlie shoot a bandit just last week, seen the light fall out of the man's eyes, and that evening, over a meal of rabbit and salty crackers he and Charlie had laughed at a letter from Matthew.
Did life have such little value? Did he? Bandits seemed to think he had a little value as a doctor because they’d kept him alive. But did lives have to have value? Maybe all people had value just by virtue of living. The painting on the wall betrayed no answers. The woman is still dead, her cross is still on the ground and the priest is still watching him from underneath the yellowed, cracked varnish covering the top of the work.
The building around them was falling to pieces, water stains lined the walls and the leather he was seated on was crumbling underneath his weight. The wood floors were warped and creaking under his feet. The art was mostly still here, left behind by people leaving. It was also damaged by water, and the elements and dust and grime. But it was still here, and still beautiful. Still thought-provoking as ever, he supposed.
“I don’t get it.” He turned to look at Charlie, who had taken a seat next to him; the bust seemingly abandoned.
“What don’t you get?” He asked, following Charlie’s eyes to the martyred Christian woman.
“This. What...What’s its purpose?”
“Yes, but...What does it do?” Perhaps he should have expected this; Charlie was a mutt through and through even if he didn’t dress like one anymore. Mutt’s had a culture of their own, their own holidays Charlie had taught him about, their own foods, and their own music. But they didn’t seem to have a lot of art, everything Charlie spoke about or took with him was useful or served a purpose. He didn’t want to write Charlie up like he was an article in a medical journal but he didn’t know much about art because no one has ever exposed him to it.
“It just sits there.” Charlie gave him a thoughtful look like he was trying to work something out in his head. Then -
“Because it looks beautiful,” Lucien told him, gesturing with his hand. “Don’t you have things just because they look beautiful?” The blank look Charlie gave him while he processed this thought said all that it needed to say. “Of course you don’t, what am I saying?” Charlie always traveled light, of course he didn’t have anything that was just beautiful. “It’s art, Charlie. It tells a story.”
“I don’t understand.” He said again, “Why would you want to tell this story? The girl is dead. If I wanted to see a dead girl I’d just go to a bandit camp and find one.” Lucien sighed and then looked back at the work. Of course Charlie’s thoughts would go right there. Despite his best efforts, his traveling companion did have a vengeful streak that ran through him from the top of his head down to his toes. Not that Charlie had nothing to be vengeful about, of course. Most people had something against Bandits.
“It’s not just any dead girl. She’s a Christian, and she was killed for her belief. That man looking over her is Roman, and he’s thinking that her death was a waste. It’s a warning, about how death over silly things is wasteful.” And what a message to tell, he thought, not saying that out loud.
“Oh,” Charlie said, simply, as if he understood though his tone indicated that he didn’t, or maybe he did but only a little. “All that from one painting?”
“All that from one painting.” He agreed, and he let them lapse into silence, both of them starting up at the work. Eventually, Charlie got up and walked into the next room, perhaps to give him some space, or perhaps he saw another bust he liked. It didn’t matter. Lucien wasn’t done here yet. He continued to gaze at the painting, watching as the light caught on the cracked, ruined varnish for what felt like another hour.
His thoughts went around in circles, like a snake eating its tail. He thought of his long-dead mother the artist, and the estate he grew up on, and his daughter and what artistic talents she might have had, and then of his wife and what became of her. Over and over, around and around. The estate was still there; he’d seen it on maps. But he’d never been back, why would he? He was exiled, and they wouldn’t let Charlie enter. There was no way he’d leave Charlie out in the cold to fend for himself that wasn’t right. What about Charlie’s family? He’d never met them either, but he's encouraged Charlie to write letters home to let them know he was alive at least. Whatever happened there he doesn’t know but he thinks that it’s a shame another family has been destroyed.
Family. He thought about his family. Less now he was occupied with Charlie, but still a lot. He liked to think he had a fatherly influence over his young companion. Perhaps it was just that his want to be a father had never decreased and he felt like he’d been cut short. Maybe it was that Charlie needed a father. Maybe both, or neither. Charlie was quick to remind him that he was not his father. And he wasn’t. It was all a bit of a mess inside his head but when he was with Charlie it all seemed so simple.
“Doc!” He startled, knocked from his thoughts by Charlie for a second time. He looked around for him, but couldn’t see him right away. Leaving Beneath the Arena, he walked in the direction of the sound, and towards the direction that he could hear footsteps coming from. Charlie rounded a corner, white as a ghost. Charlie was pale, naturally, but this wasn’t just that. He was white as hail and shaking like he was trapped in it.
“What? What’s wrong?!” He asked, running his eyes over him to make sure he wasn’t hurt, he looked fine. He tried to figure out what else it could be. Something dangerous? Someone else here? He hurried forward, almost bumping into Charlie who didn’t stop.
“You have to see this.” Alarm was a clear, high pitched bell in his voice.
Lucien followed him into another room and followed Charlie’s hand as he pointed towards a painting that covered most of the wall. It contained eight figures, all of which were standing on a small raised platform dressed in old fashioned evening wear.
“That’s you!” Charlie exclaimed, eyes flickering wildly with fear and confusion but Lucien’s eyes didn’t fall on himself, though he could see what Charlie meant, no, his eyes fell on Charlie.
Well, the Charlie in the painting. Charlie in a suit. It had to be Charlie; there was no way it could be someone else. He had the same black hair swooped away from his forehead, the same straight but sloped nose, the same defined jawline, and very slight divot in his chin. It was Charlie; all the way. Next to him was a woman seated in a chair almost buried under a pile of pink dress, her hair was coiffed and auburn. She was pale too, almost like a living doll, her lips red and almost heart-shaped. His eyes continued roaming the work in slow, inching strokes. Another woman, short brown hair, a blue dress with a large decorative bow on her shoulder. A woman in a long green dress with a blunt cut red bob standing close to...Matthew Lawson? It had been some years since Lucien had last seen his old traveling companion but...No. That had to be him, no one else had a face like that he was sure of it. His eyes arrived back on Charlie, sitting on the step in front of him was a boy, blonde hair, green eyes. Suit. Another woman, in off white or maybe beige...
Then, he looked at himself. The same beard and the same hair. He found he couldn’t stand to look at himself for particularly long so he looked over at Charlie who was chewing on his thumbnail. Charlie wasn’t one prone to fits of nervousness, so this must have seriously spooked him. His attention was no longer on the image and on him now.
“It’s a very old painting.” He told Charlie, who narrowed his eyes. “There have been studies to show that at any given time that there are multiple people alive with the same combination of facial features.” He walked over to the little metal plaque describing the painter and the painting. “What does this say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, try. We’ll try together.” Charlie wasn’t much of a reader, even though he liked to listen to stories. He could write his name, and Lucien’s name and do enough maths to get by but reading for prolonged periods seemed to just frustrate him. Even so, he concentrated on the words, reading them aloud as he grasped the concept of them.
“And who was it painted by?
“Commissioned anonymously and donated to the museum anonymously.”
“What does that mean? “
“That they did it without telling anyone their name.”
“Oh. Why would they do that?” Lucien sighed contemplatively but...He didn’t know. There was no reason to lie to the boy.
“I don’t know why.”
“Can I touch it?” Lucien has half a mind to tell him not too...But he doesn’t. He nods. Charlie’s fingers are long and white and small compared to the large painting. He touched the side of Lucien’s face, before pulling away like he was burned. He stuffed his hands into his jumpsuit pockets and then looked up at the painting.
“It’s just a painting.” He said, “It’s not real.”
“Well, I don’t know how real it is. But….It is just an image.”
“Why would someone from a hundred years ago paint us? And all these other people without telling anyone?”
“I don’t know.” He said, again. Charlie had started to pace backward and forwards under the painting, looking agitated and frustrated at the same time.
“I hate this place.” He said, “I hate these paintings and the sculptures. Why would anyone make this building? It’s full of nothing. Nothing useful, nothing to help. Just big, ugly drawings.” Rather than comment, Lucien sat down on a nearby seat. Charlie didn’t seem to notice. “I hate the slippery floors, I hate that there are no windows...Why would anyone make this building? You said that paintings have a story, what story does this have? What is this telling you?”
“It’s telling me that these eight people were painted together. Perhaps they were friends.”
“Friends?” Charlie asked, seemingly startled from his monologue by the question.
“Don’t you think that’s a nice thought? What if there was another Charlie, and another Lucien, then they were also friends?”
“I...Yes. That’s a nice thought.” He said, looking a little flustered, and he cast his eyes back at the large painting. The painting didn’t move, just loomed, a little forebodingly over him. Lucien patted the leather seat next to him, watching Charlie’s eye.
“Sit with me.” He said. Charlie looked at the painting, then at Lucien, he walked over and he sat down, face tilted upwards to get a better view of the work.
By the time they were done walking around the art gallery, it was getting late enough that there was no point getting back on the road. It’d been a while since they’d slept under a roof anyway so Lucien suggested that they should stay in the art gallery overnight and head out in the morning. Charlie agreed, and the two of them set up their bedrolls by Beneath the Arena.
Charlie set up a little tripwire by the door, winding the wire around his fingers and the spring before attaching the string to the bust so that if someone tripped the wire, it would knock down the bust and wake them up. Lucien thought it was maybe a bit of an overkill...But Charlie’s paranoid over preparation had saved their skin before so he wasn’t going to tell him not too. While he did that, Lucien selected some cheese, dried beef, and bread for a small meal. He prepared it mostly by lamplight, not wanting to light a fire inside.
Charlie was quite skilled in the art of food preparation. He meant it when he said no more baked beans. Lucien thought he might miss them but he didn’t. He liked what Charlie prepared and his back certainly felt better not carting so many cans around with him all the time. When he finished, Charlie came back over and sat on his bedroll, picking away at his food. His book sat on the foot of the roll, his bookmark a red little lantern in the otherwise dark room. Charlie had refused to sleep in the same room as the Ballarat Eight painting and Lucien didn’t blame him. The painting was strange, but, it was just a painting and he was confident that it didn’t forebode danger to them.
Lucien looked down at his own somewhat meager meal of bread, cheese, and dried meat. He was thinking that before too long they should start to stock up on some more healthy things, but it was difficult to carry them with them. He took a sip of tea and leaned back against the wall.
“Are you enjoying your book?” He asked Charlie gave him a slightly startled look, as though he’d been deep in thought and then followed that with a noncommittal shrug.
“You guess? You don’t like mystery novels?”
“You’re going to think I’m an idiot.”
“I would never think that,” Lucien said and he meant it. “Wasn’t it you who saved our skins last week by setting up that shotgun trap?”
“That’s not smart. That’s just common sense.”
“I wouldn’t have thought to do that. What’s bothering you?” He pressed. Charlie’s eyes skittered to the book than back to him.
“I feel like...This is stupid. I feel like every page is a scarf and to read it I have to unpick it.”
“That makes sense.” Lucien told him, “Sometimes, academic texts are a bit like that.”
“But this isn’t a fancy text. This is a book you read to children.” He said, gesturing helplessly with one hand at his copy of Sherlock Holmes. “By the time I figure out the words...They don’t mean anything.” He sighed and stuffed the last of his bread ungracefully into his mouth to avoid talking. The little oil lamp between then didn’t give off heat like a nice fire would and it was starting to get cold. Lucien tugged his blanket up and leaned against the wall with the last of his meal. Charlie didn’t seem very interested in conversation, so he kept to himself for a while. Eventually, he settled into his bedroll with his latest letter from Alice Harvey, whom he’d started to keep in far more regular contact with after his paper on Mutt Family Customs was accepted.
He was surprised to see Charlie open up his book and start reading when he knew he had letters in his bag to read. He’d signed up to a penpal exchange when he decided he wanted to get mail. Seems he wasn’t in the mood to write. He read for a while longer before his eyes started to blur with sleep, and he put it away. Seeing him move, Charlie looked up and put his book down too.
“You don’t have to go to bed too.” He said.
“I’m finished for today,” Charlie replied and crawled the few paces to the lantern to put it out before crawling back into his bedroll.
“Good night, Charlie,” Lucien said, as was his custom. As was Charlie’s custom, he did not reply. Sleep came easily when he was in a comfortable bedroll, on a smooth floor rather than the bumpy ground of the bush, a roof over his head, and a trap set up. There was nothing much to worry him and keep him awake, so his mind gently settled into a slow-rolling ocean wave. He didn’t expect peaceful sleep, and Charlie was well used to his nightmares. He was just about asleep when he heard it.
“Doc? Are you awake?” It was whispered and almost lost in the ambient creaks of the building and distant gunfire somewhere in the distance. He cracked one eye.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Do you miss your home?”
“My...Home?” He asked, brain fuzzy with sleep.
“Yeah. Your estate.”
“It wasn’t my estate.” He mumbled, “I just lived there.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Now and then I miss having a hot shower every day. Why?”
“I just wanted to know,” Charlie said, before falling quiet. Maybe he should have put a little more thought into that. Charlie wasn’t one for asking about the past, so if he was going to ask he at least deserved a thoughtful answer.
“Truth is, Charlie, the estate was never really my home. It was just where I lived. My home was with my wife and my daughter.” He said, trying to sum up everything he felt into a single sentence. It felt like a betrayal to reduce them both to so little but what else was he going to say? Language didn’t seem wide enough for the scope of those feelings. There was quiet across the room, the only sound he made was the rustle of his bedroll. Like he was trying to get comfortable. Lucien couldn’t help but wonder if his back was giving him trouble, which bled into confusion why Charlie wouldn’t just tell him that. “Do you miss your home?”
“No.” He replied, without even thinking about it. “I hate the Outcity.”
“It’s not a particularly nice place.” Lucien agreed, rolling over to try and make out Charlie’s shape now his eyes were adjusting to the darkness again. “But?”
“I miss my family.”
“You could write to them,” Lucien suggested like he had a hundred times before.
“Mail doesn’t go into the Outcity. Too dangerous. Anyway, they think I’m dead.”
“Maybe we should stop by there, to see them.” He said, trying to nudge Charlie in that direction.
“And show I’m a failure who isn’t even useful to bandits? Who has to be carried off the side of the road like a child? Who can’t read Sherlock Holmes? Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re not a failure. One accident does not make you a failure. My daughter, if she’s out there somewhere, I would have wanted her to write to me. Just to know she’s okay. Parents tend to want to know where their children are, to be honest, Charlie, I think it’s cruel you’d let your mother think you’re dead.”
The silence that followed was so long Lucien thought that perhaps Charlie had fallen asleep. But -
“I don’t know why she kept me. If she just married Bernie and left they would have let her back onto the Estate.”
Two and two clicked in Lucien’s mind. Usefulness. Everything came back to usefulness to Charlie. Including himself. That was why he didn’t want to talk about being hurt, why he didn’t understand art, and why he wouldn’t go home. He had to be useful and clearly, with Lucien, he felt like he was.
“I know why she kept you.” He said, trying to sound gentle. “Because she loves you.”
“What does love have to do with it?”
“Love is everything, Charlie. When you love someone, really love them, then what they can do for you doesn’t matter, and what you can do for them is the priority.” Another long break from Charlie with no reply, he was thinking about something, and Lucien could hear him shuffle around now and then.
“Next time you need to go to Melbourne, can we stop at the Outcity?”
“We can,” Lucien said, even though he was sad to see Charlie go. It was hard to find a decent traveling companion these days.
“Then we can go back to your home, too.”
“They wouldn’t let you in, why would you want us to go there?”
“I saw it in your letters. Your expulsion is over. There must be people there that love you.”
“You read my letters?”
“No!” Charlie said, straight away. Lucien saw him sit up straight-backed in the quiet of the room, his eyes just adjusted enough to catch the horror on his face at being caught, or even accused of going through someone else's mail. “I would never do that. You fell asleep reading it back in Adelaide. I only glanced at it when I was putting it away.”
“Well, you’re right. I would like to see my friend Cec, and Nell Clasby...She was a friend of my mother. But what about you?”
“You said there were some mutts nearby. I can stay with them.” It was true, Mutts tended to accept other Mutts, new mix or otherwise, into their folds almost on sight. He’d seen it happen all the time when he and Charlie showed up at various camps. Most of the time, Charlie had to vouch for him, and assure the justifiably nervous people that he was a good doctor and would help anyone that was sick. It was also usually a good trade-off because Mutts were generous payers. Leather, fresh food, blankets were usually the sort of thing they would take, happily, and they never took anything that they thought the camp might actually need or was not useful to them. Of course, one can’t live off batering if you want to be a doctor, so he would make actual money working for various settlements that didn’t have a doctor for a week or so at a time. He would stay until he got that urge again, that need to roam.
He always expected one of these days, Charlie would just stay. He’d meet a girl (or a boy, Lucien wasn’t judgmental like that) and want to try with them, make a family for himself. In fact, he used to think Charlie was only going to stay with him until he decided he’s repaid whatever debt he owed Lucien but whatever that debt was he’d paid it a long time ago. If there was one at all. To Lucien, there was no debt to begin with. He was a doctor. He helped people. That was his job.
“I suppose you could.” He said, thoughtfully, “But maybe we should talk about it tomorrow, hm?”
“Okay.” Charlie agreed, and the world fell back into the ambient sounds. The gunshots had stopped, but there was the sound of birds screaming out in a distant field where someone was growing black, mutated corn.
Lucien fell almost back to where he was before, his mind rolling in waves of almost sleep, gently remembering happier times. His daughter, her chubby little fists holding onto his waistcoat, his mother, a paintbrush in hand and a smear of yellow on her face, Charlie, after he did a days work on a fishing boat once, burnt tomato red but eagerly talking about his share of fish, Matthew as a young man, singing with him as they walked to nowhere in particular, his grey-blue eyes squinted in a smile.
“How did we get like this?”
“Get like what?” He asked, slightly annoyed by the constant questioning. Li had just come of age where she was starting to ask questions and sometimes he’d be annoyed by it when he was trying to sleep or trying to work but now he’d answer every question for the rest of his life to have her back. Funny how time works.
“You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“How did we get from people who make whole buildings to house their ugly drawings to...People like me.”
“There have always been people like you, Charlie. Art is not something everyone understands.”
“You know what I mean.” He said, frustration trickling into his voice. Lucien sighed, realizing he was not going to get off that easy. He rolled back over to look at Charlie’s shape in the darkness. His eyes are two white pearls in the darkness.
“Do you want to know the truth or would you like a comforting lie?”
“Little by little. Loss by loss. One small thing is taken away or destroyed at a time and nobody took any notice and when we did begin to notice, it was too late.”
“Oh,” Charlie said, his voice sounding very small in the large room. “That’s not what I expected.”
“I don’t think the people that came before us expected it either.” Lucien said, “But there’s nothing we can do about that now. Go to sleep, Charlie. If you start worrying about that now you’ll never stop.”
Then the room was quiet, and he was finally, finally able to fall asleep.
The following morning, before the left to head back to a nearby settlement they decided to browse the gift shop. The room was pretty cleared out with red notices declaring the intent to restock left on each shelf. Lucien took his time and picked out some postcards. For Alice, he selected a copy of the painting he saw with the black dahlia, for Matthew, a copy of Under the Arena. He decided to pick one up for Cec as well, settling on one with a large tree with people picnicking beneath.
The rest of the space had books, lots and lots of old, dusty books. Charlie had no interest in them, and instead took the time to browse the t-shirts with faded paintings on the front and the socks with repeating patterns.
After making his way thought a book about how women shaped Australian art he figured it was time to head out because Charlie was looking contemplatively out the window probably already figuring out their route to the settlement they left the day before.
“Ready to head out?” He asked, selecting a book about Frida Kahlo to take with him. Charlie nodded his head, but before he left, Lucien watched him slip a postcard with the Ballarat Eight into the inside pocket of his jumpsuit. Perhaps he’d come to understand art yet. But, for now, there was a pub ten kilometers away with a hot bowl of stew calling both their names.