As Scully and Charlie Vaughan passed under the trees in the town square, the afternoon seemed to switch on and off around them. It had rained while they were in the shops and the leaves above their heads had that dark, weighted gleam they got after rain, the sun a fitful flicker in the gloomy upper tangles of the branches. The stretch of footpath that ran beneath the trees was only lightly spattered where the rain had succeeded in dripping through the foliage; the rest of the footpath, exposed to the elements, was a blasted wash of concrete, scoured to a dark shine.
Scully, sixteen, was hefting a bag of ice on her shoulder. Charlie, Scully’s thirteen-year-old sister, was carrying two shopping bags containing a two-litre bottle of Coke and a big carton of milk, several packets of chocolate digestive biscuits, a bunch of unripe, hard green bananas, a slab of butter, cheese, a squirty thing of mayonnaise and a box of teabags.
There was a small fountain in one corner of the square. As they often did, separately and together, the Vaughan sisters paused to inspect the stone bowl of water. With a familiar, and by now almost gratifying, charge of disappointment, Scully immediately saw that the small dull discs littering the trembling floor of the fountain were almost all coppers. Worthless ones and twos, nothing you’d chance a wet elbow for.
Next to the fountain was an old, mutilated public payphone.
‘See that?’ Scully said.
‘What?’ Charlie said.
‘That,’ Scully said. There was a rectangular white card, a little smaller than a postcard, taped to the payphone’s battered housing.
‘What’s that, now?’ Charlie said, leaning in and screwing up her eyes. A sentence was printed in black type on the card.
if asha calls tell her go home, Charlie read. ‘Who’s Asha?’
Scully let the bag down onto the footpath. Her neck and jaw on her left side stung, and the collar of her T-shirt was damp and nubbled, like a teething baby had been chewing at it.
‘That note’s been there for the last week,’ she said. ‘I’ve been trying to work it out.’
‘What’s there to work out?’ Charlie asked, ‘If Asha calls, you tell her go home.’
‘It’s just that whoever made this note put it here because they reckon there’s a decent chance Asha will call this particular phone,’ Scully said.
‘OK,’ Charlie said.
‘But why would Asha be ringing this payphone?’ Scully asked. ‘She must be ringing to talk to someone. Someone specific, someone she has to go through the hassle of contacting on a public payphone.’
‘So the note is for that person,’ Charlie reasoned.
‘Or for me. You. Whoever happens to answer when Asha calls.’
‘And then we tell her: go home!’ Charlie said.
‘It’s been at me,’ Scully said, ‘how the person who wrote this knows enough about Asha to know there’s a decent chance she’s making calls to this payphone. But for some reason they can’t locate or contact Asha directly themselves, or else why go through the effort of putting up this note in the first place?’
Charlie blinked and thought about this. She pressed the heel of her palm against her temple and ran it up into her hairline. Her hair was short and dark and went up in skunky puffs. As her fingers swept over her hairs they sprang back up. Charlie’s eyes looked small and preoccupied. It was only then that Scully realised Charlie wasn’t wearing her glasses, that she must have left them back at the apartment.
‘Maybe she’s like a runaway, and it’s a note from a parent?’ Charlie suggested. ‘Who knows she’s around, but they don’t know where.’
‘But the way they put it,’ Scully said. ‘Go home. Not come home. Like it’s an order. And an angry one.’
‘Parents give orders.’
‘But if you wanted someone who ran away to come back . . .’
‘That’ll be a bag of water you’re carrying if we don’t get going soon,’ Charlie said after a while.
Scully hauled the bag of ice back up onto her shoulder and adjusted her grip to make sure it was secure. They resumed their course and left the square. As they made their way along the streets of the town, Scully had to regularly transfer the bag of ice from one shoulder to the other. Soon both of her shoulders were cold and wet and buzzing with numbness, like a punched lip.
They arrived at the woods on the edge of town and crossed a small ditch onto a path of pale brown dirt. The path climbed a hill into the woods. The trees in this part of the woods were almost all conifers, their needles glimmering with rain and their tops pointing straight up.
‘You ever even used a payphone?’ Charlie asked as they walked through the trees.
Charlie’s question made Scully remember a scene from a movie; a car in an American city at night, screeching to a stop in a dark side street. A man hurriedly exited the car and dashed into a telephone box. The telephone box was illuminated with a scathing brightness, like a medical booth in which large, living things were sterilised. The man had thick, anguished eyebrows. Scully remembered a close-up of his hairy-knuckled hand as he nervously slid a coin into the slot, each hair on his knuckle dark and distinct, like a coil of black thread sewn into his skin. She remembered the noise the coin made as it descended through the belly of the phone; a hollow ratatat like a pebble rolling along a corrugated roof before dropping off the edge into nothing.
The sisters entered a clearing, and soon were coming down the other side of the hill, towards the parking lot at the rear of the block of apartments where they lived.
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