Peter Stresleki was lining up the last target on the level when his arm was grabbed.
“It’s my turn! You’ve been on long enough.”
Peter glared at the freckled face of his younger brother. “Look what you’ve made me do. I’m going to have to start again!”
Ryan tried to snatch the controller, but Peter held it out on the other side of his body, using his longer arms to his advantage.
“I want a go. You said I could have a go when you finished, and you’ve finished. It’s my turn.” Ryan darted around to the other side of Peter to try again.
Peter gave Ryan a wicked grin as he rose to his feet so he could keep the controller out of his brother’s reach. “Maybe I should make you go to bed, instead. I’ll just tell Mum and Dad you played up and I had to send you to your room.”
“I don’t know why they left you in charge. I’m twelve. I don’t need a babysitter.”
“If you’d wanted to go with them to see Gran, then I wouldn’t need to babysit you. It’s your own fault.”
Ryan stuck out his tongue. “You didn’t want to go, either.”
Peter gave a shudder. “Visiting the nursing home? You’ve got to be joking. It’s bloody freezing outside and it’s not going to be much warmer in that place.” Melbourne was going through a cold spell — not unusual for late August — but Peter was looking forward to the start of Spring.
“Give me the controller.”
“GIVE IT TO ME!”
Peter’s smile was cruel. “No.”
Ryan scowled for a moment. “Okay, in that case I’m going to tell Mum you were playing games instead of looking after Sarah.”
Peter glanced in the corner where his baby sister was playing. He felt guilty because his parents had left her in his care. They had told him that as a sixteen-year-old, he was responsible enough to look after her and make sure she was put to bed at her regular time — which had been thirty minutes earlier.
Peter felt the controller being snatched from his hand.
“Give me that!”
“It’s my turn. You’re supposed to be looking after Sarah, remember?”
“Bottle?” Sarah asked, as she clambered to her feet.
“Later, Sarah,” Peter said. He advanced menacingly towards Ryan. “Now, give that back.”
Ryan darted around the left side of the lounge suite. “You’ll have to catch me if you want it.”
Peter vaulted the lounge suite, but Ryan was already moving out of his way. Peter slid around the corner as his socks had trouble finding traction on the polished floorboards. Ryan’s bare feet allowed him to dodge between the chairs and around the coffee table with more ease.
“When I get you…” Peter said after he just failed to grab Ryan’s shirt.
Ryan laughed as he ducked back the other way.
Peter turned, but started to lose his balance as his socks slid again.
Unable to stop himself, Peter slammed into Sarah as the two-year-old stepped forward. Her head made a loud clunk as it hit the corner of the coffee table.
Peter forgot about his brother as he saw his sister slump to the ground. The sight of a growing pool of red spurred him into action.
“Are you okay, Sarah?” he asked as he knelt and gently lifted her head. His hand became sticky with her blood. His heart leapt into his throat as he took in her closed eyes. “Sarah?”
“You’re in for it now,” Ryan taunted.
Peter looked up. He knew toddlers had a soft spot on their skull where they could be killed if they were hit. He didn’t know where that spot was, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“Call an ambulance!”
“Call a fucking ambulance. Don’t just stand there — MOVE!”
* * *
Peter snuck out of his room. He could hear his dad’s voice, and he wanted to go to apologise, again, for hurting Sarah. He had called his parents as soon as his brother reported that an ambulance was on the way. The initial reaction had been concern for Sarah, but Peter had been verbally blasted when his parents arrived home. Peter suspected it was only the presence of the two paramedics that stopped his dad from doing anything more. It was the first time he had ever been frightened of his father.
Peter stopped at the end of the corridor. He could see his dad was talking on the phone while holding Sarah’s favourite blanket in his right hand.
“Yeah, I know. It’s a shock and Colleen’s going to pieces. She’s going to be a wreck when she comes home from the hospital. It was just so sudden! She was alive and well when we left her, and now she’s dead. I don’t think it’s sunk in for me. I mean, I know it in my mind, but I’m just numb.” Scott Stresleki wiped his wrist across his eyes.
Peter edged back, his mouth open wide.
“Thanks, Rod. I’ll let you know when we get the funeral organised, but I’ve got to go back to the hospital. I just wanted to let you know, that’s all.”
Peter slipped back to his room and carefully closed the door. He started to turn on the light next to his bed, but stopped. He reached under the bed and found his old sports bag by touch. He knew he couldn’t stay — even if his parents forgave him, he didn’t think he would be able to forgive himself. There were too many things in the house that would remind him of his missing sister.
He had just started to pack some clothes when he heard footsteps coming down the hall. He dove into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. Closing his eyes, he feigned sleep and hoped his dad wouldn’t come in, or if he did, he wouldn’t come around the other side of the bed and see the bag.
Peter heard the door open and felt the light spill into the room. He cracked open an eyelid and saw a silhouette standing in the entrance. It stood there for almost a minute before the door was closed. Peter gave a sigh of relief. He waited a couple of minutes before he got up and resumed his task. The sound of the car engine disappearing down the driveway was the signal to turn on the light and speed up.
When he was finished, he took a last look around the room. He considered leaving a note, but he decided it was a waste of time and effort. They would know why he’d run away. A sixteen-year-old could be charged with manslaughter and he didn’t want to go to prison.
As a final goodbye, he carefully made up his bed. It would be one less thing for his mum to do.
Carrying his shoes, he stole down the hallway, pausing only at his brother’s door. “Bye, Ryan,” he whispered.
He averted his gaze as he slipped past his sister’s room. He didn’t think he would be able to avoid breaking down if he looked.
* * *
The officious Centrelink lady stared over the top of her glasses. “Your name?”
“Peter Stresleki.” Peter had already discarded the idea of using a false name. If he were asked for any proof, the only forms of identification he had would have shown up the lie immediately.
Peter answered as he’d been advised. “No fixed abode.”
That made the public servant pause and stare at him in surprise. She frowned. “You’re awfully young. Is it you don’t want to give me an address, or you don’t have one?”
“Don’t have one.” Peter didn’t think listing Fawkner Park would be a smart move. John, the homeless guy who’d suggested he try to apply for government welfare, had told Peter about a number of potential places where he could be a squatter, but he hadn’t had a chance to check any of them out.
The lady absentmindedly pushed back the strand of black hair that had escaped from her hairclip as she peered at the screen. She typed a few things while Peter waited nervously. She glanced up.
“Did you used to live in Box Hill?”
Peter stiffened. “No! No, never!” He realised that his denial was too fervent, but it was too late.
“Wait one minute. I need to get the supervisor to approve this.”
She left her chair and headed out the back. The glass in front of Peter prevented him from reaching forward to twist the computer screen to see what was written there. The question about Box Hill had unnerved him. He wondered if the police had put out an alert.
He peered around and saw the young lady talking to an elderly guy in a suit. The man glanced over in Peter’s direction, nodded his head, and then picked up the phone. Peter didn’t take any chances; he grabbed his stuff and ran.
He was going to have to find another way to get some money. The cash he’d left home with was almost gone and he didn’t have a lot of things he could sell.
* * *
Peter looked at the phone and then looked around to see if anyone was nearby. There were a few women pushing prams through the park, and a jogger running along a track, but he had a few minutes alone.
He almost abandoned the idea, but memories of his brother pushed him on. He picked up the handset and slipped a couple of coins into the slot. He dialed the number.
While he waited for someone to answer, he let the October sun warm his body. It had been almost two months since he’d left home, and he missed everyone. He wished there were someway he could return, but he felt that it was better for all if he stayed away. Going home, only to be arrested and taken away, wasn’t going to help anyone.
Peter’s lips twisted into a smile. He was lucky. He’d been prepared to use a fake voice, but he didn’t know if it would’ve worked.
“Happy birthday, Ryan.”
“Who is… Peter? Is that you, Peter?”
Peter hung up, momentarily blinded by tears. He slipped away. It was time to head off to his clean-up job. It was only for another week and then he would be back to job hunting.
* * *
“Pete, man, would you like a hit for Christmas? This one’s free,” Stu said, holding out a small pill.
Peter glanced up and tried to hide his revulsion. “No thanks, Stu. I’ve got to get to work.”
“Your loss, man.”
Peter stuffed the sandwich he’d just made into his bag and escaped. The abandoned shop where he was squatting was better than sleeping in the park, but only barely. At least it was a place to keep the handful of belongings that he couldn’t take to work with him.
He was sharing the squat with three other guys and a girl, though the number of occupants kept fluctuating. He knew Stu pushed drugs to maintain his heroin addiction, and Peter was always careful around the twenty-year-old — his mood was volatile and Peter never knew what to expect. Helen was a hooker, but was only working rarely as she was too pregnant to attract much interest. Alan, her boyfriend, was tight-lipped about how he supplemented their welfare payments. The couple had been helpful when Peter had first shown up, giving him lots of advice and explaining how things were done, but as Helen’s pregnancy progressed, their focus concentrated on each other and preparing for the baby.
Peter glanced at the area where Darren normally slept and was glad it was empty. The muscular biker made him uncomfortable, though he couldn’t say why. It was more a feeling that Darren could smash him into a pulp whenever he chose, and it was only going to be a matter of time.
It took Peter fifty minutes to walk to the shop where he worked. There was a bus that could’ve gotten him there quickly and in comfort, but Peter had learnt his lesson after only a week on the streets. He needed to save every cent he could, especially as he couldn’t claim government welfare.
“Pete! I’m so glad to see you. Things are going to be hectic. It’s only 9am and already we’re run off our feet.” The storeowner looked frazzled as his gaze darted around the store.
“The Christmas Eve rush, Mr. Davidson. Isn’t it always like this?” Peter asked.
“Of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m glad you’re able to help out. I know it’s short notice, but can you work through? We close at four.”
“Sure!” Peter was glad to get the extra money. He had no job security, as he wasn’t officially on the books. He and his boss had agreed he’d be paid in cash, but he only had work until Christmas.
“Thanks, Pete. I’ll make sure I give you a bonus.”
“Thanks, Mr. Davidson!” Peter was pleased. He had been wondering if he could buy himself a Christmas present, and it looked like he might. He’d already picked out what he wanted — new underwear. He hadn’t worn any for two months. When his last pair had self-destructed, he’d reluctantly decided they were a luxury he couldn’t afford. Clothes that would allow him to find work were more important, along with food. There was no refrigerator at the squat, so he had to buy food daily and was limited to bread, fruit and vegetables. He had no way to cook meat, which was too expensive, anyway, but he missed it.
Peter settled into his job of moving boxes and helping customers. Anything difficult he handed over to the more experienced staff, but he took the pressure off them by handling all the easy queries. There was a constant stream of people in and out of the shop, as they did their last minute Christmas shopping.
Peter was grinning as he walked home. He had thought about splashing out and catching the bus back, as it had been a long day and he was tired, but common sense prevailed. A bus trip was a momentary pleasure and there were better things he could spend his money on.
He turned the corner into the street where he was living and was surprised to see Helen leaning against the telephone pole. She was dressed in casual clothes, rather than her working outfit.
“G’day, Helen. Merry Christmas!” Peter was happy and didn’t mind sharing it.
“Hi, Pete. I’m glad I caught you. Alan’s at the other end of the street, just in case you came that way.”
Helen’s concern penetrated Peter’s mood. He had a sinking feeling that was confirmed when he peered past her and saw a police car parked further down the street.
“What is it?”
“The cops picked up Stu and were asking questions about you. We told them nothing, but they were pretty insistent.”
“Thanks, Helen. It looks like it’s time to find somewhere else to hole up.” Peter leant over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Good luck with the baby, too.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Pete. I just wish I didn’t have to give you such lousy news, especially today of all days.”
Peter shrugged. He knew it wasn’t her fault, and she and Alan had been under no obligation to warn him. “Shit happens. Time to go. Merry Christmas.”
He turned and headed back the way he’d come while mentally reviewing his options. The odds of finding a squat that late were slim, so his best bet was to find a park and settle down for the night.
An hour later he was settled by a bush in a corner of Fawkner Park, reviewing what he had with him, and what he’d lost. He had had two changes of clothes at the squat which he regretted losing, but he told himself that they, and the other odds-and-ends he had left behind, were all replaceable. A Christmas present to himself was out of the question — he needed that money for replacement clothes. Getting a cash-only job was hard enough without looking like a tramp. There were too many jobs he couldn’t do because they would have required him to register with the Australian Tax Office, and he didn’t want to take the risk of there being an alert against his name.
Peter lay on the ground under the bush, hands behind his head as he stared up towards the sky. It was going to be warm night, for which he was thankful. He hadn’t been prepared to spend Christmas Eve in the open.
He lay there for hours, thinking, drifting, and fantasising of a better life. He was aware that he’d been sobbing at one point, but he didn’t care. He didn’t know what to do. The only thing he was sure of was that he would have to keep going. Somewhere, somehow, he was sure things would get better.
“Hey, that’s my spot!”
Peter opened his eyes and was startled to see a dirty, tangled, long grey, almost white beard inches from his face. He raised his gaze and found a pair of large brown eyes peering at him suspiciously.
Peter rolled over and scrambled to his feet. He grabbed his bag. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He didn’t feel like arguing that he was there first. The tramp looked older than Peter’s dad, and he thought the old man could probably do with the partial shelter more than he could.
“Wait up. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Peter paused and looked back. Somehow, the old man was projecting an expression of concern. Peter was still trying to work out if he wanted to say anything when the old man spoke again.
“Why don’t you take that spot? All I ask for in return is to know why someone your age isn’t at home on this night, of all nights.”
Peter settled down, hugging his bag to his chest like a security blanket. “It’s a long story.”
“I like long stories. They help to pass the night. I’m not sleeping as much as I used to when I was younger. I’m Nick, by the way.”
Peter accepted the grimy hand that was offered. “I’m Peter.”
“Glad to meet you, Peter.” Nick rummaged in the sack he had been carrying and pulled out a small metal flask. “If you’re here, you’re old enough to drink. Here, have a nip of whisky.”
Peter stared warily at the flask. He’d heard stories of kids on the street being drugged. Nick appeared to sense his concern and took a swig first. “Merry Christmas, Peter,” he said as he handed the flask over.
Peter swallowed a mouthful and then shivered at the roughness of the liquid. “Thanks. Merry Christmas, Nick.” Peter’s tone was anything but merry. He gave the whisky back to Nick.
“Care to tell me about it?”
Peter looked down at the ground. “It all started back in August when I was supposed to be babysitting my little sister…”
Nick listened while Peter, for the first time since he’s left home, emptied his heart. Not only did he tell the story of what had happened, but he also spoke of how much he missed his family and how he wished there was some way that he could go home.
It was late by the time Peter finished and he was so emotionally exhausted that he was barely conscious of Nick putting an old tattered cloak over him as he lay under the bush. Peter fell asleep almost instantly.
The next morning Peter awoke to find Nick chewing on part of a loaf.
“Morning, Peter. I managed to scrounge up some breakfast. I hope you don’t mind, but I started without you.” He handed over the other half of the bread.
“Thanks.” Peter started eating, gazing thoughtfully at his benefactor.
“I’ve also organised lunch, if you want it.”
Nick chuckled. “The Salvo’s have a lunch each Christmas for the homeless. We’ll have to get there early to make sure we get a seat, but it’s a chance for a decent meal.” He paused and looked up and down at Peter’s thin frame. “You could do with some proper food for a change, I think.”
“Why are you doing this for me?” Peter asked, then regretted it as soon as he said it. “Sorry, I’m grateful, but why are you helping me?”
Nick looked away. “Let’s just say that I have my reasons.”
Peter took the hint.
It was just before midday when Nick led Peter into a large marquee that had been set up by the Salvation Army near the Albert Park Lake. Ashamed of being there for a free handout, Peter kept his head down as he shuffled along. He took a plate, knife and fork, and joined the line. Nick was already several places in front of him.
Progress was slow, as each person in front of him moved along accepting small servings of food from the volunteers on the other side of the trestle table.
He muttered a response when asked by the first two people and accepted a couple of roast potatoes and a piece of roast pumpkin. He didn’t raise his head, too embarrassed to look them in the eye. He shuffled on to where the peas were being dished up.
Peter glanced up to see a familiar freckled face.
“Peter, it is you!” Ryan turned his head to yell. “MUM, DAD, IT’S PETER. HE’S HERE!”
Peter staggered back a step in surprise. Recovering, he dropped his plate, spun around and started to weave his way through the crowd to the door. He had to get out of there as quickly as he could.
He was passing Nick when the old man stuck out a foot. Peter tripped and fell onto his face.
“You can’t run forever, Peter,” Nick muttered before slipping back into the crowd.
Before Peter could rise, a weight landed on his back.
“Don’t go, Peter. Please, don’t go. I won’t let you go.”
Peter tried to force his brother off his back, but he wasn’t as strong as he used to be. By the time he’d rolled over and dislodged Ryan, his father was there to restrain him.
“Peter, Peter, please don’t run again. We love you and we want you home. I know I yelled at you, but I still love you. I didn’t want you to go.”
Peter gave up and started to sob. “After what I did? How could you want me around?”
“What you did? What do you mean?” Scott Stresleki asked.
“I killed her! I murdered Sarah!”
“What are you talking about? Sarah’s fine. Look!” Peter was turned around so he could see his mother cradling his little sister. Sarah had her face buried in her mother’s shoulder.
Colleen Stresleki tried to coax the shy little girl. “Sarah, don’t you want to say hello to Peter?”
The little girl turned her head slowly to look at Peter, and then quickly turned back. She flung her arms around her mother’s neck again.
“I’m sorry, Peter. I think she’s forgotten you.” Peter’s mum gave an apologetic shrug of the shoulders while smiling at her eldest son. Tears were running unchecked down her face.
“But Dad, I heard you talking to Uncle Rod about it! How she’d died!”
Ryan put a hand on Peter’s shoulder to attract his attention. “Gran died that night, Peter. Not Sarah.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Peter’s dad gave him another squeeze. “We’ve got you back, that’s all that’s important. Are you ready to come home now?”
Peter felt numb as the weight of guilt he’d been carrying for four months evaporated. He nodded, unable to speak. His dad released him and then helped Peter to his feet.
“How did you find me?” Peter asked, struggling to believe what was happening.
“We didn’t really expect to see you. We knew you were in the area, after the police told us they found some of your things in a squat nearby. They were investigating a drug dealer at the time. They waited to see if you’d return, but you didn’t. No, all of this was Ryan’s idea. He wanted to do something and picked helping out with the Salvo’s Christmas lunch. The plan was to head back afterwards to open all the presents.”
“We’ve got presents for you, too,” Ryan said, grinning.
“You have? But what if I hadn’t shown up?”
Ryan shrugged. “We were going to donate them to charity. Someone needy was going to get them — we were just hoping it would be you.”
Peter’s shoulders dropped as he stared at the floor. “I’ve got nothing for you.”
Ryan stepped forward and pulled Peter into a bear hug.
“I’ve got the only thing I wanted for Christmas. I’ve got my big brother back.”
Copyright Notice — Copyright © December 2006 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.