Prose Header

Speech Bub

by Chris Castle

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

It was a few paces from the foyer. Nowhere near me and Bub’s planned route. A shelf of one-off specials, featuring Bub’s favourite character and my favourite writer. It was the dream combination we’d written up a hundred times down by the creek. I stood there for a full minute not believing my eyes. The crowds began to filter over to the big draw.

It was my time to slip away. I stood still. I turned, I reached forward and I took it. I turned round and just put my coat over it. I began to walk and there was a part of me that thought I was going to get away with it, even as I saw a steward move towards me. I walked steadily to the door, hell, straight to the security guard and I closed my eyes... and I heard another yell.

I looked over and saw Bub kick over a stand, another, and then he ran to the door. The security guard ran past me and onto Bub, who was quick and small and left the doorway open for me. I broke into a sprint and amongst the confusion, me and Bub bumped into each other by the door and stared at each other like a pair of strangers.

Then we both broke out and ran into the street, the sun and away from the town, onto our bikes. We bombed away as the guards came into the street, chasing us, into a bus turning the corner, a bus of late comers who swarmed over them. And we cycled away, into our good fortune and out into the open space.

The next day was perfect. We sat on the creek, laying them all out, holding them up to the sun, me hollering, Bub writing furiously. Looking back at it, I couldn’t say we read more than seven or eight that day. But instead we just celebrated what we had done, what we held in our hands, our treasure.

And after the weight and the heat of the morning, of the night before, we couldn’t stop talking, writing, grinning, until long after dark. We cycled under the stars, uneven and wayward from the extra weight and we finally waved goodbye like we’d just met and knew the future was in our hands.

The next day our local police officer, Deputy Smith, arrived at my house. He spoke to my aunt, and then knocked on my bedroom door. The comics were laid under my bed. I didn’t say a word. I just looked at him, watched his eyes skip, his lips move. I knew I was in trouble, but all I could think was; Bub, Bub, Bub.

I didn’t see him for a week. All our places, nothing. I expected a day, maybe two or three, but not this long. I asked my aunt if she’d heard from his parents but she just shook her head sadly and went about the housework.

I received a letter, Bub’s letters strange on an envelope, my address looking alien. I opened it and all it said was a time and place. And something else; to bring a sketch pad and pencil. I folded it and put it in my pocket. I felt a stab against my finger and pulled out the other note; his good luck message from the convention day. But the good luck seemed small, the letters weak and the exclamation marks looked more like a warning than anything else.

I arrived at the creek early, waited until I saw Bub pull up on his bike. He was riding slowly and he climbed off unsteadily. He wore a woolly cap pulled down as low as it could be. He walked over to me but I could already see the split lip, the black eye. He stood opposite me and I barely recognised him. Not the cuts and bruises but his eyes. He looked older, older than me, older than anyone I’d met.

I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I tried to think of the last time I’d cried before that afternoon. I walked out into the space between us and I hugged him and I held him until I realised he was flinching. At first I thought it was me and what I was doing. But as I pulled away he saw how confused I looked and shook his head. Then he pulled up his t-shirt and showed me the sea of welts and bruises and cuts.

“Jesus, Bub!” I blurted out, the tears making my voice muddled, uneven. “You didn’t have to get involved. If you’d just left me to it.” My voice rose, angry. “I was the one who broke the plan. You should have left me. Then...” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t. Snot bubbled in my nose and my eyes burned. I looked down, I looked away. I realised then, I must have looked just like Bub: Defeated.

I felt him put his arm on my shoulder. He held his other hand out and I realised he wanted the sketch book and pen. But he put it down and pulled out his familiar pad and pencil. I was too confused to think, about any of it, too upset. I just shook my head, trying to think of something to say.

“Thanks for the letter. You shouldn’t have spent your money on a stamp.” Was all I could say. And in a way it was true. It was the first time I’d ever got a letter addressed to me. It made me feel like... I was my own person or something. I looked up to Bub. He held up his pad, something written on it.

“You stole it? After all this, you stole it? Jesus, Bub!” I said. I was so shocked I started laughing out loud.

He flipped the pad. Instead of a speech bubble, it was a quote; “How else do you think I got this shiner?”

“Jesus, Bub. I’m going to have to start calling you Punch-line now, huh?” I said and he grinned awkwardly, his lip curling up and staying high and bloated.

I reached into my rucksack and pulled out the plastic rag. I handed him the comic. The one-shot that was still under my coat when the policeman arrived, away from my stash. Because it wasn’t mine. It was Bub’s. Even beneath all the scars and damage and mess, his face lit up when he saw it and without any more questions, we sat on the bank and he read it there and then, cover to cover.

I watched him then, carefully turning the page by the tip, delicate as my Mum when she used to press flower petals between the pages of her yellow cookery book. I watched his eyes flicker, his brow rise and fall for another few pages, at the end of the chapter. I saw him straighten up with the last chapter. And slowly, carefully he closed the book, after reading the inside dust jacket.

He looked up and just for a second he looked young again. His eyes were light and wide and the caked blood slipped away and there’s only him, Mark Edgeworthy, as I remembered him. Bub. He wrote something down carefully.

“It was worth it, Bub?” I smiled, but it slipped away quickly. “How can all that be worth it, Bub? Look what they did to you.” I waited until he wrote back, almost as I started to speak. I read out loud what he wrote.

“It takes me away, Clem,” I said, jolting at saying my own name out loud. I’d met so few people; I didn’t ever remember having to say my own name out loud.

Bub moved awkwardly, stiffly and gathered up the sketch book and pen. He handed them to me. I looked up, but didn’t know what to say. Bub wrote for a long time, turning a page, another. When he was done, he handed the notebook for me to read.

I read it and felt my stomach turn, my head grow light. At the end I looked up, at Bub, covered in blood and bruises and pain, Bub my best friend, before or since, and I nodded and opened up the pad, unscrewed the pen.

I don’t know how long we sat on the creek. It was the first time I’d sketched since the day my Mum died. I began awkwardly; feeling the weight of the pen, getting it stuck it in the paper, my fingers, slipping to the grass. But Bub guided me, sat at my shoulder, by my side, nudged me when he thought a sketch should be a drawing, a drawing a portrait. No more doodling on this pad.

I drew and I drew, stopped at the end of each page and let Bub fill in the speech bubbles. And even though it was my mother’s story, he guided me, steered me to where I needed to go. And when her story finished, Bub wrote the epilogue, finding the junkie’s headstone, me with a spray can in my hand, my message clear. The drawing the simplest, best thumbnail sketch I’d ever done.

That night I looked at the sketchbook for a long time. I fell asleep holding it and that night I had dreams that came straight from the paper. I woke, startled and then returned to sleep. But they didn’t break. Instead I dreamt more and more, the entire book, in sequence.

And when I climbed out of bed at dawn I felt as if the book, which had fallen to the floor, was inside of me now. The sketches felt like memories in my head and I staggered to the washbasin, feeling both heavy and light at the feelings I was holding inside of me. I cycled to the creek to tell Bub all I’d felt from the night before but he didn’t show.

The deputy visited in the meantime. He told me the man who killed my mother had died in prison. He didn’t pass on any of the details. He left and I sat on my bed, stunned, knowing exactly how he had died. Exactly how Bub had intended for him to die.

I walked in a daze to the kitchen and reached under the sink. I looked at the can of spray paint that had no reason to be there and turned it in my hand. It was the perfect blue colour that we had visualised for the tombstone sketch on the final page. I got on my bike and headed for the cemetery

I headed back to the creek each day until he cycled on up over the hill, three days later. It was almost a replay, him unsteady, slowly, the pulled-down hat and the long-sleeved shirt. I looked at him. Where the old scars had healed, new ones grew over the top, like a tracing a little off-centre.

“Bub, we’ve got to do something about this.” I said. “I’ll call the cops again, the school.” I’d rung the police before, but nothing came of it. I talked to my aunt, but she shushed it away. I kept talking as Bub took out his paper and pencil, but I knocked it out of his hand. I felt the sting on my fingertips where I’d clipped his hand.

For a moment I wondered if it was going to bruise and I felt sick. We stood there, looking to each other, down at the pad. I bent down and picked it up, gave it back to him. He smiled, nodded, but put it back in his pocket, waiting for me.

“The sketch book, Bub. I took it and dreamt it all. And now its feels like it’s inside of me. I mean I know what happened and what you wrote but even the fiction felt real, too. And now it’s come true! The junkie died, just like you told me. What you told me, I...” I looked up but he was just smiling. But it was a different smile. Again it made him look older, like he understood something no one else did.

He didn’t reach for his pad. Instead he walked over to his bike, reached into a plastic bag. He walked back and handed me another sketch book, a pen. I didn’t want to take it. But Bub pushed it into my hands, until I was holding it without realising it.

He sat next to me, just behind my shoulder and I waited, even though I knew what he wanted. I opened my mouth and my voice, dry and quiet, said the words, even though I didn’t want to hear them.

“Do you want me to draw you, Bub?” I asked and I felt his hand reach over my shoulder, take the corner of the pad by the tip and carefully lift it to the first blank page.

I don’t know how long we sat there for, or even all of what we wrote. I just remember feeling it. Bub guiding my hand, his words triggering me, the pen in my fingers. The book was thicker than the last, the drawings bigger, more elaborate. A two-page spread when we burst from the store, a fold-out for the creek where we sat.

And it went on, each of us remembering different details that made up our life together. The pages filled and it grew dark. I remember climbing on my bike, almost asleep at the saddle and looking over to Bub, who looked alive and bright, as if he’d just woken up. We cycled back to town and when it came to break away, he simply waved and then peeled away, too quickly for me to say anything. He disappeared, the lights on his bike shining and then turning down the long dark and hungry street.

I slept with the book on my chest, though I can’t remember when I was awake and when I slept. I was lying still, all of what we’d done together rolling over me, neither starting nor stopping. I climbed out of the bed not knowing what the time was, just pulling on my clothes to get ready to cycle to the creek, though I knew Bub would not be there, would never be there again.

I waited for a day, then two, three more. After a week, my aunt told me Bub and his family had moved away. I sat and listened though it didn’t matter to me. They had moved away. He had got hurt so badly he’d run away. He was in a home. He was dead.

All I knew was we had something that last day on the creek, something inside him that made me draw him out of where he was and into someplace else, some place he wanted to be. Someplace he could be happy. Somewhere he’d escaped to. What do I believe? The facts, the truth, or what I know inside of me? I never found Bub again. He disappeared that final day by the creek, pulling into the night, covered in blood and bruises and smiling to me.

Where is he? To me he’s everywhere; in the sketchbook I keep with me, my memories, in my heart. And now I’ve finished his story, he is in my words. And now the story is finished and his notebook, the one I hold in my hands now, all metal spirals and perforated sides, is full, I finally close it shut; now it is all at an end.

Copyright © 2011 by Chris Castle

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