Atlas Broken Free Chapter Read
Coming home was different to going to work.
You couldn't get fired for coming home two minutes past the expected hour, for
starters, so the pressure was not there. Still, traffic, the Great Invariant,
ensured that the trip back was just as mundane, tedious and predictably
unpredictable as the trip to work.
Henry's car puttered through the city
streets, waited in line at lights to reach the inner suburbs, wiggled between
lanes in a vain bid to get past a bus or tram or slow moving trucks and crawled
up the main roads to finally reach his quiet suburb.
On hot days such as this one, Henry was
always concerned that the added pressure on the car would cause the engine to
give out, that the radiator would blow its top or that the oil would come
gushing out across the road at the most inconvenient location. He had roadside
assist, but there was still the fear of being stuck on the side of a stinking
hot road, waiting for hours for the familiar orange lights to show themselves.
It had been making a rumbling, rattling
noise from somewhere deep within, and the other day he found a few tell-tale
spots of black oil that had bled from the lower bowels of the engine.
Loretta had demanded he get it serviced,
and he would have done it, if he had half a day and a wad of cash to spare. The
coming merger was important.
His car limped past the rows of houses,
each doing its best to look like the next. From suburb to suburb it played out
like a silent motion picture of style, a gradual change from weatherboard to
brick, from iron roofing to faded tiles, from green grass to yellow, as he
transitioned from civilisation to the Land of the Vertical Blinds.
In Gladstone Park the lawns were patchy.
Hedges were uneven. Letterboxes, the sentinel of the suburban abode, were
rusted and broken. It was not because the owners were lazy or poor, or that
they shunned displays of opulence.
It was simply the way the suburb was and no
amount of effort could change it. Anything new would fade and crumble as the
Sun fired its destructive ultra-violet rays. Garden ornaments stood no chance.
Patio furniture would develop holes, and borers and ear-wigs would make their
homes in the nooks. Swings and slides changed from brilliant artificial reds
and blues to faded pinks and cyans.
The Sun had rolled its way across the sky,
scorching the land below, and now that it was receding to the horizon once
more, the birds came out from their shelters.
Wind-chimes mournfully called out from
backyards across the suburb, joining the chorus of bored dogs and squabbling
Wattle-birds clambered about in the
banksias, playfully tumbling upside-down in their bid to catch a bug or two.
Sparrows balanced themselves on the telephone wires, chatting to themselves
until they got chased away by mynas.
A starling poked its head out from
underneath the eave as Henry's car rumbled into the driveway. It fluttered away
to the fence and watched him with a suspicious eye.
“Hey, bird. Nice to see you, too,” Henry
muttered, waving a hand at it and stretching his back, “You've got it made you
know. No traffic for you.”
The bird merely hopped about on the fence,
doing its best to keep him in view.
“Let me give you a word of advice. If you
ever decide to become a sentient species, don't. It's not worth it. It's just
not bloody worth it. You're better off eating seeds and flying about and
rooting and having fun,” he said.
He slammed the car door and trudged up the
stairs. The bird flew off at the movement, but it came back a short while after
and resumed its vigil.
Loretta greeted him at the door.
“So you've finally made it home.”
“Yeah. Got here as fast as I could. You
should've seen it. Some idiot double parked in Westgarth. Where are the cops
when you need them, eh?”
“Made a choke point. Caused the whole two
lanes to back up past Smith Street. I mean, what kind of idiot does that?”
“Did you get the car booked in?”
“Haven't you heard that rattle? It's
getting worse!” she said.
“Yeah, I heard the rattle.”
“You have to get it fixed, Henry.”
“It'll just get worse. It won't get better.
You can't let those things go!”
“I don't intend to. I've just been a bit
busy at work.”
“You said that last week. Can you get the
stupid thing in this weekend?” she asked, “I don't want it conking out when
taking Tim to soccer.”
“Is he still playing soccer? I thought he
“Have you been living under a rock? He's
your son, Henry. Take an interest in what he's doing!”
“I would if he'd say more than two words to
“Well maybe if you made more of an effort
he would!” she said, and that was the end of that matter, “I don't suppose you
happened to get the milk and bread I asked you, hmm?”
Henry's stomach sank a little. The sodding
milk and bread. There was still a quarter of a litre left in the fridge, and
there were a few English muffins in the pack. More than enough for breakfast
the next day. What was the hassle?
“No. No I didn't. Look, can I at least put
my stuff down?”
“I specifically asked you to get milk and
“Well, I'm sorry, alright, I was a little
preoccupied what with the coming merger. I've got to be ready with a
counter-offer if we get rejected.”
“Again with the merger! Geez, haven't you
got that sorted yet?”
Henry simmered, “No. No, I haven't. It's
still in the balance.”
“How much in the balance?”
“A slight tip could send it either way.”
“But doesn't your commission depend on it
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I hadn't thought of
that,” he grumbled, “All this time I thought I'd get my commission without it
but now it's all so clear to me.”
“No need to get snarky.”
“I'm not getting snarky. Look, it's touch
and go. We make an offer, Gibson makes an offer to rival it. They can't go much
lower, I'm sure of it, but neither can we,” he explained, “It's a matter of who
“Well maybe if you spent less time screwing
around in that garage and more time working on the case you'd have nailed it by
Henry held his hands up, “What? It's not a
matter of hours. It's now entirely up to the customer.”
Loretta dismissed him with her hand. That
was the sign that the conversation was over. He could pursue it, of course, but
it would end only one way, with Loretta belittling him into feeling like dirt.
He would then say something that he would regret, she'd say something back.
They wouldn't speak to each other for a few days, then, little by little, the
conversation would creep back from the edges of civility.
The tone would settle, the icy air would
thaw and familiarity would reveal its ugly face once more.
Keeping silent was just a way to shorten
the whole cycle. It was just efficiency and, with the month he had had, he
decided he didn't need the strain.
“I'll go and get some damn milk and bread,”
he sighed as he put his jacket back on.
“There's no point now. You're already home.
The point was to pick it up on the way – oh, forget it. Seriously! You never
listen! It's like I'm talking to a brick wall, only a brick wall is actually good
He gripped his keys but, somehow, they
slipped from his grasp. They fell, clattering to the ground. He rolled his
eyes, waiting for the criticism to come flying his way.
And it came. Stupid, useless something or
other. He wasn't really listening.
He let it wash over him as he bent over to
pick up his latest mistake from the floor. Something in his wrist snapped, like
a cable under tension – Ping!
Nevertheless he was bent over, and his hand
was right there ready to grip the keys. With an effort he tried again, but his
hand slipped. He swore and tried once more but his fingers refused to clasp
He gritted his teeth, finding it intensely
painful and difficult to perform such a simple task, “Son of a bitch!”
With a snap, a crunch and a clatter, his
hand fell off from his arm, lying, twitching, next to the keys. He blinked,
looking from the empty, bleeding stub on the end of his arm back to the
wriggling fingers on the floor.
He could see bits of bone, nerve endings
and blood vessels, raw and angry. Then the blood oozed out, covering everything
in a bright red sheen, obscuring the rest of the flesh.
“Ah, Loretta?” he started, but she was
already well into another tirade.
“...and there you are hunched over like a
fool. What's with you, anyway? It's like you're trying to act like an
“What kind of pathetic excuse for a man did
“Loretta!” he shouted.
“What? What is it? What now? What amazing,
stupendous achievement have you suddenly accomplished?”
He pointed to his hand, still twitching, as
it lay on the floor.
“What? You've gone and busted your hand,
“Uh. Yeah. It seems. I mean. Shit, look at
“Yeah, and I can see it, Henry, and I can
see it's making a bloody mess all over the floor. Something else for me to
clean up. Great. Thanks. I was hoping for more work.”
Her eyes narrowed, “Look, just go and get
the damn milk and bread, alright? Can you do that at least? It's really simple.
Go to store, pick up milk, pick up bread, pay money, come back home,” she
snapped sarcastically, “And try not to kill anyone on the way out.”
“Oh, for Pete's sake, Henry, get over it!”
she cried, picking it up by the middle digit like it was a dead rat, “Here.
I'll put it somewhere safe and you can pine over it when you get home.”
He looked at his stump, still bleeding out.
She threw a handful of napkins at him, “And
mop that up when you get back. Shit, it's like I've got three children in this
“Yeah, but how am I supposed...”
“And don't take all night!”
Henry got into the car with a huff. This
was all he needed. His hopes of having a quiet night, and relaxing a little,
having a beer in front of the cricket, went out the window.
He tucked the napkins around his stump and
folded the jacket arm over the top to keep it all in. He was overly warm, but
he didn't want blood to get all over the seats. That would be just something
else for Loretta to have a go at him for.
Driving was a lot harder than he
remembered. He liked to use both hands while driving, he realised, and being
reduced to just one hand and a bloody, napkin covered stump was almost
“Good thing this has got power steering,”
he grumbled as he turned the corners, pressing his stinging stump against the
wheel to hold it in place.
Vermilion blotches dripped onto the wheel,
running in little rivers to fall onto his pants. He made a mental note to get a
few napkins to clean up the mess when he got back.
With a whole load of concentration he made
it to the supermarket in one piece. Even at that time of the evening it was
full of people buying slabs of beer and cartons of coke, jealously guarding
their trolleys and running them into the legs of others, only to leave them in
the vacant spaces in the park.
By the end of the night the trolley to car
ratio would be out of natural balance, and the team of trolley herders would do
their best to wrangle the iron-meshed beasts of burden and corral them into the
He fought to get a spot next to some
overflowing charity bins. The seagulls were wheeling about in the orange glow
of the overhead sodium lamps. The crows were pacing about the shadows, poking
at this and that, using their talented brains and beaks to weed out any scraps
of food that might have been discarded in the empty fast-food bags that
littered the place.
Wearily he got out, trudged to the store
and pushed his way through the doors into the stark, fluorescent lights. He
squinted at the sudden brightness, keen to quickly get his milk and bread and
His thoughts kept returning to his hand,
lying there on the ground without an arm to move it about.
In his mind's eye he could see Loretta
staring at it, annoyed that it would be taking up space and dripping grisly
fluids. He shook his head and marched on. The sooner he got home, the sooner he
could get to mending his hand, the better.
He picked up a half squashed loaf of bread,
checked the use-by date and grunted. His stump couldn't hold the loaf properly.
It kept slipping and rolling. He grunted again. Without his other hand he would
have a right time getting the milk. He rolled his eyes, turned on his heels and
fished about for a basket that hadn't been commandeered by the oafs.
“Hey, mate. That's mine,” called a voice as
he bent over to pick up a mangled red basket.
He looked back, seeing a seedy, wire-haired
man striding over.
“There's nothing in it,” Henry said,
pointing to the basket.
“Look, I need a basket. My hand, you see,
it fell off.”
“That's mine, mate.”
“I'm not your mate...”
But the man grabbed the basket and yanked
it from Henry, who dropped his loaf onto the floor.
“It's mine. Piss off!” he said, turning
sharply around and walking away.
Henry watched after him for a bit, then
gave up. There was no point arguing. It would only mean that he would have to
spend even more time under the cold blaze of the fluorescent tubes and among
the rambling hordes of evening grocery shoppers. There would be another basket
somewhere. It was only a matter of finding it.
After a bit of scouting he discovered one
under a crate of potatoes and dropped his bread in. The slices had all moved to
one side of the packet, so he took a few seconds to tidy up the loaf and make
He then made his way to get a two litre
bottle of milk, ignoring the strategically placed advertisements goading him to
purchase the latest energy drink. He zipped around the big display of tinned
tuna that was piled up over his head.
He couldn't ignore the Sample Girl, smiling
broadly, shoving a tiny tub of tinned spaghetti under his nose.
Inside the tub the mixture looked like a
stew of lumpy brains. The scent of tomatoes and herbs did nothing for the
appearance. He recoiled a little.
“Try the new Heinz Max Mix?”
“Ah, no. No thanks,” Henry said.
“It's got whole wheat pasta in it. Give it
She pushed it further under his nose. His
face turned red.
“I can't. Um, you see, I've only got one
hand. The other fell off...”
“You'll find the tomato sauce is a
different recipe! It's great!”
“Cheers all the same. I got to get home,”
he replied, giving her a side step.
“No need to be rude!” she said under her
breath, then smiled broadly at the next glossy-eyed shopper, “Try the new Heinz
Henry hustled to the counters. The
attendant had left her post to sell cigarettes on the adjoining counter. He
waited impatiently for her to return and start scanning his items.
“Hi, how're you? Just this?” the flighty
attendant asked, not even bothering to look up.
“Yeah. Just that.”
Her reply came out mechanically, “Would you
like anything from the Mars range from only a dollar?”
He shook his head, “No. No thanks. Just
She scanned his items, “That's seven
dollars forty. Do you have a rewards card?”
“A what? Hell. Oh, uh, hang on.”
The person in line behind him rolled her
eyes, then, not content with the pace, verbalised her feelings, “Should've had
the card ready. Other people are in line. Oh, geez. He's only got one hand.
Bloody cripple. I should move to another line.”
Henry fumbled about, trying to work his
hand to get his wallet out from the opposite pocket. His stump was throbbing in
pain, but he could feel the burning stare of the patrons in line as he tugged
at the lump of black leather.
“Sorry about this,” he muttered to the
“No worries,” she replied.
“Had one hell of a day,” he said, wiggling
the top out.
“My hand came off, even.”
Eventually he worked the wallet enough for
it to slip out and spill onto the counter.
“Sorry. Shit. Sorry,” he murmured.
Cards and coins were everywhere. The
attendant blew a hair from her face as she watched the man in front of her
scramble to put it all away with one hand.
“Seven forty,” she repeated, filling the
spaces of his grumbles.
“I knew I should've gone in the other line.
Damn cripples,” muttered the lady behind, “Got no business in a supermarket.
The other line's already done.”
He bit his lip. It would do no good to
cause a scene. It was more prudent to simply pay for his goods and go. With a
shaking hand he handed a note to the attendant who had the change ready for him
before he knew it.
“Two sixty change, have a good night,” she
rattled off, putting his bag on to the bench and immediately scanning the next
items, “Hi, how're you? Just this?”