The bass pumps from the sound system, filling the balcony with the full-bodied rhythm of hip-hop.
No-one’s really listening.
And yet when the chorus comes in everyone mouths the lyrics.
He sits at the table, his fingertips drumming on the splintered edge. He smiles when everyone else does. He laughs when he’s meant to. Sometimes he catches my eye as I watch him, so I just shrug and smile like I always do.
‘Everything alright, mate?’ he asks.
‘Yeah,’ I reply. ‘Right as rain.’
He gets up and grabs the handles of my wheelchair, moving me out of the sun. He grabs a beer from the fridge and cracks it open before handing it to me.
‘Thanks,’ I mutter, trying not to spill it. But I do. Like always. And he laughs good-naturedly as if I was as normal as him.
‘Taxi!’ he shouts, and everyone raises their beer in a toast.
I don’t know why, but it makes me feel better.
Like I’m just one of the guys.
He leans back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. His arms are a tapestry of Japanese themed tattoos, from flowers to fish to beautiful geishas. I can see the sweat starting to glaze over the colourful scenery.
He opens another beer. And then another. And another.
His voice gets louder as he raps over the beat that runs from the speakers, his gaze becoming more relaxed.
Some of the others join in.
We all love this song.
I’m soaring through the wind, my body flying in a horizontal freefall.
I can hear the rhythm of his feet pounding on the concrete behind me as he runs, pushing my wheelchair down the street ahead of him. I’m laughing so hard I nearly choke on air. Music from different pubs and nightclubs spills out into the night, but we all run straight through it.
We have our own beat.
We don’t need theirs.
I can see the park just beyond the trees where the rest of the group is waiting with casks of wine and hand-rolled cigarettes. He slows down and lets the others overtake us. He’s breathing hard from the run and I can feel his weight press down on the back of my chair.
‘What are you crippled or something?’ I ask.
‘I see how it is,’ he replies with a grin.
He starts running again, pushing me faster and faster as the ground slopes towards the park. We catch up with the others and pass them without a second thought.
Cars race by.
They’re nothing but streaks of amber light in the darkness.
The world skims by on the edges of my vision as we fly down the street, the Hilltop Hoods blasting so loud from his earphones that I can make out the lyrics.
Life is a road, full of turn-offs, short sprints and long runs
We’ll deal with it as it comes
If I lose my way I’ll follow you…
There’s a jolt.
Followed by a crash.
I feel the impact like an electric shock as I hit the ground. For a moment I’m numb with shock. He lies sprawling beside me, his face completely drained of all colour.
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ he repeats over and over as he picks me up and sets me back in my chair.
‘I’m fine – it’s no big deal, mate. Really.’
Everyone crowds around us, but when they realise I’m still in one piece they visibly relax and start joking as if it’s something that happened years ago.
He struggles to focus his eyes on me.
Something in him shuts down.
He wheels me the rest of the way to the park, but as everyone gets drunker and the noise gets louder, I catch a glimpse of him walking off into the night.
‘Your brother never came home last night,’ she says in a small voice.
Her eyes are dark with worry and look huge in her pale face. I shift uncomfortably in my wheelchair. It’s the silence that gets to me. When he’s around, there’s always music playing somewhere in the background, but without him there’s only an eerie quiet.
‘You know what he’s like when he’s been drinking.’
‘He’s always drinking, Liam,’ she snaps. ‘But that never stopped him coming home.’
He couldn’t deny it. She’s been living with his brother for three years now.
She knows the drill.
‘What happened last night?’ she asks.
‘Nothing. He was wheeling me to the park and took a tumble. We both fell. And we both got up again. No big deal.’
She sits forward, her head drooping into her hands as if it’s too heavy to hold up.
We sit in silence for a time.
Before now, I never knew what it was like to worry about him. He’d spent his whole life worrying about me, but not once have I ever had to do the same.
He was always so much more capable.
When we were little I thought he was a superhero.
He could walk and run and do monos on the dirt bike. He went rock-climbing and played the drums. And even though I could never join in, he still took me everywhere with him. He never once let me feel different, even though I knew there was a very fundamental difference between us.
Now I sit in his kitchen with his girlfriend, surrounded by his various speakers and headphones, and I feel a sickening feeling rise in my stomach.
The phone rings.
‘Hello,’ she answers. Something catches in her throat. ‘Yes, this is she. Is he ok?’
Her face turns so white she looks as if she’s been carved out of ice.
There’s a lump in my stomach that seems to grow bigger and bigger. I feel like I’m tumbling downwards in a freefall.
But there’s no freedom to it at all.
Only pure unadulterated terror as I wait for the impact.