Even in his sleep, Bryant knew there was something wrong. The children’s voices were more pitchy than usual, and where before he could allow a certain amount of light and noise to pulse in and out of his shallow dream life, now it had penetrated too deeply. Shit.
He pulled on his jeans, which still held the loose, slack shape from when he had worn them hours earlier, and went looking for his eldest son.
‘Casey, what’s going on?’
The boy was in the lounge room with his younger brother and the neighbour’s kid who drifted in and out of their driveway, but whose name he never bothered to learn.
‘Dad.’ There was no need for Casey to say anything else. There in the middle of the room stood an enormous egg.
‘We found it in the dunes.’
‘And we’re keeping it,’ added his youngest son, Ben, who laid his hand on the top of the egg as if he had just scaled its giddy heights.
‘It’s a dinosaur egg.’ It was the first time Bryant had ever heard the neighbour’s kid speak, and his voice sounded high and nasal.
‘What the hell?’ Bryant bent down to examine the specimen closer, and saw that although ovoid in shape, its outer casing was hard and grainy in appearance making it look more like a World War II relic.
Although ovoid in shape, its outer casing was hard and grainy in appearance making it look more like a World War II relic.
‘Don’t touch it!’ Bryant didn’t mean to yell, but he had visions of his wife coming home from work to a house smouldering in ash. If it were a bomb, it would need to be defused or removed with care.
‘Dad, it’s fine. We carried it from the dunes, didn’t we?’ Casey patted the egg. ‘We love it and we’re keeping it.’
Casey was probably right but that didn’t stop Bryant from lightly pressing his ear against the egg to listen for a series of faint ticks.
‘Is it going to hatch?’ cried his youngest. ‘Is it alive, Dad?
But all Bryant could hear were the children’s shallow breaths and the dull thrum of his own ear against the egg’s cool surface.
‘Let’s get it into the garage. Then we’ll work out what it is later.’
Bryant carried the egg outside, and placed it carefully in the corner of the garage. He didn’t know quite why, but he fetched a large white sheet from the laundry cupboard and draped it over the egg. He then went back inside the house to try and get some more shut-eye, banning the children from going anywhere near the garage.
It was impossible to sleep. He lay on the bed, listening to the muffled sounds of excitement and, in the distance, a mower neatening a plot of green. And every time he changed position in the bed, he could smell the unwashed sheets and the musky taint of his armpits.
He knew he wouldn’t sleep. Soon his wife would be home, and there would be the clatter of pans, the cutlery drawer opening and closing, the sizzle and spit of oil and then a stir fry would appear moments before he had to hop into his car for the forty-five minute drive to the airport. A long drive where he could make plans, pay bills in his head and give a bit more consideration to things like that egg.
Night shift at Perth Airport seemed to consist of two states of being. First, there was the hit-the-road-running part where flights would arrive back to back and the arrivals hall would soon swell with a line of weary, rumpled travellers snaking all the way back to the elevators, and you only had forty seconds to process and stamp each passport. And then there was the hanging-around ‘doing time’ part in between flights, where the officers would lounge in their bunker, kick back on the lumpy couches, rummage for food in their bags or grab salty snacks from the vending machine.
In a strange way Bryant preferred the busier part of the evening. The world would whirr past him in a flash of humanity, where seamlessly the woollen coats and wrapped scarves of Europe would morph into the bare midriffs and beaded braids of Bali. Forty seconds to eye a person and make a secret judgement whether they should be coded on their Declaration form for a baggage exam.
Over twenty years of doing the job, Bryant had developed a sixth sense for what kind of traveller stood in front of him. He knew the type who would stash an extra bottle of Jim Beam in their hand luggage or the ones who would try to bring back a heritage tomato cutting from Italy. Of course, anyone transiting Colombia got put in for a full search.
His eyes would flick from passport, to face, to screen, back to face, all the while assessing the risk and keeping that neutral, easy going smile fixed on his face. Lately though he found himself assessing people in a different kind of way.
Those families, the families of four who were returning from a holiday at the theme parks in Florida or Euro Disney, the Dads whose stated occupation was ‘electrician’ and the mums who were a nurse; staring at these families who could afford such a holiday, and there he was, a shift worker with a wife who also worked, barely meeting the mortgage repayments for his median-priced home in a suburb south of Perth. He didn’t think he was jealous, just perplexed in the same way he was when he watched the younger colleagues at work being streamed ahead of himself for cushy promotions in Fremantle.
After the midnight and early morning flights had been processed, he found himself as usual walking back up to the recreation room with Eddie, another older officer who had trained in his intake. The class of ACO 20: the last group to enter Customs through the regular public service exams, without needing a degree to get ahead.
‘You look tired, mate.’
‘I didn’t get much sleep. The kids woke me all excited. They found a giant egg in the dunes.’
‘They think it’s prehistoric.’
‘Sounds like an elephant bird.’
‘Elephant bird. Remember the one found by a kid in Cervantes years ago? His family tried to auction it privately but the WA government stopped the sale because it was found on Crown land. The boy hid the egg, reburied it – only coughed it up once the State agreed to pay up.’
Bryant vaguely remembered the story. An image of a boy and his dad on the news looking like they had just hit the jackpot.
‘Sounds like an elephant bird. Remember the one found by a kid in Cervantes years ago? The boy hid the egg, reburied it – only coughed it up once the State agreed to pay up.’
‘Be careful. It might be worth a fortune. Tell them you found it in your backyard.’
‘I’m sure it’s nothing,’ said Bryant, but something like hope fluttered in his heart and stayed with him all shift.
That afternoon after he had slept and showered, Bryant set to work researching the egg. He found out that the kid in Cervantes got an ex gratia payment of $25,000 from the state government but on the open market it could have fetched five times that amount. He also discovered that the watermelon-sized egg had drifted from Madagascan shores and somehow found its way across the Indian Ocean to Western Australia to lie dormant in the sand for thousands of years.
The trouble was, their egg was bigger than that of the extinct elephant bird. He found another site that talked about giant prehistoric emus, but there were no pictures to verify what they had in their garage, and every now and then he questioned if it really was an egg at all and would go to peer under the sheet and trace his fingers over the rough, dark coating.
Bryant took a photo of the egg from different angles, a few close ups, and one with a chicken egg placed beside it to provide a sense of scale and then attached it to an email addressed to the Head of Paleontology at the city museum.
He kept the story short and to the point, being careful not to give away his personal details. His reasoning was simple: in order to sell the egg privately he needed to know exactly what it was. He was surprised when a reply bounced back at him within minutes.
I am very interested in examining your specimen. Please contact me to arrange a viewing.
Professor Mike O’Shaughnessy
P.S. Where exactly was it found?
The email sent a thrill through his body. He knew the guy was just as excited as he was. His fingers hovered over the keyboard, not knowing what to write back or how much to reveal.
When the kids got home from school he was so distracted with after-school snacks and homework that it was only when he went online to do some further research that he noticed another email, waiting in the inbox.
Not sure if you received my previous email. I would like to discuss your interesting find immediately. Please come to my office asap. Or ring me on my office number or mobile.
Bryant’s mouth went dry. Somehow he thought he could discreetly find out what he needed to know without having to meet up with anyone.
As he sat at his laptop trying to work out the best way to proceed, there was an almighty bang at his front door. Bryant could just make out a bulky form through the frosted panels of glass, and when he opened the door there was a large man dressed in a fluro-orange safety vest.
‘Where’s Tyler’s egg?’
‘Sorry?’ Bryant blinked as it took a good second for him to recognise his neighbour from across the road.
‘I want Tyler’s egg.’
‘What do you mean Tyler’s egg? My boys found it.’
‘Bullshit. It’s his.’
‘It belongs to us.’
‘I’ll take youse to court.’
‘Fine. Speak to my lawyer.’ Bryant pushed the door shut before the neighbour could wedge his leg inside. He could see the blurry shape of the man standing motionless and then heard the buckling of metal as the figure gave the screen door three swift kicks.
‘Dad?’ Casey was standing beside him, with that look he gave when he didn’t comprehend something.
‘Tyler’s banned from coming over, right?’
‘His dad claims the egg is his.’
‘It’s all of ours. Tyler can have it one week, then us the next.’
‘We’re selling the egg.’
‘Dad, no,’ Casey pleaded. ‘I don’t want to sell it.’
Bryant snapped back, ‘Do you want to go to Disneyland?’
‘Yeah. I guess.’
‘Then we’re selling it.’
Casey started to protest, but stopped when he saw his dad’s expression.
Bryant knew what he had to do. He would get his wife to ring in sick for him, and then he’d keep a close watch over the egg until he could offload it to the highest bidder, and then maybe after that he’d better think about moving house.
For the next three nights Bryant slept with the egg. He brought it in from the garage and lay on the couch, with the egg standing like a quiet sentinel beside him. The second evening he transferred it to the guest bedroom so he could get a better night’s sleep, but found himself waking with a start every hour or so just to check if the egg was still there. By the third night he had brought the egg into the bed with him, arm draped across it as he slept.
Bryant’s sleep was deep but troubled; infused with crazy dreams and an intense heat that spread from his body into the egg (or was it the other way around?) so that when he woke he was drenched in so much sweat he thought he had wet himself.
The situation was absurd, but he understood why he was so obsessed. Skylab. It was the year 1979 and there he was, a white-haired boy with scabs healing to pink on his knees scrabbling through the scrub at the back of his house in search of pieces of the space station that fell through the milky night skies.
He remembered the knobbly feel of honky nuts pushing into his cheap sneakers and the fear of spiders as he pulled back fallen sheaths of papery bark, desperate to find anything foreign and metallic. And each night as he watched the Channel Seven news reports heralding the grinning kids and dads holding up their new-found bits of Skylab, he would glance across at his own dad who sat with a beer on his belly and shoulders always on that downward slump.
Bryant’s sleep was deep but troubled; infused with crazy dreams and an intense heat that spread from his body into the egg (or was it the other way around?)
Bryant eased himself up out of bed, and hoisted the egg out with him to the kitchen. It was Sunday morning, the quietest time in the household, and his wife was drinking her coffee with the laptop perched in front of her on the breakfast bar, browsing her favourite site: Realestate.com.
‘We can get a four by two with a pool and theatre room for only 750.’
Bryant frowned. ‘We need to sell the egg first.’
‘Have you contacted the museum guy yet? He’s sent about another ten emails.’
‘I’m still researching stuff.’
‘What’s that on your face?’
‘Those red marks.’
Bryant touched his cheek, and could feel a sea of lumps.
‘Must have been bitten by something.’
‘Dad, quick you gotta see this.’ Casey was wheezing as he came tearing into the kitchen.
Bryant and his wife followed him outside to where their wheelie bin was positioned at the side of their house. The words Fuck You were scrawled in white paint over the green bin.
‘Who would do that?’ whispered his wife.
‘I know exactly who,’ Bryant said grimly.
‘Is it that guy? He’s been there all morning.’ Casey pointed to a silver Mazda that was parked at the end of their cul de sac.
Bryant stared at the car, trying to make out the person sitting in the driver’s seat. Suddenly they heard the pure, clear sound of a child’s scream.
‘Ben!’ shouted his wife.
‘The egg!’ cried Bryant.
They all ran into the kitchen to see the little boy wailing and rubbing his foot.
‘It fell on my toe,’ he whimpered.
‘Didn’t I tell you not to go anywhere near it?’ yelled Bryant, making the boy cry even harder, his shoulders quaking with each sob.
Bryant heaved the egg back into the guest room, then went to peer through the front blinds. The silver Mazda had disappeared.
‘It’s just a coincidence,’ he tried to tell himself, but he knew it was more likely that someone had tracked him down through his email account. The professor…maybe, but there was also that bizarre exchange with Leonard58 on an antiquities forum, which left him feeling unsettled.
‘Ring the professor,’ his wife urged him, and he knew that he could no longer hide in that no man’s land of hope and longing.
His wife dropped him off in Northbridge at the cultural precinct and Bryant hurried across the square with the egg wrapped loosely in the sheet. People stared. For all they knew he could have been an art student carrying his end of semester project.
But he wasn’t dressed in retro cool clothing, didn’t look like someone with the promise of idle summers stretched before them. Instead he looked like a bag of shit. Over laundered, short-sleeved shirt his wife had bought him one Father’s Day and greasy stubble where he had smeared some cortisone over the itchy, red lumps.
The professor knelt down and unwrapped the giant specimen. Bryant watched him for clues, trying to second-guess what he was thinking.
At the front counter the museum staff eyed him with suspicion, until he told them he had an appointment with Professor O’Shaughnessy.
He was expecting a man as dry and colourless as the specimens he curated; instead this man before him was young and robust with a rosy hue to his skin.
‘Bryant. Good to meet you. Is this the…?’ Professor O’Shaughnessy seemed to tremble as he touched the egg.
‘Not here,’ muttered Bryant.
‘Of course. My office.’
Bryant carried the egg and followed the professor to the other side of the building.
‘Let’s look at it, shall we?’ and the professor knelt down and unwrapped the giant specimen. He smoothed his hand over it, and examined it closely, turning it around slowly to study it from every angle. Bryant watched him for clues, trying to second-guess what he was thinking.
‘I can’t say for sure, but it looks like it’s man-made.’
‘What?’ Bryant’s heart began to race.
‘Man made. It’s either ceramic or a type of metal casing.’
‘It can’t be.’
‘I can do some further tests if you like. Ask my colleagues. Maybe a scan. You can leave it with me and I’ll let you know.’
‘Do you take me for an idiot?’
‘An idiot. I’m not leaving the egg here so you can sell it yourself.’
‘Have you not heard me?’ The blotches of colour deepened across the professor’s cheeks. ‘It’s not an egg. Someone’s having a joke with you.’
Bryant stood up. He thought of a nine-year old boy making a stance; a boy sticking it to the authorities by reburying the 2000-year-old egg in a secret location. He could do one better than that. One giant fuck you.
He grabbed the egg and brought it down with such force onto the ground that it broke on impact, shattering like a meteorite in every direction. One piece flew into his leg and surprised him with the pain; another lodged in the Professor’s eye, which wept red like an anemone.
Bryant ignored the cry, the blood beginning to trickle in lazy rivulets down his leg. He limped away, past the art gallery and towards the Perth Underground knowing his forty-seconds to work it all out would soon pass, leaving him with no better understanding; only the feel of the city sun on his skin bringing a healing warmth, the pulse and throb letting him know he was alive.