My dad has fled to a cottage in the Dandenongs with all his books about the Second World War. My mum is distraught and concerned for his safety, yet furious this has happened once again. I pour her a glass of water and assure her everything will be okay, as long as dad has left behind details on the level of experience I will require in order to successfully reach him. With a deep breath, she hands me a scrap of paper on which my dad has done just that, inviting me to overcome the obstacles and challenges he has left in his wake. These are the kinds of responsibilities that come with being an only child.
I walk next door and ask my neighbour, Renegade Watson, to accompany me. He chomps down hard on a cigar and asks for my assistance with a family matter in return. I agree that once my dad is safely at home, I will help Renegade infiltrate the Australian War Memorial, where his own dad has barricaded himself in order to pay the maximum possible respect. He snarls his approval and slides on a pair of bright blue sunglasses with yellow lenses. I admire him a great deal.
Renegade and I climb into his burnt orange Ford Focus, which he reverses out of his driveway and steers onto the main road. I anticipate a number of rogues may attempt to disrupt our operation, and sit in the passenger seat ensuring my small collection of potions, elixirs and short-range weapons are functional and ready. Renegade switches the radio to his theme tune, which is incredibly catchy while also feeling somewhat timeless. He often plays it when he arrives at a location, or when he leaves one, or when something significant occurs vis-à-vis his emotional state.
‘Feel free to bounce any ideas or questions off me,’ Renegade says, his gaze locked on the road ahead. His companionship and guidance are always invaluable.
‘I will,’ I say. ‘First: where are we going?’
He glances at my dad’s note, which Renegade has taped neatly to the dashboard. ‘If we want to be ready, we need to pay a visit to The Author,’ he says.
‘Who’s The Author?’
Renegade clears his throat. ‘The Author writes tomes that act as Gateways or Portals for dads dedicated to the pursuit of Knowledge. He wears a colourful Bandanna and commands great power. I once penetrated his Victorian Fortress by riding in on an enormous Eagle, but the Eagle and I long ago parted ways. If you’d like to know more about The Author I can add an entry to your Log, which you can access at any time provided we’re not engaged in combat.’
‘Please do,’ I say.
Renegade waves his left hand in the air. My Log beeps. Once all this is over I will review these details to see whether there are any collectibles associated with The Author I should seek out to ensure I hundred percent my life. It would be a shame to slip away knowing there were visions I hadn’t seen, items I hadn’t possessed. I’m extremely aware of a fact my dad somehow hasn’t learned: life is there to be lived.
‘How will we get into the Fortress without an Eagle?’ I ask.
‘This time The Author will invite us in,’ Renegade says. ‘He has a new Task which should allow you to acquire the Knowledge and Experience required to recover your dad.’
It’s beautiful how these things work out, one step following the other.
The Author’s fortress is located in East Camberwell, down the road from a large IGA. The nearby buildings are all twisted and warped, teetering towards a gigantic hole. The hole periodically emits bursts of golden coins which shoot into the sky then rain down, a most dangerous fortune. I snap a quick photo of the scene and save it to my Log, along with a reminder to return with a helmet and a sturdy bucket. In the aftermath of a subsequent burst a single coin embeds itself in the arm of a pedestrian, who cries out in pain—or maybe with the joy of discovery.
Renegade rolls his Focus to a stop outside the fortress gates, which are green and gold in colour. They clash in a terrible fashion with Renegade’s car, but there’s nothing I can do about that. We proceed through the gates on foot, past a number of armed guards with no peripheral vision. Though they become alarmed whenever we pass in front of them, they calm down after Renegade shows them the message on a scroll he pulls from the back pocket of his jeans. Sometimes I wish I had his charisma, but never seem to find the time to spend on that particular skillset.
When we enter The Author’s office he is alone, sitting behind a mahogany desk decorated with tiny design concepts for Australian flags. Each features the Southern Cross, but in a different way to the current design, which feels important. A series of landscape paintings line the wall behind him, and I wonder which he enjoys jumping into the most— which holds the greatest adventures.
‘Renegade, you son of a bitch,’ The Author says, smacking a palm on his desk.
Renegade doesn’t waste any time. ‘We’re looking for a dad,’ he growls. ‘His dad. He’s in the Dandenongs. Reading about World War II.’
The Author turns to me. ‘Military history? Social? Cultural? Economic?’ he asks. ‘What are we discussing here?’
‘Military, mainly,’ I say. ‘Some Economic. He’s interested in interrogations of Total War. Strategy. Logistics. Great Man Theory. Fronts, tactics, and such.’
‘A man after my own Heart,’ The Author says. He unwraps his bandanna to reveal a system of cogs protruding from his skull. ‘I had my Brain replaced with this Machine,’ he says, impressively intuiting that I require an explanation. ‘The better you Understand something, the better you can Control it.’
‘You sought control of your own Brain?’
‘It’s a wily one,’ he grins.
‘But we’re talking about the nature of Global War, state-based conflict,’ I say. ‘Control seems out of the question. Even more so than a single human Mind—no offence.’
‘Exactly,’ The Author says. ‘So your Father’s need is Immense.’
Renegade nods gravely.
‘Now, I can help you,’ The Author says. ‘But first, I need your help identifying a Campaign about which I can craft a Book. Then I can allocate you appropriate Equipment from my Armoury, which is sure to help you on your Journey.’
Given their shared interests, I take a moment to recall the cover of every book my dad has ever read. A pattern forms, creativity unleashed within my skull.
‘What if you were to name an already existing but under-examined moment?’ I say. ‘You know, with some kind of Noun.’
‘A Noun,’ The Author repeats.
‘The kid’s right,’ Renegade says. ‘You need to start with a Noun.’
‘Maybe even an Adjective,’ I say.
The Author considers this, then rises from his chair. ‘Brilliant,’ he says. ‘I’ll find a Campaign without a Moniker, and invent it. I’ve always approached these things the other way around.’
He jams a pen between his cogs and powers down, his jaw dropping to reveal a medieval key resting on his tongue. A new door appears to our right, its outline gleaming in the brick wall. Renegade and I enter the armoury and take everything we can carry.
Back on the road, Renegade asks if I feel the need to review anything we’ve just experienced.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I was there. But I might try to Remember it later.’
‘Got it,’ he says, then guns the engine.
I can’t help feeling pleased at our progress, though the fact our journey has gone so smoothly makes me suspect danger is imminent. My dad won’t give up researching World War II without a fight. Even if he does, there are other subjects he may move on to at any time, or higher levels of intensity he might seek. I shudder at the prospect of him returning to his fixation on the American Civil War, which has absorbed far too many white Australian dads who share his general demeanor.
‘My old man told me he’d hold a Dawn Service every day if he could,’ Renegade says, like he can read my mind, which I believe he can.
‘I suppose it helps them,’ I say. ‘So they don’t make any big mistakes, like dads throughout history. If they were, you know, to end up in those kinds of positions.’
Renegade says nothing. He just sets his sight on the horizon, the passing landscape reflected in his frames, the scar on his cheek a map to absolution.
This is no metaphor: I realise his scar is in the shape of our region, each outermost point marking a place with opportunities to boost my abilities through small acts of service. When I tell Renegade this he is delighted, and whoops and flexes his biceps to signal his approval. The more we are prepared the less fearful we will be of any of my dad’s plots to keep us at bay.
We drive to Doncaster, where I use my new gear to assist a bottle shop owner to recover their confidence in their singing voice. They direct me back to Camberwell, where I help a busker at the market find their lost hat. The busker advises me to collect a golden orb from the spire of the Arts Centre, which speaks to me in a telekinetic fashion to provide detailed instructions on how to get a frog choir back together again. The frog choristers gift me a fishing rod, which I use to save a baby which is floating along the Yarra in a small wicker basket. I hold it in my arms and bear witness to its glorious smile.
‘It’s okay, baby,’ I say. ‘You’re not a baby any more.’
The baby, who by the time I finish my sentence is a teenage boy and has a bit of an attitude, mumbles a quick thank you, worms his way out of my arms, equips a skateboard and rides off down St Kilda Road. The dust cloud kicked up in his wake reveals a code, which I swiftly crack to determine the address of the cottage in which my dad has hidden away.
Renegade and I change into our combat fatigues in the bathroom at a BP, then jump in the car and hurtle towards my dad and his dangerous obsession. So far our quest has been wholesome, filled with connection and interesting imagery. I look forward to having friends I can share the story with, but I know there is more to overcome.
As we merge onto the M3, an old Holden ute speeds up and keeps to our left-hand side. The driver is in his seventies, wisps of grey hair blowing in the breeze, and he wears thick glasses with clear plastic frames all around. As his ute draws level, he uses one hand to throw assorted spikes ahead of our wheels. Renegade swerves to avoid them, spinning out in front of the ute.
‘Did you equip your road set?’ Renegade says, gripping the steering wheel with one hand while he attempts to read out the words of a spell scrawled on a post-it note he holds in the other.
‘Yes,’ I say.
Renegade slams the brakes and our tyres skid until my passenger-side window faces the front of the oncoming ute. I toss a powerful magnet to the asphalt to stop the ute in its tracks before we throttle away. The old man rages in our rear-view mirror, and the message from my dad is clear: I hate my historical reading being disrupted to the same degree as I am passionate about Holden utes.
Renegade and I sit in silence, snaking along the road to our desired location, wind lashing at the car and our thoughts, until—finally—we arrive.
Through binoculars I can see the cottage in which my dad has taken refuge. It rests at the top of a hill, surrounded by thick trees on all sides. He’s clearly selected a strategically defensible location. For a moment I feel pride, but soon enough this pride is tinged with resentment. I’ve learned the intrusion of resentment is always a risk, if and when you allow yourself to feel.
Renegade pulls a bush costume from the boot of his car, puts it on over his heavy gear and begins to crawl up the hill, blending into the greenery. I equip a blowdart which causes its victims to have visions of their greatest mistakes. Making my way through trees, passing by my dad’s hired guards, I send darts shooting into the necks of these grown men. The air fills with the sounds of weeping, of cries about past failures and regrets. All I can think is that these men are sons, maybe even dads, and my heart aches as I hear their tales of surround sound systems not connecting to Bluetooth and of family members who enjoyed sport more or less than they did.
I rise over the crest of the hill, the ground behind me littered with forgotten bodies. I make a series of hand signals indicating that Renegade should go around back to create distracting animal sounds, then I crouch by the front door and put my ear to the wood. From inside I can hear a podcast playing. The hosts are discussing whether the Battle of Midway would have ended differently had the Allies’ aggregate economic output been two per cent lower in 1941. My dad is shouting obscenities and pacing about, his footsteps heavy with frustration. Pages rustle as he rummages through his books for the appropriate details to help him rebut their claims, purely for himself. I smile. He hasn’t finished; it’s not too late.
The door is locked, so I use an endless wire controlled by my thoughts to pick it open and tumble through. My dad’s dull eyes follow me as I collapse onto the floor, heavy with the weight of my broadsword and behaviour-altering potions and an AR15 and photographs of people and places I can no longer name. Torn pages are strewn on the floor all around him, and still he mutters.
‘I can solve this,’ he says, while I unspool a thick rope and attach one end to a doorknob.
‘Solve what?’ I say, looping rope under dad’s arms.
‘The War,’ he says. ‘I can understand it, fully and completely. The chain of Causality, the Decisions that were made, every possible Counterfactual at every point in time.’
‘And then what?’ I say, pulling the rope from the other end until he dangles upside down from the ceiling.
Swinging side to side, his head bumping lightly against a shelf, he says, ‘No more questions will remain. Then I’ll understand the next thing, and the thing after that, and after that, and soon I’ll understand it All.’
Before I can respond my ears ring, the result of a large explosion outside. Through the window I see Renegade charging towards the cottage, still wearing a bush, pursued by hundreds of armoured guards equipped with rocket launchers and dogs that bark poison. My dad smiles.
‘It’s over,’ he says.
‘Nothing’s ever over,’ I say. ‘Surely you’ve learned that.’
I pull out one of my elixirs and down it. Time slows to a crawl as I kick the front door open and Renegade and I run from guard to guard, tying their shoelaces together, before returning to the cottage. When my elixir wears off and the guards all fall over at the same moment, yelping in confusion, my dad’s smile disappears.
He swings to a stop until he hangs still, aware he has been bested by the one person he brought into this earth.
‘All this could have been yours,’ he says, waving his arms about to gesture at the thick stacks of hardback books.
‘Not interested,’ I say.
‘You have a good kid,’ Renegade says. ‘You should join him in the real world sometime.’ This is a nice thing to hear.
With Renegade’s help I restrain my seething dad, carry him down the hill and strap him to the roof of the car. I wish I could feel the journey had been a valuable lesson, for me or my dad, but I know this will happen again. It is the way of a certain type of dad, a cultural force beyond my control. Still, it has been nice to escape the drudgery of daily life, even for an afternoon.
As Renegade and I race back along the freeway we laugh and joke, guided by a fresh scar on his left forearm, a gleaming beacon in a world full of darkness and confusion, a safe point in a universe that will never itself be safe.