Keithy’s frog body slapping rock, air oomphing out of him. Snapped rope pinging. He posted up, back leg slipping.
Wrong fucking side of the creek.
Lantern, the boy, nursed his arm, shivering. Dirt and grass clumps in his hair. A wind gusting theremin. The swollen creek, a painter’s hand under a running tap, from brown to red. Algae blue green. Flood plain black.
Could he jump it? No, no, no.
Palm heeling his forehead. Tap, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, tap.
Could he throw him?
Bone discus spinning.
No and fuck no.
On the right side of creek the black plastic on the yandi bale sucked and blew in the wind with an irregular jazz cadence. Hitting the notes in between. Its white package straps holding its modesty in place as it billowed. The water creeping up on it. Keithy patted his pockets. No fucking phone!
Lantern turned to him, catching the noise but not the gist. Keithy thumb-and-pinkie called him, head shaking, his other hand gesturing with a kill-it neck slit.
Were they out of range? Yes.
But he might’ve gotten lucky back on that ridge. He might’ve gotten Ken. Ken might’ve, would’ve brought the Patrol up through that dog-track. Spotlights, a shiny steel winch. Keithy dropped change, looked around at his feet. Panicked eyes. He grabbed Lantern. This would be the bit where the lightning struck, punctuating how fucked they were. White lit faces, a pause.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.
Then a crash. Calamity. Howls. Another strike. Another pause. Strobe-stuttering their steps through the scrub like they were in a flip book. Another crack. Lightning wouldn’t have mattered. It could of struck them, wouldn’t of mattered. This storm was hitting them square between the nuts. The creek was up, it’d go further, another seven, seven and a half metres at least. Up to the axe-marked flood-line on that flood gum they passed on the way in, a date below it. Knocked in, all angles. 10-10-1989.
That yandi would be out in the bay. Bobbing.
Could they outrun it? Down the mouth and wait? Could they use a net? A gaff? Who had a boat? A tinnie? Who would go out in this that hadn’t already been caught out?
Tap, tap, tap. A fucking tinnie? Tap, tap, tap. Fucking tinnie.
Rope burned palms, fibres sawn in, bled, leaking over the blue biro needle tatt on his wrist. J-E-S-S in a heart, knocked in axe angles. She was gonna kill him. Not for the yandi, she didn’t know about that, yet, though she had a way of knowing. A way of opening the fridge door for the margarine and knowing he’d fucked up, before her finger tips had touched its lid. The way she knew to send him that postcard at Lakes Creek: If you hadn’t fucked up, this wouldn’t be called loyalty.
The again was silent, fucked up again. It floated, between his bunk and Old Mate above. Between thumb and forefinger as he rolled a dart. Between the closing of the steel door and the turning of the key. Fucking Old Mate. Why had Keithy stayed in town and gotten drunk? Waking up, rolling in change, Lantern, loose limbed, hunched shoulders on the floor, his face a quarter inch from the low volume TV. They could run from Old Mate. Run now. They could put a gap between now, standing here getting cock-slapped in this wind, and the time that they were fucked. How long? Enough time to get the money together, maybe, but not too long. Not enough time that the pokie-drag would scruff neck him back into the no-clocks air-con. Rolling pharaohs, blinking pyramids.
Would Jess come with him?
Tap, tap, tap.
Lantern was pointing. A tree, thicker than his waist upstream. Its roots out of the mud, leaning. The boy got there first. His wet T-shirt bark browning as he put his strength against the trunk. Keithy clawing around the roots. Mud jamming into fingernails.
If the water was just a bit fucking higher it would take care of it itself. If the water was higher, the yandi was cactus.
Keithy yelled out ‘No use’, but the boy kept at it, leg and arm muscles pushing, trying. The tree dropped a little. His leg slipping down the bank into the water. Mystery metal, chuting down, rust-edged his calf. Blood. Squelching mud stealing his shoe. Back up he dug. More movement. There should be more lightning. Not fucked lightning. Revelatory lightning. Like in the Shawshank Redemption when that white fella falls to his knees in the prison yard, was it the white fella? Or the freckled black fella? Like he were saved or something. Bullshit.
Two Mississippi, three.
He mud-slipped up and joined Lantern, back walking as hard as he could against it. A crack. Another. They fell into each other for the second time in living memory oomphing into the weeds. Branches dug into the other bank. As he went to crawl over, Lantern latched on.
Fuck off and stay here, this is how we got into this!
But the boy plugged his fingers through the empty belt loops on Keithy’s shorts. So they crawled together. Lantern unplugging on the other side, they ran through Armageddon. The creek rising.
The bale was heavy. Too heavy for the rope. The boy had probably saved the day by snapping it ahead of time. Not that that crossed his mind. That shiny winch popped into his head. Rolling pharaohs, blinking pyramids. Crabbing along the bank, stopping, regaining his grip. Blowing White-Ox hard. Lantern got in behind and started to push, so they drag-sledded it along through the lantana whip. They got it to the tree bridge, rooted, slumping spent to the ground. Lantern leaning against the bale out of the wind.
Small for his age. Tiny when they’d first met, Keithy’s first morning out of jail. His shit still in that calico bag they gave him, sitting between his knees, a XXXX tallie on the kitchen table against the terms of his early parole. Fuck ’em. That morning, the boy hiding out behind his mum’s legs. Who’s that?
When he’d christened him Lantern: not that bright and had to get carried everywhere.
Keithy stood up. He’d held onto a length of rope and he looped through the top, underneath the bale strapping. Tipping the bale, sticking his hand through the loop, hooking his shoulder. Testing its weight. Fuck.
Bending and tilting he hoisted it, just, losing his balance he caught himself on both palms. Fuck. He started to crawl. Lantern grabbing at his leg.
Get over on your fucking own.
Kicking backwards, shucking him off, turtling across. The bale pushing his face into the tree, the creek water rushing under him. A tug, he kicked back, catching ribs that fell away. Another tug. Urgent.
Brown to red, storm cloud grey. Kitchen white.
He turned to face the wall bearing down. Bashing into the bank, he went under, again, again. The three of them, the bale, Lantern and Keithy jamming into a storm-made weir—an old black butt cutting halfway across the line. Black water spew. He could feel a palm in his own. Lantern’s lips just above the waterline like a horse crossing, panicked eyes, turning cheeks.
The bale moved. Bully shoving his neck and head down, rolling on his back as if it was taking a pack mark, about to land on both feet and Rioli on, out into the bay. Another sensation. Palms slipping. He could turn, stuffing his hand into the bale webbing and maybe, maybe pilot it into the black butt and then, well, fuck, it was better than nothing.
Or he could let it roll and monkey grip the boy’s elbow. But he couldn’t do both.
A branch whacked into the side of his head. The water changed colour again.