At the time of posting this story, it is officially the last day of summer in Australia. I am personally thankful for that! As mentioned in this short story, it’s been a ‘scorcher’.
Dogs seem to find their way into my short stories. I am not a dog owner, but have some canine friends in my life. This story is dedicated to Gina, a very special and much loved dog, who passed away recently.
Josh and Jake walk along the gravel road to the bus stop, kicking stones on the way. They’re clammy already; it’s going to be a scorcher. Passing casuarina trees and letterboxes, Josh rubs his stubbly chin, thinks I’ll have to start shaving soon.
He is going over the conversation he heard from the kitchen last night, to do with money and the drought; his parents’ voices strained behind the closed door. He was in the adjoining lounge room, trying to do his homework; his bedroom is too stifling to work in at this time of year.
There’s something on the road ahead of the boys, just after they cross the bridge over the creek. Coming closer, they see an open school backpack, its contents spilled onto the gravel. The harsh staccato from the cicadas surrounds them.
An audible rustle in the sugar cane nearby distracts them both. Josh quickly stuffs everything back in to the backpack, then hoists it onto his free shoulder in one swift movement. Without speaking, they look at each other then move forward into the cane field, stopping to climb through the barbed wire fence. They remove their backpacks to fit through the gap. Josh thinks to himself Mum will kill me if she knows we’ve gone in here. She’s always warning us about snakes.
The sound moves away from them as soon as they enter the foliage. They follow its zig-zagging path through the shoulder high cane. The boys begin to feel the weight of the morning sun on their heads now, each wishing they’d brought a hat.
After some time marching through the vegetation, Josh stops abruptly, looks around.
‘What?’ Says Jake.
‘I don’t know where we are. We are a long way from the road now.’
Their eyes don’t meet. Panic has joined them.
Josh pulls a water bottle from his backpack and takes a swig, then wipes his brow. Just like Dad, thinks Jake. The thought of George his strong father brings a lump to his throat. He pushes the image away, but it is immediately replaced by his mum, Julie, with her soft, cool skin and smell of honeysuckle.
‘I think we’re lost.’
‘What should we do now?’ Jake looks to his brother.
Josh clears his throat.
‘Let’s call Dad. He’ll be less worried than Mum. But either way we’ll cop a punishment for this. We’re late for school, for starters.’
Josh pulls his cell phone out of his backpack pocket.
‘Shit. Phone’s dead. I forgot to recharge it last night.’
Jake starts to scratch his scalp, a nervous tic that Josh recognises.
Putting his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder Josh says: ‘It’s ok buddy, we’ll get out. I promise. Let’s find some shade. Here’ – he tosses him a muesli bar. ‘And have some water.’
The boys walk a little bit further until they reach a fire trail. Here they sit under the canopy of cane so they are in complete shade and can escape the sun’s glare while they gather their thoughts. They nod off, the cicadas’ shrill singing them to sleep.
‘And what have we here?’
There is a boot within inches of Josh’s face. And a machete knife pointing downwards at the end of a muscly arm.
He gets to his feet, dazed in the groggy mid-morning heat.
Shielding his eyes, he tries to get a glimpse of the hulking figure where the voice is coming from; frantically looks around for Jake.
Jake is shaking his shoulders.
‘You must have been dreaming. You were yelling.’
The sun is way overhead now. The boys’ faces are close; Josh can feel Jake’s hot breath on his sweaty cheek.
‘Hey, remember that cane farmer Mum and Dad told us to stay away from; you know, the guy with the bad temper who has had trouble with his crop this year?’
Jake looks around. ‘Yeah, I think so. So what?’
‘I just dreamt about him. I think we may be on his land.’
There is movement very close by.
They jump up together.
A dog emerges from the cane.
Josh notices its ears are bleeding, says: ‘It must have got caught in the barbed wire fence.’
Jake coaxes it to them, but it keeps its distance.
He asks: ‘Shall we give it some water?’
‘Yeah, but not much. We’ve still gotta get out of here. Don’t know how long that’s going to take.’
Jake makes a cup with his hand and rests it on the ground, gently pours a little water into it. The dog makes a beeline for him, starts lapping the water.
Jake: ‘His tongue is tickling my hand!’
Josh: ‘Come on, we need to make a move.’
‘Can the dog come with us?’
Much to Jake’s delight, the dog follows them anyway.
They reach a clearing.
Josh: ‘I know where we are now, we’re near the creek. I was here two weekends ago with Sam and Martin, remember ? We had torches, built a fire. It was spooky but a lot of fun.’
‘Yeah, and I wasn’t allowed to come with you.’
‘We followed the creek to get here that night, you know the one we cross every day to get to the bus stop,’ says Josh.
Jake has a sudden urge to be back in his bed, to rewind the day. Even to be on the school bus. For things to be normal.
They follow a narrow path down to the creek, the dog padding close behind them. On the opposite bank a girl in the same school colours is sitting in the shade.
They both stop side by side and take in this apparition. As if on cue, the dog stops too, it’s big panting tongue marking time.
Josh waves to her, yells out: ‘Hi. Don’t be scared. We were lost.’
The boys and the dog wade into the water towards her, the unexpected cold trickle of the creek a welcome relief through their socks. Mum will kill us about this too thinks Josh, too late.
The girl yells out ‘My name’s Ruby. I think I have sprained my ankle. It really hurts. That’s my backpack on your shoulder.’
She lowers her head. ‘I guess I’m pretty freaked out by all this nature… I heard something and panicked and ran. I’ve just moved here from the city.’
Josh asks ‘Don’t suppose you have a phone on you? I need to ring my Dad.’
She produces one from her pocket.
Josh: ‘Shit I don’t know Dad’s number. It’s always in my phone so I’ve never memorised it.’
‘Here give it to me.’ Jake punches the numbers into the phone then hands it back to his brother.
‘Dad it’s Josh. Yes I thought the school may have rung by now. We’re ok. Yes I know we’re grounded. We have an injured dog and girl with us.’
Jake is close to Josh’s elbow, trying to eavesdrop, but the percussive shrill of the cicadas blocks the rest of the conversation.
The boys don’t get grounded. Instead they receive a bravery award at school assembly the following week for rescuing Ruby.
Josh also starts to spend more time at Ruby’s than at home. Which is fine with Jake, now that he’s allowed to keep the dog. He calls him Rusty, which Josh thinks this is a silly choice, considering the dog is black.