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This is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places and incidents are products of


the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to trace the holders of copyright material. If you have
any information concerning copyright material in this book please contact the
publishers at the address below.

First published in 2018

Copyright © Kate van Hooft 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in


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is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
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given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

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Zero

It gets dark quicker than you think it will, and even with
the torch it’s hard to see where we’re going. Superman is
sure that if we can get to a clearing we’ll have a better look
at where we are, and where the mountains are. If you hold
the torch steady enough and straight out you can see the
trees and the ground in front of you, well enough that you
don’t have to worry so much about stepping in any holes,
but it’s heavy and my arm is getting tired and I’m worried
about the batteries going flat.
I find a log and sit on it, and even though Superman
wants to keep going I make him rest as well. It’s important

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that he gets enough sleep tonight because tomorrow’s


probably going to be another big day of walking and I’m not
really sure how far we still have to go.
‘I couldn’t find any water,’ Arnold says. His pyjama
bottoms are dirty from being dragged in the mud, and
there are sticks in his hair from where he’s brushed up
against the branches, and through his paper skin you can
see the hole where the heart used to be, but now there’s
only black, and stillness. ‘Did you really not bring any
food?’ he asks.
I shake my head. I feel the burn in my eyes and I rub
at them.
‘Back when I was a lad you got taught these things,’
Arnold says. ‘If you couldn’t live off the land, you couldn’t
live.’
I shrug my shoulders, and I feel the soreness from where
the bag’s been cutting in. I squeeze my fingers into fists and
let them out again and I taste the sour down the back of
my throat.
There are birds in the trees and if you look up with
the torch you can just catch them before they duck out
of the way. Their eyes light up green and red from the
bright of it. They talk to each other in whispers under
their beaks.
‘Do you think Ms Hilcombe’s alive?’ I ask Arnold.
Superman’s wrapped his cape around his shoulders and

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he’s tucked his legs up under his chin. He’s blowing hot air
into his hands and rubbing them.
‘Maybe,’ Arnold says. ‘The important thing is that you
keep looking.’
‘Can you hear her?’ I ask.
‘I could for a while, but she’s gone quiet now.’
I don’t have a warm enough jumper, and if I use the
torch too much I’ll run down the batteries. If it’s quiet I can
hear the little crinkles in the bones when I move my neck.
The longer we sit here the longer Ms Hilcombe is tied to a
chair in the farmhouse, or the longer he’s holding her head
under the water in the creek, or the longer she thinks that
I’m not coming to save her.
‘But it’s late, son, and an old man needs his rest, eh?’
Arnold starts to settle down with his back to a tree and his
arms tucked up into his armpits so they don’t fall away to
the sides.
There are some bits of sky that don’t have any clouds,
and you can see right through to where the stars would be
if there were any.
‘What if we can’t find her and no-one else can either?’
I ask.
Arnold’s already snoring, and the sound of it makes little
waves in the air that come up over the ground and in under
my eyelashes. When I blink it feels heavier, and there’s
rough bits of dirt stuck to the inside.

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I look at Superman. ‘I promised,’ I say.


He points up at the darkness, where there is only total
black. ‘Is that the Big Dipper?’ he asks.
I feel the squeeze in my chest let go a little. I put my
head on my knees. I close my eyes.

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One

You have to be careful when Grandma drives you out to


the dam, because the seats of her car get so hot that you
need to bring your towel to sit on if you don’t want to burn
the back of your legs. Getting out there takes about half an
hour going in the opposite direction to Grandpa’s hospital,
and if you’ve forgotten something to sit on the next best
thing might be the street directory, but that’s slippery to sit
on if you’re sweaty as well, and Grandma yells at you if she
sees because she says it makes the pages go wrinkly.
Davey had been asking to go to the dam ever since Dad
got him a new beach towel for Christmas and told him he’d

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take some work time off before school went back so he


could use it. The dam is kind of in the middle of nowhere,
which means that kids come from all around and not just
town to come and swim, so if you’ve got a new beach towel
it’s the best place to take it and show it off.
Davey wound the window down, and the air came
rushing from his side over to mine, and I felt it push up
into my face and lift the hair up off my head, so that for a
second it was hard to breathe any air in, and the noise of it
nearly covered the sound of the engine.
‘Do you reckon you’ll swim with the other kids today,
Simon?’ Grandma asked, and I shrugged.
‘Rohan’s going to be there with his cousin from the city,’
Davey said, and Grandma smiled at him in the rear-vision
mirror.
‘That right?’ she said. ‘Do you like Rohan, Simon?’
‘Rohan’s cousin has his own pool at his house,’ Davey
said. ‘They can go in any time.’
‘Bet it’s a pain to keep up,’ Grandma said.
Another car came up behind us and then went around
with its engine real loud. I closed my eyes and felt the
sound of it stick all sharp and red to the collar of my
T-shirt. Some of them were kids from the high school
in Manerlong. The summer after this one I’d be going
there, too.
‘I wish Dad was coming,’ Davey said.

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‘You know he’s got work,’ Grandma told him, leaning over
to change the radio station but only getting static.I turned
around and looked at him in the back. He had bright yellow
zinc across his nose.
Davey sank back into his seat. ‘Dad’s a good swimmer,
hey?’ he said.
‘He was a great swimmer,’ Grandma replied, and I turned
to face the front again. ‘He won lots of ribbons, a heap of
them, in school.’
‘Does he still like swimming?’ Davey asked.
‘It’s not something we’ve ever talked about, love.’
Grandma switched the radio off altogether.
‘Rohan says his dad’s going to get them a colour TV,’
Davey said, and I saw Grandma roll her eyes. She started
driving faster, and the wind got loud enough that you
couldn’t hear anything else Davey tried to say.
That afternoon there were heaps of cars, and you
could see them lined up even from the bottom of the
hill. We found a spot under an old tree in someone’s
paddock where the fence had come down, and I watched
Davey’s footprints in the dirt in front of me so that if
I put my feet in them you could see that even though
mine were still bigger his were catching up, and that if
he kept growing but I stopped, one day he’d be the taller
one and everyone would think he was the one who was a
year older.

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At the top of the hill you could look down at the dam
and see where the little kids were splashing in the shallow
end and where the older ones from the high school had
waded out to the far side. They bobbed in the water, and
the girls wrapped their arms around the necks of the boys,
and every now and again one of them would throw a girl off
so that she’d go splashing head first underneath, and her
scream would get cut off when her mouth filled with the
water and the mud.
Davey stood next to me with his hand over his eyes, and
when he saw Rohan in the water he waved to him.
‘Hey, do you need this?’ he said. He pulled my puffer
out of his pocket, but kept it half hidden under his T-shirt
so Grandma wouldn’t see. I took a breath in and felt
the air push all the way down into my chest. I shook my
head. He bent down and tucked it under the corner of
his new beach towel. I heard Grandma’s footsteps coming
up behind me, and I moved over a little so that my foot
covered the puffer.
‘Want to get into the water today, Simon?’ Grandma
asked me. Davey ran off ahead to meet up with Rohan,
and he didn’t look behind him, and he didn’t say goodbye.
‘Just go and paddle with the little kids, then,’ Grandma
said when I didn’t respond. ‘Can you do that at least?’ She
turned and found a spot to sit in under a tree, where a
bunch of other women were reading magazines and a man

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with a hat pulled down over his eyes listened to the cricket
on his radio.
The dam is the only place to really cool down since
they took the water out of the pool in Grandma’s town
to put out fires last summer, so on hot days you can go
there and half our school is paddling around in the deep
bit, and most of the kids from Manerlong as well. As I
stood at the edge and shielded my eyes to look for Davey,
I could feel the sun burning on the back of my neck and
the water real cool on my ankles. The little kids in the
shallow end were putting their faces in up to their noses
and blowing bubbles along the top, and the mud from
the bottom was all churning so that you couldn’t really
see where to put your feet, and if you got all the way into
the water the dirt would get kicked up and inside your
bathers, and also in through your nose and your mouth,
and when you swallowed you’d take all the dirt in, into
your guts and then into your blood, so that if you stood
on a rock and got cut open it would come out thick and
brown, and full of worms.
‘Simon!’ Davey yelled, and when I looked up I could
see he was with Rohan and a couple of other boys from
his class. He was standing waist-deep in the water, and his
shoulders were already brown with freckles, and if you took
a pen and connected them all up you’d have a little map
of how it went when the skin stretched out and over his

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bones. He waved for me to swim over. I felt my knees go a


little bit blobby, and I shook my head.
‘C’mon, Simon,’ Davey yelled.
The other boys were watching me, and one of them
nudged the other, and then they smiled with their teeth all
crooked and not in a row. I shook my head just a little and
sat down in the water, so that it covered halfway up my legs
if I stuck them straight out in front of me. The other boys
kind of laughed, and I saw Davey slap the water a little.
‘Your brother’s weird,’ Rohan said, and the words carried
over the surface and along the air, and then inside the curl
in my ears. Davey turned away from me so that I couldn’t
see his face.
Rohan did a dive-bomb from the top of some rocks and
the splash went up so high that it made little waves up to
the bank all the way on the other side of the dam.
Next to the rocks some girls sitting on the bank were
laughing, but then one of them shrieked as another boy
came up behind them and grabbed at her top, and then
quickly ducked away back into the water. One of the girls
stood up, and I saw that it was Cassie. Her hair was tied
up tight at the top of her head, and when she shouted at
the boy she waved her hands around so that you could
see the one that was all purple and melted at the ends.
‘Oi!’ she yelled, and the sound of it bounced over the
water and up into the tree branches, where it got stuck

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on some of the leaves. ‘Did you just put a worm down this
chick’s top?’ She was pointing to the girl sitting next to her,
who was screaming and pulling at her clothes, and even
from where I was standing you could see she was trying not
to cry.
The boy jumped to hide behind Rohan, and Rohan was
just laughing, and Davey was too, and Cassie was chasing
them both further into the water, where it was already up
to Davey’s chest.
‘Don’t let her touch me with her zombie hand!’ Rohan
yelled, and ran to hide behind Davey, who slipped when
Rohan pulled down on his arms. They both went under and
for a second all you could hear was the little kids blowing
bubbles in the shallow end, and the leaves falling into the
water from the wind. Rohan came up first, spitting water
and shaking it out of his hair. Cassie was still yelling, and
the other boys were laughing from the top of the rocks, and
it took a second for Rohan to turn around and realise Davey
hadn’t come up yet, and another couple of seconds while
all the sound around us got sucked out of the air.
‘Davey?’ Rohan called.
All the other boys stopped swimming, and even Cassie
stopped yelling.
‘Davey?’ Rohan called again.
He looked over at me, and all the sweat up and down
my arms mixed with the air from the breeze so that it made

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little grey clouds that hung around over my shoulders, and


when I rolled them the air moved with them so that it made
a little storm, and the lightning was crackling down through
my elbow and out into the air from my fingernails, and the
thunder was rolling down from my belly and into my legs,
and even though Rohan was waiting for me to do something
I just kept staring at the water and waiting for Davey’s face
to appear.
I heard footsteps run up behind me, and then Grandma’s
papery hands were on my arms.
‘Where’s Davey?’ she asked. I looked up into her face.
‘Where is he, Simon?’ she yelled, so that the noise of it
shoved the air up and into my face, and I had to close my
eyes from the push.
Rohan was thrashing around in the water, trying to see
the bottom through the mud and the dirt.
‘Jesus, Simon.’ Grandma pushed me out of the way and
dived straight into the water.
People were pulling their kids out of the shallow bit, and
some of the girls were crying.
‘They’ve lost a boy,’ I heard a woman say, and when
I turned to look at her she went red. She was holding on to
a little kid in togs who had zinc on her nose just like Davey.
I turned back to watch for Davey to come up out of the
water. Time went still, and the trees stopped swaying in
the hot wind, and the birds froze in mid-air and just hung

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there in the sky, and the water stopped rippling where


Rohan was standing in it, and if you looked you could see
your perfect reflection, caught there in the dark and the
mud of it, with the clouds behind your head not moving,
and the sun high up behind them and never going to set.
Grandma kept swimming, and Rohan kept diving under
the water, coming up to say it was too hard to see, and
then over the top of the water there was a howl, with pain
shredded through it, and then Grandma was swimming off
towards the bank on the other side of the dam, and the
howl turned into crying, which turned into Davey, yelling
at the top of his lungs as Grandma pulled him through the
reeds. He was real pale and his eyes were shut tight, and
when she carried him out of the water you could see that
his ankle was bent nearly all the way through in the wrong
direction.
‘Get the stuff!’ Grandma yelled at me.
I stood up to my ankles in the mud. There was no way
I could make my legs move.
‘Simon, get the fucking stuff, for Christ’s sake!’ She
pushed past me with Davey in her arms, running down to
the path that led out to the road.
I heard one of the girls laugh and I looked over and saw
it was Cassie. She covered her mouth with her melted,
purple hand.

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