Changeling’s Island – Snippet 06


Molly sank back into the slightly saggy seat of the Nissan and drank in the comforting familiarity of it all as they trundled along. Dad was never going to be a speed-freak, and, as usual, after a trip into Whitemark, the boot was so full that Bunce had to share the backseat with her case and the bags. Bunce didn’t mind as long as he could put his hairy head over the back of her seat and drool onto her shoulder, in between sticking his big nose out of the window.

“So, how was Melbourne?” her father asked as they drove past the old, burned-out gum trunk where some joker had hung a “the black stump” sign.

“Busy. Full of traffic. Full of people. Full of shops and shopping,” answered Molly, looking at the empty landscape.

“Just like this!” he said, cheerfully waving at a handful of hairy highland cows in a paddock. “And look, there is another car on our road.” He greeted the driver with a wave, as everyone did here.

“Well, it is kind of nice to have shops, but Auntie Helen dragged me through a lot of them.”

“She would. So how was the flight, Molly?” He knew how much she hated being in the air. He was fishing.

Molly found herself blushing. Dad was a pain. He read her far too well, and noticed little things. He’d noticed the boy when she’d said ‘bye to him. And he was as nosy as a bloodhound. It would be easier just to tell him. “Not as bad as sometimes. I talked to someone quite a lot of the way. A boy in the seat in front of me.”

“We’ll just have to see that there’s always a boy on the flight for you to pick up then.”

“Oh, pul-leeze, Daddy. He’s far too young. He was just a nice kid.”

“Practice makes perfect. Is he coming over on holiday or something?”

“He didn’t say. And I didn’t ask him what his parents did or where he was from, or what he wanted to do with his life, either,” she said tartly. “So you can stop asking.”

Her father grinned. “Name? Mobile number?”

“He said his name was Tim Ryan, and if I ever got anyone’s mobile’s number I’d never tell you, Dad. Anyway, I’m not likely to ever see him again. Now stop it. You’re worse than Mom.”

“Couldn’t be!” he said as they drove over the ridge and looked out over Marshall Bay. He always took that downhill slowly to enjoy the view for longer. They talked of other things. Of bookings for the B&B and of the problems he was having with white cabbage moths. Being entirely organic in their gardening meant they got caterpillars in their salad.

Soon after they’d turned into the West End road, he jerked his thumb at a tired, saggy farm gate. “I think the name of the old duck who lives down there is Ryan.”

* * *

Tim looked at his watch again. It was three minutes since he’d last looked at it. And that was four minutes from the time before. He was starving, a little afraid, and not at all sure what to do next.

He took out his mobile. It was a hand-me-down of his mother’s. Not the latest and poshest ear-ornament. He’d been too embarrassed to use it at school. He wasn’t too keen on phoning his mother now either. He really didn’t want to talk to her at the moment. He’d just had the bright idea of sending her a text, when he looked at the screen and found out that wouldn’t be happening either. No signal. But he was right next to the airport! This place sucked!

He got up. Paced around. He didn’t even know where his grandmother lived; otherwise, he’d have walked. It was an island. It couldn’t be that far. He could go inside again and ask someone for help, just like some lost kid. But he wasn’t going to…not just yet, anyway. That determination lasted all of ten minutes. He was feeling mixed up and angry and scared again. He walked to the door and opened it, still out of sight of the desk.

“Dammit!” yelled someone. “My computer just crashed. Have we had a power failure?”

Tim froze in the doorway.

“The lights are still on,” answered a female voice.

A few seconds’ pause.

“Who the hell unplugged the computers?”

Tim oozed his way back out of the doorway. He knew that somehow it would be his fault. Besides, there was a car driving in. They parked, took out suitcases…well, they weren’t fetching him. But that explained it all. His grandmother must think he was on a later flight. No need for him to go and ask for help. It was only twenty past four. Not near sundown yet. No need to panic. He’d get a book out.

More cars arrived, with people getting out without luggage…none of whom looked remotely grandmother-ish. Several of them waved as if they knew him, and a couple even said “hi” and “g’day,” but no one stopped to talk to him. A plane came in from the south. Not from Melbourne. More people with bags and cases arrived in a hurry. The passengers came out and collected their bags…and left.

Tim steeled himself. He was starving. And the sun was definitely getting lower. He had to go and ask for help. He’d just stood up when a shiny new green Jeep Cherokee came in, a little too fast on the corners, and screeched to a halt next to him. The window slid down and a cloud of air-conditioned smoke and loud music came out, along with the words “You Tim Ryan? The ol’ woman asked me to pick you up.”

Tim nodded, relief making him feel weak, and not ready to care if this was the devil in person fetching him.

“Put your bag on the backseat, and let’s go,” said the man. He was old. Like, about forty, and half-bald with a gold earring, and a bigger moustache than Molly’s dog.

Tim did as he was told, got in, and, before he even had a seat belt on, found himself pushed back in the seat by acceleration.

“Sorry I’m late,” said the driver in an offhand manner. “Island time,” he said, beerily.

“Um,” said Tim, “That’s okay,” which was just as true as the “sorry” had been. Nearly three hours of worrying did seem like kind of a lot, but what could he do about it? The air in the SUV was making Tim’s chest tight. He wondered if he dared open the window a little. He decided he had to. The driver didn’t even notice, and then it was better. They were out in the country — even the airport seemed to have no town around it, and Tim looked at trees and emptiness and the occasional house, most of them looking just as empty as the countryside.

“So the old woman tells me you comin’ to the school here?”

“Um. Yes.”

“It’s useless. She should have kept you at St. Dominic’s in Melbourne. My kid Hailey’s there.”

If Tim had been able to find a black hole to dive into right then, he would have. So this was Hailey’s father. It didn’t look like escaping his past was going to work out that well. He didn’t know what to say. He certainly wasn’t going to say “I was caught shoplifting while I was with her, which is why I’ve been sent here.” While he was trying to think of what to say, they looped up the hill, crested it, and began heading down towards a vast perfect curve of bay fringed with distant islands, the glassy sea sparkling and shading from azure to deep blue under the westering sun. It looked like the cover of a fantasy novel, too perfect to be real. “It’s supposed to be a good school,” said Tim, warily.

“Yeah. I made a lot of valuable connections while I was there. Old school ties count for a lot.” The driver didn’t seem to notice the view and just kept driving, past a few houses and onto the gravel road. Tim’s alarm grew. This was just…bush. They lost sight of the sea. There was nobody. No houses. It wasn’t even farmed. At least most of it wasn’t. They passed a windmill, some planted rows of cropland, a few sheep, and raced onward…more bush. The only signs of life were crows on the roadkill. There were plenty of crows. Plenty of food for them too.

They swung off the main gravel road and onto a smaller one…and skidded to a halt at a rusty gate tied with a piece of old rope. The dust caught up and swirled around them. “It’s just down there,” said the driver. “I’m late, so I won’t take you in.”

So Tim found himself with his bag and laptop, standing in the dust as the SUV turned and roared off. He took a deep breath, opened the gate, and set off down the rutted track winding between the she-oaks, walking into the setting sun.