The salt pruned woodland doesn’t provide a hiding place, but my Dad disappeared into it. My brother has about twenty flies on his face and is trying to brush them off with his better hand. His other curls limp by his side.
“Where’d Dad go, Billy?” I asked. We’ve been hiking to the beach. Twelve k’s and the waves are only now close enough to hear. Why’d we have to do it in thirty degree heat?
“Dad!” I yelled. No response…
“For God sakes. Where’d he go?” I stopped. Took a breath.
Dad taught me to be practical. Finding people was easy, whether that’s by listening for an echo of a car, the smell of a campfire, or light pollution from a nearby town. Losing sight of Dad doesn’t worry me. When I was a kid, we’d go four-wheel driving in search for dead trees to use for firewood. One time he told me to get out. Then he’d driven off. I had to sleep on top of a log that night.
“Now ya know how to live off the bush. None of that Scout crap.” He had told me. This is probably another one of his lessons. Although, there’s no way he’d leave me with Billy. Plus, this time feels different. The only thing I hear are the crickets’ drones that share their intensity with the sticky-hot air. And also, the wind that’s carrying a plume of smoke.
That’s where Dad is! He would’ve gone up ahead to set up camp. He’s probably cooking some snags. That explains the smoke, and why he took Billy’s pram with him. What a relief.
“Want some sausages, Billy?” I asked my brother.
He replied with an “Ahehyy,” which only means he’s engrossed with something else. Spend enough time with him and it’s easy to pick up the Billy language. Sure enough, Billy sits hunched over, intently smushing the dirt-sand into a mound as if he’s making the greatest sandcastle in the southern hemisphere. Really, the only thing he’s doing is getting sandy.
“Come on Billy, jump on my back! Let’s go.”
He can walk, but it’s more like a limp and I can tell he’s not in the mood to. Also, I didn’t have time for him to drudge along. I’m hungry and sausages aren’t far away. With the added fourty kilos of Billy, my footprints sunk deep into the track. He was only eight and small, but my legs felt like jelly.
“Alright Billy, last hill.” I gritted my teeth. We’d be able to see the campsite from the top of the beach ramp, but that meant getting up the hill. It’s hard to breath with Billy strangling my neck as he holds on, but we’re almost there now. There’s a wall of sweat gluing my shirt to my back. Why’d he have to take the bloody pram. As soon as we reach the top I drop Billy and sit him down.
From the wooden lookout point we could see the ocean tinged with orange. At first it looked like it was from the sunset, but down the other end of the beach the bush was glowing with fire.
Dead trees burn the hottest, but I’m not worried about the trees. The thing that scares me is the shrubbery. The type of bush that if attempted to penetrate would leave you with white and red scratches up your legs. The problem is that it forms a barrier between the beach and the woodland. Once that goes up we’ll be cut off. I can’t see Dad at the campsite, not anyone. If we go to the beach, we’ll be alone with no food, water, tent, nothing. I look back towards the way we came, there’s no shrubbery, only dead trees. Can I outrun it? The fires moving fast, especially with the wind blowing our direction. I look over at Billy still sitting in the sand. Not with him on my back.
“Dad!” I scream. Shit. The panic floods back. He’s probably trying to put the fire out. I look towards the beach, then I rush over to Billy and get him on my back again. It’s much easier on the way down, but the smoke is getting thicker. I can barely breathe with Billy cutting off my throat, let alone with the added smoke. It’s only getting worse. If we’d stayed in the same place the fire would’ve killed us. I could feel the heat on my side now. To my left, the top of the fire is licking above the trees. Billy doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows that we’re not in a good situation. I can tell by his silence.
“It’s alright Billy, we’re almost at the beach,” I try to keep a positive tone. The last one hundred meters is quick, the heat makes it feel like half of my face is melting and I forget about the pain in my legs and throat. We get close to the water before I drop Billy in the sand and collapse beside him.
The sand makes a pretty good mattress and it’s getting dark now. I could easily sleep but we still haven’t found Dad. It’s not even that I need him to look after Billy, it’s that I can’t look after him if I don’t have any food.
I don’t know what else to do so I try yelling again. It doesn’t work.
“Come on Billy, lets go for a swim.” Billy can’t swim so we stay in the shallows. The waves crash up to his stomach but only just below my waist. I still dunk my head under. Then I dunk Billy’s. I knew he wouldn’t like it, but he definitely needed it with the amount of sand in his curly black hair and on his scrunched-up face. He came out of the water crying, with a look of betrayal on his face.
“Oh come on, you’re alright.”
By now, the fire had taken over all the shrubbery. We’re truly cut off. I have no idea how long it’s gonna take to burn out, but by the looks of the flames we’re stuck here for a while. All those dead trees we passed, it would be a few days at least. And considering we’re in a national park, firefighters would mostly try and contain it.
Before I got into the water, I emptied everything out of my pockets. A sad pile lay on top of my shirt. We had a flask that was half full, my phone (with a dead battery), a metal bracelet, a pocket knife, and a box of matches. I looked at the fire and laughed. I put everything back in my pocket and dried Billy off with my shirt. He’s just gonna get sandy again considering we can’t leave the beach, but it helps.
It was dark now, I gave Billy some water out of the flask. There was nothing else to do but sleep.
It was difficult to get Billy to sleep at first, but after that the night had gone smoothly. He must’ve been tired. The fire had kept us warm overnight.
Now I was hungry and my lips were dry. I sipped some water from my nearly empty flask, then gave the rest to Billy. I survey our surroundings again, the outcropping of rocks are a lot more clear in the daytime. The swell is huge today, so going on those rocks would be sketchy. The camping area’s a clearing between the shrubbery and it’s burning, but not as intensely as its surroundings. In the middle, a sheltered barbeque area is roasting away like a slow cooker, its wooden supports still standing. Maybe there was a tap over there. The beach would be cosy if it weren’t for the looming flames, it’s only a small inlet cut off by steep inclines that lead to more walking tracks and more beaches. The outcropping of rocks was before one of the inclines. There was more of a chance of food being in the rockpools than anywhere else. Billy signed “where” to me. He knew about five signs, but mostly babbled in his own language.
“I don’t know, he’s gone. Come on let’s go look for food.” I grab his hand and walk for the rocks. He trudges along behind me singing gibberish. His limp makes him move about as quickly as a grandma carrying a delicate tray of home-made monte carlos. I turn to him and give him a “Roar!” He laughs and starts chasing after me. It’s quite easy to get him moving quickly if he’s in the right mood.
Eventually we reach the rocks and I let Billy catch me. He slaps me a few times.
“Aye you got me. Alright finished now.” I climb up one of the rocks and start looking through the rock pools. Billy is still following me as if I’m trying to run away from him, but he’s finding it hard to get up the rocks.
“Stay there,” I tell him.
He cries out back to me.
“Just stay there, I’ll be back soon.” I spend about an hour looking through the rockpools. There’s only tadpole type fish, but there’s flathead swimming close by in the ocean. The metal bracelet clangs uselessly in my pocket, it doesn’t take me long to break it in half and make a hook out of it. It looked dorky anyway. I unthread a loose string from my t-shirt and tie it to the hook. Catching one of the fish from the rockpools isn’t difficult either. It impales surprisingly easily onto the dull bracelet. Then, I dangle the thread into the aqua water. It’s so clear that I can see individual strands of seaweed on the bottom of the seafloor. I time each wave, getting about fifteen seconds of the hook underwater between each cast.
After I’m not sure how long, a fish comes up and takes the bait. I yank. The thread instantly brakes and the fish gets away. Damn…
Shit where’s Billy.
When I race back to where I left Billy, he’s not there. Shit. He couldn’t have gone far. But when I look up the beach he’s nowhere to be seen. Shit. I jump off the rocks and sprint up the beach towards the fire. I don’t find him. I start sprinting back towards the camping area. I approach and hear him crying. There’s no mistaking that cry. Shit he better not be burnt. The flames had died down in the camping area, but it would still be hot, and he wouldn’t understand not to touch anything. Shit please don’t be burnt.
“Billy!” I yell. I follow his cries. The barbeque shelter has collapsed now. His cries sound like they’re coming from below it. I run up to it and find him sitting on the ground besides what looks like a pair of shoes and some burnt clothes. Is that a person? What the hell? I get closer. It is a person. The charred clothes have melted into red and black skin that looks like its bubbled up the way it does in movies. It smells like burnt, rotten meat. I almost throw up. Next to it there’s a big “SORRY BOYS” written in charcoal. It makes my gut sink. I can’t bear to look at the face. But I do. And it’s Dad.