Jess

 

He has no family he could speak of, but a wealth of friends that he has fostered since boarding school and two particularly close ones from long before, Troy and myself. Troy has a permanent limp and walks with a cane; he has a government job in children's services. I became a fireman, like my father. Peter at thirty-six was doing exceptionally well in his chosen career. The career path he took was in criminal law, where he chose to specialise in children's cases. He particularly liked defending his clients. Peter, Troy and I have a unique friendship, the kind that is forged in fire, that had been tested and challenged before it was properly developed. We all have our demons to deal with, but in Peters case he chose a career where he had to face them every day. The nightmares never stopped for him, it began when we were children, and his sister was eleven years of age. Troy and I had faced it with him.

I remember looking at Jess through the legs of our parents from my seat on the sofa, she was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a black top. She was a slight girl. She had long blonde hair that always looked perfect with golden skin, tanned by too many days under the harsh sun. She stood there in the middle of the room behind an assembly of adults. Her blue eyes peering through the gaps in the group towards the sofa, towards Peter and myself. We were two years older than her. She always tagged along when we went out in the bush. If one of our parents ever found out, we all would be grounded if we were lucky. Peter and Troy would receive a beating when they were caught at anything. We had been caught before, and to save her brothers hide she had put together a strategy that would stop us being caught again. She was never suspected of being involved in any trouble and that meant she could usually fix it before any of our parents found out. She was very good at this. Her parents sent her out of the room and from that point on she stood in the doorway to the hall and watched from a distance the events unfold in the living room I could see her repeatedly fix her gaze on the clock, counting the minutes as they passed.

We twitched and jostled on the sofa trying to avoid answering questions that could guarantee us getting into trouble, and cause trouble for Troy as well. Jess had begged us before she went home, to keep her out of the story. She was so full of fear at being punished, that neither of us wanted to implicate her in any way. She seemed so small, fragile even, that none of us thought she could not survive the heavy hand of their father if she was ever caught. I had seen the welts on Peter after he had done something wrong and would never put that on his younger sister. Jess as it turned out, was a great asset and on many occasions fielded some close calls. She was a smart girl and had a knack of looking innocent. She was a very convincing storyteller, the fear of being caught had taught her to mask the truth. We played on this particular talent of hers, but this day was different. Earlier that day everything was going well. Jess came up with what we thought was a brilliant idea of going out to the pits. We each had made alibis for each other. Peter and Troy were over my place, I was over Peter's. Jess was the only one who didn't have to account for her day. She always stayed close to home and kept away from us boys, so her parents thought. We all met as a group at Billy Goat Hill. It was right there looming over our back fence, inviting us out into the wild away from the confines of suburbia. I climbed the pickets and jumped in the dust on the other side. I left the world of manicured gardens and lush green lawns for the magic and untamed wild on the other side of the fence. There was a small gravel road winding up the side of the hill to the water tower on the top. When I had made my way up the side, climbed over the granite rocks and reached the cool shade of the water tank. I sat and waited for Peter, Jess and Troy surveying the landscape. The red earth beneath me seemed to stretch on forever, vast and flat with outcrops of rocks. The four of us regularly met Billy goat Hill. It was the highest point and you could always spot someone in the landscape from the tower. The place was never vacant and was always entertaining. When everyone had arrived, we left Billy Goat Hill for the desert. It was amazing just how far we could walk into the flat red desert and still see the hill, like a beacon always showing us where home was.  When you walked far enough away from town it would ripple in the heat and disappear.

We had all been to the pits several times. The way was quite easy if you remembered all the landmarks. They stood out on the horizon. An odd shaped rock that was bigger than most.  Cross a bush track and to a very distinctive tree, that through the wet season bore tiny berries which were fantastic eating. From there, we would walk towards the horizon using a few shrubs as a guide and the berry tree behind us. The next landmark was an area of scattered shrubs that could hardly be called a landmark at all, but the spot stood out because it was the only place on the horizon that had shrubbery. In every direction the landscape was flat, a sea of red that seemed to shift and move with a tree scattered here and there, but no shrubs. That was the area we were looking for.  It was called the pits for a good reason. The landscape was dotted with holes like a pimple faced boy. The holes were sometimes quite large from cave-ins and wear from of the elements since they had be drilled. This was an abandoned mining field where surveyors’ drills had been scattered across the gold stream. The holes followed the vein about three kilometres further up to a ridge that opened into a great cave entrance of an abandoned mine called Mary-Mac. Some shafts were so deep, that when a stone was dropped, they would sail down endlessly making no sound. Some we explored, as they were dug at an angle and had rippled wooden beams that we could brace ourselves on as we made our descent. Some opened up into deep underground caverns with ghostly grey logs supporting angular walls, that now played house to thousands of bats. When disturbed they let out defining screeches that left us clutching our heads and ducking for cover. This is where we always bought the new kid in town and tormented them with stories of death and cave-ins and ghosts and vampires. Where we all bought our skateboards and bikes. Where we dared each other to jump the shafts and everyone had to do it. This was where Troy had fallen off his bike. He took one of the bigger pits, he had done several of the smaller ones and this was the next logical one in size to attempt. Only Peter had done it before. The pit had a wide entrance and had caved in on one side, we had no idea of its depth. Troy gave himself plenty of space to make the leap on his bike. He built up speed as he attempted to jump. His front wheel landed firmly on the other side. It looked like he was going to do it. Then the back wheel landed gingerly on the edge. The rock edge collapsed beneath the wheel. Before any of us had a chance to move, the bike slipped backwards. Troy fell down into the pit. I leaped to the edge grazing my elbows as I hit the ground, my head perched over the edge.

'Troy, Troy you hear us mate?' I called into the darkness.

Nothing.

'Troy, you ok Troy.'

Still nothing.

Peter grabbed Jess by the arm as she made her way to the pit.

'You have to go home and get some rope, I think dad has a kit in the shed that would get him up,' he said.

'The stuff in the red bag?'

'That sounds like it, make sure there is rope in it. Ok.'

'Ok,' Jess said as she bolted towards home.

Peter made his way down an accessible shaft twenty metres away in the hope that they could find him in the maze below. He took one of the flashlights stashed in his backpack and disappeared. I hovered at the surface waiting, listening.

After she was gone, I kept calling for Troy. A few minutes later with my ears in the hole, I thought I heard some movement. It was not long after that I heard definite signs he was alive.

'Troy, we're going to get you out mate.'

Nothing.

'Troy can you hear us.'

'Sean,' He replied in a muffled whimper. I thought for a moment I heard him mumbling, but neither Peter or myself would ever admit we heard him cry and certainly wouldn't bring it up ever in our lives.

It took an hour and a half for Jess to get back with the rope and we tried for the better part of the afternoon to get to him but each time failed. He was conscious and sometimes talking to us, but unable to secure himself on the rope to pull himself up and we could not get to him, at no point did any of us think it wise to tell Peter's or Troy's parents. By late afternoon and after repeated attempts Troy, Peter and I agreed that we would come back after dinner with more equipment and get him out then. In the course of the day we had dropped down the torch and the back pack for him to rest on as well as all the water we had.

'I want to tell my dad, he can help,' I said.

'No mate try get me out first, I'll never be allowed out again after this,' said troy.

'I agree' said Peter. it'll be my last breath.'

'We can make it work if we get him out of the pit and to the bush track, we could say he got hit by a car, the trail gets used all the time,' said Jess.

'Go home now we will keep trying for as long as we can, you don't need to get in trouble as well if we don't get him out,' said Peter.

'I can tell them you were playing on the other side of town last time I saw you, if they ask. That might give you some time. If you get caught please don't tell mum and dad I was with you, please,’ begged Jess.

Peter was always getting into trouble and some of the kids in town weren't allowed to play with him, but that never really stopped them. My parents gave me the freedom to make my own choices, but Troy was not allowed anywhere near Peter since he was found tangled in a barbed wire fence. His leg had been sliced open from knee to ankle after the four of us had lifted some cookies from the bakery.  This and another incident where a mate Shane lost a chunk out of his butt cheek while sliding down a pipe on Billy Goat Hill. It didn't matter whose idea it was; Peter always shouldered the blame.

Jess had got home in plenty of time for dinner. She paid particular attention to the clock. It was around one o'clock when Troy fell in the hole it was now fast approaching six o'clock and she was the only one home. At six thirty the phones around town started buzzing.

'Hi, Mrs Davis, have can you send Troy home Please? It's getting late,' said Mrs Chambers.

'He's not here. Sean left this morning to Peter's place; I was just about to ring Mrs Baxter myself.'

'really?'

In such a small town it was very easy to pick up a clear picture of the kids who were missing.  Peter Baxter, his dad worked on the mines and was a volunteer Fire-fighter. Troy Chambers, his dad also worked on the mines and me whose dad manned the Fire Station. Our parent's converged at the Baxter's house and none of them had any idea where us boys went, or what we got up to.

I've not seen them all day I've been over Paula's house,' said Jess. 'They sometimes play at near the creek at the edge of town they could be there,' she added.

Nobody thought to check her alibi. It wasn't until seven that Peter had rocked up at the back door and was noticed by Mrs Chambers. Things really started going wrong for us then.  By ten past seven, Peter and myself were on the brown vinyl sofa in the Baxter's living room, wishing we were in the pit.

Although Jess had avoided trouble before, she was afraid that this time she would be implicated, and the fear was visible in her eyes.  She had managed to avoid it in the past, only because Peter took the punishment for her instead. She kept a close eye on both of us and stood in a spot where she could clearly see us. Peter's father was heavy handed in his punishment and wasn't afraid dealing it out. Peter was more worried about getting her involved.

There was consensus among our parents that Troy was in some kind of danger.  With Troy being the only one not back they assumed that something had happened to him.

'Where's Troy? said Peter's father.

Peter and I looked at each other knowing then, there was no way out.

'We know you were with him today, fess up now,' he said. Impatience showing in his face.

'We played with him today,' I said, looking at the floor.

The adults all glared at us, standing over us like trees in a forest blocking the light. Peter had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to be punished for this one as well and said.

'We decided to go to the pits today, where the drill holes are.'

Piece by piece the story unfolded. Nobody asked if Jess was there, I mentioned her here and there, but none of the adults really listened. When asked whose idea it was, Peter took responsibility, dutifully protecting his sister. Nobody was interested in Jess's part in this and when I mentioned Jess briefly, I got my first and last clip behind the ear by my dad, as Peter's father shouted

'Haven't you done enough damage already, stop lying.'

'Well where is he then?' said Troy’s father. Then he paused and said, 'he's not still out there'.

Peter and I looked at each other then nodded slowly.

The room went silent. A sudden darkness descended on the room and all eyes turned to Troy's parents. The atmosphere changed from being oppressive and overbearing to panic and shock. Troy's mum broke down and then made an attempt to beat the daylights out of Peter. Peter retreated to the back of the sofa and then up to the seat trying to make an exit over the top as she attempted to smack him. With her screaming and throwing herself on Peter it took my dad and Peter's mum to pull her off. Not without damage to Peter as he crouched up on the top of the lounge like a frightened owl, visibly shaking. Then without warning Troy's father grabbed him in a vice like grip and nearly choked him. I stayed deathly still not daring to move for fear of me being next. My mum intervened calming the situation and starting the rescue. We were rounded up into back of the local cop car and taken to the pits. Our parents following in other vehicles. My dad prepped the fire truck and all the equipment they needed. People were called, friends were notified, the doctor placed on standby and a plane made available in case it was needed.

At the pits they quickly located the hole which Troy had fallen in. A tripod was erected, generators started humming and lights were lit. Com's were tested, equipment inspected. My dad was lowered into the hole with the rescue equipment and ample lighting. Troy was found on a narrow ledge with a broken hip and femur. He was lucky, he had not fallen to the bottom.  He was bought up on a stretcher wrapped in a foil blanket for warmth. There were congratulations and praise for the rescue efforts. There were tears and offers of help to Troy's parents. Troy meet with the doctor to fly to the nearest hospital that could deal with his injuries. There were welts and bruises rising on Peters skin from the altercation with Troy's Parents, and although these would heal, there were much deeper scars still to come.

The condescending voices eventually faded, but the looks of hatred that emanated from the adults and even his own parents never did. He was permanently marked as the bad kid, isolated and ostracised. That night was the last night we saw each other for a long time. Troy's parents relocated. They only came back to pack up their belongings. Peter and I were sent to separate boarding schools. Peter never came home to stay at his parents again. He would stay at school during term breaks. The long Christmas holidays he would spend with an aunt, or uncle, or some distant relative. Jess was left at home with no one. She lost her brother and her protector. Though she soon found other kids to play with, nobody looked out for her like Peter, Troy and me. It seemed that there was an incident every few months after we left town, with different kids getting injured or hurt, but nothing as bad as the injuries that Troy sustained. Peter, Troy and I could only guess what happened when Jess got into trouble or how often she was the brunt of her father's violent frustration. It was at her funeral that we met again and resumed our friendship. Peter had never admitted his sister’s involvement in the event that changed his life and took him away from his sister. He felt he had let her down. He burdened himself with guilt of that the moment she died. It was one occasion that changed all our lives, Troy, Peter, Jess and me. It was one decision to go and, in that moment,, Peter lost everything.

Short Story by Kellie Watson

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