A Fear Of Heights
Zac watched as an ant circled the honey jar then disappeared behind a jug of milk. He let out a long sigh. Two minutes later, the ant reappeared halfway up a carton of pineapple juice. Zac sighed again.
‘Is something wrong?’ asked his mother. She sounded more exasperated than concerned.
‘He’s scared,’ declared Bridget. Zac’s younger sister had a slice of toast wedged halfway into her mouth. Melted honey was abseiling down her chin.
Zac felt like yelling at her. ‘I don’t like heights,’ he said calmly. ‘That doesn’t mean I’m scared.’
Zac’s father poked his head around the kitchen door. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said. Then. ‘Have any of you seen Max?’
‘Living room,’ offered Bridget with an airy wave.
‘Not everything involves heights,’ continued Mum. ‘There’s mini golf. And a boating pond.’
Dad reappeared. ‘He’s not there.’ He looked worried.
‘Try the bathroom,’ suggested Mum. She tutted. ‘If you don’t hurry up, Zac, you’re going to miss the bus and there won’t be a school excursion.
Suits me, thought Zac but he scooped up his backpack and headed for the car anyway. If he bailed now, his best friend would kill him.
‘Did you remember your jacket?’ asked Mum as they pulled out of the driveway.
Zac patted a small drawstring bag that lay beside him on the seat. Not that I’ll get to use it, he thought glumly. What he could see of the sky was a clear spring blue.
Mum dropped him off at the school gate, and he slouched onto the bus, stashing his bags under the seat.
‘I am so pumped,’ gushed Billy, plonking down beside him. He spotted the look on Zac’s face and stopped.
‘It’s alright for you,’ groaned Zac. ‘You like all that stuff.’ He glanced at the girls in the seats opposite.
The tallest, Auburney Temple, caught his eye. ‘My brother told me that the flying fox is 50 metres high,’ she said loudly. Her eyes were like tiny polished blueberries. ‘That’s like being on the top floor of a ten-storey skyscraper.’
Something inside Zac’s stomach shifted with an unpleasant gurgle.
‘What was that?’ smirked Auburney. ‘Did you say something, Zac?’
‘Ignore them,’ whispered Billy. He re-adjusted a pair of over-sized sunglasses, pushing them back up his nose. ‘That lot don’t have enough sense to be afraid of anything.’
‘I am ignoring them,’ said Zac. He watched a flock of corellas swing through the branches of a tall gum. Part of him was praying for rain.
‘They can’t make you do anything,’ continued Billy. ‘Not if you don’t want to.’
The odd feeling in Zac’s stomach got worse.
‘Just tell Ms Brian that you’re scared of heights. She’ll understand. I mean, loads of people are scared of heights.’
‘You’re not,’ pointed out Zac. ‘And stop saying I’m scared. I’d just rather not risk my life. What’s wrong with that?’
Billy, who was imagining all the fun he was about to have, couldn’t help the smile that followed. ‘Sorry,’ he said happily.
Brown Creek Adventure Park was even worse than Zac had been expecting. Everything seemed to have been built to cause him the maximum amount of terror. And the flying fox really did look as tall as a ten-storey building.
‘Amazing,’ cooed Auburney, striding past with an irritating swagger.
Zac headed for the portaloo.
When he returned five minutes later, the expression on Billy’s face made him feel dizzy.
‘’Fraid so,’ said Billy, confirming Zac’s worst fear. ‘We’re doing the flying fox first. Ms Brian thinks we might as well start with the scariest thing. That way everything else will seem easy.’
Auburney snorted out a laugh. Zac ignored it and looked up. And up. And up. The top of the flying fox was hidden amongst the tallest trees. To reach the upper platform, they would have to climb up a series of metal stairs. To Zac it looked about a million storeys high. It also looked very, very dangerous.
‘What if I don’t want to?’ he said.
Ms Brian shielded her eyes to gaze upwards. ‘You don’t have to,’ she said. ‘But think how wonderful it would be to face your fear and overcome it. To not let it stand in the way of …’
Certain death, thought Zac.
‘Success,’ finished Ms Brian. She squinted down at Zac. ‘You don’t look convinced.’
‘He’s terrified of heights,’ whispered Billy a little too loudly.
Zac glared at him.
‘It’s OK,’ said Ms Brian hurriedly. ‘No-one has to do anything they don’t want to.’ She glanced around. ‘Why don’t you go and sit with Mr Thompson. You can help him prepare morning tea.’
Muffled sniggers followed him all the way to the picnic tables.
Billy was flushed red when he re-joined Zac over an hour later. ‘Awesome,’ he pronounced and flopped back into the long grass. He rolled onto his stomach. ‘How were the muffins?’
‘Fine.’ Zac tried not to catch Billy’s eye. The truth was his stomach had felt far too unsettled to try them.
Mr Thompson appeared with a platter of sandwiches. There was a concerned look on his face. ‘Thought you might be ready to try something,’ he began. ‘If you’re feeling better.’
Embarrassment burned red in Zac’s neck and cheeks. He snatched a sandwich and nibbled around the edges. A piece of cucumber got caught in the back of his throat and he began coughing uncontrollably.
Billy whacked him hard on the back. ‘We’re going boating next,’ he said. ‘On the lake.’
‘It’s deep,’ warned Auburney.
Ms Brian hushed her with a stern look. ‘Followed by a game of mini golf. After that we’ll have lunch then try out the assault course.’ She carefully avoided Zac’s eyes.
‘She’s going to roast me for the rest of the term,’ groaned Zac as he and Billy wobbled their way across the lake. Around their feet, the sunlight dimmed briefly and Zac looked up. A dark cloud was moving across the sky. Tiny raindrops burst against his arm.
‘You don’t have to look so happy,’ grumbled Billy as more raindrops followed.
Zac grinned. ‘Sorry. I know I’m being a pain.’ A gust of cool air lifted up the back of his shirt.
Billy smiled. ‘Actually, you are, a bit. No-one cares what Auburney thinks. I don’t. Why should you?’
Zac could think of a thousand reasons. Like; they could make his life miserable for the next five weeks. Or …
‘You’re not even listening,’ complained Billy. ‘I mean. Can’t you at least pretend you’re having fun?’
There was a sudden violent blast of wind and the clouds burst. Within minutes the boys were drenched. Back on land, Ms Brian gathered them all into a sodden group beneath a canvas shelter. The rain was now so loud it was hard to hear.
‘Put on your jackets,’ shouted Mr Thompson. ‘And use the towels to dry off a little. We’ll wait here until the rain stops.’
Behind Zac, Auburney bent down to pick up her bag, and screamed. The scream became a terrified shriek and she scrambled backwards in total panic.
Zac saw something move amongst the bags at Auburney’s feet.
A long, grey snake.
Auburney’s scream became a series of wails.
Children scattered in all directions, all of them screaming at the tops of their voices.
Zac, on the other hand, stayed absolutely still. Less than two metres away, the snake was slowly uncurling itself from a tangle of bags and belongings. It paused and raised its head to look around. Zac was mesmerized.
‘Do not move!’ warned Ms Brian. Her voice was shaky.
Very slowly, Zac crouched down and began watching the snake’s sinuous, graceful movements. He was vaguely aware of Ms Brian shouting at him, telling him, ordering him, to stop.
The snake was large; its grey black body smooth and slightly shiny. Zac held his breath as it slid closer. Somewhere to his left, Auburney Temple was becoming hysterical. For once, Zac completely ignored her. Then, just as the snake slid past his left foot, he reached out and gently grasped it behind the back of its head. He stood up with the snake dangling from his right hand.
‘It’s Max,’ he said and smiled.
Auburney screamed again.
Back on the bus, Zac couldn’t stop grinning.
‘And you’re sure it’s completely safe?’ repeated Ms Brian for the third time. ‘Non-venomous.’
Zac stroked the bag in which he’d stuffed his jacket the night before. The snake’s body felt smooth and muscly beneath his fingers. ‘Perfectly. Max is my pet. He must have fallen asleep in my bag this morning. Dad was looking for him when I left. He sometimes lets him out of the tank for a few hours.’ He smiled as children crowded around him. ‘He’s a herpetoculturalist.’
‘He breeds snakes,’ explained Billy.
‘We have loads of them at home,’ added Zac. He glanced at Auburney. ‘I could bring some to school, if you like?’
The expression on Auburney’s face made him smile. It was unlikely she’d be roasting him about his fear of heights, he thought. Not now she’d been introduced to Max.
‘Fear’s a funny thing,’ said Ms Brian, mirroring Zac’s thoughts completely. Her eyes widened as Zac’s bag wriggled slightly. ‘And you’re absolutely sure it’s safe?’
‘He,’ corrected Zac. He wrapped his arms around the bag and felt Max squirm. ‘Absolutely.’ He grinned. ‘As safe as a ten-storey sky scraper.’