‘Don’t be gone too long,’ said Callum’s mother as he headed for the back door. ‘Nana’s coming over soon.’
Callum paused. He had forgotten and wasn’t too pleased at being reminded, either.
‘Callum!’ warned his mother.
‘OK. I get it. I’ll be back.’
The late November sun hit Callum hard in the face, its heat so heavy with moisture the air felt soggy. The bicycle helmet didn’t help much and sweat laid trails down his back.
The screen door let out a squeal and he turned around. ‘Be careful,’ said his mother. ‘Don’t go too far. Not in this weather. And remember to keep drinking.’
Callum slid onto his trail bike and braced his foot on the pedal. ‘Stop worrying,’ he said. ‘I’m not a kid, anymore.’
It had been Callum’s twelfth birthday three months earlier and the bike had been a gift from his parents. Something he’d always dreamed about having. He shoved off and tore towards the far gate. ‘I’ll be careful, Mum. I promise.’
When his mum didn’t answer, he glanced back. Her face was upturned, eyes frowning back at a heavy bank of dark cloud that was rising up from the distant hills, their small weatherboard home a stark white against the looming grey. Callum stood up on the pedals and sped ahead before she could call him back inside, the muscles in his legs propelling him over the hard-packed earth and out into the back paddock.
He looked left to see Mike and Andy pedalling towards him like lunatics.
They crossed paths beside the old gum and hopped off into the shade. A gust of wind tore out of nowhere, throwing up dry leaves and a length of plastic which tangled around Callum’s legs.
‘Nasty weather,’ said Mike, yanking off his helmet.
‘Don’t you start,’ moaned Andy. ‘Dad wasn’t going to let me come. He thinks the rains are about to start.’
They stopped to contemplate the weather. Thirty eight degrees and so humid they could hardly breathe. The day certainly felt bad but they were used to the build-up – the endless months of heat and humidity as clouds gathered in the rains which would soon feed the land in sudden violent outbursts. Back towards Callum’s house, storm clouds were forming in solid, ominous shapes that were as beautiful as they were worrying. Not that it was going to put the boys off their trip to Thompson’s barn.
‘How did Anna do?’ asked Andy as Mike knocked leaves out of his helmet.
Callum rolled his eyes at the mention of his sixteen-year old sister. ‘What do you think? She aced it, as usual. Top marks in her year. That’s why Nana’s coming over. To celebrate.’
In actual fact, Callum was quite proud of his big sister’s successes at school – or, at the very least, indifferent. But experience had taught him to hide his true feelings. It seemed to make his friends suspicious, as though he was only trying to be brave; to hide his own disappointments. Far easier to fake disdain. Kept them off his back. There wasn’t much else he could do. Good grades didn’t come easily to Callum, neither did sporting trophies – both of which seemed to be magnetically attracted to Anna. He felt a twinge of something new. Something close to unease. What if his friends were right? he thought. Maybe he should be worried.
It wasn’t a pleasant sensation and his stomach cramped. ‘We’d better get going,’ he said. ‘I promised I wouldn’t be long.’
The three boys single-filed it across the wind-blown track, their tyres crunching across pale yellow grass that had long since been sucked dry. Forty minutes later, the Thompson’s old barn grew into a heat shimmering mess of corrugated iron and wooden planks.
‘Did you bring something to drink?’ shouted Mike, his voice muffled by the helmet.
Callum gave him a thumbs up and skidded to a stop just outside the rickety gate. ‘Bottle of lemonade.’
Andy groaned. ‘Hot, fizzy lemonade? It’ll explode if you open it now.’
Mike licked the sticky, sweet liquid off the backs of his hands and grinned. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll want my chocolate then?’ He rummaged around in a canvas backpack and drew out a large lump of tin foil. ‘Just kidding. Mum made us fruit cake.’
It was almost suffocating in the old shed and stank of hot wood and dust. Outside, there was a distant rumble and Callum cocked his head to listen.
‘Was that thunder?’ said Mike. He sounded worried.
‘What if it was?’ said Callum. He pulled Mike to his feet. ‘It’s about time the rains came. Dad says our paddocks are dying of thirst.’
He led the boys to an old ladder and they clambered up into the loft where the heat had concentrated beneath the corrugated iron roof and burnt their fingers when they reached up to touch the metal. A lizard skittered across the sand below and a rising wind rattled the aging wood.
Mike rolled onto his back. ‘What are you guys doing on Sunday?’
‘Nothing,’ said Andy. He looked half asleep.
It made Callum yawn. ‘Going to Anna’s taekwondo grading. She’s going for her third black stripe.’
Mike and Andy exchanged a glance and Callum felt his body tense. ‘Quit that,’ he tutted. Then. ‘Come on. I’ll race you across Thompson’s creek.’
He was the first to swing back down to the ground but his friends were close behind, their shouted challenges as fierce as the Northern Territory sun.
They didn’t stand a chance. Callum might not be the top student in his class, or a champion at sport, but he was a fearless bike rider. His heart pumped blood and oxygen into his muscles allowing him to shoot ahead, his light frame absorbing the punishing impact of sudden hollows and hidden rocks. All uncomfortable thoughts were torn away by the sheer thrill of speeding across the paddock – the absolute joy of freedom. Already, thirty metres ahead, he barely heard Mike’s sudden scream of pain.
His friend had hit a long piece of half-buried steel piping and been thrown headfirst onto the rocky ground. By the time Callum reached him, Mike’s face was grey and he was clutching at his ankle in an agony of low moans.
‘I think it’s broken,’ said Andy, wide-eyed. ‘And I didn’t bring my phone.’
‘Neither did I,’ said Callum, thinking hard. ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re not far from –’
An electric crack echoed over the shallow valley cutting off the rest of Callum’s sentence and all of his thoughts. A fork of bright light laced across the sky followed by a second clap of thunder.
‘It’s getting closer,’ said Andy, worried.
Callum’s heart was beating so fast it was making him dizzy. Rain in itself, wasn’t dangerous but the boys had just crossed Thompson’s creek and were now sitting on the other side. And although it was dry now, the wide riverbed could quickly fill with water. Fill and flood. Callum could see the same thought in Andy’s eyes. The same fear.
‘Can you get up if we help?’ said Callum.
Mike tried and groaned. ‘Stop. It hurts. Really hurts.’
‘You’ll have to go and get help,’ said Andy. ‘You’re the fastest. I’ll stay here with Mike.’
Callum nodded. ‘I’ll get Dad to bring the quad bike.’ He knelt down. ‘Is it just your ankle?’
Mike nodded. High above them it looked as though someone was painting the sky a deep navy blue.
‘Be fast,’ said Andy. ‘This is getting serious.’
The wheels of Callum’s bike spun across the dry ground until, far behind, Mike and Andy became two tiny specks against a towering backdrop of storm clouds. All around, lightening crackled and blazed leaving his eyes dazzled. After only ten minutes, the thunder was so loud he couldn’t hear himself shout.
Then, just as he reached Millar’s Rise, the sky burst open and dropped bucket-loads of water onto the heat-frazzled land below, the raindrops so heavy they stung Callum’s bare arms and legs. Riding became dangerous, the wheels slipping and sliding across the wet earth. Twice his bike came close to dumping him and twice he recovered. On and on he rode, his teeth clenched with determination, his fingers clamped around the handlebars. It felt like someone was playing the drums on top of his helmet. It felt like he’d been riding forever.
At last, soaked through and trembling from fatigue, Callum topped a small hill and spotted his house in the distance. For a split second it looked like a tiny boat adrift in a wide ochre sea, with Callum a drowning sailor. A light blinked on under the porch and he free-wheeled towards it, every muscle shaking.
‘Dad!’ he screamed.
Callum’s father glanced up from under the veranda where the rain was hammering on the steaming hot metal. ‘Where are the others?’ he bellowed.
‘Just past Thompson’s creek. Mike’s hurt his ankle.’ He skidded around his mother as she hurtled out of the side door.
His father ducked inside and grabbed two hats. ‘Show me,’ he shouted.
Within two minutes they had the quad bike maneuvered and into position, the rain battering against their wide-brimmed hats.
‘Be careful!’ screamed his mother, as they shot past.
There was water everywhere, the dried out land unable to swallow so much liquid so quickly. Nothing looked the same and after the second forced detour Callum began to wonder how they’d ever find his friends. Inside, his stomach was doing backflips. Thompson’s barn came and went, a kangaroo swept past and Callum spotted something that made his eyes widen.
‘That way,’ he shouted. He pointed left, towards a tree with a swollen belly for a trunk. ‘I left them near the boab.’ His father changed course for a third time and then, there they were, huddled together with Andy waving frantically.
It was just as well Callum had ridden fast. There was already a steady flow of water rushing down the centre of Thompson’s creek and the rain was showing no signs of stopping.
‘I was starting to think you weren’t coming,’ grinned Andy. He looked like someone had dunked him into the sea. Together, they very gently lifted Mike onto the back of the quad and strapped him in. It wasn’t much longer before they were back home and Mike was on his way to hospital.
Mike’s family drove over to thank Callum the Sunday after Anna’s grading. Mike was there, too, his foot encased in a red fibreglass cast smothered in silly messages. They brought with them the local paper in which Callum was described as a hero. They’d even included a picture of Callum and Mike posing on the quad. Better still, he got an A for an essay he wrote at school, titled ‘Mike’s Lucky Escape’.
‘Nana’s here to see you, hero,’ called Anna, startling him out of his thoughts. She grinned. ‘And Mum says to bring the newspaper cutting. Nana wants to frame it for you.’
Callum couldn’t help the grin that followed him down the corridor. It didn’t half feel good to be a hero – even if it was only for a day.