The three of us are spread like starfish, propped on chairs upstairs at The Grand, waiting for my sister. It’s hot. The wide spread of balcony is airless and our brains are woolly because of it. Still, we’re coherent enough to have started worrying.

I flick ash from my cigarette. Watch it roll across the boards of the veranda.

‘Okay, but seriously,’ Eddie says, continuing a conversation that has been going on all afternoon. ‘Just say someone offered you whatever you wanted.’

‘It won’t happen.’

‘What about a million bucks?’

Cam scoffs. ‘As if his arse is worth that much.’

‘It wouldn’t have to be full sex,’ Eddie says. ‘There’s fellatio. The old hand-job.’

I lean forward, fold my cigarette into the ashtray and tell myself to stay calm. She’ll turn up. She’s no one’s fool. Fiona is tough. Besides, there’s time, and I promised her I wouldn’t freak-out, not until after the blast. On the up side, she’d agreed that if she wasn’t back before detonation all three of us could come looking for her.

‘If only chicks,’ Eddie says, ‘had the same drive for flesh that we do.’

Cam smiles. ‘There are chicks who want it, and can’t get it. Old and unattractive perhaps, but female.’

‘No way!’ Eddie crows. ‘Wrinkles. Flabby arses. I’m not a pervert.’

I get up, walk to the balustrade.

Searching the street below, I look for a sign of her. But the only object of relevance is Macca McKean’s car: a long wide Valiant, purchased and re-modelled to run meth between Perth and Adelaide. One long round trip; Macca McKean commuting up and down the straight string of bitumen in the name of distribution.

He’s the reason we’re in this mess, the reason I’m sweating on the 7.30 blast. He’s also the reason Fiona is out there in a house serving beer dressed in a bikini and heels at her first-ever one-off gig as a skimpy. Macca McKean, who cast a glistening eye over the four of us and knew we were fodder for his last hurrah. He’s a good judge of character as it turns out. After shaking on the deal, we’re now doing our best to fulfil it. For Macca, well, you could say this is his parting gesture to himself, his last chance at a piece of the action before he hands himself in for a stint in the slammer.

He said he’d just been unlucky. ‘I was busted at a customer’s house,’ he told us. ‘Kilo of the best product in the country on the coffee table between us.’

And then, running his tongue around his mouth (as if there might have been something to retrieve) he’d reconsidered, saying, ‘Half unlucky. They searched the car but it came up clean.’

Macca had shown us then where the rest of his stash had remained hidden under the bonnet. He’d reassured us of how foolproof the spot was. ‘If the cops approach you, tell them you’re on a working holiday. Flash those pearly whites of yours and they’ll wave you on. In the meantime, think of me. I’ll be wading through the first weeks of a three-year stretch. Third offence. Judge hated that, especially since I’d made bail.’

At the time, Macca had been looking over the roof of his beloved car, staring into the deepest blue of a Kalgoorlie sky. It was the only sign of circumspection I witnessed in him. ‘It’ll make the old fart’s day,’ he said, referring to the judge, ‘when I check meself in Fridey week.’

And that gave us a deadline, the day on which we were to put six thousand dollars into a bank account. In exchange, we’d get the car, the gear, the addresses we were to make deliveries to. With the money we expected to receive for the drugs, he was right: it was too lucrative an opportunity to turn down.

Cam, Eddie, Fiona and I pooled our resources, but when we came up short we assigned ourselves jobs of ringing relatives in Perth. We told them stories of stolen wallets and lost tents, of busted surfboards and a smashed windscreen. For our efforts, we received an injection of funds. But it still wasn’t enough. When Fiona heard that a skimpy could get a robust amount of cash for serving beer at a private party, she took up the option. ‘If it goes well,’ she said, ‘I’ll be able to contribute the rest.’

A slag train passes at the end of the street. The sound rolls between the buildings and I feel as if I’m on the film set of an American western. I would be the mean guy with the sly look, Cam, my loyal friend, and Eddie, the fool. We’d be waiting like this, perhaps for night to fall so we could make a clean getaway. But whatever the story, we’d be in this state: cool on the outside and packing-death in. And we’re not even the ones in danger. That’s Fi!

I look at my friends.

‘It was her idea, Josh.’

‘She knew what she was getting into.’

‘I should have stopped her,’ I say.

‘If there was a market—’ Eddie is about to launch into it again, to go through the list of things he could be bought for when the blast cuts him off. Like a dice in the hands of a high-roller, the building shakes. Our bodies absorb the shock.

In the stillness that follows, Cam’s leg starts jiggling. Staring at his knee, I reflect on the conversation I’d had with Fiona before she left. ‘I have to act full-on sexy, Josh. Exude a persona. I know you guys too well. If you’re there I’ll laugh, be self-conscious. Besides, I talked to Shaz. All the skimpies go alone.’

Even to houses?’

She was pulling her hair into a ponytail at the time, dragging it away from her face with such force it was hard to recognise her.

‘Even to houses,’ she reiterated, her teeth clamped around a hair tie.

That’s where I’d left it. What more could a big brother do? Fiona had always been independent, struggled against a helping hand. Even in a mountainous swell south of Perth she hadn’t wanted my help. I think of that now, of how we’d been way out from the shoreline in fat hulking waves. When the biggest of them broke early and I’d yelled at her to dive under it, she’d just smiled, clearly planning to ignore me. So I’d taken the liberty. Screaming for her to hold her breath, I’d descended, dragging her down with me.

The beast had ridden over us, its furious spume spinning towards the beach like a rolling accident. I’d expected her to be grateful. But when our heads came up in unbroken water, she’d unleashed on me, saying I had no right, and could I please refrain from wrecking everything.

Now, with the heat pressing in on me, and the worry of explaining the last known whereabouts of my sister to my parents, I’m hankering for that day on the coast. Actually, it’s a yearning, a throbbing want to dive into cool water, to carve my arms seamlessly though the stinging sea.

And I’m thinking of this when I realise I have to do something.

I turn to my friends. ‘Got no choice,’ I say.

Cam jumps up. ‘I’ll shut our rooms.’

Eddie frowns like a mud-crab has shifted into his forehead. ‘Let’s get em,’ he says, smacking his fist against his palm.

My shoulders jerk involuntarily.

 

On the wide streets of Kalgoorlie, cars cruise along like catwalk models. Neon-script advertises Skimpies, Steaks and Emu Export. The luminous writing dances in the half-light. I’ve got a tourist map crumpled in my hand. A large circle is drawn around the name of the street she’s in, and the number of a house is written beside it.

‘Head towards Bolder.’ I point at a sign. Cameron floors the accelerator and the motor of our old Holden barrels gutlessly before slowly picking up speed. I turn to take in Eddie who is looking at me as if he’s up for setting right every sort of wrong. Cam is all tense-knuckled at the wheel.

‘We’re going to play it cool,’ I say, backing this up with a shift of my hand. ‘Then, when we’ve sussed the situation, we’ll make a move. If we have to, we’ll call the cops. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ they answer in unison, sounding like the entire side of a football team.

I look back at the map, direct Cam down roads that are indistinct. Ghostly from lack of moisture. Houses as sterile as shipping containers sit on parched and colourless lawns. In fact the only thing with any texture is the sky, ripe with the on-coming night.

By the time we find the street we’re so pumped, I’d swear the static electricity we’re producing could ignite a fire.

The house is like the rest, made from corrugated cement sheeting. It has aluminium windows with dirty-lace curtains and a flat tin roof. Cameron turns the engine off before we stop. The car rolls into the kerb opposite the place. We listen, expect to hear the jeers and combined egging-on of crazed males. But there’s nothing.

‘Take a look, Eddie,’ I say.

To my surprise he gets out of the car, his dreads swinging. Holding his loose-hipped untidiness – all pockets and jangling change – he crosses the road. Walking on tiptoes like some giant pixie, he goes over the depleted yard. Switching his head about, and not looking as confident as he’d been professing, he crouches down and peers through a couple of windows. Suddenly, he’s returning to the car, pitching himself across the back seat.

‘It’s disgusting. Ten guys jerking off.’

‘Did you see her?’

He shakes his head, is rubbing his palms furiously on his pants as if friction will burn off any unpleasantness.

I get out of the vehicle and walk across the threadbare lawn not bothering to conceal myself. My stomach tightens as I peer in the windows. There are ten or so of them slumped in chairs and I wonder what Eddie might have been referring to. This fits me up for going straight to the front door where I pull back the flywire screen and knock. A pimply bloke opens up.

‘I’m looking for the skimpy.’

‘She went.’

‘In a taxi?’

‘Couldn’t tell you.’

I don’t mean for my hand to reach out, push on the door as he starts to shut it, but it does. I’m also leaning in, attempting to see inside. He arcs up immediately. ‘What the…?’

‘She’s my sister.’

‘I don’t give a shit who she is. In fact, I don’t want to know.’

As I digest this distaste must travel across my face, because that’s all it takes. He’s over the threshold in a millisecond, someone replacing him in the doorway as soon as he’s vacated it. And then there are eight or nine of them: males who are up and out of the pits, squeezing in their binge before they have to submit to urines and blood tests; men, I suddenly realise, who have a visual of Fiona secured in their minds for a little light relief during their sobriety.

Despite all this, I’m full of recriminations.

‘I didn’t mean…’ I begin as I turn towards the car which Cam has had the foresight to bring to this side of the road. The front passenger door swings open and Eddie is leaning out of the back window yelling at me to get in. I’m already running.

A frenzy of hands land on me as I fling myself onto the front seat and try to close the door. One guy gets hold of a clump of my hair, another has a grip on my T-shirt and the whole lot of them are trying to extract me.

‘Go!’ I scream even though I’m half out the car. And I feel myself rise as Cam takes off. Eddie, however, has a hold on me, and, suspended between grips, he and I pummel the grim faces of those boys. The door sails recklessly wide as we accelerate away. I manage to grasp it, pull it closed before looking back at their raised arms. They stand on the road, punching the air and shouting.

The shock of what has just happened silences us. I’ve been smacked in the mouth and can feel my lip swelling. My eyes are glued to the pavement though, because Fiona might have left on foot and I don’t want to miss her.

 

At The Grand we scale the stairs. Fiona is sitting with a jug of whiskey-and-dry – a castle of ice bobbing about in it – on the balcony. Around her neck is a scarf I’ve never seen before, and on her face the smile I’ve been the recipient of after every game of Spit or 500 she’s ever won against me. In her hand is a fan of dollar notes.

‘Got the gold diggers a beauty,’ she says. ‘Shouted myself a jug.’

I unload stress like a dump truck dropping its cargo.

‘You ripper!’ Eddie says, holding his hand up for her to slap.

Cam laughs as he sits. ‘What was it like?’

Fiona widens her eyes. ‘Moronic.’

‘And the money?’

She waves the cash. ‘Five-eighty.’

I look at her a little disbelieving and wonder how it is I continue to underestimate her.

We regroup with jugs of beer. Although my lip swells to golf-ball proportions, nothing hurts.

Macca McKean appears, stepping onto the timber boards of the veranda in tight black trousers, his white shirt open to show off his amphetamine-loving ribs.

‘Mr McKean,’ I say, full of business aplomb. ‘Come and join us.’

He sits and Eddie pours him a drink. Fiona serves herself another whiskey and we raise our glasses to toast the deal. All of us smile and spin well-done sentiments. And yet, behind our clanking congratulations, our high spirits and salutations, something niggles, some thread of tension that, despite this show of confidence, this display of merriment and exuberance, indicates another story. It’s the one that’s ahead of us, the one that’s looming up to impinge upon us, the story we’re running blindly towards, hurtling, you could say, headlong into; the sort of story we should be staying away from. It’s in our jeers, knitted into our jocularity, even Eddie’s, even Macca McKean’s. But none of us, not me or Cam and especially not Fiona, are going to pay any of that, at least for tonight, the slightest Kalgoorlie.

 

 

      

 

What more could a big brother do? Fiona had always been independent, struggled against a helping hand. Even in a mountainous swell south of Perth she hadn’t wanted my help. I think of that now, of how we’d been way out from the shoreline in fat hulking waves. When the biggest of them broke early and I’d yelled at her to dive under it, she’d just smiled, clearly planning to ignore me. So I’d taken the liberty. Screaming for her to hold her breath, I’d descended, dragging her down with me.

The beast had ridden over us, its furious spume spinning towards the beach like a rolling accident. I’d expected her to be grateful. But when our heads came up in unbroken water, she’d unleashed on me, saying I had no right, and could I please refrain from wrecking everything.

Now, with the heat pressing in on me, and the worry of explaining the last known whereabouts of my sister to my parents, I’m hankering for that day on the coast. Actually, it’s a yearning, a

‘We’re going to play it cool,’ I say, backing this up with a shift of my hand. ‘Then, when we’ve sussed the situation, we’ll make a move. If we have to, we’ll call the cops. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ they answer in unison, sounding like the entire side of a football team.

I look back at the map, direct Cam down roads that are indistinct. Ghostly from lack of moisture. Houses as sterile as shipping containers sit on parched and colourless lawns. In fact

‘Did you see her?’

tempting to see inside. He arcs up immediately. ‘What the…?’

p swells to golf-ball proportions, nothing hurts.

Macca McKean appears, stepping onto the timber boards of the veranda in tight black trousers, his white shirt open to show off his amphetamine-loving ribs.  

‘Mr McKean,’ I say, full of business aplomb. ‘Come and join us.’

He sits and Eddie pours him a drink. Fiona serves herself another whiskey and we raise our glasses to toast the deal. All of us smile and spin well-done sentiments. And yet, behind our clanking congratulations, our high spirits and salutations, something niggles, some thread of tension that, despite this show of confidence, this display of merriment and exuberance, indicates another story. It’s the one that’s ahead of us, the one that’s looming up to impinge upon us, the story we’re running blindly towards, hurtling, you could say, headlong into; the sort of story we should be staying away from. It’s in our jeers, knitted into our jocularity, even Eddie’s, even Macca McKean’s. But none of us, not me or Cam and especially not Fiona, are going to pay any of that, at least for tonight, the slightest Kalgoorlie.

      

 

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